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Weblog Entries for January 2011

A Constructive Approach to Discussing Intermarriage

For too long, the subject of intermarriage has been dealt with in an unproductive manner. Arguments have typically been ruled by fear (it’s the greatest threat to the Jewish community, some often say), and millions of dollars are spent on convincing Jews to only marry other Jews. But, Yair S, a blogger for the website JewsbyChoice.org, believes that by approaching and talking about intermarriage in this way, we are missing the bigger picture: intermarried couples are just as capable of raising Jewish children and living a Jewish life. We simply need to create a community where they are supported and allowed to do so.

Why should we strive to create such a community?

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Risk and Reward in the Jewish Community

I am in the midst of Robert Putnam’s recent book entitled American Grace. It is an amazing analysis of the state of American religion covering nearly 700 pages and several centuries. I picked it up as part of our work on the upcoming JOI Conference entitled Judaism2030. While the book doesn’t contain a great deal of projections into the future and is unexpectedly lighter on Judaism than on other religions, it has some clear indicators that both reflect (and explain) what we are currently experiencing in the Jewish community and offers some insights as to what can be done in response on a multiplicity of levels.

What is most challenging (and poignant) is Putnam’s description of contemporary religion as “fluid.”

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The Tiger Mom and her Jewish Family

By now, you have probably heard of Amy Chua, the Tiger Mother. (And, if you haven’t, read this article by Amy Chua that started the tiger mothering phenomenon). While many have responded in uproar to Chua’s self-described Chinese parenting methods (notably, Jewish mother Ayelet Waldman), we at JOI are most interested in how Chua and her Jewish husband Jed Rubenfeld have incorporated Jewish values into their two daughters’ Jewish upbringing.

Chua first notes her daughters’ Jewish background in The Wall Street Journal article excerpted from her book, The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.

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Is Your Judaism Merely Gastronomic?

This past Friday, Rabbi Roy Walter of Houston’s Congregation Emanu El delivered a resounding sermon on what he thinks is today’s “most serious threat to Judaism.” In response to this question made by an 11th grade student, Rabbi Walter did not answer with intermarriage, or other typical scapegoats. Rather, he hearkened back to a statement made by Dennis Prager years earlier, who said:

There are really only two kinds of Jews: serious Jews, and non-serious Jews. Those categories have nothing to do with Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform; it’s a non-denominational issue. Serious Jews and non serious Jews. Those are the two categories that count.

Rabbi Walter continued, “The most serious threat to Judaism, in my opinion, is non-serious Jews.” His statement is big and worth fleshing out.

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Addressing the Needs of Interfaith Families in 2030

On May 23-24, 2011 in New York, JOI will convene Judaism2030: A Working Conference for a Vibrant Jewish Future. This cutting-edge conference will bring together Jewish communal professionals and volunteer leaders to chart a course for a more inclusive and welcoming Jewish community—both now and in the future.

Integral to every session throughout the conference is how we address engaging interfaith households and other populations traditionally marginalized by the organized Jewish community, including GLBT Jews, multiracial Jews, and unaffiliated Jews.

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A Snapshot of Jewish Baltimore

The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore has just released the preliminary findings of a new population study. While some if it seems positive (the number of Jewish households has grown in the last ten years), it also found we are lacking in one very substantial area. Only thirty percent of children in intermarried households, the study claims, are “being raised Jewish.”

In taking a deeper look at the number of intermarried households raising Jewish children, we see the numbers aren’t as troubling, but can still use some major improvements.

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What We Learned about Inclusion and Acceptance from Debbie Friedman

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The ancient Rabbis asked the question “Who is a hero?” And they had several answers—no surprise. The most compelling of their answers—“the one who overcomes one’s drives.” (Works better in Hebrew.) Nevertheless, it is something that has intrigued me for a long time, especially as I see who captures the attention of the media and the public. I would probably add to the question of the Rabbis: What constitutes a brush with history? This is more than being at a certain place or living through a particular event. For me, it means an encounter with an individual who has made his or her imprint on history in some way.

When I was only 16, traveling in Israel, we happened upon David Ben Gurion’s desert home at Sde Boker on his 80th birthday. It was a different world then. So we simply knocked on his door. Out came Ben Gurion. He spoke to us—a group of about 40 kids—for about an hour, in English, Hebrew and Yiddish. It was an amazing experience that I carry with me 40 years later. I didn’t realize it at the time but it was certainly a brush with a hero of history.

