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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...
At JOI, we tend to focus on creating an open and welcoming Jewish community for intermarried couples and unaffiliated Jews, though our work extends well beyond those parameters. Through our Big Tent Judaism coalition, we also advocate for children of intermarriage, mixed heritage Jews, LGBT Jews, and all those who find themselves on the periphery. In a moving op-ed in the (New York) Jewish Week, Rabbi Dov Linzer and Devorah Zlochower remind of us another demographic that is too often pushed to the margins: children with â€śinvisible disabilities.â€ť
Rabbi Linzer and Zlochower define â€śinvisible disabilitiesâ€ť as â€ślearning disabilities, autism spectrum disorders and Aspergerâ€™s syndrome, Touretteâ€™s syndrome and other tic disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder and other anxiety disorders, mood disorders and behavioral disorders.â€ť Both have children who fall into this category, and both are extremely frustrated at the lack of inclusive policies in the Jewish community for children with similar disabilities. They write:
While there have been a number of stories in the Jewish media recently about the rare programs that do exist, more often, families like ours hear that such programs are too expensive and serve too few children to make them viable. We in turn have pulled away from the community in our search to have our childrenâ€™s needs metâ€¦
The truth is that we and our children need the support and acceptance of our community. We have asked for help in the past, but we have been told â€śnoâ€ť so many times that by now we feel it is futile to ask. And we are angry â€” angry because our children survive by our advocating for them, and advocacy is not always pretty.
Our synagogues and our Jewish communal institutions need to become safe spaces where we can bring our children, confident that their behavior will be tolerated or, better yet, understood. Our children are entitled to learn and live their Jewish heritage, and they cannot fully do so if they continue to exist at the margins of the Jewish community.
We addressed just this issue specifically during our recent conference in Philadelphia, inviting Limor Hartmann, who runs the D.C. areaâ€™s Shalom BBYO program for teens with special needs, to share her best practices for making sure these children are seen as valuable members of the Jewish community.
In a blog post on Jewschool.com, itâ€™s mentioned that if these two Jewish communal leaders are having a difficult time finding open doors, just imagine how much harder it must be â€śfor everyone else struggling with similar issues.â€ť
The impassioned remarks of Rabbi Linzer and Zlochower remind us that much more should be done. They suggest rabbis teach the Jewish values of inclusion (â€śThe stone the builders rejected has become our cornerstoneâ€ť). Synagogues should try to figure out how existing programs can be modified â€śto meet the needs of our children.â€ť But they put it most eloquently at the end when they say to simply â€śspeak to our children and recognize them for the beautiful souls that they are.â€ť
The economic crisis that rocked the Jewish philanthropic world at the end of last year set off a â€śsense of near panic,â€ť said Dana Raucher, the executive director of the Samuel Bronfman Foundation, in the Forward. But seeing ourselves deconstructed, she said, revealed something far more interesting: â€śThere was a whole sector of Jewish organizations demonstrating that we could, in fact, do more with less.â€ť
One of the principles of our Big Tent Judaism Coalition is to deepen the Jewish engagement and identity of all Jewish individuals and households, regardless of their institutional affiliation (or lack thereof), by meeting them on an individual level. Based on Raucherâ€™s article, thatâ€™s essentially whatâ€™s happening for both established and startup Jewish organizations. Financial constraints are forcing organizations to take a closer look at the needs of the folks they serve.
For startups, she writes, â€śit does not matter if a program takes place at someoneâ€™s home or in a coffee shop; most important is the program itself and the people it brings together.â€ť They are reaching people by directly appealing to what they want to gain from Judaism and â€śemphasizing personal and communal connections to Judaism rather than the quality of the venue.â€ť
Established organizations are doing the same. Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, Raucher points out, has moved to a new model where â€śinstead of hiring a professional to engage college students, students are the ones engaged to work with their peers.â€ť This costs less for Hillel, â€śand is more effective.â€ť
Raucher believes this new approach to how organizations reach their audience â€“ a â€śtwo-way partnership between funder and granteeâ€ť instead of a top-down approach â€“ is the most important method for increasing participation among Jewish individuals and families today. We agree, as every innovative step towards engaging more folks in our community will bring us closer to reaching our shared goal of â€ścreating a vibrant Jewish future.â€ť
Last week, a â€śCeremony of Returnâ€ť was held for seven descendants of Crypto-Jews who had traveled from around the world to participate. In his description of the event, guest speaker Adam Schwartz, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix explained:
Many are descendants of families who were persecuted during the Spanish Inquisition. These families were given the choice to convert, leave the country or risk being killed.
In many cases, those who fled to other countries confronted the same situation again and again as they resided in areas under the control of Spain and Portugal. This resulted in many taking their Jewish observance “underground.”
They tell stories of rituals that their families performed although they had little understanding of what the rituals meant (like lighting candles on Friday night). Later in their lives when they began to connect with the Jewish community, they started to realize the importance of these observances.
In the U.S., Jews are often stereotyped as Ashkenazi descendents of Eastern Europeans. The reconnection of crypto-Jews to their heritage is a reminder of the diversity of paths that leads individuals to Jewish life. At JOI, this is one of the foundations of the Big Tent Judaism coalition: The idea that there is room in the Jewish community for more than one experience, history, and culture.
