The following is a sermon I delivered to my congregation last week for Parashat Vay’ḥi on the travesties in Beit Shemesh and Mea She’arim — a little late, but still important.
The Mirriam-Webster dictionary defines legacy as: a gift by will or something which is transmitted by or received from an ancestor. It is especially interesting to me that the word choice of the Mirriam-Webster dictionary is to use the language of transmission because the Hebrew word we use for tradition, מסורה, literally means ‘transmission.’ This idea, of something which is transmitted by an ancestor, is incredibly significant to the Jewish tradition. It is significant, mainly, because we take immense pride in our tradition and we take immense pride in the success we have had in passing down our traditions from generation to generation. This pride we take in transmitting our traditions is not new, quite the contrary, it goes back to our very foundation and to our very origins. Sure enough, when we received the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai we were instructed, as we read daily in the words of the first paragraph of the Shema, וְשִׁנַּנְתָּם לְבָנֶיךָ, וְדִבַּרְתָּ בָּם – and you shall teach these words to your children and you shall speak about them. Now, that is truly significant, but it goes even deeper into our origins than our covenant with God at Mount Sinai, rather it goes to our very first foundations, to Avraham Avinu, to Abraham our Forefather, of whom the Torah tells us לְמַעַן אֲשֶׁר יְצַוֶּה אֶת-בָּנָיו וְאֶת-בֵּיתוֹ אַחֲרָיו, וְשָׁמְרוּ דֶּרֶךְ יְהוָה – such that Avraham commands his children and his household after him and they will guard the way of God. What we impart to our children, what we transmit to them, the legacy which we leave them, is a huge part of the Jewish tradition. More »
A little tempest in a teapot has apparently hit the ranks of the Conservative movement about the cover of the latest issue of Kolot (The Conservative Movement’s now-integrated magazine, including more or less all the different arms of the movement that used to have separate magazines).
The Jewish week showcased an internal spat between Kolot and some selected women rabbis who objected to the most recent cover which features a picture of two female arms holding hands whilst wearing tefillin.
The Forward just published Conservatives Grapple With Gay Wedding Rite. In an effort to create a typical news article conflict, it misses the bigger picture. Three Conservative rabbis were tasked to create a standard ritual for gay weddings. They tried to hew as closely as possible to the typical non-egalitarian ceremony with the goal of minimizing the differences between homo and heterosexual marriage rituals. While a valiant goal, many of the top decision makers in the Conservative movement (the other members of the Committee on Jewish Laws & Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly), thought the text didn’t work and asked the drafting group to make more radical changes to the text with the goal of a more egalitarian ritual. The only critique in the article that wasn’t from a Conservative rabbi is a quote from Jay Michaelson. I read a comment of Michaelson on Facebook where he said he was more supportive of this effort than his quote that ended up in the Forward article portrayed.
The draft text and suggested revisions are not publicly available so I can’t directly critique them. Still, we can discuss why this effort matters.
There are some great examples of couples doing intense study to create their own ceremonies. BZ has a great series on this. More and more resources are out there. For example, there is Danya’s Alternatives to Kiddusin.
There are still unnecessary barriers for people who want to use these rituals. Here’s the example from my heterosexual wedding (predating both BZ’s and Danya’s writings). We used a non-standard & more egalitarian Ketubah text. While the text was available, we couldn’t walk into most Judaica stores & buy an beautiful ketubah with this text pre-printed. We wouldn’t have even known this text existed if we didn’t have friends who adapted it for their own wedding. To use the text, we needed to contact the author, a total stranger named Aryeh Cohen, to get an electronic version of the text that the ketubah scribe could lay out and then hand inscribe. Even this modest change to a more egalitarian ketubah text required added effort and additional costs. Our discussions regarding variations on the ceremony didn’t go much beyond rings, who walks around who, and whether the object of value should be a ring or a banana.
While finding a wider range of rituals is slightly easier now, egalitarian hetero or homosexual wedding rituals that are rooted in Jewish history and tradition are still an elite decision for those who decide the extra work is worth it.
