Jewish Identity Development in Experiential Pluralistic Environments

This article was written for E Jewish Philanthropy, and you can read it on their site here.

As an education project manager with a nonprofit, I’m interested not only in the interactions and outcomes we make possible, but the behind-the-scenes design and evaluation of experiential education programs. How can we provide more impactful programs? What are the most appropriate target outcomes, and how do we measure them? Structural considerations have to be factored in, and one underlying factor common to many programs is the relationship to kashrut.

So that we may welcome Jews from every level of observance, many programs adhere to the most observant dietary restrictions. But what if discussion of food choice could become a point of education? What if decision-making about food could itself be an outcome, a way to inform development of Jewish identity?

Even while broadly embraced, pluralism has a number of vocal critics. Writing in eJP back in January 2018, Yocheved Sidof, founder of Lamplighters, described pluralism as the “It” concept in Jewish community but added, “I don’t want tolerance of my choices and values. It’s not enough.” In his July 2017 eJP post, Todd Sukol, Executive Director of the Mayberg Foundation, wrote with concern that pluralism is in some instances actually code for “anti-orthodox.” Back in 2013, The Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education commissioned papers considering “Peoplehood in the Age of Pluralism,” and authors identified numerous ways that pluralism challenges development of Jewish identity. In one of those papers, Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, President of Hadar, wrote, “there is a cost to pluralism…. Can I really feel connected to other Jews if I know, deep down, that we aren’t surfacing the core issues that divide us?”

But how can we productively surface the issues that divide us while developing a sense of shared identity? Reflecting on the challenge, perhaps a model exists in the decision-making process used at the food coops of Oberlin College.

I was raised in a reform Jewish household, and the first time that I consistently ate Kosher food was in the Kosher dining coop my freshman year at Oberlin College. Lessons I learned about negotiating inclusion – lessons I learned from fellow students – have stayed with me, and I think are worth sharing.

While at Oberlin I served as the student staff in the Judaic and Near Eastern Studies House, was a student representative to my Major program committee (Environmental Studies, Sophomore and Senior year), and led student outdoors trips, including as President of the Outing Club. I also received a Mellon Foundation grant to conduct ecological architecture research, and had other special learning opportunities. But the most meaningful leadership and learning experience I had at Oberlin was the time I spent serving as coordinator of my coop. As coordinator, I led the community in decision-making using consensus process – the process still used today in Oberlin’s coops. Consensus process is a well-developed and functional tool that would allow participants in experiential education programs to together make decisions about kashrut observance.

Nearly half of Oberlin students eat in student-run dining coops. Dining service is an option, but many students prefer to be part of less expensive, student-run coops. Student dining coops are essentially student run restaurants that serve three meals a day, seven days a week. Every student has a job or jobs, and each student spends about four hours a week working at the coop. In 2019, a student in dining service at Oberlin will pay $8,230 per semester, while a student eating in a coop will pay just $3,900. But the real value of the coop is beyond monetary.

There are eight eating coops at Oberlin, each with its own personality, and the coop for which I served as coordinator, Fairchild Coop, serves 120 members who want to eat vegetarian, and “whole foods” (unprocessed foods to the extent possible.) Fairchild is entirely vegetarian, but about a third of the members are also vegan, and vegan needs are accommodated one way or another at every meal.

Like kashrut observance, there are various types of vegan observance. Some vegans simply don’t eat dairy, while others also won’t use honey, or white sugar (which is processed using animal bone.) At the beginning of each semester, it is the job of the Coop Coordinator to lead discussion and decision on food policies, like: will we have honey and white sugar in the coop?

In leading a discussion among 100 hungry college students, two third of whom are vegetarian, it would be easy to make non-inclusive decisions. But the Oberlin Student Coop Association (OSCA) has established a very clear and longstanding set of tools that enable inclusive decision-making. After an issue has been preliminarily formulated for decision, any individual wanting to discuss, or make a proposal, rises in turn and speaks. To oversimplify, the coordinator then facilitates discussion until a proposal is formulated and agreed to by the group. Centrally: no proposal may pass unless absolutely everyone agrees to it. If even one individual is uncomfortable with a decision, the process stops until that concern is addressed. While you might think decision-making could be lengthy, and marred by petulance, skillful and respectful facilitation makes a big difference. Using consensus allows informed members of the community to share information, and ideas, and the process also teaches that every individual deserves to be respected, and heard. Consensus process proved to us, again and again, that we could make inclusive and nourishing spaces for our diversity.

Consensus process creates community through dialogue. It helps a community learn about itself. Every semester at an Oberlin food coop begins with a quick training on consensus process, and part of a commitment to consensus is to the ongoing education of new members about how the process works, taught by experienced facilitators.

As we design pluralistic Jewish educational spaces for children and adults, we can consider making time to discuss and decide on Kashrut observance using consensus. We have nothing to lose; we will only arrive at solutions that serve an educational and pluralistic intent. And let me tell you, whole wheat bread made with molasses never tasted so good as when shared with a vegan who won’t eat it any other way.

