SUBSCRIBE TO OUR MAILING LIST
For monthly updates from your friendly, neighbourhood shul:
Subscribe to the Glebe Shul mailing list!
Looking for something?
What We Are About
There are a lot of great reasons to become a Jewish communal professional, but money is not one of them. Aspiring young communal service professionals tend to be an idealistic bunch, hoping to have a positive impact on the world through their service of the Jewish community. The altruism at the beginning of this career is a beautiful thing. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always stay that way.
Jewish communal life is chock-full of territorialism, competitiveness, and tension. There is a sense amongst some organizational leaders that their programs are being undermined by “the competition”, and they treat that competition as a dangerous threat.
For the community, this is a dangerous and counter-productive mindset. It results in a waste of financial resources due to duplication of services (“if he’s running a program at that time, then I need to run one too!”), and it builds walls of animosity between the very communal leaders who ought to be coming together to build Jewish communal life cooperatively.
For the individual leaders involved in these turf wars, however, they are even more tragic. Careers that were initially rooted in altruism and idealism can degenerate into battles over funding, prestige, and ego. Watching that transformation on the individual level is heartbreaking.
So why does this tension exist? Why are so many communal leaders caught up in this battle? Can you imagine a similar fight existing between two volunteers visiting sick patients in the hospital? “Hey, Frank, you’re on my turf! I’m the only person around here who visits hospital patients! There isn’t room in this hospital for both of us!” Such a conversation would be absurd! If someone cares deeply about the well-being of patients in the hospital, then they would certainly be deeply satisfied to see that there are other idealistic volunteers who are also looking out for the well-being of those patients. Those two volunteers are not enemies – they are allies!
The same is true with respect to all areas of Jewish communal life. Ottawa is fortunate enough to have a variety of Jewish communal institutions that provide for the social, educational, cultural, and financial wellbeing of the members of our community, and it’s true that there is some overlap between the services provided by these organizations. Nonetheless, even in areas where that overlap exists, the leadership of these organizations ought to remember that they are all allies in addressing these communal needs, and that the more hands on deck to address those needs the more effectively those needs will be met. And that is a good thing.
Furthermore, regarding the various Jewish educational organizations, having several sources of Jewish education is ideal. Interacting with different teachers with different points of view is a critical component in developing a healthy and mature perspective on Jewish thought and practice. Personally, I have weekly study sessions with several Rabbis here in Ottawa, including Rabbi Ben-Porat (Dean of the Ottawa Torah Institute), Rabbi Burr (Rosh Kollel of the Kollel of Ottawa), and Rabbi Galandauer (Rabbi of the Young Israel of Ottawa). If you also consider the special relationship that I have had with Rabbi Bulka throughout my life, and the numerous Rabbis in yeshivot in Israel, New York, and Baltimore with whom I have studied, there is a long list of Rabbis who have impacted and who continue to impact my Jewish worldview. And it is thanks to the cross-pollination of these different viewpoints that I am able to enjoy such a rich Jewish experience.
Bringing this back to the Glebe Shul community, I think that it is essential that members of our community interact with Jewish teachers and have Jewish experiences outside of what Stacy and I are providing. To attempt to limit those other interactions would be doing a disservice to the Jewish life of the members of our community. In short, the Glebe Shul community is richer because of the other complementary Jewish organizations in Ottawa, and we are grateful for their work in strengthening our community.
Furthermore, there is another dangerous result of this organizational territorialism that is often overlooked. If we would hear reports of a charismatic religious leader vying for control of the religious life of his followers, and interfering in their attempts to interact with other religious influences, we would label this as manipulative, cult-like behavior, and we would be right. And when a Rabbi engages in this type of behavior, we must be wary of the dangerous implications that it carries.
Unfortunately, I have seen behavior like this. I have seen Rabbis confrontationally question individuals about why they attended a program run by a different organization. I have seen Rabbis pressure individuals to cut off ties with other Rabbis. I have seen Rabbis engage in what can only be described as manipulative behavior, and I am deeply concerned about what I have seen.
Moving forward, we need to foster a culture of cooperation, collaboration, and respect between communal organizations and leaders. Ultimately, that respect needs to come from the leadership directly. However, there are also steps that can be taken by the participants to foster this culture. Primarily, participants ought to respectfully challenge statements or attitudes that reinforce this culture of territorialism. Remind those individuals that attending one program is not a rejection of the other, but rather a reflection of the richness of Jewish life being practiced by the attendees. Remind them that other organizations are allies, not enemies. And remind them that even if you interact with other organizations, that you deeply respect them and the work that they do.
