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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...
While JOI doesnât have a dedicated advice columnist, we do administer a variety of listserves where people can seek answers to some of the tougher questions about intermarriage or life after choosing to be Jewish. They provide a safe place for people across the country to share their thoughts and experiences, and we are always interested in what those who are paid to answer these types of questions have to say.
In a recent column for the Jewish Reporter of Las Vegas, advice columnist Ayelet Blit was asked a question by a Jewish man marrying outside of his faith that many in his situation must deal with before they get married: How can he win the acceptance of his parents, who donât approve of the relationship?
This is an increasingly common dilemma for Jews in America, and around the word, today. We live in a multicultural society, which only raises the chances of falling in love with someone of a different background or faith. Ayelet recognizes how difficult this situation can be for the families involved, and says there is no single answer to the question. But in her response she brings up one of the most common fears for Jewish parents:
Why are they so opposed to your marriage to a non-Jewish girlfriend? In many instances, parents see it as their failure to instill a strong Jewish identity that leads their children to marry outside the faith, and it is usually accompanied by a strong sense of sadness that their grandchildren will not be considered Jewish in the traditional sense and might not be raised Jewish.
In other words, Jewish parents often feel that if their children marry outside of the religion, the religion wonât last very long. This doesnât have to be the case. Even though Jewish intermarriage rates have risen, and certainly some Jews have left the fold, we also have hundreds of thousands of non-Jewish family members who are equally dedicated to preserving the Jewish identity.
These are the families we need to work with. Interfaith marriage is not the end. We see it as an opportunity to reach out, make the Jewish community more accessible, and encourage participation in Jewish life. Of course we canât say if this will appease the manâs family, but, as Ayelet states, âit could make the journey into your parentsâ hearts easier.â
The Jewish Outreach Institute welcomes Beth El of Baltimore to the Big Tent Judaism Coalition. We are delighted to have Beth El helping us in our mission to reach out and welcome in all Jewish individuals and households-including the majority who are not currently engaged in Jewish communal life. They have placed our logo on their homepage, proudly declaring âWe are a member of the Big Tent Coalition.â To facilitate the goals of Big Tent Judaism, JOI has articulated Ten Principles that serve as a framework for Jewish communal institution on how to make their organizations more inclusive and welcoming.
A slideshow on Beth Elâs homepage shows how the synagogue has opened its tent to everyone, already engaging in many of the Big Tent Principles. We see pictures of a preschool graduation, the teen choir and a grandparent program. We see children showing off art projects and young adults learning how to don tefillin. These events, which run the gamut from old to young and artistic to informative, clearly celebrate diversity and deepen Jewish engagement, which are principles #2 and #4. Furthermore, it appears that some of the events are not held at the synagogueâthere is a picture of a couple of young women enjoying some beer and chips at a local pub, an example of JOIâs Public Space Judaism model. Whether this is a Purim celebration, a Hannukah party, or just a gathering of synagogue members, this types of event shows how Beth El is also employing principle #7 â âgoing out to where the people areâŠ and holding programs in secular venues.â They are indeed meeting their constituents âon an individual level and learning where they are in their âJewish Journey.ââ
In its vision statement, Beth El says they are dedicated to inclusion and participation, welcoming âboth members and non-members to enjoy our home.â We hope that Beth El of Baltimore continues to strive to work towards this message of inclusion while incorporating all of Big Tent Judaismâs Ten Principles. For more information about Big Tent Judaism and how to join, take a look at our website: BigTentJudaism.org.
I see family membersâgenerally couples themselves but including parents, siblings, and friendsâon a regular basis to discuss issues surrounding intermarriage. Although New York is an amalgam of cultures, my calendar does not reflect the national trends: those of other religious backgrounds who marry Jews in the Northeast are often Roman Catholic. Perhaps this is another example in which it is always important to filter the work of researchers through the work of those on the front line, those who are working with interfaith couples and their families on a daily basis.
It is in this context that I am intrigued about one of the latest Hollywood releasesâ27 Dressesâa film that I would normally pay no attention to since it is clearly a âchick flick.â What piqued my interest is the film includes a Jewish-Hindu wedding. As a matter of fact, this wedding opens the film (as the main character shuttles back and forth with another wedding), and thereby helps to establish the foundation for the filmâs storyline. This serves as yet another example of the fact that megatrends are out as a way of informing our work, and microtrends are in. Jews arenât just marrying Catholics anymore. There are a growing number of weddings between Jews and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and Jews marrying those from a variety of other religious and ethnic backgrounds. It may not be the focal point of the film, itâs probably just included for so-called comedic purposes, but it is present nonetheless and must be reckoned with.
The Jewish wedding in the film reflects a circumstance that I encounter with increasing frequency in our work at the Jewish Outreach Institute. If we are to become a truly open community that welcomes a variety of diverse backgrounds, then we have to understand the latest trends and be responsive to them.
