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Examining unconventional Judaism at UCLA

by Ryan Torok

February 15, 2012 | 5:34 pm

American Jewry is in transition, 20 speakers argued during “Looking for Judaism in [Un]Conventional Places,” a symposium at UCLA on Feb. 12-13. Scholars and academics discussed what Jews value, Jewish identity and which organizations are relevant today.

Shawn Landres, CEO of Jumpstart, set the tone early on Monday for the day’s presentations and panels, proclaiming the “era of consensus is over.”

Looking at “Judaism in Los Angeles,” speakers included Sarah Benor of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), who distinguished establishment organizations from innovative ones; Gerardo Marti of Davidson College in North Carolina, who discussed conscientious innovators in the Christian community, focusing on leaders who reclaim unlikely spaces and turn them into places of worship; and Ari Kelman of Stanford University, who examined the history of the lay-led Library Minyan at Temple Beth Am.

Examining “new trends in Jewish religious life,” Shaul Magid of Indiana University said Jewish post-ethnic attitudes suggest identity is a matter of preference, while Jack Wertheimer of the Jewish Theological Seminary presented data on the effectiveness of Orthodox outreach — 800,000 Jews come into contact with Orthodox outreach annually, he said.

Bruce Phillips of HUC-JIR in Los Angeles showed a survey of California Jews’ formal and non-formal affiliations, concluding that high numbers of Jews in the West are engaged with Judaism through non-formal affiliations, such as reading Jewish news and visiting Jewish museums. “Being unaffiliated doesn’t necessarily mean unconnected,” he said.

Wrapping Monday’s presentations, David Myers of UCLA spoke of Kiryas Joel in New York, an all-Orthodox town where Yiddish dominates and the mythic notion of the shtetl — as shown in “Fiddler on the Roof” — inspires everyday life.

Attendance was consistent throughout. Approximately 65 people attended Sunday’s presentation on “Trans- and Post-Denominationalism in American Judaism,” 45 attended the evening public forum, “Are Jews Still in the Pews? Jewish Religious Life in 21st Century America,” and nearly 60 people turned out for Monday’s program, at the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies.

Participants also included Sylvia Barack Fishman (Brandeis University), Rabbi Naomi Levy (Nashuva), Stephen Warner (University of Illinois-Chicago) and Steven Cohen (HUC-JIR). Rabbis David Eliezrie (Congregation Beth Meir HaCohen), Laura Geller (Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills) and Ed Feinstein (Valley Beth Shalom) participated in the public forum.

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