Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Ask the right questions

"With the arrival and maturation of my generation,
the Millenials, the question “Who is a Jew?” is rather passé."
David A. M. Wilensky is a young man with whom I have strictly - so far - digital relationship. I began reading his work when he was a college student writing for Jewschool and have been and remain impressed with the depth and creativity of his ideas. He published a piece in The Jewish Standard a few weeks ago that I just saw. I think he makes some very important and interesting points.

When I was in high school (in the 1970s!), the big conversation still revolved around Jewish identity in juxtaposition with American identity. Are you and American Jew or a Jewish American? Which is the noun and which is the adjective? When I first began teaching (in the 1980s) we were still designing lessons and activities around those questions. We over-did it. To my almost 16 year-old son, those questions are meaningless.

Following the CCAR decision on patrilineal descent, in 1983 and ongoing efforts by the religious parties in Israel to amend the law of return to require conversion according to halacha (Jewish law) and officiated by approved Orthodox rabbis, the conversation became "Who is a Jew?"

Now add a variety of Jewish population studies, studies of how Jewish communities are structured and now the Pew Report, and we find our lay and professional leaders wringing their hands and panicking over the imminent death of  (choose any or all): day schools, synagogue schools, synagogues, Jewish Community Centers and/or the continued cohesive existence of the Jewish People as a distinct group in America.

Please read David's article. It splashes some cold water on those of us still fighting about things that don't really matter to the Millenials. And while I do believe we have put a bit more emphasis on Young Adults in Jewish life than is appropriate, they will soon be 40 year olds and able to learn Kabbalah and be treated like the rest of us!

It begins here, but the full article is worth reading and can be read on the Standard's web page. There are a number of comments there as well. I invite a conversation, there, here or on JEDLAB (in Facebook), in particular on the implications for us as educators. Thank you David for permission to cross-post.


David A.M. Wilensky is a program associate at Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute. He lives in South Orange, and he is single, straight, and utterly shameless. 

David A. M. Wilensky
Published: 6 March 2014

So, really, why be Jewish?

With the arrival and maturation of my generation, the Millenials, 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?”

The problem with the who-is-a-Jew question is the binary premise from which it springs: that there is an “us” and a “them.” (Worse, perhaps is the accompanying hope that we will one day delineate a set of criteria that define who is an “us” and who is a “them.”) The premise itself is as boring and potentially harmful as the question it gives rise to. It has infiltrated our national debate in a variety of guises: Who is affiliated and who is unaffiliated? Who is an insider and who is an outsider? Who is a member and who is a non-member? Who is inmarried and who is intermarried?

And, of utmost importance in the case of Millenials: Are your parents both Jewish? For 48 percent of us, the answer is no.

In each version of the question, the implication is clear: One is good and one is bad. When we make these questions central, whatever our intention in asking them, the question that many people will hear is this: Are you a good Jew or a bad Jew? And labeling people “bad” Jews probably is not the best way to draw them into deeper engagement with Jewish life.

 At the very least, the Millenials I know are bored with all this who-is-a-Jew business. And at the worst, the idea that this question will be useful as we confront the challenges now before us is a complete misunderstanding of the nature of the changes we see today.

continue reading the rest of the article


Wednesday, March 5, 2014

A Purim Message for the PJ Library (via eJP)

Time for someone else's words - because they are worth reading and repeating. This post by Victoria L. Steinberg was in the daily posting from eJewishPhilanthropy.
(You still don't get eJP? Really?) 

PJ Library has filled a role in the Jewish community that many were not aware was needed. They have brought the joy of Jewish reading into many homes of young children.
In an effort to not offend, they have done something that I hope many will find offensive nonetheless (see below). Their misguided attempt at political correctness assumes the right of one interpretation of Jewish values trumps another. Beit Hillel won all but a handful of the 316 debates with Beit Shammai. We are not asked to "opt in" in order to read Beit Shammai's opinions - they are right there next to Beit Hillel's. 
Well said Ms. Steinberg.

Posted: 04 Mar 2014 11:00 PM PST

As a Jewish mother, I read with interest a recent blog post explaining the Harold Grinspoon Foundation’s decision to make “The Purim Superhero” – a story about a boy, Nate, who has two dads – available only to PJ Library families who request it, but not to all of its subscribers.

