Weblog Entries for October 2007

When It Comes to Intermarriage and Outreach, Geography Matters

I just returned from making a presentation at the Anita M. Stone JCC, in Flossmoor, Illinois (a southern suburb in Chicagoland). While the presentation was originally slated to focus on issues of grandparenting interfaith grandchildren, emerging from the book on the subject that Paul Golin and I prepared, the conversation evolved to include family dynamics relevant to interfaith marriage. While it was a self-selecting audience, and included some community professionals, when I asked the question about how many in the audience were directly impacted upon by interfaith marriage (in their immediate family) every hand in the room went up.

This didn’t surprise me. We were far from the historical core of Chicago’s Jewish community. And as we continue to demonstrate at JOI, when we map out a community, the farther you are from the historical center of the Jewish community in almost every North American city where there are Jews, the higher are the interfaith marriage rates.

Several of the communal professionals from the JCC attended our recent national JOI conference in Washington, DC. Both their attendance and this session confirmed for me that they are anxious to move the agenda of building an inclusive community forward. It also confirmed for me the fact that the pioneering leadership in such an initiative regionally does not always have to come from its center—rather, it too can come from the periphery.

Some people talk about Israel and the Diaspora. At JOI, we talk about the historical Jewish community (in the center of all the big cities, and in the east) and the Diaspora: at the outskirts of the big cities, as well as in the smaller ones, and often outside of the east. It is there where the inclusive Jewish community is being created and will be leveraged against the other communities.

Growing The Mothers Circle

Back in February, a panel of Mothers Circle alumnae from Atlanta provided folks in the area with the opportunity of learning about their experiences, backgrounds and decisions regarding the religious lives of their families at an in-person event, in The Atlanta Jewish Times and on the radio.

The success and profundity of the panel led the Jewish Outreach Institute to organize a similar panel at our conference, Opening the Tent: Visions and Practices for a More Inclusive Jewish Community, which took place a few weeks ago in Washington, DC. The panel featured three Mothers Circle alumnae and Suzette Cohen, the Georgia Coordinator of the Mothers Circle and was moderated by Rabbi Alvin Sugarman, the Georgia Mothers Circle Rabbi.

The women on the panel eloquently shared their experiences in the Jewish community as well as the support (or lack thereof) they have received in the Jewish community. They spoke about their spouses’ religious roles and their own spiritual choices. Conference attendees were blown away by the openness of the women and their willingness to share their journeys. We at JOI thank them for their important role at our conference.

As a result of the promotion of The Mothers Circle at the JOI conference, from this panel and from the buzz generated by a special Mothers Circle facilitator’s track of the conference, we hope to expand the Mothers Circle to many new communities over the next year.

The Mothers Circle panel expanded the perspectives of conference attendees. The Jewish community must continue to look inward as well as reach out, in order to best welcome all who wish to cast their lot with the Jewish community. And the leaders of the Jewish community must ask themselves how those families’ and individuals’ experiences have been, and how the Jewish community can improve upon them.

A New Generation Using New Media to Continue the Conversation

In terms of education, I have always taught that content should fuel the media. In other words, just because a variety of media are available doesn’t mean that we have to employ them.
However, there are many cases in which a particular medium is perfect for select content. Such is the case with Chat the Planet’s new Jewish Reconnection Project.

This project brings together young adults from North America and Israel in a global dialogue through new media/Internet technology. Together they discuss a variety of important issues facing the Jewish community. The discussions are recorded, divided into episodes, and are intended to become conversation starters at local in-person events around key issues facing the Jewish people globally.

While the program is entertaining and enlightening on its own merit, it also has formal and informal educational implications. This is particularly true of a recent episode in which participants from Israel and North America discuss the issue of interfaith marriage. They offer their own perspectives, which also reflect the perspectives of their parents and different geographic communities. Eight thousand miles certainly is a long distance, but it appears not to be the deciding factor, as there are commonalities and differences between the participants regardless of where they live.

While the Jewish Reconnection Project is just getting started, it certainly seems like a great way to continue and augment many long-running and important conversations in the community.

Join Me for a Film

We have been talking about the power of film festivals for several years. (We plot them as “Destination Jewish Culture” events on our Public Space Judaism graph, provided they are held in commercial venues and utilize outreach best practices). That is why I was pleased when the folks at Rutgers University who are sponsoring the Rutgers New Jersey Jewish Film Festival invited me to lead a discussion on the film “Out of Faith” (November 11 at 12:15 pm at the Regal Cinema on Rt 1 in North Brunswick, NJ — watch the trailer at that link).

