Weblog Entries for November 2009

New Hanukkah Resources for Grandparents of Interfaith Grandchildren

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We have added exciting new resources to the Hanukkah section of the Grandparents Circle website. The goal of Grandparents Circle is to provide tools that Jewish grandparents whose adult children have intermarried can use to help nurture – and in some cases establish – the Jewish identity of their grandchildren. This new section of the website provides specific tools for grandparents who want to help connect their grandchildren to Hanukkah.

The Hanukkah resources are grouped in four main sections: Tell the Story, Games and Gifts, Make and Eat Food, and Arts and Crafts Projects. Each section offers advice for implementing a specific activity while also 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 can read instructions for making a hanukkiah (candelabra) and homemade dreidel (spinning top). The section includes an introduction to the hanukkiah, sample holiday cards, talking points, and more!

We invite you to check out our website and take advantage of these free resources. If you know of any grandparents who might benefit from the content, please send them to

If your grandchildren are being raised in an interfaith home, have you ever tried these types of activities for Hanukkah? If so, what activities did your grandchildren particularly enjoy? We look forward to hearing from you!

A Holiday to Recognize the Values we all Share

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, a day for families of all religions to gather and, as the holidays suggests, give thanks. It’s bound to no particular religion – anyone can celebrate. It’s the model of a truly inclusive holiday. Yet some in the Jewish community, writes Rabbi Brad Hirschfield in On Faith, wonder if it’s a holiday we should be celebrating at all.

He points to a passage in Leviticus (18:3) which reads: “You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, or of the land of Canaan to which I am taking you; nor shall you follow their laws.” Some scholars believe Thanksgiving violates this rule, while others do not. “The issue that divides them is generally whether or not they see Thanksgiving as religious.”

Rabbi Hirschfield, president of CLAL - The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, believes it’s not so black and white. Yes, Thanksgiving is a religious holiday (“To whom were the Pilgrims thankful?”), but it also stands for so much more. He writes:

We can acknowledge the deep religious roots of Thanksgiving, appreciate that many things which begin as religious migrate into the domain of the secular, and celebrate that in no country have more people from more diverse cultures ever gathered to celebrate both that which they share and the beauty of the many things which differentiate them from each other…

America is not perfect, but the story of those who preceded us in coming here for their own religious freedom and opportunity is worthy of celebration. The story is both theirs and ours. And the fact that some stories and practices can be both at the same time is one of the things which make this holiday and nation so great.

Things are not Jewish because only Jews do them, and things should not be forbidden or threatening to Jews because non-Jews embrace them. If a holiday, practice, or tradition reflects our values, then it should be embraced. If not, not. Any other test reduces Jewishness, or any other religious-ethnic identity, to a game of difference for its own sake, which is as destructive as sameness for its own sake.

The issue should never be, what others do, but who do we want to be. Thanksgiving celebrates so much of who I hope we all want to be, that I can only say, “Pass the cranberries.”

What, then, are the Jewish values that Thanksgiving reflects? We believe them to be welcoming and inclusion. We are thankful for the growing diversity in the Jewish community, which constantly reinforces the sacred bonds that hold us together. And that’s the message we hope everyone takes away from the holiday: No matter our background, we can all come together and find a common ground for celebration and unity.

From all of us at JOI, have a happy Thanksgiving!

Hiding in Plain Sight

At JOI, we tend to focus on creating an open and welcoming Jewish community for intermarried couples and unaffiliated Jews, though our work extends well beyond those parameters. Through our Big Tent Judaism coalition, we also advocate for children of intermarriage, mixed heritage Jews, LGBT Jews, and all those who find themselves on the periphery. In a moving op-ed in the (New York) Jewish Week, Rabbi Dov Linzer and Devorah Zlochower remind of us another demographic that is too often pushed to the margins: children with “invisible disabilities.”

