Weblog Entries for October 2008

Jewish Film Festivals Reach a Wider Audience

Every year, cities across the country hold Jewish film festivals. While the movies might be good and thought provoking, the audience is somewhat limited since most of these movies never see wide release in movie theaters. After the festivals, some of the movies might be shown at Jewish community centers or synagogues in areas that don’t have festivals, but many come and go before it can be seen by a larger audience.

One of the biggest – and oldest – of the Jewish film festivals, the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (SFJFF), is taking steps to make sure everyone can see these movies. According to a piece in the JTA, the SFJFF is going to put hundreds of Jewish movies online. The JTA writes:

“We’re extremely excited to bring what SFJFF has always been recognized for in our theaters — excellence in filmmaking, engaged and diverse audiences, rich educational content, and bridge-building through film — to the boundless channels of online media,” festival executive director Peter Stein said.

In addition to the SFJFF’s own films, they will also have a catalogue of films from the Jewish Heritage Video Collection. In a statement on the SFJFF website, Eli N. Evans, President Emeritus of the Revson Foundation and Chair of the Jewish Media Fund, explains that having this much content online will “permit the rich resources of the JHVC to reach broad audiences of educators, scholars, young people and families all over the country, and, indeed, worldwide”

Part of what is so exciting about this project is the accessibility of so much Jewish media at our fingertips. Short films, independent films and documentaries can share stories and ideas rarely found in the mainstream media, and putting many of these movies out there will further debate over issues within the Jewish community. Just as our Public Space JudaismSM model takes Judaism out to where the people are, so does the SFJFF initiative – and hopefully they will find as much success in engaging a wider audience.

Helping Children Discover Judaism One Book at a Time

At JOI, we stress that a key factor in making Jewish life more accessible for interfaith families and the unaffiliated is by providing free, low-barrier entry points to participation. An exemplar of this approach is the PJ Library program sponsored by the Harold Grinspoon Foundation. Every month, the program mails a free book or CD to participating families with young children.

According to a recent article in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal, the reaction to the program has been astounding. Since its creation in 2005, the program has delivered over 250,000 books to children in over 80 communities. The books are targeted to children ages six months to seven years and cover a range of Jewish themes, holidays, rituals, and stories.

The program is growing! Over 30,000 families have signed up so far, and 40 new communities are launching the program this year. What is it about the PJ Library that makes it such an effective method for welcoming families to Jewish life?

  • The program is free for participants! When a family joins the program, the books are sent directly to their home at no cost. Eliminating the cost barrier gives parents a chance to engage with Judaism without being asked to sacrifice money or time up-front.
  • Because the books are pre-selected by the Foundation, the program takes the pressure off parents to sort through a potentially intimidating Jewish children’s books section or catalog on their own. This is especially important for unaffiliated families who are looking for engagement, but may not know where to start.
  • It lets parents learn alongside their children. Even parents raised Jewish have an opportunity to deepen their knowledge and connection by helping their children learn. For the non-Jewish partner in an interfaith relationship, reading a book about Passover for the first time can be a shared moment of discovery.
  • It links family bonding to Jewish engagement. Judaism doesn’t only take place in synagogues. It can be comforting for non-Jewish parents to know that raising Jewish children can start in the place where they are most comfortable – their own home.

PJ Library touches on many of the same outreach best practices that JOI feels can engage and inform unaffiliated and interfaith families, and it’s great to see so many people involved. We are excited to watch PJ Library expand its reach, and we look forward to tracking its success. Click here if you are interested in learning more or finding out if the program is available in your community.

Reflections on the Grandparents Circle

In my new position as program officer at the Jewish Outreach Institute, I will be serving as the national coordinator for the Grandparents Circle. The Grandparents Circle is an educational and support program for Jewish grandparents whose adult children have intermarried. The program offers grandparents, through courses and a national e-mail listserve, skills and techniques to nurture the Jewish identity of their grandchildren who are being raised in an interfaith family.

