Entries for February 2009
Religious practice wasn’t terribly important to Carrie McCarthy and Steve Weinger when they met in college. It wasn’t until they had a child that they “first addressed the issues of what role religion would play in their home,” she said in an article in the Jewish Community News of Silicon Valley. She was raised Irish-Catholic, but agreed to raise her children in the religion of her husband – Judaism.
What Carrie found in Silicon Valley was an inclusive community that welcomed her, her husband and their children unconditionally.
By being so open, Silicon Valley now has a fully affiliated family in the Weingers. Carrie is heavily involved with the area JCC, sits on committees, and the family joined a Havura, a group of people who gather once a month to celebrate Shabbat and other holiday observances. She is also helping to bring PJ Library to the area, a program that sends Jewish books and music to families with young children to create stronger Jewish homes.
These experiences not only made Carrie feel welcomed, but they have also given her the opportunity to talk to others who are in her position, women of other religious backgrounds raising Jewish children. Though conversion is not “on Carrie’s horizon,” her involvement in the community is helping make sure that her children “are secure in their own identities.”
This story is an example of what a Jewish community is doing right. Instead of creating barriers, they have been removed so Carrie and her family have access to the resources they need. These are the steps every community should be taking to welcome interfaith families.
We have had the privilege of working with the community for a couple of years now, conducting a “community scan” that focused on what they are doing to welcome intermarried and unaffiliated families, and traveling extensively to the area to meet with professionals and lay leaders about how to create a more welcoming and inclusive Jewish community. And through the vision and direction of Jewish Federation of Silicon Valley executive director Jyl Jurman and the support of Koret Foundation, we know there is a lot more happening there that can fit into one article. But a success story like the Weingers shows us that outreach works – and more stories like this will hopefully inspire other communities to welcome all Jewish families in their midst.
The Big Tent Judaism Coalition, which launched a little over a year ago, has already grown to include 250 organizations that span North America and the world. They represent the increasing number of individuals and institutions that are committed to creating a more inclusive and welcoming Jewish community for interfaith families and everyone else choosing to cast their lot with the Jewish people.
To help bring this network of organizations together, we have created a monthly newsletter called the “Voices of Big Tent Judaism.” This will provide a place for all those interested in building this movement for welcoming to receive resources from JOI, share best practices and successful programs, and learn from peers working across the country.
This month’s newsletter features: best practices for Celebrating Diversity (in honor of Black History Month), tips on LGBT Inclusion from Jewish Mosaic Executive Director Gregg Drinkwater, and highlights of one synagogue’s attempt to break a little known Guiness World Record. Get the full scoop on everything here!
Not a member of Big Tent Judaism? I invite you to click here to learn more and join the coalition.
This month, Jonathan Tobin, executive editor of the magazine Commentary, wrote a lengthy piece discussing the Bernie Madoff scandal and its effect on the future of the Jewish community. Towards the end of the piece, after spending 2200 words dissecting the minutia of who lost what and how, he gets to his point – intermarriage is the real problem for both Jewish philanthropy and our long-term survival.
We had decided not to respond, but Julie Wiener, who writes the monthly column for the New York Jewish Week called “In the Mix” about her life in an interfaith marriage, was “taken aback” by Tobin’s piece. She wrote in an editorial that “through confusing twists of logic,” Tobin believes outreach to the intermarried has been “a failure,” and he argues that “with resources scarce, the Jewish community needs to focus on ensuring Judaism’s long-term survival.”
So what exactly does that involve, she asks? And what does he even mean by outreach? “Does he refer only to programs that specifically target interfaith families” like our Mothers Circle program, or our Public Space JudaismSM programs that attract both affiliated and unaffiliated Jews, or something like Birthright Israel, those free trips to Israel for Jewish youth?
Either way, Wiener writes, “Anti-outreach views like Tobin’s did not hold sway while the economy was good.” She sites the fact that both JOI and Interfaithfamily.com have expanded, and the Mothers Circle is in almost 40 communities (actually, it’s in 55!)
