Weblog Entries for November 2008

A Non-Denominational Holiday

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, a day for families of all religions to gather and, as the holidays suggests, give thanks. It’s bound to no particular religion – anyone can celebrate. It’s the model of a truly inclusive holiday. But we are not the only ones to view the holiday in this light. Rabbi Ben Kamin wrote a piece for the website titled “It’s the one true holiday, bigger than religion.” In it, he says “Thanksgiving liberates us from specific theological claims and allows us to contemplate the common creed of gratitude. In a way, it’s the only pure holiday.”

He makes an interesting point. Thanksgiving is an American holiday – free from any particular religion tint. It’s the calm before the Hanukkah/Christmas storm. In that sense, we are able to focus completely on family and togetherness. But the message of the holiday shouldn’t disappear like a plate of pumpkin pie. Rabbi Kamin writes:

Thanksgiving allows all the religions to share inclusive spiritual nourishment. Soon enough, some of our children will return to college, the homeless will return to lonely desperation, and many of us will regress to the mercantile madness of the December holidays. Jewish parents will fret again about the proliferation of Christmas symbols and images while both Jews and Christians will forget to infuse the subsequent holidays with the ethical symmetry that Thanksgiving gives us for now.

Jews, remember what you feel tomorrow when you light the Chanukah lights in a few weeks. Christians, recall Thursday’s spiritual equity when you light the candles of the Advent wreath. At Thanksgiving, there are no politics in religion. There is only one table set for God.

Thanksgiving reminds us that we can all come together and find a common ground for celebration and unity. Let’s remember that message as we enter not just the upcoming holiday season, but every day that follows. From all of us at JOI, Happy Thanksgiving!

The Many Circles of Washington, DC

JOI’s Washington, DC-area Mothers Circle program, an education and support program for women of another religious background who are raising Jewish children, was recently featured in the Washington Jewish Week. Both facilitators and participants were interviewed, and the article gives a comprehensive overview of the course, its goals, and the growing need for this program. They write:

Known as The Mothers Circle, the six-year-old initiative seeks to address the reality of intermarriage in America by teaching non-Jewish spouses (particularly moms) the basics of “doing Jewish,” regardless of whether they intend to convert to Judaism.

“A lot of people, both Jews and non-Jews, feel marginalized in the Jewish community,” said Sheri Brown, a Mothers Circle facilitator at Conservative Congregation Sha’are Shalom in Leesburg, where she estimated that 50 percent of the families include an intermarried member, although some may subsequently have converted. “Even when the spouse is Jewish, they’re not comfortable engaging with the Jewish community.”

However, Brown (who also directs the preschool at Sha’are Shalom) added, “They see Jewish values and they want their kids to have Jewish tradition, and for whatever reason, they are not comfortable giving up their faith background. This program is aimed for them.”

But it’s a few lines at the end of the article that signals one of the more interesting evolutions of how JOI implements the program in a community. The article lists the numerous places in the area that are, or will be, running the Mothers Circle. This doesn’t seem like much, but it stands out because one of JOI’s goals is to encourage community collaboration and to offer outreach programming at multiples sites. The DC-area Mothers Circles are notable because the program is being offered at six different locations, coordinated by a grant from the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.

The communication and community-wide effort that this draws on is an example of how partnerships can further the reach of direct service opportunities for local families, and this is a strategy we intend to follow in other communities with all of our programs.

Intermarriage and the Gay Community

Julie Wiener recently published an article in The Jewish Week titled “Same Sex, Different Faith” that describes some of the experiences of a participant in our Mothers Circle program in Columbus, OH who is the only lesbian in her group.

A point in the article that I found especially interesting was that the author highlighted the parallels between the position of intermarried and same-sex couples in the Jewish community. Both populations have negotiated the challenges that accompany outsider status in Jewish life. Rabbi Lev Baesh, who was interviewed in the article, argues that the gay Jewish families have the potential to be leaders in creating a more welcoming Jewish future:

Himself gay and in a committed relationship with a man who did not convert to Judaism until they had been together several years, Rabbi Baesh notes that “as a marginalized part of society many of us are much more open to diversity in ways that the heterosexual community in the Jewish world isn’t,” he says.