It is a provocative film (one which we have blogged about before). And I don’t want to give away the story or its surprise ending. But if your family has struggled over an interfaith relationship in its midst, then don’t miss the film. More than that, don’t miss the conversation afterwards where we will share insights garnered from the experience of hundreds of families with whom we have worked at the Jewish Outreach Institute. To paraphrase a quote from David Sacks, the founding chairman of the Jewish Outreach Institute, “What do you say when your son or daughter brings home a potential mate who hails from a different religious background? You say, ‘welcome’ and continue your lives together as a family.”

“Matriarchs on the Margin: Intermarried Jewish Women’s Modus Vivendi”

On Monday evening I will be attending a session at the Jewish Theological Seminary discussing current research on the history of women and Jewish intermarriage in America. The event, presented by The Jewish Feminist Research Group, will feature Keren McGinity, Ph.D., in discussion with Leslie Fishbein, Ph.D, professor of American Studies and Rutgers University, and Rabbi Charles Simon. Rabbi Simon, Executive Director of the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs, has made great strides in creating a place for intermarried couples and their children within Conservative Judaism (previously blogged about here).

The discussion will be dedicated to Dr. McGinity’s most recent work, specifically regarding what intermarriage meant to and for Jewish women who married men of other religious backgrounds, these women’s ethnic and religious heritage and how it has changed, and how intermarriage was portrayed by mass media and religious activists. McGinity’s doctoral study regarding these issues was written about in a summer 2005 issue of Lilith Magazine. It will be interesting to learn about her most recent findings in the field of Jewish women in intermarriages.

The event, titled “Matriarchs on the Margin: Intermarried Jewish Women’s Modus Vivendi” will be held on Monday, October 29th from 5:30-7:00 pm at the Jewish Theological Seminary. For more information and to RSVP, please find the contact information here.

A 20th Anniversary Tribute to JOI’s Leadership, Past and Present

Last night, the Jewish Outreach Institute celebrated its 20th Anniversary with an evening of tributes and music, and the release of an important new publication. The 2007 Tribute Evening honored our three late founders, David Belin, Egon Mayer, and David Sacks, and also honored our current President Terry Elkes and our current Executive Director Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky.

After moving presentations from friends and family members, we were treated to an amazing performance by “the prince of Kosher gospel music,” Joshua Nelson and the Kosher Gospel Singers, who we previously blogged about here. As I “warned” our audience while introducing him, if you’ve never heard him before, Joshua Nelson will completely redefine your understanding of “Jewish music.” He combines the best of Jewish liturgy with the best of the African-American musical tradition. Listen to some audio clips on his website.

To top off an already wonderful evening, everyone in attendance received a copy of our new publication, “A Welcoming Covenant: Inclusive Supplements to the Weekly Torah Portions” [PDF]. This collection contains a d’var Torah (commentary on the weekly portion of the Five Books of Moses) for every week of the year, with the corresponding dates for the next three years. It shows that there are welcoming and inclusive messages throughout the Torah. The commentaries were written by JOI’s own Rabbi Olitzky, and he continues to issue a new commentary each week through our “Big Tent Judaism: Word of Torah” email listserve, which you can sign up for here. JOI would not be here without the support of the many friends who were with us last night or contributed to the evening, and we thank them all.

“Integration” or “Segregation” for interfaith families?

Last week the Jewish Outreach Institute had an op-ed in the New Jersey Jewish News about outreach methods to interfaith families. While some may see a conflict in approaches, we see complementary models:

Shall we develop programs specifically for [intermarried households], separate from the mainstream? Or shall we simply try to engage them as we do anyone else, by developing programs of meaning regardless of where they fall on the spectrum of Jewish engagement? …

We recommend an approach that meets the needs of interfaith couples and their families not just through a combination of “segregation” and “integration” but also through a complete rethinking of our communal approach to interfaith outreach.

The integrationists are correct in suggesting that programs “open to all” will attract many more intermarried households than programs specifically for interfaith families. At the Jewish Outreach Institute we’ve devised a programming model called Public Space Judaism that follows our definition of outreach by “bringing the Jewish community out to where people are rather than waiting for them to come to us.” …

However, for those unaffiliated interfaith families that we meet in Public Space Judaism programs who would actually benefit from interfaith-specific programming, we must also have those programs to address particular interfaith needs. In this way, the integrated “we welcome everybody” programs can work together with the “interfaith-specific” programs to serve a larger audience.

Finally, we need to not only help the integration model work together with the interfaith-specific model, but also merge them together in every program. Each program, regardless of whether its target audience is a particular age cohort or interest group, must ask itself how it is also serving individuals from intermarried households, and what particular sensitivities need to be incorporated to do so. Providing greater leadership roles for actual intermarried individuals (or their children) will go far in helping identify those needs.

