Lay Kodesh

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Yesterday I blogged about JOI’s Big Tent Judaism initiative. As I got to thinking more about problem of being welcoming and inclusionary in the Jewish community, the more my thoughts turned to the role of lay leaders. The site’s section on “opening our tents” is aimed toward both professional and lay leadership. But perhaps it should be split up.

Lay leaders play an crucial role in oversight, and frequently management, of Jewish organizations. And while many, hopefully most, of them deeply care about the causes to which they are attached, it is not their professional job. While these leaders generally look out for the best interest of the organization, I would argue that few would do so at the expense of their own personal gains or would put their needs second to those of other clients serviced by an organization.

For example, even the most dedicated of synagogue presidents would likely not give up a coveted bar mitzvah date to appease another family. Nor would many members of a board of directors keep an opposing opinion to themselves for the sake of shalom bayit. By no means do I blame them for this. It is not their professional job. They don’t have the same training nor perspective as professionals.

This must be considered when addressing the role of being welcoming our institutions. Even if the professional staff of an organization go out of their way consistently to have an “open tent,” lay leaders interested in, say, socializing with their friends or looking out for their own interests can doom a group.

Two years ago I was fortunate to work with a group of then-fellows students at NYU to help the university’s Bronfman Center (its Hillel) craft a new policy aimed towards welcoming students with one Jewish parent. We did focus groups with students in this category and found that many said Hillel was not welcoming. Not the staff, they clarified. The staff members, as are many Hillel staffers around the country, were extremely conscious of meeting the needs of all students and engaged students across the spectrum of Judaism. It was fellow students–in this case the lay leadership of Hillel–who turned them off.

Students who were Jewish based on patrilineal descent (and fully recognized as Jews by the Reform Movement) were told by other students “You’re not really Jewish” or “You don’t belong here.” It didn’t matter what the staff had said. This was the end of these students’ association with Hillel.

They noted that if one person didn’t want them there, that others must be thinking the same thing. I imagine this might be the case for the greater world of Jews who have been “rejected” by various organizations.

Richard Joel, president of Yeshiva University, frequently refers to professional staff as klei kodesh, holy vessels, and to volunteers as lay kodesh, implying that there both something sacred but different, about the work that each party carry out. This viewpoint should be extended to training and education even more so.

Posted on October 10, 2007

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