Column: Some of my answers to ‘Why be Jewish?’

The second installment of my new column for The Jewish Standard came out on April 17. The March column talked about the importance of the question “Why be Jewish?” So I followed up this month with some of my own personal answers to the question:

In March I wrote in the Jewish Standard about the challenges posed to the organized Jewish community by my generation, the much- (if not, over-) discussed Millennials (“So, really, why be Jewish?”).

We need to refocus ourselves, I said, by turning away from questions like “Who is a Jew?” The key Jewish question of our time is this: Why be Jewish? “With the arrival and maturation of my generation, the Millennials, the question, ‘Who is a Jew?’ is rather passé,” I wrote. “The fact is that ‘Who is a Jew?’ is the wrong question. To maintain our relevance—to regain it, really—the question we must ask today is ‘Why be Jewish?’”

Although the rest of the column more deeply addressed the Millennials and the reasons to ask the why-be-Jewish question, a couple of readers (who read the piece much more sharply than I apparently had) pointed out that I did not offer my answer to the question.

They were right to point that out. It’s cheap to demand that others answer the question on my behalf. So I’ll offer up some answers here.

Check out the rest of it at The Jewish Standard.

Read full story · Comments { 2 }

My new column: Answering ‘Why be Jewish?’

I started writing a monthly column for The Jewish Standard (“the oldest Jewish weekly in New Jersey“) back in March. Many thanks to my friend, Larry Yudelson, for the opportunity.

The first installment, “Ask the right questions,” was published on March 6:

With the arrival and maturation of my generation, the Millennials, the question “Who is a Jew?” is rather passé.

Forget the halachic dimensions to this endlessly debatable topic. Forget all the moralizing arguments over the issue. Forget the demographically induced paranoia, the post-Holocaust hand-wringing, the Israeli legal maneuvering (not to mention the pandering that comes with it), and the denominational infighting. And — for heaven’s sake! — forget the Pew study.

The fact is that “Who is a Jew?” is the wrong question. To maintain our relevance — to regain it, really — the question we must ask today is “Why be Jewish?”

Check out the rest of it over here. It was also published, with the very slightest of tweaks, by New Jersey Jewish News.

Read full story · Comments { 2 }

New Ushpizin/ot: legendary, if unconventional, biblical heroes visit your sukkah

Ushpizin: It’s not just a movie about crooks and Chareidim in Jerusalem.

Ushpizin (guests in Aramaic) is also a quirky little ritual for metaphysically welcoming heroes from the bible into your sukkah. Much to my delight, modern versions that add women to the list of heroes abound! And now, Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI, the organization I work for) has put forth a delightfully subversive new version that includes some heroes of the Jewish spirit of being welcoming of diversity (including – gasp! – intermarried families). More on all of that below the picture….

More on Ushpizin from MyJewishLearning.com:

In addition to extending personal invitations to the needy (in former times it was customary to have at least one poor person at a Sukkot meal; today donation of funds often is a substitute), we open our homes symbolically.

With a formula established by the kabbalists in the 16th century, based on the earlier Zohar, on each night of Sukkot we invite one of seven exalted men of Israel to take up residence in the sukkah with us.

All seven traditional guests are men, of course: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph and David.

Though a number of Ushpizot versions (seven women instead of men) and combined ushpizin/ot versions (seven pairs of women and men) are now in circulation, the ritual has sadly fallen off the radar and out of common use in the left-of-Orthodox community – probably because of its bizarrely woo-woo character and its unabashedly patriarchal content. Though every version I’ve seen includes Sarah, fewer versions include all four matriarchs than you’d think. The lists I’ve seen have included any of the following:

  • Sarah
  • Rebecca
  • Rachel
  • Leah
  • Miriam
  • Deborah
  • Abigail
  • Huldah
  • Hannah
  • Esther
  • Ruth
  • Tamar
  • Dinah

Neohasid has a fascinating piece that puts forth a combined version, which pays close attention to the important role wacky kabbalistic stuff (which characters go well with which sefirot and so forth) plays in Ushpizin. Ritualwell, of course, has like a bajillion ushpizot things. Inevitably, there’s also ushpizot.org.

