Weblog Entries for April 2011

Annual Top 50 Rabbis List

For the fifth time in as many years, Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky, Executive Director of the Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI), was named as one of the 50 Most Influential Rabbis in the United States in Newsweek Magazine’s April 17th issue. The compilers of the list describe why he was selected:

If there’s one rabbi who keeps nudging the tent open, it’s Olitzky, director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, which speaks chiefly to interfaith and unaffiliated families. Among his central messages is that Jewish institutions should worry less about preventing intermarriage and more about introducing all couples – Jewish or interfaith – to the benefits of raising children with a vital Jewish life.

Under Kerry’s leadership, JOI has continued to develop new programs that identify the needs of those who feel excluded from the Jewish community. The Mothers Circle program ensures that women of other backgrounds raising Jewish children have the information and resources necessary to help them create a Jewish home. The Mothers Circle is just one example of the many unique educational programs offered by JOI.

During the past year, JOI launched a strategic plan that will take us on an exciting path to reach tens of thousands of intermarried families and unengaged Jews and encourage their participation in Jewish life. We are proud of Kerry’s dedication to JOI’s cause to transform the Jewish community into a more welcoming and inclusive space for all in our midst.

Predicting the Jewish Future

My teacher, Jacob Rader Marcus, of blessed memory, published his first book in 1934. It was called “The Rise and Destiny of the German Jew” in which he predicted the further flowering and expansion of the German Jewish community. There was no reason to think otherwise. Then Hitler came to power.

Following that failed venture into futurism, Dr. Marcus restricted his work to the past and mostly to the American Jewish community which he felt was filled with promise and an unprecedented breath of optimism and hope for the Jewish future. As a matter of fact, most scholars credit him with the creation of the field of American Jewish history and affectionately referred to him as its longtime “dean.” (But we used to call him “the chief.”)

While I hesitate to prognosticate about the future, having learned my teacher’s lesson well, I feel that there are many things that have to be said about it nonetheless, especially if we are going to have a hand in shaping it. (That is one of the reasons why the Jewish Outreach Institute is calling its next conference Judaism2030.) And so I have some questions to ask, even if I don’t have all the answers. It is clear that the Jewish community in which many of us were raised, and spent large parts of our professional careers, and in which we raised our children, will look little like the Jewish community in which our grandchildren will be raised. Some of the extant organizations and institutions will remain. Many others will cease to exist, merge with other organizations, be absorbed. As the landscape changes for these institutions, so will it change for the Jewish communal professionals who are being trained to lead them and work in them.


When a Macaroon Opens a Door

As Passover’s midpoint approaches, the holiday’s signature crunchy side, main, and everything-else dish may already be wearing out its welcome at some of our tables. So I invite those of us who might be counting the days until matzah reclaims its place in gastronomic memory to focus on the transformative potential of matzah and other Passover foods. Here at JOI, we use Passover as a time to help Jewish communities throughout North America provide a portal of entry to Jewish life for those who are not connected to their local Jewish community. Specifically, JOI does this through its Passover in the Matzah Aisle program which trains Jewish communal professionals and volunteers to bring a taste of local Jewish life to local grocery stores to meet people where they are. In this setting, a literal taste of traditional Passover foods becomes the first step towards Jewish connection. The following story on the transformative potential of the traditional Passover foods (the macaroon in this case) comes from Isabel Balotin. As the Jewish Federation of Jacksonville’s Shalom Jacksonville Coordinator, Isabel brings JOI’s Public Space Judaism model to her programming throughout the year.

“Ella Nussbaum* never misses an opportunity to help someone. As one of Shalom Jacksonville volunteers for our Passover in the Matzah Aisle SM program at Winn-Dixie, Ella struck up a conversation with a young man as he approached our table to sample a macaroon. In a most friendly way, she asked him if he had a place to go for seder. He responded that he was Jewish but his wife wasn’t Jewish and they would be in Paris during the holiday. (more…)

Creating New Passover Traditions

Passover begins tonight at sunset. Passover is among the most widely celebrated Jewish holidays in North America, and the vast majority of those in the Jewish community will attend a seder, or ritual meal, some time during the holiday. However, Jews are not alone in celebrating Passover anymore. Because of intermarriage and conversion, because of the entry of Judaism into the marketplace of American ideas, and because we live our lives well-integrated with our neighbors, there are many people of other backgrounds who will be attending, and even planning, Passover seders this year.

The holiday of Passover is about communal memory. In the Bible, the Israelites are instructed to remember that God brought them out of Egypt. Part of this “remembering” is through the way in which Passover and seder rituals are handed down through families from generation to generation. A family’s seder may feature different songs, different haggadot (the written guide to the seder), and a different traditional menu, but they will share the experience nonetheless.

