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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.
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.
The following piece was originally posted on Kveller.com’s “Up Close,” a photo and interview series aiming to put a face on the interfaith conversation. The series highlights interfaith families and hearing their stories. The focus of this piece is Amy Ravis-Furey, the Outreach and Engagement Coordinator for the Jewish Federation of Greater Kansas City.
1. Are you raising your kid(s) with one religion, both religions, or somewhere in between?
We are a Jewish family that has a Catholic dad and we are proud of that distinction. Our children like to ask a lot of questions to get clarity around who is Jewish in our family and who is Catholic. We make it very clear that to us being a loving family means celebrating and supporting one another–like helping our Catholic family celebrate the holidays that are important to them. Much like attending a friend’s birthday, our kids aren’t confused about joining in on celebrations of a different faith tradition. We all can attend birthday parties without being confused that the celebration is not yours–and we also know that we as guests are often an important element that makes the celebration meaningful.
Although we live in Kansas, because I am a Jewish community professional, a lot of our life looks Jewish, is surrounded by Jewish community and friends and is full of Jewish culture. We spend more waking hours at the Jewish community campus than at our actual home. The kids have a strong Jewish identity and an even stronger sense that there are all sorts of people in our family and our community and we value each of them for those differences.
In a recent piece for the Huffington Post, Israeli author Abraham Gutman spoke about his experiences reconnecting with Judaism as a student in New York, and how planning an interfaith wedding with a Christian bride forced him to reconsider his own relationship with the Jewish community. Though he at first felt welcomed into the Jewish “peoplehood,” when it came time to find a rabbi to officiate his wedding, Gutman and his fiancée struggled to find someone who would perform a marriage ceremony between people of different religious backgrounds. One rabbi came close, agreeing to officiate, but then made sure to remind Gutman that in the eyes of the Jewish community, they would never be “married for real.” Gutman felt that the message he constantly got from the organized Jewish community was that “We don’t believe your marriage is legitimate, even if you find someone who will pretend it is. “
Eventually, Gutman and his fiancée found a rabbi who would marry them, and in the process he came to realize that “interfaith” was a misnomer for his marriage—instead, he and his Christian wife were in a “two-faith” marriage.
Originally appearing in Voices of Conservative Judaism, the following article profiles Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute Board Member Bettina Kurowski and the creating of the Grandparents Circle, a program for Jewish grandparents whose adult children have intermarried. To read the original article, please click here.
The word “millennial” is at the center of conversation in today’s Jewish community. But we shouldn’t ignore another group that is equally pivotal to Jewish continuity – grandparents.
To highlight the powerful role that grandparents play in children’s lives – including children in interfaith families – Big Tent Judaism is hosting a weekend of activities to coincide with Grandparents Day on Sunday, September 7.
The National Grandparents Circle Salon Weekend, from September 6– 7, will convene informal gatherings of Jewish grandparents whose children have intermarried. These salons create a space for discussion about how to foster the Jewish identity of grandchildren being raised in interfaith families, while at the same time improving relationships between grandparents and their adult children.
Led by a grandparent, participants learn strategies for creating Jewish experiences for their grandchildren and establishing positive relationships with their adult children that are informed by the book Twenty Things for Grandparents of Interfaith Grandchildren to Do (And Not Do) to Nurture Jewish Identity in Their Grandchildren, by Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky and Paul Golin. Grandparents Circle Salons are part of Big Tent Judaism’s Grandparents Circle, a series of free educational programs for Jewish grandparents whose adult children have intermarried. These programs have been implemented nearly 150 times in nearly 100 communities across North America.
Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute board member Bettina Kurowski was instrumental in developing the Grandparents Circle, which she piloted at Valley Beth Shalom, a large Conservative Synagogue in Encino, California. Bettina spoke with me about her role in helping to create the Grandparents Circle, how her participation in the inaugural Grandparents Circle helped her shape positive Jewish memories with her family, and why the Grandparents Circle is important for the Conservative Movement.
The following is a blog by Rabbi Margaret Frisch-Klein of Congregation Kneseth Israel in Elgin, IL, which originally appeared on her blog, The Energizer Rabbi. It can also be found in our collection of think pieces and sermons from those involved with the Big Tent Judaism Coalition.
