Rabbi Shimon Felix, the executive director of the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel has given us permission to publish his excellent commentary on this week’s Torah portion (parsha) called Balak. The parsha, in the eyes of Rabbi Felix, carries strong messages about the need to become a more welcoming and inclusive Jewish community:
One of the challenges of Jewish education in the 21st Century is providing ways for the unengaged and unaffiliated to access sacred Jewish texts. While cultural activities such as Purim spiels and dreidel games can provide useful stepping stones for many to connect with the Jewish community, more spiritual endeavors are necessary to provide a more complete and thorough understanding of what it means to be Jewish. To those without Hebrew literacy, however, studying Jewish texts can be intimidating, especially if you have long been disconnected from the Jewish community.
We often advocate using the secular events to draw unengaged youth back into the fold, but what about using the pop culture of the 19th century as well? In May, the San Francisco Opera (SFO) announced Samson et Dalila, an opera based on the Biblical Samson and Delilah story that is one of French composer Camille Saint-Saens’s most well-known works, will be broadcast over the 3,200-square-foot high-definition scoreboard-screen that sits in AT&T Park, home of the San Francisco Giants. While there is a fee for tickets, the opera does offer free simulcasts as well, making this an extremely low-barrier activity. In an interesting twist on the outreach practices we use here at JOI, the SFO has chosen a venue where people who might normally be reticent to enter an opera house can go (sans tuxedo) and feel more comfortable. Just as we advocate holding outreach events in secular venues to appeal to the segment of the population who might feel uncomfortable walking through the doors of a Jewish communal institution, the SFO is seeking ways to appeal to those who might feel uncomfortable in the black-tie setting of an operatic theatre.
The opera itself, however, can serve as an effective catalyst to a discussion of the Book of Judges, and perhaps even spark enough of a further interest to encourage people to go back home and read more of the texts that chronicle Jewish history. Dalila’s show-stopping aria in Act II and the spine-tingling “Choeur des Vieillards hebreux” (Chorus of the Ancient Hebrews) are enough to make for an enjoyable evening by themselves, but attending the opera might have an even more profound effect by generating an interest in Jewish texts in people who might normally be inclined to avoid such reading material. If one can come away with an appreciation of both the music and a better understanding of how Samson’s hair represents his relationship with the Divine, then the evening will have been doubly successful. Perhaps it will inspire people to go back and read the original story in the Book of Judges. Toward the end of the year, as Hanukkah approaches, look for performances of Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus as another creative outlet for engaging those on the periphery with the stories of the Jewish people. What are some innovative ways you could turn these Jewish-themed operas into outreach vehicles?
The Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball team (whose website, you’ll notice, offers both Hebrew and English versions in a nod toward inclusivity) will find themselves in the “world’s most famous arena,” Madison Square Garden, to scrimmage against the New York Knicks this fall, and this gives us plenty of time to think about ways that this event might be used to attract those on the periphery.
For example, the University of Chicago’s Newberger Hillel Center found a way to use the Israeli team for programming purposes. Their event, held every Thursday afternoon in a secular venue could serve as a model for the people interested in using the team as an outreach vehicle. The scrimmage with the Knicks, also held in an eminently seculary venue that also plays host to circuses and boxing matches, has a greater potential to attract people who might be thought of as residing outside the box of what people assume is Jewish identity.
No-one is suggesting, of course, that watching Maccabi try to break out of a full-court press will somehow drive people to jump out of their seats after the game and join a synagogue. However, this game could be part of the sequence of activities that leads to greater participation in the Jewish community later on. We have seen in the past that many unaffiliated Jews are first looking for Jewish meaning outside of a traditional (synagogue or JCC) setting before they take the next steps toward becoming more involved in the organized community. Some find the meaning they seek and the impetus to explore their Jewish identities further at cultural events (which they are more likely to attend than something held at a communal institution) such as film festivals or book fairs.
Can Maccabi Tel Aviv “assist” in “rebounding” the number of actively engaged members of the Jewish community? We assume there will be Jewish organizations involved in the promotion of the event at Madison Square Garden, and their already-engaged membership will be invited. Is it a stretch to turn this an outreach program, incorporating newcomers as well as existing membership? How can you use the game as a creative outreach program to reach people on the periphery?
