30 April 2009

Release the Names

Over at JTA is an op-ed I share, asking birthright israel to partner more actively with organizations in the Jewish community who are particularly skilled at reaching young people.

If you want to stay here, it follows:

Release the Names

A new study on Birthright alumni, put out by researchers Fern Chertok, Theodore Sasson and Leonard Saxe, is shining a light on the question of why so many of these young adults are not taking part in Jewish activities upon their return from Israel.

Some Birthright backers say the problem is that Jewish organizations and institutions have done an inadequate job of reaching out. The reality, however, is that those of us who have spent the better part of the past decade creating new opportunities to engage the younger generation of Jewish life often have done so without the official cooperation of Birthright.

Long considered an extraordinary success since its inception, the 10-day Birthright experience has been a tremendous occasion for celebration in our community. (I led a Birthright trip in 2001 as the Hillel director at New York University.)

The program’s greatest contribution -- the creation of an immersive peer learning trip with deeply cultivated connections to Jewish peoplehood and the land of Israel -- is an undeniable achievement. That this has been successful on such a massive scale (more than 200,000 participants) boggles the mind.

The results aren’t as impressive, however, when it comes to post-trip participation in Jewish activities. And the study, “Tourists, Travelers, and Citizens: Jewish Engagement of Young Adults in Four Centers of North American Jewish Life,” seems to suggest that the problem is that somehow the organized Jewish community has failed at attracting this enthusiastic and turned-on generation of young Jews, leaving them bereft after the high of their journey to Israel.

But the study never takes into account that structurally the post-trip programming is destined for failure because it fails to make equal partners out of the strong number of Jewish start-ups, JCCs and active, thriving synagogues ready to meet these young Jews where they’re at and welcoming them into Jewish life.

I know this from firsthand experience.

During the early days of Birthright planning, I was invited to a focus group with other Jewish leaders that included brainstorming on what to do once program participants returned home. Several of us made it abundantly clear that we needed access to the names of participants. Birthright officials made it clear that this would not be possible. At the time it was stated that this valuable list of Birthright alumni would be used for fund raising to help support and sustain the program -- a rather counter-intuitive pursuit for engaging the young and disconnected, and one that only now, eight years later, is being launched in a serious way.

In my capacity as director of the Bronfman Center at NYU; as founder of Brooklyn Jews, considered one of the many success stories of local Jewish community organizers; and now as the rabbi of one of New York City’s fastest growing, multi-generational synagogue communities, my experience has been that Birthright has no desire to share the names of trip participants who live in and around Brooklyn.

The troubling implication is that Birthright is not interested in establishing partnerships with an array of great new grass-roots Jewish initiatives that have a proven track record at engaging young people -- the clear, stated and laudable goal of sending them to Israel in the first place.

In cities such as Seattle, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Denver, Chicago, Boston, Washington and New York -- just to name a few -- thousands of young Jews are not only being reached but being developed as integral players in the revitalization of American Jewish life (also one of Birthright’s professed goals).

So here’s my simple request to my friends at Birthright: Release those lists to the field and let those who are skilled in the art of reaching Jews where they’re at do the work we love to do. We are all partners in this endeavor of sustaining and revitalizing Jewish life.

29 April 2009

Reverse the Curse

Walking down 8th Avenue and reaching the corner of President this morning there was yet another traffic accident, two cars, one up on the curb, just at 8.15 am.

Cars honking, rushing to get past and muscle through the intersection at Union Street, and hundreds of families walking their kids to school and then heading off to work.

Just as many faces were cast down looking at their iPhones and Blackberries as those looking to see if anyone was hurt. One tow truck driver broke at least three laws barreling through the mess trying to get to wherever HE wanted to go. The unabated selfishness among some "citizens" of this city is truly incomprehensible.

Luckily there is SOMETHING we can do.

I have petitions in my office and plan on tabling with them over the next few days called "Reverse the Curse." Sponsored by Park Slope Neighbors, Reverse the Curse seeks to petition Janette Sadik-Khan, Commissioner, NYC Department of Transportation, to restore TWO-WAY traffic patterns to 8th Avenue and Prospect Park West. As a moral neighborhood issue where every year deaths or serious injuries occur because lawless driving on these two thoroughfares, we are obligated to do something. And slowing down traffic would help.

Here is what you can do:

1. Write the Commissioner and let her know how you feel.

2. Come in and sign the petition, come take some and get them signed yourself. But please help.

This is how the world gets changed: one street at a time.

27 April 2009

Mazel Tov Rabbi Dr Bronstein

Rabbi Dan Bronstein, our beloved Congregational Scholar, passed his PhD exams today, offering to the world the concept of this new title, Rabbi Dr. Daniel Bronstein.

Mazel Tov, Dan!

23 April 2009

The Refreshment Room at Bletchley

Happy Rosh Hodesh Iyar
For those looking to laugh in new upcoming month.

22 April 2009

Fast, Sack Cloth and Ashes.

I am speechless (and to quote Woody Allen) I am literally without speech.

Our nation is going through the worst economic crisis in a generation and some guy named Moishe is creating little Real Worlds for the lost generation in cities 'cross America. Paying people to be whatever kind of Jews they want to be.


Why do we enable these things?

Why? Are we THAT desperate?

God Bless Eli Sanders and Nextbook for exposing this major embarrassment to our reputation as a "light unto the nations."

I'm declaring a Fast, Sack Cloth and Ashes.

09 April 2009

Next Year in Jerusalem


That's okay. It beats slavery, which is the whole point of this week.

And when you add in the Omer--the forty-nine days of counting leading up to Shavuot, the Festival celebrating the Giving of Torah--the focus on and intensity of this next period of time on the Jewish calendar is quite remarkable.

So yeah, I'm tired. But that's okay.

Up late last night for Seder One and up late tonight, absorbing the lessons of Seder Two, not at home like Seder One but at Shul, with more than 110 guests and a busy maintenance crew, anonymously setting up tables and chairs, and then delivering to the tables the food we ate, while waiting to then clear the tables of our dishes.

At one point, during the Birkat Hamazon (Grace After Meals) I spied the kitchen, seeing the men sitting on stools, waiting for us to finish. Sometimes we talk baseball; sometimes we talk politics; and sometimes they anonymously clean up the ceremonial meals that we Jews eat to mark the Shabbat and the Festivals. I get that it's a job and all, but still: something tells me we need a new way to thinking about this. I'm not sure what it is, mind you. But a new way seems generally like the right direction.

In some of the early commentary to the Haggadah, there's a terrific debate about the prepositional meanings of the fine, Hebrew grammar distinctions between the prepositional "you" and the direct objectival "you." Each carry their own weight. But the distinction is used to hammer home the point that when Moses was addressing the Israelites about the rules they would need to follow once they entered the Promised Land. Prepositional is considered more distancing from the essence of Torah whereas the direct objectival is somehow binding upon past, present and future generations. There is implied if you will, in the grammar, a connective quality that spans time and generations.

To wit: the less distance the better. That is to say, I get that it's a job to set our tables and clean up after us, but I wonder if our Congregational Seders should be inclusive of our Staff ("even the strangers who live among you") and not just us and our family and friends. I wonder if the words are only true if we are sharing the Passover story with "our workers?"

Next Year in Jerusalem can mean something entirely new. Do you know what I mean?

How is that we can celebrate our personal story of redemption from labor when others labor to make our storytelling possible? We need to figure this out. Ideas welcome.

08 April 2009

The List: Dayenu

I was trying to figure out what makes me uneasy about our synagogue being selected by three entertainment and media leaders and Newsweek magazine as one of the 25 most vibrant synagogues in the country. (Last year I was on the list for rabbis but this year seem to have lost a few vibrant steps, due in no small part to a series of muscle spasms in my lower back which comes with age, alas.)

It dawned on me last night while sitting right inside the liberal Jewish echo chamber--Jon Stewart's Daily Show monologue. Stewart was going after Fox News (appropriately) for their whining and carping about how President Obama is building a dictatorship in the United States. Absurd as it may be, this kind of rampant conspiracy "group-think" plays very, very well to people sitting at home on couches, racking up ratings points which networks and advertisers take all the way to the bank.

