Weblog Entries for January 2008

or Go to older posts

Jewish Advice Column

While JOI doesn’t have a dedicated advice columnist, we do administer a variety of listserves where people can seek answers to some of the tougher questions about intermarriage or life after choosing to be Jewish. They provide a safe place for people across the country to share their thoughts and experiences, and we are always interested in what those who are paid to answer these types of questions have to say.

In a recent column for the Jewish Reporter of Las Vegas, advice columnist Ayelet Blit was asked a question by a Jewish man marrying outside of his faith that many in his situation must deal with before they get married: How can he win the acceptance of his parents, who don’t approve of the relationship?

This is an increasingly common dilemma for Jews in America, and around the word, today. We live in a multicultural society, which only raises the chances of falling in love with someone of a different background or faith. Ayelet recognizes how difficult this situation can be for the families involved, and says there is no single answer to the question. But in her response she brings up one of the most common fears for Jewish parents:

Why are they so opposed to your marriage to a non-Jewish girlfriend? In many instances, parents see it as their failure to instill a strong Jewish identity that leads their children to marry outside the faith, and it is usually accompanied by a strong sense of sadness that their grandchildren will not be considered Jewish in the traditional sense and might not be raised Jewish.

In other words, Jewish parents often feel that if their children marry outside of the religion, the religion won’t last very long. This doesn’t have to be the case. Even though Jewish intermarriage rates have risen, and certainly some Jews have left the fold, we also have hundreds of thousands of non-Jewish family members who are equally dedicated to preserving the Jewish identity.

These are the families we need to work with. Interfaith marriage is not the end. We see it as an opportunity to reach out, make the Jewish community more accessible, and encourage participation in Jewish life. Of course we can’t say if this will appease the man’s family, but, as Ayelet states, “it could make the journey into your parents’ hearts easier.”

Beth El of Baltimore Joins Big Tent Judaism

The Jewish Outreach Institute welcomes Beth El of Baltimore to the Big Tent Judaism Coalition. We are delighted to have Beth El helping us in our mission to reach out and welcome in all Jewish individuals and households-including the majority who are not currently engaged in Jewish communal life. They have placed our logo on their homepage, proudly declaring “We are a member of the Big Tent Coalition.” To facilitate the goals of Big Tent Judaism, JOI has articulated Ten Principles that serve as a framework for Jewish communal institution on how to make their organizations more inclusive and welcoming.

A slideshow on Beth El’s homepage shows how the synagogue has opened its tent to everyone, already engaging in many of the Big Tent Principles. We see pictures of a preschool graduation, the teen choir and a grandparent program. We see children showing off art projects and young adults learning how to don tefillin. These events, which run the gamut from old to young and artistic to informative, clearly celebrate diversity and deepen Jewish engagement, which are principles #2 and #4. Furthermore, it appears that some of the events are not held at the synagogue–there is a picture of a couple of young women enjoying some beer and chips at a local pub, an example of JOI’s Public Space Judaism model. Whether this is a Purim celebration, a Hannukah party, or just a gathering of synagogue members, this types of event shows how Beth El is also employing principle #7 – “going out to where the people are… and holding programs in secular venues.” They are indeed meeting their constituents “on an individual level and learning where they are in their ‘Jewish Journey.’”

In its vision statement, Beth El says they are dedicated to inclusion and participation, welcoming “both members and non-members to enjoy our home.” We hope that Beth El of Baltimore continues to strive to work towards this message of inclusion while incorporating all of Big Tent Judaism’s Ten Principles. For more information about Big Tent Judaism and how to join, take a look at our website:


In today’s internet culture, we are long past waiting for Yente, the village matchmaker in Fiddler on the Roof, to come to our house and tell us who our perfect mate will be. The part of Yente is now played by either JDate, an online dating service for Jews, or Jewish speed dating. Two recent articles highlight how the Jewish community is utilizing both of these methods to try and get Jews to meet and marry other Jews.

