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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...
If someone is interested in becoming a Jew, if they find meaning and value in the religion, shouldnâ€™t we do everything we can to foster that passion? If someone believes Judaism is the spiritual path thatâ€™s right for them, isnâ€™t it up to us to create a space where they will feel welcome to eventually become part of our community? Typically the answer is yes, but according to an article in the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA), thatâ€™s not whatâ€™s happening right now in Colombia, South America.
A group of recent converts in Colombia, who call themselves Maim Haim (Living Waters), have found themselves subject to intense scrutiny and skepticism by the established Jewish community. One of the arguments is that the motivations are not genuine. They are viewed as â€śĂ©migrĂ©s-in-waiting more interested in obtaining Israeli citizenshipâ€ť than becoming Jewish. Another is that Maim Chaim isnâ€™t interested in joining the rest of the community, and that the groupâ€™s members â€śhave not asked to join Colombiaâ€™s main Jewish institutions.â€ť
This kind of division is exactly what the Jewish community should be avoiding these days. Maim Haim has shown, in the face of extreme prejudice, that they have the will to practice Judaism without the support of many in Colombiaâ€™s established Jewish leadership. That alone should demonstrate their honest motivations. While some have started to warm up to Maim Haim, others believe they should have been accepted from the get-go:
â€śIt is unfortunate the rejection of Maim Haim and other groups that go through the whole conversion process are still not received in their cityâ€™s synagogues,â€ť said Jaime Eisenband, president of a Colombian Jewish institution, the Baranquilla Philanthropic Israeli Center. â€śI honestly see it more as a social issue than religious. Despite the brave standpoint of some Colombian Orthodox rabbis saying they should be received as Jews, the community leadership still keeps them out.â€ť
We have a hard enough time engaging folks who are already Jewish. The last thing we should do is to make it harder for people who are seeking out Judaism. Hopefully the members of Maim Haim â€“ and all future converts â€“ will find a community willing to embrace their decision and welcome them into our big tent.
In an effort to curtail our carbon footprint, JOI has decided to take our bi-monthly newsletter Inside JOI and put it online. Youâ€™ll still get all the news on the latest innovative outreach methodology, as well as updates on selected JOI programming and events. Only now it will be delivered straight to your inbox!
Our first electronic edition recaps our two recent conferences where we worked with Jewish communal professionals and volunteer leaders from across the country to help welcome newcomers into the Jewish community. We also have information on the Big Tent Judaism initiative, a directory of all the free listserves (e-mail discussion groups) we currently host, news articles by or about JOI, and a â€śBest ofâ€ť blogs section just in case you missed anything.
Click here if you would like to join our free mailing list and automatically receive Inside JOI in the future. Itâ€™s the best way to stay connected and up-to-date on JOI and the future of outreach.
A recent article in the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) highlighted efforts by the Orthodox Union (OU) to provide services to the estimated 14,000 Jews in America who are deaf. This includes a National Jewish Deaf Singles Registry that produces a newsletter featuring personal ads by single deaf Jews. The OUâ€™s initiative was a response to a perceived higher intermarriage rate among Jews who are deaf. Similar to GLBT Jews, this higher intermarriage rate is probably more of a reflection of simple demographics rather than anything else. If those who are deaf primarily socialize with others who are deaf, irrespective of whether or not they are Jewish, then they are more likely to find a life partner who is not Jewish.
But what should motivate our desire to reach out to this population should have nothing to do with their greater likelihood to intermarry. (And if they do intermarry, we should welcome them in, as we advocate for intermarried LGBT Jews, as well.) Inclusion has to mean more than the publication of a â€śsinglesâ€ť newsletter; inclusion must take a holistic approach to community life. We must break down the many barriers the deaf community faces regarding participation in Jewish life, beyond recognizing that one of the most central components of prayer in Jewish liturgy is the word â€śShâ€™maâ€ť (listen), as the article points out.
The OU has also responded to this need to break down barriers by creating educational materials and resources for Jewish holidays, including sign language supplements for the Passover Haggadah. Beyond the OU, there are other organizations that are working to build community among deaf Jews themselves while also ensuring that existing programs in the broader Jewish community are accessible to those with all levels of hearing impairment. Many steps have been taken to ensure the availability of interpreters at Jewish events and that hearing impaired Jews have access to a wide range of services and organizations.
As part of our Big Tent Judaism initiative, we at JOI recommend that you highlight in all of your publications how your organization is including those with hearing impairments, especially those publications that reach individuals on the periphery of the Jewish community.
