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How I’ll Carry on the Jewish Stories in my Interfaith Marriage

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.”

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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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How Do You Say “Engagement” in Hebrew?

As an Israeli living in the United States, I am drawn to news stories about American Israelis. One such story was published recently in the Israeli newspaper Israel Hayom (Israel Today). It describes a new study of American Israelis conducted by the Israeli polling company Midgam (famous for posting Israeli election exit polls). This latest survey was completed by 1,598 American Israelis in 40 states who were on lists of Israeli American organizations such as the Israeli-American Council and the Israeli House. While not necessarily representative of the entire population of American Israelis, it nevertheless cannot be easily dismissed.

This study finds that American Israelis who have lived here longer show higher levels of engagement. For example, they are more likely to attend synagogue and send their children to Jewish day schools. I find this finding surprising. Everything we know about the experience of immigrants to the United States indicates that the longer they live in the U.S., the more enculturated – the more similar to veteran Americans – they become. We also know that the great majority of Jewish Americans is not engaged with the organized Jewish community. The reasonable conclusion is that Israelis who have lived in the U.S. for many years would be less likely than their FOB (fresh-off-boat) compatriots to be affiliated with Jewish institutions. So why is this not the case?

There could be at least two explanations for these surprising findings. First, this seeming rise in engagement could be caused by natural life cycle changes. Most recent arrivals in the U.S. (and this is true not only of Israelis) are young and single. After ten years, however, many have become married with children – a population that, across the board, is more highly engaged and affiliated than singles.

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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.

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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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“Jewish Pro You Should Know”: Pat Nisenholz

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.

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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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No “But” About It

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.

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“Must This Lesbian Wear a Dress to an Orthodox Synagogue?”

On January 7th, Steven Petrow, who writes a biweekly column for The New York Times titled “Civil Behavior” that addresses questions related to gay and straight etiquette, published a question about the intersection between Jewish religious practice and gender expression:

Dear Civil Behavior: I am a gay woman who tends to dress and identify on the masculine side. I’ll soon be attending a religious service at my extended family’s Orthodox synagogue, requiring modest attire, which means that women are not allowed to wear pants and can be denied entry. I think that as long as I dress respectfully and in the spirit of the religious mandates I should not have to compromise on my gender identity and expression. My family says that I’m being difficult and that “when in Rome …” Of course, there is no chance my relatives would dress according to a code I prescribed for an event if it conflicted with their religious identity. So why am I considered “difficult” for not compromising in the expression of my gender identity when they would be considered justified in not compromising their religious expression?—Name withheld

Both Petrow and the article’s many commenters provided a variety of answers to the woman’s question about the issues at hand: is it acceptable for the woman to purposely ignore the synagogue’s customs, and is it acceptable for the synagogue to expect her to wear a skirt? However, regardless of whether you agree with the responses, which run the gamut, there is a much larger concern: how can Jewish institutions create an inclusive space for the LGBT community while maintaining their religious customs?

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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.

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Thoughts on the Passing of Edgar Bronfman, Sr.

Some people are known for their wisdom. Others are known for their actions. Edgar Bronfman was known for both. Almost as often as we would meet, he would remind me that we are all responsible to leave the world a better place than when we entered it. He indeed lived what he preached. He became a spokesperson for groups on whose behalf we advocated, particularly the unengaged, as well those who had intermarried. Moreover, he believed fiercely in value constructs like an inclusive Jewish community, the foundation of which became Big Tent Judaism.

The individuals and families we serve benefited greatly from his philanthropic generosity, but also from his generosity of spirit. He will be greatly missed by all who had the opportunity to know him and by those who never knew him but were greatly affected by his benevolence.

Photo from JOI’s 2009 Women’s Summit



Inclusiveness Works!

