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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...
Over the last year or so I have been writing a weekly â€śword of Torah,â€ť trying to extract a message of inclusiveness from the weekly Torah portion. This approach emerges from the message of the Rabbis in Pirke Avot (5:25) who wrote â€śTurn it [the Torah] and turn it for everything is in it.â€ť This vort (as my bubbe of blessed memory used to call it in her native Yiddish) is just thatâ€”a word of Torah, something to focus our attention. Perhaps we might also call it a kavannah (or sacred mantra) because it does offer direction for our daily work at JOI, especially for our Big Tent Judaism project. This is part of what I discerned from this weekâ€™s reading of Vayakhel. The portion deals with the building of the Tabernacle, but there is also a mention of Shabbat in the building of the sanctuary.
The goal of those who built the ancient Tabernacle was to design a structure where all could feel welcomed and embraced. That is also the goal of Shabbatâ€”to create a time where all can feel welcomed and embraced.
The challenge of Shabbat is a challenge that most of us encounter, one that is particularly hard for those on the periphery of the Jewish community. How do we get into the rhythm of Jewish life? According to Jewish tradition, we receive an extra soul on Shabbat, and maybe that can give us the strength necessary to do so. After all, especially for those of us who enter the synagogue on Shabbat without Jewish memory, we will need all the help we can get.
Those who built the ancient sanctuary sought a place for meaning, as we all do. That is why they built it. And that is why we welcome all those into our community for the same reason and purpose.
Whenever I teach Torah, I like to say that the purpose of studying Torah is to learn more about ourselves and our relationship with the Divine, rather than just to learn more about the Torah. It is not an intellectual or cognitive exercise. Rather it is a spiritual activity that brings us in touch with our inner selves, how we think and feel. In the case of our weekly word of Torah, it asks the question: How inclusive do we want the Jewish community to be? How willing are we to open up the tent?
We at JOI believe that the secret to Jewish continuity is in diversity and inclusiveness. What will this weekâ€™s message motivate you to do to bring the Jewish community one step closer to our shared vision?
Over the past several years, The Jewish Outreach Institute and Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life have partnered to create a more welcoming and inclusive space for Jewishstudents on college and university campuses. We have worked together to reach out and provide opportunities for all Jewish students, specifically the unengaged, by targeting different student groups, including freshman, often referred to as FYSH (First Year Students of Hillel); graduate students; those involved in Greek Life; and students interested in environmental issues.
Recently, Hillel developed a new practice for its professionals to use in providing resources and a welcoming space for a different Jewish student population on campus: the LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer) Jewish community. This marks the first time Hillel has published material related to the LGBTQ community, and the Hillel International website states that it â€śis designed to help Hillel professionals reach out to and engage the LGBTQ Jewish student population and provides tools for welcoming and working with this growing population.â€ť The resource guide will include personal accounts from LGBTQ Jewish students, instructions for inclusive language, alternative prayers and blessings, and a listing of LGBTQ and Allied contacts and programs. Hillel President Wayne Firestone sees the importance this guide will have in â€śopening the doors for all Jewish students, of all sexual orientations and gender identities. The resource guide provides Hillel directors with practical recommendations for welcoming this important population into our Hillels.”
Here at JOI, we fully support Wayne Firestone and the Hillel professionalsâ€™ recent efforts to â€śopen the Hillel tentâ€ť to the LGBTQ community on campus. Following several of JOIâ€™s Big Tent Judaism principles, including â€śCelebrate Diversityâ€ť and â€śLower Barriers to Participation,â€ť these efforts will allow Hillel to better serve LGBTQ and Allied Jewish students. By celebrating the diversity of todayâ€™s Jewish student population and lowering the barriers to participation that may have kept this population away in the past, Hillel can truly provide a safe and welcoming space for all Jewish students.
