Over the past few weeks, the Karaite Jews of America asked members of the community at large to share their vision regarding the future of Karaite Judaism. I did not respond directly to the KJA, because I thought that a very courageous public request deserves a public response. So, here are my thoughts.
Dear Karaite Jews of America,
You have done so much with so little, and under very difficult circumstances. It is time for us – the individual and collective Karaites – not only to provide our vision, but to provide the support to carry it out. My vision centers around organizing a currently disorganized movement. We don’t need full-on Religious Rabbinate-style organization, but we do need to learn more from the Jewish movements around us. Although I will focus on the experience of Karaite Jews in and around Daly City, much of what I share here can be applied to creating experiences for those more distant.
So, here is my vision and I commit to doing everything I can to making this vision a reality. I pray that others will join me. As I have said before, if this generation of American Karaite Jews fails, it will be very difficult to restart the movement in any meaningful fashion.
- Creating a Meaningful Religious & Ritual Experience
Let me start with a simple reflection. A few years back, I was speaking with H’ Moshe Firrouz at a dinner. I expressed my concern about the future of American Jewry in general. He responded with something that has fundamentally changed the way I think about ritual. He said (with respect my perception that American Jewry is fading), “Know that your view of American Jewry and the state of American Judaism will never change until people stop thinking of Judaism as simply a culture or as a simply a tradition. Judaism is about our relationship with our Creator. And if you are engaging in activities as a cultural experience, your paradigm is different from those who are trying to interact with their Creator.” (Paraphrased only slightly.)
It struck me: he was right. The reason Orthodox Jews keep Shabbat and keep kosher is generally because they view it as a relationship with their Creator. Look at the Chabad movement: every mitzvah is a joy and every mitzvah that they can help someone else observe is done to bring people closer to the commandments of God, as they understand them.
The problem is that because much of Karaite liturgy is out of print or in accessible to Americans, we don’t have meaningful ways to perform our ritual. And for many people ritual is still the preferred way to interact with our Creator. To make my point as clearly as possible: Jews everywhere know exactly what to do on Passover, because we have a Haggadah. First you read this, then you sing that, then you do the blessing over this, then you eat that.
So, one of my visions (and I must credit a few others anonymously here) is to create guides for each of the holidays and for each major life event. Of course, it won’t read as a guide, but if a family or community in North Carolina or New York or Oklahoma wants to observe Sukkot in a meaningful way, they should have a book dedicated to the holiday with songs and explanations and uplifting words. Something they can read and use in the sukkah.
To be clear, the problem will not be solved by simply printing books, we will need to be 100% committed to teaching these materials and training people how to lead ritual and ceremonial functions.
- Developing Karaite Jewish Resources
In addition to creating guides for holidays and life cycles, we also need our own religious resources. For example, every tallit at the KJA synagogue in Daly City has the Rabbanite blessing on them – none of them have the Karaite blessing. With the exception of a few, every single set of blue fringes comes from Rabbanite sources. This is not a problem in and of itself, but the issue is that the traditional Rabbanite color for the blue is not the same as the traditional Karaite color. And the traditional Rabbanite source of the dye comes from an impure animal. The longstanding Karaite belief is that the dye must come from a pure source. The few sets of fringes that come from non-Rabbanite sources come from The Ancients Blue, who has also offered to help getting us more fringes.
The issue of Rabbanite-sourced religious materials repeats itself over and over again throughout the Karaite experience. As another example, we need to make Karaite meat more accessible. Right now, there is only Travis. I could go on with a thousand other examples, but my general point is that we need to identify and support people who are helping bring an authentic Karaite Jewish religious experience to the public.
- Launching an Annual National Conference
Over the previous two years the KJA has hosted two really great shabbatons. The first one was for Shavuot 2015; the second, in September 2016 when you announced the renovation of the synagogue. This is a wonderful start. But it is not enough. We need a full-fledged conference. As a rabbinical student recently told me, there is something special about the conference modality – the staying up late and talking, the face to face learning, the informal interactions – that has an uplifting and lasting impact on attendees.
For our purposes, the conference is a success even if it is the same size as the shabbatons you’ve hosted – that is, even if all we do is add a little bit more programming and education to the existing model, we’ll do great. From there, we can grow the experience, and then we can replicate it in smaller fashion in other cities. And then in larger fashion in other cities.
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I acknowledge that none of this easy. Much of it costs money – something that is in short supply in a small community. But beyond money it takes people who are dedicated to the cause. It takes people who want to help others interact with our Creator. If anyone at the KJA or out here in the internet would like to help me, drop me a note: firstname.lastname@example.org.