While helping Jews find other Jews is certainly an important goal, some of the stated motivations behind the goal gives us pause, and make us wonder if such statements also do damage as well as good. The first article, by Ed Stoddard in Reuters, titled “Rabbis Play Online Cupid to Help Jews Marry Jews,” explains how Rabbis are offering their congregants free subscriptions to JDate. Stoddard says this is happening because of the concern over rising intermarriage rates in the U.S.:

(Rabbi Donald Webster) said he felt it was important to deal with the issue as some parents “disowned” their children if they married outside the faith – “acting literally has if they had died” – while other people simply ignored it.

We don’t feel intermarriage is necessarily the end of a person’s Jewish life, and communal policy that presumes such an outcome may be hurtful to the many intermarried families working hard to raise Jewish children. JOI’s Paul Golin was interviewed for the article, and he explained the importance of reaching out to intermarried couples as a way of strengthening the Jewish community.

“The assumption is that the children won’t be Jewish. And we know that many intermarried families do raise their children Jewish and we are trying to encourage more to do so,” he said.

In an article titled “Taking a Leap of Faith in Dating” for the GW Hatchet, a newspaper published by George Washington University, Amanda Panitch told the story of Jewish students who recently attended a speed dating event sponsored by the campus Hillel. At the event, guys and girls sat across from each other and had just a few minutes to meet each other before a bell rang and the participants are shuffled.

For most students, she wrote, it was pressure from the outside that brought them to the event, mostly from parents. But it was the concern expressed by sophomore Will Gotkin that gave me pause:

“If I don’t marry Jewish, I know my kids won’t be raised Jewish.”

Why not? I’m sure there are children of intermarriage actively participating in that very Hillel. What do they make of that quote from their classmate? We need to reach out to people like Will Gotkin and let them know intermarriage is a more nuanced phenomenon than a simple either-or. With effective outreach and education, we can provide support for interfaith couples, increase their participation in Jewish life, and enrich the entire Jewish community.

One Step Closer, Still One Step Behind

A piece in Sunday’s St. Petersburg Times called “The Future of Judaism” reads, in some ways, like a breath of fresh air. It’s an interview with Arnold Eisen, the new chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary (where Conservative Rabbis are ordained), and in it he discusses intermarriage in some very reasoned terms:

The challenge facing Jews is to welcome non-Jewish partners, make them part of the Jewish community, reach them with Jewish teaching and Jewish ways of life…

Okay, so far so good, but here’s where we take a step back:

…and hopefully convince a significant number of them not only to raise their children as Jews but to become Jews themselves. …Our task is to find ways of welcoming non-Jewish partners and family members at the same time as we can encourage them to fully join the covenant.

Here’s our prediction (you heard it here first): Just as the Conservative movement finally realized that vocally promoting in-marriage as the “solution” to intermarriage was counterproductive to the goal of welcoming more intermarried families, in a few more years the movement will also (again belatedly) realize that promoting conversion as the “solution” to intermarriage is also counterproductive to the goal of welcoming more intermarried families.

Don’t get us wrong. Nobody is more supportive of Jews-by-choice than JOI, and we have programming like Empowering Ruth specifically for the support of Jews-by-choice. But it is unfair to Jews-by-choice and to interfaith families to conflate the two issues.

Becoming Jewish is a personal decision that should be made by those who find meaning in the Jewish religion and/or peoplehood, not a communal policy to address demographic trends. Likewise, we know of countless interfaith families who are raising strongly-identified Jewish children where it would be outright rude to ask the non-Jewish parent to convert, because he or she is still practicing another religion.

It’s one thing when a rabbi asks a non-Jewish spouse about conversion because the rabbi knows that spouse, understands where he or she is “at” in their Jewish journey, and senses that the timing is right. It’s another thing altogether when the rabbi simply states from the pulpit “non-Jewish spouses should convert.” We trust that very few Conservative rabbis actually make such pulpit announcements, so we wonder why the movement leaders feel it appropriate to do so from the “pulpit” of the mass media?

