Weblog Entries for Category: How We Celebrate

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An Orange on the Seder Plate?

What Does the Fifth Child Ask?

The Passover seder, as one of the most widely observed Jewish rituals, has long been a place to acknowledge the most vital issues and questions of the day. As you make plans to include the values of Big Tent Judaism in Passover this year, we hope you will consider using the attached haggadah supplement, “What Does the Fifth Child Ask?

Many different causes have suggested adding a fifth child to the iconic Four as a way to bring contemporary issues facing particular populations into the haggadah, such as the Soviet Jewry movement and the “child of the Holocaust.”

In this case, we suggest using, “What Does the Fifth Child Ask?” as an exploration of the questions and challenges faced by a hypothetical fifth child: the child of intermarriage, including a reading and some suggested discussion questions.

No matter who sits down around your seder table this year, we hope you will share this important conversation with them.

Was Your Purim Carnival an Outreach Event?

This is for synagogue and Jewish Community Center staff members and volunteer leaders.

While the High Holidays present us with an opportunity to greet large numbers of people in the synagogue, the Purim festival presents us with a prime program for reaching families with young children, especially given the way many—if not most—celebrations are designed as child-centered experiences. In particular, the Purim carnival is very low barrier for folks who might otherwise not cross the threshold of our synagogues and Jewish Community Centers. While it may be too late to plan for this year, here are some of the things to think about—and plan for—as you make review what just took place and make notes of what to do next year.

  • Did you assign volunteers or staff members to unobtrusively collect contact information (perhaps only names and email addresses for a raffle of a desirable prize)?
  • Was the space set up to accommodate such a collection? (Controlling the flow of entry traffic allows for such a collection to take place.)
  • Were there greeters on hand to welcome newcomers and guide them throughout the day? (Newcomers want to feel welcomed. Weather-permitting, the welcome should begin in the parking lot and at least at the front door rather than at the entry to the event space.)
  • Was your front line staff trained to greet people and welcome them in anticipation of the event? (Often we encounter entry-level personnel more often than everyone else and they are often not included in such training.)
  • Did you develop any plans for follow-up and follow-through with those who attended who were previously not part of your community? (Avoid the inclination to do a “data dump” so that attendees get general mailings rather than targeted mailings that include programs in which they may be specifically interested.)
  • Did you plan a subsequent low-barrier, kid-friendly program to which attendees could be invited (such as for the upcoming Passover holiday)? (You have an opportunity to invite people to similar events once they have taken the risk and crossed your threshold.)
  • With Passover just around the corner, are you planning an event for your community that could have the practices above applied? Contact Amanda for ideas and tips on how to make every event an outreach event.

    An open letter to Jewish communal professionals who think Purim is an outreach event

    So your synagogue or JCC or other local Jewish organization wants to engage more families with young kids. Purim looks like an easy opportunity, right? It is easy to assume that Purim is a low-barrier holiday: It’s a fun holiday. There’s the silly spiel, a Purim carnival, kids get to dress—and perhaps adults too. Yes, for these reasons and others, it is low-barrier—but only for those who already walk through our doors on a regular basis.

    Unfortunately, if we fail to recognize the basic barriers inherent in all Jewish holidays and other Jewish communal events, Purim will remain just as inaccessible as any other Jewish holiday to the unaffiliated—and the holiday’s great potential to reach newcomers will remain untapped. If we don’t take steps to make Purim more accessible to more people, we will be left scratching our heads for yet another year, wondering why our Purim programming didn’t attract more newcomers.

    Consider one of the most common Purim events: the Purim carnival. Surely, a carnival is kid-friendly bait for families with young children, right? If marketed, framed, and staged appropriately, it can be.


    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.


    Shabbat Belongs to Everybody

    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.


    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.


    People of the Book

    “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.


    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.


    The Importance of Grandparents, through the lens of “My Basmati Bat Mitzvah”

    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.


    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.


    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.


    Thanksgivukkah in Cleveland

    While a few weeks have passed since Hanukkah, I am just now reflecting on the experience it was this year. For Thanksgiving, as I have done almost every year, I flew to my hometown to spend Thanksgiving with my parents. However, this year was going to be different for several reasons: it was the first time my fiance would experience Thanksgiving with my family; it was also the first time she would experience Hanukkah with my family, or anyone else’s family for that matter, being raised Catholic. But what was most exciting was that it was the first time any of us had experienced, and will ever experience, both holidays at once.

