Tamar Fox: Talking in Shul

Tamar Fox is one third of the team that brings you  “Talking in Shul,” along with Mimi Lewis and Zahava Stadler. Tamar is a writer and editor in Philadelphia. She has worked at MyJewishLearning.comHaggadot.comShma.com, and Jewcy.com, among others. Her writing has been published in the Washington Post, the Jerusalem Post, and Tablet Magazine. Tamar’s first book, No Baths at Camp, was published in 2013, and is a PJ Library selection.

Jewschool: Tell us about Talking in Shul and how it got started. 

Tamar Fox: Talking in Shul is a roundtable podcast featuring Zahava Stadler, Mimi Lewis, and me, talking about various Jewish political and cultural topics. It’s one of several podcasts in the Open Quorum family of podcasts–the other big one is SermonSlam, but there are many more forthcoming. David Zvi Kalman, who came up with the idea for OpenQuorum approached me about creating a podcast and I’m a total podcast fiend, so I was on board right away. I really love podcasts where a group of people bat around an idea for 10-30 minutes, so that’s the kind of podcast I wanted to create and we set about looking for other people to join the table, as it were.

Jewschool:  What do you think each of you brings to the podcast, in terms of background and perspective?

Tamar Fox: Zahava is pretty solidly modern Orthodox. Mimi comes from a Reform background, and I grew up going to Conservative and Orthodox day schools, and going to a non-denominational minyan, so between us I think we speak to a wide scope of Jewish experiences.

Jewschool:  How do you decide what to talk about?

Tamar Fox: We have a Google doc where we brainstorm ideas, and we sometimes come up with ideas for future tapings while we’re recording episodes. We also try to be at least a little newsy, and think about whatever stories are big in the Jewish news world.

Jewschool:  What do you think is unique about this podcast? Why should we listen to it?

Tamar Fox:  I didn’t set out to have it be only women, but I think it’s really wonderful that we are featuring women’s voices, and that’s not something that you see a lot in Jewish podcasts. Also, I think we’re really a fun, interesting crew, and it’s nice to have a Jewish news/culture discussion podcast. That’s not something that really exists otherwise, to my knowledge.

Jewschool: How can people find Talking in Shul? 

Tamar Fox: You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, or you can list on the Open Quorum website.  Sermonslam is basically a poetry slam for sermons, where sermons are very loosely defined as “short performances on a preset theme.” They are similar to the Moth storytelling events, with winners chosen at the end, but we record all performances, and you can listen to them on the Open Quorum podcast stream.

Jewschool: Finally, what are you  excited about for  the future of the podcast? 
Tamar Fox: I don’t know for sure when we’re going to talk about it, but we’re thinking about doing a segment on Jewish social justice, and how sometimes Jews want to frame an issue as particularly Jewish, when really, it’s just a moral imperative, and maybe that’s Torah based and maybe not, but we should still act on it.

 

(P.S.  If you do a Google search for “Talking in Shul,” this comes up. Which apparently is the inspiration for the song “Don’t Talk, Just Daven,” by the Miami Boys Choir. When I did a search on You Tube for that song, I found this.)

Skirts in Context

This is a guest post by Avigayil Halpern.

One of my most vivid memories from elementary school is obstacle courses in gym class. Riding on small, flat, scooters and propelling ourselves with our hands we would wind our way through a series of foam pads and balance beams in relay races, an activity that I found more fun than the usual sports activities. I don’t remember these races for the fun, however. On a regular basis, my skirt would catch in the wheels of the scooters as I raced my peers through the obstacles, and this is what sticks in my head.

I’ve worn skirts to school every day since first grade. The skirts/school connection is so strong in my mind that I have had nightmares about accidentally showing up at school in a pair of jeans, the Orthodox day school girl equivalent of the showing-up-at-school-in-your-underwear dream. It has been such a part of the natural order of my world that back when my skirt got caught in the scooter wheels, I shrugged and pulled it out again, calmly, accepting that the dress code would make me fall a little behind the boy racing me from the other team.  More »

Throwback Thursday: the Price of Jew$chool

Nearly all of the issues I raised in my 2011 post,The Price of Jew$chool,” which lamented the state of Jewish Day School tuition and the weaknesses of its alternatives in formal Jewish education, unfortunately remain quite relevant today.  Then again, statements such as the 25-year-old Greek Chief-Rabbi elect‘s recent reflection that the internet was his Jewish education, stand as sobering reminders that beyond the U.S. and Israel, Jewish education, even in its most modest forms, is a scare resourceAccording the 2013 Pew Report Forum findings on Jewish life in America, 23% of Jews report having attended Jewish Day School or yeshiva in their youth, and nearly 60% have attended some other form of (non-Day School) formal Jewish education. What does the future hold? How can we respond to this continuing crisis?

