Entries for Category: Big Tent Judaism
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Yesterday we shared an excerpt from the latest Institute of Southern Jewish Life (ISJL) newsletter, which features Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI). Today, we would like to share another piece from that same newsletter, a list of ten promises Jewish institutions can make to partners of other backgrounds. To read the entire newsletter, please click here.
Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) is excited to again be featured in the September edition of the Institute of Southern Jewish Life’s (ISJL) E-Newsletter. The monthly newsletter, distributed to ISJL’s network of supporters and educators throughout the South, focused on opening the tent of the Southern Jewish community, with the help of JOI Executive Director Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky. Below is one excerpted piece for the upcoming holiday of Sukkot. To read the entire newsletter, please click here.
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I enjoyed reading this recent article in the Forward in which Jordan Kutzik suggests that the study of Jewish languages such as Yiddish, Ladino, and Hebrew should be an important tool in the effort to assure a viable North American Jewish future. In historic Jewish communities, he argues, belonging was not primarily about religious ties but about ethnic ones, with language playing a key role in determining group boundaries.
There was less need for debate about who was and was not a Jew. Whether a person was religious, a closeted heretic or an open Epicurus, she was a Jew if she spoke a Jewish language as her mother tongue.
I think Kutzik in on to something. Perhaps Jewish institutions should offer classes in Jewish languages as one of their offering on the menu of Jewish engagement opportunities. When Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) conducted a study of adult Jews raised in intermarried households, one of the findings was that religious activities and activities focused primarily on ethnic ties are less appealing to this population.
To many people who have learned about Public Space Judaism from us at Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute, it may seem like an effective response to the reality of contemporary American Jewish life—a growing number of people are not coming through the doors of our institutions. Thus, if we want to reach them, we have to go where they spend the majority of their time—and that is not inside Jewish communal institutions. That is why we advocate for programming in public spaces.
While we may take credit for the proliferation of Public Space Judaism, as well as the development of its theoretical construct, and we are certainly the force behind such programs as Passover in the Matzah Aisle and Hands-on Hanukkah, the idea really emerges directly from the Hebrew Bible and the work of Ezra the Scribe. I was reminded of this notion as I began preparation with Rabbi Dan Moskovitz (of Temple Sholom in Vancouver, BC) for a session on Public Space Judaism that we will be delivering together at the Union of Reform Judaism Biennial Conference this fall. In the book of Nehemiah (8:1-8), we read about how Ezra brought the Torah into the marketplace and read it aloud to the people gathered there. Moreover, he interpreted the text so that those who were gathered could understand it.
Welcome to the second of two parts of my interview with John Propper. There are many paths into the Jewish community—some involving conversion, some not—but at only 24 years old, John’s story has already taken many twists and turns. He comes from a Pentecostal family, went to a Catholic college, converted with a Reform rabbi, changed his last name, married into the interfaith family of a nice Jewish girl—and he’ll be a first-year student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in the fall. At the end of Part 1, John discussed how he found a place for himself in the Jewish community—by boldly deciding what kind of place he wanted and making it happen. Now, in Part 2, we pick up with the barriers he encountered along the way:
What barriers to entry did you feel early on—and how did you overcome them?
I have no ethno-cultural memories. My biological family has been rooted to the same region of American soil since before Americans were American. We’ve never been institutionally oppressed, kept out of country clubs, or called slurs. In the cultural privilege lottery, we won the Powerball. Yet a shared heritage of suffering and survival is as formatively Jewish as reciting the Shema [a key Jewish prayer about the unity of God] before bedtime or being embarrassed by Adam Sandler’s “Chanukah Song.”
While I’m thankful I’ve never been subject to that kind of suffering, there’s a piece of me that feels strangely privileged, and oddly out of place, as a middle-class white guy who belonged to the majority until, one day, he decided not to. I learn to listen, and the stories become mine, like the Kaddish [a Jewish prayer used for, among other things, periods of mourning] has become mine, like Torah has become mine. It’s not profound, and there’s no internal angelic choir when it happens—just the sound of time passing. Moments arise when I share as well as listen; my voice accents their [Jews born into the narrative] own.