    At my parents’ house, Thanksgiving involves inviting over my brother, his wife, his two kids, and my sister-in-law’s family— none of whom are Jewish. This dynamic normally wouldn’t make any difference: for Jewish holidays my brother, my sister-in-law, and their kids come over, but my sister-in-law’s family does not, although there have been exceptions; on secular holidays my sister-in-law’s family comes over en masse. This made me wonder what my family would do this year with the two holidays converging.


    Eight Values for Building an Inclusive Jewish Community This Hanukkah

    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.

    1. Warmth: Share the friendly warmth of the Jewish community as the weather turns colder.
    2. Light: No matter how you got here, no matter what road you took, the light will illuminate your way to the Jewish community.
    3. Faith: Many cultures have a winter light festivals of light, making this a great holiday to share with others from different backgrounds.
    4. 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.
    5. 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.
    6. Reconciliation: Leave behind internal conflict within the Jewish community as your community celebrates Hanukkah.
    7. Accessibility: Make sure that all are not only welcome to celebrate, but able to celebrate as well.
    8. 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.

    The Barefoot Book of Jewish Tales

    Parents and doting relatives of young children, take note: a new collection of Jewish stories has arrived just in time for Hanukkah. The Barefoot Book of Jewish Tales by Rabbi Shoshana Boyd Gelfand transforms rich Jewish tradition into accessible stories for a new generation of children ages four and above.

    Stories like “The Prince Who Thought He Was a Rooster” and “Clever Rachel” are gorgeously illustrated by Amanda Hall and feature a more gender-balanced representation of role models than Jewish tradition can sometimes provide. As a trained outreach professional and an experienced babysitter, I also appreciate the glossary of signs and symbols in the last pages of the book; while explanations are offered throughout, they are rather vague and too subtle for younger readers.

    The tales collected here convey Jewish values—compassion for others, being clever and kind, the importance of human choice—that every family will find worthwhile.

    Read the New York Times review here.

    Grandparents: How will you share the holiday with your interfaith grandchildren?

    Jewish grandparents whose grandchildren are being raised in intermarried households can play a big role in shaping the Jewish identities of their grandchildren. And they’re more likely to get the chance to share the fun and meaning of Hanukkah with their grandchildren this year because of the once-in-a-lifetime convergence of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah.

    If you’re a Jewish grandparent who often gets to spend Thanksgiving with your grandchildren, but rarely Hanukkah, can you introduce a menorah-lighting before or after the Thanksgiving meal? Or whip out a dreidel for a little fun during halftime of the Lions game? Or maybe you can add latkes to the usual Thanksgiving dishes?

    Careful! Just because this year’s holiday conflict is with Turkey Day instead of Christmas, it doesn’t mean you can disregard the sensitivities of your adult children and children-in-law. Broach the subject beforehand. Keep it lighthearted and fun. Don’t let the season’s joy get gobbled up by any preexisting tensions!

    To talk it out beforehand with your peers who are also thinking about this opportunity, and to address other challenges and opportunities of being a Jewish grandparent of children being raised in interfaith families, join the free Grandparents Circle email listserve at We welcome your voice in the conversation!

    And Happy Thanksgivukkah from the Grandparents Circle and everybody at Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute!

    This year’s December- no- November Dilemma

    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.


    Sukkot: Judaism’s Most Authentic Pop-Up Experience

    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.


    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.

    “Practical Theology” for this time of year

    I have always rejected the theology of sinat chinam (literally, senseless hatred), the notion employed by classic/traditional Jewish theologians that suggests Gd used the agency of the enemies of ancient Israel to destroy the ancient Temple in Jerusalem and send the Jewish people into exile. Thus, it troubles me when contemporary thinkers suggest that sinat chinam (in this case referring to the animus that exists between various streams in the Jewish community) will once again lead to dire consequences (without regard to the implicit correlate that Gd would once again use others to “teach the Jewish people a lesson”).

    Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first chief rabbi of Israel, suggested that ahavat chinam (which I translate as “unconditional love”) is the only way to mitigate sinat chinam. Of course, he implied that such a posture would lead to the messianic era, something that I can accept, with its various complements, such as the building of the third Temple (something that really doesn’t interest me at all).

    According to the very complicated Jewish religious calendar, it is three weeks after Tisha B’av (literally, the 9th of the Hebrew month of Av) which marks various calamities in Jewish history, including the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem. As a result, each Shabbat we read one of a succession of Haftarot of consolation, whose prophetic words are supposed to bring us comfort after such vast catastrophes, as if it were even possible to do so. And now, as we approach the Hebrew month of Elul, which begins this week, anticipating the fall holidays, particularly the healing implicit in Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we are to add on the element of personal introspection.


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