Weblog Entries for December 2005

How Do You Spell Hanukk…uh?

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On a lighter note, here’s an article from today’s New York Daily News, “Chanukah. . . Hannuka. . . Hahfuhgedit!” on the mass confusion about how to spell the name of this holiday. The article points out:

There’s Channuka, Channukah, Chanuka, Chanukah, Chanuko, Hannuka, Hannukah, Hanuka, Hanika, Hanukah, Hanukka, Hanukkah, Kanukkah, Khannuka, Khannukah, Khanuka, Khanukah, Khanukkah and Khanike. Sometimes even Xanuka.

Oy. It’s enough to make you look forward to Purim.

Of course, the correct answer is that there’s no correct English spelling…because it’s a transliterated Hebrew word. Just do the best you can!

Slate on the REAL Meaning of Hanukkah

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In this season of gift-giving and family gettogethers, it’s easy to breeze through Hanukkah without stopping to appreciate the deeper meaning of the holiday, or ever even acquiring a full understanding of the events we’re commemorating. In some ways, the complexity of the historical events keep many folks from delving deeper.

While there are certainly many scholarly and popular books available on the subject, the online magazine Slate tackles this challenge with a brief but excellent article called “The Maccabees and the Hellenists: Hanukkah as Jewish Civil War” by James Ponet. Among his many insights, I found this the most poignant:

The Jews at once succumbed to Greek civilization, forcefully resisted it, and were transformed by it…. Here we find the historical miracle that Hanukkah implicitly celebrates: the capacity to sustain intimate relations with another without totally ceding your own sense of self, the ability to love without permanently merging, to be enchanted by the exquisite beauty of another without losing sight of your own charms.

Of course, if you are ready to delve deeper, you can always start by reading the original source. Either way, it was a fascinating time for the Jewish people, worth exploring for the relevant parallels to today’s challenges.

How Was YOUR December Dilemma?

Over the last week or so, both the Jewish and secular media have been awash in stories about the “December Dilemma” for interfaith families, more so this year than ever before — considering it is the first time since 1959 that the first night of Hanukkah has fallen on Christmas day (and back in 1959 the Jewish intermarriage rate was only about 6%).

Among the many articles covering the phenomenon are:

Many of these articles seem to focus on the seeming harmony brought to families that celebrate both holidays.

The article that I thought best captured the actual challenges of “celebrating both” (and not just because I was quoted) was a piece by reporter Sue Fishkoff of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency called “Some families solve annual dilemma by celebrating Christmas, Chanukah“. The piece examines a few grassroots initiatives that not only celebrate both holidays but try to educate children of interfaith parents about both religions simultaneously:

Raymond Reichenberg, who’s at the Christmas - Chanukah celebration in New York with his 9-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son, admits he couldn’t bring himself to sing the Christmas carols earlier in the evening. But, he says, this is the only way his family can negotiate their dual-faith reality. When he and his wife, a Roman Catholic, got married, they agreed to raise the children as Jews. “But when the time came, she couldn’t tolerate it,” Reichenberg says. “The hardest thing was giving up my desire to have Jewish kids. We wouldn’t have gotten through it without this place, and the exposure and tolerance they’re learning.”

The rest of the piece chronicles some of the very difficult emotions the parents deal with when confronted with such compromises.

So how was YOUR day? Was it as harmonious as some of the above articles might suggest? Or were there real challenges?

Happy Hanukkah from JOI!

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Hanukkah is one of my favorite Jewish holidays. (Truth be told, I enjoy each Jewish holiday for what it brings to the Jewish spirit and psyche.) I don’t care whether it comes early or late. (I do realize that retailers prefer that Hanukkah come after Christmas so that the Jewish community can take advantage of after-Christmas sales and complete the season for them.) I only want to make sure that it is celebrated to the fullest. Those who say it is minor holiday are out of touch with Jewish children in North America. Sure, there is something simple and beautiful in the Hanukkah menorah burning brightly on the window sill. It belongs there as a way to show off/make public the miracle—in Hebrew called persumat hanes. But there is also something nice about a Jewish holiday that motivates us for the entire month that surrounds the eight day celebration with parties and decorations and gifts. Hanukkah celebrates religious freedom. It celebrates Jewish independence. Why shouldn’t we celebrate it to the fullest?

JOI in the Atlanta Jewish Times

Because our programThe Mothers Circle—which offers free education and events for non-Jewish women raising Jewish children—began in Atlanta thanks to the ongoing support of the Marcus Foundation, JOI held our National Leadership Conference there earlier this month. The conference helped raise awareness for some of the most important issues facing the Jewish community in general, as well as locally thanks to our scan of Jewish institutions in Greater Atlanta.

