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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.
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the Jewish community around, and walk around with assumptions about what a Jewish family “looks like” that are simply outdated.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.
I owe my Jewish identity to the Shining Lights. For most of my childhood, I participated in a Jewish youth singing and dancing group. We wore red mock turtlenecks, black skirts, and silk vests with musical notes on them. We sang songs about Jewish holidays and stories. We performed at Jewish Community Centers, Jewish senior centers, synagogues, and Jewish festivals. We sang solos, showed off our jazz hands, and step-ball-changed our way through the Jewish calendar.
The Shining Lights brought together a bunch of Jewish kids from across the Chicagoland area to perform together. Singing and dancing about Jewish themes excited and connected me in a way that Sunday School and Shabbat services never did. It allowed me to continue participating in the Jewish community when Hebrew school was over, my Bat Mitzvah was behind me, and my homework, part-time job, and after school activities conflicted with confirmation classes. Perhaps most importantly, it introduced me to other people who were like me. Performing with the Shining Lights was my “spark moment,” that activity or experience that leaves an impression forever.
In a way, the Big Tent Judaism Concierge is in the business of creating spark moments. Public Space Judaism offers a taste of Jewish culture through food, through an activity, or simply through a meaningful conversation. The taste of charoset (chopped fruit and nut salad) at Passover in the Matzah Aisle or the sampling of hamantaschen (traditional holiday pastries) and wine at Purim Pastry Pairing may provide the spark moment that brings Jewish individuals and families one step closer to exploring other Jewish experiences.
“But there is another woman at the table, ebony-skinned and saffron-robed, holding a piece of matzoh. Too finely dressed to be a servant, and fully participating in the Jewish rite, the identity of that African woman in saffron has perplexed the book’s scholars for a century.”
The American Jewish community grows increasingly diverse. It can be easy to look at that diversity and assume that it’s a new phenomenon. However, even in a largely white western European-descended Jewish community, there are signs of the Jewish community’s unexpected history of diversity lurking all around us. For instance, I recently learned of an illustration of a black woman attending a Passover seder (ritual meal) in the Sarajevo Haggadah, a famous haggadah (book used during the seder) written in the 14th century.
I am reading People of the Book, a historical novel by Geraldine Brooks about a contemporary manuscript restoration specialist working on the Sarajevo Haggadah. Weaved throughout that story, Brooks also includes several brief narratives of the journey of the Sarajevo Haggadah from 14th century Spain to 20th century Sarajevo.
Most membership organizations in the organized Jewish community are vulnerable and at risk. The membership model is in decline. Few are willing to admit it. Even fewer are willing to do anything about it. Most of the reluctance is because of what might be described as low risk tolerance. So only a few institutions have been willing to take any significant risks to change the model. It’s important to remember that the membership model was itself an innovation only about 100 years ago. It was risky then to introduce the model. Institutions didn’t know whether people would “join” institutions and make financial commitments to them.
Here is what I advise Jewish Community Centers. Determine the catchment area for your institution. This is admittedly easier for institutions that are community-wide rather than for those whose communities are served by numerous Jewish Community Centers. Determine what entry level membership should look like. Then provide free membership to everyone in the area—automatically as an entitlement. Promote it. Welcome everyone in. Make sure you provide a quality experience for everyone who enters the doors.
You will then be in a position to offer membership upgrades or premium membership, particularly for specific program areas, such as preschool or summer camp or the fitness center—but only once you have demonstrated the value of membership. This approach forces the institution to lead with value rather than cost, an approach that the Jewish community has not been undertaking. It assists in meeting the challenging of getting people inside the institution. Then it’s all up to you—and your institution to deliver on the promises of outreach.
Watch this video.
I know this may seem like a plug for JOI Executive Director Kerry Olitzky’s new book, Playlist Judaism: Making Choices for a Vital Future, and it may serve as such. But, that isn’t my intention.
The rabbi speaking, Rabbi David Paskin, realizes (quite vociferously) that “we got what we asked for!” When we hear the Jewish community lament the decrease in Jewish folks who are active and participatory, we need to remember – we got what we asked for. The Jews of the 1940s and ‘50s wanted to fit in – they didn’t want to be separate. We are finally a full generation of “American Jews.” And that’s how we wanted it.