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Taking Judaism Out of the Synagogue and Into the Wilderness

A recent article from Tablet caught my attention because I am constantly surprised by how much personal baggage many Jews bring to Judaism. As a Jewish summer camp Jew and Youth Group Jew, I didn’t have a lot of the experiences that have turned people away from the organized Jewish community. The article talks about Wilderness Torah – an environmental Jewish group that focuses celebrations on four holidays: Sukkot, Passover, Shavuot, and Tu B’shevat, and on connecting back to nature through a Jewish lens. With the exception of Passover, I think most American Jews might have a hard time finding any scarring negative experiences with these holidays, as many of us didn’t even grow up celebrating them except, perhaps, in Hebrew school.

Julie Wolk, an environmental and community organizer who is founding co-director of Wilderness Torah says, “I am not unique. There are tons of Jews looking for ways to connect in alignment with their values.” This is a very important statement for the future of the Jewish community. We need to provide opportunities (often outside the walls of our current institutions) that show each other there is value in Jewish life, and sometimes that means staying away from activities that might trigger negative memories. Those negative memories are unfortunately often within the walls of the institutions we were raised in, and we need to offer other options. And sometimes, it may not be the negative experience keeping people away, but rather that they have just found meaning somewhere else—like in nature.

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What Could the North American Conservative/Masorti Synagogue Look Like in Five Years?

Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute
Rabbi Charles Simon, Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs

Five-year benchmarks are quite commonly employed to measure the progress and success of initiatives. Were a Conservative/Masorti synagogue in the United States to choose to respond positively to demographic change implied by intermarriage, these are some of the issues that will have to be thoughtfully considered and employed.

Synagogue Culture

  1. Disparaging remarks from the pulpit or in the pews will not be tolerated. Religious school children raised in Jewish families will be encouraged to share their experiences in the classroom. The conversation among synagogue leaders will move from who one is marrying to how one is raising children.
  2. Staff members and volunteer leaders in interfaith relationships will not be discouraged nor penalized.
  3. Youth group participants will be welcome to bring friends to events irrespective of their religious backgrounds. Youth leaders will not be limited in their relationships.
  4. Administration and Program

  5. Teachers will be sensitive and respectful of children who have intermarried parents and strongly support their efforts to raise Jewish children.
  6. Synagogue application forms will reflect the religious traditions of people married or partnered to Jews in an equal and non-judgmental manner. Celebrations of those who have intermarried will be affirmed in synagogue publications without distinction. Those who wish to honor their children’s choices with a Kiddush or other celebration will be encouraged/welcomed.
  7. Educational and social programming will be designed to engage people of different religious traditions.
  8. Youth group events will be viewed as an opportunity to bring people close to Judaism and will not be governed by the fear that they promote interfaith relationships.
  9. Life Cycle

  10. Aufrufen (pre-marital blessings) and “Keruv aliyot” (recognition of the decision to have a Jewish family) will serve as an important step to integrate intermarried couples into the community.
  11. Clergy will be able to attend and participate in some capacity in the interfaith weddings of congregants and their children.
  12. Clergy will officiate at funerals and burials of their members and their families who are part of the community irrespective of their religious backgrounds.
  13. Ritual

  14. An adult partner or grandparent from another religious tradition will be able to participate in the life cycle events of their family and their family members.
  15. Patrilineal children will be welcomed in the synagogue and will undergo a “completion ceremony” in anticipation of b’nai mitzvah (rather than a “conversion ceremony”).
  16. Governance

  17. People of different religious traditions will be permitted to sit on synagogue boards as voting members.
  18. People who are part of the community will be considered full members of the synagogue and will be permitted to vote on all issues.

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To read the featured article in The Forward referencing this piece, please click here.



This Hanukkah, Make the Miracle Happen Here…



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.



Eight Things We’re Thankful for This Thanksgivukkah

For everyone here at Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) —and for all who work toward the creation of a more inclusive Jewish community—there is much to be thankful for this year.

