Weblog Entries for August 2008

An Untraditional Traditional Life Cycle Event

As September quickly approaches and summer fades away, many college-bound students are packing up and preparing for the upcoming year on campus. For some, this is new and unchartered territory: dorm life, new friends, unlimited extra-curricular activities, and doing your own laundry. And for a few students, this includes becoming a Bat Mitzvah.

Last year, according to the Dayton Jewish Observer, four students at Tufts University were called to the Torah as B’not Mitzvah during the spring semester. One of these young women, Kira Mikityanskaya, was inspired to have her Bat Mitzvah during her first trip to Israel the summer before her freshman year. Kira didn’t even learn that she was Jewish until the age of 6 when she and her family immigrated to the United States from Russia. Growing up she at attended Sunday school and was active in her local Jewish youth groups, but as she turned 13, when many of her friends started preparing for their Bar and Bat Mitzvah’s, Kira felt she wasn’t ready. So the time came and went, and she never had a Bat Mitzvah.

After a Birthright trip to Israel last year, Kira decided she wanted to finally have her Bat Mitzvah – she just didn’t know how to do it. When she arrived on Tufts’ campus for the first time last Fall, she saw a flyer at the campus Hillel for a program helping students who had never had a Bar or Bat Mitzvah to have one. Seven months and one mitzvah project later, Kira became a Bat Mitzvah at age 19.

Nearly 2000 miles away, four other women were recently called to the Torah for a B’not Mitzvah. They, like Kira and her friends, were also past the traditional Bat Mitzvah age – but a bit further along. At ages ranging from 76 to 90, these women, who grew up in a time when girls didn’t typically have a Bat Mitzvah, were finally able to celebrate. “It shows that you never get too old to do something you want,” said the eldest of the group, Diana T. Wunch, in the Houston Chronicle.

For many, a Bar or Bat Mitzvah comes hand-in-hand with a slew of requirements and rules, such as several years of study in the synagogue’s religious school, membership, Torah-trope tutors, mitzvah project, etc. These requirements and policies can often deter families and individuals looking to have a Bar or Bat Mitzvah outside of the traditional timeline. Unaffiliated and interfaith members of the community need to know that our doors are open, especially for the important lifecycle events – from Bar and Bat Mitzvah’s through weddings and funerals. For this reason, JOI is working in partnership with STAR: Synagogue Transformation and Renewal on Call Synagogue Home to help rabbis and synagogues look beyond their policies and seize these opportunities for engagement. Whether it’s a Bat Mitzvah at 19 or 90, or an interfaith family who wants to celebrate the birth of a child, we are working together to make sure that our community is welcoming to everyone who wants to share in these rich, family experiences.

High Holiday Humor

September is right around the corner, and for the Jewish community that means getting ready for the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement). While these holidays attract many Jews who otherwise never attend synagogue, save for maybe the occasional Bar/Bat Mitzvah, they also ignite a debate within the Jewish community that’s been going on for years: charging for attendance at High Holiday services.

We believe, as do a growing number of synagogues and congregations across the US, that there should be no “pay-to-pray” stipulation for the High Holidays. As the holidays get closer, we anticipate more being written about this issue. The magazine Jewish Living has inaugurated this year’s debate with a short article that mentions a very funny video making the rounds on YouTube, in which a couple hurries up to the doors of a temple only to realize they forgot to buy tickets. As luck would have it, though, there is a ticket scalper lurking in the shadows.

Titled “Bad Karma on the Kippur,” the three minute video, which is similar to this typically cringe-inducing clip from Larry David’s HBO show “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” is an intelligent mix of humor and social commentary – even addressing interfaith relationships and race. Ticket scalping at High Holidays will never be as blatant as portrayed in this video, but it does raise many questions about how this practice affects the unaffiliated members of our community (or those who can’t afford dues) who view high ticket prices as a major barrier to participation. Chabad charges nothing for their High Holiday services, and their attendance at this time of year skyrockets. Isn’t it time for the rest of the community to lower or remove this barrier and open our doors for all who would like to enter?