The Price of Jew$school

Before you panic, rest assured: we’re not about to start charging you when you read more than 20 posts per month.  No, we’re talking about the ever-skyrocketing expense of sending children to Jewish day school in the U.S.

With $7,000 you might be able to fly back and forth to Israel six times, but for the same price you could stay put in Overland Park KS and learn at the Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy for one year.  One thousand dollars more will buy you—show them what they’ve won—one year of 1-8th grade education at the Cincinnati Hebrew Day School. If you want to send your child to the Solomon Schechter of Atlanta, be prepared to shell out upwards of $17,000 per year starting with first grade.  $26,650 might be a fine price for a Toyota RAV4 Sport, but did you know that for the same price, you can ‘kaneh likha rav’—or maybe even four—and enroll for one year of high school at the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy in Bryn Mawr, PA? $29, 955 would be a steal for a small, foreclosed apartment in a depressed real estate market, but it could also buy you one year’s education at Milken community high school in LA.  These numbers don’t even include the usual “give and get” $1,000+ minimums typically imposed upon day school families on a yearly basis. More »

On Sexual Harassment and the Religious Pedestal

This is a guest post by Shani Ben Or, the Community Coordinator for Kol HaNeshama, Jerusalem’s flagship congregation of the Reform Movement, where she also serves as a cantor, studies Critical, Feminist Pedagogy at the Kibbutzim College, and is a fellow in the inaugural Jerusalem cohort of the Takum social justice beit midrash. Translated from the Hebrew by Aryeh Bernstein.

A few years ago, I volunteered in a youth center for teens at risk in south Tel Aviv.  The constituency served by the center represented the sectors most oppressed and discriminated against by Israeli society.  In many respects, this encounter was life-changing for me, but was also wound up with numerous challenges, among the most significant of which related to gender.  Every week, I was greeted with comments about my appearance, my beauty, and my body.  I received countless “offers”, of varying degrees of obscenity.  It was clear to me that these teenage boys were testing my boundaries in a smart and sophisticated way.  When push came to shove, they touched on my greatest place of vulnerability with regard to them.  In every other way, the power hierarchy in this youth center was clear and priviliged me: I was a volunteer and they were the troubled youth being mentored and counseled.  The power hierarchy in Israeli society was just as clear and to my privilege:  I am an Ashkenazic Jew in Israel from an American background. However, in one respect, the power relationship privileged them and put them in a position of power over me:  I am a woman and they are men.  They tipped the scales of the power balance to assert some power over a person who in many ways has power over them, and it worked:  as a woman, with my own experiences of gender oppression, I was affected by their actions.  They succeeded. More »

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.

 

 

Rabbinical Girl

The following post is contributed by guest poster Miriam Liebman. A native Detroiter, Miriam Liebman is currently a second-year rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Miriam is also an alum of AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps.

On a Shabbat afternoon last summer, sitting with two colleagues, one turned to the other and said, “Daniel, is this your tallis?” “No,” I said, “It’s mine.” Nothing specifically identifies my tallis as feminine. To the contrary, it is nondescript; white with blue stripes, the tallis my brother received for his Bar Mitzvah. The bag, too, is blue velvet with a gold embroidered star. I would have made the same mistake. The only thing that identifies my tallis as belonging to a woman are the lipstick stains.

I wear make-up and high heals, I like manicures and nice clothes; I am a girly girl. But when it comes to my prayer garb, I feel I will be taken more seriously in something considered un-gendered, neutral. But the more time I spend in traditional Jewish spaces, the more I have come realize that when we claim that a tallis is not gendered what we really mean is that it is male. And when we claim that we are creating egalitarian spaces what we really mean is that women are allowed to enter and participate in traditionally men’s spaces. Are we really only asking for women to find a role in a man’s world or are we asking to ungender the entire space?

Still from "Sermonizer" video

Judaism was a system created by men for men. To the rabbis of the Talmud, “all Jews” meant “all free men.” Today, I am in my second year of rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary. I spend my days immersed in texts that tell the lives, stories, and laws of those rabbis. As their words come to life for me, I feel more and more embedded in a vision of Judaism that will both allow me to honor my inheritance and bring my voice to bear on what future generations will inherit. My love of Jewish texts and tradition is not void of an understanding that my voice and the voices of many others are missing. If we are to exist in community where “all Jews” really means “all Jews,” we must live that out without exceptions, without caveats, and without apologies. We must hold ourselves to standards, not because we are expecting perfection, but because being in community means holding each other accountable.

