Thursday, October 25, 2007

Jewish Community Deathmatch: The rebbe, the king, and the scholar

On Thursday October 18, 2007, NYU’s Bronfman Center hosted “Orthodox Paradox: A Debate on Jewish Values,” a panel presentation featuring Shmuley Boteach, Michael Steinhardt, and Noah Feldman, three controversial men with profoundly different conceptions of what Jewish values are and why they matter.

Before diving into the debate myself (don’t worry, you’re getting more than just a summary here), here’s some biographical information about each of the panelists:

Shmuley Boteach (the rebbe) is an Orthodox rabbi, educator, and author who considers himself “America’s Rabbi.” Host of the television show “Shalom in the Home,” on TLC Shmuley is the founder of the Jewish Values Network, a television network created to share Jewish values with the world.

Michael Steinhardt (the king, he has referred to himself jokingly as David HaMelech) is one of the most-well known Jewish philanthropists, having donated over $125 million to Jewish causes. Steinhardt was instrumental in creating Birthright Israel and the Jewish Campus Service Corps, as well as The Makor/Steinhardt 92nd Street Y. Steinhardt’s philanthropy is directed through The Jewish Life Network, his foundation, and focuses on “major projects that revitalize American Jewish life.”

Noah Feldman (the scholar) is a Rhodes scholar, author and Professor of Law at Harvard University. He helped to draft the first Iraq constitution, and much of his work focuses on the intersection of religion and politics. In the summer of 2007, Feldman published a controversial article in the New York Times called “Orthodox Paradox” in which he provided a scathing critique of the Modern Orthodoxy community in Boston in claiming that he and his non-Jewish wife were intentionally removed from a photo of Maimonides alumni.

Returning to the event, Rabbi Sarna introduced the panelists and each panelist was allowed ten minutes to speak about Jewish values.

Boteach spoke first, and his main point was that Jewish tradition has influenced many of today’s values, but that Jews haven’t fully claimed their tradition. He founded the Jewish Values Network, a Jewish television network as a means to spread Jewish values through modern means. Boteach believes that Jewish values are the key to saving the world and saving the Jewish community.

Boteach specifically presented seven values that he believes prove that Jews are different and have a unique view of the world. The values form an acronym, Dreams:

D= destiny. Jews are unique in their belief that mankind can be perfected and in our vision of messianism.
R = redemption. The Jewish vision of community redemption and our emphasis on community values over individual ones makes Jews different.
E and A weren’t defined because Boteach ran over his allotted time.
M= Marriage. Marriage as a positive force in tempering male energy with domesticity.
S = Struggle. Jews believe that life isn’t easy, and that people aren’t perfect. We believe in the struggle to improve the world and ourselves.

Steinhardt spoke second. He explained that he has dedicated his life to improving the Jewish future, with a focus on the non-Orthodox diaspora. He is committed to asking the questions, “Why be Jewish? Why are Jews special?”

He presented five possible theories for why Jews have been called “special.”
1) Jews are the chosen people, and thus are special.
2) Social Darwinism: Jews have survived tough odds throughout history and prevailed, so we must be great.
3) High IQs: there’s some research that suggests that Ashkenazi Jews have high IQs relative to other populations
4) Genetics
5) Jewish Values

To Steinhardt, Jewish values are the primary reason that Jews are special and have succeeded through the years. His other challenge has been to figure out the set of values that are particularly Jewish. He clarified that being particularly Jewish doesn’t mean that they are uniquely Jewish values, but that they are values that Jews have in greater magnitude than other communities. Steinhardt’s list of six key Jewish values is as follows:

1) Education and Learning
2) Tzedaka, the obligation to help
3) Focus on the Here and Now, as opposed to on the afterlife.
4) Our commitment to the Jewish community; we care more for the Jewish community than other communities care about theirs
5) Jews have “outsider values,” and are able to understand other outsiders
6) Belief in individual meritocracy. We only do well in meritocratic societies, and have chosen them

Now moving on to Feldman, who began his comments with responses to Boteach and Steinhardt. Feldman agreed with Boteach that Jewish values inform the Western world, but he pointed out that it was Christianity and Islam (and NOT Judaism) that spread these ideas and gave them popularity, not Judaism. Additionally, it is the values themselves that are good not their reach or spread.

