Weblog Entries for Category: Jewish Culture Watch

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What To Do When Your Child “Brings Home” Someone of Another Faith

I just returned from the International Lion of Judah Conference, celebrating women’s philanthropy as part of the Jewish Federation system. I spoke to 150 women who are concerned about how intermarriage affects their family and their community. We talked about many things, including how to effectively grandparent grandchildren who are being raised in intermarried homes and how to make the community more welcoming. But clearly what they wanted to hear was what to say when your adult children “brings home” someone from another faith background and introduces that person as their intended life partner. To me, the only thing to say is “welcome,” for in that nanosecond you determine what your future relationship will be with your adult children, his/her partner, and their future children. Here is a list of items regarding what else I had to say on the subject. (Click on the image to download the PDF list.)

Drake Accepts VMA as Black and Jewish

At last night’s MTV Video Music Awards, rapper Drake accepted the award for Best Hip-Hop Video for his song “HYFR.” The music video, which made the internet rounds when it was released earlier in 2012, features Drake, a Canadian Black Jewish rapper, surrounded by Jewish friends and features several scenes of a Bar Mitzvah service and reception (although this one probably doesn’t have the traditional Coke and Pepsi-like games many of us remember!). It is worth mentioning that the video was not well-received by everyone; however, it won the VMA, giving Drake the opportunity to mention his Judaism.

What is notable about both the video and Drake’s acceptance speech is his highlighting of his Black and Jewish upbringing. Since becoming popular a few years ago, Drake has repeatedly talked about his Jewish heritage, as well as his pride in being both Black and Jewish. In an MTV interview back in April 2012, he stated:

“I’m proud, a proud young Jewish boy. When I had a Bar Mitzvah back in the day, my mom really didn’t have that much money. We kinda just did it in the basement of an Italian restaurant, which I guess is kinda like a faux pas,” Drake told Cash Money videographer Derrick G on the video’s Miami set [of the “HYFR” video shoot]. “I told myself that if I ever got rich, I’d throw myself a re-Bar Mitzvah. That’s the concept for the video.”


Surprises from the Conservative Movement

With a great deal of anticipation, I read the recent publication of the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs, which focused on a study of select practices concerning intermarried families in Conservative congregations. I was hoping that the work being done by the FJMC and JOI and others in the field had indeed made an impact—opening wider the doors of Conservative synagogues to intermarried couples and their families. This study of 100 random congregations, according to its author Rabbi Charles Simon, yielded some interesting results about Torah honors, in particular. It states that 79% of those surveyed allow non-Jewish partners to stand with their Jewish partners on the bimah (the raised platform in the front of the sanctuary), specifically during bar/bat mitvah family celebrations. However, among some of the congregations who do not permit this arrangement during bar/bat mitzvah, they do permit it during baby namings.

While this study may not be indicative of the entire Conservative movement (we will need to at least use the “reality test” to see whether indeed it reflects a larger group of synagogues), it does seem that change is afoot in the Conservative movement as it pertains to a welcoming attitude and practice for interfaith families. This is indeed a welcome change.

To view the publication, please click here.

I Didn’t Bring a Camera on my Recent Trip to Poland…

I had come as a pilgrim to the sacred ground where so many had been tortured and killed. I had come to say kaddish. I had come to put a name and a face and a personal story to those who lost their lives to the Nazi war machine that attempted a genocide of my people. And I refused to become one of the many tourists, attracted by what has become a tourist trade in death with banners offering discount and bundled tours to Auschwitz and Treblinka and Madanek. I couldn’t bring myself to take any photos. My mind is sufficiently flooded with images, some of which I will never be able to shake free of.

This was not my first trip to Poland, nor to Eastern Europe. But I knew after the first time I stepped foot in Poland—not something that I did without a great deal of deliberation—that I had to learn more. And each time I struggled to grasp the enormity of it all. While my first trip focused on the more common narrative of the Nazis and the so-called Final Solution, I sought a more nuanced story of what took place. I wanted to learn more about the history of Jewish Poland before World War II, as well as what took place following the war, what is going on now, and what the future holds for the Jews of Poland.


