Over? Did you say over?

It wasn’t over when the Germans Bombed Pearl Harbor, but it is for the Gamma Chapter of AEPi at Penn.  The oft quoted words of Animal House’s Brutus hang in the air as, in the wake of serious hazing infractions, the chapter voted to return its charter to the National Headquarters and go Pseudo greek, whatever that means.  After being put on double secret probation, the fraternity chapter, which had a 98 year history on campus and was one of its consistenly highest achieving academically, the University had enough.

But this was no Dean Vernon Wormer and Penn is not Faber College, though it might have been the case with AEPi’s  Boston University chapter, which made headlines last week as it was shut down over hazing.

Nor, it should be pointed out, is Alpha Epsilon Pi, the International Jewish Fraternity, the Delta Tau Chi of that film (of the writers, Chris Miller was in  Alpha Delta Phi fraternity at Dartmouth College, Harold Ramis a Zeta Beta Tau at Washington University in St. Louis, and producer Ivan Reitman was a Delta Upsilon at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.

Yes, they are bastions of male objectification of the female, yes, a source of aggravation and lack of academic seriousness, yes they throw great parties (and sometimes bad ones) but they’re not all bad, and they’ve come a long way since the Animal house era and even the 1990′s.  That’s especially true for AEPi, which  is nationally, engaging in leadership training for college men (that phrasing does sound parochial I admit), partnering with Hillels and raising significant funds for important charities.  It shouldn’t be painted with the saime brush as those undergrands at Penn. In fact, the fraternity has posted very public statements on its website and its President Andy Borans was quoted as having exerted pressure to close the chapters.

I respect that. For the Gamma and Zeta Deuteron Chapters of AEPi, yes, it is indeed over. For now…

Responses to my ‘conversion’: The bizarre, the brazen and the best

Crossposted to davidamwilensky.com

In other news I'm topping the charts over at the Forward: The hed on my piece is 'What Would You Call Me?'

Right. So I wrote this op-ed for the Forward about how I underwent a Conservative conversion because I go to a Conservative shul these days, but I came from a patrilineal Reform background and so forth. And in it I suggested that it’s time for the Conservative movement to start accepting patrilineal descent.

Then the internet discharged platoon after platoon of Jew-baiting Jewish commenters with all kinds of nonsense on their minds. There were also some thoughtful comments and a ton of kind emails from friends and acquaintances.

Here’s one of the emails:

I so wanted to comment on your Forward article, but I simply could not wade into the aggravating mess of Jews baiting each other.

So for his benefit and yours, I waded neck-deep into the muck to pluck out the best of the comments — not only at forward.com, but on Facebook and twitter as well. And I’ll respond to a few too.

[I started writing this post yesterday so there are probably even more comments now that I haven't even looked at.]

More »

Chicago Rabbinical Council: Some of our Best Friends are Gay

This is a guest post by The Neo Nazir, a nomadic Jew who spends zes time worrying that the US might actually elect Santorum and that ze and everyone reading this post will be hurled into a den of wild, indigenous mountain lions, only to be devoured limb by limb.

Newsflash! Orthodox Judaism is not the bellwether of queerness. Given Orthodox Judaism’s official position on non-heterosexuality, one hardly expects Orthodox communities to offer a fully understanding dialogue on homosexual identity.  But today, even the orthodox are realizing that they can no longer simply sweep LGBTQ issues under the rug.

Tonight in the Chicago area, a controversial event originally scheduled for early January, will be held at Congregation Or Torah, a large modern-Orthodox community in Skokie, IL.  This event, sponsored by a number of major Chicago-area Orthodox synagogues and a local Chabad community, will attempt to broach the subject of homosexuality in the Orthodox community, featuring two out-of-town speakers, described by the event’s promotional blurb as “two of the world’s leading authorities on the Torah’s perspective on homosexuality,” Rabbi Dr. Barry Freundel and Rabbi Chaim Rapoport. More »

Kaunfer: Is continuity worth continuing?

