Entries for July 2008
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I admit it. I am a fan of Edgar Bronfman. I am also a fan of the many bold statements that he often makes regarding the Jewish community. That is why I enthusiastically allowed myself to be interviewed for his latest book entitled, Hope, Not Fear: A Path to Jewish Renaissance (written with Beth Zasloff).
As a community leader and as a major philanthropist who “puts his money where his mouth is,” he is able to say and do things that others may not be willing to do, or able to do. But that is also what allows him to stand above the rest.
If wisdom is that which is learned from a life of living and experiencing, rather than something that is revealed on high, then Edgar is filled with wisdom. It is this incredible wisdom that he shares with his readers in this book. The book and his insight for the future can be summed up as follows (which certainly could read as a vision statement for JOI, as well):
“Jewish community has always provided a sheltering home for Jews in times of danger and need. But the quality that we most need to foster now in our Jewish home is not just security but welcome. Those who seek a home in Judaism should find a community and a tradition that ushers in its guests with warmth and pride and that celebrates diversity of background and opinion. Those who marry Jews should find in Jewish community a loving family that welcomes them without conditions.”
The book doesn’t come out until mid-September, but I urge you to pre-order it from hopenotfear.com. It overflows with optimism for a bright Jewish future—providing individuals and communal institutions are willing to open their gates to those on the periphery and provide meaningful Jewish experiences for everyone who cares to enter. If you are worried about the Jewish future in North America because you listen to the many pundits who offer us a picture of doom and gloom, then read this book. And then go out and fix the world—using the formula that he sets forth in it.
There is encouraging news coming out of the Jewish community in Morris County, New Jersey. According to an article in the New Jersey Jewish News, outreach professionals are aggressively employing many of JOI’s Public Space JudaismSM programs in an “effort to reach the county’s unaffiliated, unengaged Jews.”
How did this come about? In 2007, we “scanned” Morris County to determine how welcoming their institutions are to the diverse make-up of the Jewish community. Among our recommendations was to lower the barrier to participation by taking Judaism out of the synagogues and bring it to where the people are. This was especially salient for Morris County, which is a sprawling suburban community with no real center and only one non-synagogue Jewish institution (JCC).
“The idea is to create programming that attracts and serves to bring in unaffiliated people, make community, and foster relationships with those people and Jewish institutions in Morris Country, whether it’s the JCC, synagogues, federation, other Jewish organizations, or cultural activities,” said Arthur Sandman, associate executive vice president for program services at United Jewish Communities of MetroWest.
Since presenting our findings, lay and professional leaders have seen measured success in reaching those who are currently not engaged in the Jewish community. Dana Lichtenberg, a coordinator with Morris County Connection, is the “liaison for all the agencies in the community and the go-to person” for anyone with questions about how to promote and conduct Jewish programming. She said her programming is attracting anywhere from 20 to 100 people per event.
But attendance is only one measure. Lichtenberg is also using JOI’s follow up techniques to make sure people are aware of upcoming events. “I follow up individually with every family,” she said. “It might be a letter or a phone call; they are always invited to the next activity.”
We are happy to be a part of their growth, and we hope Morris County will serve as an inspiration for other communities that want to reach the unengaged and unaffiliated members of their Jewish community.
Another JCC—this time the Marcus JCC in Atlanta—has decided to open its doors on Shabbat, ostensibly to reach the unaffiliated and those currently not engaged by the local Jewish community. Understandably, there are many in the community who are opposed to any Jewish communal institution outside of a synagogue that’s open on Shabbat, even though a small portion of the Jewish community—including the so-called affiliated—are found inside a synagogue on Shabbat. But the real question is much simpler: Why does this or any JCC, or any other communal institution for that matter, believe that just because you open its doors on Shabbat or any other day, people would suddenly enter?
If the JCC is to be an entry point in the community, and if it is going to open on Shabbat and take all the flack for doing so, then a lot of work has to be done to forge a path for people to get there. Our Public Space Judaism model is one of the paradigms that could work. Then once they get to the JCC, they could find accessible Shabbat programming. Consider it a version of Synaplex, the community building initiative designed by STAR that enables people to participate in Shabbat in a way that speaks to them. But the JCC version transcends the walls of the synagogue.
Then maybe the families that enter would be interested in staying to explore the other options, including the synagogue, which the community has to offer.
