Weblog Entries for June 2008

Fifty Years of Outreach

In a milestone celebration, this year marks fifty years of Jewish outreach by Chabad in Detroit. Chabad is known for aggressively promoting Judaism, working to reignite the spark in unaffiliated, unengaged Jews to help them get back in touch with their Jewish roots. And Detroit has been no exception. Whether we agree with all of their outreach methodologies or their ideological stand on certain Jewish issues, we congratulate Chabad on this anniversary.

Writing in the Detroit Free Press, Niraj Warikoo explains how Chabad came to Detroit, and the effect it has had on the community since then. Local leaders, he writes, claim that up to 40% of the 72,000 Jews in metro Detroit have taken part in some sort of Chabad outreach event, and that Chabad is building a new $15 million complex in the suburb West Bloomfield. I would be curious to know what its name collection and follow-up techniques are after hosting outreach events. These are important JOI strategies indispensable to outreach, which we believe are better used as an overall methodology, not just something to reach a target population. But either way, these numbers do point to a certain degree of success.

Where JOI and Chabad definitely see eye to eye is on the issue of engagement. We both know that the best way to get people involved in the Jewish community is to go out to where the people are (what we call Public Space JudaismSM) and lower the barriers of participation. We also both know that making people feel welcome is the best way to get them to increase their participation in Jewish life. In the article, a Chabad rabbi puts it nicely:

“The idea is to make Judaism accessible,” said the shul’s (Chabad synagogue of West Bloomfield) head, Rabbi Kasriel Shemtov. “We wanted to have a place where Jews of all walks of life would feel comfortable.”

Our work is based on the belief that we need to open hearts, minds and doors to all those who have chosen to cast their lot with the Jewish people. Along with Jews-by-choice, unaffiliated, and unengaged Jews, we believe this should also include welcoming interfaith couples and their families, and involving them in all aspects of Jewish life. Chabad may disagree with us there, but our bottom line essentially remains the same – to grow and strengthen the North American Jewish community.

In Place of Assumptions, an Open Mind

In our ongoing debate over the challenges and opportunities found in interfaith relationships, one of the arguments we often hear is that when someone marries outside of the faith, the chances of Jewish continuity drop significantly. The theory is that with a non-Jewish spouse, the children won’t have a proper Jewish education, and they will grow up without a clear indication of their religion. Therefore their children will have an even lesser understanding of their Jewish roots. We tend to blame interfaith families for not engaging with the Jewish community or providing their children with a Jewish education, but at the same time we refuse to let them do so in our institutions.

We know that’s a nihilistic view that needs to change. And so does Shari Rabin.

Shari is a junior at Boston University, majoring in religion with a focus on religion in America. She writes a blog called the Chutzpah Chronicles for the website On Faith, in which she records “her observations and intellectual meanderings.”

In her most recent blog post, she writes about meeting the seven other participants in her summer internship in Jewish studies (she doesn’t say for what organization). As everyone starts to introduce themselves, one thing becomes strikingly clear – she was the only person in the room who was “100 percent” Jewish, that is, with two Jewish parents. In a room full of people preparing to spend the summer in a Jewish internship, two were not Jewish, and four were the children of interfaith marriage. The realization that interfaith families are increasingly the norm challenged one of her most basic assumptions about Jewish life. Shari wrote:

My family’s strong opposition to intermarriage has also ingrained in me a certain internal narrative in which intermarriage leads to confusion leads to disaffection leads to abandonment of Judaism. But the fact that 4 out of the 5 Jewish interns spending the summer doing intensive Jewish studies research come from such backgrounds has shown me that this is not always the case.

It’s often been remarked upon that converts are the most dedicated Jews. And I think that for my fellow interns and other dedicated Jews from interfaith families, there is a similar reason – Judaism for them is something exciting and chosen that they don’t take for granted. I am still convinced that marrying another Jew is the best thing for Jewish people, but I have learned to be a little less pessimistic about interfaith families.

It’s a good day when someone can look at the world around them and see opportunities instead of barriers; when they can put aside assumptions and approach things with an open mind. Shari grew up thinking interfaith marriage was an end to Judaism, a nail in the coffin. But during those introductions, she saw people excited and dedicated to learning about and preserving the Jewish faith. That optimism is what drives JOI, and in the end, we think that’s what will help grow our Big Tent and strengthen the North American Jewish community.