My Stepdaughter’s Same-Sex Interfaith Wedding, Part III

Choosing to live your life by your own choice is the greatest freedom you will ever have.
– Shad Helmstetter.

About six months ago (post-Passover/Easter observance), I was sitting at the beach talking to my stepdaughter Kyla and her fiancé Sarah about their wedding. We had a good laugh looking at bizarre wedding cakes and thinking about some of the crazier things that people do at their weddings. While it was clear what Kyla and Sarah didn’t like, it was also clear what they wanted their “party” to be like. But what was a lot less clear was what they were expecting (if anything) of their ceremony.

They knew they wanted it to be special, but they weren’t sure how to begin. So we researched wedding ceremonies. My own ceremony was unusual. Robert and I were married on the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s death, and because of our commitment to social justice and equality we had a dear friend read Dr King’s inspirational “I Have a Dream” speech. Another friend read the “Apache Wedding Prayer” – just because we liked it. Oh, and I had 17 attendants—but I let them all wear whatever outfit they wanted as long as it was black. We’re New Yorkers.

My mom thought the ceremony should be as brief as possible—the party, especially the flowers, may have been more important to her. So I gave her full flower approval while Robert and I planned the ceremony. It was important to us that we share a meaningful, public ritual in front of and with the community of family and friends who would be by our sides in the blessings and trials to come in a long marriage. We would rely on their counsel and love to see us through, as we believed that the witnesses to a marriage are as responsible as the couple to do whatever they can to ensure the marriage thrives. This makes the guest list really important.


Israel Experience Programs in Tzfat for 20somethings

Laurie Rappeport of Livnot U’Lehibanot shares a bit about her work in this guest blog. For more information, please visit this website.

“Livnot U’Lehibanot” is an Israel Experience Program offering volunteering and hiking programs in Northern Israel for young Jewish adults since 1980. Livnot (literally “To Build and Be Built”) is unique in that it provides opportunities for participants to explore Israel through hiking, community service, archaeological excavations, and workshops—and is specifically geared to young Jewish adults in their 20s who have little or no Jewish background or affiliation but who are interested in exploring their heritage, and who can join the open Livnot environment of an immersive Jewish community living experience.

Livnot is located in the mountain town of Tzfat and offers participants the opportunity to integrate into the “real Israel” by interacting with local residents as they participate in a wide range of experiential activities. The subsidized Livnot programs are offered as both one- and four-week Israel Experience. During each program the participants learn about the day-to-day lives of Israelis, the Land of Israel, and Judaism through a variety of events and encounters. It is a proven transformative opportunity for young Jewish people to come together, live in a communal Jewish atmosphere, and experience a Jewish life with Jewish peers for one or more weeks. The whole thrust of the program is to break down barriers and make the program, and Judaism, as accessible as possible to as many young Jewish adults as possible.

Livnot’s subsidized programs provide opportunities for participants to explore issues and questions that relate to Jewish philosophies, beliefs, and traditions as each individual considers how to find his or her own place in the Jewish world. The programs present different aspects of Jewish ways of life and beliefs through the classes, which are taught by staff members, local artists, scholars, and community members with differing perspectives of Jewish life and religious observance. They are not “religious” programs but allow each individual to acquire experiences and information that will give them tools to explore their own Judaism. Seminar and class subjects range widely including “Art, Music and Me” (connecting the physical and the spiritual in Judaism), “Judaism and the Environment” (including what we learn about Judaism from the plants and animal life of the Land of Israel) and a “Tzfat Library Workshop” in which the writings of Tzfat sages are explored as they relate to our lives and values today.

Some recent quotes from Summer 2012 evaluations:

J.S. “Livnot added a more focused opportunity to discuss and explore my Judaism and Israel”
R.A. “This program has opened my eyes to so many things and has been an opportunity to take a step back and think about my Jewish identity.”

R.B.” The Livnot program and staff are incredibly amazing. I’ve had an awesome time here and wouldn’t change it for the world. Keep up the good work. Livnot Rocks!”