The growing voice of the crypto-Jewish community should also serve as a reminder of the complexity of Jewish identity. For the members of the “B’nei Anusim Hispanic Sephardi” who participated in the ceremony, a connection to Jewish life outlasted persecution, relocation, submerged practice, and a modern Jewish community often unwelcoming to those whose Jewish journeys donâ€™t follow an expected path. For those of us involved with interfaith and intercultural families, this should remind us of our obligation to show great care and respect for the religious heritage of every person. Despite our impulse, at times, to reduce religious belonging to a particular practice or background, religious heritage runs deep and resists simplification.
At the end of his article, Schwartz observes the way that taking part in the ceremony challenged the idea that the modern Jewish path is one of disengagement:
One by one, each individual received a certificate and Hebrew name. Each participant was given the opportunity to say a few words, and it was wonderful to see how touched they each appeared. This ceremony helped them right a wrong that had been done to their families hundreds of years ago.
Over the years there have been numerous studies showing a growing distance between individuals and their Judaism. We hear over and over again about how young people are disconnected from their heritage. Yet, on this Sunday afternoon, I was with a group who were moved to tears as they were welcomed back to the Jewish community.
I hope we can all find ways to embrace those who have returned to Judaism, and may we learn from them how wonderful it is to be Jewish and to be part of the community.
What Schwartz is describing is the experience of having his own Jewish connection deepened by witnessing someone engaging from a perspective other than his own. Far from being a disadvantage, one of the most profound benefits of a diverse community is the opportunity to be denaturalized and to look again and find extraordinary what had been ordinary before. We at JOI hope that crypto-Jews continue to find a welcoming place in the Jewish community and encounter increasing respect for complex paths to Jewish life.
One of the goals of our Big Tent Judaism Coalition is to negate the ingrained perception that Jews have a certain â€ślook.â€ť Today, weâ€™re far too ethnically diverse to make assumptions about who is or isnâ€™t Jewish based on appearance. Those kinds of perceptions â€“ and the negative impact they can yield â€“ are what motivated one woman to create a new business.
According to an article in the (Philadelphia) Jewish Exponent, Ariana Lopez started a new clothing lined aimed at Latin American Jews wants to shake up the â€śperception that all Latinos are Catholic,â€ť a notion that can make â€śLatin Jews feel ostracized.â€ť Her clothing label, â€śJewtina,â€ť is designed to help â€śbuild pride and communityâ€ť among this population. She explained:
â€śYou’d want to buy something to embrace your Jewish faith, but it was always Yiddish,â€ť said Lopez, who, of course, comes from Jewish stock herself. She decided to raise awareness that strong ethnic identities can co-exist.
We think this clothing line is a creative and inspired method for reaching and engaging this particular community. Simon Guindi Cohen, director of Judios Latinos (a New York based social group for Latin Jews), notes that this community can be â€śpassive,â€ť so itâ€™s important to â€śkeep re-branding Judaism.â€ť
By doing something as simple as merging the image of a Mexican or Argentinean flag with an Israeli flag and putting it on a t-shirt, Lopez is helping to send the message to all Latin Jews to take pride in their mixed heritage. It also sends a message of welcoming to Latin partners of Jews who arenâ€™t Jewish, letting them know that we respect the variety of cultures and traditions that exist in our community. These empowering notions are a great step in urging more Latin Jews and their families to embrace their Jewish background and engage with the Jewish community at large.
Moment Magazine has a fascinating spread this month on eight individuals whose â€śstories remind us of the richness of Judaism.â€ť All are Jews-by-choice, and each experience demonstrates that Judaism and those who make up the Jewish community are far more diverse than most people imagine.
Among the stories are Y-Love, the â€śblack Orthodox Jew and hip-hop artist,â€ť a Baptist minister, a Chinese-American politician, the great-granddaughter of a high ranking Nazi official, and a â€ścrypto-Jew.â€ť Their stories are all uplifting, but their honesty also exhibits the negative or skeptical reactions some have when they see someone who doesnâ€™t â€ślook Jewish.â€ť John Garcia said that when he goes to synagogue, some people look at him â€śas a curiosity.â€ť But others â€śare very welcoming, as is the rabbi.â€ť This shows us that although we are accepting, we still have a lot of work to do in creating a truly inclusive Jewish community that welcomes all who approach.
What runs underneath all these stories, the string that ties them all together, is that they all looked at Judaism and saw a home, a place where they felt comfortable. While their motives might be different â€“ some were introduced to Judaism through a spouse, others by a chance encounter â€“ the results are the same. Each person made the bold decision to follow that Jewish path, and now each is dedicated to raising a Jewish family and strengthening our community.
Reading these stories, we see the best of what Judaism has to offer â€“ a place where everyone, regardless of background, is welcome to come and explore. If you are a Jew-by-choice, we want to hear your story. What started you down that Jewish path? How have you felt since becoming a part of the Jewish community?
While our Big Tent Judaism Coalition keeps a growing database of synagogues and Jewish institutions that have made a commitment to welcoming and inclusion, weâ€™re always happy to promote others who do the same.
The blog Jewlicious recently posted information about the Welcoming Synagogues List of the Jewish Multiracial Network. JMN, which â€śbrings Jewish multiracial families and individuals together to learn about and celebrate their Judaism,â€ť keeps this list as a resource for all mixed heritage Jews who are looking for a place they are confident will be inclusive Each branch of Judaism is represented on their list.
Of course we believe all synagogues should be welcoming to all who approach, but we understand that Judaism often speaks louder for people â€“ particularly the unaffiliated â€“ when they feel comfortable in their surroundings. If you or someone you know could benefit from this list, we urge you to pass it along.
We also invite you to write us or JMN to help grow both our lists of welcoming institutions. Is there a synagogue or other Jewish institution you have been to that was particularly warm and friendly? Let us know!