A Trend Too Big To Ignore

A couple of days ago, we blogged about the new Adam Sandler movie, “You Don’t Mess With The Zohan.” While it’s a slapstick comedy, it does deal with the bigger issue of an interfaith relationship – one between a Jew and a Muslim.

On the heels of Zohan comes another movie, this one dramatic, also about the relationship between Jews and Muslims. According to promotional material, the movie “David and Fatima” is about a young Jewish man, David, who falls in love with a Palestinian Muslim named Fatima. Unlike Zohan, where the protagonists carry out their relationship in America, David and Fatima try to have a relationship in Israel, against the backdrop of families and a culture that aggressively disapproves of their romance.

The Jewish/Muslim interfaith relationship might be the most taboo of them all. It offers some of the biggest challenges in the already complex world of cross-cultural relationships. Both these movies, while different in approach, show that it’s a subject becoming too big to ignore. Even last years “The Band’s Visit” falls into this category. Although it’s about an Egyptian band that gets lost in a small Israeli town, it drew rave reviews for it’s depiction of Arabs and Israelis putting aside their cultural differences and, as film critic Roger Ebert says, it “shows them both as only ordinary people with ordinary hopes, lives and disappointments.”

JOI has been advocating for a broader discussion of Jewish/Muslim interfaith relationships, and we hope the sudden spate of media interest in this subject will bring this conversation to a new level.

Reform Rabbis Take New Approach Towards Interfaith Families

The Central Conference of American Rabbi’s recently concluded their 119th annual convention, and they have come up with a new approach towards addressing the opportunities and challenges of interfaith marriage. In their recent newsletter, it is explained that the CCAR is going to initiate “programs to guide and support its members in the critical work of welcoming intermarried families into the Jewish community through the work of a specially appointed Task Force.”

Reform Judaism has always been on the forefront of creating an open Jewish community, and this announcement serves as further validation of the work we do here every day. JOI long ago moved beyond the debate over intermarriage, instead focusing on what we can do to engage interfaith families and create Jewish continuity. Though they have been accepting of interfaith families for years, the CCAR has is now going to also work more on engagement. Rabbis at the convention shared their personal experiences of working with interfaith families in order to learn how their colleagues approached the subject. Peter Knobel, CCAR president, explains:

“We no longer want to make positions or pass resolutions which may divide us, but rather to work together to make the next generation of Jews,” Knobel said. “The goal is to provide Reform Rabbis with information, strategies, tools and guidelines that will enable them to lead more effectively as they face the myriad of issues arising out of intermarriage.”

The debate over intermarriage will likely never end. There will always be those who feel it erodes the Jewish community, and there will be those who feel it provides an opportunity to bring more people in. We, of course, believe the latter, and we have developed programs like The Mothers Circle and The Grandparents Circle which are designed to help engage families and strengthen the Jewish community. We’re positive that by “creating dialogue instead of debate over intermarriage issues,” the CCAR will help our big tent grow even bigger.

You Don’t Mess with the Zohan

This preposterous comedy starring Adam Sandler and Emmanuelle Chriqui is much what has come to be expected of most of Sandler’s early summer release comedies. Although it is silly and slapstick, it does capture quite hilariously so many Israeli personality nuances. And the ubiquitous food staple—hummus—has a place in almost every scene.

But, this Romeo and Juliet-esque film does have an important message woven throughout: America presents the possibility for disparate groups to get along even when they may not be able to do so in their home environs. This is particularly true of the romantic relationship between the two lead actors (Sandler, who plays an Israeli macho commando turned New York hairdresser and Chriqui, who plays a Palestinian hairdresser who takes a risk on Sandler/Zohan, despite the fact that her brother is a terrorist and Zohan’s arch-enemy). While the film didn’t dwell much on religious differences, it was clearly a statement on the challenge of the political issues that keep Jews and Palestinians apart. The film tells us something that we at JOI already know: While intermarriage is rare in Israel between Jews and Arabs (be they Palestinian or of other political origin), it is increasing—and it certainly is increasing in the American Jewish community.

