Weblog Entries for November 2007

Two More From Our Conference…

As we continue to conduct one-on-one, personal follow-up with the nearly 250 Jewish communal professionals and volunteer leaders that attended our conference in Washington DC last month, I wanted to post two more articles that resulted from the gathering.

The first is a profile of conference co-chair Adam Bronfman, who gave a rousing keynote speech on the first evening of the conference. JTA reporter Sue Fishkoff caught up with him afterwards and wrote a great piece about this communal leader, whose focus on meaning and values over raw demography is, we believe, the best approach toward creating a Big Tent Judaism:

Bronfman is more interested in encouraging Jews and Jewish institutions to treat newcomers with warmth than in counting “which percentage of the Jewish world does X.” Outreach, he says, should be used to help Jews find more meaning in their lives. As a philanthropist and a person, that’s more important to him than bean counting.

Great volunteer leaders must work toward their vision in partnership with great Jewish communal professionals, which is why we were also gratified to read a terrific first-person account of the conference from conference participant Rabbi Brigitte Rosenberg in the St. Louis Jewish Light newspaper, in which she wrote:

We had gathered together, participants from all walks of Jewish life, to discuss outreach and what it means for the Jewish community of the present and future. There were a variety of workshops ranging from the “how to’s” of innovative outreach methods, to understanding how we can be inclusive of the LGBT Jews in our communities, to hearing first-hand accounts from those who are Jews by Choice, those who are intermarried but raising Jewish families, and those who are intermarried and raising interfaith families. Following every workshop session there was a “buzz,” as conference participants discussed what they just learned and how these outreach opportunities might work within their own communities.

We are now working to maintain that “buzz” even as we transition to the behind-the-scenes efforts of outreach programming, rolling out the communal welcome mat to all those who would join us.

Proactive Conversion?

JOI is involved in a big project, sponsored by the Russell Berrie Foundation and in collaboration with the UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey. Over the next months we will be developing a variety of big ideas for the Jewish community that can be applied locally, with national implications for replication. They are all about reaching those on the periphery of the Jewish community, and we will be sure to blog about it more in the coming weeks.

But there is one idea that may fall outside of those discussions and that is why I wanted to write about it on JOI’s blog. It has to do with an active program of conversion. Gary Tobin, director of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research has long been writing about it. So has Saul Singer recently, the editorial page editor of The Jerusalem Post in various columns (here and here).

Both contend, although arguing from different perspectives, that the Jewish community should pursue an active program of conversion. Both believe that it is a strategy for growing the Jewish community. And I am intrigued. But the lingering part of the issue that still needs to be articulated is, why should those outside of the Jewish community want to cast their lot with the Jewish community? Those who are inside may have a gut reason as to why but be unable to articulate it. And maybe people have to experience a welcoming Jewish community before they can even begin to understand its values and traditions. And we at JOI would add that barriers to conversion need to be lowered if this is to be an effective strategy (without lowering standards). So what do you think? Should we add it to our community agenda?

New Blog for Jews-by-Choice

It seems there is a new blog on the web every half-second, and most disappear just as quickly, but here’s one that I sincerely hope will be around a very long time: is a new “group blog” in the “J-Blogosphere” that launched on October 1. The blog is by- for- and about Jews-by-Choice (converts to Judaism), but should be of interest to all kinds of Jews—whether we are Jews-by-Choice or Jews-by-Chance—because it’s about digging deeper into the meaning of Judaism and the question “Why be Jewish?” It also tackles some more specific questions about “how observant?” and “where do I fit into this community?” The contributors are mostly young people and fairly new to Judaism, so they offer a fresh exploration of the issues.

And as a reminder while we’re on the subject, JOI maintains a listserve for women Jews-by-Choice called Empowering Ruth (as a complement to our educational program of the same name and for the same population). For more information about Empowering Ruth or to sign up for the listserve, please visit this webpage.

We’ve also initiated a listserve for men Jews-by-Choice called Shofar that is still in “beta” stage but you can sign up for it here.

We hope to help foster and expand the conversation for Jews-by-Choice as they continue to navigate their Jewish identity and the landscape of the organized Jewish community.

