Weblog Entries for August 2006

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Out of Faith

A three-generation saga is a popular formula for fiction as well as film. So it is not surprising to see it in the new feature-length documentary Out of Faith. The film asks the question: how does an interfaith marriage impact upon three successive generations within the same family? After members of one generation are rejected by their Holocaust survivor relatives for “marrying out” and “finishing Hitler’s job (the film is replete with a visit to Auschwitz),” the next generation tries a different response when another family member intermarries.

Love seems to conquer more than hate. Out of Faith looks like a moving, poignant film ripe with real questions about Jewish essentialism and existentialism. While it can simply serve as an evening of “entertainment,” it offers viewers a lot to talk about in informal as well as formal contexts, such as the synagogue classroom and sanctuary.

The film is being screened in various locations: Laemmle’s Sunset 5 in West Hollywood, California at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, September 12, 2006; at the Washington Jewish Film Festival in November; and for film industry personnel at the Angelika in the New York City at 11:30 am on September 21.

We Jews and Jesus

Much of what I learned about Christianity and the New Testament came from the late Rabbi Samuel Sandmel, who was the leading Jewish authority on Christianity in the last generation and a member of the faculty for many years at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Cincinnati.

Among his many excellent works is a book called We Jews and Jesus. It had been out of print for many years until SkyLight Paths Publishing, a sister company to Jewish Lights Publishing reissued the book recently as “a classic reprint.” Since Jesus is core to Christian belief and often a sticky point in interfaith relationships, I encourage interfaith couples to read the book together. While you are at it, you may also want to peruse A Jewish Understanding of the New Testament which SkyLight Paths also reissued some time ago.

Inspirational Calendar

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The Jewish month of Elul, the month that precedes the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah), began last Friday. Elul is a time of spiritual preparation for the High Holidays and a chance to begin the process of forgiveness (asking for, as well as accepting from others). If you’re looking to prepare, or simply looking for some inspirational words of wisdom, check out this new anthology called Jewels of Elul, which offers an insight for each of the 29 days of Elul. The book is available (for free!), or you can go to their website to read the day’s insight. The collection will certainly appeal to a diverse crowd including unaffiliated and intermarried populations, given a list of contributors that includes Ruth Messinger, president of American Jewish World Service, and bodybuilder-turned governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Survivor Takes Wrong Turn

We at JOI are all about creating an inclusive Jewish community. We believe in developing “big tent” Judaism, no matter what your subgroup is: interfaith, LGBT, Jews of color. We also are well aware that these communities frequently overlap. And with the knowledge that the Jewish community takes cues from the secular community, which in turn takes cues from popular culture, we were appalled to learn about the latest from the television series “Survivor,” as reported in USA Today.

In response to criticism about its groups not being racially or ethnically integrated, they decided to set up competing groups from various ethnic communities. Jen Chau, who co-directs New Demographic, an anti-racism training company (and who participated in a panel discussion at JOI’s last conference in Atlanta December 2005), had this to say about “Survivor”:

With the announcement that the new season of “Survivor” would split its contestants up by race and pit these “tribes” against one another, I thought it important to speak out against the divisiveness that is going to be characteristic of the show—with blacks against whites, against Hispanics, against Asians. This set-up will make racial conflict inevitable. In aiming for diverse representation, we should be thinking about how to bring different groups together rather than splitting them up to battle one another.

I guess that the financial lure was too great for participants to say no—perhaps viewers will vote with their feet and turn off their TV sets as well.

Preparing for the High Holidays

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It is that season. When done right, it is intentionally overwhelming. That is one of the things that motivated me years ago to do Preparing Your Heart for the High Holy Days with my colleague Rabbi Rachel Sabbath-Halachmi, now of Jerusalem. But there are lots of ways to prepare—especially since not everyone is positively disposed to spending the holidays in services at synagogues. Consider the plans of New York’s Skirball Center. While the lead-in (a quiz on the high holidays) is not the most inviting (although the winner does win a shofar—in New York, perhaps a chauffeur would also be appreciated), everything else seems really on target. Getting fit for the holidays. Preparing by doing yoga at a yoga center. Free water and nutrition bars. And an invitation to four three-session courses during the preparatory month (of Elul). (Alas, the courses have fees attached to them.)

