July 11th: What Mega Churches Have to Teach

Growing up, I was fascinated with Joel Osteen. The televangelist was able to reach an audience on a weekly basis that blew me away, and his words were able to have an impact that was so incredibly powerful and moving. I had always wondered: what could we, as the Jewish community, learn from seeing his success and the way he has run his community?

I finally went to find out. My father and I traveled to Houston last week to experience a service at Lakewood Church, the largest church in America. Built out of the remains of the Compaq Center, where the Houston Rockets had once played, the church was a cathedral of modern religion. Throughout the service, there were some powerful lessons in things that the Megachurch is able to do that Jewish communities need to emulate, and others that we need to be very careful to avoid.

Things the Jewish community needs to learn from the Megachurch:

  • Lifestyle of church attendance

From the very start, the church was clearly selling a lifestyle. Church isn’t viewed as a luxury of time, something to do only when it’s convenient. No, the church is a place to go on a regular basis, as many as three or four times a day. The programming they offer matches everyday needs of modern people, from seminars on maintaining a healthy marriage to discussion groups on meaningful and pertinent topics. The church is selling the idea that participation in programs is a route to a more meaningful and fulfilling life, something that anyone with a passion for religious community can understand. Jewish communities have been offering worship services and religious school for generations, but we have a long way to go as a collection of congregations in terms of making participation on the temple an essential part of the experience of life. Going to church isn’t a question, just like going to the grocery store isn’t a matter of “if I have time.” We, as Jewish communities, need to figure out how to sell people on the idea that participation isn’t a luxury but a necessity for meaningful living.

  • Music

It would have been hard to tell if the prayer service we experienced was church worship or a rock concert. Between the full band, the lighting, and the smoke machines, the vibe was that of a party, of a celebration of the greatness of God and community. This sure beats the droll, traditional music that too many places of worship occupy. Of course, not everyone can afford a full scale band and performance caliber musicians, but the central idea is that worship doesn’t have to feel dogmatic. Innovation and enthusiasm speak volumes about the experience that they are attempting to create. And it was far more spiritually moving. It wasn’t just that it was fun to watch or listen to, it was the sensation that a community coming together to celebrate life at its finest can feel like a real connection to the divine. We need to take a note from this book and figure out how to turn services into celebrations of the greatness of life and of God, rather than an act of repetition of a thousand years of ritual practice.

  • Modern message with religious context

The sermon that we heard at Lakewood dealt with the importance of perseverance, overcoming the challenges of daily life in order to strive for your goal. And the anecdotes and lessons the preacher shared were relatable, were powerful, and were able to touch a nerve for everyone listening. There was substantive sourcework for biblical passages to support her ideas, and she was able to make her point about life while using a fascinating mixture of scripture and real-world application. While Jewish communities are doing better than ever before at this, it was a powerful lesson in the way a message can hit home when the lessons of our tradition are applied to the world around us. We have to learn how to offer something fresh, something that feels modern and applicable. By combining our texts with the world around us, we are able to provide guidance and help that our congregants desperately need, while giving them a service that they can’t get anywhere else. Only religious institutions are able to combine the moral backdrop for grappling with modernity in this way. We need to grow more comfortable with grappling with our texts and asking the vital question: how does this make sense in my life right now?

 

The dangers of the Megachurch:

  • The Relationship with Money

A Megachurch is only able to work because of the profound income they create by way of tithes and contributions. They have created a system where church attendance comes with a weekly financial contribution, one that comes with a not-so-subtle subtext: if you contribute to the congregation, God will take care of you. A significant portion of the service was dedicated to this message. By giving your money to the church, they reasoned, God would smile upon you and would make the money you had left to multiply. By giving your money to the church, you were not only facilitating the good work of the church, but you were also creating good-will with God for yourself, with the promise that God will turn around and give you more than you already have. This message, delivered by a woman holding a brand-new iPhone and wearing a multi-thousand dollar watch, is a dangerous one when presented to a great many people who don’t have enough for themselves. Everyone wants to believe that, by giving money to God, God will take care of you. But, for the general public, this results in a large percentage of money going into the church, leaving congregants with even greater financial challenges when they walked in the door. Anyone selling the idea that you need to buy your way into heaven needs to be considered with caution, and can be a dangerous message for people who are desperate for a better life.

