Racism is big, but it is not bigger than all of us

Editor’s Note: This post is the ninth in Jewschool’s series of reflections on Judaism, Jewish identity, race and the events in Ferguson.

By guestposter Yavilah McCoy

 

The Call to Action….

 “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.” Robert Frost

My daughter spoke before a crowd of over 350 mostly White Jews who gathered in Brookline last evening to march, affirm and say together the simple slogan that has been sweeping our country: “Black Lives Matter.” My daughter, with tears in her eyes and a voice filled with emotion, shared what was at stake for her in a world where increasingly militarized police forces in our communities feel free to target unarmed people of color not just with guns but with deadly stereotypes and assumptions around what constitutes a criminal in our country.  She spoke of not wanting to continue being scared for her brother and father’s safety.  She talked about how much she worries about them walking home alone through the wealthy, White suburban communities of Boston that we live in to be in close proximity to other Orthodox Jews. As we have been asked, by the youth leaders of Ferguson, I stood behind by daughter last evening and supported the use of her voice.  I listened while my heart was breaking, to my child describe and decry the failure of our community and country to make a space where all our children can feel safe.  I felt proud, but I also felt a deep and compelling question emerging in my breast: What now?  Hadn’t I been working for most of her lifetime to open the doors and minds of our community to a broader consciousness of the multiracial and multicultural constitution of our membership? Hadn’t I surrounded her with role models of family, people and leaders, who lived justice with their lives and hearts, and that she could call “uncle” and “auntie” and mean it, whether she was related to them by blood or not?  Hadn’t I spent tireless hours working with the schools and institutions that she and her siblings navigate revealing the nuances of racism and providing tools for them to race forward and not backward in the way we educate and provide services to an increasingly diverse constituency of our people? More »

Jews Affirm That #BlackLivesMatter at #ChanukahAction in Brookline, MA

Editor’s Note: This post is the eighth in Jewschool’s series of reflections on Judaism, Jewish identity, race and the events in Ferguson.
#BlackLivesMatter #ChanukahActionI spent the first night of Chanukah this year at Coolidge Corner in Brookline, MA. This was the Boston-area location for the multi-city #ChanukahAction: A Jewish Day of Action to End Police Violence event. I had a number of anxieties in advance, but it proved to be a powerful evening with moments of hope and inspiration.

My concerns began with a Facebook event wall littered with infighting that I feared would travel offline to the actual event. Could we focus on one issue, and keep the focus away from ourselves? Could we raise awareness in our own community without silencing and ignoring those who have already been marginalized? I had been to a protest organized by Black Lives Matter Boston in November, organized and led by people of color. I recognized why Jews needed to rally around the cause, but it was unclear how. Frankly, could we do this without damaging the larger movement?

More »

Marching for Racial Justice

Editor’s Note: This post is the seventh in Jewschool’s series of reflections on Judaism, Jewish identity, race and the events in Ferguson.

 

A little over a week ago, I was trying to make what felt like a huge decision. Several friends had invited me to the #EnoughIsEnough rally in Boston Common. I had never attended a rally with so many people, all over the country, behind it, and I also wondered if my presence and voice would truly make any difference. I had several discussions throughout the day about the pros and cons of attending. Etta, a colleague of mine, encouraged me to go in order to support those who are suffering from the injustices of the failure of the grand juries to indict Michael Brown and Eric Garner’s killers. As she said in a recent blog post, “In fifty years, we will look back on this moment. What will we see? How will we answer our children and grandchildren who ask about what we did to build a better future for them? Our predecessors have shown us that there are many ways to respond to the call for justice that is now resoundingly clear.” More »

My Sukkot Wish for our Queer Jewish Community

Suzie and I are hosting the big Keshet and JP Shabbat Sukkot potluck again this year! (You should come!)

Boston is a great place to be queer and Jewish, so I really just have one wish for our fabulous local LGBTQ Jewish community this year: flirting.

Why bother having separate LGBTQ community events when many Jewish institutions have become more and more inclusive of LGBTQ Jews?

Because flirting.

Imagine you are a young queer Jew looking for a date. You’re bored with OkCupid and JDate, so you try going to a singles night sponsored by your local synagogue. You get all gussied up, maybe you drag along a friend as a wingman, and you head in to the venue. What do you see? A whole bunch of straight people. (Regardless of how inclusive the shul is, this is a numbers game. There are more straight people than gay people.)

