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Finding a Home in Middlesex County, NJ

In March 2014, Big Tent Judaism-Middlesex County hosted an event for the Jewish holiday of Purim, called Purim Pastry Pairing at a supermarket in Highland Park, NJ. Participants stopped by to taste hamantaschen (pastries filled with jam) and decorate a mask to take home. One passerby, Dan, stopped by for a free taste and to enter the raffle, and after winning the basket of Stop and Shop goodies and a gift card, met with me for coffee to talk about his Jewish experience growing up, and where he and his wife, Alexis, and their 2-year-old son are today. After finding out more about Dan and his family, I was able to invite him to some upcoming events for families that were just right for them. I also put him in touch with a rabbi at a local synagogue near where his family lives, so that they could continue even further on their Jewish journey.

Recently, Dan and his wife Alexis spoke with me about where their family is on their Jewish journey thus far.
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Tell me a little bit about your background, in terms of Jewish participation, and the home you grew up in.

Alexis: I grew up in a Catholic home. We went to church on Sundays, and my brother and I went to CCD (Confraternity of Christian Doctrine – Sunday School). My father was not really a believer, so it was really on my mom to guide us in the religion, and I think she was just going through the motions of Catholicism. I say this because when I was a teenager, my mother became a Born Again Christian and really became fully involved in that religion. Around this time, I stopped going to church because I started working on Sundays and also because I felt disconnected from religion. To be honest, church was boring, and I didn’t take anything away from going.

Dan: I grew up in a Modern Orthodox home; we kept kosher in and out of our home. We observed all the holidays and especially Shabbos [Sabbath]. My brother and I had Bar Mitzvahs and my sister had a Bat Mitzvah. I went to a Jewish sleep-away camp most of my youth, as well as Yeshivas [Jewish Day School] my whole life. Most of my schooling was with all boys.

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The Secrets of the 7th Day

Sara Schley is the founder and President of Seed Systems, an international consulting company established in 1994. Seed Systems uses Systems Thinking while working with individuals, teams, organizations, and networks to accelerate the transformation to a planet where all life thrives. Inspired by a non-Jewish friend who said, “Sara there is no center in our lives, you have to teach us how to do Shabbat!”, Sara has written Secrets of the 7th Day, the first book of her Radical Renewal series, about how everyone can learn from this ancient Jewish ritual, whether or not they are Jewish or even religious. The practice of unplugging from the world, slowing down, sharing in the simple joys of food, stories, songs and the outdoors can be celebrated by all. Secrets of the 7th Day invites all of us to make these beautiful practices for renewing the spirit our own. Ancient as the Sabbath is, we need it now more than ever.

My friend Linda– a PhD mid-career mom with three active teens and a high-powered husband is not the type you’d expect to plead. Yet there she was pleading to me, “Sara you have to teach us how to do Shabbat. There’s no center in our lives!”

“But Linda,” I replied, “You’re Catholic!”

“That doesn’t matter! I long for that time when we were kids, and always stayed home as a family on Sundays. There’s nothing supporting that kind of quality time in our culture now. You’ve figured it out. I watch your kids lead the rituals at your house. They so clearly love it. Show us how.”

Well I love Linda and I’d do pretty much anything she asks, so I started writing. And came up with the book The Secrets of the 7th Day: How Everyone can Find Renewal from the Wisdom and Practices of Shabbat, which came out in print last week just in time for Rosh HaShana.

I ask my 12 year-old Maya, “What’s best about Shabbat?”

“I’s the only time we really get your attention, Mom,” she says reflecting on the question, not snarky.

I know I can be scattered. Who’s not in this era of iEverythings, constant barrage of e-messages, inhuman expectation that we all be connected 24/7? With so many demands on our brains, no wonder we suffer from collective ADD. Who could blame me for being less than a perfectly present mother?

“You got a point there Maya. I’m definitely able to focus better on Shabbat because I unplug everything! Thank G-d for Shabbat for that!”