I am on vacation–and predictably I am breaking my own rules. Oh, to be sure I slept a little later (7AM) and I had a massage before dinner last night. I sat outside on my deck, something I had dreamed of enjoying all summer, and ate my breakfast. And I read.
And that is why I am writing. I finished reading Rabbi Kerry Olitzky’s Playlist Judaism. I have heard him lecture before, most recently when he was at the Chicago Board of Rabbis. I own any number of his books including Preparing Your Heart for the High Holidays (which is probably the book that inspired me to write my own book!). Two of my congregants and I had a very enjoyable lunch with him in February when he was in Chicago. I have participated in two workshops that Big Tent Judaism has done–one on warm and welcoming congregations sponsored by JUF and one more recently on interfaith families. You might say I am a groupie!
So why did I decide I needed to write today? Because, even though there is little in the book I disagree with (if anything), there is much that is challenging. The book has nine chapters. In fact, the book is pretty short. But I think it is radical. It recognizes what I have been saying–that Judaism, particularly what I call American suburban Judaism, is experiencing a seismic shift. This is not your grandparents’ 1960s suburban synagogue. It can’t be. The world is fundamentally different. What isn’t clear is what will emerge in its place.
When I was in high school and college, my parents would inevitably have a “lively discussion” before Rosh Hashanah and Passover about one thing: how to cook the brisket. This behemoth of responsibility had previously fallen on my Nana, and after she passed away, my dad was adamant that my mom cook the brisket exactly the way his mom had. Every year, the brisket “wasn’t the same.” It wasn’t until my mom bumped into a member of our synagogue at the butcher who suggested a new, “magic” recipe that the Brisket Battle reached an amiable end (that is, until raccoons ran off with a brisket one Passover).
I was reminded of this memory when I read a recent Kveller article by Ryley Katz, about how she and her husband, both of whom were raised Jewish, have struggled to meld their respective religious and cultural traditions. Katz raised an important point: we all grew up with traditions which we hold dear, and melding these traditions with someone else’s can be challenging.
At a time such as now, when most of the news from Israel is bleak, it is a pleasure to share some good news. This is why I was excited to read this morning on Ha’aretz that Minister of Interior Gideon Sa’ar has just ruled that the Right of Return will now apply for non-Jewish same sex spouses of Jewish immigrants (Tablet Magazine has also covered the story). This is unquestionably good news; here is why.
For better and for worse, the Law of Return is probably the one Israeli law that more than any other defines modern Israel as a Jewish state. When it was signed in 1950, it was the first time in modern history that Jews were given privileged access to citizenship rights conferred by a nation state. It was also the first time in modern history that a Jewish state excluded from citizenship immigrants who were not Jewish. The Law of Return was, however, amended in 1970 to include also the spouses, children, and grandchildren of Jews, as well as the spouses of these children and grandchildren, even if they were not Jewish themselves.
So what’s new now?
When I speak with individuals or groups about the need for the Jewish community to become more open and welcoming of those who are traditionally marginalized (i.e., intermarried couples, Jews by Choice, Jews of color, etc.), I often hear people asking questions about the dilution of Judaism. The argument goes like this: If we let a non-Jewish spouse do X, then we might as well let them do Y. And if we let them do Y, then, we are doomed.
Okay, that’s maybe an exaggeration of the actual conversation, but the feeling is there: If we change the rules, we will dilute Judaism. But we don’t see it that way.
“How archaic not use electricity!”
“How could he marry someone who is not Jewish?”
“It is sexist not to allow men and women to sit together!”
“What do you mean they don’t celebrate Rosh Hashanah?”
“I don’t know how you could believe that in this day and age.”
Liberal, Conservative, Traditional, Unaffiliated, Orthodox-regardless of how you self-identify, strong, derogatory statements from others who do not share your point of view are inevitable. These statements are not unique to our place in history. When the ancient Second Temple was destroyed in Jerusalem, the same judgmental and destructive attitudes existed. It was so commonplace that the Rabbis link the destruction of the Temple to this very sin. The Babylonian Talmud (Yoma 9b) explains the reason for the destruction of the Temple as sinat chinam (baseless hatred).
