Weblog Entries for November 2005

Conservative Steps Forward

Next week is the Conservative Movement’s biennial convention and it seems that intermarriage will be a topic of paramount importance, according to a new article from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency called “Conservative Jews Look to Recapture Place in the Sun.” The article says:

In an effort to stem the hemorrhaging of membership in Conservative synagogues and soften the movement’s image of being cold and unwelcoming to the intermarried, Rabbi Jerome Epstein, the USCJ’s executive vice president, will unveil a far-reaching initiative on keruv, or outreach, directed primarily at interfaith families in Conservative congregations.

Perhaps the leadership of the conservative movement is finally willing to admit that intermarriage is about demography more than it is about identity. Otherwise, it would be forced to admit that its own institutions are not doing a good job at instilling Jewish identity. And we know that United Synagogue Youth and Ramah camps and the Jewish Theological Seminary are strong institutions that do, in fact, do great things. (In the spirit of full disclosure, my own kids continue to benefit from their experiences at these institutions and I applaud much of what they do.)

Our friend Rabbi Charles Simon knew it a long time ago and has been at the forefront of work in the conservative movement to reach out and welcome in those who have intermarried, particularly “supportive spouses” as he likes to call those from other religious backgrounds who are married to Conservative Jews and are helping to raise Jewish children. Perhaps now the movement will recognize the prophetic zeal with which he has been working. So while we wait to see the details of the new “keruv” document, we applaud the movement for taking an important first step and look forward to helping them in their “evolution” as Rabbi Jerome Epstein called it.

Thou Shall Not Swim…Or Shall Thou?

The 92nd St YM/YWHA in New York City, one of the most venerable of Jewish comunal institutions in North America, made a significant decision this week, as reported in a New York Times article, “Keeping the Faith and the Fitness Center Alive.” Its gym will now be open until 8pm on Fridays and much of the day on Saturdays, which is of course Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath. At the same time, the facility will also offer more religious programming by sponsoring Friday night Shabbat dinners and Saturday morning Torah classes for children. While the Y has 6,000 members, over half of those who belong to its health club are not Jewish. So is the Y making a statement about its responsibility to the general community or is it recognizing that Jewish people interpret “Sabbath rest” in a variety of ways? How does a communal institution set policies that reflect the continuum of practices of the community?

The Great Latke-Hamentaschen Debates

There are a many things that American culture has contributed to Jewish history and not all of them are accessible only to those on the “inside.” Consider the annual Latke vs Hamantaschen debate that is familiar to many college campuses. As reported in the New York Times, it is such a long-lasting annual tradition at the University of Chicago (beginning in 1946!) that it has recently been chronicled in a book. Imagine the best of this country’s Jewish minds absurdly debating which is better, which is the truer Jewish food, which region of the country has a better spin on the recipe. No talk here of Jewish law or ritual. Only Jewish culture—and comedy—at its best.

The Times article notes that one of the participants, Colm O’Muircheartaigh, a professor of public policy, is not even Jewish and “tasted the first latke of his life—and hamantasch, too—after last year’s debate.” If he feels comfortable celebrating Jewish culture, certain an unaffiliated Jew will too, or a young adult child of intermarriage who may be unsure as to his or her status with the community. Is it any wonder that, as the article points out, “By 1965, the crowd of 700 was more than double the number that attended High Holy Day services on campus. Now, the tradition has spread to more than a dozen campuses.”

What other imaginative doors into Jewish life can we envision?

Welcoming (Without Pushing) Conversion

This past weekend Rabbi Eric Yoffie spoke to 4200 Reform Jews at theA 'mikva,' ritual bath for Jewish conversion Union for Reform Judaism’s biennial convention. Among the various things he said was that synagogues have a responsibility to encourage the conversion of non-Jewish spouses who are among the members of the over 900 URJ member congregations. This is something that we have heard before from the platform of the URJ, especially from Rabbi Alexander Schindler of blessed memory who was a pioneer in reaching out to intermarried families.

We encourage conversion and we believe that the community should make it easier not harder for people to convert to Judaism by lowering the same barriers to conversion that have been erected around other programs too. But we hope communal professionals will not confuse Yoffie’s exhortation as an outreach strategy.

People who have joined synagogues have taken major steps in joining the community and casting their lot with the Jewish people. They are raising Jewish children. It is easy to catch people, so to speak, when they are running in our direction. Their rabbis will know them personally — and know where they are in their lives and in their spiritual journeys — before even broaching the subject of conversion. Those on the periphery however, especially those who are intermarried, are not going to be motivated to “dip a toe in the [Jewish] water” if they believe that what we are really interested in is their conversion. Part of being a warm and nurturing community is understanding people’s needs at different points in their lives, and providing meaningful experiences at every point along the way. If conversion is part of that journey, terrific. If not, there’s still a place in our community for warmth and growth without judgment or coercion.

