This is a guest post by Chava Shervington. A passionate and committed Jewish diversity advocate, Chava co-founded an organization which created opportunities for Jews of Color to connect in safe spaces across the East Coast. Currently, Chava is honored to serve as president of the Jewish Multiracial Network, an organizational leader in a movement to make Jewish racial/ethnic diversity fully embraced in American Jewish life.
In recent years there have been a rash of documentaries of Muslim converts (or reverts as they are called in Islam), as there seems to be a particular fascination with white Westerners who decide to take on Islam. Most of these documentaries focus on the motivation of the convert, the reactions of their families and communities, as well as their adjustment to adopting Muslim law and social customs. ”Mom, Dad, I’m Muslim” is both a unique story and a missed opportunity. While there have been many stories of converts to Islam, this one had the potential to explore an entire range of issues besides the usual family tension and personal struggle, but it barely scratches the surface of the story of Maor, a young Jewish woman in Israel who converts to Islam.
While there is definitely focus on Maor’s family (a hodge podge of characters, including an anti-religious brother, a Kahane supporting father, an increasingly observant mother and younger brother, a confused younger sister, and feisty grandmother), we only seem to get half of the story. Everyone outside of her grandmother seems to be supportive of her religious choice and allows her to exist on the periphery of their traditional Jewish lives. For the most part they seem to express apathy with her choice, but support her out of love. Her grandmother is the only one who ever vocalizes strong opposition to Maor’s new religious conviction, although even though her mother vocalizes her support, under the surface their seems to be a genuine hope that this is only a phase. There seems to be a concerted effort not to ostracize her for her conversion. While her family makes Kiddush and hamotzi for Shabbat dinner, Maor sits silent at the table in her hijab, at a Yom Hazikaron ceremony she stands silently while her family and others proudly sing Hatikvah, she’s obviously strongly connected to her family members, but at the same time completely disconnected from their Jewish identities.
Unfortunately, that disconnection is never truly explored. Maybe it’s because as with many converts (to any religion) she finds the motivations for her conversion difficult to express. When asked by her younger sister, the answer is couched in a metaphor of white roses, but essentially boils down to “because that’s what I think G-d wants from me”. But for us as an audience it feels like we a) came into the story halfway and b) only get half of the story.
As a Jewish watcher I was left with so many questions: What was Maor’s Jewish background prior to her conversion?; Did she ever explore Judaism further? How are the things that appeal to her about Islam-modesty and interactions between women and men-different from traditional Judaism? How does she relate to her Jewish identity? Did she experience any emotional conflict with changing her identity? Has her conversion affected her relationship to the state of Israel? We learn of her strong connection with Arab Muslim classmates from an early age, and the death of one in particular seemed to affect her strongly, but because we know so little about her interaction with the Jewish community all we’re left with are questions.
There are so many topics introduced and barely covered, particularly those things that make this such a unique conversion story. As a Jewish Muslim convert in Israel, Maor, must do more than take the shahada (Islamic creed declaring the oneness of Gd), she must undergo a formal conversion with the government so that she will be allowed to marry a fellow Muslim. We learn absolutely nothing about what that involves, how long it takes, or what she must undergo. When she changes the nationality on her identity card, does she experience hesitation or only relief? (Spoiler—she does find a Muslim husband, but we learn absolutely nothing about the process and/or how her unique circumstances factor into her decision.) One minute she’s talking about starting to look for a husband, the next she’s looking at his picture online, two minutes later she refers to him as her fiancée. It’s a completely unexplored whirlwind.
One thing we do understand throughout this film is how incredibly lonely Maor’s journey is. When not at home or running an errand with her family, she’s shown walking and sitting alone. No one in her community speaks to her; she is the constant subject of stares and is questioned by both Arab Muslim and Jewish communities. The story flows from one scene in a restaurant when she’s questioned by Muslim customers and workers: “Is she Arab, is someone in her family Arab, where does she live, is she married” to a Yom Hazikaron ceremony where she faces the same questions from Jews, along with assumptions such as that she must have grown up not surrounded by Jews, she must have no connection/relationship with her family, etc. It isn’t until almost three quarters through the film that we meet a friend outside of her family, Lital, another Jewish convert to Islam.
As the film ended, I was left with so many mixed emotions; I could only wish her happiness in her journey, yet feel sadness about her path, and continue to wonder how she got there. I’m not sure it’s a story I as a committed Jew could ever feel completely comfortable with, but still wish I could appreciate her story and motivations, but this film left so many topics unexplored, I’m not sure we as the audience can get there.