Zohan may be a comedy and it is filled with laughs. But it teaches us a serious lesson about the Big Tent which we call Judaism.

Jewish Renaissance in Big Sky Country

While Montana might be known for its physical beauty and abundance of hiking, rafting, and camping, it’s not known for having a thriving Jewish community. For many years, Allen Secher, who is stepping down as rabbi of Temple Beth Shalom in Bozeman to focus on serving the small Jewish community of Flathead, was the only rabbi in the state. With news of his retirement, Forward magazine took a look into the Jewish population that makes up Montana.

What Forward found was a diverse and growing Jewish community, from a Bozeman seder in 1982 that consisted of two couples to a population that now numbers around 1000, according to Secher (though he thinks there are more who are not involved in the community).

As Secher’s story is told, an interesting observation is made about what caused the Jewish community to grow at such an astonishing rate – intermarriage.

Still, no one disputes the difficulty of maintaining Jewishness in a community that is both so small and so internally diverse. Synagogue officials say that almost 50% of Temple Beth Shalom members are intermarried. Although considered by some to be a threat to American Jewish life, a number of people in Bozeman argue that intermarriage has saved the community.

Indeed, this is the inspiration behind Chabad’s presence in the state. Rabbi Chaim Bruk, who visited Montana as a yeshiva student in the summers of 2004 and 2005, spoke with Jews from Miles City to Eureka, and found that “Montanan Jewry is interested and eager to learn Torah.” He moved here in 2006 with his wife, and the following year he established formal roots in Bozeman.

“While most of the Jews attending Chabad’s events are intermarried and secular, they are interested in studying traditional Yiddishkeit,” he said, “because their souls are yearning for authenticity.”

As Jews married people of other religions, they not only held onto their Jewish roots, but those roots grew stronger. This happened because Montana’s Jewish community was as open as the state’s big sky, accommodating and including Jews of all backgrounds. And it’s an example of what we at JOI have been working towards over the last two decades on a national level. Intermarriage doesn’t mean we’ve lost someone to Judaism – it means we have an opportunity to support these families and help them discover how warm and welcoming the Jewish community can be.

Interfaith Marriage in the GLBT Community

Last month, the California Supreme Court overturned the state’s ban on gay marriage. One of the original plaintiffs in the case was Robin Tyler. As the day grew near for her marriage to her partner, she was contacted by a reporter from a mainstream Jewish newspaper. Robin thought the conversation would be about gay marriage, but, as she recalled in an article on the blog The Huffington Post, the reporter threw her for a loop.

She had e-mailed me: “What do you think of intermarriage?” I replied: “If women want to marry men, it’s perfectly okay with me!” But when the reporter phoned to interview me, she said she meant “interfaith marriage.”

Stupid, I’m not. Immediately, I knew this was about my partner, Diane Olson, not being Jewish.

It’s interesting that the reporter wanted to bypass what is one of the most newsworthy moments of the year and focus instead on interfaith marriage. Usually the issues of the GLBT community eclipse those of interfaith couples, but not in this case. The reporter’s question, and Tyler’s initial confusion, highlights how the challenges that face the GLBT and interfaith communities are actually quite similar - both are about achieving equality and respect in the communities in which they reside. And both are communities that JOI is working with to help make that goal a reality.

Tyler’s story also points to another interesting fact – there is a higher rate of interfaith marriage in the GLBT community than in the heterosexual community. This makes the work we are doing with the community all the more important. Since many have already faced rejection and prejudice for their personal life, we want to work with these folks to identify the additional challenges that arise in an interfaith relationship. In marriage, they need not face another level of discrimination.

Robin and her partner Diane regularly attend synagogue services and they are going to be married by a rabbi. We wish them all the happiness that a lifetime of marriage can bring and we look forward to working with couples like Robin and Diane, no matter what their background, in helping to open our big tent and welcome all who approach.

Pedaling Towards and Inclusive Jewish Community

For many people, summer means great weather and a tendency to spend as much time as possible outdoors. That’s good for us because outdoor activities provide amazing opportunities for engaging Jews on the periphery. One of our Big Tent Judaism Coalition members, Hazon (Vision), is taking full advantage of the summer weather by providing low barrier outdoor activities that engage, educate and empower the Jewish community. Hazon’s activities include bike rides and hikes in the U.S. and Israel, and encouragement of Jewish environmentalism and sustainable living everywhere.

