A Few Thoughts on the Roots of the Identity Discourse

The Roots and Structure of the Identity Discourse in Contemporary Jewish Life

by Rokhl Kafrissen, a journalist, attorney, and Jewish world gadfly in New York City.  This article was given as a paper at last weekend’s Rethinking Jewish Identity and Jewish Education conference at Brandeis and is cross-posted at Rokhl’s blog, Rootless Cosmopolitan: Dynamic Yiddishkayt for the New Millennium

The question of identity has both personal and intellectual interest to me. Unpacking the identity discourse is part of my larger personal project of situating my experience as a born again Yiddishist within the larger context of American Jewish history. Why do I need Yiddish? and why didn’t I have Yiddish?– those have been two of my guiding questions. It’s impossible to answer these without stumbling over the related question of identity.As I’ve written elsewhere, studying Yiddish brought me to a deeper understanding of my own family and the Jewishness transmitted within my home. Similarly, the study of American Jewish sociology has helped me understand the larger Jewish American milieu in which I grew up, and how I ended up with my middle class, suburban, Conservative Hebrew school, shma and hatikvah, bacon is ok but ham isn’t, 1980s Long Island Jewish identity. You only have to look at the Pew study to see that for the majority of American Jews, that kind of minimal observance, minimal education, maximal pride, is very much the de facto American Jewish identity today. More »

Rabbinical Girl

The following post is contributed by guest poster Miriam Liebman. A native Detroiter, Miriam Liebman is currently a second-year rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Miriam is also an alum of AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps.

On a Shabbat afternoon last summer, sitting with two colleagues, one turned to the other and said, “Daniel, is this your tallis?” “No,” I said, “It’s mine.” Nothing specifically identifies my tallis as feminine. To the contrary, it is nondescript; white with blue stripes, the tallis my brother received for his Bar Mitzvah. The bag, too, is blue velvet with a gold embroidered star. I would have made the same mistake. The only thing that identifies my tallis as belonging to a woman are the lipstick stains.

I wear make-up and high heals, I like manicures and nice clothes; I am a girly girl. But when it comes to my prayer garb, I feel I will be taken more seriously in something considered un-gendered, neutral. But the more time I spend in traditional Jewish spaces, the more I have come realize that when we claim that a tallis is not gendered what we really mean is that it is male. And when we claim that we are creating egalitarian spaces what we really mean is that women are allowed to enter and participate in traditionally men’s spaces. Are we really only asking for women to find a role in a man’s world or are we asking to ungender the entire space?

Still from "Sermonizer" video

Judaism was a system created by men for men. To the rabbis of the Talmud, “all Jews” meant “all free men.” Today, I am in my second year of rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary. I spend my days immersed in texts that tell the lives, stories, and laws of those rabbis. As their words come to life for me, I feel more and more embedded in a vision of Judaism that will both allow me to honor my inheritance and bring my voice to bear on what future generations will inherit. My love of Jewish texts and tradition is not void of an understanding that my voice and the voices of many others are missing. If we are to exist in community where “all Jews” really means “all Jews,” we must live that out without exceptions, without caveats, and without apologies. We must hold ourselves to standards, not because we are expecting perfection, but because being in community means holding each other accountable.

This past fall, a group of seminary women at Duke University put out a parody of Britney Spears’ Womanizer. Taking the music of Britney Spears, they sang and danced on library tables about their own experiences as Lady Preachers in a music video they called Sermonizer. In reflecting on the video, one of the women, Christina, wrote,

I am a lady preacher because some of the best preachers I know are women. Because they stood behind pulpits and talked about periods and infertility, about rape, about divorce. Because they stood behind pulpits and said words that you don’t say in church. Because they helped me learn to say them, too.
I too stand behind a long line of women and their male allies who helped create a place where I can struggle openly and honestly with the inheritance handed to me.

And so, inspired by the Lady Preachers, a group of women at the Jewish Theological Seminary decided to make our own video for the JTS Purim Spiel: Rabbinical Girl, to the music of Madonna’s Material Girl. We did this because we are both proud of and proud to be at JTS. We make jokes about the absence of women’s restrooms on the fifth floor and the pressure often felt at JTS to be partnered, especially as women. Like the Lady Preachers, we were being silly. We were creating and sharing what we knew to be the best Purim Torah we could think of. And like so much of the best comedy that exists, there was no doubt truth in what we said.