Outreach is everywhere. At least, that is what the news media tells us. From the beginning, we at JOI have defined outreach as a methodology rather than a target population. It is about going to where people are rather than having them come to us. And then there is a set of âbest practicesâ that complement such an effortâand can be used in other contexts as well. As a result, it is not a good English definition of keruv (defined as bringing people close). The Reform movement generally defines outreach as any programming effort for interfaith families, whether or not they are members of the synagogue or participants in the community. The Conservative movement, especially its lead organization in its work with interfaith families, uses the term keruv. Chabadâs form of outreach/keruv usually takes the form of tefillin mobiles or portable sukkot, traveling the community in an effort to encourage those who are Jewish to participate in traditional ritual practices.
It is within this context that I found a recent article by Ben Harris in the JTA titled âObama, Clinton Step Up Outreach Efforts to Jewsâ rather interesting. The piece discusses how Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are campaigning to Jewish voters, and I thought we might use it to evaluate the use of the term outreach/keruv. They certainly are going to where the people are as they stump from state to state, but any conclusions about the success of their outreach will have to wait until the upcoming elections.
We like to say that when we go to people, it is because we are attempting to fulfill their needs, rather than our own. But we wonât be able to get people to enter the gates of the Jewish community unless we go to them and help forge a path into it. Can the same be said of presidential candidates, irrespective of their political allegiance or yours?
At the Jewish Outreach Institute, we often focus on engaging intermarried families and unaffiliated Jews by bringing Judaism out to where the people are. But we have also long worked to bring people in (most recently with our STAR partnership and Big Tent Judaism initiative). Our goal is to connect unengaged Jews with Jewish institutions by helping communal professionals and lay leaders open their doors and welcome everyone who wants to be a part of our family.
This is the spirit behind the initiative of Rabbi Lawrence Sernovitz at the Old York Road Temple â Beth Am. As reported in the Jewish Exponent of Philadelphia, Sernovitz, a former JOI rabbinic intern, is turning to âinreachâ and outreach to show that his congregation is an inviting and friendly place where new and potential members will find a warm reception.
Sernovitz believes one reason people donât come to synagogue more often is because of the intimidation felt in an unfamiliar environment, and a recent study by the Union for Reform Judaism backs up that claim. One of the themes of the study was âwhat synagogues can do to make themselves more welcoming to potential members.â In response, several Beth Am congregants will host Shabbat meals for interfaith families, with the intent of introducing them to longtime affiliates.
Sernovitz is also utilizing our Public Space Judaism program to âreach out to interfaith families and unaffiliated Jews on more secular turf.â Beth Amâs outreach committee chair Neal Welsh said ânew lifeâ has been given to the synagogueâs outreach efforts with the arrival of Sernovitz.
The week before Thanksgiving, the rabbi read stories to 50 or so children at the Barnes & Noble Bookstore in Jankintown, down the street from the shul. At such public events in neutral arenas, âwe donât ask them to join or anything,â said Welsh. âWe just want them to know weâre there.â
We are thrilled to hear that Rabbi Sernovitz is effectively employing the outreach methods of JOI. It seems our message has inspired him to reach out and reach in, and we hope to inspire many more to do the same.
Today is my first day here at Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI), and I canât imagine being made to feel more welcome. I left a position with the New York City Department of Education, commonly known as NYCDOE, and already I can see the vast differences between the two work places. For example, at JOI, I was immediately given a desk, chair and key to the bathroom. At the NYCDOE, this took several weeks, even a couple of months. But the one thing that both places of employment have in common is everyone must be learned in the institutionâs alphabet soup-the confusing acronyms and combinations of letters that are short for larger terms.
At the NYCDOE, everyone but me seemed to understand the meanings of the codes for GHI (a health plan option), TRS (Teachers Retirement System), or even ELA (English Language Arts-which in my day was just called âEnglishâ). Since no one offered to explain these terms to me, I always felt like an outsider. I eventually left the position, made easier by the fact that I didnât feel like a member of the team. If I couldnât stay in a job where I didnât feel included, I canât imagine how difficult it must be to stay in a community where almost everyone around you is constantly speaking in Jewish alphabet soup.
As someone familiar with the Jewish alphabet soup, I have known for years that UJA refers to United Jewish Appeal, the main arm of Jewish fundraising, USY stands for United Synagogue Youth, a youth group for high schoolers, and HUC refers to Hebrew Union College, the Reform Movementâs educational institution. These are just a few examples, but if one is not in the loop, these letters mixed together just look like a foreign language. It is always important that as insiders we define our codes and languages for those who are on the outside. Simply speaking and writing the full names of places encourages inclusiveness and reduces frustration. This is Big Tent Judaismâs Principle #6: âIdentify and lower the barriers to participation.â Translating acronyms is an easy way to promote inclusiveness and welcome everyone into the broader Jewish community.