A local Jewish education consortium runs this advertisement:
And the Forward has an essay by Jordana Horn with this headline:
It’s an interesting selling point: A Jewish institution that doesn’t look too Jewish. Horn is writing abut Eden Village, a Jewish environmental overnight camp in the Hudson Valley. According to its web site, Eden Village “brings a unique focus on farming, food, and wilderness to the best of traditional camp.”
In my teens I worked at a Jewish camp that was ostensibly “Jewish” but except for a Friday night blessing and the preponderance of Lacoste alligators was indistinguishable from a non-sectarian camp. That’s the old wave version of “I can’t believe it’s Jewish!”
In the new wave, the point is to offer a strong Jewish identity or programming that doesn’t remind the kids (and, perhaps, more importantly, their parents) of synagogue or Hebrew school.
Horn explains it well:
Jewish camps are very different from how they were when I was a kid. Back then, it was either Jewish camp as in daven-and-call-the-dining-room-aruchat-ochel or Jewish camp as in the-campers-are-all-Jewish-but-it’s-not-a-Jewish-camp-if-you-know-what-I-mean. Perhaps now that Jewish camp is not necessarily a given for many families, Jewish camps have gone out of their way to be more diverse.
So the kids at Eden Village don’t just work in the camp farm, but do ”everything from making challah and grape juice for the Sabbath to helping cook the food they eat.” Eden Village says it offers
an immersive education in Jewish values that provides a context for making choices and taking action. Campers consider and express those values through activities like hands-on farming, hiking, arts, contemplation and service to others, which simultaneously transforms them and changes the world.
It’s not just camps that are selling “I can’t believe it’s Jewish!” Judaism. Last week the Times profiled Rabbi Dovi Scheiner and his wife Esty, a Lubavitch-trained couple who run the non-Lubavitch affiliated Soho Synagogue:
Soho Synagogue first made headlines more than five years ago when it began hosting buzz-filled downtown parties without obvious religious content.
The article describes an event at an “art-filled loft on Bond Street in Lower Manhattan” where “a stream of stylishly dressed young Jewish professionals: financiers and investors, designers and artists…nibbled at sliders and salad, chatting about the relative merits of trading commodities or distressed real estate, and comparing their day’s exercise as displayed on their Nike FuelBands.”
It’s not “Jewish-style” or “Jewish without the Judaism.” The Orthodox Scheiners’ “brand” is described as a “fusion of traditional Jewish practice with a modern urban aesthetic …. And, in New York, they are seeking to ramp up religious content, through biweekly Talmud gatherings at members’ lofts and more regular worship services.”
By contrast, there’s the Young Manhattanite Shabbat, a series of dinners hosted by a group Tumblr blog (a phrase I type even as I admit I have no idea what the hell it means). The New York Observer describes their gatherings as “as treif as can be,” where “non-Jews frequently outnumbered the Jews.” Founded by Andrew Krucoff, web content director of the 92nd St. Y, the guest list is heavy on artists, writers, and other creative types:
“I was purposely putting out nonkosher food like shrimp cocktail,” said Mr. Krucoff, who began having “YM Seders” in 2006. “But I wouldn’t say I was trying to have Shabbat ironically. The parties wouldn’t have been fun if [The Forward cartoonist] Eli Valley hadn’t been there, doing the hamotzi [blessing over the challah] and reading and interpreting the d’var Torah [Torah portion] of the week.”
This whole movement, if a movement it is, reminds me of how Richard Joel once described his mission as former head of the international campus Hillel movement: to transform an organization that had a reputation for attracting, “the nerds, the dweebs and the geeks.”
The opportunity is to create Jewish communities for people who could never see themselves as part of a Jewish community. The risk is that you end up not with a Jewish community, but little more than a community of Jews. The challenge is to make tradition relevant to folks who may have doubts that it is, and to keep it recognizable to those who never had such doubts to begin with.