Increasing Online Accessibility to Judaism

Here at JOI, we get a lot of emails from people looking for help in navigating the world of interfaith marriage. The reasons for their inquiries vary – some live in rural communities without access to a rabbi, others don’t belong to a synagogue and aren’t sure where to turn. Reaching out over email is not unusual, but according to a new survey by Ynet, a news website in Israel, more and more people are turning to “internet rabbis” even if they live in urban areas or belong to a congregation. The reason: greater accessibility.

I can’t say I’m surprised at the survey’s results. After all, sending an email is a lot quicker than writing a letter, or even making a phone call. In our case, as a national organization with headquarters in New York, our blog and various list serves allow us to reach an audience worldwide. But we are also a somewhat specialized organization. What’s interesting about the survey is the number of people who have access to a rabbi but would rather click through to find an answer written by a rabbi.

The Ynet survey only seemed to cover people searching for basic Judaism related questions, and there are plenty of websites designed for this purpose. Our website has a Q and A section, and participants in our Mothers Circle program have access to a virtual rabbi who can answer questions and concerns about the particulars of Jewish practice, tradition, history, community, culture, and belief. But what about rabbi’s expanding their services online, beyond answering questions? When people living far from any synagogue write to us with a desire to explore becoming a Jew, we often point them to the website of Rabbi Celso Cukierkorn. He is based in Florida, but he offers an online conversion course to anyone who wants to become Jewish, whether you are in New Mexico or New Zealand.

We have blogged in the past about “virtual synagogues” and the rising number of outreach professionals who use podcasts (essentially a radio program that can be downloaded and listened to at a later time) to reach people who may not feel comfortable stepping into Jewish institutions. These are all great examples of electronic Public Space JudaismSM - maximizing technology to reach those on the periphery of the Jewish community where they are, on their terms. Some might think the lack of personal contact with a rabbi doesn’t fully represent Judaism, but for many it can be the first step in joining our Big Tent.

Addressing Changes in Louisville’s Jewish Community

Necessity is the mother of invention, and we often blog about communities that have struggled with a decline in Jewish participation but still found creative (even controversial) ways to strengthen their local Jewish identity through outreach. For some it means opening a Jewish Community Center on a Saturday, for others it means offering financial incentives to move to town (or even study Torah). According to a recent article in the Courier-Journal, the Louisville Jewish community is no different, and local leaders are searching for new ways to keep their community intact.

The article notes that “population shifts and tight budgets” are forcing numerous changes that have to be addressed. This includes the closing of Louisville’s only non-Orthodox Jewish day school and kosher restaurant, merger talks between synagogues, and a possible consolidation of the Jewish Community Center and the Jewish Community Federation of Louisville.

So what are the institutions doing to make sure they can handle these societal changes and keep the community vibrant? The Jewish Community Center, for example, which offers a fitness center and performing arts along with Jewish day camps and educational programs, plans on competing more aggressively for both non-Jewish and Jewish customers. “Not only do we have to offer programming, we have to offer great programming,” said Helene Kramer, a Federation Board member and co-chair of the consolidation committee. And even though the JCC had to close their on-site kosher restaurant Café J, it is still available for catering.

They are also reaching out to interfaith families like never before. While many still believe the common complaint that intermarriage leads to a “dilution of Jewish heritage,” Rabbi Joe Rooks Rapport of The Temple (Louisville’s largest congregation) points to the Boston survey that found many interfaith families raise their children Jewish. “It puts the whole conversation of intermarriage on its head,” he noted. With the help of JOI board member Todd Blue and his wife Karen, who co-chair Louisville’s Jewish Community Outreach Taskforce, the federation is promoting a local chapter of The Mothers Circle, JOI’s rapidly expanding program for non-Jewish mothers raising Jewish families.

We have had the privilege of working with Louisville since 2006, when we conducted a “community scan” that focused on what they are doing to welcome intermarried and unaffiliated families. That’s why we know they are doing more than what the article reports – especially in reaching other target populations, like young folks and Jews-by-choice. For example, they are starting a chapter of PJ Library, a program that sends Jewish books and music to families with young children to create stronger Jewish homes - with over 280 children registered so far.

