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Big Tent Judaism Concierge coming to Sonoma County, CA

Big Tent Judaism (formerly known as the Jewish Outreach Institute), is taking another big step forward in opening the tent of the North American Jewish community by establishing a Big Tent Judaism Concierge for Sonoma County, CA. The Big Tent Judaism Concierge will serve as a bridge into the Sonoma County Jewish community, opening the tent to all who may wish to enter, and partnering with Jewish communal organizations to better find and serve people where they are.

This exciting new initiative is supported by a generous grant from the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma Counties.

An Advisory Committee made up of local communal professionals and lay leaders is currently being formed, and in the coming weeks we will reach out to all Jewish communal organizations. The committee will provide local oversight and guidance for the project and will work closely with the Concierge and Big Tent Judaism’s senior staff.

Big Tent Judaism’s Concierge, meanwhile, will “become the pivotal person to meet with newcomers and guide them into the community,” said Big Tent Judaism’s Executive Director, Rabbi Kerry Olitzky. “The biggest issue facing the North American Jewish community is engagement. We’ve found that those inside the Jewish community feel that it’s warm and welcoming. Those outside find it cold and prickly — and that gap is widening.”

In addition to working with the Advisory Committee and partnering institutions, the Big Tent Judaism Concierge will work directly with individuals in the community to guide them on their Jewish journeys, ensuring that they are led to the programs and services that fits their interests and needs, and that local institutions are trained in effective outreach techniques to best welcome them in. (If this sounds like a position for you and you live in the community, please find the full job description here.)

Sonoma County is the fourth community in which Big Tent Judaism has placed a trained professional on the ground. Over the last two years Big Tent Judaism has hired and continues to support Concierges in Chicago, Houston and Central New Jersey. As part of their national growth strategy, Big Tent Judaism will be placing several more Concierges on the ground in various cities over the next year.

The goal of Big Tent Judaism is to engage, support, and advocate for all those who wish to be a part of the Jewish community. By working community by community, Big Tent Judaism can help Jewish communal professionals and the institutions they represent better reach and engage those who are not currently participating in organized Jewish life.

Sparking Jewish Journeys throughout the US and Canada

In 2014, over 25,000 individuals participated in Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute programs such as Passover in the Matzah Aisle, Hands-On Hanukkah, and other “Public Space Judaism” programs that take a taste of Jewish life outside the walls of Jewish institutions to go where people are.

How did we do it?

More than half of the people reached, about 13,000, live in communities where we have a Big Tent Judaism Concierge: Chicago, Houston, and Middlesex County NJ.


“Pitching the Big Tent”

In his monthly message to Temple Beth Torah in Houston Texas, Rabbi Dan Gordon wrote eloquently about the synagogue’s experience partnering with us here at Big Tent Judaism to further open his congregational tent to all who may benefit. Rabbi Gordon writes:

TBT already has a reputation for being welcoming and inclusive; but only from those who have experienced the temple. We’ve always believed that there are more Jewish people northeast of Houston who haven’t taken advantage of the opportunity. Big Tent has encouraged us to look for ways to introduce the temple to interested people without waiting for them to come to us. Our experimenting started with public story telling for Hanukkah and Passover in local libraries. These programs helped teach children and their parents about the Jewish holidays, and were attended by a blend of Jewish and non-Jewish participants…

Rabbi Gordon goes on to describe a public menorah lighting that attracted four times the number of participants he anticipated, including individuals who said, “I’ve been meaning to check out the temple for a long time…” and “I didn’t know there was a temple around here!”

Our collaboration with Rabbi Gordon and the entire Houston Jewish community through our partnership with the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston has been powerful confirmation that going out to where people are to share what we love about Jewish life is an essential communal goal, and it works. Rabbi Gordon’s full monthly message is here. If you’re in Houston, please follow the Big Tent Judaism Houston Facebook page.

Remembering Edgar Bronfman

The portion Shemot introduces an entire book of the Torah, which goes by the same name. Most readers will simply translate the title as “names” since that is the first significant word or concept introduced. And that is the tradition for naming the books, as well as the individual Torah portions. But if we are looking for guidance from the text, insights for our own spiritual journey, then the names of individual Torah portions and the names of the books of the Torah can provide us with more than basic information. Rather, they can also offer us direction. Thus, instead of identifying this portion as “names,” perhaps it would be better to call it “reputation” since the Hebrew word shem can also be translated this way. The Torah, by calling this portion, this entire book, “Reputations”—the book dedicated to the transformation of a band of inchoate tribes into a people—is teaching us an important lesson. The name by which we are called, the reputation that we have earned in the community, is core to our character, essential to who we are and the legacy that we leave for others. The book of Exodus thus instructs us that the formative moments in the development of the Israelites as a people included the development of its character, a process that we as individuals are directed to emulate. In other words, what we do is who we are.

