Weblog Entries for April 2005

Passover on “The O.C.”

In the last decade there has been no lack of Jewish characters on television. Representations of Jewish practice, on the other hand, have been few and far between. A recent exception to this rule was seen on the popular Fox show “The O.C.”, a program that features an intermarried family that practices Judaism, in this case a Passover Seder. An excellent article in the Chicago Tribune — Finally, TV Jews who act Jewish — points out, “by embracing an intermarried couple, [series creator Josh] Schwartz is broadcasting what is a fact of life in the Jewish community…” and that the marriage on the show is “…very realistic: According to the latest National Jewish Population Survey, 47 percent of Jews who married between 1996 and 2001 married a non-Jewish partner.” Now that TV has embraced an intermarried couple who is Jewishly engaged we can only hope that the mainstream Jewish community will do the same.

JOI Program Featured in the Secular Media

An article in last week’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution highlights one of JOI’s signature programs, The Mothers Circle, which offers free resources, education and events for women from other religious backgrounds raising Jewish children. As the article points out, the next Mother Circle drop-in event will meet at 7:30 p.m., May 11 at La Madeleine, 1165 Perimeter Center West. If you’re interested, please drop me an email at

Painting A Path Into Judaism

At JOI we always like to point out that there are as many pathways into Jewish life as there are people to walk those paths. A recent New York Times article tells of Max Miller, an artist mourning the loss of his father by reciting the prayer for mourning — the Kaddish — at synagogues all over the country. Painting each synagogue he visits, as a symbol of his grief, he gradually reconnects with his Jewish roots. The story is instructive in terms of the community’s approach to welcoming strangers: “…in some places, he has felt distinctly unwelcome. An Orthodox rabbi in a Midtown synagogue was afraid that Mr. Miller was a terrorist… Mr. Miller was too stung to paint the shul.” Most of his other experiences proved to be far more positive. Unfortunately, it only takes one such negative reaction to turn away an unaffiliated person just as he or she trying to establish a connection to the community. It’s something we must always keep in mind.

Grandparenting Jewishly - The Booklet

Most people will say that grandparenting is a lot easier than parenting, but that may not be the case when you, as grandparents, are trying to nurture the Jewish identity of your interfaith grandchildren — especially when your own adult children are being less than cooperative. That is where JOI’s newest publication might be helpful. It offers straight and supportive advice as to how navigate those tricky and sometimes treacherous waters. And it is based on the insights garnered from working with grandparents everyday who are striving to do what you want to do: help the Jewish community thrive and grow, one family at a time.

This is part of a new series by Jewish Lights Publishing called “LifeLights.” Written for grandparents but purchased in bulk then distributed by Jewish professionals or organizations, these booklets come 12 copies to a pack, or in full sets of the entire 37-issue series. A complete listing of titles and authors in this series is available here.

Outreach by the Bay

The Jewish communal professionals who gathered in a crowded room at the JCC of San Francisco last Wednesday (only two days before Passover when many are usually busy making last minute preparations) were anxious to hear what JOI learned after doing what we call an “outreach scan” of their community. If a demographer studies the people in a community, then JOI’s community outreach scan measures the capacity of communal institutions to welcome in those who have been identified by the demographic study. This is particularly important in San Francisco where 53% of married households are interfaith. San Francisco is diverse and dispersed, a significant challenge for the Jewish community; JOI is working with institutions and community leaders to develop innovative approaches to outreach to a community that is only 22% synagogue-affiliated. Sue Fishkoff covered my presentation for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, and her article gives a great overview of JOI’s outreach scans in general, and our findings in the Bay Area in particular.

A Passover Seder Reflecting Our “Mixed Multitude”

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A wonderful book review in the Jewish Week last week looks at how Passover Seders are diversifying to reflect all those around our tables:

“Consider, for example, the Korean woman married to a Jewish man, who, to accommodate all factions of their mixed family, decided to serve the gefilte fish not with horseradish but with kimchi, the traditional Korean pickled vegetable whose fiery spiciness, the woman said, creates a similar effect in the mouth.

“Or the woman who invited a multiethnic coterie for what she called a seder with soul: poached trout in hot tomato sauce alongside the charoset, candied yams and collared greens side by side with matzahs and Manischewitz.”

The book being reviewed is called, “Make Your Own Passover Seder” by Rabbi Alan Kay and Jo Kay.

Passover Silliness

Why is Passover the most celebrated Jewish holiday? Because it involves family, food, and fun. If your Seder is dry and boring, you’re doing something wrong! This year on the web, I’ve seen not one but two different animated rap parodies for Passover. (And like most rap, neither are particularly appropriate for children.) “Seda Club” by Ben Baruch of Shabot 6000, teams a rabbi, a robot, and a Jewish Fiddy Cent. It actually has a slight educational component, by naming the 10 Plagues in Hebrew. The other animation holds no educational value whatsoever, but it’s still kind of funny. “Matzah” is the latest release from renowned Internet animators JibJab Media.

