Posts filed under ‘Religion’

For many NY Jews, delis are the ‘secular version of the synagogue’

220px-Carnegie_deli_exterior-195x165Times of Israel article, 5/16/16

We should worry about this! Not because it’s a New York phenomenon but because while many Jews identify themselves as “cultural” Jews, I posit that food and other cultural identities are actually ethnic identifications.

According to Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, ethicity is “…a nostalgic yearning for Jewish folkways that once sustained us as a people apart, but can no longer do so – not, at least, without anti-Semitism to drive it. Ethnicity in this sense is doing what we think Jews have always done, whether they are really what Jews have always done or not, and whether or not they are even authentically Jewish; and doing them by social habit, just because we have grown up with them and feel good doing them. Jewish ethnicity is ‘doing what comes naturally,’ but with no transcendent purpose.”

To distinguish ethnicity from culture, Hoffman writes, “By Jewish culture, I mean the totality of wisdom, practices, folkways and so forth that constitute what we choose to remember of Jewish experience. That experience is simply too massive for anyone to remember it all, so every generation selects part of it (reinterpreting it as necessary), and leaves the rest behind. Leaving behind does not mean losing it forever, however. The parts of Jewish culture that do not get selected in any given generation remain in the cultural reservoir, as it were, to be recovered some day by others.”

And importantly, he contends that culture remains viable and important to Judaism because of, “ … the remarkable fact that Judaism demands study, and not just study of what is relevant, but study of everything Jewish.” I want to emphasize this – Judaism demands study… of everything Jewish.

I don’t think ethnicity or culture can sustain American Judaism in part because most Jews now have no identification with “the old country,” i.e. Eastern Europe. Ask most young Jews and they have no idea that bagels and rye bread are anything more than interesting foods. Add to that the lessening interest in Judaism as a distinct culture (again, Ashkenazik/Eastern European) and what’s left to tie Jews together?

May 16, 2016 at 9:34 am 1 comment

Identity In, Spirituality Out For Jewish Teens

And if synagogues haven’t awakened from their head-in-the-sand slumber this might be what finally does it. Not only are Jewish teens diverging from their slightly older YJA (young Jewish adult) contemporaries, the teen cohort is one that synagogues have had some (perceived) success, though I’ve argued that their success is for those teens who are already engaged.

The other troubling thing is Jewish identity is so tied to ethnic and cultural factors that are largely gone from American life. How will a Jewish teenager from Kansas connect with a culture she’s never known?

May 11, 2016 at 9:31 am Leave a comment

As congregations shrink, cantors become rabbis – and work as both

Lots in this article – the changing role of cantors, the market forcing changes in rabbinical training, and ultimately “With society changing so rapidly, synagogues are desperate to find formulas that will keep them functioning… They want as many options as possible and don’t want rabbinical organizations — effectively labor unions — to dictate to them.” Rabbi Dana Evan Kaplan


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Rabbi Julie Jacobs, flanked by former NFL quarterback Sage Rosenfels, left, and musician Matisyahu, celebrating her rabbinical installation at Beth David Congregation in 2015. Previously the Miami synagogue’s cantor, she now works as both. (Courtesy of Beth David Congregation)

April 15, 2016 at 10:06 am Leave a comment

6 facts about how American congregations are changing

Synagogues need to know the full American religious landscape not just what’s happening in their own back yards. While some of the findings aren’t directly relevant to synagogues most of it is.
  1. People are increasingly concentrated in very large congregations.
  2. There is growing diversity among and within American congregations.
  3. Many pastors are bi-vocational.
  4. Worship services are becoming more informal and expressive.
  5. People in smaller churches give more money to their churches than do people in larger churches.
  6. Congregations focus more on serving the needy than on trying to effect systemic change.

April 11, 2016 at 10:26 am Leave a comment

The Jonah Project

The Jonah Project, a fascinating look at religious moderation, Watch Kevin’s presentation at the Gel Conference,

June 2, 2010 at 8:36 am Leave a comment

The Case for Multifaith Education

 The Alban Institute – 2010-01-18 The Case for Multifaith Education.

