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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.
Every aspect of the Passover seder is infused with meaning, connecting Jews across the world in a celebration of liberation. One such event takes place toward the end of the seder, when we open the door for Elijah the Prophet, hoping that he will grace the seder with his presence and herald the arrival of the Messiah. At Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI), we view an inclusive community that welcomes everyone who would cast their lot with the Jewish people as a positive step toward that messianic age.
JOI created “Welcoming Elijah the Prophet,” a Passover haggadah supplement that promotes the message of LGBT inclusion and supporting LGBT interfaith families as valued members of the Jewish community. This haggadah supplement emerges from the LGBT Interfaith Parents Circle, our program for LGBT interfaith couples who are raising or considering raising Jewish children. The LGBT Interfaith Parents Circle is currently being piloted in Los Angeles, and we hope to expand the program over the coming years.
As you embark on your Passover celebrations, we encourage you to share this supplement with the people gathered around your seder table, as well as anyone else who may benefit from this resource.
The Passover seder, as one of the most widely observed Jewish rituals, has long been a place to acknowledge the most vital issues and questions of the day. As you make plans to include the values of Big Tent Judaism in Passover this year, we hope you will consider using the attached haggadah supplement, “What Does the Fifth Child Ask?”
Many different causes have suggested adding a fifth child to the iconic Four as a way to bring contemporary issues facing particular populations into the haggadah, such as the Soviet Jewry movement and the “child of the Holocaust.”
In this case, we suggest using, “What Does the Fifth Child Ask?” as an exploration of the questions and challenges faced by a hypothetical fifth child: the child of intermarriage, including a reading and some suggested discussion questions.
No matter who sits down around your seder table this year, we hope you will share this important conversation with them.
As children, we learn the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. The story is about finding things that are “just right.” Let us forget the premise that she has broken into the bears’ home (that is a discussion for another time). Each time Goldilocks goes to taste, to sit, or to sleep, she is challenged by how things are not quite right. It is the porridge, the chair, and the bed of the bear that is most like herself that she finds just right. Would Goldilocks the twenty something make the same choices? What about Goldilocks the mother? The empty nester? The senior?
Each of us experiences our Judaism through the prism of the here and now. What inspires us today may have seemed irrelevant before. Sometimes rituals or prayers take on different meaning based on challenges we are facing or successes we have had. The beauty of the Jewish tradition is that it has many different access points. The tradition is available to us regardless of our background or prior knowledge. Who we are or who we wish to be helps us to experience Judaism in a usable way. We do not have to engage the same way as we did before or in a way we will want to in the future.
It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. So starts A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. And so starts this tale of two synagogues.
Dickens depicts the French peasantry demoralized by the French aristocracy leading up to the revolution, and the corresponding brutality of those same revolutionaries toward the former aristocrats.
My tale isn’t as dramatic, but it reminded me of A Tale of Two Cities just the same.
One Friday night in February, a woman went to a Reform synagogue in a large US metropolitan suburb; she took her biracial child with her to check out the local scene. Everyone was so nice! The membership director introduced herself right away and invited her back the next week. The rabbi was warm and welcoming, and the woman and her daughter really felt embraced. They were invited back for family Shabbat the following week.
Rabbi Eli L. Garfinkel was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in 1999. Since ordination, he has served as an assistant rabbi in Toronto and Cincinnati. In 2005, he became the spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Somerset, New Jersey, where he has started an annual Jewish film festival, organized communal Passover seders, and taught popular adult education courses. In November 2013, Rabbi Garfinkel also became a Big Tent Judaism Professional Affiliate, working with JOI’s Big Tent Judaism Concierge for Middlesex County Caren Heller to open the tent of the Middlesex County Jewish community.
He is the author of three books that are used throughout the Ramah network of Jewish summer camps: Mikraot Ramah, a commentary on the summertime Torah portions, Dim’ot Ramah, a commentary on Lamentations that is read on the fast day of Tisha b’Av, and a commentary for younger campers entitled Torat Ramah. He is also the developer of several apps for the iPhone and iPad, including two that help users how to read Torah and Haftarah readings. Rabbi Garfinkel lives in Somerset, New Jersey, with his wife, Naomi Lasky, and their twins, Sari and Josh.
This piece was originally featured in The New Jersey Jewish News on March, 12, 2014. To read it, please click here.
