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Weblog Entries for December 2007

Intermarriage: How Big a “Problem”?

Traditionally, the organized Jewish community has viewed the growth of intermarriage only as a problem, based on studies showing that intermarried families are considerably less Jewishly involved then their in-married counterparts. But JOI has long pointed out that many intermarried families are Jewishly involved and do raise Jewish children, so we have also seen the opportunities inherent in this decades-long trend.

Sociology is finally beginning to back up our optimism, thanks to two new studies as reported by Sue Fishkoff in a recent JTA article called, “Survey data spark debate over intermarriage picture.”

The first study, entitled “It’s Not Just Who Stands Under the Chuppah: Jewish Identity and Intermarriage” by Leonard Saxe, Ferm Chertok, and Benjamin Phillips of the Cohen Center for Jewish Studies and Steinhardt Social Research Institute, found that when the Jewish background of the Jewish partner is taken into consideration, “the difference in the Jewish beliefs and practices of inmarried and intermarried families becomes much less glaring.” The conclusions of the study, Fishkoff said, have profound policy implications. According to Saxe:

“The objective doesn’t have to be conversion but the creation of positive, rich Jewish experiences,” explains Saxe. “Jewish education, Jewish home experiences, Jewish camp, Israeli experiences – that’s what leads to engagement in Jewish life whether one is intermarried or not.”

“Intermarriage is not deterministic,” concludes Saxe. The second study, conducted by the Combined Jewish Philanthropies and scheduled to be released next month, comes to the same conclusion. Gil Preuss, vice president for strategy and planning at the CJP, said they found that “intermarried families who have decided to raise their kids Jewishly look pretty much like other, non-Orthodox Jewish families.” He goes on to explain:

“This provides a basis for the notion that we need to create a community that welcomes them in, that says, look, there’s something good here – Jewish values, Jewish learning.”

According to our own Rabbi Kerry Olitzky—also quoted in the article—that’s the point:

It comes down to what individuals believe will help them lead better, richer lives. “When you’re a parent,” Olitzky said, “you make decisions on the basis of what’s good for you and your family, not what’s good for the Jewish community.”

After that, it’s up to the Jewish community to create a more inclusive atmosphere for intermarried families and encourage their increased participation in Jewish life.



Christmas… Just a Regular Day for Some

One of the St. Louis Mothers Circle participants, Amy Zaidman, was recently featured on the radio on KWMU’s St. Louis on the Air program. The topic of the show was “the dilemma faced during the month of December by those who do not celebrate Christmas.” Other radio guests included a Jew-by-Choice and a Muslim, and a variety of other folks called into the show. You can listen to a recording of the show here. Amy, who was raised Catholic, explains her decision to raise Jewish children and not to celebrate Christmas in her home, and she also speaks a bit about the different decisions other interfaith families make regarding the holidays. And as to whether Amy, her fellow radio show guests, and others who do not celebrate Christmas are really faced with a dilemma, well, I’d say that’s still up for debate.



An Invitation to Jews-by-choice and Their Families

Valley Beth Shalom, a Conservative synagogue in the Los Angeles area, published a wonderful journal of essays written by individuals who have chosen Judaism, “Your People, My People: Journeys” [PDF]. The journal includes 27 essays from a diverse array of men and women who share their reasons for conversion and what has attracted them to Judaism. Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis, nationally renowned pulpit rabbi, introduces the journal and intersperses meditations between the essays. He writes in his foreword:

[Jews-by-choice] are not Jews by blood type, but by character type. They are Jews because they have found in Judaism a wisdom, ethics, style of life and sense of the future that will fulfill their yearnings to become reflective of the image of Godliness. Judaism is not a matter of race and it is not a mater of “pure blood.” We do not choose our DNA. We chose our character.

Due to its overwhelmingly positive reception, Valley Beth Shalom has decided to expand the journal to book length and has extended an invitation to other Jews-by-choice and their families to participate by sharing their transformative stories. If you would like to participate in this project, please contact Elana Zimmerman before March 1, 2008 at 818.788.6000 or ezimmerman@vbs.org, or contact the book’s editor Michael Halperin at michaelhalperin@sprintmail.com.



Chinese Food on Christmas - The Music Video

On December 25, while many Jews are helping their Christian friends and relatives celebrate Christmas, plenty of others continue the decades-old, unofficial tradition of going to the
movies, eating out at Chinese restaurants, and/or trying our best to keep occupied during the one day each year that—more than any other—reminds us of just how tiny a minority we are in a country that is over 80% Christian.

