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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...
The Bronfman Youth Fellowship in Israel program (BYFI), which ‚Äúeducates and inspires exceptional young Jews from diverse backgrounds to become active participants in Jewish culture throughout their lives,‚ÄĚ recently put out the first edition of the BYFI alumni magazine. One of the articles that came to our attention was titled ‚ÄúThe Blessings and Burdens of Raising Jewish Children: Reflections from BYFI Alumni and Staff.‚ÄĚ It consists of recollections from four families ‚Äď two in-married, two intermarried - and their thoughts on raising Jewish children. It‚Äôs the two stories from the intermarried families that really stood out.
In one, the Jewish partner in a same-sex interfaith relationship talks about how she and her partner decided to raise a Jewish child. Knowing full well that the child ‚Äúmay find himself in places where he is not accepted as a Jew,‚ÄĚ the two mothers plan on giving him a strong Jewish identity. ‚ÄúI need to pass my Judaism to him from my heart, not my blood or my genes or my curly hair,‚ÄĚ wrote BYFI alum Leah Oppenzato. ‚ÄúThat is my challenge. And I fully accept.
In another, BYFI staff member Ava Charne recalls a Rosh Hashanah sermon in which the rabbi talked about how ‚Äúintermarriage would be the demise of the Jewish religion.‚ÄĚ This sermon, she felt, was directed at her and her Italian husband, Vince. Determined to prove the rabbi wrong, she went on to raise her family Jewish, living out what we have been saying for years at JOI ‚Äď intermarriage doesn‚Äôt end Jewish continuity. Not raising Jewish children does.
The theme throughout all of the stories is community. Whether the couple was same-sex, intermarried, or in-married, each found a home in the Jewish community that supported and accepted their lifestyles. The result? Four happy Jewish families. The diversity of the BYFI alum and staff and their commitment to Judaism demonstrate that just because families might not be traditional, that doesn‚Äôt mean there is no place for them in our Big Tent.
At JOI, we have said before that there is a big difference between non-Jews and non-Halachic Jews. And one of the most contentious areas of this disconnect is in the issue of patrilineal descent. Children of intermarriage where the father is Jewish but the mother is not might be non-Halachic Jews, but they should never be called non-Jews - especially if they are raised in a Jewish home. They should have equal status as Jews within the Jewish community.
While this might be an issue never agreed upon across the denominations, it should at least be standardized within the ones that accept it. That‚Äôs what recently happened in Australia, according to an article in the Australian Jewish News. Just ahead of the biennial conference for the Union for Progressive Judaism, their rabbinical council, called the Moetzah, has ‚Äústandardized their recognition of congregant Jewish status by patrilineal descent, clearing away anomalies that have dogged the movement for a quarter of a century.‚ÄĚ
Following in the footsteps of the American Reform movement, since 1983 the UPJ had ‚Äúconferred Jewish status on individuals whose father was Jewish,‚ÄĚ but only after individual congregations of the UPJ applied different tests called ‚Äútimely acts of identification,‚ÄĚ such as circumcision, Jewish education, or a Bar/Bat Mitzvah. Now, if a person is considered Jewish by one congregation under the UPJ, they will be accepted by all congregations under the UPJ.
Trying to define who is Jewish is becoming harder and harder in the context of expanding Jewish diversity. We should be making it easier for those who identify as Jewish to feel more welcome and included. Hopefully the UPJ‚Äôs decision will stand as a model and become more popular as a new generation of children of intermarriage grow and become a stronger part of the Jewish community.
If I recall my teenage youth group memories correctly, what comes to mind is certainly not a bastion of tolerance for difference.
Maybe it was just adolescent growing pains and hormones, or my super awkward stage falling victim to the teasing of the ‚Äúcool kids,‚ÄĚ but I definitely remember dreading some ‚Äúpizza drop-ins‚ÄĚ as much as my weekly visits to the orthodontist.
