Weblog Entries for December 2006

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New Year, same old frustrating debate?

When the recent Boston study showed that 60% of interfaith families are raising their children Jewish, outreach advocates took it as an opportunity to applaud Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies for their successful efforts at reaching interfaith families, suggesting other communities can learn from such efforts. Steven Cohen et al’s op-ed in the Forward earlier this month, “Read Boston Study on Intermarriage With Caution,” seems to disagree—but perhaps only semantically.

Cohen attributes Boston’s high rate of engaging interfaith families to “the effectiveness of life-long Jewish education.” Claiming the study “makes no instrumental case for outreach,” he suggests instead that the existing institutions themselves—Brandeis, Hebrew College, synagogues and the JCC—are enough. This implies that the reported 1.2% of the CJP’s budget going to outreach (a small percentage, which is still highest in the country) is unnecessary and the extraordinary work of Boston’s outreach professionals superfluous.

But Cohen does not bother to define what “outreach” means before disqualifying it as ineffective, even as he points to something he terms “community engagement” as a positive. Who exactly is promoting that “community engagement” to the mass of unaffiliated and intermarried households? And how is Cohen separating “education” from “outreach” when so much of outreach is education?

What makes Boston special is that many of the very institutions Cohen lauds for their educational offerings are also deeply involved in the community-wide outreach efforts to engage interfaith families. No outreach advocate suggests that outreach alone is the answer. Outreach can only bring newcomers inside our institutions; if mainstream programming can’t engage them after that, we lose them for good. The reason outreach in Boston is contributing to—and is indeed the key factor in—the high rate of engagement by interfaith families is because it makes all the other wonderful programming accessible to those families. The fact that the CJP includes a message of welcoming to interfaith families on all of its written materials speaks not just to those on the outside but to those on the inside, to remind us all who is now in the audience and in our families.

This Awkward Hanukkah Moment Sponsored By…

A 28-second video clip from the Late Show with David Letterman showing President Bush standing awkwardly during a Hebrew blessing is quite funny (even for the 35% of Americans who still give him a positive job approval rating). After a second viewing of George and Laura doing their best during the blessing over the menorah lighting, however, I couldn’t help but think of how awkward it must be for anyone who’s not familiar with the prayers, including our own family members of other religious backgrounds.

At my family’s Hanukkah party this year, my mom was sure to provide photocopied pages with the Hebrew blessings both translated and transliterated. I think this may have helped alleviate some of the awkwardness for those who were experiencing their first-ever Hanukkah celebration. (Of course, this is Bush’s sixth year in office hosting menorah lightings…!) What else can we do to welcome newcomers to such holiday celebrations?

Intermarriage Insight from a Wedding Sitcom

Weddings are popular on TV and so are Jewish celebrities. The ABC sitcom “Big Day” uses the entire season to cover every aspect of just one wedding day, and the Jewish News Weekly of San Francisco reported on some of the celebrity Jewish actors in the show. Co-starring as the bride-to-be is Marla Sokoloff, who is best-known for playing Lucy on the TV series “The Practice.” Sokoloff, 25, said that her long-term boyfriend, musician Alec Puro, is Jewish (”which makes her mother very happy”) and that she, personally, would prefer a small Jewish wedding on a beach. This seems like the classic approach to Jewish community life.

But Miriam Shor, 35, who has a supporting role in “Big Day” as Sokoloff’s sister and whose previous roles include playing the Jewish girlfriend of the main character in the short-lived TV series “Inside Schwartz” is more reflective on the younger generation of the Jewish community. Shor grew up in America and Italy and was raised as a Jew—her father is Jewish. But she was raised Jewishly at the insistence of her non-Jewish mother.

Shor has played several Jewish parts and has reflected a great deal on what it means to be a Jew and raised in an intermarried family. She told the San Francisco paper: “I would not be considered Jewish by some, but I have a different take on religion. The history of my relatives is as much a part of my belief system as much as someone who sits in a church or synagogue and tells me what I am.

Divide and Conquer?