There was a moment during editing of the video where I wondered out loud if some of what we were saying was too offensive. I immediately retracted my statement understanding that if we are not willing to publicly say what we believe at our core, we don’t stand for anything. And though we joke about being invisible to those in the non-egalitarian minyan at JTS, and pride ourselves on having worn tefillin since the 80s, the sentiments behind our jokes hold true. Because until we begin to redefine what a person who wears a tallis looks like, lipstick stains or not, and incorporate the experiences of non-masculine bodies and voices into our perceptions of what we mean today when we say “all Jews,” we are continuing to do nothing more than allow women to participate.

When we start from the premise that women and other minority members of our community must be affirmed, we are maintaining a system of patriarchy. Let’s start from the fundamental assumption that all members of our community are equal. I am not under any allusion that habits change over night. But the way we perceive gender roles can only change if we begin to shift the conversation to one that assumes that all roles are open to all people. Affirmation and allowance are not enough. Acknowledging that we are already on a path to full equality, this necessary phase of acceptance must move beyond a woman’s ability to enter into and participate in traditionally held men’s spaces and into one where roles and obligations are no longer questioned on the basis of gender.

It’s time we stop viewing particular women as honorary men. It’s time we stop giving women permission to take on certain roles. It’s time we raise a generation who no longer assumes the rabbi is a man. It’s time we embrace tradition not because it belongs to the binaries we’ve created of men and women but because it belongs to us.

Where is Yiddish? Depends on Your Perspective

by Rokhl, at the Rootless Cosmopolitan blog, where you can find it cross-posted, along with much more stimulating writing about Yiddish, American Judaism and its discontents, and other Dynamic Yiddishkayt for the New Millennium. –aryehbernstein

The Washington Post brings us an interesting chart from the Pew Research Center. The chart tracks language presence in the United States from 1980 to today. Because Yiddish had the most stark decline between then and now (from #11 in 1980 to dead last today) the Pew chart is labeled The decline of Yiddish, the rise of Tagalog. Which, ok, is pretty accurate.  The Washington Post’s headline, however, is How We Stopped Speaking Yiddish. Which isn’t just bizarrely non-descriptive of this charticle (the ‘How’ never comes up), it also speaks to the media’s love of a good ‘Yiddish in decline’ narrative.

For comparison, Greek was at  #8 in 1980 with 401,000 speakers. Today it’s at #14 with 307,000 speakers. In 1980 Yiddish had 315,000 speakers and today around155,000. (By the way, I’m pretty sure this is an underestimate given the population explosion in the Hasidic world and how that explosion does not show up in official records.) Between 1980 and today both Greek and Yiddish dropped six positions.

So, why no tears for the dramatic decline of Greek? Italian? Polish?

While the Washington Post leads with the disappearance of Yiddish, Salon reprints Ross Perlin’s Jewish Currents piece on Yiddish on the Internet. Perlin, a Yiddishist living in New York,  finds a thriving Yiddish world on line.

The Washington Post may have stopped speaking Yiddish, but there’s a whole lot of folks typing, texting and publishing in it online. But you have to be interested in finding them.

In Pursuit of Intellectual Generosity: A Rejoinder to R. Aryeh Klapper on Gender, Tefillin, and Normativity

by Shira H. Fischer

Shira H. Fischer, MD, PhD, is a clinical informatics researcher at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, in Boston. She was a Dorot Fellow in Israel and an AJWS D’var Tzedek Fellow and has taught for the Melton Adult Mini-School and for Limmud. –aryehbernstein

Since the news broke about the girls wearing tefillin in an Orthodox day school, I have been following with interest the discussion about the role of women and laying tefillin – not as a scholar or as someone who has previously thought about the issue very much, but simply as a committed, egalitarian woman who feels very tied to tradition and who has never put on tefillin (and never much considered that fact). Ethan Tucker’s fascinating and thoughtful piece led me to think more about the issue than I had ever before. Rabbi Tucker’s comments about his daughter were particularly relevant as I have two young daughters and my reflections on women and Judaism and education and egalitarianism now have new motivations and new emotions.

I also followed with interest Aryeh Klapper and Raphael Magarik’s conversation on Jewschool, and I appreciated Rabbi Klapper’s responses. (I don’t think anyone who knows him could suggest he thinks the role of man is domination or that woman is man’s servant). My beef with Rabbi Klapper’s article was not about gender but rather about denomination and who determines authenticity.