M.D. “Thank you so much to everyone who made Livnot possible for me. It was exactly what I needed at the right time. Almost every day, during most of the activities, I would stop and think to myself “this is amazing; I can’t believe that I’m actually here doing these things.” This has literally been one of, if not the absolute, best month of my life. I’ve become a much better person because of Livnot. Thank you!!!”

My Stepdaughter’s Same-Sex Interfaith Wedding, Part II

I nervously asked my stepdaughter, Kyla, if she and her fiancé, Sarah, would be having any religious rituals in their wedding. Why “nervously”? Because the only other time I brought up religion, there seemed to be some discord and I didn’t want to add any angst. I knew they were being married by a female Muslim friend who became a minister for the occasion. I was pretty sure she wouldn’t know about circling and the seven blessings, but I didn’t want to push anything on them.

When my mom asked what she could give the brides, I suggested a Ketubah (a non-binding Jewish wedding contract). My mother had given Kyla’s dad and me our beautiful Ketubah – which actually Kyla and her sister, my husband’s other daughter, Arielle, signed as “junior witnesses.” As has become common practice, the ketubah is a piece of art now framed and hanging on our wall. Robert and I don’t know what it says – though he can read the Hebrew and I cannot – but we know what it means. It is a contract of commitment.

I hadn’t asked about a Ketubah, but I thought it was benign enough that they would accept the gift. Why did I need a benign gift? Because I was afraid to bring up the religion issue. However, Kyla and Sarah wanted one, so I went to the store in Los Angeles ( where my mom had purchased ours 19 years ago. The staff were very excited that they had their first second generation wedding ever.


My Stepdaughter’s Same-Sex Interfaith Wedding, Part I

When my stepdaughter and her fiancé announced their engagement, there was much joy. In fact, there was double joy. There were two rings to design; two families to meet and merge; two religions to incorporate; and two wedding dresses to purchase. There were two brides - one was Jewish and one was not.

Responses to the announcement were varied. Everyone loved both Kyla and Sarah, but looking at a situation for decades in one way made it hard for some of our now extended family to get their arms around this new paradigm. Some relatives and friends were happy they found each other, but not so happy about them getting married – citing their belief that marriage was between a man and a woman. Interestingly, not one person questioned that Kyla, raised in a household with a grandmother who was a holocaust survivor, chose a non-Jewish spouse. I wonder if it would have been different had her grandparents still been with us. I also wonder if that is an unintended consequence of gay marriage – just as the marriage pool narrows for women as they age (just get married already!), does the marriage pool narrow for Jewish lesbians? (I also wonder if Kyla and Sarah will be horrified to read this, but I digress.)


Remembering a Holiday of Remembrance

Sunday (July 29, 2012) is Tisha B’av, a day of commemoration named by its date on the Hebrew calendar. (Of course, it begins the prior evening, as do all Jewish calendar observances.) Ironically, this year, Tisha B’av (literally, the ninth day of the month of Av) is held on the tenth of the month of Av, a calendar shift made by the rabbis when the ninth day of Av falls on Shabbat. While this day marks the destruction of the ancient Temples in Jerusalem, it has come to be the day that marks much of Jewish historical catastrophe (except those that are marked separately such as Yom Hashoah—Holocaust Memorial Day). Tisha B’av is a full fast day (like Yom Kippur); it is a day of mourning. Thus, many—not all—of the behaviors associated with Yom Kippur are also associated with Tisha B’av.

Admittedly, I have always had a tough time with Tisha B’av. Early Reformers simply rejected it out of hand. I presume it snuck back into the calendar of liberals through the program staff at Jewish summer camps. And it is also caught in the trend of reclaiming those rituals and observances that were rejected because they were seen to separate us from our non-Jewish neighbors. This is no longer the case for this generation of fully American American Jews. Nevertheless, I struggle with Tisha B’av. I don’t buy the traditional reason for the destruction of the Temples as sinat chinam (senseless hatred, referring to the hate among Jews for one another), although I do see such behaviors as increasing in this generation, and I worry about them. I also don’t see the diaspora in its more traditional terms as galut (exile), something that was traditionally associated with the destruction of the Temple. Rather, I see the so-called diaspora as an opportunity for the Jewish people to fulfill its obligation as or lagoyim (a light unto the nations). And I certainly don’t see us mourning Jerusalem at a time where we celebrate her as the heart and soul of modern Israel, as a place, for me, where heaven and earth touch.


