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Weblog Entries for March 2011

How Can Day Schools Lower Their Economic Barriers?

One of the chronic problems facing the Jewish community is the high cost associated with being an engaged Jew. There are synagogue dues, membership fees for Jewish organizations and JCCs, and some Jews truly “break the bank” by sending their children to Jewish day schools. In the pursuit of endowing their children with a well-rounded secular and Jewish education, parents of Jewish day school students spend an average of $15,000 per year per child. While parents are usually satisfied with the education and the “frills” that the schools provide (like arts education, state-of-the-art technology, and small classroom sizes), some are finding that the economic toll is too burdensome and unsustainable in the present economy.

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Young People and the Jewish Community of Tomorrow

We at JOI are extremely interested in how the teenagers of today envision the Jewish future of tomorrow. At our upcoming conference on May 23 and 24 in New York, we will be hosting a panel of Jewish teenagers who will share their vision of a vibrant future for Judaism.

However, we are not the only ones giving voice to the young about their own future. In April, the Milken Community High School will host a conference of its own about the Jewish future. This conference, which focuses on spirituality, will include student ideas for projects such as trips for baby boomers to Israel, a kosher food truck for college campuses, and fashion shows to support Jewish causes. These projects are thoughtful, and they encompass a wide variety of creative ideas.
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Accommodating Those with Financial Challenges: a Webinar Recap

Last week, Jewish communal professionals and volunteer leaders from over twenty Big Tent Judaism organizations “gathered” for an important webinar conversation. The topic? Accommodating people with financial needs who want to affiliate with Jewish institutions. While we could have engaged in many kinds of conversations about the high costs of Jewish life, and hope to in the future, this particular webinar focused on how Jewish communal organizations can better communicate their existing discounts and policies for financial accessibility to engage those who are actually seeking to participate or join. We believe that there are many folks out there who do want to engage, but simply don’t know about or are embarrassed to ask for financial assistance.

When JOI works with a community to maximize its outreach potential we begin with a comprehensive scan of each organization’s policies and communication strategies. More often than not, we find that special rates, discounts, and other policies for financial accessibility exist, but are unpublicized (often unintentionally). A potential newcomer to Jewish life is often required to bravely expose his or her financial status and desire for help up front, in order to find out about such discounts or special rates on programs and institutional membership. We believe that to truly welcome all newcomers, the Jewish community must reveal and consistently communicate the message “we welcome people of all financial means.” As our Purim-inspired Big Tent Judaism campaign encouraged, “There is no shame in asking,” because a Big Tent Jewish organization welcomes people of all financial means, and proactively communicates that message.

Together on our webinar, we began by exploring a variety of policies and initiatives with regard to financial accessibility for programs and membership. We heard from Jewish communal professionals about fair share systems, free membership marathons, special rates for different age groups, and free High Holiday experiences. While many participating organization have policies in place, others are just beginning to embark on establishing guidelines, and appreciated learning from the experiences of their peers.

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Let’s support the non-Jewish Jewish Communal Professionals too

Much of the conversation in the Jewish community with regard to those who are not Jewish is about intermarriage. The conversation evolves around this question: What roles can those who are not Jewish and yet married into the Jewish community play in the Jewish community? We at the Jewish Outreach Institute believe that the role of these folks is significant, but the Jewish community has to be more welcoming and supportive in order for such roles to make a difference and have the impact we all desire. And while we know that it is more than just welcoming (since our recommended approach includes a lot more than just welcoming), there is an insufficient amount of that too.

In some corners of the community, there is also a discussion about those participants who aren’t Jewish who take advantage of what the Jewish community has to offer. These include those who might join the Jewish Community Center because of its superb fitness facilities or camp. Or those who might send their children to a Jewish preschool because of the reputation it enjoys in the community. These are what we often call “community non-Jews,” those who have no family link to the Jewish community.

But there is a third category that it is time to consider—those who are not Jewish who are put into places of education and influence in the community, such as preschool teachers and camp counselors. I think that it is time to make sure that we provide a program of education for this group of people who are helping to extend our efforts in securing a Jewish community, particularly for the generation in front of us.