Outreach and Inreach

At JOI, we are interested specifically in outreach but do not think that the focus of the community should be on outreach alone. We do not believe that outreach and inreach are mutually exclusive. That is what motivated my colleague Rabbi Hayim Herring (at STAR—Synagogues: Transformation and Renewal) and I to write an op/ed about the issue. We want to make sure that our positions are clear. You can read both the full-length essay and the shorter version that appears in this week’s (New York) Jewish Week. Feel free to share with others and let me know what you think.

A New Form of Kavana

When I get no response to the ideas I present, I try to remember that even Abraham Lincoln received no response after the Gettysburg Address, and thought that he had failed miserably. Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum, left, and Kavana co-founder Suzan LeVine Likewise, a new innovative project called The Kavana Cooperative (kavana is the Hebrew word for intention) is based on a concept that was initially met with “a deafening silence” when first put forth 25 years ago, as reported in JT News. The Kavana Cooperative is an alternative Jewish community (alternative to synagogue, that is) that grows organically, based on a food cooperative model (and we thank Becca Boggs for calling it to our attention).

It is led by Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum and was influenced by Rabbi Anson Laytner who wrote an article about combating the passivity of synagogue life. Listen to what some of the new members of the coop expressed—of particular interest to those of us trying to create a barrier-free community that is welcoming, particularly of interfaith families:

“Others weren’t Jewish, but wanted to join their spouses in understanding their desire to lead a Jewish life.”

“Tatiana Becker, who a month ago returned from a Birthright Israel trip in conjunction with the Livnot U’Lehibanot community-service organization, said she feared her return to Seattle would be a letdown from the challenging discussions and learning she engaged in while in Israel….Becker did not grow up with a Jewish background, though her father is Jewish. When she was married earlier this year, she said her husband, Michael Gregory’s Judaism was ‘one of the things that’s sparked my interest in my roots.’”

With examples like the Kavana Cooperative, a place where people from so many different backgrounds call home, there is good reason to be optimistic about the health and future of the North American Jewish community.

In Joy and In Sorrow

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For those of you who read Julie Weiner’s monthly column in the New York Jewish Week, I am sure you were touched as much as I was by the poignant description of her relationship to Rabbi Josh Simon, who died last year from a brain tumor. It is hard to celebrate with joy in the shadow of death. Perhaps that is what makes the joy of the birth of a child so profound.

What was clear to me in Julie’s retelling of the story of arranging for a baby naming for her first child and now her second was simple: rabbis play pivotal roles in the welcoming of interfaith families into the community. It might even be inferred from Julie’s experience that personal and charismatic leadership is so often the ultimate deciding factor for intermarried families in participating in synagogue life. Programs are important, as are policies, but the attitude that is expressed by professional and volunteer leadership seems to trump them all.

Creating a Culture of Welcome

I like to take advantage of being out of town over Shabbat to check out area synagogues. Since we spend so much time helping synagogues and other communal institutions to become more welcoming, I am sensitive to the various “welcoming behaviors” of the institutions I visit and am able to get a sense of how they welcome strangers or newcomers.

Last Friday evening, I attended a moderate-size urban synagogue. It is well-known for its lively Friday night singing (called Carlebach-style, in deference to the melodies which were shaped by the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach.) While the service demanded a high level of literacy to fully engage, there were some periods of niggunim (wordless chants) that could heighten the prayer experience without having to know any Hebrew. I said hello to a few people whom I recognized, though no one came to me to say hello. But an announcement the rabbi made at the conclusion of the prayer service was what for me ultimately made for a welcoming experience: “If you have an extra seat at your Shabbat dinner table, please see me after services. And if you would like a place to go for Shabbat dinner, please see me after services.”

