It’s hard to believe that the High Holidays are just around the corner! For many Jewish households, including many intermarried families, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are opportunities for reconnecting with the organized Jewish community—perhaps for the only times all year. As Jewish communal professionals and lay leaders, this is our time to show how welcoming and inclusive the Jewish community can be. If you are a communal professional or lay leader, what are you doing to maximize the outreach potential of this High Holiday season? JOI wants to help you in this endeavor, so we cordially invite you to join us next Friday (August 3rd) at 1:00 PM (EASTERN) for a free conference call:
MAKING THE MOST OF THE HIGH HOLIDAYS
How can we successfully engage those on the periphery (and our own members) in meaningful Jewish communal life beyond two or three days a year? How can we change what we are doing NOW, while planning for the High Holidays, to maximize the impact of our services and programs in the future?
We will also discuss…
* Last minute tips for marketing;
* Layering programs and services to take full advantage of their outreach potential;
* Making our interactions as welcoming as possible.
Join us for this opportunity to learn best practices and share your own successes and challenges. Discussion will run approximately 1 hour. If you are interested in participating in the call, please contact Eva Stern at 212-760-1440 or EStern@JOI.org by Wednesday, August 1st with your name, organizational position (professional or lay), telephone number and email address. You will then receive the dial-in instructions. We look forward to working together!
Noah Feldman is an accomplished lawyer and Rhodes Scholar, having graduated from Oxford and Yale. He teaches at Harvard University’s Law School and is a fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations. And yet the yeshiva day school he went to while growing up refuses to acknowledge any of his accomplishments. While he attends his school reunions and reconnects with the other “kids” he went to school with, keeping the alumni office informed of his professional accomplishments, they never make mention of him in any of their publications. Why? Because Noah Feldman fell in love with a woman from a different ethnic and religious background.
Due to his choice of life partner, the Jewish community with which he tries to stay in constant contact has chosen to disregard him, to push him away. Rather than accepting defeat and retreating, Noah Feldman told his story publicly in the recent issue of the New York Times Sunday Magazine, hoping that by sharing his rejection, the Jewish community might learn from its mistakes. We at JOI certainly hope so. Marrying someone who is not Jewish is not necessarily a rejection of one’s Jewish identity. Here is what Feldman writes:
Despite my intimate understanding of the mind-set that requires such careful attention to who is in and who is out, I am still somehow taken by surprise each time I am confronted with my old school’s inability to treat me like any other graduate. I have tried in my own imperfect way to live up to values that the school taught me, expressing my respect and love for the wisdom of the tradition while trying to reconcile Jewish faith with scholarship and engagement in the public sphere. As a result, I have not felt myself to have rejected my upbringing, even when some others imagine me to have done so by virtue of my marriage.
He caught the attention of Rabbi Shmuely Boteach, someone with whom I don’t often agree. Rabbi Boteach penned an op/ed in support of Feldman aptly titled “Stop Ostracizing the Intermarried” in a recent issue of The Jerusalem Post. Boteach was close to Feldman whom he knew from their days together at Oxford. He even called him the “second rabbi” at the L’chaim Society which Boteach shaped there. Boteach sums up the issue this way:
“That 20,000 people, Jews or not, show up for a festival of Jewish culture really is an amazing thing,” the popular blog Jew School comments about the recent Festival of Jewish Culture…in Poland. While American cities with large Jewish populations rarely turn out a crowd of 20,000 to such an event, remarkably, in Krakow, Poland, the annual Festival of Jewish Culture has managed to do so. What is more remarkable, as the New York Times reports, is that most of the attendants at the Festival of Jewish Culture were not Jews.
Why is it that Jewish culture is flourishing in Poland, even without a large Jewish population, but the North American Jewish community feels it is having difficulty engaging Jews in Judaism? The Jewish revival may be, as the Times article cites,
a progressive counterpoint to a conservative nationalist strain in Polish politics that still espouses anti-Semitic views. Some people see it as a generation’s effort to rise above the country’s dark past in order to convincingly condemn it.
