Observations Along the Road

Theatre Writeups, Musings on the News, Rants and Roadkill Along the Information Superhighway

Category Archive: 'judaism'

Perpetuating Misconceptions

Written By: cahwyguy - Mon Jan 13, 2014 @ 11:23 am PDT

userpic=schmuckRecently, a link has been going around the Interwebs that has been infuriating me. This link, likely based on this Slate article, purports to provide the basis for Jewish names. It provides a map and detailed explanations for many Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jewish names. The information on the name origins in the article is essentially correct, so why am I mad enough to write a post over lunch ranting about it? Here’s why.

There is no such thing as a Jewish Name.

Perhaps I should explain. There are people who are Jewish. They have names. But the name in isolation from the person is not Jewish. People with Eastern European names (such as those in the article) may or may not be Jewish — to view them as Jewish on the basis of their name alone is stereotyping. Further, there are people with names not covered in the article that are Jewish. People convert to Judiasm. People convert out of Judiasm. People change their names. People get married. It is wrong to assume that everyone named Cohen or Levy or Goldberg is Jewish. It is wrong to assume that someone with the last name of Davis or Smith or Jones isn’t. It is also wrong to assume that the person of color sitting next to you isn’t Jewish — two years ago the Southern California Regional Man of the Year (from the Men of Reform Judaism) was a Chinese fellow that had converted to Judaism and was very active in the community.

There are black Jews, there are Asian Jews, there are African Jews, there are Hispanic Jews, and there are Jews from almost every country and ethnicity in the world. This is because Judaism is, at its heart, a religion. It is a belief system that people can adopt; when they do, they are just as Jewish as someone from birth. People can also choose to leave Judaism and move to other belief systems. The point of this is: You can’t determine someone is Jewish by name alone; to do so is succumbing to a stereotype.

If you circulate the article, don’t refer to “Jewish names”. The article discusses names common to Jewish people of Eastern European origin.

FacebookTwitterTumblrGoogle+LinkedInLiveJournalStumbleUponEmailPinterestMySpaceShare/Bookmark

--- *** ---

Secret Relationships

Written By: cahwyguy - Wed Jan 08, 2014 @ 11:49 am PDT

userpic=tallitIf you ask most congregations, they’ll tell you they are the best kept secret in $location. In fact, they shout to the world that they are the best kept secret (as well as being the most friendly, ummm, haimish, congregations around). They think that shouting they are a secret will overcome the fact that nobody knows what they are doing. The truth, of course, is that most congregations fail horribly on publicity (and a large part of that is exacerbated by the Internet, which has gotten rid of flyers and made newspaper ads much less effective). So, to that end, I’d like to do my part over lunch by publicizing some Jewish stuff of interest on my little blog, which most people don’t read anyway (at least judging by the comments).

  • Separation of Church and State. The issues concerning separation of church and state are big news. There is the battle over the Satanist statue in Oklahoma, and the LA County Board of Supes just voted to add a cross back into the county seal. Want to learn more about the issue? Come out to Northridge CA this Sunday when Michael Risman of the Greater Los Angeles Chapter of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State will be speaking on “Will the Wall Come Tumbling Down? An Updated Look at Church and State in Los Angeles and Elsewhere”. This is a joint event of $sisterhood and $mens_club at $current_congregation (you can probably figure those out now, but they’re cool to write, so click here for directions), and starts at 10am. There will be a $mens_club business meeting before the talk at 8:45am. Here’s the flyer and the abstract: “The 200+ year experiment of separating Church and State in the United States has been a resounding success by most measures. The political model has been emulated since that time in most all modern democracies and adopted by most UN member nations as a universal human right. And yet, as a front line worker for decades on behalf of the preservation and promotion of the First Amendment, the challenges seem only to have grown exponentially in the US in recent years. With presidential candidates and US Supreme Court judges denouncing the principle, religious groups regularly granted special privileges and shielded by law from accountability, and an array of powerful and well-funded organizations actively seeking to use the power of government to promote their religious ideologies, we may now be facing the strongest challenges to church/state separation in the US today in all of that history.”
  • Relationships With the Community. I’ve been talking for a while about $mens_club; here’s an opportunity to meet us. We’re doing a special $mens_club Shabbat service, with a dinner and short presentation beforehand, and the community is invited. The dinner is at 6:15pm and is a Chinese New Years celebration menu (don’t ask me, I didn’t pick the menu) done by one of the congregation’s excellent caterers — in fact, the caterer that did my daughter’s Bat Mitzvah (the caterer is also active in another local Brotherhood, which I think is cool and a way to build a relationship between the two groups). After dinner, there will be a short presentation by moi on $mens_club, followed by the service which will be performed conducted by members of $mens_club. Visit here to sign up for the dinner.
  • The Secret Rabbi. One of the members of $mens_club alerted me to this interesting post in the Jewish Journal with a wish list for the upcoming year. One suggestion was for the great Rabbi exchange: “So, let’s pick one Shabbat a year and call it the Great Exchange — a day when every rabbi in town gets to speak in a different shul.”. Secrets and fears are the main reason this won’t happen. Consider: Everyone is afraid that if their great rabbi speaks in another community, that community will discover him and hire him away. The other community is afraid that if another rabbi speaks, then the people will make like Moses and “exodus” to that Rabbi’s congregation. Therefore, having another rabbi speak only happens when the rabbi lives far enough away for people to not run over there. In doing so, people are keeping their greatest weapon (for good or evil — you decide) secret. They are also demonstrating a fear that their relationships aren’t strong enough. Banks build sticky relationship with customers by entwining themselves throughout their daily lives. Modern congregations are so detached this never happens. We need to make it happen so that we can be confident when we work with other congregations near us.

