Weblog Entries for August 2010

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The Policy on Attending an Interfaith Wedding

If a Conservative rabbi is invited to an interfaith wedding – as a guest, not as an officiant – should he or she be able to attend? According to the Rabbinical Assembly, the Conservative movement’s rabbinical organization, the answer is no. Even attending such an event, or the reception, might give implicit approval to the relationship. This particular scenario is becoming more commonplace, and it recently occurred in a very public way when Arnold Eisen, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, went to the wedding reception of Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky. Even though he’s not a rabbi, he is the public face of Conservative Judaism, and many in the movement disagreed with his decision to attend.

Some Conservative rabbis, like Rabbi Jason Miller (who sits on JOI’s Board of Professional Advisors), believe this policy of banning attendance should be rescinded.


Join us in Celebration

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One of the most significant conversations an intermarried couple will have when they decide to have a family is about the religious upbringing of their children. Some couples avoid this conversation altogether until they are confronted by outside influences or specific life-cycle events. This can be a very difficult conversation to have, regardless of each individual’s religious affiliation (or lack thereof). If the decision is made to create a Jewish home and raise Jewish children, this choice may be particularly challenging for the parent who comes from a different religious background.


Tips for Newcomers During the High Holidays

With the High Holidays fast approaching (Rosh Hashanah begins on the evening of Sept. 8), many in the Jewish community have begun to make plans for celebration. Plane tickets have been purchased, dinner menus are being decided, and High Holiday tickets (if needed) have been acquired. In all of the chaos, though, it’s easy to forget that there are many among us who will be celebrating the High Holidays for the first time. These can be spouses or partners in interfaith relationships, Jews-by-choice, or people reconnecting after a long absence. What can we do to make sure the holidays are an accessible, inclusive and meaningful experience for them?


Creative Options for Interfaith Families Planning a Bar/Bat Mitzvah

Earlier this summer, the Cleveland Jewish News published a guide we wrote for interfaith families who are preparing for a bar or bat mitzvah. In the guide, we identified five areas where synagogues and communities can include intermarried families in bar and bat mitzvah rituals while still respecting both tradition and Jewish law. For instance, while most synagogues don’t have well defined roles for the non-Jewish parent during the ceremony, there are certainly no laws prohibiting a parent from standing with his/her child and offering an English prayer or blessing at the beginning or conclusion of the service.

We were excited to see that our guide was recently picked up and published by the J. Weekly, San Francisco’s weekly Jewish newspaper. The re-publication points to the fact that more people are interested in finding out what they and their synagogues can do to help intermarried families feel more welcome and included in Jewish ritual life. We encourage you to share this guide with anyone you think would be interested because finding ways to engage intermarried families — and people of all backgrounds — will continue to show that everyone is welcome to stand under our big tent.

Program for Jewish Men in Interfaith Relationships Launching in North Jersey

This October, JOI will partner the Jewish Family Service of North Jersey in Wayne, NJ and Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge, New Jersey to launch our For the Men Initiative, a series of programs for men in interfaith relationships. Funded by a Berrie Innovation Grant from the Berrie Fellows Leadership Program, an education and leadership program sponsored by the Russell Berrie Foundation, For the Men is the first national program to provide resources and education to men in interfaith relationships.

Josh Lipowsky of the New Jersey Jewish Standard recently reported about JOI’s partnership with the Jewish Family Service.


Baxter, the Pig Who Wanted to be Kosher

Laurel Snyder, longtime friend of JOI’s and a member of our Board of Professional Advisors, who is outspoken about her experience both as a Jewish adult child-of-intermarriage and an intermarried person herself, also happens to be a critically-acclaimed author of children’s books. On a joint “Author Blog” between and the Jewish Book Council, she discusses one of her most recent works, and perhaps most controversially-titled, “Baxter, the Pig Who Wanted to be Kosher”:


The Experience of Teaching a Mothers Circle Course

Meredith Jacobs, author of “The Modern Jewish Mom’s Guide to Shabbat” and member of JOI’s Board of Directors, recently published an article in the Baltimore Jewish Times about her experience teaching a Mothers Circle course, our free educational program for women of other religious backgrounds raising Jewish children. In her column she eloquently shares what she discovered about the dedication and conviction with which these women go about raising a Jewish family. “Their questions are thoughtful and show a desire to truly understand and embrace Judaism,” she writes. “I am humbled by what they are doing and humbled to be teaching them.”


When We Go Out

(The following is a Word of Torah I wrote for the Jewish Federations of North America for this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tetze)

Each time I read this text, I have a sense that I am about to get last minute instructions from a parent or a spouse as I leave the house in the morning. The words of the Torah resound in an echo of something like, “It’s cold outside. Don’t forget to wear a coat.” Or perhaps, “Be careful of the potholes while driving.” While somewhat innocuous, these parting words reflect a rather profound supportive and loving relationship, last minute advice to carry with me on my way. Of course, in this week’s reading, the Torah does not seem to be concerned with the everyday. Rather, its focus appears to be on the ancient Israelites’ battle against its enemies, as well as what should be done when Israel—with Gd’s help—defeats its enemies.


Short Film Explores What it Means to “Look Jewish”

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Here at JOI, we think it is very important to deal with the Jewish community in all of its vibrant complexity, instead of relying on common wisdom about the way things “should be,” as such wisdom is often misleading. In recent years, it has become evident stereotypes that the community takes for granted, such as “looking Jewish,” do not hold true. The short student film “Nose Job Jew,” written by Tim Novikoff and Micah Smith, chronicles one young Jewish man’s attempt to navigate what it means to “look Jewish,” with disastrously funny results.


Special Issue on Diverse Jews

There’s an interesting set of personal essays in a recent issue of the online magazine, “Alef.” Interesting not just because of the content itself but also its source. Alef is the voice of Birthright Israel NEXT, the follow-up program to the 10-day free Israel trip that has sent over 200,000 young Jews to Israel, including tens of thousands of young-adult children of intermarriage. It makes sense than an issue of the magazine would reflect the full diversity of Jews in that age cohort.

One particularly powerful essay is called “Half-and-half” by Meredith Druss, about what it means to have a half-Asian ethnicity but be fully Jewish, and yet still have to face potential challenges to her authenticity because her mom’s conversion was by a Conservative rabbi.


Redefining Jewish Identity for the 21st Century

It’s a question that has been asked over and over again for as long as Judaism has been a religion – who is a Jew? The answer is elusive, nearly impossible to pin down as Jews have settled in every corner of the globe and put down roots among various cultures and communities. As our diversity has grown over the millennia to include Jews and Jewish families of all types of backgrounds, our Big Tent has ably expanded to include nearly all those in our midst. But too many are still left on the periphery, so the guidelines that traditionally define who is a Jew, writes JOI associate executive director Paul Golin in the Huffington Post, “must be expanded if the Jewish community — particularly the American Jewish community — is to remain relevant well into the 21st century.”


A Milestone in Welcoming LGBT Jews

Last January, we wrote about a panel discussion at New York’s Yeshiva University on the topic of homosexuality in the Orthodox Jewish community. It was a way to further a conversation that had begun ten years ago with the release of the film “Trembling Before G-d,” which looked at Orthodox LGBT Jews. We applauded the panel, saying that while it didn’t amount to a full embrace, it signaled a move in a more inclusive direction.

In the months since, a significant number of Orthodox rabbis began working on a document expressly defining how the Orthodox community should react to homosexuality. Titled “A Statement of Principles on the Place of Jews With a Homosexual Orientation in our Community,” the piece, according to Rabbi Steven Greenberg, is a “long-awaited milestone” that demands LGBT Jews be “treated with dignity and respect” and insists they “be welcomed as full members of the synagogue and school communities.”


Help us Plan a Trip to Israel for Intermarried Families

JOI has been discussing trips to Israel for the last several years. We recognize that while Israel may not be on the top of the travel or interest list for many interfaith families, we believe it is a crucial dimension in the development of a contemporary Jewish identity. Israel also has a role to play in the raising of Jewish children among interfaith families. There are few better ways to truly connect with one’s Jewish identity than visiting our religious and cultural homeland. So what does the ideal Israel trip look like and who should be the target population among the wide range of interfaith families?


The Growing Popularity of Independent Prayer Groups

Prayer in the Jewish community has taken many forms over the course of its 2500 year history. From High German Reform services with pipe organs to the ecstatic prayer of Hasidic Judaism, Jews constantly seek to adapt their prayer to fit their historical and cultural realities. And the Jewish community has begun to adapt yet again. In the past ten years, volunteer led communities based on the havurah (group of companions) movement of the 1970s have sprung up all over America. Called independent minyanim (Jewish prayer group), these groups seek to break down the barriers that sometimes exist in synagogue life and build a more dynamic, inclusive community, especially for those on the periphery of Jewish life. This article at provides an overview of the goals of independent minyanim and gives a glimpse into their prayer services.


How to establish an early Jewish Identity

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The Beginning Jewish Families Task Force, which operates under the auspices of the UJA-Federation of New York’s Commission on Jewish Identity and Renewal (COJIR), just released an extensive study on the Jewish family. Mark Rosen and a team of researchers conducted the study in five Jewish communities in the greater New York area. They found a common thread that ran through all of the communities: the anticipated growth of young Jewish families in the next few years. Click here to read the study.

The purpose of the study was to look at engagement among Jewish families with young children. The study’s findings offer us insight into how we can better reach these families and encourage their participation in the Jewish community. JOI’s mission is to promote a more welcoming and inclusive space for Jewish families, so understanding how and why families with young children make their Jewish choices can have long-term implications with regard to their connection to Jewish life.


JOI Welcomes New Board Members

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An organization does not exist in the abstract. Rather, it is the collective voice of a group of individuals—lay and professional—and the acts that they perform, both individually and collectively. And while this collective voice is the epitome of these individuals, it is important to remark upon these individuals, especially when they are new to the organization and thereby bring something new to it as well. In particular I want to welcome a new member of JOI’s Board of Professional Advisors (Rabbi Jason Miller) and four members to the President’s Advisory Board (Dr. Ivan and Melissa Bank, Dr. Richard and Patti Shlansky-Goldberg).

With the Banks coming from New Orleans and Dallas and the Shlansky-Goldbergs hailing from the Greater Philadelphia area, their participation reflects the continued geographic diversity of our organization. And Rabbi Miller, ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary and working at Camp Tamarack in the Detroit metro area, reflects the diversity of communal perspectives of those who advise and support us. They all join JOI at an important time in the growth and development of the organization as we set out adjusting our sites on a new plan for strategic growth and development. And we welcome their contributions and their voices.

Some Final Thoughts on the Clinton-Mezvinsky Interfaith Wedding

The Clinton-Mezvinsky wedding might be over, but it has brought the conversation about intermarriage – typically confined to Jewish circles – to a mainstream audience. The New York Times ran two post-wedding articles, one about intermarriage the other about the rabbi who officiated, James Ponet. And in the Jewish press, both the [New York] Jewish Week and the JTA wrote articles wondering what impact such a high profile wedding will have on our views of intermarriage.


Register Today for JOI’s Upcoming Webinar Series on Innovative Outreach Techniques

The summer is often a time to reflect and plan for the year ahead. For those of us in the world of outreach, the summer months provide an opportunity to step back and think about what it really means to reach out to those on the periphery of Jewish life. Is it about identifying what we as organizations can provide because we think such services and programs are valuable? Or, is it about identifying the needs, wants, and values of those whom we wish to serve? At the Jewish Outreach Institute, we encourage Jewish institutions to move away from just filling out a calendar with programs. Instead, we encourage an approach to outreach that focuses on truly serving our target populations in a way that highlights the meaning and relevance of the Jewish community. To help reach this goal, we are thrilled to announce a new webinar training series for professionals and lay leaders in Jewish communal organizations and synagogues.


A Great Opportunity to Elevate Discussions about Intermarriage

Two recent events have brought the subject of intermarriage back to the forefront of conversation in the Jewish community. The first, of course, was the Clinton-Mezvinsky interfaith marriage. The other was a new study by Dr. Steven Cohen, in which he claimed that the Jewish community is sufficiently welcoming to intermarried families, therefore outreach work is for the most part “misguided.” Both have stirred a lot of emotions in people, including many who have re-aired the fusty old argument that intermarriage will ruin the Jewish community.

This kind of response shows there is still much that people don’t understand about intermarriage, so JOI associate executive director Paul Golin wrote an article in to try and set the record straight. Titled “Continued Confusion about Intermarriage,” Golin illustrates exactly why it’s so important for the Jewish community to continue to find more ways to engage and embrace intermarried families.


“Never Forget, Never Forgive”

At the Jewish Outreach Institute, we recognize that our primary focus of Jewish intermarriage is actually a result of a much larger phenomenon, the increased intermingling of people in the U.S. and elsewhere over the past decades thanks to new technologies, mobility, and greater acceptance—even celebration—of cultural differences. Therefore, we are always interested and sometimes challenged when we see the merging or blending of the Jewish tradition with other people’s stories. One area where that blending occurs with thankfully little controversy, however, is in the art world. That is particularly the case of a graphic novel that recently came to my attention called, “Never Forget, Never Forgive.”


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