Because Some People Like Dancing

I’m reading the short excerpt from Elie Kaunfer’s book Empowered Judaism in the New York Jewish Week of April 9. The excerpt begins with this:

The false crisis — declining Jewish continuity, caused by assimilation and an intermarriage rate of 52 percent — has become the rallying cry of institutional Judaism. But fundamentally, it is a red herring. The real crisis is one of meaning and engagement. For the first time in centuries, two Jews can marry each other and have Jewish children without any connection to Jewish heritage, wisdom or tradition.

My first reaction to Kaunfer’s argument that the key is peer engagement and intellectually rigorous study is “Right on!” After all, that’s been my life in the Jewish world. Though I did train as a Jewish academic, my main Jewish experiences have been informal study in a havurah and in people’s homes in Boston, Jerusalem and Cleveland.

But then I realize that Kaunfer isn’t speaking for all Jews. When he says “Even people who are in-married by and large have little connection to Torah, Jewish practice and values,” I think that “even” is  too much of a concession to the (strictly biological) continuity fallacy. I’ve seen in this work how many intermarried Jews and their partners become more engaged with Jewish life because they have to do something different in order to raise Jewish children. (Not that there’s only one experience of interfaith marriage, of course.)  I agree that who we marry isn’t the sole determinant of what we have to pass down as Jewish religion and culture to our children–it’s only one piece. That “even” sticks out, a little pebble in my shoe.

Further, though, for all of us who love a good group of people sitting around with texts and dictionaries arguing over what some words mean, there are people who aren’t so interested in words. They want to bake bread, or dance, or do something with their hands. They like to sing or they like the gossip in the hallway or the kitchen of the synagogue. (Well, who doesn’t? That’s where you find out everything important.) I remember when my havurah did a lot of “movement midrash,” dance interpretations of the Torah portion. I found it uncomfortable and felt silly trying to do it, but it drew in some people who became very committed Jews–because they liked to dance.

In essence, I agree with Kaunfer–we shouldn’t dumb down Judaism, we need more empowered Jewish education and the best way to make sure that we have a very stimulating Jewish life is to take it into our own hands. I like Kaunfer’s model of the do-in-yourself, small, modular minyan; that’s how I’ve chosen to live. I’m just not ready to believe that everyone in the Jewish community has the same background, needs, learning style or tastes as I do.

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5 thoughts on “Because Some People Like Dancing

  1. I was very inspired by Rabbi Elie Kaunfer when I heard him speak right at the shul near my house last year. I haven’t read his new book yet, but it’s on my Amazon “wish list”. I love his approach to Judaism, probably because like for Ruth it is similar to the style of Judaism that I have been a part of.  In fact, Kehillat Hadar, the independent minyan he founded is so much like my own lay-led minyan that a few of the young adult “children” of my minyan who have gone off to NYC have joined that minyan (one was even a gabbai) and some of these young people have studied in Mechon Hadar summer and spring learning sessions.

    However, I think that Rabbi Kaunfer does not realize that he is excluding people from consideration simply because they are somewhat outside his experience.  For example, he would not count my minyan as an “independent minyan” even though it fits his definition in every way except one: it is older than 10 years old. It is actually 30 years old; the founding members were simply ahead of their time. The founding group of my minyan were similar to Rabbi Kaunfer and his group: many of them were 20-something JTS rabbis and Jewish educators. And although they mostly had Conservative educational and professional affiliations, they were very traditional in observance so that they were previously members of a Modern Orthodox shul, but they left to form their own minyan because they wanted more egalitarianism. It seems like simple ageism to say that my minyan is not one of the “independent minyanim”. It’s a shame that groups like mine seem to be off Rabbi Kaunfer’s radar because we might indicate some of the possible ways in which the new independent minyanim can grow up and adapt to the needs of its members as the minyanim age. The fact that we are part of a cooperative non-Orthodox Jewish burial society is a function of the fact that we now have more need for that than groups with mostly younger members.

    And I also don’t think Rabbi Kaunfer knows much about Jewishly engaged intermarried people. But he has probably met more of them than he realizes—like me (although I had actually converted a few weeks before I met him). One reason is that Jewishly active non-Jews (seems like an oxymoron, but it’s not) and intermarried Jews don’t necessarily look or act very different from in-married Jews.  That’s why even though I never tried to hide that I wasn’t Jewish from our Jewish congregation, one of the active members of my minyan knew me for over a decade before being shocked by finding out that I wasn’t Jewish. When I spoke with Rabbi Kaunfer and had a brief email exchange, I’m sure he never suspected that I was a non-Jewish partner in an intermarriage for over 20 years. When I mentioned that my name was listed as a contributor to a songbook created and used at the Hillel of our same alma mater (although I’m a decade older than he is), I didn’t bother to mention that I hadn’t been Jewish when the book was printed because it wasn’t relevant. I mentioned that I hadn’t been active in the Hillel as a college student because I wasn’t Jewish at that time, but he probably assumed I converted before I got married. I think that if he knew the details of the involvement of my husband and myself not only with our two lay-led minyanim, but also in other Jewish activities (I was on the programming committee of Limmud Chicago 2010, for example), he would classify us as “engaged in Jewish life.” But if we first told him that we were technically “intermarried” for more than 20 years, he would have assumed that we were part of the group that were not “connected to Jewish heritage, wisdom, or tradition.” I’m not saying that most intermarried people are Jewishly engaged, but I think there are more such people than Rabbi Kaunfer and indeed many Jews realize. And there probably would be still more such people if they weren’t spurned or treated badly by Jews and Jewish congregations. I wish people could understand that you don’t have to like intermarriage in order to be welcoming of intermarried people.

