Weblog Entries for May 2006

Shavuot is Here!

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Shavuot begins at sundown Thursday. In my home, we follow the tradition of what is called a tikkun layl Shavuot (an all-night study party). We invite lots of friends over, no matter their pattern of practice or observance. We always have lots of good food—dairy foods are particularly popular on Shavuot since, according to one tradition, it predates the giving of the Torah and its dietary laws. So on Shavuot dairy is served just to be safe. Some suggest that it is in keeping with the text from the Song of Songs, attributed to King Solomon, which describes the Torah as “honey and milk are under your tongue” (Song of Songs 4:11). Still others think that just as a baby cannot immediately eat all kinds of foods and has to begin by nursing milk, we cannot take the entire Torah at once and have to slowly prepare ourselves for it. Milk products (like cheesecake! and blintzes) aren’t a bad way to prepare.

And then we study. We invite people to prepare whatever they want in whatever form they feel comfortable. In this regard Torah is not just the Five Books of Moses. It is the literary expression of the people and it comes in many forms. I like to study the Book of Ruth, which is traditionally read on Shavuot. Perhaps it is because Ruth cast her lot with the Jewish people without condition. And even more important from my perspective, she was accepted without condition. Not only did she raise Jewish children but her grandchild was King David, the forerunner of the Messianic line in Judaism.

There are other Shavuot traditions too. Flowers and first fruits. So our house is filled with the fragrance of both—and there is always at least one fruit that is new to the season and usually one that we have never tasted before. So we spend the night imbibing the sweet nectar of Torah all night long. Its hold on me—one that captivated me as an adolescent and has not let go—is hard to explain. All I know is that it elevates me heavenward in a way that no other experience in the calendar year is able to approximate. It is a lot like love. Can’t explain it. Can’t touch it. But I know it when I feel it or when I am its beneficiary.


Memorial Day: Future Opportunities

Memorial Day has certainly changed in our lifetime. We are now at a point in time where there are few veteran survivors of World War II. Soon the Korean War will be behind us too. And in the meantime, Memorial Day (in marked contrast to Yom Hazikaron in Israel) has morphed into a day of picnics and parades—unless you are of a family who remembers a war veteran, a number that is unfortunately increasing daily as the war in Iraq rolls on. Nevertheless, the date is marked on the American calendar of civil religion and it is marked in a variety of ways, even if it is through special sales in the commercial sector.

For those of us who advocate Public Space Judaism, special dates on the calendar provide us with special opportunities to reach those on the periphery. I got to thinking of potential opportunities for celebrating Memorial Day Jewishly, and how certain Jewish organizations might do so more visibly.

We recognize that it is difficult to associate the theme of memorial with much of what the Jewish community has to offer without running the risk—which we don’t recommend taking—of being seen as appropriating the holiday. But for those organizations whose content can be related to Memorial Day—such as local Jewish historical societies and Jewish museums, for example—we suggest opening their doors to the community on Memorial Day with relevant programming, or better yet, bringing their content to the community directly, through the use of exhibitions, period costumes and guerilla theater, for example, in order to commemorate Jewish contributions to America. Try to make the program engaging and interactive and an experience in and of itself, and if possible integrate it into larger celebrations like parades and picnics that attract families with young children.

Jews have a lot to be proud of in helping build this great country, and as long as it’s done respectfully, holidays like Memorial Day, July 4th, and Labor Day offer relevant Jewish organizations the opportunity to celebrate publicly, which in turn provides them the opportunity to share our heritage with many more people. If you know of such programming already being implemented, we’d love to hear about them.

What Do Fashion Trends Reveal?

I believe fashion trends are indicative of larger cultural trends, and I follow them carefully. For one thing, they can provide us with unusual programming insights. I am particularly interested when they seem to suggest something that has not emerged from our own research. For example, we know that Israel is low on the list of priorities/interests among the unaffiliated, particularly the intermarried. The whole approach to Israel education is undergoing scrutiny. So it’s interesting that Old Navy has issued a t-shirt with “Kiss and Tel-Aviv” emblazoned across the chest (a play on “Kiss and Tell”).

