Entries for August 2009
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Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, leader of the modern Orthodox temple Ohev Sholom in Washington, D.C., recently spoke at an event few would have assumed he would attend: a vigil to memorialize the victims of the recent shooting at a Tel Aviv gay youth center.
Even though he is an Orthodox rabbi, those who know him well weren’t surprised. Writing for Tablet magazine, James Kirchick, who has known Rabbi Herzfeld for years, explains that Rabbi Herzfeld is more interested in connecting Jews to Judaism than worrying about how they lead their secular lives. “I want to focus on what we can do together,” Rabbi Herzfeld said in the article, “not what we can’t do.” This welcoming and inclusive approach has helped the congregation grow from just a few families in 2004 to over 300 families today.
“This hunger for forging religious connections with people regardless of their station in life is demonstrative of the unpretentious spirit that guides Hershfeld,” Kirchick writes. The Rabbi’s bottom line is simply encouraging Jews to participate in Jewish life, and while we don’t agree with his position on gay issues, we applaud his efforts to engage folks regardless of background or sexual orientation. As Zvi Bellin, the organizer of the vigil said:
I’m very aware that [Herzfeld] coming to speak at the vigil doesn’t mean that he’s ready to change Orthodox law and Orthodox opinion… He’s willing to wrestle internally with that contradiction. Even if it’s a contradiction that won’t be resolved for him, he’s willing to wrestle with the fact that gay people are people and gay Jews are Jews and they also need a spiritual home and a place to explore religion.
As evidenced by the rapid growth of his congregation, Rabbi Hershfeld’s views are resonating with members of the Jewish community who typically feel like they don’t fit in. All Jews are not going to observe or practice in the same way, but everyone who approaches the Jewish community should be welcomed and given the tools to explore their heritage and discover what Judaism means for them. This is one of the best ways to make certain we will enjoy a strong and vibrant Jewish future.
When it’s Aba vs. Papa, who “wins?” Homeshuling, the blog of author Amy Meltzer, had an interesting article this week titled “What’s in a name for an interfaith family?” that raises the issue of choosing names for newborn children of interfaith and intercultural families.
My husband and I had many arguments long discussions about what we would name our children. He wanted French names, all of which evoked the Apostles, and I wanted Hebrew names, which seemed too “foreign” to him. We compromised, as parents must, by selecting names from neither tradition for their first, most-used, name. We gave our older daughter a Hebrew middle name and our younger daughter a French middle name, and selected additional Hebrew names for both girls for ritual use. As an interfaith couple, we knew that our families would attach a lot of significance to our name choices, and I think we ended up making a very honest statement with our decision – our children are religiously Jewish, but ethnically, they are products of a rich blend of traditions.
The point that Meltzer raises is that often a name is not just a name, but a statement of identity, belonging, cultural loyalty, or even cultural rejection. For parents in intermarriages/interpartnerships trying to pick a name that they like, there can be added pressure, either external or internal, to display through their children the family’s cultural choices and priorities. A major element of this is often what a child’s name symbolizes to their grandparents, symbolism that with enough emotion can become wrapped in life-and-death rhetoric. At its most emotional, the naming of a child in accordance to family tradition is the moment when grandparents feel reassured that their heritage will live on through the generations, a sense of simulated immortality. The flip side is the fear that breaking the tradition creates the symbolic death of the family line. No pressure, right?
Of course, more often, these feelings are muted and expressed as annoyance, or mild dissatisfaction. Meltzer reports, “I don’t think we fully satisfied anyone with our choice. My mother regrets (aloud) that we didn’t name the girls after some of her deceased relatives, a widespread Jewish tradition. I’m sure that my in-laws wish they could have attended a baptism in which their granddaughters received their ‘Christian’ names.”
Naming a child, even when the parents were raised in the same culture, is a tricky project. Naming is an attempt to capture, in only a few words, the identity, personality, and history of a person, despite the fact that every person, regardless of their background, is a mosaic of influences and facets. In some ways, the naming process in intercultural families is not only an “interfaith” or “intercultural” issue. It highlights a transition that can be difficult for all sorts of families: The moment when people, by becoming parents, become a separate adult family unit, poised to choose which elements of their own upbringing they will try to recreate, and which they will diverge from. This is a moment that can take courage, and for that all parents deserve the respect and support of our community.