Louisville is making great progress as they continue their efforts to grow an already vibrant and inclusive Jewish community, and we are excited to be a part of the process.

Twisted Will

Not long ago, some in the Jewish community were calling for a return of the “taboo” against intermarriage. Their thinking went something like this: if parents (and rabbis, and communal leaders) spoke more about how much they want our young people to marry other Jews, the intermarriage rate would go down. Well, one clever—and wealthy—dentist in Chicago went a step further by adding a financial incentive to encourage his offspring to only marry other Jews. According to the Chicago Tribune:

Can a monetary prize be used to bind a family to its ancestral faith? …In his will, Feinberg expressed his wish to disinherit any descendant “who married outside the Jewish faith.”

Unfortunately for the late Max Feinberg, in this case it appears that money is as equally ineffective as social taboos in conquering love. The family of the late dentist is currently embroiled in some very ugly—yet legally interesting—litigation, to the point where his daughter is trying to have her own children declared legally deceased in order to collect their money! The punch line? “Of the couple’s five grandchildren, four married gentiles.”

Eliminating Offensive Language

A small item in the column “Celebrity News” of the August 1st edition of the Atlanta Jewish Times caught the attention of JOI’s Rabbi Kerry Olitzky. It was a blurb about how Barack Obama, when he was in the Illinois State Senate, shared an office suite with an Orthodox Jew. The piece, which was an excerpt from an article in Newsweek, explained that Obama was very curious about Jewish customs, and even offered to open electric doors for his suitemate. But the title above the blurb is what stood out – “Shabbas Goy.”

At JOI, one of the principles of our Big Tent Judaism coalition is to “lower the barriers to participation.” This includes defining “insider” terms like “daven” (to pray) and eliminating offensive language, such as “goy” or “shiksa.” In response to the blurb, the paper published Kerry’s letter to the editor:

In your “Celebrity Jews” column in the Aug. 1 issue, in order to make the Obama campaign relevant, your contributor uses the heading “Shabbos Goy” regarding the relationship between Ira Silverstein and the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee. It is time to stop the use of such language that excludes and offends. With the growing number of those from different religious backgrounds now part of the Jewish community, the term “goy” needs to be excluded from our vocabulary. No more need be said.

Are you ready to take this step with us – to use only inclusive language that will help people feel welcome in the Jewish community?

Can Jewish Engagement be Bought?

We spend most of our time at JOI focused on expanding Judaism’s Big Tent. Whether that means engaging intermarried families, recent Jews-by-choice, or anyone else who might feel they are on the periphery of the community, our goal is to let them know that we welcome them, and we want them involved. We do this through a variety of initiatives: Mothers Circle, Empowering Ruth, and Public Space JudaismSM to name just a few. One thing we have yet to try, though, is simply offering cash as an incentive to get people through the doors of Synagogues and other Jewish communal institutions.

According to a piece in the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, cash incentives are becoming more and more popular among college based Jewish organizations. We have blogged in the past about financial incentives (Jewish families who move to Dothan, Alabama can apply for hefty, interest-free loans to help with relocation), and generally they seem like a good idea. Home loans or a reduction in synagogue dues can be powerful tools of attraction, and we are strong supporters of such practices. But with those examples, the incentives are directly related to ongoing Jewish engagement – cash offers no guarantee that once the person is paid, they will continue their involvement in the Jewish community.

While cash is a common theme in the article, not all programs mentioned take the same approach. In one program, called the Maimonides Fellowship, students who agree to take the money ($400 or a free trip to Israel) are obligated to commit to 10 weeks of Torah study courses. In another, called the Sinai Scholars Society, there is no such commitment, only required attendance at a three events. One college student said she was interested in participating because she was intrigued – by the check for $500.

