Weblog Entries for November 2006

From ‘Half-Jewish’ To Rabbi

I have always wondered what the shape of the contemporary Jewish community would be were the liberal elements among it not welcoming to diverse populations—particularly intermarried families and, even more important, the children (now adult children) of intermarriage. How many professional and volunteer leaders—and rabbis—would not be part of the community, for example, many of whom have made important contributions to our future? Julie Wiener’s recent “In the Mix” column in the (New York) Jewish Week answered at least one of the questions for me. She wrote about a woman who was raised in an intermarried family who is now studying for the rabbinate at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Amidst the controversy over admissions which bubbles to the surface every so often, Heather Miller is there to help the growing number of intermarried families in our communities. Julie writes:

These future Jewish leaders are uniquely positioned to deal with interfaith families, who represent a growing percentage of the total Jewish community. Sensitive to the concerns of families with only one Jewish parent, they nonetheless have no illusions about the challenges intermarried couples — and their children — face.

So we welcome Heather and look forward to calling her Rabbi in about 1 ½ years. And we welcome all those who will stand in her place this year and in the years following, for we know that the community would be bereft without her.

Roman Holiday

Intermarriage is a growing issue not just here in the United States but in every Jewish community outside of Israel, and I was reminded of that fact while on vacation last week in Rome, Italy. The Jewish community in Rome has a fascinating history dating continuously from the second century B.C.E. Its unique history was vividly brought to life by tour guide Micaela Pavoncello, who specializes in walking tours of Rome’s Jewish Ghetto and is herself a proud Roman Jew. I wasn’t the first JOI staff member to take Micaela’s tour; our executive director Kerry Olitzky recommended her to me and my family after his visit to Rome a couple of years ago. Now we at JOI are recommending her to anyone who happens to visit Rome and wants to connect with a fascinating and still vibrant Jewish community.

Touring the Jewish Ghetto in Rome is especially powerful in light of the mandatory visit all tourists must make to the Vatican State, walking-distance across the Tiber River that includes incredible riches such as the gold- and marble-covered St. Peter’s Basilica (largest church in the world) and Michelangelo’s awe-inspiring Sistine Chapel ceiling. To then have Micaela explain the long, sad story of the relationship between Rome’s Popes and Rome’s Jews—and to walk the tiny three-square-blocks in which thousands of Jews at a time were forced to live—is a moving experience, and one that also illustrates just how far Jews have come in recent generations.

Today, the Jewish Ghetto has become so trendy that high rents are forcing out most long-standing residents, as reported in last Sunday’s Boston Globe. More importantly, the decline in anti-Semitism and the acceptance of Jews has led to an increasing rate of intermarriage among Rome’s Jews, who number less than one percent of the total Roman population.


A Zen-Inspired Menorah For Hanukkah

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It is definitely the post-Thanksgiving Hanukkah season. That is why it wasn’t a surprise to receive among the various catalogues that deluge my mailbox each day a catalogue from the Spertus College Museum in Chicago. What did surprise me was one of the featured items:a “Zen-inspired Hanukkah menorah.” It is indeed a very simple and beautiful piece, reminiscent of the goal of many to maintain Hanukkah’s simple beauty. I wondered whether it would be appropriate for the growing number of couples with whom JOI has been in contact in which one of the partners was raised with a Buddhist heritage. What is it about the inspiration of Zen that is not labeled as syncretism, but the inspiration of Christianity on Hanukkah ritual objects would certainly be considered as such? It isn’t the first time this question has arisen on our blog. But it does seem like this is the right time of year—in light of the Zen menorah and the community’s focus on the so-called “December Dilemma” of Hanukkah and Christmas—to ask that question again.

