On Gender and “America’s Most Inspiring Rabbis”

This is a guest post by Miriam Cantor-Stone. Miriam serves as the Education Program Assistant at the Jewish Women’s Archive in Brookline, MA. When she’s not working at JWA, she teaches third graders about immigration and Jewish culture at the Boston Workmen’s Circle Shule/Sunday School and sings in Voices Rising, an all-female feminist chorus.

In an age where fewer people seem to be joining, let alone attending, synagogues, the writers from the Forward call their list of “America’s Most Inspiring Rabbis, “an affirmation that despite the worrying mega-trends, our spiritual leaders are connecting with Jews and strengthening communities across America.”

I don’t think a list like this a bad idea. If anything, it might help connect people to their rabbis or potential future rabbis. It’s fair to say the Jewish people appreciate good press, and it’s nice to see Rabbis from all denominations represented. Frustratingly, what wasn’t very well represented was gender. The list features 28 rabbis from across North America (mostly New York, which isn’t much of a surprise) and only 9 women.

I’m sure the creators of this list will have plenty to say in their defense. But what excuse could they have? Women have quickly become an important presence in the rabbinate, even in Orthodoxy. Yes, women rabbis are still making new and crucial strides on the pulpit (see the fabulous Rabbi Angela Warnick Buchdahl at NYC’s Central Synagogue) but women rabbis are more accepted today than in the 50 years since Rabbi Sally Priesand was ordained at Hebrew Union College.

It’s fair to say that people frustrated by this list aren’t asking for a re-do. The list features some incredible Jewish leaders who all certainly deserve to be recognize for the work they do. I just hope next time the Forward will better represent the women involved in keeping Judaism alive as best as they can, just like their male counterparts.

 

 

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 »

Throwback Thursday: Kung Fu Jew on “Why I Post the Worst of Israeli News”

Here at Jewschool we have a long, illustrious history, 11 1/2 years of rambunctious, playful, earnest, free-thinking, alternative riffing on contemporary Jewish life.  It’s worth taking stock of where we’ve come from, and in that light, the Jewschool editors are now inaugurating a new feature:   Jewschool Throwback Thursdays.  Every week, one of us will dig up a classic post from the Jewschool vault that we think is still timely and relevant, or that would benefit reconsideration, with some years of growth and maturity.

One of the signature features of Jewschool culture is criticizing things we think are destructive in the Jewish world, airing our dirty laundry out of the belief that it can be cleaned.  This becomes especially contentious when it comes to criticism regarding Israel. In recent months, the Jewish world has seen a  great deal of mudslinging and controversy over “Open Hillel” battles, un-invitations of speakers deemed too critical of Israel, or not critical enough of advocates of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel, etc., and Jewschool has covered this closely.  For this kick-of Throwback Thursday, we bring you a classic piece from five years ago by our current Editor-in-Chief articulating, in as clear and forceful a way as I know, why we criticize the Israeli government when we feel it deserves it.  The piece drew a blizzard of comments in its time; we hope it stokes conversation again now:

Why I Post the Worst of Israeli News

by Kung Fu Jew, Thursday, February 19, 2009

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.

a freylikhen shushan purim!

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:

Why Synagogue? A reply to a reply (a provocation)

What to do about shul? And about prayer? And about God?
The Jewish people are in crisis. The synagogue is in crisis. And, of course, Pew. One need not even remember the whole name of this latest diagnosis of the demise of our people. It suffices to just hint at it to strike terror in the heart of the terror-stricken.
Amichai Lau-Lavie has the latest salvo. He has put together something called Lab/Shul which is apparently the evolving answer to the problem. What however is the problem? It seems that the problem is shrinking synagogue membership or affiliation or some such. Why is this a problem? Because Pew said it was. Well, actually, Pew just said it was happening. Actually Pew (currently the reified voice of Jewish demise) said that just like the rest of America, Jews were affiliating religiously, or actually that they were identifying themselves as having a religion, at a lower rate than before. So this might just be a problem like rising tides is a problem. It is a phenomenon, but its only a problem if your house is close to the ocean at low tide. The solution then is not to try to stop the tide from rising. The solution probably has something to do with moving your house.
According to Lau-Lavie the problem is that there are too many bars to entry. The synagogue is a wonderful place, potentially, but the rabbis just prattle on and on, and people mention God. A lot. Lau-Lavie’s friends don’t like that. At all. The answer is a place where other terms are used instead of “God,” and maybe there is more music, and the translations are tweaked so that even if God is in the Hebrew, “source” or “creator” is in the English translation. So that, perhaps, a famous Israeli pop-musician will sing a beautiful unplugged version of Kol Nidrei—despite the fact that he is singing a bit of legalese that blessedly few people understand—and the emotion will suffice for the shul which wants “authenticity”. More »

Open Hillel vs Hillel the Defender, Episode One Million: David Harris-Gershon Goes to Santa Barbara

Just in case you’re keeping a scrap book of everything being said about the whole Open Hillel controversy, or you’re just interested in the broader issues about American Jews’ relationship to Israel and the place of dissent in the organized community, check out this smart piece in Tikkun by David Harris-Gershon.  (Of course, if you’re like me, you may shake your head wondering how we got to a place where a writer as talented and thoughtful as David actually has to spend so much time on Planet Obvious.  It’s embarrassing.)