But what prompted me to write this post is the new version of Ushpizin/ot created by my boss, Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, which you should check out over here. Kerry’s version highlights seven biblical characters we can look to as role models in our efforts to make the Jewish community more actively welcoming toward intermarried families and a diversity of other backgrounds. Since Sukkot, not to mention the whole Ushpizin thing, is all about being welcoming, it makes perfect sense! Here are the seven on Kerry’s list:

  1. Bat Pharaoh
  2. Ezra
  3. Moses’ unnamed second wife
  4. Naomi
  5. Osnat
  6. Ruth
  7. Tzipporah

And you should check out his explanations of each one in full too.

P.S.

As Kerry was writing, he asked around the office for suggestions. I pointed out how interesting it was that everyone on his list so far, purely by chance, were women! Then, thinking about JOI’s Public Space Judaism model, I suggested he include Ezra, the scribe who began the practice of bringing the Torah to the people and reading it in public.

Read full story · Comments { 11 }
Quote

John Propper’s Path to Judaism, Part 2

When my wife’s grandfather immigrated to the U.S., he took the name Propper, a shortening of his birth name. He’d escaped the pogroms, and the future was bright. As an American Jew, he was a respected member of his communities, both religious and secular. He made the most of his great potential. His story resonates with me. After years in an isolated community, I escaped, got an education, fell in love, discovered Judaism, and found a place of my own. The future is bright. I wanted to pass on a name to my children, b’ezrat Hashem [God willing], that reflects that potential. I am honored to share it with him.
John's answer to my question about changing his last name

The second half of my two-part interview with my friend, former colleague and all-around interesting dude John Propper is now up at the Jewish Outreach Institute blog. When he started working for me at New Voices he went by John Wofford. I got into the habit of calling him just “Wofford,” which has made adjusting to his new last name particularly difficult for me. But I love his reason for it! Check out the rest of part 2 over here or go back and catch up on part 1.

Read full story · Comments { 0 }
Quote

A Rabbinate-Bound Convert’s Story

He comes from a Pentecostal family, went to a Catholic college, converted with a Reform rabbi, changed his last name, married into the interfaith family of a nice Jewish girl—and he’ll be a first-year student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in the fall. John is a good friend of mine. Until now, I’ve been learning his story in bits and pieces. So, to get a more complete picture—and believing readers of this blog would find his journey as interesting as I do—I interviewed him about his story so far.
Part one of my two-part interview with John Propper for the Jewish Outreach Institute Blog

Check it out. It’s my second blog post for the Jewish Outreach Institute. This one is the first part of a two-parter so stay tuned for second half.

Read full story · Comments { 0 }
Quote

Patrilineality & My New Job

My non-Jewish roommates were confused by the idea that I would “convert” to Judaism. “From what?” Brent asked. It was a fair question. Jon seconded: “Yeah, if you’re not Jewish now, what are you?” There was no easy answer. My first attempt at answering them – I launched into a preamble about my half-baked idea of drawing a distinction between “converting” and “undergoing a conversion” – didn’t help much.
My first blog post for the Jewish Outreach Institute

Better late than never, right? I’m finally getting around to pointing y’all toward this now weeks-old blog post, the first of my monthly blog posts for the Jewish Outreach Institute. (As you may recall, I recently started a new job at JOI.) If you’ve read the op-ed I wrote for The Forward about the Conservative conversion I underwent a while back, this post will cover some familiar ground — but from a different perspective and for a different purpose.

Read full story · Comments { 0 }

My new job: Program Associate, Jewish Outreach Institute

For a while there I was very anxious about my search for a new job:

  • What should it be?
  • Do I want to stay in journalism?
  • What kind of career do I want?
  • What will the rest of my life look like? Are there any other unnecessarily big questions that will make this an even more stressful time that I’m not already stressing about that I should be stressing about?
  • Etc?