  • Indoctrination

This was the place where church got a little bit scary. At one point, the preacher was talking about when obstacles come along and try to get you to stop your pursuit of your dreams. She said that this doubt was the devil whispering in your ear, telling you you can’t do something, and that all thinking is the work of the devil. When that thinking happens, you’re supposed to turn your brain off, open your bible, and drown out the voices in your head. I struggle with any ideology that tells me that independent thinking and asking questions is the work of the devil. The entire experience called for a kind of repetitive rote performance of life, following the instructions of the church leaders and of the bible while preventing the kind of independent thinking that leads to trouble. Of course, this derives from the idea that human beings are inherently sinners and in need of guidance away from our natural inclination for sin. This is a fundamental difference between the work of Judaism and the work of Christianity. Judaism doesn’t believe in this kind of thinking; in fact, questioning and grappling are inherent to understanding one’s faith and understanding of their Judaism.

 

Throughout the experience at Lakewood, I learned the importance of experiencing a variety of different ways of understanding religion in a modern context. I may have been the first person in that building wearing a kippah in a very long time, but there was so much to learn about the way others communicate message of faith, and so much we can learn about how to get our message out to others. We are all striving for meaning in the world around us, and Lakewood Church is offering a version of that reality that has something to teach as Jewish communities try to express a message of our own.

July 6th: Call Your Knesset Members

Last week, the Israeli government suspended plans to create an egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel, or Western Wall, in so doing ostracizing a large portion of the non-Orthodox Jewish population in Israel and abroad. After plans were put aside, Jews around the world, most notably American Reform Jews, voiced their significant displeasure, noting their feelings that Israel is willfully hostile toward the interests of liberal Jewish communities globally. Some even went so far as to claim that Israeli Jews “hate” Jews living in the Diaspora.

The problem comes in the idea that Israeli Judaism is in any way concerned with what is happening in the rest of the Jewish world, or that it is considerate of us one way or the other. Apathy seems more appropriate than hostility. While Jews across the globe send money to our “homeland,” there has been very little that leads anyone to believe that there is any significant influence exerted by Jews outside of Israel.

As long as Israel is going to wear the mantle of being the Jewish homeland, they have an obligation to represent the interests of all jews. That is a tall order for a people that so rarely agree unilaterally on much of anything. But Israel’s representation of global Judaism only works so long as we continue to allow it to be the case.

What that means is that a certain level of knowledge and involvement is required that hasn’t been seen from Americans concerned with Israeli affairs. We can’t sit in our congregations and our homes thousands of miles away and criticize Israel while ignorant of the politics and demographics that make up the country. If we want to be truly involved and engaged, we have to go out and invest ourselves in the realities that Israelis are dealing with on a regular basis.

To do this, we have to deepen our involvement through grappling with the tough questions. Jewish educational institutions across America have done a great disservice to American Jews by over-simplifying the relationship with Israel. We need to know more than hummus and falafel. We need to know more than Israeli dancing and IDF simulations. We even need to know more than just conflict and war. We need to know what it is like to be an Israeli, right now, today, what it truly means to be a Jew living in the homeland of our people.

Birthright poses as a solution to this problem. Send people to Israel for 10 days at a point in their identity formation that they will learn to love and support Israel, and that love will endure beyond their experience. Well, the values of caring for Israel are certainly established, but Birthright does preciously little to meaningfully educate or engage students about the politics or conflicts or ideologies of the region, and certainly not enough about what a young person can do to get involved in the many organizations and nonprofits that exist in the country for exerting influence as a Jew.

