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Why ‘brokenness’ must be a part of Jewish engagement

If we want anyone to feel Torah deep in their being, we need to engage the areas of their lives that are vulnerable

Hanging out in hipster coffee shops talking about loss: This is the outreach work of a rabbi in 2014.

Of course, by “hanging out in hipster coffee shops,” I mean going outside of our synagogues. And by “loss,” I mean brokenness, the Jewish theological concept that says that we must honor the brokenness in our lives, and that we are most present for each other when we are present in that brokenness.

We — especially those of us responsible for outreach — need to speak more about brokenness. That’s what I’ve discovered by reflecting on my young adult engagement work through my involvement with NEXT: A Division of Birthright Israel Foundation, and its yearlong initiative for professionals in the Ohio River Valley, the NEXTwork Hub. The Hub offers training for individuals like me who work to reach and engage alumni of Taglit-Birthright Israel trips and their friends in Jewish life.

While studying at one of the Hub meetings with NEXT’s Rabbi Ari Weiss, I was challenged to think about the subtext of my interactions with young adults, that oft-coveted and oft-maligned demographic of which I am also a part.

And here’s what the subtext reveals: many young adults have experiences of brokenness in their lives. And many young adults (like me) who have an interfaith component in our Jewish identities are made to feel like this part of our identity is broken.

At Tifereth Israel, my large Conservative synagogue in Columbus, Ohio, I’ve started a group called Eitzat Yitro for young Jews who experience this. Of course, we are not broken. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t encounter brokenness in the world in different ways because of our identities.

Our group is about coming together and affirming who we are, and being present for each other in ways that are open, loving, and non-judgmental. And it has been wildly successful. We reach a lot of people in their 20s and 30s. We have a dynamic leadership team of two 20-something congregants, and although we tend to involve many younger congregants, we are all about different people of different life stages and experiences learning from each other.

Talking about brokenness is important. Our society likes to smooth over the messiness in our lives. It likes to insist that we are all alike, and that if we’re not always happy, there’s something wrong with us. It likes to point us toward distractions and noise, and keep us from being honest about who we really are and what we really need. It likes to tell us that this is all millenials want.

If we want anybody — not just millenials — to feel Torah deep in their being, if we want anybody — not just young people — to see synagogues as a place where deep spiritual community is possible, then we need to engage the areas of their lives that may be broken or vulnerable.

Through this lens, my job as a rabbi is sitting with a sick person, and affirming he truly is in pain. It’s sitting with a bat mitzvah student, and being open about the fact that she feels unmotivated. It’s attending a shiva, and recognizing that there has been a loss that cannot be made whole. This is what I learned in rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary with Rabbi Mychal Springer, where I was trained to teach from the places where I feel vulnerable. It’s what I learn again and again in my congregation, where Torah, community, and God are most experienced when we allow ourselves to be a bit broken.

A brief anecdote to close: Several weeks ago, a contingent of Tifereth Israel congregants joined at The Ohio State University Hillel for a “Rainbow Seder,” organized by Felicia Lilien, a fellow participant in my NextWORK Hub cohort. There, we spoke about LGBT experiences in the language of the Haggadah. During the seder, many of our congregants spoke passionately and personally about their experiences as queer Jews and allies, and many of the young OSU students did as well.

And something holy happened. Across the generations, across an ocean of brokenness made navigable because we shared with each other from places where we hurt, a new community was formed. We could have gone until the next morning, the time for the Kriat Shema.

The Jewish world speaks about the need to engage millenials. But if it is going to happen, it is going to happen through the language of brokenness. If it is going to happen, it is going to happen through honoring the places where we all hurt and we all grow.

If it is going to happen, it is going to happen because all of us, of all ages, become more present for the parts of our lives where we experience pain and teach Torah from these narrow places. It’s not about hipster coffee shops or parties — it’s about cultivating a personal communal sense of honesty, openness, and love.

About the Author
Eric Woodward was named by the Forward this year as one of America's most inspiring rabbis. He is assistant rabbi at Tifereth Israel in Columbus, Ohio, and an alum of the Jewish Theological Seminary and Yeshivat Hadar.
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