23.12.09

Ex-Carpool Line Terrorist to Speak





Grenade-throwing days are recalled in this sweet write-up. :)




THE MAIN EVENT OF THE 2010 ANNUAL CAMPAIGN
Featuring Rabbi Daniel Brenner

The Jewish Federation’s 2010 Annual Campaign will officially kick-off on Sunday, February 21, 2010 during The Main Event featuring special guest speaker Rabbi Daniel Brenner, Executive Director of Birthright Israel Next, who was recently named by Newsweek Magazine as one of the 50 most influential rabbis in America.

Brenner’s speech entitled “Going Retro? The Next Generation's Search for Jewish Authenticity” will be both eye opening and inspirational. His remarks will address the future of Jewish life in America, what the next generation will bring to the table and how we as a Jewish community can connect and engage them. Rabbi Brenner will surely leave us looking at ourselves and our community in a new light.

The Federation is especially pleased to be bringing Rabbi Brenner to our community because he was born and raised in Charlotte and was educated at the Hebrew Academy before attending Charlotte Latin and graduating from Meyers Park High School. Daniel is the son of Dr. Saul and Martha Brenner, long time members of Temple Israel.

The highly popular Federation annual event is chaired by Kevin Levine and Louis Sinkoe, who have assembled a fantastic Steering Committee of community leaders to help promote the event. “Louis and I are honored to chair the Main Event and are excited and pleased that Rabbi Daniel Brenner accepted our invitation to be our guest speaker! Having Daniel, who is our contemporary, return to his hometown to address our community is a tribute to the strong Jewish upbringing and values instilled in him by his parents, the Hebrew Academy and Temple Israel. From my days at the Hebrew Academy and Temple Israel, I remember Daniel as an energetic, talkative, and boisterous kid! He has come a long way from throwing magnolia seed “grenades” during carpool line. His views and stories will entertain and inspire us all,” remarked Kevin Levine.

The Main Event will be held at Temple Israel at 7:30 p.m. and a sumptuous dessert reception will follow the program. Event tickets are $25 per person and can be purchased online at www.jewishcharlotte.org or by calling the Federation office at 704-944-6757.

In the Spring of 2007, Daniel Brenner was hired by the Birthright Israel Foundation to launch a wide-reaching effort to engage the over 200,000 North American program participants and their peers in Jewish communal life. Birthright Israel NEXT, the project has grown into a national organization with professionals working in twelve cities, peer-driven programs that are attracting over 50,000 participants, and a robust training program for emerging leaders. It is now the largest effort to foster Jewish cultural, intellectual, civic, spiritual, and philanthropic life for young adults ages 22-32.

Brenner’s rabbinic path has focused on working across boundaries. Prior to working for Birthright Israel, Brenner worked outside the Jewish world, directing an educational center at Auburn Theological Seminary, a historic Protestant institution on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. In this capacity, Brenner launched America’s first doctoral level program for clergy that work in the context of religious diversity, created an educational curriculum for Face to Face/Faith to Faith, Auburn’s international youth leadership program. He also developed Evolution, DNA and the Soul, a popular program of science education for religious leaders with Columbia University. At Auburn, Brenner was at the epicenter of the successful effort to stop anti-Israel divestment in the Presbyterian Church and his efforts in this debate garnered him a Simon Rockower Award for Excellence in Jewish Journalism.

Before his work at Auburn, Brenner served for five years on the faculty of CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership in New York City where he pioneered programs that forged bonds between leaders of different Jewish denominations and co-authored (with help from Joseph J. Fins, M.D., Chief of Medical Ethics at Cornell's New York-Presbyterian Medical Center and Rabbi Tsvi Blanchard) Embracing Life and Facing Death: A Jewish Guide to Palliative Care. In his preface to the book, Senator Joseph Lieberman praised the work as a "transcendent contribution" to Jewish life.

Brenner is also a prolific playwright - his fifth professionally produced play premiered at New York City's Vital Theater. Brenner holds a B.A. in philosophy from the University of Wisconsin and both M.A. and rabbinic degrees from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. He lives with his wife Lisa and their three children in Montclair, New Jersey.

According to 2008 Main Event speaker Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, “Daniel Brenner is a wide-ranging scholar whose intellect has traversed so many fields, and whose heart encompasses the whole Jewish world, and the non-Jewish world as well. How wonderful it is for the community of Charlotte that he is a native son, and that he is returning to share with you his hard-earned wisdom.”

15.12.09

Text the word HEBREW to 41411


Since it has now been a whopping thirteen years since I lived in Israel, I'm starting to forget words...but now, thanks to some of my fine co-workers I am learning anew. If you

Text the word HEBREW to 41411 you get a free Hebrew word (and translation of that word) in your box each day (or you can control the frequency if you want to learn quickly.) It is a nice way to keep the language in the parts of my brain which are accessible.

29.11.09

Future of Foreskins


Great piece in the Jewish Week about the Berman Archive...and it has a nice little comment on one of my contributions.....



The Jewish policy archive is “a treasure trove at your fingertips,” says Ann Berman, who is on the board of BJPA. “It might take you longer to find these articles if you searched for them on Google. And even then, you might not even be able to access it.”

In placing historical and contemporary resources together in one database, “we can learn how our thinking has evolved on certain issues — and where it hasn’t,” says Mordecai Walfish, BJPA’s content manager. “This could be very instructive — for researchers, online and print journalists and Jewish communal professionals of all ages.” Walfish shared some fun tidbits about the archive, including its raciest title: “The Future of Foreskins” by Daniel S. Brenner. BJPA’s oldest publication? “Report Concerning Suffering Jews in San Francisco Earthquake and Fire” written by Nathan Bijur and published in January 1907.

To Read "The Future of Foreskins" click here.

28.10.09

FELA! on Broadway: A Review

































The old Reese's peanut butter cup jingle is the perfect description for the Bill T. Jones - Fela extravaganza on Broadway: "Two great tastes that taste great together" FELA! is absolutely delicious -- amazing choreography by Jones combined with spectacular direction overall. And Antibalas honors Fela's music with their own deep grooving sounds -- electrifying. Both the actors playing Fela and his Mother deserve Tony Awards -- stunning performances. Mindblowing.

The only negative in this play is the attempt to add contemporary corporate bashing to Fela's narrative and to add contemporary examples of police related violence (Sean Bell) to the story. I understand the emotional connection, for sure -- but it comes across as a moral equation or a grab-bag of anti-establishment politics.

Still -- amazing work with great power.



For those of you not familiar with Fela, here is some video footage of the late great Nigerian musician

27.10.09

Shlomo Sand: A Response



































Khazaria Flashback

That morning
We first woke up as Jews.
Drank Turkish coffee.
Started complaining.

