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Below are our most recent thoughts on current issues about creating a more welcoming Jewish community. What do YOU think? Please feel free to leave comments.
If you haven’t noticed, the landscape of the North American Jewish community is changing. In many Jewish communities and institutions the flaps or our proverbial tent are being opened wider than ever before. In many places (though certainly not everywhere) there are many who are active participants, even leaders in the Jewish community who, under strict Jewish law or halacha, would not be considered Jewish. They are the partners and spouses of Jews, they are the children of intermarriage (who, if their mother is not Jewish, are not considered Jewish according to halacha), and they are spiritual seekers who have found a home in the Jewish community even as they made the choice not to convert formally. We see these changes in our work every day; we have been advocating, programming, and training the Jewish community to open its tent for the past quarter century.
Still, these changes have not taken their due place on the forefront of our communal conversation. This is why I was happy to read a recent article in Ha’aretz which discusses the finding that an increasing number of people of other religious and cultural backgrounds are active members in Jewish synagogues. According to Yaakov Ariel, a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina, “Sometimes as many as half the people in a synagogue are either non-Jews or married to non-Jews, or have a close non-Jewish relative.” There are several points in this article that I find especially noteworthy.
Sometimes, being innovative simply means realizing the potential of what is already there. This is why, when we thought this year about what would be the best way to reach unaffiliated Jewish families before the High Holidays, we thought about tashlikh, the ritual of throwing breadcrumbs into a body of water to symbolically cast away our sins, regrets, or bad choices from the past year as we prepare for the year to come.
For those familiar with the Big Tent Judaism philosophy of lowering barriers to engagement, this choice may seem odd. Why would anyone who otherwise was not planning to attend religious services on the High Holidays choose to attend a relatively marginal ritual with a name you can hardly pronounce? But two facts, we thought, make tashlikh uniquely appropriate for outreach. First, unlike most other religious Jewish rituals, this one takes place outside of the building. The congregation effectively relocates itself to a public location – typically a park with a pond, a brook, or a lake shore. And this public space, outside of synagogues and other Jewish institutions, is where most Jewish families are. Second, we thought, the act of letting go of the unsavory parts of our recent past, the act of forgiving ourselves and others – these acts can appeal to a broader audience, including people who are not prone to appreciate religious prayer. The relatively short tashlikh service can serve for many to encapsulate the entire High Holiday experience. Tashlikh, when transformed into Open Tashlikh, can serve as an entry point into deeper engagement with the organized Jewish community.
Will it work? We were eager to find out, so we set up a few resources and began to spread the word. In July 2014, Big Tent Judaism’s executive director Rabbi Kerry Olitzky published an article in eJewishPhilathropy.com, presenting the basic premise of the program – that the already-existing tashlikh programs have an untapped outreach potential, which could be maximized with the assistance of Big Tent Judaism resources. Following the publication of the article, 28 institutions expressed interest in using JOI materials at their already-planned tashlikh services.
How important is it to make yourself understood, and do you think you’re really being understood by people around you? This question turned me upside-down, literally, during my yoga class as I, and the entire group except one woman, transitioned from a downward dog position and lowered our knees to the mat.
“Put your knees down,” repeated Ann, our instructor, in her kind manner, and then she said it again, almost pleading this time.
We all turned our eyes towards the young, bashful Asian woman who clearly had failed to grasp the concept, and was now feeling very embarrassed as she stammered in a low voice, “I’m sorry, it’s my English.”
The calendar is a wonderful instrument that brings familiarity through repetition. Fall represents back to school time for some, a change in season for others, and for many of us, September and October bring a string of Jewish holidays.
Though the holidays themselves remain relatively uniform every year, life circumstances shift and so do the feelings associated with, and experienced during, holidays. Families shrink, and grow, and then shrink again. I have experienced this when members of my family go off to college, get married, have children, and move away.
A popular mystical teaching explains the uniqueness of the period leading up to the High Holidays with the following metaphor: During the majority of the year, the king sits in his palace and those who wish to meet him must travel all the way to the capitol city, negotiate through many layers of bureaucracy, and then navigate through the many antechambers in the palace, just to have a brief audience with the king. Not to mention, the visitor must also be meticulously dressed and display the most decorous speech and mannerisms if he or she dares to stand in the presence of the king. Yet, on occasion, the king will go out for a stroll in the fields, at which time he is totally accessible to even the most simple farmer or laborer. Anyone can approach him, regardless who they are, what they know, how much money they have, or what they are wearing.
