Headlining a recent community email from the Jewish Theological Seminary was a phrase that was conspicuously out of place: swimsuit model. The email touted the participation of the Conservative movement’s flagship seminary in an event hosted by “Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Model Esti Ginzburg,” and sponsored by Birthright NEXT and the Council of Young Jewish Presidents. Described as “an evening of fashion and passion” the event was billed as “a major opportunity for guests to get a sense of the incredible variety of Jewish engagement opportunities in New York — and to party with hundreds of other professional, active, vibrant, young Jews.”
I am not a development professional, but I will go out on a limb here and say that an institution that trains clergy should probably stay away from events fronted by swimsuit models. People who learn, teach, and advocate for the highest values of our tradition are not going to increase Judaism’s appeal — or their own — through forcing an association with low-brow celebrity culture. The religious leaders who chase after celebrities in the name of kiruv — lo and behold! — often turn out to be using their Torah-for-the-masses public face as a screen for their own narcissism or social climbing. We can all name our favorite examples.
The actual event is unlikely to raise any feminist red flags. The swimsuit model will not be wearing a swimsuit, and the fashion show will showcase three Israeli designers whose clothing will be worn by an equal number of male and female models. (At last, a public event in the Jewish community with gender parity!) At the end of the runway show, attendees will be invited to learn about the work that the various invited organizations do in the community. The organizational representatives will, in turn, hope against hope that some of these fashion-savvy Gen Y-ers will become future affiliates and donors. In this light, the event actually sounds like it could appeal to the three or four 20-somethings whose interests encompass both Israeli fashionand Wissenschaft des Judentums — the scientific study of Judaism and one of the principles on which JTS was founded.
So why sell the event by headlining it with a swimsuit model whose picture in the event’s promotional poster is sexually suggestive? Right! to bring in the Unaffiliated Young People, a group so important that any Jewish value can be transgressed to attract their attention for even a moment! Because what we all wish was better represented in our communities is the type of individual who needs to be enticed with a swimsuit model in order to affiliate.
If this event is indeed successful — if it reaches out to a new group of Jews who are seduced by nothing other than the come-hither pose of Esti Ginzburg, if what it really truly takes to get this prized young demographic of Gen Y males (and the women who love them) in the door is to staff that door with a model — then I think our problems are a lot worse than we thought.
Rabbi Joanna Samuels, a Conservative rabbi, is Director of Strategic Initiatives at Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community.