The King, Jewish?
This will not turn out well.

Like schoolchildren they spoke to us.
Fringes.
Little boxes.

the joy of learning a new language
a room in the brain we didn’t know was there.

fires engulfed our old gods.
sacrificial flames for the big new one.
but we winked across the aisle
backup plan under the floorboards.

We have been chosen
The grey beards tell us
And our homeland lies in ruins
And our temple desecrated
But we have been chosen.

We learn to sing a new song
The chicken is saltier now
But we all love the Sabbath
Huge improvement.

So now we are all Jews.
Feels weird.
Feels right.
Maybe we were Jews the whole time?


- Daniel S. Brenner

27.9.09

Debkafile Homes In




Home? Hone?

I recently read the headline on Debka...

Al Qaeda homes in on Germany as its next European target

I scratched my head. Home in? Isn't it "hone in" ? Time for some sleuthing...and



...it turns out that there is a fascinating little history of the term.

20.9.09

Chana's Prayer: A Commentary for Men





I was asked by the good folks in Charlotte, North Carolina's Chavurat Tikvah to share a few words on the Rosh Hashannah Day 1 Haftarah. While I didn't have time to write out a drash, I did put some thoughts together and had a half way decent insight on the topic.

So here's how I started -- Chana's prayer is a beautiful counter-culture moment in the RH liturgy. Here we are with all this gratitude and all hail God is King talk, and here this woman steps up and prays "al" -- "against" God. The Rashba remarks that her prayer was not dignified or proper because she basically said "How could you allow me to suffer like this?" -- but that is the very reason why the Talmudic commentators in Bercahot 31a-b love her. They liken her to Moses (and Elijah) as someone who is willing to say to God -- "hey what's going on up there? you need to act down here."

There is a great bit from Levi of Berditchev on this where he holds the shofar aloft and says: "hey God - you want to hear this? then have my enemies blow it -- because you obviously seem to favor them."

Second -- I shared the brilliant commentary of Lori Lefkowitz (appeared in RT). She argues that Chana is not eating - she has an eating disorder, brought on by both the unrealistic demands of patriarchy and by the abuse of Peninah. (there's even a Midrash that says that Peninah would taunt her by saying ("i'm packing lunch for the children to take to school") The eating disorder is causing her infertility. But emoting -- pouring out her heart -- is the self-medicating therapy that she needs. She has the power to break from her depression and self-destruction and become aligned again. (a midrash puts the following words in Chana's mouth ' do you want me to be an angel -- to not eat and not have children, or do you want me to be a woman?)

Third -- and this is my contribution to all this -- is the question "why should men be listening to this story year after year?" My sense is that we need to hear the words of both Elkana and of Eli -- two men who obviously do not get how deep the depression and despair of this woman has become. Elkana says "isn't my love better than ten sons?" -- a message to all of us men who think that we are G-ds gift to women, that all they want is our attention and that's it. Eli, in accusing Chana of being drunk, is a paradigm for all the times that we men dismiss women's emotions as hysterical. Rather than see the very moment when they are speaking from the heart, we see it as madness. Hearing the story of Chana we are given an opportunity to repent for our inability to respond to the suffering of women -- and a charge to change our ways.

15.9.09

Rosh Hashannah Poem: Cash for Clunkers



Cash for Clunkers

A Poem for Rosh Hashannah

Hitch your rusty old heart to the tow truck
(We’ve got an old 8 track of Yossele Rosenblatt Sings Holiday Favorites up in the cab.)
Chains of prayer pulling you along
the glass walled showroom by the old highway
eternal light
a red neon “open”

Plastic banner whipping in the wind
Trade-ins Welcome
Gates of repentance marked by an “ENTER” arrow, slightly bent.

And here you are,
Your clogged heap,
Your worn tires,
Your gunked up insides.

Do you even accept my make and model?

Blast your horn nine times.
Collapse on your steering wheel for one long and holy honk.

Open the glove compartment and recite the words in the Owner’s Manual:

Forgive us, have mercy on us, atone for us.

Close you eyes and the new year lies before you.

It’s a 5770.

And it is clean.
And it is pure.
And it sparkles.
And it smells like new car.
And the odometer reads
“you have more life to live”

So where are you heading to?


-Daniel S. Brenner

4.9.09

090909 NY Times City Room Blog Meets Reb Blog :)





SEPTEMBER 4, 2009, 3:57 PM
09/09/09: An Auspicious Start to School?

By JENNIFER 8. LEE
Sept. 9, 2009 — or 09/09/09 — will be a significant day for baby boomers (the digitally remastered Beatles collection is being released) and for gadgetphiles (Apple may introduce new products).

But it will also be significant for New York City children. It is the first day of school.

Given the diversity of cultures in New York City, we wanted to know whether this means anything. After all, given how 9/9/99 was widely heralded, perhaps we could expect a repeat a decade later.

City Room first thought of reaching out to rabbis, given that many are familiar with gematria, the Hebrew numerological art of finding meaning by spinning numbers and words. Eighteen is lucky, because the letters in chai (חי) — the word for “living” — are composed of letters that add up to 18.

Since 18 is 9 plus 9, what would another 9 add? Would it be 50 percent more luck? Or does the extra 9 mess everything up?

But the purists among our first round of rabbis would not even look at the Gregorian calendar. (”The English calendar is basically random from a Jewish perspective,” one said, somewhat dismissively.)

Alas. But we found one willing to humor City Room. Rabbi Daniel S. Brenner, executive director of Birthright Israel NEXT, noted in an e-mail message that if you add up the three 9’s, you get 27. Similarly, that corresponds with the numeric value for the Hebrew letters in chida (חידה), the word for “riddle”: het, yud, dalet, hey.

Asked to expound on what “riddle” might mean in a school year context, Rabbi Brenner wrote:

Jewish education is based on the critical inquiry that happens between teachers and student, and riddles — which ask us to challenge how we define our world — are one of the fun ways that teachers engage students in learning. On the first day of school, I would hope that teachers not only set out the classroom rules, but set forth the “riddles” that they will explore with their students over the year.

Then we turned to the Chinese, another group that embraces numbers. We called Justin Yu, president of theChinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, for his take. The word for the number nine, jiu (九), sounds like the word for longevity in Chinese, jiu (久). He added, in Chinese, “Ninety-nine means forever, so 999 is even better.”

When asked about what that meant for students, he said:

The Chinese say that on Sept. 9, you can go very, very high. Sept. 9 is a day that people go up climbing mountains. For students, going back to school by Sept. 9 means that their score will be very high, and whatever they achieve will be much higher.

Are there other cultures that find meaning in 09/09/09 as the beginning of the school year?