The Greatest of All Time Has a Jewish Grandson?

I grew up around boxing– not your average Northeastern Jewish upbringing, I admit, but my dad has had a passion for the sport forever, and so naturally, I have been raised with an appreciation for the sport as well, especially when it comes to Muhammad Ali. Ever since my dad was 14, he has idolized the charismatic boxer, writing a book about him, and even turning our basement into an Ali museum (I kid you not, he’d be happy to show it to you). So, my ears always perk up when I hear some news about Muhammad Ali, as was the case a few weeks ago when I came across an article from Be’chol Lashon, a non-profit organization celebrating the racial and ethnic diversity of Jews, about how one of Ali’s grandson’s was recently Bar Mitzvah’d.

Muhammad Ali’s family now includes three religions: his mother was Baptist, he is (and raised his family) Muslim, and one of his daughters, Khaliah Ali-Wertheimer, married a Jew. Khaliah’s son Jacob decided on his own to be Bar Mitzvah’d, saying that he felt a connection to Judaism, and both Khaliah and her father supported Jacob’s desire to be Bar Mitzvah’d.

Ali’s family is a wonderful representation of the current diversity of the Jewish community, and of its willingness to accept people from all backgrounds and faiths; and Ali himself has been an amazing voice for inclusion. While Ali is best known for some of the greatest fights in boxing history (The Rumble in the Jungle, the Thrilla’ in Manila), Muhammad Ali instilled values of welcoming and peace in all of his children. Despite his poor health (Ali has Parkinson’s), he did attend his grandson’s Bar Mitzvah, and followed along with the service as best he could. It’s just one more reason to look up to the Greatest of All Time. (at left, my Dad with Muhammad Ali and trainer Angelo Dundee at Ali’s 70th birthday celebration)

Merging Our Tents - Out of Necessity or Desire?

Just as we see a lot of mergers and acquisitions taking place in the for-profit world, we are now experiencing the same in the Jewish community. However, what is often taking place in the secular community (Google gobbling up tech start-ups for their talent more than for their market niche) is not necessarily what is motivating the various mergers in the Jewish community. Rather, it is sometimes a declining population that forces two institutions (former “competitors” or representatives of different religious movements) to merge. Sometimes, it starts out as a simple space-sharing arrangement, since many of the edifices that were built to accommodate the suburban baby boom in post-World War II expansion often stand empty. Thus, these mergers are usually motivated by economic necessity rather than by shared values. Is this a reflection of post-denominational Judaism? Or perhaps it is a step toward the eventuality of post-institutional Judaism (something no one wants to talk about).

I wonder: what would the community—and its myriad institutions—look like if we decided to share space, or to merge, because we believe that it will benefit the community and the people we serve, instead of as a result of the economic downturn or the shrinking community? If we highlight the positive values such mergers can represent over the latter expressions of survivalism, could we create institutions (not campuses) that reflect the ideals of Big Tent Judaism—where there would be different expressions of worship, different expressions of Zionism, and different forms/formats for study all under the same roof? Perhaps before your institution makes its next decision about its building and facilities, we can look at the community around us, and work in the direction of merging our tents for the betterment of the Jewish community.

How Do You Answer the Question “Why Be Jewish?”

I often think about the question “Why be Jewish?” It is something that I frequently review when working with institutions and communities. I believe that each institution, organization, and community has to be able to concretely articulate an answer to that question. More particularly, “Why be Jewish in the context of a particular institution or the organized Jewish community in general?” I sometimes get pushback when I pose this notion. Some will argue that it is not the responsibility of an individual institution to answer that question; in other words, people have to answer that question for themselves. But I feel quite differently, especially for people—like those who are intermarried or are Jews by choice—who really reflect on this question a great deal. “What benefit will I,” they pose, “get from participating in the Jewish community?” “What benefit will my children gain from their participation?”

