Editor’s Note: Inspired by this guest post, we’re looking for submissions from you – our creative, progressive readers- articulating a vision for a what a fearless Jewish future and community might look like. Email us at email@example.com with “Guest post” in the subject line. Look for posts on this subject from the Editors starting next week!
This is a guest post by Naomi Adland, a graduate student and Jewish professional living in Brooklyn, NY.
Three years ago, I sat down to write a personal statement for my application to the Wexner Graduate Fellowship, and poured out my heart in an essay about the importance of honoring and respecting the work of those who came before us, as those communal roots are the ones that support our future endeavors. This week I had the opportunity to attend the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America with my Wexner class – my first serious introduction to the world of Federation professionals and lay leaders, and a real chance to explore what it might look like to engage with an institution that has shaped what it means to be a Jew in the Diaspora. And 45 minutes before I left the conference yesterday, I was still waiting for someone – anyone – to articulate a compelling vision for the Jewish future that wasn’t rooted in fear.
In its own words, the GA is meant to “inspire and engage current and emerging Jewish leaders, tackle the most critical issues of the day and showcase the best of the Federation movement.” Despite the inherent complexity of programming for a varied Jewish community, it seems to me that delivering a compelling narrative at the GA should not be so hard. After all, the work of the Federation is integral to the health and wellbeing of our community. The Federation funds some of our most vital programs and institutions – social services for a vast array of populations, summer camps, schools, synagogues and more. I have heard the Federation system explained as the government of the North American Jewish community, meaning the GA is a three-day State of the Union address – a chance to articulate a vision for the coming year.
I was surprised to discover that the overwhelming narrative at the GA was not one of communal successes and impact, but rather one of fear. Ostensibly, the theme of the GA was “the world is our backyard.” Meant to evoke the importance of collective action, the exhibition hall was decorated like a backyard replete with picnic tables and fake picket fences. However, the three plenaries I attended over the course of two days and in breakout sessions, meals, and discussions in the hallway, the theme of collective action was consistently couched in the vocabulary of crisis. Be afraid of the imminent fall of the State of Israel. Be afraid of the dwindling Jewish population. Be afraid of BDS on campus. Be afraid of anyone who disagrees with our narrative. Be afraid of change. Be afraid.
Fear was present in the words of Michael Siegal, Chairman of JFNA, when he said he was “concerned that we have reached a plateau with interfaith families. Being Jewish is very much a numbers game, and some of the numbers should be keeping us all up at night.” It was in Vice President Joe Biden’s comparison of Israel to a survivor of domestic abuse, and it was in the words of the three young women, all campus leaders, who vocalized anxiety about being Jewish on campus while standing in front of a banner branded with a swastika underneath the words “Boycott Israel.”
Perhaps there are moments when it makes sense to turn to a narrative of fear. After the complex events of the summer’s war in Gaza, the tensions of the past few days in Jerusalem, and with rising anti-Semitism in Europe, it is understandable that our communal conversations touch on themes of conflict and survival. When we are concerned for our own safety, we tend to act swiftly and respond from a place of deep emotion.
Despite the recent indications to the contrary, the Jewish community is living in a context of unprecedented safety and opportunity in a larger number of places than ever before. In committing to a narrative of fear, we miss an opportunity to elevate what Judaism and the work of the Federation is actually about. In caring for an aging population, supporting Jewish education, and strengthening the global Jewish community, the Federation is living out deep Jewish values of justice rooted in the notion of b’tzelem elohim (that we are all created in the image of God), and creating and supporting communities of joy and vitality.
Arguing that “we must support the Federation because if we don’t, Judaism as we know it will disappear” assumes that Jews who support the Federation are incapable of recognizing the value of the sacred work the Federation system is doing, and makes it impossible for those who don’t already feel a connection to the community to create one. Rather than operate from a place of fear, the Federation should be fearless – articulating a vision for the coming years that includes not just the power of collective action as a defense strategy, but the power of collective action as a way to build relationships between disparate parts of the Jewish community, that engages with complex value questions in a serious, thoughtful fashion, and that roots the work of caring for members of our community in rich Jewish values and traditions. The Federation already has a powerful legacy and a compelling narrative. Why try and supplant that with a message that is so far off the mark?
