Jewschool: USY Changes Expectations for Youth Leaders

Originally published on Jewschool.

USY, the youth group of the Conservative Movement, has long had policies demanding that kids in regional and international leadership positions follow particular standards. Three of these standards have always risen to the top of the list of those that are the most enforced and the most discussed: keep kosher, keep Shabbat, don’t date outside of the faith. These standards were adopted by youth leaders for youth leaders, although they were generally adopted by kids of a previous generation. This week, at USY’s International Convention, the board debated reframing the standards around both Shabbat observance and interfaith relationships. They voted to retain the Shabbat standard as is and reword the dating standard to encourage (rather than require) endogamous dating while also adding important language about teens treating those whom they date with respect. Although JTA reported this as USY dropping the ban on interdating, USY leadership asserted that is not the case.

As a former USY regional president (who didn’t really date at all in high school, due in no small part to my decision to stay in the closet thanks to a different set of Conservative Movement rules that made me sure a gay kid wouldn’t be welcome in USY leadership), I want to publicly applaud the current teen leaders of USY for taking this step. (I wish they had gone further and dismantled the entire concept of standards, but that’s a post for another day.)

Apparently, USY alumni have been up in arms about these proposals for weeks. I didn’t hear about them until after the JTA article came out, which caused another wave of USY has-beens freaking out. I don’t think my take on this is going to surprise any long-time Jewschool readers, but I’m going to lay it out anyway. Continue reading

Heeb Reviews That Gay Erotic Hanukkah Fiction You Were Probably Looking For

Originally published on Heeb.

Look, I’m a defender of the Chanukkah Bush, the Mench on the Bench, or any other stupid crap that makes our sorry little holidays feel a little more festive. (I mean, I actually think the Mench on the Bench / Elf on the Shelf is the creepiest surveillance state for kids bullshit ever, but you know what I mean.) But you know what exactly zero Jewish people put on their wish lists? Chanukkah-themed gay erotic fiction. And yet, it turns out that Loose Id, a California-based publisher of sexy eBooks, has been churning out exactly that for a number of years, boasting a collection of ten titles that are currently on sale for 18% off (get it?) now through Christmas.

To be perfectly fair to Loose Id, despite being a gay Jewish dude, I am not the target audience for these books, which were all written by women and seem to be intended for a female audience. So when I tell you that I read all or part of books by five different writers and didn’t so much as pop a boner (do people still say that in 2014?) once, take that in stride. For comparison, I have been known to feel my pants tighten at a well-shot car insurance commercial.

“But how do you know these stories aren’t intended for gay dudes?” I hear you ask. Continue reading

Keshet: Life After Love: Cher & Jewish Mourning Rituals

Originally published on Keshet’s blog on MyJewishLearning.com.

David & his parents, marching with Keshet at Boston Pride in 2009.In October 2013, when I bought my tickets to see Cher’s Dressed to Kill tour, which would be playing down the street from my house in the then-distant future of May 2014, my mother asked with mock hurt in her voice why I hadn’t invited her to see the show with me.

At the time, I thought it was a bit of a ridiculous request. Although my mother had taken me to my earliest concerts in my pre-teen days, I couldn’t really envision her enjoying a stadium show at age 67. I imagined the show would be unbearably loud for her, and over the last couple of years, her health had slipped, and she just seemed too frail for that kind of environment. Plus, what interest did my mom have in the electronic dance diva that Cher has become in the most recent evolution of her career?  Continue reading

InterfaithFamily: Review of The Choosing by Andrea Myers

Originally published on InterfaithFamily.

I am one of those people who grew up bombarded by messages from the mainstream Jewish community denouncing intermarriage as the worst plague affecting the Jewish people. Often, when whoever was railing on was feeling charitable, their rant would include a parenthetical reminder that converts were considered fully Jewish, so marrying a convert to Judaism wasn’t intermarriage.

