Weblog Entries for March 2007

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Passover in the Aisles Returns!

I spent this past weekend in San Francisco. I traveled not for the hills or the Golden Gate Bridge…but for the matzah! Yes, it’s true, I visited three “Passover in the Aisles” programs throughout the Bay Area. Those three events, however, are just a sampling of the many Passover in the Aisles programs taking place nationwide this year , from Ottawa to Syracuse to New Jersey to Columbus to Pittsburgh to Tampa to Wisconsin.

The first Bay Area event was sponsored by JGATE, an “independent, grassroots group that reaches out to all who seek greater connection to Jewish life and community.” JGate’s Rabbi Bridget Wynne and administrator Bon Singer set up set up a beautiful table in the Passover aisle of an urban supermarket in Berkeley. Offering plentiful and appealing materials full of Passover information, including recipes and referrals for local communal Seders, JGate also gave passers-by the opportunity to enter an exciting raffle for a beautiful gift basket which included delicious chocolates, wine, and a Jewish cookbook. When working with organizations to help them run Passover in the Aisles, we always suggest that they engage shoppers with an appealing and interactive activity. Along these lines, Rabbi Bridget and Bon offered Charoset tasting, with both Ashkenazic and Sephardic Charoset varieties to choose from, ensuring they were able to attract the most discerning of palettes.

Heading south, I visited Albertsons supermarkets in both Los Altos and San Jose, where Congregation Beth David of Saratoga ran Passover in the Aisles. Synagogue volunteers engaged shoppers with a variety of macaroon tastings, free Passover-themed CDs, giveaways, cute plastic frogs (in reference to one of the 10 plagues), and a gamut of helpful information about Passover customs and foods. On hand to help engage shoppers further was Rabbi Aaron Schonbrun, Beth David’s veteran Passover in the Aisles rabbi and member of JOI’s board of professional advisors. Both organizations will be running one more Passover in the Aisles before Passover begins this Monday night…

Not with pressure, but with love

I would have never believed it to be possible, but Shmuel Rosner and I may actually agree about some very important issues concerning interfaith marriage. My surprise comes after reading the blog entry he penned following the recent conference of the Jewish Funders Network. Rosner has, in the past, been quite outspoken in espousing some very traditional views that warn his readers of the dangers of reaching out to the intermarried, while supporting the claims of many of JOI’s critics. But here he takes an evenhanded approach to the issue and acknowledges that most North American Jews are now in agreement about the value of accepting interfaith marriage. There is nothing to fight against. Now the only option is to open our hearts and homes—and especially the gates of the Jewish community and its institutions. This is what JOI has been saying during its 20 years—yes we are celebrating our 20th year in 2007.

Rosner quotes our friend and supporter from Boston, Michael Rukin, who spoke passionately at the conference, saying “We can’t fight the tide of history.” Rukin already had wowed the folks who attended the 2006 JOI National Leadership Conference in Atlanta with similar sentiments. Scott Shay also debated Rosen, who claims that Shay and Rukin are in agreement on the intermarriage issue, but I have to demur. In Shay’s recent book on the future of the North American Jewish community, he calls to task any rabbi who would officiate at any interfaith wedding (Shay actually wrote that any rabbi who officiates should be forbidden an aliyah in any synagogue in the world) and argues that the Reform movement should rescind its decision about patrilineal descent.

The best part of the article and perhaps the piece that sums it up comes at the end, when Rosner concedes that my colleague Rabbi Eric Yoffie is correct. “In any case, if non-Jews are welcomed and embraced by the Jewish community, they may ultimately join the tribe. Not with pressure, but with love.” May this be a season of liberation for us all—so that we may all know freedom from enslavement, particularly those ideas of the past that threaten to prevent us from moving into the future and its promise of redemption.

Creative Seder Activities Can Foster Positive Memories

One of the ideas we here at JOI try to stress is the importance of family activities creating positive “Jewish memories” for children of intermarriage when they are still young—and a prime opportunity begins this Monday evening with the Passover Seder. Involving young children in the Seder instills not only a sense of Jewish identity from an early age, but also sets them on a path of more frequent engagement with the community as they grow up. In the same way that an enjoyable mid-summer trip to the ballpark with mom or dad can produce a lifelong baseball fan, fun memories of Jewish holidays as a child can lead to further celebrations decades down the road.

