Weblog Entries for March 2006

“The Times They Are a’ Changing”

First we heard last fall that Rabbi Jerome Epstein is changing his position on interfaith marriage in the Conservative movement. Then we heard that Rabbi Ismar Schorsch is suggesting that the Conservative movement’s Camp Ramah welcome the children of non-Jewish mothers (patrilineal kids) at least until the age of thirteen (something that Ramah Ojai did years ago when David Lieber was president of the University of Judaism)—presumably when a more mature decision on conversion can be made. And now in the current issue of the Jewish Week an article by Rabbi Epstein suggests that all Conservative congregations follow suit.

I repeat what I said to Rabbi Epstein years ago when he felt that we disagreed about how to reach out and welcome in interfaith couples and their children: Looks like there really is more that unites us than divides us. Perhaps we should focus on what we agree upon. I wonder what will come next.

Passover and Matzah and All

Passover is my favorite time of year. Maybe it is the unspoken hope that it brings with it—a real gift to the world, especially when that world sometimes seems so dark.

Perhaps it is the anticipation of a noisy household of family and friends, gathered to savor our freedom and each other’s company. Or maybe it’s the smell of all the wonderful holiday dishes that fill our home only at this time of year. It’s no wonder why so many within the Jewish community—as well as our many invited guests — join around Seder tables throughout the world.

This is one of the reasons JOI developed the Passover in the Matzah Aisles program as part of its signature Public Space Judaism model. We want to bring Passover to the people, where they are, and especially where they shop for all of the foods special to Passover. That is why it is gratifying to learn that so many have followed our direction for Passover and for other special occasions throughout the year. This year Passover in the Aisles will take place in communities as diverse as Seattle, WA; Columbus, OH; Long Island, NY; Saratoga, CA; and Milwaukee, WI.

Look for one in your own community. And when you see an outreach worker in the grocery store, say hello and tell them “JOI sent me!”

Report from St. Louis

Last week I visited St. Louis (click here for article) where I met with some sixty staff members from its JCC—from the receptionist (a pivotal person in this business of what JOI has begun to call proactive welcoming) to the executive staff.

Together we looked at various aspects of their programs and procedures in order to help them to become a more welcoming institution that adopts and utilizes the most effective outreach practices. I also met with about twenty-five professional and lay leaders of the community and helped them to gain a fresh perspective on the challenges we all face in creating a welcoming community. Within that discussion I introduced them to the strategies of JOI’s signature program Public Space Judaism.

It has been about six years since we began this new phase in the life of the Jewish Outreach Institute. And it is gratifying that communities, organizations and institutions now approach us for assistance and guidance. While the tipping point may yet be sometime in the future, these groups want our assistance in reaching those on the periphery of the Jewish community, particularly interfaith families and their children. They recognize that we have a profound understanding of the newcomer and are brutally self-reflective about the changes necessary to meet the needs of the coming generation.

I look forward to my next visit to St. Louis and to seeing the innovations that continue to evolve.

Help, My Program Draws Too Many People!

The Jewish community’s concern about numbers is not a modern phenomenon: it’s been around for thousands of years - in fact, the fourth book of the Bible is called Numbers because it begins with a census count of the Israelites.

Most often, of course, our concern is that the numbers are too few: What can we do about the dwindling Jewish population? How many people will come to the synagogue’s Purim carnival? How can I reach more people this year than last year?

But for some institutions, keeping their community at a manageable size is the fundamental nature of the institution itself. These institutions seek to foster a tight-knit community; a 500-person event can run counter to this goal. They’re delighted that people are interested, but want to maintain the kind of small, intimate environment that drew people there to begin with.

While this is not the problem that most outreach workers are dealing with, it’s still an important question to address considering how critical personal contact is in reaching out to new people. What options are there for people in this enviable predicament? The first thing that leapt to my mind was worms. Allow me to explain…


Pittsburgh Hillel Shines a Light on Darfur’s Darkness

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“We can’t say ‘Never Again’ in reference to the Holocaust if we sit on the sidelines today,” said Hillel International’s Interim-President Avraham Infeld, who was quoted in an article in the University of Pittsburgh’s Pitt News, “Images of Tragedy from Children’s Perspectives.”

