For anyone who wasn’t able to attend, the Jewish Exponent has a couple of articles this week highlighting both the people and the discussions that took place last week at JOI’s North American conference in Philadelphia.
One article was a summary, looking at the conference as a whole. The Exponent explained that communities today are working harder than ever before to “extend a hand to groups that have historically felt unwelcome in the Jewish community, such as gays and lesbians, as well as multiracial Jews.” And it was at our conference that people from San Francisco to Montreal were able to share experiences and discuss what has worked for them in terms of lowering barriers and reaching those on the periphery.
The other article focused more on one event – a Town Hall meeting with Rabbi Irwin Kula, director of CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. This was prompted by a post he made to our Jewish Outreach Professional Log-In Network (JOPLIN) listserve, where he criticized the use of terms like “affiliated” and “intermarried.” His comments “sparked a spirited virtual debate,” and we wanted to continue the conversation in person. During the discussion he spoke about his belief that there is no one correct way to be a Jew, and when we use terms like “intermarried,” we are creating “artificial barriers that don’t exist.” Instead, we should imagine “there are no boundaries.”
He also explained his notion that we don’t need to use ritual and affiliation as a way to “gauge Jewish connectedness.” The Exponent summed it up this way:
The crux of his argument was that Judaism, rather than functioning as a set of beliefs that binds a tribal people together, happens to be one of a number of practices available in the contemporary marketplace of ideas — a “technology,” he called it — that, if used effectively, can “help any human being become more human…”
For example, if a mezuzah is only about connecting an individual to the Jewish people, “it’s fundamentally not important,” he said. It only becomes important, in his view, if it suggests a sacred space where one behaves accordingly.
Rabbi Kula’s ideas worked for some but also found a degree of skepticism from others. But that’s the point – and really the point of the entire conference. We wanted to bring people together to help engage in broader conversations about the future of the Jewish community. What works, what can we do better? How can we re-think and revise what we have been doing in order to reach more people?
The Jewish community is too fluid to come up with definitive answers for these questions. That’s why we need to continue to innovate, continue to find new and exciting ways to open our doors, expand our big tent and let people know that they are welcome in the Jewish community.