UPDATE: Menschlikheit is important!

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Back in January 2018, I wrote this blog post about how Jews need to branch out beyond “spiritual” and “religious” when describing their Jewish identity.   In that post, I posited five aspects of Jewish identity:  Observance, Expression, Knowledge/Literacy, Connection and Spirituality.  Then I asked readers to weigh in on if a sixth category, of Menschlikheit, was needed.  And the resounding answer was YES!  So here is the updated framework and my updated Spidergram (read the other blog to get what this is more fully.).

Screenshot 2018-03-08 23.45.29

 

Screenshot 2018-03-09 10.57.28It is interesting to consider how much my Spidergram shape changed as a result of this added category.

As I thought about that further, it stood out to me just how much being a Mensch matters to being Jewishly conscious.  One could even ask, do the other categories matter at all if your Mensch Meter is at Zero?

Consider the news stories of incredibly knowledgeable and very observant rabbis who lead connected Jewish communities and their entire personal expression is Jewish, but they commit a horrible crime – like peeping in on the mikveh or embezzling money from the congregation, or worse?  Then does any of the rest of the Jewish identity matter if they aren’t living with core Jewish values?  Is someone who is not knowledgeable and not connected to God, but fully committed to Jewish values actually living a more Jewishly appropriate life?  That at the least, they represent Judaism and the Jewish community in a holier way than the person who prays three times a day but doesn’t behave with Jewish goodness.  Once again, calling attention to people who call themselves “bad Jews” aren’t, [hate that term!] and those who often sit in judgement of those less traditional are actually the “bad Jew”  – because they lack Menschlikheit.

As I expanded from five aspects to six aspects in order to include Menschlikheit, it didn’t go unnoticed that now my framework had six points, just like the six points of the Shield of David (Magen David).  My framework needed the sixth aspect to make it complete, to make it be a full symbol of Jewish life. Thanks to all who provided input on this last category.

I hope that this concept – this framework of aspects of Jewish identity – is just the launching point for deeper thinking on this topic.   As I continue working on my dissertation, I will have much more to say on this topic of identity, identification and Jewish expression of such.

 

 

 

It’s Not Jewish to be “Religious and/or Spiritual”

During my doctor classwork, I read Robert Wuthnow’s After the Baby Boomers: How Twenty-Somethings Are Shaping the Future of American Religion.  

In one section, Wuthnow calls a trend of young adults growing a separation between spirituality and religion as “troubling,” (p. 131).  He says it’s an “explicit rejection of organized religion by people who are still interested somehow in spirituality,” (p. 132).   As he explores this, he talks about how it’s a distinguishing between church doctrine and individual authority and experience.  He says, “… two-thirds of young adults in their twenties opt for personal experience, while only a quarter opt for church doctrines,” (p. 133).

As I was reading this book and in particular this section, I felt the need to make a distinction between what happens in a Jewish context vs a Christian one.  All of the time, I hear people use these words to mean different things, and then add into Judaism the term “observant” and how that impacts this conversation. And then there are aspects of Judaism, like “community” which aren’t encompassed in these.

It was as a result of wrestling with this, that I began to construct a different framework for Jewish identity beyond “Spiritual” and “Religious.”   For the past few years, I have been using this graphic organizer to illustrate my concept:

5 aspects Jewish identity v5 022217

When using this graphic in workshops, I have participants chart their “Jewish Identity” using a SpiderGram graph.   You scale yourself on a range of 1-6 for each aspect, then plot the points on each correlating axis.  The summary point I make when leading this session is that no one is “more Jewish” or “less Jewish” – just that our Judaisms LOOK different (and the SpiderGram is a visual representation of that). What would yours look like?  What story does it tell about you?  Here is my result:

SpiderGram Faintich

 

 

Interestingly, in recent discussions (positioned in light of the political environment), it came to my attention that perhaps a sixth column of MENSCHLIKHEIT needs to be added.  And a person self-measures based on their commitment to expressing the Mitzvot related to care of others, treating strangers with kindness, supporting charities, actively engaged in civics, random acts of kindness, volunteerism, etc.

Would you add MENSCHLIKHEIT to this chart?  Would you edit any of the other columns?  What other columns would you add?

I am hoping to be releasing a new version of this based on the feedback.  The final version will be used in my dissertation research!

A politically Conservative, Jewishly liberal person … these and these are both divine.

