Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Rise of the Meta-

As the internet started proliferating, a number of sites developed to try to make sense of the chaos.  Yahoo gained pre-eminence by warehousing links to all sorts of sites, and starting to group them together.  Webcrawler and other early search engines allowed you to go beyond browsing links and start finding specific content.  Google introduced advanced algorithms to refine those search results and help you find what you wanted faster and more precisely.  None of these technologies actually created content, they merely provided tools to help the average user to make sense and navigate the vast information already available.

This rise of the meta-, that is, not providing the direct content but cataloging it, reorganizing it, and synthesizing it, has bled over into many other facets of society.  And it has real consequences. Take media for example.  With the proliferation of share-able news via twitter, facebook, and other platforms, people are far less interested in the original source of the content, and are likely instead to find the content through an intermediary, either a friend or account they follow, or a news aggregator like Google News.  Sites like the Huffington Post, which creates only a fraction of the content it lists, have found popularity in instead curating the content that is most visible. Because each news site has its own webpage, facebook, and twitter accounts, the information is easily accessible, but the channel is increasingly saturated.  As such, the power has moved away from those who actually create the content to those who aggregate it and curate it, in other words, those functioning at the meta level.

In the Jewish organizational world, we seem to be seeing this trend as well.  As organizations like Moishe House proliferate, and as philanthropists and communities continue to put more resources behind young adult engagement, the amount of content (in this case, programming or events), has generally risen.  Many communities now have professionals working exclusively on engaging young adults, fully outside of a development context.  That is to say that communities are starting to try to connect to young adults without the immediate goal of asking them for money.  In major markets like Chicago, where the organizational landscape is quite robust, there are often several nights a week in which more than one young adult group is hosting something.  But even in Chicago, there are large numbers of young adults, even those who express interest in community involvement, who know little about the actual events and opportunities taking place.  This discovery gap creates a market opportunity for an organization to play the meta role, amassing the information and categorizing and curating it in a useful and share-able manner.

At a time with more and more consultants, and fewer and fewer people actually doing the work, those in the meta role are crucial for the discovery process, but also risk diverting resources from the work that must actually be done on the ground.

The danger in playing in the meta field is relatively simple:  If you rely totally on others to create the information you re-purpose, you have to be sure that there is sufficient high quality content to pull from.  As more Jewish organizations seek to play at the meta level, it is crucial that the landscape not become top heavy.  In other words, if we imagine the relationship between content (or program) providers and aggregators to be such that there must be many providers to one aggregator, we should be wary that there aren't more aggregators to the detriment of fewer providers.

Read More......

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Can you love Israel and still criticize it?

A central challenge has emerged in the American Jewish community's relationship to and support of Israel: How can we as American Jews, embodying an often secular and universalist worldview, support Israel without compromising our ethics or ignoring a complicated reality?

Many American Jews, particularly under 30, have solved this by simply ceasing their support.  Some have taken it upon themselves to prove their ideological credentials by actively working against the State of Israel through the BDS movement.  A middle ground, of sorts, holds that one can be 'Pro-Israel' without being Zionist, that is, that one can simultaneously support Israel and work for peace.  The recent move to the right by the Israeli government has challenged this view.

Jews have always had a sense of connection to the land and the people of Israel, but only in the past 63 years have we had a state as well. Recently, I came across a piece by a friend that recasts the issue in an interesting way.

Zoe Jick, who works with the World Zionist Organiztion and MASA, wrote an article in which she reframes the conversation by suggesting that Zionist means believing in the Utopian ideal of a Jewish homeland that is a light unto the nations.  Pro-Israel, she argues, is a measure of support for the government of Israel's policies.

AIPAC, the largest Pro-Israel lobby, claims that they support the relationship between the US and Israel and don't take political stances.  However, as the Israeli government's policies reflect an increasingly particularist view, and continue to empower the ultra-orthodox and settler minorities, it could be argued that an apolitical stance is still a nod in favor of the very political status quo.

Given this context, Jick suggests that we should reclaim the idea of Zionism, and use it as a base from which to criticize the policies and practices that are moving the very real State of Israel away from the ideals of the People of Israel.

Obviously, not everyone feels the way Jick does, and she was singled out in a recent opinion piece by Evelyn Gordon.  What you'll notice is that the author of this piece doesn't actually respond to Jick's ideas, merely takes quotes out of context to lament how terrible it is that even Jewish communal professionals can't be counted on to support Israel.  In doing so Gordon lays bare the rift between those who believe that there are legitimate areas for criticism, and that dissent is in fact the duty of those who truly love Israel, and those who believe that absolute support and defense of Israel is a responsibility of all Jews.

As the space for true dialogue contracts, ill-informed zealots from both sides of the isle are allowed to spin distortions, misinformation, and outright lies to an increasingly polarized consumer base.  Given this situation, is it a surprise that so many of us are simply tuning out?

Why don't we create spaces for REAL dialogue on these issues; safe spaces, with intellectual standards, in which we can discuss our feelings, our challenges, and our ideas without fear of recrimination?

In a Jewish world in which people have to take sides on issues of depth and subtlety, everyone loses.  We are too small of a people and the issues are too important to be co-opted by media trends of sound bytes and ad hominem attacks.  This Hanukkah, bring a little light into the world by studying the issues more deeply, withholding judgement in conversations, and engaging in real conversation. Read More......

Monday, December 5, 2011

Iran's nuclear program has been a cause of concern for Israel, who views its Persian neighbor as an existential threat, based on the the views expressed by the ruling regime. Iran's regime feels Israel is a threat, generally based on comments the Israeli's have made regarding the need to keep military options on the table to prevent a nuclear Iran. Sure, there have been a whole lot of cold war type actions going on recently, but the threat of all out war is such that Defense Secretary Panetta recently made explicit statements telling the Israelis not to bomb Iran. No matter how you feel about the saber-rattling between Israel and Iran, which has grown steadily over the past few years, you should know that most people think that all our military options are a bad idea. But don't take my word for it, the Oxford Research group has published a pretty comprehensive study of the potential effects of an Israeli campaign to derail Iran's nuclear program and concluded that it won't have the long-term positive outcomes to outweigh the costs.  You should read it. Read More......

Monday, November 21, 2011

The GA, Who, What, Why.

