Weblog Entries for September 2005

Thanking Mothers of Other Religious Backgrounds Raising Jewish Children

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Last week JOI launched a very special listserve as part of our Mothers Circle program. We created this listserve as an opportunity for mothers across the country who are of other religious backgrounds raising Jewish children to connect with each other, share their stories and offer support and networking. This is an otherwise highly underserved, but extremely important, population within the Jewish community. We thank them for undertaking such a difficult task by providing them with free programs of education and welcoming.

If you are a mother raising Jewish children and not Jewish yourself, we would love to have you as part of the listserve. You can register at the bottom of the Mothers Circle homepage by clicking here. If you know of someone who is, please tell them about this great resource.

Another exciting development is that a growing number communities around the country are offering Mothers Circle: The Course, an eight-month, twice-monthly educational and experiential program empowering women to create Jewish homes. These communities include Atlanta, GA; Cleveland Heights, OH; Greater Hartford, CT; Cape Cod, MA; Kansas City, KS; Allentown, PA; Easton, PA; Milwaukee, WI; and Bergen County, NJ. Please contact me Melinda Zalma by email or by phone at 212-760-1440 and I can connect you to the local coordinator.

An Awakening?

It seems a growing number of our colleagues are beginning to identify—as JOI has for quite a while—that simply put, many in the younger generations do not “do Jewish” in any way similar to those of us in the older generations, or even relate to the community the way the current generation does. But this does not mean that they’re not connected to their Judaism; quite the contrary.

That’s what appears to be contained in the soon-to-be-released research report from Steven Cohen and Ari Kelman, covered this week by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency: “Study Shows Young Jews Find Offbeat Ways To Express Identity.”

The study seems to affirm much of what JOI has been traveling the country telling Jewish professionals: let’s take what we love about Judaism outside the four walls of our Jewish institutions to meet people where they are. Let’s lower barriers to participation by allowing them to include all their friends, Jewish or non-Jewish. And let’s speak to them on a cultural, musical and artistic level.

The synagogue may be the cornerstone of the historical Jewish community but it is not the institution that is anchoring their lives. Instead, there are other things. Even the cottage industry of irreverent Jewish t-shirts speaks to this trend of affirming Jewish identity in unfamiliar and innovative Jewish ways.

The study looked at young Jews already participating in Jewish programming, so it’s hard to know how representative they are of their generation. Still, while not quoted in the article, historian Jonathan Sarna would call these “Jewish awakenings” and credit them with the potential to insure Jewish survival. It may not look like “your father’s Oldsmobile” but it may augur well for an exciting Jewish future.

“Welcome To Our Side”

In response to the Forward op-ed mentioned previously in this space (and responded to by JOI), another important voice has weighed in with some excellent points. Long-time advocate for outreach and JOI’s Treasurer of the Board of Directors, Dr. Michael Rappeport, writes in a letter to the Forward:

I read the op ed page article by Jack Wertheimer and Steve Bayme in some amazement. Perhaps I misunderstand, but it seems to me it represents a true milestone in their thinking. For years I have been listening to them proclaim that the Jewish community should concentrate its resources on “Quality not Quantity”. For years they have been saying that it was far more important to deepen the Judaism of already practicing Jews then to reach out to the non-practicing, let alone the intermarried.


What is an “In-Marriage Initiative”?

In response to this op-ed from the so-called “In-Marriage Initiative,” the current issue of the Forward ran a letter from the Jewish Outreach Institute that you can read here.

We also wrote a full rebuttal exclusive to our blog, below, that delves more deeply into how intermarriage is an American phenomenon, not just a Jewish phenomenon, and therefore just trying to “change the Jews” is a futile strategy:


Mixed Messages?

The Conservative movement has been very busy lately in its various constituencies debating the challenge of responding to interfaith marriage, as well as to those who have intermarried. Particularly after a rather harsh op-ed published in the current issue of The Forward by Jack Wertheimer and Steven Bayme (the former of whom is provost at the Jewish Theological Seminary), I was pleasantly surprised to read a weekly Torah commentary by the Chancellor of the Seminary, Rabbi Ismar Schorsch.

While the piece was originally written in 1994, it was reissued by the Seminary some weeks ago as a weekly commentary on Parashat Pinchas, a rather well-known bit of Torah writ which clearly reflects a zealot’s approach to interfaith marriage in the community. In the case of the Torah, it is between an Israelite and a Moabite, a forbidden marriage (although it is important to note that Ruth—who mothers the Davidic line—is of Moabite origin nonetheless).

Rabbi Schorsch outlines an approach (inconsistent with what we hear in most official Conservative circles, except perhaps at the FJMC with forward-thinking Rabbi Chuck Simon at its helm) that we even applaud. He starts with “if our children end up marrying non-Jews we should not reject them.” In other words, we should welcome them. Then he says, “Second, we should not miss an opportunity to give the non-Jewish spouse of our son or daughter a chance to savor Jewish experience.” In other words, let’s include them. Third, he says we should offer to “convert” them [and I would add “without unnecessary obstacles”]. It isn’t until the end, the fourth rung in his “platform,” that he talks about so-called “prevention”—the word and approach that seems to be occupying his colleagues and eclipsing most everything else.

Perhaps those in the Conservative movement who seek a mandate for greater inclusion can start with this “re-ordering” of welcoming steps Chancelor Schorsch seems to be implying in his piece.

What’s in a Word?

This weekend I happened to be driving through a suburban community and noticed that there were signs along some of the streets advertising local synagogues. I thought it was great that these synagogues were making their presence known to the community. But what did the signs say? “New Members Welcome!”

The intention is good, but what might these congregations be communicating to newcomers through the wording of their signs? Membership. Membership. Membership.

We understand that many synagogues need membership to survive, and that’s fine. However, we don’t think an emphasis on membership is a way to reach out to welcome people in. Quite the contrary. An emphasis on membership can unfortunately turn people off from exploring a new community by creating a barrier of having to pay to “belong.” Many of the people we reach out to are not thinking in terms of membership and dues at this point in their Jewish journeys, but are simply seeking connection and community.

Let’s first strive for engagement, and worry about membership later. Phrases like “All Are Welcome” sound much more inviting. It lowers barriers. People understand that institutions need financial support, but asking for a monetary investment before they’ve made an emotional investment—or before they’ve even walked through the door!—doesn’t seem like a very effective marketing strategy. If our ads say “Open To Everyone,” what’s the worst that could happen, our Friday night services become too crowded? We think that’s a challenge most synagogues would gladly accept.

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