This is evidence that investment in outreach has a positive impact. Attracting those on the periphery – including interfaith families - can enrich their lives and “add to the vibrancy of the Jewish community.” She said that Boston, Atlanta and San Francisco, three communities that have invested heavily in outreach to interfaith, “are continuing with their commitments for now.” And she spoke with JOI’s Rabbi Kerry Olitzky who said despite being hit by the Madoff debacle, we plan to continue expanding our network of programs (including Grandparents Circle and Empowering Ruth).
Kerry says at the end of the piece that “we’re dealing with a population that’s not engaged by the core community — and it’s the largest and fastest-growing segment of the community.” Yes, outreach organizations will have to spend more time fundraising then ever before if we want to be able to continue to reach these folks. But it’s worth it. The investment in outreach has paid off, and the absolute wrong thing to do now is stop our efforts to welcome all the intermarried families and unaffiliated Jews in our midst.
With the New Year well underway, we are happy to see many communities across North America offering our Mothers Circle program for the first time. One new community was recently highlighted in the Jewish Chronicle of Pittsburgh.
As one of the 55 communities that has brought the program to their city, Pittsburgh has taken the curriculum we designed and added a few of their own twists, like sponsoring a Jewish tour of the area. Zipora Gur, director of advanced education at the Agency for Jewish Learning, which operates the program, said she introduced participants to “the day schools and to the kosher store and to Pinskers and to the JCC.” The group is also going to put together a Jewish cookbook.
Funded through a grant from the Fine Foundation and the United Jewish Federation, these women are dedicated to raising Jewish children in spite of the challenges they face. Gur puts it best in the article when she says “Those women are heroes, they chose to raise Jewish children and we need to give them all the help so they will know and make Jewish traditions.”
Indeed they are heroes, and we applaud the efforts of everyone involved – both facilitators and participants. The early success of the program in Pittsburgh even has Gur thinking it will expand to other suburbs. Of course we will be there every step of the way offering guidance and support, and we are positive Pittsburgh’s efforts will lead to a stronger and more vibrant Jewish community.
2008 was a busy year for interfaith celebrity couples. Stories came out about Ivanka Trump (daughter of real estate tycoon Donald Trump) and Isla Fisher (star of the recent movie Confessions of a Shopaholic) going through the process of conversion to marry their boyfriends (businessman Jared Kushner and actor Sacha Baron Cohen, respectively). And then there was Christina Aguilera and her husband, Jordan Bratman, who we learned are raising their child Jewish.
Now we have learned of another interfaith couple – Actor Leonardo DiCaprio and Israeli model Bar Rafaeli. But according to a brief item in the New York Daily News, if the two are considering marriage, Bar’s father has an ultimatum:
Supermodel Bar Refaeli won’t be marrying beau Leo DiCaprio if her father, Rafael Rafaeli, has anything to say about it. Aaron Braunstein, who’s promoting the Brawl at the Wall boxing match between Israeli and Palestinian fighters July 4, saw Bar’s dad in Jerusalem last week: “He told me that if Leo doesn’t convert to Judaism, there will be no marriage.”
The concern Bar’s father feels about his daughter’s interfaith relationship is not uncommon among Jewish parents. His demand for a conversion used to be the norm here in the United States (and no doubt still is in Israel where he lives and where intermarriage is far less frequent). But over the past two decades most American Jewish parents have come to recognize that by the time their child is old enough to contemplate marriage—or appear on the cover of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue!—the opportunity to instill a strong Jewish identity has already occurred and now they must trust their children to carry on the Jewish tradition even if their partner does not share the same background. American Jewish parents are increasingly realizing that when their child introduces someone that they obviously care deeply about, the first step is for the parents to offer a warm welcome and genuinely try to establish a trusting relationship. After that occurs, and only within that context, will deeper conversations emerge about the upbringing of any future grandchildren—which is ultimately the couple’s decision alone—without feelings of anger threatening family relations.
There was an article in the Forward newspaper recently about the future of the Conservative movement. In the piece, J.J. Goldberg notes the movement’s decline in numbers over the last twenty years, and how today’s leaders are trying to figure out the best way to reverse that trend. It’s an insightful piece, but one issue went unmentioned – intermarriage. This omission prompted JOI’s associate executive director Paul Golin to write a letter to the editor. In it, he said:
If the omission is reflective of the lack of conversation about intermarriage within the Conservative movement itself during the search for new leadership, that will not bode well for the movement’s future. As much as I agree that issues of geographic migration and transdenominationalism are relevant, they’re not the elephant in the room. It’s the inability to effectively welcome significant numbers of intermarried families that is the single most important factor in the Conservative movement’s decline, and it’s one that can be fixed.
