Weblog Entries for March 2009

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Jewish Programming in the Public Arena

A core component of JOI’s methodology of reaching new individuals and welcoming them into the Jewish community is meeting them where they are. While JOI offers many models of Public Space Judaism programming, such as Passover in the Matzah Aisles, we are always excited to hear about other Jewish organizations programming in the public arena.

The Curriculum Initiative (TCI) is an organization that serves independent schools by providing resources to strengthen the Jewish identity of Jewish students and nurtures the school communities’ appreciation for Jewish culture and Judaism. They will be sponsoring a screening of the film The Chosen Ones at St. Paul’s School for Girls as part of the Baltimore Jewish Film Festival on April 2nd. Here’s what TCI Executive Director Adam Gaynor and TCI Mid-Atlantic Regional Director Jason Benkendorf had to say about the screening:

The Chosen Ones showcases a new generation of Jewish musicians – including rapper Y-Love, a Baltimore native and Jew-by-choice who will speak following the film. The event is open to community members of all backgrounds and will be attended by Jewish and non-Jewish students from St. Paul’s and several other Baltimore area independent schools.

This partnership with St. Paul’s School for Girls and the Baltimore Jewish Film Festival is part of TCI’s effort to engage independent school students in meaningful exploration of Jewish culture and identity in the very places where they live and learn each day. Tens of thousands of Jewish teens attend independent schools around the United States, and TCI provides low-barrier programming that allows these young people to explore their Jewish identity alongside peers of all backgrounds. This week’s event represents a unique opportunity to engage students in a broader Jewish community event while also drawing the community’s attention to the wonderful public space Jewish programming that TCI is facilitating at independent schools around the country.

We wish TCI luck with the event and encourage those of you in the area to check it out. To hear more from TCI and their strategies for engaging Jewish young adults—and how those strategies are applicable to all Jewish organizations—join us at JOI’s upcoming conference in Philadelphia where Adam Gaynor will be leading a think tank Monday morning on this very topic.

From the Ground Up

Most people assume tradition and religion is passed down from parent to child. But the Washington Jewish Week recently discovered that’s not always the case. In what they call “Bubble-up Judaism,” sometimes it’s the birth of a child that rekindles a dormant Jewish spirit.

They spoke with many families who, for one reason or another, decided to send their children to a Jewish pre-school, only to find that as their child grew in a Jewish environment, so did they. One father said he was inspired to take Hebrew classes and increase his Jewish education in order to “keep up with his son,” who was 4 years old. Some parents now teach Sunday school, others have begun keeping kosher homes. The paper explains:

Families who have established a connection with Judaism through their children come from many backgrounds. Some are interfaith couples. Others were once involved Jewishly, but became disconnected from their roots. In each instance, though, the birth of a child awakened a desire to reconnect, explore Judaism for the first time, or at least provide their son or daughter with a solid Judaic grounding.

What this means is every Jewish family, no matter their background or makeup, should be welcomed into the community and allowed to explore their heritage. This is relevant for anyone – intermarried families, adult children of intermarriage, multiracial Jews – who might have felt marginalized by the Jewish community along the way. Clearly there is a great opportunity for engagement, and we should give them the access they need – especially if they want to raise Jewish children. It seems this can have an even stronger impact on a family than we ever realized.

An Inclusive Community to the End

The town of Prestbury in Gloucestershire, England has joined a growing number of cities across the world that is making it easier for intermarried couples to spend the rest of their lives together. According to a recent article, Prestbury “will be home to Gloucestershire’s first all-inclusive Jewish cemetery.” The piece of land will be owned and operated by the county’s Liberal Jewish Community.

This means “Jews in the county can now be buried next to husbands, wives and family members of other religions in an all-encompassing Jewish cemetery.” But the decision to have an all-inclusive Jewish cemetery is indicative of something else – a realization that this option needs to exist in order to engage unaffiliated and intermarried families at all. “You have to change with the times and adapt to make your faith as relevant as possible in today’s world,” said David Naydorf of the Liberal Jewish Community.

If we want to see more intermarried families participate in the Jewish community, we have to show we support them through the entire life cycle. The message should be that if you lived as a Jewish family, you are welcome to rest as a Jewish family. If you know from day one that after a lifetime together you won’t be able to spend eternity next to your spouse, why get involved in the first place?

