Most research leads to some conclusions - but more often than not it just points to more questions requiring exploration and research. Just this week, the Pew Forum released a follow-up study to its 2007 “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey.” The survey painted a broad picture of current religious affiliation rates and raised many questions about the changing religious behaviors of Americans. It also shed light on the great number of individuals who change religious affiliation over the life course.
“Faith in Flux,” analyzes this religious fluidity amongst a sample of Catholics and Protestants. We learn what influences those who are unaffiliated, and that affiliation is fluid in itself. The study states:
The unaffiliated have one of the lowest retention rates of any of the major religious groups, with most people who were raised unaffiliated now belonging to one religion or another.
The study provides a glimpse into why some leave the faiths in which they are raised and become unaffiliated. Among other things is the lack of belief in teachings or a religious establishment that is perceived as money or power driven. We also learn what influences those who eventually re-affiliate or affiliate for the first time (if they were raised unaffiliated):
Those who leave the ranks of the unaffiliated cite several reasons for joining a faith, such as the attraction of religious services and styles of worship (74%), having been spiritually unfulfilled while unaffiliated (51%) or feeling called by God (55%).
The major theme that unaffiliation is neither a permanent identity nor a monolithic group of people reinforces the importance of both lowering barriers and not making assumptions about the experiences or beliefs of those on the periphery of organized religious communities. Those who are unaffiliated have valid, diverse experiences and may place a high importance on religion - but meaningful (and plentiful) entry points are necessary! The question still remains whether conclusions about other religious groups’ behaviors are applicable to the Jewish community.
However, the study’s implications for our understanding of religious patterns in America validate JOI and many others’ work of creating a more welcoming and dynamic Jewish community. The Big Tent Judaism Coalition, for instance, encourages organizations to provide free, innovative, and meaningful resources to those who are unaffiliated or find themselves newly a part of the Jewish community. Consumers can find all this information online, making Judaism more “user friendly.” This proactive hospitality is the kind of thing that will make unaffiliated members of the community feel more comfortable, more welcome and more inclined to participate.
JOI has learned that just as religious behavior increasingly transcends the boundaries of religious life, so too should the Jewish community’s offerings reach beyond the barriers of our institutions to meet people where they are physically and metaphysically.
Whether Jews-by-Choice, or women of other religious backgrounds raising Jewish children, JOI’s methods for outreach recognize the growing rates of unaffiliation and religious ‘flux’ in America as an opportunity rather than a problem.
Necessity, as the saying goes, is the mother of invention. The economy is forcing many in the Jewish communal world to find new ways to save money while also offering the same services that their constituents have come to expect over the years. This means, as Felicia Herman of the Natan Fund and Dana Raucher of the Samuel Bronfman Foundation said in a recent JTA op-ed, many are rethinking their priorities and how the Jewish community as a whole is organized.
Herman and Raucher say they have been “hearing calls for greater consolidation” like in the olden days, but they have a different prescription – de-centralization. Smaller non-profits that reach specific audiences, they say, are more indicative of American culture as a whole. There has been a “a revolution in the way that people connect, organize and affiliate, brought about by technological advancements that have dramatically shaped our ways of looking at the world.”
So what does this “revolution in the way people connect” mean for the Jewish future? And is this a good sign? Herman and Raucher turn to the findings of a new report (commissioned by the Natan Fund, the SBF and Jumpstart) titled “The Innovation of Ecosystem: Emergence of a New Jewish Landscape.” The report was a survey of “American Jewish start-ups.” They write:
We found more than 300 geographically diverse organizations that in 2008 alone reached more than 400,000 people and represented a $100 million economy. Far from being a fringe phenomenon for outliers, these organizations engage and integrate populations that existing Jewish organizations have struggled to reach as well as people who are highly connected to traditional Jewish communal life.
Similarly, participation in these organizations should not be understood as a solely youth-centric trend: These organizations integrate participants under 45 — Millennials and Generation Xers — with a healthy proportion of older constituents. Taken together, this array of organizations, with disparate missions and purposes, offers a multitude of access points to Jewish life that resonate across generations and degrees of “affiliation” within the Jewish community.