In preparation for the High Holidays, we have just put up some exciting new content for Rosh Hashanah on our Grandparents Circle website. The new (and free!) materials provide Jewish grandparents whose adult children have intermarried with tools they can use to help nurture – and in some cases establish – the Jewish identity of their grandchildren. Grandparents, whether program participants or not, can access all of these resources by checking out the Grandparents Circle website.
The Rosh Hashanah resources are grouped in four main sections: Make and Send Cards, Arts and Crafts Projects, Fun Food Ideas, and Other Resources/Links. Each section offers advice for implementing a specific activity in addition to addressing issues that grandparents with grandchildren from intermarried/interpartnered homes might need to pay particular attention to. In the arts and crafts section, for example, grandparents learn about how to introduce the shofar to their grandchildren in a kid-friendly way. The activity includes a description of the ram horn’s sounds, talking points, a video, options for creating homemade shofars and more.
Please check out our website and take advantage of these free resources. And if you know of any grandparents who might benefit from the content, please send them to Grandparentscircle.org. Happy Holidays!
Amidst the heat and humidity, it’s hard to believe in some parts of the country that summer is winding down. In the Jewish communal world, this means that many are fully focused on the upcoming High Holiday season. Whether putting the finishing touches on programs or services, or still brainstorming creative and engaging approaches, this is prime time to connect with the unaffiliated in our midst. To help professionals and lay leaders maximize the outreach potential and welcoming nature of this year’s High Holiday services and events, JOI is offering a free training conference call!
This training opportunity is for synagogues and organizations that are part of our Big Tent Judaism Coalition, having made the commitment to reach out and serve all Jewish individuals and households. If you haven’t already, we invite you to register your organization to be a part of the Big Tent Judaism Coalition and join us for the call. Here is the info:
MAKING THE MOST OF THE HIGH HOLIDAYS
As we approach the annual peak in communal participation, how can we successfully engage those on the periphery (and our own members) beyond two or three days a year? How can we change what we are doing NOW to maximize the impact of our services and programs in the future? Join us to learn techniques that can bring the principles of Big Tent Judaism to life in our synagogues and organizations this year, learn best practices and share your own successes and challenges. We will also discuss last minute tips for marketing, and ways to make our interactions as welcoming as possible. This is an opportunity to hear from coalition members across the continent!
All representatives of Big Tent Judaism organizations are welcome to join us on Wednesday, September 2nd at 2:00 pm (EDT) for this free training and networking opportunity! If you are a Big Tent member, communal professional or lay leader, or you have been to a synagogue or organization that you think would appreciate this call, please spread the word!
To RSVP, please contact JOI Director of Training Eva Stern at email@example.com by Monday, Aug 31st with your **name, **position, **organization, **address **telephone number, **email address, and any questions, challenges, or successful experiences you would like to share.
We look forward to your participation!
I have long assumed that the reason I am pasty-white today is because somewhere along the long journey from my people’s birth at Sinai to my own birth on Staten Island, there was intermarriage in my family — and it wasn’t that we simply lost our tans. My assumptions, according to an article in the Forward, seem to be right.
On the one hand, research indicates that Jews from Europe “have a genetic makeup more similar to Near Eastern populations” than others from the same region. This generic marker, a particular Y-chromosome, helps connect European Jews to the Jews who emerged from the Middle East thousands of years ago. This seems to show that the line of Jewish heritage – both historically and spiritually – has never been broken. At the same time:
…individual Jews today tend to look markedly different from one another in terms of their physical appearance, depending upon which part of the world their ancestors resided in during recent centuries. Clearly, this diversity of physical appearance is the result of a degree of intermingling with the populations among which Jews have lived. But we don’t know precisely when or how this intermingling took place. Did large numbers of gentiles join the Jewish population through mass conversion in the ancient world? Was there a steady trickle of intermarriage? Was there some combination of these? We can’t say for certain what accounts for the present-day diversity in Jewish physical appearance.
For those Jews who continue to maintain the decades-long panic about the high rates of Jewish intermarriage in the U.S. today, I recommend you look at your hands. You’ve got intermarriage in your own family, whether you know it or not, yet you’re still Jewish. It’s not our pure blood or even our special Y-chromosomes that make us who we are as a people; our message and mission is strong enough to absorb large numbers of newcomers if only we can move past the fear.