Rabbi Baesh makes a point I’d never considered: that the gay Jewish community “can really be a model for the heterosexual community.”

Beyond that, the gay Jewish community knows how to be inclusive, Rabbi Baesh says.
“There’s a kind of welcoming and warmth that comes from being an outsider, on the fringes,” he explains. “When you walk into a gay synagogue, who’s Jewish and who isn’t is not an issue.”

While acceptance of interfaith families is not a uniform sentiment of every GLBT Jew, there is something to be learned by observing the parallel dynamics that “outsider” Jews experience. Every person who has ever experienced the feeling that they are not the Jewish norm has a window of insight into the gap between the welcoming intentions of our community and our equal capacity to exclude and denigrate.

At JOI, we have advocated that the experiences of GLBT and interfaith families are intertwined and reveal an interrelated need for a more welcoming Jewish community. Until there is an overall shift toward more welcoming practices and behavior, both populations will suffer and an opportunity for Jewish communal growth will be diminished.

Hanukkah Gifts on Christmas

Around this time of year, many people write to JOI with this question:

I wanted to do something special for my friend this year for Hanukkah. However, I am not of the Jewish religion, and am having trouble finding things to put into a gift basket for her. Any suggestions?

We told her that, outside of dreidels (spinning tops), Hanukkah menorah’s (nine-armed candle holders) and Hanukkah gelt (chocolate coins), gifts for Hanukkah aren’t that different than Christmas gifts (though most Jewish families could probably use a nice new menorah). Instead, whatever she does decide to put in the basket, make sure it’s not wrapped in the traditional Christmas colors of red and green, and if she includes food to err on the side of caution and make sure it’s kosher.

Hopefully these answers will help and it was nice to see such cultural sensitivity. But it raises an interesting issue we deal with a lot at JOI as Christmas and Hanukkah approach (more so this year, since the holidays overlap). How does the non-Jewish friend or family member incorporate Hanukkah into the cultural explosion of Christmas that happens every December? With Christmas dominating the airwaves and department stores from Thanksgiving to New Year, how do you make everyone feel included in the holiday season?

Above were our suggestions – how would you have responded to the email? What steps can people take to help make the holiday season inclusive for everyone?

Defining Judaism

Is the Jewish community moving towards a redefinition of Judaism? When I was growing up, there seemed to be only three movements – Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform. One conservative or Orthodox congregation might have been more traditional or liberal than another, but they all fell under their distinct denominations. Now there are denominations that fill the gaps between. There is Reconstructionist, Modern Orthodox, Renewal, and Humanistic. Surely there are still people who feel like these don’t adequately define their Judaism. Are we entering a post-denominational period of the Jewish story?

Probably not, but there are a growing number of people who think we should. Writing in the JTA recently, Rabbi Hayim Herring, executive director of STAR, Synagogues: Transformation and Renewal (a group we have been working with over the last couple of years), believes that “we need a new language to talk about ourselves, an overlay on top of categorization by denomination, one that promotes greater collective action and reduces the polarization that often results when we analyze events exclusively through a denominational lens.”

He argues for new terminology, definitions that explain “our orientation toward the Jewish, general, and global communities of which we are a part.” Using the terms “tribal,” “covenantal,” and “personal,” he believes that the “reshuffling of Jews into broader categories” can help us focus more on our relationship to the community and less on religious differences. He writes:

Thinking in these new terms can provide another lens through which we can analyze issues, expand opportunities for working together and relate to one another with greater appreciation and respect for what we can each offer the other in the coming new year.

It’s an interesting idea, and if it were to ever happen, how would the community change definitions that generations of Jews have grown up with? One option is in Jewish day schools. The New York Jewish Week writes that many Jewish day schools once affiliated with a particular movement are now becoming “community schools” with no denominational affiliation. These schools “reflect one of the most telling trends in Jewish life today: the drift, especially by young people, away from the designations Reform, Conservative and Orthodox. Those who identify themselves as ‘Just Jewish’ are the fastest-growing segment of the Jewish community, according to census data.”

