While on the surface, the last two posts on this blog from my colleagues, Laura Duhan Kaplan and Joshua Ratner, are about two very different things, they are, I believe, both reflections on the shifting culture in which our Jewish lives and worlds are embedded. Sometimes, in our analysis of our field of focus, we can lose sight of a broader set of dynamics that may have as much, if not more, to tell us about a situation we are examining than some of the specifics of the situation itself.
Let’s start with Joshua’s concern that, at a recent rally for the three kidnapped boys in Israel, there was a stark lack of young people present. Likewise, he notes, at communal Yom HaShoah and Yom Ha’atzmaut events, the presence of a younger generation is often lacking. Is it that they don’t care? Are we dealing with a more self-centered generation than in the past? These are some of Joshua’s questions.
While there may be some partial truths there, I think a step back to look at the worlds that many of our teens and young adults are living in may be more instructive. And not just our teens and young adults, but many other segments of our communities too. One of the things that I’ve observed is that often, regardless of the topic or the issue, any Jewish gathering that aims to or claims to bring all sections of the community together often reaches none, or very few. Perhaps only those who are comfortably self-identified as the Jewish establishment will appear (those are the 50+ folk that Joshua saw in his crowd). They know that we are addressing them. Others may not be so sure unless we break things down and are more explicit about who we mean.
This is why there are many independent communities and minyanim that have popped up in recent years. Not necessarily identified along established denominational lines, they are, in part, a result of young Jews who are less interested in simply “belonging” to an established Jewish entity because it is already there, and are more interested in creating something that fits who they are, where they can be with like-minded folk. It is why, within a more established kind of Jewish congregation—one like my own where we are the most significant gathering place for Jews who come to us from 20 different towns—our ability to engage and connect with our members requires us to correctly identify many of the different groups and interests within our larger membership and provide a range of doorways in for those specific needs (creating many small gatherings and opportunities within the large). Its why many congregations realized that when you simply advertise “adult education” you always seem to get the same group of, primarily, empty-nesters and retirees in attendance. Its not that others aren’t interested in learning; it’s just that its only when the kids have left home that you finally have some time to do study for its own sake. Or perhaps you now begin to seek new realms of meaning now that not so much of that meaning-making is invested in raising children. That doesn’t mean we can never get other groups to come and learn with us. It just means we have to be really smart about what it is they need at other junctures of their lives.
So I’ve found teens and young adults to be very engaged with Israel, and deeply able to connect with the impact of the Shoah on Jewish peoplehood, but in places where they come to be with each other. Joshua and I shared the same community for a while. The year that we brought our annual Yom HaShoah observance into our community High School Tuesday evening gathering, it was very powerful to see a couple of hundred teens watch Holocaust survivors light candles, and hear the testimony of one of them. Several teens every year did the “Adopt a Survivor” program and personally got to know one survivor and commit to tell their story. It was clear that they had a connection in our debrief the following week. But do they come on a Sunday afternoon for a “communal” event? Not so much.
Laura’s very honest reflections on how, at an event that was meant to bring community together, she felt somewhat uncomfortable and disconnected from narratives being offered by Jewish leadership from another denomination is, I believe, another dimension of some of the same cultural phenomenon. On almost no topic are we a “one community” mindset. It is almost impossible for anyone to speak anymore and be accepted as “the voice” of the people, or even of a particular moment. Perhaps there was a time, in a more modernist era, where we were willing to let voices of authority speak on behalf of all of us—a Chief Rabbi (in the UK, for example; something that was far more accepted a few decades ago than it is now), a communal leader at a rally, an Op-Ed in a newspaper. But today, some of the most successful Jewish communal events are ones that focus on and celebrate plurality and diversity of voice—take the enormous world-wide success of Limmud, for example. Even on something where you might have assumed that, at least publicly, we’d all stand with one voice, it is the right to have even the minority voice heard that overrides any sense that doing so might undermine a perceived communal unity. Take the position of Jewish Voice for Peace on BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions), for example, and their recent role in a Presbyterian Church vote to partially divest from three companies doing business in Israel. Some are outraged by their presence in the public square of debate on Israel. But, if we take a step back from the issue and better understand our cultural context, in which we have celebrated and empowered those who are drawn to define and act upon their own sense of justice in a plurality of ways, we shouldn’t be surprised by the result.
Just to be clear, I’m not mourning the lack of perceived unity and peoplehood. Neither am I celebrating it. I’m simply describing the cultural landscape that I believe we are living in the ways that I see it. Simply better understanding it can, I believe, help us do our work in connecting Jews together, engaging Jews in communities, activities and causes, with more successful outcomes. Trying to get everyone at the same event, on the same page, and caring in the same way is a fruitless exercise. We can, however, be successful in creating or supporting many gateways, many voices, and many opportunities to be and do Jewish with each other.
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A few days ago, I ran across an article asking a rabbi what a person could do instead of going to shul to say kaddish. The person in question wasn’t bed-bound—he just didn’t like going to shul.
It’s a difficult question for a rabbi to deal with—although the author of this article did pretty well- because it’s difficult to know what the real underlying question is: Why doesn’t this person like going to shul—is it because he doesn’t know the meaning of the words he is saying? Is it because he draws no comfort from attending a service with people he doesn’t know? Is it because he is unfamiliar with the service?
