In the context of outreach, people often talk about its moral imperative, driven by a correct read of the Torah-based obligation to “welcome the stranger.” While the Jewish community bemoans the demographic demise of the Jewish community, there are options, plausible solutions to this challenge. In particular, we take note of a group of congregations in the Palm Beach, Florida area who have begun to take the right steps to welcoming in interfaith families in their congregations as explained in a recent article in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, noting that “A demographic study released by both Jewish federations in January showed that the number of Jews affiliated with Conservative synagogues has dropped in the past decade at the same time that intermarriage rates among young Jews is on the rise.” While the steps are small, they are monumental. And we applaud each one that has been taken and encourage the congregations to step boldly forward into the future. And we at JOI are prepared to offer help along the way.
About 180 people gathered at the JCC of Manhattan on Wednesday evening for a conversation about intermarriage hosted by the New York Jewish Week newspaper and moderated by editor/publisher Gary Rosenblatt, between Paul Golin, Associate Executive Director of JOI; Steve Bayme, National Director of Contemporary Jewish Life of the American Jewish Committee; and Bethany Horowitz, Research Director of the Mandel Foundation discuss the issue.
Everyone on the panel agreed about this: the intermarriage rate is high. The point in question was whether an attempt should be made to reverse the trend, and if it can’t be reversed, is there value in discouraging it anyway? Or do we need to move past the issue of who people marry altogether.
As one of the most widely celebrated Jewish holidays in America, Passover provides a wonderful opportunity for reaching out to unaffiliated Jews and intermarried families. On January 31, over 20 professionals from around the country gathered on a conference call to think ahead about programming for Passover. On our call, we shared innovative program ideas and examined some of the barriers to participation.
Asking the question, “why are unaffiliated people not coming to our synagogues and JCC’s to attend the programs that we know and love?” We understood that it takes a lot to walk into a Jewish institution — a space that can feel foreign and intimidating if you are a newcomer. By programming outside those walls, in a place that is familiar to all, we can maximize Passover as an opportunity to reach out. Below are some more results of the call.
Elie Wiesel’s Night has become a number-one bestseller once again, thanks to Oprah’s endorsement and in spite of concerns of the Frey memoirs episode. Her support of Rabbi Harold Kushner’s last book proved her power to take a Jewish book and raise it to universal proportions. But in this case Oprah will be traveling to Auschwitz with Wiesel, adding value to her endorsement, especially important in the craziness that continues to emerge from Holocaust denier circles (including Iran’s recent announcement of a Holocaust cartoon contest).
Some communal institutions may decide to take advantage of Oprah’s visit to program for its constituents. Others will use it as a vehicle to teach the general public and reach out and welcome in those on the periphery—an approach we endorse. But there is something even more important to note.
On Wednesday evening, February 22, at the JCC in Manhattan, JOI’s associate executive director Paul Golin will participate in a panel discussion called “Mixed Marriage, Mixed Message,” presented by the JCC in conjunction with the New York Jewish Week newspaper. The discussion will be moderated by the Jewish Week’s editor and publisher, Gary Rosenblatt.
At the heart of the conversation will be questions about whether and how the Jewish community should reach out to intermarried families. If this is an issue you care passionately about, we encourage you to attend. It’s free, you just have to RSVP (click on the image for more information).
Paul’s co-panelists are renowned social psychologist Bethamie Horowitz, who we previously blogged about here, and Dr. Steven Bayme, a founding member of the “Jewish In-Marriage Initiative,” who we previously blogged about here and here.
“The Tollbooth” opened this week, an independent film starring Tovah Feldshuh. And while it is garnering mixed reviews, the film promotes one particular stereotype that demands our attention. Like so many movies these days there is an underlying storyline about a Jew becoming romantically involved with a non-Jew. In the case of “The Tollbooth,” it is a reaction to and rejection of the Jewish family values that are portrayed in the film. It is what we call an “intentional” intermarriage. But it just ain’t so. Most of the time, the majority of the time, Jews meet non-Jews — at school, in the workplace, in social environments — fall in love and get married. It is as simple as that. Nothing less, nothing more. Jews aren’t necessarily “marrying out” any more than non-Jews are “marrying in.” These days, choosing ones spouse does not require a choice between entering or leaving a community. It is time to once again change the prevailing notion before it becomes another urban myth.
Right before the Rolling Stones half-time show during tonight’s Super Bowl XL in Detroit, a commercial ran in which a sweet young daughter tells her father, “Daddy, we’re going to hell.”
Surprised, the father asks why.
“Because we’re Jews.”
Who said that, he demands!
Turns out, one of the subplots of the new ABC mid-season replacement sitcoms, “Sons & Daughters,” involves a Jewish intermarriage, and the last shot of the commercial shows the aunt who had suggested the kids were going to hell, asleep on the couch with a Hitler mustache drawn onto her face in permanent marker as the kids high-five each other.
Though it’s no longer a surprise, it’s still amazing to continue to see both the mainstreaming of Judaism and the mainstreaming of Jewish intermarriage — and it’s probably no coincidence that those go hand-in-hand. For only 2.5% of the American population, Jews remain a topic of great interest in this country, and apparently one that is much more comfortable to “welcome into our living rooms” and even good-naturedly joke about than it ever was before.
Okay…now back to the game!
There’s a full-page ad in today’s Forward [click here for PDF version] by long-time JOI supporters Joyce Albin Rappeport, Mike Rappeport, and the Albin Family Foundation, that raises some provocative issues in an important essay titled “Why Be Jewish?” and then offers one possible answer by highlighting JOI’s program The Mothers Circle.
The essay posits “a New Diaspora in Jewish American life”—those young people who have moved away from the traditional Jewish neighborhoods and cities of the Northeast to forge a life all over the North American landscape, and suggests that:
Meanwhile back in the old Diaspora; the Diaspora of New York, and traditional giving, and Israel as the only center of the Jewish world, a debate rages on. How do we get these kids to practice Judaism, (for which read do Halakic observance)? How do we get them committed to Israel? How do we get them to give to Federation? In short, how do we get them to be like us?
There’s an interesting duality within the organized Jewish community today regarding perceptions about interfaith families. On the one hand, the Reform movement is generally perceived to be—and is in fact—comprised of a high percentage of interfaith families. On the other hand, we know that the majority of interfaith families (perhaps as high a percentage as 80%) remain outside of our synagogues and community institutions altogether. Taking these two facts into consideration, it is both understandable and lamentable that so much of the conversation about including interfaith family members focuses on the “insider” controversies about non-Jewish participation in Jewish ritual, rather than on simply providing entry-level Jewish engagement. Nevertheless, the conversation provides us with insight as to the general attitudes regarding the inclusion of interfaith families in our synagogues and in the community.