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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...
This past summer, we blogged about numerous articles in which it was evident the Conservative movement has started to shift their approach towards intermarriage within their synagogues and congregations. But after reading an article in this weekâ€™s Washington Jewish Week by Conservative rabbi Gil Steinlauf of Adas Israel Congregation, weâ€™re even more confident that this shift towards welcoming and inclusion is here to stay.
Adapted from his Rosh Hashanah sermon, Rabbi Steinlauf believes that we need to move beyond just â€śtoleratingâ€ť those of other religious backgrounds in our midst to a â€śplace of real acceptance.â€ť He recognizes the challenge faced by balancing halacha (Jewish law) with the realities of intermarriage, but believes that we can â€“ and should â€“ do what we can to â€śjoyfully welcome allâ€ť into our celebrations and community. He writes:
A new paradigm of Jewish life is not a weakening of the bonds that have held us together. It is not a free-for-all with no limits or respect for what we have always been. It is an affirmation of our strength. We have nothing to fear. We proudly stand for a 3,000 year old heritage; a rich universe unto itself of learning, of community, of connection, of wisdom, of culture, of music, of thought, of joy that we are strong enough to share with all human beings. The more we proudly open up to the world and celebrate who we are, the more we lovingly allow others into our celebration, the more we will be strengthened.
His words are quite moving and they demonstrate that there is ample room within our big tent to welcome and embrace all who approach. Preaching fear of intermarriage has been a demonstrable failure, leading to an exodus from Judaism those who didnâ€™t marry a Jew. Rabbi Steinlauf believes each human being is â€śworthy of being welcomed into the joy, the holiness of am Yisrael, the Jewish people â€“ in any way that they can be.â€ť We couldnâ€™t agree more, and we hope those who heard his sermon â€“ and now those who have read it â€“ come away with the same enthusiasm for promoting a warm and welcoming Jewish community.
We at the Jewish Outreach Institute recently learned about your possible impending nuptials to Marc Mezvinsky. We know the rumors circulating about your Marthaâ€™s Vineyard wedding are just rumors, but we wish Marc and you mazal tov (congratulations) should you wed in the future.
In case you havenâ€™t heard of us, JOI is an organization that welcomes interfaith families and unaffiliated Jews into the Jewish community. If you decide you want to learn more about the Jewish community and the faith of your fiancĂ©, we offer a variety of programs and services that might interest Marc and you:
- The Mothers Circle provides mothers of other religious backgrounds with education and skills to raise Jewish children;
- Empowering Ruth is a resource for women who have recently converted to Judaism;
- How Should I Know is a brand new JOI program for men like Marc in committed interfaith relationships;
- And if you are in search of a warm, welcoming and inclusive Jewish community, check out our directory of Big Tent Judaism coalition members.
In the meantime, feel free to contact any of us at JOI if you have any questions about the Jewish community.
The Jewish Outreach Institute
Earlier this year, First Hebrew Congregation of Peekskill offered two parenting workshops at a local Barnes & Noble. One of the workshops focused on making Passover meaningful for young children, while the other looked at bedtime and the early morning through the lens of traditional Jewish prayer.
The two programs were part of a recent initiative called â€śBuilding Our Jewish Homeâ€ť that was launched last year by the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaismâ€™s New York Metropolitan Region. In a recent article in the (New York) Jewish Week, Rabbi Cara Rosenthal, the education coordinator for this two-year program, said the purpose of the program is â€śto reach people where they are and fill needs that are not being met.â€ť
Rosenthal explained that one of the benefits of having programming outside the synagogue is that there may be people who are â€śintrigued by Jewish topics, but not comfortable with them.â€ť This approach respects the various levels of affiliation among individuals and families in the area without pressuring them to join a congregation. Instead, the initiative helps encourage participation on a more personal level. She continued:
â€śA neutral location helps. These are bright and well-educated people who are used to feeling mastery. Theyâ€™re not feeling that kind of mastery in the Jewish setting. We also want to make people feel comfortable with their level of Jewish knowledge, not like theyâ€™re behind the eight ball.â€ť
Here at JOI, we couldnâ€™t agree more. In our work with organizations around the country, we often advise holding programming in secular neutral spaces like bookstores, grocery stores, and community fairs - what we call Public Space Judaism. People may feel uncomfortable in a Jewish setting, and holding the program in a different space helps remove a potential barrier to participation: location. By addressing this issue, First Hebrew Congregation of Peekskill is trying to â€ślower barriers to participation,â€ť one of the principles of our Big Tent Judaism Coalition. We look forward to hearing more about the programming that is a part of the â€śBuilding Our Jewish Homeâ€ť initiative, and we hope that many of the events continue to remove barriers that prevent individuals from participating fully in Jewish life.
