Book Review: Relational Judaism

Relational Judaism: Using the Power of Relationships to Transform the Jewish Community by Ron Wolfson primarily reasserts a core principle of life, business and community organizing: “It’s all about relationships.”

This was also essentially the theme of his 2006 volume, The Spirituality of Welcoming: How to Transform Your Congregation into a Sacred Community.

His patience and willingness to restate his message is impressive, given how slow the uptake among congregations worldwide seems to be, at least in this reviewer’s experience. And as times are changing, the direction of relationship-building is changing, as Wolfson indicates in a telling quote from a congregational leader:

We thought Shabbat would be a doorway to relationships. We learned that relationships are a doorway to Shabbat.

More after the jump.
Or as in the famous quote from Martin Buber that Wolfson will quote further on: “All real living is meeting.”

Another powerful reversal is the story of Rabbi Zoe Klein, upon becoming senior rabbi at Temple Isaiah, Los Angeles:

[S]he was advised by the board to “tell her story to the congregation.” She felt differently:

“The way people feel really connected to you is not if they know your story, but if they feel you know their story. If the rabbi knows your story you feel like you are seen, you matter, you are in relationship.

“So I set up small groups in my study — six to eight people — to share a ‘Sacred Stories Haggadah’ experience; we had a little Kiddush, karpas, appetizer; we told the story of the congregation, and then I would invite people to add their own stories by answering the question: ‘What was your own journey that brought you to this place?’ We concluded with a blessing.

“Some 250 people shared their stories with me and with each other. It was powerful.”

Wolfson’s examples are solid and instructive applications of what those who have participated in support groups of any kind are well aware of: the sharing of personal narratives, stories from our lives’ joys, traumas, challenges, innovations and more, often supports the creation of sustainable communities.

He also offers encouragement to adopt the kind of volunteerism that engages participants in meaningful ways. As this reviewer is involved, she is aware that this area is being developed at Bar/Bat Mitzvah (R)evolution, and in the emerging Jewish Spiritual Education as well.

Wolfson further takes note of the ascendancy of Jewish interest in social justice efforts, and the relational opportunities and challenges of social media.

For anyone who is already trained in social work, group work, chaplaincy, or providing psychotherapy of almost any kind, it is initially bemusing to read of a leader in the field of Jewish education writing something that has been known and skillfully practiced in social service organizations since at least the days of the settlement houses:

Working with others on a project can bind people together, but only if attention is paid to relationship building. We learned this lesson in Synagogue 2000 when we insisted that the leadership team begin every session with “check-in,” a brief opportunity for every person in the room to share something about her or his personal life.

I am reminded of the power of the quilting bee, when groups of women would join together to craft beautiful quilts, but through sharing the stories of their lives as they worked, they crafted deeper relationships among themselves.

How is it possible that most clergy and educators do not have the core skill repertoire of social work, and seem to be trying to reinvent it from scratch?

This reviewer is a rabbi and a Master of Social Work (MSW) — a recipient of the Jewish Federation’s scholarship for such training. From this vantage point, the problem would seem to be that of an unfortunate split, almost a conceptual wall, between the domain of training for Jewish social service and that for synagogues, religious education, and religious-movement youth groups.

Wolfson is a PhD academic, and highly accomplished Jewish educator. His American Jewish University bio does not show evidence of Jewish communal service’s core — relational training, most of which is woven within MSW programs.

Here are a few possible examples: (Most other schools of Jewish communal service seem more oriented toward management than actual human services at this time.)

At the 2013 Biennial of the Union for Reform Judaism, President Rick Jacobs lectured on the importance of creating welcoming communities, and Wolfson gave a seminar on the topic too.

Friends walking out, MSWs walked over to me equally surprised at the obvious nature of the content and full of ideas for how to take it deeper.

It made me wonder, might a ready approach to effective change be to leverage the thousands of retired Jewish social workers to serve as community building, or welcome-training volunteers, as well as to increase relational social work-skills training throughout the field of Jewish education and clergy training?

The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College has recently begun to do so in their curriculum. This has also long been the case at The Academy for Jewish Religion.

The restoration of relational communities and consciousness is clearly emerging again as desirable. Consumer consciousness fades in recognition that welcoming communities and relationships that go more satisfyingly deeper require more of an investment of self than dollars.

As Wolfson points out, programming skills are substantial among leaders of all ages in Jewish life. Relationship-building skills and relational program components are needed.

In the age of social media, the pendulum of yearning for meaningful face-to-face relationships is already returning. We need to build upon and use our skillful professionals to deepen the many insights provided in Relational Judaism.  

Philadelphia Jewish Voice Gives Away Free Tickets to Jewtopia

The Philadelphia Jewish Voice will give away two pairs of free tickets to Bryan Fogel and Sam Wolfson’s film adaptation of their hit comedy Jewtopia, which premieres Friday. The movie stars Ivan Sergei, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Joel David Moore, Jamie-Lynn Sigler, Jon Lovitz and Rita Wilson.

