Weblog Entries for July 2010

The Message Shared by a High Profile Interfaith Marriage

This weekend’s wedding between Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky has, not surprisingly, evolved into a national story. But one surprising angle has emerged as a mainstream story – the interfaith angle. Clinton is a Methodist, Mezvinsky is Jewish. The interest in this aspect of their marriage has become quite a hot topic in the secular press. The Washington Post is running a five-part online series about interfaith marriage, along with guest columns on the subject. The Early Show on CBS had on a “relationship expert” to talk about the issues raised by intermarriage. And back in March, the Associated Press asked if there was a Jewish wedding in store for Chelsea (Rabbi Jason Miller of Detroit claims to have it on good authority that the wedding will be co-officiated).

One recent article though looks at the relationship in a bigger sense. Writing in the Huffington Post, Rabbi Irwin Kula, President of CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, believes the Clinton-Mezvinsky wedding tells us something “important, challenging and hopeful” about both religion and “the nature of America.”


Keeping Sight of Why we Reach Out to Intermarried Families

We recently blogged about an article in the Forward in which Dr. Steve Cohen challenged the relevance of the methods used by JOI and in welcoming intermarried families to the Jewish community. In a study about interfaith families and Jewish camps, he made the argument that intermarried families feel adequately welcomed – the problem is a “competence barrier” once they are inside. While we responded with a letter to the editor explaining that these “barriers to participation” are something we have been working to lower all along, Julie Wiener of the [New York] Jewish Week had a different reaction. She looked at Dr. Cohen’s study and was “struck by how little space it seemed to devote to its purported purpose – determining what strategies might encourage more interfaith families to consider Jewish camp – and how much space it instead devotes to rehashing Cohen’s favorite topic: how interfaith families are less engaged in Jewish life than are in-married ones.”


Standing Together to Say We are All Jews

The Israeli conversion bill that caused quite a stir over the last few weeks has been put on hold for the next six months. In that time, Natan Sharansky, head of the Jewish Agency and one of the bill’s most prominent opponents, will lead a “committee of the Reform, Conservative and Orthodox movements” in negotiations to hopefully reach a compromise among everyone. Adam Bronfman, managing director of the Samuel Bronfman Foundation, believes this six-month window provides an incredible opportunity for Israel and Jews across the globe – we can all stand together and say, “I am a Jew.”


The Steps we Take to Ensure a Successful Interfaith Marriage

Everyone reacts differently to the subject of intermarriage. Those involved may have never thought they’d be in one, and parents maybe hoped their children would marry someone who shares their religious background. But deciding who we fall in love with isn’t limited to a single ethnic or cultural group anymore, not in a world where cultural divides are shrinking and diversity is growing. Thus interfaith relationships are becoming more common, and so are the questions people ask about how to best navigate these relationship. Writing on the website, Beth Katz, who is Jewish and soon to marry an agnostic Mormon, shared the questions she’s been asking, and she also wants to know what other interfaith couples have done to build a “healthy, respectful marriage or partnership together.”


Sample Pages Now Available for New JOI Book on Raising Jewish Children

A few months ago we announced that the new book “How to Raise Jewish Children Even When You’re Not Jewish Yourself,” by JOI executive director Kerry Olitzky and associate executive director Paul Golin, was available for pre-order. For those interested in browsing the book before your purchase, the publishers Torah Aura have put some sample pages online. We invite you to digitally flip through the pages and discover for yourself how the book helps to “open up the code of Jewish living” for the non-Jewish spouse in an intermarriage.


Another Loss for Interfaith Outreach

Yesterday we brought you the news that InterFaithways, the Philadelphia area interfaith outreach organization, had lost a chunk of funding and would have to curtail many programs. Today, we received word that another interfaith outreach program, Interfaith Connection in San Francisco, will be shutting their doors after 24 years of service. As the longest running program of its kind in the nation, we are deeply saddened to see Interfaith Connections close their doors.


Finding the most Effective Methods for Outreach in Today’s Economic Climate

We were saddened to read in the recent Jewish Exponent an article about the loss of funding for InterFaithways, Philadelphia’s only organization devoted to helping interfaith families feel more welcome in the Jewish community. The news was all the more shocking considering a recent Jewish population survey (which we blogged about), which found that Philadelphia has an intermarriage rate of 45 percent. After the study, many thought InterFaithways was going to be “the next big thing.” But different ideas on how to best reach and engage interfaith families, plus concerns over how to measure results from InterFaithways programming, led the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia – which had given a grant of $75,000 a year ago – to withhold funding for now.


Forty Years of Inclusion at Camp Ramah

For the last 40 years, the Tikvah program at Camp Ramah has been leading the way in welcoming developmentally disabled youth into the Jewish community. What started at their camp in New England has become “active throughout Rama’s national network of overnight camps,” said an article on They spoke to Betty Ross Swampscott, whose daughter, Ilyse, has Down’s syndrome and attended Camp Ramah. Swampscott said the message of Tikvah was simple, and it’s something we strive for with our Big Tent Judaism Coalition: “It is one community, and every person counts.”


A New Approach to Helping People on their Jewish Journey

One of the most important notions of outreach is to meet people where they are on their Jewish journey, both physically and spiritually. With our Public Space Judaism programs like Passover in the Matzah Aisle or Eight Days of Oil, we meet people in public places like grocery stores or malls to give them a taste of Judaism. A more challenging aspect of outreach is to meet people spiritually and find out what they need to make their path to Judaism more meaningful. But The Temple, Congregation B’nai Jehudah in Overland Park, KS, has developed a new program that takes this challenge head-on – and they’re seeing some tremendous results.


Fighting for Equality among the Worldwide Jewish Community

There is a new bill currently making its way through the Israeli Knesset that would, in the eyes of many, define as inferior anyone who has chosen a path to Judaism other than what is accepted by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate. The bill has language stating that a conversion will be recognized by the state only if the convert “accepted the Torah and the commandments in accordance with halacha (Jewish law).” Not only would this exclude converts in the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist movements, it would also overturn a 2002 High Court of Justice ruling that Israel must recognize converts of any denomination, performed in any country.


Outreach has Always Been about More than Saying “Welcome”

A recent article in the Forward reported on a new study by Dr. Steven M. Cohen that supposedly challenges the methods used by JOI and Interfaith Family in welcoming intermarried families to the Jewish community. According to both the article and the study, Dr. Cohen has apparently discovered a “competence barrier,” which prevents intermarried families and their children from feeling comfortable in synagogue. Intermarried families feel welcome; they just don’t know what to do once they are inside. That, he says, is what keeps these families from deeper engagement, and “outreach has been misguided by focusing simply on being welcoming.”

JOI associate executive director Paul Golin took umbrage with these conclusions.


Appreciating the Connections we Share

Larry Jay Tish has learned a lot about Jewish identity since co-creating and co-starring in the multimedia comedy “The Black Jew Dialogues.” Though the show is a look at America through the “African-American and Jewish-American experience,” Tish explains in a Jewish Advocate op-ed how the show has helped him gain a deeper understanding of the often-asked question “Who is a Jew.” As he has travelled the country meeting Jews from all types of backgrounds – both ethnically and culturally speaking – he has come to recognize the beauty of our diversity, the strength it provides, and, despite differences in observance or belief, our “deep kinship to one another.”


Questions Abound for the Upcoming Clinton-Mezvinsky Wedding

Family and friends of Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky have been pretty tight lipped about the couple’s July 31 wedding. Not much more is known beyond the location – the village of Rhinebeck in upstate New York – and that Bill Clinton would like to lose some weight before the wedding. The question on the mind of most people in the Jewish community seems to be whether or not it will be a Jewish wedding, or at least have Jewish elements. Will a rabbi officiate? Will there be a chuppah? Will Mezvinsky, who was raised a Conservative Jew, step on a glass at the end of the ceremony? In a long piece on the blog Politics Daily, David Gibson explores the interfaith angle of the wedding and tries to figure out what it means for the Jewish community.


The High Cost of Being Jewish

A few weeks ago, we blogged about an article that said the cost of raising a child through the age of 18 was between $286,050 and $475,680, depending on income levels. We made the point that for Jewish families, the cost rises dramatically. A recent article in Newsweek reported on some actual numbers, and the results are stifling. Using calculations by Jack Wertheimer, Newsweek claims that “an Orthodox Jewish family with three children could expect to spend between $50,000 and $110,000 a year on school fees, synagogue dues, summer camps, and kosher food.” Engaged Jewish families might be willing to pay that much, but those numbers are certain to keep away the unaffiliated who are looking to walk through our doors.


