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Weblog Entries for February 2008

A Word of Torah

Over the last year or so I have been writing a weekly “word of Torah,” trying to extract a message of inclusiveness from the weekly Torah portion. This approach emerges from the message of the Rabbis in Pirke Avot (5:25) who wrote “Turn it [the Torah] and turn it for everything is in it.” This vort (as my bubbe of blessed memory used to call it in her native Yiddish) is just that—a word of Torah, something to focus our attention. Perhaps we might also call it a kavannah (or sacred mantra) because it does offer direction for our daily work at JOI, especially for our Big Tent Judaism project. This is part of what I discerned from this week’s reading of Vayakhel. The portion deals with the building of the Tabernacle, but there is also a mention of Shabbat in the building of the sanctuary.

The goal of those who built the ancient Tabernacle was to design a structure where all could feel welcomed and embraced. That is also the goal of Shabbat—to create a time where all can feel welcomed and embraced.

The challenge of Shabbat is a challenge that most of us encounter, one that is particularly hard for those on the periphery of the Jewish community. How do we get into the rhythm of Jewish life? According to Jewish tradition, we receive an extra soul on Shabbat, and maybe that can give us the strength necessary to do so. After all, especially for those of us who enter the synagogue on Shabbat without Jewish memory, we will need all the help we can get.

Those who built the ancient sanctuary sought a place for meaning, as we all do. That is why they built it. And that is why we welcome all those into our community for the same reason and purpose.

Click here to subscribe to the free weekly JOI Big Tent Judaism Word of Torah mailing list. Or for more information, please send an email to PGolin@joi.org.

Whenever I teach Torah, I like to say that the purpose of studying Torah is to learn more about ourselves and our relationship with the Divine, rather than just to learn more about the Torah. It is not an intellectual or cognitive exercise. Rather it is a spiritual activity that brings us in touch with our inner selves, how we think and feel. In the case of our weekly word of Torah, it asks the question: How inclusive do we want the Jewish community to be? How willing are we to open up the tent?

We at JOI believe that the secret to Jewish continuity is in diversity and inclusiveness. What will this week’s message motivate you to do to bring the Jewish community one step closer to our shared vision?



Get Cooking For Purim!

What is the most effective outreach tool? The answer, of course, is food! Our friends at SAJES (Suffolk Association for Jewish Educational Services) are offering some delicious programming next month to prepare for the holiday of Purim. Their programs exemplify the concept of Destination: Jewish Culture – bringing Jewish programming (or a “taste” thereof) to secular, neutral venues rather than waiting for folks to come to the doors of our Jewish institutions. For these programs, SAJES has chosen the “Young Chefs Academy,” a popular cooking school for kids with a location in Long Island. With a tagline “Festive, Fun, and Delicious,” who could resist? They are offering a kid-friendly class focusing on sweets, and an adult-focused evening of more sophisticated culinary adventures, with some wine. Check them out if you’re in the area!



The Contributions of Women to Jewish History

There is a new encyclopedia that has just been published called “Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia.” It sheds important light on Jewish women who have made contributions to Israel, the Jewish community, and to the various countries in which Jews have lived throughout the world and much of recent history. This project, by Prof. Paula Hyman from Yale University and Prof. Dalia Ofer from Hebrew University, is long overdue. The accolades offered to the women they have written about are also long overdue – in many cases posthumously.

My own teacher, Dr. Jacob Rader Marcus, focused his attention on American Jewish Women in a collection he called The American Jewess. (We tried to dissuade him from his title selection, but he was a man not easily dissuaded. The title remained.) Since Marcus was a documentary historian, many of his selections came to life through the writings of the women, rather than the biographical essay form that Professors Hyman and Ofer chose. In one of my own books, Reform Judaism in America (with Lance Sussman and Malcolm Stern), a biographical dictionary, we included women who made a difference in the history of the Reform movement. Fewer women were included in the companion volumes to the series: Conservative Judaism in America and Orthodox Judaism in America.