On Saturday morning, I attended a large synagogue, also well-known for its participatory singing. No one approached me until the rabbi leading the service (whom I didn’t know) formally welcomed me. There was no announcement at the end of the service. Perhaps there were private invitations. I am not sure.


The Exodus Code

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The Exodus story is the central narrative of the Jewish people. Making up most of the Biblical book of Exodus, it recounts the enslavement of the Jewish people and their march to freedom through the desert under the leadership of Moses. [It also includes Moses’ marriage to Zipporah, the daughter of Jethro a Midianite priest (read: the local minister).] A few years ago, Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles provoked a lot of controversy when he suggested in a Passover sermon that maybe the Exodus never really happened. So how do newcomers to the Jewish community, particularly those from other religious backgrounds, navigate their way between historical scholarship and religious faith based in the Bible? The History Channel may help. Its program entitled “The Exodus Decoded” examines the historicity of the account by bringing together Biblical prose and archaeological discovery. Simcha Jacobovi, a documentary filmmaker, put the film together with producer James Cameron. While I am a believer, my friend Leonard (Label) Fein likes to put it this way: “The Exodus never happened but I was there.”

The Holocaust in Graphic Novel

It took a while for scholars to take Maus (a graphic novel of the Holocaust) seriously. After all, delving into Holocaust themes through the lens of a comic book may at first seem in bad taste. But Spiegelman established an important avenue of artistic expression.

This kind of expression is captured anew in I Was A Child of Holocaust Survivors by Bernice Eisenstein. She uses a combination of illustrations and narrative to help move the story along. For those who wish to learn more about the Holocaust or for those who are marrying into a survivor’s family, this could be one way to enter the topic. It might be particularly relevant for those of other religious backgrounds whose new Jewish partner or spouse has lived with the Holocaust his or her entire life.

Leonard Cohen’s Jewish Journey

I can’t wait to see I’m Your Man, the new movie about my favorite singer, Leonard Cohen. My wheels starting churning about outreach possibilities associated with this film. First there’s the obvious—films and other cultural events generally have a better chance of reaching an unaffiliated audience than those held inside Jewish institutions. But a film about Leonard Cohen also presents an angle not often explored. Here is someone who grew up in an observant home and has over the years taken a unique Jewish journey, identifying at times as a Jew-Bu (Jewish and Buddhist). I poked around a bit and found an interesting article in All About Jewish Theatre chronicling his Jewish journey. Something that we need to consider in looking at Jewish involvement is its fluidity; Jewish identity can shift and change and change again over the course of a lifetime.

This movie could also be an opportunity to learn about how Leonard Cohen’s art was influenced by Jewish themes. I’m envisioning a program that examines the Jewish motifs in his songs while introducing the original sources as well. For example, his haunting song “Who By Fire” is a rendition of a prayer recited on Rosh Hashanah called the “Unetane Tokef.” “If It Be Your Will,” too, was clearly inspired by high holiday prayers and themes. Perhaps a series of Leonard Cohen-inspired events leading up to the high holidays, or even something more broad, like Jewish themes as they appear in popular music?

Divorce: A Laughing Matter?

Sometimes the best way to deal with difficult issues is through humor. It certainly worked for Sholom Aleichem, whose work is remembered perhaps more for its humor than its social criticism. Maybe that is what motivated the playwright Theodore Kemper to write FMNJ (Formerly Married to Non-Jews) and what enthused the New York Jewish cultural venue Makor to host it. Perhaps the abbreviation will even make its way into the Jewish community’s vocabulary, much like FFB (Frum [observant] From Birth) or MOT (Members Of the Tribe).

