Creating a literary salon

Jerusalemite Shayna Hulkower hosts a different kind of parlor meeting.

Yehudis Golshevsky (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Yehudis Golshevsky
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
"The goal was to bring the olim together and to utilize the idealistic and passionate energy that we know exists in the community to help make the country a better place,” explains Shayna Hulkower, from Long Island, New York. Hulkower and her friends Sarah Leah Rodin and Judith Rozen have been hosting monthly gatherings since August, when she hatched the idea of the Jerusalem Salons.
Every month, immigrants living in Holy City come together to hear a lecture and participate in a discussion surrounding a controversial topic. The past focus of these salons has been on current social issues such as institutionalized racism and the tension between Eastern European and Middle Eastern Jews, or halachic issues such as laws of Judaism in the Land of Israel.
Jerusalem Salons, according to its mission statement, is a forum “to create a community of curious, passionate and engaged English-speaking people in the heart of Jerusalem to discuss the issues of the day (whether they be related to the weekly Torah portion or breaking headlines), with the goal of producing ... ideas that can make a difference in Israel’s society and in the global arena; in areas of philosophy, public policy and spirituality.”
Hulkower has always been one to pursue positive change. After studying environmental science at Long Island University, she decided her mission in life was to work on climate change; she then pursued a master’s degree at American University in Washington DC, where she took her first course in environmental politics. She spent considerable time on Capitol Hill, where she worked as a lobbyist for climate change, then later at the Environmental Protection Agency.
“I was going all over the Hill, mainly to Republican offices, to talk to their mostly senior staff. I would explain why they had to care about climate change. After that, I worked on the Hill itself, and I saw how the ‘sausage was made,’ so to speak. While I was at the EPA, I was passionate about my work. I wanted to make the office more efficient so we could have more time to solve problems,” Hulkower says.
“I put together a task force, created a whole system to make a better office, then created an employee-training program for the system. That’s just who I am, I’m always trying to fix problems.”
Her Jerusalem Salons initiative is working toward change, not only in discussion for community growth, but also by publishing white papers for legal change. “We believe the will of the people is what decision-makers should be listening to – not those with the deepest pockets or the grandest podiums,” says the website.
After Hulkower made aliya in June 2013, her positive “fix-it” spirit remained ever-present when she identified a need for discussion forums in the English-speaking oleh community geared towards social, economic and environmental change. After recruiting two of her friends for the job, they began getting together speakers and audience members possessing a passion for discussion and action.
In April, in a meeting about morality, progressiveness and conservatism in society, religion came up in a big way. After an audience member asked a tension-filled question about the Reform Movement, Hulkower decided to take further initiative. “Seeing that interaction, I realized I wanted to take action. That’s when I decided to create a separate event to talk about Reform Judaism, based on the desire to learn more and educate,” she explained.
The May gathering was a night unlike all other nights, led by lecturer Yehudis Golshevsky, a graduate of Yavne Teacher’s Seminary in Cleveland and SUNY Buffalo. She has been working in teaching and Torah publishing for over 20 years and has contributed to projects such as the recent Holocaust history textbook Witness to History, and Erez Moshe Doron’s The Exchanged Children.
Golshevsky possesses a breadth of knowledge across a variety of disciplines in history, science, philosophy and more.
“She’s not our typical lecturer,” noted Hulkower, when asked why she chose her to lead this session. “She is a haredi, Breslov educator, and she teaches all around Jerusalem. Because of her religious beliefs, she only teaches women, but agreed to teach a mixed crowd for this event. I took a course with her on the history of modern Judaism, a course that covered a lot about the Reform Movement. She knows so much about the movement; I was captivated by her knowledge. She knows everything about everything – science, politics, religion, economy – and she’s the kind of person you can learn so much from.”
And Hulkower wasn’t wrong. Golshevsky’s knowledge was expansive, sparking debate and giving new perspectives on old arguments.
When the audience broke as to whether the Western Wall should have an egalitarian section, she shed light on the fact that the tension wasn’t solely between the religious and the secular, but also between immigrants and native-born Israelis – because, unlike in the Diaspora, synagogues are usually separated between men and women in Israel, and therefore Israelis are more comfortable with the idea. It’s something Israelis are used to and many Diaspora Jews aren’t, resulting in pressure from abroad to have an egalitarian section at the Western Wall.
She also helped the gathering read between the lines on the issue of liberal marriage in a Jewish state, explaining that the Reform Movement is suddenly relevant and gaining traction because of its visibility in fighting for a social change that many Israelis are also fighting for, no matter what their religious beliefs may be.
“It was very interesting; it’s fascinating to see the interplay of issues. The changes that the Reform Movement is trying to address in Israel are conflating with the issues that Israelis have with the general structure of religious influence in their lives, particularly with liberal marriage,” commented Raizel Druxman, a participant in the May salon.
“It’s interesting that two issues are converging. Even though the Reform Movement doesn’t have much power in Israel, it’s working towards the same social issues that Israelis are fighting for as well. The movement is becoming relevant to Israelis not for religion, but for social change.”
While Golshevsky had a wealth of knowledge and captivated her audience, the audience in turn was lively, curious and passionate.
“Being at the salon tonight is reminding me to get educated, to get involved and make a difference,” enthused Druxman.
For more information on next month’s event: