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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...
A few months ago, the Jewish Outreach Institute — as part of our Big Tent Judaism Initiative — released a pocket glossary of commonly used Jewish community words. We distributed copies of the glossary, which we called âCracking the Code: A pocket glossary of commonly used Jewish Words,â to the over 250 members of the Big Tent Judaism Coalition to provide to newcomers to the Jewish community. We also established a webpage for those who would like to learn more about the acronyms, Hebrew words and Yiddishisms that comprise the âlanguage of the Jewish community.â
In honor of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which begins on Monday, September 29 at sundown, we provide you with this supplement to our pocket glossary: âCracking the Code: A blogged glossary for Rosh Hashanah.â
Rosh Hashanah: Literally Hebrew for âhead of the year.â Marks the beginning of a new Jewish year.
Shofar: Ramâs horn sounded in synagogue on Rosh Hashanah.
Tekiah, Shevarim, Teruah, Tekiah Gedolah: Names for the sounds of the various shofar blasts.
Mahzor: Prayer book used on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Shana Tova (UâMetukah): Literally Hebrew for âgood (and sweet) year.â Common Rosh Hashanah greeting.
From all of us at JOI, we would like to wish you a happy, healthy and inclusive New Year!
The Jewish community is continually evolving and discovering innovative ways to reach out and make sure everyone can find meaning in Judaism. We believe such progress helps strengthen our community, and that is why we were excited to learn of the publishing of two prayer books developed to meet the needs of LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) Jews. Ben Harris of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency writes about the prayer books from Congregation Beth Simchat Torah in New York and Congregation Shaâar Zahav in San Francisco in âGay shuls in N.Y., S.F. set to release prayer booksâ
Both congregations had been using spiral bound versions of the prayer books internally, but they will now be made available to a wider audience. The prayer books include traditional liturgy as well as prayers that have been adapted and made more inclusive. Harris writes:
Though both works include the staples of Jewish worship in traditional form, they also feature liturgical changes that aim to make the service less exclusively male and heterosexual. CBST’s prayer book, Siddur B’chol L’Vav’cha (âWith All Your Heartâ), for example, compares God’s rejoicing not to a bride and groom, as in the traditional version of the Shabbat evening L’cha Dodi prayer, but to the more general âheart [that] rejoices in love.â
In addition to some of their more subtle adaptations, the prayer books address lifecycle events specific to the LGBT populations. For example, the Shaâar Zahav prayer book includes âprayers for the onset of puberty and menopause, a first kiss, taking an HIV test, being single and coming out regarding one’s sexual orientation.â
âGender neutrality is now standard practice in Conservative and Reform prayer books,â Harris writes, and we see this is a reflection of the increasingly diverse Jewish community. By developing this new prayer book, congregations like Beth Simchat Torah and Shaâar Zahav, which open their gates to Jews of all sexual orientations, have provided a much needed resource for any synagogue that wishes to better include LGBT Jews, their partners and their families.
One of the ways we at JOI measure success in outreach is through increased participation. Getting someone to attend a program or sign up for a mailing is one step â engaging them in the Jewish community for the long term is our desired goal. This gets harder in places that already have a small Jewish population â there are fewer resources, fewer institutions, and a fewer number of Jews to help establish a community. Furthermore, there are more unaffiliated and interfaith families. That was a problem for the Jews of Park City, Utah. But, according to a feature in the Jerusalem Post, they have found a way to grow and strengthen their Jewish community, and they have the numbers to prove it.
There is only one synagogue in town, Temple Har Shalom, and over the last ten years their membership has grown from a few dozen families to more than 300. One reason for the expansion is a larger overall population in Park City. Another reason, according to Adam Bronfman, who helped establish the synagogue, is because âwe open the doors. We let people in.â
Bronfman and many others in the Park City Jewish community believe that the future of the Jewish community lies in their âtemplate for drawing Jews in rather than turning them away.â This is especially true in a time of greater diversity within the Jewish community than we have ever seen before. The philosophy behind the synagogue, Bronfman says, is to provide a place where people can explore Judaism on their own terms. The article explains:
The experiment, he says, is to create âan authentic Judaism that opens the doors completely, that doesnât have a threshold, a litmus test, a bar which one must step over to come in the door,â elaborating that interested participants of any denomination, observance level, sexual orientation, socio-economic level and not necessarily Jewish background are invited in.
Even Rabbi Benny Lau, from the Modern Orthodox movement, acknowledges that while the approach wonât work for the Orthodox system, there is something positive in the methods of Temple Har Shalom. âThey found 300 families that were lost. They found them. Thatâs a miracle.â
People will always disagree on the best way to guarantee Jewish continuity, but one thing is clear â Temple Har Shalom has found a template that works. It took the whole community to help make this work, but Adam Bronfman played a key role. Through his familyâs charitable foundation, The Samuel Bronfman Foundation, he has helped create a working example of successful outreach in Park City. For his commitment to the unity and growth of the Jewish community, JOI is honoring him on October 27th at our annual tribute dinner. He exemplifies everything we believe in â and we are proud to have him as a partner as we embrace intermarried families and unengaged Jews, and encourage their increased participation in Jewish life.
Heightened security is an unfortunate yet necessary practice at many religious institutions during the High Holidays. But the presence of metal detectors or bag checkers can be a deterrent for newcomers, particularly the friends and family of diverse religious backgrounds who may accompany us â many of whom might be going to synagogue for the first time.
In light of this, JOIâs Rabbi Kerry Olitzky and Rabbi Edward Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, CA published an op-ed in the JTA offering suggestions on how to make sure that during the High Holidays, the added security can be used to keep shuls safe but friendly. One of the principles of our Big Tent Judaism coalition is to lower barriers to participation so everyone feels welcome. No one should feel like they canât enter a synagogue, especially on these days.
I would invite everyone reading this blog to think about what you can do to help our synagogues continue to be warm and welcoming houses of worship.
“Open for us the gates at the time of their closing.”
Worshippers conclude their Yom Kippur prayers every year with this refrain — a final supplication to be sealed in the Book of Life — during the Neilah Shearim service that closes the holiday.
Neilah Shearim, more commonly known as Neilah, literally means, “locking the gates.” As we pray for the metaphorical heavenly gates of forgiveness to remain open this Yom Kippur, how can we ensure that the physical gates of our Jewish institutions do the same?
Security measures at Jewish institutions, and for that matter all religious institutions, are an unfortunate priority these days. On the High Holy Days, we must protect ourselves with a security detail and sometimes even metal detectors and bag checks so that we may devote our time in synagogue to prayer instead of worry.
In the presence of heightened security at our religious institutions, it is essential that our synagogues still feel like warm and welcoming houses of worship, not like airports.
Abraham Unger, who we blogged about a few days ago, had an interesting op-ed in the New Jersey Jewish News recently. He wrote about the unaffiliated members of our Jewish community, and how we need to recognize that, between âsuburban and exurban sprawl and the rise of technology,â unaffiliated does not necessarily mean disconnected from Judaism, and we need to rethink the importance of affiliation.
Unger starts off by saying that those who sit on the âinsideâ and measure success through institutional growth are bound to see the growing number of unaffiliated Jews as problematic. And in a sense it is â one measure of success for outreach is by how many people come through the doors once they have been invited.
But, he says, this leaves out âliterally hundreds of unaffiliated Jews and their families whom I know.â These are Jews who donât belong to a synagogue or any Jewish institution, but still identify strongly with the Jewish people. âDonât assume that someone who doesnât âbelongâ is not a serious Jew,â he says.
He argues that affiliation is not a true âmarker of Jewish identity.â With the rise of blogging and online social networks, people are forming more âmicro-communities,â where they donât feel the need to tie themselves to a larger organization in order to belong. All this, Unger says, means Jewish communal institutions and demographers need to stop measuring the Jewish populations in terms of âaffiliatedâ and âunaffiliated.â âIndeed, the fact that Jewish identity is so much in flux and is constantly being transformed shows that Torah remains alive and open today,â he says.
Maybe he is right, but only as far as Jews with a strong Jewish identity. Unger says nothing of the unaffiliated Jews who might need the guidance and support of a strong institutional entity. If you already know how to lead a Shabbat service or you know how to host a Passover Seder, perhaps you donât need the institutional support as much as, say, the adult child of intermarriage who is trying to reconnect to Judaism. Those are the unaffiliated that we need to find. Through Public Space JudaismSM programs like Passover in the Matzah Aisle and Eight Days of Oil, we are helping to engage these families that have, for one reason or another, lost touch with Judaism.
With the rising number of interfaith families and the shrinking institutional memberships, we agree with Unger that itâs time to think about the Jewish community in new terms. For Unger that means meeting the needs of people who donât struggle with the question of âwhy be Jewish.â For us and many others, it means continuing to lower barriers, engage the unaffiliated and encourage all those without a strong Jewish identity to increase their participation in Jewish life.
At most synagogues in Italy, the rabbiâs sermon and announcements are delivered in Italian. In Uruguay, they are delivered in Spanish. And in America, English is the language most often heard, yet there is one group of Jews who feel disconnected from the community because they are unable to participate in services and other Jewish activities in their own language â I am referring to those who speak American Sign Language.
