I have a reputation. I have a reputation for walking into Jewish professional spaces and knowing the majority (if not a large percentage) of others in the space. [In fact, in one group it was statistically proven by survey that I was the most-connected in the group.] I have a reputation. I have a reputation for sitting pretty far to the left in my political and social viewpoints. Both of those were challenged this past week.
I have been hired by Jewish Funds for Justice (JFSJ – just don’t try and put the ‘S’ into the full name of the org) to serve as a program leader for their immersion service-learning initiative. Over the next six months I will be leading groups of participants to New Orleans where they volunteer to help re-build post-Katrina and will encounter the systemic issues which created the immense and distorted oppression which these victims suffer. The program participants, some with a 20’s/30’s group, some with college groups and some as bar/bat mitzvah students and their parents, will also engage in Jewish text study to learn how Judaism frames social justice. Along with my JFSJ program leader colleagues (about 30 of us), we will take over 500 people to have similar experiences, not only in New Orleans, but in Los Angeles, Baltimore and the Gulf Coast.
Last week, the program leaders from JFSJ came together with the program leaders of American Jewish World Service (AJWS … and if you haven’t seen their brilliant PR video, stop reading right now and click here to watch http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hQTtMXZs2LA), for a five-day training held at Pearlstone Retreat Center in Reisterstown, MD. The partnership, along with leadership from PANIM Institute at BBYO, was inspired. The AJWS program leader staff leads similar trips to that of JFSJ, but to international locations like Guatemala, Nicaragua, Ghana and Mexico. The multi-agency partnership, under an umbrella of Repair the World, was a powerful tool for training, networking, and collaboration.
Here I was, surrounded 50+ passionate Jewish educators who are dedicated to social justice and Jewish identity development. I was in a Jewish space, where pluralism seemed to be at its best, and where expression of Jewish identity came in so many forms. As a post-denomination Jew, I was in a great space.
So what was challenging my reputation?
First of all, other than two of the senior staff people, and a brief encounter once with one other program leader, I walked into a room of strangers. How could it be that I was in a room with dozens of Jewish educators, ranging in age from early 20s to early 60s, and I didn’t know anyone? After spending a week with these new colleagues, I surmise that a large portion of that is that I came to this work 85% through my Jewish education lens and 15% from my social justice lens, and the majority of the program leaders seemed to come to the work 95% through their social justice passions and 5% from a motivation of a “traditional” (aka establishment) Jewish education framework. It was truly enlightening.
I heard the following from these talented people:
“It’s [Social Justice Judaism] almost its own denomination. It is my form of Jewish identity; it’s how I connect to Judaism.”
“It’s [Social Justice Judaism] now becoming an accepted way to express Judaism. Once it made it’s way to a GA session, that makes it almost mainstream.”
One of the highlights of the program was a panel with Simon Greer (CEO of JFSJ); Ruth Messinger, (President of AJWS); Rachel Meytin (Associate V.P. of Panim Institute at BBYO); and moderated by Jon Rosenberg (CEO of Repair the World). Ruth shared with the group some personal insights into the work she has done for so many years as well as some anecdotes she has heard from past participants. Of one, Ruth paraphrased the person’s response to her learning with AJWS: “I have learned more text at AJWS than I did at Hebrew School.” This seemed to resonate as a prominent experience for many JFSJ/AJWS participants, as reported by my program leader colleagues … that many participants encounter Judaism only via Social Justice (or primarily through it).
I encounter Judaism in a dozen different ways each an every day. I walk through this Jewish professional world by way of each of these pathways, and along them encounter many Jewish professionals over and over again. However, for the bulk of my co-leaders, this is THE pathway to their Judaism, and therefore the chance of me coming across them in other venues is slim to none; my professional network reputation blown!
The second challenge to my self-identity came by way of the political and social spectrum. I am not sure that there has ever been an instance when I have been described as “on the right.” In most of my experiences, I am somewhere on the left of the group or in the middle of the pack in my political and social beliefs. This is perhaps the first space where I might have been the person standing the furthest on the right. It’s disorienting.
One such case where this displayed itself was in the context of my leading a “pluralistic” Kabbalat Shabbat experience. In the effort to model Shabbat experiences we help shape in the field, the larger group was broken down into three smaller cohorts of about 20 people each. These 20 people had to work together to design a Kabbalat Shabbat experience and a Havdallah experience in which all 20 people would have their Shabbat needs met on some level. I joined the Kabbalat Shabbat sub-committee, and along with my teammates, decided to plan a multi-option experience. The group started out together talking about “B’ruach shel Shabbat” (in the spirit of Shabbat) and sang several songs to usher in that feeling. Then participants were given a choice of celebrating the Ruach shel Shabbat by participating in a liturgical singing service or by moving into a reflection/meditation/conversation space. Then, the groups came together at the end for Kaddish and a closing song. It was during the preparation and recitation of the Kaddish that I unknowingly entered into a political arena I had never encountered in a Jewish professional space.
The first hint of this was when I asked that our group keep the soldiers of the U.S. and the soldiers of Israel in mind as we recited the prayer. One group member then offered, “and those of Palestine.” To which I quickly broadened it to “all those who have lost their lives in this world fighting for their rights and protecting their homelands and freedoms.” The second mention of this came after services were over, and after dinner, when I was approached by one of the other program leaders who had been in my Shabbat group. She very respectfully sat down with me to ask why I had asked the group to call into memory the soldiers of Israel and of the U.S. I shared that I believe that American Jews are citizens of both countries and that while I don’t expect everyone to agree on the politics behind the wars/battles themselves, I assume that everyone would support the soldiers and their families who have sacrificed and lost. To which she responded, “I do not consider myself a citizen of Israel,” and went on to share that she does not believe that Israel has a right to exist as a nation-state and doesn’t believe that it represents her identity in any way. She confided that she often feels alienated in Jewish spaces, particularly in prayer spaces, because of the role Israel plays from the bima, and as a result removes herself from synagogue community. We spent about 30 minutes talking about this, from a Jewish educator perspective and as a personal Jew perspective. While I don’t agree with her politics, I have allowed her to challenge my assumptions as an educator and to challenge what real pluralism in Jewish spaces truly means, especially as it relates to Israel. As a result of this experience, and other conversations I had at this training, I have perhaps re-oriented myself on the political and social spectrum. Maybe not permanently, and it may be only situational, but it was my reality for at least those five days; my leftist reputation blown!