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.
During 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.