Obviously, Old Navy is motivated by economics and not by concern for the relationship between Israel and the American Jewish community. Neither is Old Navy part of the cottage industry that is making radical Jewish clothing (and I applaud these efforts as a way of expressing Jewish identity in non-traditional ways, even if they use language that I might not). Could it be that like so many other aspects of Jewish identity that this form of “cultural” Zionism has overflowed into the general culture as well? Or is it that Tel Aviv has become an exotic destination and is simply another t-shirt city that is being cleverly marketed along with others—and there is nothing at all to learn from it? Maybe we have overlooked a potential “market” in our suggestions for Public Space Judaism. In any case, look and see if anyone in your neighborhood is wearing these t-shirts, and let me know.

An Inspirational Jewish Mother

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We have written a great deal about non-Jewish women who have chosen to raise Jewish children in the context of intermarriage, and have an entire program dedicated to this population called The Mothers Circle . We don’t speak as much about Jewish women who have married non-Jewish men. For any woman, Jewish motherhood is a journey; for Lila Hanft, a staff reporter for the Cleveland Jewish News, it has certainly been an inspiring one.

Perhaps we speak less frequently about these women because the traditional rules of matrilineal descent make it a little easier, at least in terms of community recognition of the religion of the child. But these women face similar challenges. For too long the Jewish community has pushed them aside, translating their decision to marry a non-Jewish man—the man that they happened to fall in love with—as tantamount to discarding their personal Jewish identity and severing a relationship with the Jewish community. But who can blame them if they do withdraw from Jewish communal life, when the organized Jewish community makes it hard for them to be a part of it?

This past Mother’s Day we sent out thousands of electronic Mothers Day cards to women—regardless of their background—who are raising Jewish children. We recognize that these are not easy decisions, regardless of whether they are married to Jews or non-Jews. Perhaps the path that Lila Hanft took can be an inspiration to us all, especially those of us who are in a position to lower barriers for these women, rather than erecting ones that are nearly impossible to traverse.

Sunday in the Park with Bagels

This past Sunday, JOI’s Mothers Circle program sponsored a special event in Newtown Park in Alpharetta, GA, a suburb of Atlanta, in partnership with the Marcus JCC. The program was a free Jewish holiday food-tasting for kids called “Sunday in the Park with Bagels,” and it drew over 150 people, mainly families with young children. JOI program officer Eva Stern and I were lucky enough to participate in the event.

Using JOI’s outreach methodology to take Jewish celebration out to where people are, we held this event in a public park rather than in a traditional venue like a synagogue or JCC, in the hopes that it would feel more comfortable to families less inclined to walk through the doors of Jewish organizations. It seems to have worked, as about half the participants were “new faces” (including some that might be interested in our Mothers Circle program for non-Jewish women raising Jewish children).

We gathered their contact information by requiring families to sign up for “passports” that their kids then used to receive special stamps as they walked from food station to station, sampling apples and honey for Rosh Hashanah, donuts for Hanukkah, challah for Shabbat (Sabbath), and so on. The JCC professionals and volunteers made sure to keep the families engaged while also providing some basic education about the Jewish holidays. And the contact information will be used to follow-up with participants, to thank them for coming, welcome them to the community, listen to feedback, and invite them to another event that they might also find relevant and fun.

For more on this program, or about JOI’s outreach methodology in general, please email Eva. Below are photos from the event… (more…)

New Study from NYU Hillel

As someone who was interviewed for the recently released report titled “Students with One Jewish Parent” from the Edgar M. Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life at New York University, and having just returned from NYU Bronfman Centerspeaking at Hillel’s University Summit, I was heartened to hear that even after a short time working on the college campus, people are confirming what JOI has been saying for quite some time. With nearly 50% of students on campus who identify as Jews coming from interfaith marriage—and all that implies—it means that Hillels will have to change many of their program strategies and their programs if they want to reach this elusive population.