There are many paths into the Jewish community—some involving conversion, some not—but at only 24 years old, John’s Propper’s path has already taken many twists and turns. He comes from a Pentecostal family, went to a Catholic college, converted with a Reform rabbi, changed his last name, married into the interfaith family of a nice Jewish girl—and he’ll be a first-year student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in the fall. John is a good friend of mine. Until now, I’ve been learning his story in bits and pieces. So, to get a more complete picture—and believing readers of this blog would find his journey as interesting as I do—I interviewed him about his story so far. Here is the first half of our conversation. Look for the second part to be posted soon.
What is your family background? What was your life like before you became part of the Jewish community?
For the first 20 years of my life, I lived in northern Georgia, in the foothills. My hometown is small, just over 700 people, many of them farmers. My father was a traveling Pentecostal evangelist. Even much of Christianity was alien to me till I left the Church at 16.
After that, I hopped from church to church, and read about religion enthusiastically. But I never felt comfortable. Eventually my parents divorced, and an opportunity for me to go to college presented itself. I picked someplace far away from my home—West Michigan—and something new—a Catholic school called Aquinas College. It was there, at a shul [synagogue] across the street from my dorm, that I was exposed to Judaism.
The Jewish community sometimes has difficulty articulating enticing, relevant answers to the question of, “Why be Jewish?” Despite no previous connection to the Jewish community, you clearly found your way to some good personal answers to the question. So, for you, “Why be Jewish?”
Community is essential to me. During my undergrad, I spent more time in shul than anywhere else. I converted at the shul. My wife and I met there; we taught there; we were married there. It’s home. That said, community is found in most faiths.
So how about this: As an ideology, Judaism places a unique emphasis on the present. Novelist James Michener once aptly described it as—and I’m paraphrasing here— “a system for organizing life.” There’s an emphasis on contemporary ethics, personal development, and the marking of mundane existence through ritual. Most monotheisms are eternity-minded, always in search of the never-ending or the final or the ultimate. But Judaism emphasizes recognizing the ordinary holiness of each day.
Once you knew you were interested in Judaism, what was your path into the community like?
Once, I sat in a circle of fellow converts. We were asked, “Do you feel as much a part of the wider community as you’d like?” Some said, “Yes,” others, “No.” When asked why I answered, “Yes,” I replied, in effect, “I just made a place for myself.”
The High Holidays remain the period of time in which Jews—and those in the orbit of the Jewish community—participate in Jewish communal institutions more often than any other time of year, (This notion should not be confused with Hanukkah and Passover, which are observed—in one way or another—by more in the Jewish community than any other Jewish holidays.) Nevertheless, these numbers are waning, for lots of reasons.
Among the various reasons is the notion that obligation is no longer driving participation. Instead, people want to know what they will get out of their participation, how they will benefit from it. Yesterday afternoon, dozens of Jewish communal professionals, many from our Big Tent Judaism Coalition and Big Tent Judaism Professional Affiliates program participated in a Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute webinar which helped Jewish communal institutions think about what promises they could make to participants, especially those new to their community and institutions.
Here’s the list. Feel free to share it, and add to it. And please let us know what you think. Which of these items are most important to you, and which do you feel are the most important for your institution to promise?
Below is an excerpt from a recent op-ed in the New Jersey Jewish News written by JOI Associate Executive Director Paul Golin in response to recent debate in the Jewish community about whether or not rabbis should be permitted to intermarry. To read the complete piece, please click here.
“[…] I’m not the typical intermarried unaffiliated Jew, since I’m also a Jewish communal professional. Still, I think I speak for many intermarried households when it comes to what I want and need from a rabbi. And that might be instructive to the seminaries, who are training clergy for a U.S. population that now has more intermarried than in-married households.
I have two admittedly broad criteria for what I want in a rabbi: Tell me I’m in and mean it — and show me why it’s so amazing.
[…] Rabbis with nontraditional families like my own make me feel more included. Conveying why Judaism is still relevant to them provides me with access I wouldn’t feel elsewhere. The focus is not on how you come in, but what you get out of doing Jewish — in other words, why it’s so amazing.
