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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...
There is encouraging news coming out of the Jewish community in Morris County, New Jersey. According to an article in the New Jersey Jewish News, outreach professionals are aggressively employing many of JOI‚Äôs Public Space JudaismSM programs in an ‚Äúeffort to reach the county‚Äôs unaffiliated, unengaged Jews.‚ÄĚ
How did this come about? In 2007, we ‚Äúscanned‚ÄĚ Morris County to determine how welcoming their institutions are to the diverse make-up of the Jewish community. Among our recommendations was to lower the barrier to participation by taking Judaism out of the synagogues and bring it to where the people are. This was especially salient for Morris County, which is a sprawling suburban community with no real center and only one non-synagogue Jewish institution (JCC).
‚ÄúThe idea is to create programming that attracts and serves to bring in unaffiliated people, make community, and foster relationships with those people and Jewish institutions in Morris Country, whether it‚Äôs the JCC, synagogues, federation, other Jewish organizations, or cultural activities,‚ÄĚ said Arthur Sandman, associate executive vice president for program services at United Jewish Communities of MetroWest.
Since presenting our findings, lay and professional leaders have seen measured success in reaching those who are currently not engaged in the Jewish community. Dana Lichtenberg, a coordinator with Morris County Connection, is the ‚Äúliaison for all the agencies in the community and the go-to person‚ÄĚ for anyone with questions about how to promote and conduct Jewish programming. She said her programming is attracting anywhere from 20 to 100 people per event.
But attendance is only one measure. Lichtenberg is also using JOI‚Äôs follow up techniques to make sure people are aware of upcoming events. ‚ÄúI follow up individually with every family,‚ÄĚ she said. ‚ÄúIt might be a letter or a phone call; they are always invited to the next activity.‚ÄĚ
We are happy to be a part of their growth, and we hope Morris County will serve as an inspiration for other communities that want to reach the unengaged and unaffiliated members of their Jewish community.
Can someone disinherit their grandchildren for marrying someone who isn‚Äôt Jewish? That‚Äôs a question that was recently argued in front of a court in Illinois. The decision: if a person puts in his will a stipulation that ‚Äúacts as a restraint upon marriage or‚Ä¶ encourages divorce,‚ÄĚ then it is invalid. According to a piece in the Chicago Jewish News, this particular provision has come to be known as ‚ÄúThe Jewish Clause,‚ÄĚ and an appellate court recently upheld the decision.
The case is complicated, but it basically comes down to this ‚Äď Max Feinberg put a clause in his will that said if any of his grandchildren married outside the Jewish faith, they ‚Äúshall be deemed to be deceased for all purposes of this instrument as of the date of such marriage.‚ÄĚ The court said no, that goes against Illinois public policy. Though no case had ever involved Judaism, the court cited other cases where the court had invalidated parts of a will that dealt with the heir‚Äôs marriage. They decided to invalidate discriminatory language in Max’s will that could act as a precedent for requiring courts to ‚Äúenforce the worst bigotry imaginable‚ÄĚ ‚Äď namely that people could disinherit family members for marrying Jews or blacks.
In dissent, Justice Alan Greiman said the cases cited don‚Äôt speak to the same issues in the Feinberg case. He said Max Feinberg was ‚Äútrying to preserve his 4,000-year-old heritage,‚ÄĚ adding that Max was certainly entitled to his opinion and that he could do with his money whatever he saw fit. Max and his wife, Justice Greiman continued, ‚Äúhad a dream with respect to the provisions of their will, and if you will it, it is no dream.‚ÄĚ
Whether you think prejudicial language should be invalidated in a will or not, there is a much deeper problem here ‚Äď Max Feinberg equated intermarriage with death. He, like so many others in the Jewish community, felt that marrying outside of Judaism was tantamount to rejecting all of Jewish history. But the article goes on to show that is not always the case. One grandchild, Aron Feinberg, married a woman of another religious background, yet he and his wife are raising their three children Jewish, and they are heavily involved in the Jewish community. Intermarriage for Aron was clearly not a barrier to maintaining a Jewish home. This demonstrates that the life you choose to lead is more important than whether your spouse is Jewish or not. (The article also mentions another grandchild who intermarried and is now estranged from the family, but she was not available for comment.)
