Sunday, April 24, 2011

A deep dive. Quotidian Judaism



Quotidian Judaism
The teaching of Judaism is the theology of the common deed. The Bible insists that God is concerned with everydayness, with the trivialities of life.  Abraham Joshua Heschel

There is no shortage of Jewish communal innovation. On the other hand, there is a significant shortfall of innovations that make a positive difference in the lives of most Jews. Across the generations, Jews, en route to destinations viewed as adding value to their lives, pass by Jewish institutions, leaving the leaders of the community to call for redirecting the drive-bys. As a Jewish professional for close to thirty years and a person who values Judaism’s joy and depth in my own life, I join the community’s choir question: Is there a compelling idea that can halt American Jewry’s exodus from Judaism?
My goal is to establish a framework for creating new Jewish communal innovations that are aligned with the real needs of Jews, who, after all, are individuals not categories. This framework includes practices and principles to be applied by communal planners when replacing top down planning with a more dialogical approach that begins with the needs and desires of individuals.
Secondly, the work ahead is to inspire Jews who seek ways to make meaning of their daily lives. A Jewish vernacular that speaks to the everyday person with everyday needs is our agenda. A new and compelling narrative elucidating Quotidian Judaism, Judaism for the everyday, will positively impact the work of communal planners and the lives of American Jewry.

The new narrative begins with vivid images of Jews who are already addressing today’s daily complexities, multiplying their joys or reaching for their dreams because of their relationship with other Jews, Jewish teaching, and traditions. Giving voice to the inner life of Jews who are enriched because they have accessed a relevant Judaism will inspire a value added Judaism in the life of contemporary Jews.
The second part of the narrative includes understanding how to create the kinds of spaces that foster a Judaism focused on the needs of the here and now. The current American Jewish infrastructure, built to house the prevailing Jewish story of religion for special events, has on its door a sign reading, “Open for Holidays and Hebrew School Only.” Lastly, a Quotidian narrative includes the characteristics of a different cast of people who act as the mediators and translators of Judaism. The current professional faces of American Jewry are the raconteurs of Torah, Avodah and Gemilut Hasadim, which, at the moment, are not the all points bulletin calling American Jewry en masse. In short, to redirect American Jewry’s exodus from its birth religion and for communal planners to work in concert with the needs of individuals a different story needs to be told in new places and with new faces.
The Inner Life of Jews
Seventeen year old Mark, living in suburban Baltimore, overwhelmed by school, family and social pressures, struggles to find a sense of purpose. The drug culture in his school is alluring, but so far he’s avoiding it by drawing inspiration from lyrics by Murs, the underground hip hop singer, like, “I know it hurts deep, but you must maintain it, the sun will shine, it can’t always be raining.”
Living outside his hometown for the first time, Ari has hit the ground running in year one of his residency at a large Chicago hospital. His inner reserve is depleted. Making life and death decisions and working a seventy hour work week leave him with little time to build a support system. The coffee house across from the hospital and the net are becoming his comforting zones.

Janet, a 43 year old teacher, meets monthly with a women’s investment group. Holding on to coca-cola stock seems wrong to her after learning about some of the company’s practices. She asked her group, “In addition to profit, what else should inform our investments?”The group is now reading Socially Responsible Investment: A Global Revolution by Russell Sparkes.
At age 60 Laurie works six days a week as an event planner. Over the years, she’s decorated rooms for hundreds of bar/bat mitzvah parties. While arranging flowers in wet moss, she day dreams about writing a book that captures family stories told at bar and bat mitzvah celebrations. Not sure she can do it, she listens to Joel Osteen tapes “Live like a champion.”
Each Jew mentioned above celebrates to some degree Jewish holidays and rituals. At one time or another Mark, Ari, Janet and Laurie have participated in a Jewish organization including a synagogue, JCC, Jewish camp and a federation. But none of them, like the majority of American Jewry, believes Judaism is a place to turn with the questions they carry with them on a daily basis.
Dwelling between the hurried inhale and the stressed exhales of the twenty-first century is an opportunity for Judaism to be a valued resource for the small and large moments of life in the ever changing fast lane. The inner life of American Jewry, percolating with the existential to the mundane, yearns for exploration and resolution at a time when traditional guides like family and close knit communities are being replaced with contemporary medicine men.
Life coaches, self-help books, chat rooms and pharmaceutical counters are oracles of seven steps to a better life often resulting in unrequited desires and recurring dissatisfaction. Quotidian Judaism, the teachings, rituals and relationship of our tradition that support navigating the inner life of the everyday can be a balm for the hurried breaths of our times. But who would know? For too many, Judaism is where you go for life cycle events, holidays, social action or something to do with Israel. The story most often told on the street among Jews is that Judaism is an occasional quick stop on the way to everyday life.

