Weblog Entries for Category: Empowering Ruth

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.

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.

Sharing Our Unique Stories on Shavuot

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!

Actress Elizabeth Banks Talks About Converting to Judaism

This past weekend, I finally watched Pitch Perfect, a hilarious take on the world of college a cappella. In addition to bringing back a ton of memories from my days in the Golden Blues at the University of Delaware (Go Blue Hens!), it also reminded me how much I enjoy Elizabeth Banks, who is also one of the movie’s producers.

As luck would have it, the Hunger Games actress and UPenn grad was recently interviewed by Marc Maron for his WTF Podcast, which I learned about thanks to an article by writer Stephanie Butnick which highlights the fact that Banks is a Jew-by-choice. Banks, raised a Catholic in Massachusetts, married a Jewish man, and eventually converted. But, Maron asks, “are you, like, officially a Jew?” Banks replies, “I’m not officially stamped, but by all accounts yes…My kids go to Jewish pre-school, we only celebrate Jewish holidays, I love seder…Frankly, because I’m already doing everything, I feel like I’m as Jewish as I’m ever going to be.” She goes on to say:


A Choosing-Judaism Holiday Dilemma: What Do We Do with Santa?

Originally posted on State of Formation in 2011 and reposted with permission from the author, Yaira Robinson.

“But Mom, we can’t celebrate Hanukkah—because then Santa won’t come, right?”

This was the question from my clearly worried 7-year old last December as we prepared to celebrate our first Hanukkah. And just like that, all of the confusing family issues surrounding my conversion to Judaism were distilled into one simple, innocent wondering. In that moment, standing there in the kitchen with my youngest son, there was really only one answer: “No, sweetie… Santa loves Hanukkah!”

I tell this story in answer to a question I’m getting a lot recently, since I converted to Judaism this past spring and am committed to raising my children as Jews: “Just how does your family celebrate the holidays now?”

As with most things in life that really matter, a full and honest answer is not a simple one. My husband isn’t Jewish, and doesn’t plan to become Jewish, but he is supportive—and for the last almost two years, our boys and I have been moving into Judaism in meaningful, deliberate ways. We light Shabbat candles on Friday night, regularly attend synagogue, and celebrate holidays with friends. I converted this past April. As of this fall, the kids are learning Hebrew and attending religious school on Sunday mornings.

They increasingly think of themselves as Jewish. At the beginning of this school year, my 6th grader came home from youth group and exclaimed, “Mom, I’m not the only Jewish kid at school!” And the other day when I caught him watching YouTube videos instead of cleaning his room, I had a hard time feigning anger; he was watching “Candlelight,” the Maccabeats’ Hanukkah song, on my laptop.

Their growing sense of Jewish identity and at-home-ness in Judaism gives me a deep sense of joy, and a fair amount of relief. I am glad to know that they will grow up with a sense of belonging, even though they were 7 and 9 before we found our permanent religious home. (Read my previous essay, “Choosing My Religion,” for more on the importance of having a religious home.)

But now, we find ourselves faced with a choosing-Judaism holiday dilemma: What do we do with Santa?


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!

New Opportunities with The Mothers Circle!

Our circle has widened! This summer The Mothers Circle has debuted two new programs, High Holiday Highlights: A Holiday Prep Class and The Mothers Circle Self-Guide, both of which create avenues for mothers of other religious backgrounds to learn and feel empowered by their decision to raise Jewish children.

High Holiday Highlights will be hosted by 17 different organizations across North America, 13 of which will be offering Mothers Circle programs for the first time. Locations include classes in San Francisco, CA, Greensboro, NC, and Scranton, PA. In each of these communities, participants will be learning the “how-tos” and valuable conversation-starters to help them share the meaningful experience of honoring the High Holidays with their families. With class activities ranging from learning to recite the Rosh Hashanah blessings to listening to Leonard Cohen’s “Who By Fire?” (a comparison to the Rosh Hashanah prayer, “Unetanah Tokef”), High Holiday Highlights will be helping participants of all learning styles understand how both individuals and the community as a whole experience the High Holiday period in the synagogue and in the home.

Additionally, we are now proud to offer The Mothers Circle Self-Guide, a practical tool to accompany the book How to Raise Jewish Children…Even When You’re Not Jewish Yourself by Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky and Paul Golin. Those who use the Self-Guide will be able to reflect on the stories, recommendations, and questions posed in How to Raise Jewish Children…, as well as further articulate their goals and determine the choices they will make as they raise their Jewish children. By creating an introspective guide that a mother can work through alone at any given time, JOI hopes to serve more mothers who, whether due to geography or other commitments, may have previously felt alone in the venture to raise Jewish children.

For more information regarding these programs, visit or feel free to be in contact with Hannah Morris here.

Are Jews a “Race”?

I am often asked what my ethnicity is. My skin is olive and my hair is dark, leading most people to assume I’m Italian or Portuguese; but my last name (Kaletsky) is clearly Eastern European—Russian to be specific. My family comes from Russia and Poland, mostly, but I have never considered myself Russian or Polish. I didn’t grow up eating pirogues, and I don’t speak a lick of Russian beyond what I learned in the cartoon-movie Anastasia. Instead, when asked what my ethnicity is, I simply say, “Jewish.” But is it in my DNA?

