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Weblog Entries for March 2008

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Finally, People Are Hearing Us

It seems the release of three recent studies on interfaith relationships has caused an “Aha!” moment for a lot of people. Writing in The Forward, Anthony Weiss lays out a thesis that essentially forms the basis of the work we do here every day. He says:

“Taken together, the three studies suggest that a combination of Jewish education, outreach, and sensitivity can bring interfaith couples and their children into Jewish life.”

The three studies, which we recently blogged about, draw a picture of outreach that is becoming increasingly common in shaping the future of the Jewish community – intermarriage is not a death knell, but an opportunity. Many of these families want to find meaning in the Jewish community, so it’s our responsibility to make sure they feel welcome enough to do so.



Welcoming the Stranger on Passover

Now that Purim is over, the Jewish community is busily preparing for Passover. As a matter of fact, the Torah reading cycle and the various Sabbaths that anticipate Passover actually have us preparing for weeks – long before Purim even begins. And with the anticipation of Passover comes a proliferation of special seder events, such as the ubiquitous chocolate seder for kids, and, more significantly, the various women’s seders that take place in communities across North America.

Passover is an excellent time to reach out and welcome the “stranger.” It is part of the moral imperative of outreach in Judaism, which is especially poignant for Passover. It is on this holiday that we begin the seder by saying “Let all those who are hungry come and eat.” This doesn’t have to mean just hungry for food – it can also mean hungry for the richness of the Jewish community.

That is why it is important as we plan our home seders, particularly specially themed seders for women, that we make sure to include all of the women in our Jewish community. We need to extend a special invitation to those who are not Jewish but are living in our midst, raising Jewish children. While we welcome the “stranger,” we should make sure they don’t feel like a stranger. Rather we should let them know that they are indeed invited around the table.



Different Opinions, Similar Goals

A few nights ago, I had the pleasure and privilege of speaking to the Berrie Fellows program in New Jersey. Modeled on the Wexner Heritage Program in which I was involved a number of years ago, this project is an undertaking of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey and supported by the Russell Berrie Foundation. (We are working with both institutions on yet another project. More about that in later posts.) This is a wonderful group of community leaders who are learning how to enhance their leadership skills while at the same time gaining a Jewish education from scholars of various walks of Jewish life.

As we started talking, I realized this was not going to be an easy session. The group did not simply accept my proposition for creating an inclusive Jewish community. There was push-back since the group represented such a wide spectrum of Jewish life. But the best part of the experience—and what left me feeling quite optimistic—was that they were all sitting around the same table and engaged in a thoughtful conversation with me. Even if we disagree on certain issues, it is clear that we all care deeply about the same thing—the future of Jewish life and the Jewish community. I was encouraged by this dialogue, and I hope this is the kind of conversation that can be replicated in other communities.



Interfaith Family Shabbat

In the latest issue of The New York Jewish Week, Julie Wiener writes in her “In The Mix” column on intermarried life about her family’s Friday night Shabbat dinners. She credits their weekly Sabbath tradition to her Catholic husband, who initially suggested they commit to making Shabbat dinner a weekly ritual.

“There are quite a few of us die-hard candle-lighting interfaith families,” Wiener writes. Along with quoting research, she also quotes an alumna of The Mothers Circle course in Atlanta, Abi Auer, who regularly bakes fresh challah and prepares a special meal to celebrate the Jewish Sabbath with her family.

Through my work with The Mothers Circle, I have heard other wonderful stories of interfaith families bringing Shabbat rituals into their lives. Whether it’s designating Friday night as family time, attending Tot Shabbat services, initiating a Saturday night family Havdallah ritual, or gathering with other Mothers Circle families for Shabbat dinners, it is clear that many non-Jewish mothers are eager to embrace Shabbat customs once they have the tools and knowledge to do so.

The Mothers Circle strives to empower women of other religious backgrounds raising Jewish children to bring Judaism into their families’ lives, and it looks like we’re well on our way to reaching that goal.



Half-Jewish: Self-identity through Facebook

What’s the best thing about being “half-Jewish”? And in contrast, what is the hardest thing about being “half-Jewish”?

