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It has become popular in the engaged core of the Jewish community to look down on Hanukkah. It is an unimportant holiday, some say. Others say that celebrating Hanukkah in a big way compromises Jewish values, worrying that it is emphasized only because of its proximity to Christmas. We beg to differ. There is nothing wrong with fun holidays like Hanukkah and Purim. In fact, they’re a great opportunity to engage those who have become bored with or alienated from Jewish life.
The “unimportant” holiday of Hanukkah has a lot going on, something for everyone: Inspiring miracles, military campaigns, a controversial revolt, the fight against assimilation, a connection to other cultures’ winter light festivals – not to mention delectable fried foods and fun parties and games. On top of that, its wide popularity (regardless of whether its popularity stems from the proximity to and association with Christmas) make it a perfect gateway holiday: Less engaged Jews and their families may already be thinking more about their Jewish background at this time of year because of Hanukkah’s high name recognition in the broader culture. Instead of sneering at Hanukkah, we should embrace it as a chance to meet less engaged Jews and help them become more involved in the Jewish community.
To that end, we have created this list of Eight Values for Building an Inclusive Jewish Community on Hanukkah. We hope this list will help you see Hanukkah for the important outreach opportunity that it is – and the deeply meaningful holiday that it can be.
- Warmth: Share the friendly warmth of the Jewish community as the weather turns colder.
- Light: No matter how you got here, no matter what road you took, the light will illuminate your way to the Jewish community.
- Faith: Many cultures have a winter light festivals of light, making this a great holiday to share with others from different backgrounds.
- Communal Memory: See yourself as part of the collective story of the Jewish people, see how it unfolds in the story of Hanukkah, and claim it as your own.
- Rededication: There is a place for you in the Jewish community no matter how long you’ve been away or even if you’ve never been a part of it before.
- Reconciliation: Leave behind internal conflict within the Jewish community as your community celebrates Hanukkah.
- Accessibility: Make sure that all are not only welcome to celebrate, but able to celebrate as well.
- Renewal: Adapt old Hanukkah traditions so that they continue to live and have meaning in your life.
Written by Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky and David A.M. Wilensky. Published in the New Jersey Jewish Standard Friday, November 21, 2013.
Last week a series of minor earthquakes hit the northern Israeli town of T’veria (Tiberius). No harm done, but it did remind everyone in the area that they are living on top of one of the Earth’s major tectonic fault lines. Now everyone is talking about home preparedness kits and aftershocks.
Over here, the North American Jewish community has experienced its own minor earthquake: the image presented by the Pew Research Center’s comprehensive study of the U.S. Jewish population. No harm done, but we were all forcefully reminded of a couple of major fault lines of our own.
On the one hand, we were reminded that the Jewish community extends beyond religious affiliation. Not only are a growing number of Jews identifying as having no religion, but even among those who do consider Judaism their religion, only 39% are synagogue members and only 29% visit a synagogue more than a few times a year.
On the other hand, the Pew aftershocks also brought to the fore the fault lines within the organized Jewish community, which is divided on the issue of how to respond to this increasing lack of institutional affiliation. Is it best to hunker down and focus on the few who still consider Jewish institutions relevant, or is it more advisable to transform existing institutions to accommodate the needs and wants of those who don’t show up?
Rabbi Amy Memis-Folder is the rabbi of Temple Judea Mizpah in Skokie, IL and is also a Big Tent Judaism Professional Affiliate. below is an excerpt from her “erev Rosh Hashanah” (the first night of Rosh Hashanah) sermon, in which she discusses the importance of being a Big Tent Judaism community and synagogue with her congregation. Photo credit: Michael Jarecki for Sun-Times Media
Speaking of marking milestone years, this year Temple Judea Mizpah (TJM) is celebrating our 60th year. Through the coming months we will be marking this milestone with a variety of simchas [festive occasions], such as a ribbon cutting for our new archives, a gala evening and monthly blessings on the bima [raised platform from which the Torah is read] for every group in the congregation. Keep posted to hear how you can participate and how we’re honoring you.
Temple Judea Mizpah too needs to grow. How?
Do we want to grow the population of people in the congregation and get more members? Well yes, but there are other ways to grow too.
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.
