Tag Archives | urj

When the laity just sit there and flail…

The congregation in this anecdote will remain anonymous. Suffice it to say that it is URJ-affiliated and around 700 families. I promise it’s a true story that I heard recently from a source in a position to know.

After years of tweaking Friday night service times at least annually, the synagogue settled, seemingly happily, on services at 6:30 p.m. every Shabbat evening.

This went along fine for a while, but a few vociferous folks, 20 or 30 people, complained that they couldn’t make it to services if they were that early.

The Ritual Committee felt that since no time would work for everyone, they wouldn’t go out of their way to accommodate this handful of people.

The President of the congregation felt differently and demanded that the Ritual Committee and the Rabbis create a once a month 8 p.m. service for the people who can’t make it to the 6:30 p.m. service.

Hardly anyone comes, but the service goes on.

Immediately, I thought, why not create an 8 p.m. monthly lay-led service. The people who can only come late would love it and a whole other crop of people who prefer lay-led services and like to lead them would latch onto it also.

So I asked the guy telling me this story if they considered a lay-led service. Yes, he told me, they had. It was the first thing that the Ritual Committee thought of.

They floated this idea around to the people who wanted the 8 p.m. service. No good, these people said. We want a “real” service led by the professionals with a real sermon and real music.

God forbid anyone should take responsibility for their own Jewish needs. Make sure you get the professionals to take care of it.

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When I say “the Reform intellectual community”…

…what do I mean?

I’ve been throwing the term “Reform intellectual community” around a bit since I declared independence from the Reform movement. Recently, commenter ML called me out on the term:

David, could you elaborate a little more regarding the Reform intellectual community. What is it exactly and how does it stand apart (or not) from the rest of the Reform world?

Good question, ML. I’m glad you asked. I’ll answer it with a series of definitions, building up to a definition of the Reform intellectual community. In this post, I will attempt the lofty goal of defining four things: the Reform movement, Reform Judaism, Reform Jews and the Reform intellectual community.

The Reform movement is a collection of organizations devoted to building and supporting Reform communities, projects and concerns. This includes the Union for Reform Judaism, the organization made up of Reform synagogues in North America; the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the professional organization for Reform rabbis in North America; the Religious Action Center, a DC-based political lobby that works on initiatives that the URJ has officially supported; Hebrew Union College, the four-campus institution devoted to training professional Reform leaders, including rabbis, cantors and educators. To be sure, there are institutions that also comprise what I call the Reform movement outside of North America, such as the World Union for Progressive Judaism and Leo Baeck College, but I am most familiar with their North American counterparts, so I tend to focus on those.

Reform Judaism, however, is not the same thing as the Reform movement and much harder to define. I’m gonna make a stab at defining it, knowing full well what kind of bone-picking will commence in the comments. Continue Reading →

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“Integrationist” Reform weakened by ritual?

In an oddball pre-Thanksgiving op-ed piece in The Forward, Rabbi Jacob Neusner tells the story of his beginnings as a Reform Jew, his rabbinical education and career as a Conservative Jew, and his eventual return to the Reform fold.

It’s an interesting story, which you can read in full here.

Here at The Shuckle, we’ll look at a few of his more bizarre statements about Reform Judaism.

First of all, you have to understand Neusner’s dichotomy (false? jury is out on that…) of Jewish life. He declares that American Jewish life is composed of self-segregationist and integrationist elements. He places Conservative, Modern Orthodox, Reconstructionist and Reform streams in the integrationist camp, meaning that they seek to be integrated into broader society and that they find their truths in many places, including in the Torah.

The self-segregationist group, according to Neusner is composed of “Orthodox groupings such as Hasidism and yeshivish or Mitnagdic Judaism,” who find truth only in Jewish traditional learning. OK. Fine. Without giving it too much thought, this seems like a fairly apt dichotomy, though I might argue that most dichotomies of religion fail at some point. But that’s for another blog post.

Neusner is fairly “triumphalist” about Reform Judaism, as Rabbi Andy Bachman noted in a brief Facebook wall post about this today. And triumphalist he is:

Today, however, I have returned to the convictions (if not to the cuisine) of my youth — not because they are expedient but because they are compelling. After a half-century of apostasy, I affirm Reform Judaism as the American Judaism both of my personal choice and of our communal necessity. Indeed, I have come to believe that if Reform Judaism did not exist today, American Jews would have to invent it.