Last year (2016-2017), I was teaching a group of high school juniors and seniors in a Reform congregation.  The teens really wanted to talk about the election (pre and post) and all of the platform issues shaping the discourse in the country.  One teen, who was very active in the NFTY youth chapter at the congregation, came to me distraught. He had just come back from a weekend NFTY convention and felt so discouraged.  He confided that he was a political Conservative and felt there was no place for him in NFTY. He shared that he was ostracized, that there was no room for his voice in discussions over the convention weekend, and that he just didn’t belong.  We sat for a while and spoke about how I wanted his voice to be heard in our class discussions and I would create safe space for him (and I did). [The class discussions were rich and his peers appreciated hearing different view points.] I also shared that I think he needed to consider how the URJ platforms and his own personal views may or may not be in sync and what that meant for him in terms of movement affiliation. (And by no means, am I saying the URJ should alter its platforms! or apologize for them in any way.] Regardless of my own personal political and religious leanings, I couldn’t wrap my head around this situation – he was right – he didn’t belong.  An involved, engaged teen who just didn’t belong? That just isn’t okay with me.

Fast forward to this year (2016-2017) and I am facilitating adult learning at a different Reform congregation.  As a post-denomination Jew (someone who doesn’t believe we need denomination boxes anymore) and as someone who believes in Jewish pluralism Screenshot 2018-01-17 12.16.09(we all need to be a little uncomfortable), I teach through these lenses.  I believe in Eilu v’Eilu (and teach the learners that debate and difference and dialogue are inherently Jewish).   My educational philosophy is such that no matter the issue/content we are confronting in our learning, I present each text, each commentator, scholar and philosopher as having equal weight – and allow the learners to discern the value.  I hold back my personal opinion until each other participant has had a chance to interpret and wrestle. And I wait for summation of the class to ask what each person’s biggest takeaways are and then share mine.

This year, I have been teaching “Judaism and Political Activism.”  Each time I walk into a space with new learners, I have no idea their political leanings, their personal history and what they will bring to the discussion.  I just walk in open and encouraging a safe space for diverse opinion.  But this past year has felt different.  This year it has felt as though the learners themselves expect everyone to be politically left for the mere fact we are in a Reform congregation. More than once it has been brought up by the adults that they can’t understand how a person can be a Reform Jew AND a political Conservative.  More than once I have heard someone say they don’t think “those people” belong in their congregation.   And I agree …. soft of.

I only agree that there isn’t a solid place in a URJ congregation for a politically Conservative adult. The URJ has a very clear politically left platform and therefore politically Conservative beliefs are dissenting. If an adult – who has free choice for affiliation and belonging – doesn’t have a belief system in sync with the URJ platforms, then s/he has the obligation to find a Jewish community where their values are aligned.

But where do they go? We currently don’t have a non-URJ Reform “movement” – one which is both Jewishly liberal and politically Conservative.  So whose obligation is it to create that space?  As a communal steward of Jewish life, I feel some sense of obligation to be sure everyone has a place (particularly that aforementioned teen).  And yet, since I personally don’t fit that description, I am not sure how I would even begin to help them create that space.  These experiences have left me with one absolute:  there needs to be a Jewish space for these folks; and left me with a lot of uncomfortable questions about how and who helps create that space if it’s not within my comfort zone.

So for now, I can only continue in the lane I have created based on my educational philosophy – these ideas and these ideas are all divine – even if these are the ones I personally follow.

Re-Visioning the Jewish “Coming of Age” with post-B/M teens

I can’t remember how long ago I came to the conclusion that the Jewish community was doing itself a disservice by continuing to celebrate Jewish adulthood at the age of 12/13, however it is something I am quite passionate about.  I have blogged about this previously (At what age are we ready to CHOOSE Judaism? and The B’nei Mitzvah Evolution/Revolution/Ban Debate) and have presented on the topic at several Jewish professional conferences and adult learning experiences.  I was asked to put my resources into a text study sheet for a 2013 Jewish Futures Conference (download  How have Text and Tradition Shaped the Bar/Bat Mitzvah Experience?)

Recently, a group of 8th grade students asked me to help them understand the history, meaning and purpose of the bar/bat mitzvah ceremony (they had no idea my ideological leanings).  After leading them through the text study guide, I asked them to pretend they were in charge of determining the future of the milestone in which young adult Jews commit to Jewish adulthood.  They determined the following framework (facilitated by me, but not ‘forced’ by me):

They unanimously agreed that the Age of Adulthood in 2017 is NOT at 12/13.  They debated for a while and determined:

  • A ceremony should happen when they are finishing their senior year of high school (certainly no younger than 16) [although one teen was adamant is should be in mid-20s]
  • Each emerging adult should be asked to make a commitment to their future of Judaism (the act of opting-in)

They collectively agreed that moving the ceremony to the end of high school would reduce the number of kids and families that drop out of synagogue life when the child is in 7th grade.  They also agreed that it was much more realistic for young people to make a concientius commitment to their future when they are older.

