Entries for Category: Opening the Tent
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It can be difficult to look in the mirror, and often we Jewish communal professionals are so busy that we legitimately don’t have time to do so. But what happens is that the world around us changes, and we become complacent—so much so that we forget that not everyone knows what a chavurah (fellowship group) is, or that Shabbat services are free, or that when answering the phone at our institutions, the person on the other line may need some assistance in articulating the questions they are really trying to ask. We can lose sight of the increasing diversity of the Jewish community around, and walk around with assumptions about what a Jewish family “looks like” that are simply outdated.
JOI’s environmental outreach scans help busy, over-programmed Jewish communal professionals and lay leaders to look into that (sometimes scary) mirror, but we don’t just stop there. We show the community where they are succeeding and where there is room for improvement, and then we help them open their tent and ensure that all four flaps are open, just like Abraham and Sarah’s.
On Monday evening, March 10th at the Rosenthal Jewish Community Center in Pleasantville, NY, we will be presenting our findings to the Jewish community of Northern Westchester and the River Towns, which will serve as the kick-off to our Big Tent Judaism Initiative for this region. The presentation, made possible by a generous grant from UJA-Federation of New York, will explain the process by which we scanned each institution, share our overall findings, and offer general recommendations to the community. This particular scan focused on the needs of interfaith couples and their families.
I believe in what I like to call institutional Darwinism. In other words, only the fittest Jewish communal institutions will survive this period of transition, the name I have given this period of American Jewish history. We all know which institutions are at risk, which have outlived their original raison d’etre and been unable to reimagine themselves. Consider the Jewish hospital as a prime example. It served two major purposes: to provide care for individual Jews, especially when they were refused care by other hospitals; and it provided a place for Jewish physicians to serve their internships and residencies. Neither of these are relevant any longer and so Jewish hospitals are disappearing from the American Jewish institutional landscape.
The Jewish Community Center is at risk, as well. Originally designed to help Americanize immigrants, they thrived during the post World War Two baby boom with its concomitant flight to the suburbs. They sought to reposition themselves around several core businesses, most notably the fitness center. However, in many cases they are unable to compete in the free marketplace.
I recently returned from a JFNA (Jewish Federations of North America) Rabbinic Cabinet Mission to the Republic of Georgia and Israel. It is clear to me that the exciting things going on in the JCC movement are indeed happening outside the United States, particularly in the FSU (Former Soviet Union) and those countries formerly behind the Iron Curtain. As I have seen in other countries during other such missions, the JCC in Tbilisi and Gorre really are Jewish Community Centers, serving the entire Jewish community and offering complementary services to the local synagogues (which seem focused almost entirely on providing worship services). I wonder what we can learn from them?
I just returned from the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, DC. This has become the largest gathering of the organized Jewish community in North America—and includes a large number of people outside of the Jewish community. Without addressing the various positions taken by AIPAC, below I simply address some of the lessons learned which can and should be applied to other institutions and organizations inside the Jewish community.
Audacious hospitality, radical hospitality, proactive hospitality, assertive hospitality, aggressive hospitality. It doesn’t matter what specific term is applied. AIPAC understands what it takes to make conference participants feel at home, welcomed, treasured, and supported. Every step along the way, people reached out and welcomed participants, making sure that they knew where they were going and how to get there.
- Competing in the free market economy. Whereas some institutions think that they are competing inside the Jewish community, AIPAC understands that it competes with many organizations and institutions inside and outside of the Jewish community. Thus, the production quality of its conference is unparalleled—inside and outside of the community.
- Mission driven. The mission of AIPAC is quite clear: security for the state of Israel. There is no evident mission drift anywhere.
- Dispelling myths. There are those who argue that millenials are not interested in the organized Jewish community nor in Israel. The large number of young persons in attendance undermines that myth entirely. It further suggests that when there is a mission with which people resonate, they will support it.
- Big Tent Judaism. Pluralism. Just as AIPAC demonstrates that there can be bipartisan support for the state of Israel in Congress, the AIPAC Policy Conference that demonstrates that pluralism still exists in the American Jewish community in isolated areas, such as support for Israel. There were 600 rabbis in attendance, representing a cross-section of the various streams in American Jewish religious life.
- The marketplace of ideas. The fact that there were people from various religious and ethnic backgrounds presenting and participating at the AIPAC policy conference affirms that various aspects of Jewish civilization—in particular, support for the state of Israel—are attractive to people outside of the Jewish community.
- Walk the talk—Combine deed and creed. The AIPAC Policy Conference combines the best of good pedagogy. It provides the transmission of cognitive knowledge. It touches the heart and lifts the spirit. And then it puts it all into the action of lobbying, demonstrating the power of “We the people.”
- Communication. Before, during, and after the conference, AIPAC regularly communicated with its participants, using the various options that technology has to offer, in addition to providing print materials for those who desire them.
- Rabbinic leadership. While AIPAC might be considered a secular organization, it celebrates rabbinic leadership and provides incentives for rabbis to participate. It understands how to leverage support on the inside of the organized Jewish community.