The Essential Message of Passover

Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, JOI’s executive director, wrote several beautiful pieces for the spring issue of The Orchard, a publication of the Jewish Federations of North America Rabbinic Cabinet. The first piece explains why weekly Torah readings are suspended for Passover and why the biblical Song of Songs is read and studied:

The inclusion of the Song of Songs allows us to participate in both the collective experience of the journey, while understanding that our collective experience reflects the sum total of all of our individual journeys. While the people traveled together in the desert, few of our personal journeys follow the same paths. But the Passover experience teaches us that there is room for all of our individual journeys. That is part of the inclusive nature of the Passover experience. And perhaps why so many among the Jewish community-and beyond-see the universal message of Passover as something that speaks to them.

The second piece is entitled, Welcoming the Stranger in our Midst. He reminds us that Jewish sacred tradition directs us to welcome “strangers” in our midst because we understand what it was like to be strangers when we were scattered to all the nations of the world. That, to us, is one of the most important messages in the Passover holiday.

Who’s Missing from our Passover Seder?

It’s that wonderful time of year again. Spring is in the air (or getting there!). Many of us feel blessed to have family and friends to gather around the Passover Seder table. But what about those who might also benefit from being around the table? What can we do to make sure they have the opportunity to participate in the Passover experience?

The Big Tent Judaism Coalition has created a special reading (as a downloadable PDF) to recite during the Seder ritual when the door is open for Elijah:

We open our door to receive the herald of a new age. But we don’t just open the door for Elijah. We open it so that all who are hungry may come and eat, all who seek connection to a meaningful heritage may come and learn, and all our friends and family may find welcoming hearts and open arms in our holiday celebration.

The Big Tent Judaism Coalition is a movement of over 450 Jewish communal organizations across institutional and denominational lines who seek a more inclusive and welcoming Jewish community. Learn more here.

In keeping with that theme, Birthright Israel NEXT invited selected Jewish organizations to offer a “fifth question” to add to the Seder – one that will inspire us to make Passover meaningful for today’s Jewish world. JOI’s fifth question is:

On this night we celebrate proud Jewish traditions with friends and family, but who else in our lives might find meaning and value in our Passover Seder that we haven’t yet invited to join us?

Click here to read more about why we feel that question is worth asking.

As we celebrate this year, be mindful of the inclusive nature of the Passover experience. Welcome the stranger and rejoice together in the beauty of the holiday. Best wishes for a meaningful Passover!

When the Jewish Spouse in an Intermarriage Dies

There has been discussion in the community with regard to the burial of a non-Jewish spouse in the context of a Jewish interfaith marriage. We have blogged about it here. And there has been discussion about the raising of Jewish children following a divorce among an intermarried couple, particularly when the divorce is acrimonious and the children are used as religio-political pawns in the battle for control. But there has been little said about what happens to the non-Jewish spouse in a Jewish community when the Jewish spouse dies. This is particularly challenging for someone who has raised Jewish children, made the Jewish community his or her home and then finds him/herself alone as someone who is not Jewish, as someone who may not be entitled to membership in a particular organization (especially a synagogue) as a single (with grown children). What should be done as a community to reach out and welcome in this individual who has already been in our midst for a long time, who has raised Jewish children, who has demonstrably contributed to the Jewish future but for reasons of his/her own, has chosen not to convert to Judaism?

Just as the issues that have arisen concerning burial have accelerated as the population of interfaith couples grows—and grows older—it is time that we address this issue. For us at JOI, the issue is quite simple. Let’s just open our tents wide enough to make sure that these folks who have been part of our community all along are not pushed out or pushed away. Let’s make the changes in membership policy now to include them.

Complex Associations between Marriage and Conversion

Jews-by-choice find Judaism through various avenues. While some discover their affinity to Judaism after a long period of religious exploration, in many cases (at least historically) Jews-by-choice arrive at Judaism through marriage – whether by converting prior to the marriage or, after the intermarriage, once the partner has developed a high level of comfort with the religion.

My colleague, Paul Golin, discussed this storied interplay between marriage and conversion in a Huffington Post article last week called, “The Complicated Relationship between Intermarriage and Jewish Conversion.” His article articulates how marriage has traditionally served as a path for Jewish conversion and highlights the insensitivities that many Jews-by-choice face. On the one hand, the Jewish community has often seen conversion as the panacea to high rates of intermarriage and in the past has heightened the pressure on non-Jewish partners to convert. On the other hand, too many Jews-by- choice have been “confronted with assumptions by born-Jews that the only reason they converted was to please a Jewish spouse or parent-in-law.” In both cases, the insensitivity stems from the perceived association between the marriage and conversion.


Unemployment, Financial Challenges and the Jewish Community

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Last week, I had the privilege of attending the senior sermon of Amy Berenson, a Hebrew Union College (HUC) rabbinic student. Amy, who in addition to her rabbinic studies has a background in social work, spoke about the marginalization of the unemployed and those in financial need in the Jewish community.

Referencing the Big Tent Judaism Coalition’s “No Shame in Asking” campaign, Amy encouraged the congregation to be more open to those in our communities who are unemployed and/or struggling financially. Her sermon addressed the challenge of unemployment as not only a financial issue but as a loss of identity. Amy explained,

For those who want to be working and find themselves in a position where their jobs are taken away from them-their sense of self is diminished as they no longer know how to define themselves. We live in a world where our identities are intertwined with our professional lives.


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