Hanukkah already?! Yes!

I didn’t realize until I went to the mall today that the shopping season had started in such earnest. I was really surprised to see Santa Claus sitting amidst Christmas decorations and it isn’t even Thanksgiving, at least not quite Thanksgiving. Not too far from the Christmas tree stood a rather large and stately menorah. Now some will say that a menorah doesn’t belong in a seasonal holiday display. And some will say that it is a slippery slope from the shopping mall to the public square. But I stood and watched the children and I remembered my own childhood in the South and I see other holiday displays which feature large Christmas trees and tiny Hanukkah menorahs, and I am once again reminded…

When the tree is there and the menorah is missing, the Jewish children who walk past feel left out;

When the Christmas tree looms large over the menorah, the Jewish children who walk by feel puny like the menorah;

But when Jewish children walk by and sees the menorah, large and proud, they feel the same way.

A Novel Take on an Old Theme

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that the latest novel I picked up—which purports to be a humorous romantic novel about a 60 year old widower—contains a primary subplot about intermarriage. In Love With Noodles (apparently an expression that the author’s father used to connote “marrying rich”), the protagonist is struggling with a variety of quick, physical, romantic encounters—the first after so many years of marriage and relationship with one woman. He may be struggling with a new ethic, but the old storyline remains. His son tells him that he has fallen in love with a non-Jewish woman and the father goes relatively beserk, that is, in a quiet brooding sort of way. It doesn’t matter that his daughter-in-law-to-be is more interested in religion and in Judaism than is his Jewish son. It doesn’t matter that his daughter-in-law-to-be has promised to set up a Jewish home and raise Jewish children. It doesn’t matter that his future daughter-in-law is more engaged in the Passover seder than is her intended.

WARNING, SPOILER: It takes the entire book for the main character to realize what we at JOI realized a long time ago: Interfaith marriage is not the end of Jewish continuity. Not raising Jewish children is the end of Jewish continuity. In its inevitability let’s celebrate those who have entered our community, cast their lot with our people and made a commitment to raising Jewish children. Maybe if we start showing the welcoming side of the Jewish community, more people will in fact want to join us.

Let’s Offer More to the Less Involved

There were lots of skeptics out there about birthright israel. Could a short-term trip to Israel—even a free one—do much to nurture Jewish identity? Well, the reports that have been coming out of Brandeis’ Cohen Center certainly seem to indicate the long-lasting power of the trip. Perhaps it is a diminishing asset that requires follow-up programming, some of which has been left to Hillels to do; some of which has been conducted by birthright israel’s own programming.

In a new article from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, “Campus groups use birthright as way to get students involved,” we learn of another twist on the birthright program. Hillels on college campuses are using the program as a device to identify those on the periphery for whom a free trip to Israel may be desirable even if a trip to the local on-campus Hillel may not be.

Perhaps we can take that idea and use it as a vehicle for reaching those students in other ways—something that JOI has been advocating these past few years. Birthright israel has become a raffle of sorts. You sign up (and give over all of your contact information, something coveted by Hillel recruiters, to be sure) and then you will probably be offered one of the spots on birthright. But if not this term, then perhaps next term, so stay in touch with us and we will do the same with you. Well, can’t we think of other kinds of programs, free giveaways that might be of interest to students and yet still resonate with the mission of Hillel on campus? Sure would make recruitment and reaching those on the periphery a lot easier.

The Debate That Keeps On Going, And Going…

We at JOI were thrilled to see the Jewish Week continue to place us in the center of the controversy over outreach to those who have intermarried—as noted in this week’s editorial by our friend Gary Rosenblatt called, “Let The Outreach Debate Be Heard.” In the piece, he writes:

Jack Wertheimer, provost of the Jewish Theological Seminary, and Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, represent very different positions in what has been called the inreach-outreach debate about how best to deal with the situation: whether to focus more on the core of committed Jews or concentrate communal efforts on those on the periphery.

While we are grateful to the Jewish Week for accurately presenting our views, we feel bittersweet about having to once again defend our position against a very vocal but very small minority of the Jewish community. Sometimes, the mere act of “debate” is a victory for those who are resisting change.

According to a 2000 survey conducted by the American Jewish Committee, 81% of American Jews polled said “The Jewish community has an obligation to reach out to intermarried couples,” and 80% said “Intermarriage is inevitable in an open society.” If Dr. Wertheimer believes, as described in this Jewish Week column, that “an educated, sophisticated Jewish community” should create “a sophisticated mechanism to plan its future in a sustained way,” then let’s go directly to the people and (as the President might ask of Congress) have an UP OR DOWN VOTE among all the Jews about our future direction, and then go with it!