I often get the answer of “community.” And while I think I understand what they mean, they aren’t often able to distinguish between the benefit of participating in the Jewish community over any other assemblage of people who might also call themselves a community. Martin Buber, the great Jewish philosopher of the last century, has some insights from his notion of an I-Thou experience, one that is modeled on the experience of the individual with the Divine—what might be called a Sinaitic or covenantal relationship. Buber argued that it is impossible to share with others the exact nature and experience of an I-Thou relationship. If you leave a part of yourself out of the relationship, enough of the rational self to observe and reflect on the experience so that you can share it with others, then you can never fully have that experience. And if you put your entire self into the relationship, so that it can be fully I-Thou, then there is nothing of the rational self left outside of the relationship in order to reflect and share.


Love, Romance, and Disabilities

The following is a guest blog by Michelle K. Wolf, a special needs parent activist and non-profit professional who has worked in the governmental and non-profit sectors for the past 26 years. She blogs weekly at You can also follow her on Twitter @SpecialNeedsIma

When we talk about opening the tent to Jews with special needs, we must go beyond welcoming them in and nurturing their involvement with synagogue life. Part of leading a “normal life” also involves falling in love. As Michelle discusses here, the Jewish community can support these needs, as well.

It’s almost summertime, and as the weather gets warmer and flowers are budding, thoughts of romance are everywhere. But for adults with developmental disabilities, moving from thought to action is tough to do. Although they may be working in paid employment, providing volunteer hours at a local Meals-on-Wheels program, or playing basketball at the Jewish Community Center, figuring out the complicated rules of dating and romance is often a black hole.

Most of these young adults aren’t at college with access to Hillels or other Jewish young adult programming. Even in the most observant portion of the Orthodox world, making a match using a shadchan (matchmaker) for a young adult with developmental disabilities is still a challenge, although less so for a young woman than a young man.

Should they start talking to the cute stranger at the mall? How will the objects of their affection respond to their overtures? Are parents or other family members ready and/or willing to help facilitate these types of relationships? And then there’s the whole issue of birth control.

“My 26-year old son really wants a girlfriend,” one mother said at a recent family meeting I attended, “but just doesn’t know where to start.” Another parent there who had a daughter close in age jokingly said that perhaps they should fix the two of them up. We lightly tossed around the idea of starting a paid, on-line dating service for adults with disabilities to help pay for on-going support services.


The Changing Face of Today’s Jewish Community

When my son was entering preschool in the early 1990s in New York City, I noticed that a lot of the white mothers had Asian children. It was becoming increasingly common for white, Jewish women of a certain age and socio-economic background to adopt children from other countries. Adopting an infant girl from China was the easiest route at the time, and it occurred to me then that these children would eventually change the face (literally) of the Jewish community, at least in larger cities. As these children grew up Jewish, they would undoubtedly begin to change the typical stereotype of Jews being mostly white and of Eastern European decent, and they would be just as much Jewish as the white children around them.

The increasing diversity of the Jewish community is due only in part to international adoption, but it is undeniable that the “face” of the Jewish community is changing, as highlighted in the UJA-Federation’s recently-released 2011 Jewish Community Study of New York. The study shows there to be some 161,000 New York area Jews in biracial or nonwhite households. (We will look further at some of the statistics of the study in upcoming blogs.) The question now becomes how to show that the tent of the Jewish community is open to these families.

We still have a lot to do to educate institutions about sensitivity and inclusion, but it is heartening to hear how so many voices that historically have been stifled are now being heard. The status quo is being challenged and, as a result, the Jewish community must respond by becoming more engaging and inclusive.

Being Black, Gay, and Jewish… and a Hip-Hop Star

While I am not a typical follower of celebrity gossip, I do tend to follow stories in the world of Jewish celebrities. So I was excited to read in Jewcy Magazine that Yitz Jordan, the rapper known as Y-Love, has recently “come out”. In this article, he talks about his experiences as a Jew of color, an Orthodox Jew, and a Jew by choice, and how these other variables have influenced his decision to come out.

