As you may have heard by now, the Union for Reform Judaism has chosen Rabbi Richard (Rick) Jacobs of Westchester, New York, as its next president, to succeed Rabbi Eric Yoffie, who is retiring after 16 years. Here at Jewschool, we wish Rabbi Jacobs the best in his leadership of the Reform movement, but we are left with one burning question: We are wondering whether he is related to Gregory E. Jacobs, aka Shock G, the former member of Digital Underground best known for his alternate persona Edward Ellington Humphrey III, aka Humpty Hump.
They share more than a last name: As a number of news reports have noted, Rabbi Jacobs is doing a Ph.D. in ritual dance, and Mr. Jacobs has “even got [his] own dance“. Rabbi Jacobs leads one of the largest Jewish congregations in America; both how Mr. Jacobs is living and his nose are large.
Whether or not they are related, we hope Rabbi Jacobs’s tenure at the URJ will be committed to the Reform Jewish values of informed autonomy (“No two people will do it the same”), inclusivity (“Anyone can play this game”), intellectual honesty (“Oh yes ladies, I’m really being sincere”), and social justice (“Peace and humptiness forever”).
I don’t really feel like writing this post. Instead of taking the bait and responding to Margot Lurie’s latest hit piece on independent minyanim, my time would be better spent on actually organizing an independent minyan. If you’re in the DC area this weekend, you’re all invited to Segulah on Shabbat morning. We’ll be meeting in the Tifereth Israel building, 7701 16th St NW (entrance on Juniper St), Washington DC, starting at 9:30 am. (Yes, we rent space from a synagogue, and no, that’s not a secret.)
But I’m taking the bait anyway, because I guess someone has to.
But before I do that, a number of people have asked me if I was going to respond to Noam Neusner’s oped in the Forward. (It seems to be Crap-On-Independent-Minyanim Month in the Jewish press.) The answer is that I already responded 4 years ago. And that’s all I have to say about that. (I would think that Neusner, as a former Bush speechwriter, would understand that independent minyanim aren’t taking away synagogues’ share of the pie, but are making the pie higher.)
Back to the story. Margot Lurie wrote a fanciful review of Empowered Judaism by Elie Kaunfer, in the Jewish Review of Books. I took it apart last fortnight right here on this blog. The review also got attention in other parts of the world, including from Shmuel Rosner on the Jerusalem Post website. Rosner then ran a letter from Kaunfer, correcting Lurie’s fabrication about “organized community money”. Then this week, Rosner did an interview with Lurie, asking some followup questions. (I don’t know whether either Rosner or Lurie has read my original fisk; neither of them reference it directly, though they both refer in general to criticism.)
In this interview, Lurie once again conjures up straw men, and then defeats them. She criticizes independent minyanim for failing to live up to goals that they never claimed to have in the first place.
The 21st-century independent minyan phenomenon has inspired many newspaper articles. However, the published “serious” writing (with the appropriate academic or intellectual credentials) on this topic is still far more limited, leading to founder effects, with a few mutations being propagated over and over. For example, Riv-Ellen Prell’s article in Zeek, comparing two generations of independent Jewish communities, is often cited as an authority. While Prell literally wrote the book on an older generation of havurot with an ethnographic study, there is no evidence that she did any primary research on the newer minyanim, or has even been to one; her main source of information on these communities seems to be the roundtable of minyan leaders that appeared in the same issue of Zeek. Yet that article is what there is. In the quantitative realm, the 2007 National Spiritual Communities Study gathered lots of valuable data on independent minyanim, but the report (and/or initial media stories about it) also originated some misleading conclusions that won’t go away. Rabbi Elie Kaunfer’s book Empowered Judaism isn’t the entire story, but there is absolutely no question that Kaunfer knows his subject, and it’s now out there as a real live book.
Margot Lurie’s recent review of Empowered Judaism contains many of the lazy smears about independent minyanim that we’ve been hearing for years (citing such sources as “one parent of a minyan-goer” and “a friend of mine”). Under other conditions, the best thing to do might be to ignore it. But this review is published in the Jewish Review of Books, which gives it the intellectual cachet to place it into the small pond of “serious” writing on this subject. So this review needs to be fisked in the bud before it becomes the next authoritative voice on independent minyanim.
For those of you in the DC area: The community is joining together on Tuesday, January 18, 2011, at 7 pm, at the Religious Action Center, 2027 Massachusetts Avenue NW, Washington DC, to sing the songs of Debbie Friedman z”l and remember her far-reaching legacy. Please spread the word to your friends and communities. You can RSVP at the Facebook event page.
