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

Livejournal: Telling Old Stories Anew

Originally published on my long-defunct Livejournal.

One of the most formative influences on my Jewish identity is, for good and for ill, the years I spent (and continue to spend) involved with USY. In the New England Region, we have a tradition that whenever the region spends Shabbat together, the regional president tells a Jewish story before mincha. Through my years as a USYer, I heard dozens of Jewish folktales. (I have since learned that some of these stories even have authors, and original versions! But at the time, I never connected their tellings and retellings to Peretz and Singer and the rest. Thank goodness for graduate school. But I digress.) As regional president, it fell to me to tell the stories, so I devoured collections of Yiddish tales and Chasidic tales and listened carefully when rabbis and friends told stories that I might adapt. In the years since, there have been many opportunities for me to hear successive generations of USY presidents tell stories, and on more than one occasion the current president has asked me to tell him or her a story in case I might have one that’s usable.

One story that seemed to continually resurface in USY went something like this:

There was a town that had a group of holy men, and every year they would go out to the secret, appointed place with their secret, special implements to perform their secret, specific ceremony involving the secret, precise way to light a fire and the changing of a secret and beautiful prayer, and God was happy. As generations passed, the group of holy men dwindled until there was only one holy man left who knew the location of the secret place, the way to make the secret implements, the order of the secret ceremony, the procedure for lighting the secret fire, and the words to the secret prayer. But he faithfully enacted the ceremony every year and God was happy. When he passed away it fell to his son, who could not find the secret place, so he took the implements to a new place where performed the secret ceremony, lit the secret fire and chanted the secret poem. And God was happy. When he passed away, his son no longer knew how to make the implements, so… you get the idea. Until we come to today, where there’s no one left who even knows whether God is happy or not.

The story is a very effective precautionary tale against assimilation, reinforcing the importance of teaching our traditions to successive generations. But today, the story seems all wrong to me. There’s a piece missing. If a generation has lost their way to a holy place, perhaps the holiness of that place did not resonate with them. But instead telling the story that they compromised by doing their ceremony any place, shouldn’t we celebrate their ingenuity at finding a new place that holds meaning for them? And instead of despairing that a later generation forgot the poem or the melody or the fire, why not celebrate that generation’s yearning to approach God with their own words, with new music, with a different, personal ritual?

In my story, that’s exactly what happens. And next time I have the opportunity to share a Jewish story, I know exactly what story I’m going to tell.