    So I too was bothered by Rabbi Kaunfer’s implication that of course intermarried people would not be Jewishly engaged or would be less engaged than any in-married Jews. I have listened to a number of his Mechon Hadar podcasts and find it interesting that although he is a careful scholar when studying Jewish texts, and he often questions unsubstantiated assumptions in those contexts, he does not seem to question the above bias. But I guess that is one of the values of this IFF website: to raise awareness that there are positive Jewish outcomes in interfaith families.

  2. I think that many (most?) of the chavurot of the 60′s and 70′s had non-traditional aspects, like the “movement midrash” of your chavurah. So Rabbi Kaunfer may not realize that some lay-led minyanim from that era were more traditional like his own Kehillat Hadar. I have read excerpts and reviews of his book as well as listened to his podcast about it, and found that almost all the characteristics of the new independent minyanim, like putting the bima at floor level in the [i]middle[/i] of the congregation, not up at the front of the room like a stage, doing full traditional services and Torah readings, etc. describe my minyan. “Innovation” in my minyan means new tunes or singing Adon Olam to “Down in the Muddy Muddy” for parashah Noach, which is also typical of the i.m.’s  I just think that excluding a minyan from the category of i.m. based on the age of the minyan and higher average age of members indicates an attitude that discourages the new i.m. from becoming more multi-generational which affects their long-term viability and cuts them off from other segments of the Jewish population.

    I also applaud the growth of the new i.m.’s. For one thing it means that my minyan’s children have some hope of finding a congregation that feels like ‘home” even if they go to live somewhere else when they grow up and leave Chicago. And enabling Jews to connect with Judaism and deepen their religious and spiritual lives is all to the good.

    I wouldn’t expect that Mechon Hadar would be hostile to Intermarried people per se, but I do think that the language used in the example you cite and elsewhere does indicate that many of the key leaders of the independent minyanim movement haven’t quite gotten to the point where they have been able to totally shake off the old ideas about what intermarried people are like and how they would affect on Jewish communities if they are included. It’s great that Mechon Hadar has a page on the IFF’s Network—being open enough to make that connection is the first step towards changing attitudes and assumptions. I hope intermarried people and children of intermarried parents will get involved in Mechon Hadar (I have listened to dozens of their podcasts and I wish I was able to learn full-time there!). Not only would they benefit just like any other Jews, but the other participants in Mehon Hadar would benefit by meeting people with intermarried backgrounds who are engaged in Jewish study and life.

  3. Dear Friends:

    I’m not sure how welcoming Rabbi Kaufner’s movement is to intermarried couples or adult children of intermarriage.

    Here’s a link to the Mechon Hadar website’s “Halachah Think-Tank” in which they discuss the Jewishness of adult children of intermarriage — it seems to be the same not-very-welcoming Conservative movement stance, worded in slightly different language:

    http://www.halakhah.org/14/TheMatriline … hIdentity/

    As an adult child of intermarriage and the leader of the Half-Jewish Network, I finally left a comment on that thread because I was concerned to see discussion of half-Jewish people by people with (I’m guessing) two Jewish parents that didn’t involve asking us what we think or feel about ourselves, but just them deciding what we would be called and whether we were Jewish or not.

    I reserve judgment on whether Rabbi Kaufner’s movement really represents a welcome to interfaith families. Public interviews with him never seem to mention the subject, though they do repeatedly mention welcoming gay Jews, which is good.

    I’d like to see more evidence that his movement is interested in attracting intermarried couples and adult children of intermarriage.

    Cordially,
    Robin Margolis
    http://www.half-jewish.net
    http://www.inclusivistjudaism.wordpress.com

  4. One thing that’s really great about independent minyanim and havurot is that they don’t have to conform to a single position on a variety of issues–unless they decide to make that position a litmus test for joining a national organization like Mechon Hadar or the National Havurah Committee or whatever. My guess is, based on my own experience, that independent minyanim have a variety of positions on who is a Jew, who counts in a minyan, etc.–and that MOST have at least a few children of interfaith families as members, because lots of observant Jews have one Jewish parent. People with one Jewish parent should feel free to check them out and not worry about whether Rabbi Kaunfer gets it right in writing. In any case there is often a gap between policy and implementation of policy, so many institutions that think they’re welcoming aren’t and many that have an off-putting policy on paper may be filled with lovely people.

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