Weblog Entries for June 2009

When Traditional Meets the Alternative

Nowhere is it written that a good Jewish education has to come in a formal place of study. But for many folks, the only options they have for giving their children a Jewish education is to either join a synagogue or enroll in a local Hebrew day school.

The Sunday School for Jewish Studies in Newton, Mass has shown us that doesn’t have to be the case.

The Sunday School, according to a recent article in the Boston Globe, is over 40 years old, “but has no bricks-and-mortar presence.” Instead, with prayer books and hired teachers, they meet in rented space in Newton, greatly reducing costs usually associated with religious schooling – particularly bar and bat mitzvah training, which is the school’s focus. And with the growth of interfaith families, alternative options for bar/bat mitzvah students are important, especially when they approach us when they are 12 or 13 and there is little flexibility in our mainstream institutions to accommodate them.

Rabbi David Kudan, who has worked with the Sunday School for the past couple of years, thinks offering this kind of flexibility is a great way to engage families who might be looking for a non-traditional Jewish setting:

“I think it’s very important to support people who are seeking a way to express their Judaism,’’ said Kudan. “I feel, as a rabbi, I have an obligation to the entire Jewish community to be of service and assistance.’’

Education coordinator for the school Dori Stern believes the school’s atmosphere works because “Judaism is finding ways to change and evolve. There are so many ways to be Jewish and people are coming to realize that.”

While the school offers families a “less formal, and less expensive,” bar and bat mitzvah outside of the traditional synagogue structure, the idea of alternative Jewish affiliation in general is something that’s been gaining a lot of traction in recent years. There are more and more articles about independent prayer groups, congregations that meet in people’s homes rather than a synagogue, and online affiliation. All of these have one thing in common – they have lowered barriers to participation and given people more options for finding a connection to the Jewish community. This is a key point. At JOI, we have learned that as the diversity of the Jewish community grows, traditional boundaries of Jewish life are transcended. The best way to keep up is for institutions to reach beyond the boundaries as well and engage people where they are.

The end result of efforts like these should be to inspire a strong and lasting Jewish identity. Giving people more options to explore their heritage in a way that’s meaningful to them will help us reach that goal.

Another Conversion Controversy

If someone is interested in becoming a Jew, if they find meaning and value in the religion, shouldn’t we do everything we can to foster that passion? If someone believes Judaism is the spiritual path that’s right for them, isn’t it up to us to create a space where they will feel welcome to eventually become part of our community? Typically the answer is yes, but according to an article in the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA), that’s not what’s happening right now in Colombia, South America.

A group of recent converts in Colombia, who call themselves Maim Haim (Living Waters), have found themselves subject to intense scrutiny and skepticism by the established Jewish community. One of the arguments is that the motivations are not genuine. They are viewed as “émigrés-in-waiting more interested in obtaining Israeli citizenship” than becoming Jewish. Another is that Maim Chaim isn’t interested in joining the rest of the community, and that the group’s members “have not asked to join Colombia’s main Jewish institutions.”

This kind of division is exactly what the Jewish community should be avoiding these days. Maim Haim has shown, in the face of extreme prejudice, that they have the will to practice Judaism without the support of many in Colombia’s established Jewish leadership. That alone should demonstrate their honest motivations. While some have started to warm up to Maim Haim, others believe they should have been accepted from the get-go:

“It is unfortunate the rejection of Maim Haim and other groups that go through the whole conversion process are still not received in their city’s synagogues,” said Jaime Eisenband, president of a Colombian Jewish institution, the Baranquilla Philanthropic Israeli Center. “I honestly see it more as a social issue than religious. Despite the brave standpoint of some Colombian Orthodox rabbis saying they should be received as Jews, the community leadership still keeps them out.”

We have a hard enough time engaging folks who are already Jewish. The last thing we should do is to make it harder for people who are seeking out Judaism. Hopefully the members of Maim Haim – and all future converts – will find a community willing to embrace their decision and welcome them into our big tent.

