In his kitschy but catchy quasi tongue in cheek The RH/YK Survival Kit, published back in the early 90’s, yet still so timely,
Shimon Apisdorf made an apt observation:
“If Judaism were a corporation, I would have to say that it has done a miserable job of marketing itself to the discerning consumer…”
Being a Yeshivah-world Jew, Apisdorf adds,
“It is my contention, however, that the issue is one of marketing,
not at all one of product quality.” [The RH/YK Survival Kit, page 10]
I’d actually say, it’s both!
Our marketing is often, at best, mediocre,
And our product tends to vary depending on “point of origin”
not to mention manufacturing methods…
YET, with all the variation in what we hope
the sacred manufacturing system is able to produce,
we do have what I believe is the most effective marketing tool,
An annual 24-hour interactive infomercial unlike any other,
[in fact, as we speak, you are in it…]
A chance to offer through a mutli-sensory modality
Not alone what this entire enterprise we call Judaism is about,
But WHY it matters so immensely in the life you live
all the other days of the year.
Indeed, as any master marketing campaign would claim,
Why, in truth, you cannot leave home,
nor purposefully live, without it.
Naturally, since our “product” is actually our people’s “life-purpose,”
Its up to all of you—”covenantal consumers”
To determine just what the messaging ultimately is
That brings our mission, as Jews, to life.
Counterintuitive perhaps, yet crucial…
On this most holy day when we are consumed with matters of the spirit, let’s consider the message we must carry as Being JWSH Inc, LT Division,
That would motivate us to buy into it—to embrace it, embody it,
living out its mission every single day.
Messaging 1: We, as Jews, stand against hate, combatting anti-Semitism and racism of every kind, thereby creating a more just, respectful world for all.
At the forefront of fighting hate for over a century through investigative research, international monitoring, educational initiatives and even the legislative process, the ADL, the Anti-Defamation League, stands steadfast…
And at a time when anti-Semitic incidents of assault,
harassment and vandalism in our country have reached an all time high, over 2,700 reported just last year—that’s more than 7 a day,
and violence against synagogues and JCC’s
has increased by more than 60%…
it is hard not to read ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt’s recently released,
It Could Happen Here and not buy into his belief that, as he writes,
“We are just one demagogue away from disaster.”
When a man travels 4,800 miles from Great Britain to Colleyville, Texas, taking the rabbi, who offers him a cup of tea, hostage,
demanding the release of a convicted terrorist, even calling the Rabbi of Central Synagogue who must have a direct line to the Oval Office,
it’s the classic trope: Jews have all the power anti-Semitism…
When Orthodox Jews are attacked walking home from Shabbos in Lakewood, or Lubavitchers walking to minyan in Crown Heights,
Unmistakably identifiable, it’s the How dare you be different anti-Semitism.
When one in three students on today’s college campus reports having experienced hate or aggression for expressing their support for Israel,
The large majority of whom maintain their hope for a Palestinian state alongside a secure state of Israel, Its anti-Zionism anti-Semitism.
Last month, CNN premiered “Rising Hate: Anti-Semitism in America,”
An hour-long feature on the ‘oldest hatred,’ highlighting the recent surge, both online and on our country’s streets.
Hosted by CNN’s chief political correspondent, herself the granddaughter of survivors, it was highly personal, as she noted, journalistically and as a Jew, “among the most important projects I have been part of.”
So much so that Dana Bash penned an essay just prior to its premiere,
Sharing the story of her 10-year-old requesting a Jewish star
for Hanukah last year. Initially, Bash ignored him, but the boy persisted, explaining he had lots of Christian friends who wore crosses.
As a proud Jew, he explained to his Mom, he too wanted a symbol of his faith. Bash was stunned…”I got him the Jewish star. What I was ashamed to admit, even to myself, was that my young son showing the world he was Jewish made me nervous.”
