Weblog Entries for Category: Jewish Culture Watch

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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.


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.


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

Radical Disclosure

I often think about how significant social trends in American culture affect the Jewish community. Some argue that Judaism, by definition, is and should continue to be counter-cultural. Of course, such a position is only relevant when those trends are perceived to be out of sync with the evolution of Judaism and the Jewish community. There is one trend, however, that I think requires deep exploration. It is particularly important because, unlike many trends today that might be described as micro trends, this is certain to be a mega trend. This trend is what I call “radical disclosure,” the notion that there are no limits to personal disclosure, fostered perhaps by the ubiquitous nature of social media. That is why there are those who are motivated to share anything and everything about their personal lives on sites like Facebook and Twitter. In turn, these sites unwittingly turn the rest of us into voyeurs, hungry for every bit of personal information. Now we can know just about anything about anybody—because they have told us.

Admittedly, some of these issues may emerge as a result of a generational divide. It is like calling something a virtual relationship because it is being nurtured on-line. I may call it virtual; someone younger may scoff at the application of the adjective “virtual.” It is real, nothing virtual about it at all, from someone else’s perspective.


Build Bridges, Not Walls

The recent publication of the Steinhardt Social Research Institute’s (SSRI) American Jewish Population Estimate: 2012, coupled only a few days later by the release of the Pew Research Center’s A Portrait of American Jews threw some in the community into a tail spin of lamentations.

In a New York Times article on the Pew Study Jack Wertheimer, to give just one example, called the findings “a very grim portrait of the health of the American Jewish population.” And the other comments from Jewish communal professionals and researchers closely dovetail Wertheimer’s comment. Non-Orthodox American Jews are now intermarrying at an all-time high rate of 71%. This, surely, spells the destruction of the Jewish community – at least the non-Orthodox Jewish community. Unfortunate references to a “modern Holocaust” have already been made.

But wait a minute. The authors of the SSRI, who have been the primary consultants to the Pew study, makes a very different case: they claim to draw “a portrait of American Jewry [which is,] at least numerically, in ascent rather than in decline.” They estimate the overall number of United States Jews (including children) at a surprisingly high 6.8 million, up 5% from a 6.5 million figure estimated by the same folks, using the same methods, in 2010. “The U.S. Jewish population is substantially larger than previously estimated,” the SSRI authors conclude.


This year’s December- no- November Dilemma

Usually we think of the annual challenge facing American Jews—and especially interfaith families—as the conflict between Christmas and Hanukkah. I have gone on record and said many times, “Hanukkah is not a minor festival. In North America, it is a major holiday.” By now, many people have realized that this year’s calendar conflict will occur in November rather than in December: between Thanksgiving and Hanukkah. While these two holidays seem never to have been in conflict with one another, it will nevertheless challenge the religious mindset of folks as they consider which celebration will take precedence over the other, especially since Hanukkah has become the national Jewish holiday. One enterprising young man has already weighed in with his Menurkey, a Hanukkiyah that looks like a turkey. I am sure that as we leave this string of fall holidays behind, more ingenuity and practical solutions will emerge.

Admittedly, the Jewish holiday cycle and calendation, that is, figuring out when holidays take place and for how long (in the soli-lunar Hebrew calendar), is among the most challenging for those on the periphery of Jewish life. It gets even more confusing when you add the Israeli interpretation of the holiday calendar (slightly different and mostly followed by the Reform movement, as well). (I’ll let you in on a little secret: it is also challenging for those on the inside.) That’s among the reasons why people often find it difficult to get in sync with the rhythm of Jewish life. As a result, especially when a creative environment is not built for them, they simply opt out.

There are basically two primary holiday cycles in the Jewish religious calendar. The fall holidays actually begin toward the end of the summer, at the beginning of the Hebrew month of Elul. This initiates the period of intensive introspection that includes Rosh Hashanah and culminates in Yom Kippur. But the seasonal cycle doesn’t conclude until the holiday that is the end cap for Sukkot: Simchat Torah, which celebrates the year-long cycle of reading the Torah. The spring holidays begin with Pesach (Passover) and after a period of counting down toward the barley harvest (called Sefirat Haomer) and the giving of the Torah at Sinai, this period concludes with the holiday of Shavuot, which celebrates the spring harvest, or more specifically, the barley harvest.