Celebrity Interfaith Couple in Israel

We were excited to see Hollywood interfaith couple Liev Schreiber (Defiance, The Manchurian Candidate) and Naomi Watts (King Kong, The Ring) in Israel recently, planting trees with the Jewish National Fund (check out the YouTube video). Liev, whose grandfather emigrated to American from the Ukraine, Naomi and their two young sons also met with Israeli President Shimon Peres and went for a swim in Lake Kinneret.

Liev is setting a great example for both intermarried families and adult children of intermarriage who may be starting their own families. Himself a child of intermarriage, Liev has said in the past that one of the things he loves about Judaism is that “we’re constantly reminding ourselves and our children of our history and our connectedness.” And what better way to help his family connect to Jewish history and culture than by visiting Israel and leaving their mark in the form of a pistachio sapling?

Building these kinds of connections at a young age is just what it takes to help make sure children in interfaith relationships grow up with a strong sense of their Jewish background. But it doesn’t need to be something as big as a trip to Israel – it’s anything that holds meaning for those involved. This could be lighting candles on Friday night to welcome in Shabbat or hosting a Passover Seder.

But what’s just as important as a family making these decisions is a community that’s willing to accept them, no matter their level of observation. Liev and Naomi are setting a good example with their family, so let’s do the same and make sure all interfaith couples feel welcome in the Jewish community.

JOI Goes Green!

In an effort to curtail our carbon footprint, JOI has decided to take our bi-monthly newsletter Inside JOI and put it online. You’ll still get all the news on the latest innovative outreach methodology, as well as updates on selected JOI programming and events. Only now it will be delivered straight to your inbox!

Our first electronic edition recaps our two recent conferences where we worked with Jewish communal professionals and volunteer leaders from across the country to help welcome newcomers into the Jewish community. We also have information on the Big Tent Judaism initiative, a directory of all the free listserves (e-mail discussion groups) we currently host, news articles by or about JOI, and a “Best of” blogs section just in case you missed anything.

Click here if you would like to join our free mailing list and automatically receive Inside JOI in the future. It’s the best way to stay connected and up-to-date on JOI and the future of outreach.

Giving a Voice to All in the Jewish Community

A recent article in the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) highlighted efforts by the Orthodox Union (OU) to provide services to the estimated 14,000 Jews in America who are deaf. This includes a National Jewish Deaf Singles Registry that produces a newsletter featuring personal ads by single deaf Jews. The OU’s initiative was a response to a perceived higher intermarriage rate among Jews who are deaf. Similar to GLBT Jews, this higher intermarriage rate is probably more of a reflection of simple demographics rather than anything else. If those who are deaf primarily socialize with others who are deaf, irrespective of whether or not they are Jewish, then they are more likely to find a life partner who is not Jewish.

But what should motivate our desire to reach out to this population should have nothing to do with their greater likelihood to intermarry. (And if they do intermarry, we should welcome them in, as we advocate for intermarried LGBT Jews, as well.) Inclusion has to mean more than the publication of a “singles” newsletter; inclusion must take a holistic approach to community life. We must break down the many barriers the deaf community faces regarding participation in Jewish life, beyond recognizing that one of the most central components of prayer in Jewish liturgy is the word “Sh’ma” (listen), as the article points out.

The OU has also responded to this need to break down barriers by creating educational materials and resources for Jewish holidays, including sign language supplements for the Passover Haggadah. Beyond the OU, there are other organizations that are working to build community among deaf Jews themselves while also ensuring that existing programs in the broader Jewish community are accessible to those with all levels of hearing impairment. Many steps have been taken to ensure the availability of interpreters at Jewish events and that hearing impaired Jews have access to a wide range of services and organizations.

As part of our Big Tent Judaism initiative, we at JOI recommend that you highlight in all of your publications how your organization is including those with hearing impairments, especially those publications that reach individuals on the periphery of the Jewish community.

As we continue to create a Big Tent Judaism community, what additional opportunities are there in your community to include Jews who are hearing impaired? What steps has your community taken to include Jews who are deaf in all areas of Jewish life?

Reviving a Jewish Community

There was a fascinating story in the New York Times yesterday detailing one of the many groups of Jews around the world who have struggled to find their place in the Jewish community. Much like the Hispanic Crypto-Jews or the Abayudaya of Uganda, the Times told us the story of the Amazonian Jews of Iquitos, Peru, and how they have “sought to reclaim a Jewish identity that had seemingly been weakened through time.”

