Weblog Entries for September 2007

Happy Sukkot from JOI

Food. Friends. Family. These seem to be the ingredients of a joyous holiday celebration. Like so many of the Jewish holidays, Sukkot epitomizes the value of hakhnasat orchim (the welcoming of visitors). Various programs encourage hospitality in the sukkah. Even the mystics have a say in the practice of ushpizin, where those who live in the past are invited into the present. Some even say that the sukkah itself helps to concentrate their spiritual energy. As a result, when we invite them into our midst, we get the opportunity to share in the energy, as well.

Perhaps the practice of ushpizin is also our way of acknowledging the role that our ancestors continue to play in our lives and our hope that the values that they taught and represented continue to live on through the lives we lead. Just as the Talmud suggests that when we teach something that we learned from someone else (b’shem amro), we imagine his/her face in front of us, the ancestors who taught us certain important values are with us as we act on those values and welcome the strangers—the visitors—in our community.

To the traditional characters of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron and David (which emerge from the Zohar text [5:103b]), feminists have added additional visitors such as Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. Perhaps we can add to the list: Moses’ wife Zipporah (“the local minister’s daughter”); Ruth (the Moabite woman who cast her lot with the Jewish people); and Esther (whose interfaith marriage led to the saving of the Jewish community of ancient Persia). And don’t forget Asnat, Joseph’s Egyptian wife whose children Efraim and Manasseh were accepted by their grandfather Jacob as his own and in whose names Jewish boys are blessed by their parents each Shabbat.

Because the Torah portion designated for Sukkot this Shabbat comes from Leviticus, we are forced to wade through sacrificial details. We are taught that the ancient sacrificial system was designed to bring us closer to Gd. And although the system doesn’t exist any longer, our longing to come closer to Gd is not diminished. In this Torah portion, various details concerning the priest’s role and the consecrated sacrifice are described. In Lev. 22:18, Gd directs Moses and acknowledges the role of the stranger in our midst who brings a sacrifice, who too wants to develop a relationship with Gd as a member of the ancient Israelite community. Just as the community has made room for the stranger in its midst, the priest must accommodate the stranger’s sacrifice as well. It is no less acceptable to Gd.

So if these are all of our models, and these are the values that they represent, then we need to make sure that one thing is clear: All are welcome to dwell in the sukkah, whether it represents the thatched hut in our backyards or the entire Jewish community.

Jews-by-Choice Encounter Israel

For most Jews (as well as for those from a variety of other religious backgrounds), experiencing Israel for the fist time is a transformative experience. The Jewish community has already acknowledged this fact with the growth of the birthright israel program for young adults and the impact the trip has on their Jewish journeys.

Mitch Cohen, a Jewish communal professional in Atlanta and friend of the Jewish Outreach Institute, realized the potential of such a trip to positively impact another demographic group just beginning their Jewish journeys, Jews-by-choice.

In a recent cover story in the Atlanta Jewish Times, Mitch chronicled the activities and experiences of Israel Encounter trip for Jews-by-choice from Atlanta and Massachusetts as well as his inspiration for coordinating the program. Mitch writes that after hearing a Jew-by-choice, Janie, speak about her first experience traveling to Israel and the impact that it had on her connection to Judaism, he discovered a missing link he had not identified in his own research about conversion to Judaism or in the support groups for Jews-by-choice that he facilitates in Atlanta. Janie recounted that:

She had felt alone and abandoned after conversion because her pre-conversion meetings with her sponsoring rabbi had ended….She decided to go to Israel to experience the Jewish homeland in an effort to deal with not “feeling” Jewish and to confront her lack of connection to Israel. Janie told us that her trip changed her life and eased the pain of the difficult transition to a Jewish life. After her return from Israel, she felt much more Jewish, and she realized how important Israel was to the Jewish people - and that she was one of those people.

The Jewish community must be more aware of Janie’s and other Jews-by-choice feelings of abandonment. Connecting with Israel is one way for Jews-by-choice to find entry and comfort in Judaism. Support groups, such as the ones Mitch facilitates, are another option for bridging the gap after conversion. The Jewish Outreach Institute has developed our own program, Empowering Ruth, for women who have chosen Judaism who seek additional education and support after their conversions.

Congratulations, Mitch, for a wonderful and transformative Israel experience!