When it is said that Jerusalem is the capital of the Jewish people, how inclusive is that statement? Writing in the Chicago Jewish News, Rabbi Asher Lopatin of Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel, an orthodox congregation in Chicago, believes that too often when people “bring their own innovations and their own selves into Jerusalem” – such as women who want to pray at the Western Wall or LGBTQ Jews who wish to celebrate their identity - they are met with “fury and rejection.”
As Abraham Lincoln famously said, “A House divided against itself cannot stand.” Rabbi Lopatin uses both that idea and last week’s Torah portion Re’eh to makes an impassioned plea for unity among the Jewish people. Rooting his argument in Torah, Rabbi Lopatin says divisive actions between Jews contradict G-d’s message that we shouldn’t split ourselves up. Instead, we should be “unified within diversity.” He writes:
Jerusalem, perhaps more than any other concept in Judaism except the reality of G-d, is about bringing Jews together – bringing Jews of all tribes, of all persuasions, pious and impious, traditional and creative, observant and secular. Jerusalem works when every Jew can come to Jerusalem and be comfortable in this eternal city; when every Jew can feel it belongs to them.
Rabbi Lopatin’s message, extrapolated from the Torah, is evidence of both the moral and spiritual need to promote unity and inclusion among the growing diversity of the Jewish people. Our strength and our future as a community depend on how well we heed this message.
Can someone who is not Jewish be a “Jewish Community Hero?”
JOI has nominated what may be the first person who is not Jewish to the “Jewish Community Heroes” contest run by United Jewish Communities. Abigail (“Abi”) Auer sacrificed transmitting the religious traditions of her Catholic upbringing in order to help her Jewish spouse raise their children as Jews, and is now a vocal advocate on behalf of all intermarried households raising Jewish children. She represents a half-million or more members of our community who are not Jewish themselves but are making the same sacrifice in order to ensure the Jewish future. Her profile is online at: Jewishcommunityheroes.org
Abi participated in the pilot program of JOI’s Mothers Circle, an educational course for women of other religious backgrounds raising Jewish children, which is now in 100 communities across North America, and she serves as a model and mentor to others who are just beginning their Jewish journeys.
For the past two decades, there have been twice the number of intermarriages than in-marriages in the United States, and if not for the efforts of Abi and parents like her, the Jewish community would be declining rapidly in numbers instead of holding steady or even increasing as some studies suggest. Recognizing Abi as the Jewish Community Hero that she is will send a powerful message to her and all other Jewish households where one spouse happens not to be Jewish, that we in the Jewish community thank you and appreciate your sacrifices on our behalf.
If you’d like to vote for Abi, you can do so by visiting her profile and clicking the “Vote for This Hero” link.
Sometimes at JOI, we need to take a step back and put the work we do advocating for the inclusion of intermarried/interpartnered families in perspective. It’s certainly a hot button issue today, but what was it like for families ten years ago, twenty years ago, or longer? A posting on a website devoted to looking at “books, websites, music and movies” from the World War II era made us pause and reflect on interfaith relationships during the Holocaust in Nazi Germany.
The website’s author recently read the book “Resistance of the Heart: Intermarriage and the Rosenstrasse Protest in Nazi Germany.” The book centers on an incident from early 1943, when the Gestapo rounded up most of the Jews remaining in Berlin (mostly men, but also a few women and children), the majority of whom were married to Germans of other religious backgrounds, and interred them in a facility on Rosenstrasse, a street in the heart of the city. The spouses and families, facing the constant threat of gunfire from the Gestapo, protested. They put up such a fight that Joseph Goebbels and Adolph Hitler eventually ordered the release of the 1700 Jews.
This remarkable story, which was also made into a movie, reminds us of how under even the most dire of circumstances, strength and courage can prevail.
Do you live on the west coast and are an adult child, grandchild, or descendent of an intermarried couple? If so, and if you are looking for a venue to socialize and share experiences regarding identity, culture, food, parenting, books, spiritual and secular practices, fun stuff, and what’s unique about being “half-Jewish,” there is a new place to turn.
Through the website Meetup.com, Sara Davies has initiated a group to provide a social and networking space for “half-Jewish” folks of all backgrounds to share their experiences. Simply called “Seattle Half-Jewish Meetup,” it’s the first group of its kind on the west coast. Davies wants to take advantage of the opportunity to attract and engage the growing population of children of intermarriage.
If you live in the area and identify as “half-Jewish,” you can visit the group online to learn more and find out how to get involved. We think the more options for those interested in exploring their Jewish heritage the better, especially when they are as low barrier as Davies Meetup group.