The Jewish Redbook

There’s a new magazine out on the newsstands that’s worth noticing. Jewish Living is a new bi-monthly magazine that, according to its newly launched website, “celebrates Jewish home, Jewish family and Jewish cultural life like no other magazine ever has.” I first read about the magazine in this New York Daily News article and then went out to buy my own copy of the first issue. It’s packed with fun and tasty ideas along with helpful information about raising children and making a Jewish home. I think I may even get a subscription for myself! If you like magazines like Martha Stewart Living or Real Simple, I have a feeling you’ll like this one too.

The premiere issue features easy recipes for Shabbat and Hanukkah (click here for Jewish Living Magazine’s latke recipe), instructions for playing dreidel, advice for raising kids with character, a guide to hanging a mezuzah, and much more. Check it out and let us know what you think.

Straight Talk About The Challenges of Engagement

Journalist Julie Wiener—whose monthly column in the New York Jewish Week Newspaper about her own intermarriage we’ve blogged about beforemost recently wrote a piece called “Outreach at a Crossroads” about the challenges of her own grassroots “Tot Shabbat” outreach initiative. She writes:

I recently attended the Jewish Outreach Institute conference in Washington, D.C., where approximately 250 activists discussed strategies and frustrations in bringing people into the Tribe. And it made me think a lot about my Tot Shabbat effort…. in many ways my Tot Shabbat challenge is typical of the organized Jewish community’s traditional and colossally unsuccessful approach to engaging the unaffiliated: basically, do what you are accustomed to doing and then get mad at people when they don’t show up.

At the beginning of the conference, JOI announced “Big Tent Judaism,” an initiative to make Jewish institutions more welcoming to newcomers. But as the sessions and discussions unfolded, I realized that “opening the tent,” as JOI puts it, is only part of the challenge of outreach. Even more critical is what’s inside the tent…. Too many Jewish institutions are boring, uninspiring places where people go more out of a sense of duty and loyalty than because they enjoy it or find it rewarding….

While the organized Jewish community may regard being unaffiliated or intermarried as a problem in need of a solution, most individuals who fit this description do not. That doesn’t mean they won’t respond to meaningful Jewish activities — but the activities have to be of the same caliber we’ve come to expect from children’s museums or ballet classes or family concerts. They have to inspire and educate — or at least entertain. And that’s a tall order for any nonprofit institution, particularly those — like most synagogues — run primarily by overextended (and often elderly) volunteers without much of a budget at their disposal.

It’s exciting for us at JOI to see the challenges so clearly articulated. It’s also important, as Julie realizes by the end of her column, to recognize that there are solutions as well, or at least new approaches that we can attempt as a community. Once you’ve had the joy of helping someone else find a way into the Jewish community and find some meaning from Jewish life, you realize that it’s worth all the effort…and that the challenges can be overcome!

Happy Thanksgiving!

A few years back, JOI’s executive director Rabbi Kerry Olitzky wrote a short piece on the potential for conflict for interfaith families during Thanksgiving. He wrote that Thanksgiving is a time for family…

But that is precisely why such a holiday has the potential to be just as filled with conflict as are holidays that belong to one religious tradition or another, and why Thanksgiving can really catch us off-guard. Even after it is decided with which family the holiday should be celebrated (a challenge for most families, interfaith or not), there are still quite a few obstacles around which interfaith families must navigate. Simply put, whenever family gets together, unresolved issues that often boil under the surface rise to the top when we least expect it. Little things can set them off, but it may take a long time to recoup from them. That’s why it is better to anticipate them.

The piece recommends honest communication as the best way to avoid conflict. We hope your holiday will be filled with nothing but joy and good food. Happy Thanksgiving!

Documentary film follows multicultural, interfaith adoptive family

One Family: An Ethiopian Adoption is a documentary story of Rob and Claudia, an interfaith couple, who travel to Ethiopia to adopt Meskerem, a 10-year-old girl. She lost her parents to the AIDS epidemic that is sweeping across Africa and leaving over one million children as orphans. This is the third documentary for Jim Ritvo (formerly a practicing attorney) and Dave Raizman and their company called 132 Main Productions.

As reported in the Jewish Advocate newspaper, the film was shown in the New England Film and Video Festival in Brookline, Massachusetts, another example of how it is possible to reach a broader audience by screening a film in a commercial theater in the context of a general film festival and not one that is exclusively or even primarily Jewish.

