Category Archives: Jews

The Jewish People vs Jewish People: What’s Wrong with the Worldwide Jam

An open letter to the (unnamed) authors of the Draft Report from the Content Team of the Government of Israel-World Jewry Initiative

Dear Draft Report drafters,

For those of us in the orbits of Jewish education, your recent “Online Jam Session” was a fascinating exercise in something.  What, exactly, it was an exercise in remains somewhat confusing to me, even in light of your cumbersomely titled “Draft Report from the Content Team of the Government of Israel-Worldwide Jewry” which I found frustrating, vexing, and slightly embarrassing.

Here’s what you say drove this whole effort:

This initiative is animated by the ambition to nurture Jews who are eager to integrate Jewish values and practices with universal thinking.

Correct me if I’m wrong here, but I think this is what Jews — both young and old — have been doing this for decades, if not centuries.  To name a few: Moses Mendelssohn, Martin Buber, Gloria Steinem, Samson Raphael Hirsch, Theodor Hertzl, Sarah Silverman, Golda Meir, and the list goes on (the list, incidentally is contiguous with just about every Jew who has lived under the conditions of modernity).  “Integrating Jewish values and practices with universal thinking” is what has defined, not undermined, Jewishness since modernity (and maybe before then, too).  Sometimes, integration is easy and sometimes it is not, but its there.  It has been there for a long time, and it is not going away.  This is neither a new finding, nor is it a newsworthy headline.  And, it is certainly not worth a billion NIS. We’re doing it already.

Your commitment to the aforementioned truism (with all accompanying bombast, graphical design and crowd sourced “online Jam”) is not, however, the most egregious error in the document.

For that I would look to the sentence that immediately follows the statement quoted above:

This concept can be captivating to millions of young Jews.

Apart from its sheer silliness, it reveals a profound lack of interest in precisely the “young Jews” you hope will be captivated by modern life.  But it doesn’t show a shred of interest in learning about their lives or their lives as Jews.  I wonder what would happen if you asked them, or if you did some actual research about what these “millions of young Jews” thought or believed about being Jewish in the 21st century.  But the Draft Report does not reveal any real interest in asking them.  Or in learning from them.  The word “research” appears only once in the document (page 10), and only then in relation to the “research and development of new ideas.”  Despite your avowed commitment to “education,” neither you nor your Draft Report pay anything other than lip service to actually deepening our understanding of either Jewish education or the Jewish lives that “young people” (or older people, whom you seem to neglect entirely) actually live.

If, in fact, your intention here is to “constitute a public trust,” (as you say it is on page 10) then the process might benefit from spending some time learning from and about the people who constitute that very public, instead of offering programmatic solutions inflated by jargon borrowed from venture capitalism, business management, and pop-technology handbooks.  You unwittingly repeat the problem of the influential urban planner Robert Moses, about whom Frances Perkins quipped, “loves the public but not as people.  The public is… a great amorphous mass to him.”

Your interest in and commitment to The Jewish People is remarkable.  Your dismissal of the lives of Jewish People is both shortsighted and ill conceived.  Failing to learn about the people who are already living out the solution that you offer shows a remarkable arrogance underwritten by willful ignorance.  Your failure to recognize even the most basic element of contemporary Jewish life — the fact that Jews are already doing what you are hoping to make them do — and your lack of interest in learning about Jewish life more broadly is, to put it mildly, embarassing.

If you want to generate more programs, more Draft Reports, more task forces, and more hype, that’s fine; Everyone has the right to waste her resources as she sees fit.  But please, if you deign to produce something worthy of the people you wish to serve, you might want to begin by learning from them first.

Sincerely,

Ari Y Kelman

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Too big to fail?

My boy Andy Bachman did a number on the new Cohen Center Study of follow-up programming for the alumni of birthright israel (Full disclosure, I had a small role in the study, in which I conducted preliminary interviews with people who work with young Jews in the SF Bay Area).

Bachman noted that when he served as the Executive Director of the Bronfman Center at NYU, he asked on a number of occasions for the rosters of birthright participants so that he could reach out to them while at NYU. He was told “no.” In other words, Andy asked for the chance to reach out to the students of his university, and BRI said that it would not share that information with him.

This kind of attitude persists through the study, which suggests that the newly-branded “BirthrightNEXT” arm of the birthright juggernaut ought to be the primary provider of services and programs for birthright alums. Not synagogues or concerts. Not independent minyanim or libraries or book clubs or magazines: but birthright israel itself.

The idea being that only birthright, because it provided a “powerful Jewish experience,” could possibly sustain the allegiance and interest of its alums. Now…. imagine if NFTY or Young Judaea or the Solomon Schechter Schools approached their work with a similar attitude….

Maybe, in the spirit of the “economic contraction,” the idea isn’t an expansion of programs, but a contraction of them — or, has birthright israel become, to use a popular phrase that usually refers to unpopular corporations — too big to fail?

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