Entries for May 2007
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The term “back room” can have various connotations depending on the cultural context in which it is used. It often refers to something clandestine, a place to meet when perhaps skirting the law. Images of cigar smoking and private poker games for high rollers come to mind. As was confirmed for me once again the other day when I was in Boston, however, the back room can also be a place where remarkably positive things occur. While browsing at the Israel Book Store, the clock struck 2 PM—time for mincha (afternoon prayer services). Obviously not the first time that I have been asked to participate in such prayer services, I was invited to the back room of the store to join a small group of men—mostly those who worked in the Brookline neighborhood—who quickly worked their way through the afternoon service, making sure that there were enough to say Mourner’s Kaddish since one among us was still observing the period of mourning and there is a requirement of at least ten for Kaddish to be said. (I realize that women were not invited, but I believe that my point is still valid.)
The brief service was led by a local Chabad rabbi. Those who assembled represented various levels of affiliation and traditional observance—even a couple of youth group boys who happened to be in the store at the time. What impressed me most, as it has anytime I have joined a “pick-up minyan (prayer quorum)” was that no-one asked who I was or where I came from or how observant I was. We were all there together in the back room forming an improvised community; I was there to participate in the creation of a kinship through prayer and therefore I was made to feel welcome. True, taking part in this makeshift mincha demanded a level of literacy. There were no page numbers on the prayer books, nor any announcements to inform those who might not know what to do next. But those are minor quibbles compared to the positives that came from joining in the services with this ad hoc minyan. That day in Boston, I once again learned the pleasure of being welcomed into a community of strangers who simply wish to share a spiritual moment—and that good things can happen in the back room.
Last night a good friend of mine sent me an e-mail with the subject line “Pretty much the only thing that’s ever made me want to go do something Jewy.” [Note: while the word “Jewy” may not be the most politically correctterm that my friend could have used, she was using it to convey colloquially a different tone than would have been achieved had she used the word “Jewish”] The e-mail contained a link to a blog post on Mah Rabu, a blog that deals with a variety of issues related to independent Jewish communities, progressive politics, physics, and basically everything else I hold dear (with the notable and tragic exception of chocolate). The post’s author, BZ, discusses his creation of a Kabbalat Shabbat (prayer service involving the singing of beautiful psalms to welcome the Sabbath) service that uses the traditional words to the Friday night liturgy sung to the tunes of the songs from the R.E.M. album Automatic to the People. According to the blogger, this inventive arrangement was a success in appealing to newcomers. BZ describes how a wide swath of people from his university turned out to attend Friday night services done to these modern tunes:
The participants in attendance had never before prayed in the same room. I learned an important lesson about Jewish pluralism: the way to get people to sit down together meaningfully is to do something entirely outside the box.
My friend’s desire to be part of this creative Jewish programming shows that blending pop culture with tradition—and other innovative twists to the liturgy—can have the power to attract those who might not be compelled by traditional synagogue services. Experimenting with tunes and liturgy are ways to draw those who may not be as interested in standard services into the Jewish community—particularly when these services are cleverly advertised in both Jewish and secular locations. BZ did not discriminate when it came to hanging posters publicizing these contemporary music-based services at his university, hoping to reach a wider and more varied audience. Is there a way you can create an event which will make someone exclaim that it is “the only thing that’s ever made [them] want to go do something Jewy?”
In the past, we’ve blogged about Hillel’s work to lower barriers, pursue social justice, and gradually shift its philosophies to a more inclusive, “Big Tent” idea of Judaism. It is gratifying, then, to see a continuation of that theme in this article chronicling the increasing amount of work Hillels at universities across the country are doing to reach out to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community. Making students feel more comfortable at their collegiate home-away-from-home is a noble cause in and of itself, but there are added benefits as well. Rabbi Mychal Copeland of Stanford University’s Hillel explains how her school uses their Jewish LGBT student group,
It’s also an engagement tool. There are students out there who identify as LGBT and don’t know that their Jewish identity can be meshed with that new identity that they are exploring. Or they come from backgrounds where it was a definite no.