JOI and UJC partner on training

Earlier this summer, JOI’s Associate Executive Director Paul Golin and I traveled to Chicago to speak at the United Jewish Communities (UJC) Continuing Professional Education seminar. We spoke to over 30 professionals from more than a dozen communities about “Reaching Out and Welcoming In.”

Beginning our day with a discussion of the demographic imperatives of North American Jewry, we focused in on what it means to create an inclusive Jewish community, identifying the relationship between engagement and affiliation. During our main morning workshop, we facilitated a session on transforming the “inside” of a Jewish institution to better welcome in newcomers; helping participants identify and lower barriers to participation; work on making the entry points to their Jewish community as welcoming as possible; and creating and nurturing meaningful relationships.

The afternoon session delved into elements of Public Space Judaism –- JOI’s signature outreach methodology of bringing Judaism to people where they are through programs and marketing. We ended our day with a focus on the community transformation initiative (CTI), explaining how all elements of the training could be integrated into a tailored and comprehensive initiative for individual Jewish communities.

We look forward to seeing a number of participants again at our conference in October! UJC is now working to offer more resources to professionals focusing on outreach and we at JOI look forward to continuing our partnership and helping Jewish communities grow!

Another Chance at Life — A Yom Kippur Sermon

Note: This sermon by Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky was first delivered at a synagogue on Yom Kippur 2000/5761:

As I look around this crowded sanctuary, seeing people who frequent this holy space only on occasion, I am always intrigued, wondering what motivates the infrequent shul goer to come to the synagogue on Yom Kippur. And certainly after a long day in services, what motivates that person to come back the following year. This is not merely a question that I ask of you. Nor am I trying to be critical or judgmental. Even as I articulate the question, I know that I am asking aloud the same question that I ask myself each year. What is it that motivates us to come here?

Is it guilt that brings us here? Is it habit? Is it the desire to be with family and friends? Even for those who come late or leave early, there is something special, something “other,” something holy that bids us to draw close to this place. It is certainly not the spiritually imposed “quick loss weight plan”! Maybe it is simply to hear the stirring strains of Kol Nidre at the beginning of the holiday or perhaps it is the blast of the shofar that marks its successful conclusion, successful, that is, because we are still here to listen to it—something that, in itself, offers us pause.

We get dressed up. We make arrangements, we make plans. We juggle our busy schedules and struggle to fit our obligations into the remaining days of the week. Then we rush to the synagogue, dodging the cars that line the street and overflow the parking lot. But it is the one time of year in the Jewish calendar that seems to me to be rather counter-intuitive. Think about it: We spend a lot of time planning for something that we just don’t look forward to doing.

Let me explain. I am afraid of this day. I am scared of it. Petrified, terrified. And it is this fear that tells me to stay away from the synagogue while at the same time forcefully draws me near to it. Where else should I go when I am so frightened? As I read and re-read each line of the liturgy, hanging onto one word or idea, often falling behind while the cantor and the rabbi rush forward to make sure that they get everything in, I am filled with dread. I am overwhelmed by the profound depth of the experience that I fear is missed by many. The words sear my soul. They become stones that weigh my soul down heavily. I become broken upon reading them, worrying that they were written specifically for me: “Who will die this year? Who by fire and who by water?”

And if I close my eyes, which I dare not do, I can see the fluttering wings of the angel of death, the malach hamavet, hovering close by, waiting, just waiting to hear what takes place inside this sacred precinct. I know because she has come close to our family before and it took all the strength we could muster to force her away. She left unfulfilled but I know, she waits at the door, lurking mischievously for the opportunity to pounce on someone more deserving.

I am frightened because I know that she will have the opportunity to visit someone, somewhere, someplace before we will all come together again next year.


Judaism Must Embrace Its “Outsiders”

We were thrilled to see that Adam Bronfman’s Op/Ed entitled “Let’s Put Out A Communal Welcome Mat” was published in today’s Forward Jewish newspaper. In it, he champions the various positions shared by JOI, including and most prominently Big Tent Judaism:

I believe in the concept of big-tent Judaism, one in which anyone interested in learning about and expressing Judaism is welcome. I also believe that a majority of Jewish communal professionals and lay leaders share this vision…. The challenge is to put this ideal into practical application across a wider segment of the community.

Since the Forward chose to edit the Op/Ed, we wanted to include the full text here, especially including where Adam mentions that JOI will be launching the Big Tent Judaism advocacy campaign and Coalition for an Inclusive Jewish Community at our upcoming national conference in Washington, DC next month—for which we are grateful to have Adam as co-chair. If you are interested in learning more about Big Tent Judaism, let us know. You will be hearing much more about it soon!