2.9.09

Forward Thinking





(PHOTO: Birthright Israel NEXT alumni from Brooklyn dance at the National Yiddish Book Center)


Way back in 1997 I was a Steinhardt Fellow at CLAL – the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. Fresh out of rabbinical school, I was thrown into a rowdy crew of Orthodox, Reform, and Conservative rabbis – all of whom were dedicated to finding some way that we could transcend those very labels and yet still be true to our convictions. (I was trained by the reconstuctionists so I kind of had a head start.)

I only met very briefly with Michael Steinhardt during that year, but I heard many times about his desire to create a “Common Judaism” – a Judaism that was proudly shared across secular and religious circles. I was taken by the idea – and much of my teaching and curricula building energies were focused on defining the parameters of just such a breakthrough concept in Jewish life.

Reading the recent Forward articles I am reminded by those years at CLAL.

I, for one, am proud of the diversity of the programs this past year that Birthright Israel NEXT supported in New York -- including programs such as a seminar on Jewish culture led by the brilliant faculty of the National Yiddish Book Center, an exhilarating dance performance by the Batsheva Dance Company at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and multiple evenings where Birthright Israel participants told their personal stories in our Monologues production. And I am also proud that there is room at our table for a sometimes irreverent reconstructionist rabbi like me and the sometimes irreverent haredi-trained rabbis from the JEC to work on the same project. In my experience, I have found that they offer a style of teaching that is compelling and a passion for Judaism that is genuine and that their offerings connect with a segment of our alumni. Their contribution to our overall offerings to Birthright Israel alumni in New York is yet another example of the diversity that crosses boundaries and exemplifies Birthright Israel’s maverick approach.

But the program that touches the most New Yorkers is not any of the cultural or religious events that we have organized, but our call for alumni to take responsibility for their own Jewish lives. I am incredibly proud that over 1,000 New Yorkers who are Birthright Israel alumni opened up their homes to their friends for “NEXT Shabbat” dinners. Inviting a large group of people into a small apartment is, in my opinion, an enormous responsibility. 82% of our hosts had little or no experience hosting a Shabbat dinner. Yet, three-quarters of them made a home-cooked meal for their guests. Since the average size of the meals was fourteen guests, that amounts to over fourteen thousand guests in the first year of the program. Nationally, our numbers are closing in on 50,000 guests. (Show me a Jewish organization that can create peer-led, home hospitality events where over 50,000 young adults meet each other and have a positive Jewish experience for an average cost of under $25. If we had more donors across the country who saw the simple logic of this model, we could easily take the number of guests to 100,000.)

One of the things that happens after the Shabbat hosts finish their event is that they are asked how much of a grant that they would like to cover the expenses that they put up for the meal. They can get up to $25 per guest – but the vast majority of our hosts do not ask for $25. They ask for less because they realize that if they do, more people can benefit from the program.

In the past year alone Birthright Israel NEXT was involved in over four hundred events in eleven cities and we worked with over eighty partnering organizations. In other words, through Birthright Israel NEXT young adults are being exposed to multiple options for Jewish involvement – from mainstream Jewish institutions to emergent ones. I found it ironic that the Jewish Daily Forward editorial used the example of the JDC as one such possibility of the use of program funds because Birthright Israel NEXT actually worked with the JDC and I was fortunate to visit the JDC office in New York and meet with Birthright Israel alumni who discovered for the first time the life-saving work in the FSU that the Joint has undertaken. One of my staff worked on an amazing short film about her trip with other Birthright Israel alumni to the Ukraine to visit JDC projects. (There is a clip of it in this four minute video)

I hope that critics will take a look at the entirety of Birthright Israel NEXT and see not only the authentic diversity that we embrace, but the tens of thousands of young adults who are discovering that Jewish life in America is a big tent where secularists, all types of religious folks, and those who do not have a defined ideology have a home.

20.8.09

No Jewish Music in Top 50 World Music Albums!

Well the good people over at Amazon.com have a list of the best 100 world music albums of all time and I spot three Jewy ones in the bunch.

The kicker: none of them break into the top fifty!

Ofra Haza comes in at 61 Idan Raichel at 75 and Andy Statman at 93 (how is he world music btw? World Music being defined here as non-Western)

Where is Habreira Hatvit???? Shlomo Bar was world music before world music even existed folks! And what about Miguel Hurstein's magnificent Bustan Avraham?

One more thing - Fela with Ginger Baker as his best? Fela has five albums better than that one. Try Odoo - a full on masterpiece! The title track's double bass lines alone are sheer brilliance.

4.8.09

The Pull-Quote

Believer, Beware got this wonderful write up in Huffington Post while I was off in Israel drinking Yotvata's delicious chocolate milk.

"I hate anthologies -- all that stopping and starting, just as you get into a writer. I loved this one though because it reflects the theme of my own disjointed weird life. I grew up as a missionary kid, pastor's sidekick, God merchant, Religious Right leader, you name it. I long since escaped if not to sanity then to a little more happiness. So I sometimes read other people's books about religion and most are from the outside in. Take it from one who knows this wacky territory, Believer Beware is from the inside out.

Who can beat this opening to "Please Don't Feed the Prophet," a story by Daniel S. Brenner? "God is a sweater that you grew out of. God is an old book on Soviet politics lying in a thrift shop. God is a friend from college that you want to get rid of but can't. God is a souvenir."

Believer Beware is laugh out loud funny, touching, irreverent and yet, in deeper ways, pays religion the ultimate compliment: it's worthy of scrutiny, debate, hate, love and loathing and measuring up on a very personal scale of intimate first hand experience. You may divorce religion but as the writer's in this book demonstrate, you never sever the ties, you'll owe "alimony" for the rest of your life. So this is a book for anyone who knows two things: first, that for better or worse religion is important; second, that experiencing religion can be a harrowing passage into the darker side of human frailty and sometime into liberating (even sublime) hilarity."


30.7.09

Slouching Towards Bushwick....







Slouching towards Bushwick, posed a few questions to me. It's been a while since I had time to blog, but I felt guilty for not responding, so I sat down and wrote....here goes....