Avid Jewschoolians may recall my October review of Harris-Gershon’s book, What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife?  A Memoir, which narrates the events surrounding his wife’s injury in a terrorist attack in Jerusalem, healing, grief, and emotional breakdown leading to an obsessive pursuit of the apparently remorseful attacker and culminating with meeting his family.  Not surprisingly, this book has led Harris-Gershon, a journalist with The Daily Kos and Tikkun, on a speaking circuit in Jewish communities.  Recently, Santa Barbara Hillel invited him to speak, then discovered that Harris-Gershon, a two-state advocate, had written sympathetically about economic boycott as legitimate, non-violent protest, and consequently threatened to revoke his invitation and bar his entry into the Hillel building unless he made a public statement clarifying his positions on BDS.  This is probably too much build-up already; just read what he has to say about the episode here.

About Hillel’s Israel Guidelines

After Swarthmore Hillel’s decision to break from Hillel’s rules regarding conversation about Israel, I sent a letter to Hillel’s President and CEO, Eric Fingerhut by clicking send on a message as part of Open Hillel’s campaign to open Hillel. The response was swift, cordial, perhaps prepackaged , and it suggested I take a look at Hillel’s Israel Guidelines page.

So I did and I came across this wonderfully written paragraph:

Political Pluralism

Hillel welcomes a diversity of student perspectives on Israel and strives to create an inclusive, pluralistic community where students can discuss matters of interest and/or concern about Israel and the Jewish people in a civil manner. We encourage students’ inquiry as they explore their relationship with Israel. We object to labeling, excluding or harassing any students for their beliefs and expressions thereof. As an indispensible partner to the university, Hillel seeks to facilitate civil discourse about Israel in a safe and supportive college environment that is fertile for dialogue and learning.

It sounds as though they want to create some sort of inclusive, pluralistic space for students to discuss matters of interest and concern surrounding Israel. Great.

But the next section entitled “Standards of Partnership” seems to disagree with the previous section:

Hillel welcomes, partners with, and aids the efforts of organizations, groups, and speakers from diverse perspectives in support of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. Hillel will not partner with, house, or host organizations, groups, or speakers that as a matter of policy or practice:

First of all they won’t let anyone talk who will “Deny the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized borders.” Which seems reasonable at first, right? But of course this means that a speaker such as Israel’s Minister of Economy, Naftali Bennett cannot be hosted by Hillel or Hillel’s partners as Minister Bennett does not support Israeli democracy. As well, the continuation of the occupation is quite possibly the policy that puts Israel’s security and borders at the most risk, so this list of banned speakers now must include a plethora of current and past Israeli government officials, ministers, members of Knesset, and a swath of authors, professors and other public voices that support continuation of the occupation.

And of course, anyone who would try to “Delegitimize, demonize, or apply a double standard to Israel” need not apply.  I (honestly) wonder if Hillel’s version of ‘demonizing’ is meant to give Hillel staff space to put a stop to portrayals of Israel as the root of all evil in the world, or if it just a handy “d” word, so bereft of meaning that it can be applied to any, even much needed, negative talk about Israel. And I wonder if there is such a threat of delegitimization that it needs to be one of the “d’s”  on this list. A recent report posits that its not such a big deal in the world today. Either way, I suppose this means that Alan Dershowitz can’t speak at Hillel events anymore since he has gone on record with the truly golden double standard that Israel should disregard international law.

The list continues with the denial of space to anyone who would “Support boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against the State of Israel.” Shouldn’t Hillel stick to censoring people based on the content of their speeches and the aims of their tactics? Has Hillel thought about what it means to ban people for supporting a set of tactics? I mean, some of these are tactics that are supported by the North American Jewish establishment when aimed at others. So it’s not the tactics themselves that bother Hillel, otherwise JFNA CEO, Jerry Silverman would be on the list of banned speakers. It seems that Hillel has set up one standard for discussing sanctions on Israel and another for discussing sanctions on Iran. Perhaps someone should coin a term for when you have one standard for one thing and another for another. I wonder, does this rule include those who support a boycott of Israel’s policies? If so, then Hillel can kiss Peter Beinart goodbye.  Does this include Israeli academics? Wouldn’t that be ironic given the hullabaloo over the ASA boycott decision.

The last point bans partnering with those that “Exhibit a pattern of disruptive behavior towards campus events or guest speakers or foster an atmosphere of incivility.” I guess they mean people who shout at speakers and stuff like that, but I can’t help but think of the pattern of disruption that  Hillel itself has displayed when dealing with hosting productive dialogue on Israel, the occupation, BDS and other issues that quite obviously are “matters of interest and/or concern” for a great many of us.