The simcha in question is that of JOI’s Associate Executive Director Paul Golin, who wrote about his own marriage ceremony in an article entitled “My Jewpanese Wedding.” Published last week on InterfaithFamily’s website, the piece discusses the additional issues faced by intermarriages that also qualify as “intercultural,” and strategies for making sure such ceremonies run smoothly. Paul’s wedding included a ketubah in English, Hebrew, and Japanese, and he talks about the ways he and his wife were able to bridge potential cultural divides and hold a traditional Jewish wedding that also allowed his in-laws (who come from Japan) to feel included. While life-cycle events and ceremonies can bring up a host of issues when a couple is intermarried, this article could provide some insights for ways to handle many of the challenges that arise.
Click below to take a look at the multi-lingual wedding program and ketubah.
Sociologist Bethamie Horowitz’s recent column in the Forward newspaper, “How Jews Became Not Just White Folks,” contrasts the growing interest in racial diversity among some in the organized Jewish community with the actual statistics. She writes, “While it is true that the trends are changing as a result of intermarriage, adoption and conversion, nonetheless the proportion of non-whites and Hispanics among the adult population that is ‘Jews by religion’ remains under 10%.”
With such small numbers, she wonders, “Why is racial-ethnic diversity all of a sudden on the communal agenda?”
While pointing out that “American Jewish history is hardly un-diverse,” she appears to conclude that the recent attention to racial diversity is not so much about the numbers but more about a change in “personal expression and meaning-making,” primarily among younger generations, whereby “attention to diversity is a call to widen the normative expectations normally contained in the term ‘Jewish’ so that it can begin to include a multitude of subcultures, choices and flavors.”
At JOI, we read all of Dr. Horowitz’s work with great interest and respect, as her innovative research has provided the Jewish community with a better understanding of the way Jewish identity changes over time. While we usually see eye-to-eye on issues of inclusion (here and here, for example), in this case I believe Dr. Horowitz is missing the relevance of the numbers themselves. The simple answer of statistics—and the visibility and growing influence of the population represented by those statistics—is the primary reason behind whatever interest now exists in the organized community about racial diversity.
With affiliation rates low and intermarriage rates high, many cities are finding that successful outreach programs are essential to a vibrant Jewish community. Now that the majority of the Jewish population spends more time outside the walls of the community’s institutions, however, the task of reaching the unengaged and unaffiliated has become more difficult.
In light of this fact, the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland (JFGP) invited JOI’s Executive Director Rabbi Kerry Olitzky to give presentations both to the JFGP Leadership Council and at the JFGP annual meeting on June 11th so that he could provide assistance to outreach efforts that Portland had already initiated.
Rabbi Olitzky stressed the importance of effective “gatekeepers,” the people with whom newcomers have first contact. Friendly and welcoming gatekeepers can make an institution seem less imposing and allow people who might initially be uncomfortable in the setting of a Jewish communal institution to feel more at home. Rather than serving a sentinel who tries to keep people out, gatekeepers for synagogues and JCCs should help to bring people in. Rabbi Olitzky suggested other ways to lower the barriers that impede engagement:
Location and time barriers can be circumvented by making effective use of JOI’s Public Space JudaismSM model , which stresses “unplanned participation” in public venues. Ideally, the target audience will come across the event and use it as a springboard into greater engagement (and possibly affiliation) with the Jewish community. Rabbi Olitzky also discussed lowering prices for non-members who wish to attend synagogue and JCC-run events in an effort to raze the ever-present cost barrier that many people face. “If you are (already) committed to an institution, you are willing to pay for it,” he said, stressing the need to win over those who might not be inclined to participate in such events to begin with and might be further turned off by high ticket prices.
The City of Portland has show in recent years that they can develop innovative solutions to complex problems using methods other towns might not have considered. With the progress made at the JFGP’s annual conference, Portland’s Jewish community appears to poised reap similar rewards and stay ahead of the curve when it comes to creative programming techniques and outreach to the intermarried and unengaged.