In an op-ed piece reworked from a speech delivered at the Jewish Federations General Assembly in Denver, Rabbi Elie Kaunfer of Mechon Hadar writes that:

Jews, like all people, are searching for meaning, substance and connection. The more we are inundated with e-mails, status updates and tweets, the more we want to go deeper. Our souls are calling out for engagement; our hearts are crying out to be opened.

Judaism, at its core, is a response to that yearning, an answer to that call. What are we “continuing” with our calls for “continuity”? Why does Judaism need a future? Because Judaism offers a system, a covenantal language, a heritage and tradition that responds to the human need for meaning, substance and connection. It is our system, our language, our heritage; it is relevant, and that is the reason that we need a Jewish future.

We Jews have a word for the pathway to meaning, substance and connection. It is called Torah. I don’t just mean the Torah scroll that sits alone in the ark, or even just the words of the five books of Moses. I mean the sum total of Jewish sources and texts — the wisdom stored up in our textual heritage.

Truth be told, not the biggest hiddush (original insight) but seriously brave considering the original audience. The Federation pretty much wrote the book of Jewish continuity for continuity’s sake. I was, however, especially happy to read this article after an experience this last Friday night which speaks loudly toward what Kaunfer is getting at. More »

Reinterpreting Jewish communal service

I am so rarely angry. Savlanut, “serenity,” in the face of insult is my superpower. But recently someone stepped on a landmine I barely knew I had: the tension between my work among my people and my concern for all peoples. Accused, I was, of not caring enough for those other than Jews. Of working only for Jews.

I should have seen it coming. Indeed, I am a Jew and I see the world through Judaism’s prism. Yet everything I do Jewishly is to benefit all, regardless of identity. I often have sectarian, parochial priorities in reaching out to Jews who care enough about Jewish values because my work is to move the Jewish community to care for everyone. Do not mistake this focus on Jews for selfishness. To be accused of this! Against what I know I stand for. I lost my temper, on my feet and yelling into a telephone. Let me clarify then.

There are plenty Jews in my world of the predominantly young and unaffiliated who are tired of the drumming of “Jew Jew Jew” and recoil from its incessant self-centered, self-referential, self-ish concerns. Every synagogue is just a ghetto to lock out the goyyim, they feel, every Jewish social event serves the agenda of the claustrophobic “marry a Jew!” crowd. Tied to a community that is lacking in fulfillment yet insists on their loyalty, they can’t stand to be around it. I feel the same. Yet here I am, working in the Jewish world. A young career-nik. More »

The Next Big Jewish Idea is…a tired old idea

The admirable project of a social media extravaganza to engage the Jewish demos in picking the Los Angeles federation’s next idea to revolutionize Jewish life has reached fruition! Thank God! We’ve been waiting so long to discover what the next revolution in Jewish thinking is: Jewish spam. The “LaunchBox,” formerly “Jewww in a Box,” is essentially an upgrade from federation spam to federation-sponsored kiruv. How very web 2.0, all hail the wisdom of crowdsourcing, halleluyah. You can read the description as it bends over backwards trying to explain why this is big, new, or innovative.

Seriously, I can’t fault the LA federation for picking a practical winner whose project they could implement immediately and one that would contribute to their everyday work. Mazel tov to Batsheva Frankel on her success, it’s a fine idea. But, personally, I feel the hype and slogan just don’t justify the final product.

(P.S. I want one.)

What’s On the Menu?

Two quick articles that I read last month: The first is an article that groans about how Jewish eaters are getting so picky that it’s getting to be impossible to invite Shabbat guests. The second is an article which advises all those people who create meaningful programming for Jews to quit it, will ya? because they’re actually enabling whiny, entitled Jews (the study that he quotes is about Baby Boomers, but I think he’s generally aiming this for everyone) to continue to view Judaism as a consumer product.

Both of these articles have a familiar tone: “What a bunch of whiners Jews today are!” And to some extent, there’s something to be said for that. In the shabbat meals article, towards the end, Rabbi Rebecca Joseph comments, “This is a problem of an affluent society and an affluent group within that society.” Again, true. Indeed, homeless Jews, poor Jews and Jews struggling to make ends meet aren’t going to be picky about what is served to them at a shabbat meal – or any other (I was reminded of recently rereading the book Rachel Calof’s Story about a Jewish woman who emigrated from Russia to be a pioneer bride, and while they certainly cared about kashrut, which is demonstrated throughout the book in various ways, when her husband comes home with a tin labeled herring and it turns out to be pickled pigs feet.. well, she doesn’t say that they ate, but she certainly hints at it. When there’s no other food, you eat what there is).