Or maybe it is because Jewish history is so entwined with Poland’s history that it is natural for some Polish citizens to embrace and learn about Judaism as part of their own cultural heritage. No matter the reason for the Jewish cultural revival in Poland, the organizers of the Krakow Festival of Jewish Culture are doing something right. They have opened up Jewish culture and lowered barriers to engagement so that non-Jewish masses feel comfortable engaging in it. When that happens here in North America, it can serve as one possible doorway in for Jews who may not have previously considered a deeper exploration of their heritage.
Israel’s Knesset will be considering an important issue this week: civil unions. If passed, this will overturn the Chief Rabbinate’s hegemony over weddings in Israel and make room for at least some couples to wed with an officiant other than an Orthodox Rabbi. It is what a democratic state should give its citizens—a choice.
According to the announcement in the JTA this week, “The bill, which is expected to win Knesset ratification, could address the needs of some 300,000 Israelis — most of them immigrants from the former Soviet Union — who are barred from marrying in the Jewish state because they are considered gentiles by the rabbinate.”
I, for one, can’t wait until the Knesset considers the legislation. While I think that we need to reconsider whether and why these immigrants are not considered Jewish, it is a major step forward—one that we will be among the first to applaud. It is only a first step, however, because it only addresses the marriages of two people considered not Jewish by the rabbinate; it does not apply to intermarrying Jews—who still have no options to be wed in Israel—or even to two Jews marrying each other, who must be wed either by officially-sanctioned (read: Orthodox) rabbis in Israel or get married abroad for their union to be recognized by the state. Still, it is a step in the right direction.
Most of the conversation that we encounter at JOI with regard to intermarriage in the Jewish community is about how the Jewish community can be more welcoming to those who have intermarried. But as much as we work toward creating an inclusive Big Tent for the Jewish community, we must also focus on the message as well as the methodology, by answering: Why would someone want to cast their lot with the Jewish people? Why bother participating in the Jewish community at all?
That is why I am thrilled to be able to participate in a think tank conversation sponsored by the Samuel Bronfman Foundation called “Why Be Jewish?” And I am delighted that both Edgar Bronfman and Adam Bronfman, major supporters and friends of JOI, are the motivators for this project. Neither of them is afraid to push the Jewish community into tackling difficult issues. This notion of “Why Be Jewish?” is the perfect way to frame the discussion. Rabbi Eli Stern, who is the project manager and the creative force behind this particular project, said it this way in a recent op/ed in the (New York) Jewish Week Newspaper:
The misplaced emphasis on demographics has led us down a path of making intermarriage the central issue in Jewish life. Though important, encouraging Jews to marry within the religion will only go so far. The Jewish community forgets that the people who brought us to the demographic quandary we are currently facing are the children of fully Jewish couples — fully Jewish ethnically, but barely Jewish spiritually or intellectually. An unengaged Jew married to an equally unengaged Jew does not translate into Jewish children; it translates into children who will probably not identify as Jewish.
If we want to answer this generation’s real questions, we must move beyond initiatives rooted inmarriage questions alone. We must be ready to engage Judaism in its entirety, through its ideas, practices and texts….
Most importantly, we need to convey that Judaism adds a palpable higher value to our life experience. A strong and enduring Judaism must be able to provide answers, supply meaning and address issues that affect the way we live. A Judaism based merely on survival questions will produce at best short-term survival answers.
My own personal answer to “Why be Jewish?” is clear but complex: it involves the search for meaning, the love of study and the heightened sense of self-awareness, consciousness and choice that result from engaging the world of mitzvot. Such an emphasis does not exclude deep-felt feelings of peoplehood, nationality and community. In an era of choice, these latter feelings are still relevant, but they will most often emerge as the outcome of an engagement with Jewish convictions, practices and ideas, rather than vice versa. My answer to “Why be Jewish?” includes Israel as well, of course, but support for Israel will diminish if Israel cannot convince the Jewish people that it welcomes all types of Jews within its borders.
I look forward to returning from the conference with some more answers of my own.
Four years ago, I first stepped into the magnificent space that is the Eldridge Street synagogue. I was immediately transfixed by its beautiful architecture and the sense of Jewish heritage I felt as I stood under its massive, 70-foot ceiling. About six-months after my first encounter with the synagogue, I became a volunteer docent for the Eldridge Street Project, the non-sectarian organization that is sponsoring the restoration of the synagogue and organizes public arts and education programs in the synagogue space and surrounding neighborhood (the Lower East Side, one of New York City’s most historic Jewish neighborhoods).
