Creating Community, Part 2: Better Than Couch Surfing

This on-going series will explore some of the ways that Jews have created a sense of kehillah (community), both traditional and modern.  Part 1 focused on a contemporary approach, the list-serve; in this article, I will explore the traditional method of hospitality; future articles will focus on Chabad, a group of Jews with phenomenal outreach as well as integral cohesion, and how one religious institution, Lower Merion Synagogue, has managed to send so many of its youth to make aliyah (immigration to Israel), and even to serve in Tzahal (the Israeli Army).

Recently, my daughter’s new apartment was burglarized, so I found myself making travel arrangements on short notice.  I couldn’t find hotel space close to her Lakeview neighborhood in Chicago, so I reserved the bedroom and bathroom offered by a young couple on the Airbnb website.  My daughter stayed with me there for two nights and it was perfect for our needs.  Later this month, I will return for another visit, this time with my teen daughter.  The very day I landed in Chicago, the New York Times ran a feature on Airbnb and its placement service in its Business section.

As comfy as were my accommodations– far better than couch surfing!– the placement service does not yet compare to the generous hospitality that I know in the Jewish community in my role as Hospitality Coordinator for my shul, Lower Merion Synagogue.  Orthodox Jews have such a strong sense of connection with other Shabbat-observant Jews that we can travel the world over and ask for (free) Shabbat and Yom Tov (holy day) hospitality from local Jews.  Usually, it’s because of work or non-Orthodox family celebrations that we find ourselves far from an Orthodox synagogue.  (We also get the occasional appeal from a shul member overwhelmed by the number of out-of-town guests for a simcha (religious celebration)).  But it is also when we travel for pleasure that we can ask for help finding kosher food and accommodations.

However, we Jews have been thinking a lot about trust and safety recently after the little boy, Leiby Kletzky, was murdered in Brooklyn, after he asked for directions from a man who looked legit, like someone who held the same values.  Similarly, Airbnb had to revise its policy after several hosts complained of paying guests who trashed their homes and stolen personal property.  A few days after my return home, I received a letter from Brian Chesky, the founder of Airbnb, stating their commitment to supporting their hosts with a newly instituted guarantee coverage for up to $50,000 in damages from paying guests.  So, how do we deal with the issue in my community?

Some people would say we’re crazy for opening up our homes to strangers.  I have even placed guests in local homes while the owners were away.  In one incidence, the guests were coming from London for a bar mitzvah, they later connected with their hosts, and the shul family’s daughter was able to stay with them while she was doing her semester abroad.  In a dramatic example of the Biblical quote from Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) that can be translated as “Cast your bread on the waters, for you shall find it after many days”,  this same host family found themselves in need of hachnasat orchim (welcoming guests) this summer when they made a wedding for one of their daughters and their machatanim (parents of the other member of the wedding couple, in this case, the groom) asked for an empty house, because the groom’s father is wheelchair-bound and he has to use a hospital bed.  To my amazement, with my very first phone call, I was able to make the shidduch (match).  Another example came four summers ago, when I got a frantic call on a Friday afternoon.  A woman was stranded at the airport because her plane had been delayed and she needed a place to stay for Shabbat.  I made the shidduch, then because her luggage had been routed to Boston (where the rest of her family was headed), she wore her host family’s daughter’s power suit to shul the next day.  The only marvel to me was that she, a mature woman in her late 50s, was the same size as her host family’s 19-year-old daughter.

After the boy’s murder, my Rabbi gave a drasha (sermon) on Shabbat about reaching out to the loners in our midst.  He also reassured me that we were doing just fine with our hospitality placements.  I later consulted with my co-coordinator  about changes we might have to make, as we are not in a position to offer any monetary guarantees against damages.  We decided to continue with our modus operandus, by inquiring about the community that a prospective guest hails from and how did they find us, as a community referral is best.

We are not unique in our commitment to hachnasat orchim. The website Shabbat.com was created by a web designer in Monsey, NY in 2010 and, after the webmaster of LMShuls posted a notice about it on our list-serve, about 20 local families signed up as hosts that week.  We cannot make the bad headline news go away, but we can focus on building community in the way we know, one mitzvah at a time.