With the arrival and maturation of my generation, the Millennials, the question “Who is a Jew?” is rather passe. Forget the Jewish legal dimensions to this endlessly debatable topic. Forget all the moralizing arguments over the issue. Forget the demographically induced paranoia, the post-Holocaust hand-wringing, the Israeli legal maneuvering (not to mention the pandering that comes with it), and the denominational infighting. And — for heaven’s sake! —forget the Pew study.
The fact is that “Who is a Jew?” is the wrong question. To maintain our relevance — to regain it, really — the question we must ask today is “Why be Jewish?”
The problem with the who-is-a-Jew question is the binary premise from which it springs: that there is an “us” and a “them.” (Worse, perhaps, is the accompanying hope that we will one day delineate a set of criteria that define who is an “us” and who is a “them.”) The premise itself is as boring and potentially harmful as the question it gives rise to. It has infiltrated our national debate in a variety of guises: Who is affiliated and who is unaffiliated? Who is an insider and who is an outsider? Who is a member and who is a non-member? Who is inmarried and who is intermarried?
And, of utmost importance in the case of Millennials: Are your parents both Jewish? For 48 percent of us, the answer is no.
The debate over the effects of intermarriage on the future of the American Jewish community has frequently returned to one question: does outreach to the intermarried work? Most in the organized Jewish community would agree that the future we want is one where our ranks are numerous, Jewish life is vibrant, and Jewish institutions are valued for the purpose they serve. Many also believe that reaching out to intermarried couples, embracing them warmly, and welcoming them into our folds would result in larger, more vibrant Jewish communities. But does it?
What do we really know about the effects of outreach to the intermarried? To date, the evidence we have has been lacking. Most of what we know about the Jewish engagement of intermarried families comes from large, general population studies such as the National Jewish Population Study and the more recent study by the Pew Research Center. While both are obviously extremely valuable in understanding overall patterns of Jewish engagement, we have little data on the effects of specific programmatic interventions. What are the best ways to support intermarried families and encourage their participation in Jewish life? And what are the results we can reasonably expect? The latest study by Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) provides some answers.
Over the past decade, JOI has been implementing The Mothers Circle – one of our flagship programs which serves mothers of other religious backgrounds raising Jewish children in the context of an intermarriage/interpartnership. The program combines basic Jewish education with exposure to Jewish community resource and a supportive network of other women in a similar situation. From graduates of the program, we hear that creating this warm and nonjudgmental space in which to explore the various challenges of raising children in a religion they are unfamiliar with was the most impactful element of this program.
To date, The Mothers Circle has been offered in over 150 communities across North America and served over 2,100 mothers. What happens to these mothers after they graduate from The Mothers Circle? More specifically, to what extent has The Mothers Circle helped them take the journey toward greater Jewish engagement, making Jewish homes, and raising Jewish children? To answer these questions, JOI launched a survey this past October to 775 mothers who have taken the course between one and seven years ago; we collected 148 complete responses.
This is for synagogue and Jewish Community Center staff members and volunteer leaders.
While the High Holidays present us with an opportunity to greet large numbers of people in the synagogue, the Purim festival presents us with a prime program for reaching families with young children, especially given the way many—if not most—celebrations are designed as child-centered experiences. In particular, the Purim carnival is very low barrier for folks who might otherwise not cross the threshold of our synagogues and Jewish Community Centers. While it may be too late to plan for this year, here are some of the things to think about—and plan for—as you make review what just took place and make notes of what to do next year.
Did you assign volunteers or staff members to unobtrusively collect contact information (perhaps only names and email addresses for a raffle of a desirable prize)?
Was the space set up to accommodate such a collection? (Controlling the flow of entry traffic allows for such a collection to take place.)
Were there greeters on hand to welcome newcomers and guide them throughout the day? (Newcomers want to feel welcomed. Weather-permitting, the welcome should begin in the parking lot and at least at the front door rather than at the entry to the event space.)
Was your front line staff trained to greet people and welcome them in anticipation of the event? (Often we encounter entry-level personnel more often than everyone else and they are often not included in such training.)
Did you develop any plans for follow-up and follow-through with those who attended who were previously not part of your community? (Avoid the inclination to do a “data dump” so that attendees get general mailings rather than targeted mailings that include programs in which they may be specifically interested.)
Did you plan a subsequent low-barrier, kid-friendly program to which attendees could be invited (such as for the upcoming Passover holiday)? (You have an opportunity to invite people to similar events once they have taken the risk and crossed your threshold.)
