Jewschool: On Exile and Peoplehood

Originally published on Jewschool.com

Two and a half months ago, I moved from Boston to New York.

I had lived in Boston for 33 of my 35 years, but I had always wanted to live in New York, and the time was right. When speaking with friends after the move, the refrain was the same. “I don’t miss it. I was ready to go.” I’ve missed my friends but not my city.

And then bombs went off at the Boston marathon.

It’s hard to overstate the role of the marathon in the life of the city. The state takes a holiday. (The entire state, not just the city, as Boston does on St. Patrick’s Evacuation Day.) People flood into the city from around the world. And rather than run the other way, as Bostonians tend to do when confronted with tourists, instead we line the entire route of the marathon so we can cheer: for our friends, for our visitors, and for our city.

I work in a relatively small office, and three of us have moved to NY from Boston in the last three years. So when one of the others interrupted a meeting I was having to say, “Have you heard about Boston?” I had no expectation that those words would bring bad news.

Nothing is worse than being the direct victim of violence. But being far away from those you love, not knowing what’s going on, and seeing only a stream of “I’m okay!” and “here’s what we think is happening” and especially “here are the ways we can all help” flood my Twitter and Facebook feeds does a number on you.

Last night, I was looking at Twitter on my way home and saw a friend in Boston had shared a picture from Brooklyn of BAM lit up with messages of support for Boston. In a moment of synchronicity, I happened to be getting out of a cab in front of BAM at that moment, so I walked around the building to see the display for myself. There was a small crowd of people taking pictures and offering comfort to each other.

A blogger with some handheld video device approached me and asked if I would be interviewed on camera. I figure bloggers should help each other out, so I agreed. He asked how I was feeling on that day, and I shared that I was a recent Boston transplant so the day was difficult, but thank God as far as I knew everyone in my life was safe. He then started down the path of comparing what happened to daily life in Syria. I cut him off and said something about how I knew that today alone in Iran the fatalities outnumbered anything in Boston, and that people all over the world were suffering, and it was important for us to remember that too. And then I got myself out of the conversation because I didn’t want to become a pawn in some kind of project of comparative suffering.

Over the course of the last two months, I’ve been participating in the Shalom Hartman Institute’s iEngage program, which offers a text-based approach to discussing the State of Israel through the perspective of Jewish values. (I now work for the Institute, so in this course, I am both participating and learning about one of our own programs.) Rather than dealing with fact sheets or calls to activism, iEngage challenges us to grapple with ideas like “what are the Jewish values around power and powerlessness,” and “what does a Jewish conception of democracy look like,” and “what exactly is Jewish peoplehood?” We study texts ancient and modern, guided by the Institute’s scholars and in chevruta with our colleagues.

The particular cohort for my iEngage group is Jewish social justice professionals, with a mix of folks from the lefty spectrum, including staff members from New Israel Fund, T’ruah, Keshet, Jewish Community Relations Councils, etc. In our discussions of Jewish peoplehood, some of the participants bristled at the concept, feeling like it was ancient chauvinism morphed into some kind of Zionist guilt-trip. For me, a sense of Jewish peoplehood has always been more about a deep-felt connection to people around the world and throughout history, most of whom I’ve never met and many of whom I’m sure I wouldn’t like very much if I did. The idea that we look out for our own first (but not only) and worry about those with whom we share a connection more than those from whom we are disconnected has never felt chauvinistic to me. It feels human.

And until yesterday, I never realized how much I feel that same connection to the people of my home town. And when the (certainly well-intentioned but misguided) blogger outside of BAM implied that my concern for my fellow Bostonians was somehow misplaced in light of suffering in the rest of the world, it came together for me, and I got angry. I am capable of complex thought and multilayered emotion. I can grieve for Boston without belittling Syria, Iran, or anywhere else in the world where people suffer. I can be a member of the Jewish people while also being a citizen of the world. I can be a New Yorker and be a Bostonian. And how dare anyone imply otherwise.

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The Jewish Advocate: New Brighton Rabbi Aims for Inclusiveness

Originally published in The Jewish Advocate.

BRIGHTON – At first glance, Azriel Blumberg could easily be mistaken for a visiting yeshiva student. Yet in reality, this youthful man is the new rabbi of Congregation Kadimah Toras-Moshe, Brighton’s oldest Orthodox congregation.

This New York transplant takes on the leadership of the congregation from retiring Rabbi Abraham Halbfinger, who served the community for 39 years. Kadimah Toras-Moshe is Blumberg’s second pulpit, following Young Israel in Eltingville, N.Y., on Staten Island.

He arrived last week with his wife Michal, a social worker, and his four children, ranging in ages from nine months to 5-1/2. On Monday, he welcomed The Jewish Advocate into his synagogue to share his enthusiastic vision for the future.

