Weblog Entries for September 2008

“Open Seats” on the High Holidays

Tonight marks the beginning of Rosh Hashanah. As we have written about in the last couple of days, this is a holiday in which most synagogues will only allow you inside if you have paid in advance. The same goes for Yom Kippur, which begins in 10 days. Hopefully everyone, especially the unaffiliated or unengaged, who wants to go to synagogue to celebrate, has found a place to welcome them in. While we have already blogged about where to pray for free during the High Holidays (in both New York and nationwide), we would like to mention a few more options for people who still might be looking.

In the New York area, thirteen Reconstructionist synagogues (four in Westchester, nine in the metropolitan area) have set aside seats for “non-members who wish to attend High Holiday services.” They are calling this the “Open Seats” campaign. Their goal, according to an article on, is to open the holidays “to Jewish participation and inclusion, a strong theme in Reconstructionist synagogues.” The article continues:

“The Reconstructionist movement, which strives to make Jewish tradition, theology, and spirituality relevant in modern times, has been on the forefront of Jewish outreach since its inception,” said Hannah Greenstein, outreach coordinator for the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation of Metropolitan NY/NJ. “Its spirit and longtime practice of inclusion has made Reconstructionist Judaism an appealing home for interfaith and multiracial families and gay and lesbian Jews,” she added.”

JOI has been working with the Reconstructionist movement in recent years. Our associate executive director Paul Golin has worked a marketing consultant, playing a large part in their strategic outreach approach. We both believe Judaism should be open for anyone who chooses to affiliate, and it’s great to see these Reconstructionist synagogues walking the walk on the Holiest days of the year. Shana Tovah (Happy New Year)!

Cracking the Code on Rosh Hashanah

A few months ago, the Jewish Outreach Institute — as part of our Big Tent Judaism Initiative — released a pocket glossary of commonly used Jewish community words. We distributed copies of the glossary, which we called “Cracking the Code: A pocket glossary of commonly used Jewish Words,” to the over 250 members of the Big Tent Judaism Coalition to provide to newcomers to the Jewish community. We also established a webpage for those who would like to learn more about the acronyms, Hebrew words and Yiddishisms that comprise the “language of the Jewish community.”

In honor of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which begins on Monday, September 29 at sundown, we provide you with this supplement to our pocket glossary: “Cracking the Code: A blogged glossary for Rosh Hashanah.”

Rosh Hashanah: Literally Hebrew for “head of the year.” Marks the beginning of a new Jewish year.

Shofar: Ram’s horn sounded in synagogue on Rosh Hashanah.

Tekiah, Shevarim, Teruah, Tekiah Gedolah
: Names for the sounds of the various shofar blasts.

Mahzor: Prayer book used on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Shana Tova (U’Metukah): Literally Hebrew for “good (and sweet) year.” Common Rosh Hashanah greeting.

From all of us at JOI, we would like to wish you a happy, healthy and inclusive New Year!

New Jewish Prayer Books

The Jewish community is continually evolving and discovering innovative ways to reach out and make sure everyone can find meaning in Judaism. We believe such progress helps strengthen our community, and that is why we were excited to learn of the publishing of two prayer books developed to meet the needs of LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) Jews. Ben Harris of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency writes about the prayer books from Congregation Beth Simchat Torah in New York and Congregation Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco in “Gay shuls in N.Y., S.F. set to release prayer books”

Both congregations had been using spiral bound versions of the prayer books internally, but they will now be made available to a wider audience. The prayer books include traditional liturgy as well as prayers that have been adapted and made more inclusive. Harris writes:

Though both works include the staples of Jewish worship in traditional form, they also feature liturgical changes that aim to make the service less exclusively male and heterosexual. CBST’s prayer book, Siddur B’chol L’Vav’cha (“With All Your Heart”), for example, compares God’s rejoicing not to a bride and groom, as in the traditional version of the Shabbat evening L’cha Dodi prayer, but to the more general “heart [that] rejoices in love.”

In addition to some of their more subtle adaptations, the prayer books address lifecycle events specific to the LGBT populations. For example, the Sha’ar Zahav prayer book includes “prayers for the onset of puberty and menopause, a first kiss, taking an HIV test, being single and coming out regarding one’s sexual orientation.”