My answer to the ethnicity question is sometimes, well, questioned. Some responses include “Judaism is a religion, not a culture,” or “if your family is from Russia, you are Russian.” It’s a complicated issue with a complicated bunch of answers, which now include a new book by Harry Ostrer entitled Legacy. Ostrer’s book discusses, in detail, the genetics of the Jewish people, raising questions such as “are Jews genetically unique?” and “are Jews a separate race?” in a day and age when the idea of “race” seems to be phasing out all-together.

But if our ethnicity is defined by our genetics, what does that mean for people who have not been born into Judaism, but rather have chosen it, whether because of a personal choice or intermarriage? And what of the children of one Jewish parent and one parent of another background? Does this mean they are half of one “race” and half of another?


Checking in: Empowering Ruth in Forest Hills, NY

Rabbi Elizabeth Wood has served as Associate Rabbi Educator at the Reform Temple of Forest Hills since September 2010. She is currently facilitating the temple’s first Empowering Ruth group, which began in October 2011 and will continue through March 2012. Also be sure to check out her blog.

In my work as a Rabbi, I had heard about JOI and their successful Mothers Circle program. So you can imagine my intrigue when I heard about Empowering Ruth - a continuing education program for women who had already converted to Judaism. What intrigued me so much was the idea that it was intended for both members and non-members alike, that it would be a way to continue educating women about Judaism as they explore their new Jewish lives, and that one of its main goals was to create friendship, trust, and community.

As the leader of this program at the Reform Temple of Forest Hills, I am delighted by the members and non-members who we have attracted from the greater Queens, NY area. And because Queens is such a diverse neighborhood, we have an incredibly diverse group, rich with stories of their past - a few African American women, one from Japan, and another from Eastern India. Their insights and stories always fill our learning with laughter, joy, and poignancy.

One of the greatest strengths of this program has been the way in which it has fostered community. These women in our Empowering Ruth program are their own community. They share, trust, and care for one another. And they’ve also begun to join our greater synagogue community - many of them bringing their small children to Temple Tots, religious school, and other holiday events that we hold. On top of that, they are also connected to a greater community of women who participate in Empowering Ruth throughout the country. They can connect with them on a listserve and stay connected to their learning and this class even after our time together is complete.

I am so grateful for the opportunity that JOI has provided these women and our synagogue to continue learning, growing, and creating sacred community with one another. I always look forward to my Tuesday evenings with the ER ladies!

Guest Blog: Empowering Ruth in Forest Hills, NY

The following is a guest blog from Rabbi Elizabeth Wood of the Reform Temple of Forest Hills in Queens, NY. Follow her on Twitter: @lizwood1982 and please share this post with anyone you think might be interested in the Empowering Ruth program.

Many people who are interested in Judaism come seeking answers about what Judaism is or how to learn more about it. When someone has made the decision to become Jewish, they may know a lot of the FAQs and the logistics of Judaism. But how do you teach someone how to begin a Jewish journey? How to live a Jewish life? How to feel comfortable living a tradition that you have chosen?

That is why I am so excited about this program, Empowering Ruth. It is a free program brought to us by the Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) and is aimed at women who have already converted to Judaism. It is open to the whole community and being taught at the Reform Temple of Forest Hills on Tuesday nights at 7:30, October 18 - March 27.

Come join us and discover the many paths and ways to be Jewish, both in your home and out in the world. Come learn new and exciting elements of Judaism with more in-depth study. Partner with other women in our community and around the country to begin having some deep and meaningful conversations about what it means to be a woman who has chosen Judaism.

If you or someone you know is interested, please contact me (Rabbi Elizabeth Wood) at to learn more or sign up. I look forward to seeing you there and learning more with you!

Woody Allen in Kentucky?

The Forward posted a first-person narrative this week penned by a Kentucky woman, raised Catholic, who converted to Judaism as an adult after years of wanting to “immigrate to Judaism.” Writer Lynn Marie Hulsman offers a unique perspective of someone raised very much outside of the Jewish community, surrounded by little knowledge of Jews and even anti-Semitism, yet still desperately wanted to be a member of the Jewish community. Her experiences growing up in Louisville, KY watching Woody Allen movies and “Welcome Back, Kotter” bring up an important point, that in converting to Judaism, someone is not just embracing a different faith, but a different culture.

The culture of (Ashkenazi) Judaism was extremely appealing to Hulsman, who even refers to her move to New York City as making aliyah, a term traditionally saved for one’s immigration to Israel. Seeing Judaism through her eyes can serve as a learning opportunity to Jewish communal professionals and those involved with Jews-by-choice and interfaith families, showing the perspective of someone once on the “outside” who is now on the “inside,” and what that can tell us about how Jews are viewed not just as a religion, but as a social group.

Part of creating an inclusive Jewish community is to welcome Jews-by-choice, whether they were first drawn to Judaism in order to raise their children Jewish, or because of a spiritual path they have embarked on. Empowering Ruth is a free program sponsored by the Jewish Outreach Institute that supports women Jews-by-choice through an online community and education course. It provides a safe space for further learning and sharing of experiences, and a genuine community of peer-to-peer support. We encourage all who might benefit from it to sign up—and men Jews-by-choice to join our Shofar listserve.

Click Here!