Many now see Jewish day schools as more of a community center where all Jews are welcome to study. Howard Haas, principal of my alma mater, the Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy in Overland Park, KS, said that synagogues aren’t the center of religious life anymore, especially in the Kansas City suburbs with a Jewish population of only 20,000. The school fills that role. “The community day school is designed for outsiders to be part of the community,” said Marc Kramer, executive director of RAVSAK: The Jewish Community Day School Network. These schools give Jewish children an education in identity, rather than an education in ideology.

Chances are denominational definitions are not going anywhere any time soon, and we don’t advocate for a complete overhaul of the system. As we said in our recent op-ed: “In identifying so vigorously with a set of beliefs, each movement in Judaism has the ability to speak to a part of the community and their concerns.” The end result should be more respect between denominations. Principal Haas in Kansas City put it best when he said Jewish education should be more about community. “My kids who are Orthodox with stay Orthodox, but will have a better understanding of others,” he said. “And Lord knows, we need understanding.”

Stories of Raising Jewish Children

The Bronfman Youth Fellowship in Israel program (BYFI), which “educates and inspires exceptional young Jews from diverse backgrounds to become active participants in Jewish culture throughout their lives,” recently put out the first edition of the BYFI alumni magazine. One of the articles that came to our attention was titled “The Blessings and Burdens of Raising Jewish Children: Reflections from BYFI Alumni and Staff.” It consists of recollections from four families – two in-married, two intermarried - and their thoughts on raising Jewish children. It’s the two stories from the intermarried families that really stood out.

In one, the Jewish partner in a same-sex interfaith relationship talks about how she and her partner decided to raise a Jewish child. Knowing full well that the child “may find himself in places where he is not accepted as a Jew,” the two mothers plan on giving him a strong Jewish identity. “I need to pass my Judaism to him from my heart, not my blood or my genes or my curly hair,” wrote BYFI alum Leah Oppenzato. “That is my challenge. And I fully accept.

In another, BYFI staff member Ava Charne recalls a Rosh Hashanah sermon in which the rabbi talked about how “intermarriage would be the demise of the Jewish religion.” This sermon, she felt, was directed at her and her Italian husband, Vince. Determined to prove the rabbi wrong, she went on to raise her family Jewish, living out what we have been saying for years at JOI – intermarriage doesn’t end Jewish continuity. Not raising Jewish children does.

The theme throughout all of the stories is community. Whether the couple was same-sex, intermarried, or in-married, each found a home in the Jewish community that supported and accepted their lifestyles. The result? Four happy Jewish families. The diversity of the BYFI alum and staff and their commitment to Judaism demonstrate that just because families might not be traditional, that doesn’t mean there is no place for them in our Big Tent.

Revisiting Conversion Controversy

Last May, a controversy erupted in Israel over the revocation of a conversion. Specifically, a woman’s status as a Jew was removed because she had not been observant enough in the eyes of the High Rabbinical Court in Israel. What was most shocking was the fact that the conversion had happened 15 years ago – and with their ruling, the court had put into doubt thousands of conversions performed by prominent Israeli Rabbi Chaim Druckman. Six months later, the magazine Jewish Living (the article is only available online since the magazine went out of business) looked at how that ruling has affected Jews-by-choice here in America, and what the North American Jewish Community is doing in response. They write:

Perhaps most notably, the ruling has emboldened conversion activists, a loose league of lay leaders, rabbis, and academics lobbying to change what they consider an outdated, insular, and counterproductive process.

Many of the rabbis interviewed for the article (including JOI’s Rabbi Kerry Olitzky) feel that the rules surrounding conversion are outdated and in dire need of an overhaul. Rabbi Olitzky recently published an article in the journal Sh’ma arguing that expanding online conversion could give “students access to the greatest Jewish teachers and thinkers from across the globe, regardless of denomination.” Plus, connecting rabbis to students nationwide would eliminate the necessity of meeting in one place to complete the conversion process and allow far more accessibility for those interested in becoming Jewish.