The individual leaders who have fallen into this competitive mindset didn’t start off there. They started off as pure idealists, not impacted by the pressures of fundraising, ego, and personal pride. By reminding them of what a more idealistic communal vision might look like, you are not only doing a service for the community, you are also doing a service for the leaders themselves. Hopefully hearing that message will enable them to return to where they started.
This past Friday night I spoke at dinner about a topic that is very close to my heart. I spoke in a way that was sincere, but also intentionally provocative. The provocation seems to have worked. I have received a lot of feedback about my speech, both positive and negative, and it has led to several thoughtful conversations. I’d like to continue that conversation here.
So what did I say? I said that I am passionate about Israel. I said that I love the country, that I love the lifestyle, and that I hope to make aliyah and live there. I said that I don’t want to stand on the sidelines of the Jewish world advocating for Israel from the diaspora. I want to be in Israel, in the centre of the battle, working to build a Jewish society in our homeland. I said that every moment that I am not yet living in Israel I am longing to be there. And I said that I would rather be living in Israel than here in Ottawa.
Before I go on, let me clarify one issue here that was a cause of concern for several people. I LOVE LIVING IN OTTAWA. I really really do. I love this city. I love these people. I love the warmth of the community that we have built around the Glebe Shul. I love my life here, and I feel truly blessed to have so many wonderful friends here in the Nation’s Capital. The objective of my words on Friday night was not to disrespect this city or the beautiful people who live here. Quite the opposite. The objective was to say that I long to live in Israel, but that the primary reason why I do not live there is because we love the work that we do here in Ottawa, and the people that we have the privilege and pleasure of interacting with and hosting in our home on a regular basis. If not for my love of Ottawa and our friends here, moving to Israel would be an obvious choice. The root of this internal struggle is that we are torn between two places that we love.
The other concern that people brought up on Friday night was that I was showing a lack of commitment to the Ottawa and Glebe Shul communities. If we are planning on leaving town in the next number of years, then how can we be building relationships with people now? Isn’t that just a tease?
There are two responses to this question. The first is that I too share that exact concern. It’s unsettling knowing that I hope to leave this community at some point in the future, and I’m not sure exactly how to balance that knowledge with my desire to interact with and learn from all of the dear friends we have here in Ottawa.
The second response is that despite that concern, I feel that it is critically important for us to speak about Israel not only from a political perspective, but also from an emotional perspective. We live in a time where there is great emphasis in the Jewish community on Israel advocacy and hasbara. We are encouraged to learn the political arguments and familiarize ourselves with the talking points on Israel’s legitimacy and moral justness. This emphasis on advocacy is critically important. However, we should remember that it is not a replacement for a more thoughtful look at Israel and the deeper connection of the Jewish People to that land.
Hasbara is a fantastic tool for interactions with those outside of the Jewish community, but we shouldn’t allow those talking points to become the sole focus of our conversations about Israel within the Jewish community. There is an emotional component to the relationship that the Jewish People have with the Land of Israel, and it is critical that we maintain a passion for that relationship. Without that passion, Israel is just another political zone like any other in the world. But Israel is about so much more than just political arguments on University campuses. Israel is about a Jewish land that has been the focus and longing of Jews for thousands of years. Israel is the centre of Jewish history, it is the land of Bible, and it is the focus of our prayers on a daily basis. We are privileged enough to be living in an era where we are able to fulfill that longing and actually live in the Holy Land. Our connection to Israel ought to be rooted in a passion that goes well beyond the hasbara. If that passion is going to be maintained, we need to talk about it, publicize it, and normalize it.
By speaking about my passion for Israel, I was hoping to normalize that emotional connection. I don’t expect everyone in that room to suddenly feel the pull to make aliyah. However, I do expect that people listening to me will see the sincerity of my passion and the nature of my emotional connection to Israel, and I hope that seeing that in me will enable them to give themselves permission to connect with Israel on a deeper level than they have in the past.
That’s my take on the matter. What about you? Does what I’m saying resonate with you? Does it rub you the wrong way? What are your thoughts? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or post your comments here on the blog. I think that this is an important conversation for us to be having. What’s your take?
