Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Do Synagogues Have a Future?

Institutions are always a product of the times in which they are created. Jewish Institutions, doubly so. Lately, many of these institutions, which form the backbone of the organized Jewish world, have had their very need questioned by young adults and others who see them as relics of another time.

Jewish hospitals, community centers and specific social services were all created to provide services for Jews which they often could not receive elsewhere. Fast forward to the present day and we find few institutions from whose most inner sanctums we are excluded. Conversely, when barriers and quotas fell, Jews enthusiastically embraced these institutions.

But surely, synagogues, which are very specifically Jewish, and whose purpose is not made redundant by other institutions have remained essential, right?

With young adults choosing not to affiliate, synagogues are getting pretty worried.
Enter Synagogue 3000, an organization seeking to help imagine and create the next generation of synagogues and young adult engagement.

S3K has encouraged what they call a 'relational' approach to Jewish engagement, stressing relationships over membership (sound familiar?), capacity building over pocketbook pandering, and a long term and more national view of the Jewish community.

This past weekend, S3K hosted a 'Next Dor Conversation', in which they invited Rabbis, Jewish professionals, and lay leaders to learn from the five initial Next Dor sites, including our very own in St. Louis. In addition to presentations by each site as to its approach and results, Steven Cohen, Sociologist of American Jewry, presented some early findings from a survey conducted of participants of all sites. His results showed increased participation, increased identification, and increased integration into the Jewish community across all sites.

Cohen's main point was this: young adults are waiting longer to get married, synagogues' main demographic are married couples, and therefore, the work that needs to be done is to keep people engaged long enough so that when they get married, the synagogue is an obvious next step.

Four of Next Dor St. Louis's crew were flown to New York to attend the conference, to present, participate, and schmooze. This opportunity provided them the opportunity to both showcase their work and the city, while exposing them to new ideas and individuals.

Judging by the enthusiasm and compliments received by the St. Louis delegation, it is clear that Next Dor STL is not only making an impact locally, but is getting the attention of serious Jewish thinkers, activists, and professionals around the country.

What will this mean for the future of traditional Jewish institutions, synagogues in particular? We aren't quite sure, but it certainly is exciting.
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Thursday, October 14, 2010

Muslims Who Saved Jews: Groundbreaking Exhibition Hits St. Louis

In the dark story of the Holocaust, some of the few bright spots were the lives saved by individuals who put their own safety at risk. In the case of Jews being saved by those outside the faith, the State of Israel honors them as 'righteous among the nations'. Rarely, though, have we heard of the Albanian Muslims who saved some 2000 Jews during this period.

A new exhibition of photographs of these brave individuals is coming to St. Louis.

From the press release:

In 2003, renowned photographer Norman Gershman embarked on a project to find and photograph Albanian Muslim families who had sheltered and saved Jews - both Albanian nationals and refugees from neighboring countries - during World War II.

By 2004, after two photographic journeys to Albania and Kosovo, he had discovered roughly 150 Muslim families who had taken part in the rescue of the Jews due to their belief in Besa, or honor, an ancient code which requires Albanians to endanger their own lives if necessary to save the life of anyone seeking asylum.

Besa is, to this day, the highest moral law of the region, superseding religious differences, blood feuds and tribal traditions.

The result of Gershman’s journey, striking images of these families, as well as their stunning stories, will be on display for the first time in St. Louis at Temple Emanuel from October 21 to December 1, 2010.

The free exhibit can be viewed at Temple Emanuel, 12166 Conway Road, in Creve Coeur Thursdays from 5 to 8 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 4 p.m., and by appointment.

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Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Visionaries, Opulence, and Cold Hard Cash

One of the classic tactics in fundraising (and many other types of businesses) is to throw a big event. You make it the place to be, create an experience, and then watch the money flow in.

On Monday night, the Jewish Federation of St. Louis threw a bash to celebrate the three supporting family foundations, Lubin-Green, Krazberg, and Staenberg, who provide a huge amount of funding to the community.

The ritzy event took place at.. well the Ritz, and was quite a production. In addition to the open bars, and who's who (including the Mayor of St. Louis, the County Executive, the Senator, and the Governor), the $250 per seat dinner included entertainment from Michael Feinstein, famous singer, pianist, and music revivalist. Feinstein, at 54, was ever the entertainer, laying on the Jewish pretty thick for the audience. His smile, sealed against his teeth by what appeared to be a fresh session of Botox, was both endearing and frightening.