As a part of their ‘vision’, all Hazon events foster a “radically inclusive,” accessible community that emphasize “tolerance, respect, and diversity.” Hazon has outlined the crucial facets of their programs that help them reach this goal. This outline can be used by anyone looking to embody the principles of Big Tent Judaism and engage Jews on the periphery—outside or inside:

All of our programs have these characteristics in common:

  • A deep commitment to inclusive community
  • A determination to reach people where they are, not where we might like them to be
  • Putting significant resources into participant empowerment and leadership development
  • Enabling people to integrate learning and action

To kick off a summer of inclusive activities, Hazon is hosting their annual “Bike to the Beach” event on June 29th. Free to the public, riders leave from 8 locations throughout New York City and ride to Coney Island. All are welcome to meet for lunch at the Shorefront Y, including people–like myself–who don’t even own a bike. Look for me there!

Powerful Words that Shouldn’t Have Been Needed

It was with bittersweet sentiment that I read these powerful words from Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, the chief rabbi of Efrat. He was formerly rabbi of Lincoln Square Synagogue and led the way in outreach in the Orthodox Jewish community over twenty years ago. It is a strong statement about our responsibility to love the stranger and how the actions of the Supreme Rabbinical Court in Israel threaten to undermine this foundational principle in Judaism. That he even had to write such a piece is dismaying, and although we may not always agree with Rabbi Riskin, here we are on the exact same page.

“WHAT HAS happened to our Torah of late? An entirely different narrative is being written, the very antithesis of the love and compassion of the Scroll of Ruth. My Torah has been stolen away, hijacked, by false and misguided interpreters. My Torah is crying because of rabbinical court judges who have forgotten that the major message of the Exodus from Egypt is for us to love the stranger and the proselyte.

They have forgotten the 11 prohibitions against insensitive words and actions toward converts - and the talmudic stricture that we are not to be too overbearing or exacting toward a would-be proselyte (Yebamot 47). They have forgotten Maimonides’s ruling that even regarding a convert who merely went to the mikve (and became circumcised if male) - even if the conversion was for a personal romantic or venal reason, and even if the convert has returned to former idolatrous ways - he or she remains Jewish (albeit a Jewish renegade); her or his religious marriage remains intact, and lost objects must be restored to him or her. (Maimonides, Laws of Forbidden Relationships 13,14).

MY TORAH is crying because these judges have, in the name of Torah, disrupted and possibly destroyed hundreds if not thousands of families of converts, whose children and even children’s children were brought up and accepted as Jews - only now to learn that their forbears’ conversions have been retroactively nullified.”

Interfaith Marriage on the Small Screen

The stereotypes of interfaith marriage have returned to television, albeit to Showtime on cable TV. Admittedly, Weeds is a peculiar series in which a young widow resorts to selling marijuana to support herself and her young children. And perhaps a mention of this series in the JOI blog gives it a dignity that it doesn’t deserve, but it does attract millions of viewers. And it has become part of the pop culture landscape of North America.

Following a rather long hiatus from the conclusion of its last season, lengthened by the Hollywood writer’s strike, two-thirds of the season premiere focused on the fact that the widowed woman (Nancy Botwin, played by Mary-Louise Parker), who plays the lead role in the series, is not Jewish (although her late husband Judah was). She is despised by her husband’s Jewish family, particularly her father-in-law (Len Botwin, played by Albert Brooks), who makes his debut during this episode.

The intermarriage jabs go back and forth for about 10 minutes and although they are laced with ironic humor (For example, Brooks refusing to acknowledge Parker by referring to her as not-Francie, the Jewish woman his son should have married and who eventually married a cantor), it is a painful reminder of how some families remain stuck in their attitudes toward children who have intermarried.

I find it fascinating that this becomes the focal point of the season debut for this series as the issues of interfaith marriage continue to take center stage on and off the screen. I guess if everyone got along it wouldn’t make for good television. But for the millions of people who live in the context of intermarriage, it just ain’t funny.