Conservative Rabbis and other Conservative leaders have long officiated at weddings using a variety of rituals. Some were performing gay commitment ceremonies or weddings before the Committee on Jewish Law & Standards (CJLS) said it was ok and more have done so afterwards. Still, officiants are all piecing together new ritual based on the work of others and their own research and innovations.
Perhaps someone else will correct me, but I think this is the first attempt by a major Jewish organization to create a single, standardized ritual for homosexual weddings. Standardized ritual can remove barriers. A CJLS approved ketubah text for gay weddings will be pre-printed in beautiful ketobot by more suppliers with non-fancy verisions sitting in more synagogue rabbis’ cabinets. New wedding rituals will be in Rabbis’ manuals next to guidance for other lifecycle events. If the new rituals end up being firmly anchored in Jewish texts and traditions, egalitarian, and flexibly gendered, they will see usage in heterosexual weddings whether or not that was the CJLS intention.
While standardization can sometimes decrease innovation, I think it is the opposite in this case. People who want to innovate wedding rituals will still do that. A new standard text just shifts the starting point, with an easily found and hopefully well documented and researched text.
Remember Kesharim? How about the previous USCJ RFP for Indie Minyanim that want money? Well, maybe third time’s the charm.
(Does anyone know, even anecdotally, anyone who’s actually asked for or received this money?)
Let’s legislate non-orthodoxy out of existence. OTOH I’d like to see what the law actually says. Maybe we could add a friendly amendment that since there are no streams of Judaism, therefore the Orthodox have no right to maintain their hegemony, because the Reform and Masorti are not (now, according to this new bill) streams, but exactly as legit as orthodoxy, since it would now all be “just Judaism”? FTW, right? Or we could counter-propose a bill that there is no such thing as Orthodoxy, and the true heir of Jewish practice is [name your favorite non-Orthodox movement].
Or maybe we could get the government out of the religion business, stop allowing the nuttiest of the nuts to determine who is a Jew, while simultaneously preventing people with good intent from converting (contrary to Jewish law, despite the fact that they keep claiming they’re the true inheritors, just like lots of other odd things they do, such as (my fave) prevent Jewish weddings unless their roster of rabbis is involved, despite the fact that one needs no rabbis at all halachicly speaking).
Hey, maybe we should just do that anyway.
Gene Simmons of KISS on Israel. It’s kinda weird, but I love it when Simmons/Witz tells Israelis to toughen up because Americans criticize everyone. So much for the tough-on-the-outside sabra? Maybe the real reason we don’t have peace in the middle east yet is because despite all the machismo of the Israeli image, Israelis aren’t really all that tough? Or maybe even because they are trying to live up to the image that American Jews on the right desperately want them to be? (Hey does that mean we can blame the occupation on all those kids who beat up Jewish kids in elementary school?)
A very neutral explanation of checkpoints
A piece on autism and inclusion by Jacob Artson (Rabbi Brad Artson’s son)
Rabbi Jill Jacobs touting my line on spirituality, social justice, and prayer
HuffPo on the cost of day schools
One more from ImproveUSCJ:
The USCJ strategic planning committee received comments regarding the draft strategic plan and released the final version of the strategic plan yesterday. I figure this was worth another commentary summarizing the changes and my major concerns.
The USCJ board is scheduled to take a yes/no vote on the plan this Sunday. Despite serious flaws, I strongly suspect it will be approved simply because a “no” vote might cause a rapid collapse of the organization. If I had a vote, I’d seriously consider voting “no” both because I think the plan takes USCJ in some damaging directions or non-directions and I suspect the shake-up from the collapse might actually bring about some better institutions. I recognize that would be a radical step that would risk damaging some successful parts of USCJ. This is a risk that board members might not be willing to take. Still, I’m worried that a “yes” vote would lead to a more gradual collapse of USCJ that could bring successful programs, like USY, down with it and would cause more damage to the movement in the long run.