Many Jews like me who grew up in the Conservative movement tacitly understand that if we intermarry, we shouldn’t bother coming back to the congregations where we celebrated earlier simchas. This is not about our loyalty to the movement (“transdenominationalism”), it’s about the movement’s loyalty to us. Many of the unwelcoming policies still on the books are cultural rather than religious decisions based on unfounded fear. Hundreds of thousands of intermarried families raising Jewish children over the past two decades prove that intermarriage in and of itself is not the end of Jewish continuity.
We know the Conservative movement is capable of creating a more inclusive environment – just look at the steps they have taken to ordain gay and lesbian rabbis and cantors. The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the association of Conservative congregations in North America, is currently searching for a new executive director. Paul thinks one of the most important questions that should be asked of anyone considered for the job is “How will you help our movement better welcome intermarried families?” The answer might just determine the future of the Conservative Movement.
Does a strong interfaith relationship have the power to overcome every obstacle? What if that obstacle is 1930s Germany? That was the real-life situation encountered by Gisa Peiper and Paul Konopka, dramatized recently in a play titled Silence Not, A Love Story by Cynthia Cooper.
The inspiration for the play lies in the fact that Peiper and Konopka were able to “find love and courage as they engage in resistance to the rise of Nazism in Germany in the early 1930s,” according to a write-up. Almost everything they were doing as part of the resistance was dangerous, including their personal relationship – she was Jewish, he was Catholic. Both were imprisoned at various times and hunted until they were able to immigrate to America in 1941, via France. And it was only when they arrived in America that they were able to marry. Peiper recounted in 2000 how they were refused marriage in France because the Justice of the Peace believed “no Jew and non-Jew should be united.”
Luckily things have changed, but intermarriage still introduces a number of challenges, some greater than others. This play, and the lives of Peiper and Konopka, shows us that no matter what barriers are placed before us, we always have the ability to “overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles” and live the life we choose.
This upcoming Sunday, JOI associate executive director Paul Golin will join scholars, rabbis, and Jewish communal leaders at the Jewish Community Center of Manhattan to speak at a summit hosted by Jewish Mosaic, an organization devoted to creating a welcoming Jewish community for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Jews and their families
Titled The Welcoming Synagogues Project: Diversity and Inclusion in the Jewish World, the event is described by Jewish Mosaic as a way to look at “how synagogues across all Jewish movements respond to diversity issues including intermarriage, Jews by choice and Jews of Color, and particularly around LGBT people.” Paul will sit on a panel discussion on Sunday evening, and on Monday morning there will be a presentation of new research findings on diversity and inclusion in synagogues. Both events are open to the public.
At JOI, we believe one of the best ways to grow Judaism’s Big Tent is for congregations to leave behind assumptions about what Jews “look like” or how families are configured. Instead, we should focus on how to find and engage all those who feel like they are on the periphery of the community. We are excited to be involved with a cross-denominational event that will look for the best practices to welcome in an even greater number of individuals into our institutions.
We invite you to join us for both events. The panel discussion will take place Sunday evening, Feb. 22 from 6:30 – 8:45 pm. The research findings will take place Monday morning, Feb. 23 from 8:15 – 9:45 am. The JCC of Manhattan is located at 334 Amsterdam Avenue, New York, NY.
Breaking down barriers to participation in Jewish life is one way to get people involved in the Jewish community. But what about the barriers that exist between those already involved? By this I mean how do you get people from different denominations and levels of practice to work together to crate a stronger, unified Jewish community? That is the point of the Limmud conferences, which are held in cities worldwide during the year – most recently in Los Angeles. A piece in the LA Times captured the diversity and the positive affect the conference has on its participants.
