A sleepless night could be the key to Jewish unity

This article first appeared in Haaretz 

With the ultra-Orthodox back in Israel’s new coalition, the small gains made by the previous government in the area of religious pluralism have already started to roll back. What little hope had been nurtured for more cooperation between different streams of Judaism has been crushed for the time being. Outside the legislative realm however, there is hope that the various streams of Judaism might be able to join together, at least on one night.

There is a custom dating back to the 1500s that today has the potential to truly begin the healing process between Jewish denominations. On the first night of Shavuot it is customary to participate in a Tikkun Leil Shavuot, an all-night session of Torah study. This tradition finds its roots in the Midrash, which states that the night before the Israelites received the Torah they went to bed early to be well rested, but they overslept and arrived late at Mt. Sinai. To fix this (“Tikkun” means rectification) we stay up all night on Shavuot and learn Torah.

When I moved to Brooklyn two years ago, my Modern Orthodox community joined with all the other congregations, big and small, to celebrate Tikkun Leil together. Congregation Beth Elohim, one of the key Reform synagogues in America, would host the event and groups from the Conservative, Modern Orthodox and non-affiliated streams of Judaism would attend to learn from each other’s educators.

This is my first year celebrating Shavuot in Chicago, and I am happy that in Lakeview, the community in which I live, this cross-communal gathering on Tikkun Leil also takes place. All three major synagogues in the community, as well as wondering minyans (prayer quorums) and Jewish schools from every denomination are coming together to celebrate a night of learning together.

This cross-communal learning appears this year to be finding a place in Israel, as the Tzavta club in Tel Aviv and the Orthodox rabbinical group Tzohar hold an all-night Shavuot study session in which Conservative and Reform rabbis can take part. The Tzohar rabbis, who do not recognize non-Orthodox denominations, will reportedly skip the session, evidencing a lack of complete acceptance among the denominations. Yet, we should see this as a first step toward a foundation on which to build.

Collective learning, in which all the different – and often antagonistic – streams of Judaism take place, finds its roots in the Limmud movement that began in the United Kingdom. Often described as Anglo Jewry’s greatest export, the Limmud movement is a global phenomenon and has normalized the concept of cross-communal learning. Today, even the Chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, Rabbi Mirvis, has taught at Limmud, something that his predecessor Lord Jonathan Sacks never did. Lord Sacks had been prevented from going by the long-held opposition to normalizing the relationship between Orthodox and non-Orthodox communities on matters to do with Jewish religious practice. The times are clearly changing; Rabbi Mirvis’ landmark lecture indicated that the Orthodox establishment is starting to acknowledge the benefits of cross-communal learning.

We must not be naïve. There is still a long way to go. In Israel, it is Tzohar that is participating in the Tikkun Leil, rather than the ultra-Orthodox, to whom the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism are anathema. And in the United States, I am yet to find Haredi communities who are willing to participate in cross-communal learning.

Yet, it is a start.

Shavuot might just be the festival that can begin bring us back together as a people, around our collective heritage and love of learning. As Maimonides (the Rambam) states, the greatest crown of all is that of the Torah, as anyone who desires it shall come and take it.

British youth do Israel initiatives better

3/27/14 This article first appeared in Haaretz 

The past few months have seen young Jews in the United States and United Kingdom attempting to challenge the educational settings of their conversations on Israel. In the United States, the continued back and forth over the “Open Hillel” movement even reached the New York Times. In the United Kingdom, a group of youth movement graduates made waves calling on all Jewish educational institutions to use maps that showed the Green Line.

To the outside observer, both of these campaigns can be seen on the same spectrum: young members of each community combating the more conservative funding elite. This, however, would miss the mark. While in the United States there is an ongoing battle between politically motivated funders and the end users of programs, in the United Kingdom the challenge is different. The unique way that Zionist Youth Movements function in the United Kingdom allow for a different sort of campaign that can yield far greater results.

This was particularly evident this month, when a group of young involved members of the Anglo-Jewish community launched a campaign that received a tremendous amount of press coverage. “Sign on the Green Line” urges all Jewish groups in Britain to only use maps of Israel that mark the Green Line (which signifies the 1949 armistice lines). Doing so, the campaign holds, will improve education about the Jewish state by highlighting the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and portraying a more “honest” picture of the country.

After a burst of press coverage, the campaign is now attempting to use the pressure of its launch to get different groups to sign up. While no schools have signed to date, five youth movements, one synagogue and four Jewish organizations have.

Unlike their American compatriots, the students in the United Kingdom are not fighting “the man.” Rather, they often try to convince other graduates of the same youth movements they went through. The uniqueness of the British youth movement scene means that many of the communal leaders that students try to convince have a common educational core.