The teens debated what Learning Experiences are Required Prior to a Ceremony. They agreed that there wasn’t a “test” on these content areas but a check-list of having learned them:

  • Jewish History
  • Jewish Holidays
  • Jewish Values
  • Home Rituals
  • Reading (decoding) Hebrew  [some made a case for conversational Hebrew]
  • Israel History
  • Exposure to a variety of Jewish scholarly works
  • Parshat Shavua with a deep knowledge of at least one portion
  • Broad knowledge of mitzvoth with ability to recite 10 Commandments

 

The articulation of what The Ceremony would look like ended up including:

  • Embedded in a service tied to Shabbat [equal preferences articulated for Kabbalat Shabbat, Shabbat morning and Havdallah]
  • A L’Dor v’Dor Torah Passing Ceremony where each adult passes words of Jewish wisdom as they pass the Torah
  • A L’Dor v’Dor Family Ritual Item Passing Ceremony  (i.e. kiddish cup, tallit, candlesticks, mezuzah) where each adult shares their connection with that item as it is passed
  • Each teen delivers a speech about his/her commitment to Judaism and how they intend to live Jewishly

 

The teens determined that Jews were making the following Adult Commitments after the ceremony:

  • A pledge to engage in on-going volunteer work AND tzedakah as a regular part of their adult lives
  • A commitment to participate in a minyan when needed/asked
  • An attempt to engage in as many holiday worship services and/or home rituals as possible (to make it a priority)
  • Fasting on all “major” Jewish fasts (their knowledge of most fast days was limited)
  • A promise to hang a mezuzah on their doors

 

Discussion points that stood out to me as the most fascinating:  they didn’t want to include a trip to Israel as either a pre-cursor to the ceremony nor as a post-ceremony commitment; they were able to articulate the connection to the Hebrew language but didn’t demonstrate that same commitment to prayer as part of the knowledge nor as part of the ceremony; and they held onto the idea of fasting (particularly for Yom Kippur) as a way to demonstrate adult commitment to Judaism.

But perhaps what was the most interesting is they felt that there was no way that modern Jewish leaders would ever change the current ceremony.  They said that despite the fact that it had been altered and evolved several times over many centuries, that it was somehow now set in stone.  I would love to prove them wrong and show their voices and input could be helping shape the future of Judaism.

 

 

Is “Passover Break” for Day School Families a “Break from Judaism”?

I dread Passover every year. In 2010, I wrote a blog about it in which I said:

I hate Pesach. I think it is a true experiential learning opportunity (and not just the Seder) … but I face the cleaning, the changing of dishes, the cooking, the family tension around the Seder table, the week feeling cabin feverish (because I don’t eat out at all and can’t get that out-of-the-house social interaction with many friends), and lastly the shopping, as my own personal slavery. Let’s be honest, observing Pesach in the most strict of ways is a total pain in the ass.
(check out the full blog entry)

Every year I feel the same way and this year I looked for a way to compromise with myself.  I knew I couldn’t afford a true Kosher for Passover resort or camp experience (single occupancy exceeding over $2500 plus transportation) and I knew I didn’t have the energy to kasher my house, so I  began to explore what it would to take to create my own KFP Resort.  I considered that beach condos are cleaned before you get there – the refrigerator is completely empty and wiped out, the oven and microwave have been cleaned, the pantry is empty (or 99% empty). So I decided that if I could find a relatively inexpensive beach condo within a 7-hour drive of Atlanta, that I could load up my KFP supplies (disposable cooking pans, plastic storage containers, food, etc) and take it all with me (along with a supply of sunscreen, beach towels and trash entertainment magazines).

I hit the jackpot with a cheap condo right on the beach in Hilton Head, SC and made plans to leave first thing the morning after first seder (so I could spend that with family friends).  By  4 p.m. that first day, all my supplies had been unloaded, the frig now full of my KFP food, and I was on the beach with a cooler packed with my first of many Pesach picnics.  It was a great week.  Sure I had to cook for myself, but once the sun went down and I didn’t couldn’t be on the beach any more, I used the nights to make dinners and prep picnic lunches for the next day.  There were a few times during Chol haMoed when I hit a shopping area that the smells wafting from the local restaurants taunted me – but for the most part, it was one of the easiest Pesach observances I have had.

As I sat on the beach posting my own pictures to FB (I’ve shared a few here), I also started noticing the flood of photos many of my other FB connections were posting – from cruise ships, from Mexican resorts, from JazzFest in New Orleans, and from a variety of restaurants in beach cities around the country.

