Weblog Entries for April 2006

The “G” Word

When I speak about the impact of language and its sensitivities, and I frequently do, participants are surprised when I ask them to make the following pledge:

“I do solemnly swear never to use the g word again - singular or plural [goy, goyim] - or any of its derivatives [goyishe] and to banish from my vocabulary shagetz and shiksa as well. Furthermore, I promise to stop and correct anyone who does so in my presence.”

While it is true that goy and goyim had their start as neutral terms and remain neutral in some liturgy - and I have no qualms about their inclusion in these contexts - no one can argue that shagetz and shiksa were ever value-neutral terms. Even the term shabbes goy may have been used with some affection in some places but in most cases it was not. As a result, these terms of derision deserve to be excised from our vocabulary, especially now with so many members of our extended families who are of other religious backgrounds and practices.

I was once again reminded of this challenge when UPN television announced that it will spend an entire episode of “All of Us,” a decidedly African American comedy, focuses on “the N word.”

The Many Facets of Jewish Expression

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According to a new Gallop poll (and reported in The Jerusalem Post), Jews rank second to last in worship attendance from among religious groups in America. The lowest in rank? Atheists.

Part of the diminished attendance is a trend away from institutional affiliation in general. Some believe that the future of the synagogue in America is in trouble; we at JOI worry that that indeed may be the case. Some synagogues are simply not meeting the needs of the current generation of Jews or those in the next one. In particular, many synagogues are not welcoming the growing number of interfaith families. This is distressing because synagogues have the potential to foster community and provide spiritual sustenance.

But diminished synagogue attendance does not mean that Judaism in America is doomed. Perhaps those who see the fate of Judaism tied to the fate of the synagogue are looking at Judaism too narrowly. People can and do live deeply Jewish lives without attending a synagogue. Some have Sabbath and holiday meals with friends and family. There is a significant revival of Yiddish language, culture, and music. We have seen the proliferation and impact of Jewish cultural events that help transmit Judaism to the next generation. These Jewish cultural expressions are no less important than attending a synagogue. Judaism flourishes in the synergy of religion and culture; one should not eclipse the other. Cultural expressions of Judaism can be just as powerful as ritual and prayer.

A New Jewish Revolution

We at JOI knew that we were forging a path where others before us had not trod, but we didn’t think that we were in the midst of a Jewish institutional revolution until Steve Windmueller, the director of the School of Jewish Communal Service at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles, noted that we are indeed part of such a revolution. In a recent article in the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles he named several significant organizations that were responsible for charting a new course for North American Jewish life and who were under 20 years old. (JOI celebrates its 20th anniversary in 2007, although the current iteration of our organization is a mere six years old.) Professor Windmueller put it like this:

“To look at it another way, Jews in the earlier period sought to combine traditional Jewish organizational practices and communal values, along with a 19th-century emphasis on American progressivism. This new wave, by contrast, reflects the themes and values of 21st century globalism and the individualistic impulses associated with Generation-Yers. And this new generation is empowered by computers, teleconferencing and production networks - all drawing upon the energy and creativity of people operating as entrepreneurs, who are recasting and challenging traditional relationships and networks.”


The Coming Majority Has Arrived

When we first made the prediction a few years ago that intermarried households will soon be the majority of all households containing one or more Jews, many of our critics were skeptical. Some, however, said that we were probably right, but thought that interfaith families would not make up the majority of our families for many years to come. Then we started to read new community demographic studies that indicated that, in fact, our prediction was coming true more rapidly than we anticipated. This seems to be have impacted on some of our institutions even more quickly. Consider Temple Etz Chaim in Greater Boston (Franklin to be exact), where half of the membership is interfaith and an additional 10% contain an adult family member who has converted to Judaism. Rather than run away from the reality, we need to follow the lead of this synagogue: we must welcome those who have chosen to cast their lot with the Jewish people, who have chosen to raise Jewish children, and who have chosen to affiliate with the Jewish community. We should make it easier for them to enter our institutions, as well as provide them with substantive and meaningful experiences once they have entered. At JOI we like to say that engagement leads to affiliation; affiliation does not necessarily lead to engagement.

Like at many seder tables last week, ours included people whose connection to the Jewish community varied and whose family constellation varied as well; all had an equal place at our table. Perhaps this can be the model that we can strive for throughout the rest of the year.

Passover Here, There, and Everywhere

If people didn’t know that it was the “season of Passover,” they now know it - thanks, in large part, to the various Passover in the Aisles programs, fostered by the Jewish Outreach Institute. When we conceived of the program and contextualized it in our model for Public Space Judaism, we knew that people would resonate with the model - once they overcame the concerns over introducing Judaism in so many public arenas. Perhaps the grocery store is one of the least threatening of public spaces and yet it is so much a part of our routine lives, especially in anticipation of a week-long celebration of religious freedom. Maybe that is why the idea caught on so quickly in the Greater Washington, DC area - the seat of American democracy. The Washington Post certainly thought so. We thank our various “partners” in the DC area who took the idea and ran with it, making sure that it reflected their local community and culture. May this be a season of liberation for us all.

The War at Home: Bar Mitzvah Battleground

Not a very nice title for a popular TV series, but those who have children, especially burgeoning adolescents (mine are much older) understand the position taken by the producers of this engaging series called “The War at Home.” In a twist of unexpected plot turns, a recent episode focused on the desire of the young protagonist in the series to celebrate a bar mitzvah. After all, this is what his friends are doing. But - and here comes the rub - his family doesn’t belong to a synagogue. This is no surprise, since his interfaith parents (really practitioners more of American civil religion than any one religion, be it Judaism or Christianity) are like the majority of interfaith families in North America in that they don’t belong to a synagogue.