It is thus fitting that this portion marks the yahrzeit of Edgar Bronfman, the first anniversary following his passing from this world. As Edgar was fond of reminding people, his obligation in life—the obligation of each individual—is to leave the world in a better place when leaving it than how one found it when one was born. This is more than a lofty statement. It demands action. It requires the application of the resources granted to any person, both of monetary and mental means, however small or large they may be, to the task. This important notion isn’t just a teaching from the Torah. It emerges from our encounter with the Torah as part of our spiritual memory, from the time period in Jewish history marked by this Torah portion, as well as those that follow throughout the book of Exodus. Thus, our obligation is to constantly stimulate our memory of this notion, what we learned during our period of servitude in the desert, as well as our journey toward freedom. While this memory is deeply embedded in the Jewish soul of the individual, it is sometimes lost in the “noise”—or interference—coming from contemporary life and its various seductions. It is only when we work at it that the memory becomes alive once again in our own lives.

The Rabbis teach us that when we teach something to others that we learned from someone else, we should do it b’shem amro, in that person’s name. Moreover, we should imagine that teacher standing in front of us, as we teach what we have learned to others. Doing so, say the Rabbis, brings us closer to mashiach-zeit (the messianic era). While we are grateful to the Samuel Bronfman Foundation, which Edgar founded and nurtured throughout his life—and is now led by his son Adam—for the support it provided to Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute for many years, we are even more grateful for the often unpopular positions Edgar championed as a result. He was unafraid of bucking the status quo and used his position in the Jewish community to help us move our mission forward—to build a more inclusive Jewish community, which he also enthusiastically learned to call Big Tent Judaism.

What other messages are contained in this portion? What else contributed to the “reputation” garnered by the ancient Israelites and bequeathed to us? Among the gifts of the Jewish people to the world, as celebrated in the story of Exodus, which begins in this portion, is the idea of “hope.” According to the Rabbis of the Jerusalem Talmud, where there is life, there is hope. Even in the midst of darkness, when Joseph’s success in Egypt devolved into 400 years of slavery, our ancient brothers and sisters saw the possibility of freedom. This optimism kept them alive. This hopefulness is the best example of the contemporary notion of Judaism operating in the marketplace of ideas, as countless others have taken on this message and called it their own. The Jewish people gained the reputation as a people of hope, so much so that the modern state of Israel took on “Hatikvah—the hope” as its national anthem, the epitome of its national aspirations for itself and for the world in its entirety. The Jewish people became the ever-advancing advance team, working to move the individual and the world toward ultimate redemption, the messianic era.

Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky is the executive director of Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute and author of many books, including the upcoming Membership & Financial Alternatives for the American Synagogue: From Traditional Dues to Fair Share to Gifts from the Heart (with Rabbi Avi Olitzky, Jewish Lights).

Hanukkah Helper prep classes

Hanukkah Helper is a fun and interactive single-session class that will prepare mothers of other backgrounds (and family members who may be interested) for celebrating Hanukkah in an enjoyable, meaningful way with their Jewish children. Join a free Hanukkah Helper prep class in your community:


Our Giving Tuesday Campaign: Too Big To Contain To Just One Tuesday

We are very lucky at Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) to have thousands of partners, supporters and friends who support our mission of creating a more welcoming and inclusive North American Jewish community. In 2014, 107 communal professionals participated in Big Tent Judaism Professional Affiliates, a rigorous outreach training program and network that now includes over 230 members; 89 volunteer lay leaders enrolled as Big Tent Judaism Ambassadors, joining an elite network of over 200 advocates for greater inclusion and outreach; and together with our three community-based Big Tent Judaism Concierges, we reached 35,954 individuals across North America to share with them the benefits of involvement in the organized Jewish community’s programs and events.

As we enter the final month of the secular calendar year and also the end of our fiscal year, we are reminded of just how far we’ve come thanks to the generosity of our donors and how much more we could do, if given additional financial resources. We are on target to complete our re-branding process by February 2015. In addition to a new name, logo and website, this transition reflects our deepening commitment to working directly with end users. By the end of 2015 we hope to double the number of communities served by our Big Tent Judaism Initiative, which places “boots on the ground” in communities across North America to find and serve Jews and their families regardless of affiliation or current connection to a synagogue or other Jewish organization.