So what’s missing? Where will we find the essays on the women who are not Jewish, but who raised Jewish children, who contributed to the Jewish community? Although they chose not to convert, their commitment to strengthening Jewish life has made them an important part of our history—and our future. Some of these women are our neighbors and friends, our sisters and mothers. Will we not find a place for them in the annals of Jewish history?



Interfaith Couples To Visit Israel

In the past, we have blogged about Mitch Cohen and his organization, Israel Encounter. Last year, he led a trip to Israel designed for those who have chosen Judaism. It was a way to support them as they began their Jewish journeys.

Cohen, a Jewish communal professional in Atlanta, is again leading a trip to Israel, but this year he is targeting another segment of the Jewish population. The organization is leading a trip for interfaith couples, and in order to lower the cost barrier, the non-Jewish partners get to travel for free. This is also a way to thank them for opening themselves up to Jewish life.

According to an article in The Jewish Times, the trip will introduce husbands and wives of a different religion to the Israeli and American Jewish communities by “helping them recognize the role Judaism can play in their family, and teach them the joy and beauty of Jewish customs, holidays, and beliefs.” The goal of this trip is for the families to “make a commitment to raising Jewish children in a home imbued with Jewish values and practices.”

Cohen, who founded Israel Encounter with Steven Chervin, said:

“This program is especially important when the woman of the interfaith couple is not Jewish. Women are the spiritual backbone of the family. They usually determine the spirituality of the couple, and it’s important they understand the importance of the Jewish experience.”

We couldn’t agree more. At JOI, we have created numerous programs to support and educate interfaith families, such as Mothers Circle, designed for women of other religious backgrounds raising Jewish families, and Empowering Ruth, for women who have recently chosen Judaism. Like Israel Encounter, our goal is to create a warm and supportive environment for everyone who desires a welcoming and inclusive Jewish community.

Good luck, Mitch, and we are confident your trip will be a success!



Reaching Out to the True Diversity on College Campuses

Over the past several years, The Jewish Outreach Institute and Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life have partnered to create a more welcoming and inclusive space for Jewishstudents on college and university campuses. We have worked together to reach out and provide opportunities for all Jewish students, specifically the unengaged, by targeting different student groups, including freshman, often referred to as FYSH (First Year Students of Hillel); graduate students; those involved in Greek Life; and students interested in environmental issues.

Recently, Hillel developed a new practice for its professionals to use in providing resources and a welcoming space for a different Jewish student population on campus: the LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer) Jewish community. This marks the first time Hillel has published material related to the LGBTQ community, and the Hillel International website states that it “is designed to help Hillel professionals reach out to and engage the LGBTQ Jewish student population and provides tools for welcoming and working with this growing population.” The resource guide will include personal accounts from LGBTQ Jewish students, instructions for inclusive language, alternative prayers and blessings, and a listing of LGBTQ and Allied contacts and programs. Hillel President Wayne Firestone sees the importance this guide will have in “opening the doors for all Jewish students, of all sexual orientations and gender identities. The resource guide provides Hillel directors with practical recommendations for welcoming this important population into our Hillels.”

Here at JOI, we fully support Wayne Firestone and the Hillel professionals’ recent efforts to “open the Hillel tent” to the LGBTQ community on campus. Following several of JOI’s Big Tent Judaism principles, including “Celebrate Diversity” and “Lower Barriers to Participation,” these efforts will allow Hillel to better serve LGBTQ and Allied Jewish students. By celebrating the diversity of today’s Jewish student population and lowering the barriers to participation that may have kept this population away in the past, Hillel can truly provide a safe and welcoming space for all Jewish students.



A Family’s Path to Inclusion

All parents remember the first time they laid eyes on their child. But the Rosenbaum’s memories also include genetic testing which confirmed their pediatrician’s suspicion that their son, Michael, had Down Syndrome. In last week’s The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, Michael’s mom, Rony, elaborates on their journey to find a place for Michael in both their secular and Jewish lives. When it came time for preschool, the Rosenbaum’s enrolled Michael in their local synagogue’s program at Temple Israel. Rony writes:

“The other kids didn’t see any differences; they just saw Michael. And because it started that way, it stayed that way from nursery school through pre-K and into the temple’s day school through kindergarten and first and second grades.”

