Brent Chaim Spodek is the rabbi of Beacon Hebrew Alliance, a wonderful, funky synagogue in New York’s Hudson Valley. He’s currently looking to hire an amazing, creative director of family education. This post originally published on his blog.
My wife and I are both graduates of one of the most famously liberal colleges in the country. I learned many valuable things there, including how to read and understand theorists on racial violence and colonialism, such as Cornell West, and Franz Fanon.
That’s part of why it’s always so striking when I show my kids our wedding album. Most of the faces there are white, and most of the ones that aren’t belong to friends of my mother. My mother, who at the time was a guidance counselor at PS 217 in Brooklyn, doesn’t know who Cornell West or Franz Fanon are. She just knows her friends, and some of them are black.
Most people, most of the time, seek out people who are like them, who reflect back the image they want to see of themselves. Sometimes we seek a reflection of race, sometimes gender, sometimes religion, sometimes world view, and on and on.
I have multicultural bookshelves and a monochromatic speed dial. More »
by Mo Martin
Mo Martin is the host of the new podcast “Radio Free Babylonia”, produced by Jewish Public Media.
The year I first cracked open a book of Talmud was 2006, and life was pretty good. I was a moderate liberal filled with the righteous indignation of the Bush years, I was a 19-year-old Birthright-style Zionist in Israel (The Land Flowing With Beer and Single Jews My Age), and I was a loyal and proud son of the Conservative Jewish movement. Sure, life wasn’t perfect. I had an undiagnosed panic disorder, no girlfriend, and my friends back in the states missed me, and I missed them. But surely the Democrats were about to sweep the midterms, and with Israel withdrawing from Gaza, peace couldn’t be many years away, right? Talmud was an exciting intellectual adventure, and a necessary step on my way to the Rabbinate. As the foundation of Jewish religious thought, Talmud would clarify the complicated Halakhic discussions that I had been told were the heart of Jewish life. At that time, my religious life and my political beliefs were distinct.
Now it’s 2015, and I’m angry. More »
This is a guest post by Steven Philp in the Fearless Judaism series articulating visions of affirmative Judaisms and Jewish community. Steven is a postgraduate student in Jewish Studies at the University of Oxford, Mansfield College, originally from the States. He received his Masters in Divinity and Masters in Social Work from the University of Chicago this past June and served as rabbinic intern for three years at Mishkan Chicago.
Last week a colleague of mine told me that if I hadn’t mentioned it, he would not have known that I converted to Judaism. I know it’s not politically correct to say this, he confided, but you look Jewish. Perhaps a couple years ago, when I had just entered the community, this comment would have served as an affirmation of my belonging. I would have walked away from that conversation with my head held high, yarmulke pinned firmly in place. I look the part. I fit in. Now it felt like an erasure, both of my choice to become Jewish and those characteristics that co-exist with my Jewishness.
His comment, however well intended, is symptomatic of a Judaism that carefully guards its borders against intrusion. It is a Judaism that reflexively erects barriers against change, fearing that it has become thinned out or diluted – whether through assimilation, adoption, intermarriage, or the various other bogeymen of the Pew report. When my colleague says that I look Jewish, he reifies a static image of what it means to be a Jew: a certain genetic heritage, a particular phenotype, and a fixed set of cultural markers. He is telling me that I am not threatening. He is giving me a pat on the back for not rocking the boat. It is a remark that simultaneously warns and affirms: Stay the course. Do not deviate. More »
Have you battled an eating disorder or another form of disordered eating?
Have you grappled to make peace with your body?
Have you struggled to live within your body in an embodied way?
Have you had difficulty navigating transitions in your body due to development, life stage or lifestyle?
Have you suffered as you made peace with your sexuality, sexual identity or gender identity?
Are there ways in which you have resolved these issues?
We are currently in the midst of collecting soulful personal narratives from Jewish individuals for an upcoming anthology about the ways in which body, body experience and the related struggles intersect with one’s religion or identity. We will then edit, compile, and anthologize this collection of stories of soul and spirit and hope they will foster courage, communication, connection and compassion – both for ourselves and for others. We want to represent the full breadth of experience in a non-hierarchical way without sensationalizing suffering. Everyone is worthy and deserves to share their story. You don’t have to earn it with suffering at some pre-set benchmark. Length is not a factor as we want you to feel free to tell your story in as full or brief a form as feels complete, poignant and fulfilling to you. Longer may be better for some people to feel that they have fully expressed a true and full narrative that explains the arc of their journey. Others may choose to focus on a particularly meaningful or touching moment, anecdote, or experience and we want to leave room for all of those voices and perspectives in this compilation. More »
NPR’s bold headline reads that after 522 years, Spain is inviting me home. It feels good; it feels like something is being done to right a historic wrong.
