When I first skimmed the press release for Handle With Care, a play currently running off-Broadway in the theater that used to house Old Jews Telling Jokes, I thought I had the whole thing figured out in advance: a non-Jewish playwright married an Israeli actress and wrote a show for her. Simple, I thought. It must be a comedy exploring the hilarity of intermarriage, like an Abie’s Irish Rose for the Pew Report generation. I couldn’t have been more wrong. For although playwright Jason Odell Williams has written a play about love bridging disparate lives, it’s about a burgeoning love affair between an Israeli Jew and an American Jew, finding each other in the most unlikely of circumstances: their “meet cute” occurs when a delivery man loses the box containing the remains of Ayelet’s recently deceased grandmother, which he was supposed to be bringing to the airport for return to Israel. Josh, Ayelet’s love interest, is the delivery man’s only Jewish friend, so naturally he gets the call to help translate the situation to the distressed Israeli who speaks very little English.
The result is a charming romantic comedy that would be right at home on JCC stages anywhere in the country. That the play was written by someone who’s not himself Jewish (although he is part of a Jewish family) is surprising, so I was glad to have the opportunity to speak with both Williams and his wife (and star of the show) Charlotte Cohn about that play, their marriage, and working with one’s spouse. More »
This summer, the Jewish Theological Seminary’s List College is introducing an exciting new pre-college summer program focusing on service learning. Inspired by the success of its undergraduate program in social and entrepreneurial initiatives, List College wants to extend its resources to a wider audience of rising junior and senior high school students from across the country looking for a hands-on combination of Jewish traditional text study and internships in social change agencies in New York City.
Participants will have the opportunity to choose from a wide array of internship sites, including government NGOs, sustainability and environmental non-profits, interfaith groups, and education and youth organisations. Before beginning the internships, which will include direct mentorship, students will participate in an orientation, in which they will be trained to work as service professionals in social change agencies. Throughout the program, participants will reconvene together regularly to engage in facilitated Jewish text study, focusing on the theological and historical underpinnings of social action. Additionally, participants will enjoy a guest lecture series and a college prep workshop series offered by Barnard College.
According to Aliyah Vinikoor, assistant Dean of List College and director of their Fellowship for Jewish Social Entrepreneurship, JustCity hopes to empower pre-college students to engage in direct service while also building Jewish community across denominational lines. The program also aspires to reach out to other faith-based groups to help build a multi-faith social change network.
The program dates this summer are from June 30-July 28; participants have the option of living on JTS’ campus. Partial need-based scholarships available. Registration is currently open and applications are due May 1. You can learn more about Just City here. You can also email JustCity at firstname.lastname@example.org
“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
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?
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.
From our friends at Bend the Arc, the organization(s) formerly known as Jewish Funds for Justice-Progressive Jewish Alliance-Shefa Fund, the Community Organizing Residency is accepting applications — and nominations. The application deadline for COR has been extended to June 15th and we have created an online form for you to nominate applicants. You can nominate them here.
Where else can you find a Muslim organizer trained by a Jewish organization to work with a coalition comprised mostly of Christian churches? Nowhere but Bend the Arc’s Community Organizing Residency, as covered recently in the NY Times. More »
A very unique program is recruiting a few more rabbinic students near New York (especially Orthodox, Reform or Reconstructionist) for an intensive, interfaith exploration of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with Christian seminarians. The program is a joint project of the Auburn Theological Seminary and the American Jewish Committee.
Ever wondered what Christians really think about Israel? Ever thought about how to engage the regional conflict constructively across faith lines? This intensive and life-changing program features a series of study and dialogue sessions followed by a 9-day travel encounter to Israel and the Palestinian Territories in January 2012. Auburn Seminary and the American Jewish Committee (NY Chapter) jointly run the program, which has openings for a few more rabbinic students. All program costs, including travel and accommodations, are covered in exchange for a $400 program fee (waived for those with financial difficulty). Application and details are available online and are due ASAP.
Video featuring our very own Josh Frankel. For more Auburn resources to bridge religious divides click here.
Over the past several years, we have seen quite a number of Jewish or pseudo-Jewish practices picked up by non-Jews. While this isn’t exactly a novel occurrence – Christians sort of invented it with the creation of their new religion not quite two millenia ago, and Christian “Passover seders” of various sorts have been going on for some number of decades- it’s worth considering how Jews should react to the “democratization” of Jewish practices.
Whether it’s the pseudo-Jewish kabbalah center (whose practices misrepresent kabbalah quite a huge amount) and its superstitious practices, or Justin Bieber saying the Shema before concerts, we can expect to see more of this kind of thing.
