Empowered Judaism, 1956 Edition

 This month's newsletter and Reader's Guide will feature religious denominations other than the big three. Among the authors featured in that guide will be Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, one of the founders of Mechon Hadar, an institution on the forefront of the independent minyan movement (I mean, emphatically non-movement!).


Rabbi Kaunfer is also the author of Empowered Judaism: What Independent Minyanim Can Teach Us about Building Vibrant Jewish Communities. To his credit, Rabbi Kaunfer recognizes that the approach he advocates is not actually new. "[T]his book is about a vision of Jewish life in the twenty-first century and the opportunity we have of bringing that vision to fruition," he writes (page 1). "In this vision, the future of Jewish life is dependent on Jews--not just rabbis--taking hold of the rich, challenging, surprising, and inspiring heritage that makes up our texts and traditions. It is not about a new 'big idea' or innovation for its own sake, but a recognition that the big ideas in Judaism were laid out clearly by our ancestors thousands of years ago."

 In this installment of the J-Vault, we see that similar calls to renew Jewish lay empowerment, rethink synagogue institutions and communal prayer, and reconsider the nature of the rabbinate, can also be found in the world of the mid-20th-century Jewish institutional world--a milieu usually criticized for being stilted and thin in substance. But voices of dissent, of course, challenged the community to aspire to more.

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 From the J-Vault: The Jewish Community and the Synagogue in Perspective (1956)

 "I am less impressed by the thousands of students in the Sunday schools, the magnificence of the facilities, and the pageants," said Judah J. Shapiro, "than by the sterility of curricula and the limited time spent by the child at the school." Shapiro was speaking at the 1956 annual meeting of the National Conference of Jewish Communal Service. Excerpts:

The rabbi in eastern Europe existed in an informed, and frequently learned, Jewish community... in the eastern European Jewish community, the average Jew had learned sufficiently to know what was expected of him as a Jew and could answer most of his questions out of his own learning... because of his learning, the layman knew at what point to turn to the rabbi who then delved and pondered and was in turn, checked and perhaps corrected by the layman in defining a position. Compare this with our own situation!

Rabbi [Emanuel] Rackman adds weight to this description when he says: "Rabbis derive their authority as interpreters of the law from the people, but this authority can only be conferred by a public literate enough to recognize who is worthy of it. '' How many people affiliated with the synagogue are able to deal with the questions of practice and observance on their own, without the directive of the rabbi? How many know when to ask a question?...

[T]he synagogue has become the cover of ignorance, for once affiliated, the individual is no longer questioned on Jewish identification and no longer requires the thoughts and convictions that must be derived only out of understanding...

In Chelm, it is told, the inhabitants realized how difficult it was to search for something lost in the dark. Accustomed to deal with all problems that presented themselves, they finally decided to hang a large sign on the synagogue, boldly illuminated at night, on which was inscribed in big letters: "All searching done here." In this way, when anyone lost something in the dark at night, he found it much more comfortable to do his seeking by the light of the synagogue. I fear that our synagogues here are not assisting the individual members with the resources and tools to face the questions which arise in the home and in the office and on the street but rather call out, '' All searching done here, in the synagogue." There the rabbi sits with the answers. Our problem in this area is to give the Jew the Jewish resources and outlook which will permit him to function Jewishly wherever he finds himself and on whatever terms he has formulated his Jewishness...

My first point, therefore, is that there is an absence of knowledge and that the increase in enrollment in Jewish schools, in synagogue and temple affiliation, and in rabbinical direction has not, and is not a symbol of, increased Jewish knowledge...

[E]ven where the Jew knows little of Jewishness and even where he derives little learning from his synagogue affiliation, he nevertheless finds reassurance from the learning of the rabbi. The rabbi may be more or less successful in enlightening his congregants, but they associate themselves with his Jewish learning. Someone, it seems, must be actively Jewish, and if the member is not, or cannot be, he at least derives satisfaction from the paid employee who is, on his behalf...

If there is no Jewish context to any of our services, I hope that you will agree that they are not Jewish communal services. Jewish communal services are not identifiable by their service to Jews, for that makes the doctor, the psychiatrist, the barber, the theatre, the manicurist, and taxi driver a Jewish communal worker at the moment that these serve
Jewish clientele. Jewish communal services are what they are called, only when they serve the Jewish client in the context of his Jewishness and on behalf of a Jewish community...