All parents remember the first time they laid eyes on their child. But the Rosenbaumâ€™s memories also include genetic testing which confirmed their pediatricianâ€™s suspicion that their son, Michael, had Down Syndrome. In last weekâ€™s The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, Michaelâ€™s mom, Rony, elaborates on their journey to find a place for Michael in both their secular and Jewish lives. When it came time for preschool, the Rosenbaumâ€™s enrolled Michael in their local synagogueâ€™s program at Temple Israel. Rony writes:
â€śThe other kids didnâ€™t see any differences; they just saw Michael. And because it started that way, it stayed that way from nursery school through pre-K and into the templeâ€™s day school through kindergarten and first and second grades.â€ť
She continues to say that she â€śgot wonderful feedback from parents who loved having Michael at school.â€ť Eventually the Rosenbaumâ€™s had to switch Michael into another school, but for academic reasons -certainly not for issues over inclusiveness. Temple Israel clearly practices Big Tent Judaismâ€™s Principle #2: Celebrate Diversity. The administration was able to leave behind the assumptions of what Jews â€ślook likeâ€ť and how families are configured. Instead, they took Michael in immediately. Today he goes to the synagogueâ€™s religious school for three hours a week without an aide. Examples like this serve as an inspiration for us, and for all Jewish communal institutions that desire to be open and welcoming to all who approach.
While we believe that outreach is about going to where people are and not waiting for them to come to you, there are plenty of opportunities for us to maximize the opportunities when they do present themselves. During some of our training sessions, we offer synagogues and other communal institutions a variety of suggestions on how to transform a contact into an engagement opportunity. For instance, through our Big Tent Judaism initiative, our first principal is to welcome all newcomers and make sure there are no barriers for anyone who approaches the Jewish community.
That is why we were delighted to see what Rabbi Ilan Feldman of Congregation Beth Jacob in Atlanta is doingâ€”to â€śget smaller as we grow,â€ť if I might borrow a phrase out of context from the New York Cares organization. Each Shabbat, he invites people to congregate with him after services, but his method is quite unique. He chooses something arbitrary, such as â€śanyone wearing green,â€ť and whoever falls into that category is encouraged to join him for a short meet and greet. This is also a great way for him to unobtrusively welcome newcomers and introduce them to people in the synagogue. What a wonderful idea. Perhaps there are other ideas out there that we can add to the growing list of innovative outreach practices. We would love to hear them.
I was thrilled to read this headline from the latest issue of The (Boston) Jewish Advocate: â€śNon-Jewish Board Members Offer Expertise to Local JNF.â€ť I thought to myself, â€śFinally, an organization that understands how important it is to welcome in all of the members of the Jewish community, including those who arenâ€™t Jewish but who have cast their lot with the Jewish people.â€ť And while this is techniclly true for the Jewish National Fund (JNF), I realized after reading the article that I didnâ€™t get it exactly right.
The â€śnon-Jewish board membersâ€ť are basically those in the Christian community who support Israel. And I recognize that there is a lot of controversy in the organized Jewish community about this particular population. David Beatty, one of the board members mentioned in the article, said he is aware of the skepticism some Jews feel towards Christian advocates of Israel, but he and the two others joined the board because they â€śwanted to do good, and because itâ€™s a way of loving the Jewish people.â€ť
And so I ask the question that constantly plagues me: If these folks are welcome in the Jewish community and its organizations, then why shouldnâ€™t those who have married Jews, who are raising Jewish children, also be welcome? Clearly they love the Jewish people and support the community, too. So why shouldnâ€™t they be invited to sit on the boards of many of our local and national organizations?
JNF is concerned about the future of Israel and sees that future through a particular lens. Those who are not Jewish but are married to Jews and raising Jewish children are also concerned about the future of the Jewish people and see that future through yet another lens. Should we not help them to find their deserved place in our communal infrastructure as well?
Kudos to UJA-Federation for celebrating the first ever â€śInclusion Shabbatâ€ť two weeks ago! The event was written about recently in The Jewish Week, and it was described as an opportunity for synagogues from all over the New York metropolitan area to come together and â€śraise awareness about issues surrounding the inclusion of people with all of kinds of disabilities into the broad fabric of the Jewish community.â€ť At JOI, we want to lower barriers and help everyone feel comfortable in the Jewish community, and the â€śInclusive Shabbatâ€ť is exactly what our Big Tent Judaism Coalition strives to do; to welcome, engage and support all those who cast their lot with the Jewish people.
As Roberta Leiner, managing director of the Federationâ€™s Caring Commission pointed out in the article, â€śWe have an opportunity here to make sure that no Jew feels like theyâ€™re outside the Jewish community looking in.â€ť She said that families with disabled members often feel like they are not part of the standard Jewish community, but more institutions are recognizing the need to â€śreach out to everyone in order to create whole communities.â€ť Overall the Jewish community has come a long way in advocacy for those with disabilities by providing wheelchair ramps and elevators, large print books, and other aids for those with special needs. But there is still much work to be done. One way to start, if you havenâ€™t already done so, is to sign up to be in our Big Tent Judaism Coalition. The Coalition is free, and by joining you are demonstrating your desire to embrace all those in the Jewish community and encourage their increased participation in Jewish life.