Here’s the original text of Adam Bronfman’s Op/Ed:


Philadelphia Congregations Invite Interfaith Families to Call Their Synagogues Home

Despite it being the morning following Selichot (the only Jewish religious service of the year which traditionally takes place between midnight and dawn), and on the same afternoon as the first Philadelphia Eagles game, dedicated lay leaders and professionals from Philadelphia area synagogues nevertheless came out for a full day of training on September 9 led by Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, Executive Director of JOI, as part of the Call Synagogue Home project.

Philadelphia, PA is one of the three pilot communities (along with Atlanta, GA and Los Angeles, CA) participating in this new initiative to engage interfaith families in synagogue participation through important lifecycle moments. JOI’s work on this project is made possible by the Samuel Bronfman Foundation and is part of our partnership with STAR (Synagogues: Transformation and Renewal). Participants who attended this training will now embark on a year-long process as members of a team that will examine the current practices of their congregation, and work to make their synagogue a more welcoming and inclusive place where more inferfaith families can feel at home.

Upon our review of the training day’s evaluation forms, we at JOI were very pleased to learn that participants were inspired by the training to think in new ways and to begin this very important work. Among the list of aspects of the program that participants found most useful:


Putting on Tefillin by Those of Other Religious Backgrounds

Normally I would simply assign the ritual of donning tefillin (prayer boxes) and anything that promotes it to the “inside.” In other words, I think that such rituals are almost exclusively conducted by those already deeply engaged in the inside of the Jewish community, even though our colleagues from Chabad encourage the ritual as part of its outreach strategy. But I was really intrigued by the rabbi’s approach at

He says something that I have been saying for a long time—the Rambam (Rabbi Moses Maimonides, perhaps the greatest of all Jewish philosopher/theologians, who hails from the Medieval Period) teaches that those of other religious backgrounds—those who aren’t Jewish—are permitted to don tefillin. Now it is true that Maimonides makes the argument in the context of those who are exploring Judaism or considering conversion. And we know that those who are exploring Judaism or considering conversion are taught not to take on everything at once. So it makes sense.

If this is the case, then this is one more strike against the barrier of what I like to call social visibility, that is, the “stuff” that is a visible separation between Jews and those of other religious backgrounds—such as the father of another religious background who is standing on the bimah (raised platform in the front of the synagogue) while his Jewish son is celebrating his bar mitzvah or his Jewish daughter is celebrating her bat mitzvah.

So if Maimonides is behind such an approach, why can’t the rest of the Jewish community join him?

Shalom in the Grandparent’s Home

It’s no news to us that grandparents have an important role in nurturing Jewish identity in their grandchildren. Rabbi Shmuley Boteach confirms this notion in the Forward Jewish newspaper’s “Bintel Blog” column. Boteach instructs a Jewish grandmother distraught over her son’s decision not to circumcise his child to love and accept her child and grandchild regardless of their faith:

You should be showing your son that, whatever decisions he made in his life that you found personally disappointing or with which you disagree, you still love him totally and unconditionally. You would not love him more had he chosen to marry Jewish, and you do not love him less now that he has chosen not to….What I suggest, therefore, is that you make an effort to bring your son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren close to the Jewish tradition.

When Jewish grandparents actively share their Jewish identities with their grandchildren, they have the opportunity to influence their grandchildren’s Jewish identities and understanding. Boteach suggests to the grandmother that she read Jewish books to her grandson and share Shabbat and Jewish festival celebrations with her son, daughter-in-law and grandchild. At JOI, we agree with Boteach’s notion of acceptance and inclusion and have developed our own program for grandparents with interfaith grandchildren, the Grandparents Circle. If you are interested in learning more about this program, please email me at

A Sweet and Joyous New Year

Time flies! Tonight we enjoy another milestone along the road of life, the beginning of a new year on the Jewish calendar. 5768 already?!

Way back in 5762 (or 2002 on the Gregorian calendar), JOI issued a newsletter containing “A Brief Introduction to the High Holidays” that some may find helpful to peruse at this time of year:

Literally translated as “head of the year,” Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, is a holiday when self-reflection and repentance counterbalance celebration….