Rabbi Linzer and Zlochower define “invisible disabilities” as “learning disabilities, autism spectrum disorders and Asperger’s syndrome, Tourette’s syndrome and other tic disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder and other anxiety disorders, mood disorders and behavioral disorders.” Both have children who fall into this category, and both are extremely frustrated at the lack of inclusive policies in the Jewish community for children with similar disabilities. They write:

While there have been a number of stories in the Jewish media recently about the rare programs that do exist, more often, families like ours hear that such programs are too expensive and serve too few children to make them viable. We in turn have pulled away from the community in our search to have our children’s needs met…

The truth is that we and our children need the support and acceptance of our community. We have asked for help in the past, but we have been told “no” so many times that by now we feel it is futile to ask. And we are angry — angry because our children survive by our advocating for them, and advocacy is not always pretty.

Our synagogues and our Jewish communal institutions need to become safe spaces where we can bring our children, confident that their behavior will be tolerated or, better yet, understood. Our children are entitled to learn and live their Jewish heritage, and they cannot fully do so if they continue to exist at the margins of the Jewish community.

We addressed just this issue specifically during our recent conference in Philadelphia, inviting Limor Hartmann, who runs the D.C. area’s Shalom BBYO program for teens with special needs, to share her best practices for making sure these children are seen as valuable members of the Jewish community.

In a blog post on, it’s mentioned that if these two Jewish communal leaders are having a difficult time finding open doors, just imagine how much harder it must be “for everyone else struggling with similar issues.”

The impassioned remarks of Rabbi Linzer and Zlochower remind us that much more should be done. They suggest rabbis teach the Jewish values of inclusion (“The stone the builders rejected has become our cornerstone”). Synagogues should try to figure out how existing programs can be modified “to meet the needs of our children.” But they put it most eloquently at the end when they say to simply “speak to our children and recognize them for the beautiful souls that they are.”

Meeting the Needs of Children of Intermarriage

Robin Margolis, coordinator of the Half-Jewish Network, has long been advocating for greater acceptance of children and grandchildren of intermarriage in the Jewish community. In a post on, she attempts to answer the one question she is usually presented with: “So what do half-Jewish people really want, anyway?”

The short answer is easy, she says. “We want the same resources and help that are given to interfaith couples and Jews by Choice (converts).” The difficulty, though, is convincing the mainstream Jewish community that children and grandchildren of intermarriage are worth the outreach effort. She notes that in the eyes of many, this is a population already lost, and this attitude is remarkably detrimental.

The stigma attached to those with interfaith backgrounds – that they are not “fully” Jewish – has created in these folks feelings of abandonment, Margolis writes. What complicates matters, she says, is “we see Jews with two Jewish parents who were raised in other faiths or as ‘nothing’ being welcomed back into Jewish communities with no demands for conversion.” This can be especially hurtful for children of intermarriage who were raised Jewish but still have to navigate exclusionary Jewish communal policies, “such as our exclusion from a teen summer camp.”

What can we do? What steps can institutions and organizations take to better reach this population? Margolis writes:

We’d like pamphlets welcoming us. How about some video documentaries on our issues? It wouldn’t hurt to see more books written for us. Podcasts would be nice. We need one person, preferably the child or grandchild of intermarriage themselves, to be designated as our contact person in every Jewish institution. Jewish communal professionals need training on how to outreach us. We want discussion groups for us in synagogues, just like the interfaith couples and Jews by Choice have. Most importantly, we need to be listed as a specific demographic in every discussion of Jewish outreach.

We agree, and we are proud to say that we have devoted countless hours and resources trying to identify and better meet the needs of children of intermarriage, both young and adult. And we actively promote those who are doing more to speak out for this group – such as the “Half-Jewish” meetup group in Seattle, or the new website

The stronger the voice for this community, the greater the reaction will be among the mainstream. As intermarriage rates continue to hover around 50%, we understand the conversation over how to best welcome in children and grandchildren of intermarriage will only become increasingly necessary. We will continue to do our part in advocating for their greater inclusion and participation in the Jewish community.

Coming Soon to Northern New Jersey: Programs for Men in Jewish Interfaith Relationships

In 2002, JOI launched The Mothers Circle and put women of other religious backgrounds raising Jewish children on the Jewish communal map. In 2008, JOI launched The Grandparents Circle to provide Jewish grandparents with grandchildren being raised in interfaith homes strategies for nurturing their grandchildren’s Jewish identities. This winter, we are excited to add a new demographic to our growing list of direct service programs: men in Jewish interfaith relationships.

