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Weblog Entries for December 2010

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Ringing in 2011 with High Profile Interfaith Relationships

Among the thousands of interfaith marriages that occurred last year, one in particular sticks out: that of Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky. Everyone, including JOI, had something to say about the wedding and what it meant for the Jewish community. As always with intermarriage, some saw it as Marc marrying out, while others looked at is at Chelsea marrying in. We saw it as the latter. Marc has an amazing opportunity to share the value and meaning of Judaism and Jewish culture with not just his wife, but because of their celebrity, also with the entire nation. And with the level of interest by the secular media, interfaith couples across the world saw that they were not alone.

On the cusp of 2011, two other high profile interfaith relationships have been announced, and both have the potential to ignite similar media scrutiny and Jewish communal conversation.

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Have things improved for the adult children of intermarriage?

One of the most important segments of the Jewish population that will determine our community’s future direction is the adult children of intermarriage. I wonder how many leaders in the Jewish community fully understand the sheer magnitude of the numbers: among all people under the age of 25, there are more individuals who only have one Jewish parent than have two Jewish parents.

JOI is currently working on a study of young adults who have one Jewish and one non-Jewish parent, including focus groups and an online survey, in order to provide a louder voice from this essential part of the population to the organized community. Many adult children of intermarriage have experienced challenges accessing the Jewish community, not just in terms of their lack of prior Jewish education (as some would suggest) but also because of unwelcoming or uninformed attitudes from others within the community.

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What’s in a Name?

After 23 years, we have spent a lot of time of late thinking about the name of our organization. Perhaps it is the end of the secular year that is motivating the discussion—a time for review. Or maybe it is the recent in-depth discussions with regard to a new strategic plan that will take JOI into the next five or ten years, and most certainly create a new iteration of our work that will help us grow and nurture a more inclusive Jewish community.

Last week, I noticed that we had been called JOI—the Jewish Outreach Initiative—by someone who was reporting on our work. It got me to thinking. The original name chosen by our founders really referred to the fact that JOI was a research institute housed in a university (City University’s Graduate Center). And research continues to be a significant part of our work. But it is not all that we do. We offer direct programs and services such as our signature Mothers Circle program. And our training initiative such as our recent webinar series and upcoming conference reach a lot of people. Moreover, our advocacy platform called Big Tent Judaism has nearly 450 organizational/institutional members. It is clear that we do initiate a lot of new things. So maybe such a name makes sense.

So I am asking you, our blog readers, our supporters. Should we change our name or keep it as JOI (which some people pronounce as JOY) irrespective of the growth and evolution of our mission?



Opening our Eyes to the Diversity of the Jewish Community

If someone asks you what a Jewish person looks like, would you have an answer?

Here is what your answer could be: there is no “Jewish look.” In fact, Jews have been ethnically and racially diverse for millennia, and are even more so today with globalization, intermarriage, adoption, Jews-By-Choice, and the far-flung communities of the Jewish Diaspora. Still, despite the growing diversity in Jewish demographics, non-Ashkenazi Jews are often questioned in terms of their “Jewishness,” or worse, unacknowledged by the community.

The website MaNishtana.net is seeking to change that by raising awareness of Jewish diversity.

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Honoring the Backgrounds of All Those in our Community

During the December months, many interfaith families discover that they must devise creative solutions of how to meaningfully honor Christmas and Hanukkah at the same time. As this New York Times article shows, many Jewish families make out-of-the-box decisions in order to create family traditions that resonate with them. While these decisions may seem unorthodox to some, it is important to remember that one way of being a “Jewish family” does not work for everyone. The complicated decisions that families make about incorporating many different traditions into one cohesive whole do not necessarily lessen their commitment to Judaism.

Although Hayley Krischer is a Jew, married to a Jew, and raising two Jewish children, Kirsher’s ex-husband and the father of her son is not Jewish.

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Interfaith Parenting During the December Holidays

The month of December, as almost any interfaith family will tell you, can be a tricky month to navigate. Whether holidays overlap or fall at opposite ends of the month – as Hanukkah and Christmas do this year – families still encounter sensitive issues of celebration. For intermarried families raising Jewish children, this time of year can be especially challenging. How can these families instill a strong Jewish identity while at the same time honoring the backgrounds of their non-Jewish family members?