So they found having more organizations for those on the periphery is a positive change. But how do we know they’re succeeding? Herman and Raucher point out that nearly every “young organization” they have funded recently has struggled to keep up with “an ever increasing demand for their programs and services.”
The term “access points” comes up a lot in their op-ed, and perhaps that’s the most important notion of the Jewish future. People today don’t want to subscribe to one particular “brand” of Judaism – they want to belong in a way that’s meaningful to them. Perhaps having more small-scale organizations that offer a wider range of options for engagement – and therefore more access points – will encourage people to explore Judaism and find for themselves the value and importance of leading a Jewish life.
When is it an appropriate time to eliminate offensive language? We think it’s always the right time, and so does the state of Florida. Governor Charlie Crist recently signed a bill removing the terms “shylock” and “shylocking” from state law. The terms had been on the books since 1969 as a synonym of loan sharking, the practice of offering loans with high interest rates. The term comes from the Shakespeare play “The Merchant of Venice,” and the money lending character of Shylock.
It’s long overdue, but we applaud the state of Florida for finally taking these steps. The bigger picture here is that they recognized the term “Shylock” was indeed offensive, even though it was a commonly used phrase. This relates nicely to our ongoing campaign to have other words with negative connotations – such as goy and shiksa – removed from common usage.
JOI’s Rabbi Kerry Olitzky and senior program office Liz Marcovitz wrote a piece last year for the JTA urging people to stop “defining those who are different from us by using negative words and stereotypes” because such language has the potential to push people away. One of our methods for lowering the barriers to participation in Jewish life is to use positive, inclusive language. As we have written before, this can mean using words or phrases like “of a different background” instead of “non-Jew.” Although these distinctions might seem inconsequential, they often make the difference between someone feeling welcomed, and someone feeling singled out.
If the state of Florida can recognize the error of using an offensive term, can’t we as a Jewish community also take steps towards removing negative language from our vocabulary?
Reaching people where they’re at is the driving force behind much of the outreach work done today. We run Public Space Judaism programs like Passover in the Matzah Aisle, but this also includes public Menorah lightings during Hanukkah and anything else where Judaism is taken outside of institutions and put in a place where people will simply stumble upon it.
Today, that public space isn’t limited to physical areas. Whether it’s “Meet Up” groups or the social networking site Facebook, the public space is more often than not online. The most powerful tool to get a message to a mass audience, say new media marketing experts in a recent JTA article, is YouTube, the online video sharing website. It’s about as public as a space can get.
But making a video is only the first step – getting people to see it is something completely different. A good video doesn’t automatically mean millions of people will watch it, said one expert. And spending a lot of money on something of high quality is also no guarantee. Once a video is available for the world to see, the trick is getting to the world to see it.
This is important for all Jewish organizations and institutions, whether they struggle with affiliation and membership or not. Getting people to recognize what’s out there in terms of Jewish community – via a YouTube video or a Facebook page – is one of the greatest challenges we face, and as a whole we need to do a better job of advertising what we offer. JOI has a Facebook page where anyone who finds us can become a fan, upload videos, share links, network and join an ongoing conversation about outreach and the Jewish future. But, as with most things outreach, we can always do more.
Social networking sites hold incredible potential for putting the Jewish community in a secular space. How are you leveraging the power of YouTube and Facebook for outreach? What are you doing to help people explore and connect with the Jewish community online?