Stepping Into a New Community

Moving to New York just prior to Shavuot, I was excited to enter my new Jewish community in tandem with a favorite Jewish holiday. After perusing local community calendars, I decided that the all night JCC in Manhattan Tikkun Leil Shavuot would provide eclectic programming in a non-denominational environment. From Torah Study to Trance-dance and Yoga, I hoped to celebrate the initial receipt of the Torah at Sinai as I oriented myself to my new Jewish neighbors and community.

I walked into the JCC in Manhattan, went through some metal detectors, and continued past security personnel in suits who waved participants into the lobby, shoving program guides into everyone’s hand. Surrounded by unfamiliar faces, I attended a few sessions and, quickly enough, found myself at the end of a mile long line for cheesecake

But amidst all these people and activities, I still hadn’t been welcomed on an individual level. That soon changed while I was waiting in line, where I was approached by a stranger dressed in a full body owl costume. She sidled up next to me and pushed a piece of paper into my hands. At first glance it looked like a printed out personal ad from J-Date, the Jewish singles website. I figured out quickly that the ad was a humorous parody on the ways in which Jewish women–approaching a certain age–feel the need to market themselves to Jewish men for the sake of reproduction. Or excuse me, ‘continuity.’ This owl was an anonymous advocate from the group Jewish Women Watching, a group devoted to highlighting what they see as “discriminatory practices in the American Jewish community.” The group implements awareness campaigns such as this one to coincide with holidays. At the end of the ad the group made their point:

The Jewish community’s priorities of marriage and parenthood aren’t a match for everyone. This Shavuot, as we celebrate the deliverance of Jewish law, deliver a message that isn’t about delivering Jewish babies.
Broaden the standards that are used to evaluate a Jewish life.
Recognize Jewish women as powerful beyond their reproductive abilities.
Celebrate the many types of families in the Jewish community…
…These are the keys to Jewish continuity.

This message resonated with me on the eve of joining JOI as its newest Program Officer. Jewish Women Watching hopes that the Jewish community is inclusive of all those cultivating Jewish life and a Jewish future. For some this means falling in love and raising Jewish children. For others, this means creating a Jewish home and life as an individual. Just like one of the principles of our Big Tent Judaism initiative, JWW celebrates the diversity of today’s Jewish individuals and households, leaving behind assumptions of what Jews “look like” or how families are configured. That all are embraced and welcomed into a broader Jewish ‘family’ is an ideal that JOI and JWW have in common, and one that I am excited to work towards.

So while this interaction with the owl left me inspired, I still left my first event as a member of the Manhattan Jewish community feeling like an outsider. As I join JOI, I look forward to ensuring that such events in the Jewish community include designated greeters to welcome all participants, especially newcomers like me.

Uganda’s First Ordained Rabbi

Last month, the Jewish community saw a new first – Gershom Sizomu became the first ordained Rabbi in Uganda. A story in The Jewish Journal of Los Angeles explained that after five years of study at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, he is now going to head back to his hometown of Nabagoye, where he will be the spiritual leader of about 800 Jews known as Abayudayas.

What’s particularly interesting about Rabbi Sizomu is that even though he has spent his life as the Abayudaya spiritual leader in Uganda, just like his father was before him, and his grandfather, none had ever become a rabbi. Many in the Abayudaya community, which prides itself on strict Torah observance, hope having an “official” rabbi will help them gain further acceptance in the global Jewish community.

The Abayudaya were converted over 90 years ago, but their conversions were not sanctioned at the time by any official body in the Jewish community. But, according to Be’chol Lashon (In Every Tongue), the organization that sponsored Rabbi Sizomu’s schooling, in 2002 a group of “four Conservative rabbis from the United States and one from Israel joined Rabbi Sizomu in supervising the conversion or affirmation of most of Uganda’s remaining Jews in the community’s mikvah.” The Abayudaya are especially eager to be accepted by members of the Orthodox community because, according to the piece in the Jewish Journal, that recognition “would bring with it an official conversion and the ability to make aliyah.”