The Power of Jewish Baby Boomers Now and in the Future

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On January 1, 2011, the oldest baby boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964, hit retirement age. Nearly 77 million Americans constitute this demographic. That’s a lot of people! And as they retire, they will have a lot of time available and will hopefully be looking for meaningful endeavors in this new stage of their lives. The coming generation of baby boomers is healthier, wealthier and more mobile than preceding generations, and they have tremendous potential to share much needed experiences they learned from their fields of expertise. The Jewish community can’t afford to miss the opportunity to find ways to tap into this resource and ensure they stay involved in Jewish life.

Though much of the focus on outreach work is on younger generations, we need to make sure we are meeting the needs of Jewish baby boomers by recognizing how they want to participate in the Jewish community in retirement and providing meaningful outlets for engagement. How we can do this is just one of the many topics we will be covering at our upcoming conference, Judaism2030: A Working Conference for a Vibrant Jewish Future.

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A Different Kind of Israel Trip

I have just returned from Israel. And while I have been blessed to travel to Israel many times, almost on an annual basis, sometimes even more frequently, this trip had a special purpose: we sampled wineries, ate gourmet food, luxuriated in the country’s finest spas, and stayed in the newest of hotels. And, of course, we also spent Shabbat at some special synagogues that provide a unique spiritual experience for those who are so inclined.

Some looked askance when I showed them our itinerary and invited them to join us. “How can you go to Israel that way? You have to go to Yad Vashem and what about the absorption centers?” The list went on. Even the travel agents were skeptical and kept making irrelevant suggestions. (Israel Celebration Tours and my friend Rabbi Lee Diamond got it and helped with the logistics.) But I had another goal in mind. I wanted to show people another side of Israel, the side that few people see when traveling on missions. And just as we frequently do at JOI, I wanted to demonstrate to those who organize such trips that a paradigm shift is necessary if you want to attract the unengaged, as well as maintain the interest of those who are already engaged.

The trip brought the members of the group closer together. At the same time, the group bonded more closely with Israel, without the “in your face” manipulated heartstrings approach. Israel can speak for itself if we let her. And that is just what we did.



Hebrew Charter Schools and the Jewish Community

In recent years, there has been an explosion of “charter” schools in America. One such school is the Hebrew Language Academy, a “Hebrew language charter school” that provides its students with a bilingual education in Hebrew and English. This interview in Tablet with the school’s Executive Director, Aaron Listhaus, explains the school’s mission and educational philosophy.

According to Listhaus, the goal of the school is “to uncouple Hebrew from Judaism.” While the Hebrew Language Academy’s history program includes an emphasis on global Jewish history in addition to the bilingual Hebrew-English curriculum, it does not include any religious subjects such as Bible or Talmud. The school is open to students of any religious affiliation, and the emphasis is on “having an excellent school” for students of all backgrounds, including students who speak neither Hebrew nor English as a first language.
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What will the Jewish future look like?

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Twenty years go by in a flash. Things we only dreamed of are now a reality. Just take a look at this AT &T advertisement from 1993. Who would have imagined video-conferencing, automatic toll-booth payment (EZ Pass as we now know it!), GPS systems, on-demand TV, voice recognition, Skype, etc. The list goes on and on. AT&T made some amazingly accurate predications.

There have been many predictions about what Jewish life will look like in the next 20 years. At JOI, we envision a Jewish community that welcomes all and encourages engagement in Jewish life. To help turn this vision into a reality, JOI will convene Judaism2030: A Working Conference for a Vibrant Jewish Future on May 23-24, 2011 in New York City.

We will explore major trends that will inform the Jewish future. On May 23, Dr. Marvin Cetron, one of the preeminent forecaster-futurists in the world, will present the results of his recent study, What the Future Will Look Like (And Questions for the Jewish Community.)

How does technology afford more ways of belonging to the Jewish community? Does globalism broaden or threaten Jewish identity in the global marketplace? What are the new definitions of peoplehood that will foster a more diverse and inclusive Jewish community in the future? These are just a few of the profound questions we will be asking at the conference. We invite you to come prepared with your own questions and ideas as well!

Register now to join forward-thinking visionaries and on-the ground practitioners from organizations across denominational and institutional lines to explore and develop the necessary steps to creating a vibrant Jewish future. Space is limited so don’t miss this opportunity to be part of this important conversation!