The first clear change in the plan is that it has a new supertitle, “VeAsu Li Mikdash” (And let them make me a sanctuary…). I suspect this addition is intended to emphasize that synagogues are still central to an organization that will now serve “kehilot.” Several other changes, including an additional priority to re-engage synagogues that left USCJ, support this interpretation. I think this phase is also, unintentionally, a beautiful summary of my critiques of the plan. They cut off the rest of the sentence “VeShachanti BeTocham” (…that I may dwell among them). The plan clearly focuses on the imperative to build and support synagogues and institutions, but the purpose of those institutions is an unwritten afterthought. While the plan charts out what’s necessary to keep USCJ alive, I still have no clue what USCJ sees as its role in the Conservative movement and the larger Jewish community. Why are we supposed to build this sanctuary?
This lack of vision is highlighted by some of the changes to the strategic plan. There’s a lot of text making clear that USCJ can no longer view itself as a content creator. It needs to connect groups and collaborate for content creation. That’s why it confuses me that, “USCJ will provide kehillot with programmatic and managerial resources,” was added to the final plan. USCJ can be both a collaborator and a creator, but it doesn’t have the staff or budget for both priorities, and it seems like they are unwilling to accept that they can’t do everything. They talk about core focuses and the need to prioritize, but it’s unclear what those core focuses practically mean, who gets to decide what is or is not core, and what is done in-house vs. collaboratively. This uncertainty of mission is also observable in little changes. For example most of the instances where draft plan said “USCJ needs to” do something have now been changed to “USCJ should” do something. Even taking the plan’s goals at face value, they are afraid to clearly state what needs to be done.
On a positive note, the draft plan didn’t give a clear vision of USCJ’s role in adult learning. The plan now says “While the emphasis here is on reforming the educational system for children, this strategic plan recognizes the importance of adult learning and the need to sustain a culture of lifelong Jewish learning. There are many sound programs available for adult learning, which should be encouraged. The greatest need, however, is in re-imagining the educational system for our children.” Agree or not, it’s one example of a clear priority for the organization while still recognizing needs it might not be able to meet itself. Regarding education, they also added a direct reference to “Linking the Silos: How to Accelerate the Momentum in Jewish Education Today (Avi Chai Foundation, 2005)” as a model for their education plans. That document talks about the need to focus on identifying and collaborating to meet common educational needs rather than fighting over which organizations get ownership of ideas. Good things can happen if they take that to heart. (As a starting suggestion the executive director of TaL AM would be glad to collaborate with USCJ on Hebrew language curricula.) On a negative note, their goal of having their “blue-ribbon” education panel develop a plan in 3-5 years has completely lost that time limit. There’s a real fear of committing to anything specific.
I was also glad to see them alter their plans for college students. The new version essentially says they don’t know how to pay for it or what they’re supposed to do, but they recognize a direct Conservative presence on college campuses is important. They plan to keep Koach running until the movement figures out something better. Oddly the to-do list at the end of the document still calls for a Koach reorganization in July 2011. I don’t know if they are still planning major changes or just forgot to remove this sentence from the plan.
One of the more surprising changes relates to how they view their relationship to non-denominational communities. I was so intrigued by their desire to become “a nexus for serious, post-denominiational Judaism,” that I focused an entire section of my commentaries envisioning what USCJ would look like if they seriously meant this. Assuming they read it, I guess they didn’t like my vision because they expunged this sentence from the final plan. Reading the plan as a whole, it is now very clear that they are only interested in engaging unaffiliated communities (i.e. indy minyanim) if there’s a potential for them to affiliate. They might ask a few indy minyan leaders to join a focus group or fill out a survey, but they won’t be partners in expanding the numbers of Conservative-friendly communities unless those communities are willing to call themselves Conservative. Sadly, the plan still doesn’t present a compelling rationale or mechanism for minyanim to affiliate with USCJ, even if they wanted to. This is a major lost opportunity.
I was also disappointed to see that they refused to reassess their fundraising plans. Several commentators, including me, were very critical of their plan to sell most of their lay leadership positions to people who can donate or raise at least $10,000 per year. As I wrote before, I feel this was included because they couldn’t create a rational for large donations without selling leadership positions. Assuming they find 30 people who are willing to buy those board seats, this will do immense damage to USCJ’s ability to attract new voices into its volunteer ranks and leadership.