“Mishpacha,” [Note: hopefully, the group explains the meaning of the term - the Hebrew word for family - to increase their chances of connecting with unengaged students] to enhance the Jewish community:
This outreach effort works on two fronts: not only are campus volunteers trying to enable LGBT students to feel more accepted as members of the overall student body, they are also attempting to draw in members of the Jewish community who may have been reluctant to participate in organized events such as Shabbat dinners or Purim spiels. By granting students of all backgrounds and orientations easier access to communal activities, Hillels around the country are working to help potentially marginalized members of the Jewish population gain a foothold in the community and, ideally, let that become their gateway to future engagement.
Earlier this week, an announcement was made that has everyone in Portland eagerly anticipating the arrival in their city of a well-known, well-traveled, and well-respected man later in the year. No, I’m not talking about potential NBA draft pick Greg Oden, but rather JOI’s own Rabbi Kerry Olitzky. Rabbi Olitzky will be in the City of Roses not to wow people with his low-post game, but rather to attempt to impart the importance of low-barrier activities to widen the tent of the Jewish community.
In January, the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland (JFGP) held a leadership meeting during which the Federation’s president Bob Philip pledged to remedy the “community fragmentation” that had divided the rabbinic, congregational and secular segments of the Jewish community in the area. To perpetuate the momentum of the January session, The JFGP has invited Rabbi Olitzky to be the Federation’s featured guest during their June 11, 2007 annual meeting.
The Federation sought a speaker who could address the topics of building community, creating welcoming institutions, and connecting to a broad spectrum of the population, and Rabbi Olitzky’s work made him a natural choice. While the first half of the meeting will be a dialogue between the Federation’s Leadership Council and Rabbi Olitzky, the second half will be open to the public. If you are in the Portland area on June 11th, please stop in and share your thoughts and ideas.
While some people follow the debate over intermarriage in the Jewish community in the Anglo-Jewish press, there are probably fewer among us that follow the debate in the ever-increasing number of personal blogs that are proliferating in cyberspace. In a recent posting on the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) blog, by Esther D. Kustanowitz, the well-known (and resident JTA) blogger pictured at right who also has a regular column in the (New York) Jewish Week, asks the question, “Good for the Jews? Intermarriage destroys Judaism—does intermarriage equal racism?” It is clear that she is asking the question to be provocative, although her conclusion is what struck me. Kustanowitz asks, hypothetically, if there is anything to positive to be garnered from this back-and-forth debate. In her mind, the quarrel is futile and only weakens the community as a whole:
Beneath this admittedly incendiary post title lies a language infused with violence, paranoia and blame. And whether you’re destroying Judaism or advocating racism, no one wins.
While there are serious thinkers who take opposing positions, I agree that the debate is not good for the Jewish community and therefore not helpful for Jewish continuity. We here at JOI enter unwillingly since we know that if we don’t respond, those with other opposing positions, which we deem harmful to the creation and nurturing of an inclusive Jewish community, will have the last word. If there is little to be gained by entering this inflammatory debate, perhaps Esther’s advice should be used in response to those who beg us to participate into the on-going dispute: It simply isn’t beneficial for anyone to do so, and we prefer to apply our efforts in hands-on ways that enhance our community.
One of the major tenets of JOI’s Public Space JudaismSM model is the idea that people should literally “stumble over” the Jewish community. We try to position ourselves where people are rather than waiting for them to come to us, and more often than not that requires us to go places that are entirely secular – perhaps even places that have not typically had a strong Jewish presence. By remaining educated, opening, and welcoming, however, we can ensure that we will be ready to give a positive impression and hopefully affect the lives of those we encounter in ways we might not always be able to anticipate.