This play reminds me a little of the film The First Wives Club. I don’t really know what divorced women who were left behind for “trophy wives” felt when they watched that movie. I imagine that they were less than thrilled. Maybe it takes some time and perspective until it can be laughed at. But it may take a lot of time.

Divorce in the context of intermarriage may be similar. People who go through a divorce, especially if connected to issues that emerge from intermarriage, may not be in a position to laugh about it. This is especially true about the children who come from such a union. For so-called insider Jews, maybe it is a laughing matter. For others, I am not so sure. But the play does examine a lot of issues relevant to intermarriage and the Jewish community, perhaps in a more meaningful way than popular culture does.

Intermarriage and Jewish Professionals

I recently returned from this year’s CAJE (Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education) conference held at Duke University, where I generally present each year. During one of my sessions this year, I asked the question I often ask: “How many of you are touched by interfaith marriage in your immediate family?” Of the people in attendance at this standing-room only session, focused on “the children of intermarriage in the classroom,” nearly every hand shot up.

This is a self-selecting group, and perhaps their personal interest motivated their choice of which session to attend. But the session was focused more on their role as professional Jewish educators. These are people who are committed to Jewish education, actively practicing it, and representing a wide range of the Jewish community—demographically, ideologically and geographically.

Intermarriage is not reserved for people on the periphery of the Jewish community. Nor should it be a reason for pushing people out—especially Jewish communal professionals who are committed to the Jewish present and the Jewish future. I have long been concerned with the reaction of the Jewish community to Jewish communal professionals and volunteer leaders who are intermarried or whose children are intermarried. I want to make sure that none of these individuals are limited in their opportunity to grow as communal leaders.

The Young and the…Jewish?!

Here at JOI we’re a little obsessive about pointing out Jewish themes in mainstream culture. But we can’t help it. We know the incredible potential it has to reach people that are not otherwise engaged in the community. Last week’s New York Jewish Week has an article about the latest example of this phenomenon. It seems even soap operas are not immune from serving as potential outreach vehicles.

Turns out the long-running character Brad Carlton on CBS’s “The Young and The Restless” is really George Kaplan, “the son of a Holocaust survivor who changed his name because someone is after him and his mother.” Um, okay…

Stephanie Sloane, editor of Soap Opera Digest and a 16-year veteran of the industry, says she has never heard of such a story arc on a soap. “Judaism is not often addressed in daytime [programming]. … I think it opens the door to a lot of potentially interesting information for people who may not have delved deeply into the Holocaust and know little about Judaism.”

And that includes unaffiliated Jews who happen to be watching. Anything can spark a Jewish journey, as the second half of the article demonstrates by discussing the route to engagement taken by “the ruggedly handsome” Don Diamont, the actor who plays Carlton/Kaplan on the show. We look forward to seeing more such potential catalysts in our (formerly mindless) entertainment!

Something New to Think About

On the plane ride home after speaking recently at a conference, I watched “Something New,” a movie about an interracial relationship. And as I sat watching this romance about a relationship between a black woman and a white man (who attend a Jewish wedding at one point), I was wondering about how an interracial relationship differs from an interfaith relationship. Of course, there are interracial relationships that are also interfaith, increasing the various challenges that couples face. But what is different about these two kinds of relationships? And is there anything can we learn from an interracial relationship that we can apply to interfaith relationships?

During the course of the movie, the female lead talked about what it is like to be the only black woman in an all-male white accounting firm. Similarly, viewers could grasp the discomfort felt by the male lead when he was with a group of black men or women. Having grown up in a small community in the south (with two Jews in my graduating class of 1,000, myself included), I know what it is like to feel isolated from the majority. But I can only imagine—and try to be sensitive to—what it is like for non-Jews to join the Jewish community. But considering that interfaith marriages are the coming majority, as we found in our 2003 report “The Coming Majority: Suggested Action On Intermarried Households For The Organized Jewish Community” intermarried families in the Jewish community are not alone. And we are JOI are here to welcome them.