We’re grateful to the Atlanta Jewish Times for covering JOI’s conference with three interesting articles on some very important issues:

  • Intermarriage Isn’t Enemy, Outreach Conference Hears. The article mentions that “philanthropist and Boston Jewish leader Michael Rukin argued in his keynote address…that with full acceptance in America and an independent Israel, Jews no longer need to adopt the attitude of an oppressed people fighting for survival. That might even mean accepting a more expansive view of who is Jewish.”
  • Jewish Atlanta Urged To Coordinate Outreach. This is an excellent synopsis of our scan, pointing out all the key findings, including that “Atlanta’s Jewish organizations must work together to connect with the area’s unaffiliated Jews rather than fight one another for members.”
  • Jews of Many Colors. This piece recounts a presentation by Jen Chau at a workshop during the conference called “Connecting to Our Diverse Populations” in which she explains the feelings of alienation often faced by those who don’t “look Jewish” according to traditional Ashkenazi-Jewish stereotypes.

These articles give a good glimpse into the conference, and in the coming month we’ll post some of the speeches and photos as well.


Thanks to the generous support of the Elkes Family Foundation, JOI was able to produce a 10-minute DVD about two of our programs: our professional-training work in Tucson, AZ, as sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona, and our program for mothers of other religious backgrounds raising Jewish children, The Mothers Circle, sponsored by the Marcus Foundation.

The video contains moving testimonials of intermarried families raising strongly-identified Jewish children. Called “Transforming Lives, Transforming Communities,” you can watch it online here:

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(Left click a link above to play the video. Right click and select “Save Target As” to download the video file.)

Please alert people you know who might be interested in this video, especially those who may be interested in joining The Mothers Circle listserve. Thanks!

How Far Still To Go on Achieving Colorblindness

Yesterday we blogged about a wonderful Jewish Soul Celebration that brought together Jews of all colors and affiliations for a magical night of music. Today, we are reminded of just how unique that event was, when we were alerted (by our friends on the Jewish Multiracial Network’s listserve) to a disturbing article in LA Weekly magazine called “Schwarze in the Family,” about how hurtful our insider language can be, whether in the form of overt racism or simply a joke in poor taste.

It’s a powerful piece, written by an African-American woman married to an Ashkenazi Jewish man who was mortifyingly embarrassed at a family function of her in-laws when the singer used the word schwarze, Yiddish for “black person” (but not a neutral word, especially when it’s the only Yiddish in an otherwise English sentence). She was doubly-shocked that only her husband seemed to care.

The ensuing discussion about the article on the JMN listserve suggests that this was not an isolated incident. It seems that as a community, we still have plenty of work yet to do.

A Musical Celebration of our Jewish Soul

Last evening several of us at JOI were priveleged to celebrate with Ayecha its first benefit concert, a Jewish Soul Celebration (press release here). Ayecha is an organization committed to recognizing the racial diversity of the Jewish community. Artists from all over the world performed, demonstrating that Jews have lived on all continents and in each place, the Jewish community has taken in bits and pieces of the surrounding culture and made it our own.

Among the many highlights of the evening (including a stirring performance by our friend Danny Maseng who sang at our own JOI conference just last week) was the absolutely amazing performance of Joshua Nelson and the Kosher Gospel Singers. For those of us who have never seen him perform, it was kind of like the church scene in the Blues Brothers movie when John Belushi’s character receives a heavenly revelation during “pastor” James Brown’s singing. For us, the realization was that there are so many different and wonderful ways we can shape Jewish prayer and music to fit who we are, and actually elevate ourselves while doing so. Once you listen to his version of some of the traditional prayers, you’ll want to shake things up the next time you attend synagogue for Friday night services. And we think that’s a good thing.

At JOI we are advocates for an inclusive Jewish community because if you open the Jewish tent wide and far, no matter your background or subgroup, you will feel welcomed and embraced. We are grateful to have an ally in that work like Ayecha.

A refreshing view on intermarriage & in general

There’s a new Jewish quarterly magazine out now called Guilt & Pleasure, sponsored by our friends at Reboot, an organization whose goal is to help its generation (Gen X? Gen Y? Millennials?) “grapple with the questions of Jewish identity, community and meaning on its own terms.” Guilt & Pleasure calls itself a journal, and is considerably more heady than some of the other recently-created Jewish periodicals like the irreverent Atlanta Jewish Life or the raunchy Heeb, while remaining somewhat less (intimidatingly) literary than another new cultural journal, Zeek.