The student-run Jewish magazine New Voicescontinues to tackle powerful issues not touched by other mainstream Jewish news outlets, with a fascinating piece in its latest edition, called “The Coming of the Intermarried Rabbi.” In the piece, Jeremy Gillick gets to the crux of what we at JOI have been discussing internally recently, the difference between being “tolerant” and being “embracing.” Among the Reform and Reconstructionist movements, which have made great strides in being inclusive of intermarried families, the policy of not admitting intermarried rabbinic applicants seems to suggest to Gillick that the welcoming of intermarried families may really be more about tolerating demographic realities than being genuinely embracing:
[In 2002] a devout [intermarried] congregant…wanted to know why she could not attend HUC’s rabbinical school. The CCAR [the rabbinic arm of the Reform movement] responded decisively, offering its “full and unqualified support” for HUC’s policy. “Someday, perhaps,” its responsum suggested, “her husband will come to share that commitment to Judaism.” Until then, it said, she would have to find another vocation. It also implied that the Reform movement’s welcoming attitude towards interfaith families was born largely of necessity, and not of a sincere desire to become more inclusive. The latter interpretation represented “an incomplete, and therefore incorrect, perception of our attitude toward marriage between Jews and non-Jews…Although we do not use terms such as ‘prohibition’ and ‘sin’ to describe mixed marriage,” it explained, “we do not condone mixed married itself.”
Should rabbis be held to “a higher standard”? If so, what does it mean to a community whose congregants are almost half intermarried to say that in-marriage is still the “higher standard”? In the piece, Profession Steven Cohen is quoted as saying that the higher standards for rabbis are logical, in part because “intermarried rabbis will have no chance of teaching the next generation the importance of marrying Jews.” Of course, we know that the huge rise in intermarriage over the last four decades happened despite the teachings of a rabbinate that was completely devoid of intermarriage—rendering that role-modeling theory as a factor impacting intermarriage rates improvable at best.
But if you believe that rabbis are indeed role models for the laity in making personal choices like spouse selection, is it also possible to encourage the already-intermarried to get more involved in Jewish life? The article also quotes Rabbi Ed Stafman, the second intermarried rabbi ordained by the Renewal Movement, as suggesting that this is exactly what happens when he meets unaffiliated intermarried Jews and tells them that he too is intermarried. So what do you think?
We are thrilled to announce that Rabbi Irwin Kula, President of CLAL - The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, will be speaking at the Jewish Outreach Institute’s National Conference on Tuesday, June 9 in Philadelphia, P.A.
Over the past month on our listserve for Jewish outreach professionals, called JOPLIN, Rabbi Kula has challenged all of us to rethink the labels we use and the boundaries of our community. He has done the same for our public audience through comments on this very blog. The conversations became so stimulating that a number of listserve members pointed out how wonderful it would be to take the discussion beyond the virtual world of email and hold it in person. We at JOI fully agreed and are very excited Rabbi Kula’s schedule could accommodate it.
We hope you will be able to join us for what will surely be a lively and unforgettable presentation by—and dialogue with—Rabbi Kula, by registering for the conference here. If you have any questions, please be in touch with me or JOI’s office manager Ivana Bradanovic at the number below or IBradanovic@JOI.org.
We look forward to hearing all of your voices in Philadelphia in June.
A couple of years ago, we blogged about the movie Out of Faith, a documentary that “follows three generations of a family torn apart by conflicts over interfaith marriage.” Since its debut, it has played at dozens of film festivals, theaters and community centers around the country. If you weren’t able to see the movie, you will now have the opportunity to see the film on PBS.
Between now and May 10, 2009, PBS will be airing a one hour version of the theatrical release. As we said before, “the movie offers viewers a lot to talk about in informal as well as formal contexts, such as the synagogue classroom and sanctuary.” But this film was not originally to be about intermarriage. It was intended to follow a Holocaust survivor as she reconnected with her country of origin and the painful memories associated with it. When the filmmaker discovered the sub-theme of intermarriage in this family where she is the matriarch, she decided to make that the theme of the movie. That is the way documentaries emerge.
While it is an unflinching look at the subject through the lens of the filmmaker and a particular family—and it does have a few optimistic moments in the film, especially through the surprising voice of the woman’s orthodox rabbi which we applaud, and her own realization about her actions at the end—it is not a film that would be considered optimistic and hopeful. We fear this documentary can be used as a cautionary tale about all intermarriages when it is really just one family’s story. The entire American intermarriage story cannot be told through just one family; we know there are many other stories to tell. Still, when seen as the story of just one family, it is very powerful.
Click here to check your local listings to find the next time Out of Faith will air in your community.