But expansion and accessibility are not the only issues that need to be addressed. Some rabbis are trying to form standardized conversion requirements so if someone converts under the Reform movement, they will be accepted by conservative rabbis. According to Jewish Living:

Attempting to standardize conversion requirements, Reform and Conservative leaders in Los Angeles teamed up to form an alternative “community” beit din that crosses party lines. “The compromise for Reform members was conversions done more traditionally. And for Conservatives, the compromise means being more accepting of how people choose to live a Jewish life,” says Rabbi Neal Weinberg, director of the Miller Introduction to Judaism Program at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles.

This idea seems to be picking up steam. In a recent article in the JTA, it was reported that the Jewish Agency, a global organization committed to a strong Jewish future, “adopted resolutions calling on the Israeli government to establish an independent authority on Jewish conversions and special courts of Jewish law to ‘allow the conversion process to move forward.’”

Of course there are detractors to these ideas, but eventually there has to be a consensus. The High Rabbinical Court’s ruling put too many people in religious limbo. What people have started to realize is that no one Jewish movement can decide who is and isn’t Jewish across the board. Those who have chosen Judaism “enhance us,” said Rabbi Weinberg at the end of the Jewish Living piece. “We should be welcoming to people who want to become Jewish.”

The Ascent of Patrilineal Descent

At JOI, we have said before that there is a big difference between non-Jews and non-Halachic Jews. And one of the most contentious areas of this disconnect is in the issue of patrilineal descent. Children of intermarriage where the father is Jewish but the mother is not might be non-Halachic Jews, but they should never be called non-Jews - especially if they are raised in a Jewish home. They should have equal status as Jews within the Jewish community.

While this might be an issue never agreed upon across the denominations, it should at least be standardized within the ones that accept it. That’s what recently happened in Australia, according to an article in the Australian Jewish News. Just ahead of the biennial conference for the Union for Progressive Judaism, their rabbinical council, called the Moetzah, has “standardized their recognition of congregant Jewish status by patrilineal descent, clearing away anomalies that have dogged the movement for a quarter of a century.”

Following in the footsteps of the American Reform movement, since 1983 the UPJ had “conferred Jewish status on individuals whose father was Jewish,” but only after individual congregations of the UPJ applied different tests called “timely acts of identification,” such as circumcision, Jewish education, or a Bar/Bat Mitzvah. Now, if a person is considered Jewish by one congregation under the UPJ, they will be accepted by all congregations under the UPJ.

Trying to define who is Jewish is becoming harder and harder in the context of expanding Jewish diversity. We should be making it easier for those who identify as Jewish to feel more welcome and included. Hopefully the UPJ’s decision will stand as a model and become more popular as a new generation of children of intermarriage grow and become a stronger part of the Jewish community.

BBYO Kicks Off a New Program for Inclusion

If I recall my teenage youth group memories correctly, what comes to mind is certainly not a bastion of tolerance for difference.

Maybe it was just adolescent growing pains and hormones, or my super awkward stage falling victim to the teasing of the “cool kids,” but I definitely remember dreading some “pizza drop-ins” as much as my weekly visits to the orthodontist.

For kids with special needs, youth groups can be even more exclusionary. A lack of physically accessible programs and social environments welcoming of those with developmental challenges or physical differences can inhibit engagement. But the Jewish youth group BBYO is working hard to change all that. In a recent article in the Washington Jewish Week, we learned that the DC chapter of BBYO is kicking off what they are calling the Kol Echad Youth (KEY) program.

Kol Echad Youth (Kol Echad in Hebrew means One Voice)’s goal is, “fostering personal growth, promoting acceptance and broadening social opportunities for Jewish teens across the community.”

The beautiful thing about BBYO’s program is that, as with all BBYO’s chapters, the groups are teen led. KEY empowers teens to reach out to their differently-abled peers and build bridges to create a community inclusive of all and embracing of difference. In preparation for the kick-off, 19 teens participated in sensitivity training to gain insight into the learning and physical differences their peers may have.

To take it one step further, KEY is open to any teen, with no requirement of BBYO membership.

One BBYO alumnus who brings his 16 year-old son to the chapter said, “To be able to bring [Ben] here with other kids is a mitzvah [good deed or commandment] on so many levels.”