This past fall, a group of seminary women at Duke University put out a parody of Britney Spears’ Womanizer. Taking the music of Britney Spears, they sang and danced on library tables about their own experiences as Lady Preachers in a music video they called Sermonizer. In reflecting on the video, one of the women, Christina, wrote,

I am a lady preacher because some of the best preachers I know are women. Because they stood behind pulpits and talked about periods and infertility, about rape, about divorce. Because they stood behind pulpits and said words that you don’t say in church. Because they helped me learn to say them, too.
I too stand behind a long line of women and their male allies who helped create a place where I can struggle openly and honestly with the inheritance handed to me.

And so, inspired by the Lady Preachers, a group of women at the Jewish Theological Seminary decided to make our own video for the JTS Purim Spiel: Rabbinical Girl, to the music of Madonna’s Material Girl. We did this because we are both proud of and proud to be at JTS. We make jokes about the absence of women’s restrooms on the fifth floor and the pressure often felt at JTS to be partnered, especially as women. Like the Lady Preachers, we were being silly. We were creating and sharing what we knew to be the best Purim Torah we could think of. And like so much of the best comedy that exists, there was no doubt truth in what we said.

There was a moment during editing of the video where I wondered out loud if some of what we were saying was too offensive. I immediately retracted my statement understanding that if we are not willing to publicly say what we believe at our core, we don’t stand for anything. And though we joke about being invisible to those in the non-egalitarian minyan at JTS, and pride ourselves on having worn tefillin since the 80s, the sentiments behind our jokes hold true. Because until we begin to redefine what a person who wears a tallis looks like, lipstick stains or not, and incorporate the experiences of non-masculine bodies and voices into our perceptions of what we mean today when we say “all Jews,” we are continuing to do nothing more than allow women to participate.

When we start from the premise that women and other minority members of our community must be affirmed, we are maintaining a system of patriarchy. Let’s start from the fundamental assumption that all members of our community are equal. I am not under any allusion that habits change over night. But the way we perceive gender roles can only change if we begin to shift the conversation to one that assumes that all roles are open to all people. Affirmation and allowance are not enough. Acknowledging that we are already on a path to full equality, this necessary phase of acceptance must move beyond a woman’s ability to enter into and participate in traditionally held men’s spaces and into one where roles and obligations are no longer questioned on the basis of gender.

It’s time we stop viewing particular women as honorary men. It’s time we stop giving women permission to take on certain roles. It’s time we raise a generation who no longer assumes the rabbi is a man. It’s time we embrace tradition not because it belongs to the binaries we’ve created of men and women but because it belongs to us.

a freylikhen shushan purim!

Wishing you and yours a most joyous Shushan Purim from New York!

The following Purim schtick video is brought to you by some of your favourite Jews from the Jewish Theological Seminary:

On the Deceptive Limits of Pluralism and the Need to Pursue Core Commitments

I just stumbled across a provocative piece from a few years ago by my teacher, Dr. Devora Steinmetz, published on the blog (“Yidion“) of Ravsak, the network of community Jewish day schools.  Titled “It Can’t Be About Pluralism”, it argues that pluralism is a misleading term because of its multiplicity of meanings, and an insufficient one as an expression of institutional values.  I think that this is a very good challenge to progressive communities and institutions who often wave the pluralism banner and, perhaps, hide behind it, though it may end up being empty.  I encourage you to read the post in its entirety at Ravsak.  Here is one, key paragraph:

“A school needs a core, and pluralism cannot be the core. Schools need to talk more about the way they envision their core, and talk of pluralism should not be allowed to divert our attention from what may be a difficult discussion of what is at the core. To my mind, the core of a Jewish school must be talmud Torah, Torah study writ large, Torah study that includes the formation of a person who is steeped in the practices of the tradition, who experiences him or herself as a participant in the ongoing practice of learning Torah and the ongoing quest to understand Torah, and who continually tries to reshape him or herself as a person guided by the teachings and the spirit of Torah. Pluralism—whether it has an epistemological, communal, or pedagogical meaning—can be an element of the mode of talmud Torah in which children at the school are engaged. But pluralism has to be about something—has to describe the way in which we do something—and at a Jewish school it should be about the search to know and to understand Torah, the quest to grow as Jews, and the commitment to serve others and to help shape a vibrant Jewish community.”

