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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.
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.
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?
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