As a docent, I have given tours to Hasidic Jews from an ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn, Christians from Germany, and other folks from all over the world with a variety of religious backgrounds, all of whom have traveled to the Eldridge Street Synagogue to experience a part of American, Eastern European and Jewish history. The project reflects the synagogue’s diverse audience with public programs ranging from a Rebetika (urban Greek music) concert to a walking tour of historic socialist landmarks in the neighborhood.
A recent article in The Villager by Lucas Mann details the extensive 18-year restoration process that has taken place at the synagogue. Following the restoration’s completion this December, Mann writes, the synagogue will acquire a
modern museum identity mean[ing that] the building will be equipped with full Internet capacity, as well as learning stations set up near the street-level entrance, where school classes and others can use interactive computer programs to explore the history of the Lower East Side. Surely, the original congregation did not come to the synagogue to Google “Judaism,” but the Eldridge Street Synagogue is a now a place of learning, more than it is a place of worship.
Historic synagogues offer the opportunity to learn about Judaism in a low-barrier manner. While many folks visit the Eldridge Street Synagogue to learn about its Jewish roots, others visit for historic and aesthetic reasons. Carmen Boon, a spokesperson for Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer whose office contributes to the project, explains, “The Eldridge Street Synagogue is one of the Lower East Side’s most important architectural, spiritual and historical treasures.”
A 2006 study of Jewish students by Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life concluded that almost half of all self-identifying Jewish college students comes from interfaith homes. Clearly, the number of adult children of intermarriage has reached critical mass. Now the question seems to be: What happened in these people’s lives to bring them closer to (or push them away from) a Jewish identity?
A recent article on InterfaithFamily.com titled “What Leads Children of Intermarriage to Identify as Jews?” responds to this two-part question with the assistance of a JOI survey completed in 2005 titled “A Flame Still Burns” as well as several professionals, including our own associate executive director Paul Golin. Regarding the children of interfaith families, the article states that:
A family’s relationships and beliefs are probably the most important factors leading to the religious identity of adult children of interfaith marriages. More than two-thirds of the population studied in A Flame Still Burns identify with whatever religion their parents practiced at home.
The finding seems to imply that it is imperative to reach the parents in order to reach the children. And that is certainly an important goal. On the other hand, that statistic also implies that more than a quarter of those studied do not identify with the religion their parents practiced at home—which suggests that reaching the parents is not the only way to encourage and support a Jewish journey by their children. Adults in general, including young adults, have the freedom to explore their heritage and follow their own hearts. Therefore, the community has to be open to welcoming individuals from interfaith families at all points during their lifetime.
At JOI, we’re trying to help Jewish organizations build many more “on ramps” to Jewish life for that growing segment of the Jewish population who did not grow up with the stereotypical Jewish upbringing. Hopefully, the percent of adult children from interfaith families who find a comfortable space and warm welcome from the Jewish community will continue to grow.
Through emphasis on the transformative power of lifecycle events, the program connects interfaith families – a large and growing segment of the Jewish population – to congregational life, in anticipation that they will choose to “return home” to the synagogue time after time….
Through a welcoming approach, addressing the needs of interfaith families as they prepare for lifecycle moments, such as a bris, bar mitzvah, wedding or funeral, the program creates an experience between families and synagogues will be positive and, in most cases, joyful.
The initiative calls for a one-day training seminar for participating synagogues at The Jewish Federation Valley Alliance in West Hills and will provide training tools in three key areas: creating a welcoming environment, celebrating Jewish lifecycles and helping interfaith couples on their Jewish journey.
After a successful training seminar in the Los Angeles area, we look forward to addressing additional partnering synagogues in Atlanta and Philadelphia in the coming months. Our work with these pilot synagogues will allow us to refine our materials and eventually share them with synagogues across North America, in the hope that more intermarried families can indeed Call Synagogue Home.
Flying home from speaking at the Institute for Southern Jewish Life conference, an advertisement by the Hilton Hotels chain caught my attention. It was for a promotional program that invites guests who have encountered a special level of hospitality in one of its hotels to share their stories. So it got me to thinking. Perhaps we should do a similar promotion—especially since we spend so much time helping Jewish communal institutions become more welcoming.