Feldman then turned to Steinhardt’s words. He rejected Steinhardt’s list of Jewish values on the basis that they can be applied to any community. Using education as an example, he pointed out that WASPs founded most American higher educational institutions, and that education could be a core value for them. Secondly, he rejected Steinhardt’s implication that Jewish values are important because they allow Jews to succeed. Jewish values should be spread because they’re good values in and of themselves. If we think they are useless, we shouldn’t perpetuate them for the sake of perpetuation.

Finally, Feldman rejected both panelists reduction of torah to a set of values. According to Feldman torah study will lead Jews to find inspiring revelations and meaningless words. Dealing with the conflict between the meaningful and less so in Judaism IS the Jewish value.

Boteach’s comments struck me as strange for a number of reasons. First, I’m very uncomfortable with the idea of “spreading” Jewish values, as it seems to border on proselytizing. Sharing Jewish ideas with the world is a great thing, but to assume that all people will find them meaningful is naïve. Additionally, many of the values in Boteach’s “DREAMS” appear in different forms in other religious traditions. As such, it is inaccurate for Boteach to assume that non-Jews don’t have access to these values their own way. Finally, the “M” = marriage point and his explanation of it is dated and irrelevant. I agree that loving lifelong partnerships are a good thing, but to assume that they always involve men and women is hetero-normative, and that men’s “energy” needs to be tamed by “domestic-minded” women is anti-feminist.

I appreciated Steinhardt’s liberalism in contrast to Boteach, but his comments were also problematic. First, Steinhardt defines Jewish values based on their prevalence, but this makes no sense given his recognition that most Jews are not connected to Judaism. If Jewish values are defined by prevalence, and Jews are not connected to Judaism, does that mean we should conclude that eating bagels and watching Seinfeld are Jewish values?

Secondly, Steinhardt’s assumption that Jews care more about the Jewish community than other communities do about theirs is unfair. I suspect that his evidence for this point is the complex communal structure American Jews have created, but different ethnic/religious communities have different needs and histories, resulting in unique communal structures. It is also important to note that some minority communities are in the process of emulating the American Jewish Federation system, the Indian-American community in particular.

Finally, Steinhardt’s point about meritocratic societies is complicated. Is he trying to dig at Israeli society or is he just being narrowly America-focused? What do you think?

Feldman’s criticism was eloquent, rational, and well thought. I appreciated that his comments echoed the ideas of Douglas Rushkoff in Nothing Sacred, in which Rushkoff argues that Judaism should only be perpetuated if it is meaningful.

Returning to the panel, for the second part, Rabbi Sarna posed targeted questions to each of the panelists. (Some of the questions led into a conversation about Feldman’s article, and since my interest in this event is the conversation on Jewish values, I will be omitting those parts.) Again, Sarna started with Boteach, and asked him whether using media to promote Jewish values compromises those values.

Boteach replied that not only does it not, but it inspires pride, and pride inspires practice. A key point, “The spread of Jewish values will make Judaism seem like less of a fossil”

At this point, Steinhardt chimed in fervently with the following points:
• Religious Jews act like it’s the 16th century
• 12 million of the 14 million Jews today aren’t Orthodox, and of the 12 million most have little interest in torah.
• He sees a trend away from religious practice.

Noting that his conception of Jewish values is radically different than Boteach’s, Steinhardt expressed the desire for a resonant Judaism and Shabbat experience. A key quote, “How can we have a rabbinic profession that walks into empty synagogues that don’t educate liberal Jews and talk torah, when the goal is creating a Jewish future that will bring the ‘lost’ 12 million back?”

Now again, if I were to insert myself into the debate here, here’s what I’d add:

To Boteach: You really don’t give young adults enough credit. Surely there are some who reject Judaism because it is a “fossil” but there are also many who are specifically interested in Judaism because of its old appeal. For instance, look at the revival in Yiddish study and Klezmer. Also, your comments imply that young adults will only find value in Judaism if it is “cool.” We’re a lot more thoughtful than you think.

To Steinhardt: I agree that there are many people who are losing interest in Judaism and traditional conceptions of Jewish practice, but are you asking us to refashion Jewish ritual practice or create a new religion?

Secondly, Isn’t the United States in a religious revival? Even if we put the spread of evangelism aside, conversations about religion and the public sphere are prevalent. The Reform movement is seriously examining the role of ritual practice in Jewish life, since congregants and participants are seeking more connection with ritual.