Intermarriage “Tipping Point” Op-Ed

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA), which is like an Associated Press for local Jewish community newspapers, just published an opinion piece from the Jewish Outreach Institute called Intermarriage tipping point long past, but institutions must now catch up.” In the piece, we argue that “We’ve long since reached the demographic tipping point on Jewish intermarriage, but most of our institutions have yet to change direction in terms of their programming, posturing and professional training.” We also make some recommendations as to how to change, and point to some positive studies showing that it can be done successfully.

Because of space constraints, JTA had to make considerable cuts to the original piece, which we’ve posted below because we feel the ideas are fleshed out in greater depth:


Thanksgiving: An Opportunity for Interfaith Families

Thanksgiving provides us the occasion to give thanks. While many of us think about thanking God for the bountiful harvest and the blessings that we enjoy with family and friends around us, perhaps it is time to think of other expressions of gratitude, as well. Of late, there has been a lot of conversation about how the Jewish community should be thanking those of other religious backgrounds who have cast their lot with the Jewish people and are raising Jewish children. The Jewish Outreach Institute has been at the forefront of this effort to celebrate these many unsung heroes of our generation. If you are part of an interfaith family that has chosen to raise Jewish children, we thank you for joining our community.

We have also been giving a great deal of thought to the question of why men and women of other religious backgrounds would choose to raise their children as Jews. As part of the Jewish community, we seldom think in that direction.

So at this time of giving thanks, this time of gathering with family and friends, the Jewish community may want to make sure that those parents have reason to express their thanks to the Jewish community, as well, for welcoming them in—beginning with those gathered around their own Thanksgiving tables. Consider this a prophetic directive of sorts for the community in this season. In other words, it may not yet be the case that all interfaith families have a reason to thank the Jewish community, but we envision such a day.


Is Canada Really Different—and is Vancouver Really Canadian?

Another demographic article from Israel’s Jerusalem Post reflects the latest doom and gloom picture about North American Jewry by lamenting the rising intermarriage rate in Vancouver, among its various other challenges. Here is what the author says:

The figures and trends generated by a 2001 census were startling, indicating that 41% of Jews are intermarried, and that the majority of new intermarriages are occurring among Jews aged 30 and younger. That intermarriage rate represents the highest of any major Jewish community in Canada.

While it isn’t really true when considering the rate for under 30, the author’s implicit question seems to be: isn’t Canada supposed to be behind the United States in its rising intermarriage rate? Perhaps it is true if you look at Montreal and Toronto. But what about Ottawa where JOI has been working the past year? The rates seem fairly consistent with what Vancouver is experiencing—even somewhat lower for the under 30 population segment. But what troubles me is the repetitive focus on the intermarriage rate as the discriminating variable (to borrow a technical term from research).

Instead, why don’t the planners in Vancouver begin to look at whether these families are raising Jewish children? Moreover, as they begin to recognize that the future of Vancouver’s Jewish community does not look like its past, why not make sure that the institutions in Vancouver have opened themselves up to interfaith families and their children, as well as others on the periphery of the community? That’s what JOI is helping Ottawa to do, as the first Canadian community to lead the way.

Consider it…a Flop?

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If “When do we eat?” for Passover wasn’t bad enough, “For Your Consideration” for Purim
promises to be worse. This “show within a film,” called Home for Purim has a star-studded cast, but the previews seem to indicate that it is neither good film nor good popular culture (and a reviewer for the Washington Post agrees). The clips and trailers—and filmmakers usually use these to trumpet the best—are not even funny. Hollywood understands that popular culture has become an appropriate home for Jewish culture. And we know that popular culture is a good vehicle for sharing Judaism particularly with those unaffiliated with the Jewish community. However, just as poor Jewish education threatens to undermine the efforts of good Jewish education, sometimes films can undermine our efforts to use good popular culture to share the best of what Judaism and the Jewish community have to offer.

Consider the power of Adam Sandler’s Hanukkah Song and other forms of media to move the Jewish identity agenda forward. Compare the impact of such media to the efforts of even the best of our teachers to teach various holiday messages to students in supplementary schools, for example. I guess that we will have to wait for the next holiday to see if Hollywood can come up with something better.


