“Walk Like an Egyptian” Re-Tooled as a Chanukah Song by its Very Jewish Singer

Experiencing your annual frustration that all Chanukah songs suck?  Well, here’s a sweet surprise.  Check out Susanna Hoffs, pop star and former member of The Bangles, re-tool their 1985 mega-hit “Walk Like an Egyptian“, to “Nes Gadol Hayah Sham” , a song all about Chanukah, here in performance with the great Aimee Mann* and Ted Leo. It’s not just that Hoffs is Jewish, by the way; she has yichus. She is the granddaughter of the late Rabbi Ralph Simon, who served Congregation Rodfei Zedek, in Chicago’s South Side Hyde Park neighborhood from 1943-87, was President of the Rabbinical Assembly (Conservative), and was a leading founder of Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, and, therefore, the entire Ramah camping movement. He was a larger-than-life community rabbi for his historical moment of big house Judaism, and inspired countless people. See him here, with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Hoffs’s uncle and cousin, Rabbis Matthew and Joshua Simon, were also prominent rabbisMore »

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.)

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:

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 »

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.

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 »

One Hundred and Twenty Minutes in the JCC

Sometimes when I go to Jewish events that I know will include a  question and answer session,  I make a chart that looks like this:

# of times someone asks a question that is not actually a question  ( __ ) 

# of times speaker is interrupted by someone in the audience ( __ )

# of rants by audience members  ( ___ ) *

This chart has come in particularly handy at conferences, but can be applied on a holiday such as Shavuot, if you write. (It also makes an excellent drinking game.)

I spent Shavuot at the JCC in Manhattan, which, if you have not attended a tikkun there before, can be really overwhelming. It’s super crowded, especially in the areas with the cheesecake and water and coffee. The offerings are pretty diverse: yoga, films, art, speakers, and more traditional learning situations with chevrutah. I came because I was in the neighborhood, and also for the 10 pm session with Rabbi Jacqueline Koch Ellenson (RKE in this piece, for the sake of brevity here), director of the Women’s Rabbinic Network, called “Women of the Wall, Pluralism in Israel, and American Jews.”

RKE began by asking the audience about the values that motivate their activism (“I just don’t want someone to say that my voice can’t be heard,” said one woman,) and also about the values that they felt Israel should embody, which were no surprise in a liberal Jewish crowd: equality, democracy, justice, respect, Judaism, co-existence, pluralism. “I am worried by what I see in the news,” said RKE, before giving a brief history of the actions of Women of the Wall, beginning in 1988, when the group gathered at the Kotel for the first time. In 1993, the group attempted to read Torah for the first time at the Wall, resulting in the arrest and detainment of group members. (The Torah reading happened, outside the jail near Jaffa Gate, while members of the group and allies waited for folks to be released.)  ”There was a feeling of being vulnerable, and yet so strong,” said RKE. The events  continued to escalate after 1993, and American Jewish support for WOW grew.  RKE: “Seeing Jewish women being taken away by Israeli police in a Jewish state? How can it be?” More »

A New Conservative Approach to Conversion and Intermarriage

Crossposted from InterfaithFamily’s Network Blog.

“I am worried that our present policy is internally conflicted and thus strategically self-defeating,” the rabbi said. “The idea of refusing to be present for the wedding and then expecting the couple to feel warmly embraced by the Jewish people strikes me as a policy constructed by someone who doesn’t know the mind of a young couple…. I am not exactly clear on the message the Conservative movement is sending out into the world, and I am not sure if it is a viable policy in the long term.”

Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove of NYC's Park Avenue Synagogue

Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove of NYC's Park Avenue Synagogue

This quote is from Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, a rabbi of the Park Avenue Synagogue, a Conservative shul in NYC. He’s not talking about a policy shift within his synagogue or the Conservative movement, but sharing his thoughts on conversion and intermarriage, as reported in the New York Jewish Week (Time To Rethink Conversion Policy).

He likened [the current approach] to joining a gym, noting that a potential gym member is not told first to exercise, get in good shape and then join. Rather, if the person is willing to join, he or she signs up and then the work begins. Moreover, the rabbi added, this logic is not just one of good consumer policy but is consistent with traditional Jewish teaching.