Nevertheless, there’s a certain oddity about these two articles. For example, let’s take the shabbat meals article: The title is, “With increasingly particular eaters, Shabbat meals get tough.” And yet, that isn’t actually the sense I get at all from the actual content of the article – let alone from my personal experiences. More »

From the J Street conference to TribeFest, division and convergence

Very few people attended both J Street’s second conference and the Jewish federation’s young leaders soiree TribeFest within the same week. I may have been the only one. At the intersection of upstart and establishment worlds, I saw firsthand the tides of change swirling within the North American Jewish community. (See my report on J Street’s moving opening session.) Suffice it to say, I saw division. But I also saw buds of convergence.

J Street’s second conference was a celebration of comeuppance for the fastest-growing new institution on the scene. The parade of new campus chapters and expanding activist teams beneath the teal street sign logo were jubilant. Under duress to halt the trickle the young Jews leaving institutional Jewish life, TribeFest too brought together 1,200 excited young faces to Las Vegas to prove that the establishment could regain its groove yet. At a purported loss of $250,000, the conference is heralded by organizers as a success.

I didn’t realize quite what a child of the emergent Jewish community I was until I stepped into the bosom of federation culture that was TribeFest. The “emergent sector,” coined by Jumpstart, is everything this formerly unaffiliated Jew has come to call my Jewish life: independent minyanim, online communities, the social justice orgs, political initiatives and culture creators. While Jumpstart’s report noted a 14% overlap between mainstream-emergent audiences, it certainly has caught our elders’ attention that large numbers of their children vote with their feet and leave the communal fold for alternate ventures. Engaged young Jews today are purportedly divided 50-50 between the emergent sector and the institutions of our parents — federations, the legacy orgs, or the denominations. The latter’s donor pyramids look upside-down as more dollars are raised from fewer donors.

TribeFest is at long last an acknowledgement that the existing model isn’t sustainable. They moved the previous 300-person elite young donor summit from DC to Las Vegas, partnered with cultural groups like JDub Records, brought in divergent voices to panels on unlikely topics (like yours truly) and enfranchised court bloggers to cover it. They threw open the doors and recruited (read: subsidized) heavily to quadruple the number attendees. And succeed they did. More »

Strengths and weaknesses of indie minyans and why I don’t get to go to Zoo Minyan tomorrow

Crossposted to The Reform Shuckle

Zoo Minyan, an independent minyan that meets in the neighborhood around the zoo in DC, is not meeting for davening this week. Why do I care? And why is this interesting? Let me back up:

I’m on the Bolt Bus, headed down to DC for the J Street Conference. The conference proper doesn’t start until Saturday night, but I’m heading down to spend Shabbat in DC, hoping to get some good shul-hopping done for your reading pleasure.

My plan was to go to multi-denominational, non-membership, convention-defying synagogue Sixth and I tonight and to the still-extant, just had their 40th birthday, proving all the “indie minyans will never last people wrong,” first-wave chavurah Fabrangen tomorrow morning.

But then, while emailing back and forth with Mah Rabu blogger and fellow Jewschooler BZ, he suggested the I try out Zoo Minyan instead. Apropos my post from the other day about feminizing the theology of Kaddish Shalem, he thought I might like Zoo Minyan. During their service, they apparently alternate between masculine and feminine names for God. So I got a little excited to see that in practice.

Then, as I’m sitting here on this bus, I get this e-mail from BZ with this post from their blog:

Zoo Minyan – No Davvening, but some learning, Sat. Feb 26

Zoo Minyan is not meeting for davenning Sat. Feb 26.

Sorry folks! Insufficient leyning turn-out for Zoo this shabbos, wouldn’t be lichvod Torah. Apologies for the short notice / change of plans.