She continues to say that she “got wonderful feedback from parents who loved having Michael at school.” Eventually the Rosenbaum’s had to switch Michael into another school, but for academic reasons -certainly not for issues over inclusiveness. Temple Israel clearly practices Big Tent Judaism’s Principle #2: Celebrate Diversity. The administration was able to leave behind the assumptions of what Jews “look like” and how families are configured. Instead, they took Michael in immediately. Today he goes to the synagogue’s religious school for three hours a week without an aide. Examples like this serve as an inspiration for us, and for all Jewish communal institutions that desire to be open and welcoming to all who approach.



If You build It, Will They Come?

While the debate over building new JCCs continues (Where should it be built? What services should it offer? What is the core business of the JCC? What should the membership structure be?), Chabad seems to be forging ahead with yet another community model. This time, Chabad is building a synagogue and JCC in Aspen—to be called the Jewish Community Center-Chabad of Aspen - in the middle of its historic downtown at a cost of between $16 million and $17 million. According to a recent JTA article, there are two reform congregations in town, but they rent space in local Churches. The Chabad JCC will be the first synagogue building to be built in town. So the question is: If they build it, will they come?

While we are not privy to the decision-making or community planning process that did or did not go into the development of this institution, we assume that Chabad will exercise the same kind of openness to potential participants as it does in its other institutions. We also wonder whether its approach to Public Space Judaism—although somewhat different than the model that JOI espouses—will be impacted upon? And will it utilize the community form of volunteer governance, or will it take its lead from the Chabad Center models in which there are no boards of directors.

There is something to be said about community planning. There is also something to be said about forging ahead, taking risks, and experimenting with the future—especially when it comes to reaching those on the periphery of the Jewish community. Rabbi Mendel Mintz, the local Chabad Rabbi, has said in the past that the new JCC will open its doors to everyone to become a community center “that leaves no one behind.” While the article makes mention of the approximately 1000 members of the local Aspen Jewish community, it is clear that the number of interfaith families will expand this number considerably—if not represent the majority. So we hope that they too will be welcome in this new JCC model.



Being Fruitful and Multiplying

Last week, Hannah Farber posted an interesting blog on Jspot.org, a blog featuring “Jewish perspectives on contemporary issues of social and economic justice.” Her piece, “I’m Going to Count to Three, and Then All Rabbis Need To Get Out Of My Uterus,” brings to light two contemporary concerns relating to women. The first concern, which is in response to an article in the Atlantic Monthly, is whether women should settle for Mr. “Almost” Right when looking for a life partner. While there are many issues with the Atlantic Monthly article, I am not going to get into those here. Instead, my focus is on the other issue that Hannah brings up—the Conservative movement’s newest program for ensuring Jewish continuity.

The Rabbinical Assembly, the international association of Conservative rabbis, has released a responsum (a rabbinic opinion based in Jewish law) encouraging all healthy Jewish couples to have more than two children. According to their theory, these additional children, “mitzvah children,” would help to rebuild the “diminishing Jewish population.”

I understand and agree with the importance of a strong and active Jewish population, but as a female member of the Jewish community, I was surprised that the Rabbinical Assembly interpreted the biblical commandment to be fruitful and multiply as having upwards of two children. In addition, the “mitzvah children” responsa was written largely to combat the “Jewish demographic crisis.” Rozele, who comments on Hannah’s blog, writes:

first of all, as many folks more ‘legitimate’ than me have pointed out over the past few years, the whole notion of a ‘demographic crisis’ is pure fiction. it relies on wildly flawed survey data which (in its u.s. versions) massively undercounts non-ashkenazim, jews of color, non-synagogue-affiliated jews, poor & working-class jews and jews by choice, and preemptively disqualifies folks who actively identify themselves as jewish for having the wrong combination of grandparents or for simply being under 18 in a household where the older folks don’t identify themselves as jewish.

