Jewish Holidays and Practices
A Guide for Newcomers
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Basic Holiday Info
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Think Pieces and Sermons
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Last night, the Jewish Outreach Institute held its fourth annual tribute evening, and we were proud to honor Adam R. Bronfman for his unwavering commitment to outreach and unity among the Jewish people. We were so happy to be joined by people who care deeply about both Adamâ€™s work, and the work we do on a day to day basis towards embracing intermarried families and unengaged Jews, and encouraging their increased participation in Jewish life. Exactly how best to engage these folks is one of the greatest debates in the Jewish community, and JOI President Alan B. Kane put it best in his introduction last night when he said â€śJOI has become the model and go-to source for the solutions to the challenges everyone is talking about.â€ť
Through our direct service programs like the Mothers Circle, Grandparents Circle and Empowering Ruth, our Public Space JudaismSM events like Passover in the Matzo Aisle and Sunday in the Park with Bagels, and our advocacy coalition Big Tent Judaism, Alan noted that, â€śJOI has always led the way in building innovative programs to help people find their way in the Jewish Community. Jewish individuals and institutions are looking for answers, and increasingly they are finding them at the Jewish Outreach Instituteâ€ť
We wouldnâ€™t be where we are today without the commitment and support of so many members of the Jewish community, too many to list in a single blog entry. Last night was a tremendous success (with some great â€śJew-grassâ€ť country music from Jew-by-Choice Mare Winningham), and we look forward to continuing our work with Adam and creating new relationships with all those who seek to promote a more welcoming and inclusive North American Jewish Community.
Just before the High Holidays, we received a question from a gentleman in Antarctica. He is a doctor working down at the McMurdo Station, about 850 miles north of the South Pole. He wrote to us asking where he could find streaming High Holiday services because there wasnâ€™t a synagogue in sight. We directed him towards the Jewish TV Network, which was streaming both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services. Hopefully the doctor was able to watch and pray â€“ and if he did, he would have joined the nearly 200,000 people from all over the world who took advantage of these free, online services.
Offering High Holiday services for free online proved to be a tremendous success for the Jewish TV Network. In an article in the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles, we are told that people who logged on included â€śJews and non-Jews in small isolated communities across the United States, the bedridden and terminally ill, disaffected young Jews who never go to shul and single mothers who couldn’t afford the cost of High Holy Days tickets.â€ť According to the article, â€śthe response stunned Jay Sanderson, CEO and executive producer of JTN Productions.â€ť He said he received over 400 â€śenthusiastic, at times ecstaticâ€ť emails from the people who watched.
While the congregation that ran the services, Nashuva, is based in Los Angeles, they found a way to bring Judaism to everyone who wanted to participate. And they put it right in their homes. Talk about lowering barriers! Even if a person didnâ€™t have their own high-speed internet connection, chances are they knew someone who did. At the end of the day, when you can boast a Kol Nidre service with around 200,000 participants, itâ€™s safe to say you are doing something right.
Hopefully the service and its accessibility resonated with many of the people who watched, and they will continue to find ways to engage with the Jewish community. But itâ€™s clear from the overwhelming response that there are lots of folks out there who have a desire to become part of the community, and itâ€™s our job to continue to find creative and innovative ways to welcome them in.
The holiday of Sukkot began Monday night, and for many in the Jewish community that means eating and sleeping outdoors. Also called the Festival of Booths, the holiday celebrates the Jewish redemption from Egypt by approximating how the Jews lived as they travelled through the desert for forty years â€“ in small wooden huts called a sukkah. Many families build them in their backyard, and synagogues usually put one up that can be shared by the community.
But not everyone has the time or know-how to build a sukkah. For people living in New Jersey, thatâ€™s where the Lubavitch Center of Essex County comes in. They will, according to an ad in a recent New Jersey Jewish News, help you set up your sukkah (for a very reasonable price). Specifically, the ad says: â€śIs setting up your Sukkah a burden? It doesnâ€™t have to be! Let our experienced professionals do it for you.â€ť
Similarly, the website SukkahBuilders.com boasts a team of experts who can not only help build your sukkah, but install the â€śHandy Awn,â€ť a patented rain cover for your modular sukkah. Based in New York, they want to help lower the barrier to participation by making it easier for people in the community to experience the holiday. As they say on their website: â€śItâ€™s not a mitzvah to break your back!â€ť
Since Sukkot is already underway, those who have put up a sukkah will eventually have to take it down. Both groups above will help with that, too. And for those too tired from cooking and hosting sukkah parties, the United Synagogue Youth chapter in Highland Park, NJ has offered to take down your sukkah while you relax.