For those of you who aren’t in the DC area: What’s been going on in your area?
Debbie Friedman‘s memory is a blessing. Beyond the hundreds of songs she composed, she was a pioneer of an entire genre of Jewish religious music (sometimes known as “American nusach”) that has revolutionized American Jewish prayer. My memories of Debbie are too numerous to put in a comment, so I’m putting some of them in a new post.
Everything I know about songleading I learned from Debbie Friedman. She could lead a group in song (whether she was performing a concert or leading a service) with her little finger. I had the opportunity to study songleading with her at Hava Nashira for four years. At my first Hava Nashira in 1997, in Debbie’s songleading workshop, it was my turn to get up and teach a song to the group, and then be critiqued by the group. After I finished, the first thing Debbie said was “You need to take off your clothes. Get naked.” After I got over the shock, it became clear that she was speaking figuratively; she meant that when we lead a group in song or prayer, we need to shed our inhibitions. And she was right; I have taken her advice to heart ever since then (as well as laughed many times about the time Debbie Friedman told me to take off my clothes).
In some ways she was a larger-than-life figure. She composed hundreds of songs without knowing how to read music; if you asked her for the chords to a song, she would say that she didn’t know the names of the chords, but she would play it so you could watch and write them down (“…and then it’s this one with the two fingers over here…”). There was the time at NFTY Convention 1997 when she broke a string during “Miriam’s Song”, and the backup musicians kept on going while she removed the broken string, put on a new one, wound it, tuned it, and came back in for a triumphant final chorus. And then there was the time at Hava Nashira when the power was out on Shabbat morning. Before services began, Debbie taught her new melody for Yotzeir Or (“creator of light”). When we got to that point in the service, we sang Debbie’s Yotzeir Or… and all the lights went back on!
Yet despite her larger-than-life celebrity, Debbie Friedman never sought out the spotlight. Her goal was always (as she wrote in the liner notes to Sing Unto God back in 1972) “the importance of community involvement in worship”. Debbie was at Limmud NY in 2006, where I was leading the Shabbat team. We had asked Debbie to lead havdalah for the conference. Then, on Shabbat afternoon, she told me that she was having second thoughts, and didn’t think it would be appropriate for her to do it. She felt that she was already famous, and that Limmud should be an opportunity for a new generation to take the reins, and that it would be a step backwards for her to lead it. My thought as a program organizer was that this would have been a good conversation to have several weeks before, but now that it was a few hours before havdalah, it was too late to rethink the plan for an 800-person program. But Debbie persisted, and tried to encourage me, of all people, to do it. To be clear, she was Debbie Friedman, and I was (and still am) a nobody, but I was one of her students and she was encouraging me to take off my clothes. In the end, Debbie led havdalah after all, and it was amazing of course, but what made it amazing was the way she brought the whole room together in song.
Here at Jewschool, we’ve been talkingsmack about the “Anti”-Defamation League, and justifiably so. So it’s only fair that we also give them credit when they come out on the good side.
Today, the ADL filed an amicus brief in Perry v. Schwarzenegger, the case in which California’s Proposition 8 (prohibiting same-sex marriage) was ruled unconstitutional in federal district court, which has been appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and will be argued on December 6. The ADL’s brief is in support of upholding the lower court’s decision. It focuses on a specific argument that I hadn’t heard before (and I’ve been following the case fairly closely): California currently has marriage exclusively for opposite-sex couples and domestic partnership exclusively for same-sex couples. California citizens in domestic partnerships have to indicate “domestic partner” as their marital status when filling out forms (and can’t mark “married” or “single”), and are therefore required to disclose their sexual orientation in all sorts of irrelevant circumstances, violating their right to privacy. Furthermore, “the segregated system required by Proposition 8 and the disclosure of sexual orientation that results from that system are particularly damaging because gays and lesbians are subject to invidious discrimination and violence based on their homosexuality.”
Kudos to the ADL for standing up against defamation!
Back in February, we blogged about how Segulah‘s and other Mid-Atlantic Jewish communities’ Shabbat plans were affected by what some called “Snowmageddon”. It turns out that that snowy Shabbat has had more profound impacts on one family. Go and read Washington lawyer Viva Hammer’s inspiring story about it, published in the Jerusalem Post.
Two lessons of this story (beyond the explicitly stated ones) include:
1) When we build communities, they can have powerful effects on individuals beyond what anyone expects.
2) It’s always a good idea not to be intimidated by the snow, and to let life (and Shabbat) go on.