And then I started to realize that many of these were coming from friends whose kids are at Jewish day schools and some from the professional colleagues who work at them.  As my friends’ kids have reached day school age and as my own business has extended into day school communities, I have become much more aware of the lives of day school families (primarily in Reform, Conservative and Community affiliated schools).

So I started to wonder:  since day schools typically don’t have a Spring Break and only have Passover Break – are families feeling forced to choose between some semblance of Pesach observance or a family vacation?  Do they feel that it’s a zero-sum game and that unless you are at an incredibly expensive KFP Resort that there’s no way to have your “pesadecha cake and eat it too?”

I brought this thought up to a friend and this debate/discussion evolved to me taking to my FB page to ask – “If you are a day school family and you don’t keep Kosher for Passover (or avoid chametz) … is it because it’s your “spring break” or is it because it isn’t an observance your family connects to? Meaning – if you were in school/work/town for Passover would you be more likely to observe it as a family for the week?”

I received a few responses confirming my suspicion that some families are choosing to forego any kind of Pesach observance in order to have a true family “Spring Break” vacation and that those same families would indeed keep a level of Passover dietary restrictions if they were home during the break.  A few people responded that their families were on vacation but rented apartments with kitchens (instead of hotels) in order to cook their own meals and take picnics around the city they were visiting.  One friend messaged me that if they were to go somewhere like NYC or LA they could see doing that, but if they were going to a resort town in Mexico there is no way they would consider that as viable.  Another messaged me that any week they have to cook and do dishes isn’t a vacation and they would never consider that an option.  None said that Passover dietary observances just aren’t the choice of their family regardless of where they are.  (Note: as someone who has held many various kinds of observances for all Jewish holidays, I have no judgement on the choices people make for themselves and their families – these are only observations.)

So here we have families that are making a major financial commitment (averaging $15k per child per year) to immerse their children in Jewish education and community, and yet they are opting out of one the three most “important” holiday observances in Jewish life because it means missing out on (what they consider) a real vacation.  In turn, we are raising a generation of ‘committed Jews’ who won’t know how to “make Passover” for themselves as adults or a future family.

So this leads me to ask – what would it take for Jewish day schools to be in session during Chol haMoed Pesach? What opportunities does that actually offer in terms of education and community building.  Here are a few ideas:

  • an opportunity to partner with a local kosher caterer (so they don’t have to kasher the school cafeteria)
  • 2nd night community seder where the kids lead (and opportunity to embed into the curriculum and showcase more than the Four Questions)
  • a chol hamoed BBQ picnic and sports night
  • an opportunity to have a fundraiser where families can purchase KFP dinners that are sent home with kids at the end of the day only need to be reheated at home  (encouraging KFP observance in the homes but easing the burden on the parents)
  • field trips during the days where the kids take boxed KFP lunches with them (to ease the cafeteria situation)
  • opportunities for older grades to go to the kitchens of the kosher caterers and learn how to prepare certain KFP meals that are then served to their fellow school mates the next day for lunch?  (experiential education at its best)
  • a family retreat/camp out for the last two days of chag

The great thing about being a consultant is I often get to point out a problem/challenge and make some recommendations for solutions, but I am often not responsible for implementation.  So I just leave this all here for you to consider:  if you are a day school parent would you prefer to have a different Spring Break from Passover?  Who in your school community could you go to to start a conversation about the separation?  If you are a day school professional, do you feel as though your students and their families would benefit more from being in session during Passover? What steps could you take to create a proposal for the leadership?  If you aren’t a day school family nor staff member … well I just say to you – maybe there’s an open condo next to me on Hilton Head for 2017!

(If next year can’t be in Jerusalem, then it might as well be in the sand somewhere!)

Colbert and Mark Feuerstein Unleash my Pet Peeve

I was watching Colbert and the Late Show the other night and he had on actor Mark 475786614-actor-mark-feuerstein-visits-aol-build-at-gettyimagesFeuerstein (check him out on IMDB) as a guest.  I’ve been a long-time fan of MF’s – going back to Caroline in the City but not a “serious fan” in that I don’t watch everything he is in.  Apparently his current show – Royal Pains is beginning its 8th and final season therefore his press junket on Colbert.

Anyway, Colbert and MF are chatting and Colbert brings up MF’s being “re- bar mitzvahed.”  BAM!  Right in the sweet spot one of my biggest Jewish education pet peeves.  First, I shout at the TV “UGH! you don’t get bar mitzvahed, you become bar mitzvah.”  No one was listening on the other end.

