Memo to United Synagogue: Learn a little English

Thumbs up to the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism for their Project Reconnect, which seeks “to reinvolve, reinvigorate, and reconnect the very many Jewish adults who were touched by the Conservative movement’s programs for teenagers, college students and young adults.”
And a double thumbs up for its Come Home for the Holidays initiative, which offers free High Holiday tickets to young adults who grew up in the Conservative movement. It’s great to see Conservative Judaism taking outreach seriously.
But a thumbs down for their gratuitous use of Hebrew jargon.

Conservative kehillot from all across the world are offering Free High Holiday Tickets and/or Home Hospitality to alumni of conservative movement programs!
Click here to find a participating kehillah near you. Don’t forget to check the list often, more kehillot sign up every day.

That’s Hebrew for communities.
If you’ve been paying attention to the ins-and-outs of the United Synagogue recently — and why would you? — you’ll recall that the United Synagogue, the umbrella group for Conservative congregations, felt they had to respond to the challenge of “indie minyanim,” where young adults gather to worship without a building fund or rabbi, by offering to serve minyans as well as congregations.
It’s not at all clear that any of these minyans — many of which are attended and led by graduates of the Conservative movements schools and camps — have volunteered to hook up with the United Synagogue and start paying due. But on the off chance that they might, the United Synagogue decided that it would on longer deal with “congregations,” but rather the perhaps-more-inclusive Hebrew term kehilot.
Look: I love the Hebrew language as much as the next guy, if the next guy has tapes of Hebrew versions of Bob Dylan and Tom Lehrer in his car. But if you want to draw people into the synagogue, you need to remember: Hebrew is an obstacle. It’s bad enough that services are in a foreign language; does your web site have to be too?
It’s not like kehilah and kehiloth are words used in general conversation, like the colloquial Yiddish “shul.” It’s hard to think of a context in a Solomon Schechter day school or a Camp Ramah where one might want to teach the word “kehillah.” But if a teacher wanted to teach that particular word, they could, ; part of the fun of Jewish education is that you have a temporarily captive audience who has to temporarily memorize the words you quiz them on.
Outreach workers don’t have that luxury. They’re marketers. They have to bring people in to Judaism, and that means meeting them as much as possible where they are. Aish Hatorah and Chabad understand that. It’s too bad that Conservative Judaism still doesn’t.
p.s. Anyone looking to Google to understand the phrase will find education but not immediate enlightenment on Wikipedia:

Kehilla (Hebrew: קהילה) may refer to

  • Qahal, a theocratic organisational structure in ancient Israelite society, and a quasi-governmental authority in Jewish communities of the Middle Ages.
  • Kehilla (modern) (pl. Kehillot), the elected local communal (secular as well as religious) Jewish structure in Central and Eastern Europe (Poland’s Second Republic, the Baltic States, Ukrainian People’s Republic) during the interwar period (1918–1940)
  • Community in general (one possible translation – among many – of kehilla is community)

12 thoughts on “Memo to United Synagogue: Learn a little English

  1. I’m not big on commenting, but I have to say that I totally disagree with you. First off, if you’re visiting the USCJ website, you’re probably not someone who needs “drawing in” to a synagogue. The terms shul and kehillah are equally difficult jargon, and a movement that has decidedly embraced modern Hebrew vs. Yiddish or Ashkenazic terms, USCJ should definitely be using Hebrew words.
    As a product of day schools, USY, and Camp Ramah, the word kehillah was used repeatedly as it refers to all types of community, not simply a religious community or structure (like the word shul). Have you even attended Ramah or Schechter, or are you simply guessing that Conservative institutions don’t teach Hebrew?
    And as for ‘outreach,’ the misleading tactics of Chabad or Aish are more brainwashing and proselytizing than simple outreach.
    Conservative Judaism may have its fair share of issues, but I really don’t think using Hebrew is one of them.

  2. Project Reconnect and facilitating free high holiday tickets has been around for a while. I have email references to it going back to 2006 and I’m pretty sure it’s a good bit older than that. They could obviously do a better job promoting its existence.
    The use of “kehilot” goes straight back to the USCJ strategic plan from last Spring. They’re even planning to change the “USCJ” name in some unspecified way. I gave my opinion of “kehilot” at:
    It’s much easier to change a word than actually make changes to welcome non-synagogue communities into the fold.
    Considering the number of Jewish organizations with transliterated Hebrew names, that alone doesn’t bother me, but, in their context, “kehilot” seems so close in meaning to “communities” as to be pointless.

  3. Yet another ‘snarky’ comment from Jew School. You make yourself look childish when you nitpick. There is plenty to comment on in the Jewish world that really matters rather than the use of vocabulary.
    Also, have you thought that USCJ might be trying to change the mindset of their current member congregations by using the word ‘kehillah’ rather than trying to lure away indi-minyan Jews?

  4. בס”ד
    Dear Reb Yudel
    As a fellow lover of the Hebrew language, and as a former student of Tom Lehrer (I took a class from him at UC Santa Cruz), I’d love to find out where you found Hebrew versions of Lehrer!
    Please let me know!

  5. @Dave,
    USCJ is quite clear about its reasoning behind “kehilla.” Here’s the quote from their recently approved strategic plan:
    “The change in language from “synagogue” or “congregation” to “kehilla” is more than semantic. It reflects two concepts: First, it focuses on the raison d’être of a congregation or synagogue, i.e., that it is a sacred community. Second, it signals a welcome to those kehillot that are not formal synagogues – such as chavurot and independent minyanim.”
    This is about trying to convince indy minyanim to affiliate. While I don’t like nitpicking over words, when an organization spends tens of thousands of dollars and uncountable volunteer & professional hours to create a strategic plan and one of the most definitive decisions was to start referring to communities as “kehillot” rather than “synagogues,” it’s worth some discussion.

  6. I hear what you’re saying, Hebrew is a very real obstacle for people. But if the leaders of the movement do not use the language of the tradition, how can we expect those who are not familiar to learn those terms?

  7. I spent 8 years at Solomon Schechter, a bunch in USY, and many years at Ramah.
    No one ever said Kehillah with any kind of regularity, and I am confident that the vast majority of the students and campers that I worked with would be put off by the use of this language.

  8. @BD,
    I think it’s a generational thing… It has been gaining more traction in recent years than in the past.
    The idea is that Conservative synagogues have/should evolve(d) beyond b’tei knesset (Houses of Congregating) and are emerging as something much more. Toward that end, the movement has decided to use the term kehilot because it denotes that it is something more than a run-of-the-mill shul. whether it’s an accurate depiction or wishful thinking is yet to be seen; and whether it will stick in the long run is also yet to be seen.

  9. @ploni: I managed to tape a Hebrew version of National Brotherhood Week of Israeli radio many years ago. One of these days I hope to get it digitized, uploaded to YouTube , and posted to JewSchool.

  10. Reb Yudel, that would be a significant service to the internet community. The world needs that recording 🙂

  11. I have to agree that the term is offputting. Yes, I think theoretically we should be using Hebrew terms when we can.. but this seems forced and confusing.
    As for the term “sacred community” that we are now using (in English), I think this was a bad move as well. While sacred community theoretically says that we hold our communal bonds as something sacred… to me, it connotes a more formal and untouchable community. Sacred is… well, sacred…up on a pedestal, not to be touched. We should be thinking of our congregations as “families.” Our synagogue Family.
    I think the movement thinks academically and not practically. They miss the point again and again.

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