Then, Sarna asked Feldman to discuss the intersection of the courts and religion. I am omitting this conversation because it devolved into an attack on Feldman and his article. If this is what you’d like to hear about google “Debate on Jewish Values” and read about it there.

After Feldman, Sarna moved on to Steinhardt, and he asked him if in-marriage is on his list of values, given his frequency to call for “more Jewish babies.”

Steinhardt explained that in his vision of the Jewish future, conversion would be reformed to be more of an acceptance of Jewish values, than what it is now, a foreign irrelevant, uncomfortable ritual. Even an anachronism.

At the end of the event, the audience was allowed to ask questions to the panelists.

The first question, directed to Steinhardt, asked him if he thinks his set of Jewish values are enough to get Jews to stay.

Steinhardt became defensive in response to this question, when he explained that his values list was not created to be a sales technique, they are a list of what makes us Jewish and unique. They are values that can be measured quantifiably.

He then goes on to say that if we were to sell Judaism we’d need to change the Jewish calendar, for example, we need to stop memorializing the destruction of the temple when we don’t memorialize the Holocaust. We also need to modernize conversion procedures.

Steinhardt’s factual inaccuracies are glaring. The Jewish calendar does memorialize the destruction of the temple (Tisha B’Av), but there is also Holocaust Remembrance Day, and a growing holocaust memorialization and education movement, through Holocaust museums and curricula like Facing History and Ourselves.

Additionally, I’m not sure what to make of his enthusiasm for the abandonment of Jewish tradition. On the one hand, I appreciate his blunt critique of the Jewish community’s approach to conversion and engagement, but at the same time he seems too willing to abandon Jewish traditions for the sake of engagement. If we take his approach and engage Jews, but then refashion Jewish tradition what are we connecting people to?

What do you think? Should we spread our values? Should we create new ones? Who won, the rebbe, the king, or the scholar? or is it our job to dive in and win?

Friday, August 17, 2007

Peace, Salaam, Shalom

I am proud to announce that I am officially a member of the “National Havurah Committee Institute” fan club. After three years of hearing friends of mine wax poetic about the Institute I decided that “this was the summer” to go.

The theme of this year’s institute was V'rav sh'lom banayich – "Great shall be the peace of thy children" - from Isaiah 54:13. The Institute was held at Franklin Pierce College in Rindge, New Hampshire, a small liberal arts college with a great view of Mount Monadnock and a gorgeous lake for boating and swimming. This was a great site for an intensive experience like the NHC Institute, because I was able to feel “very away” and there were lots of nooks for escaping to read a book, sit by the lake, have a conversation, or relax in the sun.

Each institute participant signs up for two courses, which take place on the Tuesday-Friday of the Institute, and the rest of the daytime schedule is filled with workshops and prayer. My morning course was titled “Us and Them: Four Texts, Multiple Interpretations” and was taught by Alicia Ostriker, a wonderful poet, teacher, mentor, and now friend of mine. Each day the class studied a different bible story to examine how the characters handled difference and conflict. We then wrote midrash (interpretive responses) about the texts we studied: Sarah/Hagar, Samson, Ruth/Naomi, and Jonah. In my afternoon class, “Textual Ethics for a New Era: Constructing a Practice Sexual Ethic from Traditional Wisdom,” I and my classmates wrestled with Talmudic texts on business ethics as a guide for our sexual behavior. For workshops, I taught one on grassroots fundraising to a room of seven people (largest yet, yay!), and participated in a wonderful workshop on Talmud and the Vagina Monologues, where we studied the monologue “The Flood” next to Talmudic texts on Niddah (Ritual Purity). Workshops took place everyday twice a day, but I found that this was also good time to regroup, have conversations with new friends, and explore the campus.

In addition to workshops and classes, the Institute offers evening programs and many prayer options. The prayer services I participated in were all creative, but one critique I have was that at times I did not find the prayer offerings or service leaders as inclusive as I would have liked. For instance, there were “non-prayer” options and “learner’s services,” but as far as I know I did not find any services which used English or offered prayer options for people with less Hebrew and/or Judaic knowledge, or those who prefer a more traditionally Reform-style service (for lack of a better way to explain it). At the Cathedral on the Pines service, which was a community-wide shaharit (morning) service, I had a difficult prayer experience in which I felt rushed, a little controlled, and offended that the terms the service leader was using when asking for communal participation were not explained (terms like gabbi for instance). I want to emphasize that my personal ability to participate was not hampered by the use of insider language or these methods, but I found myself reflecting on the fact that there are Jews out there who would love the NHC community, who may not have enough knowledge to feel like they can fully participate. I had a much more positive experience with the communal-wide Kabbalat Shabbat (Welcoming Shabbat) service, in which I felt the leaders did an excellent job of ensuring that everyone could follow along.