Shira Goldberg, 2/14/12 Beijing, China
When friends ask me what it’s been like to live in China for the past six months, I tell them it’s like living in a parallel universe: everything is foreign; conceptions of time and space are radically different; and I’m removed from the norms, customs, and rituals of my life thus far.
Except on Friday nights. Since the first week I arrived in Beijing, I have been frequenting Shabbat services and community dinners at Kehillat Beijing (www.sinogogue.org). There, everything is familiar: the tune of Lechah Dodi; the sequence of Parashat Hashavuah; the taste of Manischewitz grape juice; and the wonder of [global] Jewish geography.
During the school week, my life in Beijing is an infinite crash course, filled with the endless challenges and excitement of learning Mandarin. It can be overwhelming — especially when the culture shock and homesickness hit. So, I started to measure my time away from home with the known intervals of Shabbat.
For the Chinese (whose civilization has remarkable parallels with that of the Jews), the primary unit of time measurement is the year. Most Chinese people who live away from their hometowns return to see their families only once a year – on Chinese New Year. This results in a mass exodus from the cities of 130 million workers. It is the world’s largest human migration.
I decided to go home for a visit.
In celebration of the New Year of the Dragon, we got over a month off school. Which means that I had four Shabbats to enjoy in Canada. I spent them in Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, and Winnipeg.
On each Friday night, I marveled at the commonalities that made these Shabbat dinners so similar to one another – and to the weekly tradition at Kehillat Beijing. But I also relished the particulars: my parents kissing me on the cheek; my sister sitting just across the table; my boyfriend’s arm around my shoulder.
It was a great pleasure to return to the Glebe Shul. As soon as I walked through the door, I was thrilled to meet the newest member of our community, baby Moshe Goldstein. Surrounded by dear friends, I savoured every bite of Stacy’s cooking, and listened intently to Michael’s Dvar.
There are some features that make the Shabbat experience a constant in one’s life, no matter where in the world. There are other things that create a unique feeling in specific locales, whether exotic or familiar. In the words of the 13th century poet, Rumi:
“It may be that the satisfaction
I need depends on my
going away, so that when
I’ve gone and come back,
I’ll find it at home.”
Review of Rabbi Elie Kaunfer’s “Empowered Judaism: What Independent Minyanim Can Teach Us about Building Vibrant Jewish Communities”
The following article by Rabbi Goldstein appeared in the January 23, 2012 issue of the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin:
There’s a story told about the Jews of Chelm that goes as follows: In Chełm, the shames used to go around waking everyone up for shul in the morning. Every time it snowed, the people would complain that, although the snow was beautiful, they could not see it in its pristine state because by the time they got up in the morning, the shammes had already trekked through the snow. The townspeople decided that they had to find a way to be woken up for shul without having the shammes making tracks in the snow.
The people of Chełm hit on a solution: they got four volunteers to carry the shammes around on a table when there was fresh snow in the morning. That way, the shammes could make his wake up calls, but he would not leave tracks in the snow.
The tragic humour of this tale will bring a good smile to anyone’s lips, but the joke is not as funny when we consider that this flawed logic is prevalent throughout the world of Jewish organizational life. In a time when the Jewish community is in crisis over declining synagogue memberships and low communal affiliation, the tendency has been to search for the next “big idea”, that grand program that will dynamically re-engage with young Jews and bring them back to the broader Jewish community. But in developing that “big idea” we need to ask ourselves: are we so myopically focused on the goal of increasing affiliation and membership that we are forgetting the bigger picture of why these organizations and synagogues exist in the first place? Have we become so focused on getting people in the door that we’ve neglected to provide them with substantive content once they walk through? And if we don’t offer young Jews a product with any substance, will they stay, or will they walk right out?
According to Rabbi Elie Kaunfer in his 2010 book Empowered Judaism: What Independent Minyanim Can Teach Us about Building Vibrant Jewish Communities, many synagogues and communal organizations have lost their focus and are out of touch with the real needs of Jewish young adults. Rabbi Kaunfer was a co-founder of Kehillat Hadar, the flagship “Independent Minyan”, a synagogue model characterized by being entirely lay-led (Rabbi Kaunfer was a lay-leader when Hadar was founded; the success of the minyan inspired him to enroll in the Jewish Theological Seminary), and without any denominational affiliation. Most independent minyanim meet in the intimate environment of participants’ homes and apartments, and the structure of their services range from the fully egalitarian to the traditional-mechitza model. And to ensure the vibrancy of the services, the chazzan stands in the middle of the group, and sings tunes designed to get the shul-goers to join in and create a chorus of voices.
