Entries for January 2009
Yesterday, JOI hosted the Women’s Summit for a More Welcoming Jewish Community. We had hoped to draw in 75 women volunteer leaders and Jewish communal professionals to discuss the critical need of serving unengaged Jewish populations, including those from intermarried households. We reached our goal of 75 women and then some – we had over 100 women in attendance!
Yesterday’s gathering is evidence that people want to do more to welcome newcomers and engage those on the periphery. Through interactive skill-building sessions and networking opportunities, we hope everyone left with new ideas for how to better reach out and welcome in. The overwhelming attendance was great, but it’s only one measure of success. We will consider the Women’s Summit a true success only when these ideas are implemented back home at the synagogues, JCC, and other Jewish institutions represented. The greatest successes of the Jewish community are not behind us. They are ahead of us.
We want to thank all those who made the day possible – the attendees, the speakers, the JOI staff and all those who gave us generous financial support, including the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York, the Albin Family Foundation, Fern K. Hurst, and Lauri M. Tisch. We look forward to continued discussions and working together to build a more welcoming Jewish community.
What can the Jewish community learn from President Obama’s campaign? That’s the question asked by marketing consultant Gary Wexler in a recent op-ed in the JTA. He thinks there is a valuable lesson in Obama’s campaign, one that can translate as a framework to strengthen our base and increase Jewish participation. But this is not a republican or democrat issue – he is using Obama because of the “stunning success in leadership vision, fund raising, cause advocacy, community organizing, electronic viral penetration, mass participation and the crowning accomplishment of a once-considered elusive goal against all odds.”
So what are the specifics? Here are a couple ideas: Wexler says that we need to abandon “the idea that 80-90 percent of the money comes from 10-20 percent of the donors.” Instead, especially in the face of the Madoff scandal, turn to grass roots fundraising. Obama saw that potential, and so should we. “They are our opportunity,” he wrote.
Wexler also noted that Obama “created his campaign as a cause and a movement,” and we need to do the same. We are a community concerned with the state of the world as well as the state of ourselves. “Do we not have the stuff of which to be a social-, justice-, identity- and nation-building movement?” he asks.
But most importantly, Wexler writes, is that Obama had a vision and stuck to it. He said:
He built a perception of visionary leadership throughout his campaign and during his inauguration. He projects himself as a leader. He speaks about ideas. He telegraphs to the issues of a new generation. He offers content. He exudes intelligence, charisma and humanity. Do our communal leaders do this? Do they inspire?
Put all these things together, and Obama was able to reach out to a huge nationwide network of volunteers and organizers who helped crystallize his message and get him elected. Will these themes work in the Jewish community? For instance, can we better harness technology to communicate with the unaffiliated or younger generation to get them interested and involved? Many communities are struggling with declining Jewish populations and affiliation rates, so maybe some of these ideas could help bolster engagement. Wexler believes Obama has created the framework for success – now it’s up to us to apply it to ourselves.
Plenty has been written about the propriety of the decision of Israel’s Rabbinical Court to revoke or call into the question the conversions of thousands of Jews-by-choice. While there isn’t much new to report, there was an interesting article recently in the Jerusalem Post of one particular conversion annulment.
Yossi Fackenheim, son of a famous Jewish theologian and holocaust survivor, was converted to Judaism at the age of two by an Orthodox Rabbinical Court in Toronto. His conversion was recognized by the Jerusalem Rabbinate Marriage Registrar when he and his wife were married, and he had a supporting document of recognition from the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. Yet when Fackenheim and his wife came before the Jerusalem Rabbinate to obtain a get (divorce), Rabbi Yissachar Dov Hagar said it was unnecessary because Fackenheim isn’t actually Jewish. He came to this conclusion because Yossi’s mother wasn’t Jewish when he was born, ignoring the fact that she converted soon after his birth and the family adopted an Orthodox lifestyle. Furthermore, since Yossi was converted as an infant, he accepted the conversion as binding at his bar mitzvah. Until he faced this one Rabbi, he had always been considered a Jew.
