Friday, March 29, 2013

JTA: "For some Israelis, a stay at Jewish camp opens eyes to religious pluralism"

JTA: "For some Israelis, a stay at Jewish camp opens eyes to religious pluralism"

By Ben Sales · March 6, 2013

Israeli emissaries and campers at Camp Tamarack in Michigan in 2009. (Jewish Agency for Israel. )

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Israeli emissaries and campers at Camp Tamarack in Michigan in 2009. (Jewish Agency for Israel. )


TEL AVIV (JTA) -- After serving three years of mandatory army service, Guy Eisenberg felt like many Israeli military veterans: He wanted to get away and have some fun.

Thailand or India would have been a natural choice. The countries are something of a rite of passage for Israelis seeking to blow off post-army steam.

But instead of going east, Eisenberg went west and became a swim counselor at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin. He would return for six more summers to his wooded getaway, where he made lasting connections and discovered something even more fascinating than fun and new friends: ConservativeJudaism.

"I had no idea about Conservative Judaism or anything different from Judaism in Israel," Eisenberg said. "I grew up religious. I studied in a religious high school with a religious family. It opened a world I didn't know."

Other Israelis tell a similar story. Summers at American Jewish camps have opened their eyes to a much broader range of Jewish life. 

While small Reform and Conservative communities exist in Israel, most Israelis are either secular or Orthodox. Most secular Israelis have never attended daily prayers and don't observe Shabbat, while most Orthodox Israelis have had little if any exposure to egalitarian Judaism.

"It was weird and hard at first, but I got used to it and liked it," said Dror Morag, a secular Israeli who worked with Eisenberg at Ramah Wisconsin. "It was a spiritual and cultural experience."

Every year, approximately 1,500 young Israelis fan out to Jewish camps across the United States as emissaries, or shlichim, sent by the Jewish Agency for Israel. Their main task is to bring a taste of Hebrew and the Jewish state to American Jewish youth, but many come away with a deeper appreciation for different streams of Judaism and for American Jewish pluralism.

"Many of our shlichim talk about the Jewish experience that they have in camp," said Eran Berkovich, the Jewish Agency's director of short-term emissary programs. "It's a Jewish setting that allows them to evaluate their Judaism in a positive way. Many of the shlichim come back more pluralist."

The emissaries say the immersive experience of camp gives them an intense introduction to American Judaism.

"You take your Judaism as a given" in Israel, said Omer Givati, a secular Israeli who worked at North Carolina's Camp Judaea in 2005. "When you see that people choose to be Jewish, you can choose to connect to religion from another place."

Although emissaries who go to Orthodox Jewish summer camps don't get the same exposure to liberal Jewish movements as some of their peers, they still encounter differences between American and Israeli Orthodoxy.

American Orthodox girls "have a lot more knowledge of Torah, the weekly portion," said Adi Hershkovitz, an Israeli Orthodox woman who worked at Camp Nesher in Pennsylvania from 2006 to 2008. "They wore shorts, which we wouldn't wear. There's more emphasis on learning and less on how people look."

The experience at camp doesn't necessarily change anyone's personal practice. Eisenberg didn't return to Israel and seek out the nearest Conservative synagogue.

"I appreciate it, but I'm a lawyer," he said. "I don't spend time reading Jewish legal rulings."

Some emissaries, though, said they came away from camp feeling more comfortable with and connected to their Judaism. 

"I respect the religion more and I'm more proud of Judaism because I can connect to it," said Givati. "Now I know the prayers, know what they say. I respect it because I understand it."

Experiencing American Jewish pluralism has influenced the careers of several emissaries. Berkovich, Givati and Hershkovitz all worked for the Jewish Agency for a time in part because of their time at camp. Morag is the secretary-general of Meretz, a left-wing Israeli political party that advocates religious pluralism.

Shai Bracha, who worked at Young Judaea Texas from 2007 to 2009, said the experience helped him find work as a staff member at the Alexander Muss High School in Israel, where Jewish students can spend a semester studying abroad.

"A lot of people that age work being waiters or security guards or [other] easy jobs," Bracha said. "This one helps you advance your career."