This series will continue in September.

Book Chat

As a Chinese-American, I am neither white nor black and I am privileged to observe the nuances of race relations in this country as a bystander (except when my own racial heritage is a source of grievance).  I wonder if an academic awareness of an issue allows one to appreciate the inherent complexities?

I read Kathryn Stockett’s The Help and I was riveted but very perturbed by its central issue of race relations.  Set in 1962 in Jackson, Mississippi, a young white woman interviews and edits the painful narratives of black maids about their relationships with their white employers.  I wanted to identify a black perspective.  A friend cautioned me that I cannot generalize to all blacks, as African immigrants and people with Caribbean roots do not share the same experience as those descended from slaves brought to America.  No, indeed, but I was sure that a black person would respond differently to the book.

I spoke with a black staffer at my local library, someone whom I’ve known for the 21 years that my family has lived in this community.  She did not enjoy the book as did the white readers who have praised The Help, launching it onto the bestseller lists.  She could forecast how the plot would go, and she skipped over parts.  Her niece was bored by it and never did finish the book.  I asked her if it would have been a better book if it had been written by a black author, but she demurred at that.

Could the difference lie in perspective?  Events resonate more when they become personal, as Jews are instructed to imagine that they themselves are leaving Egypt during the Passover seder.  Issues become more painful.  It took me a few years before I could follow a friend’s recommendation for Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, because the central character, a child, dies from an epileptic seizure and my child has the same disorder.

I’ve read that people like horror films because they find it cathartic, a vicarious experience that leaves them relieved to be safe and ordinary.  I wonder if readers of The Help become more understanding?  Are some readers smug that they are not racist and do not harbor any prejudicial intent?  Or do they have a renewed sensitivity to insults to human dignity?  Do they speak out in protest?  My Rabbi has noted that we do not feel pain to the same degree when a tragedy, a violation,  happens to someone else.  However, the challenge is in the striving to maintain sensitivity and that is a hallmark of a compassionate person.

I attended a book discussion along with my friend who grew up in the South.  She found the novel realistic, and told me later that the others (all white women) did not appreciate the fact that though the overt theme of the book was racism, the same kind of prejudice and peer control exist in other times, other places, including our own.  I attempted to point out that the new theory on bully-behavior management, is not to address the bully directly, but to educate the silent majority, that they can take control of a situation by speaking up.  The queen bee, Hilly, from the novel could not have continued in her role, if the others did not let her do so.  However, most people were too afraid, ignorant, or blind to the racial divide in a society in which they had a comfortable perch.  I wonder if readers would become more conscious and sensitive to injustice around them?  I made a reference to To Kill a Mockingbird, which is now a classic.  Did readers of the time immediately take to its message?

The film version, starring Emma Stone as the ingenue reporter, Eugenia ‘Skeeter’ Phelan, Viola Davis as her source, a black housekeeper named Aibileen Clark, and Bryce Dallas Howard as their nemesis, the controlling Hilly Holbrook, will open in the local cinemas on August 10th.

Farming the Biblical Way

Touted as a “squash rock star” by Laura Matthews on her blog, Punk Rock Gardens, Tom Culton, 30, has not only appeared on the David Letterman show but he has participated in Sotheby’s “The Art of Farming” auction along with the gracious-living guru Martha Stewart.  He has been featured in The Philadelphia Inquirer and Bon Appetit magazine.  He supplies his heirloom and other weird-looking vegetables to local upscale restaurants such as  Vetri, Zahav, and The Farm and Fisherman in Philadelphia (the latter recently garnered a three-bell rating from the Inquirer’s food critic, Craig LaBan) and to celebrity chefs such as Thomas Keller and Daniel Boulud in New York City.