Adult children of intermarriage – a group we call the “coming majority” – often face challenges to their status as Jews because of their background, especially in issues of matrilineal versus patrilineal descent. Instead of questioning their credentials, we need to provide them with more opportunities to explore and deepen their Jewish connections. If they are the future, let’s make sure we’re meeting their needs and giving them the proper support. Hopefully Davies’ group and other additional local points of entry will attract these folks and let them know they are a welcome part of the worldwide Jewish community.
We have been following with great interest the debate surrounding intermarried rabbis. This past April, the student-run magazine New Voices explored the issue and spoke with Rabbi Ed Stafman, the second intermarried rabbi ordained by the Renewal movement. Rabbi Stafman said that when he meets unaffiliated intermarried Jews and tells them that he too is intermarried, it helps them recognize that the Jewish community can be a place welcoming of their life choices.
Tablet magazine, an online Jewish daily, recently dove into the issue because Rabbi Stafman was installed this month as the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Shalom, a Reform congregation in Bozeman, Montana.
So far, the article says, no one in the congregation has objected to Rabbi Stafman’s background. But that “may well be because Montana’s Jewish community is so isolated.” Stafman acknowledges that his status would be more controversial in other places, but in Bozeman – where “even 60 percent of Chabad-goers are intermarried” – it’s an issue many are willing to look past.
Though the topic of intermarried rabbis is fairly new, we wonder if people with stories like Rabbi Stafman will start to find themselves in more “established” Jewish communities. Hiring an intermarried rabbi is, for most synagogues, “as taboo as passing out pork dumplings on Yom Kippur.” But a few years ago so was hiring an openly gay or lesbian rabbi, or even longer ago hiring a female rabbi.
The Jewish community is evolving in its effort to reach, engage and provide meaning for each segment of the overall Jewish population. Are intermarried rabbis the next step? Or is that one line that shouldn’t be crossed (as was argued recently in a column by Julie Weiner)? What do you think?
In 2007, a demographic study out of the University of Miami found that Portland, Maine “and its environs” have the highest percent of intermarried households in the United States, about 61 percent. This is far above both the national average of 48 percent (according to the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey) and the average of 46 percent in the closest large Jewish community, Boston.
The study’s author, Ira Sheskin, attributed the high intermarriage and low affiliation rates to the fact that only 18 percent of Portland’s Jews are born there. “Portland natives who care about Jewish identity tend to move to cities that have a large Jewish presence, while those moving in to Portland don’t hold Jewish community as a high priority.”
That statement seems to greatly oversimplify why people move in and out of any community, and we disagree with the implication that all Jews who intermarry don’t care about Jewish identity. A recent article in the Jewish Tribune describes at least one newcomer who does indeed hold Jewish community as a high priority: the new executive director of the Portland-based Jewish Community Alliance (JCA), Emily Chaleff. She said part of the mission at the JCA “now that this data is available is to reach out to those families and see how we can become relevant for them.”
One change has been to the JCA’s bi-monthly newsletter, The Voice. It now resembles a newspaper, going much more in-depth in the community. It includes “dedicated sections to a community calendar, articles on Jewish life, culture and personal perspectives, balanced with news features, event updates, JCA recipient agency highlights, JCA and community-wide events.”
The 2007 study suggested taking steps that would help “build Jewish community.” Congregation Beth Ha’am took that literally and built a new sanctuary. The additional space, according to The Voice, will provide an opportunity “for new and improved programming, such as adult education, a gathering place for parents for a bagel and a newspaper while the kids are in Hebrew school, and a place for the broader community to participate.”
We’re excited to see what else the Portland Jewish community will do to strengthen Jewish life in Southern Maine. Chaleff attended our recent North American conference in Philadelphia, and we hope she will bring our outreach methodology to her community, to help more people want to do more Jewish activities more often through cutting edge programming and personal connections. Portland’s Jewish leadership is taking some great strides in offering new ways for families to engage, and they will soon see the benefits of creating a more open and welcoming Jewish community.
Earlier this summer, JOI hosted a conference in Philadelphia where we brought together some of the leading thinkers and practitioners in the world of Jewish outreach. One of the highlights was a presentation, followed by a town hall question and answer session, with Rabbi Irwin Kula, president of CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
Rabbi Kula spoke at length about his vision for the future of the Jewish community. We have posted three selections from his presentation on YouTube in order to share his ideas with the general public. We hope by posting these videos we will help to inspire deeper conversations about how to create a more inclusive and welcoming Jewish community.