As a child of intermarriage myself, I know the important role grandparents can play in fostering a Jewish identity. A lot of my vivid Jewish memories are of doing Jewish activities with my grandparents. I loved our family Shabbat and holiday dinners, getting phone calls before the Yom Kippur fast day, and lighting candles together on Hanukkah. On Rosh Hashanah (New Year), I remember being so proud of being given the all-important task of plating the gefilte fish for our family dinner at my Grandma and Grandpie’s house. I remember helping my grandparents count the money in their tzedekah (charity) box, and having a discussion about where to send the money.

These are just a few of the ways that my grandparents nurtured my Jewish identity. The Grandparents Circle program has many others. I am excited about the opportunity to work with the Grandparents Circle which will be more than 20 circles across North America by summer 2009. If you would like more information about bringing the Grandparents Circle to your community or joining our free listserve, which is open to any grandparents with adult children who have intermarried, I invite you to email me. You can also learn more about the program by reading the following article from the Forward. As the Grandparents Circle program expands into new communities, I look forward to helping grandparents learn innovative ways to share Judaism with their grandchildren and develop fun, vivid, and lasting Jewish memories like the ones that I have.

JOI Tribute Evening

Last night, the Jewish Outreach Institute held its fourth annual tribute evening, and we were proud to honor Adam R. Bronfman for his unwavering commitment to outreach and unity among the Jewish people. We were so happy to be joined by people who care deeply about both Adam’s work, and the work we do on a day to day basis towards embracing intermarried families and unengaged Jews, and encouraging their increased participation in Jewish life. Exactly how best to engage these folks is one of the greatest debates in the Jewish community, and JOI President Alan B. Kane put it best in his introduction last night when he said “JOI has become the model and go-to source for the solutions to the challenges everyone is talking about.”

Through our direct service programs like the Mothers Circle, Grandparents Circle and Empowering Ruth, our Public Space JudaismSM events like Passover in the Matzo Aisle and Sunday in the Park with Bagels, and our advocacy coalition Big Tent Judaism, Alan noted that, “JOI has always led the way in building innovative programs to help people find their way in the Jewish Community. Jewish individuals and institutions are looking for answers, and increasingly they are finding them at the Jewish Outreach Institute”

We wouldn’t be where we are today without the commitment and support of so many members of the Jewish community, too many to list in a single blog entry. Last night was a tremendous success (with some great “Jew-grass” country music from Jew-by-Choice Mare Winningham), and we look forward to continuing our work with Adam and creating new relationships with all those who seek to promote a more welcoming and inclusive North American Jewish Community.

Intermarriage Task Force

Earlier this summer, we blogged about an initiative from the Central Conference of American Rabbis (the organizing body of Reform Movement rabbis) to take a new approach toward addressing the opportunities and challenges of interfaith marriage. In its June newsletter, it was explained that the CCAR wants to initiate “programs to guide and support its members in the critical work of welcoming intermarried families into the Jewish community through the work of a specially appointed Task Force.”

Since the announcement, the CCAR Task Force on Intermarriage has been meeting monthly via conference calls. Most recently, according to a CCAR newsletter, “the Task Force has divided itself into four research teams.” Each team has a subject and a mission, which includes gathering materials to help rabbis: provide effective pre- and post-marital counseling for intermarried couples, encourage Jewish engagement and conversion of non-Jewish spouses not committed to another faith, provide “beautiful and spiritually meaningful rituals and liturgy,” and communicate their “stance” on officiation/engagement of interfaith couples to lay people. Our own executive director, Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, has been asked to consult with each of these teams.

This Task Force is a bold move toward creating a Jewish community that truly welcomes and engages interfaith couples. Since the teams are in an exploratory phase, the CCAR is eager to hear from people who have “a practice or model that works effectively in one of these areas.” In our effort to promote 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 turn the question to you: What are your experiences? Do you have an idea that can help the CCAR?

