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Weblog Entries for February 2011

Recognizing Jewish Identity across Denominations

Since 1983, when the Central Conference of American Rabbis (the Reform rabbinical body) passed a resolution accepting patrilineal descent, the debate surrounding “Who Is a Jew?” has persisted. Results of the change in policy have since exacerbated not just the differences between the Orthodox-dominated Israeli Rabbinate and the American Jewish liberal movements; it has also created a gulf between American Reform Judaism and most the Diaspora’s Reform movements. In only rare circumstances do progressive movements or congregations outside the United States accept patrilineal descent, according to this JTA article.

The Reform movement’s inability to coalesce around patrilineal descent and reconcile where modern Reform Judaism stands regarding “Who Is a Jew” has put communities across the globe in an unstable situation.

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Ensuring Jewish Heritage is passed from Generation to Generation

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JOI’s Grandparents Circle program and the book that inspired it, Twenty Things for Twenty Things for Grandparents of Interfaith Grandchildren to Do (And Not Do) to Nurture Jewish Identity in Their Grandchildren by Rabbi Kerry Olitzky and Paul Golin, provide practical ways for grandparents to share their Jewish heritage with their grandchildren who are products of interfaith relationships. From celebrating holidays to sharing Jewish memories, the program and book serve as important resources for grandparents who want to ensure their Judaism is passed down from generation to generation. But what happens to that Jewish heritage when parents pass away before their children have children? How can they ensure their future grandchildren will learn about their Jewish heritage?

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Shaping a Jewish Community that Welcomes All

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[Today’s blog entry comes to us from Esther Safran Foer, director of Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in Washington DC. She will be leading a session at our upcoming conference on what we can do to re-think traditional membership models at Jewish institutions. Click Here to learn more about Esther and to preview the rest of our exciting schedule!]

You wanna go where people know,
people are all the same,
You wanna go where everybody knows your name.

- Cheers lyrics

Belonging is a basic human desire, but attaining that sense of feeling welcome in a place – be it a bar or a synagogue – can often feel like maneuvering a complex maze. I am excited to participate in Judaism 2030 because of its progressive and future-oriented approach to shaping a Jewish community that welcomes all. That’s no small feat, and I’m honored to be part of a dynamic group of Jewish community professionals who are committed to breaking down barriers and building up tolerance.

As the director of a non-denominational, non-membership, non-traditional synagogue, I’ll share the positive outcomes I’ve witnessed both on macro and micro levels within a congregation without borders, including greater cooperation among area synagogues and Jewish institutions and enhanced feelings of belonging among young people who find affiliation on their terms. Communities have their own personality just as individuals do. Living Jewishly in Washington, DC looks and feels different than engaging with Jewish culture in Boulder, CO, but there are tenets of peoplehood that defy geography. I am eager to share what I have learned about what can unite us all, while still carving out our own unique interpretations of Jewish community.



In Memoriam: Michael Rukin

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JOI was deeply saddened to hear about the recent passing of our friend and supporter, Michael Rukin. As past chair of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Boston, he was known for his dedication to social justice, particularly in the area of inclusion and welcoming towards intermarried families.

Michael served as co-chair for JOI’s 2005 National Conference in Atlanta, and gave a rousing keynote address that included a discussion of his own family’s personal experience with intermarriage and a call for the Jewish community to break away from old modes of thinking. He implored the community to look for the truth where it actually is, in the great potential of intermarried families to create Jewish homes and strengthen our community. He was a true champion of the cause for greater inclusion.

His deep commitment to Jewish communal life served as an inspiration to all who knew him, and his vision for a vibrant Jewish future will continue to motivate countless others, including JOI, to create a Jewish community that truly welcomes all who approach.



The Grandparents Circle in Baltimore

At JOI, we do our best to measure the success of our various programs, which have been implemented in over 100 communities in the US and Canada. It’s easy to track the hard data to show our growth. Over 1,000 women have graduated the 8-month Mothers Circle course since the programs inception, we’ve trained thousands of Jewish communal professionals on outreach best practices, and our Big Tent Judaism Coalition has grown to include over 450 institutions worldwide.

But our work isn’t just about numbers – it’s also about the people we serve.

Barbara Pash, associate editor of the Baltimore Jewish Times, wrote a wonderful piece for Interfaithfamily.com that shows how participants in our Grandparents Circle program (for Jewish grandparents whose adult children have intermarried) in Baltimore, have been able to use the tools they learned to help nurture – and in some cases establish – the Jewish identity of their grandchildren.

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March 4 is the National Day of Unplugging

Technology seems to move faster and faster. Social media has made it possible to share information instantly while cell phones allow us to be reachable anytime and anywhere. Yet even as we increase our connectivity, it sometimes feels like we are losing our connectedness—to the people and places in our lives. Now more than ever, we have an opportunity to encourage people to step back, slow down, and embrace the beauty of Shabbat, a day of rest.