It dampens the spirit every time a new story surfaces about members of the community who are disenfranchised, but something Yossi was quoted as saying in the article caught my eye since it speaks directly to why this is so hurtful. He said:
“I am a Jew and I was raised as a Jew in a Jewish home where I received Jewish values throughout my entire life.”
This sentiment is applicable to more than just those who have converted to Judaism – the same can be said about children of intermarriage, particularly those whose mothers have a different religious background but are raising a Jewish family. If we want to truly strengthen the Jewish community, we should welcome in all those who have a connection to Judaism and have chosen to live their life as a Jew. In Yossi’s case, its mind boggling that the court would not accept the conversion of both the mother and her son, and supporting documents, as evidence. Invalidating someone’s status because they don’t meet impossibly high criteria will only serve to fraction the Jewish community.
We recently read about Rabbi Yitzhak Miller, who was able to confer with a bride-to-be in Beijing before her interfaith wedding and help a sergeant in Iraq with his conversion to Judaism. What stands out about such globetrotting is that all was accomplished online from Rabbi Miller’s home in Northern California.
Rabbi Miller, who is the executive director of Cybersynagogue.org and does much of his work through Rabbiyitzhakmiller.org, now joins Rabbi Celso Cukierkorn as one of a growing number of Jewish professionals who are turning to the web as a way to lower barriers to participation. We have written extensively about this issue in the past, including virtual synagogues and outreach professionals who use podcasts (a radio program that can be downloaded and listened to at a later time) to reach the unaffiliated. JOI’s Rabbi Kerry Olitzky also wrote an essay for the journal Sh’ma last November titled “Lowering the Barriers and Raising the Meaning.” In it he calls for utilizing modern technology to help facilitate the conversion process – and open more doors for more people.
Rabbi’s Miller and Cukierkorn are making good progress in terms of lowering barriers, but we would like to take it even further. As Kerry wrote in Sh’ma, the people who make connections online should then “be introduced to local rabbis and mentors in a national, apolitical network of rabbis who will introduce them to their local communities.” Increasing access points through an online connection is one step – engaging them in a physical community will help strengthen their identity and lead to sustained participation in Jewish life.
Writing in Newsweek magazine recently, author Joseph Epstein takes a somewhat satirical look at the affect Bernie Madoff is having on the Jewish community. But in his attempt to highlight the supposed benefits of some people losing all their money, he instead offers a disingenuous commentary of the state of our community.
Epstein’s thesis is basically that rich Jews have not only become too complacent in America, but they are striving to be “WASPs.” Well-to-do Jews, he posits, are more interested in acting rich than acting Jewish, so losing all their money will somehow get them back in touch with their roots. This broad generalization about rich Jews is insulting enough, but it’s the penultimate paragraph in which we see the crescendo of his offensive notions. He spoke to a “Hungary-born historian,” who believes that the “story of the Jews in America is over.” Epstein elaborates:
“He didn’t say it straight out, because he didn’t have to, but what was implied is that American Jews have lost the great energy that made them such a force in American life. They will never again, if he is correct, equal their earlier achievements…. As they become ever more assimilated, American Jews, my friend the historian was saying, will no longer constitute a distinctive group with a distinguished role to play in American life.”
This is remarkably myopic and untrue, and it’s a shame people will read Epstein’s article and mistake his view of the Jewish community as fact. In comments on Newsweek’s website, one poster, Jmyles08, points to numerous organizations “sprouting up all across the country that strengthen the American Jewish community,” adding that through his own work with Jewish college students he is confident today’s generation of Jews have not “lost their edge or will be diluted into an American melting pot any time soon.”
Perhaps Epstein is too far removed from those of us who work on the ground, who are actively involved in running programs that help engage and strengthen the Jewish community. We see day in and day out the vibrancy that still exists and the passion with which legions of charitable foundations, Jewish communal professionals and volunteer leaders put into their work. This dedication to Jewish culture, identity and success is tangible, and we hope people will look past Epstein’s narrow view of our community.
Reactions to Barack Obama’s inauguration speech have run the gamut from exhilaration (the New York Times is now “filled with hope” that Obama will be able to draw the nation together) to ambivalence (syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer said it was “rhetorically flat,” lacking rhythm and cadence). Despite the differences, almost all, including JOI, admire Obama’s message of unity in a time of crisis.