For children, Passover should not feel like they’re caught in an extended school day. There are many opportunities to make the Seder fun and educational. For example, the Creative Seder Initiative (CSI) has assembled a 10 plagues kit for the younger members of your Passover celebration. Additionally, Suzette Cohen, JOI’s Mothers Circle Atlanta Professional Affiliate, recommends this Children’s Haggadah to read during the Seder. Incorporating such child-friendly elements is really an early way to introduce them to the way low-barrier activities can enhance one’s experiences interacting with the Jewish community. By making children feel welcome at this important time of the year, not only do you begin to help them assemble a cache of positive Jewish memories, but you also teach them the value of reaching out to and including those who may feel marginalized.

Ordination Regardless of Orientation

When I examine the reasons that I don’t identify myself as being part of any particular religious denomination, the fact that Conservative Judaism is not as accepting and inclusive of gays and lesbians is certainly near the top of my list.

Yesterday I was almost tempted to change my religious affiliation on popular social networking site)to Conservative, thanks to my excitement over a decision made about increasing inclusiveness for gays and lesbians. Arnold Eisen, Chancellor-elect of the Jewish Theological Seminary, one of two U.S. Conservative rabbinical schools, announced that the Jewish Theological Seminary would begin admitting gay and lesbian students to its rabbinical and cantorial programs. The Zeigler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles began admitting openly gay and lesbian students shortly after the Committee on Jewish Laws and Standards (the Conservative body that makes decisions about Jewish law) passed several decisions in December 2006 about the status of gay and lesbian Jews in the Conservative movement, one of which allowed for gay and lesbian ordination.

As someone who wants Judaism to be an “open tent” where everyone can feel welcome, I am thrilled. Not only does this decision make it possible for people of all orientations to take on greater leadership in the Conservative movement, it also enables many people who felt estranged from the movement because of its stance on homosexuality to view it as being more relevant to their lives and beliefs. When describing why the seminary was making its decision, Eisen said:

Core Jewish teachings such as the imperative to treat every human being with full respect as a creature in God’s image urge us strongly in this direction. We do not alter established belief and behavior casually. But we are convinced that change in this case is permitted and required, precisely in order to preserve the tradition charged with guiding us in greatly altered circumstances.

I wonder what other issues the Conservative movement will become more liberal about as they struggle to reconcile Jewish law with compassion and the realities of contemporary society.

Are There Better Ways to Showcase the Beauty of Israel?

I grew up singing Israeli folk songs about the golden facades of Jerusalem and the groves of roses in the Israeli countryside. Never have I sung songs about the beautiful women of Israel.

For me, the beauty of Israel comes from its lush orange groves, natural springs and architectural history. But, according to Ynet, Israel is capitalizing on its reputation of having beautiful women. The Israeli Foreign Ministry has convinced the men’s magazine Maxim to run a feature and a photo shoot with seven Israeli models and beauty queens.

David Saranga, the Consul for Media and Public Affairs, explains in Ynet’s article that the Maxim article and photo ideally will draw positive attention to Israel and attract the interest of young men. “A study we conducted taught us that Israel is not relevant to men aged 18 to 34 and the project aims at showing that Israel is a modern, lively, young and dynamic country,” Saranga said.

The article will certainly place Israel in the public realm and make the country accessible to newcomers, as we advocate at JOI, but I fear that it is doing so in a misogynistic fashion. The fact that Israel and Israelis are beautiful is no secret, but aren’t there other effective ways of bringing Israel to the American public without the assistance of half-clothed women? Would a spread in a travel magazine enticing tourists with the chance to ski in northern Israel and snorkel in Eilat in the same day be more appropriate? True, Maxim’s photos may succeed in appealing to their target demographic - and I do not typically take issue with men’s magazines - but Israel is so much more than a county of attractive women. I commend the Foreign Ministry for raising positive awareness of Israel, but next time, maybe they could draw attention to some of Israel’s other natural wonders.

