Fun with Panels

Panels are where the business of the AJS conference happens. At worst, they’re dry presentations of old research. At best they’re engaging conversations about vital issues and ideas. Often, they’re just somewhere in the middle. Here are some highlights from yesterday and this morning’s panels – mostly quotations.

My panel (where I presented with Steven M. Cohen and Isa Aron about a project we’ve been working on about synagogue transformation) was a good combination of presentation and conversation. I mean, I speak to Isa and Steven all the time about our research and writing, and the conversation that followed was really productive – people asked good questions (“what’s wrong with congregations that are full of ‘dwellers’ as opposed to ‘seekers?’� or “Isn’t change generally more of a Reform thing than a Conservative thing?�).

As a presenter, it was actually really helpful, and helped Steven, Isa and me articulate ourselves better.

Later, I went to a panel about “Orthodoxy and the Internet.� Three papers – one about Orthodox women’s blogs (“domesticity and the home page: blogging and the blurring of public /private space for orthodox Jewish women�), another about the opposition to the internet among ultra orthodox communities, and a third paper about, and the ways in which spouse-seekers identify themselves.

The Frumster paper (given by Sarah Bunin Ben-Or) gave the third paper, and it was brilliant. Statistics, supplementary questions that Frumster might want to think about adding (“what do you want to name your children? How many children do you want to have? Do you watch Television?�) It was a beautiful analysis and a great powerpoint and it revealed the ways that a seemingly homogeneous population makes many fine-grained distinctions among themselves.

Later that day, was the postdenominational conversation. Here are some highlights:

Steven M Cohen: Reflecting on the sociology of American Jews, and the weakening of denominational affiliation:
1.“This could be bigger than the havurah movement, or bigger than Jewish feminism.�
2. “Orthodox Jewry is American Jewry’s China.� It’s big, it’s coming, and the remainder of the Jewish continent doesn’t know what to do with it.

Arnie Eisen gave a “schematic-theological sketch� of Conservative Judiasm in the 21st Century.
1. “You can’t imagine [Rabbi Joseph] Soleveitchic writing a book called ‘Folkways Man’ instead of ‘Halakhic Man.’� And it is precisely the Halakha that keeps Conservative Judaism vibrant and allows for the existential growth of Judiasm in modernity.

Riv-Ellen Prell:
“We need to ask: what are the intellectual stakes in this conversation.� For those who use this research to structure policy or direct change: we need to understand the relationships of people to their institutions better. “our greatest challenge is to understand what exactly we are studying.� Is post-denominationalism just the evolution of things already in motion, or is it something new?

This morning at the “Jewish Cultural Studies� panel, Barbara Kirschenblatt-Gimblett wanted to ask whether or not Jewish Cultural Studies needed to be, at all. She clearly doesn’t think so and said pointedly: “It seems like the train has left the station 15 years ago, and I don’t know where the train is or where it’s going.�

Stuff like that makes conferences like this great. I’m going to get lunch.

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