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Family Changes and the Holidays

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The calendar is a wonderful instrument that brings familiarity through repetition. Fall represents back to school time for some, a change in season for others, and for many of us, September and October bring a string of Jewish holidays.

Though the holidays themselves remain relatively uniform every year, life circumstances shift and so do the feelings associated with, and experienced during, holidays. Families shrink, and grow, and then shrink again. I have experienced this when members of my family go off to college, get married, have children, and move away.


What’s a Grandparent to Do?: Sharing Judaism with Grandchildren in Interfaith Families

Originally appearing in Voices of Conservative Judaism, the following article profiles Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute Board Member Bettina Kurowski and the creating of the Grandparents Circle, a program for Jewish grandparents whose adult children have intermarried. To read the original article, please click here.

The word “millennial” is at the center of conversation in today’s Jewish community. But we shouldn’t ignore another group that is equally pivotal to Jewish continuity – grandparents.

To highlight the powerful role that grandparents play in children’s lives – including children in interfaith families – Big Tent Judaism is hosting a weekend of activities to coincide with Grandparents Day on Sunday, September 7.

The National Grandparents Circle Salon Weekend, from September 6– 7, will convene informal gatherings of Jewish grandparents whose children have intermarried. These salons create a space for discussion about how to foster the Jewish identity of grandchildren being raised in interfaith families, while at the same time improving relationships between grandparents and their adult children.

Led by a grandparent, participants learn strategies for creating Jewish experiences for their grandchildren and establishing positive relationships with their adult children that are informed by the book Twenty Things for Grandparents of Interfaith Grandchildren to Do (And Not Do) to Nurture Jewish Identity in Their Grandchildren, by Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky and Paul Golin. Grandparents Circle Salons are part of Big Tent Judaism’s Grandparents Circle, a series of free educational programs for Jewish grandparents whose adult children have intermarried. These programs have been implemented nearly 150 times in nearly 100 communities across North America.

Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute board member Bettina Kurowski was instrumental in developing the Grandparents Circle, which she piloted at Valley Beth Shalom, a large Conservative Synagogue in Encino, California. Bettina spoke with me about her role in helping to create the Grandparents Circle, how her participation in the inaugural Grandparents Circle helped her shape positive Jewish memories with her family, and why the Grandparents Circle is important for the Conservative Movement.


To assure a vibrant Jewish future – say meow!

Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) seeks to serve all populations marginalized from the organized Jewish community. We now increasingly recognize that negative attitudes toward Jews who partner with members of other faiths are not limited to humans. According to the recent Moo study, at least 72% of Jewish pets (defined as pets with at least one Jewish owner) say that the religion is of “Little” or “No” significance to them when choosing mates (the other 18% were either too barky to understand over the phone, or were out for a walk).

To serve this emerging need, JOI has launched The Howlers Circle, a program for quadrupeds of other backgrounds raising Jewish offspring, and Promoting Pet Pluralism – a program for Jewish owners of inter-mating pets.

“My puppy has been the love of my life,” says Ms. Golden, a recent graduate. She’s been raising her pet, a Golden Retriever, in what she calls “a warm Jewish home. This is why I was stunned when six month ago she brought home a Big Black Labrador. I mean, can their puppies be truly considered Jewish? And how will they be welcomed at my shul [synagogue]? I was dumbstruck.” Luckily, Golden came across an ad for Promoting Pet Pluralism at her local vet. “This program completely changed my life,” she said. She now has at her disposal real-life, hands-on skills that allow her to accept and welcome her pet’s quickly growing lineage.


How I’ll Carry on the Jewish Stories in my Interfaith Marriage

In my work as National Coordinator of The Mothers Circle, I have noticed a common thread: these women—not their partners—are often the ones who carry the lion’s share of the responsibility of imbuing their children’s lives with Judaism.