We are not advocating that Hillel change the effective work that it is doing to reach its core population. Rather, we argue that if it wants to reach the more than 70% of students that it is currently not reaching on most campuses, then it has to move beyond the Hillel building and into the public spaces of the university for starters. This was confirmed in our study A Flame Still Burns and in the numerous recommendations we have made to Hillels as a result of our pilot program on university campuses.

After six years working directly in the field, JOI is seeing major institutions like Hillel open itself up to our way of thinking. There is still a lot of work to be done and there are many Hillels yet to join us in our efforts but we are thrilled by the progress we have made so far.

JOI Holland?

There are those who believe that JOI should branch out to other countries, especially since they are facing interfaith marriage rates at numbers equal to or surpassing those found in the American Jewish community.

In a recent article from the European Jewish Press, we learn that, “Like Jewish communities elsewhere, the 30,000-strong Dutch Jewry is assimilating at a fast pace with an intermarriage rate of around 50 percent.”

While we are currently doing some pioneering work in Ottawa and have done some work in Montreal, we are still trying to focus on a group of target cities in the United States. We have also received requests from communities in Europe and elsewhere interested in our Mothers Circle program for non-Jewish women raising Jewish children. While it is too early in JOI’s history to establish branches in other countries, we would welcome the opportunity to share our expertise with Jewish communities outside of the United States and Canada.

Is the “mainstreaming” of bar/bat mitzvah an opportunity?

Lots of rabbis are showing “Keeping Up With The Steins” to their bar and bat mitzvah students and families, ostensibly to demonstrate what can happen when a bar/bat mitzvah celebration gets out of control. (The film’s producers were astute enough to get the imprimatur of Rabbi Harold Schulweis, certainly one of the leading rabbis on the West Coast, if not in all of North America.)

This is not the first time in Jewish history that we’ve seen high levels of ostentatiousness. During the Middle Ages, the rabbis were motivated to issue laws about conspicuous consumption in order to control the excesses of some Jewish people. Too often, today’s celebrations put all the focus on the bar and none on the mitzvah. It is the same thing that persuaded our friends at Jewish Lights Publishing to issue “Putting God on the Guest List” authored by my colleague in Atlanta Rabbi Jeff Salkin.

So here’s what I’m wondering: we know that bar and bat mitzvah is a powerful experience for kids and their families that is often overlooked while we who work as professionals in the Jewish community are busy criticizing the excesses of the celebration. And we know that for those children of intermarriage who experience a bar or bat mitzvah, it is of key importance in nurturing their nascent Jewish identity. Without condoning the excesses, let’s also recognize that the blow-out bar/bat mitzvahs are attractions that may lead those on the periphery to deeper engagement with Judaism. (We’ve all heard stories of even non-Jewish kids wanting a bar/bat mitzvah party!) This movie will only increase that attraction, as the celebration becomes more mainstreamed. Are we as a community ready to capitalize on this modern phenomenon, by providing easier access—at least to the meaningful aspects of the ritual?

For example, when a 12- or 13-year-old suddenly decides s/he wants a bar/bat mitzvah, can we accommodate? Or do we require a three year commitment, asking them to postpone the celebration until all their friends are having Sweet Sixteens? Let’s find other options. Even for the kids that may be coming to us for all the seemingly wrong reasons, they may be transformed by the ritual in ways that they weren’t anticipating.

May is Jewish American Heritage Month

President Bush recently did something we can all agree upon. Just a few weeks ago, he made the month of May Jewish American Heritage Month. Jewish American Heritage Month will stimulate interest in Jewish culture. We hope to see film festivals, book promotions, concerts, and other public events celebrating Jewish culture. JOI believes that these cultural events provide a wonderful opportunity to reach out to unaffiliated Jews, especially the children of interfaith families who may not be engaging with their Jewish heritage.

