Weblog Entries for January 2007

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Your Friendly Neighborhood Rabbi

Some people will say that the key to reviving Jewish community life, especially in the synagogues, is through charismatic leadership. Without question, such leadership is highly important and plays a vital role in the community. But if the renewal of our institutions and communities is primarily about charismatic leadership, then how do we define what qualifies as “charismatic?”

Consider the case of colleague Rabbi Andy Bachman as reported in the current issue of New York Magazine. Following a stint as director of the Bronfman Center at New York University and a short tenure at Reboot (during which he simultaneously developed a grassroots effort called Brooklyn Jews), he assumed the position of rabbi at Beth Elohim, which had been a rather standard Reform synagogue in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Since Rabbi Bachman’s tenure began at Beth Elohim, membership has increased — in part because he is merging “Brooklyn Jews” participants into it but also because of his leadership skills.

Lest those who read this blog think that we measure success in terms of dues-paying membership, allow me to repeat one of JOI’s mantras: “Engagement leads to affiliation. Affiliation does not necessarily lead to engagement.” Instead, it is best to see how Bachman leads and why his leadership style draws people to him. Partly, it’s “his relaxed style [that is] a breath of fresh air” as one of his new congregants notes; partly, it’s how he “balances worldly knowledge and approachability with a spiritual detachment therefrom,” as another new member commented.

Plus, Rabbi Bachman knows the diversity of the world around him. The son of a Lutheran mother who converted to Judaism and a Jewish father, he describes a mostly secular youth of obsessions with sports and politics. His brother is nonreligious, one of his sisters is Catholic, and one is a practicing Jew. Perhaps his success is in this simple formula: he considers himself more of a “neighborhood rabbi” than a professional Jew. In his words, “The concept of the ‘neighborhood rabbi’ is at the core of my work. If I forget to make a call to a sick person, if I was too brusque with someone, if I missed an appointment, I hear about it immediately because we all live in the same neighborhood.” So perhaps Martin Buber was right. All living is indeed in meeting—one with the other, the I and the Thou.

Andy Bachman doesn’t need JOI’s help. What JOI does is distill what works for successful leaders like Rabbi Bachman and shares those methodologies with the rest of the community: meeting people on a personal level, learning their needs and interests, and providing entryways into Judaism by directly addressing those needs and interests. It’s more than just charisma; it’s caring, listening, and knowing what to offer that will be most helpful. Some of this can be taught, some is learned over time, and some of it just comes naturally for those few great leaders.

Hipster Tees: Pride or Prejudice?

A few years ago, Urban Outfitters launched their “Everyone loves a . . .” line of t-shirts. Whether you were an Irish girl or a Jewish boy, embracing your ethnicity on a t-shirt suddenly became trendy. And while I personally don’t embrace this trend, some of the t-shirts being sold on websites like, and are cute. (Admit it, the “Yo Semite” shirt on is pretty clever.)

While most of the clothing items being sold are harmless (although some may be considered immodest), a few of the designs may be derogatory to non-Jews. The “Shiksa Goddess” and “Shiksa” shirts seems to perpetuate an unpleasant stereotype about non-Jewish women. This feels like a step backward to those of us at JOI who encourage welcoming the non-Jewish partners of Jews into the Jewish community. I don’t know many non-Jewish women who would gladly display “Shiksa” — the Yiddish work for non-Jew, but that more accurately translates to “abomination” — across their chests.

There could be three things at play here: first, the creators of these shirts did not realize they were being offensive, or didn’t care; second, there is a market for these shirts because women wearing them don’t realize they are wearing a slur, or don’t care; and finally, it’s possible that non-Jewish women know full well that the word is a slur and they are “reclaiming” it as a word of pride the way the gay and lesbian movement reclaimed the word “queer.” If it is the latter, then it would be okay for such folks to refer to themselves as “Shiksa” but I think it would still be offensive when others (especially born-Jews) refer to them as such. At JOI we’ve long said it’s time to remove negative words like “Shiksa” (and the male counterpart, “Shegetz”) from our communal vocabulary.