The General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America is probably the Jewy-est conference of the year. More than one thousand professionals, volunteer leaders, and students massed in Denver this year, but what is the conference about, who does it represent, and what does it accomplish? The GA is a yearly conference that attracts people from all over the world. With speakers ranging from politicians to entrepreneurs, sessions covering the gamut of trends in the Jewish world, and intense networking, it is often seen as a must-do conference, or the belly of the beast, simply a matter of perspective. For ease of reading, let's break this down into a couple sections.

Who Attends the GA?
The GA is not cheap.  For a young adult registering early, you are out $500, plus flights, hotel, and any other incidentals.  Registration can reach almost $1000 if you are late and advanced in years.  For this reason, the vast majority of people attending have someone else footing the bill.  These people are basically broken down into professionals, that is, people working in the Jewish community, for whom their organization (meaning the donors to their organization) have covered the cost, or students, for whom Hillel (meaning the donors to Hillel) have provided a large subsidy.  There are also a number of volunteer professionals or donors who are very involved in their local Federations, who have either merited subsidies through their leadership, or are affluent enough to swallow the cost.  Also, anyone looking to sell anything to a Jewish Federation or Hillel is probably making an appearance, too.

What Happens at the GA?
Officially, there are any number of sessions, covering leadership, Israel updates, ideas on advocacy, trends in philanthropy, and about anything else you could imagine.  These sessions often take the form of single speakers or panels of community experts.  I went to one such panel speaking about how to best leverage the energy of young adults returning from Israel trips.  Interestingly, the audience for the session leaned younger, with many of the questions they asked taking the brazen form of, "why haven't you created X for me or given me the opportunity to do Y".  Several of the questions also acknowledged the vast investments being made in sending young adults to Israels and expressed appreciation for those efforts.

This, however, isn't where the real action of the GA was taking place.  The real action is in the lobby, the lounge, and at the bar.  Many professionals take the opportunity of so many of their colleagues congregating in one place to set up endless meetings.  Ideas are shared, opportunities pitched, and business closed.  When it is all said and done, this is where the value of the GA really lies: the network.

Jewish Geography
It is almost cliche to speak of Jewish geography, but it is also an incredibly powerful shared activity and experience that binds together so many of the participants.  A recent study done by facebook and the University of Madrid found the average distance between two people to be 4.74 'hops'.  At the GA, the maximum was 2....maybe.  Everyone went to school, camp, youth group, Israel, or worked with your friend, your uncle, your sister.  It is simultaneously comforting and terrifying when you meet a former Defense Minister of Israel and end up getting invited to his house for Persian food by his wife because you know his daughter through her boyfriend.

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Friday, October 7, 2011

For Those About To Fast, Slow Down.

Judaism is, at its core, an agrarian religion. That is to say that our roots quite literally lay in the soil, in the natural cycles of the year, the seasons (at least as they exist in the land of Israel), and an understanding of the interconnectedness of all things.

Many of us wonder about the timing of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Isn’t it odd, that just as the colors are changing, an early sign as to natural decay, that we would start our new year? In Israel, however, the end of the hot summer marks the beginning of the rainy season, by far the most important season for the creation and sustanance of the plant life upon which our forebearers relied.

While Rosh Hashanah and the ideas of renewal and rebirth, sweetness, and beginnings seem upbeat and carefree, Yom Kippur is often more difficult for us to comprehend. If we begin the year with (over)consumption, we somewhat quickly shift to a period of abstention, we literally fast. In Jewish tradition and culture, which is obsessed with food, what is the meaning of this conscious and intentional removal of food from our most important of days?

For us as Jews, recognizing the sources of foods that sustain our lives, must be an intentional act. In our Jewish codes of food ethics, known as kashrut, we are told not to boil a kid in its mother’s milk. While we all can understand the cruelty of this act, most commentators believe that what is most offensive about it is that it mixes milk, a symbol and giver of life, with meat, quite literally the product of death.

If food is necessary for life, then its absence must be necessary for our simulation of death. And this abstention gives us an opportunity to think about our sustanence, spiritually as well as physically. As we repeat incantations and formulations designed to convince our creator to be merciful and grant us continued existence despite our manifold flaws, we may also think about our responsibilities to the systems that sustain us on a day to day basis.

There is a tradition that Yom Kippur is an elaborate ritual meant to be reminiscent of our final moments of life. Traditionally, we wear white, symbolizing the simple garb meant for Jewish burial. We take all of the Torahs out of the ark, leaving it exposed, like a coffin, and we confess our sins and repent. We also refrain from all earthly pleasures, among them, sex, and food. Many Jews refrain from wearing leather belts or shoes. We do this to attempt to approach this moment, simulating our death, absent of the impurities which often keep us from attaining our highest spiritual potential. Ultimately, we recognize death and life as part of the same cycle, but only in the separation, do we find the convergence. In facing death, we hope to inscribe ourselves in the book of life.

In fact, this intense focus on separating life from death pervades kashrut and other Jewish customs, from the laws of slaughtering meat to ensure the transition from life to death is as quick as possible, to the salting of meat to remove any blood, to a prohibition against eating animals that are scavengers, eating other animals that may have been dead for some time.

This focus on separation, comes into play on a larger scale as well. As Jews, as compared to other religions that often focus on life after death, our duty is to impact the world we currently inhabit. We know that our current world often conflates life and death. For an illustration of this, we need not look further than industrialized farming, which literally takes millenia of decomposed organic matter in the form of petroleum to power huge operations that do not have no time or consideration for the animals while they are alive. The resulting waste indtroduced into this system often runs off into our water supply, further tainting the potential for future existence. The first step in repairing the world, is to cause less damage to it.

Yom Kippur offers us an opportunity to step off of the wheel of consumption, to remove ourselves from a system that sustains us with cheap food at an incredible hidden cost, if only for a day. If we take the fast as an opportunity to set an intention for our consumption post-break-fast, we might find we are able to make changes to how we approach our food, our environment, and by extension, our lives.

May your fast be meaningful. Tzom Kal. And may you be sealed in the book of life for a happy and healthy new year, Gmar Chatima Tovah.

Read More......