We have seen interfaith relationships played out in books, movies and TV shows – but what about on stage in a rock musical? Thanks to the husband and wife team of Paul Scott Goodman and Miriam Goodman, we now have “Rooms: A Rock Romance.” It’s the story of two young punk-rockers – one Jewish, one Catholic – who “learn to find room in their hearts for each others religious, cultural and emotional realities,” according to the New York Jewish Week.
It’s always interesting to see how intermarriage and interfaith relationships are dealt with in different artistic mediums. Maya Escobar, who will be speaking at our conference in June, uses both the canvas and performance to address her interfaith Jewish identity. In “Rooms,” they use songs like “Friday Night Dress” – a song about the Catholic character experiencing chopped liver and kosher wine at his first Shabbat – to show what it’s like for an outsider to see things from the inside.
Regardless of the medium, bringing the topic of intermarriage to the public is a great way to expand the conversation on Jewish identity. If anyone has seen the play, let us know what you think – we would love to hear your reviews!
CLAL – the National Jewish Center for Jewish Learning and Leadership – has created an interesting new program, said a recent article in the New Jersey Jewish News. Called Rabbis Without Borders, the new project will “train religious leaders to speak in settings outside of familiar Jewish institutions, including mass media and places where transdenominational and interfaith audiences gather.”
Much like JOI’s Public Space Judaism, one of the goals of the project is to “reach Jews outside of traditional Jewish settings.” But the project also recognizes that there are a growing number of spouses of other religious backgrounds who are inside of traditional Jewish settings, and the rabbis involved will also learn how to speak to them. The project’s head, Rebecca Sibru, former director of JCC MetroWest’s Jewish Health and Healing Center, said:
On any given Shabbat morning when a rabbi comes on the bima, it could be that 40 percent of the people in the pews could be people who are not Jewish, whether due to the high rate of intermarriage, or a celebrant’s friends and family. If I know not everyone is Jewish, how I, as a rabbi, show the meaningfulness of a given ritual could affect how the whole rest of the service goes.”
We applaud any efforts to try and connect with Jews who are not affiliated with the mainstream Jewish community. Today’s generation is not as inclined to participate in a traditional manner – the rise in independent prayer groups speaks to that – so we have to come up with innovative methods of outreach. Reaching these folks has proven to be a challenge, so whether it’s through traditional or non-traditional means, we need to make sure we are doing everything we can to encourage their participation in Jewish life.
“Asking someone why they converted, just after meeting them, is a little like asking to see their underwear,” said Aliza Hausman on MyJewishLearning.com. In a recent piece titled “The Do’s and Don’ts of Talking to Converts,” Hausman lays out what to say (“Welcome home”) and what not to say (“Are you a convert”) to those who have chosen Judaism.
For starters, Hausman encourages her readers not to make assumptions about why people choose to convert (“It wasn’t for marriage”). There are other reasons to convert, she says, and assuming it was only for marriage trivializes the process. And after you learn that someone is converting, don’t go around telling people unless that person is comfortable with you telling others. It’s their business, not yours.
In addition, one cannot determine another’s conversion status by appearance. She writes:
People often make offensive racial assumptions about Jews (and converts) of color. Just like we’re not all named Rosenberg, one convert of color says it’s helpful to note that “Judaism is not a ‘race’ of white people. One of the things people should be mindful of is not to assume all people of color in the synagogue are converts (or the help, for that matter).”
As we have heard from the participants on JOI’s Empowering Ruth listserve for women who convert to Judaism, most Jews-by-choice are thrilled to be part of the Jewish people and are happy to share their Jewish journey with others. But, as Hausman advises, let them do it on their own time, in their own way. Our job is simply to make them feel welcome and included in the Jewish community.
If you have recently chosen Judaism and you have a story you would like to share, either leave a comment or sign up for Empowering Ruth. The program is free, and it provides a safe space for further learning and sharing experiences. We hope to hear from you!
For the third year in a row, we are proud to announce that JOI’s Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky has been named one of the top 50 influential rabbis in America by Newsweek magazine. He was recognized once again as “one of the leading rabbinical advocates for outreach to interfaith and unaffiliated families in America.”