If Hillel is serious about these rules they should be sure not invite speakers like Naftali Bennett, Binyamin Netanyahu, Alan Dershowitz and others that hurt Israel with their anti-democratic, pro-occupation, double standards. My guess is that these types of speakers will keep getting invites though. So why not open the space up to other types of speakers who are also not so guided by Hillel’s lines?

A civil atmosphere from an educational community space demands open dialogue. These guidelines are imprecise and leave room for abuse. This list makes it easy to exclude and to label. It ensures that Hillel will be closed off to many who come looking for open ideas, a tradition of debate, and an emphasis on justice, peace and the finest of Jewish thought in the discourse on Israel.

 

A. Daniel Roth, 2006 Winner of Hillel of Greater Toronto’s Sydney Mendick Memorial Award for Building Pluralism and Diversity, is an educator and journalist living in South Tel Aviv. He was born and raised in Toronto and lived in a commune of the Hashomer Hatzair movement in New York City. Daniel is a member of the All That’s Left collective and a learner/organizer with This is Not an Ulpan. You can find more of his writing and photography at allthesedays.org and follow him on twitter  @adanielroth.

 

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 »

The Forward’s 2013 Salary Survey, Round 1: Registering the Gender Gap

“Things gonna change; it’s apparent, and all the transparent gonna be seen through.
Let God redeem you, keep your deen true.
Watch out what you cling to; you can get the green too.  Observe how a queen do…
You could get the money, you could get the power, but keep your eyes on the final hour.” — Lauryn Hill (“Final Hour”)

Jane Eisner and her good crew at The Forward have published their fifth annual salary survey, listing the 62 top-earning executives of American, Jewish non-profit organizations and their salaries.  The main two questions emerging from these annual surveys are whether the salaries paid to our community’s leaders are appropriate, excessive, or insufficient, and why the gender gap remains so significant.

This year’s survey is accompanied, for the first time, by statistical analysis by Wharton Business School statistics Professor Abraham Wyner and his student Tamara Pier, quantifying pretty accessibly which CEO’s are overpaid in relation to the expected salary for an organization of the size they run.  Wyner and his team also tackle the gender gap, quantifying how much of it should be attributed to the fact that when women run Jewish organizations, they tend to be smaller organizations, and how much should be attributed to other factors, such as sex discrimination in salary.

For what I hope is just round one of processing of this information here in Jewschool, I’m not jumping to conclusions yet about which, if any, of the salaries on this list is excessive and what kind of waste is going on in Jewish philanthropy, etc., as I don’t feel that I have sufficient command of the market data for how much non-profit CEO’s should be paid in order to recruit top people, what salaries need to be in different cities based on cost of living, etc.

I would like to home in on the gender data, just to focus our attention toward a productive strategy conversation toward communal repair.  A few disturbing observations: More »

Open Hillel Responds to AIPAC and Hillel’s new Partnership

Open Hillel is a student-led campaign to change Hillel’s policies to better reflect our community’s values of pluralism and inclusivity. The statement below is a response to “Working Together to Expand Support for Israel on Campus,” written byHillel’s President and CEO Eric Fingerhut AIPAC’s Leadership Development Director. The article announces a new partnership between Hillel and AIPAC.

 

Open Hillel Responds to AIPAC and Hillel’s new Partnership

Hillel has consistently demonstrated an admirable commitment to religious pluralism, welcoming students who span the full spectrum of Jewish religious practices and beliefs and encouraging students to connect with Judaism in ways that are meaningful to them. We are worried that this pluralistic spirit, so beneficial to Hillel and the Jewish community, is lacking in the political arena. In particular, we are deeply troubled by Hillel President and CEO Eric Fingerhut and AIPAC Leadership Development Director Jonathan Kessler’s recent declaration that Hillel and AIPAC “are working together to strategically and proactively empower, train and prepare American Jewish students to be effective pro-Israel activists on and beyond the campus.” We fear that this new partnership will alienate Jewish students whose views do not align with those of AIPAC, stifle discussion and debate on issues concerning Israel-Palestine, and undermine Hillel’s commitment to creating an inclusive community.

AIPAC’s policy positions are highly controversial among Jewish college students and the American Jewish community at large. Thus, if Hillel operates with AIPAC’s definition of “pro-Israel” as the benchmark for what is and is not acceptable within the Jewish community on campus, it will alienate many Jewish students. For instance, Point 6 of AIPAC’s 2012 Action Plan calls for “the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s undivided capital.” However, since Palestinians also claim Jerusalem as their capital, many students believe that Jerusalem should be divided or shared. Indeed, 82% of American Jews support a two-state solution with an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem in exchange for full diplomatic recognition of Israel by the surrounding countries. Similarly, AIPAC’s national council voted down (by a large majority) a measure calling on Israel to dismantle “illegal settlement outposts,” the small minority of settlements that are illegal under Israeli law – not to mention, of course, that it tacitly supports the rest of the Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories, all of which are illegal under international law. In contrast, nearly three times as many U.S. Jews believe that settlement construction hurts Israel’s security as do believe that it helps. Hillel is an umbrella organization serving all Jewish students, as its vision and mission statements express. AIPAC supporters can and must have a voice in Hillel. But that voice is just one voice; it is not and cannot be THE voice.

