Throw Back Thursday: Doing Better Edition

Tonight at the JCC in Manhattan, the Jewish Multiracial Network will co sponsor a panel called Mixed Multitudes: Race and Ethnicity in the Jewish Community in which panelists Erika Davis, Yitz “Y-Love” Jordan, Eric Greene, Tamara Fish, and Deborah Vishnevsky will discuss their  experiences being a Jew of Color in light of communal issues, such as  continuity and identity.

Here’s our 2012 interview with Erika Davis, about racism, real diversity, and the hard work of making change. 

 

Q: Tell us what we can find at Black, Gay and Jewish.

ED: I started to write Black, Gay and Jewish when I realized that converting to Judaism and talking about Jewish things was taking up a lot of space on my now defunct blog about lesbian  dating in NYC (I’d just come out). I started writing it as a sort of personal journal through the process of converting to Judaism and also because there was only one other blog penned by a black, gay and Jewish woman. (This isn’t to say that there weren’t awesome blogs out there about conversion; there are so many that it  boggles the mind. A few are written by gay Jews and by Jews of Color, but rarely did I find anything on the web that had all three.)  More »

We’ve Been Waiting for You: A Retrospective with Maharats

Just about a year ago, the first class of Maharats graduated. For those of you who haven’t been following the various stories over the last year or so, the term Maharat is a Hebrew acronym for Manhiga Hilkhatit Rukhanit Toranit, translated as one who is teacher of Jewish law and spirituality. In other words, an Orthodox Jewish female rabbi. But, you know, without the title of rabbi. I was fortunate enough to be a part of a webinar hosted by JOFA entitled “The Maharats’ First Year: A Retrospective,” where three Maharats and one soon-be-ordained Maharat spoke about their experiences thus far. Part of me was hoping for anger: these women are basically rabbis, don’t they deserve the respect of earning the same title for the same job that men do? Even though I was hoping for angry women ready to lead the way for change in their fields, I’m also relieved that this was not the case. Instead, Maharats Ruth Balinsky Friedman, Abby Brown Scheir, Rachel Kohl Finegold, and Rori Picker Neiss were enthusiastic, calm, and not bitter in the slightest.

Each woman spoke of the supportive nature her respective congregation and fellow clergy people. While there were minor displays of negativity, for the most part each Maharat was warmly welcomed into her community. Communities that for so long have denied women the opportunities to become leaders in their shuls. Now, these communities can see the full potential the women members of their synagogue have to offer. Maharat Abby spoke of how excited her community was to have her, and how interest in bat mitzvahs have increased since she began her position.  More »

Community Leaders Push to Become 1st Moishe House in Toronto

A group of young, Jewish, Toronto-based leaders who are active in building dynamic Jewish programming for young adults expected to get support from Moishe House for the work they do, but were surprised instead when they were turned down to be Toronto’s first Moishe House.

The Toronto folks are looking to inspire more  people to speak out and convince Moishe House to help them organize for the Toronto community, which was home to nearly 200,000 Jews as of 2011.

Here’s their letter:

The Toronto Folks on Howland

More »

Press Release: In Victory for Open Hillel, Hillel International Announces Changes

Washington, D.C. – May 11th, 2014 – Following pressure from the Open Hillel campaign, Hillel International President and CEO Eric Fingerhut announced that Hillel will create an “Israel Strategy Committee” as well as a Student Cabinet. The Israel Strategy Committee will convene students and Hillel professionals to make recommendations on improving programing on Israel-Palestine, while the Student Cabinet will represent general student concerns in Hillel International. The Open Hillel campaign responded to these announcements with two statements commending Hillel International for these changes and urging Hillel to ensure that these bodies are more than just token gestures to students. More »

The Man’s Seder: The Backlash to the Backlash

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

I have had many experiences in my life that have involved spaces made just for women. These women-only spaces were not created specifically to exclude men, rather they were to give opportunities to women who might not have had them otherwise. For instance, I graduated from Mount Holyoke College, a women’s college in western Massachusetts. While I may have been initially drawn to a women’s college to escape the “dumb boys” of high school, I stuck with it for the excellent education and once-in-a-lifetime chances offered to me, like working abroad for a summer and directing plays as a non-theatre major.