The National Havurah Committee is now accepting course proposals for the 2011 NHC Summer Institute! The Institute will be August 1-7, 2011, at Franklin Pierce University in Rindge, New Hampshire. It is a week of Jewish learning and living in a pluralistic and multigenerational community comprised of people from grassroots Jewish communities across the continent.
We’re looking for proposals for four-session courses, whether connected to this year’s Institute theme “Y’hi shalom b’cheileich – May there be peace within your walls”, or on any other topic of interest. Teachers whose courses are accepted receive free registration, room, and board for the week, and get to participate fully in the Institute when they’re not teaching.
At the Institute, every teacher is a student and every student is a teacher. As someone who is a teacher in real life and has taught Institute courses, I have found teaching at Institute to be one of my most rewarding teaching experiences, thanks to the productive contributions of everyone in the class. Teachers at Institute include people who work professionally in the field they’re teaching about, as well as people pursuing an “extracurricular” interest who are excited to study something in depth and share it with others.
A wise person I know says “Whenever I read articles where I know something about the content, I always find mistakes or misunderstandings, which makes me wonder how many mistakes there are in articles where I’m not familiar with the topic.” We get to see this principle in action as the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz tackles American independent minyanim.
Over the last 10 years, the massive surge in independent minyanim has attracted media attention from both the American Jewish press and the American secular press. (After a while, this has converged so that they seem to write the same article over and over.) But this Ha’aretz piece might be the first time this phenomenon has reached the Israeli media.
The author of the piece, a self-identified secular Israeli, visited DC Minyan, and apparently did little or no research or fact-checking beyond what she saw and heard there. Thus she arrived at the unsupported conclusion that all or most independent minyanim (which in reality display a great deal of diversity) are similar to DC Minyan.
(However, on the plus side, this may be the first news article on 21st-century independent minyanim that doesn’t include a quote from Jonathan Sarna!)
To set the record straight, I’ll give the article a mild fisking: More »
The holiday season is now over. And something about it may have felt a bit out of the ordinary, unusual, abnormal. And based on recent experience, that feeling is accurate. But in the 2010s, abnormal is becoming the new normal.
In the last decade, as often as not, the Jewish calendar has followed the pattern in which all the fall holidays (except Yom Kippur) fall on weekends. This pattern is both loved and hated. People who work for Jewish organizations and observe 2 days of yom tov (so that the holidays are on Saturday and Sunday) dread this pattern because (unlike in other years, when the Jewish holidays are days off) they go from workweek to holiday to workweek to holiday, without a break to do laundry. People who work and go to school outside the Jewish world, whether they do 1 or 2 days, find this pattern easier, since it doesn’t require taking any days off of work/school, except for Yom Kippur (but that’s the one that your boss has heard of, and is much easier to explain than Shemini Atzeret).
Love it or hate it, we won’t see this pattern again until 2020. This Mah Rabu post from a couple of years ago covers all the details.
In its place, we see a new popular pattern emerging. This year, Yom Kippur was on Shabbat, but all the other holidays were on Thursdays (continuing into Friday for the 2-day people). This means that the 2-day people got a string of what are colloquially known as “3-day yom tovs”: when a 2-day yom tov falls immediately before or after Shabbat, resulting in 72 straight hours away from whatever one doesn’t do on Shabbat or yom tov. People working in the Jewish world appreciate all the 4-day weekends. Other people have to miss a lot of work or school: 3 or 4 days for 1-day-yom-tov people (depending on their stance on Rosh Hashanah), and 6 days for 2-day-yom-tov people, and that’s not including travel days.
Love it or hate it, this pattern is here to stay. We’ll do it all over next year, and then again in 2013, 2014, and 2017: half of the years in the 2010s.
The other half of the decade will see a different pattern that we haven’t seen in quite a while: Rosh Hashanah on Monday, with all the fall holidays falling on weekdays. This pattern also includes Shavuot starting on Saturday night, leading to another “3-day yom tov” for the 2-day crowd.
All told, the half-decade from 5771 to 5775 will include a total of 14 “3-day yom tovs”, and the decade from 5771 to 5780 will include 21. (But don’t worry, there’s only 18 more to go!)
This leads to my prediction (awaited since the title of the post): This decade, and especially this half-decade, will see lots of 2-day-yom tov people switching over to 1 day.
In a few years, we can come back and check this prediction and see whether the 1-day majority has gotten any larger. In the meantime, back to work.