Of course it’s impossible to say what kind of impact this will have on Jewish engagement. The article cites a cash-for-study program at Lake Park Synagogue in Wisconsin that was shut down after some board members became uncomfortable with the process – but doesn’t mention if any of the students continued to gather and study Torah when they weren’t being paid to do so. Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is quoted as saying a cash payment “trivializes Judaism, and it portrays secular Jews as people to be bought off.” Perhaps, or maybe it will light a fire in someone who otherwise would never go to a Torah study course.

It’s an interesting method for encouraging Jewish involvement, and we will be watching closely to see how it “pays off.”

In Pursuit of Judaism

On the heels of yesterday’s blog regarding Rabbi Kerry Olitzky’s letter to the editor in support of lowering the barriers for people who want to convert to Judaism, we write today about those who are already Jewish – but are still forced to “prove it.”

An Israeli Olympic athlete, according to Seth Farber in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, has been unable to convince the rabbinate that she is Jewish, and therefore she can’t be married in Israel, the place she calls home. The athlete, Anna Gostomelsky, is a Russian immigrant who was only able to provide documentation that her father was Jewish. Despite oral testimonies from numerous individuals who claim her mother was Jewish – and the fact that she leads a Jewish lifestyle – without the paperwork, the rabbinate refuses to recognize her as Jewish. As Anna puts it:

“In more than 150 countries in the world, not only am I Jewish, I represent the Jewish people. Only in Israel to people question my Jewishness.”

While this issue generally affects people who have immigrated to Israel, Farber says that more and more, proving Judaism through paperwork is also causing hardship on native Israelis. As the founding director of ITIM: The Jewish Life Information Center, which “help Israelis navigate the rabbinate’s labyrinths,” he says people who have grown up in Israel as full Jews, but whose parents married outside of Israel, will find themselves having to prove their Jewishness – all because one group of Orthodox Jews have set the bar dramatically high. Farber writes:

“Rabbinical courts insist on authentication of Jewishness because the assumption that someone who claims he is a Jew is a Jew - a principle that is, incidentally, codified in the Shulhan Arukh (code of Jewish law) - has been challenged in recent years by ultra-Orthodox poskim (halakhic authorities). These rabbis claim that such an assumption can be made only so long as the claimant is an observant Jew. However, in a society whose members are secular Jews - “those who don’t act Jewish,” in their words - no such claims hold any real credence.”

We have written about this before, but it still shocks and saddens when stories emerge of people who have lived their whole lives as Jews – only to be told that they are not Jewish. Farber, who is also an Orthodox rabbi, understands that “people transcend the Orthodox community,” and it shouldn’t be up to one group to make these decisions for all.

At JOI, we believe these kinds of barriers only keep people from pursuing their Judaism. The worldwide Jewish community should be troubled by stories like Anna’s, and we are thankful that rabbis like Seth Farber are around to help guide people in their pursuit of a Jewish life.

Letter to the Editor

In a July 24th editorial in the New Jersey Jewish News, titled “The Conversion Mess,” the newspaper commented on the United Jewish Communities unusual step “of asking an Israeli prime minister to intervene in a brewing Israel-Diaspora crisis.” At issue is heightened scrutiny for state-authorized conversions in Israel, specifically regarding immigrants to Israel from the Former Soviet Union. The newspaper and UJC fear that the added pressures may nullify “thousands of official conversions undergone by immigrants.”

In response, JOI executive director Kerry Olitzky wrote a letter to the editor proclaiming his support for removing the barriers that put an undue burden on people interested in converting to Judaism:

Your editorial “The conversion mess” is aptly named, for conversion is indeed a mess in Israel, and it has seeped into a variety of places throughout the world. How can we complain that people aren’t converting to Judaism if we continue to erect barriers for them to cross over?

It is hard enough to reach people on the periphery of the Jewish community. Shouldn’t we be able to at least capture people who are running in our direction? This was one of the motivations for our Empowering Ruth program for women who have converted to Judaism. This provides them continued education and support as they navigate the difficult and sometimes treacherous road once they have converted.

The only thing that we should be saying to anyone who expresses an interest in conversion – or who has already converted – is “Welcome. We are glad you are here.”

