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Creating a Welcoming Jewish Community that Crosses Borders

Growing up in suburban Chicago, I never struggled to access Jewish life. Synagogue, Hebrew school, Jewish youth groups, Israel programs, or the social networks emerging from these activities, all less than a 30-minute drive away. My attention was, therefore, completely drawn to this article from the Jewish Journal about children from Tijuana’s Jewish community who receive an education at San Diego area Jewish day schools. These students make a daily trek from Tijuana to San Diego, two-hour-long commutes to school, 12+ hour days beginning at 5 a.m. ostensibly because Tijuana’s Jewish community of approximately 2,000 cannot sustain a Jewish day school.

These families invest large amounts of time and money so that their children can attend a Jewish school and so they can have access to a larger Jewish community: (more…)



The Stars at Night Are Big And Bright

When you look up at night, you can see the stars twinkle. For parents, our children are our stars, and we all want the best for our children. We want them to thrive, be happy, and feel successful. However, just as stars are parts of constellations, every child is a part of a family structure, and each family has its own unique ethos or character. A family’s ethos is reflected in how we live our lives, our values, customs, and practices. A common theme among Jewish families is the choice to identify with the Jewish tradition, and the myriad ways in which to do so.

One of the beautiful things about the Jewish tradition is its ability to highlight and strengthen values, ideals, and beliefs through celebration, scholarship, and community. As the Jewish community continues to diversify, the ways to experience and pass on Jewish traditions continues to increase. For some, complementing a public or private school education with Jewish experiences and education is the answer. Other families take advantage of all that the Jewish tradition has to offer by sending their children to Jewish day schools. (more…)



Why in Hebrew?

A recent article in The New Republic titled “Why I Stopped Speaking to My Daughter in Hebrew,” made me think about how I talk to my son. As the father of a now bilingual three-year-old, I connected with Scheiber’s story about his effort to transmit Hebrew fluency to his daughter. In his story, Scheiber mostly abandons his attempt to speak with his daughter exclusively in his native language after coming to terms with what he calls the “fraudulence” of his Jewish Israeli identity.

At three years of age, my own son is fluent in both Hebrew and English, and Hebrew is his dominant language. And while his situation is slightly different from Scheiber’s (Scheiber had only one parent who was a Hebrew speaker, my son has two parents and three grandparents who are native speakers of the language) I imagine that my son may encounter similar dilemmas when he grows up. While Jewish Israeli culture is not only about speaking Hebrew, Hebrew does play an important role. So as a bilingual growing up in an English-speaking environment, my son will have to decide for himself what role Hebrew plays in his own identity. Hebrew fluency, I feel, is a precious gift that I am giving him, and I hope that this gift will be a source of enrichment for him. But what he will do with this gift is ultimately up to him. (more…)



American Jews - Part of Mainstream American Society

I had the pleasure of offering the keynote address at the Engaging Interfaith Families Conference sponsored by UJA-Federation of New York on May 12th. The conference was held in anticipation of the new year for program grants for local institutions that are prepared to open their tents to interfaith families.

We at Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute applaud both UJA-Federation and the local institutions that are involved for working hard to make our community more inclusive, particularly for interfaith families. It is also why we are so proud to be working with UJA-Federation on our Big Tent Judaism initiative in Northern Westchester County and the River Towns. (more…)



Over 1,000 People Reached through JOI Programming this Passover

This past Passover, Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) touched the lives of more than 1,000 less-engaged Jews and members of intermarried families through the use of Public Space JudaismSM and Inclusive JudaismSM programming in over 40 communities across North America. I wanted to use this opportunity to outline the difference between these two types of JOI programs, and to explain how each type of program impacts individuals not currently involved in organized Jewish life.

Public Space Judaism is JOI’s programmatic model designed to take Judaism out of the four walls of Jewish institutions and into the public secular space, where Jews and their families are more likely to be. We know that while only 31% of American Jewish adults are currently affiliated with a synagogue, a much larger portion, 70% according to the Pew Study, celebrate a Passover seder. So in addition to open and inclusive programming in synagogues or JCCs, we train our partners and professionals (including our Big Tent Judaism Professional Affiliates and Big Tent Judaism Concierges) to implement Passover in the Matzah AisleSM in local grocery stores, where Jewish people and their families are most likely to be in the weeks before Passover. (more…)



When Conversion Creates an Intermarriage

There are rabbis who are not prepared to officiate at interfaith weddings. This is not news to most people in the Jewish community. But what about rabbis who are not prepared to help a potential convert actually convert to Judaism because the spouse/partner of the potential convert is of another background and may not plan to convert? Did you know about this subset of rabbis?

