A week after we celebrated the 66th anniversary of the founding of the modern State of Israel, I’ve been reflecting on how we talk about Israel in our communities. At the beginning of the month the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations voted against accepting the membership of J-Street into the Conference (see Gary Rosenblatt’s editorial in The Jewish Week for a good summary of this story). With the announcement of a new alliance between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, hope has considerably waned that the recent round of peace talks with Israel will amount to any new breakthroughs. Some have expressed the belief that this is the direct result of Netanyahu’s stance during the talks. The blame game has begun. It is easy to feel somewhat demoralized by all this and frustrated when it comes to talking about Israel.
And yet, at the same time this past week one of our congregants, a member of the Board of Directors of the Union for Reform Judaism, addressed our congregation after recently returning from a remarkable trip led by Rabbi Rick Jacobs, where they had the opportunity to meet with and speak with leaders in government, the Israel Religious Action Center, observe the growth and development of Reform Judaism in Israel, and meet with Palestinian businessmen in addition to Israeli leaders in the business and innovation world. He returned hopeful and inspired, and he inspired all who heard him speak. Our congregation is planning on a community trip to Israel next year, and people are eager to go.
Last night, in my final class of the semester with our 11th and 12th grade students, we explored a range of Jewish values from Rabbi Goldie Milgram’s “Mitzvah Cards” and I asked students to choose ones that they felt they already ‘carried with them’ and ones that were challenging to them. One of those challenge cards was Israel. A student conveyed something that I remember feeling so strongly myself as I entered my first year of college—a sense of struggle and frustration that sometimes a thoughtful and critical engagement with Israel was silenced within Jewish settings.
I remember attending an event run by the Hillel at my college during the first Gulf War. Scud missiles were being sent Israel’s way. It was a scary time for the population of Israel. Gas masks had been widely distributed. There was no question that we would be praying for the safety of all in Israel. In the midst of an informational session one student stood up to contribute to a discussion about Israel to express his hope that, even in the midst of a time when we needed to stand by Israel and pray for its safety, we wouldn’t lose sight of other issues regarding the peace process or equality within Israel that were also important to talk about in a Jewish setting on campus. He was literally shouted down—how dare he even ask the question at a time like this!
I have a visceral memory of my internal reaction to witnessing that moment. I wanted no part of it. I cared deeply about Israel and its future and its safety. And at the same time I found the culture that squashed thoughtful and caring debate and discussion about all aspects of life in Israel to be enormously unhelpful. That was 25 years ago—no wonder that J-Street has 180,000 supporters and 50 chapters on campus. You may not agree with them, but they exist because there was insufficient room within previously existing organizations for those who wanted to engage more fully with all dimensions of Israel.
Let me be clear—I’m not writing this to express personal support of any one organization or perspective. Rather, I plead for Jewish community to be a place where we can lovingly and respectfully engage with the fullness of Israel. Like my country of origin—the UK—or my country of residence—the USA—there are things that make me feel extraordinarily proud, and there are things that sometimes happen that cause me to feel embarrassment or disappointment. Israel has to be experienced—it is an amazing place. The people are as diverse in background and opinion as any other place. There is so much to learn there. The innovation in science, technology, agriculture, and more is breathtaking. A country that is only 66 years young has developed politically, socially and economically in remarkable ways. And it is still finding its way in some areas—religious pluralism, equality, the place of minority groups in a country that is still fighting for the right to define itself as a Jewish homeland.
What we don’t need is propaganda. We don’t need trips to Israel that pull the blinders over the breadth and complexity of a fully realized, living, breathing modern nation state. We don’t need to silence each other. I do not pretend to offer expertise on the complexities of the political situation and the peace process. It is my job to listen and learn, and to facilitate conversation. It is my job to point out where I observe insightful analysis and information being shared, and where I see ideological lines being drawn in the sand that ultimately help no one. And it is my job to help my student, as she goes off to college, know that there are people and places where she can engage with the fullness of all that Israel is and may still come to be, without feeling shamed or silenced.
The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.
“So it’s finished?” I heard one commentator on local NPR ask sarcastically in a discussion about the NBA decision to issue a life-time ban on Donald Sterling. Of course, we know that the conversation about racism in our society, how it manifests and how it effects the lives of millions of citizens each and every day, is clearly not over. But while most media outlets are moving on to the next story, it is also quite clear that, if Sterling’s private conversation with his girlfriend was being held up as an example of the kind of racism that our society won’t tolerate, the conversation never really even began.