People divide up the Jewish community in a variety of ways. The latest and most popular division among those in the core Jewish community seems to be between those who have intermarried and those who have inmarried, in terms of participation and affiliation levels. But this is too simplistic a view. We were pleased to read social psychologist Bethamie Horowitz’s latest column in The Forward stating a position that those who have intermarried “are more than just a category.” Thus, we have to stop treating them as such.

It is important to note that this “us/them” categorization is neither helpful nor healthy for the Jewish community, especially as we are working to shape a more inclusive Jewish community. Moreover, for many people, if not most, inmarriage is as much a demographic coincidence as is intermarriage. Meaning that those who intermarry do not go out “seeking” a partner who is not Jewish. Now is the time to begin thinking of ways to create a more inclusive Jewish community rather than looking for fault lines to divide us.

Sometimes, a Tree is Just a Tree

Some Jewish communal policy wonks want us to believe that a Christmas tree in an interfaith home can nullify all other efforts at creating Jewish identity in our children. While we at JOI would never suggest that a Christmas tree is anything but a Christian symbol, we also don’t buy that it automatically identifies a Christian home. Take, for example, this recent article from the New York Times about a Jewish woman married to a Jewish man yet creating a totally audacious Christmas display in front of their home. The woman bafflingly doesn’t even connect Santa Claus (a.k.a. Saint Nicholas) to Christianity.

And therein lays the paradox in today’s Jewish community. If either she or her husband were not Jewish, certain voices within the organized Jewish community would condemn them as having a Christian home and question their ability to raise Jewish children, just based on their decorations. But do we really know enough about them to know how they are raising their kids? Likewise, because both spouses are Jewish—and in-marriages are automatically celebrated by the Jewish community, no questions asked—their wedding would be considered a “success” by those same policy wonks, even though their decorations appear to identify them as pretty clueless about which holiday Jews actually celebrate in December. That is the danger in using only one criteria (marriage) for measuring “Jewish continuity.”

In fact, long before the rise of Jewish intermarriage in America, American Jews were putting up Christmas trees because it seemed the “American” thing to do. Earlier this year we blogged about how the head of New York City’s largest Jewish organization came from one of those households. There was also a first-person piece in yesterday’s New York Times from Cindy Chupack, a producer of Sex and the City who is married to a fellow Jew and put up a Christmas tree this year. While overall her article may read like a disturbing surrender to assimilation, she tries to assure her Jewish readers that, “if we’re fortunate enough to have children, we will raise them with the same arbitrary rules we were raised with, trying our best to sell that old chestnut (roasting on an open fire) that ‘eight nights is better than one,’ and putting this tradition behind us until the kids go off to college, if not forever.

We as a community need to understand that there is a wide range of factors that create family identity. Through the years, we have heard countless stories of why interfaith families raising Jewish children continue to own Christmas trees, and not once has the reason been “to celebrate the birth of Christ.” In one recent article, a non-Jewish woman married to a Jewish man explains how her Christmas celebration is about keeping a promise she made to herself as a youth, when her broken family held Christmases that “were almost Dickensian in their misery.” It doesn’t mean she isn’t helping to raise a strongly-identified Jewish child today.

Groundbreaking Tool from JOI and UJC

The Jewish Outreach Institute is all about helping Jewish communal professionals and lay leaders reach and serve more people. Lately, the United Jewish Communities—the umbrella organization for local Jewish federations and the largest Jewish charity in the world—has begun to focus on issues of outreach as well. We at JOI are thrilled to be partnered with UJC on a number of projects, including the newly-unveiled online self-assessment tool called “Creating a Welcoming Community”.

We hope communal professionals on all levels and the lay leaders who support them will take this brief web quiz. While not all questions will be applicable to all organizations, they can still serve to help you see your organization through a new set of eyes, and remind us “insiders” what it’s like to be a newcomer to the community. Take the quiz and let us know what you think!

Before We Tie the Knot….