In these clips, Rabbi Kula speaks about his theory that Judaism is a “technology” which can lead to personal and social transformation, the influence of assimilation, and whether or not outreach is manipulative. What do you think about his ideas? We encourage you to watch the videos and join the debate.
We also invite you to subscribe to our YouTube channel JOIvideos to view recent videos and stay up to date with everything we post in the future.
Everyone in the Jewish community was shocked to read of the widespread corruption charges brought against both politicians and rabbis in New York and New Jersey. We are always disappointed when we hear of people who are supposed to be leaders and role models abusing their positions of authority for personal gain. But in an opinion piece in the Forward, Moshe Rosenberg thought it appropriate to use “unethical behavior” like money laundering and compare it to intermarriage.
The point of the piece is that the Jewish community must voice stronger negative opinions about any kind of behavior that “endangers the entire Jewish people and subverts our mission to be a ‘light unto the nations.’” To make his point, Rosenberg says:
If we want to avoid future scandals, we must be clear in our condemnations of unethical behavior. Orthodox leaders use the harsh language and terminology of taboo when we discuss intermarriage, and as a result intermarriage is rare in our communities. We cannot leave any doubt whatsoever that dishonest and illegal business practices are strictly taboo.
Framing intermarriage with terms like “unethical,” “dishonest” and “illegal” is remarkably disingenuous and, quite frankly, unnecessary. The article is about corrupt politicians and rabbis who went so far as to engage in human organ trafficking. There is no reason to use the incident as an opportunity to degrade all those in the Jewish community who are intermarried. Intermarriage and corruption are in no way connected. In his argument, Rosenberg is only helping to deepen a divide between intermarried families and the rest of the Jewish community that shouldn’t exist in the first place.
Rosenberg believes that, despite the corruption charges, the Jewish community can still “reclaim the moral high ground and serve as role models.” We agree, and we think the first place to start is to stop trying to turn intermarried families into pariahs and instead work to welcome them into the Jewish community.
A play currently running off-Broadway in New York serves as yet another example of the trend towards authors who explore the subject of interfaith relationships. But in “Next Fall,” playwright Geoffrey Nauffts takes the subject one step further by placing an interfaith relationship in the context of a same-sex relationship. According to the New York Times:
With this drama, then, Mr. Nauffts has delivered what may well be the first artistic exploration of interfaith marriage within a same-sex context. While heterosexuals of various faiths or none at all have long struggled to reconcile religious identity with personal fulfillment, the advent of same-sex marriage is now bringing this kind of tension to gay men and lesbians.
“Next Fall” embodies the polarities in the form of an evangelical Christian and a fervent atheist. But the tensions between Adam and Luke could easily be translated to those between adherents of any two religions.
Just as numerous books were released this summer about Jewish interfaith relationships, Nauffts play is clearly a reaction to a noticeable trend; namely the high rates of interfaith dating/marriage in the LGBT community. That’s why JOI has been working more with this particular segment of the Jewish community. We want to help identify and address the additional challenges that arise in a relationship already facing certain obstacles.
As the Times notes, the universal themes of “Next Fall” are relevant to any community touched by same-sex and/or interfaith relationships. As we work towards creating a more inclusive community for interfaith, LGBT, and all others on the periphery, maybe seeing these issues expressed on stage can help generate more dialogue and perhaps lead to a greater understanding of the diversity of the Jewish people.
The Jewish Outreach Institute is honored and thrilled to announce that we are the recipients of a Berrie Innovation Grant from the Berrie Fellows Leadership Program. The grants, which were announced in last week’s New Jersey Jewish Standard, were awarded to organizations working towards the goal of creating innovative programs that help transform the Jewish community.
JOI is using the grant to create two pilot programs for our “For the Men” initiative, which targets men who are in Jewish interfaith relationships. One is called “Answering Your Jewish Children: A Program for Fathers of Other Religious Backgrounds.” Much like our Mothers Circle program, “Answering Your Jewish Children” will offer practical advice for fathers who have married into the Jewish community on how to help raise a Jewish family.
The other program is called, “How Should I Know? A Program for Jewish Men with Spouses/Partners of Other Religious Backgrounds.” In a three session course, this program will provide “tips and strategies for creating a Jewish home,” as well as a forum for voicing challenges men in interfaith relationships have faced or expect to face.