It was recently occurring to me that I’ve written many emails, using both my real name and this pseudonym, to USCJ leaders over the past several years. When I’ve written as a representative of an organization, or when a USCJ board member forwards my email, I’ve gotten replies from USCJ professionals. Until yesterday, when I got a response after noticing a missing website link, I have never had a personal reply from any USCJ professional. I never got a personal reply after sending several emails to the firstname.lastname@example.org address. Months after I sent emails to that address and after the draft plan was released, I got a form response that they were starting to look at comments and will send them to the appropriate people. I doubt this only happened to me. Sadly, they look at this planning process as a communications success. The plan states, “The new USCJ’s potential lies in its ability to create settings where all kinds of leaders can come together and work together for the improvement of Conservative Judaism. The strategic planning commission that produced this document models the kind of cooperation we envision and know to be possible.” Considering entire constituencies (college students, Fuchsberg Center users, etc.) were shocked at never being consulted about basic elements of the plan that would affect them, I seriously wonder what the planners were thinking when they wrote that sentence.
In the end, I suspect that the selling of leadership positions combined with a complete inability to engage new voices and volunteers at even the most basic level will doom USCJ to irrelevancy as new generations of Jews create or find other organizations that want their volunteer time and leadership skills. Regardless of the vote on this plan, this inability to engage new voices and volunteers is the main issue that I think USCJ needs to reconsider if it doesn’t want to collapse in less than a decade.
Reforming USCJ governance and finance to greatly improve support to affiliated communities
USCJ is currently running deficits, losing affiliated congregations, and dealing with a large number of affiliated congregations who are questioning the benefits of affiliation. Many congregations simply don’t think the organization is able to respond to the needs of affiliated communities. Successfully executing some of the better governance ideas in the strategic plan will help. They plan to lower dues and link them to congregational budgets rather than numbers of members. They also plan to put more of the dues back into all geographic regions.
I have no expertise in organizational structure, and I’ll confess that this section is a bit more brainstorming than the above sections, but I figure I’ll try to write something vaguely useful. I look at the most recent budget and the professional and lay leadership organizational structures and I just don’t see how they communicate and function. It looks like a bunch of people with malleable job titles who mostly work in NY. ($4.3million of the $18.4million budget is spent on central office staffing. USCJ gets $8.3 million from affiliation dues and assessments.) I have no clue how ideas travel around the organization and what the lay-leaders who have 1-to-1 pairings with professional staff’s job titles are supposed to do.
Improve Conservative Jewish education
Whether it’s USCJ or some other Conservative organization, the problems with the Conservative movement’s education programs are central issues for the health of the movement. Simply put, the vast majority of children who are growing up in the Conservative movement are not being given the opportunities to gain the knowledge needed to become full participants (let alone leaders) in their own communities. For a movement whose purpose includes keeping Hebrew as the language of prayer, not placing children on a solid path to knowing the full liturgy and its meaning is a failure. The strategic plan rightly says that USCJ needs to get the movement’s various educational organizations working more closely together, but punts on what their goals should be except to say there should be a “blue-ribbon panel” to figure it out. Perhaps training children to have the basic skills needed to be the next generation of full participants in Jewish prayer might be a good starting goal.
The third part of this three part post turned out to be rather long, so I will post it in three smaller chunks, so that people are able to comment on its various parts with better ease.
The USCJ Strategic Plan, Part 3: Some thoughts on what USCJ could be
Any useful long-term plan needs to be a bit idealistic. In my mind, USCJ’s strategic plan was a bit too heavy on the idealism with very little vision or practical conception of how to get there. Here, I’ve taken the ideals already in the USCJ strategic plan and tried to envision what an organization would need to look like to possibly reach some of these goals. I humbly acknowledge that my ideas have their own leaps of logic and limitations and could receive similar criticisms to those I’ve thrown around. Then again, I’m not consultant who spent a year and charged $30,000 to write up USCJ’s actual strategic plan. Even if USCJ collapses, perhaps this could be part of a discussion of how other large Jewish institutions interact with the broader communities they serve.
