Jewish Holidays and Practices
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Around this time of year, many people write to JOI with this question:
I wanted to do something special for my friend this year for Hanukkah. However, I am not of the Jewish religion, and am having trouble finding things to put into a gift basket for her. Any suggestions?
We told her that, outside of dreidels (spinning tops), Hanukkah menorah‚Äôs (nine-armed candle holders) and Hanukkah gelt (chocolate coins), gifts for Hanukkah aren‚Äôt that different than Christmas gifts (though most Jewish families could probably use a nice new menorah). Instead, whatever she does decide to put in the basket, make sure it‚Äôs not wrapped in the traditional Christmas colors of red and green, and if she includes food to err on the side of caution and make sure it‚Äôs kosher.
Hopefully these answers will help and it was nice to see such cultural sensitivity. But it raises an interesting issue we deal with a lot at JOI as Christmas and Hanukkah approach (more so this year, since the holidays overlap). How does the non-Jewish friend or family member incorporate Hanukkah into the cultural explosion of Christmas that happens every December? With Christmas dominating the airwaves and department stores from Thanksgiving to New Year, how do you make everyone feel included in the holiday season?
Above were our suggestions ‚Äď how would you have responded to the email? What steps can people take to help make the holiday season inclusive for everyone?
Last May, a controversy erupted in Israel over the revocation of a conversion. Specifically, a woman‚Äôs status as a Jew was removed because she had not been observant enough in the eyes of the High Rabbinical Court in Israel. What was most shocking was the fact that the conversion had happened 15 years ago ‚Äď and with their ruling, the court had put into doubt thousands of conversions performed by prominent Israeli Rabbi Chaim Druckman. Six months later, the magazine Jewish Living (the article is only available online since the magazine went out of business) looked at how that ruling has affected Jews-by-choice here in America, and what the North American Jewish Community is doing in response. They write:
Perhaps most notably, the ruling has emboldened conversion activists, a loose league of lay leaders, rabbis, and academics lobbying to change what they consider an outdated, insular, and counterproductive process.
Many of the rabbis interviewed for the article (including JOI‚Äôs Rabbi Kerry Olitzky) feel that the rules surrounding conversion are outdated and in dire need of an overhaul. Rabbi Olitzky recently published an article in the journal Sh‚Äôma arguing that expanding online conversion could give ‚Äústudents access to the greatest Jewish teachers and thinkers from across the globe, regardless of denomination.‚ÄĚ Plus, connecting rabbis to students nationwide would eliminate the necessity of meeting in one place to complete the conversion process and allow far more accessibility for those interested in becoming Jewish.
But expansion and accessibility are not the only issues that need to be addressed. Some rabbis are trying to form standardized conversion requirements so if someone converts under the Reform movement, they will be accepted by conservative rabbis. According to Jewish Living:
Attempting to standardize conversion requirements, Reform and Conservative leaders in Los Angeles teamed up to form an alternative ‚Äúcommunity‚ÄĚ beit din that crosses party lines. ‚ÄúThe compromise for Reform members was conversions done more traditionally. And for Conservatives, the compromise means being more accepting of how people choose to live a Jewish life,‚ÄĚ says Rabbi Neal Weinberg, director of the Miller Introduction to Judaism Program at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles.
This idea seems to be picking up steam. In a recent article in the JTA, it was reported that the Jewish Agency, a global organization committed to a strong Jewish future, ‚Äúadopted resolutions calling on the Israeli government to establish an independent authority on Jewish conversions and special courts of Jewish law to ‚Äėallow the conversion process to move forward.‚Äô‚ÄĚ
Of course there are detractors to these ideas, but eventually there has to be a consensus. The High Rabbinical Court‚Äôs ruling put too many people in religious limbo. What people have started to realize is that no one Jewish movement can decide who is and isn‚Äôt Jewish across the board. Those who have chosen Judaism ‚Äúenhance us,‚ÄĚ said Rabbi Weinberg at the end of the Jewish Living piece. ‚ÄúWe should be welcoming to people who want to become Jewish.‚ÄĚ
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 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.