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Another Foundation Closes

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Last week we blogged about Bernie Madoff and his dubious financial dealings, which caused the Robert Lappin Foundation to close their doors. Later in the week, the New York Times reported on another charitable foundation that hit much closer to home – the Picower Foundation, one of the nation’s leading philanthropies, will be closing its doors. JOI was among the many organizations honored to receive support from Barbara and Jeffry Picower.

As described in the article, the Picower Foundation supported a wide variety of organizations and “has given $268 million to groups like the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Human Rights First, the New York Public Library and the Children’s Health Fund… Last year its beneficiaries included the City Parks Foundation and the School District of Palm Beach County as well as the Jewish Outreach Institute and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.”

We at JOI cannot dwell too long on this bad news. Instead, we must focus on 2009 and do what we do best – look for innovative ways to help 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.

However, our heartfelt best wishes go out to the Picowers, whose incredible generosity over the years has benefited countless hundreds of thousands of individuals. We hope they will find a measure of justice and restitution from the inevitable legal proceedings involving the case, and one day be able to resume their charitable work at such a high level; we are sure the charitable world has not heard the last of the Picowers. But in the meantime, we at JOI are proud to continue to call the Picowers our friends and we will count on their moral support as we move forward together into a better New Year.



What Went Right in 2008

Going through our blog entries over these past twelve months, one thing stands clear: 2008 turned out to be a pretty good year for outreach. Institutions and organizations lowered or removed barriers to participation, and we saw more access points open up for all those seeking a welcoming and inclusive Jewish community.

In the face of the bigger issues that dominate the news cycles, like the overturned conversions in Israel or the recent Bernie Madoff disaster, it’s easy to forget the lesser known accomplishments, like Hillel adding a LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer) Resource guide for their professionals to use on campus or new option for intermarried couples to experience Israel.

That’s why JOI’s Rabbi Kerry Olitzky and I wrote an opinion piece for the New York Jewish Week highlighting not only everything that went right in outreach in 2008, but also areas where there is still need for improvement. Who knows what the next year will bring, but in 2009 “let’s take advantage of every opportunity to welcome people in and strengthen our community.”



A New Spin on Hanukkah Treats

Now that Hanukkah is over you probably hope nobody puts another potato pancake or jelly donut in front of you for at least a year.

But we’ll always have another Jewishly-gastronomic event around the corner, and it is important to remember that just as Hanukkah is a time to ‘come out’ of whatever closet you’re in, it is also a time to uncover the diversity of Jewish food.

Jewish food can’t be reduced to kugel and matzo balls, just like Jews don’t all look alike or come from the same place. Never has this been clearer than during Hanukkah. That’s why the “Two Saucy Chicks” of Join Us at the Table, a blogtalkradio.com show, invited JOI to join them last week and share the cultural traditions of Hanukkah and the many edible delights individuals eat in observance of the holiday.

And this year we heard some great new recipes. On our various free listserves, including Mothers Circle and Empowering Ruth, people shared all sorts of colorful versions of traditional food for this holiday – from gingerbread dreidels to green chili latkes.

Click here to listen to me talk about some surprise Hanukkah foods (my segment starts about 16 minutes in) and hear why THIS vegetarian prefers the fried foods of Hanukkah to any other holiday.



Looking to the Future for Hope

Like so many we were dismayed by the actions of Bernard Madoff. And we imagine that the reverberations of his misdeeds will be felt for a long time. Like the proverbial butterfly that flaps its wings in one part of the world with the flutter causing a typhoon in another part of the world, it is a real shame that it has come at this time. We have made real progress in so many areas of outreach to the unengaged and the intermarried. This year was to be a major turning point for so many of us. And while we didn’t always agree with the philosophy and approach taken by our friends at the Robert Lappin Foundation on Boston’s South Shore, we recognized the vast amount of good work they were doing, including the support of our Mothers Circle program there. They understood that the Jewish community needs to lower barriers to entry for all who would join us. For example, they eliminated a cost barrier by offering to reimburse all conversion costs incurred by new Jews-by-choice.

We will now be working with other program partners in the area to see if they can provide support for the now eroded funding—as we continue to help those women of other religious traditions who are raising Jewish children and helping to secure the American Jewish future.