Take professional hockey player Mathieu Schneider, currently playing for the Detroit Red Wings in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Though his upbringing required him to spend most of his time in the secular world of hockey camps and junior leagues (not to mention a New England-based Catholic high school known for its ability to produce NHL players), Schneider recalls that his father always made sure that the family’s Jewish heritage was respected and nurtured. As a result, Mathieu, according to a Jewish Journal article written when he played for the Los Angeles Kings, grew up with a strong sense of Jewish identity, and made efforts to engage with the Jewish community no matter where his professional life took him, whether it was Los Angeles, New York, Toronto, or Detroit. In Toronto, Schneider met his wife Shannon, and though she was not Jewish, her husband’s love for his religion rubbed off on her. The couple has taken several Hebrew classes together, and Shannon is in the process of converting to Judaism. They are also raising their children as Jews.
My colleague Rabbi Morris Allen (pictured at right participating in a recent phone-a-thon at the St. Paul, MN JCC), who lives in the Minneapolis area, has taken on those in the Orthodox community who have near hegemony over kashrut certification in the meat-packing plants and slaughterhouses local to his congregation. His activism comes as a result of the negative publicity that has appeared over the last several months concerning the questionable treatment of animals being readied for kosher slaughter. Since I am a vegetarian, the whole matter particularly troubles me. But I have to admit that Rabbi Allen’s approach is totally in the right direction. He argues that animal rights are not sufficient in the determining of kosher standards. Rather, he suggests, we must ensure that the workers in these slaughterhouses, mostly underpaid immigrants, are treated humanely as well. Thus, he proposes a new standard called “hekhsher tzedek,” which guarantees that the animals and the workers are all treated with the dignity and respect they deserve. This philosophy calls to mind Arthur Waskow’s proposal some years ago (which he called eco-kashrut) to make sure that the standards of kashrut were “green.” By keeping kosher, Jewish people can feel addressed by the mitzvot (commandments) and connect with other members of the community and with their Jewish heritage, but by incorporating the ideas of Rabbi Allen and Arthur Waskow, the kosher dietary laws take on the added significance of advancing the cause of tikkun olam (“healing the world,” the Jewish notion of social justice).
As someone who keeps kosher and is supportive of maintaining kosher dietary laws, especially as a daily spiritual discipline, I wonder whether Rabbi Allen’s approach might be appealing to those on the periphery, especially to those who might not previously have thought about kashrut at all. Those who may not have considered keeping kosher may be inspired to do so as a result of the social justice element hekhsher tzedek injects into the practice. Could we position a kosher dietary standard that is righteous to all involved as a way of reaching those on the periphery?
In this month’s installment of Julie Wiener’s In the Mix column in the (New York) Jewish Week, she reviews yet another challenge in interfaith families: the difficult questions often posed by curious young children too young to understand all of the identity intricacies resplendent in intermarriage.
To a child being raised Jewishly, it might be difficult to understand why a loving parent who happens to come from another religious background is classified as an “other.” When that parent is fully supportive of their child’s Jewish upbringing, it can be confusing to a young person when that parent is nevertheless portrayed as a stranger by the Jewish community. If Judaism is defined by the way people live, then surely this parent would be considered Jewish. It is unrealistic, of course, to expect children to be able to comprehend such thorny issues at such an early age. It is hard enough for those of us who are adults to understand. As Julie says about her daughter Ellie:
At 3 ½ years old, she knows nothing about matrilineal or patrilineal descent, nor has she any clue about what is recognized by the State of Israel—or for that matter, what exactly Israel is.
Later, Julie laments that, armed with her newfound knowledge that she is Jewish and some of her friends are not, young Ellie has taken to classifying everyone in her life as either “Jewish” or “Christian.” Julie worries about how much further complicated matters would become “by elaborating on Islam, Buddhism and the myriad of other religions represented just within our ZIP code.”
That point underscores the fact that the issue many families face is really about what to tell the children, especially when they are young and not yet able to grasp the nuances of daily life and certainly not the complications of Jewish communal life.
Perhaps the best thing to do is to reframe the conversation, and move from “Who is a Jew?” to “Who is a member of the Jewish community?” That will allow us to move toward a situation where children are not inclined to look upon parents from other religious backgrounds as being “outsiders” nor will the rest of the Jewish community. By welcoming the stranger, we will help both parent and child and ensure that everyone assisting in the valuable endeavor of raising Jewish children finds their rightful place in the Jewish community.
