Forward with the List

A few weeks ago, Newsweek announced that it was discontinuing its annual “Best Rabbis in America” list.  Around the country, one could hear hundreds of rabbis exhale a silent sigh of relief: we would no longer have to pretend that we did not care about the list.  The demise of list was met with general acclaim, since it always seemed like a pretty bad idea (especially for those of us left off!) and the sense of ickiness of the entire enterprise was enhanced by the anecdotes of rabbis calling the authors of the list and begging to placed.  The whole thing was sort of gross.  Goodbye list of Greatest American Rabbis in America! you will not be missed, except by the 50 people who had to pretend they didn’t care that they were on the list.

But the thing about Jews is that we really need to know who is winning.  We need to know the best, the greatest, the most.  After all, we are a high achieving people, and we like to know our class rank.  Thankfully, our good friends at The Forward have stepped into the gaping self-esteem creating and destroying hole left by our good friends at Newsweek.  For the second year in a row, The Forward solicited nominations for the “Most Inspiring Rabbis in America.”  The selection process after the nominations was fairly unclear, but what was surprising to me, upon the eventual publication of The Most Inspiring Rabbis in America was how entirely uninspiring the stories about these rabbis turned out to be.  Now, I know some of the rabbis on this list, and they are great, but the vignettes chosen by the Forward are almost uniformly uninteresting and unremarkable.  The thing is, I am sure that these rabbis truly ARE inspiring and DO deserve to be recognized for the great good work that they do.  But why does this much deserved praise need to be couched in terms of a page-view seeking “Most”-type list?  If the goal is to highlight some of the innovative and even inspiring work that these great rabbis do, then why not take some time time and a write a more in-depth report on that work? Why not highlight some great rabbinic models?  Instead, we get The List, with its suggestion of superlative utterly betrayed by the prosaic nature of the “inspiration” described.  To be clear: I have nothing against these rabbis, and the ones on the list that I know are wonderful and are deserving of the attention and the accolades.  But for goodness sakes Forward: tell us why!  I mean, if this is the most inspiring our most inspiring rabbis can be, one of two things must be true: American Jews need to raise their standards and expectations, or we rabbis really need to work on our people skills.  I assume, however, that these rather passionless nominating notes are only scraping the surface of what these terrific rabbis are doing in their communities.  Tell us more, folks from The Forward: don’t list us, inspire us!

Posted in Jewish world, Rabbi Thoughts, Religion in America | Comments Off

Staying, Leaving, and the Conservative Movement

After the Pew report came out and after the gnashing of teeth and rending of garments and sitting on the floor and weeping was over, I figured I would write something about the results.  I know my blog has become more and more occasional, but if anything would shake me out my blog-silence, surely a demographic study foretelling the coming apocalypse would be it.  But I found that I had nothing really interesting to say (insert variation of “when has that stopped you before?” joke here) and I found, perhaps more ominously, that anything I did try to write came out sounding lamentation-y.

Luckily for me, other people have picked up the dirge work I decided not to do.  For example, here is Dr. Micah Gottlieb bemoaning the inability of Conservative Judaism to retain folks who are interested in living a halakhically observant life:

I was told that Conservative Jews were as serious in their commitment to Halacha as Orthodox Jews were, but they differed in that they recognized halachic change. But as I knew no Conservative Jews who cared about Halacha, my teenage sensitivity to inconsistency led me to see Conservative Judaism as inauthentic.

Does one only have sensitivity to inconsistency when one is a teenager?  More to the point, is it really the case that if the Movement had been more consistent in its messaging (“The Conservative Movement: Not Really That into Traditional Ritual Observance”) that Dr. Gottlieb would have been led to stay?  Probably not, since it turns out what he really wanted was…a Modern Orthodox community.

I felt that Conservative Judaism was distracted by what I saw as political rather than religious issues. The burning issue of the day in the Conservative movement was egalitarianism and the ordination of women. My synagogue was not egalitarian, although women could be called to the Torah on special occasions. The argument was made that egalitarianism was crucial to keeping Jews affiliated.

I did not buy that. It seemed to me that focusing on egalitarianism was a distraction from the real problem: that Conservative Jews were not committed to Halacha and Jewish learning and that no serious effort was being made to engage them in these matters. Worse still, as egalitarianism swept Conservative Judaism in the United States, Canadian Conservative Jews who were not egalitarian were made to feel unwelcome. Eventually my synagogue and several other Conservative synagogues in Canada dropped their membership in the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

If you are the sort of person who sees egalitarianism as essentially a “political” as opposed to a “religious” issue, then you are just not going to be happy in a community that has been ordaining female rabbis for thirty years, and has been steadily moving towards the full inclusion of women in all areas of leadership and ritual.  Ditto for issues around gays and lesbians.  I can see how one could perceive these issues as “political” but I—and most Conservative rabbis I know—see such questions as being of a deeply religious nature.  What can be more religious than the question of where women fit into the religion?  My point here is not that Dr. Gottlieb is wrong about the Conservative Movement—much of what he says is correct—but simply to point out that he is not perhaps the best person to speak about where the Movement has gone wrong.  If someone is concerned about being ritually observant and does not care about issues around egalitarianism, then the Conservative Movement is not for you.  The Movement lost you when it made some important decisions about the place of women, and then stuck to those decisions.  And I’m perfectly okay with that.

Of course, if you care about ritual observance and you care about issues of egalitarianism, then the Conservative Movement may not be for you either. Just ask the folks at Hadar and any other “post-denominational” traditional egalitarian minyan.  This is not an argument about whether these minyanim are really “Conservative” or not—that argument has been exhausted.  The point here is that there is no reason they could not affiliate in this way; no reason, that is, except that they have absolutely no desire to do so and see no benefit from such an affiliation.  We might wonder why, and we might even think there are multiple issues in play, but it turns out we’d be wrong, because (Conservative) Rabbi Danny Gordis has the real answer:

What really doomed the movement is that Conservative Judaism ignored the deep existential human questions that religion is meant to address.

Oh, is that all? If only we had thought to address the “deep existential human questions” than we’d be sitting pretty those Reform and Orthodox Jews!  Because when it comes to addressing deep existential questions, those spiffy Movements probably have a whole class on that in rabbinical school, while my Seminary years were spent taking class like Talmud and Bible and Jewish history.  Jokes aside, I have to say, I do not recognize the Movement Rabbi Gordis describes here:

As Conservative writers and rabbis addressed questions such as “are we halakhic,” “how are we halakhic,” and “should we be halakhic,” most of the women and men in the pews responded with an uninterested shrug. They were not in shul, for the most part, out of a sense of legally binding obligation. Had that been what they were seeking, they would have been in Orthodox synagogues. They had come to worship because they wanted a connection to their people, to transcendence, to a collective Jewish memory that would give them cause for rejoicing and reason for weeping, and they wanted help in transmitting that to their children. While these laypeople were busy seeking a way to explain to their children why marrying another Jew matters, how a home rooted in Jewish ritual was enriching, and why Jewish literacy still mattered in a world in which there were no barriers to Jews’ participating in the broader culture, their religious leadership was speaking about whether or not the movement was halakhic or how one could speak of revelation in an era of biblical criticism.