I hope that this initiative by BBYO, a Big Tent Judaism Coalition member, can serve as an example for youth groups and organizations nationwide. Take a moment to consider if YOUR group’s programs are accessible for teens who are differently-abled, whether they are already engaged or potential newcomers. What can you do to make that rock climbing/ice-skating/laser-tag event open to all? How can you sensitize all teens that you engage with to embrace the differences of their peers, no matter how apparent those differences may be?

Jews Support Gay Marriage in California

On November 4, 2008, most were focused on the monumental election of our nation’s first President of color, Barack Obama. Obama’s ascension to America’s highest office represented a transformative shift in culture and society that will change our country for generations to come.

As I danced in the streets outside my apartment with strangers who set their politics aside to recognize the historic occasion, I quickly forgot about the number of ballot measures weighing in on the rights of some American citizens to marry whom they please.

Last Tuesday, California joined Florida and Arizona in passing ballot measures that declared same-sex marriage unconstitutional in the states’ constitutions.

Much of the media glare focused on the mobilization of evangelical Christian and Mormon organizations who worked to pass the ban. And the website includes a testimonial from an Orthodox Rabbi in favor of Proposition 8. But not all religious leaders joined the campaign to pass Prop 8. A number of rabbis and lay leaders leveraged their positions to advocate for the rights of gay and lesbian couples.

Jewish organizations and individuals alike formed a cohesive movement in parts of California to oppose the ban and state clearly that the LGBT community deserves equal rights in the eyes of the law and society. While the ban eventually passed in California, the JTA reports that Jews in Los Angeles voted overwhelmingly (78%) against the ban.

Despite this defeat, I hope that the Jewish community continues to advocate for inclusiveness and equal rights both in the secular world and the Jewish community itself. We can take this moment to look inside the community at our policies, our attitudes and our actions to consider whether or not we welcome all as equal stakeholders in our community.

As the Big Tent Judaism coalition principles state, we must “Leave behind assumptions about what Jews ‘look like’, or how families are configured and welcome all.”

Once we reach that point, then I’ll really be dancing in the streets!

Putting Outreach Pieces Together

There is plenty of debate in the Jewish community regarding which is the fastest growing branch. Both the reform and the orthodox movements lay claim to that title. They have different methods of counting who is and isn’t a member of the Jewish community, but let’s not overlook one obvious and illustrious point – both branches are growing.

How can we harness what each group is doing right and apply that to the entire Jewish community? That’s a question JOI’s Rabbi Kerry Olitzky and Adam Bronfman, managing director of the Samuel Bronfman Foundation, asked in a recent JTA op-ed titled “Denominational bickering hurts outreach efforts.” Progressive and traditional Jews will always have differences in ideology, as will their respective adherents. But instead of focusing on the differences, the trick is to get each denomination to respect the choices other Jews have made. Once we make that shift, we will be able to focus on what’s working in terms of outreach and how we can learn from each other the best ways to engage all those in our midst. They write:

We won’t reach that point, though, if we waste our time bickering on what divides us. It would serve us better as a Jewish community to act like a community and not a group of warring factions. Jews, whether born or converted, from an intermarriage or inmarriage, are inextricably linked through a shared history. With the respect each part of the community deserves, we should be asking questions of each other that will help us find and celebrate our common ground. After all, the sum of the parts is greater than the whole.

Judaism is our child. It has survived because we as a community have done our best to ensure continuity and relevance. But there is always the fear that assimilation and integration will lead to our demise. It’s time to quash that fear. The Jewish community is much too strong and much too determined to ever let that happen. Halcyon days lie ahead, and as we embark on a new year, let us all think about what we can do to make sure we prosper as a vibrant and meaningful community.

Welcome to the Community!

We were excited to read that Ivanka Trump, vice president of Real Estate Development and Acquisitions at the Trump Organization and daughter of real estate mogul Donald Trump, is converting to Judaism. Ha’aretz reports that Trump will be converting with Rabbi Haskel Lookstein of Congregation Kehillath Jeshurun on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. According to sources, she is converting at the request of her fiancé, Jared Kushner, and they have been attending services on a regular basis, even eating in a sukkah every night during Sukkot. Ivanka has yet to speak openly about her decision, but her actions indicate a genuine interest in Judaism and its traditions.

