This is a brief statement of revolutionary Judaism. In it we try to address some of the possible failings and potential answers to issues plaguing Judaism today. It is not an official statement of belief, but it is close. It is more like a letter written by two people who love Judaism, love their fellow Jews, and want to make the future a better place for all of us.
At first glance, Parsha Vayeshev seems like a pretty harsh and destructive time for G-d. Jacob is desperately praying that the generations of family woes will finally be over yet we see intense turmoil with Joseph and his brothers. The brothers eventually rough him up a bit and throw him in a pit. The Torah states that, “And they sat down to eat bread, and they lifted up their eyes and looked, and behold, a company of Yishme’alim came from Gilad with their camels carrying aromatic gum, balm, and ladanum, going to carry it down to Egypt” (Genesis 37:25). This is the caravan the brothers will sell Joseph into slavery. Let’s put this in perspective: your brothers hate you, they just beat you up, threw you into a pit for who knows how long, took your awesome coat, and sold you into slavery. Why do you care that the caravan you’re gonna be stuck on for your not-so-happy ride down to Egypt smells nice?
Simply put, while we’re rejoicing in our happiness or mourning our destruction, G-d is simply creating. All of the good and bad moments of our lives are simply moments in time of G-d constantly creating the world so that we can all reach our potential. We often don’t see the meaning behind our suffering until days, months, years or even generations later. However, G-d will never allow us to suffer an iota more than is necessary. Joseph’s suffering was necessary so that the humiliation would humble him. Also, this event would bring his family to Egypt, where they would escape the famine. Even further than that, it would bring the rest of Israel down to Egypt where they would eventually have to endure the pain of slavery as a nation; the path in which the Nation of Israel is redeemed, given the torah and brought to Eretz Yisroel. However, despite all that, Joseph was spared the discomfort of the normally pungent smells that would accompany a caravan. This was a small reminder from G-d that all was not lost and that Joseph would not have to suffer any more than absolutely necessary, even if just a small discomfort.
Often when we are struggling through a particularly difficult time we don’t even notice the seemingly small discomforts, or lack thereof. Yet, it is in these details that we might recognize G-d’s hints to us that every moment of mourning or rejoicing in our lives is just a fleeing moment of creation leading us to our full potential. This reminds me of one of my favorite King Solomon stories. The king wanted to humble one of his most trusted wise men, Benaiah. He asked Benaiah to find him a magic ring that would make a happy man sad, and a sad man happy. He knew that no such ring existed but wanted to bring a sense of humility to Benaiah since he was known to brag amongst the other advisors. After months of searching with no luck, Benaiah happened upon an old merchant in one of the poorest quarters of Jerusalem. He asked the old man if he knew of such a ring. The man took a ring from his wares and engraved some words. When Benaiah saw the engraving he knew he had found the ring. That night when the king asked him to produce the magic ring, everyone was surprise when Benaiah actually pulled out a ring. King Solmon saw engraved “Gam Ze Ya’avor” – “This too shall pass.” At that moment the king knew that all his wisdom, wealth and power were just fleeting things, and he was saddened by the thought. But our sufferings will pass as well, a thought that should always keep us happy and comforted.
POINT: By Leon Adato
I had the good luck to grow up with Lee Unkrich, who’s been at Pixar since (just about) the beginning. He and I have talked about how the “traditional animation studios” complain that nobody wants to see regular old animated movies any more, they all want CGI. Lee argues (and I agree) that this is utter hogwash. Movie-goers just want a good story. It can be hand-drawn, CGI, mixed media, live action, or sock-puppets. Give people an engaging narrative, Lee assured me, and they will come to the theater.
Why am I telling you this? Because synagogues may be making the same mistake.
Recently, the URJ advertised a course (an online “webinar”, no less) on how to build a youth-friendly congregation” (“What Does a Youth-Friendly Congregation Look Like?“).
I’m skeptical, because I’ve heard and read a lot about this subject in the last few years (being an IT professional AND fairly active with a few synagogues in my area). The discussion takes many forms, from how to make a service more “hip” or “relevant” to ways to use “social media” (which is really just code for “How to get people to click “like” on your Facebook fan page”).
I think these efforts are not only doomed to failure, and not only a waste of effort and resources, but also are completely missing the point. Just as in Lee Unkrich’s comment about movies, people are simply looking for a good story. In the case of a congregation, they are looking for a compelling narrative – a narrative where they can envision themselves as playing a part.
You don’t make a congregation more “youth friendly” by running down a list of check boxes, any more than you can make a movie worth watching that way (“Hero viewers can identify with?” check. “Heart-stopping action sequence?” check. “Wholesome yet enticing love interest?” check….).
You don’t create a compelling Jewish community by building a website that auto-syncs the shul calendar to the visitor’s iPhone.