Similarly, there are many people who are beginning to ask themselves if a minyan could be made online? These don’t seem like related questions, but they are, in that they come from a place where we are unfamiliar with our communities—we no longer need to fear friendship with non-Jews, but in doing so, many of us have failed to develop relationships with our own family, our own tradition – and then, when we seek comfort from it, we find it alien.
I wonder what the boundaries are for our ability to Jewish when we are not face-to-face. Going to shul is such an important part of being in the Jewish community—even for those who don’t love prayer, or don’t understand it well. And what, also, do we say to the person who doesn’t like shul: of course we hope they’ll connect in other ways, but it seems wrong to simply let the person give up on one of the ways we have to directly connect with one another—people we may have nothing in common with, other than being there for each other at a difficult time. And what of the idea that perhaps it isn’t only about you—that it is for others—God, our people, the deceased—that we do these things?
The internet sometimes gets proposed as a solution to this (and related) problems. But even if we set aside the problem of using electronic networks on Shabbat and other restrictive days, how much benefit to us as individuals or as a people could there be in a connection which never demands anything of us (because, for example, how can you bring food to the mourning community member who lives more than a day’s drive away?), and what happens to the idea of a people, even?
And yet, I do think that there is something to be gained from an internet community. I do see how it has enabled me to reconnect with people far from me and stay connected to people I might not otherwise stay connected with, even if it is not the same as the relationships I have with the people who are right here, next door.
What do you think those limitations are? Can we build true Jewish communities online?
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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.
But why would they choose Judaism?
This is a question I hear often. In my work helping to celebrate the racial and ethnic diversity that is endemic to the Jewish community, I also have the privilege of connecting with many people who have chosen to become Jewish. In Jewish tradition, when someone becomes Jewish the community is meant to accept them as they are, not to dwell on their status as a convert. Yet often, converts are met with curiosity or worse, suspicion. From Jews by choice, I hear that this can often feel like personal rejection.
Whenever I am asked about why people choose Judaism, I recall late night dorm conversations I had as a college student. A good friend was studying to be a cantor. He had grown up in Europe, in a country without a strong Jewish past, in a family that had no Jewish past. A chance encounter with Jews on Purim pulled him into the Jewish orbit and eventually he made the choice to make Judaism his own. We spent many hours talking about Judaism, I did not for a minute doubt his commitment or his place in the Jewish people. Nonetheless, time and again, I repeatedly returned to ask him why he had chosen Judaism.
At the time, I was struggling. I had not chosen Judaism and it felt like a burden that I could not escape. While I went through the motions of observance and community, I was pained by so much in our tradition particularly as it related to women’s roles, hierarchy and power. Israel, which had once been the idealized center of my Jewish identity, had given way to the complex realities of adult understanding. My awareness of the legacy of anti-Semitism robbed me of the ability to imagine true security. Why, I wondered, would anyone choose the very thing that on some level I wished I could escape?
There is nothing more that I love about being a rabbi, than hearing those who choose Judaism explain their choice –which they do as part of the conversion process. Jews by choice come to Judaism without the baggage that Jews from birth carry. Time and again, I hear that the ambiguities of Judaism, the very thing that was so challenging for me as young woman, are among the things that newcomers value in Judaism. Just like Jews by birth, they struggle with difficult issues like women’s rights or the State of Israel, but they feel confident that whatever struggles they have fit into the flexible but enduring Jewish framework. Among Jews by birth, I often hear that learning Hebrew was the bane of Jewish childhood. And yet as the member of a conversion board, I’ve heard grown men wax eloquently about the power of learning an ancient language and unlocking timeless wisdom by studying it in the original. In Uganda, where Rabbi Gershom Sizomu has officiated at hundreds of conversions, it is the magic of Shabbat- which allows people to stop work, come together with other, focus on the finer things- which is the most powerful draw. Those choosing Judaism see joy and possibilities. They accept the complexities as part of the beauty of the system they are entering into. Judaism through their eyes never fails to inspire me.
I know that for some portion of the Jewish by birth population it is hard to accept that a person from Scandinavia, the mountains in Peru, or plains of Africa- who does not know about gefilte fish, did not have ancestors forced to leave a homeland, and knows not from Woody Allen- can or should be part of the Jewish people. And this is highly problematic. But often, I think that the questions to converts or to me, as a rabbi who often has the privilege of working with individual converts as well as communities of converts, speak to deep seated ambivalence and struggles, even shame about our own Jewishness. I did in the end emerge from my struggles and find my own answers, but not before I inflicted my own ambivalence and doubt on my friend. Our own challenges and doubts need to be addressed, but not at the cost of making newcomers feel unwelcome.
This summer I had a conversation with a group of sixth grade students at a Jewish school in Buenos Aires. Discussing diversity of Jews around the world, they fixed on the concept of conversion. They wanted to know what conversations rabbis have with a conversion student when they sit at the biet din, “court” for conversion.I explained that each conversation is unique but then turned the question back at them. Forced to consider what they might say, they came up with some pretty compelling answers: peoplehood, ritual, customs, Israel. But more important than the content was the realization that they had answers for themselves. Ultimately, no matter how inspiring, someone else’s answer about why they have chosen Judaism will never take the place of each Jew finding his or her own reasons to be Jewish.
What are yours?