Monday, June 6, 2011

ROI - The Global Young Leadership Network

This Sunday in Jerusalem, 150 of the most innovative young Jewish leaders from around the world will converge to build a global network. This convening, under the name ROI, is a relatively recent initiative of Lynn Schusterman and her foundation, which has grown into prominence in the Jewish entrepreneurship movement.

The goal of the summit is, "to connect and create new tools and novel approaches to shape the Jewish world and beyond."

A recent press release explains:

ROI Community is an international network of 600 social entrepreneurs and Jewish innovators in 40 countries on six continents who are creating innovative ways to connect to Jewish life.

“These young Jewish social entrepreneurs are transforming the Jewish world through their vital initiatives and commitment to tikkun olam, repairing the world,” said Lynn Schusterman, the American Jewish philanthropist who, in 2005, created ROI Community as a partnership with Taglit-Birthright Israel. “As change agents within their own communities, in Israel and beyond, these 20- and 30-somethings are key to ensuring the vibrancy of Jewish life 3,000 years down the road.”
Innovators in St. Louis have played a role in previous years' summits, including Hershey Novack, Chabad on Campus Rabbi, Michael Novack, CEO of Kiosite, and Lindsay Citerman of Omanoot. This year, Yoni Sarason, a founder of Moishe House St. Louis, Next Dor and will attend.

Stay tuned to The St. Lou Jew for blogging from the Summit.
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Friday, June 3, 2011

Jewish Confluence

As I was helping a friend work on her Hebrew pronunciation over the phone, I realized there was one word I didn't know whether or how to correct. It was the word for immersion. You see, this friend was preparing for her immersion in the mikvah as the final step of her conversion process.

This morning was the first time I'd been to a mikvah for a conversion. While many of our close family friends were converts (something I only vaguely knew growing up), their paths to Judaism had been formalized long before I could remember.

Knowing the history of hardships and expulsions, the first thing said to a person expressing interest in converting is usually along the lines of, "are you nuts?" But to see the process from beginning to end, as I had the good fortune to do, is really quite amazing.

Growing up in a Jewish home, with a Reform Rabbi for a father, going to a Conservative Shul, living in an Orthodox neighborhood, I have so deeply internalized many of the aspects of Jewish life that it is hard to understand the path of a convert.

To see much of the wisdom we take for granted as Jews, light up another's face is remarkable.

Transitioning back into the real world, try shopping for a 'Mazal Tov on your conversion' card anywhere other than The Source... it ain't easy. So when I informed the nice woman at the card shop on Euclid in the Central West End what I was looking for, I wasn't surprised when she didn't have much by way of wares to offer. I was surprised, however, when she told me that she was Jewish too and that her beautiful 22 year old daughter is in Tempe. I repaid the favor by name dropping the Hillel Rabbi down there, a good family friend, who, it turns out, had been her daughter's professor recently. The woman gave me her daughter's name and made me promise to send her a facebook message.

I should remember to tell my recently converted friend this story, to make sure she knows just what type of people, exactly, she has become a part of.
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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Congrats to 10 Young Pros Chosen for the 2011 Rubin Israel Trip

This was originally posted at, but it is great news for area young adults:

Hilary Bair, Hilary Cedergreen, Jason Cohen, Vadi Dodge, Stephen Lieberman, Lisa Nixon, Cheryl Perry, Jennifer Scissors, Doug Snyder, Lisa Suffian will soon be taking the trip of a lifetime to Israel -- for the first time. They are the 10 young professionals chosen for the 2011 Rubin Israel Experience which is from Sunday, Oct. 30, through Wednesday, Nov. 9. The trip is being offered by Jewish Federation of St. Louis and underwritten by philanthropists Ron and Pam Rubin.

This is the 4th Rubin Israel Experience. Forty young adults have been chosen to participate in this experience since it was launched in 2008. The Rubins created the unique trip for St. Louis Jews between the ages of 27-40. The purpose is to address one of the most important issues facing the Jewish community – how to engage young Jewish adults, forge connections that build community and cultivate young leadership. This is the first and only program of its type in the country for this age group.

The group will meet and connect with Israelis. They will learn about the country from the source – soldiers, VIPS, men and women on the street. The itinerary will include an opportunity to see most of the country and visit the historic spots -- Massada, the Dead Sea, sacred sites in Jerusalem. One of the trip’s highlights is time in St. Louis Partnership 2000 sister-city region Yokneam-Megiddo.

“The Rubin Israel Experience is a unique way for a first-timer to dig below the surface of Israeli society, to make a personal connection with the land and to build relationships with not only each other, but with everyday Israelis,” said Margo Newman, Jewish Federation development professional who staffs the Rubin Israel Experience. “The participants not only get a strong overview of the country, they get a good look at what the North American Jewish community funds through visits to JDC and JAFI sites and to St. Louis’ sister-city to really understand how their gifts make a difference.”

It is the goal of the Rubin family to recruit young professionals for these trips to continue to inspire a new generation of strong St. Louis Jewish community leaders. “Part of the mission is to strengthen Jewish pride and identity in each of the participants and have them bring this back with them and spread their stories to the community. It is an initial step in building future community leaders and in five to 10 years, many of these young adults will move into positions of top leadership in our community,” said Pam Rubin.

During the 10-day trip, participants in the Rubin Israel Experience will blog on with personal stories, photos, video and more.

Jewish Federation of St. Louis is the Jewish community’s central philanthropic, planning and community-building organization. Founded in 1901, it is one of the region’s most respected and effective nonprofit organizations. Federation is committed to the ongoing development and enhancement of a thriving Jewish community through a family of more than 50 local, national and international agencies, programs, services and innovative projects. Federation’s annual Community Campaign and ongoing Planned Giving opportunities raise funds necessary to provide services to engage both young families with children and young adults, support Jewish learning, educate and advocate for a strong Israel and safe Jewish world, and provide a safety net for vulnerable Jews. Find out more at Jewish Federation is a proud member of the United Way.

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Monday, May 16, 2011

On the Importance of Partnerships

The Jewish communal world, which started to bring together and find synergies amongst the many Jewish non profit agencies often has a hard time collaborating with new comers. Organizations have staked out their funders, their niche, and working with others might be seen as acknowledging that they are less than perfect. Sure, we've covered this before, but it is worth repeating, particularly in regards to some new developments.

Good partnerships allow organizations to supplement their effectiveness by taking advantage of the strengths of one another.