The initiative is called For the Men, and it will soon pilot in Bergen County, New Jersey. Funded by a Berrie Innovation Grant from the Berrie Fellows Leadership Program, an education and leadership program funded by the Russell Berrie Foundation, For the Men is comprised of two free, three-session programs. The first is called “How Should I Know,” which is for Jewish men who want to create Jewish homes with their partners/spouses from other religious backgrounds. The other is “Answering Your Jewish Children,” for fathers of other religious backgrounds who are raising Jewish children.

For more information about the programs launching in Bergen County, including dates, locations and registration information, please visit and We also invite you to forward this information along to anyone you think could benefit from taking part. If you would like to bring the programs to your community or have any questions, please contact me, Liz Marcovitz, at 212.760.1440 or

When Less is More

The economic crisis that rocked the Jewish philanthropic world at the end of last year set off a “sense of near panic,” said Dana Raucher, the executive director of the Samuel Bronfman Foundation, in the Forward. But seeing ourselves deconstructed, she said, revealed something far more interesting: “There was a whole sector of Jewish organizations demonstrating that we could, in fact, do more with less.”

One of the principles of our Big Tent Judaism Coalition is to deepen the Jewish engagement and identity of all Jewish individuals and households, regardless of their institutional affiliation (or lack thereof), by meeting them on an individual level. Based on Raucher’s article, that’s essentially what’s happening for both established and startup Jewish organizations. Financial constraints are forcing organizations to take a closer look at the needs of the folks they serve.

For startups, she writes, “it does not matter if a program takes place at someone’s home or in a coffee shop; most important is the program itself and the people it brings together.” They are reaching people by directly appealing to what they want to gain from Judaism and “emphasizing personal and communal connections to Judaism rather than the quality of the venue.”

Established organizations are doing the same. Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, Raucher points out, has moved to a new model where “instead of hiring a professional to engage college students, students are the ones engaged to work with their peers.” This costs less for Hillel, “and is more effective.”

Raucher believes this new approach to how organizations reach their audience – a “two-way partnership between funder and grantee” instead of a top-down approach – is the most important method for increasing participation among Jewish individuals and families today. We agree, as every innovative step towards engaging more folks in our community will bring us closer to reaching our shared goal of “creating a vibrant Jewish future.”

New Blog Explores Interfaith Relationships

“On Faith,” a project of The Washington Post and Newsweek, has over the last couple of years hosted an online forum for “specialists and generalists who devote a good part of their lives to understanding and delineating religion’s influence on the life of the world.” Earlier this month, it launched a new blog which takes this conversation about religion and frames it in a way that greatly piqued our interest: intermarriage and interfaith relationships.

Called “On Faith and Love,” the project will explore “how religious differences play out in our lives and relationships.” The motivation for the project, editors Ellen McCarthy and Sally Quinn note in one of their first blog posts, comes from the fact that more than a “quarter of married Americans have a spouse of a different faith, according to a 2008 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.” While we focus on Jewish interfaith relationships, we believe the project is important because there is so much we can learn from reading how all religions grapple with the same basic questions in this context.

The website is young, but it’s already buzzing with conversation. An online Q&A with Quinn and McCarthy generated dozens of inquiries from people of all faith backgrounds (though many involved Jewish partners). And there is a wonderful video interview with National Public Radio correspondent Cokie Roberts and her husband Steve about their experience as an interfaith couple. At one point, Steve explains how Cokie’s Catholic upbringing inspired him to dig deeper into his own Jewish religion, using her devotion to find the value and meaning in Judaism. What they learned was that religious differences are far less important than finding the common religious bonds that will guide you and your family towards a moral and principled life.

“On Faith and Love” is a welcome addition to the conversation about intermarriage we take part in every day. Bringing such a diversity of voices into the discussion will help raise the profile of the millions of Americans who brave the sometimes choppy – but ultimately rewarding – waters of interfaith relationships.