Luckily for us (or unluckily, depending on your tastes), there’s a humorous “viral video” online paying homage to this Jewish phenomenon. Called “Chinese Food on Christmas,” it’s received over a million view on YouTube.com and turned its creator, Jewish day school music teacher Brandon Walker, into a minor celebrity according to this article in the Baltimore Sun. As the article points out, there are a number of scenes in the video that play on ugly Jewish stereotypes, but if you can get past that, the tune is actually catchy and the music is particularly well done compared to the typical Internet fare.

For a somewhat more studied look at the “tradition” of Jews eating Chinese food on Christmas, the Forward newspaper interviewed author and NY Times reporter Jennifer 8. Lee (yes, that is a number for her middle name) about the phenomenon. In her forthcoming book “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food,” she apparently writes in depth about the Jewish love of Chinese food, and in looking for an origin to the tradition, she points out, “the single most important thing is that Jews and Chinese are non-Christian immigrant groups. They were both always outsiders. And they share a lot of traits, specifically their love of education and family. So they were drawn to each other.”

Finally, for an even more serious view of Jewish feelings on Christmas Day (though ironically in the form of a comic!), the New York Times published “The Crèche” yesterday by Rebecca Gopoian and David Heatley. It’s a melancholy reflection of an adult child of intermarriage—herself now intermarried—about celebrating her husband’s Christian faith and what it means for their children. It conveys a remarkable amount in just a few words and drawings.

However you might be spending Christmas Day, we at JOI hope it’s a safe and happy one.



“I Want to Marry a Jew”

Esther Kustanowitz is a writer, editor, prolific blogger and Jewish dating columnist for the New York Jewish Week who we’ve blogged about before. She was the “session artist” in one of the sessions about intermarriage where I was a “thought leader” at the recent PLP Conference. She wrote about the experience in her “First Person Singular” column, explaining that:

I read a piece from my book-in-perpetual-progress, a chapter considering whether it would matter if I intermarried: If my babies would always be Jewish, maybe it paid to expand the dating pool and be more open-minded. (To ruin the ending, I decided intermarriage wasn’t for me, and to this day I restrict my dating pool to Jews who are interested in living a traditionally Jewish life.)

…I underestimated just how personally everyone in the room would react. While people were polite, challenging me respectfully and non-confrontationally, afterward I became aware that some offense had been taken. Some people — themselves intermarried or children of intermarriages — had heard my personal exploration as a condemnation of their (or their parents’) choices….

I want to marry a Jew. Not because I hate non-Jewish people or think they have nothing to offer me in terms of love, personality, humor, advice or life experience. But because having a Jewish life is important to me — it’s a lifestyle and perspective I find personally resonant and I think makes a contribution to the world.

Esther blogged about this column on her website, which gave me the opportunity to post a lengthy reply (perhaps the longest blog comment ever!). It obviously raises a lot of important issues and I applaud Esther for grappling with it even as I might disagree with her. As to the crux of the issue, I wrote:

You still seem to be operating on the assumption that intermarried couples don’t create Jewish households, when there are literally hundreds of thousands of us who do. For example, you write, “I want to marry a Jew…because having a Jewish life is important to me.” Having a Jewish life is important to countless intermarried Jews as well – myself included, and others in that room at PLP – and who you marry is neither cause nor effect of doing so. You’ve set up a clear corollary that you must in-married in order to have a Jewish life, implying that those who intermarry no longer have a Jewish life. It’s just not true. And I think that was the major cause of the reaction you felt in the room that day.



How to Make a Big Tent JCC

As the first national organization to join the Big Tent Judaism Coalition, we know that the JCC (Jewish Community Center) Association is at the forefront of using innovative ways to reach those on the periphery of Jewish life. For example, the JCC in Manhattan, a member of the JCC Association, has recently launched a program for young adults with learning disabilities called Adaptations, The Young Adult Life Skills Network. According to its website, the program “offers college educated young adults—people in their 20’s and 30’s with learning disabilities or those needing support—the benefits of a supportive environment as they work towards achieving their life goals.”

As part of its efforts to continue providing programs for a wide audience, the JCC Association has invited JOI Executive Director Dr. Kerry Olitzky to lead a session on Monday, May 5th at their upcoming Biennial Conference in Miami. The session, “Thinking Big-Make your JCC a Big Tent JCC,” will address the steps JCCs can take to make their institutions even more welcoming.

