Weblog Entries for Category: Inclusive Judaism

Go to newer posts or Go to older posts

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.


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!

JOI’s New Communication Associate Looks Forward to Celebrating Diversity

Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) is a seemingly unlikely place for me to be working. I avoided all Jewish activities in college (Hillel and the like), only attended synagogue for the High Holidays and the occasional “Shabbat Chaverim” (literally “Sabbath friends,” a program that my Temple holds which encourages people to sing, dance, and eat together on Shabbat), and lived in a fairly non-observant household. People who know me knew that I had always wanted to live in New York, but I am sure they imagined me working in entertainment (I interned at a traveling circus when I was in college).

When I was a child I experienced the paradox of spending my childhood being immersed in a vibrant Jewish community to moving in middle school and being the only Jew in a community. When I was in elementary school my community was able to support a Jewish day school, which I was fortunate to attend. During my formative years I was taught the Hebrew alphabet, Torah stories, prayers, and how to observe the holidays. This education helped me connect to the Jewish community and provide understanding to Jewish traditions and culture. When I was 12, my family moved to a rural part of Iowa, where my family was the only Jewish family and my connection to Judaism had greatly diminished.

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.

When You Open the Door for Elijah, Open the Door to Inclusion

Every aspect of the Passover seder is infused with meaning, connecting Jews across the world in a celebration of liberation. One such event takes place toward the end of the seder, when we open the door for Elijah the Prophet, hoping that he will grace the seder with his presence and herald the arrival of the Messiah. At Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI), we view an inclusive community that welcomes everyone who would cast their lot with the Jewish people as a positive step toward that messianic age.

JOI created “Welcoming Elijah the Prophet,” a Passover haggadah supplement that promotes the message of LGBT inclusion and supporting LGBT interfaith families as valued members of the Jewish community. This haggadah supplement emerges from the LGBT Interfaith Parents Circle, our program for LGBT interfaith couples who are raising or considering raising Jewish children. The LGBT Interfaith Parents Circle is currently being piloted in Los Angeles, and we hope to expand the program over the coming years.

As you embark on your Passover celebrations, we encourage you to share this supplement with the people gathered around your seder table, as well as anyone else who may benefit from this resource.

An Orange on the Seder Plate?

What Does the Fifth Child Ask?

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

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

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

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

Would Goldilocks Sit in the Same Chair?

As children, we learn the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. The story is about finding things that are “just right.” Let us forget the premise that she has broken into the bears’ home (that is a discussion for another time). Each time Goldilocks goes to taste, to sit, or to sleep, she is challenged by how things are not quite right. It is the porridge, the chair, and the bed of the bear that is most like herself that she finds just right. Would Goldilocks the twenty something make the same choices? What about Goldilocks the mother? The empty nester? The senior?

Each of us experiences our Judaism through the prism of the here and now. What inspires us today may have seemed irrelevant before. Sometimes rituals or prayers take on different meaning based on challenges we are facing or successes we have had. The beauty of the Jewish tradition is that it has many different access points. The tradition is available to us regardless of our background or prior knowledge. Who we are or who we wish to be helps us to experience Judaism in a usable way. We do not have to engage the same way as we did before or in a way we will want to in the future.


A Tale of Two Synagogues

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. So starts A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. And so starts this tale of two synagogues.

Dickens depicts the French peasantry demoralized by the French aristocracy leading up to the revolution, and the corresponding brutality of those same revolutionaries toward the former aristocrats.

My tale isn’t as dramatic, but it reminded me of A Tale of Two Cities just the same.

One Friday night in February, a woman went to a Reform synagogue in a large US metropolitan suburb; she took her biracial child with her to check out the local scene. Everyone was so nice! The membership director introduced herself right away and invited her back the next week. The rabbi was warm and welcoming, and the woman and her daughter really felt embraced. They were invited back for family Shabbat the following week.


Jewish Pro You Should Know: Rabbi Eli Garfinkel

Rabbi Eli L. Garfinkel was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in 1999. Since ordination, he has served as an assistant rabbi in Toronto and Cincinnati. In 2005, he became the spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Somerset, New Jersey, where he has started an annual Jewish film festival, organized communal Passover seders, and taught popular adult education courses. In November 2013, Rabbi Garfinkel also became a Big Tent Judaism Professional Affiliate, working with JOI’s Big Tent Judaism Concierge for Middlesex County Caren Heller to open the tent of the Middlesex County Jewish community.