Everyone knows about Matisyahu by now, who made a name for himself by infusing Jewish messages into the unlikely medium of reggae. Operating under the same marketing strategy, we have seen (especially in the Tri-State area) a surprising number of Jewish rappers who write about the New York City urban experience. Now, however, we have a response from the West Coast – Northridge, California, that is.
Just as the rappers, reggae artists, and hip hop groups have set themselves apart by melding their Jewish identities with unlikely backup tracks, Mare Winningham has released an album of Jewish songs with a country-and-western sound. The Jewish community continues to evolve as it incorporates more and more people from backgrounds that could be viewed as being somewhat different from our traditional notions of “who is a Jew.” As the community evolves, so does the culture, and never is that more clearly articulated than at a concert where the audience members sport as many kippahs as cowboy hats.
Growing up, one of the first lessons my mother taught me was, “A joke isn’t funny if it hurts someone.” Some people (Don Imus comes to mind) learn that lesson late in life, and often the hard way. What one person thinks is high comedy might be viewed as low-brow by another, and determining what is and is not funny remains an inexact science (that’s why it’s called a “sense” of humor and not a “humor algorithm”).
At JOI, we feel that shirts like this and this are decidedly unfunny. The politics of language can be a slippery slope, and we are not calling for these shirts to be burned en masse in a public place (our environmentalist friends at Hazon would have something to say about the pollution that would create), but we would simply like to point out that jokes such as the ones printed on these shirts aren’t funny because they hurt people – often, people who play important roles in the Jewish community.
Stanley Womack, Executive Secretary of Resisting Defamation has written that not only is the literal translation of the word shiksa (”unclean animal; loathsome creature, abomination”) hate-filled, the word also has taken on a colloquial meaning (”Christian whore”) in Europe and North America that is not only offensive but divisive as well. In this era, countless Jewish families have members who either are or were originally from a Christian background, and using terms like shiksa only serves to isolate those women, many of whom have cast their lot with the Jewish community and work extremely hard to feel accepted (and often even raise Jewish children). Some might think that the word shiksa only affects those outside of the Jewish community, but in the 21st century, such a term could easily be applied to a woman who spends her time shul shopping, enrolling her kids in Hebrew school, and creating a Jewish household. Hurting her and driving her away would be a terrible loss for the Jewish community, and the few chuckles garnered by those shirts certainly are not worth it.
Parashat Korach, a recent Torah portion, revolves around the problems caused by dissent and challenges to authority. The Torah presents the issue of dissent as being one that is often affected by variables: are the dissenters presenting reasoned, valid arguments? Is the leadership in question wise, fair, and just? Dissent can either have disastrous effects or create long-term positive gains depending on a variety of factors.
This portion is particularly timely given the debate taking place in the Reform community (chronicled in detail by the New York Jewish Week) surrounding the ever-divisive topic of intermarriage. Rifts between the rabbinate and lay leaders are forming in some communities, with a rabbi from upstate New York going so far as to say, “It runs the risk of changing the self-definition of the movement,” which may find itself split into “two very distinct camps.”
This bisecting of the Reform community puts the rabbinate between the proverbial rock and a hard place. JOI’s executive director Rabbi Kerry Olitzky is quoted in the article as well, stating, “It’s harder for Reform rabbis,” since the demands of congregations (due to the changing demographics of the Jewish community) can often run counter to the official “traditional” stance of the Reform movement. The Central Conference of American Rabbis has stated that “mixed marriage is contrary to the Jewish tradition and should be discouraged” while emphasizing its “opposition to participation by its members in any ceremony which solemnizes a mixed marriage.”
Now, however, congregations are viewing rabbis who refuse to preside over intermarriage as being less than ideal for meeting the needs of the evolving Jewish community that they are hired to serve. It seems that we have not one but two rebellions occurring simultaneously. The Reform rabbinate discourages intermarriages, but many liberal rabbis feel that such an exclusionary practice is unjust, and perform interfaith ceremonies regardless. On the other side are rabbis who reject the de facto laws of the lay leaders and refuse to participate in intermarriages despite a synagogue’s stance that such ceremonies are acceptable.