He then goes on to decry “The sorry state of Conservative Judaism.” I’d argue that the Conservative movement has actually been the more bold of the two lately. Just compare their Hekhsher Tzedek with the URJ’s new “Let’s eat less red meat, but not acknowledge that mindful eating is a Jewish tradition” initiative.

But then he gets to the bit that really gets me upset:

Over the past half-century, however, the integrationist Judaisms have sometimes seemed to lose sight of their convictions. Modern Orthodoxy has been under siege from its right flank, while even Reform Judaism has chosen to re-adopt some traditional rites. The outcome of this reversion to tradition has been to effectively present the integrationist Judaisms as less authentically Jewish than Orthodoxy.

He’s so close to being on the nose that it hurts me to read it.

Have “integrationist Judaisms” been seen recently as “less authentically Jewish than Orthodoxy”? Yes. But is that recent phenomenon only? I’m not sure. Is it because the Reform movement has realized that people like ritual? No.

Neusner incorrectly identifies increased ritual observances as Reform’s true plight. In my eyes, as any regular reader of this blog will know, that is the Reform intellectual community’s latest triumph! What has led to us being seen as “less authentic” is an obliviousness to or an unwillingness to thing about framing and branding, as any reader of BZ will know.

Ironically, if you buy into BZ’s reading of this situation (and I do), you will see that Neusner is guilty of the very thing that has led to the sense of diminished authenticity he’s upset about. “Reform Judaism has chosen to re-adopt some traditional rites.” Here he buys into the framing of the word “traditional” offered up by the right. He agrees with them, implying, “If it’s a ritual more common on the right, it is something truly worthy of the word traditional.”

I reject that. I’m a Jew of tradition and of Reform and there is no contradiction in terms in saying so.

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The URJ on blogging: “Yay blogging! We almost get it!”

3,000-some-odd URJ Jews are in Toronto this weekend for the URJ Biennial. I’m following along on twitter (#urjbiennial).

Every biennial, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the president of the Union, make his “State of the Union” sermon from atop the mega-pulpit erected for the convention on Shabbat morning. In this sermon, Yoffie announces the Union’s newest biennial initiatives. Last time, he unveiled the “Shabbat” initiative–how creative, Jews celebrating Shabbat!–and this time he’s unveiled something called the Embracing Technology initiative.

Overall, I think it’ll be a good thing. We here in the Reformish corner of the jblogosphere have been straining to be heard for some time so it’s nice to find a new Union site basically devoted to how to get your congregation into the conversation going on out here.

Except, oh wait. It’s not about how to jump into the conversation. It’s about how to start a blog for your congregation. And how to moderate comments. How inspired. The fact that moderating comments is one of the chief concerns of the site is pretty tell-tale.

When stuffy corporations begin blogging or tweeting, it’s a huge change in the way they think, and it’s rarely as quick as you’d want it to be. From Sinai, marketing was a one-way conversation. You’d spread your message and if people liked it and the way your presented it, they’d buy your stuff (or do whatever it is your advertising wanted them to do).

The new way is two-way. You say what you have to say and a conversation starts. If you’re doing it right, it’s an open conversation and it happens in real time. When the blogger or the administrator is away from the computer, the conversation continues because at all times of day or night, people can continue to make their comments on your post. Or, in the case of twitter, they can continue to @reply to you or use #tags that refer to you.

If your blog is moderated, this process grinds to a halt. The open and real exchange of ideas that a blog done right promotes is over when your moderate. The openness can be scary.

You need no more proof of the fact that the Union doesn’t get what we’re doing out here than to check out RJ.org. With a few notable exceptions, the RJ.org blog has become more and more of a URJ cheerleader in it’s year and a half of existence.

So, congregations, if you’re listening, the way to get into the conversation out here on the internet fringe isn’t to do what the Union is telling you. The way to do it is to read some blogs. And when you feel like you get it, start your own. Don’t jump in based on URJ advice alone.

Shabbat Shalom to everyone out there in Biennial-land.

Update! Just found RJ Blogs, where they’ll create a blog for you. With WordPress. Very impressive. *eye roll*

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URJ President Yoffie booed at J Street, I smirk

Originally posted to Jewschool.

