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Finding a Home in Middlesex County, NJ

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

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

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

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

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The Secrets of the 7th Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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On Being Invited

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Elul is the 29-day Hebrew month before the Jewish High Holidays start. Last year, I came across Craig Taubman’s Jewels of Elul emails - a collection of short stories, anecdotes, introspections, etc. from an eclectic group of folks. You can find this year’s grouping here and you can sign up for a daily email for the 29 days of Elul.

I was struck by the 9th day reflection of Christopher Noxon, a very entertaining author and illustrator. His Jewel caught my eye because I was a young adult in the 80s when Men’s Circles and Women’s Teams and gender-specific rituals were de rigueur. And I loved them. His Jewel talks about being dissatisfied with a typical (I suppose traditional) Bar Mitzvah ritual and getting a group of men together to pass wisdom on to the young male celebrant.

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Is it an interfaith marriage, or a two-faith marriage?

In a recent piece for the Huffington Post, Israeli author Abraham Gutman spoke about his experiences reconnecting with Judaism as a student in New York, and how planning an interfaith wedding with a Christian bride forced him to reconsider his own relationship with the Jewish community. Though he at first felt welcomed into the Jewish “peoplehood,” when it came time to find a rabbi to officiate his wedding, Gutman and his fiancée struggled to find someone who would perform a marriage ceremony between people of different religious backgrounds. One rabbi came close, agreeing to officiate, but then made sure to remind Gutman that in the eyes of the Jewish community, they would never be “married for real.” Gutman felt that the message he constantly got from the organized Jewish community was that “We don’t believe your marriage is legitimate, even if you find someone who will pretend it is. “

Eventually, Gutman and his fiancée found a rabbi who would marry them, and in the process he came to realize that “interfaith” was a misnomer for his marriage—instead, he and his Christian wife were in a “two-faith” marriage.

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Big Tent Judaism, from The Energizer Rabbi

The following is a blog by Rabbi Margaret Frisch-Klein of Congregation Kneseth Israel in Elgin, IL, which originally appeared on her blog, The Energizer Rabbi. It can also be found in our collection of think pieces and sermons from those involved with the Big Tent Judaism Coalition.

I am on vacation–and predictably I am breaking my own rules. Oh, to be sure I slept a little later (7AM) and I had a massage before dinner last night. I sat outside on my deck, something I had dreamed of enjoying all summer, and ate my breakfast. And I read.

And that is why I am writing. I finished reading Rabbi Kerry Olitzky’s Playlist Judaism. I have heard him lecture before, most recently when he was at the Chicago Board of Rabbis. I own any number of his books including Preparing Your Heart for the High Holidays (which is probably the book that inspired me to write my own book!). Two of my congregants and I had a very enjoyable lunch with him in February when he was in Chicago. I have participated in two workshops that Big Tent Judaism has done–one on warm and welcoming congregations sponsored by JUF and one more recently on interfaith families. You might say I am a groupie!

So why did I decide I needed to write today? Because, even though there is little in the book I disagree with (if anything), there is much that is challenging. The book has nine chapters. In fact, the book is pretty short. But I think it is radical. It recognizes what I have been saying–that Judaism, particularly what I call American suburban Judaism, is experiencing a seismic shift. This is not your grandparents’ 1960s suburban synagogue. It can’t be. The world is fundamentally different. What isn’t clear is what will emerge in its place.

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One step further for interfaith LGBT inclusion in Israel

At a time such as now, when most of the news from Israel is bleak, it is a pleasure to share some good news. This is why I was excited to read this morning on Ha’aretz that Minister of Interior Gideon Sa’ar has just ruled that the Right of Return will now apply for non-Jewish same sex spouses of Jewish immigrants (Tablet Magazine has also covered the story). This is unquestionably good news; here is why.

For better and for worse, the Law of Return is probably the one Israeli law that more than any other defines modern Israel as a Jewish state. When it was signed in 1950, it was the first time in modern history that Jews were given privileged access to citizenship rights conferred by a nation state. It was also the first time in modern history that a Jewish state excluded from citizenship immigrants who were not Jewish. The Law of Return was, however, amended in 1970 to include also the spouses, children, and grandchildren of Jews, as well as the spouses of these children and grandchildren, even if they were not Jewish themselves.

So what’s new now?
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If We Change the Rules…

When I speak with individuals or groups about the need for the Jewish community to become more open and welcoming of those who are traditionally marginalized (i.e., intermarried couples, Jews by Choice, Jews of color, etc.), I often hear people asking questions about the dilution of Judaism. The argument goes like this: If we let a non-Jewish spouse do X, then we might as well let them do Y. And if we let them do Y, then, we are doomed.

Okay, that’s maybe an exaggeration of the actual conversation, but the feeling is there: If we change the rules, we will dilute Judaism. But we don’t see it that way.

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The Lesser Known Holiday of Tisha B’Av, and its Counterpart

“How archaic not use electricity!”

“How could he marry someone who is not Jewish?”

“It is sexist not to allow men and women to sit together!”

“What do you mean they don’t celebrate Rosh Hashanah?”

“I don’t know how you could believe that in this day and age.”