Limmud, which means “Learning,” started 25 years ago in England and has expanded globally to 40 cities. The LA conference, run by the group LimmudLA, was the second such gathering in the area, and it brought in Jews from not only every denomination, but from countries such as Mexico and Israel. Shep Rosenman, founder of LimmudLA said the goal of the conference is to “get people to own their own Jewish experience in the context of building a Jewish community where everyone comes together regardless of their denominations.”
The attendees described the conference as a “safe place” where people could learn and grow from exposure to a diversity of ideas. “It’s an amazing experience that you just can’t have anywhere else in terms of the people you’re exposed to and the learning,” said Avram Mandell.
This weekend, people on the east coast can gain a similar experience when LimmudPhilly kicks off on the evening of Feb. 21, 2009. For two days, participants can attend this community-wide learningfest “designed to enhance and deepen” connections to Judaism. On Sunday morning, JOI’s Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky will be leading two sessions - both reflect the ancient Jewish tradition of welcoming the stranger, and the second session takes it further by explaining how that notion can inform the challenges and opportunities we face amidst the rising rates of interfaith marriage in the Jewish community.
The conference is open to the public and each session is free once you pay for the initial registration. If you would like to attend Kerry’s sessions or any other at LimmudPhilly, check out its website for information and a detailed schedule.
We hope to see you there!
The month of February marks many things; Black History Month, President’s Day and a certain love-filled holiday made highly profitable by Hallmark and Godiva.
This year, many in the American Jewish community also recognize February as Jewish Disability Awareness Month. While over 30 Washington D.C. area synagogues have observed this event for the past 8 years, 2009 marks the first time it’s being recognized on a national level. This movement is a great step towards inclusion and welcoming for those with special needs inside of—or excluded from—our communities.
Jewish Disabilities Awareness Month, a collaborative effort of many national and local Jewish organizations, works to raise awareness about the physical and perceptual barriers erected for those with disabilities within our organizations. In addition to advocacy, many resources are available to those hoping to tear down these barriers to Jewish engagement for those with special needs.
JOI applauds these efforts to welcome all who cast their lot with the Jewish people. To find out more about this initiative and to download a Disability Awareness Month Resource packet, check out the Partnership for Jewish Life and Learning’s website.
After the month of February, if you want to learn more about how to make your organization inclusive of those with special needs, join us at JOI’s North American conference in Philadelphia from June 7-9, 2009. Limor Hartmann, who runs the D.C. area’s Shalom BBYO program for teens with special needs, will share about Shalom BBYO and best practices for all!
When you have two distinct and separate backgrounds – either cultural or religious – where do you fit in? That’s a question artist Maya Escobar has been asking herself most of her life, and it has since become one of the major themes of her work.
In an interview with JewishinSt.Louis.org, the online gateway to the St. Louis Jewish community, Maya explains that growing up with a Guatemalan father and a Jewish mother is what sent her on a quest for her identity. Maya told the interviewer that after visiting Guatemala for the first time, she didn’t feel like she totally belonged. “And as a Latina-American and Jewish-American, it is unclear if Maya has found a community that defines who she is.”
Because of this schism, Maya’s artwork, both on canvas and in performance, reflects a world without borders. For herself, that means being more than a “Jew of Color.” Maya doesn’t like that term because “it’s such a limited understanding of what a Jew is.”
Maya’s progressive and innovative expressions of Judaism, along with her diverse background, are why we have invited her to perform at our upcoming North American conference in Philadelphia, PA from June 7-9, 2009. Click here to register and join hundreds of Jewish communal professionals and volunteer leaders, both new and veteran to outreach, to hear from Maya and other leading thinkers offering innovative techniques to create a more welcoming Jewish community and secure a more vibrant Jewish future.
We hope to see you there!
While not a Jewish holiday, Valentine’s Day is celebrated by many in the Jewish community. And just in time for the holiday comes a new movie about an interfaith relationship called Two Lovers, starring Joaquin Phoenix, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Vinessa Shaw. The movie is about a young Jewish man (Phoenix) who is torn between dating the Jewish girl his parents would like him to end up with (Shaw), and the girl who lives across the street (Paltrow).