A blog wherein Rabbi Daniel Brenner answers Samantha’s Questions. (or attempts to do so)

Does “being Jewish” mean having a daily practice? Do you do things each day to “be” Jewish like praying before eating, after going to the bathroom, performing mitzvot, etc. or can you just “be” Jewish without doing anything particularly Jewish?
One of my teachers, Reb Zalman, said that without discipline you don’t get the pay-off. I don’t do everything I could do, but I am conscious of starting my day with a few words of gratitude, saying a short prayer before eating…I do that sort of thing in my head. I hope that in doing so that I am cultivating a sensibility – meaning that I am thinking about the Jewish perspective on things that I eat, and maybe even more important -- things that I say. That is the everyday Jewish.
Do you feel grateful that you are Jewish? Like, is your daily life better because you are Jewish? Or is it just a part of you, like being born male, brown-haired, etc.?
I am grateful. Jews have a unique history and I marvel at every chapter/tale I hear that adds to the multi-layered Jewish category in my brain. Is my life better? Who knows, I’ve never been anything else, really. But having experienced years in a Christian environment and days in a Zen Buddhist environment, I’d say that daily life in Jewish environments has its pluses. For one thing it’s louder – much louder, and it is quirkier, snarkier, more sarcastic, less focused on manners, etc. That is also a huge downside. Being Jewish is not ‘just part of me’ though. My mom does not look particularly Jewish and growing up I don’t think that I looked particularly Jewish…and I grew up in North Carolina…so I could have opted out in some way.
How much does your childhood Jewishness affect your Jewishness later in life?
I had some amazing childhood experiences. First off, I had some great teachers in a small Jewish day school. I realized early on that arguing about Jewish ethics is at the heart of our tradition. I also got to go to Jewish summer camps and see ‘outdoor Judaism’ at its best. So I got both intellectual oriented Judaism and emotional community-feeling Judaism. I still like both and try to replicate them for my own children. (two of whom are off at summer camp right now)
Do you ever grow tired of thinking about the Jewish community?
Yes, it is exhausting. But if I wasn’t thinking about the Jewish community I’d be thinking about another community.
Do you want Birthright alumni/young Jews to believe in God? Do you think those who don’t now will come to believe in God after being part of a Jewish community?
I’ve always said that there is a difference between believing in God and loving God. Belief is a word that I use about whether or not I think that the Miami Dolphins are going to make the playoffs. Love is a word I use to describe those things that are beyond my rational mind’s ability to break them down into facts. I tend to side with the kabbalsits and non-dualists on God – so God is what is, not some separate being outside of what is. And in that way, when I think about loving God, I think about loving the big, tragic, beautiful mess that we are all caught up in.
I think that in community, you go beyond your self a little bit more, and can open your heart up to other people, and that is the only way that you can really love God when it comes down to it – because praying towards a wall is not what it is all about in my opinion. It might help you do a better job at opening your heart when in dialogue with a person, but it isn’t the act that ultimately matters.
Is it important to you to be Jewish? Why? Because you were born Jewish and/or because Jewish wisdom is important for the world? For you as an individual?
Yes. But I don’t separate the mind and body part of being Jewish as if we could just say “what’s important, to study choreography or to be a dancer?” My being Jewish can’t be separated out into body/mind. I have a genetic history and a psychological disposition and resulting mind-map that are a result of 3,000 plus years of a particular tribe wandering around the globe and trying to stay together. That’s real and was there from the moment that I was born. As I’ve grown and experienced the limitations and abilities of my particular body I have come to understand my Jewishness on the physical level as a real thing. As for the Jewish wisdom part – that came from the way that I was taught language, taught what matters, taught my name and my history….it is far beyond what I could ever chronicle in a thousand books.
What is important to me is both the embodied and the language/ritual based expressions. My children are, literally, another layer of Jews with all sorts of hereditary quirks. I hope that the Jewish education I give them will help them to value the continuation of the whole package. I know that that may sound racist, but I really do not care if they marry someone who is of different genetic history. I just want them to love – or at least make peace - with their own embodied situation -- the eyes they have, the metabolism, the occasional hyperactivity….that sort of thing. I hope that they want to replicate it someday in another little person.



My goals in life are to be happy+successful. How can you or other Jewish leaders/organizations help me achieve my goals?

I’m still trying to be happy+successful and I think that it is taking a long time. Good Jewish organizations are helping people find friends and find meaning and as a result they are a little bit happier and more successful. But there is no perfect formula, so all I can do is quote pirke avot: Who is rich? One content with their portion.
Are you working on a book? What’s the best thing you’ve read lately?
I just finished a book of poetry and I have a few short stories in the works. I’m reading Absurdistan now – so far I’m loving it.
Briefly, what is the best part of being alive?
Falling in love and making babies and watching those babies grow up. Swimming at the bottom of a waterfall. Yotvata Chocolate Milk. Dancing to Fela. Laughing with friends.

22.6.09

Away We Go!


Leaving for Tel Aviv this week...with a stop-over in Paris. Looking forward to speaking English in a French accent the entire time...a la inspector cluseau.

.Here's two quick movie reviews
Away We Go:

Loved Maya Rudolph.Took me a while to get into it, but once I did, fantastic.stroller scene is a gem.

Up!

What is it with Pixar and "cute" fat people?


11.6.09

Grandpa Boris Caption Contest




We need Grandpa Boris' wisdom now more than ever. WWGBD?

Noone ever comments on this blog, but maybe a few brave souls will play screenwiter for the next zinger from Boris' chapped lips.....

10.6.09

TABLET: The New Jewish Read


The good people over at Nextbook have launched an online magazine of sorts with the chisl-icious title "Tablet" -- check it out. The style is clean -- more texty than photo-heavy and relaxing on the eyes. But if you stare at it too long it becomes white fire on black fire.

17.5.09

A Special in the Jewish Week

The New York paper The Jewish Week is running a piece I penned about the last two years of my professional life. (has it been that long?)

Here goes:



Reaching Birthright Alums: The Follow-Up Diet
by Rabbi Daniel Brenner
Special To The Jewish Week

Shimshon Shoshani, the man tapped by Prime Minister Netanyahu to steer Israel’s educational system back on track, is about as direct and honest a critic as you can find. A year and a half ago, when I was being initiated into the Birthright Israel world that he guided during his highly successful term as CEO, he felt that it was his duty to give me some blunt advice.

I sat in his Jerusalem office, drank some tea with him, and after we exchanged a few words in Hebrew he looked me in the face and he stated in clear English:

“Mr. Brenner, do not build another bureaucracy.”

It was quite a challenge. As the new head of Birthright Israel’s post-programming
for alumni of the free Israel trip for 18- to 26-year-olds (now dubbed Birthright Israel NEXT), I had been given the task of reaching out to more than 200,000 young adults, the vast majority of whom do not associate with Jewish communal life or even know what Jewish communal life might offer them. It was also clear to me that the existing Jewish organizations were struggling to reach, let alone engage, this demographic, and in most cases were actually turning them off from further involvement. To add to this, even our own organizational communication abilities were hampered. (Twenty-somethings change their e-mails and their addresses every 18 months or so.) Could we have a call center in Bangalore try to reach them all by leaving 200,000 messages on their cell phones? What would the message be? Could our small staff ever follow up with them?