Descendents of Jews who came to the area in the “late-19th-century rubber boom,” many started to come together in the late 1990’s. In Lima, the article says, the Jewish community of about 3000 “largely preferred to ignore the Jews of Iquitos” because they didn’t fit into the mold of what a Jew should look like:

“The notion of a Jew who looks like an Indian and lives in a poor house in a small city in the middle of the jungle is, at best, an exotic footnote to the official history of Peru’s Jewry as Lima sees it,” said Ariel Segal, a Venezuelan-born Israeli historian whose arrival here in the 1990’s to study the community also helped serve as a catalyst for the Iquitos Jews to organize.

And organize they did. They started observing Shabbat, conducted services in Hebrew “they learned from cassette tapes,” and started burying people in the old Jewish cemetery. As of today, more than 400 have formally converted to Judaism and many have moved to Israel.

What’s inspiring about this story is how for over a hundred years, living “on the jungle’s edge,” without rabbis or a synagogue, the Jews in the area clung to their Jewish identity. We are thrilled to see they have found a home in the Jewish community. While others are debating their status or legitimacy, we welcome them enthusiastically into our big tent. Why? Because we have a moral obligation to reach out and welcome in those on the periphery of the community, precisely what the tradition calls “strangers.” They stood with us at Sinai and we are prepared to stand with them today.

But it makes us wonder, how many more descendents of Jewish travelers and settlers are still out there, waiting for someone to rekindle the flame?

The “Laws” For Jewish Grandparents with Interfaith Grandchildren

On our Grandparents Circle National Listserve, an e-mail discussion group for Jewish grandparents whose adult children have intermarried, participants are discussing whether there are any “laws” of interfaith grandparenting. The conversation started when I emailed out an article from entitled “Seven Laws of Grandparenting you Can’t Break.” These laws include “You may love thy grandchild as thine own — but never forget that he or she is not thine own,” and “Let go of all expectations.”

In the email, I asked the grandparents if there was a different set of “laws” or guidelines for grandparents with interfaith grandchildren. Numerous participants have weighed into the discussion. Carolyn, one of our listserve participants, responded with the following:

  1. Respect your children and their spouses and their choices.
  2. Revel in the glory of each of your children’s spouses and their heritages and traditions.
  3. Value diversity of thought and opinion.
  4. Bless the children for they have given you the most precious thing ever…GRANDCHILDREN!
  5. Always tell the grandchildren how much you respect their parents and value them in all that they do.
  6. Love your children’s in-laws…at least like them enough to enjoy their company.
  7. Love yourself enough to know that you raised your children the best way you knew how….and now they are doing the same. They will never forget what they learned at your knee. This is a promise.
  8. When all else fails… try laughter!

What do you think? Feel free to post a comment on whether you think there are any “laws” of being an interfaith grandparent. And if you are a Jewish grandparent, click here to join the listserve. It’s an opportunity to connect with other grandparents across the country, share stories and offer support. We invite you to be a part of the discussion!

JOI Conference in the News!

For anyone who wasn’t able to attend, the Jewish Exponent has a couple of articles this week highlighting both the people and the discussions that took place last week at JOI’s North American conference in Philadelphia.

One article was a summary, looking at the conference as a whole. The Exponent explained that communities today are working harder than ever before to “extend a hand to groups that have historically felt unwelcome in the Jewish community, such as gays and lesbians, as well as multiracial Jews.” And it was at our conference that people from San Francisco to Montreal were able to share experiences and discuss what has worked for them in terms of lowering barriers and reaching those on the periphery.

The other article focused more on one event – a Town Hall meeting with Rabbi Irwin Kula, director of CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. This was prompted by a post he made to our Jewish Outreach Professional Log-In Network (JOPLIN) listserve, where he criticized the use of terms like “affiliated” and “intermarried.” His comments “sparked a spirited virtual debate,” and we wanted to continue the conversation in person. During the discussion he spoke about his belief that there is no one correct way to be a Jew, and when we use terms like “intermarried,” we are creating “artificial barriers that don’t exist.” Instead, we should imagine “there are no boundaries.”