At the root of Korach’s rebellion, as described in this week’s Torah portion, was a question that we could pose thusly: should the community – and collective contemporary wisdom – play a role in defining Judaism, or are certain tenets set in stone? Korach’s challenge to Moses’s authority, while in truth a thinly-veiled power grab, still did invoke the idea that the community should have a say (in a democratic sense) in how they are led. The counter to that is the belief that the Torah and Jewish law (Halakhah) are clear and precise, and adherence to both is compulsory.
The question we now face is, how do we reconcile these differences that drive a wedge between the rabbinate and the lay leaders and make the solution acceptable to both sides?
Talk about a good deal. The Signature Theater Company, an Off Broadway theater in New York City, will be offering $20 tickets to all of its plays for the next four seasons. And not just any plays. It will feature shows by noted playwrights Edward Albee, Charles Mee, Suzan-Lori Parks and Tony Kusnher.
You may be thinking, “What’s the catch? Do I have to be a student or under 12 years old to qualify?” There is absolutely no catch. All tickets for all theater-goers cost the same $20.
Like with the theater, cost is often a barrier for those who may be interested in trying out programs in the Jewish community but do not yet feel committed enough to pay a lot. High costs also may prevent students and those new to the workforce from participating. So why not lower costs? With the help of a commercial sponsor, Signature was able to charge a lower ticket fee and therefore engage more new and young audience members in their productions. The New York Times reports:
“We worked very hard to reach audiences and communities that just don’t think about going to the theater because they’ve been priced out,” Mr. Houghton said at a news conference.
We recommend that Jewish institutions offering programs with mass appeal—concerts, art fairs, films or food festivals—consider lowering (or doing away with) admission fees. Discounts for specific populations are a good way to start, but if possible, lower prices across the board. You never know who you might attract when you lower or remove a barrier to participation. Cost is only one obstacle to attracting newcomers (timing and location are other barriers to consider), but it is a great way to open your doors!
Throughout Jewish history, fathers have had it rough. Abraham’s story is filled with tensions with his father. Jacob’s sons bickered with each other for his blessing, eventually leading to one of them being sold into slavery (and spawning a musical, of course). Even advocating for the idea of patrilineal descent could cause strife in the Jewish community depending upon your audience. Then there’s the oft-repeated joke about the boy who comes home from school and announces that he’s won a role in the school play, and will be portraying a Jewish father. At that, his mother angrily phones the school’s drama teacher and yells, “You give my boy a speaking part or I will withdraw him from your class.”
So it seems as if Jewish fathers already face an uphill battle. Imagine, then, how much more difficult it can be to play the role of Jewish father when you yourself are not even Jewish. The Mothers Circle provides support for women of other religious backgrounds who find themselves in similar predicaments, and JOI is working on forming a Grandparents Circle to help grandparents in interfaith families deal with their own set of challenges. As this very interesting article by a congregant of Temple Chai in Phoenix, Arizona shows, however, there are plenty of dads who come from other backgrounds raising Jewish children. The particular father who penned the article lends some helpful insight into ways that other men in his situation can help reconcile many of the differences that might impede a happy and cohesive interfaith household. Let’s help them feel as if they’re not in it alone, though. A great thing to do this Father’s Day would be to honor all of the men who have taken on the admirable task of raising Jewish children, and to thank them for what they do. Take the time to honor a father (it is one of the many mitzvot, after all) and let him know you notice and appreciate all of his hard work.
Former President Bill Clinton once promised to create a “cabinet that looks like America” to serve during his time in the Oval Office. It is in that spirit that Keruv (Hebrew translation: “bringing people closer”) committees are formed, groups of individuals within a synagogue’s congregation from different backgrounds and segments of the population who come together to try to keep their institution abreast of any demographic changes.
Putting together a Keruv committee is no small endeavor, and before a committee can even be formed a synagogue must first inculcate all staff members and volunteers in their employ with a language of inclusion under which the entire institution operates. Only after that is in place can the even more labor-intensive task of forming the actual committee begin. Fortunately, Rabbi Charles Simon, Executive Director of the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs (FJMC) has initiated the Keruv Project as a way to ensure that Conservative synagogue communities can meet the needs of the Jewish community in the 21st century, even in light of the ever-changing demographics of the population.
