Weblog Entries for July 2006

Abigail Auer is a Hero

Last week, I spoke at Hadassah’s annual conference. Hundreds of women assembled to listen to three people: Michael Rukin (community activist and leader); Abi Auer (a Christian woman who raises her children as Jews and an alumna of The Mothers Circle program) and me. While large crowds can be intimidating for anyone, Michael and I are used to speaking to groups of Jewish people. And although our message might be somewhat controversial (though these women were very supportive), it is not an unfamiliar context for us.

As Abi spoke, and mesmerized the audience with her every word, I wondered what it was like for her to speak before such an audience. And based on the number of people who rushed to the microphone to ask her questions or tried to get close to her following our presentations, I imagine that the women assembled in the audience seldom get a chance to ask honest, penetrating questions of women who have married Jewish men and have decided to raise their children as Jews. And here she was, a Catholic woman from Minnesota, now living in Atlanta, teaching 1,000 Hadassah women about some of the ins and outs of raising Jewish children.

I couldn’t help but wish she could be so well-received in the many different communities represented by the assembled women. If only she and women like her were made to feel so welcome by the other institutions with which these women are affiliated, perhaps we could actually become the inclusive Jewish community we are working towards. Abi Auer is a hero. And the Hadassah women who came to listen knew it—that is why they gave her a standing ovation.

I Want My J-TV

A large-scale Jewish cultural event, including screenings of hundreds of Jewish films and television shows is slated to begin at the end of August and continue for an unspecified length of time. Where, you ask? Your living room.

Shalom TV, a new television station dedicated to Jewish news, Jewish movies, and other programming relevant to Jewish life will soon be available through cable. The film selection will be taken from the National Center for Jewish Film archives—and will feature lesser-known films as well as classics like Fiddler on the Roof, The Ten Commandments, and Schindler’s List, all of which are on the list of top 100 most inspiring movies of all time.

While Jewish-themed programs on basic television stations are more likely to reach the intermarried and unaffiliated (because those not already engaged in Jewish life are unlikely to order this station), it is still a potential entryway for some who may not otherwise attend Jewish events. For one thing, your own couch is highly accessible, appealing for those interested in Judaism but not yet interested in going public. Perhaps watching some of the top 100 most inspiring films of all time will in turn inspire some to attend a local community event and join what we at JOI are striving to help create—a welcoming and inclusive Jewish community.

The Park is the Place

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In a variety of presentations we at JOI have made on outreach methodology for reaching a teen population, we have suggested—among other effective models—the adaptation of what Protestants call “street ministry.” It is a spin on JOI’s definition of outreach: bringing Judaism to where people are, rather than waiting for them to come to us. Youth groups and other traditional venues for teens will not reach everyone. So I was intrigued by an article in the New York Times about training chaplains for work in the public parks system.

I was wondering what it would take for the Jewish community to muster a similar model through the park system. Could we champion JOI’s “Sunday in the Park with Bagels” Public Space Judaism program that we piloted in Atlanta with the Marcus Jewish Community Center? Could we do Shabbat evening services, as we tested in downtown Philadelphia a few years ago? If teens are hanging out in parks (or the malls, movies, or local convenience store), and if we want to reach them, we have to be willing to go to where they are.

More Than Worth The Hassle

When I travel, I often ask myself the same question: is it worth it? Is it worth it as I slug my way through yet another airport, and sleep in yet another hotel? Sometimes a single event makes the answer strikingly clear. I will share two recent examples, both of which followed a speaking engagement in two very different communities (and I share them publicly because they were shared with me rather publicly as people were clamoring for my attention after two recent presentations, to two rather different audiences and locales; otherwise, I would abide by the wisdom of my own teachers and never share what was said to me).

One woman came forward after a recent presentation and said, “I have been married to a wonderful Catholic man for 25 years. And for 25 years I have carried a burden of guilt with me whenever I go. This is the first time in 25 years, after hearing what you had to say, that I feel relieved of my burden.”

In another presentation, a woman came forward and said, “My daughter is soon to be engaged to a man who isn’t Jewish. I didn’t know what to do so I came to hear what you had to say. Before you spoke, I was planning on going home to try to break up their relationship, to dissuade my daughter from marrying that man. Now, after hearing what you had to say, I am going to go home and embrace them both with as much love as I can muster. I will welcome them into my home and into my heart.”

What more could we ask for in the evolving Torah of the Jewish people? As I think the medieval Jewish poet Ibn Pakuda once said, “Our lives are scrolls. We write on them with our hearts.” So, is my travel worth it? You bet it is.