Earlier this summer, we blogged about two interfaith trips to Israel – Mitch Cohen’s Israel Encounter, and Interfaith Connection, run through the JCC in San Francisco. Next spring, according to Portland’s Jewish Review, interfaith families will have even more options.
Marisa Brown is chair of the Invitation to Israel, a trip for interfaith couples that aims to “deepen their understanding of each others religious heritage through a shared journey to Israel.” Couples qualify for the trip as long as they identify themselves as interfaith – they don’t have to be married. Brown, who said she came up with the idea while on a trip to Israel in 2007, explained:
“While I was there, I wanted my husband to be there with me,” she said. “Ron’s not Jewish, but I thought how great it would be if we could see it together and that would deepen and strengthen our relationship in a number of ways. He could see the importance of Israel from a Jewish perspective and there’s so much he would be interested in.”
It’s exciting to see this proliferation of interfaith trips to Israel. One thing all three trips have in common is their efforts to keep costs down - or, in the case of Israel Encounter, offer free travel for the non-Jewish spouse. Lowering the cost barrier is a great way to encourage interfaith couples to participate in the trip, where they will hopefully be inspired to embrace and celebrate the heritage of the Jewish partner. We applaud these groups for working to give interfaith couples more access to Israel, which we believe will lead to greater Jewish engagement when they return and a stronger North American Jewish community.
My best friend throughout high school and college was Catholic. We understood one another and our family traditions well. Her mother buried a saint figurine upside down in the backyard when they were trying to sell their house. My family sat in a tent in our family room for hours reading the Passover Haggadah, throwing plastic locusts at one another at the right time. We both understood the power and importance of ritual and traditions, even the most obscure and eccentric.
Knowing my own ‘Jewish-Catholic’ connection, I was excited to read Julie Weiner’s recent article titled “The Jewish-Catholic Connection” in The Jewish Week. Weiner notes her own social circle as anecdotal evidence for a high percentage of Jewish-Catholic marriages, including her own marriage to Joe, a “lapsed Catholic.” Weiner also talks to Suzette Cohen, a longtime Mothers Circle facilitator in Atlanta, who says that nearly 60 percent of the mothers in her circle are Catholic. Our own research at JOI puts the number somewhere around 40 percent, still a remarkably high number. Weiner has an interesting hypothesis for this connection:
As I’ve learned more about both Judaism and Catholicism, I see many parallels in the two religions, which — in contrast to Protestantism — both emphasize ritual and good deeds over faith and communal worship over a personal relationship with God. While the two are in many ways poles apart, both tend to place a high premium on the obligation of individuals and government to help the poor. And as Joe often notes on Shabbat, Jewish and Catholic rituals may differ in their meaning and symbolism, but they share common elements: candles, bread and wine. Both also employ sacred languages and, just as the Reform movement, which once eliminated most Hebrew from worship, has reintroduced it, the Catholic Church has in recent years brought back some Latin.
Weiner goes on to put this percentage of Catholic mothers engaged with The Mothers Circle in perspective in her article by discussing the work of Rabbi Arthur Blecher:
In his recent book, “The New American Judaism: The Way Forward on Challenging Issues From Intermarriage to Jewish Identity” (Palgrave Macmillan), Rabbi Arthur Blecher notes that in the approximately 1,000 Washington, D.C.-area interfaith couples he has interviewed in the past two decades, slightly more than half of the gentile spouses were Catholic. “It made no difference whether a man or woman was the Jewish partner,” he writes, adding later that Jews and Catholics share a “social affinity.”
Over half the non-Jewish spouses in an interfaith marriage were Catholic, despite “the fact that American Protestants outnumber American Catholics nearly 2 to 1.” While the numbers are certainly interesting, Weiner admits there is little hard data on the Jewish-Catholic connection — but it’s still a trend worth noting. And we’re glad The Mothers Circle continues to be an outlet for those Catholic mothers seeking to raise their children Jewish, and we will continue working earnestly to ensure that this significant population is welcomed with open arms into the Jewish community, along with all other families raising Jewish children.
Can someone disinherit their grandchildren for marrying someone who isn’t Jewish? That’s a question that was recently argued in front of a court in Illinois. The decision: if a person puts in his will a stipulation that “acts as a restraint upon marriage or… encourages divorce,” then it is invalid. According to a piece in the Chicago Jewish News, this particular provision has come to be known as “The Jewish Clause,” and an appellate court recently upheld the decision.