After criticizing Rabbi Tucker for allegedly seeming “oddly dismissive of the lived experience of the halakhic community” by degendering tefillin, Rabbi Klapper adds a footnote explaining the term “halakhic community” that is as troubling as it is telling. He first very carefully says that he has, in this article, “tried to avoid the trap” of defining a community’s halakhic bona fides and then judging an argument from that community’s practice on the basis of its bona fides or lack thereof. He then proceeds to do exactly that, defining davening with a mechitza as the sine qua non of halakhic norms, thereby deeming legally irrelevant and dismiss-able the practices of communities that do not do so, and undercutting the “standing of scholars”, such as Rabbi Tucker, who who stand behind them. Here is his note in full: More »

Summer Literary Seminar in Lithuania

By Zachary Solomon
Zachary Solomon is a freelance writer in Brooklyn. (David Levy)
The relationship between Jews and literature is as indelible as the very concept of narrative. For thousands of years, Jews have sought to explain their heritage through story-telling, to reconcile their victories and tragedies by making sense of the world through the written word.

A self-contained supplement to Summer Literary Seminars’ Lithuania program, and set in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, Jewish Lithuania seeks the same. Designed for anyone with a keen interest in Jewish life, personal and historical narrative, and Litvak culture, SLS-Jewish Lithuania aims to become absorbed in the past, present, and future of what was once the cultural, philosophical, spiritual, and intellectual center of pre-Shoah Jewish life in Europe. Through deep relationships with Vilna’s Jewish community, richly consisting of Jewish and Holocaust museums, historians, and lecturers, our Jewish Lithuania program probes at the heart of the city, still beating resolutely throughout the same streets that once comprised the Vilna Ghetto. Beyond Vilnius, Jewish Lithuania explores many other nearby sites of great significance to Jewish history, such as the cities of Žagarė, Kaunas, and Ponary, the site of the Ponary massacre.

Featuring a robust faculty consisting of, among others, talented writers whose work engages with Jewish identity, politics, and life, Jewish Lithuania understands the meaningful, paramount importance of story. Some of those writers that we have brought to Lithuania include Ed Hirsch, Phillip Lopate, Steve Stern, Lynn Tillman, Ariana Reines, Robin Hemley, Peter Cole, Adina Hoffman, Linor Goralik, Vitaly Komar, and Sergei Gandlevsky, among others.

The program runs from July 13 – July 26, 2014. For a chance to win a full-ride to the program, please be sure to enter our 2014 SLS Literary Contest (deadline: February 28, 2014), featuring fiction, poetry and non-fiction categories, and judged by world-renowned writers. The deadline to apply for SLS-Jewish Lithuania is June 15, 2014.

Please be sure to forward this to any interested parties. And, of course, if you have any questions, please contact Zachary Solomon at zachary@sumlitsem.org.

See you in Vilnius!

Torah of the Body — The Prayer of Dance

by Ruben Rais

Ruben is an experiential Jewish educator living and creating in Brooklyn. He likes to dance. For more on this theme, see Jay Michaelson’s book, God in Your Body. (aryehbernstein)

Jewish tradition distinguishes between the written Torah and the oral Torah, but is their room to talk about Torah of the body as well? Specifically, does Judaism have something to teach us about dance and movement?

I began to seriously think about this question last fall, when taking a course on dance education at NYU. The class focused primarily on tribal dances from Uganda. It was fascinating to learn that most of these tribes have no written tradition. Their values were passed down from generation to generation, not through the written word, but through dance, song, and story telling. My first instinct was to contrast this to Jewish culture, which is so reliant on text. What are the benefits and drawbacks of each method? What are we able to transmit through text, that we are not able to do through dance, and what might be lost in the text that can only be captured through movement?