While America’s British roots are evident in some ways, a recent report entitled “Jews in Britain: A Snapshot from the 2001 Census” shows in a microcosm just how far apart the two countries have grown in certain aspects. The report, based on a 2001 study that was one of the first ever of this kind, reveals that the British Jewish family doesn’t look like it once looked. And while the American Jewish community is really a reflection of what is taking place in the American community, this seems not to be the case in Great Britain. In England, the Jewish population shows even less of an adherence to the traditional “nuclear family model” than the British population as a whole. Outreach efforts in the United States tend to focus on making interfaith or “multi-faith” (as is often the case when discussing extended families) feel welcomed, but it appears that perhaps in Britain, outreach efforts should also incorporate activities to attract those living outside of the constructs of the typical nuclear family.
Out of all of the interesting statistics, however, perhaps the most significant was one that dealt with couples. Of the respondents who were part of a couple (either married or cohabitating), 72% reported having a Jewish partner, while only 19% had a partner from another religious background. However, those numbers change drastically when we look only at the responses of those couples who reported living together without being married. Of those cohabiting, 68% were living with a partner who was not Jewish. Presumably this represents a younger cohort. So even if Great Britain could technically claim a lower intermarriage rate than other Jewish communities in Europe or in North America, the “interfaith cohabitation rate” is a telltale sign of Britain’s own “coming majority” of interfaith families. With these numbers in hand, however, we can make sure we are adequately prepared for demographic changes that we may not have foreseen here in the United States. Perhaps in Britain, the implications of this study will help us realize that now is the time to prepare welcoming institutions rather than waiting to find that, in future generations, those who wish to enter the community who have interfaith or non-traditional backgrounds are feeling marginalized. We have data now that can inform our decisions – let’s be sure to decide to be proactive rather than reactive when it comes to reaching out to those on the periphery.
JOI’s associate executive director Paul Golin and director of development Richard Heimler accompanied me to Chevy Chase, Maryland the other night to participate in an evening sponsored by Jerry and Joelle Hamovit. Jerry is a member of the JOI President’s Advisory Board. Most of those in attendance represent a generation that came to learn about the subject of intermarriage through their adult children. We focused our conversation on the local Washington, DC community and how its institutions—particularly its synagogues and their rabbis—were relating to their intermarried family members. Nearly each person shared a story, often a painful one, about how the community responded to—better, didn’t respond to—the specific needs of their adult children or grandchildren of intermarriage. What occurred to me repeatedly during this lively discussion, as it has occurred to me in the past, is the ripple effect that we are experiencing. While we know about the large number of interfaith families who are not engaged in the Jewish community, this conversation drove home once again what we at JOI have been talking about for several years. When one’s children are pushed away, whether the children are adults or adolescents, the parents, regardless of their former involvement in the organized Jewish community, feel inclined to pull back as well.
The ironic thing is that the cycle can be halted by simply reaching out and welcoming in. And when you do, you can reach two—perhaps three—generations at the same time.
I remember the feeling I felt some years ago when Edgar Bronfman addressed a major gathering of Jewish communal leaders when the STAR (Synagogues: Transformation And Renewal) initiative was announced. There was an audible gasp when Edgar shared his feelings (or, perhaps more appropriately, his criticisms) about synagogue life. He found the worship experience generally boring and uninspired—not to mention uninspiring. Since many in attendance were pulpit rabbis, it came as no surprise that, overall, the audience did not agree with his assessments.