“Gender neutrality is now standard practice in Conservative and Reform prayer books,” Harris writes, and we see this is a reflection of the increasingly diverse Jewish community. By developing this new prayer book, congregations like Beth Simchat Torah and Sha’ar Zahav, which open their gates to Jews of all sexual orientations, have provided a much needed resource for any synagogue that wishes to better include LGBT Jews, their partners and their families.

Where to Pray for Free on the High Holidays

The High Holidays start this upcoming Monday, and again the issue of Jewish institutions charging members and non-members for tickets has come to light. The practice, also known as “pay-to-pray,” is the subject of quite a debate within the Jewish community. We have written before about the growing trend of institutions offering free or low cost tickets, but with a crumbling economy and high gas prices, it seems particularly relevant this year.

Fortunately, the New York Jewish Week has published a comprehensive listing of various shuls in the area that offer free High Holiday services. In an article titled “You Don’t Need a Ticket to Talk to God,” the paper highlights the people behind many of the free services around town. Whether it’s an Orthodox denomination or Reform, everyone hosting a free service appears to have the same motivation: engagement. They believe that by lowering the cost barrier, they will attract more unaffiliated members of the community who are uncomfortable with the “pay-to-pray” model.

Rabbi Judith Hauptman, who runs free High Holiday services through her group Ohel Ayalah, said: “Precisely at the moment when young people want to be with us, on the High Holidays, that’s when the synagogues shut them out.” Similarly, Rabbi Jill Hausman said that reaching the unaffiliated doesn’t start with asking for money. “I want people to attend with a free heart and be welcome,” she said. “I want people to know I’m here for them.”

This is not just a New York phenomenon, though. For years Chabad has offered free High Holiday services worldwide, easily found through an online directory. Their efforts have been rewarded with greater attendance and recognition. We applaud them for opening their doors to everyone on these days, which is a model we would like to see taken by more institutions in the North American Jewish community. The High Holidays are a great opportunity to welcome people in and establish connections with people and families who may not have a Jewish home. Let’s start this year right by opening our doors to all those interested in affiliating with the Jewish people.

We urge you to contact your local Jewish federations to find out if there are any free High Holiday services being offered in your area, or if any congregations offer reduced cost tickets for non-members. No one should be shut out on these holidays.

Click through to read the Jewish Week’s list of free services in New York.


The Jewish Community in Park City, Utah

One of the ways we at JOI measure success in outreach is through increased participation. Getting someone to attend a program or sign up for a mailing is one step – engaging them in the Jewish community for the long term is our desired goal. This gets harder in places that already have a small Jewish population – there are fewer resources, fewer institutions, and a fewer number of Jews to help establish a community. Furthermore, there are more unaffiliated and interfaith families. That was a problem for the Jews of Park City, Utah. But, according to a feature in the Jerusalem Post, they have found a way to grow and strengthen their Jewish community, and they have the numbers to prove it.

There is only one synagogue in town, Temple Har Shalom, and over the last ten years their membership has grown from a few dozen families to more than 300. One reason for the expansion is a larger overall population in Park City. Another reason, according to Adam Bronfman, who helped establish the synagogue, is because “we open the doors. We let people in.”

Bronfman and many others in the Park City Jewish community believe that the future of the Jewish community lies in their “template for drawing Jews in rather than turning them away.” This is especially true in a time of greater diversity within the Jewish community than we have ever seen before. The philosophy behind the synagogue, Bronfman says, is to provide a place where people can explore Judaism on their own terms. The article explains:

The experiment, he says, is to create “an authentic Judaism that opens the doors completely, that doesn’t have a threshold, a litmus test, a bar which one must step over to come in the door,” elaborating that interested participants of any denomination, observance level, sexual orientation, socio-economic level and not necessarily Jewish background are invited in.

Even Rabbi Benny Lau, from the Modern Orthodox movement, acknowledges that while the approach won’t work for the Orthodox system, there is something positive in the methods of Temple Har Shalom. “They found 300 families that were lost. They found them. That’s a miracle.”