I do not disagree with Rabbi Gordis’ list of reasons that drive people to shul, but I think it’s odd to believe two things that seem implicit in this argument: 1) that people in pews really care and are invested in the sorts of conversations that are going on among “the leadership” of the Conservative movement and 2) that “leadership of the Conservative Movement” is even a thing that exists in the world.  I cannot speak for my colleagues, but I don’t really spend any time at all talking to my congregants about whether or not Conservative Judaism is halakhic or, but I do admit to talking about halakah.  Although I am clearly biased, I think I do my best to sometimes address the “deep existential human questions” though I admit that something I also talk about baseball and movies.  I tend to think that Conservative Jews care far more about what their local rabbi talks about than they do about what the shadowy cabal of leaders we in Movement call “The Circle” talks about in the pages of Conservative Judaism.  Speaking of “The Circle”: I am not sure it exists, or of whom it is comprised, but I do know that I get Conservative Judaism and Kolot and even read those two august publications, and I can’t really say “are we a halakhic movement?” is a trending topic.  All of which is to say: I do think the Conservative Movement has significant issues to address, but to claim, as Rabbi Gordis does, that our main issue is a failure to be serious about our religious message requires a level of information about local rabbis and their message to their synagogues that is not in evidence in the article.

But the Movement is clearly stumbling, and I think we would all do well to be clear-eyed about that fact.  We need to be thoughtful about the reasons for our stumbles, and I think taking advice from people who have moved on to other Jewish communities—or “meandered” as Rabbi Gordis would have it—is not always the best way forward.  But we do need to hear the voices of people like Sarah Miriam Liben, whose impassioned cry in the Times of Israel is what really got me off the couch and into my chair to write this post. (Full disclosure: I know Sara Miriam Liben and I think she is awesome.)

Let me be absolutely clear. I do not mean to suggest that my male friends who have chosen Orthodoxy over Conservative Judaism did so without serious thought. Nor do I mean to imply that my female friends who choose to pray in Orthodox synagogues do not feel empowered or deeply connected to the communities of which they are now a part. There are many compelling reasons, personal and not, for an individual to choose a different community, but that is for another time.

What I am saying is that deeply committed Conservative women cannot make this shift fluidly. And I find it extremely difficult to understand how being raised in an egalitarian community can be reconciled with a non-egalitarian community, and a non-egalitarian religious future for one’s family. I want to be counted in a minyan. I want to someday be able to say kadish for a loved one. Partnership minyanim do not do it for me. Sitting behind or next to a mechitza is not equal prayer for me. And being told apologetically that I do not have to fulfill the same mitzvot that are required of my male counterparts is not my Judaism.

Sara wants the Conservative Movement to work; she needs it to work actually, because the Jewish life she is looking for is something that only the Conservative Movement is trying to provide on a national scale.  Sara wants observance and she wants seriousness and she wants commitment and she wants to count.  That is what I want as well. I want it for Sara, I want it for my own daughter, I want it for my sons, and I want it for myself as well.  And I am not ready to give up yet.  Rabbi Ed Feinstein might be right that “our house is on fire.”  But you know what? I’m not leaving, because though much has burned, there is much yet to be saved.

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Investment and Incentive in the Conservative Movement

I know it’s been awhile since I wrote a blog post.  I guess I just haven’t had anything so say.  (Real reason: discovering ‘Arrested Development” for the first time.  Late, I know.)  And this post will not be interesting to my legions of general interest fans.  This is a little bit inside baseball, but if a Conservative rabbi can’t write a faux-insider take on the Conservative Movement, then who will do it?  A note of caution before I begin: I know personally many of the people involved in the decisions I am talking about, but I know none of them very well, and I have spoken to none of them, or really anybody in any leadership capacity about this.  These are my personal and uninformed musings.  Also: it’s long.  Consider yourself warned.


The Fuchsberg Center for Conservative Judaism, located on some prime real estate in Jerusalem, has always been a bit of an odd and confusing institution.  Although there is a Conservative Judaism in Israel (called Masorti) and although the Fuchsberg Center is “for Conservative Judaism” and in Israel, the Fuchsberg center is not affiliated with Masorti.  The Fuchsberg Center, as I understand it, is the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s Israel institution.   The raison d’être , which is right at the top of the really bad 1990s era website that seems endemic to Conservative Movement institutions is, “Conservative Jews from all over the world visit the Fuchsberg Jerusalem Center for study, guidance, fellowship and hospitality and above all to be exposed to the Israel Experience.”  So that’s what the Fuchsberg center is.  It’s the USCJ’s arm in Jerusalem.

Part of the Fuchsberg Center is the Conservative Yeshiva, one of the very few Conservative institutions that people, and particularly people under the age of 50, feel strongly about.  (Ramah, and, to a lesser extent, USY, are the others.  Don’t get me started on how USY and Ramah are separate arms of the Conservative Movement’s youth program.)  For over a decade, the Conservative Yeshiva’s Rosh Yeshiva was Rabbi Richie Lewis, about whom many people (myself included) have many positive feelings. Indeed, it is hard to find a person who went through the CY over the past ten years or so who did not feel that Rabbi Lewis was an essential part of the experience of studying at the Yeshiva.

Long story short: the Fuchsberg center, under whose auspices the CY operates, recently eliminated the Rosh Yeshiva position and therefore cut ties with Rabbi Lewis.  From the point of view of the Yeshiva, this was a terrible decision.  But, as I will endeavor to argue, there is a deeper problem here that Rabbi Lewis’ departure clarifies: this decision exposes the deep weakness of the current institutional model of the Conservative Movement.  As such, I do not think blaming the professional leadership of the Fuchsberg Center of the United Synagogue really gets at the more fundamental concern: the Conservative Movement is, at this moment, set up to fail in the future.  This is not the fault of an individual; it’s the fault of a system.  And we need to change the system.

The core problem is this: the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism is funded largely through assessments on synagogues.  It is a membership organization of institutions, not individuals.  And what that means is that the interests of the institutions it serves are paramount in all decision making.  There is a lay board of the USCJ and individual board members may have their own interests and concerns, but the primary function of the USCJ is to serve Conservative Synagogues.  This inevitably leads to the following conclusion: the USCJ is far more concerned about serving its constituents in the present than it is about serving possible future members of those constituents.  If you take a look at the Strategic Plan (PDF) the USCJ produced in 2011 you will note that the “core functions” of the USCJ are described in largely present-tense terms: efforts to help build and expand existing congregations (or kehillot, as the Movement now insists they be called.)  Yes, there is some hand waving towards “seeding and nurturing new kehillot” but there can be no doubt from this document that the main function of the USCJ is to serve its current membership—current synagogues and their members.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with the plan, not in theory, and not in practice, as least as far as Conservative synagogues are concerned.  But you can see immediately how this focus leads to decisions like the one made about Rabbi Lewis: the Conservative Yeshiva is great, but it is simply not a core function of the USCJ.  Therefore, the USCJ and Fuchsberg announced that they wanted to be the CY to be financially independent, which is another way of saying: we do not prioritize this program.  The exact same thing happened with KOACH, the college program of the USCJ.  KOACH received a funding reprieve, but the language the USCJ is using about KOACH going forward is the same: independence.  Again, this is simply a question of priorities: the USCJ could shift resources away from serving current communities and into areas like KOACH and the CY, but it won’t because the institutions that pay the bills at the USCJ do not see a significant return from those sorts of investments, at least not in the short term.  So, in the absence of dedicated dollars from the USCJ coffers, KOACH and CY have to raise their own funds.