An additionally important part of my Institute experience this year was the Everett Fellows Program, a program created to engage post-college adults in community-building and Jewish life through participation in the NHC Institute. As a first-time attendee of the Institute it was great to be a part of a smaller group, and I also very much appreciated being matched with a mentor (mine was Alicia Ostriker, mentioned above).

I found in reflecting on my experience at the Institute that the parts that I enjoyed the most were the connections I made with members of the NHC community and the new things that I learned. With my fellow young adults, I discussed the strategies we each use to ensure the strength and sustainability of our respective religious and non-religious meaningful communities. I learned some dirty sign language, rocked out on the guitar to folk tunes and old pop, and discussed my thoughts about my career as a Jewish communal professional with participants of all ages. I learned that I like life much better when there is less television and more time to reflect, when I am reading and writing, and when I am surrounded by thoughtful people. I learned that I love writing midrash and davening (praying) with a kippah (head covering), and have very strong opinions about how I like to pray. Additionally, I learned that the issue of kosher wine is extremely complicated, that I can only handle a limited amount of tofu (the food was vegetarian all week), and that fast food can actually be enjoyable on rare occasions. My biggest takeaway, however, is that the philosophy of “Just Jew It,” of taking individual responsibility for creating personally meaningful Jewish life is alive and well. I am honored to be a part of it.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Tisha B'Ambivalence

The evening of July 23 marks the beginning of Tisha B'Av (the 9th of Av), the day in which Jews around the world commemorate a series of tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people on the 9th of Av, most notably the destruction of the First and Second Temples and the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. In observance of Tisha B'Av Jews around the world fast, and refrain from working, bathing or studying Torah, as well as other practices which are similar to those observed on Yom Kippur.

While Jewish tradition encourages us to remember the tragedies of our people even at times of joy (think breaking a glass at a wedding), I have a hard time with Tisha B'Av (and Yom Hashoa, but less so). I want to celebrate the vibrancy of Jewish life rather than mourn the events which unintentionally lead to its creation.

I recently read a book called In Every Tongue: The Racial and Ethnic Diversity of the Jewish People, written by Diane Tobin, Gary Tobin and Scott Rubin of the Institute of Jewish and Community Research, a Jewish think tank in San Francisco. The book is a primer for the Jewish community on how to better include Jews of Color, multiracial/multiethnic Jews, and non-Ashkenazi Jews and in one chapter entitled "Jews Have Always Been Diverse" the authors provide short accounts of the Jewish communities throughout the world. The fact that there are Jewish communities in China, India, and Ghana, and that there new synagogues being built in Nigeria speaks to the power of Jewish tradition to inspire, and to our ability to adapt to the needs to local communities. This diversity and adaptability is something to be celebrated, not mourned, and though it is strange to say so, this diversity would not have been possible if the Temple(s) were still around.

This diversity is also evident in the multitude of opportunities for Jewish expression and community in the United States. There are Jewish environmental institutes, summer arts camps, and weekends of Jewish learning; film festivals, yeshivot, and indy minyanim; blogs, social justice organizations, and social clubs. The list goes on and grows longer each day, and the more I learn about it the more I am inspired. The creation of multiple pathways to Judaism is what will keep the Jewish community strong, and this too would not be possible were our history different.

So, starting this year, I will adopt a new tradition in commemoration of Tisha B'Av. I will make a list of all the ways that Judaism has enriched my life and give thanks for the opportunity to live in a time and place where so much Jewish richness exists: Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheynu Melekh Ha-olam sheheheyanu vikiamanu vihigianu lazman hazeh. Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, who kept us alive and preserved us and enabled us to reach this season. I am truly grateful.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

50 Best Rabbis?

This week Newsweek magazine put out a list of the 50 "Best Rabbis." Drum roll please...

50 Best Rabbis

1. Marvin Hier (Orthodox)
Hier is one phone call away from almost every world leader, journalist and Hollywood studio head. He is the dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the Museum of Tolerance and Moriah Films.