Gourmet Olive Oil, Anyone?

This year, JOI has taken the oil out of the Hanukkah story and into the supermarket! Eight Days of OilSM, Hanukkah Olive Oil tasting, is a Public Space JudaismSM opportunity for local Jewish organizations to share some gourmet olive oil with folks in their local communities who are going about their grocery and specialty shopping. It’s also a chance to share information about the holiday of Hanukkah, and connect shoppers to upcoming events.

With a pilot cohort of 8 communities, from Knoxville Tennessee, to Barrington RI, to Pittsburgh, PA, professionals and lay leaders are reporting back with great results! Pittsburgh’s Jewish community met about 40 passers-by at their local William Sonoma, and Sarasota’s Jewish community collected 40 names. Federations aren’t the only organizations trying eight days of oil. The Hillel at Miami University in Ohio participated in the pilot group, and met 150 students, 140 of whom were new to the Hillel’s database! Professionals who coordinated the program in New Bedford, MA shared that “This was excellent for community relations…” and “all of the volunteers had a marvelous time.” We look forward to working with these these communities to help them cultivate and nurture relationships with these individuals and to help deepen their engagement in Jewish life.

Interested in trying the program next year? Let us (estern@joi.org) know and we’ll help you get started for next year!

Happy Hanukkah!

More pictures after the jump.
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A December Holiday Guide for Intermarried Families

Can interfaith families successfully celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas? Every December, hundreds of thousands of interfaith families find themselves asking this question and looking for guidance. Over the last ten years, as intermarriage rates have reached nearly fifty percent in the Jewish community, the number of families who struggle with this question has steadily grown. Often called the “December Dilemma,” the debate is especially relevant this year since the fourth night of Hanukkah overlaps with Christmas Eve.

That’s why JOI’s executive director Rabbi Kerry Olitzky has come up with a few suggestions to help interfaith families move smoothly through the holiday season and beyond:

  • Supersize Hanukkah. Make sure you “do Jewish” regularly during the overpowering Christmas season. Starting at Thanksgiving, retailers and radio stations are stuck on a Christmas loop. Luckily, Hanukkah lasts eight nights. That gives families eight chances to celebrate and express Hanukkah through lighting a Menorah or putting up decorations.
  • Celebrate the holidays at your in-laws’ homes if you can. Grandparents, extended family, and friends will be happy to share their celebration with you over a holiday dinner, and it can remove tension from your own home.
  • Be open. This sounds easy, but it’s frequently a lesson overlooked. If you are going to celebrate the holidays together, make sure you have talked this through ahead of time. One simple rule is that talking about things works, and not talking about things doesn’t work. You’ll be surprised how far a little dialogue will take you.
  • Acknowledge the compromise your partner is making. When a spouse casts their lot with a new religion and a new set of traditions, even if they aren’t converting, the holidays can be a reminder of the traditions that spouse is giving up. If you have agreed to celebrate Hanukkah, let your partner know that there is room if they want to carve out space for a token of their faith.
  • Have a sense of humor. Between dinners, decorating and family obligations, trying to navigate through Hanukkah and Christmas has the potential to cause an undue amount of stress. Taking a few minutes to find something funny in the holidays can relieve the pressure and remind you that this is a time for celebration and joy.

These suggestions are only a place to start. Volumes could be written on how interfaith families have dealt with the issues that arise not only in December but throughout the year. Each family is different, and each has to find the best path to create a successful and meaningful holiday season.



Belief and Belonging

Do U.S. Jews belong without believing? That was the question asked by a recent feature in the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle, prompted by a new study titled “Belonging Without Believing: Jews and the Distinctive Patterns of Religiosity – and Secularity.” The study, authored by Professor Steven M. Cohen of Lauren Blitzer, found that while only 41 percent of Jews are “absolutely certain” about the existence of God or a “universal spirit,” 55 percent of Jews belong to a house of worship, and 56 percent make sure their children receive some kind of religious education. According to the article:

“Given the implied well of motivation for Jewish belonging that lies outside of religiosity… organized Jewry has an obvious policy interest in maintaining pluralism,” the report states. “We refer not to just religious pluralism, but to ethnic pluralism, cultural pluralism, ideological pluralism and institutional pluralism as well.”