I’m going to try to divide the challenges/goals of USCJ into three main categories: (1) Becoming a “nexus for serious, post-denominational Judaism” and Conservative movement regrowth, (2) Improve Conservative Jewish education (particularly pre-college education), and (3) Reforming USCJ governance and finance to greatly improve support to affiliated communities. More »
The USCJ Strategic Plan Part 2: Critique of the strategic plan
The first thing that jumps out of the USCJ strategic plan is a revolutionary change in membership focus. They are no longer an association of synagogues. They are now an association of “kehilot.” There’s even a whole paragraph about why this is so significant and how they plan to create a team to figure out how to rebrand USCJ with a new name to match this word change. This is part of the growing trend where transliterated Hebrew is considered more profound than English [insert random quote from Steven M. Cohen here]. Beyond the excitement that the Conservative movement has finally discovered transliteration, it is a welcome part of an effort to create ways for groups of Jews that don’t call themselves synagogues to affiliate with USCJ. They even say they want USCJ to become “a nexus for serious, post-denominational Judaism.” (Hello Indy Minyanim! We love you! Really! Honest! Ignoring lots of evidence to the contrary, we still consider all of you expatriates of our movement and want to welcome you back.)
This will be the first in a series of three posts on the USCJ strategic plan from guestposter “ImproveUSCJ.”.
The USCJ Strategic Plan Part 1: USCJ as it is
I’m a parent in my early 30’s. I grew up in a Conservative synagogue and I’ve been a dues paying member of Conservative synagogues since my early 20’s. I’ve davened with at least 8 independent minyanim. I have never been paid for work in the Jewish community. I spent a couple of years on the board of directors of one synagogue where I had many opportunities to observe the competencies of USCJ. I think the Conservative movement would benefit greatly from an organization that connects our communities to resources that help them improve. It would be great if USCJ could be that organization. I figure it’s worth a bit of my time to prod them in that direction. You can reach me at: improve dot USCJ at gmail dot com
The United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism has just released a strategic plan. This is in response to an ongoing effort to revive an organization that is rapidly losing members and relevance. Large factions of remaining members formed groups like Hayom and Bonim to demand significant changes or the creation of new organizations. This is all at a time when major Jewish publications are writing articles saying that the decline of families in synagogues affiliated with USCJ is a sign of the decline of liberal Judaism. It’s not completely clear why synagogues’ refusal to write large annual checks to an organization that wasn’t giving them much back in return is a sign of the decline of liberal Judaism or even a decline in the Conservative movement, but it makes for a catchy article title. Many of Judaism’s large, communal institutions are losing strength and significance. Due to errors in management and vision, USCJ’s recent decline has been particularly impressive.
It’s worth noting why large institutions, like USCJ, matter. Simply put, if small communities have common goals, putting some time and money into an organization that helps them meet those goals can be a good investment. The common goals and funding needs vary depending if you’re USCJ or the National Havurah Committee, but the concept is the same. Before talking about what USCJ plans to do, I wanted to discuss what it currently does, and sketch its current problems.
The Masorti movement (the Israeli and generally non-North American arm of the Conservative movement) is bringing out the snark a bit with a new ad campaign to address the issue of government stipends for yeshiva students in Israel.
They’ve put up big ads all over Jerusalem (including on the back of buses) with the statement, “Torah that is not accompanied by a worldly trade will in the end amount to nothing and will lead one into sin” (Pirke Avot, chapter 2) and an index of the occupations of some of the tradition’s great sages–Maimonides was a physician, Rashi was a vintner, R. Yehoshua ben Hananiah made needles, and so forth.
I, for one, am amused, and glad they’re throwing down on this one.
You can see a close-up of the ad here.
Shaul Magid has an interesting discussion of Art Green’s new book Radical Judaism together with the reviews of the book, asking the question: “What does it all mean?” Here’s the punch-line:
These three reviews illustrate three levels of anxiety Jews feel about their theological future. The anxiety is not really about Green’s proposal as much as the realization that something must be done to create a theologically-relevant Judaism and no one really knows what to do. Mirsky’s questions about “survival” and the ever-present threat of the dissolution of the particular are well-placed and Green and others need to address them seriously. Wolpe’s anxiety about syncretism and the un-Jewishness of contemporary Radical Judaism is an instantiation of what I have called the paranoia of assimilation. If Judaism cannot learn to live with this syncretism, that is, with the normalization of un-Jewishness in its Judaism, it may be doomed. In America, Jews have learned to live comfortably with non-Jews in productive and mutually respectful ways. The next step may be learning to make the borders of Judaism more permeable. Landes seems to be threatened by everything that stands outside his own imaginative “Judaism.”
