Entries for July 2009
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An article on the website Jewishinfonews.com recently reported on a new study by the United Israel Appeal of Canada titled “National Task Force on Jewish Demographics.” The study found that the Canadian Jewish population is facing the same challenges that are being dealt with in other Jewish communities – stagnant numbers, an aging community, and rising intermarriage rates.
We were given a sneak-peek of the study, and we are glad to see many of our suggestions for making sure intermarried couples don’t abandon Judaism were included. In order to create “pathways for interfaith couples and families,” the study found “several areas where the organized Jewish community can make a difference.” Such as:
Develop opportunities for grandparents to connect with their Jewish grandchildren in a Jewish setting.
Offer experiences and materials for non-Jewish family members. For example, without any education, how many non-Jewish grandparents would support the concept of a Bris?
Make resources readily available for intermarried couples. This could include a list of classes, peer groups, resources available, web sites…
The conclusion, which we have known for years, is to create more opportunities for intermarried couples and their families to connect to the Jewish community. The study found that more Jewish experiences means a “greater likelihood that they will raise their children Jewish.” Do so, and we might see a reversal in the stagnant number and the aging Jewish community.
This might sound simple, but the biggest hurdle is making contact with these families in the first place. For instance, JOI coordinates Public Space Judaism programs around various Jewish holidays. Families, regardless of their level of affiliation, are more inclined to celebrate Hanukkah or Passover than any other, so in the weeks leading up to those holidays we’ll have outreach volunteers assemble in malls or grocery stores (and implement a JOI-designed program) – places where folks are going to be doing their holiday shopping. Our goal is to meet people where they are, rather than wait for them to come to us. This is a way for institutions to make that first contact and try to foster a lasting relationship with unaffiliated families.
The bottom line is what the Canadian study found is true for the worldwide Jewish population. That’s why it’s so important to include intermarried families – and all others on the periphery of the community – and encourage their increased participation in Jewish life. Our future depends on it.
Yesterday we blogged about how Pittsburgh’s Congregation Beth Shalom is offering a year of free school and membership for area families. Today we want to focus Sixth & I, a historic synagogue in downtown Washington, DC.
The synagogue is promoting a “Wedding Giveaway,” where people can submit a 30 second video explaining why they want to get married at Sixth & I. The winning couple will receive a wedding package valued at $3,500. The goal is to provide “the experience of a lifetime while not requiring a lifetime worth of savings to accomplish it.”
Additionally, the contest is open to everyone in the Jewish community – they don’t have to be members of Sixth & I, or even affiliated. “No matter how you are paired up, no matter your level of observance,” they write in the promotional material, everyone is eligible to enter. In the rules and regulations, they state quite clearly, “Sixth & I warmly welcomes interfaith couples and same-sex couples.”
This is a pretty smart marketing strategy for the synagogue. Offering to host a Jewish lifecycle event free of charge will certainly earn Sixth & I some great publicity. But there are a few more added benefits. First, this will certainly attract many of the unaffiliated couples in the area who are looking for a Jewish home. This kind of an opportunity will essentially force these folks to explain why Judaism matters, and why they want to be married in a synagogue. It will hopefully lead them on a path to increased Jewish participation.
And second, promoting it as an event open to all sends the right message: Sixth & I wants everyone – in the mainstream and on the margins – to feel included and welcome in the Jewish community.
We have long argued that one of the best incentives to attract unaffiliated members of the Jewish community is to offer free (or low cost) programming. We think once people see the value and meaning in becoming a part of the community, they are more likely participate in the future. And as our associate executive director Paul Golin wrote in a recent op-ed, if more unaffiliated people have more incentive to participate, we can “do a better job listening to and serving the needs of” this population.
This is the thinking behind Pittsburgh’s Congregation Beth Shalom and their offer of “one year of free religious school to all new students enrolling this coming year,” according the Jewish Chronicle. Beth Shalom is also offering a year of free membership if the family is a newcomer. Said Executive Director Lee Levitt:
“We don’t want there to be a barrier to a child receiving a formal religious school education. In these challenging economic times we’re reducing those barriers. We’re eliminating them…
There are financial implications, but part of our mission is to make sure that Jewish children have a strong Jewish background in education.”
It’s no secret that people are more inclined to attend something if it’s free. High Holiday services are a good example – synagogues in every denomination that offer free services attract huge numbers of unaffiliated participants. And that’s great for a one or two day event. The difference with Beth Shalom is it is taking the leap of offering free membership and school for an entire year, a level of access the article says is unheard of among local synagogues and congregations.
The families who take advantage are likely to have more than a passing interest in Judaism. These are people who want to give their children a strong Jewish identity but have been deterred by high costs. Removing that barrier and giving area families the freedom to explore what the community has to offer will certainly inspire some to stay on as members and continue their participation in Jewish life.
The (New York) Jewish Week has a fascinating article about a Birthright Israel tour operator who dropped out of leading groups because he was told not to promote aliyah (moving to Israel) or pressure participants to “date only Jews.” In response, I wrote a letter to the editor arguing that this episode indirectly identifies two of the greatest challenges facing Jewish outreach today.
First is the issue of secular Judaism, which continues to evolve but remains unclearly-defined. The tour operator Shlomo Lifshitz is identified as “secular,” and his tour is praised by a participant who did not want religion “forced down my throat.” But it seems Lifshitz’s only approach to Jewish continuity is through promoting in-marriage and aliyah. If that message ever appealed to young generations of American Jews, it doesn’t anymore; it comes across as tribalism.
In the U.S. today there are an equal number of self-identified Jews under the age of 25 from intermarried parents as from in-married parents. They’re not defining their Jewishness according to bloodlines. For them to engage, Judaism has to stand for something. It has to have personal meaning. Effective proponents of “Judaism as a culture” or “Jewish peoplehood” reach this generation by better defining the mission—of tikkun olam, social justice, Zionism, Jewish literature, etc.—and explaining what makes it Jewish.
The second challenge identified in the article is about ulterior motives. Birthright Israel’s amazing success has been widely chronicled; it must also be recognized as the single most effective program of outreach to children of intermarriage. Especially for those who were not previously engaging with the community, trust is essential. Birthright Israel is transparent with its message, which is basically: we believe in Israel so much we’re going to give it to you for free, in the hopes that you too will believe in Israel. For most participants, that’s exactly what happens.
When tour operators include ulterior motives, however, such as promoting in-marriage, it becomes “like going to one of those free breakfasts where people try to sell you a timeshare,” as one participant explained in the article. That particular participant claimed he didn’t mind, but we know many participants from intermarried households are indeed offended by the “pitch,” as well as other unstructured conversations on Birthright buses (from a variety of operators) about issues of intermarriage, patrilineal descent, and who’s “really” a Jew.
JOI applauds Birthright Israel’s enforcement of a policy intended to keep its outreach focused squarely on why Israel is so amazing. And we encourage its staff to work even more closely with their tour operators to better accommodate the sensitivities of participants from all backgrounds and family structures.
Our first reaction to the news of Rep. Anthony Weiner’s engagement to Hilary Clinton aide Huma Abedin was congratulatory. As a Jew and a Muslim, we said they could help break down the taboos surrounding similar interfaith relationships. But we also knew there would be some who didn’t share our sentiment. The (New York) Jewish Week went in depth to find out how different people are reacting to Weiner and Abedin’s relationship.
Some wondered if there would be any political repercussions, since Weiner serves a heavily Jewish district. Many, including New York State Assemblyman Dov Hikind, believe it won’t. One Orthodox Jewish businessman who has supported Weiner in both Congress and his bid for mayor of New York City said that he’ll support Weiner “if he runs for mayor again and also for his re-election to Congress. I’m not one who judges a person’s character on his personal choices.”
Religiously, the Week notes there has been plenty of pushback from some in the Jewish community. On the blog Yeshiva World News, the typical reaction was “Oy,” with one asking God to have mercy on the couple. Another compared their relationship to a biblical story in which an interfaith relationship brings a plague on the Jewish people.
Despite some of the negative comments, the person who might matter most in all of this – Weiner’s mother Fran – has already voiced her support. By coming out and saying she thinks it’s “wonderful,” Fran is creating the kind of welcoming atmosphere necessary if we are going to encourage more interfaith families to participate in the Jewish community.
The Forward newspaper published a forceful editorial this week over some alarming new standards proposed by the Israeli Interior Ministry regarding American Jewish converts who want to live in Israel. Among the proposals: the convert must prove they have lived in the same Jewish community for 18 months, studied with an approved rabbi for at least 350 hours, and doesn’t have any relatives who aren’t Jewish living in Israel.
The “new protocols,” says the Forward, are the “latest chapter of the ugly, ongoing attempt by the ultra-Orthodox establishment in Israel to control who becomes a Jew, and how.”
With surgical precision, the piece deconstructs the legal and moral issues at stake if the new standards are codified. Noting that every major denomination in American disapproves, the Forward explains point by point how one group should not be able to dictate to all Jews worldwide who is and is not a Jew. “This is the time for Israel to act as the state of all Jews, not just those deemed acceptable by a few ultra-Orthodox rabbis,” the editorial says.
The editorial brings together two points that JOI has been advocating for years. First, religion should be open to everyone searching for meaning. We have argued that imposing such strict standards goes against the basic notion that Judaism is a welcoming religion, as demonstrated in the biblical story of Ruth, the first official Jewish convert. Second, we believe creating divisions between denominations is one of the major obstacles to creating a vibrant Jewish future. “It would serve us better as a Jewish community to act like a community and not a group of warring factions,” we have said in the past.
The question posed at the end of the piece cuts right to the heart of the matter, and we would love to hear your comments. In light of the efforts of people and organizations who want to reclaim the allegiance of American Jews, “shouldn’t we do everything we can to remove the obstacles before those who want to become Jews, and want to take the profound step of living in the land of their new ancestors?”
We know from our work with interfaith families that adult children of intermarriage sometimes find themselves in a state of religious limbo, especially those with a Jewish father and a mother of another religious background. If they were raised Jewish – Hebrew school, bar/bat mitzvah, celebrate Jewish holidays – they will still face challenges to their status because of matrilineal versus patrilineal descent.
As children of intermarriage – a growing population – straddle the insider/outsider line running through Judaism, one woman asked “Is Half-Jewish a Religion?” Going by the moniker Julie Z., her blog was in response to a post on another website, Jezebel, where a blogger named Sadie complained that since there is technically no such thing as being half-Jewish, then “us half-Jews are confused.”
Julie Z., who identifies as Jewish, has come to the following conclusion:
So maybe my Mom wasn’t raised a Jew. That doesn’t stop either of us from now identifying as part of the Jew Crew. Beyond that, maybe I don’t belong to a temple, keep kosher, whatever. Why can’t Judaism just be an influence in my life rather than what shapes my whole set of religious beliefs?
Julie’s decision and how she finds meaning in Judaism should be respected by those in the mainstream community. But we also understand there is a difference between non-Jews and non-Halachic Jews (those of patrilineal descent). While someone might not be Jewish from a Halachic standpoint, they should never be called non-Jews - especially if they are raised in a Jewish home. The complexities of the issue will become even more relevant if Julie gets involved with a Conservative or Orthodox Jew and they want to get married. Should she be required to undergo a formal conversion, or is her lifetime of Jewish identity enough?
This is a scenario likely to be faced by more and more as the diversity of the Jewish people continues to grow. In the meantime, if we want to make sure children of intermarriage stay engaged in the Jewish community, let’s include them from the beginning. We have a moral obligation to embrace those in our midst, so we should be working to make it easier for those who identify as Jewish to feel more welcome and included.
Last week we blogged about Zoe Klein’s debut novel, Drawing in the Dust, in which the protagonists are in an interfaith relationship. In two more books released this year – Tomato Rhapsody, about a 16th century Jewish tomato farmer who falls in love with a Catholic olive farmer, and A Seat at the Table, the story of an Orthodox Jewish man who falls for a woman who isn’t Jewish – a clear interfaith theme emerges. We have to wonder, why are there so many books being written and released with character plots featuring interfaith couples?
