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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.
A hot topic of conversation here in the Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) office is the barrier of language. We often consult with Jewish organizations about language used on their program marketing and websites, identifying the use of Hebrew and Yiddish words or organizational acronyms as potential barriers to participation. But the language barrier goes beyond invitations to programs and events.
Take, for example, The Mothers Circle, a program of education and support for women of other backgrounds raising Jewish children within the context of intermarriage/partnership. The question often arises of why not just say participants are “non-Jewish women” raising Jewish children? It would certainly save space on flyers and Facebook posts, so what’s so bad about being a “non?”
A few weeks ago, I faced this very issue. But this time, I was the “non,” and I didn’t like it.
As someone who not only works with intermarried, but is also immersed in the Brooklyn Jewish community, I was extremely moved by the recent open letter to Hebrew Union College from Rabbi Ellen Lippmann of Kolot Chayeinu of Brooklyn, NY. Published in the Jewish Daily Forward, Rabbi Lippmann urges the seminary, of which she counts herself an alumna, to reconsider their policy of prohibiting admission to rabbinical school candidates in interfaith relationships. Lippmann has been in an interfaith, same-sex relationship for nearly thirty years, during which time she and her partner have raised a daughter in a Jewish home. While Lippmann’s partner feels that conversion is not the right choice for her, she still embraces Jewish traditions, including Shabbat and the counting of the Omer (ritual countdown of the days from Passover to Shavuot).
“We are like the thousands of Jews across America who commit to strongly Jewish lives with their non-Jewish spouses. Interfaith families tell me that having a rabbi who mirrors their relationships makes an enormous difference to being able to commit to Jewish life.”
As inspiring as it was to read such an eloquent and heartfelt expression of inclusion as a core Jewish value, I was extremely disheartened upon scrolling to the bottom of the page, where Rabbi Lippmann’s words were met with a litany of hateful responses. Most of the comments decry intermarriage as sacrilegious, and some even go so far as to denounce the Reform movement altogether as “not Jewish anyway.” What really got to me, though, was seeing the golden calf and even Hitler invoked with careless ignorance. All I kept thinking was, “this is not Jewish.”
A Special Invitation for
Jewish Communal Professionals
& Volunteer Leaders
in Middlesex County
Please join us Monday, May 20th at 3:00 PM for a FREE presentation by JOI Executive Director Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky, How Big Tent Judaism Can Help Grow Your Institution. We will discuss what we can do to help unengaged Jews find their place in the Middlesex Jewish community, and how we can engage newcomers in the Jewish community.
When: Monday, May 20, 2013 3:00-5:00 PM
Where: New Brunswick Free Public Library, 60 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, NJ 08901
Who: Middlesex County Jewish communal professionals and volunteer leaders (please feel free to bring your colleagues, and share this information with others.)
There is no cost, but we ask that you please RSVP so we can provide enough refreshments. To RSVP or for more information, please contact Brenna Kearns at BKearns [at] JOI.org.
To view the full invitation, please click here, and share this invitation with others!
An interesting story in The Jewish Chronicle caught my eye recently. In it, writer Sarah Angrist argues that, when looking at the current state of the North American Jewish community, “bemoaning the decline in synagogue membership, high rates of intermarriage, and our aging population” misses the point. She thinks that Judaism in America is (and has been) extremely successful because Jewish culture is flourishing. She finds that:
Encouraging signs in North America are evident in the proliferation of university Jewish studies programs, the widespread appeal of klezmer music, camps for children and adults, innovative art forms and exhibits, Jewish music performances, film festivals, and the success of the Yiddish Book Center in preserving materials.
I think Angrist is making an important point. While for many, being Jewish and connecting to Judaism takes a primarily religious form, this is not the case for others, and probably not for most North American Jews. On the other hand, Jewish cultural experiences and expressions such as the ones mentioned above are often more accessible to those for whom religion has lost its relevance.
New York cheesecake is thick and dense, just the way I like it. I have never been predisposed to smooth French cheesecakes. But whether New York style or French, cheesecake is a Jewish food. “A Jewish food?” you might ask, “I thought those were limited to bagels, chicken soup, and hummus.” But cheesecake is indeed a Jewish food, made most popular this time of year because of the holiday of Shavuot.
A holiday under the radar for most people, including those in the Jewish community, the holiday of Shavuot celebrates the first harvest, the ripening of the first fruits, and most importantly, the giving of the Torah. The holiday is celebrated by late-night study sessions and meals largely consisting of fruits and dairy, such as cheesecake!