Putting an End to Membership Fees

We have often wondered what would happen if a Jewish institution decided to do away with any sort of membership fees. We have blogged numerous times in the past about lowering or eliminating dues at synagogues, believing that without that barrier more people would be inclined to participate. That’s the theory behind the Barnes Family JCC in Phoenix, which recently ended membership fees.

They could do this because membership fees “made up only about 1 percent of the center’s annual budget,” said Executive Director Steve Tepper in the Jewish News of Greater Phoenix. To reclaim the money, they will hold annual campaigns and event based fundraisers. With no fees, the JCC, which serves the East Valley of greater Phoenix, now has a greater chance of engaging the area’s 7,200 Jewish households. Tepper put it this way:

A large number of these families are unaffiliated, intermarried or both… And although the financial requirement may not have been a burden on them, membership was another barrier that they had to cross in order to participate in a Jewish program. “We wanted to eliminate those (barriers).”

None of this means any service reductions – in fact, the JCC hopes to now serve a much broader audience and expand the programs they offer. It’s only been three months, but we’ll be curious to see what effect their decision has on all the families who aren’t currently members. In today’s economy, removing the cost barrier might be exactly what it takes to engage the unaffiliated.

“Two Roads Diverged in a Yellow Wood”

When an interfaith couple marries, there is a good chance they have discussed some of the more complicated points of sharing a life together. This includes how to raise their children, how to celebrate holidays, and how to navigate general family drama. Sometimes the road is smooth, sometimes bumpy, often times it’s a mixture. What can’t be anticipated is where the road will take you – and that’s the story told by Sally Srok Friedes in her upcoming book The New Jew: An Unexpected Conversion.

Friedes describes herself as a “lapsed Catholic from the Midwest” who married an upper-class Jewish man in Manhattan. At first she had no intention of converting, but did agree to raise her children as Jews. As we sing on Passover, Dayenu (meaning, “it would have been enough”). But as a lapsed Catholic, she had a dream of “finding a meaningful religion.” This is where the story turns sour. She found herself “confused, disappointed and alienated at the many doors that were closed to her.” As she embarked on her Jewish journey, she had numerous encounters that made her feel like an outsider. It took her ten years, but she eventually reached the end of her journey and became a Jew. For that we say thank you and welcome to the Jewish community.

Conversion was the decision Friedes made, but not every spouse in an interfaith marriage is going to make the same choice. They shouldn’t have to. Intermarried couples who are raising Jewish children are already doing their part by instilling a strong Jewish identity in their children. That’s why they deserve our gratitude.

Whatever decisions a person makes, the worst thing we can do is make them feel like an outsider. We need to increase points of access, not close doors. In an age of increasing diversity, do we really want to find out what will happen to the Jewish community if we continue to keep the same barriers to participation experienced by Friedes?

Under One Roof

There has been a mini-explosion in the last couple of years of what are called “independent minyanim.” These are Jewish prayer gatherings that take place outside of not just the physical space of a synagogue, but outside of any movement, too. And it appears that most of those who attend independent minyanim are folks who grew up in the Conservative movement. Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ), recently wrote an opinion piece explaining that these prayer groups should have a home inside of Conservative synagogues:

“If we want to grow in numbers and strength, if we want to inspire passion and commitment, we have to welcome those Jews who live our values and ideology outside of our synagogues to do it inside our synagogues instead.”

That would be great for all Jews who for one reason or another have chosen to disengage from the community – including intermarried families and adult children of intermarriage. We know there are thousands of intermarried couples and their adult children who live the “values and ideology” of the Conservative movement and would probably love to do so with a congregation, but still feel there “is no place for them and their Judaism in the Conservative synagogue.”

But there is plenty of room. Rabbi Epstein makes the distinction between “synagogues” and “congregations” by saying a synagogue is an actual space, but a congregation is more of a community. What would happen, he asks, if we invite all of these independent groups – these alternative congregations – to pray together under one synagogue roof? There would be a “diversity of style,” but wouldn’t Judaism benefit from a willingness to engage all those on the periphery?

Rabbi Epstein makes an impassioned plea for inclusion, and he “has pressed for new openness toward intermarried families, actively reaching out to patrilinial and potential Jews,” according to the USCJ website. We have worked with enough Conservative synagogues and congregations to know his ideas are spreading, and we certainly welcome his call for a more open Conservative movement.

