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Weblog Entries for November 2010

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Hanukkah: The Gateway Holiday

My friend, Sarah, hasn’t celebrated Hanukkah in years. I met Sarah at Hebrew school, and we share fond memories of celebrating holidays together as teenagers. Yet she doesn’t celebrate Rosh Hashanah or Passover, either. Her fiancé isn’t Jewish, but her Jewish holiday observance lapsed long before they become engaged. It’s not that she celebrates Christian holidays with her fiancé. Rather, together, like so many other American Jews, Sarah and her fiancé celebrate Thanksgiving, Independence Day and other American civil holidays.

Why doesn’t Sarah celebrate the Jewish holidays that she enjoyed as a child, and why has celebrating Hanukkah become irrelevant for so many other Jewish adults like Sarah?

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Welcoming the Interfaith to Enrich Our Faith

One thing we have learned at JOI from studying and examining intermarriage over the last 20 years is that no matter how much the subject is demonized, intermarriage continues to take place. This is true no matter how “insider” the Jewish individual. In-married parents, Jewish day schools, Jewish camps, and an overall Jewish upbringing is no guarantee that a person will grow up to choose a Jewish spouse. Understanding this makes it possible for us to move forward and look at the Jewish community through a different lens, one that lets us see a community in which partners and spouses of other backgrounds are welcome to join us underneath our Jewish big tent.

Writing in the Jewish Exponent, Philadelphia’s Jewish newspaper, Gari Julius Weilbacher, managing director of InterFaithways: Interfaith Family Support Network, explains how she fits directly into the categories listed above. She was born in Israel, raised in a wholly Jewish community (her brother is a Conservative rabbi), yet she married a Catholic man who had spent his youth as an altar boy. “I am here to say that the inoculation theory against intermarriage does not always work,” she writes, going on to explain what she believes we must do to engage intermarried/interpartnered couples and encourage their increased participation in Jewish life.

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Thanking Women of Other Backgrounds Raising Jewish Children

As December draws near, intermarried families in the Jewish community often find themselves at the center of attention. The perennial questions about celebrating Hanukkah or Christmas abound in both private conversations and in public discourse. But a recent article in the Huffington Post about The Mothers Circe, our program for women of other backgrounds raising Jewish children, shows us that despite numerous challenges, many non-Jewish women are navigating their way through the holiday season and helping to prepare their family’s Hanukkah celebrations.

Though we always appreciate everything these women do to help raise Jewish children, the article seems especially relevant on the eve of Thanksgiving. It gives us another opportunity to thank all of the women of other religious backgrounds who have joined the orbit of the Jewish community. Let us all take a moment to recognize their heroic efforts in leading Jewish families, their dedication to embracing Jewish traditions, and their role in helping us secure a vibrant Jewish future.

Happy Thanksgiving!



Kosher Nation

Our friend Sue Fishkoff is barnstorming the U.S. in support of her new book, “Kosher Nation,” and I had the privilege of seeing her excellent presentation at the JCC of Manhattan last week. The story she tells is a fascinating one. The kosher industry in the United States has grown exponentially over the past few decades. Today, between a third and half of all the food in American supermarkets are kosher-certified, and a significant percentage of Americans look for kosher food when they shop. It’s fascinating because Jews are only about 2% of the population, and most Jews don’t keep kosher!

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Taking JOI’s Message on the Road

Last week, JOI’s executive director Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky spoke with Jewish community leaders in New Orleans, Dallas, and Houston about becoming JOI Ambassadors, people who believe in our mission and are willing to dedicate time and leadership to advocate for our programs within his or her local community. The meetings were designed to raise awareness of the challenges we face in engaging unaffiliated Jews and to offer examples of how ambassadors can help expand JOI’s reach among populations that are underserved by the organized Jewish community, such as intermarried families, LGBT Jews, and children of intermarriage.

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A Hanukkah Service that Serves

We were excited to receive this flier about a Hanukkah service for families with special needs from Congregation Rodeph Sholom in New York City. The service, which will take place on December 4, will include prayer, song and interactive elements and be interpreted into American Sign Language.

We commend Congregation Rodeph Sholom for opening the doors of its tent to families who in the past may have felt marginalized by the Jewish community. And, we are happy to note, that there are a growing number of Jewish institutions and organizations committed to including individuals and families with special needs.