He also explained his notion that we don’t need to use ritual and affiliation as a way to “gauge Jewish connectedness.” The Exponent summed it up this way:

The crux of his argument was that Judaism, rather than functioning as a set of beliefs that binds a tribal people together, happens to be one of a number of practices available in the contemporary marketplace of ideas — a “technology,” he called it — that, if used effectively, can “help any human being become more human…”

For example, if a mezuzah is only about connecting an individual to the Jewish people, “it’s fundamentally not important,” he said. It only becomes important, in his view, if it suggests a sacred space where one behaves accordingly.

Rabbi Kula’s ideas worked for some but also found a degree of skepticism from others. But that’s the point – and really the point of the entire conference. We wanted to bring people together to help engage in broader conversations about the future of the Jewish community. What works, what can we do better? How can we re-think and revise what we have been doing in order to reach more people?

The Jewish community is too fluid to come up with definitive answers for these questions. That’s why we need to continue to innovate, continue to find new and exciting ways to open our doors, expand our big tent and let people know that they are welcome in the Jewish community.

Identity Politics

We are always on the lookout for representations of the Jewish community in pop culture – especially if it concerns intermarriage. The latest comes in the form of a new novel “You or Someone Like You,” written by Chandler Burr, the New York Times’ perfume critic.

The book is only recently published and we haven’t had a chance to read it, but a couple of reviews describe the novel’s focus on intermarriage and identity politics. In the Wall Street Journal, they note that everything is moving along smoothly in the lives of the main characters, Anne and Howard. He is a “movie-studio honcho,” and his wife hosts a book club for the Hollywood elite. Things change when their “teenage son is expelled from a two-day stay in an Israeli-roots program because his mother is not Jewish.” The result:

The expulsion stirs intense, opposing reactions in Anne and Howard: She begins cultivating a resentment toward religious self-definition, while Howard, absorbing the message that his son is not officially Jewish, wonders whether his own parents were right all along about the inadvisability of religious intermarriage.

Their reactions form the plot of the novel. According to a review from National Public Radio, Howard “finds himself drawn back more and more into the world of Orthodox Judaism that he left when he married Anne.” Anne tries to relate to him the only way she knows how – “through the literature of her book clubs.”

Using the book club and religion, the novel confronts “the idea of ‘group-ness,’” said NPR. It looks at “who’s in and who’s out; who’s considered a full person and who’s not.” To draw a parallel with real life, we can look at Taglit-Birthright Israel, a program that offers Jewish youth a free trip to Israel. It defines someone as eligibility for its trip if they are considered “Jewish by the Jewish community or by one of the recognized denominations of Judaism; or if either parent is Jewish AND the applicant does not actively practice another religion.” But those standards might not be the case with other organizations that sponsor trips to Israel.

Although the novel’s themes of inclusion and identity could be applied to just about any religion or cultural group, we’re interested to see how they are illustrated through the lens of Judaism. Whether or not we agree with the author’s conclusions, we appreciate the fact that he’s writing about these issues. Putting into the mainstream his thoughts on intermarriage, the Jewish community and Jewish identity is one of the best ways to engage more people in this debate.

Are Those on the Periphery the Most Welcoming?

Writing in the Forward, Jay Michaelson, an educator whose work focuses on spirituality, Judaism, sexuality, and law, brought up an interesting point about GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender) synagogues. He has noticed a growing number of the congregants at these synagogues are straight – and in some cases, these members make up the majority. This naturally led him to wonder why, and he found that it has to do with an innate ability by GLBT synagogues to be open, welcoming and inclusive above and beyond most mainstream synagogues.

He points to a recent study by Jewish Mosaic: The National Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity which found that “inclusion is a value that transcends subject matter.” Regardless of background – intermarried, Jew-by-choice, adult child of intermarriage – everyone likes to feel included. And in a synagogue started by a traditionally marginalized group, there are “fewer judgments, raised eyebrows or grumbles about political correctness.”

Michaelson says that GLBT synagogues aren’t necessarily more “enlightened about inclusion,” they have just had no choice but to develop in this way. Their longtime awareness of the diversity of the Jewish people has helped them nurture “values and practices that are now hot commodities in the Jewish community at large,” like an understanding that Jewish traditions can and must be “reinvented, re-appropriated and renewed.”