In their article, Fingerhut and Kessler describe the AIPAC-Hillel partnership as strategically necessary to combat “anti-Israel” activity on campus. However, in order for Jewish students to truly engage with Israel in a thoughtful manner, we should have the opportunity to hear a wide range of perspectives on Israel-Palestine — including voices that speak to Israel’s shortcomings and criticize its policies. For instance, in pointing to “anti-Israel organizing” at Stanford University, we assume that Fingerhut and Kessler refer to a national conference held at Stanford by Students for Justice in Palestine. Though SJP takes controversial positions, it raises important questions about the Occupation and human rights abuses in the Palestinian Territories. Many Jewish students (and American Jews in general) from across the political spectrum care deeply about these issues; indeed, many American Jews oppose and protest the Occupation. While some seek to write off conferences and events like these as malevolent and silence their efforts, we believe that Hillel, the campus center for all Jewish students, should provide a space for discussion and debate so that students can better understand the complexity of the situation in Israel-Palestine. As one Jewish student at Stanford explained last spring, when the Jewish community refuses to talk about controversial issues, it creates an image of unity but actually divides the community and alienates students who hold ‘dissident’ views or who simply are looking for honest and open discussion.

We also are saddened that AIPAC, in Fingerhut and Kessler’s piece, implied that the success of Hillel at Stanford’s Shabbat Across Differences somehow justifies this new AIPAC-Hillel partnership. Part of what made that Shabbat event so wonderful was that it was not run by AIPAC or any other one Israel/Palestine-related advocacy group. Students of all different political persuasions, as well as Hillel staff, worked together to create that Shabbat — and we believe that that is a model for other schools to follow. The picture that the article painted, of Hillel needing AIPAC to rally more students on campus in support of their form of pro-Israel advocacy, was not the reality and it should not be in the future.

AIPAC deserves a place within Hillel, as one of many voices on Israel-Palestine. However, given AIPAC’s specific and narrow policy agenda, it should not define what it means to be “pro-Israel.” Even more fundamentally, no political advocacy organization should set the boundaries of what is encouraged, acceptable, and forbidden within the Jewish community on campus; and we worry that this partnership means that AIPAC will be asked to do so. Just as, at Shabbat dinner, students of all denominations come together, share their experiences, and learn from one another; Hillel should encourage students with different political views to come together and discuss relevant issues for the sake of dialogue and mutual understanding. Ultimately, a strong community is one that acknowledges and embraces its own diversity.

 

Those Cufflinks

Last year a friend who had just finished participating in a Birthright program was telling me of his harrowing journey and mentioned that they had gone to the City of David. I said something along the lines of, “Right, Silwan. The tour through people’s backyards” in a tone that implied that I thought my friend, a fellow politically active organizer, would know what I was talking about. But, instead, he said something like, “Wait, that was Silwan?”

It became clear at that moment that the JNF’s aim via subsidiary support for ELAD to dispossess Palestinians of their homes in Silwan and replace them with settlers and a tourist site at the City of David was working. The process is barely noticeable to those who don’t know to look, which is most people. More »

“We wanted to be both inclusive to people who may not raise their hands as feminists”

The tagline of this year’s Jewish Feminist Alliance (JOFA) 8th annual gathering on Dec 7-8 has sparked a conversation: “It’s not just for feminists anymore.”

Long time JOFA supporter Jennifer Moran’s Facebook feed blew up when she posted this status:  ”Just received an ad for the 8th International JOFA Conference, which proclaims, ‘It’s not just for feminists anymore…’ How I wish that I could convince my fellow women’s rights activists to stop disparaging, diminishing, or distancing themselves from feminism.” Others wondered if JOFA’s mission had changed, if social norms in the Orthodox community had led JOFA to shift its recruitment strategy away from the “radical” notion of feminism.

What’s the motivation behind this tagline and what’s happening at the conference?  We spoke with Sarah Blechner, Marketing Chair for the upcoming conference. Blechner was raised in an Orthodox feminist household and has attended JOFA conferences since she was in high school.

 

Jewschool: What can we expect from this year’s JOFA conference that’s different from previous years? 