American liberal Judaism in the 21st century must be about conveying Jewish meaning, not ensuring ethnic survival. Some may lament that rabbis today must first answer “what can Judaism do for me as an individual,” rather than “what am I supposed to do because I’m Jewish.” But the days of obligation-before-meaning are gone.
So tell us why Judaism is better! Why should my children’s ethical foundation be provided by Jewish wisdom rather than the universal ethics they would receive as Americans? Why should I seek spirituality in synagogue when the local meditation studio promises results I never hear offered by rabbis? How can the millennia-long conversations in Jewish texts help make my own life — or the world — better?”
Read the complete text here.
To read New Jersey Jewish News Editor-in-Chief Andrew Silow-Carroll reaction to the piece, please click here.
Middlesex County, New Jersey - a Jewish community like many others - familiar, yet unique.
Familiar because they have the same strengths of many communities: diversity of institutions, committed leaders, and a desire to keep Judaism alive. Familiar also because they have the same issues many Jewish communities face: declining affiliation, apathy among members, lack of engagement. And familiar because the volunteer and professional leadership truly care about ensuring the future of the community and are searching for ways to help their institutions and individuals. And, like all communities, they are also unique: they have their own culture, history, specific successes, and particular challenges.
Middlesex County, however, is also unique in that they have committed to doing the hard work involved for true and lasting change. Through local individual and foundation support, JOI’s Big Tent Judaism Concierge will work closely and collaboratively with professionals and volunteers to identify newcomers and use each institution’s strengths to ensure those individuals and families are guided on a Jewish journey that is distinctively theirs.
The Big Tent Judaism Concierge is an employee of the Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) whose sole task is to identify unengaged individuals and, based on information gleaned through a personally built relationship, guide that individual toward participation in the Jewish community. S/he works with Big Tent Judaism Professional Affiliates (those Jewish communal professionals in a community who have signed on to a formal training program as well as committed to hold events that use specific techniques that are proven successful in engagement) and Big Tent Judaism Ambassadors (volunteer leaders who work together and singly to advocate for change in the community around these issues) to ensure collaboration and success.
The following is a poem written by Rabbi Heather Miller, who is currently training to be one of JOI’s Big Tent Judaism Professional Affiliates. We invite you to share her beautiful words.
June 26, 2013
ON THIS SIDE OF HISTORY
By Rabbi Heather Miller
What does it feel like
when a human-made law
tells you your relationship isn’t worth as much as that of others
even when you’ve been together 10 years, 20 years, 60 years?
What does it feel like for your religious marriage ceremony to not be backed by your government?
Before today, I couldn’t tell you, because it was too oppressive,
and I didn’t want to explore the pressures it forced upon my life.
But today, on this side of history, I can say
that the Supreme Court decisions of June 26, 2013
feel like sunshine breaking through the clouds.
That the Creator is shining down
renewing the covenantal promise
that we are indeed created in the Divine image.
It feels like a heavy rush hour traffic suddenly clearing
and all road blocks have been taken away.
It feels like we are 10,000 feet up and now free to move about the cabin.
It feels like news that a disease has gone into remission.
One of life’s major obstacles have been removed
and instead of our government working against our family unit,
it is supporting it, rooting for us.
It feels like we are marching through the parted waters of the Red Sea,
on our way to freedom.
It feels like people have confidence in our ability to make the world a beautiful place,
instead of begrudgingly tolerating us.
It feels like justice.
It feels like intentional, sincere hugs and cheers.
It feels joyous, empowering and deeply affirming.
It feels like we are a true part of the community and that we are blessed.
Rabbi Heather Miller serves several congregational communities in Los Angeles, CA. Prior to ordination from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 2008, she majored in Peace and Justice Studies and Africana Studies at Wellesley College in Wellesley, MA. She and her wife, Melissa de la Rama, were named the 2013 Liberty Hill Foundation “Leaders to Watch.” Learn more at www.rabbiheathermiller.com.