Maybe there’s some hubris involved when I chime in on the ongoing J Street conference. I’m not even there and we’ve got four or five Jewschoolers there covering it quite capably here and at Twitter. But when Eric Yoffie, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism shows up at J Street and gets booed by a crowd, I’ve got to say something. After all, I’m the self-proclaimed URJ expert here at Jewschool. Indeed, one of our guest posters has already written about this beautiful moment in this post, but I’ll take a very different angle.

To recap the relationship so far between the URJ and J Street, though Yoffie and the Religious Action Center (a DC lobby affiliated with the URJ) were initially quite warm to J Street, Yoffie lost his cool with J Street during the Gaza shit early this year. He disagreed vehemently with J Street’s assessment that Operation Cast Lead was a bad idea in this Forward op-ed. Here is J Street’s response to the piece.

But now, it seems that Yoffie sees that J Street agrees with him on more than it disagrees. And it seems J Street sees the value in having the leader of the largest Jewish religious organization in America present at their inaugural conference.

Here’s the text of his address to the J Street conference yesterday. An excerpt:

This is not the time for a full discussion of the Goldstone report, which in my view was fatally flawed. There are many questions that one might legitimately ask about Israel’s conduct of the war: Why was it necessary for Israeli forces to use so much firepower? How do you carry out a war against a terrorist organization that attacks your citizens and hides amid a civilian population? What risks are Israeli soldiers obligated to take, beyond those inherent in combat, to prevent harm to civilians? The Israelis that I know are asking these questions; it is right for them to do so, and it is right for the government of Israel to deal with these issues.

“This is not the time for a full discussion of the Goldstone report”? Which Yoffie then spends several paragraphs going on about?

Here’s RJ.org’s horn-tooting celebration of the address. An excerpt:

Rabbi Yoffie is widely considered the American Jewish community’s leading “dove.” His address at J Street’s conference underscores both the maturity of the dialogue over Middle East peace and the Reform Movement’s commitment to peace.

And here’s what Tablet had to say about the address. An excerpt:

[…] the 1,500 progressive activists gathered in Washington for this week’s J Street conference really, really agree with each other. The only division we’ve seen on display, in fact, came this afternoon, when Rabbi Eric Yoffie, head of the Union for Reform Judaism, that movement’s organizing body, showed up for a “town hall” discussion with J Street’s founder, Jeremy Ben Ami. […]

Yoffie drew boos from the crowd for suggesting that Gazans invited their current circumstances by voting for Hamas after Israel withdrew from the territory in 2006, and for defending Israel against accusations, particularly in a recent U.N. report by Richard Goldstone, that it may have committed war crimes in Gaza. […]

(They all clapped at the end, though.)

This points to what it means to be pro-peace for the URJ and much of its membership. I grew up neck-deep in Reform politics, so I don’t doubt the URJ’s commitment to peace for Israel and the world. Unfortunately, the URJ is constantly treading a fine line where they want to be seen as pro-peace without willing to be as critical of Israel as such a position demands.

This cognitive dissonance is what leads to slight rift between J Street and the URJ. To summarize Yoffie, “The Gazans brought it on themselves. It’s no really Israel’s fault. But we want peace for both sides anyway.” This positions wants to have it too many ways for the positions to stay coherent.

If the URJ has a contribution to make to the pro-Israel pro-peace discussion, shit or get off the pot. Do it or go away. If J Street is right when they claim to represent a majority and if the URJ’s membership is as liberal as anecdotal evidence has proven to me that it is, the URJ should go full throttle for the J Street position if they want to do their members’ justice.

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Toward an “indigengous Reform vision of halachah”

The other day, I had some nice things to say about this new op-ed in The Forward from fellow jblogger and Jewschooler BZ.

Over the course of the rather active comment thread on the version of that post at Jewschool, BZ shared a great chunk from his original draft of the op-ed that got cut for length. I’ll share it here because I think it just continues to hit the nail on the head.