The Biennial is an opportunity for lay and professional leaders in the JCC Association to learn together and from each other new ways to energize and innovate the JCC institution. We hope “Thinking Big-Make your JCC a Big Tent JCC” will inspire individual JCCs nationwide to join the Big Tent Judaism Coalition and expand their already extensive program offerings to best welcome everyone associated with the JCC community.



Celebrating All Women

Watch out Chanukkah and Passover! You may have proven yourselves to be two of the most celebrated holidays in the Jewish community, but Rosh Chodesh is hot on your trail. Events and programs celebrating the day a new Jewish month begins are on the rise, and their popularity could give you a run for your money.

For example, this past November the University of Vermont Hillel held their “Once in a New Moon: Women’s Spa Night” to celebrate the new month and women empowerment. Female students learned about the event through a variety of sources, including their sororities, Facebook, Hillel follow-up efforts, and word-of-mouth. The participants, all female students, were invited to honor and celebrate the important women in their lives during an informal candle ceremony, then pamper themselves with organic spa products, sample home-made tasty treats, and win some prizes in a raffle. Students who had prior knowledge of the event were also asked to bring toiletries to donate to the local LUND Family Center, who sent a representative to speak about the organization.

During the event, the University of Vermont Hillel also took advantage of the Bronfman Strategic Engagement Grant and name collection tools recommended by JOI. By including an “interests” section on the raffle ticket, they were able to create an opportunity for students to indicate interest in joining a Jewish women’s group, as well as streamline the Hillel’s efforts in targeted follow-up. With Public Space Rosh Chodesh events like this happening at college campuses around the country, perhaps we’ll see a new name at the top of the Most Often Celebrated Jewish Holidays list.



Becoming a Richer Community through Acceptance

Rabbi Yitz Greenberg is clearly one of the greats of this generation. In Hebrew parlance, he would be classified as one of the gedolei ha-dor (religious leaders of the generation). An Orthodox rabbi who embraces pluralism, he has demonstrated his commitment and love for the Jewish community—the entire Jewish community—in nearly every project that he has undertaken in his illustrious rabbinic career. That is why it was no surprise—though particularly heartening nonetheless—to read his words (along with his wife Blu) in a recent article as part of the Forward newspaper’s renewed Bintel Brief column.

In response to a question posed by a reader about the conversion acceptance standards of one rabbi or one movement over the other, the Greenbergs write:

“We believe that those who have the authority should rule that all denominations give full faith and credit to the halachic acts of others that meet their halachic standards. They should not allow the politics of delegitimization to disqualify the other. Alas, this is not what is happening. The sectarians and the splitters are in the saddle in this generation. You will have to find your place within that reality. We are all the poorer for it.”

We are in full agreement. We have to make sure that we don’t continue to splinter the Jewish people by questioning the authority of one rabbi or movement. Instead, let’s work together to build a Big Tent Judaism where all are welcomed and embraced.



Optimism for Jewish Grandparents

I made a presentation at a suburban New Jersey Conservative synagogue the other night, focusing on what grandparents can do to nurture the Jewish identity of interfaith grandchildren. It was scheduled to honor the memory of a young man—Dr. Michael Fink—who had died about ten years ago. Perhaps the rainy night reflected the mood of those in attendance—at least at the onset of the presentation—because of what drew them to the presentation: the topic of intermarriage. They all had different stories but nearly all of them were directly impacted upon by intermarriage in one way or another. The presentation was covered in the New Jersey Jewish News:

Olitzky suggested changing the culture at synagogues where non-Jewish spouses are barred or ostracized, even though their children may be attending congregation religious schools. Some synagogues still require Jews married to non-Jews to join as single parents, and many exclude non-Jewish parents and grandparents from having any role in lifecycle events such as a bar or bat mitzva. “Go down the street to the Unitarian church, where you’ll find many interfaith families because they’ve figured out a way to make them feel comfortable,” he said. “We’re still trying to figure out where they can stand on the bima.”

By the time I was finished, I believe those 100 people assembled in the room came away with a sense of optimism that many of them had not experienced since their adult children came home to tell them they had fallen in love with someone who was not Jewish. This is the power of our work in breaking some of the widely-held negative stereotypes about the potential for interfaith families to raise Jewish children, and in empowering the community to become more inclusive. It really does what the prophet suggested: turning the hearts of children [back] to their parents and the hearts of parents [back] to their children.