This topic is big enough that it isn’t relegated to Jewish media, as every year there are numerous articles in the secular media about interfaith parenting during December.

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Time to Make the Right Decision on the Israeli Conversion Bill

Six months ago, a proposed bill in Israel regarding conversion created a great amount of controversy in the Jewish community. The bill had language stating that a conversion would 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 bill 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.

The bill was rightfully put on hold and Natan Sharansky, head of the Jewish Agency and one of the bill’s most prominent opponents, was charged with putting together a committee of the Reform, Conservative and Orthodox movements to hopefully reach a compromise. The six month moratorium is now drawing to a close, and Lynn Schusterman, chair of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, wrote an impassioned open letter urging Israeli lawmakers to reconsider this law and weigh heavily its potential to “open a deep rift between world Jewry and Israel.”

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Andy Cohen: Making Pop Culture Jewish

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Andy Cohen is Jewish and proud. As the senior vice president of original programming and development at the Bravo TV network and host of his own Bravo talk show, “Watch What Happens Live,” he is an example of how Judaism has entered the mainstream. Jews are no longer others in North American culture, and Andy represents how Judaism and Jewish culture are part of the American media marketplace.

A self-made Bravolebrity (Bravo reality TV star), Andy’s talent and irreverent sense of humor has led him not only to conceive and produce several successful TV shows, but to also gain his own fan-base, becoming a Bravo fixture in his own right. Regularly referencing Judaism, Andy infuses his talk show with Yiddishisms and Jewish culture. During Hanukkah, he wished his non-Jewish guests a happy Hanukkah and the Bravo Club House, where he films “Watch What Happens Live,” featured a menorah. His “Mazel (luck) of the Week” is an accolade offered to his guests, other Bravolebrities and pop culture figures. Judaism is a significant part of Andy’s persona, and he does not hesitate to share it with the world (or at least his viewing audience).

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Attaining the Highest Aspirations of Judaism

Over the past couple of weeks, numerous media outlets have reported on a letter signed by fifty Orthodox rabbis in Israel banning the rental or sale of property to non-Jews. The rational was a fear of intermarriage, fear of reduced property value, and safety. These rabbis believe that the lifestyle of non-Jews (specifically, Arab citizens) can endanger lives both physically and spiritually.

The response of international condemnation has been swift, staggering, and unanimous. According to the Forward, the letter has been denounced by “American Modern Orthodox and Conservative rabbinic associations, and by the spokesman for an American ultra-Orthodox umbrella group.” An alliance of more than 900 rabbis, “most of them affiliated with non-Orthodox denominations,” has also signed an online petition. Rabbi David Ellenson penned a powerful op-ed for the [New York] Jewish Week opposing the statement, and in Israel, Prime Minister Benjanmin Netanyahu has spoken out against the letter, as have numerous high ranking rabbis.

Amidst all of these voices, one phrase stood out as a clearly articulated explanation of how the rabbis who signed the letter are damaging the Jewish community.

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A Jewish Presence in the Public Square

Admittedly, I am a big fan of Chabad. Sure, there are aspects of Chabad’s approach to the Jewish community with which I disagree. But I have always applauded the willingness of its emissaries to go where people are—all over the globe. I have also always appreciated Chabad’s approach to Public Space Judaism, particularly during the Hanukkah season. If there is any doubt as to what time of year it is, just ask Chabad. Otherwise, why would there be so many humongous menorahs (hanukiyot) in commercial malls, grocery stores, and government centers across the United States?

Unwittingly or not, the Jewish community has defaulted the public celebration of Hanukkah to Chabad. Perhaps some of it is a result of the discomfort among some American Jews of Chabad’s “mash-up” of church and state, to borrow a concept from the world of popular music. And that is why nearly every photo of a government official lighting an “official” menorah includes a local Chabad rabbi.

But Chabad shouldn’t be the only visible Jewish presence in the public arena.

