Language, Culture, & School

Two articles from the Spring 2011 issue of the Journal of Jewish Communal Service caught our attention recently, in light of our upcoming event this Monday (see flier below for details). The event will explore issues facing dual language public schools -- institutions which might be viewed by some as vehicles to preserve and transmit cultural identities, while others would seek to minimize or oppose this goal since public schools ought to serve society as a whole, rather than individual cultural sub-groups. (A viewpoint from the perspective of promoting multiculturalism might not view these two goals as being in tension.)

BJPA didn't have these articles in mind while planning the event, but they're worth excerpting in advance of it.

Leon Wieseltier: Language, Identity, and the Scandal of American Jewry

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The American Jewish community is the fi rst great community in the history of our people that believes that it can receive, develop, and perpetuate the Jewish tradition not in a Jewish language. By an overwhelming majority, American Jews cannot read or speak or write Hebrew or Yiddish. This is genuinely shocking. American Jewry is quite literally unlettered. The assumption of American Jewry that it can do without a Jewish language is an arrogance without precedent in Jewish history. And this illiteracy, I suggest, will leave American Judaism and American Jewishness forever crippled and scandalously thin... Without Hebrew, the Jewish tradition will not disappear entirely in America, but most of it will certainly disappear...

In America, the first evidence of Jewish illiteracy occurs as early as 1761 and 1766, when Isaac Pinto published his translations of the liturgy into English. He was acting out of a sense of crisis, out of his feeling that Hebrew, as he put it, needed to “be reestablished in Israel.” Of the American Jewish community of his time, Pinto recorded that Hebrew was “imperfectly understood by many; by some, not at all.” In 1784, Haym Solomon found it necessary to address an inquiry in the matter of a certain inheritance to Rabbi David Tevele Schiff of the Great Synagogue in London, but the renowned Jewish leader could not write the Hebrew epistle himself, and so he enlisted the help of a local Jew from Prague. In 1818, at the consecration in New York of a building for the Shearith Israel synagogue, Mordecai Emanuel Noah observed that “with the loss of the Hebrew language may be added the downfall of the house of Israel.”...

Of course, I do not mean to deny the validity or the utility of translation, which was also a primary activity of Jewish intellectuals throughout the centuries... Translation has always represented an admirable realism about the actual cultural situation of the Jews in exile. Whatever the linguistic delinquencies of the Jews, their books must not remain completely closed to them. Better partial access than no access at all, obviously.

Moreover, we are American Jews; that is to say, we believe in the reality of freedom, and we are prepared to pay its price... The requirement that a Jew know a Jewish language is not a requirement that a Jew know only a Jewish language, and it is certainly not a requirement that a Jew express only one belief in only one means of expression... My question to the Jewish writer in America is not, what language can you write? My question is, what language can you read?...

Illiteracy is nothing less than a variety of blindness, and the vast majority of American Jews are blind. The extent of this blindness—and it is a willed blindness, a blindness that can be corrected—can be illustrated anecdotally. Here is a tale. Some years ago, the exiled president of Haiti, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was traveling around the United States in the hope of enlisting sympathy for his cause, and he went to New York for a meeting with the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. Now, in his youth Aristide had studied at a seminary in Jerusalem, and he happens to be fluent in Hebrew. It seemed entirely natural and right, in his view, to address the assembled representatives of the Jewish community in what he took to be their own tongue, or at least one of their tongues. And so he began to speak to our leaders in Hebrew. After a few minutes, the negidim rather sheepishly asked their distinguished non-Jewish guest if he could make his remarks in English, because they could not understand what he was saying...

All this is not justifiable. It represents a breathtaking communitywide irresponsibility. Between every generation, not only in circumstances of war but also in circumstances of peace, much is always lost. Only a small fraction of the works of the human spirit ever survives the war against time, but the quantity of the Jewish tradition that is slipping through our fingers in America is unprecedented in our history. And it is the illiteracy of American Jewry that makes it complicit in this oblivion.