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As someone who has been meeting with couples for the last 25 years in preparation for their weddings, I have eschewed the checklists that scream out from the cover of various popular monthly magazines. It isn’t that all of the questions are irrelevant; it is simply that a five minute self-scored “test” is usually inadequate to determine the long-term viability of a relationship. And as interfaith and multiracial marriages become more common—and their relationships more complicated—these tests speak even less to me.

But a recent article from the New York Times deserves mention and recognition. It is, in fact, a list of questions that couples should ask themselves and one another before they make a long-term commitment and get married. For me, as a rabbi, the most important aspect of the self-administered test is summed up by Tony Hileman, the senior leader of the New York Society for Ethical
Culture. He said that couples often fail to talk about religion—not whether they will go to a church, mosque or synagogue together, but what role faith will play in a time of crisis. “If you have somebody who is even nominally religious in a traditional sense with someone who is an agnostic humanist, have they really discussed that?” he asked.

In my work with interfaith couples it is often not the conflict between two religions that challenge a couple’s relationship. Rather it is the conflict between religion and no religion that challenges the long-term stability of a relationship.

Hip Hop Hanukkah?

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It is true that Judaism has been interacting with the culture of the community within which it finds itself throughout its history. That is why it is not surprising that Hanukkah songs that have been influenced by all kinds of music. Just as it is hard to determine what music is “indigenous” to the Jewish community, it is also hard to tell what music is indigenous to the United States.

Some might say that rap emerges from the American experience of African Americans. If so, then what would a Hanukkah song sound like and look like if it were influenced by the rap—now called hip hop—phenomenon? Perhaps like this comedic video posted recently on YouTube.

Moreover, will the Hanukkah story reach more people if it is packaged in a more familiar form? We certainly learned that to be the case with Adam Sandler’s Hanukkah song—now in its third iteration. Will hip-hop and other popular music forms succeed not only in delighting the “insider” Jewish community, but potentially reach the diverse intermarried and unaffiliated populations as well?

Santa, I’m Jewish!

The December holidays can be a complicated time of year, especially for intermarried families raising Jewish children. Even as Hanukkah becomes more and more present in public celebration, Christmas is still the dominant holiday in North America and kids necessarily want to join in the fun. I grew up with two Jewish parents, and I too, wanted to sit on Santa’s lap.

Is that so terrible? In my case at least, visiting Santa did not confuse my identity (actually, when Santa asked what I wanted for Christmas, I told him I was Jewish). David Bradley, an educator and theatre artist who grew up Catholic is raising Jewish children and analyzes the recent “dilemma” of his children wanting to write letters to Santa in an article for the
Philadelphia Inquirer. He comes to the conclusion that he’s glad his children have a Jewish identity. It gives them a particular lens through which to see the world, even as they are exposed to many traditions that broaden their knowledge and understanding. His story is likely a familiar one for many interfaith families, and I highly recommend reading it!

Radio Hanukkah

If you have any doubts as to whether Hanukah has been absorbed into North American culture as the winter holiday of the Jewish community, consider the fact that satellite radio is dedicating an entire station to Hanukkah music. Perhaps this will finally put to rest the discussion over whether Hanukkah is a major or minor festival. As one who is always looking for measures to determine the impact of specific activities, the entry of Jewish culture into American culture is important to note. It is a particularly important response to those who suggest that the interchange between Jewish and secular American culture always leads to the Americanization of Judaism at the expense of Jewish cultural values.

Maybe this provides the community with another opportunity to influence North American culture with the values of Hanukkah such as religious freedom, freedom from oppression, self-determination and self-government for a people. And for those on the periphery and for those from interfaith families, this represents another avenue of entry into Jewish culture and the Jewish community.

Um, How Do I Light the Hanukkah Candles?

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I have a bad sense of direction, which plays itself out in all sorts of ways. For example, with Hanukkah beginning tonight, I face the challenge of placing and lighting the Hanukkah candles “in the right direction.” Left to right, or right to left? And when people say left, does that mean facing the Menorah, or from the Menorah’s perspective? And when do the blessings come into the picture?