Bringing the King into the Field

A popular mystical teaching explains the uniqueness of the period leading up to the High Holidays with the following metaphor: During the majority of the year, the king sits in his palace and those who wish to meet him must travel all the way to the capitol city, negotiate through many layers of bureaucracy, and then navigate through the many antechambers in the palace, just to have a brief audience with the king. Not to mention, the visitor must also be meticulously dressed and display the most decorous speech and mannerisms if he or she dares to stand in the presence of the king. Yet, on occasion, the king will go out for a stroll in the fields, at which time he is totally accessible to even the most simple farmer or laborer. Anyone can approach him, regardless who they are, what they know, how much money they have, or what they are wearing.

Traditionally, this metaphor is understood as explaining how the King, God, is more merciful and accessible to repentant sinners during the month leading up to Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, but I think it also gives us a model for understanding how to make Judaism, in general, more inclusive and accessible. Jewish life is often perceived as being like the king in his palace, hidden behind the walls of ornate synagogues and spacious community centers. Those who wish to participate must navigate the barriers of perquisite background knowledge, costly membership dues, and, for some, an overall feeling of not being welcome. While this institutionally-oriented aspect of Jewish life is still valid and important, it cannot be the only way. There must come a time when we go out into the fields, literally wherever the people are, and bring a taste of Judaism to them.


“Hello” Goes A Long Way

Most Saturday mornings, when I am home, I can be found at Torah study at Temple Israel in Boston. But, when I travel I often let this practice lapse. This past weekend, however, I traveled solo and decided to take in Shabbat services at a local highly esteemed congregation.

Services were energetic; the music infectious; and, the Rabbi’s teaching was truly enlightening. The weekly Torah reading included Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden. The Rabbi demonstrated through Rabbinic texts that the Jewish understanding of the expulsion myth is very different than the overwhelming prevailing Christian understanding of this narrative, as best exemplified by John Milton’s, Paradise Lost.

I was uplifted. I love learning something that is so simple and so clear and so patently obvious, but which I have somehow missed in the past 50+ years.

Yet, notwithstanding the empowerment of new knowledge, and the overall richness of the services, I left with the distinct feeling that something was missing. Something important.

The missing piece was easy to identify.


Finding a Home in Middlesex County, NJ

In March 2014, Big Tent Judaism-Middlesex County hosted an event for the Jewish holiday of Purim, called Purim Pastry Pairing at a supermarket in Highland Park, NJ. Participants stopped by to taste hamantaschen (pastries filled with jam) and decorate a mask to take home. One passerby, Dan, stopped by for a free taste and to enter the raffle, and after winning the basket of Stop and Shop goodies and a gift card, met with me for coffee to talk about his Jewish experience growing up, and where he and his wife, Alexis, and their 2-year-old son are today. After finding out more about Dan and his family, I was able to invite him to some upcoming events for families that were just right for them. I also put him in touch with a rabbi at a local synagogue near where his family lives, so that they could continue even further on their Jewish journey.

Recently, Dan and his wife Alexis spoke with me about where their family is on their Jewish journey thus far.

Tell me a little bit about your background, in terms of Jewish participation, and the home you grew up in.

Alexis: I grew up in a Catholic home. We went to church on Sundays, and my brother and I went to CCD (Confraternity of Christian Doctrine – Sunday School). My father was not really a believer, so it was really on my mom to guide us in the religion, and I think she was just going through the motions of Catholicism. I say this because when I was a teenager, my mother became a Born Again Christian and really became fully involved in that religion. Around this time, I stopped going to church because I started working on Sundays and also because I felt disconnected from religion. To be honest, church was boring, and I didn’t take anything away from going.

Dan: I grew up in a Modern Orthodox home; we kept kosher in and out of our home. We observed all the holidays and especially Shabbos [Sabbath]. My brother and I had Bar Mitzvahs and my sister had a Bat Mitzvah. I went to a Jewish sleep-away camp most of my youth, as well as Yeshivas [Jewish Day School] my whole life. Most of my schooling was with all boys.


Communities are Getting Creative with their Public Spaces

It’s hard to believe it’s that time of year already, but the High Holidays have come and gone. As summer has faded into fall, Jewish communal professionals and volunteers across North America have brought Public Space JudaismSM to their communities, using the holidays to share a taste of Jewish life in public secular spaces.