Since Hadar was founded in 2001, the Independent Minyan movement has picked up tremendous steam. By 2007, when the S3K (Synagogue 3000) Synagogue Studies Institute published their report on “Emergent Jewish Communities and Their Participants”, the movement had grown to include 80 independent minyanim with 15,000-20,000 participants across North America.
Rabbi Kaunfer argues that many Jewish communal organizations make the mistake of assuming “that Jews – especially young adults – are only interested in surface-level engagement with Jewish culture:
jokes, bagels, singles events. Anything challenging, deep, or smacking of religion might scare people away. This is simply not the case.” Rather, he writes, “ Jews are in search of meaning and engagement, and they are interested in the wisdom of their own heritage. They may not find that engagement in existing institutions, but that does not mean they aren’t looking for it.”
He cites Birthright as an example of this phenomenon. After returning home from a ten day trip, Birthright alumni have been opened up to the possibility that there is real substance in Judaism. But upon returning home, instead of providing them with substantive options for Jewish learning and practice, the Jewish community provides funding for them to have pub nights, ski trips, and at best a Shabbat dinner (with no traditional content necessary or encouraged). Going on Birthright has brought these young adults through the door, but because their enthusiasm for deeper Jewish engagement has no substantial outlet, it eventually fades away.
An independent minyan, says Rabbi Kaunfer, is that outlet. It is a mechanism for creating community in a substantive way, with a focus on real Jewish practice, prayer, and learning. It is getting Jewish young adults talking with their peers about Torah, the Jewish community, and how they can impact them both, and it is doing so over a glass of wine in the intimate environment of a friend’s apartment or condo party room. It is making community members active participants in Jewish life, instead of passive participants in the back of an auditorium.
So what does this mean for the traditional synagogue? Does this trend spell the end for our beloved shuls? Certainly not. Firstly, the people who are attending independent minyanim are not the same people who are attending traditional shuls. Independent minyanim are attracting participants not from the pews of other shuls, but from the couches of the participants’ apartments; these people aren’t going anywhere else. Furthermore, a traditional shul offers many things, such as weekday davening, that are not offered by independent minyanim. But, says Rabbi Kaunfer, if our shuls are going to continue to thrive they must learn lessons from the Independent Minyan movement and integrate those lessons into the way they operate.
First and foremost, they must make prayer more engaging. Prayer is the bread and butter of a synagogue’s operation, and if the best that a shul can do is ask congregants to show up late and tough it out until Kiddush then they are failing in their primary task. Nobody gets upset with an individual who is disinterested in going to the opera, so why are we upset with someone who is disinterested in attending a cantorial service? And can we blame someone for not wanting to pay $1500 for a ticket to that service?
What independent minyanim have shown is that Judaism is as relevant now as it ever was. We don’t need gimmicks or freebies to get young adults to show up. We just need to present authentic Judaism in a way that is engaging, intimate, and relevant. And if we can do that, then Judaism will sell itself.
Michael Goldstein is the Rabbi of the Glebe Shul, a shul that while technically not an Independent Minyan (it has a Rabbi, after all), does think that Independent Minyanim are really nifty. You can check them out at glebeshul.com.
Last week, Stacy and I were blessed with the birth of our son, Moshe. It has been a hectic and exciting week, one in which we have been overwhelmed by the generosity and graciousness of our family, friends, and the entire Glebe Shul community. From little errands to baby gifts to delivered dinners, we have been showered with kindness in a way that has made us feel truly loved, and deeply blessed.
On a practical level, all of these kindnesses have enabled Stacy to do something that she has rarely allows herself to do: sit still. She doesn’t need to be cooking her next meal, or researching her next workshop, or fixing something up around the house. She can’t get back to running yet, she’s not at work, and Glebe Shul Shabbat dinners are on (temporary) hold. All that exists in the world right now is her and her baby. (Her husband is somewhere there in the background too. Somewhere.) It’s a period of calm and focus that we rarely allow into our lives, and it has been a wonderful period of connection for me, Stacy, and Moshe as we grow together into a family.