Whether or not you believe that someone can truly be considered “half-Jewish,” there are countless adult children of intermarriage that grapple with this notion in their every day lives. Last week, I attended a presentation and discussion on a research project completed by Ben Greene, a program associate at The Samuel Bronfman Foundation, who utilized the social networking website Facebook to explore the emerging identity of “half-Jewish” among young adults.

Ben discussed his survey-based research, which targeted members of “half-Jewish” and Jewish Facebook groups. He asked questions about the individuals’ views on being “half-Jewish,” their various experiences and Jewish connections, and their thoughts on Jewish continuity. Not to disclose the details of Ben’s intriguing research, but these surveys provide important insight on the perspectives and challenges of growing up in an interfaith family. For example, one of the conclusions from the research states that “there is a clear clash of views in how people that identify as ‘half-Jewish’ understand the term, and how the more engaged ‘Jewish’ population views the term, potentially leading to tension between the two groups.”

Ben’s research brings to light the many difficult questions that this population is often forced to deal with. While these young adults strive to build both their individual and group identity as Jews, it is essential that we, as the Jewish community, support them in their journey and provide them with opportunities to explore and deepen their Jewish connections. With the generous support of The Samuel Bronfman Foundation, JOI has had the opportunity to work with organizations such as Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life to welcome young adults who are interested in finding Jewish meaning and community, no matter what “percent” of the person is Jewish.



How Welcoming is the Conservative Movement to Intermarried Families?

I recently had an opinion piece published in the New Jersey Jewish News recommending a new policy on intermarried families for the Conservative movement, in which I wrote:

Traditionally, the Conservative three-step approach has been to (1) promote in-marriage, but if that fails, (2) promote conversion, but if that fails, (3) welcome the intermarried. In practice, step 3 is rarely reached because the messages intended to accomplish steps 1 and 2 work against it. I recommend reversing the order. New step 1: Welcome everybody. If Conservative Judaism is so wonderful, let’s share it. Let’s help more people access it. Let’s explain why we find it so beautiful and meaningful…

I pointed out in the piece that there is positive change happening “on the ground,” though I did not name names and I probably should have, especially in mentioning the work of the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs (FJMC).

However, the amazingly wide spectrum of responses I received from people within the Conservative movement about my op-ed helps explain why the change is coming so incrementally, with no major policy statements yet. It’s because the movement is incredibly divided over the issue.

On the one hand, I heard yasher koach (loosely translated as “congratulations”) from several Conservative rabbis. On the other hand, there were several angry letters to the editor, including one Conservative rabbi who wrote that I was “asking for nothing less than a radical redefinition of Jewish peoplehood in the span of one generation. Any gains for Conservative Judaism would be short-sighted at best. The price is too high. It entails jettisoning classic Conservative norms of tradition, history and halakhah [Jewish law].”

I’ll leave it for others to debate whether the Conservative movement is really halakhic or not (and at least that is a debate taking place within the movement), but I will challenge that rabbi on the first part of his statement. The “radical redefinition of Jewish peoplehood” has already happened. What I’m asking of the Conservative movement is to recognize it and adjust their policies accordingly. We at JOI believe that the Conservative movement can become a welcoming place for intermarried families and we’re thrilled to know of (and work with) the people willing to make it a reality.



The Elephant in the Room

Last week, I participated in a panel discussion on diversity and marketing at the annual conference of the Foundation for Jewish Camping. Because we had had previous conversations about how the panel discussion would unfold, I was fearful that the issues for which JOI stands would not be brought up. So I brought with me an elephant from one of our previous JOI conferences, just to remind people of the elephant in the room: interfaith marriage. Although I tried numerous times to bring it up, no one would engage me on the issue directly. Interestingly, though, a large group of folks called me aside after the conclusion of the panel discussion to ask me a few questions about interfaith marriage and its impact on camp enrollment and the like.