Virtually Everyone can Pray During the High Holidays

Just before the High Holidays, we received a question from a gentleman in Antarctica. He is a doctor working down at the McMurdo Station, about 850 miles north of the South Pole. He wrote to us asking where he could find streaming High Holiday services because there wasn’t a synagogue in sight. We directed him towards the Jewish TV Network, which was streaming both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services. Hopefully the doctor was able to watch and pray – and if he did, he would have joined the nearly 200,000 people from all over the world who took advantage of these free, online services.

Offering High Holiday services for free online proved to be a tremendous success for the Jewish TV Network. In an article in the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles, we are told that people who logged on included “Jews and non-Jews in small isolated communities across the United States, the bedridden and terminally ill, disaffected young Jews who never go to shul and single mothers who couldn’t afford the cost of High Holy Days tickets.” According to the article, “the response stunned Jay Sanderson, CEO and executive producer of JTN Productions.” He said he received over 400 “enthusiastic, at times ecstatic” emails from the people who watched.

While the congregation that ran the services, Nashuva, is based in Los Angeles, they found a way to bring Judaism to everyone who wanted to participate. And they put it right in their homes. Talk about lowering barriers! Even if a person didn’t have their own high-speed internet connection, chances are they knew someone who did. At the end of the day, when you can boast a Kol Nidre service with around 200,000 participants, it’s safe to say you are doing something right.

Hopefully the service and its accessibility resonated with many of the people who watched, and they will continue to find ways to engage with the Jewish community. But it’s clear from the overwhelming response that there are lots of folks out there who have a desire to become part of the community, and it’s our job to continue to find creative and innovative ways to welcome them in.

The Challenges of In-Marriage

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Lois Leveen, a Jewish writer/performer who lives in Portland, recently wrote an article with an interesting twist on interfaith marriage. Published in Minneapolis’ American Jewish World (via, and titled “Interfaith Marriage: Sometimes it’s Easier,” Lois makes the argument that in-marriage poses just as many challenges to a family’s religious beliefs as intermarriage. She writes:

But in our household, I’m the last word on Jewish observance. Also the first word. And, of course, all the middle words. Whether I fast on Yom Kippur or drive on Shabbat, that’s my choice. It may inconvenience my partner, but it doesn’t interfere with any of his religious practices.

I might not have realized how lucky this makes us, if it weren’t for the travails of various friends and relatives who are in two-Jew couples.

Aaron and Lisa for many years had one of the most challenging interfaith relationships I knew. He was raised an Orthodox Jew. Her father and grandfather were both Conservative rabbis. In their relationship, both parties knew exactly how to be Jewish. They also knew exactly how wrong the other one was.

Whether her argument is true or not is beside the point. The message of her piece comes at the end, when she says: “No matter what the ritual observance or deity belief system, any two people trying to make a life together are embarking on a lifetime of compromises.” For an interfaith family, that might mean agreeing to have a Christmas tree and a Menorah in the home. For an in-married family, that might mean deciding on whether to drive or walk to synagogue on Saturday morning.

Lois’ piece is a little tongue-in-cheek, but her point by the end is well taken – and it speaks to what we do here at JOI. Our mission is to make the Jewish community more inclusive and welcoming for everyone, especially interfaith families and the unaffiliated. But the first step is respect – respect for decisions people have made, and an understanding of how they want to live their lives. Just as a relationship can’t succeed without these two key elements, we won’t be able to grow and strengthen our community until we truly open ourselves up to the diversity of today’s Jewish households.

The “Plot” Thickens for Interfaith Couples

Jewish interfaith couples already face a distinct set of challenges when they decide to get married and start a family. And part of planning for a life together means planning for the inevitable – death. Unfortunately, interfaith couples who support and maintain a Jewish lifestyle are rarely given the opportunity to be buried alongside one another in a Jewish cemetery. But for interfaith couples in Toronto, that is no longer true. According to an article in Toronto’s Globe and Mail, Temple Sinai has “purchased a plot of land in the Lambton Mills Cemetery where it will offer 130 sites for intermarried couples in its congregation.”

Temple Sinai has now joined a growing list of synagogue sponsored cemeteries that allow interfaith couples to be buried together. This, we think, sends the right message to interfaith couples contemplating marriage and living a Jewish life. The article says:

It’s a move meant to promote inclusiveness in a congregation with more and more interfaith couples, Senior Rabbi Michael Dolgin said.