We would like to welcome Ivanka to the Jewish community, and we hope she feels embraced and accepted by her new religion - not because of her celebrity, but because of her desire to join the Jewish people. We invite Ivanka and all other women who are Jews-by-choice or in the process of converting to join our Empowering Ruth listserveand learn more about the Empowering Ruth program for women who have recently converted to Judaism.

Review of Book for Grandparents of Interfaith Grandchildren

At JOI, we were thrilled to read Rabbi Charles Sherman’s pulpit review of Twenty Things for Grandparents of Interfaith Grandchildren To Do (And Not Do) To Nurture Interfaith Jewish Identity in Their Grandchildren, which he calls “a very sensitive guide which does not pull punches or try to disguise threats and challenges. I believe it is as valuable for parents in an interfaith family as for grandparents to whom the advice is most directed.” You can read the full text of his sermon below.

JOI’s programs like The Mothers Circle and the Grandparents Circle help to build more welcoming communities. But JOI does not work alone; we are supported in our work by communities across the country — communities like Rabbi Sherman’s Temple Israel of Tulsa. There is still a lot to be done to make all of our communities more welcoming. Rabbi Sherman’s community is clearly on that path. We at JOI hope that other communities also start along that path.

Pulpit Review by Rabbi Charles P. Sherman
September 26, 2008

Twenty Things for Grandparents of Interfaith Grandchildren To Do (And Not Do) To Nurture Jewish Identity in Their Grandchildren
By Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky and Paul Golin

The Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) is a national independent, non-denominational organization dedicated to creating a more inclusive Jewish community. The Schusterman Family Foundation has been a major supporter of JOI. JOI works especially with interfaith families by creating new programs to help such families, to change the culture of the Jewish community, and even to transform the institutions in our Jewish communities where necessary. Its Executive Director is Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, a Reform colleague. JOI’s Assistant Executive Director is Paul Golin. Together Olitzky and Golin have written this short volume with the long title — Twenty Things for Grandparents of Interfaith Grandchildren To Do (And Not Do) To Nurture Jewish Identity in Their Grandchildren. It was published last year.

Friends, there is an important distinction between simple and simplistic. As I began this book I thought it was simplistic—and I was wrong. It offers direct, straight-forward, tachlis—which means “nuts and bolts,” down-to-earth—advice. But it is not simplistic. It is not, as I even wrote in the margin of one page, simply “a pep talk for readers.” Rather it is a very sensitive guide which does not pull punches or try to disguise threats and challenges. I believe it is as valuable for parents in an interfaith family as for the grandparents to whom the advice is mostly directed.


JOI Tribute Evening Highlights: Now On YouTube

Last week we held our annual Tribute Evening where we honored Adam Bronfman for his contributions to unity among the Jewish people.
After JOI Executive Director Kerry Olitzky presented him with JOI’s Visionary award, Adam gave an inspiring speech about why he does what he does – and what he sees as the future of the Jewish community.

In his speech, he spoke about his personal journey to a Jewish life after being unaffiliated for so long, and how he went “from a place devoid of meaning” to where he is now, “a place where there is meaning in life, where I get to work with my community, be with my father and brothers, my children, my wife.” That’s why he has dedicated himself to working with organizations that make it easier for others to find that same meaning – that’s why he works with Hillel and JOI. He said:

I would say that there are tons and tons of people out there who are either marginalized in some way or another or are intermarried. And they want to be part of the Jewish world. And I would say there are tons of institutions that want to welcome them. And the change is happening. The attitudes are happening. The institutions are changing. The problem is we have a language and we have a way of being that doesn’t make it easy to cross that barrier. JOI, the Jewish Outreach Institute, has the tools, has the ability to make that marriage possible so that people who are looking for a Jewish life of meaning – ethics, morals, love, inclusion – have the ability to get through the door and access that institution. I have seen the work myself. I am absolutely and incredibly proud to be a part of that endeavor because to me, what you do Kerry, what your organization does, is to make this world a better place than we found it.

