Modernity and Tradition: Our Struggle for a Modern Jewish Identity

By Tami Wolf
Director, EntryPointDC

It might seem crazy, but the daily struggle we have today over the balance between tradition and modernity and identity is not new to the Jewish people.

Torah is full of examples of Israelites trying to live in the bigger world while maintaining their ways, not always successfully. Even the story of Chanukkah, which starts on December 8 this year, is about how one group of people thought Jews should balance tradition and modernity. If it weren’t a struggle, if we didn’t have conflicting feelings about this, it wouldn’t still bother us today, and that is why it is still so important.

This afternoon, the DCJCC hosted Anat Hoffman for a lunchtime update on the current state of pluralism in Israel. Hoffman works with two organizations that are working for change, i.e. changing tradition, in Jewish life in Israel. One is the Israel Religious Action Center.

The IRAC, as it’s affectionately known, is the legal arm of the Union for Reform Judaism in Israel and addresses issues of religion and state in Israel, including social justice, equality, and religious pluralism. They are trying to find a way to balance traditional and modern values and make religion in Israel something all Jews can feel comfortable with.

Hoffman is also the head of an organization called Women of the Wall (WoW), whose mission is “to achieve the social and legal recognition of our right, as women, to wear prayer shawls, pray, and read from the Torah collectively and out loud at the Western Wall.”

Women of the Wall meet every rosh chodesh (new month) to pray at the kotel together. From my own experiences with them, the Women of the Wall are not looking to start a fight with local police officers or upset other worshipers; they merely want the right to pray in a way that is meaningful to them.

This afternoon, Hoffman talked about how Israelis are attempting to maintain traditions while living in a definitely modern state. She talked about the work IRAC and WoW are doing on things we think of as extremist – things we would never dream are happening in a place we see as so western and modern:

  • segregated busses, where women sit in the back and men in the front;
  • uncondemned racism from state-employed rabbis towards Arabs;
  • and, of course, the hold a small group of ultra-orthodox extremists have over all religious aspects of the country, including over the management of holy sites.

Hoffman’s struggles with the IRAC and Women of the Wall are two windows on the struggles we face between living our traditions and embracing the modern world we live in today.
Anat’s visit kicks off a slew of upcoming Israel programming at the DCJCC.

Theater J, the DCJCC’s professional theater company, will be staging two plays about life in Israel, and it is one of those that I want to talk about specifically.

Apples from the Desert, by Savyon Liebrecht, is a story of a search for balance. The protagonist is Rivka, a young Sephardic religious girl, whose life is turned upside down when she meets and falls in love with a secular kibbutznik from the south, Dooby.

Rivka has to do what all of us strive to do: find a way to maintain her religious identity in a way she feels is appropriate without dismissing the expectations of her family and community or turning away from what she really wants.
I don’t think there’s a “right” or a “wrong” solution to this problem, but I do think we can all arrive at answers we are comfortable with, at least for the moment. I have no doubt this is a daily struggle, something that as individuals we always have to come to terms with and re-evaluate as our lives move on.

Personally, I’m very much looking forward to exploring how DC’s young professionals see this issue and have made choices for themselves, on December 22 after a performance of Apples from the Desert, and especially how Israel has been a part of that process. (That means you’re invited, so come talk this out with me.)

And on that note, Happy Thanksgiving from EPDC!

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Shabbat Surfing: What’s New?

Suze Orman thinks you should be going to a cool Jewish summer camp.
Image (c) suzeorman.com

Shana tova!

We’re days away from the Jewish New Year and it seemed the right time to focus on all things both Jewish and new.

Because it’s hard to be the next Mark Zuckerberg or Suze Orman just making lanyards…
New Camp: Four new Jewish summer camps are gearing up to create more memorable overnight camp experiences for underserved populations, thanks to the Foundation for Jewish Camp, in the areas of business and entrepreneurship, health and wellness, sports, and science and technology.

Because it’s about time…
New Name: “Jew Pond” in New Hampshire, named as a pejorative in the 1920s when the hotel to which it was connected was bought by two Jewish businessmen from Boston, has been officially renamed Carleton Pond.

Because sexism and agism are so passe…
New Shofar Blowers: DC Congregations, including Adas Israel and Tifereth Israel, are seeing more and more women, plus young and older adults who want to blow the shofar, and are learning for these High Holidays.

