Tag Archives: pluralism

Opening Jewish Conversations, Opening Jewish Community

Flashback: a few weeks ago, on this very blog, a post about Jewish conferences is published… authored by yours truly (shameless, right?). The piece was about how valuable such gatherings are – so valuable that they should be placed above sleep on our collective priority list. Just weeks after writing that piece, I found myself in Cambridge, Massachusetts for… you guessed it: another Jewish conference.

Southern reunion at Boston airport! Lex, Rabbi Shulamit Thiede of Charlotte, NC, and Walid Musarsaa, a student at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC.

Southern reunion at Boston airport! Lex, Rabbi Shulamit Thiede of Charlotte, NC, and Walid Musarsaa, a student at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC.

I was at Harvard University for the weekend conference, along with a few hundred others from around the country – in fact, 8 states out of the 13-state ISJL region were represented there! We had all come together for the first-ever conference of Open Hillel.

Open Hillel is a campaign that seeks to broaden the parameters of permissible conversation about Israel and Palestine at Hillel chapters around the country. Those who attended this conference feel that the value of machloket l’shem shemayim, spirited debate for the sake of heaven, should manifest itself even on the question of Zionism; that especially on questions related to Israel and Palestine, which often touch us in the deepest corners of our neshamot (souls), we should be open to a vast array of differing perspectives. Open Hillel believes that all Jews – even those who aren’t Zionists – deserve to be heard and included in Jewish communal conversations.

I learned an unbelievable amount at this inspiring event, attending sessions about human rights, the bounds of the Jewish “Open Tent,” even exploring issues like intermarriage and gender identity. I met wonderful students, recent college graduates, and older community members who were united by their desire to lay it all on the table – to staunchly debate the topics about which we disagree and, as a result, to grow in our knowledge of the issues.

But I had a funny thought while at this conference. Does it relate to my work at the ISJL at all?

The ISJL serves a geographic region; my department, the education department, specifically serves religious schools. The premise of our work is that every Jewish child should have access to an excellent Jewish education. We serve communities with twenty-five students, or five students, or even one single student. They receive access to the same resources that a community with 300 students gets. Every community is welcomed, and none is valued more than any other.

Open Hillel does not serve a particular geographic region. It does, however, serve a Jewish constituency, including a group which, like smaller communities, is occasionally overlooked: those whose perspectives differ staunchly from many Jewish institutions’ stances on Israel and its policies. Open Hillel recognizes that, regardless of any individual’s political stances about Israel, our Jewish institutions must provide a space for all to engage equally; that every Jewish person should have access to an excellent Jewish community.

I believe our Jewish community can and must uphold the ideal of “Eilu v’eilu div’rei Elohim Chayim” – “These and these are the words of the Living God” (Talmud Eruvin 13b). In Talmud, in our synagogue board meetings, and even at our dinner tables, we engage in rigorous debate about issues we deem important. Valuing and participating in debate is not merely part of being Jewish – it is perhaps the basic premise from which the rest of our tradition follows.

Though the focus areas are different, Open Hillel addresses issues of inclusion and empowerment– as does the ISJL. The ISJL knows that the existence and experiences of our wonderful Southern Jewish communities might be totally unknown in other places. Through our work, we build awareness and ensure that Southern Jews are viewed as a vital piece in the beautiful puzzle that is American Jewish Life.

Open Hillel wants to do something similar by demonstrating that harsh critics of Israel – even Jews who are not Zionists – are a crucial part of our community’s make-up. That so many of these people, who some might believe are just apathetic about their Judaism or actively “self-hating,” are as deeply in love with their Jewish identities as those who think differently. The goal these organizations have in common is to foster a diverse Jewish community that will thrive for centuries.

That goal can and should be our Jewish communal Torah. The rest is commentary. Let’s go and do it.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on October 22, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Team Jewish

Jews get lumped together a lot. Polls refer to “the Jewish vote.” We hear about the “Jewish response.” Labels of Jewish are smacked across everything from “Jewish humor” to “Jewish tradition” with little acknowledgment that Sarah Silverman’s fans aren’t necessarily Mel Brooks enthusiasts, and the traditions found in one Jewish household may vary wildly from the traditions found in a household one state over… or just down the block.

When representing a “Southern Jewish” organization, I’ve been asked frequently what makes “Southern Jews” different from “Northern Jews.” My response keeps evolving, but I do think there’s a difference.

Or, y'know, Team Miriam...

Or, y’know, Team Miriam…

There’s a difference because we are all products of our environment. With the exception of communities that choose to be expressly insular, we are all shaped by multiple forces. The Southern Jewish experience, particularly the small-town Southern Jewish experience, is one shaped by having fewer massive Jewish organizational infrastructure, and more overtly Christian neighbors. It is shaped by the music and the culture of the place, as is any other ethnic or religious group living here. In many ways, Southern Jewry has its own flavor, metaphorically and literally. It is connected to the larger Jewish experience, while being unique.

The same is true of Argentinian Jewry. Or Japanese Jewry.

There’s a difference. But there’s also something more. There’s connection– and there’s conflict.

Ever since Jews started living in different places, we have always had things that have distinguished us. But now, more than ever, we seem to have an increasing number of things that not only distinguish us but also divide us. While the larger world might continue to lump us together, it is harder for many of us individual Jews to do so.