A Sephardic Jew, most likely an ancestor of mine, taking part in havdallah. (via Wikipedia)
About 15 years ago, we discovered that my maternal grandfather’s family fled Spain during the Inquisition to Meppen, a small town in northern Germany, a few miles across of the boarder with The Netherlands. He chose to buy a Sephardic burial plot and his family heirlooms include allusions of a Spanish heritage. Beyond this loose collection of genealogical evidence, I have no claim to the Sephardic tradition but in this news I feel the intense pride.
It is a visceral and irrational sense of accomplishment that comes from this announcement. I am positive my grandfather would have had his tight lipped, nearly-smug smile on his face upon reading this news; the same expression I had while reading it. I wonder if black Americans felt a glimmer of this gut-based justification when reading The Case for Reparations. More »
Editor’s Note: This post is the ninth in Jewschool’s series of reflections on Judaism, Jewish identity, race and the events in Ferguson.
By guestposter Yavilah McCoy
The Call to Action….
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.” Robert Frost
My daughter spoke before a crowd of over 350 mostly White Jews who gathered in Brookline last evening to march, affirm and say together the simple slogan that has been sweeping our country: “Black Lives Matter.” My daughter, with tears in her eyes and a voice filled with emotion, shared what was at stake for her in a world where increasingly militarized police forces in our communities feel free to target unarmed people of color not just with guns but with deadly stereotypes and assumptions around what constitutes a criminal in our country. She spoke of not wanting to continue being scared for her brother and father’s safety. She talked about how much she worries about them walking home alone through the wealthy, White suburban communities of Boston that we live in to be in close proximity to other Orthodox Jews. As we have been asked, by the youth leaders of Ferguson, I stood behind by daughter last evening and supported the use of her voice. I listened while my heart was breaking, to my child describe and decry the failure of our community and country to make a space where all our children can feel safe. I felt proud, but I also felt a deep and compelling question emerging in my breast: What now? Hadn’t I been working for most of her lifetime to open the doors and minds of our community to a broader consciousness of the multiracial and multicultural constitution of our membership? Hadn’t I surrounded her with role models of family, people and leaders, who lived justice with their lives and hearts, and that she could call “uncle” and “auntie” and mean it, whether she was related to them by blood or not? Hadn’t I spent tireless hours working with the schools and institutions that she and her siblings navigate revealing the nuances of racism and providing tools for them to race forward and not backward in the way we educate and provide services to an increasingly diverse constituency of our people? More »
Editor’s Note: This post is the fifth in Jewschool’s series of reflections on Judaism, Jewish identity, race and the events in Ferguson.
Max Socol is an organizer and educator in North Carolina.
Moses was a murderer. How infrequently we speak of him that way. In its enormity, the decision to take the life of another person seems character-defining, yet the episode in Shemot when Moses, acting to defend an Israelite slave, kills an Egyptian slavedriver rarely comes to mind when I think of Israel’s greatest prophet.
As the turmoil over unchecked police brutality in American cities grows, I find myself confronting the raw edge of political nonviolence and political violence. I know I’m not alone. Even within the Jewish community, where so many of us (but not all of us, not by a long shot) are insulated from daily police harassment, those of us who are searching for a meaningful, moral role as allies in the struggle against racist oppression are met with competing demands that feel impossible to reconcile.
Part of our Fearless Judaism series.
We live in a moment of transition. It is not the first, of course: the Temple is destroyed, the era of the sages has gone, the vast and varied Jewish life spread throughout Europe and the Middle East was decimated by the holocaust and other historical events, and today, the day of the great movements, these movements are fading. Many people are frightened by this – what will happen? And not without some reasonable cause.
Our numbers are shrinking, and many people who identify as Jewish treat Judaism as an ethnicity -like being Italian, or a hobby – something to be done when there is time and it is convenient.
But the “ever-dying people” will once again find a new wave to ride, and will continue.
And what will it look like?
