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Weblog Entries for September 2010

Choosing to Officiate at an Interfaith Wedding

Rabbi James Ponet recently co-officiated what the New York Times called the “most publicized interfaith wedding in recent American history,” that of Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky. Some agreed with his decision, some didn’t. While everyone seemed to have an opinion on the subject, little was heard from Rabbi Ponet himself. Recently, though, he decided to break the silence and explain his journey from a rabbi who wouldn’t officiate or co-officiate an intermarriage to one who would.

Writing in Tablet Magazine, He traces in some detail the religious path he traveled, from Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati to modern Orthodoxy in Israel. It was while in Israel studying at the Shalom Hartman Institute (which he helped found) that he came to understand that “halacha (Jewish law) reflects not so much the truth of God as the pragmatics of attempting to live in the world connected to divine norms whose claim, by definition, eludes one’s ability to fully realize.” This understanding, he writes, has helped guide him as he has been called upon to make “practical decisions, especially in areas where there is no precedent. Like intermarriage.”

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Converting both the Body and Spirit to Judaism

[The following originally appeared on the blog of Mayyim Hayyim, an intimate center for spirituality, learning, celebration and community.]

For those who choose it, conversion is a liminal experience. While it might sound cliché or hackneyed, it can be a life-changing event. And that is the way it is supposed to be. I like to say that there are two steps in the process of conversion. (Like a dance, I call it the “conversion two step.”) The first step is the conversion of the body. The second is the conversion of the heart or spirit. I can control the former. No one can control the latter. Sometimes one comes before the other. And at other times, they occur simultaneously. Of one thing I am sure. Without a supportive and welcoming Jewish community, the latter is really hard to come by.

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Who’s doing the Cooking on Jewish Holidays?

This summer, a friend gave me a copy of Joan Nathan’s Jewish Holiday Cookbook. Organized by holiday, the cookbook is a fantastic guide for anyone preparing a Jewish holiday meal. At JOI, we know, of course, that today’s Jewish community includes individuals who are not Jewish themselves – yet who prepare Jewish meals for their families. It can be a challenging experience, so we were excited to read an article by Joan Nathan in which she recognized the important role of people of other backgrounds in the Jewish holiday kitchen.

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Reaching Parents with Young Children

If you’re interested in encouraging people to raise Jewish children, it seems so obvious to reach out to new parents. And indeed, much of JOI’s focus has been to serve both newlyweds and new parents. For example, we know that the women of other religious backgrounds served by our Mothers Circle program have often pledged to raise Jewish children before any kids arrive, but with the birth of their first child the promise suddenly “comes due,” and the new moms fully recognize their need for services from the community – and are grateful when those services exist and are accessible.

Surprisingly, the Jewish community as a whole does not offer a tremendous amount of resources for that demographic.

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September: A Month of Celebrations

[The following article originally appeared in the Examiner.com. We invite you to Click Here and sign up to receive email alerts when new Examiner articles are published by Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky]

Some people consider September to be a lost month. One Jewish holiday after another. What were those Rabbis thinking? So many holidays grouped together and then none the following month. How is anyone supposed to work during this month and get anything accomplished? But then it got me to thinking. I wondered why Rosh Hashanah — the celebration marking the New Year — came before Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It seems counterintuitive. Yom Kippur is a time during which one repents for one’s wrongdoing and tries to steer the course of one’s life to a more sacred purpose. One might expect the introspection and self-reflection of Yom Kippur to precede the New Year rather than follow it.

The holidays, though, don’t stop with Yom Kippur. There are many more holidays to come, all within the following two weeks. After Yom Kippur is Sukkot, the festival of booths, which leads to Shemini Atzeret, a day of assembly, which leads to Simchat Torah, a day to rejoice in the Torah. What’s the purpose of so many holidays, compressed into just a few weeks?

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Sukkot as a Model of Public Space Judaism

The holiday of Sukkot begins Wednesday at sundown, and Jewish families all over the world will be putting up their sukkot (temporary booths) to celebrate the holiday. In New York City, this festival has been taken to new heights by the nonprofit organization Reboot, which has organized a display of a dozen innovate sukkot in Union Square. To read more about this display, called “Sukkah City,” click here.