So I cut a deal. I told Shoshani that all I wanted was to place one full-time professional informal educator in every major U.S. city. I can’t say that he was enthusiastic about the idea. But he didn’t kibosh it altogether, and so (with the generous help of the Jim Joseph Foundation and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Foundation) the pilot program took off.

Now, one year in, we’ve learned a few things about how to reach and engage some 200,000 young Jewish adults without building a bureaucracy. How? We placed young, full-time directors in five cities (Chicago, Denver, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Miami) and watched what unfolded. Operating without the overhead of shiny new buildings, these directors deployed a volunteer team of fellows — young leaders who had been selected and trained to initiate private gatherings — and they all got to work. They generally eschewed big social events, instead crafting small gatherings for 15 to 30 people. In this way, a volunteer staff was able to facilitate and support peer-driven events.

What did they do? Hebrew classes, cooking expositions, blanket making for a homeless shelter, hiking in a state park, visiting a nursing home, getting an update on Israel’s elections, celebrating Shabbat — the types of gatherings were diverse and brought in diverse crowds. The directors responded quickly to economic trends, partnering with local Jewish vocational services and employment agencies to help young adults navigate the job market. They also connected to Jewish cultural events, Israel events, and other local happenings. Within months, they had hundreds of people talking about Birthright Israel NEXT in their cities. We expect that as this momentum continues, these leaders will, for the first time, involve tens of thousands of young adults in their own Jewish communities outside our original five major cities. (To find out how this will spill over into existing communities, please get back to me in about five years.)

Second, we learned that the best of our online projects can result in intimate, in-person contact. It was our hunch that home hospitality and home cooking can be central to Jewish life even in a socially mobile and digital generation. So in the past year, Birthright Israel NEXT (through the generosity of Michael Steinhardt) has sponsored over 2,700 Shabbat dinners in private homes. All the hosts registered online, created Web pages, and opened their actual doors to an average of 14 guests. That is more than 40,000 dinner attendees in less than a year.

Third, we learned that there is a great thirst for Jewish content. While great educational programs and resources do exist, young adults do not know where to take the first steps to connect with them, and the work of leading young adults comfortably into the inner circle of Jewish education is just beginning. It is rather ironic that through a program that offers a free trip to Israel, young adults are now interested in the National Yiddish Book Center. But if you happened to be in Amherst recently, you would have found a busload of Birthright Israel alumni engaged in dialogue with Aaron Lansky, the center’s founder, and other scholars.

Have we reached all 200,000 Birthright Israel alumni? Not yet. But in the past year, we did involve over 60,000 young adults in our programs and are expanding that number each day.

During this time of cutbacks, when many organizations are going on diets to tighten the belts, I’m glad that we started our work with a svelte strategy. I thank Shimshon Shoshani for his advice and wish him luck as he takes on a truly daunting and heroic task.

Rabbi Daniel Brenner is the executive director of Birthright Israel NEXT.

15.5.09

Looks like I am in good company....







“Shocking, exhilarating, and never dull…. Highly recommended.” — Library Journal, starred review.

“Smart, candid, and insightful… The voices are refreshingly honest.” — Publishers Weekly

Read more of what they have to say at our special feature:
Praised Be
http://killingthebuddha.com/mag/dogma/believer-beware/

Believer, Beware lands on July 1, but no need to wait. Pre-order now at Amazon.com.
http://www.amazon.com/Believer-Beware-First-Person-Dispatches-Margins/dp/0807077399

12.5.09

Alvin Ailey

Newark Mayor Corey Booker wished Judith Jamison a Happy Birthday at NJPAC this past Sunday and the crowd sang a round of the traditional birth anniversary tune. The company opened with a Sweet Honey in the Rock piece that lacked coherence, but followed with a fantastic piece set to Otis Redding's music and parts of Revelations, which is now almost 50 years old, but is as strong a piece as I've ever seen.

7.5.09

Alef-Bet City

The Naming

I ran into two of the Dardashti sisters last Shabbat and when Galeet told me about her latest project I checked out her website. Dardashti's music has tremendous depth -- intense, haunting stuff. She also manages to reclaim Middle Eastern Jewish musical traditions and rework them without sounding contemporary or world music-y.

21.4.09

Flashback alert!

If you are on Facebook, you can check out the recently posted grainy B& W video (hat tip to Charles Schletzbaum) of Rob Spears and I recieving the State Championship trophy for Varsity Debate in 1986.

http://www.facebook.com/video/video.php?v=98418417328&comments=

I am acting all cool, like it didn't mean much. But it was HUGE!!!!!!

20.4.09

Still Killing


I know that most of the people on the planet could care less, but I am thrilled that Killing the Buddha now has a Rabbi Daniel Brenner page!

Yes, all three of my warped pieces can now be located on one easy webframe! Allelujah!

p.s. that photo is circa 1994...folksinger days...back when the only chords I knew were Am and G....

5.4.09

#28



I just heard that I'm one of the 50 Infuential Rabbis named by Newsweek Magazine.

Although I can think of many more influential rabbis who should be on this list, it is great for Birthright Israel NEXT to get this kind of exposure. And I am happy to be standing next to Rabbi Art Green, #27. Fourteen years ago, he blessed me and my beloved under the chupah - so it is fitting that we are joined at the hip. Mazel Tov to all the new names to make the list.

10.3.09

The Luke Ford Interview

The journalist Luke Ford shot me a few questions. Though he got my name wrong (classic journalist move, no?) he asked some fine questions. Anyways...here's the piece:




Here’s my first post about Rabbi David Brenner. His response.

I then reached out to Rabbi Brenner via Facebook. Tonight I sent him these questions and he promptly emailed back his response.

LF: How should Kellogs have reacted when their spokesmodel Michael Phelps was photographed smoking marijuana?

Rabbi: From a marketing perspective? They should have put the photo of him with the bong on the box. But I made my argument in my essay on Beliefnet from the moral perspective of a corporation that overlooks drunk driving convictions but freaks out about pot. That, to me, is just stupid.

LF: When, if ever, is it OK to call someone an idiot? What do you think of the Chofetz Chaim’s approach to speech? In my view, no journalism is possible if one is forced to follow the admonitions of the Chofetz Chaim. What is your view?

Rabbi: The Chofetz Chaim lived in a world where people were, for the most part, in small communities where there was little privacy. That was why it was so critical to set standards regarding boundaries of speech. The rise of modern media, particularly of trash talking stand up comedy in the 1960s created the environment in which it has become acceptable to call people idiots within certain contexts. Is that a good thing? Not really sure. I don’t do it, though, and when I am called an idiot in public, I want to know the reasons.

LF: What kind of role does journalism and truth-seeking play in Judaism?

Rabbi: Truth seeking – if you mean seeking justice – runs deep in the prophets and in rabbinic Judaism, for sure. And I think that journalism and Judaism are tied at the hip. (Some folks have even argued that the seeds of journalism came from Jewish circles in Vienna).

