Weblog Entries for September 2006

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Yom Kippur Begins Sunday Night

This is the season of repentance. According to the rules, Jewish people have to first approach those whom they have wronged before they can stand before Gd on Yom Kippur and ask for divine forgiveness. For some—including me—this is a powerful time of year. And it is a serious time of year. (But it doesn’t mean that we can’t laugh at what we do or who we are, as Stephen Colbert does on Comedy Central).

Most people think of the December season as the time which is fraught with challenges for interfaith families. Perhaps this is the time of year where we can prevent those challenges from taking place. Maybe this is the time of year for Jewish family members to approach those from other religious backgrounds and apologize for past behaviors, for being exclusionary and xenophobic. Let’s make this Yom Kippur a true day of atonement.

Our Upstairs Neighbors

Most American Jews have the sense that Canadian Jewry is in a much different place than American Jewry. While this may be true, it’s not necessarily the case for the reasons they think. It is true that the Jewish community in Canada is more traditional in most cases. And it is also true that its social politic may be more liberal (for example, gay and lesbian marriages are legal in Canada). But Canadian Jewry is not as distant from the impact of interfaith marriage as previously thought, or as often assumed by the American Jewish community. Perhaps that is what is heartening about the fact that the Canadian Jewish community is learning from American Jews—and organizations such as our own Jewish Outreach Institute—about how to respond to interfaith marriage, transforming the challenge into an opportunity for growth, as seen here in the Canadian Jewish News in an article called “JOI helps interfaith couples raise Jewish kids” (.PDF document).

We see it in their response to our Mothers Circle program for women of other religious backgrounds raising their children as Jews. And we see it across the board (Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Renewal, Orthodox, Chabad; Federation, JCC, JFS, etc.) in response to our work in communities such as Ottawa—which is leading the way in its response to the current demographic challenges facing the Canadian Jewish community.

A Subjective Approach to Judaism

Last weekend, I spent my mornings in synagogue welcoming the Jewish New Year. And, while these services appealed to me, I couldn’t help but wonder what we, as a Jewish people, can do to make Judaism more tangible to those interested.

Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein makes an interesting point in the Philly Metro blog when he questions why we aren’t actively trying to be more engaging. As Jews, we should be making Judaism a subjective and warm experience. He argues that in times of peril, Jewish leaders should reach out to their community. He writes:

If we’d only offer Jews—especially younger and searching ones—a Judaism that was vibrant, inspiring, edgy and joyful, rather than one that was fearful, defensive, ossified and out of touch with the needs and desires of a new generation of Jews, no one would even be tempted to look elsewhere for their spiritual sustenance.

Rabbi Goldstein uses strong language to convey his message that as a community, we must change our focus. Last weekend, the rabbi at my synagogue did exactly that, sermonizing not about the many negative perceptions of Jews and Israel portrayed by the world media but rather how far we have come as a people (as an interesting aside, there was an article in today’s JTA on the most popular High Holiday sermon topics this year). For example, we should be proud of ourselves for taking a lead in the fight against the genocide in Darfur—drawing on the value of social action and that nature of our own persistence. What other things in our communities are we proud of, and how can we share them with everyone interested? How do we highlight our strengths and create a more inviting space for all those interested, including couples and families where all members may not be or have been raised Jewish?

The Mothers Circle in the News!

What makes the Jewish community strong? Is the community stronger if everyone in it is the same? If it is closed to outsiders? Or if it is open? At JOI, we’ve argued for a long time that the strongest American Jewish community is one that reaches out, one that embraces the diversity that comes with participating fully in American life. A lot of that diversity comes from marriage. As the intermarriage rate rises, there will be more and more people in the Jewish community—in the synagogue, at the JCC—who are not Jewish. How does a strong community respond new people?

“There’s nothing to say that if included and welcomed that they can’t also strengthen the Jewish community,” said Rabbi Ron Segal of Temple Sinai, a Reform synagogue in Sandy Springs. Rabbi Segal was referring to participants in The Mothers Circle, a JOI program for non-Jewish women in interfaith households who have committed to raising their children in the Jewish tradition. For more about The Mothers Circle in Atlanta, read a recent article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

Through The Mothers Circle, these women become comfortable with Jewish rituals and traditions. Some, like Jeanine Schmid (raised Catholic on Long Island) find Judaism spiritually fulfilling and decide to convert. Others, like Susan Shields (raised Methodist) remain in their own religion while sharing Jewish traditions with their children. In either case, the inclusion of women who have chosen Jewish life partners, who have chosen to raise Jewish children, who have cast their lot with the Jewish people, makes the Jewish community both larger and stronger.

