The Community has Stolen My Birthright

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 »

After BDS victory, tending a scorched campus community

This is a guest post by Rabbi Oren J. Hayon, the Greenstein Family Executive Director at the Hillel Foundation for Jewish Life at the University of Washington.

In his biography of Pyrrhus of Epirus, Plutarch recounts the details of the ancient Greek general’s costly victory against Rome at Asculum in 279 BCE. According to Plutarch’s account, shortly after the battle, Pyrrhus considered the devastating losses to his Macedonian troops and made the dark but prescient reflection: “If we were to be victorious in one more battle against the Romans, it would utterly destroy us.” [Life of Pyrrhus, 21:9]

The story of that long-ago battle comes to remind us that some victories produce a sense of exhilaration so intoxicating that they prevent us from realizing that we are actually marching unwittingly toward defeat. I write these lines in the immediate aftermath of a period in the life of our organization which looks unmistakably like a time of triumph. Nevertheless, as I write, I am keenly aware of how we have been diminished by the events of this year. I find myself surprised and concerned about how much we have lost, and about how much more we stand to lose in the future.  More »

The Bedouin of Anatevka

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

Unrecognized Bedouin Village, Negev Desert, October 2013

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

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

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

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On Exile and Peoplehood

Two and a half months ago, I moved from Boston to New York.

I had lived in Boston for 33 of my 35 years, but I had always wanted to live in New York, and the time was right. When speaking with friends after the move, the refrain was the same. “I don’t miss it. I was ready to go.” I’ve missed my friends but not my city.

And then bombs went off at the Boston marathon.

It’s hard to overstate the role of the marathon in the life of the city. The state takes a holiday. (The entire state, not just the city, as Boston does on St. Patrick’s Evacuation Day.) People flood into the city from around the world. And rather than run the other way, as Bostonians tend to do when confronted with tourists, instead we line the entire route of the marathon so we can cheer: for our friends, for our visitors, and for our city.

I work in a relatively small office, and three of us have moved to NY from Boston in the last three years. So when one of the others interrupted a meeting I was having to say, “Have you heard about Boston?” I had no expectation that those words would bring bad news.

Nothing is worse than being the direct victim of violence. But being far away from those you love, not knowing what’s going on, and seeing only a stream of “I’m okay!” and “here’s what we think is happening” and especially “here are the ways we can all help” flood my Twitter and Facebook feeds does a number on you.

Last night, I was looking at Twitter on my way home and saw a friend in Boston had shared a picture from Brooklyn of BAM lit up with messages of support for Boston. In a moment of synchronicity, I happened to be getting out of a cab in front of BAM at that moment, so I walked around the building to see the display for myself. There was a small crowd of people taking pictures and offering comfort to each other.

A blogger with some handheld video device approached me and asked if I would be interviewed on camera. I figure bloggers should help each other out, so I agreed. He asked how I was feeling on that day, and I shared that I was a recent Boston transplant so the day was difficult, but thank God as far as I knew everyone in my life was safe. He then started down the path of comparing what happened to daily life in Syria. I cut him off and said something about how I knew that today alone in Iran the fatalities outnumbered anything in Boston, and that people all over the world were suffering, and it was important for us to remember that too. And then I got myself out of the conversation because I didn’t want to become a pawn in some kind of project of comparative suffering.

Over the course of the last two months, I’ve been participating in the Shalom Hartman Institute’s iEngage program, which offers a text-based approach to discussing the State of Israel through the perspective of Jewish values. (I now work for the Institute, so in this course, I am both participating and learning about one of our own programs.) Rather than dealing with fact sheets or calls to activism, iEngage challenges us to grapple with ideas like “what are the Jewish values around power and powerlessness,” and “what does a Jewish conception of democracy look like,” and “what exactly is Jewish peoplehood?” We study texts ancient and modern, guided by the Institute’s scholars and in chevruta with our colleagues.

The particular cohort for my iEngage group is Jewish social justice professionals, with a mix of folks from the lefty spectrum, including staff members from New Israel Fund, T’ruah, Keshet, Jewish Community Relations Councils, etc. In our discussions of Jewish peoplehood, some of the participants bristled at the concept, feeling like it was ancient chauvinism morphed into some kind of Zionist guilt-trip. For me, a sense of Jewish peoplehood has always been more about a deep-felt connection to people around the world and throughout history, most of whom I’ve never met and many of whom I’m sure I wouldn’t like very much if I did. The idea that we look out for our own first (but not only) and worry about those with whom we share a connection more than those from whom we are disconnected has never felt chauvinistic to me. It feels human.