Finding a Public Space in Cyberspace

I’ve recently returned from Northwestern University, located just outside of the Windy City (Chicago, Illinois). At this university’s Hillel (Jewish student organization), the staff and students have taken a creative spin on JOI’s Public Space Judaism methodology, taking Jewish student life out of the Hillel house and into cyberspace.

Fiedler Hillel at Northwestern University launched its website www.AskBigQuestions.com this fall thanks to the Bronfman Strategic Engagement Grant, giving students an opportunity to blog about a new “Big Question” every 2-3 weeks. Banners, flyers and Post-It Notes strategically placed around campus publicize the thought-provoking questions and direct students to the website. The students can then voice their opinions regarding the current Big Question, view YouTube video responses and be linked to other related websites.

This online Public Space Judaism interaction is then followed with a Fireside Chat in the campus student union building. These programs—modeled after the television program “Inside the Actors Studio”—feature a popular professor who has sponsored the current Big Question and speaks with students about his/her interpretation of the question and how s/he would answer it.

These Fireside Chats are a great example of JOI’s Public Space Judaism model in action, providing low-barrier opportunities for students to become more engaged with the organized Jewish Community, in this case through a Destination Jewish Culture event. [The first step along this path to increased engagement is a Public Space Judaism event, the online blog in this case. The second step, the Destination Jewish Culture event, requires prior knowledge of the event, but is still held in a secular venue.] Fiedler Hillel has had continued success with this model through its AskBigQuestions.com website and Fireside Chats and we at JOI look forward to hearing and reading more about the program next semester.



Setting the Reform Movement’s Agenda

While few people know what the president of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) will say prior to his biennial Shabbat morning sermon, constituents of the Reform movement wait for his words with great anticipation for they direct the trends of the movement for at least the 24 months that follow. Unlike his president Rabbi Alexander Schindler who spoke and then his staff scrambled to develop program and program materials that emerged from his talk, the current president of the URJ, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, is known to have all the materials ready for distribution before conference attendees leave the conference hall. That is why it will be particularly interesting to see what programs and materials have been prepared, since some salient elements of the presentation have already been leaked to the press.

According to one source, Yoffie will address the issue of intermarriage. He echoes the irony of American Jewish life that we have been saying at JOI: Intermarriage is a result of American Jewish success, not failure. He said “Intermarriage is a reality in American life and it flows from the fact (that) America has embraced us like no other country.” His strategy—and with this we are indeed in agreement—is to “Welcome them into our synagogues and encourage them to be part of Jewish life. Encourage conversion, if they are interested, [emphasis mine] and if not, encourage the couple to raise the children as Jews.” Yoffie said some similar things at his last biennial presentation. And while I continue to believe in conversion but not as an outreach strategy, I look forward to the movement putting into place a low barrier system for those who would honor us with their joining the Jewish community and participating in Jewish life.



Indifference in Amsterdam?

I just returned from a trip to Amsterdam and Budapest. It is part of my goal to look at each Jewish community, especially the ones that once were. And both provided me with rather amazing experiences, especially from my perspective as someone working hard to reach out and welcome in those on the periphery of the Jewish community. And while we spent time in both Jewish communities, we were in Amsterdam on Shabbat. We spent Friday evening at the Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam and Shabbat morning at the Ashkenazi Synagogue.

Since it was already cold and it costs a great deal to heat the large Portuguese Synagogue, we met in the esnoga (chapel). There were perhaps 15 men and about the same number of women in the women’s gallery. And while the women were quite friendly to my wife, not one of the men said hello or asked me what I was doing in Amsterdam. I had a similar experience the following morning.

When I reported the incidents to a friend, he offered: “Maybe they are just tired of tourists?” I countered, “But I was in shul davening; I wasn’t just a tourist.” Reflecting on the experiences, I wondered whether they were indeed just wary of strangers. I certainly understood once again what it was like to be a stranger—the experience of many on the periphery of the community here. So I wondered whether others had had similar experiences or could offer an explanation. What was clear to me—the Amsterdam community, at least the synagogues that we attended could use the best practices of JOI!



Collaboration Fostered in Phoenix

I have often said that the sensitive nature of our work, especially in dealing with the inclusion of those on the periphery of the Jewish community—particularly the intermarried—tends to raise issues about collaboration for Jewish communal professionals. Yet often there are other larger issues that are camouflaged behind the issues related to intermarriage, and that is what really needs to be addressed.