The case is complicated, but it basically comes down to this – Max Feinberg put a clause in his will that said if any of his grandchildren married outside the Jewish faith, they “shall be deemed to be deceased for all purposes of this instrument as of the date of such marriage.” The court said no, that goes against Illinois public policy. Though no case had ever involved Judaism, the court cited other cases where the court had invalidated parts of a will that dealt with the heir’s marriage. They decided to invalidate discriminatory language in Max’s will that could act as a precedent for requiring courts to “enforce the worst bigotry imaginable” – namely that people could disinherit family members for marrying Jews or blacks.
In dissent, Justice Alan Greiman said the cases cited don’t speak to the same issues in the Feinberg case. He said Max Feinberg was “trying to preserve his 4,000-year-old heritage,” adding that Max was certainly entitled to his opinion and that he could do with his money whatever he saw fit. Max and his wife, Justice Greiman continued, “had a dream with respect to the provisions of their will, and if you will it, it is no dream.”
Whether you think prejudicial language should be invalidated in a will or not, there is a much deeper problem here – Max Feinberg equated intermarriage with death. He, like so many others in the Jewish community, felt that marrying outside of Judaism was tantamount to rejecting all of Jewish history. But the article goes on to show that is not always the case. One grandchild, Aron Feinberg, married a woman of another religious background, yet he and his wife are raising their three children Jewish, and they are heavily involved in the Jewish community. Intermarriage for Aron was clearly not a barrier to maintaining a Jewish home. This demonstrates that the life you choose to lead is more important than whether your spouse is Jewish or not. (The article also mentions another grandchild who intermarried and is now estranged from the family, but she was not available for comment.)
This court case helps to show why outreach work is so important. With the intermarriage rate as high as it is, our time is better spent engaging interfaith families and showing them the value of leading a Jewish life, not punishing them for marrying outside of Judaism. Even the “Jewish Clause” in Max’s will didn’t stop four of his five grandchildren from intermarriage. Instead of treating interfaith families as a lost cause, let’s encourage their participation in Jewish life by showing them just how welcoming our Big Tent can be.
As a way of identifying the best way to reach out to and engage interfaith families in Cleveland, the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland commissioned Dr. Pearl Beck, a research consultant who focuses on Jewish identity formation, to conduct a study of the population. After two years, according to a story in the Cleveland Jewish News, the study is complete, with some interesting results – most notably that “intermarriage is not a rejection of the Jewish spouse’s Jewish identity.”
Compared to national averages, interfaith couples in Cleveland participate in Jewish life at higher rates – 56 percent belong to a synagogue, compared to 15 percent nationally. But, Beck stresses that because the study used 51 families, many of whom found the ads in Jewish institutions, the conclusions are “descriptive and illustrative rather than representative,” and that there may be a “bias toward families more integrated in Judaism.” Despite the possible bias, the study found plenty of cause for concern in why many interfaith families are not involved in Jewish life:
The families interviewed cited several common barriers to their participation in Jewish life. These are the high cost of membership in Jewish institutions, feelings of inadequacy over their lack of Jewish knowledge, and a lack of intimacy within Jewish communal life. Both non-Jewish and Jewish partners feel this way, Beck says.
So what do you do to address these concerns? Beck recommends, among other things, increasing access to institutions, taking Judaism outside of the synagogue to reach more people, and creating “support groups for interfaith families centered around child-raising issues.” Sounds like an endorsement of some of JOI’s signature programs and initiatives – Big Tent Judaism, Public Space JudaismSM, and Mothers Circle.
Beck’s findings and recommendations only reinforce what we have been saying and doing for years – namely promoting a more welcoming and inclusive North American Jewish community that embraces intermarried families and unengaged Jews, and encourages their increased participation in Jewish life. We have over 30 communities that now run the Mothers Circle, a program for women of another background raising Jewish children, and our Big Tent Judaism coalition, which advocates for all those seeking a welcoming and inclusive Jewish community, grows almost daily. By working to lower barriers to Jewish participation, we have helped innumerable people discover and rediscover the joys of Judaism.
We hope the lay and professional leaders in Cleveland will take the study’s recommendations to heart, and we are here for any help they might need along the way.
A recent article published in the Cleveland Jewish News shares several Hillel professionals’ feelings about the organization’s recently updated mission to reach out to more students on a college campus. News of the updated mission statement caused quite a buzz when it was written about previously in the JTA. However, this new article gives Hillel professionals from across Ohio the chance to create their own buzz - one of support for the new and more complete mission statement.
