Entries for Category: Inclusive Judaism
Go to newer posts or Go to older posts
Yesterday we shared an excerpt from the latest Institute of Southern Jewish Life (ISJL) newsletter, which features Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI). Today, we would like to share another piece from that same newsletter, a list of ten promises Jewish institutions can make to partners of other backgrounds. To read the entire newsletter, please click here.
Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) is excited to again be featured in the September edition of the Institute of Southern Jewish Life’s (ISJL) E-Newsletter. The monthly newsletter, distributed to ISJL’s network of supporters and educators throughout the South, focused on opening the tent of the Southern Jewish community, with the help of JOI Executive Director Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky. Below is one excerpted piece for the upcoming holiday of Sukkot. To read the entire newsletter, please click here.
Open houses work for real estate agents, but they don’t work for synagogues. Nevertheless, this is the time of year when synagogues invest a lot of time and energy into open houses, thinking that this is the best way for an increase in new memberships to be realized. Realtors want to help you realize the American dream of owning your own home, of imagining yourself living in that new home, and even go to great lengths to decorate the home and furnish it to make the home more appealing to potential buyers. It is true that a good real estate agent will also try to build a relationship with the home-buyer, but ultimately the mark of a good agent is in the sale, not in the relationship.
Synagogues convince themselves that if they can just get you in the building, they can persuade you to buy into membership, as if the building itself is what may attract a person to join a synagogue community. And while it is true that some buildings enhance membership while other buildings detract from membership, the building is generally irrelevant to whether or not a person chooses to participate in the community life of a congregation.
So maybe open houses should not be held in synagogues at all, especially at a time when programs are not taking place that reflect what it is that the synagogue’s leaders want to demonstrate to the newcomer. Instead, we should ask leaders in the community who are “connectors” to open their homes and invite friends, at which time something that is reflective of the institution is shared. Or perhaps we should prepare experiences in the many fall festivals that take place this time of year that too are reflective of the institution we want to promote—and then build a programmatic path from the fall festival into the institution. Or maybe we should establish a few pop-ups in the community with prayer experiences indicative of the synagogue we are publicizing—so that people can get a taste of what the synagogue has to offer.
Click here to share on Facebook.
I enjoyed reading this recent article in the Forward in which Jordan Kutzik suggests that the study of Jewish languages such as Yiddish, Ladino, and Hebrew should be an important tool in the effort to assure a viable North American Jewish future. In historic Jewish communities, he argues, belonging was not primarily about religious ties but about ethnic ones, with language playing a key role in determining group boundaries.
There was less need for debate about who was and was not a Jew. Whether a person was religious, a closeted heretic or an open Epicurus, she was a Jew if she spoke a Jewish language as her mother tongue.
I think Kutzik in on to something. Perhaps Jewish institutions should offer classes in Jewish languages as one of their offering on the menu of Jewish engagement opportunities. When Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) conducted a study of adult Jews raised in intermarried households, one of the findings was that religious activities and activities focused primarily on ethnic ties are less appealing to this population.
While the notion of an erev rav (mixed multitude) is mentioned in various places in rabbinic literature—where the rabbis take a neutral notion and make it negative—and is used in contemporary Hebrew to refer to various groupings (including a confluence of art forms or a gathering of people at a rally), erev rav is only mentioned once in the entire Torah. In Exodus 12:38, the term refers to the group of people who joined the Israelites upon their Exodus from Egypt. The Rabbis, as is their predilection, will blame various things on this group, including the Golden Calf incident—a behavior pattern that is too often replicated today. Nevertheless, it is clear in the Torah that this group of former outsiders was absorbed into the people without distinction. They became part of the community, wandered in the desert, and their children entered the Land of Israel.
We are at a time in Jewish history that the term erev rav seems once again applicable. The Jewish community is made up of various groups, all of which add color, hue, and dimension to the beautiful tapestry we call the Jewish people. The Jewish community has never been monolithic. We at Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute value diversity; and as such, we believe that Jewish continuity and a secure Jewish future can only be assured by an affirmation of its diversity.
What are you doing to acknowledge and welcome the diverse Jewish population in your community, particularly in preparation for the High Holidays?