In the minds of these rabbis, such an action would be creating an intermarriage—since one partner would now be Jewish and the other would remain tied to another background. Therefore, this would be tantamount to officiating at an intermarriage, since it would essentially be creating one. Rather than welcoming yet another person with open arms in the Jewish community, we have somehow figured out yet another way to place an obstacle in front of a person, limiting our own growth and expansion as a community. This seems counter-intuitive to me.

We at Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) want to open the doors to those who want to cast their lot with the Jewish people, and we want to find a way to lower the barriers to do so. If you want to help, or would like our help in lowering the barriers in your community, let me know. We are always looking for program partners in our effort to expand the tent.



Is Seth Meyers Jewish Enough?

If you didn’t catch “Late Night with Seth Meyers” the other night, his guest, author Jonah Kerry, brought him a yarmulke (Jewish head covering, also called a kipah) as a gift. because he thought Meyers was Jewish. Of course, he also thought it would be a funny gag.

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Moms Are as Diverse as Fish in the Sea

Like life under the sea, there is tremendous diversity in the Jewish community ecosystem and that extends to moms. Whether you are a Jewish mom, mom of another religious background, married mom, single mom, adoptive mom, or helicopter mom, your kids see you as “mom.”

Whatever your family structure, Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) wants to thank you for making the effort to bring Judaism into your children’s lives, since they are the faces of our future.

Happy Mother’s Day!

How does your unique family structure strengthen the Jewish community? Click here to share on our Facebook page!



JOI’s New Communication Associate Looks Forward to Celebrating Diversity

Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) is a seemingly unlikely place for me to be working. I avoided all Jewish activities in college (Hillel and the like), only attended synagogue for the High Holidays and the occasional “Shabbat Chaverim” (literally “Sabbath friends,” a program that my Temple holds which encourages people to sing, dance, and eat together on Shabbat), and lived in a fairly non-observant household. People who know me knew that I had always wanted to live in New York, but I am sure they imagined me working in entertainment (I interned at a traveling circus when I was in college).

When I was a child I experienced the paradox of spending my childhood being immersed in a vibrant Jewish community to moving in middle school and being the only Jew in a community. When I was in elementary school my community was able to support a Jewish day school, which I was fortunate to attend. During my formative years I was taught the Hebrew alphabet, Torah stories, prayers, and how to observe the holidays. This education helped me connect to the Jewish community and provide understanding to Jewish traditions and culture. When I was 12, my family moved to a rural part of Iowa, where my family was the only Jewish family and my connection to Judaism had greatly diminished.
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An Open Letter to Chelsea Clinton

This piece was originally featured in The Examiner on April 30, 2014. To read it, please click here.

Dear Ms. Clinton:

On behalf of everyone at Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI), I would like to congratulate you and your husband on your pregnancy. I like to say: having a child is no big deal; it just changes your whole life. As a parent—and grandparent—I am excited for you and your family.

I would also like to be the first to welcome your baby into the Jewish community. While you may not yet have decided in what faith you will raise your child, I want you to know that we consider women who have married into the Jewish community to be unsung heroes when they make the effort to raise Jewish children. As a result, we want to make sure that you are welcomed and celebrated. It is one of the reasons we developed The Mothers Circle. Sometimes raising a child in the Jewish community without the benefit of a Jewish background is like living in a foreign country without the benefit of foreign language skills. The Mothers Circle suite of free programs provides you with what you may need to help navigate the Jewish community.
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Learning from Missed Opportunities

When people think about our model for Public Space Judaism, especially in the context of Passover in the Matzah Aisle—a premier example of such a successful program—they often think of standard Passover programming, albeit in the context of a supermarket. However, twice this year major holiday periods coincided with major Jewish holidays. The Thanksgiving weekend included Hanukkah. And Easter Sunday, an obviously Christian holiday, coincided with Passover. Before anyone accuses me of syncretism, let’s analyze both dates.

In the case of the Sunday following Thanksgiving, many families were traveling. The winter shopping season had been initiated and virtually everything in North America remained open. However, on Easter Sunday, few things were open. So those in the Jewish community—even those who were unaffiliated or not particularly observant in the traditional sense—found few places to spend their leisure hours.

