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Weblog Entries for January 2006

The Mothers Circle comes to Connecticut

JOI is pleased to announce the launch of the newest local chapter of our program, The Mothers Circle, in Greater Hartford, Connecticut. The Mothers Circle serves non-Jewish women in interfaith relationships who have committed to raising their children as Jews. It takes courage for a mother to raise her children in a religion not her own. JOI wants to help the Jewish community offer these women the support they need and deserve. The Mothers Circle empowers these mothers by connecting them with each other and by giving them access to Jewish knowledge.

Women can access The Mothers Circle at three different levels, all free: a national listserve email discussion group [sign up form here], informal local holiday gatherings, and Mothers Circle: The Course, an introduction to Jewish practice and ethics. The Course works so well because it creates synergy between the participants and an able facilitator. Greater Hartford is fortunate to have found Laura Kinyon, an experienced family counselor, to facilitate the group, and we encourage any non-Jewish woman in the area who are raising Jewish children to be in touch with Laura (motherscircle@jewishhartford.org) and participate.



First Date at…the Holocaust Museum?

There’s a short film in this year’s Sundance Film Festival called The Pity Card that has to be either the funniest Holocaust film ever produced or the worst. It is definitely a generational piece because those younger than me who have seen it certainly find it more appealing than those of my generation will. It is true that there are few creative ways left to introduce the topic of the Holocaust today (especially when the trends in Jewish education are more about celebrating the positive and less about mourning the negative in our history), but this film finds one.

The premise is that a young man takes a woman to the Holocaust Museum in Washington on their first date. A whacky premise, especially when his date happens not to be Jewish. But that’s the genius of the film. How do Jews and non-Jews interact over monumental Jewish events like the Holocaust that have changed the course of human history? The film accepts the premise that Jews will date and marry non-Jews, and pokes fun at the awkwardness that might still exist in sharing the cultural awareness that comes with it. [NOTE: adult language in the film.]

Also in the Festival this year is a short film by our friend Tiffany Shlain called The Tribe, a kind of funky “mocumentary” about Jews, also from the perspective of the younger generations. Beyond all else, this film confirms what we have learned and been teaching about not trying to reach the new generation of Jews through “old school” approaches to affiliation and institutional membership. It is clear that Jewish creativity is alive and well and living at Sundance.



Back to our Roots for Ritual Circumcision

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I don’t say this often, but sometimes I kind of wish things were more like they were in biblical times. In last week’s Torah portion, the beginning of the Book of Exodus, Tziporah, the wife of Moses, circumcises their son. I don’t remember encountering this part of the story as a child (it certainly didn’t make it past the cutting room of the film The Ten Commandments), and I imagine that many Jews have never met, seen, or even heard of a female ritual circumciser (mohelet), even though they’ve been around for a couple of decades now. Recently, however, an article posted on JTA.org brings them back into the spotlight: “Female mohels add warmth — and controversy — to old tradition.”

The article discusses training programs for female physicians and midwives offered by the Reform and Conservative movements, open to women who have performed medical circumcisions and want to learn the ritual and spiritual elements necessary to perform a bris.

Most parents probably don’t choose a mohel based on gender (though it’s possible some might feel more comfortable with a woman than a man, or vice versa). What’s important is that there is now the option. I see these training programs as welcoming not only to the women physicians who have been shut out in the past for reasons that have more to do with tradition than with Jewish law, but also as another potential way for the Jewish community to show those on the periphery that we are an inclusive people, especially at a delicate time that—for some family members—may be their first encounter with Jewish ritual.



Article on Jewish Blogging

JOI’s associate executive director Paul Golin is quoted in this interesting article about Jewish weblogs in the Jewish Telegraphic Agency: “Sermonizing mingles with sex talk as Jewish surfers pick up blogging“:

Some claim blogs still act like an insiders’ club… “The people who spend time to sit down and write on blogs have very strong opinions,” explains Paul Golin, associate executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute. “You might have unaffiliated lurking on these Web sites, but they don’t feel confident enough to comment.”

Unfortunately, unlike the other blogs mentioned in the article, our web address was not given. But I suppose if you’re reading these words, you found us anyway!



Conference Call on Passover Outreach

Especially for those of us feeling the icy of chill of winter, thoughts of spring may seem as far away as ever. But as always, we as Jewish professionals find ourselves at least one season ahead of the sun. While Passover is still several months away, it is one of the most widely celebrated holidays by American Jews, and therefore not too early for us to begin thinking about how we can utilize the holiday as a prime occasion for finding and engaging Jewish households who are not currently involved with our community.

To find out how JOI has been using Passover as an opportunity to reach out to unaffiliated and intermarried Jewish families, we invite Jewish professionals and volunteer leaders from around the country to join us for our next free conference call. Our call, scheduled for January 31st at 2:00 EST, will focus on Passover programming in public spaces (such as “Passover in the Matza Aisle,” pictured). On the call, we will hear from professionals who have had much success with Passover outreach programs around the country.

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Photos from our Hanukkah Party!