The following is a recent think-piece written by Rabbi Amy Memis-Foler, rabbi at Temple Judea Mizpah in Skokie, IL, and also a Big Tent Judaism Professional Affiliate.
Since January 2013, I’ve been involved with some very interesting training with the Jewish Outreach Institute’s (JOI) Big Tent Judaism. I like JOI’s way of thinking, and it’s changed my approach on how I as a rabbi and we as a congregation can engage potential members in our congregation.
Engagement is the key word. Often we think about affiliation or membership, but before we get there, we need to “engage” people. When we engage people, we create a meaningful experience hand-in-hand with a relationship. Big Tent Judaism’s philosophy teaches about lowering barriers to reach out to people.
One way to achieve lower barriers is by holding events outside of our building, in public areas. The way I imagine it is that we need to extend the “four walls” of our building in such a way that we shift from being a tent to a chupah (wedding canopy). The walls of a tent are closed, but if it’s Big Tent Judaism, I imagine lifting the four flaps and spreading them out, so that the ceiling is extended and walls are open like that of a chupah–open to the community and those who can see and enter.
To read the rest of Rabbi Memis-Foler’s piece, please click here.
Welcome to the second of two parts of my interview with John Propper. There are many paths into the Jewish community—some involving conversion, some not—but at only 24 years old, John’s story has already taken many twists and turns. He comes from a Pentecostal family, went to a Catholic college, converted with a Reform rabbi, changed his last name, married into the interfaith family of a nice Jewish girl—and he’ll be a first-year student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in the fall. At the end of Part 1, John discussed how he found a place for himself in the Jewish community—by boldly deciding what kind of place he wanted and making it happen. Now, in Part 2, we pick up with the barriers he encountered along the way:
What barriers to entry did you feel early on—and how did you overcome them?
I have no ethno-cultural memories. My biological family has been rooted to the same region of American soil since before Americans were American. We’ve never been institutionally oppressed, kept out of country clubs, or called slurs. In the cultural privilege lottery, we won the Powerball. Yet a shared heritage of suffering and survival is as formatively Jewish as reciting the Shema [a key Jewish prayer about the unity of God] before bedtime or being embarrassed by Adam Sandler’s “Chanukah Song.”
While I’m thankful I’ve never been subject to that kind of suffering, there’s a piece of me that feels strangely privileged, and oddly out of place, as a middle-class white guy who belonged to the majority until, one day, he decided not to. I learn to listen, and the stories become mine, like the Kaddish [a Jewish prayer used for, among other things, periods of mourning] has become mine, like Torah has become mine. It’s not profound, and there’s no internal angelic choir when it happens—just the sound of time passing. Moments arise when I share as well as listen; my voice accents their [Jews born into the narrative] own.
There are many paths into the Jewish community—some involving conversion, some not—but at only 24 years old, John’s Propper’s path has already taken many twists and turns. He comes from a Pentecostal family, went to a Catholic college, converted with a Reform rabbi, changed his last name, married into the interfaith family of a nice Jewish girl—and he’ll be a first-year student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in the fall. John is a good friend of mine. Until now, I’ve been learning his story in bits and pieces. So, to get a more complete picture—and believing readers of this blog would find his journey as interesting as I do—I interviewed him about his story so far. Here is the first half of our conversation. Look for the second part to be posted soon.
What is your family background? What was your life like before you became part of the Jewish community?
For the first 20 years of my life, I lived in northern Georgia, in the foothills. My hometown is small, just over 700 people, many of them farmers. My father was a traveling Pentecostal evangelist. Even much of Christianity was alien to me till I left the Church at 16.
After that, I hopped from church to church, and read about religion enthusiastically. But I never felt comfortable. Eventually my parents divorced, and an opportunity for me to go to college presented itself. I picked someplace far away from my home—West Michigan—and something new—a Catholic school called Aquinas College. It was there, at a shul [synagogue] across the street from my dorm, that I was exposed to Judaism.
The Jewish community sometimes has difficulty articulating enticing, relevant answers to the question of, “Why be Jewish?” Despite no previous connection to the Jewish community, you clearly found your way to some good personal answers to the question. So, for you, “Why be Jewish?”