Then it gets worse as MF continues to explain that his father says to him (at age 30) “Hey your Torah portion is coming back up in Temple and you can read it again.”  At which point I yell at the TV “reading Torah is NOT the mark of a bar mitzvah ceremony, the aliyah is!”  No one was listening on the other end.

Then MF continues to say that he was walking around town listening to his Walkman (yes, he jokes at how old this story is as proof of the artifact) so he could “hear the song” over and over again so he could re-memorize “the song.”  At which point I yell at the TV “it’s not a ‘song’ it’s Trope, and if you didn’t learn to read it in the first place, you shouldn’t be ‘memorizing’ it again – that’s not the point of ‘reading’ Torah!”  No one was listening on the other end.

You might first respond by saying, “Robyn, no one was listening because you were screaming at a TV of a pre-recorded show.”  But the truth is that I have been ‘screaming’ at Jewish educators, Jewish leaders, rabbis, cantors and ritual directors of years – and no one is listening.

We continue to perpetuate all that is wrong with everything MF said – and he said it not only to Colbert, but to the millions of viewers watching.  He shared misinformation because we – Jewish education leadership – continue to perpetuate the misinformation surrounding bar/bat mitzvah:  that it’s something that happens to a kid, that as an adult you can ‘have’ one, that it’s okay to memorize a tune and some words that have no meaning to you and can just get up and recite the “song” and not actually read from Torah.  Not to mention that the reading of Torah isn’t the actual part of the ceremony that marks the bar/bat mitzvah – but the aliyah.

Some might wonder why do I think this is an important issue to even “scream” about.  One of the biggest reasons is because the entire supplemental religious school system has been mostly reduced to this prepare young Jews for this event which is incorrectly perceived to be ‘required’ in order for someone to be a bar/bat mitzvah.  Because the education we give the kids is focused on this faux performance of reciting a memorized ‘song’ instead of connecting them to deep meaning with our ancient texts with modern lessons. They (parents and young Jews) are missing the point because we are letting them.  They are missing an important opportunity because we are perpetuating the problem.

What do you do when an entire adult community within a society has all the wrong information and continues to perpetuate it because the education leadership of that society refuses to shout from the mountain tops that we have had it all wrong.

When will someone listen?

 

(If you want to watch the full exchange, here is the link to the Colbert episode.  MF comes on after Anderson Cooper at 30:40)

Zeh Lo Pashut – This is Not Simple

It’s rare that I am become tongue-tied and inarticulate, but I have spent the last seven days trying to figure out the most poignant way to communicate this message. As it turns out, the only way is to just say it:

I have been diagnosed with clinical moderate depression.

It is a new diagnosis as of November 2013 and something I have just recently shared with my family and closest friends in the last few days. Why did it take me so long to share this information? Because mental illness is still taboo.

It’s really easy to keep up a façade of the outgoing, “together,” motivated person – for a while. I managed to do this for about a year … posting all sorts of fun things on Facebook, Tweeting about hobbies and interests, contributing to professional dialogues, traveling around the country to various conferences and professional meetings. But keeping up the façade is exhausting and contributes to the deepening of depression while behind the scenes the following is going on:

A backlog of unread and unreturned emails.

Voicemail which is full. Phone calls not returned.

Projects for clients not turned in.

Not talking to friends on a regular basis.

Cancelling plans at the last minute.

Failure to work on a dissertation.

Avoiding the “to do” list.

That’s when you can’t ignore the problem any longer. People start to ask if you are “okay” via emails and phone calls you don’t return because you can’t bring yourself to say, “No, I’m not okay. I am not myself. I’m sinking.”

So I first had to admit it to myself and then seek help from medical professionals. Mental illness is still taboo and therefore it took me over a year to be able to take those two critical steps.

As a result, I have a lot of fences to repair – both social and professional – as I work through to a healthier place.   I owe a lot of apologies and need to ask for an overwhelming amount of forgiveness.   I can’t expect it, but I am hopeful.

I decided to “come out” publicly because I want to be a part of a cultural change around issues of mental illness.   I want to live in a society that I can tell colleagues and friends that I have depression as easily as we tell them that we have the stomach flu. I want to live in a society where colleagues and friends are able to support people with mental illness with the compassion they care for those with cancer.

It’s not Yom Kippur, but I am seeking forgiveness from all of those I have hurt, disappointed, confused, frustrated and angered these past 18 months or so.

Al Chet: For the mistakes I committed before my community through wronging a friend.
Al Chet: For the mistakes I have committed before my community through denial and false promises.
Al Chet: For the mistakes I committed before my community refusing to accept responsibility.
Al Chet: For the mistakes I committed before my community through confusion of the heart.

Will the real anti-Semite please stand up?