Recently, Next Dor and the Jewish Federation of St. Louis have begun testing a partnership with Birthright Israel NEXT. Birthright NEXT has a presence in a number of major American cities, with staff and program budgets that have proved effective in reaching out to past Birthright participants and helping them engage in Jewish life and community. In cities like St. Louis, NEXT has not had the staff to support its program, and has been looking for partnerships to extend its impact.

Locally, the Jewish Federation has made young adult engagement a top priority and has put money behind it by funding a position to do Birthright follow-up. Next Dor, as a local conduit for young adults and activities is always looking to expend the number of people connected to it.

As you can see, there is a lot to work with.

One of the tangible results is this page, on Birthright NEXT's site, listing young adult focused events in St. Louis.

By focusing on what each organization brings to the table, each organization is able to be more effective with minimum additional spend.

Partnerships like this will be crucial to the next chapter in the Jewish communal world in which dollars are tighter, resources are stretched, and collaboration is essential Read More......

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Programs versus People

Next week, starting Monday night, starts the holiday of Passover, often regarded as the single most observed Jewish event of the year (unless you count Chinese food on Christmas).

As many Jewish young adults return to their families for Seders, a large number will be targeted for 'young adult seders', programs organized or paid for by Federations, foundations, and other sources. While many of these programs will be incredibly positive for those who attend, they are rarely a substitute for the familiar familial settings.

It was this realization that caused me to start thinking about the situation in which we find ourselves, where programming has replaced people.

I am, on a weekly basis, invited to tens of events, ranging from fundraisers, concerts, panel discussions, and Jewish educational, social, cultural, and religious events.

The chance that I might actually get to have a Shabbat dinner with a few friends, instead of being at a 'Shabbat Dinner Program' is pretty slim. Or at least it was.

You see, organizations, from the Jewish Federation to Moishe House, Next Dor, and on down the line often confuse outcomes with outputs, substituting the number of programs and of participants at these programs for the actual larger goal of creating a Jewish community.

Perhaps this is a result of the non-profit industrial complex, that is to say that in trying to make our work comply with for-profit standards of return-on-investment, that we are forced to view people as widgets.

Jewish community isn't about the number of Shabbat programs I go to, but rather if I have a solid group of friends with whom I am regularly able to have a Shabbat dinner.

This doesn't mean programs aren't valuable. Providing someone, particularly a transplant with a place for Seder can be very powerful, but when we try to use the Seder to leverage other programs, instead of focusing on the people, the relationships, and the experience, I believe that something is lost.

On Passover, we celebrate leaving 'Mitzrayim', the Hebrew for Egypt, but literally translating to 'the narrow place'. It is therefore fitting that we should try to escape narrowly viewing our work as the number of programs we create and recognize that the programs are the vehicle to get us to the destination, they are not the destination itself..

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Monday, April 11, 2011

What's Good for Jewish Young Adults in April

Got Passover Plans?

Passover starts Monday night, April 18th, do you need a place for Seder? Chabad is hosting young adult seders both nights, Rabbi Shafner of Bais Abe is opening up his house, and Central Reform is placing young adults with families. For some light reading, check out NEXT Dor's idea for a '5th Question' on Birthright NEXT's webzine, Alef.

The Main Event(s)

Thursday, April 14 - Next Dor's Organic Garden kicks off and you can help. From 4 PM until it gets dark, help dig, plant, and make the garden bloom. If you have access to spades, wheelbarrows, or tillers, let Next Dor know: or RSVP here

Thursday, April 14 Young Adults at Bais Abe (YABA) in conjunction with Next Dor St. Louis and JGrads St. Louis presents the 2nd Annual Pre-Passover Wine Tasting (back by popular demand)! FEATURING *A choice variety of kosher for Passover wines for your tasting pleasure *An assortment of cheeses and fruits to cleanse the palate (and because... we like cheese and fruit) 7:00pm - 10:00pm at Bais Abe 6910 Delmar Boulevard Saint Louis, MO

Saturday, April 16 · Moishe House is hosting a Shabbat Brunch. Begin your Saturday the best way possible...with Moishe House STL for Shabbat brunch. Appetizers, drinks, and desserts are always welcome! 11:00am - 2:00pm at 915 Concordia Ln Clayton, MO

Sunday, April 24th, Moishe House is hosting a Rock-a-Thon to raise money alongside Mizzou's AEPi for charity. 1:00PM at 915 Concordia

Wednesday April 27th - YPD hosts Benyamin Cohen, the Atlanta-born son of an Orthodox rabbi, traveled around the Bible belt visiting various places of worship to find out why Christians seem so excited about Christianity. He wrote this humorous yet sincere account of how this transformative experience impacted his own spirituality and Jewish identity. 7 PM at Fallon's Bar and Grill in Olivette. Contact Lee’at Bachar at or 314-442-3817 to RSVP or with questions.

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Thursday, April 7, 2011

Next Dor's 5th Question

This story originally appears on Birthright Israel NEXT's blog, Alef and can be found here

Next Dor’s 5th Question

We’ve asked Jewish educators and organizations all over North America to add a fifth question to the Seder – one that will inspire us to make Passover meaningful for today’s Jewish world. Find out more about our 5th Question project.

This 5th Question comes from Next Dor -

Passover, it turns out, is the most celebrated Jewish holiday of the year. More than Shabbat, more than Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur. Even ‘high holiday only’ Jews usually make it to a Seder. If Passover, then, is the most important Jewish holiday (by participation), and the Four Questions are the most important parts of the Seder, a fifth question must be taken quite seriously. After all, the Four Questions cut to the heart of the narrative, forcing us to think about our meal as more than just the sum of the foods and people assembled therein. Therefore, I propose a straightforward question, one that it seems is taken for granted by many, but altogether unclear for so many other in our community.

The question is: “Why be Jewish?”

Ok, I know it isn’t in the standard format of ‘why on this night do we do this or do we not do this’, but I think it is probably the most important question in the Jewish world that receives the least amount of attention. Particularly in a time in which so many young adults born to Jewish parents are not identifying with the Jewish community in ways previous generations did, when Antisemitism seems so foreign, and when Israel is so mired in conflict, identifying with and participating in the Jewish community isn’t a given.

