David Elcott on Interfaith Mideast Peace Work

Prof. David Elcott discusses the decline of interfaith work on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (Part of our Office Hours series.)

David Elcott on Interfaith and Interethnic Coalition-Building

For the latest installment in our Office Hours series, Prof. David Elcott discusses his experiences working with leaders across boundaries of religion and ethnicity to build meaningful interfaith and interethnic coalitions.


From the J-Vault: Disconnected Jewish College Students

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This week from the J-Vault, and from the Department of the More Things Change, Etc.: The Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle: University of Wisconsin Student Gives Ideas on Problem of Jews at University (1924)

A college student writes a letter to a Jewish newspaper to argue that Jewish organizations are failing to be relevant to the new generation's needs. "There are certain things which appeal to the young Jew of today and these things are necessary to hold his attention," writes Norman De Nosaquo, a student at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. The Jewish communal servant should "put himself in the student's place and look out of the window besides looking in."

On a positive note, De Nosaquo also congratulates "the broad-minded people of Illinois for their interest in the students and their institution of the Hillel Foundation. Let us hope it will be a success, as it will."

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Steven M. Cohen: U.S. Reform Jews Accept Patrilineal Descent

A letter to the editor from BJPA Director Steven M. Cohen recently appeared on the JTA:

To the Editor:

Sue Fishkoff correctly reports that Reform leadership around the world has refrained from adopting patrilineal descent. However, Reform people (at least in the U.S.) have widely done so. As early as 1988, reporting on results from an AJC-sponsored survey of American Jews, I reported on the results to this question:

Traditionally, membership in the Jewish faith was transmitted through the mother. Now, Reform rabbis say that someone who identifies as a Jew, but whose mother was a non-Jew and whose father was Jewish, is to be considered Jewish. Orthodox and Conservative rabbis would require such a person to convert. Do you accept the Reform rabbis' definition of a Jew?


About three in five (60 percent) said yes, less than half as many (29 percent) rejected the Reform definition, and the remaining 12 percent were uncertain. Thus, by a two-to-one margin, the sample favored patrilineality.

The entire report can be read at the Berman Jewish Policy Archive @ NYU Wagner.

Steven M. Cohen
New York, NY


Barriers to Jewish Participation: Poverty

Paul Golin of the Jewish Outreach Institute addresses the problem of financial need among some unaffiliated American Jews in an article for e-Jewish philanthropy:

At any given time, the majority of US Jewish households are not affiliated with Jewish institutions like synagogues or JCCs. There are many reasons why, perhaps the most important being that the organized community hasn’t made a strong enough case for the meaning and value of being affiliated. There’s a subset of the unaffiliated, however, who already understand the meaning and value – or who, like most affiliated households, simply want or need the services provided – but do not affiliate because of their own personal financial situations. And the size of this subset has likely grown during the recent Great Recession.

The problem, writes Golin, is not that Jewish organizations are unwilling to make accomodation. "[T]here is almost universal agreement among Jewish communal professionals that their organizations will make accommodations," he explains. "However, how that actually works is in no way uniform and in fact represents a serious barrier to participation. In most organizations, those accommodations are not advertised in any way – the impetus is on the financially-challenged to ask for assistance."

 Rabbi Mordechai Liebling made a similar point in 2005 in an article called "Money in Synagogues":

Many congregations state that dues payments should not be a barrier to membership, and reduced rates are available. But studies show that the process of applying for a dues reduction is humiliating. In some congregations the process itself is unfriendly — even to the point of asking for income tax forms.

(A digression: it's comical to me that we need studies in order to tell us that asking for a dues reduction is humiliating.) Rabbi Liebling also points out, however, that the outright payment of dues is not the only way in which socioeconomic status can become a barrier:

How obligated is the institution to help members feel comfortable? Little can be done about the cars members drive, the schools children attend, or the vacations families enjoy. But a great deal can be done about the assumptions that the synagogue makes. The synagogue needs to be very conscious of the underlying economic assumptions made vis-à-vis programs and public statements. Presuming that everyone is at least “middle class” and won’t have trouble spending the extra $10 or $20 for a special program or school event is incorrect.

Celebrations are perhaps the most visible manifestation of wealth differences. Synagogues can set standards or guidelines about the lavishness of a kiddush or even a bar or a bat mitzvah party... Hundreds of years ago medieval Jewry created sumptuary laws to regulate conspicuous consumption; perhaps we need to reconsider them.

To learn more about poverty in the American Jewish community, start with "Economic Vulnerability in the American Jewish Community", a report based on the the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-1. In 2008, the AJC published "The Costs of Jewish Living: Revisiting Jewish Involvement and Barriers". The BJPA also has many more holdings under the topic of Socioeconomic Status.

Dirty martini on the rocks and a Gemara shiur, please...

Are you paralyzed with indecision when trying to choose between an evening of boozy revelry with your friends or a scholarly night of learning Talmud with your chevruta? Me too!