A similar narrative was shared in an interfaith family column on the Jewish parenting blog Kveller. In her article, Lynnette Li-Rappaport, raised in an evangelical Christian home, shares how she brings her longtime love of Old Testament stories to her family, embracing the Jewish tradition of storytelling:

“While my husband, like many of my friends, dreaded going to religious school, my siblings and I listened eagerly as our mother told us of vain and tortured Absalom and mimed him weighing his beautiful hair. Our eyes widened as we learned of Daniel, protected by God in the hungry lions’ den. We played along to a recording of “Elijah,” a children’s musical we found in a box of music my dad, our church’s choir director, received several times a year. We sang the names of each of Jacob’s sons, the 12 tribes of Israel.”


Gaining a Daughter Rather Than Losing a Son

As the youngest son in my family I didn’t have much trouble with getting engaged to someone who isn’t Jewish, since my older brother had already paved the way for me, forcing my parents to come to terms with the idea when he married his Eastern Orthodox wife. Having been intermarried for nine years now and raising two sons, my brother has closed the book on any concerns or arguments that my parents might have had regarding the issue. My parents have long since dealt with their misgivings and are actively encouraging that their grandchildren be raised with strong influences from their Jewish background and are happy with the results. Therefore, when I brought home a girl who wasn’t Jewish, they didn’t blink or put up any resistance; they just asked when I’m going to propose, and when I finally did they were extremely supportive.

However, it wasn’t like this for my brother. For a long time both he and I were always asked “is she Jewish?” If she wasn’t (which for my brother was rare, making this an even bigger revelation when he did get married) there were many follow-up questions: “okay but it’s not that serious right?” “How will you raise the kids?” “What if she’s turns out to be an anti-Semite?” (Apparently secret anti-Semites often marry Jews only to reveal themselves years later—according to my parents at the time.) Once my parents realized that this time it was, in fact, serious, it was made clear that my brother and sister-in-law’s main concern was how to raise their future kids; input from my parents was important, but secondary. My parents accepted that my sister-in-law and her family were indeed not secret anti-Semites, and the conversations turned to how to proceed with the wedding.


The Importance of Grandparents, through the lens of “My Basmati Bat Mitzvah”

I recently indulged in tween fiction and read My Basmati Bat Mitzvah, the story of Tara Feinstein, your average Indian Jewish American middle school girl. The book, written by Paula Freedman, follows Tara in the lead-up to her Bat Mitzvah, as she struggles with friends, boys, parents, and her identity as both an Indian American and a Jewish American.

Tara’s connection to her grandparents figures prominently throughout the novel. Nani and Nanaji, her Indian grandparents, live large in her heart and memory. Her Jewish grandmother, Gran, lives 15 blocks away. In her quest to be “a normal Jewish kid—with a healthy sprinkling of masala [a delicious blend of Indian spices] on top,” Tara doesn’t want to alienate either parts of her family.

Thankfully, both sides of the family, led in spirit or action by the grandparents, are supportive and welcoming. When Tara accidentally damages the beautiful heirloom sari (draped fabric worn by women) that originally belonged to Nani, her Indian grandmother, it is Gran who takes her to the tailor to transform it into a dress. The two sides of Tara’s family come together for both the Diwali (Hindu festival of lights) celebration—with Gran bringing the traditional vat of matzah ball soup—and (spoiler alert!) Tara’s Bat Mitzvah at the end of the book.


“Jewish Pro You Should Know”: Pat Nisenholz

Pat Nisenholz has always been a searcher. Her openness, her eagerness to learn, and her desire to make a difference in the lives of others brought her from an early career in interior design to her current position as Early Childhood Family Engagement Educator at the Jewish Community Center (JCC) of Chicago. After completing a degree in Art Therapy through the Barat College Psychology School, Pat furthered her Jewish journey by enrolling in the Melton program for teachers. Through a chance meeting with the Director of the Bernard Weinger JCC while working out at the JCC gym, Pat’s career with the JCC took off.

Pat embodies the JCC mission of bringing Jewish values to life. “My job is to raise awareness,” she says. “I want people to be action-oriented. I don’t want to just talk about being kind, I want us to go out there and show how to be kind. I want to model for my directors and model for my parents.”

Pat’s training as a Big Tent Judaism Professional Affiliate has helped her to refocus and reassess the kinds of experiences provided by the JCC. She is JOI’s first “Jewish Pro You Should Know,” and she answers The Four Questions below.


What Does Intermarriage Look Like?