I believe that asking this question at the Seder would be quite powerful. Particularly after spending so much of the Seder identifying with our ancestors of old and their struggles, asking and answering the question ‘why’ should we be Jewish today and build the Jewish community in the future would be a strong reaffirmation of our people-hood. It also might give us a chance to really listen to those we consider ‘unaffiliated’ or ‘disengaged’. We might just learn a thing or two and find deeper answers for ourselves as to why we choose, in an age of science, secularism, and sectarianism, to be Jewish.

Next Dor is a platform and program to empower young adults to build Jewish community that is relevant and vibrant. Based out of a renovated house, Next Dor provides the resources and opportunities to bring young adults together in an informal and non-institutional setting.

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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Collapse of Kol Am: An Unfortunate One-Off, or An Early Warning?

This story was just sent out by STL Jewish Federation Exec Barry Rosenberg and I thought it was pretty relevant to a lot of the issues being faced in the Jewish community, but also in the larger community in St. Louis (and I'm sure in a few other places as well).

The Jewish Light reported last week that congregation Kol Am, a Reform congregation of 70 families in Chesterfield, was closing after 37 years. This just four years after relocating to a brand new, beautiful, 22,000 sq. ft. building. Due to fiscal issues, Rabbi Severine Haziza-Sokol was placed on unpaid leave toward the end of last year.

Why? Burdened by debt and challenged by the economic crisis, the congregation wasn't able to attract enough new families - even though it had an angel funder and very strong supplementary revenue stream from bingo - to meet loan obligations. The congregation had only grown from 50 to 70 families after the move.

It is not my purpose or place to evaluate past decisions, and certainly not to be critical. I was present for the groundbreaking and toured the new facility. I worked with Rabbi Haziza-Sokol. The new building represented a compelling vision. Generous donors made the vision seem attainable. Congregants held deep affection and worked hard for its success. They even explored the difficult option of merger - thinking a brand new building would be an attraction; but could not find a partner. No, my purpose is to sound a warning.

Numerous St. Louis Jewish institutions - congregations, day schools, organizations - face similar severe challenges. Simply put, in a shrinking Jewish community, when traditional institutions hold less attraction for young Jews, we have too much very expensive infrastructure - capital and administrative. Even if the population held steady, there are compelling reasons to explore collaboration, consolidation and shared administration and purchasing. That is why the Federation is assisting other organizations considering merger and taking the lead to bring Jewish organizations together to buy insurance more cheaply, invest funds more productively and fundraise more effectively.

The desire to carry on despite clear trend lines is understandable. No one wants to give up an institution that he or she (or one's parents) sacrificed. They are filled with powerful memories and friends. We have come to find meaning, to feel at home and at peace. They reflect our particular approach to Jewish life. These are deeply personal feelings. As Norman Berkowitz, President of Kol Am, was quoted, "Even if there are warning signs that a few years down the road they are going to be in more serious trouble, they'll take the gamble."

But what of the aftermath? A Rabbi out of a job. Sadness, loss for sure; but also likely are feelings of anger, frustration, and depression. Strained friendships? Will some families now just walk away from Jewish life? Does it have to be so painful?

The marketplace is unfeeling. Left to market forces, unfortunately other St. Louis Jewish organizations will fail - and the same outpouring of grief and anger can ensue. Faced with overwhelming odds, wouldn't it be wiser to be proactive? To seek a solution in an orderly way? There will still be loss... but maybe tragedy can be averted. Last week, Nishmah, the St. Louis Jewish Women's Project - announced that it will become a program department of the JCC and move to the new Arts & Education Department. Synergy will sustain the unique role that Nishmah fills in our community.

Beyond survival, it really is a matter of impact. An organization that is facing financial collapse, lurching from financial crisis to financial crisis, cannot muster the energy, focus or human resources to provide services of excellence. In fact, cutbacks, shortcuts, and desperate moves made to avert collapse result in a vicious cycle of declining users, financial and mission vitality.

The desire to sustain our Jewish traditions and institutions is noble. But our commitment to Dor l'Dor (generation to generation) means we must look forward as much as we honor the past. The challenge to the current generation of Jewish leaders is to make the wise and often tough decisions that will sustain a vibrant, inviting Jewish community for those who follow us. This is as much a moral responsibility as it is a practical one. May we learn from the loss of Kol Am... and wish its congregants, former Rabbi, and employees only good for the future. Read More......

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

How Much is Too Much? Is Facebook Killing Friendship?

Whether or not you know with all of your facebook friends, the site has made it far easier to stay in touch with friends from different stages of life. But how many of these people can you actually stay friends with?

Imagine a stereotypical Jewish kids, who goes through youth group and camp in addition to K-12 and college, where they might have joined a sorority or fraternity and 5 student groups. Each phase, group, and activity has contributed to the immense social network the hold once they leave university. Where as this might have lead to a build up of an email address book or AIM buddy list, now, without trying, we can stay up to date on all of our friends. Quite literally, the hardest part of maintaining the 'relationship', namely the active attention it took to reach out and check in, has been removed as a barrier to knowing what is going on in a person's life. This shift from active to passive allows us to 'keep in touch' with a much larger number of people, and ensures that falling out of touch isn't something that happens accidentally.

It is often said that we cannot have more than 150 friends. The average number of confirmed friends on Facebook is 120. But if you grew up with Facebook in high school, used it in college, and are comfortable with the fact that Facebook 'friends' stretch even the meaning of acquaintance, you likely have several hundred. At minimum.

One of the four noble truths of Buddhism is that attachment is a source of suffering. As our social networks continue to expand at alarming rates (effectively tracking every person we meet and when), it seems natural that we would begin to be weighed down by our attachments, as casual as they may be. Because we often add friends without categorizing them on Facebook, we are often combing through status updates of people we don't know well, might not care much about, of have little interest in. Sure, Facebook's algorithms will reduce that noise over time to those with whom we interact with most, but the sheer number of birthday reminders and messages we get continues to blur the line between 'real' friend and Facebook friend.

If we are simultaneously able to have more attachment, while the quality of that attachment is lowered (by the lower threshold needed to count as a friend), then we are indeed likely to become crushed under the weight of too many acquaintances.