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Adam R. Gaynor: Beyond the Melting Pot: Finding a Voice for Jewish Identity in Multicultural American Schools

For the better part of a century, integration has characterized the Jewish experience in America, but modern Jewish education struggles to reverse that trend by separating Jewish youth from their non-Jewish peers and herding them into the walls of our communal institutions. This model ignores a particularly acute demographic reality: most American Jews no longer affiliate with the communal institutions in which Jewish learning takes place. Consequently, this article posits that the key to providing high-quality Jewish education with the majority of Jewish students, who do not access Jewish learning or intensive Jewish experiences, is to reach them in the multicultural environments in which they live and learn daily. More specifically, I argue that we need to create, support, and replicate programs that are integrated elements of school communities, the places in which Jewish kids and young adults spend the majority of their time...

...It is worthwhile to note that although Jews are well represented and largely successful in universities and schools, Jewish content is generally absent. Often, when Jewish content is integrated into curricula, Jews and Jewish culture are portrayed as obsolete. Jewish content most often appears in courses about Bible, representing ancient Jewish history, or about the Holocaust, representing Jewish victimization. For Jewish and non-Jewish students alike, the implicit message conveyed through these choices (in the absence of other content) is that Jewish culture lacks contemporary relevance. When prominent Jews, such as Karl Marx, Franz Kafka, and Bella Abzug, are studied, the fact of their Jewishness and its impact on their work remain unexplored. On occasion, Jews emerge in elective courses about the Middle East, but are often portrayed as a monolithic and imperialist group. The diversity of Jewish opinions about the Middle East and the complex modern history of Jewish identities and communities that have affected this topic remain unexamined...

Historically, the problem of representation in educational institutions and curricula is not unique to Jews. For traditionally marginalized and disempowered groups such as communities of color, women, gays and lesbians, and all combinations thereof, the problems described above have existed to a greater or lesser degree for centuries. However, for several decades now, other historically disempowered communities have increasingly seen themselves reflected in the curricular and extracurricular programming of public and private schools on the primary, secondary, and university levels; there is no good reason why Jewish students cannot see themselves reflected in these spaces as well...

Multicultural education has had a profound impact on the contemporary educational landscape, particularly following periods of intense student activism in the late 1960s and early 1990s. In concert with feminist theory, it has brought significant attention to the histories and literature of people of color and women through curricular enrichment and the founding of specialized, interdisciplinary departments at colleges; it has led to the diversification of faculty and student bodies; it has forced schools and colleges to reconsider discriminatory policies; and it has increased faculty professional development on cross-cultural teaching that can lead to improved achievement (Tatum, 2003). However, except for the recent growth of Jewish Studies courses and departments, Jewish content is still nearly absent from curricula, and Jewish culture is largely ignored by student services offices...

Ironically, it is the Jewish community’s own resistance to multicultural education that has prevented our inclusion in educational curricula... Jewish immigrants in the early twentieth century were fierce proponents of public education; unlike Catholic immigrants who opted for parochial education in large numbers, Jews valued public schools as a route toward acculturation (Krasner, 2005). Jews have also been fierce defenders of the separation between church and state and have supported the exclusion of religion as a census category. Jews embraced the universalism of the Enlightenment, which was reinvented in the melting pot motif, as a ticket to achieve unprecedented success in America. For many Jews, multiculturalism theoretically threatened the universalism that facilitated this achievement...

The prevailing, isolationist model of Jewish education that pulls students out of their everyday lives and separates them from their peers has not inspired significant participation. Sometimes, separating and feeling grounded as a group are important, and we should honor those needs. However, if we are to inspire Jewish students to feel invested in their Jewishness, then Jewish learning has to imbue their everyday lives with meaning. The key to doing this is through high-quality Jewish education in the multicultural environments in which they live and learn daily. Our aim should be to create, support, and replicate programs that are integrated elements of students’ schools, the communities in which they spend most of their time. Multicultural education is the practical framework for this approach.