“It was only appropriate to create a place for these people who choose to live their lives affiliated with the Jewish community,” he said.

This makes sense. How can we deny active and affiliated interfaith couples of the community the privilege of spending eternity with each other? If we want to let these couples know that our doors are open and we welcome them into our midst, we have to mean that for the entire life cycle. Not allowing an interfaith couple to be buried in the same place is another unnecessary barrier to Jewish engagement.

The Loss of Jewish Media

The current economic downturn has hurt people in nearly every sector of life – “From Wall St. to Main St.” has become the de rigueur headline for newspapers across America. The print media has been hit hard, as we have seen mainstream publications CosmoGirl and The New York Sun shut its doors. And, according to Rebecca Spence in The Forward (which is safe), the Jewish media is no exception. Many magazines that have tried to piggyback on the recent “cultural renaissance” of the Jewish community have now failed. But this isn’t a problem just for writers and editors – it has created a void for young Jews, especially the unaffiliated, who looked to these publications as an entry point to the Jewish community.

Rebecca cites the success of the magazine Heeb and the record label JDub as having spurred a greater interest in Jewish cultural identity. She spoke with Roger Bennett, senior vice president at the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies and a founder of Guilt & Pleasure, a quarterly journal of Jewish ideas, who said:

From the startup of record labels, to a slew of unbelievable novels, to a cluster of new, differing voices in the form of magazines — young people were hungry to make meaning and reinforce Jewish identity and experience community on their own terms.

Jewish Living and American Jewish Life were both born out of this progression, and now they are both out of business. These magazines were designed to reach across the Jewish spectrum and speak to both the affiliated and unaffiliated members of the community. Jewish living, which was supposed to be an answer to Martha Stewart Living, aimed to speak to everybody “from the Modern Orthodox to the intermarried.”

But it was the younger generation of Jews that were the targets of these publications. “These magazines all came about as a younger generation of Jews began to identify with their Judaism through culture — including music, literature, or art,” Rebecca writes. At JOI, we know how hard it is to create programming that resonates with Jewish young adults – and these magazines were something of an outlet. There are still websites like Nextbook and Jewcy, but the fact that these magazines had circulations in the hundreds of thousands demonstrates their effectiveness. It also shows that there is an “apparent hunger for Jewish culture” among younger Jews.

Towards the end of the piece, Rebecca writes: “And for every energized, culture-hungry young Jew, there are just as many — if not more — who are unaffiliated.” Jewish magazines that speak to Jews of all stripes offer a great, low barrier way to not only help strengthen Jewish identity, but also attract and engage the unaffiliated. It’s impossible to say if these magazines were indeed reaching and engaging the unaffiliated members of the community, but high circulation points to evidence that they had found a certain success. We’re sad to see these magazines go out of business, and we hope they will return when the economy turns around.

Setting Up and Breaking Down your Sukkah

The holiday of Sukkot began Monday night, and for many in the Jewish community that means eating and sleeping outdoors. Also called the Festival of Booths, the holiday celebrates the Jewish redemption from Egypt by approximating how the Jews lived as they travelled through the desert for forty years – in small wooden huts called a sukkah. Many families build them in their backyard, and synagogues usually put one up that can be shared by the community.

But not everyone has the time or know-how to build a sukkah. For people living in New Jersey, that’s where the Lubavitch Center of Essex County comes in. They will, according to an ad in a recent New Jersey Jewish News, help you set up your sukkah (for a very reasonable price). Specifically, the ad says: “Is setting up your Sukkah a burden? It doesn’t have to be! Let our experienced professionals do it for you.”

Similarly, the website boasts a team of experts who can not only help build your sukkah, but install the “Handy Awn,” a patented rain cover for your modular sukkah. Based in New York, they want to help lower the barrier to participation by making it easier for people in the community to experience the holiday. As they say on their website: “It’s not a mitzvah to break your back!”