So they take him to the local rabbi and lo and behold the rabbi is happy to accommodate - as long as the kid is willing to submit himself to the three-year requirement of study and preparation. That would make him about 16. And the last thing that a 16 year old wants is a bar mitzvah, especially when everyone else is 13. So the storyline ends with a predictable ending. There will be no bar mitzvah.

Kosher Sex on Wheels

What is it about Shmuley Boteach that continues to capture the attention of the American public? Is it that he was a friend to Michael Jackson? Perhaps it is his runaway best seller Kosher Sex (as an author I am always wondering how to do that). Or maybe he attracts the way Dr. Ruth did. His subjects don’t appear to be what you expect from a Lubavitcher Chasid (the same goes for Mattisiyahu - the former Matthew Miller). This time, Shmuley is traveling the country with his own “mitzvah mobile,” entering the homes of dysfunctional families (a little Jerry Springer sensationalism, to be sure) and by applying the values of shalom bayit (peace in the home), he is going to try to “fix” the brokenness of those homes. All joking aside, he has learned one important lesson - as have his Chasidic brethren - to go to where the people are, to bring Judaism inside their homes, where people live their lives. And we salute that approach, to be sure.

This approach reinforces something important: Judaism has something to say about everyday living. It isn’t just reserved for the rarified atmosphere of the synagogue or seminary. What is perhaps unique about this period of Jewish history and Shmuley’s program is testimony to it. The Jewish community may be assimilating but unlike many other people’s melting into the American cultural norm, we are bringing many of our values with us and sharing them with the general population. If this isn’t a benefit for society of living in a free society, then what is?

The New Ten Commandments?

As a child, the way I knew that it was Passover had nothing to do with stocking up on matzah or getting rid of chametz (leavened bread). It had to do with watching Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments, which has aired this time of year, every year, ever since I can remember. My parents let me stay up until 11:30pm (even on a school night) so that I could catch the ever-thrilling splitting-of-the-sea scene. So what makes this year different from all other years?

Well, at first glance, nothing. The Ten Commandments will still air during Passover, on Saturday, April 15th. But it’s no longer the only Passover-themed motion picture entertainment — there is some serious Passover proliferation out there! One example is the new movie that opens today called When Do We Eat, which caricatures a dysfunctional Jewish family at their annual Passover seder.

But the monumental addition is the creation of a new version of The Ten Commandments. Yes, like Freaky Friday and The Manchurian Candidate, The Ten Commandments got a makeover. The remake, a production by RHI Entertainment, premieres on ABC this Monday and Tuesday evening, April 10th and 11th from 9 to 11pm. Though I haven’t seen it, there’s apparently a gory scene at the golden calf site, so parents might want to preview it first. Click here to preview the sea-splitting scene…it will be interesting to see how the rest of the new version compares to the classic.

Takin’ It to the People On Passover

The current JTA article “Supermarket Aisles Filled With Outreach Groups Before Passovershows how a growing number of communities around the country are embracing JOI’s PASSOVER IN THE AISLES model to reach unaffiliated Jews in public spaces.

“If we wait for people to come to programs within the four walls of our communal institutions, we’ll be waiting a long time,” says Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, which provides guidance for such programs. “This is an attempt to bring Judaism to where people are.”

The article discusses the J-Link program in Columbus, Ohio, which JOI helped encourage the community to initiate, and with whom we continue to share best practices and ideas:

In its three years of outreach programs at Passover and Chanukah, for which J-Link volunteers go to toy and pet stores, Folkerth estimates they’ve collected 1,000 names of local unaffiliated Jews.

Those who want to be contacted are called, and many have subsequently showed up at other synagogue or JCC events. A survey last year found that 90 percent “feel more connected to the Jewish community because of J-Link,” she reports.

These hard numbers are proof of the methodology. And as more communities take on the challenge of Public Space Judaism, we will see even more such proof. This is all part of creating ramps into Judaism for those who would like to join us but find too few accessible entryways. If you see a table in your local matzah aisle, please stop by and say hello!

If You Build It They Will Come! Maybe. But What About Those Who Don’t?

The New York Times article “With Yoga, Comedy, and Parties Synagogues Entice Newcomers” suggests that the solution to attracting unaffiliated Jews and luring back Jews who have strayed from Jewish life is to become hip and trendy. While this may work for some urbanites who may be hungry for whatever is the latest thing, it implies that people have to come into the institution to participate in whatever it has to offer. For the vast majority of unaffiliated Jews out there who haven’t crossed the threshold of Jewish institutions, I wonder whether this is a workable model.

Perhaps those who are attracted to those synagogues and events described in the Times are not all that far away from the Jewish community to begin with, and that all they need is just a little nudge to get them to give the community a try. In the words of the author of the article, it is more about marketing than anything else. But there are still more who are on the periphery of the Jewish community, particularly interfaith families and their children—adult children too—who we need to find and nurture. This demands new strategies, and it requires us to take up the challenges that face American Jewry in the twenty-first century. First, we have to find these folks. Today these people are most likely to be found in the gathering places that our society has created—in the mall, at the supermarket, on campus, and at the soccer game—places where Jews mix with other Americans. It’s not always near the synagogue.

That is what JOI’s Public Space Judaism model is all about. By using it to find the people, institutions can build program bridges into the community—helping them to deliver on the promises that outreach programs make.

Let My People Read! Hebrew Transliterated on the Web

Not too long ago, the common philosophy on transliteration of Hebrew in prayer books was that it is bad, bad, bad. It’s a crutch; it will make learning Hebrew obsolete; it sends the message that the Jewish community has “given up” on people learning Hebrew. But I sense that the tide has turned and that transliteration is now more widely accepted as one basic step in making Judaism more accessible. Transliterated texts are now available in many synagogues.

It has also made its way into my living room, and can make its way into yours too…


Click Here!