As the filmmakers follow the couple, they found that issues of race were not nearly as important to the people they interviewed in Africa, where many other priorities are of higher concern. In addition, they were surprised to see how the orphanage became a family for the orphans and how the separation for Meskerem, even for an apparently better life, was not easy. The film documents the family’s return to the United States for a little less than two months, during which time there is an examination of the various cultures that Meskerem must integrate into her life, beginning with the fast for Yom Kippur. For someone who lived a life with little food and may have often gone hungry, the notion of fasting is a difficult concept to grasp, especially at ten years old.

For those who are intrigued by the various dimensions of interfaith and multicultural families within a Jewish community, this is certainly a film to consider. It is a Big Tent indeed for those who wish to enter it and live within it.

Bar/Bat Mitzvah as a Beginning not an End

At JOI, we have long been looking for ways to provide access to Jewish rituals like bar and bat mitzvah to those who may not be on the traditional “track” of Jewish education and affiliation. A recent article in the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles, “Congregations, Rabbis Try to Stop the ‘Big Day’ from Becoming the Last Day,” discusses different approaches to attracting and retaining children both before and after bar/bat mitzvah. Our joint initiative with STAR is discussed:

Nationally, the Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI), in partnership with STAR (Synagogues: Transformation and Renewal), is conducting a pilot program, “Call Synagogue Home,” in the West San Fernando Valley. Participating synagogues take part in a one-day seminar, which focuses on creating a connection with interfaith families around life-cycle events, including b’nai mitzvah.

“We are using life-cycle events, both traditional and nontraditional, to nurture and develop relationships with interfaith families and children,” said Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, the institute’s executive director. “We help congregations to see where they can say yes, as opposed to focusing on where they have to say no.” … JOI has prepared a manual about b’nai mitzvah that explains how rabbis might tackle typical problems that come up for interfaith or unaffiliated families.

One of JOI’s recommendations is a more flexible residency requirement. “We help congregations recognize that there are going to be families who don’t approach a synagogue until close to the bar or bat mitzvah,” Olitzky said. “They don’t recognize that many synagogues have a schedule that chooses dates three years in advance and religious schools that require several years of preparation and commitment.”

If a three-year commitment is what the synagogue is looking for, he suggested, then perhaps the clergy should ask people to commit for the three years after the ceremony, rather than before.

The program helps rabbis separate issues of Jewish law from those of synagogue culture, for example, where a non-Jewish parent can stand on the bimah, who can handle the Torah, who can be involved in a ceremony to pass the Torah across generations or parental blessings that do not include formulas about chosenness. “We don’t want to force synagogues to do things that are beyond their set of principles or guidelines, but we want to stretch them to their comfort level,” Olitzky said.

Adult Child of Intermarriage is a New Jewish Leader

An article in the Washington Jewish Week entitled “D.C.-area Jews among ‘New Jewish Leaders to Watch’discusses two local Washingtonians who attended the recent PLP conference in which I co-led a workshop and helped facilitate two other sessions. I was priveldged to meet one of these new leaders at the conference, Rachel Cohen, and hear her fascinating story, which is also revealed in this article:

The child of a Jewish father and a minister mother, Rachel Cohen grew up singing in her church choir and, until seven years ago, knowing virtually nothing about Judaism. Last week, she was named one of five “New Jewish Leaders to Watch” by the Professional Leaders Project, having started the group Shabbat Hoppin’ to introduce Jews without much Judaic background to Shabbat services. How did she come so far so fast? It was all because, as a student at the University of Pennsylvania, she learned about a free trip…the inaugural Taglit-Birthright Israel mission, and Cohen said that she “fell in love with the people, religion, tradition, country.” …

After her life-changing experience in Israel, Cohen, 29, returned to college, but found that while she immediately wanted to “make myself of service to the Jewish community,” she didn’t have the basic knowledge necessary to attend Shabbat services or study Torah—and no one was offering to teach her. But she kept in contact with Birthright, regularly calling to inquire if the organization had started an alumni program, and three years ago she was directed to the first PLP conference.

