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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...
Here at JOI, we get a lot of emails from people looking for help in navigating the world of interfaith marriage. The reasons for their inquiries vary â€“ some live in rural communities without access to a rabbi, others donâ€™t belong to a synagogue and arenâ€™t sure where to turn. Reaching out over email is not unusual, but according to a new survey by Ynet, a news website in Israel, more and more people are turning to â€śinternet rabbisâ€ť even if they live in urban areas or belong to a congregation. The reason: greater accessibility.
I canâ€™t say Iâ€™m surprised at the surveyâ€™s results. After all, sending an email is a lot quicker than writing a letter, or even making a phone call. In our case, as a national organization with headquarters in New York, our blog and various list serves allow us to reach an audience worldwide. But we are also a somewhat specialized organization. Whatâ€™s interesting about the survey is the number of people who have access to a rabbi but would rather click through to find an answer written by a rabbi.
The Ynet survey only seemed to cover people searching for basic Judaism related questions, and there are plenty of websites designed for this purpose. Our website has a Q and A section, and participants in our Mothers Circle program have access to a virtual rabbi who can answer questions and concerns about the particulars of Jewish practice, tradition, history, community, culture, and belief. But what about rabbiâ€™s expanding their services online, beyond answering questions? When people living far from any synagogue write to us with a desire to explore becoming a Jew, we often point them to the website of Rabbi Celso Cukierkorn. He is based in Florida, but he offers an online conversion course to anyone who wants to become Jewish, whether you are in New Mexico or New Zealand.
We have blogged in the past about â€śvirtual synagoguesâ€ť and the rising number of outreach professionals who use podcasts (essentially a radio program that can be downloaded and listened to at a later time) to reach people who may not feel comfortable stepping into Jewish institutions. These are all great examples of electronic Public Space JudaismSM - maximizing technology to reach those on the periphery of the Jewish community where they are, on their terms. Some might think the lack of personal contact with a rabbi doesnâ€™t fully represent Judaism, but for many it can be the first step in joining our Big Tent.
A small item in the column â€śCelebrity Newsâ€ť of the August 1st edition of the Atlanta Jewish Times caught the attention of JOIâ€™s Rabbi Kerry Olitzky. It was a blurb about how Barack Obama, when he was in the Illinois State Senate, shared an office suite with an Orthodox Jew. The piece, which was an excerpt from an article in Newsweek, explained that Obama was very curious about Jewish customs, and even offered to open electric doors for his suitemate. But the title above the blurb is what stood out â€“ â€śShabbas Goy.â€ť
At JOI, one of the principles of our Big Tent Judaism coalition is to â€ślower the barriers to participation.â€ť This includes defining â€śinsiderâ€ť terms like â€śdavenâ€ť (to pray) and eliminating offensive language, such as â€śgoyâ€ť or â€śshiksa.â€ť In response to the blurb, the paper published Kerryâ€™s letter to the editor:
In your “Celebrity Jews” column in the Aug. 1 issue, in order to make the Obama campaign relevant, your contributor uses the heading “Shabbos Goy” regarding the relationship between Ira Silverstein and the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee. It is time to stop the use of such language that excludes and offends. With the growing number of those from different religious backgrounds now part of the Jewish community, the term “goy” needs to be excluded from our vocabulary. No more need be said.
Are you ready to take this step with us â€“ to use only inclusive language that will help people feel welcome in the Jewish community?
We spend most of our time at JOI focused on expanding Judaismâ€™s Big Tent. Whether that means engaging intermarried families, recent Jews-by-choice, or anyone else who might feel they are on the periphery of the community, our goal is to let them know that we welcome them, and we want them involved. We do this through a variety of initiatives: Mothers Circle, Empowering Ruth, and Public Space JudaismSM to name just a few. One thing we have yet to try, though, is simply offering cash as an incentive to get people through the doors of Synagogues and other Jewish communal institutions.
According to a piece in the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, cash incentives are becoming more and more popular among college based Jewish organizations. We have blogged in the past about financial incentives (Jewish families who move to Dothan, Alabama can apply for hefty, interest-free loans to help with relocation), and generally they seem like a good idea. Home loans or a reduction in synagogue dues can be powerful tools of attraction, and we are strong supporters of such practices. But with those examples, the incentives are directly related to ongoing Jewish engagement â€“ cash offers no guarantee that once the person is paid, they will continue their involvement in the Jewish community.
While cash is a common theme in the article, not all programs mentioned take the same approach. In one program, called the Maimonides Fellowship, students who agree to take the money ($400 or a free trip to Israel) are obligated to commit to 10 weeks of Torah study courses. In another, called the Sinai Scholars Society, there is no such commitment, only required attendance at a three events. One college student said she was interested in participating because she was intrigued â€“ by the check for $500.
Of course itâ€™s impossible to say what kind of impact this will have on Jewish engagement. The article cites a cash-for-study program at Lake Park Synagogue in Wisconsin that was shut down after some board members became uncomfortable with the process â€“ but doesnâ€™t mention if any of the students continued to gather and study Torah when they werenâ€™t being paid to do so. Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is quoted as saying a cash payment â€śtrivializes Judaism, and it portrays secular Jews as people to be bought off.â€ť Perhaps, or maybe it will light a fire in someone who otherwise would never go to a Torah study course.
