Much of the Eastern and Midwestern U.S. is ensconced in a ferocious cold spell today and tomorrow. Known as the “polar vortex,” a blast of air from the arctic is producing temperatures colder than the South Pole in some parts of the country. This got me thinking: 120 years ago, where would poor, marginalized Jews (i.e. most Jews) go to escape the cold? To Jewish relief organizations such as Jewish hospitals, Jewish soup kitchens. In the era before FDR, before a government social safety net, Jewish communities across the country were responsible for talking care of one another. Mutual aid societies and landsmanschaften (hometown societies) provided this critical source of support, ensuring not only the well-being of poor Jewish immigrants but also creating community connections.
70 years ago, where would Jews go to escape the cold? To synagogue-centers and JCCs. Emerging into the middle-class, “second generation” Jews were eager to flee their urban areas of settlement for the expansiveness of the suburbs. They frequently found, however, that secular American society still harbored a good deal of anti-Semitism, so Jews created new hubs for social interaction. The notion of the “shul with a pool” was born, with traditional synagogues expanded to include social, educational, and even athletic programming.
Today, where do we go to escape the “polar vortex?” Starbucks. The public library. The local gym. Or we just stay at home and tweet about how cold we are. The rise of the welfare state (I mean that as a descriptive, not a perjorative, term), combined with the rapid erosion of institutional anti-Semitism in America, has rendered obsolete much of the social architecture of American Jewry. Jewish Family Services, perhaps the closest vestige to the traditional Jewish welfare organizations throughout the country, often serve more non-Jews than Jews! The same is true with Jewish hospitals and even JCCs. While we are truly blessed to live in a society as open to Jews as 21st century America, that blessing comes with a cost: no longer having a need to come together, our Jewish connective tissue is atrophying. As the recent Pew Study illustrates, only 28 percent of those polled believe that being part of a Jewish community is essential to Jewish identity. Continue reading
It’s Israel week on the Rabbis Without Borders blog. My colleagues Ben Greenberg and Alana Suskin discussed debates among university Hillel organizations about inviting anti-Israel speakers. Just before that, our blog featured the words of a young Canadian in Israel re-thinking his own views.
Of course, we don’t have to be registered university students to explore multiple perspectives and begin a dialogue that leads to deep rethinking. We can begin with the simplest of tools, actually: a traditional Jewish text and a commitment to asking questions.
The Siddur includes many prayers that refer to the land of Israel; here I will highlight just one. This short paragraph is found, in slightly different forms, in the prayer books of every Jewish movement, towards the end of every Amidah prayer, whether weekday, Shabbat, or holiday. The theme of the paragraph, worshiping God who dwells in Zion, was set by the year 200 C.E.; the precise wording has changed along with Jewish circumstances and philosophies. Below are two different modern versions, in English translation.
Accept the prayer of Your people Israel as lovingly as it is offered. Restore worship to Your sanctuary. May the worship of Your people Israel always be acceptable to You. May we witness Your merciful return to Zion. Praised are You, Lord who restores his Presence to Zion (Siddur Sim Shalom, 1985, Conservative movement).
Take pleasure, GRACIOUS ONE, our God, in Israel your people; lovingly accept their fervent prayer. May Israel’s worship always be acceptable to you. And may our eyes behold your homecoming, with merciful intent, to Zion. Blessed are you, THE FAITHFUL ONE, who brings your presence home to Zion (Siddur Kol Haneshamah, 1999, Reconstructionist movement).
The Conservative wording asks that worship be restored to the Temple sanctuary; the Reconstructionist version asks that worship be acceptable wherever it is offered. Modern Judaism teaches that God is everywhere, and thus people can pray everywhere. So is there or is there not something special about worship in Jerusalem?
What is your experience? Have you been moved to pray in unique or passionate ways while visiting Israel? Does thinking about Israel intensify your prayers for peace and justice? Do you believe that putting a written prayer into the Kotel sends it straight to God? One of my relatives insists that the Kotel is an idol; how would you respond to him? Do you know where the Holy of Holies is said to have been? Do you agree with the recommendation of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate to avoid the site? Do you know about recent Jewish-Muslim tensions on the Temple Mount? If you were a responsible government official, how might you mediate?