Infeld was commenting about an exhibition called “Darfur Drawn: The Conflict in Darfur Through Children’s Eyes,” a collaborative effort of Human Rights Watch and the Weinberg Tzedek Hillel program, which is making the exhibit available to college campuses around the world.

Besides the inherent goodness of this project, we also applaud those Jewish campus organizations like the University of Pittsburgh’s Hillel who have taken it upon themselves to present this program in settings that are available to the entire student body. Not only does it make us all more aware of a horrifying situation, but it allows those Jews who are not yet affiliated with any Jewish organization to view Judaism as a force for social good as well as a religion and a culture. It takes the Jewish ethic of social justice out to where people are, rather than waiting for them to come to us — which is part of JOI’s definition of outreach.

JOI Staffer Teaches and Learns at the Same Time

This is a very exciting time for me…I have recently had my one year anniversary at the Jewish Outreach Institute. So I’d like to take this moment to share with you some of my observations and reflections about my work here over the last year.

I have made the journey from student to teacher as I learned and absorbed the methodologies and principles necessary to help create a more open and accessible Jewish community Equally important I now know the many ways in which small changes can inspire significant results, and. I feel confident that by helping the Jewish community enhance the way it reaches out and provides a welcoming environment we support and ensure a vibrant Jewish future.


Purim in the NY Times

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There is an excellent op-ed in today’s New York Times about the Jewish holiday of Purim, in which author Jeffrey Goldberg contrasts the ancient Persia of the Biblical Book of Esther that we read on the holiday with the Persia of today, the state of Iran. He notes ironically that

ancient Persian kings tended to tolerate other gods and the men who worshipped them…

whereas today’s Middle East

is a more plausible backdrop for the sort of anti-Jewish plot outlined in the Scroll of Esther than was the Persia of antiquity, the story’s actual setting.

Happy Purim to All

Purim begins tonight.

Purim traditions include dressing up in costumes, eating, drinking, exchanging cookies, and making a lot of noise.

Because Purim is light-hearted, we at JOI have been suggesting that it provides newcomers with an easier first encounter with the synagogue then the High Holidays, which are much more somber (and costlier!).

Purim celebrates the story told in the Book of Esther. Unlike most books of the Bible, it reads a little like a fairy tale. According to the story, the foolish king Ahashuarus marries a beautiful Jewish woman named Esther. But she doesn’t tell him that she’s Jewish. Mordecai, Esther’s uncle, moves near the castle to keep an eye on her. Unfortunately, he falls afoul of Haman, the king’s evil minister. Mordecai refuses to bow down Haman, so Haman tells the king that Mordecai is a threat to the state. Moreover, he accuses the Jews of plotting to destroy the kingdom. The king obligingly agrees to have the Jews massacred. Esther foils the plot when she points out to the king that she would be among Haman’s victims.

As you can imagine, this story offers great dramatic material. A Purim play (called a Purim spiel) is a Purim tradition. So is a reading of the scroll of Esther (usually just called, the Megillah, the Scroll) at the synagogue. During the reading, people stamp their feet and wave noise-makers whenever Haman’s name is mentioned. Many people (especially children) come in costumes. (The last Purim service I attended, the cantor was dressed as a magician.) Many synagogues hold Purim carnivals for children. Families and neighbors exchange cookies, especially triangular cookies called Hamentaschen, which means Haman’s hats in German. In other words, Purim is exciting for kids and even fun for adults.

In addition to JOI’s own Purim information you may want to take a look at Judaism 101 for more information about Purim, its history, and its traditions.

Right Direction….Just Not Far Enough

We applaud and encourage the inclination toward easier conversions reported in Rabbis Easing Rules on Conversion in the March 11 Miami Herald. JOI has often called for streamlining or standardizing the conversion process. However, addressing conversion is not the same as addressing intermarriage. Many of those quoted in this article seem to be operating under the assumption that intermarriage is a problem that should be cured by conversion. But whose problem is this really addressing?

The Jewish community cannot and should not expect anyone to make the vast leap from another faith to Judaism simply because some perceive it as better for Judaism. We should promote the idea that our faith is something someone comes to out of desire, conviction, and belief, and not because there is an arbitrary organizational need for numbers. Therefore we must speak to the needs and the desires of all those we want to welcome into our fold. And those needs may not be conversion. At the very least those needs may not be conversion at first.