Deaf Jews are often marginalized from the Jewish community because few services and other programming use American Sign Language and/or translators. Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in greater Washington D.C. plans to address the need to include all Jews in their community through their Jewish Deaf Congregational Initiative. According to the Washington Jewish Week, the initiative would create a deaf congregation housed in Adat Shalom and in partnership with the Washington Society of Jewish Deaf, the Jewish Deaf Resource Center and the Partnership for Jewish Life and Learning. The Jewish Week Reports that:
The deaf congregation envisioned in the grant application would incorporate an array of fully accessible programs focusing on Judaic education, religious services, life-cycle events and joint activities involving Adat Shalom’s hearing congregants. The education component, for example, would include b’nai mitzvah training for deaf teens and adults, intergenerational Torah study and instruction on how to incorporate Jewish practices into the home. Under joint programming efforts, hearing congregants would be offered deaf-culture classes and instruction in American Sign Language (ASL), the dominant form of communication in the United States deaf community and several others worldwide. Hearing congregants would also be invited to ASL-only services and would celebrate “select joint holidays” with deaf congregants.
We congratulate the Jewish Deaf Congregational Initiative partner organization for exemplifying the principles of our Big Tent Judaism coalition. We hope that the Jewish community takes their example to develop more initiatives that welcome and include all who wish to engage with and learn about the Jewish community, and we invite those organizations to join the Big Tent Judaism Coalition.
Last month, our friend Julie Wiener wrote an article titled âMen, Women, and the I-Wordâ for her monthly New York Jewish Week âIn The Mixâ column (which details her life as a Jewish woman raising an interfaith family). The piece was about how it is more often Jewish men who are not interested in âmarrying in,â which causes more intermarriage. But why? According to sociologist Sylvia Barak Fishman, itâs because Jewish men âexhibit âtoxicâ images of Jewish women.â Wiener says this places a huge burden on Jewish women (especially ones in their 30âs) to find the few remaining interested Jewish men and start a family. To alleviate this pressure, though, she suggests the Jewish community drop the âstigma against intermarriageâŠ for Jewish women racing the fertility clock.â
In response, Rabbi Abraham Unger wrote an editorial, also in the Jewish Week, using Julieâs article as a springboard for finding a new approach to limiting instances of intermarriage. He says that if what Julie writes is true, and by extension Barak Fishmanâs study, then âwe know which population to focus on more fully in practical terms such as programs and policies.â Ungerâs article caught the eye of JOI associate executive director Paul Golin, who wrote a letter to the editor arguing we shouldnât rely solely on reports from Jewish sociologists about intermarriage because they are likely biased â and that skews the views and debate on intermarriage. Our time would be better spent working with interfaith families to promote Jewish continuity, rather than finding the elusive âmiracle intermarriage preventative.â Paul writes:
Abraham Unger bases his âreasonedâ approach to intermarriage on misinformed premises (âTreating Intermarriage in a Reasoned Way,â Sept. 5), but that misinformation is not coming from either Unger or the âIn The Mixâ column to which he responds. He inadvertently points to the culprits when he writes: âA non-Jewish demographer may not understand why out-marriage by younger members of an assimilating ethnic population could be so disheartening. But we in the Jewish community do understand.â
I would argue that an important reason the counterproductive intermarriage debate is still alive in the Jewish community today is because all our key sociologists are Jewish. They all have horses in the race. And unlike advocates who call themselves advocates (like myself), they can cloak their biases in science (albeit social science) without any disclaimer in their reports as to how their own personal beliefs might be reflected in their work.
Unger never mentions the option of accepting and welcoming intermarried families. Instead he sees the âdataâ about gender stereotypes as a new battlefield for the potential prevention of intermarriage â his only solution.
There was some interesting news that came out of Yeshiva University last week, as reported in the New York Post. It seems some at the university are upset at the return of literature professor Joy Ladin to the staff after summer vacation â primarily because up until last year, Joy was Jay Ladin.
The row is not about Professor Ladinâs ability as a teacher â she did, after all, earn tenure before making the announcement that she was âtransgender and in the process of becoming a woman.â Itâs the religious aspect of accepting a member of the GLBT community. Rabbi Moshe Tendler, a dean and professor of biology and medical ethics, doesnât believe Professor Ladin and YU can co-exist, saying âHe’s a person who represents a kind of amorality which runs counter to everything Yeshiva University stands for. There is just no leeway in Jewish law for a transsexual.â
Those are harsh words, but fortunately the universityâs president has a different take on the matter. âI’m proud of my university and all my faculty,â said Richard Joel. He declined to comment further, but his actions portray a university that believes in inclusion and the highest standards of academia. Although YU is a university with strong ties to the Jewish community, Professor Ladinâs position as a teacher is not a religious matter â she is highly qualified, and that is whatâs important.
