Note: This is next in our series of posts on visions of fearless Jewish future, inspired by Naomi Adland’s dispatch from the GA, which we ran last week. We’ll be running one every week, and we want to hear from you – our creative, progressive readers- articulating a vision for a what a fearless Jewish future and community might look like. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org with “Guest post” in the subject line.
Just now (it’s 6 am in Brooklyn), I woke abruptly from a dream that my MFA program was requiring us all to take a workshop in which we read Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire. As soon as one of the workshop members started reading from the novel, the faces of everyone in the room became ghoulish, sharp toothed, black eyed. Terrified, I ran out the door of the building and into the street, but as I ran, I thought, you’ll go back, you have to go back. And I did. I turned around and went back into the building, which I think was a church, and as it turned out, there was a small group of people gathered in the lobby who had also decided they could not be in the room with the vampires.
I have a history of anxiety dreams, and of solving problems, literary ones of my own making, in my sleep. I might have been worrying about writing this piece for this series when I dreamt about the vampires, because in the awake version of myself, it’s obvious what the dream was about. It’s so obvious, it’s laughable: You are afraid, but you’ll go back. The vampires (self hate inflicted anti-Semitic imagery or result of watching too many horror movie trailers?) might be in the same building, but we can be in another room. They can’t have the whole structure. There are more of us than of them. We’ll get it all in the end. Maybe.
Here is where my painfully obvious dream parallels end. Judaism, particularly the observant part of it, and I are not on the best of terms right now, we have not been for a while. I could not build an organizational strategic plan based on my vision of a fearless Jewish community, but I am one hundred percent on the fact that it includes an active ingathering of those who scare us. Those who pose those questions that we can’t and/or don’t want to answer, they get a big space at whatever the table of the future is. Let everyone in, without a political or religious litmus test, if we say we want to be there, even if we’re not sure where exactly “there” is, even if we’re not sure if we can figure it out together, but that’s fine. Certainty is not a need any longer.
The future table isn’t convened by Islamophobia, or racism, capitalism, homophobia, misogyny, or people who have spent all their time sharpening one relentlessly narrow vision of a Jew. Men who claim to have beautiful politics but can neither listen nor hear simply don’t get space anymore, because it turns out, we don’t owe it to them. In the fearless future, that shit is over, because we are calling people out, and we don’t have to worry about what that calling out will do to our livelihood. Risk, intellectual and political, will be a value, but maybe even more important than risk will be accountability and challenge and, maybe here’s the center of it all : not running away, and not becoming a room or an organization or a building or a country full of panicked ghouls, powered by fear.
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?
Suzie and I are hosting the big Keshet and JP Shabbat Sukkot potluck again this year! (You should come!)
Boston is a great place to be queer and Jewish, so I really just have one wish for our fabulous local LGBTQ Jewish community this year: flirting.
Why bother having separate LGBTQ community events when many Jewish institutions have become more and more inclusive of LGBTQ Jews?
Imagine you are a young queer Jew looking for a date. You’re bored with OkCupid and JDate, so you try going to a singles night sponsored by your local synagogue. You get all gussied up, maybe you drag along a friend as a wingman, and you head in to the venue. What do you see? A whole bunch of straight people. (Regardless of how inclusive the shul is, this is a numbers game. There are more straight people than gay people.)
Okay, so let’s say you’re not instantly discouraged by the fact that most of the people in the room are a) not what you’re looking for and b) not looking for you. Let’s say you don’t feel super weird about either feeling invisible or feeling like you stand out in the wrong ways. You’re resilient! You can do this! So you look around the room for other LGBTQ people. Hey there’s one! But that person is not a gender you’re interested in. Oh, there’s someone who might be the right gender for you! But that person seems significantly too old/young for you. Or perhaps you just don’t find them attractive. HEY! Over there! There’s someone cute, of an appropriate gender, the right age–and they turn out to be your ex. And now you’ve exhausted your supply of LGBTQ people in the room. Dang.
This is where the LGBTQ Jewish community comes in! After feeling like there is a dearth of romantic options available for you in your shul, wouldn’t it be nice to go to an event where everyone is Jewish and LGBTQ? So many more possibilities! You could date EVERYBODY! (Okay, well, at least a significant portion of attendees.) It’s like Jewish summer camp! Yayyyy!
This is why you should come to my house if you happen to be LGBTQ and in the Boston area on October 10th. (If you’re old and married like me, you should still come, because you’ll help introduce the single people to each other. It’ll make things less awkward, and we’ll all have a good time.)
This is why you should host an event like this if you’re LGBTQ and not in the Boston area on October 10th.
This is why Jewish LGBTQ organizations should still care about hosting local events for members once in a while.