You can view the speech in its entirety at JOI’s new YouTube channel in two parts. We thank Adam for his kind words, and we look forward to many more years of collaboration and success in welcoming in the interfaith families and unaffiliated Jews in our midst.

Choosing Judaism in the 21st Century

The journal Sh’ma, a “gathering place for independent dialogue” on wide range of subjects important to the Jewish community, has chosen to cover in its November edition the issue of conversion. It’s described as a complex and contentious issue, and Sh’ma has solicited essays from many people who can offer unique insights and various points of view – including Edgar Bronfman & Beth Zasloff, authors of the new book Hope, Not Fear: A Path to Jewish Renaissance, Mothers Circle alum Abi Auer, and Empowering Ruth alum Monica Rodriguez.

[For a free copy of the November Sh’ma, courtesy of the Samuel Bronfman Foundation, please email Lindsay at]

JOI’s Rabbi Kerry Olitzky was asked to participate, and he wrote an essay on how the Jewish community can help make conversion easier for those who are interested. Instead of putting up “artificial barriers in front of people who want to convert,” he says we should instead focus on how we can lower barriers to participation. Kerry is not advocating for the “dilution or diminution of the conversion program,” but he wonders how we can utilize modern technology to help facilitate the conversion process – and open more doors for more people. He writes:

Because the Internet lowers accessibility barriers, let’s create an online transdenominational introduction to Judaism/ conversion course that would offer a significantly more accessible initial step into the Jewish community. Not only would this bring Jewish learning to the potential convert at their convenience, it could also facilitate the Jewish community’s efforts to engage unaffiliated Jews directly rather than first requiring them to walk through an institution’s doors.

This proposed program seeks to address barriers such as time, location, scheduling, and cost of classes. A guided online curriculum for the potential convert to Judaism (and others interested in intensive, introductory Jewish learning) will allow for asynchronous learning where students learn at their own pace, on their schedule, in the privacy of their home or office. Students would be guided by online mentors who assist the target audience through interactive Jewish learning. The wealth of already available online resources could be utilized as well as giving students access to the greatest Jewish teachers and thinkers from across the globe, regardless of denomination. And the no-fee policy will ensure the program is accessible to all.

This doesn’t mean a person finishes a course and prints out a certificate. Rabbi Celso Cukierkorn has an online conversion program in place where after the course is over, all the participants come to one central location to finish. Kerry believes it can be even easier. Throughout their studies, “candidates will be introduced to local rabbis and mentors in a national, apolitical network of rabbis who will introduce them to their local communities (and we will work with them to make them welcoming communities and synagogues), meet with them, and accompany them to the bet din and mikvah.”

We believe these methods are not just useful for engaging those converting to Judaism - lowering barriers and providing more access points will help us reach out and welcome in all who seeks to strengthen their Jewish identity.

Show Your Credentials at the Door

When should it matter whether or not your mother was born Jewish? That’s the question we at JOI found ourselves asking after receiving a mass email from Aish NY about an upcoming “Young Professionals in Entertainment” mixer here in New York City. The application form has a series of standard questions like name and address, plus an essay box asking what field of the entertainment industry you’re in—but also included the question “Was your mother born Jewish?” This question seems oddly out of place.

Ostensibly, the event is about “innovative networking for uniting Jewish Young Professionals in the Entertainment industry,” and includes a dinner where you change tables three times for the three courses, allowing you to meet and mingle with different people at each new table. If the sole rationale for the event is professional networking—as the marketing would have us believe—the question about participants’ mothers is irrelevant. Perhaps there is an additional unwritten rationale, to get young Jews to meet and marry each other, and the question about mothers’ religion then becomes one of Orthodox authenticity as to “Who is a Jew.”

We don’t object to Aish trying to facilitate marriage among young Jews, but this is an example where their normally sophisticated marketing not only falls short, but actually delivers an exclusionary message despite their claims to be a pluralistic outreach organization. Will Aish disqualify an “applicant” from the event if his or her mother was not born Jewish? When we called to find out, the answer was quite simply, yes. We were told it’s the policy that “all participants must have a Jewish mother.” If the applicant’s mother was not born Jewish but had an Orthodox conversion or if the applicant himself or herself had a similar conversion, they can register. But if the conversion was under the auspices of a Conservative or Reform rabbi, the applicant must put that on the registration form and the folks at Aish will “have to talk to their rabbis.”