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An Optimistic Vision of the Future of the Jewish Community

We’ve noticed an interesting media trend regarding the Jewish community as of late. There has been a lot of talk about what the future of the Jewish community will look like. While this isn’t exactly a new topic, it seems to have piqued the interest of journalists and Jewish communal professionals. There was an article about preserving the rituals of Jewish life in small towns in The New York Times, which spurred conversations about the future of the Jewish community in general. Yoram Samets, the founder of JVillage Network, responded to the Times article by arguing that in order to grow, we must be much more intentional” about our future. “The thriving Jewish communities are those that embrace, celebrate, honor and include our differences,” he writes, suggesting that we need to “remove the (denominational) labels” and simply be Jews.

Adding even more ideas to the debate were Aharon Horwitz, co-founder and director of the PresenTense Group, who wrote a blog exploring what we can do to engage young Jewish adults who will become our future leaders. And last month, the first-ever Jewish Futures Conference in New Orleans brought together communal leaders, educators, and educational entrepreneurs and forecasters to talk about the potential of creative and thoughtful Jewish education.

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Welcoming Jews (and their Dates)

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There are those in the Jewish community who claim that dating people from other faiths is the first step toward assimilation. However, this article from Julie Wiener in the [New York] Jewish Week suggests that this is not the case. In fact, when the Jewish community embraces policies that are welcoming to non-Jewish partners, the reverse can happen.

We at JOI have observed, over and over again, that spouses and partners of other faiths can serve as support systems to help their partners have meaningful Jewish identities. Our Mothers Circle course, which provides tools for women of other backgrounds to be effective Jewish parents, exemplifies this willingness for both partners in an interfaith marriage to build a Jewish household. It is a sign of the times that, in these relationships, the Jewish identity of one partner is strengthened by the hard work of the other.

However, these couples cannot do it alone.

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Doing More than Opening Doors

Edgar Bronfman, president of the Samuel Bronfman Foundation and author of Hope, Not Fear: A Path to Jewish Renaissance, is one of the most influential personalities in the Jewish community. He is particularly vocal about his belief that the future of the Jewish community rests in large part on how welcoming we are towards intermarried families and unaffiliated Jews, writing in his book that those “who seek a home in Judaism should find a community and a tradition that ushers in its guests with warmth and pride and that celebrates diversity of background and opinion.”

Bronfman’s philosophy of opening our doors to all those in our midst is precisely what motivates the work of JOI, so we read with great interest his recent opinion piece in the Forward newspaper about welcoming, reaching and engaging intermarried families in the Jewish community.

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Sharing the Lights of Hanukkah

We are in the afterglow of Hanukkah, and thanks to an exciting initiative of the Big Tent Judaism Coalition, thousands of newcomers to Jewish life celebrated the holiday this year in a whole new way. Last month, the Jewish Outreach Institute developed a new Hanukkah resource that was sent to Big Tent Judaism member organizations as a way to reach unaffiliated individuals and families in their communities. We printed laminated holiday instruction cards to help those on the periphery of Jewish life celebrate Hanukkah. The “newcomer cards” were modeled after airplane safety cards, and offered clear, visually engaging and appealing instructions on how to participate in Hanukkah ritual and celebration (including candle lighting, latke-making, and driedel playing). The cards were a way of helping communities throughout North America activate the Big Tent Judaism principles of “welcoming all newcomers,” and “lowering barriers to participation.”

Almost 100 communities asked for the cards, reaching close to 8000 people around the continent. Participating organizations distributed cards through a variety of creative means. Here’s just a sample of how they helped spread the light and some of the reactions:

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An Unveiling, of Sorts

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Today’s blog entry comes from the Rev. Eleanor Harrison, a participant of The Mothers Circle, our program for women of other backgrounds raising Jewish children. It was was originally posted to the online discussion board of The Mothers Circle and is being reprinted here with her permission.

My mother died exactly a year ago. My sisters and father and I surrounded her that last day with singing, massage, our presence, and a few precious words. It was terrible and mysterious and beautiful all at the same time. While she had what most would call “a good death,” I still think about - and am disturbed by - what I did and didn’t say, what she could and couldn’t say. In her final hour she rested in my arms with her head on my heart. The intervals between her breaths became slightly longer with each breath. Until the next one didn’t come at all. I have often wondered if the last thing she heard was my heartbeat just as the first thing I ever heard was hers.