According to Jewish folk tradition, there are several reasons for cheesecake to be associated with Judaism and the holiday most noted for the giving of the Torah on Mt Sinai around the year 1250 BCE. First, since this is when the Torah was given, the rules for eating meat had not yet been given, so the Jews largely stuck to milk products only, or, in other words, a diet rich in dairy. A second reason is that the Torah itself is actually likened to milk in the phrase “milk and honey” (Song of Songs 4:11), as is the journey to the land of Israel (which “flows with milk and honey” Exodus 3:8-17). Between the references to milk and the lack of Kosher meat laws, dairy played a very important role in the early diets of the Jewish people, a tradition that carries on today.
Sometimes it is tough to find a spiritual connection to Judaism, particularly through a holiday as obscure as Shavuot. And sitting in the synagogue doesn’t always do it for me. But cheesecake and God—that is something that I could get my mind (or should I say mouth) around.
Today we are seeing a growing number of Jews choosing to not affiliate with the Jewish community, yet still identifying as Jewish. Whereas in the past, community and shared experiences have defined what it means to be Jewish, Jews today seem to be shying away from many communal practices, such as synagogue affiliation and Jewish day school education, and finding their “Jewishness” elsewhere.
An article that was recently published on Slate.com entitled “The Chosen Few” makes an interesting argument for returning to more traditional routes of Jewish connection: Jewish day school education leads to Jewish affiliation. The article introduces the idea that while in the past Jews sent their children to Jewish day schools because other education was not available or because it was easier to not be exposed to the general public, now, especially in America, the access to public education coupled with the lack of discrimination towards Jews has made the practice obsolete for the sake of education alone. However, since Jewish day school education is seen as one of the main vehicles for connecting to the Jewish community, are lower affiliation rates directly related to less Jewish children attending Jewish day schools? Maybe, but it doesn’t mean people feel any less Jewish.
Author Steven Weiss writes that “a majority of American Jews today are unaffiliated with the synagogues the Pharisaic rabbis emphasized, and yet 79 percent report feeling ‘very positive’ about being Jewish.” This then begs the question: why choose Jewish day school?
I just returned from Costa Rica, an exciting country, known especially for its monkeys. Of course, it is also known for its coffee, pineapple, beaches, rain forests, and zip line adventure parks, among other things. Perhaps it is my sensitivity to the notion of “welcoming,” but no one mentioned that particular aspect of the country and its inhabitants before we prepared for our trip. Yet the “ministry of welcoming” as it is sometimes called in other contexts was apparent everywhere we went. Perhaps it is because a country of 4.5 million citizens understands that it is dependent on a tourist trade that welcomes 6 million people each year.
So I thought to myself, why doesn’t the organized American Jewish community of 2 million understand its dependency (perhaps its future) on the 4 million American Jews (and the many more people who are not Jewish but who live in Jewish households) who are not part of the organized Jewish community? Perhaps if we could extend the Costa Rican culture of welcoming into the culture of the American Jewish community, we might extend our “tourist trade,” as well. The difference, however, is that we must not just welcome people to visit, but to stay.
In our latest edition of The Mothers Circle-Shalom Sesame holiday resource guide, we take a look at the upcoming holiday of Shavuot, which begins at sundown on Tuesday May 14th, and ends at sundown on Thursday May 16th.
Shavuot is a spring holiday that celebrates the first harvest, the ripening of the first fruits, and most importantly, the giving of the Torah. The holiday can offer a wonderful entry point into Jewish life. Entry points, in fact, are at the very heart of this holiday, particularly because of its connection to the Book of Ruth, which is traditionally read on Shavuot during late-night (or even all night!) study sessions. Shavuot is also known for the delicious foods eaten, including blintzes and cheesecake.
For more about this unique holiday, including activities, video and discussion questions, and more, click here to download the free Shavuot resource guide. And please feel free to share!
Also, be sure to visit The Mothers Circle Facebook page to share how you will be celebrating Shavuot with your family, by leaving us a comment on the post about this fun guide. You can even share photos of the tzedakah boxes you make!
We here at Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) believe in unequivocally welcoming all Jews and their loved ones into the Jewish community. We know how difficult it can be for some couples to reconcile their different religious backgrounds with their love for each other. JOI has programs like The Mothers Circle, which is designed to support women of other backgrounds raise Jewish children, as well as others that help newcomers navigate the at-times murky waters of the Jewish community. But we shouldn’t make the assumption that every “interfaith” couple is going to have religious issues. Religion is an important question to discuss if it’s important to you, but we as a Jewish community have to recognize that it may simply not be that important to everyone.
