I have been thinking a lot about Jewish identity recently. How do we define our own connection to Judaism? What unites us and what divides us? In what ways do the modes we use to define ourselves become off putting for someone exploring the Jewish community? These are tough questions and with no easy answer. Yet, there is one thing we could begin doing that would make a big impact.
All too often when we are meeting a new person in the context of a Jewish communal event (e.g. college Shabbat dinner, Jewish young adult group, etc.) our question is: What kind of Jew are you? Are you Reform? Are you Orthodox? Do you affiliate with a particular type of synagogue? Perhaps we are asking the wrong question. Instead of attempting to determine how a person Jewishly identifies, we should want to know how they do Jewish. This point was made to me recently by a colleague. As a community we have become too focused on how a person is Jewish and not on what they do Jewish.
This focus on the how is strange considering we are traditionally a religious community defined by our actions more than our beliefs. We are commanded to perform mitzvot. In fact, there is a well known midrash, rabbinic homily, that has God declaring that in a choice between rejecting belief in Him and forsaking the Divine commandments, rather the people keep the commandments. What we do becomes more important than what we believe.
Creating more opportunities for meaningful Jewish engagement that focus on doing Jewish can become a catalyst for further involvement in the Jewish community. Avoiding the questions of Jewish identity can create safe spaces for people to be who they are while still embracing a full spectrum of Jewish actions. The time has come to stop asking how are you Jewish and begin to invite people to do Jewish.
When I was in my final year of rabbinical school I had a remarkable opportunity to spend a weekend in a very small Jewish community in the deep south. It was a beautiful experience with a warm and engaged community and yet I left understanding that there exists a profound inequality of resources and access to Jewish opportunities depending on geography, ability to travel and other factors. I had spent most of my formative Jewish educational life in New York City, one of the largest hubs for rich Jewish learning and growth. I was fortunate to have access to some of the top educators anywhere in the Jewish world. This is not the case for many Jews throughout the world.
What can we do to address this inequality gap? Thankfully with constantly improving technology and the emergence of an entire e-learning sector there now exists the opportunity to put forth a Jewish digital learning platform that is uniquely a Rabbis Without Borders experience. The learning experience will merge Jewish wisdom in all of its depth with openness and pluralism. The educators will be borderless, coming from all walks of life and life experiences. The technology will enable seamless integration of multimedia and real time conversation not just one-directional from the educator to the students but between the educator and the students and between the students themselves.
It is precisely because Rabbis Without Borders pushes its rabbinic participants to think in new ways and to conceive of new tools for bringing Jewish wisdom public that this project is beginning to bear fruit. I was so fortunate to be in the second cohort of the Rabbis Without Borders program when Rabbi Irwin Kula, Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu and Rabbi Brad Hirschfield urged us to consider the blending of technology with tradition and to reflect on the egalitarian access to learning that new media can provide.
It is therefore with great excitement that I am able to share the beginning of a new initiative: OpenSinai.com.
OpenSinai.com is about offering Jewish learning everywhere. It is not about blog posts or articles but about facilitating real-time classes utilizing the best in digital learning technology that allows for meaningful conversations. No matter whether someone lives in the heart of New York City and is looking for a radically pluralistic borderless Jewish learning space or lives in a small community in the Midwest and is looking for Jewish enrichment, OpenSinai.com aims to provide those classes that fills that need.
We are in the beginning stages of the project and each week brings new developments. Visit the website, like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and join our e-mail list to get the latest updates and find out when the first classes will be live. If you are an educator thinking about what it would mean to teach in this new space find out more on the website. If you are thinking about this project let us know what you think and get involved and help make it a reality. Let us continue to close the gap between big Jewish centers and Jewish communities throughout the world so that the small southern Jewish community I visited several years ago and all Jews everywhere can grow and deepen their spiritual, religious and intellectual lives.
Our 21 year old daughter has invited her parents to The Intention Gathering, a “self-sustaining, all-ages, ethnically diverse superfragilistic-art-dance-creative community.”
We have absolutely no idea what that means.
But we are delighted to spend three days away from leadership in our Jewish community, three days of play without work, three days of anonymity. We pack camping gear appropriate to three days of summer rainforest weather. Without any clear mental image of our destination, we ride the ferry to British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast.
