Weblog Entries for October 2010

Making Jewish Memories that Matter

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I haven’t been a congregational rabbi since 1984, although I have pinched hit for colleagues every so often for Shabbat and holidays. And I still receive invitations to speak and teach and the like so I feel like I still have my finger on the pulse of congregational life. When I was in the pulpit, I served a large New England congregation that was affiliated with the Reform movement. Nevertheless, it has certainly anomalies of which I was proud. It was a pro-Zionist congregation from its founding—even at a time, thankfully well behind us when the Reform movement was not so inclined. It had daily services and encouraged its members to recite kaddish in the daily minyan when they were obligated to do so. I could go on. But one of the things that it did share with many other of its peer institutions was its level of decorum. There were just certain things that were not to take place in the synagogue.


Promoting Judaism in the Marketplace of Ideas

At JOI, our work is basically divided in two halves – working to make the community a more welcoming and inclusive place, and working to encourage people to discover the value and meaning in being Jewish. By design, our work almost exclusively aims to reach those who already have connection to Judaism – whether by choice, by intermarriage or a child of intermarriage – but don’t yet participate in Jewish life. What would the Jewish community look like, though, if we took Jewish advocacy in another direction and began actively seeking those who don’t have a connection, those who are unaffiliated to any religion?

Writing in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal, Mark Paredes, a Mormon who often speaks on the issue of Jewish/Mormon relations, believes the Jewish community could grow even stronger if we shifted our focus from “Judaism: the Best Way for Jews to Live,” to “Judaism: The Best Way to Live.”


Sharing Shabbat and Jewish Life

Although the most often repeated commandment in the torah is to “welcome the stranger,” we still see the Jewish community struggle daily to adhere to this principle. Whether the “stranger” is a spouse of another background or someone unaffiliated with the community, doors never seem to open wide enough to welcome everyone in. But Temple Beth El, a synagogue in Spring Valley, NY, recently took steps to try and reverse this trend among the Jewish families in their area. They held a Shabbat of Sharing service which was designed to “explain some of the rituals and traditions of Reform Judaism to interfaith couples and others wishing to learn more about the religion.”


A Call for Hope in the Jewish Community

As a community leader and as a major philanthropist who “puts his money where his mouth is,” Edgar Bronfman is able to say and do things that others may not be willing to do, or able to do. But that is also what allows him to stand above the rest. That is why we at JOI are such big fans of his work, particularly his book Hope, Not Fear: A Path to Jewish Renaissance, which is being released today in paperback.

The book, written with Beth Zasloff, overflows with optimism for a bright Jewish future—providing individuals and communal institutions are willing to open their gates to those on the periphery and provide meaningful Jewish experiences for everyone who cares to enter.


Parenting in an Interfaith Household

In America, much of the conversation about interfaith marriage focuses exclusively on the two people entering into the marriage. However, many interfaith families grow beyond two partners to include children. And there is a dearth of resources devoted to interfaith parenting. However, two new resources will soon fill the gap; one will be released soon, and one is in the planning stages.

JOI Executive Director Rabbi Kerry Olitzky and Associate Executive Director Paul Golin’s new book, How to Raise Jewish Children…Even When You’re Not Jewish Yourself will be on the shelves starting November 1. Kerry and Paul have more than twenty years of combined experience between them working with interfaith families and addressing their unique concerns. They hope to provide a hands-on guide that will “open up the code of Jewish living” and make partners of other backgrounds feel comfortable providing a strong Jewish identity to their children.

And we recently learned that Donna Cephas and Alicia Scotti, who have facilitated a Mothers Circle Associated Program in New York, are at the beginning stages of a project that will also spread awareness about the joys and challenges of parenting in an interfaith household.


A Profile in Courage

Way back when Carl Paladino (R) still seemed like an almost-viable candidate for governor of New York (two weeks ago), he made some disparaging remarks about homosexuality that was well-covered in the secular media. And because he made the remarks to an audience of Jews who warmly received them, it also prompted a good degree of soul-searching in the Jewish community as well. One of the most powerful and courageous responses emerged in this week’s New York Jewish Week newspaper by our friend Jeremy Burton, from Jewish Funds for Justice, who writes about the challenges he faced grappling with his identity while growing up in an Orthodox community, including feelings of terrible isolation and thoughts of suicide.


Advancing the Cause of Inclusion for Jews with Special Needs

JOI established the Big Tent Judaism Coalition as a way to bring together organizations across the globe that all shared a common goal: to create an inclusive and welcoming Jewish community. Specifically, this means doing more to welcome in folks who have traditionally experienced barriers to participation, including intermarried families, children of intermarriage, Jews-by-Choice, and LGBT Jews. While much is being done to help better integrate these folks in the Jewish community, one segment of the population is all too often overlooked, except by a dedicated few – Jews with special needs.