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And don't miss the event this Monday:

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From the J-Vault: "in his own language"

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"For the success of this work of Americanizing and educating the immigrant," writes Rabbi Henry Cohen, "one thing is essential. You must go to him first in a friendly and democratic way in his own language."

As you may have seen, our March newsletter featured a Reader's Guide to Jewish Languages, in connection with an upcoming event on Dual Language Public Schools. (March 26th, from 3 to 5. Click here to RSVP.) At the event, educators and scholars will discuss issues of language and education, especially as they relate to issues of culture and identity in the United States. This installment of the J-Vault explores related concepts.

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This week, from the J-Vault: The Immigrant Publication Society (1915)

You ask me to give you an account of our new society. I am very glad to do so, particularly at this time, when the need of making all our immigrants a vital part of the nation is greater than ever before...

For the success of this work of Americanizing and educating the immigrant, one thing is essential. You must go to him first in a friendly and democratic way in his own language. This is the only way to reach him. Every stress must of course be laid upon the necessity of his learning English, and simple and practical books on learning it must be promptly offered him. But to the cleverest, the simplest English book is at first impossible. Not everyone has the gift of languages. Some few never learn any English at all, but, fortunately, experience gives abundant proof that the immigrant can absorb the spirit of the new country through his own language...

The first step in so essentially a patriotic American work was the preparation, curiously enough at the suggestion of the Royal Italian Immigration Commission, of an Immigrant's Guide, telling the newcomer the things which he needs to know, and which he knows he needs... The success of this "Little Green Book," as it was at once called, was immediate. With the cordial help of many interested Jewish societies, it was soon carefully adapted in every detail for the use of the English - speaking immigrants.

Describing the success of the book, and bolstering his case for the need of a new organization dedicated to publishing non-English books, Rabbi Cohen noted that the New York Public Library was in the midst of a sharp rise in demand for Yiddish books.

But ordinarily the librarian in opening a department in a foreign language is forced to depend upon a chance adviser, with consequences that are sometimes amusing, sometimes really disastrous. The problem presents serious difficulties. How can the librarian be sure of giving the immigrant the best books and papers in his own language, not only for his pleasure, but very practically to help him, explaining America and its opportunities, putting before him the means of learning English, of becoming an American citizen, and of satisfying many of the most important necessities of his new life? How can the librarian be sure that she is not innocently placing on the shelves books that are atheistic, anarchistic, propagandizing, indecent or simply "trash?" What hooks should she buy first? What size are they? What do they cost? How shall the foreigner be taught the privileges and rules of the library?...

How remarkable a thing it is that the first popular Yiddish bibliography published in America should be printed at the insistence of American librarians—one of a series that Mr. Anderson, with the practical experience of New York, says, are: "Exactly what we need to help us make the immigrant understand America and its institutions."

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***Join us on March 26***

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Four Decades of Vital Jewish Discourse

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If you subscribe to our newsletter, then you already know that the journal Sh'ma and BJPA have recently officially launched the complete collection of the journal, from its inception in 1970 until the latest issue. Read the press release here.

This collection has already become a crucial part of BJPA's overall holdings -- not only in size (Sh'ma articles currently make up over a third of BJPA publications), but also in broadening the scope of the archive. A bird's-eye view of the context of Sh'ma within our other holdings will help to explain:

Our other largest single content contributor, the Journal of Jewish Communal Service (with its predecessors, Jewish Social Service Quarterly and the Bulletin of the National Conference of Jewish Communal Service) is professionally oriented, and for much of its history, focuses mainly on social work. Many other of our publications are studies, reports, surveys, and other research-oriented publications. (For a few recent examples, see Limud by the Lake Revisited or Child Poverty and Deprivation in the British Jewish Community.) Also common among BJPA publications are professional analyses and recommendations. (For example, see this AJC Statement on Religious Pluralism, or Celebrating Distinctions: A Strategic Plan for the LGBT Alliance.)