 

--- *** ---

Talking the Talk

Written By: cahwyguy - Fri Dec 20, 2013 @ 11:24 am PDT

userpic=mlj-signWednesday night, I attended a calendaring meeting and a board meeting at $current_congregation. I was there at the request of the President of $mens_club, as the bum was off vacationing in Cancun. The things I do for my friends :-).

More seriously, I did attend the board meeting, and a few things about it have been sticking in my head… and the only way to get them out of there is to share. Hence, this post.

I’ve written in the past about how I would like to have $mens_club be a role model in how to do welcoming right. It appears that one of the themes of the board this year is similar — they are trying to establish relationships along the lines of those talked about by Rabbi Wolfson, and they were all energized to do this from the recent UAHC URJ Biennial. We did an exercise of doing elevator speeches about selling the congregation to someone you meet, and that word “welcoming” was constantly there. People were sharing their wonderful experiences about making friends, kids in the religious school, etc. I even shared about $mens_club.

But… but…

Something was off. I noticed it because I’m not a member of the board. This was my first meeting there. And other than the one person I know from Sisterhood who I sat next to (and who did calendaring with me), no other board member came over and greeted the new person. Translation: Although they talked being welcoming, they didn’t follow through with the stranger in their midst. This is the problem: we can all say we are welcoming, but it takes actual effort to break away from your friends and greet someone you don’t know. They had the opportunity to establish a new relationship, and potentially draw in a new volunteer (c’mon, if I’m stupid enough to attend a temple board meeting in someone’s absence, I can be talked into anything)… and they didn’t follow through. This is yet another example of just not seeing the little things that aren’t welcoming. Welcoming is more than a nametag and a hello: it is an attitude shift and (in many ways) a paradigm shift from the comfortable cliques.

I was also thinking, during the elevator pitches, about the pitches themselves. As someone who hasn’t had the positive experiences (other than with $mens_club), they weren’t resonating. Consider: someone who hadn’t seen the warmth was just hearing words about how warm the place was. What is needed (and I couldn’t put it in words at the time) is something that goes beyond words: doing something that demonstrates the warmth. Invitations. Personal connections. Now there was some of that in the speeches, but perhaps I’m too much of the colder computer scientist to always pick up on it. However (and I think this is important), when giving such speeches, one needs to be aware that you might be talking to someone like me. What do I want to hear? Tell me why this isn’t the typical Reform congregation — why this isn’t a marble house of plastic people.