New Trends in Intermarriage

I see family members—generally couples themselves but including parents, siblings, and friends—on a regular basis to discuss issues surrounding intermarriage. Although New York is an amalgam of cultures, my calendar does not reflect the national trends: those of other religious backgrounds who marry Jews in the Northeast are often Roman Catholic. Perhaps this is another example in which it is always important to filter the work of researchers through the work of those on the front line, those who are working with interfaith couples and their families on a daily basis.

It is in this context that I am intrigued about one of the latest Hollywood releases—27 Dresses—a film that I would normally pay no attention to since it is clearly a “chick flick.” What piqued my interest is the film includes a Jewish-Hindu wedding. As a matter of fact, this wedding opens the film (as the main character shuttles back and forth with another wedding), and thereby helps to establish the foundation for the film’s storyline. This serves as yet another example of the fact that megatrends are out as a way of informing our work, and microtrends are in. Jews aren’t just marrying Catholics anymore. There are a growing number of weddings between Jews and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and Jews marrying those from a variety of other religious and ethnic backgrounds. It may not be the focal point of the film, it’s probably just included for so-called comedic purposes, but it is present nonetheless and must be reckoned with.

The Jewish wedding in the film reflects a circumstance that I encounter with increasing frequency in our work at the Jewish Outreach Institute. If we are to become a truly open community that welcomes a variety of diverse backgrounds, then we have to understand the latest trends and be responsive to them.

Intermarriage Outside of America

I have often said that intermarriage is not solely a Jewish issue. Rather, it is an American issue since it is permeating all aspects of American society, irrespective of religious, racial or ethnic subgroup. Its impact or interest may be different for the North American Jewish community, but we are not alone is responding to the challenge. Consider the Greek Orthodox Church’s view of intermarriage or the rate of intermarriage among second generation Japanese Americans. And if you consider the current exhibition of English photographer Lucy Levene’s images, now on display at the Aftermodern Fine Art Gallery in San Francisco, it seems that intermarriage is not merely an American phenomenon.

According to the website:

Lucy Levene, who resides in London, was awarded an MA in photography by Royal College of Art, London, in 2004. In 2001 she began creation of the series Marrying-In (Please God By You) which explores the tension in the Jewish experience to maintain cultural distinctiveness while assimilating into the mainstream. In 2001, she expressed reluctance to blindly accept familial pressure to marry a “nice Jewish boy.” Her new 2007 works, which continue the series after a five year pause, are more elusive and complex.

Each image documents a performance taking place in a Jewish man’s bedroom, where she asks him to hold hands with her, creating forced intimacy. These photos portray a multiplicity of contradictions between the ideal and the reality of marriage in a multi-cultural society. The original series by Levene was highlighted in reGeneration 50 photographers of tomorrow, published by Aperture Foundation in 2005.

I Guess whoever originally said that “a picture is worth a thousand words” was correct.

Presidential Outreach

Outreach is everywhere. At least, that is what the news media tells us. From the beginning, we at JOI have defined outreach as a methodology rather than a target population. It is about going to where people are rather than having them come to us. And then there is a set of “best practices” that complement such an effort—and can be used in other contexts as well. As a result, it is not a good English definition of keruv (defined as bringing people close). The Reform movement generally defines outreach as any programming effort for interfaith families, whether or not they are members of the synagogue or participants in the community. The Conservative movement, especially its lead organization in its work with interfaith families, uses the term keruv. Chabad’s form of outreach/keruv usually takes the form of tefillin mobiles or portable sukkot, traveling the community in an effort to encourage those who are Jewish to participate in traditional ritual practices.

It is within this context that I found a recent article by Ben Harris in the JTA titled “Obama, Clinton Step Up Outreach Efforts to Jews” rather interesting. The piece discusses how Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are campaigning to Jewish voters, and I thought we might use it to evaluate the use of the term outreach/keruv. They certainly are going to where the people are as they stump from state to state, but any conclusions about the success of their outreach will have to wait until the upcoming elections.