This dynamic also helps explain why little or no money in the Conservative Movement goes to outreach of any sort.  We don’t really do outreach: not in Israel, not on college campuses, not at all.  Outreach dollars are future investments, and they require a commitment to spending on things that will not rebound soon, if at all, to the benefit of the funders—in this case, the synagogues.  Because the folks served by the likes of KOACH and the CY do not immediately become members of Conservative synagogues, if they do at all, it is an entirely rational decision to downplay the importance of those efforts.

What of this means is that the USCJ, as currently constituted, is simply not institutionally capable of making investments in these sorts of outreach programs.  And neither is the Rabbinical Assembly, Ramah, JTS, or any Conservative Movement institution in America.  Perhaps if one these groups were awash in money there could be a runoff to these sorts of efforts, but in tight times, there simply is not going to be money in the Movement for serious outreach efforts.

Of course, in the long term, this is a disastrous situation.  If we do not engage people on college campuses or in Israel, then where, pray tell, will we find them?  The Conservative Movement does not, to put it mildly, enjoy wonderful a wonderful brand in the Jewish world.  It is therefore important for people to have positive, meaningful, and transformative experiences with the name Conservative attached to them.  Great outreach can do that.  Poorly funded, poorly executed, poorly run outreach will simply have the opposite effect.

I do not know the solution, but something needs to change.  Perhaps a new Conservative Institution needs to arise whose sole goal is outreach: KOACH, the CY, young Conservative rabbis going places we never go.  Or maybe Ramah is the right existing address for this effort, given its extensive lists of staff and campers.  But the USCJ will never be able to really take on the outreach effort, and the sad cases of KOACH and the Conservative Yeshiva have made that fact abundantly, painfully clear.  The only question now is where we go from here.  Because when it comes to real outreach with an eye toward the future, here is really nowhere.  And if we spend too long in nowhere, then nowhere will be our fate.

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Does The Wall Street Journal Read An Alternate Universe Version of My Blog?

I would never be so bold as to suggest than anyone actually reads the things I write, but I have to say, last week’s front page story in The Wall Street Journal felt like, as one of my friends put it, a bizarro world version of my earliest post about how different movements are written about in the press.  I mean, look at what I wrote about articles about “innovative” forms of Judaism on the one hand and “boring” types on the other:

The only thing those two types of stories have in common is that Professor Jonathan Sarna will be inevitably quoted at the end of both.

And then look at this:

“Once upon a time, some people went to synagogue to talk to God. Nowadays, more and more people come to see their friends,” says Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University. The prayers and sermons “are a distraction. Conviviality goes better with a drink.”

They quote Dr. Sarna!  I guess this makes me a prophet of some sort.

But of course the real scandal of the article is how overwhelming depressing it is.  That is, either the various rabbis were misquoted, or perhaps taken out of context, or else our community has gone terribly, terribly wrong.  It could, of course, be both.  But dear God, what to make of statements like this:

In Westhampton, N.Y., Rabbi Schneier’s synagogue has private sponsors each week who shell out $7,200 for food and $1,800 or more for the ever-changing bar—which may, incidentally, include rum-based mojitos, Champagne-infused Bellinis and the like. The L’chaim liquor table costs an additional $1,800—so the total can exceed $10,000 for a single Sabbath. Despite the steep cost, there are always eager sponsors, says the rabbi.

Someday, a future Dr. Sarna will write a book about the decline of American Jewish community, and this quote will be an epigraph for one of the chapters.  So will this:

Last year in Bal Harbour, one donor made an unusual contribution. Each Friday afternoon, on the eve of the Sabbath, his driver appeared carrying a leather suitcase with a giant 1.75 liter bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue label tucked inside. At the Saturday Kiddush, a special volunteer handed out shot glasses of the $500 scotch. “It went pretty fast,” Rabbi Lipskar says.

I can’t understand why this is front page new at The Wall Street Journal, or how this qualifies as news at all.  But if this is the new frontier of “engagement” and “entry points” I can only say that we are in serious, serious trouble.

I need a drink.

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Women of the Wall, Civil Rights and Making Change

A while back, I wrote a post about how women wishing to ride anywhere they liked on Israeli buses was not, in fact, analogous to the situation faced by Civil Rights pioneers like Rosa Parks, despite the superficial similarities.  My point in that post was that in the case of buses, the law was on the side of the women, not on the side of those who would segregate the genders.  In the case of Rosa Parks in Montgomery, the law was against her, which is why she was arrested when she refused to move.  As I tried to argue, a woman wishing to sit wherever she liked was far more like the situation of African-American children attempting to integrate schools which had been forced by the law to accept them.  They were often met with resistance from the local population, but the law was decidedly and determinedly on their side, which is why they received police protection (in some cases) to fulfill the legal mandate they had been given.

The true analogy to Rosa Parks in the Israeli context is the struggle over the female presence at the Western Wall.  Here, the law is certainly not on the side of those who wish to make change.  When the women who wear tallitot or pray in certain ways are arrested or detained by police, it’s because they have, in fact, broken the law.  I assume that the women who gather for prayer each Rosh Chodesh know they are breaking the law (just as Rosa Parks did) and that part of the reason they gather is to test the willingness of the authorities to uphold the law by force.  The strategy, it seems to me, is similar to that of the Montgomery movement (which then became a template for later struggles): test the law, get arrested, raise the stakes for the ruling power, and then see if opinion (either inside opinion or the opinion of those who are outside but who are in a position to exert influence) will turn enough such that the law must be changed.  In the case of the Civil Rights, sometimes, as in Montgomery, Rosa Park’s act of civil disobedience sparked a mass movement that altered the opinion of enough influential (white) citizens of Montgomery to effect a change in the local statutes.  In other cases, especially those having to do with voting rights, the Civil Rights Movement needed to raise the awareness of Northern whites and (especially) the Federal government, in order to effect change.  Seating on buses and at lunch counters could be changed (in some places) without the Federal government (that is, outside influence) coming to bear, but when it came to issues like voting, the Movement needed to change hearts and minds outside the South, because in the South the Movement had virtually no success in altering (white) opinion towards a change in the law.

Now, I do not mean to fully analogize between the push for desegregated busses in Montgomery, Alabama and the drive to change the rules at the Western Wall, or for that matter the larger aims of the Civil Rights Movement and the larger struggle to tear down the system of religious favoritism and oppression that exists (legally) in Israel.  First of all, there was much more violence in the course of the Civil Rights Movement.  Many, many more people were murdered for their support of Civil Rights, and this level of violence is no small thing.  It is, I think, connected to the other major difference: one could argue that, at least in the struggle over the right to cast a vote, the issues at stake in the South in the 1950s and 1960s were far more fundamental to the concept of citizenship than anything we are currently fighting over in Israel.   But those caveats aside, the similarities between the two Movements does suggest some important points.