It does not seem possible that a year has gone by since we lost her. As Peter and the kids are Jewish, I have borrowed many of the Jewish rituals of mourning this year. This has helped. From that first week of my “non-shiva Shiva” (as we called it) to standing during Mourner’s Kaddish whenever I had the chance, I have found these rituals helpful in containing and holding my grief even as I felt a little strange observing them as a Christian. There was always the moment in services when I wondered, “Do I stand during Kaddish as any other Jewish mourner? Or is that appropriating too much that does not belong to me?” And although I wish it didn’t matter to me, I wondered, “What will everyone think?”

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It’s Not Assimilation


As I’ve written in the past, I think the Jewish community is barking up the wrong tree by continuing to bemoan Jewish assimilation into the larger American culture, when “assimilation” is really not an accurate depiction of what’s happened to the Jews. Recently Rabbi Irwin Kula, who spoke at JOI’s last national conference and continues to put deep and innovative ideas about Judaism into the secular media, has a new video about Hanukkah in which he points out a very interesting anomaly in the whole assimilation theory:

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Stirring the Soul through Jewish Music

Matisyahu, the commercially successful Hassidic reggae singer, is on a mission. With the release of his Hanukkah song, “Miracle,” he has started a campaign on behalf of Hanukkah music, a category he finds extremely lacking. “Where is it?” he ponders on NPR’s All Things Considered blog. Even relative to the small Jewish population, he notes that Jews have produced an insignificant number of Hanukkah songs. This discrepancy, he argues, should be addressed by Jewish musicians: the more Jewish musicians invest in writing and producing quality Hanukkah (and Jewish) songs, the greater the likelihood that they will be bought and listened to by folks in the Jewish community.

Though creating Hanukkah music might seem like a petty competition with Christmas, it is in fact an avenue to Jewish life and cultural expression. In his NPR interview, Matisyahu rightly sums up music’s role in Judaism by quoting the Hassidic teaching that “music is the quill of the soul.” In other words, music engages the soul, and Jewish music engages the Jewish community.

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Proudly Embracing the Growing Diversity of the Jewish Community

At JOI, we often marvel at the ability of the Jewish community to incorporate the ever expanding diversity of those who now stand with us under our Big Tent. Interfaith couples, Jews-by-choice, and children of intermarriage all help make our community a more vibrant place, and we are grateful for their contributions. But a growing trend among Jewish families gives us a good opportunity to highlight another aspect of the Jewish community’s diverse nature: adoption.

Clergy and congregants, according to an article on Beliefnet.com, are seeing more children of Latino, Asian and African descent. “And that, in turn, is slowly changing the face of American Judaism.”

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Public Space Judaism Brings People Together

In our work with communities across North America, one thing we constantly teach is that in order to reach those on the periphery of the Jewish community, we have to go where they are rather than wait for them to come to us. It’s what we call Public Space Judaism, and it’s one of the cornerstones of our work and philosophy. The best time of year to do this is around holidays, particularly Hanukkah and Passover since those are the two most observed holidays by both affiliated and unaffiliated Jewish families.

There is another benefit of putting Judaism on public display, as we learn from an article in the Press Democrat of Santa Rosa. Yes, it helps us reach those on the periphery, but it can also help remind Jews of all backgrounds that despite our difference of opinions, we all stand together under Judaism’s Big Tent.

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When Life Doesn’t Imitate Art

Leave it to Alan Dershowitz. I needed a break from serious reading so I decided to pick up (really, download on my Kindle) a copy of one of Dershowitz’s latest novels (having read his more serious attention to the same subject) called The Trials of Zion. It is a fabricated story of the involvement and kidnapping of a young woman, Emma Ringel—zealous Jewish peacenik, Ivy League Law School graduate—who goes to Israel to work for a legal defense organization, headed by a former law school buddy, Habash, who happens to be a Palestinian Arab. There are lots of familiar sound bites in the novel for anyone familiar with Dershowitz’s illustrious and often controversial career. As a matter of fact, there are many similarities between one of the protagonists in the novel—Abe Ringel—and Dershowitz himself.

In order to make the story more interesting—and in order for Dershowitz to make his point—there is a subtle subplot in the book: an interfaith relationship between Emma and Habash.

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