Writing in The Forward, Julius Lester, an African-American Jewish author and musician, shares our admiration but thinks Obama could have taken it one step further. As an activist in the 1960’s civil rights movement, professor emeritus of Judaic and Near Eastern studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, a Jew-by-choice, and advocate for improved relationships between the African-American and Jewish-American communities, he has a unique insight into what it means to be welcoming to all.
Julius was able to read between the lines and found some areas where he thinks Obama’s message of inclusion and a “common humanity” needs some precision. His comments are rooted in a fervent desire to see Obama succeed since he is overjoyed that Obama has ascended to the highest office in the nation (“I love that Barack Obama is now our president,” he writes at the end of the piece). We agree that more can always be done when talking about inclusion, and we believe Obama is distinctly qualified to this take on this issue. Julius just wants to make sure everyone is included in Obama’s vision, and this common humanity “is one that will add to the dignity and safety of all our lives.”
Judaism has survived and grown because of its ability to adapt to its surroundings. The Torah is an “expressly patrilineal document,” said Mike, a second year rabbinical student at American Jewish University (formerly the University of Judaism). It was in the time of the writing of the Mishna (background on Jewish law) that Judaism started to move towards matrilineal descent. This proves that “leaders of the people have the authority to introduce changes consistent with our tradition.”
Writing in his personal blog, Mike thinks it’s time to revisit and reverse the notion of matrilineal descent. He makes the argument not only theologically, but also as a practical matter. Since the reform movement began allowing for patrilineal descent in 1983, those kids are now grown up and getting married. Since they were raised as Jews, Mike said, they might “have an interest in marrying other Jews.” And they just might want to do this at a conservative synagogue. Is the Conservative Movement ready to shut their doors or welcome them in?
The doors should be wide open, and Mike points to recent changes within the Conservative movement that demonstrate the agility of Judaism to cope with modern times. Mike writes:
“It is frankly bizarre that the Conservative Movement can twist itself into knots for the laudable goal of welcoming openly gay and lesbian rabbis, but when the issue of patrilineal descent comes up, we start singing “Tradition!””
There are a number of reasons to rethink notions of patrilineal and matrilineal descent, but none as important as the “moral obligation” to embrace and engage those in our midst. If a Jewish father and a mother of another religious background raise their children as Jews, the last thing we should do is tell them they are not a part of the community. Mike puts it best when he says: “I hope to soon see the day when Conservative rabbis and congregations welcome entire Jewish families, including the children of Jewish fathers.”
I remember going to a friends bat mitzvah when I was 14 – she was a year behind me in school. Her family belonged to a synagogue that didn’t allow women to read from the Torah, but the girl wanted to anyway. She felt, as a Jew, there was no higher honor in Judaism, and she wanted to share in that experience. Her family and the synagogue came to a compromise. She could read Torah, but outside of the synagogue. Afterwards, the rabbi congratulated her and then made an announcement that the “real service” would now take place inside.
That comment always bothered me, and it was that kind of experience which led Tova Hartman to help create Shira Hadasha in Jerusalem. According to an article in the latest Moment Magazine, it’s “an Orthodox synagogue where women can read from the Torah and lead services—in front of men.”
The synagogue itself isn’t newsworthy – it’s been around since 2001 and JOI’s Rabbi Kerry Olitzky often visits when he is in Israel. What stands out from the article is the lesson that Judaism is not static, that it can evolve with modern thought to accommodate everyone’s taste, even in the strictest of Jewish movements. Evidence of their success is the fact that the synagogue still draws crowds of 200 to 300 on a typical Shabbat. Tova said she and the people who started the synagogue faced a large amount of criticism; a lot of which said that Shira Hadasha was creating a split in the Jewish community. Tova said yes, there is a split – but it’s a waste of time to focus on disagreements regarding how people practice Judaism. She said:
The unity of the Jewish people is very important. But I believe we can be a unified people who are very different. We can feel deep solidarity with one another.
She is speaking about the differences within Orthodox Judaism, but we believe this is a comment that should be applied towards all those who seek a warm and welcoming Jewish community.