Each of these types of publication (and more) provides a different kind of perspective on topics of Jewish policy. One element that makes Sh'ma unique among these sources, however -- and one reason that this launch is so significant -- is that Sh'ma is a platform for such a diverse range of approaches. Academic research is important, but so are the free-wheeling commentaries on traditional texts in Sh'ma's NiSh'ma series. Professional best practices and social work methodologies are important, but so are the more informal reactions of influential Jewish leaders and authors to the pressing issues of the day. Detailed analyses and reccommendations are important, but so are the dynamic and multi-voiced debates presented in the pages of any given issue of Sh'ma on any given topic.

Additionally, and not unimportantly, Sh'ma is reader-oriented and accessible. To be sure, the journal is policy-relevant and substantive, but it is also  accessible to the general reader in a way which some of our other material is not. This is not an insult to that less accessible material; professional literature and social science demand a high level of detail. But as we officially launch the complete Sh'ma collection, it's important to recognize that emphasizing strong writing (as Sh'ma consistently does) can also be a powerful policy tool.

From the J-Vault: Jewish Language and Culture in Public Schools

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Perhaps you've followed recent controversies in the Jewish and secular media surrounding Hebrew language charter schools, which accept public funds, charge no tution, and teach Hebrew without (theoretically) any Jewish religious instruction. (For background, see this article, this blog post, and the Hebrew Charter School Center.)

As always, however, a peek into the J-Vault reveals that the latest innovation, and the controversy surrounding it, have been foreshadowed by generations past.

This week, from the J-Vault: Teaching Yiddish in a Public School (1916)

The Milwaukee Yiddishe Folkschule was a free Sunday morning school which taught Yiddish, Hebrew, and Jewish history from a secular perspective. When the school began to use the space (after hours) of a public school classroom, however, critics charged that the school was an unacceptable violation of the separation of church and state, and also a purveyor of ethnic particularism instead of a healthy assimilation. (Naturally, these critical voices came from within the Jewish community.)

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Proliferating Hebrew Language Charter Schools

The Jewish Week has two separate stories on Hebrew language charter schools today, covering one in Bergen County and one (proposed) in Harlem.

It is easy enough to find reasons for being concerned about this trend; how can Jewish religion be kept from creeping into the curriculum, tearing down the wall between church and state? If, on the other hand, that wall is somehow well-maintained, then will not Jewish children whose parents choose the schools as free alternatives to Jewish day school find that their children’s education is far less complete than that offered at a day school, bereft (as it must be) of Jewish values, ideas, messages and meanings?

In an exchange in the Forward in February 2010, Richard D. Kahlenberg raises precisely the former objection: “Using public funds for schools that cater to specific groups dangerously undercuts the unifying purpose of public education,” he writes. In the same exchange, Rabbi Irving Greenberg raises the latter objection: "The problem with charter schools,” he writes, “is that to qualify for government funding, the community must strip out the Jewish content, religion, values and advocacy from the educational program. I fear that such schools will fail to transmit Jewish identity.” Rabbi Greenberg does concede that these schools might “succeed when supplemented with Hebrew school education or Jewish camping. Therefore, I favor this experiment.” Still, he concludes, “the most likely outcome is that charter schools will teach language but lose the identity battle.”

Peter Deutsch, founder of the Ben Gamla Charter School, writes (in the same exchange) that

A Hebrew-English charter school education is not a day school education. However, a student completing a K-12 Hebrew-English charter school would have a strong, deep and intellectually based Hebrew language, history and culture education. That student would also have had the opportunity to easily enhance his or her religious education outside the public school setting.

I think these schools are tremendously exciting. Jewish education has many components, but if one component had to be chosen as the keystone and crown jewel, surely Hebrew language skills must be it; Hebrew opens the door to the vast majority of all other Jewish learning. Rabbi Greenberg is right that a Hebrew education would be an incomplete Jewish education, but think what texts could be presented in a supplementary school (or camp) if the students came in with solid, practiced Hebrew reading skills. That there is a significant trade-off cannot be denied, but life is full of such choices. Different families and sectors of the community will face them differently, which is one more reason to include this new choice on the menu of options.