Skipping Out on the High Holidays

Some people find High Holiday services interesting, engaging, and conducive for meaningful spiritual and religious experiences, while others find them boring and tedious. Much of it depends on the way a congregation welcomes and engages newcomers, but it also depends on the participant’s outlook and their previous experiences at services. Tom Tugend’s article in JTA, called Bored, Disbelieving and Disillusioned, Jewish Professionals Skip Shul Services addresses the question of why many people who feel deeply connected to Judaism choose not to attend High Holiday services. Whether or not someone attends services on the High Holidays is sometimes seen as a barometer of an individual’s Jewish commitment. However, many of these individuals are highly involved with Jewish life; they simply aren’t drawn to the synagogue experience.

If these engaged Jews don’t want to go to synagogue on one of the most important holidays of the year, what of those on the periphery, including young adults and interfaith families? I think there are two responses to this question. First, we can open the door to an inclusive Jewish community all we want, but if the product inside isn’t meaningful, interesting, and compelling people may walk right back out. So we need to ensure a meaningful and relevant experience. And second, our communities should work to offer a variety of options for holidays and Jewish observance—including non-traditional activities outside of the synagogue like Destination Jewish Culture events—so that more people can find a niche where they feel comfortable in, where they are open to having that meaningful experience.

Goodbye 5766, Hello 5767!

Happy Jewish New Year (Shana Tova!) to all our friends and family. Tonight Rosh Hashanah begins and we wish everyone a sweet and joyous New Year. Below (click “more”) is the card that we sent to our mailing list of intermarried families, and the Jewish communal professionals who work with them to create a more diverse and welcoming Jewish community. (If you are not on our mailing list and would like to be, please complete this short form.)

We hope that the coming year will enable us to engage even more individuals in Jewish life through both traditional and innovative programming. If you’re interested but not involved, we promise that there’s something of value in it for you. And we’ll help you find it. So let’s make this coming year the year for all of us to deepen our connections to Jewish life…and to each other!

A Happy and Healthy New Year from everyone at JOI!


Jewish-Muslim Marriage

When is an intermarriage not just an intermarriage? Perhaps when there are political overtones on top of the challenges any two people of different religious backgrounds face in coming together. Would it be even more challenging, even for those who work hard to create a “Big Tent” inclusive Judaism, to be as accepting of a Jewish and Muslim couple as a Jewish and Christian one? Enter Rabbi Adolph Shayevich, one of the two chief rabbis in Russia, who says that the marriage of Jews and Muslims is evidence of harmony between the two faiths, as reported in JTA.

After all, both Judaism and Islam share the same origins. But he is speaking from Russia. Can we say the same for the North America? While we know a lot about interfaith marriages between Christians and Jews, we don’t know as much about marriages between Jews and those of other religious backgrounds, especially Muslims and Jews. Perhaps with Rosh Hashanah and Ramadan approaching, it is time to learn tolerance once again.

The High Holidays are Free

Somewhere along the way in Jewish history in North America, we created a myth. This myth continues to be perpetuated each year in most communities, though there are a few bold, practical thinkers who attempt to shatter it. The myth is that it costs money to pray, requiring advanced-purchase tickets. I wonder what would happen if American synagogues changed their financing structure to open their doors, free of charge—no ticket required—to anyone who wanted to pray on the High Holidays. An article in The Jewish Week highlights some of the synagogues in New York that are leading the way.

As we study community after community through our Outreach Scans, we continue to encounter some institutions that offer discounts to select groups like students, older adults, newlyweds, and newcomers, but most of these discounts are advertised internally, or at best, in the local Jewish newspaper (which is only read by “insiders”). I wonder if we could transform the High Holidays (despite the sometimes inaccessible worship services) into a vehicle to reach those on the periphery. Are free services enough? What would it take to reach people who are not currently involved?

Are You There, Gd?

I am privileged to work with a group of interfaith couples in a small southern community who care deeply about the Jewish community and deeply about religion. But here is the challenge: the Christians in this group don’t feel that they are being helped to find God in the Jewish community. As they say, they “have to go to church and listen to the minister if [they] want to hear Gdtalk.”

They are happy with the “sense of community” they feel in the Jewish community, but they also wish there was something more spiritual. It has taken me a long time to get the local rabbinate there to hear what these folks are saying.