The merging of the marginalized and the mainstream brings us to an interesting place, and it’s one of the reasons JOI wants to work more extensively with the GLBT community. Since the LGBT community is over-represented among the numbers of intermarried families in the Jewish community, we want to make sure that these families are also welcome—whether in an institution specifically for the LGBT community or in the mainstream Jewish community, in general. Too often, the LGBT issues eclipse those of intermarriage and, as a result, leave the latter unaddressed.

The bigger question is, if inclusion is the baseline, what is the best way to help create a unified Jewish community? Multiracial Jews, GLBT Jews, Jews-by-choice and any others that may find themselves on the periphery all have one thing in common – they are all Jews. Wouldn’t we be better served by the richness and diversity they bring to Judaism if we were all members of one Jewish community?

Glass Ceilings

Last week, we congratulated Ahavas Chesed, a Conservative synagogue in Mobile, Alabama, on its decision to allow “non-Jewish spouses to become members of the synagogue.” We believe that affording full membership rights to the spouse of another religious background will have a positive impact on attracting intermarried families to the organized Jewish community and to this synagogue, in particular. But the motivation should be more about taking a moral position on the issue, rather than simply what we believe will be a positive demographic effect. If an intermarried family—the entire family—knows it is welcome, its members will be more inclined to participate.

That’s why we were disappointed to read an article in the New Jersey Jewish News about Temple Emanu-El, a Reform congregation in Edison, NJ, which has always been bold in its approach to integrating members of intermarried families into its congregation. Members of the synagogue reaffirmed a previous stance and “voted to bar non-Jews from becoming synagogue officers and trustees.” Why would someone volunteer if he or she is prohibited from synagogue leadership? It seems to us to be an example of a “glass ceiling” for intermarried families.

Obviously the members of this synagogue or any other can vote to administer its policies the way they see fit, but we believe that this position sends a mixed message to intermarried families—especially families who are highly involved in the synagogue. If they are raising Jewish children, active in the congregation and paying dues, shouldn’t they be entitled to leadership positions that determine the direction of the synagogue? Doesn’t this kind of vote undermine the values of welcoming on which the synagogue prides itself, as well as the Reform movement’s position on welcoming and including intermarried families in Jewish life?

There are already policies which limit the spouse of another background from participating in various aspects of the public reading of the Torah, including the reciting of blessings before and after the Torah. This stems from what some consider to be the direction of Jewish law. But adding yet another area where members of intermarried families can’t participate—which stems from synagogue culture and not Jewish law—could end up pushing some of these families away, and causing others not to bother.

The Melting Pot

To get a great cross-section of interfaith and intercultural marriage, one needs look no further than New York City. The New York Daily News recently profiled eight couples whose marriages symbolize the growing diversity of families the world over – and how “the joys of being married far outweigh any obstacle.”

Each couple has a unique story to tell. For some, the reactions by family and friends were harsh. The groom’s family in one story didn’t attend the couple’s wedding. They are hoping now that with a baby is on the way the family will be able to connect. For others, it’s more about how to incorporate both backgrounds into their daily lives. An Italian and a Puerto Rican/Jamaican couple use food to celebrate their heritage.

One theme that seems to run through it all is no one expected to find themselves in this situation. Aliza Diaz, a Dominican from Washington Heights, said her marriage to Yehuda Hausman, an Orthodox Jew, wasn’t something she planned on. She grew up Catholic but was in the process of converting when she and Yehuda met. She said:

At the time, he was living on the Jewish side of Washington Heights, and Jews and Dominicans don’t really mix. And then you have us.

And so goes most religions and cultures today. The unions in the article would have caused quite a stir a generation ago, but nowadays it’s normal to see so much diversity. In the Jewish community, some see this as a precursor to religious abatement. But we know that’s not the case. When a Jew intermarries, it isn’t a rejection of culture. They simply fell in love with someone who happens to have a different background. If we want to help make sure the couple raises their children with a strong Jewish identity, we have to let them know they are welcome and the doors to the Jewish community are open.