We often write about expanding our Big Tent to include all who want to learn about and engage with the Jewish community. Professor Ladin certainly falls into that category, and we commend YU for keeping her on the staff. By allowing her to teach, YU is celebrating the diversity of todayâs world, and thatâs an important lesson for all students to learn.
âPortland, Ore., is going to be a sort of birthplace of a new community in Israel.â
That might sound like an odd statement, but it comes from a unique and fascinating background â namely a large number of Jews who long ago were forced to jettison their Judaism for the sake of survival during the Spanish Inquisition. Many left Spain and moved to Mexico, eventually settling in what is now the Southwestern United States. These Jews came to be known as Crypto Jews, and the above statement was made by Rabbi Joshua Stampfer, the founder of the Society for Crypto-Judaic Studies, located in Portland. He made this claim in light of a recent ceremony in which 17 Crypto Jews were welcomed back into Judaism.
This is a great testament to the welcoming nature of Judaism â though they were âlostâ for hundreds of years, assimilating and losing touch with their Jewish heritage, Crypto Jews somehow maintained a deep spiritual connection to the Jewish faith. For example, according to an article in Portlandâs Jewish Review, one of the returnees simply felt a connection to Judaism and after some extensive research into her family history, she discovered that her parents were of Spanish descent and had Sephardic roots. Others have even backed up their spiritual awakening with hard facts; DNA testing has proved that many Latinos are indeed genetically linked to Sephardic Jews.
All who participated in the ceremony in Portland, which included a dip in the mikvah (spiritual bath) and a drawing of blood for the men, have said they plan on moving to Israel. Rabbi Stampfer believes these 17 are just the tip of the iceberg, and there may be thousands more in the Latino community who carry Jewish ancestry. Crypto Jews are an important part of the Jewish narrative, and we applaud those who are taking the steps to discover their heritage, join our family, and strengthen the Jewish community.
Not surprisingly, articles and opinions are still being written regarding the ruling by Israelâs High Rabbinical Court to retroactively annul conversions â as well as look into all the conversions overseen by Rabbi Haim Druckman of Israelâs Conversion Authority. The decision is only a few months old, but itâs touched off a firestorm of controversy that appears to have no end in sight.
Writing in the Jerusalem Report, Rabbi David Ellenson, President of the Hebrew Union College â Jewish Institute of Religion, makes the claim that annulling a conversion has âvirtually no precedent in classical rabbinic tradition.â In upholding the decision, Rabbi Avraham Sherman âhas called into question the Jewish status of 40,000 Israeli converts.â The practice, Ellenson says, is a 20th century invention. To illustrate his point, he brings up a similar case from 1970 in which the child of a woman who was found to have remarried without a proper divorce was denied a marriage license on the grounds that he was illegitimate. The resolution, which included annulling the conversion of the womanâs first husband, was âwildly hailed for the desired result it achieved.â
But one keen legal mind, Amnon Rubinstein, then dean of Tel Aviv University Law School, warned of the precedent now allowed â namely that a conversion could never be deemed permanent. Rubinstein believed the decision was âneither in accord with the highest traditions of Jewish law nor in the best interest of the Jewish people.â How right he was, says Ellenson.
Sherman surely has a right to his ruling. However, it is a tragedy that his decision is at this moment enforceable as law in Israel. It fails to take into account the collective interests of the Jewish people and the State of Israel in the modern era. All efforts should be made to repeal its legal authority.
Ellenson makes a great point. Itâs unfair to tell a convert that if they arenât up to strict, Orthodox standards, they arenât Jewish. But many Orthodox, according to a piece in the Washington Post, believe God wonât stand for a âlack of religious devotion,â and thatâs why Jews were originally expelled from the land of Israel.
âThereâs something more important than the state of Israel and Zionism,â said Moshe Gafni, a member of Israelâs parliament who represents the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party.
There is something more important â itâs allowing Jews, whether born or newcomers, Reform or Orthodox, to practice the religion in a way that is meaningful to them. Israel is a thriving, modern democracy and itâs a step in the wrong direction to give a minority the power to forcibly remove a person from their chosen religion. Many people, especially immigrants, are flocking to Israel and Judaism â itâs time to embrace their desire to join our Big Tent and not make it harder for them to do so.