Okay, so let’s say you’re not instantly discouraged by the fact that most of the people in the room are a) not what you’re looking for and b) not looking for you. Let’s say you don’t feel super weird about either feeling invisible or feeling like you stand out in the wrong ways. You’re resilient! You can do this! So you look around the room for other LGBTQ people. Hey there’s one! But that person is not a gender you’re interested in. Oh, there’s someone who might be the right gender for you! But that person seems significantly too old/young for you. Or perhaps you just don’t find them attractive. HEY! Over there! There’s someone cute, of an appropriate gender, the right age–and they turn out to be your ex. And now you’ve exhausted your supply of LGBTQ people in the room. Dang.

This is where the LGBTQ Jewish community comes in! After feeling like there is a dearth of romantic options available for you in your shul, wouldn’t it be nice to go to an event where everyone is Jewish and LGBTQ? So many more possibilities! You could date EVERYBODY! (Okay, well, at least a significant portion of attendees.) It’s like Jewish summer camp! Yayyyy!

This is why you should come to my house if you happen to be LGBTQ and in the Boston area on October 10th. (If you’re old and married like me, you should still come, because you’ll help introduce the single people to each other. It’ll make things less awkward, and we’ll all have a good time.)

This is why you should host an event like this if you’re LGBTQ and not in the Boston area on October 10th.

This is why Jewish LGBTQ organizations should still care about hosting local events for members once in a while.

This is why Jewish institutions who are welcoming and inclusive of LGBTQ members should continue to help support Jewish LGBTQ organizations do their own things sometimes.

Because flirting.

Someday I Will Transcend the Fear

I am afraid.

I am afraid of the rockets. I am afraid they will come in the middle of the night and, defying the millions-to-one odds, murder my children in their sleep. When the sirens wail, I race to grab them from their beds and flee toward shelter.

I am afraid to drive through East Jerusalem and the West Bank right now. I have a friend whose car windows were struck last month by rage-filled Palestinian rocks, whose baby was covered in shattered glass, who only by a miracle emerged unharmed. As we drive, I picture my children’s heads smashed by stones, I imagine screaming at them to put their heads between their knees, mentally willing my husband to keep driving, keep driving.

I am afraid of the racism seeping through my fear. As I was picking up my son from school, an Arab woman sat on the steps leading down to the preschool to smoke her cigarette. I wondered if I should be suspicious, if I needed to warn someone. I eyed her bag to see if it might hold a bomb.

More »

Why Do Rebbetzins Still Exist?

“See that lady over there? That’s the rebbetzin.”

“Ohhh.” I leaned forward to get a better glimpse at the woman with silver hair sitting in the front row of shul. “What’s a rebbetzin?”

I was about eleven years old, and we had just started going to a Conservative shul. My mother pointed out the rebbetzin at our new shul the way one might point out a movie star or head of state or renowned scholar, but I had never heard of one before.

“A rebbetzin is the rabbi’s wife. She’s a very important person.”

“Why?”

“Well…” my feminist mother, with her short cropped hair and her kippah, struggled to find words to explain. “A long time ago women couldn’t be rabbis, so instead there were rebbetzins. They were very knowledgeable and respected, and people went to them with their problems, and they would advise people in the community. Sometimes people went to rebbetzins with problems they didn’t want to talk to the rabbi about.”

At the time, my mom’s answer was good enough for me. I sat through the service and then ran off with my friends. I didn’t stop to wonder why my mother’s definition revolved around what a rebbetzin used to be, in some vague and distant past (which I now know to be about 1971). I didn’t stop to question what kind of politics were involved around my mother’s hesitation, why this was the only time my mother had defined a woman by her husband’s occupation. I didn’t question what kind of lingering shtetl memories passed down through the generations had fostered my mother’s residual respect for an anachronistic (and possibly sexist) role. I didn’t stop to think about why a rebbetzin is important now.

Then I married a rabbinical student.

Suddenly I find myself much more interested in these questions regarding the modern rebbetzin role.

My own experience of the role involves getting invited to Shabbat dinners and finding myself amidst a social minefield.  Small transgressions like mentioning a moment when I texted my sister on the second day of Passover are met with raised eyebrows, and I often wonder whether I’ve inadvertently jeopardized my spouse’s future career. For the past three years, every time I’ve gone to shul I’ve wondered exactly how much my hemline matters and how many congregants would judge me for wearing the wrong thing. (You wouldn’t. I know. But maybe your aunt would.) I clearly have no idea what I’m doing as a rebbetzin—but I feel like I ought to.