There is a huge number of innovative and exciting Jewish options for 20 and 30-something Jews in New York City. Although I am not particularly compelled by normal synagogue services, every Shabbat I am able to find exciting services geared toward my demographic group and often a fun cultural activity or two (or a million) as well. What about people in other age groups? Who is looking to make sure that they have innovative and engaging programming in New York and in other communities around North America? My mother is not thrilled by normal synagogue services, but who is working to give her more compelling Jewish options?

In Big Ideas for the Future: The Boomerang Effect by Rabbi Naomi Levy, published in the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, laments the lack of alternative exciting programming for Boomers. Her organization, Nashuva set out to attract people in their 20s and 30s and also found many people in their 40s and 50s who were not stimulated by traditional forms of organized Judaism and were looking for an alternative. Levy cites a sociologist who told her that funders try to cut their losses with Boomers, thinking that if they are going to engage people it is best to focus on those who have not yet raised their families.


Religion in The Simpsons

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Cartoons are often one of the most interesting sources of information about our culture’s attitude from anything ranging from love to politics and even religion. In some cases the message can be subtle or even hidden, but in others it is exaggerated and overt (just think of South Park’s use of Jesus and Satan as actual characters in the show). One cartoon in particular that has had a powerful influence on contemporary culture, while often taking on religious themes is The Simpsons. From Ned Flanders biblical literalism to Lisa’s decision to become a Buddhist (an interesting example of the struggle within interfaith families), The Simpsons have never shied away from confronting contemporary religious phenomenon and stereotypes head on.

Judaism has often come to be represented in interesting, and perhaps at times less than flattering, ways throughout the show’s history. The fact that the only Jewish person in Springfield is represented as an ill-tempered, alcoholic, money loving clown could perhaps cause us to raise an eyebrow or two. In the most recent Simpson’s Halloween special we once again encounter a somewhat ambiguous portrayal of Judaism. The segment, which is a take off on the story of the Golem who was the legendary protector of the Jews of Prague, is rife with both easily recognized and recondite stereotypes. From the rather benign comments about Jewish guilt to the more obscure references linking Judaism to arcane mystical and magical practices, the segment while entertaining should also provide us a moment to pause and consider not just how Judaism but all religions are portrayed in popular culture. To an affiliated Jewish audience these representations may be a source of a few chuckles, while to unaffiliated Jews the jokes may seem foreign or even offensive. For those of other religions who are married to or involved in relationships with Jewish partners such representations may be confusing and the fact that they do not “get them” may ossify their already present feeling of being an outsider to the community.


Gestation Verses Genes

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Is someone Jewish because they are born to a Jewish mother? Born to a Jewish father or mother? Raised in a Jewish household? Provided with Jewish education? Identify as Jewish?

The “Who is a Jew” debate is a familiar one. One of the difficulties that interfaith couples face when they choose to raise a Jewish family is how they and their children will be accepted by the broader Jewish community. It is complicated because different denominations have different perspectives regarding this question (Orthodox and Conservative hold traditional matrilineal descent laws, whereas Reform and Reconstructionist accept patrilineal descent as well). One issue that emerges from this debate is the decision parents make as to whether to formally convert their children when the mother is not Jewish. In fact, this was a recent topic of conversation on JOI’s Mothers Circle listserve for women of various religions raising Jewish children.

Interfaith families are not the only ones faced with these questions. Households with two Jewish parents are also facing the conversion decision as more and more Jewish families adopt children, as reported on in the New Jersey Jewish News. One adoptive mother explained her perspective:

I got so angry [when the Rabbi asked us to convert our adopted child]….She’s my daughter, the daughter of a Jewish mother. Why should I have to convert her? Is she less my daughter because she didn’t come into the world through my legs? I find that offensive.


