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Weblog Entries for June 2011

Reflecting on Judaism2030 and Preparing for the Future!

Reflecting on her experience at JOI’s conference about the Jewish future, JOI board member and ModernJewishMom Meredith Jacobs shares her thoughts in the Baltimore Jewish Times. (The following is reprinted with permission from Meredith Jacobs.)

“Last month, I had the privilege of attending Judaism2030, a conference created by the Jewish Outreach Institute. The purpose: to convene some 200 people working in various areas of Jewish life to talk about what we all need to start doing now to position our organizations for the future.

We learned from futurist Marvin Cetron that people in 2030 will live well into their 120s, that we will replace organs with those artificially grown from stem cells, that computers will be “smarter” than humans and that virtual belonging will be more important than face-to-face connection.

From there we worried about the future of the bricks-and-mortar synagogues and community centers. We worried about the research indicating fewer people identified Jewishly or felt “religion” was central to their Jewish identity. We noted that “only in America” was the focus on the individual rather than those of the community. We worried.
But the stories from those in the field, those doing the most dynamic work today, counteracted those statistics.

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Addressing the Jewish Gender Gap

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Here at JOI, we often speak about various populations that are traditionally underserved by the Jewish community: interfaith families, Jews of color, LGBTQ Jews, and many more. A recent article in Slate suggests that Jewish men in general may now need outreach because, in recent years, there’s a perception that men have become less active in the Jewish community than their female counterparts. The article seeks to discuss why this may be the case, and what we as a community can do about it.

The article reinvigorates a conversation from a few years back that we felt lacked some nuance, particularly around cause-and-effect. There are too many factors impacting upon people’s decision-making to suggest that an increase in female participation in Jewish life is therefore the cause of male decline in participation. For example, the suggestion that Jewish men feel “hostility” toward Jewish women is offered as a factor, yet that doesn’t explain why this trend of “feminization” seemingly impacts upon all of American religious life in general, not just Jews.
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Aboriginal Australian and Jewish

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency posted an interesting profile this week called,Meet Australia’s Aborigine who is president of her Orthodox shul.” In looking at the two photos posted with the story, one of Lisa Jackson Pulver, the woman being profiled, and the other of a group of “Indigenous students,” I couldn’t help but wonder if the phrase, “Funny, you don’t look Aboriginal” is as offensive to some folks “down under” as the phrase “Funny, you don’t look Jewish” is to a growing number of Jews here in the United States and around the world.

This article is yet another reminder that you can be Jewish “and something else,” because there are so many broad ways of defining Jewishness, and because as artificial constructs, race and ethnicity are not in conflict with Jewishness—despite what is unfortunately maintained in some quarters. Everywhere Jews have wandered on this planet, they have intermarried, and their physical features have reflected that generation-over-generation of intermarriage. Some may no longer identify as Jewish. In the article, Jackson Pulver points out, “The first Jew came here on the First Fleet in 1788, and since then Jews have been marrying Aborigines because white women wouldn’t marry them. There’s a big mob of black Cohens out there, and they’ve got Jewish ancestry.”

Yet Judaism is still a powerful influencing factor in the world today, not because of some genetic magic in our bloodline but because it has inherent value that offers meaning in people’s lives, and that meaning can override the pull of assimilation. About herself, Jackson Pulver explains, “There is a natural relationship between my Aboriginal spirituality and my Jewish religion. The things that bring us together are our history of dispossession, a deep sense of family, community and tribalism, and a deep sense of what’s wrong and what’s right. I keep a kosher home, and I make my own challah every Friday. And I attend to cultural and spiritual practices of my grandmothers’ [Aboriginal] cultures.” The article recognizes how Jackson Pulver serves as a bridge between the two communities, and building bridges is an important calling for Jews who have a variety of racial and ethnic identities—and their empathy from person experiences a great advantage in helping them do so.