Recently, Edgar penned an op/ed that, while not quite as critical, does encourage rabbis to experiment with those areas of worship that seem to be the most challenging for people in attendance or potentially in attendance—beginning with the length of the morning service and the accessibility of the Torah reading. Just as I found myself among the few who concurred with his comments some years ago, I found myself again agreeing with much of what he had to say:
I always say that the work that we do at JOI is probably among the most challenging that I have ever done in my 26 years as a rabbi. It is also the most rewarding. Perhaps it is because of the complex dilemmas inherent in our work: assisting interfaith couples, their children and their families, all while attempting to be mindful of each individual family’s unique construction and concerns. This challenge is probably most apparent as we work with grandparents of interfaith grandchildren, especially when their own adult children are not partners with them in the raising of Jewish (grand)children. We often find that traversing the generations in the context of an interfaith family can be difficult, and people are unsure of how to take steps forward without offending or hurting the other. That is why they seek our guidance and that is why Paul Golin and I penned Twenty Things for Grandparents of Interfaith Grandchildren To Do and Not to Do. It is also probably why the JCC of Manhattan invited us to share some of the wisdom contained in this book in a public presentation called “My Child Intermarried, Now What?
A Conversation about Intermarriage for Grandparents”. Please join us at the JCC of Manhattan on Thursday, May 31, 2007 at 7:00 PM. The JCC is located at 334 Amsterdam Ave. at 76th Street in New York City. This issue promises to grow as the population of interfaith families in the Jewish community continues to grow. We would appreciate the benefits of your insights and experiences in the discussion. We are happy to share with you what we have learned. We hope you will be willing to do so the same.
As part of our Hillel Strategic Initiative, sponsored by the Samuel Bronfman Foundation, Rabbi Kerry Olitzky and I participated in a Hillel conference at the scenic Pearlstone Conference Center in Reisterstown, Maryland. Our role in the conference was to introduce attendees – program professionals, rabbis, and directors at all levels – to elements of outreach methodology that are directly applicable to Hillel. We began with a session on Public Space JudaismSM: How can we lower the barriers that might keep people away and develop programs that can serve as new entry points to Jewish life? How can we engage students on the periphery by meeting them where they are though creative and engaging programming? We moved on to talk about the power of inclusive language: Which words in our marketing, program titles and conversations must we revamp in order to truly create a welcoming and inclusive Jewish community? Finally, we explored the importance of collecting names in order to transform our entry points into opportunities for future engagement. How can we obtain contact information in ways that are fun, creative and unobtrusive? How can we design a system for tracking and following-up that is systematic and strategic?
In addition to the four campuses with which we began work last year and awarded Bronfman Strategic Initiative grants to this year (University of California at Berkeley; University of Florida; University of Indiana; and University of Pittsburgh), we announced at this training conference that addtional funds would be made available to those Hillel Foundations in attendance to implement the various “best outreach practices” in which the Hillel staff members were trained at the conference. We look forward to continuing our work with Hillel and their colleagues as we move to help their outreach efforts.
For more information about engaging unengaged students in Jewish life on campus, contact us!
I am an omer counter, that is, I count down each day from the second day of Pesach until Shavuot. I know that it is a requirement of Jewish ritual, but for me, it is more than just marking the days in the midst of evening prayers. It is really a countdown that anticipates the giving of Torah at Sinai. It is a framing of the ongoing dialogue the Jewish people have had with the Divine, accented by two significant occasions at either end: Exodus—the delivery from Egypt—and Shavuot.
I realize that for many, especially those living on the periphery of the Jewish community, feeling in sync with the rhythm of this time may be challenging. Many of the traditional activities marking Shavuot abound with insider speak, the kind that may require a level of Hebrew or Jewish cultural literacy in order to enter the conversation. But I still believe that we have witnessed a change in the nature of the holiday. This holiday of Shavuot, perhaps obscured because of its brevity (the other two so-called pilgrimage holidays are much longer) never really captured the attention of the liberal Jewish community. The Reform movement, for example, insinuated Confirmation (a ceremony borrowed from Protestant Christianity) into Shavuot in order to bolster the holiday. A large segment of the Conservative movement followed suit. But today, those same synagogues have tikkun leil Shavuot (night-long study) programs and are attracting new people to their institutions. At JOI, we have developed our own model called Up All Night which takes its cue from our notion of Public Space JudaismSM and the application of outreach best practices.