Based on information culled from the 2001 National Jewish Population Study, the Project operates under the assumption that the future of the Jewish community must include interfaith families and the children of intermarriage, while also serving those who come from more of what could be termed “traditional” Jewish backgrounds. Note how the graphic to the right pays tribute to tradition through its use of Hebrew, but at the same time makes gestures of inclusivity by including English characters and also providing an explicitly welcoming message to interfaith families. The image serves as an example (in a microcosm) of the balance that Keruv committees seek to strike in bringing together all facets of the 21st century Jewish community.
Al Simon, President of the Beth El Ner Tamid Synagogue in Wisconsin, gives the Project his own endorsement when he writes,
It is the hope of our Men’s Club Federation that thoughtful men and women of our movement will reflect the spirit of the mitzvah- “And you shall welcome the stranger among you.
Rabbi Charles Simon has now begun publishing “The Kiruv Papers,” which will serve as manuals for creating effective committees. You can read more about this initiative on the FJMC website. It is always a welcome sign to see the Conservative movement taking another important step forward in the “evolution” that Rabbi Jerome Epstein first announced in 2005.
There are numerous people with whom I disagree, particularly about issues relevant to the future of the North American Jewish community and intermarriage. Professor Jack Wertheimer is indeed one of them. That is why it is fascinating to see his debate with Joey Kurtzman in this week’s daily installments on www.Jewcy.com. Kurtzman himself is an adult child of intermarriage (as are many of the staffers at Jewcy) and although his self-definition of Jewish identity is far from typical, the fact of the matter is, Kurtzman still does identify himself as Jewish. This is just more indisputable evidence that, despite Professor Wertheimer’s strongest objections, intermarriage can and does produce children who actively engage with and support the Jewish community.
Take a look at the evolving debate and draw your own conclusions. Obviously, here at JOI we have already done so.
I was out of town for this past Shabbat. Whenever I find myself in a new city, my normal procedure is to check out local synagogues. Naturally, I was thrilled to learn that there was a synagogue close to my hotel—with Reform services on Friday night and Conservative services on Saturday morning, according to the synagogue’s website. Even the times were included. Since I was unfamiliar with the neighborhood, I tried calling the synagogue just to be sure that I was clear about the location. No one answered the phone (and there was no information on its answering message) but fortunately I was able to obtain directions from a helpful hotel concierge.
At about 9:30 on Saturday morning—the stated starting time for the service—I arrived at the synagogue. The parking lot was chained shut—so I assumed perhaps that the congregation was more traditional than I had anticipated. I climbed over the chain and walked through the empty parking lot. That should have been my clue.
I located the front door to the synagogue—only to find it locked. There was no sign on the door. Nothing about times for services or contact information.
So here is my dilemma: do I let it go or do I contact the congregation and let its leadership know what transpired? Obviously, I will not be going back to the synagogue until I happen to find myself in that community again. This experience won’t negatively impact on my engagement with the Jewish community or make me hesitant to attend other synagogues. But I worry about others whose ties to the Jewish community are perhaps more tenuous than my own. Perhaps if they had a similar experience, they might not be going back at all.
Knocked Up is a romantic comedy about a woman who becomes pregnant after a misplaced modifier during a one-night stand (you’ll have to see the movie to understand). The movie follows the trials and tribulations of the soon-to-be mother and father as they deal with their unlikely relationship.
Seth Rogen plays potential daddy Ben Stone in the movie. Several times throughout the movie, the dialogue uses Ben’s Jewish heritage as the basis for a punch line. At one point, Ben and a group of Jewish friends banter with another about how they would never choose that friend to be part of the “Chosen People.” Or better, Ben attributes the attention his group is getting at the bar to the goodwill created by people associating Jewish men with “Eric Bana in Munich.” In yet another example, Katherine Heigl, who plays potential mommy Alison Scott, asks if Ben uses any product in his hair—he replies, “Jew” (cf. Jew-fro joke in 40-Year Old Virgin).
