|From left, Burt Gitlin, Hank Walden, Gail Walden, David Dunkel, and Arthur Goldberg discuss topics of Jewish concern at a HudsonJewish social/intellectual salon.|
When North Bergen resident Burt Gitlin launched the HudsonJewish social/intellectual salon project in June, he was looking for a way to bring area Jews together.
“I thought this might be an easy, soft sell,” said Gitlin, stressing that HudsonJewish – which seeks to revive local Jewish life by pulling together disparate elements of the community – is not a religious entity but more of a cultural organization.
“We try to be secular,” said Raylie Dunkel, the group’s program director. “The salons take a look at what affects you as a Jew, but not in terms of being a religious person.”
Rather, she said, the topics are chosen to help participants explore “living in the community as a Jewish person.”
Some attendees do find their way to the synagogue, she said, adding that HudsonJewish promotes synagogue events, among others. “But our programs are ethnically based – without guilt.”
Some salons, she said, have focused on current events, asking questions such as “Is Israel always right?” or – in the aftermath of the Jersey City scandal involving both politicians and rabbis – “How do you feel about being Jewish and living in Jersey City?”
The forums also look at topics such as food, heritage, and – at the upcoming session on April 14 – Jewish humor.
Salons, which also include social elements and refreshments, meet on the second Wednesday of each month at 7:30 p.m. at the CASE Museum in downtown Jersey City. While most attendees have come from Jersey City and Hoboken, Gitlin noted that sessions have begun to attract people from the “upper reaches of [the county], toward Guttenberg.”
So far, Gitlin has moderated each forum himself, but he noted that he is hoping to cultivate future discussion leaders.
“This is not just sitting back and having a conversation,” said Gitlin, explaining that sessions are structured around particular questions posed at the beginning of each forum.
“It stays subject-oriented. The goal of any salon is to stay with the topic. We start with the first question and the second question tends to feed off of that.”
Keeping the discussion on track has not been hard, he said, joking that he is “very tough” in the face of digressions.
“People come because they want that kind of focused direction,” he said. “There are a lot of ideas to share about Judaism. What better way than this venue?”
Past sessions have tackled diverse topics, said Dunkel.
“We took a look at literature and also explored the issue of heritage,” she said, “asking questions like what have you carried forth from your ancestors into the 21st century and what is the deep background that follows you?”
One salon was devoted to the topic, “Are Jews liberal?” – concluding, said Dunkel, that they are not. In fact, she said, “we discovered that they’re very conservative.”
“The most important thing, the reason we started this, is that downtown Jersey City and Hoboken have had a huge influx of Jewish people who don’t identify with established religious institutions but who want to connect with other Jewish people,” she said, adding that one local woman, now on the HudsonJewish board, told her that she lived in the community for three years believing that she was the only Jew there.
“It’s a way for people to come together and talk about issues that affect them because they’re Jewish,” said Dunkel, adding that HudsonJewish makes that kind of differentiation between itself and religious organizations “to attract people without guilt and without an agenda. They come to have an intellectual discussion, to explore an issue and their thoughts about it.”
The program director went on to quote a local priest, who suggested that “the largest religious group in Jersey City is the unaffiliated.”
“That’s what we’re trying to tackle,” she said, “how to reach them and have them connect back to core.”
Gitlin said the salons have drawn some 20 to 30 people to each session.
“Jersey City is an enormous cross-cultural phenomenon,” said Dunkel, noting that the discussion groups attract “a very interesting mix of urban professionals, cutting through all age ranges, from 20-something to 80-something” and drawing people of different racial groups. For example, she noted, past groups have included both Hispanic and black Jews as well as “married, single, gay, lesbian – all kinds of Jews.”
Both Gitlin and Dunkel believe that the salons have been successful.
“They draw [attendees] into the new kind of Jewish environment that we’re building,” said Dunkel.
The April 14 salon will ask, “What’s so funny about the Jewish ‘funny bone’ and why do so many non-Jews find it amusing too?” For further information, e-mail burt@HudsonJewish.org.