First, the issue of the Wall is probably closer to bus seating than to voting.  That is, my guess would be that the powers-that-be in Israel will be easier to move on this issue than on other related to the religious pluralism in general.  First, because there is very little money involved, and second, because, at the end of the day, this is an issue that it is easy for outsiders to understand and form a position about.  That is, American Jews will get exercised about this issue, because the notion that the Western Wall should belong to any one sect of Judaism will be intuitively wrong to most American Jews.  They might not have thought about the issue when the visited the wall on the last Federation trip, but the more this sort of the public display is met by the authorities with arrests, the more the issue will gain prominence and pressure will be brought to bear.  Many Israelis don’t care about this issue, because, in truth, many (secular) Israelis don’t care all that much about the Western Wall.  But this is an area where outside opinion can have an impact, and indeed already is, as evidenced by the government’s decision to have Natan Sharansky investigate the issue.  The choice of Sharansky is not accidental: as the head of the Jewish Agency, he is (supposed to be) in touch with the Jewish Diaspora, and certainly their cares and concerns will be part of his proposed solutions. I would not be surprised to see some changes in the law over the next few years.

But the larger issue of religious pluralism will be much tougher.  First, there is a lot more money involved.  Money for schools, money for neighborhoods, money for thousands of rabbis employed by the state.  A ruling power will fight hard for its economic prerogatives, and this was surely a part of the intense struggle over Civil Rights in the South.  Black voting meant black elected officials, and white elected officials responding to the needs of black communities and citizens; this meant a reordering of the economic priorities in many communities.  Second, the issue of what it means to have a Jewish state is still very much up for grabs.  The various answers go to the very heart of the Zionist enterprise and to the posture of the modern Israeli state.  And it is to this deep and abiding question that the issue of religious pluralism addresses itself.  This is why I would expect outside opinion (that is, the opinions of Jews outside Israel) to have less of an impact.  This is a battle Israelis themselves must fight, because it is their tax money and their national self-identity.  That is not to say the Jewish Diaspora should not have or express an opinion, it is only to say that, in the end, a thoroughgoing reform of religious authority in the Israeli state is going to take a large-scale change in Israeli opinion.  Avowedly secular parties have come and gone in Israel, and none has managed to shake the religious power vested in the (increasingly ultra-) Orthodox rabbanut.  But I think it can be done.

And it must be done.

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Dying Elephants

If there is one thing that drives me crazy in the American Jewish press, and to some extent about the non-Jewish press when it writes about Jews, it is the veneration of all things new and edgy, and the denigration of all things considered old and stodgy.  Check out any article about Limmud or the Independent Minyan movement, and you’ll see all sorts of fawning quotes and the bandying about of words like “innovative” and “exciting” and “progressive.”  Then check out an article about the Reform or Conservative Movements, or about Federations and you’ll get quotes about how these institutions have outlived their welcome and the operative words will be things like “shrinking” and “aging” and “slowly dying like a huge, old elephant that tripped over itself and is unable to rise.”  The only thing those two types of stories have in common is that Professor Jonathan Sarna will be inevitably quoted at the end of both.

Given that basic framework, I have always found it interesting that Chabad—and Chabad-type movements—manage to fall on the Limmud, Independent Minyan side of this divide and not on the old-stodgy-dying side.  Two recent articles caught my eye in this regard.

The first is from the The New York Times and tells the unbelievably amazing story of a rabbi and his wife who have attracted young people to their home by having fancy food and plenty of alcohol.  It is remarkable that if you give people good food, drinks and basically ask nothing of them, they will come.  The article tries to claim that this sort of outreach is new:

When the Soho Synagogue started in 2005, with its loft parties and signature cocktails, there was little else like it.

But of course, anyone who has been on a college campus in the last two decades or so can tell you that this strategy is just the basic Chabad campus strategy taken to the streets of New York (and now L.A. and other cities.)  “Suprisingly” hip rabbi, welcoming wife, food and alcohol: that’s basically the formula.  Sometimes is works better, sometimes worse, but it doesn’t really vary that much.  And of course, in article like this you can’t not have the obligatory dig at other expressions of Judaism:

They started small, with Mrs. Scheiner baking challah and offering it to people in their building on Chambers Street. Within a few months, they had their first guest for Shabbat dinner. They listened as nonreligious Jews told stories about stifling Hebrew schools and uninspiring worship services that led to their alienation from the faith. The couple asked them how they could create something appealing and different.

Man, if only ANYONE else in the Jewish world had though to try to be welcoming and hip and interesting instead of exclusive and stodgy and boring!  I know that in my synagogue, we do our best to alienate as many people as possible, because it’s really, really hard to come up with other ideas.  And then there’s this:

But so far, Rabbi Scheiner said, the secular Jews they appeal to seem to be accepting their mix of traditional and modern. “We are not saying, why do you have a phone in your pocket, why after services are you going to Balthazar or why are you dating a non-Jewish person?” he said. “It’s not my place. We are here to inspire them and open up their eyes and enable them to reconnect and to grow.”

This makes me crazy on so many levels.  First: the article does not even begin to interrogate the implicit claim here that these young people have felt “judged” in all the other Jewish settings they have been in.  I would suspect that have not.  I would suspect that they are secular not because someone yelled at them once for having a cell phone or for “going to Balthazar” but for a hundred other reasons having nothing to with people calling them out for dating non-Jews.  Second, this “outreach” as the article obliquely acknowledges, has a bare minimum of Jewish content.  It’s attractive BECAUSE there’s very little religious about it at all.  Which is totally fine, by the way.  But until you show me that these sorts of get-togethers actually move people towards a more connected Jewish life, let’s not compare apples and oranges.  I’d wager that any Jewish institution in the country could rent some high profile spaces, give out free food and drinks and pack a room full of young Jews.  (This just happened here in New Orleans, in fact.)  But so what?  What’s the next step?  And the next?  Is the goal to a fill a room?  Is the goal to get press as a destination for lots of young, disaffected Jews?  If that is the goal, then I dare say we are setting the bar a weensy bit too low.  Getting people in the room is one thing; taking them somewhere serious and life-affecting once they get there is something else.  But the press loves a room full of swanky young Jews, especially if the cast of characters includes, “an Orthodox Jewish rabbi, dressed unexpectedly in a tight black shirt and ripped jeans.”  Please.

The second article comes from the The Jewish Daily Forward.  It follows the classic everything-Chabad-does-is-freer-and-more-loving model.  It’s about Chabad run preschools, and it makes great hay out of the fact these schools are so welcoming and (relatively) inexpensive.  Again, however, there is no thought give to why these schools can afford to run at such a lower cost: they employ young women who view it as part of their religious mission to serve as teachers in these schools.  (I am not denigrating that sense of mission, it is beautiful, but surely that should be part of this story?)  The article does note that many faith-based schools do not need to be licensed, which is surely part of the equation, but low-cost labor is another element allowing for lower fees.  But I guess I could get over that oversight, if the article’s author had not felt the need to include the (seemingly required) dig at everyone else:

The struggling Reform and Conservative movements might take a lesson from Chabad. If they want to reach parents like my friends and me, for whom Jewish preschool could lead to more involvement and a greater connection to the Jewish community, they should offer more Jewish child care and preschool programs. It’s not rocket science.