So when I read the blog post entitled “Man’s Seder: The Backlash,” I was immediately skeptical. I imagined it was written by the same kind of person who would obnoxiously ask, “If there’s a ‘women’s studies’ major why isn’t there a men’s studies’ major?” As I read the post, by Rabbi Reuven Spolter of Israel, I couldn’t help but scoff and snort my way through most of it. It’s clear to me that he has little to no understanding of why events like women’s seders were created in the first place.  He makes this very clear when he says, “I wondered why only women were having such an event, and decided to organize a similar program for the men. Was there an outcry at the exclusionary tactics of the Federation for creating a gendered version of the Seder? Hardly. There was a need, and we created it.” Rabbi Spolter makes all sorts of assumptions about his readers that I find both laughable and a little bit offensive. When defending the idea of a Men’s Seder, he says:

“At your Seder, who recites the Kiddush? Who breaks the Matzah? Who makes the Motzi? At most Sedarim (although I wonder about those of the members of the “I’m also fed up with the way women are treated in Orthodoxy” FB group), a man makes the kiddush, breaks the Matzah at Yachatz, etc. In other words, he ‘leads’ the Seder. That doesn’t mean he monopolizes or controls it. He leads it. Wouldn’t it also make sense that in addition to the technical aspects of leading, that he also came to the Seder prepared to lead a discussion and engage in meaningful conversation about the Exodus? Yes? You agree? That’s the basic idea of the Man’s Seder.”

Rabbi Spolter seems to think that all seders everywhere are just like the ones he attends. While he’s making his case for a Men’s Seder, he’s perpetuating every reason why Women’s Seders exist in the first place. His argument is that because men have traditionally led seders in the past, then of course an all-male seder makes sense. Rabbi Spolter, you really don’t get it, do you? Women’s Seders were created for the purpose of giving women the opportunity to participate in a ritual that up until the last few decades has been exclusively a men’s zone. And when he mentions the Facebook group that lit the spark of criticism of Men’s Seders, he is completely disrespectful and hypocritical. He says, “You’re fed up? You’re angry? Can there be a more negative, nasty, distasteful group on Facebook? (It is the definition of what’s wrong with Facebook. While FB can be a tool to spread ideas and share constructive thoughts, too often it serves as a clearinghouse for venomous spewing of negativity and hatred).” Umm, HELLO?! You’re writing a BLOG POST, buddy. Don’t condemn people for online discussions when you’re writing in essentially the same manner. He continues, “What you end up with is a group of Feminists from across the religious spectrum who have gathered to criticize Orthodoxy. Great.” It’s not Orthodoxy they’re criticizing, dude, it’s the idea that people are creating ritual space for men that has been a space for men for centuries, and acting like it’s revolutionary and necessary.

I fully understand the need for an inclusive space. It’s important to have a group of people that understands each other’s situations and feelings and needs. Rabbi Spolter and all rabbis who have done or are thinking of hosting a Men’s Seder, please think about your intentions and about how women have been treated in the past in your chosen movement. Each branch of Judaism has had to work on (and is still working on) the full acceptance of women as full members of the Jewish community. No longer are women confining themselves only to the kitchen to prepare the enormous Passover meal; they’re also digging through scores of Haggadot to choose the best way to lead their Seders. And remember that Women’s Seders were not created to exclude men, so do not for a moment think that a Men’s Seder is needed to exclude women. However much Rabbi Spolter claims to support women in his community, it seems to me he’s got a whole long way to go, as do many other Jewish communities, not to mention people in general.

On Gender and “America’s Most Inspiring Rabbis”

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

“I have seen a person of color in my Jewish community and wondered why they were there.”- An Evening with the Jewish Multiracial Network

This piece is cross-posted with Zeek

When there were rumbles about yet another Weather Event in New York on February 6th, I got considerably more anxious than I normally would have, given that I work from home (or wherever) and don’t own a car I have to dig out. If the first ever Jewish Multi-Racial Network Parlor Meeting had been cancelled,  it would have been a huge loss to everyone who attended. There’s something that happens in a room when people are being nudged around in their comfort zones, when they’re pushing themselves to think bigger and wider. It’s like an electricity. Not like. It is.