LF: Perhaps you’ve heard of William Lobdell’s new book, Losing My Religion. He was an evangelical Christian and a religion reporter for the LA Times. He lost his faith in part because he saw that truth had such a small role in the way religion is practiced in America today (particularly the way the Catholic church protected pedophiles).

Lobdell sees Howard Stern as a role model for truth-telling. Have you ever listened to Howard Stern and do you think he is a role model for truth-telling? Who are living people you regard as role models for their courage to tell the truth?

Rabbi: I’ve listened to Stern. I think that most of the time he’s just acting like a twelve year old boy who drank a bit too much Jolt. But there have been times when his humor touched on the level of Lenny Bruce (z’l) or Carlin. I do think that it is sad that his family life crashed – all of a sudden his comedy wasn’t so cute. Living people who have the courage to tell the truth? I like the performance art crowd – Lisa Kron, Karen Finley, Deb Margolin, Danny Hoch – they are in-your-face but wise to the ways in which we live now.

LF: How should we react to friends who smoke marijuana or use other illegal drugs? How should we react to friends who regularly drink to excess and drive while intoxicated?

Rabbi: Each case is different. I have a couple of friends in recovery and I try to support them as best I can. If friends are casual users, I generally don’t comment. If I had a friend who was drinking to excess and driving a vehicle, I would do everything possible to stop them. I have kids—so the idea of drunk drivers pulling up my driveway is not something I can live with.

LF: Is it OK to engage in vice moderately? Vices such as porn, drugs, drunkenness, prostitution, sexual promiscuity, gambling?

Rabbi: I think that each one of these vices presents a different case and that there are different levels. I have a covenant with my wife that excludes a number of these vices, even moderately, so in those cases it is definitely not OK.

LF: Do you believe that drugs such as marijuana should be criminalized? What about cocaine, heroin, speed and the like?

Rabbi: To be honest, I’m worried most about Meth so I’m not about to say that we should legalize drugs. But if alcohol is legal, marijuana should be legal too. I don’t see it as being any more harmful. Not sure what I think about heroin or cocaine. But I’d criminalize the sale, not the use.

LF: When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Rabbi: When I realized that I couldn’t make it as a basketball star? A lawyer.

LF: Where were you in the social pecking order in high school?

Rabbi: Voted “Friendliest” in the school.

LF: Why did you become a rabbi?

Rabbi: Wanted to stay in school, study philosophy.

LF: How has your choice of profession affected you?

Rabbi: When I did hospital and prison chaplaincy training I realized that the most important things to learn were not in books. I’ve written a lot about this on my blog www.rabbidanielbrenner.blogspot.com

LF: Why did you choose to become a Reconstructionist rabbi?

Rabbi: Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan might have been a cranky man but he was a visionary thinker. I dig science, so I wanted to study the thought of someone who tried to reconcile modernity and maximal traditional ritual…not that he’s perfect (especially on theology) but he was a brilliant guy who has shaped Judaism for the last seventy years. I also wanted to learn with Dr. Art Green who teaches chasidoot and was prez of the RRC at the time. The idea that one could fuse a rational thinker and a mystical tradition sounded like a good tension to me.

LF: What excites you and what depresses you about Jewish life?

Rabbi: Excites me? Music. There is always good Jewish music coming out — like Deleon and Sway Machinery – I really love Jewish music. Depresses me? The extremes on the Israel front. I am depressed about Jews who hate Israel and about Jews who hate Arabs – they both bring me down. Other things that excite me – Aviva Zornberg’s drashot, going to study at Hartman Institute this summer, my friend Kevin who studies Sofrut, listening to my sons chant Megillah.

Why, Why, Why

Check out JDUB:

http://blog.jdubrecords.org/2009/03/10/best-submission-ever/ In the Video below you can hear the full track!

9.3.09

A Little Brooklyn: Batsheva, Mabou Mines Dollhouse

This past week was one of those 'only in brooklyn' types. Thursday night i got to see Batsheva Dance Company's MAX at BAM - a magnificent display of athletic dance which was enhanced by factory sound effects and some proto-Romance language voiceovers. Then Sat night we went to St. Anne's Warehouse in DUMBO to check out Mabou Mines Dollhouse (which cast dwarves for all the male parts) it was 'avant-garde silly.' Most compelling was the casting of a primordial dwarf actress (25 pounds, 47 inches tall at age 14) She also happened to be a dancer and her movements, as well as the movements of the dwarf playing the doctor, were exquisite.

23.2.09

Luke Ford likes to cut and paste

Nothing better than watching a journalist pull a quote out of context. My latest blog on Phelps (which was published in Beliefnet and then got the headline 'cereal killer' in the New Jersey Jewish News (excellent stroke Andy) was extracted to make "Idiot Rabbi of the Day" on Luke Ford. Read my piece and then see his truncation. He basically cuts me off during the prologue.

Please, Mr. Ford, run my piece rather than pulling a quote out of context, and if you are going to call me an idiot in public, could you at least give people a reason why I am an idiot so I have the option of responding?

11.2.09

Jewish Week Spotlights Birthright Israel NEXT

Birthright’s 11th Day

There have been 1,500 NEXT Shabbats, sponsored by Birthright, to help Birthright alumni celebrate Shabbat, often for the first time in their lives.
by Carolyn Slutsky
Staff Writer