My real beef with this thinking is that it’s disingenuous from the very start. There is a huge gap between wanting a congregation which is just plain welcoming to everyone who comes through the doors and one which says “OK, let’s go after THAT demographic!”
As my friend Doug says: “It’s like the old quote by Jean Giraudoux. ‘The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that you’ve got it made’. All of the techniques to build a youth-friendly congregation are actually just ways to fake that you want a ‘youth friendly congregation’ – because otherwise you would already have it!”
Doug highlighted another flaw in the logic: “Do you REALLY want a youth friendly congregation? Be prepared to be less comfortable yourself, particularly if you need to resort to webinars to figure out how to do that, because you are, obviously, not part of the youth culture yourself and, if you succeed, will create a community where they will be comfortable and you will not.”
Changing your congregation – or even building a programming track for a sub-community – that is specifically for one demographic has the built-in pitfall of being, almost by it’s definition, NOT appropriate for other sub-groups within your organization. Sometimes this is normal, natural and organic. Your “Tot-Shabbat” program is pretty much self-explanatory and doesn’t include the “hip single 20-somethings”; and even a group as all-encompassing as a Temple Sisterhood has easily recognizable and logical limits (ie: no guys). But beyond those examples, why build boundaries where there don’t need to be any?
“Making your congregation more youth-friendly” falls into the trap identified by Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman in his book Rethinking Synagogues , where he says
“I charge synagogues with being a market, not a sacred community; hewing to an ethnic and corporate model that was outmoded twenty years ago; and pursuing an atomistic existence (as if they need not collaborate with each other or with other Jewish organizations).”
What I’m getting at is this: I don’t want to see synagogues waste precious time and resources building a “youth-friendly” environment. Or a “singles-friendly” environment. Or an “old-fart-friendly” environment. I am also not advocating being “friendly to all” because – while it’s a good goal – it’s far too vague to be acted upon and, as Rabbi Hoffman points out,
“…despite the claims of the regulars, synagogues are by and large neither welcoming nor warm;…”
Instead, I would like to see congregations put effort into removing elements that make them youth-hostile (or singles-un-friendly, or old-fart-exclusionist). That’s not the same thing as being friendly to a specific group, either. In removing un-friendly barriers, you haven’t STOPPED doing what was good and successful for the core existing group (unless part of that success was in excluding other folks, in which case we need to have a talk.). And once the barriers are removed, you can use some means (yes, that can include whiz-bang internet tools like niTwit and MyFace) to let youth know that they are, at least, not unwelcome…in fact, would be welcomed into the community…on their own terms, as a human who has to bend a little to the others in the community, but not be broken in the process. Just as the OTHER members of the community are going to have to bend (enough with the complaining about the kids with piercings already, Mildred!) but without being forced to break.
As The Rebbetzin says, “Offering people a way to participate that is meaningful to them is the key to building membership. Then use social media to keep them connected.”
So my advice? Skip the webinar and just take a walk around your organization (whether that’s a building, a website, a mission statement, or a weekly service). Look at it like you really mean it; look at it like you want to see what it REALLY is, rather than just what you remember it was or wish it was or believe it is in your heart if only other people could see it the way you do.
Instead, YOU see it the way THEY do.
And then be prepared to start breaking down a few walls.
COUNTERPOINT: By Rabbi Susan Stone
Let me start off by saying that I really like kids. A lot. I especially like them when they are running through the halls at temple or boarding buses at 5:00 a.m. on their way to youth group events in distant cities.
More about them in a minute.
So, here I am in mid October. I am sitting at my desk after a morning of hospital visitation and lunch with an old friend. (He’s less impressed with my being a rabbi than those in the congregation I serve. It is a good thing.) I’m typing this while waiting for a conference call to begin. The bat mitzvah family just changed their 6:45 pm appointment to 5:00. It means that my son and I can grab dinner before the 7:30 mikveh association meeting.
It’s a good thing that our Executive Director and office manager have been in the building to get the letter from the chair of the Women’s Committee that I need to edit to go with the baskets they send to our newest members on Chanukah.
But back to the conference call – it is my second one this week. The first was a study of texts from the Qu’ran. This one is a gathering of rabbis who are working in interim situations. We are meeting with a coach from the Interim Ministers Network – a minister with extensive experience in what is an emerging field in Jewish life.
Elsewhere in the building, the Educator is following up on children who haven’t shown up for Sunday School yet this year. The Family Educator is working on logistics for the 8th grade Shul-In (overnight program) with her counterpart from another congregation down the street. They both need to remind the students that there will be no class on October 31st so the teachers can attend an in-service program they designed.