Sarah Blechner: Whereas many of the past conferences have focused on the Orthodox community writ large, this year, while we will still be tackling those large, community issues, we are also talking in a much more personal way than ever before. We are really looking forward to bringing many of the “big” issues down to an individual level and discussing how many of these issues impact the everyday, the individual, and the quieter moments. More »

“Ya’alili” and the cultural poetics of Ashkenazi hegemony

Kosher supermarkets are curious sites of cultural consumption.  And the upscale supermarket, Pomegranate, is no exception to the rule.  Displaying a bag from Pomegranate is a visible social marker of Bourdieuian “taste”–a type of conspicuous consumption not found at KRM Kollel or other affordable kosher supermarkets in Brooklyn.  As explained in a well-deserved critique published in The Forward about a David Brooks article in The New York Times, Pomegranate caters to the top 1% of the religious community.

After attending a Hasidic friend’s wedding recently, I wish to return to a song newly minted in the religious wedding circuit repertoire, “Ya’alili” (performed by the Chabad band, 8th Day), where the aisles of Pomegranate become a dizzying dance floor of choreographed Jewish multiculturalism:

I learned of the song when it was released two years ago.  I’m partial to it, but not simply because a friend of mine dances in the music video.  Its richness lies in its social commentary on the hybridity of form.  The song plays with and against the blurring of Sephardi and Ashkenazi cultures.  But as much as it plays with mixing and matching (as the chorus rings out: “tantz, tantz, chabibi”), it maintains distinct boundaries.  The stanzas line up Sephardi and Ashkenazi cultures in the Structural grammar of a Lévi-Strauss diagram:

את החתן ספרדי/כלה נאה אשכנזי”

“רחל אמנו ספרדי, מאמע רחל אשכנזי

“The groom, Sephardi/the attractive bride, Ashkenazi

Rachel, Our Mother, Sephardi/Mama Rochel, Ashkenazi”

Straddling back and forth between moments of mimicry and of radical alterity, between convergence and separation, illuminates the contemporary tension of Sephardi-Ashkenazi relations.  In the logic of multiculturalism in the reign of late capitalism, the video screams: “we have the freedom to both pray separately and to shop at the same upscale supermarket!”

Supermarkets peddle exotic goods.  And so does the video.  Supermarkets are, after all, secure, mediated sites of consuming other cultures.  But the danger of mediation lies in what obscures.  There is no actual contact between cultures performed in the transaction.  It’s unidirectional.  You can buy without reciprocation.  And that’s precisely what happens in the music video.  A caricatured image of Sephardi culture appears–for the pleasure and consumption of Ashkenazi eyes.  The musicians we are to identify as “Sephardi” bear the trappings of the exoticized, Orientalized subject.

How Ashkenazim simultaneously reproduce hegemony while claiming to resist it–under the banner of Jewish “multiculturalism” (reframed in religious vernacular as achdus)–is a phenomenon I encountered while conducting preliminary fieldwork research in Uman (among friends at Chulent).  A former professor and now mentor, David Roskies, recalls a conversation with noted academic of Hasidic historiography, David Assaf (in an article recently published in Bounded Mind and Soul: Russia and Israel, 1880-2010):

Assaf, our expert on all matters Hasidic, is not merely underwhelmed by what greets the visitor to Braslav, he is angered by the millions in profit made by the Braslaver from Israel who control the Rebbe’s grave and man, which attracts over 15,000 pilgrims a year.  He scoffs at the sterile design of the tomb, so reminiscent of the fake tombs of Moroccan saints that make such a mockery of religion and Israel.  Did we notice the name Israel Meir Gabi emblazoned on the wall outside?  Gabai, the Johnny Appleseed of Hasidic grave sites, is a Braslav Hasid of Sephardi descent.  Why, young Sephardim, Assaf protests, are so brainwashed by the Braslav notion of tikkun neshamot, the perfection of dead souls, that they show up at the Ministry of Internal Affairs to adopt an Ashkenazi surname (like Bernstein and Rabinvoich) and a Braslavian proper name (like Naftali, Nahman, Nathan)…

As described by one of my informants, a living Chabad oral history archive, “gullible” Sephardi baalei teshuva have become infantilized with the same white paternalistic “concern” as the colonial subject–an uncritical, superstitious mass who, already engaged in pietistic devotion at the hillulas of their revered Babas, can be led easily astray.  In the recent sex scandal of the Breslev leader, Rav Berland, Sephardi baalei teshuva became scapegoated (among some) as the source of the problem.  As Toyte Hasidim (lit. “dead Hasidim”), Breslevers do not follow a living rebbe or tzadik (in contradistinction to other Hasidic courts).  Rebbe Nachman is, at least in theory, their one and only master; to unflinchingly follow a living tzadik comes at a cost.  Berland’s scandal was displaced by some Breslevers onto the Sephardim Berland recruited, who in the optic of Ashkenazi hegemony, cannot be trusted to maintain the purity of Breslev’s status as Toyte Hasidim.