Insisting on conversion as the only means of entering the Jewish community is counterproductive when it comes to reaching out to intermarried families. It sends the wrong message. It says we want you with us, but we won’t even meet you part of the way. How much more fruitful would our efforts be if instead of being so strident and single minded we reached out our hands to these millions and say… we respect you and we want you, let’s sit down and discuss what you need; let’s show you what we can give you. That’s not only a first step; it’s the most necessary step.

Discussion of Conversion may be Premature

Kudos to Gary Rosenblatt of the New York Jewish Week for his March 3 editorial “When Intermarriage Hits Home” about the February 22nd “Mixed Marriage, Mixed Message” forum he moderated at the JCC of Manhattan (which we previously blogged about). We feel that this is a subject that must be discussed more, not less. His editorial focuses attention on conversion, however, which was only a small piece of a much wider discussion at the JCC. While conversion is certainly a laudable option, we feel that a strategy that insists on it may ignore more issues then it addresses.

As a community, how can we promote conversion before addressing—and strengthening—the steps necessary to get individuals to the point where they would even consider conversion? Just as becoming a Jew is not the end of the conversion process, but the beginning of a Jewish life, so too the process of gathering in our unaffiliated Jewish and non-Jewish family members to introduce them to Jewish holidays, Jewish practice, and the Jewish neshama (soul) must begin with going to an even earlier stage…finding them and creating the sort of welcoming environment that will pique their curiosity and nourish them enough to want more.

A conversion agenda is challenging for two reasons. First, conversion must be based on the spiritual needs of the convert, not on the demographic needs of the Jewish community. Perhaps more importantly, if we believe that intermarried households can raise Jewish children—and we do—then the more important goal is helping all households raise the next generation of Jews, regardless of their household configuration. We should keep in mind that welcoming all our loved ones is that vital first step, and dedicate the necessary resources to do so.

Propitious Presentation in Pittsburgh

If you take apart the components of the word outreach you get the words “reach” “out”. That’s our goal and our mission: to reach out to Jews who are uninvolved and those who are traditionally underrepresented in our community such as intermarried families. If American Judaism is to grow and thrive we must look beyond the paradigm that has driven much of Jewish communal life to this point, and recognize that the American Jewish household has changed. Our communal institutions are beginning to offer many more entry points to match this new diversity, so that we may share what we love about our community with even more families.

This exciting challenge is being taken on by a growing number of communities. Recently, JOI’s executive director Rabbi Kerry Olitzky spoke to a gathering of the Board of Delegates of the United Jewish Federation in Pittsburgh, as reported in this article by the Jewish Chronicle of Pittsburgh:

[Rabbi Olitzky] advocated a method of outreach known as Public Space Judaism. Public Space Judaism involves planning Jewish programs and activities, often with holiday themes, in secular public venues — malls, theaters, parks — which allow for unplanned participation. If done successfully, such programming can be the start of a process that brings unaffiliated Jews closer to deeper participation in Jewish life, including active involvement in synagogues and organizations.

“Outreach is not a population, it’s a methodology,” said Olitzky, a Pittsburgh native. “It involves us going to them, not them going to us…. People participate more readily where they live, work and play…Most of us spend our time in places that are not Jewish.”

JOI thanks the Pittsburgh Federation for their hospitality and is excited about the prospect of even more people in the Pittsburgh area learning what we already know: that it’s great to be a part of the Jewish community there. We look forward to further working with the community.

Good news from day schools

There are a number of important institutions in the Jewish community that should be both preserved and perpetuated because they are effective in developing and nurturing Jewish identity among our children. However, we want those institutions open to all our Jewish children, including the children of intermarriage. If institutions such as day schools, Jewish camps and youth groups really are as effective in building Jewish identity as they’ve been hailed, it seems it would be even more productive to have interfaith families send their children too. (As long as they are welcomed when they get there!)

We applaud those day schools in the Silicon Valley — as reported in this article from their Jewish Federation — who have taken this important step forward, and we encourage others to follow their lead.

I am of course aware of arguments about halakha (Jewish law), but whether a child [under the age of 13 in particular] may be considered halakhically Jewish seems to be beside the point. If the institution is effective, then the child will be able to make a better-informed decision about his or her own identity when the time is right. We have heard it said that some interfaith families, recognizing their own limited “Jewish memories,” send their children to day schools as surrogate parents. If this is true even some of the time, we should recognize the opportunities in this trend for all involved.

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