This court case helps to show why outreach work is so important. With the intermarriage rate as high as it is, our time is better spent engaging interfaith families and showing them the value of leading a Jewish life, not punishing them for marrying outside of Judaism. Even the ‚ÄúJewish Clause‚ÄĚ in Max‚Äôs will didn‚Äôt stop four of his five grandchildren from intermarriage. Instead of treating interfaith families as a lost cause, let‚Äôs encourage their participation in Jewish life by showing them just how welcoming our Big Tent can be.
As a way of identifying the best way to reach out to and engage interfaith families in Cleveland, the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland commissioned Dr. Pearl Beck, a research consultant who focuses on Jewish identity formation, to conduct a study of the population. After two years, according to a story in the Cleveland Jewish News, the study is complete, with some interesting results ‚Äď most notably that ‚Äúintermarriage is not a rejection of the Jewish spouse‚Äôs Jewish identity.‚ÄĚ
Compared to national averages, interfaith couples in Cleveland participate in Jewish life at higher rates ‚Äď 56 percent belong to a synagogue, compared to 15 percent nationally. But, Beck stresses that because the study used 51 families, many of whom found the ads in Jewish institutions, the conclusions are ‚Äúdescriptive and illustrative rather than representative,‚ÄĚ and that there may be a ‚Äúbias toward families more integrated in Judaism.‚ÄĚ Despite the possible bias, the study found plenty of cause for concern in why many interfaith families are not involved in Jewish life:
The families interviewed cited several common barriers to their participation in Jewish life. These are the high cost of membership in Jewish institutions, feelings of inadequacy over their lack of Jewish knowledge, and a lack of intimacy within Jewish communal life. Both non-Jewish and Jewish partners feel this way, Beck says.
So what do you do to address these concerns? Beck recommends, among other things, increasing access to institutions, taking Judaism outside of the synagogue to reach more people, and creating ‚Äúsupport groups for interfaith families centered around child-raising issues.‚ÄĚ Sounds like an endorsement of some of JOI‚Äôs signature programs and initiatives ‚Äď Big Tent Judaism, Public Space JudaismSM, and Mothers Circle.
Beck‚Äôs findings and recommendations only reinforce what we have been saying and doing for years ‚Äď namely promoting a more welcoming and inclusive North American Jewish community that embraces intermarried families and unengaged Jews, and encourages their increased participation in Jewish life. We have over 30 communities that now run the Mothers Circle, a program for women of another background raising Jewish children, and our Big Tent Judaism coalition, which advocates for all those seeking a welcoming and inclusive Jewish community, grows almost daily. By working to lower barriers to Jewish participation, we have helped innumerable people discover and rediscover the joys of Judaism.
We hope the lay and professional leaders in Cleveland will take the study‚Äôs recommendations to heart, and we are here for any help they might need along the way.
Any news of a Jewish community undergoing a rebirth is good news. That is what‚Äôs going on right now in the Former Soviet Union (FSU). According to a piece in the Jerusalem Post, Jewish youth camps have helped spur a revival of Jewish life in the FSU, hosting thousands of kids.
‚ÄúThe goal of the camp is that children who are year around not exposed to anything Jewish can come and enjoy 24 hours surrounded by Jewish tradition, history and fun,‚ÄĚ explained Rivka Klein, director of Gan Israel camps in Moscow.
But there is another goal stated later in the article. According to David Mondshine, general director of the Or Avner Foundation, a fund for Jewish education in the FSU, the purpose of the camps - whose development in general we can applaud - is to ‚Äúfight assimilation and intermarriage.‚ÄĚ
Efforts to support and educate not just children but their families is vitally important in areas like the FSU, where for so many years practicing Judaism was an impossibility. But putting so much focus on fighting assimilation and intermarriage, as well as only identifying as Jewish those of matrilineal descent, might end up being a barrier to the long term goal of growing the Jewish community. It‚Äôs well known that intermarriage rates are sky high in the FSU, but perhaps these camps can learn the same lesson that the American Jewish community is just beginning to learn - fighting intermarriage is a losing battle.
At JOI, we think a better and more sustainable approach is to try and engage these families, draw them in and show them the value of raising Jewish families. While it‚Äôs great to see so much enthusiasm in the nascent Jewish community of the FSU, we hope they will make sure to keep their tent open to all those who seek them out.