He is the author of three books that are used throughout the Ramah network of Jewish summer camps: Mikraot Ramah, a commentary on the summertime Torah portions, Dim’ot Ramah, a commentary on Lamentations that is read on the fast day of Tisha b’Av, and a commentary for younger campers entitled Torat Ramah. He is also the developer of several apps for the iPhone and iPad, including two that help users how to read Torah and Haftarah readings. Rabbi Garfinkel lives in Somerset, New Jersey, with his wife, Naomi Lasky, and their twins, Sari and Josh.


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.


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.


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.


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

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

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

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


To assure a vibrant Jewish future – say meow!

Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) seeks to serve all populations marginalized from the organized Jewish community. We now increasingly recognize that negative attitudes toward Jews who partner with members of other faiths are not limited to humans. According to the recent Moo study, at least 72% of Jewish pets (defined as pets with at least one Jewish owner) say that the religion is of “Little” or “No” significance to them when choosing mates (the other 18% were either too barky to understand over the phone, or were out for a walk).

To serve this emerging need, JOI has launched The Howlers Circle, a program for quadrupeds of other backgrounds raising Jewish offspring, and Promoting Pet Pluralism – a program for Jewish owners of inter-mating pets.

“My puppy has been the love of my life,” says Ms. Golden, a recent graduate. She’s been raising her pet, a Golden Retriever, in what she calls “a warm Jewish home. This is why I was stunned when six month ago she brought home a Big Black Labrador. I mean, can their puppies be truly considered Jewish? And how will they be welcomed at my shul [synagogue]? I was dumbstruck.” Luckily, Golden came across an ad for Promoting Pet Pluralism at her local vet. “This program completely changed my life,” she said. She now has at her disposal real-life, hands-on skills that allow her to accept and welcome her pet’s quickly growing lineage.


Institutional Darwinism in the Republic of Georgia

I believe in what I like to call institutional Darwinism. In other words, only the fittest Jewish communal institutions will survive this period of transition, the name I have given this period of American Jewish history. We all know which institutions are at risk, which have outlived their original raison d’etre and been unable to reimagine themselves. Consider the Jewish hospital as a prime example. It served two major purposes: to provide care for individual Jews, especially when they were refused care by other hospitals; and it provided a place for Jewish physicians to serve their internships and residencies. Neither of these are relevant any longer and so Jewish hospitals are disappearing from the American Jewish institutional landscape.

The Jewish Community Center is at risk, as well. Originally designed to help Americanize immigrants, they thrived during the post World War Two baby boom with its concomitant flight to the suburbs. They sought to reposition themselves around several core businesses, most notably the fitness center. However, in many cases they are unable to compete in the free marketplace.

I recently returned from a JFNA (Jewish Federations of North America) Rabbinic Cabinet Mission to the Republic of Georgia and Israel. It is clear to me that the exciting things going on in the JCC movement are indeed happening outside the United States, particularly in the FSU (Former Soviet Union) and those countries formerly behind the Iron Curtain. As I have seen in other countries during other such missions, the JCC in Tbilisi and Gorre really are Jewish Community Centers, serving the entire Jewish community and offering complementary services to the local synagogues (which seem focused almost entirely on providing worship services). I wonder what we can learn from them?

Ten Things I Learned about the Jewish Community by Attending the Recent Aipac Policy Conference

I just returned from the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, DC. This has become the largest gathering of the organized Jewish community in North America—and includes a large number of people outside of the Jewish community. Without addressing the various positions taken by AIPAC, below I simply address some of the lessons learned which can and should be applied to other institutions and organizations inside the Jewish community.