In one of the most famous Talmud stories, the man who wants to learn all of the Torah while standing on one foot is shooed away by Shammai, who has no patience for him, but welcomed by Hillel.

“First, Hillel converts, and then Hillel teaches,” Rabbi Cosgrove said. “First you join and then, once you are a vested member, you figure out what it’s all about.”

In that way, the rabbi suggested that it might be more effective for Conservative rabbis to first accept converts and then teach them.

This would be a huge shift! Compare it to the usual course of action someone follows if converting within Conservative Judaism: a year of study followed by formal conversion (going to the mikveh, and brit milah or brit hadam if the convert is a male).

Imagine if, when an interfaith couple approached a Conservative rabbi to officiate their wedding, the response wasn’t “I can’t officiate, but consider conversion!” or “I can’t officiate, but you’re still welcome to come to synagogue!” but instead was “Welcome! Let’s bring you into the community, celebrate your wedding, and then, as you and your partner establish this next phase of your lives together, let’s make sure Jewish learning is included!”

“My priority is to create Jewish homes, and everything I do is toward that goal,” he said. When a congregant’s adult child comes to him with a non-Jewish partner and wants to get married, he now describes the yearlong conversion program requirement that is a prerequisite to the wedding. Many of them, he says, never come back, choosing a justice of the peace or other [Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal] clergy to marry them.

As Rabbi Cosgrove points out, “love trumps religious affiliation, with the result being that few families are immune from the situation of a child coming home with a non-Jewish partner and wanting to be married in a Jewish ceremony.” So the question becomes: how do rabbis keep up? Do you think Rabbi Cosgrove’s idea to convert the partner who isn’t Jewish so that Conservative rabbis can officiate their weddings and then bring them to study would work? Do you have other ideas?

Attracting Interfaith Families to the Conservative Movement Day Schools

Cross-posted. This was originally posted on the InterfaithFamily Network Blog.

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.

When Images of Mohammed Showed Up in My Facebook Feed

Today has been a frustrating day on many levels, and surprisingly, at the top of my frustration is two Conservative rabbis who are Facebook friends of mine who have chosen to share an Islamophobic cartoon depicting the Prophet Mohammed. I’m not going to link to it here because I don’t want to have a hand in further distributing the cartoon.

I wrote to each of them

I am disappointed to see the rabbis of my generation circulating a cartoon that flagrantly disrespects someone else’s religion, not to mention perpetuates harmful stereotypes. Is this the spirit in which you hope to enter 5773?

And to my surprise, instead of saying something like, “You’re right, I got carried away. I’m frustrated but this wasn’t the right way to express it,” both dug their heels in and defended their right to mock Islam in a way they both know specifically insults Muslims.

One of these rabbis is a chaplain with the US armed forces. The other holds a significant post in the Conservative Movement in the United States.

I have spent too much time and far too much emotional energy engaging with them and their followers, pointing out over and over again that both our tradition and common sense says that one does not achieve anything by inflaming the fires of hate or provoking those with whom we disagree. They refuse to hear me. Part of me wants to just unfriend them and be done with it, but I don’t want to contribute to my own retreat further into a bubble of people who share all my opinions. But I won’t back down because I believe this is an important discussion to have, and I know Jewish tradition expects us vigorously pursue justice. The quote from Mishnah that I’ve plastered on my social media channels today sums it up for me: “In a place where no one is behaving like a human being, be the human being.”

I have long since disavowed any affiliation with the Conservative movement that was once my home, but incidents like this confirm for me that I’ve made the right choice. I know, I shouldn’t judge an entire stream of a religion based on a couple of vocal leaders, but, well, you see the irony there.

Koach college student survey

Koach is the Conservative movement’s organization for the benefit of college students. Since I was critical of some of their recent challenges I wanted to also note something positive. In advance of their next planning meeting (in about 1.5 weeks), they are doing a survey of college students and recent (in the last year) graduates. If you fit this description and have opinions about how a national organization can contribute to egalitarian Jewish observance on college campuses, please take their survey as soon as possible: savekoach.org/survey

If you’re not part of the target population for the survey, but you’ve got opinions, why not share them in the comments below? Some of their leaders read comments posted here.