Shabbat Unplugged. It’s an ancient concept, but needed now more than ever.

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JOI’s new Program Associate shares how she came to Big Tent Judaism

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My Jewish upbringing was both highly structured and deeply involved. I attended Jewish day school, summer camp, youth group, Israel programming—the whole gamut. As I understood, if parents didn’t create an exclusive Jewish life for their children, they may derail and stray away from their Jewish identity. The message that I received as a child was complex. My mother, being a second-generation Holocaust survivor, felt an obligation to infuse her children’s lives with deep Jewish meaning and engagement. Though never directly communicated, there was an underlying understanding of the responsibility the members of my family had to live Jewish lives for both ourselves and for the family that we lost.

It wasn’t until high school (the first time I attended a secular school) that I began to understand the complexities of the Jewish community. I had the opportunity to interact and connect with a larger pool of individuals—Jews whose lives did not orbit around their synagogue, youth group, summer camp, etc. but still felt a connection to their Jewish identities. This realization, though it may seem insignificant, was pivotal. In order to be a Jew and to live a Jewish life, one does not have to fit into a particular prototype. Rather, their Jewish experience is customizable and can be molded to reflect one’s particular needs and values.

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JOI’s new Development Associate reflects on his Jewish journey

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For my entire life, I have been what Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) would call “a highly engaged Jew.” But that doesn’t imply that the ways I have engaged Jewishly have been consistent nor does it mean that I haven’t had the unfortunate experience of feeling like an outsider within the Jewish community at times. Quite the contrary.

My Jewish journey began with the rituals my family observed in the home, which are some of the most precious memories of my childhood. In fact, a few months ago, I was going through some old home videos at my parents’ house, including one of my 4-year-old self lighting the Hanukkah menorah surrounded by my parents and grandparents – the pure joy on my tiny face in that video was unmistakable. Other key memories from my Jewish upbringing took place at the Conservative synagogue in Cherry Hill, NJ, where I attended Hebrew school and celebrated my Bar Mitzvah.

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Up Close: Amy Ravis Furey & Brian Furey

The following piece was originally posted on Kveller.com’s “Up Close,” a photo and interview series aiming to put a face on the interfaith conversation. The series highlights interfaith families and hearing their stories. The focus of this piece is Amy Ravis-Furey, the Outreach and Engagement Coordinator for the Jewish Federation of Greater Kansas City.

1. Are you raising your kid(s) with one religion, both religions, or somewhere in between?

We are a Jewish family that has a Catholic dad and we are proud of that distinction. Our children like to ask a lot of questions to get clarity around who is Jewish in our family and who is Catholic. We make it very clear that to us being a loving family means celebrating and supporting one another–like helping our Catholic family celebrate the holidays that are important to them. Much like attending a friend’s birthday, our kids aren’t confused about joining in on celebrations of a different faith tradition. We all can attend birthday parties without being confused that the celebration is not yours–and we also know that we as guests are often an important element that makes the celebration meaningful.

Although we live in Kansas, because I am a Jewish community professional, a lot of our life looks Jewish, is surrounded by Jewish community and friends and is full of Jewish culture. We spend more waking hours at the Jewish community campus than at our actual home. The kids have a strong Jewish identity and an even stronger sense that there are all sorts of people in our family and our community and we value each of them for those differences.

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Are We Fouling Out?

Have you ever gone to a sporting event and felt clueless? I have. Growing up, my brother was a tremendous athlete. He played multiple sports and played them well. He could recite statistics about players, the history of the games, and could even be an announcer at a sporting event. I, on the other hand, was the exact opposite. I dreaded gym class. Learning more rules and playing more games were completely boring and irrelevant to me.