When I opened my eJewishPhilanthropy this morning, I scanned all of the snippets and headlines as I do each morning.  Typically, I make a mental note of what articles I want to come back to later in the day, but today, one snippet not only caught my eye, but stopped my heart:Screen Shot 2013-10-11 at 9.23.24 AMSo, I clicked on that “Read more” link and found myself face-to-face with one of the most offensive things I have seen in a long time.  As if I wasn’t already offended enough by the assertion that Limmud would bring about “tragic consequences for Anglo Jewry,” the rest of the letter this pull quote came from has me seething enough to jump into blog-mode.  Here is the text authored by the former head of the Beit Din of London and several other high-powered rabbis and judges:

Pluralism is the “political correctness” of the theological world.  The upshot of this is that even though opposing philosophical viewpoints are espoused, no one is deemed to be wrong.

As religious Jews, however, our fundamental bedrock is that there is only one truth – the Torah B’ksav and Baal Peh which is of Divine origin.

Limmud and similar organisations espouse the ethos of pluralism. Participating in their conferences, events and educational endeavors blurs the distinction between authentic Judaism and pseudo-Judaism and would bring about tragic consequences for Anglo Jewry.

As such, we strongly advise any Jew whose heard has been touched by the fear of G-d and who wishes to walk upon paths which will be viewed favourably by the Ribono Shel Olam, not to participate in any activity which is under the auspicies of Limmud or similar organisations.

Anti-limmud_edit

In the recent weeks. American Jewry – of all different beliefs – raged against Hobby Lobby because a staff member, at one store in a chain of hundreds, said “we don’t cater to you people.”   The indifference to Jewish holidays from the corporate office enraged people  more and the blogosphere and social media alit with calls to boycott Hobby Lobby.   People generously threw out the term “anti-Semitic” to label both the employee and the corporation.

But what that one employee said out of ignorance is nothing in comparison to the blatant anti-Semitic statements authored by these seven religious leaders.

I teach the teens that I work with that when one Jew calls another Jew a “JAP” or a “big-nose greedy miser” or “kike” that it is just as anti-Semitic as if a non-Jew said it.  I teach them that we can’t allow people inside our community to say things to us we wouldn’t allow someone outside K’lal Yisrael to say.  Not only are the terms still hurtful and not only are they still driving stereotypes, but it sends the message that these things are okay to say and we role model to non-Jews this unacceptable behavior.

I would NEVER allow a non-Jew to call me a “pseudo Jew” and I certainly wouldn’t let a non-Jew accuse me, and the organizations I affiliate with as the cause for the demise of the Anglo Jewry.  So how can I sit back and read this statement published by the some of the highest Orthodox leadership of London and not say something.  How can we send dozens of letters and reach out the media to call for an apology from Hobby Lobby but just turn a cheek to this situation before us?

So, Rabbis and various religious leaders of in London, I demand an apology. I demand for you to rescind your statements accusing any Jew who is not like you for being a “pseudo Jew.”  I demand that you recognize that Judaism has not only taught us about One G-d, but also about questioning all aspects of our texts and tradition.  It has taught us to turn Torah again and again because there is always something new in it.   Judaism has taught us about Kavod – respect and about Shalom Bayit – peace in the home.   Every word of your letter violates these middot.  In deep contrast, Limmud (and organizations like it) teach these values.  It teaches us that each of us should question and explore our heritage;  it teaches that there are many ways to ‘turn Torah’ – through art, music, nature, chevruta, worship;  it teaches us to have deep respect for all the people who live in the house of the Jewish people even if they are different than us.   So quite opposite to the demise of Anglo Jewry, Limmud is fostering the future of Judaism – and doing a great job of it!

Paying it Forward

Over the past few months, I have been asked by many young professionals in the Jewish communal field to provide them career advice. Some have been in the field for 2-5 years, others are just graduating from a Bachelor’s or Master’s program. They have asked questions about degrees they should pursue (yes, get a Master’s degree!), networking, job descriptions, negotiating financial packages, career trajectory, and much much more. It really thrills me to be able to “pay it forward” what many of my mentors did for me – providing me that guidance and opening doors for me with their networks. However, my conversations left me incredibly frustrated – and not with the young professionals.  The conversations have left me frustrated and bewildered with our organizations.  Here are a few common themes that emerged:  

  • our professional training programs (schools conferring Jewish degrees in education, communal work, etc) are not doing a great job of preparing their graduates for this process. I was really shocked to hear from several of these young professionals that they were not put through mock interviews, they were not provided sample contracts/letters of agreement, and did not receive advice on what they should expect/demand in a package.
  • in several cases institutions relied only on Skype/GoogleHangout for the entirety of the interview, not ever investing in in-person meetings.  They offered jobs to people they had never sat in a room with.  They expected candidates to accept jobs for positions where they had never seen the facility or even the city. 
  • many of the institutions have incredibly unrealistic expectations.  They want to hire Master’s level candidates, but don’t want to pay for house-hunting trips or relocation expenses, and they want to pay them in the low 30s to low 40s.
  • it seemed that many organizations consider the interview only for their benefit and that it is not a mutual process.  Time was not set aside to allow for a back-and-forth dialogue about the position, the organization, the goals, etc.  Interview times were so tight that they only questions being asked were from the organization to the candidate. 