To a certain extent, a certain amount of syncretism is inevitable. More »
On Monday, the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs (of the Conservative/Masorti Movement) posted a video to YouTube explaining the importance of having a welcoming website. Aimed at synagogues, the video was publicized by an email sent out by the FJMC.
What’s interesting about the video (and email) is that it never explicitly states something like, “synagogue websites should say, ‘Our synagogue is welcoming of all families, including interfaith families and families of diverse backgrounds.’”
Instead, it suggests:
Your congregation’s website is your most important tool to attracting today’s Jewish family. Your website’s ‘welcome’ must be obvious. It needs to greet the visitor in a meaningful and sincere way. For example, if you’re welcoming interfaith families, children and adults with different ethnic backgrounds, or gay and lesbian families, words like ‘welcome,’ ‘open,’ and ‘diverse’ need to be prominent and obvious.
Buzz words aren’t enough. If you’re welcoming of “interfaith families, children and adults with different ethnic backgrounds, or gay and lesbian families,” say so! Use those descriptive words! The video shows interfaith families (a family standing in front of a Christmas tree and a menorah!) and shows that we should be welcoming to interfaith families (the word “interfaith” on a doormat!), but doesn’t say to use the words on the websites.
It seems like the Conservative Movement wants to be welcoming of interfaith families, but doesn’t think it can outright say so. But it can. And should.
This is a great start. I appreciate that the FJMC is making this effort, and we all know that making changes in synagogues can be a slow and arduous process, but… Let’s just take it a step further.
What do you think? Watch the video and leave a comment:
First of all, let’s just set aside for a moment the ridiculousness of mentioning Islamic extremists in every other breath – really, I have to say (I never thought I’d defend Beck in any way whatsoever) that really, his comments weren’t about Reform Jews being terrorists. While his comments were completely inane, his point was that Reform Jews are primarily a political organization rather than a religious one. How many ways this is a stupid comment leaves me gasping, but it’s not what most people seem to have taken it as – i.e. a claim that Reform Jews are terrorists.
However, the level of stupidity remains pretty high: More »
There will be a 3 year congregation certification program offered in conjunciton with GreenFaith’s environmental education fellowship and a set of Webinars offered through Jewish National Fund. Resources will be offered on conservation, sustainable food, and advocacy.
The initiative will unfold over three years, beginning in December with the release of the first resource focusing on energy conservation and renewable energy. Two free resources will be issued each year to help congregations and households address environmental concerns. Materials will be provided to help congregations incorporate environmental practices into their daily functioning and educational curricula, as well as giving tips to individuals to use at home.
I have yet to compare this with the Reconstructionist movement’s Sustainable Synagogue program (RavBoaz- chime in?), but on the surface am impressed by the initiative, the range of leaders it draws on and the tachlis approach it takes to affecting chance in the shul.
L’kovod the aseres yamey tshuva, I present two interesting writers who converted from Judaism to Christianity. Let’s put it this way: They had to worry about a whole different kind of Tshuva:
Jacobo Fijman (1898-1970)
Poet and Madman. Born in Bessarabia, Fijman lived and died in Argentina. Spent much of his life in a state mental asylum. Surrealist poet, gnostic and anarchist. A taste:
el camino más alto y más desierto.
Oficio de las máscaras absurdas; pero tan humanas.
Roncan los extravíos;
tosen las muecas
y descargan sus golpes
dilatación vidriosa de los ojos
en el camino más alto y más desierto.
Se erizan los cabellos del espanto.
La mucha luz alaba su inocencia…
Nicolae Steinhardt (1912–1989). Theologian and Memoirist. Underground Favorite. Revered in Romania for his Jurnalul fericirii (The Diary of Happiness; 1991), an account of his journey to orthodox Christianity during the years he spent in Communist prisons. A Taste:
Outside a bakery, an old beggar, small, discreet. I give him 3 or 4 lei. He takes off his hat, respectfully, and thanks me for a long while. Why, I don’t know – the memory of my father, the physical resemblance (small and stooping) – his gesture – so polite, the shame of being saluted by an old man for a few lei, the onslaught of images of prison in my memory, revelatory of the human condition’s wretchedness – but I burst out crying in the middle of the street, like a madman.
My rabbi made a bold move during his d’var Torah on the first day of Rosh Hashanah services this year. After a brief word on Park 51 earlier in the service, in which he condemned the bigoted opposition in the strongest terms I could have imagined, I wasn’t expecting too much more fire and brimstone, especially on Israel-Palestine. And he looked sort of nervous to me – who wouldn’t, facing such a large crowd (this is Rosh Hashanah, mind you, so we’re talking every Jew in town) that was by and large far more conservative than you. Yet he called for an end to the Gaza blockade and asked congregants to write a letter to Netanyahu’s office urging him to fully engage in the peace talks and bring home results. Strong stuff.