You’re right, it’s not rocket science, it’s economics.  And “struggling” Reform and Conservative synagogues do not have access to the supply of low-wage labor that Chabad-run schools can tap into.  My goodness, does writing about Chabad success require the author to be condescending to everyone else?  The author may be surprised to learn that there are many Conservative and Reform synagogues that have very well-attended preschools, but that most of them, as is ethical and appropriate, pay their child care workers at the going market rate for their area.  So yes, they will tend to be more expensive.  It’s not rocket science.  If you are going to call out the Movements for not having enough preschool education, maybe giving some, you know, facts and figures would help.

Finally, I love the completely-undefended assumption that the Conservative and Reform Movements are “struggling”.  Maybe they are, and maybe not, but surely that sort of thing needs to be argued, rather than assumed.  The line is completely out of place in the article, except that—given the chance—why not take a shot at those old, stodgy, dying elephants?  Everyone else seems to be.

Posted in Conservative Judaism, Jewish world, Rabbi Thoughts | 15 Comments

Ira Glass Explains How to Get Good at Sermonizing

Not really, but I think this video does speak to something I have been thinking about regarding the practice of speaking in front of group regularly on the topic of Torah.

I often get asked about giving divrei Torah (sermons), and though there are several formulations, the basic question is this: how does one get good at giving sermons?  And my answer is simple: spend some summers at Camp Ramah.  Of course, that’s not the real answer.  The real answer is: volume. When you spend time at Camp Ramah in a senior-type educator position, you have the opportunity to give a lot of divrei Torah.  And when you are speaking to kids who are looking out a lake behind you as you talk, you learn how to be interesting, to-the-point, and rapid.  Or you don’t, and they don’t ask you back.  So in my summers at Camp Ramah in New England, I gave many, many sermons.

I think of that because Ira Glass basically says the same thing in this video: it takes taste plus volume to do good creative work.  That is, if one has a sense of what a good dvar Torah should be, that’s fine, but actually translating that sense into a speech one gives is something else.  And when I started, I was bad at it.  I knew what I wanted to say, I knew how I wanted to say it, I knew I had to keep interest and be clear.  I just did not know how exactly to do those things all at once.  So I would give a dvar Torah that was interesting but totally uninformed.  Or one that was learned but boring.  Or one that went on too long, or ended too soon (okay, that was more rare) or that lost the audience because I forgot that I knew where I was headed but they did not.  But I gave so many divrei Torah over my years at camp that I got better. And since becoming a pulpit rabbi three and a half years ago I have found the discipline of weekly divrei Torah to be both difficult and immensely gratifying.  I feel that I am getting better.  And I am getting better, I suspect, because I give something like 40 to 50 divrei Torah a year.

Taste plus volume.  It’s not rocket science, but it sure ain’t easy.

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Django Unchained, The Untouchables, Zero Dark Thirty and Some Thoughts about Violence

I know I haven’t blogged in a (long) while, but I figured instead of coming up with a whole bunch of totally false excuses, I would just jump back in with a post so long that people will forget I have been away.  Or maybe wish I would have stayed away.  This post has some movie references, and contains spoilers for Django Unchained, The Untouchables, and Zero Dark Thirty.


I thought a lot about whether or not I wanted to go see Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino’s latest film.  I have seen everything he’s done, but the truth is I haven’t really liked any of his movies since Jackie Brown.  More important (for this decision) was the fact that I really did not like Inglorious Basterds, which seemed to be the closest analogue to Django, a revenge fantasy set in the antebellum South. The violence in Basterds was somewhat off-putting, but the gleeful nature of the vengeance wrought by the Jewish characters on the Nazis was more off-putting still. I guess in the end I prefer my Holocaust stories a bit more straight.

But in the end, I went to see Django.  And it is violent.  And it is over-the-top is about ten different ways. I am not interested in giving a review of the movie in this space.  What was interesting to me was the argument that Tarantino seemed to be making in the course of the movie: some violence needs to be met with more (and overwhelming violence.)  In the long and tense dinner scene towards the end of the film, the villainous slave owner (zestfully played by Leonardo DiCaprio) asks, referring to the slaves of plantation who easily outnumber the overseers, “Why don’t they kill us?”  His answer is notable for its racist phrenology, but of the course the real answer is: they will.  He is shot dead soon after, and so is just about everyone else.  Django ends with not one but two bloody shootouts in the front hall of the ‘Big House’ of the plantation, and by the end, everyone associated with slavery has been dispatched and the house itself blown to smithereens.  In this, Tarantino is making what seems to me an accurate historical point: slavery in the United States could not be ended by any other means than violence.  It took an apocalyptic war and total destructions of many southern cities and towns to end the ‘peculiar institution.’  Lincoln was right: the house divided could not stand; it needed to be blown apart.  The movie begins by telling us that the action takes place “two years before the Civil War” and the timing is not accidental. The evocation of the great conflagration that would finally and irrevocably destroy American slavery is the background of the bloody violence that animates Django Unchained.  The evil plantation overlord is wrong: there will be much killing, most of it by the freed slave Django.  And he is wrong is the larger sense as well: hundreds of thousands of African Americans, many of them former slaves, would join the Union army and kill for the cause of freedom.  Violence, even extraordinary violence, is sometimes a means that fits the end.

By coincidence, as I was deciding whether to go see Django, I rewatched Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables, a movie I remember liking a lot as a kid.  The Untouchables tells the story of Elliot Ness, the Treasury agent who pursued Al Capone in Prohibition-era Chicago.  The movie is vintage De Palma: operatic, violent, and deeply unsubtle.  De Palma’s violence is at least as gruesome as Tarantino’s—Al Capone and a baseball bat anyone?—and he seems to be making a similar case: sometimes violence is necessary in the eradication of evil.  But what’s fascinating is, whether De Palma knows it or not, he undercuts his message in an early section of the film.  Kevin Costner, playing Ness, enters his office to find that he has been sent backup from Washington; he is excited until he realizes that the new agent is an accountant, not a gunslinger.  The agent tries to interest Ness in the fact that Capone has failed to pay income taxes, but Ness, uninterested, wanders out of the office.  He encounters Jim Malone, the tough old Irish beat cop played by Sean Connery.  Malone agrees to join the squad chasing Capone but only if Ness agrees to abide by Chicago rules: he pulls a gun, you pull a knife, he puts one of yours in the hospital, you put one of his in the morgue.  It’s not police work, Malone tells Ness, it’s a war.  Ness agrees, and most of the rest of the movie is Ness and company shooting it out, Chicago style, with Capone and his gang.  Except for one thing.  The nerdy accountant was right.  Capone ends up going to jail for precisely the crime the non-gun-toting agent was trying to explain to a totally uninterested Ness.  It turns out that getting Capone was police work after all, not warfare.  (I do not know if this juxtaposition of the accountant and Malone, representing two paths to attack Capone, was entirely intended by De Palma.)  In the end, the accountant is killed, as it Malone.  But Malone’s death scene is interesting in this regard as well: he pulls a gun on a guy who has a knife—he brought a knife to a gun fight!—and then is himself killed when another baddie pulls an even bigger gun.  Is De Palma saying that the Chicago Way cannot triumph in the end, since someone always has a bigger gun?  Probably not, since he later has Ness throw an unarmed bad guy off the roof and make a quip about it.  But still, the historical reality of movie undermines, rather than enforces, the sense that the extreme violence on the part of the authorities was necessary.  Capone was a bad guy, but after all the death and killing, one can’t help thinking that it might have been easier and less bloody if Ness had just stayed in the office to talk to the accountant instead of running into Malone and agreeing to approach the fight with Capone as a war.  Putting one of his in the morgue sounds good, but putting Capone in jail took brains, not brawn.