When we hear people decry the increase of intermarriage, we need to remember – we got what we asked for. Our parents’ parents kept themselves separate because in their day Jews were discriminated against and seen as less than worthy. It wasn’t a good idea to “hang out” with a Jew, let alone marry one. Now other people’s parents want their children to marry us. We aren’t marrying out, as older generations refer to intermarriage, they are marrying in.
In my work as National Coordinator of The Mothers Circle, I have noticed a common thread: these women—not their partners—are often the ones who carry the lion’s share of the responsibility of imbuing their children’s lives with Judaism.
A similar narrative was shared in an interfaith family column on the Jewish parenting blog Kveller. In her article, Lynnette Li-Rappaport, raised in an evangelical Christian home, shares how she brings her longtime love of Old Testament stories to her family, embracing the Jewish tradition of storytelling:
“While my husband, like many of my friends, dreaded going to religious school, my siblings and I listened eagerly as our mother told us of vain and tortured Absalom and mimed him weighing his beautiful hair. Our eyes widened as we learned of Daniel, protected by God in the hungry lions’ den. We played along to a recording of “Elijah,” a children’s musical we found in a box of music my dad, our church’s choir director, received several times a year. We sang the names of each of Jacob’s sons, the 12 tribes of Israel.”
As the youngest son in my family I didn’t have much trouble with getting engaged to someone who isn’t Jewish, since my older brother had already paved the way for me, forcing my parents to come to terms with the idea when he married his Eastern Orthodox wife. Having been intermarried for nine years now and raising two sons, my brother has closed the book on any concerns or arguments that my parents might have had regarding the issue. My parents have long since dealt with their misgivings and are actively encouraging that their grandchildren be raised with strong influences from their Jewish background and are happy with the results. Therefore, when I brought home a girl who wasn’t Jewish, they didn’t blink or put up any resistance; they just asked when I’m going to propose, and when I finally did they were extremely supportive.
However, it wasn’t like this for my brother. For a long time both he and I were always asked “is she Jewish?” If she wasn’t (which for my brother was rare, making this an even bigger revelation when he did get married) there were many follow-up questions: “okay but it’s not that serious right?” “How will you raise the kids?” “What if she’s turns out to be an anti-Semite?” (Apparently secret anti-Semites often marry Jews only to reveal themselves years later—according to my parents at the time.) Once my parents realized that this time it was, in fact, serious, it was made clear that my brother and sister-in-law’s main concern was how to raise their future kids; input from my parents was important, but secondary. My parents accepted that my sister-in-law and her family were indeed not secret anti-Semites, and the conversations turned to how to proceed with the wedding.
As an Israeli living in the United States, I am drawn to news stories about American Israelis. One such story was published recently in the Israeli newspaper Israel Hayom (Israel Today). It describes a new study of American Israelis conducted by the Israeli polling company Midgam (famous for posting Israeli election exit polls). This latest survey was completed by 1,598 American Israelis in 40 states who were on lists of Israeli American organizations such as the Israeli-American Council and the Israeli House. While not necessarily representative of the entire population of American Israelis, it nevertheless cannot be easily dismissed.
This study finds that American Israelis who have lived here longer show higher levels of engagement. For example, they are more likely to attend synagogue and send their children to Jewish day schools. I find this finding surprising. Everything we know about the experience of immigrants to the United States indicates that the longer they live in the U.S., the more enculturated – the more similar to veteran Americans – they become. We also know that the great majority of Jewish Americans is not engaged with the organized Jewish community. The reasonable conclusion is that Israelis who have lived in the U.S. for many years would be less likely than their FOB (fresh-off-boat) compatriots to be affiliated with Jewish institutions. So why is this not the case?
There could be at least two explanations for these surprising findings. First, this seeming rise in engagement could be caused by natural life cycle changes. Most recent arrivals in the U.S. (and this is true not only of Israelis) are young and single. After ten years, however, many have become married with children – a population that, across the board, is more highly engaged and affiliated than singles.
Families are like geodes - those rocks full of crystals. Each member of the family represents its own unique crystal, and when assembled, they form a beautiful stone. Like geodes, families are fragile. Pressure can either bring the crystals closer together and strengthen, or it can create fractures and undermine the integrity of the unit. For my family, the passing of my father-in-law was such an event.