There are many points-of-view about the expanding or diminishing Jewish population, but I hope that as we look for ways to strengthen the Jewish community, we make sure to include and welcome all those interested in finding Jewish meaning and community.



Are You Looking for a New Way to Welcome Newcomers?

While we believe that outreach is about going to where people are and not waiting for them to come to you, there are plenty of opportunities for us to maximize the opportunities when they do present themselves. During some of our training sessions, we offer synagogues and other communal institutions a variety of suggestions on how to transform a contact into an engagement opportunity. For instance, through our Big Tent Judaism initiative, our first principal is to welcome all newcomers and make sure there are no barriers for anyone who approaches the Jewish community.

That is why we were delighted to see what Rabbi Ilan Feldman of Congregation Beth Jacob in Atlanta is doing—to “get smaller as we grow,” if I might borrow a phrase out of context from the New York Cares organization. Each Shabbat, he invites people to congregate with him after services, but his method is quite unique. He chooses something arbitrary, such as “anyone wearing green,” and whoever falls into that category is encouraged to join him for a short meet and greet. This is also a great way for him to unobtrusively welcome newcomers and introduce them to people in the synagogue. What a wonderful idea. Perhaps there are other ideas out there that we can add to the growing list of innovative outreach practices. We would love to hear them.



Charting New Territory

The Mothers Circle program continues to spread to new locations throughout the country. Since the start of 2008, Mothers Circle courses offering free education and support to women of other religious backgrounds raising Jewish children have launched in and around the following cities: Boston, MA; Louisville, KY; Chicago, IL; and Philadelphia, PA. The Boston area course, hosted by Jewish Family & Children’s Service and supported by the Boston Jewish Community Women’s Fund, was recently featured in The Jewish Advocate. In the article, Boston area course facilitator Elana Kling Perkins explains:

I hope that by the end of the course the mothers are going to be motivated to continue their Jewish learning, that they’ll feel comfortable within their families and able to help guide their children to have strong Jewish identities and that it will help make Judaism accessible and meaningful for them.

Next month, The Mothers Circle hits Dallas, TX and Westchester, NY. Don’t see your city listed on our website? Not to worry. Whether or not the course has landed in your neighborhood, if you’re a non-Jewish mother raising Jewish children, we invite you to visit our website and join The Mothers Circle National Listserve. You can connect to a supportive online community of peers from across the country to share your experiences, thoughts, and questions. Raising children in a religion that is not your own can be challenging – we want to make sure you don’t do it alone.



The Future of the Conservative Movement

I have never been one to buy into the rhetoric of those who predict the fall of one institution or another—and certainly not an entire religious movement. So I have to tell you that I am excited about the future of the Conservative movement and it is time for people to say it aloud. Every year, I speak to a group of students at the Jewish Theological Seminary—usually in the context of the senior seminar (for rabbinic and cantorial students). Yesterday was my day.

The instructor invited me to spend time with the students discussing the challenges that they will face with regard to integrating interfaith families into their future congregations—recognizing that none of them have completed the “placement process” yet. But it didn’t matter. They acknowledge that this is an issue the Conservative movement has avoided for far too long. And I began to see—as I have been seeing recently in our work with Conservative synagogues (primarily through our Call Synagogue Home program)—that their interest is not demographically driven, which would reveal a hidden agenda, but is really ideologically driven. From where I stand, it seems hey have started to internalize the directive to “welcome the stranger.”

So for those who have written off the Conservative movement, especially with regard to interfaith families, I would say “not so fast.” There is a lot of work to be done—but these soon to be ordained rabbis and invested cantors are ready, willing, and able to do that work. And we at the Jewish Outreach Institute are here to work with them.