Jewish American Heritage Month will be an opportunity for communities across the country to implement JOI’s Public Space Judaism model. It will make sense, for example, for Jewish organizations to co-sponsor with other cultural organizations and run events that celebrate American values of pluralism, cultural diversity, and social justice. There will also be heightened media interest creating a buzz around these events in the secular press, where unaffiliated Jews (like everyone) get most of their information. Similarly, a month dedicated to recognizing the role Jews have played in American society will encourage the Jewish community to hold more events in secular venues, making the events more accessible for those that would not attend an event held at a Jewishly-identified institution. Jewish American Heritage Month is a great outreach opportunity. Let’s seize it!

After all, if you grow up the child of an interfaith couple that does not belong to a synagogue, how do you learn about Judaism? From popular culture. A recent JOI study of the young adult children of intermarriage, “A Flame Still Burns,” showed that popular culture both shaped and nurtured their Jewish identity. Seeking to understand what is Jewish in themselves, they look for clues in popular depictions of Jewish culture. We believe that increasing representation of Jewish life and religion in secular venues is critical in reaching this population. JOI’s Public Space Judaism model allows Jewish organizations to turn popular cultural events into outreach events.

I Admire Ruth Messinger

As a natural born critic, I am more apt to be faultfinding of someone in the public eye than I am to be complimentary. But Ruth Messinger can’t be criticized. She is an amazing Jewish leader.

Renown journalist and professor Samuel G. Freedman captures it beautifully in his recent piece in the Jerusalem Post.

Were she just someone who picked herself up after a major political defeat, as she did following the mayoral elections some years ago, perhaps that would have been sufficient. But she has done much more. Not only has she transformed the American Jewish World Service into a force on the Jewish scene (locally, nationally, and internationally), she has brilliantly taken on an issue that speaks to Jews no matter their stripe but particularly those on the periphery who are so hard to reach. For that alone, the Jewish community is in her debt. Darfur transcends all boundaries. It is an issue with relevancy that emerges from the Jewish experience but is not directly related to it. And that makes it an interesting entry point for those on the periphery, yet an important calling for all of us. We are in awe and admiration of Ms. Messinger and the vitally important work that she does.

JOI Statement on the “Conversion Debate” in Today’s Forward

JOI’s executive director Rabbi Kerry Olitzky co-wrote an op-ed with Dr. David Ellenson, president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, appearing in today’s Forward Jewish newspaper entitled “Conversion Is Not An Outreach Strategy.”

In the piece, they write:

We are all for conversion and welcome anyone who wants to join us. But…. conversion is not an outreach strategy. If outreach is indeed about going to where people are, then to ask people to convert before they have developed a sense of belonging in the community…is just not the right approach. Nor can it be the covert goal of programming to reach people on the periphery. Once people have been given the opportunity to imbibe the waters of Torah, let them be motivated to join us on their own….

To focus on conversion alone as a panacea to the challenge of interfaith marriage and Jewish continuity is mistaken. Our real task is to create a community of meaning worth joining.

Sabbath on the Slopes

It certainly takes an adventurous spirit to hit the downhill slopes of Colorado, even with a rabbi at your side. Rabbi Jamie Korngold, Colorado’s “adventure rabbi,” has been leading Jewish ritual experiences outdoors for years. The Houston Chronicle reported on one such program: Shabbat services on the ski slope. The true adventurousness in this story is not in the skiing, but in Rabbi Korngold’s creativity and willingness to step out of the box on behalf of the people she wishes to engage. Her goal is “to reconnect young people to Judaism.” She asks not what this population can do for the Jewish community (increase its numbers), but what the Jewish community can do for young people (meet them where they’re at and help them access Judaism in order to deepen their lives). Rabbi Korngold says that she doesn’t expect them to become synagogue members; rather, her goal is to create a positive, meaningful Jewish experience for them.

These kinds of “adventurous” programs are sometimes met with criticism as “not serious in nature” because they aren’t held in a traditional place of worship or because they don’t follow the traditional prayer service. But there is nothing about a Jewish experience outdoors that makes it less serious or less worthy than other experiences; it’s just different, and different people need to be engaged by different means. There should always be an avenue into Judaism, but that avenue is not going to be the same for all people. We need to promote more programs such as this one that take place in alternative spaces and engage people using alternative models if we actually want to reach the unaffiliated and interfaith populations. Creating opportunities for Judaism “on the downhill slopes” should be anything but an uphill battle.