My father-in-law, who we affectionately called “Nonno,” - the Ladino term for Grandfather - was the patriarch of our modern Jewish family. (Ladino is the language of western Sephardim, a mix of Hebrew and Spanish) Born in pre-state Palestine in 1942, my father-in-law had a complex relationship with his heritage, and everyone around him. Diagnosed with stage IIIa lung cancer this past January, Nonno fought and lived bravely. He was meticulous and had an eye for detail. Faced with his mortality, Nonno sought to wrap up the details of life. From the purchase of his final resting place to the details of his burial, Nonno helped to ensure that the bond between his precious crystals would be strengthened when stressed.
I recently indulged in tween fiction and read My Basmati Bat Mitzvah, the story of Tara Feinstein, your average Indian Jewish American middle school girl. The book, written by Paula Freedman, follows Tara in the lead-up to her Bat Mitzvah, as she struggles with friends, boys, parents, and her identity as both an Indian American and a Jewish American.
Tara’s connection to her grandparents figures prominently throughout the novel. Nani and Nanaji, her Indian grandparents, live large in her heart and memory. Her Jewish grandmother, Gran, lives 15 blocks away. In her quest to be “a normal Jewish kid—with a healthy sprinkling of masala [a delicious blend of Indian spices] on top,” Tara doesn’t want to alienate either parts of her family.
Thankfully, both sides of the family, led in spirit or action by the grandparents, are supportive and welcoming. When Tara accidentally damages the beautiful heirloom sari (draped fabric worn by women) that originally belonged to Nani, her Indian grandmother, it is Gran who takes her to the tailor to transform it into a dress. The two sides of Tara’s family come together for both the Diwali (Hindu festival of lights) celebration—with Gran bringing the traditional vat of matzah ball soup—and (spoiler alert!) Tara’s Bat Mitzvah at the end of the book.
Pat Nisenholz has always been a searcher. Her openness, her eagerness to learn, and her desire to make a difference in the lives of others brought her from an early career in interior design to her current position as Early Childhood Family Engagement Educator at the Jewish Community Center (JCC) of Chicago. After completing a degree in Art Therapy through the Barat College Psychology School, Pat furthered her Jewish journey by enrolling in the Melton program for teachers. Through a chance meeting with the Director of the Bernard Weinger JCC while working out at the JCC gym, Pat’s career with the JCC took off.
Pat embodies the JCC mission of bringing Jewish values to life. “My job is to raise awareness,” she says. “I want people to be action-oriented. I don’t want to just talk about being kind, I want us to go out there and show how to be kind. I want to model for my directors and model for my parents.”
Pat’s training as a Big Tent Judaism Professional Affiliate has helped her to refocus and reassess the kinds of experiences provided by the JCC. She is JOI’s first “Jewish Pro You Should Know,” and she answers The Four Questions below.
“Intermarriage” means a lot of things. It can mean a marriage between people of different faiths, different cultures, different races, or even more subtle differences, such as differences within a single religion. (It is common to hear a marriage between a Sephardi [Mediterranean] Jew and an Ashkenazi [Eastern European] Jew referred to as an intermarriage). So then what does intermarriage look like?
An Israeli photographer decided to find out, recently releasing a book of photos entitled Intermarried, and several of her photos were recently featured in the Sunday Review section of The New York Times. To compile her subjects, photographer Yael Ben-Zion, herself intermarried, simply put a call out on a New York parents listserve for couples who consider themselves mixed. The result is a beautiful collection of candid photos with simple captions below—some of which paint a picture of how the couple or individual views themselves, and some of which describe how society around them reacted to their union.
The language we use when talking about inclusion, or to those we wish to include, is delicate. Instead of “non-Jewish mother,” we prefer to say “woman of another background raising Jewish children” (see this recent blog about being a “non”). Instead of “convert,” we prefer to say “Jew-by-choice.” Some phrases and words, however, are much more subtle.
Take for example the following sentences:
“My daughter is raising her children Jewish but her husband is Protestant.”
“My son is dating a Muslim girl, but she’s very nice.”
At first glance, these phrases seem harmless and perhaps even appropriate. The daughter is raising her children Jewish; the son is dating a nice girl. However, the common thread is the use of the conjunction “but,” which gives a decidedly negative flavor to an otherwise innocuous phrase. Many times when I come across phrases like the one above, the speaker or writer has no idea they’ve said something negative. To a trained ear or eye, the negativity is all too apparent, and sometimes that eye is the person about who you are speaking. To say something like what is said above is to say that there is something amiss, something wrong with the person. It’s as if someone were to say “he’s Jewish, but he’s a nice person”—as if Jews aren’t inherently nice.
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