The Conservative version hopes that we may “witness” God’s “merciful return” to Zion (a historic name for Jerusalem); the Reconstructionist one asks that “our eyes may behold” God’s “homecoming, with merciful intent.” Both “witness” and “behold” refer to the same Hebrew word, v’techezena. In Biblical Hebrew, its root chazon, typically refers to a prophetic vision. Does the prayer ask that we literally see the return, or that we gain a clear vision of what a compassionate return would look like?
How would a compassionate return look? Like the vision of Ezekiel, where no foreigners would enter, and only priests of one of Aaron’s many lineages could be certified to serve? Like the vision of Isaiah, where a new line of priests, representing multicultural Judaism, would be created? Or like the vision of Zechariah, where the renewed Temple would host annual interfaith Sukkot services?
Both the Conservative and Reconstructionist versions hope for the return of God’s shechinah, which they translate as “presence.” What sort of shechinah would you like to see return? Shechinah as understood in early rabbinic literature: the presence that originally accompanied the Israelite camp in their 40 years of wilderness wandering, a presence strengthened by correct ritual and ethical behavior, that also accompanied the Jews during exile to Babylonia? Would a return of this presence require that all Jews make aliyah and turn their backs on the creative diversity of the diaspora? Would its return depend on Israeli Jews practicing mitzvot, including compassion for the strangers among them? How would such compassion respond to Palestinian proposals for a right of return?
Or would you like to see the return of the Shechinah as described in the mystical work Zohar, one of ten cosmic energies that make up the Godhead; specifically, a feminine motherly energy who feeds all creatures, and without whose embrace God is unbalanced? Would the return of this Schechinah include widespread respect for the practice of gender-egalitarian Judaism, even at the Kotel plaza?
Is your head spinning yet, or is it just beginning to clear? Read the text, consider the questions, and click on the links. Recognize the political pointers in the Siddur. Use them to help you clarify your own commitments and actions. Remember that every prayer is also a prayer for understanding.
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An abridged version of this post appears on OnSophiaStreet.
In a recent post my fellow Rabbis Without Borders colleague, Alana Suskin, argues on behalf of those advocating an “Open Hillel” policy that would allow all speakers and events to be sponsored by Hillel, including anti-Israel and anti-Zionist perspectives. Alana’s central point can be summed up by the following quote from her article:
“Swarthmore has made the right choice, not because every speaker they host will be telling the whole truth (although even in a narrative that we wholly reject, we may be able to learn something), but because by opening the debate, they show that they trust us to do the right thing, to understand complex situations, to do our homework, and to act for the right and the good.”
The thesis she offers is that we should not be afraid to subject ourselves and our student communities to all sides of the discussion on Israel and to hear all the perspectives, even those we might vehemently disagree with. To do so opens us up to the nuance and complexity of the situation and makes us better informed and thus able to make better choices.
Her point is well taken and has a lot of truth to it. However, there is another dimension to this conversation that is worth mentioning.
First of all, as the former Orthodox rabbi at Harvard Hillel, the campus where the Open Hillel movement began, I want to acknowledge that this movement is not coming from a negative or bad place. The students who began it I had the privilege to know and share Shabbat meals with both in the Hillel dining hall and in our own home are tremendously bright, intelligent, sensitive and caring people. They are committed Jews and the broader Jewish community is fortunate to count them as part of the emerging leadership of our community.
Yet, the question about what sort of conversations should or should not be allowed at Hillel is not just about fostering multi-layered and complex dialogue. It is not just about reflecting the true range of discourse in the wider public square within the walls of Hillel. The policies an organization crafts should and must reflect the values it wishes to project. It is not about the intellectual richness and political diversity these open conversations bring because those same conversations could happen in any other space on any campus. It is about the values Hillel wishes to project both into the campus and within its own environment.