Community is essential to me. During my undergrad, I spent more time in shul than anywhere else. I converted at the shul. My wife and I met there; we taught there; we were married there. It’s home. That said, community is found in most faiths.
So how about this: As an ideology, Judaism places a unique emphasis on the present. Novelist James Michener once aptly described it as—and I’m paraphrasing here— “a system for organizing life.” There’s an emphasis on contemporary ethics, personal development, and the marking of mundane existence through ritual. Most monotheisms are eternity-minded, always in search of the never-ending or the final or the ultimate. But Judaism emphasizes recognizing the ordinary holiness of each day.
Once you knew you were interested in Judaism, what was your path into the community like?
Once, I sat in a circle of fellow converts. We were asked, “Do you feel as much a part of the wider community as you’d like?” Some said, “Yes,” others, “No.” When asked why I answered, “Yes,” I replied, in effect, “I just made a place for myself.”
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.
The High Holidays remain the period of time in which Jews—and those in the orbit of the Jewish community—participate in Jewish communal institutions more often than any other time of year, (This notion should not be confused with Hanukkah and Passover, which are observed—in one way or another—by more in the Jewish community than any other Jewish holidays.) Nevertheless, these numbers are waning, for lots of reasons.
Among the various reasons is the notion that obligation is no longer driving participation. Instead, people want to know what they will get out of their participation, how they will benefit from it. Yesterday afternoon, dozens of Jewish communal professionals, many from our Big Tent Judaism Coalition and Big Tent Judaism Professional Affiliates program participated in a Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute webinar which helped Jewish communal institutions think about what promises they could make to participants, especially those new to their community and institutions.
Here’s the list. Feel free to share it, and add to it. And please let us know what you think. Which of these items are most important to you, and which do you feel are the most important for your institution to promise?
Below is an excerpt from a recent op-ed in the New Jersey Jewish News written by JOI Associate Executive Director Paul Golin in response to recent debate in the Jewish community about whether or not rabbis should be permitted to intermarry. To read the complete piece, please click here.
“[…] I’m not the typical intermarried unaffiliated Jew, since I’m also a Jewish communal professional. Still, I think I speak for many intermarried households when it comes to what I want and need from a rabbi. And that might be instructive to the seminaries, who are training clergy for a U.S. population that now has more intermarried than in-married households.
I have two admittedly broad criteria for what I want in a rabbi: Tell me I’m in and mean it — and show me why it’s so amazing.
[…] Rabbis with nontraditional families like my own make me feel more included. Conveying why Judaism is still relevant to them provides me with access I wouldn’t feel elsewhere. The focus is not on how you come in, but what you get out of doing Jewish — in other words, why it’s so amazing.
American liberal Judaism in the 21st century must be about conveying Jewish meaning, not ensuring ethnic survival. Some may lament that rabbis today must first answer “what can Judaism do for me as an individual,” rather than “what am I supposed to do because I’m Jewish.” But the days of obligation-before-meaning are gone.
So tell us why Judaism is better! Why should my children’s ethical foundation be provided by Jewish wisdom rather than the universal ethics they would receive as Americans? Why should I seek spirituality in synagogue when the local meditation studio promises results I never hear offered by rabbis? How can the millennia-long conversations in Jewish texts help make my own life — or the world — better?”
Read the complete text here.
To read New Jersey Jewish News Editor-in-Chief Andrew Silow-Carroll reaction to the piece, please click here.
My non-Jewish roommates were confused by the idea that I would “convert” to Judaism. “From what?” Brent asked. It was a fair question. Jon seconded: “Yeah, if you’re not Jewish now, what are you?” There was no easy answer. My first attempt at answering them – I launched into a preamble about my half-baked idea of drawing a distinction between “converting” and “undergoing a conversion” – didn’t help much.
We met during college orientation, so the three of us had known each other for almost five years by the time I decided to undergo a conversion. A regular at Saturday morning services in college, they knew me as the rare college student who rose before noon on Saturday. My extensive collection of what Brent called “esoteric Hebrew t-shirts” (the result of spending high school in a never-ending series of positive Jewish youth events) had long been the butt of good-natured jokes in our circle of friends. In the time they’d known me, I had rarely shut up about Jews, Judaism, and Jewishness.