Stories: Quotidian Judaism Making a Meaningful Difference in People’s Lives
Stories influence perception and behavior by both capturing the present and shaping the future. From the Torah to Bob Dylan, storytelling has been a Jewish tool of change, shaping the ways Jews think about themselves and their community. It’s time to record the stories that both reflect the emerging examples of a lived Judaism and projects an inspiring attainable picture of the future.
Ira Glass, host of This American Life on National Public Radio, states in Andy Goodman’s Storytelling As Best Practice “The most powerful thing you can hear, and the only thing that ever persuades any of us in our own lives is [when] you meet somebody whose story contradicts the thing you think you know. At that point, it’s possible to question what you know because the authenticity of their experience is real enough to do it.” At the heart of Quotidian Judaism is the authentic stories of Jews who both worship at the shrine of the secular have and find ways to add meaning to their lives by accessing and recreating tradition. The story of what is possible, as opposed to what is wrong or missing, will challenge the prevailing myth of a Judaism divorced from everyday life. It is time to elevate, magnify and understand the experience of translating scripture into a script for living Monday to Sunday.
The Job Stories (an excerpt)
Dr. Elise J, speaking to ten colleagues who monthly review best medical practices in her home in West Chester, Pennsylvania, confesses her discomfort with performing colonoscopies despite doing them for years. A confident woman in her early 40’s with hair already whispering grey, Elise likes saying things to cause her colleagues to lift their eyes from their coffee mugs. In addition to sharing an office complex, these doctors also share identifying, when asked, as Jews.
“You know the convent is not far from our offices,” continues Elise, “so I’ve done lots of colonoscopies on the nuns. Before they’d fall asleep, each would say ‘May God, our Lord Jesus Christ, bless your hands.” Elise asks if anyone else has had that experience. She would have persisted even if Bruce, a surgeon used to reassuring people, hadn’t nodded. “Well I really liked the calm-relief I got from their blessing. And then I noticed when one of the nuns didn’t give me the blessing, I felt like, hey give it here.” Her fingers make a beckoning motion. “Since then, I’ve been working on my own kind of blessing.” A few doctors manage a smile or a “that’s nice” and return attention to their coffee.
Rising to stand near a stone fireplace and quickening the cadence of her speech, Elise describes her search on the internet and in journals for resources about ritual practices used by Jewish physicians. In speaking to a number of Christian colleagues she learned “it was not uncommon” to say a prayer before a procedure. “I’m working on finding my own words. I’ve been experimenting,” she tells the docs and recites with ease some words written by Maimonides.
You have chosen me to watch over the life and health of your creatures. I am now about to apply myself to the duties of my profession. Support me, Almighty God, in these great labors that they may benefit people, for without your help, not even the least thing will succeed.
“I’m not so into the God thing,” she declares, “so I could use some help.” Elise is not in the habit of asking for help, finally captures their attention. Bill, a professor at Drexel Medical College, is ready to tell the tale of his first patient diagnosed with a fatal disease. Round now in face and body, Bill recalls that day, years ago, when he joined the dying woman’s church choir in singing by her bedside. The patient survived. “I wrote a journal article about her miraculous recovery,” he says, “but I never mentioned the singing.”
The conversation had begun. Over the next few months the group focuses on the question “if there is an art of Jewish healing, would it matter?” The connection between religion and healing was previously viewed by most in the group as good medicine to be used by patients who carry amulets and prayers into uncertain moments. Now, these doctors consciously draw on their own religion on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Chanukah and Passover and are exploring Judaism as a professional best practice across their specialties.
What were the doctors’ questions? What were their struggles? Why and how did some of them find ways to adapt Jewish traditions in their own practice? In what ways did they deepen or change their connection to Judaism? What’s the nature of the Jewish community they are now forming? The rest of this story, like many others revealing real world Judaism, is waiting to be told. Collecting the stories of individuals who draw on Judaism as a well of wisdom to navigate the dreams and challenges that arise for them when sitting in their homes, walking in the street, when going to bed at night and rising in the morning, will begin to stir the heart of contemporary Jewry struggling to live in the ever changing fast lane and will provide a new starting point for Jewish communal planners.
New Places: Where can Jews Go to Explore Judaism for the Everyday?