When people think of where most Public Space Judaism programs are held, their minds often jump to a grocery store—for good reason, since many Public Space Judaism programs involve using food as an entry point into the holidays. Since most people regularly go grocery shopping, the supermarket is a great place to meet them where they are and introduce Jewish life and community through food. This is certainly true for the High Holidays, where our “A Spoonful of Honey” program uses gourmet apples and honey tasting in a public space to connect people with their Jewish community.

But there’s more to Public Space Judaism than grocery stores, and this year Big Tent Judaism and our partners have continued to bring Public Space Judaism to increasingly innovative new spaces. Over 20 of the 90 Public Space Judaism programs that took place this High Holiday season were held in “alternative” locations such as fairs, museums, and restaurants.


No matter who your honey is…

To share this year’s card on Facebook, please click here.

For a list of all the communities hosting Big Tent Judaism Public Space Judaism events for the High Holidays, please click here.

Nearly 100 Public Space Programs Happening Across the Country!

High Holiday public space

Is it an interfaith marriage, or a two-faith marriage?

In a recent piece for the Huffington Post, Israeli author Abraham Gutman spoke about his experiences reconnecting with Judaism as a student in New York, and how planning an interfaith wedding with a Christian bride forced him to reconsider his own relationship with the Jewish community. Though he at first felt welcomed into the Jewish “peoplehood,” when it came time to find a rabbi to officiate his wedding, Gutman and his fiancée struggled to find someone who would perform a marriage ceremony between people of different religious backgrounds. One rabbi came close, agreeing to officiate, but then made sure to remind Gutman that in the eyes of the Jewish community, they would never be “married for real.” Gutman felt that the message he constantly got from the organized Jewish community was that “We don’t believe your marriage is legitimate, even if you find someone who will pretend it is. “

Eventually, Gutman and his fiancée found a rabbi who would marry them, and in the process he came to realize that “interfaith” was a misnomer for his marriage—instead, he and his Christian wife were in a “two-faith” marriage.


Big Tent Judaism, from The Energizer Rabbi

The following is a blog by Rabbi Margaret Frisch-Klein of Congregation Kneseth Israel in Elgin, IL, which originally appeared on her blog, The Energizer Rabbi. It can also be found in our collection of think pieces and sermons from those involved with the Big Tent Judaism Coalition.

I am on vacation–and predictably I am breaking my own rules. Oh, to be sure I slept a little later (7AM) and I had a massage before dinner last night. I sat outside on my deck, something I had dreamed of enjoying all summer, and ate my breakfast. And I read.

And that is why I am writing. I finished reading Rabbi Kerry Olitzky’s Playlist Judaism. I have heard him lecture before, most recently when he was at the Chicago Board of Rabbis. I own any number of his books including Preparing Your Heart for the High Holidays (which is probably the book that inspired me to write my own book!). Two of my congregants and I had a very enjoyable lunch with him in February when he was in Chicago. I have participated in two workshops that Big Tent Judaism has done–one on warm and welcoming congregations sponsored by JUF and one more recently on interfaith families. You might say I am a groupie!

So why did I decide I needed to write today? Because, even though there is little in the book I disagree with (if anything), there is much that is challenging. The book has nine chapters. In fact, the book is pretty short. But I think it is radical. It recognizes what I have been saying–that Judaism, particularly what I call American suburban Judaism, is experiencing a seismic shift. This is not your grandparents’ 1960s suburban synagogue. It can’t be. The world is fundamentally different. What isn’t clear is what will emerge in its place.


If We Change the Rules…

When I speak with individuals or groups about the need for the Jewish community to become more open and welcoming of those who are traditionally marginalized (i.e., intermarried couples, Jews by Choice, Jews of color, etc.), I often hear people asking questions about the dilution of Judaism. The argument goes like this: If we let a non-Jewish spouse do X, then we might as well let them do Y. And if we let them do Y, then, we are doomed.

Okay, that’s maybe an exaggeration of the actual conversation, but the feeling is there: If we change the rules, we will dilute Judaism. But we don’t see it that way.


The Big Tent Judaism Initiative in Westchester, NY Moves to Phase II

This year, Big Tent Judaism has been working in partnership with UJA-Federation of New York to open the tent of Jewish communities in the areas of Northern Westchester County, NY and the river towns. The first step was an initial assessment of the community, where Big Tent Judaism staff took an in-depth look at how institutions were welcoming newcomers via phone, email, and online. Now that the results of our study have been shared with the community, the Big Tent Judaism Initiative in Westchester is gearing up to enter Phase II.