And until yesterday, I never realized how much I feel that same connection to the people of my home town. And when the (certainly well-intentioned but misguided) blogger outside of BAM implied that my concern for my fellow Bostonians was somehow misplaced in light of suffering in the rest of the world, it came together for me, and I got angry. I am capable of complex thought and multilayered emotion. I can grieve for Boston without belittling Syria, Iran, or anywhere else in the world where people suffer. I can be a member of the Jewish people while also being a citizen of the world. I can be a New Yorker and be a Bostonian. And how dare anyone imply otherwise.

January Madness 2013!!!

(Crossposted to Mah Rabu.)

Now that January is here, and the Israeli election is just a few weeks away, it’s time for… JANUARY MADNESS!!!! You may recall March Madness from 2006, or February Madness from 2009. Now, Jewschool and Mah Rabu are excited to announce our third Israeli elections prediction pool!

Both the 2006 and 2009 pools were won by graduates of Homewood-Flossmoor Community High School. Will the streak continue, or will the rest of the world start to catch up? The answer is in your hands.

How to Enter: Go to the January Madness link and put in your predictions for how many seats each of the 34 parties will win. All predictions must be non-negative integers (0 is allowed), and your predictions must add up to 120. Entrance is free, but there is a suggested donation of $10 to the organization of your choice dedicated to making Israel the best it can be. Israeli citizens are encouraged to vote in the actual election as well.

Prizes: The winner gets a copy of The Comic Torah, which one Jewschool contributor has called “the perfect match for the zany lunacy and unbridled blood lust of today’s Israeli politics”. Second place gets a copy of Ghettoblaster by So Called, because the Yiddish Hip-Hop Accordion Party wouldn’t be out of place in the Knesset elections.

The Rules (for the real election): The 34 parties have submitted ordered lists of candidates. Here are the full lists in Hebrew, and partial lists in English. On election day (January 22), Israeli citizens will go to polling places in and near Israel, and vote for a party (not for individual candidates). All parties that win at least 2% of the vote will win seats in the Knesset, proportional to their share of the vote. For example, suppose the Pirate Party wins 1% of the vote, One Future wins 33%, and Kulanu Haverim wins 66%. Then the Pirate Party wins no seats in the Knesset (since it was below the 2% threshold), and the other parties will proportionally split the 120 Knesset seats: One Future gets 40 seats (so the top 40 candidates on its list are elected), and Kulanu Haverim gets 80 seats. If vacancies arise later in the term, there are no special elections – the next candidate on the party’s list (e.g. #81 on the Kulanu Haverim list) enters the Knesset. It is mathematically possible for all 34 parties to win seats in the Knesset, but experts say it is unlikely.

The Rules (for the January Madness pool): The deadline to enter is Monday, January 21, 2013, at 11:59 pm Israel Standard Time (4:59 pm EST). When the final election results are published, each entry will receive a score based on how many Knesset seats were predicted correctly. For example, suppose the results are as in the above example (Kulanu Haverim 80, One Future 40). I predicted 60 seats for One Future, 50 for Kulanu Haverim, and 10 for Da’am Workers Party. Then my score is 90, since I correctly predicted 40 seats for One Future and 50 seats for Kulanu Haverim.

Ties will be broken based on two tiebreaker questions:
1) Of the parties that do NOT win seats in the Knesset, which will come closest?
2) Which party will get the FEWEST votes?

The tiebreakers will be resolved in this order: exact match on question 1; exact match on question 2; closest on question 1 (if you picked a party that DOES win seats, you’re out of consideration for this one); closest on question 2.

In the coming weeks, we’ll put up a post with a handy guide to all the parties, and links to their websites.

If you have other questions, post them in the comments. Good luck!!!!

What if Anat Hoffman wasn’t white?

Anat Hoffman, head of both Women of the Wall and the Reform Movement’s action center in Israel, was arrested while saying the Sh’ma with 250 other American Jews from Hadassah. The Reform movement called immediately for an investigation, the Conservative movement called for global Sh’ma flashmobs, and other groups joined the condemnation.  (Jewschool contributor LJCM rightly asks why there aren’t even more, but here I’ll press a parallel observation.) Something is obviously wrong with this abandonment of American Jewry’s pretenses against criticizing the democratically-elected government of the State of Israel.