My therapist, however, was too smart for that shit. Her advice, plainly obvious in retrospect, was this: There’s no need to figure out your entire life just yet; for now, all you need is a job you can see yourself doing for a few years. That was several months ago. Looking back, it’s laughable what a stunning revelation that seemed me. As I’m only qualified to work in the Jewish non-profit world, I made a list of Jewish non-profits doing work I believe in, hoping that one or two would have openings I could apply for.

The Jewish Outreach Institute was on the top of my list. As luck would have it, they needed a new Program Associate. I start on Monday!

They do great work, working to make the entire  Jewish community more open, inviting and welcoming to more kinds of Jews. Here are a couple of their (our?) programs I’m most excited about:

  • The Mothers Circle: a series of programs for women from other backgrounds who are raising Jewish children with their Jewish partners. Given my own background, this program really speaks to me.
  • Passover in the Matzah Aisle: More Jews observe Passover in one way or another than any other Jewish holiday. Because it’s mostly observed in the home, none of the barriers to entering a Jewish institution are present. JOI meets them right where they are, setting up in grocery store matzah aisles.

That is all. Carry on.

Read full story · Comments { 2 }

Help David A.M. Wilensky Get a Job

After two years, my term as Editor in Chief of New Voices and Executive Director of the Jewish Student Press Service is nearly up. I’m leaving New Voices and JSPS at the end of June to do… something else.

I may stay in journalism, I may move into communications or I may do something entirely new. I’m looking at and applying for a variety of things, all in either the non-profit world or the journalism/internet content world, most in the Jewish non-profit world.

If you know of something you think I could do, let me know!

Thanks, y’all.

UPDATE: I have a new job!

Read full story · Comments { 0 }

What the Orthodox think about us… and what we think about them

I work very closely with Simi, a Jew who is very Orthodox (she’s my age and about to get married) and very modern (she associates with Jews of all types and started wearing pants last week).

Right before Rosh Hashanah, she was surprised to discover that there are observant Jews (Reform, etc.) who only do one day of yom tov. And yesterday she turned to me and said, “So I hear Reform Jews do actually fast on Yom Kippur.” I was dumbfounded.

A little while later, she saw an article someone posted on Facebook that had something to do with the Orthodox. A comment on it read, “I am almost always impressed by the trends of thought in Judaism. The only exceptions are anytime I encounter information about the Orthodox.”

Simi turned to me and said, “What is this about? Why do people think this?”

Read full story · Comments { 6 }

Welcome, Jewniverse Readers!

If you’ve arrived here because of today’s Jewniverse email, welcome! (If you’ve come for some other reason, well….)

And if you’re a regular here and you don’t know what I’m talking about: My Jewish Learning does this great daily email called Jewniverse. The material in the emails is original — I don’t even think it appears online at MJL — and it’s all over the map.

The signup page on their site says it’s about “the inspiration, the extraordinary, and the just plain strange.” We’ll leave aside the matter of which of those three categories I fall into. So I’ll just say that I’m a big fan, I get it every day and you should too.

The text of today’s email:

Book reviews are found in newspapers, magazines, and literary journals. But what about prayer book reviews? Who can you go to for a good siddur review?

Writer and editor David A.M. Wilensky answered that question with his blog, the Reform Shuckle. Here, Wilensky posted lengthy reviews of any siddur or Mahzor (High Holiday prayer book) he came across. A true siddur enthusiast, he commented on everything from design and layout, to commentary, liturgical integrity, and of course translation. He dings one siddur for coming without a bookmark ribbon, and praises another for “sensical and elegant line breaks…with the blocks of English and the blocks of Hebrew mirroring each other in shape like a Rorschach ink blot test.”

These days Wilensky, who’s the editor-in-chief of New Voices, has a new blog, but you can still explore the archives at the Reform Shuckle, and read his thoughts on all kinds of liturgical texts, from old family siddurim, to new bentchers.

Read full story · Comments { 0 }