Moreso than at any time that I can remember, American Jews can identify with living in a country with a conflict of ideology. We know what it’s like to experience the kind of philosophical differences that Israel politics involves. We need not shy away from really engaging with these political and ideological questions: in fact, we have an obligation to involve ourselves thoughtfully with those challenges.

There are a multitude of ways that American Jews can make their voices heard in Israel. There are organizations and institutions that all are attempting to create meaningful change that American Jews can believe in. Taking the time to familiarize ourselves with the real issues will allow us the opportunity to get involved in ways that we can’t do by donating to “Israel”. Israelis don’t care what American Jews have to say, because, for all intents and purposes, Jewish Americans aren’t saying much of substance in a consistent and powerful way.

The American Jewish population is in control of enough man-power and enough financial discretion that we could be a powerful force in telling Israel how we want the Jewish state to represent us. To this point, we have been operating under the assumption of good faith, something that was fairly loudly declared false a week ago. As long as Israel continues to call itself the homeland of the Jews, it is our obligation to get involved and make our voices heard. That is the only way that we will have a strong, meaningful Jewish state in the land of Israel.

June 13th: The Jewish Whiteness Question

I took a Southwest flight for the first time this past week. I experienced the fierce battle that is finding an aisle seat with a priority spot in the B section, and waited, while the rest of the plane filled up around me. Finally, a man and his 10-year-old daughter sat down in the two seats next to me with a smile and a head nod, and everything seemed to be going just fine.

As we began to taxi toward take-off, I took off my Cubs hat and put it on my knee. As I did, I noticed the man’s face next to me change as he discovered the kippah on my head. The man didn’t get upset, he didn’t get angry, he didn’t get aggressive. But he was most definitely uncomfortable. What he had thought was a perfectly normal traveling companion had turned out to be an “other,” someone different than what he expected. He remained quite polite, still treated me just fine, but the look on his face told me that my ability to pass as a white person had disappeared in the flash of a moment.

In recent weeks, there has been a resurgence into the evaluation of the whiteness of Jews, perhaps inspired by Wonder Woman (played by an Israeli woman), or perhaps simply because it’s about that time of year again.

It is impossible to ignore the fact that, unlike other minority groups, a large percentage of Jews are light-skinned. This allows many Jews to “pass” as white, fitting into the majority without any outward signs of their ‘otherness’. This means that, if they so choose, many Jews are able to pick and choose when they identify themselves as Jewish, and when they get to fit in with the rest of society.

Yet, at the same time, we are only 75 years removed from a time when it didn’t matter what color your skin was. Jews were murdered for their identity, regardless of their outward looks. Sure, a small percentage of Jews were able to hide their beliefs in favor of fitting in with the rest of the German people, but that didn’t stop the extermination of 6 million Jews, having nothing to do with the color of their skin. We can discuss and debate and argue all we want about our whiteness, and someone else can snatch it away in an instant.

The vital piece here is that it doesn’t matter what the outside expressions are: the moment one’s Judaism is exposed, their ability to pass disappears, just as mine did on the airplane last week. Sometimes that comes with questions, sometimes it comes with distrust or anti-semitism, and sometimes it is simply cataloged away as fact. Jews are only able to enjoy the privilege of whiteness so long as their “true identity” remains hidden, which, in turn, means that it isn’t true whiteness.

The truth, though, is that Jews shouldn’t be debating about their whiteness. Our ability to pass is seen by many as the opportunity to fade into the background, to be able to turn on and turn off our role in either community. I posit, rather, that we, as white Jews, have an obligation to maintain our membership status in both the “white” and “minority” communities, in order to create a better world for those around us who don’t have the same privilege. Our Jewish tradition teaches us that we are supposed to be lights unto the nations, that we are supposed to protect the stranger because we too have been strangers. We need to use our outward appearances to bring other white members of the majority into a willingness to listen, to understand, to embrace the diversity of other members of our communities. If I am using my whiteness to hide, I am fundamentally misunderstanding my privilege AND my faith. As a white Jew, my privilege is that I have the tools to force the door open and make the world a more inclusive place for others who don’t have the same foot in the door.