I was particularly struck by his description of an experience at a Jews of color round-table, where one producer’s comment about the “impossibility” of finding an LGBTQ Jew of color for the panel struck a nerve. He talks about how Jews like him have “been in existence forever,” and how hurtful it is when others in the Jewish community do not recognize that there are others in their midst very much like him.

It is important to remember from this article that a single individual or family may differ from the stereotypical Jew in many different ways. Just as Yitz is a Jew of color, a Jew by choice, and gay, so there are multiracial intermarried families, and same-sex couples where one partner has a disability, and interfaith blended families. As a new paradigm emerges in which the Jewish community becomes more aware and inviting of interfaith marriages, there is still much work to be done around accepting Jews of color, financially-challenged Jews, Jews with disabilities, LGBTQ Jews, and many other groups.

As Jewish professionals, it is our duty to keep all of these variables in mind as we seek to create a more inviting and inclusive Jewish community. As an organization seeks to become more welcoming and inclusive of LGBTQ Jews, for example, it is important for them to think about their intermarriage policies, as LGBTQ Jews partner with non-Jews at higher rates than straight Jews. As the community seeks to include interfaith families, it is important to create policies that will explicitly welcome people of color, whether Jewish or not. As we seek to widen the tent, it is important to think about all of the variables that may serve as barriers to true welcoming. We at JOI are happy to hear stories like Jordan’s, and congratulate him on his decision to officially come out. We hope his story will inspire others like him, and look forward to sharing their stories as well.

A Historic Day for Israel

I love Israel. It sounds trite, but it is true. From my first trip when I was sixteen and spent a year there, to as recently as two months ago when I only spent three days in the midst of a rabbinic mission, I travel there every chance that I get—even if it is for a short period of time. I even get teary-eyed when I pass by Newark airport and see the El Al plane standing there amidst all of the others. I admit it is sappy, but it is true. For me, Jerusalem really is the center of the world, where heaven and earth touch.

Should you be misled, please know that I am not one whose unconditional love for Israel is not accompanied by criticism. There are times when I am not pleased, particularly when her actions do not resonate with my sense of justice and morality. Nevertheless, I am convinced that the reason why people in this generation have walked away from vocalizing their support of Israel is because there are few places for civil discourse about Israel in the United States today, particularly in the Jewish community. This is particularly true for many of the people with whom I work on a daily basis. As a result, it seems that people would rather abandon the conversation than seek a place for such discourse.

There are times when the news that comes out of Israel seems to make its announcements irrelevant, especially when they are issued by a variety of so-called religious authorities. This week, the news warmed the hearts of many, when we learned that Rabbi Miri Gold, an Israeli Reform rabbi, would be recognized by the Israeli government and that Reform and Conservative rabbis would earn salaries along with their Orthodox colleagues, for the first time in Israel’s history. It is what some might call a shehechayanu moment – named for the blessing said on special occasions thanking the Divine for sustaining us and bringing us to this moment in time.

While there is still hard work to be done since these rabbis are still not sanctioned by the government to officiate at weddings—nor to supervise other life cycle matters—the window that we thought was closing has been pushed open a little more, and is letting the fresh air of Big Tent Judaism enter into the Land once again.

Jewish Federation of Portland is Ahead of the Curve

In my travels, I come into contact with a lot of Jewish communal professionals who represent a wide range of Jewish communal institutions. Some of these institutions have historically been the pivotal institutions in the community. Of course, these include synagogues (still the most prevalent institution in the community, yet representing the minority of the Jewish community—only about 40%); Jewish Federations (which had been the umbrella organization for the community); and Jewish Community Centers (which provided for the non-religious aspects of Jewish community life). Some of these professionals understand the need to reimagine their institutions since their raison de’etre has, in most cases, long been surpassed. Mark Blattner, the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Portland, Oregon understands that need. He has been working to transform the community, asking the right, albeit tough, questions and making some difficult choices (such as closing the local Jewish community newspaper).

