The New Jews

Question: What is the New Shul and how is it different from traditional synagogues? 

Rabbi Niles Goldstein: The New Shul started in 1999, and as the founding rabbi, I along with many of our founding families who are still with us looked around Manhattan and just thought that there really wasn't a synagogue out there for them that they wanted to belong to and for me that I wanted to be that really spoke to our needs, which may sound surprising in a place where there's as many Jewish residents as New York City, but there really wasn't anything out there that we felt was the right fit for either of us. 

And I think what makes this interesting and maybe a little unique is, A) we have tried to follow the mantra of a great Hasidic mystic, Nahman of Bratslav, who says, "I come to show you in a way that is ancient." So if you think about the word radical the real meaning of the word radical means a return to the roots, etymologically. So what we've really tried to do over last decade or so with the New Shul is create this hybrid community where on one level some of what we do is very out-of-the-box and very edgy, particularly holiday events which sometimes feel more like gorilla fever because we take them to the streets often than a conventional synagogue experience. But other times you come and it feels like a warm, very informal, but kind of traditional experience. And so we've really tried to blend the old with the new, the innovative with the historic in the inherited. So that's "A". 

I think, B) is we are not afraid of taking risks and that includes taking risks of failure. And I think too many spiritual communities are afraid of taking risks. And that's the mark of cowardice, not wisdom. I think like an entrepreneur. Most of the ones I've spoken to have failed 10 times before they get that one great success and I would say in terms of religious ritual or holiday events or any other aspect of religious life we have had great successes over the years and we've also had flocks. And I think that that's fine. So I think that's another important thing that defines the New Shul is that we're willing to take chances, and too few communities are willing to go there. 

Question: What are some lessons you’ve learned along the way at the New Shul? 

Rabbi Niles Goldstein: Because so many of our members come from the arts community, and that's changed little bit. Greenwich Village is where we draw our core membership, but since 9/11 Greenwich Village has changed a lot too. So it still attracts a certain kind person with a very creative sensibility, but it’s certainly not in the same place as it was in the 20s and 30s were 50s when people like Jackson Pollock were running around. So I think that one of the things we've realized is that it's very hard to put on a kind of -- and many of our members are in the theater community-- religious ritual that feels like a production and yet also feels religiously authentic. It's very tricky. And unless you have professionals who are doing it, it sometimes cannot be as effective as it might be. So I would say in the area of holidays which is where we were tend to be more theatrical is a lot of overlap between theater and religion and I think a lot of theater has its roots in religion. All you have to do is look back in ancient Greek theater and much of it; most of it is drawn from religious rituals. To see that this crossover is very old and very strong, but for example, in Chanukah, we have created over the years this kind of abstract light sculpture instead of a traditional Chanukah menorah and have gone To Washington Square Park and interwoven traditional and contemporary music and liturgy and poetry and it's been a real success for us. But again, when you try to do more full-blown kinds of religious rituals in theatrical ways you have to strike that right balance between authenticity and the kind of theatricality that I think is not just shtick but something that makes the experience multi-sensory and really powerful for people. And that's hard when you're dealing with volunteers and laypeople who are trained in this area. 

Question: How is being a rabbi at the New Shul different from your previous experiences? 

Rabbi Niles Goldstein: Well I don't want to get into trouble here. You know, I served a couple of years at a very large suburban congregation as the assistant rabbi and it was a very, very different experience than being the founding rabbi of the New Shul partly because I've been able to basically do whatever he wanted as the founding rabbi of a brand-new community, of course in partnership with my leadership, my lay leadership. So even that's just a very surface difference but it's a very important one and I feel like the shackles were removed from me and I could be free to be the kind of rabbi I wanted to be and help create the kind of community that we all wanted. 

I think when I was working as an assistant rabbi at a large suburban synagogue, I went into work with a jacket and tie every day, which is not who I am, but I felt that that was the culture of that community and I had to do that. I was very first rabbi in that particular community to wear a kippah, a skullcap. And I don't wear one on the street just like now, but I always wear one for worship services. And I had to actually fight to have this done because that wasn't part of their culture, I came from a very classical kind of reformed Judaism that really shunned a lot of ritual. 

Since then, there has been a much more renewed openness to ritual in the reform movement within Judaism. But at the New Shul I am free to do whatever I want and so I have in some ways been more informal and contemporary and I lead services and have led ritual and holiday events in jeans or in flannel shirts and sneakers, if that's what makes me comfortable; partly because that's who I am and partly because that's what makes other people more comfortable and that's what I want. On the other hand, I've worn very traditional garments that more liberal rabbis liked me almost everywhere. For example, during the days of Awe, I always wear a sort of a funky version of a kittel; it’s this white garment that to this day is worn almost exclusively by Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox men. And it's an outward expression of purity and openness, the idea of during the 10 days of repentance, we literally, well not literally, we figuratively and metaphorically stand naked and exposed before God. And as I write in the “Challenge and the Soul,” to me, whenever I put on that kittel during the days of awe it reminds me exactly of putting on the white Gi that I put on whenever I step onto the wooden floor of the dojo to engage in martial arts training. So the parallels there are pretty striking as well. The garment looks virtually identical except in martial arts training have put on a black belt in with my congregation the belt is white. 

Recorded on March 15, 2010

Rabbi Niles Goldstein helped create a modern synagogue that’s home to all sorts of untraditional ideas.

Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?

Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence
to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like
violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students
do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones,
speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment
to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on
controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.

Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.

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