JOI Outreach Comes To Morris County

We have done five community “outreach scans” in the last twelve months, the latest of which was in Morris County, New Jersey. Last week, we presented community leaders there with the results of the outreach scan, as reported in the New Jersey Jewish News. If a demographer goes into a community in order to determine its population trends, JOI goes into a community in order to determine whether existing institutions have the capacity to respond to those trends.

Over the past couple of years we have looked extensively at over 500 institutions through our scanning process. All the outreach scans during the last twelve months were completed at the behest of local Jewish federations, except for the most recent in Morris County. In this particular case, we were invited to take a look at the community at the request of the Jewish Community Center of Metrowest and its assistant executive director Barak Hermann. Among the Jewish institutions in the Morris County area, the JCC is the only non-synagogue institution in the community. This is particularly important to note, especially given the fact that few families on the periphery currently affiliate with synagogues.

As we reported to Morris County leadership, to be most effective, outreach needs to be implemented holistically, fused with the very core of an institution. It needs to be prioritized when holding programs, drafting marketing, and strategizing recruitment, engagement and follow-up. Over the next nine months, our work will continue with the Morris County Jewish community as well as with individual institutions—and particularly with the JCC—through their lay and professional leaders, in order to help them become more welcoming to newcomers and those on the periphery, particularly the growing segment of interfaith families and their children.

Reaching Those Elusive Creatures Called Teens

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How do you reach teenagers, especially those who aren’t interested in the standard youth groups (USY, NCSY, BBYO, NFTY, Young Judea), and especially if they are on the periphery of the Jewish community, many of whom come from interfaith families? Our friends at The Curriculum Initiative have one approach. They go into private schools and form groups among the Jewish kids that are in attendance. This year, they branched out and sponsored a trip to New Orleans to help rebuild the post-Katrina community there. And this year, they are sponsoring a trip to Spain.

Now we read about a group that is sponsoring summer study in science—in Israel. What these programs have in common—even though they would normally be perceived as high barrier programs—is that they have figured out a way to overcome those barriers and thereby provide a Jewish engagement experience for those on the periphery. And we know that programs that engage kids for longer periods of time have longer lasting benefit.

“In Search of a Kosher Man” in Switzerland

Earlier this week, JOI’s Eva Stern and I attended the screening of a Swiss film entitled Matchmaker: In Search of a Kosher Man at the New York Jewish Film Festival. A film festival is a low-barrier activity which unaffiliated Jews often attend so we were sad not to see any form of systematic name collection beyond a survey sitting forlornly on abandoned tables. (”Well I suppose someone COULD fill out the survey they offered, if they really had nothing else to do with their life,” remarked Eva).

Tearing ourselves away from examining their outreach techniques, we sat down to watch the movie. The film explores Zurich, Switzerland’s Jewish community through the lens of the main character’s somewhat ambivalent quest to meet and marry a Jewish man. She invites several Jewish men to make challah with her in her kitchen, while they discuss what Judaism means to them. The filmmaker also conducts interviews with a variety of secular and religious Jews in Switzerland in an attempt to capture how they decide the ways in which they want to express their Judaism.

In addition to recording the dating travails of the main character, interviews with both in and intermarried couples were conducted. A woman who had converted into Judaism discussed how she learned about a variety of Jewish holidays while in the process of converting, but her husband was not interested in assimilating those holiday customs into their lives. “They really could have used Empowering Ruth” I whispered to Eva, referring to a program JOI designed for teaching women who have converted everything they wanted to know about leading Jewish lives that wasn’t covered in their conversion classes.

This movie confirms that the issues faced by the American Jewish community reflect those faced by today’s Jews throughout the world. Maybe we should open a Swiss branch of the JOI offices, if only we could find a program officer who really enjoyed skiing and chocolate.

Doing Our Best, Step By Step

Recently, I traveled to Pittsburgh to present a workshop for the Jewish Federation’s Board of Delegates. Our evening together focused on developing a basic outreach skill set, with a particular focus on reaching out to young adults—single, partnered, and with children. The session guided participants through key ingredients to a successful outreach program, including identifying and lowering barriers to participation, making our organizations more welcoming, utilizing inclusive language, and strategic marketing (for more information on outreach “best practices,” check out this resource page on our JOPLIN site). The evening ended with folks brainstorming new collaborative programs to bring to the community. I can’t wait to see where they go next!