The tagline of this year’s Jewish Feminist Alliance (JOFA) 8th annual gathering on Dec 7-8 has sparked a conversation: “It’s not just for feminists anymore.”
Long time JOFA supporter Jennifer Moran’s Facebook feed blew up when she posted this status: ”Just received an ad for the 8th International JOFA Conference, which proclaims, ‘It’s not just for feminists anymore…’ How I wish that I could convince my fellow women’s rights activists to stop disparaging, diminishing, or distancing themselves from feminism.” Others wondered if JOFA’s mission had changed, if social norms in the Orthodox community had led JOFA to shift its recruitment strategy away from the “radical” notion of feminism.
What’s the motivation behind this tagline and what’s happening at the conference? We spoke with Sarah Blechner, Marketing Chair for the upcoming conference. Blechner was raised in an Orthodox feminist household and has attended JOFA conferences since she was in high school.
Jewschool: What can we expect from this year’s JOFA conference that’s different from previous years?
Sarah Blechner: Whereas many of the past conferences have focused on the Orthodox community writ large, this year, while we will still be tackling those large, community issues, we are also talking in a much more personal way than ever before. We are really looking forward to bringing many of the “big” issues down to an individual level and discussing how many of these issues impact the everyday, the individual, and the quieter moments. More »
Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish debuted in 2005 and has been a perennial bar mitzvah gift ever since. The book, which features interviews by Abigail Pogrebin with about five dozen celebrities about their Jewish identities, is now an off-Broadway musical. Pogrebin is no stranger to the musical stage; she chronicled her experience as an original cast member of the infamous Stephen Sondheim flop Merrily We Roll Along in her 2011 Kindle Single Showstopper. This morning I chatted with her about the experience of writing Stars of David, both book and musical, and how her evolving Jewish identity has shaped the project.
In the introduction to the book, she discusses that part of the impetus for the project was that Jewish identity had crept up on her. She was married to a Jewish man, had two children approaching the ages when they might want to know something about what being Jewish meant, and she realized that she didn’t have an answer to that question. “I wasn’t necessarily honest with myself about why I started the book in the sense that I didn’t know how at sea I was, in terms of my own Jewish identity, when I approached famous people,” Pogrebin said. “I think sometimes stories are generated by some subconscious impulse to understand something for yourself. And I don’t want to over-analyze my motivations in starting the book, but I would say that having these frank conversations with some of our highest achievers made me look much more candidly at myself, and I realized I hadn’t answered a lot of the questions I was asking, personally.”
Kari Hochwald is 23 years old and from Jacksonville, Florida. She graduated from the University of Florida in 2012 with a degree in English. She spent the past year volunteering in Israel through Masa’s Israel Teaching Fellows program in Rehovot. After a few months back at home, Kari has decided to return to Israel to live and work in Tel Aviv.
Jewschool:Say some things about your Jewish background and your previous experience(s) in Israel.
Kari Hochwald: My Jewish background is.. Conservaform? I guess? ( My family switched from a Conservative to Reform temple when I was 11). I really only stayed involved up through my Bat Mitzvah and a couple of years of volunteering at the temple. I was very uninvolved in high school and didn’t really find a Jewish outlet until the end of my Junior year in college when I went on a Taglit Birthright trip with the University of Florida Hillel, visiting Israel for the first time. Jacksonville doesn’t have a huge thriving Jewish community so I never had that many Jewish friends, and it’s hard to get involved on the college level when you don’t know many people at Hillel/Chabad (it’s a bit clique-y). Now my Judaism is more Israel centered and I would identify more with the “secular” movement. I was very involved with Hillel during my senior year of college, as a Masa intern and Zionist Gators group founder.
My experience in Israel this year was, of course, amazing, and so different from what you think you are seeing on Birthright. I felt a connection to Israel during that brief ten days, but being able to live there for ten months and attempt to understand the language, culture, controversies, and diverse land were things I could never have experienced otherwise. The highlight was partaking in all of the Jewish holidays in Israel, when no one questioned why I was missing class on Yom Kippur, and Chanukah was the main December event. My Hebrew didn’t improve immensely, but from teaching in a middle school I had a much better understanding of English grammar (ever heard of stative verbs?).