The Chronicle spoke with five Jewish community leaders in Wisconsin to get their impressions of the study, and all admitted that they were not surprised by the findings. Mark Shapiro, acting executive director of the Milwaukee JCC (which is a member of the Big Tent Judaism coalition), said he wasn’t surprised because “Jews affiliate for more than just religious reasons.” Rabbi Jacob Herber, spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Israel in Glendale and president of the Wisconsin Council of Rabbis, said the study demonstrates a need for organizations to be broader in their approach to engaging unaffiliated Jews. “’One size fits all’ is not true in the Jewish community,” he said.

That being said, Herber added that synagogues shouldn’t be expected to “drastically and radically depart from their values and principles to bring people in.” That’s an important point. No one is asking organizations, especially synagogues, to forsake their religious beliefs to attract more non-believing Jews. That would be self-destructive and in contradiction to Judaism as a whole. And others, like Wisconsin’s Chabad Lubavitch leader Rabbi Yisroel Shmotkin, think the premise is fundamentally flawed – the term “secular Jew” is unfeasible. He believes that “in every Jew’s DNA is a deep connection to G-d, Torah, Judaism and every other Jew.”

Despite all these differences, the common goal should be to create a community with a diverse plurality of offerings that enable every Jewish household to find a place in the tent, regardless of religious conviction.



Hanukkah: The Jewish Coming Out Holiday

Still considering how you’re going to celebrate Hanukkah this year? Does your new diet force you to look beyond latkes (fried potato pancakes) and other oil-saturated delicacies?

Well, Jay Michaelson, editor of Zeek: a Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture, suggests another way to enjoy the 8-Day celebration of Hanukkah: “Come out!”

Writing in The Forward, Michaelson reflects on his own personal struggle coming out as a gay and observant Jew, and he also understands that there are many others on the periphery whose differences are not celebrated but merely tolerated. The holiday season makes this ever more apparent; with Christmas front and center, some in the Jewish community might be inclined to just, “put on the dumb red hat and wait until it’s over.” Michaelson writes:

To celebrate Hanukkah today is thus a form of coming out: admitting difference, recognizing that one is not the same as everyone else and, hopefully, celebrating the unique gifts that being different offers.

Michaelson draws the connection between Jews who defied Hellenism by not conforming (read: assimilating) and the modern-day imperative to embrace difference, be true to one’s self and “come out.”

Stop repressing and stop equivocating. Whatever closet you’re hiding in, whether it’s sexual, religious, professional, cultural, or just plain dull and repressive, light the Hanukkah candles (or don’t!), celebrate nonconformity — and, for God’s sake and yours, come out, please, wherever you are.

For some of us this might mean more publicly celebrating Hanukkah—putting that electric menorah in the window and inviting friends (non-Jewish and Jewish) to a feast of latkes—or embracing our personal differences within the Jewish community and the world at-large.



Embracing the Children of Interfaith Marriage

“It must be the holiday season that comments about multifaith/interfaith families are more frequent, because I’m going mad about this.”

This is the first line from a recent blog entry on the website Jewschool.com titled “Had it up to here with multifaith family stereotypes.” The author, whose sobriquet is Kung Fu Jew, certainly comes out swinging. He is frustrated by what he sees as the overarching dialogue in the Jewish community regarding the children of interfaith marriage – that these children are “confused” and “have no religion.”

“There is a cabal, an in-crowd, of self-selected and self-certified Jewish spokespeople who have declared that this kind of Jew is hybrid, mixed, intermarried and unusual,” he writes. But, he points out that as we go up the Jewish family tree we find Judaism has grown from a mix of culture and ideas adopted from various points in our history. “There is no such thing as purely Jewish and we’re the new model.”

The tone of the blog entry at first seems harsh (and it is), but the last couple of paragraphs make clear that this anger comes from a genuine desire to move past old ideas of what Jews look like. “We are not the community’s problem – we are your solution for a society dying and dwindling, starved of new ideas. Contrary to Jewish communal in-speak, cultural fusion is the only way out of stagnation.”

