Sunday, October 07, 2007

The Brandeis Challenge

“The Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program at Brandeis University announces a competition, open to creative thinkers of every kind, to produce a major work in the English language that aims to change the way Jews think about themselves and their community.

Hmmm. I think there is something missing here.

Let’s take up this challenge for a second.

My first and perhaps only question is, “What is wrong with the way Jews think about themselves and their community, that it requires changing?”

Looking at my own community, I think we’re pretty good. We keep the Torah. We’re good people. We’re proud Jews. We stand up for what we believe in. We help one another. We work hard in all fields of life. We build shuls and communities. Our intermarriage rates are low. Our birthrates are high. Our schools (admittedly expensive) are full of students that usually graduate, and usually graduate to advanced degrees. We produce leaders, and soldiers, and doctors, and scientists, and rabbis, and bus drivers and mechanics.

Our communities are healthy, successful and vibrant, and we properly perceive ourselves the same way.

What more can one ask for?

What is wrong about us?

Perhaps we’re not taking enough senior leadership roles in Israeli society (but we’re working on it).

Perhaps we can be doing more Kiruv for those unfortunate sectors of society that do need to change the way they think about themselves and their community.

And perhaps that is the answer to this challenge.

On one hand, we have parts of Ultra-Orthodox society (with certain notable exceptions) isolating themselves away like Essenes, not only from the non-Ultra-Orthodox, but even from different sects within the Ultra-Orthodox. Not a healthy situation, but one that they will be directly forced to confront at some point or another and resolve.

But, the other side of the spectrum is even worse.

Non-Orthodox society is disintegrating as a Jewish society.

Intermarriage rates are at all time highs – above 50%. Communities are disappearing as Jewish communities. Israeli society as a whole can’t seem to define why it belongs in Israel, much less in control of Israel. People are trying to save their streams of Judaism by calling non-Jews Jews, as if that is a magic formula. Band-aid solutions like Birthright and this competition are being created to save “Judaism”.

In fact solutions like this are being offered because the sponsors recognize that their brands of Judaism are in a downward tail spiral and they are looking for a way out.

The right question isn’t how “to change the way Jews think about themselves and their community”, but rather how “to change the way non-Orthodox Jews think about themselves and their community”.

I think the answer to the correct question is in the question itself.

It is hard to maintain continuity, membership, history, mission, relevance, internalized meaning, and permanence when the basis for your definition of Jew and Jewish doesn’t embrace those concepts, or when it does include even diminished versions of even one of those concepts, those that should know of them are often ignorant of them.

Birthright has shown some minimal success because it has embraced membership (Israel) and history (Israel again), but it certainly doesn’t provide mission, relevance, internalized meaning, and permanence, and that is why it is a short-term band-aid solution.

The solution is to look at the sector of Jewish society that is succeeding and emulate them.

The solution is to get more Jews to be Torah observant, and just as importantly to understand (internally) why they are Torah observant.

For those of us in the Orthodox sector, we must change the way we see the non-religious community. Not to write them off as lost, but to help them find their way back to Torah Judaism and our Jewish future.

If I win this prize, I would teach Torah and do Kiruv at Brandeis.

That is the correct answer to this challenge.

Wherever I am, my blog turns towards Eretz Yisrael


Anonymous said...

I agree that the solution is to be more torah observant. The problem is in the interpretation of torah. If you leave the rabbonim and the self-appointed gedolim out of the equation and let everyone interpret by their own common sense, we will be a stronger Jewish people.

tafka pp (the insomniac version) said...

Ah, Joe.

Fascinated first of all to know how exactly you define "my own community" - who are you referring to? Israel? Jewish Israel? The Greater Israel Movement? Your Yishuv? The Frum Clique of JBloggers?!
Whatever the answer, I assume you appreciate that your overall appraisal of "community" is far more rose-coloured than most would maintain (even from the inside)?

Also, you are aware that over 70% of the Birthright franchises are run by Kiruv movements?