We think the simple answer is because it’s a reflection of what’s happening in today’s Jewish community. And seeing the theme explored serves a great purpose. More novels, movies, and TV shows that deal either explicitly or implicitly with intermarriage or interfaith relationships helps all those who find themselves in similar real-life situations. When these couples and families see that their experiences are shared, it helps remove the stigma and hopefully opens up avenues of conversation where maybe there wasn’t one before.
Regardless of how the stories progress, it’s exciting to see these relationships given such a prominent role. Intermarried couples and interfaith families have a lot to offer the Jewish community. Strengthening their voice through fiction might highlight their significance and encourage the mainstream Jewish community to better welcome them in.
“Should gay flocks have their own churches?”
That was a question raised by Manya Brachear, a religion reporter for the Chicago Tribune. At JOI, we believe it doesn’t have to be either/or. A synagogue can be inclusive of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) members, just as LGBT synagogues can be inclusive of straight members. What’s important is that each congregation is welcoming towards all who approach. If the commandment is to welcome the stranger, than the orientation of the synagogue or congregation shouldn’t matter.
Manya posed the question on the Tribune’s religion blog The Seeker. She asks, “Should gays and lesbians have distinct congregations? Does that discourage mainstream houses of worship from welcoming them into their midst?” Some think separate congregations are okay, just as there are African American churches, but others think GLBT folks “should be part of mainstream churches.”
We think this can be applied to most groups who find themselves on the periphery of the mainstream Jewish community – intermarried families, adult children of intermarriage, multiracial Jews, etc… The shared common denominator among these folks is they are all Jewish. Shouldn’t that be enough to open the doors of any Jewish institution? What do you think?
The Jewish community that makes up Owings Mills, MD (a suburb of Baltimore) is experiencing an interesting challenge, not unlike other Jewish communities elsewhere. From 1985 to 1999, the Jewish community in Owings Mills grew by 171 percent, at the expense of older, traditionally-Jewish neighborhoods closer to the city core. But a sizable number of the families that make up this growing community are unaffiliated. So the Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore is asking, how do you reach these folks and encourage them to participate in Jewish life? An article in the Baltimore Jewish Times took a look at what the Associated—and other institutions in the area—are doing to answer that question.
One high profile change came with the recent decision to open the Owings Mills Jewish Community Center on Saturday afternoon. Heavily debated, it was not an easy decision. But the prospect of creating more points of access for unaffiliated families eventually won out. In the Baltimore Sun, JCC President Louis “Buddy” Sapolsky said:
“The decision will give the JCC more of an opportunity to serve Jewish people in the Owings Mills area who…do not automatically affiliate with Jewish organizations. The more opportunities we have to touch Jewish people, the better off we’re going to be.”
Along with the new Saturday afternoon opening, the Jewish Times notes that the JCC is facilitating the Mothers Circle, JOI’s program for women of another religious background who are raising Jewish children. Not mentioned is that the JCC is also sponsoring JOI’s Grandparents Circle program, for Jewish grandparents with interfaith grandchildren.
Congregations have also found ways to move with the population they hope to serve. Some organizations had the foresight to relocate to the area years ago, and while they have seen their membership grow, the community is still mostly unaffiliated. According to the article, a few congregations have opened branches in Owings Mills to increase accessibility. Congregation Beth El holds weekday Hebrew school classes and Shabbat dinners in people’s homes so folks don’t have to drive the 15-20 miles to Beth El’s main campus in Pikesville. Congregation Etz Chaim of Owings Mills made a similar move, opening up in a storefront so people wouldn’t have to commute to the Etz Chaim Center in Baltimore.
But we recommend the Jewish community go even further to serve people where they are through Public Space Judaism programs, like JOI’s Passover in the Matzah Aisle or High Holiday Honey Tasting. These are programs that find Jewish families and individuals at grocery stores or shopping malls, and engage them in friendly, low-barrier activities that may also alert them to other options in their community. Not mentioned in the article is whether any Jewish organizations are partnering with secular programs, which is another way to serve folks who may be affiliated with the Jewish community. We encourage the entire organized Jewish community in Owings Mills to think outside their own four walls when trying to serve the less affiliated.