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In Israel, A Discussion about Reaching Intermarried Families

At JOI, we often make the distinction that assimilation and intermarriage are not the same thing. From the rapid expansion of our programs like The Mothers Circle – for women of other backgrounds raising Jewish children – we know there are an untold number of intermarried families who want to participate in Jewish life but instead find barriers. These are not families on the road to assimilation; they are on the road to deeper Jewish involvement and we need to make sure we are doing all we can to reach them and welcome them in.

This distinction, though, is still mistakenly seen by too many as one in the same. There is an ingrained belief that when someone intermarries, they are “marrying out.” That is why we were delighted to read in the Jerusalem Post some words by Rabbi Gilad Kariv, head of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, the Israeli branch of the Reform Movement.

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An Inclusive New Jewish Cemetery

As we see more intermarried couples within the Jewish community, we will also see more intermarried couples who want to be buried together in a Jewish cemetery. Rules generally bar this practice, forcing these couples, regardless of their level of commitment to the Jewish community, to be buried elsewhere. But according to the Boston Globe, a new Jewish cemetery in Wayland, MA has taken steps to “increase options for interfaith families” who want to be buried next to each other.

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Being Welcoming Without Alienating Your Guests

The website My Jewish Learning has a section called “Ask the Expert,” where readers can submit questions about Jewish life. Among the dozens of inquiries are questions as unusual as what to do about dog food during Passover to questions about why we blow a Shofar during the High Holidays. Recently someone wrote in with a question that’s becoming increasingly common as more families are impacted by intermarriage – what’s the best way to welcome non-Jewish guests to a Shabbat dinner?

As an expert in creating a welcoming and inclusive environment for intermarried families, My Jewish Learning reached out to JOI’s executive director Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky for some advice.

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Demonstrating the Value of Participating in Jewish Life

It’s no secret that being an active participant in Jewish life can be expensive. Synagogue dues, High Holiday tickets, Hebrew school and bar or bat mitzvah lessons all add up, giving some families reason to pause and ask themselves what it is exactly they are paying for. Based on theses kinds of numbers, is it any wonder membership is down while the number of unaffiliated families is rising?

But perhaps cost isn’t the only culprit. A new survey conducted among six New York area synagogues uncovered another possible reason for the shrinking memberships. It’s not that cost is too high – it’s that people don’t know what they are paying for.

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How We Measure Our Effectiveness

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There has been a movement lately in the non-profit world to demonstrate results through more business-like numbers and measurements, and overall I think this is an important and positive trend. Certainly at JOI we pay attention to our metrics — our programs have run in over 100 communities in the US and Canada (even one in Europe and one in Australia); since its inception over 1,000 women have graduated the 8-month Mothers Circle course; we’ve trained thousands of Jewish communal professionals on outreach best practices; and last year we had 900,000 unique visitors to this website — and we continue to think about how we can refine the way we measure our effectiveness.

At the same time, however, I remain mindful that ultimately our work is about people, not numbers.

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Shedding Assumptions About Intermarriage and Assimilation

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Julie Wiener, a writer and editor for the [New York] Jewish Week, recently brought to light an experience of many intermarried families, one that gives hope to those of us who advocate for their inclusion in Jewish life. In writing about the tragic death of Michael Kellogg, a young Jewish man from Greensboro, N.C., Wiener points out that over the past few years he had been participating more in Jewish life – with the support and encouragement of his non-Jewish fiancé. This story is “yet another example of how outdated and inaccurate much of the old conventional wisdom about intermarriage” can be.

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Vowing to Be a More Inclusive Jewish Community

Every Sunday The New York Times features a couple in a short Vows video for its Weddings/Celebrations section. This week, we had the fortune of hearing the story of Dr. Hiroko Hosaka and Dr. Ryan David, a Jewish-Asian couple who met during their shifts in the pediatrics emergency room. Not only are they exceedingly sweet in their video, but they also have chosen to embrace the multiculturalism of their identities. According to the video, the couple plans to incorporate elements of both their Jewish and Japanese heritage into the wedding. Ryan explained, “We are having a Jewpanese style wedding – a cross between a Jewish traditional and Shinto – or Japanese wedding – so we will be doing a sake ceremony and following that, a breaking of the glass under the chuppah.” Their dedication to both Judaism and Japanese culture indicate the couple’s mutual respect and their desire to pass on the traditions of each other’s cultural identities. We know of many couples who maintain dual or multi-cultural homes while choosing Judaism as their household religion, and we encourage those who are still deciding to learn about the benefits of becoming a part of the Jewish community.