Getting Ready for Passover

Spring is here (although the 30 degree weather here in New York begs to differ) and that means the holiday Passover is right around the corner. Among North American Jewish families, Passover is the most widely celebrated holidays on the calendar. According to an article by Sue Fishkoff in the JTA, that means big business for grocery stores across the country.

“This year, there are at least 400 new kosher-for-Passover products on the shelves,” she writes. “From noodles, sauces, dips and salads to gourmet desserts and ready-to-eat meals.”

But for all those who don’t normally shop for kosher foods, or who are newcomers to Passover and Judaism through intermarriage or conversion, how do you let them know these things are available? That’s where JOI comes in. Every year, Jewish communal professionals, lay leaders and volunteers set up tables filled with food and information to create a temporary new space for unaffiliated and unengaged Jews to connect with the community. We call it Passover in the Matzah AisleSM.

Over the next two weeks, local Jewish communities across the country will be running this program. Passover is an excellent opportunity for engagement because it’s such a low barrier holiday. “Passover is home based and there’s a lot of flexibility, it allows people to experiment without fear,” said JOI’s Rabbi Kerry Olitzky in the article. “And it’s got those two basic ingredients, food and family.”

This program, part of our Public Space JudaismSM model, aims to bring Judaism to the public square to create a new channel for Jewish engagement. If you are out doing your grocery shopping and see a table in your supermarket, please stop by and say hello.

New Jewish Sitcom

There has never been a shortage of Jewish characters on television sitcoms over the years, but what was the last Jewish sitcom? The Dick Van Dyke Show, written by Carl Reiner, was originally going to be about a Jewish family and workplace. Seinfeld was Jewish, but that’s not what the show was about. The short-lived comedy The War at Home had an intermarried family, but the topic rarely came up. The list goes on.

In the UK, television producer Matt Lucas would like to change that. According to The Telegraph, Lucas, who was co-creator of the wildly popular English sketch comedy show Little Britain, wants to create a Jewish sitcom. He says:

I want it to address many of the contemporary issues that affect British Jews such as intermarriage and a decline in observance.

Sounds like pretty heavy material for a comedy, but sometimes the best comedy comes from serious situations (look at M*A*S*H or All in the Family). Hopefully the project is a success because the themes he mentions speak to Jews around the world. It would be great to see the issues most important to our community reach a wider audience and spur more conversations about what it means to be Jewish in the world today.

A More Liberal European Jewry

It might be time for JOI to open an office in Europe.

According to the JTA, a survey conducted by Gallup Europe and released by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s International Center for Community Development (ICCD) found that “European Jewish leaders believe that conversion, intermarriage and communal membership should be dealt with more liberally.” The article states:

In a survey of 251 Jewish leaders in Europe conducted last fall, 85 percent of respondents felt it was “not a good idea to strongly oppose intermarriage and bar intermarried Jews and their spouses from communal membership.” Most European Jewish communities now allow only those with a Jewish mother or an Orthodox conversion to be counted.

The survey also found that only a quarter of those questioned believe the Jewish community should be limited to either those born to a Jewish mother or having undergone an Orthodox conversion. Even among the Orthodox and Modern Orthodox, 43 percent believe conversions performed under any denomination are valid, and “one Jewish parent was enough to justify membership to communal organizations.”

The Jerusalem Post also reported on the story, noting that some question the validity of these findings. A spokesman for the Rabbinical Center of Europe said, “European Jews consider Rabbis to be the only leaders of the communities, and no rabbi would agree with these findings.”

Despite these challenges to the survey methodology, the findings make sense. Intermarriage is on the rise in Europe and a high percentage of Jewish leaders there recognize that prohibitions have not worked, and now they need to lower barriers and welcome all Jewish families regardless of background. They understand that being more open and inclusive is the best way to engage more Jewish households, including intermarried and unaffiliated members of the community.

Community Collaboration

Every morning, I dread my trip to the gym. You may be surprised to learn that it’s not the treadmill that causes my gym anxiety, but the local news blaring on the television above my machine. It’s like the movie Groundhog Day; every morning I hear the same report about our dire economy. It seems to not matter what industry you work in, you are feeling the effects. One of the hardest hit has been the newspaper industry, with many cutting staff or even folding completely. But some newspapers have found innovative ways to stay open. That’s the case with the Jewish Exponent of Philadelphia.

