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Seker: A New Take on Progressive Jewish Outreach

At its outset, the Reform movement placed great emphasis on aesthetic and decorum. Fitting in, becoming a seamless part of the fabric of the larger society, was of the highest importance. Almost 200 years have passed, during which these goals have been met, most of all in the United States. Some worry that we’ve done too good of a job of fitting in, and are losing ourselves amongst the nations, much like the disappearance of techelet from our tzitzit. Seker, my project for Progressive Jewish outreach in the public spaces of New York City, is directly in response to both the early Reformers and the contemporary Jewish leadership fearing the continued loss of Jewish identity amongst the younger generations of the American Jewish population.

Seker began as a series of conversations between myself and my classmates during our first year of rabbinical school in Israel. These conversations circulated around a fairly simple question: If Chabad is so successful with its public Jewish outreach, why are we not doing it too? A new program at HUC-JIR in New York, the Be Wise fellowship, offers students the opportunity, and funding, to try to answer questions such as this. I applied for one of these grants to fund my project, which mainly consisted of a website, a portable table, a copy of Mishkan T’filah, a couple of sets of t’fillin, a banner and some business cards. Once this seemingly endless winter finally broke, some of my classmates and I hit Washington Square Park, Union Square Park and Prospect Park to speak with anyone interested in learning about t’fillin or Judaism in general.

Kahn SekerDuring five afternoons of tabling, an incredible diversity of people came up to us to ask questions about Judaism, to ask what the t’fillin were, to even try them out. We had individuals ranging from a male Orthodox Jew who just hadn’t wrapped yet that day, to a woman who grew up Chabad who had never been allowed to wrap, to a non-Jewish man who was intrigued by the practice. The goal of this project was not to sell people on t’fillin, or anything for that matter, but rather to raise public awareness of Reform Judaism. The t’fillin were merely the lure to catch the eye of the curious, much like the Seker/Seeker play on words.

One of the greatest lessons I have learned in this project so far is the deep grasp the work of the early Reformers still has on the psyche of the movement. Many people I spoke with, and continue to speak with, about this project are flabbergasted by the use of t’fillin. “But why t’fillin?” is a common refrain. It is as if I am proposing to schect animals in public – people seem simultaneously offended and confused.

T’fillin, although not a part of most Reform Jews’ upbringing, are a distinct, eye catching, and unique Jewish ritual object. Unlike the hannukiah or shofar, they are used on a daily basis. Unlike mezuzot, they involve mindful action and physicality. They are the ultimate immediate and impactful experience. Their interesting construction, with the many tiny scrolls of Torah passages hidden inside, are a mystery and invoke curiosity in even the most cynical investigator. All of these qualities make them an ideal outreach tool.

Unconventional and countercultural as this project may be within the Reform movement, it sparked the interest of the public immediately. If the goal is to raise awareness and start conversations, Seker has been a total success. As leaders within the movement continue to brainstorm new and innovative ways to reach out to their communities, this model can serve as an example of an engaging and different mode of expanding the reach and visibility of Reform communities throughout the country.

Andy Kahn is a rising third year rabbinic student at HUC-JIR. He was with the CCAR as an intern during the last academic year and will be back again as a rabbinic intern during the coming academic year.  

4 replies on “Seker: A New Take on Progressive Jewish Outreach”

Consensus has won, for better or worse—t’fillin in general as an option for Reform Jews making informed choices are kosher and not shocking or controversial. But do we REALLY want them to be our “eye-catcher” for outreach? Do we want them to be the broader public’s first glimpse of Reform Judaism? The strength of Reform is our grounding in the Prophetic legacy of spiritualizing some historically “flesh-based” or material aspects of our inherited Tradition. We can re-claim more literal uses and understandings to create meaning, but our public face, especially in a majority Protestant society, should be one that emphasizes spiritualization.

Several decades ago, when I became ba’al t’shuvah under Chabad, it wasn’t spirituality I sought, but rather “Jewish authenticity.” The Reform Judaism I knew from my “halfsie” upbringing was, with the exception of the smattering of Hebrew, largely indistinguishable from the Protestant Christianity on the other side of the family, at least in terms of the pomp and circumstance, if not belief in a risen savior. Years later, as I drifted away from traditional observance mostly by fiat of geography, and Reform acceptance of a child to a non-Jew, I realized that authenticity was less important than actually feeling a part of what you do.

For years now I’ve been a part of a Reform congregation, on its executive board and exercising a variety of roles within, and unfortunately, the “strength” of Reform Judaism, if identified as spiritualizing an inherited tradition, has come to feel relatively weak and superficial. “Meaning” as derived from individual autonomy doesn’t lead to a communally spiritual experience, only what seems like a pastiche of one, especially when we can’t even coherently identify–at the core–as monotheistic. This leads to the sense that even the core Judaic meta principles are diluted, or replaced with a trifecta of Israel/Zionism (which is sort of ironic considering the history of Reform and Zionism), tikkun olam, or that as combined with contemporary social justice issues. We float terms like “relational” and “experience” while we wrestle with a dearth in affiliation. And it’s why, for my part, I’m splitting the difference and have been returning to traditional observance. I wish Reform well and personally will always believe it to be a Jewish movement, but it’s not for me. Reform lives up to its name; what is Reform Judaism is consistently amorphous, to my great frustration.

So you wrap some leather straps and boxes around the arm and the head. The reason why this is a wonderful idea is because it truly is an “experience.” Jews aren’t going to come “back” to Reform because of its lofty self-actualized spiritual ideals, so you’re going to need a plan to keep people in what feels like an authentic Jewish mien after you lure them with tefillin. Chabad’s mitzvah campaigns work because they provide a roadmap for Jews into what feels like an authentic form of Judaism. Maybe you’re on a way to striking that chord within the Reform movement. You and more broadly, Reform, have a lot to offer the ones none of us are reaching, and that’s the millennials, and maybe it’s worth reassessing the value of all the normative practices that Reform Judaism willingly abandoned, perhaps in line with the rising popularity of Progressive Halachah.

Good luck, I think both the concept and the energy are admirable.

Wow, looks like a great project! What’s round two going to look like?

As someone who was raised in the Reform movement and was only introduced to tefillin as an adult, I can attest to the power of this meaningful daily practice. However, in my experience, a passing encounter doesn’t do as much as the conversation (as you imply in your post). I would be curious to see, as Jordan mentions above, how a team of progressive Jews who don’t actually put on tefillin daily (which isn’t to assume you don’t, but just to say, like the majority of Reform Jews) might lure potential passers-by for conversation through something that is more authentic to modern American Reform Judaism. In other words, if the goal is to raise awareness about Reform Judaism, what would be the Reform equivalent of “mindful action and physicality”?

On a related note, this past Spring I took part in a film on the topic of tefillin in the streets of Jerusalem. I hope you enjoy it!

Guf Naki
Danielle Tucker is a documentary filmmaker from the United States. While spending time in Jerusalem seeking a topic for her next project, she meets Dov Ber Gordon – a Lubavitch Shaliach from Crown Heights.

Danielle interviews Dov Ber and follows him around Jerusalem in order to craft a story about his mission: encouraging and enabling Jews to do mitzvos, namely tefillin and shabbos candles. Along the way, she is personally drawn into the life of Jewish observance. The result is a surprising and hilarious journey.

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