When I think about what I try and provide for others, it boils down to two things – meaning and connection.
Meaning means connecting people to the meaning of Judaism, that’s found in Torah and in Jewish tradition. I agree that most people aren’t connected to it and don’t find it in the synagogues and Jewish institutions they once knew. But I also believe that it’s there, buried under American consumerism and rote rituals, waiting to be unearthed. I’ve seen that a lot with prayer – where people go into prayer (if they even do) with such low expectations. It’s usually more of a social or familial obligation, but there’s no expectation that it will mean anything to them. But then when you do something, when you explain something, when you pull back the curtain a little bit, people are amazed, they never knew Judaism could look like that, could mean like that. And this is true both for unaffiliated Jews, who have limited to no prior Jewish educational experience and for Orthodox educated Jews, who probably went through 12+ years of formal Jewish education but still have no clear connection to the meaning of Judaism. I don’t claim to have the ability to unlock all the keys, but I’ve seen enough in my own life – usually outside of formal, institutional frameworks – to know what’s there and what’s beyond.
In terms of that meaningful connection, I firmly believe that it can be found in traditional Jewish life – prayer, Torah study, halacha, and Jewish values. Regarding the point about social justice/tzedek/environmentalism – I agree that it’s important and a central way to connect with trends of today, but it could never take that central place of Jewish life’s meaning. How many times does the Torah/Talmud mention the words environment? Or Tikkun Olam? Yes, a handful – but only a fraction of the number of times it mentions God and halacha and Torah. It’s fine if people are into environmentalism and social justice, and we should definitely promote it since each is part of Judaism’s legacy, but I’m worried about trying to mold that into the essence of Judaism. I also think there’s this tension about universalism – we want to make Judaism universal so it appeals to a wide audience, but if it’s too universal, then what’s Jewish about it- or why do it in a Jewish context? At the end of the day we have to return to particularism, we have to go back to the unique, inherent meaning in Judaism, which I believe is there.
My other focus is on connection, and by that I mean connecting Jews to each other and to a community. I agree that technology makes this more valuable and more rare, and a generation that’s grown up disconnected from Judaism or from meaningful Judaism makes it more challenging. I see this as one of the great challenges and opportunities of our time. And so creating meaning is not enough – we also need to go out to the streets and to the digital marketplace and find people, meet people, and connect them to Jewish life. I think that a large part of Chabad’s success is not even that they’re so good or so authentic – it is because they’re the only ones out there on the street connecting with people. And person-to-person connections are so real and genuine that they’re hard to turn down. Some synagogues do it better than others and some organizations have a more compelling and attractive mission, but I think that as an organized Jewish community we’re pretty bad at it. I see it on college campuses where typically 75%+ of Jews on a campus aren’t involved in anything, and yet Hillels or Chabads tout that they have 200 people coming to an event! Looking not from the institutions’ standpoint, but from the perspective of Klal Yisrael, we can’t judge success based on whether our events and services were full, but whether every Jew in our area is connected and being serviced. Part of what makes my work so successful is that we take on this mantle as well, the mandate to think broadly and strategically, and reach out and connect as many Jews as we can.
I don’t think the work I do advances an area of Jewish life outside of the four propositions, but I think I try and do it more cohesively, more connected. My two foci are linked in that I try and connect Jews to meaningful Jewish community, or perhaps in others words, I try and connect the outreach to the inreach. This is what I see as different about the work I do, from the work of Hillel’s CEI, and other similar social-networking peer-led initiatives. Paying Jews to have coffee or bagels together, and incentivizing and socializing them enough so that they marry each other (which are actual strategies of Jewish organizations) – to what end?? And DIY groups are great – but there are certain things they can’t provide, like Torah (physically, and deeper content), life-cycle services, and consistency.
My work also centers on Orthodox communities and people, and also the wider Jewish community and unaffiliated people (which is usually an unlikely pair) – and bridging that divide and servicing both communities is central to what I do. Maybe that can be seen as bridging and connecting tribal Jews and covenantal Jews (although I don’t love either terminology – “covenantal” might be too generous a term for people who have relatively weak ties to Jewish culture; tribal Jews are often linked because of a covenant, because of some meaningful connection and purpose).
Hart Levine lives in Washington Heights. He works with the Orthodox Union on connecting Jews to meaningful Jewish community, both on college campuses around America (Heart to Heart) and in the Heights (The Beis Community).