Jewish Arts and Culture and the Younger Generation

The organized Jewish community seems to be sending out mixed messages. On the one hand, it wants to attract the elusive 20s and 30s, especially those who are single (since those who marry and have children are more likely to seek out core community institutions likes synagogues and Jewish Community Centers on their own—although this is decreasing too). On the other hand, the critics come along and say that arts and culture are not sufficient to guarantee the generational transfer of Judaism; only religion can do that. So the goal seems to be to simply use Jewish culture as a vehicle to reach young adults and then lure them into the core communal institutions.

Yet if we look at some of these institutions, including those who are successfully implementing projects like the STAR Synaplex model, there seems to be a seamless weave of arts and culture and religion. It is also clear that much of Jewish culture is steeped in Jewish religion. Moreover many of the artists responsible for Jewish arts and culture are using these art forms to grapple with their Jewish identity. And we know from the Biblical model of Jacob as he struggled with an angel in the dark of night (some rabbis claim that the angel was really the dark side of his own personality), that the result of struggle is Israel. (Jacob’s name was changed to Israel in the Torah following the struggle—so Israel has come to mean in terms of folk etymology: the one who struggles with God).

Perhaps it is not coincidental that Orthodox reggae singer Matisyahu is a relative newcomer to observant Judaism. And there are others now who are following his lead. They both understand that arts and culture is important to Judaism and speaks to people in ways that perhaps religion doesn’t, at least at first blush. Religion is often an acquired taste but one has to be willing to taste it in the first place.

At JOI we have found that arts and culture provides a point of entry to Judaism for lots of folks, particularly those who are children of intermarriage (now falling in the target population of 20s and 30s), because there are fewer barriers to entry and participation than exist in the institutions that represent Jewish religion, namely synagogues. It is important for the Jewish community to provide multiple entry points for there are Jews who are interested in various aspects of Jewish civilization, some more than others.

Congratulations Kerry!

Last Thursday, May 4th, I had the pleasure of attending the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s (HUC-JIR) Graduation Ceremony at Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York, at which JOI’s Executive Director, Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky, received his Doctor of Divinity honorary degree on the 25th anniversary of his graduation from the HUC-JIR. HUC-JIR is the academic, spiritual, and professional development center of Reform Judaism, preparing men and women for careers as rabbis, cantors, educators and communal professionals.

Kerry can be described with many different titles including doctor, educator and executive director, but he is foremost a rabbi. He sees his role as using the tools of our tradition to teach, motivate, and provide healing for others. His innovative training, teaching, and writing (he is the prolific author of over 60 books and hundreds of articles) have been motivated by lowering the barriers to Jewish engagement.

Kerry regards outreach as literally “reaching out” to where people are in order to share the rich resources of the Jewish tradition. His compassion and concern for people in underserved populations, especially people in recovery, the elderly and those in intermarried families, has been the catalyst for many of his accomplishments in the North American Jewish community.

He has touched many lives over the past twenty five years. The Jewish community is very fortunate to count him as one of our leaders. And we look forward to celebrating many more milestones with him in the years ahead. Yasher k’oach! (Keep up the good work!)

Here are some photos… (more…)

The 11th Commandment: Cook a Brisket?!

If you’re married to a Jewish guy, but you’re not Jewish yourself, what’s the greatest barrier to making a Shabbat dinner for your family? The Hebrew? The ritual? Not according to one woman who attended a model Shabbat dinner sponsored by The Mothers Circle in Atlanta. Her problem was the brisket:

“I don’t know how to make a brisket,” she explained, “so I was always too intimidated to cook a Shabbat dinner.”