Advice for Jewish Grandparents with Grandchildren Being Raised in an Interfaith Household

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Recently, JOI Associate Executive Director Paul Golin traveled to Dayton, Ohio to speak about being a grandparent with grandchildren being raised in an interfaith household as part of the Dayton Jewish Cultural Arts and 13th Annual Book Festival. In advance of the event, the Dayton Daily News featured an article on the presentation. In the article, Paul offered advice for grandparents who want to share their Jewish heritage with their grandchildren being raised in an interfaith household. For example:

Grandparents should wear their own identity proudly; if your son-in-law or daughter-in-law is helping to raise a child in your religion, celebrate those actions; share stories and mementos from your own background and heritage; throw the best holiday parties ever; keep the holidays focused on celebration, not confrontation; and make sure that your home reflects your heritage.

Of course, each family will have a different set of challenges and opportunities. Rather than express disappointment or disapproval of their adult children’s religious choices, Paul suggested each set of grandparents look at the bigger picture and “try to be in their children’s and grandchildren’s lives as much as possible, in a loving and supportive way.” That’s one of the best ways to ensure a healthy relationship.

Paul’s tips come from his book “Twenty Things for Grandparents of Interfaith Grandchildren to Do”, co-authored with JOI Executive Director Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky. His presentation at the book fair was also used to kick-off recruitment for Dayton’s second Grandparents Circle, a free education and support group for Jewish grandparents whose adult children have intermarried. I invite you to click here if you are interested in learning more about the upcoming circle in Dayton, or you know someone who would be interested. If you live in another city, check out the Local Circle page to search circles starting up all over the country and find the one nearest you.

Using our Past to Write our Future

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One reason for Judaism’s survival is its ability to merge tradition with progress. Since we don’t live in a bubble, the Jewish community has grown in a number of ways that reflect the society at large. Women and LGBT Jews are now rabbis. Children of intermarriage are active and valuable members of the Jewish community. It’s our ingenuity that allows us to always find a way to root that growth in our shared heritage, insuring that our religious bond is what holds us together.

An article in the New York Times about former JOI staff member Julie Seltzer illustrates perfectly the balance of tradition and progress. Seltzer is a soferet, a female Torah scribe. Traditionally a job held only by men, Seltzer estimates she is one of “perhaps 10 women in the world” who write the Torah and other “restricted” documents.

What’s even more interesting about Seltzer’s profession is how she is currently employed – writing a Torah in public. She is the central “performer” (though she doesn’t like that term) at an exhibition at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco called “As It Is Written: Project 304,805.” The number comes from the exact number of letters used in a Torah scroll.

The exhibition is a celebration of the progress women are making in the arena of Torah scribes, said Connie Wolf, the museum’s director. On the museum’s website, she explains that the “Torah is a wonderfully alive document at the heart of Jewish life,” and the demonstration aims to “create a unique platform for everyone, regardless of background, to enter into a dialogue with the text.”

Seltzer will be working on the project through the fall of 2010, so there is plenty of time to see her at work if you are going to be in the San Francisco area. As a Torah scribe, she is adhering to the rigorous demands of tradition and history that come with such a job – writing with quills carved from turkey feathers, adding the delicate flourishes that define each letter. But as a woman, her gender serves as inspiration, showing us that a combination of new with old is what will strengthen our community into the future.

An Interfaith Weekend in Philadelphia

We believe the whole of the Jewish community is greater than the sum of its parts. That’s why we advocate so strongly for reaching across denominational boundaries to work together towards a common goal of strengthening the Jewish community. This weekend that philosophy will be put into practice by Interfaithways when it holds its third annual Interfaith Family Shabbat Weekend in Philadelphia. According to the Jewish Exponent:

Some 50 synagogues throughout the area, as well as in communities in neighboring southern New Jersey and Delaware, will sponsor special Oneg Shabbats, learner’s services, Shabbat luncheons, speakers and other programming to deepen the relationship between the congregations and interfaith families.

Rabbi Meyer Selekman, vice president of Interfaithways, wrote in a separate opinion piece for the Exponent that many Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist synagogues now “wrestle with how to respond to their intermarried families around life cycle events, and which leadership roles the partner of the other faith can take, if any, in the life of the congregation.” The Interfaith Family Shabbat Weekend is an opportunity for those institutions to take a step towards “reaching out to these couples and their families with open doors and open arms.”