A Spin on Public Space

A couple of weeks ago, I went to the local Barnes and Nobles to hear Elisa Albert read from her new collection of short stories, How This Night is Different. As I listened to the story’s protagonist challenge her friend’s move towards Orthodox Judaism, I scanned the crowd. They fell into several categories: young and into hip Jewish culture; older and into young, hip Jewish culture; friends or friends of friends of the author. But there was an exception: an Orthodox man with his wife, standing in the back listening intently to the irreverent, un-ladylike language of the protagonist, drunk at her newly Orthodox friend’s bachelorette party, and laughing at the “illogical” Jewish tradition of modestly covering your hair once you’re married, when practiced by donning a sexy wig.

The reading was certainly entertaining, but most intriguing to me was this couple’s presence: How did they hear about the reading? What made them decide to participate? My intuition turned out to be correct. They told me that they “just happened to be at the bookstore and stumbled upon it.” This accidental discovery of course reminded me of JOI’s Public Space Judaism model!

The power of Public Space Judaism is that is exposes people to something they would not otherwise have access to, either because of indifference, intimidation, or simply because they run in different social circles. Judaism in the public sphere can bring new and different elements of Judaism to a wide range of people—for us at JOI it means bringing elements of Judaism to unaffiliated and intermarried families and helping them feel more connected to the Jewish community. That evening at the Barnes and Nobles it meant bringing a certain cultural experience of Judaism to this religious couple. And while the event wasn’t necessarily their cup of tea, it opened up a dialogue where people who don’t normally get the opportunity to meet were able to exchange ideas. This too, I believe, helps build a diverse and connected community.

The Internet is the Source

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It probably comes as no surprise to those of us who use the Internet regularly that people are looking more and more to the internet for information about Jewish holidays and ritual practice, as was reported recently on Ynet. It is one of the reasons that internet traffic to JOI’s website, one of the pioneers in Jewish websites, spikes dramatically just before holidays, especially before the high holidays (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur); in anticipation of Hanukkah and right before Passover. We know that families often access Judaism with their children and at holiday time.

The internet has the potential to provide alternatives to introductory classes and books on Judaism or to complement other learning. Because the internet is relatively barrier-free (all you need is a computer and internet access), it fulfills many of the requirements of JOI’s notion of Public Space Judaism—a place where people can stumble upon Judaism. What the internet lacks—and what many people seek and we at JOI try to nurture—is community. Nevertheless, for people who seem to be busier than ever before (what happened to the leisure time that 1970s Leisure Studies experts told us to expect?), the internet allows for asynchronous learning, learning that is not time-bound. So whether it is in the middle of the day or the middle of the night, we can access the information we seek, which is particularly important for young parents whose lives are scheduled around the needs of their children and for commuters and others whose schedule does not allow for attending community events in the evening.

That is why the internet is such a wonderful boon to interfaith families who seek to learn about Judaism in an unthreatening way, at their own pace. No one is there to judge, evaluate or push in one direction or another. And consistent with what we know about adult learners, the internet allows for self-directed learning that is not restricted by what a particular class, instructor, or institution might offer.

A Mob of Gentile Spouses?

Today’s edition of the New York Jewish Week carries a piece called “Looking Beyond the Roadmap,” the latest in a series of monthly columns (that we also blogged about here) in which Jewish journalist Julie Wiener discusses her own intermarriage. In this column, Ms. Wiener offers her views on the Conservative movement’s approach toward intermarried couples, and criticizes a recent manual or “roadmap” put out by the movement, which she says “feels to me like a rulebook, with its detailed cataloging of what a non-Jew may and may not do in synagogue” and that by reading it:

you would think that a mob of crusading gentile spouses was standing at the entrance of Conservative synagogues, poised to overrun the bima and plant a cross on the Ark. In reality, I think that most non-Jews are just as happy to play a low-key role in the synagogue community and are more concerned with feeling accepted than in challenging religious practices.

In contrast, she points to another voice from within the Conservative movement who we’ve written about on this blog before, Rabbi Charles Simon, whose publications she describes as “far more positive in tone. As Rabbi Simon’s materials note repeatedly, stigmatizing intermarriage has simply not proven effective, and the movement needs to look beyond merely ‘reinforcing its boundaries.’”

Grandparenting Interfaith Children

JOI’s study A Flame Still Burns found that Jewish grandparents can play a significant role in imparting Jewish identity to grandchildren raised in an interfaith home. Ironically, when Jewish grandparents reject their children because of an intermarriage, the grandchildren end up with a weaker sense of Jewish identity.