It was in this light that the new study just released from Baylor University and Gallup Poll, reported on in USA Today, was so fascinating. Most interesting was not necessarily the conclusions about who believes in what kind of Gd and who doesn’t. As someone who spends a lot of time in research (one of the cornerstones at JOI is research, the original foundation on which this organization was built), I found it interesting to see what four characteristics were listed as options as a Gd people might believe in—authoritarian, benevolent, critical, and distant. Among other things, this survey confirms what we have always felt: as a whopping 92% of Americans said they believe in Gd, affiliation is not necessarily related to belief.

In our work with interfaith families in the community, we don’t talk enough about the role of spirituality, irrespective of which religion we are talking about. Perhaps such dialogue will bring us closer together.

Apples and Honey and Whole Foods, Oh My!

As the High Holidays approach, we see our grocery lists lengthen with accoutrements needed to prepare the perfect Rosh Hashanah meal. The masses in the grocery aisles provide an excellent opportunity to hold a Public Space Judaism event. While shoppers picked out organic apples at a Whole Foods in Seattle, Rabbi Dov Gartenberg, with whom JOI has worked over the past several years, seized the opportunity to speak to shoppers about hospitality within the Jewish community and about Panim Hadashot, “New Faces,” The Jewish learning community that he leads. He writes in his blog:

The Whole Foods booth has taught me how much Jewish demographics have changed. Jews have fully integrated in Seattle. Many are intermarried, they do not socialize exclusively with Jews, and their identities are complex in which Judaism is only a part of who they are. It has also taught me the value of educating non-Jews about the beautiful traditions of Shabbat, festivals, and home traditions.

Rabbi Gartenberg clearly recognizes the importance of finding Jews where they are, which is exactly how we define outreach at JOI. “By making hospitality our primary value and goal we reverse a very negative view of Judaism held by many Jews,” Gartenberg comments.

What can we do this Rosh Hashana to find Jews and their families where they are? What other sorts of Public Space Judaism events can we hold? And how can we ensure, through name collection and follow-up, that these events represent the beginning of further Jewish engagement? Whether it is an apple and honey tasting or a Color-Me Calendar for the Jewish New Year, use this time of year to get out in to your community and welcome newcomers in!

Coming Out of the Intermarriage Closet

“If people discovered I was about to intermarry, I’d surely be exposed as a Jewish fraud…. I was evasive when the subject of my husband arose and kept quiet when I heard intermarriage blamed for all that ails American Jewry.”

That’s how Julie Wiener — one of the most prolific journalists in the anglo-Jewish press over the last decade — describes her own experiences as an intermarried Jewish professional, in a powerful column in this week’s New York Jewish Week called “Coming Out As Intermarried.”

I was personally thrilled to see in print that “in many ways the situation of intermarrieds in the organized Jewish community is similar to that of gays and lesbians in society at large.” I’ve long said that intermarriage is the most closeted issue among Jewish communal professionals, even more so than homosexuality. It’s one of the reasons why we brought it up on our Jewish Outreach Professionals Log-In Network (JOPLIN) Email Listserve a few months back, and Julie Wiener’s article is a direct result of the conversation that was generated:

On a listserve discussion this summer for Jewish professionals, several people — from federations, campus Hillels, JCCs and Reform temples across the country — said they are married to gentiles.

We’re glad that this issue is beginning to see the light of day, and we hope the JOPLIN Listserve will continue to serve as a forum for such frank and open conversations. (If you are a Jewish communal professional or lay leader not yet on the listserve and would like to be, please email me and I’ll sign you right up! Thanks.)

“Big Tent Judaism” Words of Torah

In time for the holidays, JOI will be launching two new listserves which will feature Rabbi Kerry Olitzky’s insights—and those of us at JOI—on inclusive Judaism.

One is called Big Tent Judaism—Words of Torah on Inclusive Judaism. Taking a cue from the weekly Torah portion, it features insights on making the Jewish community more inclusive. The other listserve is called the Mothers Circle Minute to be issued each month (designed for bulletins, emails etc.), featuring a practical way that Jewish institutions can reach out and welcome in those on the periphery of the Jewish community, especially interfaith families.

If you would like to be part of these listserves, send an email directly to and we will make sure your name gets on the list.

Here is a taste of what you will find on the listserve:

JOI Presents Results of Outreach Scan of Phoenix

Phoenix, Arizona is an excellent example of the new face of North American Jewry—and the kind of community JOI is excited about working with. Thanks to the support of the UJC and its Emerging Communities Project, we just completed our signature Community Outreach Scan and presented the findings to the community, as reported in the Jewish News of Greater Phoenix. Phoenix has become the 5th largest city in the United States. It now boasts the largest public university (ASU at 65,000 students). And the Jewish community has approached 100,000, with an affiliation rate of around 26%, according to a study by Jack Ukeles and Associates commissioned by the community in 2002.