Jewish Baseball Community Reflects Community-at-Large

We’ve chronicled in the past how the recent trend in the Jewish community has resulted in a situation where children of intermarried couples are “the coming majority.” The rise in interfaith couples has caused us to reach a tipping point whereby the number of intermarried households has managed to match (or in some communities even exceed) the number of those that are inmarried. The explanation for this statistical phenomenon is simple mathematics: it takes one Jewish person to create an intermarried household, while it takes two to create an inmarried one.

We could very well ruminate on this data only in the theoretical realm, but it can be even more enlightening to see how things play out in the real world. An interesting (and topical, with Opening Day right around the corner) example is the case of the ten major league baseball players expected to be on MLB rosters when the season begins on April 1st.

As you can see in this article by columnist Nate Bloom, the “coming majority” is already here (at least in the baseball world), at a ratio of six to four. Bloom explains:

Suiting up for the 2007 season are four major league players with two Jewish parents: Kevin Youkilis (Boston Red Sox); Jason Hirsch (Colorado Rockies); Jason Marquis (Chicago Cubs) and Shawn Green (New York Mets).

The other Jewish major league players all have one Jewish parent: Mike Lieberthal (Los Angeles Dodgers); Brad Ausmus (Astros); Scott Schoeneweis (Mets); Scott Feldman and Ian Kinsler (Texas Rangers) and John Grabow (Pittsburgh Pirates).

The article’s data comes from a print publication known as the Jewish Sports Review. The Review keeps a list of “who is Jewish” in baseball as well as other sports, and until recently tracked whether a player from an interfaith family had a Jewish mother or father. Does this move away from noting from which parent a person received their Jewish heritage signal a larger shift toward a community more accepting of the idea of patrilineal descent? While this is just an isolated example, it is always encouraging to see an accepting, welcoming attitude toward Jewish identity, especially because the Jewish Sports Review actually contacts the individual players to make sure they self-identify as Jewish before they are listed.

Is circumcision a deterrent to conversion?

When one thinks of bastions of Catholicism, one of the first places to spring to mind has to be Mexico. The 2000 census reported that Mexico had roughly 75 million Catholics, which equates to around 88% of that country’s total population. Given those numbers, the likelihood of being born into and raised in a household steeped in Catholic tradition is strong – so what would lead a group of Mexicans to choose to Judaism? Recently, the Jewish Journal’s Roberto Loiederman published a story about a group of people in the Mexicali region east of San Diego who, despite being born into traditionally Catholic families, opted to practice Judaism. Despite several impediments (such as not having a rabbi or a nearby synagogue), this group of Jews-by-choice enthusiastically embraces their new religion.

Their devotion is made all the more interesting due to the fact that they are such a pronounced minority. The Jewish population is sizable in the Los Angeles region and Mexico city has a growing Jewish community as well (especially now with the presence of Hebraic University, whose students are shown in the photo above), but in Mexicali, these Jews-by-choice run the risk of standing out and isolating themselves from a community where the culture is closely entwined with Catholic traditions. Facing such long odds, it is undeniably important for the Jewish community to reach out to this group and treat them as equals, or risk them becoming discouraged and disengaged. Fortunately, several members of the Jewish community have gone out of their way to make them feel welcomed and accepted as full-fledged members. A Reform rabbi, Jacques Cukierkorn, recently spoke to the group and told them that it was unnecessary for adult male Jews-by-choice to have a brit milah (ritual circumcision). Cukierkorn reasoned, “if we Reform rabbis emphasize ritual too much, we take the focus away from our main mandate, which is to make the world a better place in which we all behave in a more ethical manner.”

This is a very controversial suggestion for many Jews. On the one hand, Rabbi Cukierkorn’s attitude helps to smooth the transition into Judaism for this Mexicali group, and ensures that their newfound faith will be viewed more as a positive addition to their lives rather than a painful affliction. As they grow more comfortable and feel more accepted, there is a greater chance that not only will they be more engaged, but that their children and grandchildren will be as well, and maybe they will even take on some of those higher-barrier rituals. On the other hand, at what point do we lower the barriers too much, so that their acceptance even among fellow Reform Jews is called into question? For better or worse, Judaism is probably the most challenging religion to convert into. Many Jews believe that challenge—in the form of high barriers like circumcision—are directives from God and not human decisions. While we have long been strong supporters of Rabbi Cukierkorn’s work and his inclusive message, we also recognize why some might feel he went too far. What do you think?