Never fear. Even if you light the Hanukkiah (the special 8-branched menorah used on Hanukkah) in the wrong direction, it still counts. But posted below is an explanation for how to light the candles in the right way (”right” as in “correct”). All directional instructions are from your perspective.

The Shamash: Menorahs have a place for the shamash, the helper candle, which stands at a different height than the others (usually taller). The function of the shamash is to light the “real” candles, and you light it first, before any blessings are said.

Placement: Stand facing the Menorah. You place the candles from right to left as the nights go on. On the first night, place the first candle on your far right. On the second night, add a candle to its left (you now have candles in the two spots furthest to your right). On the third night, add a candle to its left, and so on, until the last night when you place the eighth candle to your far left.

Lighting: The newest candle gets lit first. What this means is that you light from left to right (even though placement is from right to left).

Blessings: After you light the shamash, hold and say/sing the blessings. The first two blessings are said every night; the third is said only the first night. After you’ve finished with the blessings, light the Hanukkah candles.

What’s interesting is that even the actual number of candles lit on each night was not something everyone agreed on when the holiday traditions were still forming….


Conservative Movement Moving

Who would have believed it? First, Rabbi Ismar Schorsch recommends that Ramah camps start admitting patrilineal kids who are under the age of 13. Then Rabbi Jerry Epstein recommends that these same kids be welcomed into Conservative religious schools. Now we see that the Solomon Schechter school system—the Conservative day school movement—will be discussing the issue at its upcoming convention, as reported in JTA.

We applaud all of these efforts and hope that the movement’s ideology catches up with its acknowledgment of demographic necessity. Now it is time for the Conservative movement to open the ritual roles for spouses of other religious backgrounds, as well as leadership positions for the parents of these children. After all, these are mostly not halakhic issues. Rather, they are issues of congregational culture.

The Miracle of Opening the Doors

The only people that think that Hanukkah is a minor festival are those who live in the oft-cloistered world of Jewish legal hermeneutics. For the rest of the American Jewish community—especially for those with children—Hanukkah is a major holiday, one that is filled with light that brightens the world during the darkest and dreariest days of winter. Regardless of the influences of the outside world—no Jewish rite or ritual is really free from such outside influences—Jews have always endeavored to illumine the world with Hanukkah light. Anytime that Jews are surrounded by darkness, they flood the world with light. Why would we expect anything different during the winter season? Thus, it is not surprising that so many families celebrate Hanukkah, second only in numbers to their springtime celebration of Passover.

The essential ritual of Hanukkah is rather simple. Light. Spinning tops. Potato pancakes and jelly doughnuts. And gifts. Even the liturgical embellishments in the worship services are just that: embellishments. Even the few added prayers do not take over the liturgy. Rather they simply add their radiant color to the rich tapestry of Jewish ritual. Deeply embedded in our celebration of Hanukkah—even when it becomes extravagant in the eyes of some community leaders—is the notion of what the Rabbis call hiddur mitzvah, the beautification of the sacred obligations of Judaism.

But the question for those involved in programs of Jewish continuity is how to move those who celebrate Hanukkah in the home or even in the marketplace to join the community, recognizing that they will only do so if someone reaches out and welcomes them in. The true test of any outreach endeavor extends far beyond the program itself or, in this case, after the Hanukkah candles have burned down, making sure that their light continues to brighten our lives and the lives of those around us.


Hanukkah in the Mall and on the Mall

The Giant Menorah Controversy has raised its head again, as reported in JTA. It usually is a debate over the public square, fueled by Chabad. While we are indeed concerned about the separation of church and state, we at JOI believe in the public celebration of Hanukkah and other holidays. After all, are we not instructed to place the Hanukkah menorah in a window so that it can be seen by those who pass by our homes—to “publicize the miracle”? But that is why we speak of public spaces (like malls, stores, etc.) and not the public square (like buildings on the Washington DC “mall”).