From egalitarianism to the equality movement, interfaith families to Israel, we are a polarized people. And in an era where we out our positions on Facebook, contend with new issues daily, our differences are surfaced quite quickly and clearly. When Jews are united on… well, probably nothing… how do we connect?

How do we remain “a people,” whatever that means?

I don’t know. But I do know this: somehow, we do. Somehow, there is still a Team Jewish affiliation that transcends Just-Southern-Jews or Just-Progressive-Jews or Just-Conservative-Jews. The team spirit doesn’t stop simply at our politics, be they progressive or conservative, or at our address, be it in the American South or South America.

It’s hard to define, this invisible thread. It’s a gut feeling. It’s our hearts twisting when the Holocaust is mentioned, and getting riled when it is invoked unjustly (even if our definitions of “unjust use” vary). It’s our ears perking up when there’s a mention of Something Jewish in the news. It’s feeling deep pride (maybe over different things) and feeling deep guilt (definitely over different things) and it’s wrestling, and wrestling, and wrestling.

Somehow, there still is a Team Jewish. But we sure are passing/throwing/swatting/dribbling/hitting a whole lot of different balls/pucks/shuttlecocks/you get the idea. Actually, when it comes to the sports metaphors, maybe Team Jewish is best characterized as a wrestling team? But I digress.

We feel it, but we don’t always show it. Or we show it in different ways. And we disagree, more and more heatedly. And there are seismic shifts and growing rifts in what that tricky “Jewish vote” looks like to the rest of the world, too.

What does that mean for the Jewish future?

Well. I don’t know that, either. But I’m pretty sure there will be a Jewish future. So that’s something.

At various times in my life, my own observance, stances, and struggles have varied. So too have the commitments and connections that kept me playing for Team Jewish. This has been one of those years where it’s challenging to define what exactly those “ties that bind” me might be, as the world continually unravels.

But I keep going to the mat.

Or the stadium. Or whatever.

What are your thoughts? From the cultural to the religious and the inane to the innate… what makes or breaks Jewish identity? How much is it shaped by where you live and what you experience?

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on August 21, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

“Chosen” Doesn’t Have to Mean “Apart”

moses-looking-promised-land

As Parashat Va’et’hanan opens, Moses is pleading for forgiveness, in order to be permitted to enter the promised land along with the rest of the Israelites. Moses’ request is unconditionally denied, but he is given a counter offer: he can look from a hilltop at the land he will never enter. Moses becomes a distant surveyor of the people’s relationship with God in the promised land, able to see but not experience their new reality.

At the end of the Torah portion, after God reminds Moses that he won’t get to enter into the promised land, and reminds Israelites of their promises to God, comes another reminder:

“For you are a people consecrated to the Lord your God: of all the peoples on Earth, the lord your God chose you to be his treasured people.”

In part, this is a beautiful sentiment; but as Mordecai Kaplan says, “chosenness always means the superiority of the chosen over the rejected, from the viewpoint of the chooser.” When taken into practice, it has the potential to elevate us above the rest, deems our religion and practices more meaningful. I worry that it creates this binary of chosen versus the rest; of “us” versus “them.” There is merit in being connected to a community, but also hazards in disconnecting from (and worse, looking down on) the larger world.

So how are we to accept that our texts, over and over again, assert this idea of chosenness, without falling into the trap of collective superiority?

Kaplan rejects this reading of chosenness. Instead, he argues that the Jewish path is one among many ways to reach the same humanistic values that lay at the core of many religions. We may have a unique bond with God, but that doesn’t mean we have the only bond.

I think Va’et’hanan gives us an instruction manual for how to act in relationships- how not to fall into the trap of creating separateness with chosenness. I like to think about the relationship between God and the Israelites as a sort of model for deep, committed relationships between human beings… not just those like us, but all humans.

“If you search for the Lord your God, you will find him, seek him with all your heart and all your soul.”

We will find God only when we are open to the process of learning about God, and only if we seek with all our heart and all our soul. The word used for seeking is tidreshnu, which shares a root with the word drash, the term used to describe searching for layers of meaning in the Torah. Our search in this relationship is not surface level. We must delve deeper. When entering a relationship, this teaches us not only to have empathy, but also to go deeper, seeing others as they see themselves. To search the many layers that contribute to a person’s being, to enter into relationships with an open heart.

Remember Moses at the beginning of this portion? Sitting upon the hill, looking down at the promised land? Moses becomes an observer. When we enter into relationships with minimal awareness or concern for one another, I worry we may become that man in the distance, trying to understand but not able to fully experience.

Being an outsider is better than not being a part of the situation at all. But when we become outsiders looking in, we only glimpse a surface level understanding. More ideal is to enter into relationships that challenge us, that push us to trust others unlike ourselves, to experience life at its fullest.  Only here can we experience all the diversity and wonders that the world has to offer. This informs my work here in the South, and my commitment to community engagement.

I want to close with a call to action of sorts- a poem that reminds me there is no better time to change the way we interact with people who are not like us than the present:

Before the gate has been closed,

before the last question is posed,

before I am transposed.

Before the weeds fill the gardens,

before there are no pardons,

before the concrete hardens.

Before all the flute-holes are covered,

before things are locked in the cupboard,

before the rules are discovered.

Before the conclusion is planned,

before God closes his hand,

before we have nowhere to stand.

-Yehuda Amichai

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on August 8, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

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