Session

As Esther noted, at ROI120 we had a rollicking session led by McGill University History Professor Gil Troy. The discussion centered around issues of why be a Jew and what does being a Jew mean. The conversation that ensued was very reminiscent of conversations I’ve heard over and over again at inumerable GA’s, Federation meetings, Op Eds in the Jewish Press etc. Granted, it was interesting to hear the perspective of participants from India, Argentina, Israel and other countries – but as the conversation was in English, North American voices dominated.

And what did I hear? I heard the anguished voices of predominantly secular American Jews bemoaning their diminishing numbers. I heard resentment at the notion that religious Jewish ritual ought to have any significant role in Jewish identity. I heard people searching, searching for that magic solution to Jewish continuity that would allow their brand of Judaism to become vibrant and vital absent recourse to old time Religion. Our participants were Jewish young leadership material, but in certain respects, they were no different than their ossified organizational elders.

Man – I hope there’s going to be some evolution over the next couple of days … Don’t get me wrong though. Questions that need to be asked are being asked. Everyone here is earnest and sincere. But maybe next year we ought to dig deeper and find more unaffiliated Jews whose ideas and priorities have not been tinged by exposure to the powers that be. Maybe then we’ll have a fresher perspective.

Or maybe we ought to ask the Mormons. They always seem like they got it going on, all frontin’ their high fertility rates and their impossibly crisp white shirts.

About the author

ck

Founder and Publisher of Jewlicious, David Abitbol lives in Jerusalem with his wife, newborn daughter and toddler son. Blogging as "ck" he's been blocked on twitter by the right and the left, so he's doing something right.

30 Comments

  • I challenge you, ck, to open your mind, not dismiss the reasons so many are secular or less observant, not dismiss millions of Jews so easily. I challenge you to help find a middle ground where we can solve the problems and the severe crisis we are encountering.

    The above is not an attack. I figure there’s got to be a middle ground and a way to make Judaism real for those of us who are challenged in certain matters of faith.

  • Ossified??? Ossified???? How about fully fosilized, dinasaurized rock-encrused, brainwashed weirdos desperately clinging to some hope that since they weren’t cool in high school, maybe now, that they’ve lost 5 pounds (girls) or got that lasik procedure (guys), of course it’s not a perfect lasik procedure and I’m suing the doctor and that’ll get me through b-school…

    now that they’re all there, being all JEWISH and all, hoping hoping hoping they can just meet someone to hook up with and finally just get laid by someone who thinks, maybe they’re cool…

    now that they’re all there…”young leaders.” yawn…it’s like: Dudes, don’t you get it???? Don’t you get that there you cant’ take Jew out of Judaism and still have Judaism of Jews?????

    But now, it’s about “tikun olam” – as in, gee, I guess I should make sure my ipod is wrapped in recyblable material, and I think I’m gonna by a hybrid…so I can go to my slave job without hurting the ENVIRONMENT, CUZ I’M CULTURALLY JEWISH, SEE???

    Not like those mean chareidim. Those evil Chareidim, and those Orthos…no way. I’m different. I’m a cultural Jew, just like my mother and her mother, and I’m going to have 1.6 kids and marry a nice, nebbish husband who I can fool around on and boss around and basically kick his but just like my Mom did to Dad…

    And why can’t we just change the rituals anyway, already, and what about agunos and a hundred other issues I can’t pronounce and dont’ really know anything about? Why Why Why?

    All just so they dont’ have to think, maybe, justmaybe, there’s something to this God thing, something to living a life according to Torah (and nuts to you all you people that are going to tell me to shut up, and th eTorah life is bad and hard because there are bad and hard people telling me what to do…)

    Hmmmm? yeah, you got it poster – these conferences are for LOSERS…

    And one more thing. Blogging is dead. Myspace will die soon, too. Don’t know what’s next but this ain’t it.

    And Jsirpicco??? He STILL IS THE ONLY VOICE OF TRUTH AND REASON! zt”l.