If you have had an experience of being welcomed in the Jewish community, tell us about it here on our JOI blog and we’ll share it with the communal professionals and lay leaders with whom we work. Perhaps it can help provide models for the community to better welcome in everyone, including intermarried families, newcomers and those on the periphery.
Here is my story. My wife and I are planning a trip to Europe next year. We usually build our itineraries around the Jewish community. We choose a hotel that is close to a synagogue. We make sure that we map out the Jewish sites. We seek out an expert or tour guide who can really guide our trips, especially since the trips are usually much shorter than we anticipated. This trip, Amsterdam is on the itinerary. We have never been there and have always wanted to visit the Anne Frank House. After doing some checking, I found a tour guide who made all the arrangements for us and will be of great help. Then she said:
I will meet you at your hotel on Friday and we will walk together to one of the synagogues for services. Then Saturday morning, I will once again meet you and we will walk to another synagogue. And I have made arrangements for you to have Shabbos (Sabbath) lunch at one of the board members of the synagogue at which we will be attending. That way, you can really experience Shabbat in Amsterdam.
It was as if she had been to a JOI training session. I fell confident that this person will make us feel totally comfortable within a Jewish community that we’ve never visited before. While we will be paying for her tour-guide services, her offer to take us to synagogue went above and beyond what her fees cover. Likewise, Jewish communal professionals get paid too, but the great ones (whether clergy, outreach workers, or others) go above and beyond their job descriptions to make newcomers feel welcome. Have you experienced such a welcome into the Jewish community?
JOI constantly advocates outreach that brings Judaism and Jewish community out to where the people are. So how do you get people to YouTube to watch videos of Rabbi Kahn? The main target audience is obviously those individuals already involved in Congregation Beth El, who can watch the videos to learn what the rabbi has to say about his vision for the future of Beth El and how to make it a welcoming, diverse community. But perhaps there are some folks on the periphery of the Jewish community who may simply stumble upon these YouTube videos. By “putting himself out there” so publicly, Rabbi Kahn will surely reach Jews beyond the synagogue’s current membership.
It is clear from the videos that Rabbi Kahn has an enjoyable persona and is comfortable in front of the camera. It is also clear that he is often talking directly to those who already have access to Congregation Beth El. We hope Rabbi Kahn will continue to make more such videos, but to speak to an even broader audience as well—those who may live nowhere near his congregation but that can still benefit from his teaching and his obvious enthusiasm for Jewish life and learning. To grow the Jewish community, we have to reach beyond those who have already entered the doors of our institutions. Rabbi Kahn’s videos show the potential for using the Internet to open the doors to the community and to welcome in all those who have yet entered its gates.
I am at the older end of what is sometimes referred to as Generation X. My generation has been followed by “Gen Y” and now the “Millennials.” Unlike them, I remember when MTV began broadcasting—and am now too old to actually watch it. But despite the increasing flecks of grey in my beard, I still would have been among the youngest participants had I been invited to the recent “Conference on the Future of the Jewish People” this week in Jerusalem that is garnering intense media attention. And that makes me wonder: Which Jewish people are they actually planning for, and what kind of future?
A funny blog post on Jewcy.com addresses the ongoing challenge of today’s Jewish leadership (which primarily consists of Baby Boomers and older) to engage younger generations in Jewish institutional life. But it wasn’t just a generation gap represented at this “future”-looking conference. While I obviously wasn’t there, I doubt there was a single intermarried Jew like myself at the event despite the fact that half the married households in the United States containing Jews are intermarried. Again, which Jewish people are they planning for?
Sponsored by the lofty-sounding “Jewish People Policy Planning Institute,” there is no question that the conference brought together 120 of the highest-powered names in the Jewish world. The goal was to offer policy suggestions in areas as diverse as “Jewish community, Jewish leadership, geopolitics, identity and demography” to the global Jewish community. And while the conference participants seem to represent a wide spread of movements and ideologies, I wonder how realistic it is to expect a leader like Barry Shrage—who has championed outreach to interfaith families in his community of Boston—to work on issues of outreach with the Israeli academics of the JPPP who use the words “intermarriage” and “assimilation” interchangeably and seem much more about prevention than inclusion.
