Thursday, November 6, 2014

More on Jewish Social Capital: Lessening Fear, Opening Doors

I published this, and it got some pretty good feedback. Mostly, I think, the pain of not knowing what to do in a Jewish setting - and yet feeling totally, completely, Jewish - resonated with people. Then, Marissa commented on the piece, "...But how do we get this culture to pervade among the general community?" It's one thing, she was saying, to talk about this with her organization's board and staff. It's another thing to create a culture of openness, of accessibility, that welcomes those even in between organizations.

How, indeed. I don't know that I have the answer. But there is a lot to say about this.

Many years ago, I had the opportunity to study the reasons that women choose to celebrate their bat mitzvah as adults. Diane Troderman was one of the women whom I interviewed. Diane is a leading community philanthropist and activist in Western Massachusetts. Her foundation supports Jewish education extensively. She has been the chair of countless committees and organizations, often focusing on Jewish education and Jewish living. And, raised in a secular environment, for most of her life she had little connection to Hebrew, to prayer, or to synagogues. As a result, she explained, “I consider myself a leader in the Jewish community but I considered myself illiterate … I’d always gone up to the bimah – [but] I’m the curtain puller," not the Torah reader. She shared a story from her childhood: "One holiday afternoon, my sister and I went for a walk and passed the home for the elderly. We wandered in and went into services. We picked up books and a leader came over and turned my book right side up, then closed it and gave us the right book. We had picked up something else and needed what I now know is a mahzor. I knew nada! Nothing!” Perhaps more significantly, in addition to how little she knew, Diane emphasized how her ignorance felt. Synagogue ritual was a "secret society," filled with what seemed like "mumbo jumbo." It was alienating, despite the contributions she made in her philanthropic and organizational roles.

Sasha was one of my participants on a Taglit-Birthright Israel program. Born to two secular Russian émigrés, she was raised in a Manhattan Soviet environment that disdained religion and celebrated high literature and science. She grew interested in religion in college when she lived with an ardent Palestinian who accused Sasha of being part of a community of oppressors. Sasha went to Israel to understand more about the background that had been denied her but with which she was now being associated.

And she fell in love with her culture and her community. She began to understand the complexity, richness, and sadness of Jewish history. She began to relate to this tradition and to see it as hers.

On the Saturday morning of our Israel experience, Sasha and I went synagogue hopping in Jerusalem. I was eager to show her – and she was interested in seeing – the beauty and intensity of the various religious traditions of a Jerusalem Shabbat.

At her request, as we went from synagogue to synagogue, I translated directly much of the Hebrew that we saw and heard. “Know before whom you stand,” we read on so many arcs, over and over again. I watched Sasha turning these words around in her head. What do these words mean, she asked repeatedly – why is this written there, why is it so important, what is being commanded with these words, she wondered. I explained the phrase as one of awareness, love, respect, awe, and humility. She saw it as one of power and fear. She began to see the phrase as representative of a lifestyle she did not understand. She became overwhelmed by the intensity of the emotions of those in the congregations we visited, almost afraid of a tradition and a relationship that she could not grasp. Perhaps our synagogue visits were too much, too soon. Perhaps I translated too directly, without enough mediation. Perhaps we should not have visited these communities whose members seemed so sure, so confident in their beliefs and their relationship to their concept of God. Just recently unfamiliar with and uncomfortable with the very idea of religion, Sasha was not ready to connect herself to a tradition that had the potential for such power. Rather than being empowered and excited by these synagogue visits, she became intimidated and estranged. Her lack of literacy was not a challenge. Her lack of the understanding that can come with literacy, of the ability to empathize - that was a challenge.

One Shavuot, I participated in a tikkun, a study session, with a small group of people, one of whom, Amy, is a Jew by choice. Amy had learned the tradition that a Jew does not remind a convert of his non-Jewish past. Yet, as we read the book of Ruth, we noticed that Boaz deliberately reaches out to Ruth because she chose a new God, because she was in a strange country, because she was a convert and needed some hand holding. Thank goodness, Amy cried! In Boaz’s actions, Amy saw him creating space for Ruth to ask questions, to understand her new tradition, to learn the customs of this strange land. She had never understood, she explained, the Jewish tradition of not reminding the convert of his past. How else can a convert learn, she asked, but through such assertive and careful explanation and openness? Can't we create a culture of questions, of curiosity, of information?