The new mission statement is “to enrich the lives of Jewish undergraduate and graduate students so that they may enrich the Jewish people and the world.” The campus Hillel professionals featured in this article stress that the Jewish organization always has and will continue to “expand Jewish life on campus for Jewish students” and that the essential goals for Hillel have not changed – including the fact that Hillel programs are open to everybody on campus. Jennifer Chestnut, executive director of Hillel at Kent State University, says the misunderstanding stemmed from the JTA’s inaccurate summary of the mission statement. She explains the difference:
The wording in the JTA article seems to indicate Hillel has shifted its focus to improving the overall world, rather than nurturing Jewish students to do just that, Chestnut explains. “We’re simply empowering Jewish students to do good.”
Nuanced phrasing aside, many Hillels are using the new mission statement to take a fresh look and approach to programming for the current generation of Jewish students - a more diverse student population that includes a large percent of adult children of intermarriage. This student population has voiced a need for a greater variety of inclusive programs where they can both interact with other Jewish students as well as bring along their friends—some of whom they are dating—of other religious backgrounds. The Hillels in Ohio, such as Ohio State University and Kent State University have found success by bringing these types of programs to where the students are, rather than the other way around. Much like JOI’s Public Space JudaismSM model, this helps to lower the location barrier and reach out to Jewishly uninvolved students on their turf, where they are most comfortable. These events also attract non-Jewish students who may be interested in Judaism or community service.
We are grateful for the support of the Samuel Bronfman Foundation. As a result, I can look forward to continuing JOI’s work with both Hillel International and campus Hillels across the U.S. I can’t wait to see how they will expand their programming to reach out to students where they are, creating a more inclusive and welcoming environment.
With summer in full swing, planning for The Mothers Circle is moving forward rapidly in communities across North America, with at least a dozen communities set to launch The Mothers Circle course for the first time in the fall. An eight month, 16 session educational experience, the course brings together mothers from other religious backgrounds raising Jewish children. The moms have an opportunity to learn about everything from Jewish values and parenting to how to bring Shabbat into their home.
The Washington D.C. Jewish community is fully participating in this Mothers Circle boom by providing support for seven courses in the Greater D.C. area, including Maryland and Northern Virginia. Washington Hebrew Congregation is running the program independently, and the other six circles are part of a larger Jewish Federation initiative to engage those on the periphery of the community, most notably, intermarried families. Jennifer Scher of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington explained:
“The Engagement Implementation Plan, approved by the Federation Board last year, focuses on three key target markets - young professionals, families with young children and interfaith families, with a particular focus to bring services to under-served areas. Because the goals of the Mothers/Parents Circle are so closely aligned with the Federation’s engagement goals and because it has demonstrated success in other communities, Mothers/Parents Circle was identified as a high priority Engagement program.”
While I am excited by this outpouring of enthusiasm for The Mothers Circle, I have been even more inspired by the collaboration of communal agencies, done in the name of making Washington D.C. as welcoming and inclusive as possible. The Jewish Federation’s engagement goals, in particular The Mothers Circle program, are providing an incredible outlet for community collaboration. Those agencies organizing The Mothers Circle are coordinating marketing, meeting times, location and community family events. Ultimately the creation of these partnerships will ensure the success of each individual organization, while also ensuring a welcoming community. When organizations link arms in an effort to create a more inclusive community, they have a much better chance of truly embracing all those on the periphery.
I’m not sure if this is an interfaith marriage that falls into the celebrity category, but Moment magazine this week tells the tale of Wyatt Earp, the notorious sharpshooter, and his Jewish wife, Josephine “Josie” Sarah Marcus.
She was a showgirl from a prosperous, German-Jewish family, and spent most of her young adult years as a performer until she moved to Tombstone. She got engaged to sheriff Johnny Behan, then broke it off to be with Earp. This romantic rivalry was one of the factors that led to the infamous gunfight at the O.K. Corral.
After the dust settled, Josie and Earp left Tombstone and lived out their days amongst the burgeoning Hollywood scene, until Earp died at the age of 80.
The article doesn’t dwell on their religious relationship – it’s not said whether they lived a Jewish lifestyle or not. But at the end of the piece is an indication that Sadie, throughout her life, still recognized and respected her Jewish roots.