The number of synagogues and congregations involved in the Shabbat weekend show there is a real hunger for inclusion. Rabbi Selekman, who spoke at our recent conference in Philadelphia, and Interfaithways understand that lowering barriers to participation and truly opening doors to all who are interested will have positive results. But this weekend, though geared towards interfaith families, is a good outreach opportunity for all Jews on the periphery. The Exponent’s editorial board had this to say about the weekend:

In this age of “every Jew is a Jew by choice,” the challenge of engaging the intermarried is not dissimilar from the challenge of engaging unaffiliated families where both spouses are Jewish. For both populations, it’s about providing a meaningful reason to connect.

This is our central task — creating spiritually fulfilling Jewish journeys for anyone willing to embark. Let’s build upon the successful programs that exist and create new models as well. Our Jewish future could well depend on it.

We applaud Interfaithways and all those involved in making Philadelphia such an open place. It’s inspiring to see so many come together with one shared goal welcoming in all those who are now part of our community. Hopefully these messages of inclusion will extend beyond the weekend – and beyond Philadelphia – and become a permanent fixture on the entire North American Jewish community.

Celebrating the Non-Traditional

Those members of the Jewish community who feel they don’t fit into traditional molds – LGBT Jews, children of intermarriage, mixed heritage Jews, etc… – have a new place to turn for encouragement and empowerment:

Written “by and for individuals engaging with Judaism in non-traditional ways,” the blog offers a wide variety of perspectives on just what it means to be a part of the Jewish community. They call the blog “FiftyPercenters” because fifty percent is the statistic most often used when talking about intermarriage. So they have co-opted that number and used it to create “a space for Jewish, non-Jewish, and ambiguous members of non-traditional Jewish families to speak candidly about their personal experiences of Judaism.”

The blog also serves as a great low barrier entry point for individuals or families who find themselves on the periphery of the Jewish community. Hearing from others who share similar backgrounds or experiences will undoubtedly help encourage unaffiliated Jews to reconsider their level of engagement. These are the steps we need to be taking in order to secure a more welcoming and vibrant Jewish future.

We welcome these new voices to the growing chorus of Jewish diversity, and we are excited to keep reading their personal and inspirational messages of inclusion.

Ceremony of Return

Last week, a “Ceremony of Return” was held for seven descendants of Crypto-Jews who had traveled from around the world to participate. In his description of the event, guest speaker Adam Schwartz, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix explained:

Many are descendants of families who were persecuted during the Spanish Inquisition. These families were given the choice to convert, leave the country or risk being killed.

In many cases, those who fled to other countries confronted the same situation again and again as they resided in areas under the control of Spain and Portugal. This resulted in many taking their Jewish observance “underground.”

They tell stories of rituals that their families performed although they had little understanding of what the rituals meant (like lighting candles on Friday night). Later in their lives when they began to connect with the Jewish community, they started to realize the importance of these observances.

In the U.S., Jews are often stereotyped as Ashkenazi descendents of Eastern Europeans. The reconnection of crypto-Jews to their heritage is a reminder of the diversity of paths that leads individuals to Jewish life. At JOI, this is one of the foundations of the Big Tent Judaism coalition: The idea that there is room in the Jewish community for more than one experience, history, and culture.

The growing voice of the crypto-Jewish community should also serve as a reminder of the complexity of Jewish identity. For the members of the “B’nei Anusim Hispanic Sephardi” who participated in the ceremony, a connection to Jewish life outlasted persecution, relocation, submerged practice, and a modern Jewish community often unwelcoming to those whose Jewish journeys don’t follow an expected path. For those of us involved with interfaith and intercultural families, this should remind us of our obligation to show great care and respect for the religious heritage of every person. Despite our impulse, at times, to reduce religious belonging to a particular practice or background, religious heritage runs deep and resists simplification.

At the end of his article, Schwartz observes the way that taking part in the ceremony challenged the idea that the modern Jewish path is one of disengagement:

One by one, each individual received a certificate and Hebrew name. Each participant was given the opportunity to say a few words, and it was wonderful to see how touched they each appeared. This ceremony helped them right a wrong that had been done to their families hundreds of years ago.