    Happy 4th. 🙂

  • Yawn… This “conversation has been taking place for hundreds of years,like Jsirpicoo said “Dudes, don’t you get it???? Don’t you get that there you cant’ take Jew out of Judaism and still have Judaism of Jews?????” It really is that simple, as history and statistics have proven time and time again…….

  • Trying to address the question of Jewish identity is a huge task. But to compare the ROi participants to the Jewish organizational structures that are, indeed ossified isn’t fair. To an extent, many projects are limited by the limited if not nonexistent support of their respective communities, so if they are stunted in terms of growth, this may be the reason. But beyond that particular note, I also want to say that the people at this conference are amazing. They are articulate, passionate and organized. And I don’t think this post did any of that justice.

    And I have to say that “finding more unaffiliated Jews” may not be the answer either. But I don’t think that finding more people on the far right or left of the spectrum is a bad idea for next time. The more, the merrier, and the more likely we are to actually understand each other someday. So, let’s do it for klal Yisrael…

  • Young leadership. The two-word phrase that makes the hair on the back of my head stand on end.

    I tried the formalized program for a while. The houses where the events were held were stunning and the cocktails were real. And fortunately, there were a few people there who knew which of the catered trays were kosher and which we should stay away from. And then we got the pitch: to be a “leader”, you need to open your wallets, start writing those checks, be a mover and a shaker. After all, if you’re over 35 and don’t have your name on a shiny JCC placque, if you haven’t had your picture taken with Ehud Olmert, baby, you’re nuthin’.

    And in the meantime, our dayschools are struggling for funds to stay open, there’s no money for serious cultural enrichment programs and the JCC board voted to stay open on Saturdays. But Young Leadership is sponsoring a golf outing, so everything’s still grand. Martinis, anyone?

  • Man, I wish I was at this conference. I have one concern that I wish I could voice at ROI. When we speak about continuity, what do we mean? It seems to me that the only consistent aspect of Jewish history is discontinuity, and arguably, this discontinuity is present in most other diasporic communities. When people speak about Jewish continuity, it might help to focus on certain moments when world Jewish communities broke from others, whether by tragedy or blessing. The Holocaust and Zionism are two major factors, but why isn’t their a larger focus on Jewish cultural literacy among secular Jews? Is it because we don’t speak one language? Should we? Is it because in America we identify more easily as white, simply because we’re not black? What if we were to rearrange these questions and ask each other: What could we do to cause a major discontinuity in Jewish history? Would that revolutionize us?

  • Sorry, I just thought of something. I can, of course, only speak from my own individual experience as a non-observant Jew. When we speak about jumpstarting initiatives that will build Jewish community, are we asking unaffiliated Jews to join our groups and organizations, are we empowering them to discover their own individual Jewish histories? Are we asking them simply to make sure that they raise their children Jewish? These questions are ones that, I at least, feel like I was concious of, even though I had limited contact with a Jewish community when I was growing up. We don’t need to ask them anymore. There are a million answers for a million people. I reclaimed a Jewish identity because I understood that my friends had cultural, racial and religious identities. I wanted one. I think that many other Jews, especially ones who have lived their lives surrounded by non-Jews, may feel similar. That’s why the folkschule model, which disintegrated along with its lifeblood, the yiddish language, needs to be reassessed. The linguistic autonomy of American Jews is gone, so how do we reclaim what we lost without endeavouring to begin speaking Jewish again? Do we replace it with Hebrew? or polynational Jewish cultural activism?

    I’m also reminded of one of the greatest schisms in left-wing Jewish circles – the question of pogroms in Zionist Palestine. Some believed that the Arabs’ revolt was the first birthpang of the Soviet revolution. Others believed that the Arabs were antisemites. This argument still exists today. Some Jews believe in an almost messianic arrival at peace, others believe that Jewish history teaches us to build an Iron Wall, even if its painted with pretty pictures and falafel balls. Many, many people have an interest in making American Jewry more concious of their middle-eastern roots. This levantine-ism is only tangentially related to political Zionism. Others approach American Jewry with an intention of promoting political Zionism. I don’t think this dichotomy is the way to go, especially as Israelis themselves may identify both as middle eastern than Zionist, and so forth.