I have many thoughts on parenthood, on Moshe, and on this exciting new time in our lives, and I hope to share those thoughts in future blog posts. For now I just want to thank the Glebe Shul community for enabling us to have this time. To those of you who have been helping out with little favours and errands: thank you for your time, energy, and care. And for everyone at the Glebe Shul, thank you for your understanding as we have this temporary hiatus from Glebe Shul Shabbat activity (Scotch & God on Tuesday nights is still on) to focus inward on our family. We hope to be back in the Shabbat dinner rhythm soon (no concrete date yet, but maybe another 4-6 weeks), but in the meantime we thank you for your patience, understanding, kindness, and love as Stacy, Moshe, and I work to develop our own Goldstein family rhythm. We look forward to starting up again soon, and introducing everyone to the Glebe Shul’s newest (and cutest, and smartest) member.
This note comes to the Glebe Shul community from Sarah Caspi, the manager of the Shalom Bayit program at Jewish Family Services of Ottawa. Shalom Bayit is a support program for victims of domestic violence within Ottawa’s Jewish community. The existence of such a program speaks volumes about the reality of domestic violence within our community, despite the widespread lack of awareness of its presence. In this note Sarah explains a bit about her work, and offers two Sukkot prayers on the theme of domestic violence. Have a look.
Dear Ottawa Rabbis and Congregations,
I would like to take this time to reintroduce myself to you. My name is Sarah Caspi and I am the manager of Jewish Family Services’ Shalom Bayit Program. Shalom Bayit provides free confidential counseling services to woman who are victims of violence. We offer confidential and anonymous services for women experiencing abuse. These include: planning for safety, counseling, advocacy, financial assistance and exploring options.
Shalom Bayit is also committed to creating awareness about domestic violence in our community. I am available to come and speak to your congregation about domestic violence in our community and about our program in particular. I have had the honour of speaking to some of your congregations in the past and I look forward to speaking to others in the future.
There is a tradition within the Jewish Violence Against Women community to ask Rabbis to consider discussing the issue of domestic violence during Sukkot. The sukkah as refuge is a prevalent theme at sukkot and seems a fitting time to let your congregation know that there are safe places they can go if they need refuge.
Jewish Women International along with its Clergy Task Force to End Violence Against Women have collected prayers on this topic and I have included a few for your consideration. I would be interested in knowing about other prayers if you have ones to share. The Shalom Task Force may have prayers for sukkot but I was unable to find one.
Sukkah of Peace
We bless the Divine Presence, whose wings shelter us with peace. Redeemer of Israel who brought us out of Egypt, on this festival of Sukkot, our thoughts turn to those who dwell in fear and danger in their own homes. With compassion and an outstretched arm, bring them forth into freedom, and shelter them in your Sukkah of peace.
Rebecca Schwartz & Naomi Tucker, Shalom Bayit: Bay Area Jewish Women Working to End Domestic Violence
Help me, dear God, To lie down at night in peace And awaken me to life renewed. It is not the darkness outside in the night sky that I fear But the waiting space of silence inside this place in which I dwell. My house is not a shelter of peace.
Shelter me with your sukkat shalom. Please Shelter me.
Help me, dear God, to lie down this night in peace, and lift me up to life renewed.
The shadow of your wings, might they really replace this valley of death where I’ve walked alone? Oh, guard me as I journey to an open place, a sacred space where I feel safe and whole – at home.
Shelter me with your sukkat shalom. Please Shelter me now. Shelter me Please.
Rabbi Cindy Enger 2001,. All rights reserved.
I wish you all a Shana Tova and I look forward to continuing to work with you and your congregations.
If you have any questions about our program please do not hesitate to contact me.
For referrals to the program please note that Shalom Bayit counseling intakes are confidential and clients can call me directly at (o)613 722 2225 x246 or (c) 613 769 3597
As I enter the fast of Yom Kippur this Friday night, thoughts of my clients at Jewish Family Services will be on my mind. These clients are individuals from low-income Jewish families in Ottawa who are assisted by the JFS Tikvah Program, where I work. The assistance that we provide is basic – food supplies and about $100 a month, but it is desperately needed and greatly appreciated by the over 115 families who benefit from the program.
My thoughts will be with these clients because I know that their experience with hunger is not just a yearly (or six-times yearly) occurrence. These families are faced with hunger on a weekly basis, and they regularly struggle to access the food and nutrition that they need to thrive.