Interesting piece from Rabbi Justus N. Baird,  director of the Center for Multifaith Education at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City

January 18, 2010 at 10:51 am Leave a comment

Cool New Website

Check out

January 16, 2010 at 4:54 pm Leave a comment


”Religion is for people who are afraid of going to hell, spirituality is for those who’ve been there” anonymous

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May 2, 2009 at 2:07 pm Leave a comment

Best Practices in Internet Ministry

I dislike the term ‘best practices.’ My experience is that most best practices, aren’t. But, there are always exceptions. Dave Bourgeois, Associate Professor of Information Systems at Biola University recently presented a workshop for the Center for Congregations, “God in the Tubes: Developing an Internet Strategy for Your Congregation.” Dave  did some really interesting research on congregations and related non-profits who use the internet as part of their work. I like Dave’s research because it affirms many things I’ve been saying! Here’s a sampling:

  • Only 36% of the respondents felt their Internet ministry was successful
  • 64% of organizations with an annual budget >$10,000 reported success vs 30% or less with budgets under $1000
  • Organizations that integated outside services like Flickr and Youtube reported up to 45% more success than those that didn’t
  • Organizations that integrated social networking tools… Facebook, Twitter, blogs, etc. reported 24% more success than those that didn’t
  • Organizations who had volunteers build the web site reported success 16% less often than those who did not (that’s a -16% success rate)
  • Collecting data or research in preparation for developing a web ministry, 52% of organizations that answered “yes” reported success, compared to 26% success for those who reported “no”

Check out the rest of Dave’s best practice data at For more information on Dave and his research check out

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March 20, 2009 at 5:44 pm Leave a comment

Cool website (and even cooler interview of me)

Menachem Wecker edits and hosts a fascinating website about relgion and art called Iconia: Wherever faith meets art. I ‘met’ Menachem on twitter and he subsequently asked if I’d like to be interviewed (I made the mistake of telling him my wife was an artist… guess he assumed I knew something about art). Of course I said yes! The following is what’s posted on his fine site.

Rabbi Aaron Spiegel is information technology director for the Center for Congregations. According to his bio on the CFC, he has served several congregations in South Florida, has a B.A. in comparative theology from Union Institute & University, ordination from the Rabbinical Academy of Mesifta Adath Wolkowisk, and is a D.Min. candidate in congregational studies at Hartford Seminary. I “met” Rabbi Siegel, who is a “transdenominational rabbi,” on Twitter, where his handle is @rebaaron. (Image courtesy of Rabbi Spiegel.)

MW: Your blog “Ma Hamatzav?” (site) describes you as a former pulpit rabbi and a rabbi at the Hillel at Butler University, and the CFC site calls you “transdenominational.” Most people have enough trouble keeping Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, etc. straight. What does it mean to be a transdenominational rabbi?

AS: I wish I could claim that I made it up but alas I’m not that creative. Trans – beyond – denominational is just that, beyond the movements or denominational tags. While I have great respect for each of the movements and their historical significance, I believe we’re now in a period in which their relevance is severely diminished. It used to mean something when someone said ‘I’m a Reform Jew’ or ‘I’m Conservative.’ Most Jews, particularly those younger than baby boomers, have little or no attachment to these monikers. In some cases, the labels are seen as negatives. I like to refer to myself as a Reformativadoctionist. Or in other words, I’m confused!

MW: You are one of very few rabbis that I have found on Twitter, and I’ve spent a lot of time looking. I see you do information technology for CFC, and have written on congregations and technology. Why do you think there is such an aversion to new media in the rabbinate, and why do you think you’ve managed to overcome that?

AS: I can easily answer the second part of the question – my first career was in information technology (starting in the late ‘70’s, early ‘80’s) so I’m a techno geek at heart. As to why rabbis have an aversion to technology I can only speculate.

Rabbis are still trained as scholars. There is little in the way of ‘practical’ leadership and management in rabbinical school. Technology, at its best, is a tool to lead and manage. I’m oversimplifying, but without an incentive to use these tools, i.e. it’s what the secular world uses to communicate, rabbis often see them as irrelevant.