Last month, we blogged about Ugandan rabbi Gershom Sizomu, the first black rabbi from sub-Saharan Africa to be ordained by an American rabbinic school. This, he hoped, would help the roughly 800 Ugandan Jews, known as Abayudaya, gain further acceptance in the worldwide Jewish community.
Rabbi Sizomu‚Äôs dedication to Judaism seems to have already had a big affect on the Jewish population in Africa. According to a piece in the JTA, Rabbi Sizomu, along with a contingent of Conservative rabbis from the US, oversaw the conversion of 250 Africans to Judaism, complete with a beit din (religious court) that supervised the mikvah (ritual immersion). The recent converts came from Uganda, Kenya, South Africa, Ghana, and Nigeria, and the ceremony took place in the Abayudaya village of Nabogoye in Uganda.
This is a great step in the direction of growing the global Jewish population and facilitating participation in Jewish life. It shows that Judaism‚Äôs Big Tent continues to expand, and that we will always welcome everyone, regardless of prior background or knowledge.
“The relationship between God and the Jews in the Torah resonates for many spiritual seekers,” said Rabbi Sizomu. “It is important the Africans and others know that they can choose Judaism as a spiritual path ‚ÄĒ and that we are open to them.”
Here at JOI we‚Äôve long said that the challenge of intermarriage is not really about the marriage at all. It‚Äôs about much bigger issues. Whether you share JOI‚Äôs optimism in the ability of intermarried families to raise Jewish children, or whether you take the pessimistic view that intermarriage is eating away at the size and cohesion of the Jewish people, either way, if the bigger issues are not being addressed, then we‚Äôre all doing a disservice to the Jewish future. So what are these bigger issues?
A recent New York Times article about the ongoing research on American religion by the Pew Foundation raises one such issue:
70 percent of Americans affiliated with a religion or denomination said they agreed that ‚Äúmany religions can lead to eternal life,‚ÄĚ including majorities among Protestants and Catholics‚Ä¶. Among minority faiths, more than 80 percent of Jews, Hindus and Buddhists agreed with the statement, and more than half of Muslims did‚Ä¶.‚ÄúIt‚Äôs not that Americans don‚Äôt believe in anything,‚ÄĚ said Michael Lindsay, assistant director of the Center on Race, Religion and Urban Life at Rice University. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs that we believe in everything. We aren‚Äôt religious purists or dogmatists.‚ÄĚ
So if most Jews believe that their religion is not the only path to eternal life, it begs the question: Why be Jewish at all? If there are multiple paths to salvation, why take the Jewish one? For today‚Äôs younger generations, the fact that this is the path their parents took, and their parents before them, is not an automatic sell. (Especially if their other parent was on a different path, or if there are people in the Jewish community who tell them they have no right considering themselves on the Jewish path to begin with because of their lineage.)
When looking at the trend of massive intermarriage, the big question isn‚Äôt about how we can get more Jews to marry other Jews. It‚Äôs about how we can get more people on the Jewish path, whether they are single, in-married or intermarried, children or grandchildren of intermarriage. Are we ready, as a community, to say that Judaism is not just one of many possible paths, but that it is the best path? And why is it the best path? Most Jews would be uncomfortable saying so, even if they believe it. Maybe our work is really about becoming more comfortable saying Judaism has the most to offer those who are looking for a ‚Äúhere-and-now‚ÄĚ religion more than a ‚Äúhereafter‚ÄĚ religion, so please join us. And then making it a meaningful and accepting community to enter.
My daughter and son-in-law recently bought a house in a new community. Since it is summer, they wanted to be outdoors and have the opportunity to meet new people. They decided to shop around for membership in a pool club. They were shocked by the cost of membership fees. They finally found one club with a sliding scale, based on age, not financial ability. For 21-25 year olds, the dues were 10% of the full membership fee; for 26-30, 20%; for 31-35, 30% and so on.