Writing in, Rabbi Mitch Cohen, Director of the National Ramah Commission, believes this is something of a travesty. “Despite all of the 21st century political correctness in our discourse, public accommodations in our infrastructure and spirit of inclusiveness in our society, those with special needs… are still locked out of so many moments of meaningful involvement and growth.”


What You Need to Know about Converting to Judaism

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

While there are those who believe that the process of conversion should be as simple as a public statement of commitment (or as one rabbi noted “those who are Jewish are those identified by others as Jews”), there are others in the Jewish community who make it extremely difficult—if not impossible—for those who do want to convert to Judaism. This notion was made famous in a well-known episode of “Sex and the City,” when Charlotte made her initial overtures to convert. She was refused three times, reflecting the hide-behind excuse of unresponsive rabbis to refuse any approach by potential converts. When a recent convert to Judaism was asked why she worked with a particular New York City rabbi for her own conversion, she replied, “He was the only one who took my call.”

Converting to Judaism—or any religion into which one is not born—is not a simple decision. But it does not mean that the process to do so has to be encumbered. Instead, the Jewish community should do all it can to lower barriers to conversion and make it accessible to all. Ironically, the barriers—especially as anti-conversion pronouncement become more or less a weekly occurrence in Israel—are getting higher.


JOI Recognized for Innovation and Impact in the Jewish Community

Every year, a list of the 50 most innovative professionals and organizations in the North America Jewish community is released in a directory called Slingshot, a Guide to Jewish Innovation. First published in 2005, we are proud to announce that JOI was chosen to be included in this year’s edition, which marks the fourth time we’ve been featured in Slingshot.

JOI was once again chosen to be a part of the directory for our innovation, impact, leadership and organizational effectiveness. This is a great honor, as it is a continuing recognition and confirmation of the steps we are taking to help grow and strengthen the Jewish community, particularly amongst unaffiliated Jews and intermarried families who are looking for community and meaning.


Last Chance to Take JOI’s Survey

A few months ago, JOI developed an important and ground-breaking survey in order to assess the needs and preferences of American Jews. If you haven’t yet had a chance to take the survey or forward it to someone you know who might be interested, please click this link now.

We know that Jews come from a variety of different backgrounds, may have one Jewish parent or two Jewish parents, may participate in Jewish community activities, may practice Judaism at home or may not engage in any way with Judaism and the Jewish community. That is why we want to hear from all people who identify as being Jewish or having a Jewish background.

The survey is confidential and will take about five minutes to complete. At the end of the survey, you will have the opportunity to enter a raffle for a $100 gift card to If you have questions before taking the survey or would like to receive the results of the study, please feel welcome to contact me at

Don’t miss out on your chance to participate! The survey will close on October 31. Thank you!

The Value of Free

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

The Jewish community has just concluded its fall holiday season. No more holidays until Hanukkah (this year, at the beginning of December, several weeks in anticipation of Christmas). With the end of the fall holidays, the expensive tickets for the so-called High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur give way to the fall tribute season which now begins in earnest. What was thought to be expensive for “pay-to-pray” tickets seems to pale in comparison to the various levels of giving, albeit voluntary, for these tribute events. Even though they are all for the worthy cause of sustaining the Jewish community, its institutions, and furthering its good works, many young Jews today have a completely different outlook when it comes to paying for the ability to participate in Jewish communal life.


With God as My Companion

[This blog entry originally appeared on the website of Jewish Lights publishing]

With the exception of Shabbat and holidays, I exercise each day. And I write each day. Both activities are part of my daily routine. When I am not able to do them, for any reason, I feel diminished, out of sorts, off. I also pray each day—three times, actually—and unlike the other two regular parts of my daily regimen, this is what really provides me an anchor among the shifting sands of our chaotic world. It helps me to maintain my dialogue with the Divine.


The Theory & Practice of Effective Outreach

Last Wednesday, over 80 Jewish professionals and volunteers leaders from across North America participated in the first of our four-part webinar series, titled the Theory & Practice of Effective Outreach. Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, JOI’s Executive Director and Eva Stern, JOI’s Director of Training facilitated a comprehensive presentation of how to transform the various barriers that prevent people from interacting with the Jewish community and its institutions, creatively finding and engaging those on the outside of Jewish life.