“Practical Theology” for this time of year

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.


Teaching Outreach in Germany

I have just returned from a month of teaching (they call it “lecturing”) at the Abraham Geiger Kolleg in Berlin. I accepted the invitation to teach “outreach” to a group of rabbinical students because I fervently believe that the methods we have developed at Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute can be successfully adapted to the German Jewish community as it rebuilds itself, a direct result of an influx of Jews from Russia, Israeli immigrants, and a large number of Jews-by-Choice—all of whom have both bolstered and eclipsed the tiny post-World War II Jewish community.

While it was probably one of the most interesting months of my life, I can best describe Berlin (and for that matter, most of Germany) as a place of contradictions. As much as I tried to focus on the future, I felt the tug of being constantly dragged into the past. Even things that appear simple, such as exiting a subway (U) station, force me back into it when I encounter a sign telling people (those who pay attention) the various destinations of those local Jews taken from their homes and transported through that particular station. Or looking for an address, only to find a “stumble stone” in front of it, indicating the former owners and where they had been deported and killed. Even taking a different route home from the grocery store, I stumbled across a plaque which suggested where the local synagogue (now an apartment building) once had been. Memorials abound if you look for them.


On This Side of History

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
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

How Do Jewish Men Pray?

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.


A Courageous Rabbi Asks Hebrew Union College to Make a Change

As someone who not only works with intermarried, but is also immersed in the Brooklyn Jewish community, I was extremely moved by the recent open letter to Hebrew Union College from Rabbi Ellen Lippmann of Kolot Chayeinu of Brooklyn, NY. Published in the Jewish Daily Forward, Rabbi Lippmann urges the seminary, of which she counts herself an alumna, to reconsider their policy of prohibiting admission to rabbinical school candidates in interfaith relationships. Lippmann has been in an interfaith, same-sex relationship for nearly thirty years, during which time she and her partner have raised a daughter in a Jewish home. While Lippmann’s partner feels that conversion is not the right choice for her, she still embraces Jewish traditions, including Shabbat and the counting of the Omer (ritual countdown of the days from Passover to Shavuot).

“We are like the thousands of Jews across America who commit to strongly Jewish lives with their non-Jewish spouses. Interfaith families tell me that having a rabbi who mirrors their relationships makes an enormous difference to being able to commit to Jewish life.”

As inspiring as it was to read such an eloquent and heartfelt expression of inclusion as a core Jewish value, I was extremely disheartened upon scrolling to the bottom of the page, where Rabbi Lippmann’s words were met with a litany of hateful responses. Most of the comments decry intermarriage as sacrilegious, and some even go so far as to denounce the Reform movement altogether as “not Jewish anyway.” What really got to me, though, was seeing the golden calf and even Hitler invoked with careless ignorance. All I kept thinking was, “this is not Jewish.”


Jewish Culture Not Just for Jews; Even Hulk Hogan Buys Kosher

An interesting story in The Jewish Chronicle caught my eye recently. In it, writer Sarah Angrist argues that, when looking at the current state of the North American Jewish community, “bemoaning the decline in synagogue membership, high rates of intermarriage, and our aging population” misses the point. She thinks that Judaism in America is (and has been) extremely successful because Jewish culture is flourishing. She finds that:

Encouraging signs in North America are evident in the proliferation of university Jewish studies programs, the widespread appeal of klezmer music, camps for children and adults, innovative art forms and exhibits, Jewish music performances, film festivals, and the success of the Yiddish Book Center in preserving materials.

I think Angrist is making an important point. While for many, being Jewish and connecting to Judaism takes a primarily religious form, this is not the case for others, and probably not for most North American Jews. On the other hand, Jewish cultural experiences and expressions such as the ones mentioned above are often more accessible to those for whom religion has lost its relevance.


Taking a Cue from Costa Rica

I just returned from Costa Rica, an exciting country, known especially for its monkeys. Of course, it is also known for its coffee, pineapple, beaches, rain forests, and zip line adventure parks, among other things. Perhaps it is my sensitivity to the notion of “welcoming,” but no one mentioned that particular aspect of the country and its inhabitants before we prepared for our trip. Yet the “ministry of welcoming” as it is sometimes called in other contexts was apparent everywhere we went. Perhaps it is because a country of 4.5 million citizens understands that it is dependent on a tourist trade that welcomes 6 million people each year.

