Speaker to urge, ‘Widen the tent’
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Speaker to urge, ‘Widen the tent’

What do congregations mean when they say they want to create communities that are diverse and welcoming to everyone?

Rachel Kahn-Troster will help answer that question at a gathering of the Pascack Valley Hadassah chapter on Thursday, March 8, at 6:30 pm. The group will meet at the Bacari Grill on Ridgewood Road in Washington Township.

Kahn-Troster, a fourth-year rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and former president of the Rabbinical School Student Organization, will lead Hadassah’s "Education Evening," focusing on three areas of diversity currently on the communal radar screen.

According to Kahn-Troster, these center on issues of gender, family structure, and economic class. She will examine each, "looking at some of the challenges and envisioning solutions," she said.

While 30 years ago, gender concerns were primarily about the role of women in Jewish life, there is more consternation today about men dropping out of lay and professional leadership, said Kahn-Troster. She asserted, "truly egalitarian means that everyone is active," recommending both movement-wide and congregational initiatives to get more men involved.

Another sharp focus of diversity discussions emerged from the debate over ordination of gays and lesbians and the sanctioning of same-sex unions, both the subject of a recent ruling, for instance by the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards. As an active member of Keshet, a student advocacy organization on the JTS campus, Kahn-Troster has been a vocal supporter of liberalizing the movement’s halachic restrictions on the roles and behavior of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Jews.

She is also interning this term at Cong. Beth Simchat Torah, which is known as New York’s gay and lesbian synagogue. The experience has made her sensitive to the difficulty regularly encountered by same-sex families and other households with a non-traditional structure — single-parent families, singles and childless couples — that wish to be integrated into mainstream Jewish institutions. "How do [these] institutions embrace gay-lesbian-bisexual-transgender families?" asked Kahn-Troster. "When we say we want [all] families involved, who do we mean, and how do we involve everybody?"

Decrying the high costs of maintaining an active Jewish life, which include keeping kosher, trips to Israel, tuition at day school and summer camps, and synagogue membership, Kahn-Troster observed that such expenses are a factor in creating economic homogeneity. "We have to make being actively involved in Jewish community affordable to a wider range of people in the community," she asserted.

While there is no one-size-fits-all solution to these challenges — indeed, each congregation has its own specific obstacles to being truly inclusive — she believes that the first step may be to get people to think about how to reach out to those who differ. The lesson she will present and the dialogue she hopes it will spark are timed to coincide with preparation for Passover, when themes and metaphors of liberation and tolerance are top of mind.

"Members of a synagogue tend to be very similar to one another, but we all came out from Egypt," said Kahn-Troster. "Try to imagine who was standing next to you at Sinai. How do you envision them? What do they look like to you? How do the people who were present reflect every part of the Jewish community? A really strong community will embrace everybody."

Susan Pelavin, education vice president of Pascack Valley Hadassah, who invited Kahn-Troster to speak, anticipates "We have a wide range of opinions and vocal members who may challenge what she’s going to say."

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