Sukkot is a holiday that meshes nicely with JOI’s values of Public Space Judaism and bringing Jewish practice into the public sphere. A sukkah can be built almost anywhere, and is by definition temporary and easy to build. And as a result, many different organizations put the principles of Public Space Judaism into practice during Sukkot. Chabad builds sukkot on the backs of flatbed trucks and Home Depot holds sukkah making demonstrations in order to bring the holiday to where Jews are. The “Sukkah City” display is in keeping with this tradition. It is held in one of the busiest public spaces in New York City, enabling thousands of Jews – affiliated and unaffiliated – to interact with the booths as they go about their day.

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Trending in the Jewish Community

[The following article originally appeared in the Examiner.com. We invite you to Click Here and sign up to receive email alerts when new Examiner articles are published by Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky]

This is the time of year when folks take stock of their lives. The Hebrew term is cheshbon ha-nefesh, literally, an accounting of the soul. But it is also a time for taking a hard look at the community and where it is going. Just as it is difficult to honestly assess the self, it is similarly quite difficult to brutally confront the stark reality of the Jewish community—its strengths and weaknesses. But if we want to enter the New Year emboldened to face the challenges we will undoubtedly encounter, we have to be prepared.

When John Naisbitt wrote his bestselling Megatrends in 1988, it seemed that the trends he identified were in fact sweeping the country. Moreover, the notion of a megatrend became very important in planning for community futures, especially in the Jewish community. But when Mark Penn and Kinney Zalesne penned their Microtrends 20 years later, things had changed drastically. Sure, the trends were different. But so were the nature of the trends. Micro replaced macro. No longer were there major sweeps. Instead, small trends seemed to dominate. In other words, two diametrically opposed trends can coexist. One does not eclipse the other.

So what does this mean for the Jewish community?

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Broadway Actress to Headline JOI’s Tribute Evening

We are very excited that Rebecca Naomi Jones, currently performing on Broadway in American Idiot, will provide the entertainment at JOI’s upcoming Tribute Evening on November 1, 2010 in New York City. Born and raised in New York City, Rebecca has been singing, dancing, and acting her entire life., Her parents – one a musician, one a photographer – helped cultivate in her a strong background in the arts, supporting her love of music and theater. And as a multicultural child of intermarriage with deep connections to her Jewish roots, she also embodies the welcoming and inclusive spirit that drives the work of JOI.

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For the Sin of Exclusion of Intermarried Families

In the most recent issue of the Forward, the paper asked many prominent rabbis and thinkers to share what they believe we as a community need to atone for this Yom Kippur (which begins this Friday night, Sept. 17). One that immediately jumped out at us was written by Rabbi Harold Kushner, who believes we should atone “for the sin of writing off the intermarried.” He writes that instead of viewing all those who intermarry as “trying to escape their Jewishness,” we should turn the tables. “We would do well to see intermarriage more as a doorway that can lead into Judaism than a doorway leading out.”

Almost ten years ago, we used the same message in a holiday card and received many angry responses, but our conviction never wavered.

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Help us Celebrate the Women of The Mothers Circle

To celebrate our Mothers Circle program for women of other backgrounds raising Jewish children, we are developing a cookbook comprised of recipes contributed by Mothers Circle participants. We’ve been thrilled with the response to the cookbook we’ve received so far, including the stories about the dishes that have been submitted by the women along with their recipes. They have opened their kitchens to us and let us know how they use food to enhance their families’ Jewish practice.

Now, we need your help. Please consider sponsoring a dedication in the cookbook in honor of a special woman of another background in your life who is committed to raising Jewish children. You can also sponsor a dedication in the cookbook in honor of The Mothers Circle program, a Mothers Circle group or facilitator, or simply in honor of a more inclusive Jewish community. Please visit www.TheMothersCircle.org/cookbook to learn more about the project and sponsorship, and do not hesitate to contact me at LOffenbach@JOI.org if you have any questions. We will be collecting dedications until October 27 (dedications collected before October 4 will be printed in the cookbook), and unveiling the cookbook at our tribute dinner on November 1.

Thank you!