I wondered why they were afraid to bring it up during the panel discussion. Were they afraid of what their colleagues might think? It was a very polite conversation, so why were they willing to ask me things privately that they were not prepared to ask me publicly? I will probably never know the answer, but it is clear that the camps realize a significant key to their future success will be to engage children of interfaith families. In the meantime, I am delighted that these issues of diversity are on the agenda of the Foundation for Jewish Camping, and that they will be partnering with us as we together forge a path for a more inclusive Jewish future.



How One Interfaith Marriage Saved the Jewish Community

Tonight, the Jewish community will come together to celebrate Purim by listening to a reading of the Megillah - the Book of Esther. It’s a joyous affair where children dress up as characters from the story to celebrate the courage and heroic deeds of Queen Esther and her uncle Mordechai, and many adults drink until they can’t tell the difference between Mordechai and Haman (Boo! Hiss!). Some synagogues and Jewish community centers will also stage carnivals, and everyone will have a good time.

But the holiday is about more than carnivals and costumes. It’s also a story about a successful interfaith marriage. The Jewish community was on the brink of annihilation, but when Ahasuerus, the King of Persia, found out his wife was Jewish, he cast his lot with the Jewish people and we were saved from destruction. Today’s edition of Metro New York features our own Rabbi Kerry Olitzky and his thoughts on the subject.

Purim reminds us of the importance of embracing our Jewish heritage, and it also offers an opportunity to reflect on the state of inclusion for the thousands of interfaith families around the world. Many institutions still put up barriers, treating intermarriage like treason. This is counter-productive to Jewish growth – we need to engage these families, not keep them away. It’s time we welcome interfaith families into the Jewish community, where their presence will add to the strength and diversity of the Jewish people.



Starting A New Tradition

My teacher, of blessed memory, Rabbi Jakob J. Petuchowski, was fond of saying that “one generation’s creativity is the next generation’s tradition.” Of course, we always have to wait until that next generation to determine whether or not the creativity made it through. Perhaps that is what is most intriguing about the various new ritual activities at Mayyim Hayyim (Living Water), the community mikvah in Boston which is serving as a paradigm for about 20 other new community mikvaot (pl. mikvah). Among them is the notion that boys and girls just prior to their bar/bat mitzvah should undergo immersion. This growing trend, which was written about recently by Erica Brown in the (New York) Jewish Week, is particularly important as we search for ways to move children into Jewish adulthood when it is clear that adulthood in the secular community is a few years away. Using the mikvah in this context, some believe, can help strengthen the Jewish identity of these youth.

There are those who will debate the precedent of such a use for mikvah—and I am not one of them. I am very supportive of the mikvah and the reclaiming of ritual for various purposes, even if there isn’t clear precedent. But, as noted in the article, there are those who feel uneasy having a pre-adolescent girl or boy dipped in a mikvah, since the traditional use of a mikvah is “to sanctify the sex of a married couple.” But others, like Rabbi Susan Grossman, believe that:

“If it is being used in a pietistic way to raise spiritual appreciation for the event and pray for God’s blessings, then there is ample precedent for such mikveh use for both men and women.”

The pre-bar/bat mitzvah mikvah use also addresses what I like to call the “social visibility” factor in Jewish life today, particularly poignant for interfaith families. And what I applaud is the sensitivity of Mayyim Hayyim of the same notion. Conservative rabbis are using the mikvah prior to bar/bat mitzvah for so-called partrilineal children (those with a Jewish father and a mother from another faith tradition) for the purpose of conversion, or what Rabbi Michael Siegel of Anshe Emet in Chicago calls a “completion ceremony”. However, our friends at Mayyim Hayyim understand that by encouraging it for all children, the social visibility factor for children of intermarriage (regardless of the purpose of the immersion) is removed. And in my book, that is a step forward in making the Jewish community more inclusive. Thank you, Mayyim Hayyim.