For kids with special needs, youth groups can be even more exclusionary. A lack of physically accessible programs and social environments welcoming of those with developmental challenges or physical differences can inhibit engagement. But the Jewish youth group BBYO is working hard to change all that. In a recent article in the Washington Jewish Week, we learned that the DC chapter of BBYO is kicking off what they are calling the Kol Echad Youth (KEY) program.
Kol Echad Youth (Kol Echad in Hebrew means One Voice)‚Äôs goal is, ‚Äúfostering personal growth, promoting acceptance and broadening social opportunities for Jewish teens across the community.‚ÄĚ
The beautiful thing about BBYO‚Äôs program is that, as with all BBYO‚Äôs chapters, the groups are teen led. KEY empowers teens to reach out to their differently-abled peers and build bridges to create a community inclusive of all and embracing of difference. In preparation for the kick-off, 19 teens participated in sensitivity training to gain insight into the learning and physical differences their peers may have.
To take it one step further, KEY is open to any teen, with no requirement of BBYO membership.
One BBYO alumnus who brings his 16 year-old son to the chapter said, ‚ÄúTo be able to bring [Ben] here with other kids is a mitzvah [good deed or commandment] on so many levels.‚ÄĚ
I hope that this initiative by BBYO, a Big Tent Judaism Coalition member, can serve as an example for youth groups and organizations nationwide. Take a moment to consider if YOUR group‚Äôs programs are accessible for teens who are differently-abled, whether they are already engaged or potential newcomers. What can you do to make that rock climbing/ice-skating/laser-tag event open to all? How can you sensitize all teens that you engage with to embrace the differences of their peers, no matter how apparent those differences may be?
On November 4, 2008, most were focused on the monumental election of our nation‚Äôs first President of color, Barack Obama. Obama‚Äôs ascension to America‚Äôs highest office represented a transformative shift in culture and society that will change our country for generations to come.
As I danced in the streets outside my apartment with strangers who set their politics aside to recognize the historic occasion, I quickly forgot about the number of ballot measures weighing in on the rights of some American citizens to marry whom they please.
Last Tuesday, California joined Florida and Arizona in passing ballot measures that declared same-sex marriage unconstitutional in the states‚Äô constitutions.
Much of the media glare focused on the mobilization of evangelical Christian and Mormon organizations who worked to pass the ban. And the projectmarriage.com website includes a testimonial from an Orthodox Rabbi in favor of Proposition 8. But not all religious leaders joined the campaign to pass Prop 8. A number of rabbis and lay leaders leveraged their positions to advocate for the rights of gay and lesbian couples.
Jewish organizations and individuals alike formed a cohesive movement in parts of California to oppose the ban and state clearly that the LGBT community deserves equal rights in the eyes of the law and society. While the ban eventually passed in California, the JTA reports that Jews in Los Angeles voted overwhelmingly (78%) against the ban.
Despite this defeat, I hope that the Jewish community continues to advocate for inclusiveness and equal rights both in the secular world and the Jewish community itself. We can take this moment to look inside the community at our policies, our attitudes and our actions to consider whether or not we welcome all as equal stakeholders in our community.
As the Big Tent Judaism coalition principles state, we must ‚ÄúLeave behind assumptions about what Jews ‚Äėlook like‚Äô, or how families are configured and welcome all.‚ÄĚ
Once we reach that point, then I‚Äôll really be dancing in the streets!
At JOI, we were thrilled to read Rabbi Charles Sherman‚Äôs pulpit review of Twenty Things for Grandparents of Interfaith Grandchildren To Do (And Not Do) To Nurture Interfaith Jewish Identity in Their Grandchildren, which he calls ‚Äúa very sensitive guide which does not pull punches or try to disguise threats and challenges. I believe it is as valuable for parents in an interfaith family as for grandparents to whom the advice is most directed.‚ÄĚ You can read the full text of his sermon below.
JOI‚Äôs programs like The Mothers Circle and the Grandparents Circle help to build more welcoming communities. But JOI does not work alone; we are supported in our work by communities across the country — communities like Rabbi Sherman‚Äôs Temple Israel of Tulsa. There is still a lot to be done to make all of our communities more welcoming. Rabbi Sherman‚Äôs community is clearly on that path. We at JOI hope that other communities also start along that path.