Consider also the benefits to the Jewish community of having a significant number of non-Jewish students learn Hebrew and Jewish history and culture. Non-Jewish parents, meanwhile, will have the opportunity to see their children learn a legendary language with a fascinating literature, the classical form of which is of massive importance to Western history – a language which was once (in earlier, stuffier eras) de rigueur for the complete education, alongside Latin and Greek. The idea that such schools, as Kahlenberg puts it, “cater to specific groups” is certainly true in the sense that Jews are primarily advancing such schools, and Jews might primarily take advantage of them. But non-Jewish students would have their academic and intellectual lives enriched just as surely by such schools as would Jewish students.

Another aspect of the potential benefits of these charter schools is indicated by the work of BJPA Director Steven M. Cohen and Judith Veinstein of Tel Aviv University in a chapter in the new volume 5 of the International Handbook of Jewish Education. The chapter, entitled Jewish Identity: Who You Knew Affects How You Jew, argues

that Jewish education, like all forms of education that take place in a social context, exerts its impact in part by creating, sustaining, and reinforcing Jewish friendships. And we need to recognize that Jewish friendships, apart from Jewish education, exert an independent effect upon adult Jewish identity outcomes... The impact of Jewish education can be augmented by the creation and sustenance of strong Jewish social networks. If so, then mere Jewish association... can play a valuable role in building Jewish social networks, Jewish community, and lifelong Jewish engagement... These circumstances, then, argue for a broadening of the very concept of “Jewish education” to embrace the formation and bestowal of Jewish social networks.

If Cohen and Veinstein are correct, then the mere fact that Hebrew language charter schools will attract substantial numbers of Jewish students will have positive effects not only upon Hebrew skills, but upon Jewish identity as well -- even if Jewish identity is studiously never "preached." Furthermore, Jewish parents who want their children to have a genuinely diverse group of friends would be able to choose a school that included substantial numbers of Jews, and substantial numbers of non-Jews, serving the students' Jewish and American/democratic identities simultaneously.

What do you think? Can Hebrew language charter schools satisfy the demands of living in a diverse democracy? For Jewish families, will these schools supplement Jewish religious education, or destroy it by being treated as a replacement?

On Digital Word Clouds, Ancient Manuscripts, and the Privilege of Living Today

I just stumbled across Sixty-Six Clouds: Visualizing Word Frequency in the Bible, a site that has generated a word cloud for each of the 66 books of the Christian Bible (39 "Old Testament", 27 New Testament).

In case you're unfamiliar with the concept, a word cloud is a computer-generated image of many words of different sizes, which gives you, at a glance, a picture of which words are used most frequently in any given text: a newspaper article, or a political speech, or an author's oeuvre, or -- in this case -- the Word of God. The more frequently a word is used in the text, the larger it appears in the word cloud, allowing the viewer an instant and visceral appreciation of word frequency, and, one hopes, some new insight as to the content of the text. Sixty-Six Clouds (henceforth SSC) generated their Biblical word clouds using Wordle.net, a free online service that lets users enter any text to create instant word clouds. For their source text, SSC used the New International Version of the Bible.

I found the Old Testament section of SSC simultaneously fascinating and frustrating. On the fascinating side, it was neat to see prominent themes at play in various books of Tanach represented with such visual simplicity. For example, you can see at a glance that one or the other (or both) of the names "God" and "Lord" (standing for Elo--him and the Tetragrammaton, respectively) tends to dominate each book of Tanach, with the arresting and much-noted exception of Esther. You can also see the prominence of "father" in Genesis, of "Moses" in Exodus, of "offering" in Leviticus and Numbers, and of "land" in Deuteronomy. Less obvious themes also appear: I was surprised to see that "gold" seemed to be just as large in the Exodus word cloud as was the word "Israelites". And the enormous stature of the word "king" in the book of Esther, dwarfing all other words, lends special resonance to the famous midrashic view that instances of the word "king" in the megilla are hidden references to the King of kings, despite the lack of any plain-text reference to God.