Seven Stories

Reactions to the recent Pew religion study just keep on coming. The website Jewcy.com, “an entertainment and media company devoted to helping Jews (and anyone else) find, use, share, and expand meaning and community,” had published the survey results on their website a couple of weeks ago, and it spurred a lengthy, passionate thread of comments. Once again, the focus was on the 44% of people who have switched religions. The discussion inspired Jewcy.com (which has featured our own Rabbi Kerry Olitzky in an open dialogue on choosing faith) to move beyond the abstract – graphs, charts and numbers - and into something more concrete by compiling seven personal stories from people who have chosen to practice a new faith.

Three of the stories they published are tales of people choosing Judaism, and each one offers a unique perspective. In one, the tone is angry: “A few weeks ago I barged into the office of a shaliach (a Jewish emissary) that previously had declined to take my case before the special committee at the Ministry of Interior that decides who gets to convert.” In another, the tone is more studious: “I am sometimes jealous of people who grew up as Jews, who know all the little things that Jews just do, that they don’t teach you in a conversion class.” But the stories all come to the same conclusion - each person has dedicated themselves to living a Jewish life and raising a Jewish family.

Although Jewcy.com is technically a Jewish website, they also printed stories of people finding meaning in Islam, Sikhism, Buddhism, and Christian Science. Within each story was a unifying theme – the search for a sense of community, a place to grow spiritually. This is one of the core values of JOI – to create an atmosphere of welcoming for anyone who chooses to cast their lot with the Jewish people. Through programs like Empowering Ruth (for women who have chosen Judaism), we offer a safe place for further discussion and learning, both in person and through a listserve. This message of inclusion is necessary if we want to grow and strengthen the Jewish community.



Lowering the Barriers to Participation

Thank you Sharon Shapiro for opening Yad HaChazakah (The Strong Hand) to the entire Jewish community! Yad HaChazakah-The Jewish Disabilities Empowerment Center seeks to empower Jews with disabilities and to teach the entire Jewish community how to make our institutions accessible. In a recent article in The Jewish Week, titled “Setting the Wheelchairs in Motion,” founding director Sharon Shapiro quotes the latest U.S census stating that “one out of five people report being disabled” as part of her inspiration for starting the organization. Shapiro, who is confined to a wheelchair due to cerebral palsy, recalls seeing hardly any disabled people at the synagogues, yeshivas or community centers. Shapiro wanted to know where all the Jews with disabilities were. “It couldn’t be that no Jew except me and a handful of people had a disability,” she said. After working for 17 years in the independent-living movement, she brought her knowledge and skills of advocating for those with disabilities to the Jewish community. Yad HaChazakah board member Rabbi Michael Levy states:

“Jews with disabilities should be included not as an afterthought. If you’re building a synagogue, build it with Jews with disabilities in mind. Make facilities accessible, including educational institutions, wedding halls, and community centers. It should be as natural as putting computer cables in a building because you know you know you’ll have a computer.”

Here at JOI we advocate for those who are on the periphery through our Big Tent Judaism initiative. As Shapiro mentions in the article, those with disabilities are indeed on the periphery since they are barely seen in our institutions. According to Big Tent Judaism’s Principle #6, we need to “Lower Barriers to Participation.” We need to put in wheelchair ramps, accept service dogs, and offer texts in Braille. We also need to educate our community leaders on how and why this needs to be done. For more information on how to make your community more inclusive to the entire Jewish community, please visit BigTentJudaism.org. If you have a disability and you would like to find out how to empower yourself to manage your home, handle daily living activities, and live a full Jewish life, visit Yad HaChazakah’s website at: yad-jdec.org.



Under One Chuppah

Three new scholarly reports on intermarriage have just been released, and their findings, while common sense to us, provide an excellent outline for how we can grow and strengthen the North American Jewish Community. It boils down to this: If we can make interfaith families feel more welcome in the Jewish community, that will spur their involvement in Jewish life, and our numbers will grow down the road.

All three studies looked at intermarriage and the behavior of interfaith families, according to an article by Sue Fishkoff in the JTA. The first report, called “It’s Not Just Who Stands Under the Chuppah,” by Leonard Saxe of Brandeis University, concludes that “intermarriage itself is not as critical in determining a family’s Jewish involvement as the Jewish partner’s background and education.”

“This is a positive development,” he said. “The simple, end-of-the-world take on intermarriage that came out of a simplistic interpretation of the National Jewish Population Study data is now being better understood. It means people are paying attention to intermarriage in a more serious and thoughtful way.”

Saxe and his co-researcher, Fern Chertok, found that a Jewish home does more to influence Jewish continuity than whether or not one of the parents is of a different faith. That baseline finding is supported in the second study mentioned in Fishkoff’s article, sponsored by the Combined Jewish Philanthropies and also conducted by Saxe et al. Theirs was a follow up on earlier findings that 60 percent of the children in Boston’s intermarried households are being raised Jewish.

The new report, said vice president for strategy and planning at CJP, confirmed the 60 percent findings, and “it also showed that a couple’s initial decision to raise their children as Jews is the critical factor in determining an intermarried family’s level of Jewish involvement.”

The report also found that intermarried families in Boston look like in-married Reform families in terms of Jewish practice. But the question is: How do you get intermarried or unaffiliated families involved in the first place? Here’s a hint – it’s in our mission statement.

“I believe strongly that our approach in Boston works,” said CJP President Barry Shrage, a longtime advocate of communal investment in Jewish outreach and education. “Our efforts to make our community more welcoming and to create more meaningful Jewish experiences are linked to the finding that 60 percent of the children born in intermarried households are being raised as Jews.”

The last report, “Intermarriage and Jewish Journeys in the United States,” by the National Center for Jewish Policy Studies, differs from the others because the families they consulted are already involved in the Jewish community. The main findings revolved around who officiates an interfaith wedding – they discovered a statistically significant correlation between intermarriages performed by Jewish clergy and the couple’s eventual involvement in Jewish life.

What’s the conclusion? Intermarriage, as many have bemoaned, is not the end. For many, it’s just the beginning. Encouraging increased participation in Jewish life will have a more lasting affect than worrying about intermarriage. When an interfaith couple decides to get married, religion becomes part of the conversation. If we reach out and let these couples know that our doors are open, that we will welcome them without hesitation into our institutions, maybe they will be more inclined to begin a Jewish life.



Do You Know the Way to a More Inclusive San Jose?

The San Jose area is a lovely community, one of the most charming in the United States. As a result, it attracts many people to the entire Silicon Valley. So I was delighted to be invited back—following a general presentation to the community last year—to spend the day with lay leaders and Jewish communal professionals discussing the challenges of reaching people on the periphery of the Jewish community. The community boasts of a beautiful new campus which houses most of the local community agencies, including a day school, Federation, JCC, and JFS. (In between meeting, I even snuck in a run in their world-class fitness center around which the entire JCC and much of the campus is built.) While the national average of those who are affiliated hovers at 35-40%, in this area it is markedly lower. Thus, the challenge is higher—especially with a large American Israeli population.

So what do they—and others—do? We believe that there are two answers to the question that gets at the heart of what we teach at JOI. First, we focus on making the inside of the community a warm and welcoming place—and offer specific techniques and programs to do so. We want to make sure that once outreach is effective—which brings people to the gates of the community—that the institutions are able to deliver on the promises of inclusiveness made by the outreach effort. Then we focus on a different kind of outreach—a methodology not aimed at a target population. This is about bringing the Jewish community out to where people are, most notably through program models that we call Public Space Judaismsm.

We are thrilled that San Jose is warming up to these ideas. They are already beginning to introduce them into the community. We also look forward to taking the next step together with them. They have a great community with a lot to share, and we want to make sure that lots of others know about these ideas as well.



Purim’s Outreach Potential

JOI has developed a variety of programs for Purim, specifically those that reflect the criteria for Public Space Judaismsm, where we take Jewish programming out to where the people are. We have programs for Hamantaschen baking in a grocery store, or wine tasting in a wine shop. But the most common Purim program is still the synagogue or JCC carnival that takes place all across North America. Purim carnivals offer great outreach opportunities that usually fall within the category of what we call Open Door Communitysm programs. These are low barrier programs that usually take place on the grounds of or inside a Jewish communal institution, such as a synagogue or Jewish Community Center.