We have spent the last year studying men and men’s programming, so being afforded the opportunity to extend our work in this area is truly exciting. We are grateful to the Berrie Fellows–and to the Russell Berrie Foundation which created and funds the Berrie Fellowship–for their generosity and support. We look forward to working with the men of the Jewish community – whether they are Jewish or are now part of the community due to an interfaith relationship – to help secure a vibrant Jewish future.
Both programs are going to pilot in northern New Jersey. If you live in the area and could benefit from being part of either group, we invite you to get in touch with JOI Executive Director Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky at firstname.lastname@example.org. We also encourage you to pass the information along to anyone you think would be interested. We look forward to hearing from you!
The Small Business Administration has shown in the past that outdoor advertising (billboards, specifically) is one of the least-expensive yet most effective methods for attracting business. Temple Beth Ahm Yisrael in Springfield, NJ hopes the same is true for synagogues.
Synagogue leaders have erected a billboard on a busy intersection that declares, “Connect, Discover & Celebrate: Temple Beth Ahm Yisrael, You Belong Here.” Congregation president David Glass told the New Jersey Jewish News that both location and timing were factors in deciding to put up the sign. He said people will drive by it multiple times during the day, but the month of August is also when people who aren’t affiliated ask themselves “Where am I going for the High Holidays?” It’s also a time of year families think about religious school enrollment. Putting up the billboard capitalizes on these moments.
Although Beth Ahm Yisrael is not the first religious organization to use outdoor advertising, it’s certainly uncommon. The article also notes that Temple Beth Ahm Yisrael is “far from the main streets and intersections,” so putting up a sign on its own building wouldn’t do much to attract newcomers. Targeting a busy intersection with low cost (around $700 for 28 days) advertising is a great example of outreach marketing—going to where people are. JOI often advocates the use of the synagogue building for advertising, making sure that the message reflects the essence of what goes on in the building. While tag lines are great, they have to speak directly to people’s needs.
The article didn’t get into how Temple Beth Ahm Yisrael will measure success for its billboard strategy, so we’ll be curious to see if there’s a follow-up article after the High Holidays. Will it be considered a success if it gets new dues-paying members, or simply more people attending services? Either way, if the synagogue ends up with more newcomers during the High Holidays then in years past, we wonder how many other synagogues and congregations will follow with similar advertising around the major holidays.
One of the natural extensions of increasing intermarriage in the Jewish community is the increasing number of intermarried couples who want to be buried in a Jewish cemetery. But rules generally bar this practice, forcing these couples, regardless of their level of commitment to the Jewish community, to be buried elsewhere. According to the Canadian Jewish News, those rules are beginning to change. A growing number of synagogues and congregations all over Canada are buying sections of non-sectarian cemeteries in order to create space for intermarried couples.
The issue regarding where the non-Jewish partner in an intermarriage can be buried is not new. We have been blogging about it since 2005. But it’s clearly an issue that deserves more debate. The article quotes the vice president of a Jewish burial chapel in Toronto who said requests for burial of a non-Jewish spouse “happens all the time.” Unfortunately, he added, in Toronto there are “less than one percent of Jewish cemeteries with space for mixed-marriage couples.”
Rabbi Michael Dolgin of Toronto’s Temple Sinai looks at that solution of purchasing land in other cemeteries as a “bridge issue,” hoping that within five or ten years the community will be able to “come up with space for a new cemetery.” The Jewish community should be welcoming interfaith families, and that doesn’t mean only in life. Rabbi Dolgin said he wants to “provide for them what we provide all our families.”
Jewish institutions of Saskatoon, Montreal, Mississauga and Regina have all started to buy up land in non-sectarian cemeteries to accommodate interfaith families. But this still creates a separation that shouldn’t exist. Hopefully we’ll get to the point when intermarried families – especially ones that were involved in Jewish life and raised a Jewish family – will find an eternal home in the Jewish community and not be forced to rest outside our gates.
Earlier this summer, a court in the United Kingdom found it unlawful that the Jewish Free School, the oldest Jewish high school in Britain, denied admittance to the child of a woman who had converted in a Conservative ceremony. The court declared that “eligibility must depend on faith, however defined, and not ethnicity.”