It’s unfortunate that the Abayudaya would be referred to as unofficial Jews. Their dedication to Torah study and spirited embrace of Judaism should make them count in the canon of world Jewry. This is not just about celebrating diversity, it’s about opening our doors to all those who seek meaning in the Jewish community. It is due to cases like the Abayudaya that JOI created Big Tent Judaism. Our community should be open to everyone who has chosen to cast their lot with the Jewish people, regardless of prior knowledge or background. Hopefully Rabbi Sizomu’s ordination will shine a bright enough light on the Ugandan Jewish community, and they will be welcomed by all.

Raising Children in an Interfaith Marriage

When two adults in an interfaith marriage, regardless of religion, decide to have children, one of the most challenging questions to answer is: In which religion do we raise them? Family and friends will all have their input, but it’s ultimately up to the parents to make the decision – and it’s a decision best made long before the child is born.

In the latest edition of the magazine Jewish Living, this question is posed by Emily Bloch in a column called Two Jews, Three Opinions. A reader wrote in wondering if it is possible for her and her husband, who is not Jewish, to raise their children as both Jewish and Christian, or will that confuse the children to the point where they will choose neither? Emily spoke to some experts to see if there was a clear answer.

Some parents believe that exposing a child to both religions will give them the benefit of choosing one or the other, but according to Rabbi Menachem Creditor, that’s simply not true. “If you want your children to have ownership over their identities,” he told Emily, “they need to be able to call one faith ‘home.” Rabbi Sherre Hirsch, another expert, agrees. “If one parent gives one set of rules and the other gives another, what you inevitably breed is confusion and lack of clarity.”

One expert they didn’t talk to is our own Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, who covers this subject in his book “Making a Successful Jewish Interfaith Marriage.” He says making this decision is not only crucial for family unity; it’s healthier for the child in the long run.

Don’t just say “We’ll wait and let our children decide later.” This is a cop-out. Those whose parents have said that they would let their children decide when they are older often report feeling cheated when they see their peers identify with a specific religious group, connect more with one set of grandparents or the other, or embrace one heritage. A link to a specific community will benefit your children wherever life takes them.

An interfaith marriage offers many opportunities and challenges when it comes to raising a family. JOI will work with and support any decision a family makes, but if the decision is to maintain a Jewish home, it’s important for both parents to be fully committed, and educated. That’s why we have started programs like The Mothers Circle, a free program which gives women of another religion background the tools they need to raise a Jewish family. Because while you can’t manage your child’s future, you can, as Kerry says in his book, “give them religious memories that provide a rudder so they can sail – steering, accelerating, catching the wind – on their own as we let go and they grow and mature.”

Interfaith Trips to Israel

A few months ago, we blogged about Mitch Cohen and his group, Israel Encounter. They were gearing up for a trip to Israel specifically designed for interfaith couples, with a grant from the Marcus Foundation that allowed the non-Jewish spouse to travel for free. The trip recently wrapped up, and it was a resounding success.

Mitch’s wife, Suzette, who is a Mothers Circle facilitator in Atlanta, sent an email describing the trip, and explained how bringing interfaith families to Israel deepened their connection to both the cultural and religious traditions of Judaism.

While watching the non-Jewish spouses pray at the kotel with tears running down their faces, climbing up Masada saying never will we be forced to give up again, and leaving Yad V’sham silent and trembling, we know the children of these families will be blessed by two parents who have a greater love and understanding of Judaism and Israel. Our students came and learned more in ten days than we could have taught them in a lifetime.

Around the same time Israel Encounter led their trip, another group, Interfaith Connection, which is based out of the JCC in San Francisco, took a group of interfaith couples to Israel. Their experience was written about in a daily blog, and it sounds like they too helped these couples to discover greater meaning in Judaism. Helena McMahon, one of the guides, posted this blog entry from their last day in Israel:

As this trip comes to a close, it feels less like an ending, and more like the start of something exciting, like together we’ve created this community built on shared adventure and friendship, commonality and difference. We’re writing a new chapter in this unfolding story of interfaith life, with the evolving story that is Israel beside us. I’m so lucky to be a part of it, we ALL are, here and back at home in San Francisco.

What both trips did was put Judaism in a global context, showing the diversity of the worldwide Jewish community. By being able to experience Israel first hand, the connection to a shared history grows stronger, and Jewish continuity is a greater possibility. These trips help encourage interfaith couples to increase their engagement in the Jewish community, which in turn will strengthen the entire North American Jewish Community.