Then I thought about it a bit more. I grew up in a very Jewish home, but I didn’t look at a page of Talmud until I was 24 years old. Learning text was not a formative part of my Jewish education whatsoever. On the contrary, some of my most powerful Jewish memories are of my mother teaching Israeli folk dances in our community, and of a crazy horah experience when I first visited Tzfat at the age of 12. Even today, though I spend a lot of my time learning Jewish texts, my most uplifting and spiritual moments have involved dancing alone to niggunim in the park by my house, and once again, those Hassidic horahs, this time not in Tzfat, but in Crown Heights. More »

“I have seen a person of color in my Jewish community and wondered why they were there.”- An Evening with the Jewish Multiracial Network

This piece is cross-posted with Zeek

When there were rumbles about yet another Weather Event in New York on February 6th, I got considerably more anxious than I normally would have, given that I work from home (or wherever) and don’t own a car I have to dig out. If the first ever Jewish Multi-Racial Network Parlor Meeting had been cancelled,  it would have been a huge loss to everyone who attended. There’s something that happens in a room when people are being nudged around in their comfort zones, when they’re pushing themselves to think bigger and wider. It’s like an electricity. Not like. It is.

(Chanel Dubofsky)

Jewish Multiracial Network

This is a guest post from Erika Davis. Erika is a freelance writer whose work can be found on The Sisterhood, Jewcy, Kveller and more. She writes about the intersections of race, religion and sexuality on her personal blog Black, Gay and Jewish. Erika likes Syrian Jewish cooking and is convinced she makes the best hummus in Brooklyn. She is a board member of the Jewish Multi-Racial Network and works at Hazon. 

Last Wednesday,  a few brave Jews made a trek to the middle of Brooklyn. I know what you’re thinking, what’s so brave about Jews in Brooklyn? They were brave not only to venture outside during an ice storm, but also because they knew they would be spending the evening talking about privilege and race in the Jewish community at The Jewish Multiracial Network (JMN) Parlor Meeting.

The conversation, moderated by JMN President, Chava Shervington and me, a JMN Board member, asked the tough question: “Am I Racist?” Attended by both white Jews and Jews of Color, in the two-hour conversation, tough topics were brought to the table. Everything from white privilege to reactions to seeing people of color in Jewish spaces was discussed and the participants asked and answered thoughtful questions while sharing individual experiences of prejudice. JMN’s Privilege Checklist was distributed and completed by participants in one exercise. Participants were also asked a series of hard questions. With their eyes closed, they were asked to raise their hands while they responded to the following statements: I have seen a person of color in my Jewish community and wondered why they were there. I have heard prejudiced things said about people of color in my Jewish community. I have said prejudiced things. I want to work for the inclusion of multiracial Jewish families and Jews of Color in the American Jewish community. As the participants answered the last question, I asked them to open their eyes and look around the room-everyone’s hand was raised.

 

When Chava and I started planning this first Parlor Meeting, we went into it with the idea of bringing together a small group of Jewish change-makers. We imagined that attendees would be individuals as well as employees of Jewish organizations and JCCs. We wanted the conversations to be frank, open, and honest and felt the best way to have such conversations would be to bring the conversation quite literally into a parlor. (Or more accurately, my living room.) We hoped to reach Jews on an individual basis, and hope that through the continued Parlor Meetings to create a network of Jews fully committed to the mission of JMN.

When the meeting was over all of the participants approached either Chava or I to thank us for the important conversation and to ask how they could volunteer to help JMN and its mission, which for us, makes the meeting as success.

Wednesday night’s meeting was the first of a quarterly series of Parlor Meetings JMN will hold in the New York area; the next will be about ally-ship. JMN is also in conversations with Jewish communities in New Jersey, Boston, Washington, DC, San Francisco and Los Angeles to bring Parlor Meetings across the U.S. The Parlor Meetings, coupled with JMN’s work with synagogues and Jewish communal organizations seeks to continue working for the full inclusion of multiracial Jewish families and Jews of Color.

Over the next few months we will be working with communities to bring the Parlor Meetings into new communities, but with all of the work that JMN does, it is important to us that the Parlor Meetings are impactful and reflective of the communities we bring them to. If you would like to bring the JMN Parlor Meeting to your community, please email Chava.

The Jewish Multiracial Network was founded in 1997 by a group of parents who wanted to provide a community and supportive network for multiracial Jewish families. JMN’s initial programming efforts sought to provide Jewish children of color and their families a space where their dual identities would not be challenged — through the organization of social gatherings along the East Coast and the development of an annual retreat, which continues to this day. As the organization has grown, JMN has expanded its impact to include adult Jews of Color and members across the continental United States. What started over 15 years ago as a group of just a handful of families has now grown into a thriving community with hundreds of members.

