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Weblog Entries for June 2005

In The Navy…

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What does the Navy and the Jewish Outreach Institute have to do with one another? Well, for one, I am involved in both. This past Friday, in front of my co-workers, I was commissioned as a Navy Chaplain Reservist. That means for two days a month and two weeks a year, I will join a Navy unit as their Chaplain. This ceremony marked the culmination of six years of training, which took place on and off throughout rabbinical school. My training has taken me to Newport, RI, Camp Pendleton Corps base just south of San Diego, and to Japan. I have met Jews from all walks of life, from the Marine officer who went to Jewish day school with a friend of mine, to the sailor who had been exploring Judaism with his wife for many years and was thinking about converting. I have lead Torah studies, Shabbat and High Holiday services, and given a nonsectarian prayer aboard a ship in the Pacific Ocean.

As a Navy Chaplain, I am both a rabbi, specifically, and a chaplain, generally. That means I do all the religious functions of a rabbi such as lead services and officiate at life cycle events and am also a resource and counselor to all sailors and Naval officers, no matter what their religion or background.

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JOI’s First Outreach Professional’s Network (OPeN) Meeting in the Bay Area

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“Go west, young woman,” they said, and so I did. To the San Francisco Bay Area, where I met with a group of committed and inspiring outreach professionals gathered for JOI’s first Outreach Professional’s Network (OPeN) workshop on Lowering Barriers to Participation held in the Berkeley-Richmond Jewish Community Center on June 22. We discussed some of the barriers that exist in the organized Jewish community that we need to overcome in order to welcome, invite and engage the diverse population of independent Jews and their families — the Jewish majority today.

Some of the barriers to Jewish engagement that we discussed included the relatively high cost of “doing Jewish,” the use of inaccessible language in marketing programs (such as Hebrew or Yiddish), and the holding of programs in Jewish institutions (and sometimes only marketing within those institutions, meaning that the wealth of programming remains the Bay Area’s best kept secret). So, what did we resolve?

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New JOI High Holiday Program Initiative

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The holiday of Shavuot has come and gone, and the summer is upon us. For many, that means sunshine, vacations and visits to the beach. For professionals in the Jewish community, it is a wake-up call that the High Holidays are just around the corner, and there is much to be done!

As you begin to plan your High Holiday programs and work out events for the fall season, consider how you can incorporate programming that is low-barrier and able to welcome unaffiliated and intermarried families into the mix. We at JOI asked ourselves the always-relevant question of “where are the people” during the fall season, and in formulating an answer, came up with a simple and innovative new program to take advantage of the secular calendar and maximize community collaboration: a back-to-school Public Space Judaism event called “Color Me Calendar for the Jewish New Year.” On June 30th we will host a conference call to detail this program to Jewish professionals and explain how it can be used to reach out to unaffiliated and intermarried families with young children this fall. If you are a professional or lay leader interested in finding out more about the program and how to bring it to your community, please email me (Eva) at EStern@JOI.org.



Let’s Do Inreach AND Outreach

Last week I attended a committee meeting for a large Jewish organization where the discussion centered on how the organization can make an impact in the future of the Jewish community. A familiar debate arose: should we concentrate on expanding the Jewish community by including as many people as possible; or on strengthening the “core” through education and the like. In other words, should our efforts go into in-reach or outreach?

Yet this is a false dichotomy; the two should be inextricably linked. If outreach means, as it does at JOI, creating programs and points of contact with Judaism outside of Jewish institutions that are easily accessible, that is, in secular venues, low to no cost, and with no expectation of previous knowledge (only an interest and curiosity about Judaism), and helping people create deeper connections to Judaism and the community, then these new people will help grow and diversify the connected Jewish community.

If in-reach consists of creating quality educational, cultural and religious programs that deepen the knowledge and commitment of affiliated Jews, then this can have a positive impact in reaching the Jews who do not attend the institutions. How? By creating a rich Judaism that people will be attracted to.

The real issue behind the “inreach vs. outreach debate” is: how do interfaith families fit into the equation?

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Thanking Fathers of Other Religious Backgrounds

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Children teach us the truths of living. On Father’s Day each year, children look to their fathers as heroes. While they may be simple men doing the hard work of daily living like most others, in the eyes of their children, no matter the age, they are heroes nonetheless. We have a lot to learn from these children, especially when they are being raised as Jewish children by non-Jewish fathers. In the Jewish community, these fathers should be celebrated for the heroes they really are.



Shavuot: The Holiday That Honors Those Who Stand With Us At Sinai

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I believe in the historical memory of the Jewish people and its inherent sacred power to lift us and our earthly experiences heavenward. While this is a rather abstract metaphysical idea, put quite simply: I stood at Sinai.

So I carry the memory of Sinai with me as part of the collective memory of the Jewish people wherever I go. I am regularly reminded of it in the covenantal relationship that I seek daily with Gd through ritual and prayer, what the philosopher Martin Buber referred to as the “I-Thou” relationship. And it is affirmed for me regularly when the Torah is read aloud in public. For me, I savor the experience of this ongoing relationship through the embracing of a religious life. Its rituals, especially when they are “work,” help to bring me closer to the Divine.