With Passover just around the corner, are you planning an event for your community that could have the practices above applied? Contact Amanda for ideas and tips on how to make every event an outreach event.
In a recent Kveller article titled “Can a Christian Mother Raise a Jewish Child? Yes, but It’s Complicated,” the Reverend Eleanor Harrison Bregman wrote about an experience her daughter had at school:
During a recent parent-teacher conference, I learned that my 8-year-old daughter Sophia was asked by a classmate at her Jewish day school, “So your dad is Jewish and your mom isn’t?” Sophia responded, “Yes.” The other child said, “You know if your mom’s not Jewish, then you aren’t either.” According to a teacher who overheard this conversation, Sophia responded, “It’s complicated,” and walked away.
What really cuts to the bone is that Bregman, an ordained minister who serves as a Protestant chaplain at Jewish Home Lifecare in New York City, is married to a Jewish man and raising Jewish children. Bregman is going above and beyond to provide her children with Jewish identities steeped in education, active synagogue life, and Jewish holidays. Her children even underwent Orthodox conversions, which should mean that their Jewish identity would not be brought into question, because some denominations of Judaism define the child’s Jewish identity by the birth mother’s religion, or matrilineal descent. Her family represents the textbook definition of an engaged Jewish household, even falling into the minority of families who send their children to Jewish day schools. The organized Jewish community dreams of having families like the Bregmans.
So your synagogue or JCC or other local Jewish organization wants to engage more families with young kids. Purim looks like an easy opportunity, right? It is easy to assume that Purim is a low-barrier holiday: It’s a fun holiday. There’s the silly spiel, a Purim carnival, kids get to dress—and perhaps adults too. Yes, for these reasons and others, it is low-barrier—but only for those who already walk through our doors on a regular basis.
Unfortunately, if we fail to recognize the basic barriers inherent in all Jewish holidays and other Jewish communal events, Purim will remain just as inaccessible as any other Jewish holiday to the unaffiliated—and the holiday’s great potential to reach newcomers will remain untapped. If we don’t take steps to make Purim more accessible to more people, we will be left scratching our heads for yet another year, wondering why our Purim programming didn’t attract more newcomers.
Consider one of the most common Purim events: the Purim carnival. Surely, a carnival is kid-friendly bait for families with young children, right? If marketed, framed, and staged appropriately, it can be.
Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) seeks to serve all populations marginalized from the organized Jewish community. We now increasingly recognize that negative attitudes toward Jews who partner with members of other faiths are not limited to humans. According to the recent Moo study, at least 72% of Jewish pets (defined as pets with at least one Jewish owner) say that the religion is of “Little” or “No” significance to them when choosing mates (the other 18% were either too barky to understand over the phone, or were out for a walk).
To serve this emerging need, JOI has launched The Howlers Circle, a program for quadrupeds of other backgrounds raising Jewish offspring, and Promoting Pet Pluralism – a program for Jewish owners of inter-mating pets.
“My puppy has been the love of my life,” says Ms. Golden, a recent graduate. She’s been raising her pet, a Golden Retriever, in what she calls “a warm Jewish home. This is why I was stunned when six month ago she brought home a Big Black Labrador. I mean, can their puppies be truly considered Jewish? And how will they be welcomed at my shul [synagogue]? I was dumbstruck.” Luckily, Golden came across an ad for Promoting Pet Pluralism at her local vet. “This program completely changed my life,” she said. She now has at her disposal real-life, hands-on skills that allow her to accept and welcome her pet’s quickly growing lineage.
It can be difficult to look in the mirror, and often we Jewish communal professionals are so busy that we legitimately don’t have time to do so. But what happens is that the world around us changes, and we become complacent—so much so that we forget that not everyone knows what a chavurah (fellowship group) is, or that Shabbat services are free, or that when answering the phone at our institutions, the person on the other line may need some assistance in articulating the questions they are really trying to ask. We can lose sight of the increasing diversity of the Jewish community around, and walk around with assumptions about what a Jewish family “looks like” that are simply outdated.
JOI’s environmental outreach scans help busy, over-programmed Jewish communal professionals and lay leaders to look into that (sometimes scary) mirror, but we don’t just stop there. We show the community where they are succeeding and where there is room for improvement, and then we help them open their tent and ensure that all four flaps are open, just like Abraham and Sarah’s.