“Service” Has Several Meanings in Jewish Context

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Social justice programs engage those on the periphery of the Jewish community for lots of reasons. At JOI, we have also been thinking about whether such organizations are intentional about such efforts or are they simply “off-label” benefits of their work, to borrow a phrase from the pharmaceutical industry. (By the way, this will be one of many topics that will be under discussion at JOI’s next national conference.)

In any case, we were thrilled to see the social networking platform called the Jewish Service Online Network that has been designed (by the same folks who designed BBYO’s new alumni site) for those who have been engaged by social justice efforts in the Jewish community. (Like BBYO, this effort has been given its support by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, which also supports JOI.) It will be interesting to see how effective this site will be as a follow-up to the social justice programs in the community. As JOI has learned and continues to teach, it will take proactive follow-up even with such a well-designed site in order to pave a path from an engagement activity to the Jewish community.

What Do YOU Love About the Jewish Community?

Ruth Decalo (JOI’s Sr. Director of Program and Training) and I recently traveled to Los Angeles to debrief community institutions in the West Valley and Conejo Valley on the welcoming nature of their institutions—at the invitation of the Valley Alliance of the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles. Our conversations emerged from the environmental outreach scan of their community JOI completed a few months ago. This was the second in a series of steps in JOI’s Community Transformation Initiative.

Following a long day of debriefing with institutions one at a time, we spent the next day training volunteer leaders and Jewish communal professionals in some of JOI’s signature outreach methodology. Among the many things that we did was help them understand the role of “gatekeepers,” particularly those responsible for answering e-mails and the telephone, to make sure that they are able to transform each contact into an opportunity for outreach. The front line is indeed the bottom line for these institutions, yet we don’t always recognize it.

Because I believe that we miss various opportunities to share the essential message of our institutions with those on the periphery who have yet to enter our institutions, particularly those who are intermarried, I asked certain questions that I often ask: What is the essential message that you want to communicate with those who have not yet crossed the threshold of your institution? And how are you doing so? What is it that you believe they will come to know if they only would enter your doors and spend time inside the walls of your institution?

So I ask our blog readers the same thing: If you are active in a Jewish communal institution, why? And is that institution taking that “why” and demonstrating it to those who have not yet joined you?


Last weekend, MTV debuted a new installment of their documentary series: True Life, with the topic, “I’m in an Interfaith Relationship.” I commend MTV for bringing such a prevalent issue to light, but I wonder if the producers of the show could have shown a more typical example of an interfaith relationship (although the couples featured were extreme, they do make for good television).

The show followed the journeys of two couples as they explored the difficult decision of choosing a faith for their families. The first couple was comprised of a Lutheran man and a woman in the process of conversion to Jehovah’s Witness; the other couple featured a Jewish man and Christian woman. While both couples faced different struggles, the common theme of the woman taking the lead in the religious life of the family played out in each situation. The woman converting to Jehovah’s Witness went to church and Bible study, while her Lutheran husband wanted to go out with his friends, and the Christian woman (who belonged to a Christian Fellowship Church that celebrated all the “Jewish feasts and holidays” in addition to Christian holidays)—who happened to be pregnant—fasted on Yom Kippur while her Jewish husband only did so reluctantly. (According to Jewish law, pregnant women should follow their doctor’s advice regarding fasting on Yom Kippur in Judaism, and should never endanger their health or the health of the fetus.) These women underlined the significance and need for The Mothers Circle, JOI’s program for women of other backgrounds raising Jewish children.

At the end of the program (spoiler alert), the Christian woman was seven months pregnant, and she and her Jewish husband decided to raise their children “Jewstian”—celebrating Jewish holidays, while at the same time teaching that Jesus is the messiah. While the husband seemed uncomfortable with his son growing up with Jesus, he deferred to his wife’s decision. Their new son will have both a bris and a Christian dedication ceremony.