But feel free to stop by for some learning after davenning elsewhere (or after shaarei sheina / sleeping in, as is your custom).


So, it’s Fabrangen for more tomorrow, after all.

But it’s not a total waste because I have some thoughts to share that came out of this failure to launch. The first time I heard such an attitude from an indie minyanaire was from an organizer of the ultra-lightweight London minyan Wandering Jews. They don’t organize anything other than a place and time. They refuse to beg people to be hosts. If no one volunteers to host, there’s no davening. If not enough people bring stuff for the potluck, there’s no communal dinner. Etc.

I heard a woman speak about this approach at Limmud Colorado a couple of years ago. She said, if people value Wandering Jews, they will make it happen. And if they’re not making it happen, then it isn’t valuable and they should just let it go and slip away. This stands in about the starkest contrast possible to the synagogue continuity-obsessed folks.

And at Zoo Minyan, it seems there is a somewhat similar attitude. And now I don’t get to go. Oh well, their loss. And Fabrangen’s gain.

Birthright “the most successful project in the Jewish world…” ?

Crossposted to the New Voices Blog

That’s right, folks. You heard it here first. (Well, actually, you heard it at JTA first.)

Birthright Israel said it has received a record-breaking number of North American applicants for its free, 10-day trips to Israel.

The organization, which provides all-expense-paid trips to Israel for Diaspora Jews aged 18 to 26, received 40,108 applicants during the seven-day registration period ending Tuesday

Israel’s Minister For Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs, Yuli Edelstein, called it “the most successful project in the Jewish world.”

[Emphasis mine, obviously.] JTA’s full story is here.

That’s quite a claim. I dunno how the actual founding of the state doesn’t take top honors there, but I’ll leave it to the bloviation specialists at Birthright and in the Israeli government to duke it out over that.

Let’s make some noise, IJPA

(x-posted to to KFAR) This week, representatives from Jewish cultural institutions from around the world convened in New York for the annual ‘Schmooze Conference” of the International Jewish Presenters Association. Other commitments prevented my attendance, but I was fortunate to speak at the first one a few years back.

Its a wonderful concept, and it seems to have some practical benefits beyond collegiality.  As with his other projects and contributions, I applaud Michael Dorf for bringing this idea to fruition.  The greater opportunity, however, is for this Association to be more than an Annual Conference for the American Jewish community.

We know all the research and findings over the last decade about the impact of Jewish arts and culture and their role as a portal to Jewish identity.  IJPA has an opportunity to be the voice of the providers of these portals and advocate for the artists and member presenters who are expanding notions of Jewish expression. With the arrival of Mp3 players and digital videos and music distribution, there is unprecedented opportunity to engage untold numbers of Jews, young and old.  The passing of Debbie Friedman this week, with her innumerable musical contributions to Jewish life, underscores this.

More »

Arizona Congresswoman Giffords: Jewish enough

Sure enough, barely 48 hours after the shooting of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and others, the Jewish media picked up on her Jewish roots. Now, little else will likely matter in the timeline of events.

It will be lost on most Jews, I predict, that this paragon of Jewish involvement — a leader within her Jewish community, a representative of Jews to America and beyond — was a proud, patrilineal, intermarried Jew who found Judaism late.

Giffords was the daughter of a Christian Scientist mother father and a Jewish father mother, raised in both faiths, as reported by JTA. She married astronaut Mark Kelly — not Jewish, as far as reports say — in a ceremony with two canopies, a huppah and Naval swords. She attended services at a local Reform synagogue. Apparently she came to her faith later in life, taking up mainstream Jewish causes in the Arizona legislature.

The community will, I predict, renew the claims of anti-Semitism without realizing that most of the Jewish world frowns on the very substance of her life. The Jewish community expends much energy discussing the dangers of non-Jewish influences on young Jews. Special condemnation is expended even in liberal circles on dual-religion households. Plenty recommendations are aimed against the very choices Giffords and her parents made. Yet it’s clear that Jewish values triumphed in both her outlook and her later-life affiliation. Genetics, as we mixed Jews know, convey no values — loving parents do. Seeking purity (read: kosher) in culture, faith, community and love leads directly to racism, xenophobia, paranoia.