This week, Mireille Silcoff, editor-in-chief of Guilt & Pleasure, submitted to an email interview with the Israeli newspaper Haaretz in which she was asked, among other poorly-phrased questions, about “the war against intermarriage.” I found her reply a perfectly succinct encapsulation of what we at JOI have been trying to get across for years, including:

You can tell a youngster that it’s important to marry Jewish. You can also tell them that it is important to save for retirement. Or that once they do their own washing, they should separate lights from darks. Will this information, if it is taught, and memorized, like a subject in school, be something they hang on to as valuable years later? Possibly the bit about washing. The other two parts will depend on a youth’s experience more than anything any elder tells them.

But to say intermarriage is the product of mainly Jewish dissatisfaction is erroneous - there’s also, more than anything, the world at large. Jewish parents might send children to mixed schools, encourage children to respect other cultures, to have all kinds of friends, to have an open world view. These parents are thrilled when their children speak a second or third language, or do something like a cultural exchange program. But then the kid hits their twenties, and suddenly this person, reared on multicultural colouring books and Spanish skits on Sesame Street is told to forget all that in romance and marry someone exactly like themselves. It’s a tall, narrow order - and it doesn’t match the kids’ variegated experience in growing up.

The full interview is worth reading. Ms. Silcoff’s thoughtfulness and vision bode well for the success of her magazine.

Show us your menorah!

We may not agree with everything Chabad does, but at JOI the Chabad giant menorah-lightings serve as the outstanding example of our signature approach to Public Space Judaism for Hanukkah. The rest of the Jewish community is also catching on, as explained in today’s JTA feature, “Public menorah displays testament to the growing acceptance of Chabad.” It is important to note that JOI advocates Judaism in the Public Space more than the Public Square, because that is where the people are—in public spaces like shopping malls and bookstores and coffee shops, more than in government agencies. So let’s see how many large menorahs we can erect in the community in addition to what Chabad can do. And let’s make sure that we apply the best of outreach practices at the same time—implementing effective, unobtrusive strategies for the collection of contact information, and inviting the folks who attend to other free events that are relevant to their interests, through personal follow-up.

Hanukkah celebration is of course a great thing in its own right. But if it might also serve a gateway into deepening someone’s Jewish interests, we should ask ourselves, What else might they be looking for? How can we provide it? This isn’t about getting someone to attend synagogue services the next week (unless that’s what they’re looking for!), it’s about providing the vast array of Jewish offerings—religious, cultural, intellectual, social, and so on, based on what people want (not on what our institutions need). Almost all Jews celebrate Hanukkah. Let’s come together as a community, and then find more ways that we can stay together throughout the year, with equally fun and low-threshold events that don’t distinguish between affiliated or unaffiliated, observant or non-observant, in-married or intermarried, or any of the other ways we artificially separate ourselves.

Kind of Funny, Kind of Sad

Perhaps as a response to the alarming merging of Christmas and Hanukkah we’ve recently seen with the mainstreaming of non-holidays like “Christmukah,” there’s a clever new website called While its humor is hit-or-miss, we enjoyed reading its raison d’etre:

In a well-meaning but misguided attempt to be “inclusive”, Christian society has cast Chanukah in the role of the “Jewish Christmas”. To liberate our ancient holiday from this false role, we introduce a new holiday, the true Jewish Christmas, Jewsmas. Now leave Chanukah the hell alone!

Perhaps that could have been worded more gently, but some of the alternative celebrations they offer for this “new holiday”—to be celebrated seperately from both Christmas and Hanukkah—are quite humorous. I especially enjoyed the token-gesture “Refusal of the Ham.”

Advice Taken!

Though we weren’t mentioned by name, JOI was gratified to see one of our recommendations being implemented by the Greater Washington DC Jewish community, in which we’ve conducted one of our Outreach Scans and did some preliminary training. In his Thanksgiving “Message from the President,” David Butler, President of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, wrote:

Our Public Space Judaism initiative, designed to bring Judaism to places where Jews naturally gather, is in full gear. For the first time, Jewish information tables were staffed in Dupont Circle and Eastern Market, as well as at the recently-held Shofar Blow-out at American University, and at the Jewish Summer Camp Expo. Community members were on hand to provide information on Jewish resources, High Holiday listings, newcomer programs, and Shalom Baby, a program designed to welcome families with new babies. Our brand-new Volunteer Action Center is providing a broad spectrum of possibilities for people with a wide range of interests, time, resources and energy. The result has been a friendly face and a list of Jewish-related opportunities for community members who may feel isolated from or overwhelmed by the organized Jewish community.