And now for something completely different… here’s a ridiculous article from the Associated Press about how the gorillas and other animals of an Israeli zoo are being fed matza during the week of Passover. (I wonder how many Israelis will keep as kosher-for-Passover as these animals are!)


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In a recent article in the Republican, of Springfield, MA, Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City where Conservative Rabbis are ordained, is quoted as saying, “The more disturbing statistic is that only 8 percent of the children of the intermarried couples identify as Jews…. That small percentage indicates the hemorrhaging.”

We don’t know where Rabbi Schorsch got that statistic but we would be happy to debunk the research for him if he’d provide the source. More important than the statistic, however, is the attitude he expresses when he says, “The results of intermarriage are very detrimental to the transmission of Judaism in America.” Our question to him is, why does that have to be the case?

By finding no hope in the literally hundreds of thousands of intermarried couples who have created Jewish households, Chacellor Schorsch does a disservice to the Conservative Movement. Such blanket statements about intermarried couples and their children coming from the very top rungs of the movement presents an unwelcoming face, which makes it unsurprising that so few intermarried families have found a warm and welcoming home within the Conservative Movement. He makes the job of his rabbinic students that much more difficult once they leave the ivory tower and begin working in the field, where the neat theory of “just say no” to intermarriage doesn’t quite hold up in practice.

Passover In The Matza Aisles

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At JOI, we recommend that — in order to find the folks who aren’t walking into our institutions — the Jewish community needs to “go where the people are,” to share our celebration with them. So for Passover, the most celebrated holiday on the Jewish calendar, we recommend programming in the seasonal foods aisles of local supermarkets the weekend before the holiday rather than at Jewish Community Centers or synagogues.

A couple of weeks ago, to promote our model, JOI director of programs Ruth Decalo and I hosted twenty Jewish professionals from 15 different communities in an hour long conference call about planning this Passover “Public Space Judaism” program. The conversation was lively and centered on how to make holiday programs accessible; who is being served; how to get retail store management support; and how to follow-up with participants. Five professionals on the call were currently involved in running Passover in the Aisles, while several others are in the planning stages in their local community for the near future or for next Passover.


New Way To Tell An Old Story

I recently got an email from a friend of JOI: Ellen Kushner, host and creative force behind the Sound and Spirit series on Public Radio International. She wrote to tell us about her recent live performance of the musical Purim show she created (with the help of a grant from JOI a few years back) called, “Esther: The Feast of Masks.” A local paper covered the show here. The performance was an interfaith event that partnered eight churches and a synagogue for the evening of fun yet thought-provoking entertainment.

Ellen was kind enough to write in her email, “I wanted to take this opportunity again to thank everyone at JOI for your support in creating and developing the show (which also ran on Sound & Spirit nationally in March).” Needless to say, we at JOI are thrilled that the program is still running, bringing a new view of the Purim holiday to both Jews and multi-religious audiences alike.

The entire “Esther: The Feast of Masks” show can be streamed over the Internet from the WGBH website, and of course we highly recommend it!

This Language Has To Stop

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Last week the New York Jewish Week newspaper ran an otherwise banal article on a new sitcom for Fran Drescher in which the subheading reads, “‘The Nanny’ takes up with a ‘goy toy’ in her new WB series. Oy!”

At JOI we’ve become very sensitive to the use of language that serve to push people away, in particular three Yiddish words: shiksa for non-Jewish woman, shegetz for non-Jewish man, and goy for a non-Jew (or goyim for non-Jews). These words are still in common circulation in the Jewish community, as reflected in our Jewish newspapers, yet shiksa and shegetz are slurs no matter how cute you try to play it (they originate from the Hebrew for “abomination”). And goyim, while originally translated as “[other] nations,” retains a negative connotation. It may be lamentable how few Jews still speak Yiddish, yet why are these the three words we feel such a need to hold on to?

Granted, the Fran Drescher article simply quotes a character on the show who uses the word, but it was a clear choice by the reporter, then by the headline-writer, and then by the editor, to play up that one punch line. JOI advocates for eradicating these offensive words from our vocabulary, especially in our print media.

A Different View of Israel

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For a tiny country, Israel receives a disproportionate amount of global media coverage, almost all of it focused on the Arab-Israeli conflict. For Jewish and intermarried families who are less engaged in their local Jewish communities, this media portrayal may be the only images they see of the Jewish State, which may leave them feeling ambiguous at best. That’s why whenever we at JOI see some positive coverage of Israel’s accomplishments we’ll point it out on our blog, to help give a more balanced view.

