August 23, 2011

by Reb Yudel
Memo to the United Synagogue: Outreach is not education

Thumbs up to the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism for their Project Reconnect, which seeks "to reinvolve, reinvigorate, and reconnect the very many Jewish adults who were touched by the Conservative movement's programs for teenagers, college students and young adults."

And a double thumbs up for its Come Home for the Holidays initiative, which offers free High Holiday tickets to young adults who grew up in the Conservative movement. It's great to see Conservative Judaism taking outreach seriously.

But a thumbs down for their gratuitous use of Hebrew jargon.

Conservative kehillot from all across the world are offering Free High Holiday Tickets and/or Home Hospitality to alumni of conservative movement programs!

Click here to find a participating kehillah near you. Don't forget to check the list often, more kehillot sign up every day.

Kehilot?

That's Hebrew for communities.

If you've been paying attention to the ins-and-outs of the United Synagogue recently -- and why would you? -- you'll recall that the United Synagogue, the umbrella group for Conservative congregations, felt they had to respond to the challenge of "indie minyanim," where young adults gather to worship without a building fund or rabbi, by offering to serve minyans as well as congregations.

It's not at all clear that any of these minyans -- many of which are attended and led by graduates of the Conservative movements schools and camps -- have volunteered to hook up with the United Synagogue and start paying due. But on the off chance that they might, the United Synagogue decided that it would on longer deal with "congregations," but rather the perhaps-more-inclusive Hebrew term kehilot.

Look: I love the Hebrew language as much as the next guy, if the next guy has tapes of Hebrew versions of Bob Dylan and Tom Lehrer in his car. But if you want to draw people into the synagogue, you need to remember: Hebrew is an obstacle. It's bad enough that services are in a foreign language; does your web site have to be too?

It's not like kehilah and kehiloth are words used in general conversation, like the colloquial Yiddish "shul." It's hard to think of a context in a Solomon Schechter day school or a Camp Ramah where one might want to teach the word "kehillah." But if a teacher wanted to teach that particular word, they could, ; part of the fun of Jewish education is that you have a temporarily captive audience who has to temporarily memorize the words you quiz them on.

Outreach workers don't have that luxury. They're marketers. They have to bring people in to Judaism, and that means meeting them as much as possible where they are. Aish Hatorah and Chabad understand that. It's too bad that Conservative Judaism still doesn't.

p.s. Anyone looking to Google to understand the phrase will find education but not immediate enlightenment on Wikipedia:

Kehilla (Hebrew: קהילה) may refer to

  • Qahal, a theocratic organisational structure in ancient Israelite society, and a quasi-governmental authority in Jewish communities of the Middle Ages.
  • Kehilla (modern) (pl. Kehillot), the elected local communal (secular as well as religious) Jewish structure in Central and Eastern Europe (Poland's Second Republic, the Baltic States, Ukrainian People's Republic) during the interwar period (1918–1940)
  • Community in general (one possible translation - among many - of kehilla is community)

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