High Holiday Follow-up

Each year we see an increasing number of news articles covering the growing phenomenon of free High Holiday services. That’s because more and more synagogues and other Jewish organizations are recognizing that the “pay-to-pray” model can no longer serve as the only option, if we hope to provide meaning at the holiday time for all who would join us. It’s exciting to see an increasing number of free and low-cost options for those who are not yet fully on the inside of the community.

And yet, how do we measure success of these free High Holiday offerings? Certainly, a well-attended service that people feel good about is a positive result, in and of itself. If such programs really do provide people with the meaning and/or spirituality that they’re seeking, though, another important measure of success would be that we on the inside of the organized Jewish community won’t have to wait another full year to see these folks return!

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Happy Grandparents Day

Grandparents Day is today, September 12th. Founded in 1973 by Marian McQuade, a housewife in Fayette County, West Virginia, this holiday seeks to honor the wisdom and contributions of grandparents. In honor of the occasion, we have created a card that celebrates grandparents’ efforts to nurture the Jewish identity of their grandchildren. The card as a token of JOI’s appreciation for all of the hard work by Jewish grandparents with interfaith grandchildren, and feel free to forward it to anyone else that you think might enjoy it. Happy Grandparents Day!



Jewish High Holidays for Newcomers

The High Holidays begin tonight with Rosh Hashanah, and many synagogues around the country are preparing for the massive influx of worshippers to come through their doors. But for the growing number of non-Jewish spouses who will be joining their Jewish partner at services, little is done to ensure they feel welcome and able to participate. Writing for the online publication On Faith (a project of the Washington Post), JOI executive director Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky offers some suggestions for what we can do to help lower barriers for all newcomers.

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Equal Standing for Intermarried Families in the Jewish Community

Throughout the course of Jewish history, we have had to rethink and reinterpret the laws passed down from generation to generation. What was accepted 100 years ago – or even 10 years ago – might not make as much sense today. In our efforts to keep Judaism relevant, a majority of Jews have decided to select which laws and mitzvot (commandments) they will follow in their Jewish journey. Writing in the Huffington Post, Paul Golin, JOI associate executive director, calls this a “selective covenant.” In other words, most of us “can and do pick-and-choose which mitzvot are relevant to our lives… even if that means reinventing some of the rituals as we go.”

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Lowering Costs During the High Holidays

The High Holidays are right around the corner, and synagogues all over the country are preparing for the annual influx of worshippers. At many synagogues, a ticketing model comes standard for the High Holidays, and worshippers must pay to attend services. However, as this article in the Forward notes, an increasing number of synagogues throughout the country are shifting to a cost-free High Holiday services model, with promising results.

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Cooking for Rosh Hashanah

With the coming array of Jewish holidays – beginning with Rosh Hashanah on the 8th of September and ending with Simchat Torah on Oct. 1 – many Jewish families will be spending a lot of time at two places: synagogue and the dinner table. But the “sweetest” meal comes on Rosh Hashanah, in which it is customary to eat sweet foods to celebrate the beginning of a joyous new year. Rabbi Jason Miller, a member of the JOI Professional Advisory Board, recently visited the Fox News affiliate in his hometown of Detroit to talk about the holiday and share his recipe for a traditional Rosh Hashanah dessert, honey cake. Click here to watch his appearance; the website also provides his recipe.

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New Outlet for Sharing Inclusive Ideas

At JOI, we are always looking for new ways to share our ideas about creating a more inclusive Jewish community. Whether on this blog or through editorials, the goal is to continue to broaden our reach and bring both our ideas and methodology to an ever expanding audience. With that in mind, we are thrilled to announce that JOI’s executive director, Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky, is now a resident “spiritual examiner” of the New York area Jewish community for the website Examiner.com. He will be providing unique and original content to enhance Jewish life in the New York area and beyond.

For his first article, Rabbi Olitzky took on the subject of welcoming interfaith families during the High Holidays, and how the holiday season gives us an opportunity to do our utmost to show how inclusive the Jewish community—and the Jewish family—can be for all in our midst. We invite you to share the article with anyone you think would be interested. We would also like to hear from you. How do you share the warmth and meaning of the High Holidays with newcomers or interfaith families?





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