Recently, I was sitting at my daughter’s basketball game and felt as clueless as I was in gym class 30 years prior. I tapped the woman’s shoulder in front of me to ask why her son got two free throws this time and only one last time. She looked at me with mild disdain and then proceeded to explain the rules in a condescending tone. I was mortified. Was I inferior because I didn’t understand basketball? (more…)



Eight Things I Have Learned From My Time at Big Tent Judaism

After almost two years working at Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute, I will be leaving my position at the end of this week to move to Boston. It has been a pleasure to work together to open the tent, helping the North American Jewish community reach out and embrace families like my own. As a way to sum up my time here, I prepared the following list of eight things I have learned:

Eight Things I Have Learned From My Time at Big Tent Judaism (more…)



Thinking Like a Freak to Create a Welcoming Community

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

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



For-Profit Organizations Can Learn from Non-Profits

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



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

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

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

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



Moms’ Night Out

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

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



Massage the Message

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

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

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

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



Why in Hebrew?

A recent article in The New Republic titled “Why I Stopped Speaking to My Daughter in Hebrew,” made me think about how I talk to my son. As the father of a now bilingual three-year-old, I connected with Scheiber’s story about his effort to transmit Hebrew fluency to his daughter. In his story, Scheiber mostly abandons his attempt to speak with his daughter exclusively in his native language after coming to terms with what he calls the “fraudulence” of his Jewish Israeli identity.

At three years of age, my own son is fluent in both Hebrew and English, and Hebrew is his dominant language. And while his situation is slightly different from Scheiber’s (Scheiber had only one parent who was a Hebrew speaker, my son has two parents and three grandparents who are native speakers of the language) I imagine that my son may encounter similar dilemmas when he grows up. While Jewish Israeli culture is not only about speaking Hebrew, Hebrew does play an important role. So as a bilingual growing up in an English-speaking environment, my son will have to decide for himself what role Hebrew plays in his own identity. Hebrew fluency, I feel, is a precious gift that I am giving him, and I hope that this gift will be a source of enrichment for him. But what he will do with this gift is ultimately up to him. (more…)



JOI’s New Communication Associate Looks Forward to Celebrating Diversity

Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) is a seemingly unlikely place for me to be working. I avoided all Jewish activities in college (Hillel and the like), only attended synagogue for the High Holidays and the occasional “Shabbat Chaverim” (literally “Sabbath friends,” a program that my Temple holds which encourages people to sing, dance, and eat together on Shabbat), and lived in a fairly non-observant household. People who know me knew that I had always wanted to live in New York, but I am sure they imagined me working in entertainment (I interned at a traveling circus when I was in college).

When I was a child I experienced the paradox of spending my childhood being immersed in a vibrant Jewish community to moving in middle school and being the only Jew in a community. When I was in elementary school my community was able to support a Jewish day school, which I was fortunate to attend. During my formative years I was taught the Hebrew alphabet, Torah stories, prayers, and how to observe the holidays. This education helped me connect to the Jewish community and provide understanding to Jewish traditions and culture. When I was 12, my family moved to a rural part of Iowa, where my family was the only Jewish family and my connection to Judaism had greatly diminished.
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Finding Your “Spark Moment” with the Jewish Community

I owe my Jewish identity to the Shining Lights. For most of my childhood, I participated in a Jewish youth singing and dancing group. We wore red mock turtlenecks, black skirts, and silk vests with musical notes on them. We sang songs about Jewish holidays and stories. We performed at Jewish Community Centers, Jewish senior centers, synagogues, and Jewish festivals. We sang solos, showed off our jazz hands, and step-ball-changed our way through the Jewish calendar.

The Shining Lights brought together a bunch of Jewish kids from across the Chicagoland area to perform together. Singing and dancing about Jewish themes excited and connected me in a way that Sunday School and Shabbat services never did. It allowed me to continue participating in the Jewish community when Hebrew school was over, my Bat Mitzvah was behind me, and my homework, part-time job, and after school activities conflicted with confirmation classes. Perhaps most importantly, it introduced me to other people who were like me. Performing with the Shining Lights was my “spark moment,” that activity or experience that leaves an impression forever.