These requirements are nowhere to be found on the registration page. We only learned this after calling. Imagine how many people end up disqualified for a professional networking event because Aish doesn’t recognize their Jewish background. If Aish has a definition of “Jewish” when they say their event is for “Jewish Young Professionals,” they should simply define who they consider Jewish rather than ask a question that creates doubt, confusion and self-consciousness among a substantial percentage of their stated target audience. At the very least, Aish should include an explanation of why they’re asking the question. But the ethical thing to do would be to simply state who is eligible for this event, period, rather than make people jump through hoops.

What’s Past is Prologue

Day after day, we at JOI talk about the modern relationship between the Jewish community and the rising number of spouses of another religion – or what we call those who have “married in.” But how deep is the role of the non-Jew in our history? Are there ancient role models for the relationship between Jews and non-Jews today?

Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin thinks so. In his new book “Righteous Gentiles in the Hebrew Bible: Ancient Role Models for Sacred Relationships,” Rabbi Salkin explains that the story of the Jewish people can’t be told without recognizing the relationships we have had with those of another faith and celebrating the diversity that surrounds us. He writes: “Their (gentiles) stories testify to the power and possibility of redemptive relationships between all people of faith – and this lesson becomes more important with every passing year.”

These relationships are more relevant today then ever before. That’s why we currently celebrate who we see as today’s “Righteous Gentile” - the women of another religious background who have devoted themselves to raising Jewish children. They are just one segment of the Jewish community that is helping us maintain our faith and traditions, and we hope you read Rabbi Salkin’s book to discover Judaism’s rich tradition of welcoming in all those in our midst and how that’s defined who we are today.

Interfaith Shabbat in Philadelphia

At JOI, we often use holidays as a method for reaching interfaith families and unaffiliated members of the community - for instance, Passover in the Matzah Aisle. But focusing on holidays that come once a year makes it easy to overlook a holiday that offers an opportunity for outreach every week of the year: Shabbat. Our executive director Rabbi Kerry Olitzky often notes that on Shabbat we bless our children through Ephraim and Manasseh, the interfaith grandchildren of our biblical patriarch Jacob (who Jacob took as his own).

Shabbat carries a strong message of inclusion – and one that can be an effective tool of outreach. That’s why we’re happy to see the organization Interfaithways will be hosting their second annual Interfaith Family Shabbat Weekend. From Nov. 14-16, according to the Jewish Exponent, interfaith families in the Delaware Valley (which covers the Philadelphia metropolitan area) will be able to go to 52 synagogues that have:

… committed to offer special free programs including Shabbat dinners; performances of “Two Become One: Reflections on Interfaith Families,” an interactive performance piece by Theatre Ariel that sparks discussion about identity, holiday celebrations, religious rituals and family dynamics; ceremonies honoring and blessing interfaith families raising Jewish children; and educational speakers and resource materials.

Gari Julius Weilbacher, managing director of Interfaithways, says the goal of the weekend, and of the organization, is “to reach out to the whole interfaith family; mom and dad, their parents and their children, and encourage their comfortable participation in Jewish life-cycle events and holiday celebrations.” But it’s also about more than getting them to come to one event – they want to create a community where interfaith families and the unaffiliated want to come back. “When these families feel accepted by and comfortable in the Jewish community there is a potential for them to affiliate Jewishly,” said Interfaithways founder Leonard Wasserman.

In our vision statement at JOI, we state: “The future of the North American Jewish community will be determined by the warmth, wisdom and caring with which we welcome and engage intermarried families and unaffiliated Jews into our midst.” We have spent the last 20 years following that vision, and we know conclusively that lowering barriers to participation and truly opening doors to all who are interested will have positive results. Interfaithways knows this to be true as well, which is why we have invited both Rabbi Rayzel Raphael and Rabbi Mayer Selekman of Interfaithways to participate in our upcoming Outreach Conference in Philadelphia. They are great partners in outreach towards interfaith families, and it’s great to see them coordinating such a large scale effort to reach these folks.

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