Outreach for Oenephiles During Passover

This is the time of year when “kosher wine tastings” seem to abound, especially when they are connected to fundraising efforts to sell Kosher for Passover wine. As kosher wines have become more tasty and Israeli wines more fashionable, these activities have increased. As I survey the various Jewish newspapers advertising these programs (to an insider core who presumably reads these newspapers), I wonder what it would take to transform these programs into outreach efforts. I wonder aloud, especially because I am mindful that when we make program suggestions to institutions and communities, they are concerned about adding yet another program or responsibility to their already overwhelmed staff or lay leadership. What would happen if the event were to take place in a local wine or liquor store? What would happen if there were no admission prices charged? Or the event was free to non-members and members were charged a nominal fee?

Others may also be concerned about what it takes to implement a full-scale Public Space JudaismSM program, especially in a small community. By taking a program that is already planned for inside a synagogue or JCC and moving it out, you are able to take your insiders (members) with you. By linking it to Passover, it already has some measure of appeal, because of the large numbers who observe/celebrate Passover in one way or another. And by appealing to wine lovers, rather than those who intend to observe Passover per se, you are able to broaden the appeal to those on the periphery.

A Resource for Your Seder Search

A recent Jewish Telegraphic Agency article chronicled the difficulty some overseas students have finding a place to celebrate Passover in a foreign land. With their expatriate status already making them feel like outsiders, several students lamented the fact that they had not been contacted proactively by anyone in the local Jewish community. “If somebody here invited me, I would go to a seder,” one student commented.

While the experience of American students abroad will always be fraught with similar problems, the UJC is taking steps to ensure that no-one in the United States, at least, feels like an outsider this Passover. Anyone struggling to find a place to celebrate Passover this year now has an additional helpful resource, thanks to a recent UJC initiative. Each year, thousands of people find themselves in a strange city either due to work, school, or another outside influence, making a traditional family-driven Seder celebration all but impossible. To prevent anyone from having to forego a Seder entirely, however, the UJC has compiled a database of community Seders and home hospitalities.

This development shows that there are certainly those who take the concept of “welcoming the stranger” to heart. It is beneficial to have resources such as the UJC’s database so that those who are actively seeking a place to engage with the Jewish community can find welcoming sites to participate in their religion. Ideally, community organizations and others will take this welcoming even further, to proactively seek out and invite the unengaged to join in celebrations such as the Passover Seder, instead of waiting for potential participants to take the first step. The seder phrase “Let all who are hungry come and eat” is important to remember, but perhaps just as important is the concept of going out and finding those who are seeking (spiritual) nourishment and community.

Canadian Seder

With the growing prevalence of intermarriage making it increasingly likely that large traditionally Jewish families will include at least one (if not more) person of a different religious heritage, the issue of inclusion in rites such as the Passover Seder is bound to arise. As the Canadian Jewish News describes, though, this shift from an insular to a more inclusive community is not without complications.

To some, the inclusion of people of other religious backgrounds at a Seder is troubling, and brings up a number of pressing questions. In a positive development, however, the president of the Conservative movement’s Ontario Rabbinical Assembly, Rabbi Wayne Allen, attempted to answer all of those questions in a way that welcomed outsiders. After addressing several of the questions surrounding the issue , Rabbi Allen came to the conclusion, “We are left with no serious objections [to having non-Jewish guests at the seder].” He then went on to say, “But what about positive statements?” Not only can the inclusion of people of other faith backgrounds be justified, but Rabbi Allen is taking it a step further and encouraging the Jewish community to look at the ways their celebration can be enhanced by the presence of these new guests.

This line of thinking matches up perfectly with what we believe at JOI, and is a real-world example of outreach best practices. Also noteworthy was an endorsement of inclusion issued by an Orthodox author, Rabbi Maurice Lamm. Having guests of other religious denominations at a Seder, Lamm says, “enhances the integrity of the Jewish people. One of the fine things [guests] will learn is the important values for which we stand.” Rabbi Allen and Rabbi Lamm both focus solely on accentuating positive aspects and celebrating what new guests can add to the proceedings – they “welcome the stranger” rather than excluding them.