In a way, the Big Tent Judaism Concierge is in the business of creating spark moments. Public Space Judaism offers a taste of Jewish culture through food, through an activity, or simply through a meaningful conversation. The taste of charoset (chopped fruit and nut salad) at Passover in the Matzah Aisle or the sampling of hamantaschen (traditional holiday pastries) and wine at Purim Pastry Pairing may provide the spark moment that brings Jewish individuals and families one step closer to exploring other Jewish experiences.

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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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The Letter that Brought Us All Together

Families are like geodes - those rocks full of crystals. Each member of the family represents its own unique crystal, and when assembled, they form a beautiful stone. Like geodes, families are fragile. Pressure can either bring the crystals closer together and strengthen, or it can create fractures and undermine the integrity of the unit. For my family, the passing of my father-in-law was such an event.

My father-in-law, who we affectionately called “Nonno,” - the Ladino term for Grandfather - was the patriarch of our modern Jewish family. (Ladino is the language of western Sephardim, a mix of Hebrew and Spanish) Born in pre-state Palestine in 1942, my father-in-law had a complex relationship with his heritage, and everyone around him. Diagnosed with stage IIIa lung cancer this past January, Nonno fought and lived bravely. He was meticulous and had an eye for detail. Faced with his mortality, Nonno sought to wrap up the details of life. From the purchase of his final resting place to the details of his burial, Nonno helped to ensure that the bond between his precious crystals would be strengthened when stressed.

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Being an Outsider

With the recent New Year’s celebrations, I found myself thinking back to a different New Year—the Jewish New Year, and an experience I had while in Ukraine several years ago. Growing up in a Russian Jewish household, I always felt like a bit of an outsider, not being part of the Christian-centric society in which I lived and being an immigrant. But I also took great pride in being unique and believe that being able to look at things from the outside gave me a better perspective and allowed me to see things more clearly.

It had never occurred to me that I was also an outsider from the Jewish community. My family had never been very active in the local community and when we did participate we still felt set apart from the rest of the community, being Russian Jews and therefore having our own way of doing things. Not growing up part of a strong Jewish community, I was always excited when I encountered other Jews, not realizing that my lack of involvement, and my Russian background, set me aside from them. The realization came to me over many years, but really became a dominant part of my consciousness while I was living in Ukraine as a Peace Corps volunteer.

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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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Interfaith, According to My Four Year Old

Today’s guest blog comes from Carin Mrotz. After growing up in sunny South Florida, Carin moved to Minnesota on a dare in 1997 and fell in love with the Twin Cities. She lives in Minneapolis with her husband and two children and works for Jewish Community Action. She loves biking and live music, and lives in constant pursuit of the perfect fish taco. The blog was originally posted on TCJewfolk.

I remember the time my son told me his father wasn’t Jewish.

He was 4, and it was December, and we were in the car on our way home from preschool. And he said it just like that. “Mom, Dad isn’t Jewish.” Technically, I already knew. We’d been married 8 years by then, it had come up. But we hadn’t discussed it with Henry yet. We planned to, but we were waiting for the right time, for him to be ready to understand.

We were waiting to talk to him about my father, too. To tell him that he had a fifth grandparent, one he’d never meet. My parents divorced when I was a baby and my mother married my stepfather just a few years later. He’s the man I call “Dad,” and he’s the man Henry knows as “Pop Pop,” but I did also have a father, whom I spent winter breaks and summers with, whom I loved very much, and who died when I was 25, long before Henry was born. And I was waiting to explain this extra grandparent who only exists in pictures now, to Henry, not because he didn’t understand death (we’d lost pets by then), but because we hadn’t yet broached the topic of divorce.

I think we must all have these things we wait to explain to our children, until they’re old enough to really understand. I have friends, also an interfaith family, who had explained to their son that Dad was Jewish and Mom wasn’t, only to end up with the misunderstanding that all boys are Jews and all girls are Christians. So we were waiting until it would make sense. But I think, for me, there was something more there. I wasn’t just worried that Henry wouldn’t understand what we were talking about, I was worried that he’d be confused about what it meant about who he is.

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