I recently came across an op-ed entitled “Interfaith Marriage: A Mixed Blessing” by journalist Naomi Schaefer Riley. Schaefer Riley, who identifies as “a conservative Jew married to a former Jehovah’s Witness,” paints a decidedly tepid portrait of intermarriage, which she expands upon in an upcoming book. After describing the unintended consequences of interfaith marriage for both society and the individual, she writes that “remarkably, less than half of the interfaith couples in my survey said they’d discussed, before marrying, what faith they planned to raise their kids in.”
In addition to my work here at JOI, I freelance as a bar/bat mitzvah tutor in Park Slope, a quaint but trendy, family-oriented neighborhood in Brooklyn, NY. I’ll never forget the first time I walked up the subway stairs at 7th Avenue and got my first taste of “The Slope,” as I affectionately call it; I felt like I had found Sesame Street! This is the kind of neighborhood where you will literally find children on stoops selling lemonade for 25 cents (the price might actually be a bit higher…I mean, it is New York). The community is incredibly diverse, and incredibly warm.
If I were to take a picture of myself with all of my tutees, it would be the perfect microcosm of the diverse landscape of the Jewish community about which we work to raise awareness here at Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute. My students are Chinese, Caucasian, biracial, adopted…some have one Jewish parent, some have two, some have same-sex parents. They are incredibly diverse both in background and personality, and each has been profoundly special to work with. I feel immensely blessed that I have the privilege of being their mentor on this part of the path to Jewish adulthood, one that is inherently high-pressure and which requires a lot of preparation. It is a huge responsibility, and is arguably the most fulfilling role I have ever had.
Alyssa Latala is JOI’s new Big Tent Judaism Coordinator in Chicago. She partners with the Chicago Jewish community to create and implement low barrier, welcoming programs that serve all those who might find interest and meaning in Jewish life regardless of affiliation or family structure. We are excited to add her voice to the JOI.org blog. Meet Alyssa here.
As is the case whenever one gets a new job, it’s exciting to share the new role with friends and family. In my case, as the newest Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) staff member, it has been an eye-opening experience that has inspired me further to do the work that we do.
The conversation that hit home for me the most took place with a friend who was unfamiliar with JOI. Upon learning about the mission and goals of the organization, she shared a story about a close friend who came to her for guidance after being rejected by a potential employer. The employer, a Jewish organization she had been connected to since childhood, told her she was unfit for the position because of her non-Jewish husband.
The largest challenge I face as a Jew dating someone of another religious background is navigating the relationship between my girlfriend and my family. Having her meet my parents and gain their approval seems like the main obstacle; however, it is only the first step in a long process. As an immigrant who was raised in an area with a large Russian-Jewish presence, when I refer to my family, I’m not just talking about my mom and dad. What I’m really talking about is the large community of people around me, which includes aunts; uncles; cousins; distant relatives which I call my aunts, uncles, and cousins; close friends of the family; their distant relatives, in-laws, and their distant relatives; and so on. If you have a big “family,” this can sometimes include up to a third of your local Russian-Jewish community.
Having gained the approval of my parents some time ago, my girlfriend, Camilla, was now ready to meet other members of my “family.” This can be rather intimidating under any circumstance, but coming into a community that can be very closed off to outsiders can make the task even more difficult. Not only would she have to impress them as a person, she would have to overcome possible prejudices, not being a Russian or a Jew.
JOI Board Member Rachel Cohen Gerrol has been named to the Forbes 100 Most Powerful Women’s List for 2013, and will take part in the 2013 Forbes Women’s Summit in May. The Forbes Women’s Summit “is a transformational and multigenerational meeting of 200 powerful minds: CEOs, entrepreneurs, philanthropists, innovators, disruptors, educators, heads of foundations and NGOs, artists, and politicians.”
Featuring women from Forbes Most Powerful Women, 30 Under 30 and Celebrity 100, the Summit will coincide with the 10th anniversary of the Most Powerful Women issue and will launch a yearlong Forbes editorial initiative that taps into the size, influence and scope of Forbes’ multiple platforms.
The list of participants includes such influential figures as Arianna Huffington and Gayle King.
I’ve recently returned from a long-awaited vacation in Israel, where I had the pleasure of celebrating the Passover seder (ritual meal) at an Upper Galilee kibbutz (communal settlement) with my immediate family and… five hundred other kibbutz members, affiliates, and invitees. The cafeteria-style dining hall was filled with long tables arranged around a central stage on which local talent sang, recited, and performed segments of the Hagaddah (the text traditionally read on Passover, retelling the story of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt). The kibbutz first graders sang the Four Questions with the entire crowd responding with the refrain. Four child-and-parent pairs, dressed in appropriate costumes, acted out the story of the Four Children.