Making Room For Everyone In the Jewish Community

I was thrilled to read this headline from the latest issue of The (Boston) Jewish Advocate: “Non-Jewish Board Members Offer Expertise to Local JNF.” I thought to myself, “Finally, an organization that understands how important it is to welcome in all of the members of the Jewish community, including those who aren’t Jewish but who have cast their lot with the Jewish people.” And while this is techniclly true for the Jewish National Fund (JNF), I realized after reading the article that I didn’t get it exactly right.

The “non-Jewish board members” are basically those in the Christian community who support Israel. And I recognize that there is a lot of controversy in the organized Jewish community about this particular population. David Beatty, one of the board members mentioned in the article, said he is aware of the skepticism some Jews feel towards Christian advocates of Israel, but he and the two others joined the board because they “wanted to do good, and because it’s a way of loving the Jewish people.”

And so I ask the question that constantly plagues me: If these folks are welcome in the Jewish community and its organizations, then why shouldn’t those who have married Jews, who are raising Jewish children, also be welcome? Clearly they love the Jewish people and support the community, too. So why shouldn’t they be invited to sit on the boards of many of our local and national organizations?

JNF is concerned about the future of Israel and sees that future through a particular lens. Those who are not Jewish but are married to Jews and raising Jewish children are also concerned about the future of the Jewish people and see that future through yet another lens. Should we not help them to find their deserved place in our communal infrastructure as well?



Reaching the Children of Intermarriage

One of the things we have learned in our research is that children of intermarriage are more likely to gain their “Jewish Education” through secular means. This is an important notion as we consider how to develop programs within the Jewish community that will connect these children to a strong Jewish identity. While we may be able to assume that kids will confront The Diary of Anne Frank sometime during their secular school career, we should also be concerned that their image of Judaism is framed by the Holocaust and anti-Jewish feelings.

That is what intrigued me about Rabbi Malka Drucker’s soon to be published book, Portraits of Jewish-American Heroes. If the book finds its way into synagogues and Hebrew schools, that’s wonderful, but it won’t accomplish the important task of reaching children who don’t have religious school backgrounds - a crucial segment of our community. This is especially significant because we know the central role that modeling plays in the identity development of children. So here is the $64,000 question: How do we get such a book into the hands of those who are not affiliated, who are not part of the Jewish community? This book was not published by a Jewish publisher, so theoretically it has a different distribution system, and that may be a good place to start. But what is the next step?



Welcoming Those with Disabilities

Kudos to UJA-Federation for celebrating the first ever “Inclusion Shabbat” two weeks ago! The event was written about recently in The Jewish Week, and it was described as an opportunity for synagogues from all over the New York metropolitan area to come together and “raise awareness about issues surrounding the inclusion of people with all of kinds of disabilities into the broad fabric of the Jewish community.” At JOI, we want to lower barriers and help everyone feel comfortable in the Jewish community, and the “Inclusive Shabbat” is exactly what our Big Tent Judaism Coalition strives to do; to welcome, engage and support all those who cast their lot with the Jewish people.

As Roberta Leiner, managing director of the Federation’s Caring Commission pointed out in the article, “We have an opportunity here to make sure that no Jew feels like they’re outside the Jewish community looking in.” She said that families with disabled members often feel like they are not part of the standard Jewish community, but more institutions are recognizing the need to “reach out to everyone in order to create whole communities.” Overall the Jewish community has come a long way in advocacy for those with disabilities by providing wheelchair ramps and elevators, large print books, and other aids for those with special needs. But there is still much work to be done. One way to start, if you haven’t already done so, is to sign up to be in our Big Tent Judaism Coalition. The Coalition is free, and by joining you are demonstrating your desire to embrace all those in the Jewish community and encourage their increased participation in Jewish life.



Passover Outreach

Thank you to the 45 Jewish communal professionals and lay leaders from throughout North America who joined us on our two Passover outreach conference calls over the past week. During the calls, we focused on Passover in the Matzah Aisle, a JOI Public Space Judaism program that takes place the week before Passover in the seasonal food aisle of grocery stores and supermarkets. The goal is to engage families shopping for Passover foods and provide them with low-barrier Passover information and fun, food-based activities, such as charoset tasting (it’s an exotic fruit salad). Ultimately we want to raise the visibility of the organized Jewish community and let people know about other program offerings that might be of interest to them.