While problematic in its representation of Sephardim, “Ya’alili” engages in a subtle politics of refusal.  As Hasidism becomes increasingly untethered from Eastern European culture and history, the invention of the “global Hasid” (to borrow the phrase of my friend, Zach Cohen) has emerged in its stead.  And Rebbe Nachman has most curiously been re-branded as a universal symbol of devotion, which ultimately obscures historical reality and pivots Ashkenazi identity as unmarked and universal, Sephardi identity as marked and particular.  But the video refuses this cultural hegemony.  It marks Baba Sali as a “Sephardi” symbol, Rebbe Nachman as a “Ashkenazi” symbol.  Because if all things were actually equal, quotes from the “Baba Sali” would be embroidered on white kippot the world over.

For further cultural analysis of Hasidic music, listen to the episodes 05 and 06 by Sol Fuerwerker and Sam Katz over at The After Life Podcast.

Why would a new congregation join USCJ?

The United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism’s Centennial Conference starts this weekend. The Conservative movement’s health, particularly its synagogue arm, USCJ, is not great. My previous post focused on the suburbanization of Conservative Judaism. The rapid decline of USCJ-affiliated synagogues is partially due to the continuing decrease in the numbers of suburban Jews in the old Jewish population centers. In 2010, 659 synagogues were affiliated with USCJ. Now, there are 620. The decline isn’t surprising. When populations move, such as the current shifts away from the older suburbs, we expect synagogues to close or merge. The issue is what happens in the new Jewish population centers, whether they are in walkable suburban areas or cities. Where are the new Conservative communities? This Summer, I contacted several people within USCJ to ask about synagogues that have joined USCJ in the past few years. I was unable to get a precise number, but the communications staff with whom I corresponded could only think of three synagogues that recently joined. As best as I could tell, all three are older synagogues that changed affiliations or reaffiliated after a lapse. I don’t know of a single community that is less than 10 years old that has joined USCJ in the past 5 years. A movement that is losing synagogues due to de-suburbanization is one thing. A movement that hasn’t figured out how to get new communities to join has a serious problem.

As Jewschool readers well know, new Jewish communities are being created all the time. In theory, these communities might want to affiliate with the Conservative movement, but this hasn’t been happening. Here are three examples that hopefully highlight the movement’s gaps.

1. The decline of new USCJ-affiliated synagogues has happened along with the rise of independent minyanim and havurot. Thanks again to the shifts away from suburbia, these communities often appear in neighborhoods with large, young Jewish communities, but no nearby synagogues (or no nearby egalitarian congregations). Other times they are near or even meet at existing synagogues, but there’s nothing new about this. Breakaway communities that tap an unmet demand for something different are how many Jewish institutions got their start. Not every new community would fit in the wide Conservative tent, due to differences in theology or practice, but many would. I’ve lost count of the number of opinion pieces I’ve read that place the onus on the leaders of these communities to join a movement, but the opposite question is more useful. Why would one of these groups join USCJ? USCJ provides no services that one can’t easily find elsewhere that would help get a new community off the ground. There are already healthy online and in-person collaborations across minyanim that don’t require the expensive USCJ infrastructure. Perhaps in past decades, branding a community as Conservative was a way to attract new people, but the internet provides better ways to spread the word about a new community than USCJ ever did. USCJ has taken some steps to make it possible for these new communities to join, but they haven’t made any changes to give these communities a reason to work with USCJ.

2. I was a member of a self-labeled Conservative synagogue that wasn’t affiliated with USCJ in its early years. The synagogue grew into a vibrant community without any help from USCJ. When the congregation needed a new rabbi, Rabbinical Assembly union rules required it to affiliate with USCJ movement to be able to interview Conservative Rabbis for the position. I was part of the group evaluating whether affiliation was worthwhile. USCJ offered us useful things if we affiliated, but none of these (besides the pool of rabbis) seemed necessary. For example, affiliating with USCJ allowed the congregation to send children to USY, but the synagogue already had happy kids in BBYO. USCJ offered help in finding “replacements leaders when the rabbi went on vacation,” but the congregation already has a large pool of lay leaders. In the end, the synagogue decided to affiliate for the sake of the rabbi search and decided to get what services it could from USCJ while speaking up about the problems we saw in the organization. (This is the origin of my improveuscj at gmail address.)

3. IKAR in Los Angeles has all the trapping of a suburban Jewish Community Center style synagogue. There’s a large paid staff that leads services, pre-K child care, education programs for many age groups, and membership dues. (Yes, I know IKAR is also unique in many ways.) It has at least 15 paid staff, including 3 rabbis ordained by the Conservative movement. Nothing they do couldn’t fit within the bounds of a Conservative synagogue. They have gone from an idea to more than 500 households in less than a decade, in a town with multiple alternative synagogues of all kinds, and they did this, I assume, without any help from USCJ. IKAR seems to have a good relationship with the Conservative movement and (from their website) it looks like they participate in Conservative rabbinical school internship and other training programs. Perhaps, when Rabbi Sharon Brous decides to move on from her current role and they need to hire a replacement, USCJ might come calling, but that seems awfully late.

These cases bring home two main messages: 1. USCJ has not adapted to support communities with atypical structures or goals, particularly if they have knowledgable congregations. 2. USCJ is not useful to new communities getting off the ground.