There, with so many top Jewish leaders and funders in attendance and many lamenting the issue of intermarriage, she told her story of being a child of intermarriage who couldn’t find a place in the Jewish community. “You didn’t lose me, but you’re going to if you don’t build more bridges to people like me,” she said, and “in that moment I became a Jewish leader.”

Rachel is living proof that the doors to the Jewish community must never be closed, especially to the adult children of intermarriage, and that we as a community must do much more to provided greater opportunities and entryways into Jewish life for those who would join us. At JOI, we’re thrilled to count Rachel among the “new Jewish leaders” and will do whatever we can to support her advocacy for greater inclusion.

Video News Report about U.S. Jewish Intermarriage

When one of our board members shared with me this online video clip from Israeli news outlet Ha-aretz about intermarriage, I didn’t know what to expect. I figured that I would hear the same old Israeli triumphalism about intermarriage (that moving to Israel is the only way to avoid assimilation and loss of Jewish identity). While this short segment included some personal testimony and offered perspective from both the East Coast (New York City) and West Coast (Los Angeles), I was pleasantly surprised to see that the only leadership quote was taken from Arnie Eisen, the new chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Eisen’s statements are refreshingly realistic. First, he says that Jews act like other Americans. Intermarriage is an American phenomenon, something that we at JOI have been saying for a long time. He also says that we have to consider how powerful a statement it is that as many Jews as do marry other Jews when you consider how small the Jewish population is in the United States. Again, we have been saying for a long time that intermarriage is demographically driven. I am looking forward to his next statement. Perhaps it will also be in accord with JOI’s position—let’s stop focusing on intermarriage and instead help those who have intermarried raise Jewish children.

Lowering the Cost Barrier to Conversion

We hope this will become a trend. The Robert I. Lappin Charitable Foundation sponsors FREE Introduction to Judaism courses in its community.

It has always seemed absurd to me that the Jewish community would charge for those courses which are designed to encourage conversion. If we are really interested in welcoming those interested in joining the community through conversion, then we have to lower barriers such as cost in order to do so. In this case the Lappin Foundation, located on the North Shore of Boston, gets it right and we commend them for it. Perhaps other foundations and the communities they support will follow their lead.

“Torn Apart” Provides an Opportunity to Come Together

When we speak about interfaith marriage in North America, we tend to focus on the marriages between Christians and Jews, because that is the overwhelming majority of cases (whether or not those Christians still practice). At the same time, I recognize that there are a growing number of interfaith marriages that take place between Jews and those of religious backgrounds other than Christianity. The recent release on DVD of Torn Apart reminded me that such interfaith marriages take place between Muslims and Jews in the U.S. and elsewhere (particularly in Israel), even if few people are talking about it.

This film was originally released in 1989 (and on video in 1990) and is based on the 1983 book by Chayym Zeldis called A Forbidden Love. Both the book and movie have been described as a West Bank Romeo and Juliet story. The release on DVD provides us with an opportunity to program formally in our institutions and reach out to the Muslim community. But real understanding is not built between institutions; it is built between people. So why not invite a few people into your home, show it, and discuss its impact on both communities.

Engagement through the Arts

Hillel at Johns Hopkins University is on to something. JOI has been working with their 2nd year Jewish Campus Service Corps (JCSC) Fellow throughout the fall semester to create events for Jewish students interested in the arts, a population previously overlooked on campus. Their focus during the first half of the semester was to create an Arts Sukkah and related programming, titled the Arts Explosion, during Sukkot.

JOI Senior Program Officer Eva Stern [pictured above in the Arts Sukkah] and I were lucky enough to join the students at Johns Hopkins for the Arts Explosion’s culminating event, the “Arts Attack!”, featuring several extremely talented student a cappella groups, poets and improv performances. This event, as well as other programs throughout the week, took place in a public courtyard where the beautiful sukkah was placed on campus.

Hopkins Hillel’s sukkah was particularly eye-catching as its three walls were created and decorated by art produced by students. These students had taken part in a series of art workshops, including glass mosaics, painting, ceramic tiles, print making, drawing, and felting. The combination of these mediums generated a superb sukkah that left those passing by in awe.

Hopkins Hillel’s art initiative, generously funded by the Bronfman Strategic Engagement Grant, will continue into the second half of the semester to celebrate Hanukkah. I can only imagine what beautiful art the students will create this winter.