- Provides multiple points of entry. AIPAC encourages those who have never attended a policy conference as well as those who have attended numerous times in the past. It provides easy access for newcomers—and support through help desks and the like. It also provides more “immersive experiences” for those who are well-schooled.
I read an interesting New York Times article a few weeks ago that has stayed with me. The article chronicles the expansion of food co-ops and their attempts at outreach to the longtime residents of the rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods they’re entering. Many of these co-ops operate on a membership system, where members pay a yearly fee (and often work a few hours a month) for the privilege to shop. Since co-ops are collectively owned, this set-up helps keep prices lower than typical grocery stores.
Setting aside the difficult issues surrounding gentrification, I immediately saw a very interesting parallel to the Jewish community. Some of these co-ops are making concerted efforts to reach out to their neighbors, through booths set up at parks, farmers markets, and other communal spaces; translating signs into the common languages in the neighborhood; and offering discounted memberships for those on public assistance. Similarly, with JOI’s help, many Jewish organizations are now using inclusive language and going outside the walls of their institutions to parks, farmers markets, and other community spaces to reach out to their neighbors through Public Space Judaism programs.
If we are teaching kids that there is an ima (mom) for Shabbat and an abba (dad) for Shabbat, then what happens when both parents are men or both parents are women or some other combination that isn’t strictly a hetero union?
I didn’t go to Jewish day school and I know that might mean to some readers here that I’m barely Jewish. But I was thinking about Shabbat the other day – we barely-Jews sometimes do that – and I couldn’t figure out a really good reason why the woman lights the candles and the man blesses the wine. And yet, according to this article from Tablet, almost every single religious school classroom is teaching gender-segregated roles.
The public storm over the interfaith relationship between Yair, son of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and his Norwegian girlfriend, Sandar Leikanger, is a perfect example of a lost opportunity. Instead of welcoming the young woman, in Israel of her own choice for studies, into the Jewish community, the response has been one of vocal outrage and insult to the unwitting subject and her Jewish partner.
“If the Jews are a ‘large extended family,’ as we sometimes claim we are, our family just failed spectacularly at the commandment to ‘welcome the stranger,’ writes Paul Golin, JOI’s Associate Executive Director in an Op-Ed piece in this week’s The Jewish Week.
The silver lining in this love story is the teachable moment: Society has changed, will continue to change and protestations are pointless. Instead, if you open your heart and welcome your future sons- and daughter-in law, regardless of background, into your family from the very first meeting, you will help to nurture a relationship of trust and inclusion.
“But there is another woman at the table, ebony-skinned and saffron-robed, holding a piece of matzoh. Too finely dressed to be a servant, and fully participating in the Jewish rite, the identity of that African woman in saffron has perplexed the book’s scholars for a century.”
The American Jewish community grows increasingly diverse. It can be easy to look at that diversity and assume that it’s a new phenomenon. However, even in a largely white western European-descended Jewish community, there are signs of the Jewish community’s unexpected history of diversity lurking all around us. For instance, I recently learned of an illustration of a black woman attending a Passover seder (ritual meal) in the Sarajevo Haggadah, a famous haggadah (book used during the seder) written in the 14th century.
I am reading People of the Book, a historical novel by Geraldine Brooks about a contemporary manuscript restoration specialist working on the Sarajevo Haggadah. Weaved throughout that story, Brooks also includes several brief narratives of the journey of the Sarajevo Haggadah from 14th century Spain to 20th century Sarajevo.
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.”
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.
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.
I recently indulged in tween fiction and read My Basmati Bat Mitzvah, the story of Tara Feinstein, your average Indian Jewish American middle school girl. The book, written by Paula Freedman, follows Tara in the lead-up to her Bat Mitzvah, as she struggles with friends, boys, parents, and her identity as both an Indian American and a Jewish American.
Tara’s connection to her grandparents figures prominently throughout the novel. Nani and Nanaji, her Indian grandparents, live large in her heart and memory. Her Jewish grandmother, Gran, lives 15 blocks away. In her quest to be “a normal Jewish kid—with a healthy sprinkling of masala [a delicious blend of Indian spices] on top,” Tara doesn’t want to alienate either parts of her family.
Thankfully, both sides of the family, led in spirit or action by the grandparents, are supportive and welcoming. When Tara accidentally damages the beautiful heirloom sari (draped fabric worn by women) that originally belonged to Nani, her Indian grandmother, it is Gran who takes her to the tailor to transform it into a dress. The two sides of Tara’s family come together for both the Diwali (Hindu festival of lights) celebration—with Gran bringing the traditional vat of matzah ball soup—and (spoiler alert!) Tara’s Bat Mitzvah at the end of the book.