Framing Gender and Tefillin: Rabbi Aryeh Klapper Responds to Raphael Magarik’s Critique

In the context of a recent flurry of articles about gender and tefillin, Raphael Magarik recently published here in Jewschool a critique of Rabbi Aryeh Klapper’s critique of a legal analysis by Rabbi Ethan Tucker.  Here is Rabbi Klapper’s response. –aryehbernstein

Rabbi Aryeh Klapper is Dean of the Center for Modern Torah Leadership, Instructor of Rabbinics and Medical Ethics at  Gann Academy, and a member of the Boston Beit Din.  You can find out more about his work here.

Dear Raffi,

Several mutual friends have forwarded your response to me, and I really appreciate that you read and cared about what I wrote, and your desire to defend your teacher’s position.  My instinct was to let my article speak for itself, but they have persuaded me that at least a brief response is appropriate.

So with maximal brevity, and apology if that generates apparent curtness:

1)  I suggested that there is room for masculine and feminine ritual, and as an example cited the liturgical conception that wrapping tefillin around the fingers symbolizes G-d placing a ring on the finger of His betrothed Israel.  You moved from there to the claim that I must believe that women “cannot partake in the experience of being betrothed . . . a woman cannot be the servant of G-d, because she is already the servant of men.”

However, footnote 4 of my article says:

“Women can play that religious role as well or better than men; my point is that it would not be the same experience for women as men, and that the power of the tefillin-liturgy for men may stem precisely from its requirement that they experience a female role in the context of a ritual only men are obligated to perform.”

2)  You say – “the suggestion, as I take it, is that the male role is dominant, the female submissive”.

Why do you take it that way?  I do not see these as the only way to conceptualize male and female differences.  Do you?  If yes, of course you will see all gender differences as embodiments of evil patriarchal dominance. More »

Can Women be God’s Servants? A response to Rabbi Aryeh Klapper on Gender and Tefillin

by Raphael Magarik

Raphael Magarik is a PhD student in English at Berkeley and a friend of Jewschool.  Check out his site for more. –aryehbernstein

I come late to the current conversation over gender and tefillin, and we have already heard plenty from other men already on the subject. That said, I thought I would share a quick reaction to R. Aryeh Klapper’s response to my teacher, R. Ethan Tucker.

I have several local disagreements with R. Klapper. For instance, when he claims the Talmud did imagine women wearing tefillin, he over-reads Bavli Eiruvin 95-96. There the idea that women are obligated in tefillin is introduced only as a dialectical, logical hypothetical. Elizabeth Shanks Alexander, who analyzes the Eruvin passage very closely, concludes, “ideological concerns about gender are not responsible for the creation of a position allowing women to wear tefillin.” The position (attributed to R. Meir), which she notes had no practical ramifications, “grew [instead] out of interpretive pressures forced by the Bavli’s academic agenda.” That explains why, as Tosafot and David Weiss Halivni ad loc note, the position directly contracts an explicit anonymous Mishnah, which we usually attribute to R. Meir.

The latest, anonymous layer of the Bavli, the so-called “stamma,” collates widely disparate materials and weaves them together dialectically. The editors express many radical or fanciful ideas which reflect its aesthetic of abstract argumentation—not serious halakhic proposals. Perhaps R. Klapper is not as enamored of academic interpretations of the Bavli as I am and would prefer not to dismiss any line of the Talmud as formal dialectics. But it is telling that he later suggests that those who hold that women are obligated in tefillin “are behaving like ‘outsiders, who transgress the words of the sages and do not wish to interpret Scripture as they do.’” Apparently, R. Meir’s is now the way of outsiders. Or more likely, when push comes to shove, R. Klapper does what we all do. He discounts the Stamma’s move in Eruvin.

More »

This Is Not An Ulpan opens fifth semester

Now enrolling for classes in Tel Aviv. Register here.

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Seeking Outstanding Young Feminist Leader for Tannenbaum Prize

The Hadassah Foundation is looking to highlight the accomplishments of an amazing emerging professional who is working to advance the cause of Jewish girls and young women in the United States or the cause of Israeli women—can you help us identify such a professional?