The Jewish Free School, which receives government funding, now has a new test in place to determine the religious observance of an applicant. If their observance is sufficient, they will be enrolled. The ruling and the new test still miss the point, said British lawyer Michael Arnheim in the Jerusalem Post, because Judaism is a communal religion, based on membership in a community.
Arnheim explains how in ancient times a “Jew’s religious identity was part and parcel of his or her communal identity.” That’s why the biblical character Ruth was able to convert by declaring: “Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” It should be the same today. Instead of letting the office of the British chief rabbi, whose view, he says, is narrow to begin with, decide who is Jewish, there is a better solution. He writes:
The real question to ask, which neither the old nor the new test does, is very simple: Is this applicant for admission to a Jewish school a member of the Jewish community? If the child or his previously non-Jewish mother - or father, or both - has identified with the Jewish community to the extent of going to the trouble to convert, then it would make no sense to exclude that child.
There is only one Jewish community, embracing all those who regard themselves as Jewish. Anything less would amount to self-destructive arrogance.
We agree, and we have long argued that we need to act more as one community, and not a hierarchy. Our tent is big enough for everyone to practice Judaism on whatever level of observance they find most meaningful. It’s not up to one segment of the community to validate another. As Anheim states, “the only sensible position is that a person is Jewish either for all purposes or for none.”
In the “post-intermarriage landscape,” as the (New York) Jewish Week calls it, the Jewish community has a great opportunity to reach an ever widening number of people now connected to the Jewish community. Citing the American Religious Identification Survey, which will be presented at the 15th World Congress of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, the article explains that the “potential size of the ‘extended’ Jewish community, members of intermarried families, is growing.”
But the same study, parts of which were reported last March, also found that “the number of Jews, mostly in intermarriages, who affiliate with another religion, is increasing.”
The study’s authors claim intermarriage is a major factor in decreased affiliation, but they don’t get into why. We believe intermarried Jews may affiliate with another religion because we are not doing enough to provide a warm and welcoming community that offers meaning and substance. Doing so would shine a positive light on the community for all the non-Jewish spouses, and possibly inspire the unaffiliated to bring Judaism into their lives.
We know what we have to do, but how do we do it? For starters, we should never negate someone’s life decisions. If a person intermarries, we have to let them know there is a place for them, their spouse and their children in the Jewish community. Energy spent denouncing intermarriage should instead be spent on promoting the values of Judaism – none more so than the value of welcoming the stranger. If we counted the “extended Jewish population” – those with familial ties – our numbers “might be as large as 20 million,” said Barry Kosmin, the survey’s co-director.
That’s important for a number of reasons to the future of the Jewish community. Particularly for the lasting impression it will leave on children of intermarriage. Intermarried families that enjoy a welcoming Jewish community are more likely to participate in Jewish life, which means so will their children. The same is true for unaffiliated, multiracial, LGBT, and all others who find themselves on the periphery. The more we do to better identify and meet their needs, the better chance we have of reaching these populations and strengthening their connections to the Jewish community.
Over the last couple of years we have seen more and more articles about synagogues turning to the internet to reach more of an audience. Some want to try and create an entire community online, complete with online video conferencing to speak to a Rabbi, but others, like Temple B’nai Or in Morristown, NJ, are taking it a little slower. They all have the same goal, though, which is to draw more people in to Jewish life.
Temple B’nai Or experimented with streaming services on Friday evening and Saturday morning, said the New Jersey Jewish News, and have found such success it now wants to move on to streaming bar and bat mitzvah services, High Holiday services, and even weddings where the whole family isn’t able to attend. At first there was a concern that people would use online services as a way to avoid coming to the physical temple, but Rabbi Donald Rossoff said the positive response to the experiment has shown that people who watch online are then motivated to attend in person.
There is also an understanding that offering services online will help lower barriers for unaffiliated members of the community who are looking to join a synagogue. In a press release, synagogue president Stuart Rayvid said “observing our service through the Internet is a wonderful way to experience from a distance some of our most spiritual and joyous moments.”
Of course, there are challenges in all of this for B’nai Or and others who are taking advantage of the Internet. For instance, people already affiliated with either a synagogue or the Jewish community in general are more likely to know about online services. So if the goal is to reach unaffiliated members of the community, how do you build that bridge? What’s the best way to use this technology to promote the joy and value of being a part of the Jewish community and give people a truly meaningful experience – one that will help them take the next step and walk through our doors? Let us know what you think.