All of which brings me to Zero Dark Thirty, another recent film whose violent content—specifically scenes of torture—has been hotly debated.  Zero Dark Thirty sits in the uneasy middle between Django and The Untouchables as it pertains to the use of extreme force.  That is, of course, because the subject matter sits in that uneasy middle as well.  It seems quite clear that the Civil War—with all its death and destruction—was necessary to end the practice of chattel slavery in the American south.  Whatever the founders might have thought would happen to slavery (wither away, get smaller, stay the same) is immaterial, by the middle of the nineteenth century, it had become quite clear that slavery in the South was only going to die a violent death.  On the other hand, the gangs of Chicago were, when all was said and done, a problem that no amount of authorized violence could solve.  Or perhaps we should say: it was generally agreed that the amount of killing that would have solved the crime problem in Chicago was entirely disproportionate to the desired result.  It was better to get Al Capone on tax evasion than to engage in all out street war in an American city.  Doing it that way meant crime was never fully solved, and it meant that Capone did not get the time in prison he may have deserved, but the accountant way was better than the Chicago way.  The problem with what we have been calling the War on Terror is that we, as a society, have not decided what level of violence we are willing to bear to win.  More, it is not even clear what winning might mean.  Zero Dark Thirty should be a triumphant movie: we get the bad guy in the end.  But director Kathryn Bigelow did not make a triumphant movie, and what we are left with at the end does not feel like victory.  After all, killing Osama Bin Laden did not end terrorism as a threat, nor did it remove from the world certain strands of radical ideologies that lead to terror.  Given that reality, Zero Dark Thirty seems to ask: were all the acts of violence and death worth it?  Django answers that question with an unambiguous yes, and the historical circumstances comply.  The Untouchables seems to think it is saying yes, but the real answer that comes from the movie—and from the history–is no.  But Zero Dark Thirty is tougher: it’s hard to judge the violence America meted out because we don’t really know the end.  The movie begins with real and horrifying 911 calls on September 11th, 2001, thus establishing a framework of righteous violence and justified killing for the film to come. But if this is so, then why, at the end of all that violence and killing, does the final shot of movie show us the main character, a woman who has spent every moment of her life for a decade chasing Osama Bin Laden, crying?  Why does her decidedly non-triumphant face fill the screen, and invite us to feel not joy, not vindication, but something more akin to uncertainty?  Have we done right?  Alas, we do not know.



Posted in Current Events, Movie Reviews, Popular Culture | 5 Comments

5 Election Watching Rules I Live By

The 2012 Presidential Election is upon us (and in some ways has been since November of 2010 or even since November of 2008).  I am a rather voracious news consumer, but I am—when it comes to politics—decidedly an amateur.  That is, I have never worked in politics in any capacity, and my knowledge of the subject comes entirely from things I have read, rather than from things I have done.  I vote, but beyond that I do not participate in political activities or campaigns.

With that caveat, I would like to offer my personal rules for consuming the news of the 2012 election.  Other news amateurs may find some of these useful:

1) I am not interested in gaffes.  “Doing fine” and “I like being able to fire people who provide services to me” makes for good short term news, I suppose, and they certainly make for fun attack ads, but these sorts of things are totally useless in deciding which candidate will do a good job as President of the United States.  Candidates say thousands and thousands of words in public every day.  They are going to make mistakes and say what they don’t always mean.  I don’t care.  And I’m not interested in trying to figure out which gaffes and simple misstatements or mistakes and which are so-called Kinsley Gaffe, which ostensibly tell us some truth about the candidate’s core beliefs.  I am not able to make those sorts of distinctions, so I will ignore gaffes.  But there must be some way to know what the candidate thinks about this or that policy without having to overanalyze a few words spoken in haste or out of sheer exhaustion.  Wait!  I think there is, which takes me to rule number two…

2) I am interested in prepared statements, policy papers and vetted plans.  I am interested in these things precisely because they are thought out in advance, which means they reflect the considered thinking of the candidate and his advisors in the particular area they address.  This is important because this is the sort of thinking that will drive decision making when the candidate is elected.  These sorts of statements are also important because good political science tells us that candidates, after they are elected (and contrary to popular belief) really do try to enact the sorts of things they claimed to want to enact while they were candidates.  That is, the much maligned “campaign promises” are actually worth paying attention to, because they give a fairly good indication of what the candidate will TRY to do if they are elected.  The trying matters, but there is something else worth remembering, which leads me to my third rule…

3) I will remember that we are electing a President, not a Prime Minister and not a King.  I often feel as though Presidential elections are conducted (and covered by the press) as though we do not have an existing political system into which the elected President will be inserted.  Candidates talk about all the policies and plans they will enact “on day one” and so forth, but the truth is, when it comes to domestic policy, the President of the United States is severely constrained by Congress and by the Supreme Court.  Oh sure, you hear a lot about Executive Orders (especially from the ‘out’ party) but any major domestic policy shift that will survive more than one presidency needs to have approval from both of the other branches of government.  For example, President Obama promised to close the Guantanamo Bay prison complex, and indeed tried to do so, but was blocked by Congress.  President Bush promised to privatize social security, and indeed tried to do so, but was blocked by Congress.  A quick perusal of the United States Constitution will remind us of the various branches of a government (though the Constitution is surprisingly unhelpful on the subject of the Supreme Court) and a cursory look at domestic policy making the U.S. since FDR will further drive the important point home: the President cannot simply do what he (and maybe someday she) wants to do.  Our system does not work that way…except in one area, which leads me to rule number 4.

4) Despite various Congressional efforts to the contrary (like the post-Watergate War Powers Act) the President basically does do what he (and maybe someday she) wants when it comes to foreign policy.  It is true that Congress has the right the declare war, but if there is anything we have learned from the “police action” in Korea to the “support function” in Libya, it’s that Presidents can find any number of ways to commit American blood and treasure to a fight without involving Congress in that pesky voting for war thing.  In areas of national security, the American Presidency has evolved into an almost king-like role.  People can be killed by drones or Special Forces on the President’s say-so, and American troops can be deployed anywhere in the world with a go order from the President alone.  This is, without a doubt, the area in which who sits in the Oval Office matters the very most.  It is also the area which, in most national elections, receives the very least attention.  But how a candidate speaks about the U.S. posture towards the world, about national security decision-making, and about how the use of deadly force will be applied in foreign engagements is vitally important, because in those areas what the President says often goes.  When people, lots of people, can die on the word of one person, we need to be awful choosy about who that person is, which leads me to rule number five…

5) This matters.  People will live and die on the basis of our decisions in the fall, and for that reason alone, it matters who wins.  But it’s not just life and death (though that would be enough): it’s also crime and poverty, environment and energy, religion and education.  It’s a hundred little things, and a dozen or so really big things, and people’s lives and livelihoods are at stake.  I like a good joke as much as the next person, and I love to be entertained, but I am feeling distinctly humorless about this election, and the candidates do not exist for my amusement.  Neil Postman once wrote what seemed to be a rather cantankerous book called Amusing Ourselves to Death.  He worried, way back in 1985, about the prospect of everything becoming the subject of entertainment.  He was right to worry.  Here we are.  But we have to do better, because it really does matter.  That’s my final rule, and that’s the one I’m sticking to, no matter what.