On the frustrating end, seeing these images only makes one wish for a similar treatment of the Masoretic Hebrew text itself. For the record, Wordle.net does allow users to create word clouds using Hebrew text, but in quite a useless way. The same verb in different conjugations is counted as two different words. For example, I gave Wordle, in Hebrew, the famous verse Lamentations 5:21, "make us return/repent to you, God, and we will be returned/repented; renew our days as of old," and, sure enough, it created a word cloud that counts "make us return/repent" and "and we will be returned/repented" as different words. Prefixes and suffixes wreak similar havoc, rendering Wordle useless for Hebrew text. (Does  anyone know of some equivalent Israeli site for Hebrew text?)

Despite this limitation, I found SSC to be quite an interesting exercise. It got me thinking: what would Ezra, or the Rambam, or the Vilna Gaon, have thought of this kind of analytical technology and possibility? Would any of them object to the instant gratification factor, or to the surface illusion of instant understanding? Or would they have sanctioned the use of such tools as a supplement to (without being a replacement for) traditional study?

My own view is that, whatever drawbacks there may be to the digital age (and these drawbacks may be real), I feel profoundly blessed to live in it. The BJPA's resources on the topic of technology reveal that the Jewish community is expanding its capacities in many incredible new directions. Read, for example, this exciting glimpse into how the Center for Online Jewish Studies is making high-quality photographs of original ancient manuscripts available to everyone, everywhere. (And check out the Great Isaiah Scroll from the Dead Sea Scrolls, in beautiful photographic reproduction of the original.)

We at the BJPA aim to be part of this exciting and important trend ourselves, making available Jewish policy documents from across a great and growing range of time, space and topic.

Imagine what the great Jewish scholars of the distant past could have done with these tools and resources. If we who live today fail to become the great Jewish scholars of the present and future, it will not be for lack of tech support. This incredible good fortune should give us pause, and inspire us to take advantage of these opportunities.

Luntz on Israel Messaging: Empathy, Empathy, Empathy

Last month on this blog I mulled over the question of how Israel advocates should frame pro-Israel messaging. In that post I quoted extensively from a 2003 report by Republican pollster Frank Luntz: Israel in the Age of Eminem - A Creative Brief for Israel Messaging. Last Friday, an interview with Luntz was published in the Jerusalem Post discussing this very topic.

In the interview, Luntz presents many phenomenal communications guidelines he wishes Israel's leaders would follow. Reading them, I wish American Jewish Israel advocates would follow them as well. Some highlights:

 

And that is what I see missing from so much of the [Israeli] communication: the essence of empathy. If I believe that you have the right intent, then I will believe that you have the right policy. But if I perceive that the intent is wrong, then I will never trust you...

 

It is the order of communication that matters... What you say in your first sentence determines how everything else flows. The Israeli communications strategy is to declare a conclusion and then provide the evidence. And I’m asking [the Israelis I’m working with] for exactly the opposite approach: to provide all the evidence and then demonstrate the conclusion...

An example of effective communication: Shimon Peres doesn’t speak like a political scientist. He speaks like a humanitarian. And he speaks in parables that are easily understood and appreciated. And he uses stories that make the information compelling, because no one’s ever heard them before...

Another great line for Israel is to say, “We’re not perfect. Every nation makes mistakes and we have our share. The question you need to ask us is, do we learn from them? And when we learn from them, are we a better people? Are we a better country, having learned from those mistakes?” Once again, Hamas will never admit this...

The No. 1 thing that we recommend is the empathy. Every mom mourns for her child, whether they are Jewish, Christian, Muslim. The loss of any children is the loss of humanity. And so the strongest line there is “Let us work for the day when we will not bury another child.”

