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The Big Tent Judaism Blogcontaining up-to-the-minute news about the efforts of the Big Tent Judaism Coalition and other programs and events within the Jewish community that open our tent...
In the late afternoon leading up to Shavuot, I happened to be the only person left in the office and answered the phone. It was a Jewish communal professional who works with teens. She told me that every teen in her city was a member of her organization, and she was hoping that our Big Tent Judaism Professional Affiliates program and Big Tent Judaism Concierge could help her out. But it didn’t sound like a problemâat first.
Of the 500 teen members, she could identify only about 100 as engaged â meaning those who actually attend activities. Since I am very familiar with her organization, I postulated that it was the parents who were signing up their children and paying the dues each year. But it was up to the organization’s leaders to actually create meaningful experiences in which the members would like to participate, so that it didnât feel like an obligation to the parents, but a desire from the young members.
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 Lippmannâs 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).
âWe 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.â
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 Lippmannâs 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 ânot Jewish anyway.â What really got to me, though, was seeing the golden calf and even Hitler invoked with careless ignorance. All I kept thinking was, âthis is not Jewish.â
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, âbemoaning the decline in synagogue membership, high rates of intermarriage, and our aging populationâ 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.
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 âJewishnessâ elsewhere.
An article that was recently published on Slate.com entitled âThe Chosen Fewâ 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 doesnât mean people feel any less Jewish.
Author Steven Weiss writes that âa majority of American Jews today are unaffiliated with the synagogues the Pharisaic rabbis emphasized, and yet 79 percent report feeling âvery positiveâ about being Jewish.â 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 âwelcoming,â but no one mentioned that particular aspect of the country and its inhabitants before we prepared for our trip. Yet the âministry of welcomingâ 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 doesnât 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 âtourist trade,â 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 shouldnât make the assumption that every âinterfaithâ couple is going to have religious issues. Religion is an important question to discuss if itâs 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 âInterfaith Marriage: A Mixed Blessingâ by journalist Naomi Schaefer Riley. Schaefer Riley, who identifies as âa conservative Jew married to a former Jehovahâs Witness,â 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 âremarkably, less than half of the interfaith couples in my survey said theyâd discussed, before marrying, what faith they planned to raise their kids in.â
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. Iâll never forget the first time I walked up the subway stairs at 7th Avenue and got my first taste of âThe Slope,â 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 higherâŠI 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, adoptedâŠsome 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, itâs 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, Iâm not just talking about my mom and dad. What Iâm 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 âfamily,â 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 âfamily.â 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.
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 NYUâs 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 â or re-engaging â Boomers in Jewish life) that explores the attitudes, activities, plans, priorities, and beliefs of Jewish adults 18 and over.