Usually we think of the annual challenge facing American Jews—and especially interfaith families—as the conflict between Christmas and Hanukkah. I have gone on record and said many times, “Hanukkah is not a minor festival. In North America, it is a major holiday.” By now, many people have realized that this year’s calendar conflict will occur in November rather than in December: between Thanksgiving and Hanukkah. While these two holidays seem never to have been in conflict with one another, it will nevertheless challenge the religious mindset of folks as they consider which celebration will take precedence over the other, especially since Hanukkah has become the national Jewish holiday. One enterprising young man has already weighed in with his Menurkey, a Hanukkiyah that looks like a turkey. I am sure that as we leave this string of fall holidays behind, more ingenuity and practical solutions will emerge.
Admittedly, the Jewish holiday cycle and calendation, that is, figuring out when holidays take place and for how long (in the soli-lunar Hebrew calendar), is among the most challenging for those on the periphery of Jewish life. It gets even more confusing when you add the Israeli interpretation of the holiday calendar (slightly different and mostly followed by the Reform movement, as well). (I’ll let you in on a little secret: it is also challenging for those on the inside.) That’s among the reasons why people often find it difficult to get in sync with the rhythm of Jewish life. As a result, especially when a creative environment is not built for them, they simply opt out.
There are basically two primary holiday cycles in the Jewish religious calendar. The fall holidays actually begin toward the end of the summer, at the beginning of the Hebrew month of Elul. This initiates the period of intensive introspection that includes Rosh Hashanah and culminates in Yom Kippur. But the seasonal cycle doesn’t conclude until the holiday that is the end cap for Sukkot: Simchat Torah, which celebrates the year-long cycle of reading the Torah. The spring holidays begin with Pesach (Passover) and after a period of counting down toward the barley harvest (called Sefirat Haomer) and the giving of the Torah at Sinai, this period concludes with the holiday of Shavuot, which celebrates the spring harvest, or more specifically, the barley harvest.
Yesterday, my 19-year-old son and I had this textversation:
Son: What would you and the family say if I was dating a black girl?
Me: Is she nice?
Son: She seems like a sweetheart so far.
Me: That’s the most important thing!
Of course there are many other important aspects to building good relationships, but starting out with two people who are nice to each other isn’t a bad place to begin.
Now let’s get to the real issue: racism. If a Christian parent said to his or her child, “Don’t marry that Jew!” it would be considered racist, and the speaker would be considered a bigot. A bigot is someone who, as a result of their prejudices, treats other people with fear, distrust, hatred, contempt, or intolerance on the basis of a person’s ethnicity, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, disability, socioeconomic status, or other characteristics (Wikipedia). Wouldn’t I, then, be considered a bigot if I said, “Don’t marry that Christian!” or “Don’t marry that black girl!” But I don’t think I’m a bigot, am I?
As the Big Tent Judaism Coordinator in Chicago, part of my role is to connect Jewish individuals and interfaith families with the programs, events, and organizations that meet their interests and needs. I’ve been fortunate to have some wonderful interactions and conversations with people by hosting Public Space Judaism events at area farmers’ markets over the last few weeks.
Public Space Judaism programs bring a taste of Judaism to where people are. They are Jewish programs in secular public venues that allow for unplanned participation—by everyone. By offering a taste of challah and honey to passersby, my table fit right into the laid-back, fun, foodie vibe of the market, and I connected with Jews, and those of other religious backgrounds, who literally stumbled upon my table.
Through these markets, I’ve met young adults looking for ways to connect Jewishly and socially, young families searching for a synagogue, and empty-nesters interested in reconnecting with the community. I am thrilled to have the opportunity to spend a beautiful summer morning getting to know people and offering a little taste of Jewish culture.
Admittedly, the building of a sukkah is what I usually call a high barrier ritual experience. Even with the growth of prefabricated sukkot (the plural of sukkah), and a growing number of people who install them, it is still a relatively small percentage of people who actually build sukkot in their backyards. As a result, most sukkot are limited to synagogue yards, some kosher restaurants, and, of course, the infamous Chabad sukkah-mobile, which is driven through major cities offering people the opportunity to step inside.