This is why Jewish institutions who are welcoming and inclusive of LGBTQ members should continue to help support Jewish LGBTQ organizations do their own things sometimes.
Over here at Jewschool, we’ve been all about the Indy-Jews for our whole decade-plus life span. We have spill much ink explaining the independent orientation to others who don’t share it. Today’s #TBT is a 2009 classic from crack Jewschool fisker BZ on the slippery meaning of the term “Independent”. Adapting some careful criticisms from Nate Silver of political pundits who talk about independent voters without saying what they mean, BZ considers the way professional and amateur Jewish pollsters, journalists, and mavens obscure more than they clarify in their opinionating about independent Jews. Sometimes posts slip under the radar for purely logistical issues — timing or what-have-you. This late Saturday night post didn’t get the attention it deserved in its time, so we’re re-running it now, five years later.
Editor’s Note: Jacob Ari Labendz has shared with us his talk “The Community has Stolen my Birthright” which he gave at Central Reform Synagogue, in St. Louis, MO on August 6, 2014. Background information and transcripts follow. Labendz is a doctoral candidate in the Department of History at Washington University in St. Louis. He will be spending the 2014-2015 academic year on a post-doctoral fellowship at the Center for Research on Antisemitism at the Technical University in Berlin, sponsored by the Volkswagen Foundation and Washington University.
On Wednesday, August 6, 2014, more than seventy people gathered in the sanctuary of Central Reform Congregation in St. Louis (CRC) to hear from representatives of the local chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP). We oppose the Israeli occupation and advocate for a just resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with freedom and equality for all. We
opposed oppose the recent current war in Gaza.
In hosting this event, Rabbi Susan Talve and CRC took steps to distinguish St. Louis as a place safe for Jewish progressives and a community willing to engage in a thoughtful reevaluation of our community’s politics and alignments.
Rabbi Talve initiated the event after witnessing the police escort four JVP activists off of the campus of the Jewish Community Center on July 29. We had disrupted a “Solidarity Gathering in Support of Israel,” co-sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council, the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, and additional organizations. A fifth JVP member, a ninety year-old Holocaust survivor, spoke out as well. A member of the audience then struck her on the back in reprisal in plain view. No one except her friend did anything. Not even the police.
Such protests and responses have multiplied across the country, particularly during this last Gaza war, as an increasingly large and overwhelmingly young segment of the Jewish community has rethought its relationship with Israel and begun to stand against its policies regarding toward Palestinians. In major cities activists have taken to the streets, occupied Jewish communal institutions, and submitted petitions to Jewish and American leaders. There is talk of boycotting Jewish institutions that do not formally oppose the Occupation. We hope that St. Louis will be different. We had hope to be able continue trusting Rabbi Talve. It is to her credit that CRC released this video for distribution.
Five speakers represented JVP at the CRC event, including a Holocaust survivor, an Israeli artist, a doctoral candidate in Jewish history at Washington University, and two local activists. Each spoke for ten minutes and called upon those assembled to stand against the violence in Gaza and the Occupation. Some addressed the need to support the Israeli left, others described their own visits to the Occupied Territories, and others spoke about the exclusion that progressives often face within the Jewish community when they speak out as Jews against Israeli policies. The JVP representatives encouraged audience members to seek out Palestinian voices and follow their lead in fighting against the recent war and the Occupation.
Following the formal remarks, the representatives from JVP answered thoughtful and challenging questions about their positions on Hamas’s tactics and the meaning of the Israeli siege. A number of audience members rose to express solidarity with some of the opinions expressed. A few explained that they too had felt silenced within the Jewish community. It is a testament to the openness for which Rabbi Talve and CRC strive that they opened their doors to dissenting voices of peace, despite repeatedly defending Israel’s war on Gaza and taking a position of tolerance for the Occupation. Few cities, if any, can boast of such openness to debate and protest.
Communities and organizations around the nation should take notice. More »
Last night, several hundred young Jews gathered under the banner of “If Not Now” in Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza to observe Tisha B’Av, the annual holiday of Jewish contrition, and read the names of those killed in recent fighting between Israelis and Palestinians. These breathtaking photos by Gili Getz capture the somber reflection of the next generation of American Jewry reflecting on their relationship to Israel, to Palestine, to war, and to peace.
I lived in Brooklyn for seven years and I recognize so many of my colleagues in the photos: rabbinical students, young Jewish professionals, lay leaders of the Jewish social justice movement, and scions of famous rabbis. This is the center of New York young Jewry. The group already held two previous anti-war vigils in New York and Washington, DC, outside the offices of the Jewish Federations of North American and the Conference of Presidents, respectively, to object to their support for the continuation of fighting between Israel and Gaza.