Celebrating an Interfaith Anniversary, Of Sorts

Julie Wiener’s monthly Jewish Week column “In the Mix” is nearing its one year anniversary, and over the course of the last twelve months, has brought a thoughtful and incisive look at the often controversial issue of interfaith marriages.

While her column has sparked a great deal of debate as well as some vitriol from those who believe her writing only serves to “promote intermarriage,” she writes that:

…frankly, what’s surprised me is not the angry letters. Rather, it’s that there have not been even more of them. And I think that’s because, as my friend Paul Golin of the Jewish Outreach Institute has written, we’ve reached a “tipping point” in intermarriage. More than 15 years after the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey reported that almost half of Jews were marrying gentiles, interfaith marriage is no longer shocking.

The number of intermarried couples and children of intermarried couples has grown so exponentially that even the most ironclad opponents of interfaith relationships have been forced to gradually acknowledge this sizable segment of the community. But being resigned to the existence of intermarriage is different than warmly embracing intermarried couples and their families into our community. Columns such as Julie Wiener’s indicate real progress. And of course, JOI is working to ensure that the growing number of intermarried couples are not only acknowledged but fully incorporated into the Jewish community.

We here at JOI are pleased to see that someone has taken on the challenge of discussing this weighty issue on a regular basis in such a public Jewish forum. Also encouraging is the fact that her writing has not only sustained a weekly column but now has produced a website that houses all of her previous articles.

Coverage of the Coming Majority: JTA on the Children of Intermarriage

On March 8th, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) published a series of articles as a special report by Sue Fishkoff that examine the many challenges faced by the adult children of intermarriage.

Fishkoff’s main article, “Children of intermarried find they’re off community’s radar,” discusses the sizable but often unrecognized group of people ages 18 and older who have intermarried parents. They are, as we at JOI have called them, “the coming majority” of the Jewish community. What prompted the population spike in this demographic? “This is the first wave of adult children from that huge rise in intermarriage that began in the 1980s,” says JOI’s Paul Golin in the article.

While this portion of the population is clearly significant, it is, in the words of JOI’s executive director Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, “a population that is not on the Jewish communal radar.” In fact, little research has even been done on this demographic, though the article does cite JOI’s 2005 study “A Flame Still Burns” and includes a graph comparing the results of that quantitative study with the large-scale National Jewish Population Survey to show that the 90 young adults from intermarried households we interviewed shared many attributes with the hundreds surveyed by the NJPS.

The second article, “For children of intermarriage, decisive influences can vary,” explores the belief choices of these young adults and, in an interesting twist, discusses families where children chose differently – in one instance, a boy opted to follow his father’s example and become Catholic while his sister aligned herself with Judaism, the religion of her mother. If educational decisions made by parents for their children is the most important factor in Jewish identity - as some critics have recently claimed - how do they explain children from the same parents making vastly different spiritual decisions? It happens all the time, including in families with two Jewish parents where one of their children intermarries and the other in-marries even though they shared the same Jewish education.

Additionally the article covers topics such as the issues brought on when a couple divorces and the “third option” some intermarried couples choose by educating their children Quaker or Unitarian. It is encouraging to see this population receive the media coverage it deserves, and these article do more than simply cover the basics.

Keeping the (Inter)faith

JVIBE is a Jewish teen magazine that holds a refreshingly inclusive attitude toward intermarried families and the children of intermarriage. A recent JVibe article called “Keeping the (Inter)Faith” (link is a PDF, reprinted with permission) explores the challenges faced by children of intermarriage in being fully accepted into the Jewish community. The piece is written by JVibe co-editor Joelle Asaro Berman who reveals that she, too, is an adult child of intermarriage. She discusses one of her unwelcoming experiences, an unfortunately all-too-common one among Jews of patrilineal descent:

…I went to a public middle school, where I met my first group of Jewish best friends. I attended a youth group meeting with them and somehow found myself in a discussion with one of the adult advisors. When he found out that my mother was not Jewish, he came back with something that alarmed me:

“Well, that means you’re not really Jewish.”

I was 12, and very confused. There I was, studying for my bat mitzvah, and this total stranger dismissed my Jewish identity in about five seconds. Today I would know how to respond to a comment like that, but back then, I had no idea what he was talking about.