Marc Margolius, a rabbi in NYC used to usher new congregants on their first visit to the synagogue right out the front door. Standing at the entrance, he’d ask: “What’s making it hard for you to come in-to belong?” Most everyone told a story about why it was difficult to enter. The National Population Study, and the personal anecdotes we all hold that don’t require statistical reports for verification, highlight a fact that can’t be ignored: The existing Jewish infrastructure, like synagogues and federations has too high of a threshold for most American Jews to cross. Those who do enter don’t stay long.
In response to this reality, significant resources, over the last two decades, have been committed to changing the traditional gateways to Judaism. A new communal agenda calls for Jewish spaces to be more welcoming, engaging, sacred and diverse. Synagogues and federations, recognizing their own limitations in attracting participation, have in many cases, eagerly signed on to work with change organizations like the Alban Institute, STAR and the Experiment in Congregational Education. So determined are some organizations to reshape themselves they participate in multiple projects simultaneously. After investing years of work in shape shifting, proud professionals and lay people produce tangible results, like congregations with significant increases in attendance for Friday night activities. And a review of the published research on the effects of national and local change projects also underscores the basic principle that established organizations change slowly. Because of that, Jewish spaces remain predominantly houses with narrow entryways.
Not waiting for Jewish spaces to conform to their interests, Jews motivated by the fundamental need to connect to themselves (to an internal conversation) and to others in meaningful ways have already taken to using and creating spaces that foster a more intimate and personal encounter with one another and with Judaism. Russell, a twenty four year old gay man who has recently moved from Boston to Brooklyn is an example of a self-directing Jew making space that fits a real need. After completing unsatisfying minyan-shul shopping with friends, Russell hosted his own Shabbas gathering. Now his two bedroom apartment on Clinton Avenue is one of the rotating addresses for twelve friends to share Shabbas night veggie dinner. Less interested in what someone else prepared in a hall of pews for millennials, this group comes together for what motivates them after a hectic work week spent mostly behind a computer: face to face companionship and a home cooked ritual. Chairs and pillows on the floor make a comfort zone for exchanging recent hilarious lines from overheardinnewyork.com and worries about a friend who’s out of work. Eva talks about her summer at the Isabella Friedman Center in the Adamah Program and encourages them to find some siddurim for their next dinner.
Foundations are also jump starting the establishment of more intimate spaces for Jews to engage in the things that spark their passion and interest. Moishe Houses from Tel Aviv to Seattle are exemplary places supporting Jews in defining their own engagement. Driven by the things they care about most, having fun or marching with a healthcare union, young Jews sitting on sofas or the floor in the living room of a Moishe House make plans and friendships over sushi dinner. Jews who don’t actually live in the houses participate in communal meals and planning in the relaxed setting of a home. These young people are redefining Jewish and community in new spaces.
Salon like spaces, coffee houses, museums and living rooms, are being christened as places to experience Quotidian Judaism. Every day spaces, comfortable and familiar, are intentionally designed for the activities associated with self-directed personal Judaism, like conversation, friendship, discovery and reflection. These spaces, rather than trying hard to be welcoming, or personally attractive, are so naturally.
Embedded in the collected stories of Jews already experimenting with Judaism as a resource for the ethical, social, personal and spiritual questions of their lives are valuable sketches of the kind of places the future can hold. By capturing and understanding the emerging successes as well as the misses in reimaging Jewish spaces, community leaders and self-directed individuals will have a blue print for building more Jewish places that are characterized by inviting architecture, a mission of relevance and an intimate ambiance that fosters a new way for Jews to think about themselves and their community.
New Faces: Who are the People to Support Exploration of Quotidian Judaism?
There are just not enough Jewish Carey Grants to go around. Charismatic professionals, the stars of the existing Jewish infrastructure are expected to be, and often trained to take center stage in the activities of event Judaism. When the headliner disappoints, frustration and complaint characterize the experience for those who show up. The minhag of pinning professionals with the expectation to “Do Jewish for me,” or, “Inspire me to do Jewish,” is flawed.
Quotidian Judaism requires a different cast of people who will work as the mediators and translators of a Judaism that supports Jews on their personal quests. The new faces of Judaism will speak a Jewish vernacular for everyday needs. They’ll be trained in applying learning tools of self-discovery. As non-judgmental guides trained in the art of being present for people they will be adept at connecting people of common interests. Elise and her group in West Chester could have benefited from this new Jewish professional/lay teacher. Russell’s group could also benefit from being in relationship with someone who could hook them up with siddurim and, when ready, be present for newly arising needs.
Where will this new cast of Jewish faces get their training? How will they learn to be the guides connecting the inner life of Jews and the well of Jewish teaching and tradition? The answers are not at my finger tips, but they will be. Most of us have been lucky to meet these guides along the way. A study of their talents and how they’ve developed will influence the creation of a job description and professional development for people who support Jews navigating the inner life.



Plans for Next Steps
Our work is devoted to illuminating the stories of a compelling future that is emerging around the country. The principles and practices of success, the life giving forces that already exist, light the way to a future where American Jews are motivated to engage in Quotidian Judaism. When supported in navigating the inner life that yearns for comfort, clarity and direction in a world where the only constant is turmoil and speed, Jews like Mark, Ari, Janet and Laurie can shift their relationship with Judaism. Experienced in new places with new faces, the future holds a Judaism that is a balm for the needs of a life squeezed between the hurried breaths of our times. (Spring, 2008)