Andrea Myers’s memoir, The Choosing: A Rabbi’s Journey from Silent Nights to High Holy Days, reminds us that there’s more than one way to create an interfaith family. Although Myers’s wife is Jewish, her own conversion to Judaism created many of the same dilemmas in her relationship to her parents and extended family that many interfaith couples confront. Her parents, themselves a mixed marriage of Catholic and Lutheran, are supportive and even eager to embrace their daughter’s new faith — at times with hilarious results. You mean the Jewish new year isn’t celebrated with midnight noisemakers? It’s not appropriate for a woman to thank an Orthodox Judaica seller for a discount with a big bear hug?  Continue reading

Don’t Tell Me I’m Next

On June 6, 2010, Hebrew College celebrated its 85th commencement. I graduated with two masters degrees: one in Jewish Studies, the other in Jewish education. I was incredibly honored to be one of two student speakers at the graduation ceremony. What follows is the speech I delivered at graduation.

My relationship to Hebrew College is somewhat different from many of my fellow graduates, although far from unique in the history of the school. I am a graduate of Prozdor, the high school of Hebrew College – class of 1995; I am now the associate director of Prozdor and the director of Makor, Hebrew College’s middle school collaboration with community congregations; and today I am graduating with both the Masters Degree in Jewish Studies and the Masters in Jewish Education. Hebrew College has been many things to me – the birthplace of many important friendships; a laboratory for testing out Jewish ideas; a supportive environment for professional growth; and most importantly a family.  It is particularly meaningful that my graduation is also a day honoring Dr. Stephen Simons, who was my first supervisor and cheerleader in the world of professional Judaism when I worked at Congregation Mishkan Tefila, as well as Margie Berkowitz, who was my teacher when I was a teenager, and before that my mother’s camp counselor at Camp Yavneh, but most importantly, a dear friend and beloved colleague and mentor. My first week on the job at the college, I attended the brit milah of Margie’s youngest grandchild; yesterday I celebrated with her family the bar mitzvah of one of her eldest; it’s fitting that my time at the college is book-ended by these smachot, these family celebrations, because when we refer to Prozdor as a family, we really mean it.

Earlier this year, when it became clear that I would, in fact, complete my degrees this June, people began asking me about what would come next. I’m sure many of my classmates fielded the same question. Now, I’ve been taking classes part-time for eight years towards these degrees, so to be honest, it hadn’t occurred to me that graduation might necessitate a next step.

In retrospect, this should have been obvious. The Jewish community is in a state of perpetual anticipation. Maybe this is a natural state for a people waiting for the messiah. I came of age in the era of “Jewish Continuity,” when federations around the country feared that the forces of assimilation were laying waste to Judaism at such a rate that Jews might not be around in a couple of generations if we didn’t take action. While researching my masters thesis, I learned that this was not a new communal stance, just a new label.  In my parents’ generation, the call to arms was “Jewish Survivalism.”  Today, we instead talk about strengthening Jewish identity. But whatever you call it, these phrases all tend to mask the same shared anxiety: will there be Jews left on earth after we’re gone. Continue reading

Jewschool.com: Augmenting Jewish Reality

Originally published on Jewschool.com as part of the 28 Days, 28 Ideas project.

28 Days, 28 Ideas Blog Partner Remember a year or two ago when GPS technology started being added to cell phone applications? Many of us scoffed at the idea of being trackable by Big Brother or God knows who else, imagining the worst case scenarios of a privacy-free world. Fast-forward to today, and we can’t imagine walking from the subway to a meeting at an unfamiliar location without whipping out our phone and asking Google Maps to guide us, and when the meeting is over, we ask Google Local to guide us to the closest bar with a happy hour.

Well, my friends, Augmented Reality is the next feature coming to your phones that you won’t be able to live without. At its most basic, AR technology allows you to point your phone’s camera lens at objects in the real world to conjure all sorts of information related to it on your screen. The Boston Globe had a great introduction to the technology published in September.

Here's what an Augmented Reality app might look like on your phone!AR technology has many potential applications in Jewish life. The most obvious to me fall in the categories of preservation of memory. Imagine walking through a Jewish cemetery and having instant access to biographical information, photographs, videos, family trees, and more, all available on your phone simply by focusing your camera on a particular headstone. Or envision a tour through the Lower East Side where every building unlocks an oral history from the people who grew up, lived, and worked there. Or think about all those portraits hanging on your synagogue’s walls — wouldn’t it be great to hear your beloved old cantor sing once more, simply by pointing your phone at the painting of him?