So I thought to myself, why doesn’t the organized American Jewish community of 2 million understand its dependency (perhaps its future) on the 4 million American Jews (and the many more people who are not Jewish but who live in Jewish households) who are not part of the organized Jewish community? Perhaps if we could extend the Costa Rican culture of welcoming into the culture of the American Jewish community, we might extend our “tourist trade,” as well. The difference, however, is that we must not just welcome people to visit, but to stay.

Meeting the Not-So-Small Family on Passover

The largest challenge I face as a Jew dating someone of another religious background is navigating the relationship between my girlfriend and my family. Having her meet my parents and gain their approval seems like the main obstacle; however, it is only the first step in a long process. As an immigrant who was raised in an area with a large Russian-Jewish presence, when I refer to my family, I’m not just talking about my mom and dad. What I’m really talking about is the large community of people around me, which includes aunts; uncles; cousins; distant relatives which I call my aunts, uncles, and cousins; close friends of the family; their distant relatives, in-laws, and their distant relatives; and so on. If you have a big “family,” this can sometimes include up to a third of your local Russian-Jewish community.

Having gained the approval of my parents some time ago, my girlfriend, Camilla, was now ready to meet other members of my “family.” This can be rather intimidating under any circumstance, but coming into a community that can be very closed off to outsiders can make the task even more difficult. Not only would she have to impress them as a person, she would have to overcome possible prejudices, not being a Russian or a Jew.


Being Israeli and Secular in the North American Jewish Community

I’ve recently returned from a long-awaited vacation in Israel, where I had the pleasure of celebrating the Passover seder (ritual meal) at an Upper Galilee kibbutz (communal settlement) with my immediate family and… five hundred other kibbutz members, affiliates, and invitees. The cafeteria-style dining hall was filled with long tables arranged around a central stage on which local talent sang, recited, and performed segments of the Hagaddah (the text traditionally read on Passover, retelling the story of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt). The kibbutz first graders sang the Four Questions with the entire crowd responding with the refrain. Four child-and-parent pairs, dressed in appropriate costumes, acted out the story of the Four Children.

Aside from the size of the event, a sharp-eyed North American Jewish observer would have noticed some other differences between this celebration and a traditional seder. For one, there was virtually no mention of God. The kibbutz hagaddah - now close to a century in existence - removes God from the text and enhances it with content thought to be more relevant to life in Israel, such as songs about spring, renewal, and rebirth. Other sections considered problematic (such as the plea to “pour Your wrath on the nations who do not know You”) were replaced with statements about hope for peace. All during the week of Passover, the communal dining hall serves matzah AND bread. This bread is bought and frozen before the holiday (buying bread during Passover in Israel is possible, but entails driving the extra mile or two to the nearest Arab village. Freezing is easier). I grew up celebrating Passover in this way, so I greatly enjoyed the opportunity to come back to it, even more so now that I could share it with my young son.


Synagogue Hopping with Generation Y

My husband and I were in Paris recently to celebrate our 20th anniversary. As we walked around the city, we noticed how welcoming the churches were, especially in comparison to the locked doors at the synagogues. Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, JOI’s Executive Director, explained to me that, unlike a church, the synagogue was not meant to be the center of religious life – that the home (for rituals) and the beit midrash (for study) held that place. So when Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute Board Member, Rachel Cohen Gerrol, posted this article on Facebook, I thought – well, when the synagogue doors are open, we should be as welcoming as possible.

The article brings to light, once again, that we need a different model for engagement in the Jewish community. Affiliation, the tried and tired membership model, is not appealing. And it’s not just the millenials who don’t find it appealing – it isn’t appealing to young families who can’t afford dues and day care or day school fees, or to baby boomers who, after their children are Bar/Bat Mitzvah’d are not interesting in paying what amounts to a facilities fee for a building they don’t need to feel Jewish or practice their Judaism.