I was pleased to be in Portland last week to address the community, as well as several groupings of Jewish communal professionals. It is encouraging to note that most of the Jewish communal professionals from this particular cross-section of Jewish communal institutions welcomed my analysis of the Jewish community, its challenges, and some of the solutions that we recommend at JOI. In most of my travels, as in Portland, communities understand that they face many challenges and are looking for some resolution to those challenges, as well as an analysis of the source of those challenges so that they may be addressed.

However, this is not always the case, as I recently received pushback on the thought that the synagogue is not the be-all-end-all as a way to instill Jewish identity. One comment I recently heard was that “the job of the synagogue is to make Jews. And the synagogue is the only institution in the community capable of doing so.” I really thought that I was back in 1950—in the post-World War II suburbanization Baby Boom that initiated the community that we have inherited in this generation. How can people believe that to be the case in 2012? What about Jewish camps? What about day schools? What about intensive social justice experiences? What about independent educational enterprises? What about Israel experiences? Together we create Jews and a Jewish community, since none is really capable of doing so on its own.


Are Jews a “Race”?

I am often asked what my ethnicity is. My skin is olive and my hair is dark, leading most people to assume I’m Italian or Portuguese; but my last name (Kaletsky) is clearly Eastern European—Russian to be specific. My family comes from Russia and Poland, mostly, but I have never considered myself Russian or Polish. I didn’t grow up eating pirogues, and I don’t speak a lick of Russian beyond what I learned in the cartoon-movie Anastasia. Instead, when asked what my ethnicity is, I simply say, “Jewish.” But is it in my DNA?

My answer to the ethnicity question is sometimes, well, questioned. Some responses include “Judaism is a religion, not a culture,” or “if your family is from Russia, you are Russian.” It’s a complicated issue with a complicated bunch of answers, which now include a new book by Harry Ostrer entitled Legacy. Ostrer’s book discusses, in detail, the genetics of the Jewish people, raising questions such as “are Jews genetically unique?” and “are Jews a separate race?” in a day and age when the idea of “race” seems to be phasing out all-together.

But if our ethnicity is defined by our genetics, what does that mean for people who have not been born into Judaism, but rather have chosen it, whether because of a personal choice or intermarriage? And what of the children of one Jewish parent and one parent of another background? Does this mean they are half of one “race” and half of another?


Jewish…But Not Jewish Enough

Recently, the Huffington Post published an article in the ongoing narrative about the Jewish community’s uneasy relationship to people who have Jewish fathers but not Jewish mothers. In this article by Rivka Cohen, she describes her experience of being treated as less than Jewish by classmates and rabbis when her mother’s conversion was called into question, As a Jewish professional with a non-Jewish mother, this article is deeply troubling to me, as it speaks to the miles that we as a community have yet to go.

In my time at the Jewish Outreach Institute, I have realized that there is a true paradigm shift happening in American Jewish culture. More and more synagogues, JCCs, and other Jewish institutions are reaching out and looking for ways to welcome and actively include interfaith families. These families are increasingly able to shape the Jewish community through their participation and leadership, and I am grateful to see this.


The Spring Suite of Jewish Holidays

While we are still some weeks away from Shavuot, the culmination of this season, most see the holidays of Passover, Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Memorial Day), Yom HaZikaron (Israel Memorial Day), and Yom Ha’Atzmaut (Israel Independence Day) grouped together, primarily because of their calendar proximity, and do not include Shavuot, as it is among the least celebrated holidays. However, the fact that the Reform movement historically bolstered Shavuot with the placement of confirmation taking place on the holiday, and others renewed the practice of all night study—what is called a Tikkun Layl Shavuot— this unique holiday has found its renaissance in some communities.

So let’s take a look at the observance of this group of spring holidays. Passover remains as one of the two most celebrated holidays in the Jewish calendar, in one form or another, and is second only to Hanukkah. Yom Hashoah, as my colleague Rabbi Eliot Malomet has observed, has become a date marked primarily by survivors of the Holocaust and their families. Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut have become days relevant primarily to what might be called Diaspora Israelis (those Israelis who, irrespective of how many generations removed, live in the U.S).


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