Interfaith Marriage is Not the End

Often times, the most effective way to make an argument is to frame it as a piece of fiction. For instance, millions of children have learned over the years that “slow and steady wins the race” because of Aesop’s story of the tortoise and the hare. Whether that’s true or not, the message is easily received and understood.

This is how author Reuben Bibi, who has just published a book called The Decision, approaches the subject of intermarriage. The novel, according to Rabbi I. Nathan Bamberger of The Jewish Press, debunks “the fallacy that intermarriage can work.”

I have not read the book, but Rabbi Bamberger’s synopsis and review tells me enough to know that the novel takes a decidedly anachronistic view of interfaith marriage. In a nutshell, an unengaged Reform Jewish man, Michael, marries a Catholic woman, Susan, and they have a family. When one of their children gets sick and has to go to the hospital, she concludes the illness is a result of the child never being baptized. The husband, who had met an Orthodox Jewish man in the hospital, decides that baptism is too much and reaches out to his new friend “and their subsequent meeting and conversation result in Michael’s momentous decision.”

Though I don’t know what his “decision” is, the message of the book is quite clear – marry outside of Judaism, and you are putting another nail in the coffin. This is one of Michael’s quotes in the book:

“I did not want to give up my Jewish heritage…Hitler tried to destroy the Jews and failed, but here I am allowing my Jewish identity to die in a different way. I was losing no matter which way I turned.”

Clearly there is no way to salvage your Jewish identity if you marry someone of another faith!

We know from the countless people JOI has worked with over the years that this kind of thinking is remarkably backwards. This book seems to care nothing for nuance or the realities of living in a modern society. Intermarriage is less about rejecting faith than it is about living in a mixed culture. With the growing diversity of Jewish families, it’s better to welcome and engage interfaith families and try to answer the question of “Why be Jewish.” We suggest you read Rabbi Kerry Olitzky’s book Making a Successful Jewish Interfaith Marriage to see how interfaith families can indeed lead a rewarding and meaningful Jewish life.

Rabbi Bamberger ends his review by saying that “with proper education the scourge of intermarriage will become a thing of the past.” I hate to break it to him, but there is no way to stop intermarriage. That’s why we have created The Mothers Circle, The Grandparents Circle and Big Tent Judaism. Around here, we believe that “intermarriage does not end Jewish continuity; not raising Jewish children ends Jewish continuity.” The hard line approach – shaming families by equating intermarriage with the Holocaust – only pushes people away, and that’s a message worth fighting.

From the East Side to the West Side

When people think about the musical West Side Story, whether it’s the Tony-award winning play or the Oscar-winning movie, images of white kids and Puerto Rican kids engaged in well choreographed fights immediately comes to mind. But these were not the two groups that Jerome Robbins and Leonard Bernstein had in mind when they sat down to first write the play, which was going to be called East Side Story.

According to a piece in The Jewish Chronicle of Pittsburgh, the original story was to take place in New York City’s Lower East Side. Here’s the description:

Tensions erupt between Jews and Catholics during concurrent Passover and Easter holidays. There is a couple that is in love – she is Jewish and he is Italian Catholic.

While the play was shelved until a few years later, and moved to the (then) gritty west side of Manhattan, it’s interesting to note that the issue of Jewish interfaith relationships was seen as something comparable to gang wars. Fortunately, we have come a long way since then, with many in the Jewish community realizing that intermarriage is not something to fight over, but rather something we have to accept as inevitable. Our reactions are what set the course for the future – do we take it to the streets and rumble, or do we instead engage intermarried families and work to encourage their increased participation in Jewish life?

At JOI, we believe in the latter because as anyone who has seen West Side Story (or read Romeo and Juliet) knows, fighting the relationships rarely ends on a positive note.

Outreach Testimonial from Australia

From time to time, people write into JOI to tell us how they have used our outreach programming and successfully applied it to their communities. The following message was sent to our program officer Liz Marcovitz from Elyse Chiert, who attended our 2007 conference in Washington, DC:

Hi Liz,

I just wanted to drop you a line to let you and others know that the JOI conference made a huge impact to my work and thus the Sydney Jewish community in Australia.