Looking for a lively page turner to read while on vacation this summer? We suggest picking up Zoe Klein’s debut novel, Drawing in the Dust. The book is part historical fiction, part thriller, and part romance – with an interfaith couple as the protagonists.
The plot is as follows: Digging in the town Anatot (just outside of Jerusalem), an archeologist, Page Brookstone, finds the grave of the prophet Jeremiah, who was buried along with the woman he loved, Anatiya. Among the artifacts they find in the crypt is Anatiya’s diary. The discovery “ignites an international uproar and violent attacks” as Page tries to have the diary translated. During it all, she falls in love with Mortichai Master, an Orthodox Israeli who is opposed to the excavation efforts but nonetheless falls in love with Page, too.
Klein, who was ordained at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, draws upon her religious training to create a story of both intrigue and intelligence. It’s a fast-paced story that combines “poetry, suspense, romance, and self-discovery into a flawless package,” according to one of the many glowing online reviews.
But we’d also like to hear from you – what do you think of the novel? How does she handle the subject of interfaith romance? We look forward to your comments.
On the website Femeniste, blogger Daisy Bond wants to know what’s in store for the future of Judaism. As she gets older, she explains, she is more aware of her “personal responsibility to ensure that Judaism survives, of the obligation and the privilege to decide for myself what that means and what it will look like.”
So she wanted to open the question up to her readers and find out what they thought. She started with the question “What do you want Judaism to be,” and then expounded with a series of more specific inquiries, such as:
Why are Judaism and Jewish culture important? Why is it important to preserve them? What are most critical issues for the Jewish community to address right now? Israel, intermarriage, declining synagogue attendance, something else entirely?
There are more – lots more. These are the right questions to ask, as we do day after day on our blog. She has put them all in one place, and we would like to bring the discussion to our readers. But we don’t want to focus on Jewish “survival.” Instead, we want to look at the motivation for being a part of the Jewish community. What is in Judaism that will continue to claim the attention of Jews or those interested in entering the orbit of the community? We ask because we want to know what people can do to promote the value and meaning of Judaism and create a community where everyone in our midst is welcome to explore and connect with their heritage.
The full list of Daisy’s questions can be found after the jump. We encourage you to visit the original post to see how others have responded.
I’m sure you’re all wondering what our answer would be. At JOI, we believe the future of the North American Jewish community will be determined by the warmth, wisdom and caring with which we welcome and engage intermarried families and unaffiliated Jews into our midst.
What do you think? We look forward to your comments.
JOI is excited to announce the launch of Shofar, our free listserve for men who have converted to Judaism or are in the process of conversion. Through online discussions, we hope to develop a lively, thought-provoking place where individuals can talk about important issues unique to male Jews-by-Choice. It will also serve as a space for participants to bring up questions or concerns and receive practical advice.
If you or someone you know could benefit from being part of this discussion, we invite you to join the group and forward the information along. To learn more or register, please visit www.JOI.org/shofar. But this is just the first step in a whole series of initiatives we are planning for men - stay tuned to JOI for more.
JOI also hosts numerous other free listserves for folks from all walks of Jewish life. While each targets a different demographic, we believe having these options is one of the best ways to lower barriers to participation for people who might not otherwise engage with the Jewish community.
We look forward to hearing from you!
We know that intermarriage comes with a host of challenges that the couple and their families must navigate. But those challenges become even more complex when the backgrounds of the married couple are often seen as being at great odds. That is the case with Rep. Anthony Weiner, congressman of New York’s 9th district in Queens and Brooklyn, and Huma Abedin, a top aide to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. He is Jewish, she is Muslim.