2. Yehuda Krinsky (Lubavitch)
Krinsky has truly built a shul on every corner and brought the Chabad movement mainstream prominence. He is the leader of Chabad and its CEO.

3. Uri D. Herscher (Reform)
Herscher has built arguably America’s most culturally relevant Jewish institution and his passion has already touched hundreds of thousands of Jews and non-Jews of all ages. He is the founding president and CEO of the Skirball Cultural Center.

4. Yehuda Berg (Orthodox)
Berg has made wearing the red string a popular phenomena in America and around the world and turned on everyone from Madonna to club-hopping young Jews to the power of the Kabbalah. He is an author and spiritual adviser at the Kabbalah Centre.
5. Harold Kushner (Conservative)
Kushner has written nine inspirational books including the international best seller that helped millions grapple with "When Bad Things Happen to Good People." He is one of America’s truly gifted speakers and teachers.

6. David Ellenson (Reform)
Ellenson is a trailblazer committed to bringing this generation’s Reform Jewish rabbis and teachers closer to traditional Judaism. He is the president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

7. Robert Wexler (Conservative)
Wexler has re-envisioned Jewish education and created the largest Jewish continuing-education program in America while building a premier rabbinical school and liberal arts college. He is the president of the University of Judaism.

8. Irwin Kula (Conservative)
Kula is committed to “taking Jewish public” and reshaping America’s spiritual landscape. He is the copresident of CLAL, a public television host and the author of "Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life."

9. Shmuley Boteach (Orthodox)
Boteach has been called “the most famous rabbi in America” and his 17 books, TLC television series and celebrity friends help make that case. His book "Kosher Sex " introduced this Hasidic rabbi as a cultural phenomenon.

10. M. Bruce Lustig (Reform)
Each year on Yom Kippur, Lustig has an audience that even the president of the United States would envy. He is the rabbi of Washington Hebrew Congregation, the largest congregation in Washington, D.C.

11.Peter J. Rubinstein (Reform)
Rubinstein is the spiritual leader of New York’s Central Synagogue.

12. Eric Yoffie (Reform)
Yoffie is the president of the Union of Reform Judaism.

13. Harold M. Schulweis (Conservative)
Schulweis is considered the leading Conservative rabbi of his generation.

14. Saul J. Berman (Orthodox)
Berman is considered one of the most forward thinking Jewish scholars of his generation.

15. Zalman Teitelbaum (Hasidim)
Teitelbaum is the new leader of the Satmar Hasidic community in Williamsburg.

16. David Saperstein (Reform)
Saperstein is the director of the Religious Action Center and a leading Washington lobbyist.

17. J. Rolando Matalon (Conservative)
Matalon is the spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun.

18. David Wolpe (Conservative)
Wolpe is now considered one of the most dynamic pulpit rabbis in America (also an author).

19. Sharon Kleinbaum (Reform)
Kleinbaum is the senior rabbi of the world’s largest synagogue for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Jews.

20. Dan Ehrenkrantz (Reconstructionist)
Ehrenkrantz is the president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.

21. Joseph Telushkin (Orthodox)
Telushkin is a best-selling author and speaker.

22. Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (Renewal)
Schacter-Shalomi founded the Jewish renewal movement in America.

23. David M. Posner (Reform)
Posner is the spiritual leader for New York’s Temple Emanuel, the largest congregation in America.

24. Ephraim Buchwald (Orthodox)
Buchwald is the founder of the National Jewish Outreach Program.

25. Avraham Weiss (Orthodox)
Weiss is known as the Orthodox’s leading activist and leader of the Modern Orthodox community.

26. Irving Greenberg (Orthodox)
Greenberg is the president of Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation and the founder of CLAL.

27. Kerry M. Olitzky (Reform)
Olitzky is one of the leading rabbinical advocates for outreach to interfaith and unaffiliated families in America.

28. Michael Lerner (Reform)
Lerner is the editor of Tikkun and a leading progressive political activist.

29. Abraham Cooper (Orthodox)
Cooper is the associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

30. Elliot Dorff (Conservative)
Dorff is the leader of the top lawmaking body in Conservative Judaism.

31. Marc Gellman (Reform)
Gellman is an author and television personality.

32. Rachel B. Cowan (Reform)
Cowan is the director of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality.

33. Marc Schneier (Orthodox)
Schneier is the president and founder of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding and Chairman of the World Jewish Congress.