Because it is way too easy to hold up people like Donald Sterling as examples of racists so that the rest of us can congratulate ourselves on not being racists “like them.” Most people don’t want to look in the mirror when these stories highlight only a caricature of racism to delve a little deeper into their own, real life experiences.
It just so happened that, while this story was breaking this week, I attended an extraordinary multi-media one-woman performance called “Crossing the Boulevard” by Judith Sloan. Sloan engaged youth and adults over several years in what is probably the most ethnically diverse borough in the USA: Queens. Through an exhibit which became a book, which became a stage show, Sloan brings to light the hidden stories and experiences of people of so many different faith and ethnic backgrounds who she met through her project. By telling pieces of their diverse and fascinating stories she brings forth the most important facet within each and every one of them—their humanity.
Her presentation was brought to my town by the Friends of “Facing History and Facing Ourselves” program that is taught in our local High School. The performance highlights how each and every one of us knows so little about our neighbors because of the silence that exists, separating people of different backgrounds. Part of this is due to our uncertainties and anxieties about ‘the other’ and part of it is the way in which we seek to understand ourselves partly through defining with whom we belong. Hence we seek others “like us” as part of that search for meaning. This is not inherently wrong. It is human nature. But it means that it takes an active choice of will to simultaneously exert effort to build genuine relationships with others. Inaction too quickly leads to a separatism within which power exerts itself and racism is easily inserted into the equation.
I yearn for intelligent conversations about difference and diversity. I hold a professional position that makes a great deal of my work about helping Jews hold up, engage with and love things that are specifically Jewish, and require Jewish community coming together to share some of the best of those things. And I also recognize the need to do this in ways that are outward looking, that seeks opportunities to share our specificity with others who will have equal opportunity to share theirs with us. His kind of sharing doesn’t usually “just happen.” It takes an act of will. Just last month we hosted a Shabbat service to highlight the learning that took place among a group of 8th-12th graders learning and leading in a program that provides Jews, Christians, Muslims, and Hindus with a meaningful encounter over six weeks of being together. We need programs like this in our schools, in our communities, and for adults as well as children.
If the story of Donald Sterling is to teach us anything, let it not be what racism looks like—that’s too easy and simplistic. Let it remind each of us to take that active step, personally and individually, to have a conversation with someone we see as “other.” Let it remind us not to hide our own sense of “otherness” in a desperate attempt to fit in to something that we perceive might not accept the fullness of who we are, but gently, and with tolerance and patience, we can help teach others when we share that “otherness” with them. We may not complete the work, but neither can we desist from it.
The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.
While we certainly were not the first to realize how much fun it would be to re-write the words to the hit song from Frozen in honor of the upcoming holiday of Passover, our congregation, Congregation B’nai Shalom in Westborough, is very proud of what a team of volunteers put together in approximately two weeks. Aside from having a great deal of fun making this video, we learned a lot in the process. It is a concrete and immediately gratifying example of what can happen when a community find more ways to say “yes” and asks, “how can we help you with that?” A new congregant conceived of the project, recruited 2 talented friends to sing, and then turned to her congregation for assistance. Once we identified a professional videographer and a theater director within the congregation who were willing to volunteer their time and talents, the plan started to fall into place. We recruited 23 congregants in the space of 5 days who gave us from 1 hour – 6 hours of their time last Sunday afternoon to help us film the scenes. We thank our congregant, Elyse Heise (nee Rothman), for giving us the opportunity. Our congregants love it, and we hope you will too: Congregation B’nai Shalom presents “Let us Go”
This week, my partner and I sat down to plan our seder. For us, this involves much more than deciding on the menu. While we use a haggadah that we compiled as a guide to take us through the 15 steps that make up the seder (which means “order”), what we do with those steps varies from year to year.