Here are my opinions:
The survey includes a draft vision/mission. Both are focused on “supporting educational & experimental programmings on campuses.” This treats Jewish practice like another course, as though college students are all still learning what it means to be Jewish. At the core, this ignores college students as practicing adult Jews. The Conservative movement has opinions on what it means to be an observant Jew, so I’d expect a college organization to support that goal.

Given Koach’s limited resources, what would this mean? It means connecting students to resources for observance on or near their campuses. Keep track of where students who are Ramah/USY alums or whose family went to a Conservative synagogue go to college. Make sure these students know what resources exist in their college communities, whether these are Hillels, local synagogues, and local independent minyanim. Even in small towns, you don’t need a Chabad house or even locally paid staff to have local families host students for Shabbat dinners. If Koach can identify campuses with small Jewish populations, but students who might still want a Jewish community, those are targets for more active engagement, whether directly from Koach or by bringing them to the attention of other organizations. Particularly for campuses with few Jewish students, the Koach conventions and Koach-led networking between campuses can be good resources for observant students.

I also think a web presence focused on news and opinion is not the best use of resources. Anyone can post an opinion, but it takes resources to make a site have high enough quality to regularly attract college students. The website could be a place that contains resources on Conservative Jewish practice (perhaps in collaboration with the Rabbinical Assembly to make a resource that benefits more than just college students). The resources currently there seem to be only slightly beyond an introduction to Judaism class. If there’s student-generated content on a website, it needs to live in this decade and let students regularly contribute. I’m not sure what this would look like, but forum that allow pseudonymity or anonymity where students can ask questions and get feedback regarding Jewish life on campuses or ask opinions from Conservative rabbis might be a good start. Simply including a way for a student enter their name so that someone can help connect them to families in the local Jewish community would be beneficial.

Overall, I’m glad to see someone in Koach is trying to get feedback from current students about the organization’s purpose. Even if you don’t have any positive connections to the Conservative movement, how could a hypothetical national organization with a $1 million dollar budget and a goal of supporting egalitarian and observant Jewish life on campus have benefited you?

Day schools want to drop out of USCJ

Back in June, the leaders of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism tried to defund their college program, Koach. While the USCJ board delayed this step, it seems like USCJ is still trying to separate from non-synagogue programs. The Schechter Day School Network, the coordinating organization for Conservative day schools, is under the USCJ umbrella and is considering leaving. Barely a year ago, they spent $240,000 on a name change and tagline, but the network and the school system it supports are not doing well. As a response to losing schools and students, The Forward reported that they are deciding whether to keep their small staff as part of USCJ, become a fully independent non-profit, work under another Conservative organization like the Jewish Theological Seminary, or join RAVSAK, a nondenominational day school network. The Forward’s article focuses on what this means for these day schools being Conservative, and the response from the heads of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly also focuses on this question. However, the discussions of the Schechter Network leaving USCJ should bring up concerns about the institutions and priorities of the Conservative movement.

In the Forward article, Rabbi Steven Wernick, the CEO of USCJ is quoted as saying, “At the end of the day, I believe that Schecter probably needs to become an independent 501(c)(3), and it needs to build a powerful board that will be focused on the priorities that are unique to Schecter.” Also “As a 501(c)(3), Schecter would be ‘more nimble’ when it comes to raising money from donors with an eye on Jewish education said Jim Rogozen, the outgoing chair of the Schechter board who was recently named the chief learning officer at USCJ.” As best as I can tell, these quotes seem to be saying that the top leaders of USCJ think that a core education program in the Conservative movement is handicapped in fundraising and adapting better priorities simply by being part of USCJ. These same arguments could be used to conclude that United Synagogue Youth would be a stronger organization by leaving USCJ. This does not speak well for USCJ as an institution, and its leaders need to make a much better case for its continued existence.