Josie kept her husbands cremated ashes for months before travelling 400 miles along to the Hills of Eternity Memorial Park, a Jewish cemetery in Colma, a San Francisco suburb, to inter them near the graves of her parents and brother. She spent her remaining years in Los Angeles vigilantly protecting Wyatt’s legacy. When she died in 1944 at the age of 83, her ashes were buried alongside his.
Whether this counts as a “successful” interfaith marriage is clearly up for debate. But it’s certainly interesting to note that of all the ways Josie could have had her and her legendary husband remembered, she chose a place that will forever connect the two of them to the Jewish community. That, I think, speaks volumes.
Any news of a Jewish community undergoing a rebirth is good news. That is what’s going on right now in the Former Soviet Union (FSU). According to a piece in the Jerusalem Post, Jewish youth camps have helped spur a revival of Jewish life in the FSU, hosting thousands of kids.
“The goal of the camp is that children who are year around not exposed to anything Jewish can come and enjoy 24 hours surrounded by Jewish tradition, history and fun,” explained Rivka Klein, director of Gan Israel camps in Moscow.
But there is another goal stated later in the article. According to David Mondshine, general director of the Or Avner Foundation, a fund for Jewish education in the FSU, the purpose of the camps - whose development in general we can applaud - is to “fight assimilation and intermarriage.”
Efforts to support and educate not just children but their families is vitally important in areas like the FSU, where for so many years practicing Judaism was an impossibility. But putting so much focus on fighting assimilation and intermarriage, as well as only identifying as Jewish those of matrilineal descent, might end up being a barrier to the long term goal of growing the Jewish community. It’s well known that intermarriage rates are sky high in the FSU, but perhaps these camps can learn the same lesson that the American Jewish community is just beginning to learn - fighting intermarriage is a losing battle.
At JOI, we think a better and more sustainable approach is to try and engage these families, draw them in and show them the value of raising Jewish families. While it’s great to see so much enthusiasm in the nascent Jewish community of the FSU, we hope they will make sure to keep their tent open to all those who seek them out.
Last month, we blogged about Ugandan rabbi Gershom Sizomu, the first black rabbi from sub-Saharan Africa to be ordained by an American rabbinic school. This, he hoped, would help the roughly 800 Ugandan Jews, known as Abayudaya, gain further acceptance in the worldwide Jewish community.
Rabbi Sizomu’s dedication to Judaism seems to have already had a big affect on the Jewish population in Africa. According to a piece in the JTA, Rabbi Sizomu, along with a contingent of Conservative rabbis from the US, oversaw the conversion of 250 Africans to Judaism, complete with a beit din (religious court) that supervised the mikvah (ritual immersion). The recent converts came from Uganda, Kenya, South Africa, Ghana, and Nigeria, and the ceremony took place in the Abayudaya village of Nabogoye in Uganda.
This is a great step in the direction of growing the global Jewish population and facilitating participation in Jewish life. It shows that Judaism’s Big Tent continues to expand, and that we will always welcome everyone, regardless of prior background or knowledge.
“The relationship between God and the Jews in the Torah resonates for many spiritual seekers,” said Rabbi Sizomu. “It is important the Africans and others know that they can choose Judaism as a spiritual path — and that we are open to them.”
Here at JOI we’ve long said that the challenge of intermarriage is not really about the marriage at all. It’s about much bigger issues. Whether you share JOI’s optimism in the ability of intermarried families to raise Jewish children, or whether you take the pessimistic view that intermarriage is eating away at the size and cohesion of the Jewish people, either way, if the bigger issues are not being addressed, then we’re all doing a disservice to the Jewish future. So what are these bigger issues?
A recent New York Times article about the ongoing research on American religion by the Pew Foundation raises one such issue:
70 percent of Americans affiliated with a religion or denomination said they agreed that “many religions can lead to eternal life,” including majorities among Protestants and Catholics…. Among minority faiths, more than 80 percent of Jews, Hindus and Buddhists agreed with the statement, and more than half of Muslims did….“It’s not that Americans don’t believe in anything,” said Michael Lindsay, assistant director of the Center on Race, Religion and Urban Life at Rice University. “It’s that we believe in everything. We aren’t religious purists or dogmatists.”
So if most Jews believe that their religion is not the only path to eternal life, it begs the question: Why be Jewish at all? If there are multiple paths to salvation, why take the Jewish one? For today’s younger generations, the fact that this is the path their parents took, and their parents before them, is not an automatic sell. (Especially if their other parent was on a different path, or if there are people in the Jewish community who tell them they have no right considering themselves on the Jewish path to begin with because of their lineage.)