The list covers a wide variety of rabbis, naming a few from every denomination. Some, like Rabbi Daniel Brenner of Birthright NEXT (who is one of the many speakers that will be presenting at our conference in June) are new to the list, while others, like Rabbi Marvin Heir of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, have hovered at or near the top all three years.
And while the rabbis are ranked, the bigger goal is to get people talking about the Jewish community. “This list is intended to provoke a global conversation about the role of our religious leaders in today’s world,” said the list’s authors Michael Lynton, Gary Ginsberg, and Jay Sanderson (all media executives). So let’s be a part of the “global conversation.” Whether you agree with the rankings or not, leave a comment and tell us what you think. We want to hear from everyone!
Passover is upon us. During these eight days, we remember our time as slaves in Egypt and celebrate our eventual liberation. We also remember what it was like to be a stranger when we were scattered across the globe, wandering with no sense of belonging. That’s why on this holiday we make an extra effort to invite people who may not have another place to go for Seder.
But this practice of inclusion doesn’t have to be limited to one holiday. That’s the message of a new op-ed in the New York Jewish Week by Adam Bronfman, managing director of the Samuel Bronfman Foundation, and JOI’s Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky. They write that at Passover, “as we commemorate our own freedom from disenfranchisement, how are we also ensuring that all who wish to be a part of the Jewish community are included, as congregants, members, and even leaders?”
They make the point that in many intermarriages, the spouse who is not Jewish is an equal contributor to raising a Jewish family. This means they should have full rights within the Jewish community – but too often the spouse is “officially excluded” as a member of a synagogue or congregation. For what reason? “After all,” they write, “what have these individuals ever done for the Jewish people, other than give up passing on their own family’s faith tradition to raise their children as Jews (not to mention countless hours of preparation and synagogue involvement, and thousands of dollars in dues and tuition)?”
That’s why it’s so important to not only honor these spouses for their sacrifice, but welcome them fully as members in our Jewish family. This Passover, they write, we can continue the Passover tradition of celebrating freedom by “creating policies that include and officially empower all.”
Never forget your place in the Haggadah again…OR the importance of welcoming all!
“During Passover, it’s a tradition to open our doors and welcome the stranger to our Seder table,” says Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky. “Just as we were once strangers in Egypt, it’s our obligation to include the newcomer and all those on the margins of the Jewish community. But it shouldn’t be limited to Passover. At a time when we welcome guests into our home, we must remember to do the same 365 days a year at our communal institutions.”
To drive home this statement, several weeks ago, member organizations of the Big Tent Judaism Coalition received a one-page, color PDF document containing six bookmarks per page called “A Fifth Cup for Inclusion” with a message welcoming newcomers that can be printed or distributed electronically. It is just one more way the Big Tent Judaism Coalition is advocating for greater inclusion in the Jewish community. The PDF is now available for download by the general public. We encourage you to download, print it, and use it at your Seder—and pass it along to anyone else who might be interested.
North American Conservative Judaism is wrestling with demographic change (in other words, the graying of our movement) and several decades of intermarriage. We are challenged to re-examine our assumptions about intermarriage while testing the limits of pluralism. Specifically, how shall we relate to the supportive non-Jewish spouses in our communities and movement institutions?
He illustrates this with a scenario: The spouse of another religious background, the husband, is fully involved in the community. He comes to synagogue every Friday, and is actively raising Jewish children. He comes to the rabbi and asks if he could wear tallit (prayer shawl) in order to become closer to the congregation. “What should the rabbi do?” asks Rabbi Simon.
It’s a question that has no definitive answer because each rabbi, synagogue and congregation is going to come to different conclusions. And that’s fine, Rabbi Simon writes, but its “essential to our future, however, that we continue to be open to discussions about the issue of pluralism.”
The scenario he describes, and other questions of inclusion, is going to take place more and more, and the Conservative movement is going to be forced to confront these situations. Rabbi Simon ends by saying:
“Understanding what it means to be pluralistic and responding within that context strengthens Conservative Jews and Conservative Judaism. It takes more than a little thought and a certain amount of courage, but it is one of the keys to building a more vibrant future.”