Pulpit Review by Rabbi Charles P. Sherman
September 26, 2008Twenty Things for Grandparents of Interfaith Grandchildren To Do (And Not Do) To Nurture Jewish Identity in Their Grandchildren
By Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky and Paul Golin
The Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) is a national independent, non-denominational organization dedicated to creating a more inclusive Jewish community. The Schusterman Family Foundation has been a major supporter of JOI. JOI works especially with interfaith families by creating new programs to help such families, to change the culture of the Jewish community, and even to transform the institutions in our Jewish communities where necessary. Its Executive Director is Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, a Reform colleague. JOI‚Äôs Assistant Executive Director is Paul Golin. Together Olitzky and Golin have written this short volume with the long title — Twenty Things for Grandparents of Interfaith Grandchildren To Do (And Not Do) To Nurture Jewish Identity in Their Grandchildren. It was published last year.
Friends, there is an important distinction between simple and simplistic. As I began this book I thought it was simplistic—and I was wrong. It offers direct, straight-forward, tachlis—which means ‚Äúnuts and bolts,‚ÄĚ down-to-earth—advice. But it is not simplistic. It is not, as I even wrote in the margin of one page, simply ‚Äúa pep talk for readers.‚ÄĚ Rather it is a very sensitive guide which does not pull punches or try to disguise threats and challenges. I believe it is as valuable for parents in an interfaith family as for the grandparents to whom the advice is mostly directed.
At JOI, we often use holidays as a method for reaching interfaith families and unaffiliated members of the community - for instance, Passover in the Matzah Aisle. But focusing on holidays that come once a year makes it easy to overlook a holiday that offers an opportunity for outreach every week of the year: Shabbat. Our executive director Rabbi Kerry Olitzky often notes that on Shabbat we bless our children through Ephraim and Manasseh, the interfaith grandchildren of our biblical patriarch Jacob (who Jacob took as his own).
Shabbat carries a strong message of inclusion ‚Äď and one that can be an effective tool of outreach. That‚Äôs why we‚Äôre happy to see the organization Interfaithways will be hosting their second annual Interfaith Family Shabbat Weekend. From Nov. 14-16, according to the Jewish Exponent, interfaith families in the Delaware Valley (which covers the Philadelphia metropolitan area) will be able to go to 52 synagogues that have:
‚Ä¶ committed to offer special free programs including Shabbat dinners; performances of “Two Become One: Reflections on Interfaith Families,” an interactive performance piece by Theatre Ariel that sparks discussion about identity, holiday celebrations, religious rituals and family dynamics; ceremonies honoring and blessing interfaith families raising Jewish children; and educational speakers and resource materials.
Gari Julius Weilbacher, managing director of Interfaithways, says the goal of the weekend, and of the organization, is ‚Äúto reach out to the whole interfaith family; mom and dad, their parents and their children, and encourage their comfortable participation in Jewish life-cycle events and holiday celebrations.‚ÄĚ But it‚Äôs also about more than getting them to come to one event ‚Äď they want to create a community where interfaith families and the unaffiliated want to come back. ‚ÄúWhen these families feel accepted by and comfortable in the Jewish community there is a potential for them to affiliate Jewishly,‚ÄĚ said Interfaithways founder Leonard Wasserman.
In our vision statement at JOI, we state: ‚ÄúThe future of the North American Jewish community will be determined by the warmth, wisdom and caring with which we welcome and engage intermarried families and unaffiliated Jews into our midst.‚ÄĚ We have spent the last 20 years following that vision, and we know conclusively that lowering barriers to participation and truly opening doors to all who are interested will have positive results. Interfaithways knows this to be true as well, which is why we have invited both Rabbi Rayzel Raphael and Rabbi Mayer Selekman of Interfaithways to participate in our upcoming Outreach Conference in Philadelphia. They are great partners in outreach towards interfaith families, and it‚Äôs great to see them coordinating such a large scale effort to reach these folks.