When a child—or an adult—walks through a shopping mall this time of year and encounters Christmas with no trace of Hanukkah, that person may feel excluded. When that same person walks through that same mall and there is a puny Hanukkah menorah alongside a large Christmas true, that person may feel puny. But when a giant Hanukkah menorah is placed next to a large Christmas tree, it sends the message that as a minority in America, he or she belongs as a full equal in our diverse society. This is particularly important for the nurturing of Jewish identity in children.

May the lights of Hanukkah illumine a path for us all in this world.

Spread the Light!

Are you looking for a fun Hanukkah arts project to engage in? Or looking to engage others? National Public Radio (NPR) is calling for creative designs of Christmas tree ornaments, Menorahs, and Kinaras. Contest organizers are encouraging relevant designs that relate to news events of this past year, while retaining basic traditional rules, such as the Menorah must “hold eight candles plus a raised ninth candle, aka the shamash in Hebrew.” The contest is sure to reach a broader spectrum of the Jewish community than traditional craft-making activities since it is run and advertised through a secular organization. But that doesn’t mean that Jewish institutions can’t piggyback on NPR’s potential reach and spread the word in trying to engage the unaffiliated and intermarried in a Jewish arts activity.

Another interesting aspect of this contest, making it remarkably accessible to would-be participants as well as observers, is the use of technology—contestants simply post pictures of their creations on Flicker for all to see. This is a perfect opportunity for viral marketing, too—people can pass on pictures of their creations, and if they’re good (or amusingly bad, like the Mel Gibson one featured above), they’ll surely be passed on to more and more and more people—thanks to NPR for spreading the light!

The Price of Rubies

Every landmark Jewish demographic study seems to reignite an inreach-outreach debate and the recent Boston study is no exception. Showing that 60% of intermarried households are raising Jewish children, the Boston study has caused a predictable backlash questioning policy rather than facts, with a spate of articles including a recent editorial by the executive editor of the Jewish Exponent, Jonathan Tobin, entitled View From America: What Price Outreach? Tobin writes:

I don’t doubt that more funding for outreach is a worthy idea that may well pay dividends. But if we create a culture that denigrates those who encourage in-marriage and values outreach over day schools and camps, we may well be making a mistake that will effectively decide the future in ways we may come to regret.

No one in Boston is calling for less money to go to core communal institutions or to support Jewish education. (In fact, Boston just received the largest philanthropic gift to day schools in history, and we applaud that.) What Boston has shown the rest of the country is how important a plethora of Jewish offerings can be for an entire community. Advocates like JOI are only saying that if we want to secure the Jewish future of the largest and fasting growing segment of the Jewish community—the intermarried and their children—and the Jewish community itself, then we should open doors and our hearts to the intermarried in our midst. We may all agree about this, but it is the tactics about which we disagree. Boston’s federation is engaging their intermarried population using less than 1.5% of their total budget. That hardly “values outreach over day schools and camps.” Is there really a fear that such a day will come? Philadelphia’s local federation just decimated its fledgling outreach initiatives, which did not come close to 1% of their overall budget. Yet where will the kids for day schools and camps come from, if such institutions only support the shrinking number of in-married households?

To suggest that our call for inclusion of intermarried households “denigrates those who encourage in-marriage” is misguided. In fact, it is the historic denigration of intermarried households that have pushed so many Jews away from our community, which we are now working to counteract through outreach. That’s because the “encouragement of in-marriage” has rarely been handled with sensitivity and understanding by the organized Jewish community; all too often it comes in the form of fire-and-brimstone sermons about finishing Hitler’s job. We believe the organized Jewish community should model Jewish life by accepting and including Jews as they are rather than dictating who they should marry (or what gender or skin color their partners should be). Admonitions don’t work and only push people away. What does work is what we’ve seen in Boston: a community that welcomes all to the table, while strengthening Jewish institutions like day schools at the same time.