New Grandparents Circle Website!

Jewish grandparents with interfaith grandchildren often feel unsure of how they can cultivate the Jewish identity of their grandchildren. That’s one of the reasons JOI created the Grandparents Circle, an education and support program for Jewish grandparents whose adult children have intermarried. Now, there is another resource available: the newly launched Grandparents Circle website.

The website includes information about the program, a sign-up sheet that allows grandparents to join our listserve (an online discussion group), and a press section featuring recent articles on the Grandparents Circle. The site also has individual pages for communities sponsoring circles. For example, you can read about a circle in West Hartford where Grandparents Circle participants created edible seder (Passover dinner) plates out of kosher-for-Passover materials. Or a session in Atlanta where grandparents gathered to listen to a local rabbi who grew up in an interfaith household.

We invite you to explore our newest addition to the JOI family of websites!

Intermarriage and Synagogue Membership

Ahavas Chesed, a Conservative synagogue in Mobile, AL, continues to make bold decisions about how to create a warm and welcoming Jewish community. It has already decided to allow intermarried couples to be buried in their cemetery, and the synagogue’s rabbi, Steven Silberman, offers a prayer of blessing over interfaith couples who are marrying. Now, according to an article in the Press-Register, Ahavas Chesed “decided to welcome non-Jewish spouses to become members of the synagogue.”

Silberman, who was inspired to make these changes after attending JOI’s conference in Washington D.C. two years ago, said the goal is simply “to offer a warm and welcoming traditional Jewish home for households that are interested in a Jewish life.” Since that conference, JOI’s Rabbi Kerry Olitzky has visited the congregation twice and has been working with them on how to best reach intermarried families.

It was during these consultations that Rabbi Silberman and the synagogue’s board realized that keeping the spouse of another background from becoming a member just didn’t make sense. “Having families make up our synagogue is necessary for our synagogue to grow and prosper,” he said.

He’s right – why would a family join if the synagogue isn’t willing to let the entire family join? Obviously these families want to be a part of the Jewish community. Throwing up a barrier is a sure-fire way to keep these families at bay. Ahavas Chesed is responding to the realities of intermarriage by opening their doors and making a great effort to include and embrace everyone in their midst.

JOI Conference in Philadelphia

Yesterday, JOI concluded our three day conference titled All Are Welcome: Transforming the Jewish Community through Outreach. It was a tremendous experience with a range of provocative speakers, hands-on workshops and educational sessions all designed to give people the tools to create a more welcoming Jewish community and help secure a vibrant Jewish future.

The conference brought together over 150 Jewish communal professionals and volunteer leaders from across North America, all looking for new and innovative techniques to find and reach more intermarried families and unaffiliated Jews in their communities. This is particularly significant given the state of today’s economy, and it shows that even in tough times people want to hear news about the latest strategies and tactics for effective outreach. But it was also a time to think deeply about trying to answer the big question, “Why be Jewish?” We might know how to reach people, but helping folks answer that question is what will keep them, their families, and future generations involved in the Jewish community.

We were also able to continue in person a remarkable conversation that took place on our e-mail listserve for Jewish outreach professionals, JOPLIN. On the listserve, Rabbi Irwin Kula of CLAL had challenged all of us to rethink the labels we use and the boundaries of our community. We were happy to have him join us and lead a though provoking town-hall style discussion. Everyone at the conference had the opportunity to explore the issues initially raised online and discuss how the Jewish community identifies itself and how we can go even further in eliminating barriers.

Other highlights include: Dr. Peter Pitzele, who brought to life the Book of Ruth with an inspired and lively interactive reading; a presentation by Guatemalan-Jewish interdisciplinary artist Maya Escobar detailing her identity struggles; and a heartfelt keynote address by Jewish Lights Publishing editor-in-chief, Stuart Matlins. There were also late night salons, think-tanks, and a walking tour of historic Jewish Philadelphia.

Feedback from attendees has been overwhelmingly positive. Forty-eight hours seemed too short! People wanted even more time to talk and connect with other professionals to share best practices and discover new strategies for engagement. All we can say to that is we hope to see you at our next conference!