The custodian is occupied with the landscapers, trying to get ready for winter and installing the new plantings donated by congregants in memory of a beloved parent. We really want to get those in the ground before winter – they hide the gas well which was drilled last year. The Board negotiated that contract and we hope it will provide the Temple with some income. One of the groups which rent space from us during the day is packing up; my guess is that they’ll be back next week.
Now that I’ve laid out all of that, I’ll get back to the issue at hand: why I think it is great – and not insincere or disingenuous – that congregations build youth-friendly environments.
We need youth-friendly environments because my son will only watch Dancing With the Stars when Kurt Warner is on. We need a youth-friendly environment because teenage girls won’t shop in the same stores as their mothers. And I will go a step further – I think it is great that there is a seminar of building a youth-friendly environment in a congregation BUT it doesn’t go far enough. I want a youth-friendly department because teenagers do get obnoxious and other people’s adorable children mispronouncing the Sh’ma while trying to lead services is only cute the first twenty three times.
But that is not all. Leon claims he’s skeptical. He should be. And it is true that,
“You don’t make a congregation more “youth friendly” by running down a list of check boxes, any more than you can make a movie worth watching that way (“Hero viewers can identify with?” check. “Heart-stopping action sequence?” check. “Wholesome yet enticing love interest?” check….).”
But he misses the point. Sometimes it has to be about checklists and clumsy use of social media – and artificiality and even insincerity. And yes, it is going to make people uncomfortable.
Actually, I hope people are made incredibly uncomfortable. I want our longest time members to wonder what is becoming of “their” congregation. I want them to complain a lot and then I want them to stop and watch what is happening and I want them to be glad. And then I want them to still attend those functions and services and activities that they have loved for the last 50 years (and 50 more, please God).
And then I want them to realize that being youth-friendly isn’t as good as just being friendly.
Do I wish we didn’t have to do this? I do – I wish we could build Leon’s utopia. But plants need to be planted and conference calls endured and visits made and programs planned. So much of the business of running a congregation is business. I acknowledge that people needing to be met where they are is more important that gas wells (unless you want to pay the bills on time). I also acknowledge that we live in a world that is trending toward increasingly personal attentions being paid in group settings. Yes, we should work against it but while we are doing that we cannot ignore the trend either. Our congregations need to be contemporary (while upholding ancient values of course). So, once again, we are called upon not to chose either/or but to do both/and: to serve our constituents and then make them uncomfortable about being so well served. Then we can plant the bulbs, pray that the roof holds for another winter and mail the publicity. Yes, we have to take temporizing measures and live in the real world – and also work and hope for better.
And I will still read the latest research and try new things and dream of bottom-up rebuilding.
Do I wish we were more perfect? Of course I do. I wish we could be holistic and inclusive and seamless and always engaging. But our synagogues have been the homes for our souls and the one and only symbol of our endurance for many a century. Let’s make them better – of course! But let’s also celebrate the beauty that radiates from their imperfections every day of the year.
Rabbi Susan Stone leads Suburban Temple – Kol Ami in Cleveland Ohio. She has been a congregational Rabbi for over 25 years (having been ordained at the age of seven, of course). In her practically non-existent spare time she worries about her two sons. She also loves long walks on the beach, which are sadly in short supply in Cleveland.
~ This is just an excerpt from the Wheel of the Year Guide for Rosh Chodesh Kislev. Subscribe for free and receive the entire guide each month. ~
Kislev 5771 begins at sundown on Sunday, November 7th, 2010 and ends at sundown on Monday, December 6, 2010
Kislev (כִּסְלֵו) is called the month of dreams because nine of the ten dreams explicitly mentioned in the Torah occur in the Torah portions of Kislev (Inner.org), which explains why Kohenet associates Kislev with the Baalot Ov (בַּעֲלַת-אוֹב)– but what does that have to do with Benjamin? Benjamin is the last son of Jacob and the only full brother of Joseph. When he was born Rachel named him Ben-Oni (בֶּן-אוֹנִי), son of my sorrow (Gen 35:18), as she died giving birth. Jacob renamed him Benyamin (בִּנְיָמִין), son of the right hand – or good luck (Jewish Encyclopedia). Just in the moment of his birth, Benjamin is both a blessing and a curse.
I find it interesting that Benjamin’s birth is part of Genesis 35. In this one passage Jacob’s camp gives up their “strange gods” (35:2-4), Rebekah’s nurse Deborah dies (35:8), Jacob is given the name Yisrael (35:10), Ben-Oni is born (35:18), Ben-Oni is renamed Ben Yamin (35:18), Rachel dies (35:19), and Issac dies (35:29).
The next we hear of Benjamin is in Gen 42:4, when his other brothers are sent to Egypt to seek food to relieve the family from the famine. He appears nowhere in the story between his birth and the next time he plays another role as a catalyst of events over which he has no control.