In a recent editorial, Executive Editor Lisa Hostein explains her efforts to keep the publication in circulation. She points out how the newspaper has cut costs without losing content, which includes nipping a half-inch from the top and bottom of the paper. But she also calls for more involvement from the community, reaching out to the Exponent’s readership to contribute photos, news tips and op-eds to the paper. “We have introduced several new ways to get you in touch with what’s being printed,” she writes. The Exponent’s efforts to collaborate with its community demonstrate how working together can promote success (and in this case a great newspaper).

We are excited to hear more from Hostein on the topic of collaboration when she moderates the Voices of Collaboration panel on Tuesday, June 9 at JOI’s upcoming conference in Philadelphia (Click here for details on speakers and registration). The panel will feature Jewish communal professionals who will discuss how they have successfully collaborated with neighbor organizations for the purpose of outreach, the challenges they faced, and what role collaboration has played in engaging unaffiliated and intermarried families. Just as collaboration will impact the future of the Exponent; we know that people and institutions working across denominational lines will strengthen the Jewish community.

A New Vocabulary

At JOI, when we talk about the importance of inclusive language, it usually relates to our use of Hebrew and Yiddish words, organization acronyms and other terms that often go unexplained. When used, they create an expectation of Jewish background and knowledge. But the importance of inclusive language goes even deeper than translating Hebrew, or not referring to those of other religious backgrounds as “goyim.” If somebody doesn’t know what the terms mean, they might feel left out, like they are an outsider. A recent New York Post article about real estate, of all things, brought this point home.

New York City real estate firm Corcoran recently banned the use of over 200 words including, “family friendly,” “professional,” and “walking” in apartment advertisements. While these words are often used to sell apartments and give a sense of value, they can also unintentionally alienate and discriminate potential buyers. Family-friendly building? Does that mean singles aren’t welcome? Not necessarily, but the marketing of a building as such could raise a perceptual barrier for those browsing the classified section.

These same perceptual barriers exist in the organized Jewish community. This article reminds us that many of the words we readily incorporate into our marketing to paint the value of a specific program or offering, make implicit - or explicit - assumptions about who the organized Jewish community and its offerings are for. While JOI definitely advocates for identifying target audiences for program offerings (families with young children for instance), it is important to keep in mind the unintentional consequences of language in all materials, and always remember to welcome all!

Judaism is Not a Numbers Game

Edgar Bronfman, president of the Samuel Bronfman Foundation, recently wrote a blog entry for the website laying out, in his trademark straightforward terms, exactly what it is he thinks is the cause for such a high number of unaffiliated Jewish families. It isn’t intermarriage, as many believe. “The real numbers problem is not that Jews are falling in love with non-Jews,” he wrote, “but that they aren’t falling in love with Judaism.”

He’s exactly right. Intermarriage itself is not what causes Jewish families to stop attending synagogue or give their children a Jewish education. In many cases, it is the reaction to intermarriage by the Jewish community, which for too long has been to marginalize intermarried families or, in extreme cases, compare intermarriage to the Holocaust. Or it is that Judaism—as presented to those families presently or when the Jewish spouse was a child—simply did not resonate. In his book Hope, Not Fear: A Path to Jewish Renaissance, Bronfman argues that we are beyond trying to prevent intermarriage. Instead our future depends on how much we invest in Jewish education. If that is our focus, “we will see an increase in the numbers and commitment of Jews, no matter whom they marry.” Through our work at JOI, we know this is true. For those who complain that evidence is still too anecdotal and instead require quantitative data, Edgar Bronfman replies:

I don’t want to see statistics about intermarried families until I see Jewish communities that welcome them with open hearts and without conditions. If these communities offer a Jewish life that is rich in substance and full of joy, both disengaged Jews and their non-Jewish family members will see the value in making Judaism part of their lives.

Life After Intermarriage

Andrew Silow-Carroll, editor-in-chief of the New Jersey Jewish News, thinks he knows why Jews intermarry. It has nothing to do with self-hatred or because Jewish women are taboo. He wrote in a recent column:

Jewish Americans marry non-Jewish Americans because Americans marry Americans. Distinctions between Jews and non-Jews have all but disappeared in the past 50 years, while acceptance of Jews among non-Jews is nearly complete. Besides, Jews are a tiny minority comfortable among a vast majority. Odds alone favor non-Jews meeting Jews, and falling in love.