But I think that there is still more that we can and should do as this holiday continues its evolution. There exists a growing number of men and women who have cast their lot with the Jewish people, committed to raising Jewish families even when they themselves may not be Jewish—and I believe we should celebrate them. Shavuot, with its traditional requirement to read the book of Ruth (the most famous example of a person from another background choosing to join the Jewish community), seems to be the perfect holiday to do so. Just as the Jewish women’s movement has laid claim to Rosh Chodesh, perhaps those of us involved in reaching out and welcoming in those of other religious backgrounds who are part of the Jewish community, should lay claim to Shavuot. What do you think?
Along with lengthier days, greener grass, and baseball, synagogue open houses are an annual sign announcing the coming of the summer months. For synagogues and other Jewish communal institutions, these events are essential for attracting those in the community who are seeking affiliation. While open houses can provide plenty of valuable insight to those in the market for memberships, such events may not attract (and in some cases, may even repel) members who reside on the periphery of the Jewish community. For many who have been either unaffiliated or unengaged for some time, a paid membership with a synagogue or a JCC may seem like too big of a first step.
In the spirit of the idea “you have to learn to walk before you can run,” Rabbi Bridget Wynne (pictured at right) founded JGate, an El Cerrito, CA-based organization that provides low-barrier activities to help people slowly insinuate themselves back into the Jewish community. Rabbi Wynne also speaks of using outreach best practices: “The point is to enable people to enter the conversation wherever they are,” said Wynne. “I’m not assuming any Jewish knowledge or experience, and I make it clear that that is totally fine.” Most importantly, as the article shows in its final example of a man who says he now has more positive feelings toward Judaism, JGate is helping people find sufficient answer to the question “Why should I want to be Jewish?” while advancing us toward the idea of creating a “Big Tent Judaism”. It is always important to remember, though, that for many people, a synagogue membership is not necessarily their preferred way to celebrate their Jewish heritage. There are ways to express and enhance one’s Jewish identity through engagement and other activities that do not necessarily involve affiliation, and outreach helps by providing additional options to attract those for whom institutional membership is not a priority.
As a result of their participation in low-barrier groups such as JGate, people may be more likely to be receptive to the membership drives and open houses our Jewish communal institutions offer every summer. Of greater importance, however, is that whether they decide to proceed down the affiliation route or not, people are nevertheless more likely to remain engaged with the Jewish community for years down the road thanks to the positive “Jewish memories” created by outreach and programs like JGate.
When discussing interfaith matters, we should not forget that in the 21st Century, the Jewish community benefits from the presence of a growing number of “ready-made” allies and supporters from other religious backgrounds.
The most recent op/ed by Rabbi Olitzky, published in the NJ Jewish News, speaks to this issue. Jewish communal institutions have spent time and money in the past reaching out to the non-Jewish population in an effort to increase tolerance and allow for more mutually beneficial interaction between the Jewish community and other segments of the population. JOI’s executive director goes on to point, out, however, that:
In an effort to find friends in the community to make their work easier, we are missing the proverbial answer that is right in front of us: all of the non-Jewish relatives of those who have intermarried. These relatives can seamlessly be incorporated into Jewish celebrations and life-cycle events, and we know we can count on them to support us.
We are all concerned about Jewish survival, and we all have ideas for preserving our culture and bolstering our society as a whole. It is comforting to consider, though, as this article states, that recent phenomena such as the growing rate of intermarriage may actually enhance rather than diminish the strength of the Jewish community.
As a child growing up in Illinois, I knew that the first Monday in March was different from all other Mondays – but I wasn’t entirely sure why. Every year, the first Monday in March provided a welcome respite from school, due to something called “Casimir Pulaski Day.”
I didn’t know the story behind the holiday, but curiously, no-one at my grammar school seized on the “teachable moment” created by this obscure observance. Everyone was content to simply enjoy a long weekend without mentioning the Revolutionary Era hero it recognized.
At times, it may seem as if Shavuot is the Jewish holiday equivalent – it often comes and goes somewhat quietly, and many seem uncertain as to the exact origins and current relevance of the day. For that reason, JOI has a section devoted to the story of Shavuot as well as some of its traditions and themes.