That’s why the Jewish Outreach Institute is proud to partner with Reboot for its National Day of Unplugging. For 24 hours, starting at sundown Friday March 4, 2011, people across the nation will reclaim time, slow down their lives and reconnect with friends, family, the community and themselves. Though based on Jewish traditions, the day can be enjoyed by anyone, regardless of background. Click Here to learn more about the National Day of Unplugging and to sign up individually for the challenge.

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Who do YOU Love? (And what the Jewish Community can do about it!)

We are fortunate to live in a time when most Americans can be open about who they choose as their life partner. With the recent Valentine’s Day holiday just behind us (though not an official Jewish holiday, or perhaps even an American one, still many Jews celebrate it), we see many loving partners who are able to openly rejoice in their love. Yet in the Jewish community, we still see couples and families who are not fully accepted. Many interfaith, LGBT, and mixed-heritage couples and families in the Jewish community still confront obstacles as they build a future together. And as we enter the second decade of the 21st century, it is vital that we ensure that the organized Jewish community reaches out to these populations to encourage their participation in Jewish life.

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Including Those with Financial Challenges

[Cross-posted from eJewishPhilanthropy.com]

At any given time, the majority of US Jewish households are not affiliated with Jewish institutions like synagogues or JCCs. There are many reasons why, perhaps the most important being that the organized community hasn’t made a strong enough case for the meaning and value of being affiliated. There’s a subset of the unaffiliated, however, who already understand the meaning and value—or who, like most affiliated households, simply want or need the services provided—but do not affiliate because of their own personal financial situations. And the size of this subset has likely grown during the recent Great Recession. What can the Jewish community do to make sure that a financial challenge is not the reason keeping an individual from affiliating?

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Shaping the Jewish Community of the Future

Even as a loving critic, I am a fan of many, if not most, Jewish communal institutions. I participate in them, I support them, and I encourage members of my family to do the same. Because I believe in the Jewish community and am optimistic about its future, I want these institutions to survive and succeed although I also realize that most of them will have to change and adapt—if they are to do so—in order to respond to the nearly exponential challenges being thrust upon them daily in anticipation of the generations ahead of us.

Some of these institutions are well positioned to nurture Jewish identity. And many of them do so very well.

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The Influence of Jewish Grandparents

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Years ago, if an interfaith couple decided to marry, the Jewish community gave up on them. If the non-Jewish partner did not convert prior to the wedding, Jewish leaders often bade the couple “adieu” and mourned the supposed loss of the couple and their future children.

While this approach may remain the same in some circles of the Jewish community, many Jewish leaders have learned that rejecting those who have intermarried is a recipe for failure—for Jewish continuity and its future growth. Through the Reform and Reconstructionist Movements’ acceptance of patrilineal descent, local efforts across the nation to “open the tent,” and JOI’s training of community leaders and welcoming of those of other religious backgrounds through The Mothers Circle and Grandparents Circle, the Jewish community has begun to witness how proactive outreach will lead to stronger Jewish identity for the children born to intermarried parents.

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Passover in the Matzah Aisle is on its way to your Local Grocery Store

Each year, JOI works with Jewish communities throughout North America to help create entry-points to Jewish life around Passover! Through Passover in the Matzah Aisle SM, a program that brings a taste of Passover to local supermarkets, JOI helps synagogues, Jewish community centers, Jewish federations, schools, and more engage individuals and families shopping for Passover foods and provide them with low-barrier Passover information and samples of traditional Passover foods!

This year, communities implementing the program will not only have access to JOI’s exciting resources to help shoppers take Passover beyond the Matzah (including sample activities, tastings, recipes, and more), but they will also have access to new resources specially geared towards families with young children.

And it’s not too late to get involved!

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Engaging Baby Boomers in Jewish Life

As we contemplate the Jewish future and think about how to engage the next generation, it is important for us to keep in mind that people of all ages play a vital part in shaping the Jewish community. Jewish organizations tend to focus on families with young children, assuming that engaging young people will lead to a vibrant and flourishing community in the future. However, this focus often comes at the expense of devoting time and resources to those who are already engaged in the community, the so-called Baby Boomer generation.

Baby Boomers (those born after World War II, between 1946 and 1964) make up approximately a quarter of the Jewish communal population in the United States. Because many are retired or independent, they have more control over their time, much of it is discretionary, and they have a lifetime of experience to share with the Jewish community. As Paula Jacobs, the author of this article in the (New York) Jewish Week explains, Baby Boomers are hungry for Jewish engagement.

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Tomorrows Generation of Leaders Helping to Make an Inclusive Jewish Community Today

Allison Lazarus, a Bronfman Youth Fellowship in Israel alumna, is helping to ensure the continuity of the Jewish people. Allison, who participated in the intensive five-week trip to Israel for high school students in 2009, recently created a brochure for her synagogue with advice for intermarried couples raising Jewish children. As reported in Bronfmanim: The Alumni Magazine of the Bronfman Youth Fellowships, Allison felt motivated after participating in the Fellowship program to make the Jewish community more inclusive: “I really wanted to make young families feel more secure, and to open a place for conversation with no agenda of a certain level of Jewish literacy.”