Our present American Jewish community is increasingly the product of these public schools where subtly and painlessly we have been severed from the nourishment of a previous Jewish culture. Add to this the urge to be integrated in the total society, especially strong in an immigrant group, and we can see how far we have come from a pre-dominating Jewish cultural pattern. Today, therefore, any discussion of Jewish culture invariably suggests something of the past, something irrelevant, something unknown. To mention Jewish culture is to summon up a picture of Jewishness drawn out of another social and economic context...

From the wealth of what Jewish culture can mean, we have endless resources for living Jewishly and being integrated in the whole of the society in which we find ourselves... It is the successful search of a meaning in Jewish culture that can hopefully establish such goals and values which can govern Jewish communal services by re-establishing a cultural concept of community...

Shapiro, too, by the way, affirms that "I have said nothing new in this paper".

Publication details...

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Do Jews Switch Parties Every 70 Years?

Today being the day of the New Hampshire primary elections, with the eyes of the nation fixed on the contest for the Republican nomination, it's as good a day as any to ask: Are American Jews Becoming Republican?

Steven Windmueller isn't exactly saying "yes" in this 2003 article, but does note that the Democratic near-monopoly on Jewish voting does seem to be cracking:

Where once the Democratic Party could count on a 90 percent Jewish turnout for its candidates, these numbers are now generally 60-75 percent, depending upon particular elections and specific candidates... there is some evidence that younger Jews do not hold the same degree of loyalty to the Democratic Party and, as a result, are more likely to register as Independent or Republican. Thus, the Republican Party may have a better chance of picking up the Jewish vote in the towns inhabited by young professionals in northern New Jersey than in the retirement communities of southern Florida. While these numbers do not indicate a definitive generational trend, it does appear that both Orthodox Jews and Jews who are from more secular backgrounds tend to vote Republican more frequently than do other Jewish constituencies, clearly for different ideological, political, and cultural reasons.

Furthermore, he notes, Jews switching party allegiances is not unprecedented:

From 1860 until the election of Franklin Roosevelt, American Jews voted overwhelmingly Republican. Just as Lincoln was perceived as a hero of the Jewish people through his leadership in overturning Grant's Order No. 11 and in leading the fight against slavery while seeking to preserve the Union, Roosevelt would fulfill a similar role for Jews beginning with his efforts to build a new coalition of political power to transform the economy and later to mobilize the nation against Nazism...

...Theodore Roosevelt was the last Republican to receive significant Jewish support; his fierce independence and support of specific Jewish concerns made him a hero to many within this community. Democrat Woodrow Wilson would capture the attention of many American Jews with his internationalist vision and, more directly, his ideas pertaining to the creation of a League of Nations. In addition, Wilson's nomination of Louis Brandeis to the Supreme Court, his endorsement of the Balfour Declaration and later Zionist claims in Palestine, and his condemnation of anti-Semitism both domestic and foreign would begin the repositioning of Jewish political loyalties and voting patterns.

While the leadership of the Jewish community remained staunchly Republican, including such personalities as Louis Marshall, the leader of the American Jewish Committee, and a host of other key players of that era, the bulk of the community was to shift party allegiance as a result of changes within the community and in American society... The last Republican presidential candidate to win a plurality of the Jewish vote was Warren Harding in 1920...

Windmueller gleans general lessons on Jewish party-switching:

Jewish voting patterns may undergo significant change at those times in which Jews sense that their self-interests are being challenged, and that it is essential for them to evaluate their political position within the society. This occurred at the time of Lincoln, during the Wilson era, and as a result of the Great Depression. Whether in fact Jewish voting patterns shift significantly in seventy-year cycles remains to be seen.

The idea of seventy-year cycles is fascinating. Clearly Windmueller isn't suggesting anything fixed and regular like clockwork, but the notion that generational dynamics produce pendulum-like political trends would be worth further study, both within the Jewish community and beyond it.

David Elcott on Engaging Baby Boomers

As part of our Office Hours series, Prof. David Elcott discusses his research into Baby Boomers and their place in the communal life of minority communities.

JDub to Close


Responding for e-Jewish Philanthropy to the news that JDub Records will wind down, Ruthie Warshenbrot asks:

Was arts & culture programming actually a good entry-point to Jewish life, especially for young adults? Many studies emerged just as JDub was gaining popularity that supported its mission, almost verbatim and JDub’s own numbers in its departure press release are fairly significant – 150,000 participants over 9 years. Is there now a niche to be filled in the Jewish community of young, culturally-engaged adults with no way to get their fix of Jewish music, media, and cultural events?