What’s That You Say? A Jewish Valentine’s Day?

Now that the mournful day of Tisha B’av has passed, the Jewish calendar takes a very different turn. Today marks a change in mood with an even less well-known holiday called Tu B’av. Tu B’av, the fifteenth day of the Hebrew month of Av, is celebrated as the day of love.

What? A Jewish Valentine’s Day? While widely observed in Israel, few in the North American Jewish community are even remotely familiar with the holiday. Perhaps you, too, have never heard of Tu B’av. Or perhaps you’ve celebrated Tu B’av the way our ancestors did, by dressing up in white and go out to your local vineyards to dance?

I was once at a Jewish retreat with of adults of all ages, most of whom had never heard of Tu B’av. Because the holiday fell during the retreat, the leaders chanted the Song of Songs (Song of Solomon) in English and Hebrew, sang love songs, and danced with scarves. Within a few hours, we all had a clear understanding of the holiday and its history, and a deeper appreciation of Judaism for providing this element of love. But a question for us at JOI is, can an obscure Jewish holiday be an outreach opportunity, or is that unrealistic? Can it be an opportunity to learn about the holiday? Or must outreach programming focus on a Jewish slant to Valentine’s Day, the holiday that the unaffiliated are already familiar with?

JOI in San Francisco

JOI’s Senior Director of Programs and Training, Ruth Decalo, recently ran a workshop in San Francisco on the topic of Jewish identity in adult children of intermarriage. The workshop was attended by Jewish communal professionals in San Francisco, many of whom Ruth has been consulting with on an ongoing basis over the last year. The Jewish News Weekly of Northern California reported on the event:

Generally, not much is known about this segment of the population, and for a long time Jewish demographers thought the children of mixed marriages were automatically lost to the Jewish people. But those at the Jewish Outreach Institute are finding those assumptions are not necessarily true.

Indeed, rather than perceiving those in interfaith families as “lost” to the Jewish people, we instead must welcome them and warmly receive them into our communities and institutions. This is something that Ruth stressed in her presentation as well, saying that if they are not properly welcomed, chances are they will not return.

The presentation was one in a series of workshops in San Francisco, Boston, and Chicago that explores the implications of JOI’s study “A Flame Still Burns,” about Jewish identity in adult children of intermarriage. For more information on workshops in your community, please contact Ruth.

Your big break?

More proof that Jewish intermarriage is simply a part of the fabric of American culture: an upcoming episode of MTV’s documentary series “True Life” will focus on interfaith relationships in general, and we were contacted to help them find an appropriate representation of a Jewish interfaith couple. The casting call reads:

Are you currently dating someone who doesn’t share the same religious background as you? Do your family and friends not understand? If you appear between the ages of 18-28 and you want to share the challenges and benefits of being in an interfaith relationship, we want to hear from you. Please email your contact info, recent pictures of you and your loved one, and explanation of your current relationship to True Life wants to experience your interfaith relationship from your point of view.

While I’m not 100% sure of what it means to “appear” between the ages of 18-28…if this sounds like you, and you want to be on MTV, please email them and comment below on how it went. And tell us when your 15 minutes of fame will air!

It’s a Bird….It’s a Plane….It’s—a Sabbath Reminder?

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Chabad of the Shore in New Jersey has begun flying a banner in the sky each Friday afternoon, informing sun worshipers what time candle-lighting is for that particular Shabbat. This is an interesting approach, because it starts from the basic principle of going to where the people are; on a hot summer afternoon, people—at least the lucky ones—are at the beach.

Those who care about precise candle-lighting time probably already know when it is, but for those who don’t, the banner functions as a public reminder that Shabbat is on its way. This is a good start for bringing Judaism to the public sphere, but there is room for so much more. What about building a public space event beyond the news-flash in the sky? Some kind of follow-up in the air, or better yet, on the ground? Perhaps a Shabbat evening service held on the beach?

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