My husband and I have two daughters under four years old. We signed up to receive PJ Library books immediately after our first daughter was born.

In our home, PJ Library books and CDs are much more than wonderful stories and songs. They create another way that our home is a Jewish home. They reflect back to our children the holidays, words and values that define our lives as Jews. They introduce visitors to those things as well, including some without previous exposure to Judaism. As Jews we are the vast minority; but the PJ Library books on our shelves integrate the imagined lives of Jewish characters with the rest of our daughters’ children’s literature.

But not every PJ Library book we receive reflects our family’s values. Some portray strictly divided gender-based roles in religious life (e.g., only men reading Torah). Those books contradict what we teach our daughters about their Jewish obligation and right to participate as full members of their Jewish community and the rest of society. Others depict Eretz Yisrael in a way that does not match our loving but concerned perspective on Israel.

Underlying almost every story are values – PJ Library books are no exception. When we receive a PJ Library book that doesn’t match our family’s values, we sometimes choose not to read it to our children, and instead pass it along to friends, bring it to shul, or donate it.

That’s why the Foundation’s rationale for not sending “The Purim Superhero” out to all subscribers – because it allegedly would offend some families – doesn’t make sense to me. Children’s stories routinely reflect value choices about important societal issues like women’s role in society or Israel’s importance to American Jews. Although I sometimes wish that the PJ Library didn’t send out certain books, I can appreciate that those books do fit its mission: disseminating age-appropriate, Jewish-themed books.

Requiring people to opt-in to receive “The Purim Superhero” inappropriately layers onto that mission a “controversy” litmus test. (I question this “controversy” – same-sex parenting is a Jewish reality, and is not controversial simply because some disapprove.) History unfortunately proves that when this litmus test is applied to books, we exclude books we later realize we needed most. At a given time, the most controversial books concern the most marginalized, unpopular viewpoint or group. Excluding them perpetuates that marginalization.

Of course, as a private entity, the Foundation is free to choose what to distribute. But that does not mean that it should exercise that power to discriminate. If it distributes “The Purim Superhero” to all subscribers, some families would (as we sometimes do) decline to read that book to their children. Speaking from experience, this is not a burden.

The alternative – not distributing the book except to those who opt-in – has a pernicious impact:
  • It sends a message to same-sex parents raising Jewish children that their own community does not accept them; their lives are offensive; and stories about them must never enter certain homes;
  • It says something disappointing about how the Foundation’s mission is implemented because a book fitting the purported criteria is yet kept from general distribution based on the particular Jews represented; and
  • It keeps from subscribers a fun story with an important message about bravery. Indeed, it contradicts that very message.

The Foundation suggests that it is trying not to offend some people’s deeply-held religious beliefs; but by holding back this book the Foundation is choosing among deeply-held Jewish beliefs. I and my Jewish community believe that it is our job, as Jews, to educate, promote inclusion, welcome all members of our community, and engage in the work of tikkun olam.

(I should note that I am not a major fan of “The Purim Superhero.” Like some other LGBT children’s books, it suggests that the protagonist’s family is “different,” and that same-sex couples’ children must struggle with and embrace “difference.” But the LGBT individuals, couples and families in my life are not “different.” They are simply a part of my Jewish community, professional life, children’s school, and family. I wish that books simply incorporated and reflected diverse families).

PJ Library certainly can’t please all readers all the time. But that cannot be its goal. Rather, its great success is that each month, it steeps our children in Jewishness, through stories celebrating our wonderful holidays, life events, and history, and songs that echo through the generations. My three-year-old can’t wait to dress up for Purim, go to shul for the megillah reading and spin a grogger – in part, because of “The Purim Superhero”. In other words, the book has done just what the Foundation hopes that its books will do.

Regardless of one’s views on same-sex parenting, it cannot be questioned that there are many Nates out there in the world. I hope that the Foundation will consider whether, if Nate were a real little boy, he would be welcome in all of their homes. He’d certainly be welcome in mine.

Please join me in urging the Foundation to be brave and bold (like Esther) and send “The Purim Superhero” to all of its readers. Chag Sameach! 

Victoria L. Steinberg is an attorney practicing business litigation and employment law at Collora LLP in Boston, Massachusetts. She lives in Cambridge with her husband and two daughters, who are helping her choose a Purim costume. But like Nate, she might keep it a surprise until the chag.