Over the years there have been numerous studies showing a growing distance between individuals and their Judaism. We hear over and over again about how young people are disconnected from their heritage. Yet, on this Sunday afternoon, I was with a group who were moved to tears as they were welcomed back to the Jewish community.

I hope we can all find ways to embrace those who have returned to Judaism, and may we learn from them how wonderful it is to be Jewish and to be part of the community.

What Schwartz is describing is the experience of having his own Jewish connection deepened by witnessing someone engaging from a perspective other than his own. Far from being a disadvantage, one of the most profound benefits of a diverse community is the opportunity to be denaturalized and to look again and find extraordinary what had been ordinary before. We at JOI hope that crypto-Jews continue to find a welcoming place in the Jewish community and encounter increasing respect for complex paths to Jewish life.

New Programming for Men in Jewish Interfaith Relationships

In a few short weeks, JOI will be piloting two new programs in New Jersey designed for men in Jewish interfaith relationships. One, called “Answering your Jewish Children,” is for fathers of another religious background raising Jewish children. 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?” In a three session course, this program will provide strategies for Jewish men in interfaith relationships to better explain their traditions and expectations to their spouse. It will offer specific answers to a wide variety of questions a non-Jewish spouse or partner might have about raising a Jewish family.

In anticipation of the programs, which were made possible by a Berrie Innovation Grant from the Berrie Fellows Leadership Program, JOI’s associate executive director Paul Golin published an op-ed in the (New Jersey) Jewish Standard. He writes:

I’m Jewish and my wife Yurika, born and raised in Japan, is not. Like many intermarried couples, our engagement lasted longer than average, and we are enjoying an even longer-than-average married life before children.

Still, we do plan on having kids, and I’ve always made clear my requirement to raise them Jewish. That’s fine with Yurika as long as they also grow up steeped in Japanese culture and language.

Problem solved, right? Not exactly. There are still a few little details to work out, like what it actually means to be Jewish. And determining “how Jewish” our family will be. And which parts of Judaism will we observe, which will we forgo, and which of us will do what. And so on.

In-married Jews end up answering the same questions, but for them it can happen more organically; for intermarried parents who want their children to identify as Jews, it requires out-loud and ongoing deliberation.

In intermarriage, we realize it can be hard for the Jewish partner to clearly articulate just what it is that’s so important about raising Jewish children. It’s also hard for the non-Jewish partner to anticipate and respond to their children’s questions about Judaism. These programs are not support groups or discussion groups, though. They will go beyond “deliberation” and help men in Jewish interfaith relationships develop concrete answers.

We are excited to work with the men of the Jewish community to help secure a vibrant Jewish future. If you live in the northern New Jersey are and could benefit from being part of either group, we invite you to visit the programs on the web to learn more. We also encourage you to pass the information along to anyone you think would be interested. We look forward to hearing from you!

Embracing Roots

One of the goals of our Big Tent Judaism Coalition is to negate the ingrained perception that Jews have a certain “look.” Today, we’re far too ethnically diverse to make assumptions about who is or isn’t Jewish based on appearance. Those kinds of perceptions – and the negative impact they can yield – are what motivated one woman to create a new business.

According to an article in the (Philadelphia) Jewish Exponent, Ariana Lopez started a new clothing lined aimed at Latin American Jews wants to shake up the “perception that all Latinos are Catholic,” a notion that can make “Latin Jews feel ostracized.” Her clothing label, “Jewtina,” is designed to help “build pride and community” among this population. She explained:

“You’d want to buy something to embrace your Jewish faith, but it was always Yiddish,” said Lopez, who, of course, comes from Jewish stock herself. She decided to raise awareness that strong ethnic identities can co-exist.

We think this clothing line is a creative and inspired method for reaching and engaging this particular community. Simon Guindi Cohen, director of Judios Latinos (a New York based social group for Latin Jews), notes that this community can be “passive,” so it’s important to “keep re-branding Judaism.”