The Pew Research survey, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” released yesterday, has received a lot of attention in both the Jewish and the mainstream media. I don’t have anything more to add about the results themselves; many pages have already been written in the last 48 hours. But after reading both the data and some of the spin, I have several comments about what we can and can’t conclude from the data.
1) Orthodox Retention
There has been discussion of the retention rates among various age cohorts of Orthodox Jews, i.e. what percentage of Jews raised as Orthodox currently identify as Orthodox. This percentage is significantly higher among the younger age cohorts than among the older cohorts, leading some to conclude that the Orthodox world is more effective at retention at the present time than in the past.
This conclusion is not supported by the data. Let us consider an alternate hypothesis: The attrition rate of Orthodox Jews has remained constant over time. What results would we expect from this hypothesis? The percentage of raised-Orthodox Jews who currently identify as Orthodox should decrease with increasing age (since older people have had more time to leave Orthodoxy), and this is in fact what we see in the data. But we can be more precise in our predictions from this model: The percentage should decay exponentially.
To test this, I fit the numbers to an exponential curve. I made the following assumptions and simplifications (which were quick-and-dirty, but you can try it yourself with different assumptions): I assumed that 100% of Orthodox-raised Jews identified as Orthodox at age 18 (and all attrition occurred after this). I collapsed each age range (e.g. 18-29) to a single data point at the center of the age range. For the highest age group (65+), I assumed it went up to 90.
The result was that the data fit the exponential very closely (R2 = 0.9932), with an attrition rate of about 2.4% per year:
Of course we can’t conclude that there has in fact been a steady rate of attrition either! My point is just that this would be consistent with the data. There are many possibilities – it would also be consistent with the data that everyone who leaves Orthodoxy leaves during their 20s (which would mean that the attrition rate is in fact much lower for the current 20somethings). There’s just no way to determine from these data (which only provide a snapshot of the present time) which model is correct, without data from past generations.
Sometimes when I go to Jewish events that I know will include a question and answer session, I make a chart that looks like this:
# of times someone asks a question that is not actually a question ( __ )
# of times speaker is interrupted by someone in the audience ( __ )
# of rants by audience members ( ___ ) *
This chart has come in particularly handy at conferences, but can be applied on a holiday such as Shavuot, if you write. (It also makes an excellent drinking game.)
I spent Shavuot at the JCC in Manhattan, which, if you have not attended a tikkun there before, can be really overwhelming. It’s super crowded, especially in the areas with the cheesecake and water and coffee. The offerings are pretty diverse: yoga, films, art, speakers, and more traditional learning situations with chevrutah. I came because I was in the neighborhood, and also for the 10 pm session with Rabbi Jacqueline Koch Ellenson (RKE in this piece, for the sake of brevity here), director of the Women’s Rabbinic Network, called “Women of the Wall, Pluralism in Israel, and American Jews.”
RKE began by asking the audience about the values that motivate their activism (“I just don’t want someone to say that my voice can’t be heard,” said one woman,) and also about the values that they felt Israel should embody, which were no surprise in a liberal Jewish crowd: equality, democracy, justice, respect, Judaism, co-existence, pluralism. “I am worried by what I see in the news,” said RKE, before giving a brief history of the actions of Women of the Wall, beginning in 1988, when the group gathered at the Kotel for the first time. In 1993, the group attempted to read Torah for the first time at the Wall, resulting in the arrest and detainment of group members. (The Torah reading happened, outside the jail near Jaffa Gate, while members of the group and allies waited for folks to be released.) ”There was a feeling of being vulnerable, and yet so strong,” said RKE. The events continued to escalate after 1993, and American Jewish support for WOW grew. RKE: “Seeing Jewish women being taken away by Israeli police in a Jewish state? How can it be?” More »
Yesterday, the Open Hillel campaign, a student led initiative to change policies around permitted conversations on Israel on campus, presented their petition ( 801 signatures strong as of this writing) and letter to the Hillel International Board in Washington, D.C.
The grassroots initiative was started by members of the Harvard College Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA), a Hillel-affiliated group, when PJA was prevented from co-sponsoring an event with the Palestine Solidarity Committee in Hillel. Open Hillel urges Hillel International to revise, reconsider, and ultimately remove its Standards for Partnership, which read: “Hillel, the Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, has chapters and affiliates on university campuses across the US and abroad. Hillel International currently publishes “Guidelines for Campus Israel Activities” which declare, “Hillel will not partner with, house, or host organizations, groups, or speakers that as a matter of policy or practice: Deny the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized borders; Delegitimize, demonize, or apply a double standard to Israel; Support boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against the State of Israel; Exhibit a pattern of disruptive behavior towards campus events or guest speakers or foster an atmosphere of incivility.”