Showcasing the Delicious Diversity of the Jewish Community

Are you a mother of other religious backgrounds raising Jewish children? Do you make a brisket that your spouse/partner secretly prefers to his mother’s, or have children that expect sopapillas (fried pastry) for Hanukah instead of sufganiot (jelly donuts)? If you’ve got a recipe that makes your friends holler for your challah, please share it with us! We are putting together a cookbook to showcase the culinary contributions of intermarried families to the larger Jewish community. We want to create a recipe resource for families with similar backgrounds and raise funds to support The Mothers Circle and other meaningful Jewish Outreach Institute programs.

Click the link below to learn how you can help!


The Different Choices in Raising Children of Intermarriage

We know that intermarriage comes with a host of challenges that the couple and their families must navigate. But those challenges become even more complex when the backgrounds of the married couple are often seen as being at great odds – specifically the less common, but rising (according to JOI’s Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky) instances of Jewish-Muslim interfaith relationships. The [New York] Jewish Week recently spoke with one such couple to find out what steps they are taking to ensure a successful and religiously meaningful intermarriage.


Pieces of the Great Jewish Tableau

There is an interesting editorial in the Jerusalem Post about the influx of foreign workers who have come to Israel in recent years to “build our houses, to plant and harvest our fields, and to care for our elderly.” The approximately 250,000 to 400,000 foreign workers – half of them illegal – “did not only toil. They fell in love and married and had children,” the paper writes. “They learned about Jewish holidays. They played Israeli games and sang Israeli songs, dressed up on Purim and ate matza on Pesach.” And as for the more than 2000 children of these workers, they went to schools and studied with other Israeli children, learning to read and write in Hebrew.


The Decision to Choose a New Religion

It’s not unusual for people to question their faith or their religious identity throughout their lives. Often times taking a skeptical look within can help strengthen your convictions. For those who have chosen a new religion, the question of faith can become much more formidable – especially if the decision to convert was for external reasons. For instance, what happens if you convert for a spouse and then you get divorced? Where does that leave you religiously and spiritually? That was a question asked by Julie Gray in a recent blog post on The Huffington Post. She converted for her husband, but “twenty-five years, two kids and a divorce later,” she just wasn’t sure about her Jewish identity.


Strengthening of the Jewish LGBT Movement

I witnessed history being made earlier this week by representing the Jewish Outreach Institute at the LGBT Jewish Movement-Building Retreat, which was covered in the Forward newspaper and which we previously blogged about here. The conference conveners were kind enough to invite JOI’s participation because of the overlap in our work: JOI seeks to create a more inclusive Jewish community for all who have been marginalized, which of course includes lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Jews. And while JOI’s focus has traditionally been on the largest segment of the disengaged – interfaith couples – that focus also represents an area of overlap because studies suggest that LGBT Jews are inter-partnered at even higher rates than heterosexual Jews.

Still, I was one of the few conference participants representing an organization that was not working full time on LGBT-specific issues. I was also one of the only heterosexual participants, which was a powerful experience in itself. In several conversations, I sheepishly “outed” myself and hoped I would be accepted and that I wasn’t disturbing the safe space created by the conference. Of course, the irony is that this momentary discomfort about my sexual orientation is what the nearly one-hundred folks in the room have all experienced countless times in a wide variety of situations throughout their entire lives. And unlike the universal welcome I received at the conference after revealing myself, they have often been met with hostility, discrimination, or sometimes even violence. And they continue to be, which is why this conference was so important.


Training ALL Staff in Welcoming Best-Practices

In that moment when someone comes to the doorstep of the Jewish community – either physically or online – we have an opportunity and a duty to do all we can to welcome them in. But all too often these folks are left without guidance. Through our own studies of how communities respond to newcomers, we have found that people reaching out to the Jewish community are falling through the cracks. It’s time to make sure we fill those cracks. Writing for the website eJewish Philanthropy, JOI’s associate executive director believes we can to a better job of capturing and engaging newcomers if we make a conscious effort to “train ALL staff in welcoming best-practices.”


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