We put up walls in so many ways. Our tradition is built, almost, on walls, on boundaries between us and them, on behaviors that bind into community. Literally, Jewish tradition was constructed this way: The "holy of holies," the innermost priests and sanctuary, sat together with the ark at the heart of the Temple. The heart of the religion was forbidden, inaccessible. Perhaps all traditions are; perhaps religion, by its nature, has the devout at its core, and so the very essence of the tradition is such closed intensity. Regardless, the walls are doing their job too well in 2014. Too many people who want in are kept out. So Marissa asks, how do we create a culture of openness, of knowledge, where building Jewish social capital is not so darn hard?

She asks this of all of us, because we are all gatekeepers of Jewish social networks. We all participate in making Jewish social capital a precious commodity we need to fight for rather than a plentiful richness in which we can all share. This knowledge is mine! we seem to cry, not, This knowledge is beautiful - come, take part. We casually use Hebrew, we joke about moments in shul (synagogue) that only regulars would understand, we forget to announce page numbers of prayers, we forget to explain the reasoning behind the ritual, we forget the value of such an explanation – and our Shabbat dinner guests, new to Shabbat, at our tables because they are friends of friends, the Hebrew of the benscher (prayerbook, related to meals) swimming in front of their eyes, see the beauty of our community, but believe it not to be theirs. Hamevin, yavin, the saying goes - or "if you understand, you understand:" So embedded is this in Jewish culture that there's actually a Hebrew saying that captures this idea that those who are in the know remain so. And so Diane feels confused by Hebrew she does not intellectually understand, Sasha feels intimidated by an environment she does not emotionally understand, Amy feels her questions to be silenced.

I don’t mean to suggest that we do this maliciously. Part of being actively Jewish, of course, is building a community, and we build a community through common language and unspoken customs. I once wondered why every prayer service wasn't some kind of learners' service, with continual explanation of the barrage of customs and rituals that compose particularly a Torah service. And then I began to participate in a traditional community, with rich davening (prayer) and a high level of literacy, and I saw how fluid the service can be when all are singing heartedly, with few interruptions. I got the power of a community of those in the know, into which someone else in the know can enter, immediately feel at home, and truly live the tradition in its fullest potency.

But when a Jew does not speak ‘torah,’ as many do not? Diane, Sasha, and Amy are not alone; countless North American Jews enter a Jewish environment and immediately feel confused, lost, disempowered. Building Jewish social capital, then, has to be about how we interact, each of us with each other. It has to be about the space that we create through our interactions. It has to be about recognizing that someone who seems inside the community can still feel outside of the community, recognizing that we put up stumbling blocks all the time, recognizing that the best way to welcome someone into Jewishness is to hold out our hands and make ourselves available to help.

As we teach and create Jewish space for learning and growth, what values about learning do we want to teach, to convey in our actions and our relationships with our students? How can each of our actions build a positive learning culture? How do we convey to a student new to Jewish learning and active Jewish living a sense of honor and empowerment because of their motivation rather than shame and embarrassment at what they do not know? How do we encourage and reward curiosity, rather than ostracize the unlearned?

We have to find a way to translate, to open communities, to celebrate our tradition thickly while we invite everyone in. The fluidity of a richly traditional prayer service is striking, but so is the excitement on someone's face when they can access that fluidity, when the prayer service is not opaque but inspiring because it suddenly makes sense, literally and emotionally. Can we be equally excited about these moments of clarity for those newer to Jewish tradition, recognizing them as part of our mission as modern Jews with the gift of literacy in a Jewishly illiterate society?

Can we take all of our students’ hands into ours and say not just baruchim habaim but also welcome as we teach, explain, and include?

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