Nine years after the attacks of 9/11, I want to stop and think about framing. How we frame conflicts, both in our mind and externally, has a lot to do with more concrete things like foreign policy, or the nature of the domestic discourse on an issue. 9/11 was an attack on the core of Americanism, and not only because of the physical spectacle of the WTC being leveled by a bunch of reclusive angry dudes. It represents the clash of two worldviews – an American constitutionalist perspective in which personal freedom is of the highest importance, and a religious fundamentalist one (which religion it is is completely irrelevant) in which those who think wrong, believe wrong, act wrong, are to be punished by those who know better. It’s disgusting no matter who it comes from.
In that bin Laden most likely knew what the U.S.’ response to 9/11 would be (“We have raced to Afghanistan and Iraq, and more recently to Yemen and Somalia; we have created a swollen national security apparatus; and we are so absorbed in our own fury and so oblivious to our enemy’s intentions that we inflate the building of an Islamic center in Lower Manhattan into a national debate and watch, helpless, while a minister in Florida outrages even our friends in the Islamic world by threatening to burn copies of the Koran,” says Ted Koppel), he made a masterful calculation in goading us into it. But I can’t help but think that he also gave us the greatest opportunity ever to definitively rise above the war-on-terror paradigm. It’s not too late to change course and stop trampling on the mangled remains of the constitutional freedoms (see above links, courtesy of Koppel) bin Laden sought to demonstrate the inferiority of, an effort for which we’ve done far more than he ever could have. This would take a reframing at the national level, something Obama did a bit of in his Cairo speech, but, more importantly, it would also take people of conscience standing up to bigotry at every level. Park 51 is the starkest example we’ve seen so far that this society has yet to move past the paralyzing ethos of American vs. un-American. Or, in simpler terms, a lot of people in this country are still racist.
And so, G()d’s children are still drowning. And until we end the war on terror abroad and the war on Islam at home, and until we, as my rabbi urged, truly walk in the other’s shoes and know their pain as we do our own, the water rises higher. May the memories of the 3000 innocents who died on 9/11, and the thousands more who have died since in Afghanistan, Iraq, Gaza, and more, not be forgotten.
Foxmanides on Twitter begs some consistency from the man purportedly voicing anti-bigotted conscience. Top tweets:
Ceding our perennial demand that Palestinians remove anti-Semitism from their school textbooks. Their anguish entitles them to bigotry.
@BernieMadoff Need a Presidential pardon? DM me your price. Over a mil and we’ll throw in a benefit dinner. Fish or steak?
@OliverStone I want a worldwide telecast w/you on your knees screaming “JEWS HAVE NO POWER” or no dice. And I want you dressed as a chicken.
Oh wait, Israel’s friends with Turkey again? Armenian geno-wha?
The joke’s on Abe because he’s shocked at the blowback. He and his are losing moral authority, especially among the younger folks. I’m sure he has little clue that his reticence against consistently fighting bigotry (instead of selectively) is entrenching the ADL’s reputation as prejudiced by omission if not commission. We would be hard pressed to justify anti-Semitism if it were delivered in a “nuanced” press release trumpeting “sensitivity.” Oh wait, that was just done.
Let us rewrite the ADL’s anti-mosque statement with “the Jewish right to self-determination in their historic homeland” instead of “Islamic center” and “colonization of the Middle East” as “9/11″. Let it culminate as theirs did in the final paragraph: “It’s not about rights, it’s about what is right.” Meaning, the Jews have a right to build their state, but not in the Middle East, where sensitivities are raw. I doubt Foxman would reply to such with nuance.
Regardless, Foxmanides has been unleashed. Even The Onion knows no safety now:
I got back today from Mechon Hadar’s Third Independent Minyan Conference in New York, where I was representing Segulah. The conference included leaders of independent minyanim around the world (including several Jewschoolers), and there’s a lot more to say about it, but for the moment, I’ll just blog on a tangential matter:
Yesterday afternoon, the conference events took place in Kehilat Hadar‘s usual space at the Second Presbyterian Church. During mincha yesterday, we started hearing the church organ from upstairs. At first it was just background noise, but then I listened more carefully and thought “Wait a minute, I’ve heard that before.”
