We at JOI are always looking for new sources of vibrancy and innovation in communal Jewish life. In a recent article in The Jewish Daily Forward, Jay Michaelson explores his recent experiences creating and adapting Jewish rituals to fit his own needs and the needs of his loved ones. He argues that more laypeople should engage with Judaism in this way, and that the Jewish community does itself a disservice by relying on Jewish professionals to preside over Jewish life-cycle events.
This notion of “Do-it-Yourself Judaism,” and how the wider community can move toward it, is worth exploring. In the modern technological age, where anyone can publish a blog, or create a video, or teach hundreds of other people through the internet, the idea that an amateur can create something worthwhile is becoming ever more prevalent. However, many in the American Jewish community do not see Jewish ritual as something that they can “do themselves.” But, why not?
While Michaelson dismisses the objections that empowered Judaism “takes too much work,” this is a valid concern. The vast majority of American Jews do not have the tools to engage with Jewish tradition and ritual in the depth that he describes. And while he blames this on Jewish professionals that consistently play to “the lowest common denominator,” this is not necessarily accurate. As Michaelson says, there are many great Jewish learning opportunities, both online and in-person. The problem is that those on the periphery of Jewish life do not feel empowered to tap into the learning opportunities that already exist. These opportunities are designed with those in mind who are already deeply invested in the Jewish community, and those who are not deeply invested may feel that they are not welcome to participate.
How can “professional Jews” encourage the laypeople in their community not only to affiliate, but to become active participants and shapers of their own Jewish experiences? We at JOI address how this change can be made through our ten Principles of Big Tent Judaism. These principles lay out a vision of a Jewish future in which all who could benefit from Jewish knowledge will feel comfortable seeking it out. This is not a matter of “teaching to the lowest common denominator.” Rather, we encourage Jewish organizations to proactively create a welcoming environment in which people are met where they are (food stores, libraries), and are led deeper into the Jewish community. People will not engage with Judaism if they feel as though only those with prior knowledge are welcome to learn. We must, as a community, encourage the idea that anyone, regardless of their level of knowledge, is welcome.
Outreach and engagement work is often confused as “dumbing down” Judaism, but that’s not how we do our work or how we see others doing outreach; instead, it’s about building ramps up, into a deeper understanding of Jewish meaning. This requires empathy for those who need such ramps in, particularly adults who did not grow up Jewish or with a Jewish education. At the beginning of the article, Michaelson mentions his day-school education, meaning that from a very early age, he was empowered to engage with Jewish learning. What about those who have not yet been so educationally empowered? Is it dumbing down Judaism to let them know what page we’re on during a prayer service? To provide introductory classes, or more intensive learning like our Mothers Circle course that is specifically tailored for non-Jews? As an advocate for GLBT inclusion, Michaelson certainly understands what it means to be dis-empowered by the Jewish community (and society at large). That empathy should also be applied to those who have married/partnered into our community or are coming to Judaism as adults. Suggesting to newcomers that anything but the highest expressions of Jewish ritual dilutes Judaism isn’t how we’re going to reinvigorate our community. Helping newcomers get up to speed doesn’t negate programs that help Jews deepen their connection; if anything, it feeds such programs.
The Jewish community sometimes unconsciously erects barriers that can turn people away from what might be wonderful opportunities to learn more about Judaism. If we are to create a vision of Judaism that is truly “Do-it Yourself,” we must start by encouraging laypeople to think of Judaism as something they can and should do themselves.