(Chanel Dubofsky)

Jewish Multiracial Network

This is a guest post from Erika Davis. Erika is a freelance writer whose work can be found on The Sisterhood, Jewcy, Kveller and more. She writes about the intersections of race, religion and sexuality on her personal blog Black, Gay and Jewish. Erika likes Syrian Jewish cooking and is convinced she makes the best hummus in Brooklyn. She is a board member of the Jewish Multi-Racial Network and works at Hazon. 

Last Wednesday,  a few brave Jews made a trek to the middle of Brooklyn. I know what you’re thinking, what’s so brave about Jews in Brooklyn? They were brave not only to venture outside during an ice storm, but also because they knew they would be spending the evening talking about privilege and race in the Jewish community at The Jewish Multiracial Network (JMN) Parlor Meeting.

The conversation, moderated by JMN President, Chava Shervington and me, a JMN Board member, asked the tough question: “Am I Racist?” Attended by both white Jews and Jews of Color, in the two-hour conversation, tough topics were brought to the table. Everything from white privilege to reactions to seeing people of color in Jewish spaces was discussed and the participants asked and answered thoughtful questions while sharing individual experiences of prejudice. JMN’s Privilege Checklist was distributed and completed by participants in one exercise. Participants were also asked a series of hard questions. With their eyes closed, they were asked to raise their hands while they responded to the following statements: I have seen a person of color in my Jewish community and wondered why they were there. I have heard prejudiced things said about people of color in my Jewish community. I have said prejudiced things. I want to work for the inclusion of multiracial Jewish families and Jews of Color in the American Jewish community. As the participants answered the last question, I asked them to open their eyes and look around the room-everyone’s hand was raised.

 

When Chava and I started planning this first Parlor Meeting, we went into it with the idea of bringing together a small group of Jewish change-makers. We imagined that attendees would be individuals as well as employees of Jewish organizations and JCCs. We wanted the conversations to be frank, open, and honest and felt the best way to have such conversations would be to bring the conversation quite literally into a parlor. (Or more accurately, my living room.) We hoped to reach Jews on an individual basis, and hope that through the continued Parlor Meetings to create a network of Jews fully committed to the mission of JMN.

When the meeting was over all of the participants approached either Chava or I to thank us for the important conversation and to ask how they could volunteer to help JMN and its mission, which for us, makes the meeting as success.

Wednesday night’s meeting was the first of a quarterly series of Parlor Meetings JMN will hold in the New York area; the next will be about ally-ship. JMN is also in conversations with Jewish communities in New Jersey, Boston, Washington, DC, San Francisco and Los Angeles to bring Parlor Meetings across the U.S. The Parlor Meetings, coupled with JMN’s work with synagogues and Jewish communal organizations seeks to continue working for the full inclusion of multiracial Jewish families and Jews of Color.

Over the next few months we will be working with communities to bring the Parlor Meetings into new communities, but with all of the work that JMN does, it is important to us that the Parlor Meetings are impactful and reflective of the communities we bring them to. If you would like to bring the JMN Parlor Meeting to your community, please email Chava.

The Jewish Multiracial Network was founded in 1997 by a group of parents who wanted to provide a community and supportive network for multiracial Jewish families. JMN’s initial programming efforts sought to provide Jewish children of color and their families a space where their dual identities would not be challenged — through the organization of social gatherings along the East Coast and the development of an annual retreat, which continues to this day. As the organization has grown, JMN has expanded its impact to include adult Jews of Color and members across the continental United States. What started over 15 years ago as a group of just a handful of families has now grown into a thriving community with hundreds of members.

Open Hillel Responds to AIPAC and Hillel’s new Partnership

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

 

Open Hillel Responds to AIPAC and Hillel’s new Partnership

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

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

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

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

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

 

MK Dr. Ruth Calderon: The Knesset’s Guardian against Bittul Torah

“We all are sinners, won’t you send us to Bible study faster/Your hypocrite-esque reaction a blasphemy”

–Kendrick Lamar,  “Rigamortus”

Get ready for the strangest 45 seconds of your day.  #whatthewhat

This happened today on the floor of the Israeli Knesset.  MK Dr. Ruth Calderon (Yesh Atid) completed a speech with an unhinged, unprompted, upbraiding of young men in ultra-Orthodox (Hareidi) dress for coming and observing Parliamentary sessions from the visitors’ gallery instead of learning Torah.