Things are off to a good start, though. Rep. Weiner’s mother, Fran, told the New York Daily News: “I think it’s wonderful. She’s lovely, what more can I say?” No decisions have yet been made on the how their wedding ceremony will “accommodate the pair’s different faiths,” but Fran seemed supportive of whatever they choose to do, saying she’ll be okay with “anything that makes them happy.” For parents whose adult children are involved in an interfaith relationship, this is often the first piece of advice we give – to warmly and graciously accept your child’s partner into your family. That initial reaction from parents can set the tone for future relationships with children and grandchildren, so it’s best to create a welcoming and amicable atmosphere.
Hopefully the positive attitudes already on display will continue throughout their engagement, marriage and life together. But this couple’s story can also serve another purpose. As very public figures on a local and national stage, Rep. Weiner and Abedin’s relationship can help to break down taboos surrounding Jewish/Muslim interfaith relationships. JOI has been advocating for a broader discussion of this topic, and we hope such a high profile example will bring this conversation to a new level.
We would like to congratulate Rep. Weiner and his bride-to-be Abedin. With over twenty years of experience working with interfaith families, we are ready to not only help guide them on their journey, but also partner with the couple in order to promote a more welcoming and inclusive North American Jewish community. Just give us a call so we can get started!
Earlier this summer, in between eating cheese curds and dodging moose as I drove around Wisconsin, I went back to a Jewish summer camp for the first time in almost 10 years. Why was I wandering around the Midwest, swatting at flies and drinking “bug-juice” by the pitcher?
As part of an ongoing partnership with the Foundation for Jewish Camp, a national organization that helps raise awareness and support for Jewish camps, the Jewish Outreach Institute spent time working hands-on with this organization to help camps reach all those on the periphery of the Jewish community. Currently, Jewish summer camps primarily attract and engage campers from families that are already engaged in Jewish life. The premise of the summer project is that Jewish camps can better reflect the contemporary diversity of the Jewish people, including the great number of intermarried families, Jews-of-color and others traditionally marginalized from the Jewish community. In addition to working with camp directors on marketing strategies to recruit campers from these underrepresented target populations, JOI program officers traveled to eleven different camps to train camp staff members on the importance of embracing Jewish diversity and providing a safe space for campers of all backgrounds. By helping these camps identify opportunities to grow to become more inclusive communities, we hope that camps will increase the number of new campers they welcome each summer.
The sessions were transformative opportunities for the counselors to reflect on how they welcome those of different backgrounds to camp, and by extension, to the Jewish community. And on a personal note, it was a privilege to spend time with the incredible staff at these camps and work with them to create even more welcoming and inclusive environments. As an alumna of the Goldman Union Camp Institute in Zionsville, IN a Reform Jewish summer camp, I know how magically empowering camp can be. I hope that our efforts this summer and the big steps these camps are taking will make the Jewish summer camp experience more accessible to all!
Synagogues and other Jewish institutions have been increasing their online presence over the last few years. Perhaps none more so than Congregation Beth Adam, a Humanist congregation in Cincinnati, Ohio. It has launched a “fully functioning congregation on the internet” called www.OurJewishCommunity.org, said Boston’s Jewish Advocate (registration required).
Rabbi Laura Baum of Beth Adam said the idea for OurJewishCommunity was born from the fact that they “needed a way to engage the majority of Jews that are unaffiliated.” Most people are now online, so it only made sense to create a congregation in that same space. One of the goals, according to the website, is to “reach out to people who want to adapt Jewish tradition to a contemporary lifestyle.”
The offerings mirror that of a physical synagogue. On the website, the congregation broadcasts live High Holiday services, publishes sermons online, and Rabbi Baum speaks to congregants individually through Skype (online video conferencing). The congregation is also on Twitter and Facebook, making use of social networking sites to create a fluid Jewish community.
But there are detractors. Some, like Rabbi Keith Stern of Newton, MA, thinks the goal of an online congregation should be to “get people to actually come to this physical space.” Online offerings can complement a synagogue, he said, but shouldn’t become the “equivalent to the physical world.”
Still, many are trying to create their own fully functioning Jewish communities online. The article mentions www.Esynagogue.org, which focuses on education and conversion but plans on offering more. The Jewish TV Network aired High Holiday services online last year, attracting 200,000 people from all over the world. And even Rabbi Stern, who has his reservations, said he is working on a Facebook page and looking into how to stream services.