When looking at the trend of massive intermarriage, the big question isn’t about how we can get more Jews to marry other Jews. It’s about how we can get more people on the Jewish path, whether they are single, in-married or intermarried, children or grandchildren of intermarriage. Are we ready, as a community, to say that Judaism is not just one of many possible paths, but that it is the best path? And why is it the best path? Most Jews would be uncomfortable saying so, even if they believe it. Maybe our work is really about becoming more comfortable saying Judaism has the most to offer those who are looking for a “here-and-now” religion more than a “hereafter” religion, so please join us. And then making it a meaningful and accepting community to enter.
It is the middle of the summer and many Jewish communal institutions, including synagogues, are on vacation. Or at least that is what it seems like. The communal professionals are replaced by volunteers. Programming is much lighter. Websites are often not up-to-date. When busy schedules compel families to use the summer to make choices about the fall, I wonder if we are doing ourselves a disservice with this lax approach, especially regarding those new to the community or with young children who have to make arrangements for schooling. At the very least, we may be missing an opportunity to reach those in the community who are reaching out to us and, as I always like to say, it is a lot easier to reach someone who is running in our direction.
I invite you to use this opportunity to reach out to those in the community. In looking at your website, don’t wait for the fall holiday season to make sure it is up-to-date. Do it now. And consider what programs might be appropriate to sponsor outside of the walls of your institution to reach those on the periphery. Take advantage of the various public programs that are already taking place in your general community – such as outdoor concerts or community fairs. Don’t just put a table out with brochures. Use it as an opportunity to create an engagement event that reflects the best that your institution has to offer. And don’t forget to be sure to plan a follow-up event ahead of time and make sure that you have your name collection instrument in place as well.
When someone reaches out to us over the summer, let’s make sure we have the resources in place to welcome them in.
My daughter and son-in-law recently bought a house in a new community. Since it is summer, they wanted to be outdoors and have the opportunity to meet new people. They decided to shop around for membership in a pool club. They were shocked by the cost of membership fees. They finally found one club with a sliding scale, based on age, not financial ability. For 21-25 year olds, the dues were 10% of the full membership fee; for 26-30, 20%; for 31-35, 30% and so on.
As we talked about their experience, I couldn’t help but compare what it is like when a young adult wants to become a member of a Jewish institution, which can be prohibitively expensive. How can we attract young adults and make sure cost is not a barrier for their participation in the Jewish community? One of the Big Tent Judaism principles, Lower Barriers to Participation, identifies cost as one of the possible concerns for those who are not currently engaged in Jewish communal life, and many Jewish institutions have developed creative ways to make sure anyone who is interested in participating in Jewish life is able to, regardless of financial ability. There are already a growing number of synagogues that offer such benefits as a free High Holiday services for non-members, a sliding dues scale, or a year of discounted (sometimes free) memberships for newcomers. And while it’s great to see institutions offering these deals, the bigger issue is letting people know these deals even exist.
If the goal is to grow membership and engage newcomers, young adults, and the unaffiliated, institutions need to do a better job of letting everyone know what sort of deals are available. If your synagogue offers free services or discounted memberships, put an ad in a secular newspaper, or on a bulletin board in a high traffic area. Expand your marketing to reach more people so they know what is offered; don’t wait for them to come to you. Tell people about the value of joining and becoming part of the Jewish community because we can’t “afford” to miss the opportunity to engage those young adults or others who want to enter our doors.
In the critically acclaimed 2001 documentary “Trembling Before G-d,” director Sandi Simcha DuBowski sheds light on one of the most conflicted groups in the Jewish community – gay Orthodox Jews. Throughout the movie, those profiled demonstrate just how hard it is to reconcile their personal desires and their spiritual ones, and how all they are looking for is tolerance in their communities and synagogues.
Seven years on, has this movie made any difference in the lives of gay Orthodox Jews? Or how about gay Jews of any denomination? Or more broadly, how welcoming overall is the Jewish community to its gay members?
Those were some of the questions asked in a recent article in Jewish Living magazine titled “How Gay is Your Shul?” The piece explains how the group Jewish Mosaic, one of the organizations behind a recently launched LGBT Welcoming Synagogues Project, and their partners “will start surveying every congregation in the U.S.” to see how inclusive they are to the LGBT community.
