, ,

“Promptly following the first arrival of Jews in colonial America, the synagogue became the most significant institution of Jewish life”

Promptly following the first arrival of Jews in colonial America, the synagogue became the most significant institution of Jewish life. Unlike in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, when other institutions, such as Jewish community centers and Jewish philanthropic organizations, often claimed to be the “central address” of the Jewish community, no other organization challenged the dominance of the early synagogues. In part, this was the case for two reasons: because, well into the nineteenth century, synagogues incorporated activities that later, as the Jewish population grew, could not all be contained within the synagogue or whose leaders did not want them to be part of the synagogue, and also because the Jewish community was so small…. The synagogue…was the Jewish community in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries . As American Jews slowly created philanthropic organizations, the synagogue enveloped them.

Marc Lee Raphael, The Synagogue in America: A Short History (New York & London: New York University Press, 2011), 2.


“The Jewish community needs to pivot from the current [synagogue] model to a more authentic one”

The current American form of Judaism developed as a reaction to the mass immigration of Jews into a free society and the headlong drive to acclimate and acculturate to the societal norms of the time. In order to prevent the masses of Jews from abandoning Judaism in the process of adjustment to a new land, a new emphasis was placed on the institution in Judaism. This emphasis reflected the prevailing religious norms of the society, namely those of Christianity, which is church-centered.

The practical result was that the synagogue, and membership in these institutions, became the distorted focus of Jewish religious life. It no longer mattered if one lacked in Jewish observance or Torah learning. So long as one was a dues-paying member of the synagogue or temple and attended regularly, or even just occasionally, one fulfilled the obligation necessary to be a good Jew. One could even become a prominent and respected member of the community in this way — particularly, if one contributed generously to the institution he or she belonged to, or contributed to the local federation and Israel.

I believe that it is this synagogue-focused paradigm that young people are rejecting — and I don’t blame them. Though it is true that the accumulated impact of close to a century of this misconception has left its mark, I believe that this is reversible.

The Jewish community needs to pivot from this current prevailing model to a more authentic one that emphasizes the personal observance of mitzvot and engagement in religious life. Whether it is the realm of “between man to man or man to God” they are both ultimately about man’s relationship with God. Without this core, nothing can be sustained for long.

Rabbi Shmuel Kaplan, “A Rabbi Sees Silver Lining In Study’s Finding’s”, The Jewish Week (1 November 2013), 26.


“How much time in our synagogue schools has been spent on helping students cultivate their sense of the sublime?”

How much time in our synagogue schools has been spent on helping students cultivate their sense of the sublime? How much time has been spent providing an immersive and reflective experience of different mitzvot as possible responses? How much time has been spent on coaching them in the performance of those regularized practices so that they become a normative aspect of their life? To take an example from outside Judaism, when Jews are serious about undertaking yoga or Bhuddist meditation, they don’t learn about it. They take it on as a discipline that must be practiced regularly with a teacher that can help them develop their ability to perform properly.

Bill Robinson, “The Religion You Don’t Believe In, I Don’t Believe In Either”eJewishPhilanthropy (3 November 2013).

, ,

A problem is that Jewish organizations have largely let go of the Jewish learning renaissance

[T]he real problem is that Jewish organizations have largely let go of the Jewish learning renaissance that was all the “rage” about a decade ago. Jewish study franchise programs are diminishing in attendance, recruiting for synagogue classes has become burdensome and there is hardly anyone in classes under 50 anymore.

Our larger culture extols posts, tweets and sound-bytes making comprehensive study much harder. Learning takes personal and institutional commitment. We have not given the message that leadership of federations, JCCs and social service institutions should involve the Jewish self-confidence that comes with literacy. We have high general educational expectations of ourselves and our children, but we are too often infants in our Jewish lives, and it matters too little.

Erica Brown, “The Shtarker Image”, The Jewish Week (6 September 2013), 70.

, ,

The Decline of Ethnic Judaism in America & of Big Jewish Organizations

America loves your religious identity, it doesn’t care for your ethnic identity. If you want to have a Catholic school system in America, “That’s great, we respect your religious difference”. “Oh, you want to have a Presbyterian school, בסדר, we have one of those.” “Methodist school? Great!” “A Polish school? I don’t think so.” “Oh, you want to have a Catholic parish? Great.” “You want to have a Spanish-speaking school district? No way.” America is founded on religious difference and a tolerance for religious difference and a great, agitating inhospitability to ethnic difference. And so, as a result, the Jews who come from 1920-1960 to the United States have to figure out a way to do Jewish. And the way they do it is they cloak their ethnic experience in religious terms. The symbol of that is the social hall in the synagogue. You will never find a social hall in a synagogue in Eastern Europe, because it doesn’t make sense. A social hall is where you go to hang out with other Jews, because you can’t build a Jew club; America won’t let you do that.

Institutions like Hillel, the Anti-Defamation League, Hadassah, UJA-Federation; any of these big organizations are outgrowths of that ethnic Jewish expression. And what we are facing in those organizations right now is a crisis in the decline of ethnic Judaism. That’s why Federation dollars go down, why the ADL is not as relevant, why young people are not so interested in the parochial concerns of Jews all around the world any more. This is one of the two master stories: the decline of ethnic Judaism.
The last gasp of this effort was the Richard Joel line of “Jews doing Jewish with other Jews”. That is the definition of ethnic Judaism: make a building on-campus, you’ll feel safe here because you won’t be tolerated anywhere else, and you’ll just hang out with other Jews.

