State of Mourning

For many millennial DC Jews, an intersection of three extremely liberal subsets of the population (and around 95% of whom most likely voted for Hillary Clinton), now may feel like a time for shiva. Today we mourn the loss of the America we thought we lived in, the loss of the misplaced optimism that we had, and the loss of feeling safe and secure about our present and our future.

Many of us are too broken, too hurt, too angry to do anything but weep, and the wisdom of shiva is that we need to make space for that. But the deeper wisdom of shiva is that we then must leave our home and re-enter the world. We must confront this new reality, if not today, then soon. We cannot fall back on escapism.

The Jewish response to brokenness is twofold – to learn and to hope. Religion will not solve our problems, but it can provide a space for us to come together, reflect and, when the time is right, move forward.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog and on this website are solely those of the original authors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the organization Gather the Jews, the Gather the Jews staff, the Gather the Jews board, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

Our Religion is Political

Just days before the most contentious presidential election in our lifetime, it would be unwise for a DC rabbi like me to rant about anything political. I’d risk alienating people. I’d risk my organization’s tax-exempt status. And let’s be honest – the last thing anyone cares about is a rabbi’s thoughts on this election.

In America, politics and religion are separate and should stay that way. After all, that’s a foundational principle of our government.

But it’s not a foundational principle of the Jewish religion.

A central objective of the entire Torah is establishing a just government. Our religious scholars have written countless commentaries analyzing and developing Judaism’s political ideas and ideals. Granted, most of these texts were written when Jews had little political power and were not written about America. But would anyone really think our religious tradition of over 3,000 years has nothing to say about this current election?

Even regarding our government, the “separation of church and state” is often misunderstood. This separation means that America has no established religion. As a religious minority group in America, we should be deeply grateful for the religious freedom that we enjoy in this country – a freedom that we have so rarely experienced throughout our long history (see Passover, Purim, Channukah, the Crusades, etc.).

But this separation does not mean that church and state have no connection to each other, and this myth misrepresents the purview of both politics and religion. Both, at their core, are about values, morality, and visions for an ideal society. This shared essence is exactly why our government, at its founding, was profoundly influenced by Judaism. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes, “the United States is the only country today whose political discourse is framed by the idea of covenant.” To divorce politics or religion from conversations about values, to pretend our politics aren’t a reflection of our morality, to restrict religion to “praying to God,” ignores this intersection and makes religion sterile.

Of course your rabbi shouldn’t tell you who to vote for.

Of course America should not enforce any particular religious practice or ideology.

Of course it’s scary to think about religion having real implications in the real world.

But shouldn’t it? If religion has no effect in the world, then what’s the point?

Everything that is consequential is, in one way or another, “political.” If our religion has nothing to say about “politics,” we render religion inconsequential. When I hear rabbis say “I don’t like to talk about politics,” what I hear is: “I’m too afraid of alienating people to talk about anything meaningful.”

I won’t tell you how to vote. But I will tell you how to be religious. Or more precisely, how not to be religious. If your Judaism is only about singing songs in synagogue, about feeling proud, about getting together with friends and family… and yet has nothing to say about the world you live in or how to live in it, then you certainly aren’t fully realizing what it means to be a religious Jew.

So go vote. It’s not only what responsible citizens should do. It’s also what religious Jews should do.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog and on this website are solely those of the original authors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the organization Gather the Jews, the Gather the Jews staff, the Gather the Jews board, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

Walk of Shame – Jewish Identity the Morning After

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Besides being Halloween, this Monday night is also the beginning of the new Jewish month of Cheshvan, known as Mar Cheshvan (“bitter Cheshvan”) because of its lack of holidays. What an ironic juxtaposition of holidays – one is associated with sweet candy, the other is associated with bitterness. I for one will be honoring both by handing trick-or-treaters fresh cuts of bitter herb.

For many of us, our Jewish identity centers on the holidays. So before we hibernate from being Jewish like little Jew bears (Jew Bear-ymore… possible Halloween costume?), emerging two months later for the next Jewish holiday of Channukah, I’d like to challenge this holiday-based connection that many of us have.