Congratulations to both Israel Encounter and Interfaith Connection, and we look forward to hearing about all your future success.

Shavuot’s Message of Acceptance

There has been quite a controversy in Israel recently surrounding the decision by the Supreme Rabbinical Court to overturn the conversion of a woman who converted nearly fifteen years ago. The court said she had not lived up to her obligation to adhere to strict ritual Jewish law, so they retroactively stripped her of her chosen religion.

This episode is particularly painful as it took place so close to the holiday of Shavuot, which begins this Sunday night. On this holiday we read the Book of Ruth, a story about the first official convert to Judaism. Ruth became a Jew with the simple declaration to her mother-in-law: “Your people will be my people; your God, my God.” And in the eyes of God, that was enough.

In light of all this, JOI’s Rabbi Kerry Olitzky penned an article for the website On Faith, a joint venture of The Washington Post and Newsweek. The article makes the argument that, in a day and age when people are switching religions more than ever before, the legitimacy of a person’s conversion should not be defined solely by a supreme court, but more by the person’s life after they have converted. This woman in Israel had raised a Jewish family, lived a Jewish life, but because she was not as thorough in her belief as the strict orthodox council, they voided not just her religion, but also the religion of her children. Kerry writes:

It shouldn’t matter if a conversion ceremony was elaborate, or a simple declaration followed by righteous deeds. Religions should be open to everyone searching for meaning, and Shavuot is a good time for Jews to recognize and appreciate all those who have chosen to become part of the community.

Whether you celebrate the holiday with all night study groups or a plate of cheese blintzes, all of us at JOI want to wish you a happy and healthy Shavuot.

Denver Opens its Doors to Interfaith Families

It’s interesting to see the many ways that communities react to the growing number of intermarried families. Are they welcoming them in, or turning them away? And if they are welcoming, what are their methods? What actions are they taking to engage these families and include them in the Jewish community?

These were the questions covered by Margaret Jackson in a recent article in the Denver Post. According to the 2007 Metro Denver/Boulder Jewish Community Study, the Jewish population has grown 33 percent in the last decade. While that is cause for celebration, they are not immune from the national trend of rising intermarriage, which grew from 39 percent to 53 percent in that same decade. That number puts them at just about the national average, and it is “requiring Jewish leaders to take a hard look at how their community deals with interfaith couples in its quest to preserve its identity.”

The article starts with a story we hear all too often, where a synagogue won’t let the interfaith couple become members. Gary and Aimee Wagner could participate in all the synagogue activities, they were told, but Aimee, a “non-practicing Catholic,” could not officially become a member. Even though they had decided to maintain a Jewish home and raise a Jewish family, the synagogue chose to keep them segregated. Luckily they found a congregation to welcome them in. But this was not an isolated incident, and such refusal will only cause some families to disengage from the Jewish community. And once they are disengaged, the chance their children will be raised Jewish drops dramatically.

“Intermarriage isn’t going away,” said Rabbi Steven Foster of Congregation Emanuel. “We have to respond to it in a way Jews haven’t done before.”

Denver is focusing on engagement, since that is the best way to ensure Jewish continuity. One organization working towards this end is Judaism Your Way. They try to find alternative ways to connect interfaith families with the community and the religion. There is also Stepping Stones, started by Rabbi Foster, which tries to support and educate interfaith couples and their families. It’s wonderful to read about a community taking such a strong initiative in opening their doors to the growing number of interfaith families, and maybe one day Denver will take on some signature JOI programs like Mothers Circle, Empowering Ruth, or Grandparents Circle. These could help give interfaith families even more entry points to the Jewish community.

Rabbi Yaakov Meyer of the orthodox congregation Aish Denver, which also welcomes intermarried couples, brings up a legitimate concern when he says it’s “extremely difficult to raise children Jewish if one parent is not.” But we have an answer – inclusion. Don’t push families away because one parent has a different religious background. Welcome them in, and they will want to be a part of the community. Sometimes it really is just that simple.

How Do You Gaurantee the Future?