People will always disagree on the best way to guarantee Jewish continuity, but one thing is clear – Temple Har Shalom has found a template that works. It took the whole community to help make this work, but Adam Bronfman played a key role. Through his family’s charitable foundation, The Samuel Bronfman Foundation, he has helped create a working example of successful outreach in Park City. For his commitment to the unity and growth of the Jewish community, JOI is honoring him on October 27th at our annual tribute dinner. He exemplifies everything we believe in – and we are proud to have him as a partner as we embrace intermarried families and unengaged Jews, and encourage their increased participation in Jewish life.

Park(ing) Space Judaism

Anyone walking up Broadway in New York City this past Friday was sure to turn their heads at the impromptu “Parks” set up along the roadway. Park(ing) Day, first held in San Francisco, is a national initiative taking over roadways and reclaiming them as public space one parking spot at a time. Activists, artists and others can sign up for a parking spot and turn it into a “Park” for one day only. The idea being that 70% of outdoor space in cities is monopolized by motorized vehicles. “Imagine what you can do in a space usually dedicated to private vehicle storage,” challenges Park(ing) Day’s organizers. 15 such parks dotted the NYC landscape last Friday, including two sponsored by Jewish organizations who knew EXACTLY what they could do with a mere 10×20 plot of land: engage with people where they are!

Exemplifying JOI’s Public Space JudaismSM model and outreach best practices, Congregation Bnai Jeshurun and Hazon—the national Jewish environmental organization–set up shop on their plot of asphalt far away from their own institution’s buildings. Hazon staff enjoyed the crisp fall day inviting passersby to dip apples in honey, and enjoy a respite in their “park,” which prominently featured a Shabbat table set with Challah, candlesticks and bright flowers.

I enjoyed the later part of my Friday afternoon eating local apples and honey and engaging with folks from many religious backgrounds. While many just wanted to know what on earth we were doing in the “middle” of the street, others enjoyed learning about apples and honey and the items dotting the Shabbat table. Park(ing) Day created a great opportunity for an accessible outdoor experience for all—Jewish or not.

While Park(ing) Day may not be in your city yet, every community provides an opportunity for engaging individuals where they are: street fairs, festivals and even a busy Sunday at your local grocer. Public Space JudaismSM advocates secular partnerships to create welcoming, low barrier opportunities for engagement to meet those on the periphery of the Jewish community ”where they’re at.” All those who implement the Public Space JudaismSM model, like Bnai Jeshurun and Hazon, can continue to deepen Jewish engagement and create a more welcoming community by following up with those who stopped by through emails or phone calls - extending their reach and their community beyond the parking space or the street fair.

New Jewish Sorority

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Robin Margolis at Half-Jewish Network sent us this item, a story in UCLA’s Daily Bruin about a new Jewish sorority on campus – Sigma Alpha Epsilon Pi. What caught Robin’s eye, and ours, was not that a new Jewish sorority has emerged, but it’s a non-exclusive Jewish sorority. That means it is open to anyone who is interested in affiliating with the Jewish community. According to the piece, Sigma has “one non-Jewish and many half-Jewish members.”

Does this mean they are sacrificing Jewish culture by opening their doors to diversity? Absolutely not. Jacqualine Raffi, president of Sigma, said that before they were able to register as a sorority, the girls “have worked with Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters, volunteered in soup kitchens, planned discussions as Hillel, held date parties, and baked challah…”

What really helped them take off was the support of Hillel, who helped out with funding and offered a place to hold meetings. Elana Simon, the Paraphernalia Chair of Sigma, said bluntly, “Hillel is what got us started.”

The group has grown so rapidly they now have to hold an invite-only spring rush to control their growth. We applaud these girls for creating a new Jewish presence on campus, especially one that is so inclusive. It is also clear that Hillel, through their support of Sigma, is actively encouraging Jewish students to, as their mission statement says, “enrich the lives of Jewish undergraduate and graduate students so that they may enrich the Jewish people and the world.”

High Holiday Security

Heightened security is an unfortunate yet necessary practice at many religious institutions during the High Holidays. But the presence of metal detectors or bag checkers can be a deterrent for newcomers, particularly the friends and family of diverse religious backgrounds who may accompany us – many of whom might be going to synagogue for the first time.