Moving from the Language of Obligation to the Language of Benefit

While my native tongue is English, I actually grew up in the Jewish language of obligation. Whenever I confronted a Jewish institution, organization, or fund-raising campaign, I was told of my obligations as a Jew. As a child, I was given a list of 613 of them—rather overwhelming to be sure. The only benefit I was taught about being Jewish, however, was that I was part of a chosen people. My Christian friends were taught by their ministers and priests, “if you give me your life, I will give you eternal life.” I always thought that was a pretty good deal and I wondered what my childhood rabbi was offering in its place beyond being part of the chosen people.

There are those who believe that the Jewish language of obligation is counter-cultural. They argue that Judaism becomes the antidote to the narcissistic Facebook culture in which my world is insinuated into the lives of everyone else (through the newsfeed, for example). Further, those who advocate a language of obligation contend that obligations provide their own benefit, following the adage, “the more you give, the more you receive.”


Is There a Future for LGBTIQ Synagogues?

On my recent travels to Jewish communities to talk about bringing Big Tent Judaism initiatives to bear, I was struck, yet again, by how open and engaging people think their institutions are. In reality, they are inadvertently putting up barriers to participation.

Synagogues that don’t actively welcome those on the periphery – Jews by Choice, intermarried Jews, LGBTIQ Jews, Jews of Color, etc. – will continue to find it hard to attract new members. And I don’t mean just members from the traditionally marginalized communities listed above. Why would I, a straight-married-to-another-Jew-family-oriented-person, want to join a synagogue where my best friend and his partner don’t feel welcome? It isn’t about being tolerant. It is about creating policies out of a need, and more importantly a desire, to be engaging, inclusive, and welcoming.


The Struggles of a Jewish Atheist

I have written before about my struggles with characterizing my Jewish practice. Having done extensive research on the “millennial” generation of which I am a part, I have come to understand the nuances of living in a world in which options and choice are valued above all else, and how my religious practice plays into this, or plays against it.

For this reason, I was taken by a recent article in Tablet magazine, in which self-proclaimed “Jewish atheist” Jonathan Zimmerman chronicles his experience attending a Humanistic synagogue. Humanistic Judaism identifies with the history and traditions of Jewish culture independent of a higher power. That is, the focus is on “[celebrating] the centrality of human reason and responsibility from a uniquely Jewish perspective.” This would objectively seem like a perfect fit for Zimmerman, and yet, for him, the experience was totally uncomfortable, even laughable…not in and of itself, but when compared to formative prayer experiences from his Conservative Jewish upbringing.


Should Every Disabled Child Who Wants One Get a Jewish Education?


Ok, now that I’ve answered that question, let me elaborate: every disabled child whose family wishes them to have a Jewish education should be able to receive one in some capacity.

A recent article in The Forward examined the offerings (and limitations) of Jewish day schools in serving children with disabilities. These disabilities range from mild learning disabilities such as dyslexia, to severe autism and into more physical disabilities such as cerebral palsy. What obligation are Jewish day schools, which are in essence private schools, under to accommodate these children? And with a system that is already struggling financially, can they afford it?

In my opinion, they have to find a way.


We are in the Hospitality Business

Here at Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI), we have been talking about the application of learnings from the hospitality industry for many years. My colleague Ron Wolfson, of Synagogue 3000 and American Jewish University, has been offering similar advice, some of which he learned from Disney University, who are masters at hospitality. As someone who is a “road warrior” for the Jewish community—that means I travel a lot for my work at JOI—I have the occasion to stay at many hotels. Some hotels practice “aggressive hospitality,” not a term that I coined, which charges each staff member with the responsibility to make sure that guests are accommodated. No staff member walks by without saying “hello,” or asking if the guest’s stay could be made more comfortable, or if there was anything that the staff member could do for the guest.

At JOI we have chosen to call this “proactive hospitality,” frankly, a term that doesn’t say it all but approximates what we are trying to teach—the responsibility of being hospitable, which has its roots in the foundation of Jewish values and thus is indeed a Jewish values construct. One colleague, Rabbi Baruch HaLevi calls this idea “radical hospitality,” perhaps an extension of the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s notion of “radical amazement” when one encounters the holy and sacred, and then applied to the everyday. I like this idea a lot.


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