August 23, 2011

(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.


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)

August 11, 2011

(Reb Yudel)

Pledge cards by the dashboard light

From the UJA-Federation of New York:

Join us for an evening filled with friends, fun, and entertainment at New Leadership Campaign's Summerfest Concert featuring Meat Loaf.
I suppose that supporting Jews locally and overseas never felt so good, never felt so right.

And yes, kids: You can look forward to hearing Lady Gaga singing for UJA in 30 years times. Your musical memories are not a long-term refuge from the organized Jewish community. (Did I mention that Dan Bern is holding a songwriting workshop at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center?)

August 7, 2011

(Reb Yudel)

Kickstarting Jewish Culture: August 2011 edition

Today's insightful New York Times Magazine article about Kickstarter set me browsing again. I used the crowdfunding site to raise the printing costs for The Comic Torah and it always, it provides a glimpse at the cutting edges of numerous cultures. My inner technogeek was intrigued to see projects funding $50 radiation detectors and $60 custom jeans. My Jewish culture maven found some just-as-cool, but less expensive, projects to support.

First, a Kabbalah-themed comic:

The 36 is a graphic novel based on the Kabbalistic belief that there are 36 people in the world upon whom it is saved by their simple existence. In times of need, these people emerge from anonymity and save us, then fade back into their lives.

Noam, our hero, is one of those people. Armed with the fabled staff of Moses (used to split the Red Sea), Noam would love nothing more than to fade into anonymity; he just doesn't know what he has to do to finish his duty as one of the 36.

You can check out the first five pages of the comic here!

Tonally, it borrows from Bill Willingham's Fables, with the source material being Jewish mysticism. It's a world of magical realism in which golems exist and 36 humans have God-given abilities and the task to "save" humanity. These abilities range from the mundane, like speaking with animals, to the super, like wielding electricity. At its heart, the story focuses on the relationships between Noam and those he protects, whether fighting with his nebbish brother or fending off the infatuation of a girl he's protecting. The first two chapters follow Noam as he investigates a murder spree committed by someone using a golem -- an ancient creature created from mud.

Second, a 25th anniversary album from the Klezmatics:

To mark its silver anniversary, the band that helped bring klezmer into the 21st century is releasing Live at Town Hall, a sonic souvenir of a remarkable NYC concert. And to help promote this, the Klezmatics’ first self-produced live CD, the Grammy Award-winners are launching their very own Kickstarter campaign. Your generous donation will enable them to cover post-production costs and hire a radio promoter and media publicist to bring the recording not only to those who already love the Klezmatics and klezmer, but also to those who are entirely new to the music.

Since 1986, the Yiddish-American roots band the Klezmatics has spearheaded the popular revival of a tradition that once flourished at Jewish weddings and other joyous occasions in the shtetls and cities of Eastern Europe. They have performed in more than twenty countries and have released ten cds - of which Live at Town Hall, made in conjunction with the recent documentary film The Klezmatics: On Holy Ground, is the newest.

The double cd captures the Klezmatics’ milestone sold-out concert at the storied New York venue. The band rips through a career-spanning setlist, assisted by a star-studded roster of special guests including two of the band’s former clarinetists, David Krakauer and Margot Leverett and recent vocal collaborators Susan McKeown and Joshua Nelson. The audience is treated to a musical journey, traveling from the band’s earliest days (“Dzhankoye,” “Fun tashlikh”) through newly-composed songs featuring the lyrics of folk troubadour Woody Guthrie. The event was a real Klezmatics hometown party: a celebration of community, music and love, past, present and future.

With your help we can spread the word and the joy... Lomir ale freylekh zayn!

And then there's a project about Ben Shahn, the great progressive, Jewish artist of the 20th century Depression.

There has yet to be written a full-lenth, color illustrated book on Shahn's murals for the gernal public in the context of the New Deal (1933-1942). My work will be the first to explore Shahn's visual representation of progressive Jewish political ideals and historical events -- the importance of the Bill of Rights; Jewish involvement with the labor union movement; support for political radicals; the many contributions by immigrants to the United States; and the pressing need for FDR to open the country's borders to Europe's refugee (FDR would not).

Shahn was the only artist who worked for the New Deal who had the daring to include in his public mural scenes of Nazi Germany, the construction of concentration camps, and the plight of Europe's refugees.

Finally, there's a project underway to raise money for one of the strangest novels ever to cross my desk.

An Educated, Desperate Young Man chronicles the picaresque exploits of Naftali Herz Imber, the nineteenth century Hebrew poet best known (indeed, only known) for having penned the lyrics to what would become the Israeli national anthem. Spanning forty years and half the globe, it follows Imber from his impoverished youth in modern-day Ukraine through his travels in Romania (where he writes his famous poem), Istanbul (where he becomes enmeshed in a preposterous feud with devotees of Shabbatai Sevi, the seventeenth century false messiah), Ottoman Palestine (where he endeavors to unearth the telephone wires erected by King Solomon), London (where he lectures textile workers on how Moses discovered electricity) and New York’s Lower East Side (where his drunken shenanigans strain the tolerance and generosity of the Philadelphia judge who supports him). Things come to a head at the First Zionist Congress in Switzerland, where Theodore Herzl (a fastidious, failed Viennese playwright) articulates a plan to establish an independent Jewish polity in a sun-scorched backwater of the Ottoman Empire.

An Educated, Desperate Young Man is a bawdy, irreverent tour through fin de siècle Jewish history, a rollicking counter-narrative of early Zionism and a tender, merciless, hilarious tale of art and madness.