Weblog Entries for June 2006

Reform Journal Focuses on Intermarriage

What limits—if any—must rabbis place on involving interfaith families in Jewish rituals? Should Hebrew schools permit parents to enroll their children if the children are simultaneously enrolled at a Christian Sunday school? These are some of the difficult questions that JOI’s Rabbi Kerry Olitzky and Paul Golin decided to grapple with when they were invited to serve as guest editors for the latest edition of the Central Conference of American Rabbis’ (CCAR) Reform Jewish Quarterly. The CCAR Journal was dedicated entirely to issues related to intermarriage. Kerry and Paul contributed an introduction about JOI’s “big tent” approach to an inclusive Jewish community, and then pulled together some of the most important voices on the issue, from both inside and outside the Reform Movement, to write about their own beliefs and very personal experiences.

Two of the articles, Interfaith Marriage: A View of the North American Reform Rabbinate (a moderated roundtable discussion of Reform rabbis to questions about intermarriage) and Outreach and the Intermarried: The Unfinished Revolution, by Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, are available to read online on the CCAR website.


Mikvah Makes a Splash

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The Mikvah (ritual bath) is flowing with new life. A historic conference recently held at Mayyim Hayyim (Hebrew for “Living Waters”), a community mikvah and education center in Newton, MA, reflects the liberal community’s interest in renewing this ritual. The center explains on their website that they wish to “reclaim the ancient tradition of mikveh and reinvent the rituals of immersion to serve the needs of a diverse 21st century Jewish community.” In fact, liberal institutions throughout North America are building mikvaot (the plural of mikvah) to respond to a desire to embrace and expand upon this ritual, as reported by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

I fully support this effort and use of the mikvah in Jewish life, especially for life transitions such as conversion and marriage. My own book, The Rituals and Practices of a Jewish Life (with Rabbi Dan Judson) includes a chapter on the spiritual power of this tradition. It is wonderful to see the Boston community not only encourage the reclaiming of Jewish ritual, but also provide the necessary resources to make them accessible and meaningful.

Bar Mitzvah Tutoring—Whenever, Wherever

As advocates of Public Space Judaism, we at JOI are fans of the Chabad approach to program location. And while some may take issue with certain aspects of Chabad’s methods, one simple truth cannot be denied: they take Judaism to where people are. And that is what outreach is all about. Recently, I received a mailing from the local Chabad in New Jersey (run by my colleague, Rabbi Levi Azimov), detailing their latest outreach innovation.

Among a number of educational offerings, they offer Bar Mitzvah tutoring—whether the Bar Mitzvah takes place through the Chabad or not—at a time that is convenient for the family. In other words, if your personal schedule conflicts with the class schedule, not to worry. They will find a way to make it work.

I wonder how long it will take for others in the community to do the same. If the Bar and Bat Mitzvah is a critical rite of passage for building Jewish identity, particularly for those in interfaith families, are we prepared to do what is necessary to make it truly accessible?

Judaism is Alive and Well in the South

As small towns in the American South get even smaller, there is a pervasive pessimism about the future of small-town Judaism. click to read review of Matzoh Ball GumboEven companies with corporate strength find it difficult to recruit college graduates to work in these communities, despite their affordability and charm. But a spirited optimism emanates from the Institute for Southern Jewish Life, the brainchild of an old friend of mine, Macy Hart.

Consultants like Richard Florida say that the future of a city can be predicated by the state of its creative community (likely meaning the LGBT community); for the Institute for Southern Jewish Life, which hosted its annual conference this week, it is the Jewish community that has the capability of determining the future of a city. And an educated Jewish community is a strong one, which is why the ISJL has pioneered a core curriculum for all of the religious schools in its orbit.

Besides size and a certain shared culture, intermarriage is the common thread that runs through these communities in the deep south. But unlike some other groups that I have been privileged to address—this was my second opportunity to meet with the participants of this conference—they take it all in stride. They accept that intermarriage is part of their reality, and look towards the growth and survival of their communities within this framework. The rest of North America clearly has something to learn from these forward-thinking Southerners.

Preschool’s Not Just For Kids

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When I grew up, we belonged to a synagogue and frequented it…well, I shouldn’t use the word “frequented.” Yet somehow I ended up in a Jewish elementary school, which could have been an excellent vehicle to engage my whole family more deeply in Judaism, as educators in Toronto are now recommending for their schools. The only family engagement method in my school was a kosher food labels contest, when I begged my mom to buy countless individually wrapped instant oatmeal boxes in order to cut the kosher label from all six packets. But as we know, oatmeal sticks to the gut through mid-morning at best.