34. Janet Marder (Reform)
Marder is the first woman to ever head the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

35. Arthur Waskow (Renewal)
Controversial activist, author and founder of the Shalom Center.

36. Nachum Braverman (Orthodox)
Braverman is Aish Hatorah’s leading American leader.

37. Bradley Hirschfield (Orthodox)
Hirschfeld is the copresident of CLAL and an outspoken proponent of interfaith dialogue.

38. Hayim Herring (Conservative)
Herring is executive director of STAR (Synagogues: Transformation and Renewal).

39. Daniel Lapin (Orthodox)
Lapin is a radio host, conservative commentator and cochair of the American Alliance of Jews and Christians.

40. Lawrence A. Hoffman (Reform)
Hoffman is the Reform movement’s leader in spirituality and prayer.

41. Sidney Schwarz (Reconstructionist)
Schwarz is the founder and President of Panim: The Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values.

42. Naomi Levy (Conservative)
Levy is a popular author and a leading woman in the Conservative movement.

43. Lawrence Kushner (Reform)
Kushner is a leading teacher, writer and the innovator behind the Havurah movement.

44. Norman Lamm (Orthodox)
Lamm is the chancellor of Yeshiva University.

45. Nosson Scherman (Orthodox)
Scherman is the general editor for ArtScroll/Mesorah Publications, one of the largest publishers and sellers of Jewish books in the world.

46. Stephen Pearce (Reform)
Pearce is the leader of San Francisco’s largest congregation with 2,700 families.

47. Harold Loss (Reform)
Loss is the leader of the largest synagogue in the Midwest (Detroit, 3,200 families).

48. Toba Spitzer (Reconstructionist)
Spitzer became the first openly lesbian rabbi to head a national Rabbinic Association in March 2007.

49. Michael Paley (Conservative)
Paley is the scholar in residence and director of the Jewish Resource Center of the UJA-Federation of New York.

50. Mordecai Finley (Reform)
Finley is the founder and Co-CEO of Ohr HaTorah, an innovative and progressive synagogue.

Fast Facts:

1) Everyone in this list is referenced as a part of a “movement,” and the labels do not reflect the divisions within the movements.

2) There are only 5 women in this list. It is true that women have only officially been rabbis since 1972, but could our “impact” as measured by these standards really be that much smaller? I highly doubt it.

3) The balance between the movements is quite interesting:
Orthodox 15
Conservative 10
Reform 18
Reconstructionist 3
Renewal 2
Hasidic 1
Lubavitch 1

To create the list the authors used the following criteria and scoring mechanism:

Are the rabbis known nationally/internationally? (20 points.)
Do they have a media presence? (10 points.)
Are they leaders within their communities? (10 points.)
Are they considered leaders in Judaism or their movements? (10 points.)
Size of their constituency? (10 points.)
Do they have political/social influence? (20 points.)
Have they made an impact on Judaism in their career? (10 points.)
Have they made a "greater" impact? (10 points.)

As you can see, the two factors that get the most weight are:

Are the rabbis known nationally/internationally?
Do they have political/social influence?

While I’m sure there are people who value their rabbis based on their relative fame, most Jews certainly do not. Political and social influence could be an acceptable indicator, but it really depends on your perspective. I am personally more inclined to admire rabbis who are helping to fight poverty and secure civil rights than those who want to build settlements or cut taxes.

These two are even more problematic:

Do they have a media presence? Size of their constituency?

It is certainly important that Jewish leaders speak up on issues that concern Jewish communities, but why judge their value based on how much attention they receive? Also, Jewish communal professionals and lay leaders are just as capable of commanding media presence as rabbis.

Most disturbing is the inclusion of “size of their congregation.” Apparently, the best rabbis are those that reach the “most” people? If that is the case, what does it mean to reach someone? Rabbis of small congregations are able to deeply get to know all of their congregants and be a part of their congregant’s lives in a way that is impossible for one rabbi to do. This is why rabbis like J. Rolando Matalon (who I do happen love) have Associate Rabbis as well in their congregations.

As a student of nonprofit management I believe in performance management and measurement, but rabbis cannot be effectively evaluated with criteria like these. Sure congregations can adopt performance measures to evaluate their rabbis but given the fact that each Jew has different expectations of a rabbi it would be extremely difficult to design universal measures. Were a congregation actually able to reconcile the classic “2 Jews 3 Opinions” problem in this instance, I surely hope these aren’t the criteria they’d choose.