  1. Audacious hospitality, radical hospitality, proactive hospitality, assertive hospitality, aggressive hospitality. It doesn’t matter what specific term is applied. AIPAC understands what it takes to make conference participants feel at home, welcomed, treasured, and supported. Every step along the way, people reached out and welcomed participants, making sure that they knew where they were going and how to get there.
  2. Competing in the free market economy. Whereas some institutions think that they are competing inside the Jewish community, AIPAC understands that it competes with many organizations and institutions inside and outside of the Jewish community. Thus, the production quality of its conference is unparalleled—inside and outside of the community.
  3. Mission driven. The mission of AIPAC is quite clear: security for the state of Israel. There is no evident mission drift anywhere.
  4. Dispelling myths. There are those who argue that millenials are not interested in the organized Jewish community nor in Israel. The large number of young persons in attendance undermines that myth entirely. It further suggests that when there is a mission with which people resonate, they will support it.
  5. Big Tent Judaism. Pluralism. Just as AIPAC demonstrates that there can be bipartisan support for the state of Israel in Congress, the AIPAC Policy Conference that demonstrates that pluralism still exists in the American Jewish community in isolated areas, such as support for Israel. There were 600 rabbis in attendance, representing a cross-section of the various streams in American Jewish religious life.
  6. The marketplace of ideas. The fact that there were people from various religious and ethnic backgrounds presenting and participating at the AIPAC policy conference affirms that various aspects of Jewish civilization—in particular, support for the state of Israel—are attractive to people outside of the Jewish community.
  7. Walk the talk—Combine deed and creed. The AIPAC Policy Conference combines the best of good pedagogy. It provides the transmission of cognitive knowledge. It touches the heart and lifts the spirit. And then it puts it all into the action of lobbying, demonstrating the power of “We the people.”
  8. Communication. Before, during, and after the conference, AIPAC regularly communicated with its participants, using the various options that technology has to offer, in addition to providing print materials for those who desire them.
  9. Rabbinic leadership. While AIPAC might be considered a secular organization, it celebrates rabbinic leadership and provides incentives for rabbis to participate. It understands how to leverage support on the inside of the organized Jewish community.
  10. Provides multiple points of entry. AIPAC encourages those who have never attended a policy conference as well as those who have attended numerous times in the past. It provides easy access for newcomers—and support through help desks and the like. It also provides more “immersive experiences” for those who are well-schooled.

Food Co-ops and Jewish Institutions Reaching Out

I read an interesting New York Times article a few weeks ago that has stayed with me. The article chronicles the expansion of food co-ops and their attempts at outreach to the longtime residents of the rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods they’re entering. Many of these co-ops operate on a membership system, where members pay a yearly fee (and often work a few hours a month) for the privilege to shop. Since co-ops are collectively owned, this set-up helps keep prices lower than typical grocery stores.

Setting aside the difficult issues surrounding gentrification, I immediately saw a very interesting parallel to the Jewish community. Some of these co-ops are making concerted efforts to reach out to their neighbors, through booths set up at parks, farmers markets, and other communal spaces; translating signs into the common languages in the neighborhood; and offering discounted memberships for those on public assistance. Similarly, with JOI’s help, many Jewish organizations are now using inclusive language and going outside the walls of their institutions to parks, farmers markets, and other community spaces to reach out to their neighbors through Public Space Judaism programs.


Even in the Country of Georgia, the Question Remains the Same

I have just returned from a JFNA (Jewish Federations of North America) Rabbinic Cabinet Mission to the Republic of Georgia and Israel. There are many things to share—from lessons learned—from this trip, but there was one overriding message to which I want to call attention.

When in college, studying the equivalent of Psychology 101, many became familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The lowest level of these needs is personal security (food, clothing, shelter). The other (higher) levels, such as self-actualization, cannot be met unless these basic needs are assured. While many of the programs in the US and Canada are focused on the higher levels of needs, it is clear that the work of the Joint (American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee) and JAFI (the Jewish Agency for Israel) is focused on meeting important basic needs. (Were some of these needs not met, the consequences would be more dire than they already are.) Thus, when faced with the question, “Why be Jewish?” in Tbilisi, the answer is quite obvious.

An elderly Holocaust survivor was asked this question in the local Tbilisi JCC: “Are your neighbors who are not Jewish envious of the special treatment you receive as a member of the Jewish community?” The answer: “Yes, but they understand that is what it means to be a Jew.” When you are in a place like Tblisi, where the answer to the question of “Why be Jewish?” is simple, it is probably because the community around you provides the basic care you need. However, this is not always the case, particularly here in the United States, making the question harder to answer. Yet, while this may not be the answer we need to provide our community in the US, it is quite clear that the question remains the same.

Click Here!