What the other media interviews do not mention is that Tom is a devoted member of the River Brethen Church, one of only two remaining Old-Order Mennonite communities in Lancaster and in New Paltz in upstate New York.  Members of his family have been living in Lancaster County since 1740, but several generations back they were dissatisfied by the leadership and dropped out.  Tom is the first one in his family to return to his ancestral faith.  According to Wikipedia, the River Brethren oppose war, alcohol, tobacco, and worldly pleasures.  They also observe the Sabbath– on Saturdays, like the Jews–  in which they do not work.  Tom scatters extra grain for his chickens before the Sabbath, just as manna fell in double portion for the Jews in the desert.

Tom grew up farming but it was in his teens that he understood  “it’s one of the most important roles” he could have in the world.  After his mother’s death in 2001, he found solace in farming– nurturing something while Nature nurtures him in return.  ”Growing food is one of the beautiful things in the world, even when it can be a dark place,” said Tom.  His mother bequeathed to him the ancestral home (his father had left them when Tom was only three days old), and Tom ventured to turn his family farm– previous crops had been tobacco and carrots– to a more sustainable future.  His grandfather, now 81, has come to see the folly of his post-war generation relying on chemicals without  regard for the environmental impact.

Faith is a very important factor in Tom’s life.  It gives focus, strength, and understanding.  He “doesn’t look for answers in man-made solutions, but in God’s solutions.”  The farming life is so insecure, affected by unpredictable weather conditions and capricious market prices.  Farmers can easily lose faith in the face of difficulties but Tom turns to prayer during the sad times (deaths and relationship woes), crops failures, and husbandry diseases.

It is in church on the Sabbath that Tom feels embraced as a farmer.  In fact, his fellow church  members are all farmers, but he is the only organic one– and the one with the highest yield from his land.  Once a contractor for a fellow church member ventured to drive his truck through Tom’s land– with its access road that “would have saved him $5 in gasoline” costs– but Tom saw the guy in time and ran to block access, standing him off  “like the student protestors in Tiananmen Square (China).”  He was cursed roundly for his unneighborly action, but the unheeded drips from the guy’s pesticide-laden truck (and the wheels) could have cost Tom his organic certification or at least incur a hefty fine.

Tom has tremendous respect for the elderly and the ways of old.  His grandfather lives with him.  The senior Culton is not enamored of speaking to outsiders but he enjoys puttering on the farm.  He also cultivates his own saffron plot– for his favorite rice dishes– a therapeutic crop requiring a labor-intensive harvest of the stamens.  Respect for the elderly was also demonstrated by his church when their Bishop suffered a stroke.  To maintain his dignity, he and his wife were sent to a remote farm (away from bustling Lancaster) owned by a church member to live out his days in pastoral peace.  Ancestral ties are maintained through family burial plots on his property, a right protected by his church. In another affirmation of tradition, Tom is refurbishing his family’s buggy, which he plans to use on his wedding day when he meets the lucky gal who cherishes a farming life.  The River Brethren were among the last of the Mennonites to give up their buggies.

Organic farming can give comparable or better yields than conventional agriculture but it does demand much more labor.  Tom grows alfalfa, which is dicey to grow without pesticides, as feed for his dairy goats and as a cash commodity as well as a cover crop for fixing nitrogen (a natural alternative to petroleum-based fertilizers).  Every five years (in contrast to the seven years between Shmittah (Hebrew for “release”) years in the Jewish tradition), he takes out his alfalfa and rotates his crops in the fields.  He has located a French company that uses certified non-GMO (genetically modified organism) corn to produce biodegradable plastic for agricultural purposes.  It’s much more expensive, priced at $400 for 5,000 square feet versus $89 for the conventionally produced plastic.  Tom has seen farmers take the lazy way and simply plow the regular plastic under their land, where it doesn’t ever completely degrade but which does chip off and get into our food and water supply.

How did he learn to farm the organic way?  When he began farming seriously, it was already in his DNA.  So, he did not read much, because it was really just common sense.  ”You go with your heart” and do what is only sustainable for your land.  It has become a “very religious experience” to come to realize that modern research has confirmed his wholehearted experience on the farm.  Tom recently got his first computer and was able to search on the Internet for the correct spelling of the Red Piriform tomato (with ribbed shoulders) that was previously thought to only grow in the Ligura region of Italy but which Tom has succeeded in cultivating and supplying to his chef friends. On Tom’s kitchen table is a bobble-head figure of Mark McGwire, the discredited baseball player who admitted to steroid use last year, to remind himself that people still prize natural talent– and by extension,  natural food– without chemical enhancements.