Without realizing the irony of it, Brent, Jon, and everyone else I knew in college would have placed me squarely in the “very Jewish” column. Yet, I am a patrilineal Jew, meaning my Jewish pedigree comes only from my father’s side. In the Orthodox understanding of Jewish legal tradition, only Jews-by-choice and the offspring of Jewish mothers are considered Jews. But there’s another detail complicating the issue: To be a Jew by birth, your mother must have already been a Jew herself at the time of your birth – and that’s where I ran into trouble: I was a little kid when my mother converted.
Already a regular at services and Sunday school, I remember beaming with pride when she came to the front of our congregation one Friday night for the public portion of her conversion, in which the convert is asked to quote the titular character of the biblical Book of Ruth: “Your people will become my people, and your God will become my God.”
My lox and bagel sandwich made me cry the other day. My almost four-year-old patted my knee and advised me to take a drink of water. But the tears weren’t caused by a bitten tongue, or even by the significant onion slice atop the garlic bagel.
I took a bite and was transported to my grandma’s kitchen circa 1990. I smelled the kugels (sweet noodle pudding) in the oven (made just for me, sans raisins, one to take home for later), saw the big bowl of sugar-laden blueberries next to my plate, and all the lox and bagels I could ever want to eat at the table. Grandma always fed me well.
I visited her a few days before the teary lox and bagel incident. She’s not doing any cooking these days, so it’s up to me to recreate her kugel for my family and introduce the concept of a smoked fish atop cream cheese and bagel to my children (so far, this has not gone over well). She suffered a stroke a few months ago; she has good days and bad days, but even on the good days, I miss the grandma who took such great pains to prepare my favorite meal. Thus, the tears.
Middlesex County, New Jersey - a Jewish community like many others - familiar, yet unique.
Familiar because they have the same strengths of many communities: diversity of institutions, committed leaders, and a desire to keep Judaism alive. Familiar also because they have the same issues many Jewish communities face: declining affiliation, apathy among members, lack of engagement. And familiar because the volunteer and professional leadership truly care about ensuring the future of the community and are searching for ways to help their institutions and individuals. And, like all communities, they are also unique: they have their own culture, history, specific successes, and particular challenges.
Middlesex County, however, is also unique in that they have committed to doing the hard work involved for true and lasting change. Through local individual and foundation support, JOI’s Big Tent Judaism Concierge will work closely and collaboratively with professionals and volunteers to identify newcomers and use each institution’s strengths to ensure those individuals and families are guided on a Jewish journey that is distinctively theirs.
The Big Tent Judaism Concierge is an employee of the Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) whose sole task is to identify unengaged individuals and, based on information gleaned through a personally built relationship, guide that individual toward participation in the Jewish community. S/he works with Big Tent Judaism Professional Affiliates (those Jewish communal professionals in a community who have signed on to a formal training program as well as committed to hold events that use specific techniques that are proven successful in engagement) and Big Tent Judaism Ambassadors (volunteer leaders who work together and singly to advocate for change in the community around these issues) to ensure collaboration and success.
When I was in high school, I had a friend from Hebrew school who frequently approached me to talk about how she was a “bad Jew.” “I don’t know any Hebrew, I’m such a bad Jew,” she said, launching into a conversation about how she didn’t go to synagogue, didn’t keep kosher, and didn’t participate in our synagogue’s youth group. At the time, I recall feeling unsettled by these conversations, though I could never articulate why.
I understood why she approached me with these concerns. I was a very active member of my Conservative synagogue, a frequent Torah reader and service leader, and a board member of my local and regional youth groups. I was, for all intents and purposes, a “Super Jew.”
However, my Jewish identity was often a source of conflict. My mom grew up Lutheran in rural Michigan, and discovered Judaism for the first time as a freshman at the University of Michigan (Go Blue!). Judaism spoke to her in a way that Christianity never did, and my mom underwent an Orthodox conversion shortly after graduating from college. Since then, my mom pursued a career as a cantorial soloist and Jewish educator, met and married my dad, and together raised my siblings and me in a vibrant Jewish home.