There is a wealth of untapped outreach potential through Jewish schools. Parents want to be involved in their children’s education, and are generally excited to learn something new themselves. The outreach possibilities become particularly salient as Jewish preschools gain popularity among the unaffiliated (the number of children enrolled in these schools is now 122,500, twice as many as were enrolled ten years ago).


Orthodox Day School in England Opens Doors

Progress is in sight on the other side of the Atlantic: an Orthodox day school in England is admitting non-halachic Jews as students (children whose father, but not mother, is Jewish). Perhaps the school recognizes that these students are not non-jews, but non-halachic Jews, something we at JOI have been emphasizing for years. With the Conservative movement in the United States now encouraging patrilineal Jews to attend Ramah camps and supplementary schools (if they are under 13), we are making some progress toward JOI’s goal of developing an inclusive, “big tent” Jewish community.

Currently, and certainly for the school in England, moves to widen the tent are demographically motivated. Hopefully, community leaders will realize that we need not worry about a “shrinking community” if we include the diversity of people who are already in our midst. And while this philosophy also answers demographic concerns, it first and foremost speaks to our belief that Judaism has the power to deepen people’s lives, and that is why it should be made accessible. We must reach out and welcome in, and we look forward to the day—may it come soon—when the interest in these children and their parents is motivated by ideology rather than demography.

Outreach in Ottawa

I recently returned from Ottawa, Ontario, where we at JOI have begun to implement our Community Transformation Initiative together with the Jewish Federation of Ottawa and their local leadership across institutional and denominational lines. The first step was to conduct an environmental outreach scan of the community and its institutions. The results of the scan — as reported in the Canadian Jewish News and the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin — are particularly relevant in conjunction with a previously-completed Jewish demographic study based on the Canadian Census of 2001; while that study looked at population trends, JOI’s scan determines how prepared Jewish institutions are to meet the needs of a changing community.

One important feature about the Ottawa Jewish population is that it is growing, mainly due to an influx of immigrants from the Former Soviet Union and elsewhere—though the rate of growth is now slowing. This growth has allowed the community to mitigate the impact of an otherwise aging population coupled with a significant interfaith marriage rate (70% for couples under the age of 30). Such trends will loom larger as the influx of newcomers continues to wane. The fact that the leadership of Ottawa’s Jewish community is tackling these issues today—before they become a crisis—is a great credit to their vision.

Of course, what is of most consequence is not the interfaith marriage rate itself, but the percentage of these families that choose to raise Jewish children—and whether Jewish institutions in the community nurture that decision. We are excited to help the Ottawa Jewish community develop an environment in which even more families feel comfortable and supported in making that choice.

Mothers Circle Shabbat in Hartford

Family, good friends, and home-made challah—some of the best things about Shabbat (Sabbath) dinner were all there at the Chai Center in Avon, Connecticut, where fourteen families gathered for a traditional Shabbat. But the most interesting thing about this Shabbat was the least traditional—the moms at the table are raising Jewish families, but they are not Jewish themselves.

Intermarriage is on the rise, and an increasing number of women who were not brought up Jewish are deciding to create a Jewish family for their kids. The Mothers Circle offers these moms a Jewish education, hands-on experience with Jewish rituals, and the support of their peers.


DC Recognizes the Importance of Outreach

With 80% of intermarried families and much of the younger generation unaffiliated with Jewish institutions, more communities are taking notice of the critical need for outreach. The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington recently announced its decision to concentrate funding for the 2007 fiscal year on this need, as reported on in the Washington Jewish Week.

At the close of 2004, JOI conducted a community-wide outreach scan of the Washington, DC region, and we are thrilled that our recommendations continue to reverberate in the community. The Federation announced that one of the areas earmarked for funding is the creation of a community outreach and engagement coordinator. This person will function as the liaison between community institutions, sharing information and what we refer to as outreach “best practices.” Before Passover, the DC community also organized events based on one of our Public Space Judaism programs, Passover in the Aisles. We look forward to seeing the continued impact of everyone’s work in the coming years.

Secular Conversions?

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The topic of conversion has been in the news a lot recently. Jerusalem street sceneWe at JOI believe that conversion should be an option for everyone who’s interested, by lowering the barriers that impede accessibility. But there is another voice pushing for accessibility to conversions, and it comes from an unexpected source: secular Israeli Jews.

Interfaith couples sometimes approach me to discuss conversion. And often, the biggest challenge is not that one partner is Jewish and the other Christian, but that one is interested in religion and the other is not. In this context, it almost doesn’t matter in what religion or which partner. As a rabbi, I have only one conversion option to offer—a religious one—with the understanding that the various movements do have different religious requirements.