As we continue to create a Big Tent Judaism community, what additional opportunities are there in your community to include Jews who are hearing impaired? What steps has your community taken to include Jews who are deaf in all areas of Jewish life?
There was a fascinating story in the New York Times yesterday detailing one of the many groups of Jews around the world who have struggled to find their place in the Jewish community. Much like the Hispanic Crypto-Jews or the Abayudaya of Uganda, the Times told us the story of the Amazonian Jews of Iquitos, Peru, and how they have â€śsought to reclaim a Jewish identity that had seemingly been weakened through time.â€ť
Descendents of Jews who came to the area in the â€ślate-19th-century rubber boom,â€ť many started to come together in the late 1990â€™s. In Lima, the article says, the Jewish community of about 3000 â€ślargely preferred to ignore the Jews of Iquitosâ€ť because they didnâ€™t fit into the mold of what a Jew should look like:
â€śThe notion of a Jew who looks like an Indian and lives in a poor house in a small city in the middle of the jungle is, at best, an exotic footnote to the official history of Peruâ€™s Jewry as Lima sees it,â€ť said Ariel Segal, a Venezuelan-born Israeli historian whose arrival here in the 1990â€™s to study the community also helped serve as a catalyst for the Iquitos Jews to organize.
And organize they did. They started observing Shabbat, conducted services in Hebrew â€śthey learned from cassette tapes,â€ť and started burying people in the old Jewish cemetery. As of today, more than 400 have formally converted to Judaism and many have moved to Israel.
Whatâ€™s inspiring about this story is how for over a hundred years, living â€śon the jungleâ€™s edge,â€ť without rabbis or a synagogue, the Jews in the area clung to their Jewish identity. We are thrilled to see they have found a home in the Jewish community. While others are debating their status or legitimacy, we welcome them enthusiastically into our big tent. Why? Because we have a moral obligation to reach out and welcome in those on the periphery of the community, precisely what the tradition calls â€śstrangers.â€ť They stood with us at Sinai and we are prepared to stand with them today.
But it makes us wonder, how many more descendents of Jewish travelers and settlers are still out there, waiting for someone to rekindle the flame?
Just how big is the Jewish community? Most surveys put the number somewhere around 13 million worldwide. But thatâ€™s only counting the people who know theyâ€™re Jewish. What about all those who have Jewish roots but were forced, at some point in history, to choose conversion or death? Thatâ€™s the story behind Crypto-Jews â€“ Jews from Spain and Portugal who were forced to convert to Catholicism nearly 500 years ago but kept some semblance of their Judaism as they migrated to across the globe.
Today, there is a â€śsteady trickle of Hispanics in the Southwest, from Juarez to Texas to New Mexico, are discovering their Jewish roots,â€ť according to an article from the JTA. And one synagogue in El Paso, Congregation Bâ€™nai Zion, is doing everything they can to make sure those seeking guidance find a welcoming and open environment.
Rabbi Stephen Leon of Bâ€™nai Zion has helped start a Crypto-Jew learning center in El Paso with the goal of bringing â€śawareness to the Jewish and general public about the Inquisition and Crypto-Jews.â€ť He has also made sure those in the area who want to return to Judaism have the tools and resources to do so. This past Shavuot â€“ as the Jewish community read the story of Ruth, the first official convert to Judaism â€“ Rabbi Leon oversaw the bar and bat mitzvahs of a number of families who have not only discovered their Jewish roots, but have made a commitment to now lead a Jewish life.
Rabbi Leon also believes the Crypto-Jews (also called Marranos, Anusim, and Conversos) will play a key role in the future of Judaism:
With Hispanics being the fastest-growing population and the Jews constantly concerned about their diminishing population, Leon says the Jewish community should welcome those Hispanics who want to explore their Jewish ancestry.
â€śI think the Anusim are the only answer,â€ť he said. â€śThey are returning one way or another.â€ť
The only answer? I donâ€™t know if we would go that far. But just like our Big Tent Judaism initiative, Rabbi Leon is certainly helping by creating an environment that supports and advocates for all those who would cast their lot with the Jewish people, regardless of prior background or knowledge. And other synagogues are reaching out to this group - JOI has been working with the synagogue Ahabat Torah, who has set up an Anusim center in San Jose, CA. This philosophy â€“ whether applied to Crypto-Jews, intermarried families, or anyone on the periphery â€“ will help secure a more vibrant Jewish future.