Although my main question (having the advantage of being both inside and out of the "communities" you appear to be speaking for) is as follows- When the "Torah Observant" sector(s) and the individuals who comprise those sectors are perceived by most of the "non Torah-Observant" Jews to be rife with corruption, archaic, misogynistic, blind, irrevelant and out of touch with reality, how exactly can that challenge be addressed? And never mind writing impassioned rants on a virtual level- how can you change the way that the 'non-religious community' sees YOU?

JoeSettler said...

pp: Actually, I think you just proved my point.

Obviously, no community is without problems, but that wasn't the question.

The Brandeis question clearly assumes there is something fundamentally and seriously negative and/or apathetic within the Jewish individual's/community's self-perceived self-image, and thus has negative consequences for Jewish community and individual life, attachment, and involvement.

As a whole, I do not see that negative or apathetic self-image within the Torah observant community (but it does exist in individuals living on the fringes).

You stated that the "non-Orthodox" community perceive the Torah observant to be X,Y and Z.

While my friend Rechavam likes to (semi) joke and say, "Don't judge Judaism by the Jews", changing that perception you mentioned is also part of the changes that would need to be made in their thinking.

I believe more exposure to healthy communities and community members would do that.

A study on the effectiveness of Birthright must have just come out somewhere, because I mentioned Birthright to a number of different people, and the immediate and first reaction that everyone had, was that they heard it failed.

I haven't seen the study, but what I heard is that more Birthright members were likely to marry Jewish. A temporary, but important band-aid solution.

Birthright is a 2 week program that adds a little sense of membership (visiting a country where you learn, see, and feel that you aren't a minority), and a sense of history (oh, so there always were Jews around).

But how much can you do in 2 weeks, no matter what group is running it?

I think that people (like Jeff Seidel, and others) in outreach who show the non-religious what normal religious life is like, and how Orthodox Jews are not rife with corruption, archaic, misogynistic, blind, irrevelant and out of touch with reality, are on the right track.

Exposure is key.

(I have a separate, but related theory, that those in the Orthodox community that are single for too long also begin to have issues raised in the question, specifically because they are not integrally connected to the community life issues that normally concern married couples.)

JoeSettler said...

I was talking to Jameel about this offline, and he raised a valid criticism of my post (though mostly it has to do with my writing style, and talking around the issue).

Jameel says that the fundamental problem is the lack of a common denominator, or rather that the lowest common denominator is very low - as in approaching zero.

The problem then isn't just for the non-Orthodox, but then includes the Orthodox too.

What does an Ultra-Orthodox Jew and Secular Jew really have in common Jewishly? Very little.

And that means as a unified Jewish community there is little holding us together, and what affects the part, affects the whole.

But the way I see it, that is the issue I addressed.

If one's Judaism is devoid of content and meaning, then one's Judaism is in trouble.

Where Jameel and I seem to differ is in how much weight we place on the Orthodox core.

I personally believe that the Core Group, by our maintaining/continuing Judaism, we remain OK as a whole. As long as the core remains strong and stable, the periphery will be able to feed off of us to some extent or another (and as long as the Orthodox choose to remain open to such contacts).

As I understand Jameel, he feels that the core is potentially (and perhaps dangerously) negatively affected by the periphery.

Perhaps there is something in what he says.

After all, as the periphery tries to grow in political influence, but without any long-term stability/continuity behind it, they can (and want to) undermine the core (such as Reform’s attempts to change certain laws in Israel). This is fundamentally dangerous for the continuity of Judaism.

But again, that reverts back to my original conclusions. As Orthodox, we then have an obligation to raise the lowest common denominator that unites us as Jews, via Kiruv and education.

Discussions such as non-halachic conversions, patrilineal decent, and cutting out circumcision (to name just a few historically recent divisive decisions of various non-Orthodox movements) would then be moot.

Anonymous said...

what we should be striving to have in common is love of our fellow jew - something that we should all be able to manage, whatever 'sect' we belong to.

nice post, btw

JoeSettler said...

This is also being discussed here:

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