Archive for July, 2013


The emergence of the Federation system roughly one hundred years ago responded to the needs of the times. Federations offered a way to centralize philanthropy, the prioritization of communal needs, and the coordinated allocation of resources to meet those needs. For the past one hundred years in the United States, Jewish communities have developed through a “planned economy” model of Federation and denominational movement financing as the primary drivers of Jewish life. A planned economy assumes (and sometimes imposes) some collective and shared assumptions about needs and goals. That kind of ideological conformity and expected fealty to a centralized authority has been perceived as irrelevant or too cumbersome to many of the leaders and organizations within the innovation sector. What is clear so far is that the work of Jewish innovators is much more flexible, market-driven, and individualistic than the planned economy models of federation- and denomination-based Jewish life.

Dr. Caryn Aviv, “Haskalah 2.0.” Jumpstart Report 2. In cooperation with JESNA and The Jewish Federations of North America. (Los Angeles: Jumpstart, 2010), 10.

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This survey confirms what has been known for several decades as to the motivations of young people in affiliating with Jewish youth organizations. At the top of the list is the desire to participate in activities with their friends, to meet other Jewish youth, to enjoy social and other recreational activities, and to have fun. Motivations considered least important in joining are opportunities to serve Jews in their own communities, elsewhere in North America, in Israel and other places abroad, religious, and education activities.

Dr. Fred Massarik and Dr. Max F. Baer, BBYO Leadership Study, Phase 1 (Washington, DC: B’nai B’rith Youth Organization, 1971), 25.

That “classical rabbinic literature was never intended as historiography” goes without saying, as evidenced not only by the fact that the sages refrain from a detailed presentation of contemporary events, but also in the decidedly a-historical license they granted themselves when taking up biblical history. Attempts to categorize Talmudic works such as Seder Olam as “Jewish historiographic literature” have justifiably been rejected, with that work more accurately defined as a “chronographical midrash”, an attempt at the synchronization of Biblical events, with almost no interest in what transpired in the post-Biblical period.

Isaiah Gafni, “Concepts of Periodization and Causality in Talmudic Literature”, Jewish History, Vol. 10, No. 1 (Spring, 1996), 22.

For many people, as a number of studies show, reading is a genuinely tactile experience—how a book feels and looks has a material impact on how we feel about reading. This isn’t necessarily Luddism or nostalgia. The truth is that the book is an exceptionally good piece of technology—easy to read, portable, durable, and inexpensive. Unlike the phase-change move toward digital that we saw in music, the transition to e-books is going to be slow; coexistence is more likely than conquest. The book isn’t obsolete.

James Surowiecki, “E-Book vs. P-Book”, The New Yorker (29 July 2013), 23.

Proverbs (3:18) refers to wisdom as an eitz chayim, a living tree. This is a beautiful metaphor which the Sages then apply to the Torah. Like a tree, the divine message, the Torah, must be constantly nourished, it must breathe the air of its surroundings and be fed with its nutrients. It must get enough sunlight and have its branches tended. In return for proper care, the living tree gives the world its oxygen, without which none of us could remain alive. As Jews, the Torah supplies our oxygen and in order for it to remain a sustaining force we must take care of it and allow it to grow. Like a tree, lock it up in a dark room and it will begin to wither.

Rabbi Zev Farber, Ph.D., Avraham Avinu is My Father: Thoughts on Torah, History, and Judaism (TheTorah.Com, 2013).

While we focus on young adults who desire to impact the future of our communities, we lack meaningful ways for them to get involved. Many communities have shifted to support innovation and start-ups, but these new efforts can’t be the only way to engage for the future. Ultimately, the challenge of improving our leadership is not just about young adult involvement.

Marci Mayer Eisen, “Where Did Our Farm Teams Go? Rethinking Committee Process”eJewish Philanthropy (17 July 2013).

Something creep…

Something creepy happened when mystery became secular, secrecy became a technology, and privacy became a right. The inviolability of the self replaced the inscrutability of God. No wonder people got buggy about it.

Jill Lepore, “The Prism”, The New Yorker (24 June 2013), 35.

Over the years, most of us rabbis have become irrelevant on a global level. But isn’t that what we craved? Yes, we wanted to be spiritual leaders and teachers of our communities, serve our congregants, and become heads of yeshivot. Some of us did very well. But we shunned the idea of going beyond this noble task and taking on the world. We preferred to stay put, teaching conventional Judaism, creating our own comfort zone where our beliefs would not be challenged; where we wouldn’t get upset or begin having doubts and experiencing religious crisis. We wanted to ensure that Tradition would survive and be passed on to future generations. Once we succeeded in achieving that goal, we indulged ourselves in self-satisfaction, content with our own arguments, divrei Torah and Talmud classes. This was our Judaism.

The fact that outside our little world there was religious and moral turmoil was not our business. That religious faith was challenged as never before did not bother us. It was for the goyim to deal with. We buried our heads in the sand and lived happily ever after.

By doing so, though, we robbed the rabbinate of one of its most powerful tasks: to challenge, to disturb, to rebel and to send a strong, passionate message that is not always to our liking. After all, Judaism “is not a sustained, comfortable state of consciousness, but rather a painful, hard-worn and impermanent conviction—a breathing spell in the midst of an ongoing conflict” (*). Great Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard once observed that religion has to function like a thunderstorm, but that over the years it invented sundry lightening-conductors and lost its purpose. The same is true about the rabbinate. It has become a pleaser, a comforter, not a biting critic of our moral failure and our spiritual and intellectual mediocrity. It was not prepared to challenge its own institution, the Jewish tradition; it wouldn’t dare to take a fresh look at its holy texts, at Halacha, and at the spiritual conditions and needs of its own people.

Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo, “The Rebellion of Chief Rabbi Sacks”Thoughts To Ponder #351 (4 July 2013).

The Jewish comm…

The Jewish community will only be considered a serious partner in campus discussions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict once we demonstrate our commitment to making the necessary sacrifices for peace. If we can back up our rhetoric with serious action and sustained political engagement to achieve a two-state solution, hopefully we will empower pragmatic moderates on the other side to do the same.

Shayna Howitt and Zoe Lewin, “Frustration, but with Hope,” The Jewish Journal (31 May – 6 June 2013), 26.

There are seven days between Yom HaShoah and Yom Ha’Atzmaut. It is as if the entire country sits shiva, mourning the tragedy of the Holocaust, then rises to be comforted by the existence of the State of Israel. While the pairing of the Holocaust and Israeli independence has its historical problems, for me it remains a powerful narrative, one that has imprinted itself in my own family history.

Rabbi Mishael Zion, “Israel at 65: Celebrating is Not Enough”, The Jewish Week (12 April 2013), 23.