I just returned from speaking at the annual educational conference of the Institute for Southern Jewish Life. This is the fourth time that I have presented at a conference that should be more on the radar screen of the national Jewish community. It is an amazing group of people. Fifty synagogue communities were represented. Most of the synagogues and cities were small and smaller, but some of the larger cities in the south were also represented.
During my keynote presentation, I asked this question: “How many of you have intermarriage in your immediate family? (Either you are intermarried, your parents are intermarried, or you have a child or sibling who is intermarried.)” Nearly every hand in the room went up. Intermarriage impacted on nearly every person who was in attendance. It is why I constantly say that intermarriage is the most significant domestic issue facing the North American Jewish community.
Some will say that this is not a new phenomenon for Southern Jewry or for small town Jewry. And maybe they are right. The issue of intermarriage has been impacting on these towns for many years. As a result, they have been responding to the issues that emerge from intermarriage for a long time. Often we suggest that it is the big cities, the big synagogue who lead the way in the Jewish community and so we should look to them for guidance. This is not the case here. The small communities have it right. They have faced intermarriage head on and moved forward. They may not have all the answers—nobody does yet—but they understand perhaps more than any other part of the community that their Jewish survival depends on discussing it openly and working together to find ways to engage intermarried households in Jewish life. It was an honor to be able to share with and learn from such a dedicated group of Jewish professionals and lay leaders.
As reported in last week’s New York Jewish Week Newspaper, Commandment Keepers synagogue in East Harlem has closed its doors after serving generations of New York City’s black Jewish families for 88 years. The building has been sold, the leadership and congregants are feuding, and many remaining community members feel there is nowhere left for them to worship. The loss of this synagogue may has affected the black Jewish community significantly, but is not necessarily felt at all by the mainstream American Jewish community, even locally in New York.
Commandment Keepers was one of about ten congregations in New York with rabbis ordained by the Israelite Rabbinical Academy. The members of these congregations refer to themselves as “Black Jews,” “Black Hebrews” or “Black Israelites.” There are somewhere between 50,000 and 150,000 black Jews in America, according to Gary Tobin, a demographer who studies the black Jewish community (though not all identify with one of the above-mentioned groups). Some Black Hebrews adhere fairly closely to mainstream Jewish rituals and practice, and others follow their own interpretations of the Torah according to the teachings of their leaders.
When I visited Congregation Temple Beth’El in Philadelphia, I witnessed their strict observance of Jewish law. Visitors there were asked to dress modestly; they have their own mikvah, kosher butcher, and use a traditional Jewish liturgy during prayer. The biggest difference I found was that their singing—and the music to which they set the liturgy—was much more soulful than any I have heard elsewhere, as it draws on the African-American gospel tradition.
The definition of “legitimate” Jewish identity in the mainstream community always depends on whom you ask. The New York Board of Rabbis, whose vision statement is “to be the primary forum for rabbis within New York’s diverse rabbinical community,” repeatedly denied the application of Rabbi Matthew of Commandment Keepers (who passed away in 1973), a West Indian immigrant born to an Ethiopian Jewish father—officially because he was not ordained by one of their affiliated seminaries.
There is, however, growing collaboration taking place between some congregations in the black-Jewish community and “mainstream” Jewish organizations and synagogues. Members of Congregation Temple Beth’El’s Choir will be singing at the Jewish Outreach Institute’s Annual Conference in October 2007. As the American Jewish community becomes increasingly complex and diverse, let’s embrace our differences while we celebrate our common love of Judaism and the desire to contribute to its continuation.
One of JOI’s main philosophies is to lower the barriers that make it hard for those on the periphery to engage in programs of the Jewish community. One of the biggest and toughest barriers to overcome is money. Finances often may be the determining factor in one’s participation and involvement. We understand that programs cost money, of course. As independent schools without government funding, Jewish day schools have the hardest time lowering “the money barrier.” The tuition of some schools nearly equals a state university.
Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh decided to do something about it for next year. This school lowered the financial barrier when it announced a new scholarship program last month that offers free tuition to students transferring from public schools. This school also understands that if you can get folks into the door and you have something worth paying for, people will want to pay for it in the future. But you have to get them in the door first. The Herman Lipsitz scholarship offers free tuition for two years for all students who transfer to the academy from public or non-Jewish private schools. Pittsburgh’s Jewish Chronicle explains:
The Lipsitz family had been making plans to establish a scholarship fund in Herman’s memory because of his concern that every Jewish child be given the opportunity to have a day school education. Hillel is not the first day school to offer an enrollment incentive. The Torah Academy of Minneapolis offers tuition vouchers of up to $5,000 to encourage enrollment at the school, and schools in Cleveland and Atlanta also offer financial incentives.
Of course, because it is Orthodox, the school’s definition of a “Jewish child” is one whose mother is Jewish, suggesting that there are other barriers to participation at Hillel Academy for a growing percentage of Jewish households.
Nevertheless, we at JOI applaud the Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh for taking a step toward bringing down the barriers. It is a particularly important step to reach those on the periphery. Perhaps if more Jewish institutions followed Pittsburgh’s lead, imagine how much the community could grow!
Photographer and writer Paul Margolis, whose past projects have included “The Jews of Cuba” and “Hidden Ellis Island” (and whose work you can see at www.PaulMargolis.com) is currently working on a photo-documentary project on interracial couples where one or both partners is Jewish. The project would combine portraits and text. Participants would be asked to describe their relationships and how they deal with the dynamics of race, religion and culture. In contacting JOI, Margolis wrote:
My documentary work often deals with little-known aspects of Jewish life, and it serves to show the variety of the Jewish experience both in the U.S. and overseas. I am currently seeking couples in the New York City area, but I envision the project eventually expanding to other parts of the country, and possibly to other countries as well.
I am very pleased at the diversity of the responses to my request thus far. I have been contacted by interfaith couples, Jews of Color, Jews by Choice and same-sex couples, all of whom would like to participate in the project. They seem to realize how my work would contribute to an awareness of the richness and diversity of Jewish life.
Please contact Paul Margolis directly if you are part of an interracial Jewish couple that would be interested in participating in this project, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Embedded in Jewish sacred texts is the notion that it is humankind’s responsibility—not Gd’s—to fix what is wrong in the world. Acts of Tikkun Olam (“repairing the world”) can range from something as simple and effortless as recycling your plastic bottles and newspaper to organizing a benefit concert to raise both funds and awareness of the growing climate crisis of global warming. But wait, such an event already exists! This Saturday, New York City is participating in a seven continent, 24-hour concert series called Live Earth, founded by Kevin Wall (who also founded the Live 8 concert) together with Al Gore and the Alliance for Climate Protection as well as several additional “green” supporters. Artists and bands such as Kanye West, Dave Matthews Band, Kelly Clarkson, The Police, and Bon Jovi will take the stage while volunteers educate the audience and participate in green-friendly activities, such as recycling and composting.
The ideas of social justice and repairing the world resonate with many in the younger generations, Jewish or not. However, there is one looming problem with this particular opportunity to do a good deed (and jam to your favorite bands); disappointingly, this day of Tikkun Olam and great music comes at the hefty price of $83. Unfortunately, this exorbitant price creates a barrier between those who would like to participate but can not afford to. (Compare it to the Live 8 concert, which was free and had massive attendance.) If the goal is to make more young people aware of the opportunities to “do good” for our environment, the high price tag—even if all the proceeds are charitable donations—works against that advocacy.
There is an outreach lesson here for the organized Jewish community as well, which also tries to reach younger people through social justice programs. “Barriers to participation,” including high cost for events, can keep your target population from participating and becoming involved. Instead, JOI recommends that event planners keep the price of an outreach or advocacy event at a minimum or even better yet—free! Fundraisers and awareness-raising events often don’t mix because the people who are willing to support a cause financially already have their awareness raised on that issue. The Live Earth event seems not to know which it wants to be.
A good way of pricing an event would be to ask, “Is this a similar cost to what the target population would usually spend on this kind of program?” If the answer is no because your event is more expensive, then you may be producing a costly barrier to achieving engagement. Rather, keep outreach events low-cost, eliminating one more reason for the unengaged not to partake.