    So at ROI, participants need to check themselves, how much to they know about Jewish cultural history, their own family histories, and about theirs may relate to others. The connections wrought may provide clues as how to unite Jewish youth, and galvanize them into thinking more critically about those who told them to bring home a nice Jewish girl, or boy.

  • I don’t like it when the O. folks tell me that the only way to be Jewish is to be O. It’s very offputting and not at all welcoming. (I hang out with some Chabadniks occasionally precisely because while they might believe they are doing it the only right way, they don’t push me away because I don’t do it their way.)

  • Who’s pushing you away, Ann?

    But the fact remains that if you’re in principle not abiding by Hashem’s Torah, you’re not fulfilling your obligations as a member of the Jewish nation.

    The truth hurts.

  • Hmm… This actually gives me a chance to plug my latest blog posting about the RCA’s latest decison to Prohibit smoking. In my post I actually touch on the issue of Orthodoxy and how we sometimes push people away. I see the decision as possitive in that light, showing that Orthodoxy can adapt to changes in society. Well kind of… Anyway read the post: http://purimhero.blogspot.com/2006/07/bow-wow-wow-yippie-yo-yippie-yay.html

    And maybe one of the Jewlicious crew wants to do a post about the decision if they can find some time to take a break from ROI120.

  • Purim Hero, besides the RCA’s detailed psak, have a look at the 3 part article The Prohibition to Smoke.

    I myself recall being told in my Yeshiva days about the Chafetz Chaim’s own partial prohibition, based on the medical assumptions of his time.

    Israeli Yeshiva students remain heavy smokers, starting early. This is often due to the fact that their fathers – and sometimes also grandfathers – have been heavy smokers since their own Yeshiva days.

    It seems that more N. American Yeshiva students are smoking today than in my time. In fact, I can only recall less than a handful1 of N. American students who smoked in the various Yeshivas I attended. Maybe this assumed increase in the number of smoking students in recent years explains the reason the RCA decided it was time to state the obvious.

    I watch these kids smoke and it disgusts me simply because they should all know halachically better. They don’t need 10 page psaks. They already know the pasuk “U’shmartem me’od le’nafshoteichem.” But what really gets me mad is that the Yeshivas don’t have a strict no-smoking policy – staff included. I suppose they would have to fire half the faculty and dismiss a large portion of the student body.

    Nice blog you have there. Nice entry on this smoking issue, too. However, I think you’re making much ado about nothing.

    I don’t see any “progression” in Halacha. This is simply application of existing Halacha to this specific issue.

    In addition, the expressions of sympathy by the RCA to smokers by not accusing them of “flouting” the halacha, is nothing new either. For example, on same-sex marriages, the RCA announced in March 2004:

    While uncompromising in their opposition to the notion of same sex marriage, the RCA and OU in their joint statement call on their rabbis and synagogues to demonstrate compassion, sensitivity, and understanding in dealing with those who in spite of their acceptance of these principles, have difficulty in living up to these standards.

    Attracting people to Judaism in principle should not require the deployment of savvy marketing gimmickery to attract the unaware.

    Hashem says,
    “Make for me an opening of teshuva no bigger than the eye of a needle and I will make it into an opening through which wagons and carriages can pass.”
    (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 5:2)

    A person has to take the first step, with sincerity to seek the truth and not in search of some sugar coated pill rendition of Judaism.

    “It is not in the heavens.” This was, according to Rav Sorotzkin’s peirush, Aznayim La’Torah, the failure of the masses of Bnei Yisrael who died for worshipping of Ba’al Pe’or and their licentiousness with B’not Mo’av, as recorded at the end of this week’s Parsha, Balak. Great peirush, Aznayim La’torah is. Instant D’var Torah for the Shabbos table!