I had a second observation on the meeting itself. The meeting consisted mostly of reports — there were almost no action items for the Board to act upon and discuss. Some of these reports went on longish, perhaps too longish. I’ve learned from my ACSAC meetings that meetings work best when condensed down to the actions that require the entire board to take, or short announcements that the entire Board needs to hear regarding upcoming due-dates. I didn’t get that sense here. Further, there was the sense of exclusion again. When there were committee reports, there was extensive attention paid to the $youth_group representative, who was new. Other groups that might have had items to report (I shyly raise my hand) were never given the opportunity. Why one group over the others? In short: more focus was needed — reports should be (a) from all committees and auxiliaries, and (b) highlighting upcoming actions and activities within a 60 day period (which is significant for publicity purposes). The focus should not be selecting particular groups to report, and then cutting off when the time limit is reached. Meetings are for the efficient conveying of information and the taking of necessary actions. Meetings are the forum for cross-committee interactions, or extra-committee or higher-level decisions. In particular, upcoming events should be discussed to ensure that there aren’t surprise impacts, and so that everyone can support and discuss them.

Will this scare me off of volunteering again. Probably not. This was a typical temple board meeting — I’ve been to my share. It only means that work of being the role model is even more important.

--- *** ---

Religion in the News

Written By: cahwyguy - Thu Oct 03, 2013 @ 7:34 pm PDT

userpic=chanukah-christmasI gotta think about something other than the shutdown, so here are a few religion related items that have accumulated in the links list. I’m sure you’ve seen some of these floating around FB:

And speaking of close-mindedness… but then again, enough on the shutdown.

--- *** ---

Does Membership end with the End of Membership?

Written By: cahwyguy - Wed Sep 18, 2013 @ 5:22 pm PDT

userpic=tallitI’m a member of every congregation I’ve ever been a member of.

Perhaps I should clarify that. I’m not a dues paying member. But I still consider myself part of those congregations.

Congregations are organizations that build relationships. We build relationships with the people in the congregations. We build relationships with the building and its history. Those relationships don’t just cleanly sever when we change where we are paying dues.

I think about everytime I receive an email blast from Temple Beth Hillel ($current_congregation-1). I think about this when I see a post on the facebook group of Temple Beth Torah ($current_congregation-2). I think about this when I read in the news about Kol Tikvah ($current_congregation-3). I think about this when Wilshire Blvd Temple ($current_congregation-7) sends me mail, or I see posts from alumni of Temple Israel of Westchester ($current_congregation-8).

Congregations need to understand this, but they often don’t. Once someone drops membership, they drop communication. TBT had it right — consider them alumni of your congregation. Keep them informed of what is happening by email. They may still donate; they may still attend an event. Who knows… they may even rejoin one day. That’s what we did. Our current congregation, Temple Ahavat Shalom, is not only $current_congregation, but $current_congregation-5.

[If you are curious, the missing congregation above is Temple Emet of Woodland Hills, which was $current_congregation-4 and $current_congregation-6. They merged into Kol Tikvah. We still view ourselves as part of Emet as well — I should check with some of the other Emet alumni to see if there is an Emet Alumni group.]

--- *** ---

Learning from Political Compromise

Written By: cahwyguy - Sat Sep 14, 2013 @ 2:12 pm PDT

userpic=tallitFor the past umpteen years, when I go to High Holyday services, I bring additional reading with me. No, it’s not a paperback novel. It is companion books like “Gates of Understanding 2“, S.Y. Agnon’s “Days of Awe“, the Pirke Avot. Gates of Understanding 2 is particularly interesting, as it is “A religious commentary to help High Holy Days worshipers unlock the message behind the liturgy. Covers the history and tradition of the prayers, music in the service, synagogue poetry, the role of God, sin and repentance and much more. Also includes comprehensive notes to Gates of Repentance and a thorough index.” In particular GoU2 describes how this particular machzor (prayerbook) came to be in its present form — what was included, what wasn’t, and why.

This was highlighted for me last night when reading the history behind Kol Nidre, and its inclusion — or non-inclusion — in the Reform prayerbook. Kol Nidre is a mystical prayer dating back to the 12th century in Germany that nullifies vows made in anger or in haste. It was controversial for Reform because it implied to the larger community that Jews could not be trusted with their vows. So controversial was this discussion that in 1949 it was included in the first printing of Union Prayer Book (UPB) II, and then removed. Just that page was replaced with a double spaced prayer, the hebrew words for “Kol Nidre”, and in small type “The Kol Nidre Chant”. Even today an exact translation of the prayer in English is not in the prayerbook.

So today at services I brought with me the usual GOU2, but also a collection of older High Holyday Prayerbooks: UPB II, the Hillel prayerbook “On Wings of Awe”, and two prayerbooks produced by Temple Emet in the early 1980s. As we went through the service, I discovered that the current prayerbook was drawn from hither and yon (for example, Unetaneh Tokef was only in the YK Afternoon Service in UPBII), and many things were not translated the same.