New York City: Join the Jewish Multiracial Network on August 21st at their second parlor meeting (read about the first here) on allies, change making and privilege:
From the JMN:
“Allies are people who recognize the unearned privilege they receive from society’s patterns of injustice and take responsibility for changing these patterns. Being an ally is deliberate choice that requires intention and understanding. Join JMN in a frank dialogue on the “role” of allies, and how to effectively act to support of Jewish diversity issues. Our facilitators will assist participants in learning ways Allies can develop strategies to assist their understanding of the issues facing the Jews of Colors and Multiracial Jewish families.
We seek to assist allies in supporting a Jews of Color to create a Jewish community where ideas and strategies for enhancing diversity awareness are embraced.”
You must get tickets on Eventbrite, and this event is limited to 20 participants.
Leading tefillah for the first time is scary. Countless bar mitzvah boys, and increasing numbers of bat mitzvah girls, experience this fear as part of a rite of passage; facilitating a community in prayer marks their coming of age, their full adult membership in this community. Despite my familiarity with traditional Hebrew prayers and innumerable hours spent in shul, however, I did not lead any element of tefillah, nor did I read from the Torah, until I was seventeen — three weeks ago.
Growing up in a Modern Orthodox community and attending Modern Orthodox day schools, I was given tremendous gifts of Jewish literacy. I can read Biblical texts and accompanying commentaries. I can look up and understand halakhic rulings. With the help of a dictionary or two, I can make my way through a page of Talmud. But these skills did me little good in the synagogue. At prayer, I was a silent observer, able to mutter liturgy quickly and fluently, but never with the knowledge, confidence, or — most importantly — the opportunity to lead.
As I began to move in the world and become active in creating Jewish spaces, especially as I agitated to ensure that egalitarian tefillah was provided in as many contexts as possible, my inability to serve as a shlichat tzibbur or to leyn became a serious hindrance. I could plan a prayer service, but not lead it, coordinate leyners but not read from the Torah myself. This surprised people; I seemed, apparently, to be a person who is comfortable and competent in Jewish leadership positions, so how could I be neither in the synagogue?
I’ve always been a nervous performer. For as long as I can remember, school plays and class presentations were a source of terror. As I have grown older, I’ve become confident presenting about World War I to my history class, happy to announce a club meeting at morning announcements in school; the vestiges of my stage fright, however remain. I still opt out of plays, preferring to applaud my friends from the audience, and when asked to speak in front of large groups, I often demur. This anxiety carries over to tefillah — though I am fluent in the prayers, the thought of leading them alone prompts trepidation.
Ideally, membership in a community requires participation. Investment in a shul or a minyan asks one to step up, to take on a role in facilitating services. But is this a necessary prerequisite for egalitarianism? Should I have to participate in them to ensure that there are services which meet my basic moral standard of treating me like a person? This has been a dilemma of mine for the past year, as I press for egalitarianism but could not act out those principles myself.
On one hand, if I want a certain type of prayer community, it is my responsibility to create it. I cannot simply sit and wait for others to carry out my values in any context, but all the more so religiously. On the other hand, however, my commitment to egalitarianism is as an issue of fundamental equality. Must I be shul-competent to earn the right to a prayer service in which I am counted and treated as an equal adult Jew? By what calculus does one earn accommodation of her moral principles?
Ultimately, my desire to be fully literate in the language of the synagogue won out over my fear of performance, and I’ve now led weekday maariv and mincha. I was spurred to learn to leyn by a friend who simply insisted that I do it; the expectation that I needed the skill to be a full member of my Jewish community was a new one, one that every Orthodox bar mitzvah boy experiences. Every time I do it, it gets easier. I have not resolved my internal conflict — I still don’t believe that I need to earn the right to egalitarian tefillah, but now I am more competent to create it.
The creation of a truly egalitarian community requires the community to internally encourage and expect women, who are often raised without the skill and comfort with liturgy and Torah reading that our male peers have, to learn (and then teach) these abilities. Egalitarian communities must offer women education paired with expectation. One does not need high-level musical skill to lead weekday mincha. Leyning is, for many people, not as hard as it looks. There must be a balance: one should never have to earn her place in the synagogue, to be treated as full member of the community, through liturgical skill. But women are shortchanged when we are not expected to attain the skills and literacy that almost every observant thirteen-year-old boy learns.
