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Jewish Organizations, Pluralism and the Orthodox: Lessons from MJC and Jewlicious Festivals

Eli Reiter, an English teacher from New York, recently wrote an article in the Forward titled “Do Pluralistic Jewish Organizations Stop At The Orthodox?” The answer to that question was a resounding mostly “Yes!” Reiter described his involvement at a number of Jewish events where his ability to participate was diminished by the organization’s inability or unwillingness to cater to his dietary and religious observances. The message conveyed by such organizations is a not-so-subtle “Your presence here is unimportant.”

He does point out a recent positive experience in Bosnia where he attended the Muslim Jewish Conference – at that interfaith event run with a tiny budget, significant accommodations were made to allow 9 kosher Jews to participate and eat – and such accommodations may have involved some measure of intrigue and bribery! I remember attending an early Muslim Jewish Conference in Kiev. The organizers asked me to talk to the local “mashgiach.” He asked me if we wanted to get kosher meat or “kosher-kosher” meat. Befuddled I asked him what the difference was. He told me that kosher-kosher meat had a hashgachah and that kosher meat was simply not pork. You get what you can in Ukraine but we managed to get the meat with the hechsher. Then the hotel staff cooked it in butter. At dinner we informed the diners that the kosher meat was no longer kosher but it was in fact appropriate for Muslim Halal eaters… it was a bonding moment.

My experience helping to organize 10 annual Jewlicious Festivals is perhaps also instructive. The first few Festivals took place at the Long Beach Jewish Community Center. They had an amazing, very well equipped kitchen – that wasn’t kosher. Even the vending machines sold nothing kosher except for maybe a Coke. Every year, a few days before the Festival, Rabbi Yonah Bookstein, our Festival director and his staff would work hard to kosher the kitchen. One of the problems was that a group of seniors would have a regularly scheduled (non-kosher) roast chicken lunch on the Thursday before the Festival. So what Rabbi Yonah would do was to prepare their chicken lunch in the newly koshered kitchen and pay for it. After a year or two the seniors started to look forward to the Festival so that they could enjoy our annual chicken feast which they claimed was superior to the non-kosher chicken!

When we decided to move venues from the JCC to someplace more festive, we looked for a hotel that specifically didn’t have a kosher kitchen. We found the Queen Mary – a boat built in the 30s on permanent dry dock in Long Beach. They had a spare mini kitchen and let us kosher that kitchen and use it to prepare our own food to feed Festival goers. This meant that our food costs were radically cheaper than if we had to buy food from a hotel caterer. It also allowed us to buy more food – no one ever left a Jewlicious Festival hungry. We were able to prepare vegetarian food, gluten free food – we could cater to any dietary restriction and do so for very little money. When there’s a will, there’s a way. Always.

You want to talk radical inclusivity? We had it all. Was the Festival too expensive (starting at $36) – you could volunteer for a couple hours and attend for free. Orthodox participants certainly didn’t have to feel like second class citizens but neither did secular, reform, conservative or any other kind of Jew. We had Carlebach services for those interested in traditional prayer, we had egalitarian services for those so inclined and we had Yoga. Or, you didn’t have to go to services at all! Our program mix was filled with all manner of speakers and entertainers, representing every Jewish way of doing things possible – and we worked really hard at making everyone feel welcome. Kids with payot sat side by side with Code Pink activists, Guys with Kach logos on their kippas had spirited but respectful discussions with Israeli peace activists. And everybody had a good time and a meaningful experience.

The attendees loved the Festival. The big mucky mucks? They didn’t understand what we were about. In the 10 years I spent talking to “community professionals” in and around Los Angeles, the uninformed feedback I got was stunning. This from a high ranking member of the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles: “Oh. Jewlicious. Yeah, that’s that Chabad thing, right?” Some knew Rabbi Yonah and saw a bearded guy with a kippah and assumed he was Chabad – never mind that for years, a local Chabad House held their annual student Shabbaton on exactly the same weekend that we would hold the Jewlicious Festival… Some Hillel directors would tell me to my face that they refused to send any of their students to the Jewlicious Festival because they believed that it was a kiruv organization. I would ask them to show me any Orthodox kiruv organization that had speakers on legalized marijuana, LGBTQ issues, women singing etc. and mixed dancing (!!!). But most importantly, do I look like a Kiruv professional? Do I look like a fucking Chabadnik (no offense to Chabadniks)?

Sadly, many of these people are so far removed from traditional Judaism that if they see 10% of attendees wearing kippas then it must be a kiruv event. There’s no way that a bearded Rabbi can be open minded and truly inclusive – it must be some kind of nefarious plot to steal our children! We did have one guy from the Schusterman Foundation come down for a visit and he spent most of the conference completely slack jawed “How’d you do that?” he asked. “Do what?” I answered? “How’d you get all these completely different Jews together in one place?” – I laughed. When he left the organization, that was the last time we got financial support from them. They were going in a different direction and that’s totally cool, but still…

Reiter concluded by stating “If we are committed to diversity and accommodation, we should create space at the table for everyone to sit at. Not only the ones we agree with.” It used to be that Sabbath observance and kashrut were red lines that no one in the organized Jewish community crossed. But now they figure they need to engage the unaffiliated and that’s more important than including the Orthodox or traditional Jews. The unaffiliated have choices! They can eat anything and go anywhere so that’s what you have to offer – never mind that you are creating unnecessary divisions among Jews as well as providing mostly insipid and meaningless programming. But whatever – those fancy guys never listened to me and they never will. The current sad state of Jewish affiliation is a loud testimony to the utter failure of the organized Jewish community to inspire and attract young Jews. Plurality and inclusiveness don’t apply to religious Jews. That’s the current sad state of affairs when it comes to much young adult programming. Not all but much.

Guys like Eli Reiter? They’re just not a priority and that’s sad because all Jews are important.

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ck

Publisher at Jewlicious
Founder of Jewlicious? Publisher? Man I hate titles. I coined the name Jewlicious and I slave over the site. I live in Jerusalem and I need to get some breakfast.
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1 Comment

  1. TheMiddle

    9/27/2017 at 3:12 pm

    All of this is true. I witnessed it.

    The Jewlicious model could have and should have been replicated elsewhere, but as ck says, many people were afraid of the Orthodox members of the team. I suspect, too, that some organizations that should have been supportive felt that this was their turf. Unfortunately, they lost an opportunity to promote themselves. After all, Jewlicious was one weekend a year while they were running year-round programs.

    Too bad. Some great programming.

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