On the Anatomy of a Memoir(ist): An Interview with Leah Vincent

You can read more of Leah’s work at the Jewish Book Council’s Visiting Scribe Series.

On February 10, Leah Vincent and I met in early afternoon around Union Square. Over cups of hot tea, we discussed her recently published memoir, Cut Me Loose: Sin & Salvation After My Ultra Orthodox Girlhood, which traces her body’s exit from her Haredi upbringing in Pittsburgh to her acceptance at Harvard University–and the detours in-between.   For the course of an hour, we delved into the mise-en-scène of writing a book, bodily contaminations, and what it means to live like a zombie orphan.

 

Sam Shuman: I’m curious about your habits of writing.  I don’t think in any of your other interviews, people have asked: where do you write?  When do you write?  Do you have specific habits around the craft?

 

Leah Vincent: No.  And I feel very guilty about this.  I feel like I need to be more disciplined.  And that’s my constant resolution—to get more disciplined about it.  I have a toddler.  So my writing revolves around whatever time the babysitter is there and [whether] I don’t have other pressing things.  I write on the couch, or chair, on my bed.  With my laptop. And just type frantically. I’m a really big believer in the shitty first drafts.  So I’m just always trying to just push myself to write whenever it comes and not judge it.  And come back to it.  And rework it and rework it and rework it.

 

I try to write everyday.  It’s also depends.  It’s very project bound.  So when I was in this book, and especially once the draft was done, I worked very heavily with my editor to shape that final draft.  So, as soon as she gave me something, it was so exciting to get to work with somebody on it.  Because it’s so solitary.  I spent two years working on it beforehand.  And suddenly I’d have something with comments.  I’d throw myself into it.  It was just like this drug.  Any moment I could grab to work on the edits and to write was just incredibly exciting.  I would love to be able to say, “I sit down in my office from 9 AM to 5 PM.”  That does not happen at all. Of course, every time I come to a difficult scene, I’m checking on Facebook every ten seconds.  Something on Twitter has become very, very important instantly.  I know that I should shut off the internet, but I don’t.  It’s a very organic, meandering engagement.

 

I’m particularly interested in women writers.  I’m particularly interested in female memoir writers.  But let’s say women writers—and particularly mothers who have to balance their motherhood with their profession.  That’s really interesting to me.  I think a little bit about that–about how I feel like I have to push harder.  Even in the most understanding relationship with my husband and a progressive world and community, I still have to push to make the space.  I feel like if I could go to an office everyday, doing something like being a pediatrician, I’d have the time for my work.  But because I’m a writer, somehow I have to fight a little bit harder to be taken seriously–by myself maybe more than anybody else (laughs).  I’m allowed to say, “I’m not taking everything else.  I’m just writing for two hours.” There’s this constant pushing of the space that one needs to live and that one has to do on one’s own.

 

SS: That’s an interesting sense of immediacy, too–all these other things that you’re balancing at the same time.  That probably changes the tempo of your writing.

 

LV: Yes.  Especially when you’re writing something that’s so emotional.  I’m not distanced from this material.  Life is just woven together.  The book.  The rest of my life. There’s no separate spheres really, which, in a way, is a great blessing.  Because it means that the work I’m doing is like my lifeblood.  It’s personal to me.  To me, it’s so thrilling because it’s something that I care so much about.   But, on the other hand, if I was a pediatrician or a plumber, I’d be like, “wait, this is my work life and this is my personal life.”  And that might be nice to have that space.

 

SS: Do you keep a notebook for your writing?

 

LV: I keep like seven notebooks.  Not even notebooks.  Documents.  I’m so organized in all aspects of my life but my writing is schizophrenic.  There’s bit and pieces everywhere.  So I have my diary notebook, where I try to records some thoughts.  And I just started doing dailies, where you’re supposed to write three pages.  So I have that.  And then I just started a secret poetry blog, where I try to write a poem every day about my life going on.  So I have that.  And then I have my to-do list.  And then I’m sometimes carrying notes.  And then I have my phone, which has forty-six documents from the past week alone.  So it’s a little bit totally crazy, but somehow the magic works and it comes together.  And one day, I will get more organized with it.

 

SS: Do you see your work as a break or a continuation of an older genre of literature—something like the Autobiography of Solomon Maimon or the treatises of that other rabble rouser, Baruch Spinoza?