Avigayil is a 2014 graduate of the Hebrew High School of New England. She is an alumna of the Bronfman Youth Fellowships and The Jewish Women’s Archive and Prozdor’s inaugural class of Rising Voices Fellows, as well as Drisha Institute’s Dr. Beth Samuels High School Programs. Avigayil plans to spend the upcoming academic year studying at Midreshet Ein Hanatziv, after which she will attend Yale University.
Tonight at the JCC in Manhattan, the Jewish Multiracial Network will co sponsor a panel called Mixed Multitudes: Race and Ethnicity in the Jewish Community in which panelists Erika Davis, Yitz “Y-Love” Jordan, Eric Greene, Tamara Fish, and Deborah Vishnevsky will discuss their experiences being a Jew of Color in light of communal issues, such as continuity and identity.
Here’s our 2012 interview with Erika Davis, about racism, real diversity, and the hard work of making change.
Q: Tell us what we can find at Black, Gay and Jewish.
ED: I started to write Black, Gay and Jewish when I realized that converting to Judaism and talking about Jewish things was taking up a lot of space on my now defunct blog about lesbian dating in NYC (I’d just come out). I started writing it as a sort of personal journal through the process of converting to Judaism and also because there was only one other blog penned by a black, gay and Jewish woman. (This isn’t to say that there weren’t awesome blogs out there about conversion; there are so many that it boggles the mind. A few are written by gay Jews and by Jews of Color, but rarely did I find anything on the web that had all three.) More »
This is a guest post by Avigayil Halpern.
One of my most vivid memories from elementary school is obstacle courses in gym class. Riding on small, flat, scooters and propelling ourselves with our hands we would wind our way through a series of foam pads and balance beams in relay races, an activity that I found more fun than the usual sports activities. I don’t remember these races for the fun, however. On a regular basis, my skirt would catch in the wheels of the scooters as I raced my peers through the obstacles, and this is what sticks in my head.
I’ve worn skirts to school every day since first grade. The skirts/school connection is so strong in my mind that I have had nightmares about accidentally showing up at school in a pair of jeans, the Orthodox day school girl equivalent of the showing-up-at-school-in-your-underwear dream. It has been such a part of the natural order of my world that back when my skirt got caught in the scooter wheels, I shrugged and pulled it out again, calmly, accepting that the dress code would make me fall a little behind the boy racing me from the other team. More »
A group of young, Jewish, Toronto-based leaders who are active in building dynamic Jewish programming for young adults expected to get support from Moishe House for the work they do, but were surprised instead when they were turned down to be Toronto’s first Moishe House.
The Toronto folks are looking to inspire more people to speak out and convince Moishe House to help them organize for the Toronto community, which was home to nearly 200,000 Jews as of 2011.
Here’s their letter:
The Toronto Folks on Howland
This is a Guest Post by Edan Nissen, a graduate of Hashomer Hatzair Australia, now living in Israel. Edan has a BA from Monash University, Majoring in Politics and History of the Middle East with a Minor in Conflict Resolution.
A teacher stops a history classroom in the middle, the students are learning about the various tragedies of history. “Could all the students please stand up, we are going to have a minute of silence for the victims of the Nakba”. Most of the students stand is silence, thinking of the relatives that were affected, their homes destroyed and families that were forced to flee. Others had relatives that were killed. Two Students stand to the side, and during the silence they begin chatting. Their classmates are openly outraged, jaws are dropped but most students stand silently in their outrage. For these two students, it’s not that they don’t respect the loss of life, it’s that the tragedy of the Nakba is not relevant to them. They aren’t of Palestinian descent; they have their own national tragedies.
Shocked, aren’t you? This is a true story, well almost. The differences between this scenario and what actually happened are relatively minor. Swap the Nakba for the Holocaust, and the two boys for Israeli Palestinians and this scene has been played out several times, over several years and in several different locations. Yom Ha’Shoa, the day of remembrance for the Holocaust, was about a month ago and this happened again. I received a call from a friend who was in shock as two Arab students in her course spoke to each other while the nation- wide siren marking Yom Ha’Shoa rang out. The act was a mark of incredible disrespect for the loss of life, and destruction.