This year, I was inspired by two wonderful suggestions from our cousin, Ilana Stein Ben-Ze’ev. The first is a beautiful and moving new ritual, shared out of the experience of the death of her father, Professor Jerome Stein. She writes:
We have Eliyahu’s Cup, and Miriam’s Cup, and now, at my home: The Memory Cup. Kos Zikaron. Even though Pesach is ‘Zman Simchatenu’ (A time of our happiness), I knew I would miss my father- his seders were a big part of our family life. I had a friend coming who had also recently lost her father. So, I took one of the many goblets I’ve made over the years, and declared it to be Kos Zikaron. Before we started the seder, we filled it and passed it around the table. Whoever wanted to, announced whose cup it was for them, and why. For me: “This is my father’s cup. I have so many seder memories and he is in them all. I’d like his presence at our seder.” And so it went- I was surprised that everyone found someone to bring in (and glad I didn’t have to feed them all!).
Ilana’s second sharing in inspired by the line with which we begin the Maggid (story-telling) part of the Seder. She writes: Kol dichfin (the line in the Maggid that pronounces – let all who are hungry come and eat!) – let’s put our money where our mouths are: Donate the cost of feeding 1 Seder guest to a food bank.
There are also those who make a habit of donating all of their unopened hametz to a local food bank in advance of Passover. In our congregation, we have reinterpreted the period that begins on the 2nd night of Seder – the counting of the Omer – as a time to donate grain-based foods to the local food bank. Historically, this was when our ancestors gave thanks as the different kinds of grain (barley first, wheat later) became ready for harvesting, and the first sheaves were brought to the temple as an offering to give thanks. During Passover we begin with rice, but once Passover has ended, cereal boxes, cookies, and other non-perishable grain-based foods are donated and publicly displayed as the collection grows, culminating at Shavuot.
The haggadah does not begin with a retelling of the Exodus narrative. In fact, you’ll be hard-pressed to find that narrative laid out in the haggadah. The entire Maggid section is more of a teacher’s guide to the spiritual and practical lessons we can learn from engaging with the story not as re-telling of an historical account, but as a guide to the spiritual landscapes of our own lives and the society and world that we live in today. That is why we are commanded to experience the Exodus “as if we, ourselves” were freed from slavery. That’s not necessarily an instruction to imagine yourself back in time as a character in the story (although that can be fun and insightful too). It is an instruction to look at how those themes of enslavement, constriction, limitation, and of freedom to become, fully, are played out today. One way to more deeply share the meaning of these narratives with the guests at your Seder is by examining these themes through poetry, images, news stories, and personal sharing.
If Pharaoh is the one that limits and controls us, making us a slave to needs that line the pockets of another and constrains us from living expansively, guided by our inner truth and our relationship to the Divine (which, for many, is experienced through our relationship with others), then we can ask what manifests as Pharaoh in our life today?
This year – especially this year – when the weather patterns have left us longing for spring to finally be upon us, we can ask what new seeds are we nurturing, and what might we be hoping to see blossom in our lives in the coming year.
These are just a few ideas to enrich your seder ritual this year. Share your creative rituals with us here, so that we can inspire each other this Passover.
One of the conversations that I had early in rabbinic school about how we connect to the wisdom of Torah has always stayed with me. While still in London, at Leo Baeck College, Professor Lisa Grant, Professor of Education at Hebrew Union College, New York, visited for a week and opened the doorway to a deeper kind of engagement with Torah for me. Perhaps it was because, at that early stage of rabbinic studies, we were deeply engrossed in trying to understand what the text actually said, or perhaps it was because we were immersed in the early history of our people at that time. But that kind of intellectual and academic immersion, while important, had distanced me from what, for me, were the more significant questions – how does the Torah of our texts connect to our lives today?
Dr. Grant asked us to be mindful of two different ways to make those connections. Both were legitimate, but our choice of which strategy to employ in different learning settings could make a huge difference in how we helped others connect to the wisdom of our tradition. “Do we start with life, and then seek to connect those life experiences to Torah, or do we start with the text of the Torah, and then seek to connect that text to something in life?” she asked. Over and over again, when seeking to make Judaism come alive for those to whom the text of Torah is too foreign and, perhaps, too frightening a place to start, I’ve found the way in through the Torah of our lives.
When I sit down with a bar or bat mitzvah student to begin to study their Torah portion with them, I always emphasize the importance of teaching both kinds of Torah to the congregation. That’s what we’ve always done – even when we read hard-to-penetrate ancient midrashim, we find Rabbis of old who were seeking to share observations about human nature, or the kind of world they lived in, and connect these observations back to Torah. Revelation continues to unfold, over and over again, when we are able to make those connections come alive today. And so, with those students, I usually begin by trying to get to know them a little better – to find out what they are passionate about, what activities they do, what issues they care about or organizations they have volunteered with so that, when we open the Torah commentary and start to read, we can do so with an eye out for those connections to the life of the student.