The Open Hillel campaign asks that Hillel ”remove all political litmus tests for co-sponsorships, affiliated groups, and invited speakers.”
More from the letter (written and signed by Jewish student leaders from universities across the country):
“Pluralism should be extended to the subject of Israel, and no Jewish individual or group should be excluded from the community simply because of political views. The prohibition against anyone who “delegitimizes” or “applies a double standard” to Israel is used to silence students who are critical of Israeli policies or express views with which the Hillel leadership disagrees. These policies deny all students the opportunity to learn about a range of views and form well-supported and defensible opinions about Israel. We all lose out when important perspectives within our community are stifled.”
The campaign is currently awaiting a response from Hillel International and will continue to expand if Hillel International is resistant to the requests of the petition and letter,
I picked up Still Jewish: A History of Women and Intermarriage in America because I’m in an interfaith relationship, and reading it gave me something I didn’t know I needed. It gave me an academic but accessible text that said it is possible to be strong in my Jewish identity in an interfaith relationship, and that more than that—many women before me have and still do so. An interfaith relationship does not require one to set aside their Jewish identity.
Still Jewish follows the trends of Jewish women’s intermarriages in America, and the attitudes towards those marriages. McGinity stretches back to the interfaith marriages of immigrant women at the end of the 19th century, working forward to the mid 00’s.
The mythos of intermarriage says that once a Jewish woman intermarries, she’s lost to the faith. She assimilates, loses her name, ditches her faith, and joins a mainstream Christian majority, taking any children she might have with her. McGinity uses multigenerational studies, research and first person interviews to show it’s just that: mythos. The truth is more complex.
Something McGinity saw increasing over her research was a building trend in renewed Jewish identity on the part of intermarried women over time. Particularly when you cross into the Civil Rights era (50’s-60’s) that trend of strongly renewed sense of self-identification as a Jew starts to pick up. One of the things I found painful while I read the book was the ever-present, often vociferous opinions against intermarriage. It gets wince-worthy the closer the book comes to the present. In some ways it was easier for me to write off the anti-intermarriage sentiment of the late 1800s and early 1900s because it was so ‘long ago.’
The closer you get to the present day the more bullshit it feels that people still think these things. That a community could prioritize “in reach” to eliminate intermarriage over proactive outreach to keep intermarried families involved strikes me as particularly heinous. McGinity’s delivery is more nuanced and more mature than mine is here, but her dismay over the prejudiced reactions to intermarried families was clear. She did her duty to present both sides of the argument throughout her text, presenting a historic longview where each set of attitudes were in their proper contexts to each other.
The story of Jewish women in the States, is a one that is deeply influenced by it being a narrative that takes place in the U.S. Our identities as Jewish women here have been deeply affected by the Civil Rights movement, the many phases of the American Feminist movement, and the nationwide conversations over time concerning faith, individualism, and secularism.
As our rights have increased, there has been a corresponding growth in a renewed and strengthened Jewish self in intermarried Jewish women. We’re not “losing” intermarried women in droves to assimilation, as told in the hysteric polemic of institution conversation. Jewish identity and family have become complex, but plenty of women remain Jews in their intermarriages.
The data McGinity shows throughout her text would suggest to me that even more women will feel empowered and strong in their identities when the Jewish establishment stops its vicious inward conversation about whether “in reach” or “outreach” is more important than the other, and ascribing moral outcomes to either. Because these women are still Jewish.
I was walking with a friend the other day when he saw my Ahavas Yisrael pin. I had just told him I was a Jewish Studies major. “Wow, you must be really into it,” he said. “Not really,” I said, “not really at all anymore.”
I explained it to him and he was the only one so far not to say , optimistically, naively, “You can still be Jewish!” He said something very interesting. He said: “Maybe you were looking for a sense of order.”
It makes sense. It makes so much sense. It started in community college in 2010, when I wanted to be a philosophy major. I was really against Continental philosophy. I wanted to be against something. I liked the raw logicality of analytical philosophy, and I hated anything that threatened it. Interestingly, that was also around the time when I started thinking I wanted a different way of life…I had just come back from art school, after a failed relationship (if you want to call it that), a failed music career (if you want to call it that), and a failed freshman year (literally…I dropped out). Music–what I had always assumed I would do since age ten–had failed me. Being gay had certainly failed me. I had originally enrolled in community college wanting to be a business major (!), but ultimately chose philosophy. By the end of my two years there, I was hooked on Judaism. It was only natural that I would end up choosing Orthodoxy.