For anyone living outside of New York and New Jersey, you can turn to The Sukkah Project, which provides â€śaffordable, easy-to-build Sukkah Kits to families, schools & congregations throughout North America.â€ť Itâ€™s great to see so many groups enthusiastically encouraging families to build a sukkah and celebrate. At JOI, we believe the holiday holds great potential for creating a welcoming atmosphere. Eating dinner in a sukkah or simply sitting under the stars is a great entry point for unaffiliated or interfaith families to enjoy this unique Jewish tradition. Just as our ancestor Abraham opened up his tent for all who approached, so can we make the sukkah.
At JOI, we are always on the lookout for creative new techniques to engage the unengaged, to inform and welcome in the unaffiliated Jews in our midst. Often times we recognize Chabad for their unique efforts in outreach â€“ and an article in the Duke Chronicle shows us once again how innovative they can be.
Chabad has turned to pickles. According to the article, they recently hosted a â€śkosher pickle-making workshopâ€ť as a way to teach about a classic Jewish food while providing an opportunity for Jewish students to explore their heritage. Rabbi Zalman Bluming, who leads Chabad at Duke and at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, explained:
â€śWe’re trying to create fun, Jewish, relaxed types of events that are easy ways for Jews to engage in their own Jewishness and learn to cherish their identity.â€ť
We completely agree. One of our signature outreach events is Passover in the Matzah Aisle, where we work with Jewish organizations across the country in setting up tables filled with food and information regarding Passover. As part of our Public Space JudaismSM initiative, where we bring Judaism to where the people are, the displays are set up in grocery stores, targeting unaffiliated families and anyone else interested in learning more about the holiday and the traditions. Similarly, we have developed Eight Days of Oil, a Hanukkah oil tasting event that is organized the same way.
These events, ours and Chabad, lower barriers for participation by using a common denominator â€“ food â€“ to begin a larger conversation about Jewish identity. We are both working towards a goal of growing and strengthening the Jewish community, and on engagement technique we are on the same page. While our programs revolve around holidays, you have to give Chabad credit - who would have thought that putting a cucumber in brine would be an opportunity to teach people about Judaism?
One of the fundamentals of successful outreach is recognizing opportunities for Jewish engagement. Sometimes it means follow-up phone calls or emails to people who came to an event, but other times the opportunities fall right into our lap. Thatâ€™s what happened for a synagogue in San Francisco, according to a recent article in J, the Jewish News Weekly of Northern California.
Thomas Karatzas is the son of an interfaith couple, and growing up he didnâ€™t have much exposure to his Jewish roots. But seemingly out of nowhere, he wanted to have a Bar Mitzvah. Since the family was unaffiliated, they werenâ€™t sure where to begin. So they turned to their Jewish landlord, who directed them to his synagogue, Congregation Ner Tamid. The synagogue’s Rabbi, Moshe Levin, said:
I was thrilled we might have the opportunity to connect with a young man and his family who really are on the fringe of Jewish identity and community.
The article goes on to illustrate the immense support Thomas received from both his family and the Bay areaâ€™s Jewish community. Whatâ€™s nice about the article is whatâ€™s missing â€“ any prolonged discussion about Thomasâ€™ status as the child of an interfaith marriage. His background, while it gave the article an interesting angle, was not of immediate consequence. Whatâ€™s important is that the synagogue recognized Thomasâ€™ hunger to embrace Judaism, and the fact that they did everything they could to support his decision.
All too often we hear stories from people who want to explore their interest in Judaism, yet they find it hard to even get a foot in the door. They donâ€™t know where to start, and when they do approach, they find too many barriers. Congregation Ner Tamid demonstrated here the best practice for engaging someone when they come to you â€“ to remove barriers, open the doors, and accept all who approach. This is how we will get the Jewish community to grow, and we hope others will follow suit.
We were thrilled to read the piece in yesterdayâ€™s Sun Sentinel newspaper (covering South Florida) about Empowering Ruth, our program for women who have recently converted to Judaism. Since Judaism can be confusing even for those who have spent their whole lives as Jews, we created the program to go beyond the â€śwhatâ€™sâ€ť and â€śwhyâ€™sâ€ť of Judaism, and focus on the â€śhow toâ€™s.â€ť JOIâ€™s senior program officer Liz Marcovitz, who is the programâ€™s national coordinator, explains:
An Introduction to Judaism course teaches converts to light candles on Shabbat, while Empowering Ruth teaches them how to actually prepare your home for Shabbat, how to rest on the Sabbath and advice on items such as where to buy candle holders for your Shabbat candles.
The programâ€™s curriculum, which was funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation, will be offered in Broward County starting this month, and already local members of the community are excited. Katherine Campbell, who has signed up for the course, said that Judaism is a learning process: “I want to learn more about Judaism and also about myself and how I fit into the religion.”
Participants will meet twice a month at Temple Beth Emet, and interested parties can contact either Liz Marcovitz or Zohar Casdan (Temple Beth Emetâ€™s Director of Congregation Relations). Those who graduate from the program will have a better sense of what it means to be Jewish, and we wish Broward County the best of luck with the program. We are excited to hear how it goes down in Florida and all the other communities that are starting the program this fall.