Tellingly, the head of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, Rabbi Garry Skolnick, gave hint to this counter-current in an email blast: “When Protestant groups are pushing for a total reconsideration of all American foreign aid to Israel and Iran is working hard to develop the capacity to go nuclear, we must be thoughtful as to how, and in what forums, we choose to address the very real issues that are of burning concern to us.” He continued, “Yes, Israel must change. But those of us who love her must help her change, not hurt her through our good intentions.”

As one (female) Jewschool contributor quipped, “No one’s got the tits at all in this movement.” But it’s not just “wussing out” on women’s rights as another contributor said, it’s the obvious selective outcry of institutions joining this particular outcry. They’ve been silent on recent offenses equally important — and in a few cases, even more dire. More »

“Pork Memoirs” presents: HAM-antaschen

This is a guest post from Pork Memoirs, a story project about pork and identity by friend-of-the-blog and food journalist Jeffrey Yoskowitz. His project seeks to “explore the struggles and celebrations of our often complicated relationship to the ‘other white meat.’” This Purim-themed memoir introduces Ari, a disaffected secular Israeli whose anti-religiousness manifested itself in baking pork-themed hamantaschen.

Ari Miller • Tel Aviv, Israel

Hamantaschen were an annual feature of my American-Jewish childhood. I made them with my mom and siblings. They were filled with poppy seeds because dad liked them, cherries because we all liked them and prunes because Jews will purchase any pie filling if put on sale.

When I became a baker in Tel Aviv it seemed only natural that I would make oznei haman, as the cookies are called locally. (It became hard to explain hash-entaschen in Hebrew, but that’s another story.) I have no religious leanings, mind you, it’s just that there are professional expectations of a baker. More »

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2011, what’s that?

As the new year begins, here at Jewschool we put together an entirely unscientific, completely biased view of some of the best and worst of 2011.

2011 was simultaneously one of the most inspiring and dispiriting years I can think of. From the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords way back at the beginning of the year, to the passing of important greats like Debbie Friedman, to Occupy Judaism’s prominent place in the Occupy Everything movement. Israel has been a roller coaster, between the hopefulness of the J-14 protests to their quiet whimpering away, new settler attacks, undemocratic legislation, and fights over gender segregation. However, it was a mostly great year for the arts, despite JDub Records’ closing. Here’s to a new year with more distillants, and less despirits.


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OccupyKst Kol Nidrei

dc kn
Friday October 7th, 7:15 AM: I wake up to a text message. It’s Eli Kasargod-Staub. He wanted to see if we could get together a kol nidrei service like the one being planned in NYC by Mobius et al. We had less than 10 hours before sunset.
8:30am: The facebook invite goes up.
Mid-day: E-mails zip around, people keep inviting folks, RSVPs roll in.
5:30pm: People start rolling in. A torah arrives from the Religious Action Center. A table pops up from the AFL-CIO. Max Socol brings a table.
6:00pm: People are still streaming in as Alys Cohen starts to sing a niggun.

With just a few hours to prepare, like other OccupyJudaism events, we thought we’d be lucky to get a minyan. What ended up happening was truly shocking. Within a few hours 69 people RSVPed and roughly 200 showed up. The ages ranges from a baby (9-months) to many folks in their 70s (perhaps even 80s). We had professional activists, students, people living in the OccupyKst camp, Jewish communal workers, think-tank-types, and even a few corporate lawyers. Some donned kittels, white kippot and/or tallitot, others attended in none of the conventional trappings. Since we were in McPherson Square, a busy plot right, smack, in the middle of downtown DC, there was a lot of bustle around us. We drew in near around the table (thanks AFL-CIO!) on which the Torah (thanks Religious Action Center!) sat. Used to praying Kol Nidre in straight rows of chairs, being so closely packed, shoulder-to-shoulder, with fellow supplicants was a new experience.

The davening was powerful. We used much of the same material as the Kol Nidre service happening at OccupyWallSt (thanks team NYC!). Speaking personally, I think of Yom Kippur as a time to disrupt our lives so we can gain a deeper understanding. This Kol Nidrei did a lot to disrupt people’s understanding of Judaism and what it could mean in their lives. Many came up to me afterward and shared that it had been the most powerful, meaningful, exciting, or surprising YK experience they had everhad . It was certainly all of those things to me.