When, Benjamin, this beloved child is given his blessing by Jacob:
“Benjamin is a wolf that raveneth; in the morning he devoureth the prey, and at even he divideth the spoil.” (Gen 49:27)
Does this sound like the blessing you give a beloved child? The tribe of Benjamin was known as incredibly skilled warriors, and a bit ruthless. But in the end, this last child of Yisrael, is the ancestral line that gives us our first King – Saul. Another interpretation that makes a great deal of sense to me is that Benjamin’s blessing refers to the Temple where offerings were given the morning, and the edible portions divided among the priests and people in the evenings. (Jewish Encyclopedia) I also think it is very possible that is refers to the fact that his birth (morning) caused the death of Rachel, but in the end (evening) his life brings great good by reuniting the family and his tribal lands are the ones set aside for the the Temple.
The blessing of Moses (Deut 33:12), brings a new sense of the blessing of Benjamin and what we can learn from it.
“Of Benjamin he said: The beloved of the LORD shall dwell in safety by Him; He covereth him all the day, and He dwelleth between his shoulders.”
This seems to clarify his first blessing for me. Those wolf’s pack does not need to fear him. He will feed not only himself, but also those in his protection. Who would challenge a “ravenous wolf?”
I think the lesson I find in the Tribe of Benjamin for Kislev is reconciling how bad or tragic events can lead to unexpectedly beautiful or positive things. It is the challenge to reconcile how any war can be just. It is the challenge to transform the fear caused by nightmares into becoming better people in the waking world. How do we accept that for the pack to be fed — something may have to die? Do we see the archer’s bow (קֶשֶׁת), the astrological sign for Kislev, as the ability to protect ourselves or wage war? Even if we see the Keshet (קֶשֶׁת) as the rainbow — how do we reconcile the destruction of the flood and survival of one small group with the death of millions? How do we reconcile the death and destruction of Hanukkah with the celebration of our deliverance?
How do we do transform what could be the greatest curse into the greatest blessing?
This is the lesson I found. What do you see?
Want more insights into Kislev?
~ This is just an excerpt from the Wheel of the Year Guide for Rosh Chodesh Kislev. Subscribe for free and receive the entire guide each month. ~
By Danny Stauffer
One day as I was studying the Torah I noticed that the commandment to love the stranger was repeated several times. I’m sure as good Jews we’ve all read the Torah and noticed the same thing. In fact, I think anybody, regardless of your level of observance, has come across that commandment several times during their studies.
Why is it repeated so many times? One could assume that a commandment repeated is probably pretty important. So the reason? Because we were once strangers in Egypt. It’s all about not sympathy, but empathy. We have been there before. In fact, we’re there now. If you live anywhere outside of Israel, you’re not in a Jewish nation. So, you could say that we are strangers once again in another’s land.
None of that is news to any of you, I’m sure. What might be news to you is that this commandment seems to be quite often forgotten. If not forgotten then outright ignored! I, believe it or not, am a stranger. I did not come to Judaism through the womb but instead through conversion (which I’m still in that process). And oddly enough, some of the most discouraging people have been Jews. I have been told by Jews that because I’m a homosexual, even with an Orthodox conversion, I’d never be a real Jew. And I’m not the only one.
During my time as a “Jew Under Construction” I’ve developed a network of other converts and people who are converting. And would you believe it? I’m not the only one who faces these issues. A very good friend of mine was so immersed in her Jewish community that even the men (it was a Frum community) were astonished by her knowledge. Yet many refused to call her a Jew. She eventually gave up. No community wanted her to be a part of it so she became a Muslim in order to have a community to pray with (there is nothing wrong with that, of course. It’s just unfortunate that she had to seek elsewhere for a religious community.). After her conversion to Islam her rabbi encouraged her room mates to move out of the apartment.
Where is the kindness to strangers there? Perhaps the more frum will say that we need to segregate ourselves to keep us free from outside influences. But what will that accomplish? I find more segregated Jews leaving their faith than integrated Jews. I can understand being against intermarriage, but let’s face it; we live in a world of non-Jews. We can’t just ignore the rest of the population. I always thought the whole idea behind Judaism and Tikkun Olam was to lead by example. Therefore, when somebody wishes to follow our example, even if not in our exact idea, should we not encourage it? Should we not assist in it?
I have accepted the fact that no matter what route I take for my conversion there will always be large portions of the Jewish community who don’t see me as Jewish. For the most part, I am fine with just ignoring them. With or without a conversion I consider myself Jewish and bound by Jewish law. And part of that law tells me that I have to treat the stranger with kindness and respect. And some day, when the stranger approaches me and asks me how he, too, can become a Jew, I wouldn’t dare tell him to think twice. I wouldn’t tell him he can’t be Jewish because he’s different. I won’t judge him. I will instead give him a hug and call him brother.