Traditionally, this metaphor is understood as explaining how the King, God, is more merciful and accessible to repentant sinners during the month leading up to Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, but I think it also gives us a model for understanding how to make Judaism, in general, more inclusive and accessible. Jewish life is often perceived as being like the king in his palace, hidden behind the walls of ornate synagogues and spacious community centers. Those who wish to participate must navigate the barriers of perquisite background knowledge, costly membership dues, and, for some, an overall feeling of not being welcome. While this institutionally-oriented aspect of Jewish life is still valid and important, it cannot be the only way. There must come a time when we go out into the fields, literally wherever the people are, and bring a taste of Judaism to them.
I was mid-blessing when my five-year-old stomped upstairs and slammed his door. At the same time, my not-quite-two-year-old reached for the (lit) candles; rebuffed, he thrashed his way out of my arms and onto the floor, where he proceeded to point to the candles, speak unintelligible English (maybe it was Hebrew?), and cry.
Truth be told, I was mid-blessing when my five-year-old brought a helium balloon too close to the (lit) candles and I warned him to move the balloon away. I was a little further along when he did it again, at which point I scolded him, and he stomped upstairs and slammed his door and my toddler ended up on the floor crying.
And so begins – and ends – another chapter of my family’s weekly Shabbat saga.
Most Saturday mornings, when I am home, I can be found at Torah study at Temple Israel in Boston. But, when I travel I often let this practice lapse. This past weekend, however, I traveled solo and decided to take in Shabbat services at a local highly esteemed congregation.
Services were energetic; the music infectious; and, the Rabbi’s teaching was truly enlightening. The weekly Torah reading included Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden. The Rabbi demonstrated through Rabbinic texts that the Jewish understanding of the expulsion myth is very different than the overwhelming prevailing Christian understanding of this narrative, as best exemplified by John Milton’s, Paradise Lost.
I was uplifted. I love learning something that is so simple and so clear and so patently obvious, but which I have somehow missed in the past 50+ years.
Yet, notwithstanding the empowerment of new knowledge, and the overall richness of the services, I left with the distinct feeling that something was missing. Something important.
The missing piece was easy to identify.
In March 2014, Big Tent Judaism-Middlesex County hosted an event for the Jewish holiday of Purim, called Purim Pastry Pairing at a supermarket in Highland Park, NJ. Participants stopped by to taste hamantaschen (pastries filled with jam) and decorate a mask to take home. One passerby, Dan, stopped by for a free taste and to enter the raffle, and after winning the basket of Stop and Shop goodies and a gift card, met with me for coffee to talk about his Jewish experience growing up, and where he and his wife, Alexis, and their 2-year-old son are today. After finding out more about Dan and his family, I was able to invite him to some upcoming events for families that were just right for them. I also put him in touch with a rabbi at a local synagogue near where his family lives, so that they could continue even further on their Jewish journey.
Recently, Dan and his wife Alexis spoke with me about where their family is on their Jewish journey thus far.
Tell me a little bit about your background, in terms of Jewish participation, and the home you grew up in.
Alexis: I grew up in a Catholic home. We went to church on Sundays, and my brother and I went to CCD (Confraternity of Christian Doctrine – Sunday School). My father was not really a believer, so it was really on my mom to guide us in the religion, and I think she was just going through the motions of Catholicism. I say this because when I was a teenager, my mother became a Born Again Christian and really became fully involved in that religion. Around this time, I stopped going to church because I started working on Sundays and also because I felt disconnected from religion. To be honest, church was boring, and I didn’t take anything away from going.
Dan: I grew up in a Modern Orthodox home; we kept kosher in and out of our home. We observed all the holidays and especially Shabbos [Sabbath]. My brother and I had Bar Mitzvahs and my sister had a Bat Mitzvah. I went to a Jewish sleep-away camp most of my youth, as well as Yeshivas [Jewish Day School] my whole life. Most of my schooling was with all boys.