One of the greatest challenges of this conversation is that, by confronting the notion of whether or not Jews are white, it actually is forcing the issue of putting people into boxes. When we force a label on a group of people, we are asking them to bend their identities to match your understanding. Instead, we need to embrace the indeterminacy. We need to stop trying to identify whether or not someone IS a particular category and need to start embracing individuals. We need to stop treating all Jews as the same, all whites as the same, all blacks as the same, all of any group as experiencing the same issues. A Jew of color knows that their experience is very different from my own. When I meet a Jew of color, I don’t want to assume things about them, I want to learn about their experience and their identity. I hope that, even as a white Jew, I can be given the same opportunity.

It is always difficult to write something like this, knowing that I open myself up to the immediate disregard by someone saying “well, you have white privilege, you don’t get it.” I certainly don’t claim to know what it is like to be anyone else, or to have struggled like anyone else. All I am pursuing is a deeper understanding of identity than simply the demographic groups we fall into. If we really want to get to a point where we are creating spaces of inclusion and welcoming, we need to be doing so with the understanding that we human beings are complicated jumbles of identity, and that, in some cases, we need to be willing to understand that we are not always going to understand. When we don’t understand, we have the obligation to ask, and the opportunity to learn.

May 21st: The Year in Israel – A Year Later

One year ago today, I got on a plane and returned home after my first year of rabbinical school in Israel. At the time, I remember the feeling as though I had just experiencing something too big for words, too profound to be understood in a day or a week or a month. I knew, as I sat on that plane a year ago, that I was going to do a lot of growing as I came to terms with who and what I had become after the experience of leaving everything I had known about my life and moving to the other side of the world.

Now, a year later, I think about the processing I have done. Truth be told, rabbinical school leaves surprisingly little time and space for reflection, throwing one experience at us after another. Almost as soon as we finish a phase of the process, we move on to the next with little more than a debrief.

What I have had the chance to do is to better understand who I’m becoming, and how I grapple with the challenges I face. I spent a large part of my time in Israel counting down the days: days til breaks from school, days I spent away from my fiáncé, days left before I got to go home. WIth this focus on arriving at certain benchmarked days, I lost sight of the experience I was having, instead looking too far out in front to truly embrace where I was.

Looking back, I engaged with my year in Israel as an observer, more like an anthropologist than a resident or citizen. I wanted to learn as much as I could, and I treated that learning as something I did for the purpose of furthering my understanding, not necessarily participating in what I was finding. This is neither a bad thing nor a good one. It simply was how I experience the year. It allowed me to see what the world was doing, how things operated, while also maintaining my tether to who and what I was, something that not all students abroad are able to do.

Of course, at the root of the Hebrew Union College requirement to study in Israel is the hope of building a connection with the state of Israel itself. In the 365 days since I left the country, my relationship with it has changed every time I’ve examined it: at times, I have been angry with what I see, at others deeply and profoundly connected to the nation of my heritage. One of the lessons I’m walking away with most clearly is the comfort with the knowledge that I will never have just one stance on Israel. Israel is a vital part of who I am and what it means to me to be Jewish, and that is going to change as the world around me does. While I went to Israel expecting to concretize my understanding, and even came home thinking I would have, I am now more comfortable than ever to be at peace with my fluctuating and maturing love for the Jewish homeland.

Before going to Israel, I was terrified of leaving my home and everything I loved in America. I built up my departure so large that I was consumed by my anxiety associated with it. When I came home, I was convinced that I was never going to worry about anything again; I had conquered my greatest fear, and had no reason to stress to that extent ever again. Reality has shown me that I am not going to simply stop stressing or worrying overnight, that they are a part of how I process my relationship with the future. Yet, what I have been able to learn from my experience in Israel was the constant need to remind myself of the context, to constantly be putting things into perspective for myself, so as not to lose sight of the opportunities I am afforded, even when I am anxious about what the future may hold.