By doing something as simple as merging the image of a Mexican or Argentinean flag with an Israeli flag and putting it on a t-shirt, Lopez is helping to send the message to all Latin Jews to take pride in their mixed heritage. It also sends a message of welcoming to Latin partners of Jews who aren’t Jewish, letting them know that we respect the variety of cultures and traditions that exist in our community. These empowering notions are a great step in urging more Latin Jews and their families to embrace their Jewish background and engage with the Jewish community at large.

The Richness of Judaism

Moment Magazine has a fascinating spread this month on eight individuals whose “stories remind us of the richness of Judaism.” All are Jews-by-choice, and each experience demonstrates that Judaism and those who make up the Jewish community are far more diverse than most people imagine.

Among the stories are Y-Love, the “black Orthodox Jew and hip-hop artist,” a Baptist minister, a Chinese-American politician, the great-granddaughter of a high ranking Nazi official, and a “crypto-Jew.” Their stories are all uplifting, but their honesty also exhibits the negative or skeptical reactions some have when they see someone who doesn’t “look Jewish.” John Garcia said that when he goes to synagogue, some people look at him “as a curiosity.” But others “are very welcoming, as is the rabbi.” This shows us that although we are accepting, we still have a lot of work to do in creating a truly inclusive Jewish community that welcomes all who approach.

What runs underneath all these stories, the string that ties them all together, is that they all looked at Judaism and saw a home, a place where they felt comfortable. While their motives might be different – some were introduced to Judaism through a spouse, others by a chance encounter – the results are the same. Each person made the bold decision to follow that Jewish path, and now each is dedicated to raising a Jewish family and strengthening our community.

Reading these stories, we see the best of what Judaism has to offer – a place where everyone, regardless of background, is welcome to come and explore. If you are a Jew-by-choice, we want to hear your story. What started you down that Jewish path? How have you felt since becoming a part of the Jewish community?

An Intermarriage Antidote?

Leonard Saxe of Brandeis University recently released a study titled “Generation Birthright Israel: The Impact of an Israel Experience on Jewish Identity and Choices.” He looked at 1500 Birthright alumni who went or applied for the trip from 2001 – 2004 and found that the program leads to a “deepening attachment to Israel and commitment to Jewish family.”

That sounds like pretty good news. Young Jews who go on the trip come home with a stronger sense of their own Jewish heritage. But that general notion of Jewish identity was usurped in the media by one piece of data, summed up by a headline in the Wall Street Journal: “Jewish Marriage Tied to Israel Trip.”

According to the Journal, the study found that “72% of those who went on the trip married within the faith, compared with 46% of people who applied for the trip but weren’t selected in a lottery.” JOI’s associate executive director Paul Golin looked at this piece of data and found that it doesn’t tell the whole story. Statistics can be a tricky thing. Writing in the Forward, he explains:

There are always two numbers to look at regarding intermarriage: the percent of Jews who are intermarrying (the “individual rate”), and what the results of those marriages mean in terms of actual households created (the “couples rate”).

Imagine there are only four Jews in America, Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice. Let’s say that Bob and Carol intermarry and Ted and Alice in-marry. Since two of the four Jews intermarried, the “individual” intermarriage rate is 50%. But how many couples were created? Bob and Carol both married non-Jews, creating two households. But Ted and Alice married each other, because an in-marriage requires two Jews, which creates just one household. The result is three households total, with two intermarried and one in-married, or an intermarried couples proportion of two-thirds.

When intermarriage is explained as “almost half the Jews are intermarrying” — in other words, just offering the individual rate for what’s been happening in the United States for the past quarter-century — the word “half,” as huge as that may seem, actually serves to mask the results. The reality on the ground is that nearly double the number of intermarried households has been created compared to in-married households.

Golin points out that there is a “nuance behind the headlines” in this new report, such as how there is an “increased desire to raise Jewish children among all participants, including children of intermarriage.” Therefore, looking at Birthright as a panacea that “prevents intermarriage would be disastrous, potentially alienating the very people who benefit most from the program.”

Birthright is the largest and possibly most successful outreach program for Jewish youth today, particularly children of intermarriage. “Unfortunately,” Golin writes, “the focus on Birthright participants’ low intermarriage rate reignites our collective tendency toward insularity, the temptation to try to create a closed community. The real cure for 21st-century Judaism is to move beyond ethnic definitions and open our tradition, culture and learning to all who would find meaning and value in joining us.”