All the Hollywood gossip sites are abuzz. Christina Aguilera had her son circumcised in a â€śHebrew ritual ceremony.â€ť Not only are the gossip sites running stories, but the Anglo-Jewish press is excited also. Aguilera has adopted the holidays and customs of her Jewish husband, Jordon Bratman, and she recently spoke to radio host Ryan Seacrest about the bris of her child Max:
“I’m not Jewish, my husband’s Jewish … I never really knew a lot of Jewish people growing up either, so I really had no idea about the bris and all the Jewish holidays. It’s all a learning process for me. It was a very sweet experience; we had a lot of close friends come over and experience the bris with us.â€ť
She also admits that the bris was slightly un-conventional â€“ adorning the walls of her home were balloons thatâ€¦ infallibly symbolized the eventâ€™s main attraction.
While Aguilera is celebrated for her decision, too many in the community are still unwilling to accept those woman who have cast their lot with the Jewish people by raising Jewish children. Perhaps if they had been voted singer of the year or had a platinum album on the charts, they would find similar widespread support.
As they continue to raise their child Jewish, her family and all others who have made the choice to have a Jewish home are always welcome in the Big Tent community we are trying to foster.
I Wonder how I can contact her to participate in JOIâ€™s Mothers Circleâ€”now in more than 30 communities?
In a widely reported piece of news, Jerusalemâ€™s mayor, Uri Lupolianski, recently presented the city with a plan for building a secular cemetery that would permit civil burial. This will allow Jews of all denominations to be buried in Jerusalem, and it will also be available for residents who canâ€™t be buried in a Jewish cemetery due to halacha (Jewish law).
â€śJerusalem is a pluralistic city that is committed to allowing each person to choose his way of life and the way he wishes to be buried, without any form of coercion,” Lupolianski explained.
What will the opening of a new secular cemetery in Jerusalem, the first of its kind, mean for those who have intermarried? Will it mean that intermarried Israelis, many of whom live hidden in plain site, will be able to be buried together? These are just two of the questions that are sure to arise even before they put the first shovel in the ground. Nevertheless, it is an important step forward in the evolution of â€śBig Tent Judaismâ€ť for Israel. But I guess first they have to acknowledge that intermarriage, particularly among Arabs and Jews, is taking place in increasing numbers in Israel.
While I am frequently invited as a guest to speak or to teachâ€”as was the case this past Sunday in the Providence, Rhode Island area and the Zelniker Conference on Jewish Educationâ€”I am always amazed at how much more I learn from the folks who attend my session than I am able to teach them. Here are two things that I learned while delivering the keynote presentation (on diversity in the Jewish community) and presenting two workshops (one on JOIâ€™s signature program model: Public Space JudaismSM; and one on the impact of intermarriage on the classroom).
I taught the group what I consider to be three important principles in Jewish education (borrowed/adapted from the principles of confluent education): Competency in any Jewish environment; comfort in any Jewish environment; and spiritual elevation in any Jewish environment. I mentioned, for example, that Reform Jews should be taught to be competent and comfortable in other Jewish environments. I was reminded that it is also importantâ€”if we are to create a Big Tent community that is mutually supportiveâ€”that traditional Jews have to be respectful in Reform contexts. I believe that that challenge for all of us is not to evaluate a particular institution from our perspective. Rather, we have to evaluate the institution from the inside and make sure it is the best it can offer from its own perspective.
Second, I mentioned that often when we have children of intermarriage in our classroom, we frequently assign limitations of childrenâ€™s learning to the fact that they come from an interfaith family. In reality, some of the challenges that these children faceâ€”such as the possibility of limited experiences in their homesâ€”is not different than any other family. We simply assign it to the issues emerging from an interfaith marriage. I was reminded that the â€śweâ€ť includes many teachers who are also intermarried. As much as we are concerned about the assumptions we make with regard to the students in the classroom, we should also not make any assumptions about those who are in the front of the classroom as teachers.
This is just the beginning of our work in the community. And just as the study of Torah changes us, as it does the text as we engage it, our work in Providence will undoubtedly change us as much as we hope that it will help the Providence Jewish community achieve the inclusiveness it desires.