Exercising Our Judaism

I work out everyday. And just as praying three times a day is part of my daily routine, so is exercise. However, while I am sure to daven on Shabbat, it is the one day I take off from exercise. This is my personal routine. Others have found other routines that work for them. Perhaps that is what has intrigued me about the ongoing debate about the increasing trend of JCCs opening on Shabbat, as reported recently in the Forward. But the debate doesn’t seem to be about the various expressions of Shabbat. Rather, it is about the issues of core business and competition in the marketplace.

According to a recent study, two-thirds of JCCs are open at some time during Shabbat. Many of these institutions are attempting to provide alternative Shabbat experiences. At the same time, many synagogues are attempting to provide alternative Shabbat experiences (boasting a Synaplex model). While few would question a synagogue being open on Shabbat—even for alternative experiences—I wonder why the adamant opposition to JCCs open on Shabbat. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that the recent NJPS found that the majority of members of JCCs are also synagogue members. Since that is the case, they are indeed competing for the same market.

Maybe the answer can be found in reaching the majority of folks in the Jewish community—and this includes an increasing number of interfaith families—who are currently not involved with synagogues or JCCs. So rather than just doing business as usual—and simply opening up the JCC (and its fitness center)—perhaps we need to consider how to reach those who aren’t affiliated, who aren’t engaged, and who maybe do not have the inclination to take their first step into the synagogue.

The Celebrity Exception Redux

As I have suggested before, there seems to be a celebrity exception to the interfaith marriage phenomenon. And usually this is the case with those high profile individuals (especially in movies and sports) who are in an interfaith marriage. What has emerged of late is an addition to this phenomenon—children of intermarriage, adult or not. Consider Ashley Tisdale, a wonderful 21 year old actress who starred in Disney’s surprise hit High School Musical. As first reported by columnist Nate Bloom in the Detroit Jewish News, it seems that Ashley, who identifies Jewishly, has a Jewish mother and a father who hails from another religious background.

Before critics counter with their usual “but what kind of Jewish life does she lead?” she has appeared at the JCC of Monmouth County’s (NJ) new theater (where she actually got her start in local theater) to benefit the Macabi ArtFest, an innovative project of the JCCA to reach teens 13-16 around the world as an event parallel to its successful Maccabi program. As JOI has been saying, it is not about intermarriage, it is about how they are raising their children. Ashley is indeed a poster child.

The Celebrity Exception

I have a question. Why is it that even among the critics of our work with those who have intermarried, whenBritney Spears and Isaac Cohen someone famous has intermarried, especially someone from TV, sports, or the movies, or is the adult child of intermarriage, we rush to claim him or her for the Jewish community? We also pay attention to stars who are dating someone Jewish, like Britney Spears. At JOI, we would welcome them anyway. We welcome anyone who has chosen to cast their lot with the Jewish community, irrespective of the path that has brought them here, or the configuration of their family—either current or the one in which they were raised. But for those who are critical of our work, we recognize it as “the celebrity exception.”

The Facebook Community

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We know that the internet has changed the world in so many ways. And we often recommend the use of various internet sites for specialized marketing, especially in our work with young people and on college campuses. We also recommend that organizations place pictures on their websites of people they hope to attract and of those who are already engaged. It is important for potential participants to see themselves in the organization or program to which they are being invited. This approach was confirmed in a recent article in The Jewish Week.

This article reports on how students are using the Facebook in interesting ways:

“Janice Hussein,” for example, “is a junior at Brandeis University, and the daughter of Indian and Jewish parents, and until she started using Facebook, she didn’t know there were many other Jews of a similar ethnicity….So Hussain this semester launched a group called ‘Asian and Jewish,’ inviting a handful of people at Brandeis who were of Asian and Jewish descent. Before she knew it the group reached 90 members from various campuses.”

While not addressed in this article, we know that other campuses have groups such as the Half Jew Crew that organically emerged at Brown University a few years ago.

Our friend at Hillel International, Simon Amiel, notes “what seems to be coming up over and over again [is that Facebooks] is a place for students that are from a mixed-parentage family.” Facebook—and other sites like it—have truly become the face of the new American Jewish community.

Anne Frank House

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The summer before I entered sixth grade, my teacher assigned Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl as summer reading. From that point on, I knew that if I ever visited Amsterdam, I would visit the Frank family’s hiding place detailed in the compelling diary. The almost one million visitors to Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam in 2006, as reported by Ha’aretz, verifies that, like me, people all over the world are interested in seeing the apartment where this young symbol of the Holocaust kept her diary.