More Great Conference Coverage!

An article in today’s Washington Jewish Week, “Building the Jewish Big Top: Parley Focuses on the Art, Science of Outreach,” by Associate Editor Richard Greenberg, does a great job capturing the vision and optimism of JOI’s Third Annual Conference, held earlier this week (and already blogged about here):

The conference agenda included everything from nuts-and-bolts discussions of successful outreach initiatives to a presentation on “the outreach potential of popular entertainment” to personal vignettes from those who have lived life on the outskirts of American Judaism….

Keynote speaker Adam Bronfman, conference co-chair, has experienced life on both sides of the inclusion divide. Raised in a completely secular household, Bronfman married his high school sweetheart, who was not Jewish at the time, but later converted after raising their four children as Jews.

“My kids live in an identified Jewish home, yet when they go out, sometimes they’re told they’re not Jewish,” Bronfman, managing director of The Samuel Bronfman Foundation, said in his Sunday night talk. “My story is not unique.” In fact, he said the “issue of outsiders and insiders” is mulled over each day at his foundation.

“Rejection has unintended consequences,” he added. “I think anyone who identifies as a Jew is a Jew; I don’t have a threshold.” Bronfman, however, conceded that perhaps because of his high-profile name, he and his wife have encountered fewer obstacles than other intermarried couples. “I want that for everyone,” he added.

A few more photos of the conference after the jump… (more…)

This Week’s Torah Portion: Lech Lecha, “Go For Yourself”

[NOTE: Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky, JOI’s executive director, contributed the Torah commentary in this week’s New York Jewish Week newspaper. It is reprinted below.]

Journey From The Old, Into The Soul
by Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky
Special To The Jewish Week

Genesis 12:1-17:27

Lech Lecha: Go for yourself, for your own sake. Not for the sake of the community, not for the sake of others. The Torah uses the emphatic form as the lead in this week’s Torah portion in order to make sure that Abraham understands the force of the directive. One command (lech) is not enough. It has to be repeated in such a way so as to make sure that Abraham — and we, by extension, as those who engage the Torah — fully comprehend the thrust of the Torah’s instruction.

Lecha: For you, for your own well-being. Get out of this place. It is the only way that you can grow spiritually. If you remain here, you will stagnate. You will never reach the heights you seek. Even with its emphasis, the phrase “lech lecha” is only written once, but the intention is that it should be repeated often as a kavannah, a sacred mantra, so that we shouldn’t forget this spiritual impetus wherever our life’s journey takes us. The journey forward is indeed for our own benefit, our own good.


“WOW” what a conference!

As one attendee of JOI’s just-concluded conference wrote on her evaluation form: “Wow.” Another told me that he’d been attending Jewish conferences for over 20 years and that Sunday’s program was the single-best day of any conference he’d ever been to.

After almost ten months of preparation, and weeks of non-stop work leading up to these past three days in Washington DC, the JOI staff is extremely gratified at the positive feedback we’ve received and thankful to the hundreds of Jewish communal professionals and lay leaders who traveled from as far as Australia to join us. And we’re ready to recommit ourselves to the promise we made to them: this is just the beginning.

Sue Fishkoff writes in her JTA article about the conference, “Outreach advocates unveil coalition at confab, set to launch new initiatives“:

Rabbi Kerry Olitzky has been urging the Jewish community to be more welcoming to intermarried and unaffiliated families for the past 20 years. Now the executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute and his New York-based organization seem poised for a major breakthrough….

The institute has made a big push in the past two years to get outreach on top of the Jewish agenda….

These projects require funders who believe in outreach, Olitzky noted, as well as communal organizations willing to give up their private fiefdoms and work together. More and more Jewish communities have bought into the outreach agenda.

Have we reached the “tipping point”? Still too early to tell, but as the article mentions, a highlight of the conference was the launch of, which we hope to build as the venue for communal professionals and lay leaders to come together around welcoming newcomers, as well as linking up newcomers to the organizations that will be welcoming to them. It’s just a skeleton site right now, but with the conference over we will be able to dedicate more of our time and resources to make that vision a reality.

Here are some photos from the conference… (more…)

Should Non-Jewish Spouses of Synagogue Members Get the Vote?