That's why I was thrilled to read about the first Chabar, a Chabad bar. One part old Hasidic shtiebel, one part modern party scene, this hybrid venue hosts both local musicians and Torah classes, and features both a plasma screen TV and traditional sefarim (religious books).

I write in a jestful tone, but I actually think this is fantastic. In fact, my first thought upon reading about the Chabar was to wonder what synagogue-transform-champion Rabbi Hayim Herring would think about it (see this article, and this one, for a sample of Rabbi Herring's ideas and projects). It seems to me that, for certain communities, the addition of a really nice bar might be a great tool for revitalization, and for figurng more prominently, and in new ways, in congregants' lives. Maybe if more synagogues had full bars, they would attract more young adults. Perhaps shuls could also find success integrating coffee shops too, following the Starbucks "third place" model.

What do you think? What kind of atmospheres do you want your synagogue to include? Is the Chabar brilliant or tacky? Wave of the future or doomed to failure?

Jewish American sensibilities, Priv-lit, and Mussar

Rabbi Geoffrey Claussen recently wrote about "The American Jewish Revival of Mussar" for the Institute of Advanced Cultural Studies at the University of Virginia.

To summarize and paraphrase all too quickly, the Mussar movement arose in the early-mid 1800s. It emphasized the development of personal virtue as a Jewish religious value, asking practitioners to devote time and energy to introspection, self-criticism, and the development of a position of humility and service. The original movement was largely wiped out by the Holocaust, but it has recently experienced a revival in the United States, and largely among the non-Orthodox community.

In discussing the attractions and challenges that Mussar holds for modern Jews, Claussen repeatedly refers to the 1998 study, "The Jew Within: Self, Community, and Commitment Among the Variety of Moderately Affiliated," by Steven M. Cohen and Arnold Eisen. On the one hand, the personal and individualistic nature of Mussar practice resonate with some of the common values that, the study found, are common among modern and particularly young Jews. On the other hand, the demand for personal sacrifice and subjugation of the individual will to the greater values found in the religious tradition seem to go against the grain of many of the modern tools for personal development - therapy, self-help, empowerment, etc.

Bitch Magazine recently published an emphatic critique of some of these current trends in personal development (particularly focused on women). In "Eat, Pray, Spend", Joshunda Sanders and Diana Barnes-Brown coin the term "priv-lit" to refer to a certain corpus of modern publishing, encompassing books like the personal memoir "Eat, Pray, Love" to, well, most of Oprah (according to the authors). They criticize a culture that seems to conflate consumerism and personal development, that seems to place an obligation of happiness/personal development on women - an obligation that requires the expenditure of, in these times, increasingly scarce personal income, and which seems to offer personal development as a commodity to a privileged class that can afford to pay for therapy, yoga, and travel.

If there are Jews who are feeling a need for personal actualization and individualistic Jewish practice/identity, and who are also either poor-to-poorish, or riding anti-consumerist trends (and there do seem to be!) the Mussar movement, with its humble, personal approach to virtue-building and character development, seems like it could be a great vehicle for engaging the 'moderately affiliated.'

The Mussar Institute offers a 13 lesson 'Season of Mussar' program for $100 - whether that's more expensive commoditizing of personal development or a cheap investment (that pays overworked and underpaid Jewish professionals) for personal development depends where exactly along the spectrum of wealth/anti-consumerism one stands. In any case, the philanthropic wealth that currently supports all kinds of efforts to engage Jews and support Jewish continuity could probably make opportunities like this (and others) go quite a long way. Perhaps there are some issues about the commoditization of the mussar movement for Jewish outreach to be considered - but maybe it would be good for all of us anyway.


When I hear 'outreach,' I think of 1. Chabad 2. Intermarriage Sometimes the other way around.

The issue of intermarriage and the concept 'outreach' often travel together. The majority of BJPA articles directly concerned with outreach published since 1990 explicitly focus on intermarried couples and their families.

That hasn't always been the case!

The earliest article BJPA has with 'outreach' in the title is from 1970, when we were concerned about outreach to adolescents, then schools, then the elderly, then recent Jewish immigrant groups, then the marginally affiliated, until 1990, when intermarriage/interfaith issues seem to have established a pretty firm claim on the term.

One blatant exception is the 1999 article Alienated Jews: What about Outreach to Jewish Lesbians? On the other hand, recent articles that don't focus entirely on intermarriage focus on outreach to families with young children.

What happened? It can't be that we've finished the work with adolescents, the elderly, immigrant, and marginalized Jews, but considering the question prompts reflection on the full spectrum of insider/outsider boundaries (both religious and cultural) in American Judaism, and raises a potential criticism on a newer term, 'inreach,' a concept problematized by Hayim Herring and Kerry Olitzky in their article, Outreach vs. Inreach: An Unnecessary Dichotomy.