According to traditional imagery, it is at this time that God as king and judge inscribes our names in either the Book of Life or the Book of Death for the coming year. Naturally, we don’t expect that the all-knowing creator of the universe has to actually write things down to remember them! But it’s a useful allegory: if this is our last year (and it certainly could be), are we satisfied with the lives we’ve led? If we could get a reprieve, what would we have to do in order to fix the wrongs we’ve committed, against ourselves and others?

The newsletter—the full text of which is available at the link above—also contains excerpts from Rabbi Kerry Olitzky’s book “Preparing Your Heart for the High Holidays.”

We hope that you find these resources useful, and we wish all of JOI’s friends and family a very sweet and joyous New Year.

The Search for “Jewish Identity”

On September 25th, the Museum of the City of New York will host a talk entitled “The Challenges of Passing on Jewish Identity” with authors Abigail Pogrebin and Letty Cottin Pogrebin. For Abigail Pogrebin, it’s a continuation of the Jewish exploration she took public with her 2005 book, “Stars of David,” as described in a Foward Jewish newspaper review at the time:

For her, the book was not about sociology or anthropology but about self-exploration. “Jewish identity crept up on me…. I’m aware both how connected I feel to other Jews and how confused I feel about Judaism,” she writes.

Pogrebin decided that the way to straighten out her religious and ethnic identity was to interview dozens of celebrities. The problem, it turns out, is that when it comes to being Jewish, superstars are as unremarkable and lost as the rest of us.

A number of the interviewees in her book are intermarried and express the same kind of challenges and ambiguities that many non-celebrity intermarried families grapple with. Joining her for the upcoming presentation is another author with the last name “Pogrebin” (it’s her mom), Letty Cottin Pogregin, a leading feminist who co-founded Ms. magazine. It will be interesting to hear what these thoughtful women have to say about passing on Jewish identity, and it will also be interesting to see who attends, considering the Museum of the City of New York is a secular venue, not a Jewishly identified space. At JOI, we of course welcome such programs and hope the venue will encourage participation by those who may not feel totally comfortable attending a similar event at a synagogue or JCC.

A Rosh Hashanah Choice

In the traditional Torah portion selection for the first day of Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year), Hagar and her son Ishmael are pushed out of Abraham’s tent and sent into exile. This is the memory that their ancestors carry with them throughout the generations. It is this burden of memory that we carry with us, as well. After all, all peoples have history; it is our memory that makes us unique as a people.

Unfortunately, this pattern of “pushing away” has not been broken. We can’t continue to push away with one hand and then reach out with the other (as Abraham and Sarah were also known for their hospitality). This is especially true in the case of interfaith families. Imagine what the world would be like today had Abraham not sent Hagar and Ishmael out on their own. Imagine what our communities would be like had we not sent out those of our children who had intermarried out on their own.

Regardless of the exact percentage of intermarried families raising Jewish children, we can still do better. Most are raising their children in what I like to call “American Civil Religion” even when it does come with a smattering of holidays, irrespective of the religious tradition from which those holidays arise. Perhaps it is because our institutions are not readily open to them—and when they are, it is only on our terms—that they have chosen not to raise Jewish children.

Let’s rein in our inner Abraham, the one that forced out Hagar and Ishmael. Tell them not to get on that horse. Tell them to stay awhile in our tent where they are welcome.

The Zoo Rabbi

Because of our interest in Public Space Judaism and the opportunities it provides the Jewish community to reach people where they are, we are always looking for new venues to explore that might be appropriate for such an approach. We also like to recognize those who have creatively taken Judaism out to where people are, so that they can “stumble over it,” an important criterion that we have identified for Public Space Judaism.

That is why I was particularly interested in the work of Rabbi Natan Slifkin, better known as “the Zoo Rabbi.” In a recent article about him in the Washington Jewish Week, he says that while studying to become a rabbi:

“It occurred to me one day to see what the Torah has to say about animals…. I found a wealth of materials, and I found that the zoo is a great place to teach it.”

The article explains how he is able to find a Torah teaching about seemingly every animal and incorporate it into his tours of the National Zoo. While Rabbi Slifkin’s interpretations of animal life in the Jewish tradition are sometimes challenged within the Orthodox community—for whom many of his tours are arranged—we still recognize the opportunities implicit in them for reaching people on the periphery as well.

New Year A Time To Begin New Relationships

At JOI, we are constantly looking for ways that people can share in Jewish experiences with few or no barriers to entry. We are very happy to see proof of a trend of more free High Holiday services being offered throughout North America this holiday season. We have read articles, announcements, and advertisements about free services, and we have heard from the professionals on our Jewish outreach listserve that many communities allow newcomers to join them for services without a commitment to membership.