I will contradict somewhat your statement that I’m the only rabbi on twitter. I’ve now found another four or five of us. I’m also seeing rabbinical students on twitter as well. I should also point out that though the numbers aren’t exactly proportional, Christian clergy have the same problem adopting technology tools in their ministry. Many find themselves doing so because their congregants are forcing them. I just did a survey on congregational use of social networking (link) and the responses were interesting. Most of the respondents were church leaders and while most agree these tools are important for maintaining relationships and communications, very few are actually adopting the tools.

MW: Your Twitter profile includes: “technologist, motorcyclist, sailor, cigar smoker, renaissance man” and “friend o’ bill(stein).” I won’t even ask about the first list, but who is Bill Stein?

AS: It’s an inside joke!

MW: As a technologically-inclined rabbi and husband of a painter, you must deal with art and design a lot. What sort of religious role can the arts play in a transdenominational setting?

AS: I’m not sure art is much different in a transdenominational setting than in any of the liberal Jewish movements. Jews have been and are great supporters of the arts. We have data that Jews give to the arts disproportionally to non Jews. I believe that Judaism is a religion of aesthetics. Judaism appreciates beauty and values individual expression.

In his book Congregations In America, sociologist of religion Mark Chaves (link) reported from the findings of the first National Congregations Study that Jews had a higher proclivity to the arts than non Jews – so I’m not making this up!

MW: Are there subject matters that are off limits to a Jewish artist — whether nudity, idolatry, or heresy?

AS: I don’t think so. Nudity is one thing and I do believe there’s a line between tasteful nudity and pornography (though I can’t tell you what it is). Regarding idolatry and heresy, I’m not sure there’s much chance for either.

It’s very difficult to define idolatry in Judaism. The commandment against idolatry was written (or channeled by God if that’s ones beliefs) during a time when idols were still common. Judaism doesn’t anthropomorphize God nor even hint that God has human characteristics. The prophets and later thinkers like Maimonides all stated that humans don’t have an adequate language with which to talk about God. Therefore we use the human language we have to describe God and ascribe attributes to God that we can grasp. To depict God as an old man with a long white beard isn’t depicting God – it’s merely depicting our idea of God, albeit a limited, human depiction.

The same goes for heresy. What’s heretical about depicting God? Judaism is not like Islam or some Christian sects who hold an image of a prophet or saint as sacred. They’re just pictures.

MW: Who are some of your favorite Jewish artists and works? Do you think there is a such thing as Jewish Art?

AS: I do believe there’s such a thing as Jewish art. It’s art created by Jews that has some kind of Jewish influence. In the visual arts I’m a big fan of Chagall. I do like some of his famous pieces (like the stained glass) but my favorite works are his attempts at creating a Bible. While one can see his Eastern European influences, he also showed he was very influenced by Christianity. Some of the pieces show the Bible stories from a Christian understanding of the Hebrew Bible rather than a Jewish interpretation – it’s fascinating to me.

I love the photography of Roman Vishniac, especially his photos of Eastern Europe before the Shoah. The illustrations of Arthur Szyk are amazing. One of my prized possessions is a Szyk Haggadah (link) which my parents bought me and my two brothers when we were kids. I still use it at our sedar to bring the story to life. But of course, my favorite Jewish visual artist is my wife! (site)

If we include authors and websites as art (which I do) the list is too long to name. There are some outstanding young Jewish authors like Dara Horn (site) and Michael Chabon (site). I love new ventures like Nextbook, Jewcy, Jewlicious, Zeek, and Heeb Magazine. I give special mention to the new website G-dcast (link). In music, there are some outstanding artists like Craig Taubman, Josh Nelson, Joshua Nelson (yes, two different people), Rick Recht, Matisyahu, JDub Records, etc who are bringing Jewish music into the 21st century.

MW: How much is Jewish art on the radar screens of American Jewish communities? Are Jewish educational institutions doing enough in your mind to engage the fine arts, as opposed to literature and music?

AS: I won’t speak for Jewish educational institutions (because they have problems that almost preclude them from worrying about art!), but I think art is very much a part of the ethos of the American Jewish community. As I mentioned in the previous question, I think there’s a ‘new crop’ of exciting projects – in print, on the web, and music. I wouldn’t yet call it mainstream, but only because the mainstream is slow to shift. Ten years from now I think (hope) these will be the mainstream.

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February 16, 2009 at 3:26 pm Leave a comment

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