Sara Schley is the founder and President of Seed Systems, an international consulting company established in 1994. Seed Systems uses Systems Thinking while working with individuals, teams, organizations, and networks to accelerate the transformation to a planet where all life thrives. Inspired by a non-Jewish friend who said, “Sara there is no center in our lives, you have to teach us how to do Shabbat!”, Sara has written Secrets of the 7th Day, the first book of her Radical Renewal series, about how everyone can learn from this ancient Jewish ritual, whether or not they are Jewish or even religious. The practice of unplugging from the world, slowing down, sharing in the simple joys of food, stories, songs and the outdoors can be celebrated by all. Secrets of the 7th Day invites all of us to make these beautiful practices for renewing the spirit our own. Ancient as the Sabbath is, we need it now more than ever.
My friend Linda– a PhD mid-career mom with three active teens and a high-powered husband is not the type you’d expect to plead. Yet there she was pleading to me, “Sara you have to teach us how to do Shabbat. There’s no center in our lives!”
“But Linda,” I replied, “You’re Catholic!”
“That doesn’t matter! I long for that time when we were kids, and always stayed home as a family on Sundays. There’s nothing supporting that kind of quality time in our culture now. You’ve figured it out. I watch your kids lead the rituals at your house. They so clearly love it. Show us how.”
Well I love Linda and I’d do pretty much anything she asks, so I started writing. And came up with the book The Secrets of the 7th Day: How Everyone can Find Renewal from the Wisdom and Practices of Shabbat, which came out in print last week just in time for Rosh HaShana.
I ask my 12 year-old Maya, “What’s best about Shabbat?”
“I’s the only time we really get your attention, Mom,” she says reflecting on the question, not snarky.
I know I can be scattered. Who’s not in this era of iEverythings, constant barrage of e-messages, inhuman expectation that we all be connected 24/7? With so many demands on our brains, no wonder we suffer from collective ADD. Who could blame me for being less than a perfectly present mother?
“You got a point there Maya. I’m definitely able to focus better on Shabbat because I unplug everything! Thank G-d for Shabbat for that!”
Shabbat Unplugged. It’s an ancient concept, but needed now more than ever.
It’s hard to believe it’s that time of year already, but the High Holidays have come and gone. As summer has faded into fall, Jewish communal professionals and volunteers across North America have brought Public Space JudaismSM to their communities, using the holidays to share a taste of Jewish life in public secular spaces.
When people think of where most Public Space Judaism programs are held, their minds often jump to a grocery store—for good reason, since many Public Space Judaism programs involve using food as an entry point into the holidays. Since most people regularly go grocery shopping, the supermarket is a great place to meet them where they are and introduce Jewish life and community through food. This is certainly true for the High Holidays, where our “A Spoonful of Honey” program uses gourmet apples and honey tasting in a public space to connect people with their Jewish community.
But there’s more to Public Space Judaism than grocery stores, and this year Big Tent Judaism and our partners have continued to bring Public Space Judaism to increasingly innovative new spaces. Over 20 of the 90 Public Space Judaism programs that took place this High Holiday season were held in “alternative” locations such as fairs, museums, and restaurants.
In which religion do interfaith families raise their children? That’s a question researchers and sociologists have been examining for decades, particularly in the Jewish community where intermarriage has increased exponentially since the 1980s. Well, we finally have the answer, courtesy of a recent article from “America’s Finest News Source,” The Onion:
According to a Pew Research Center study of American families published this week, more children in the United States are being raised with the religion of their pushier parent. “Interfaith couples have become increasingly common nationwide in recent decades, and as a result, we’re seeing more and more kids growing up practicing the faith of the parent who’s more aggressive and overbearing,” said researcher James Gammon, citing the rising number of dual-faith households in which children celebrate the holidays, traditions, and rites of passage of the parent who consistently drowns the other one out.
We will of course follow up this report with new programs and materials on how to become the pushiest parent you can be! All in good humor.
As a small child, my life was filled with Jewish music—especially songs about various Jewish holidays. Cassette tapes and CDs with Jewish songs played regularly on car rides. As soon as I learned to play piano, I would plunk out Hanukkah songs every year as the holiday approached. Every Sunday, my mom would ask me to sing the songs I learned that day at Hebrew school, and we would sing them together.