My Visit to Louisville

Earlier this week, I was in Louisville, Kentucky, to share the results of our recent outreach scan with leaders in the Jewish community. Our research scan focused on what the community and its institutions are doing to welcome in interfaith and unaffiliated families. While the results of the community’s own demographic study are not complete, the anecdotal evidence is clear: Louisville’s affiliation rate is not as high as it once was (or, at least believed to be), and the community has a high interfaith marriage rate, perhaps even higher if the city’s merger with neighboring Jefferson County is taken into account.

So it wasn’t surprising when an issue that presents a challenge to most communal institutions emerged in Louisville, as well: what should be the policy for non-Jews (who are married to Jews) sitting on boards of Jewish institutions? Aren’t an institution’s boards supposed to reflect its constituency? The Louisville JCC is an interesting example. While about 40% of the members at the JCC are Jewish, it is unclear how many of its non-Jewish members are married to Jews or part of an extended Jewish family. So what should its policy be?


Happy Father’s Day!

For the past couple of years, JOI has distributed a Mother’s Day Card on behalf of our Mothers Circle program for non-Jewish women raising Jewish children within the context of an intermarriage. Each time, we received requests to also honor the non-Jewish men raising Jewish children, and this year we have taken the opportunity to do so with the below “virtual” Father’s Day card.

Please forward it to anyone you think might find it meaningful and encouraging, thanks!


Men’s Club Seeks to Open Doors to Intermarried Families

Rabbi Chuck Simon has been working tirelessly for years to find a place for intermarried couples and their children within Conservative Judaism. Under his direction, the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs has pushed to get the issue on the Conservative movement’s agenda.

And their work is starting to pay off. The Conservative movement is beginning to understand that its current position on interfaith marriage is not in sync with the reality in its midst. If there is to be a place for the movement in the coming generation, it must find a way to welcome interfaith families. We were thrilled to see some of Rabbi Simon’s work gain a foothold in the movement and beyond, as reported recently by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.


Rabbi’s Office Located on 112th and Broadway

“Gotta minute?”

This is the sign that Pete Stein, a Conservative rabbi, holds up as he stands on a Manhattan corner looking for wandering New Yorkers, according to a recent article in The Jewish Week. He isn’t looking for people to fill in a survey or sign a petition. What he wants is to share a little wisdom of Torah (Jewish learning) in hopes of engaging those in the Jewish community that are unaffiliated with Jewish institutions and Jewish life. Of course, these sixty seconds of connection are ideally an initial contact point, the broader goal being to spark an interest in learning more. He recognizes the need, as JOI associate executive director Paul Golin is quoted in the article as stating, “to take Judaism to them, rather than waiting for them to come to us.”


Half/Life: Jewish Tales from Interfaith Homes

The new book Half/Life: Jewish Tales from Interfaith Homes
is a collection of essays from writers who grew up in interfaith families, published by Soft Skull Press. Those of you who live in New York City have the unique opportunity to hear several of the authors read from their work on Wednesday evening at KGB Bar, a bar/performance space in the East Village. The event is exciting to us at JOI both because of its content and because it falls into our Public Space Judaism model—while additional readings are scheduled in Jewish spaces, the reading at KGB will likely draw a more unaffiliated and intermarried crowd because the location does not present a barrier for those who might not feel as comfortable walking into a Jewish institution. The book’s editor, Laurel Snyder (who has a blog called JewishyIrishy), will be one of the readers.


Majoring in Matisyahu

Maybe it is just me. I am fascinated by the entry of what once was isolated Jewish culture into the mainstream of American life. One of the great things about our society is that minorities can bring their culture into the majority culture as they assimilate (or a better word is integrate) into it. How long the Jewish community will be able to do so is a question that will have to be answered by future historians of this period of Jewish history. It is certainly clear that those who make up the so-called generation Y (sometimes called the millenials) are as comfortable in secular culture as they are in Jewish culture—perhaps even more so. That is what is so interesting about the course at Fairleigh-Dickinson University in the music of Matisyahu. While the beat is reggae, the lyrics are certainly religious.

This may not be a course for Jewish Studies majors, but it certainly will attract those on the periphery as well as those from outside of the Jewish community who are simply interested in what Matisyahu has to say and sing. Our own research confirms that many Jews on the periphery, particularly those coming from interfaith families, may not major in Jewish Studies on campus, but they will certainly be found among the enrollees of broad-based introductory courses in Jewish history and religion. When the questions are asked by campus professionals and the like, “Where are these students? And how do we find them?”, perhaps this is one place to start looking.

Garden State Outreach

Last night I met with the leadership of the Jewish community in Morris County, NJ. This meeting served as a kick off for JOI’s Community Transformation Initiative in the area. Local leaders expressed excitement about the potential for bringing JOI’s signature programs and methods to Morris County’s Jewish community and its institutions. While we have already begun phase one of the initiative—the environmental outreach scan—we will soon begin working with individual institutions and the community as a whole to develop a systemic and systematic approach to outreach for the area.