Nearly all of the issues I raised in my 2011 post, “The Price of Jew$chool,” which lamented the state of Jewish Day School tuition and the weaknesses of its alternatives in formal Jewish education, unfortunately remain quite relevant today. Then again, statements such as the 25-year-old Greek Chief-Rabbi elect‘s recent reflection that the internet was his Jewish education, stand as sobering reminders that beyond the U.S. and Israel, Jewish education, even in its most modest forms, is a scare resource. According the 2013 Pew Report Forum findings on Jewish life in America, 23% of Jews report having attended Jewish Day School or yeshiva in their youth, and nearly 60% have attended some other form of (non-Day School) formal Jewish education. What does the future hold? How can we respond to this continuing crisis?
The Price of Jew$school
Before you panic, rest assured: we’re not about to start charging you when you read more than 20 posts per month. No, we’re talking about the ever-skyrocketing expense of sending children to Jewish day school in the U.S.
With $7,000 you might be able to fly back and forth to Israel six times, but for the same price you could stay put in Overland Park KS and learn at the Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy for one year. One thousand dollars more will buy you—show them what they’ve won—one year of 1-8th grade education at the Cincinnati Hebrew Day School. If you want to send your child to the Solomon Schechter of Atlanta, be prepared to shell out upwards of $17,000 per year starting with first grade. $26,650 might be a fine price for a Toyota RAV4 Sport, but did you know that for the same price, you can ‘kaneh likha rav’—or maybe even four—and enroll for one year of high school at the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy in Bryn Mawr, PA? $29, 955 would be a steal for a small, foreclosed apartment in a depressed real estate market, but it could also buy you one year’s education at Milken community high school in LA. These numbers don’t even include the usual “give and get” $1,000+ minimums typically imposed upon day school families on a yearly basis. More »
This is a guest post by Shani Ben Or, the Community Coordinator for Kol HaNeshama, Jerusalem’s flagship congregation of the Reform Movement, where she also serves as a cantor, studies Critical, Feminist Pedagogy at the Kibbutzim College, and is a fellow in the inaugural Jerusalem cohort of the Takum social justice beit midrash. Translated from the Hebrew by Aryeh Bernstein.
A few years ago, I volunteered in a youth center for teens at risk in south Tel Aviv. The constituency served by the center represented the sectors most oppressed and discriminated against by Israeli society. In many respects, this encounter was life-changing for me, but was also wound up with numerous challenges, among the most significant of which related to gender. Every week, I was greeted with comments about my appearance, my beauty, and my body. I received countless “offers”, of varying degrees of obscenity. It was clear to me that these teenage boys were testing my boundaries in a smart and sophisticated way. When push came to shove, they touched on my greatest place of vulnerability with regard to them. In every other way, the power hierarchy in this youth center was clear and priviliged me: I was a volunteer and they were the troubled youth being mentored and counseled. The power hierarchy in Israeli society was just as clear and to my privilege: I am an Ashkenazic Jew in Israel from an American background. However, in one respect, the power relationship privileged them and put them in a position of power over me: I am a woman and they are men. They tipped the scales of the power balance to assert some power over a person who in many ways has power over them, and it worked: as a woman, with my own experiences of gender oppression, I was affected by their actions. They succeeded. More »
Washington, D.C. – May 11th, 2014 – Following pressure from the Open Hillel campaign, Hillel International President and CEO Eric Fingerhut announced that Hillel will create an “Israel Strategy Committee” as well as a Student Cabinet. The Israel Strategy Committee will convene students and Hillel professionals to make recommendations on improving programing on Israel-Palestine, while the Student Cabinet will represent general student concerns in Hillel International. The Open Hillel campaign responded to these announcements with two statements commending Hillel International for these changes and urging Hillel to ensure that these bodies are more than just token gestures to students. More »
(By Erika Davis, Board member, Jewish Multiracial Network)
“Wait, you’re Jewish?
“Yes, I’m Jewish.”
“But you don’t look Jewish.”
“Well, what does Jewish look like to you?”
It’s been a long time since I’ve had to have that conversation, yet it’s a conversation I’ve had several times in my life. And I’m not alone. Most multiracial Jews and Jews of Color have been told that they don’t look Jewish, which always begs the question, “What does a Jew look like?” The Jewish Multiracial Network,
a 17 year-old organization whose mission is to spread awareness about Multiracial Jewish families and Jews of Color through education has released a video that answers the “Jewish Question” in a minute-thirty seconds beautifully. The fact is, there isn’t one way to look Jewish.