There are a lot of pros and cons to putting traditional synagogue and institutional offerings online. They are a great way to lower barriers and allow people to approach Judaism and the community at their own pace. But, how much further can they go? Can they create real community—or is that limited to physical space?
There have been two articles in the past week about the Conservative movement and intermarriage. Both demonstrate that the movement is realizing they have to re-think their outreach strategies regarding intermarried families.
The first, in Philadelphia’s Jewish Exponent, explained how some local Conservative rabbis met with others from the Reform and Reconstructionist movements to discuss “how to better serve intermarried families who belong to synagogues or would like to become involved.” It shows, said the article, that rabbis in the Conservative movement are “acknowledging that there’s a place” in synagogue life for the spouse of another religious background. The mindset is now about engagement, not about trying to convert the spouse.
But it’s that shift—engagement rather than conversion—that had caused a split in two Conservative organizations, according to an article in the (New York) Jewish Week. The United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism, in 2005, had explicitly stated that conversion in intermarriage should be aggressively pursued. Meanwhile, said the Jewish Week, the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs had started an outreach initiative called Keruv that promoted welcoming without pushing for conversion.
These differences are what led to a special committee that was tasked with finding common ground that will allow the Conservative movement to “speak with one voice.” The committee will soon release a pamphlet that lays out the movement’s new “principles on outreach” to intermarried families. The tone on conversion, it’s noted, is “decidedly softer,” and the language is much more welcoming of intermarried families. In changing the language and attitude, said Rabbi Joel Meyers of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, we are “dealing with the reality of contemporary life.”
In another sign that outreach to intermarried families is taking on new importance, the Jewish Week points out that JOI’s executive director Rabbi Kerry Olitzky has been invited to speak at the United Synagogue’s biennial convention for the first time. This is evidence that our work is having an impact and people continue to look to us as leaders in effective outreach.
Kerry pointed out in his interview that “as the movement is grappling with these issues, the world is moving very quickly and people are voting with their feet.” The Conservative movement now understands that its outreach strategies have to change if the movement wants to continue to serve the growing diversity of today’s Jewish community.
Earlier this summer, I spent a day with fellow adult children of intermarriage in Philadelphia at a conference called “Jews of ALL Hues.” Sponsored by Birthright NEXT and Interfaithways, the conference environment provided a safe space to share stories, examine issues and find common ground among the growing population of children—now adults—raised in an interfaith household, in particular, and the expanding diversity of the Jewish people, in general. But beyond my personal connection to the issue, learning from my peers’ experiences and the opportunity to build solidarity among other children of intermarriage—and others on the periphery—on behalf of JOI, excited me. I hoped their stories could inform our work as we advocate for greater inclusion and welcoming of them across North America.
My fellow participants were Jews-by-choice, Jews of color, Orthodox, Reform, Reconstructionist and everything in-between. At first glance, one could justifiably ask, “What on earth do all these people have in common?” By the time we finished sharing our personal stories and struggles in the Jewish community, we found few telling surprises. Mutual feelings of judgment or marginalization in the Jewish community or in our families were evidence of our common bond. Beyond sharing our personal approached to negotiating Jewish identity and practice, we discussed the intersecting issues of race, class, divorce, secularism and authenticity. (Julie Wiener wrote about her take on the conference for the New York Jewish Week.)
At JOI, our listserves provide a similar safe space, albeit virtual, for the sharing of personal stories. As the facilitator of some of them, I know very well the importance of providing safe spaces for conversation among groups with unique experiences (such as men and women who are Jews-by-choice, interfaith families and intermarried Jewish communal professionals). “Jews of ALL Hues” reminded me of the importance of sharing diverse experiences for the sake of creating a cohesive community. In cultivating these opportunities to talk about challenges we might face, we validate the experiences of individuals who struggle to negotiate their role in the Jewish community. Creating these empowering conversations shows that we value their journeys in diversity.