What does life to Torah look like? Looking back on your life so far, can you think of a conversation that you had with someone, or someone who opened the door to a new experience for you that sent you in a whole new direction? Or, looking back, you recognize that there was a time in your life when you were heading one way and, just because of a particular interaction – maybe a ‘chance’ encounter – you now recognize that there was a moment when you changed track to be on the path you find yourself now? I can think of many such moments in my life: the friend who encouraged me to go to my first Reform Jewish student event; the woman who introduced me to the music of Debbie Friedman; the room mate who asked me the right questions in the right way that, eventually, enabled me to come out as a lesbian, first to myself and then to others…
In the Torah, these kinds of experiences are moments of angelic encounter: the man that Hagar meets in the desert who, when she tells what she is running from but does not know where she is running to, tells her what direction she must go in next; the man that Joseph encounters in the field when he’s seeking his brothers, who points him to where he can now find his brothers, without whom the rest of his story with all its ups and downs might never have unfolded; the man who wrestles all night with Jacob, helping him to come to terms with his past and accept a new sense of identity… these are all understood to be “angels” in rabbinic tradition.
Why does it make a difference to teach and share about these connections between life and text? There are many answers to that question. For me, connecting to an ancient wisdom text that is part of my faith heritage has the power to enrich the meaning of the everyday events of my life. It also gives me a language with which to acknowledge the innate holiness of what otherwise might be dismissed as ordinary. We can simply speak of important influences in our lives, life-altering moments, and changes that we made. Or we can speak of “angelic encounters” – labeling the energy that was present in a particular encounter or experience as powerfully connected to the path of our life experience. I know that, for me, I’m more likely to feel and notice the spiritual power of those experiences if I have language to label them as something special and noteworthy. I am more likely to recognize that there is Torah in the ordinary, everyday of my life.
This is but one example of how, beginning by noticing the Torah of our lives we can find ourselves in the human drama played out in the Torah of our texts. There are so many more. When we can bring these two Torahs together, we see the power of Jewish wisdom to help us navigate and make meaning of our lives.
Last week my Facebook feed was busy lining up responses to two online articles that got a lot of professional Jews (and plenty of lay people too) talking. The first, by Barak Hullman, was provocatively titled, Why Reform Judaism Doesn’t Work, Won’t Work, and How to Fix It.
A child of the Reform movement, Hullman describes an awakening he had at college when, during a search for a Shabbat service that felt comfortable and familiar, he eventually found himself at the Chabad house. He felt that his childhood education had ill-prepared him to know what to do in a Conservative or Orthodox congregation. He felt that his rabbi had done him a disservice by claiming that certain Jewish practices were not relevant to him, rather than presenting a broader kind of Judaism and permitting him to make a truly informed choice.
As with all lived experiences, he shares some partial truths that are worthy of reflection. However, when he concludes that both the problem (and therefore the answer) lies in a lack of acceptance of Torah as God’s word and law, he loses a good proportion of his readers. If only Reform Judaism were Orthodox Judaism, we’d be back on track.
Susan Esther Barnes wrote a response to Hullman’s piece entitled, Why Reform Judaism Does Work. Reform Judaism “works,” she tells us, in the way that Judaism as a whole works – by calling us to be closer to God. She adds to this definition by expressing that one way that this is felt by people is by being closer to our true selves, as God intended us. For a great many people, this is an essential component of spiritual practice. For some, the close observation of halachah helps them to discern what this truth looks like. But for others who are deeply engaged by and committed to Jewish ritual practice and cultural expression, this discernment leads them to reject some of the strictures of halachah which can be described and explained as socially-constructed human responses to the seeking of God in our lives as convincingly as they can be described as God’s actual word. Barnes shares her truth – Reform Judaism works for her in just the kinds of ways that Hullman found in a different expression of Judaism.
Barnes makes it quite clear in her article that she is not seeking to critique a more Orthodox Judaism. She simply asks that Hullman consider that he has found a Judaism that works for him without determining that an entire branch of Judaism, therefore, must be dismissed as dysfunctional.