There is also the matter of the priorities set in last year’s USCJ strategic plan. One of the plan’s goals was to break the silos of Jewish education; to focus more on getting the best possible resources to educators and children wherever they are. Most children in the Conservative movement don’t go to day schools, but a huge portion of the Conservative movement’s education resources are in the Schechter schools. That’s why it should be a movement priority to keep day school educators as regular and active members of the larger community of Conservative Jewish educators.

It’s not clear that the current institutions foster the engagement of Schechter Network professionals with non-day school educators. Schecter’s director, Elaine Cohen, clearly didn’t want to work with Hebrew charter schools, writing in CJ magazine that “We concluded that it would be demoralizing, counterproductive, and against the best interests of the existing institutions to offer such programs in communities where there already is a Schechter or community school.” Perhaps this is the difference of priorities hinted at in Rabbi Wernick’s quote. I hope the Schechter Network would only leave USCJ for another Conservative institution, such as the Jewish Theological Seminary, where they’d be under the same umbrella as other education programs (including Ramah). If the Schechter Network decides to join RAVSAK, it might benefit from sharing resources with more day schools, but I want to see these educators find a way to remain part of the broader Conservative education community, whatever the institutional framework.

Congratulations Koach Supporters. Now what?

I recently wrote about USCJ’s proposal to defund their college student program, KOACH. As typical for USCJ, this plan was made without much public discussion. Even after the proposal became public, the only formal USCJ response was essentially: We wanted to make this decision behind closed doors, but someone leaked our discussion to the press. We appreciate the public discussion this has generated and, in the future, hope do a better job keeping more of our discussions regarding Koach behind closed doors.
Also as expected, people who support Koach protested. Also as typical for USCJ, their board decided it was easier to vote against the plan and continue funding Koach this year rather than make a difficult and unpopular decision. The press release says that the USCJ board decided to provide $100K of funding to keep Koach operational through December & have Koach supporters directly raise another $130K to complete the year’s funding. After Koach’s supporters take a deep breath, it’s time to decide what’s next.
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Filed under Conservative, USCJ

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This Just In: KOACH Saved

In a recent development, after much concern about the USCJ’s funding priorities, Save Koach has announced today that the Conservative Movement’s college outreach program will, in fact, not be cut:

June 14th, 2012 (New York, NY) – The Save KOACH coalition is pleased to hear of the recent news regarding the intent of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ) to continue funding KOACH, the college outreach program of the Conservative movement in North America.  While we understand the financial concerns which necessitate a decrease in funding for KOACH, as well as the expectation that the program is now faced with hefty fundraising goals, we are disappointed by the limitations on service to college students that these require.  USCJ, as well as the many other faces of the Conservative movement, must seize this opportunity to reinforce the importance of maintaining a presence on college campuses.  It is essential that this be a time of growth, not retrenchment.  We thank Women’s League for Conservative Judaism for their continued support of the annual KOACH Kallah and look forward to the collaboration of other movement partners in this very important work.

As future leaders of the Jewish community, and the Conservative movement in particular, Save KOACH appreciates that the students of KOACH have been heard and that there is a clear interest in working together to develop a long-term strategic plan for the sustainable growth of KOACH.  We look forward to building an organization which will fulfill the goals of fostering continued campus participation in the Jewish community, as well as provide opportunities and spiritual growth for collegiate Conservative Jewry.

We are committed to being active partners in the dual goals of visioning and fundraising.

We encourage supporters of the KOACH program to visit savekoach.org, and to donate in any manner they see fit.  We have made great strides in sustaining KOACH through the end of December 2012, but are in need of significant financial support to help us through the remainder of the academic year.  This will greatly help to ensure the continued koach (strength) and evolution of the movement’s programming for college students across North America.

 

About KOACH
KOACH provides college-age students the opportunity to maintain and develop connections to Conservative Judaism. KOACH nurtures a love of Torah, the Jewish people, Israel and God through a variety of activities, including social, religious, educational, cultural and social action programs. We seek to create a passionate Jew who is committed to the future of the Jewish people and the improvement of the world.

 

 

Filed under Conservative, USA

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Masorti Rabbis To Join Israel’s Rabbinate

Rabbi Andrew Sacks directs the Rabbinical Assembly in Israel, the organization of Masorti/Conservative rabbis.