The Holocaust is a major point of self-identification for Jews as evidenced by numerous visitors to the Frank’s Amsterdam apartment. Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, is still months away (April 15, 2007), but it is not too early to start planning a memorial program. Most North Americans have studied the Holocaust and are aware of its ongoing impact upon society. This includes unaffiliated, unengaged, and interfaith families. Explicitly invite and welcome all who are interested to your remembrance ceremony in order to include these populations. This year, open your Yom Hashoah commemoration to everyone—because no one should forget.

Religious Study for a Secular Audience

There has been a lot of discussion lately about the interest in the study of sacred texts among so-called secular Jews in Israel. A recent article in Ynet highlighted some of these efforts. The question is whether or not the application of such methods and contexts can be applied to the American Jewish community—especially since we know that “secular” in Israel means something very different in the United States, particularly when it comes to affiliation and engagement. Some of the folks that have been instrumental in these programs have brought their methods to the United States in an attempt to test out this hypothesis. But most of the work has been done in the context of the core community. So the people who have been involved are secular only insofar as they may not be religiously observant in the traditional sense. And because synagogue membership and attendance is different in Israel than it is in the U.S., such a marker doesn’t become particularly helpful for us either.

I wonder what the secular study of sacred texts would look like, where such study would take place, and among whom? And what would it take to attract people to it? What would be the motivation?

When Reform Judaism took hold in the 19th century in Germany and in the United States, it was, among other things, an attempt to intellectualize Judaism. One studied traditional literature even if one didn’t practice traditional rituals. It was a kind of rational spirituality. That approach has fallen out of favor among many adherents in the Reform movement in an attempt to embrace more of the core Jewish rituals. Some, like my friend and colleague Rabbi Leonard Kravitz, think that study of the rational should be complemented by traditional observance. But while he would probably not call it “spirituality,” he would also never call it “secular.”

So would secular study today take place in a library or a bookstore or home-based grassroots study groups for those interested in the genius of the ancient rabbis as evidenced in their writings, but not necessarily interested in current religious beliefs and practice? After all, it is difficult to demonstrate the relevance of these texts to our daily lives. Who would lead such a group? Would it be a person with a Ph.D. rather than rabbinical training?

In the midst of the debate over whether Jewish culture is a sufficient force to sustain us into the next generation, might we ask the same question of the secular study of traditional texts—can it sustain us into the next generation?

New Jersey in Transformation

JOI has begun working with Morris County, NJ as part of our Community Transformation Initiative (CTI), as reported on in a recent article in the New Jersey Jewish News. The goal of the initiative is to help communities across the nation implement “best practice” outreach strategies in order to reach more unaffiliated Jews and intermarried families. Barak Herman, the assistant director of Jewish Community Center Metrowest in Morris County, said that the project “spoke to me. It really resonated.” The first phase began last June with anonymous phone calls and emails to Jewish institutions in order to assess their response to newcomers. This initial phase was followed by in-depth interviews with Morris County Jewish professionals who work at synagogues and other Jewish organizations.

Rabbi Kerry Olitzky will be presenting the findings of the study next Thursday, January 18th, at an open meeting at the Jewish Community Center in Whippany. In the coming months, JOI staff, including Ruth Decalo, senior director of programming and training, will conduct one-on-one debriefing sessions with participating institutions. We are excited about working with the Jewish community in Morris County and look forward to a long and successful partnership as we widen the tent of the Jewish community.

Measure Twice, Cut Once

The commitment to circumcise baby boys isn’t an easy one, even for couples where both parents are Jewish. I was three-and-a-half when my brother was born, and I distinctly remember my mother crying at his brit milah (ritual ceremony of circumcision). This is what I recall my mother saying, “You spend nine months letting something perfect grow inside you, and then you have to let some random old man operate on him unnecessarily on him while your friends stand around eating bagels and acting like it’s a party. Why are they having fun when my son is in pain?”