Photos from the conference are after the jump…


One Book

Sometimes the best way to bring people together is to find a common denominator. That’s the idea behind “One Book, One Jewish Community,” a project organized through the Jewish Outreach Partnership of Greater Philadelphia. The goal of the program is to bring people in the Philadelphia area together through shared conversations and discussions about a book’s themes and how they are relevant to today’s Jewish community. The program is now in its third year.

“One Book” is a great low-barrier way to connect everyone, no matter what their background or level of Jewish education, to the larger Jewish community. All you need is to buy the book – which is usually discounted for those participating – or find it in a library and then read it on your own schedule.

Right now the program is only in Philadelphia, but I wonder what it would look like if it expanded nationwide – or worldwide. Imagine Jewish communities across the globe reading and discussing one book about Jewish life, perhaps sharing thoughts with neighboring communities via webchats, conference calls or listserves. Maybe that’s a ways down the road, but in the meantime the project is an opportunity for local organizations to serve as a gateway for increased participation in Jewish life.

Rediscovering Judaism

Just how big is the Jewish community? Most surveys put the number somewhere around 13 million worldwide. But that’s only counting the people who know they’re Jewish. What about all those who have Jewish roots but were forced, at some point in history, to choose conversion or death? That’s the story behind Crypto-Jews – Jews from Spain and Portugal who were forced to convert to Catholicism nearly 500 years ago but kept some semblance of their Judaism as they migrated to across the globe.

Today, there is a “steady trickle of Hispanics in the Southwest, from Juarez to Texas to New Mexico, are discovering their Jewish roots,” according to an article from the JTA. And one synagogue in El Paso, Congregation B’nai Zion, is doing everything they can to make sure those seeking guidance find a welcoming and open environment.

Rabbi Stephen Leon of B’nai Zion has helped start a Crypto-Jew learning center in El Paso with the goal of bringing “awareness to the Jewish and general public about the Inquisition and Crypto-Jews.” He has also made sure those in the area who want to return to Judaism have the tools and resources to do so. This past Shavuot – as the Jewish community read the story of Ruth, the first official convert to Judaism – Rabbi Leon oversaw the bar and bat mitzvahs of a number of families who have not only discovered their Jewish roots, but have made a commitment to now lead a Jewish life.

Rabbi Leon also believes the Crypto-Jews (also called Marranos, Anusim, and Conversos) will play a key role in the future of Judaism:

With Hispanics being the fastest-growing population and the Jews constantly concerned about their diminishing population, Leon says the Jewish community should welcome those Hispanics who want to explore their Jewish ancestry.

“I think the Anusim are the only answer,” he said. “They are returning one way or another.”

The only answer? I don’t know if we would go that far. But just like our Big Tent Judaism initiative, Rabbi Leon is certainly helping by creating an environment that supports and advocates for all those who would cast their lot with the Jewish people, regardless of prior background or knowledge. And other synagogues are reaching out to this group - JOI has been working with the synagogue Ahabat Torah, who has set up an Anusim center in San Jose, CA. This philosophy – whether applied to Crypto-Jews, intermarried families, or anyone on the periphery – will help secure a more vibrant Jewish future.

When Everything is Free

We often blog and write about the importance of offering “free samples” of Jewish life. We think it is so important, that we even made it one of the Ten Principles of the Big Tent Judaism Coalition. Usually we talk about this in terms of free High Holiday tickets, discounts on membership, and other goods and services. But what if everything were free? Moving away from dues-based engagement in Jewish organizations is a big step, and one California group took the plunge. Cognizant of the fact that most area Jews are unengaged by the Jewish community, Rabbi Naomi Levy founded Nashuva, a Los Angeles Jewish community—not a congregation, she’s quick to point out.

She began the community in 2004 with monthly Friday evening Shabbat services in area churches who generously shared their space with Nashuva. She also developed social actions projects to rally people together. Today, there is no “membership” and, therefore, no dues to join Nashuva. Revenue instead is based on the free-will contributions of those who participate. Nashuva is also not affiliated with a particular Jewish religious stream, so everyone is welcome. Individual approaches and levels of observance are irrelevant. But the barriers Nashuva transcends don’t end there. Levy’s online High Holiday services impacted on nearly 200,000 viewers from around the world—proving that the internet can be a powerful tool for connecting to Jewish community.