Posted in Current Events | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Virtual Book Club: Crisis of Zionism Chapter 7

Sometimes, reading The Crisis of Zionism, it hard to tell with whom Peter Beinart is more disappointed: Israel, American Jewish institutions, or Barak Obama.  This chapter begins and ends with Barak Obama backing down in the face of determined Israeli opposition to his policies, and the through-line of the chapter is the story of the Obama administrations’ inability to get a real settlement freeze from Israel and then effectively ending the pursuit.  Beinart seems very disappointed with the Obama administration, and his heroes in this chapter, George Mitchell, Dan Kurtzer, are people who wanted Obama to take a tougher line on Israel.  His villains, Dennis Ross, the American Jewish establishment, Netanyahu, are opposed to any serious pressure being brought to bear on Israel, specifically on the issue of settlements.

It is not a particularly strong chapter (and, I am inclined to say at this point, this is not a particularly strong book) and I can see—once again—how Beinart opens himself up to the charge of being painfully one-sided in his account of the conflict.  He consistently reads deeply into Netanyahu’s words, explaining why, for example, the PM’s endorsement of a Palestinian state in a speech at Bar Ilan was essentially meaningless, while at the same time taking at face value statements from Palestinian leaders.  (And his list of things Arab states were willing to do if Israel would only freeze settlement construction is hilarious, though Beinart seems impressed by it: cell phone links! Trade offices! Overflight rights!)  Just to be clear: Beinart may be absolutely correct in his reading of Netanyahu’s true feelings on a Palestinian state (and I suspect he is right) but the way he puts the chapter together leaves him open to the charge of being unfairly skeptical of Israeli statements while overly credulous of Palestinian ones.  (This is, in fact, precisely the charge some of Beinart’s critics have made.  I think it is a fair critique.)

But again, buried under the story of a liberal who voted for Obama and is disappointed in his Israel policies, is an important point: the Israeli attachment—addiction perhaps— to the settlements of the West Bank is a problem.  Now, whether it is the problem is an open question.  Beinart certainly seems to think so.  He views the Israeli settlement project as the major reason for the lack of progress towards peace.  Many disagree, but I think Beinart’s core point is probably correct: that without significant movement on the settlement issue there will never be peace between Israel and the Palestinians (and the larger Arab world). That is not to say that settlements are the only obstacle to peace—I think they are not—but they certainly are an obstacle, and the one that the Israelis can most immediately and directly affect unilaterally.  This, I think, is Beinart strongest point, but he keeps forgetting to make it, or otherwise burying in a blizzard of disappointment with various people and institutions for whom who had such high hopes.

Posted in Books, Israel | Tagged , , | Comments Off

Totally Unsurpising News of the Day…

It seems Haredi Knesset members aren’t that thrilled about the State’s decision (as ordered by the Supreme Court) to begin funding non-Orthodox rabbis, just as the State as been funding Orthodox rabbis and institutions for over sixty years.

The head of Israel’s Reform Judaism movement was thrown out of a Knesset panel session discussing state funding of Reform and Conservative rabbis on Tuesday, with the committee’s Haredi chairman saying such rabbis “didn’t exist” and calling them “clowns.”

I can see the clown thing, but its hard to argue that someone doesn’t exist, especially if you throw that same person out.  It’s actually sort of an interesting philosophical question: can you throw someone out of your Knesset committee who, nonetheless, does not exist?

In any case, the non-Orthodox representatives had a nice come back:

“Minister Margi and MK Gafni, who have for years been in charges of allocating thousands of jobs for ultra-Orthodox rabbis, have been conducting themselves like a wronged Cossack and usually undeterred from injuring the courts,” Hess said, adding that it their behavior was “the height of audacity.”

“Wronged Cossack?”  That is not bad at all, especially coming from someone who doesn’t exist.

Posted in Conservative Judaism, Israel | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

I Was Right About Koach Threat

A few days ago, responding to a “leaked” report that Koach was going to be zeroed out in the USCJ budget, I wrote the following:

One more observation:  it’s possible that this whole “leak” is a way to raise some additional funds for the Koach program.  Note how Rabbi Wernick answers the media interest in Koach’s “hiatus”:

“Rabbi Steven Wernick, chief executive officer for the United Synagogue, told The Jewish Week on Thursday that while Koach remains “a valued program,” it would be “on hiatus” unless and until philanthropic funds can be secured to continue its work at colleges around the country.”

We don’t want to kill Koach, but we will unless someone saves it.  They think they need an angel.  But I think they need more than that.  To make college outreach really work for the Conservative Movement, they might need a miracle.

Well, it doesn’t happen often, but sometimes I get things right.  Here’s the report today, from the JTA:

The Conservative movement has reduced funding for its college campus organization, and expects Koach supporters to come up with the remaining requested money, according to United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism’s executive vice president.

In its board meeting in Detroit on Sunday, USCJ voted to provide Koach with $100,000 for fiscal year 2013, beginning July 1, provided that the campus group’s supporters come up with an additional $130,000 by the end of December, Rabbi Steven Wernick told JTA.

The board also will work to develop a three- to five-year business plan for the organization, Wernick said. He called the program, which serves some 25 campuses and 3,000 students, a “high-impact program with minimal participation.”

The United Synagogue outlay is enough to fund the campus group until the end of December, he said.

“If they don’t raise the funds by then, they don’t have the resources to be able to continue it,” Wernick said.

We scared you by letting you know we were willing to off Koach, and now we’re letting you know that we’re…willing to off Koach. But we won’t, if you pay.

By the way: couldn’t “high impact program with minimal participation” basically be the motto of the Conservative Movement.  It’s not pithy, but it sorta works.

Anyway Koach fans, the message is clear: pay up!

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Virtual Book Club Crisis of Zionism Chapter Six

I’m starting to suspect that Peter Beinart doesn’t really feel that fondly about Prime Minister Benjamin Neanyahu.  Maybe that feeling has something to do with the fairly provocative first sentences of this chapter:

Benjamin Netanyahu doesn’t trust Barak Obama, and probably never will.  The reason is simple: Obama reminds Netanyahu of what Netanyahu doesn’t like about Jews.

Ouch.  I have not loved this book (as a perusal of my other reflections will show) but you gotta hand it to Beinart: the man can write a lead.  The question is: can he back it up?