Participants were given the opportunity to dig deep into both the specifics of outreach and the bigger ideas of who makes up today’s Jewish community. They learned how to address the sweeping changes in Jewish demographics, developed a new understanding of how the organized Jewish community can reach and serve those on the periphery, and gained insight into the theory behind our signature outreach methodology, Public Space Judaism (going to where people are rather than waiting for them to come to us).


JOI Director of Training Eva Stern Honored with Prestigious Award

We are thrilled to announce that JOI Director of Training Eva Stern has been named, along with David Cygielman of Moishe House, as the winner of the Young Professional Award of the Jewish Communal Service Association (JCSA) - the most prestigious honor for young professionals in the Jewish community. Eva and David were chosen for the award due to their “innovative leadership that stretched boundaries and challenged colleagues to further excellence,” said Howard Charish, co-chair of the JCSA Awards Committee.

Nominated by colleagues and recognized for their integrity, commitment and creativity, we can say with extreme assurance that few people work harder to ensure a dynamic and vibrant Jewish community than Eva Stern.


The Biggest Divide in the Jewish Community

The Jewish community is made up of groups, both denominationally and socially. The spectrum is wide, often with heated disagreements on the nature of Judaism and Jewish identity. But all of these groups have one thing in common, said Paul Golin, JOI associate executive director. Writing in the Huffington Post, he pointed out that they all have “a deep engagement with their Jewish identity, which often (though not always) manifests itself through participation in the organized Jewish community.” In other words, they are all in some sense Jewish “insiders.”

Much has been written about trying to unify those on the inside, but Golin thinks there is a more important discussion at hand – bridging the gap between those on the inside and those on the outside. “That divide is growing wider,” Golin warns, “to the point where we may see an irreparable, Arctic-ice-shelf-like drop-off in the Jewish population over the next 20 years, if we can’t find a way to better bridge the gap between the inside and out.”


Interfaith Relationships and Jewish Values

Kate Fridkis is a blogger, writer, and former JOI intern. Her blog mostly deals with body image issues, but she also explores Jewish issues, often for the Huffington Post. As the Jewish partner in an interfaith relationship, she has used both venues to explore the topic of intermarriage. She does this not only from an introspective angle, but also through the larger lens of how interfaith relationships impact the Jewish community as a whole.

In a recent article, she combined those two angles to explain, as the headline sums up, why she and her non-Jewish fiancé “make the best Jewish match.”


Inclusive Wedding Announcements in Jewish Newspapers

There was a high-profile gaff in the Jewish community these past couple of weeks when the New Jersey Jewish Standard newspaper very publically struggled with whether or not to include same-sex couples in their wedding announcements section. The newspaper initially included its first-ever same-sex wedding announcement. The very next week, the editor then published a statement explaining that complaints from Orthodox rabbis saying that the announcement had caused “pain and consternation” prompted a decision not to run such announcements in the future. This then caused a major counter-protest within the community, the majority of which is supportive of such unions, and the paper admitted that it was rash to decide never to run same-sex wedding announcements in its pages.


Celebrating Rosh Hashanah in Cairo

Recently, in the New York Times, there was an article featured by travel writer Jennifer Conlin about her family’s experiences celebrating Rosh Hashanah in Cairo. The article is a poignant one, describing the family’s disorientation at trying to pray in a country where there are few or no Jews. But there is an added twist to this story: Ms. Conlin has an Irish Catholic heritage, and is mourning the loss of the support network in her British Jewish community which helped her raise her children as Jews.


The Interrupted Relationship

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

For many couples, relationships evolve in a rather predictable manner. Unless they devolve, or there is a traumatic event that causes them to deteriorate immediately (even unexpectedly), a couple’s relationship grows at a steady pace into a long-term commitment. People meet. They date. And as they get to know each other better, and they discuss their future, they determine whether that future will include one another. For interfaith couples, this is not usually the way things evolve. And whatever takes place, it usually does so over a longer period of time. I call this “the interrupted relationship.”


Connecting to the Jewish Community

Rachel Cohen actively participates in the Jewish community. In fact, Rachel is a Jewish community leader. In addition to serving as a member of our Women’s Advisory Board, she served as the founding chair of the Birthright Alumni Advisory Committee for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington DC and participated in and led Birthright trips to Israel. Now, Rachel serves as the Director of Young Adult Initiatives at the Schusterman Family Foundation. But, she also sang in her church’s choir and is part of a family of United Church of Christ ministers and missionaries.

Rachel, like more than half of Jewish young adults, has one parent who is Jewish and one parent who is not. She essentially represents the dynamic of the Jewish future. And thanks to Birthright Israel, Rachel (who attended the very first Birthright trip) was able to connect to Judaism and the Jewish community.


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