In the past two months since I’ve joined the Big Tent Judaism staff, I’ve seen the Westchester community come alive around the idea of building a more inclusive Jewish community. From conversations with professionals and volunteers to the eager attendees at Eva Stern’s and Rabbi Kerry Olitzky’s presentations, the enthusiasm for change has been palpable. Jewish organizations in northern Westchester and the river towns are committed to making their communities more welcoming. They are ready to move forward by taking the tools Big Tent Judaism offers to make this change a reality.

This enthusiasm has been most noticeable in the many conversations I’ve had with Jewish communal professionals in Westchester. As we have begun recruiting for our Westchester cohort of Big Tent Judaism Professional Affiliates (Big Tent Judaism’s professional training program), I’ve heard from many professionals about how they’re looking to open their tents. They’re looking outward to consider whom they want to engage, like families with young children or LGBTQ individuals, and they’re looking inward to figure out the best way to reach them. The community is genuinely dedicated to making northern Westchester a more welcoming place for less-engaged Jews, such as those who are married to spouses or partners of another religious background, those with special needs, and those who don’t participate regularly in the Jewish community.


Big Tent Judaism Coordinator for Chicago Alyssa Latala Named to Oy!Chicago’s “36 Under 36″

Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute is proud to announce that Big Tent Judaism Coordinator for Chicago Alyssa Latala has been named as one of Oy!Chicago’s “36 Under 36,” a list of young movers and shakers in the Chicago Jewish Community.

According to a press release from the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, the parent organization of Oy!Chicago:

[T]he list shines a spotlight on the faces of Chicago’s Jewish future and recognizes the amazing contributions of this generation. The young professionals featured are noted for making a difference through their work, giving back in their free time, and earning notoriety in the Jewish community and beyond.

“We were overwhelmed by both the volume and exceptionally high quality of the nominations this year,” said Stefanie Pervos Bregman, Founding Editor and Blogger-in-Chief for Oy!Chicago. “If this list is any indication, the future of Chicago’s Jewish community is incredibly bright.”

The Oy!Chicago website features a profile of each of the 36 young leaders, sharing their background, passions, and even celebrity Dopplegangers. The winners will be celebrated at an event on August 7th called “WYLD in Paris.” For more information, please click here. Below is a bit of Alyssa’s profile.


What Can Southern Jews Teach The Rest of Us About Intermarriage and Outreach?

The following blog originally appeared in MyJewishLearning’s “Southern & Jewish” blog on July 1, 2014. Click here to view the original post.

Usually we think of small, southern communities as being at least a beat behind their larger counterparts, especially when they have small—even “diminishing”—Jewish populations. Many of these Jewish communities were once thriving, but they have followed the American trend of younger generations abandoning smaller hometowns for larger urban centers.

These communities may be demographically small, but they should be considered ideologically large in their response to those who have intermarried.

How these communities respond should be instructive to other communities, regardless of size or region. It is true that the intermarriage rate—particularly among non-Orthodox Jews—is among the highest in these communities. Even if there is debate among demographers as to the exact rate of intermarriage, what is most important to consider is the trend lines. That’s why the well-practiced response of these communities is so important at a time when the rest of the North American community has finally transcended the question of “Should we reach out to those who have intermarried?” and moved to “How should we reach out to those who have intermarried?”

In a word, the only response of these smaller Southern communities has always been the same: welcome.


Are We Fouling Out?

Have you ever gone to a sporting event and felt clueless? I have. Growing up, my brother was a tremendous athlete. He played multiple sports and played them well. He could recite statistics about players, the history of the games, and could even be an announcer at a sporting event. I, on the other hand, was the exact opposite. I dreaded gym class. Learning more rules and playing more games were completely boring and irrelevant to me.

Recently, I was sitting at my daughter’s basketball game and felt as clueless as I was in gym class 30 years prior. I tapped the woman’s shoulder in front of me to ask why her son got two free throws this time and only one last time. She looked at me with mild disdain and then proceeded to explain the rules in a condescending tone. I was mortified. Was I inferior because I didn’t understand basketball? (more…)

Eight Things I Have Learned From My Time at Big Tent Judaism

After almost two years working at Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute, I will be leaving my position at the end of this week to move to Boston. It has been a pleasure to work together to open the tent, helping the North American Jewish community reach out and embrace families like my own. As a way to sum up my time here, I prepared the following list of eight things I have learned:

Eight Things I Have Learned From My Time at Big Tent Judaism (more…)

Click Here!