Check out the latest from Open Hillel- this video reminding us there is indeed more than one way to be Jewish, and more than one way to talk about Israel/Palestine.
The story is told of a very prominent rabbi in Europe before World War II who was approached by a freshly minted colleague who had just been hired to supervise the baking of matzohs for Passover. The younger rabbi asked: “There are many, many laws governing the baking of matzah for Passover. Is there any one which I should be especially strict about?” The elder rabbi looked at him intently and said: “Make sure the women who roll the dough get paid a decent wage. This is probably a good deal of their income and they have many mouths to feed. If the matzah bakers are not paid well, the matzah cannot be kosher.”
It should not be surprising that there is such concern placed on the dignity and well-being of workers in the run-up to the holiday which celebrates freedom from slavery. The Babylonian Talmud itself quotes the fourth century Sage Raba as grounding a worker’s freedom to break a work contract in the idea of the Exodus from Egypt, the freedom from slavery.
It is distressing then, that in the weeks before Passover the Perelman Jewish Day School (PJDS) has unilaterally decided to cease recognizing the union that has represented its teachers for decades. (Stories here, here, here, and here) In a letter to parents, the board president wrote that the board had “voted to transition the management of our faculty from a union model governed by a collective bargaining agreement to an independent model guided by our school administrators under a new Faculty Handbook.” More »
From our friends in Boston comes a completely secular curriculum of Jewish history, designed by the long-time educator at Boston Workman’s Circle, Mitchell Silver. Join them at their launch party:
Come join us for dessert on
Saturday, April 12 – 7:30 pm
at Boston Workmen’s Circle
(1762 Beacon Street, Brookline)
for a book launch
to celebrate Boston Workmen’s Circle’s publication of
The Veterans of History:
A Young Person’s History of the Jews
by Mitchell Silver
“Written for young adults, The Veterans of History is a compelling narrative of Jewish history told from a Jewish cultural perspective. Covering biblical times to the present, it helps young Jews to identify with and place themselves in the broad sweep of Jewish experience.”
Buy it here and follow them on Facebook. Stay tuned for Jewschool’s review…
Wishing you and yours a most joyous Shushan Purim from New York!
The following Purim schtick video is brought to you by some of your favourite Jews from the Jewish Theological Seminary:
I just stumbled across a provocative piece from a few years ago by my teacher, Dr. Devora Steinmetz, published on the blog (“Yidion“) of Ravsak, the network of community Jewish day schools. Titled “It Can’t Be About Pluralism”, it argues that pluralism is a misleading term because of its multiplicity of meanings, and an insufficient one as an expression of institutional values. I think that this is a very good challenge to progressive communities and institutions who often wave the pluralism banner and, perhaps, hide behind it, though it may end up being empty. I encourage you to read the post in its entirety at Ravsak. Here is one, key paragraph:
“A school needs a core, and pluralism cannot be the core. Schools need to talk more about the way they envision their core, and talk of pluralism should not be allowed to divert our attention from what may be a difficult discussion of what is at the core. To my mind, the core of a Jewish school must be talmud Torah, Torah study writ large, Torah study that includes the formation of a person who is steeped in the practices of the tradition, who experiences him or herself as a participant in the ongoing practice of learning Torah and the ongoing quest to understand Torah, and who continually tries to reshape him or herself as a person guided by the teachings and the spirit of Torah. Pluralism—whether it has an epistemological, communal, or pedagogical meaning—can be an element of the mode of talmud Torah in which children at the school are engaged. But pluralism has to be about something—has to describe the way in which we do something—and at a Jewish school it should be about the search to know and to understand Torah, the quest to grow as Jews, and the commitment to serve others and to help shape a vibrant Jewish community.”
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.
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.
Mimi Arbeit is a Ph.D. student at Tufts in Child Development, where she studies adolescent sexuality, sexual health, and sexual violence prevention. She is a freelance sexuality educator and also works locally to promote and strengthen sexuality education in public schools.
The Debrief, Mimi’s column on sex, dating, and relationships, comes out every Wednesday on JewishBoston.com. She loves dancing, taking walks around the city, and listening to people share their stories. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet @MimiArbeit.
Jewschool: What’s the intersection of progressive values, sex ed and Jewish identity for you?