  1. Raising Jewish Children: The Pew Forum’s study of the American Jewish community confirmed that the majority (61%) of intermarried households are raising their children with a Jewish identity.
  2. Changing the Conversation: Jewish communal leaders are beginning to shift the conversation away from handwringing about who people marry to helping households of all configurations determine how to raise Jewish children, and how to find meaningful answers to the great Jewish question of the 21st Century: “Why be Jewish?”
  3. Seizing the Opportunity: Some of the most prominent Jewish communal organizations in America are increasingly joining us to do the actual work of providing Jewish programming for all of those who are historically marginalized, lowering the barriers to their participation while still offering meaningful content.
  4. Broadening Our Vocabulary: The phrase “Big Tent Judaism,” which we coined to refer to our inclusive approach to Jewish communal life, has made it into the vocabulary of the Jewish community.
  5. Beyond the Walls: Our signature series of programs designed to move the Jewish community’s outreach efforts beyond the walls of Jewish communal institutions, Public Space JudaismSM, has become a prominent program model for Jewish communal institutions that want to meet potential newcomers where they are.
  6. Radical Welcoming: People have come to realize that welcoming is a strategy that requires more than just a warm and friendly “hello.” Greeting a newcomer at the door is a wonderful start—but it is only a start. We must learn to follow through by getting to know our newcomers as complex human beings, and serving their needs and interests with relevant programming and events.
  7. Aiming for Engagement Over Affiliation: Synagogues and other member-based institutions are recognizing that new models are needed for new times. They are beginning to see that affiliation (whether someone pays to be part of the community) is no longer as relevant a goal of outreach as engagement (actually participating in Jewish activities).
  8. The Grandparent Connection: Grandparents are embracing their grandchildren being raised in interfaith homes, and growing closer to their adult children who have intermarried—all with an eye toward a more inclusive and optimistic Jewish future.

From all of us here at JOI, we hope you have a warm and meaningful Hanukkah, and of course Thanksgiving.



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.



Hanukkah Prep Class for LGBT Interfaith Parents Raising Jewish Children

With Hanukkah coming early this year, many families and couples are already planning their Hanukkah meals, making their gift lists, and digging out their latke (potato pancake) recipes. But for those whose partners are Jewish, but are not themselves, it can be challenging to bring a holiday into the home that one didn’t grow up celebrating.

The LGBT Interfaith Parents Circle offers the first of its kind parenting programs to LGBT couples who are raising, or are considering raising, Jewish children. The first program will center around the holiday of Hanukkah, offering a safe space to learn about and discuss how to celebrate the holiday for LGBT interfaith couples. In addition to topics like the story of Hanukkah and the themes of the holiday, participants will also have an opportunity to delve into topics unique to LGBT interfaith couples raising Jewish children, such as how to reclaim the holiday and making the connection between the themes of identity and rededication as they relate to Hanukkah and LGBT interfaith families.

There are two opportunities to participate in the free class, so we hope you will share this information with those you think may be interested, to help spread the word about this wonderful program. For more information, or to RSVP, please contact JOI’s LGBT Interfaith Parents Circle Coordinator, Lisa Hanish, at LHanish[at]JOI.org .



Get Acquainted with JConnecT

Today’s guest blog is from Laurie Rappeport. Laurie made aliyah (moved to Israel) from Detroit in 1983. She is the mother of five and lives in Safed, a Northern Israeli town. She teaches for JETS, the Jerusalem EdTech Solutions group, which facilitates a wide range of Jewish online educational opportunities, including the JconnecT Online Hebrew School program.

According to recent surveys approximately 50% of American Jewish families send their children to an afternoon Jewish enrichment program.

It’s clear that congregational complementary schools are not for everyone. Some kids live in rural areas in which they don’t have access to a synagogue or temple school. Others don’t integrate well into an available Hebrew school framework. Day school students whose education took them through the 5th or 6th grade often look for high quality post-day-school learning options while other kids, with no Jewish learning background, want to explore Judaism in a way that allows them to comfortably step into a structure in which they’ll feel comfortable as beginners.

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