What a Difference Outreach Can Make…

Intermarriage is often presented as the End of the Jewish People or, at the very least, the cause of a reduction in the size of the Jewish community. However, a new study of Boston released by the Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP) and the Steinhardt Social Research Institute shows that with an emphasis on outreach to the intermarried, this is not the case at all. With a concentration in programs for the intermarried, a Federation supporting the efforts, and a plethora of Jewish communal activities, intermarried parents will choose to raise their children as Jews. The Boston study concluded that almost 60% of the children raised in intermarried families are being raised as Jews. This compares to what the NJPS claims as 33%. We believe that the NJPS numbers are flawed and this methodology is much more robust; the national figures may be much higher. In any case, 60% is significantly higher than any other community measured and actually leads to growth in the Jewish community—as it seems to be doing in Boston.

The number of intermarried families, for example, is close to reaching the number of in-married families. There is no reason not to believe that with an intermarriage rate of 37-40% (according to the study), there will soon be more intermarried families than in-married families in the community. (However, the study’s authors were careful not to make any such future projections.) Two articles, Investment in Outreach is Paying Dividends in Boston, Study Suggests by Sue Fishkoff and Jewish Population in Region Rises by Michael Paulson analyze the results of this new study that confirms what we at JOI have been saying: how we respond to the challenge of interfaith marriage will determine the future landscape of the North American Jewish community. In Boston, the landscape looks hopeful indeed.


Schlepping with Sheep

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I read a lot of books. Perhaps it is because it is a way to increase my world vision. Or perhaps it is because I commute to New York each day on the train. I have to admit that Schlepping Through the Alps: My Search for Austria’s Jewish Past with Its Last Wandering Shepherd by Sam Apple is one of the most unusual and surprising books that I have read in a long time. It is the true story of a guy who is a shepherd in modern Austria who also has a particular fondness for Yiddish music. These Yiddish songs keep him entertained during the arduous mountainous hikes—especially in the winter. (A lot of other things keep him entertained but you will have to read the book for that.) Singing Yiddish music—everywhere, anywhere, invited or not, is also how he exposes Austrians to Jewish folk music, a culture that many tried to destroy during World War II.

While I didn’t expect that Hans Breuer the shepherd would have been raised by a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother, I wasn’t surprised by it either. After all, if nearly half of the Jewish families in the United States are intermarriages, most Jewish communities around the world have an even higher proportion of intermarriages in the mix. Furthermore, one of the things we learned in our own study of adult children of intermarriage, A Flame Still Burns, is that since their Jewish identity is usually shaped through secular culture, it is often informed primarily by the Holocaust and anti-Semitism. So it didn’t surprise me that while Hans knew little about Jewish practice, he knew a great deal about anti-Semitism. This fueled his identity and his love for Yiddish music. Perhaps there is yet another lesson to be learned about the power of culture as an educational force. So “If you ever happen to be hiking the Alps and you see a man singing Yiddish songs as he watches a dog chasing a sheep in a raincoat, no need for concern.”

Jewish Folk Arts Festival in D.C.!

Rabbi David Shneyer knows about outreach. He intuits it. And he has been at it a long time. Perhaps it is because he was one of those disillusioned Jews who challenged the establishment years ago with the creation of Fabrangen. (Truth be told, we have been singing his Fabrangen Fiddlers Shalom Aleichem at our Shabbat dinner table for as long as I can remember.) A lot of what he learned can also be credited with his participation in JOI’s early Jewish Connection Partnership project. That is why it was so good to see our methodologies employed in the Jewish Folk Festival in Washington, DC, November 12-19, 2006, as described in the Washington Jewish Week. He understands the power of culture to reach all those on the periphery. It is good to see that the community is beginning to understand this concept and support it.

Practical Meditations and Everyday Wisdom

As blogged earlier this week, JOI just celebrated our Second Annual Tribute Dinner. We created little books with inspirational texts culled from various sources for both last year’s and this year’s event that we have now put online in our Library and Learnin’ section as PDF documents.