 

LV: I’ve not read enough of Spinoza or at all of the first [writer] you mentioned, but I definitely think we have a claim to the Haskalah.  Before OTD [Off the Derech] became as popular as it was two, three years ago, I was saying we have to call ourselves Maskilim, not because we’re identical to the original Maskilim, but because we carry some of their spirit forward and it’s important for us to realize that we have a lineage.  That we’re not coming out of nowhere. It’s not, obviously, an unbroken chain.  The themes are very different.  For example, they are, for the most part, much more intellectual than say, my book is.  But I’m proud to claim them. I don’t know how they would feel about being claimed, but I’m proud to claim them (laughs).  And I think we should.

 

On the one hand, you’re working within the construct of the frum community, which assumes that historical precedence gives you validity.  I think that’s part of the urge to claim the connection to them.  And I think there’s value to that.  I don’t just dismiss that.  But, on the other hand, I think you’re right.  People got angry at me for saying let’s call ourselves Maskilim, but I was never saying it literally.  Obviously, literally, I’m not saying I’m the same as them.  I do think that, especially when you’ve been rejected, as some of us have, by everyone we knew and cared about, to claim kinship with people who are dead, to be able to look out onto a much wider world, and say, “listen, the immediate world has rejected me, but I’m going to find family or intellectual counterparts or people I can to connect to.” I think that’s hugely powerful.  I wouldn’t want to deny myself or other people who find comfort and confidence and ideas and inspiration from that.

 

SS: People have been presumably going off the derech since the legal bricklayers paved the path.  But leaving the Haredi world is no longer enough—there’s a drive now to change it, whether it be through writing, protests, billboards, or non-profits. Having spoken to people who went off the derech over twenty to twenty-five years ago, they’ve noticed that change, too.  How do you account for this change?  Why do you think that there’s been a cultural shift now?

More »

In Pursuit of Intellectual Generosity: A Rejoinder to R. Aryeh Klapper on Gender, Tefillin, and Normativity

by Shira H. Fischer

Shira H. Fischer, MD, PhD, is a clinical informatics researcher at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, in Boston. She was a Dorot Fellow in Israel and an AJWS D’var Tzedek Fellow and has taught for the Melton Adult Mini-School and for Limmud. –aryehbernstein

Since the news broke about the girls wearing tefillin in an Orthodox day school, I have been following with interest the discussion about the role of women and laying tefillin – not as a scholar or as someone who has previously thought about the issue very much, but simply as a committed, egalitarian woman who feels very tied to tradition and who has never put on tefillin (and never much considered that fact). Ethan Tucker’s fascinating and thoughtful piece led me to think more about the issue than I had ever before. Rabbi Tucker’s comments about his daughter were particularly relevant as I have two young daughters and my reflections on women and Judaism and education and egalitarianism now have new motivations and new emotions.

I also followed with interest Aryeh Klapper and Raphael Magarik’s conversation on Jewschool, and I appreciated Rabbi Klapper’s responses. (I don’t think anyone who knows him could suggest he thinks the role of man is domination or that woman is man’s servant). My beef with Rabbi Klapper’s article was not about gender but rather about denomination and who determines authenticity.

After criticizing Rabbi Tucker for allegedly seeming “oddly dismissive of the lived experience of the halakhic community” by degendering tefillin, Rabbi Klapper adds a footnote explaining the term “halakhic community” that is as troubling as it is telling. He first very carefully says that he has, in this article, “tried to avoid the trap” of defining a community’s halakhic bona fides and then judging an argument from that community’s practice on the basis of its bona fides or lack thereof. He then proceeds to do exactly that, defining davening with a mechitza as the sine qua non of halakhic norms, thereby deeming legally irrelevant and dismiss-able the practices of communities that do not do so, and undercutting the “standing of scholars”, such as Rabbi Tucker, who who stand behind them. Here is his note in full: More »

Let’s merge the Movements: A Not-so-modest proposal

A guestpost from Rabbi Mark Asher Goodman

A little more than 130 years ago, at a Cincinnati hotel, a small group of rabbis departed in a huff from the dinner celebrating Hebrew Union College’s first class of ordained American rabbis. There was just too much traif on the menu, and the culinary baccanalia was indicative to them of a Judaism that had just gone too far in an acculturative direction. Shortly thereafter, the Conservative movement was founded. From this point forward, American Judaism would proceed with three very robust and successful movements, with millions of members finding spiritual meaning in three very distinct iterations.

At one point the largest of the three major Jewish denominations, Conservative Judaism has experienced a much-reported slump in recent years; as the Pew survey revealed, only 11% of American Jews identify as Conservative Jews.