There are nine different youth movements in the United Kingdom that cater to every political and religious sector within the community. These groups are run by volunteers and sabbatical officers all under the age of 23. Every year, the United Jewish Israel Appeal, sends half of its Jewish 16 year olds to Israel on its Israel Tour, and many other young Jewish adults on its various Israel engagement programs. This is a remarkable achievement, one that is attained through the pressure cooker of peer-to-peer leadership.

In addition, every summer, thousands of Jewish kids go to summer camps run by young adults ranging from ages 17 to 23. These camps are held in fields across the countryside, with activities that deliver informal education through glue, paper and felt tip pens. With the exception of the sabbatical officers, none of the counselors are paid. In fact, in the first year of being a counselor, many of the youth groups charge first timers for the privilege.

These youth movements create lifelong bonds and the vast majority of teachers and community leaders within Anglo-Jewry are graduates of these various movements.

This common bond is what allows the members of Sign on the Green Line to achieve the change they want; not through public pressure, but through engaged education. Looking at the Facebook discussions of the senior members of each of the youth movements, one can see they are engaged in conversations about how they teach about Israel in an inclusive manner, and many of the movements have democratic forums where policies can be written and changed.

By creating a forum within each movement for these informal educators to discuss how they can best tackle the issues that the politics of Israel presents them with, they can achieve their mission of getting the Green Line in every map that every movement uses. By sticking to a purely educational platform, members of this movement can be welcomed in every British youth movement. Once there, the community will naturally adapt as the graduates of those programs go on to take positions across Anglo Jewry.

There is no scary, politically motivated funder closing off debate in the United Kingdom. It is an open community willing to have hard and educated discussions about Israel. If one wishes to institutionalize the openness, they must start early on within the informal learning environments, where half of Anglo Jewry spends it time.

Youth Movements – the Pride of Anglo Jewry

The Jewish Chronicle 29/12/11

As a community, we are often very down on ourselves. There is nothing we like more than complaining over Friday-night dinner about how various parts of the UK Jewish communal structures are outdated, failing, awful or irrelevant. The United States, in contrast, is viewed as a Jewish communal mecca full of vibrancy, life and opportunity.

Having now moved to the US, I can confirm that there are parts of the communal scene where the grass is indeed greener. You really can find an organisation to fit your every whim and want. From pluralist mikvaot to four different groups dealing with the Jewish response to global warming, the millions of Jews across the Atlantic are well served.

Yet for all its size and wealth the US Jewish community – or any other Jewish community for that matter – cannot compete with British Jewry when it comes to youth movements. We have managed to create and sustain groups that continually produce the top leaders, thinkers and doers in the Jewish world. We have done so in a way that caters to every sector; for every Jew, there is a youth movement to suit him or her.

Youth movements are the jewels in the crown of the UK Jewish community. The vast majority of our Jewish leaders are graduates of one of these groups. Their educational legacies can be seen both in the informal educational departments of the various Jewish schools and in Limmud, the community’s global Jewish export.

Every Jew has a youth movement to suit him or her

So how does allowing your kids to sleep in a rainy field somewhere in the British countryside for a few weeks a year produce this result? The first thing to highlight is the peer leadership structure; these movements are run, by young people, for young people.

From the age of 17, with no pay, members volunteer to give up their holidays to run camps for children. Parents trust 20-year-olds to be in charge of their kids abroad and to provide them with a fun and safe time. This level of responsibility and practical experience brings about exceptional leadership skills.

Former youth leaders often wonder how to market the skills that they have learnt in youth movements when applying for jobs. My advice? Focus on how you have learnt to work in teams and manage your peers, how you have learnt budgeting and logistics, creative problem solving and communication skills.

You have learnt to create brand loyalty, demonstrated responsibility and become familiar with crisis management in tense situations. You have a clear understanding of who you are and what you believe and have helped others discover this in themselves. You have led, and have taught others to lead.

The self-knowledge and understanding, the ability to spot ones own strengths and weaknesses, put our youth movement graduates ahead of their university peers.

When British students arrive in Israel for gap-year programmes, they tend to have a far more mature sense of self than their American compatriots. The leadership exercises I performed when I was a 17-year-old in Bnei Akiva are the same ones I am learning from my professors today as a graduate student at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

Our youth movements rival any elite school in terms of preparation for real skills in the workplace.

Where we have fallen down as a community is in finding the next step for our youth leaders. The vital transition from loyalty to one’s youth group to loyalty to the wider community needs real leadership positions to be earmarked for young professionals. The Jewish Volunteering Network’s current drive for more young trustees is a great start to answer this challenge.

With the global economic situation still gloomy, the community needs to choose its priorities. There can be no better investment then our youth movements. That means graduates of these, and parents of graduates donating to these movements. It means giving again even if you have given before.

Sometimes, as well as complaining about how bad the community is, we need to recognise how fabulous it is, too.