The circumcision dilemma can be a particularly big issue for intermarried families. One spouse may feel like the need for circumcision as a way of connecting the baby with a chain of his ancestors. The other might find the ritual barbaric and therefore unnecessary. In The Unkindest Cut, published in, Neal Pollack discusses his family’s hysterical reaction when his Protestant wife decided she did not want their son to be circumcised. [Please note: this article contains some unrestricted slang.] His parents had many members of their extended family call the couple to forcefully state their point-of-view. They went as far as threatening to disown their grandson. Eventually the couple decided to have a circumcision performed by an urologist in order restore peace in their family. The Pollacks discussed their situation during their pregnancy, so they had time to make a well thought out decision, even if it was a difficult process. For many couples, the issue may not come up until the baby is already born, in which case even more stress is heaped on the already exhausted new parents.

Although it can seem jarring to have to perform surgery on a newborn, it is much easier to perform a circumcision on an eight-day-old than on an older child! To be clear, we are JOI believe that Jewish boys should be circumcised. But we also recognize that the issue is one of many that emerges, especially in the context of an interfaith relationship. It is also much easier to discuss circumcision during the pregnancy or before rather than after the baby is born. Several months ago I was arguing about circumcision on a first date with someone. Perhaps the conversation was a bit premature. However, I wanted to practice the advice that we offer: the earlier you begin discussing important issues, the more time you will have to come to develop a mutually agreed-upon reasoned position.

Intermarriage: Implications for Israel

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Who said that Israel is not a complicated modern state—one that replicates the complexity of the contemporary Jewish world. Israeli Supreme CourtOn the heels of the proposal by the Chief Rabbinate in Israel to reject conversions of all kinds from abroad, the Israeli Supreme Court affirmed the right of inheritances for those whose intermarriages have taken place abroad, as reported in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz.

Not only is this evidence of the vibrancy of the democracy in place in Israel and the role that the Supreme Court plays in issues relevant to personal status and the growing phenomenon of intermarriage even in the state of Israel, but it also shows that the Chief Rabbinate does not have a stranglehold on the government even when it appears to be so.

Surprise Subplot

When I went to the movies on Saturday night, it was to be an enjoyable family evening. So we picked “Freedom Writers,” the new MTV film about a unique teacher in Los Angeles who made the difference in the lives of her students. I was looking for a film that was both feel-good and meaningful. And it certainly was both. The fact that the teacher was Jewish—and I intuited that her work came from a bastion of Jewish values—was an added bonus.

What I didn’t expect, and it was not in any of the trailers was the Holocaust theme that was embedded in the film. (I won’t say more since I don’t want to spoil the film for any of you.) It confirmed for me once again that the unaffiliated get their Jewish education through secular, cultural means (as demonstrated in our research project last year called “A Flame Still Burns”). Since there seemed to be no indication that the film was to include Holocaust themes, the Jewish community has been silent about it—understandably. So it got me to thinking. How can we develop a rapid response team in the Jewish community to respond to programmatic efforts that require quick implementation turnaround? We are able to do it for emergency fundraising efforts—such as Israel Emergency campaigns. Shouldn’t we be able to do it for programs as well?

Welcoming in the New Year

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If your daily life even vaguely resembles mine, then everywhere you look, you see promotional material advertising specials for gym membership, weight-loss programs, and other assorted services that can enhance your well-being or sense thereof. Why are we seeing more of this than usual? Because it’s right after the New Year, these gyms and businesses have tapped into the minds of their target audience, hoping to lure them in with their special January rates. Because outreach is about reaching people where they are, I wonder if we as the Jewish community are making our voice heard at this time of year and capitalize on the secular New Year as an entry point to engagement.

We can do this by thinking about where our target audience “is” and how we can reach them where they “are.” Many folks spend the first days and weeks of January resolute to make improvements in their lives, and to take control of an area that they feel might need some work. By programming in a way that bridges self-improvement with a taste of something Jewish, we can design and subsequently advertise our programs around this time of year to take advantage of where people “are” psychologically. Whether a yoga class with a Jewish twist, or a workshop on “getting organized” based on principles of Jewish wisdom, this is the time of year to offer and creatively promote such programs. What kinds of programs do you offer at this time of year?

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