But many institutions take these carnivals for granted since they typically reach those who are already inside the community. Often we overlook the assets that we have for outreach potential. Purim carnivals are among such activities that can be maximized in order to extend their reach into the community, and it is wonderful to already see some institutions moving Purim carnivals into public spaces that are easily accessible by all, particularly interfaith families who may be on the periphery of the Jewish community.

While most organizations have already done their planning for Purim—especially their carnivals—it is never too late to ask the question: What are we doing to reach the newcomer when they cross the threshold of our institution? What we are doing to make sure that they feel welcome?



Taking our Message on the Road: Outreach in Los Angeles

On the invitation of our friends at the Valley Jewish Alliance, part of the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles, Eva Stern (JOI’s senior program office) and I just returned from a week of working closely with the communities in the five valleys of Los Angeles. While we were initially planning on developing a conference in one location for the entire valley, we decided to walk the walk of our own ideology and brought our training session to three locations in three different valleys, including Santa Clarita which purports to be the fastest growing Jewish community in Los Angeles. This session, by the way, was held in a hotel—all part of our efforts to lower the barriers to participation.

Eva and I led these Jewish communal professionals and volunteer leaders through JOI’s philosophy and how it applies to our best outreach practices. What is always most heartening about these experiences is the response—best shown in what is applied immediately thereafter and in the months that follow. We had started working with one particular congregation in Santa Clarita who “got it” even before we arrived. We had been working with this synagogue and its rabbi on their plans for a Purim Carnival at the valley’s well-known Magic Mountain. What we offered most was guidance in unobtrusive name collection and follow-up, two key practices for effective outreach.

All of this work emerged from an environmental community outreach scan that we did about two years ago for two of the valleys. We helped them identify the areas where outreach could be most improved, presenting the community with a baseline upon which it could build the inclusive community that it so desires.



Celebrities Choosing Judaism

We have been busy these last weeks developing an articulated curriculum for our Empowering Ruth program—designed for women who have converted to Judaism. We piloted this program a few years ago in New York City, thanks to a grant from the Jewish Women’s Foundation in New York. And now, thanks to the generosity of the Jim Joseph Foundation, we are able to transform that pilot and what we learned from it into a formal curriculum so that we can launch the program throughout North America. Look for it soon in your community—or if you are interested in bringing it home, please be in touch with us.

When I read the news that “Wedding Crashers” star Isla Fisher recently converted to Judaism and is marrying observant Jew Sacha Baron Cohen (of “Borat” infamy), I thought that maybe she would be a great celebrity spokesperson for the launch. But she is just one of many in Hollywood who have been attracted to Judaism. We would like to invite every female celebrity who is a Jew-by-choice to consider becoming a spokesperson for Empowering Ruth.

So if Mrs. Fisher, Elizabeth Taylor, Connie Chung, or any of the other women who have proudly cast their lot with the Jewish people are reading this blog, we would welcome the opportunity to work with you. With your help, we could lend a powerful voice to women all over America who have decided to embrace Jewish life. And to all women who have recently converted, welcome. We’re thrilled to have you with us.



The Choices of a New Generation

By now you may have read about the recent study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life that found a remarkable amount of shifting between individuals’ current religion/denomination and that of their birth. If you haven’t yet, there’s a general article about it on NPR’s website. For the Jewish angle, an excellent article by Sue Fishkoff of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Both pieces link to the study’s website itself, which you can read by clicking here.

What does the study mean to us, in terms of the Jewish future? Dr. Gary Tobin wrote a recent op-ed that I think sums it up beautifully:

Some rabbis do a great job in dealing with potential converts; many do not. Our synagogues often are less welcoming than we think. And our newspapers, sermons and sociological literature are filled with hysterical reprimands and dire predictions about the demise of the Jews that result from gentiles breaking through our traditional walls. How welcoming do we think it is when we say we wish our sons or daughters would have married someone else, but as long as you are here, we will try and be nice to you?