I try to research what to do as a rebbetzin, but everything I read about them references the past, either with reverence or righteous indignation, and nothing is fully in present tense.

Yes, there is something archaic and sexist about the role of the rebbetzin. The idea that someone’s identity, their title in the world, can be defined by his or her partner’s occupation in this day and age is absurd. It’s outrageous. One would think that in our progressive circles we would be finished with such an idea.

However, the rebbetzin still exists.

The rebbetzin role exists when we force it to, by insisting that families of rabbinical students spend a year in Israel/Palestine (as if all spousal careers are nothing important or could magically occur on whatever continent is needed at the time).

The rebbetzin role also exists in our subconscious, when we feel disappointed if a rebbetzin isn’t friendly enough with congregants.

The rebbetzin role exists when shul board members would prefer to hire a rabbi who is already married, when rabbinical students feel more comfortable if they’re partnered, because somehow the partner of the rabbi means something special and important, but we’re not exactly sure what.

If the rebbetzin role still exists, then we need to pay attention to it. Just because something is ignored does not mean it goes away. If we don’t pay attention to roles we rely upon—yet feel vaguely guilty about—we end up doing tweaky things like disrupting careers with Israel/Palestine sabbaticals.

I want to know why we still need rebbetzins. I want to figure out what kind of psychological and economic and gender relationship stuff is going on such that there is still a role out there which is defined by partnership. I want a better answer for my eleven year old self who asked “why” so many years ago—I want an answer that doesn’t start with “a long time ago”; I want an answer that starts with here and now.

TBT Pesach: Of Matzah and Marathons

In keeping with #ThrowbackThursday, we’re stepping into the Jewschool time machine to six years ago.  Given that this year, Pesach coincided with the First Anniversary of the Boston Marathon Bombing, I thought it appropriate to take a peak at BZ’s 2008 post about Matzah and Marathons, specifically preparations for the Boston Marathon. He was also interested about its relationship to 1 vs. 2 day yom tov observance.  A fun re-read, and a bit more uplifting than the more recent Boston Marathon coverage…

Shavuot Round Up

Shavuot starts tomorrow night (Tuesday, May 14th) ! Here’s a list of what’s happening where. Did we miss anything? List it in the comments.

(obligatory picture of cheesecake) 

Austin

Austin’s Annual Jewish Community Tikkun Leil Shavuot

Berkeley

Community Tikkun at the JCC of the East Bay (Includes family programming a supervised space for children to sleep over.)

Larger list of Bay Area stuff

Boston area

Brookline Community Tikkun Leil Shavuot at Congregation Kehilath Israel. (Sessions and teachers here)

Connecticut

Isabella Freedman- Shavuot: This Year’s Revelation  and Hazon: Torah of Food

Accessible from NYC

Chicago

Mishkan Chicago: Sha.voo.ote: Revelations in Creativity, Politics, Spirituality & Torah

5773 Lakeview Tikkun Leil Shavuot

DC

Upper 16th St Tikkun (Fabrangen, Ohev Sholom, Segulah, Shirat HaNefesh, Tifereth Israel)

Los Angeles

Shtibl Minyan retreat at Brandeis Bardin campus of the AJU 

Community Tikkun at Temple Beth Am

Montgomery County, Maryland

Tikkun Leil Shavuot with Moishe House MoCo and Congregation Beth El Montgomery County

New Orleans

5th Annual Shavuot Tikkun Leil: A Joint Torah Venture among Beth Israel, Gates of Prayer, Shir Chadash

New York

Shavuot Across Brooklyn 

Tikkun Leyl Shavuot at the JCC Manhattan  (Upper West Side)

Yiddish Farm (New Hampton, NY)

Philadelphia

Community Tikkun Leil Shavuot

Tikkun Leyl Shavuot at Penn

Santa Rosa, CA

Congregation Beth Ami 

Toronto

Downtown Tikkun Leil Shavuot 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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.

Test balloons are for popping

Rabbi Jonah Pesner said he may be interested in running for John Kerry’s vacated Senate seat in the special election. Some believe he should jump in with both feet, up to his neck, and go for it with the belief of a zealot. This is a bad idea.