We are excited to announce that The Hadassah Foundation is accepting nominations for its annual Bernice S. Tannenbaum Prize. As you may know, the Tannenbaum Prize aims to reward an emerging professional (with less than approximately 15 years of experience) who has demonstrated a high degree of talent, commitment, and accomplishment in their work to enhance the status of women and girls, and who anticipates continuing their careers in this field. The intent of the Prize is to make the field more effective by supporting the development of future leaders.

Current and past Hadassah Foundation grantees from Israel and the United States, as well as other organizations that serve Jewish girls and young women in the United States or who serve women in Israel, may nominate a staff person to receive this prize. There will be an award of up to $2,500, which the Prize recipient must use for professional development. In addition, there will be an award of $500 that may be used for general operating support. The Board of Directors of the Hadassah Foundation will select the winner and present the award at a special ceremony on June 10, 2014 in New York City. The winner is required to attend the ceremony; their travel and hotel expenses will be covered by the Foundation.

See the prize guidelines, deadline noon Eastern time on Friday, February 7, 2014.

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The Top Five Reasons Why BDS is Winning

This is a guest post by Eli Ungar-Sargon, a Los Angeles-based independent filmmaker and new media producer. He is currently putting the finishing touches on his documentary film, A People Without a Land and is co-hosting the new podcast series Four Cubits.

In many ways, 2013 was a breakthrough year for the BDS movement. High-profile individuals like Stephen Hawking heeded the call, efforts to shut down a BDS event in Brooklyn College backfired in a dramatic and public fashion, and the American Studies Association voted overwhelmingly to join the academic boycott. Here are the top five reasons why the BDS movement is winning.

1) BDS is a non-violent way that ordinary people who care about Israel-Palestine can make a difference.

The spectacular twenty year failure of the so-called peace process has created an enormous amount of frustration in people who care about Israel/Palestine. The ineptitude of the United States, the silence of the EU, the impotence of the UN and the impunity with which Israel continues to make life worse for the Palestinians have all contributed to this frustration. The BDS movement is a morally sound way for ordinary people to do something. By putting non-violent but effective pressure on the State of Israel, BDS offers people of conscience a way to participate in a moral struggle to restore Palestinian rights.

2) The BDS call marks a shift away from a discourse of nationalism towards a discourse of human rights.

Perhaps the most brilliant part of the BDS call is its refusal to endorse any particular political solution. By remaining agnostic on the one-state/two-state debate, the BDS movement is able to both create alliances and maintain a laser-like focus on the rights of the Palestinian people. Tactically, this means that people who think there should be two-states can participate in the movement alongside their one-state fellows. Ideologically, when liberal-minded people compare the rights-based first principles of the BDS movement to the ethnonationalist first principles of Israel and its defenders, the former are much more appealing. More »

How I learned to be courageously curious about Israel

This is a guest post by Alexander Germanacos, a San Francisco native, graduate student for family therapy at California Institute of Integral Studies, and volunteer for New Israel Fund’s New Generations.

You know you have been there: your heart starts beating a bit faster, the voice in your head is shouting “Are you kidding me!?!” and you write off the person you are talking to as being a lost cause. We all remember having that difficult conversation on Israel.

I have certainly had my fair share of frustrating and unproductive word battles with people of all ages and backgrounds on the topic. As a graduate student in Family Therapy, I like to think I am equipped to engage a host of thorny issues. But even with my graduate training, the topic of Israel still challenged me. So, last year, I applied to New Israel Fund’s Facilitation Fellowship in San Francisco, to engage with people about Israel in ways that are productive. I wanted to answer the question that has been running through my head: “How do we get to a discussion around Israel that is not polemical?” I was about to find out. More »

Let’s merge the Movements: A Not-so-modest proposal

A guestpost from Rabbi Mark Asher Goodman

A little more than 130 years ago, at a Cincinnati hotel, a small group of rabbis departed in a huff from the dinner celebrating Hebrew Union College’s first class of ordained American rabbis. There was just too much traif on the menu, and the culinary baccanalia was indicative to them of a Judaism that had just gone too far in an acculturative direction. Shortly thereafter, the Conservative movement was founded. From this point forward, American Judaism would proceed with three very robust and successful movements, with millions of members finding spiritual meaning in three very distinct iterations.

At one point the largest of the three major Jewish denominations, Conservative Judaism has experienced a much-reported slump in recent years; as the Pew survey revealed, only 11% of American Jews identify as Conservative Jews.