A short drive in our battered van brings us to a makeshift registration tent in a meadow at the foot of a wooded hill. Volunteers welcome us warmly, but no one seems to know exactly where we can park or pitch our tent. Still, we manage to unload. We set up our tent in a gorgeous wooded spot between a waterfall and a line of fellow campers. Then we join 150 friendly strangers, age 2-70, in the meadow for a communal dinner cooked by volunteers.
At opening circle, volunteers welcome us, waving smoke from aromatic sage smoldering in oyster shells. The circle’s leader invokes qualities of the four directions. Accompanied by drummers, we walk two by two to the main activity area, pausing at four lovingly hand-decorated outdoor altars, evoking earth, air, fire, and water. Everyone holds hands as announcements are made about respectful behavior, responsibility towards children, sharing of water resources, and jobs that still need volunteers.
Then the electronic dance music, broadcast from a covered DJ stage, begins: techno, trance, dub step, and more. We—two middle-aged parents—dance a while on the grassy outdoor dance floor, then go to bed. Zipped into our tent, we listen to the sounds. Here we are, camping in a magnificent forest, but instead of water and nocturnal insects, we hear far-off psychedelic music. We laugh ourselves to sleep.
Morning gives us a clearer sense of the gathering. We realize that we are witnessing, firsthand, a gathering of people unaffiliated with religious organizations who actively seek transcendence, spiritual growth, and community. So I start interviewing people about why they participate in this gathering. A handful of answers comes up over and over again.
“Community.” “Co-creating something from scratch.” “I got tired of raves and wanted a place where I could dance all night drug-free.” “You can just be yourself here.”
And, in a way, you can just be yourself. Dress is funky: bright colors, ruffled skirts and leggings on men and women alike, animal hats, all-day-pajamas, costumes. Conversation is easy: people talk freely about where they live, how they work, why they came. The atmosphere is fluid: nothing is quite on schedule, hula hoops and giant bubbles are always available, everyone plays with the children, and anyone might start dancing at any moment to the music that blares most of the day.
Workshops, however, are serious explorations of community, creativity and self. The “Rainforest Walk” workshop is an education in ethno-botany and habitat preservation, led by two scientists. “Breathwork” is an opportunity for release of tension, led by two experienced bodyworkers with a strong psychological grounding. “Empathy and Vulnerability” is an invitation to public speaking and performance, co-led by an acting coach and an executive coach.
Nighttime is less structured. We work a shift at the peer support tent. We sit at a shadowy picnic table discussing Plato’s Republic with a new young friend. Around the firepit, we discuss gender, sexuality and neurobiology with other new friends. We move to the dance floor, laughing and playing with other dancers.
By the third day, we—my spouse and I—really are ready to be our whole selves. We talk freely about our professional work in religion and psychology, about the Jewish , about our social and political ideals.
One woman hears us singing Hebrew songs in the forest. She approaches us, explaining that she has drifted away from her Jewish upbringing. She is surprised and delighted to learn that our synagogue, Or Shalom, is both liberal and spiritual.
Another woman, missing 3G access to the news, tells us that she worries every day about Israel and Palestine. Relieved to learn that we do too, she cries.
One man, a labor union activist, says he heard vaguely about a radical socialist Jewish movement whose young adults work in both Israel and Canada; do we know how he can connect? We refer him to our daughter, a former Habonim-Dror camp counselor.
A woman speaks about Shabbat with great joy, but tells me that she left her synagogue a decade ago over its marginalization of gay and lesbian participants. I tell her about the many Jewish groups that do active LGBTQ outreach and she is encouraged.
So much for our three days away from Jewish leadership, work and our everyday identities. Our mental image of the trip, unclear as it was, did not include Jewish outreach work. Yet we met several Jews yearning for transcendence, spiritual growth, and Jewish community. All were surprised to learn that Jewish community might welcome them, as it has us, even if we love camping, dancing, playing, forests, indigenous traditions, socialism and queer perspectives.
At this gathering, I learned some things about Jewish outreach without really trying. We met people who avoid Jewish organizations; no program at a synagogue, no matter how creative, would have attracted them. Instead, we met them in their own space. We came to the gathering out of genuine interest, not as teachers or leaders. We came as ourselves. We connected through friendliness, playfulness and shared interests. These simple qualities began to create Jewish community.
Sometimes outreach just happens. And sometimes random chance teaches more than any controlled experiment.