Along with intermarriage itself, patrilineal descent is one of the most divisive issues in the organized community. It is terribly sad that some Jews are so quick to discredit another person’s Judaism, under the guise of “just stating the facts” without any consideration of the other person’s feelings. At the same time, it is a failing of the Reform and Reconstructionist movements to not properly prepare their own members and young people with answers for these seemingly inevitable encounters. Those movements’ decision about “Who’s a Jew” is actually based on an understanding of Jewish law, not a rejection of Jewish law, and their adherents should be able to impart that reasoning to those who would question it.

Joelle is in the vanguard of young Jewish communal professionals from interfaith families, yet she is far from alone, and sure to be followed by many more—even as other segments of the same organized community continue to claim that intermarriage is synonymous with assimilation out of Judaism!

JVIBE provides a free three-year subscription for those Jewish families with teenagers in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Michigan, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee, by completing the form here. For everyone else, you can get a free trial subscription here.

Mixed Blessings

If you’re near Northampton, Massachusetts, on March 24, be sure to attend a screening of the documentary “Mixed Blessings” by filmmaker Jennifer Kaplan, which follows the story of several interfaith couples making very different (and at times difficult) decisions for themselves and their families. The filmmaker will be in attendance to lead a post-screening conversation. I’ve seen the film and met Ms. Kaplan—and have also heard about the experience of other audiences after screenings—which is why I highly recommend the event and am sure it will provide a safe and welcoming environment for the exploration of the issues surrounding Jewish intermarriage.

The screening is co-sponsored by the local chapter of JOI’s Mothers Circle program. It is being shown at the Smith College Hillyer-Graham Auditorium (near the Art Museum) and begins at 7pm. For more information, visit the Pioneer Valley Jewish Film Festival website.

Yin Yang Yarmulkes

Like Cecelia Nealon-Shapiro, I chose to serve kosher Chinese food at my bat mitzvah party. My culinary choice was based purely on my taste buds. Cecelia’s had to do with her identity.

The New York Times chronicled Cecelia’s unique (Yin Yang yarmulkes) and not-so-unique (reading the torah) bat mitzvah experience that, like many other bat mitzvah days, came to be partially out of a sense of obligation.

But when Cecelia announced that “we have all been, or will be strangers at some point in our lives” during her bat mitzvah day speech from the front of her New York City synagogue, it couldn’t have been more true for Cecelia herself. Cecelia was born in China and adopted by Mary Nealon and Vivian Shapiro when she was three months old. While Cecelia feels fully Jewish, she also embraces her Chinese heritage.

The Nealon-Shapiro family exemplifies the modern Jewish family. We look different, come from different backgrounds and are part of all types of domestic situations. Still, we are all Jewish and can and should feel equally comfortable participating in the Jewish community. Kudos to Rodeph Sholom for being an open and welcoming synagogue—because like Rabbi Robert Levine shared with the congregation at Cecelia’s bat mitzvah, “Let the stranger in your midst be to you as the native, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

In the Mix: On the Radio This Weekend

As we’ve mentioned before in other blog entries (here and here, for instance) Julie Wiener writes a compelling if controversial column for Jewish Week called “In the Mix,” in which she deals with the topic of interfaith marriages. Her pieces generate a wide range of opinions; no matter which side of the intermarriage debate one falls on, Wiener’s articles touch on pertinent points and lead to some stimulating discussions.

The progressive Jewish radio show “Beyond The Pale,” has taken notice of the In the Mix series and will be interviewing Julie Wiener this Sunday, March 11, at 12 noon. Beyond the Pale airs every week at this time on WBAI 99.5 FM, bringing a liberal Jewish perspective to dialogues about religion, culture, and politics. If you miss the first airing, the show will be available on the station’s archive page for 90 days after the initial broadcast. The show’s hosts, Esther Kaplan and Marilyn Kleinberg Neimark, will start a conversation about readers reactions to In the Mix before delving into the topic of intermarriage in general.

In a 2006 column for Jewish Week entitled “Coming Out As Intermarried,” Julie Wiener asserted, “In many ways the situation of intermarrieds in the organized Jewish community is similar to that of gays and lesbians in society at large.” Recently, though, this issue is beginning to see the light of day, and a frank and open discussion on a radio show can only help to further facilitate progress toward a more inclusive Jewish community.