I haven’t seen the movie, so I can’t say how it manages the family dynamic surrounding interfaith relationships. Reviews of the movie indicate the religious aspect is only one part of the greater narrative - that of a young man searching for his place in life – but we are always interested to see how mainstream movies portray these relationships. As intermarriage continues to become a reality for many families, bringing these issues to the big screen might open a dialogue for couples and their families who find themselves in a similar situation. And Two Lovers might gain more press than usual because Phoenix announced that he is quitting acting and this would be his last movie.
We can only hope the interfaith relationship is depicted in a sensible and conscientious manner. Does anyone plan on going to see the movie this weekend? If so, we would love to know your thoughts, good or bad.
The marking of every bar/bat mitzvah is special for the student, family members and congregation. However, Ahavas Shalom in Newark, NJ recently had a particularly momentous Bat Mitzvah; a young woman, Mei Ming, a Jew-by-Choice, became the first person of Chinese descent to become Bar or Bat Mitzvah at the synagogue.
A decade after her adoption in Wuhan, China, Mei Ming decided that she “wanted somewhere to belong” and found such a warm and welcoming community at Ahavas Shalom. At this Conservative synagogue, “everybody knows your name. It is a place where people from different races and cultures can come together and celebrate one thing.” Eighteen months later, after intensive studies and training, Mei Ming stood on the bimah, chanting her Torah portion.
All of us at JOI congratulate Mei Ming, her family and Ahavas Shalom on what we are sure was a beautiful Bat Mitzvah celebration and a historic day for the synagogue. The “patchwork heritage” (to borrow a phrase from President Obama) of the North American Jewish community continues to grow and it is an inspiration to all of us when Jewish institutions embrace diversity with loving and open arms. In a few short years, I too will celebrate this diversity and witness my cousin of Asian background stand before her family and congregation in southern New Jersey chant her Torah portion.
There are many examples of Jewish communal institutions that are shedding assumptions of what Jews “look like” and how families are configured. They all add to the collective memory of the Jewish people as it marches forward. Jewish continuity is found in diversity. What story of diversity is your family or community/institution adding to the on-going saga of the Jewish people?
Jewish intermarriages often present a unique set of challenges for the couple and their family. Maybe the challenge is finding a rabbi to officiate, or convincing your parents that this marriage will not end Jewish continuity. Each challenge, though, also provides an opportunity to learn, grow and strengthen the relationship.
That was the case with Ari Epstein and Karimeh Shamieh. It’s arguable that the challenges they face are far greater than that of most interfaith couples – he is Jewish, she is Palestinian. When they first met, according to an article in The J, the Jewish news weekly of Northern California, “they had spectacular fights over Israeli-Palestinian issues.” But matters of the heart overpowered their cultural differences, and they two were married last October.
To concretize both their cultural differences and their connectedness, they decided to have a ketubah (marriage contract) “that reflected both their heritages.” Although it’s a contract, ketubah’s are also pieces of art – the text in calligraphy, with illustrations adorning the border. Ari and Karimeh’s ketubah, designed by Rachel Biale, has two pillars, one in Hebrew, the other in Arabic, supported by the English translation. This design, Biale said, “represents their stories and places important to them.”
They are not the first couple to have a multi-language ketubah (JOI’s Paul Golin has one in English, Hebrew and Japanese in honor of his wife). Nor will they be the last. But Ari and Karimeh’s story, symbolized by the ketubah, shows us that no matter how big the challenge an interfaith couple might face, there is always a way to work past those differences and find happiness. This represents a growing subset of the interfaith population in the Jewish community—marriages between Moslems and Jews. It is part of the diversity of the Jewish community which we acknowledge and embrace.
Rebecca Gross, the national coordinator for our Grandparents Circle program (for Jewish grandparents with interfaith grandchildren), posed an interesting question on the Grandparents Circle listserve (email discussion group) that I would like to share:
Having new grandchildren can sometimes bring up family and relationship issues. In many Jewish households, a baby boy is ritually circumcised on the 8th day after his birth in a ceremony called a brit milah (or “bris”). In traditional Jewish contexts, baby girls have naming ceremonies on the Shabbat following their birth, while in liberal circles, the timeframe is far more flexible.
I recently spoke to a grandmother whose new grandson did not have a brit milah. She was both hurt and disappointed by that, and said she felt like her son was rejecting her traditions. She also wondered what this first step meant for the future Jewish identity of her grandson.