If the report in The Boston Phoenix about this run was a test balloon, I hope this blog post at least starts a leak.

Rabbi Pesner—for all his political maneuvering in the Jewish world—is not a politician. He is a community organizer sure, but a politician with national chops he is not. Blah blah, President Obama, blah, blah. These two men should not and cannot be compared in the same breath. Now that this is out of the way, we will get into the meat of this disastrous move. More »

Friday Challenge: Can You Match These Musicians to the Jewish Day Schools They Attended

Indie Rocker and Jewish Day School Alumna Regina Spektor

As those of you who have been following this season’s America’s Got Talent and/or have read my previous post know, one of the most promising contenders in the show is a religious Jew who is a singer. Not only that, but he is an incoming freshman at the Jewish high school I attended. Curious if any ICJA alumni before have ever enjoyed success and fame as popular musicians, I did some searching but could not find anything. To my knowledge, the only music icon to have graduated from ICJA was Disturbed front man David Draiman  (who first spent some time at the Wisconsin Institute of Torah Study, WITS, and Torah Valley High in California).

I then expanded my search to include alumni rockers from any major Jewish day school in the U.S., the U.K., Canada, and Australia.  (Incidentally, this search revealed volumes about the institutional identities of the individual schools. While some schools mention Nobel Prize winners and Rhodes Scholars among their graduates, others mention only male ‘notable alumni,’ and some only rabbis, major Jewish community leaders, and mega-machers.  And some even mention convicted murderers. I’m looking at you, Charles E Smith Jewish Day School.) Interestingly, the rock star Jew-school grads hail disproportionately from Orthodox day schools.  Care to interpret?

Anyway, on to the challenge (answers after the ‘more,’ but no peeking!):

which of these famous musicians attended which of these Jewish Day Schools?                                                                                                              Hint: two or more may have attended the same school

1. Ari Gold                                                       a. Jews’ Free School (London)

2 Mike Gordon (Phish)                            b. Moriah War Memorial College (Sydney)

3. Jay Kay (Jamiroquai)                            c. Ramaz School (New York)

4. Ben Lee                                                         d. Salanter Akiba Riverdale Academy

5. Coby Linder (Say Anything)               e. Shalhevet High School (LA)

6. Achinoam Nini (aka Noa)                   f. Solomon Schechter Day School

                                                                             of Essex and Union (West Orange, NJ)

7. Kathleen Reiter                             g. Solomon Schechter Day School of                                                                                                                  Greater Boston (Newton, MA)

8. Gabe Saporta (Cobra Starship)     h. United Talmud Torahs of Montreal

9. Regina Spektor

10. Juanita Stein (Howling Bells)

 

More »

From Gratitude to Praise; Occupy yourselves with Rosh Chodesh on Thanksgiving Weekend

Thanksgiving celebrators around the country, here ye.   Amidst all your holiday planning and travel, and your decisions on how to spend “Black Friday,” please consider how you might conclude this festive weekend.   On Saturday evening, Rosh Chodesh will be upon us.  On Sunday morning it is traditional to give praise to the Most High.  One way to do this is by Occupying Rosh Chodesh, as some of us are doing this Sunday at Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan.  All are invited.  For more information see below:

What is Rosh Chodesh? This Sunday November 27th we are entering into the darkest month of the year, Kislev. However, during the month of Kislev, we celebrate Hanukkah, the festival of light.

Why be Occupied with it? It’s easy to celebrate when life is pleasant, when victory has been achieved and when the weather is warm. Rosh Chodesh is a monthly celebration fueled by a historical memory of enslavement. No matter where we are in the struggle for freedom and justice, Jewish tradition commands us to find ways to join forces and sing together – to experience the feeling of what redemption will truly taste like.

How will we celebrate it? On the Thanksgiving Sunday, two days after Black Friday, we will welcome the Hebrew month of Kislev with song and praise. In contrast to the melodies used to urge us toward the season of ‘holiday shopping’ we will sing the traditional Hallel / songs of praise sung on Rosh Chodesh. As part of the service, there will also be a chance for some learning and reflection on how Rosh Chodesh connects to the wider Occupy movement. The whole service should last no longer than one hour.

Who is invited? We welcome people of all backgrounds, races, gender identities and religious/faith affiliations.