Aside from the size of the event, a sharp-eyed North American Jewish observer would have noticed some other differences between this celebration and a traditional seder. For one, there was virtually no mention of God. The kibbutz hagaddah - now close to a century in existence - removes God from the text and enhances it with content thought to be more relevant to life in Israel, such as songs about spring, renewal, and rebirth. Other sections considered problematic (such as the plea to “pour Your wrath on the nations who do not know You”) were replaced with statements about hope for peace. All during the week of Passover, the communal dining hall serves matzah AND bread. This bread is bought and frozen before the holiday (buying bread during Passover in Israel is possible, but entails driving the extra mile or two to the nearest Arab village. Freezing is easier). I grew up celebrating Passover in this way, so I greatly enjoyed the opportunity to come back to it, even more so now that I could share it with my young son.
It is unfortunate but true that a lot of the data we have on the American Jewish community comes from a National Jewish Population Study that was conducted more than a decade ago. As a consequence, much of the decisions made by communities and funders today are based on outdated information.
This is all about to change. A new survey was launched last week by Dr. David Elcott (The Henry and Marilyn Taub Professor of Practice in Public Service and Leadership at NYU’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service) and Stuart Himmelfarb (CEO and, with Dr. Elcott, co-founder of B3/The Jewish Boomer Platform, an initiative dedicated to engaging – or re-engaging – Boomers in Jewish life) that explores the attitudes, activities, plans, priorities, and beliefs of Jewish adults 18 and over.
My husband and I were in Paris recently to celebrate our 20th anniversary. As we walked around the city, we noticed how welcoming the churches were, especially in comparison to the locked doors at the synagogues. Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, JOI’s Executive Director, explained to me that, unlike a church, the synagogue was not meant to be the center of religious life – that the home (for rituals) and the beit midrash (for study) held that place. So when Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute Board Member, Rachel Cohen Gerrol, posted this article on Facebook, I thought – well, when the synagogue doors are open, we should be as welcoming as possible.
The article brings to light, once again, that we need a different model for engagement in the Jewish community. Affiliation, the tried and tired membership model, is not appealing. And it’s not just the millenials who don’t find it appealing – it isn’t appealing to young families who can’t afford dues and day care or day school fees, or to baby boomers who, after their children are Bar/Bat Mitzvah’d are not interesting in paying what amounts to a facilities fee for a building they don’t need to feel Jewish or practice their Judaism.
While my native tongue is English, I actually grew up in the Jewish language of obligation. Whenever I confronted a Jewish institution, organization, or fund-raising campaign, I was told of my obligations as a Jew. As a child, I was given a list of 613 of them—rather overwhelming to be sure. The only benefit I was taught about being Jewish, however, was that I was part of a chosen people. My Christian friends were taught by their ministers and priests, “if you give me your life, I will give you eternal life.” I always thought that was a pretty good deal and I wondered what my childhood rabbi was offering in its place beyond being part of the chosen people.
There are those who believe that the Jewish language of obligation is counter-cultural. They argue that Judaism becomes the antidote to the narcissistic Facebook culture in which my world is insinuated into the lives of everyone else (through the newsfeed, for example). Further, those who advocate a language of obligation contend that obligations provide their own benefit, following the adage, “the more you give, the more you receive.”
On my recent travels to Jewish communities to talk about bringing Big Tent Judaism initiatives to bear, I was struck, yet again, by how open and engaging people think their institutions are. In reality, they are inadvertently putting up barriers to participation.
Synagogues that don’t actively welcome those on the periphery – Jews by Choice, intermarried Jews, LGBTIQ Jews, Jews of Color, etc. – will continue to find it hard to attract new members. And I don’t mean just members from the traditionally marginalized communities listed above. Why would I, a straight-married-to-another-Jew-family-oriented-person, want to join a synagogue where my best friend and his partner don’t feel welcome? It isn’t about being tolerant. It is about creating policies out of a need, and more importantly a desire, to be engaging, inclusive, and welcoming.
I have written before about my struggles with characterizing my Jewish practice. Having done extensive research on the “millennial” generation of which I am a part, I have come to understand the nuances of living in a world in which options and choice are valued above all else, and how my religious practice plays into this, or plays against it.
For this reason, I was taken by a recent article in Tablet magazine, in which self-proclaimed “Jewish atheist” Jonathan Zimmerman chronicles his experience attending a Humanistic synagogue. Humanistic Judaism identifies with the history and traditions of Jewish culture independent of a higher power. That is, the focus is on “[celebrating] the centrality of human reason and responsibility from a uniquely Jewish perspective.” This would objectively seem like a perfect fit for Zimmerman, and yet, for him, the experience was totally uncomfortable, even laughable…not in and of itself, but when compared to formative prayer experiences from his Conservative Jewish upbringing.
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