Many religious speak of “the way” – and Judaism, too, has a “way,” – Halacha. But maybe instead of thinking of it as “the” way, maybe we should speak of it as “the Going,” or better yet “A way” or “A going.” More »
Standards of Partnership turn Hillels from gateways to Jewish identity into discriminatory gatekeepers
Dear Mr. Fingerhut,
In recent weeks, events at Hillel affiliates across the country have highlighted the inherent flaws of Hillel International’s Standards of Partnership (the “Standards”). The Standards, which you recently assured the Knesset are enforced “rigorously,” have been deployed to silence Jewish students and communities that oppose Israel’s occupation. Recent events at Princeton University and University of Michigan Ann Arbor demonstrate that the exclusionary Standards will not stop us, as Jewish students, from exercising our right to create politically pluralistic Jewish communities. Recent events have shown that the “Standards” are not standards at all, but rather are deployed arbitrarily by Hillel staff to discriminate against and exclude Jewish students based on political ideology. More »
Editor’s Note: This post is the third in Jewschool’s series of reflections on Judaism, Jewish identity, race and the events in Ferguson.
MaNishtana is an Orthodox Jewish blogger, author of “Thoughts From A Unicorn: 100% Black. 100% Jewish. 0% Safe” and “Fine, thanks. How are YOU, Jewish?”. He blogs at www.manishtana.net.
Before I get into the topics of Michael Brown or Eric Garner which have been dominating the news cycle these past couple of weeks, I’d like to discuss something entirely different first.
As the recent massacre in Yerushalayim two weeks ago have shown us, the world is experiencing an unprecedented spike in anti-Semitism, and I’d like to direct you to just some of the alarming amounts of incidents involving the mishandling of justice when it comes to Jews.
Editor’s Note: This post is the second in Jewschool’s series of reflections on Judaism, Jewish identity, race and the events in Ferguson.
Dr. Carolivia Herron is an author and educator living in Washington, DC. Her works include “Nappy Hair,” “Asenath,” and the opera libretto, “Let Freedom Sing: The Story of Marian Anderson.” She has held professorial appointments at Harvard University and the College of William and Mary.
I have nothing to say.
I know you want me to say that the things I know about Ferguson have nothing to do with this specific case of Big Mike and the policeman and can’t be admitted by law so I should just shut up about them or else I’ll be just inciting folks to riot or protest and I shouldn’t even mention that you don’t know the difference between protesting and rioting. I don’t have anything to say because 45 years ago, when I was a black teenager, before I was Jewish right out loud I was a summer missionary for the Southern Baptist Convention there near Ferguson in St. Louis County. I almost got my head shot off by the Klan because I was walking with three other summer missionaries two black, two white, evenly divided by gender and I, like a fool, when the four of us were walking on the wrong side of town (that’s the white side), ran up to the car that was slowly driving beside us, me thinking that the guy wanted directions or something so I just ran up to the car window and there was the Klan man with the sawed off shot gun pointed at my head. Every time I try to say about Ferguson, obey the law, accept the findings of the hearing, my voice chokes because I remember that gun and because the Klan man and I lived in different worlds I ran toward the man with the gun. I had no better sense than that. And why should I say something just because it pops up in my head. That shot gun at my head happened in the late 1960s, what’s that got to do with today? And back then it was the Klan. It’s not the Klan today, so I’m not saying anything.
This guestpost is by Jonah Rank and is part of our Fearless Judaism series. Jonah Rank is a musician, and, as of May 2015, a rabbi ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary, where Jonah is currently studying for an M.A. in Jewish mysticism. Jonah is the student rabbi at Congregation Sons of Israel (in Amsterdam, NY) and the rabbinic intern at the United Synagogue of Hoboken (NJ) for the 2014-2015 year. Since 2006, thon has worked on new liturgical projects for the Rabbinical Assembly, most notably as the secretary to Mahzor Lev Shalem (released in 2010) and Siddur Lev Shalem (forthcoming).
Grounded in a life of learning, my affirmative Judaism centers on tikkun olam—building a universe of peace once shattered by our limited capacity to transmit chesed, loving-kindness. In order to build further the universe our Divinity only started to build, we must steep ourselves in the values of the Jewish tradition. In this affirmation of Jewish tradition, the altruism of humanity must act as a conduit for the Divine Flow that seeks to inundate the world with sacred love.