 

 

Kol Nidre at Occupy Boston: We are the 99% and the 1%

This guest post is by Alex Sugerman-Brozan. Alex is a labor lawyer and part-time activist and tries hard to be a mensch. Photos courtesy HowardC. (This is the second of two Occupy Boston reflections. See the first by organizer Jocelyn Berger.)

Tonight, I attended Kol Nidre services at the site of Occupy Boston. It goes without saying that of all the services, Kol Nidre or otherwise, I’ve ever attended, this was in the unlikeliest setting. Occupy Boston is situated at Dewey Square, a park near Boston’s waterfront, and in the heart of Boston’s financial district. It is right between on- and off-ramps to several major highways. At least 120 people davvened in the midst of rush-hour traffic, trucks honking, commuters streaming toward South Station, and the hustle and bustle of the experiment in radical community that is Occupy Boston.

Reciting the Vidui and the Al Chet has special resonance in light of the Occupy encampments. “We are the 99%” is the motto of Occupy Wall Street and its now-global offshoots. The 1% are the wealthiest in our society – the big banks, the investment firms, the global corporations and their CEOs – who possess an enormously disproportionate share of the wealth and who do not contribute their fair share to our common good.

But the confessional prayers of Kol Nidre reflect a different light on the 99%. These recitations of a litany of sins, mistakes and misdeed hold us all responsible, whether we partook in the particular act or not. When we read Isaiah on Yom Kippur, he inveighs against the sins of our society, in which we all bear a hand. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “Above all, the prophets remind us of the moral state of a people: Few are guilty, but all are responsible.” The sins of Wall Street and corporations are all our sins – we buy the consumer products, we put our money in the banks and the mutual funds, we elect the leaders who fail to remedy corporate excesses. We are all the beneficiaries of these sins, even when we protest against them. Tonight at Dewey Square we inveighed against – and sought forgiveness for – and forgave sins like foreclosures, inadequate health care, cuts to social services, climate change, and countless other crises born of and worsened by corporate greed, we were forced to acknowledge our own role in them, and the benefit all of us derive from them (some of us much more than others — depending on the color of our skin, our gender, where we were born, our sexual orientation, and many other things). More »

Lehmann to Gordis: Don’t Turn Against Future Rabbis

Rabbi Daniel Lehmann, president of Hebrew College, has issued a lengthy response to Rabbi Daniel Gordis’s Commentary column that accused young rabbis of turning on Israel.

Here’s a taste:

Most disappointing are Gordis’ recommendations for responding to the challenges that beset liberal rabbinical schools with regard to Israel education. While he admits that it will not be easy, he offers little upon which we can build a compelling educational plan. For Gordis, the selection of students, the curriculum and assigned readings and the year of study in Israel hold out the most hope for confronting the challenges that so concern him. The level of vagueness and generality in his list of suggestions is surprising, especially for a founding Dean of a North American rabbinical school. More baffling is his insistence that “raising the flag of particularity and distinctive loyalties high and unabashedly” holds out the most hope for developing rabbis who will be lovers of Zion. The adults that we teach in our Rabbinical School are not so shallow and anti-intellectual that they would be swayed by flag waving. Commitment to Jewish particularity will not be engendered by flowery rhetoric or demagogic charisma. The pledge of allegiance has long been discarded as the method to generate deep loyalty. Thin processes of socialization will not work to nurture the souls and stimulate the minds of adults who seek thick, authentic experiences of Judaism.

Read the entire response at JewishBoston.com.

What does it mean, “Are Jewish presidents of colleges ready for Birthright alumni?”

Crossposted to New Voices

On Tuesday, Nov. 23 Hebrew College is hosting a conversation with four Boston-area Jewish presidents of colleges: Rabbi Daniel L. Lehmann of Hebrew College, Leonard A. Schlesinger of Babson College, Jehuda Reinharz of Brandies University and Lawrence S. Bacow of Tufts University.

I’ve got universities on the brain lately as my own Drew has recently intensified our so-far lackluster work on our “Strategic Plan.” So this event caught my eye.

The HC website lists these questions as up for discussion at the event:

  • How will colleges and universities meet the challenges of the shifting paradigms in higher education?
  • What should their roles be in developing the next generation of Jewish leadership?
  • Students who have experienced Birthright Israel are ready for more engagement with Israel and with Jewish life; are we ready for them?
  • What aspects of higher education should the Jewish community support?

The first, second and fourth questions sound great. The third one is giving me some trouble.