As one of the 30 under 30 there (not as in the award, but as in there probably were seriously only 30 people there under the age of 30), I have to say it was a totally different world.

But behind the glitz and glamor, the opulence and spectacle was a clear purpose. The Federation was looking to do what it does best: raise money. The event hoped to bring in $300,000, as well as to encourage people to set up gifts to Federation as part of their estate, as something they are calling 'Legacy' gifts.

In the current economy, not only has Federation's fundraising take been down, the needs have skyrocketed.

And so, the Visionaries event was put together and, as productions go, it was nearly flawless. Sure, the community wanted to honor some of the largest philanthropists, but in doing so, the Federation is sending some clear messages that it expects other well resourced-families to step up and pull their weight. As a former student of psychology, I can appreciate the modeling effect. Not only do you encourage a behavior by rewarding it, you can also use this reward to socialize others as to what is expected behavior.

Whether or not the Federation pulls in quite as much as they initially planned for, the event will likely be seen as a huge success in the community and put the Federation back at top of mind for many of those present.
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Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Nu Campaign Connects with Mattisyahu for Haiti Relief

While the initial outpouring of support for victims of Haiti's devastating earthquakes was immense, the world's attention span is short. And though the aid has decreased, the need has not.

One group that was on the ground immediately after the disaster was the Israel Center for the Treatment of Psychotrauma, which set up a field hospital to deal with the most pressing needs on the ground.

The Nu Campaign, which designs and sells shirts to raise awareness and dollars for Israeli causes has just launched a new shirt targeting this issue.

In a video clip launched by NU Campaign this week, Matisyahu explains his motivation to support ICTP: "It's not about Jewish or non-Jewish or where you are from. It's about human beings helping other humans".

"In the wake of the 250,000 deaths and a dire humanitarian situation, Professor Danny Brom, Director of ICTP and other staff flew into Haiti, working with parents and teachers, teaching them coping and resilience skills and providing support to the volunteers.

They are now in the process of launching a three-year therapy program within the Haitian education system.

Among their responses to global disasters, ICTP have sent teams to Sri Lanka in the wake of the Tsunami and the USA in the wake of Hurricane Katrina."

David Kramer, the force behind the Nu Campaign, was a fellow this summer at PresenTense where we had the chance to work side by side. His shirts are unique in that, not only do the proceeds benefit non-profits, but the front design rarely explains the message, an intentional omission, due to the full message being contained on the inside of the shirt. As David explains it, the outer message is meant to encourage dialog, while the full message is carried close to the heart of the individual wearing the shirt. Learn more about the Nu campaign here
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Friday, October 1, 2010

Simchat Torah Asks, Why SO Serious?

The Jewish High Holidays are a rollercoaster of emotion. We are happy with the start of a new year, yet pensive and introspective as we reach Yom Kippur, reaching that spiritual high that only comes after a certain amount of emotional agony. During Sukkot, we again rejoice, while thinking about the temporary status of this corporeal life and the possessions we cannot take with us. And so, the sheer unabashed joy of Simchat Torah is a bit of a relief.

Simchat Torah, literally the joy of, or rejoicing in the Torah, is one of these holidays in which we seek to approach an ecstatically joyful state, without the 'on the other hand' which characterizes so many of our experiences.

Too often, we put restrictions on ourselves, on the degrees to which we will experience or partake of certain emotions, experiences, or opportunities. And usually this is a good thing. Unreturned love causes pain, so we feel out our partners to make sure we aren't somewhere they aren't. Overindulgence in food, alcohol, or just about anything else has both immediate and long terms consequences. Even on other festive holidays, we rejoice, but often almost cautiously, remembering the evil we had to overcome in order to survive (and thus be able to eat and rejoice). Simchat Torah, though, is different.

One of my first memories of St. Louis comes from 'parent's weekend' at Wash U my freshman year, which happened to coincide with Simchat Torah. I was still fresh on campus, but at Bais Abe, the modern Orthodox Shul on the Delmar Loop, I felt able to let my guard down and boogie. Joy is contagious in that way.

While many religious rituals are heavy, somber, and often beyond our powers of understanding, the simple joy of celebration is one of the easiest traditions to follow. Chag Sameach. Read More......