So what to do? Some people are swearing off Facebook altogether, or opt for 'Personal Network' sites like Path, I think it is still possible to effectively use Facebook for both personal and larger social networking gains.

First, stop accepting people as regular friends. Default them into limited profile, or create a list with limited permissions. Second, start categorizing your current friends, maybe by how you know them, or how close you are. You can set what you share with which group so take advantage of it. Finally, instead of the regular news stream, click 'Most Recent' next to 'Top News' and filter by one of your new friend lists to only see the posts you want.

There is no denying the impact of our technology on the way we interact and the relationships we build, but we still have some choice left in how we use it.
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Friday, March 4, 2011

Missed Out on Birthright? Rubin Trip Gets You There

Birthright has become more ubiquitous than Bar Mitzvahs, but what about those young adults for whom that 27th birthday rolled around, and Birthright eligibility disappeared?

Not to worry, the Rubin Israel Experience is a free 10-day trip for 27-40-year-olds who've never been to Israel. Funded by Pam and Ron Rubin, the primary supporters of St. Louis' Moishe House (and the people behind the Republic of Tea), this trip promises many of the same great experiences associated with Birthright, to a more mature audience. See below for the full press release and details about how to register.

Learn All About the No Cost 10-Day 2011 Rubin Israel Experience
If you’re aged 27-40 and have never been to Israel, Jewish Federation is offering you the trip of a lifetime this Oct. Information meeting on March 30.

(St. Louis – Thursday, March 3, 2011) Jewish Federation of St. Louis is offering 10 young Jewish adults, who are ages 27-40, the opportunity of a lifetime. If you’ve never been to Israel, Ron and Pam Rubin will send you at no cost. It’s the Fourth Annual Rubin Israel Experience from Sunday, Oct. 30, to Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2011. And for the first time this year, there will be a Rubin Israel Experience Information Session on Wednesday, March 30, at 6:30 p.m. in the Jewish Federation Kopolow Building, 12 Millstone Campus Drive.

This is your chance to get details about the trip, hear from past travelers and staff, look at pictures and ask questions. In the meantime, check out previous years’ photos and activities on Facebook: Again, the trip is cost free which means it includes flights, hotels, transportation, security, guide, meals and programming.

You are eligible if you:

· Have never traveled to Israel

· Are between the ages of 27-40 – at the time you fill out the application

· Have time and availability to participate for 10 days – Oct. 30 – Nov. 9, 2011

· Are willing and able to share your Israel experience with others in the community and prepared to explore ways to get involved in the community after you return

To apply, download the application which will be available online in late March at Applications are due by Friday, May 6. Please follow all instructions and return all materials to

If you have questions, contact Margo Newman at 314-442-3865 or The trip is organized and staffed through Jewish Federation of St. Louis.

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Thursday, March 3, 2011

Israeli Pin Ups?

Sure, Israelis are a bit of a fetish, particularly amongst American Jews (just start a a Google Image Search for Israeli Soldier, and it helpfully suggests Hot Israeli soldier, and Israeli soldier girl.) Maxim magazine went so far as to dedicate a whole photo-shoot to them. Still, I was a bit surprised to get an email from Gal Bondarevski, one of the members of the Bondarevsky creative family promoting Pin Up TLV.

Pin Up TLV, according to Bondarevski, combines the 'everyday art' and mass impact medium of Pin Up art, with patriotic feelings of Israelis and Jewish worldwide. He explains that the idea is not to take things seriously, but to filter the images through a lens of irony and humor.

Looking through the gallery of images, located at, the pictures are effectively split into two groups. The first are based a (potentially unintentionally) ironic Catholic School Girl outfit, embossed with some pithy tag line like 'Kiss me, I'm making Aliyah'. The second fall into the following category:

Girls in combat uniforms, brandishing Barettas, sexualizing the Israeli military apparatus.

It is an interesting tactic. When the rest of the Jewish establishment has moved from fetishizing Israeli military power and the tough Sabra mentality, to focus more on Israel's economic and technological achievements, Pin Up TLV goes in the opposite direction.

Aside from choosing specifically to portray an aggressive military pride, with captions like, 'Don't Fuck with the Israeli Navy', something feels intentionally awry in these images.

Interestingly, neither of the two models used fits the 'stereotypical Israeli' look; olive skin, dark features, extremely long, usually curly, hair. Instead, if I was forced to place the girls as representative of a 'geographic look', I would say Russian or Slavic. The outfits more closely resemble Halloween costumes, potentially adding to the irony of the fact that the light gray brand notes '100% made in Israel'.

As American Jews looked to Israelis as representations of everything we wished we were; tough, tanned, assertive, there is something to be said for taking these images and forcing us to confront them, particularly as some of those same traits are being increasingly criticized in anti-Israel circles.

If the Maxim shoot was our proof-read love letter to Israeli women of the IDF, maybe Pin Up TLV represents more of the wild and unpolished ideas, sometimes making us proud, sometimes scaring us with their implications.

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Monday, February 21, 2011

Chesterfield to Jerusalem: The Journey of Yisrael Moshe Chaim

An El Al flight had just rolled to a stop at the airport near Tel Aviv. In it sat a young African-American man, looking out the window.

“Ow wow, we’re here,” he thought to himself. “Now what?”

It was June of 2007, and Yisrael Moshe Chaim, who grew up as Marvin Casey of Chesterfield, Missouri, had arrived in his new country.

How It All Started

Marvin grew up in a Christian home built on respect, understanding, and interest in other cultures. As it happened, one of those cultures went to his school -- Chesterfield’s numerous and mostly prosperous Jewish population, a mix of secular and religious households pegged to several Reform and Conservative synagogues. They are, in large number, the chi

ldren and grandchildren of Jews who migrated from the city of Saint Louis in a thoroughly typical “white flight” that began in the 1960’s.

Teenage disaffection with Christian doctrine led Marvin to stop identifying as a believer, but still there were feelings.

“I knew I still believed in a higher power,” he recalls now, “but I didn’t know how to channel it.”

He started talking to his Jewish friends, and questions led to more questions.

When Marvin asked one of his friends to accompany him to High Holidays services, the reply was “Well, it will be a first for me, but sure, let’s go.”