I hope you remember that 3 of us from The Shalom institute and Network attended the conference while we were touring the US. It took a few months for us to process what we learnt plus see the projects come to fruition. We were inspired by the conference as we learnt about many new initiates while we were there. I know you were involved with follow up after the event but as only 2 of us are running a large organisation that caters for 5000+ young adults in Sydney, I was time poor to fill in all the forms, but I think your follow up was amazing and so important.

I have sung the praises of the JOI to many people here in Sydney and we have had a number of successful events after implementing some ideas that we saw at the conference.
Here are a few…

1. Hearing Ruth Messinger speak about social action at the conference inspired us to start social action awareness group called the “Jewish change makers forum,” and we were privileged to have Ruth speak at one of our events recently while she was visiting Sydney.

2. We have passed on our feedback to Hillel after hearing about Campus Entrepreneurs Initiative, and I believe it’s on their agenda for 2009.

3. As our community is small, we combined the idea of The Mothers Circle and called our group Shalom Baby, but will be looking at holding Mothers Circle type events in the near future. We held the launch event last Friday with hundreds of mothers attending who are so excited there is now something in the community for them.

4. The PJ library idea has been a hit too, and we are currently in talks about starting this here, however we are still trying to work out how and who to deal with in the US to be able to get the books sent to Australia.

So thank you again for everything, and I wish you the best of luck with JOI as it’s such an amazing organisation doing such important work.

Kind regards,
Elyse Chiert

We are excited that Elyse has been able to make such an impact on her community, and we are confident that she will continue to find success in the future. If anyone reading has their own outreach stories to share, we would love to hear them!

Outreach Training on YouTube

For the past couple of years, STAR (Synagogue Transformation and Renewal) and JOI have been working together on a program called Call Synagogue Home which aims to help make synagogues
more welcoming towards interfaith families during life-cycle events, which include brit milah and baby namings, B’nai Mitzvah, weddings and funerals. They also include non-traditional lifecycle moments, such as high school graduation, recovery from illness, the purchase of a new home or even a new job.

Rabbi Kerry Olitzky often leads training sessions for synagogue leadership, offering suggestions on how they can attract and engage unaffiliated families during any of the life-cycle events listed above. Thanks to the popularity of online video sharing sites like YouTube, now anyone can get a taste of what Call Synagogue Home has to offer.

This clip provides some highlights from one of Kerry’s training sessions and gives a glimpse into one of the many ways JOI helps institutions to explore how they can create a warm and welcoming environment for interfaith families during life-cycle events and beyond.

Embracing the Diversity of The Mothers Circle

Embracing diversity in the North American Jewish community is not limited to the inclusion of Jews-by-Choice, intermarried families, and Jews of Color. Truly embracing diversity also entails recognizing the diversity of those raising Jewish children who are not Jewish themselves.

Just like Jews, those from other religious backgrounds who are a part of the extended Jewish family—whether raising Jewish children, married to a Jewish partner or otherwise— represent a diverse constituency. An earlier post highlighted the rumors about a trend towards Catholic-Jewish intermarriages. Most make the assumption that if you aren’t Jewish, you’re probably Christian or from a similar religious background—assuming these individuals have a cherished religious background at all.

The Mothers Circle facilitator Kit Haspel of Providence, RI was recently interviewed by the Warwick Beacon in an article about the important work of The Mothers Circle to support interfaith families in the area. Kit made sure to note that interested mothers have come from a vibrant patchwork of backgrounds: Catholic, Buddhist and those professing no religion at all. She emphasizes that the thread tying them together is their commitment to raise children steeped in Jewish community, culture and life.

We at JOI do our best to use inclusive language to recognize the diversity of all those from other religious backgrounds that are raising Jewish children. Hopefully we as a North American Jewish community can continue these efforts through the content of our language and our programs, such as The Mothers Circle or The Grandparents Circle (for grandparents of interfaith grandchildren). As our community grows more diverse, maybe one day instead of just focusing on the Christmas tree, we’ll be adding Ramadan to the topic of those December dilemma conversations.