Lowering or eliminating the financial obligation is a great way to start, but it takes a genuine and concerted effort to make High Holiday services truly welcoming to those on the periphery. Rabbi Leo Abrami, a retired rabbi in the Greater Phoenix, Arizona area, is hosting free services aimed at the Paradise Valley’s unaffiliated Jews. Rabbi Abrami’s services will be “Reconservadox, a post-denominational approach to Judaism” with egalitarian services chanted in Hebrew but interspersed with English explanations, comments, and readings. By making sure that there is no prior knowledge necessary for someone to understand what is going on, uninitiated participants will surely have a more valuable experience.

Through the generous support of our funders, JOI was able to offer a free training conference call to help Jewish professionals maximize the outreach impact of their High Holiday programs. One organization that participated in the call was Congregation Kol Ami in Salt Lake City, Utah. Congregation Kol Ami is offering complementary tickets for High Holiday services to nonmembers. Danny Burman, Kol Ami’s President, actively invites people and made clear the community’s intention to include everyone in his announcement of this initiative: “At Congregation Kol Ami, every person counts and everyone is welcome. Jews by birth, Jews by choice and interfaith families are all invited to join with us as we worship, learn and celebrate Judaism in a dynamic and caring community.”

As these examples show, there are many levels of program design that contribute to attracting newcomers to the Jewish community and helping them to have a meaningful Jewish experience including cost, marketing, and program content, to name a few. The most important element of outreach, though, is the personal relationship that is begun by welcoming people into a comfortable environment and nurtured through further, personalized invitations and opportunities for connection. This holiday season and the Jewish New Year are wonderful and natural opportunities to take the first step toward inclusion.

Grassroots synagogue offers important lesson

I remember when the idea emerged for what has become the Woodstock, (VT) Area Jewish Congregation (now also known as Shir Shalom). I was on the faculty of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York and we had been among the first to pioneer weekend retreats for study and prayer for liberal adult Jews (under the rubric of the Morris Zimmerman Memorial Institute). One of our regulars, Stuart Matlins (now better known as the publisher/owner of Jewish Lights Publishing), was concerned about the fact that he had moved to Woodstock from New York City and there was no Jewish community. Yet he knew that there were Jews in the community. He was meeting them all the time.

Encouraged by those involved from HUC-JIR at the Zimmerman Institute, he decided to take a gamble and advertise High Holiday services which he was prepared to lead. Thirty people showed up for the first Shabbat potluck dinner that Stuart and Antoinette Matlins arranged. And now, 19 years later, the congregation has a building and its own rabbi. But what is most important is that the congregation (which now boasts 40 children in its religious school) continues not to charge dues to its members and it perceives its mission as one serving the entire Jewish community rather than just its “members.”

While I think that too often we look to large communities to teach small communities, here is an example in which a small community is well ahead of the curve. When the boy celebrating his bar mitzvah a few weekends ago was asked what he though the synagogue and Jewish community would look like in 13 years (part of a series of questions that bar/bat mitzvah candidates are asked to address to the congregation), he replied, “I think that the rest of the county will follow our example and not charge dues to its members.” This bar mitzvah boy—and his congregation—have the right idea. Are we indeed prepared to follow their lead?

The Manischewitz Challenge

As a fan of the Food Network, I particularly enjoy their “Food Network Challenge” program where amateur and professional chefs go head-to-head in a competition to create the best new burger, Disney Princess cake, mac and cheese…you get the point. In the tradition of the “Food Network Challenge” and great cook-offs everywhere, Manischewitz has launched its Second Annual Simply Manischewitz Cook-Off.

The cook-off contest is timed to coincide with the High Holidays (submissions are due by September 21) and is part of Manischewitz’s campaign to make their brand of kosher food more accessible to all shoppers, whether or not they keep kosher. The contest’s website is easily accessible to newcomers, and since contest entries must be kosher, explains exactly what that means.

The Manischewitz brand, which has an infamous reputation for overly sweet kosher wine, is using this contest to show the North American public that kosher and Manischewitz are synonymous with delicious. Maybe it is time for the Jewish community to take a cue from Manischewitz and make its programs more enticing and accessible to newcomers. How can the Jewish community take advantage of secular pursuits, such as cooking, and partnerships when planning programming? I look forward to the day when I tune into the Food Network to watch “Food Network Challenge: Matzah Balls!”

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