Here are some of my criteria for what makes a great rabbi:

• Knowledge of Jewish texts and ability to interpret them from a number of perspectives

• Ability to bring to light why Jewish texts are relevant today (particularly, their relevance to day-to-day life)

• Enthusiasm for and ability to use creative methods and media to connect Jews with Judaism

• Warmth and openness

What are some of yours?

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

An Unexpected By-product

"Mall Menorah Smackdown" by Debra Nussbaum Cohen (printed in this weeks New York Magazine)

Just in time for the Atlantic Yards project to break ground, a turf war has erupted between two Lubavitch rabbis claiming dibs on the rapidly gentrifying brownstone neighborhoods that surround it. In one corner is Rabbi Ari Kirschenbaum, who showed up in Prospect Heights three years ago to revive a decrepit Orthodox synagogue in the neighborhood, and recently opened what he has dubbed the Brooklyn Jewish Community Center in a donated space over a former laundromat. His rival is Rabbi Tali Frankel, who is backed by his wife's powerful uncle, Rabbi Shimon Hecht of Park Slope. After arriving eighteen months ago, he began holding events advertised as being sponsored by "Chabad of Prospect Heights" -- though Kirschenbaum is the neighborhood's sole officially recognized shaliach, or emissary, of the Hasidic sect, which sends married couples all over the world to spread the faith to less-observant Jews. Lubavitchers usually do not invade each other's area, but now both Kirschenbaum and Frankel are hosting Torah study sessions, holiday parties in bars, and low-key services in people's homes trying to connect the nabe's mostly young Jewish population with traditional texts and observance. Frankel seems to be trying to appeal to singles specifically, with event listings in Hecht's Brownstone Jewish Review touting "stories food and booze!"

Hecht has controlled the Park Slope fiefdom for twenty years, and has helped seed Brooklyn Heights, Dumbo, Cobble Hill, and Williamsburg with colleagues. Tensions flared over Hanukkah, when Hecht commandeered Krischenbaum's nine-foot tall menorah in the Atlantic Terminal Mall. Kirschenbaum dealt with the mall and set up the menorah, holding a party (paid for by Atlantic Yards developer Forest City Ratner) on the Sunday of Hanukkah that attracted a few hundred people. But Hecht's group sponsored festivities at Kirschenbaum's menorah on Saturday (Hecht declined t0 comment on Prospect Heights.)

The Lubavitch powers that be have had enough. Rabbi Kasriel Kastel, who supervises the New York-area Lubavitch emissaries, filed a lawsuit against Hecht in rabbinical court alleging that he has overstepped his boundaries by bringing his nephew into an area where another Lubavitch rabbi was already holding officially sanctioned activities. Kastel says the problem is that there aren't enough up-and-coming areas to go around. "There are maybe 100 or 200 guys who trained their whole lives, and are looking for an opportunity to go. Smaller communities which would never be considered before are getting people," and conflicts between rabbis are increasing, he says. "It comes with growth and gentrification."

Wednesday, October 11, 2006


Shana tova and happy 5767!

After a long pause and lots of life changes I'm back with more reflections on coffee, Judaism, art, public service, nonprofit management and life.

This year, I spent Rosh Hashana with my family at home, and Yom Kippur with family friends outside of New York City. The services in my home community are classical reform style; the rabbi leads responsive readings (birth is a beginning, death a destination...), the cantor performs opera-style with a choir, and the room is filled with many people who live Jewish lives only two days a year. My family friends' synagogue has a very different feel; the synagogue is traditional and egalitarian, and only recently affiliated, the cantor sounds old school and performs on his own, and as one of few synagogues of its ilk in the area, the shul can pull a crowd on Shabbat mornings.

Given the differences in these two communities I was surprised to find that the sermons I heard on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur were just about the same. They went something like this: "What's going on in Lebanon with the kidnapped soldiers is tragic. We haven't been doing enough to support Israel in her fight to defend herself against terrorism. It is critical that we affirm our commitment to Israel and the unity of the Jewish people."

Don't get me wrong, I do feel sorry for the families of the kidnapped soldiers, and for the families of any soldiers who risk their safety in violent conflicts. I also believe that Israel's existence is important, as a pathway to Jewish life, a site of Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Ancient history, and a safe place for Jews if the need arises.