Feeling Welcomed on Tisha B’Av

At JOI we spend a lot of time focused on the creation of welcoming environment. We even have developed a signature research tool that helps us to evaluate the welcoming nature of institutions and communities—what we call an environmental outreach scan (an example of which can be found here).

One of the things that we like to say is that our institutions and organizations should reflect the way we treat guests in our homes. That is why my wife gets upset when we have guests for Shabbat and I make motzi (blessing over bread) and then take the first bite myself rather than offer the first piece to a guest. But that is what the tradition teaches us to do since it is important to complete the act immediately following the blessing.

There are other places and times in the Jewish culture code, as I like to call it, which call for similar, seemingly unwelcoming behaviors. When we enter a house of mourning, we are not supposed to speak to the mourner until the mourner speaks to us.

This Saturday night/Sunday is Tisha B’av, a commemoration of tragedy that has befallen the Jewish people throughout its history, most notably the destruction of the ancient Temples in Jerusalem which led to the exile (some call it diaspora) of the Jewish people. The somber day is marked by many rituals, including the reading of the book of Lamentations and fasting. On Tisha B’av, contrary to what we teach most of the time, it is customary not to greet people. So if you find yourself in the synagogue for Tisha B’av, don’t be surprised if no one says hello. In this case it is indeed part of Jewish culture.

Beyond the Expectations of an “Insider”

I am what many in the Jewish community would label as an “insider.” I work for a Jewish organization, attend Shabbat services regularly and am an active participant on several committees at my synagogue, of which I am a proud dues-paying member. With that being the case, many of my fellow “insiders” assume that I’ll be spending a portion of my weekend fasting and at synagogue, observing Tisha B’Av, a day of mourning on the Jewish calendar. Last year was the first time I observed Tisha B’Av, choosing to fast and attend services several times with hopes of connecting to the power and meaning of the day. But by sun-down after a long day, I just found myself hungry and disappointed, not having felt any spiritual or religious connection.

This year, I hesitate to observe in the same, traditional manner as last year, despite the expectations of being an “insider.” Instead, I’m considering observing Tisha B’Av, a day reminding us of destruction and exile, in an alternative way, one that might provide me with a deeper spiritual connection. This year I’d like to do my part to ensure that in the future, no community will ever have a reason to mourn for the same reasons that many will fast this Saturday night and Sunday. We can not reverse history, but we can make a difference for communities that currently face devastation, including the refugees of Darfur and the survivors of Hurricane Katrina. For those on the “inside” or “outside,” fasting all day or not at all, why not take a moment to reflect and even act to make certain that no other People have a day of mourning like Tisha B’Av?

Helping Unaffiliated Families Discover Judaism

Declines in the American Jewish population, intermarriage and religious indifference have Jewish leaders across the nation searching for ways to increase interest in their heritage and culture.

This statement, from an article in the St. Petersburg Times of Florida, basically sums up the challenge facing most Jewish communities in North America. The Tampa Jewish Community Center is taking a unique approach to help encourage Jewish engagement among the unaffiliated population. They have opened the Jewish Discovery Museum.

The museum, “an interactive children’s center that promoted Judaism through art and play,” is one of a handful of Jewish discovery centers in the nation. Visitors learn biblical stories, Jewish customs, and songs. But the real motivation, beyond education, is “to connect with unaffiliated Jews, a term reserved for Jews who are not members of a synagogue or Jewish community group.”

Lowering the barriers to participation is one of the methods we believe will lead to greater involvement in the community, and that’s just what this museum is attempting to do. According to Emilie Kuperman, the Jewish Federation and community center director:

“We’re trying to really create an open tent in a way that a family would want to be involved with the Jewish community on their terms,” Kuperman said. “This is another way to give families an opportunity to connect.”

This is a great first step. Opening day at the museum brought Jews from all denominations, and everyone spoke highly of the resources. But to truly make the museum accessible, they should take it out of the Jewish Community Center and bring it to a secular location – that way they don’t have to wait for people to come to them, especially the unaffiliated who aren’t involved in the Jewish community. That suggestion aside, we’re excited to see communities embrace new and creative ways to make our Big Tent even bigger.

