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What Can Southern Jews Teach The Rest of Us About Intermarriage and Outreach?

The following blog originally appeared in MyJewishLearning’s “Southern & Jewish” blog on July 1, 2014. Click here to view the original post.

Usually we think of small, southern communities as being at least a beat behind their larger counterparts, especially when they have small—even “diminishing”—Jewish populations. Many of these Jewish communities were once thriving, but they have followed the American trend of younger generations abandoning smaller hometowns for larger urban centers.

These communities may be demographically small, but they should be considered ideologically large in their response to those who have intermarried.

How these communities respond should be instructive to other communities, regardless of size or region. It is true that the intermarriage rate—particularly among non-Orthodox Jews—is among the highest in these communities. Even if there is debate among demographers as to the exact rate of intermarriage, what is most important to consider is the trend lines. That’s why the well-practiced response of these communities is so important at a time when the rest of the North American community has finally transcended the question of “Should we reach out to those who have intermarried?” and moved to “How should we reach out to those who have intermarried?”

In a word, the only response of these smaller Southern communities has always been the same: welcome.

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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…)



We Think You’re an All-Star, Dad!


Please click here for a helpful guideline coaching answers to some of kids’ toughest questions!

Happy Fathers Day from Big Tent Judaism!



Everybody Thinks They’re ‘Chosen’

Why is it that Jewish people are considered “chosen?”
In this piece, featured in New York Jewish Week on Tuesday, June 3, 2014, Associate Executive Director Paul Golin tackles the issue.

I’ve come to see how the disconnect between “everyone is equal” versus “only marry Jewish” is part of a larger and longer-term clash of narratives: universalism versus Jewish particularism, or “chosenness.” Apparently, it’s something the Rabbis have struggled with for millennia, and is relevant to consider this eve of Shavuot when we mark the anniversary of being “chosen” to accept the Torah and covenant.

Read the rest of the article here.



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…)



Welcoming Everyone into the Tent this Shavuot

As we enter the holiday of Shavuot, which commemorates Moses receiving the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai, our attention also turns to the Book of Ruth, which is read during this holiday. The Book of Ruth recounts the story of Ruth, a Moabite woman who becomes a Jew-by-Choice and is the great-grandmother of King David. Ruth is presumed to have converted after uttering the following words: “Where you go, I will go. Where you sleep, I will sleep. Your people will be my people. Your God will be my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. Thus may the LORD do to me, and worse, if anything but death parts you and me.”

In her moving article in the Times of Israel, Shoshanna Jaskoll outlines modern day contentions surrounding conversion. People who wish to convert to Judaism must undergo an arduous process, and Jaskoll argues that based on the story of Ruth and her conversion, the conversion practices maintained by the Orthodox rabbinate (as outlined in the article) are inaccurate. Jaskoll interprets Ruth’s proclamation of conversion as such: (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…)



American Jews - Part of Mainstream American Society

I had the pleasure of offering the keynote address at the Engaging Interfaith Families Conference sponsored by UJA-Federation of New York on May 12th. The conference was held in anticipation of the new year for program grants for local institutions that are prepared to open their tents to interfaith families.

We at Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute applaud both UJA-Federation and the local institutions that are involved for working hard to make our community more inclusive, particularly for interfaith families. It is also why we are so proud to be working with UJA-Federation on our Big Tent Judaism initiative in Northern Westchester County and the River Towns. (more…)



When Conversion Creates an Intermarriage

There are rabbis who are not prepared to officiate at interfaith weddings. This is not news to most people in the Jewish community. But what about rabbis who are not prepared to help a potential convert actually convert to Judaism because the spouse/partner of the potential convert is of another background and may not plan to convert? Did you know about this subset of rabbis?

In the minds of these rabbis, such an action would be creating an intermarriage—since one partner would now be Jewish and the other would remain tied to another background. Therefore, this would be tantamount to officiating at an intermarriage, since it would essentially be creating one. Rather than welcoming yet another person with open arms in the Jewish community, we have somehow figured out yet another way to place an obstacle in front of a person, limiting our own growth and expansion as a community. This seems counter-intuitive to me.

