Sunday, February 23, 2014

On Crying Anti-Semitism

     This past week, I was quoted in The Photo News. Local reporter Nancy Kriz wrote this week's cover story, "It's Not About Religion," in which she interviews several Jews, myself included, in the Monroe area, on whether or not Kiryas Joel's attorney Steven Barshov's comments that Monroe residents are anti-Semitic were accurate. While local politics in my own town are probably not of great importance to readers of this blog, I'm sharing this because of the much larger issue raised.
     Does disagreeing with orthodox Jewish interests make one anti-Semitic?
     This has been discussed before on this blog, usually in the comments section when someone decides that it is anti-Semitic or anti-orthodox to criticize ultra-orthodox kiruv. We all know that I disagree. However, there seems to be an all too pervasive trend for people who disagree with orthodoxy or with opinions held by orthodoxy, to be incorrectly labeled as anti-Semitic, anti-orthodox, or if Jewish, as "self-hating Jews." Whether it happens on my blog, or in local politics, or on a global level, it is not only inaccurate to label those who disagree as anti-Semitic, it's also a bastardization of the term. It weakens the power of the word to describe actual anti-Semitism when it does occur, and it weakens the possibility of people listening and taking action in the face of legitimate anti-Semitism. The groundless rally cry of anti-Semitism turns into little more than the cry of the little boy yelling "wolf!" in the town square. After a while, people will cease to listen and heed his cry. When finally the wolf does come, those who would have protected the boy are no longer interested and ignore his pleas for help, because too often in the past, his screams were for naught.
    And so, I raise the issue here, among my readers. As people of the world, as the proverbial "light unto nations," as people with a history of discussion, debate, and study, I want to urge all of us--regardless of our stance on kiruv, regardless of our personal observance (or lack thereof)  of Judaism, to be strong in our arguments, to stick to the issues, and to not fall into the habit of claiming victim status in lieu of giving intelligent answers when hard  questions are asked of us. 

Attorney Steven Barshov

Monday, February 17, 2014

Rabbi Meir Schuster, Heritage House Founder, Dies at 71

Photo credit: Heritage House
Failed Messiah reports: "Rabbi Meir Schuster, who spent decades searching out young non-Orthodox (or, sometimes, Modern Orthodox) Jews at places like the Kotel (Western Wall) and trying to get them to sit in on classes at Ohr Somayach, Aish HaTorah, Neve Yerushalayim or other smaller ba'al teshuva (missionary outreach) yeshivas and seminaries passed away today."
I urge you to click the above link and read what I believe to be
a very fair portrayal of Rabbi Meir Schuster. He was certainly a character in the Old City. While I may not have agreed with his  methods or his life's work, I do recall him from my travels and, I have to agree wholeheartedly, the man was definitely genuine. Despite my often harsh criticism of kiruv, my heart goes out to his family and to all who loved him. May all who mourn find comfort, strength, and peace.

Rosenberg, Shmarya. Baruch Dayan HaEmet: Rabbi Meir Schuster. Failed Messiah. February 17, 2014.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

All of the Benefits, None of the Kool-Aid: A Review of D. Gutbezahl's Article on Kiruv

     I recently had the pleasure of reading David Gutbezahl's article "Eat the Food Without Drinking the Kool-Aid: How to Get the Most Out of Orthodox Outreach Programs." After telling readers about his background--David Gutbezahl fits in somewhere between Conservative and Reform and has spent time studying Judaism at Pardes in Jerusalem--he informs his readers that his desire to learn more brought him to consider, and ultimately take part in, the Lakewood Fellowship, an ultra-orthodox study program in Lakewood, New Jersey. One of Gutbezahl's concerns was that he "would have to spend a week living in the homes of extremely observant orthodox Jews, experiencing the way they lived."1 He tells his readers "I was definitely a bit nervous, I think my parents might have been more scared, but I went along with it...."2 Having heard many stories from parents of college kids who opted to study at ultra-orthodox institutions and ended up "frumming out" (becoming religious,) I can completely understand both his and his parents' concern. However, Gutbezahl appears to have clearly understood that this is the program's goal--to bring people into such a world and hopefully convince them to make the move to an ultra-orthodox lifestyle. He states:

Don’t get me wrong.  I think they all actually would like to see me start wearing a black suit and white shirt. These sort of programs don’t just exist as a way to teach a little Torah and get us to be more accepting of their lifestyle—that is a goal, but there is a further agenda too. Torah Links is a kiruv organization, meaning they are Orthodox outreach, and their goal is to “convert” people into Baalei Teshuvot, secular Jews who have “returned” and become more religious.3
     Gutbezahl advises people attending such kiruv/outreach programs to go in with a healthy level of self-confidence. He wisely tells us that "if you go in with no confidence in the way you live your life, convinced that your beliefs and your Judaism is wrong or inferior to theirs, guess what? You’ll likely suck up everything they say, leaving no room for your ability to think a bit for yourself."4 Sadly, in some programs, mentors will often stick negative quips about other forms of Judaism into their lectures, so participants who are already unsure of their Judaism may fall prey to their own lack of confidence in their own belief systems. While I completely agree with Gutbezahl's advice, I can easily see how those with minimal exposure to a Jewish life can fall victim to ultra-orthodox outreach. If kiruv professionals undermine the way prospective recruits were raised (whether they were raised as secular, cultural, Atheist, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Humanist, etc.,) and those recruits aren't too sure about their own beliefs for whatever reason, they become an easy, or easier, target than those who are already sure of their beliefs or lack thereof.
     Readers are also advised to "think with your brain, not your stomach."5 This is invaluable advice. I remember going to someone's home for a Shabbat meal when I was in college and remarking that the chicken was delicious. I was told that it was good because it was on a higher spiritual plane due to it being kosher. That's not why it's good, folks. It's good because it's been soaked and salted. Anyone can brine a chicken. It has nothing to do with elevated spirituality.
     David Gutbezahl reminds us to "remember while you’re having fun, or after really, that half the fun and half of what you’re seeing is partly just show meant to get you to want to adopt this lifestyle."6 This is the most important thing that non-orthodox participants in outreach programs need to really internalize. Families that may seem perfect while you're a guest in their homes may be wonderful people and may really love their lifestyle, but that doesn't mean their life is perfect, or that they aren't struggling in some way, or that they walk around blissed out on regular day when they have no guests. Adopting an ultra-orthodox life doesn't suddenly absolve people of their problems, just as being secular, or Christian, or Buddhist (you see where I'm going here?) doesn't suddenly absolve people of their problems.
     While Gutbezahl tells us that he can see himself being more observant (but not orthodox) after taking part in the Lakewood Fellowships, it seems that this outcome wasn't a direct result of this program. He appears to be someone who has been Jewishly inspired throughout his life, and was looking to find another learning opportunity. I believe that his advice to those interested in these programs is sound. Gutbezahl was already aware of the purpose of  outreach programs and this awareness enabled him to go in with an open mind, as well as a clear strategy for walking away with only what he wanted to gain from the Lakewood Fellowship. For people in his shoes with his wisdom, these programs can serve to enhance one's life. It's those lacking this awareness, and lacking the self-confidence that David Gutbezahl writes about, who may end up having their lives changed in ways they weren't necessarily expecting.

1. Gutbezahl, David. "Eat the Food Without Drinking the Kool-Aid: How to Get the Most Out of Orthodox Outreach Programs." New Voices. January 21, 2014.
2. ibid.
3. ibid.
4. ibid.
5. ibid.
6. ibid.