A few key Hebrew phrases:

*Hillul Hashem — a desecration of God’s name, i.e., terrible public behavior by someone clearly recognized as Jewish, that brings disgrace to the Jewish people and their God

*Talmid(ei) Hakham(im) — Torah scholar(s)

*Bittul Torah — “wasting Torah”; it means slacking off when you could be learning Torah; this is the ultimate insult in the yeshiva world, what overbearing rabbis and sanctimonious veteran students accuse younger students of doing when they have a casual conversation.

*Hareidim — Ultra-Orthodox Jews (literally, “quakers”)

Here’s my translation of the clip:

“The last thing I want to say in the 27 seconds that I have [left] is this daily hillul hashem of people dressed like talmidei hakhamim who sit here, up in the gallery, slacking off, without a book, hour after hour, it drives me out of my mind!  It shames the dress of a talmid hakham, it shames the value of bittul Torah, and I request of you, either bring books, or go to the beit midrash and learn.  Thank you.”

More »

Dispatches from the Other Israel Film Festival: “Mom, Dad, I’m Muslim.”

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.

Anat Tel Medelovich‘s documentary, “Mom, Dad, I’m  Muslim” was featured at this year’s Other Israel Film Festival. It tells  the story of Maor, a  devout Muslim, who was born Jewish, converted to Islam at 18, and at 22 is in search of a Muslim husband.

(click here for official film website)

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.

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

את החתן ספרדי/כלה נאה אשכנזי”

“רחל אמנו ספרדי, מאמע רחל אשכנזי

“The groom, Sephardi/the attractive bride, Ashkenazi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kari Hochwald: “Living in Israel on this program allowed me to view it on my own terms, on my own time, and everything that I experienced could only be done from living there.”

Israel Teaching FellowsKari 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?).

JS: Why Israel Teaching Fellows? More »

A Thanksgivukkah Manifesto

Guest post by Rabbi Mishael Zion

Rabbi Mishael Zion is the co-Director of the Bronfman Fellowships, a diverse community of 1,000 young Jewish leaders from North America and Israel. He is the author of “A Night to Remember: The Haggadah of Contemporary Voices”. Mishael blogs at Text and the City and in 2013 was named one of ten “Rabbis to Watch” by Newsweek/the Daily Beast.

A once in a century holiday is upon us. The menurkey will soon sit at the table with the pumpkin pie and the latkes. Let us not underestimate this moment for the American Jewish community. Thanksgivukkah is here.

Jews have always loved Thanksgiving. Now that their favorite American holiday finds itself face to face with America’s favorite Jewish holiday – Hanukkah – the encounter can say an enormous amount about the American Jewish collective story. In other words, Thanksgivukkah tells us something important about what Jews are doing in America.

It starts with good timing. When Hanukkah falls on Christmas, it highlights Judaism as a religion, a fair contender on the scene of American denominations. But Thanksgivukkah yanks the carpet from under the convenient Christmas-Hanukkah dichotomy.

The Thanksgiving of today grew out of its religious roots. The same could be said of the Judaism of many Americans. Thanksgiving is about America, but not in a celebration of patriotic triumphalism. It’s about America as a promise, an idea, a project. If, any other year, most American Jews sideline Judaism and celebrate Thanksgiving simply as Americans, this year’s calendar demands owning up to the Jewish take on the American story.
More »

What are we doing for Rosh Hashanah if we’re not going to shul? A crowd-sourced pie chart

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1 % Camping in Arizona

1%  Blowing shofar on a mountain top

1% Celebrating our birthday

1% Awkwardly running into our boss at mid day yoga after “taking the day off

1% Unpacking

1% Going to a newly legalized same sex wedding

6%  Shit, it’s Rosh Hashanah?

10%  School, even though we technically have the day off

10% Volunteering

20% Feeling crabby that we can’t go to $425-$450 services

20% Apple picking and apple related activities

30% Feeling guilty about not going to services, but knowing it will make us crazy if we go

 

One Hundred and Twenty Minutes in the JCC

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 »

Open Hillel Update

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,


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.