Equally as troubling are the falling affiliation rates within the Reform movement. A larger and larger number of Jews are choosing to simply not define themselves within a movement, or to eschew organized religion altogether.

Much handwringing has transpired over the Pew Survey’s results. However, no bold proposal has yet to be laid down, at a time when we the American Jewish leaders need to re-evaluate our direction in the 21st century. So let me make one. More »

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 »

“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 »

Why would a new congregation join USCJ?

The United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism’s Centennial Conference starts this weekend. The Conservative movement’s health, particularly its synagogue arm, USCJ, is not great. My previous post focused on the suburbanization of Conservative Judaism. The rapid decline of USCJ-affiliated synagogues is partially due to the continuing decrease in the numbers of suburban Jews in the old Jewish population centers. In 2010, 659 synagogues were affiliated with USCJ. Now, there are 620. The decline isn’t surprising. When populations move, such as the current shifts away from the older suburbs, we expect synagogues to close or merge. The issue is what happens in the new Jewish population centers, whether they are in walkable suburban areas or cities. Where are the new Conservative communities? This Summer, I contacted several people within USCJ to ask about synagogues that have joined USCJ in the past few years. I was unable to get a precise number, but the communications staff with whom I corresponded could only think of three synagogues that recently joined. As best as I could tell, all three are older synagogues that changed affiliations or reaffiliated after a lapse. I don’t know of a single community that is less than 10 years old that has joined USCJ in the past 5 years. A movement that is losing synagogues due to de-suburbanization is one thing. A movement that hasn’t figured out how to get new communities to join has a serious problem.

As Jewschool readers well know, new Jewish communities are being created all the time. In theory, these communities might want to affiliate with the Conservative movement, but this hasn’t been happening. Here are three examples that hopefully highlight the movement’s gaps.

1. The decline of new USCJ-affiliated synagogues has happened along with the rise of independent minyanim and havurot. Thanks again to the shifts away from suburbia, these communities often appear in neighborhoods with large, young Jewish communities, but no nearby synagogues (or no nearby egalitarian congregations). Other times they are near or even meet at existing synagogues, but there’s nothing new about this. Breakaway communities that tap an unmet demand for something different are how many Jewish institutions got their start. Not every new community would fit in the wide Conservative tent, due to differences in theology or practice, but many would. I’ve lost count of the number of opinion pieces I’ve read that place the onus on the leaders of these communities to join a movement, but the opposite question is more useful. Why would one of these groups join USCJ? USCJ provides no services that one can’t easily find elsewhere that would help get a new community off the ground. There are already healthy online and in-person collaborations across minyanim that don’t require the expensive USCJ infrastructure. Perhaps in past decades, branding a community as Conservative was a way to attract new people, but the internet provides better ways to spread the word about a new community than USCJ ever did. USCJ has taken some steps to make it possible for these new communities to join, but they haven’t made any changes to give these communities a reason to work with USCJ.

2. I was a member of a self-labeled Conservative synagogue that wasn’t affiliated with USCJ in its early years. The synagogue grew into a vibrant community without any help from USCJ. When the congregation needed a new rabbi, Rabbinical Assembly union rules required it to affiliate with USCJ movement to be able to interview Conservative Rabbis for the position. I was part of the group evaluating whether affiliation was worthwhile. USCJ offered us useful things if we affiliated, but none of these (besides the pool of rabbis) seemed necessary. For example, affiliating with USCJ allowed the congregation to send children to USY, but the synagogue already had happy kids in BBYO. USCJ offered help in finding “replacements leaders when the rabbi went on vacation,” but the congregation already has a large pool of lay leaders. In the end, the synagogue decided to affiliate for the sake of the rabbi search and decided to get what services it could from USCJ while speaking up about the problems we saw in the organization. (This is the origin of my improveuscj at gmail address.)

3. IKAR in Los Angeles has all the trapping of a suburban Jewish Community Center style synagogue. There’s a large paid staff that leads services, pre-K child care, education programs for many age groups, and membership dues. (Yes, I know IKAR is also unique in many ways.) It has at least 15 paid staff, including 3 rabbis ordained by the Conservative movement. Nothing they do couldn’t fit within the bounds of a Conservative synagogue. They have gone from an idea to more than 500 households in less than a decade, in a town with multiple alternative synagogues of all kinds, and they did this, I assume, without any help from USCJ. IKAR seems to have a good relationship with the Conservative movement and (from their website) it looks like they participate in Conservative rabbinical school internship and other training programs. Perhaps, when Rabbi Sharon Brous decides to move on from her current role and they need to hire a replacement, USCJ might come calling, but that seems awfully late.