Celebrating Jewish Heritage at the Steinhardt Festival

With the Jewish community becoming ever more inclusive and creating a far more complex idea of Jewish identity, it is now increasingly difficult to classify anything strictly as Jewish music. Music can be imbued with elements that reflect one’s Jewish experiences or upbringing, but the way those elements are expressed can be as varied and diverse as the modern Jewish community itself.

In light of that, the Brooklyn Academy of Music sponsored the fourth annual Steinhardt Jewish Heritage Festival, which uses music to examine the multifaceted backgrounds and experiences of those in the Jewish community. Classical works from Jewish-Argentinean composer Osvaldo Golijov are heard alongside more contemporary pieces such as Mahler’s Titan Symphony (which is heavily infused with the echoes of Jewish music Mahler learned as a child). The New York-based band Asefa even goes so far as to combine pop-like hooks, traditional Jewish instruments, and jazz rhythms. Appropriately, Asefa means “assembly” or “gathering” in Hebrew. When we discuss intermarriage, we always like to focus on talking about what new additions to the community can bring, rather than remaining exclusive and insular. Clearly, Asefa is of like mind –while maintaining a distinctly Jewish identity with their Hebrew name, they readily adopt the elements of music from other backgrounds to create an even better sound. Besides music, the Jewish Heritage Festival will also host book signings and wine tastings—something for everyone.

What is perhaps most encouraging about this to JOI, however, is the fact that the entire Jewish-themed Festival takes place within the confines of a secular environment. This low-barrier space provides a comfortable setting for Jews and their non-Jewish friends and family members to participate in Jewish culture without having to present their “Jewish bona fides” at the door. It is what we define as a Destination Jewish Culture event. Such events work well at attracting less affiliated audiences, and strengthening their Jewish identity through participation. However, for it to be an “outreach” event according to our standards, a number of additional things must occur, because the goal is to encourage a “next step.” Returning for the same event next year is fine, but perhaps if attendees are attracted to this event, there is something else going on next month in the Jewish community that they should be aware of. But who’s going to tell them about it? If Festival volunteers engage participants in personal conversations, get to know their interests, collect their names for follow-up, and offer customized invitations to a relevant next event, it’s possible that the Festival will not only be a great one-time event but serve as a portal into Jewish life that keeps its diverse audience engaged in Jewish life in the weeks and months that follow.

Coaching Outreach

Today in Madison Square Garden, the annual Big East Conference end-of-the-year basketball tournament began, unofficial signaling the start of the phenomenon known as “March Madness.” With much of the country’s attention focused on college cagers, it might be a good time to discuss how sports, with its ability to attract the interest of people of all backgrounds and classes, can be used as an agent to create conversations about more profound topics.

Author and native New Yorker Adam Shandler realized this fact, and often used a presentation he called “Jews in Sports Culture” as a lead-in to his speaking engagements. Acknowledging that sports could be a low-barrier topic with broad appeal, Shandler would use the presentation to draw in an audience before launching into his main subject, while still not losing sight of the Jewish culture angle.

One of Shandler’s recent books, entitled Coaching Ira, attempts to meld the themes of religion and basketball into one story. The book deals with the trials and tribulations of Ira Korbman, a middle-aged dentist who finds himself in the unenviable position of coaching a United Synagogue Youth (USY) basketball team. While the team is populated with a standard collection of two-dimensional and somewhat clichéd characters, Shandler takes great pains to ensure that the squad reflects a wide range of backgrounds and cultures. In fact, the team’s star (Abraham Dadi) is an Ethiopian Jew, drawing attention to an important but often unrecognized population within the Jewish world.

In addition to utilizing the characters to impart messages, Shandler allows basketball to serve as a catalyst for discussions about religion. For instance, what happens when Ira’s co-ed team finds itself about to tip-off against an Orthodox squad? Since the Orthodox players all adhere to the law of shomer nagiya, which prohibits physical contact with members of the opposite sex, how, if at all, can the two teams square off fairly? This is just one example of how the juxtaposition of religion and sports can spark interesting discussions, and the book goes on, in later chapters, to use basketball as a medium to delve into the weightier issues of interfaith dating and anti-Semitism.