As synagogues prepare for the High Holidays, many face challenges that come from the large number of people who walk through their doors. They have to balance accessibility with security, space, and cost. But are those the only areas to look at?
Bnai Keshet, a congregation in Montclair, NJ, is addressing accessibility from another angle â€“ they are offering High Holiday services that are accessible to individuals who are deaf, hard of hearing, or hearing impaired. According to an article in the New Jersey Jewish News, the Reconstructionist synagogue will use an open captioning system known as Communication Access Real-Time Translation (or CART) which translates (via a stenographer) the spoken word into text on a screen.
The assistant rabbi, Rabbi Darby Leigh, said the decision to offer services that are accessible to the deaf is about becoming a â€śwhole community.â€ť
â€śThe mainstream Jewish community is not whole, full or complete, if we do not give every Jew who wants to be here the ability to be here,â€ť he said. â€śWhile we say we want to have an open door, we do not have it if we are not making it possible for Jews of varying abilities and disabilities to comeâ€ť to services.
Rabbi Darbyâ€™s comments fit nicely within the principles of our Big Tent Judaism Coalition. Big Tent Judaism organizations, of which Bnai Keshet is a member, strive to remove any barriers that prevent individuals from participating fully in Jewish life. For some organizations, that could be offering open captioning. For others, that might be something different. What are you doing to help make sure your institution is open and accessible for all who approach?
Every year there is a big debate as to whether or not people should have to buy advance tickets to attend High Holiday services. Known as â€śpay to pray,â€ť this practice, while beneficial from a financial standpoint, can also be seen as a cost barrier for people who want to attend synagogue on what many consider the holiest days of the year.
JOI weighed in on the matter with an op-ed in the daily Metro newspaper, which is published in New York, Boston and Philadelphia. We believe people shouldnâ€™t have to pay to pray, especially this year when we have such high unemployment and a sour economy. Giving someone the opportunity to experience the High Holidays for free might encourage them to come back and even pay annual dues.
Through our Big Tent Judaism Coalition, we have heard from many places across the country that offer free High Holiday services. Temple Adat Shalom in Poway, CA has a number of services with free admission, and Congregation Shirat Hayam in Marshfield, MA is free for all who approach. You can also check out BTJâ€™s Directory of Welcoming Organizations to find synagogues and congregations in your area that might offer free or reduced cost tickets for the High Holidays.
Nationally, Chabad also offers an easy and accessible online search for free High Holiday services everywhere from â€śAlabama to Wisconsin.â€ť And as they did last year, Nashuva is working with JewishTVnetwork.com to stream its Yom Kippur services. Anyone with an internet connection will be able to participate. Last year the service drew an estimated audience of 200,000 from all over the world.
We urge you to contact your local Jewish federations to find out if there are any free High Holiday services being offered in your area, or if any congregations offer reduced cost tickets for non-members. No one should be shut out on these holidays. And if you know of free services in your area, we invite you to leave comments on this blog with information!
To read the article in its entirety, click the link below.
There is a great article on the website JewishinStLouis.org by Rabbi Hyim Shafner of Bais Abraham Congregation in St. Louis (whose writings can also be found at www.morethodoxy.org). As an Orthodox rabbi, he understands the need for maintaining tradition and that Orthodoxy â€śis by definition something that has walls and limits.â€ť The walls, he says, are supposed to protect them from potential evil from without, but â€śwhat happens when those walls keep out important Jewish values such as Jewish unity, loving the Jewish people and oneâ€™s neighbors, and engaging all the Jewish people in Jewish life?â€ť
He uses the example of an intermarried family. What rituals can the spouse of another background partake in during services? Can the family even become members? When and intermarried family â€“ or LGBT Jews, or Jews who donâ€™t keep kosher â€“ approaches and wants to become involved, what do you do?
Rabbi Shafnerâ€™s response is simple, and one we wholeheartedly agree with: â€śI believe we must err, in an extreme way, on the side of welcoming.â€ť He writes that when there seems to be a conflict between the â€śrealm of laws between us and others than between us and G-d,â€ť we must be stricter in the laws between us and others. For example, he recounts the tale of Abraham greeting the strangers. Abraham left Godâ€™s presence to greet idol worshipers because being welcoming is paramount.