“I want to build a sense of energy, vitality and focus,” he said. “I’m very impressed by the precedents set by Rabbi Halbfinger. He set up a shul where he never made himself into the be-all/end-all of the community. He encouraged the participation of all.” Blumberg noted that the synagogue’s motto, coined by Halbfinger, is “all are welcome.” He aims to intensify the message into “all are important.”

“Each person is counted on to be a vital part of decision-making and vision: practical aspects of the day-to-day as well as long-term goals,” he said. “One of the best compliments I know is to say, ‘We need you.'”

The goals Blumberg has set out for himself and his community are broad. He looks to enlarge the community’s reputation as an Orthodox synagogue where all Jews can feel comfortable, regardless of their individual level of observance. He also looks to further strengthen the congregation’s relationship with other Jewish institutions in the community.

But it is clear that Blumberg’s most important goal, the one he keeps returning to, is deepening his members’ investment in their own community at Kadimah Toras-Moshe. “There is no typical demographic of who belongs here – from the very educated to the not very educated, people who speak only English, or only Yiddish, or only Russian, people who would identify as right wing, as left wing,” he said. “The great thing about the shul is it doesn’t matter. We’re all here for the same goal: to get closer to God.”

Blumberg has launched himself into this endeavor at full speed. Barely a week since his arrival, Blumberg is opening his home to the congregation’s teenagers to foster the establishment of a teen program. He acknowledges the existence of a strong children’s program, and in the same breath he talks about formalizing and enlarging it.

Far from ignoring the needs of his adult constituency, Blumberg speaks enthusiastically about offering spiritual learning programs along with enjoyable community-oriented events. “People will feel this is not just a place to come and daven, but a nucleus of the Jewish community,” he said. “We want to be involved in all aspects of their lives.”

Looking at the task ahead of him, Blumberg sees both challenges and opportunities. But at the center of it all, he sees the individuals that make up his congregation. Summing it up, he said, “As we go forward, I’m going to make sure we take everybody along with us.”

The Jewish Advocate: Religious schools resurging as they launch initiatives, professionalize staff

Originally published in The Jewish Advocate.

BOSTON – Religious schools, once feared to be in decline in the face of the growth of the Jewish day school movement, are enjoying a resurgence through innovations in structure and initiatives intended to raise the level of teaching.

“It’s not by accident that the overwhelming majority of Jews around the world select a form of Jewish education related most directly to synagogues,” said Daniel Margolis, executive director of the Bureau of Jewish Education in Newton. “People are looking for places that provide them with a total context, a link among all of the avenues that a congregation provides to its membership, all wrapped up in one place.”

But the built-in constituency of being part of a “package deal” within a congregation does not mean religious schools are merely getting by. Today’s schools are centers of both learning and fun, with more innovation than parents might expect. A glance at the educational offerings at Jewish institutions in Greater Boston makes one fact clear: Hebrew schools have moved well beyond where they used to be and are exhibiting far more diversity than ever before.

The religious school at Congregation Mishkan Tefila of Chestnut Hill made a difficult decision three years ago, changing its long-held schedule of three days a week to a two-day schedule to better fit in with the busy lives of today’s children. Education Director Stephen R. Simons said he wanted to ensure that the content and quality of the instruction would not be diminished.

“Students still attend five and a half hours of academic learning,” he told The Jewish Advocate. He noted that they had six hours of instruction in the past, but it was often diluted with assemblies and other programs. Now, those programs are part of a burgeoning “Yom Hug,” or “club day,” an option available twice a month on Thursdays. Students choose from a range of activities, including Jewish arts, choir, klezmer band, student newspaper and even Jewish cooking.

At Temple Israel in Sharon, Evelyn Briar has seen a different trend, with her 10-hour-a-week intensive program expanding. “The numbers seem to be increasing in terms of the number of kids willing to make the kind of commitment the intensive program requires,” she said. “Our incoming fifth-grade intensive class will have 18 kids – over a third of the class!”

Briar sees benefits to the intensive program beyond the additional instruction. “Because the kids are together for ten hours a week, it creates a chevra, a sense of community,” she said. She also noted that her students in the intensive program continue their Jewish education in both formal and informal ways into high school and beyond in much higher percentages than other students do.

It is exactly that desire for continuation that led to a surprising move at Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, where the congregation has moved its sixth and seventh grades into its high school Havayah (“experience”) program.

“We really wanted our b’nai mitzvah students to see sixth and seventh grade, and the whole b’nai mitzvah process, as the beginning of their education,” said Rachel Happel, Havayah director. “Last year, we moved our seventh grade into the Havayah program, with their own separate track. We had almost a 75 percent retention rate for this year from that group.”

One major source of so much innovation across schools in this region is the increasing professionalization of the schools’ faculties. Many school directors hold advanced degrees in education or Jewish studies, and more are seeking out teachers who hold certifications in teaching. However, most schools do not rest on their laurels once their teachers are hired.

“We’re seeing much more training of teachers inside the schools, making these schools a serious place to work,” noted Marion Gribetz, director of institutional and professional development at the Bureau of Jewish Education.