In light of this, JOI’s Rabbi Kerry Olitzky and Rabbi Edward Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, CA published an op-ed in the JTA offering suggestions on how to make sure that during the High Holidays, the added security can be used to keep shuls safe but friendly. One of the principles of our Big Tent Judaism coalition is to lower barriers to participation so everyone feels welcome. No one should feel like they can’t enter a synagogue, especially on these days.

I would invite everyone reading this blog to think about what you can do to help our synagogues continue to be warm and welcoming houses of worship.

“Open for us the gates at the time of their closing.”

Worshippers conclude their Yom Kippur prayers every year with this refrain — a final supplication to be sealed in the Book of Life — during the Neilah Shearim service that closes the holiday.

Neilah Shearim, more commonly known as Neilah, literally means, “locking the gates.” As we pray for the metaphorical heavenly gates of forgiveness to remain open this Yom Kippur, how can we ensure that the physical gates of our Jewish institutions do the same?

Security measures at Jewish institutions, and for that matter all religious institutions, are an unfortunate priority these days. On the High Holy Days, we must protect ourselves with a security detail and sometimes even metal detectors and bag checks so that we may devote our time in synagogue to prayer instead of worry.

In the presence of heightened security at our religious institutions, it is essential that our synagogues still feel like warm and welcoming houses of worship, not like airports.


A New View of Jewish Affiliation

Abraham Unger, who we blogged about a few days ago, had an interesting op-ed in the New Jersey Jewish News recently. He wrote about the unaffiliated members of our Jewish community, and how we need to recognize that, between “suburban and exurban sprawl and the rise of technology,” unaffiliated does not necessarily mean disconnected from Judaism, and we need to rethink the importance of affiliation.

Unger starts off by saying that those who sit on the “inside” and measure success through institutional growth are bound to see the growing number of unaffiliated Jews as problematic. And in a sense it is – one measure of success for outreach is by how many people come through the doors once they have been invited.

But, he says, this leaves out “literally hundreds of unaffiliated Jews and their families whom I know.” These are Jews who don’t belong to a synagogue or any Jewish institution, but still identify strongly with the Jewish people. “Don’t assume that someone who doesn’t ‘belong’ is not a serious Jew,” he says.

He argues that affiliation is not a true “marker of Jewish identity.” With the rise of blogging and online social networks, people are forming more “micro-communities,” where they don’t feel the need to tie themselves to a larger organization in order to belong. All this, Unger says, means Jewish communal institutions and demographers need to stop measuring the Jewish populations in terms of “affiliated” and “unaffiliated.” “Indeed, the fact that Jewish identity is so much in flux and is constantly being transformed shows that Torah remains alive and open today,” he says.

Maybe he is right, but only as far as Jews with a strong Jewish identity. Unger says nothing of the unaffiliated Jews who might need the guidance and support of a strong institutional entity. If you already know how to lead a Shabbat service or you know how to host a Passover Seder, perhaps you don’t need the institutional support as much as, say, the adult child of intermarriage who is trying to reconnect to Judaism. Those are the unaffiliated that we need to find. Through Public Space JudaismSM programs like Passover in the Matzah Aisle and Eight Days of Oil, we are helping to engage these families that have, for one reason or another, lost touch with Judaism.

With the rising number of interfaith families and the shrinking institutional memberships, we agree with Unger that it’s time to think about the Jewish community in new terms. For Unger that means meeting the needs of people who don’t struggle with the question of “why be Jewish.” For us and many others, it means continuing to lower barriers, engage the unaffiliated and encourage all those without a strong Jewish identity to increase their participation in Jewish life.

Opening Our Tent for the Hearing Impaired

At most synagogues in Italy, the rabbi’s sermon and announcements are delivered in Italian. In Uruguay, they are delivered in Spanish. And in America, English is the language most often heard, yet there is one group of Jews who feel disconnected from the community because they are unable to participate in services and other Jewish activities in their own language – I am referring to those who speak American Sign Language.