Would you feel similar? Or have you also encountered this situation with your own children? If so, what steps would you or have you used to broach discussing these topics with them?
We would love to hear your thoughts. And if you are Jewish with intermarried adult children and would like to sign up and engage in all the discussions these grandparents are having, please contact Rebecca Gross at BGross@JOI.org to join the listserve.
We often say that the best way to find and engage unaffiliated members of the Jewish community is to find them where they are – grocery stores, malls, bookstores, coffee shops, etc… But what if the public space is also a Jewish space? That’s the thinking behind a new project in Philadelphia, according to an article in the Jewish Exponent.
Jon Erlbaum is the executive director of Chevra, a “local group aimed at helping young people in their 20s and 30s forge a connection to Jewish life.” He wants to buy out a bakery and turn it into a Jewish hub, a place where “all sorts of young people can commune and engage with Judaism at whatever level they’re comfortable with.”
It’s an interesting mix of ideas. It’s not a Jewish institution so there are no membership fees and people walking in won’t feel as intimidated as walking into a synagogue. But it is a Jewish space, so the people coming in will most likely have to have some prior knowledge. And finally, since it’s also a cafe, there will probably be unaffiliated Jewish individuals or families who simply stumble upon it.
Erlbaum is certainly covering all the bases, and it sounds like a low barrier inclusive environment. We’ll be interested to see if opening up this kind of public/Jewish space will indeed lead to an increased participation in Jewish life.
Have you ever wondered how welcoming the two largest Jewish communities – US Jews and Israeli Jews – are towards intermarried families? We certainly have. And according to an article on Ynetnews.com, a new study called the Jewish Peoplehood Index Project has an answer.
The study’s findings, which will be presented at the Herzliya Conference (an annual national policy conference held in Israel,) reveal the “affinity and similarity between Israeli and US Jews.” What we found interesting was when participants were asked to respond to the following statement: “We should relate to Jews married to non-Jews as part of the Jewish people in the same way as we relate to Jews married to Jews.” The average percentage between US and Israeli participants who agreed was 64 (69 percent of US, 59 percent of Israeli).
These are encouraging numbers. Ideally they will one day be 100, and the Jewish community will be fully inclusive. Obviously we are not there yet, but 64 percent is evidence that attitudes are changing and people are starting to realize that if we want to help our community grow, we need to actively welcome and engage intermarried families, children of intermarriage, and everyone else on the periphery of the community.
There was an interesting interview in the Forward recently with Yavilah McCoy, a friend of JOI and an advocate for increased awareness of Jewish multiculturalism. She is Jewish, but because she’s also African-American, “her religious authenticity was sometimes called into question.” Those experiences are what propelled Yavilah to dedicate her life to creating a more inclusive Jewish community.
In 2000 she started The Ayecha Resource Organization, a non-profit that educates “rabbis, Jewish educators and others about racial diversity within Judaism.” She is also regional director of The Curriculum Initiaitive (TCI), where she works with unaffiliated Jewish college students to foster a sense of Jewish identity (TCI’s executive director, Adam Gaynor, will be a featured speaker at JOI’s upcoming conference in June). In the interview, Yavilah explains how Obama’s campaign offers lessons to the Jewish community on how to better reach out to Jews across the board. The key, she said, is finding out how to translate what’s core about the values of the Jewish community:
“But when you look at the power of millions of people who came together when Barack Obama spoke about what was core about American society, it makes me hopeful that there’s going to be a day when we can speak to the core of the Jewish religion so that it allows us to stand with each other across our differences.”
We hope so, too. Often its the differences between Jews that hinder any sort of meaningful progress towards uniting us as a whole. Maybe if we can figure out what it is we are all striving for, if we can distill Judaism down to its principles, we can then start to build ourselves back up as a stronger and more vibrant Jewish community.
Last Friday we wanted to immediately blog about our Women’s Summit for a More Welcoming Jewish Community, which had taken place a day earlier in New York City. Today we are following that up with some photographs from the event. While it’s not as exciting as actually having been there, you can see from the photos how engaged the attendees and presenters were in grappling with some of the most important issues we face as a community. Here they are…