This year’s book of affirmations, “Practical Meditations on an Inclusive Jewish Community,” offers relevant quotations and “practical meditations” on the issue of Jewish intermarriage that can help individuals see things from a broader perspective.

Last year’s book of affirmations, “Everyday Wisdom for our Friends and Family,” offers inspirational text about inclusion and intermarriage for a wide variety of people such as intermarried couples, parents of intermarried children, children of intermarried parents, unaffiliated Jews, GLBT Jews, multiracial Jews, and others who may not yet have found a warm welcome into the organized Jewish community.

We hope you find meaning in both publications.

Who Doesn’t Like Kosher Pickles?

I am a big fan of kosher pickles. And although I didn’t grow up in New York, it seems like most New Yorkers like kosher pickles—regardless of their religious or ethnic backgrounds. I guess that is what motivated sponsors of International Pickle Day, as reported in The Forward. Its draw was that it was low barrier and spoke to ethnic identity rather than Jewish identity. It is the same thing that motivated us to make a recommendation to Hillel at the University of Florida—an institution that has struggled with its introduction of a kosher meals program.

During our work there last year, we recommended that in order to reach those students on the periphery who were not being reached by Hillel, particularly in its Kosher meals program, to take a sandwich cart, fill it with kosher corned beef and pastrami sandwiches AND KOSHER PICKLES, then sell it low cost to students in the university union (next to the folks from Hare Krishna who sell all-you-can-eat macrobiotic foods for $3.00, by the way). This is low barrier and meets folks where they happen to be—whether on New York’s streets or at the university union.

Hall of Fame 2006

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Last night we had our second annual Tribute Dinner at the Harmonie Club in New York City. We raised funds, increased awareness for JOI’s mission and hosted approximately one hundred and seventy guests.

The evening was festive, substantive, and celebratory. We began with a wonderful reception and delicious dinner, followed with a performance by Tony Award winner Joanna Gleason; the presentation of the “Outreach Hall of Fame” awards to Jerry and Roger Tilles; and speeches by our Chairman of the Board, Gene Grant and his wife Emily Grant; President of our Board, Terry Elkes; and our Executive Director, Dr. Kerry Olitzky.

For their leadership in Jewish community Outreach, Jerry and Roger Tilles were given a place in our “Outreach Hall of Fame.” We inaugurated the “Outreach Hall of Fame” in 2004 to recognize and honor those who have moved American Jewry forward by creating a community more inclusive toward previously disenfranchised populations, especially intermarried families.

Rabbi Olitzky said of the Tilles’s:

Of all of the directives given with regard to our relationship with the Torah by the rabbis, perhaps the simplest is also the most profound and puzzling. They have taught us to be Torah. To become Torah. To live our lives as Torah. Roger and Jerry Tilles have certainly taken this teaching to heart. In the work that they do in making sure that the Jewish community is an inclusive one, they have become Torah. It is who they are and what they do.

It is our hope that future generations of Jewish professionals and lay leaders will see those like the Tilles’s and others previously honored as examples of how individuals can make a difference in the lives of countless Jewish families. It was truly inspiring to be surrounded by so many people last night who care so deeply about this work and our goal of a more inclusive Jewish community.

Extra, Extra, Read All About it!

The next JOI Conference will be held October 14-16, 2007 in Washington, DC. The title of the conference is: Transforming the Jewish Community: The Nuts and Bolts of a New Vision.

This is a hands-on conference. The big ideas become practical, manageable, and doable. Learn to get more people to do more Jewish activities more often though cutting edge outreach techniques, in order to engage more of the unaffiliated in your community, including unengaged intermarried families and their children.