I could not agree more with the necessity of demonstrating empathy. One quote in particular, bolded above, is especially interesting to me, and I think it is especially  important. Most people don't pay attention to the fine points of security policy, and I think most people know the limitations of their knowledge about complicated situations. But I think most people also make judgements based on their gut-level readings of who is acting with malicious intent. Too many Israelis, and too many Diaspora Jews, seem to take an emotional stance of defensiveness and hostility towards the world opinion. This only reinforces the image of Israel as a bitter, hostile fringe nation defying world opinion. This may be unfair, but what does that matter? As I said in the June post, it isn't enough to be right.

For more on the importance of the "why" over the "what," see this fascinating speech by Simon Sinek, who opines (at a TED conference) that "people don't buy what you do, they buy why you do it."

Thesis: The Jewish Community is Sufficiently Welcoming Towards Intermarried Families

In a recent study reported in the Forward, BJPA director Prof. Steven M. Cohen claims that it's not a lack of welcome but a (real and perceived) lack of competence that's keeping intermarried families out of Jewish institutions.

Cohen’s conclusion was that most interfaith couples feel like they have an open invitation to be part of Jewish life. The real problem, he said, is that they feel like they don’t know what to do with that invitation.

“It’s not that they feel unwelcome, but that there is a competence barrier,” Cohen said. “They feel that their kids will be expected to do things they don’t know how to do, and they themselves don’t want to be part of a community where they don’t know the choreography.”

“I don’t have the evidence to make a strong claim for competency being the issue,” Cohen said. “But I certainly can say that it’s not a matter of being more welcoming. So I don’t want to push the competence thing too far. But I am willing to say that stigmatization and the response of welcoming, making personnel more sensitive to the intermarried and watching your language and having smiling ushers is not going to be effective.”

(The finding arose in the context of a study for the Foundation for Jewish Camp about how to attract children of intermarriages to Midwestern Jewish camps).

Interestingly, in a 2007 editorial in the Jerusalem Post, Paul Golin, of the Jewish Outreach Institute, accused Prof. Cohen of 'splitting the Jewish community' by focusing entirely on promoting inmarriage and essentially, according to Golin, writing off intermarried families as a lost cause and speaking of intermarriage only in terms of something to be avoided. Golin writes:

“...we should be devising ways to ensure that the already intermarried and children of intermarriage have access to [existing Jewish] programming. Cohen provides no strategies for that goal. Page after page of explanation about how weakly intermarried Jews are connected to Judaism imply that it is not relevant to consider them in our programming.

Cohen's suggestion that lack of competence (and not lack of welcome) is the barrier to intermarried families' participation in Jewish institutions can be read as an answer to that charge: it identifies a specific problem area (perceived competence) and suggests the possibility of a solution (beyond simply promoting in-marriage).

But not everybody accepts his new findings: “I work with interfaith families every day, and the stories that I hear are not the stories of comfort that he is trying to suggest,” said Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, Golin's colleague and executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute.

One poignant example of a not very comforting story comes up in Tablet Magazine's report on burial and intermarried families. Traditionally, there has been no space for non-Jews in Jewish cemeteries. Recently, the Conservative Movement's Rabbinical Assembly took a progressive position to permit intermarried families to be buried within a Jewish cemetery, but in a strictly divided off section. Brooklyn's Reform Congregation Beth Elohim's Rabbi's response was:

“It’s like they are saying that they are segregated in life and not welcome in perpetuity."

That sentiment was echoed by a congregant:

“Personally, being in a mixed marriage, my wife and I never thought about what would happen when we passed away,” said Pisano. “I always thought there would be space for me and my wife, never thinking I couldn’t be buried there.” He added, “I’m like a shoemaker with no shoes.”

(Beth Elohim is currently attempting to purchase a burial ground specifically meant to accommodate a shared burial space for both intermarried and  in-married familes).