I don’t think it was really making brisket that intimidated her. (OK, it wasn’t only making the brisket.) The problem was everything that brisket represents, especially tradition. Brisket is such a grandmotherly dish that it seems to have been handed down from mother to daughter for generations. It’s as if Moses’ wife created the first brisket recipe at the foot of Mt. Sinai and carved the recipe in stone, creating the little-known Eleventh Commandment: “Thy meat shalt thou cook for many hours. It shall be grey, and neither shall there be any pink in it.”

With all that tradition and authenticity wrapped up in brisket, how could a novice ever make the recipe her own? That’s like asking: How can a woman possibly pass on the Jewish tradition to her children if she wasn’t raised in it herself?


Lowering the Barriers—Some Rabbis Get It

At JOI we often talk about lowering the barriers to participating in the Jewish community. Cost is often one of the biggest barriers. It isn’t because people can’t necessarily afford the costs of participating. The amount that is spent has to equal the value as the person who is spending the money perceives it to be. And we too often undermine our efforts at reaching out by charging, crediting the old urban legend that “people value what they pay for.”

This perspective is particularly challenging for interfaith families as they carefully navigate the Jewish community. Rabbi Andy Bachman of Brooklyn Jews, soon of Cong Beth Elohim (also in Brooklyn) gets it. Take a look at how he handled this encounter, as explained on his blog and also picked up on the Synagogue 3000 website:

Last night at a baby naming the following conversation took place.

Him: “Hi Rabbi. I’m the great uncle. My daughter is Jewish, married to a Catholic who tragically died of cancer. They have two daughters, twins. They’re 7 years old. My daughter can’t afford to send them to synagogue, they go when they can, sometimes they learn. They know they’re Jewish but they never had a baby naming. She decides last year to give them Hebrew names and so she goes to her local synagogue and they tell her, ‘We’ll have to charge you double because it’s two girls.’ They’re twins, did I tell you that? So my question is, Rabbi, is this something you could do? Come out to the house? Like you did here? Finally give my granddaughters a Hebrew name?”


Can You Be a Jewish Buddhist?

What’s the difference between Crayola Crayon’s blue-green and green-blue? And what’s a JuBu (or a BuJu)?

According to an article in The Los Angeles Times, there are a large number of Jews represented in American Buddhist Centers, and perhaps more than 30% of all newcomers to Buddhism are Jewish. Of course, this statistic doesn’t tell us what percentage of Jews have turned to Buddhism, but it is not an insignificant number. Much higher is the number of Jews interested in Buddhism and drawn to its practices, even if they do not become Buddhist or part-Buddhist (ie., a JuBu or a BuJu). The first question I have is: what drives this phenomenon? And the second question is: why does the fusing of Judaism and Buddhism, or the assimilation of certain Buddhist practices into Jewish tradition, not rub the Jewish community in the same way that it’s rubbed by the assimilation of Christian practices into Jewish tradition?


“Counting the Omer” — Reasons and Innovations

At JOI we often speak about three different calendars that guide the American Jewish community. Yet the Jewish community’s programming efforts generally focus on only one of them, namely, the Jewish calendar. But the others—the secular calendar and the cultural calendar—play an important part in our lives as well and demand that we program around them too, especially if we want to “reach people where they are” (in this case metaphysically as well as physically). The Jewish calendar includes dates this time of year like Yom Hazikaron (Israel’s Memorial Day) and Yom Ha-Atzmaut (Israeli Independence Day). The secular calendar includes dates like Memorial Day and the Fourth of July. And the cultural calendar includes dates like the opening of baseball season and the end of school. What if we were to use one to inform the other?

Beginning with the second night of Passover, we begin to count down to Shavuot for a variety of reasons. It is called the “counting of the omer” (sefirat ha-omer in Hebrew). The custom probably originally emerged in an agricultural context so that farmers could count down to the harvest. A mystical overlay was placed upon this counting so that each day exposes us to a nuanced perspective on the emanations of God and their impact on our spiritual journey. I have a simple omer counting calendar that I keep on my dresser. And years ago I developed a more spiritual counter for use by participants in Synagogue 2000 (now Synagogue 3000).