We at Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) want to open the doors to those who want to cast their lot with the Jewish people, and we want to find a way to lower the barriers to do so. If you want to help, or would like our help in lowering the barriers in your community, let me know. We are always looking for program partners in our effort to expand the tent.



Is Seth Meyers Jewish Enough?

If you didn’t catch “Late Night with Seth Meyers” the other night, his guest, author Jonah Kerry, brought him a yarmulke (Jewish head covering, also called a kipah) as a gift. because he thought Meyers was Jewish. Of course, he also thought it would be a funny gag.

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Moms Are as Diverse as Fish in the Sea

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

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

Happy Mother’s Day!

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



An Open Letter to Chelsea Clinton

This piece was originally featured in The Examiner on April 30, 2014. To read it, please click here.

Dear Ms. Clinton:

On behalf of everyone at Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI), I would like to congratulate you and your husband on your pregnancy. I like to say: having a child is no big deal; it just changes your whole life. As a parent—and grandparent—I am excited for you and your family.

I would also like to be the first to welcome your baby into the Jewish community. While you may not yet have decided in what faith you will raise your child, I want you to know that we consider women who have married into the Jewish community to be unsung heroes when they make the effort to raise Jewish children. As a result, we want to make sure that you are welcomed and celebrated. It is one of the reasons we developed The Mothers Circle. Sometimes raising a child in the Jewish community without the benefit of a Jewish background is like living in a foreign country without the benefit of foreign language skills. The Mothers Circle suite of free programs provides you with what you may need to help navigate the Jewish community.
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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.



Millennials are Asking, Why be Jewish?

This piece was originally featured in The New Jersey Jewish News on March, 12, 2014. To read it, please click here.

With the arrival and maturation of my generation, the Millennials, the question “Who is a Jew?” is rather passe. Forget the Jewish legal dimensions to this endlessly debatable topic. Forget all the moralizing arguments over the issue. Forget the demographically induced paranoia, the post-Holocaust hand-wringing, the Israeli legal maneuvering (not to mention the pandering that comes with it), and the denominational infighting. And — for heaven’s sake! —forget the Pew study.

The fact is that “Who is a Jew?” is the wrong question. To maintain our relevance — to regain it, really — the question we must ask today is “Why be Jewish?”

The problem with the who-is-a-Jew question is the binary premise from which it springs: that there is an “us” and a “them.” (Worse, perhaps, is the accompanying hope that we will one day delineate a set of criteria that define who is an “us” and who is a “them.”) The premise itself is as boring and potentially harmful as the question it gives rise to. It has infiltrated our national debate in a variety of guises: Who is affiliated and who is unaffiliated? Who is an insider and who is an outsider? Who is a member and who is a non-member? Who is inmarried and who is intermarried?

And, of utmost importance in the case of Millennials: Are your parents both Jewish? For 48 percent of us, the answer is no.

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

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

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

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

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

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Creating an Inclusive Jewish Community Shouldn’t Be Complicated

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

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

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

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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 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.

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What Does Intermarriage Look Like?

“Intermarriage” means a lot of things. It can mean a marriage between people of different faiths, different cultures, different races, or even more subtle differences, such as differences within a single religion. (It is common to hear a marriage between a Sephardi [Mediterranean] Jew and an Ashkenazi [Eastern European] Jew referred to as an intermarriage). So then what does intermarriage look like?

An Israeli photographer decided to find out, recently releasing a book of photos entitled Intermarried, and several of her photos were recently featured in the Sunday Review section of The New York Times. To compile her subjects, photographer Yael Ben-Zion, herself intermarried, simply put a call out on a New York parents listserve for couples who consider themselves mixed. The result is a beautiful collection of candid photos with simple captions below—some of which paint a picture of how the couple or individual views themselves, and some of which describe how society around them reacted to their union.

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