Deaf Jews are often marginalized from the Jewish community because few services and other programming use American Sign Language and/or translators. Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in greater Washington D.C. plans to address the need to include all Jews in their community through their Jewish Deaf Congregational Initiative. According to the Washington Jewish Week, the initiative would create a deaf congregation housed in Adat Shalom and in partnership with the Washington Society of Jewish Deaf, the Jewish Deaf Resource Center and the Partnership for Jewish Life and Learning. The Jewish Week Reports that:

The deaf congregation envisioned in the grant application would incorporate an array of fully accessible programs focusing on Judaic education, religious services, life-cycle events and joint activities involving Adat Shalom’s hearing congregants. The education component, for example, would include b’nai mitzvah training for deaf teens and adults, intergenerational Torah study and instruction on how to incorporate Jewish practices into the home. Under joint programming efforts, hearing congregants would be offered deaf-culture classes and instruction in American Sign Language (ASL), the dominant form of communication in the United States deaf community and several others worldwide. Hearing congregants would also be invited to ASL-only services and would celebrate “select joint holidays” with deaf congregants.

We congratulate the Jewish Deaf Congregational Initiative partner organization for exemplifying the principles of our Big Tent Judaism coalition. We hope that the Jewish community takes their example to develop more initiatives that welcome and include all who wish to engage with and learn about the Jewish community, and we invite those organizations to join the Big Tent Judaism Coalition.

In Recognition of Innovation

Every year, a list of the 50 most innovative professionals and organizations in the North America Jewish community is released in a directory called Slingshot, a Guide to Jewish Innovation. The guide is an initiative of 21/64, a non-profit consulting division of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies. First published in 2005, we are proud to announce that JOI was chosen to be included in this year’s edition, which is scheduled to be released on September 18th.

As reported by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, JOI was chosen to be a part of the directory for our innovation, impact, leadership and organizational effectiveness. This is a great honor, as it is recognition and confirmation of the steps we are taking to help grow and strengthen the Jewish community, particularly amongst unaffiliated Jews who are looking for community and meaning.

The guide is an incredibly diverse collection of programs and initiatives that span the entire spectrum of Jewish denominations and causes. Last year’s list included everything from Hazon, which focuses on environment and sustainability from a Jewish perspective, to the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, which brings women’s issues to the forefront of the Orthodox movement. We are thrilled to be included in such an inspiring and dedicated group of programs and organizations, and we are excited to continue providing new and innovative programs to help increase participation in Jewish life.

No Miracle Cure for Interfaith Marriage

Last month, our friend Julie Wiener wrote an article titled “Men, Women, and the I-Word” for her monthly New York Jewish Week “In The Mix” column (which details her life as a Jewish woman raising an interfaith family). The piece was about how it is more often Jewish men who are not interested in “marrying in,” which causes more intermarriage. But why? According to sociologist Sylvia Barak Fishman, it’s because Jewish men “exhibit ‘toxic’ images of Jewish women.” Wiener says this places a huge burden on Jewish women (especially ones in their 30’s) to find the few remaining interested Jewish men and start a family. To alleviate this pressure, though, she suggests the Jewish community drop the “stigma against intermarriage… for Jewish women racing the fertility clock.”

In response, Rabbi Abraham Unger wrote an editorial, also in the Jewish Week, using Julie’s article as a springboard for finding a new approach to limiting instances of intermarriage. He says that if what Julie writes is true, and by extension Barak Fishman’s study, then “we know which population to focus on more fully in practical terms such as programs and policies.” Unger’s article caught the eye of JOI associate executive director Paul Golin, who wrote a letter to the editor arguing we shouldn’t rely solely on reports from Jewish sociologists about intermarriage because they are likely biased – and that skews the views and debate on intermarriage. Our time would be better spent working with interfaith families to promote Jewish continuity, rather than finding the elusive “miracle intermarriage preventative.” Paul writes:

Abraham Unger bases his “reasoned” approach to intermarriage on misinformed premises (“Treating Intermarriage in a Reasoned Way,” Sept. 5), but that misinformation is not coming from either Unger or the “In The Mix” column to which he responds. He inadvertently points to the culprits when he writes: “A non-Jewish demographer may not understand why out-marriage by younger members of an assimilating ethnic population could be so disheartening. But we in the Jewish community do understand.”

I would argue that an important reason the counterproductive intermarriage debate is still alive in the Jewish community today is because all our key sociologists are Jewish. They all have horses in the race. And unlike advocates who call themselves advocates (like myself), they can cloak their biases in science (albeit social science) without any disclaimer in their reports as to how their own personal beliefs might be reflected in their work.