Silow-Carroll brought this up because he had been out with a friend who had intermarried and was displeased with the way intermarriage is sometimes represented. Andrew could see his point, but also wanted to try and defend promoting in-marriage “without sounding like Archie Bunker,” which is especially difficult as the Jewish community grows more diverse.

His argument was reasonable – it’s hard enough to raise Jewish children with two Jewish parents. “The best way to keep [Judaism] going is not only to marry a Jewish woman, but to raise kids to appreciate Jewish culture in a positive, sustaining, organic and holistic way.” While we don’t feel in-marriage and raising Jewish children are mutually exclusive (he does acknowledge that many families are “doing a heroic job of raising Jewish kids”), his point is that it’s more about how Judaism is presented.

You don’t get people to appreciate a culture and work toward its preservation by laying on the guilt, not in 2009. You do it by raising them in an atmosphere that cherishes the culture and makes it natural for them to want to maintain its traditions.

He’s absolutely right. Intermarriage is a reality. Creating a community where these families are welcomed and encouraged to lead a Jewish life - rather than making people feel guilty for their decisions - is what will keep them involved.

The Necessity of Outreach

New findings from the American Religious Identification Survey show us why outreach is more important than ever before. The survey shows how “contemporary Americans identify themselves religiously, and how that self-identification has changed over the past generation,” according to the survey’s website. What they found was that 15 percent of Americans now claim no religion.

Here’s what they found in the Jewish community. Those who define themselves as “culturally Jewish” remained steady, but the number of people who identify as “religiously Jewish” dropped. The principal author of the study, Barry Kosmin, said in the New York Jewish Week that he wasn’t surprised about the results, pointing to growing intermarriage rates and a “drift from religious affiliation” as a couple of reasons for the decline.

But there are two problems with the survey. First, as Kosmin notes, the survey “is not the total ethnic Jewish population,” so if they were included our numbers would probably higher. Second, for the folks who are leaving, the survey doesn’t tell us why. It just says they are. For instance: If intermarriage is indeed playing a role in the decline, then what are we doing to help these families experience the value and meaning of Judaism? People don’t just stop being Jewish if they intermarry. Are we doing enough to reach these families, or are our efforts coming up short? The same goes for the people who are simply drifting away. What are we doing to engage them on their terms and increase their participation in Jewish life?

The answers lie with us. We need to continue to work across denominational lines to better identify and meet the needs of the intermarried, unaffiliated, multiracial, LGBT, adult children of intermarriage, and all others who find themselves on the periphery on our community. The warmth in which we welcome all these folks is what will determine our future.

Bridging the Gap Between Two Communities

For Jews with a mixed race background, navigating through both communities can prove to be a struggle. We recently wrote about artist Maya Escobar, whose father is Guatemalan and mother is Jewish, and how that background is the basis for much of her work – both on canvas and in performance. But it also gives her a unique perspective, what she calls and “outsider in everyplace.” And that perspective can give a person certain insights that few others would be able to have.

That may also be the case with Elinor Ruth Tatum, the Jewish editor-in-chief of the “famed Amsterdam News,” one of the most influential newspapers in New York City’s African-American community, according to a recent piece in the Forward.

Her father, Wilbur Tatum, owned and operated the Harlem-based newspaper for 38 years, until his death this last February. Elinor joined as editor-in-chief in 1997, and has slowly been taking control of the paper since.

In the past, the paper was known for the “adversarial position” it took towards Jewish figures, and the sometimes controversial language Wilbur would use. The article points to the paper’s headline during the riots in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights in 1991 as evidence – “Many Blacks, No Jews Arrested.”

As the daughter of a black father and Jewish mother, Elinor has given the paper a more restrained approach. Some believe it is because she is trying to balance the way she feels as a Jew while still respecting her father and his vision for the paper. Her position as an insider and outsider in both communities makes her the perfect spokeswomen for today’s more “youthful, less cynical generation of black journalists,” said Ken Smikle, who oversees black media at Target Market News. “It’s a perspective that is suited for an Obama kind of world. You look at yourself as a black person in the context of the larger community, not just the black community.”