Since Sukkot is already underway, those who have put up a sukkah will eventually have to take it down. Both groups above will help with that, too. And for those too tired from cooking and hosting sukkah parties, the United Synagogue Youth chapter in Highland Park, NJ has offered to take down your sukkah while you relax.

For anyone living outside of New York and New Jersey, you can turn to The Sukkah Project, which provides “affordable, easy-to-build Sukkah Kits to families, schools & congregations throughout North America.” It’s great to see so many groups enthusiastically encouraging families to build a sukkah and celebrate. At JOI, we believe the holiday holds great potential for creating a welcoming atmosphere. Eating dinner in a sukkah or simply sitting under the stars is a great entry point for unaffiliated or interfaith families to enjoy this unique Jewish tradition. Just as our ancestor Abraham opened up his tent for all who approached, so can we make the sukkah.

Chabad on Campus

The magazine New Voices, America’s only national magazine written by and for Jewish college students, recently put out an issue they are calling “The Lubavitch Issue.” In it, they explore the movement and look at the rise of Chabad on college campuses. One piece immediately caught our eye, though. Titled “The Trouble with Chabad Rabbi’s Wife,” writer Josh Nathan-Kazis shares his opinion of why “the Jewish establishment should stay out of the Chabad house.”

Josh’s thesis is that “most programming for young Jews is supported out of a desire to prevent intermarriage.” This, he says, has been termed “Jewish continuity.” At JOI we think Jewish continuity includes interfaith families raising Jewish children, but Josh’s point is that Jewish campus organizations put a huge emphasis on in-marriage. The promotion of Jewish continuity, at its best, empowers young Jews, he says. But at its worst, “the anxiety surrounding continuity causes the community to let statistics drown out content, values, and ideology. Such is the case with the growing support within the mainstream Jewish establishment for Chabad’s activities on college campuses.”

To be fair, we do support Chabad’s approach to outreach, but we part ways on a number of issues (namely interfaith marriage). But this article isn’t about whether or not it’s good to have Chabad on campus – Josh is instead making the argument that it’s not the best idea for the “Jewish establishment” to send students to Chabad in the name of Jewish continuity. Chabad does not stand for the type of Judaism that will resonate with unengaged or unaffiliated Jews, he says. There are strict divisions between men and women that “is anathema to the egalitarian ideals of less traditional denominations.”

Furthermore, while students are probably smart enough to contextualize and compartmentalize the experience, this ends up being insulting to Chabad because “the Jewish community uses such a justification to get around the ideological differences,” turning the experience into something of a spectacle, rather than a deeply rooted religious experience. He ends the piece by saying:

The appropriate response to the fears of intermarriage is not to throw Jewish experiences indiscriminately at young Jews, hoping something will stick long enough for them to circumcise their sons. Rather, it should challenge the community to rethink and to innovate, to be exciting and vibrant, to stand for something and not to compromise. In farming the work of continuity out to Chabad, the mainstream Jewish establishment throws away its own values, and wastes an opportunity to make real contributions to Jewish life.

This is a refreshingly bold statement, and one that we agree with. Most programming for young people gets rejected because it comes off as disingenuous, as Josh implies. And while Chabad does great outreach work (we even blogged about them on Friday), they represent a small fraction of the worldwide Jewish community. That’s why we have been working with Hillel over the last couple of years to, in their words, “provoke a renaissance in Jewish life.” In response to the piece, one commenter online said “Chabad isn’t going to provide an answer for most Jewish college students.” That person is right. Today’s young Jews are more diverse in terms of ideology and background than ever before – and it’s up to us to make sure they have all the tools and options necessary to establish a lasting connection to Judaism.

Chabad Finds Itself in a Pickle

At JOI, we are always on the lookout for creative new techniques to engage the unengaged, to inform and welcome in the unaffiliated Jews in our midst. Often times we recognize Chabad for their unique efforts in outreach – and an article in the Duke Chronicle shows us once again how innovative they can be.