Unger never mentions the option of accepting and welcoming intermarried families. Instead he sees the “data” about gender stereotypes as a new battlefield for the potential prevention of intermarriage — his only solution.


Professor Sparks Debate at Yeshiva University

There was some interesting news that came out of Yeshiva University last week, as reported in the New York Post. It seems some at the university are upset at the return of literature professor Joy Ladin to the staff after summer vacation – primarily because up until last year, Joy was Jay Ladin.

The row is not about Professor Ladin’s ability as a teacher – she did, after all, earn tenure before making the announcement that she was “transgender and in the process of becoming a woman.” It’s the religious aspect of accepting a member of the GLBT community. Rabbi Moshe Tendler, a dean and professor of biology and medical ethics, doesn’t believe Professor Ladin and YU can co-exist, saying “He’s a person who represents a kind of amorality which runs counter to everything Yeshiva University stands for. There is just no leeway in Jewish law for a transsexual.”

Those are harsh words, but fortunately the university’s president has a different take on the matter. “I’m proud of my university and all my faculty,” said Richard Joel. He declined to comment further, but his actions portray a university that believes in inclusion and the highest standards of academia. Although YU is a university with strong ties to the Jewish community, Professor Ladin’s position as a teacher is not a religious matter – she is highly qualified, and that is what’s important.

We often write about expanding our Big Tent to include all who want to learn about and engage with the Jewish community. Professor Ladin certainly falls into that category, and we commend YU for keeping her on the staff. By allowing her to teach, YU is celebrating the diversity of today’s world, and that’s an important lesson for all students to learn.

Following the Progress in Dothan, Alabama

Last month, we blogged about an ad in the Washington Jewish Week placed by the Blumberg Family Jewish Community Services of Dothan, Alabama. They were advertising no-interest grants of up to $50,000 for Jewish families to move to the area. In today’s economy, this struck us as an interesting take on the idea of offering incentives as a way to attract unaffiliated members of the Jewish community (something we often advocate for). Whenever a community attempts a bold form of outreach, we like to keep an eye on their progress. It seems in this case we were not the only ones interested in Dothan’s ideas.

In what is sure to be a good boost to their efforts, the Associated Press recently went in depth on this topic to find out more about what the BFJCS is offering, and why. They talk to one woman, Thelma Nomberg, who has watched young people move out of town to bigger southern cities, leaving her congregation, Temple Emanu-El, with only about 50 families.

But are financial incentives enough to attract Jews to the area, specifically young Jewish families who will make a home there for five years (which is one stipulation of the grant)? That’s what the BFJCS is counting on. Other cities have offered relocation assistance for moving to places with a bigger population, like New Orleans after hurricane Katrina. Dothan (also known as the Peanut Capitol of the World) is a city of 38,000 in the heart of the Bible belt – and local Jewish leaders know this is a major hurdle.

The BFJCS says about 20 families have inquired about the grants since the ads were first placed last June, but none have accepted. Perhaps that will change since the article was published – especially since it went out over a wire service, where numerous other newspapers and media outlets have already picked it up. This kind of publicity is certainly one measure of success, and we hope that with more coverage, more people will see what Dothan’s Jewish community has to offer.


Congratulations to JOI’s executive director Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky on his latest publication, “Eichah: A Modern Commentary on the Book of Lamentations,” written with Rabbi Leonard Kravitz. This is the latest in their “Modern Commentary Series,” which allows readers to learn on their own or in groups and provides line-by-line translation and commentary of important Hebrew texts.

This blog tends to highlight the books of Rabbi Olitzky’s that are usually more introductory in nature, like those of his “How-To” series and the titles specifically geared toward our Christian family members. Books in the Modern Commentary Series like “Eichah” anticipate that the reader will already have some prior Jewish knowledge, and therefore may seem “higher barrier” and perhaps more difficult for newcomers to access. But as with JOI’s outreach model in general, Rabbi Olitzky’s writing falls along a broad continuum.