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Lessons Learned from the Other Pew Study

Although I am often loathe to identify myself as a millennial, I enjoyed reading “Millennials in Adulthood,” the recent Pew report on the lives and values of my generation. Unlike the Pew Research Center’s “A Portrait of Jewish Americans” that took the Jewish communal world by storm last fall, this Pew study has made no discernable splash in the same waters. For those concerned about the Jewish future though, I think the findings from this new Pew study are just as important.

So, what does the research tell us? First, that young adults—the researchers surveyed a national sample of adults ages 18-33—are increasingly detached from institutions, be they religious or political. About three in ten, or 29%, of millennials are religiously unaffiliated, and half (50%) identify themselves as political independents (with a margin of error of 2.6%). The movement from institutional membership toward what JOI’s Executive Director Kerry Olitzky has coined as “playlist Judaism,” which is reflective of more than just Judaism; rather, it reflects the new ways my peers and I relate to the world.

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When You Open the Door for Elijah, Open the Door to Inclusion

Every aspect of the Passover seder is infused with meaning, connecting Jews across the world in a celebration of liberation. One such event takes place toward the end of the seder, when we open the door for Elijah the Prophet, hoping that he will grace the seder with his presence and herald the arrival of the Messiah. At Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI), we view an inclusive community that welcomes everyone who would cast their lot with the Jewish people as a positive step toward that messianic age.

JOI created “Welcoming Elijah the Prophet,” a Passover haggadah supplement that promotes the message of LGBT inclusion and supporting LGBT interfaith families as valued members of the Jewish community. This haggadah supplement emerges from the LGBT Interfaith Parents Circle, our program for LGBT interfaith couples who are raising or considering raising Jewish children. The LGBT Interfaith Parents Circle is currently being piloted in Los Angeles, and we hope to expand the program over the coming years.

As you embark on your Passover celebrations, we encourage you to share this supplement with the people gathered around your seder table, as well as anyone else who may benefit from this resource.



An Orange on the Seder Plate?



What Does the Fifth Child Ask?

The Passover seder, as one of the most widely observed Jewish rituals, has long been a place to acknowledge the most vital issues and questions of the day. As you make plans to include the values of Big Tent Judaism in Passover this year, we hope you will consider using the attached haggadah supplement, “What Does the Fifth Child Ask?

Many different causes have suggested adding a fifth child to the iconic Four as a way to bring contemporary issues facing particular populations into the haggadah, such as the Soviet Jewry movement and the “child of the Holocaust.”

In this case, we suggest using, “What Does the Fifth Child Ask?” as an exploration of the questions and challenges faced by a hypothetical fifth child: the child of intermarriage, including a reading and some suggested discussion questions.

No matter who sits down around your seder table this year, we hope you will share this important conversation with them.



Would Goldilocks Sit in the Same Chair?

As children, we learn the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. The story is about finding things that are “just right.” Let us forget the premise that she has broken into the bears’ home (that is a discussion for another time). Each time Goldilocks goes to taste, to sit, or to sleep, she is challenged by how things are not quite right. It is the porridge, the chair, and the bed of the bear that is most like herself that she finds just right. Would Goldilocks the twenty something make the same choices? What about Goldilocks the mother? The empty nester? The senior?

Each of us experiences our Judaism through the prism of the here and now. What inspires us today may have seemed irrelevant before. Sometimes rituals or prayers take on different meaning based on challenges we are facing or successes we have had. The beauty of the Jewish tradition is that it has many different access points. The tradition is available to us regardless of our background or prior knowledge. Who we are or who we wish to be helps us to experience Judaism in a usable way. We do not have to engage the same way as we did before or in a way we will want to in the future.

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A Tale of Two Synagogues

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. So starts A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. And so starts this tale of two synagogues.

Dickens depicts the French peasantry demoralized by the French aristocracy leading up to the revolution, and the corresponding brutality of those same revolutionaries toward the former aristocrats.

My tale isn’t as dramatic, but it reminded me of A Tale of Two Cities just the same.

One Friday night in February, a woman went to a Reform synagogue in a large US metropolitan suburb; she took her biracial child with her to check out the local scene. Everyone was so nice! The membership director introduced herself right away and invited her back the next week. The rabbi was warm and welcoming, and the woman and her daughter really felt embraced. They were invited back for family Shabbat the following week.