Originally published on eJewishPhilanthropy.com
While we would like to believe that the entire Jewish community attends services at the synagogue for the High Holidays, we know that this is not the case. There are actually a diminishing number of people who attend High Holiday services. While former generations may have felt obligated to attend for a variety of reasons, there are many barriers that now prevent people from attending. Moreover, people just don’t feel addressed by what may be taking place in the synagogue. For some, the cost of High Holiday tickets is high and they don’t see the cost benefit. For others, they simply resent the “pay to pray” model of many North American synagogues. Still others can’t seem to traverse the literacy barrier that is at an all-time high during the High Holidays. Services are long and the liturgy is generally unfamiliar.
Nevertheless, the High Holidays contain the potential within them for effective outreach to those on the periphery of the Jewish community, and those who have been historically disenfranchised. Outside of the organized Jewish community, Jews are still thinking about the being Jewish this time of year. And they may still be seeking an experience for the High Holidays, even if it is not the traditional model that is in place in the synagogue. They may want to express their Jewish identity. They may want to express remorse over the wrong doings of the past year. They may want to find a spiritual experience through a portal-of-entry before they are willing to take a deeper plunge, even if they are never ready to do so.
Even among those who do attend High Holiday services, only a small percentage of those who participate also attend the tashlikh ritual of casting away one’s sins on Rosh Hashanah. This has always seemed to me to be a disconnect, especially given the simple and profound nature of tashlikh. I always thought that tashlikh could actually attract more people than would the traditional model of High Holiday worship because of the former’s brevity and simplicity. (more…)
B., a Christian woman from Northern Chicago who is raising Jewish children happened upon Big Tent Judaism Coordinator for Chicago Alyssa Latala’s booth at a local baby expo in the fall. She connected with Alyssa, who offered her various local opportunities to engage with the Jewish community. She has now participated in The Mothers Circle – Big Tent Judaism’s program for women of other background raising Jewish children – at a local synagogue.
D., a man who has just moved into the Houston community with his wife and young child, stumbled upon Elise Passy when she was implementing Passover in the Matzah Aisle earlier this spring. After meeting him for coffee, Elise connected him with a local community seder, which he gladly attended.
C. first met Caren Heller in November when she was grocery shopping with her son at a Shoprite store in Edison, NJ. She approached Caren’s olive oil tasting station as part of Eight Days of Oil, and learned about the upcoming holiday of Hanukkah. She gladly participated in Caren’s Passover in the Matzah Aisle a few months later. Caren will keep in touch with her to offer additional engagement opportunities.
These are only three examples of 1,427 individuals who, in 2013, became more deeply engaged in Jewish life as a result of Big Tent Judaism’s Public Space JudaismSM programs. Our field staff are dedicated to the task of more deeply engaging in Jewish life those who (for a variety of reasons) have not yet had the opportunity to fully participate in their local Jewish community. They are one arm of our Big Tent Judaism “outreach corps,” which includes our Big Tent Judaism Professional Affiliates (Jewish communal professionals trained in our outreach best practices) and Big Tent Judaism Ambassadors (Jewish volunteer leaders advocating for outreach and inclusion in their communities). Put together, they are making a significant impact in the Jewish community. In brief, Public Space Judaism is about meeting less-engaged individuals where they are, outside the walls of Jewish institutions, and offering them meaningful avenues to become more deeply engaged. It’s a method that we have been promoting for a decade now, and which has been widely adopted by many throughout the organized Jewish community. In this post I want to, rather, take a closer look at the way in which reaching less-engaged individuals outside the walls of Jewish institutions can, with the application of some tested best practices, lead individuals into deeper Jewish engagement.
This year, Big Tent Judaism has been working in partnership with UJA-Federation of New York to open the tent of Jewish communities in the areas of Northern Westchester County, NY and the river towns. The first step was an initial assessment of the community, where Big Tent Judaism staff took an in-depth look at how institutions were welcoming newcomers via phone, email, and online. Now that the results of our study have been shared with the community, the Big Tent Judaism Initiative in Westchester is gearing up to enter Phase II.