We need introductory materials for those who are first considering stepping across our threshold, and we need to provide the depth and meaning of Judaism and Jewish life for those who are seeking it. The Book of Lamentations is nothing if not a deep and mournful text, presenting constant intellectual and spiritual challenges to the reader. This translation and commentary is a new way for Jews and those interested in Judaism to dig deeper and find greater meaning. In that regard, it continues Rabbi Olitzky’s work of opening doors into Jewish life for those who are looking.

Returning to Judaism

“Portland, Ore., is going to be a sort of birthplace of a new community in Israel.”

That might sound like an odd statement, but it comes from a unique and fascinating background – namely a large number of Jews who long ago were forced to jettison their Judaism for the sake of survival during the Spanish Inquisition. Many left Spain and moved to Mexico, eventually settling in what is now the Southwestern United States. These Jews came to be known as Crypto Jews, and the above statement was made by Rabbi Joshua Stampfer, the founder of the Society for Crypto-Judaic Studies, located in Portland. He made this claim in light of a recent ceremony in which 17 Crypto Jews were welcomed back into Judaism.

This is a great testament to the welcoming nature of Judaism – though they were “lost” for hundreds of years, assimilating and losing touch with their Jewish heritage, Crypto Jews somehow maintained a deep spiritual connection to the Jewish faith. For example, according to an article in Portland’s Jewish Review, one of the returnees simply felt a connection to Judaism and after some extensive research into her family history, she discovered that her parents were of Spanish descent and had Sephardic roots. Others have even backed up their spiritual awakening with hard facts; DNA testing has proved that many Latinos are indeed genetically linked to Sephardic Jews.

All who participated in the ceremony in Portland, which included a dip in the mikvah (spiritual bath) and a drawing of blood for the men, have said they plan on moving to Israel. Rabbi Stampfer believes these 17 are just the tip of the iceberg, and there may be thousands more in the Latino community who carry Jewish ancestry. Crypto Jews are an important part of the Jewish narrative, and we applaud those who are taking the steps to discover their heritage, join our family, and strengthen the Jewish community.

In Honor of Grandparents

Just in time for Grandparent’s Day (this Sunday, September 7), the Jewish Daily Forward published an article about one of JOI’s newest programs, the Grandparents Circle. The article, “Grandparents Circle in on Continuity” by Rebecca Spence, provides a brief background of the program as well as highlights its national expansion in over ten North American communities this fall.

Spence writes of both the successes and challenges of developing and implementing a program for Jewish grandparents with interfaith grandparents, regardless of affiliation: “The program, designed for all the movements, was not a sure-fire bet. Intermarriage is a highly controversial subject in Jewish circles, and of all the movements’ rabbis, only those who are Reform and Reconstructionist are permitted to perform interfaith nuptials.”

Spence also spoke to our own Paul Golin, who said the program “helps grandparents stop blaming themselves for the fact that their children are intermarried.” Ultimately, the Grandparents Circle enables Jewish grandparents to establish a stronger Jewish future by nurturing the Jewish identities of their interfaith grandchildren. To thank these grandparents for their contribution to our Jewish future, we have created this e-card in honor of Grandparent’s Day.

Allowing Jews to Practice Judaism

Not surprisingly, articles and opinions are still being written regarding the ruling by Israel’s High Rabbinical Court to retroactively annul conversions – as well as look into all the conversions overseen by Rabbi Haim Druckman of Israel’s Conversion Authority. The decision is only a few months old, but it’s touched off a firestorm of controversy that appears to have no end in sight.

Writing in the Jerusalem Report, Rabbi David Ellenson, President of the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, makes the claim that annulling a conversion has “virtually no precedent in classical rabbinic tradition.” In upholding the decision, Rabbi Avraham Sherman “has called into question the Jewish status of 40,000 Israeli converts.” The practice, Ellenson says, is a 20th century invention. To illustrate his point, he brings up a similar case from 1970 in which the child of a woman who was found to have remarried without a proper divorce was denied a marriage license on the grounds that he was illegitimate. The resolution, which included annulling the conversion of the woman’s first husband, was “wildly hailed for the desired result it achieved.”

But one keen legal mind, Amnon Rubinstein, then dean of Tel Aviv University Law School, warned of the precedent now allowed – namely that a conversion could never be deemed permanent. Rubinstein believed the decision was “neither in accord with the highest traditions of Jewish law nor in the best interest of the Jewish people.” How right he was, says Ellenson.