Elinor also represents the growing diversity of the Jewish community – one that spans racial boundaries. Her experience adds to our vibrancy, and maybe her story will inspire more multiracial Jews to approach our institutions. If that’s the case, let’s make sure we are ready to welcome them in.

A Celebration of Sholom Aleichem

This month marks the 150th birthday of one of the giants of Jewish literature, Sholom Aleichem. Most famous for his Tevye stories, which were turned into the theater and film blockbuster “Fiddler on the Roof,” organizations the world over are paying their respects. A Sholom Aleichem museum was opened in the Ukraine (his birthplace), and the New York Synagogue held a Sholom Aleichem Shabbat.

A narrative of his life, told through the memories of his granddaughter Bel Kaufman, recently appeared in the New York Jewish Week. Towards the end, they bring up an interesting anecdote:

[Sholom] was fiercely against intermarriage, saying that his children could have “whatever religious convictions they will, but I beg of them to guard their Jewish descent.” If they didn’t, he would disown. He had Tevye say of his intermarried child, Chava, “She is no longer my daughter. She died long ago.”

And yet, in a story written less than two years before he died, Sholom Aleichem had Tevya and Chava reconcile. He had Tevye address Sholom Aleichem himself: “Please don’t think badly of me that tears come to my eyes when I remember this … After all, she was still my child … How can a person be so harsh when God says of Himself that is an all-forgiving God? … What do you say, Sholom Aleichem? You’re a Jew who writes books and gives advice to everybody. Tell me, what should Tevye have done?

Sholom was a great folk writer, able to brilliantly capture both the comedy and tragedy of families struggling to get by. But from this one story it’s clear he was also a man of great character, able to see the forest for the trees. Whatever his personal feelings against intermarriage, he realized that nothing could justify a person turning their back on their family. If you welcome these families, there is a much better chance of having them participate in Jewish life. Cut them off, and you can almost guarantee they will be lost to the community forever.

Purim: A Coming Out Holiday

Tonight marks the beginning of the Jewish holiday Purim. We celebrate the heroic deeds of Queen Esther and her uncle, Mordechai, who together helped save the Jewish community from destruction. Last year we published an editorial in the New York Metro Newspaper that Purim is in many ways a story about a successful interfaith marriage. On the eve of destruction, Ahasuerus, the King of Persia, found out that his wife was Jewish and called the whole thing off. We said this aspect of the story “reminds us of the importance of embracing our Jewish heritage, and it also offers an opportunity to reflect on the state of inclusion for the thousands of interfaith families around the world.”

This year, let’s look at Purim in a different light. When Queen Esther admitted to her husband the King that she was Jewish, she was “coming out.” She was responding to oppression, and it took a lot of courage for her to admit who she was. But when she did, she was accepted and welcomed by the King. This message has inspired many in the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) Jewish community, and it can serve as a good lesson in inclusion for many Jewish institutions today.

According to an article in the New York Jewish Week, a recent study out of the Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Denver called “Diversity and LGBT Inclusion” found that while a “large number of North American Jewish congregations say they want to include lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Jews in their community, this verbal support largely fails to translate into active welcome.”

The study suggests a concrete inclusive message can be something even as small as a rainbow flag sticker on a window, something to show that all who enter will be welcome. They also found that 41 percent of the congregations who “proactively reached out” to the LGBT community gained membership – only two percent reported a drop. Clearly the LGBT community wants to be involved. It’s up to us to let them know that our doors are open.

As we sing and dance tonight in celebration, we should remember that we’re here because Queen Esther had the courage to embrace her identity at a time when doing so had dire consequences. Whether it’s LGBT Jews, interfaith families, or anyone else on the periphery, let’s spend Purim thinking about how we can welcome all those who cast their lot with the Jewish people.

New Inclusive Language

People often call me a foodie. And because I’m a vegetarian environmentalist, sometime’s I’m called “a crunchy tree-hugger.” I don’t always feel like I fit these descriptions, but I still walk away flattered by these “labels.” Call me crazy, but I like it when people label me based on things I am passionate about and work actively towards.

As Jim Keen wrote in a recent column in the Detroit Jewish News, “Our society craves labels. We love to know how to identify and classify objects, places and people.”