As studies have shown for years now, young Jews see the Middle East very differently from their parents. And this crowd attests deeply to that: the people in these photos are the cream of the crop of American Jewish education: day school-educated, engaged in religious life, Birthright and Masa alumni, and shaping the innovative efforts that establishment Jewry looks to for continuity and salvation. The generation gap is real. Very, very real.
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.
It has been a very dark time for Jewish news over the past few weeks. War and war crimes, chants calling for our death, us calling for others’ deaths, and overall nastiness. Often times, even on the storied pages of Jewschool, we simply ignore the rest of the Jewish world during the perennial security operations taking place in the name of the Jewish people.
Yet there are other things happening in the Jewish world and some of them are good. In fact some are even fun. While this post deviates from some of the hard hitting topics we often discuss in this forum, it is an important one for more than the obvious reasons. More »
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 »
Just about a year ago, the first class of Maharats graduated. For those of you who haven’t been following the various stories over the last year or so, the term Maharat is a Hebrew acronym for Manhiga Hilkhatit Rukhanit Toranit, translated as one who is teacher of Jewish law and spirituality. In other words, an Orthodox Jewish female rabbi. But, you know, without the title of rabbi. I was fortunate enough to be a part of a webinar hosted by JOFA entitled “The Maharats’ First Year: A Retrospective,” where three Maharats and one soon-be-ordained Maharat spoke about their experiences thus far. Part of me was hoping for anger: these women are basically rabbis, don’t they deserve the respect of earning the same title for the same job that men do? Even though I was hoping for angry women ready to lead the way for change in their fields, I’m also relieved that this was not the case. Instead, Maharats Ruth Balinsky Friedman, Abby Brown Scheir, Rachel Kohl Finegold, and Rori Picker Neiss were enthusiastic, calm, and not bitter in the slightest.
Each woman spoke of the supportive nature her respective congregation and fellow clergy people. While there were minor displays of negativity, for the most part each Maharat was warmly welcomed into her community. Communities that for so long have denied women the opportunities to become leaders in their shuls. Now, these communities can see the full potential the women members of their synagogue have to offer. Maharat Abby spoke of how excited her community was to have her, and how interest in bat mitzvahs have increased since she began her position. More »
This week’s parashah (Shelach-Lekha; Bemidbar 13-15) focuses on the second of the Israelites’ two most devastating moments of collective failure in the desert — the mass rebellion and breakdown after the scouts overstepped their jurisdiction for reconnaissance by insisting that the land was unconquerable. Before everything goes haywire, the Torah introduces the scouts by name and tribe, and describing them, saying that “they were all people, leaders of the children of Israel”– “כֻּלָּם אֲנָשִׁים רָאשֵׁי בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל הֵמָּה”. Why this extraneous clause, “they were all people/kulam anashim“? The Torah could have just said that “they were all leaders of the children of Israel/כלם ראשי בני ישראל”. The Zohar records a fascinating midrash teasing out what might be hinted at in this emphasized clause:
“‘They were all people’: All of them were worthy and were leaders of Israel, but they took bad council for themselves. Why did they take this council? They reasoned, ‘If Israel will be brought up to the land, we will be removed from leadership and Moshe will appoint other leaders, for we are worthy in the desert to be leaders, but in the land, we will not be worthy’. Because they took this bad council for themselves, they died, along with everyone who took their word. (Zohar III (Bemidbar, Shlach-Lekha, 156b) More »
This is a guest post by Naomi Adland.
I started working at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America in January as a graduate intern, tasked with helping the Jewish social justice world have meaningful conversations about Israel – a project that, at the time, sounded deceptively simple to me. I leapt at the chance to work with an organization I have long admired, with people who are smart, dedicated, and passionate about Judaism and the Jewish community, because I share the vision that Hartman outlined:
We believe that a state that is going to live up to its aspiration to be Jewish and democratic needs a base of American Jewish supporters committed to both of those values and eager to help Israel get there, and that the loss of the social justice community from the ranks of Zionist leaders will have profound ripple effects on the health of Israeli society.
The project seemed like the perfect fit for me, because the Venn diagram between organizations I have worked with or volunteered for and organizations that make up the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable is almost a perfect circle. I fight domestic poverty as a member of the AVODAH alumni community, and global injustices as a part of the AJWS community. I have worked to reform the Farm Bill and raise awareness about alternative transportation with Hazon, and as a teenager, the Religious Action Center helped me lobby Congress for the first time, setting me on a path that recently resulted in my graduation from the Wagner School of Public Service at NYU.
It’s possible that because of my connections with these organizations, I underestimated the challenge ahead of me. More »
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 »
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.
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
, 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 »
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
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.