“Intermarriage” means a lot of things. It can mean a marriage between people of different faiths, different cultures, different races, or even more subtle differences, such as differences within a single religion. (It is common to hear a marriage between a Sephardi [Mediterranean] Jew and an Ashkenazi [Eastern European] Jew referred to as an intermarriage). So then what does intermarriage look like?

An Israeli photographer decided to find out, recently releasing a book of photos entitled Intermarried, and several of her photos were recently featured in the Sunday Review section of The New York Times. To compile her subjects, photographer Yael Ben-Zion, herself intermarried, simply put a call out on a New York parents listserve for couples who consider themselves mixed. The result is a beautiful collection of candid photos with simple captions below—some of which paint a picture of how the couple or individual views themselves, and some of which describe how society around them reacted to their union.


No “But” About It

The language we use when talking about inclusion, or to those we wish to include, is delicate. Instead of “non-Jewish mother,” we prefer to say “woman of another background raising Jewish children” (see this recent blog about being a “non”). Instead of “convert,” we prefer to say “Jew-by-choice.” Some phrases and words, however, are much more subtle.

Take for example the following sentences:

“My daughter is raising her children Jewish but her husband is Protestant.”

“My son is dating a Muslim girl, but she’s very nice.”

At first glance, these phrases seem harmless and perhaps even appropriate. The daughter is raising her children Jewish; the son is dating a nice girl. However, the common thread is the use of the conjunction “but,” which gives a decidedly negative flavor to an otherwise innocuous phrase. Many times when I come across phrases like the one above, the speaker or writer has no idea they’ve said something negative. To a trained ear or eye, the negativity is all too apparent, and sometimes that eye is the person about who you are speaking. To say something like what is said above is to say that there is something amiss, something wrong with the person. It’s as if someone were to say “he’s Jewish, but he’s a nice person”—as if Jews aren’t inherently nice.


December 25th: a Day For Everyone

Everyone has their own Christmas story. When I say Christmas story, I am referring to what you do on December 25th. Regardless of your religion, if you live in the United States, the day has its own story for you.

Growing up in Houston, TX Christmas was the day that I spent with my friends who were not celebrating Christmas with their families. We attended a gathering of the same people for the better part of my childhood. As we all got older, the gathering became an opportunity for me to connect with friends and acquaintances that I did not see any other time.

As an adult, the first time I participated in anything for Christmas was with my husband’s family. It was my first opportunity to meet my mother-in-law of blessed memory and her family. Though my mother-in-law had converted to Judaism before my husband was born, Christmas was still a time for her family to get together. Each family member came on Christmas Day to say hello, and to share in the holiday. I remember thinking how much this reminded me of the Rosh Hashanah open house my mother had every year. For many years, even after my mother-in-law passed away, we attended Christmas Day with my husband’s family. My children looked forward to seeing their cousins, to eating macaroni and cheese, and to being part of the bigger family.


Eight Things We’re Thankful for This Thanksgivukkah

For everyone here at Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) —and for all who work toward the creation of a more inclusive Jewish community—there is much to be thankful for this year.

  1. Raising Jewish Children: The Pew Forum’s study of the American Jewish community confirmed that the majority (61%) of intermarried households are raising their children with a Jewish identity.
  2. Changing the Conversation: Jewish communal leaders are beginning to shift the conversation away from handwringing about who people marry to helping households of all configurations determine how to raise Jewish children, and how to find meaningful answers to the great Jewish question of the 21st Century: “Why be Jewish?”
  3. Seizing the Opportunity: Some of the most prominent Jewish communal organizations in America are increasingly joining us to do the actual work of providing Jewish programming for all of those who are historically marginalized, lowering the barriers to their participation while still offering meaningful content.
  4. Broadening Our Vocabulary: The phrase “Big Tent Judaism,” which we coined to refer to our inclusive approach to Jewish communal life, has made it into the vocabulary of the Jewish community.
  5. Beyond the Walls: Our signature series of programs designed to move the Jewish community’s outreach efforts beyond the walls of Jewish communal institutions, Public Space JudaismSM, has become a prominent program model for Jewish communal institutions that want to meet potential newcomers where they are.
  6. Radical Welcoming: People have come to realize that welcoming is a strategy that requires more than just a warm and friendly “hello.” Greeting a newcomer at the door is a wonderful start—but it is only a start. We must learn to follow through by getting to know our newcomers as complex human beings, and serving their needs and interests with relevant programming and events.
  7. Aiming for Engagement Over Affiliation: Synagogues and other member-based institutions are recognizing that new models are needed for new times. They are beginning to see that affiliation (whether someone pays to be part of the community) is no longer as relevant a goal of outreach as engagement (actually participating in Jewish activities).
  8. The Grandparent Connection: Grandparents are embracing their grandchildren being raised in interfaith homes, and growing closer to their adult children who have intermarried—all with an eye toward a more inclusive and optimistic Jewish future.