Equally as troubling are the falling affiliation rates within the Reform movement. A larger and larger number of Jews are choosing to simply not define themselves within a movement, or to eschew organized religion altogether.

Much handwringing has transpired over the Pew Survey’s results. However, no bold proposal has yet to be laid down, at a time when we the American Jewish leaders need to re-evaluate our direction in the 21st century. So let me make one. More »

Swarthmore Hillel Declares Itself an Open Hillel

On December 8th, Swarthmore College Hillel became the first campus Hillel in the country to become an Open Hillel, passing the  policy unanimously. You can learn more at Open Hillel’s Facebook page. Below is the full text of the editorial.

By Swarthmore Hillel Board, 2013-2014

On November 11, former speaker of the Israeli Knesset Avraham Burg was supposed to give a talk on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the Harvard Hillel house. Instead, Hillel barred him from speaking at the Hillel house, and he ended up giving his talk in an undergraduate dormitory on campus. The reason he was barred? His talk was co-sponsored by the Harvard College Palestinian Solidarity Committee.

Sadly, for organizations bearing the name “Hillel,” situations like these are all too common. Across the country, many Hillels have banned Breaking the Silence, an organization of Israeli soldiers that facilitates talks about the Israeli military and West Bank occupation. Jewish Voice for Peace, which seeks “peace and justice for all peoples of the Middle East,” has never been allowed to affiliate with Hillels. On some campuses, JStreet has had a difficult time working with Hillels, and events co-sponsored by Students for Justice in Palestine or Palestine Solidarity Committees have often been banned.

Across the country, Hillels’ suppression of the freedom to speak and believe thingthat are not narrowly pro-Zionist are the direct result of Hillel International’s Israel Guidelines. Right after stating in their “Political Pluralism” section that they object to excluding “students for their beliefs and expressions,” they declare that they “will not partner with, house, or host” – in other words, they will exclude – groups and speakers that espouse certain beliefs about Israel. These contraband beliefs include denying the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state and supporting boycotting, divesting, or sanctions against Israel. They also ban those who “delegitimize, demonize, or apply a double standard to Israel.” No further explanation is provided to clarify these guidelines, but their ambiguity has done nothing to ease the stifling effect they have on individual Hillels’ freedoms of speech, belief, and association. These guidelines would exclude speakers with views like those of Peter Beinart, Judith Butler, and Noam Chomsky.

Hillel, billing itself as the “Foundation for Jewish Campus Life,” is seen by many as the face of the American Jewish college population. And due to these policies, it is a face that is often seen to be monolithically Zionist, increasingly uncooperative, and completely uninterested in real pluralistic, open dialogue and discussion.

We do not believe this is the true face of young American Jews.

In fact, we do not believe there is only one face of young American Jews. We believe there are many faces of this diverse population. In our community, we find this diversity in the conversations we have with each other in our Sukkah, in the group of students meeting in a college coffee bar to discuss Talmudic conceptions of angels, and in the songs we sing together after a Shabbat meal. If we are truly devoted to fostering Jewish Campus Life, we need to constantly wrestle with how best to meet the collective needs of a diverse community. We need to create a space that is safe and welcoming for all. We need to a create a space that invites difference – difference of opinion, difference of belief, difference of background, difference of race, gender, and sexual orientation.

This is hard work. But if we are going to bear the name of Rabbi Hillel, we cannot expect anything less to be asked of us. Rabbi Hillel valued Jewish debate and difference – it was at the core of his practice. We do the same. For us, that is what the name Hillel symbolizes.

Therefore, we choose to depart from the Israel guidelines of Hillel International. We believe these guidelines, and the actions that have stemmed from them, are antithetical to the Jewish values that the name “Hillel” should invoke. We seek to reclaim this name. We seek to turn Hillel – at Swarthmore, in the Greater Philadelphia region, nationally, and internationally – into a place that has a reputation for constructive discourse and free speech. We refuse to surrender the name of this Rabbi who encouraged dialogue to those who seek to limit it.

To that end, Swarthmore Hillel hereby declares itself to be an Open Hillel. All are welcome to walk through our doors and speak with our name and under our roof, be they Zionist, anti-Zionist, post-Zionist, or non-Zionist. We are an institution that seeks to foster spirited debate, constructive dialogue, and a safe space for all, in keeping with the Jewish tradition. We are an Open Hillel.

We invite you to join us.