Eva Stern, JOI’s senior program officer, and I just returned from a day of work with the Phoenix Jewish community, sponsored by UJC and the local Jewish Federation. We offered two different sessions to the community: one on our signature Public Space Judaismsm program strategy and one on welcoming newcomers into the community for those on the “front line.”

At the first session, about 35 rabbis gathered together to listen to our presentation. They represented all the various streams of Judaism, with a large contingent of Chabad and Orthodox rabbis. What was startling was that most of these rabbis did not know each other, had never met one another, and, as a result, had never worked together. (One staff member told us that this is the first time in at least 15 years that such a meeting had taken place.)

It was remarkably gratifying that they all seemed actively interested in our approach and committed to collaboration. By the end of our time together, we may have even brokered two specific partnerships between Conservative and Chabad synagogues. More were willing to continue the conversion, for they realized that we were talking about the future of the Jewish community—the future of Judaism itself—which overrides denominationalism or any one specific institution. Sometimes the power of our work reveals cracks in the system and sometimes it has the power to heal those rifts and bring people together. Stay tuned.



Mothers Circle Moms Celebrate Hanukkah

Amanda Lindenbaum is one of fifteen women of other religious backgrounds raising Jewish children who are enrolled in The Mothers Circle course in Baltimore. An article in yesterday’s Baltimore Sun, “Passing the torch of Jewish tradition: Mixed families come together for Hanukkah,” reports on Amanda and other Mothers Circle participants learning about Hanukkah and celebrating the holiday with their families:

This weekend, Amanda Lindenbaum had already taught her 6-year-old son, Cole, to make some Hanukkah crafts. His sister, 2-year-old Kate, was adding dots to some dreidel shapes her mom had cut out. Once, “my grandparents were the ones who made the holidays,” [Amanda’s husband] Heath said. Now, “we can be those people,” Amanda said.

The eight-month Mothers Circle course focuses on Jewish rituals, values, and the how-tos of creating a Jewish home. The Baltimore Mothers Circle is operated by the Jewish Community Center of Greater Baltimore and generously supported by the Ben and Esther Rosenbloom Foundation, the Hoffberger Foundation, and The Jacob & Hilda Blaustein Fund of The Associated.

Especially at this time of year, moms appreciate the education and support that the program provides. For more information about the Mothers Circle, visit www.TheMothersCircle.org, and for helpful information about celebrating Hanukkah with your own family, be sure refer to the Hanukkah section of JOI’s website.



HAPPY HANUKKAH FROM JOI!

I love the Jewish holidays. I really do. And in our house, there are no such things as minor festivals. We decorate and throw parties and invite guests, no matter the holiday. So on Hanukkah our house is always overflowing. From my perspective, the “minor” (while I understand its technical distinctions in Jewish law) is only a state of mind as far as Hanukkah is concerned. So let’s keep building giant menorahs. And let’s continue their lighting in public spaces so that all can share in the message of the miracle of religious freedom. Our world seems to need to hear this message now more than ever.



Judaism in the (Campus) “Marketplace”

Last month, Hillel at Eastern Michigan University hosted their first Israeli Marketplace (“Shuk”). This exciting event provided students with the opportunity to connect with Israel on a cultural and culinary level, featuring Israeli delicacies, music, Dead Sea products, and a chance to learn about free trips to Israel. The Marketplace was held in a heated outdoor tent in a very well trafficked part of campus, inviting students passing by to literally stumble upon the program. As such, it represents JOI’s Public Space Judaism methodology applied to the college campus.

In addition to bringing Judaism to students “where they are” physically, this program took place as part of a university-wide international week, thus bringing Judaism to students “where they are” in terms of the university calendar. The event was so successful that Hillel professionals were complemented as having put on the “most impressive event” of the whole international week!

This public space program is the third to emerge at Eastern Michigan University this semester from the Bronfman Strategic Engagement Grant initiative which is managed by JOI. Their first program in September was “Rock the Block” rock climbing, an active and interactive introduction to Jewish opportunities on campus throughout the year. Their second was a harvest festival for the holiday of Sukkot, featuring edible, artistic, and altruistic activities.

We at JOI recommend that the public space events Hillels run can engage students on multiple levels. JOI’s Program officer Lily Matusiak and Senior Program officer Eva Stern visited EMU for the harvest festival, training EMU students in elements of outreach methodology including greeting, collecting names, and following up strategically and personally with newcomers to help them feel comfortable, welcomed, and included. We’re thrilled that EMU Hillel is beginning to see their efforts pay dividends.





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