We like to say that when we go to people, it is because we are attempting to fulfill their needs, rather than our own. But we won’t be able to get people to enter the gates of the Jewish community unless we go to them and help forge a path into it. Can the same be said of presidential candidates, irrespective of their political allegiance or yours?

Shabbat a SHAM in Maryland

Several months ago I had the opportunity to spend an afternoon at the University of Maryland. The campus was gorgeous; green lawns, classic “southern” architecture and, I happened to notice, a particularly beautiful Hillel building. It’s so nice that one would think UMD students wouldn’t want to go anywhere else to participate in Jewish life at their university. But in fact, during a Friday night this past December, students seemed to go everywhere else to share a Shabbat experience.

At JOI, we believe one of the best ways to engage the unaffiliated Jewish community is through Public Space Judaism – instead of waiting for people to come to us, we need to go out to them. This idea was recently put into practice by the University of Maryland Hillel, which sponsored “Shabbat Across Maryland”, or SHAM, a program that strives to make Shabbat more accessible to students by providing low-pressure, positive contacts with the organized Jewish community. According to an article by Richard Greenberg in the Washington Jewish Week titled “Kiddush with the Turtle,” kosher dinners were held at over 70 locations, including apartments, dormitories, fraternity houses, and even the newsroom at the campus newspaper. This was quite different from the centralized, large scale Shabbats that Hillel had organized in years past. Many students found these settings to be more intimate, including junior Megan Eckstein. She commented that the SHAM Shabbat experience “definitely felt more accessible and welcoming. It’s really nice to be around people you’re comfortable with… This gave me a chance to really feel part of the Jewish community.”

After attending a SHAM Shabbat dinner, Eckstein said she would like to hold a Shabbat dinner in her own home, allowing her friends the opportunity to connect with the Jewish community outside the walls of the Hillel building. This student, as well as an estimated 1,000 other student participants, showed that meaningful Shabbat experiences can happen anywhere, as long as the doors are open for anyone who would like to attend.

In Memoriam: Terrence Elkes

Filed under:

It is with a heavy heart that we share with you the sad news that JOI’s longtime President, Terry Elkes, unexpectedly passed away a few days ago, just before Shabbat. We all remain shocked and saddened by what has taken place. He will be sorely missed. Following a period of mourning, we will continue to forge ahead with our plans of creating a more inclusive Jewish community, a value held dear to Terry. We have lost a great leader, but we know that pursuing the goals of JOI is the only thing he would want us to do to honor his memory.

The Way Jews Look

Filed under:

In recognition of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, The New York Jewish Week published an op-ed titled “Funny, He Doesn’t Look Jewish” by Rabbi Joshua Hammerman. Rabbi Hammerman uses the concurrence of the presidential primaries, this week’s Torah portion (Beshalach) in which the Israelites cross the Red Sea and MLK Day to stress the importance of embracing diversity in the Jewish community. Without endorsing political candidates, he writes:

And as if to place an exclamation point on that premise, the Haftarah features a female military champion named Deborah and her sidekick named, of all things, Barak. If either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama eventually becomes commander in chief, we can say that we heard it here first, in the book of Judges. Throw in the real chance that a Jewish third party candidate may join the fray and we’ve got, at long last, a presidential campaign that looks like America.

Setting aside position papers for the moment, we, as Jews, should be celebrating the diversity of this year’s slate.

Rabbi Hammerman calls to the Jewish community to break down its self-imposed barriers, such as race, gender, age and disabilities, which “are based primarily on appearance rather than substance.” The stereotype of all Jews possessing Eastern European physical features was always just a stereotype and is even more so now.

As we read Beshalach this Shabbat, let us reflect on the diversity of the Jewish community and the progress we have made towards welcoming everyone into our midst.

Moment Magazine Wants to Hear From High School Students

As part of their ongoing efforts to engage a broader audience, Moment Magazine is sponsoring a global warming essay contest for high school students. The question to answer is simply “What can you do to help slow down global warming?” The contest is co-sponsored with Panim, an institute dedicated to inspiring Jewish youth to become agents for positive social change. The deadline to enter is Feb. 1st, 2008.

The point of the contest is to promote critical and diverse thinking, and that is what has driven Moment Magazine from day one. In the first edition of Moment in 1975, Leonard Fein, who co-founded the magazine with Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, said Moment would include diverse opinions “of no single ideological position, save of course, for a commitment to Jewish life.” Since then, the magazine has strived to bring under one roof viewpoints ranging from the Orthodox to unaffiliated movements, and everything in between. Articles are written for lay readers, not experts, and all are welcome to share their opinions. This is a philosophy we at the JOI share with Moment and adhere to every day - the desire to strengthen the entire Jewish community by giving everyone a chance to get involved.

Moment and Panim are offering young people a wonderful opportunity to think creatively about an issue and come up with ways to make a positive difference. We hope everyone reading this blog will encourage high school students they know to submit an essay. This is a great way for Moment to open its doors (or pages) and give everyone a chance to be heard.

The Comedy of Interfaith Marriage

We are in the process of developing the program for our annual JOI benefit which will take place in the fall of 2008. Each year we have scheduled some form of entertainment relevant to the mission of JOI and the theme of the evening. As we were in the process of scheduling this year’s event, we brainstormed as a staff a group of possible performers, some of whom are comedians whose routines discuss the issues facing interfaith relationships. This brainstorming discussion provoked a larger conversation about the role of comedy, in general, in our work. Can we, for example, be serious about our goal of shaping an inclusive Jewish community while, at the same time, taking a moment to laugh at some of the issues that we encounter? Does comedy eclipse the serious nature of our work?

Is it funny to joke “What is the definition of a creche?” The answer, “The sound that a menorah makes when it falls over.” What about the tongue-in-cheek humor of a particular greeting card company that features Hanukkah cards made from recycled Christmas trees? Some people may remember the sitcom “Bridget Loves Bernie,” one of televisions first attempts to capture this humor—even before interfaith marriage was on the rise in the United States.

Or consider the current popularity of the one-man show called “My Mother’s Italian My Father’s Jewish & I’m In Therapy,” written and performed by Steve Solomon. It is about Solomon’s Italian mother and American Jewish father, who met in Europe during World War II and fell in love. From the beginning of their relationship, they were not able to discern the extent of their cultural misunderstandings. Steve Solomon recreates his family situation using voices, sound effects and narration to bring to life the stories that emerged from his unique experience. He fills the stage with characters to tell the stories about his blended family, which turn out to be quite funny. Our own JOI conference last year included a very funny episode of the TV show “The War at Home,” narrated by the show’s creator and head writer Rob Lotterstein. The episode featured an interfaith family whose son decided to have a bar mitzvah.

Laughter has been considered therapeutic, even healing. So maybe we need to take a few moments out of the serious work we are doing and laugh at it all. Or maybe not. You decide.

Call Synagogue Home

For the past eight years, JOI has focused its programming efforts on outreach—which we define as a methodology rather than a target population—going out to where people are rather than having them come to us. The latter posture remains an unfortunately dominant approach among many institutions in the Jewish community. As more wonderful buildings are being built to serve an increasingly small inner core, the refrain seems to be “if you build it, they will come.”

Over the last year, JOI has been working with STAR (Synagogue: Transformation and Renewal) in a project which we appropriately named Call Synagogue Home (since this is the welcoming posture that we believe is the only way to build synagogue life). The project is designed for congregations of all denominations to use life cycle events to reach out to interfaith families. Congregations can use these events, which range from the traditional, such as birth or marriage, to non-traditional, such as receiving a driver’s license or a job promotion, to nurture the relationship (and retention) of those who are already part of the synagogue community.