Liberal, Conservative, Traditional, Unaffiliated, Orthodox-regardless of how you self-identify, strong, derogatory statements from others who do not share your point of view are inevitable. These statements are not unique to our place in history. When the ancient Second Temple was destroyed in Jerusalem, the same judgmental and destructive attitudes existed. It was so commonplace that the Rabbis link the destruction of the Temple to this very sin. The Babylonian Talmud (Yoma 9b) explains the reason for the destruction of the Temple as sinat chinam (baseless hatred).

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Where (and Who) are the Grandparents?

Sunday, September 7th is National Grandparents Day. Grandparents Day was founded in 1978 with three purposes: 1) To honor grandparents; 2) To give grandparents an opportunity to show love for their children’s children; and 3) To help children become aware of the strength, information, and guidance older people can offer.

To celebrate Grandparents Day, Big Tent Judaism is hosting National Grandparents Circle Salon Weekend September 6th and 7th. Grandparents Circle Salons bring Jewish grandparents whose adult children have intermarried together in a peer-led setting to learn about strategies for nurturing their grandchildren’s Jewish identity and creating positive relationships with their adult children. Salons are part of Big Tent Judaism’s Grandparents Circle, for Jewish grandparents whose adult children have intermarried. By participating in National Grandparents Circle Salon Weekend, those who take part will be part of a broader network of grandparents coming together the weekend of Grandparents Day to supporting the Jewish future.

As we have begun to prepare for Grandparents Circle Salon Weekend here at Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute, we’ve started to reach out to communities nationwide to find grandparents to participate. In doing so, we’ve come across an interesting challenge—just where exactly are grandparents in the first place?

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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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Sunday in the Park With Bagels, Huge Crowds and Happy Faces

The following blog is written by Marilyn Price, one of JOI’s three new board members. In addition to being a professional puppeteer and educator, Price serves as an advisor to Big Tent Judaism Chicago, most recently attending one of our largest Public Space Judaism events, Sunday in the Park with Bagels at Deerpath Park in Vernon Hills, IL.

I just spent some time at one of Big Tent Judaism’s incredible events to reach out, and to teach out as well. Although I have some history with this remarkable organization, programmatic and personal, and have even done puppetry for other programs, attracting not just “people in the know” but passersby as well, this was my first experience as a new JOI Board Member (and itinerant puppeteer). And… it was awesome.

The day was beautiful, the crowd was huge (way more than anticipated or dreamed about), and the ambience of energy and excitement from both the presenters and the participants was equal. The quality of caring and preparation from the staff and the volunteers was amazing. Standing ovation!

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Are We Fouling Out?

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

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



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

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

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



Getting a Head Start on the High Holidays

Last Thursday, over 40 Jewish communal professionals and volunteer leaders from across North America came together for a conference call to begin thinking about their outreach programming efforts around the High Holidays. As many institutions begin to set their program calendar for 2014-2015 now, this is an optimal time to make outreach and engagement a year-round imperative, instead of being caught off-guard in late August with no time or resources to plan.

The group truly spanned North America, with callers from New York to California, Utah to Montreal, and also came from a diverse set of institutions and positions. Synagogues from several denominations were represented, as well as JCCs and Federations. We had rabbis, executive directors, membership chairs, and programming volunteers—all of whom are crucial to the way their institutions “do outreach.” (more…)



We Are All Gatekeepers to Our Jewish Communities

In a recent Kveller article, Rachel Minkowsky writes about an experience she had at work, where a woman made an aspersing comment related to the holiday of Shavuot, assuming that Minkowsky was—in the author’s words—“in on the joke.” Minkowsky successfully neutralized the situation, letting the speaker know that she was Jewish without chastising.

Minkowsky should be commended for the way she handled the situation. However, my focus is not her response, but the woman’s assumption that Minkowsky was “in on the joke.” By making this assumption, the woman created a dichotomy of insider-outsider that could have unwittingly alienated the author. As an individual whose job was to welcome participants to the workshop, she did the opposite, by indicating that those who celebrate Shavuot—or simply know anything about the holiday—are outsiders. (more…)



Thinking Like a Freak to Create a Welcoming Community

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

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



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!



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

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

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

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



Jewish Communal Professionals in Northern Westchester and the River Towns Learn to Open the Tent

On June 9th, Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute’s Executive Director, Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, shared important knowledge and resources about building a more inclusive Jewish community with Jewish communal professionals in Westchester County, NY as a part of a partnership with UJA-Federation of New York. Speaking at the Rosenthal JCC in Pleasantville, Rabbi Olitzky challenged professionals to rethink traditional methods of outreach and find new ways to increase engagement.

Two major difficulties many Jewish institutions face is finding people where they are and lowering barriers that may prevent newcomers from wanting to engage in Jewish life. Kerry’s presentation focused on Big Tent Judaism’s model of Public Space JudaismSM to find and engage more people. Public Space Judaism takes programming outside the four walls of a Jewish institution into a public space, bringing Jewish life to where people are. Rabbi Olitzky also spoke about how to positively engage specific populations these Jewish communal professionals may find, such as less-engaged Jews and intermarried families. (more…)



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.





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