We are thrilled to see that the DC community has taken to heart some of the recommendations drawn out from our Community Scan. These are positive first steps. The next challenge — assuming those community members handing out information have been properly trained in outreach methodology — is what do you do with newcomers once you’ve found them?

More Global Intermarriage: Oh CANADA!

For years we’ve been told that Canada’s Jewish community is decades behind the U.S. in terms of high intermarriage rates. However, as recently reported in the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin, at least one city is experiencing a skyrocketing rate. The article discusses a newly-released population study conducted in 2001 that found:

Since 1991, the number of intermarried arrangements has doubled. Almost half (48.3 per cent) of couple households in which at least one spouse is Jewish are intermarried. In absolute terms, 2,070 of 4,285 couple households are intermarried. When both spouses are less than 30 years of age, the level of intermarriage is an astounding 82.1 per cent. Almost half of Jewish children under 15 live in intermarried households (43.6 per cent). About a third of the youngest children of intermarried couples are being brought up Jewish (32.1 per cent), approximately half have no religion (49.1 per cent) and the rest (18.8 per cent) are being raised within another religion.

At JOI, we see two challenges in those numbers. First, of the one-third of intermarried households already raising their children Jewish, how is the organized community welcoming them in and supporting their decision? Second, of the half who say they are raising their children with “no religion,” what does that really mean? After all, Judaism is not just a religion, it’s a culture and a peoplehood. What opportunities are available for engaging those households in cultural and communal Jewish activities?

Luckily, JOI will have the chance to work directly with the Ottawa Jewish community on these challenges, as mentioned in the article:


Global Intermarriage: We Are Not Alone

It’s 1990 for Argentina’s Jewish community.

1990 was the year the U.S. Jewish community received a major shock through its National Jewish Population Survey, which found that 52% of Jews who had married in the prior 5 years had intermarried. Now, our friend Ezequiel Erdei, of the Joint Distribution Committee, thru its MEIDA Center For Latin America Jewish Studies, tells us that their most recent study found that 40% of marriages containing Jews in Argentina are intermarriages; nearly the 47% currently in the U.S. Jewish community. The study is online here.

As I told to Ezequiel, I sincerely hope the Argentinian Jewish community can learn from the successes and failures that followed the 1990 study here in the United States. The overwhelming reaction of the U.S. Jewish community was, “We must stop intermarriage.” They tried to close the barn door after much of the livestock had already escaped (to use an expression that might resonate in the Pampas). While many excellent new initiatives were created to strengthen Jewish identity among young Jews, which was a great thing, only a tiny fraction of those resources went into engaging the already-intermarried households.

Fifteen years later, the rate of intermarriage is unchanged. We may have seen some increase in the number of intermarried families raising their children Jewish, however, and it is to this effort that more of our resources must be dedicated. We hope the Jews of Argentina might take more of a two-pronged approach than what happened (and continues to happen) in the U.S.: to both strengthen Jewish identity AND engage the already-intermarried, and to dedicate resources to these two goals evenly.

Finally, Something to Applaud

This year’s convention of the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism is full of surprises. What a nice turn of events. Rabbi Jerry Epstein has called for welcoming in the intermarried. Rabbi Neil Gillman has called for a philosophical shift, suggesting that the Conservative movement is not halachic. (If that is indeed the case, then the only thing that stands in the way of being even more welcoming is synagogue culture.) And then Rabbi Ismar Schorsch suggests that Jewish education should be free for all members of JCCs and synagogues. We applaud the lowering of every barrier to creating more pathways into Jewish community. We would only ask Rabbi Schorsch to make one amendment to his proposal: Why not make Jewish education for children free, irrespective of whether or not their parents belong to a synagogue or JCC (lest those institutions build in the additional cost into their membership fees)? After all, they are the Jewish future. They may even join those institutions as a result. And while we are at it, let’s make sure that these kids are welcome to a Jewish education, irrespective of whether they come from in-married or interfaith Jewish families.

***CORRECTION*** Dated 12/22/05 -
In the above paragraph, based on a very brief news blurb, we applauded Rabbi Ismar Schorsch’s proposal for free education. After reading his own words in a recent Jerusalem Post article, however, we realize that once again his “bold initiative” is motivated by fear of intermarriage. He writes “The unabated hemorrhaging of the American Jewish community…due to intermarriage surely jeopardizes its long-term vitality.” So his plan is to find a solution to prevent intermarriage, rather than a vehicle to build strong Jewish identities among Jewish young people regardless of who they eventually marry. In other words, it is the same tired, failed approach, dressed up in different words. And that is not something to applaud.