Towards the end of the special, when Bash interviewed Holocaust Studies scholar and US Global anti-Semitism Ambassador Prof Deborah Lipstadt, asking for ways to curb hate against Jews, Lipstadt noted that she’d started wearing her Jewish star more frequently, adding
“People need to know we are proud to be who we are.”
As a student of Prof. Elie Wiesel. arriving at Boston University just as he did
Teaching us that “To be a Jew means to Bear Witness…”
Essential as our responsibility to stand up against anti-Semitism
and all race-based hate remains, it is not ultimately, I believe,
where our ultimate life purpose as a people lies…
The meaning of our mission means even more.
Messaging 2: We stand as links in the Chain of Tradition, receiving gifts of generations past, passing them down, L’dor va-Dor, to those who come after us.
We’ve all read it, prayed it, countless times:
“V’shinantam l’vanecha…You shall teach them to your children…”
and if you are so blessed, your grandchildren.
My Zada, Morris Trebach, my Mom’s Russian immigrant/accented father,
Told me the same story whenever we visited, mostly every other Sunday,
Sitting next to him on the den couch in their apartment in Lowell Mass,
With the smells of Jewish delicacies cooking in the kitchen…
How he walked to cheyder—Religious School in Russia, in hip deep snow, arriving half frozen…and how he’d thaw out sitting with fellow students ‘round the Samovar, afire in the middle, as their teacher hummed a Hebrew song…He never mentioned what song, maybe a prayer?
He never explained just what the story meant.
But describing that frozen in time moment, as he sat in the circle of young Jewish students, Zada always sighed, sometimes even sang with a little smile, transported to a hard-fought Jewish childhood long gone but never in his heart forgotten.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks [may his memory be for blessing]
former Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth provides the PR pitch:
“Judaism is a religion of continuity. It depends for its very existence on the willingness of successive generations to hand their way of life to their children, and on the loyalty of children to that heritage to pass it on.”
Naturally, in an age of choice, Sacks knows that’s not enough:
“But this cannot be a complete answer for it fails to do justice to the proposition at the heart of Judaism…Being Jewish is an expression of religion as freedom…God calls on us to undertake a journey, compelling not because of its coercive force…but its moral beauty and spiritual grace.” [A Letter in the Scroll, J. Sacks, pgs. 20,24]
Important as generativity is to the Jewish enterprise,
the past is not always prologue…
We can hear Tevya’s opening monologue setting up the song…
“Here in Anatevka, we have traditions for everything: How to eat,
How to work, How to wear clothes…
We always keep our heads covered and wear a little prayer shawl.
You may ask: How did this tradition get started?
I’ll tell you, I don’t know, but its tradition! And because of our traditions every one of us knows who he is and what God expects…”
Comforting as Fiddler’s opening makes us feel, let’s not forget the play’s trajectory: a collision course with tradition that shakes Tevya, and us to the core, that calls us to question. It’s not simply what we do as Jews, nor what we have always done, but WHY!…HOW can being part of this people evoke principles for approaching the world that are timeless,
that transform tradition into redemptive action?
We don’t live in Anatevka anymore…
Messaging 3: We stand, but never on just One Foot, for we, as Jews,
are on a perpetual journey towards a promised land, not a place but a spiritual purpose made real through the sacred values we hold as a community,
energizing us daily to engage in the struggle to mend, to better our world.
The Talmudic legend is oft-told:
A stranger approaches each of the two great teachers of that time,
Hillel & Shammai, with the very same request:
“Teach me the Torah while I stand on one foot.”
First, he comes to Shammai who, according to the Talmud’s telling,
picks up a builder’s cubit, in essence a 2 by 4, and chases him off…
[Some say: hitting the man alongside the head!]
When the same stranger approaches Hillel asking:
“Teach me the Torah while I stand on one foot.”
The great sage responds: “What is hateful to you, do not do to any other person. That’s the whole Torah. All the rest is commentary. Now go & learn.”
Jewish wisdom sides with Hillel’s response because its kind, gracious & sweet.
It could easily fit on a bumper sticker or in a tweet.
But that may not be the marketing we most need.
As Rabbi Ed Feinstein, channeling his teacher R’ Harold Schulweis explains
What does this man/stranger demand?
Teach me all of Jewish wisdom, all of your insight, all you learned from a lifetime of study and struggle…NOW! And make it snappy!
This one-footed inquisitor, along with many folks, wants the condensed version.
Don’t bother me with the nuances or the contradictions.
Just give me ✡ in a nutshell. No eternal questions, just easy answers…
You know, boil it down to the basics.
But that is not how Judaism works, nor does life.
Our daily journey is seldom a straight line. Life’s a struggle of ups & downs, sometimes circuitous, confusing, often complicated.
Being JWSH is living in that dialectic, engaging in the argument,
Wondering through the wilderness, entertaining the eternal questions.
Being JWSH means living the tension, striving for truth
but knowing its often too messy to fit simply into tidy maxims.
…I called a dear member of temple a month or so ago on his 90th B-day.
He was up in the Berkshires with family gathering for a brunch.
After wishing him well, I couldn’t resist asking: So, Matthew, what’s your life-wisdom, something you’ve garnered over your 9 decades, a one-liner you live by.
After a few seconds, he responded w/his usual humble candor: I’ve got nothin’.
Of course, he had so much…But he was right.
Our lives cannot be reduced to a pithy piece of wisdom or two,
Nor can our people’s wisdom be conveyed in a single Jewish gem.
SO…HOW do we market this Jewish journey so people, the coming generations especially, will join along?…
HOW can we help those not-so-connected, or considering the call understand:
Judaism’s secret/sweetness only comes through the struggle.
There is no revelation without agitation. But that’s what makes it so worthwhile.
The world today is wanting for quick & easy answers
to monumental problems too big for any one person, any one leader,
any one party to solve…And fundamentalism of any kind [you fill in the blank]
must make us, as Jews, stop in our tracks and question, as we stand in opposition, for it runs counter to who we are.
Reducing truth to a single solution reduces us, denying the dignity of difference, the dialectic tension wherein we flourish, the daily struggle with this world through which we grow towards becoming God’s partners…
On my best friend Billy’s fridge [some called him Emeritus Rabbi of WCT]
Hangs a caricature I did of him when we started as study partners in rabbinic school 40 years ago, at the top of which is written
what became our guiding Hasidic teaching.
Reb Simcha Bunim taught:
Every person must have two pockets, and in each pocket a slip of paper.
On one slip it says: “For my sake was the world created.”
On the other slip it says: “I am but dust and ashes.”
The secret, I’ve discovered over 35 years as a rabbi,
is to know when to reach into which pocket…
To be true to ourselves, to be who we are as Jews
means living within the tension between the two:
a little lower than angels yet sooner than later just dust.
We are finite, limited in this life yet potentially immeasurable in our impact.
Which is indeed the great takeaway of this Awe-filled day meant for the other 364,
The marketing that IS our Mission:
As R’ Ed Feinstein teaches:
“To be a Jew is to live in the world as it is,
but to daily dream of the world as it could be.”
By recognizing that the spirit is IN the struggle, the search, the question.
Crazy to admit, I think Shammai was right!
Not to be violent, never to hit people over the head through our approach,
but to insist on deeper dialogue…an ever probing purpose.
Our motivating Mission:
To respond to the brokenness knowing, with so much to do, we can never totally fix it
To celebrate the moments even in the face of life’s inevitable sadness to come
To work together for solutions understanding we don’t quite agree on all the answers
To undertake the journey to that promised land every single day, a place of unconditional care & human dignity to which we might never ultimately arrive…
Stepping inside the struggle, standing together, working to make our dream of a better world a bit closer to our daily reality, may we come to understand:
There is no being Jewish on just one foot…. AMEN.