It is time to move forward. Perhaps it is also time to reframe the question and move it from”Who is a Jew?” to “Who is a member of our Jewish community?” Finally, maybe it is time to emulate the acts of our ancestor Abraham who opened his tent flaps wide so that all who would enter would be welcomed from afar.

Behind Closed Doors

What goes on behind closed doors in the organized Jewish community? Our good friend Eli Valley wrote a brilliantly funny satirical piece in yesterday’s Jerusalem Post, in which a group of Jewish “leaders” discuss what to do about such pressing topics as Jewish intermarriage:

- Before we begin, has everybody had a chance to review our latest anti-intermarriage publicity effort?

- I think it’s too subtle. The slogan “Don’t Finish What The Nazis Started” is vague.

- I agree. How about a simple “Intermarriage is Suicide”? That should welcome more Jews into the community.

- We should add something emphatic about how the children of intermarriage are not Jews.

- How about “Intermarriage is Suicide and Children of Intermarriage Are Akin to Zombies”?

- That could work.

- It’s punchy, it strikes a nerve, it says what’s important.

- It could bring thousands of Jews back into the fold!

The piece is already irking those who feel intermarriage is never a laughing matter, the “leaders” who Mr. Valley satirically notes in the piece, “represent .00003 percent of American Jewry.”

Another Jewish Genius

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I was recently asked, “What are a Jewish girl and an Irish girl doing speaking Yiddish in an Upper Westside cafe?” There was a simple answer to this question. My friend and I (both Jewish) were laboriously learning Yiddish, a language that our grandparents had deliberately left behind. The man who asked this question was blond, blue-eyed, and bemused. Except for the yarmulke (skull cap) on his head, he didn’t “look Jewish” any more than I look…did he say Irish?

I thought about this incident when I read that Aaron Dwarkin had won the MacArthur “genius” award. Aaron Dwarkin founded Sphinx Music, which encourages African American and Latino young people to love classical music and to become professional musicians. As Dwarkin told the Jewish Week, his appearance often causes consternation. “I really freak people out. They see my last name and say ‘we were expecting someone old, white, balding and Jewish’ and I show up, young, black and seemingly not Jewish.”


A New Message from Hillel

An article in this week’s New York Jewish Week discusses a shift in the thinking of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life in meeting the needs of today’s college kids, the so-called “millenials.” Among other changes, Hillel has “abandoned its longtime mantra ‘to maximize the number of Jews doing Jewish with other Jews’ in favor of one that casts a wider net… ‘to enrich the lives of Jewish undergraduate and graduate students so that they may enrich the Jewish people and the world.’”

Recent studies confirm what JOI already knew: 50% of those who identify Jewishly on college campuses come from interfaith families. That adds to Hillel’s challenge of reaching more kids while remaining inclusive of all streams of Jewish denominationalism and observance. It is an exciting challenge, though. To reach them where they are—in the midst of college culture—requires us as a community to enliven Jewish cultural offerings, take our programs to secular campus venues, and find ways to make connections while competing with all the other attractions and distractions of college life. Like all Jewish institutions, Hillel must change to meet those needs, but we believe that can be accomplished through the many innovative outreach techniques already being promoted by JOI. Much more to follow about JOI and Hillel in the months ahead.

Reflecting on our Period of Reflection

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It is hard to even think about next year’s High Holidays when the fall holidays have just (finally!) concluded. It is especially difficult since many synagogues use the holidays to jumpstart their programs and activities for the year, and are now in the thick of it. But it’s worth reflecting for a moment on what we Jewish communal professionals learned this year. Among other things, we may have learned that the potential of the High Holidays to reach large numbers of those on the periphery was missed because of the barrier of tickets and high ticket prices, as eloquently argued in an article from this week’s Forward.

For those synagogue leaders who think that the holidays and their ticket prices are one-time events for attendees, it is important to remind ourselves that this is only the case if we don’t take advantage of them. We must ask ourselves, what events or programs or services are planned ahead of time that can be carefully built into the High Holiday context so that a path can be carefully and strategically drawn from one to the other?

As we look forward to the rest of the program calendar—especially if we want to touch those on the periphery—the next easy access Jewish holiday must certainly be Hanukkah. And as a result of the influence of so-called “civil religion,” its announcement comes on the heels of Thanksgiving although Hanukkah is nearly two months away. It’s a great opportunity for engagement, and JOI is here to help. In the coming weeks we’ll be offering program ideas and best practices via conference call. Please be in touch with our program staff if you’re interested.

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