Again, the Sole Focus is On Conversion

The word is out. The Conservative movement has spoken once again, this time at its annual assembly. All of us who are engaged in one way or another with the Conservative movement were looking forward to the announcements about inclusion, particularly of interfaith couples, since we had been reading about the conference and its new program in the press for weeks (see our blog entry of November 30th here). Alas, what we get is a new approach to conversion. As someone said at the JOI conference held in Atlanta this week—a woman who is not Jewish but is active in synagogue and community—”Don’t you think that I have thought about conversion before?” While there are many who may be looking for an opportunity to be asked, that is not what they are waiting for. Some may just be waiting for a warm and welcoming community that they can call home. While we of course promote the option of conversion for those already on the inside, it is important to note once again that it is not an outreach strategy.

There are those in the Conservative movement that are grappling and have been leading the way. I didn’t hear their voices. Where is the voice of Rabbi Chuck Simon of the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs who has been doing this work and who issued its own statement some months ago? And where are those on the West Coast who participated in the project that led to the publication of A Place in the Tent, the Tiferet Project that “welcomes intermarried households into Conservative Judaism.” This should be the main goal, yet it was overshadowed by this notion that we should push conversion first.

Even if the Conservative movement quadruples the number of annual conversions to Judaism—a highly unlikely goal (and note that no numeric goals were actually set at their biennial)—it would only represent a tiny percentage of the intermarried households already out there. More importantly, from whom are they going to draw these potential converts? They continue to avoid the real issue: that in most cases they have failed to create welcoming places for the intermarried households in their midst.

JOI Hosts First Leadership Conference

After months of preparation, almost the entire JOI staff and many members of our board headed to Atlanta for an intense and illuminating 48-hours at the JOI-sponsored “North American Leadership Conference: A New Vision for Jewish Outreach.” There were numerous highlights, including the presentation of our four-month study of Jewish institutions in Greater Atlanta (which, along with the conference, was covered by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency here).

Also highlighting the conference were presentations by the two conference co-chairs, Lynn Schusterman and Michael Rukin (pictured), who both called for new and massive efforts to bring Judaism to all who might join us, including intermarried families and Jews who do not engage in traditional Jewish institutions. The full conference schedule is still online here, and we plan to transcribe as many presentations as possible and upload them—along with video and audio clips—on our Jewish Outreach Professionals Log-In Network (JOPLIN) website soon.

To the more than 100 Jewish lay leaders and communal professionals who were able to attend, we want to thank you for making this first-of-its-kind conference a success!

The Travelling Rabbi

JOI has been talking up one of its signature program models—Public Space Judaism—for several years. And the idea that we can actually celebrate Judaism and attract those on the periphery by programming in public spaces is catching on. Examples abound of such programming efforts that are taking place in malls, parks, bookstores, clubs and bars, and everywhere else that the secular environment has to offer. People are realizing that no longer does the place that we program Jewishly have to be a Jewish institution. We have been saying for the past years: take Judaism to where the people are, wherever they are. Our friends at the Institute for Southern Jewish Life have spun this idea in such a way that it bears attention. That is why the New York Times featured the ISJL circuit-riding rabbi in a recent article. Rabbi Debra Kassoff (pictured) is bringing Judaism to where people are—in small towns across the south. She regularly travels to over two-dozen small Jewish communities in 6 states. While Jews are moving to big cities and abandoning the small towns that we called home since coming to this country, it is important that the ISJL is telling people by its actions that we are not abandoning them.

The Outreach Potential of Atlanta

The Jewish Outreach Institute has just released a study of Jewish communal institutions in Greater Atlanta, Georgia, sponsored by the Samberg Family Foundation.

Called “Jewish Outreach Scan of Atlanta,” the study examines successes and challenges in conducting outreach to unaffiliated households, based on over 80 interviews with Jewish communal professionals at 46 institutions of all affiliations, over the course of four months this year, and includes recommendations based on JOI’s experience working with communities and institutions to improve their outreach.

JOI found that Atlanta is no worse off than any other Jewish community in North America, and we believe the organized community can actually welcome in even more of those on the periphery by refining current outreach practices; learning from and partnering with one another; creating more Jewish programs in secular settings; and improving methodologies such as name collection and personal follow-up.

Feel free to contact us with questions.

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