They were playing a Christian hymn called “The God of Abraham Praise”, whose story I had learned about in a class at the 2008 NHC Summer Institute. The melody was written around 1770 for the Hebrew poem “Yigdal” by Myer Lyon (Leoni), hazzan at the Great Synagogue in London. The Methodist preacher Thomas Olivers was inspired by this melody and wrote very different words to it, and centuries later, they’re still playing it in New York. This Yigdal melody continues to be well-known in the Jewish world. (Until I learned its story, I had no idea that it went back so far; I figured it was just one of those shul tunes from the early- to mid-20th century.) Except that Jews tend to sing it much much faster.
Listen below and then imagine it 3 or 4 times faster, and see if you recognize it!
C'mon, the Polish Carpathians are at least as beautiful as the Judean Hills!
The recent Forward article entitled “Why Poland’s Jews Mourn Their President” seems to be answering the elephant-sized question that many have been silently asking themselves: Why are so many Jewish organizations (including March of the Living) and The State of Israel voicing such an outpouring of solidarity and sympathy for Poles in a time of their most terrible loss? Could it be an indication that Jewish communities and organizations are finally looking at the Poles as more than the ambivalent caretakers of their most sacred graveyard? Is it simply a sign that the established Jewish community can reach out their hands even to those they perceive as perpetrators of a most grave crime?
Kaczynski’s politics were not more popular among Poland’s Jewish community of 8,000 than among Poles at large. But the Jews had real reason to mourn a leader who had shown sympathy and support both to them and to the State of Israel, from the day when, soon after winning the 2005 presidential election, he compared himself to Ariel Sharon.
Indeed, there are analogies between the political philosophies of the two. Both were conservative leaders with strong nationalist feelings and were at the helm of countries they considered threatened by neighbors. (Kaczynski took a dim view not only of the past, but also of the present policies of Germany and Russia.) Both were impatient with what they considered liberal indifference to their respective national traditions and values. And both strongly believed in the fundamental role of the state as the nation’s most valuable institution. Both tended to look at what they believed history’s judgment would be, rather than at public opinion polls.
Kaczynski was far from being the only conservative European politician in power today. Yet it would be difficult to imagine any other European leader comparing himself to Sharon; the public-opinion fallout would be devastating. But Kaczynski had no such qualms. To him, the Israeli prime minister was an inspiration, and Israel a friendly state. Much of Polish public opinion tended to agree with him. No criticism followed his Sharon remarks.
That’s right, a top Polish politician was into THE BULLDOZER. In this intricate web of official condolence calls and mixed feelings, Gebert articulates too well that the contemporary Polish-Jewish relationship can be understood through the perceived political affinities between two right-wing nationalists who became intensely unpopular during their lifetimes. It goes to show that as Jewish cultural revival continues throughout the Polish lands, the elite descendants of Polish Jewry living in America and Israel largely see their relationship to Poland through a Zionist, not Ashkenazi, lens. This seems to imply that, at least on an official level, the development of Polish-Jewish reconciliation has largely been achieved through the work of politicians, not through the work of grassroots activists who spend so much time investing in a future for Jewish culture and memory in Poland. I never would have thought that March of the Living, an organization that has been repeatedly criticized for portraying Poland as a bloody, smoldering launching pad for the Zionist future, would require a moment of silence for victims of the crash as it toured its participants through Auschwitz. Do our leaders really feel sympathy for the Poles, or are we just trying to maintain alliances in a Europe increasingly critical of Israeli policy? A mixture of both?
His (Kaczynski’s) Jewish sympathies earned him the scorn of antisemitic extremists, who accused him of being Jewish himself (his “true” name supposedly was Kalkstein); somehow, his brother escaped being thus tainted. Rydzyk brutally attacked the Polish president during a lecture in 2007, accusing him of giving in to Jews, both by allocating land for the museum and supposedly ignoring the alleged threat of Jewish reparation demands. In contrast with his brother, Lech Kaczynski never granted the fundamentalist station an interview. But he had to pay the price for tolerating Jarosław’s alliances. At the funeral last year of Marek Edelman, deputy commander of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and a hero to the president, Kaczynski stood in silence and alone: The family refused him the right to speak, as Edelman had bitterly criticized the twin brothers’ policies…
…Alive, Kaczynski was a divisive and increasingly unpopular figure because of his authoritarian views, with approval ratings recently as low as 32%. But his tragic death has transformed him into a national icon, with all of Poland united in mourning. Polish Jews shared that pain with all other Polish citizens: A memorial service held in Warsaw’s only synagogue was packed full the day after the plane crash.
I imagine that Tefillin Barbie and Episcopal Priest Barbie have all sorts of great conversations about various interfaith issues. It wouldn’t surprise me if they also commiserated on how annoying it is, as women of faith, to feel like they have to maintain that polite smile all the time.