The following is a poem written by Rabbi Heather Miller, who is currently training to be one of JOI’s Big Tent Judaism Professional Affiliates. We invite you to share her beautiful words.
June 26, 2013
ON THIS SIDE OF HISTORY
By Rabbi Heather Miller
What does it feel like
when a human-made law
tells you your relationship isn’t worth as much as that of others
even when you’ve been together 10 years, 20 years, 60 years?
What does it feel like for your religious marriage ceremony to not be backed by your government?
Before today, I couldn’t tell you, because it was too oppressive,
and I didn’t want to explore the pressures it forced upon my life.
But today, on this side of history, I can say
that the Supreme Court decisions of June 26, 2013
feel like sunshine breaking through the clouds.
That the Creator is shining down
renewing the covenantal promise
that we are indeed created in the Divine image.
It feels like a heavy rush hour traffic suddenly clearing
and all road blocks have been taken away.
It feels like we are 10,000 feet up and now free to move about the cabin.
It feels like news that a disease has gone into remission.
One of life’s major obstacles have been removed
and instead of our government working against our family unit,
it is supporting it, rooting for us.
It feels like we are marching through the parted waters of the Red Sea,
on our way to freedom.
It feels like people have confidence in our ability to make the world a beautiful place,
instead of begrudgingly tolerating us.
It feels like justice.
It feels like intentional, sincere hugs and cheers.
It feels joyous, empowering and deeply affirming.
It feels like we are a true part of the community and that we are blessed.
Rabbi Heather Miller serves several congregational communities in Los Angeles, CA. Prior to ordination from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 2008, she majored in Peace and Justice Studies and Africana Studies at Wellesley College in Wellesley, MA. She and her wife, Melissa de la Rama, were named the 2013 Liberty Hill Foundation “Leaders to Watch.” Learn more at www.rabbiheathermiller.com.
I went to a tot Shabbat service last Friday. Tot Shabbat is what synagogues usually call a Friday night religious service experience tailored for young children and their parents. There was music and singing; the half-dozen or so couples of parents sat in a circle, clapping and enjoying the singing, quietly observing, or anxiously searching the room for their toddler. The kids did what kids do, mostly run around. Then there was a potluck dinner followed by some unstructured socializing.
I don’t like synagogues. Sorry, but I don’t. I grew up a secular Israeli Jew and I find in religious service little that is of meaning to me. I also did not enjoy this particular tot Shabbat service that much either. People were nice enough, for sure. But there were little things that irked me (like the way Americans pronounce the word Shabbat as if it rhymes with Chabad – Shabbad is here, Shabbad is here… one song went). More significantly perhaps was the possible implication that, since this kind of religious service is the one way of being Jewish that is sanctioned by Jewish institutions, it is also the most authentic, or truest way of being Jewish. Was this the message I want to send to my son?
When I was a teenager, I went to Jewish weekend camp where every month we had a topic to discuss. The first topic was “What Makes a Jew?” The entire discussion about mothers/fathers, patrilineal/matrilineal descent, observant/not observant, didn’t resonate with me. When I thought about who was Jewish, I decided that whoever says she is Jewish, is Jewish. I never saw any benefit to determining for others whether they were Jewish or not.
This week I read an article in The New York Times called “What Makes a Jewish Mother?” about how to determine, in the case of adoption and sperm/egg donation, the religion of the child. This is my favorite line: “Jewish authorities are finding evidence in the Scriptures to support both arguments: that the egg donor is the mother and that the birth mother is the mother.” I had no idea that “egg donation” came up in the Bible, something that was written thousands of years ago before anyone knew about turkey basters let alone invitro fertilization.
I think that it is fair to say that men navigate the world differently than do women. We relearn that lesson each day here at Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) as we promote our women’s programs (such as The Mothers Circle and Empowering Ruth) and our men’s programs (such as How Should I Know? and Answering Your Jewish Children), all of which are available for anyone who wants to implement them or participate in them. Just contact us.
As difficult as it may be to recruit for our women’s programs (made a lot easier if you follow our recommendations on outreach best practices), it is even more difficult to recruit for the men’s programs. Truth be told, men really aren’t any more elusive than women—and certainly no more elusive than the 20-30-year-old population—they are just different and have to be reached differently.