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Jewish Pro You Should Know: Rabbi Eli Garfinkel

Rabbi Eli L. Garfinkel was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in 1999. Since ordination, he has served as an assistant rabbi in Toronto and Cincinnati. In 2005, he became the spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Somerset, New Jersey, where he has started an annual Jewish film festival, organized communal Passover seders, and taught popular adult education courses. In November 2013, Rabbi Garfinkel also became a Big Tent Judaism Professional Affiliate, working with JOI’s Big Tent Judaism Concierge for Middlesex County Caren Heller to open the tent of the Middlesex County Jewish community.

He is the author of three books that are used throughout the Ramah network of Jewish summer camps: Mikraot Ramah, a commentary on the summertime Torah portions, Dim’ot Ramah, a commentary on Lamentations that is read on the fast day of Tisha b’Av, and a commentary for younger campers entitled Torat Ramah. He is also the developer of several apps for the iPhone and iPad, including two that help users how to read Torah and Haftarah readings. Rabbi Garfinkel lives in Somerset, New Jersey, with his wife, Naomi Lasky, and their twins, Sari and Josh.

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Millennials are Asking, Why be Jewish?

This piece was originally featured in The New Jersey Jewish News on March, 12, 2014. To read it, please click here.

With the arrival and maturation of my generation, the Millennials, the question “Who is a Jew?” is rather passe. Forget the Jewish legal dimensions to this endlessly debatable topic. Forget all the moralizing arguments over the issue. Forget the demographically induced paranoia, the post-Holocaust hand-wringing, the Israeli legal maneuvering (not to mention the pandering that comes with it), and the denominational infighting. And — for heaven’s sake! —forget the Pew study.

The fact is that “Who is a Jew?” is the wrong question. To maintain our relevance — to regain it, really — the question we must ask today is “Why be Jewish?”

The problem with the who-is-a-Jew question is the binary premise from which it springs: that there is an “us” and a “them.” (Worse, perhaps, is the accompanying hope that we will one day delineate a set of criteria that define who is an “us” and who is a “them.”) The premise itself is as boring and potentially harmful as the question it gives rise to. It has infiltrated our national debate in a variety of guises: Who is affiliated and who is unaffiliated? Who is an insider and who is an outsider? Who is a member and who is a non-member? Who is inmarried and who is intermarried?

And, of utmost importance in the case of Millennials: Are your parents both Jewish? For 48 percent of us, the answer is no.

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Where Have All the Mothers (of The Mothers Circle) Gone?

The debate over the effects of intermarriage on the future of the American Jewish community has frequently returned to one question: does outreach to the intermarried work? Most in the organized Jewish community would agree that the future we want is one where our ranks are numerous, Jewish life is vibrant, and Jewish institutions are valued for the purpose they serve. Many also believe that reaching out to intermarried couples, embracing them warmly, and welcoming them into our folds would result in larger, more vibrant Jewish communities. But does it?

What do we really know about the effects of outreach to the intermarried? To date, the evidence we have has been lacking. Most of what we know about the Jewish engagement of intermarried families comes from large, general population studies such as the National Jewish Population Study and the more recent study by the Pew Research Center. While both are obviously extremely valuable in understanding overall patterns of Jewish engagement, we have little data on the effects of specific programmatic interventions. What are the best ways to support intermarried families and encourage their participation in Jewish life? And what are the results we can reasonably expect? The latest study by Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) provides some answers.

Over the past decade, JOI has been implementing The Mothers Circle – one of our flagship programs which serves mothers of other religious backgrounds raising Jewish children in the context of an intermarriage/interpartnership. The program combines basic Jewish education with exposure to Jewish community resource and a supportive network of other women in a similar situation. From graduates of the program, we hear that creating this warm and nonjudgmental space in which to explore the various challenges of raising children in a religion they are unfamiliar with was the most impactful element of this program.

To date, The Mothers Circle has been offered in over 150 communities across North America and served over 2,100 mothers. What happens to these mothers after they graduate from The Mothers Circle? More specifically, to what extent has The Mothers Circle helped them take the journey toward greater Jewish engagement, making Jewish homes, and raising Jewish children? To answer these questions, JOI launched a survey this past October to 775 mothers who have taken the course between one and seven years ago; we collected 148 complete responses.

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