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Jewvangelist: Parody, Practicality or Prohibition?

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Proselytizing remains one of the more awkward topics of conversation within the Jewish community. It's whispered about in private conversations. It's spoken of euphemistically out in the open. It's insinuated by colleagues with surprising regularity.

But in the 36 years since Rabbi Alexander Schindler opened the public conversation about it from his post as head the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now Union for Reform Judaism), proselytizing to non-Jews has neither become a norm nor sidelined as antithetical to Jewish customs.

Aside from the periodic Chabad "Mitzvah Tank" (which, one might add, appears aimed primarily at other Jews), you rarely see Jews proselytizing in public. At the same time, many non-Jews are welcomed to explore Jewish life, especially if they find themselves in relationship with someone who is already a part of the community. Many of our congregations have embraced non-Jews who regularly attend prayer services, study opportunities and social events and helped them feel at home.

Yet this status quo of more subtle outreach is being challenged by factors, ranging from the high rates of intermarriage in the United States to the surprisingly large number of people (many of whom approached Jewish communities rather than the other way around) who are living as Jews and have all but converted. The religious tradition that has all too often been proselytized to -- and for that matter often scoffed at those proselytizing to it -- is renewing an important, if controversial, conversation about the kinds of outreach that are appropriate.

Proponents of a reorientation and expansion of accepted forms of proselytizing, Steven M. Cohen and Marco Greenberg, recently articulated this need in an article for the New York Jewish Week: "We need to start talking to a lot more people, and offer a vision of Judaism that is egalitarian, effervescent, deep and rich, a vision of Judaism, in short, that loves you just the way you are."

I remain ambivalent. As someone dedicated to collaboration across religious traditions, I worry about the impact of proselytizing on such work. But I also have been frequently approached by individuals interested in learning about Judaism and sense that there is an element of pride in one's tradition that comes from speaking more openly about it and inviting others to explore it. It also seems evident that there are many individuals who come from traditions (religious and non-religious) that spread their views openly, and are also able to meaningfully participate in interfaith dialogue and collaboration.

In a convincingly Jewish fashion (and fittingly created by both Jews and non-Jews), a new YouTube comedy series entitled Jewvangelist is generating a following and providing an opportunity to reopen this challenging internal dialogue. It could help renew these overdue discussions, examinations and debates in light of new realities about the American Jewish community.

The show is about a rabbi whose congregation is shrinking and decides to take the dramatic step of proselytizing (rather goofily at a number of points) in order to fill her seats. It is a comedy, but one with serious implications for those who seek to view them as such.

Ironically, it doesn't appear that the show was intended to be controversial or spark conversations waiting to happen. Yet its very timing and presence is uncanny.

The show's Executive Producer, Kaitlin Walsh, kindly offered to answer some questions I had about Jewvangelist. Fittingly, Walsh is not herself Jewish -- and yet appears to have helpful insights for the Jewish community.

Stanton: What inspired the creation of the show Jewvangelist?

Walsh: Becky Kramer, the star of the series, came up with the idea. She was looking for a funny, real character to play so that she could showcase her talents as an actress after years of feeling frustrated by not landing the roles she wanted. Becky and I have been friends since she had a small role in my grad school thesis film, back in 2009. On one fateful day about a year ago, Becky and I were on a coffee date (something we did -- and still do -- pretty regularly), and when she was discussing her frustration about not finding the right roles, I asked her if she had any of her own. She reluctantly told me about a quirky character named Leah Levy -- a rabbi who tried to learn from other religions. Honestly, I was surprised to like her very first idea so much, and I told her so. I then told her that I would do whatever I could to help her, which started with me calling my friend Christian Ayers, one of the most talented writers I've ever met, and asking him if he'd like to join Becky's project. Little did I know how much my life would change that day!

Stanton: To what extent did its creators intend its message to be humorous, and to what extent is it actually a serious social commentary on the Jewish community?

Walsh: Here's the bottom line: the intent we have with Jewvangelist is, I'd say, 90 percent to entertain, and 10 percent to make any kind of commentary. At the end of the day, we are storytellers, and we wanted to share a story that would make people laugh, feel, relate and think. When anyone touches the idea of religion, especially in entertainment (and even more particularly in comedy), they are bound to poke....

That said, regarding the commentary aspect, I can certainly expand. I think if you asked any of us this question, we'd each give you different answers. Of course, this comes partially from the fact that each of us joined at a different stage of the project, which gave us different roles in the actual creation of the project.