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Black Jewish History Month

Last month we celebrated Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, which prompted a response from too much of the organized Jewish community that, to the uninformed observer, might suggest we mistakenly believe the holiday is called “Abraham Joshua Heschel Day.” Yes, a rabbi walked arm-in-arm with MLK. Yes, “Mississippi Burning” was about the murder of three heroic young political activists including two Jews. And yes, Jews contributed disproportionately to the fight for Civil Rights in America—but only disproportionate to other white ethnicities. Our contributions paled in compared to the suffering, triumphs, and ongoing struggles of the African-American community, for whom the holiday should rightly focus and celebrate.

The Jewish community’s MLK Day internal congratulations seems to grow louder with each passing year, telling the story of “how we were involved” rather than just telling the story. More importantly, there is almost no soul searching on how the “historic coalition” between black and Jews has been battered beyond recognition in the ensuing decades since that partnership, with tensions continuing to this day.

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The High Cost of Being Jewish

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To be engaged in the Jewish community is expensive. Duh! This is especially true if one takes advantage of the identity-fostering and community-building frameworks in which we are all encouraged to participate. Synagogue membership. JCC membership. Federation campaigns. Enrollment in Jewish education. Summer camp. Youth group. Trips to Israel. The list goes on. For some people, the expense is a convenient excuse, especially over the last couple of years of economic uncertainty. For others, the high cost of being Jewish is a financial barrier over which they are unable to cross. And perhaps it is not about the cost at all. Rather, it is about the cost-benefit, the onus of which to prove is on the organizations and institutions, something that has been assiduously avoided—with the possible exception of its unfortunate and incorrect relationship to intermarriage. Moreover, we are on the road to creating an elitist Jewish community—if we aren’t already there—a road from which we will be unable to retreat.

Some noble institutions are working hard to lower the barrier by providing scholarships. This has been particularly noticeable in the Jewish camp movement, notably led by the Foundation for Jewish Camp and its One Happy Camper (first time camper scholarship) program. There are also various initiatives with regard to reduced day school tuition. And recently, we launched our own initiative called “There is No Shame in Asking” to help make the connection between institutions that have financial aid programs and those who need it but may be uncomfortable in asking for assistance. And we will be addressing the economics of Jewish life by applying economic theory during our upcoming conference Judaism2030. (Register now since there are limited spaces available.)

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Trying to Define Jewish Peoplehood

There have been many “faddish” words in the language of institutional Judaism, writes Dr. Erica Brown in a recent article for the [New York] Jewish Week. These words include “continuity,” “renaissance,” and “solidarity.” Each one “enjoyed their philological heyday in taglines and fundraising campaigns.” But a current buzzword, she writes, deserves more attention and a real definition: “Peoplehood.”

As co-author of the book “The Case for Jewish Peoplehood: Can We Be One,”(Jewish Lights Publishing; $21.99) Brown isn’t sure if the word “peoplehood” is yet a “real word” for the Jewish community. Does it refer to nationality, ethnicity, or faith? And why is it such a relevant word today when talking about identity and affiliation in Jewish life?

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The Limmud Phenomenon

Limmud-UK recently celebrated its 25th anniversary. At the time of its founding, there were no other country-wide events that catered to Jews of all kinds. The only American institution that mirrored the Limmud-UK experience was the recently departed CAJE. As a matter of fact, many of the early presenters (and performers) at CAJE also presented at Limmud-UK. And while the annual CAJE conference purported to be a conference for educators, pedagogy was probably dwarfed by Jewish education in the largest sense of the word.

There were attempts to model Limmud-UK even before the demise of CAJE. For example, a group of young educators and communal leaders in New York created Lishma, a similar kind of experience that lasted for a few years. Then CAJE went out of business. (I do acknowledge the noble effort of those who are forming NewCAJE.)

Now Limmud represents just about the only effort that is transdenominational and cuts across community lines around the country.

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Bar and Bat Mitzvah Lessons Online

Preparing for a bar or bat mitzvah can be a daunting challenge for many in the Jewish community, particularly those who aren’t fully engaged in Jewish life. Not only are the logistics demanding, trying to squeeze in lessons between other extra-curricular activities, but the lessons themselves are intensive. A young man or woman is expected to gain a certain level of proficiency in Hebrew, to a level where they can comfortably read from the Torah. The barriers are high for almost any family in the Jewish community, perhaps enough to keep some from even choosing to participate in this important life-cycle event.

A new website, launched by a 3rd year rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary, aims to lower these barriers by offering bar and bat mitzvah tutoring lessons online. The website MyBarMitzvahTutors.com (and MyBatMitzvahTutors.com) is an interactive resource that “allows for learning to take place in the comfort of your own home.”

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Approaching a Jewish Institution for the First Time

How did you take that first step towards greater participation in Jewish life? What happened when you did? We invite you to share your stories – whether good or bad – in the comments section below so that Jewish communal professionals and volunteer leaders can hear directly from the people they seek to serve, and devise even better ways to meet your needs.





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