Because we notice when one of the oldest Jewish communities in the Middle East is denied the right to worship…
New Place Without a Minyan: “For the first time in some 2,000 years, Alexandria [Egypt] will not have a minyan,” as Egyptian authorities cancel services at Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue and deny visas.

Because welcoming all Jewish families is a core value…
New Info on Interfaith Families: With interfaith relationships making up a not-insignificant amount of the Jewish community, new survey data helps Jewish organizations engage these families, who are looking for outlandish things like a welcoming attitude, invitations to learn about Judaism, and events for interfaith families.

 

America, You Sexy B**ch

ImageOn my last road trip, my sister and I bonded over questionable waffles, avoiding the sketchballs outside our motel room in Ohio, and identifying sea life in Georgia.

While the purpose of crossing state lines was just to move our car from Michigan to Florida, it ended up an adventure in American culture.

Future  guests of the DCJCC, Michael Ian Black and Meghan McCain road tripped across America with a unified purpose slightly loftier than my own car-moving purposes: to see if two people with radically different political beliefs could find common ground.

Meghan McCain – a writer for the Daily Beast and is author of Dirty Sexy Politics – and Michael Ian Black – stand-up comedian and star of many movies and TV shows, like The State and VH1’s I Love the 70s/80s/90s – found some hilarious common ground.

From North to South and coast to coast, they see how people in Red states and Blue live their lives. They discuss feminism in the workplace with a Little Rocktrucker mom, sex education with Vegas exotic dancers, and religious tolerance with an imam in Detroit.

In Salt Lake City, Meghan meets her first real anarchist, and in Sedona, Michael not only begins to understand NRA culture but actually shoots a gun for the first time.

A road trip with a lesson: Meghan and Michael find that the one thing everyone they met on their trip shares is love for their country and a desire to see it succeed. The two come away from their journey with hope that Americans can unite during this divisive political age.

We did,” Meghan writes, “and that means anyone can.”

The book is certainly getting buzz; in her first 3 minutes with Jay Leno, Meghan talks pot, gay marriage, birth control and bullies.

On July 12, they’ll be hanging out with us for the whole evening, and we can only imagine what will come out of their mouths. I’ll have to ask them if they have any better waffle recommendations for me…

 

Podcast: Israel, Loose Nukes and the End of the World

With all the discussion around Israel, Iran and “the bomb,” this seems like the perfect time to share this riveting panel discussion, Israel, Loose Nukes and the End of the World, from the 2011 Hyman S. & Freda Bernstein Jewish Literary Festival.

Professor Avner Cohen, author of The Worst-Kept Secret: Israel’s Bargain with the Bomb, and journalist Ron Rosenbaum, author of How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III, sat down with distinguished journalist and former network correspondent Marvin Kalb to discuss the history and risks of Israel’s nuclear ambiguity and worst-case-scenarios in an age of atomic anxiety.

Right click and “save link as” to download as an MP3
Or listen online here

Recognizing Current Issues this Yom Hashoah – Part II

(Read Part I: On Connection here.)

Part II: On Action

Young professionals and college students are taking a deep interest in connecting to our remaining Holocaust survivors.

For example, in New York City, hundreds of volunteers team up with the iVolunteer organization to visit often-lonely Holocaust survivors and become like family.

According to the 2009 Claims Conference, survivors are “more likely than other elderly to be socially isolated, and as a result, are more likely to live in poverty and be in poorer health.”

While health and financial needs plague today’s survivor population, the worst poverty is loneliness. These feelings are greatly alleviated through volunteer visits. But honestly, I feel like the volunteers get more out of these visits than they could ever give.

However, while Jews across the world remember the Shoah this week, there is a large number of people who are unaware of the critical need for basic safety net services for many of the frail and aging Holocaust survivors who live right here in our own community.

According to the Jewish Social Service Agency (JSSA), DC’s community safety net organization, there are hundreds of survivors in the DC-area in need of critical homecare and medical support services.  In fact, JSSA is reporting a dramatic increase this year in the number of survivors requesting care. As a result, JSSA is now facing critical shortfalls as the need is outpacing available funding.  (Learn more about the issue here.)

In light of all these issues, EntryPointDC partnered with JSSA to create an Inter-generational Passover Program with Silver Spring-area Holocaust survivors on Good Deeds Day. This was a memorable event not only for the Holocaust survivors, who were elated to have the opportunity to tell their personal stories and socialize with each other, but also for the young professionals who got to connect with them.