These cases bring home two main messages: 1. USCJ has not adapted to support communities with atypical structures or goals, particularly if they have knowledgable congregations. 2. USCJ is not useful to new communities getting off the ground.

In the past few years, USCJ has significantly reorganized. This difficult work has primarily focused on improving services and finances so that current synagogues don’t decide to leave. Not losing members is a good start, but it is not enough. USCJ and the Conservative movement as a whole needs to figure out why a new community would want to join. I’ll give some thoughts on this topic in my next post, but I have no clue if my ideas are right and no answer is easy.

What the Conservative Driving Teshuva Represented

The United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism’s Centennial Conference starts this weekend. It comes at a time when the future direction and health of the movement is unclear. This series of posts will examine one of the factors behind the movement’s current challenges.

There is a certain variety of critique that tries to trace all the movement’s problems to the 1950 “Driving Teshuva,” which said it was ok to drive to synagogue on Shabbat. The usual line is that the driving teshuva was when the movement turned away from something-or-another, which led to its intellectual decline and eventual doom. The teshuva was a turning point for the movement. The Conservative Committee on Jewish Law and Standards was only formed in 1948 [correction: CJLS was formed in 1927, but significantly reorganized in 1948]. This teshuva, in 1950, was a clear statement that Conservative rabbis were willing to publicly disagree with Orthodoxy. Still, placing the movement’s decline on a theological disagreement has always seemed weak to me. Despite current challenges, the movement has survived for 60 years since this decision and Conservative rabbis and leaders have played central roles in halachic and theological discussions that have affected all of Judaism. The link between saying it is ok to drive and the movement’s decline seems to be based more on wishful thinking among those who disagree, than on historical analysis. I do think the driving teshuva has hurt the movement in ways that are less often discussed, but this requires examining the text.

The driving teshuva is actually titled, “A Responsum on the Sabbath” (1950) by Rabbis Morris Adler, Jacob Agus, and Theodore Friedman. You can read the full text as part of this pdf file. I am borrowing some explanation liberally from this 2005 blog post by elf’s dh. In short, the teshuva’s goal was not to broadly permit driving on Shabbat. It was not even to permit driving to synagogue on Shabbat. It’s goal was to allow driving to synagogue on Shabbat when the alternative was that people wouldn’t have an active connection to Judaism without going to synagogue on Shabbat. In short, the teshuva says, if people are at risk of separating from the Jewish people, but regularly drive to synagogue on Shabbat, there are better ways to engage these Jews than harassing them to stop driving. Perhaps shunning drivers and delivering drashot against driving might not be the best way to encourage people to increase their connections to Judaism..

Put this way, this is little different from the many Modern Orthodox and Chabad synagogues which maintain an official position against driving on Shabbat, but still have seats and honors in the service for people who park down the block.

The problem with this teshuva is less its conclusion and more the assumptions that got it there. It assumes that the future of Judaism would be in communities where people could not or would not walk to synagogue. Conservative Judaism staked its future on the rise of suburbia. This was an intentional decision, not a recognition of the inevitable. It meant not just looking the other way when people drive on Shabbat, but, but accepting that driving on Shabbat would be a fundamental necessity. The driving teshuva was a key part of an active decision to embrace suburban life and actively abandon urban, walkable living. It meant abandoning cities in a way that Orthodoxy never did. It meant abandoning cities to an extent that non-Orthodox Jews never actually did.

As an example, here is a story told to me by the emeritus rabbi of a Conservative synagogue in an outlying area of a city with mostly single-family homes. He recounts asking Conservative movement officials for help around 1970, when the synagogue was losing members due to a shrinking local Jewish population, and most of the other local Conservative congregations moved to the suburbs. The Conservative movement officials told him that synagogues in cities were doomed to closure, and they only help they could give him would be to help help him find a new (suburban) pulpit. He declined their offer, and some decades later, the neighborhood (and the synagogue) have seen a great resurgence of Jews. His synagogue has more than doubled in size in the last 15 years.

The suburbanisation of Conservative Judaism served the movement very well during the rise of the suburbs. But nowadays, more and more Jews want to live in walkable neighborhoods, and the Conservative synagogues have left these city neighborhoods for suburbs that no longer attract enough Jews to support them all. Meanwhile, the movement’s key institutions still have a mindset that focuses on suburban-style synagogues/community centers. While the rise of Jewish suburbanization was marked by the driving teshuva, the movement has had decades to readjust how it interacts with Jewish in different types of communities. My next post will focus on what is currently happening and what could be done.