Image: Photo of Hillary Kaplan at Intention 15.5, courtesy of Charles Kaplan
Yesterday, during preparations for the graduation ceremony for the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, I caught a glimpse of the glow on the face a soon-to-be-ordained rabbi. It was magical. In my mind’s eye I could feel the tears streaming down my cheeks 27 years ago when I received the title “rabbi” after 5 intense years of learning at RRC. Mazal tov to this year’s new “rabbis and teachers in Israel”!
But yesterday’s rabbinic becoming/ordination also hit me with some worry. The role and significance of rabbis in progressive Judaism is shifting, and the changes are happening more rapidly than many of us can easily absorb.
In today’s unfolding reality, the fastest growing non-Orthodox American Jewish group is unaffiliated Jews. While denominational attachment is diminishing, the mainstream movements and their member congregations are struggling. Rabbis are wrestling with this reality, working to craft new approaches to their leadership to meet shifting needs.
Rabbis devote their lives to Torah and the Jewish people out of love. Just as Moses struggled with the formation of his leadership for a frightened, searching, sometimes confused and frustrated people in the wilderness, so too do rabbis walk through this wilderness.
A friend who has given considerable time, money and leadership to synagogues and his national movement—and a long-time supporter and booster for rabbis, was just telling me about a congregation he enjoys visiting that does not have a rabbi. It has a “spiritual leader.” They are not alone—non-traditional leaders, with various titles and training, are becoming more accepted.
Independent rabbis who help individuals, couples and families are increasingly in demand. Jews still want to do Jewish—but as the Pew report highlighted, many are looking for different types of relationships with spiritual leaders. Filling this void, many “officiants” advertising in the marketplace have not had the depth of learning and professional training that rabbis have attained. Everything’s changing.
We are about to celebrate the holy day of Shavuot, placing us back into the wilderness with our ancestors, when, as one united people, the people of Israel experienced revelation. Their response, “na’aseh v’nishma—we will do and we will listen,” shored up their relationship not only with God, but with Moses, their leader.
Moses found the inspiration and support to lead in the changing reality of the wilderness. So can we, if we take a reflective stance as Moses did on Mt. Sinai. This is about the future of American Judaism—a vitally important communal conversation. This Shavuot, let’s hold that inspiration close, climbing the mountain and returning with faces aglow with God’s holiness, alive with new possibilities.
I recently had the privilege of listening to Professor Ron Wolfson give several talks to my community about his new book, Relational Judaism. Professor Wolfson’s thesis, as he explains here, is that Jewish institutions are failing us, and hemorrhaging affiliated members as a result, because they focus on “transactional Judaism” rather than he what terms “relational Judaism.” Transactional Judaism connotes a fee-for-service approach in which institutions offer programs, activities, services, and schools, in exchange for money. Instead, Wolfson argues that institutions and their leaders need to focus more time, energy, and financial resources on building face-to-face relationships, micro-communities, and programming with a relationship-generating component built in.
There is a lot of wisdom in Wolfson’s book, and I commend it as critical reading for all Jewish professionals, from rabbis to federation leaders to school principals. Making synagogues more welcoming of visitors, taking the time to meet parents of students or JCC members one on one, and cutting back on committee meetings will make Jewish institutions of all sizes and locations more vibrant and personal. But as I read through the case studies in his book, and heard him speak, I kept feeling a sense of disquieting disconnect: the Jewish world he describes in his book does not equate with the Jewish world I experience out in the hinterlands of Connecticut.
There are two different worlds of Judaism in America today. There are huge Jewish demographic presences in the big cities (New York, LA, D.C., Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, Atlanta, Miami, and a few others) and their surrounding suburbs (the Valley, Westchester, areas in New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia), where the variety of religious expression and opportunity is incredibly rich, perhaps richer than ever before in the history of the Jewish Diaspora. Here, relational Judaism can be a huge benefit to large synagogues and other organizations that have lost their personal touch. Relational Judaism can serve as an effective way to re-vivify places that have grown cold, sterile, and indifferent. Larger federations can and should hire Jewish concierges to help steward new members of the Jewish community and existing members passing from one life stage to another (e.g. post Bar/Bat Mitzvah or new empty nesters) to various organizational presences and opportunities. Synagogues with multiple clergy should deploy them in more interactive ways, such as having a rabbi meet religious school parents in the parking lot to ameliorate the nefarious “drop off” effect or creating an alternative Friday night service in congregants’ homes.