If you are looking to hire someone and you aren’t prepared to invest in them (and the process) by paying for in-person interviews, then don’t accept out-of-city candidates.  If you aren’t prepared to offer a job and then invest in a house-hunting trip for your new employee, then don’t accept out-of-city candidates.  If you aren’t willing to spend between $3,500-$10k in moving expenses, then don’t accept out-of-city candidates.  It’s simple.  You can’t buy a Porsche if your budget is a Saturn. 

If you want someone with a Master’s degree, don’t insult them, their investment in their education, or their experiences by offering them less than $50k (or as Mark Young expressed, $54k).   It’s simple.  You can’t buy a Porsche if your budget is a Saturn. 

During the interview process, remember, it’s the candidates interview too. It is incredibly important that candidates feel empowered to ask questions and be given time to reflect, develop new questions, and then process their thoughts before giving you an answer.  They have a right to see the facility they will work in and meet potential work colleagues and lay leaders.  If you can’t make that happen, then don’t accept out-of-city candidates.

There are many other things you can do to exhibit your commitment to them as professionals.  Be sure to invest in their on-going professional development, professional network dues, journal subscriptions, and professional books.  Don’t expect them to use their cell phones if you aren’t willing to subsidize the plan.  Don’t ask them to front expenses – you are assuming they can afford to float those dollars; get them an organization credit card, petty cash or a pre-paid card.

I’m very lucky.  When I was 25 years old and decided to enter the Jewish professional field, I had an amazing executive director who facilitated the interview process.  Through his actions, he set a very high standard of expectations for me that I have stood by throughout my career.  He flew me in for an interview.  He paid for a house-hunting trip.  He paid for my move in its entirety.  He gave me a commitment letter outlining the terms which included 100% of health insurance, a life insurance policy equivalent of my salary, short term and long term disability, matching 403B funds, etc.  He gave me an organization credit card.   I’ve moved across the country three times for career positions, each time expecting and receiving the same high quality experience I had when I was 25 (when I didn’t yet have a Master’s degree). I’ve turned down plenty of possible interview opportunities and job offers because they don’t meet these standards and I have no regrets.  

As a leader in the field, I feel it’s my responsibility to help the new generation of young Jewish communal professionals learn and demand the standards they deserve. I feel the need to encourage the professional degree program directors to institute colloquia that will help prepare the new professionals for this process.  It is important that I hold my colleagues doing the interviewing and hiring accountable to this standard.  I feel an obligation to pay-it-forward.

 

The B’nei Mitzvah Evolution/Revolution/Ban Debate

Every once in a while, a celebrity or politician gets misquoted or a sound byte is used out of context and ripples begin to infiltrate that person’s career for a while until it all gets cleared up.  While I am not a celebrity, I was recently mis-represented in Patrick Aleph’s Blog on Kveller.com entitled “Ban the Bar Mitzvah: A Rabbinical Student Rethinks The Time Honored Ceremony.”  Since I do have an incredibly strong opinion about eliminating the b’nei mitzvah ceremony, and am very vocal about it (even blogged about it in August 2010 entitled “At what age are we ready to CHOOSE Judaism?“), I thought I would summarize and clarify my opinion today.

Over the past two years, I have presented on this topic in several milieus and will be doing so again in a few weeks President’s Day Weekend at Limmud NY in a session titled, “You are Cordially Uninvited: The Case for Eliminating the Bar/Bat Mitzvah Ceremony.” In addition, I have provided some educational content to The Jewish Future’s Conference: The Role of Bar and Bat Mitzvah in America Today being held February 27th, 2013 in NYC.