This need for order–along with my new goal of becoming a philosophy professor–led me to get something like a 3.9 so I could be accepted to William & Mary (an unashamedly traditional school). I was still planning to convert to Orthodoxy. I changed my major from philosophy to religion to Jewish studies. And by the end of my first year at William & Mary, I was basically on an inevitable path. Why stop at Modern Orthodoxy? I took an Aish course online, and considered joining their women-only BT seminary. Never mind that I wasn’t *technically* Jewish. It was painful to think about. It disrupted my order.
That was just the beginning of my growing sense of disorder and liminality. But I was still ignoring it at that time. I withdrew from my classes at W&M and transferred to Brooklyn College. I bought my food from Pomegranate and my undershirt shells from the Shell Station, and not without tons of stares. I didn’t care. Soon I would fit into the framework, if I would only try. I was talking via email to a BT rabbi who lived in Brooklyn, and he was giving me so much encouragement. “I know how you feel, since I felt that way too,” he’d say. I found a minyan and a rabbi who would convert me, and I filed a conversion application with the RCA. Everything was going really perfectly, and of course I considered it a sort of divine will, although I never would have admitted it except to other very frum, religious people.
But then things started changing. I started noticing the stares more. I started getting annoyed by them. I started getting annoyed at other converts, people who seemed too religious, too by-the-book, annoyed at the texts, annoyed at the holidays, annoyed at the singing, annoyed at Orthodox Brooklyn.
And then my annoyance disappeared and was replaced by disappointment. The “Orthodox culture” everyone had told me about was appearing all around me. I noticed that people were just as religious about having seltzer water on the table as they were having challah on it. I noticed people didn’t finish birkat hamazon sometimes. I noticed that gemara had gaping holes in it, and I noticed that people didn’t seem to mind. I noticed that people were forming their own pathways to get around the inconsistencies. And I noticed that those pathways were called “customs.” Judaism wasn’t being held up by a timeless and flawless system; it was being held up by people.
And, just like that, my sense of order was shattered.
That is what I try to tell people when they insist that I shouldn’t have left Judaism after coming out. I was accepted by the community that I had formed around me. Sure, that encouraging rabbi had stopped emailing me. But my real friends were still there. It wasn’t that. Homosexuality proves to me that Judaism is a flawed system; a human one. Its only answers were to either ignore the problem or to require celibacy. I felt deceived. When you think you were brought into a situation by some kind of divine imperative, told the system has no flaws, and you find one, and the very people who told you there were no flaws have no answer for the flaw, of course you are going to feel deceived.
I used to think that order was a sign that God existed. But there is so much disorder within order that I am not sure anymore. If God exists, it is certainly not in the ordered way that books describe. I used to be completely fascinated by the idea of God, and now, frankly, thinking about it makes me nervous. Facing that new void scares me. The sense of order that I got from being religious gave way to complete bewilderment. I felt as if I had lost everything, and all I could do was pick up the pieces. I had built up trust in this thing for two years, and it was gone within a month.
I’m not sad, though. I was sad at first, and really just mortified and embarrassed for quite a while. I still have to tell people I am a Jewish Studies major. “It’s a long story,” I say, although I am getting a little tired of the story. I am feeling more and more distant from my summer in New York, although it seemed so real and immediate and important at the time.
It makes sense that I am newly interested in computer science, since about six months ago. It’s tiring that my interests change almost every year, but there is a common theme at least. Logic, order, reasoning.
It seemed religion couldn’t stand up to that after all.
Thank you so much, Raffi, for continuing this conversation with me. I respect the thoughtfulness and passion that you bring to your relationship with Israel.’
I work very hard (as I’m sure you do) to ensure that my halachic practice reflects my values. I am not always successful, but I try. Text helps me explore what my values are, and how they define my practice. Both Masechet Pesachim and Rav Ovadyah Yosef’s teshuva give voice to what many American Jews have forgotten is a possibility: We can live religiously authentic, meaningful Jewish lives without a direct relationship with the modern state of Israel because our redemption is not about Israel.
