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.
“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.
“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.”
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 »
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
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 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?).
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 »
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,
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.
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.
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 »
Last week, the Rabbinical Assembly (the rabbis’ guild for the Conservative movement), sent out a press release. Together with representatives from the Schechter Day School Network (the Jewish day schools affiliated with the Conservative denomination), they met in late-October to talk about “outreach to and inclusion of intermarried families.” Great!
This isn’t the first time we’ve looked at how to attract and include interfaith families in Jewish day schools. We blogged about the AviCHAI foundation’s conversation and I participated in their day of meetings, which brought together teachers, school administrators, other Jewish educators, parents, and community professionals such as myself.
Back to the Rabbinical Assembly’s press release. It didn’t take long for me to realize that the consensus reached in their meetings would likely continue to alienate the families they want to attract and include.
The rabbis expressed their commitment to conversion according to the standards of Conservative Judaism, as the ideal for our keruv (outreach) to these families.
Our studies have shown that having conversion as the focus of the Jewish community’s outreach creates barriers to inclusion and welcome. “Perceived pressure to convert” is ranked as a barrier to expanded connection with Jewish community institutions, such as synagogues and, I’m extrapolating here, day schools. If that pressure is a deterrent from going to Shabbat services, wouldn’t it also be a deterrent from sending kids to day school?
The focus on conversion as the ideal continued, as exemplified by one of the “challenging questions” the group discussed:
What is the optimal timeline for conversion after admitting a child who is not yet Jewish to the school?
Before getting to a timeline, let’s take a step back. A great place to start would be using inclusive language. If a child is going to your school, chances are their parents are raising them as Jews. So clarify what you actually mean, but do it in a way that does not further alienate these families. How about,
What is the optimal timeline for conversion after admitting a child who is a patrilineal Jew?
I would, of course, recommend defining such a term on your forms. Make sure to explain why the Conservative movement does not view patrilineal descent as “Jewish,” unlike the Reform movement. (Conservative Judaism determines who they consider to be a Jew through matrilineal descent — a Jew is someone who is born to a Jewish mother, or who has converted to Judaism in a ceremony that meets their requirements.) For these children of patrilineal descent, the assumption is that their parents would want them to convert, that their families need additional support and Jewish education as well. In some cases, sure; we’ve received plenty of feedback from parents over the years, telling us they’d love to learn along with their kids. But for others, the additional resources might not be wanted. (I wonder if all families at the schools are viewed equally: are resources offered to parents who have in-married but who do not practice Judaism at home? What about intermarried families where the mother is Jewish, thus the Conservative movement considers the children Jewish — are they offered resources too?)
As my colleague, Ari Moffic, wrote in February, 2012, you might also consider creating “A Pledge for All of Our Families” for your schools. Her suggested template offers inclusive language that could be inserted in every school’s handbook and/or posted to the school’s website.
It’s great to see that the follow-up activities will include “drafting recommended language for admission applications to the schools.” Hopefully the resources on our site will help with that process.
And when you start looking for professionals to join your focus groups, you know where to find me.
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.)
Last month, while attending a workshop in Israel, I introduced myself as a new resident of Malmö. Before I could finish my next sentence, I was interrupted by a man with a kipa and a North American accent.
“Why on earth did you move there? It’s the most anti-Semitic city on the planet!”
I tried to deflect the disruption with humor, but he wouldn’t shut up until the facilitator intervened.
Ironically, this was during a “listening circle,” designed to create a mood of awareness and attention to other people’s stories. The goal of this session was to encourage Palestinians, Israelis, and international visitors to listen closely as each participant shared a single, brief story that would allow us to understand something about her or him.
I thought about that experience last Shabbat, as I joined hundreds of people—Malmö residents and visitors, Jews and non-Jews, politicians and neighbors, religious and secular people of all ages—on a “kipa-walk” through the streets of Malmo. It was a significantly larger, very highly publicized version of the Shabbat afternoon walks that have been occurring almost monthly since December. Those walks were all low-key strolls attended by 15 to 30 people, Jews and some allies wearing kipot and other Jewish symbols. The “kipa-walks” are in response to the increased anti-Semitism that has emerged in Malmö over the past few years. A local rabbi and his wife have even been physically attacked in broad daylight on several occasions, and a peaceful Jewish demonstration was assaulted by a mob. Most of the aggression has been verbal, however, and these walks have most emphatically been a positive, prideful response to countless dim-witted, ignorant comments made by Malmo mayor Ilmar Reepalu following these attacks. More »
While I was away from the office earlier last week, the UJA-Federation of New York released a big, giant, whopping study of Downstate NY’s community. (Downstate being, of course, the opposite of Upstate NY. That is, the Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, Staten Island, Nassau County, Suffolk County and Westchester County.) More than 250 pages long, there’s a lot to think about – and I’m still thinking. But there are some highlights that readers of InterfaithFamily.com might especially want to know about. I’m going to do a brieffisking, for ease of navigation.