  • Purim Hero, a small typo correction in your blog article:

    “Shlita” is short for “she-yichyeh li-yomim tovim aruKIm” 🙂

  • Purim Hero,

    Your blog entry on the smoking decision is typically insightful and informative. Alas, the sound of your voice is a tree falling silently in the forest. First, it’s only heretical, deviant, morally repugnant Conservative Judaism that codifies “innovations” and adapts halacha to the circumstances of the modern world. For the Orthodox, halachic rulings are never altered or in any way mediated by the standards of human interpretation. Halacha of today is the same as it was yesterday, as it will be tomorrow, and as it has been since its divine revelation to Moses at Sinai.

    Additionally, your emphasis on k’lal yisrael and serving an example for others to emulate is hopelessly anachronistic. Admittedly, there was once a time when these were values of singular importance to many in the Orthodox community. That day has obviously long since passed, however. Judging by the comments here on Jewlicious, now the priority of the Orthodox is to scold Mommy and Daddy for depriving their babies of a truly complex understanding of Shemini Atzeret throughout childhood. Their parents’ secular Zionism, political activism, and High Holiday synagogue attendance were nothing but empty gestures, and their newly Orthodox offspring devote their lives to proving that the pinnacle of spiritual enlightenment is to never, ever eat lobster again.

  • Thanks for catching the typo Shy Guy, I fixed it.

    By the way, it’s great knowing what your thoughts on all this are…. err… yeah…

  • Sorry, Shy Guy, guess your initial comment about the content got caught by the spam filters (those things can be annoying), I only just now got to read it. I thank you for the added insight, and references to earlier rulings by the RCA.

    Unfortunately, your link for the 3 part article “The Prohibition to Smoke” doesn’t seem to be working. I’m interested in reading it if you get a chance to repost the link either here or on my blog. Thanks~

  • Wow, classic western values of modernity gone terribly wrong.

    These young Jews are no different than others in western societies. Little to no knowledge of history, Jewish or other. Thus unable to really appreciate their cultures and heritage through no fault of their own, beyond the acceptance and revelation of sheer ignorance to the point of worshiping it as an ideal..

    Little or no knoweldge of their religions, whether choosing to practice or not.

    Little or no reinforcement of their beliefs at home, in Gd, or heritage or even tradition, and the subsequent values that are autonomous with that.

    A vision of Israel not as a nation born by covenant and waited for 2000 years through endless sacrifice – but as a cool place to get knockered on shots and throw down the occasional falafel. Perhaps during a free trip or one paid for by mommy & daddy.. If one can even get around to hitting Israel in the first place.

    The worship of self, the distancing of Gd, whether one worships him via tradition & chalichic law, or merely via spirituality. The embrace of nihilistic belief in nothigness, but often materialism, followed by the eventual result of stopping.. and wondering..

    Who the hell am I!?

    No kidding? The products of a generation that worshiped liberalism for the mere sake of being liberal, cut its ties to things that have been fundamentally important in order to focus on the truly important, Me!

    That’s how I see it, and it isn’t limited to Jews, you see it across the Western world with entire generations born with a silver spoon shoved directly in their ass.

    Now, as the cherry on top – the best part a conference to discuss it. At the end of which everyone not in Israel can go home, buy another 19.95 Heeb T-Shirt, and feel better because they are Jews and no one will tell them how to define their indentity..

    Which in reality does not exist beyond a made in china piece of cloth, sold to them under the fallacy that THIS is Jewish pride!

    All that is left is to marry a goy, and be nouveau riche, yet poor as f*ck. The secular western leftist ideal crystalized. Crisis, News at 6!!

  • saus,

    that is just plain bigoted of you.

    You don’t know me. You have no idea who I am or what I believe; you only know that I am Jewish and I am not doing things the way *you* think is right. Lots of assumptions you’re making there, boyo.