Tom has one high-top (plastic-covered tent) greenhouse without any heating source and one that is heated by waste oil, processed by him (centrifuged to remove impurities) on his land.  He collects the oil from the area restaurants, which pay him to take the waste oil off their hands.

This year, Tom has the assistance of Matthew Yoder, recently returned from a stint in Maine and newly adopted into the River Brethren faith, and Ian Osborne, an “English” young man not of the faith– just as Jews might distinguish between themselves  and the goyim (Gentiles).  Matthew brought his knowledge of crops that thrive in New England and the two of them have planted heavily on the 53 acres of the Culton Organics farm.  What are his favorite crops?  Fava beans– or just about any bean– and artichokes with its purply, thistly flowers.

Tom’s plans for next year comprise of a reduced reliance on produce and the introduction of ducks and geese (for the eggs and meat).  His farm now supports 15 chickens (only two of which are now mature enough to lay eggs daily), a small flock of goats, and one turkey.  Most of the goats are milk-producing animals, but one lone billy goat was allowed to retain his horns and escape castration (which adversely affects the taste of the meat).  Why was this one chosen for the sacrifice (his eventual slaughter)?  He was the mean one of the flock.

Tom and his friend, Michael Solomonov, the chef at Zahav and a recent winner of the prestigious James Beard award, plan to tour Israel together.  Does he wish to see the Christian religious sites?  No, he is willing to follow Michael’s lead; besides he is more interested in seeing the Jewish historical sites.

You could taste the delicious dishes made from the heirloom vegetables from Culton Organics at area restaurants and you may meet Tom and Matt on Sundays at the Headhouse Square Farmers’  Market (open from 10 am to 2 pm at Second and Pine Streets).  Be sure to bring your smile or he’ll charge you double.

What Do We Need from Our Jewish Leaders?

As part of a lecture series at the National Museum of American Jewish History, this past Tuesday evening was a session titled, “Challenges to American Jewish Leaders Today.” The featured panelists were Dr. Erica Brown, scholar-in-residence at the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and winner of the esteemed Covenant Award for her work in Jewish education, and Dr. Steven Cohen, research professor of Jewish Social Policy at Hebrew Union College and director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at NYU.

Brown started the conversation with a quote from Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of the New Republic: “American Jews are the spoiled brats of the 20th century.”  Cohen explained that viewpoint as such: American Jews are ignorant and they don’t even know it.  But he, Cohen, is not as concerned about Jewish literacy–  as defined by the ancient rabbinic texts– but chooses to define and measure Jewish engagement and identity.  Brown declared that American Jews have accomplished a tremendous amount for American culture, but less for the legacy of Judaism.  Once they are finally introduced to their Jewish legacy, they do learn to appreciate the reservoir of Jewish wisdom that is applicable and relevant to their communal roles.  Cohen countered thus: Jewish knowledge comes from being effective.  It’s not essential to know the rabbinic texts.  Furthermore, he said, Jewish knowledge also includes cooking skills.  So, would you come to a program on chicken soup? quipped Brown.  Yes, but only to taste, retorted Cohen, I cannot cook and that makes me a deficient Jew.

Turning to Israel as another indicator of Jewish identity, Brown noted with dismay that American Jews cannot have a civil discourse over issues these days.  Cohen, who’d made aliyah (emigrated to Israel) in 1992, considers  himself  a learned Jew because of his intimate knowledge of Israeli life and politics.  He outlined the two camps of Jews in America thus: one that feels an obligation of loyalty to Israel and the other that is concerned primarily with human rights.  The former is concerned that the human-rights camp undermines the security of Israel while the latter camp is worried that the Zionist hawks undermine the democratic and moral character of Israel.  (Cohen considers himself  a security-driven dove.)  Brown regards incivility as representative of American politics today, as shown in vituperous anonymous exchanges on the Internet and sometimes even in person.  Cohen was more concerned about the lack of knowledge of policies than incivility.  Later, he noted that three comparison groups- American Jews of old (early 20th century), the Orthodox, and Israelis– are all defined by strong passion.  It’s not incivil to be passionate about an issue.