A recent graduate of the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School wrote in a January 2018 eJP post, “Pluralism is about leaning into… differences and understanding how they strengthen our individual Jewish practices and appreciation for Jewish life.” While day schools are able to accomplish pluralistic Jewish identity development, it may be more difficult for experiential education programs to accomplish the same task. But the challenge to design and evaluate pluralistic experiential education programs can be embraced. As Rabbi Kaunfer concluded in his 2013 paper cited above, “a peoplehood that is based on the encounter between deeply educated Jews – representing a wide range of positions – is exciting. It is that challenge – a challenge of mobilizing around deep education – that is ours to take on.”

Support Arts Education in the District on Arts Advocacy Day – April 27, 2011

Ava Spece, Executive Director at DC Youth Orchestra Program, asked if I would contribute a blog post for that organization’s blog about the upcoming Arts Advocacy Day. 

Arts education in the District is threatened. Non-profit arts education providers and the populations they serve are like the character in the movie Hustle and Flow who says, “I’m sitting here trying to squeeze a dollar out of a dime and I ain’t got a cent.”

There has not been a single community, or business, untouched by the recent economic decline.  The National Opera was forced to reduce from 7 performances to 5 for the past season, and in 2012 will be absorbed by the Kennedy Center in an effort to stave off further collapse. The budgets of most organizations have shrunk, and non-profit presenters are feeling a trickle up effect; with fewer rentals many theater spaces are struggling to keep the lights on. Washington, D.C. is not at all unique in these struggles. Last week one of the great orchestras in the United States – the Philadelphia Orchestra –– declared bankruptcy. Among surviving organizations, arts programs serving poor communities are in decline, as non-profit businesses focus on earned and donated revenue possibilities.

Sometimes we forget that non-profit businesses are just businesses, subject to the same forces that drive expansion and contraction in the rest of the economy. The DC Chamber of Commerce 2011 Policy Agenda states,  “The past year has proven to be a test for many of our members as they work to survive the economic downturn. And over the past year, the Chamber has been able to stave off legislative and regulatory initiatives that could harm our members’ ability to operate successfully and help grow our economy, create more jobs, and improve the District’s competitiveness regionally.” And that is where the DC Advocates for the Arts find ourselves as we prepare for Arts Advocacy Day – April 27, 2011. We are fighting to maintain support for DC students, and to protect opportunities for DC arts organizations and artists. Will only the wealthiest children in Washington, D.C. have access to the benefits of arts education? The outcome of the current budget fight will provide some of the answer.

Increased funding for DC’s arts agency, the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities (DCCAH), is necessary to maintain access to arts education for lower income populations. Funding for the DCCAH has been gutted in the last three years, from over $14 million in FY 09 to under $5 million in FY 11. The District’s FY 12 proposed budget contains further cuts; the current proposal is $3.92 million to serve all of the arts organizations, artists, and arts education providers in the District. That is $3.92 million within a total District FY 12 budget of $10.8 billion. Contraction in the non-profit arts community is to be expected in this economy, but policy-makers need to protect those least able to bear additional burden. Just like Homeless services, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and general education funding, arts and arts education funding must be protected.

Music education teaches children discipline as it validates their individual voices. Private schools see how these kinds of opportunities drive student achievement not for individual children, but in the breadth of student populations. We don’t know which children don’t drop out because of music education. We don’t know which children focus that little bit more closely because they feel better about themselves due to music education. DCYOP and programs like DCYOP are reaching families week in and week out, and we need your help.

To support DCYOP and all of the arts providers in the District, on Wednesday April 27, 2011 – Arts Advocacy Day – please take a minute to ask policy-makers to support arts education in the District’s FY 12 budget. Contact Mayor Gray via email at or by phone at (202) 727-6300, and Council Chair Kwame Brown at or (202) 724-8032. We need your voice to maintain public support for arts education.  Please ask the Mayor and the Council Chair to support arts education, and to do that by restoring funding for the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities to FY 2010 level – $5.16million.

Bad Relationships Have a Way of Spreading

Bad relationships have a way of spreading, and no matter what the cause, having a bad relationship with funders is killing.

You could say that a single grant – say $10,000 dollars – doesn’t make a difference in a career. But I’ve seen how good business people turn that 10 into 30 and that 30 into 300. And without that ten, that thirty, it’s impossible to get off the ground.

Sitting here this evening working on the brochure for our FY 12 advocacy day I’m trying to revisit some key turning points for my own business. In the last administration I submitted 14 grants and got none. I know I make strong well crafted art. I work hard, and I’m a nice person. And I’m also a good writer. How did I not get any of those grants???? Not one? Many reasons, sure, but here’s one turning point I’m aware of:

The position of Executive Director at any government agency or foundation is one of tremendous influence. The Executive Director is like a Council-member; they may not have direct budget spending authority, but they carry massive influence on decision-making at all levels.

One way to influence granting is through the stacking of granting panels. Hypothetically, judging done by these independent expert panels is just that. In reality, DC is a very small community, and commission staff are directed to ask/pick the folks to be on the panels. And, being on a panel is a lot like jury duty: you don’t get paid for it, and you have to take off work, so it’s a self-selecting self-interested group that is even willing to serve. In a small city, then, these independent panels put together to judge grants are highly insular, and can either represent a thoughtfully independent cross-section of the arts community, or an insular cross-section of the arts community. It’s important not to be on the outs. Continue reading “Bad Relationships Have a Way of Spreading”