Barnes highlights a lesson that I learned early on in my time being part of the CLAL community, of which Rabbis Without Borders is a central component. The evolution of a plurality of Jewish expression over the centuries is, in large part, because there was something inherent in one expression that didn’t work for a significant number of people who, nevertheless, sought to remain and live Jewishly. Hence, we could describe a more traditional, halachically-rooted Judaism of the 18th century as failing the thousands of Jews who, once granted emancipation in Europe, were choosing to convert to Christianity. Reform Judaism emerged, in large part, as a response to that crisis in urban, modernizing communities. Conservative Judaism emerged, significantly, as a response to a brand of Reform Judaism in America that seemed to prioritize assimilation into American culture in a way that went too far for some Jews who wanted to hold on to more of the ritual traditions of Judaism. Hasidic Judaism, in its origins, was a response to a European Judaism that was overly focused on strictures, fasting, and a cultural narrative that saw the sufferings of the diaspora as proportionate to the people’s need to repent for sin. Hasidism restored joy to Jewish life. It drew deeply on the well of Jewish mysticism to offer hope to people whose lives were so very hard.
And so we could go on. It is the diversity of Jewish expression that enables so many to find their place within such a deep and rich spiritual wisdom tradition. Today we find ourselves, quite possibly, at another of those crossroads that, in past generations, led to some of these new expressions taking root. What new expressions may arise that will animate a new generation of young Jews seeking meaning in their lives are already slowly taking shape via experimentation and a variety of responses that are just beginning to emerge to respond to the changing social and cultural waves that we are all trying to ride.
That is why pluralism is so important. I can believe strongly that, as a Reform rabbi, I have an important role to play in guiding my community toward a deeper and more engaged Jewish life while, simultaneously, deeply knowing that my colleagues who align themselves with many other denominations, and those who choose not to be labelled denominationally, are likewise doing the same important work with Jews that I will not or cannot reach. And, together, that is the work of Rabbis Without Borders, as we do this work with a fundamental awareness of the societal shifts and cultural milieu in which we are seeking to share the wisdom found in our faith tradition. We can point toward a Judaism that works for all precisely because we understand that to do so, we need a plurality of Jewish expression to meet the needs of a pluralistic, multifaceted, constantly shifting and evolving Jewish community.
The more I read and learn about what has been happening in Russia, the more I am afraid for its citizens. The attention that the fairly recently implemented “anti-gay propaganda” law is getting is certainly high on the list of reasons to be concerned. What begins as fines quickly becomes imprisonment. There is already more than enough evidence that creating an environment of state-sponsored discrimination against a section of the population based on an essential part of their being leads to violence against those individuals. There are numerous accounts of LGBT Russians being attacked by vigilantes and thugs.
We should all be concerned by these stories. As a Jew, and as a lesbian, I cannot help but think about Germany in the 1930s. We teach that history precisely so that we might better recognize the early signs of state-sponsored prejudice that can quickly escalate into something more. I don’t think I’m being reactionary. I’m truly and deeply concerned.
What does this mean for the Sochi Olympics, and beyond the events of the Olympics themselves. I admit, I find myself at a gut level drawn to the idea of boycott – of simply not watching. But I’m not convinced that this is an effective or meaningful response at this stage. I would have supported the International Olympics Committee if they had made a decision to relocate or cancel the games at an earlier juncture, and I also recognize the logistical, legal, and political complexities of making such a decision. I looked back in history to see how this debate played out at the time of the 1936 Olympic games in Germany. Initially, there was a question of boycotting the games that was perhaps most intensively considered in the USA. According to a review of those events provided by the Holocaust Encyclopedia hosted by the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.:
Responding to reports of the persecution of Jewish athletes in 1933, Avery Brundage, president of the American Olympic Committee (AOC), stated: “The very foundation of the modern Olympic revival will be undermined if individual countries are allowed to restrict participation by reason of class, creed, or race.”
However, Brundage then went on to assert that his investigation led him to believe that German Jewish athletes (and other Jewish athletes) would not be discriminated against at the games. He argued “…that politics had no place in sport. He fought to send a US team to the 1936 Olympics, claiming: “The Olympic Games belong to the athletes and not to the politicians.” He wrote in the AOC’s pamphlet “Fair Play for American Athletes” that American athletes should not become involved in the present “Jew-Nazi altercation.” As the Olympics controversy heated up in 1935, Brundage alleged the existence of a “Jewish-Communist conspiracy” to keep the United States out of the Games.”