One area Nashuva is still negotiating is intermarried families—who are invited to become part of the community. However, the question of bar and bat mitzvah for children of non-Jewish mothers has raised some questions for Levy, who was trained as a Conservative rabbi. Nashuva is considering an interesting approach—the creation of a pluralistic umbrella with connections to rabbis of various religious streams who would be comfortable taking on responsibilities for life cycle events for families with whom they are comfortable.

Nashuva is a work in progress, but with hundreds of people attending an average Nashuva Friday night service, it’s clear that many are interested in its low-barrier approach to Jewish community life. We at JOI are excited to see how Nashuva continues to develop its approach to what we at JOI call Big Tent Judaism.

A New Jewish Icon

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This past Sunday marked the release of Rebecca Rubin, the latest in a line of American Girl dolls. For those unfamiliar with this series, American Girl dolls represent young girls from different points in American history. Rebecca is the first Jewish doll in the series, joining characters that range from girls living in revolutionary times to World War 2. Rebecca lives in New York’s Lower East Side with her Russian-Jewish family.

Some, like author Meredith Jacobs, think the doll is a great way to teach young Jewish girls about Jewish history. “This is our history, right here in this doll,” she said in an article in the JTA. And while it’s nice to have Jewish representation in the American Girl series of dolls, Rabbi Brad Hirschfield isn’t sure whose history the doll is supposed to represent. Writing in his blog Windows and Doors on, he said:

I know that a large percentage of American Jews have roots in eastern Europe, but a large percentage today also have roots in Ireland, Mexico, and Japan, just to name a few. And that doesn’t even address that the first Jews to come to America, more than 200 years before this doll’s parents arrived from Russia, were Sephardim!

We are a community that has entered Jewish life through inter-marriage, adoption, conversion, etc. And it would be far more interesting to address what it means to celebrate the Jewishness that could be found in any of the 13 previously created dolls, for none of whom that I know, does religion play nearly the role it does in the biography of little Rebecca Rubin.

Rabbi Hirschfield’s comments offer an interesting take on Jewish identity. The other dolls have distinct cultural backgrounds – Mexican, Swedish, and Chinese. But Rebecca’s cultural background is Judaism, rather than Russian. Today, many Jews regard themselves as culturally Jewish – that is, they relate to Judaism as an ethnicity, not a religion. This is another example in which we see that instead of leaving Judaism behind, as Jews acculturate they bring it with them–an indicator that perhaps cultural Judaism can indeed be important when desiring to bring Judaism from one generation to the next.

Reviving a Holiday

A few years ago, JOI developed a program for the holiday Shavuot called “Up All Night.” Using the Shavuot tradition of staying up all night to study Torah, the program would take place in a large bookstore with a coffee shop, where you can host book readings or an accessible presentation on Jewish topics while offering free coffee/refreshments throughout. The idea was to create a low barrier event in a public space in order to attract unaffiliated and unengaged members of the community.

According to a recent article in the Washington Jewish Week, numerous synagogues in the D.C. area used Shavuot this year as a gateway to low-barrier Jewish engagement. At the synagogue Sixth & I, for example, attendees were given the opportunity to make a “lox and cream cheese pizza” since it’s traditional to eat dairy foods, or partake in a “10-pose group yoga session” that recognized the 10 Commandments. The point was to offer activities that would resonate with the younger generation. Said Jen Keys, a Schusterman Insight Fellow working with Sixth & I:

I think we’re appealing to a crowd that is really looking to grasp onto something, get some relation to the holiday, but are not sure how or in what context. We provide the right environment to pick and choose and really personalize it.

Shavuot, which fell on Thursday evening through Saturday of last week, was chosen because it’s an important – yet often overlooked – holiday on the Jewish calendar. By bringing it to the forefront like this, Jewish communal professionals have a better chance of reaching a population that is looking for something different, an alternative Jewish experience that will help lead to deeper engagement.

Still, we believe the unique aspect of our “Up All Night” Program – holding the event in secular venues – is an aspect more organizations should emulate if they truly want to share their Shavuot programming with a less affiliated audience.

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