When intra-Reform discourse touches on the subject of halachah (Jewish law), people on all sides of the issue tend to portray “the halachah” as a static body of law. Whether they are advocating for the position “Reform Judaism is not halachic” or “Reform Judaism should be more open to halachah,” the unspoken assumption is that Orthodox halachah is the normative halachah, and Reform Judaism should either reject it or incorporate elements of it. In other words, Orthodox Judaism is perceived as 100% halachic, and the debate is about whether Reform Judaism should be 0% halachic or somewhere between 0 and 100%. Instead, Reform Jews should steer clear of this linear scale and pursue an indigenous Reform vision of the structure and content of halachah.

Right on, BZ, as always!

Shabbat Shalom, jblogosphere. Selah!

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Dr. BZ is in–A prescription for fixing how liberal Jews talk about themselves

Crossposted to Jewschool.

I’m not the first blogger out there to say “Yes!” to Reform and “No!” to the URJ. I’ve learned a lot about how to do this and about how to articulate it from BZ, who blogs at Mah Rabu (his personal, often highly technically-worded blog) and at Jewschool.

One of BZ’s long time trains of thought (and by extension, mine) is the problem of liberal Jews letting those to their religious right of them define themselves. BZ’s new op-ed in The Forward, Reframing Liberal Judaism, addressing the upcoming URJ biennial and USCJ biennial, is his new opus on the topic of terminology and definition in the liberal Jewish world.

And I couldn’t have said it better myself. The best part:

[…] religiously liberal Jews (Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, nondenominational, etc.) frequently suffer from a deficiency in framing when talking about their Jewish ideologies and practices. Consciously or unconsciously, liberal Jews often invoke frames that implicitly establish Orthodox Judaism as normative and set up their own forms of Judaism in comparison with Orthodoxy.

The remedy is clear: For liberal Judaism to thrive, it must develop frames to see itself as authentic on its own terms. Orthodox Jews aren’t doing anything wrong by viewing Judaism through Orthodox frames, but we as liberal Jews are missing an opportunity by failing to see Judaism through our own liberal Jewish values.

This framing problem manifests itself in subtle ways. When we refer to Jews of other denominations as “more religious” or “more observant,” we undermine our own standards of religious observance, and judge ourselves on a scale external to our own Judaism.

Consider this phrase: “I’m not shomer Shabbat: Every week I light candles after sundown and then drive to synagogue.” The speaker obviously observes Shabbat but is allowing someone else to define what Shabbat observance means.

Furthermore, one version of this frame (problematic even for Orthodox Jews) equates “religious observance” solely with ritual observance. That’s how convicted felon Jack Abramoff can be labeled as an “observant Jew” despite violating many of the Torah’s ethical commandments.

Perhaps the most interesting part of this to me is that BZ is the person The Forward turned to. In advance of the biggest meetings of the two mammoth conglomerations that dominate liberal Jewry in America, that The Forward has gone to someone whose public persona is so defined by having turned his back on the liberal Jewish “Man” is fascinating.

Check out the whole piece here.

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Positive, independent self-definition: Something I can’t do at the moment.

Blogger’s note: The following post is only half of a real thought. I haven’t thought of/found the other half yet.

Required reading: Don’t let the door hit you on the way out and Reformim at the Conservative shul

In my junior year of high school (I’m estimating here), I think I can safely say that I was at my most entrenched position in the Reform Movement. I was on the board of trustees of a URJ synagogue, I was the president of a NFTY youth group, I was about to spend a second summer at Kutz,  I went to one of the RAC‘s L’taken seminars and I went to the URJ Biennial. I was really into this stuff.

And back then, one of my Reform obsessions was using positive statement to define Reform practice. I heard a lot of, “Reform Jews don’t do X” or “Reform Jews don’t believe Y.” And I was on a little crusade to come us with positive statements like, “Reform Jews do A” and “Reform Jews believe B.” The merit of such a crusade within the Reform sphere is a discussion for another time–though I won’t be surprised of the comments on this post get into that discussion anyway!

I find myself in the midst of two similar lines of thought now, one very different from the one I remember from high school and one only subtly so.

1. The one that’s only subtly different–Non-URJ Reform

Reform Jews began life (I’m talking 19th century Germany) by defining how they were not like other Jews, hence the negative statements of identity I discussed above. As time went on, we were able to move away from that and begin to define ourselves positively and independently, by what we do, rather than by what we reject. I think I’m facing that entire struggle all over again on a personal level. If, as I announced in this recent post, I am a Reform Jew, but not a URJ Jew, I am forced to go back to the beginning of the entire Reform endeavor. I must now begin again by defining myself in opposition to the URJ, through negative statements and must work my way up to the kind of ideological and intellectual self-sufficiency that will allow me two begin again the project of positive, independent identity statements.