One Thing Led to Another

Marvin wound up attending services at B’nai Amoona, a prominent Conservative synagogue in a neighboring suburb, and made the choice to study for conversion. After a year and a half, in December of 2003, he emerged from the waters of the mikvah with his new Hebrew name, Yisrael Moshe Chaim.

At this point, Yisrael/Moshe was still young enough to participate in Birthright, the program that flies young Jews, by birth or by choice, to Israel for ten days.

He stayed on for almost three weeks, in no small part because his expectations of Israel had been shattered.

“I got off the plane and was surprised to not hear bullets,” he explains, “Coming from the Midwest, You’re only exposed to the media. You don’t really get a chance to know people. You get the impression it’s some sort of war zone.”

Shabbat in Jerusalem was the next surprise.

“I had never seen an entire city shut down,” he recalls. “Literally everyone’s walking, no one is using their phones, the traffic dies down.”

“It caught me off guard,” he remembers now. “I wasn’t expecting it. I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a Shabbat elevator.”

Turmoil on the Tarmac

Marvin came back from Israel and spent the next year learning about how to make aliyah. He was ready to go in 2006 but postponed because of that year’s war in Lebanon.

But it wasn’t the threat of war that had Marvin/Yisrael in a panic, sitting on the runway in June of 2007.

“I had done a lot of travelling before,” he remembers now, “but it didn’t occur to me until that moment that I was leaving everything and starting from zero. I had no friends, no place to live. I had five hundred dollars in my pocket.”

“I’m just going to stay on the plane,” he said to himself, “and wait until it goes back.”

Eventually, he did deplane, but spent most of his first week sealed off in his room at the hostel.

“I was waiting for someone to take me by the hand,” he recalls. “But people pointed to the bank and post office and said, ‘You’ll be okay.”

Marvin/Yisrael just put one foot in front of the other.

“Once I started taking those steps forward,” he relates now, “I never looked back. If I hadn’t had those bumps here, I would have had them in Saint Louis, or Chicago, or wherever I put down roots. I didn’t stop to second-guess myself. I didn’t have time to. I had to live.”

After five months in an ulpan, a Hebrew-language immersion program, Yisrael was out on his own in his new culture.

“After that, I was just pushing myself,” he says. “Trying to get some sort of foothold on the culture and the language. Looking back on my conversations, I see myself as the biggest weirdo, but I had to get over the shyness and reluctance to just speak and make mistakes.”

Yisrael Meets Oshrat

By September of 2009, the clock was winding down towards Rosh HaShanah. Yisrael was living in Jerusalem and working as a dance teacher and choreographer (Read more from the Jerusalem Post). A drink with friends crossed his path with that of Oshrat, a
daughter of Russian and Moroccan families, and the spark was immediate. (Read more from The Jewish Week)

By early 2010, the two were already making plans for marriage, and Oshrat’s Orthodox family made it clear they wanted their future son-in-law to go through an Orthodox conversion.

“They thought of me as Jewish,” he relates. “They just wanted me to be more Jewish.”

And so Yisrael dove head-first into the taffy-pull between the military, the official rabbinate, and the complexities of modern life, which in early 2010 also included five months of service in the Israeli Defense Forces. Conversion through the military seemed best, as it does for thousands of other immigrants.

“I had already been living Jewishly for so long,” he explains, “so I went straight to the beit din. They told me I had to go study at a local yeshiva until I could obtain a letter of recommendation from the head rabbi of the yeshiva, but the rav didn’t approve of conversions in the army. So he wanted me to go through with a civil conversion.”

For the next four months, Yisrael shuttled back and forth between squabbling rabbinic authorities, all the while studying, working and preparing for an October wedding. The appearance before the beit din happened with only a week to spare, and the rabbis had to scramble to arrange the documents and Yisrael’s second trip to the mikvah.

“It was a very intense ordeal,” he remembers.

Marvin The Israeli

It’s been almost ten years now since Marvin Casey of Chesterfield started the journey towards the life he now enjoys as a married Jerusalemite, fluent in Hebrew and well established within the Israeli arts community.

Still, there are times when Yisrael can’t help seeing things through the lens he acquired growing up as an African-American male in one of the most racially polarized cities in the United States.

One such time he’ll never forget.

“I was on an Eged bus with a friend in Jeruslaem,” he recalls. “I saw a very small blue and white mini-bus. I asked my friend what it was.”

“‘Oh, that’s an Arab bus,’ he said.” I didn’t know that Arab buses existed.”

It felt weird.

“Like what it was like to be a white person,” Yisrael describes, “in the 1940s or 1950s. It was like being in a white restaurant and seeing a black person walk by. It was weird to experience it on the other side. I wasn’t on the side that was getting vilified, I was on the side that was living in the suburbs.”

Another memory is a chilling conversation with a group of young children, none older than four or five.

“You were in the army, right?” one child asked.

“Yes,” answered Yisrael.

“How many Arabs did you kill?” came the next question.

Yisrael explained that he army service was meant to protect people, and killing was only a last resort. And besides, he said, he didn’t kill any people.

“Not people,” one child said. “Arabs.”

Everything Marvin grew up learning screams against what he heard from these children.

“I was raised in a household of tolerance and understanding,” he explains. “And it’s very hard for me to put all Arabs in the same boat that says, ‘Oh, they all want us dead.’ I have Arab friends, and I know very clearly that’s not the case.”

Yisrael remembers times when Marvin saw people crossing the street to avoid him, locking their doors as he approached, following him around stores.

“Being a black person,” he says, “I’ve experienced being lumped in with other people just because you share a common feature. That hits very close to home for me.”

“The bottom line is, as much as there might be Arabs who want us out of the country, there are Jews who want everybody who’s not Jewish out of the country. It’s just not going to happen. There will never be a country that is completely Jewish or Arab. We need to come to an understanding, otherwise the situation will remain what it is.”

As for Yisrael...

It’s not at all uncommon for people who grow up in St. Louis to get an itch, no matter how far away they might live, to come back to a city most famous in some parts for its frozen custard and toasted ravioli. Aside from family and childhood friends, the blended suburbs and closely knit Jewish community are a powerful draw for many.

“Sometimes I do miss St. Louis itself,” Yisrael relates. “It’s familiar. It’s something I know. St. Louis was my whole life up until making aliyah. A piece of me will always be there, and I’ll always feel a pull to go back.” Read More......