With the benefit of hindsight, would we argue today that a different decision should have been made? I struggle with the answer. I know that one of the things that I most remember from what I have previously learned about the events of that time is the victory of Jesse Owens, winning four gold medals, highlighting the absurdity of Hitler’s belief in the supremacy of the “Aryan race.” Will we loudly celebrate every success of a lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender athlete at the Sochi Games?
I hear the perspective that it is the presence of the games in Russia that is heightening media attention on the realities in that country. Attention which, I believe, these horrific laws and actions would most likely not receive to the same degree were it not for the games. I also struggle with the question of what sponsors should be doing. I would like nothing more than to learn that Russia finds itself with a huge bill at the end of these games because international corporate sponsors like Coca Cola were not propping up the games. But I’m not sure how or if this would help any of the citizens of Russia whose lives are being affected by Russian government policies. Is a pro-LGBT Coca Cola ad during the NFL Super Bowl enough to make a different kind of statement?
Ultimately, while I struggle with the question of the Olympic games in Sochi, I am much more certain about what needs to happen after Sochi. The media attention must not go away. The corporate sponsors must not stop demonstrating their explicit support for a diverse and inclusive society. And when, (and I’m sorry that I believe it is more of a when than an if) we hear that LGBT Russians are seeking asylum from prosecution and fear of death in their native land, we must ensure that they have a safe place to go and are welcomed here and in all countries who have declared their support and concern for LGBT lives in Russia while supporting the Sochi games.
Once a month at our family Shabbat service we ask families to submit questions in advance in what, in lieu of a sermon, is our ‘So now you know’ slot. It’s great to see what kinds of questions arise. Sometimes it is seeking explanations for why certain rituals look the way they do; sometimes it is seeking an understanding of how to interpret a particular story or text in our tradition; often it is looking to us as Rabbis to help our congregants navigate between tradition and modernity, especially at times when the logic of one of our traditions seems less clear.
This past month I was asked to address the questions of tattoos in Jewish tradition. This included, of course, the question as to the truth of the myth that a tattoo denies one burial in a Jewish ceremony. While I can’t vouch for the individual policies of specific burial societies and grounds, there is certainly no halachah that denies burial of a Jew in a Jewish cemetery on these grounds. Just as we don’t deny burial to someone for their lack of observing another of the commandments found in the Torah, such as observing Shabbat or refraining from eating non-kosher animals or fish.
I shared the historical evolution of the source and interpretation of the Torah that led to a Jewish ban on tattoos throughout the ages. These are reviewed concisely elsewhere on this site.
But then I raised some contemporary examples that demonstrate the complexities of navigating tradition and modernity in today’s world where, rather than providing answers, I offered my congregants the invitation to discuss as families how they felt about the following examples:
1) A man wishes to honor the memory of his father, a survivor of the Holocaust. Rather than tattooing his father’s number that was permanently inscribed in his skin in the concentration camps, the son chooses to have the number 6,000,000 tattooed on his arm. It is his way of never forgetting.
2) A young adult, as a sign of pride in her Jewish identity, chooses to have the Hebrew letters that spell Chai, meaning ‘life’ tattooed just above her heart. For her, it is a sign of her connection to her people and to the land of Israel – Am Yisrael Chai – the people of Israel still live.
3) A man, upon reconnecting with his sense of Jewish identity, community, and recommitting to Jewish learning, decides to have his Hebrew name tattooed on his shoulder as an outward sign of his return to his faith.
How are we to respond to these stories? Are these well intended but misguided choices? Would not a necklace or a bracelet with the same words have sufficed? Or are we living at a different time? A time when our study of the subject reveals that the origins of the law – a prohibition against idolatry – clearly do not hold in these cases. For those who are not bound by the halachic process, where later rabbinic positions are not regarded as the final word on how we observe today, the landscape of decision-making is clearly different to what it once was. We know that many Jews continue to observe and celebrate based on the additional criteria of personal meaning, and these three examples are saturated with such meaning.