In the past few years, USCJ has significantly reorganized. This difficult work has primarily focused on improving services and finances so that current synagogues don’t decide to leave. Not losing members is a good start, but it is not enough. USCJ and the Conservative movement as a whole needs to figure out why a new community would want to join. I’ll give some thoughts on this topic in my next post, but I have no clue if my ideas are right and no answer is easy.

What the Conservative Driving Teshuva Represented

The United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism’s Centennial Conference starts this weekend. It comes at a time when the future direction and health of the movement is unclear. This series of posts will examine one of the factors behind the movement’s current challenges.

There is a certain variety of critique that tries to trace all the movement’s problems to the 1950 “Driving Teshuva,” which said it was ok to drive to synagogue on Shabbat. The usual line is that the driving teshuva was when the movement turned away from something-or-another, which led to its intellectual decline and eventual doom. The teshuva was a turning point for the movement. The Conservative Committee on Jewish Law and Standards was only formed in 1948 [correction: CJLS was formed in 1927, but significantly reorganized in 1948]. This teshuva, in 1950, was a clear statement that Conservative rabbis were willing to publicly disagree with Orthodoxy. Still, placing the movement’s decline on a theological disagreement has always seemed weak to me. Despite current challenges, the movement has survived for 60 years since this decision and Conservative rabbis and leaders have played central roles in halachic and theological discussions that have affected all of Judaism. The link between saying it is ok to drive and the movement’s decline seems to be based more on wishful thinking among those who disagree, than on historical analysis. I do think the driving teshuva has hurt the movement in ways that are less often discussed, but this requires examining the text.

The driving teshuva is actually titled, “A Responsum on the Sabbath” (1950) by Rabbis Morris Adler, Jacob Agus, and Theodore Friedman. You can read the full text as part of this pdf file. I am borrowing some explanation liberally from this 2005 blog post by elf’s dh. In short, the teshuva’s goal was not to broadly permit driving on Shabbat. It was not even to permit driving to synagogue on Shabbat. It’s goal was to allow driving to synagogue on Shabbat when the alternative was that people wouldn’t have an active connection to Judaism without going to synagogue on Shabbat. In short, the teshuva says, if people are at risk of separating from the Jewish people, but regularly drive to synagogue on Shabbat, there are better ways to engage these Jews than harassing them to stop driving. Perhaps shunning drivers and delivering drashot against driving might not be the best way to encourage people to increase their connections to Judaism..

Put this way, this is little different from the many Modern Orthodox and Chabad synagogues which maintain an official position against driving on Shabbat, but still have seats and honors in the service for people who park down the block.

The problem with this teshuva is less its conclusion and more the assumptions that got it there. It assumes that the future of Judaism would be in communities where people could not or would not walk to synagogue. Conservative Judaism staked its future on the rise of suburbia. This was an intentional decision, not a recognition of the inevitable. It meant not just looking the other way when people drive on Shabbat, but, but accepting that driving on Shabbat would be a fundamental necessity. The driving teshuva was a key part of an active decision to embrace suburban life and actively abandon urban, walkable living. It meant abandoning cities in a way that Orthodoxy never did. It meant abandoning cities to an extent that non-Orthodox Jews never actually did.

As an example, here is a story told to me by the emeritus rabbi of a Conservative synagogue in an outlying area of a city with mostly single-family homes. He recounts asking Conservative movement officials for help around 1970, when the synagogue was losing members due to a shrinking local Jewish population, and most of the other local Conservative congregations moved to the suburbs. The Conservative movement officials told him that synagogues in cities were doomed to closure, and they only help they could give him would be to help help him find a new (suburban) pulpit. He declined their offer, and some decades later, the neighborhood (and the synagogue) have seen a great resurgence of Jews. His synagogue has more than doubled in size in the last 15 years.

The suburbanisation of Conservative Judaism served the movement very well during the rise of the suburbs. But nowadays, more and more Jews want to live in walkable neighborhoods, and the Conservative synagogues have left these city neighborhoods for suburbs that no longer attract enough Jews to support them all. Meanwhile, the movement’s key institutions still have a mindset that focuses on suburban-style synagogues/community centers. While the rise of Jewish suburbanization was marked by the driving teshuva, the movement has had decades to readjust how it interacts with Jewish in different types of communities. My next post will focus on what is currently happening and what could be done.

The impact of Hebrew School

Thanks to the beginning of the school year, there has been the usual crop of published opinions regarding Jewish schooling options. The general consensus of opinions regarding Hebrew schools seems to be that, ”the investment in money and time exceeds the perceived value of the education and the experience.” I’m highlighting one blog post, but I think its author stated the current dogma well. In 55 comments now posted, no one without a professional connection to synagogue schools stood up for Hebrew schools. Elsewhere online, I read a statement from a well-regarded researcher who has delved into this topic, “Let’s accept the finding that Jewish schooling 4-5 hours a week before Bar/Bat Mitzvah does little good — even as camps, Israel travel, youth groups, day schools, and post-Bar/Bat Mitzvah schools show positive effects.”