Givati said that working at a camp has helped him be a better Israeli.

"Israel needs these shlichim like the U.S. needs them," said Givati, who now works as the Jewish Agency's partnership director. "Shlicihm that return to Israel are better Israeli citizens. It opens up your world to Jewish education."

Rabbi Menachem Creditor

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Friday, March 1, 2013

Visionary @nyjewishweek OpEd, riffing on Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove: "Time To Rethink Conversion Policy"

NYJewish Week OpEd: "Time To Rethink Conversion Policy"

When one of the country's leading Conservative rabbis states publicly his discomfort with a major policy of the movement, it warrants attention and consideration.

In his Shabbat morning sermon last weekend, Elliot Cosgrove, rabbi of the Park Avenue Synagogue, offered up what he called "a trial balloon," sharing his thoughts about conversion, interfaith relationships and the status of non-Jewish family members in Jewish families, at times waxing eloquent, and at times speaking bluntly.

"The most significant reason I don't like our policy [on conversion] is that it doesn't make sense in my gut," he said, while first making clear that no policy change at the synagogue was planned and that he was, essentially, thinking aloud with his congregants.

Rabbi Cosgrove said he has seen during his rabbinate that love trumps religious affiliation, with the result being that few families are immune from the situation of a child coming home with a non-Jewish partner and wanting to be married in a Jewish ceremony.

At present, Park Avenue, like many Conservative synagogues, has an active conversion program where the non-Jewish partner completes a yearlong course of study before going to mikveh or having a modified brit milah, and then is permitted to wed as a Jew. But the rabbi feels couples see it as putting obstacles in their way.

He observed that while the Orthodox take a strong stand against intermarriage and set "a high bar for conversions," and the Reform, since 1983, say that the child of a non-Jewish father and Jewish mother is considered Jewish if raised in a Jewish home, the Conservative camp is, not surprisingly, somewhere in the middle. That means Conservative rabbis advocate in-marriage and do not officiate at intermarriages, but encourage conversion after the fact.

"I am worried that our present policy is internally conflicted and thus strategically self-defeating," the rabbi said. "The idea of refusing to be present for the wedding and then expecting the couple to feel warmly embraced by the Jewish people strikes me as a policy constructed by someone who doesn't know the mind of a young couple. … I am not exactly clear on the message the Conservative movement is sending out into the world, and I am not sure if it is a viable policy in the long term."

He likened it to joining a gym, noting that a potential gym member is not told first to exercise, get in good shape and then join. Rather, if the person is willing to join, he or she signs up and then the work begins. Moreover, the rabbi added, this logic is not just one of good consumer policy but is consistent with traditional Jewish teaching.

In one of the most famous Talmud stories, the man who wants to learn all of the Torah while standing on one foot is shooed away by Shammai, who has no patience for him, but welcomed by Hillel.

"First, Hillel converts, and then Hillel teaches," Rabbi Cosgrove said. "First you join and then, once you are a vested member, you figure out what it's all about."

In that way, the rabbi suggested that it might be more effective for Conservative rabbis to first accept converts and then teach them.

He readily acknowledges that there are flaws, unanswered questions and risks with such a bold plan, not to mention halachic issues to resolve.

"It is fair to ask if Judaism as a whole is not cheapened by making conversion so easy." Still, he told The Jewish Week "there were no guarantees for Hillel, or for rabbis today.

"My priority is to create Jewish homes, and everything I do is toward that goal," he said. When a congregant's adult child comes to him with a non-Jewish partner and wants to get married, he now describes the yearlong conversion program requirement that is a prerequisite to the wedding. Many of them, he says, never come back, choosing a justice of the peace or other clergy to marry them.

"It weighs heavily on me," acknowledged the rabbi, who sees his suggestion as a way "to shift the conversation to one of muscular embrace."

What's clear is that the current system isn't working. A full discussion and debate on how best to ensure the continuity of Jewish life is in order, and Rabbi Cosgrove should be commended for broaching the difficult topic.

Rabbi Menachem Creditor

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