Weblog Entries for Category: Big Tent Judaism

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Getting a Head Start on the High Holidays

Last Thursday, over 40 Jewish communal professionals and volunteer leaders from across North America came together for a conference call to begin thinking about their outreach programming efforts around the High Holidays. As many institutions begin to set their program calendar for 2014-2015 now, this is an optimal time to make outreach and engagement a year-round imperative, instead of being caught off-guard in late August with no time or resources to plan.

The group truly spanned North America, with callers from New York to California, Utah to Montreal, and also came from a diverse set of institutions and positions. Synagogues from several denominations were represented, as well as JCCs and Federations. We had rabbis, executive directors, membership chairs, and programming volunteers—all of whom are crucial to the way their institutions “do outreach.” (more…)

We Are All Gatekeepers to Our Jewish Communities

In a recent Kveller article, Rachel Minkowsky writes about an experience she had at work, where a woman made an aspersing comment related to the holiday of Shavuot, assuming that Minkowsky was—in the author’s words—“in on the joke.” Minkowsky successfully neutralized the situation, letting the speaker know that she was Jewish without chastising.

Minkowsky should be commended for the way she handled the situation. However, my focus is not her response, but the woman’s assumption that Minkowsky was “in on the joke.” By making this assumption, the woman created a dichotomy of insider-outsider that could have unwittingly alienated the author. As an individual whose job was to welcome participants to the workshop, she did the opposite, by indicating that those who celebrate Shavuot—or simply know anything about the holiday—are outsiders. (more…)

Thinking Like a Freak to Create a Welcoming Community

I read a great many popular business books. I am always trying to discern how these principles and theories can be applied to organizations in the Jewish community, particularly the one that I am privileged to lead: Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute. I often wonder whether these theories are built from a post-facto analysis of institutions or they were developed in the minds of leaders and then built proactively. In either case, the challenge remains the same: can they be applied (even if adapted) to current organizations and institutions, especially at a time of such rapid transition.

I recently read the latest in the series of Freakenomics. The recent entry is called Think Like a Freak. While it might not be the best of monikers for those who want to follow the authors’ reasoning, I decided to apply its counter-intuitive approach we have been using at Big Tent Judaism, especially as it impacts on our understanding of the growing phenomenon of intermarriage in the Jewish community. (more…)

For-Profit Organizations Can Learn from Non-Profits

When I was a pulpit rabbi years ago in West Hartford, Connecticut (at The Congregation Beth Israel), Nancy Lublin was a bat mitzvah student of mine. She went on to become a well-known player in the not-for-profit world, founding the very successful Dress for Success and transforming Do Anything. (I take no credit for either.) Recently, she penned her first book called Zilch. While it is an important book for many reasons, her central thesis is what caught my attention. She argues that the for-profit world has a lot to learn from successful not-for-profits. This is particularly affirming—and not simply because I am responsible for Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute, a non-profit—but because there seems to be a disturbing trend in hiring in the organized Jewish community. It goes something like this: if someone is successful in the for-profit world, his/her success can be easily translated into the not-for-profit since it is harder to be successful in the for-profit world. And, further goes the argument, we have to start running our non-profits like businesses. (more…)

We Think You’re an All-Star, Dad!

Please click here for a helpful guideline coaching answers to some of kids’ toughest questions!

Happy Fathers Day from Big Tent Judaism!

JOI’s New Program Associate Hopes to Lower Barriers in the Jewish Community

“You’re from Austin? Do you know [so-and-so]? We were part of [Jewish summer camp/youth group/something else Jewish] together!”

When I was asked these questions at a Jewish campus organization’s event at the beginning of my freshman year of college, my answer was almost always a small shake of my head accompanied by a “No.” And it always elicited the same response: “Oh…”

Suddenly, the conversation stalled as the fellow student I was talking to struggled to find something else to relate to me with, other than the “Jewish Geography” they expected would work. Even the professional staff relied on the same tactic to start conversations, asking me if I knew a fellow Rabbi or other Jewish communal professional who worked in Austin. When I replied that, no, I didn’t know Rabbi “So-and-So,” the conversation would again fizzle and the staff member would move on to mingle with students who could play “Jewish Geography” better than I could. (more…)

Jewish Communal Professionals in Northern Westchester and the River Towns Learn to Open the Tent

On June 9th, Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute’s Executive Director, Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, shared important knowledge and resources about building a more inclusive Jewish community with Jewish communal professionals in Westchester County, NY as a part of a partnership with UJA-Federation of New York. Speaking at the Rosenthal JCC in Pleasantville, Rabbi Olitzky challenged professionals to rethink traditional methods of outreach and find new ways to increase engagement.

