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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 has been a mini-explosion in the last couple of years of what are called âindependent minyanim.â These are Jewish prayer gatherings that take place outside of not just the physical space of a synagogue, but outside of any movement, too. And it appears that most of those who attend independent minyanim are folks who grew up in the Conservative movement. Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ), recently wrote an opinion piece explaining that these prayer groups should have a home inside of Conservative synagogues:
âIf we want to grow in numbers and strength, if we want to inspire passion and commitment, we have to welcome those Jews who live our values and ideology outside of our synagogues to do it inside our synagogues instead.â
That would be great for all Jews who for one reason or another have chosen to disengage from the community â including intermarried families and adult children of intermarriage. We know there are thousands of intermarried couples and their adult children who live the âvalues and ideologyâ of the Conservative movement and would probably love to do so with a congregation, but still feel there âis no place for them and their Judaism in the Conservative synagogue.â
But there is plenty of room. Rabbi Epstein makes the distinction between âsynagoguesâ and âcongregationsâ by saying a synagogue is an actual space, but a congregation is more of a community. What would happen, he asks, if we invite all of these independent groups â these alternative congregations â to pray together under one synagogue roof? There would be a âdiversity of style,â but wouldnât Judaism benefit from a willingness to engage all those on the periphery?
Rabbi Epstein makes an impassioned plea for inclusion, and he âhas pressed for new openness toward intermarried families, actively reaching out to patrilinial and potential Jews,â according to the USCJ website. We have worked with enough Conservative synagogues and congregations to know his ideas are spreading, and we certainly welcome his call for a more open Conservative movement.
New findings from the American Religious Identification Survey show us why outreach is more important than ever before. The survey shows how âcontemporary Americans identify themselves religiously, and how that self-identification has changed over the past generation,â according to the surveyâs website. What they found was that 15 percent of Americans now claim no religion.
Hereâs what they found in the Jewish community. Those who define themselves as âculturally Jewishâ remained steady, but the number of people who identify as âreligiously Jewishâ dropped. The principal author of the study, Barry Kosmin, said in the New York Jewish Week that he wasnât surprised about the results, pointing to growing intermarriage rates and a âdrift from religious affiliationâ as a couple of reasons for the decline.
But there are two problems with the survey. First, as Kosmin notes, the survey âis not the total ethnic Jewish population,â so if they were included our numbers would probably higher. Second, for the folks who are leaving, the survey doesnât tell us why. It just says they are. For instance: If intermarriage is indeed playing a role in the decline, then what are we doing to help these families experience the value and meaning of Judaism? People donât just stop being Jewish if they intermarry. Are we doing enough to reach these families, or are our efforts coming up short? The same goes for the people who are simply drifting away. What are we doing to engage them on their terms and increase their participation in Jewish life?
The answers lie with us. We need to continue to work across denominational lines to better identify and meet the needs of the intermarried, unaffiliated, multiracial, LGBT, adult children of intermarriage, and all others who find themselves on the periphery on our community. The warmth in which we welcome all these folks is what will determine our future.
People often call me a foodie. And because Iâm a vegetarian environmentalist, sometimeâs Iâm called âa crunchy tree-hugger.â I donât always feel like I fit these descriptions, but I still walk away flattered by these âlabels.â Call me crazy, but I like it when people label me based on things I am passionate about and work actively towards.
As Jim Keen wrote in a recent column in the Detroit Jewish News, âOur society craves labels. We love to know how to identify and classify objects, places and people.â
But labels can also make people or a group feel excluded. Jim identified a struggle that JOI has long championed: inclusive language and inclusive labels, specifically the language we use to refer to those in our community who have religious backgrounds other than Judaism. All too often individuals who contribute much to our community are referred to using words that are explicitly derogatory (is my mother who has been a member of a synagogue for 20 years, a âstrangerâ), or in a language that only the âinsideâ know intimately.
Jim tackled this issue in his column and challenged the Jewish community to find another wordâhe resorts to Spanish: otrafe or, âother faith.â We at JOI do our best to also include what people âareâ rather than what they âarenât.â The moms in our Mothers Circle program arenât non-Jewish women raising Jewish children; they are mothers of other religious backgrounds raising Jewish children. We still need to work to overcome that challenge of negatively identifying individuals who are an integral part of our community. While difference and diversity are beautiful and contribute to the strength of the Jewish community, how can we derail that language of inequality and instead embrace the diversity in a proactive manner?
I appreciate Jimâs sentiment and, while he might not have the perfect solution, I agree with many of his challenges to the words currently employed to refer to ânon-Jewsâ who are a part of our community. Look out for JOIâs continuing efforts to create a vocabulary that identifies what these folks are, as opposed to what they are not, in a language that we can all understand.
There is an interesting new study going on at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. Professors Noah Leavitt and Helen Kim, who are also husband and wife, are âworking on a study of intermarriage between Asian and Jewish Americans,â according to a recent article in JT News, Washington State’s Jewish newspaper.
They are working on the study for two reasons: First, they said âthereâs little research on the subject and almost nothing examining Jewish-Asian interracial and interfaith marriage.â Second, they personally âfit the demographic of the types of couples weâre interested in.â
The study is only about a month old, and the two are still in the stages of collecting stories from Asian and Jewish intermarried couples. They have also teamed up with Beâchol Lashon, a San Francisco based organization devoted to promoting Jewish multiculturalism. According to their website, the study will âexamine the racial, ethnic, and religious identities of Asian-Jewish couples and families.â
Through our Big Tent Judaism initiative, we try to challenge people to rethink the notion of what Jews look like and who is a Jew. This is an important idea, especially since there is a growing racial diversity among Jews. Hopefully this study will shed some light into the lives and practices of Asian and Jewish intermarried couples, and it will help us as we continue to break down barriers to Jewish participation and strengthen our community.