As we talked about their experience, I couldn‚Äôt help but compare what it is like when a young adult wants to become a member of a Jewish institution, which can be prohibitively expensive. How can we attract young adults and make sure cost is not a barrier for their participation in the Jewish community? One of the Big Tent Judaism principles, Lower Barriers to Participation, identifies cost as one of the possible concerns for those who are not currently engaged in Jewish communal life, and many Jewish institutions have developed creative ways to make sure anyone who is interested in participating in Jewish life is able to, regardless of financial ability. There are already a growing number of synagogues that offer such benefits as a free High Holiday services for non-members, a sliding dues scale, or a year of discounted (sometimes free) memberships for newcomers. And while it‚Äôs great to see institutions offering these deals, the bigger issue is letting people know these deals even exist.
If the goal is to grow membership and engage newcomers, young adults, and the unaffiliated, institutions need to do a better job of letting everyone know what sort of deals are available. If your synagogue offers free services or discounted memberships, put an ad in a secular newspaper, or on a bulletin board in a high traffic area. Expand your marketing to reach more people so they know what is offered; don‚Äôt wait for them to come to you. Tell people about the value of joining and becoming part of the Jewish community because we can‚Äôt ‚Äúafford‚ÄĚ to miss the opportunity to engage those young adults or others who want to enter our doors.
In the critically acclaimed 2001 documentary ‚ÄúTrembling Before G-d,‚ÄĚ director Sandi Simcha DuBowski sheds light on one of the most conflicted groups in the Jewish community ‚Äď gay Orthodox Jews. Throughout the movie, those profiled demonstrate just how hard it is to reconcile their personal desires and their spiritual ones, and how all they are looking for is tolerance in their communities and synagogues.
Seven years on, has this movie made any difference in the lives of gay Orthodox Jews? Or how about gay Jews of any denomination? Or more broadly, how welcoming overall is the Jewish community to its gay members?
Those were some of the questions asked in a recent article in Jewish Living magazine titled ‚ÄúHow Gay is Your Shul?‚ÄĚ The piece explains how the group Jewish Mosaic, one of the organizations behind a recently launched LGBT Welcoming Synagogues Project, and their partners ‚Äúwill start surveying every congregation in the U.S.‚ÄĚ to see how inclusive they are to the LGBT community.
While the Reconstructionist and Reform movements have been ordaining gay and lesbian rabbi‚Äôs since 1984 and 1990 respectively, Gregg Drinkwater, Jewish Mosaic‚Äôs executive director, says that changes have to occur from the ground up, not merely from the governing body. ‚ÄúWithout internal champions or external guidance, it‚Äôs very hard for shuls to change,‚ÄĚ he explained.
One of the most interesting parts of the article was the pragmatism of Rabbi Steven Greenberg, an openly gay Orthodox rabbi who was featured in ‚ÄúTrembling Before G-d.‚ÄĚ This is a man who‚Äôs spiritual and personal desires seem to be in direct conflict with one another, yet he still works to fit into both worlds. He has written his own criteria for ‚Äúwelcoming‚ÄĚ synagogues, one that stresses tolerance on the synagogues part, but also stresses the congregant tolerate the synagogues needs.
‚ÄúGay people must recognize they can‚Äôt impose their hard-fought self understanding on a congregation,‚ÄĚ he says. ‚ÄúThat said, Orthodox congregations have to figure out how they manage reality. There are plenty of gay people who want to belong to Orthodox synagogues because it‚Äôs a form of Jewish life that speaks most to them.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúManage reality‚ÄĚ I think is the key term there. At JOI, we believe one of the best ways to grow Judaism‚Äôs Big Tent is for congregations to leave behind assumptions about what Jews ‚Äúlook like‚ÄĚ or how families are configured; rather they should celebrate our community‚Äôs diversity. There are many disagreements on how to help facilitate this change ‚Äď Drinkwater, for example, wants to survey synagogues and tell them what they can do differently, but others want the changes to happen organically. Perhaps there is no one uniform way for a congregation to approach the subject of welcoming the LGBT community, but we‚Äôre glad to see it‚Äôs one that is generating such a big debate.