A new program sponsored by B’nai Amoona in St. Louis, MO, offers a space for Jewish grandparents whose children have married someone of another faith to voice their concerns and learn from one another. The group is a great idea and will allow these grandparents to discuss issues such as how to keep harmony in the family and what aspects of Judaism they want to pass on to their grandchildren.

If you or someone you know might benefit from reading about these and related issues, you can order JOI’s publication, “Grandparenting Interfaith Children,” a helpful booklet focusing on acceptance, being a Jewish role model, and creating Jewish memories with children and grandchildren.

Actress Looks Beyond Kabbalah

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Ever wonder why actress Kate Hudson has not yet cut her toddler’s hair? Me neither. Kate, Chris, and RyderBut someone recently asked about it on a celebrity-watch website and the answer was rather interesting.

Certain Jewish traditions are commonly practiced: the Passover seder. Bagels with cream cheese. But Kate Hudson (who was raised Jewish and Buddhist) and husband Chris Robinson come to teach us that perhaps some lesser-known Jewish traditions are ripe for revival. Upsherin is the tradition of not cutting a boy’s hair until his third birthday. Kate explained why they’ve chosen to practice this tradition with their son Ryder:

I’m part-Jewish. Hasidic Jews—they don’t cut their kids hair until they’re three. I’m not very religious, but it’s actually kind of beautiful, they compare the men to a tree and trees don’t bear fruit for three years. So I just figured maybe on his third birthday I’ll cut it.

The custom is related to a law called Orla, stating that one cannot pick fruits from a tree in its first three years. A child, like a tree, will eventually grow strong and bear “fruit.” Perhaps a child, like a tree, also needs some stability in preparation for life; waiting for a haircut allows the child to collect resources in advance of future challenges.

Kudos to Kate and Chris for bringing Judaism into the public space and showing by example that we can explore traditions and discover ones that we find meaningful!

In Support of Israel

Yesterday I went to a rally in New York City in support of Israel. It was held across the street from the United Nations, and was reported on in papers today, including the Washington Post. I was joined in the broiling sun by an estimated ten thousand others who also came forward to support Israel. While there were many Jews in the crowd, there were also those who come from other communities to stand together with the Jewish community and the state of Israel. The speakers, including Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton and Elie Weisel, made it clear that the United States stands together with Israel in the war against terrorism. As I meandered through the crowd, I had two thoughts related to JOI.

The first was that many of JOI’s supporters work with us because they are concerned about the future of Israel. They believe that reaching interfaith families is crucial to maintaining a sizeable, influential Jewish community in North America that will continue to exercise political support for the state of Israel. The second was that I was mindful of JOI critics who contend that support for the state of Israel—an important measurement of Jewish identity from their perspective—is low in priority for interfaith couples. I don’t know how many non-Jews or intermarried folks were in the crowd, but I did realize that this rally and the others planned across the country provide interfaith families with an opportunity to prove that they are wrong. So see what you can do to challenge the critics and stand with Israel.

Up For Discussion

Like Wikipedia and the Talmud, blogs make for a multi-layered experience, constantly supplemented by contributors to help shed light on an original idea. People are starting to pay attention to blogs, with politicians and journalists abound at the bloggers convention in Las Vegas. The mainstream Jewish community too, is taking notice: The Jewish Week noted two blogs in one issue alone:
“Black Hat Meets Blog” and “Are Blogs Kosher?”

With the advent of blogs (public web logs), on-line diaries that allow people to post and comment on whatever topic they wish, everyone with internet access can express their opinions. By putting my thoughts “on paper” here on our JOI blog, I receive both positive and negative feedback. I find this encouraging; when discussing issues of crucial concern to the Jewish community, respectful conversation and debate is what we should strive for, and I want to encourage an open dialogue on our blog.

I grew up in Florida, known at the time for its “government in the sunshine” laws, meaning that all governmental transactions were open to the scrutiny of its citizens. In this tradition, I want to welcome and encourage on-line comments on our site and others. It is only in such dialogue—when honest and civil—that the Jewish community will thrive.

Wiener’s Winning Column

There’s an interesting “back-story” behind Julie Wiener who, for nearly a decade, has been one of the most prolific and widely-read journalists in the Anglo-Jewish press, especially during her tenure as national reporter at the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA), a kind of “Jewish Associated Press” feeding articles to local Jewish newspapers across North America. Currently writing a first-person monthly column called “In the Mix” for the New York Jewish Week, she reveals something few readers would have known about her based on her prior objective news reporting: she is intermarried.

That a prominent Jewish communal professional is intermarried comes as no surprise to us at JOI. The high intermarriage rate has permeated all aspects of non-Orthodox Jewish life, including among communal professionals. What is amazing about Wiener’s column is the open way in which she discusses her personal journey, especially considering that being intermarried is probably the most closeted topic among professionals in the organized Jewish community today.