Studying the Jewish Population in the Former Soviet Union

At JOI, one of the first steps towards effective outreach is figuring out your target demographic. Is it young people, the elderly, the unaffiliated, etc…? Once you know your target audience, you can fashion programs with a better chance of engaging those you have set out to reach.

That’s what’s happening in Israel right now, according to a piece in the Jerusalem Post. The government has charged the group Nativ with studying the Jewish community in the Former Soviet Union (FSU) “as the next step in an initiative to expand Jewish educational services in the region.”

The government is taking this step because aliya amongst people living in the FSU has dropped dramatically – even though there are, according to government figures, approximately 900,000 people in the FSU eligible for Israeli citizenship.

But others dispute those figures, saying that they are based on “Russian and Ukranian censuses and neglected to account for the unique way in which Russian speaking Jews identify.” And furthermore, while an estimated 80 percent of the 900,000 figure are intermarried, “it’s precisely the children of these intermarried families who are the main consumers of Jewish activities in FSU countries.”

That’s an interesting development. At JOI, we believe that intermarriage is not a barrier to Jewish continuity – it’s the decision of families to not raise their children as Jews. In the FSU countries, it seems these interfaith children are the ones promoting continuity. With this study, Nativ will be able to better target their audience and find the best way to engage the area’s Jewish population – hopefully including not just the large number of adult children of intermarriage, but the rest of their families, too.

We have done a number of community scans and demographic studies to help better understand the needs of targeted populations. Perhaps we can take our signature outreach methodology and set up a branch in the FSU.

Offering Incentives to Attract Jewish Families

Although I grew up in the South, I admit that I have never been to Dothan, Alabama. I imagine it is a very nice town and I know that it has a Jewish community with a vibrant population and many Jewish communal institutions. The question that the community leaders in Dothan are asking is: How do you get people move to Dothan and help sustain the community? In other words, what will it take for people to move to Dothan, especially when the trend among young people is to move to the “big cities.”

That is where Dothan seems to have taken a page out of the JOI play book. We believe that if we want people to enter the Jewish community and its institutions then we have to provide them with incentives for doing so. In the case of Dothan, the Jewish Community Service of Dothan is offering $50,000 no interest grants as part of its Family Relocation Project. In today’s economy, that is indeed an incentive.

Families shouldn’t expect automatic entitlement to the JCS funds just because they are moving to town – there is an intensive vetting process to make sure recipients are committed to helping strengthen and grow Dothan’s Jewish community. One of the qualifications is the family must remain in Dothan for at least five years. This is a bold plan, and we look forward to following its progress—and measuring its success.

Room for Everyone

Though JOI is often known for its work with those who have intermarried, we established our Big Tent Judaism campaign to emphasize the importance of being welcoming to all those who wish to engage with the Jewish community. True, intermarried couples are sometimes marginalized by the Jewish community, but so are gays and lesbians, Jews of color, Jews-by-choice, those with disabilities…and the list goes on. We commend the Interfaith Disability Connection for recognizing the need to “[educate] and [engage] faith communities in cultivating mutually beneficial relationships with people with disabilities.”

This Sunday, the Interfaith Disability Connection will be holding a discussion of acceptance and inclusion at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta: “That All May Worship: Beyond The Ramp.” The Atlanta area organization counts five local synagogues as members, three of which are also members of the Big Tent Judaism Coalition. The Interfaith Disability Connection provides resources to these congregations, as well as to people with disabilities and their families and caregivers. The resources include everything from the physical set up of our institutions to alternative format worship services.

The important awareness of making our Jewish institutions accessible for those with disabilities is becoming a higher and higher priority for the Jewish community. For example, according to the Cleveland Jewish News, Suburban Temple-Kol Ami renovated its sanctuary to include ramps and handrails leading up to the bimah and roomier aisles to accommodate walkers and wheelchairs, As the Jewish community continues to look to its future, we hope that accessibility becomes a high enough priority that it will no longer need to be a priority at all.

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