When the majority of people who are not Orthodox in the United States intermarry, why would you have a building for Jews doing Jewish with other Jews? That doesn’t make sense.

Rabbi Daniel Smokler, “Jewish Enrichment”, Hillel Institute (Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life: St. Louis, 30 July 2013).

, , , ,

The challenges to Orthodoxy are how to deal with its burgeoning numbers

While the other movements are engaged in soul-searching on how to deal with dwindling and aging membership in synagogues, the challenges to Orthodoxy are how to deal with its burgeoning numbers: how to cost-effectively educate the hordes of children the Orthodox are having, how to expand ever-growing synagogues, and where to establish new communities where housing costs—for large homes—are low. But from college campuses, to urban communities of singles and young couples, to suburban communities with families and empty nesters—the numbers all show that Orthodoxy is an attractive type of Judaism, one that is easily replacing any fall-off, and is actually expanding through a relatively high birthrate and an expanding professional outreach movement.
It would stand to reason that Orthodoxy’s greatest challenge—in America, Israel, and around the world—would be having too much self-confidence and sense of triumphalism.

Rabbi Asher Lopatin, “Challenges and Opportunities for a Robust Orthodox Judaism”, Conversations Issue 17 (Autumn 2013/5774), 51.

, , , , , ,

The title “rabbi” is indeed significant re: “rabba”

The title “rabbi” is indeed significant. This can be seen by the fact that when Sara Hurwitz was called Maharat there wasn’t any outcry, but when she was given the title “rabba” that is when the controversy really broke out, even though her job description didn’t change in the slightest. Does this mean that there was no objection to a woman functioning as a rabbi as long as she didn’t have the title? Only after she was renamed “rabba” did the RCA adopt a resolution rejecting the “recognition of women as members of the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of the title.” Yet despite that resolution, there are synagogues where women are still serving, for all intents and purposes, as members of the rabbinate minus the title.

Marc B. Shapiro, “Answers to Quiz Questions and Other Comments, part 2”, The Seforim Blog (25 March 2012), n. 6 {http://seforim.blogspot.com/2012/03/answers-to-quiz-questions-and-other.html}

, , , , , ,

A majority of the Modern Orthodox community supports women rabbis (although not necessarily pulpit rabbis)…

From speaking to many people, my own sense is that a majority of the Modern Orthodox community supports women rabbis (although not necessarily pulpit rabbis). When I say “support,” I mean if asked the question, the reply will be yes. But at the same time, the overwhelming majority of the Modern Orthodox world doesn’t care about this issue at all, and this includes women also. However, I believe that the minority will continue to push this issue, and when women rabbis become a reality, the Modern Orthodox will not reject these women or the congregations that employ them, as we can already see at present with Rabba Hurwitz and other female synagogue rabbis (in everything but name). I think this will happen before the natural development of female poskot who, as already indicated, will by definition be rabbis even without a formal ordination.

Marc B. Shapiro, “Answers to Quiz Questions and Other Comments, part 2”, The Seforim Blog (25 March 2012), n. 7 {http://seforim.blogspot.com/2012/03/answers-to-quiz-questions-and-other.html}

, ,

An Openness to More Stable Types of Institutions When Coupled

Farkas, a 30-something rabbi in his sixth year at the synagogue, wanted to focus VBS’ young adult outreach on couples like the Brauns because, as he put it, “When you think you found a partner in life who you are pretty serious about, your life begins to become more stable.

“It’s at that moment that you are open to more stable types of institutions, like synagogues,” he concluded.

Jared Sichel, “Cultivating Next Gen Communities”, The Jewish Journal (23-29 August 2013), 23.

, , ,

Considering Nakedness in light of the “Pink Elephant Problem”

I call it the “Pink Elephant Problem”: if someone says “Don’t think of a pink elephant”; what’s the first thing you think of? A pink elephant. Same thing applies to tzeni’ut: the more that I say “This is prohibited because of tzeni’ut and this is prohibited because of tzeni’ut”, the more you take innocuous interactions and sexualize them.
“Men and women can’t socialize at a kiddush because of tzeni’ut” – implication: men and women having kiddush together is somehow sexual.
“Men and women need separate entrances to get into synagogue” – implication: same entrance, there’s something sexual there.
All of that is problematic. … You’re sort of putting it in people’s heads that it’s always sexual. … You’re implying that men – and women, too – we just can’t control ourselves, we have no self-control…. We can’t but help get sexually aroused by listening to women. That’s what you’re implying.
When you take the expansive view of erva onto everything, effectively, you’re putting more ideas into their head they may not have even had before, just by pure implication.

Rabbi Josh Yuter, “Current Jewish Questions 26: Music in Judaism“, YUTopia Podcast #106 (23 May 2013) {http://joshyuter.com/podcasts/current-jewish-questions/current-jewish-questions-26-music-in-judaism.mp3}