This week, the world lost perhaps one of the most important Jewish musicians of the 20th century: Debbie Friedman. And I lost a friend—as did so many of the other thousands of people she touched by her music and her inspiration.

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Torah Study in the Grocery Store

Recently we blogged about the increase of funding and interest from established Jewish organizations such as the Jewish Federations of North America in what we call Public Space Judaism. These organizations have finally recognized that the best way to meet and engage all those who are not affiliated with the Jewish community is by going to where they are and holding Jewish themed events in secular, public spaces. We often promote doing this around holidays like Passover or Hanukkah, when a majority of Jews, affiliated and unaffiliated, will be preparing to celebrate.

But a rabbi in Los Angeles decided that these events don’t need to be tethered to a holiday. For the past few months, Rabbi Dan Moskovitz has been holding Torah study sessions at a Whole Foods grocery store in Tarzana, “in the back near the bulk bins of nuts and trail mix.”

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Judaism in the Global Marketplace

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In today’s increasingly global age, different cultures share information and ideas more than they ever have before. This article in Newsweek about Chinese businesspeople using the Talmud as a business guide shows some rather unique results of Judaism in the “global marketplace of ideas.”

These stories give examples of how Jewish values can be interpreted by cultures all over the world that may have widely varying attitudes toward the Jewish people.

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Love the Differences

[Cross-posted from the Huffington Post]

There was an interesting article in the New York Times recently about a new way psychologists are thinking about what factors contribute to happy and sustainable marriages. While the words “Jewish” or “intermarriage” don’t appear anywhere in the piece, I couldn’t help but notice that these new findings relate directly to the huge rise in interfaith marriages during the past several decades.

What these psychologists have found is that the strongest relationships are those in which both partners feel they are growing and benefiting as individuals.

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You Don’t Look Jewish

The editors of Heeb Magazine have gained a reputation for pushing the envelope of Jewish satire, often to a degree which many find offensive. Others see them as a hip, anti-establishment publication that serves as a critical voice of mainstream Jewish America. Whatever your opinion may be, they have never been afraid to take on serious issues in an edgy and provocative manner.

Recently, they introduced a new feature on their website that takes on the issues of Jewish diversity and identity in a uniquely straightforward way.

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Register Now for JOI’s 2011 North American Conference

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What do we want the Jewish community to look like in 2030? How can we ensure that the timeless messages embedded in the Jewish tradition continue to resonate for future generations?

These are some of the biggest questions facing the Jewish community today. From May 23-24 in New York City, the Jewish Outreach Institute will bring together forward-thinking visionaries with on-the-ground practitioners from organizations across denominational and institutional lines to grapple with these questions and more at Judaism2030: A Working Conference for a Vibrant Jewish Future. Registration is now open and we invite you to join us as we tackle big ideas, such as what it will mean to be Jewish in 20 years and how can we better position our organizations and institutions to best respond to the changing landscape of Jewish life?

This two-day conference will explore four broad themes of Jewish life: Spirituality, Belonging, Globalism, and Peoplehood. Through in-depth discussions between Jewish communal professionals and some of the leading thinkers in the Jewish community, conference attendees will determine the practical steps we can take to ensure that we remain a vibrant and positive force in the world. Together, we will discover just what is necessary for our optimistic vision of a flourishing Jewish community to come true.

We invite you to visit our new conference website, explore the schedule and reserve your space today. We look forward to seeing you there!



Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and Treating Children of Intermarriage as Equals

This weekend, we were horrified to read of the brutal and senseless attack in Tucson, AZ that left numerous people dead and wounded. The target of the attack, Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, is reportedly still in critical condition, and we – along with the rest of the nation – are praying for a full recovery.

We had the pleasure of meeting and working with Rep. Giffords in 2007, when she co-chaired, with Adam Bronfman, our North American Conference in Washington, D.C. She spoke eloquently about her experience as a child of intermarriage who came back to Judaism as an adult. In both her personal and political life, she took up Jewish causes and never shied away from her background as a Jew. Jewish newspapers include her religion in headlines about the shooting tragedy, never questioning her status as a member of our community.