I was reared on this stuff. My dad sold television ad time for the CBS affiliate in Milwaukee when I was growing up and before the shades were removed from my eyes, I thought television was all about entertainment. Then one night an ad's placement was aired incorrectly and my dad got up from the couch, went to the phone, and proceeded to investigate rather vigorously (berate) a staff member for the mishap. It was brutal stuff but thousands of dollars were at stake and this was serious business. Going back to the show was never the same after that--a kind of smokey fire burned and (to mix metaphors) the bloom was off the rose. (I'd say the plume was off the peacock but that was NBC.)

My dad was the son of an immigrant from Minsk. She landed in Milwaukee as a girl, was babysat by Golda Meir, met her prince charming, a first generation Jewish doctor, and they did quite well for themselves, raising two sons, belonging to a couple shuls, and retiring comfortably before age and illness took them to next world.

Like many men of his generation, my dad's outlook was about escaping Jewishness to a degree: it was not worth much practice though it was certainly worth defending, and so at the very least one didn't deny he was a Jew, he just didn't do much about it. Except get an excellent secular education and get ahead. Fiercely. That sense of competition fueled at least two if not three generations of American Jews, a fuel whose elements were made up of the material of proving oneself constantly to the doubting insider who knew in his heart that the outsider, the Jew, didn't belong. Remarkable, really, when you think about it, how much that sense of competition has brought us to great achievements (and with Madoff, for instance, no small amount of cruel and pathological self-hatred.)

That sense of hunger for validation still speaks volumes today. Look at William Daroff of the UJC and his quote about President Obama's decision to host a White House Seder:

William Daroff, vice president for public policy and director of the United Jewish Communities Washington office, said the seder was scheduled on the second night so as not to disrupt first night family seders and is "a testament to how far we have come as a Jewish people in America.

"Jews are a vital component in the mosaic that is American culture and society," he said. "Our welcome through the front door, and the dining room door, of the White House speaks to the inclusiveness of today's America and of President Obama. This night is indeed different from all other nights.

Ironic, no? The Right Wing played up false rumors of Obama being a Muslim; the Jewish community did not rush to support him (though a well-run campaign won over more than 70% of the Jewish vote) and more than 100 years after our own mass arrival on these shores, it is an African American President who welcomes us to the White House at a Seder meal. Extraordinary. (Of course, really, one should talk about coastal hesitations with Obama--Chicago's Jewish community knew him well and spent the first part of the campaign scratching its head over why the coasts were taking so long to embrace him.)

But to return to the point, or more accurately, the spot on the list.

The media echo chamber of American Jewish life now has its own trio of men who for the third year in a row have created a list, which I gather is meant to create "buzz," so that the disaffected Jews who don't like to affiliate or associate with Jewish life can at least feel like their forays into Jewish life will be validated in their own right by their somewhat (let's admit it) shallow propensity to go to things that are on "the list." Magazines have been doing this for a long time, working in tandem with industry and business publicists to create lists--best doctors, best lawyers, best restaurants, best spas, best gyms--whole forests have been cleared to make room for our competitive prioritizing.

But seared into my memory is the question one must ask: to what end with the synagogues and rabbis list? Who really benefits? It's not like the phone rang off the hook this week with people saying, "Hello Rabbi Bachman, I read about your synagogue in Newsweek's Top Twenty Five Congregations list--how do I join?" And I don't even think there's a business strategy for calculating how much ad revenue was made by hits on the Newsweek site--wait, there is, but it's got to be insignificant, right?

So why do it?

Mostly it's because in America, the tail IS wagging the dog. Media is God and through the "burning bush" of laptops and desktops across the land, the Voice of God cries out, "Moses, Moses," and we all answer, because that's where we're looking, "Here I am."

But unlike a call from the first Burning Bush that demands liberation, justice, freedom and equality, we only hear the sound of our own voice, and only see the faint reflection of ourselves, caught up in the hungry trap of getting ahead, getting on that list.


The hungry remain in the land; millions remain in chains; those in pain, requiring comfort, should top all our lists.

The rabbis in their wisdom associated leaven with the ego and understood the Festival of Passover to be a fast from the ego, from the self, from the inflated sense of importance we derive from being on someone's list, from seeing one's name in lights, or from the comfortable validation of a warm computer screen or buzzing television through which one falsely finds warmth.


07 April 2009

Here Comes the (Son) Sun

Today's PR piece in the Times about the blessing of the Sun, scientifically completely unverifiable but nonetheless billed as an expression of religious devotion (read: channeled Paganism) by Chabad, can be found HERE.