That said, I was appalled that the rabbis I encountered this year deemed support of Israel as the most important moral imperative that the Jewish community faces, and that we face as individuals. It is true that the conflict in Israel has intensified in the past few years, but that is no excuse for us to frame our self-glorification as teshuva. As a community we have many more pressing matters to address: the fact that we've abandoned our religious and ethnic partners; our materialism, classism, and residential segregation; our reluctance to include the opinions of minorities in our community in policymaking.

As individuals our lists are even longer. We are selfish, self-centered and self-focused. We are competitive not collaborative, we talk more than we listen, and we act too soon and don't reflect enough. We don't make time for our loved ones or for ourselves.

My prayer for all of us this year is that we take the time to rise to the tough challenges and improve ourselves as individuals and a community. I cannot think of anything more important.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Ay Oh Ay Oh Ay Oh AY OH!

In How Soccer Explains the World, Franklin Foer uses world cup soccer to show how globalization has influenced local cultures differently in different regions of the world. Rejecting the theories of both the left and the right, his soccer example shows that globalization enhances local culture and corruption at the same time.

One fascinating and unexpected chapter of the book called “How Soccer Explains the Jewish Question,” tells the history of Jewish soccer clubs in Europe in the first half of the 20th century.

“Although it seems strange now, the idea of a professional Jewish soccer club it is only strange because so few of the Jewish soccer clubs survived Hitler. But, in the 1920s, Jewish soccer clubs had sprouted throughout metropolitan Europe in Budapest, Berlin, Prague, Innsbruck, and Linz.

Jewish teams cloaked themselves in Jewish, not Hungarian or Austrian, or German, nationalism literally wearing their Zionism on their shirts…their unabashedly Hebrew names, Hagibor (the hero), Bar Kochba (after the leader of the second century revolt against the Romans), and HaKoah (the strength), had mistakenly nationalist overtones.

If all of this seemed explicitly political, it was because these clubs were the product of a political doctrine. An entire movement of Jews believed that soccer and sport more generally, would liberate them from the violence and tyranny of anti-Semitism. The polemicist, Max Nordau, one of the founding fathers of turn of the century Zionism, created a doctrine called muskeljudentum or muscular Judaism…To beat back anti-Semitism…Jews didn’t merely need to reinvent their body politic; they needed to reinvent their bodies. ” (Foer 69)

Interesting right? That’s only the beginning. Foer goes on to tell the story of Hakoah, the most successful of the Jewish soccer teams. Recognizing that soccer carried political mileage, a number of wealthy well-connected Jews created the team with the hope that it could be used to disprove stereotypes about Jews, and fight anti-Semitism. However, because it was run like a capitalist machine, Hakoah initially confirmed stereotypes that were already held by German and Austrian soccer fans, and gave them a not-needed opportunity to pick fights. In the end, the team did achieve many of its goals. It became internationally successful and renown, like Manchester United today, and won the 1925 championship. Additionally, the team inspired a community of loyal followers, which included highly assimilated Jews who previously hid their identity, and each victory was seen as a sign that the period of Jewish discrimination was coming to an end.

Just as it began, the story of Jewish soccer in Europe ends unexpectedly. Hakoah’s 1925 success led the team to take a trip to New York. When the players saw that New York was uninfected with European anti-Semitism, it became their Zion, and the players immigrated en masse there (Foer 75).

A final fascinating element of the chapter is Foer’s explanation of how Jewish identity is used in today’s soccer competitions. Whether or not you believe that anti-Semitism is growing in Europe, it is unquestionable that it does still exist today. Tottenham, a soccer club in North London, refers to its players as Yiddoes. Some of the greatest teams in European soccer refer to themselves as Jewish, because Jews founded them in the 1880s. Ajax of Amsterdam even use Israeli flags to decorate their stadiums.

What is the significance of this Jewish identification mean? While the teams take on Jewish identity as a way to compliment the Jews, it still treats them like others. Similar to how Americans use Indians as sporting mascots, in the European context the Jews are treated as a cartoon images who cannot escape their otherness.

What can we take from this text, and the chapter about Jewish soccer? A few simple truths:

1) Processes of globalization can be best explained when studied locally (duh!)
2) Maybe instead of spending millions of dollars creating Jewish babies and “fighting” anti-Semitism in Europe with policy analyses, the Jewish government should be buying us all umbros and cleats…

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