The humor is of the “laugh with us” variety and not the “laugh at us” type, per se. But Ben’s Jewish heritage is still a very important part of the movie. Among all of the challenges discussed in the movie, the topic of religion and religious identity is never broached. Yes, it would seem that Ben is a secular Jew, but he is someone of strong Jewish identity. And his Jewishness seems to be accepted carte blanche.
It very well could be that the writers had no interest in delving into the religious squabbles of the couple, but there is even a reference to a rabbi and a mohel after the birth (again, you’ll have to see the movie to understand why that is even funnier). Religion is an ever-present theme in the script.
Perhaps we’ve reached a point in the entertainment industry where such differences between people no longer matter. We’d like to think that perhaps the entertainment industry is subtly suggesting to the world that an interfaith couple can work—and will work.
Among those who work on issues of Jewish identity and assimilation, including at JOI, it has long been accepted as a given that one of the many factors leading to greater Jewish assimilation (or integration, as we prefer to see it) is the overall decline in anti-Semitism in America since the end of World War II. Jews no longer suffer from job or housing discrimination or college quota systems, so we are able to live just like everybody else. The traditional Jewish neighborhoods—which were basically ghettos—have given way to the suburbs where Jews work and play with non-Jews, leading to the rise in intermarriage rates. In fact, today many families of other religious backgrounds would feel comfortable or even proud to welcome a Jewish in-law into their family.
Even from JOI’s opponents, who believe the community should dedicate all its efforts to preventing intermarriage rather than welcoming the intermarried, I have never heard any of them pine wistfully for the “good old days” of anti-Semitism to keep us together. And yet, in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal, a UCLA law professor named Eugene Volokh offers an opinion suggesting that “Modest amounts of anti-Semitic speech and unfair criticism of Israel, it seems to me, can strengthen American Jews’ self-identity as Jews, and thus indirectly both support the preservation of the American Jewish community as a community, and strengthen support for Israel. Feeling embattled as a group tends to strengthen group solidarity.”
It seems to me that Mr. Volokh, as a self-described “relatively assimilated Jew,” cannot think of a single reason why Jews would want to still be Jewish other than to fight for their own survival. To what end? If fighting anti-Semitism is the sole reason keeping Judaism going, then let’s let it fade into the dustbin of history. For me, a non-religious Jew who nevertheless finds great pride and meaning in my people’s history and contributions to humanity, I don’t need an anti-Semite telling me why I should care about my fellow Jews’ wellbeing or continue working to make sure my own people serve positively among the community of nations. Just because surviving against anti-Semitism helped keep Jews together in the past doesn’t mean that we should hope for continued (albeit “light”) anti-Semitism in the future! Let’s instead strengthen the many other things also keeping us together: meaning, value, love, and our unique mission of tikkun olam: repairing the world. Part of that mission is the complete eradication of anti-Semitism, racism, and all other forms of senseless hatred.
It might sound strange at first, but podcasts and outreach best practices have very similar origins. Like podcasts and TiVo, outreach efforts are often designed to maximize an audience by allowing people to enjoy certain things where they are, on their own schedule. Podcasts (similar to radio programs, except they can be downloaded, saved, and played at home on a CD or media player at a later time) enable listeners to hear their favorite radio programs when they are ready. By allowing a person to download a broadcast when it airs, but listen to it on their own time, podcasts have helped to popularize numerous shows and personalities who otherwise may have been relegated to unappealing timeslots. Savvy performers use podcasts to help them go out and reach people proactively rather than waiting for someone to happen to come across them on the radio.
Using podcasts to reach those on the periphery of the Jewish community seems only natural, then. As explained in this Jewish Forward article by Elish Sauers entitled “Online Outreach,” podcasts are beginning to be used as outreach vehicles. There are people who may not feel comfortable setting foot inside a communal institution or who find the costs of certain activities or affiliations prohibitive. Podcasting creates a low-barrier way for anyone who wishes to connect to the Jewish community to do so. Perhaps just as importantly, they can do so at a time when they’re ready – people can hear a d’var Torah, or perhaps prayer songs on their CD or mp3 players while they drive, walk, or ride the train to work. Using this new technology to reach people where they are creates all new opportunities for connecting with people on the perimeter of the Jewish community.