Today we saw Barack Obama sworn in as the 44th President of the United States. His meteoric rise to the nation’s highest office has been an inspiration, particularly to all those who have dedicated themselves to promoting tolerance and unity among the vast diversity of this country.
President Obama’s inaugural address was an impassioned plea for everyone to put aside their differences and work together to weather the economic and international storms we currently face. He said America’s journey to prosperity and greatness was tread by people who saw our nation as something “bigger than the sum of our individual ambitions; greater than all the differences of birth or wealth or faction.” It’s time to reclaim that vision of selflessness, to assemble on this day with the common goal of protecting our future. “For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness.”
Though his speech was directed towards the multitudes that make up America, his message of unity is one that resonated deeply with all of us at JOI. We understand the differences that exist within the Jewish community are part of what makes us a stronger because it has given us a greater sense of who we are and where we come from. Our ability to recognize and celebrate our own “patchwork heritage” – which now includes intermarried families raising Jewish children, Jews by choice, and many others on the periphery – will determine the warmth with which we embrace all those in our midst and the strength of our community as a whole.
In a recent op-ed in the JTA just in time for Martin Luther King Day, Edmon J. Rodman calls for a “’devar acher,’ a fresh look at our relationship with the black community and how we welcome others into our own.”
Rodman goes on to recommend that we establish a “Yom Ger,” a day of welcoming the stranger. While we appreciate the sentiment, we at JOI hope that this imperative is never limited to a 24 hour period. Martin Luther King Jr. Day commemorates the life of a civil rights hero, though to create change we could never limit our work for civil rights and against cultural and institutional racism to that day.
Rather, our work is a year-round, life-long, community wide (including those who identify as members of both the black and Jewish community) drive for change. Everyone who identifies with the Jewish people helps create a patchwork. It’s imperative for our strength in both numbers and identity that welcome and acknowledge each individual as an equal contribution to the Jewish community and embrace the inherent diversity of all those who cast their lot with our own.
Rodman draws on an ancient call to action to make his point,
“Jewish tradition drives home more than any other concept that we welcome and befriend the ger, the stranger — those not of our faith or community. As it is says in Deuteronomy, “You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in Egypt.”
So, we are reminded of a two fold task as we celebrate the leadership of Dr. King: We must embrace—not merely tolerate—our differences, whether we find them inside or outside of the Jewish community.
“Given the rainbow muddle that is Jewish identity today—from born-again to secular and all the way to couldn’t-care-less—what does a Jewish film festival mean? A very big tent is what, to judge by some of the movies previewed in this year’s New York Jewish Film Festival.”
The quote is from a recent review in the Village Voice newspaper, but it could be applied to any number of cities because January seems to be Jewish Film Festival month. Along with New York, four other cities – Las Vegas, Baton Rouge, Atlanta and Jackson, MS – are holding festivals with a lineup of films that run the gamut from screwball comedy to historical documentary. Some festivals are larger than others (the Jackson festival has four movies, the Atlanta festival has 45), but no matter the number of films, each provides a great opportunity for people to come together and explore a variety of issues facing the Jewish Community worldwide.
Film festivals are a great example of what we call Destination Jewish Culture, which is part of our Public Space JudaismSM model. Most festivals are held at secular venues, so people don’t have to belong anywhere to see these films and they are open to anyone who might be interested. Since the barrier to participation has already been lowered, film festivals can become effective outreach tools. With good name collection techniques, such as raffle tickets, and dedicated follow-up, these events could go from a one time interaction to deeper and continuing Jewish engagement.
With such a large number of festivals to choose from, maybe more people will find the time to attend a screening or two. If so, we hope those organizing the events will recognize the outreach opportunity and take advantage. Either way, it’s exciting to see so many communities hold Jewish film festivals and showcase important movies that otherwise would rarely be seen.
Reality dating shows are, in general, a train wreck. Especially dating shows in which people compete for another person’s affection. Everyone is forced to act “natural” in front of a camera while they connive and back stab their way into the heart of either the man or woman at the center of the show. Kind of makes you yearn for simpler times when parents made all the decisions in love.