But labels can also make people or a group feel excluded. Jim identified a struggle that JOI has long championed: inclusive language and inclusive labels, specifically the language we use to refer to those in our community who have religious backgrounds other than Judaism. All too often individuals who contribute much to our community are referred to using words that are explicitly derogatory (is my mother who has been a member of a synagogue for 20 years, a “stranger”), or in a language that only the ‘inside’ know intimately.

Jim tackled this issue in his column and challenged the Jewish community to find another word—he resorts to Spanish: otrafe or, “other faith.” We at JOI do our best to also include what people “are” rather than what they “aren’t.” The moms in our Mothers Circle program aren’t non-Jewish women raising Jewish children; they are mothers of other religious backgrounds raising Jewish children. We still need to work to overcome that challenge of negatively identifying individuals who are an integral part of our community. While difference and diversity are beautiful and contribute to the strength of the Jewish community, how can we derail that language of inequality and instead embrace the diversity in a proactive manner?

I appreciate Jim’s sentiment and, while he might not have the perfect solution, I agree with many of his challenges to the words currently employed to refer to “non-Jews” who are a part of our community. Look out for JOI’s continuing efforts to create a vocabulary that identifies what these folks are, as opposed to what they are not, in a language that we can all understand.

New Study on Interracial Intermarriage

There is an interesting new study going on at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. Professors Noah Leavitt and Helen Kim, who are also husband and wife, are “working on a study of intermarriage between Asian and Jewish Americans,” according to a recent article in JT News, Washington State’s Jewish newspaper.

They are working on the study for two reasons: First, they said “there’s little research on the subject and almost nothing examining Jewish-Asian interracial and interfaith marriage.” Second, they personally “fit the demographic of the types of couples we’re interested in.”

The study is only about a month old, and the two are still in the stages of collecting stories from Asian and Jewish intermarried couples. They have also teamed up with Be’chol Lashon, a San Francisco based organization devoted to promoting Jewish multiculturalism. According to their website, the study will “examine the racial, ethnic, and religious identities of Asian-Jewish couples and families.”

Through our Big Tent Judaism initiative, we try to challenge people to rethink the notion of what Jews look like and who is a Jew. This is an important idea, especially since there is a growing racial diversity among Jews. Hopefully this study will shed some light into the lives and practices of Asian and Jewish intermarried couples, and it will help us as we continue to break down barriers to Jewish participation and strengthen our community.

Review of “Still Jewish: A History of Women and Intermarriage in America”

In the first chapter of Keren R. McGinity’s fantastic new book, Still Jewish: A History of Women and Intermarriage in America, we meet Mary Antin, a Jewish woman who married a non-Jew in 1901. Despite all of the hurdles she and her descendents (both intermarried and in-married) faced over the next century, including anti-semitism, classism, and anti-intermarriage sentiments, there is a photo of Mary Antin’s great-great-grandchildren who are, as the title suggests, “Still Jewish,” and are being raised as Jews.

McGinity’s book is “the first comprehensive history” of intermarried Jewish women. She combines historical research and in-depth interviews to analyze what intermarriage has meant for Jewish women and the American Jewish community from 1900 to the present day. The strength of McGinity’s approach is that she attends to the multiple factors that influence intermarriage: Religion, race, class, gender, personal choices, and the coexistent social and political currents that have influenced each phase of American history. Throughout, she illustrates that intermarriage, family identity and behavior arise out of a confluence of each person’s experience of these factors.

Her findings contradict the belief that intermarried families cease to be Jewish and that they weaken the Jewish community. She ends the book by speculating that in the future, both intermarriage and Judaism will continue:

It is clear that although more Jewish women have married “out” over time, they have also, contrary to all prognoses, increasingly ventured “in.” Therefore, it is reasonable to speculate that Jewish women will continue to marry Gentile men and, paradoxically, to contribute to a renaissance of Jewish religious and cultural identity formation and practice from within their intermarriages (McGinity, Still Jewish, 2009, 216).

This is what JOI has argued since its inception: That intermarriage is our reality. It is how we move forward that what will define our future. JOI, our founders Egon Mayer and David Belin, and our executive director Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky all appear in McGinity’s chapter about the emergence of Jewish outreach and the conflicts between those seeking to prevent intermarriage and those seeking to welcome both intermarried families and those on the periphery. We believe, and her research finds, that if we support the Jewish identity of all these folks, our future will be bright.

Click through to read the rest of our review!


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