But you should read the whole thing here then come back and comment.
Repentance shouldn’t be about wallowing in guilt. In his sermon last night, my rabbi spoke about this at length. It’s something I’ve thought about before, and it really speaks to me.
These days I’m pretty much never at synagogue. Back when I was at school (I’m currently taking a year off), I participated in the Chavurah minyan each week, which I loved. But here, I find that praying congregation-style just doesn’t do it for me. And last night I realized for the first time that one of my personal sources of guilt on Yom Kippur comes from actually being at synagogue, precisely because I’m so rarely there. I feel guilt for not being more a part of the community. Guilt for being so unfamiliar with the liturgy. Guilt that my Hebrew is so bad. Guilt for not truly feeling that the path to repentance involves asking for permission to repent.
So, like last year at Brown, I didn’t go to services today, albeit for slightly different reasons. I’m at home, on my own. Here I can observe Yom Kippur guilt-free, thinking about ways in which I can repent for me, myself, and I. My lack of belief in G()d in the traditional sense of an entity or concept that has at least some manifest control of my life or the world leads me to understand that I repent for my own benefit, and for that of those around me. Repenting helps me become a better person. I take responsibility for my flaws, my problems, my errors, and I ask those around me to understand them, and join with me as I try to grow past them. That growth might involve additional involvement with the community. Or it might not.
This approach to observance is a source of conflict with my family, who feel strongly that going to shul is a family operation. And while I respect the desire to observe the day together, I can’t subvert my feelings on what it means for me to be a Jew to the family’s feelings on what it means to be a Jewish family. The same holds for a congregation. Yom Kippur is too important for me to follow anyone’s patterns of observance but my own. I’m sure that those patterns will continue to change, and as they do, I’ll do my best to understand and remain true to them.
Alright, I know I’m kinda behind, as this is last week’s (month’s really) news, but it’s the season of forgiveness, okay?
Over the past month, there’s a been a lot of discussion of intermarriage in the wake (Is that a pun? Sorta) of the Clinton-Mezvinsky wedding. One article that caught my eye is the piece in the Forward last week by Conservative Rabbi Jason Miller,urging the Rabbinical Assembly to rescind the ban on Conservative rabbis participating in or attending intermarriages (of Jews to non-Jews anyhow. I don’t think other pairings are found disturbing).
In theory, violating this ban can have a rabbi expelled from the RA, although in practice, as Miller points out, attendance at interfaith weddings has not – as far as I or he or anyone I’ve queried, knows- actually resulted in said expulsion. I can’t say that I agree with Rabbi Miller, although I have mixed feelings about it: since in fact, there is no consequence for for violating the attendance part of the ban, rabbis who need to go because it is their child or a close family member, can actually attend, while preserving other rabbis’ ability to say that ultimately, intermarriage is not something that they are able to celebrate, if that is their bent, and having the movement stand behind them, which given the ostensible principles of the movement, seems reasonable to expect.
Rabbi Miller seems to view the refusal to attend interfaith weddings as tribalism, rather than as a more complex problem. I suppose in the case where the Jewish member of the couple is Jewish in name only, and doens’t view Judaism as important at all, then tribalism might be a fair description, but for a rabbi in the Conservative movement, who at least in theory views Judaism as having a divine component, and Jews (as a people) as having a particular and holy mission, that strikes me as an unfair description.