My hope is that the Jewish community continues to listen to these voices, hear these stories and learn from them to shape the future landscape of the American Jewish community. We at JOI look forward to working across denominational boundaries to shape change by providing curricula, safe spaces, resources, and training for adult children of intermarriage and others who feel they are on the periphery and for the communities they wish to join.
The Jewish community lost one of its most vocal and spirited advocates today with the passing of Dr. Gary Tobin, president of the Institute for Jewish & Community Research in San Francisco.
His work as a demographer often challenged conventional Jewish thinking, forcing the community to turn a critical eye towards itself when thinking about the Jewish future. Gary was a firm believer in reaching out to all those on the periphery and he often took unpopular or controversial positions, like promoting proactive conversion as a means to grow the Jewish community. Highly critical of the National Jewish Population Survey, he also believed the Jewish community was bigger than we thought, and he wanted to make sure all who aligned themselves with the Jewish people – particularly those with diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds – were counted.
In partnership with Be’Chol Lashon (“In Every Tongue”), an advocacy organization directed by his wife Diane, and through books and opinion pieces, Gary advanced the work and ideas of all those who seek a truly welcoming Jewish community. He once wrote that “the Jewish community should promote the joys, meaning and benefits of Jewish life. We should overcome being afraid of who will be lost to Judaism and instead work on who will join us.”
In those two lines, he summarized beautifully what we – and all others who advocate for a welcoming and inclusive Jewish community – believe is the best way to secure a vibrant Jewish future. Gary was an optimist, and we are certain his work, words and legacy will be felt in the Jewish community for years to come.
Rabbi Alysa Stanton has received a lot of media in the last few months. Not only was she the first African-American woman to be ordained by a mainstream Jewish denomination, she recently took the pulpit at a largely white synagogue in Greenville, North Carolina. So what does this mean for the American Jewish community, now that these barriers have been broken? Writing in Moment magazine, Jeremy Gillick uses Rabbi Stanton’s story as a springboard to look at how she and other African-American rabbis are ushering in a new age of post-racial Judaism.
Along with Rabbi Stanton, Gillick looks at the stories of two other prominent African-American rabbis: Rabbi Capers Funnye, leader of Chicago’s Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation, and Rabbi Debra Bowen, leader of Philadelphia’s Temple Beth’El. While both are leading thriving congregations, they also represent the different ways African-American Jews have persevered while being forced to practice on the periphery of the Jewish community.
Rabbi Funnye, who formally converted in 1985 and was ordained by the Israelite Rabbinical Academy in the same year, has been leading the congregation ever since. But it wasn’t until 1997 that he “became an ‘associate’ member of the Chicago Board of Rabbis.” The “associate” title still kept him separate from the other members of the board. In 2008, the word was removed just before he got national attention as First Lady Michelle Obama’s cousin.
Rabbi Bowen, Gillick points out, has been leading her congregation in Philadelphia since 2001. But she didn’t matriculate through a rabbinical school – she was ordained by her predecessor and mother, Louise Elizabeth Daily. She has also refused to formally convert, saying “that’s like asking me to become black. I already am.” This means she is unable to attend any rabbinical training institution. Gillick spoke to JOI’s executive director Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, who “affirms the importance of formal training for Rabbis” but also thinks “other factors are more important,” like the fact that Rabbi Bowen has been involved with Temple Beth’El almost her entire life. Gillick writes:
Last year, against the recommendations of some colleagues, he invited Bowen and her congregation to JOI’s annual conference. Rabbi Bowen, he says, “is leading a congregation of hundreds of souls. It’s a powerful group of people who have a deep commitment to Judaism as religion and as people. I don’t want to be among the people that do to Bowen what others do to me,” he adds, speaking of those in the Orthodox world who reject rabbis from more liberal denominations.
Though Rabbi’s Funnye and Bowen – and scores of others – came before Rabbi Stanton, she represents the culmination of all their accomplishments. She has crossed over, and in doing so she will, as Rabbi Olitzky says, “enrich” the Jewish community. Hopefully all their stories will serve as inspiration for Jews on the outside of the community to approach our institutions with greater confidence, and for those on the inside to enthusiastically welcome them in.