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The Jewish Press of Tampa and the Jewish Press of Pinellas County are Independently- owned biweekly Jewish community newspapers published in cooperation with and supported by the Tampa JCC & Federation and the Jewish Federation of Pinellas & Pasco Counties, respectively. Copyright © 2009-2018 The Jewish Press Group of Tampa Bay, Inc., All Rights Reserved.


November 18, 2016  RSS feed

Text: T T T

Vodka Latke: The place to be

Emilie Socash
Executive Director, Jewish Federation of Pinellas & Pasco Counties

Earlier this month I attended the Jewish Federation of North America’s General Assembly, the annual convening of 3,000 or so Jewish leaders and caring community members in Washington D.C. Dozens of sessions fill the three-day agenda, ranging from how to raise more money to how to be more welcoming and inclusive, from the worldwide work that the Federation does to how to create a better workplace for millennials. In my whirlwind time there, I managed to get jolts of inspiration from Jews of color, from the team that puts together one of my favorite podcasts (“Israel Story,” the Israeli version of “This American Life”), and even from my favorite Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Two things surprised me about this year’s GA: the presence of a true sense of welcoming of Jews with “nontraditional” journeys, and the presence of hundreds and hundreds of young people.

Looking around, the median age at this year’s GA had to be somewhere in the early 40s. This is far younger than earlier years, when many silver heads spoke from the podiums and spoke up in sessions, giving polite pats on the shoulder to the young people who might dare to speak up. I will admit, the Federation system as a whole is fairly traditional and slow to adopt new views.

But this year, it’s as if 2016 was the year of the young: leading sessions, speaking at the main plenaries, and taking center stage in the commentary about where our Jewish community is going. The references to our recent loss of Leonard Cohen and how he taught the Jews how to sing Hallelujah had me humming this melody as I saw the embrace of young perspectives on our community’s direction.

At the local level, we’re moving in the same direction, and our next step in the direction of empowering our young adults and giving them a forum within which they can join together is our 2016 Vodka Latke event. If you are 45 years old or younger, or if you know someone who is, please join us on Dec. 24 at the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg for a classy night of gourmet latkes, top-shelf vodka and great music. Young adults from across the Tampa Bay area will be there, and I promise it will be a happening night.

Our young people represent not just a secure future for the Jewish community, but truly an inclusive community. This group spans two generations, both of whom have a higher likelihood to have only one Jewish parent, to be a part of the LGBTQ community, to marry later and to be generous in ways that buck tradition. These “nontraditional” (take note of my intentional quotation marks) individuals are the norm, and if we’re going to have any sense of a future identity, we’d be wise to broaden our definitions of what it means to be Jewish in a modern age.

One of the sessions that I particularly enjoyed at the GA was titled “A Coat of Many Colors: Diversity in the Jewish Community.” Leading the conversation was the opinion editor of the Forward (self-described as a queer Mizrahi woman); the director of audacious hospitality for the Union of Reform Judaism (a Jewish woman of color); and the female rabbi for Interfaith Family. Two critical thoughts that are still resonating with me from their discussion: that each individual in our community should be able to bring their entire identity into our Jewish spaces and events, and that recognizing differences is a good thing. Thinking back over the countless Jewish events I’ve attended and been in charge of, I found myself asking, has there ever been one that got either of these things right?

Following this session, I find myself presenting a challenge to our entire community, both organizationally and individually. Can we, as the Jewish community of Pinellas and Pasco Counties, seek to create experiences and spaces that allow every member of the community to bring their whole self into the tent? We do a great job welcoming already, but can we truly seek to understand and engage those in our community who are Jews of color, who are in same-sex relationships, who have visible or hidden disabilities, or who (like me) are part of an interfaith family?

The tone set by the co-chairs of the GA was refreshing: as they shared their personal journey, I saw that we were facing a new and refreshing era of Federation leadership. The married couple welcomed attendees at the opening plenary and shared a bit about themselves. Probably in their early 60s, neither of them had had a “traditional” Jewish childhood, nor had they maintained a Jewish home in adulthood. They met in their early 50s and married, and set about creating a new life in which they could design their level of engagement with the Jewish community and create a spiritual life that is meaningful and relevant to them.

I would imagine that embracing these differences might make some of my readers shudder. I’ve had countless conversations in the community in which I hear very specific ideas about what it really means to be Jewish. I challenge you, again, to consider that our people have always been a global people, one that takes in those in need and champions those who are able to lead regardless of their ability. We cannot be proud of our peoplehood without embracing all those who make up our coat of many colors and add tremendously to our competency, and our culture. Please join me in endeavoring to welcome and engage all those who are connected to our community.

Liked it? Loathed it? Want to react? I would welcome your feedback and can be reached at

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