Prompted by Ruthie's questions (and her entire response is insightful), here are a few questions of my own:

  • When we talk about Jewish arts as an "entry-point to Jewish life", what do we mean? Do we hope that young Jews will be so smitten with innovative Jewish arts that they reconnect to Judaism and then join traditional institutions? (JDub as a bridge to shul and Hadassah?) Or do we mean that these new ways of connecting to Judaism will completely constitute the way a certain (large) segment of Jewry "does Jewish"? (JDub as a replacement for shul and Hadassah?)
  • Is it more desirable for Jewish artists to create specifically Jewish spaces to integrate Jewish culture and new artistic expression? Or does that send a message that Jewishness doesn't deserve to be part of the "mainstream" artistic world? (In other words, was it good or bad for the Jews when Matisyahu left JDub?)
  • JDub founder Aaron Bisman laid out his vision for the company in Sh'ma last November. Tackling the sticky question of what makes music Jewish, Bisman wrote: "For us, 'Jewish' was in the intention of the creator." (A digression: a handful of generations ago, most Jews might have completely agreed with Bisman's 2010 definition, if he had only capitalized the C in "creator".) Expanding the issue beyond music, and beyond art, and addressing the whole concept of young Jews redefining Judaism for themselves, I have to wonder: can such an open definition avoid becoming a boundary so wide that it is meaningless?

I don't know if any of these issues have anything to do with JDub's decision to close, but they are at the heart of the discourse JDub created during its lifetime. Whatever JDub's legacy turns out to be, the organization is to be thanked for sparking discussion of these issues.

Jewish Fatherhood


In honor of yesterday's celebration of Father's Day, read Chaim Waxman's The Jewish Father, Past and Present, an exploration of Jewish conceptions of fatherhood from the Talmud to the shtetl to contemporary Israel and the United States. Written in 1984 for the American Jewish Committee.

Click here to download the PDF.

From the J-Vault: Kids for Peace

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The year was 1915, and the Great War (World War I) was devastating Europe. An ocean (and then half a continent) away, The Chicago Hebrew Institute decided to enlist their Sabbath and Sunday school students to promote the ideal of peace.

This week, from the J-Vault: A Peace Movement Among Children (1915)

Writing in the Bulletin of the National Conference of Jewish Charities, Philip L. Seman used terms for his school's initiative which, in modern times, would be criticized as an unacceptable form of indoctrination of the youth:

The children of the Peace Society are recruited from various classes conducted at the Institute, particularly from the Sabbath and Sunday school. The main effort is to saturate the children's minds and hearts against the horrors of war, and in favor of universal peace. At a recent meeting of the teachers of the Sabbath school, we have made clear that the teachers, in instructing the children in Bible history, should underestimate the heroism, too often made much of in the Sabbath schools, regarding the wars the Hebrews fought in early days, and to draw ethical lessons in favor of peace. In other words, our teachers were instructed, not as has been the fashion heretofore, to encourage young Judea to emulate the militarism of the Maccabees, but rather to hope for the realization of the human peace prophecy of Isaiah.


Browse the BJPA for publications on War and Peace, or search for "indoctrination".

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36 x (<36) = The Jewish Week


The New York Jewish Week has released its fourth annual list of 36 Under 36. Behold the next generation of Hebrew hotshots, "dedicated lay leaders who are reordering our legacy organizations alongside community activists and social justice crusaders whose startups are chock-full of innovation."

BJPA's growing horde of documents (now over 11,000!) includes some publications by the mighty 36, but of course, given the fact that some of these rising stars are still early in their careers (perhaps more accurately described as protostars, or even nebulae) the pickings are more limited than would be the massive pile of publications we would have to feature if the Jewish Week had profiled 72 Over 72. (Gary Rosenblatt, if by some chance you're reading thisI think 72 Over 72 would actually be a great feature.)

Anyway, here's what we've got from the latest lamed-vavniks:

 From Matt Bar, Bible Rapper (31), we have (unsurprisingly) "Bible Raps: All Tatted Up"

From Forward opinion editor Gal Beckerman (34), we have a gloss on a gloss on a Mishnah. (See the bottom of the PDF download.)

From Arabic scholar, education junkie, and Renaissance Woman Elisabeth Cohen (26), we have an argument in favor of argument.

Finally, from Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster, human rights activist, we have an article about the cost of kashrut and another about the institution of the kitchen.

As for the other 32 leaders of tomorrow, we say: get writing the next generation of Jewish policy documents for us to post! (And upload your policy-relevant material using our user upload feature.)