While the headlines in Israel already ran “Jewish congresswoman shooter favorited Mein Kampf” and the-world-hates-Jews mantra rings again, it’s already forgotten that Giffords would be a second-class citizen in Israel. This woman who spoke so highly of Jewish women, wouldn’t have the right get a divorce in Israel. “In my family, if you want to get something done you take it to the Jewish women relatives,” she told JTA in 2006. “Jewish women, by and large, know how to get things done.”

Giffords represented successive generations of blending Jewish life with the surrounding world: a worldy Jew, not a ghettoed Jew. She may have championed Jewish causes in her legislative agenda, but by all glowing accounts was fiercely for justice, fairness and equality for all.  Including illegal immigrants.

She was Jewish enough to be killed for her Jewishness, if indeed that is the case. (Which seems unlikely to be the primary cause, but that’s not stopping the Jewish-Israeli media, it appears.) And she’s Jewish enough for the Jewish community to own a side-show of the media circus. Jewish enough to be our martyr, it seems, but not Jewish enough to be treated equally in life.

I, for one, see in Giffords the kind of Jewish choices and identity they’ll see tons more of: intermarried and mixed in heritage, uniquely Jewish, universally human. Like myself, like 50% of Jews under 25 today. More and more, we will be your leaders, your country’s leaders, and your faces to the world. We will make you proud of our accomplishments, even as we defy the protocols of Jewish continuity. If only the Jewish community would treat us with as much honor in life as in  martyrdom.

[Editor's note: subsequent editing confused sources. According to JTA, her father is Jewish, her mother is Christian Scientist.]

More Jews than we thought, by about a million

The 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey, which was criticized for methodological problems, painted a grim picture. It had the American Jewish population on the decline and led to a decade of the official Jews running around with their heads cut off, trying to stop intermarriage, which, as we know, is the root of all evil.

Leonard Saxe, the Klutznick professor of contemporary Jewish Studies at Brandeis, said that the survey was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Saxe has a new study out that puts us in a growth trend, estimating one million more Jews than previously thought, for a total of 6.5 million.

Read more about this at The Forward.

The money quote:

“We have to stop worrying about whether the community will exist,” Saxe said. “Instead we should worry about the content, about how we make communal life meaningful for the many Jews who are out there.”

Which is kind of what we’ve been saying all along.

What does it mean, “Are Jewish presidents of colleges ready for Birthright alumni?”

Crossposted to New Voices

On Tuesday, Nov. 23 Hebrew College is hosting a conversation with four Boston-area Jewish presidents of colleges: Rabbi Daniel L. Lehmann of Hebrew College, Leonard A. Schlesinger of Babson College, Jehuda Reinharz of Brandies University and Lawrence S. Bacow of Tufts University.

I’ve got universities on the brain lately as my own Drew has recently intensified our so-far lackluster work on our “Strategic Plan.” So this event caught my eye.

The HC website lists these questions as up for discussion at the event:

  • How will colleges and universities meet the challenges of the shifting paradigms in higher education?
  • What should their roles be in developing the next generation of Jewish leadership?
  • Students who have experienced Birthright Israel are ready for more engagement with Israel and with Jewish life; are we ready for them?
  • What aspects of higher education should the Jewish community support?

The first, second and fourth questions sound great. The third one is giving me some trouble.

First of all, it acknowledges a premise that I reject: that the Birthright is the source of engaged young Jews in America. It’s part of the clod of notions that spring forth from the idea that young Jews, especially college Jews, are not engaged with Jewish life, and that the only way to engage them is through Israel.

Second of all, and even more narrow-sighted, is this problem: Do any of these college presidents think that the only source of engaged Jewish students at their institutions is Birthright? If they’re focused on “are we ready for them [Birthright alumni]?” how is that going to affect their readiness for Jewish students engaged with Jewish life in some other way? And what does it even mean that they need to be ready?

These questions are not meant as rhetorical, by the way. I’m looking for y’all’s ideas on this. So if anyone goes to this, I’d love to hear how it goes.