Now, I’m an educator, not an engineer. I don’t know how ready our current generations of phones are for this now, but if we’re not there yet, we will be there soon. The real hurdle I see is getting all this information compiled and ready to be accessed. What I propose — although Lord knows I’m not the one capable of making it happen — is a standardized, user-friendly platform developed for Jewish communal use. From the end-user’s point of view, the platform would need to be a free, easy-to-install (and easy-to-use) app available for all the major hand-held devices. From the perspective of Jewish institutions, the interface needs to be as simple as taking a picture of the object and then filling out a template with text, graphics, and videos, no more complex than the system Facebook employs for posting any of those things from the status update box. (I recognize there are probably some hurdles to clear in terms of making the AR app recognize objects more complex than two-dimensional pictures based on amateur photography, but let me dream for a moment.)

Of course, because I am an educator, I see great educational opportunities opening up with this software. Recording the oral histories, researching and writing up the narratives, compiling and editing appropriate graphics and photographs to augment our various realities could be excellent projects for Hebrew High school classes, organizational interns, adult volunteer groups, and others (not to mention trained historians). Because all these organizations would be working on the same platform, a Wikipedia-style collection of related information could be accessed from related objects half a world away. Perhaps a clever programmer could even aggregate existing information from existing sites like Wikipedia, MyJewishLearning, etc. For example, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC and Yad Vashem in Jerusalem could pool their resources — which could then also be linked to by a teenager in Nashville who’s adding AR tags to the Nashville Holocaust Memorial as part of his Eagle Scout project.

AR doesn’t only lend itself to history projects. Imagine a Tzedakkah Gallery in the lobby of your JCC, with exhibits highlighting the work of several great non-profits. Point your phone at the one your like best to load a screen that lets you make a donation. What about a game that encourages your Birthright Israel trip to put down their beers to follow a trail of hidden clues (visible only by pointing your phone at the sites hinted at in previous clues) through a historic neighborhood in Israel? On a more commercial level, wouldn’t it be great to preview the music and videos on sale at the Jewish Book Store by simply aiming your phone at them?

Like I said, I have no idea how to make this happen, but I’m sure one of our readers out there in Jewschool-land has the expertise to program this in one really long, Redbull-fueled evening. I’m not asking for anything, other than the opportunity to be one of the first to start tagging the Jewish sites around Boston and enriching the educational opportunities available to anyone with a phone in her pocket.

This post is part of the series 28 Days, 28 Ideas. Check out yesterday’s idea, The Plan B Institute for a Jewish Future over at 31 Days, 31 Ideas. And be sure to check out tomorrow’s idea at JTA’s Fundermentalist blog. 

Jewschool.com: My Flip Camera May Not, In Fact, Be God

Originally published on Jewschool.com.

Okay, I promise this is my final post about Everything Is God: A Jewish Spiritual Woodstock, the event held Sunday night at Harvard Hillel. Jewschool doesn’t often cosponsor real, live events up here in Beantown, so you’ll forgive me for being a little more excited than usual at getting to represent us out there “In Real Life” as the kids say.

Let me start by saying that as excited as I was to fly the Jewschool flag, I was somewhat suspicious of the event itself. I tend to sneer at the kind of spirituality that comes with chanting and meditating and crystals and beads and what-have-you, and that’s sort of what I expected to be bombarded with here. After all, I know that Jay Michaelson is prone to running off to Tibet for a month of silent contemplation, and Seth Castleman has built his career on bringing the Dharma and the Torah together. I know that Danya holds a torch for the kind of traditional Jewish spirituality that I both crave and mock, although from reading her memoir I know that she’s adopted the lotus position herself on more than one occasion.

So let me be the first to say that the event was not that at all. Sure, Danya and Jay disagreed on whether aromatherapy bath crystals can really be considered spiritual tools, but the discussion was much more focused on the interplay between “religion” (i.e. the structures & strictures, rituals and communities of organized faith) and “spirituality” (what Danya calls the moments of feeling groovy). (Incidentally, if you were hoping for more of an exploration of how your boogers embody God, Jay is holding a series of conference calls for folks to come together in exploration of the non-dual Judaism he espouses in his book.)

Continue reading