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Reclaiming a Jewish Ritual

The use of a mikveh, or ritual bath, was for a long time relegated to the more traditionally observant
segments of the Jewish community. But over the past few years, Mayyim Hayyim (Living Waters) has been working to re-introduce the ritual into the lives of the broader Jewish community. Mayyim Hayyim, though, tries to be more. It serves as a resource where today’s diverse Jewish family can come and learn about this ancient tradition and, if they choose, immerse themselves in the water. To illustrate the power of taking part in such an activity, filmmaker Jen Kaplan recently produced and directed a short documentary about an intermarried Jewish family using Mayyim Hayyim’s mikveh to convert their child to Judaism.

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Intermarriage in Print

As more members of the Jewish community meet, fall in love with, and marry partners of other religious backgrounds, the stigma surrounding intermarriage – though still palatable – weakens a little bit. But at least we live in a time where such couples don’t have to hide their affection or worry about violent repercussions. The same can’t be said about the relationship between the two protagonists in author Jessica Jill’s new novel, Sweet Dates in Basra.

The novel is a “realistic look at romance and the difficulties lovers face when society condemns their attraction,” writes Rabbi Rachel Esserman in a review in the Washington Jewish Week.

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Shedding Assumptions About Intermarriage and Assimilation

Filed under:

Julie Wiener, a writer and editor for the [New York] Jewish Week, recently brought to light an experience of many intermarried families, one that gives hope to those of us who advocate for their inclusion in Jewish life. In writing about the tragic death of Michael Kellogg, a young Jewish man from Greensboro, N.C., Wiener points out that over the past few years he had been participating more in Jewish life – with the support and encouragement of his non-Jewish fiancé. This story is “yet another example of how outdated and inaccurate much of the old conventional wisdom about intermarriage” can be.

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Uniting in a Day of Jewish Learning

This Sunday, November 7, Jewish communities across the globe will come together for one purpose – to study. The event, the first ever Global Day of Jewish Learning, was born out of a desire to commemorate the monumental completion of a translation of the entire Talmud (oral law). But it has snowballed into something much more accessible for those not accustomed to studying Jewish texts. It’s a day for Jewish communities to come together and celebrate all of the elements that bind us together, a day to transcend denominations and differences and instead focus on the core of who we are as a Jewish people. But it’s also a day that provides us with an amazing opportunity for outreach to those on the periphery of the Jewish community.

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Dolls that Embrace the Complexity of Our Ethnic Heritages

There’s a side in all of us that wants to believe in a black-and-white, right-and-wrong understanding of certain issues. And there’s also a side in all of us that has to acknowledge how life is often too complicated for simple binary “either or” equations. As the world moves toward greater complexity, those who can embrace diversity are better suited to thrive—which is why we at JOI have long urged the Jewish community to recognize, accept and embrace the many different ways people connect to their Jewish identities. It’s also why we are encouraged when we see others embracing complex Jewish identities, like the makers of a new line of “Mixed-Race Collectible Play Dolls” called “Mixis.”

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Exploring What it Means to be Jewish

When a Jewish parent feels disconnected from Judaism, how can they instill a Jewish identity in their child? That’s a question asked and explored by Alan Goldman in his documentary “Who the Jew are You?” which will screen at the 22nd annual Vancouver Jewish Film Festival. In the film, he goes on a journey of Jewish self-discovery and tries to discover just what it means to be Jewish and have a Jewish family. “If Alan could just figure out what relevance Judaism has in his own life,” it says on the movie’s website, “he’d be able to help his son find his place in the Jewish world.”

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We’ve Unveiled The Mothers Circle Cookbook!

Last night we hosted our annual tribute evening, in which we honored both Meryl Frank and The Mothers Circle for their empowerment of women and their work at breaking down barriers in Jewish life. As part of the tribute, JOI Executive Director Rabbi Kerry Olitzky presented Mothers Circle alumna Liddy Doyle with the first copy of The Mothers Circle Cookbook, a one-of-a-kind cookbook written by and for interfaith families. The recipes included highlight some of what these women have learned about Jewish cooking as well as the warmth and passion they have for the Jewish community.

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