Itâ€™s an interesting method for encouraging Jewish involvement, and we will be watching closely to see how it “pays off.”
On the heels of yesterdayâ€™s blog regarding Rabbi Kerry Olitzkyâ€™s letter to the editor in support of lowering the barriers for people who want to convert to Judaism, we write today about those who are already Jewish â€“ but are still forced to â€śprove it.â€ť
An Israeli Olympic athlete, according to Seth Farber in the Israeli newspaper Haâ€™aretz, has been unable to convince the rabbinate that she is Jewish, and therefore she canâ€™t be married in Israel, the place she calls home. The athlete, Anna Gostomelsky, is a Russian immigrant who was only able to provide documentation that her father was Jewish. Despite oral testimonies from numerous individuals who claim her mother was Jewish â€“ and the fact that she leads a Jewish lifestyle â€“ without the paperwork, the rabbinate refuses to recognize her as Jewish. As Anna puts it:
â€śIn more than 150 countries in the world, not only am I Jewish, I represent the Jewish people. Only in Israel to people question my Jewishness.â€ť
While this issue generally affects people who have immigrated to Israel, Farber says that more and more, proving Judaism through paperwork is also causing hardship on native Israelis. As the founding director of ITIM: The Jewish Life Information Center, which â€śhelp Israelis navigate the rabbinateâ€™s labyrinths,â€ť he says people who have grown up in Israel as full Jews, but whose parents married outside of Israel, will find themselves having to prove their Jewishness â€“ all because one group of Orthodox Jews have set the bar dramatically high. Farber writes:
â€śRabbinical courts insist on authentication of Jewishness because the assumption that someone who claims he is a Jew is a Jew - a principle that is, incidentally, codified in the Shulhan Arukh (code of Jewish law) - has been challenged in recent years by ultra-Orthodox poskim (halakhic authorities). These rabbis claim that such an assumption can be made only so long as the claimant is an observant Jew. However, in a society whose members are secular Jews - “those who don’t act Jewish,” in their words - no such claims hold any real credence.â€ť
We have written about this before, but it still shocks and saddens when stories emerge of people who have lived their whole lives as Jews â€“ only to be told that they are not Jewish. Farber, who is also an Orthodox rabbi, understands that â€śpeople transcend the Orthodox community,â€ť and it shouldnâ€™t be up to one group to make these decisions for all.
At JOI, we believe these kinds of barriers only keep people from pursuing their Judaism. The worldwide Jewish community should be troubled by stories like Annaâ€™s, and we are thankful that rabbis like Seth Farber are around to help guide people in their pursuit of a Jewish life.
Often times, the most effective way to make an argument is to frame it as a piece of fiction. For instance, millions of children have learned over the years that â€śslow and steady wins the raceâ€ť because of Aesopâ€™s story of the tortoise and the hare. Whether thatâ€™s true or not, the message is easily received and understood.
This is how author Reuben Bibi, who has just published a book called The Decision, approaches the subject of intermarriage. The novel, according to Rabbi I. Nathan Bamberger of The Jewish Press, debunks â€śthe fallacy that intermarriage can work.â€ť
I have not read the book, but Rabbi Bambergerâ€™s synopsis and review tells me enough to know that the novel takes a decidedly anachronistic view of interfaith marriage. In a nutshell, an unengaged Reform Jewish man, Michael, marries a Catholic woman, Susan, and they have a family. When one of their children gets sick and has to go to the hospital, she concludes the illness is a result of the child never being baptized. The husband, who had met an Orthodox Jewish man in the hospital, decides that baptism is too much and reaches out to his new friend â€śand their subsequent meeting and conversation result in Michael’s momentous decision.â€ť
Though I donâ€™t know what his â€śdecisionâ€ť is, the message of the book is quite clear â€“ marry outside of Judaism, and you are putting another nail in the coffin. This is one of Michaelâ€™s quotes in the book:
“I did not want to give up my Jewish heritage…Hitler tried to destroy the Jews and failed, but here I am allowing my Jewish identity to die in a different way. I was losing no matter which way I turned.”
Clearly there is no way to salvage your Jewish identity if you marry someone of another faith!
We know from the countless people JOI has worked with over the years that this kind of thinking is remarkably backwards. This book seems to care nothing for nuance or the realities of living in a modern society. Intermarriage is less about rejecting faith than it is about living in a mixed culture. With the growing diversity of Jewish families, itâ€™s better to welcome and engage interfaith families and try to answer the question of â€śWhy be Jewish.â€ť We suggest you read Rabbi Kerry Olitzkyâ€™s book Making a Successful Jewish Interfaith Marriage to see how interfaith families can indeed lead a rewarding and meaningful Jewish life.
Rabbi Bamberger ends his review by saying that â€świth proper education the scourge of intermarriage will become a thing of the past.â€ť I hate to break it to him, but there is no way to stop intermarriage. Thatâ€™s why we have created The Mothers Circle, The Grandparents Circle and Big Tent Judaism. Around here, we believe that â€śintermarriage does not end Jewish continuity; not raising Jewish children ends Jewish continuity.â€ť The hard line approach â€“ shaming families by equating intermarriage with the Holocaust â€“ only pushes people away, and thatâ€™s a message worth fighting.