It’s (almost) another year on the Hebrew calendar, and that means it’s time for another cohort of DC Jeremiah Fellows. This fantastic program is run by Jews United For Justice, DC’s local Jewish social justice organization. If you live in DC and are in the right demographic, consider applying this year; otherwise, tell other people who might be interested. Shanah tovah!
Access a dynamic network of activists, organizers, scholars, and religious leaders.
Develop new skills in community organizing, advocacy, and leadership.
Explore DC through the lens of social justice and Jewish texts, traditions, values, and history.
Build a lasting community of friends, colleagues, and mentors.
Jews United for Justice is thrilled to announce that applications are now online for the 2010-2011 Jeremiah Fellowship! Brought to you by a partnership between JUFJ and California’s Progressive Jewish Alliance, the Jeremiah Fellowship is an innovative program to train a select group of young adults (approximately ages 25-35) to become the next generation of Jewish social justice changemakers. More »
Mazal tov to Prof. Elon Lindenstrauss of Hebrew University and Princeton University, who just became the first Israeli to win the Fields Medal! The Fields Medal, awarded this week in India at the International Congress of Mathematicians, is often called the Nobel Prize of mathematics (there is no Nobel in math), but unlike the Nobel Prizes, it is only awarded every 4 years, and only to people age 40 and under.
Lindenstrauss won the prize “for his results on measure rigidity in ergodic theory, and their applications to number theory”. “Er-WHAT-ic theory?”, you may ask. The official release explains:
Everyone agrees that there was a wave of independent Jewish prayer communities founded in the 1970s, and another wave founded after 2000, with some but not nearly as many founded in between. And manyattemptshave been made to draw distinctions between these two waves, but they all fail in one way or another to capture the entire data set, whether it’s the use of the word “minyan” vs. “havurah”, liturgical choices, the way the chairs are set up, or membership vs. no membership.
But I think I’ve come up with a distinction between the two principal waves of independent Jewish communities that is 100% airtight so far (though maybe you know of an exception). There are a number of minyanim, old and new, that are called “[name of city/neighborhood] Minyan”. The test for whether such a minyan is part of the older or the newer generation is whether people use a definite article when using the name of the minyan in sentence.
[UPDATE: To clarify, this hypothesis is intended to apply only to minyanim whose names fit the pattern “[name of city/neighborhood] Minyan”, not to other minyanim.]
“I’m going to the Highland Park Minyan this Shabbat.”
“I’m going to DC Minyan this Shabbat.”
Founded in the 1970s: the Highland Park Minyan, the West Side Minyan, the Newton Centre Minyan
Founded after 2000: DC Minyan, Cambridge Minyan, Mission Minyan
(Do you know of further examples that either support or disprove this hypothesis?)
Note that even for the minyanim that usually get a definite article, “the” isn’t part of the name. It’s not an integral article as in “I’m going to a The Newton Centre Minyan event * “. This is just a question of how the name of the minyan (which does not itself contain an article) is treated grammatically, like “Ukraine” vs. “the Ukraine”.
My sources in Highland Park, New Jersey, report that a new independent minyan is in formation there. So I suggested that, in keeping with contemporary trends, they call it “Highland Park Minyan”, to avoid confusion with the Highland Park Minyan.
As we collectively get ready to receive Torah, it seems an appropriate time to put up some thoughts on Jewish education. I don’t have children yet (and if my parents are reading this, no, I don’t have any immediate plans to), but I’ve been thinking about the Jewish education I would want to provide my hypothetical future children, and which elements of this would need to be provided in an organized setting outside the home. (From what I hear, once I do have children, I won’t have the time to think and blog about these things, so I’m doing it now.) Specifically, I’m interested in exploring models of organized Jewish education that are alternatives to Jewish day schools and conventional Hebrew schools.
If the existing day school or Hebrew school models work(ed) for you or your children, that’s just fine; I’m not trying to take that away from you (and I couldn’t even if I tried). I’m not suggesting that the models discussed in this post are right for everyone. In particular, I’m assuming that my children will be growing up in an actively Jewish home and an active Jewish community. I know this assumption doesn’t hold for all (or most) Jewish children, but maybe (or maybe not) it holds for your (current or future) children too. If you have thoughts on how to implement and/or refine these models, or you’re aware of existing programs already operating along similar lines, or you’re interested in participating in these sorts of things, please post in the comments. If you want to argue that day schools are the only conceivable option for serious Jewish education (not only in practice, but in theory), or that conventional Hebrew schools are just fine the way they are (or would be just fine after incremental inside-the-box improvements), please save your breath. More »
Mazal tov to Jewschool’s own ZT, on the occasion of his marriage today to BR! ZT has blogged extensively about the elements that make Jewish wedding celebrations so joyous, from sheva berachot to shtick, based on experiences with many different semachot, and so we wish BR and ZT the joy of all those celebrations combined.