The ideas Kung Fu Jew puts forth will certainly ruffle some feathers, but it’s important that he and his contemporaries have their voices heard. If they are feeling sidelined, we have to know why, and we have to find a way to make them part of the mainstream. His language might be off-putting, but his message is clear - with intermarriage rates rising, more Jewish children are being born into interfaith households than ever before. It’s a growing population, one that needs to be fully embraced in order to grow and strengthen the Jewish community.

At the end of his blog entry, he asks people to submit “articles, proposals and rants from intermarried Jews and products of intermarried Jews.” I invite you to do the same on our blog.



As Seen on TV

“Will You Merry Me?” the Lifetime channel made-for-TV holiday movie, aired last Saturday. For an overview of the plot, click here to take a look at my earlier blog post. I can almost picture the studio pitch: A newly-engaged interfaith couple spends a holiday weekend with both sets of in-laws! Christmas and Hanukkah overlap! Madness ensues! A Christmas light-related slapstick injury occurs! Comedic gold!

While at times a festival of stereotypes, I found “Will You Merry Me?” to be a rather sweet, if ham-handed, introduction to the basic themes that some interfaith families face. Rebecca, a Jew from LA, and Henry, a Christian from small-town Wisconsin, get engaged six months after meeting and never talk about their plans for the future, their religious identities, or the ways that they want their upbringing to be reflected in their home – until their first holiday together forces these issues. In true made-for-TV fashion, the characters were hilariously undeveloped and the drama was supposed to be driven by external traits and actions: Rebecca is a vegetarian from a big city; Henry went hunting as a child and played Joseph in the Christmas play. The Christian in-laws drive a van that plays carols, put a stuffed fiddler on their roof, and give their Jewish guests a Hanukkah gift of matzah (a food eaten during Passover). Meanwhile, the Jewish in-laws accidentally kill the town’s beloved reindeer, Rudolf, destroy their hosts’ light display, and exclaim, “This is the Jewish version of hell!” My favorite line is when Rebecca cries “We’re just too different!”

Despite these broad strokes, the movie did try to introduce genuine issues that come up for interfaith families. When the young couple announces that they want a small, secular ceremony, both parents realize that their dream of holding the wedding in their own religious tradition won’t be possible. The sadness and loss that the characters express is an emotion that can be hard for parents and children to talk about and I liked the idea that an honest conversation might be spurred in a non-threatening way by the film. These are serious issues, and it disappointed me that the movie didn’t do a great job of exploring these themes – it instead chose to stick with gags about marshmallow laden Jell-O salad.

In the end (spoiler alert!), the Christian mother-in-law breaks a traditional Christmas holiday decoration that she’s always hated. This symbolizes that every couple has to find a religious life that fits their new family. Everyone learns to get along, and there’s even time for her to say, “It’s a Christmas miracle!” before the credits close on the now-at-peace interfaith extended family.

“Will You Merry Me?” is no “Citizen Kane,” but it might be a nice way for families who are struggling to start a conversation about interfaith life to find a way to begin. Did you see the movie? What did you think? Do you think it would help start dialogue in your family?



“The Shiksa Syndrome” Review Part 2: The Not So Good

Last Friday, I reviewed what I liked about The Shiksa Syndrome. Unfortunately, the continuation of my review is not as positive.

In addition to stereotyping the Jewish New Yorker as an individual who eats Jewish comfort foods (i.e. lots of bagels) and throws around Yiddish words like “Oy Vey” and “mensch” (translated as woe is me and a person of integrity, respectively), it makes the assumption that Jewish men are endowed with a “shiksa syndrome:” that they prefer dating non-Jewish women. Or, as the main character, Aimee Albert, explains: “Because to catch a Jewish boy, a Jewish girl may pretend to be a goy.”(74)

Already offended by the derogatory use of “shiksa” and “goy” (someone who is not Jewish), the premise itself is upsetting. (Spoiler alert!) When Aimee decides to masquerade as a non-Jewish woman, she embodies particular characteristics that supposedly make her less Jewish: she’s quiet, she enjoys drinking cocktails instead of red wine and she originates from Scranton not somewhere “Jewish” like New York. Those are such hackneyed and tired conventions - I know many quiet Jewish folks that enjoy cocktails and come from northeast Pennsylvania. But Jewish women and men are not the only individuals subject to being typecast throughout the novel. Non-Jewish women post profiles on Jewish dating sites with usernames like “Shiksallure” in order to find Jewish men to date and are then lauded for their success. When Aimee’s friend Krista lands her Jewish boyfriend, Matt, Aimee’s family is ecstatic, particularly her brother, Jon:

