Friday, September 12, 2014

Empowered or DIY Judaism

What interesting times these are for practicing Jews. I guess we are actually still practicing… and figuring out what we want to be when we grow up. We (specifically my husband, Ken and I, though I am sure I speak for many of us here) have raised our children in a home in which we are intellectual, ritually involved, spiritual, thinking, exploring and yes, practicing Jews. We are aware of the recent PEW report with all of its foreboding data analysis. We know that large synagogues and communal agencies are losing ground. Simultaneously independent minyanim, different learning options, and so many additional individualized expressions of Jewish engagement are sprouting up all over. Maybe we can no longer correlate these numbers of Jewish involved people with official Jewish-affiliated numbers. If this is the case, how do we keep track of who is doing what? What criteria do we implement to do so that is truly reflective of the status of the spectrum of American Jewry at this present time?

I recently completed reading a critically timely and important book, EMPOWERED JUDAISM by Rabbi Elie Kaunfer (USA: Jewish Lights, 2010). Further looking at the other books available from this particular publisher, there are words like Rethinking, Building and Engaging utilized in titles about Jewish being. So, maybe we no longer identify ourselves by belonging to Beth Israel Synagogue or Beth El Temple or Sha’arei Tfilah Congregation, but rather by what we DO in our lives and the process of engagement with which we are involved – you know, the Judaism we live.

Kaunfer speaks at great length in his book about our educated and engaged Jews who are sophisticated and knowledgeable and need to be involved in their Jewish experiences, not sit passively and have someone else do it for them. Many years ago, I actually had a Rabbi yell at me when I was running Learners’ Minyanim in a synagogue because then “what would the purpose of the Rabbi be if everyone knew what to do?” I was nothing short of flabbergasted at the time but realize after reading Kaunfer’s book that there was definitely that expectation among too many that Jewish clergy would be “doing Jewish observance and prayer” for their flocks. Our 20-somethings and 30-somethings, according to Kaunfer, do not see themselves as flocks. I guess I never did either and this is why I was empowered in my own Jewish search before the name was bestowed on the process. Fortunately for our children, they can now name what they were guided towards in our home.

As a Jewish professional, I have always felt we are too absorbed by numbers. What is wrong where we use a Geiger-counter type of mechanism to say 1,100 people attended this service or that program and thus we deem it to be a success! Do we ask about impact; do we check in to see what has changed in their lives as a result of attendance; do we follow up in terms of the quality of their lives? One of the programs that Kaunfer brings to task is the much-touted Taglit Birthright program that takes college and young adult aged members of our community to Israel for a 10-day program, which is clearly to be lauded for the work it does. I always wondered “what next?” Now we have NEXT, the program that follows up with these 20-somethings, and guess what… they too test their success by the number at this picnic or that social or a given Shabbat dinner. After this wonderful and inspiring living experience in Israel, does it really come down to that? What about ongoing learning programs (that can be cyber delivered as an option, if that helps), what about ongoing commitments to local Tikkun Olam projects… just indications that I am “living my Judaism in a meaningful and empowered way!” and doing so on a continual basis! That, to me, and to my understanding of Jewish Law, would be success!

As an educator, parent and person who is a practicing Jew who lives Intentional Judaism (see earlier posts on this blog), I want to know how the impact I have made on my students is part of a process in which they continue to grow, explore and experience themselves as Jews and human beings. This is accomplished through a process of ongoing engagement with them, not what we call “splash” (one time) programs! What is the ongoing process in which they are engaged? How are their daily lives enriched? What are they seeking? How are they using their knowledge? These questions go beyond data and statistical variables.

My experience is that more and more of our 20-somethings and 30-somethings know this intuitively whereas too many of my generation missed it. I have always been drawn to places of Jewish energy more than performance and to individual empowerment as opposed to sitting as part of the “flock.” This, to me, is precisely WHY we have so many texts and guides and writings on HOW TO DO Judaism, and parenthetically this is PRECISELY why I get so jazzed about learning and sharing them with others.

I often run into former students in various places and they will share memories in my classes. There are texts they remember, amazing AHA moments and such. BUT, and this is most important to me, they all tell me how I taught and showed them how to own their Judaism and use it in empowered ways. They will often then proceed to share with me what they are doing in their lives to accomplish just that. This is Kaunfer’s point, I believe. It is not enough to show up and be counted, but know what you are doing and why. If we use these latter criteria as our marker of success, I am so much more optimistic about our future than the PEW report adherents are. I believe our success is that we are still practicing and isn’t that the point!

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