New Play “My Mother’s Italian, My Father’s Jewish & I’m in Therapy” Opens

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“You need a hook. Whether it’s an ethnic hook or a physical hook (fat? thin? short?), self-deprecating humor works in clubs,” Steve Solomon explains to the key to his comedic success. actor Steve SolomonSolomon certainly found his hook with his one-man show My Mother’s Italian, My Father’s Jewish & I’m in Therapy now playing off-Broadway at New York City’s Little Shubert Theater. Even though we at JOI take our work seriously, we realize there is a lighter, humorous side to all types of family dynamics.

Solomon’s inspiration stems from his interfaith, multi-ethnic background. Growing up in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, he mimicked the accents of his diverse neighborhood. Today, he uses those same impersonating skills to present the personalities of his colorful relatives. Solomon describes his show as having “universal appeal, one that would attract audiences from all demographics.” Audiences in 50 cities throughout North America have flocked to My Mother’s Italian, My Father’s Jewish & I’m in Therapy making Solomon’s greatest dreams come true. We should all be a little more like Solomon and embrace our unique backgrounds!

Lost Cause?!

Just as things are looking up in the Conservative movement, we were disappointed to read the Chancellor-elect’s remarks in a recent issue of the Jerusalem Post where Arnie Eisen is purported to have said:

The 1 million completely unaffiliated American Jews will probably be lost to assimilation and intermarriage no matter what happens, and therefore outreach efforts should focus on about 3 million Jews positioned between those who are committed to and those who are completely devoid of Judaism.

Just when we thought it was safe to go back into the water….The new leader of the Jewish Theological Seminary is prepared to write off 1 million Jews and their families—the potential for which could be disastrous for the North American Jewish community. In the midst of a monumental change for the Conservative movement, a time in which it is showing that it understands the changes that are taking place in the community and its population—even if late—I was disappointed to see the old rhetoric raise its head once again.

If Jewish history has taught us anything, it is to never give up. We at JOI are not prepared to write off anyone in the Jewish community and certainly not 1,000,000 souls. And who knows? Elijah the Prophet may be lurking among them.

Hogan Knows Best About Keeping Kosher

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People are usually taught about kosher dietary laws in one of three ways: in a classroom, in the kitchen, or as they go about navigating the world of food. Could there be another way? What about letting the Hulk Hogan family teach you? It seems that Linda Hogan wanted to sell her homemade cookies in local stores—that is how many famous food companies started. Nothing unusual about that. But she chose Kosher World as her first outlet of choice. Needless to say, the proprietors weren’t able to accept her merchandise but they did teach her that kosher was way more than just tasty kosher pickles.

I wonder how many people—especially those on the periphery—gained new insights about the ins and outs of keeping kosher from the Hogan family. I also wonder how many people’s diets changed as a result. Perhaps there are ways to take advantages of such opportunities that we don’t even realize.

Proposed Changes to Law of Return….Again

I have always been amazed by Israel’s Law of Return and its implicit understanding of the journey of the Jewish people through history. As we have noted in this blog before, it recognizes individuals as eligible who have only one Jewish grandparent. In its continued effort to be more insular, the Chief Rabbinate in Israel is now proposing that no converts to Judaism be eligible to enter Israel under the Law of Return, as reported in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. They argue that the proposal is to keep itinerant laborers from converting to Judaism just to enjoy the benefits of living in Israel (which seems to me like a legitimate motivation to covert). And while it is being fought by liberals and civil rights activists in Israel, even the very existence of the proposal is harmful. We are working hard to place Israel higher on the agenda of the intermarried and unengaged—at a very difficult time in Israel’s history. Such approaches are not helpful and must be stopped. Rabbi Gilad Kariv, who is working to do just that, commented:

It turns out that Rabbi Amar’s hatred for non-Orthodox streams is so great that it leads him to harm the basic principle that there is no difference between a convert and an individual who is born Jewish.

Moreover, as the push continues for conversion of those of other backgrounds who are intermarried, this erects yet another barrier. The Chief Rabbinate has succeeded in many countries where it is virtually impossible to convert to Judaism even under Orthodox auspices. Why doesn’t the Chief Rabbi take a look at the Shakers and see what happened to them when they decided that conversion was not an avenue to enter the community?

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