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Hanukkah Helper prep classes

Hanukkah Helper is a fun and interactive single-session class that will prepare mothers of other backgrounds (and family members who may be interested) for celebrating Hanukkah in an enjoyable, meaningful way with their Jewish children. Join a free Hanukkah Helper prep class in your community:

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Tweaking Shabbat

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As a small child, my life was filled with Jewish music—especially songs about various Jewish holidays. Cassette tapes and CDs with Jewish songs played regularly on car rides. As soon as I learned to play piano, I would plunk out Hanukkah songs every year as the holiday approached. Every Sunday, my mom would ask me to sing the songs I learned that day at Hebrew school, and we would sing them together.

When I was older and would “work” in my mom’s preschool class during school holidays, I would watch as she led her rapt audience of 3-year-olds through Shabbat songs and dances on Friday mornings. By experiencing the musical genius that was “Challah in the Oven” and “Put the Matzah Ball in the Pot,” through song and dance, my mom’s students learned about Shabbat in an engaging, age-appropriate way. By experiencing Shabbat in an age-appropriate, engaging way, these children gained an understanding about what to expect during Shabbat and learned that Shabbat is a time for celebration through song, dance, family time, and food. This is why I enjoyed reading this article by father Jason Wiser, who described how he and his wife created Shabbat rituals with their unruly daughter, starting with the blessing over children:

“It occurred to me at that moment that we had never sat down and explained to our daughter what the prayer was about. So I told her that when we put our hands on her head we are asking for a long, healthy, and happy life for her, full of strength and good choices and wonderful things. Not an exact translation, but certainly what I always have in mind.”

By explaining the different rituals to his daughter—and why the rituals were so important—as well as finding creative and productive outlets for his daughter’s energy, Wiser’s family was able to create unique Shabbat rituals that helped everyone connect to the holiday.

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Sharing and Respecting Family Traditions…and Creating New Ones

When I was in high school and college, my parents would inevitably have a “lively discussion” before Rosh Hashanah and Passover about one thing: how to cook the brisket. This behemoth of responsibility had previously fallen on my Nana, and after she passed away, my dad was adamant that my mom cook the brisket exactly the way his mom had. Every year, the brisket “wasn’t the same.” It wasn’t until my mom bumped into a member of our synagogue at the butcher who suggested a new, “magic” recipe that the Brisket Battle reached an amiable end (that is, until raccoons ran off with a brisket one Passover).

I was reminded of this memory when I read a recent Kveller article by Ryley Katz, about how she and her husband, both of whom were raised Jewish, have struggled to meld their respective religious and cultural traditions. Katz raised an important point: we all grew up with traditions which we hold dear, and melding these traditions with someone else’s can be challenging.

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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…)



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…)



Moms Are as Diverse as Fish in the Sea

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

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

Happy Mother’s Day!

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



A Tale of Two Synagogues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Creating an Inclusive Jewish Community Shouldn’t Be Complicated

In a recent Kveller article titled “Can a Christian Mother Raise a Jewish Child? Yes, but It’s Complicated,” the Reverend Eleanor Harrison Bregman wrote about an experience her daughter had at school:

During a recent parent-teacher conference, I learned that my 8-year-old daughter Sophia was asked by a classmate at her Jewish day school, “So your dad is Jewish and your mom isn’t?” Sophia responded, “Yes.” The other child said, “You know if your mom’s not Jewish, then you aren’t either.” According to a teacher who overheard this conversation, Sophia responded, “It’s complicated,” and walked away.

What really cuts to the bone is that Bregman, an ordained minister who serves as a Protestant chaplain at Jewish Home Lifecare in New York City, is married to a Jewish man and raising Jewish children. Bregman is going above and beyond to provide her children with Jewish identities steeped in education, active synagogue life, and Jewish holidays. Her children even underwent Orthodox conversions, which should mean that their Jewish identity would not be brought into question, because some denominations of Judaism define the child’s Jewish identity by the birth mother’s religion, or matrilineal descent. Her family represents the textbook definition of an engaged Jewish household, even falling into the minority of families who send their children to Jewish day schools. The organized Jewish community dreams of having families like the Bregmans.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.



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.

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A Certificate for Being Jewish

As written proof of their new status, freshly minted adult Jews-by-Choice receive a nifty little certificate to proudly display, stash in a drawer, recycle, or otherwise do with what they will. When you’re born a Jew (traditionally, only by birth to a Jewish mother), you don’t get such a physical memento of your Jewishness.

