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Judaism's Not For Sale

New Voices‘ Hasdai Westbrook writes on the trials of selling one’s soul in the Jewish communal world:

Jews don’t run the media, at least not all of it. And young Jews run none of it. Except here… But that freedom comes at a price, literally. Paper and ink cost money. A few months into the job, I realized that our mission rested on something of a contradiction: providing something very expensive free of charge. Then again, I thought at the time, who wouldn’t want to fund our efforts—who wouldn’t be eager to give young Jews the chance to express their ideas and opinions?
[…] It was when I first heard the words “continuity” and “engagement” coming from my mouth that I realized something was up. I would never have used those words if it was just me speaking. Granted, I was sitting across the table from a potential funder and it had become clear by then that these were the terms potential funders wanted to hear—sound bytes of jargon repeated so often in Jewish fundraising circles they’d become like shibboleths. But they weren’t what I wanted to say.

He goes on to challenge Michael Steinhardt’s not-so-subtly-named Jewish Life Network for attempting to sell Judaism with the same techniques as marketing soap. Really.

13 thoughts on “Judaism's Not For Sale

  1. In a typical “screed,” a song of martyrdom, Hasdai paints a rosey picture of what has been New Voices, and blames the world for his failures. “A place for young people to say and do whatever they want”? Please. I know from personal experience that, if you did not toe Hasdai’s line, your voice wouldn’t be included.
    I will write more on this on my website.

  2. First of all, fix the link to Hasdai’s article.
    Hasdai notes that:
    “There’s nothing wrong with more Jewish babies. Or with reaching out to as many Jews as possible. But being Jewish can’t just be about making sure there are more Jews. There has to be more to this than just keeping the mohels in business.”
    True dat. The problem with the organized Jewish community is that continuity for them means another generation of, well, them – basically people who identify as Jews, but whose Jewish Identity revolves almost exclusively around things like the holocaust and anti-semitism (perpetual Jewish victimhood), over done Christmaslike celebrations of Chanukah and an appreciation for Jewish food. They want to perpetuate Judaism-lite, all the saccharine, none of the calories. But in a context like that, Jewish identity becomes a sort of funny little hobby, bereft of any real-world substance. Just as junior is hardly expected to have the same passion for model railroads that Dad has, so too is it unlikely that the spawn of the practitioners of Judaism lite will share their parents’ nostalgic ties to Judaism.
    I remember Alan Dershowitz talking about the need for Jewish secular continuity. He mentioned how he enjoyed reading the Talmud on long flights and a number of quaint little things he did that were his personal manifestations of his Jewish identity. He was saddenned that his interests did not pass on to his son, who not having the benefit of a Jewish day school education (that his father had), or of growing up in a household where Judaism was a concrete and daily thing, decided that this Judaism lite was not so important to him. Alan Dershowitz’s son married a non Jewish woman who refused to convert. And I don’t blame him. Why should he sacrifice the love of his life on the altar of this watered down identity?
    Dershowitz noted that continuity was not a problem for the orthodox. They had a solution, basically Judaism with substance. He was hoping that the more secular Jewish world would come up with its own solutions as well. Since then we’ve seen all sorts of initiatives, like birthright israel etc., where the organized Jewish community is trying to replace the substance of Judaism with marketing hooplah. I get the feeling its not going to work though.
    Having said all that, yes Judaism is in part about keeping the mohels in business. The mohels, and the synagogues and the community centers and kosher butchers, and the mikvehs and the kippah makers etc. etc. Judaism, is in great part about the maintenance of community and community institutions. One can’t really be a complete Jew living alone in a forest in Montana. So continuity is part of the solution of course. But its not the entire solution though. Props to Steinhardt for realizing that when he recently proposed a $100 million initiative in Jewish education. Our monied and self appointed leaders are often clueless and self serving but I’d like to think there’s hope for them….

  3. A question that should be asked is whether this Judaism should be propogated or just shut down completely. Personally, I would advocate shutting down the Judaism-lite machine. But if people want to pay for something that they find meaningful, why not? As long as I don’t have to foot the bill.

  4. I see “secular Judaism” as a continuing offshoot of the Emancipation of 1791, and the european Enlightenment. As Eugene Borowitz has pointed out, it wasn’t the Holocaust that killed the faith of many Jews in God — you can go all the way back to the Kishinev pogrom and find european Jews responding to tragedy in completely secular ways. The thing is, I don’t think Reason, Human Rights, and the Nation-State (the gods of Enlightenment Europe) have what it takes to replace God, the actual God who created the world and gave us the Torah. We’ll see how things work out, I guess, but I think the proliferation of annoying “New Age” adherents in America points to a subterranean realization of this, and I predict that the current wave of young Jewish “identity experimentation” is going to wind up in synagogue.

  5. I want to Amen ck_dave’s response. G-d forbid people be reached by glossy marketing.
    I lived in an abyss of Judaism ultra-lite until I stumbled upon a Jewish community that inspired me to look deeper into my roots, education and lifestyle. It didn’t happen through marketing but it could have.
    Who are we to belittle the efforts of monied fervent outreach foundations? We don’t want to show people the beauty of Judaism?
    My job title at Camp Tawonga is marketing and outreach director. I am constantly defending this title to people who are too cool for Judaism lite. You know what, it’s fine with me. I get to find people who don’t know what they’re missing, and show them. I get to see the light come on, every now and then, in someone’s eyes. If it starts with a movie night or a funny tee shirt, so be it.

  6. Amen Sara! I have as a client an extremely secular birthright israel trip provider. We do their Web site, printed material etc. etc. In that respect I use every angle I can to get attention as their client base is primarily unaffiliated. I also function as a madrich and so I take these kids to Israel and show them around. This despite the fact that I have been a fairly vocal critic of birthright israel, considering it yet another manifestation of Judaism lite.
    But I keep in touch with the kids. Many of them have been really affected by the 10 day trip and some are returning to Israel to do volunteer work, others have become more active on Campus with Jewish stuff, some have even (gasp!) gone to a synagogue!!
    So, how can I knock that? I don’t have the heart …

  7. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. There are plenty of “secular” Jewish continuity programs which are not “lite.” Many of these, including cultural and arts programs, enrich the lives of Jews from across the spectrum, and provide us with an opportunity to come together as a people. I may find spiritual and even social/communalfulfillment by going to a shul, but why write off programs that appeal to 2/3 of American Jewry just because they seek something more than a religious experience?
    The issue Hasdai brings up is one of generational identity. For many in the Funding generation, continuity means continuing the status quo. For most of the young upstarts trying to forge expressions of Jewish identity and institutions relevant to their peers, along with a small minority of funders, continuity means how American Jewish culture EVOLVE to meet the diversity and breadth of an identity that is still changing for many but stays traditional for many others. Slick marketing only helps if the program is worthwhile. Otherwise, like soap, the program should get discontinued for ineffectiveness. The real problem is that these funders most often aren’t really listening to what’s effective, so funds are misdirected and inefficiently used.

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