Two Conversations about the Jewish Community

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There seem to be two conversations going on in the Jewish community today. They seem juxtaposed to one another, but because they exist in almost parallel universes, the likelihood of considering them together seems kind of remote. However, if we are to think seriously about the Jewish community of the future, we have to do so. What are these two conversations?

The first: who or what is a Jew? This is the conversation around the parameters for being Jewish or, at least, for being part of the Jewish community.The second: how do we engage people who are currently not affiliated with the organized Jewish community? Today, this is focused primarily on the so-called “twenty-somethings.” Sometimes it is about the millenials. And at times, it is even about the boomers. But there is a bit of irony in the fact that we are having these two conversations concurrently. How can we be worried about who is in and who is out and, at the same time, voice concerns about engagement?

It would seem to me that the issues of engagement would be less difficult if we were not so preoccupied with who is in and who is out. Just a thought.



JOI Welcomes New Board President

During the Jewish Outreach Institute’s two decades of organizational history, we’ve been blessed to have visionary and dedicated volunteer leaders. We are thrilled that this trend continues with the recent election of Mitchell Shames to President, as reported by the Boston Globe:

Shames said he hopes to build on the institute’s work by spearheading a national campaign that will include partnering with more Jewish institutions and Jewish professionals, and also non-Jewish groups and institutions, and have more people at local levels act as welcoming guides towards Judaism. “We really want to be the national leader in this area,’’ he said.

As the article points out, Mitchell Shames has been a leader in creating a more inclusive Jewish community for intermarried families, both with his long-time service to JOI and also in his local Greater Boston community. He received the Young Leadership Award for his volunteer leadership with Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP), the Boston Federation. Friends of JOI know that we often point to Boston, and particularly CJP under the leadership of Barry Shrage, as a wonderful example for other communities interested in creating greater inclusion for all those on the periphery of Jewish life. At a time when many Jewish communities are fearful about shrinking numbers, the Boston Jewish community has grown in size, thanks to its prioritization of outreach, inclusive marketing, and tremendous educational and communal programming.

With Mitchell’s guidance and passion for our cause, we at JOI are confident that we’ll continue to encourage the larger Jewish community toward greater inclusion for all those who would be a part of our tradition, particularly intermarried families, and help more people find a way in. We are also grateful to retain the enthusiasm and expertise of our immediate past-President Alan Kane, who now serves as JOI Chairman, and our past Chairman Eugene Grant, who serves as Chairman Emeritus. We are thankful for their leadership.



Judaism’s Future in a Post-Ethnic World

The Jewish magazine, Sh’ma, recently published a series of articles concerning the viability of the Jewish people in a post-ethnic America. Can Judaism thrive as its apparent ethnicity breaks down? Shaul Magid argues in “Be the Jew You Make: Jews, Judaism, and Jewishness in Post-Ethnic America,” that ethnicity is becoming voluntary as people reject the notion of “descent as destiny.” No longer do many of us identify as the ethnicity of our grandfathers. According to Magid, in this world of voluntary ethnicity, in which people might choose to be part of the “chosen people,” the construct of Judaism and Jewish peoplehood will continue to evolve and thrive. Referencing the website, Jewcy.com, where the majority of its staff is the product of intermarriage, Magid stakes a claim that voluntary ethnicity is allowing Judaism or Jewishness to be reconstructed as a “reflection and expression of their multiple identities.” Despite the “cultural and creative renaissance” of Jewish America, these contributors to Jewcy.com are not defined by a Jewishness that is “exclusively ethnic.” They actively want to be a part of the community and construct Jewish identity for themselves – just as every ethnicity is wrestled with today. Most importantly, Magid understands that the evolution of Jewish civilization does not (nor has it ever) existed in a vacuum; Judaism has adopted traditions and practices of the dominant culture.

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Reclaiming Goy

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Here at JOI, we regularly condemn terms like shiksa and goy for their historically derogatory use in the Jewish community. But, sometimes, the very terms we work so hard to eliminate from the community’s dialogue prove to be empowering. Writing in Tablet, Stephen Marche, a non-Jewish man married to a Jewish woman writes:

Fearing intermarriage is like fearing weather, equally pointless and silly. It is much better to prepare. We are seeing the emergence of a category of gentile that is historically unique: millions of non-Jews who are attached to Jews but not affiliated with Jews. The emergence of a large group of these attached goys (goyim, to be precise) is a highly significant social development, an unprecedented development even, and it raises obvious questions: Who are the goys? What do we mean? And, of course, are we good for the Jews?