“Occupy Yom Kippur” in New York City

As the word spread like wildfire that a band of intrepid progressive Jews were organizing evening Yom Kippur services at Occupy Wall Street, there was some skeptical push back. “Politics doesn’t belong in religion.” “Will it be a scene?” “Sounds cool but services might be bad.” Even, yes, “I don’t want to get arrested.” But for those who stomached the risk all the same, Friday night in the plaza beneath ambient lighting through the offices of Brown Brothers Harriman appeared simple, even quaint. It was in people’s hearts that wonder and transcendence were found.

Organizer Daniel Sieradski, flanked by service leaders Avi Fox-Rosen, Sarah Wolf and Getzel Davis, huddled at the center of a crowded seated circle counting 500, 700, by some counts even a thousand people. At the same moment, friends in Boston, DC and Chicago’s solidarity camps were gathering simultaneously with unexpected hundreds more. Hollering announcements though the Occupy Wall Street main camp, I found dozens more last minute participants, “What? Really? Where!” What was intended to be a small and symbolic gathering of perhaps 10 men and 10 women, called barely a week ago, had become a phenomenon. More »

Reflections on Yom Kippur at Occupy Boston

Yom Kippur at Occupy Boston, (c) Dory Dinoto

This guest post is by Jocelyn Berger, former Bay Area Program Officer for Pursue: Action for a Just World, a project of AJWS and AVODAH, is now a graduate student in International Affairs at The Fletcher School of Tufts University (orgs for identification only). Photo courtesy Dory Dinoto. (This is the first of two Occupy Boston reflections. See the second by attendee Alex Sugerman-Brozan.)

What do Yom Kippur and the Occupy Wall Street movement have in common? Both are about imagination. On Yom Kippur we imagine that a better self is possible. At Occupy Boston, we imagine that a better country, a better world, is possible. And although these are individual imaginings, we come together in community to make them collectively realized. By moving Yom Kippur from a sequestered, individualized experience in a synagogue out into the public square (literally!), we transform the purpose of the holiday from simply imagining a better self to imagining an whole better world.

Undeniably, one of the most exciting things about this movement is how democratic and collective it is. This rang especially true as we recited the Sh’ma together at our Kol Nidre service, proclaiming oneness – of our voices, of our values, of our aspirations, of Hashem, all one and the same, unified. My emotional climax occurred during the Al Chet – we invited folks to call out sins, personal, political, economic, social, all repeated through “the people’s mic,” adding even greater resonance: “Racism. Turning our backs on the old. Turning our backs on the young. Climate change. Defunding women’s health programs. Putting profits before people (aka capitalism). Citizen’s United. Private health care. Eroding the social safety net. Blaming victims. Katrina. Sexism. Homophobia. Anti-Semitism. Islamophobia. High interest rates. Student loans. Unemployment. Not taking responsibility sooner. Not speaking out sooner. Not showing up sooner.”

We concluded with the same reading as our sibling minyan at the Occupy Wall Street, and I felt the deepest sense of truly crying out to God, wailing for forgiveness, supplicating and begging – I burst into tears and saw that many in the crowd were similarly moved. Such immense sins, such huge problems – how can we ever forgive and move on and build something better?

We all said the Mourners’ Kaddish together for the values and virtues we’ve lost, for the American dream that now seems dead, for the lost livelihoods, safety nets, and security. For the victims who have been crushed by this oppressive and unjust system. For all that we’ve lost, individually and as a society. Adding on this additional level to the already solemn prayer further increased the deep meaning and significance. Yet with all the despair, the service left me with a distinct feeling of hope at what is possible. None of this existed before 30 hours prior, when a few of us starting getting in touch to organize the event. In such a short time, we convened a congregation and created a sacred space of prayer, repentance, imagination, passion, emotion, mourning, idealism, and hope.  More »

Brooklyn is not expanding!

Mazal tov to Saul Perlmutter (Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory), Brian Schmidt (Australian National University), and Adam Riess (Johns Hopkins University; Space Telescope Science Institute) for winning the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics for their discovery that the universe is not only expanding, but accelerating!

Apart from the Woody Allen clip, why is this story on Jewschool? Because Perlmutter and Riess are both Jewish! They are the first Jews to be awarded a Nobel Prize since… yesterday, when Bruce Beutler and Ralph Steinman z”l won the Nobel Prize in Medicine (along with Jules Hoffmann) for their work in immunology. They are also the first Jewish physics laureates since Roy Glauber in 2005.
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Reform surrender

(Crossposted to Mah Rabu.)