Hillel defines its relationship to Israel in the following way: “Israel is at the heart of Hillel’s work. Our goal is to inspire every Jewish college student to develop a meaningful and enduring relationship to Israel and to Israelis. Whether they want to engage in deep dialogue or are politically active in mobilizing others to support Israel, we enable students to share a rich connection to Israel and to each other as a people. Engaged and educated students can become committed Jewish adults who are passionate supporters of Israel.”
The mission of Hillel in regards to Israel is to cultivate future “committed Jewish adults who are passionate supporters of Israel.” The policies Hillel drafts after that ought to reflect that mission.
So the question is not: Does inviting anti-Israel speakers, advocates of BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) or others similarly inclined enrich student’s intellectual journey but rather by inviting those speakers and events are we living up to the mission of the organization?
Hillel is about catalyzing a values-based community girded by its mission and vision. In order to do so sometimes you need to draw boundaries.
The objective of Open Hillel as stated on their website is to change the “standards for partnership” guidelines created by Hillel that excludes anti-Israel speakers. That is an attempt to change a policy but neglects the mission that drives that policy. Open Hillel rather needs to engage a conversation about whether Hillel’s mission in regards to Israel is reflective of the organization nowadays and then the policy conversation happens from there.
I, for one, believe strongly that Hillel’s policy is the right one and its commitment to creating “passionate supporters of Israel” within a context of “deep dialogue” among the wide and diverse tent that exists today of pro-Israel organizations is deeply needed and valuable. I welcome the community conversation spurred by Open Hillel but believe the current mission and policies that reflect that mission is the path Hillel ought to maintain as it continues to build a values-based community.
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In her series about the wizard Ged, one of the grand masters of speculative fiction, Ursula K. LeGuin, writes about a young man who must go from being an ignorant boy who seeks power to a man who faces himself, his fears, and his flaws—and ultimately his loss of power and death. (There’s a reason she’s a master of the genre!)
A young Ged, in the first book of the original trilogy, has, through his own arrogance—which is really a reflection of his own sense of inferiority—let a thing of great power and evil into the world. He is rescued by the elder mages, one of whom tells Ged, “You thought, as a boy, that a mage is one who can do anything. So I thought, once. So did we all. And the truth is that as a man’s real power grows and his knowledge widens, ever the way he can follow grows narrower: until at last he chooses nothing, but does only and wholly what he must do.”
I’ve often thought that this series is perhaps one of the most Jewish in speculative fiction. The struggle of Ged to redeem himself reminds me of the Sfat Emet‘s comments in this week’s Torah commentary, on the conflict between free will and divine knowledge pointed out by the verse that Pharoah’s heart was hardened (Ex. 10:1). He explains that Jews’ duty is to make clear in the world what God already knows—which negates choice. The reason this task falls to us is because truth is hidden in this world, and it is only in God’s realm that truth is clear. It is our efforts as Jews revealing God’s clear vision that is so important—truth depends upon human effort—because without it, the hiddenness of truth obscures necessity.
The idea that knowing all possible variables allows us to predict all events is a trope in mystical literature, as well as in philosophy of a certain era. That of course, is one way to understand the idea of omniscience. But there are others.
In LeGuin’s books, it is those who try to flail against truth that bring evil into the world, by denying death, grasping at power that does not belong to them—or by covering up truth, by telling a false story that is more attractive. And all of these people, in the end, turn out not to be our caricature of Eviiiiiil, but rather flawed people whose fears rule them. They grasp for power to try not to feel this fear. And this use of inappropriate power is harmful both for them as individuals, and for the world, as the lie that each has told himself also leads others astray. Ultimately, power allows the truth to be hidden, but truth cannot be eliminated. And hiding the truth causes evil to enter the world.
Perhaps that’s why there is so much ferment in the Jewish community over who gets to talk about Israel, and how. When our community refuses to hear anything other than that the other side is purely evil, when it labels anyone who disagrees with what has been so far labelled as “mainstream” Judaism’s views about peace with the Palestinians as a self-hater (or an anti-Semite), it is out of fear.