This project is a radical departure for JOI in that it represents our first formal foray inside the synagogue. We like to call it “integration after outreach.” The project is successfully operating in synagogues in Atlanta, Los Angeles (the five valleys) and Philadelphia. In these communities, congregations are working on creative, innovative projects that involve interfaith families and the important moments in their lives. These congregational projects evolved following intensive training sessions led by project staff members and emerged out of program manuals that were designed to incorporate these life cycle events.

While the project is very specific, the work has already begun to change synagogue culture and attitudes about interfaith marriage in specific synagogue communities. We intend to expand this project into at least three communities in the upcoming program year. If you are interested in joining the project, please be in touch with us.

Challenges for the Conservative Movement in Welcoming Intermarried Families

An article in the Washington Jewish Week a few weeks ago, “A delicate balance: Rabbis continue seeking ways to welcome,” does a nice job describing the challenges faced by the Conservative movement.

We are greatly encouraged by innovation at the grass-roots level, and when we at JOI hear of such leaders we try to highlight their efforts. So we applaud the efforts described in this article about Rabbi H. David Rose at Congregation Har Shalom, who honored a congregant by asking him to make a blessing over the Torah even though the congregant was about to intermarry. Of course, this is more about in-reach than outreach because the intermarrying Jew was already a synagogue member, but simply retaining intermarrying members (or their parents) should be the first priority for the Conservative movement.

Unfortunately, aspects of this article also describe ways that the movement falls short, including the reiteration as “still binding” of the “1989 teshuvah, opinion, written by United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism executive vice president Rabbi Jerome Epstein [that] states that there should be no ‘congratulations’ or ‘public acknowledgment’ of intermarriages within Conservative congregations.”

We believe this national policy maintains a culture of shame around intermarriage that surveys have proven is out of step with the Conservative movement’s own congregants’ beliefs, and we’ve seen that many Conservative congregations today that are simply ignoring it. However, we also encourage those congregations to do even more.


Grandparents Circle

We at JOI are thrilled to announce the launch of our newest direct service program, the Grandparents Circle, with the support of the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles/Valley Alliance and the generosity of Bettina Kurowski and Dennis Rose. The new program, which launched on January 8th in Los Angeles and will begin replication in Atlanta on January 29th, is designed to help Jewish grandparents present Judaism to their grandchildren in intermarried households. We were also excited to see the Grandparents Circle recognized in the JTA by Sue Fishkoff, in an article titled “Intermarriage: Helping Grandparents.”

As explained in the article, Grandparents Circle will consist of a five week course where the members can “share their concerns and learn specific skills for passing on Jewish history and tradition without forcing it on the children.” Our own Liz Marcovitz, the program’s national coordinator, gave further explanation:

They want to pass on their Jewish identity and background, they want to share their history and who they are with their grandchildren, but it has to be done in a way that’s interesting to the grandchildren.”

The course was inspired by the book “Twenty Things for Grandparents of Interfaith Grandchildren to Do,” by JOI’s Rabbi Kerry Olitzky and Paul Golin. The book offers many recommendations on how grandparents can nurture the Jewish identity of their grandchildren, first and foremost by being the best Jew you can be. According to Golin, “If the grandparents are just who they are and have contact with the grandkids, they’ll have that influence.”

To learn more about the program or find out how to start a program in your area, please contact Liz Marcovitz. We are confident that the Grandparents Circle will encourage and increase the participation of families in Jewish life, and we hope that as more grandparents join the Circle and pass along the Jewish traditions, they will find an even greater depth of meaning and connection to Judaism.

Spinning Toward a New Record

Here’s one for the record books – literally! The University of Maryland has recaptured the Guinness World Record for having the most dreidels spinning simultaneously for 10 seconds. They previously held his record from 2000-2005, then lost it to a synagogue in New Jersey.

