Weblog Entries for December 2009

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A Generation of Patrilineal Descent

How does it feel to be a committed Jew yet to know that not everyone accepts you as a member of the tribe?

That was the question raised in the latest article by the (New York) Jewish Week’s Julie Wiener on being a Jew of patrilineal descent. She has previously explored the issue for her three part series. First, she looked at why the 25th anniversary of the Reform movement’s 1983 decision to accept patrilineal descent went by with “nary a commemoration.” In her second installment, she looked at patrilineal descent within the Conservative movement, and how many leaders in the movement are “eager to downplay the issue’s importance” as part of their increased efforts to reach out to interfaith families. In this article, she speaks to people who grew up after 1983, what she calls “Generation Patrilineal.”


Chinese Food and Movies? Not Quite.

This Christmas, the New York Times featured an article about a group of people who are not celebrating Christmas this year—or at least not celebrating it as they had in the past. The article, “Why Is This Christmas Different From All Others?”, describes the experiences of a several Jews-by-choice who no longer spend December 25 as they had before they decided to convert.


Our Doors are Always Open

The Jewish community has survived changes in demography, geography and attitude over the last few thousand years. It seems no matter where we are, who we live with, or how much people want us around, we always find a way to maintain our connection to our sacred past. Though we aren’t surprised at stories of our strength anymore, we can’t help but be inspired by those who have found a way to claim and celebrate their heritage in the face of extreme adversity. A recent article in the (New York) Jewish Week highlights just an example.


2009 Year-in-Review

2009 was a banner year for the Jewish Outreach Institute. From growing our program offerings to hosting a North American conference, our accomplishments are far too extensive to list in one blog post. That’s why we invite you to read our end-of-year newsletter: “Transforming Lives, Transforming Communities.” There you will find highlights of where we were in 2009, who we have worked with, and how we continue to help create an inclusive Jewish community that welcomes all in our midst.

We encourage you to forward the newsletter along to anyone you think would be interested. Thank you!

The Future Leaders of the Jewish Community

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JOI is proud to announce that Pippi Kessler, the national coordinator for The Mothers Circle, has been accepted to the L’dor v dor Non-Profit Leadership retreat, sponsored by the Woodhull Institute for Ethical Leadership. She is one of only 20 women chosen to attend this highly selective three day program that brings together “future leaders from the Jewish communal non-profit and educational world to connect.”


The Value in Welcoming All in the Jewish Community

In an interesting blog post at Fifty Percenters, Hannah wrote, “Are we nothing more than vehicles?” She spoke of the frustration she feels when programs for couples and families with one Jewish partner, like her and her husband, promote raising Jewish children above all else.


Bringing it all Back Home

We have written more and more over the last few years about the trend of independent prayer groups. These groups offer opportunities for people to connect to Judaism in a way that they find meaningful, especially if they don’t necessarily feel comfortable aligning themselves with a particular denomination. This trend, according to Julie Wiener in the (New York) Jewish Week, is now catching on for Hebrew school. A growing number of parents are opting for “home-based Jewish learning” as an “attractive and convenient alternative to synagogue-based Hebrew schools.”


An Inclusive Holiday Season

As we light the final candles of Hanukkah, we’d like to highlight a recent story that reminds us of just how inclusive and meaningful the holiday can be. Writing in the Boston Globe, journalist Mindy Pollack-Fusi explained how she and her husband, who is Catholic, have “created their own special memories” during the Hanukkah and Christmas season. Pollack-Fusi’s story illustrates the complexity of Jewish life in America today, and why so much of the work of outreach is about meeting the needs of individuals rather than trying to offer one-size-fits-all solutions.


Searching for a Better Conversation

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Today’s blog entry comes to us from Valerie Jones, a participant in our program for women Jews-by-choice, Empowering Ruth. When people ask her about her decision to convert, she feels that is the perfect opportunity to explore deeper conversations about everyone’s connection to Judaism.

Once I was invited to a Shabbat dinner where one person present, the hostess, happened to know I was a convert to Judaism. When the first person arrived, the hostess hurried to my side (I didn’t know any of the other guests) and breathlessly introduced me with the words “this is Valerie and she’s a Convert.” Four more guests arrived in quick succession and four more times I was introduced as the “Convert.” I am frequently asked if I am a Convert, something I chalk up to my Irish looks and non-traditional Jewish name of Jones. But even for me, being “out’ed” as a Convert five times in 10 minutes was a record.


Enriching the Jewish People

Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life is a good example of just how open the Jewish community can be. In our work with Hillel, we have seen the organization flourish as an open, inclusive space for students from all walks of Jewish life - especially the growing number of Jewish college students who come from interfaith backgrounds. The impact of such a model, writes Edgar Bronfman, founding chairman of the Hillel International Board of Governors, and Randall Kaplan, the board’s current chair, is that uninvolved Jewish students will have better access to Jewish activities and a greater sense of their own Jewish identity.