On Monday evening, March 10th at the Rosenthal Jewish Community Center in Pleasantville, NY, we will be presenting our findings to the Jewish community of Northern Westchester and the River Towns, which will serve as the kick-off to our Big Tent Judaism Initiative for this region. The presentation, made possible by a generous grant from UJA-Federation of New York, will explain the process by which we scanned each institution, share our overall findings, and offer general recommendations to the community. This particular scan focused on the needs of interfaith couples and their families.
I believe in what I like to call institutional Darwinism. In other words, only the fittest Jewish communal institutions will survive this period of transition, the name I have given this period of American Jewish history. We all know which institutions are at risk, which have outlived their original raison d’etre and been unable to reimagine themselves. Consider the Jewish hospital as a prime example. It served two major purposes: to provide care for individual Jews, especially when they were refused care by other hospitals; and it provided a place for Jewish physicians to serve their internships and residencies. Neither of these are relevant any longer and so Jewish hospitals are disappearing from the American Jewish institutional landscape.
The Jewish Community Center is at risk, as well. Originally designed to help Americanize immigrants, they thrived during the post World War Two baby boom with its concomitant flight to the suburbs. They sought to reposition themselves around several core businesses, most notably the fitness center. However, in many cases they are unable to compete in the free marketplace.
I recently returned from a JFNA (Jewish Federations of North America) Rabbinic Cabinet Mission to the Republic of Georgia and Israel. It is clear to me that the exciting things going on in the JCC movement are indeed happening outside the United States, particularly in the FSU (Former Soviet Union) and those countries formerly behind the Iron Curtain. As I have seen in other countries during other such missions, the JCC in Tbilisi and Gorre really are Jewish Community Centers, serving the entire Jewish community and offering complementary services to the local synagogues (which seem focused almost entirely on providing worship services). I wonder what we can learn from them?
I just returned from the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, DC. This has become the largest gathering of the organized Jewish community in North America—and includes a large number of people outside of the Jewish community. Without addressing the various positions taken by AIPAC, below I simply address some of the lessons learned which can and should be applied to other institutions and organizations inside the Jewish community.
Audacious hospitality, radical hospitality, proactive hospitality, assertive hospitality, aggressive hospitality. It doesn’t matter what specific term is applied. AIPAC understands what it takes to make conference participants feel at home, welcomed, treasured, and supported. Every step along the way, people reached out and welcomed participants, making sure that they knew where they were going and how to get there.
- Competing in the free market economy. Whereas some institutions think that they are competing inside the Jewish community, AIPAC understands that it competes with many organizations and institutions inside and outside of the Jewish community. Thus, the production quality of its conference is unparalleled—inside and outside of the community.
- Mission driven. The mission of AIPAC is quite clear: security for the state of Israel. There is no evident mission drift anywhere.
- Dispelling myths. There are those who argue that millenials are not interested in the organized Jewish community nor in Israel. The large number of young persons in attendance undermines that myth entirely. It further suggests that when there is a mission with which people resonate, they will support it.
- Big Tent Judaism. Pluralism. Just as AIPAC demonstrates that there can be bipartisan support for the state of Israel in Congress, the AIPAC Policy Conference that demonstrates that pluralism still exists in the American Jewish community in isolated areas, such as support for Israel. There were 600 rabbis in attendance, representing a cross-section of the various streams in American Jewish religious life.
- The marketplace of ideas. The fact that there were people from various religious and ethnic backgrounds presenting and participating at the AIPAC policy conference affirms that various aspects of Jewish civilization—in particular, support for the state of Israel—are attractive to people outside of the Jewish community.
- Walk the talk—Combine deed and creed. The AIPAC Policy Conference combines the best of good pedagogy. It provides the transmission of cognitive knowledge. It touches the heart and lifts the spirit. And then it puts it all into the action of lobbying, demonstrating the power of “We the people.”
- Communication. Before, during, and after the conference, AIPAC regularly communicated with its participants, using the various options that technology has to offer, in addition to providing print materials for those who desire them.
- Rabbinic leadership. While AIPAC might be considered a secular organization, it celebrates rabbinic leadership and provides incentives for rabbis to participate. It understands how to leverage support on the inside of the organized Jewish community.
- Provides multiple points of entry. AIPAC encourages those who have never attended a policy conference as well as those who have attended numerous times in the past. It provides easy access for newcomers—and support through help desks and the like. It also provides more “immersive experiences” for those who are well-schooled.
