Dear reader,

As the year ends and many of us are doing our charitable giving, I hope you’ll consider making a contribution to support Fiedler Hillel at Northwestern University, my employer, which encourages and provides the laboratory for the thoughts and ideas that go on in my writing.

It really doesn’t happen for free. Our Hillel receives no direct financial support from Northwestern. We have a small endowment and receive roughly 10 percent of our budget from the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.  That means that we have to raise over $700,000 every year just to break even, and that support overwhelmingly comes in donations from people like you.

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Thank you for reading, and for supporting our work.


Rabbi Josh

This in from today’s eJewishPhilanthropy blog:

New research released this morning by researchers from The Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University backs up what many of us have known for years – Birthright participants return home with positive perceptions of their experience, increased connection to Israel, greater sense of connectedness to the Jewish people and increased interest in creating Jewish families.

The study, which has had the science behind it heavily vetted, is both the first to identify the Birthright experience as playing a part in marriage choices and the first to look at long-term impacts of participation.

Selecting both alumni and applicants who did not participate, the study focused on individuals from Birthright’s earliest years, 2001-2004.

Key highlights include:

  • Among married respondents who were not raised Orthodox, participants were 57 percent more likely to be married to a Jew than non-participants. (Virtually all married respondents who were raised Orthodox were married to Jews.) Among unmarried respondents, participants were 46 percent more likely than non-participants to view marrying a Jewish person as “very important.”
  • Participants were 30 percent more likely to view raising children as Jews as “very important.”
  • Participants were 16 percent more likely than non-participants to report feeling “very much” connected to the worldwide Jewish community.
  • Participants were 23 percent more likely than non-participants to report feeling “very much” connected to Israel.

As impressive as the present findings are, the study raises a number of unanswered questions. One is whether systematic follow-up efforts are necessary to sustain or even enhance the impact of the Birthright program.

The present study does not directly assess follow-up programs, such as those currently provided by Birthright Israel NEXT. [NEXT did not exist when the alumni who were the focus of the present study returned from their trips].

In addition, most participants from these early cohorts are now beyond the ages targeted by such programs.

Finally, and in contrast to the present situation, early participants returned to campuses and communities that had fewer Birthright alumni. The present evidence suggests that a high quality peer experience in Israel, even in the absence of such programs, produces significant long-term effects. However, the needs of more recent program alumni who, on average, have lower levels of prior Jewish education, may be different.

Danny Gordis is a gifted writer, and he frequently hits the nail on the head. In his recent debate with Jay Michaelson (see here and here), I’m with Danny. But in his column today, I think Danny shows his hand to be simply another suit of the fatalism of which he accuses Jay.

Danny closes his column thus:

In today’s individualistic America, the drama of the rebirth of the Jewish people creates no goose bumps and evokes no sense of duty or obligation. Add the issue of Palestinian suffering, and Israel seems worse than irrelevant – it’s actually a source of shame.

We’re not terribly alarmed, but we should be. These young American Jews, after all, will soon control the coffers of the federations, and will sit on the boards of synagogues. Their generation will either strengthen or abandon AIPAC, the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), and the American Jewish Committee (AJC). They will be the ones allocating funding to schools, setting curricula and communal priorities.

“Who is wise?” asks the Talmud. “He who can see what is about to happen.” Deep down, we know what’s about to happen. A gaping chasm threatens the American-Israeli relationship, and we’re basically doing nothing. Try to list the serious Jewish educational enterprises addressing this challenge, asking how American Jewish education can counter America’s unfettered individualism, or what Israel could do to help.

Can you name one? Neither can I.

Now this is in keeping with the general theme of Danny’s writing for over ten years, which essentially boils down to the message: Diaspora Judaism is doomed to failure. All Jews should make aliyah.

Wake me up at three in the morning, and I would probably agree. As my wife would tell you, I can be given to pessimism, and I read the same writing on the wall as Danny Gordis. Thick forms of cultural expression have a hard time surviving in America, and Morris Allen’s observation about the relative popularity of lifecycle rituals over calendar rituals  fits with my own.

And yet, Danny gives no credit to those of us who actually are laboring here in galut to help the next generation of Jews write the story of their lives in dialogue with the enduring story of the Jewish people. He collapses into a heap of fatalistic loathing at the end of his column–I would even call it anger. And in this he violates the same principle for which he takes Jay Michaelson to task: he loses hope, he becomes bitter. “Better that you should lose a lot of money on Hillel’s account,” stated the founder of Rabbinic Judaism, “than that Hillel should lose his temper.”

Danny, I can tell you there is an army of Jewish professionals in the diaspora–too small, underfunded, undersupported, underappreciated, but dedicated, creative, passionate, and hardworking–who have dedicated their lives to not only asking, but answering “how American Jewish education can counter America’s unfettered individualism, or what Israel could do to help.” We do it in all variety of ways–in academic settings, on trips, in conversations. Most important, we do it through relationships–not by lobbing verbal bombs from Emek Refaim, but by opening our homes, sharing our lives, and giving them our hearts. And Danny, we send them to you in the form of students who study in Israel–not just Birthright, but before, during and after college. When we send them to you, we need you to inspire them to a love of Jewsh life–the way you used to do with your amazing rhetorical gifts. What we don’t need is for you to fill them with fear and bile, and turn them off to your message (as several of my students who have heard you recently have described).

Danny, your column today was over the line, and you would do well to apologize to all the people whose contributions you slighted. In the meantime, we’ll read Jonathan Sacks.