Becky, who created the initial story, just wanted to tell a story she found interesting and relevant, about a character she already loved. I initially joined because I wanted to help both Becky and Christian with their careers. At some point, while I certainly never lost an iota of interest in those initial goals, I started to really fall in love with the story we were telling, the characters we were creating and the messages we were telling. I have been there nearly every step of the way, so my perspective undoubtedly came through in the shaping of the project.

Christian, who joined next, tends to come at projects with a strong perspective -- and as the writer, his voice came through in a way that certainly expanded upon and added to the original idea Becky brought to the table.

Aaron Milus (our director), who came on at the last minute, worked with a story that was already written, but directed it in a way that, of course, reflected some of his own perspective.

Jewvangelist was told from a variety of perspectives, which is one of the things that I think makes it so special. I also think it's worthwhile to mention that each of us comes from a different religious background. Becky was raised Jewish (Reform), for instance; Christian was raised Southern Baptist; and I was raised Catholic. Further, we each feel differently about our own religious upbringings today.

My own views continued to change throughout the course of Jewvangelist. One of the things I learned, partially in my research for Jewvangelist but primarily from my relationship with Michael (who plays Asher and was raised Jewish -- Conservative), is that I have a huge amount of respect for the focus on community in Judaism. I absolutely think that, in the sculpting of Jewvangelist, we put a lot of weight on this focus on community. If that's commentary, I'm happy about that.

When we initially took this project on, I can honestly tell you that we did not have any intention to make any serious social commentary on the Jewish community. That said, as the project progressed, a theme did seem to come through. At its heart, Jewvangelist is the story of a rabbi who goes through the challenge of balancing her role as a religious leader with her own personal growth and self-discovery. I actually did not know, before taking this project on, that proselytizing is not a part of the Jewish religion. I was surprised by this, so I tried to learn more. I think that my curiosity; Becky's experience with actually growing up in this religion and with this understanding; and Christian's academic research into the subject of proselytizing within a variety of religions all shine through in Jewvangelist.

We certainly explored what it means to break the rules of one's own religion for what feels like a greater purpose -- whether flawed or not (this is, we feel, up to the viewer to decide). We also explored the idea of a leader of one religion going to other religions for inspiration. I don't think we so much made a commentary on the Jewish community as we did on religions in general: to what extent are you supposed to follow the tenets of your religion, and how far will your faith take you, when it challenges the foundation of your very life? How much does this change when you're a leader of a religious community? We certainly explored these themes in Jewvangelist, and I think we came to an answer at the end that was right for Rabbi Leah Levy -- but that doesn't mean it's the answer for everyone, and we are definitely not telling anyone how to think.

The other main theme that came up for us was that of breaking stereotypes. We really wanted to tell the story of a fun, quirky, pretty, interesting and strong female character -- who happens to be a rabbi. This portrayal of a religious leader is one we haven't seen on TV or in film before, and we're excited that our character will break the mold. Once we had already completed production, I came across an article by Rabbi Jordie Gerson on HuffPost Religion called "Letter to Hollywood - I Don't Have a Beard or Side Curls and I Look Just Like You: American Judaism's Image Problem." I was struck both by how much this article resonated with one of the messages of our series and by how much the author looks like our lead character. I was excited that we had created a series that addressed this problem, and it is my hope that will be one of the first of many to change the way all religious leaders are portrayed in the media. This, of course, is not really commentary on the Jewish community, but on the media's portrayal of it.

Stanton: What advice does the show provide to contemporary American rabbis and Jewish leaders?

Walsh: I hardly think I'm qualified to give advice to contemporary American rabbis, Jewish leaders, or any other religious leaders, so please take anything I say with a grain of salt. Nobody on this project set out to give advice to any religious leaders! However, I think there is something that might qualify. I think we address one major problem that all religious leaders seem to be facing today: religions seem to be having a harder and harder time reaching younger generations.

Rabbi Leah Levy struggles to maintain her congregation, and it seems that many real religious leaders are sharing in her struggles. However, throughout season one of Jewvangelist, Leah learns that it's not about the quantity, but the quality of her congregants and her relationships with them. Leah ends up getting "the butts back in the seats," as she says, by actually learning to engage people (her congregants included) on a personal and spiritual level -- not by trying to convert mass numbers of new congregants. For Leah, it turns out not to be a numbers game -- it ends up being about her relationships with herself, the people in her life and her religion. Once she solidifies those relationships, she becomes a better leader. I don't know if this should be considered "advice" to contemporary religious leaders, but it is the journey we had our rabbi go on.