“He’s a dream,” says Krista. “And guess what? He’s Jewish!”
My parents practically applaud. It’s always been a phenomenon to observe. When I told them Peter was Not [Jewish], it wasn’t a problem, but it also was not a reason to raise your glass in merriment. Conversely, however…
“Whoa,” says Jon. “Go Kris.”
“What does that mean?” I ask. But I already know. It means Jon thinks her guy is cool. Hunting outside his tribe, he brings back the coveted prey. Even without having met, Jon has more kudos for Matt dating Krista than if he was dating me. (109)

At the end of novel, the message that one should be true to oneself in all aspects of life comes through loud and clear. Even though the message ends up being positive, it’s too bad the novel is mired in such denigrating language and stereotypes while it leads us to that conclusion.



“The Shiksa Syndrome” Review Part 1: The Good

When I heard there was a novel titled The Shiksa Syndrome by Laurie Graff, my immediate reaction was shock and offense. Here at JOI, we work tirelessly to eradicate derogatory words like shiksa and shaygetz (Yiddish for non-Jewish woman and man, respectively) from the vocabulary of the Jewish community. Not only does the novel include such a divisive affront in its title, but the entire premise of the book supposes that Jewish men prefer dating and marrying non-Jewish women.

Before continuing to harshly judge The Shiksa Syndrome by its cover (literally—all the information above can be found on its book jacket), I decided that I should read the novel before making up my mind. A week and a half later, I have mixed feelings. While there was plenty of the book with which I disagreed, there were some surprisingly positive aspects as well.

With a Yiddish word in its title, I expected The Shiksa Syndrome to include a decent amount of “insider language”—which we define as Hebrew and Yiddish words and acronyms specific to the Jewish community. (We even developed a pocket glossary to help newcomers to the Jewish community understand such insider words.) And I was right; many Yiddish words appeared throughout the text. However, no insider words appeared without explanation. Published by mainstream Broadway Books, readers of the book need not have any prior knowledge of the Jewish community or Judaism. There is even a glossary at the end of the book to provide further explanation of the embedded definitions!

For example, early in the novel the main character, Aimee Albert, provides her non-Jewish friend Krista with a lesson in the multiple pronunciations of “Shabbat,” the Jewish Sabbath:

“…And I need something pretty for ShaBOAT.”
“Shabbat,” I correct. “And since when did you start lighting Shabbos candles?” I say SHAbus, using the eastern European pronunciation to purposely get her confused.
“I thought it was ShaBOAT.”
“ShaBOT.”
“Yes, that too.”
“Well, that is the modern Hebrew way of saying it.” I explain. (76)

The Shiksa Syndrome is accessible to those of all religious backgrounds. No prior knowledge of Judaism or the Jewish community is necessary—though knowledge of a stereotypically Jewish New York City might be. That brings us to the second part of my review, where I look at where the book fell short. Tune in to Monday’s blog for more on The Shiksa Syndrome.



Meeting the Needs of Today’s Generation

Are young Jews being served as well as they can be by the Jewish community at large? In today’s global atmosphere, do we need to transform both the organization and values of American Jewry? Those were a couple of questions raised by Tahl Raz, an editor of the website Jewcy.com, in an interview with Leadel.net, a “leading media portal dedicated to bringing a fresh perspective” to a global Jewish audience.

Jewish organizations in general used to do a great job of catering to the needs of the Jewish community, Raz said, but he believes that bureaucracy and “self preservationist tendencies” makes it hard for them to evolve with the modern Jewish community.

“They became hyper-focused on several issues,” he said. “There is constant talk about the intermarriage crisis, and there is constant talk about who is a Jew and how do we define a Jew, and there is talk about these unaffiliated Jews.” But Raz believes these are not the issues most important to young Jews today. Today’s generation is “much more concerned with people in Darfur” and other global issues. “I think the idea for moving forward is getting back to basics, getting back to rabbis and communities that are helping people,” he said.