Happy 5772! Another year, another blog post I don’t really want to write. But I’m writing it anyway, because who else will? Criticizing the Reform movement on its own terms (as opposed to either not criticizing it, or judging it by external standards) is a lonely beat.

An article that everyone has been commenting on lately is “Campus Life 201: Trying Out Frum, from the Fall 2011 issue of Reform Judaism magazine. The author, a Yale undergrad “raised in a committed Reform household”, tells the story of a week in which she adopted various practices including kashrut, praying three times a day (apparently with a non-egalitarian minyan), praying before and after eating, and wearing long skirts.
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Israelis in NYC organize Washington Square Park tent city

For the fourth weekend in a row, independently-minded Israelis in New York City are gathering to support some of the largest demonstrations in Israel’s history, in every major Israeli city demanding a change to Israel’s economic policies. This Saturday, Israel’s protest organizers have called for one million demonstrators to hit the streets. Possible or not, it’s the biggest change in politics there since 2002.

RSVP on Facebook, join the English- or Hebrew-language Facebook groups, and show your solidarity for average Israelis improving their own country. Read their full explanation below the fold, organizers are encouraging us non-Hebrew speakers to join as well. (Be prepared: learn by video tutorial how to chant “The people demand social justice!” in Hebrew.)

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The Price of Jew$chool

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.

Ivana Trump: a convert to Judaism, bearing an uncanny resemblance to the woman who sat three rows in front of my mother, sisters, and I during the high holiday services of my youth. Just throw a giant hat on her, hand her an Artscroll and presto

Ivanka Trump: a convert to Judaism, bearing an uncanny resemblance to the woman who sat three rows in front of my mother, sisters, and I during the high holiday services of my youth. Just throw a giant hat on her, hand her an Artscroll and presto

Some day schools—such as the Ramaz School of NY and the Ida Crown Jewish Academy in Chicago, IL— do not openly disclose their tuition fees, and perhaps for good reason. Unless you are Ivanka Trump, who wouldn’t want to faint upon seeing these staggering numbers?  Especially given today’s economy, how can anyone but the super-rich possibly afford to shell out $20,000 dollars annually to send a child (or, more likely, multiple children) to Jewish day school…for 15 years?

As a day school alum (16 years, but who’s counting) whose entire college tuition (yes, all four years combined, at a private institution which furnished me with an excellent post-secondary education) still cost less than one year of Jewish high school, the irony of this situation is not lost on me. (For purposes of full disclosure: I benefited from a faculty discount for my university tuition.)

Haters in the Cheder

The Jewish Day School tuition crisis has only worsened over the course of the last decade, as aptly demonstrated by the Yeshiva Tuition Talk blog. Check out this meticulously well-researched case study on the surging tuition fees of two orthodox yeshivot in the U.S.

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An Open Letter to Rabbi Daniel Gordis

Recently, Rabbi Daniel Gordis published an article making allegations of a seeming tidal wave of anti-Israel sentiment in rabbinical schools. This is my reaction.

Dear Rabbi Gordis,

Before I proceed, let me preface this letter with the following disclaimer: I write this with great honor and respect. While you and I have never met, we do hold mutual friends amongst whom I count some of my dearest rabbis and teachers and family members. The dedication you have given to the Jewish people holds special significance for me as you were the founding dean of the rabbinical school which will soon be ordaining me as a rabbi. Therefore I am indebted to your vision and determination. Your words have, at times, been a source of inspiration for me and whether I agree or disagree with any given viewpoint you share, I am always duly impressed by your command of the written English language. I do hope that our paths cross one day, as I would be honored to have the pleasure of meeting you in person. I also want to make clear that it has been at least two years since I have shared my own personal views on Israeli society, the conflict with Arab states and the Palestinians or any other similar matter in a public forum because of fear of being made into a pariah. I am making these statements here, publicly, because I feel it to be incredibly important. I write in my own name, and not in the name of the institution which will be ordaining me, nor in the name of the movement with which it affiliates. Again, I write only in my own name.