    Not only that, you’re making these assumptions about people whose commitment to Judaism shines through on this blog.

    (personal fact: my mother married a Christian. I chose to marry a Jew.)

  • Don’t worry about the supercilious Saus, Quietann, he’s just got a closed mind and wants to kill off the Jewish people.

  • You are right quietann, I don’t know you nor did I address my comment to you. Bigoted? That’s rich, it implies racism. I posted about values & Tshirts, and the copious amounts of BS, American secular Jewry is selling itself. Race never entered the picture – but I must have hit the mark in there huh?

  • And yet again, conversation at Jewlicious has boiled down to single line sarcastic comments and personal attacks, as opposed to constructive dialogue and debate. Go Figure…

  • Purim, after these constant remarks where we are told that we are inferior Jews, that we live wrong, raise our families wrong, are the agents of destruction of Judaism, etc., etc., etc., why do you think we should continue to engage the people making these accusations politely or at length? Their extremism is precisely what destroys dialogue, brotherhood and the possibility of interdenominational balance or agreement. It’s as if we have the Taliban among us telling us how to be good Jews and worse, who is not even a Jew or a real Jew. Rather than allow these voices to dominate, why not let the milder voices dominate?

  • TM — thank you.

    Saus — By bigoted I mean bigoted against Jews who do not practice the way you do. (That is, bigoted against a subgroup of a group you belong to, just like a lot of homosexuals are bigoted against bisexuals, even though they are all “queer.”)

    It is as if you are saying, “do it my way, or I won’t really consider you to be a Jew.” Not that you would *say* that, but…

    As much as you might wish, people like me are not going away, nor are many of going to change to be just like you in our Judaism. You’re stuck with us, sorry!

    Talk *with* us, not *at* us.

  • TM, my remark is directed equally toward both sides (Are there only 2?). I understand that these issues are wrapped up in deep emotion. And I understand the desire to withdraw from hurtful discussion. However, there are positive and negative ways to do that. I would argue one is better served maintaining the high ground in conversation, regardless of how the other side stoops. It’s like I tell my youth group kids when they fight. One of you needs to step up and be the bigger man. Who cares if you don’t get the last word in now, no one’s going to remember that years from now. People will remember, however, who it was that maintained their respect and dignity. People recognize good character, and that is the building block of solid reputation, and with it long term credibility.

    Very often, TM, (I single you out, because you are a member of the Jewlicious team, and not just a casual poster, so more is expected from you, at least when it comes to being a moderator on this site,) I find myself on the other side of the theological and philosophical fence as you. Yet, I continue to respect you, and I try to constantly stay above personal attacks. They don’t gain anything for everyone. I realize that very often the things that I say, because of the deeply rooted and personalized nature of religion and morality, can be painful for many people who disagree. Yet I hope that as a result of respectful tone and dialogue, my message comes across that I don’t desire to belittle anyone.

    Religious dialogue isn’t easy. Humanistic moral dialogue isn’t easy. If we are looking for easy, we should only talk about this stuff to people who already agree with us. But, if we hope to achieve anything greater then a get it off my chest rant from the discussions here on Jewlicious, then we must all be very careful of our choice of wording. We don’t need to sacrifice our message, but we may need to sacrifice a bit of our pride in order to maintain overall dignity and respect. In the end, we’ll all gain a lot more from it. There’s a lot of potential here, let’s not waist it on oneupmanship.

  • Really Quietann – I am not Orthodox, so the “way I do” is meaningless to me. It is you who is obsessed with ‘us’ & ‘them’ – I care only about Judaism.

    Let me talk to you & not at you. Maybe you & themiddle should reread my post, because I specifically addressed worship either by law, or spirituality or by mere education in Jewish History & Jewish Philosophy..

    These factors are grossly lacking in people who think Judaism is eating bagels and wearing Jewish T-Shirts.. It is most certainly NOT. Merely walking through the history drenched sands of Israel proves this reality for even the most secular jaded Jew, in denial of his or her heritage.