In the past two months since I’ve joined the Big Tent Judaism staff, I’ve seen the Westchester community come alive around the idea of building a more inclusive Jewish community. From conversations with professionals and volunteers to the eager attendees at Eva Stern’s and Rabbi Kerry Olitzky’s presentations, the enthusiasm for change has been palpable. Jewish organizations in northern Westchester and the river towns are committed to making their communities more welcoming. They are ready to move forward by taking the tools Big Tent Judaism offers to make this change a reality.
This enthusiasm has been most noticeable in the many conversations I’ve had with Jewish communal professionals in Westchester. As we have begun recruiting for our Westchester cohort of Big Tent Judaism Professional Affiliates (Big Tent Judaism’s professional training program), I’ve heard from many professionals about how they’re looking to open their tents. They’re looking outward to consider whom they want to engage, like families with young children or LGBTQ individuals, and they’re looking inward to figure out the best way to reach them. The community is genuinely dedicated to making northern Westchester a more welcoming place for less-engaged Jews, such as those who are married to spouses or partners of another religious background, those with special needs, and those who don’t participate regularly in the Jewish community.
Sunday, September 7th is National Grandparents Day. Grandparents Day was founded in 1978 with three purposes: 1) To honor grandparents; 2) To give grandparents an opportunity to show love for their children’s children; and 3) To help children become aware of the strength, information, and guidance older people can offer.
To celebrate Grandparents Day, Big Tent Judaism is hosting National Grandparents Circle Salon Weekend September 6th and 7th. Grandparents Circle Salons bring Jewish grandparents whose adult children have intermarried together in a peer-led setting to learn about strategies for nurturing their grandchildren’s Jewish identity and creating positive relationships with their adult children. Salons are part of Big Tent Judaism’s Grandparents Circle, for Jewish grandparents whose adult children have intermarried. By participating in National Grandparents Circle Salon Weekend, those who take part will be part of a broader network of grandparents coming together the weekend of Grandparents Day to supporting the Jewish future.
As we have begun to prepare for Grandparents Circle Salon Weekend here at Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute, we’ve started to reach out to communities nationwide to find grandparents to participate. In doing so, we’ve come across an interesting challenge—just where exactly are grandparents in the first place?
Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute is proud to announce that Big Tent Judaism Coordinator for Chicago Alyssa Latala has been named as one of Oy!Chicago’s “36 Under 36,” a list of young movers and shakers in the Chicago Jewish Community.
According to a press release from the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, the parent organization of Oy!Chicago:
[T]he list shines a spotlight on the faces of Chicago’s Jewish future and recognizes the amazing contributions of this generation. The young professionals featured are noted for making a difference through their work, giving back in their free time, and earning notoriety in the Jewish community and beyond.
“We were overwhelmed by both the volume and exceptionally high quality of the nominations this year,” said Stefanie Pervos Bregman, Founding Editor and Blogger-in-Chief for Oy!Chicago. “If this list is any indication, the future of Chicago’s Jewish community is incredibly bright.”
The Oy!Chicago website features a profile of each of the 36 young leaders, sharing their background, passions, and even celebrity Dopplegangers. The winners will be celebrated at an event on August 7th called “WYLD in Paris.” For more information, please click here. Below is a bit of Alyssa’s profile.
The following blog originally appeared in MyJewishLearning’s “Southern & Jewish” blog on July 1, 2014. Click here to view the original post.
Usually we think of small, southern communities as being at least a beat behind their larger counterparts, especially when they have small—even “diminishing”—Jewish populations. Many of these Jewish communities were once thriving, but they have followed the American trend of younger generations abandoning smaller hometowns for larger urban centers.
These communities may be demographically small, but they should be considered ideologically large in their response to those who have intermarried.
How these communities respond should be instructive to other communities, regardless of size or region. It is true that the intermarriage rate—particularly among non-Orthodox Jews—is among the highest in these communities. Even if there is debate among demographers as to the exact rate of intermarriage, what is most important to consider is the trend lines. That’s why the well-practiced response of these communities is so important at a time when the rest of the North American community has finally transcended the question of “Should we reach out to those who have intermarried?” and moved to “How should we reach out to those who have intermarried?”
In a word, the only response of these smaller Southern communities has always been the same: welcome.
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