In order to be able to win, just click here to sign yourself or a friend up for our free weekly newsletter. Use the comment field to indicate that you are interested in a pair of tickets. Two new subscribers will be chosen at random. Each will receive a pair of tickets, good to see the film at the AMC Theater in Plymouth Meeting, Monday-Thursday during the film’s run.

Plot summary follows the jump.
In the movie, Christian O’Connell (Ivan Sergei) has met the girl of his dreams in Alison Marks (Jennifer Love Hewitt). Unfortunately, Christian told Alison (who happens to be a rabbi’s daughter) that his name was Avi Rosenberg, and that he was Jewish — neither of which are true.

Desperate to keep up the illusion, he turns to his childhood best friend, Adam Lipschitz (Joel David Moore) to teach him how to “act Jewish.” But Adam has problems of his own, with a fiancé (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) pushing him closer to a mental breakdown as their wedding approaches.

With the best intentions, Adam and Christian attempt to help each other out, but things quickly go completely and hilariously off the rails.

Talkback on “Slaying the Dragon”

— by Hannah Lee

Teshuvah (repentance) is a prominent Jewish value, but what happens when a high Ku Klux Klan high official renounces his life?  The world premiere of the opera, Slaying the Dragon, was heralded by a Q&A session with a panel consisting of: Ellen Frankel, the librettist and managing director of Center City Opera Theater; Kathryn Watterson, author of Not by the Sword: How a Cantor and His Family Transformed a Klansman on which the opera is based; and Bob Wolfson, Associate National Director of Regional Operations for the Anti-Defamation League and formerly the local ADL officer in charge of Lincoln, Nebraska where the events took place.  The panel discussion took place on Sunday, June 3 at the National Museum of American Jewish History.

More after the jump.

In her 1995 book, Watterson, a professor in the English Department of the University of Pennsylvania, chronicled the stranger-than-fiction narrative of Larry Trapp, the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan’s Lincoln chapter who had a change of heart, renounced his life of hatred and violence, and embraced Judaism.  

A double amputee and blind from the complications of diabetes, Trapp — a black-sheep, distant relation of the von Trapp family singers of The Sound of Music fame —  was inspired by the love and kindness offered by Michael and Julie Weisser.  

A remarkable couple, Michael Weisser was then cantor and spiritual leader of the Reform Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, one of two synagogues in Lincoln, and Julie was herself a convert to Judaism.  Together they were raising five children, and they all welcomed Trapp into their home — with the teen sisters giving up their own room — and nursed him while he was dying from his illness.  When Trapp died at age 42, he was buried in the Jewish cemetery there.

There are still people in the Jewish community in Lincoln who doubt Trapp’s sincerity in his transformation.  Wolfson recounted the “surreal feeling” he had when Trapp, who’d previously threatened his family, rolled up to the ADL office in his wheelchair and asked to give Wolfson a hug.  This was the guy that he had to warn his children against, and the reason they had to monitor the in-coming mail to the house.  

Wolfson thinks it was because the Angel of Death was at his back that Trapp personally apologized to every person he’d hurt in his campaign of hate.  However, it took courage to leave the KKK, because it was a public betrayal — by a Grand Dragon, no less!  The opera deviates from reality in that Trapp is portrayed as vulnerable, being mocked by his fellow Klansmen for his physical disabilities.  In actuality, he was a strong leader and was admired by his Klan, despite his inability to physically carry out the acts of evil and spite that he advocated.

Michael Weisser, now a rabbi in Flushing, New York, was a strong believer in redemption — he’d had his own tragedy to overcome.  Neither he nor his wife were punitive people; their preferred motto was: “Educate, not punish.”  When two college boys were on trial in Lincoln for defacing his synagogue, Weisser offered to lead educational classes for them both in lieu of jail time.  Watterson pointed out that society has surely gained more by the time these misguided youth spent at Weisser’s side than in prison.

Watterson noted that white supremacists are under-developed emotionally.  So much energy is expended on projecting hate that there is no room for personal growth.  Wolfson said that people often prefer to think of these people as “nuts.”  “Some are, but not all are so.”  Larry Trapp was not intellectually impaired, he said, but it is harder to contemplate rational people who hate obsessively.

Could what had happened in Lincoln happen here?  Hatred can happen anywhere.  Wolfson said that Weisser was a radical, whose Reform temple had lost members.  The conservative Jewish community looked askance at him, whom he would describes as “to the left, politically, of Mao Zedong,” the late Communist dictator of China.  

The Jews of Lincoln were Zionist and middle-of-the-road politically and they couldn’t understand Weisser who believed in the prophet-to-the-nation philosophy of Reform Judaism, stressing tikkun olam (repairing the world) and protesting injustice.  However, Weisser built up his congregation and brought life to the synagogue.

Watterson said that she focused on Trapp’s life as a white supremacist, because it was so similar to that of Timothy McVeigh, the man who detonated a truck bomb in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, killing 168 people and injuring more than 800 people, the deadliest act of terrorism within the United States prior to the September 11 attacks in 2001.