Two major difficulties many Jewish institutions face is finding people where they are and lowering barriers that may prevent newcomers from wanting to engage in Jewish life. Kerry’s presentation focused on Big Tent Judaism’s model of Public Space JudaismSM to find and engage more people. Public Space Judaism takes programming outside the four walls of a Jewish institution into a public space, bringing Jewish life to where people are. Rabbi Olitzky also spoke about how to positively engage specific populations these Jewish communal professionals may find, such as less-engaged Jews and intermarried families. (more…)

Public Space Judaism as Experiential Education

I am a trained Jewish educator and yet there are those who scrutinize our various educational programs. As a result, I decided to apply objective criteria to some of our work, specifically the training of outreach professionals who are engaged in Public Space Judaism. The following article is a result (as published in EJewishPhilanthropy).

Can the training of outreach professionals engaged in Public Space Judaism be considered Experiential Education by academic standards?

by Dr. Kerry M. Olitzky

While not all programs of Jewish engagement are necessarily experiential education, at Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute, we were purposeful in incorporating experiential education into our programs of Public Space Judaism?, a phrase we coined to refer to a method that we began to advocate some 15 years ago. While there had been other ad hoc examples of doing programs in public spaces, particularly through Chabad, we developed a theoretical construct for this approach to programming, and educate and continue to innovate in this space through such programs at Passover in the Matzah Aisle™ and Hands on Hanukkah™. These programs are operated by Jewish communal professionals and volunteers at synagogues, JCCs, federations, and other Jewish organizations across denominational lines through JOI’s formalized program of professional training. (more…)

Everybody Thinks They’re ‘Chosen’

Why is it that Jewish people are considered “chosen?”
In this piece, featured in New York Jewish Week on Tuesday, June 3, 2014, Associate Executive Director Paul Golin tackles the issue.

I’ve come to see how the disconnect between “everyone is equal” versus “only marry Jewish” is part of a larger and longer-term clash of narratives: universalism versus Jewish particularism, or “chosenness.” Apparently, it’s something the Rabbis have struggled with for millennia, and is relevant to consider this eve of Shavuot when we mark the anniversary of being “chosen” to accept the Torah and covenant.

Read the rest of the article here.

Moms’ Night Out

Moms’ night out is therapy, and this week I had a great session. Sangria and seemingly endless tapas helped stretch the conversation for several hours, until we realized (once again) that we were the last table in the restaurant.

While the talk tends to revolve around our children (“Is my daughter ever going to (fill in the blank)?”), our spouses (“Is my partner ever going to (fill in the blank)?”), and our jobs (“Am I ever going to (fill in the blank)?”), last night the conversation turned to the Jewish community. (more…)

Welcoming Everyone into the Tent this Shavuot

As we enter the holiday of Shavuot, which commemorates Moses receiving the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai, our attention also turns to the Book of Ruth, which is read during this holiday. The Book of Ruth recounts the story of Ruth, a Moabite woman who becomes a Jew-by-Choice and is the great-grandmother of King David. Ruth is presumed to have converted after uttering the following words: “Where you go, I will go. Where you sleep, I will sleep. Your people will be my people. Your God will be my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. Thus may the LORD do to me, and worse, if anything but death parts you and me.”

In her moving article in the Times of Israel, Shoshanna Jaskoll outlines modern day contentions surrounding conversion. People who wish to convert to Judaism must undergo an arduous process, and Jaskoll argues that based on the story of Ruth and her conversion, the conversion practices maintained by the Orthodox rabbinate (as outlined in the article) are inaccurate. Jaskoll interprets Ruth’s proclamation of conversion as such: (more…)

Celebrating Ruth for Shavuot

Shavuot begins the evening of June 2nd and ends the evening of June 4th.
Commemorating the receiving of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai, the holiday of Shavuot is also when we traditionally read the Book of Ruth - the story of a woman of another background who embraces the Jewish People as her own.

The namesake of our Empowering Ruth program, Ruth exemplifies what can happen when the Jewish community truly opens its tent to all who wish to enter. Empowering Ruth is a program for women who have chosen Judaism and offers education and support as they continue their Jewish journeys. We invite you to celebrate Shavuot by reading the Book of Ruth - in graphic novel form! Please consider sharing this image on Facebook, and read the Book of Ruth graphic novel by clicking here.

Massage the Message

Mitchell Shames is the Chair of the Board for Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute. Here is what he had to say about feeling excluded.

This piece was originally featured in eJewish Philanthropy on Thursday, May 29, 2014. To read it, please click here.

Last Wednesday night my wife and I attended the annual fundraising dinner for Boston’s Jewish Family and Children’s Services. Although somewhat formulaic, as these evenings tend to be, we nonetheless had a wonderful time catching up with longstanding friends and reconnecting with a vitally important agency within our community.

The evening included a sweeping review of the agency’s 150 year history, comments by extraordinary teenagers whose disintegrating family (due to death and illness) was saved in large part through the efforts of JF&CS, and lastly, a compelling pitch, steeped in Torah, for JF&CS’s new fund-raising campaign to alleviate poverty. (more…)

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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