I read an interesting New York Times article a few weeks ago that has stayed with me. The article chronicles the expansion of food co-ops and their attempts at outreach to the longtime residents of the rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods they’re entering. Many of these co-ops operate on a membership system, where members pay a yearly fee (and often work a few hours a month) for the privilege to shop. Since co-ops are collectively owned, this set-up helps keep prices lower than typical grocery stores.
Setting aside the difficult issues surrounding gentrification, I immediately saw a very interesting parallel to the Jewish community. Some of these co-ops are making concerted efforts to reach out to their neighbors, through booths set up at parks, farmers markets, and other communal spaces; translating signs into the common languages in the neighborhood; and offering discounted memberships for those on public assistance. Similarly, with JOI’s help, many Jewish organizations are now using inclusive language and going outside the walls of their institutions to parks, farmers markets, and other community spaces to reach out to their neighbors through Public Space Judaism programs.
I have just returned from a JFNA (Jewish Federations of North America) Rabbinic Cabinet Mission to the Republic of Georgia and Israel. There are many things to share—from lessons learned—from this trip, but there was one overriding message to which I want to call attention.
When in college, studying the equivalent of Psychology 101, many became familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The lowest level of these needs is personal security (food, clothing, shelter). The other (higher) levels, such as self-actualization, cannot be met unless these basic needs are assured. While many of the programs in the US and Canada are focused on the higher levels of needs, it is clear that the work of the Joint (American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee) and JAFI (the Jewish Agency for Israel) is focused on meeting important basic needs. (Were some of these needs not met, the consequences would be more dire than they already are.) Thus, when faced with the question, “Why be Jewish?” in Tbilisi, the answer is quite obvious.
An elderly Holocaust survivor was asked this question in the local Tbilisi JCC: “Are your neighbors who are not Jewish envious of the special treatment you receive as a member of the Jewish community?” The answer: “Yes, but they understand that is what it means to be a Jew.” When you are in a place like Tblisi, where the answer to the question of “Why be Jewish?” is simple, it is probably because the community around you provides the basic care you need. However, this is not always the case, particularly here in the United States, making the question harder to answer. Yet, while this may not be the answer we need to provide our community in the US, it is quite clear that the question remains the same.
Here at JOI, I am privileged to manage our Big Tent Judaism Professional Affiliates program, through which we help Jewish communal professionals from across North America connect to all those on the periphery of Jewish life in their communities. Almost two years since we launched our pilot cohort, we have built a network of more than 200 Jewish communal professionals committed to outreach and engagement, who share ideas from Winnipeg to Miami to Albuquerque, and many communities in between. Last month saw the beginning of our sixth North American cohort, the largest ever at 23 Professional Affiliates. It has been an exciting time of growth both for the program and for the professionals with whom we work, making our latest cohorts that much more thrilling.
While most of our trainings are offered as webinars, we have also been able to bring in-person training to Professional Affiliates cohorts in select communities through the generous support of foundations and federations in these communities. This deep investment, often coupled with the invaluable support of a Big Tent Judaism Concierge, allows us to together really make an impact in a community.
If we are teaching kids that there is an ima (mom) for Shabbat and an abba (dad) for Shabbat, then what happens when both parents are men or both parents are women or some other combination that isn’t strictly a hetero union?
I didn’t go to Jewish day school and I know that might mean to some readers here that I’m barely Jewish. But I was thinking about Shabbat the other day – we barely-Jews sometimes do that – and I couldn’t figure out a really good reason why the woman lights the candles and the man blesses the wine. And yet, according to this article from Tablet, almost every single religious school classroom is teaching gender-segregated roles.
The public storm over the interfaith relationship between Yair, son of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and his Norwegian girlfriend, Sandar Leikanger, is a perfect example of a lost opportunity. Instead of welcoming the young woman, in Israel of her own choice for studies, into the Jewish community, the response has been one of vocal outrage and insult to the unwitting subject and her Jewish partner.
“If the Jews are a ‘large extended family,’ as we sometimes claim we are, our family just failed spectacularly at the commandment to ‘welcome the stranger,’ writes Paul Golin, JOI’s Associate Executive Director in an Op-Ed piece in this week’s The Jewish Week.
The silver lining in this love story is the teachable moment: Society has changed, will continue to change and protestations are pointless. Instead, if you open your heart and welcome your future sons- and daughter-in law, regardless of background, into your family from the very first meeting, you will help to nurture a relationship of trust and inclusion.
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