Over the past few years, we have seen some sukkot in public spaces such as Reboot’s “Sukkah in the City” project held in New York City’s Union Square last year. (This has recently been issued as a film, just in time for Sukkot.) Although this holiday epitomizes the Jewish value of “welcoming guests,” fewer people are invited into sukkot than invited around the Passover seder table, for example. Thus, I am proposing that we bring back the notion of Sukkot as a “pop-up” experience and actually install temporary sukkot—even more temporary than the festival itself, which lasts eight days—in public spaces for all to enjoy. At Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI), we advocate a theoretical construct called Public Space Judaism, actually taking Judaism outside—from the four walls of community institutions—to public spaces so that people can “stumble over Judaism,” as I am want to say.
I recently sat in an audience of several hundred people in a Broadway theater to watch the life story of a modern rabbi, Shlomo Carlebach. The show was called Soul Doctor. This is the second theater production that I have seen on his life, but it is the first one to have made it to Broadway. This reinforces the notion that I and others have been speaking and writing about lately: Judaism has entered the marketplace of ideas. While there were many Jews in the audience (socially visible because of those of us who keep our heads covered), there were clearly many people who had absolutely no connection to the Jewish community and were simply interested in the life of a man, a rabbi, whose influence on contemporary Jewish music and prayer is unparalleled. For me, this is what is most important about the show. Like Carlebach’s music, his teachings have found their way into many faith communities.
I met Carlebach for the first time in 1971. I was in Israel for the year and he played to a small group of us, maybe thirty people, gathered at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. It was intimate and uplifting, and I became immediately attracted to his music and his gentle soul at that moment. A special charisma oozed from his soul.
Yesterday we shared an excerpt from the latest Institute of Southern Jewish Life (ISJL) newsletter, which features Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI). Today, we would like to share another piece from that same newsletter, a list of ten promises Jewish institutions can make to partners of other backgrounds. To read the entire newsletter, please click here.
There have been numerous pieces about intermarriage in the press lately. I am not really sure why they have suddenly emerged. Perhaps it is the result of several books that have been recently published. But I have decided to follow the advice of one of my teachers in rabbinical school, Alvin Reines z”l (of blessed memory). And while I usually disagreed with much of his religious philosophy, I often appreciated his practical advice. He often told us that sometimes silence is the best response, especially to public positions taken that are patently absurd. Rather, he suggested, let people determine on their own how absurd are the positions. You, he would argue, do not need to point it out. So here are some reasons why I have chosen not to respond, in particular, to those articles that are being written.
1. Unlike in previous articles, neither Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) nor I were named explicitly or implicitly. Our board made a decision some years ago not to respond to such pieces unless we were specifically named since it does no one any good to engage in what I call “Jew wars.”
2. During this time of year, I am particularly mindful of the challenge of being respectful to one another, even in the context of a philosophical debate.
3. I refuse to allow someone else to set the agenda for our work. Rather than responding, I would prefer to follow the advice of my colleague Paul Steinberg z”l who would often say “let your deeds sing your praises.” After 25 years of work, JOI has a proven track record. It can stand on its own as a rebuttal to any claim our critics make.
4. The positions that are being taken are old arguments. We have publicly responded to them on numerous occasions. Since there are no new arguments being made in these articles, it is silly to repeat those arguments.
5. I refuse to allow the work we are doing with regard to intermarriage to be classified in terms like “war” or “battle.” Any response would be an affirmation of such terms.
6. To divide the Jewish community along the lines of intermarriage is archaic. The great divide is along the lines of engagement.
7. To intermarry is a choice people are entitled to make. The goal of the Jewish community must be to provide meaning to these couples, and not to judge the decisions they have made.
8. I fear that these articles allow some people to respond and use such reactions as cover for the positions they take, which are commonly known. Our positions are known and we welcome people who want to work along with us.
It is time to move the conversation away from who people marry to how they raise their children. We welcome all those who want to work with us—and join us in the opportunity to shape an optimistic Jewish future.
Open houses work for real estate agents, but they don’t work for synagogues. Nevertheless, this is the time of year when synagogues invest a lot of time and energy into open houses, thinking that this is the best way for an increase in new memberships to be realized. Realtors want to help you realize the American dream of owning your own home, of imagining yourself living in that new home, and even go to great lengths to decorate the home and furnish it to make the home more appealing to potential buyers. It is true that a good real estate agent will also try to build a relationship with the home-buyer, but ultimately the mark of a good agent is in the sale, not in the relationship.