People of various ages continue to flock to the community, and its younger population is equal in size to its older population. But its younger population’s interfaith marriage rate (estimated at 55% in 2002) is far higher than in its older population. And what is most important as far as JOI is concerned: only 26% of its interfaith families are raising Jewish children.

Interfaith marriage is not the end of Jewish continuity. Not raising Jewish children is the end of Jewish continuity, so this must be a focus of the community. That is why we are pleased to be working with Phoenix in this first stage of our Community Transformation Initiative, which seeks to transform outreach in an entire community. We anticipate helping the community to respond positively to these challenges and lead the way for similar communities in the United States. The face of the American Jewish community is changing. And JOI is here to help navigate that change.

Intermarriage in the Deaf Community

Intermarriage is a demographic issue, more than an ideological one. That is why it is not surprising to learn that the Jewish deaf community is one of the overrepresented subgroups among the intermarried in the American Jewish community. Take my cousin, for example. He met his non-Jewish wife at a deaf theater group. Neither could hear, yet their mutual affection for the stage and love for each other led to marriage and a child. Like many deaf Jews, my cousin’s priority was marrying someone he could communicate with rather than someone he shared a religious and ethnic background with.

Our Way, a subset of the Orthodox Union and established in 1969, sponsors the Jewish Deaf Singles Registry, which accounts for the fact that deaf Jews are a very small slice of the already small Jewish singles demographic. This summer, the Registry organized a trip to Israel for sixteen deaf American Jews between the ages of 25 and 67, as reported in the Jewish Week. The tour’s organizer Batya Jacob explained, “The primary goal was to offer an interpreted trip, so that they could explore Israel like anyone else.”

As with many trips to Israel for single Jews (like Birthright Israel), the not-so-covert goal of the organizers is to encourage in-marriage. “It’s a small deaf Jewish world, so it’s not easy to find the right person,” Jacob said. While that is fine for this particular group, it doesn’t help the already-intermarried among the deaf Jewish community. We should also be asking ourselves as a community: how can we serve the deaf intermarried population? How can we encourage them to raise Jewish children?

Patriots Day: The Fifth Anniversary of 9/11

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When I make presentations on Public Space Judaism, I often talk about three calendars that govern our lives: the Jewish calendar, the civil calendar, and the cultural calendar. The Jewish community typically focuses its attention and its programming on the Jewish calendar. Sometimes these programs are scheduled for holidays that are observed by many (like Hanukkah and Passover), and sometimes they are scheduled for holidays that are less frequently observed (Shavuot and Tisha B’av). In either case, these programs usually take place inside Jewish communal institutions, are advertised in what we call “insider publications” and are directed to already-affiliated members of the community.

We suggest that there are many program opportunities in the other two calendars. The civil calendar includes Fourth of July and Thanksgiving, for example, while the cultural calendar might include the “Back to School” and “End of School” time periods.

Tragically, another date has entered the civil calendar: this year marks the fifth anniversary of 9/11. As many people remember, especially those in and around New York, people flocked to religious houses of worship shortly after it happened. Yet few institutions furthered the connection that people were seeking. Instead, we went back to business as usual—or as usual as is possible after suffering such a trauma.

What can the Jewish community do this year to use 9/11 as an outreach vehicle without undermining the serious impact it has had on the American psyche? Are there some dates on the calendar that are off-limits to outreach programming? Outreach is not just about holidays and family fun. It is also about making profound spiritual and religious connections with people. For some, it might be through Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. For others, it might be on 9/11. What will you be doing in your community this year?

Is This Our Future?

The Jewish community doesn’t have a monopoly on combining concern with future numbers with ambivalent attitudes towards intermarried families. A New York Times article entitled “Zoroastrians Keep the Faith and Keep Dwindling” discusses how the 3,000 year old religion of Zoroastrianism is facing extinction because of a communal unwillingness to accept converts and embrace interfaith families. Echoing the controversy in the Jewish community about how we embrace newcomers, Zoroastrians who were more open to outsiders were accused of “diluting traditions.”

When we look at our own community we see many who worry that embracing the intermarried will result in Jewish traditions being “diluted.” They back up this claim with demographic numbers, but simple statistics do not paint a full picture, and do not take into account all possible causes for population decline (such as low Jewish birthrates). We know from our own experience that it is not uncommon for the Jewish partner in an intermarriage to be re-inspired about Judaism through his or her partner’s curiosity and desire to learn.