Jewish Sacred Moments for Interfaith Families

Dasee Berkowitz is an experienced Jewish educator who is seeking to navigate the changing issues in Jewish education, especially when it comes to those families—many of them interfaith—who by choice or by necessity have decided not to affiliate with the organized Jewish communities and its Jewish institutions and pursue life cycle events. Rather, she wants to create a personalized approach—similar to what JOI has called a Jewish Concierge ServiceSM—in order to meet the needs of the changing Jewish community. Since families often enter the Jewish community within the context of life cycle events, this is the place that she is starting. And since she is an educator, she believes that education is also the entry point for life cycle events. This is what she says about the class she is teaching:

Jewish Sacred Moments: A Class for Interfaith Families

It can be hard work for interfaith families (including parents of intermarried children) to celebrate sacred moments in ways that satisfy everyone. In this class, participants can learn more about each stage of the Jewish life cycle: birth, coming of age, marriage, death and mourning as they gain resources to enrich their Jewish life passages. Participants will also have opportunities to reflect on negotiating diverse families’ needs by sharing experiences and strategies with each other.

The program is soon (November 20, 27, Dec. 4, 11) so if you are interested in learning more about her approach or the program itself, contact: 212-865-0600 or

Another Outreach Opportunity through Popular Media

When people talk about how the telling of the stories of the Bible never gets old, they are usually talking about content. The Rabbis of the collection called Pirke Avot wrote “turn it, turn it, for all is in it” (Pirke Avot 5:22) for they understood that the Torah is an infinite source of wisdom for us. I don’t think that they had in mind the various forms that such a retelling would take. And I am sure that they didn’t have in mind the latest animated film narrated by Ben Kingsley called “The Ten Commandments” which will be coming to a big screen real soon in your community. You can see the trailer here. It is the first of a series of 12 animated films whose theme emerge directly from the Bible. And while many of them have Christian themes, others focus on what might be described as nonreligious stories. The Christian religious community is already poised to take advantage of its release as an opportunity for discussion and engagement. Is the Jewish community ready to do the same?

Mother and Daughter Write About Their Intermarried Family

The winter 2007 issue of Reform Judaism Magazine focuses on the next generation of Jewish outreach. A pair of articles by Beverly Asaro, a mother from another religious background, and her Jewish daughter, Joelle Asaro Berman (who we blogged about here) detail their individual experiences in their Sicilian, Jewish family.

Beverly, in “Celebrating Our Differences,” explains her choice to raise Jewish children and describes the melding of her Sicilian background with her husband’s Judaism. The support of both her and her husband’s family helped Beverly to create a Jewish home in which her Jewish children and husband embraced her cultural background. She writes:

There are so many warm and wonderful stories, such as our first Chanukah together, when I, a Sicilian American, made the challah and my Jewish mother-in-law the lasagna—and all the guests at the dinner table assumed it was just the opposite.

Beverly also writes of the few times she has been uncomfortable in the Jewish community:

During the preparations for my daughter’s bat mitzvah my role was defined repeatedly as that of the non-Jew. I actually came to feel that I should have “non-Jew” branded on my forehead. My husband spoke to the persons involved, and they were quite repentant; they had never before considered the negative impact of their words.

Beverly makes the important point that partners from other religious backgrounds should be welcomed into Jewish institutions and not be made to feel like outsiders or others.


A Powerful Message of Welcoming to Intermarried Families

One of the highlights of my participation in the PLP ThinkTank3 Conference last week (as blogged about here) was the opportunity to meet and serve on a panel with Rabbi Isaac Jeret of Congregation Ner Tamid of South Bay in Rancho Palos Verdes, CA. During our session on intermarriage and interdating, Rabbi Jeret offered many important messages about creating a welcoming Jewish community for intermarried families—including the suggestion that we redefine our answers about “what is a Jewish household” around Jewish values rather than simply based on the lineage of household members.

The fact that Congregation Ner Tamid is affiliated with the Conservative movement, yet is able to welcome in a huge number or intermarried households, shows that even as the movement leadership struggles mightily with issues of intermarriage, innovation is occurring on the local level. We hope others in the movement (and the community at large) will draw lessons from Rabbi Jeret’s inclusive message and methods.