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

New Spirit: Attracting Young Adults to Jerusalem

Urban revitalization is happening all over the world in a number of different ways. In Israel, a group called New Spirit (Ruach Hadasha) is focusing on young adults as the main catalyst of this process. It just so happens that two of the main people behind New Spirit will be in St. Louis Thursday night.
New Spirit is based on the idea that "one of the main elements which link people to a city is emotional involvement, stemming from a feeling of personal commitment."
To achieve this involvement, they focus on getting young adults to volunteer. The primary focus of the volunteering activities is an urban 'pioneer' program in which young adults are integrated into tough neighborhoods. In describing this pioneer program, they say the following:
This project is based on the assumption that true long term integration of highly educated, ideologically committed and motivated students into Jerusalem's neighborhoods can serve as the key to long term development of local communities' human resources. Following the success of the pilot program and a recent recruitment campaign, over 120 students bought in this concept yielding 7 student groups, now making their first steps "on the ground" in Kiryat Yovel, Morasha, Katamon, Neve Yaakov, Armon Ha'natziv and other neighborhoods. Each group is committed to establish at least one form of informal educational framework (i.e. study centre, extra curricular and enrichment workshops, etc.) and is working in synergy with the local neighborhood leadership.

Additionally, New Spirit has created internship opportunities to give students the professional experience and contacts necessary to land jobs in Jerusalem after they graduate. This program has been so successful that New Spirit was asked to expand the program to several other academic institutions around Israel.

While it might be harder to convince students to live in tougher neighborhoods in St. Louis, the internship program is incredibly applicable to St. Louis, which attracts students from around the world to our fine universities, but fails to keep them post-graduation. It is my belief that a program focused on creating local internship and networking opportunities could gradually stop the brain drain.

Thursday night, drop by Next Dor at 7 and hear what these entrepreneurs have to say.
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Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Championing the City

Last night, in Detroit, Community Next hosted a town hall meeting. Community Next is Detroit's online community hub for young adults, and decided to host the meeting in order to figure out what additional resources or opportunities would interest the young adults it serves. The main draw was a well known business leader who recently moved his headquarters to downtown Detroit.

What started off with a simple enough premise was, to some degree, hijacked by a group of ten or so young adults who had chosen to move to downtown Detroit and focused on championing the merits of the urban lifestyle. While many of the other, suburban young adults raised objections about safety and access to groceries and other necessities, this ardent group of civic champions battled every claim.

While Community Next might not have received the information they hoped, perhaps they were given a message they (and we) need to hear. There are Jewish young adults who refused to be scared away from our urban centers and are at the forefront of rebuilding our cities.

In St. Louis, people like David Singer, of Warehouse of Fixtures, which offers new and used office furniture, or Jeff and Randy Vines of STL Stylehave decided not only to locate their businesses in the city, but also their residences.

What would happen, if here in St. Louis, we tried hosting a town hall of the same sort? Would the young urbanists even bother showing up? After all, so much of our community infrastructure is based in the county, with only one synagogue in the city itself. Many of the young adults in this community bear the cautiousness and concerns of their suburban parents, while being almost totally ignorant about the actual contents of the city. What would happen, thought, if that meeting were to take place, and the 'city Yids' actually made a strong and impassioned case for living in the city? What if the city became cool enough that it was worth taking 'risks' to live in?

Despite all of the trash talking that takes place about Detroit, maybe we in St. Louis could learn a thing or two. Read More......

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Bribes to Save Jewish Lives

Later last year, I started a new position in the Jewish community that centers around reaching out to Birthright Israel participants to help facilitate connections between them and the Jewish community.

I have heard a wide range of experiences concerning the trip, ranging from transformational experiences, to those for whom the trip had zero impact. Considering all of the conversation about the effectiveness, cost, and return on investment of Birthright, I want to try to put the Jewish people's investment in Birthright in context.

This is no where close to the first time that the Jewish world has invested huge amounts of money to reconnect, reunite, or relocate Jews.

Maimonides aka the Rambam, one of the most famous Jewish scholars of all time, is said to have organized several Jewish communities to pay ransom for Jewish families taken hostage by crusaders.

In the course of the modern state of Israel's short history, it has facilitated the emigration of Jews from Yemen, Ethiopia, the former USSR, and others, often using money from the American Jewish community to pay off dictators in order to let Jews go. These programs were so successful that these days there are very few Jews in need of these types of services.

While the money of previous decades was spent saving Jews from others, today, it is spent saving Jews from themselves. Programs like Birthright Israel and Masa, which spend between $1,500 to $3,000 per participant exist not only to connect (primarily American) Jewish young adults to Israel, but also to ignite and strengthen participants' sense of Jewish identity. Whereas previous efforts and dollars focused on Jews in poverty or facing threats, many of the programs today target relatively affluent Jews.

With a wide range of Jewish foundational, Federation, and Israeli government support, these programs have taken several hundred thousand Jewish young adults to Israel for 10 day, or longer experiences. In fact, a Birthright experience is becoming almost as common as a bar or bat mitzvah. And why not? It is almost as highly incentivized.

The enormous amount of money being spent on these programs raises a number of questions, not just about the effectiveness of the programs, but also the ideas behind them. For example, should every Jewish person feel as though a free trip to Israel is literally their birthright? If so, are they going to be willing to reinvest in the future for someone else's trip? Does the trip make them any more likely to become philanthropically involved in the Jewish community? Is there some point at which providing so many free and deeply subsidized trips actually decreases the willingness of a participant to pay for something of the like in the future?

Perhaps, even with Birthright, we shouldn't set the bar too high. After all, while both the Soviet- and Ethiopian-Jewish Exodus brought Jews to safer places, the missions were not totally successful. In the United States, many of those Russian immigrants never found their place in the Jewish community, and now, many more of their children feel very little connection at all. In Israel, Ethiopians continue to face disproportionate levels of poverty and many feel disenfranchised.

With a huge share of Jewish philanthropic dollars now going towards young adult identity building, and what some say equates to bribing people to be Jewish, we have to hope that programs are effective, and that the dollars are well invested. Although it seems less dramatic than the thought of Jews threatened by the KGB, civil war, famine, or pogroms, the Jewish community has clearly decided that losing Jews to assimilation is no less of a crisis. Read More......