To date she has written three very intriguing columns that we highly recommend reading:

  • Conversionary Tactics(4/21/06) about the challenge of promoting Jewish conversion to non-Jewish spouses;
  • A Rosenblum By Any Other Name…(5/19/06) about whether to give her daughter a “Jewish-sounding” name;
  • And “Making the Cut(6/16/06) about the emotional issues surrounding ritual circumcision for new parents who are intermarried.

We look forward to reading many more columns from Ms. Wiener, and we are especially thankful to our friends at the New York Jewish Week—the largest local Jewish newspaper in North America—for having the conviction to publish it. (NOTE: if you live in the New York City region and don’t subscribe to the Jewish Week, you can try it free for two months through a special arrangement with JOI by completing this form.)

Manischewitz Mainstreams its Matzoh Balls

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It looks like Manischewitz has read up on JOI’s Public Space Judaism model! Throughout the years, a variety of kosher and Jewishly ethnic foods have tried to make it in mainstream culture. The bagel certainly made it. And some might remember the classic advertising slogan: “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s rye bread.” Manischewitz’s new campaign “Simply Manischewitz,” seeks to introduce its kosher products into the general marketplace. A recent article in the New York Times explains:

The goal is to encourage consumers to ask grocers and other retailers to stock Manischewitz items not in the smaller kosher sections of stores, but in the more heavily trafficked aisles devoted to broad product categories like soup, crackers, noodles and sauces.

Of course, their target population is anyone and everyone tempted to buy grape juice or potato pancake mix, but the model is familiar: they want to place the food where the people are. And unaffiliated and intermarried families are generally not shopping in the kosher food section of the supermarket, just as they are not getting subscriptions to the Jewish newspaper.


A Unified Yes to Judaism

Before trampling on a discarded neighborhood paper as I walked down my Brooklyn street last weekend, I took a quick glance down. Jews for Jesus distribute pamphletsGlancing back at me in big bold letters were the words, “Yes to Judaism.” My curiosity piqued, I picked it up, and to my utter surprise and delight, it was an advertisement encouraging people to celebrate Judaism—to give to tzedakah (charity), to light the Sabbath candles, to eat a Shabbat meal with family and friends—and underneath the message, as clear as a clear day, were the names and logos of the four major Jewish denominations: Reform, Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist (and other Jewish organizations as well, including the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York), all co-sponsors of the ad.

Wow. I wondered what occasion inspired us all to come together in this rare gesture of solidarity. I learned that the ad was created by a group called Jews for Judaism, in response to the Jews for Jesus summer campaign in New York City. For those that don’t know, Jews for Jesus is a messianic group that is criticized for misrepresenting both Judaism and Christianity in its attempt to bring Jews into their fold. They specifically target Jews, especially interfaith families, Israelis, Russians, and Ultra-Orthodox. In a column in the New York Daily News, Lenore Skenazy explains that “The pamphleteers’ insidiousness dismays not only Jews like me, but the leaders of other faiths as well—Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, you name it.”


JOI is here for Natalie

You can almost see the panic beginning to well. The Jewish community loves actress Natalie Portman, and really, what’s not to love? She’s beautiful (even when bald), intelligent (graduated Harvard), independent-minded (does some films outside the studio system), politically active (stumped for Kerry), socially conscious (vegetarian), funny (hosted Saturday Night Live)…did I already mention beautiful?…and she is openly proud of her Jewish/Israeli heritage. She even played Anne Frank on Broadway. So why the creeping panic? It seems that Ms. Portman is a little too much like the average 20-something single Jewish American, in that she doesn’t limit her dating just to fellow Jews.

In a recent article facetiously titled “Help find Natalie a nice Jewish man,” Portman is attributed as saying “a priority for me is definitely that I’d like to raise my kids Jewish, but the ultimate thing is to have someone [as a spouse] who is a good person and who is a partner.”

While statistics suggest that it would be easier for Portman to raise her future children as Jews if her partner is also Jewish (and sorry, Natalie, I’m already married), we at JOI are thrilled that raising Jewish children is “a priority” for her. We know that if it is a priority, then it can be achieved even if she married someone who is not Jewish. Yes, it might require adjustments, negotiations, conversations, and perhaps even compromises, but all good marriages do, even in-marriages.

The Jewish community makes a mistake when it laments intermarriage for intermarriage’s sake. The truly lamentable fact is that so few young Jews believe that raising their children Jewish is a priority for them, regardless of who they marry. We are not at all worried about the Jewish continuity of someone like Natalie Portman — so private in other aspects of her life but so vocally up-front about her Jewish identity. If she intermarries, my bet is she will continue to be a role model for her generation by raising Jewish children, even if the Jewish media misses the point.