But as the young mage Ged ultimately learns, it is only in accepting what you fear as part of yourself, accepting all your flaws as reality, that you can be made whole. Ged ultimately faces the terrible shadow and finds that it is (spoiler alert)—a piece of him. To conquer our fears, to reveal the truth, we must be wiling to listen and to see, so that we can uncover the truth. For that reason, I’m proud of the Swarthmore HIllel, which is taking that first step.
Facing what we fear gives us the strength to take our flaws into ourselves, to accept them—and then to fix them. We need not accept anything uncritically. But anything we refuse to hear gives that thing power. And while we needn’t (and shouldn’t!) accept anyone saying that Israel shouldn’t exist, the Hillel organization has been far too ready to exclude a far wider variety of critique than —critiques which are not only true, but necessary.
I do not doubt that those who oppose hearing from speakers who are anti-ZIonist mean well. Neither do I doubt that those Hillels who have interpreted this rule as excluding organizations like Americans for Peace Now and J Street—Zionist organizations that insist upon the necessity of a two-state solution, and on facing straightforwardly the dangers presented by settlements – do. But to use the power that they have as a large Jewish organization to silence debate in the community they are meant to educate is foolish, and ultimately harmful.
Speakers that recognize that Israel’s acts towards Palestinians, towards its own non-Jewish citizens, and towards its peace process are not always in its best interests, let alone just and therefore worthy of a Jewish state, are not the enemy, even though some Hillels (and some other Jewish organizations) have treated them as such. To the contrary, until we as a community recognize that the growth of settlements is a real impediment to peace, that racism is a large and growing problem, that extremist violence is not only from one side—until we face that, we are not going to be able to make the adjustments we need to make so that we can truly be pro-Israel.
The only way to do that is to expose everything to sunlight. Look at the facts; hear all kinds of speakers; trust the Am (people) to make good decisions—and the truth is that we will anyway. The idea that there’s any way to hide the facts in the age of the internet is absurd, when anyone can go online and read a human rights report, see how many “price tags” are occurring, read (or watch) the testimonies of Israeli soldiers, or even just read Israel’s own news reporting, and we do. And indeed, the recent Pew report reflects that people have been doing just this.
To be fair, there has been some recent calling for “civil discourse” in the Jewish community—requests for people to be more open in hearing one another within our community with less name-calling by one side of the other. But even should that call succeed (and I don’t see much evidence of it) it’s not enough. The discourse is not empty of content: the debate is important because lives, on both sides of the line, have been and continue to be deeply affected by decisions made, both by Israelis and by Palestinians, but also by large organizations in the Jewish community that push us to use our voices to maintain an unsustainable status quo, rather than stepping up and doing something about it, while simultaneously lamenting the lessening of the connection between us and Israel.
But that lessening is not because there are problems in Israel. It is because either we are deeply connected to our people, no matter where we are, obliging us —as our tradition insists—to rebuke one another when there is wrongdoing, or else we are not connected. It is the very act of insisting that we may not speak about what we see, that we cannot fulfill our Jewish mission when it pertains to our own people, that is one of the causes of the rift. Love doesn’t flee problems, but it does flee silence.
As the Sfat Emet says, it is our job as Jews to face and reveal the truth, even when it is disturbing. Even when it is about us. This is the lesson that Ged, too, had to learn. That within him was the capacity for terrible things, and only by acknowledging them could he heal himself and the hole he had made in the world. Once the truth is faced, our free will is restored, because we are able to see the path through and we do what we must do.
Swarthmore has made the right choice, not because every speaker they host will be telling the whole truth (although even in a narrative that we wholly reject, we may be able to learn something), but because by opening the debate, they show that they trust us to do the right thing, to understand complex situations, to do our homework, and to act for the right and the good. In doing so, they show faith in the Jewish future, because they understand that in staring both truth and falsehood down, we will learn from both, and “the truth will spring up from the earth.” (Ps. 85:12)
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About a year ago, someone recommended a Paulo Coelho book to me—a popular one—The Alchemist. Most people I know that have read the book loved it: they feel it’s speaking to them, encouraging them to take life by the horns, and live it to it’s fullest; to pursue their dreams. But I… I hated it.