When I was older and would “work” in my mom’s preschool class during school holidays, I would watch as she led her rapt audience of 3-year-olds through Shabbat songs and dances on Friday mornings. By experiencing the musical genius that was “Challah in the Oven” and “Put the Matzah Ball in the Pot,” through song and dance, my mom’s students learned about Shabbat in an engaging, age-appropriate way. By experiencing Shabbat in an age-appropriate, engaging way, these children gained an understanding about what to expect during Shabbat and learned that Shabbat is a time for celebration through song, dance, family time, and food. This is why I enjoyed reading this article by father Jason Wiser, who described how he and his wife created Shabbat rituals with their unruly daughter, starting with the blessing over children:
“It occurred to me at that moment that we had never sat down and explained to our daughter what the prayer was about. So I told her that when we put our hands on her head we are asking for a long, healthy, and happy life for her, full of strength and good choices and wonderful things. Not an exact translation, but certainly what I always have in mind.”
By explaining the different rituals to his daughter—and why the rituals were so important—as well as finding creative and productive outlets for his daughter’s energy, Wiser’s family was able to create unique Shabbat rituals that helped everyone connect to the holiday.
I am not a particularly religious person. But, like many Jews, I get a bit more religious in the lead-up to the Jewish New Year. And as I tell my friends that, yet again, I’ll be spending hours in synagogue for a few days this fall, I find myself asking—why do I? It is partly out of habit—something I do with my family every year that after 30 years just feels wrong to skip. It is partly out of respect—participating in a centuries’ old tradition still can overwhelm me. It is partly because of community—being surrounded by fellow Jews and their families who share a similar connection to the prayers and the practice. It is partly because I do actually find meaning—but not in all of it.
There are definitely parts of the service I can live without. But one part I find incredibly meaningful is the tashlikh service—the beautiful tradition of casting away our sins to start the year anew by tossing breadcrumbs into a moving body of water. There is something incredibly simple and symbolic about this action, and I always find myself incredibly contemplative as I stand by the waterside and think about what sins I am casting off. Did I gossip? Was I mean? Did I lie? Was I harsh to my parents? How can I avoid these sins in the New Year? I also find that tashlikh is the easiest piece of the High Holidays to share with my Maronite Catholic boyfriend (aside from my mom’s delicious dinners), so it helps us as an interfaith couple to connect through Judaism in way that is meaningful and accessible to both of us.
Elul is the 29-day Hebrew month before the Jewish High Holidays start. Last year, I came across Craig Taubman’s Jewels of Elul emails - a collection of short stories, anecdotes, introspections, etc. from an eclectic group of folks. You can find this year’s grouping here and you can sign up for a daily email for the 29 days of Elul.
I was struck by the 9th day reflection of Christopher Noxon, a very entertaining author and illustrator. His Jewel caught my eye because I was a young adult in the 80s when Men’s Circles and Women’s Teams and gender-specific rituals were de rigueur. And I loved them. His Jewel talks about being dissatisfied with a typical (I suppose traditional) Bar Mitzvah ritual and getting a group of men together to pass wisdom on to the young male celebrant.
My Jewish upbringing was both highly structured and deeply involved. I attended Jewish day school, summer camp, youth group, Israel programming—the whole gamut. As I understood, if parents didn’t create an exclusive Jewish life for their children, they may derail and stray away from their Jewish identity. The message that I received as a child was complex. My mother, being a second-generation Holocaust survivor, felt an obligation to infuse her children’s lives with deep Jewish meaning and engagement. Though never directly communicated, there was an underlying understanding of the responsibility the members of my family had to live Jewish lives for both ourselves and for the family that we lost.
It wasn’t until high school (the first time I attended a secular school) that I began to understand the complexities of the Jewish community. I had the opportunity to interact and connect with a larger pool of individuals—Jews whose lives did not orbit around their synagogue, youth group, summer camp, etc. but still felt a connection to their Jewish identities. This realization, though it may seem insignificant, was pivotal. In order to be a Jew and to live a Jewish life, one does not have to fit into a particular prototype. Rather, their Jewish experience is customizable and can be molded to reflect one’s particular needs and values.
For my entire life, I have been what Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) would call “a highly engaged Jew.” But that doesn’t imply that the ways I have engaged Jewishly have been consistent nor does it mean that I haven’t had the unfortunate experience of feeling like an outsider within the Jewish community at times. Quite the contrary.