Raz’s solution is simply cooperation. “Ultimately if we want to have a transformative impact on the community we’re going to have to work with these organizations, we’re going to have to rebuild this infrastructure.” Raz thinks we can get there by redirecting our focus from issues that have divided Jews in the past – most notably intermarriage:

“There is a huge opportunity in the intermarriage trend. These are people that if you show them how vital the community is and how great it is to raise kids Jewish, these people are going to raise their kids Jewish. Ultimately, that’s all that matters.”



Dear Ari…

There is a LONG history of asking questions in the Jewish community. This practice is encouraged because you can’t find answers without asking lots of questions. This holds true in both the study of religious texts and in everyday life. Besides the ancient tradition of Jewish legal discourse, contemporary sources - such as the Jewish Daily Forward’s Bintel Brief (now the Bintel Blog) - encourage people to be as inquisitive as possible.

So it came as no surprise when we at JOI stumbled upon Rabbi Ari Vernon’s advice column on the Jewish Federation of St. Louis’ website. Readers submit questions anonymously on any topic and “Rabbi Ari” will answer.

One recent questioner inquired about interfaith dating – specifically, how to handle a close friend’s serious relationship with a non-Jewish woman. The writer loved “Alice,” but what to do about the fact that she wasn’t Jewish? According to the inquirer’s upbringing this was unacceptable!

With the social reality of intermarriage, many find themselves in a similar quandary. Rabbi Ari had some advice that hit the nail on the head; you care about your friend and you don’t want to lose the relationship. Considering that there is nothing you can do to stop their relationship, disapproving words may in fact cause you to loose your friend. Instead, approach the situation delicately and open the door to conversation – don’t close it.

This, Rabbi Ari continues, is also the best way for the Jewish community to take on the issue:

None of the barriers erected against intermarriage have had any meaningful effect on the trends. Jews have simply switched their affiliation to congregations, rabbis and communities who accept their choice or have left the Jewish community altogether. Jews are going to date and marry non-Jews, because we live in and embrace an open and accepting society and people are comfortable and even encouraged to cross ethnic and cultural barriers.

We at JOI couldn’t agree more. Instead of “erecting barriers” to those who intermarry, we should open the conversation and increase points of access for engagement.

Just like a relationship with a friend, the Jewish community must look to the future and consider how to maintain relationships with interfaith families rather than leave them behind.



Interfaith Family Movie

This Saturday, the Lifetime Channel is showing a full day of made-for-TV holiday movies. One in particular caught our eye at JOI: “Will You Merry Me?” about a Christian man and Jewish woman who announce their engagement during a family holiday gathering. Here’s the nytimes.com description:

In the spirit of Meet the Fockers….Rebecca, from an upper class Los Angeles family, and Henry, from choir-singing, tradition-bound Midwestern roots, are in love. Henry pops the question just before Christmas and the kids plan on gathering their families for the holidays in order to surprise them with the good news. The families collide—oops—meet the week of Hanukah just before Christmas in Madison, Wisconsin. It’s a wild, whacky ride of good intentions and missteps as the two families try in vain to respect each others’ traditions. It’s not long before Rebecca and Henry learn the hardest part about being married might be dealing with each other’s in-laws.

I have conflicting reactions to this program. I’m glad to see an interfaith family depicted on mainstream TV alongside the usual Christmas slate of titles like “Call Me Claus” (Whoopi Goldberg saves Christmas) and “A Diva’s Christmas Carol,” (Vanessa Williams plays a pop star named “Ebony Scrooge”). “Will You Merry Me?” was added to the schedule with the same packaging as any other holiday program – down to the gimmicky plot and cheesy name.

I’m planning to tape the show because I’m curious how this interfaith family will be depicted. My worry is that the story will lean on stereotypes about Christians and Jews, implying that any interfaith interaction is implicitly antagonistic. My hope is that the program gives people watching the feeling that an intermarried holiday visit is as normal as an inmarried holiday visit, normal enough to have its own made-for-TV movie. In American life, is a made-for-TV movie the first sign of reaching “mainstream” status? Reactions to the movie are welcome – you’ll get mine next week.