In a certain sense, diversity means having the ability to see the world from the perspective of someone from a completely different background and respecting their viewpoint. The Israeli film Ha-Buah (which will be known by its English title “The Bubble” when it is released in the United States in September 2007) attempts to showcase a number of hot-button issues through the eyes of a broad spectrum of people. In the movie, set in Tel Aviv, we see events involving conflicts between gay and straight characters, males and females, and Arabs and Israelis. Tension is ever-present, but the conflicts are never presented in a way that could influence a viewer into believing there is a “good guy” and a “bad guy.” While much of the film is in Hebrew, a significant portion of the scenes are spoken in Arabic. There are English subtitles, of course, but the equal-opportunity dialogue underscores the way multiple points of view are presented.
The fact that the film revolves around the love between a Palestinian and an Israeli who both happen to be men is particularly noteworthy, especially on the heels of recent push by the Schusterman and Berrie Foundations to reach out to the LGBT segment of the Jewish community. Interfaith couples can sometimes find themselves pushed out to the periphery, and those in the LGBT community often experience the same treatment. When the relationship is layered (gay, Jewish/Muslim, Israeli/Palestinian), the challenge to be inclusive is even more difficult and therefore more important. Seeing positive messages about diversity in the Jewish community is always heartening, especially when, as in the case of “The Bubble”, those messages are presented to a worldwide audience. All of these positive steps add up and help us get closer to the Big Tent Jewish community that JOI, the Schusterman and Berrie Foundations, and numerous other elements of the Jewish community are working to achieve.
At JOI, we often try to stress the idea that no matter how a person came to be a part of the Jewish community or whether or not they reside at the core or on the periphery, we should always strive to provide reasons for someone to want to be Jewish or part of the Jewish community. Without discontinuing barriers entirely, we should seek ways to lower barriers to an extent that all who seek spiritual nourishment can partake in Judaism. That process of nurturing the diversity of the Jewish community involves working with the core, of course, but also reaching out to those in such demographics LGBT, Jews-by-choice, Jews of color and interfaith families.
From that perspective, Lynn Schusterman’s announcement during her address at the Graduation Ceremonies of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) on May 3rd at Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York was welcome news. After receiving an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree, the chair of the Schusterman Philanthropic Network and former member of JOI’s board of directors heralded the formation of an interdenominational rabbinic fellowship to begin in 2007. The Hevruta Fellowship, as it will be called, will recognize eight outstanding rabbinic students and allow them participate in a collaborative learning effort to help them more effective and sensitive leaders at a time when the needs and demographics of the Jewish community are changing every day. In particular, the Fellowship will assist the rabbinate in dealing with interfaith families and other members of the Jewish community who may find themselves on the periphery.
The young actress Sara Paxton (pictured at right), best known as the star of the 2006 film “Aquamarine,” spoke about the topic of “Jewish memories” in a recent interview with JVibe, a magazine aimed at Jewish teens, and a publication that we’ve commended before for its inclusive opinions and willingness to embrace the idea that the traditional notions of “who is Jewish” may no longer be entirely relevant. Paxton’s family is a microcosm of the diversity of the Jewish community that we should be more aware of – her mother was born in Mexico and raised Jewish, while her father converted to Judaism as a young adult. While hers was not the conventional Jewish household the organized community is too-often built around, Paxton still feels strong ties to her faith:
It is family…It is memories – we now laugh about – of a Passover Seder when I was very little and got yelled at for flinging the parsley…It helps people believe that there is something greater than their lives, it helps us not be so self-centered.
The “Jewish memories” from shared experiences such as Seder helped Paxton develop a relationship with her religion early on. Now, as an 18-year old, she is able to (as the second part of her quote shows) parlay that into a deeper understanding of and interest in the spiritual aspects of Judaism. Creating Jewish memories is what JOI’s programming is all about, and we try to do it a low-barrier way so that as many people can participate as possible.