Synagogues convince themselves that if they can just get you in the building, they can persuade you to buy into membership, as if the building itself is what may attract a person to join a synagogue community. And while it is true that some buildings enhance membership while other buildings detract from membership, the building is generally irrelevant to whether or not a person chooses to participate in the community life of a congregation.
So maybe open houses should not be held in synagogues at all, especially at a time when programs are not taking place that reflect what it is that the synagogue’s leaders want to demonstrate to the newcomer. Instead, we should ask leaders in the community who are “connectors” to open their homes and invite friends, at which time something that is reflective of the institution is shared. Or perhaps we should prepare experiences in the many fall festivals that take place this time of year that too are reflective of the institution we want to promote—and then build a programmatic path from the fall festival into the institution. Or maybe we should establish a few pop-ups in the community with prayer experiences indicative of the synagogue we are publicizing—so that people can get a taste of what the synagogue has to offer.
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I enjoyed reading this recent article in the Forward in which Jordan Kutzik suggests that the study of Jewish languages such as Yiddish, Ladino, and Hebrew should be an important tool in the effort to assure a viable North American Jewish future. In historic Jewish communities, he argues, belonging was not primarily about religious ties but about ethnic ones, with language playing a key role in determining group boundaries.
There was less need for debate about who was and was not a Jew. Whether a person was religious, a closeted heretic or an open Epicurus, she was a Jew if she spoke a Jewish language as her mother tongue.
I think Kutzik in on to something. Perhaps Jewish institutions should offer classes in Jewish languages as one of their offering on the menu of Jewish engagement opportunities. When Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) conducted a study of adult Jews raised in intermarried households, one of the findings was that religious activities and activities focused primarily on ethnic ties are less appealing to this population.
While the notion of an erev rav (mixed multitude) is mentioned in various places in rabbinic literature—where the rabbis take a neutral notion and make it negative—and is used in contemporary Hebrew to refer to various groupings (including a confluence of art forms or a gathering of people at a rally), erev rav is only mentioned once in the entire Torah. In Exodus 12:38, the term refers to the group of people who joined the Israelites upon their Exodus from Egypt. The Rabbis, as is their predilection, will blame various things on this group, including the Golden Calf incident—a behavior pattern that is too often replicated today. Nevertheless, it is clear in the Torah that this group of former outsiders was absorbed into the people without distinction. They became part of the community, wandered in the desert, and their children entered the Land of Israel.
We are at a time in Jewish history that the term erev rav seems once again applicable. The Jewish community is made up of various groups, all of which add color, hue, and dimension to the beautiful tapestry we call the Jewish people. The Jewish community has never been monolithic. We at Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute value diversity; and as such, we believe that Jewish continuity and a secure Jewish future can only be assured by an affirmation of its diversity.
What are you doing to acknowledge and welcome the diverse Jewish population in your community, particularly in preparation for the High Holidays?
The following is a recent think-piece written by Rabbi Amy Memis-Foler, rabbi at Temple Judea Mizpah in Skokie, IL, and also a Big Tent Judaism Professional Affiliate.
Since January 2013, I’ve been involved with some very interesting training with the Jewish Outreach Institute’s (JOI) Big Tent Judaism. I like JOI’s way of thinking, and it’s changed my approach on how I as a rabbi and we as a congregation can engage potential members in our congregation.
Engagement is the key word. Often we think about affiliation or membership, but before we get there, we need to “engage” people. When we engage people, we create a meaningful experience hand-in-hand with a relationship. Big Tent Judaism’s philosophy teaches about lowering barriers to reach out to people.
One way to achieve lower barriers is by holding events outside of our building, in public areas. The way I imagine it is that we need to extend the “four walls” of our building in such a way that we shift from being a tent to a chupah (wedding canopy). The walls of a tent are closed, but if it’s Big Tent Judaism, I imagine lifting the four flaps and spreading them out, so that the ceiling is extended and walls are open like that of a chupah–open to the community and those who can see and enter.