“Will You Merry Me?” will air on the Lifetime channel on Saturday, December 13 at 9 PM and midnight.



A New Jewish Population Study

How big is the Jewish population? In 1990 and 2000, the National Jewish Population Study (NJPS) tried to answer that question, usually to much contention among various Jewish leaders and demographers. What will the 2010 NJPS tell us?

Well, not much. Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of the New York Jewish Week, wrote a piece explaining that there won’t be a 2010 study because the last one was “stung by criticism and beset by financial and staffing problems.” Instead, he writes, the Steinhardt Social Research Institute at Brandeis University, headed by Leonard Saxe, will take the reigns and come up with a “reliable preliminary estimate of the American Jewish population and an analysis of significant trends,” by January of 2010.

Saxe’s study, say Rosenblatt, will be far more encompassing because it will include “those who define themselves as Jewish by criteria other than religion.” We think this is a great idea and are excited to see what he finds, but it means the Jewish population could be as much as 20 percent higher than stated in the 2000 NJPS. According to Rosenblatt:

This has profound implications. Rather than a community that is in decline, as widely believed, Saxe claims that American Jewry is larger and more diverse than had been thought. This information presents a challenge of its own because it suggests that the percentage of Jews being served by the community is even less than previously believed.

That’s a scary assessment. Too many families and individuals are already hovering on the periphery of the community, unable or unwilling to overcome the often inordinate barriers to participation. If Saxe’s study ends up validating his theory of a community larger than previously thought, what can we do to make sure we reach a higher percentage of the population?

We think the answer is simple – lower or remove the barriers and send the message that all are welcome. But that’s much easier said than done. We’ll have to wait and see what Saxe discovers, but we are sure of one thing: whatever his results, the study will touch off a new round of heated dialogue on the size and future of the Jewish community. And that’s a conversation we are always happy to have.



Balancing Security and Inclusion

JOI Senior Program Officer Eva Stern received an interesting call a few months ago from KAM Isaiah Israel synagogue in Chicago, Illinois.

What for? Well, KAM Isaiah Israel is conveniently located within earshot of now President Elect-Barack Obama’s Hyde Park residence. KAM Isaiah was confronted with the challenge of maintaining a welcoming, inclusive disposition in the face of security barriers, check-points and Secret Service agents littering their ‘welcome mat.’

According to a recent article in Haaretz, congregants expressed feeling overjoyed by the fact that their neighbor, and a person of color, was elected President. The article quotes one congregant, who remarked on the historic congregation’s memory of the struggle for civil rights in this urban area:

“I’ve been channeling my parents lately, because 50 years ago, this was the dream,” said Roberta Siegel, an active KAM-II member whose father was the president of Isaiah Israel in the 1950s.

So, while the congregation didn’t view this extraordinary security issue as a gross inconvenience, they knew that they needed to go out of their way to maintain a welcoming presence for newcomers and members alike.

Rabbi Kerry Olitzky of JOI and Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, CA recently co-wrote a compelling op-ed about balancing inclusion with increased security measures at the High Holidays. But many congregations face security challenges year-round. Not necessarily the unique situation KAM Isaiah Israel finds itself in, but nonetheless many congregations are aware of the need to increase their welcoming presence beyond security barriers and guards that are all necessary to ensure the safety of the congregation. An inviting welcoming sign and a walk through of any security measures in place at your location on your organization’s website can ensure that newcomers feel comfortable, too.

What does your organization do to promote welcoming and balance the presence of security?



Making Decisions this Holiday Season

It seems like the holiday season has been starting earlier and earlier in the calendar. This year, I noticed Christmas decorations before Halloween had ended! Along with the decorations came discussions in many interfaith families about how to address the “December Dilemma,” shorthand for the decision process about how to conceptualize and celebrate the December holidays of Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa. As the moderator of The Mothers Circle email listserve, I’ve been privileged to witness some of the incredibly thoughtful, moving, and sometimes painful reflection that goes into making these decisions. As I wrote to mothers on the list last month, the “Dilemma” can be extremely powerful and emotional, even in families that feel relatively at peace with other elements of their religious choices.