In the fall of 2003, the Brooklyn Museum of Art exhibited ‘’The Jewish Journey: Frédéric Brenner’s Photographic Odyssey,'’ a series of photographs of Jews from all over the world. Brenner’s photographs were displayed in conjunction with the publishing of his photography book Diaspora: Homelands in Exile.
The New York Times review of the exhibit stated:
Brenner’s photography gives a whole new meaning to “looking Jewish.”
One of the most beautiful aspects of Judaism is its diversity. Jews have always been burdened by being stereotyped, yet even (and in some cases, especially) within the Jewish community, we have a tendency to tell those who do not have Eastern European looks, “Funny, you don’t look Jewish.”
It can be insulting and isolating to be told that you don’t look like a Jew. JOI’s Associate Executive Director Paul Golin attended the Jewish Multiracial Network’s conference last weekend where he learned the WISE approach for when one encounters racism:
While some may argue that is it important to educate when encountering racism, others may be so hurt by racist comments or actions that ignoring or walking away is a more palatable option. Regardless of the way you way you personally respond to racism, we need to educate the Jewish community as a whole that telling someone “funny, you don’t look Jewish” is just not funny.
I have given a great deal of thought lately to the tension between public life cycle events in the community (such as bar and bat mitzvah) and the attempts to privatize them. Over the course of the last year, I have attended b’nai mitzvah in which all those in assembly had been personally invited to the event. In other words, it was a private affair and while the congregation did not have a policy de jure regarding such exclusive events, it certainly was the de facto rule of the congregation to allow them to take place. Services were still held on Saturday morning; they were simply held separately.
This past Shabbat I attended a bat mitzvah during which the rabbi of the congregation stressed that each celebration had to be a celebration of community. His statement served to emphasize the point that throughout history no matter what has happened to the Jewish people, we have survived. It is true that the rabbi contextualized the message in the midst of a Holocaust reference (something that I think undermines somewhat the value of the point he was trying to make) but his point is nevertheless still valid.
It is too easy to invoke shtetl nostalgia and bemoan the loss of “the old days,” when entire communities gathered to celebrate the life cycle events of individual families. (We still see a remnant of this in kibbutz life in Israel.) We can’t recapture that period of our history even if we wanted to do so.
Still, with rising intermarriage rates leading to a growing number of interfaith families who wish to celebrate life cycle events in the context of the synagogue, I got to thinking: perhaps we should strive to make these celebrations into communal and not private affairs. After all, when an interfaith family chooses to raise Jewish children and celebrate life cycle events (something that our Call Synagogue Home project—in partnership with STAR—is attempting to nurture), it is a statement both about the family and the inclusive nature of the community. Insisting on making these rites celebrations of community is not an appeal to nostalgia, but rather a way to ensure that these interfaith families feel like full-fledged members of the Jewish community. It announces that the family is indeed committed to joining us on our collective journey and that we welcome them as equal partners. This is an important affirmation, and should not be a private affair but rather something that the entire community sees and celebrates.
So at the next event in your community, especially when it celebrates the life cycle event of an interfaith family in the midst of the Jewish community, consider yourself invited.
Does it mean anything that the new president of France has Jewish roots?
According to Raanan Eliaz, “France’s new president, Nicolas Sarkozy, lost 57 members of his family to the Nazis and comes from a long line of Jewish and Zionist leaders and heroes.”
Eliaz writes that in an interview from 2004, Sarkozy “expressed an extraordinary understanding of the plight of the Jewish people for a home: ‘Should I remind you the visceral attachment of every Jew to Israel, as a second mother homeland? There is nothing outrageous about it. Every Jew carries within him a fear passed down through generations, and he knows that if one day he will not feel safe in his country, there will always be a place that would welcome him. And this is Israel.’”
Will this be an occasion in Jewish history where an intermarriage (in the case of Sakozy, of his grandfather) will, in fact, lead to the uplifting of the Jewish community (in France) and help to develop closer ties with Israel?