These negative views paint an awfully broad brush, depicting a whole class of programs–some very good–as uniformly horrid. As a parent, I see for myself how a good Hebrew school is a positive component of my child’s Jewish education. As someone active in my Jewish community, I’ve had the opportunity to meet master educators much older than me, and I’ve noted how many of these master educators were graduates of Hebrew schools and Talmud Torahs of an earlier era. As someone with some professional training in statistics, I’ve looked at the numbers, and I believe there are serious problems with some of the widely cited studies that purport to show that Hebrew schools have no good impacts.

What I see is that good Hebrew schools provide a path to a wider range of Jewish experiences. This makes it hard to identify statistically the unique impact of Hebrew school. The researcher I quoted above compared Hebrew schools to other forms of education as if the impact of each could be separately identified. Yet few research reports I’ve seen highlight the interactions. For example, some prominent studies of Summer camps either treat schooling during the year as a confounding variable or just divide formal education into Day School or Other. One study that did publish this data semi-directly is the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey Jewish Education Background Report. Using tables 1 and 3 in that report, it’s straight-forward to calculate the percentage of 18-34 year olds who participated in youth groups, attended Summer camps, or visited Israel, by the type of their formal Jewish education during the school year. Here is a table showing the percentages:

Day School Supplemental School Sunday
School
Other None
Youth Group 40% 40% 17% 0% 3%
Summer Camp 40% 31% 18% 8% 4%
Israel Trips 41% 41% 12% 0% 6%

The majority of kids doing these activities also go to Hebrew schools, while the 31% of this sample ( table 1 ) that was not involved in any formal Jewish education was barely represented in these other activities. Children who didn’t attend day school or Hebrew school weren’t involved in Youth Groups, Jewish Summer Camps, or Israel Trips. Thus, we CANNOT compare the impact of Jewish Summer camp to the impact of Hebrew school. There is no way to compare the impact of Summer camp or youth group compared with the impact of Hebrew school if the same kids do both. The statistical term for this is multicollinearity. Simply put, saying that Summer camps or youth groups work and Hebrew school does nothing is assuming that kids magically drop down from the sky into Jewish Summer camp–and they don’t!

A good Hebrew school needs to impart some knowledge of Judaism, give kids the awareness and interest to continue Jewish learning, and build skills for participation in Jewish life. A good Hebrew schools also builds relationships with Jewish peers. Kids who form friendships in Hebrew school and whose families come to synagogue on Shabbat hang out together after (or during) Shabbat services. They go with these Hebrew school friends to Jewish Summer camps. They see recent b’nai mitzvot coming back to lead services and participate in synagogue events. The Hebrew school class becomes a youth group, and friends in Hebrew high school.

Of course it’s difficult to disentangle correlation with causation: kids in families that bring them regularly to synagogue and to Hebrew school are more likely to care about the quality of the Hebrew school and to plan on sending these same kids to Summer camp, on Jewish teen trips, etc. However, as any parent will tell you, children’s interests don’t always match their parents plans. Good Hebrew schools can give kids experiences to make them want other Jewish experiences. If policy makers want Jewish kids to attend Jewish Summer camps, youth groups etc, the first step is connecting them to Jewish communities. Hebrew schools are still a huge part of this picture.

USCJ finally dropped out of college

Supporters of the Conservative movement’s college organization, KOACH, have been trying for the last several years to convince the movement’s congregational organization, USCJ, to keep supporting it. It seems like this saga is finally over. USCJ has decided to shut down Koach. As Rabbi Elyse Winick, former Koach director, says, “To our great dismay, while there has been sufficient response to continue on a very small scale… KOACH as we have known and loved it must now come to an end.” For the last several years, USCJ has consistently said they didn’t want to run Koach. As far as I can tell, there hasn’t been much effort put into improving the quality of Koach or finding another source of support. It’s impressive Koach managed to stay around this long.

When USCJ put together their strategic plan in Winter 2011, the leaders of USCJ wanted to cut Koach. They said that they didn’t have funds to continue Koach, Koach wasn’t doing well under USCJ, and Koach didn’t really fit with the types of things UCSJ wanted to do. Koach students and alumni protested, and so USCJ kept funding Koach without seriously trying to improve the program. In June 2012, USCJ again tried to defund Koach. The reasoning was unchanged. After more protest, USCJ’s leaders said the protesters would need to personally fundraise to keep Koach alive for another year. The fundraisers got the necessary $100K and Koach survived for another year. Here we are in June 2013, and USCJ is once again saying that it doesn’t want to run the Conservative movement’s college campus programming.

While there is a lot to criticize about USCJ, I really can’t blame them for trying to close a program that they don’t have the interest, infrastructure, or money to run. The question is why others keep asking USCJ to be the savior of Conservative Judaism on college campuses? More »