In some respects, I view this as a variant of the same discussion that happens about the driving tshuvah. Jews on the more observant end may point out that it was a mistake to allow it, as those who were going to drive would drive anyhow, while the tshuvah givies the appearance that driving is okay to everyone else, halachicly speaking (the problem with the tshuvah appears most especially to be two things: 1. the people who wrote it had only the sketchiest idea of the inner workings of an engine, and 2. there was a deliberate stretching of the way halachah works , in honesty, beyond the breaking point: claiming that the spark of the spark plug is a sort of unintended side effect of the driving is sort of like claiming that the heat on a stove is an unintended side effect of cooking the food) while in fact, it isn’t really, and even the tshuvah sort of admits it. Instead the better solution might have been to simply not address the issue, nor castigate those who chose to drive, and welcome them as one would anyone else, simply not taking note of the matter. However, once the tshuvah is published, it’s very difficult – I would say impossible- to reverse it to that situation, since any change away from a complete acceptance then appears to be a rejection of the people who drive.
Am I advocating hypocrisy? I suppose so. I think that in this case Miss Manners would approve (Miss Martin, if you should happen to read Jewschool please feel free to weigh in). Perhaps I can argue that mipnei darkei shalom, hypocrisy might be our best alternative?
Interested in other peoples’ thoughts on this.
Editor’s Note: The following is a guest post from Gavriel Meir-Levi who heads up Jewish Outreach for the Mark Levine State Senate Campaign for District 31 which runs along the Hudson River from the Upper West Side to North Riverdale. He worked on the 2008 Obama Campaign and is currently exploring the intersection of Democracy and Technology.
Tu B’Av with the Orthodox Avante Garde
One of the most interesting things about running Jewish Outreach for a state senate campaign has been re-discovering all of the technicolored streams within waves within movements of Jewish observance and identity that run from the Upper West Side to Washington Heights to Riverdale; Modern Orthodox meets Open Orthodox meets YU Orthodox meets Black Hat Orthodox meets Non-Traditional Chassidic meets Liberal Conservative Halachic meets Non-Pluralistic Egalitarian meets Zionist Traditional Reform meets Post-Zionist Israeli meets Meta-Judeao Eco-Zionist meets Activist Atheist.
Did I miss anyone? It’s impossible I did not, and even if somehow a complete list were compiled, no doubt crashing the Jewschool server in the process (not to mention our own heads), we would need but to wait a few minutes for a new movement to emerge from within the Brownian Motion of contemporary Judaism.
It was just such an emergence that my friend Mark Levine who is running for State Senate witnessed for the first time at the Bangitout Tu B’Av party in Riverside Park, the emergence of the Avante Garde Orthodox. Somewhat ironically, the Orthodox communities have been most welcoming of my candidate (who founded the Barack Obama Democratic Club of Upper Manhattan) even though many of them have deep misgivings about President Obama. Intuitively the expectation was that the more liberal communities who are Jewishly closer to Mark’s level of observance and practice would be his strongest supporters, his “natural base” in political parlance. And yet the enthusiasm of the Avante Garde Orthodox has been astonishing to behold, even though they were far more interested in each other than in anything Mark had to say on Tu B’Av.
Despite their misgivings about Obama and progressive causes (of which many Mark supports) the Avante Garde Orthodox may be closer to Obama than they realize, albeit not in the strictly political sense. Many of them may have suffered through overbearingly Ultra-Orthodox childhoods and day school experiences during which year after year they were told, “No, you can’t!” Well, they are now discovering that as young adults living on the Upper West Side oh yes they can! Yes they can stay up all night flirting on Tu B’Av, yes they can appreciate a Broadway show, yes they can become active politically and yes they can figure out their own unique contribution to the multi-faceted multi-colored movements within contemporary Judaism.
Well, I agreed with Hershel Schachter, rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva University, last week, but unsurprisingly, this didn’t last long. Cross-Currents reports that, at this week’s Rabbinical Council of America convention, Schachter taught a class on why women could not be ordained, and said that ordaining women was a yeihareig ve’al ya’avor (i.e., in the category of violations that Jews are commanded to die rather than transgress), “because the Conservative movement had made egalitarianism a key plank in its platform”.
First of all, if Cross-Currents is reporting his statement accurately, Schachter is wrong on the facts, and giving the Conservative movement much more credit than it deserves. The Conservative movement has always been timid about egalitarianism, treating it as a leniency rather than as a principle, and certainly not as “a key plank in its platform”. There are still a number of non-egalitarian Conservative congregations, and the movement doesn’t seem to have a problem with this.