In the late afternoon leading up to Shavuot, I happened to be the only person left in the office and answered the phone. It was a Jewish communal professional who works with teens. She told me that every teen in her city was a member of her organization, and she was hoping that our Big Tent Judaism Professional Affiliates program and Big Tent Judaism Concierge could help her out. But it didn’t sound like a problem—at first.
Of the 500 teen members, she could identify only about 100 as engaged – meaning those who actually attend activities. Since I am very familiar with her organization, I postulated that it was the parents who were signing up their children and paying the dues each year. But it was up to the organization’s leaders to actually create meaningful experiences in which the members would like to participate, so that it didn’t feel like an obligation to the parents, but a desire from the young members.
As someone who not only works with intermarried, but is also immersed in the Brooklyn Jewish community, I was extremely moved by the recent open letter to Hebrew Union College from Rabbi Ellen Lippmann of Kolot Chayeinu of Brooklyn, NY. Published in the Jewish Daily Forward, Rabbi Lippmann urges the seminary, of which she counts herself an alumna, to reconsider their policy of prohibiting admission to rabbinical school candidates in interfaith relationships. Lippmann has been in an interfaith, same-sex relationship for nearly thirty years, during which time she and her partner have raised a daughter in a Jewish home. While Lippmann’s partner feels that conversion is not the right choice for her, she still embraces Jewish traditions, including Shabbat and the counting of the Omer (ritual countdown of the days from Passover to Shavuot).
“We are like the thousands of Jews across America who commit to strongly Jewish lives with their non-Jewish spouses. Interfaith families tell me that having a rabbi who mirrors their relationships makes an enormous difference to being able to commit to Jewish life.”
As inspiring as it was to read such an eloquent and heartfelt expression of inclusion as a core Jewish value, I was extremely disheartened upon scrolling to the bottom of the page, where Rabbi Lippmann’s words were met with a litany of hateful responses. Most of the comments decry intermarriage as sacrilegious, and some even go so far as to denounce the Reform movement altogether as “not Jewish anyway.” What really got to me, though, was seeing the golden calf and even Hitler invoked with careless ignorance. All I kept thinking was, “this is not Jewish.”
A Special Invitation for
Jewish Communal Professionals
& Volunteer Leaders
in Middlesex County
Please join us Monday, May 20th at 3:00 PM for a FREE presentation by JOI Executive Director Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky, How Big Tent Judaism Can Help Grow Your Institution. We will discuss what we can do to help unengaged Jews find their place in the Middlesex Jewish community, and how we can engage newcomers in the Jewish community.
When: Monday, May 20, 2013 3:00-5:00 PM
Where: New Brunswick Free Public Library, 60 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, NJ 08901
Who: Middlesex County Jewish communal professionals and volunteer leaders (please feel free to bring your colleagues, and share this information with others.)
There is no cost, but we ask that you please RSVP so we can provide enough refreshments. To RSVP or for more information, please contact Brenna Kearns at BKearns [at] JOI.org.
To view the full invitation, please click here, and share this invitation with others!
An interesting story in The Jewish Chronicle caught my eye recently. In it, writer Sarah Angrist argues that, when looking at the current state of the North American Jewish community, “bemoaning the decline in synagogue membership, high rates of intermarriage, and our aging population” misses the point. She thinks that Judaism in America is (and has been) extremely successful because Jewish culture is flourishing. She finds that:
Encouraging signs in North America are evident in the proliferation of university Jewish studies programs, the widespread appeal of klezmer music, camps for children and adults, innovative art forms and exhibits, Jewish music performances, film festivals, and the success of the Yiddish Book Center in preserving materials.
I think Angrist is making an important point. While for many, being Jewish and connecting to Judaism takes a primarily religious form, this is not the case for others, and probably not for most North American Jews. On the other hand, Jewish cultural experiences and expressions such as the ones mentioned above are often more accessible to those for whom religion has lost its relevance.