The office of the Chief Rabbinate is established in law. The need for such an office is altogether another question.

Only the State and four cities are obligated under law to have a Chief Rabbi. Since there is no agreement as to who should hold the position – we have two; one Ashkenazi and one Sefardi. Except in Tel Aviv where the city council refused to allocate funds for two rabbis – so they have one.

Jerusalem has gone years without a Chief Rabbi. There is lack of agreement as to whether at least one of Jerusalem’s Chief Rabbis must be a Zionist.

All told there are thousands of employees “working” for the rabbinate and for the Ministry of Religions. Hundreds of millions of shekels are allocated.

Last week, for the first time, a decision was rendered that will require regional councils to employee non-Orthodox rabbis. This is an historic breakthrough in a country which, while not employing all Orthodox rabbis, has employed only Orthodox rabbis. As many as fifteen such positions for non-Orthodox rabbis may be filled.
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USCJ wants to drop out of college

The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism is the Conservative movement’s main organization for supporting Conservative Jewish communities in North America. USCJ supports Conservative communities on college campuses through a suborganization called KOACH. It seems that this is no longer a priority. In an article about the proposed plan to defund KOACH, here is the summary of the rationale:


While [Rabbi Steven Wernick’s] organization remains committed to serving college youth, it has over the last three years been “very aggressive in aligning budget, staff and governance with our vision and mission in a strategic way.” Faced with an aging membership, a long-term decline in membership and attendant financial challenges, the United Synagogue has been focusing on shoring up existing congregations, seeking to integrate the educational system and engage the next generation of leadership. (ejewishphilanthropy.com/wernick-koach-closing-its-non-strategic/)

There’s a bit of a problem with this statement. After significant, movement-wide discussion and work, in March 2011, the USCJ board voted on a strategic plan to define USCJ’s priorities. Section 4 of the strategic plan covers one of the core goals of USCJ, engaging the next generation of leadership. Among other priorities, they decided to engage young Jewish leaders in conversation, design new efforts to focus on the post college generation, and:

It is recognized that a continuing presence on campus for Conservative Judaism is vital to maintain the bridge between our high school students and the young adult post-college generation. It is not clear who should fund this effort and what the effort should look like. Since USCJ has been funding and administering the effort through Koach, in the short term USCJ should continue to do so in a highly focused and cost-efficient way. Simultaneously, USCJ should engage with college student leaders, and leaders of Conservative Judaism, to determine how best to work in partnership to ensure that the USCJ presence on the college campus not only remains but grows.

This paragraph was added after the first draft removed college outreach and public debate resulted in one of the few major changes to the plan between the draft and final versions. The strategic plan for USCJ states that college outreach, through KOACH until some other Conservative option is created, is a core function of USCJ.

While there are enthusiastic efforts focusing on preserving USCJ’s funding of KOACH (see www.savekoach.org), I don’t know enough to say whether the Conservative movement can do better than KOACH. Still, closing an existing program before starting a visioning and fundraising effort to create its replacement is a rather unorthodox way to engage college students and potential funders.

More broadly, USCJ has a core goal of engaging future leaders and nurturing new Conservative communities. Besides awarding a few microgrants though its new Young Adult Outreach, how has USCJ realigned its funds and human resources in the past year to address this core goal? If there were a string of engagement successes and healthy new efforts, I could see the USCJ board of directors considering whether KOACH is still a priority. Given the lack of other visible successes with engaging future leaders, abandoning a functional program without a clear replacement plan seems like a full abandonment of this core goal of USCJ.

When the USCJ board meets next week, instead of merely asking whether the approximately $23 million budget can spare around $200K for KOACH, they should be asking what happened to their strategic plan in the past year to prevent USCJ from funding something that was identified as a core effort. Given the pushback regarding KOACH just last year, this public discussion should have been initiated by USCJ months ago rather than in a news article based on leaked budget less than two weeks before the board’s budget vote. For the board to focus just on KOACH funding is to ignore the long-term planning, organizational, and communication issues that continue to plague USCJ even after its recent major reorganization.