From all of us here at JOI, we hope you have a warm and meaningful Hanukkah, and of course Thanksgiving.

Grandparents: How will you share the holiday with your interfaith grandchildren?

Jewish grandparents whose grandchildren are being raised in intermarried households can play a big role in shaping the Jewish identities of their grandchildren. And they’re more likely to get the chance to share the fun and meaning of Hanukkah with their grandchildren this year because of the once-in-a-lifetime convergence of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah.

If you’re a Jewish grandparent who often gets to spend Thanksgiving with your grandchildren, but rarely Hanukkah, can you introduce a menorah-lighting before or after the Thanksgiving meal? Or whip out a dreidel for a little fun during halftime of the Lions game? Or maybe you can add latkes to the usual Thanksgiving dishes?

Careful! Just because this year’s holiday conflict is with Turkey Day instead of Christmas, it doesn’t mean you can disregard the sensitivities of your adult children and children-in-law. Broach the subject beforehand. Keep it lighthearted and fun. Don’t let the season’s joy get gobbled up by any preexisting tensions!

To talk it out beforehand with your peers who are also thinking about this opportunity, and to address other challenges and opportunities of being a Jewish grandparent of children being raised in interfaith families, join the free Grandparents Circle email listserve at We welcome your voice in the conversation!

And Happy Thanksgivukkah from the Grandparents Circle and everybody at Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute!

Writing Our Intermarried Children Out of the Will?

I gasped when I read a recent article by David I. Bernstein in eJewishPhilanthropy that you should cut (or threaten to cut) your child’s inheritance in half if they intermarry– even though most of us know that our parents are living longer and there probably won’t be all that much to inherit. Bernstein goes on to suggest that you should only send your children to colleges with large Jewish populations. (Read: Only pay for college if they go where you want them to go.)

But Jews are no longer (for the most part) meeting their spouses in college. According to the National Jewish Population Study, only 10% of college-aged Jewish men and 18% of college-aged Jewish women are married. That means 90% of all Jewish men and 82% of all Jewish women marry after they get out of college. So there goes your child meeting his or her Jewish spouse in college. Maybe you could put in your will that your child must become a Jewish communal professional in the hopes of meeting another Jew in the workforce. Or we could carry the stereotype even further - they can only work in finance, medicine, or the law - that’s where the Jews are, after all, right? Or media - do we still control the media?

These responses to intermarriage are purely punitive. As parents, we know that punishment only goes so far toward achieving the behaviors we desire in our children. If we cross the line, the rebellion can create a wedge in relationships that last for generations.


Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute Teams Up with Shalom Sesame for Passover!

Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute is dedicated to providing education and support to those on the periphery of Jewish life through a wide array of programming, including The Mothers Circle and The Grandparents Circle. As part of that commitment, we have collaborated with our friends at Shalom Sesame to introduce you to free educational resources at From the creators of Sesame Street, Shalom Sesame is a cross-platform media initiative developed to introduce American children to Jewish culture, Hebrew language, and the diversity of Israel.

The Shalom Sesame site is easy to use, focusing on timely themed units. Each unit includes videos, worksheets, games and a series of parent articles. We are excited to share our new holiday-themed Shalom Sesame resource guides, which help you navigate the resources, with an eye toward the diversity that characterizes the Jewish community of today. As you bring Jewish tradition into your households, Shalom Sesame is a wonderful way for you and your children to learn together.