But what about those of us somewhere in between? What about people who are considered Jewish by birth in some parts of the Jewish community but not in others? I’m talking about the ever-sticky issue of patrilineal descent (being born to a Jewish father and a mother of a different background). And, as you may already know, I’m also talking about myself: My father was Jewish but my mother was not when I was born (though she now is). They raised me in a Jewish home; affiliated with the Jewish Reform movement (the largest religious body to recognize patrilineal descent), I was taught to believe I was a Jew from birth. But, eventually, a variety of circumstances conspired so that it made sense for me to formally undergo a conversion a couple years ago – despite my strong reservations about doing so.

Because I had been raised Jewish and the Conservative movement rabbi overseeing my conversion had seen me participate actively and knowledgeably in services, the conversion process was rather abbreviated for me. I knew going into my meeting with the Bet Din (a court of three rabbis assembled for various purposes, including to oversee a conversion to Judaism) in the lobby of the mikveh (a Jewish ritual bath, immersion in which is a necessary component of conversion to Judaism) that this would be a tad more casual than the conversion of someone who chose Judaism later in life. We skipped the formal education, and the Bet Din didn’t need me to prove my Jewish knowledge by answering questions about Jewish tradition.

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Half Full or Half Empty?

Last week, JOI Associate Executive Director Paul Golin weighed in on the recent Pew research study regarding the current Jewish population in the United States. His comments, which appeared in the article “Half Full or Half Empty” in the New Jersey Jewish News, point out the positives in the study where many are seeing the negatives. Instead of focusing on the million-person increase to the Jewish population over the last decade or so, many are focusing on the high intermarriage rate, believing it spells disaster for the future of the Jewish population. Paul Golin doesn’t see it that way.

“We found an extra million Jews since the last time we counted — and we found it a great disaster!” quipped Paul Golin, associate executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute in New York. His organization tries to integrate unaffiliated and intermarried families into the Jewish community.

“The question people are asking is: What kind of Jews are they? It’s one of the most divisive questions you could ask,” said Golin. “The panic I see being expressed is because the Jews they are finding are not like the Jews who run the Jewish community. They don’t find resonance in the same things, so what do we do about it?”

For us at JOI, the question is not “what kind of a Jew are you,” but simply “do you want to participate in the Jewish community?” If the answer is yes, then we as Jewish communal professionals should help these people and their families to find a place in the community.

Do you agree? Then we invite you to show your support for the 61% of Jewish interfaith families who are raising their children with Jewish identities by sharing the photo below on Facebook.




Curious about the “how to’s” of the High Holidays?

How well are you able to share the meaning and value of the Jewish High Holidays with your family?

Here’s how NOT to feel lost and confused during the High Holidays, and truly find the benefit, even if you didn’t grow up celebrating Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We invite you to join us for High Holiday Highlights.

High Holiday Highlights is a FREE one-time webinar (interactive online session) from the staff of Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute and Kit Haspel, a Mothers Circle Coordinator at the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island.

This webinar will empower you to better understand the value and meaning of the holidays, and provide the opportunity not only to learn, but to interact with fellow participants about blessings and prayers, food traditions, and activities you can do to share the beauty of the holiday with your family.

• When: Wednesday, August 21 at 2:00pm EDT.
• Where: Via phone and any computer connected to the Internet!
• How: RSVP to JOI Communications Manager Amanda Kaletsky here to receive the link.
• Who: Anyone who wants to learn more about Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Please feel free to invite any friends, family, or colleagues who may be interested!

High Holiday Highlights is brought to you by The Mothers Circle, a program for women of other religious backgrounds raising Jewish children.



What Makes a Jewish Mother?

When I was a teenager, I went to Jewish weekend camp where every month we had a topic to discuss. The first topic was “What Makes a Jew?” The entire discussion about mothers/fathers, patrilineal/matrilineal descent, observant/not observant, didn’t resonate with me. When I thought about who was Jewish, I decided that whoever says she is Jewish, is Jewish. I never saw any benefit to determining for others whether they were Jewish or not.

This week I read an article in The New York Times called “What Makes a Jewish Mother?” about how to determine, in the case of adoption and sperm/egg donation, the religion of the child. This is my favorite line: “Jewish authorities are finding evidence in the Scriptures to support both arguments: that the egg donor is the mother and that the birth mother is the mother.” I had no idea that “egg donation” came up in the Bible, something that was written thousands of years ago before anyone knew about turkey basters let alone invitro fertilization.

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