We are currently forming an advisory committee for the conference. We will be inviting people directly (volunteer leaders and Jewish communal professionals), but should you like to participate on the committee, please contact Rabbi Olitzky at For those who have previously attended our conferences or local training programs, there will be advanced-level sessions. For those who have not been exposed to any of JOI’s theories and methods, Outreach 101 will be an integral part of the program. For pre-registration, please contact Denyse Gregoire, conference coordinator at

New Chancellor-Elect Focuses on Inreach

Arnold Eisen, chancellor-elect of the Jewish Theological Seminary, one of Conservative Judaism’s two rabbinical schools, recently gave a speech to a Long Island (NY) synagogue as described in the article “Eisen Fears Division Over Gay Issue” in the (New York) Jewish Week. Conservative Judaism is shrinking and there is a large divide between those who are involved in its major institutions—USY (United Synagogue Youth), Solomon Schechter Day Schools, and Ramah summer camps—and those on the periphery. Eisen said that he hoped the issue of gay ordination would not split the Conservative movement apart, and then went on talk about his feelings on outreach. “The point is not to count the numbers but to ratchet up your strength….We are in amazingly good shape, despite the fall in numbers.” While internal strength is also important, I am concerned by the lack of emphasis on outreach, particularly to the intermarried.

With nearly half of Jewishly-identified students on college campuses coming from families where one parent was not born Jewish, it seems highly unlikely that Conservative Judaism can have a dynamic future ahead of it if it only focuses on those already within its ranks. Most intermarried families that affiliate do so with the Reform movement, and with intermarried families the Coming Majority of the Jewish community, the Conservative movement will suffer considerably if it does not make itself more welcoming to these families and their children. The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism is now working to welcome intermarried families. This is a great sign and hopefully indicative of what the entire movement will do throughout its institutions. I wonder what would happen to the Conservative movement if its leaders announced that all intermarried families and people of all sexual orientations were going to be welcomed fully into their institutions and pulpits. Would it come crashing down? Or, as I suspect might happen, people might flood the movement and help to revitalize it.

Grease, Grace, and Gratitude

Last Saturday, I attended a concert by Olivia Newton-John. While I expected to hear some of my favorites from Grease and Xanadu and her other best-selling songs, I didn’t expect to be so moved by her current introspective music featured on her latest cd “Grace and Gratitude.” I also didn’t expect that Jewish themes would run throughout much of the music, including musical interludes that were named according to the mystical sefirot. Nor did I expect to hear Jewish liturgical and biblical texts woven into her songs. Then when she told the audience that the cds were being distributed along with women’s breast health products at Walgreens drug store, I knew that she had discovered the power of public spaces.

So here is what I was wondering—could the Jewish community have reached the unengaged Jews in the audience through this event? I ask the question because the concert in New Brunswick, NJ is only one stop along the way for endless possibilities to reach unengaged Jews and intermarried families in the public space. There are many more opportunities if anyone wants to seize them.

An Inclusive Island

Your last Jamaican cruise probably did not include a visit to a synagogue. But for 150 to 200 Jamaican Jews, the Kingston synagogue serves a major role in their lives. While the Jewish population of Jamaica has shrunk significantly since its height of over 2,500 in the late 19th century, the synagogue population celebrates Shabbat, holidays and lifecycle events together, as well as the opening of a Jamaican Jewish Heritage Center on November 9 to mark their 350th anniversary on the Caribbean island.

How has such a small Jewish population sustained itself on an island of 3 million people? They welcome everybody. Ben G. Frank, in an article for JTA, cites the reasoning of former Kingston synagogue president, Ainsley Henriques: “Almost every child of a mixed marriage is accepted and brought up as a Jew.”

A tolerant and pluralistic society, along with the Jewish community’s openness, ensures that Judaism will remain alive and vibrant in Kingston. Despite lacking a rabbi, kosher butcher and knowledge of Hebrew, Jamaica’s Jewish community has remained vibrant for over 350 years (the community postponed their 350th anniversary celebration for a year to coincide with the opening of their Jewish Heritage Center). Here’s to another 350!

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