Frankel, the librettist, said that the composer, Michael Ching, urged her to make Larry Trapp and Michael and Julie Weisser–  re-named Grand Dragon Jerry Krieg and Rabbi Nathan and Vera Goodman in the opera — less black-and-white evil and goodness incarnate.  He wanted her to bring the characters closer together and find the commonality in them.

Are we in a post-racial world?  Wolfson noted that the world has moved to the right in recent times, citing hate crimes in France, Greece, and the United States. Economic hardship and instability bring out the worst in human nature.  However, liberal-minded people tend not to regard this evidence of persistent racism as a motivation to keep the fight against bigotry at the top of their social action agenda, preferring to think that the issue has been resolved.

It’s most important, Watterson urged, “to get to know each other, beyond our comfort zone, and acknowledge each other’s humanity.”  She noted the spill-over of hate words into general society (e.g., “femini-Nazis”) and the public shaming and blaming tolerated in our communities.  We should foster more creativity, said she, not demonize “people of color.”

Herbert Levine, Frankel’s husband, asked from the audience about how the KKK was able to get away with its open acts of violence?  Where were the police, the FBI?  Wolfson said that in the case of the Asian immigrant community, the Laotian leadership told the police to let them handle acts of violence against their community in their own way.  Thus, after their community center was targeted by “Operation Gooks,” defaced and destroyed by Trapp’s minions, it was re-built by the Asian community anew, but this time behind barbed-wire fencing and patrolled by armed guards.

How strong is the KKK nowadays?  Watterson said they’re very organized — “the movement inspires action.”  One aborted example: Trapp himself had planned on assassinating Jesse Jackson, the black civil rights activist and Baptist minister, figuring that, in his weheelchair, he could get close to his targeted victim.  

Of the white supremacists groups, White Aryan Nation is more powerful, but there are local KKK groups in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.  Wolfson pointed out that the Internet allows these groups to organize more efficiently, not announcing a public rally until “12 minutes before” — with the leaders texting one another — to avoid police intervention.  The ADL (and the FBI) used to infiltrate these groups, but they can now avoid unwanted scrutiny more easily.  Wolfson noted that the biggest problem is the lone wolf, one who operates outside of group sanctions.  Frankel added that the Philly chapter of ADL has a full-time staffer who monitors the communication of hate groups and who maintains an ongoing dialogue with the FBI.

Evening performances of Slaying the Dragon will take place on June 14 and 16, with a 2 pm final show on June 17  at the Helen Corning Warden Theater at the Academy of Vocal Arts, on 1920 Spruce Street.   Limited  seating is available.  For tickets, visit www.OperaTheater.org.

 

Barrack Multimedia Museum of Czech Jewry opens Sunday, May 1


Opening in Partnership with Centropa coincides With Holocaust Remembrance Day, May 1.

— by Beverly Rosen

Highlights: Over 70 Six-foot Story Panels, Student Videos, and Guided Tours

All during the spring trimester, Barrack Hebrew Academy 9th graders researched Czech history; the richness of Jewish life in Czechoslovakia prior to the Holocaust, including vibrant music, theater, and art scenes, in addition to daily life; the horrors of the Shoah; and life after World War II. They turned their research and photos into larger than life story panels and videos based on key historical happenings, personal family histories, and interviews with Holocaust survivors and children of survivors to create the Barrack Museum of Czech Jewry.

Pictured (left to right) are 9th graders Jacob Reich, Sarah Wolfson and Avi Gordon.

More after the jump.

The student exhibit, that will be displayed throughout the school, will be complemented by six-foot story panels from Centropa, an organization based in Vienna, Austria dedicated to keeping the memory of Jewish life alive in Central and Eastern Europe. The multi-media exhibit debuts with a Community Opening Night reception, program and guided tours by student docents on Sunday evening, May 1, 7:30 pm at Barrack and coincides with nationwide Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremonies. The exhibit runs through Friday, May 6

The exhibit is dedicated to the memory of Dr. Igor Laufer, a special friend and member of the Akiba-Barrack family and a Czech survivor. The Opening Night program includes a student tribute to Mr.Laufer; welcoming remarks by Dr. Steven M. Brown, Head of School; greetings from Peter A. Rafaeli, the Honorary Czech Consul of Philadelphia; a presentation by Hannah Lessing, General Secretary of the Austrian National Fund for Victims of National Socialism and the daughter of a Holocaust survivor; and instrumental and vocal performances of Czech music by Barrack students.

Ninth grade docents will provide guided tours of the exhibit on May 1 and throughout the week. “Area schools and community groups will be invited to tour the exhibit,” share faculty advisers Ivy Kaplan and Lilach Taichman. “The community also is invited to Opening Night,” adds Sharon Levin, Humanities Department Chair. For details, contact [email protected]


Barrack Hebrew Academy provides a dynamic dual curriculum of college preparatory and Jewish studies to students from all Jewish backgrounds in grades 6-12.