For one participant, it was his first time meeting a survivor, never having had the opportunity first hand. For a young woman, who is an Iraqi Jew , it was important to her to come because her own family had been persecuted in Iraq. Another came to connect with his Jewish heritage for the first time since the passing of his father.

Others came as proud representatives of their own survivor grandparents. After the event, one shared, “I just wanted to thank you for organizing this event; it really was so special.”

These connections are so important to our community. This June, we’re trying to make more of these inter-generational exchanges happen.

Service for SurvivorsWe want to connect survivors and young professionals with our Service For Survivors Trip – a Service Learning Trip to Miami Beach, Florida. Participants from EntryPointDC, GLOE, Community Services, and other partners will be joining us. Truly, we welcome anyone in their 20s & 30s to join us  in this mitzvah.

One of my favorite things about this project is the chance I’ll get to interact and connect with individual survivors, knowing that this is a population deeply in need, AND that there is something we can do about it. (The fact we’ll all be hanging out in Miami Beach doesn’t hurt either.)

As the last generational link, we are almost out of time to hear their stories.

And then, when the time comes, we’ll pass those stories on.

Recognizing Current Issues this Yom Hashoah – Part I

Part I: On Connection

Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, is a time for commemoration and reflection about the Holocaust and the six million men, women, and children who lost their lives because they were Jewish.

Yom Hashoah, which falls on Thursday April 19th, is also a day to honor the survivors and listen to their stories. I love working at a place where we get to look at these stories in multiple ways, knowing that everyone connects to it in different ways – whether it’s through film (Nicky’s Family) or art (Traces of Memory: A Contemporary Look at the Jewish Past in Poland), or through conversations.

The important part is that the connection happens.

My own interest in Holocaust studies began in my eighth grade Holocaust course with my teacher Mrs. Silverman. Unlike other projects in the past, the research projects in her class did not feel like homework, but rather like an opportunity for meaningful exploration – not something that junior high students often get to experience.

That eighth-grade project on survivors impacted the rest of my life: I’ve been studying and teaching the Yom Shoah ever since in some way or another – the power of having an amazing teacher!

My goal is to help others have similarly resonant experiences with this survivor community.

In Jacksonville, Florida, I brought my public school students to a Yom Hashoah program at the Jewish Community Center there. The majority of them were Muslim Bosnians whose parents were subjected to ethnic cleansing in the 1990s. These students really responded to class lessons on the history of the Holocaust, and asked to volunteer at the ceremony.

At the program, they were in awe because for the first time, they were able to put a face with the  Shoah history, and could personally connect to another group that understood genocide, first-hand.

The Passover seder, which talks about freedom from oppression, is often used as a time for Holocaust reflection. In fact, many Haggadot include passages about the relationship between the Holocaust and Egypt. Some Haggadot even explain how victims observed the holiday in Nazi occupied Europe.

A few weeks ago, just before Passover, one of my best friends, a 27 year old young professional working in Finance, discovered her own family’s experience in the Holocaust. It had a huge impact on her and inspired her to lead the seder at her home for the first time, and to intertwine the two histories.

She wrote me:
‘After lighting the candles and saying a prayer, the first thing I said to initiate our Passover 2012 was: “These are the traditions our grandparents celebrated with their families before the war, and it is important to preserve these traditions and honor all of those we have lost.”

I then passed around a framed photograph (that came into my possession only a few days before), with a picture of my grandfather’s immediate family. Being able to see six individuals who did not survive enabled everyone else at our seder to truly feel the importance of this night.’

These are the vital connections we need to make with our survivors – teaching lessons to young people and within our own families – so that no future generation has to have first-hand experience with genocide again.


Read Part II: On Action Here

Media Monday: Alicia Oltuski’s Precious Objects

Today’s podcast from the Hyman S. & Freda Bernstein Jewish Literary Festival features Alicia Oltuski’s fascinating talk on Precious Objects: A Story of Diamonds, Family, and a Way of Life.

Alicia Oltuski, a 26-year-old journalist and daughter of a diamond dealer, takes readers behind-the-scenes to reveal the shrouded inner workings of the diamond industry and some of its most fascinating characters. Combining interviews with family, friends, dealers, craftsmen, gemologists, scientists, detectives and entrepreneurs with historical research, Oltuski lifts the curtain on the extraordinary world of diamonds.

Right click and “save link as” to download as an MP3
Or listen online here

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