Weblog Entries for August 2005

Jewish Hero in South Carolina

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There’s an amazing column in the National Review Online about a man I’m proud to learn of: retiring chief of the Charleston, South Carolina police department, Reuben Greenberg. The article is subtitled “How a black, Jewish Texan cleaned up an old Confederate city.” It discusses the changes Greenberg instituted to turn around crime rates in the city, and it also points to how Jews “come in all different colors from all over the world.” A child of intermarriage, Reuben Greenberg is clearly a strongly identified Jew and sounds like a remarkable person in general.

This photo is by renowned photographer Bill Aron and is part of an interesting traveling exhibition called “…A Portion of the People: Three Hundred Years of Southern Jewish Life” from the Jewish Heritage Collection of the College of Charleston’s library.

New Career: Community Outreach Coordinator

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Throughout the country, enterprising Jewish communal professionals are raising the profile of outreach in their communities. JOI wants to congratulate two of our outreach colleagues in Arizona and Ohio for their success in putting outreach firmly where it belongs on our community agenda.

In Tucson, the Federation has recognized the impact of outreach on creating a more inclusive and welcoming Jewish community for unaffiliated and intermarried families. In October 2003, JOI completed a community scan evaluating the outreach needs of the population, and the strengths and challenges facing ongoing programming (see this article in the Arizona Jewish Post). The community responded to the report and presentations, coming together to create a community-wide outreach database. This “Shalom Tucson” initiative, led by Tucson’s first ever community-wide outreach coordinator, Rebecca Crow, has leveraged the efforts of all participating synagogues and agencies. Now, new outreach contacts are tracked, and are followed-up with by the Volunteer Engagement Corps, who call to personally invite newcomers to upcoming programs of interest.


Seeking Solutions for Burial

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A short article in a Canadian newspaper tells of how one community is trying to accommodate interfaith couples who have passed away: “The site incorporates two cemeteries, allowing Jewish and non-Jewish people to be buried side by side with a chain link fence separating the plots.” While this seems like a positive move, perhaps there are more creative less obtrusive approaches that still meet the requirements of traditional Jewish law. JOI’s executive director Rabbi Kerry Olitzky points out that other cemeteries have used other solutions. “There are cemeteries that are built with decorative edging around each grave which ostensibly turns each grave into independent sacred spaces allowing for non Jewish spouses to be buried next to their Jewish spouses.”

Burial is an important issue that interfaith families may want to address sooner rather than later. A time of grieving is meant to focus on loss, not logistics.

AMENDMENT! A week after this post, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency ran an article about this cemetery, and it seems like they’ve done a nice job making the separation between plots tasteful and respectful. Kudos to Noel Sandomirsky, a community leader in Regina, for his work!

Books as an Entryway

Jews are often called the “People of the Book,” meaning the Bible, but Jews can also appropriately be called the people of the books because as a group Jews read and write at a rate far disproportionate to our numbers. Considering Jews are less than 3% of the US population, it’s amazing how many Jewish-themed books make the bestseller list each year. Clearly, not all readers of Jewish-themed books are Jews, and Jewish-themed fiction has long ago found a prominent place in American literature. So how can books serve as a gateway into greater Jewish understanding and engagement?

Obviously, non-fiction is one way for newcomers to educate themselves about Judaism before taking the bolder steps of entering a Jewish institution or meeting a rabbi. For those in an interfaith relationship, there are a number of important books that can help describe the paths that others have walked and the potential for your own journey. JOI maintains a bibliography on a variety of such topics, including Introduction to Judaism and Interfaith Wedding Ceremonies.

Novels reach an even broader audience, and one organization in particular called Nextbook is trying to serve as “a gateway to Jewish literature, culture and ideas.” Perhaps ironically, this site that promotes Jewish reading has just added audio! Our friend Laurel Snyder conducts an interview about Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep with biographer Steven Kellerman in what is one of the most professional-sounding podcasts you’ll find on the web right now. The site is worth checking out if you like to read, or even if you just like to listen.

Funny handbook or insulting stereotype?

A recent, thoughtful review in the Jerusalem Post by editorial page editor Saul Singer about a new book called “Boy Vey! : The Shiksa’s Guide to Dating Jewish Men” by Kristina Grish raises some important questions about stereotypes associated with inter-dating and intermarriage—even when those stereotypes are about the supposed positive aspects of Jewish men. Noting that intermarriage is now an equal-opportunity pursuit by both Jewish men and women, Singer also writes about the potential Jewish outcomes of such unions:

Why can’t the attractive power of Jewish men (and women, for that matter) be a force for good, for growing instead of shrinking the Jewish people? When asked if she had ever thought of converting to Judaism, Grish said: “In my conversations with Jewish men, even those who don’t attend synagogue, the subject has come up… but I wouldn’t feel comfortable about leaving Christianity. At the same time, I have no problem raising my kids as Jews.” Grish doesn’t seem to draw much of a connection between what she likes about Jews, what Jews like about themselves, and Judaism itself. But both she and the men she dates should….

Jewish men and women, even secular ones who readily date non-Jews, should set themselves this simple rule: If I end up considering marriage to a non-Jew, I will grant the tradition that produced me the courtesy of a hearing. Before writing it off, or adopting some hybrid religion in my family life, I will require that my beloved and I seriously consider Judaism - converting for my spouse-to-be, discovering my own roots for me.

Singer raises important points, and intermarriage (and inter-dating) often prompt a Jewish journey on the part of both partners that would not have existed before, but we think if Singer reads more closely into Grish’s quote he would see that that’s exactly what’s happening on her dates with Jewish men, “even those who don’t attend synagogue.”


When Good Synagogues Go Bad

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I recently attended a Jewish ritual celebration, and happened to be seated with a lovely young couple. They had just gotten married, and were moving to a new city to begin their lives together. Having a personal connection to this city, I was excited to hear about their plans. When I learned that they were moving just down the street from a synagogue that I had an old connection to and was quite fond of, I almost burst out of my seat, asking them if they knew how close they were to this synagogue. They said that they had indeed heard about the synagogue, and had actually called a few weeks before in search of information. However, the wife’s next words came as a surprise: “I called and told them that we were moving to the area, and wanted to find out about programs for young adults. The first thing the woman on the other line did was start telling me about the preschool! She didn’t stop! We don’t have kids yet. I was quite turned off.”

The couple felt that the person on the phone continued to be inappropriate, making many assumptions of the couple and not taking the time to find out who they were or listen to what they were asking for. I found myself trying to convince them that it was still a wonderful synagogue, despite this initial encounter, and that whoever answered the telephone was not representative of the institution itself. And how unfortunate that was! How could a synagogue as great as this one give off this kind of impression?

Mentioning this story to another friend, she told me of a similar experience that she had with a different congregation…


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