Pat Nisenholz has always been a searcher. Her openness, her eagerness to learn, and her desire to make a difference in the lives of others brought her from an early career in interior design to her current position as Early Childhood Family Engagement Educator at the Jewish Community Center (JCC) of Chicago. After completing a degree in Art Therapy through the Barat College Psychology School, Pat furthered her Jewish journey by enrolling in the Melton program for teachers. Through a chance meeting with the Director of the Bernard Weinger JCC while working out at the JCC gym, Pat’s career with the JCC took off.
Pat embodies the JCC mission of bringing Jewish values to life. “My job is to raise awareness,” she says. “I want people to be action-oriented. I don’t want to just talk about being kind, I want us to go out there and show how to be kind. I want to model for my directors and model for my parents.”
Pat’s training as a Big Tent Judaism Professional Affiliate has helped her to refocus and reassess the kinds of experiences provided by the JCC. She is JOI’s first “Jewish Pro You Should Know,” and she answers The Four Questions below.
“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.
The language we use when talking about inclusion, or to those we wish to include, is delicate. Instead of “non-Jewish mother,” we prefer to say “woman of another background raising Jewish children” (see this recent blog about being a “non”). Instead of “convert,” we prefer to say “Jew-by-choice.” Some phrases and words, however, are much more subtle.
Take for example the following sentences:
“My daughter is raising her children Jewish but her husband is Protestant.”
“My son is dating a Muslim girl, but she’s very nice.”
At first glance, these phrases seem harmless and perhaps even appropriate. The daughter is raising her children Jewish; the son is dating a nice girl. However, the common thread is the use of the conjunction “but,” which gives a decidedly negative flavor to an otherwise innocuous phrase. Many times when I come across phrases like the one above, the speaker or writer has no idea they’ve said something negative. To a trained ear or eye, the negativity is all too apparent, and sometimes that eye is the person about who you are speaking. To say something like what is said above is to say that there is something amiss, something wrong with the person. It’s as if someone were to say “he’s Jewish, but he’s a nice person”—as if Jews aren’t inherently nice.
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.
Gained traction in our systems approach to outreach. We have demonstrated that our approach is successful when our fully trained “army of engagement specialists” work together and collaborate in a local community. In Chicago, for example, our Concierge, together with a cadre of 35 Big Tent Judaism Professional Affiliates reached over 3,000 individuals through programming in secular public spaces (Public Space Judaism) and stewarded hundreds into deeper engagement with the Jewish community.
- Made progress with our strategic plan by training over 150 Jewish communal professionals as Big Tent Judaism Professional Affiliates, engaged over 100 volunteer leaders as Big Tent Judaism Ambassadors, and placed Big Tent Judaism Concierges in four cities across the country. 2014 will see expanded cohorts of Professional Affiliates, Ambassadors, and Concierges, beginning with a group of Big Tent Judaism Professional Affiliates in the Valley outside Los Angeles, thanks to a grant from the Los Angeles Jewish Federation and its Valley Alliance.
- Partnered with UJA/Federation in New York by training Jewish communal professionals working with interfaith families. This work continues with an Environmental Outreach Scan in Westchester County (NY) in 2014. As the hit song suggests, “if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere….”
- Pilot programs for LGBT Interfaith couples in Los Angeles—to be rolled out nationally in years following.
- In our second year of partnership with the Institute of Southern Jewish Life, delivering our customized program content to small and rural Southern Jewish communities. This included a new first step approach for our Mothers Circle program called Mothers Circle Gatherings that are salon models. This partnership will continue for year three in 2014.
- Distributed the results of a research project on Adult Children of Intermarriage, one of the largest, fastest growing segments of the North American Jewish community. Look for the results of our study of Five Years of The Mothers Circle due out in a few weeks.
- Staking our claim as futurists with the publication of Playlist Judaism: Making Choices for a Vital Future (Alban Institute Press) by Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, Executive Director.
- Influencing the religious movements with presentations at the Union for Reform Judaism biennial convention and a (Conservative) Think Tank on Intermarriage sponsored by the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs.
- Expanding our reach into Europe: Rabbi Kerry Olitzky served as a visiting faculty member at the Abraham Geiger Kolleg in Berlin training European rabbinical students during the summer semester.
- Expanding our board to a gender-balanced 28 members with 50% women. In 2014, we intend to continue our board expansion under the leadership of newly-elected president Michael Rappeport.
- Expanded the pilot of Hands-on-Hanukkah, our newest Public Space Judaism program, thanks to the support of the Polinger Foundation, with further expansion planned for 2014. Our Public Space Judaism program has captured the imagination of the North American Jewish community, with shout-outs from such leaders as Rabbi Rick Jacobs of the Union for Reform Judaism.
- Shared our expertise with communal professionals in gatherings such as the JCCA (Jewish Community Centers Association); birthright NEXT; Lion of Judah; Limmud (NY), and PJ Library, as well as local meetings such as the Community Scholars Forum in Orange County, CA, Women of the Landings (Savannah, GA) and the Chicago Board of Rabbis.
- Reached the Gold Standard in charitable giving, according to Guidestar, the highest level of financial and governance transparency.
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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?