Not a week has gone by since she went on Birthright Israel last March that Jillian Tengood hasn’t poured through her online photos, e-mailed and chatted through Facebook with the American and Israeli friends she met on her trip or thought about the intensive experience in Israel.
“Before I went I’d heard about it, but now I’m telling other people they have to do it,” says Tengood, a graduate student in bioengineering at the University of Pittsburgh.
Tengood is one of 200,000 “Birthrighters,” young Jews ages 18-26 who received a free 10-day trip to Israel.
With Birthright coming up on its 10th anniversary and the milestone of 200,000 participants crossed just last month, many observers say the trip might just be the most
important Jewish educational experience in existence today.
But once the planes land back in Chicago, London, Buenos Aires or New York and people return to college campuses or work, what’s next? It is a question Birthright Israel as an organization, along with educators and leaders throughout the Jewish community, is asking.
Birthright alumni are perhaps the greatest hope for the continuation of a diaspora Jewish life, but following up with them is a work in progress, an exercise in trial-and-error producing various creative, interesting opportunities for long-term engagement that may or may not ultimately work.
One of the people working closely with alumni is Rabbi Daniel Brenner, executive director of Birthright Israel NEXT, Birthright’s alumni organization. Rabbi Brenner’s own Judaic knowledge runs deep, but he approaches the young adults he works with and their Jewish engagement in a laid-back, come-as-you-are manner.
Most successful of official offerings, says Rabbi Brenner, has been the NEXT Shabbat program, where Birthright pays for people who met on the trip to have Shabbat dinner together. Though it started as a modest attempt the program has grown fast, with more than 1,500 meals held so far and a projected 5,000 by the end of 2009, including some 70,000 people, according to Rabbi Brenner. The dinners often come with themes borrowed from the wider culture — raw foods Shabbat, barbecue Shabbat, Halloween Shabbat. Like the trip itself, they combine Jewish content — challah-baking, candle-lighting — and fun. As Rabbi Brenner sees it, no matter how the dinners play out, they help bring Judaism to people in the physical and philosophical places where they live.
“Other rabbis might freak out if they saw people with a shrimp cocktail on their Shabbat table,” he says. “I look at that and say ‘This is so great that this is the first time they’re bringing Shabbat into their lives.’”
Rabbi Brenner says many mainstream Jewish institutions are wrestling with the question of how to convey why Judaism matters to the next generation, and feels Birthrighters are the perfect target audience.
“Our challenge is to strike while the fire’s hot,” he says. “If we do our job right, what we’re doing is not simply providing people with the next step in their Jewish journey, but something that is essential for any human being to feel: a sense of community, belonging and responsibility toward others.”

n

Downtown on West 13th Street, in a slick, modern space converted from a karate studio, the Jewish Enrichment Center does a 21st century brand of Jewish education. The center opened 10 years ago as an alternative to more institutional Judaism, but its programs now cater largely to the Birthright crowd. Mostly in their 20s, the people who hang out at the JEC are often “cashews” (half-Catholic, half-Jewish) and “pizza bagels” (half-Italian), many of whom had no affiliation with Judaism at all before Birthright. Now, says Matt Mindell, executive director, they take classes in various Jewish subjects.
“We do a mock Shabbat table to show the traditional foods and explain why we do it, what’s the meaning of it,” says Mindell, whose background is in acting. “And the wedding – people are like, ‘why do we step on the glass, what’s up with the seven times around?’ The goal is that people should feel like they have that acceptance, they’re part of the Jewish community, they’re insiders.”
Another key offering is the bar mitzvah program, which allows people who never had a bar mitzvah to have one.
Eric Gorenstein was one of those people. He had aged out of being eligible for Birthright itself and so participated last summer in Israel Reloaded, a JEC program similar to Birthright that is subsidized but not free. But when he returned, he began thinking about the bar mitzvah he never had, in part to avoid the judgment he felt would rain on his family, who couldn’t afford a lavish party like others in their Riverdale community.
Gorenstein, now 31, says having a bar mitzvah was not just about him, but a way to pass his Jewish identity on to his future children.
Mindell says that despite what sometimes looks like a catch-as-catch-can Judaism with no formal direction or rules, he feels confident that when people are able to engage in the ways that speak to them, they are all success stories.
“If they didn’t have that rite of passage they feel like they’re not Jewish,” he says, “so we want to give them the tools to feel like this is their heritage.”

n

Last month, Birthright got a new head. Robert Aronson, who also serves as president of the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life, already seems plugged into the follow-up philosophy that alumni should be met where they are and offered a chance at fun.
“You can’t dictate for this age group, you can’t say, ‘Tuesday Torah-study class, everyone come,’” Aronson tells The Jewish Week. “You have to listen to what they want. Can you give them a good time being Jewish back in the U.S.?”
Aronson says his main priority is fundraising, a difficult task at any time but especially in this economy. The organization received hefty support from Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire philanthropist, who funded the program over the last two years to the tune of $70 million. This year, after losing several billion dollars, Adelson pledged $20 million and $10 million for 2010, provided that the organization matches him by raising $10 million. It remains to be seen whether alumni activities will be threatened if the pool of available money is vastly decreased.
Meanwhile, this summer Birthright Israel projects it will take around 10,000 people, down from a little more than 25,000 in summer 2008, according to Birthright officials.

n

Birthright has sparked many romantic relationships.
Kayla Ravitz, who went on Birthright in June 2007, says that within a few days of arriving in Israel she met Hudi Miller, a guy on her bus. Ravitz, whose Facebook page lists her religious views as “love the jews,” was surprised to find herself drawn to Miller, whose father is a rabbi and who was more religious than she was.
“This is the first Jewish boyfriend I ever had,” says the senior at Florida State University. “Dating a Jewish guy was never a priority of mine.” While she is still not a regular in synagogue she says she respects the religion more since her trip and follows the news from Israel to a much greater degree.
And last month in Mumbai, India, Yuval and Celina Moses, who met on Birthright, were married. Since there are only a few thousand Jews dispersed throughout India, a country of one billion, Birthright often provides the first opportunity for young Indian Jews to meet, and several Indian couples have resulted from the trip, including four others who attended the Moses’ wedding.
Brandeis demographer Len Saxe, who recently co-wrote a book with Barry Chazan, “10 Days of Birthright Israel,” says that when Birthright was first put on the table critics scoffed at the idea that 10 days could change people’s lives.
But his research has shown that those 10 days, what he calls the “cultural island” of the experience, can lead to serious Jewish engagement.
“Birthright is one of the most profound experiments that’s ever been done in Jewish life ... we haven’t even begun to mine the lessons,” he says.
But not everyone has a sunny perspective on the trip after returning home. For Alice, who asked that her last name not be used, the trip forced her to confront some of her internal conflicts and ambivalence about Israel.
“The point of Birthright is not to think about the humanitarian perspective but to love Israel, to give money and move there and be a vocal voice for Israel here,” she says.
When she returned, Alice found herself more involved than ever in progressive Jewish causes, ever supportive of Israel and grateful for her trip, but with more questions than answers.
“It would have been easy to go on Birthright and think Israel is super-fun and I want to hang out here and support them, but it’s not something I can do so easily,” she says.
Jacob Shwirtz, born and raised in Brooklyn, has become the poster child for another iteration of Birthright alum. He went in January of 2003 and was so moved that he returned that summer and made aliyah in December. Soon after, he created the Israel chapter of the Birthright alumni association and serves as a liaison for Birthrighters considering aliyah. Now 29 and working in Internet strategy and management, he plans to stay in Israel indefinitely and says he was inspired to move there because his Birthright trip exposed him to an active, modern-day country full of opportunity.
“I realize there are problems, annoyances, bureaucracy, anywhere in the world, it’s all how you perceive of it and deal with it,” he says.
Though it’s not the only goal of the trip, many alumni say they can’t wait to get back to Israel for another trip or, like Shwirtz, forever.
“It’s great as I experienced it as someone in my 20s, you’re going to get something different out of it depending on what point in your life you’re in,” says Tengood, the graduate student, on her desire to return to Israel. “I’d like to do it again, but I know there will be nothing the same as that Birthright trip.”