So how was I misrepresented? and what is difference of the dialogue I have been facilitating and what was eluded to by Mr. Aleph?  He stated: “I did not realize the degree of disengagement that the bnei mitzvah process causes until I saw a presentation by Jewish education consultant Robyn Faintich from JewishGPS…”

At no point in my presentation did I say it was the process that causes disengagement (although if asked, I would say there are elements of the process for many – not all – that do turn young Jews off of formal Jewish learning).  In my presentation, I first laid out the the traditional texts and historical information that shaped the modern day experience. This helps participants understand that bar/bat mitzvah is not only NOT Torah commanded – a common misconception –  but that the age set out in Torah for the age of maturity is different than that Talmud describes (20 vs 13).  I also framed that the bar mitzvah ceremony was intended to be about public acceptance of obligation and challenged that 12/13 year-old teens today aren’t in a place to make that commitment – to CHOOSE Judaism in that way.  I emphasize that the language of “getting a bar mitzvah” is problematic in that we haven’t educated our communities to understand that you don’t get “bar mitzvahed” rather you become Bar Mitzvah without a ceremony at 12/13.  Then I shared the current statistics of post-b’nei mitzvah drop out.   Then I shared what I thought could potentially be done with the significant dollars that families spend on the b’nei mitzvah process, ceremony and party (average is $15-$30k) if those dollars were instead funneled directly into Jewish education. I conclude my presentation by asking the participants to engage in visioning what kind of new ritual we could develop as our teens go off to college that would, in fact, legitimately mark the first time they will be independently responsible for choosing their Jewish lives.

I provide the cliff notes version here today because for a more complete version I would mostly enjoy people attending my session at Limmud NY or engaging with the content that will be published by Jewish Futures  (which I can publish a link to once it’s posted) or by hiring me to come to their community to facilitate the same dialogue (I modify the session slightly when facilitating it with adult learners vs facilitating it for educators/rabbis).  In addition, I hope that this makes the distinction between what I said the day Mr Aleph was in attendance at my session versus what he eluded I stated.

As I have spent a lot of time today reading the numerous responses to Mr. Aleph’s blog, responding to direct messages to me, commenting on friends/colleagues Facebook postings of the blog, I have found myself focused on the following few issues:

  • Not all pre b’nei mitzvah experiences are horrible.  Not all b’nei mitzvah education programs are drop-off and only engage the teens themselves.  Not all b’nei mitzvah teens are “forced” to learn.  Not every ceremony is rote and meaningless.  Not all religious schools are places of extreme dread.  Yes … AND … I do believe that the supplemental/part-time/complementary system is broken resulting in 82% post b’nei mitzvah drop-off and most (not all) congregations are afraid to take the boldest risk needed in order to re-imagine it for fear of loss of membership and subsequently educator/rabbi jobs.
  • As a the project director for Shevet: Jewish Family Education Exchange and a member of it’s faculty, I am all for family education initiatives and spend a lot of time providing professional development to educators, lay leaders and rabbis on the topic. I do however, object to a “Family B’nei MItzvah” in terms of the language use (same reason I don’t think we should have “Adult B’nei Mitzvah). My objection is that we negate the fact that Jews become Bar/Bat Mitzvah at 12/13 regardless of a public ceremony and confuse people by the terminology.
  • While I applaud the URJ for convening a national thinktank and engaging pilot congregations in the re-visioning of the b’nei mitzvah process – programmatically called The B’nai Mitzvah Revolution –  I by no means agree that the outcome is a “revolution” but rather an “evolution.”   To me, a revolution hits hard, hits fast and revolutionizes an organization/culture/industry/product.  The work that the URJ leadership and participating congregations are doing is incredibly important self-reflection, adaptation, experimentation, dialogue, etc.  Even self-admittedly by its leadership this change will take a few years to be fully adopted – a few years is not a revolution.  From my understanding, the program still makes 12/13 the age of demarcation and still results in a congregation-based ceremony that is the culmination of an experience the teen had.   Again, it’s an evolution of the current ceremony and current learning that takes place leading up to that ceremony – but in my opinion, not a revolution.

This conversation about the role that the bar/bat mitzvah ceremony plays in Jewish education and in Jewish life is robust and fired up.   Just a few days ago my colleague/friend Wendy Grinberg, educational consultant who founded Jewish Education Lab, wrote this piece “Emphasize Bar and Bat Mitzvah MORE” in response to a recent panel discussion held in NY (the recording of which can also be found on that same page).  As I stated before, The Jewish Futures Conference is facilitating a dialogue about this at the end of February and the URJ will continue to do it’s work with B’nei Mitzvah Revolution.  I am sure these are just a few settings in which this is/will be discussed.

What I know is that there will not be one definitive nation-wide or even klal yisrael-wide decision on how we as Jews in the 21st Century should be approaching the role this ceremony plays in our educations systems and in our lives.  However, the dialogue and debate is healthy and productive – as long as we are all quoted and referenced appropriately and accurately.

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