Open to the wider university community, the Hillel hosted 603 dreidel spinners in the Ritchie Coliseum, in order to accommodate for the large number of participants and to lower the barrier of location for those who may not be comfortable entering the Hillel building, but still wanted to participate. Maryland Hillel also utilized this event as an opportunity to partner with other campus student organizations (a JOI Best Practice) including Jewish, pro-Israel and business groups, as well as several sororities and fraternities. Rabbi Ari Israel, executive director of Maryland Hillel, was particularly touched by the involvement of the mixed university community. Writing in an opinion piece titled “Spinning Toward Success” for the university’s paper The Diamondback, he said:

“Jewish university students who participated took a few moments to reconnect with a rich heritage and tradition that informs Jewish identity and purposeful journey. The non-Jewish spinners showed the strength of community that exists on the campus.”

This event truly provided students, faculty and community members a low barrier opportunity to engage with the Jewish community and it gave the Hillel a chance to strengthen its ties with the greater-campus community. JOI congratulates the University of Maryland Hillel and the 603 participants in capturing this new World Record.

Innovative Outreach

There are a growing number of venues for exploring the questions related to interfaith marriage and to those who have chosen conversion. At JOI, we have started educational programs like The Mothers Circle and Empowering Ruth (both with free listserves) to help connect people who share similar backgrounds, and our efforts were recognized in a recent article by Jesse Tisch at called “The Next Wave.”

Also mentioned in the article are Jeffrey Grover and Maryanne Elder Goldstein, who have found a new and unique way to discuss intermarriage – as actors in a play. The play, “Both Sides of the Family,” focuses on a man who is Jewish and a woman who is not as they raise Jewish children. They have performed in front of sold out houses in Akron, Ohio, and they are moving the show to Cleveland.

But this play is only part of the latest creative outreach efforts going on today. There are museum exhibits, movies, a host of new books, and sponsored trips to Israel. There are even lectures for your iPod:

“You won’t believe what we’re doing,” said Chuck Goldman, whose Reconstructionist synagogue, Shirat Hayam, in Marshfield, Mass., now offers interfaith-friendly sermons through the temple’s homepage. “We set our rabbi up with a computer, an iPod, and a digital microphone,” he recalled recently. And voila: interfaith podcasts.

With a growing number of programs and activities, the JOI is proud to be at the forefront of today’s outreach efforts, and we are always looking for new and exciting ways to expand our message of inclusion.

The Diversity of Jewish Music

Often when the subject of Jewish music comes up, people think of the song Tradition from “Fiddler on the Roof,” or The Barry Sister’s version of Mein Shtetele Belz. Today, Jewish music is enjoying a renaissance. It runs the gamut of religious jam bands such as Soulfarm and Reva L’Sheva (Grateful Dead followers rearranging Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach’s greatest hits) to secular Israeli hip hop and rap artists, such as TeaPacks and HaDag Nachash. Since Jews live all over the world, they adopt their host country’s musical style. Recently I heard a version of Adon Olam (God is the Master of the Universe) sung by an Israeli to the tune of Johnny Cash’s Walk The Line. Indeed today’s Jewish music reflects our people’s diverse population.

As my Jewish music collection grows, I find myself listening to a larger variety of musical styles. For instance, I usually don’t seek out hip hop radio stations here in New York, but I enjoy listening to Israeli hip hop by HaDag Nachash. The Middle Eastern sound of Sarit Hadad also helps connect me to Jewish culture. Although I am not fluent in Hebrew, I can still understand most of what the artist is trying to depict. Additionally, I do not have a background in Ladino (a language that mixes Spanish with Hebrew), Amharic (the language of Ethiopian Jews), Farsi (the language of Iranian Jews), Yiddish (a language that mixes Hebrew with German), or Arabic, yet I continue to buy CD’s in these languages. Even though I can’t understand the lyrics, I still sing along – mispronouncing the words, but taking great pleasure in the music’s essence. Music can transcend boundaries, and at the same time brings us back to our rich heritage. It’s not only a way to celebrate our colorful and diverse community, but it can also be a path to deepen our engagement with Judaism.