I read your recent article, Of Sermons and Strategies, with great interest, as it is a topic near to my heart–both as a rabbinical student and as a person who has been erroneously dubbed “anti-Israel.” I was even accused of being one of the students referenced in your article, which I assure you I am not. That is not to say I would be ashamed to be, I would not be ashamed, but the truth must be told that I am not responding to your letter as one of the selected few whom you wrote of. More »

In the Spirit of Adar

At 6:15am on Rosh Hodesh Adar Aleph, I stood at a bus stop on Derech Hevron by Tzomet Habankim. I watched Israelis get on and off the green public buses and waited until a blue and white mini bus pulled up. I boarded the Palestinian bus which runs from the entrance to Bethlehem to East Jerusalem, paying only 5 shekels instead of the regular 6.40 NIS.

shaharitIt was a quick ride with almost no stops until I rang the bell for Jaffa Gate. I was the only passenger to descend from the bus.

officerIn flowy green pants and a purple skirt, I made may way through the pouring rain toward the kotel. I was grateful to both fit into the hippy Jerusalem culture as well as the serious feminist activist group that was having their monthly meeting of worship, song, and taking a stand.

As I approached the plaza, I heard loud voices of men singing a Shlomo Carlebach niggun. Why were they singing so loud? Was it because of Rosh Hodesh? Was their joy pure? Or could it have been do drown out the women’s voices close by on the other side of the mechitza? Having been at the kotel the week before for Havdallah, straining to hear the words of the blessings, my instinct was that this loud singing was the latter.
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Debbie Friedman and the Tragedy of the Closet

When I heard that Debbie Friedman had passed away, I was sitting in a conference room at the San Francisco Federation, participating in a board meeting for Keshet, a nonprofit organization working for the full inclusion of GLBT Jews in Jewish Life. I learned of Debbie’s passing via a message posted on Twitter by a lesbian Jewish educator with whom I used to work. The news hit our meeting hard. We stopped for a moment of silence. After all, she was one of us.

Sadly, Debbie Friedman was not a member of the Keshet board of directors. She was, however, a lesbian Jew. But reading the press asking for healing prayers during her recent illness, or the overwhelming displays of grief and affection in both the Jewish and mainstream press since her passing, you’d never know it.

I didn’t know Debbie personally. But like most liberal Jews my age who have been even the slightest bit involved with organized Judaism, I’ve been touched by her melodies. Most of those songs came to me second- or third-hand, learned at summer camp and USY events from song-leaders and enthusiastic youth leaders who taught their friends to sing “Not By Might” or her havdalah niggun as though they were as old and as central to Judaism as the Torah itself. Although I eventually became familiar with Debbie Friedman’s name, I still prefer to hear her songs shouted by enthusiastic teenagers over her considerably more polished renditions. And it wasn’t until I reached graduate school that I learned that the havdalah melody I had been singing since the fifth grade came from her wellspring of melody.

Debbie Friedman at a Rabbis for Human Rights Event in 2008I didn’t know Debbie personally. But as someone who’s been a leader in the Jewish GLBT world for a number of years, I’ve heard persistent stories about her life as a lesbian. It seems that Debbie’s sexuality was an open secret; everybody knew about it, but no one spoke of it. This made me angry. Was she ashamed? Did she fear for her career? From all accounts, Debbie was incredibly humble – is it possible that she didn’t realize how central and beloved she was to not only her Reform Movement, but to contemporary American Judaism as a whole? I can’t imagine a single synagogue refusing to sing her prayer for healing because the love of her life was a woman, but maybe Debbie could.

I don’t bear any ill-will towards Debbie for staying in the closet. But her life in the closet was double-barreled tragedy: how sad that Debbie could not live her life with wholeness, and how sad that so many queer kids were deprived such an important role model. How ironic that the tyranny of the closet overpowered the woman whose songs let us let go for a moment of what the world might think of us, just long enough to shout “Nutter butter peanut butter” or sway with our arms around our friends and not worry if we looked gay.

My friends who knew Debbie tell me that she had a life-partner. I don’t know her partner’s name, because all the press around Debbie’s illness and passing only asked for prayers and comfort on behalf of Debbie’s sister, family and friends. I hope this did not add to the unbearable pain and loss her partner must be experiencing now, but how could it not?

My friends who knew Debbie tell me that she struggled against the closet, that as recently as this year she expressed a desire to come out and a loss as to how to do so. It saddens me to think of her life ending, prematurely, with this business left unfinished. I hope whoever becomes the guardian of her legacy will follow through on this wish of Debbie’s, so that her life can be a blessing to future generations of GLBT Jews, and to all Jews.