Like many books of its type, its assumption is that when people don’t live their dreams out, it’s because they didn’t try, or they didn’t dream big enough—books like these are inspirational posters writ long. Not that I have anything against inspirational posters. If that’s your thing, feel free. But at the same time, I can’t help but think that this attitude underlies so much of what Judaism struggles with against secular culture: that adults are required to act as part of a social contract and to sometimes do boring things for the sake of others. Where is the recognition that sometimes you work hard at a crappy job to support your family? My father was a bureaucrat until his retirement, and I think he did the best job at it he could, and he did good for others in whatever way he could there. But I strongly doubt that it was the job he dreamed of as a child. But I always had enough to eat and a roof over my head. He’s still married to my mother. Did he not dream big enough? Maybe he should have lit out for the hills to pursue his dreams instead?
When I hear people saying that the only thing in the way of one’s dreams is oneself, I find myself angry for the janitors and clerks and fast food workers—did they not dream big enough? Do they not work hard enough? Do the poor of other nations simply lack imagination? And angry on behalf of people like my father, who work hard all their lives to make sure their families have enough, even if the job isn’t—in itself—meaningful or stirring. Whose lives are just not exciting. From the outside, at least. Continue reading
Unless we’re talking about jury duty, it’s generally nice to be noticed as unique and special; to be chosen. Except when it’s not. “God, I know we’re the ‘chosen people,’” Tevye said, “But can’t you choose someone else once in a while?” The question of being chosen, what academics call “the election of Israel,” is central on my mind lately. On the one-hand, I believe in the unique call of the Jews as Jews, and yet, I believe in the universality of Jewish wisdom as a gift for all. There is a tension here. If Jewish wisdom is such a gift for mindful and meaningful living, is it not for everyone? But, if the Torah’s wisdom is for everyone, what makes it “Jewish”?
On the selective side are famous passages such as this one from the 12th Century:
God gave Israel two Torahs – the Written Torah and the Oral Torah. God gave them the Written Torah which includes 613 Commandments in order to fill them with good deeds and virtues. God gave them the Oral Torah to differentiate them from all other nations. Therefore it was not given in written form so the other nations will not be able to forge it and claim that they are the (also) Israel. - Bamidbar Rabbah, section 14.
And while we are unique, “chosen,” or better and more accurately, we “choose” to live in the values and rituals of Judaism, the enterprise of Judaism cannot succeed in a vacuum. Rabbi Heschel quotes Spanish Inquisition era Rabbi Joseph Yaabez, “If the non-Jews of a certain town are moral, the Jews born there will be so as well.”
The above tension between particularism and universalism is everywhere in Judaism. Every service, three times a day, we conclude with the two-paragraph Aleinu prayer. The first paragraph thanks God for the distinction of being Jewish, “God made our lot unlike that of other people, assigning to us a unique destiny.” The second paragraph puts forth a universalist hope, that our God and the timeless truths of our tradition would someday be embraced by everyone, “Reign over all, soon and for all time… On that day the Lord shall be One and God’s name One.”
Rabbi A.J. Heschel says, “The religions of the world are no more self-sufficient, no more independent, no more isolated than individuals or nations…No religion is an island. We are involved with one another…Today, religious isolationism is a myth. For all the profound differences in perspective and substance, Judaism is sooner or later affected by the intellectual, moral, and spiritual events within the Christian society, and vice versa.” – No Religion is an Island.
The Jewish stance of the past, even the not so distant past, was rightfully suspicious of deep connections to the outside. It was dangerous to become overly involved with the outside world. Today, that same isolationism which perhaps served us has the real potential of suffocating us. To live in a disconnected way in a world that is deeply connected, deeply transparent, is to deny reality. The times have changed, and we can change with it without a threat to the essential fabric of what it means to be Jewish.