Mimi Arbeit: Progressive values, sex ed, and promoting healthy relationships is at the core of my Jewish involvement. My commitment to feminist and queer values is central to who I am as a person and the work I try to do in the world. I became involved with Judaism as a teenager, but departed from Jewish spaces in college when I realized how much the tradition clung to harmful gender norms and patriarchal practices. For years, I didn’t know what to do. Jewish community can be beautiful and powerful, but I needed a Jewish community in which I could bring all of my passions, and in which my own desire for personhood and my commitment to building a better world would not be eclipsed by a reification of problematic Jewish traditions. The communities I found in Boston allowed me to be a part of exploring the kinds of Judaism that hold more possibility for me – especially the Moishe Kavod House, Keshet, and JewishBoston.com.
JS: Before writing at The Debrief, you wrote a blog called Sex Ed Transforms. What can we find there?
MA: I started Sex Ed Transforms five years ago when I was working in a public school teaching health and sex ed. I used this space to give words to my dream, my work, and my analysis. I discussed my experience with sex ed in public school, my reflections on what I was reading, my own personal growth in activities such as body-positive challenge, and my sex ed for young adults work at the Moishe Kavod House. In the month before my wedding, I wrote extensively about my experience grappling with sexism, materialism, and interpersonal challenges throughout the planning process. Last year, I made it into the final round of the Feministing “So You Think You Can Blog” contest by submitting a post on queer identity and a post on 50 Shades of Grey. Although I did not become a regular contributor to Feministing, I soon after started writing The Debrief weekly at JewishBoston.com, and now I post on Sex Ed Transforms much more rarely.
JS: What’s been the most difficult topic (you can name a few) you’ve handled at The Debrief? What’s your favorite?
MA: The Debrief is a sex, dating, and relationships column posted every Wednesday at JewishBoston.com. I love facilitating this space in which I can invite other community members to share their stories, questions, and reflections, either by name or anonymously. I am honored every time people choose to share their stories with me, and I am deeply moved by what they express.
I also write several pieces myself. The most difficult pieces to write have been the two addressing issues of trauma and violence. I wrote a post connecting the ritual of spilling wine at the Passover seder with the Steubenville rape trial, and soon after that I wrote a post about different kinds of trauma in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing. It was a difficult spring.
My favorite posts of the ones I wrote myself are the pieces that push boundaries. One of my earliest posts asked, “Can hookups be holy?,” and I wrote a post about National Masturbation Month in May. I also have enjoyed the opportunity to share some of my own process. Elul, the last month of the Jewish calendar, is a time set aside for reflection. I took the entire month to reflect on sex, dating, relationships, and building community, and continued this tone through Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I gained a lot, personally, from working on these posts and sharing them with my readers.
I am always looking for new story ideas and new contributions, so I encourage readers to email me at email@example.com anytime.
JS: What do you think is the current state of the conversation about sex in Jewish communities? Why do you think it is what it is? What advice would you give to folks who want to change the status quo?
MA: I can only hope to learn that a wide variety of dynamic, engaging, critical conversations about sex are currently taking place in Jewish communities worldwide. But I also know that many Jewish communities are not having such conversations. I think we are held back because we are nervous, embarrassed, ashamed, afraid, or we don’t know the words to use to express how we feel. We try to say what we think we are supposed to say, and we try to do what we think we are supposed to do, and when we say or do something different from what’s expected of us, we too often get told to stop.
If we want to change the status quo, and I certainly do, we need to start with deep sharing and listening. Really taking risks to hear each other, understand the complexity of our own and each other’s lived experiences, ask caring and probing questions of each other, and speak. Share. Try to explain even when none of the words we know feel quite right. Name that – say that none of the words feel quite right, and commit to speaking and listening anyway.
With the foundation of a community committed to listening and speaking, speaking and listening, we need to pursue conversations that are inclusive of all voices. Wait, not only inclusive, but structured through a model of equity. Working to merely include marginalized voices will still leave those voices marginalized. We need to find a way to actively structure a new conversation about sex and relationships with people who have previously been marginalized now at the center. As part of that process, we will need trauma-informed ways to talk about sex. So many members of our community are survivors of sexual trauma of different forms – more people than we even realize. When we talk about sex, it can be a wonderful and positive part of our lives, and it can also be a place of violence and violation. We need to find out how to talk about all of that.
JS: What, for you, is at stake in this work?
MA: Acceptance. Humanity. Connection. The possibility of a life lived honestly and powerfully. World peace.