2. The one that’s very different–Indie Minyans

I’m spending a lot of my time these days not only places that aren’t affiliated with the URJ, but in places that aren’t affiliated all. I’m talking about the organization I work for and I’m talking about places I pray, places like Chavurat Lamdeinu, Kol Zimrah and Kehilat Hadar. One of my problems in all of these places, as someone who is a little obsessed with ideology and intellectual honesty, is that I have trouble identifying the ideology. In many cases, there probably isn’t one, which I guess is okay, but it still troubles me. And in trying to articulate why I go to these places, I find myself relying on negative statements about traditionally-structured synagogues.

As Larry Kaufman pointed out in the comments on this post, “Half the fun of going to indy minyans is thumbing your nose at the shul you walk past on the way.” I recently met someone at a party who made me want to tear my hair about because this was essentially the level discourse that she achieved in explaining her love for indie minyans to me. Maybe it angers my because it hits close to home and I have some fun with thumbing my nose too. But that bothers me a lot and that’s a type of fun I want to get away from.

Whew. Moadim l’simcha.

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David goes to Yale, has an interesting conversation

An old Kutz friend of mine is now a freshman at Yale. In high school, she lived in Florida and I in Texas, so we hadn’t seen each other in a while. I paid her a visit this weekend, spending one very strange Halloween at Yale.

Saturday afternoon, after a gorgeous walk in some gorgeous weather, we sat down in the gorgeous courtyard of her residence, Silliman College, and had a very interesting conversation. She put into words something that I’ve felt, but had been unable to articulate.

After we spent the Summer together at Kutz on 2005, I was completely sucked into the Reform movement. I went on to go to Israel as a senior in high school on the Union’s EIE semester program, spent another summer and spent another summer as a participant at Kutz, not to mention two years as president of my synagogue’s youth group.

Her story is rather different. Though she is a product of the movement through-and-through (her father is a Reform Rabbi), she kind of fell out of the movement, and became involved in a couple of eye-opening pluralistic programs. First, she spent a summer at Brandeis University on a program called Genesis, which she described as being like Kutz, but not. Genesis has more of a college feel, a focus on text study, and includes participants from all walks of Jewish life, from black hats to no hats and everything in between. The following summer, she was accepted to the prestigious Bronfman Fellowship summer program in Israel, also a pluralist program

I eventually made it to the world of pluralism, but it took me until my first year of college to do it. I attended the Limmud NY conference in January of last year (register here for the 2009 conference, where you will have the time of your life) and, though I enjoyed the conference greatly, came away from it very frustrated with the Reform movement, but unable to say exactly why.

My friend at Yale explained that at Genesis she became very frustrated with Reform as well. She said that at Genesis, all the program participants planned Shabat every week. Her eyes were opened by the more observant students, for whom planning Shabat involved a slew of minute details and considerations, which she had never been exposed to.

I realized that Shabat at Limmud was a similar experience. Limmud NY also draws a very denominationaly (or lack thereof) diverse crowd. It was the first Shabat I had really spent around a considerably large group of people, many of whom were far more observant than I. In the Reform movement, I’m used to being one of the most observant people in the room.

What frustrated us both about these experiences was that the movment that had raised us and educated us and made Judaism dear to us hadn’t explained that there were other Jews out there. Obviously, there aren’t any Reform Rabbis out there claiming that Orthodox Jews are is imaginary as the Easter Bunny, but they are certainly an ignored, or sometimes even obnoxious, fact of life to the Reform institution. My friend and I both noted considering, if only for a fleeting second, joining their ranks.

But in the end, I think we’re just glad that our experiences with pluralism have taught us that there people out there for whom a strictly observant Jewish life isn’t seen as a burden. Instead, it is that observant life that gives their lives its meaning, in just the way that my Reform choice process gives my life meaning.

Though I’m not even remotely willing to say that our movement’s excellent relationship with the American Muslim communiyt is bad thing, it is certainly a shame that we may have a better relationship with members of other religions than we do with our own coreligionists. It is a shame that we are often so insular in the Reform movement.

Shavua Tov.

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