I feel compelled to share the Torah I have come to love with Jews and non-Jews alike. It is my firm belief that the wisdom of Judaism can strengthen the lives of the Jews I live and work with. I also believe that the self-same wisdom is helpful for the non-Jews in my life. I readily share it without expectation that Jews will all keep kosher or keep the lesser known rite of not mixing linen and wool. Nor do I expect that non-Jews with whom I share Torah will magically become Jews. Preposterous. Instead, I expect that they come to understand my Jewish perspective, and see the value therein. Who is my Torah for? Ultimately, it is for me, but I like it so much I can’t help but try to share it.
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It was one of those nights. I could not sleep at all. Sadness and worries crowded in. I went to bed after reading that Sam Sommer, an 8-year-old boy, had died of cancer. I first found out about his diagnosis in 2012 from his mother, Phyllis’s, Facebook status. We are Facebook friends. As a fellow rabbi and mother, Phyllis was someone I followed regularly. She had also just been admitted to a Fellowship program I run for rabbis called Rabbis Without Borders. Due to Sam’s diagnosis, she decided to defer her acceptance to the program. We have never met in person.
Yet, because she and her husband chronicled Sam’s cancer journey on their blog Superman Sam, I feel very close to them. Each time I read the blog tears would come to my eyes, tears of joy when Sam was doing well and tears of sadness when he was not. Phyllis and Michael’s posts on the blog were so open, honest, and full of love for their child it was impossible not to be drawn into their story.
Some people decry the public way many of us live our lives today, sharing intimate stories on our blogs and though our Facebook updates. Just a few months ago, I had a conversation with a rabbinic colleague who was uncomfortable with NPR host Scott Simon tweeting his mother’s death. He felt that somehow this public sharing of death took away its sacred nature. I could not disagree more.
Our modern American society has tried to whitewashed death. We want to push death away, pretend it is not difficult and painful, pretend that it does not have to happen, that our medical community will find cure after cure. We are afraid to speak to our children about death, or have them visit grandma or grandpa in the hospital lest it upset them. Yet death is a part of life. We cannot ignore it.
Over the past year and a half I read Phyllis and Michael’s blog with reverence. I know they did not share every detail of Sam’s journey with us. Some things are meant to be kept private. But in sharing what they did share, we, the reading public, were taken on a journey of childhood cancer. Going on this journey with the Sommers made me a better person. That may sounds grandiose, but it is true.
Most days I am absorbed in the drama of my own life, the daily arguing with my daughter to do her homework, balancing career and family, answering millions of emails, and generally living life. Checking in with Sam a few times a week reminded me to feel grateful for what I did have. Reading the blog reminded me to pray each day, a deep prayer of thanks for my life and the people in it, and caused me to send prayers of healing for Sam and others I knew who were suffering. I was more gentle and compassionate to my own family because I had this regular reminder that life could change on a dime.
Going public with your own or a loved one’s journey towards death is not for everyone. I completely respect that many people want and need to keep their journeys private. But for those for whom it is cathartic to write, blog, Facebook, and Tweet, I am thankful that we now have these tools available to us. Reading others’ stories and how they find incredible reserves of courage, strength, and love in the face of death makes us all stronger. We can learn that moments of great happiness can occur while the body is dying, that when we face things honestly and openly we can lessen the fear of the unknown.
I don’t think we can ever fully take away the fear and pain of death. It is a part of life. However, if we discussed it more openly and shared our stories, I would like to think that we could learn both how to die more peacefully and mourn more freely. What is more sacred than getting in touch with our emotions, and helping others navigate theirs? In my mind this is God’s work, helping us be more human in all of its messy glory.
Thousands of people are now mourning with the Sommers. I can only hope that the outpouring of love that has occurred on social media since word of Sam’s death arrived is buoying the Sommers though these incredibly painful days.
May God be with them on this new journey without Sam.
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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.”
