A Conversation with Alisa Robbins Doctoroff

"I feel that Judaism holds tremendous value for people. It is a very rich, rewarding, stimulating, interesting, and spiritually-engaging source for me.  My goal is to try to find ways to open up Jewi...

Alisa Robbins Doctoroff was appointed president of UJA-Federation of New York on July 1, 2013. She previously served as chair of UJA-Federation’s Commission on Jewish Identity and Renewal after years of involvement with its work, particularly in Israel and with young people.

Ms. Doctoroff is a past president of the Abraham Joshua Heschel School and was instrumental in founding its high school division, and chaired the initiative for its recent expansion. She is active on the boards of a wide spectrum of organizations that promote engagement with Jewish life and identity through education, culture, and religious life, including the Jim Joseph Foundation, Mechon Hadar, and the Jewish Theological Seminary. She is also past president of Congregation Or Zarua and co-founder of the Jewish Lens.

What is a common thread in your volunteer activities?

Doctoroff: I feel that Judaism holds tremendous value for people. It is a very rich, rewarding, stimulating, interesting, and spiritually-engaging source for me.  My goal is to try to find ways to open up Jewish life for others so that they can find its wisdom.  I’m involved with organizations that are trying to make Judaism live, and to uncover its relevance, meaning, and beauty.

What drew you to Moving Traditions? What about the organization is compelling to you?

Doctoroff: The organization and its goals are very much in sync with my personal approach to thinking about Jewish life today and how it can be more vibrant for more people.

I also was drawn to Moving Traditions because of its leadership. I think that Deborah [Meyer] as a professional is a wonderful leader and brings a clear understanding of mission and the importance of professionalism, which is not always the case in the not-for-profit world. I think Sally [Gottesman] as lay leader has been a visionary in thinking about and creating new traditions and new ways of being in the world that we’re encountering today as Jews.

What are some of the most important things you think Moving Traditions can contribute to Jewish life today?

Doctoroff: I think we bring a lens with which to look at the experience of Jews in today’s world. Moving Traditions is examining certain times in people’s lives as opportunities for connecting them in a powerful way with Jewish traditions – ways they might not even have thought about. For example, in our program, Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl Thing! we’re creating an opportunity that didn’t really exist for Jewish teenage girls to come together around issues that are relevant in their lives, and to find the Jewish content that really helps to illuminate and guide their experience as teenagers.

What role do you see gender playing in building Jewish identity?

Doctoroff: Gender is part of who we are and how we live our lives. The exploration of how that pertains to our Jewish lives is critical. We’re all put into compartments or we see ourselves in compartments. Looking at things with a gender lens is liberating; it gives us the chance to ask what we are doing or why we are doing it. We can then realize, “It’s because of certain expectations of me that are not necessarily who I am.” And we can then wonder, “Are these expectations societal, and are they outdated?”  It is important to provide opportunities to confront gender identities, and to open new opportunities that may have been previously limited by gender.

How can an understanding of gender help us deliver more effective and meaningful Jewish education to today’s youth?

Doctoroff: This is a generalization, but there is no question in my mind that girls and boys operate differently. That doesn’t mean girls or boys can’t do certain things, but instead it affects the way they interact and what they might choose to do. It’s hard to strip away all the societal baggage and see the core of the person.

Moving Traditions is looking at the needs of girls and the needs of boys and understanding them on the basis of who they are. We’re getting girls together to talk about their needs as girls, in a Jewish context. Likewise, we are now looking at boys and their needs, and we’re searching for the compelling connection for them to their Jewish heritage and traditions. We’re asking, how do we find a way that is integrated into who they are as Jewish boys to help them create healthy Jewish male identities for themselves?

What trends and issues do you see as central to Jewish life today?

Doctoroff: One of the exciting things that I see happening is the desire that people have to be involved in a real way. They don’t want to go to the synagogue and listen to someone else singing for them. They want to have a real role, they want to use it, live it. I think that’s a really healthy, wonderful trend.

I see a lot of creativity in Jewish life today. I see people who are investing their time, energy, intelligence, and imagination in finding ways to engage people with what Judaism is and means. That gives me tremendous hope for the future.

How does your Jewish life and learning help you raise your children?

Doctoroff: It’s just part of who I am. It’s integrated into my life. The rhythm of the Jewish year provides the calendar for the year, for the week – it’s the backdrop. Plus they see how I spend my time – as a volunteer with organizations that are promoting Jewish education, and going to Israel. I also keep learning myself.

One of my concerns — and I struggle with this myself — is that on the one hand I want my children to find meaning in Judaism. On the other hand, there is an obligation to go beyond yourself. I think of the Hillel line: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I?” A sense of community is a major part of Judaism. Look at the minyan: you can’t just pray by yourself — you have to pray with ten people. The notion that we are part of a whole is very important, and I hope I am passing this on to my children