The Conspiracy

For daveners only

At today’s meeting of the Brown/RISD Hillel Shabbat Committee, I restarted a discussion that I began several weeks ago: my hope to create some kind of alternative programming on Friday night for people who’d rather not go to services.  To me, this seemed like a fairly straightforward proposal, but it met some serious opposition, and caused to me to do some serious thinking about why I proposed it.  I brought it up in the context of a larger discussion about how to get more people involved in Friday evening activities – we were discussing things like publicizing more widely the fact that you can eat your Friday night meal at Hillel on meal plan (a change from previous years when everyone had to pay $10), for example.

Of equal importance to this practical concern is, in my mind, the need to have an option on Friday nights for those who don’t want to pray (for whatever reason), but still want to be involved with the community.  I see Hillel making concerted efforts to appeal to those people by encouraging to them to show up after services and have dinner.  I think those are great efforts and should be continued.  But I also note a kind of stagnation in the attendants of Shabbat programming.  The people at services are fairly predictable (this is not as much of a problem, because we shouldn’t be trying to recruit people for religious experiences that they don’t want to be a part of).  More importantly, however, the people who only come to dinner after services are fairly static.  There isn’t a great deal of new interest in the existing non-religious part of the evening.  So ultimately, I think there’s only so much we can do to get more people to show up after services.  I think that people feel a bit stigmatized by the religious programming, and feel as though they’re intruding on a religious experience when they show up partway through.  Many of those who do are already-religiously-interested Jews, who don’t have a problem with others practicing in different ways, and who for whatever reason didn’t want to pray.  But Jews who feel separate from the religious scene, and non-Jews who might be interested in learning more about Judaism but don’t want to feel proselytized, don’t really have a place.  And I think that’s a problem.

My proposal was that we have a discussion alternative to services every week.  It would focus around Jewish topics, but would be designed to be accessible to anyone, so that non-Jews as well as Jews of every religious and educational perspective could take part.

The opposition centered around several very legitimate concerns:

  • that this could take away from the attendance of the existing services and cause people to be conflicted in where they’d attend,
  • that I had insufficiently clarified who I intended to serve by this change, and
  • that it would not work as expected and would be better carried out at a different time.

I’ve ultimately generated answers to all of the problems people expressed that I believe make a compelling case for why Hillel should pursue this strategy.  First of all, it is not Hillel’s role to make decisions for people.  The concept that we do a disservice to members who have to choose between a new choice we offer and an existing one implies that Hillel is responsible for the choices people make.  No, Hillel is responsible for giving people those choices, not for making decisions for them.  If someone feels conflicted about which program to go to, it’s their job to decide which is more meaningful to them.  We shouldn’t be trying to shield people from that issue by refraining from providing a program.  If this program had absolutely no use, there’d be an argument against inserting it, but no one claims that that’s the case – everyone acknowledges that there’d be some kind of interest, and that it’s probably worth at least testing the waters.  Furthermore, the Brown/RISD Hillel’s mission statement states that students should be “…connecting socially, culturally, and spiritually to their Judaism.”, and that Hillel aims to “foster students’ personal development and creativity by facilitating work in the arts, cultural events, spiritual practices, and educational opportunities.”.  It’s clear that a Friday night discussion-based alternative would fit in with that mission.  Thus, not implementing it based on a desire to protect people from having to make their own choices is not reasonable.

As to the intended target of this audience, I can think of endless demographic groups for whom having an alternative to prayer would be greatly beneficial.  Jews who have never prayed and don’t want to, but still want a cultural connection to the ritual of Shabbat, Jews who don’t want to pray that particular week but still want to be involved in Shabbat, and non-Jews who want to experience Judaism and learn more about it, but don’t want to feel like they’re being initiated into a cult.  And it doesn’t just appeal to “lost souls”, either.  It’s not like this is some refuge for poor drifting heathens.  I personally would be interested in participating in this kind of discussion, even though I find that my own needs are completely met by the available services.  It’s just another option.

As to the timing of the event, it was repeatedly suggested that it be moved somewhere else so as not to “interfere” with services.  This, to me, misses the whole point of my proposal.  I’m not suggesting another study session because I think Hillel provides insufficient learning opportunities.  We have a terrific learning committee, and many existing accessible opportunities for people to engage in Jewish learning and dialogue.  What I’m proposing is not intended to remedy a deficit in that area.  It’s intended to address what I see as a very specific problem: that we’re protecting Friday night’s continued existence as a purely religious experience.  And in a conversation after the committee meeting with one of the leaders of the Tzedek Commitee (which also does fabulous work), I came to an important conclusion: this could be a legitimate conflict of mission between Hillel and me.