My experience in Israel a year ago was not one that I was going to understand when I completed it, and I am even more confident that I am still not finished with internalizing and growing from it, even a year later. My time in Israel and my time in rabbinical school as a whole are deeply interwoven, and will build upon one another the further I go into my experience.

I am grateful that I had the privilege of going to HUC in Israel, of getting the chance to experience first-hand the incredible world we live in and the richness of Judaism in the Jewish homeland. I am also extremely grateful to be home, living my life with the people I love and the pieces of society that are part of my way of life. And I am grateful that I have had the chance to continue to explore what life has to offer beyond the one experience in Israel, because it gives me the hope and excitement for what is to come.

April 12th: It Isn’t What Sean Spicer Said, It’s What He Meant…and That’s Just As Scary

When Sean Spicer says something ridiculous, I’m usually fine to chock it up to an ignorant loudmouth who just can’t seem to help himself. This week, though, he officially crossed over into new territory, and not only profoundly messed up, but blundered every opportunity to fix it.

In a press conference earlier in the week, Spicer was discussing America’s use of force against Syria. He was talking about the atrocities committed by Bashar al-Assad, and attempting to justify why America needed to get involved. To accomplish this, he made the statement that even Hitler didn’t use chemical weapons on his people. To which, of course, all American Jews said “of course he did, you epic moron.”

Now, it would have been one thing if he said that while he was swept up in the moment. But, one journalist gave him a chance to redeem himself, asking him to clarify what he meant. Spicer, realizing he had gotten himself into hot water, attempted to walk back his statements. In a later press release, he made the comment that Hitler had never used chemical weapons on HIS OWN people, but the atrocities of Hitler shouldn’t be undervalued, and it wasn’t what he meant. To make matters worse, he referred to concentration camps as “Holocaust Centers,” which sounds more like guest services at a tourist attraction than death camps where millions of Jews and other marginalized people were murdered en mass.

At first, his blunder could have been swept away as having been caught up in the moment and saying something foolish. That could have been forgotten, if not forgiven. When he had plenty of time to craft a response, clarify his point, and do what he could to mitigate the problem, he instead decided to say that Hitler hadn’t ever attacked his own people, implying that German Jews weren’t really Germans, and dehumanizing them in much the same way that Hitler had. Not only was Spicer dumb enough to use Hitler as his example, but in some ways he literally bought into the deranged and horrifying thinking of the Nazis.

The defense of Spicer will be that of course that wasn’t what he meant, and that we are all just being too sensitive. But, the reality is, Spicer WAS trying to insinuate that Assad’s actions were worse than Hitler’s. He was attempting to say that America did the right thing, because if we didn’t, it would get to THAT level of bad. By saying this, Spicer so entirely undervalues and disrespects the experience of the Holocaust, and directly attacks the Jewish community (and others) across the world who know all-too-well what “worse” looks like.

American Judaism has been under attack for months. We have been threatened, defaced, belittled, and marginalized. To this point, the White House hasn’t done nearly enough to protect or defend the rights of the Jewish community, and has demonstrated zero interest in making sure that the kind of anti-semitism of the the first half of the 20th century.

Now, the man who speaks with the voice of the White House has the audacity to belittle the Jewish experience during the Holocaust. In February, Trump failed to mention the Jews at all in connection to the Holocaust. Now, Spicer states directly that the Jews weren’t real Germans, so Hitler wasn’t killing “his own people.” We have now crossed a line from the blunders and goofs that we have come to expect from the Trump White House, and crossed into the kind of underhanded attacks that should never be taken out against a group of Americans in this country.

Hitler treated us like we weren’t real Germans. But Jews damn well are real Americans, and it’s about time that the office of the president treated us as such. Sean Spicer’s comments were ignorant, were stupid, were insensitive, and were wrong. And he must be dealt with appropriately. If he is not, than that is a not-so-subtle reflection of agreement from the President, something that cannot be ignored or overlooked.