Kesher, a unique, independent Jewish educational after-school program with branches in Cambridge and Newton, is at the forefront of professional development for its teachers. Prior to the start of the school year, the schools this week held an eight-day staff orientation. The Jewish Advocate visited this year’s training at the midway point, joining a session led by Allison Cook, Kesher’s head of teacher development.

“Everyone is capable of developing as a teacher, and it’s an expectation for the sake of the students that we do,” said Cook. She also made clear to her teachers that professional development is distinct from curricular work, with professional development focusing on the teachers’ abilities and career growth.

Cook is a regular member of the Kesher staff, visiting classrooms year-round to observe the teaching. She has a dual responsibility of looking for emerging issues across classrooms, as well as analyzing individual teachers’ needs. “It’s more formative than evaluative,” she told the teachers. “I want to support you and help you become better teachers in an ongoing way.”

While other schools may not have a staff member devoted to professional development, many spend considerable time on “in-service learning,” paid working days set aside for professional development. At Congregation Kehillath Israel in Brookline, teachers will participate in seven in-service days throughout the year, all focused on one overarching theme. Jennifer Rudin-Sable, director of congregational learning at Kehillath Israel, has committed funds to send her staff to professional conferences as well.

“Our staff has worked all summer, meeting regularly for five weeks, mapping our curriculum for the entire year and lesson-planning as a team,” said Rudin-Sable. “That’s key. People can bounce ideas off of one another and work together to really create meaningful experiences in the classroom.”

The Jewish Advocate: Guide to Jewish Boston

Each year, The Jewish Advocate publishes a directory of Jewish organizations, institutions, businesses, and services to be distributed as a supplement to the paper, hoping to entice those new to the city to subscribe. While most of the content doesn’t change much from year to year, there was an effort to keep the guide fresh by publishing new introductory essays to the various sections each year. This was my contribution to the 2005 guide. I believe it ran as the general introduction to the guide as a whole. In retrospect, it feels like a little bit of foreshadowing to the role I’d take on half a decade later at JewishBoston.com.

Welcome to Boston. If you’ve made it far enough to be holding a copy of this guide in your hands, you’re already off to a great start. Inside, you’ll find listings of all sorts of businesses, organizations, and institutions that will enrich your time here in the Bay State. And, just in case addresses and phone numbers aren’t your thing, we’ve included a handful of helpful essays to point you in the right direction and tell you a little bit about our home.

The first thing to understand about Boston is our rather unique approach to geography. While Boston is itself a city with clearly defined borders, to locals, “Boston” can describe anywhere from Providence, RI to Worcester, MA. When a college student tells you they “go to school in Boston,” they’re as likely to be speaking euphemistically about Harvard or MIT (both in Cambridge) as they are to be actually talking about Boston College (in Chestnut Hill – technically not Boston) or Boston University (in Allston, which technically, is Boston.) Each area of Boston – and of “Boston” – has its own unique character and something different to offer.  Continue reading

The Jewish Advocate: Jewish vote seen as vital to ‘diversity’ of Boston politics

Originally published in The Jewish Advocate.

BOSTON – There was a time when the words “Jewish vote” in Boston conjured up a picture of residents of the city’s Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan neighborhoods, predominantly immigrants and their young, often large families, actively participating in their tightly knit Jewish community and, beyond its borders, in the wider secular world.

In multi-ethnic Boston of the mid-20th century, involvement by Jews in politics often took the form of successful runs for office and recognition by candidates of all religions of the importance of the Jewish vote.

The storied G&G Delicatessen on Blue Hill Avenue in Dorchester became a must-visit stop for political candidates on election eve. It stands at the intersection of the avenue with Ansell Road, named for well-known politico Julius Ansell.

But as the Jews of those Boston neighborhoods began their flight to the suburbs in the 1940s and 1950s, the landscape that was Jewish Boston changed. A half-century later, with the city approaching an electoral season this fall, candidates, rarely Jewish now, approach “the Jewish vote” far differently.  Continue reading

The Jewish Advocate: Community, egalitarianism making for new minyanim

Originally published in The Jewish Advocate.

CAMBRIDGE – From the Washington Square Minyan in Brookline to the Cambridge Minyan across the Charles River, young leaders are gathering their friends in apartments, social halls, and even leased synagogue chapels to create communities they are not finding in existing Jewish institutions.  There may be rabbis present, but not necessarily as leaders.

These are the new generation of lay-led congregations. While such groups come and go on a regular basis, particularly in a student-filled area like Boston and its surrounding communities, many of the groups in this latest generation of minyanim are planting roots to ensure long-term stability.

Minyan organizers cite two main attractions for their members: a particular approach to services and a community atmosphere.  Yehuda Kurtzer, of the Washington Square minyan, sees these aspects as intertwined.  His minyan, he said, strives to “create a positive social atmosphere with davening, not to obscure core values [of quality davening], but to complement that.”

Continue reading