An advocacy group called Put Food in the Budget encourages Ontarians to participate in the “Do the Math Challenge,” asking participants to spend one week on the food budget being faced by fellow Ontarians on social assistance. The question is: could you live off of $585/month? What would a trip to the grocery store look like with that kind of budgetary restriction? What kind of nutritional value would your dinner have on that allowance? What would breakfast look like? Would you have breakfast? What if you factored in the additional expense of buying kosher food into that equation? What would you be eating then?
These are the difficult questions that the “Do the Math Challenge” forces us to confront. (You can also find a video clip of an Ottawa family who took the challenge here.) At JFS, we try to ease that burden for Ottawa Jewish families through the Kosher Food Bank, Miriam’s Well (a monthly fruits and vegetables distribution), and modest direct financial assistance. There is real poverty in the Jewish community all around us, and those families who are experiencing that poverty are living through the hunger of Yom Kippur every day.
I also think about my clients at JFS sometimes as we’re enjoying our delicious Glebe Shul Shabbat dinner feasts. After Stacy kicks off the meal with her famous homemade challah, she follows it up with dips, salads, fish, soup, chicken, quinoa, sweet potato pie, and other delicacies. Of course we all enjoy some wine and beer as we progress through the meal, which is usually followed by a satisfied belt-popping schmooze on the couch over dessert. I think about my clients at JFS because I realize that I am working in two very different worlds. At the Glebe Shul I am working to stuff people full with friends, community, and (of course) food. At JFS I am working to enable people to get by with the most basic levels of nutrition.
What bothers me about this contrast is not that I see the Glebe Shul experience as being excessive. It’s not. The Shabbat dinners of the Glebe Shul are magical evenings where friends are made and community is built, and I wouldn’t want to change any part of them. What bothers me is the absence of any interaction between these worlds. I don’t want people at the Glebe Shul to stop eating delicious Shabbat dinners, the same way that the folks over at Put Food in the Budget don’t want Ontarians to stop eating nutritious food. What I want is for us to appreciate the blessings that we have, and to work to enable other members of our community to share in those blessings.
I want my two worlds to intersect, and I want the Glebe Shul to play a greater role in enabling every member of the Ottawa Jewish community to live with comfort and dignity. I’m fond of the Glebe Shul’s informal motto: eat, pray, love. But we could be doing more to make sure that all members of our Jewish community are able to eat, pray, and love with the same comfort and dignity that we enjoy.
In the long-term, there are several ideas that we, as the Glebe Shul community, could pursue. I have some ideas, and I would love to hear your ideas of programs and initiatives that we could implement to assist Jewish low-income families in Ottawa.
In the short-term we need to start supporting those programs that are already being offered by JFS. For example, JFS is looking for drivers to deliver fruits and vegetables from their monthly Miriam’s Well program to clients who are unable to pick up the produce themselves. This is a simple direct-service volunteer opportunity that will enable low-income families to enjoy nutritious fruits and vegetables. And as the weather gets colder, the number of clients who will be in need of that service is only going to grow. Miriam’s Well runs of the last Monday of every month. Who wants to help out?
Here’s another idea: One lovely part of the Glebe Shul community is that everyone pitches in. Some people bring wine, others bring some fruit, or cake, or beer, or soda. Everyone contributes. But what if in addition to that bottle of wine or bundle of grapes guests brought one non-perishable item for donation to the Kosher Food Bank? In this way we could enjoy our abundant blessings while at the same time working to share that abundance with others. It’s a small gesture, but it carries a giant message of care and concern.
As we move forward with our community, let’s keep in mind the context of the greater Jewish community in which we are living. Let’s work to enhance and strengthen our beautiful Glebe Shul community, and let’s do it in a way that respects and enables all of the families in Ottawa who long to eat, pray, and love along with us.
Jonathan Sachs, Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth, writes the following in an article that appeared today in the Jewish Chronicle:
The real issue facing world Jewry is the one no one talks about. It is not antisemitism. It is not the isolation and condemnation of Israel. It is not assimilation and outmarriage. These are all symptoms, not causes.
The real issue is that for a large proportion of the Jewish world, in Israel and the Diaspora, Judaism no longer makes sense. It does not move them, inspire them or transform them. It does not speak to them at the deepest levels of our being. The crisis facing Jewry is not social or economic or political. It is spiritual.