While the Reconstructionist and Reform movements have been ordaining gay and lesbian rabbi’s since 1984 and 1990 respectively, Gregg Drinkwater, Jewish Mosaic’s executive director, says that changes have to occur from the ground up, not merely from the governing body. “Without internal champions or external guidance, it’s very hard for shuls to change,” he explained.
One of the most interesting parts of the article was the pragmatism of Rabbi Steven Greenberg, an openly gay Orthodox rabbi who was featured in “Trembling Before G-d.” This is a man who’s spiritual and personal desires seem to be in direct conflict with one another, yet he still works to fit into both worlds. He has written his own criteria for “welcoming” synagogues, one that stresses tolerance on the synagogues part, but also stresses the congregant tolerate the synagogues needs.
“Gay people must recognize they can’t impose their hard-fought self understanding on a congregation,” he says. “That said, Orthodox congregations have to figure out how they manage reality. There are plenty of gay people who want to belong to Orthodox synagogues because it’s a form of Jewish life that speaks most to them.”
“Manage reality” I think is the key term there. At JOI, we believe one of the best ways to grow Judaism’s Big Tent is for congregations to leave behind assumptions about what Jews “look like” or how families are configured; rather they should celebrate our community’s diversity. There are many disagreements on how to help facilitate this change – Drinkwater, for example, wants to survey synagogues and tell them what they can do differently, but others want the changes to happen organically. Perhaps there is no one uniform way for a congregation to approach the subject of welcoming the LGBT community, but we’re glad to see it’s one that is generating such a big debate.
Birthright Israel has provided thousands of Jewish young adults with a powerful, if not exhausting first experience in Israel. Many of the participants board their El Al flight to Israel with some inkling of what they can expect over the 10 day trip: time at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, a dip in the Dead Sea, an early morning trek up Masada, and a “nudge,” or push, by trip organizers and leaders to find that special, Jewish someone.
Matt Lyons, an adult child of intermarriage, recently returned from his birthright Israel trip. In a piece that he wrote for Interfaith Family.com, he describes not only his personal connection with Israel, but explains why he agrees only in part with the trip organizer’s in-marriage “nudge.” Yes, Matt whole-heartedly sees the importance in someday raising Jewish children to not only support Israel but also to support Judaism, its people and history. However, he doesn’t necessarily agree that the only way to do this is to marry someone Jewish.
“…the obligation to pass along my Judaism does not require me to marry someone Jewish. I am surely evidence of that, as were the other young Jews on my trip from interfaith families. The Taglit-Birthright trip, at the same time, strengthened both my desire to raise my children Jewish and my belief that a loving, honest and open-minded interfaith marriage can help me accomplish it.”
Matt’s statement, which we couldn’t have said any better ourselves, is an important reminder to the community that intermarriage is not necessarily a problem or an ending, but it can be used as an opportunity for engagement. Here at JOI, we work with and offer support for many interfaith families who share in Matt’s views on interfaith marriage and raising Jewish children. To do so, 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 hope through programs like these and through adult children of intermarriage like Matt, the community will open its eyes to the interfaith families who make Jewish choices.
At JOI, we often talk about the principles of Big Tent Judaism – one of which is lowering barriers to participation. This includes taking Judaism out of the 4-walls of our institutions and bringing it to where the people are, which we usually define as a public space. Rabbi Eddie Sukol of Cleveland has put his own spin on that idea and taken Judaism not just to where the people are, but to where they actually live. In a recent article in the Cleveland Jewish News, we learn about Rabbi Sukol and The Shul - a “synagogue-without-walls.” Twice a month, people are invited into someone’s home for a Shabbat dinner, where they find “a little nosh, a little singing, and a little Jewish learning off the beaten path.”
The Shul came about, Rabbi Sukol says, because of a growing need for a more flexible form of Judaism. Lines between Reform and Conservative, he says, have become blurred, while the lines between Orthodox and non-Orthodox have become clearer. While those changes continue, he says communal institutions aren’t keeping up, and people might feel like they are not always getting what they want out of their synagogues.
That is not a criticism of established congregations and Jewish institutions, Sukol insists. “Institutions by their nature change slowly, and membership-based organizations are struggling everywhere n not just Jewish ones. So, I’m creating opportunities and alternatives for people.”
Although the services are informal, everyone who attends the twice monthly Shabbat services takes the process seriously. Along with singing and games are prayers and discussions about the weeks Torah portion. Sukol also leads two adult weekday morning study groups, and this fall The Shul is launching a religious school. Most participants are dues paying members at other synagogues, but they attend The Shul because, Rabbi Sukol believes, “the notion that a family joins a synagogue and their Jewish needs are solely met (by that single affiliation) is non-functional.”