Through the years creative liturgists have come up with all kinds of Omer calendars, such as the Homer Simpson Omer Calendar (get it? [H]omer Simson!). This year’s crop include two that speak directly to those whose calendar lens is either sports seasons (note the uniform numbers!) or the release of new films. While the counting of the omer is an easy ritual, it is not high on the list of introductory rituals that those new to Jewish practice generally undertake. Nevertheless, were all Jewish rituals so innovative and enjoyable, perhaps we might do them a little more.

What would a Jewish Bible Experience look like?

A recent article in Newsweek discusses “The Bible Experience,” an audio project that includes 150 black artists recording the Bible, both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. Imagine Denzel Washington reading the Song of Songs (attributed to King Solomon) with his wife, Pauletta. Angela Bassett as Esther. Now that may be appropriate casting. Too bad that they didn’t cast James Earl Jones as the voice of God. (According to the press release for the project, they are actually still looking for God. That could have actually been the title for the entire project.)

While this is an interesting way to make the Bible accessible and particularly attractive to those who follow the stars, it is also clearly market-driven. The producers know that the audio readings—all 70 hours—will be purchased by those who are star struck, heavenly and otherwise. It places what is often relegated to the classroom into the hands of ready and willing users. I wonder what would happen were a similar project to be initiated in the Jewish community. Would there be Jewish stars who would will be willing to participate?

For “The Bible Experience,” people accepted the invitation immediately at minimum wage. And there are more than enough willing participants. Would people want to listen to the book of Jonah just because Adam Sandler is reading it? What about the sultry Esther read by the sultry Scarlett Johanson? And most importantly for the financial backers—would the American Jewish community purchase it? Or would it suffer the same fate as the Random House English translation of the Talmud by famed Israeli scholar Adin Steinsaltz? After a few volumes, the project was scrapped. People purchased the initial volumes and they ended up on coffee tables, but they were little used. So what would be the best—most popular—way to get the Bible into the hands of an American Jewry that is spending its time further away from the organized community, taking fewer classes, and reading less?

Shavuot: Up All Night

Shavuot has become a defining moment in the history of the Jewish people since the rabbis chose to link the holiday with the giving of Torah on Mt. Sinai. Perhaps it is because of its timing or perhaps it is because of its history, but until recently Shavuot was one of those holidays observed by few outside of the traditionally observant. Even the bolstering of the holiday by the Reform movement—by associating it with Confirmation—had diminished over time. Lately, however, the reintroduction of a Kabalistic tradition of tikkun layl Shavuot (a mystical custom to remain awake all night studying sacred Jewish texts) has breathed new life into a totally under-appreciated holiday. Even in small Jewish communities like Canton, OH, their late-night community-wide Shavuot program called “The Gathering” reached large numbers of people who normally don’t participate in such events. (I was thrilled to be part of that program last year.)

So what do we do with those on the periphery? How do we help them to mark Shavuot? A few years ago, JOI applied its Public Space Judaism model to the late-night celebration of Shavuot and developed a program which was to utilize three local secular establishments: a coffee shop, book store, and the arts space of a local college. Wanting to use this as a demonstration project, we applied to a local Jewish community for funding. We met all of their concerns (concerns perhaps more relevant to community insiders than the very people the program was intended to serve): Will the food be kosher? How will you handle funds on the holiday when doing so is prohibited by Jewish law? Etc. Nevertheless, we had the entire program worked out. In the end, we were not funded for the event, and instead all communal Shavuot events were held inside Jewish institutions.

While it is fine to run programs serving a primarily already-engaged Jewish population, we at JOI are still interested in applying the Public Space Judaism model for Shavuot programming by staging a tikkun at a Starbucks or local coffee house. Bookstores with in-house coffee stands work well too. After all, if you are going to be “Up All Night” (the name of our original Shavuot program proposal), what better place than a coffee house and bookstore? Perhaps we can together build this model and then share it with communities around the country—as we did Passover in the Aisles. Please let us know your ideas for building this program and we will add them to our own and then share them across our outreach professionals network.

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