    And it is showing clearly in what is termed in the West a crisis. One need not be Orthodox to pick up the Torah, the Talmud and read, study and revel in these treasured texts, some of the oldest on Earth. Or perhaps study the hebrew language and be able to read the poetry & symmetry, the divine inspiration in the Torah itself which is lost in translation. This has nothing to do with being Orthodox. I assure you, practicing or not, these things will instill REAL Jewish identity.

    Illuminating, that ultra liberal secular Jews in their endless vilification of REAL culture, real tradition, real knowledge and real Jewish forms of identity, look down on these very same treasures so often indeed. Whether Judaism thrives in you is between you & Gd, no need to pass off to me pls.

    If one explores the religion a little beyond the superficial – instead of justifying via indignation what is clearly to many secular Jews a crisis of identity, one will find what it is to be a Jew.
    —-
    Themiddle, you can justify everything with closed mind and pith, but anyone reading here will see very clearly who’s minds are open, and who’s are very much closed.

  • No Saus, if your comment #18 had been reasonable and had stated what your last post does, you would not have received a strong reaction from anybody. You received strong responses because it was clearly derogatory. I happen to agree with much of what you write in your last comment.

    I will say that some of the shallowness is the result of people thinking that they don’t know enough and don’t know what to ask. When they do start asking or even if they are already involved in the way Conservative Jews often are, very often they are confronted with walls put up by people who claim to care but simply want to tell the world that no matter what you do, if you’re not devoutly observant – AKA Orthodox – you are destroying the Jewish people.

  • oddly enough, I am not a “culinary Jew.” Or maybe not so oddly, given that my upbringing was almost entirely non-religious save for a few years in the Unitarian Universalist church; I was not raised with “Jewish (ashkenazic) foods” and never really developed a taste for them. Now, with more exposure, I like some of these foods, but that has nothing to do with me being Jewish or identifying as Jewish. (The one exception being challah, which I now thoroughly identify with Shabbos — though we do not have challah for every Shabbos, I do make my own when I have time. I am not — obviously given when I am posting this — shomer shabbos BTW.)

    Now — my personal heresy. I do not, in fact, find Torah to be extremely inspiring. This does not mean it doesn’t contribute to my Jewish identity, but there are many things I find more inspiring, from my work towards managing the HIV epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa, to the garden (especially right now, because it’s raspberry season!), my relationship with my husband and other friends, the joy of friends’ children, struggling in my mind over Israel… I could go on. I do consider all of these things G-d given, to the degree I believe in G-d at all.

    I suppose that some might say that whether I read Torah for inspiration shouldn’t matter, since I’m female — and that itself is enough to turn me away from more observant Judaism. But if you asked my husband, who was raised much more Jewishly than I was, Torah would not be at the top of his list either. (To be fair, his bar mitzvah may have traumatized him for life WRT Torah, because he has a speech impediment that made reading his portion out loud very, very difficult. He made a lot of mistakes, and read so quietly that no one could hear him, and luckily the rabbi was kind and let it go. But it still has massive negative associations for him!)

  • Quietann, you make your own challah sometimes! How cool. One of the three big mitzvahs for Jewish women is “taking Challah”. It is very easy, totally private, and puts you right in the tradition.

    The other two big female mitzvot are ushering in Shabbat by lighting candles, and doing the family purity laws. I do light candles, but I am way too old to have experienced the last one, being BT and all. I have been to a mikveh however, and it was cool.

    If you knew all this already, please excuse me.

    By the way, orthodox Jews educate their girls and women, Torah, talmud, all of it, as much as they want. But no, the gender roles are not the same. I like the mechitzah, because I like the spiritual privacy, and it is much easier to make friends with women who are away from their husbands temporarily.

    in case you care, you can get a free female phone study partner at Partners in Torah, 1800-STUDY-4-2. They fix you up with someone who would be good for you.

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