But that memory includes the recognition that I was not alone in that ancient desert experience.

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Is Conversion “THE” Solution?

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Our friend Lawrence Epstein, founder and president of the Conversion to Judaism Resource Center in Commack, NY, wrote an op-ed in today’s Jerusalem Post that identifies a population crisis for the Jewish people and states, ” The solution that can work is encouraging people to embrace Judaism. There are literally millions of people with Jewish ancestors, people whose ancestors were forced to convert out of Judaism, or who assimilated. Additionally, there are many people who are loosely attached to the Jewish community through a romantic partner, parent or other family member. Some even consider themselves Jewish, though no formal Jewish religious group would accept such a claim.”

Epstein suggests that “Potential converts are discouraged by our inability to define common standards for conversion. It is not easy for people considering Judaism to hear they will be accepted by some Jews as authentic, but not by others.” He goes on to recommend “a single worldwide organization or department that has the sole mandate of increasing the Jewish population through welcoming converts.”

While Mr. Epstein does wonderful work, we see potential pitfalls in his recommendation.

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Predicting the Jewish Future

An interesting article in yesterday’s Haaretz Israeli newspaper told of a think tank of Jewish leaders that met recently at the Wye Plantation near Washington, D.C., to “ensure a better future for the Jewish people.” As can be expected, intermarriage is blamed among other culprites for a decline in the number of Jews globally. What’s unique is the positive messages found throughout the piece:

“We need to lower the entry level of participation in Jewish organizational and religious life,” says [Stuart] Eizenstat. “We need to work with those who are less connected to the community, those who traditionally were not part of the community.” These “marginal Jews” include non-Jewish spouses in mixed marriages, children of mixed marriages who were not raised in a Jewish home, immigrants from the former Soviet Union who never received Jewish education or whose Jewish lineage is in doubt.

The article continues…

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Must the Jewish Community Promote In-Marriage?

In the recent issue of Contact—the influential journal of Mega-Philanthropist Michael Steinhardt’s Jewish Life Network Foundation—JOI’s executive director Rabbi Kerry Olitzky writes an article arguing for the community to stop using marriage as a measure of “success” or “failure” in Jewish identity formation, and instead focus on the raising of Jewish children by all Jewish households, whether in- or intermarried. You can read the piece on-line as a PDF document; it starts on page 9. In it, Rabbi Olitzky says, “Our emphasis should be on what it takes to create a Jewish household and raise Jewish children, or on what it takes to live a Jewish life, irrespective of the choices we have made with regard to a partner. After all, interfaith marriage is not the end of Jewish continuity. Not raising Jewish children is the end of Jewish continuity.”



Tracking Jewish Journeys

In catching up on my Forward newspaper reading, I came across a fascinating article by social psychologist Bethamie Horowitz from March 11th about how people’s Jewish involvement changes over time. By examining how survey respondents compare their current levels of Shabbat observance now to when they were children, and how important being Jewish is to them now compared to childhood, she identifies an even split among Jews between “Movers” and “Stayers,” that is, between those whose Jewish identities have “morphed” over time and those whose identities have remained stable.

She writes that “Typically, Jews have been conditioned to forecast any changes in Jewish life as being in the direction of ‘down and out.’ But in fact, one of the most noteworthy realities of being Jewish in America today is the sense that one’s life could lead in any number of directions — and not necessarily in the direction of disengagement and rejection.”

Although not mentioned in her piece, this is certainly as relevant for intermarried Jews as for any others: the Jewish journey continues. In our work we’ve seen how many Jews find a deeper connection to their heritage brought on by their intermarriage, because they are—sometimes for the first time—confronted with their Judaism. Often, it is related to decisions about raising children. It would be interesting to see the breakdown between intermarried Jews among her categories of “Movers” and “Stayers.”

The print version of the article also had a graph that Dr. Horowitz created, which we’ve scanned in and posted here. It’s especially interesting and perhaps ominous to note that while the breakdown of “Movers” and “Stayers” has remained around 50% through four generations of American Jews, among the “Stayers” the percentage who have had “steady involvement” continues to shrink while the percentage who have had “steady lack of involvement” continues to rise (the top and bottom parts of each bar in the graph).



New Book on the Book of Ruth

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Ruth: A Modern Commentary is the latest book by JOI’s executive director Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, written together with Rabbi Leonard Kravitz and published by URJ Press. “A chronicle of loss and despair, love, romance, and hope, the Book of Ruth includes themes and lessons applicable to the lives of contemporary readers: rebuilding a life after extreme loss; conversion to Judaism; women’s roles, sexuality, and legal status; finding love again; and more.”

The biblical Ruth is considered the paradigmatic convert to Judaism, and her famous declaration, “Your people shall be my people, and your God my God” still rings with powerful meaning today—thousands of years after her death—not just for conversionary families but for all people who have thrown their lot in with the Jewish people. This book can be ordered online at the URJ Press website.

And if you are lucky enough to be in Canton, Ohio, on Sunday June 12, you can meet Rabbi Olitzky and hear him discuss the Book of Ruth at a special Shavuot holiday event at the Canton Jewish Community Center.





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