It’s fitting that on the verge of our third annual conference, to be held in Washington DC beginning this Sunday, JOI’s executive director Rabbi Kerry Olitzky has an op-ed in the most recent edition of the Washington Jewish Week. And it’s a controversial one. Entitled “Non-Jewish Partners Deserve a Vote,” Rabbi Olitzky recommends that synagogues find a way to include intermarried spouses in the voting process on synagogue issues, arguing:

We know that intermarried households who have taken on the responsibilities (and expense) of synagogue membership are not interested in changing Judaism or infusing it with other religions. They are there for the same reasons as in-married and single Jewish households: primarily to educate their children Jewishly and also to find a spiritual home and a welcoming community. How can we make sure they are fully welcomed?

The paper’s editor took the fairly unusual step of replying directly to the piece through a counter-piece in the same edition, called “Citizenship Requires Conversion.” In it, the editor argues that:

We support the rabbi’s impulse that we should do all we can to make non-Jews—and anyone for that matter—feel welcome in our synagogues and Jewish institutions. Yet, full voting rights strikes us as something that, like full voting rights in the United States, should come with citizenship. In the case of Judaism, citizenship requires conversion.

We certainly understand the editor’s argument. And yet, she misses a couple of key points. The most prominent is the line in Rabbi Olitzky’s piece in which he writes, “There are no halachic (Jewish law) prohibitions here. It is only the institutional culture of fear that is preventing Jewish institutions, particularly synagogues, from granting full voting rights to intermarried families.” In other words, he is not arguing for the total removal of distinctions in synagogue life between those who are Jewish and those who are not (the way there are in theory no distinctions between one American citizen or another). Barriers still exist, and conversion may be necessary to fully remove those barriers. But the argument Rabbi Olitzky and we at JOI make is that there are many barriers that are not dictated by Jewish law but rather by the culture of the institution, and those can change to be more inclusive.

For example, there is no Jewish law at all about who can stand on a bima, the riser in front of the synagogue, because that’s an invention synagogues began borrowing from churches only a few hundred years ago. And yet, the culture within some individual institutions about who can and cannot stand on the bima during prayer services has inadvertently offended and pushed away many non-Jewish members of Jewish families—the very people who one day may want to take on “full” citizenship through conversion! Voting rights are a similar issue. It’s a point of culture where we can either include or exclude, and we vote for inclusion.

JOI Op-Ed: Let’s Create a Big Tent Judaism

In anticipation of the Jewish Outreach Institute’s Third Annual Conference beginning this coming Sunday October 14, 2007—and the launch during its opening session of our Big Tent Judaism Coalition—JOI’s executive director Rabbi Kerry Olitzky has co-authored along with Rabbi Elliot Dorff of the American Jewish University an opinion piece carried in today’s Jewish Telegraphic Agency dispatch called “Like Abraham and Sarah, Jewish World Should Welcome All into a ‘Big Tent’.” Here is the original full text:

All are Welcome into a “Big Tent Judaism”
By Rabbi Elliot Dorff and Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky

Imagine you are trekking through town on a scorching hot summer day when you pass by a man sitting at the entrance to his home, which happens to have all of its doors open. The man and his wife, whom you have never met, invite you into their home, provide you with water to drink, food to eat, a refreshing cool shower, and even rest in their den or guest room.

While this may not seem plausible to most of us—city dweller or suburbanite—it is familiar to readers of the Bible. This is an updated version of the well-known story of Abraham and Sarah, Jewish ancestors who modeled a variety of important values and behaviors for us. Long before the Rabbis began to codify actions in Jewish law, Abraham and Sarah innocently modeled simple welcoming Jewish behavior. They did not just invite guests into their home; they served them. They offered them water with which to wash. And they provided them with physical and spiritual sustenance. Their actions actively communicated one message to their guests: All are welcome in our tent.


They’re Not “Dolls,” They’re Action Figures!

If you are a child at heart or you remember how much you liked to play with action figures, then perhaps the new line of Almighty Heroes action figures is for you. Since this is a commercial venture, and not the product of an organization or religious denomination, it means that these figures will be featured on the shelf of the local toy store or discount store. Now the challenge is how to take full advantage of them. Can Jewish organizations program around them in the store? Should we be promoting their purchase? Should we use them in our institutionalized programs? JOI’s answer is yes and more. Whenever we have an opportunity to find Judaism in public spaces, we should take advantage of it—in the most creative ways possible. But don’t wait—who knows how long that they will last in the market place. (One word of caution: some have said that the accompanying pamphlets have a Christian theological overtone which might have to be navigated. On the other hand, they might prove as a vehicle for discussion in the context of interfaith families.)