When guided by Jewish wisdom, the affirmative Jew must accept that affirmation is a process of borer—picking and choosing. For as long as there have been Jews, there have been disagreements between Jews. This requires us to learn from all teachings of the Jewish tradition and to acknowledge at least three categories of Jewish teachings. More »
In response to Naomi Adland’s incisive piece Fear, Fearlessness, and Forward Movement, we have started a series in which different writers articulate their visions for affirmative Judaisms. We very much welcome your voice to the mix and invite you to submit entries to firstname.lastname@example.org
Fear. It’s what stops us from imagining and building a better world. The deficit model of Judaism can no longer sustain itself. Too long we have been comfortable articulating what we seek to avoid and escape, but the time has come to embrace a Judaism with the vision and audacity to be about something worth believing and embodying.
As we know all too well from the devastating events of last week in Ferguson, fear fuels a viciously unjust legal system which perpetuates the subjugation and silencing of countless Americans. The subject of Ferguson merits its own treatment, and I look forward to hearing more progressive Jewish voices speak out against the systemic injustice and inequality.
Especially in light of the current news, part of me feels like writing about a fearless Judaism right now veers uncomfortably to the parochial. But upon further reflection, I am realizing that refining our own self-definition and collective visions will enable us both to grow internally and also to help others break from the shackles of their own limiting, stultifying, and potentially dangerous fears. For me, an affirmative Judaism has the drive and confidence to be proud and rooted in its particularism while also embracing vibrant difference and growth.
I was at the GA which Naomi describes in her post. One talk which felt a bit different than the others was Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks’ keynote plenary address. In it, Rabbi Sacks emphasized the imperative of Jewish unity and accountability for each other. What struck me about his language was the refreshing optimism and opportunity for forward movement which he offered. I was especially excited because much of the vision of Jewish unity he advocated resonated deeply with what I wrote for the Yom Kippur sermon I delivered at Anshei Chesed of Cape Cod this past season. Below, I will share an excerpt from my sermon:
Editor’s Note: With this post, Jewschool begins a series of reflections on Judaism, Jewish identity, race and the events in Ferguson.
This is a guest post by Janaki Kuruppu, a practicing physician in Baltimore, MD. She and her husband are raising two boys, who were born in Ethiopia, and who joined their family 5 years ago. They are active members of Tikvat Israel, a Conservative congregation in Rockville, MD.
Last Monday morning, like most mornings, my commute was in the company of NPR, which, like all the news outlets, was describing the preparations in Ferguson, MO, anticipating the announcement of the Grand Jury decision.
My last patient of the day was a man I have taken care of for some time, but this appointment would be his last visit, as the infection we’d been treating for so long, was finally resolved. After giving him the good news, we got to talking, as we always have done, about current affairs. He is a well-educated black man, retired from a middle-management career. He described, laughingly, being mistaken for an underling, and asked on job sites to be taken to his supervisor, when he was actually the boss on the site. He would play along, and go get one of his staff, always a white employee, who the client had expected to be in charge. My patient seemed to delight in the subsequent discomfort of the client on being shown the error of his assumption. More »
To call a state a democracy requires that the people choose their political representation and that the state protects a set of rights that everyone has access to. There are many frightening things about the so-called “Jewish Nation-State law”, which puts Israel’s Jewish character out in front of democracy by a long shot and we very well may see this bill become law. So far, the bill was already approved by the cabinet in a vote of 14-7, and was set to hit the Knesset floor this Week, but Prime Minister Netanyahu has postponed it until next week.
The bill, which is meant to become a Basic Law (the closest thing Israel has to a constitution), is scary because it emphasizes Jewish privilege under the law in Israel, for example pushing Jewish law into the secular court system and demoting Arabic from one of two official languages down to merely being the mother tongue of 20% of the population and the regional language.
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 email@example.com 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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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?
This week marked the first yahrzeit of Rav Ovadia Yosef. Last year, in the aftermath of his death, and in the midst of a media storm including wildly varying assessments of his life, I posted this piece, “On Heroes and Villains and when They’re the Same: Thoughts on Rav Ovadia“. It got a lot of traction, receiving, we think, the most social media shares in Jewschool history (subsequently eclipsed by Rabbi Oren Hayon’s guest post about BDS campus campaigns). The challenge of fully acknowledging a person’s misdeeds and merits is as relevant a year later. Specifically, in the Rabbinic realm, the past couple weeks’ revelations of Rabbi Barry Freundel’s outrageous violations of privacy and abuse of power at the D.C mikveh have likely been confusing for D.C. Jews who have ever been inspired by Torah taught by Freundel or helped by his pastoral counsel. How can we square the corruption with the inspiration? For this, we bring you this week’s Throwback Thursday, to last year’s post about Rav Ovadia.