Last month, JOI provided support to the Community Chanukah Concert in Boulder, Colorado, and we recently received the pictures from the event and are posting them here on our website. By all indications, the turnout exceeded expectations. The concert drew over 200 people, mostly families with young children, who came to a fun adventure space in a secular mall. Besides the good turnout and the fun time had by all, JOI is particularly gratified by the positive outreach techniques used before, during, and after the event to make this a successful “Public Space Judaism” event.

The Boulder Chanukah Concert had a clear target audience in mind for this event: families with young children, including unaffiliated and intermarried families. Calendar listings were placed in secular newspapers, because unaffiliated families usually don’t read the Jewish newspaper, and a radio public service announcement was used to cast an even wider net. The program was held in a secular venue, to lower the discomfort some people might feel in walking into a Jewish institution.

(Read on for more positive examples of outreach techniques, and a LOT more photos…)

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JDate.com Takes an Inclusive Step

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Some years ago, I was shocked to discover that JDate, the popular online “Jewish Singles Network,” did not have a search option for men seeking men or women seeking women. If you identified yourself as a woman, it automatically searched for a tall, dark and handsome man, when what you really wanted was a cute, smart woman. Beyond the absence of a gay or lesbian search option, this presumption of heterosexuality implied the absence of LGBT Jews. Watching the computer fill in a man when I wanted a woman, I felt the way I always feel when well-meaning strangers ask if I have a boyfriend. JDate’s presumption about my interests subtly, but powerfully, disregarded my very existence. What a virtual slap in the face! I immediately shot off an email to the organization in protest, but received nothing in response.

I like to imagine that my protest (along with many others, no doubt) planted a seed that grew into the recent JDate makeover, which permits a “man seeking man” or a “woman seeking woman” search as reported by the New York Times earlier this week in a piece called “A Dating Service Gives a Nod to Jewish Gays.” While the search engine is not as inclusive as it could be (for example, it still maintains binary gender options), it’s certainly a step in the right direction. Correcting the heterosexual bias of JDate is just a step toward correcting the same bias in the Jewish community at large, but it is an important step. I hope the change in JDate is a sign of changes to come. How about more rabbis officiating at gay weddings?



“Munich” - Outreach potential?

Like millions of other viewers, I went to see Munich this past weekend. And like others, I was taken by the intensity of the film. For those of us who were alive during that period of terror, it brought back harrowing images. My sympathy for the athletes and their surviving families was reignited, having not thought about the event in years. However, it did prompt me to discuss it with others younger than me who had not even heard about the Munich massacre. I have lots to say about the film’s message, what I think Spielberg was trying to communicate directly and indirectly. But what is most important to us as JOI is how it fits into our understanding of outreach.

One of our most recent studies, A Flame Still Burns, focused on adult children of intermarriage, ages 22-30. One of the remarkable findings of this study is that these adults received most of their Jewish “education” in secular and often cultural contexts. They read Anne Frank in High School and saw Schindler’s List in college. [Note that both examples are Holocaust examples, so while most of the thrust in Jewish education today is to shape Jewish identity by celebrating Judaism, their Jewish identity was impacted upon by negative historical Jewish experiences.] This new Spielberg film, therefore, could prove to be an important (if inadvertent) educational vehicle for the children of intermarried parents, particularly the majority of whom are not affiliated with the Jewish community.

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Sometimes, a tree is just a tree.

I wasn’t going to add anything to the Christmas tree conversation since it is past January 1. However, Dr. John Ruskay’s recent first-person essay in the January 2006 newsletter of the Jewish Communal Service Association [PDF format] shouldn’t be overlooked. In it, the Executive Vice President and CEO of UJA Federation of New York—the largest local Jewish charity in the world—discloses that he grew up in a home that had a Christmas tree:

The roots of the tree can be traced to my mother’s parents, who were born in Hoosick Falls, New York (a village near Albany), and often described themselves as “very Reform.” Family lore has it that the tree was banished a few years later at my father’s insistence, or it might have been at the insistence of his parents, who were founders of a modern Orthodox synagogue on Long Island. For their time, I suppose my parents were a kind of “mixed marriage,” uniting a child of assimilated parents with a child of parents who sought to embrace living as Jews.

We’ve recently heard claims that all those who grow up with Christmas trees must have “ambivalent” Jewish identity. Those criticisms are only levied against intermarried households of course, completely ignoring the fact that many in-married Jewish households during the 20th Century had Christmas trees as well, a seemingly “American” thing to do at the time. (This was especially true of secular immigrant Jewish households.) Ruskay’s story reinforces our claim that the mere presence of a Christmas tree—then or now, for in- or intermarried households—does not automatically imply a virtual sign over the home that reads “Christianity practiced here.”

The issue is simply too nuanced for generalities.

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RECAP: Hanukkah Conference Call

In Mid-December, JOI “gathered” Jewish professionals from across the nation on a Hanukkah Conference Call to learn how to maximize the outreach potential of the December holiday season. Facilitated by Eva Stern, JOI Program Officer, and Ruth Decalo, JOI Senior Director of Programs and Training, this call provided participants with a chance to communicate best practices that can be applied to many different Hanukkah programs and share innovative ideas for reaching unaffiliated Jews and intermarried families.

Professionals began by introducing themselves, and sharing the upcoming Hanukkah programs already planned for their respective communities. We then grappled with the following questions, grouped by topic:

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