American Jews and Israeli Jews are, simply, different. Look at central coming-of-age experiences: Non-Chareidi Israelis come into adulthood through military or national service, while (and this is a generalization) the American Jewish coming of age experience involves a college education. Religious American Jews subdivide based on praxis and attitudes towards gender, while religious Israeli Jews subdivide based on praxis and attitudes towards Zionism. With different sets of values, shouldn’t our halachic practice also be different? Neither geographic practice needs to be defined as better or worse. They’re just different. We can use differences in Ashkenazi and Sephardi halacha as a paradigm. Each community defined their practice based on their geographic and sociological norms. We can do the same. Israel should not dictate my religious practice, and vice versa. More »
Filmmaker Alexander Bodin Saphir presents on the rescue of the Danish Jews at OresundsLimmud 2013
On March 5, our almost-a-minyan who comprise the steering team of Limmud Oresund 2013 was holding the penultimate meeting prior to our second annual Limmud day of Jewish learning and culture. Over 160 people had pre-registered, and we were concerned about logistics: Would there be enough space for a Limmud that had doubled in size since last year? Had we ordered enough food for lunches and snacks? Did Folkuniversitet, an adult education school that was again openomg its facility to us free of chage, have a room large enough for all participants to close out the day together with singing, learning, thanking the volunteers, and tasting the cholent made during a morning session?
“I am worried that our present policy is internally conflicted and thus strategically self-defeating,” the rabbi said. “The idea of refusing to be present for the wedding and then expecting the couple to feel warmly embraced by the Jewish people strikes me as a policy constructed by someone who doesn’t know the mind of a young couple…. I am not exactly clear on the message the Conservative movement is sending out into the world, and I am not sure if it is a viable policy in the long term.”
Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove of NYC's Park Avenue Synagogue
This quote is from Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, a rabbi of the Park Avenue Synagogue, a Conservative shul in NYC. He’s not talking about a policy shift within his synagogue or the Conservative movement, but sharing his thoughts on conversion and intermarriage, as reported in the New York Jewish Week (Time To Rethink Conversion Policy).
He likened [the current approach] to joining a gym, noting that a potential gym member is not told first to exercise, get in good shape and then join. Rather, if the person is willing to join, he or she signs up and then the work begins. Moreover, the rabbi added, this logic is not just one of good consumer policy but is consistent with traditional Jewish teaching.
In one of the most famous Talmud stories, the man who wants to learn all of the Torah while standing on one foot is shooed away by Shammai, who has no patience for him, but welcomed by Hillel.
“First, Hillel converts, and then Hillel teaches,” Rabbi Cosgrove said. “First you join and then, once you are a vested member, you figure out what it’s all about.”
In that way, the rabbi suggested that it might be more effective for Conservative rabbis to first accept converts and then teach them.
This would be a huge shift! Compare it to the usual course of action someone follows if converting within Conservative Judaism: a year of study followed by formal conversion (going to the mikveh, and brit milah or brit hadam if the convert is a male).
Imagine if, when an interfaith couple approached a Conservative rabbi to officiate their wedding, the response wasn’t “I can’t officiate, but consider conversion!” or “I can’t officiate, but you’re still welcome to come to synagogue!” but instead was “Welcome! Let’s bring you into the community, celebrate your wedding, and then, as you and your partner establish this next phase of your lives together, let’s make sure Jewish learning is included!”
“My priority is to create Jewish homes, and everything I do is toward that goal,” he said. When a congregant’s adult child comes to him with a non-Jewish partner and wants to get married, he now describes the yearlong conversion program requirement that is a prerequisite to the wedding. Many of them, he says, never come back, choosing a justice of the peace or other [Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal] clergy to marry them.
As Rabbi Cosgrove points out, “love trumps religious affiliation, with the result being that few families are immune from the situation of a child coming home with a non-Jewish partner and wanting to be married in a Jewish ceremony.” So the question becomes: how do rabbis keep up? Do you think Rabbi Cosgrove’s idea to convert the partner who isn’t Jewish so that Conservative rabbis can officiate their weddings and then bring them to study would work? Do you have other ideas?
The National Havurah Committee is proud to co-sponsor the Academy for Jewish Religion’s upcoming conference, Pluralism2.0: Decision Making on Pluralism’s Boundaries. The event is being held Sunday, March 10th from 2-5:30 pm in New York City at Town and Village Synagogue. The conference is free and open to the public. Speakers include AJR’s dean, Dr. Ora Horn Prouser, Rabbi Brad Hirschfield of Clal, and UPenn Hillel’s Rabbi Mike Uram. More information on the conference can be found here. More information on the Academy for Jewish Religion can be found at www.ajrsem.org.