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Defining Outreach as a Methodology

As our board of directors has just approved a new strategic plan for JOI, it behooves us to consider the intentional and creative tension between general outreach for engagement and outreach to specific populations—such as intermarried couples and their families. Some may argue that there is confusion, especially if you look at the many program models we have developed over the years. Since it all makes sense to me, I thought that I would try to explain it.

Outreach at JOI has always been a method and never a target population. It has always been about going wherever people are or, as we like to say, where people are at. This is both a physical notion—bringing programs to where people actually are: in the shopping mall, for example. But it is also a metaphysical notion, developing programs to meet the specific needs of individual populations. However, it has never been about imposing upon people what we think they need.

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Perspectives on Jewish Identity

Sh’ma, a Journal of Jewish Responsibility, has devoted an entire issue to exploring one of the most significant topics in Judaism today: Jewish identity. This notion is important because it covers some of the biggest questions we seem to continually grapple with in the Jewish community. Who is a Jew? What do Jews look like? What does it mean to belong? What is Jewish peoplehood? As we see it, the future landscape of the Jewish community as a whole rests on our ability to find answers to these questions and forge a path that will lead us to an optimistic Jewish future.

The essays in Sh’ma explore a wide range of opinion and experience. You might agree with some of the sentiments, you might disagree with others. But devoting an entire issue to Jewish identity opens the door for some thoughtful discussions on how the Jewish community is perceived by various segments of the population. They even include a discussion guide, with questions like: What does “Jewish” look like, and how do our own stereotypes limit our openness to and welcoming of a wider array of Jews? What should joining the Jewish people require? How does one become Jewish?

These are exactly the kind of questions we should be asking ourselves as we move into a future that will increasingly include more intermarried families, children of intermarriage, mixed-heritage Jews, and other minority groups. At our upcoming conference, Judaism2030, we will bring together forward thinking visionaries with on-the-ground practitioners to talk about all of these issues and more. As we grow more diverse, what will the future look like? What are the steps we can take to ensure a vibrant Jewish future? We invite you to join us and bring your perspective on what we can do to help grow the Jewish community of tomorrow.



Recognizing the Multiple Ways of Being Jewish

The Jewish community has spent a lot of time creating binary oppositions as a way to categorize and organize the Jewish people. Someone is an insider or an outsider, affiliated or unaffiliated, Jew or non-Jew. But how legitimate are these oppositions, and are they still relevant in a world in which there are so many different ways of identifying with the Jewish community?

Writing in the Forward, Rabbi Susan P. Fendrick, a senior research associate at the Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education at Brandeis University, believes we need to move beyond “yes or no” distinctions in Judaism. “We need language that is both precise and expansive, naming and reflecting the multiple ways that people are and aren’t Jewish,” she writes. “Not only to avoid hurt and alienation, but to name and see our Jewish world, and the people in it, as they are.”

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The Strength of a Unified Voice

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For a number of weeks, we have heard rumors that the various bodies of the Reconstructionist movement would be joining forces to become one entity. Some folks will blame it on economic pressure. Others will suggest that it makes sense—and it makes no sense for the various arms of any movement to be separate. So the merger of sorts was recently voted upon and now it is official. And while the Reform movement historically boasted of its strength coming from three strong separate and independent arms (URJ-the laity; CCAR-the rabbis; and HUC-JIR-the academic center), there is a movement in the works to bring these organizations together under one roof in New York, ostensibly to save on overhead and expenses. No news from the Conservative front on this issue, although we have seen in the Conservative movement’s new strategic plan that any institution can join the USCJ (no need to be a Conservative synagogue any longer to do so.)

As an organization that is grappling with what the Jewish community will look like in the future—(That is what our upcoming conference is all about. Check out www.Judaism 2030.org for details and registration.)—it is important to try to understand what the decision of the Reconstructionists really represents on the wider landscape of the North American Jewish community.

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