Signs of Change

I met recently with leaders at Temple Emanuel, a Reform synagogue in the Mt. Lebanon section of Pittsburgh. This section of the so-called “South Hills” was the first major Jewish community outside of Pittsburgh’s famed Squirrel Hill. Since the Jewish community of Pittsburgh has experienced the same suburban sprawl as many Jewish communities and American cities in general, it is not surprising that Mt. Lebanon is now feeling a pinch.

The synagogue, which recently expanded its building, got permission to place an electronic sign on its property in hopes of attracting more passersby. The current sign, the only type previously allowed by the township, is quite small and difficult to see. As far as I know, this will be one of the first congregations in the country to have an electronic sign.

We spoke a great deal about JOI’s Public Space Judaism model and the desire to reach people through the new sign, particularly interfaith families in the community. We also talked about what message to place on the sign. I asked the congregation to consider what was special about its offerings and what it thought most speaks to people. One of the possibilities I suggested was placing prayers of healing on the board. It is indeed an important part of the culture of the congregation. What would you recommend?

Bat Mitzvah at Prime Time

What’s the sudden appeal of the Bar and Bat Mitzvah in the television and movie worlds? Cast of EverwoodIs it because the outrageousness of some parties has eclipsed the meaningful ceremony that the majority of Bar and Bat Mitzvahs kids experience? Is it that this awkward time of transition overflows with such pathos that it is easy fodder for comedic and dramatic writers?

Hype or no hype, we continue to affirm our belief that the ceremony plays an important role as a rite-of-passage in the Jewish community, even when accompanied by over-indulgences. Consider the series finale of “Everwood.” The series follows the story of a widowed non-Jewish father who is raising his children in a small town (the deceased mother was Jewish). In this particular episode, the daughter decides—inspired perhaps by the memory of her mother—to have a Bat Mitzvah. She is not interested in the party, but the rituals. While this story is fictitious, written primarily to pull at heartstrings and increase viewer ratings, perhaps there is more truth here than we realize. The “War at Home” had a similar moral in its Bar Mitzvah episode, when the boy was inspired by the learning, not the prospect of a party.


In Death as in Life

There are few families or institutions in the Jewish community whose lives have not been impacted upon by intermarriage. That is why nearly every conference or gathering these days includes something about the elephant in the room. (At JOI’s last conference we placed inflatable elephants throughout the conference hotel—just to make the point.) So it is no surprise that at a recent Hevra Kadisha (Jewish burial group) conference held in Portland, Oregon, the issue emerged once again, confirming our philosophy that intermarriage is a lifelong issue. As reported in the Jewish Review, conference members grappled with decisions that are made regarding where the non-Jewish partner in an intermarriage can be buried.

In Jewish law, I have always felt that where there is a will, there is usually a way. In this case, if we want to find a way to bury those who have cast their lot with the Jewish people (and in many cases raised Jewish children), then we should be able to find it—even within the boundaries of Jewish law. That is why it was heartening to read Rabbi Stuart Kelman’s comments suggesting the possibility, within Jewish legal boundaries, of grave sites for non-Jews in Jewish cemeteries. He also understands the important influence that societal pressure has on Jewish law, as when an outraged Israeli public forced rabbis to bury a fallen Russian Israeli soldier whose mother was not Jewish within the walls of the Jewish cemetery.


Zionist Field of Dreams

A few weeks ago I made a presentation for the department of Zionist education of the Jewish Agency, which focuses on presenting Israel in the United States. My suggestions for programming were based on our Public Space Judaism model and included partnering with secular organizations and adding an Israeli element to already-existing programs in the public sphere. For example, Israeli food at an outdoor food fair; Israeli music at a music festival; Krav-Maga for kids doing martial arts; and tie-ins to current events, such as the film Munich or concerns over Iran. (If you would like to see a full listing of these ideas, they are available on our JOPLIN site. Simply click on the worksheet entitled “Israel in Public Space Judaism.”)

Then I read an announcement that the former American ambassador to Israel, Daniel Kurtzer, was appointed as first commissioner of the newly formed Israel Baseball League, whose mission is to bring the joys of baseball to the people of Israel (and they’ve even found biblical support!) If there is one thing even more quintessentially American than fireworks on the 4th of July, it is surely baseball. So my added suggestion to the Jewish Agency would be, if you want to reach those who are unaffiliated and unengaged in the Jewish community, spend less time in day schools and synagogue classrooms and more time on the ball field.

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