Toning Down the Rhetoric

On this blog and our various online discussion boards, we endeavor to create a space where people can hold civil conversations about the future of the Jewish community. Sometimes the arguments will get heated. Often the responses are impassioned. But whether the topics are intermarriage, conversion, or outreach in general, what brings us all together is a desire to see the issues considered with respect for everyone’s point of view. Writing in the St. Louis Jewish Light, the editorial staff believes that during the winter solstice season featuring Hanukkah, when we are supposed to bring light into the darkness, everyone involved in these conversations should tone down the rhetoric and “inquire, listen, nod, process and use the opportunity as one to grow closer to those with whom you may disagree.”


A New Read on Hanukkah

Hanukkah is often referred to as a “minor” Jewish holiday, but its place in December has made it one of the most celebrated holidays on the Jewish calendar. With elevated status also comes a greater recognition of Hanukkah’s story, which is essentially a struggle to “maintain our Jewishness within a non-Jewish society,” said Adam Bronfman in a blog post for This theme is what makes Hanukkah one of the most important Jewish celebrations today.


A Feast of Inclusion

The New York Times recently published a fascinating article on Jewish intermarriage from a point of view we have never seen before: intermarried chefs.

Framed around Hanukkah, the Times talks to numerous chefs who married into the Jewish community and finds out how they use their skills in the kitchen help bridge any gaps that might exist between family and traditions.


Intermarriage Movie Premiere

Currently under way in Washington, D.C is the Washington Jewish Film Festival. Among the movie premieres, the Forward wrote about one that greatly piqued our interest. Titled “Love and Religion: The Challenges of Interfaith Relationships,” the movie is a 54-minute instructional film by outreach professional Marion Usher, who has run an interfaith couple workshop in D.C. for the last 15 years. The movie follows one of Usher’s four-session workshops.


Holiday Harmony

Hanukkah starts on Friday night, which for many interfaith families means revisiting the challenges that come with figuring out how to celebrate Hanukkah and Christmas. To offer some guidance, JOI’s Rabbi Kerry Olitzky published a piece in today’s New York Metro newspaper outlining some simple steps intermarried couples can take to help successfully navigate the December holiday season and beyond.

As the holidays approach, we’d also like to hear from you. What are some tips you would offer for interfaith families during this time of year? If you are in an interfaith relationship, or the child of intermarriage, how have you or your family approached the holidays?

A Satirical Look at Intermarriage

Eli Valley, a cartoonist and columnist for the Forward, has once again set his satirical sights on the subject of intermarriage. Known for lampooning much of today’s Jewish communal thinking, Valley’s latest comic takes us back to Prague in 1903, to an imagined coffee shop meeting of a group of Jewish luminaries: Felix Weltsch, Max Brod, Theodor Herzl, Martin Buber and Franz Kafka.

Click through to read our analysis and share your thoughts on Valley’s latest comic.


Jewish Journeys

Last week, JOI’s Rabbi Kerry Olitzky presented a lecture and book signing at the Highland Park Conservative Temple – Congregation Anshe Emeth. Speaking to an audience of about 70, he used the opportunity to show how his own Jewish journey – from a segregated high school in St. Petersberg, Floriday to a synagogue pulpit and beyond – has enabled him to guide others into the rhythm and ritual of Jewish life.

Writing in The Jewish State, Jacob Kamaras describes an evening of not only personal anecdotes, but also how Olitzky regularly uses his background to inform the work he does today. Attending a racially segregated high school forced Olitzky “to write about the value of more inclusive cultures.”

Such an experience helps Olitzky as he works towards creating an open and welcoming Jewish community, where those who “marry in” are made to feel comfortable and valued. This model, Olitzky said at his lecture, is what will lead to a stronger and more vibrant Jewish community, adding that “the community needs to be welcoming because the end of Jewish continuity is when interfaith families stop raising Jewish children, not when interfaith couples marry.”

It’s also interesting to note that Olitzky was delivering this speech at a synagogue described by some as “Conservadox,” a branch that lies somewhere between Conservative and Orthodox Judaism. “He wasn’t speaking to the choir here,” said one lecture attendee.

But his message was enthusiastically received nonetheless. Everyone is beginning to realize that making a more concerted effort to welcome and engage all those on the periphery is what we need to inspire others to embrace their Jewish heritage and participate more fully in Jewish life.