But let’s look at the general principle that Schachter propounds, that any key plank of the Conservative movement’s platform becomes a yeihareig ve’al ya’avor for Torah Jews. One of the things that Emet Ve’Emunah, the Conservative movement’s “Statement of Principles”, actually does say is “Conservative Judaism affirms the critical importance of belief in God”. Therefore, anyone following Schachter’s opinion must conclude that it is strictly forbidden to believe in God, and that this prohibition is so serious that it is better to die than to violate it. Yes, some (presumably left-wing fringe) Orthodox Jews and congregations still believe in God, but we can assume that they will fall into line soon.
I can see the scene now: Schachter and his students giving up their lives al kiddush [REDACTED], having their skin flayed with iron combs as they say with their last breaths, “Hear O Israel: There is no God!”
This is a guest post from Rachel Silverman, 5th year Rabbinical student at JTS, and member of KICKS’ leadership team.
What do you call a new independent minyan that is neither new nor independent? The folks in Brookline, MA have decided to call it KICKS – Kehillath Israel‘s Community Kabbalat Shabbat. It fits few, if any, of the criteria that define the independent minyan movement – and yet it is, without a doubt, the place you are going to want to be on Friday nights in Boston – starting March 12.
We can’t claim to be independent because not only are we meeting INSIDE a Conservative synagogue, but we are actually becoming the Kabbalat Shabbat service FOR the synagogue. That’s right. Kehillath Israel has graciously handed over responsibility for their Friday evening service to a group of young, empowered Jewish leaders, straight out of Kehilat Hadar, Kehilat Kedem, and the Washington Square Minyan (all great and vibrant places from which we are regularly inspired and have learned a tremendous amount).
Just as if we were creating a minyan from scratch, the leadership team has been meeting diligently to confront the big questions of how to make this happen. How do we balance quality davening with a sense of inclusivity? How do we create a feeling of community outside of our prayer space? How do we make the chapel a warm and welcoming place to be? Our answers are nothing earth-shattering, but they are the result of thoughtful, careful deliberations which will hopefully produce the right atmosphere for a prayerful experience.
I’ve never been one to predict what is to come, but if I had to take a gander, I’d say this is the wave of the future. The combination of being in a synagogue that feels like an independent minyan is a win-win situation. The synagogue gets active, engaged, passionate, (mostly) young participants through their doors – a group of people who otherwise tend to avoid synagogues at any cost. The minyan-goers get the spiritual, energetic davening and the warm, welcoming, peer community – both of which they’ve been craving. As the minyan participants get older, they have a natural connection to a synagogue for lifecycle events, nursery schools, and movement specific opportunities, such as Israel trips, USY, etc. Put all together, we create a vibrant intergenerational community.
Sure, working within a synagogue structure has its challenges. Changes require buy-in from the existing community and rabbi – and there is only so much change that will, ultimately, be permitted. But that structure also means that we can focus on what we’re good at (amazing davening and creating community), and not get bogged down in questions of things we can’t change (the set up of the room, for example). In our case, KI and Rabbi Hamilton could not be more open to the change that we want to create – and I’m confident that their support is what will ultimately make us successful.
One of the unique features of KICKS is that we have created a davening leadership corps that will meet monthly to cultivate intentional leadership of our tefilah. We will work together to establish goals for our davening, to consider the arc and flow of the service, to think together about tunes that shape the arc, the give and take of leader and kahal, and the use of space, voice and body in shaping davening and inviting the energy of the kahal. It is also our goal to reach out and train new leaders. We look forward to offering sessions to help develop these skills among people who want to learn and join our team.
KICKS is kicking off (yes, pun intended) on March 12. We meet in the Rabb chapel of Congregation Kehillath Israel, 384 Harvard Street, Brookline, MA. Mincha begins at 5:35, Kabbalat Shabbat will be at 5:55, and Ma’ariv will be at 6:30. We will meet weekly, but start times will vary depending on candle-lighting. We’re planning Shabbat dinners, both potluck and home hospitality, for future weeks.
You can join our facebook group here, and sign up for our mailing list (a google group) here. You can also email email@example.com with questions, comments, or your desire to get involved.