We have a theology that has no intermediary between the individual and God. That is appealing. We have a set of daily, monthly and yearly rituals that provide guidance and purpose. That is appealing. We have rich liturgy, beautiful prayers, deep roots in Israel, a strong communal system. All appealing. By being attractive to others, we will also be more attractive to born Jews. What are we afraid of?



You Make the Call

We all know that our lives can change in a split second—because of an action that we have taken or because of something that has happened to us. That is why it is so important to consider the fragment of time between when an adult child comes home and tells you that their soul mate, the person that they have fallen in love with, the person with whom they want to spend the rest of their life, isn’t Jewish. Or perhaps they don’t say it—you ask the question. In that moment when the subject is broached, you control the tenor of the future relationship you will have with your children, and perhaps even your grandchildren. Any hesitation, any reaction, will be carefully measured and reacted to in turn. This is your chance to shape the future. Don’t blow it.

So what do you say when your adult child introduces you to their partner for the first time? Inside, some parents might feel disappointment, like they failed to instill a strong Jewish identity. Others might even wish their child would marry someone else. In the end, these attitudes won’t make the future spouse feel like they are part of the family – it will make them feel like they are an outsider.

Our suggestion is simple: You welcome them enthusiastically, unabashedly expressing love and excitement. Perhaps if your child’s spouse knows that the Jewish community—as represented by you—is a warm and friendly environment, they may want to spend a long time in it.



Wine Tasting in the Public Square

We are always excited when people write to us with stories of how JOI’s programming helps them with successful Jewish outreach. This one comes to us from Congregation Beth El in South Orange, New Jersey:


When we wanted to use a congregational Wine Tasting event as an opportunity for genuine Jewish Outreach, our Synaplex Committee, a community building initiative coordinated by former JOI Rabbinic Intern Josh Rabin, decided to take the event outside of the synagogue. While our annual Synaplex Shabbat on Food and Wine succeeded in attracting a large number of congregants to their Friday night and Shabbat morning programming, the Synaplex Committee also wanted to attract people who were not already engaging in the many innovative programs at the synagogue.

The Synaplex Committee decided to hold the wine tasting event at the South Orange Performing Arts Center so that inactive congregants and the unaffiliated might feel more welcome within the Jewish community. The committee engaged in active external publicity, such as putting posters in secular locations and mailing out postcard invitations, and presented the event as an opportunity for a broad spectrum of people to engage with their community. This past Saturday night, the attendance at the wine tasting doubled from the previous year, with 120 people attending this exciting event. The event attracted a wide array of people; affiliated and unaffiliated, previous participants and newcomers. By using the principles of Public Space Judaism, we succeeded in making new participants feel welcome and comfortable in our congregation, hopefully helping others begin a more long-term relationship that will strengthen Jewish life and enrich our community.

Congratulations on your successful program! We couldn’t be more thrilled. If anyone else has a story they would like to share, don’t hesitate to write us. We look forward to hearing from you.



We’re Gonna Need a Bigger Tent!

We have often wondered about the development of the ubiquitous rainbow as a way of identifying an institution or an organization, or even a commercial enterprise, as “gay-friendly.” Could we do the same for Big Tent Judaism, JOI’s advocacy platform for fostering an inclusive Jewish community? What are the words and images that would indicate an open Jewish community, particularly for those on the periphery, where everyone will feel welcomed and embraced?

Since we use the following text a lot in our work, we debated whether its application for this purpose would be appropriate: “The stranger that lives with you shall be to you like the native, and you shall love him [or her] as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:34). We even considered just using the reference “Leviticus 19:34” and thereby encouraging others to check out www.BigTentJudaism.org for more information. In the end, we decided on “All are Welcome” since it really expresses what we feel and what we wanted to communicate. And it is working. How do we know? We see the sticker that we developed and give members of the Big Tent Coalition on the doors and windows of institutions, as well as on their websites. BBYO, Beth El Synagogue of Baltimore, and Congregation Knesset Israel of Bound Brook, NJ are just a few of the organizations that are now proud members of the coalition. And we are thrilled.

If your institution wants to become part of the Big Tent Coalition, click here for details. We look forward to hearing from you!





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