In other words, is it Hillel’s goal to foster solely religious Shabbat observance?  Or is it Hillel’s goal to empower students to experience a meaningful Shabbat, whatever that may mean to them?  The former will by design exclude some students, Jewish and non-Jewish from the mix, and as such it is to me a less noble goal.  I think it’s more important to provide students with resources and offer them new opportunities to learn, be engaged, and feel comfortable developing and trying new things than it is to preserve a practice targeted at a specific subset of students.  Yes, there is wide variation in practice within that subset (we have orthodox, conservative, reform, and chavurah services, and I don’t know of anyone who wants to pray on Friday night but doesn’t feel they can [there’s a Chabad house right nearby also]).  However, it’s a pretty narrow subset to begin with.  Right now, the vast majority of people attending Friday night programming are those who want to pray.  A quick look at the national Hillel organization’s mission statement reveals that it doesn’t aim to promote a specific way of being Jewish.  Its “mission is to enrich the lives of Jewish undergraduate and graduate students so that they may enrich the Jewish people and the world.”, and it intends to create “a pluralistic, welcoming and inclusive environment for Jewish college students, where they are encouraged to grow intellectually, spiritually and socially.”.  No, this statement doesn’t include non-Jews.  So I’m absolutely willing to publicly break with Hillel’s mission statement in that I believe we should be taking direct, targeted, and effective action to engage other, non-Jewish communities.

But going back to what is Hillel’s official stance, the mission statement does include supporting pluralism and helping students grow.  It doesn’t say it supports only “religious pluralism”.  It doesn’t aim to help students grow solely in their Jewish religious practice.  By failing to offer programming for Jewish students who don’t want to pray, we are betraying the mission of true Jewish pluralism and universal acceptance.  I’ll continue to argue that we should engage non-Jews as well, but, based solely on Hillel’s own stated principles, there is absolutely no grounds for preserving Friday night as a solely religious experience to the degree it is now.

We can’t ignore those who approach the religion from different backgrounds than us.  Just as Jews who don’t pray or have a spiritual connection to the faith are prevented in practical terms from writing off those who do (because we’re realistically the dominant voice of the Jewish student body), we should absolutely not allow ourselves or anyone else to write off those who don’t.  They’re every bit as Jewish as we are, and as an inclusive and forward-thinking organization, Hillel has no business not providing for them.

This isn’t a zero-sum game.  Creating opportunities for Jews who want to engage in different ways does not mean taking opportunities away from others.  Providing people with choices about how they want to participate in the Jewish community will lead to more participation, not less.  We’ll foster more inquisitive people, more exploration of new ideas, and ultimately more growth and vibrancy.

And that’s what Hillel is here for.

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5 Older Responses to “For daveners only”

  1. David A.M. Wilensky
    November 18, 2009 at 11:42 pm #

    Good! Hillel is a pluralist organization and pluralist, when it comes to Jews, covers people who don’t pray.

    At Limmud NY, a perfect example of a functional organization devoted to pluralism and ideological diversity, we have several Friday night services at our conference, as well as offering a few of our regular sessions concurrently so that people who don’t want to daven still have something to do.

  2. Harpo Jaeger
    November 19, 2009 at 2:15 am #

    And we do the same at NHC Summer Institute, I’d say out of a respect for that appropriately wide definition of pluralism.

  3. Jenna
    November 28, 2009 at 11:22 pm #

    I was just perusing the New Voices and saw this, and clearly it grabbed my attention as I am one of those people who is involved in Brown/RISD Hillel but doesn’t want to pray. I also realize that our Hillel is in the strange position of being more liberal and more welcoming than other Hillel’s across the country. I actually cannot imagine this idea even floating around anywhere else…

    Anyway, I might actually be one of the people who spends the most time in Hillel. As a member of three Hillel groups I am there constantly, but always find myself leaving just before sundown on Fridays as the rest of the Jewish population pours in. My alienation begins when Hillel becomes the most “Jewish”. If I were speaking I would say this with playful intonation and a hint of sardonic whatever it is. I often feel out of place as perhaps the only member of Hillel’s Programming Board who doesn’t regular attend services. In fact, I’ve never been to one, save the 15 minutes of a chavurah I attended before the discomfort grew to be too much. It had nothing to do with the services themselves. Four services going on at the same time… how could that be alienating to anyone? The bottom line is that Judaism for me is about intentionality and how can I be intentional when I am saying words of which I have not an inkling of the meaning! Discussion on the other hand is something that I directly associate with my Judaism (stemming from my devout attachment to Habonim Dror’s informal education practices)

    Thus I say: Harpo! Keep whacking the committee over the head with the idea. And if it floats, I’ll be your first customer!


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