Perhaps that’s what gave NBC the idea for their newest dating show, Momma’s Boys. The premise is this: Three men compete for the love and affection of a pool of women, with a catch. The men are momma’s boys, and their moms are along for the ride, watching and offering their opinions the whole time.
It so happens that Rob and Esther, one of the mother/son combinations, are Jewish. And this has, for better or for worse, brought out issues of interfaith relationships. Only one of the girls the men can choose from, Lauren, is Jewish. But Rob doesn’t think he has chemistry with Lauren. He likes Camille. Esther thinks Lauren is the only girl Rob should pursue a relationship with because she’s Jewish. This all came to a head in a recent episode in which the three male contestants had to throw Christmas and Hanukkah parties. It was at the end of this episode when Esther laid out, in no uncertain terms, her thoughts on Rob’s future. According to various online episode summaries, Esther said Camille isn’t “good enough” for Rob because she isn’t Jewish, and that’s the end of the story as far as she is concerned. Part of Esther’s outlook, it’s explained, comes from the fact that her parents are holocaust survivors who rebuilt their lives in America.
We have here the two basic sides to the intermarriage argument: Esther thinks that marrying in is the only way for Rob to properly nurture his future children’s Jewish identity and honor his family’s traditions. Rob doesn’t believe he needs to forsake his feelings for another just to marry a Jewish woman. How will it end? Will Rob succumb to his mom’s pressure (which is possible since the show is about momma’s boys), or will he make his own decision?
Admittedly, reality TV, with its manipulative editing to achieve the most sensationalistic results, is not the ideal place to see this debate carried out. But for those watching who might find themselves in a similar situation, it’s a place to start. In that respect, we are glad these issues are raised and we’re interested to see how this dynamic plays out as the show goes on.
Throughout the 20th century, barriers created in the Jewish community due to gender have been lowered or eliminated. Many congregations and institutions across the Jewish spectrum have created dynamic egalitarian environments that allow both men and women to operate on equal footing both spiritually and civically. Normative gender roles have been redefined and re-imagined.
However, the Jewish Community—and American society at large—is currently confronting the important issue of those who fall outside our gender norms of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ as determined by anatomy and external organs. A recent article by Rebecca Spence of The Forward highlighted this new focus on creating an environment welcoming to transgender individuals—and all.
Rabbi Elliot Kukla, a transgender Reform Rabbi based in San Francisco, spoke about the issue at a recent West Coast regional conference of Reform rabbis. He said that he is proud of the recent shift he has seen in the acceptance of transgendered Jews:
“I’m so amazed at the old ladies who will turn to their friends and say, ‘Did you meet the nice, young transgender rabbi?’” Kukla said. “Some of that is San Francisco, but that conversation would never have happened a few years ago.”
The number of innovative projects actively advocating for this new awareness and appreciation of the inclusion of transgender individuals has “increased to a level never seen before,” according to the article (Details on these programs are below the jump). It’s another step towards creating a Jewish community that is open to all who approach, and we are glad to see a growing number of people who are beginning to address this issue.
We came across an interesting article a couple of weeks ago in a local Brooklyn Newspaper, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. It was a write up of a panel discussion that took place at Stuyvesant High School “about the complications that arise when members of different ethnic or religious groups begin a romantic relationship.”
Sponsored by the group Not Just Blacks and Jews in Conversation, whose goal is to promote “peace and understanding among different racial, ethnic, and cultural groups,” the discussion was meant to bring to the forefront issues surrounding interfaith and interracial relationships that many find difficult to talk about. And the dialogue, as printed in the article, seemed remarkably candid. For instance, some admitted that when people intermarry, “your culture can become a little watered down.” But on the other hand, others said that’s not a definite conclusion – it’s up to individuals to “learn about their own heritage and roots, and embrace that part of their identity.”
What really seemed to stand out about this forum was the honesty with which the topics were discussed. The presenters created a space for students to ask whatever was on their mind, and they didn’t hold back with their answers. It’s refreshing to read about a group that doesn’t talk down to high school students about tough issues that many people in North America will inevitably face. Instead, they prefer to be as open as possible to generate interest and debate.