I am far from an expert on this, but if you are interested in starting a collection and want to sample some music, send me an email at or blog back and let me know what genre you like to listen to. I can hopefully point you in the right direction. You can start off by checking out to get a list of artists, their backgrounds and links to sample some music. If you find Israeli music that interests you, carries a wide variety of artists.

I am always looking to sample new Jewish music regardless of the language, so please send me your favorites. It can also be in English (not just Farsi!) for me to appreciate it.

Reaching In, Reaching Out

At the Jewish Outreach Institute, we often focus on engaging intermarried families and unaffiliated Jews by bringing Judaism out to where the people are. But we have also long worked to bring people in (most recently with our STAR partnership and Big Tent Judaism initiative). Our goal is to connect unengaged Jews with Jewish institutions by helping communal professionals and lay leaders open their doors and welcome everyone who wants to be a part of our family.

This is the spirit behind the initiative of Rabbi Lawrence Sernovitz at the Old York Road Temple – Beth Am. As reported in the Jewish Exponent of Philadelphia, Sernovitz, a former JOI rabbinic intern, is turning to “inreach” and outreach to show that his congregation is an inviting and friendly place where new and potential members will find a warm reception.

Sernovitz believes one reason people don’t come to synagogue more often is because of the intimidation felt in an unfamiliar environment, and a recent study by the Union for Reform Judaism backs up that claim. One of the themes of the study was “what synagogues can do to make themselves more welcoming to potential members.” In response, several Beth Am congregants will host Shabbat meals for interfaith families, with the intent of introducing them to longtime affiliates.

Sernovitz is also utilizing our Public Space Judaism program to “reach out to interfaith families and unaffiliated Jews on more secular turf.” Beth Am’s outreach committee chair Neal Welsh said “new life” has been given to the synagogue’s outreach efforts with the arrival of Sernovitz.

The week before Thanksgiving, the rabbi read stories to 50 or so children at the Barnes & Noble Bookstore in Jankintown, down the street from the shul. At such public events in neutral arenas, “we don’t ask them to join or anything,” said Welsh. “We just want them to know we’re there.”

We are thrilled to hear that Rabbi Sernovitz is effectively employing the outreach methods of JOI. It seems our message has inspired him to reach out and reach in, and we hope to inspire many more to do the same.

The Jewish Alphabet Soup

Today is my first day here at Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI), and I can’t imagine being made to feel more welcome. I left a position with the New York City Department of Education, commonly known as NYCDOE, and already I can see the vast differences between the two work places. For example, at JOI, I was immediately given a desk, chair and key to the bathroom. At the NYCDOE, this took several weeks, even a couple of months. But the one thing that both places of employment have in common is everyone must be learned in the institution’s alphabet soup-the confusing acronyms and combinations of letters that are short for larger terms.

At the NYCDOE, everyone but me seemed to understand the meanings of the codes for GHI (a health plan option), TRS (Teachers Retirement System), or even ELA (English Language Arts-which in my day was just called “English”). Since no one offered to explain these terms to me, I always felt like an outsider. I eventually left the position, made easier by the fact that I didn’t feel like a member of the team. If I couldn’t stay in a job where I didn’t feel included, I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to stay in a community where almost everyone around you is constantly speaking in Jewish alphabet soup.

As someone familiar with the Jewish alphabet soup, I have known for years that UJA refers to United Jewish Appeal, the main arm of Jewish fundraising, USY stands for United Synagogue Youth, a youth group for high schoolers, and HUC refers to Hebrew Union College, the Reform Movement’s educational institution. These are just a few examples, but if one is not in the loop, these letters mixed together just look like a foreign language. It is always important that as insiders we define our codes and languages for those who are on the outside. Simply speaking and writing the full names of places encourages inclusiveness and reduces frustration. This is Big Tent Judaism’s Principle #6: “Identify and lower the barriers to participation.” Translating acronyms is an easy way to promote inclusiveness and welcome everyone into the broader Jewish community.

Click Here!