Bibi’s hecklers

Five young Jews interrupted Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech at the General Assembly (GA) of Jewish federations yesterday. You can read the first-hand accounts by lead protestor and Jewlicious and ROI alum Rae Abileah, LA Jewish Journal editor Rob Eshman, and JTA’s Fundermentalist Jacob Berkman, among many others.

I will echo the comments by LA’s Eshman when I note that these protestors spoke in a language of Israel’s self-interest, setting them apart from the Muslim protestors at UC-Irvine earlier this year. The media statements by the protestors demonstrate — despite their chosen allegiances or tactics — thoughtfulness and rootedness in Jewish ethical culture. As Eshman reported, ‘ “What were they against?” one Israeli journalist in the audience asked rhetorically. “The loyalty oath? The occupation? Gaza? Most Jews would agree with them.” ‘ I and many others on Jewschool have made the occupation and many Israeli policies the topic of our consistent, vocal and stringent calls for reform.

I admire dedicated, assertive, moral student activists. The 1969 student sit-in of the GA resulted in reform of Jewish student program funding. Ultimately, it led to the expansion of Hillel. Many of those young leaders now head Jewish organizations and I’m honored to have some of them as mentors. But New Voices’ editor Ben Sales compares that event with today’s stunt, saying, “Far from articulating a positive and productive vision for the Jewish community, all they did was yell vapid sound bytes during a public event.”

I may have little taste for these theatrics. But for every five protestors who resort to dramatic headline seeking, there are dozens more like me. More »

Please Dont Bomb My Shul

Of late, for a variety of reasons, I haven’t gone to my Chicago shul much. Between indie-minyans and leading services for the Jewish elderly, there’s not been much occasion for me to enter the institutions into which I purportedly refuse to set foot…

Still its scary to learn of the plot this week by getting emails from them about these bomb threats.

Mr. Al-Quesadilla, please dont’ bomb the the shul that I don’t set foot in. If its not going to be there for future generations of Jooz to use, I want it to be because of my principled stand, or at least the one I am purported to take (until I too have kids), rather than a due to your clumsy but scary terrorism attempt.

At the very least, I would prefer the aleph-bet soup Jooish defense organizations to exploit this event by soliciting funds in the name of defending Jooz from the very real turbaned boogey-men under our beds and laser printers. That way even more of us can be turned off by heavy-handed scare tactics (like we haven’t had enough of that with the elections…). It is not without irony that I hear the whir of printer drums warming up to spit out millions of fear-filled solicitation letters.

Now, I have to write a paper for Stephen Cohen and my printer is running low. Can anyone send me a spare a toner cartridge?

Questions about the Jewish future

Questions I wish I could answer better:

1. What does the decline of COEJL and the rise of HAZON say about the dynamics in Jewish organizational life? Who is in a position to exploit those dynamics to push for more change at a faster pace, in fields other than the environment?

2. How will the rise of J Street affect the dynamics within JCRC’s, federations, synagogue Israel committees, Hillel and other places where Israel advocacy is a driving force but not the formal heart of the mission? Does anyone have a snapshot of what should or will be different than today?

3. How will the rising acceptance of LGBTQ Jews in the Jewish community mainstream affect the Orthodox/non-Orthodox divide?

4. Is there a chance that money spent on engaging less connected younger Jews will decided upon BY representatives of the target group instead of by older consultants and veteran communal agency staff members?

5. Is the rising generation of new leadership successfully mimicking the norms of the older generations, or demanding change as a condition of future engagement despite the short term consequence of not being promoted?

Just wondering.

Without Helen Thomases, would Abe Foxman still want to be Jewish?

Click to zoom

Click to zoom

Kudos to EV’s latest comfort zone-negating comic aimed at the ugly recesses of establishment Jewry’s view of Jews, Judaism, Israel and all those arrayed to wipe us out. Without the specter of Helen Thomases under the bed, would the previous generation of Jews have cared to be Jewish? Or would they, like our generation, opt-in and opt-out as merited by compelling relevance (or lack thereof) to our lives? And in searching for a way to make Jewish life compelling against a competitive array of interesting options, would Abe Foxman really mount an anti-Semite’s head as a beacon for all young Jews to see?