First of all, it acknowledges a premise that I reject: that the Birthright is the source of engaged young Jews in America. It’s part of the clod of notions that spring forth from the idea that young Jews, especially college Jews, are not engaged with Jewish life, and that the only way to engage them is through Israel.

Second of all, and even more narrow-sighted, is this problem: Do any of these college presidents think that the only source of engaged Jewish students at their institutions is Birthright? If they’re focused on “are we ready for them [Birthright alumni]?” how is that going to affect their readiness for Jewish students engaged with Jewish life in some other way? And what does it even mean that they need to be ready?

These questions are not meant as rhetorical, by the way. I’m looking for y’all’s ideas on this. So if anyone goes to this, I’d love to hear how it goes.

A Question of G-D (And no, we’re not talking theology. We’re talking Bra Sizes)

petrackesther

Fashion designer Zac Posen adjusts orthodox teen contestant Esther Petrack before one of the final runway competitions on ANTM

If you’re anything like me, you’re just dying to hear  impassioned opinions on ANTM (that’s America’s Next Top Model, for the non-cognoscenti among you) from someone who has never once watched the show.

What follows is based on a controversial clip featuring an Orthodox–or more specifically, a Modern Orthodox–Jewish contestant from the recent cycle of the CW reality show and the virtual ruckus it caused among the online community, Orthodox and non-Orthodox alike.

In case you have not seen this yet, here are some…visuals:

18-year-old Maimonides alum Esther Petrack was recently eliminated from the popular CW reality television show and has finally spoken out to dispel the rumors about her and  to address the damning insinuations circulating among the blogosphere and beyond. In a Nov. 3 article in the Jerusalem Post, for example, the Orthodox Jewish reality TV star responded to a rumor that she had lived in Mea She’arim and was excommunicated by explaining that she had never lived there, and adding: ““How did they even find out about me? The video was on the Internet, which they’re not fans of, anyway.”

Indeed in that same interview, Petrack explained that she is not, nor has she ever been  haredi. Yet despite this, the media persists in sensationalizing her story by describing her as haredi or ultra-orthodox.

 Example:

 

Amusingly, the Israeli news reporter here also describes the school she attended in Boston (Maimonides–one of the bastions of so-called Centrist/Modern Orthodox Jewish education in the U.S.) as “haredi.”   Haredi or not, Petrack’s appearance on the show created a stir among many in both the US and Israel who self-identify as “frum.”  The infamous clip of the show went viral in the Orthodox community over a month ago, causing outrage and declamatory, self-righteous tongue wagging wherever it raised its scandalous head.  One can understand why such provocative television might elicit a  raised eyebrow or two but, in all honesty, I think such righteous indignation is misplaced.  In all of the online discussion of this admittedly rather ridiculous episode, search though I might, nowhere could I find condemnation of what seemed to me to be the most shocking moment of all: an instance of blatant religious discrimination. In the video clip above, Tyra Banks makes clear, in no uncertain terms, that all  contestants, irrespective of their beliefs or practices, are expected to conform to the show’s 24/7 work schedule, religious observance be damned.

America's Next Top Model

While the norms and mores of civilized life are often suspended  in ironically titled “‘reality” TV moments like these make me squirm more than scenes of so-called survivors consuming their own feces in order to prolong, for just another glorious week, their “15 minutes of fame.”
 
If an employer in the US today  denied work to a prospective employee based on her/his religious practice, the almost automatic result would be a job discrimination lawsuit with an expectedly grim outcome for the employer .   While, just  under a century ago,  pious  Jewish immigrants, fresh-off-the-boat from Europe would routinely lose their jobs and face poverty and even starvation if they did not work on Saturday, thankfully times have changed dramatically, and now religious tolerance is a blessed norm in the US: no longer does a Jew have to choose between starvation for him/herself and his/her family and Sabbath observance. (Thanks is of course also due to courageous labor unions for more humane work hours and weekends off.)   The apparent demand of the show’s creator and hostess, Banks, that Petrack chose between “honoring the Sabbath” and being part of the show, would seem to be a throwback to “bad old times” before anti-discrimination laws established norms of fairness and equality in hiring.

As to the “case” itself, we can hardly blame an 18 year old for the offenses of a crassly sensationalistic, heavily edited, celebrity-powered televised competition.  While the wisdom of entering such a competition might be questioned at the outset, what Petrack does is her personal choice; she is not forcing anyone – Orthodox or not — to watch or to sanction or imitate her actions. 

