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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...
I recently spent almost an entire week in Chicago working with various aspects of the Jewish community, on behalf of its Jewish Federation (called the Jewish United Fund). It was a wonderful, if exhausting, week. The message to all of the groups with whom I met was the same, even if the nature of my presentations was different since I was teaching specific sets of skills to different audiences: open the gates of your Jewish community so that people can enter and enjoy its resources. But donâ€™t simply wait inside of the gates for people to enter - go out and find them. Embrace them. Welcome them in. Provide them with meaningful, life-transforming experiences.
While JOI has been working in numerous communities and our many programs have found footing across North America, we have yet to succeed in placing the wide array of our programs in the Chicago community. That was our goal in traveling there, and with the help and support of various friends in the area, we hope to find the same success we have encountered elsewhere across the United States.
Imagine a community where there are Mothers Circles, Grandparents Circles, and groups of Empowering Ruth throughout; a community that pilots newly developed programs designed specifically for men. Imagine a group of synagogues that have not only taken on our Call Synagogue Home program, which aims to reach interfaith families through life cycle events, but also made systemic changes to welcome all those on the periphery of the community. Imagine a Federation that coordinates Public Space Judaism programs throughout the region, running programs such as Passover in the Matzah Aisles or Sunday in the Park with Bagels.
This is what we imagine for Chicago and this is what we are working toward. For in the end what we will have produced is a warmer, friendlier, more welcoming Jewish communityâ€”one in which we will all want to live and actively participate, no matter our background.
Over the last couple of days, we have seen a lot written about how to make a Passover Seder welcoming and inclusive for everyone sitting around the table. This came up so much because there are more interfaith families than ever before, which means there are more people every year who are probably attending their first Seders.
So for all of these husbands and wives, children and grandparents, friends and extended family, Rabbi Geela Rayzel Raphael, writing in The Jewish Exponent, came up with a list of “five readings that interfaith families may want to include in their Passover seder.â€ť
For example, many families over the last few years have started displaying additional items on their Seder plate â€“ most notably an orange, to represent â€śwomen’s leadership roles and full empowerment in Jewish life,â€ť Rabbi Raphael says. But she offers another unique item for the Seder: an artichoke. It has â€śmany petals, with thistle and a heart,â€ť she says, and that represents the Jewish people.
â€śLike the artichoke, which has thistles protecting its heart, the Jewish people have been thorny about this question of interfaith marriage. Let this artichoke on the seder plate tonight stand for the wisdom of God’s creation in making the Jewish people a population able to absorb many elements and cultures throughout the centuries — yet still remain Jewish. Let the thistles protecting our hearts soften so that we may notice the petals around us.â€ť
Although most families only hold Seders the first two nights, her ideas shouldnâ€™t be constricted to the Seder table â€“ or just Passover. Any family gathering, whether itâ€™s Thanksgiving or Shabbat, is a good opportunity to, as we like to say at JOI, open your tent and welcome in all who approach.
At JOI, we are always encouraged when we read about someone using our programming or ideas in their community. It lets us know our work is indeed finding an audience. Thatâ€™s why we were excited to read in the recent San Diego Jewish World some musings on our approach to the Jewish community called Big Tent Judaism.
Alan Rusonik, executive director of the Agency for Jewish Education in San Diego, heard about Big Tent Judaism from a friend, and wondered how it could apply to Jewish schools. He wants to use the ten principles of BTJ (which can be found here) to help make Jewish schools welcoming for all those who would cast their lot with the Jewish people. To spur a conversation, he asks:
Is your classroom a â€śBig Tent?â€ť or can you better apply the â€śBig Tent Judaismâ€ť approach in your classroom? Which of the â€śten principlesâ€ť do you currently practice, and which ones do you need to improve upon? What resources do you have at your disposal so that you can inculcate the â€śBig Tentâ€ť approach in your classroom?
We think these are great questions that not only apply to schools, but to all Jewish communal institutions. When our biblical forbearers Abraham and Sarah opened their tent, they did so to let people know that all were welcome. Today, our Big Tent should be used to help connect unengaged, unaffiliated, and all Jews on the periphery to Jewish institutions. Rusonik is right - Jewish schools are one of the points of access to the community, and they should be open to all who approach.
While the discussion concerning intermarriage continues in North America, there is very little heard on the issue from Israelâ€”except from those who choose to condemn North Americans who have indeed married someone from another faith. We know that intermarriage occurs in Israel, but for various reasons those who have done so have been forced to stay below the radar, especially because of its political ramifications.
We also know that the rate of intermarriage is higher among the gay and lesbian population than it is among the heterosexual population. This has nothing to do with education or identity. It is simply a factor of demography. More people, more options. Fewer people, fewer options.
While Israel is not taking the lead in either population, it was heartening to see this small news item in the JTA. It seems that a gay Palestinian who fled to Israel to escape vengeful family members has been given temporary residence rights in Israelâ€”where he is now living with his Israeli boyfriend.
Itâ€™s hard to imagine not only the difficulties that face such a socially and religiously taboo relationship, but also Israelâ€™s decision to recognize that relationship. Granting the Palestinian temporary residence was an unprecedented move, and we congratulate the state of Israel for making the right decision. It once again affirms the notion of Big Tent Judaism for the entire Jewish community.
At JOI, one of our methods for lowering the barriers to participation in Jewish life is to use positive, inclusive language. This can mean using words or phrases like â€śof a different backgroundâ€ť instead of â€śnon-Jew.â€ť Although these distinctions might seem inconsequential, they often make the difference between someone feeling welcomed, and someone feeling singled out.
To illustrate the power of words, our own Rabbi Kerry Olitzky and Liz Marcovitz wrote an opinion piece for the JTA on how Passover is a good opportunity to eliminate such language from our speech so we can â€śwelcome and include all those who wish to engage with Judaism in our Big Tent.â€ť
Negative language has the ability to oppress people, make them feel like they donâ€™t belong. Rabbi Olitzky and Liz believe we should stop â€śdefining those who are different from us by using negative words and stereotypes,â€ť and they offer a suggestion on how to take steps in that direction.
As you sit around the Passover seder table this year, be conscious of the words you use to describe others. Consider their impact because all too often we forget that words have the power to marginalize and oppress members of our society.
This holiday, we invite you to make this pledge and bring it your seder table: “I promise to the best of my ability to eliminate from my vocabulary all words that are hurtful, insensitive and oppressive of others, and include only words that are welcoming, sensitive and liberating.”
Please join us in taking this pledge to help create a truly inclusive and welcoming Jewish community.