For those of you who were not able to join us, here are a few of the key elements of what we covered:

    •Implementation steps, including how to work with secular partners and commercial establishments
    •How to set up your program to maximize engagement
    •How to transform these one time programs into ongoing relationships with newcomers

If you were not able to join us but you are interested in the material covered, please call me at 212-760-1440 x116 or email me at estern@joi.org to set up a time to talk.

Stay tuned for upcoming free conference calls in the next few months!



Gossip Sites Are Abuzz

All the Hollywood gossip sites are abuzz. Christina Aguilera had her son circumcised in a “Hebrew ritual ceremony.” Not only are the gossip sites running stories, but the Anglo-Jewish press is excited also. Aguilera has adopted the holidays and customs of her Jewish husband, Jordon Bratman, and she recently spoke to radio host Ryan Seacrest about the bris of her child Max:

“I’m not Jewish, my husband’s Jewish … I never really knew a lot of Jewish people growing up either, so I really had no idea about the bris and all the Jewish holidays. It’s all a learning process for me. It was a very sweet experience; we had a lot of close friends come over and experience the bris with us.”

She also admits that the bris was slightly un-conventional – adorning the walls of her home were balloons that… infallibly symbolized the event’s main attraction.

While Aguilera is celebrated for her decision, too many in the community are still unwilling to accept those woman who have cast their lot with the Jewish people by raising Jewish children. Perhaps if they had been voted singer of the year or had a platinum album on the charts, they would find similar widespread support.

As they continue to raise their child Jewish, her family and all others who have made the choice to have a Jewish home are always welcome in the Big Tent community we are trying to foster.

I Wonder how I can contact her to participate in JOI’s Mothers Circle—now in more than 30 communities?



Secular Cemetery in Jerusalem

In a widely reported piece of news, Jerusalem’s mayor, Uri Lupolianski, recently presented the city with a plan for building a secular cemetery that would permit civil burial. This will allow Jews of all denominations to be buried in Jerusalem, and it will also be available for residents who can’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery due to halacha (Jewish law).

“Jerusalem is a pluralistic city that is committed to allowing each person to choose his way of life and the way he wishes to be buried, without any form of coercion,” Lupolianski explained.

What will the opening of a new secular cemetery in Jerusalem, the first of its kind, mean for those who have intermarried? Will it mean that intermarried Israelis, many of whom live hidden in plain site, will be able to be buried together? These are just two of the questions that are sure to arise even before they put the first shovel in the ground. Nevertheless, it is an important step forward in the evolution of “Big Tent Judaism” for Israel. But I guess first they have to acknowledge that intermarriage, particularly among Arabs and Jews, is taking place in increasing numbers in Israel.



Rabbinical Assembly Reconsiders Obscure Policy

An article posted today in the JTA by Ben Harris, titled “R.A. to Reconsider Ban on Intermarried Speakers,” goes right to the heart of what we see as one of the biggest challenges in helping Jews on the periphery feel comfortable in Judaism – the notion of excluding someone simply because they have chosen to intermarry.

According to Harris, the Rabbinical Assembly, the international association of Conservative Rabbis, is having trouble keeping a balance between politically left and right wing speakers for their upcoming convention. The reason, says Harris, is simple - the R.A. won’t allow speakers who are intermarried.

“The policy is we will only invite speakers who are either single, or, if they are married, are not intermarried,” said Rabbi Joel Meyers, the R.A.’s executive vice president.

This position by the R.A. seems a bit askew, considering the Conservative movement is in the process of moving more aggressively toward welcoming interfaith families and their children. In our own work, through the Call Synagogue Home project, for example, which includes numerous Conservative rabbis and synagogues, we are moving lightyears ahead in this arena. Penalizing people because they have married in or out of the faith seems somewhat inconsistent with this spirit of welcoming.