This is an interview with Emily Unger, a Harvard senior majoring in biology, and the former chair of the Harvard College Progressive Jewish Alliance, the student group organizing a protest against Hillel’s ban on partnerships with groups back boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel.
Jewschool: Give us some background about your experience with this issue at Harvard.
Emily Unger: I’ve been involved in the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA) since the beginning of my first year at college, and this entire time, we’ve prided ourselves on working together with both Harvard Students for Israel and the Palestine Solidarity Committee (PSC) and co-sponsoring events with both groups. Last semester, we planned to co-sponsor an event with PSC called “Jewish Voices Against the Occupation”, which brought two speakers, an Israeli Jew and an American Jew, to talk about their experiences doing non-violent activism against the occupation of the Palestinian Territories (protesting home demolitions in the West Bank, etc.) and how this related to their Jewish identity. We wanted to hold the event in the Hillel building, since it was a Jewish event and we thought it would appeal to Jewish students.
The inspiration for the Stuff Jews Don’t Do Tumblr, according to the person who created it : “Growing up in a Jewish TV-centered home, I often encountered many things or situations in the primetime line-up that were unfamiliar. When I asked my mother why we didn’t eat Thanksgiving in the afternoon or why my brother never had a rat’s tail, her retort was always “Jews don’t do that!”"
Some things “Jews don’t do”: Shop at JC Penney, Drive Pick Up Trucks, Buy Lottery Tickets, Eat Hamburger Helper. This is stuff that runs contrary to what some Jews recognize as being Jewish, or what might be referred to as “”goyishe.” There’s a thread that connects them-mainly that they’re commonly associated with people of a certain class. When I was a kid, we shopped at Kmart (not even a JC Penney!). This might not be true anymore, but then, shopping at Kmart was unforgivable. People would tease you about it until you died, because it meant you were poor, and worse, you were too stupid (obviously as the result of being poor) to front like you didn’t shop at Kmart. The thing was, my family was poor. And we were Jews.
Like I said, a lot of the things listed in this Tumblr have nothing to do with Judaism, they have to do with class, but in addition, there’s also the greatly overlooked fact that, believe it or not, Jews don’t all live on the East and West coasts of the United States. Jews in the South might drive pick up trucks, because in the South, people might do that. Cultural norms exist, and people take them on.
Jews might also make and eat Jello molds, (I can’t believe I just typed that sentence) because maybe they don’t know about kashrut or they don’t care about it, and they think they’re delicious. And just so I keep making it all about me, kashrut was something I didn’t know about until college, because Jewish education is expensive, and I wasn’t around a lot of observant Jews. That’s what happens when you live outside of a Jewish bubble.
Look, I’m pretty sure (I hope) that the point of this Tumblr is to poke fun at the idea that Jews don’t do certain things, but actually it should be called “Stuff Jews Who Aren’t Me or Other Jews I Know Probably Do.” (Also, I’m pretty sure a kugel qualifies as a casserole.)
“Knowledge is the beginning of action, and action is the completion of knowledge.”
-Wang Yang-ming (1472-1529)
“I went to the Bulgarian Orthodox church the other day,” I told my friend. (Once in a while, I’m dragged to some esoteric church or other by another friend of mine who’s Spiritually Seeking (TM), and I humor her.) That’s all I said. That’s how this all started.
“I’m into yoga and Buddhism and astrology or whatever. I can’t really get into formal religion,” she replied. “I don’t even know why anyone would be Jewish, like choosing to be Jewish.” I told her, of course, that I probably wouldn’t have had the stamina myself if my dad hadn’t been Jewish. This is usually how I’d mollify such situations; you know, the old “Yeah, you’re right, but what can I say?”
“I mean, I don’t support Israel,” she went on, saying that although she didn’t really know all the facts, she did know such cold hard facts as “people are dying” and “the US shouldn’t be giving money to Israel.” I didn’t really know what she was getting at, but I’ve heard these conversations turn into “the Jews stole the land” more than enough times to know this wasn’t just going to be about fiscal policies.
“Israel is huge, and more people on the other side have died. Unless something has radically changed since I was last updated.”
“I don’t want to talk about Israel,” I said.