I am very optimistic about the Jewish future—even though many of the pundits continue to cry gevalt, especially in the face of interfaith marriage and (separately) the decline of affiliation with the institutions of the organized Jewish community. The challenge remains: Will the extant institutions respond to the needs expressed by the generation of Jews in front of us? Perhaps my optimism comes from the fact that I have witnessed the leaders of the current generation firsthand. I was on the faculty and administration of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion for fifteen years. And for the last nine years, through seminars and lectures, I have watched the current generation of students at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. And I am proud to say that our older son Avi took his place among the rabbinic ordinees of JTS a little over a week ago.

I often say that the wisdom with which we respond to the challenges in our community will determine the future landscape of the North American Jewish community. In most cases, I am talking about intermarriage and issues of engagement and affiliation. But in this case, I am talking about the challenges the community faces in general. Unlike revelation, wisdom comes from the experience of living and, in this case, leading. It is not part of what has been received on high. Rather, it takes time and effort. So, if you will permit a little boasting and credit it to parental pride, Avi and this generation of leaders will indeed find that wisdom and guide us into a bright future which we can enter with full confidence.

If you build it, will they come?

This is the essential question that the Jewish community of Toronto is asking and certainly the one that they wanted me to answer during my recent visit. Like the joke that is going around in Israel (the “crane” is the national bird), the Jewish Federation of Toronto is building and rebuilding throughout the community. It seems that Toronto has become the Canadian city. As a result, young people are flocking there, along with several immigrant communities, such as Israelis and those from the FSU. Thus, this population increase is leading Toronto to believe that it is growing and free of the challenges that are facing most other North American Jewish communities.

And this is the right time to be asking the question, “If you build it, will they come?” The community is investing millions of dollars in the building and rebuilding of its community campuses. At the same time, they are eager to learn how to reach the various elusive populations such as those who are in their 20s and 30s, the largest segment that is notoriously absent from the organized Jewish community.

So we talked about many things, including the need for communities to leave behind the question of the previous generation (How to be Jewish) for the question that each organization and institution has to ask (Why be Jewish?). More specifically, this question has to be asked within the context of the organized community—why be Jewish in the context of this institution? In other words, why should I participate in this synagogue or give to your federation? How will it improve my life? How will it answer the big questions that I am asking?

Sure, I taught them some basic techniques of outreach. And I reviewed some of our signature programs and the theoretical constructs on which they are based. But the bottom line questions remain. If they are prepared to answer them—and we at JOI are certainly poised to help them do so—then when the community builds it, they will indeed come.

Schusterman Rabbinical Fellowship Program

The Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, an organization dedicated to “helping the Jewish people flourish” and a longtime supporter of JOI, has announced the participants in its first ever Schusterman Rabbinical Fellowship Program. This will bring together outstanding rabbinical students from the Conservative and Reform movements for three years of study.

The program was created to give four rabbinical students from both the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion and the Jewish Theological Seminary the opportunity to study and learn innovative management methods and strategies for drawing in Jews who often feel marginalized – including interfaith families and the unaffiliated.

Lynn Shusterman, chair and co-founder of the foundation, said in a statement that she is “excited to be a part of a ground-breaking effort to train rabbinical students to better respond to the needs of interfaith families and unaffiliated Jews.” Arnold Eisen, Chancellor of JTS and Rabbi David Ellenson, President of HUC-JIR, both believe that cross-denominational collaboration will play a positive role in finding solutions to the challenges that many Jewish communal institutions face in engaging and retaining members of the community. Ellison said the program will help these future rabbis “speak to the needs of Judaism in the twenty-first century in more nuanced and joyous terms.”

The SR Fellows were chosen based on their high level of achievements both inside and outside the classroom, including strong academic performances and a demonstrated ability to lead. That’s why we at JOI were not surprised when we learned that Jesse M. Olitzky, the son of JOI’s Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, was named as a fellow. As a second year rabbinical student at JTS, and a former intern at JOI, Jesse has already proven his capacity for forward thinking, openness to new experiences, and a willingness to take on new ideas.

The changing face of American and Israeli Jewry demands a more innovative approach to outreach. Interfaith families, Jews-by-choice, and other Jews on the periphery can strengthen our fabric, but only if we make the effort to go out and welcome them in. We are confident the SR Fellows program will give future rabbis the tools they need to engage a Jewish population that continues to evolve.

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