The Conspiracy

Labelship Down

As another Friday night set in, I pondered whether to schlep out of my warm house into the snow flying sideways to make the long trek (a seven-minute bus ride) down to Hillel, and after I coordinated with some friends at the University of Pittsburgh–whom I hadn’t seen all week–I decided that the schlep was worth it. I’ve talked about community more than once before–twice, in fact. But this time, I want to talk about the labels that define our community, as you might have guessed from the title.

For the past several years, the Hillel-JUC of Pittsburgh has offered three services on Friday night: Reform, Conservative and Orthodox. There are entirely student-run and student-organized. For the first year-and-a-half that I was here, I helped lead and organize Reform Shabbat services, as well as High Holiday services. Although I really enjoyed this in the beginning, the numbers soon dwindled until we didn’t even have a minyan (not that we cared). Occasionally, we combined with the Conservative kids who didn’t have a minyan (and actually cared). But after one of the leaders in the Reform campus community decided to go abroad this spring, I realized I couldn’t handle Reform services on my own. There were few other kids attending, and even fewer people willing to lead services.

Long story short: there are no more Reform services offered at Hillel. Do I still go to Hillel? Shockingly, yes, as was displayed in the first paragraph of this post. I just go to the Conservative service. I was raised a Reform Jew, and as I edged closer and closer to college, I became more involved with my temple youth group (which was NFTY-affiliated). I would say I’m learning a lot by attending the Conservative service–but I’m really not. I often feel lost among the Hebrew, am unsure when to stand or sit, when to say the Hatzi Kaddish or let the reader do that. This isn’t a criticism of the movement, necessarily–a good friend and I often dissect how the way we were raised dictates the kind of Jew we are today.

Last weekend, I was lucky enough to attend Jewlicious Festival in Long Beach, CA. (I’ll be writing more about it in an article soon). Just as most people have been saying in the blogosphere, there were all different kinds of Jews there–I won’t bother to name every denomination, country of origin, or political movement they align themselves but you can easily apply the old adage of “three Jews, ten opinions” to this festival. Anyway, there were various services offered throughout Friday night and Saturday morning. Sometimes they were called ‘Reform,’ sometimes ‘Carlebach,’ sometimes ‘Traditional.’ It was usually clear what kind of service it would be from the one-line description (“Take a step back to your days of camping, accompanied by sweet guitar melodies”).

On the plane ride home, I discussed the festival with the director of my Hillel, Aaron Weil. He loved how they termed services there and proposed doing the same thing for our Hillel. “Let’s call them Carlebach, Traditional, and Camp Style,” he said. I made a ‘hm’ sound. On one hand, I like the idea of redefining how our own community defines ourselves–and on the other hand, they’re just labels, right? It’s semantics. No matter how you wrap the present, there’s still a box of raisins inside. They’re just words.

To my surprise, Aaron made the change swiftly–in our weekly email newsletter, he announced that there would be Carlebach and Traditional services available (because we still don’t have Reform back). However, when I got to Hillel, the student announcing which floor to go to still used the words ‘Orthodox’ and ‘Traditional.’ I think it will take a while for this language to pervade our Friday nights, if it ever does. Because no matter what you call it, that type of service or a certain type of Jew is still, usually, affiliated with a movement–whether it’s the Union for Reform Judaism or the Chabad Lubavitch movement. What do you think? Do the words matter? Should we even bother trying to label our own people? Others do that enough for us, don’t you think?


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

3 Older Responses to “Labelship Down”

  1. David A.M. Wilensky
    March 1, 2010 at 4:11 pm #

    At Limmud NY, we make a point of de-labeling services, but offering a wide range. For instance, this year we had (among others) Friday night services called things like “Traditional Friday Night Service with Mechitza, led by Men,” “traditional service with mixed seating led by men and women,” “upbeat musical service with mixed seating led by men and women (there will be musical instruments with amplification)” It’s much more useful. It tells people exactly which will be comfortable for them and it also erases barriers to entry for people who want to try a new service.

  2. Martin
    March 2, 2010 at 12:28 pm #

    I attend (on and off) a variety of independent and not so independent minyanim in London, most of which fall over themselves to avoid lableling but at the end of the day I think it’s important that people know what they are going to get, titles like the ones found at Limmud and mentioned by David above are really useful for this.


  1. Jewlicious, Revisited « IntheMoment - March 2, 2010

    […] written a tiny bit about it, mostly scribbled notes to myself and a blog post on New Voices about labels. (Other people are already chatting it up on the Internets, like here.) I’ll write a longer […]

WordPress Backup
Read previous post:

A poem