But, as I told Professor Wolfson, I remain unconvinced that relational Judaism can work in small communities where resources are so scarce that institutions spend most of their time just trying to run basic programs and keep the lights on. On Shabbat morning, the rabbi of a small synagogue—who is the only clergy—cannot simultaneously greet people who come in during services and lead the congregation in prayers. When the religious school director is also a teacher, in order to make the budget work, he or she cannot both teach students and engage with parents post-drop off or pre-pick up. A federation that cannot sustain its local day school or JCC does not have the funds to hire a concierge, and communities here are so territorially sensitive that it is not clear a concierge could even work.
I should add at this point that I remain committed to the vision that relational Judaism espouses. To me, the issue of relational Judaism’s application to smaller Jewish communities leads directly the broader question of the future of these communities as presently constituted. I think we need to begin having far more candid conversations about merging older institutions and achieving economies of scale that enable the kind of vibrant, personal, creative Jewish expression that millennials—and many other Jews—crave. Where I live, there are four Conservative synagogues and two Reform synagogues within 20 minutes of one another. None have more than a few hundred members; some have far less. These synagogues are competing with one another for scarce members, replicating administrative and other staffing costs, and fragmenting rather than unifying the Jewish community. This is crazy! Imagine what kind of places they could be if they came together: imagine how spirited and uplifting services could be if several hundred people showed up each Shabbat, and how many opportunities there could be for multiple minyanim; imagine how many friendships could be created in a religious school with 100 students rather than 4 schools with 20-30 in each; imagine how large and effective a bikkur holim (visiting the sick) society could be established to reach out to those in need within our communities; and on and on.
As you probably know, this kind of community-wide view of local institutions is highly implausible today. Donors want the organizations they have supported to remain open in their current forms, even if doing so is short-sighted. What we truly need is the leadership and courage of our community leaders, in small Jewish communities across the country, to engage donors and other local decision-makers in the process of re-visioning the future of these communities. Perhaps through a relational approach–engaging these decision makers in one to one conversations and small group meetings–we can plant the seeds for the growth of relational Judaism in communities both large and small.
“Nevertheless, we followed the advice from every magazine editor who told us that rankings matter: if you want people to pay attention, you need a scorecard. The Rabbis needed standings.” In that one quote can be summed up so much of what was misguided about the annual rabbi rankings list Newsweek published for the past 7 years. Michael Lynton, Gary Ginsberg and Abigail Pogrebin in an article in The Forward explained why they were discontinuing the annual Passover tradition and that one quote is the one that struck me the most.
Every year I felt uncomfortable with the list of “top rabbis in America” and it was always difficult to pinpoint exactly the source of that discomfort. However, reading that the founders of the list initially wanted to highlight the “broad diversity” of the American rabbinate but the only way to do so in the magazine world was to make it a scorecard illustrates for me so much of what is at fault in the way we view our clergy. Do we rank them on how entertaining their sermon was? Do we score them on their clothing style? How many times they appear in a Google search?
When we transform our rabbis into only entertainers and quasi-celebrities we come to forget much of the heart of the rabbinate: the one to one interactions; the Torah shared and the relationships developed and sustained. It is about diligently and patiently bringing about positive change, goodness and Torah into the small part of the world that the rabbi lives and works in. This rarely would receive the accolades of a national ranking but this is the essential work.
Rabbis don’t belong on scorecards, whether from Newsweek or from anyone else. When we close the score books and open our hearts that is when the real work of our clergy can earnestly begin.
As someone who has written articles about issues impacting the Jewish community for publications like The Huffington Post, The Denver Post and The Boston Globe I have heard the following complaint several times: “Why do you need to take our internal problems and advertise them to the non-Jewish media? Why do you need to air our dirty laundry to the world?” I have often thought that this particular complaint was a curious one. It has recently once again come up as one of my dear teachers and mentors wrote an opinion piece for The New York Times on what many consider to be an internal Jewish communal issue.
There are several layers that need to be unpacked within that particular sentiment. First of all, the notion that Jews have only recently taken their issues to the non-Jewish or secular media is not true. The polemics around the birth of Zionism, the rise of Jewish denominations in Germany and a plethora of other issues have been debated in the presses of the general media and in the halls of world parliaments. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888), the Orthodox rabbinic leader of the community of Frankfurt fought for Orthodox communal independence from the Reformers in the Prussian Parliament, as just one example of many.