For Jewish Grandparents Whose Adult Children Have Intermarried: A Discussion on Celebrating Passover with Your Interfaith Grandchildren

Are you a Jewish grandparent whose adult children are intermarried, and you want to be able to share the holiday of Passover with your interfaith grandchildren? Then we invite you to join us for a free online discussion to help navigate the sometimes-choppy waters of sharing your traditions with your grandchildren being raised in the context of intermarriage.

With Passover right around the corner, Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute will be holding an online discussion for grandparent with interfaith grandchildren.

WHO: Jewish grandparents whose adult children have intermarried.
WHAT: The Grandparents Circle: Seder with the Whole Family Online Discussion
WHEN: Wednesday, March 13, 2013 at 1:00 PM EST
WHERE: Online! All you need is a computer and a phone.
HOW: Register for this free class by clicking here.

During the session, grandparents will have the opportunity to share their concerns and approaches to instilling Judaism in their grandchildren, particularly in the context of the holiday of Passover. Co-led by Rabbi Joyce Siegel, a Grandparents Circle facilitator based in central Massachusetts, and myself, grandparents will also have a chance to discuss strategies on sharing the holiday with children and activities to introduce Passover to their grandchildren. Another topic will be how to share the holidays with grandchildren who may not live close by.

JOI wants to help make Passover an enjoyable holiday for everyone. As always, anyone can register for a Grandparents Circle online session, and JOI welcomes participants to do so by clicking the link above. For questions about either session, how to participate, or how to get a question about Passover answered, I invite you to be in touch with me at or 212-760-1440.

Hurry up! It’s almost time to get your matzah!

Happy Hanukkah: How will you share the light this Hanukkah?

The staff of Big Tent Judaism / The Jewish Outreach Institute wish you a Happy Hanukkah!

How are you sharing the light this Hanukkah? Click here tell us below!

In the spirit of opening the tent, our staff are opening their doors and sharing the light this Hanukkah in many ways– through both their work here at JOI, as well as at home and in public spaces with family and friends. We invite you to leave your comment about how you plan to share the light this Hanukkah, and we wish everyone a safe, bright, and happy holiday!

Saying Goodbye to JOI

For the past two and a half years, I have worked for the Jewish Outreach Institute helping to provide Jewish professionals with the tools they need to build a more welcoming and inclusive Jewish community. After a semester-long internship helping to evaluate our Public Space Judaism initiatives, I accepted a position as Program Associate, training Jewish professionals all over North America in bringing resources and support to all those who may wish to enter the tent of the Jewish community, including less-engaged Jews, Jews by choice, Jews of color, Jews with special needs, and the group I worked with the most, interfaith families. I have spoken to countless professionals and volunteer leaders, assisting them in bringing programs like The Mothers Circle and The Grandparents Circle into their communities. However, my time doing this work is coming to an end. In less than two months, I will begin my rabbinic training at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia. While I am very excited to take this next step professionally, I will miss the work that I am doing here.

The Jewish Outreach Institute’s work carries a deep personal meaning for me. As a patrilineal Jew, my family has struggled with finding meaning and acceptance in the Jewish community. I took this job partly out of a sense of personal responsibility, in order to help families like mine find the acceptance and support that would lead them to deeper involvement in Judaism.

I leave JOI tremendously optimistic that the Jewish community is headed toward ever more inclusion and support. In my time as Mothers Circle and Grandparents Circle National Coordinator, I have heard firsthand the tremendous impact our programs have on families. We have helped parents bring Shabbat into their homes for the first time. We have helped grandparents communicate about religion with their adult children with confidence and respect. And all of this is leading to rich and engaging Jewish upbringings for thousands of children from interfaith homes across North America.


FaceTime Shabbat with the Grandparents!

Thanks to the purchase of a new iPhone and tech-savvy parents with an iPad, this past Friday night my parents were able to light the Shabbat candles with my two-year old daughter—while she was in the bathtub, no less.

What made this moment all the more significant is the fact that my daughter is being raised in an interfaith household. It is important to my parents to have Jewish experiences with her, even from another state; and with the help of technology like FaceTime, they can.