10.2.09

Cover for the KtB Book




Just saw this, the cover of the book I have a little piece in. Here is the blurb from Beacon Press:

Believer, Beware: First-Person Dispatches from the Margins of Faith (July 2009)

Jeff Sharlet, Peter Manseu, and the editors of Killing the Buddha

An engaging collection of ambivalent confessions, skeptical testimonies, and personal revelations of religion lost and found and lost again. This new collection by Beacon Press, to be released July 1, 2009, features the best from the first incarnation of Killing the Buddha, sharing true tales from the editors, Stephen Prothero, Mark Dery and Bia Lowe among many others who are striving to understand their relationship with the divine.

6.2.09

Boycott Kellogg's

Why I am Boycotting Kellogg’s
By Rabbi Daniel S. Brenner

I love Special K cereal – it was my mom’s preferred brand when I was growing up (dad likes Shredded Wheat) and I continue to eat it and buy it for my kids. Two of them love it. But daddy isn’t buying it anymore.

When I heard this morning that Kellogg’s was pulling their endorsement relationship with swimmer Michael Phelps because of a photograph of him smoking marijuana I knew that it was time to find a new favorite cereal.

I have strong feelings on this issue for a personal reason. One of my close friends from childhood wrestled with a drug addiction and because he purchased drugs, he ended up in Federal prison. Hundreds of thousands of our tax dollars went to imprisoning him - a non-violent and generally productive member of society – not to mention the devoted father to his young son. What he needed, desperately, was treatment. Instead, our society continues to send the message that if you try drugs, even relatively mild drugs, you should be barred from employment and treated as a pariah. This is the very message that Kellog’s is sending today.

But my real anger on this issue comes from another direction.

Thirteen years ago one of my friends was killed by a drunk driver. She was visiting her mom and went out with a group of her friends from high school. She was in the back seat of a small car when a drunk driver rear ended them. She was in a coma for two days before she died.

When Phelps was arrested for DUI, Kellogg’s did not think that this was reason to not have him as a spokesman?

Kellogg’s should immediately release a statement explaining why drunk driving was acceptable in their eyes and smoking marijuana is a reason for someone to lose their job. Until they explain their position, I encourage everyone to buy other cereals and to let the Kellog’s corporation know that their public message is rotting our sense of responsibility and morality the way that Frosted Flakes is rotting the teeth of our children.

1.2.09

In the Philly Jewish paper --the Exponent


Birthright Exec Seeks to Tap Into 'Energy'
January 29, 2009 - Michelle Mostovy-Eisenberg, Staff Writer


Each year for the past 10 years, thousands of young people in their late teens and early 20s have participated in one of Birthright Israel's free, 10-day educational trips to the Jewish state. The hope has always been that, by the end of the journey, these Diaspora visitors will develop strong ties to the Jewish state -- and to Judaism as a whole.

But what happens to all that energy and emotional stimulation that comes from visiting the Jewish homeland after the participants return home?

"That's what I am here to address," noted Adam Oded, 40, director of Birthright Israel NEXT: Philadelphia, a branch of a national alumni organization.

Oded oversees efforts to hone in on the energy and enthusiasm that the estimated 6,000 to 7,800 Birthright alumni who live in the region felt while traveling through the Jewish state.

An alumni association component has been in existence here, in various, part-time capacities for several years now, according to Rabbi Daniel Brenner, executive director of Birthright Israel NEXT.

But last June, Oded was hired to be a full-time employee to keep the first wave of alumni -- now in their mid- to late-20s or so -- engaged in the Jewish community through social programming, such as concerts, retreats, volunteer opportunities and Shabbat activities (like a fine-wine Shabbat or a 1920s murder-mystery-themed one).

Brenner explained that NEXT, created in fall 2007, operates with a budget of about $10 million per year, which comes primarily from family foundations, but also from a few private donors. The money is used to reach about 150,000 to 200,000 alumni worldwide.

Philadelphia was selected in 2008 as one of five cities to be part of a new initiative to develop programming for alumni by hiring five part-time fellows in their mid-20s -- all alumni themselves -- who receive a stipend for helping Oded plan peer-led, entertaining events that seek to reach about 1,000 people per year.

"We're looking to keep them involved, period," stated Oded, who has been worked with many Jewish organizations throughout his life, spent a number of years living in Israel post-high school, and even served a stint in the Israel Defense Force.

"Adam and I are not in the [target] age group," noted Brenner, 39, who is married and has three kids. "We're old geezers. They're taking the lead. They're running it. Ultimately, that's what it's about."

Wide-Ranging Events
The events the fellows organize are wide-ranging.

They include holiday programming, such a Chanukah celebration that included a moment of silence for the victims of the terror attacks in Mumbai, India; an ongoing series of discussions exploring different aspects of the Israeli elections; blanket-making sessions for charity; bar nights, usually centered around a sporting event; Judaism and Hebrew-language classes; belly-dancing; and even arranging a selection of pictures that alumni took in Israel for display at the Old City Jewish Art Center.

Some events are collaborations with similar area organizations that cater to the 20s' and 30s' crowd, such as the Collaborative, the Chevra, Moishe House and the Jewish Graduate Student Network, noted Oded.

Brenner said that Philadelphia NEXT doesn't have an official office, as the key demographic prefers less formal, more welcoming spaces.

Instead, Oded -- a part-time professional disc jockey who specializes in Israeli alternative music -- chats up alumni over falafel at his regular hang-out, a table at Cafe Olé, an Israeli-owned coffeehouse and eatery in Old City, as well as by cell phone, e-mail or online at a host of electronic meeting places, like Facebook and MySpace.

The goal, explained Brenner, is to sustain the connection these young men and women felt in Israel, and keep these young Jews engaged in between college and starting a family.

Letting young people embrace Judaism "on their own terms has proven to be really effective," said the executive director. "We're putting it in their hands to create their community."

28.1.09

Must See: Waltz With Bashir



this was truly one of the most beautifully crafted and stirring and heartwrenching films I've ever seen. Waltz With Bashir is on the level of artistic and narrative brilliance of Speigelman's Maus - it takes a genre that you think that you are familiar with and it takes it to the places of tension, paradox, hurt, attachment, and tragedy of the human spirit. It is about memory and about responsibility. It is also about the fires that have forged the Israeli consciousness and heart...an amazing film, depicting the sensitivity and the psychic toll of those who serve their country in combat in the Israel Defense Forces. People on the left and right are trying to politicize this film, but for me it transcends politics, it is simply great art, great art from Israel, about Israel. May it win the Oscar it deserves!