At the heart of most worship services is a prayer that asks for God’s blessing for a specific person or people. Of particular note is the version of this blessing made popular by folk singer Debbie Friedman. This Mi Sheberakh (literally “the One who blesses”) prayer asks for healing for all those who are ill; as such, it has become a staple of many synagogue services—even in those where such prayers were out of vogue as recently as fifteen years ago. In the Conservative movement, the question arose as to whether these prayers could be said for those of other religious backgrounds. We applaud its recent responsum (an answer to a question of religious practice) which encourages individuals to say a prayer for healing for others, regardless of their religious background. Given both the increase in family members from other faiths and the movement’s struggle over how to include those family members in synagogue life, this is a welcome sign of inclusiveness.
Rabbi David Golinkin, President of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical School in Jerusalem, and a leading authority on halakha (Jewish law) within the movement, authored the responsum. Golinkin’s simple wisdom: we should include all of humanity in our prayers of healing. He cited the following examples to support his conclusion:
In II Kings, Chapter 5, we read the story of Na’aman, the General of Aram, who goes to see the king of Israel in order to be cured of his leprosy. The Prophet Elisha then cures Na’aman from his leprosy by telling him to bathe seven times in the Jordan River (v. 10-14). If a Jewish Prophet can heal a non-Jew, then he can certainly pray for a non-Jew who is ill.
R. Hayyim Palache (1788-1869) of Izmir, Turkey was asked by a Jew: a non-Jew whom he does business with is sick. Is it permissible to pray for him that he should live and also give tzedakah to scholars that they should learn on his behalf to heal him? Rabbi Palache replied that this is “mutar gamur”, entirely permissible. He relied on Sefer Hassidim (The Book of the Pious) and on the story of Elisha and Na’aman.
This complements JOI’s own work with STAR (Synaogues: Transformation and Renewal) to implement the “Call Synagogue Home” initiative, a project that encourages clergy and professional leaders of synagogues to be especially welcoming of interfaith families at lifecycle events, as they are such ripe moments for a family to connect to the Jewish community. So here is the big question: if we include those of other religious backgrounds in our prayers for healing, how else can we include them at other times as well?
Last week, I attended a dinner given by a pharmaceutical company in New York City. During dinner, a physician presented a study which showed that the majority of patients only comply with their prescribed course of medication to the extent that they feel the effects of their symptoms, rather than following their “doctor’s orders” exactly. This news seems shocking but may offer important insight into the current mind-set of individuals in our society. People feel free to make choices about what they want to include in every aspect their lives, and they exercise this freedom in decisions about everything from their health to their religious and communal participation.
An understanding and acceptance of this widespread state of mind can be helpful in creating programs and measuring the value of our efforts in Jewish communal service. Just as physicians prescribe medications and develop treatment plans for their patients to have the best possible outcomes for healing, Jewish communal professionals offer a multitude of “elixirs” for spiritual direction and a complete Jewish life. Yet most people are still going to do what they feel is best for them.
If we “prescribe” the ingredients for a healthy Jewish community and offer only the programs that we deem important, we can expect participation only from those in our target audience who share our same vision for them. If our intended outcome, however, is to help ensure that all of our community members live meaningful and fulfilling Jewish lives, we may reach more people if we also listen to what they want, and cater a percentage of our services to what they will actually choose to include in their lives.
Representative community members can assist professionals in developing programs that meet their needs. At JOI, we recommend going out to meet people where they are. For example, if an organization wants to reach the young, unaffiliated segment of the population, they could consider going to a popular bar and conducting informal interviews about which programs would interest the Jewish patrons they meet there—with a promise of a free drink as a thank-you for their ten minutes of time. (Ideally, this kind of networking research is conducted by members of the target audience’s own peer group that may already be involved in your community.) Their program interests and suggestions may be considerably different than those of a sub-committee of current synagogue members. This wider communal outreach to key stakeholders may be the medicine we need to ensure the future vitality of the Jewish community.
Each panel is only a slight exaggeration of the various shrill reactions and “solutions” to intermarriage we’ve actually heard (and continue to hear) from some quarters of the community. Well, at least we can laugh about it…sometimes.