Mazel Tov! Congratulations!

Almost a year ago, I blogged about Ivanka Trump beginning her conversion studies. Now, not only has Ivanka converted, but she and Jared Kushner married last weekend at the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, NJ.

Rabbi Yonah, a writer for the group blog Jewlicious, posted a beautiful speech in honor of Ivanka and Jared, blessing their union and urging them to use their high-profile statuses to inspire the Jewish community. Rabbi Yonah writes:

With the world’s media focused on the life you choose to live, you are in a perfect position to bring renewal and meaning to the Jewish community. You can celebrate Jewish holidays and values while inspiring the world. Make a Chanukah party benefiting orphans, create a Tu B’Shvat Seder with a local organic farm, build shelters for the homeless before Sukkot. Create a Yom Hatzmaut event that let’s us feel what a miracle it is to have a Jewish state.

Following Rabbi Yonah’s blog, commenters posted both in support and against Ivanka and Jared. Those individuals sending blessings and warm comments Ivanka and Jared’s way represent the best of the Jewish community—a people historically welcoming and hospitable. We would also like to remind Ivanka that our previous invitation for her to join Empowering Ruth – our program for women Jews-by-choice – still stands.

JOI wishes Ivanka and Jared the best of luck and we hope their marriage is filled with happiness and blessing.

The Growing Dedication to Outreach

JOI has been doing a lot of traveling lately. This past week, JOI executive director Rabbi Kerry Olitzky spent four days in Winnipeg, Canada consulting with lay leaders and Jewish communal professionals on how to best welcome interfaith families into their organizations. According to the Winnipeg Free Press, Rabbi Olitzky’s visit was part of a larger outreach initiative to help intermarried/interpartnered couples “continue to feel welcomed, comfortable in and connected to their community and their roots.”

The forum consisted of panel discussions and training presentations, all with the goal of encouraging conversations about inclusion. Rabbi Olitzky explained:

I firmly believe that the wisdom with which we respond to interfaith marriage will determine the landscape of the North American Jewish community that we bequeath to our children… If you believe that Judaism is something worth preserving, as I do, then it makes sense to want to keep interfaith families within the orbit of the Jewish community.

Rabbi Olitzky’s Winnipeg trip came on the heels of a trip to Chicago, where he was the featured speaker at a two day summit of the Synagogue Federation Commission of Metropolitan Chicago. Rabbi Olitzky spoke about JOI’s outreach methodology and how it can help synagogues better engage a variety of populations from moderately-involved existing members to those currently on the periphery of Jewish life, and ranging in age and life experiences. He also identified both quick fixes and longer-term changes that may be necessary to involve people more deeply in their synagogue community.

Throughout the rest of 2009, JOI staff will be traveling to cities in Illinois, Ohio, Nebraska and Colorado (along with online webinars and phone consultations) to work with local organizations and help them create a more welcoming and inclusive Jewish community. With each trip, the dedication towards outreach among a growing number of communities becomes clearer, and we are positive these steps will lead to a stronger and more vibrant Jewish future.

New Resources for Mixed Heritage Jews

While our Big Tent Judaism Coalition keeps a growing database of synagogues and Jewish institutions that have made a commitment to welcoming and inclusion, we’re always happy to promote others who do the same.

The blog Jewlicious recently posted information about the Welcoming Synagogues List of the Jewish Multiracial Network. JMN, which “brings Jewish multiracial families and individuals together to learn about and celebrate their Judaism,” keeps this list as a resource for all mixed heritage Jews who are looking for a place they are confident will be inclusive Each branch of Judaism is represented on their list.

Of course we believe all synagogues should be welcoming to all who approach, but we understand that Judaism often speaks louder for people – particularly the unaffiliated – when they feel comfortable in their surroundings. If you or someone you know could benefit from this list, we urge you to pass it along.

We also invite you to write us or JMN to help grow both our lists of welcoming institutions. Is there a synagogue or other Jewish institution you have been to that was particularly warm and friendly? Let us know!

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