To be clear, I love Jewish holidays. They help us mark the passage of time in our own lives, they push us to reflect on certain ideas and values, and they bind us to our people’s history. Even for those who don’t believe in the history or connect to the message, Jewish holidays are still great opportunities to gather with friends and family.

f40de42d-8045-43bd-ace6-22f8258191feBut that can be hard to do when all of these holidays are not in sync with the American calendar. (The Jewish calendar is both lunar and solar, which is why Jewish holidays fall on different dates in the Gregorian calendar each year.) If you’re from outside the DMV area, it’s much easier to travel to family on American holidays like July 4th, Thanksgiving and Christmas than it is to take off a random day or two in the middle of the week for Rosh Hashana or Passover. And without a group of friends who live nearby and are also interested in celebrating, the holidays could be isolating and lonely.

The issue with connecting to our Judaism only on holidays goes beyond the practical challenges. It also limits Judaism to certain days during the year, allowing us to compartmentalize it in our life – to put it in a box like our menorah and seder plate, to be taken out only a few times a year. Holidays alone are not enough to build community, maintain a spiritual connection or sustain personal growth; they are infrequent and meant as a supplement to Jewish life. Tapping into Judaism only around the holidays also limits Judaism to certain historical/agricultural events and the particular values and ideas associated with them. There is no Jewish holiday for charity, sex, or gratitude… yet our tradition is far from silent on these topics.

In Judaism we welcome each major holiday with a blessing over wine (except, of course, on Yom Kippur). There’s an interesting debate in the Talmud about what to sanctify first – the wine itself, or the special day. Hillel the Elder says we bless the wine first because it is more common. To me, this answer reveals something deep about being Jewish. Yes, holidays are great, but they are by nature a break from our routine. Judaism is, at its core, meant to be lived in the day-to-day, guiding us through and occasionally elevating the mundane. Perhaps Mar Cheshvan, with no holidays in sight, is the perfect opportunity to think about what that could look like. What Jewish value, idea or practice informs, or could inform, your daily life?

The views and opinions expressed in this blog and on this website are solely those of the original authors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the organization Gather the Jews, the Gather the Jews staff, the Gather the Jews board, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

Community Gone Missing

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The line I hear most when getting coffee with Jewish 20s and 30s around the city is: “I want to get more involved in the Jewish community.”

Let’s set aside, for now, the disquieting reality that “the Jewish community” doesn’t exist. Our organization’s name, Gather the Jews, might fuel this misconception by implying that there is a central place where ALL the Jews gather – spoiler alert: there isn’t. (If you’re interested in reading more about a variety of issues related to “the Jewish community,” check out the most recent issue of Sh’ma Now, for which I wrote the introductory essay.) And let’s also shelve the questions of what “getting involved” in a Jewish community looks like and why that is so important to Jews.

Before we can have those important conversations, we first need to address a more basic issue that is not unique to being Jewish: We have lost the concept of community. So what is a community? I’ve heard the word used to describe people at a concert, a yoga class, a local coffee shop, and fellow commuters on the Metro. When it is used to describe any gathering of people, it loses its meaning and we lose the aspiration to belong to one.

Parker Palmer, the Quaker elder and activist, recently shared: “I went to Washington, D.C. and became a community organizer working on issues of racial justice. Five years later, I realized that I was trying to lead people towards something that I had never really experienced for myself, namely community.”

What components are critical to help create an authentic community? I’m curious to hear others’ thoughts, but here are four criteria of mine:

1) A community is more than a feeling – you need to actually communicate with each other, learn about each other holistically, and know what is going on in each others’ lives. That you recognize the same 15 people at your spin class each week is not enough.

2) A community is not limited to a particular time. Of course communities can dissolve, but they don’t form instantly and shouldn’t have a pre-set expiration date. Something that happens once or twice – like High Holiday services – constitutes only an isolated experience or program and is not the basis for an ongoing community.

3) A community is also not limited to a particular place. There needs to be a way for people within the community to encounter each other regularly, and a particular location can help facilitate that. But a community cannot be defined by any one place. Sorry, Birthright bus, but if you don’t stay connected after returning to the States, then that community has ceased to exist.

4) A community is more than a group of friends – it brings people together for a larger purpose. That purpose can be artistic, political, or intellectual (to name a few) but it must be more than social.

Few of us, if any, have experienced a community that meets all of these criteria. These types of communities are hard to find and difficult to build. But our tendency to put the label community on any gathering of people might reflect a desire to belong to something deeper. And acknowledging this need might provide us with the motivation to start exploring ways to fulfill it.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog and on this website are solely those of the original authors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the organization Gather the Jews, the Gather the Jews staff, the Gather the Jews board, and/or any/all contributors to this site.