I don’t have easy answers. I believe there are Jewish ways to explore the questions. And, as I reminded those in my congregation last Friday, we can all look back at photos of ourselves from past decades and regret some of the fashion choices we made. The good news is that most of us have the luxury of being able to change our clothes and update our hairstyles quite easily. Removing a tattoo is a much more costly and involved process, so there are still plenty of good reasons to pause for a good, long time before proceeding down that path, even if the threat of banishment from a Jewish cemetery isn’t one of them.
The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.
This past Shabbat I hosted the last in the three-part set of gatherings that had been planned, designed and implemented by our congregation’s membership committee. The goal of the gatherings was to introduce our new member families to our community, providing some orientation to many of its moving parts, and to each other. Our final gathering was purely social and it was quite evident that wonderful connections have already been made. In the space of just over a month, those families who chose to avail themselves of this opportunity probably traveled further, in terms of community connectedness, than they might otherwise have done in the space of two or three years of synagogue membership. Our next steps are looking at other groups within our congregation where we could help facilitate this kind of connectedness, whether they have joined us in recent years or been members for over 10 years.
Among the many conversations I had on Shabbat afternoon, was one where a parent thanked us for facilitating and providing the times and spaces for connections to be made beyond the walls of the synagogue and the timeframe of prayer services. With young children she said, quite honestly, that she didn’t expect to be a regular attender at Friday night services, but that they were interested in being a part of a community in other ways and at other times.
Back in the mid-1990s, I had a short first career, before deciding to retrain for the rabbinate. I did my PhD at University College London, in Cultural Geography. My thesis was examining the world of environmental education – so often aimed at youth with the hope that the next generation will be inspired to do more than their parents’ generation to alter behaviors that will enable us to live more sustainably on the planet. In my cultural/sociological research into the lives of some of these children, my research pointed out that, so often, the claims made by educators and the assumptions made about the effectiveness of such education were made in a vacuum. Content or Program alone could not tell you how effective the efforts of environmental educators would be. Children, just like the rest of us, live their lives in connection to others. Why, I might ask them, did they join the Scouts/Guides? Why did they get interested in a particular hobby? What kinds of experiences had they had in different kinds of natural environments? Over and over again it was members of their family who provided one primary set of influences, and their friends – their social connections – that drove the vast majority of what they did or didn’t do. Not so surprising a conclusion, but nevertheless so many people who are passionate about the environment focus solely on the educational content and program and continue to ignore the social context in which all of our everyday behaviors and choices are embedded. The former may be easier to create and form than the latter—it is more concrete and tangible—but that doesn’t make it the most effective way to go about doing things.
I share this, because that background and research has guided much of my thinking about religious education and religious communities too. We Jewish professionals tend to overly focus on the prayer service, the program, and the educational course without spending enough time focusing on the social context. To be successful, we need to know who are congregants are and the lives they are leading. Because of the particular demographics of the community where I am based, those dynamics can be quite different to those of another community in another geographical location. What I am learning is that, by emphasizing how gathering opportunities will facilitate community connection, and then being more intentional to make sure that the timing and the nature of the gathering will truly lend itself to these goals, all of the other Jewish content can be shared too. But we start with the connections. Last Shabbat we shared a beautiful Havdalah ritual together, and I was able to teach something about this ritual that many of the children present (and plenty of the adults too) were seeing for the first time. But we didn’t invite them to a Havdalah gathering; given the lack of context for that for some of them, that would have been a meaningless label to describe the nature and purpose of the invitation.
This, of course, is the whole rationale of what Ron Wolfson has termed ‘Relational Judaism‘ and many congregations are turning their attention toward how they can do a better job of being relationship-based communities. Today I fly to San Diego for the Union for Reform Judaism’s Biennial Conference. Always vibrant and energetic gatherings, this one is bound to be no exception. And, while there will be many useful sessions designed for information and idea sharing on all kinds of topics that will enable communities to reach toward greater excellence on many fronts, these conferences are, ultimately, all about relationship-building themselves. I almost always get more from the individual conversations I have with old friends, with strangers sitting next to me, and with colleagues, re-invigorating me in my work and inspiring me with the things they’ve already thought of and tried in their communities. Understanding this, the conference organizers this year have provided times and places—forums—simply to meet with others who show up around a common area of interest to share ideas and learn from each other, in addition to the more formally organized workshops.