So the United Jewish Communities “Jewish Hero Awards Contest” has announced its 20 semifinalists. Conspicuously, nearly half of the names are Chabad shlichim (emissaries).
Granted that this is a popularity contest and therefore of no empirical value, it’s still worth asking the question: What does this suggest? There are a lot of possible ways to read these tea leaves:
From a game theory (sort of) angle:
– Chabad shlichim disproportionately inspire a deep connection with their communities, resulting in greater motivation on the part of those communities to nominate them for something like this.
– Chabad shlichim inspire deeper connections with a small number of people who themselves feel inspired to make a significant effort to get the shlichim nominated.
From a PR angle:
– Chabad as an organization was smarter about leveraging this PR opportunity than other organizations (Hillel did nothing to my knowledge, for instance, while Uri l’Tzedek did a great job, and therefore got Shmuly Yanklowitz on the list).
Do we want to go further? There’s lots to be said, but I feel like most of it has said before, and frankly these results don’t surprise many of us. I guess the real question–as usual–is what might the rest of us learn from these events?

The Talmud presents three stories about Hillel the Elder (Hillel Hazaken) and his counterpart, Shammai, and their interactions with converts. In each of the stories, Hillel is generous and welcoming, where Shammai shoos them away.

In the first of these stories, the would-be convert comes to Shammai and asks him “How many Torahs do you have?” Shammai tells him there are two: the Written Torah and the Oral Torah. The convert tells Shammai he will convert to Judaism if he only needs to accept the Written Torah. Shammai “became furious with him and ejected him with a rebuke.” He then went to Hillel, who accepted him under the same conditions. Hillel began to teach him the Hebrew alphabet–aleph, bet, gimel, dalet, etc. The next day Hillel reversed the order, teaching the convert that dalet was first, gimel second, etc. The convert said to Hillel, “But yesterday you taught me the opposite!” Hillel responded: “Evidently you put your trust in me to teach you the alphabet. So trust me about the Oral Law as well.” (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 31a)

We studied this story in our weekly staff Torah learning this morning. What stuck us as we read it was that Hillel is willing to establish a relationship, to build trust–faith–with the convert, and then to up the ante once trust is established. He is presented here as the consummate educator, the teacher who meets his student where the student is, and on the basis of a trusting relationship brings the student to greater knowledge and commitment.

Another story we studied this morning demonstrates a second aspect of trust: “One day Hillel the Elder was returning from a journey. As he approached his neighborhood he heard cries. He said, ‘I am confident that the cries do not come from my house.’ This is an illustration of the verse (Psalms 112:7), ‘He is not afraid of evil tidings, his heart is firm, he trusts in the Lord.'” (Avot d’Rebbe Natan 15:3)

Here Hillel is presented as someone with ultimate trust, or faith, in God. This can easily be mis-read as a kind of naive faith. I don’t think that’s what the text is trying to say. Hillel’s attitude towards life is calm and resilient; his first instinct is not to worry, but rather to firmly trust in the strength of his heart and the support of God.

Trust and faith thus figure prominently in both of these stories, as they do generally in the stories of Hillel. What makes Hillel such a compelling figure is his emunah, his faith. Not, as I stated earlier, a naive or blind faith, but rather a faith that leads him to act generously and graciously, to never lose his temper, to focus on the possibilities of human encounters rather than on their risks.

As we enter Shabbat Shuva and Yom Kippur, Hillel reminds us of the kind of person we aspire to be–patient, giving, and secure in his faith.

Shabbat shalom – Gemar chatima tova.

I’m spending the week at Camp Ramah Darom for the fourth annual Hillel Engagement Institute. Good stuff being discussed, and I’ll try to write one or two more dispatches before I’m done.

I actually managed to have a late-night discussion with my roommate for the week, Dan Libenson. (I say this because usually at these conferences I just wind up falling asleep, and the much-anticipated late night discussion doesn’t actually materialize. Not so in this case.) Among the things we talked about was a mutual friend’s idea for creating a building–a space–in an urban center to enable post-college Jews to do what they did in Hillel, namely show up and create Jewish life in the way they want to.

My response to this was that I think our friend was asking the wrong question. The question to start with, it seems to me, isn’t, “What does Hillel do?” but “What does college do?” Yes, Hillel is particularly special in the Jewish world, but that’s only because college is special within the larger structure of life. “Bright college years with pleasures rife, the shortest, gladdest years of life,” as my alma mater goes. College is the time and place when we show up and feel like we can do anything; Hillel is simply the Jewish manifestation of it. And since college is never re-created later in life (I could be wrong there, and I’d love to hear your thoughts about that), Hillel is also never re-created.

So the question to ask then is, “What do people take with them from college? And what would this teach us about what they can and should take with them from Hillel?” (This article from today’s Inside Higher Ed provides a nice insight.) In our conversation last night, Dan and I identified a few things that people carry away from college: Knowledge and skills, values, habits, relationships, and memories. No doubt there are others. The combination of these things may well result in the kind of nostalgia (love?) people tend to have for college (see the alma mater song quoted above), because college is associated with these very formative elements of our identities.

By implication, Hillel should be providing Jewish knowledge and skills, Jewish values, Jewish habits, Jewish relationships, and Jewish memories. And that’s largely what we do. But now try to define all those things–and you have what I spend most of my working life trying to figure out.

Last night NU Hillel hosted a fantastic end-of-year appreciation reception. Four years ago I couldn’t have imagined it–well, I could have, but we were a long way from making it happen. 120 people, from an immense diversity of Jewish backgrounds, sharing stories, eating yummy treats, and enjoying Jewish life together. I am profoundly proud, and deeply grateful. Here are two videos from the event (which also represent my first foray into editing). Thanks to Shauna Perlman for shooting the footage.