On Heroes and Villains and when They’re the Same: Thoughts on Rav Ovadia

“Chain gleaming, switching lanes, two-seater.
Hate him or love him for the same reason.
Can’t leave it; the game needs him.
Plus, the people need someone to believe in.”
–Nas, “Hero” (2008)

In the past couple of days, since Rav Ovadia Yosef died at 93, the Jewish media, both published and social, have been abuzz with tributes about his towering scholarship, bold rabbinic leadership, controversial political and cultural impact, and his frequent episodes of vituperative and hostile verbal violence, especially late in his life.  I have also seen comments by progressive Jews expressing surprise that so many progressive friends of theirs were showing the love to Rav Ovadia.  As one friend put it:  “My FB page is full of love for Ovadia Yosef-from lefty people? I thought he was kind of terrible?”

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Notes on the Pew survey

(Crossposted to Mah Rabu.)

The Pew Research survey, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” released yesterday, has received a lot of attention in both the Jewish and the mainstream media. I don’t have anything more to add about the results themselves; many pages have already been written in the last 48 hours. But after reading both the data and some of the spin, I have several comments about what we can and can’t conclude from the data.

1) Orthodox Retention

There has been discussion of the retention rates among various age cohorts of Orthodox Jews, i.e. what percentage of Jews raised as Orthodox currently identify as Orthodox. This percentage is significantly higher among the younger age cohorts than among the older cohorts, leading some to conclude that the Orthodox world is more effective at retention at the present time than in the past.

This conclusion is not supported by the data. Let us consider an alternate hypothesis: The attrition rate of Orthodox Jews has remained constant over time. What results would we expect from this hypothesis? The percentage of raised-Orthodox Jews who currently identify as Orthodox should decrease with increasing age (since older people have had more time to leave Orthodoxy), and this is in fact what we see in the data. But we can be more precise in our predictions from this model: The percentage should decay exponentially.

To test this, I fit the numbers to an exponential curve. I made the following assumptions and simplifications (which were quick-and-dirty, but you can try it yourself with different assumptions): I assumed that 100% of Orthodox-raised Jews identified as Orthodox at age 18 (and all attrition occurred after this). I collapsed each age range (e.g. 18-29) to a single data point at the center of the age range. For the highest age group (65+), I assumed it went up to 90.

The result was that the data fit the exponential very closely (R2 = 0.9932), with an attrition rate of about 2.4% per year:

Of course we can’t conclude that there has in fact been a steady rate of attrition either! My point is just that this would be consistent with the data. There are many possibilities – it would also be consistent with the data that everyone who leaves Orthodoxy leaves during their 20s (which would mean that the attrition rate is in fact much lower for the current 20somethings). There’s just no way to determine from these data (which only provide a snapshot of the present time) which model is correct, without data from past generations.

2) Denominational Identification
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USCJ finally dropped out of college

Supporters of the Conservative movement’s college organization, KOACH, have been trying for the last several years to convince the movement’s congregational organization, USCJ, to keep supporting it. It seems like this saga is finally over. USCJ has decided to shut down Koach. As Rabbi Elyse Winick, former Koach director, says, “To our great dismay, while there has been sufficient response to continue on a very small scale… KOACH as we have known and loved it must now come to an end.” For the last several years, USCJ has consistently said they didn’t want to run Koach. As far as I can tell, there hasn’t been much effort put into improving the quality of Koach or finding another source of support. It’s impressive Koach managed to stay around this long.

When USCJ put together their strategic plan in Winter 2011, the leaders of USCJ wanted to cut Koach. They said that they didn’t have funds to continue Koach, Koach wasn’t doing well under USCJ, and Koach didn’t really fit with the types of things UCSJ wanted to do. Koach students and alumni protested, and so USCJ kept funding Koach without seriously trying to improve the program. In June 2012, USCJ again tried to defund Koach. The reasoning was unchanged. After more protest, USCJ’s leaders said the protesters would need to personally fundraise to keep Koach alive for another year. The fundraisers got the necessary $100K and Koach survived for another year. Here we are in June 2013, and USCJ is once again saying that it doesn’t want to run the Conservative movement’s college campus programming.

While there is a lot to criticize about USCJ, I really can’t blame them for trying to close a program that they don’t have the interest, infrastructure, or money to run. The question is why others keep asking USCJ to be the savior of Conservative Judaism on college campuses? More »