One of Rabbi Jeret’s messages that struck me as particularly important, both for its words and its timing, came this past Yom Kippur—the biggest synagogue day of the year—to an audience of over 2,000 congregants. And it came at a particularly emotion time, right before Yizkor, the memorial service for those who have passed away. Rabbi Jeret gave us permission to reprint it in full, and we will also post it to our Think Pieces and Testimonials Page of once that part of the site goes live:

A Special Thank You To Non-Jewish Spouses of The Congregation Ner Tamid Family

My friends, we are about to begin the journey into our collective and respective memories of all of those who have come before us. For some of us, in some instances, our relationships with those whom we remember were simple and sweet. I have found, as I am sure that you have found, that this is not always the case. As well, the breadth and depth of our memories of individuals are as limited as our relationships with them were complex and even complicated at times; none of us can fathom the entirety of another’s existence. Our loved ones’ more complete interaction with this world and contribution to it is truly beyond our grasp.


El Paso’s Big Tent - For Both Guests and “Joint Proprietors”

“Nowhere in the Torah does it say that Abraham and Sarah asked their guests to join the synagogue.” Rabbi Larry Bach of Temple Mount Sinai in El Paso, TX, made this statement to his congregation a few weeks ago during Shabbat (Sabbath) services. At the Jewish Outreach Institute, we encourage the welcoming in all who wish to cast their lot with the Jewish community, regardless of whether these individuals plan to pay membership dues to our institutions. And we are thrilled that a growing number of synagogue lay and professional leaders are joining us in this belief.

In his d’var Torah (commentary on the Torah), Rabbi Bach announced the creation of JOI’s Big Tent Judaism Coalition and commended his congregants on their already welcoming practices while urging them to further widen their tent:

For hospitality to be genuine, it must be offered without condition. We, who are so used to the idea that “there’s no such thing as a free lunch,” are sometimes confused by such hospitality. A year doesn’t pass that I don’t hear from some newcomer these words: “No, really Rabbi, how much are your High Holiday tickets?”

I am so proud that this synagogue has maintained the practice of offering its High Holiday services to all who choose to enter. I am proud of our partnership with the Jewish Federation which allows us to present Youth and Family programming to the entire Jewish community. I am proud of our special outreach to soldiers and their families. I am proud of our efforts to welcome Jews-by-choice, intermarried families, and Jews from diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds. At Temple Mount Sinai we know that there isn’t merely one way that Jewish families look, or act.


Who are Tomorrow’s Jewish Communal Leaders?

I just returned from a conference called ThinkTank3 in sunny Santa Monica, CA, sponsored by the Professional Leadership Project (PLP). PLP is a unique organization that identifies and engages “talent”—young Jews in their 20s and 30s that may or may not currently be involved in the organized Jewish community—and deepens their interest and involvement through a variety of programs, including annual conferences like ThinkTank3 but also through fellowships (academic scholarships) in exchange for a commitment to work in the organized Jewish community.

While I have presented at numerous conferences in the past, this was a unique invitation in that I was specifically asked to attend the entire three-day conference, rather than having the option to just show up, give my spiel, and leave—which is standard operating procedure for most presenters at most conferences. In retrospect, it makes a lot of sense. By being there from beginning to (almost) end, I really got to talk to many of the young people in small groups and one-on-one, hopefully imparting some of JOI’s ideas about an inclusive Jewish community and the methodologies it will take to get us there, but also learning from them about the work they do and the challenges they face.

I’m convinced that PLP has identified a strong cohort of future leaders for the Jewish community and that the organization will only grow stronger as they place more and more PLP “graduates” in leadership positions throughout the community. I came away very encouraged by the commitment I saw from these young people. Some I already knew, including ThinkTank3 conference co-chair Julie Tilson Stanley, who is also interning at JOI while she pursues her graduate degrees from New York University through the PLP Fellowship program. Julie has remarkable enthusiasm and I’m sure PLP was as thrilled to have her help put together a terrific conference as we at JOI are to have her helping us out with, well, everything we do. We anticipate great things in the Jewish community from Julie and from the many other attendees at the ThinkTank3 conference!

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