Sherman surely has a right to his ruling. However, it is a tragedy that his decision is at this moment enforceable as law in Israel. It fails to take into account the collective interests of the Jewish people and the State of Israel in the modern era. All efforts should be made to repeal its legal authority.

Ellenson makes a great point. It’s unfair to tell a convert that if they aren’t up to strict, Orthodox standards, they aren’t Jewish. But many Orthodox, according to a piece in the Washington Post, believe God won’t stand for a “lack of religious devotion,” and that’s why Jews were originally expelled from the land of Israel.

“There’s something more important than the state of Israel and Zionism,” said Moshe Gafni, a member of Israel’s parliament who represents the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party.

There is something more important – it’s allowing Jews, whether born or newcomers, Reform or Orthodox, to practice the religion in a way that is meaningful to them. Israel is a thriving, modern democracy and it’s a step in the wrong direction to give a minority the power to forcibly remove a person from their chosen religion. Many people, especially immigrants, are flocking to Israel and Judaism – it’s time to embrace their desire to join our Big Tent and not make it harder for them to do so.

Feeling Welcomed in Savannah

I just returned from Savannah, Georgia—an interesting city with an interesting history, both from a Jewish and from a secular standpoint. As I do in most cities, and particularly of late since I am still saying kaddish for my father, I seek out synagogues and other Jewish communal institutions. We were drawn to Savannah because of the historical Mickve Israel synagogue, which was indeed worth the trip. It is an incredible architectural structure steeped in history. For daily minyan and for shabbat, we spent time at Agudath Achim, a modest Conservative synagogue whose original building—now an evangelical church—was only a few feet away from the refurbished mansion (now hotel) in which we stayed off of the well-known Forsyth Park.

The folks at Agudath Achim couldn’t have been more hospitable. They welcomed us in with old-fashioned southern hospitality from the moment we arrived. They even made sure that we had homemade challah and wine for Shabbat. Though I was a stranger, I felt like part of the community, and I only hope that I continue to find other institutions as welcoming in my travels.

Seizing Opportunities for Growth

This last July, the Cleveland Jewish News ran a feature story on the results of a study commissioned by the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland regarding outreach towards interfaith families. The study found that “intermarriage is not a rejection of the Jewish spouse’s Jewish identity,” and more should be done to promote a welcoming Jewish community.

While we saw the article as a good indication of what the community can do to increase participation in Jewish life, one reader responded with a story of a missed opportunity for inclusion – with an ending we fear most. He wrote:

My son is about to marry a non-Jewish woman. I approached the head rabbi of our Reform synagogue and asked him to conduct the marriage ceremony. We were told that the Reform movement had broached the subject of condoning rabbinic participation in mixed marriages three times over the past 100 years. Each time the decision was made not to sanction such marriages, although each rabbi was given the latitude to decide whether to maintain or disagree with the policy.

Although our rabbi’s final decision was to decline participation, he did offer to welcome the new bride and groom into the congregation with a special blessing that he would perform after the ceremony.

My son, a 5th-generation heir to our temple’s family membership, was, to put it mildly, understandably distressed. Why would he want a blessing from a rabbi who personally, and officially, would not participate in his marriage? How would he feel walking into a synagogue that held community standards over his personal choice? How could he, in good conscience, participate in an organization whose basics tenet is exclusionary?

As a most unfortunate result of my son’s experience, the rabbi and our temple have lost two potential participants rather than (at the very least) saving one.

While the result is indeed unfortunate, we can only assume that this rabbi made his best effort to support the couple in the way he felt most appropriate. The bigger issue at hand is one of welcoming. In this case, the couple did not feel like they had the support they desired, but it’s clear the rabbi made the effort to welcome them in – and that’s what’s important. Though interfaith marriage is a complicated issue with a distinct set of challenges, there are things you can do to always make a couple feel welcome when they approach. For example: congratulating them and their families on the upcoming nuptials, inviting them to meet with the rabbi, and following up after the initial communication are all great methods for creating a meaningful bond between the couple, the institution, and the community.

What a situation like the one described above tells us is that we are a long way from ending the intermarriage conversation, but hopefully we will reach a point where one day no one will feel like their only choice is to turn away from Judaism.

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