Ecclesiastes - harvest of one’s life

The book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) is my favorite book in the Bible. And it is another reason why I enjoy these fall holidays—even though they seem to be non-stop this time of year. Since the Rabbis assign a Biblical reading to each of the holidays, Kohelet is assigned to the week of Sukkot. It is probably because Sukkot is a harvest festival and Kohelet is read as a kind-of harvest of a person’s life.

Some people don’t understand my affection for Kohelet. After all, it can be a depressing book. While most people think of the words in terms of the song made famous years ago “To everything, there is a season….Turn, turn, turn,” Kohelet is more famous for its opening statement of “Everything is vanity” (which I usually translate as “Everything is a wisp of wind”). There is no substance to it. There is nothing to it.

So rather than consider Kohelet as the manifestation of a depressed individual who sees little value in life, I actually see it the work of an insightful individual reflecting on his life from the perspective of his old age. He continues to affirm some thoughts that he had in his youth. And he rejects other notions that he assigns to immaturity and lack of perspective. Having lived a long and blessed life, he is prepared to offer his wisdom (literally that which is gained from experience) to those who might be interested in what he had to say. It is why I always imagined him as one of my teachers, not dissimilar to some of the teachers I was fortunate to study with as a young rabbinical student years ago.

So what do I learn from Kohelet that I carry with me through this holiday season that takes us from the joy of a new year at Rosh Hashanah—to the simulation of a spiritual death and rebirth during Yom Kippur—to the blessings of harvest during Sukkot—to the opportunity once again to reflect on Hoshanah Rabbah—to the joy of the Torah and its instruction for life on Simchat Torah? Living a life of blessing is the only way to challenge the vicissitudes of life.

Not Another Interfaith Romantic Comedy

Yes another interfaith romantic comedy. But this one may actually be worth seeing—and it’s coming to your local movie theater.

While most films about interfaith relationships focus on the pre-marital hurdles, which often results in an on-again, off-again relationship (something that I call the “interrupted relationship”), there seems to be none of that in the film “Ira and Abby.” The challenges don’t take place until after the wedding and the wedding takes place shortly after the couple meet.

This movie is for those who love Woody Allen movies—even if they are still angry at him, as I am, for his various escapades during his later years. The film was written by Jennifer Westfeldt (“Kissing Jessica Stein”) who also stars in it as Abby. Her co-star is Chris Messina whose character is as much Woody Allen as it is Ben Stiller. Abby is a membership salesperson for a local health club. Ira, a New York Jew with an unfinished Ph.D. in psychology whose analyst has fired him, is far more serious and less spontaneous. He happens upon the health club and Abby. And as stereotyped as these two protagonists are, their parents—on both sides—are even more so.

This is not a documentary nor docu-drama. Rather, it is a romantic comedy that may make for a nice Saturday night at the movies with family and friends. But the movie also cleverly tackles some serious issues that bubble up in many interfaith marriages without any preconceived notions or prejudice. It focuses on the couple and their family and friends and thankfully stays away from the opinions of the organized Jewish community or issues of Jewish continuity.

While the film has been released and is already showing in a few cities, its major release comes this week—just in time for the Jewish community’s programming season to begin in full force, as soon as all the fall holidays are over. Perhaps it will help broaden the dialogue that is already growing in our community.

A Stony Brook Success!

Recently JOI senior program officer Eva Stern and I traveled to Long Island to visit the Hillel at Stony Brook University. This visit was in anticipation of the Hillel and Resident Hall Association (RHA)-sponsored Block Party during their first few days of classes. The Block Party featured food, fun and music—all free for students (who only had to complete a RHA required waiver and supply Hillel with their contact information).

The Hillel-sponsored portion of the Block Party included Israeli snacks; apples-and-honey for Rosh Hashanah; Tie-dye shirt giveaways; an interactive drum circle; and the headlining event, Remedy, a popular Jewish hip-hop artist. These activities and concerts were interspersed amongst the various RHA sponsored booths, creating an open and welcoming environment for students to interact with Hillel and participate in low-barrier Jewish opportunities.

At our meeting before the event, Eva and I connected with a handful of student volunteers who would act as greeters and would be directing student traffic during the event. These extremely enthusiastic students learned the various methods of greeting and name collection, in order to ensure that they could welcome and reach out to as many students as possible, particularly those on the periphery and unengaged in Jewish life.

We at JOI congratulate the staff and student volunteers at Stony Brook University Hillel for a creative, engaging and successful event. Their dedication to reaching out to unengaged Jewish students and those on the periphery, paired with the generous support from the Samuel Bronfman Foundation, have allowed for a more inclusive, welcoming environment on the Stony Brook campus. We look forward to working with Stony Brook Hillel throughout the semester and with their future endeavors.

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