 

 

Zionism’s Failure is Today’s Global Jewish Partnership

This is a guest post by Avi Goldblatt, an old school Hebrew stuck in a relatively young man’s body. He is a classical liberal (ie Conservative Republican) which makes him about as popular as transfats in a NYC restaurant and as rare in the Jewish community as women’s suffrage in Dar al-Islam. He can be reached here.

In a piece published on ejewishphilanthropy, Joshua Einstein claims that Zionism is “multifaceted, multilayered and multi-streamed” regarding Israel and Jewish peoplehood. Many subscribe to this notion of Zionism as big tent coalition. They are wrong.

While the Zionist movement had many internal trends and streams they were all united by the central notions of aliyah and ending anti-Semitism. Whether it was the top down bourgeois methodology of the Herzlian’s (the Political Zionists), the utopian-socialist world vision of AD Gordan, Ben Gurion, or the utopian-messianism of both Rav Kook’s – all believed anti-Semitism would abate after the creation of the Jewish State.

Mr. Einstein is also wrong in asserting that “the miracle of the Zionist endeavor” was “a living and breathing Jewish State after over two thousand years without one…” A Jewish state was never the goal of the Zionist movement. Rather the Jewish national home was a means to an end – it would serve to assimilate the Jew on a national level where the Haskalah (enlightenment) had failed to on an individual level.  More »

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What if JNF’s fundraisers were like their land policies in Israel?

This piece of satire is a guest post by Clark Kempt, a mild-mannered reporter at a major metropolitan newspaper. By day.

Not a parody: The Forward covers JNF land use discrimination - 2005A Toronto fundraising dinner set to be the largest of its kind ever held in Canada was thrown into turmoil Thursday when local organizers found themselves in caught between their donors and the cause they hoped to support.

The fundraiser aimed to raise money in support of the Jewish National Fund, a 112-year-old trust established to purchase land in Palestine for Jewish settlement. Since the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, the JNF held large swaths of land and used the flow of donations to maintain much of it for public parks, recreation, and bird sanctuaries.

But controversy erupted in Toronto when the Canadian chapter of the JNF accidentally broke one of the Fund’s core principles in its effort to raise money to plant trees in Israel.

The Canadian chapter hoped to sell sell eight-person dinner tables to donors, aiming to bring 4,000 people together in support of Israel. However, the local chapter may have promoted the event too widely, and sold tables to not just within the Jewish community but to Torontonians at large, including to several city law firms, local real estate developers, city councillors, and other officials.

But someone failed to notify local JNF volunteers the Fund has a strict policy to not sell tables to non-Jews. Senior executives quickly learned of this oversight and informed the local chapter that the sale of tables to non-Jews violated the founding charter of the institution. But it was too late. More »

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The Bedouin of Anatevka

This is a guest post by Jesse Paikin. Jesse is a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, where he has also received a Graduate Certificate in Jewish Education. Before attending HUC-JIR, he worked for a Jewish nonprofit, running educational youth travel programs around the world. He currently lives in Jerusalem and also blogs at jessepaikin.wordpress.com and The Times of Israel. Follow him at @jessepaikin.

Unrecognized Bedouin Village, Negev Desert, October 2013

Israel’s Negev Desert is not a hospitable place. Vast, dusty, and scorching hot, it takes a great deal of effort to live on this land. Yet it was out of this very land that the Jewish people emerged, and from which the modern State of Israel was birthed. Anyone who has walked its canyons can attest to the feeling of ancient history pulsing out of the stones. Anyone who has laid their head down on the rocky bed and gazed up at the bowl of stars has felt the awe-inspiring power that emanates here. This is the place of the still, small voice.

David Ben-Gurion said that it is in the Negev that the creativity, vigor, and spirit of Israel will be tested. He prophesied that it would be there that the standing of Israel in the history of humankind would be determined (“The Significance of the Negev,” 1955)

Perhaps he was more correct than he knew. Today, close to 60 years after Ben-Gurion presciently spoke of the relevance of the desert, Israel faces a monumental test in this place. Israel’s treatment of its Negev Bedouin population is a trial that has the potential to unravel the dream Ben-Gurion envisioned over half a century ago. The Negev is not only the place where the creativity, vigor, and spirit of Israel are tested; it is the place where the conscience, values, and social values of Israel are being tested today.

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