Two things emerged from the discussion that are worth noting since we have been talking about them in various communities: the lure of the high holidays and how to use them as outreach vehicles; and sharing information with newcomers about other institutions that provide services when one’s home institution does not. It seems that while high holiday attendance is down, they still draw in large crowds—the largest all year long. High price tickets keep lots of additional people away and may send the wrong message (that Jewish life is too expensive for them). Perhaps free tickets advertised in the secular press? At the same time, once they are inside the synagogue, are we doing enough to make the services accessible and meaningful? As for sharing information, why not start simply? How about a hyperlink for a specific program of interest to a targeted constituency placed on the homepage of another institution?

It was exciting to discuss these preliminary questions and share best practices with a group of Jewish professionals and volunteer leaders who truly want to serve their community, all of their community, and we at JOI look forward to a fruitful partnership with the Morris County Jewish community.

Celebrating Being Black and Jewish

Early last year, I blogged about attending the Be’chol Lashon Conference in San Francisco and the incredible impact I felt after spending a little time with the charismatic leadership from some of the nation’s African-American Jewish synagogues. I was especially impressed by Debra Bowen, spiritual leader of Temple Beth’El in Philadelphia, and the congregation’s amazingly powerful choir. I remember telling her that if my childhood synagogue had a choir like that, I would have attended a lot more often!

I came away from that conference believing very strongly that the rest of the “mainstream” Jewish community was really missing out on something, and I wrote at the time, “Why are these folks not being flown all over the country to sing in every single Jewish community?”

Word is finally getting out. In a recent article in Knight Ridder Newspapers called “Celebrating Being Black and Jewish,” we learn that “Rabbi Debra Bowen has been meeting with local rabbis, and last month synagogue members participated in a service that at least one rabbi is calling ground-breaking. Members of Congregation Temple Beth El and Congregation Tiferes B’nai Israel, a white synagogue in Warrington, Pa., held a joint Shabbat service.” We at JOI are thrilled by this development, and hope it is just the start of a much larger trend of widening our tent and making connections across denominational and institutional lines.

Jewish-Muslim Interfaith Film

Most of the time when we speak of interfaith marriages in this country, it is between Jews and Christians—or lapsed Christians. Infrequently do we speak of the marriages between Jews and those of other faiths such as Islam or Hinduism. We may speak of them as multicultural and focus on their ethnic background rather than their religious background. Perhaps it is time for that to change.

When we screened Forbidden Marriages in the Holy Land during a JOI training conference about five years ago, it was rather controversial. The community was struggling enough with the growing numbers of interfaith marriage in the United States. But few were ready to discuss the challenge of Israeli Jews marrying Israeli Arabs who were Muslim. While the numbers of intermarriage are not as significant in Israel as they are in the United States, there is no reason to believe that such numbers will not increase.

Recently, a new film has been released which has already received more negative publicity than did Forbidden Marriages. This one is called Marock and is reflective of the director’s own life as a Muslim married to a Sephardic Jew in Morocco. The government has claimed that the film actually breaks Moroccan law which “forbids offense to Islam,” although the country is religiously tolerant in general, especially to its very old Jewish community. Perhaps that is why a year after its release at the Cannes Film Festival, it is only now getting some general play in theaters. Whatever the reason, it is clear that the controversy of Jewish-Muslim marriage is a reality, best dealt with openly and honestly, just like all other forms of intermarriage.

The Importance of Personal Connections

JOI’s study “A Flame Still Burns” was one of a succession of studies on Jewish identity in young people. The latest is a research project led by Barry Chazan of Hebrew University which looked at 22 programs run by five campus Chabads. Chabad’s success at reaching out to unaffiliated/disengaged Jews is recognized and at times resented by the rest of the Jewish community, which hasn’t seen as much success. The question driving this study was: How do they do it when so many others have failed? The major finding of the study is not surprising, but nonetheless crucial to acknowledge. It’s something we’ve long talked about at JOI in consultation with communities and individual institutions—the importance of personal connections.

Personal follow-up is one of the things we investigate through our community outreach scans. We interview individual institutions and ask them: are newcomers followed up with? Are they placed on a targeted mailing list? Does someone from the organization send them a personal email? What about a personal phone call? Some institutions have said that there simply isn’t enough time for personal follow-up. But personal follow-up should be at the top of the priority list, because outreach extends beyond initial contact. One Jewish professional in Ottawa, where Rabbi Kerry Olitzky will be presenting JOI’s community outreach scan findings today, said that on occasion she’ll send an email about an upcoming event, but knows that if she really wants people to attend, she needs to call them up and personally invite them.

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