First of all, if Cross-Currents is reporting his statement accurately, Schachter is wrong on the facts, and giving the Conservative movement much more credit than it deserves. The Conservative movement has always been timid about egalitarianism, treating it as a leniency rather than as a principle, and certainly not as “a key plank in its platform”. There are still a number of non-egalitarian Conservative congregations, and the movement doesn’t seem to have a problem with this.
But let’s look at the general principle that Schachter propounds, that any key plank of the Conservative movement’s platform becomes a yeihareig ve’al ya’avor for Torah Jews. One of the things that Emet Ve’Emunah, the Conservative movement’s “Statement of Principles”, actually does say is “Conservative Judaism affirms the critical importance of belief in God”. Therefore, anyone following Schachter’s opinion must conclude that it is strictly forbidden to believe in God, and that this prohibition is so serious that it is better to die than to violate it. Yes, some (presumably left-wing fringe) Orthodox Jews and congregations still believe in God, but we can assume that they will fall into line soon.
I can see the scene now: Schachter and his students giving up their lives al kiddush [REDACTED], having their skin flayed with iron combs as they say with their last breaths, “Hear O Israel: There is no God!”
I got back today from Mechon Hadar’s Third Independent Minyan Conference in New York, where I was representing Segulah. The conference included leaders of independent minyanim around the world (including several Jewschoolers), and there’s a lot more to say about it, but for the moment, I’ll just blog on a tangential matter:
Yesterday afternoon, the conference events took place in Kehilat Hadar‘s usual space at the Second Presbyterian Church. During mincha yesterday, we started hearing the church organ from upstairs. At first it was just background noise, but then I listened more carefully and thought “Wait a minute, I’ve heard that before.”
They were playing a Christian hymn called “The God of Abraham Praise”, whose story I had learned about in a class at the 2008 NHC Summer Institute. The melody was written around 1770 for the Hebrew poem “Yigdal” by Myer Lyon (Leoni), hazzan at the Great Synagogue in London. The Methodist preacher Thomas Olivers was inspired by this melody and wrote very different words to it, and centuries later, they’re still playing it in New York. This Yigdal melody continues to be well-known in the Jewish world. (Until I learned its story, I had no idea that it went back so far; I figured it was just one of those shul tunes from the early- to mid-20th century.) Except that Jews tend to sing it much much faster.
Listen below and then imagine it 3 or 4 times faster, and see if you recognize it!
I’ve had the opportunity to lead rocking musical services in a number of great communities (such as Kol Zimrah, NHC, Limmud NY), and have been asked “Can you come to my community and lead a service like that?”. And the answer, of course, is no, I can’t. What made that service awesome wasn’t anything that I did; it was the participation of the whole community, which isn’t something that one individual can just parachute into an existing community and create. Then there are other people who get that one person can’t do it alone, and instead suggest “If a bunch of you come to my community and sing loud, then maybe services will be better.” Sometimes this works to one degree or another, but sometimes this, too, fails miserably, because even bringing in a group of enthusiastic people to an existing structure can’t always overcome other entrenched factors.
Both in the specific case of prayer and in the more general case of building meaningful Jewish community, it’s not enough to have a leader, and not enough to have a group of committed participants. The answer is both more difficult (since it’s not as simple as hiring a new rabbi or “bringing in more young people” or whoever the target group is) and more accessible (since it’s about what the community does, not about who does it, so it’s available to any community that is truly committed to it). If a Jewish community is interested in beginning the process of self-examination and transformation to become fully empowered (both in prayer and in other aspects of Jewish life), I recommend starting by reading Rabbi Elie Kaunfer’s new book, Empowered Judaism: What Independent Minyanim Can Teach Us about Building Vibrant Jewish Communities (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2010).
Empowered Judaism is a book about the newest wave of independent minyanim, as well as about a larger vision for Judaism and Jewish community. It offers something to many different constituencies: independent minyan organizers seeking to read about best practices from other minyanim, people in other Jewish communities who want to learn what these minyanim are all about and how to incorporate successful elements into their own communities, and future historians of this period in American Jewish history who want something more in-depth about the early 21st-century independent minyan phenomenon than the many superficial articles that have appeared in the press. More »