Abrahamâ€™s actions should serve as a blueprint for how we act towards anyone who approaches the Jewish community, regardless of background (and itâ€™s this episode that inspired us to create the Big Tent Judaism Coalition). The barriers we have erected over the years may have kept out some evils, but at what cost? We know what happens when these walls keep out important Jewish values â€“ we end up with shrinking affiliation rates and less Jewish participation.
In this upcoming New Year, letâ€™s all strive to remove those barriers that keep unaffiliated individuals and families from finding a deeper connection to Judaism. The warmth with which we welcome all those who approach will lead to a more engaged and dynamic Jewish community.
Conservative Judaism, the journal of the Conservative movement, has a fascinating article on why Ruth is often referred to as the first true Jew-by-Choice. Robert Goldenberg, professor of History and Judaic studies at Stony Brook University, wonders what about Ruthâ€™s story makes her stand out when compared to others in our history that preceded Ruth in their affirmations of Judaism.
He focuses on two people: Rahab and Naaman. Rahab was an innkeeper who shelters two Jewish spies in Jericho. Rahab explains her willingness to help these two despite punishment if discovered by acknowledging â€śthe ability of Israelâ€™s god to dominate the present situation.â€ť Her affirmation was for self preservation.
Naaman, an Aramean general, came down with leprosy and was cured by listening to the prophet Elisha, who told him to bathe in the Jordan River. He too acknowledges the power of the god of Israel, but â€śreserves the right to go on worshipping his own god Rimmon.â€ť
Which brings us to Ruth. Why is she the â€śmodel convert?â€ť Why did we name our program for women Jews-by-choice Empowering Ruth? Goldenberg offers a couple of theories, such as how her lineage leads to King David, or how her â€ścharacter is immensely appealing.â€ť But most importantly, she chose Judaism for nothing more than a deep sense of loyalty to the Jewish people. Rahab feared for her life, Naaman didnâ€™t give up his other God. Of the three, only Ruth did so voluntarily.
This is why Ruthâ€™s story abides. â€śRuth is the model of a modern convert, someone for whom becoming a Jew means joining a nation or a people more than acknowledging a god,â€ť Goldenberg writes. She left her own people to become part of a new community, and â€śmodern readers know what it must have meant for Ruth to leave a family behind and adopt the heritage of stranger.â€ť We look to Ruth because she made a tremendous sacrifice, and through her example we should always make sure our doors are open for everyone who seeks to become part of our community.
The San Diego Jewish Journal has a great feature story this month on the Big Tent Judaism Coalition, our advocacy platform which calls on synagogues and Jewish institutions to engage and support all those seeking a welcoming and inclusive Jewish community.
Just over two years old, Big Tent Judaism already has 300 members who have made the pledge to follow our framework of 10 Principles that facilitate a more open and welcoming community. These include: Welcome All Newcomers; Celebrate Diversity; Offer â€śFree Samplesâ€ť; Deepen Jewish Engagement; Provide Quality â€śCustomer Serviceâ€ť; Lower Barriers to Participation; Increase Points of Access; Create Partnerships; Enlist Active Members for Outreach; and Better Best Practices.
While weâ€™re delighted with the growth and the enthusiasm for the coalition, the article notes we still have a lot of work to do â€“ especially on the West coast. Paul Golin, JOIâ€™s associate executive director, said despite our success weâ€™re still in the recruitment stage, but as the Coalition continues to attract more institutions word will spread.
This is true, especially with the High Holidays right around the corner. We know this is the one of the few times of year when unaffiliated folks willingly walk through our doors, so we have an amazing opportunity to engage with them. Now is a good time for synagogues to take a look at Big Tent Judaism to discover what we have to offer. â€śThe principles of Big Tent Judaism are intended to help remove the unnecessary barriers weâ€™ve erected that keep many people from participating in communal life,â€ť Paul said. Letâ€™s start the Jewish New Year off right by making sure our doors are open and we are doing everything we can to get people excited about being a part of the Jewish community.
If you would like to be counted among those who are working to shape a more inclusive Jewish community, join the big tent coalition by signing up or contacting Paul Golin at PGolin@JOI.org. We look forward to hearing from you!