Another example is found in various Jewish responses to Chelsea Clinton's upcoming marriage to a Jewish man: “As a rabbi, I would be delighted to see Chelsea convert," Rabbi David Wolpe, a Conservative Jew who leads Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, recently told The Daily Beast. "That would be my dream scenario." Although phrased positively, this is another expression of intermarried families as sub-optimal, if not actually undesirable.

According to Cohen's research, however, incidents like these do not actually add up to an unwelcoming environment for intermarried families – or at least an unwelcoming environment that actually affects their participation in Jeiwsh communities. Perhaps that explains why, in a recent USA Today article, Prof. Cohen did not mince words in describing intermarriage as “the greatest single threat to Jewish continuity today.”

"Continuity and Change"

"Continuity and Change" - doesn't it have a nice ring to it? BJPA authors agree:

A total of 92 BJPA articles include the term "continuity and change" and a Google search for "continuity and change" jewish yields 55,000 results. Is this a buzzword to spurned or an ethos to be embraced? Sometimes things are cliché for a reason, right?

Being Chosen, Being Distinct

Jewish distinction has been in the news this past week. In a NY Times Op-Ed column, Jewish novelist Michal Chabon (of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay and The Yiddish Policemen's Union) reacts to the Gaza flotilla affair with a lament that Jews appear to be no smarter than any other people, chosenness notwithstanding. This reaction opens an exploration of the concept of Jewish distinction:

This is, of course, the foundational ambiguity of Judaism and Jewish identity: the idea of chosenness, of exceptionalism, of the treasure that is a curse, the blessing that is a burden, of the setting apart that may presage redemption or extermination. To be chosen has been, all too often in our history, to be culled... Now, with the memory of the Mavi Marmara fresh in our minds, is the time for Jews to confront, at long last, the eternal truth of our stupidity as a people, which I will stack, blunder for blunder, against that of any other nation now or at any time living on this planet of folly, in this world of Chelm.
Leaving aside questions of Jewish superiority, a Newsweek article from June 3rd reports that
the Jews of the Diaspora share a set of telltale genetic markers, supporting the traditional belief that Jews scattered around the world have a common ancestry. But various Diaspora populations have their own distinct genetic signatures, shedding light on their origins and history. In addition to the age-old question of whether Jews are simply people who share a religion or are a distinct population, the scientific verdict is settling on the latter.
The question of Chosenness has long been a sore point for antisemites, a point of affection for philosemites, and, naturally, a point of discomfort for many Jews.

Perhaps most famously, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, rejected the notion of chosenness. As George B. Driesen noted in The Reconstructionist in 1995, Kaplan "believed that the notion of a chosen people conflicts with a non-supernatural conception of divinity." Driesen quotes Kaplan directly as writing that "it is deemed inadvisable, to say the least, to keep alive ideas of racial or national superiority, inasmuch as they are known to exercise a divisive influence, generating suspicion and hatred." Driesen goes on to trace the development of liturgical innovations in the non-Orthodox movements which sought to erase ideas of Jewish chosenness. (For more on the theme of Jewish chosenness as manifested in liturgy, read Gordon M. Freeman's analysis of the prayer Aleinu as a political statement.)

Arnold M. Eisen, now Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, argued in 1990 that the idea of chosenness has been critical to the formation of American Jewish identity, allowing 20th Century American Jews "to make their way, yet remain distinct." This idea, he writes, has "provoked... an outpouring of interpretation, while others (exile, messiah, revelation) were virtually ignored".

What do you think? Is the idea of the Jewish people as the Chosen people an eternal truth, or an outdated concept? Does it imply superiority? Does it imply inferiority? Is it compatible with the notion of human equality? Let's hear some opinions in the comments section.

My own personal view (as always, not reflecting any official position of the BJPA) is that Jewish chosenness need not be seen as implying superiority of any kind. One can just as easily conceive of it as a special responsibility given to the Jews, a responsibility to foster ethical monotheism in the world, but with the knowledge that other peoples, cultures and individuals may also be chosen for other different and important tasks. Indeed, one might say that each person on earth is chosen for a unique and vital purpose. But enough homiletics; what say you?