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World leaders today have assembled to mourn the death of Nelson Mandela. As tributes are paid to Mandela’s towering legacy and monumental impact in ending apartheid in South Africa, I can’t help but feel the absence of any Mandela-like leader today within the Jewish community.
This is not to say that we lack impressive Jewish leaders today. To the contrary, there are a number of individuals, rabbis and non-rabbis alike, who do extraordinary work at the local level—at synagogues, JCCs, and local NGOs. But we don’t seem to have a leader, or series of leaders, who can rally apathetic masses to support moral causes at a systemic level. We lack the towering leadership of a Heschel, a Soloveitchik, a Wise, a Kaplan. And my question today is: do we need one?
On the one hand, from the perspective of community organizing or democracy building, the answer ought to be no. Real change, from this paradigm, starts from the ground up, at the local level. Leaders are effective when they know what the local issues are and can engage relationally with those in their communities. I, for one, think this model has an incredible amount to offer, and indeed carries the best prospects for the future of an engaged and committed American Jewry.
But, on the other hand, I feel a sense of absence by the lack of national moral leadership. I can only begin to imagine how it might have felt to stand with Heschel and King during the Civil Rights Movement. I recall fondly–though I was only a few years out of diapers–the successful efforts of the Jewish community to free Soviet Jews in the 1980s. And, more recently, Jewish leaders were at the forefront of the Save Darfur effort. But who and where are the Jewish leaders rallying national support for social or economic justice today? From raising the minimum wage to enacting a cap and trade program to stem climate change, I can’t think of a single figure or group of figures who are at the forefront of these efforts, who are working to catalyze the public at a national level and have the moral resonance and strategic savvy to make such change plausible.
So my question to you today, as we fittingly pay tribute to the legacy of Mandela, is whether we still need Jewish national moral leadership to bring about the change our tradition calls us to pursue. What do you think?
On the eighth night of Hanukkah our synagogue’s young adult group hosted an event in collaboration with the Denver Jewish Chamber of Commerce. It was our 2nd annual Spin The Dreidel Networking evening that brought people from an array of sectors and professions out for a night of relationship building, networking and good Jewish food. What does business networking have in common with the work of building Jewish community? How does an event of that nature fit into the vision of a Jewish organization, particularly a synagogue?
The answer lies in exploring the nature of Jewish peoplehood for the young adult community. The young adult community, those within the millennial and Gen X demographics, are poised to become the majority of American society, including the American Jewish community, in the not so distant future. Jewish identity today in the 21st century is not our grandparents identity. It is layered in complexity and with competing interests, passions and commitments.
Is Jewish identity strictly religious? Is it ethnic? Is it nationalistic? Is it cultural? How do notions of Jewish peoplehood fit with other values like universalism and equality? How does one navigate the tensions between a particularistic identity and a universalistic worldview? What about the role of social justice? Environmentalism? Civil rights? In a digital world, is there a Jewish ethic and Jewish framing questions about the role of technology?
The understandings of Jewish peoplehood amongst young adults today is continuously evolving and shifting. It, for the most part, reflects these real conversations about the balancing of competing identities and interests. Young adult engagement today must be one that does not suppose to know all the answers and all the paths to take for the participants but rather transforms participants into stakeholders and owners of their own Jewish destiny. It is about providing the resources, knowledge and tools to each individual so that person can find their own voice in the Jewish community and become an active partner in the further development of Jewish life.
The next chapter in the Jewish journey of each individual can be written on one’s own terms and in one’s own unique way. It is fully embracing the complexities that people bring to the table and the multi-faceted dimensions of modern life.
So how did we end up with an annual Hanukkah networking event partnered with a business professional organization? We listened, partnered, collaborated and helped catalyze the Jewish journey of our young adult demographic. By embracing the varied and diverse ways Jews enter the conversation around peoplehood, identity, Jewish authenticity and meaning, we create the room for Jewish communal flourishing and it is precisely this flourishing of Jewish life that will enable a stronger Jewish communal future.