Following the structure he used in the previous chapter, Beinart analyzes Netanyahu by looking carefully at his intellectual (and actual) ancestors: Vladimir Jabotinsky and Benzion Netanyahu, Benjamin’s father.  Beinart wants to argue that the monist/revisionist position of Jabotinsky and Benzion Netanyahu were formative for the Primse Minister, and continue as his lodestar in assessing the situation facing Israel with respect to the question of the Palestinians.  He certainly has good material here, and I think he has a strong case to make that Prime Minister Netanyahu has been less than excited about reaching a final, negotiated settlement with the Palestinians.  Certainly during Oslo he was a constant voice of critique and he ran (and won) in 1996 as a severe critic of the Oslo process. (He was elected, we should remember, in the wake of some terrible bombings inside Israel.)  Indeed, making the case that Prime Minister Netanyahu is not a humongous peacknik is fairly simple, and Beinart easily clears that threshold.

But Beinart wants to say more: he wants to say that PM Netanyahu will never reconcile to a Palestinian state, and thus his leadership in Israel (and the embrace of that leadership by the established Jewish community) moves Israel further away from peace.  Indeed, even more: Beinart seems to want to argue that a coalition of American conservatives and right wing Israelis has been responsible, partly, for holing up the peace process.  This is a provocative case, and, as in other chapters, Beinart comes tantalizingly close to really spelling it out and trying to show it to be true.  He has some interesting anecdotes about the close connections between Likud and the American right (both Jewish and not) and he makes some important points about the ways in which groups like AIPAC and the President’s Conference claim to support Israeli governments but really come down on a more hawkish side when Left wing governments turn towards peace negotiations.  But, unfortunately, all he has our anecdotes, and again, this section needed to be stronger, more carefully researched, more tightly tied together.  I think there are important points to be made about the connections between the American and Israeli right, the way they interact, the way they help each other, and the way that aid and assistance plays out in the domestic spheres in both countries.  This is important,  and a perfectly legitimate topic of discussion, but Beinart is too interested in talking about an interview Benzion Netanyahu gave when he was ninety-nine to really give the issue its due.

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This is Me, Not Getting Excited About the Pirates

At the beginning of the last baseball season, I wrote a little primer on what it means to be a Pirates fan.  Briefly, the process looks like this: hope in the preseason, excitement at the early going, joy as the team seems better than expected, then crushing despair as the true awfulness of the franchise reveals itself yet again.  In the event, last year’s process was about what I had predicted, though with perhaps a little more excitement than usual since the Pirates came out of the All Star Break doing fairly well and challenging for first place in their division.  The magic was broken however—partly by a terrible call—and the Pirates proceeded to regress to the mean, which in their case meant losing something like three hundred games in the second half of the season.

All of which is to say that I am not getting excited about this year’s flirtation with respectability and competitiveness.  I am not getting excited about the excellent pitching they’ve received from their starters, or the terrific work of their bullpen.  I am certainly not getting excited about the emergence of Andrew McCutchen as a true star this season, or about the fact that the Pirates have won eight of their last ten games.  These things are not interesting to me, and I will not be excited about the fact that the Pirates are playing in a relatively weak division and if they could just get a little more offense (like they did last night!) and keep the pitching going they would have a chance to really make a run for the division title and once you’re in the playoffs it’s all about pitching and the Pirates pitching has been excellent and there’s no reason it couldn’t be excellent in the post-season and I could see them stealing a series or two with the starting pitching leading the way and then all of a sudden you find yourself in the World Series and then who knows what could happen it could be amazing.

But I’m not getting excited about all that.  It’s the Pirates after all, and, as a Jew, I believe strongly in tradition. And no one has a stronger losing tradition than the Pirates.

So I am not excited.  In fact, I’m hardly even thinking about the Pirates at all.

Posted in Humor | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Koach on the Chopping Block

More than a year ago, the United Synagogue’s draft strategic plan became public.  As I noted at the time, the document was admirable in its honest assessment of the challenges facing the institution.  One of the programs which came in for the toughest criticism was Koach, the college arm of the USCJ.  The Draft Strategic Plan from last year had this to say about Koach:

The current campus environment is heavily serviced by Hillel and numerous other well-funded and professionally staffed efforts. The only way a relatively modest expenditure by USCJ can make a significant impact on campus is by highly focused interventions. While the USCJ cannot abandon Conservative Jewish college students, it needs a more effective vehicle than the current Koach program.

As I wrote at the time, I tend to think this is accurate.  I guess from that moment on, the writing was on the wall, and just this past week (to mix a metaphor) the second shoe dropped:

The budget committee of the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism will recommend that funding be halted for Koach, the movement’s national college outreach program, when the governing board meets June 10, as part of an effort to reduce the organization’s deficit.

Since this news broke (according to a USCJ letter it was “leaked”) there has been much wailing and gnashing of teeth (although not as much as one might think, which might be part of the point) but what’s really interesting, at least according to the published news reports is how little money is involved here:

He [Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO for United Synagogue-EL] said painful decisions were necessary in seeking to balance the United Synagogue budget, and that while “the impact [of Koach] on those we reached was quite high, we had to look at the return on our investment,” suggesting that the $225,000 program was seen as too costly in terms of the number of students who participated on 25 campuses.

I have no idea what the USCJ annual budget looks like, but it seems to me $225,000 is a pittance.  Certainly it is an absurd amount of money to spend on college outreach.  I think if USCJ values Koach and its mission at only at $225,000, it’s probably better not to spend the money.  You can’t do much (nationally!) for $225,000.

Now, the question of whether the college outreach of the movement should be worth more than the table scraps it has been getting is another matter.  It could be that USCJ was never the right place for the college outreach program to have a home, but, as usual with the Conservative Movement, there is not nearly enough coordination among the different arms.  Why, for example, isn’t Ramah tasked with college outreach: they already have the database.  There are hundreds of Ramah alumni and current staff members on college campuses, and they form a natural nucleus of interest in the sorts of thing Koach could be doing.  But because the Movement has USCJ and it has Ramah and it has JTS and it has the RA and it has…well, you get the idea.  It’s not that there are too many cooks in the kitchen: there are too many kitchens.  In this sort of environment, I can certainly see how USCJ would feel as though spending an absurdly low amount of money on a program that falls outside their core function simply does not make sense.  (An argument that college outreach is certainly within the core function of the arm of the movement tasked with helping synagogues [who will be the next generation members of those synagogue after all?] is valid, but it is beside the point.  Koach has not been working, and USCJ is probably correct to argue that they are not able to run it effectively.)  What Koach needs is an infusion of (real) money and a new organizational home.  I nominate Ramah.

One more observation:  it’s possible that this whole “leak” is a way to raise some additional funds for the Koach program.  Note how Rabbi Wernick answers the media interest in Koach’s “hiatus”:

Rabbi Steven Wernick, chief executive officer for the United Synagogue, told The Jewish Week on Thursday that while Koach remains “a valued program,” it would be “on hiatus” unless and until philanthropic funds can be secured to continue its work at colleges around the country.

We don’t want to kill Koach, but we will unless someone saves it.  They think they need an angel.  But I think they need more than that.  To make college outreach really work for the Conservative Movement, they might need a miracle.

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