The website Jewschool.com noticed the collective acceptance of Gifford’s Jewish background, and a blogger with the moniker Kung Fu Jew wishes this standard of acceptance were applied to all children of intermarriage who are involved in the Jewish community, not just the ones who are famous.

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When is the Tipping Point?

Most people think of the tipping point as a single item that weights the scale and forces it in another direction. When Malcolm Gladwell coined the phrase “tipping point,” he was referring to a time when things coalesce to make a change evident. And, he added, that it was often difficult to discern the tipping point—and nearly impossible to do so in advance. It is kind of like a prophesy which is only certain when reading backwards in history.

So I have been thinking. Have we reached the tipping point in the Jewish community with regard to those on its periphery, particularly interfaith marriage? Have we reached a point in which those on the periphery are now moving towards the center? I thought that the beginning of a new secular year would be the best time to ask such a reflective question. And I would even boldly ask: can we take credit for any of it?

If so, what are some of the items that we can consider to have contributed over the last year to the tipping point?

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When Children of Intermarriage Move to Israel

Recently, there have been many articles delineating the obstacles placed in front of children born to interfaith parents who live in Israel. I understand the obstacles. I sympathize with them. At the same time, to think that the issue will disappear when you get to Israel is naïve. I would love for laws to change. I would love to find a way for my Judaism to be recognized, but more than that I would like people to not treat me like an anomaly.

In an op-ed posted last week on Ynetnews.com, Emily Bernstein, a child of interfaith marriage, powerfully states what we have heard again and again from children of interfaith marriage: Jewish children of intermarriage do not want to be treated differently or singled out.

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Condemning a Racist Statement

In December 2010, an Israeli organization called Lehava, whose aim is to “save the daughters of Israel from assimilation,” revved up a racist campaign against intermarriage. Over the course of a few days, Lehava organized a rally in the town of Bat Yam as well as a issued a public letter signed by 30 wives of highly-regarded Orthodox rabbis calling for the separation of Jewish girls and Arab men. As reported in Haaretz, their xenophobic statement includes the following:

Don’t date non-Jews, don’t work in the places where there are non-Jews, and don’t perform national service with non-Jews…There are no few Arab workers who use a Hebrew name. Yusuf turns into Yossi, Samir turns into Sami and Abed turns into Ami. They seek your company, try to get you to like them and give you all the attention in the world. But as soon as you’re in their hands, in their village, under their control, everything changes.

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Engaging Jewish Families in Secular Settings

It’s no secret that synagogue and institutional membership is down in the Jewish community. Many Jewish communal leaders look at this trend and begin to wonder – if people, especially younger families, aren’t joining synagogues or other traditional centers of Jewish life, how are they leading Jewish lives? And more importantly, how can we still engage with these folks outside of Jewish institutions?

According to an article in the Forward, Jewish organizations have developed a “new” strategy. Instead of waiting for these unaffiliated families – many of whom are intermarried – to walk through their doors, they are instead holding programs in secular venues in an effort to lower barriers and increase points of access to Jewish life. The article doesn’t put a name on the strategy, but we can. We call it Public Space Judaism, and it’s been a cornerstone of our outreach methodology for years.

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Build Your Own Haggadah

The two most celebrated holidays in the Jewish community are Hanukkah and Passover. Both are attractive to unaffiliated families and those on the periphery because they take place in the home, not the synagogue, and there is a lot of flexibility in how these holidays are celebrated. As we move from Hanukkah into the secular New Year, we also move closer to Passover. Though the holiday is still a few months away (it begins on the evening of April 18, 2011), we believe it’s never too early to start planning for your Passover celebration.

It turns out we are not alone in our eagerness. People can now visit the new website Haggadot.com to build their own Haggadah – including using numerous resources from JOI.

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A Little Small Talk with JOI

Lisa Robbins, director of outreach and engagement initiative “Let My People Know” at the
Tampa Jewish Community Center and Federation, recently spoke to JOI associate executive director Paul Golin about intermarriage and what the Jewish community can do to support intermarried families who are raising Jewish children.

The interview, which you can watch on YouTube, is a great starting point for anyone who wants to not only understand the work we do, but also understand why we feel so strongly that being open and inclusive toward intermarried families is vital to our future as a Jewish community.

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