Chabad has turned to pickles. According to the article, they recently hosted a “kosher pickle-making workshop” as a way to teach about a classic Jewish food while providing an opportunity for Jewish students to explore their heritage. Rabbi Zalman Bluming, who leads Chabad at Duke and at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, explained:

“We’re trying to create fun, Jewish, relaxed types of events that are easy ways for Jews to engage in their own Jewishness and learn to cherish their identity.”

We completely agree. One of our signature outreach events is Passover in the Matzah Aisle, where we work with Jewish organizations across the country in setting up tables filled with food and information regarding Passover. As part of our Public Space JudaismSM initiative, where we bring Judaism to where the people are, the displays are set up in grocery stores, targeting unaffiliated families and anyone else interested in learning more about the holiday and the traditions. Similarly, we have developed Eight Days of Oil, a Hanukkah oil tasting event that is organized the same way.

These events, ours and Chabad, lower barriers for participation by using a common denominator – food – to begin a larger conversation about Jewish identity. We are both working towards a goal of growing and strengthening the Jewish community, and on engagement technique we are on the same page. While our programs revolve around holidays, you have to give Chabad credit - who would have thought that putting a cucumber in brine would be an opportunity to teach people about Judaism?

Turning Opportunities into Engagement

One of the fundamentals of successful outreach is recognizing opportunities for Jewish engagement. Sometimes it means follow-up phone calls or emails to people who came to an event, but other times the opportunities fall right into our lap. That’s what happened for a synagogue in San Francisco, according to a recent article in J, the Jewish News Weekly of Northern California.

Thomas Karatzas is the son of an interfaith couple, and growing up he didn’t have much exposure to his Jewish roots. But seemingly out of nowhere, he wanted to have a Bar Mitzvah. Since the family was unaffiliated, they weren’t sure where to begin. So they turned to their Jewish landlord, who directed them to his synagogue, Congregation Ner Tamid. The synagogue’s Rabbi, Moshe Levin, said:

I was thrilled we might have the opportunity to connect with a young man and his family who really are on the fringe of Jewish identity and community.

The article goes on to illustrate the immense support Thomas received from both his family and the Bay area’s Jewish community. What’s nice about the article is what’s missing – any prolonged discussion about Thomas’ status as the child of an interfaith marriage. His background, while it gave the article an interesting angle, was not of immediate consequence. What’s important is that the synagogue recognized Thomas’ hunger to embrace Judaism, and the fact that they did everything they could to support his decision.

All too often we hear stories from people who want to explore their interest in Judaism, yet they find it hard to even get a foot in the door. They don’t know where to start, and when they do approach, they find too many barriers. Congregation Ner Tamid demonstrated here the best practice for engaging someone when they come to you – to remove barriers, open the doors, and accept all who approach. This is how we will get the Jewish community to grow, and we hope others will follow suit.

A Vision for the Future of the Jewish Community

Deborah Solomon, who conducts weekly Q&A column in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, recently sat down with Edgar Bronfman, Sr., president of the Samuel Bronfman Foundation and JOI supporter. She asked him about his book “Hope, Not Fear,” which we blogged about when it came out, and wanted to know what he thought of the future of the Jewish community. She referred to it as neo-Judaism. Here’s what he had to say:

I don’t know that I would call it neo-Judaism. The Jewish part will remain, but it’s our attitude that has to change. Instead of shunning people who marry out, we need to welcome them. I think that if we want to grow Judaism, we have to accept interfaith marriage for what it is.

Edgar Bronfman is a person you can always count on to speak his mind, no matter what the consequences. That’s what makes his interview and book so refreshing. He has a distinct vision for the future of the Jewish community, one that is open and welcoming of all who approach. And JOI shares many of his ideas, like taking Judaism out of the synagogue to reach people where they are (what we call Public Space JudaismSM ).

But it’s not only Edgar Bronfman who boldly speaks his mind – his son Adam has definitely followed in his footsteps. Adam has spent his adult life working towards unity among the Jewish people, and that’s one of the reasons we are honoring him at our annual tribute dinner later this month. We have been privileged to work with the Bronfmans on many initiatives, and we look forward to continuing our relationship of creating an inclusive and welcoming Jewish community.