Fresh Approaches to Intermarriage Outreach

American Jews have been intermarrying at very high rates for almost 30 years. This has forced the Jewish community to initiate new methods for welcoming and including these families in Jewish life. This Sunday, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism will open its four-day Biennial Convention in Cherry Hill, NJ, and on its itinerary are two areas where participants will have a deeper conversation on outreach best practices.

First, on Monday at 10 am, JOI’s Rabbi Kerry Olitzky will be leading a session to offer guidance on new approaches to welcoming intermarried families into the Jewish community. According to the JTA:

[Olitzky’s presence] reflects the continuing shift away from the days when Conservative synagogues would deny membership to non-Jewish spouses and not include their names on mailings to the homes of intermarried congregants. It suggests that the discussion is now about how — not whether — to reach out aggressively to intermarried and unaffiliated families.

Rabbi Olitzky is eager to offer various perspectives on outreach to intermarried families and unaffiliated Jews, and hopes attendees will walk away with some new ideas on how to best welcome all these folks into the fabric of Jewish life. If you plan on attending, we invite you to join Rabbi Olitzky and become part of the conversation.

The second inclusive measure will be debated by the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Laws and Standards, the body that shapes the “ideology, programs, and practices of the Conservative movement.” According to the Jewish Exponent of Philadelphia, the RA is “expected to debate a responsa—a body of written legal and policy decisions—that would encourage Jewish cemeteries to create a separate section where non-Jewish spouses could be buried next to their Jewish mates.”

JOI has blogged about this issue numerous times, going as far back as 2005. We believe that if the organized Jewish community wants to see more intermarried families participate in Jewish life, we have to demonstrate that we support them through the entire life cycle. The message should be that if you lived as a Jewish family, you are welcome to rest eternally as a Jewish family.

Put together, Rabbi Olitzky’s session and the responsum debate show that the Conservative Movement continues to take positive steps toward creating a Jewish community that welcomes and embraces all those in our midst. We at JOI are happy to be involved and look forward to continuing to work with the Conservative Movement in the future.

Another High Profile Interfaith Relationship

Earlier this fall, rumors swirled that Chelsea Clinton and her Jewish boyfriend, Marc Mezvinsky, were planning a wedding in Martha’s Vineyard. While those turned out to be just rumors, the news broke a few days ago that the two became engaged over Thanksgiving weekend. Let us be among the growing chorus to wish them a Mazel Tov!

As an organization devoted to welcoming the intermarried into the Jewish community, we are intimately familiar with the numerous challenges and opportunities faced by interfaith couples like Chelsea and Marc. JOI would like to invite the two of you to explore our website and our programs in case you have any questions about how to best navigate these waters. Programs like The Mothers Circle, for women of other religious backgrounds raising Jewish children, or How Should I Know, which is for Jewish men who want to create Jewish homes with their partners/spouses from other religious backgrounds, might be of interest. Or if you’re looking for a Jewish institution to become a part of, you can search through our Directory of Welcoming Jewish Organizations.

The two of you are also in a unique position to act as advocates for all the current and future interfaith couples in our midst. There are still taboos surrounding intermarriage, and we hope such a high profile example will bring this conversation to a new level.

Chelsea and Marc, if you are reading this, we are more than happy to offer guidance and advice in the area of interfaith relationships. Again, congratulations on your engagement and we hope to hear from you soon!

Universal Messages of Inclusion

Although our work focuses on creating a more open and welcoming Jewish community for all in our midst, we are always quick to admire work done by others that shares our philosophy of inclusion. That’s why we read with great interest an article in the New York Times about Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Hines Ward and his work with biracial Koreans.

Ward, who was born to a South Korean mother and African American father, recently met with a group youths aged 16 to 21, all of whom share a mixed-heritage background. As they all sat around the dinner table, they shared stories of “teasing from childhood peers” and constant discrimination, which for many can turn into “widespread ostracism.”

But this gathering stood for something bigger: acceptance. According to one participant, “It is so special that no one is staring at me, and no one is asking me about my hair. It gives me hope.”

Ward’s embrace of his Korean heritage has helped to shed light on “the plight of biracial children in South Korea.” The issue, according to the Times, was largely ignored until Ward became a superstar athlete. The attention paid to him in South Korea represented a “slow turn toward tolerance.”

In the Jewish community, mixed-heritage children have found an increasing network of support. Organizations like Be’Chol Lashon and the Jewish Multiracial Network provide numerous platforms for this often marginalized population to get together and talk about their experience in the Jewish community. This creates a louder voice for all Jews with mixed-heritage backgrounds, one that needs to be heard if we are going to create a truly welcoming Jewish community.

Strengthening this voice of inclusion is exactly what Hines Ward and Pear S. Buck International (the organization which sponsored the youth’s trip to America) are doing for biracial South Koreans. The road to acceptance might seem long, but a louder voice will help shorten the journey.

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