The decision about whether or not to hang a wreath or have a Christmas tree in the home runs deeper than aesthetic preferences. It cuts to the heart of many issues that might remain unspoken at other times of the year: Our histories and childhoods, our philosophies about tradition and family culture, the power dynamics in our relationships, our attachments to our relatives, our hopes for our children, and our sense of religious and cultural identity. If you are struggling with how to manage the holiday season in your interfaith family, I hope you take credit for the courage it takes to approach these topics. If you know someone who is struggling, now is the perfect time to show your respect and support or to listen with open ears.

This issue appeared again in an article about the North Shore-area Mothers Circle group in Massachusetts that recently ran in The Salem News. The family featured in the article made the decision to have a tree in their home this year and plan not to have a tree next year in the hopes of making the holiday season less confusing for their younger daughter. This is one example of how a family has grappled with how to address their two holiday traditions, but there are many options. What is your family planning this holiday season?



Adam and Edgar Bronfman at the United Jewish Communities

Last month, Adam and Edgar Bronfman spoke at the general assembly of the United Jewish Communities (UJC), an umbrella organization that includes 155 federations and over 400 independent Jewish communities across North America. They used the opportunity to address
the assembly on what we as a community can do to open our doors to welcome everyone in our midst. The JTA’s Jacob Berkman filed a report in an online video feature.

Berkman explained that the Bronfmans’ top concern is “getting the mainstream organized world to recognize that the future of the non-orthodox Jewish community may in fact lay in its ability to bring intermarried couples back into the Jewish fold.” Edgar made a speech advocating for “a wide open tent, a great big tent just like Abraham and Sarah had,” adding that it’s time to not only accept intermarriage as a fact, but move past the issue once and for all.

Much of the Bronfmans’ motivation for being more open to intermarried families, Berkman said, is because Adam is an example of a successful interfaith marriage. Estranged from Judaism for many years, Adam told the crowd that when he and his wife married, they decided to raise Jewish children – and they are grateful they were able to find a community that offered classes and support. “Now we are a family of six proud Jews,” he said, referring to his wife and children. He continued later in the video:

I am a passionate believer that Judaism itself is and should be based on ideas, and that ideas are accessible to anybody. And that does not mean that there is not something unique about Judaism, there is. But that value is open to anybody, so if somebody chooses to marry a Jewish man or Jewish woman, if you choose to be in a relationship and the two of you choose to lead a Jewish life, the institutions that represent the larger community of Jewish life should be completely open to more and more people coming into that community.

As we have said many times before, we appreciate the candor with which Adam and Edgar Bronfman speak about potentially controversial issues within the Jewish community, and for doing so on such a large stage.



Learning from Interfaith Families

Here at JOI, we were excited to read Barbara Rudnick’s article in Minneapolis’ American Jewish World on things she has learned from interfaith families. As the program manager of Family Life Education at Jewish Family and Children’s Services (JFCS) of Minneapolis, she often writes about interfaith issues. But in this piece she decided to “give a voice to the interfaith families themselves.” She discusses the “gift” that non-Jewish parents who decide to raise Jewish children give to the Jewish community, and emphasizes the importance of appreciating and honoring their decision. She writes:

In recent years we have made wonderful progress by being more welcoming to interfaith families. But we can do more. It is important to continue to look for new ways to open our minds, hearts and doors. Open communication, patience and understanding not only help interfaith families but also strengthen and enrich our community.

One interesting point that jumped out at us was that she learned interfaith issues spread beyond parents and children. Barbara recognized that grandparents of interfaith families play an important role in maintaining strong family ties. We couldn’t agree more. That’s why we have started the Grandparents Circle, an education and support program for Jewish grandparents with interfaith grandchildren. Barbara is currently leading a Grandparents Circle at the St. Paul JCC.

Barbara says in her piece that she is proud of what her community has done to welcome interfaith families, but “we can do more.” She points out that in addition to continuing counseling and education workshops for interfaith families, the JFCS of Minneapolis will be running JOI’s Mother’s Circle program this year for the first time. We are confident these steps will lead to even greater inclusion and increased participation, and we hope Minneapolis continues to share the lessons they have learned with the broader Jewish community.





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