Instead of synagogue mailings and newsletters, Rabbi Sukol keeps people up to date through emails and text messages. Their Torah is kept in a portable “ark-without-walls” with a battery operated ner tamid (eternal light) – the whole thing is sized to fit in the back of Rabbi Sukol’s car. We are excited to see such innovative methods for drawing people into the Jewish community, and it’s particularly interesting to see how Rabbi Sukol has adapted traditional synagogue procedures to help create a more welcoming and inclusive community for the 21st century.
The title of an Atlanta Journal article, “Judaism Drawing More Black Americans,” caught our eye a few weeks ago for a variety of reasons. Rachel Pomerance’s article highlights the growing number of Black American Jews-by-choice and the ensuing need for increased Jewish communal inclusivity, which JOI is cognizant of as evidenced in our Big Tent Judaism Coalition. The article explores the various reasons Black Americans are drawn to Judaism – which for some is a spiritual journey, but for others it’s returning to their roots.
In the article, Gary Tobin of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research (an organization that studies the demography of the Jewish people) cites three reasons for the growing numbers: religious identity is increasingly fluid across the American landscape (as recently illustrated by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life survey); the Internet makes information much more accessible; and the rise in interracial intermarriage, which has led to more multicultural families and communities.
While these points infer a growing sense of religious and cultural ‘mobility’ resulting in conversions to different faiths, Pomerance also writes about a population that throughout history was often marginalized and questioned in their own right - Jews of Color who were born and raised Jewish.
Lewis Gordon, founder of Afro-Jewish Studies at Temple University, says this population was “swept up in the tides of racism in scholarship and institutions” that saw Jews as exclusively white. He describes a history of segregated congregations and private observance amongst Black Jews due to exclusivity in the broader (white) Jewish community. But, according to Gordon, times have changed:
“There have always been communities of either black people who are already Jewish or black people considering coming to Judaism. What is different is that institutional structures are changing,” he said. “There is an increased effort to create a welcoming environment for them.”
Gordon speculates that as many as 1 million black people in the United States have Jewish roots, among them African-Americans, African and Caribbean immigrants and Afro-Latinos.
Which is why Gordon thinks that, among the rising numbers of black Americans coming to Judaism, some of them are simply returning to it.
So, while there may be increasing religious ‘mobility’ contributing to more black Americans being drawn to (or returning to) Judaism, Gordon says that these groups have been a fixture in Jewish history. It’s only now that they are starting to be embraced by the broader Jewish community.
And that, we think, is a wonderful thing. Through a variety of initiatives including the Big Tent Judaism Coalition, which serves as an advocate for newcomers, intermarried families and others on the periphery, JOI is proud to be a part of this movement towards a diverse, inclusive and more dynamic North American Jewish community.
Have you ever sat around and found yourself wondering, “Is Daffy Duck Jewish?” I know I have. But I never knew where to turn to find the answer. Until now.
The website Jewornotjew.com provides a tongue-in-cheek roundup of politicians, celebrities, musicians, athletes, and even fictional characters to let you know who is and isn’t Jewish. Daffy Duck? Borderline Jewish. Baseball player David Eckstein? Sounds like he could be, but he isn’t.
Everything is done on a scale with three categories. According to their website, this includes:
How Jewish they are internally, how Jewish they are externally and how much we want that person to be a Jew in the first place.
In practice, the I Score tends to refer to birth history with some adjustments for how we imagine they see/saw themselves. The O Score is for how Jewish they look and act. The K Score stands for Kvell (pride) and is subject to the whims of the creators of this Web site.
So, using this scale, the experts have decided that Betty Boop, who scores a 10 out of possible 15, is more Jewish than Neil Diamond, who scores a 9. How does a man sometimes referred to as “The Jewish Elvis” not even reach double digits? Because even though he was born and raised Jewish and still attends synagogue, he put out a Christmas album.
At JOI, we spend every day engaged in the debate of “Who is a part of the Jewish community.” We believe that should include all those who have chosen to cast their lot with the Jewish people, regardless of prior knowledge or background. But just as important as this ongoing debate is the ability to take a moment to laugh. While the website and its ratings should be viewed with a grain (or two) of salt, I’m happy to see there are people out there who can lighten us up with some intelligent satire.