Empowering Ruth in Florida

We were thrilled to read the piece in yesterday’s Sun Sentinel newspaper (covering South Florida) about Empowering Ruth, our program for women who have recently converted to Judaism. Since Judaism can be confusing even for those who have spent their whole lives as Jews, we created the program to go beyond the “what’s” and “why’s” of Judaism, and focus on the “how to’s.” JOI’s senior program officer Liz Marcovitz, who is the program’s national coordinator, explains:

An Introduction to Judaism course teaches converts to light candles on Shabbat, while Empowering Ruth teaches them how to actually prepare your home for Shabbat, how to rest on the Sabbath and advice on items such as where to buy candle holders for your Shabbat candles.

The program’s curriculum, which was funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation, will be offered in Broward County starting this month, and already local members of the community are excited. Katherine Campbell, who has signed up for the course, said that Judaism is a learning process: “I want to learn more about Judaism and also about myself and how I fit into the religion.”

Participants will meet twice a month at Temple Beth Emet, and interested parties can contact either Liz Marcovitz or Zohar Casdan (Temple Beth Emet’s Director of Congregation Relations). Those who graduate from the program will have a better sense of what it means to be Jewish, and we wish Broward County the best of luck with the program. We are excited to hear how it goes down in Florida and all the other communities that are starting the program this fall.

Women’s Summit Website has gone Live

On January 29th, through a generous grant from the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York, JOI will be hosting the “Summit for a More Welcoming Jewish Community.” This is a one-day conference to educate female professionals and volunteers in the Jewish community about the critical need to serve all Jewish households, particularly those which do not participate in Jewish communal life. Participants will be trained in outreach, with an emphasis placed on identifying and fulfilling the needs of the unengaged and underserved Jewish populations.

Since the majority of professionals and lay leaders in Jewish organizations are women, we will spend the day exploring what the challenges look like through their experience, addressing the issues and barriers specific to unaffiliated women’s lives and lifecycles that keep them from engaging with the organized Jewish community.

For more detailed information, such as who will be presenting and how to register, we have recently launched a Summit website. We invite you to browse the content and pass the information along to anyone you think might be interested in attending. It will be an exciting day of sharing ideas and building connections, and we look forward to working together to help create a welcoming atmosphere that will strengthen Jewish life and further enrich the North American Jewish community.

Reaching First Time Jewish Campers

Last week, Paul Golin and I traveled to beautiful Simi Valley and the lovely Brandeis-Bardin Institute to work with our friends from the Foundation for Jewish Camp on its JWest Project. This project is so many things. In essence, it is about reaching potential campers in new and exciting ways. We focused on various areas that have to be considered when reaching those on the periphery of the Jewish community (marketing, website, ecology of the camp, etc.) especially when trying to reach children being raised in an interfaith family.

Paul spent a lot of time discussing the partial communications audit that he had made of the various camps, with a particular emphasis on their websites and recruitment materials. Do the words and images used on the camps’ marketing materials welcome in newcomers, or inadvertently push them away? He found that much of the camps’ materials make a basic assumption: that people who would look for a Jewish summer camp for their children already know why being Jewish is a central part of their lives.

I contend that if the challenge of the last generation was “how to be Jewish,” the challenge for this generation is “why be Jewish at all?” and in the case of camping, “why be Jewish in the specific context of a Jewish overnight camp?”

While the question can be framed a number of ways, it is clearly an important question that the entirety of the Jewish community is confronting. And while many of the camping professionals appreciated the magnitude of this challenge, others did not yet seem persuaded that it is their responsibility to answer that question for people, implicitly or explicitly. And this is similar to the pushback we have received from other Jewish communal institutions. I believe that we have no choice—the future of tomorrow’s Jewish community lies in the decisions that unaffiliated Jews and intermarried families make about their lives today. That’s why we in the organized community have a responsibility to open our doors and share what we love about being Jewish.

What do you think?

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