“Once I saw this stupid Israel group shouting stuff about Palestine, like how it’s not really a country,” she said. “How can you be such a vile piece of shit? I wanted to spit on them.”
And I don’t like how Jewish people automatically side with Israel as if they are Israeli,” she went on. “Do you really think they care about you stupid Americans over here, just because you’re Jewish?”
“It’s not all Israel’s fault,” I said. “That’s all I’m gonna say.” I have this rule where I don’t talk about subjects like this when neither party has enough information to have a real discussion. She had just told me she didn’t know much, and I’d be the first to admit I don’t know anything about Israel or Palestine, to say nothing of the basics of politics. It’s pretty tough to learn anything anyway when your only options are either Aish or the lone book in your library’s Israel section, “Israel: How to Handle This Fascist State?”
“Well, you’re biased because you’re trying to be Jewish,” she said. “You’re personally invested in this because of the Jewish element. You can’t be objective, and that’s sad. I can’t believe how people can be so closed-minded.”
I didn’t know what to say. I really had nothing to say. I don’t know much about the “conflict” either, except for what I learned in my History of Zionism class, which is basically this:
Somehow I suspected that wasn’t going to change her mind.
Israel was beside the point, though. I realized this as she continued, telling me that “Jews think they’re better than everyone,” “Jews are so elitist,” and “It’s racist not to intermarry.”
Sure, when I lived in Brooklyn, I heard this sort of thing on the bus and waiting for the subway, but only when I’m back home in Virginia do I hear it from friends. When I told her afterwards that I didn’t like being called “elitist,” she told me I was taking it too personally, and that she didn’t see why she would have offended me.
I’d try to crudely analyze such a frustrating situation if I thought it actually needed analysis.
The truth is, it’s exhausting to be the “spokesperson” all the time to people who will never fundamentally understand. Of course someone who’s raised to believe that “it’s racist not to intermarry” is going to think that “Jews are elitist.” I’m not going to change that. But I thought that when I got disillusioned with the details of the process of my Orthodox conversion and left Brooklyn after five months there, I’d just leave behind the Jewish community and religion and it would all work out, and that I wouldn’t mind the inevitable barrage of “Jews are like X” jokes, because I was over it. I actually thought I could do this, I thought I could avoid all of it, as long as I acted right, said the right things, diverted the subject…right up until I heard “Jews think they’re better than everyone.”
And it just wasn’t happening.
So thank you, anti-Zionist friend, for getting me out of that lie before it could get any deeper. Thanks for now believing I’m elitist and probably ultra-religious too, just because I disagreed with you. You made me realize that this goes far beyond anything I could do to avoid it. Now I won’t have to pretend to laugh at your jerky Jewish jokes anymore.
Shayna Weiss is from Jacksonville, Florida. In 2007, she graduated from Brandeis University with a double major in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies and International and Global Studies At Brandeis, she received highest honors for her thesis on religious women in the Israeli Defense Forces. After studying at Drisha, Shayna is now a doctoral candidate at NYU in Hebrew and Judaic Studies and the Taub center for Israel Studies, focusing on issues of religion and gender in Israeli society. She is currently in the midst of a dissertation on swimming spaces in Israel. Shayna is also obsessed with Lipa Schmeltzer, frozen yogurt, and yoga. Tell her your favorite Israeli reality tv show on twitter (@shaynamalka).
Jewschool: Tell the folks out there what your research is about and why you chose to pursue it.
Shayna Weiss: Currently, I am researching the origins of gender segregation in Israel by looking at fights about pools and beaches—fights against mixed swimming, and to establish gender-segregated swimming. My two historical main examples are the first public pool in Jerusalem (which was controversial because it had mixed swimming) and Israel’s first gender segregated beach in Tel Aviv. I then compare these controversies to what is happening with separate buses now, to draw larger conclusions about how gender and religion work in the public sphere, and how we can think about religious-secular relations in spatial terms.
I have several other projects swimming in my mind. I dream of learning Russian to research Israel’s residents from the former Soviet Union. Another unfinished project I have is on Israeli television, and especially on Srugim, the first show to focus on the religious Zionist community. My fifteen minutes of internet fame so far have come from co-authoring a recap blog on Srugim, a wonderfully fun project. That project lays dormant for now, but I cannot wait to return to it one day—television is wonderfully understudied, and Israeli television is experiencing a renaissance—just look at Homeland. (You can listen to Shayna’s presentation at the 2010 JOFA conference on Srugim, gender and feminism here.)More »