Today we are seeing a growing number of Jews choosing to not affiliate with the Jewish community, yet still identifying as Jewish. Whereas in the past, community and shared experiences have defined what it means to be Jewish, Jews today seem to be shying away from many communal practices, such as synagogue affiliation and Jewish day school education, and finding their “Jewishness” elsewhere.
An article that was recently published on Slate.com entitled “The Chosen Few” makes an interesting argument for returning to more traditional routes of Jewish connection: Jewish day school education leads to Jewish affiliation. The article introduces the idea that while in the past Jews sent their children to Jewish day schools because other education was not available or because it was easier to not be exposed to the general public, now, especially in America, the access to public education coupled with the lack of discrimination towards Jews has made the practice obsolete for the sake of education alone. However, since Jewish day school education is seen as one of the main vehicles for connecting to the Jewish community, are lower affiliation rates directly related to less Jewish children attending Jewish day schools? Maybe, but it doesn’t mean people feel any less Jewish.
Author Steven Weiss writes that “a majority of American Jews today are unaffiliated with the synagogues the Pharisaic rabbis emphasized, and yet 79 percent report feeling ‘very positive’ about being Jewish.” This then begs the question: why choose Jewish day school?
I just returned from Costa Rica, an exciting country, known especially for its monkeys. Of course, it is also known for its coffee, pineapple, beaches, rain forests, and zip line adventure parks, among other things. Perhaps it is my sensitivity to the notion of “welcoming,” but no one mentioned that particular aspect of the country and its inhabitants before we prepared for our trip. Yet the “ministry of welcoming” as it is sometimes called in other contexts was apparent everywhere we went. Perhaps it is because a country of 4.5 million citizens understands that it is dependent on a tourist trade that welcomes 6 million people each year.
So I thought to myself, why doesn’t the organized American Jewish community of 2 million understand its dependency (perhaps its future) on the 4 million American Jews (and the many more people who are not Jewish but who live in Jewish households) who are not part of the organized Jewish community? Perhaps if we could extend the Costa Rican culture of welcoming into the culture of the American Jewish community, we might extend our “tourist trade,” as well. The difference, however, is that we must not just welcome people to visit, but to stay.
In our latest edition of The Mothers Circle-Shalom Sesame holiday resource guide, we take a look at the upcoming holiday of Shavuot, which begins at sundown on Tuesday May 14th, and ends at sundown on Thursday May 16th.
Shavuot is a spring holiday that celebrates the first harvest, the ripening of the first fruits, and most importantly, the giving of the Torah. The holiday can offer a wonderful entry point into Jewish life. Entry points, in fact, are at the very heart of this holiday, particularly because of its connection to the Book of Ruth, which is traditionally read on Shavuot during late-night (or even all night!) study sessions. Shavuot is also known for the delicious foods eaten, including blintzes and cheesecake.
For more about this unique holiday, including activities, video and discussion questions, and more, click here to download the free Shavuot resource guide. And please feel free to share!
Also, be sure to visit The Mothers Circle Facebook page to share how you will be celebrating Shavuot with your family, by leaving us a comment on the post about this fun guide. You can even share photos of the tzedakah boxes you make!
We here at Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) believe in unequivocally welcoming all Jews and their loved ones into the Jewish community. We know how difficult it can be for some couples to reconcile their different religious backgrounds with their love for each other. JOI has programs like The Mothers Circle, which is designed to support women of other backgrounds raise Jewish children, as well as others that help newcomers navigate the at-times murky waters of the Jewish community. But we shouldn’t make the assumption that every “interfaith” couple is going to have religious issues. Religion is an important question to discuss if it’s important to you, but we as a Jewish community have to recognize that it may simply not be that important to everyone.
I recently came across an op-ed entitled “Interfaith Marriage: A Mixed Blessing” by journalist Naomi Schaefer Riley. Schaefer Riley, who identifies as “a conservative Jew married to a former Jehovah’s Witness,” paints a decidedly tepid portrait of intermarriage, which she expands upon in an upcoming book. After describing the unintended consequences of interfaith marriage for both society and the individual, she writes that “remarkably, less than half of the interfaith couples in my survey said they’d discussed, before marrying, what faith they planned to raise their kids in.”