To read the rest of Rabbi Memis-Foler’s piece, please click here.
Below is an excerpt from a recent op-ed in the New Jersey Jewish News written by JOI Associate Executive Director Paul Golin in response to recent debate in the Jewish community about whether or not rabbis should be permitted to intermarry. To read the complete piece, please click here.
“[…] I’m not the typical intermarried unaffiliated Jew, since I’m also a Jewish communal professional. Still, I think I speak for many intermarried households when it comes to what I want and need from a rabbi. And that might be instructive to the seminaries, who are training clergy for a U.S. population that now has more intermarried than in-married households.
I have two admittedly broad criteria for what I want in a rabbi: Tell me I’m in and mean it — and show me why it’s so amazing.
[…] Rabbis with nontraditional families like my own make me feel more included. Conveying why Judaism is still relevant to them provides me with access I wouldn’t feel elsewhere. The focus is not on how you come in, but what you get out of doing Jewish — in other words, why it’s so amazing.
American liberal Judaism in the 21st century must be about conveying Jewish meaning, not ensuring ethnic survival. Some may lament that rabbis today must first answer “what can Judaism do for me as an individual,” rather than “what am I supposed to do because I’m Jewish.” But the days of obligation-before-meaning are gone.
So tell us why Judaism is better! Why should my children’s ethical foundation be provided by Jewish wisdom rather than the universal ethics they would receive as Americans? Why should I seek spirituality in synagogue when the local meditation studio promises results I never hear offered by rabbis? How can the millennia-long conversations in Jewish texts help make my own life — or the world — better?”
Read the complete text here.
To read New Jersey Jewish News Editor-in-Chief Andrew Silow-Carroll reaction to the piece, please click here.
My non-Jewish roommates were confused by the idea that I would “convert” to Judaism. “From what?” Brent asked. It was a fair question. Jon seconded: “Yeah, if you’re not Jewish now, what are you?” There was no easy answer. My first attempt at answering them – I launched into a preamble about my half-baked idea of drawing a distinction between “converting” and “undergoing a conversion” – didn’t help much.
We met during college orientation, so the three of us had known each other for almost five years by the time I decided to undergo a conversion. A regular at Saturday morning services in college, they knew me as the rare college student who rose before noon on Saturday. My extensive collection of what Brent called “esoteric Hebrew t-shirts” (the result of spending high school in a never-ending series of positive Jewish youth events) had long been the butt of good-natured jokes in our circle of friends. In the time they’d known me, I had rarely shut up about Jews, Judaism, and Jewishness.
Without realizing the irony of it, Brent, Jon, and everyone else I knew in college would have placed me squarely in the “very Jewish” column. Yet, I am a patrilineal Jew, meaning my Jewish pedigree comes only from my father’s side. In the Orthodox understanding of Jewish legal tradition, only Jews-by-choice and the offspring of Jewish mothers are considered Jews. But there’s another detail complicating the issue: To be a Jew by birth, your mother must have already been a Jew herself at the time of your birth – and that’s where I ran into trouble: I was a little kid when my mother converted.
Already a regular at services and Sunday school, I remember beaming with pride when she came to the front of our congregation one Friday night for the public portion of her conversion, in which the convert is asked to quote the titular character of the biblical Book of Ruth: “Your people will become my people, and your God will become my God.”
My lox and bagel sandwich made me cry the other day. My almost four-year-old patted my knee and advised me to take a drink of water. But the tears weren’t caused by a bitten tongue, or even by the significant onion slice atop the garlic bagel.
I took a bite and was transported to my grandma’s kitchen circa 1990. I smelled the kugels (sweet noodle pudding) in the oven (made just for me, sans raisins, one to take home for later), saw the big bowl of sugar-laden blueberries next to my plate, and all the lox and bagels I could ever want to eat at the table. Grandma always fed me well.
I visited her a few days before the teary lox and bagel incident. She’s not doing any cooking these days, so it’s up to me to recreate her kugel for my family and introduce the concept of a smoked fish atop cream cheese and bagel to my children (so far, this has not gone over well). She suffered a stroke a few months ago; she has good days and bad days, but even on the good days, I miss the grandma who took such great pains to prepare my favorite meal. Thus, the tears.