From 1991 to 2002, the number of Jews in the eight-county New York area held steady, while from 2002 to 2011 it grew dramatically. The contrasting changes in the number of non-Jews in Jewish households — consisting mostly of spouses and children in intermarried homes — are even more striking. In the earlier period (1991–2002), the number of non-Jewish people in Jewish households almost doubled; since 2002, though, it has declined slightly, falling to 231,000. With respect to the slightly declining numbers of non-Jews in Jewish households, the Jewish population in the New York area sharply contrasts with most Jewish communities in the United States and, indeed, the entire Jewish world outside of Israel. In every other large Jewish diaspora community, rising intermarriage has brought increasing numbers of non-Jews — spouses, partners, and children — into Jewish households.
Are outreach initiatives working in NY while falling short in other communities? Are Jewish communal organizations, such as synagogues and JCCs, more welcoming and inclusive of partners and other family members who aren’t Jewish in NY than elsewhere? Or is this solely a statistical game, with the number of non-Jews in Jewish households smaller in NY than elsewhere due to the large number of Orthodox (who have lower rates of including non-Jews in their Jewish households)? Indeed, the study attributes it in part to the high birthrate of Orthodox families, but also to the “dramatic increase in the number of people who consider themselves ‘partially Jewish,’ many the children of intermarriage.”
Unlike major religious groups in the United States, major segments of Jews do not necessarily identify being Jewish with Judaism as a religion. Significant numbers of Jews claim their religion as “none.” This configuration is particularly common among the intermarried, children of the intermarried, and less engaged Jews, as well as Russian-speaking Jews. However, Jewish identity without religion is by no means isolated to these Jews; it is also expressed by those influenced by certain Zionist and Yiddishist movements in the United States and Europe. Still others lay claim to Jewish identity even though they maintain religious identities tied to something other than Judaism.
After reading the first two sentences here, I started to wonder about those Jews who have identified as cultural Jews for generations, but was reassured that intermarriage wasn’t being (solely) blamed as I continued reading the last two sentences.
Growing up in Canada, our Jewish population studies are slightly different. According to the Canadian census, one is considered Jewish if one identifies as Jewish by ethnicity, by religion, or both. Additionally, one is counted as Jewish if identifying as Jewish by ethnicity and with a religion that does not require conversion (such as Buddhism, but not, say, Catholicism). Using definitions such as these, perhaps there wouldn’t be a negative connotation to being Jewish but listing religion as “none.” More »
By now I’m sure many of you have heard about today’s monthly Women of the Wall gathering. The short version is that the police, allegedly present to protect the women from those who do not believe they have a right to daven at the Kotel, approached many of the women, said they weren’t permitted to wear talleisim, and took the names and id of three women who’ll be “further investigated.” You can read more about it in the JTA and Jerusalem Post, or check out a blog post by one of the three women (who happen to all be rabbinical students). You can also watch their reaction in this interview on YouTube.
Police, defying the mechitzah, to teach Deb how a woman ought to wear her tallis.
It wasn’t long before I spotted the photos on Facebook, counting several friends among them. Based on the two photos included in this post, I decided to talk to Deb (pictured) about her experience today and each month she joins Women of the Wall for their Rosh Chodesh davening.
Right off the bat, Deb made clear that she hasn’t historically connected to the kotel as a place where she’s wanted to daven. However, she finds that the more she goes with Women of the Wall, the more she wants to go. It’s the community Women of the Wall is fighting to create that speaks to her more than the wall itself.
She told me, the group is “called ‘women’ but it’s actually creating a space for all who want to daven there, who have the right to access this public, Jewish space.” The group’s mission states they “seek the right for Jewish women from Israel and around the world to conduct prayer services, read from a Torah scroll while wearing prayer shawls, and sing out loud at the Western Wall – Judaism’s most sacred holy site and the principal symbol of Jewish people hood and sovereignty.” Deb appreciates that they’ve also created a “queer-friendly space,” and that they “call attention to the need for spaces that are friendly and welcoming to all. There are folks who identify as genderqueer and trans who are invited to lead services, read from the Torah, and take on other roles. Likewise, Women of the Wall creates a welcome space for all genders, including male-identifed folks, to participate in the Torah services” that they hold at Robinson’s Arch after they move from the Western Wall.
Wearing a tallis in a hijab-like manner is apparently permitted.
When I showed Deb the two photos from Facebook, she said that she feels like she’s being “singled out each month” by the police, because she wears a tallis that is more traditionally considered a man’s, and not a colourful tallis that might be more “feminine.” Today, a policeman asked permission of Anat (co-founder of Women of the Wall) to demonstrate, using Deb and her tallis, how women should properly wear a tallis like a shawl. The idea being that this would avoid the 2001 law that makes it illegal for women to perform those religious practices “traditionally done by men” at holy sites, like reading from the Torah, wearing tefillin or a tallis, or blowing the shofar.
“He folded it up, and put it around me like a fake scarf… Of course I unfolded it and ended up wearing almost like a hijab instead!”
Her other response to the police? She davens extra loud when she’s with Women of the Wall. I asked if that was a way of protesting the police interference, but she corrected me. “The truth is that I’m extra loud so that the women feel a presence. And it’s for the policemen, so they hear the truth of the davening, rather than the protest of the women. Because that’s really why I am there: so that I can pray and sing and so can any other person. I guess I like to think I bring some davening confidence…”
Her confidence, and the monthly return of so many woman (and folks of all genders) reminds us that they’re fighting over a public space. A Jewish space. And women (and those who identify outside the gender binary) have just as much right to pray in public as men.