Interracial or interfaith relationships have become the norm, and it’s likely that some of the students who attended the discussion will one day find themselves dating or married to someone from another religious or ethnic background. Getting young people to talk about these issues early on will hopefully better prepare them as they navigate the challenges, whether from family or friends, brought on through these relationships.
If you’re an outreach professional and you have just run a successful program – high attendance, gathered lots of names, and maybe even received some press – what happens next? How do you make sure that the people you connected with stay involved in your organization or cause? Those are the questions currently being asked by Birthright Israel, according to an article in the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle. It comes from the fact that “after the high of the Birthright trip” many people go home and get back into routines that don’t include “becoming involved in the Jewish community.”
That’s why a few months ago Birthright Israel started a project called Birthright Next. The goal is to “build on the inspiration and energy from the Birthright trips and promote the alumni’s involvement in Jewish life.”
The Chronicle article said this idea has now bubbled over to the local level in Milwaukee. A few area alumni and Andrea Hoffman, director of immersion experiences for the Hillel Foundation for Jewish Life, met a couple of weeks ago at the Milwaukee Jewish Federation to figure how they can foster better engagement among area Birthright alumni. Do they need to create a new avenue for outreach, or do the resources already exist? They don’t have any answers yet, but it’s great to see that these are the issues galvanizing this group of people.
A comment by Hoffman at the end of the article spoke volumes about what kind of shift might be necessary. She said this generation isn’t as inclined to come through the doors of institutions, so it’s Hillel’s perspective that they have to go where the people are “to find out who they are and where they are Jewishly and where they want to be Jewishly and make connections for them.”
We believe lowering barriers by finding and engaging people on their turf, rather than waiting for them to come to us, is a keystone in outreach. It’ll be interesting to see if this group indeed takes on that model as they move beyond the preliminary stages. No matter what they come up with, they are already on the right track. We often tell people that attendance is only half of the equation. You’ll know your program was a true success when you see these same people participating down the road.
There are many methods of entry into the Jewish community without having to actually walk through the doors of an institution. And it’s these entrances that many of today’s younger generation of Jews are seeking out. As a matter of fact, wrote JDub Records co-founder Aaron Bisman in a recent New York Jewish Week editorial : “People of my generation have multifaceted identities. We understand community to be fluid, and we want to be able to engage with multiple communities at any one time.”
In his piece, he makes the argument that since many young Jews today have lost touch with their religious identity, culture, such as Jewish music, books and movies, offers “an easy and interesting access point that transmits our values.” These entry points work because they allow “young adults to enjoy modern Jewish culture in mainstream, secular places.”
Young Jews want this, he says, because there is no one single institution that can meet the needs of a 21st century Jew. Promoting Jewish culture will allow people to find personal meaning in the religion. And once they do, more will start to participate. He believes promoting Jewish culture will not only help people ask themselves the question of “Why be Jewish,” but it just might offer an answer, too.
Using culture as a low barrier entry point is a great idea, and it’s something many organizations already advocate for. Even though Aaron’s ideas aren’t exactly new, it’s encouraging to see someone in his position make such an impassioned plea. Sometimes youth will listen more when it’s one of their peers talking. In this case, we hope everyone is listening.
All too often, intermarried Jewish professionals face overt prejudice, an unacknowledged glass ceiling, and couched criticisms that make them self-conscious in their capacity as Jewish role models for children, young adults and seniors alike. Others see their experience as an asset as they relate to diverse groups.
The Jewish Outreach Institute is launching an email discussion forum for intermarried/inter-partnered Jewish communal professionals who wish to discuss the workplace dynamics of being in an interfaith relationship. JOI is acknowledging their unique struggles enriching the Jewish community amidst judgment and inequity by creating an online discussion forum exclusively for intermarried Jewish professionals.
By providing a platform for intermarried Jewish professionals to share their experiences and find support in one another, it is JOI’s hope that awareness about this issue will grow and professionals will feel at ease identifying as intermarried in the workplace.
This listserve will provide a place for them to discuss their experiences, find solidarity, support and seek or provide advice.
We invite you to join the conversation! If your spouse or partner is of another religious background and you identify as a Jewish professional, email Rachel Gross.