We’ve been using FaceTime religiously (so to speak) since I upgraded my iPhone last week. So as we started bath-time, I decided to reach out to my folks (who recently joined the Grandparents Circle listserve and have been looking for ways to share their Judaism with my daughter). They were just getting ready to sit down to dinner, so they lit the candles and said the blessing while my daughter looked on.

My daughter’s reaction? She tried to blow out the candles through the phone and started asking about a cake. (She’s two years old, after all, so candles must mean cake!) But her grandparents couldn’t have been more pleased. And while our daughter doesn’t understand the full significance of it right now, lighting the Shabbat candles is a Jewish activity I hope we’ll be sharing frequently in the years to come. My wife (who is not Jewish) also appreciates the sharing of this tradition. To her, lighting the candles means bringing family together and sharing our cultures— something important to both of us. With the help of modern technology, and my parents, we are creating a foundation that will always underlie our daughter’s Jewish identity as she grows up.

So what’s next? Maybe a FaceTime seder?

New Grandparents Circle Programs!

Through the help and hard work of our excellent partner institutions, we at the Jewish Outreach Institute have brought Grandparents Circles to 49 communities across North America. Over 800 grandparents like you have completed the course and now feel empowered to nurture the Jewish identities of their grandchildren in a respectful, yet meaningful way. Today, you can find circles in Greensboro, NC, Philadelphia, PA, Miami, FL and beyond!

Nevertheless, we know that some of you may not have access to Grandparents Circle courses. There may not be a class in your neighborhood, or you may prefer to explore these sensitive topics on your own. For this reason, we have created two new Grandparents Circle programs that will help you learn the strategies offered by the Grandparents Circle course in order to share your Judaism with your grandchildren. For example, you can now explore the Grandparents Circle recommendations and techniques through a an introspective new reading guide, Grandparenting Your Interfaith Grandkids, to accompany Twenty Things for Grandparents of Interfaith Grandchildren to Do (And Not Do) to Nurture Jewish Identity in Their Children by Rabbi Kerry Olitzky and Paul Golin. By signing up and working with this self-guide, you will emerge with an action plan and sense of optimism in sharing your Jewish identity with your grandchildren.

For those of you who would prefer to grapple with these topics through conversation and engagement, you now have the option to host a Grandparents Circle style get together yourself! If you know fellow grandparents who may benefit from the program, sign up to start a Grandparents Circle Discussion Salon. You can discuss techniques offered in the book, Twenty Things for Grandparents of Interfaith Grandchildren to Do…together in a casual setting; it is a great evening for book clubs, Sisterhood and Brotherhood meetings, or any other casual get-togethers. In fact, it can be a reason to have a get-together in the first place!

If you are interested in either of the two new programs, just sign up on our “Join the Grandparents Circle” page here

Engaging a New Generation

At the Jewish Outreach Institute, we seek to welcome newcomers and engage those on the periphery of Jewish life. Increasingly, Jews in their 20s, 30s, and 40s fit into this latter group, feeling no need to affiliate with a synagogue, and with no other way to connect with other young Jews. As a member of this demographic, I often wonder what organizations can do to engage us, to get us involved in “something Jewish” so as to not completely lose our cultural identity, while not making us feel obligated to join a synagogue.

While in college at the University of Delaware, I attended events at both the Hillel and Chabad; but outside of college, Jewish experiences for those in my generation are not as readily available. There is also an increasing perspective that my generation doesn’t want to have to go searching for opportunities, we want them easily accessible.

A recent article in the Minnesota Post shows that many are starting to think along these lines, and some are beginning to take action. Following some of the basic principles of JOI’s Big Tent Judaism Coalition, as well as the model created by Tempo, the Minnesota Opera’s young adults group, Rabbi Avi Olitzky (son of JOI Executive Director Rabbi Kerry Olitzky) has started a young-adults group at Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park, MN, designed to reach young adults where they are. The group’s events include Jewish happy hours and young-adult Sabbaths, with the goal of reaching young Jewish adults where they are.

The work of Rabbi Olitzky and others is a step in the right direction, and I am excited to see other groups offer opportunities to young Jews in the 20s, 30s, and 40s to reinvigorate our interest not necessarily in Judaism, but in being Jewish together.

Click Here!