My Jewish journey began with the rituals my family observed in the home, which are some of the most precious memories of my childhood. In fact, a few months ago, I was going through some old home videos at my parents’ house, including one of my 4-year-old self lighting the Hanukkah menorah surrounded by my parents and grandparents – the pure joy on my tiny face in that video was unmistakable. Other key memories from my Jewish upbringing took place at the Conservative synagogue in Cherry Hill, NJ, where I attended Hebrew school and celebrated my Bar Mitzvah.
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For a list of all the communities hosting Big Tent Judaism Public Space Judaism events for the High Holidays, please click here.
There remains a lot of controversy in the Jewish community over rabbinic officiation of weddings for intermarried couples. It is an important subject, especially since peer pressure among rabbis—and sometimes even a cabal—prevents individual rabbis from acting on their conscience, regardless of the decision. Some people argue that this is what keeps intermarried couples out of the synagogue or, at least, from wanting to affiliate with it. And, of course, we have seen the domino effect of parents, long time synagogue members, resigning their membership when their rabbi won’t or can’t officiate at the wedding of their adult child.
Nevertheless, I think that this conversation is an example of “not seeing the forest for the trees.” The real issue regarding officiation is that rabbis—and other religious clergy throughout the United States—have lost hegemony over life cycle events. All one has to do is review the weddings pages in the New York Times on any given Sunday. Take a look at how many weddings have mainstream religious clergy as officiants and how many are officiated by those friends and relatives who got some sort of a religious license in order to officiate at the wedding.
In a recent blog on Jewschool.com, What Not to Say to an Interfaith Couple About to Get Married, the author (who uses the name Jacob Wake Up!) shares some of the absurd things people have said to him when they discover he is marrying someone who isn’t Jewish. Having heard things such as “You know your kids won’t be Jewish,” and “You’re doomed with an unpleasant process…,” it’s amazing that Jacob has remained committed to raising a Jewish home with his soon-to-be wife of another background.
“For better or for worse, we’ve become totally accustomed to it. I am Jewish, my fiancée is not, and we are getting married. People feel they have license to say some of the most chutzapahdik things to us–mostly her–both online and in real life. We’ve chosen to have a Jewish wedding, raise Jewish children, and keep a Jewish home. Not that this is a defense, it’s just some background. Our decisions are enough of a threat to people that they feel the need to say pretty aggressive things to us. We had grown used to it and it wasn’t until my fiancé was having a conversation with my mother (who affectionately calls my fiancé and her family the machatunim, as she should). My mother was shocked and appalled that people would say such things to our faces. This led me to believe that maybe there were others who thought we were skating by.”
Intermarriage has long been a hot topic for the Jewish community, and while we have come a long way, Jacob’s experiences show that we still have a long way to go. The fact that the conversation immediately jumps to either the negative (“You’ll be living in a fantasy land”) or conversion (“so will she convert?”) is certainly not the image of an inclusive and welcoming community.
It ain’t easy being an intermarried Jewish man. This, in a nutshell, is the conclusion of Marrying Out: Jewish Men, Intermarriage and Fatherhood, a wonderful new book by Brandeis professor Keren McGinity published this week (September 1st) from Indiana University Press. I reviewed Marrying Out for the New York Jewish Week, and below is an interview with the author, which was also featured in the Jewish Week review.
In Marrying Out, McGinity used interviews with over 40 intermarried Jewish men to tell the story of how gender relations – what it means to be a man or a woman in North America today – shapes our roles as parents of Jewish children. On the one hand, marrying someone who is not Jewish makes it necessary to answer the question of what it means to be a Jewish father. It means you have to decide what Judaism means to you, and in what ways your home is to be a Jewish home. Will you celebrate Jewish holidays? (I do.) Will you say the sh’ma prayer with your children at bedtime? (I don’t.) Will you take your children to Tot Shabbat services? (Tried it; I have mixed feelings.) For many of the men whom McGinity interviewed, the need to answer these questions resulted in a stronger, more meaningful connection to Jewish life and the Jewish community.
As it happens, my wife is Jewish. I nevertheless found the overarching story of Marrying Out to be very relevant to my own life and my own struggles as a Jewish father, because being an intermarried Jewish man also means being a man. And in the United States today, this means (at least for many) spending more time at work than you do at home; more time writing reports (or blog posts) than playing with and listening to your children. It also means that your spouse is probably the one making the most important decisions regarding the religious or cultural upbringing of your children.
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