So why am I telling you this? Any prayerbook — any service — is a political compromise. What you see on the page is the product of committees wrangling about what should be in or out to express a particular dogma or political point. Essentially, this means that you can’t pray wrong. If you don’t say the words, that’s OK. If you omit a particular prayer, that’s OK.

So what do you do? Again, the answer is in the prayerbook. The Torah portion from Deut. 30 (at least for Reform; traditional uses Lev. 18) emphasizes the need to make the right choice. The Haftorah, from Isaiah, does similar. Actions speak louder than words. Don’t just mouth the political compromise words about correcting failures. Change how you act and you behave. Don’t believe that sitting in a building twice a year will do it for you. Work to improve every day.

[And, to tie this back to the other themes I’ve discussed: Don’t just talk about a congregation being friendly and welcoming. Go out and welcome a stranger. Go out and make a friend. Don’t just talk about the connections that exist — make new ones, and strengthen existing ones. Let your actions be your prayers, and you can remake the world.]

--- *** ---

The Role of Criticism

Written By: cahwyguy - Sat Sep 14, 2013 @ 8:49 am PDT

userpic=soapboxThe place where I work has as its underlying goal “mission success”. Our goal is to help ensure that the mission (which I don’t need to state here) succeeds, and we work with the parties on both sides to make that happen. This means that we often point out flaws in reasoning or performance. Yet that isn’t criticism, because the goal is not to tear down, but to build up — to help the other parties succeed.

I’ve been musing about this as the service swelled around me last night. It relates to my discussion yesterday about the growth of sadism on the Internet and Internet bullying. It also relates to some discussion on Bitter Lemons (here, here, and here) about the roles of critics, the roles of professional critics, and whether certain individuals have been behaving appropriate.

What is the role of a critic? For that matter, what is the role of a troll? Often, what I see is that the role is perceived to be one that tears down. You’re not a critic unless you can see the flaws and highlight them. You’re not a troll unless you attack and hurt. But does simply identifying problems — whether out of love for the craft or the joy of hating — help in the long run? I don’t believe so.

To me, our goal in whatever we do should be mission success — that is, to ultimately help the mission succeed. If you are at work, you work to make your organization’s mission successful. When I write theatre reviews, it is to make the product better — I try not to just indicate a problem but to suggest (either direct or implied) ways to correct a problem. I won’t say — this show is bad. I will say — this is how this show can be better. The same is true of anything I write. When I wrote about the trolls, my goal was to find ways to make the problem better. When I write up high holyday sermons, it is not to find fault, but to indicate how they can be better.

Far too often, I see folks that believe criticism must be negative. Over at Bitter Lemons, there has been a touch of this — the implication that critics must not only see shows they like, but must have some they hate. I disagree — which is why perhaps I’m not a professional critic. I think that if you are going to write criticism, you must remember to put the adjective “constructive” before it. We must work together to build things up, to make people better, to make society better — to do better in everything we do.

This relates directly to today, Yom Kippur. At services, we enumerate our flaws and failures. We do this not to tear our selves down and belittle us in front of others, but to acknowledge where we can do better, and to vow to — in the upcoming year — work on correcting those failures. I know this has always been a goal for me: acknowledge what works well, work to fix the failures.

Let us work together to battle those whose goal is mission failure — who just want to bring down the mission, who just want to tear down people, who just want to make themselves superior by making others feel inferior. Let work together to make things better.

--- *** ---

RH Sermons 5774: What I Didn’t Hear

Written By: cahwyguy - Thu Sep 05, 2013 @ 4:19 pm PDT

userpic=tallitThis year’s Rosh Hashanah services are over. I indicated in my last post that the most meaningful part of the service for me is the sermon, and so I thought I would share with you some thoughts on the sermons I heard. More important, I think, I what I did not hear, or what I heard between the lines. A lot of this was heard through the filter I’ve been doing recently for $mens_club.

Erev RH. The Erev (evening) Rosh Hashanah sermon talked about the efforts at $current_congregation to create a caring community — and more importantly, how people tend to refuse any offered help out of a fear of appearing weak or less than.  The point being made was that it is just as important to accept offered helped as it is to offer help. This was a good subject to talk about. It demonstrated that the congregation was one that cared about its members.