Much of the online uproar surrounding Petrack’s supposedly hypocritical activity as an Orthodox Jewish young woman is actually misinformed.  We later learn, via a blog comment posting by Petrack’s mother (or someone posing as Petrack’s mother. However you please), that her daughter’s statement, “I will do it,” (viz., desecrate the Sabbath by working) was actually edited out of context. Upon re-watching the clip, you can see the response, indeed, was edited. Despite the remaining tsniut (modesty) issue, Esther’s Shabbat observance may very well have been ‘technically kosher’—contrary to the way several articles (even some sympathetic) suggest.

 petrack-esther2
A good part of me empathizes with Petrack.  How many of us can readily recall certain decisions and activities undertaken at the tender age of 18 that  we would not exactly wish to immortalize on video? Especially for those of us raised in Modern Orthodox milieus, the eternal saga of rationally reconciling the two (modern and orthodox) is a plight that strongly resonates. Granted, at least in my line of work, this doesn’t generally involve lifting one’s shirt on television…..at least not as far as I can remember, anyway.

One day, when I host a Jewishly-observant-themed talk-show entitled Halakhically Incorrect, I think Petrack should be a guest.

Anyone who has, at some point, lived a genuinely modern and Orthodox existence knows that certain actions, on paper, (or, in this case, video edited out of context) could easily baffle others. Or, as one of my good friends from college whom I recently visited remarked while laughing with a glint in his eye, “Remember when I used to sin for you on Saturdays?” referring to my Shabbat observance in which several of my more keyed-in non-Jewish friends and living-mates knew to flip the bathroom switch on before I ducked in on the seventh day of the week.

In short, the real judgment in this case should be against Banks for issuing such a shockingly intolerant ultimatum, not against an 18 year old struggling to reconcile  traditional religious observance and modernity. But Banks is “nit fun unzere”  (translation: not one of the “tribe”).  So why attack her, right?

Naches all around.

Primary Elections this week – ROCK THE MITZVOTE!

anull-decreeEight more states – DE, HI, MD, MA, NH, NY, RI, WI – have primary elections this week. (Hawaii’s is on Yom Kippur – DOHT!) Have you fallen into the trap of praying for peace and prosperity but haven’t checked your local polling location?

Rock the Mitzvote reminds you to get off your tuchas and get out there. Use their free High Holidays e-card to encourage everyone you know in these 8 states to hit the polls – let’s pray with our feet, people!

The The Bronx Minyan?

(Crossposted to Mah Rabu.)

Everyone agrees that there was a wave of independent Jewish prayer communities founded in the 1970s, and another wave founded after 2000, with some but not nearly as many founded in between. And many attempts have been made to draw distinctions between these two waves, but they all fail in one way or another to capture the entire data set, whether it’s the use of the word “minyan” vs. “havurah”, liturgical choices, the way the chairs are set up, or membership vs. no membership.

But I think I’ve come up with a distinction between the two principal waves of independent Jewish communities that is 100% airtight so far (though maybe you know of an exception). There are a number of minyanim, old and new, that are called “[name of city/neighborhood] Minyan”. The test for whether such a minyan is part of the older or the newer generation is whether people use a definite article when using the name of the minyan in sentence.

[UPDATE: To clarify, this hypothesis is intended to apply only to minyanim whose names fit the pattern “[name of city/neighborhood] Minyan”, not to other minyanim.]

Compare:

  • “I’m going to the Highland Park Minyan this Shabbat.”
  • “I’m going to DC Minyan this Shabbat.”

More examples:

  • Founded in the 1970s: the Highland Park Minyan, the West Side Minyan, the Newton Centre Minyan
  • Founded after 2000: DC Minyan, Cambridge Minyan, Mission Minyan

(Do you know of further examples that either support or disprove this hypothesis?)

Note that even for the minyanim that usually get a definite article, “the” isn’t part of the name. It’s not an integral article as in “I’m going to a The Newton Centre Minyan event * “. This is just a question of how the name of the minyan (which does not itself contain an article) is treated grammatically, like “Ukraine” vs. “the Ukraine”.

My sources in Highland Park, New Jersey, report that a new independent minyan is in formation there. So I suggested that, in keeping with contemporary trends, they call it “Highland Park Minyan”, to avoid confusion with the Highland Park Minyan.