At JOI, we often talk about the principles of Big Tent Judaism ‚Äď one of which is lowering barriers to participation. This includes taking Judaism out of the 4-walls of our institutions and bringing it to where the people are, which we usually define as a public space. Rabbi Eddie Sukol of Cleveland has put his own spin on that idea and taken Judaism not just to where the people are, but to where they actually live. In a recent article in the Cleveland Jewish News, we learn about Rabbi Sukol and The Shul - a ‚Äúsynagogue-without-walls.‚ÄĚ Twice a month, people are invited into someone‚Äôs home for a Shabbat dinner, where they find ‚Äúa little nosh, a little singing, and a little Jewish learning off the beaten path.‚ÄĚ
The Shul came about, Rabbi Sukol says, because of a growing need for a more flexible form of Judaism. Lines between Reform and Conservative, he says, have become blurred, while the lines between Orthodox and non-Orthodox have become clearer. While those changes continue, he says communal institutions aren‚Äôt keeping up, and people might feel like they are not always getting what they want out of their synagogues.
That is not a criticism of established congregations and Jewish institutions, Sukol insists. ‚ÄúInstitutions by their nature change slowly, and membership-based organizations are struggling everywhere n not just Jewish ones. So, I‚Äôm creating opportunities and alternatives for people.‚ÄĚ
Although the services are informal, everyone who attends the twice monthly Shabbat services takes the process seriously. Along with singing and games are prayers and discussions about the weeks Torah portion. Sukol also leads two adult weekday morning study groups, and this fall The Shul is launching a religious school. Most participants are dues paying members at other synagogues, but they attend The Shul because, Rabbi Sukol believes, ‚Äúthe notion that a family joins a synagogue and their Jewish needs are solely met (by that single affiliation) is non-functional.‚ÄĚ
Instead of synagogue mailings and newsletters, Rabbi Sukol keeps people up to date through emails and text messages. Their Torah is kept in a portable ‚Äúark-without-walls‚ÄĚ with a battery operated ner tamid (eternal light) ‚Äď the whole thing is sized to fit in the back of Rabbi Sukol‚Äôs car. We are excited to see such innovative methods for drawing people into the Jewish community, and it‚Äôs particularly interesting to see how Rabbi Sukol has adapted traditional synagogue procedures to help create a more welcoming and inclusive community for the 21st century.
The title of an Atlanta Journal article, ‚ÄúJudaism Drawing More Black Americans,‚ÄĚ caught our eye a few weeks ago for a variety of reasons. Rachel Pomerance‚Äôs article highlights the growing number of Black American Jews-by-choice and the ensuing need for increased Jewish communal inclusivity, which JOI is cognizant of as evidenced in our Big Tent Judaism Coalition. The article explores the various reasons Black Americans are drawn to Judaism ‚Äď which for some is a spiritual journey, but for others it‚Äôs returning to their roots.
In the article, Gary Tobin of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research (an organization that studies the demography of the Jewish people) cites three reasons for the growing numbers: religious identity is increasingly fluid across the American landscape (as recently illustrated by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life survey); the Internet makes information much more accessible; and the rise in interracial intermarriage, which has led to more multicultural families and communities.
While these points infer a growing sense of religious and cultural ‚Äėmobility‚Äô resulting in conversions to different faiths, Pomerance also writes about a population that throughout history was often marginalized and questioned in their own right - Jews of Color who were born and raised Jewish.
Lewis Gordon, founder of Afro-Jewish Studies at Temple University, says this population was ‚Äúswept up in the tides of racism in scholarship and institutions‚ÄĚ that saw Jews as exclusively white. He describes a history of segregated congregations and private observance amongst Black Jews due to exclusivity in the broader (white) Jewish community. But, according to Gordon, times have changed:
‚ÄúThere have always been communities of either black people who are already Jewish or black people considering coming to Judaism. What is different is that institutional structures are changing,‚ÄĚ he said. ‚ÄúThere is an increased effort to create a welcoming environment for them.‚ÄĚ
Gordon speculates that as many as 1 million black people in the United States have Jewish roots, among them African-Americans, African and Caribbean immigrants and Afro-Latinos.
Which is why Gordon thinks that, among the rising numbers of black Americans coming to Judaism, some of them are simply returning to it.
So, while there may be increasing religious ‚Äėmobility‚Äô contributing to more black Americans being drawn to (or returning to) Judaism, Gordon says that these groups have been a fixture in Jewish history. It‚Äôs only now that they are starting to be embraced by the broader Jewish community.
And that, we think, is a wonderful thing. Through a variety of initiatives including the Big Tent Judaism Coalition, which serves as an advocate for newcomers, intermarried families and others on the periphery, JOI is proud to be a part of this movement towards a diverse, inclusive and more dynamic North American Jewish community.