Due to their status of intermarriage, United States Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer and Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean were considered for speakers, but dropped. The silver lining, though, is that the policy seems antiquated to many in the R.A., and some have been pushing for a more tolerant and flexible approach to couples of intermarriage.

A recently established outreach committee is examining best practices on welcoming intermarried couples within the movement’s synagogues. And Rabbi Jeremy Wohlberg, the R.A.’s incoming president, told JTA that the organization will reconsider the speaker policy.

We think this is a step in the right direction. Putting aside the subject of intermarriage, this policy of exclusion will only help to turn people away from Judaism. This is like the old joke of the guy who swam halfway across the English Channel, but then got tired and swam back. Outreach to those who are intermarried has come far over the years, and if we want to make sure everyone feels welcome within the Jewish community, we can’t make them feel unwanted – they’ll just turn around and swim back.



Outreach Education in Rhode Island

While I am frequently invited as a guest to speak or to teach—as was the case this past Sunday in the Providence, Rhode Island area and the Zelniker Conference on Jewish Education—I am always amazed at how much more I learn from the folks who attend my session than I am able to teach them. Here are two things that I learned while delivering the keynote presentation (on diversity in the Jewish community) and presenting two workshops (one on JOI’s signature program model: Public Space JudaismSM; and one on the impact of intermarriage on the classroom).

I taught the group what I consider to be three important principles in Jewish education (borrowed/adapted from the principles of confluent education): Competency in any Jewish environment; comfort in any Jewish environment; and spiritual elevation in any Jewish environment. I mentioned, for example, that Reform Jews should be taught to be competent and comfortable in other Jewish environments. I was reminded that it is also important—if we are to create a Big Tent community that is mutually supportive—that traditional Jews have to be respectful in Reform contexts. I believe that that challenge for all of us is not to evaluate a particular institution from our perspective. Rather, we have to evaluate the institution from the inside and make sure it is the best it can offer from its own perspective.

Second, I mentioned that often when we have children of intermarriage in our classroom, we frequently assign limitations of children’s learning to the fact that they come from an interfaith family. In reality, some of the challenges that these children face—such as the possibility of limited experiences in their homes—is not different than any other family. We simply assign it to the issues emerging from an interfaith marriage. I was reminded that the “we” includes many teachers who are also intermarried. As much as we are concerned about the assumptions we make with regard to the students in the classroom, we should also not make any assumptions about those who are in the front of the classroom as teachers.

This is just the beginning of our work in the community. And just as the study of Torah changes us, as it does the text as we engage it, our work in Providence will undoubtedly change us as much as we hope that it will help the Providence Jewish community achieve the inclusiveness it desires.



A Rich Shabbat Experience

Last Shabbat, I was honored with the privilege of giving a devar Torah (sermon) during the shabbaton (day long study and prayer experience on Shabbat) of the New Jersey West Hudson Valley Region of the Union for Reform Judaism. Basically, that is the Reform movement in New Jersey and Rockland County, New York. The portion was Yitro. It was rich with the Sinai experience. As a result, the vort (Yiddish for “word,” as my bubbe used to call it) was straight spirituality. No explicit advocacy for an inclusive Jewish community. No how-to program suggestions. Just straight talk about the journey of the spirit and the sacred path for the individual to walk upon in order to reach God.

While lots of folks in attendance had much to say about the presentation, what was really noteworthy was the number of people who took the opportunity to tell me how much they appreciate the work of the Jewish Outreach Institute. Given that I am often in situations in which the work we do is challenged, it was nice to be in such a warm and supportive environment. And I had said nothing about our organization. The attendees appreciated my words, and one by one I was approached by people wanting suggestions for their home congregations—what can they do to better reach out and welcome in those on the periphery of the Jewish community.

It is clear to me that our message of inclusion is making its way into communities and into congregations. And people want to hear it, because it affirms what they know to be a basic value of Judaism: welcoming the stranger. So maybe it was contained in my presentation, after all. Where else but in the revelation of Sinai could such a lesson be learned?





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