Today, Reuters ran an article called “High-Tech Wealth Shows Israel Is More Than Politics,” which discusses a new book about Israel’s amazing advances in technology, including the spread of Internet instant-messaging by the Israeli start-up ICQ and the development of wireless Intel processors. Not mentioned in the article, but hopefully covered in the book, is the fact that two Israeli scientists (pictured) shared the 2004 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for work on cell proteins that led to a new class of cancer-fighting drugs. Aaron Ciechanover and Avram Hershko join a shockingly long list of Jewish Nobel Prize winners: more than 20% of all Nobel Prizes have been awarded to Jews, who represent only one quarter of one percent (.0025%) of the world’s population. Something we can’t help but be proud of, especially when they lead directly to positive changes in society.

Sneak Peak at JOI San Fran Study

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency wrote a news brief today about our nearly-complete institutional scan of the San Francisco Bay Area that you can read here. As the brief points out, “the study focuses on the Jewish institutions doing outreach rather than on the demographics of the target population, and finds room for improvement in the methods used to reach the unaffiliated.” Our executive director Rabbi Kerry Olitzky will be presenting the findings and making recommendations at a presentation to community leaders and professionals on April 20th at the San Francisco Jewish Community Center.

Rabbi Harold Schulweis is my hero

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Rabbi Harold Schulweis is my hero. But I know that he is a hero to many. Unwilling to accept the status quo, he has always been willing to stand up for those on the periphery whom the community could easily overlook. And he has been creative and forward-thinking in developing programs so that everyone could feel at home in the synagogue and in the Jewish community. He continues to be a major voice in world Jewry, particularly in the Conservative movement. He has even taken on those who welcome only halachically Jewish children of intermarriage in the movement’s own Ramah Camps. We are particularly pleased that he has chosen to be an outspoken advocate for those non-Jews who have married into the Jewish community and are raising Jewish children.

We join the Los Angeles Jewish Chronicle in celebrating his 80th birthday and encourage those who follow his progressive thought on outreach to look for his article, “Reaching In and Reaching Out,” which will appear in an upcoming issue of the CCAR Journal which I am editing with Paul Golin, Asst Executive Director of JOI, where Rabbi Schulweis poignantly states “How we deal with the stranger tells us who we are and what we intend to become…. Reaching in to reach out is the exemplification of Godliness.”

A Very Yiddish Hip-Hop Passover

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Everything old is new again! JOI is always interested in new and innovative expressions of Judaism, and Canadian musician Josh Dolgin, aka “DJ So Called,” has found his own unique path to connect to his Jewish heritage. He’s created a radical new genre of music — Yiddish Hip-Hop Klezmer — and just released a cd of reimagined Passover songs using this unique style. You can hear samples here.

What’s so creative about So Called’s style is that it is true to the roots of both parts of this musical equation. Hip-hop is about reappropriating “classic” funk and soul vocals, rhythms, and riffs, bringing them up to date with a modern feel. The modern Klezmer and Yiddish revivals do exactly the same thing with traditional Jewish culture. They find ways to make the “old” styles speak to modern Jews. The effect of both these “movements” in African-American and Jewish culture is best captured in Dolgin’s own words: “It’s not a revival anymore - because it’s alive.” In this article from the Forward, “Dolgin noted that historically, Yiddish was often used to create offbeat art: ‘When Jews came to America, their language was Yiddish. And it was the Yiddish folk language of these people, who were funky people. We were musicians, actors, jesters and writers!’”

Never too young for a lesson in inclusion

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I teach a group of first-graders at a congregational Hebrew school once a week. Recently, seven-year old Rachel turned to her friend Sophie and declared, “You’re a half-Jew!”

Sophie, a normally vibrant, articulate Hebrew school student herself, became instantly reserved.

“Rachel!” I exclaimed.

“What?” Rachel questioned, sensing my admonishing tone.

I asked Rachel what she noticed about Sophie’s reaction to her words. “She looks sad,” Rachel observed. I asked her why she thought that Sophie looked sad, and if she thought that it had anything to do with calling her half-Jewish. “But she is a half-Jew!” Rachel declared, “Emily told me so!”


Another Barrier Lifted

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While it may be insignificant to some, and a small barrier to others, yesterday’s vote in Israel’s Supreme Court is indeed another important step toward fulfilling the biblical requirement to “welcome the stranger,” especially those who live among us. Because of a loophole in Israel’s complicated Law of Return, liberal rabbis in Israel who remain unable to perform conversions would previously provide the education in Israel then send candidates to Europe for their conversion. Then these individuals would receive automatic Israeli recognition under the Law of Return. This loophole was closed when the Israeli rabbinate added a six month residency requirement to the place in which the conversion was taking place. That is, until yesterday. Now the Israel rabbinate is being forced by the Supreme Court to recognize liberal conversions that take place outside of Israel irrespective of where the education took place and welcome them back to Israel as full citizens under the Law of Return. Read the full story here.

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