The article says “Zoroastrians….are divided over whether to accept intermarried families and converts and what defines a Zoroastrian.” The Jewish community cannot afford to be divided over these issues. Luckily, Jewish survival looks hopeful due to an increasing awareness of how important it is to welcome interfaith families. Communities like San Francisco have demonstrated that sustained outreach encourages more intermarried households to raise Jewish children. By providing such outreach to intermarried families and welcoming all those who wish to join us, our community can not only survive but thrive.

Torah on the Interstate

How’s this for an interesting spin on Judaism in the public space: This Labor Day weekend about 100 people, myself included, walked a Torah scroll from a Jewish retreat center called Elat Chayyim (Hebrew for “Tree of Life” and “Goddess of Life”) from Accord, NY to its new home at Isabella Friedman Jewish Retreat Center in Connecticut. Yes, remarkably, we managed to transport a Torah 60 miles in an external-frame backpack across state lines (all legally, of course)!

The Walk the Torah event, covered in the New York Times, was preceded by a Shabbat weekend of learning, contemplation and prayer. Many of the participants had been coming to Elat Chayyim for over ten years, and at one point the group was asked, “How many of you became more engaged and involved in Jewish life as a direct result of your experience at Elat Chayyim?” I’d say about half of the hands went up.

And it’s no surprise. My experience there was one of the warmest and welcoming that I’ve ever had. It didn’t matter that I’d never been to a retreat there before, or that I didn’t know very many people. The “insiders” were all friendly and open, even remembering to don name tags when I didn’t. I recognize that a retreat is pretty high barrier in nature—that is, it’s a lot to ask of someone who is not generally involved with Jewish activities to commit to an entire weekend—but people who are interested in spiritual exploration in a safe environment will like this place. Check out their upcoming retreats for the holidays of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot.

Jewish Music Idol

Whoever said that “music speaks louder than words” had it right. Effective music is one of the reasons that people leave a worship service uplifted. One of my teachers, Rabbi Jakob Petuchowski of blessed memory, used to say that you could determine the effectiveness of the worship experience by how long people lingered afterwards, especially for the oneg Shabbat or Kiddush (social gathering following services).

While I don’t follow American Idol or reality shows, I was intrigued when I heard about an alternative American Idol program for religious musicians and singers: a faith-based category for American Idol Underground. Jewish singer Beth Schafer won hands down as reported on YNet. Her music is insightful and engaging, easy to access and easy to sing. Schafer commented:

My songs combine the rich tradition of interpreting Jewish sacred texts with the high production values of contemporary Christian music. The themes are universal which appeal to Jewish and Christian fans alike.

Perhaps her music can function as a bridge from outreach to inreach, to help those who feel on the outside feel like they are more on the inside.

A Rabbi with Unique Heritage

“You can define the rules [of your Jewish community] and then build fences….or you can build a fire and see who comes.”

Sound like a quote from someone famous? More on that later, but first, regarding the fire: it will burn on the strength of Jewish meditation, family and musical services, interfaith forums, and an invested group of people at Beth El, a Reconstructionist congregation in Bennington, Vermont. The person fanning the flames is their new leader, Rabbi Joshua Boettiger, as reported in the Bennington Banner.

Rabbi Boettiger is rabbi with unique heritage for a number of reasons (you can read about him in a previous JOI blog based on an article in the New York Times). For one, he grew up in an interfaith home. His parents decided to give him a taste of both Judaism and Christianity and let him decide which path, if either, spoke to him. While a rabbi who grew up in an interfaith household is fascinating enough, he is also the great-grandson of FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt!

Interestingly, Boettiger points not to his great-grandfather’s official position of leadership but to his great-grandmother’s commitment to social justice as something that inspires him in his work as a rabbi. And I’m sure his own experience growing up in an interfaith home will inform his work in continuing to build a warm, welcoming community.

Happy “Labor” Day from The Mothers Circle

Last Labor Day, we borrowed the message of the day in order to express our appreciation to all moms raising Jewish families, especially those of other religious backgrounds who are committed to raising their children as Jews. Some people were offended. Others got the point. The message of Labor Day extends beyond its worker origins, especially for those many who simply see it as a day off of work or a final day of summer before the fall starts—back in school, back from vacations, back to full workweeks.

While we believe that there are times that we should advocate for programming specifically for interfaith families such as our Mothers Circle program, we also believe that there are times when we should lower the social visibility factor and instead take advantage of the secular calendar in order to express a message. After all, I’ll bet that there will be more people enjoying their Labor Day with family, friends and picnics, then there will be those spending the day in Jewish communal institutions, such as synagogues and Jewish Community Centers. Perhaps this Labor Day, we should take these programs of the Jewish community out to where the people are.

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