The overriding theme, however, and the one that has the most resonance for those in the outreach world, is the way that the cohesion of the team serves as a metaphor for “welcoming the stranger.” While Ira’s team may be populated by an impossibly diverse cast of characters, Shandler felt the need to do this in order to impart a deeper message. “People can come together from different backgrounds and as long as they are unified, they’ll eventually achieve their goal,” says Shandler. “That’s really the core of the book.”

“Welcoming the Stranger” in Stand-up Comedy

Saturday night I attended a performance by the comedian Yisrael Campbell with several friends at an event held by Kehilat Hadar, an independent egalitarian prayer group. Campbell’s routine centered around his three conversions to Judaism—first Reform, then Conservative, then Orthodox, and how he was welcomed by various Jewish communities.

He talked about his frustration about there being a member rate and a non-member rate for the Introduction to Judaism class that was offered in his area. He was then additionally confused when, in his attempt to join a synagogue to get the lower rate, many synagogues told him he couldn’t join until he converted. Campbell had his share of positive experiences as well as negative ones. He highlighted the warmth and beauty of the welcome he received into the Los Angeles Reform Jewish community, the joy of discovered Shabbat dinners with a Conservative family that graciously invited him for every Friday, and his attempts to kasher his kitchen under the supervision of an Orthodox rabbi. That rabbi told him that because Campbell had “only” had a Conservative conversion, his kitchen would only be counted as kosher if he exclusively cooked accompanied by someone who was a Jew according to Orthodox standards, only made one-ingredient meals (“Anyone want to come over for broccoli? We’ll have frozen broccoli pops for dessert!” offered Campbell), or had an Orthodox conversion.

Campbell’s routine succeeded in both being exceedingly hilarious and in educating his audience (in this case mostly involved Jews) about how it can feel to be an outsider in the Jewish community. By humorously recounting ways he had been made to feel included (such as by being placed on the board of his synagogue) and excluded, Campbell helped his audience understand how vital it is to truly “welcome the stranger”—and made me wonder if JOI could start charging high admission prices to our training sessions if we promised to tell more jokes.

Public Space Partying on Purim

While it’s well-known that Purim this year fell on March 3rd at sundown, a lesser-known holiday also occurred on the same day: of course, I speak of the all-important festival known as “Rolling Rock Beer Day.”

In reference to the “33” that appears on each bottle of Rolling Rock, the company, appropriately, dubbed the third of March the brand’s official day, and planned a number of promotions, giveaways, and other forms of publicity around this synthetic “event.”

The reason why the number 33 appears on Rolling Rock bottles, however, is still hotly debated (though perhaps not in scholarly circles). Apocryphal stories abound, while Rolling Rock remains mum on the issue. In truth, the company has more to gain by guarding its secret than by revealing anything. The real reason is more than likely unexciting; it’s far more interesting (and lucrative) to let people imagine and talk about the hidden meaning behind the number, since that generates publicity and the highly-sought element of “buzz” that marketers aim for.

Asking hypothetical questions, no matter how peculiar, can always lead to some interesting discussions. In light of that, I’m going to ask this question: is it more than just a coincidence that Rolling Rock Beer Day occurs close to Purim every year? After all, as has explained, many people consider it nearly obligatory to drink on Purim, even finding references in the Talmud to support the idea. Could the tradition of imbibing on Purim have led to the company’s choice of a day in March?

Probably not, but Rolling Rock’s strategy of conjuring an ersatz holiday and then using that day to try to attract customers is something we could possibly learn from as we think about outreach best practices. We are even more fortunate because we already have an actual holiday to work with! Purim, unlike Rolling Rock Beer day, isn’t some two-year-old marketing scheme but in fact a centuries-old cultural celebration. With that advantage in hand, why not try something like a wine tasting event in the foyer of a public building during the week leading up to Purim? In the spirit of Public Space Judaism, not only will the event be accessible to all, but marketing can be done secularly as well. Though the list of event sponsors may include JCCs and synagogues, they may also include local wineries or vineyards, creating a perfect low-barrier mix of Manishewitz wine, local products, and perhaps if it exists, maybe even a bottle of vintage Rolling Rock, with a cryptic “33” branded onto the cork.

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