We used to hear a lot of “build it and they will come.” Today, perhaps the more appropriate adage should be “connect, and together we will create.”
The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.
Last week, in the midst of an independent study meeting with a fourth grader, I was exploring the topic of mixing up holiday traditions, and trying to gauge my student’s opinions. Because it had just recently shown up on my Facebook feed, I shared with her the website for a Menorah tree – the latest innovation in cultural appropriation during the December holiday season. When I asked her what she thought, my incredibly bright and thoughtful student responded, “I think I’d need to know more about the origins of both symbols before I could decide.” No knee-jerk reaction. No embracing of the commercialism or rejecting of the “non authentic.” Just a considered response that indicated the need to understand more about symbols, where they come from, and what they mean to people, before reaching a personal conclusion.
One of the things that I’ve noticed this year, with the confluence of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah, creating Thanksgivukkah for those celebrating in the USA, is that I’ve had many thoughtful conversations like this over the past few weeks, with middle schoolers, high schoolers, and adults alike. Yes, people are having fun with their “Menurkeys” and blended Thanksgiving meal menus this year, but what I’m finding is that people are asking really good questions and having really good conversations about the meaning of the holidays, what the symbols represent, where a valid connection can be made, conceptually, between parts of the Thanksgiving myth and parts of the Hanukkah myth (as so eloquently laid out by my RWB colleague, Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan, earlier this week). When my congregants had these conversations with me, it has provided many opportunities to share aspects of Hanukkah at a deeper level. People are asking – they want to know. They want to find ways to make it all as meaningful as possible and, in order to do that, they are looking to mine the riches of our traditions, not simply invent and make up new ones. That’s why, in my congregation this Shabbat we’ll be celebrating and highlighting Thanksgiving and Hanukkah in one of monthly ‘Ritual Lab’ services, providing another opportunity for our community to examine both holidays, compare and contrast and learn together while also celebrating Shabbat together (courtesy of my colleague, Rabbi Joe Eiduson, who has put together an innovative weaving of materials).
So, while I’ve read other articles where the authors wish that Hanukkah could just be Hanukkah (you know, that authentic Jewish holiday where we play a 10th Century Anglo Saxon gambling game with a spinning top, eat fried foods common to the cuisine of Germany and Central Europe, and sing a festival anthem set to the melody of a Medieval German marching tune!), I believe otherwise. This year’s juxtaposition of secular and Jewish calendar has opened up rich and meaningful conversations that might not otherwise have taken place. More people know a little bit more about their Jewish heritage and traditions than they otherwise might have.
There’s something else that I think we might consider dropping when we talk about Hanukkah. Let’s stop describing it as ‘a minor Jewish holiday’. The origins of this statement may be halachic in nature – the rabbis did not require Hanukkah to be like some of our other Festivals where we do no work and follow many of the other restrictions of a Sabbath day. They did insert some additional liturgy to mark the holiday, but not at the scale of many of our other festival days. This move was partially historical, but also somewhat political – there were reasons that the Rabbis were, in fact, somewhat ambivalent about the Hasmonean rule that emerged from the Maccabee victory and, while the festival was already firmly established, they did not want to overemphasize its importance in the Jewish calendar.
However today, when I hear people talk about Hanukkah only being a ‘minor’ holiday, what I hear is more of a disdain for the commercial competition with Christmas. But too often, what we are actually telling our communities, inadvertently, is not ‘don’t go over the top with the secular and commercial aspects of the holiday’ but rather, ‘this isn’t really one of our important holidays.’ And so, in fact, we end up sending the message that Hanukkah cannot and should not be held up, embraced, celebrated, enriched and enjoyed (and yes, that means the light-hearted commercial kind of enjoyment too) as a meaningful winter holiday of hope and light in the midst of the dark and the cold. We send the message that only Christmas can do that at this time of year – our little holiday simply can’t ‘compete’. Why do we want to impart that message? If having an inflatable, lit-up menorah on your front lawn, or a menorah tree in your house, eight nights of gift-giving, or creating new secular-styled ‘pop’ Hanukkah songs makes for a joyful celebration in your home and extends the time you spend thinking about and celebrating this Jewish holiday, isn’t that a good thing?
As we arrive at erev Hanukkah, and erev Thanksgiving, tonight, I wish you all a wonderful, enjoyable, and meaningful Thanksgivukkah!