The distinction between identifying intermarriage as the symptom, and not as the root cause, is a critical one that is often overlooked. And when the Jewish community seeks to resolve the symptoms without addressing the real illness, those attempts will fail to succeed.
I am, incidentally, married to a Jewish woman, and I am very pleased with my choice. But how did that relationship come to be? How is it that I ended up marrying a Hebrew? Did we meet at a Jew-do? Did we lock eyes over a social action volunteer program? Did we share a moment in the bedouin tent on Birthright? No, no, and no.
I didn’t find my Jewish bride because of an opportune encounter at a Jewish program (or a program with a lot of Jews around). Our relationship is not a result of circumstance. Rather, I found a Jewish girl because I have a deep connection to Judaism and Torah, and I knew that I needed a spouse who shared that connection. For someone to understand me, they need to understand the glasses through which I view the world. I couldn’t imagine living my life with someone who did not share those values and that lifestyle, and so I naturally looked for a Jewish spouse. Intermarriage was not an option. It wasn’t headed off by an opportune encounter with a Jewish woman. It was, for someone with my deep connection to Jewish life and beliefs, not even on the table.
We need to start addressing the root cause, not the symptoms. If we want to address intermarriage, it’s not enough to get Jews in the same room together and hope for the best. We don’t need to be promoting Jews. We need to be promoting Judaism. If Judaism is at the core of an individual’s identity, then that individual will seek out a Jewish spouse, even if they need to look hard to find one.
Even Birthright, now eleven years old and having taken over 300,000 young Jews on free trips to Israel, is showing mediocre results in strengthening Jewish continuity and reducing intermarriage rates. In a recent piece in The Huffington Post, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach made several recommendations for how to make Birthright even better. Here’s one of them:
Birthright needs substance, and I suggest a stronger values-based component. A young woman sitting next to me on the plane got all excited about our conversation until she discovered that she was with a different Birthright provider. She had shunned the group I was with, all non-observant Jews, because she read that the provider was orthodox. Here, a young woman who feared religion was denied the pleasure of my engaging company (please stop the laughter and show some dignity) because she’s afraid of religion being shoved down her gullet. Now, of course Birthright should not be in the business of peddling religion so much as attachment to Israel and Jewish identity. But that should not make the trip free of substance. The impact I was able to make on my group stemmed from engaging them in values-based discussion that related to everything they saw. You’re at Yad Vashem. Six million Jews dead, murdered. Question, anyone here believe in vengeance? Hands go up. OK, what about forgiveness? Can we forgive something this gruesome? Jesus said love your enemies. Is that something we Jews ought to embrace? Which are the real Jewish values? To be sure, the many speeches I gave were delivered amid healthy doses of humor (you can watch them on YouTube and please try and laugh with me rather than at me). But I was intent on making the Birthright experience not just about Jewish history and geography but about Jewish values and Jewish wisdom.
If we want young adults to get connected to the Jewish community, we need to show them how Judaism is relevant to them. If we can connect people with the wisdom and values of their Jewish tradition, then they will seek out the spouses that will enable them to live with that wisdom and those values. Forget the symptoms, let’s go for the cause.
Rabbi Aaron Levy of Makom in Toronto writes this piece about his chavruta experience with Jack Layton:
As a community, we join the rest of Canada in mourning the death of Jack Layton, Leader of the Official Opposition in Parliament, former Toronto city councillor, and our neighbour in downtown Toronto. Our heartfelt condolences go out to his family and friends.
I had the privilege of meeting Jack last summer. Although not Jewish, he and his partner Olivia Chow had kept up the mezuzah that was already on the doorway of their home, where a rabbi lived in the early twentieth century. Jack was curious as to the mezuzah’s contents and, connected through a friend in common, asked me to teach him about it. I biked over with a Hebrew-English humash (Torah book) and we spoke at length about the meanings of the mezuzah, which we temporarily removed from the doorframe for closer inspection, along with the histories of his home and downtown Toronto, and our personal stories. I came away with a deep respect for Jack and his spiritual sensitivity, inquisitiveness, down-to-earth friendliness, and ethics.
Jack’s inspiring parting words summon us to repair our world:
Canada is a great country, one of the hopes of the world. We can be a better one – a country of greater equality, justice, and opportunity… My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.
May his memory be a blessing.