I have a Chabad video in my collection of the sun rising in the sky and then it morphing, with the aid of some really cool late 80s digital technology, into the Rebbe's head.

Here comes the (Son) Sun!

For a fairly reasonable explanation, check out Shoshana Lockshin's article at My Jewish Learning.

J-Street's Voice on the Hill Turns Heads

An interesting overview of J-Street in today's JTA.

Worth a read, particularly because in a relatively short period of time, J-Street has had an impact on Washington, DC, which, in my opinion, is a good thing.

And with Bibi Netanyahu's government of 30+ ministers and the rumored appointment of Natan Sharansky to head the Jewish Agency, the American Jewish community needs a more critical voice on Capitol Hill.

This is fixing to be one of the most right wing governments in the history of Israel.

04 April 2009

The Goal We Are Destined to Obtain

There are four character types among people: One who says "What is mine is mine, what is yours is yours," is an average character. Some say this is the character of Sodom. One who says, "What is mine is yours and what is yours is mine," is an ignoramus. One who says "What is mine is yours and what is yours is yours" is a godly person. And one who says "What is mine is mine and what is yours is mine" is a lawless person.
===from Pirke Avot

I was thinking about this line today during Shabbat services, contemplating what, exactly, the broad spectrum of the Congregation knows about what goes on at CBE on Shabbat. The diversification of our services on any given Shabbat is a true blessing--it's a great expression of the varied expressions of Jewish character along with social and spiritual aspirations of the community from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. Some synagogues would be so pleased to have the vibrancy we have.

And in the general silos of experience, most of our membership (and certainly the non-members who avail themselves of our synagogue on Shabbat) would agree. We like what we have.

The challenge, with this particular text, is which category does it place us with regard to Shabbat? In some regards, it's kind of "average" for most synagogues to accept the diversification of its membership with the expression of "what's mine is mine and what's yours is yours," meaning "you do your thing on Shabbat and I'll do mine." It has a live and let live quality to it that is certainly not coercive or damaging but I often lament that it leaves something to be desired.

Could it be the element of "godliness," however the rabbis meant that term to be understood in Pirke Avot? "Mine is mine and yours is yours" lacks godliness, according to Samson Raphael Hirsch because it "expunges from the heart and mind the guiding principle of lovingkindness." Hirsch speaks for the aspirational aims of rabbinic Judaism in naming lovingkindness as a goal we are destined to obtain. It takes practice to get there.

The habitual attainment of this value is key. What makes someone "average" according to the Sages is that he or she merely focuses on oneself without regard to sharing with others; the element of Sodom (here a marker for avarice) is found when one says "mine is mine" really in a kind of hoarding way, where "yours is yours" has the gloss of "get what you can because I'm going to get what I can. That's why the Sages link so closely the "average" impulse with the impulse of Sodom. It's a harsh view but it's instructive.

With regard to social engagement at CBE, I'm interested in what would happen to the community if there was more habitual cross-pollinating. If individuals who enjoy the benefit of how they spend their Shabbat would purposely go to another's place, as it were, in order to declare, in lovingkindness, what is mine is yours and what is yours is yours. Which I think would mean: I fully embrace how you spend your Shabbat.

New York is a very focused town. It operates quickly, sometimes a bit too coldly, and generally according to the principle of tunnel vision. We move, like digits, throughout the system, rarely stopping to contemplate the meaning of it all. Shabbat insists on that ritualized pause, that breath of reflection and understanding, which arguably, creates more room for lovingkindness.

So please try it sometime.

Next time you walk into one of the two buildings for "your" particular Shabbat experience, visit mine, and his, and hers. And see if the urge to lovingkindness, the goal we are destined to obtain, can be brought forth.

On Fridays, there is always one service and twice a month there are two. Here is the menu to choose from on Saturdays (New Yorkers love choice on their menus):

1. Torah Study
2. Shir L'Shabbat
3. Yachad Family Shabbat
4. More Adult Study at Yachad
5. Bar/Bat Mitzvah Service
6. Lay-Led Minyan
7. Alt-shul (twice a month)

Funny how it turns out to be "7."
We didn't plan it that way.
It is just one of those goals we are destined to obtain.