Hundreds are already participating in other JOI listserves that support those in the context of intermarriage. JOI’s longest running forum, The Mothers Circle supports over 400 women of other religious backgrounds raising Jewish children. Mothers discuss their diverse but shared experiences relating to in-law relationships, teaching children about Jewish holidays and maintaining their own heritage. Many express that the listserve community has empowered them as they raise Jewish children and provided them with concrete tools to do so.
Rabbi Judith Hauptman, a conservative rabbi and professor of Talmud at the Jewish Theological Seminary, wrote a piece for the New York Jewish Week asking why reform and orthodox congregations are growing while conservative synagogues grow “more and more empty.” To find a possible answer, she decided to attend Friday night services at Central Synagogue, a large reform congregation in Manhattan. What she found was a synagogue that promoted community as much as it promoted prayer – and a Friday night service with nary and empty place to sit.
Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, she wrote, until the beginning of the Torah service (which usually happens on a Saturday). It’s customary for the rabbis to remove a Torah, or Torahs, from the ark and carry them around so the congregants can wait their turn to kiss the Torah. But in this congregation, the procession took well over ten minutes.
“Rather than stand silently waiting for their turn to kiss the Torah, people began talking to each other. So I, too, entered into conversation with the young man next to me, also there by himself, and, as it turns out, a Friday-night regular. I suddenly realized that this gap in the service was part of the plan: by taking so long to bring the Torah around, the rabbis were encouraging us to talk to each other, to form a community. No one was going to be able to come by herself, sit through the service, and leave without speaking to anyone else. Formality was out; warmth was in.”
Of course this isn’t a miracle cure for the conservative movement, but its one way this particular congregation is encouraging a warm and welcoming community. Rabbi Hauptman didn’t know anyone there, but while the Torah was being walked about, she found herself forced to engage with others in attendance. She loved the entire service so much she “danced” her way home. She also realized she was jealous of this reform congregation. “As I look to orthodoxy on the right and reform on the left, I see vitality,” she writes. The orthodox attract people who adhere to strict halacha (Jewish law), while personal freedom attracts people to reform congregations. Each might not agree with each other, but “both approaches are keeping Jews Jewish, and that’s what matters.”
So what can conservative Judaism offer, she asks. Conservative congregations won’t shorten prayers and most won’t add musical instruments, and many people seem to find the traditional conservative service “boring.” Rabbi Hauptman suggests conservative rabbis and laypeople “visit at least 10 synagogues” across the religious spectrum. See what works and try to bring that home. We think that’s a pretty good idea. As Adam Bronfman and JOI’s Rabbi Olitzky wrote in a recent op-ed, we shouldn’t be competing. If we really want to see Judaism grow, “we should be asking questions of each other that will help us find and celebrate our common ground.”
Jim Keen, a columnist for Interfaithfamily.com and author of the book “Inside Intermarriage: A Christian Partner’s Perspective on Raising Jewish Children,” recently wrote an article for the Atlanta Jewish Times on his reflections as a Protestant dad preparing for his daughter’s bat mitzvah. And it’s the kind of story we wish we heard more often.
His family’s congregation, Temple Beth Emeth in Ann Arbor, MI, has taken positive steps to make sure Jim will be involved in the service by giving him the Hagbah, lifting the Torah before it’s dressed and put back in the ark. Knowing that there were certain parts of the service his temple would not be able to let him perform, like being called up to the Torah to read the blessing before and after a section of the Torah is read, having the honor of the Hagbah gave Jim a “deep feeling of warmth and love” for the temple. He continues:
“Temple Beth Emeth has always accepted us as an intermarried family. Our rabbi, our cantor, the religious school director as well as our entire synagogue community recognize that intermarriage happens (frequently). They also understand that the best way to encourage participation in Jewish life is to lower the barriers to entry and invite interfaith families in.”
Each temple or congregation will have their own set of standards when it comes to including the spouse of another religious background during life cycle events like a bar/bat mitzvah. But what shouldn’t be denied is an opportunity for the whole family to celebrate with the community. Synagogues should represent more than just a place to worship – they should be a place that defines the community. And in the case of Jim Keen and his family, that means opening their doors to everyone and saying “Welcome.”