But to my ears, I was hearing something a little different. After all, caring communities exist in other forms of Judaism. In particular, within Orthodox, the caring community just shows up when needed — no questions asked, and “no” is not an acceptable answer. So, just as the Rabbi related in her personal story, not only do we need to teach people that it is OK to ask for help, we need to go out and give help when it is needed, with no opportunity for refusal. If you look at the community building in the mega-church community, this is what is done, and this is the goal.

The other thing I did not hear was how we go about finding out that people need help. After all, you can’t get to the point where they can refuse the help if you don’t know they need help in the first  place. There needs to be a proactive relationship with the members of the congregation where we are reaching out and helping each other, and some mechanism where people needing help can be identified, even if they are too proud to ask for it themselves. This requires some sensitivity — it requires knowing people well enough to tell when something is off — to read between the lines.

RH Morning (Rabbi). This morning, the Rabbi did a whole talk about what Reform Judaism is, and why it isn’t ReformED Judaism. I agreed with him 100%, although I did wonder why he didn’t draw the distinction between Reform and Orthodox, and Reform and Christianity (perhaps the latter might have offended?). If you are not familiar with the difference: Orthodox believes that Torah is the literal word of God — and therefore it must be followed as written. Reform believes that it is Divinely Inspired, and must be reinterpreted in the context of the times. This is a critical distinction, and why you can have someone who is Orthopractic and Reform, and someone non-practicing who is Orthodox. As for Christianity, Christians just have a different conception of the nature of God and Messiah than Judaism. That doesn’t make it bad; it just makes it not-Jewish.

What I didn’t hear, however, was why we were getting this particular message? Are we seeing a movement of people out of Reform to non-denominational Judaism? To Orthodoxy? It didn’t answer the question of why it is important to be involved with the official denomination, especially as there is a growing number of congregations that are no longer affiliated with URJ.  Useful questions to ask, but unanswered.

One thing I did hear was an emphasis on how Reform Judaism was “authentic”. I believe this was an attempt to reach out to the GenXers. If you recall, in my last $mens_club post I indicated how GenX is believed to be searching for more authenticity. They could be jumping to Orthodoxy or other approaches believing them to be more authentic. This could have been an attempt to combat that flow.

RH Morning (Congregational President). This was a pretty good talk about how the congregation is a sacred community, and how it builds relationships. I was pleased to hear a number of key words that fit with what Ron Wolfson and Synagogue 3000 folks are doing. However, there were two things that caught my ear for not being present.

First, both on RH Morning and the previous evening, the congregational board speakers emphasized how their relationships came out of the bonds from Religious School. The school brought them in, and they built relationships from there. That works for many. But it doesn’t reach out to the underserved communities — the empty nesters, the intentionally childless, the singles? For those not growing up in the religious school, how do we build the relationships?  How do we reach out to those, and how is community created for those people? That’s a good question, and one that needs to be answered. [I believe that one answer is to build those relationships through various affinity auxiliaries. $mens_club and $sisterhood are a great starting point. I remember the days of Couples Clubs, and there can be other groups that build the relationships other than the schools. Of course, to do this, you need to know your members and their passions.]

The other thing I didn’t hear related to building those relationships. $Congregational_president encouraged people to join committees, to get involved, and to suggest programs and events. I heard that as being the wrong direction. To build the relationships, the congregation needs to take the action. Call members on a regular basis to see what is happening with them, and to see how they might get involved (this addresses the Erev RH call to find people that need help). It also shows the congregation as caring, and doesn’t depend on the people on the margins to take action. Telephone trees were important for a reason — they are a person to person outreach that overcomes inertia on the margins. Secondly, the emphasis on programming and events is the old model of limited liability — it emphasizes that the value (read dues-paying-value) of a congregation is measured by its programs, not the community it creates. Create the community, the programs will come from there. One other thing that wasn’t said: The congregation also needs to ensure that once these new people come to these programs / committees / events, they are welcomed without question. That hasn’t always happened in the past, and just as one must overcome margin inertia, there’s an equal (and opposite?) clique inertia, where people only want to deal with those they like and who don’t welcome and almost push away those not in their circles. Welcoming must be universal, and that takes training.

In any case, that’s what I heard over the last two days. If you attended services, what did you hear?

--- *** ---