In Cohen’s 2000 book, The Jew Within: Self, Family, and Community in America, he refers to “sheilaism,” a term coined by Robert Bellah and Richard Madsen in their monumental study, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life to encapsulate the egoistic adoption of ritual– Brown called it “the religion of one”– and the resultant breakdown of communal religious life.  Another term they bandied was “journeyism,” to refer to the expectations of the disaffected to be supported in their journeys of spiritual exploration.  They, and we, lose the communal and social reasons for religion.  So, how do we create community for these disaffected youth?  Cohen advocates the growing success the Jewish community has achieved in delivering personal meaning through new venues, such as minyanim and havurot.  Drawing upon semantics, he noted that observant Jews used to greet each other with chag kasher v’sameach for Pesach (Passover), but now we tell each other, “Have a meaningful fast.”  He was wowed by the inclusion of “meaningful” in the Artscroll machzor (High Holiday prayer book) that is widely accepted in the Orthodox community.    According to Cohen, we have moved from the normative system of “This is the right way to live” to an aesthetic system with an enriching culture.

A hot topic is conversion; current debates focus more on who has the right to determine who is a Jew than who is Jewish.  Brown cited Joseph Caro’s 16th century seminal work in traditional Judaism, The Shulhan Aruch, for posing the test question: Are you willing to accept the fate of the Jewish people?  If so, then the proselyte can be taught the mitzvot (commandments).  She claimed  that there is a big price to be paid for taking out the Jewish content.  Cohen said that we should welcome more converts.  He estimated that 10% of intermarried couples will have grandchildren who identify as Jews and only 50% of Gentile inter-married partners do convert.   He proposed cultivating conversionary-minded rabbis.  Brown retorted that a lack of teachers was not the obstruction but communal lack of acceptance.  She taught that the Biblical Ruth was ignored by the women of Bethlehem when she arrived there with her mother-in-law Naomi– and this was after Ruth’s dramatic and poetic declaration of faith.  Cohen agreed that prejudice against converts was morally wrong but its removal would be insufficient to increasing the incentive for conversion.  He thinks there is a sizeable cohort of non-Jews who are connected but would not convert.

Cohen then proposed the radical idea of dropping the God part of Ruth’s oath and calling for Jewish affirmation, not conversion.  Brown protested that this would unfairly narrow the definition of who is a Jew.  Cohen said that it would be gambling a loss of people choosing the cheaper, more accessible product– Birthright, for instance, instead of the more intensive and demanding six-weeks’ stay in Israel– but we’ll be compensated by a wider reach to those who would not have been tempted outright.  Brown quipped that he was offering wholesale instead of retail.  Cohen admitted  it’s a half step toward conversion.  It’s thus not a burden for rabbis and teachers, but we have not yet shown the love to motivate these non-Jewish partners for further engagement.   What is most important is inclusion, to keeping the tent opened wide.  Brown bemoaned the current culture of self-esteem and consumerism, in which our youth do not see themselves as stakeholders, but treat Judaism as “fee for service.”  They will attend High Holiday services but they would not pay dues, which cover the rabbi’s salary and the utility bills.

Regarding Jewish leaders under the age of 40, Cohen noted a major shift from people to purpose, from belonging to judging everything–  family, institutions, Israel–  according to our interests and passions.

What does it mean to be a Jewish leader nowadays?  Without minimizing Jewish literacy, Cohen extorted us to also recognize other forms of Jewish knowledge.  More than the rabbinic texts, there is an additional corpus of knowledge not recognized by our Biblical scholars and seminarians, but is represented within the gallery space of the new National Museum of American Jewish History. That is also Jewish content, Jewish knowledge.