From time to time, people write into JOI to tell us how they have used our outreach programming and successfully applied it to their communities. The following message was sent to our program officer Liz Marcovitz from Elyse Chiert, who attended our 2007 conference in Washington, DC:
I just wanted to drop you a line to let you and others know that the JOI conference made a huge impact to my work and thus the Sydney Jewish community in Australia.
I hope you remember that 3 of us from The Shalom institute and Network attended the conference while we were touring the US. It took a few months for us to process what we learnt plus see the projects come to fruition. We were inspired by the conference as we learnt about many new initiates while we were there. I know you were involved with follow up after the event but as only 2 of us are running a large organisation that caters for 5000+ young adults in Sydney, I was time poor to fill in all the forms, but I think your follow up was amazing and so important.
I have sung the praises of the JOI to many people here in Sydney and we have had a number of successful events after implementing some ideas that we saw at the conference.
Here are a fewâ€¦
1. Hearing Ruth Messinger speak about social action at the conference inspired us to start social action awareness group called the â€śJewish change makers forum,â€ť and we were privileged to have Ruth speak at one of our events recently while she was visiting Sydney.
2. We have passed on our feedback to Hillel after hearing about Campus Entrepreneurs Initiative, and I believe itâ€™s on their agenda for 2009.
3. As our community is small, we combined the idea of The Mothers Circle and called our group Shalom Baby, but will be looking at holding Mothers Circle type events in the near future. We held the launch event last Friday with hundreds of mothers attending who are so excited there is now something in the community for them.
4. The PJ library idea has been a hit too, and we are currently in talks about starting this here, however we are still trying to work out how and who to deal with in the US to be able to get the books sent to Australia.
So thank you again for everything, and I wish you the best of luck with JOI as itâ€™s such an amazing organisation doing such important work.
We are excited that Elyse has been able to make such an impact on her community, and we are confident that she will continue to find success in the future. If anyone reading has their own outreach stories to share, we would love to hear them!
Declines in the American Jewish population, intermarriage and religious indifference have Jewish leaders across the nation searching for ways to increase interest in their heritage and culture.
This statement, from an article in the St. Petersburg Times of Florida, basically sums up the challenge facing most Jewish communities in North America. The Tampa Jewish Community Center is taking a unique approach to help encourage Jewish engagement among the unaffiliated population. They have opened the Jewish Discovery Museum.
The museum, â€śan interactive childrenâ€™s center that promoted Judaism through art and play,â€ť is one of a handful of Jewish discovery centers in the nation. Visitors learn biblical stories, Jewish customs, and songs. But the real motivation, beyond education, is â€śto connect with unaffiliated Jews, a term reserved for Jews who are not members of a synagogue or Jewish community group.â€ť
Lowering the barriers to participation is one of the methods we believe will lead to greater involvement in the community, and thatâ€™s just what this museum is attempting to do. According to Emilie Kuperman, the Jewish Federation and community center director:
â€śWe’re trying to really create an open tent in a way that a family would want to be involved with the Jewish community on their terms,â€ť Kuperman said. â€śThis is another way to give families an opportunity to connect.â€ť
This is a great first step. Opening day at the museum brought Jews from all denominations, and everyone spoke highly of the resources. But to truly make the museum accessible, they should take it out of the Jewish Community Center and bring it to a secular location â€“ that way they donâ€™t have to wait for people to come to them, especially the unaffiliated who arenâ€™t involved in the Jewish community. That suggestion aside, weâ€™re excited to see communities embrace new and creative ways to make our Big Tent even bigger.
Though JOI is often known for its work with those who have intermarried, we established our Big Tent Judaism campaign to emphasize the importance of being welcoming to all those who wish to engage with the Jewish community. True, intermarried couples are sometimes marginalized by the Jewish community, but so are gays and lesbians, Jews of color, Jews-by-choice, those with disabilitiesâ€¦and the list goes on. We commend the Interfaith Disability Connection for recognizing the need to â€ś[educate] and [engage] faith communities in cultivating mutually beneficial relationships with people with disabilities.â€ť
This Sunday, the Interfaith Disability Connection will be holding a discussion of acceptance and inclusion at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta: â€śThat All May Worship: Beyond The Ramp.â€ť The Atlanta area organization counts five local synagogues as members, three of which are also members of the Big Tent Judaism Coalition. The Interfaith Disability Connection provides resources to these congregations, as well as to people with disabilities and their families and caregivers. The resources include everything from the physical set up of our institutions to alternative format worship services.
The important awareness of making our Jewish institutions accessible for those with disabilities is becoming a higher and higher priority for the Jewish community. For example, according to the Cleveland Jewish News, Suburban Temple-Kol Ami renovated its sanctuary to include ramps and handrails leading up to the bimah and roomier aisles to accommodate walkers and wheelchairs, As the Jewish community continues to look to its future, we hope that accessibility becomes a high enough priority that it will no longer need to be a priority at all.