Taglit-Birthright Israel, founded in 2000, has provided nearly 200,000 Jewish young adults with a free Israel trip. The philanthropists who support the program hope that it will cultivate positive Jewish identity and experiences, and lead to further Jewish participation. But according to the JTA, a recent report titled “Tourists, Travelers and Citizens,” which profiles a large number of Birthright alumni, sheds light on the fact that the continued Jewish engagement of these alumni is tenuous, at best. In Los Angeles, 53 percent of alumni hadn’t participated in a single Jewish activity since their Birthright trip.
But that doesn’t mean they aren’t interested. Alumni in the 4 major cities surveyed expressed a desire to become more involved in Jewish life. Alumni are instead seeking more intimate experiences to learn about Jewish culture, history and Hebrew.
This desire for deepened Jewish engagement is finally being met by Birthright NEXT, a project serving the needs of alumni by providing dynamic entry points to Jewish life. Through Birthright NEXT’s Shabbat initiative, nearly 2,000 alumni have hosted Friday evening dinners since last November. Hosts are reimbursed by Birthright NEXT for the dinner expenses. This unique model fits right into what the alumni are looking for – engagement on their terms. The program shows providing rich, empowering, low barrier experiences is an important step in further participation.
If you want to learn more about the Birthright NEXT model of ‘Deepening Jewish Engagement’ and apply it to your organization, join us at JOI’s upcoming conference this June in Philadelphia. Hear from Birthright NEXT Executive Director Rabbi Daniel Brenner, who will be leading sessions to teach outreach workers how they, too, can best engage unaffiliated folks and get them to become part of the community. For details and registration information, visit the conference website.
When a couple is raising children in the context of an interfaith marriage, they have to strike a delicate balance when it comes to religious identity. Even if they decide to raise the child as a Jew, that doesn’t mean suddenly all of the extended family – grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins – become Jewish. Christmas will still be recognized along with Hanukkah, Easter will be recognized with Passover. But Jewish families have one holiday that offers a chance to celebrate Jewish values week after week – Shabbat.
Tracy Hahn-Burkett, who runs the blog Unchartedparent.com and is the Jewish partner in an interfaith marriage, recently wrote an article for the Jewish News of Greater Phoenix explaining how Shabbat has become the holiday de rigeur in her household. Every week before they have dinner on Friday night, without fail, the family says the prayers, lights the candles, and share some challah (sweet bread shaped in a braid) while the parents sip some wine. Sometimes dinner is ordered in, but the traditions laid out are always followed. This, even more than weekly religious school, has given Tracy’s four-and-a-half year old a firm sense of belonging as a Jew.
Tracy said in her piece that it’s gotten to the point that her son won’t go out to dinner on Friday nights because they have to have candles and challah. “They don’t have them at the restaurant,” her son told her recently. Tracy knew that if she wanted to make sure her children were able to easily explore their background, she had to “find ways to bring Jewish values and traditions” into her home. Shabbat is one of the best places to start because not only does it take place in the home, but it can be personalized. A family can celebrate Shabbat in the way most meaningful to them because no matter how they do it, it involves the family recognizing their Jewish background. Those are memories and traditions the children will hopefully take with them as they grow up and someday start their own families.
Oppenheimer, a recent graduate of Johns Hopkins University where she pursued a degree in International Relations and Jewish Studies, has created a documentary that tries to look “what it means to live in both a Jewish and democratic state, and offers a variety of answers to these questions through the lens of the Israeli marriage process.” The documentary aims for balance, interviewing everyone from ordinary citizens to rabbinic leaders who put forth their point of view.
The documentary is especially relevant these days because of the recent dust-up over Israeli politician Avigdor Lieberman’s call to allow civil unions. As it stands, a marriage under the auspices of the Rabbinate is allowed, forcing many couples to travel abroad to get married. This topic is covered in the documentary, along with the role of the Rabbinate in general, questions of inclusivity, same-sex unions, and a host of others.
There is a schedule of upcoming screenings posted on the movie’s website, or you can contact the director and have the film screened in your community. Either way, we hope many folks get a chance to see the movie and become a part of this debate.