Secondly, a significant desired impact of debate around important topics is to influence the hearts and minds of people. In order to do so one needs to reach those people. Jews have for quite a long time not confined themselves to only reading Jewish publications. More Jews read The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times than The New York Jewish Week and The Jewish Advocate (even though they are both excellent publications). If you want to influence public opinion amongst fellow Jews one needs to reach them where they are and for an increasing number of Jews they are not to be found perusing the pages of their local Jewish weekly.
In an era of instant communications and where “internal” Jewish publications like Hamodia or even websites published in “private” Jewish languages like Yiddish can be translated in a moment with Google Translate there is no such thing as private only for the community news and public general media. We fool ourselves when we think that our communal conversations on Jewish blogs, Internet forums and community websites are for our eyes only.
Lastly, and perhaps this strikes at the heart of the issue, we ought not be afraid of arousing either state sponsored or mass popular anti-Semitism in our society. Numerous high profile Jews have been arrested and charged with large money laundering schemes and political corruption that has been splashed across the front pages of every major newspaper in the country and not one anti-Jewish riot, thank God, was initiated because of it. To the contrary, when we seek to cover up our issues and hide them that is when appearances of conspiracies begin to surface. Openness and transparency are important values in our culture and we should not run away from those values.
As a synagogue rabbi, I feel as if we have been running a religious marathon for the past month. since. After the majesty, power, and spiritual rigor of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, building a sukkah, celebrating eight days of Sukkot (along with the under the radar holiday of Shmini Atzeret that no one understands), and partying through Simhat Torah, I admit to a little religious exhaustion. I am sure that, for some of us, there is no end to the amount of time we want to spend praying in communal settings. But I get the sense that, for many of us, we are all shul-ed out. Our spiritual and ritual reservoirs are depleted, and the thought of setting foot in synagogue anytime soon is anathema.
So now what? We have nearly two months before we can start talking again about how weird it is that Hanukkah will occur before Thanksgiving this year. We have almost a month before we can start debating the propriety of Jews celebrating Halloween. So where should we put our religious-cultural energies?
Well, it just so happens that our political system has gone completely batty since we left 5773. Our political leaders are so dysfunctional that, today, the federal government has been shut down. Why? Though cable news outlets and partisan websites will try to spin the shutdown in different ways, the facts are pretty simple: the leadership of the House of Representatives, including the Jewish Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor, refuses to introduce a bill to fund the federal government without simultaneously trying to stop or at least delay the implementation of Obamacare. The actions of the House—re-litigating a law that was already passed by Congress, signed by the President, affirmed by the Supreme Court, and re-affirmed by the American people when they re-elected President Obama—are reprehensible and demand condemnation. Were there no side effects to shutting down the government, the actions of the House leadership could be dismissed as childish. But at a cost of millions of dollars daily, with hundreds of thousands of now-furloughed government workers, shutting down the government because you are mad that a law is going into effect is fiscally and morally irresponsible. As Republican Representative Devin Nunes recently put it, “It’s moronic to shut down the government over this.”
Obamacare, which gives millions more Americans access to health insurance, also is a Jewish issue. Many Jewish legal texts speak the necessity of the community providing access to health care for all. For example, the Talmud teaches that “a Torah scholar should not live in a community unless that community has available medical care.” (PT Kiddushin 4:12 [66b] and BT Sanhedrin 17b). Moreover, “doctors are required to reduce their fees for the poor. Where that is still not sufficient the community should subsidize the patient.” (Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh De’ah, 249).
I think it is time for the Jewish community—clergy and laity alike—to start agitating for common-sense political actions that are deeply steeped in our tradition and that should resonate morally for all of us. We—especially those of us who live in Republican districts—should demand that our representatives pass a simple budget without partisan gamesmanship so that the government reopens. We also should demand that the House pass the Senate’s immigration reform bill, another piece of legislation that is so central to the Jewish narrative of being strangers in foreign lands. And we should demand that Congress pass gun control legislation that imposes more stringent background checks and gun lock requirements.
There are many issues which we, as diverse individuals with diverse viewpoints, can and should disagree. On intervention in Syria, for example, I would strongly caution any Jewish leader from claiming a mantle of Jewish consensus. But where there are issues that are integral to our moral sensibilities—health care, immigration reform, and gun control among them—we should be bold advocates. We should amplify the chorus of the reasonable over the din of the extremists who seek to hold American politics hostage to their radical agendas. Let’s take those spiritual investments of the past few weeks, the existential grappling and the communal celebrating, and channel them into transforming the world in which we currently live into the kind of world we want it to be.