Transgender Jews in the Jewish Community

In the last couple of decades, many Jewish communities throughout North America have fortunately made it a mission to “open the tent” to the wider Jewish population. Whether it has been to intermarried couples, Jews of color, or members of the LGBT community, this opening has helped redefine the traditional notion of what it means to be a Jew. Synagogue membership rules, the figurines on the wedding cake, and the focus of Jewish outreach have evolved in many ways. However, there is one segment of the Jewish periphery that has too often been ignored as a population with a distinct set of needs: the “T” of LGBT – transgender Jews.

A recent JTA article, “From Shul to the Mikvah, Transgender Jews Seek a Place in Jewish Life,” describes the conundrum facing transgender individuals (people who do not identify with the gender into which they were born) and the astonishing number of obstacles inherent within the traditional confines of Jewish practice. On what side of the mechitza (the partition in a synagogue used to separate men and women) does one sit? What sex should comprise the tahara committee (the single-sex groups who prepare a Jewish body for burial) when being buried? Most importantly, how does one remain engaged with Judaism if the Jewish movement with which one identifies does not regard a transgender individual’s “choice” as legitimate?

A number of transgender Jews have taken upon themselves to begin breaking down barrier. One such leader, Noach Dzumra (pictured above), who wrote Balancing on the Mechitza: Transgender in the Jewish Community, manages JewishTransitions.org, an organization that advocates greater inclusion of open transgender Jews, offers a course on chevra kadisha (the ritual burial of Jewish bodies) training to synagogues, as well as guidelines for transgender individuals who wish to convert to Judaism. Another website, TransTorah.org, provides resources to give transgender individuals a way to comfortably participate in Judaism and also calls upon Jewish organizations to open their doors to transgender community members.

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Happy Father’s Day to ALL Dads Raising Jewish Children

There are some people who argue that we should eschew the so-called “Hallmark holidays,” such as Mothers Day and Fathers Day. Instead, we should celebrate the selfless acts of parents on a daily basis, rather than waiting one day a year to do so. And the latter sentiment is certainly championed by Jewish tradition. But we at JOI believe that there are people in our community who are not so readily celebrated by the Jewish community by the acts of goodness they perform everyday, particularly those who come from other faith communities and raise Jewish children in the context of an intermarriage. So we want to make sure that we take this opportunity, on Fathers Day, to thank all those fathers, regardless of their religion of origin, for raising Jewish children and helping to ensure a bright Jewish future. That is why we created this card and that is why we encourage you to share it with others.



The Benefits of Cross-Cultural Partnership

This weekend, I attended the Egg Rolls & Egg Creams Festival sponsored by the Eldridge Street Synagogue Museum. The event, which takes place on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, celebrates the area’s past as a historic Jewish neighborhood and its present as a part of New York’s Chinatown. While few neighborhoods nationwide have the complicated multicultural history of the Lower East Side, most American Jewish communities live side by side with a wide variety of different cultures. Planning events and programs with other cultural institutions can help Jewish communities to grow and thrive. Here are some reasons for American Jewish communities to consider partnering with other groups:
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Complementing Complementary Education

JOI Program Associate Marley Weiner has a piece in this month’s EdJewTopia Newsletter, a joint project of PELIE: Partnership for Effective Learning and Innovative Education, and the Legacy Heritage Fund. The piece explains how JOI’s Mothers Circle program complements what Jewish children may be learning in supplementary school by engaging their non-Jewish parents in Jewish learning. She writes:

Even when one parent has the Jewish experiences and literacy necessary to shape Jewish memories for their children, in an intermarried family, the other adult partner does not have those skills. Thus, we at the Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) developed the Mothers Circle program to provide these adults, namely non-Jewish women raising Jewish children in the context of an interfaith family, with the tools necessary to raise Jewish children—so that the complementary schools to which they may be sending their children can indeed do the work that they were created to do.

When it comes to Jewish education, we believe in a variety of approaching serving all individuals and family members, rather than placing the full burden on those responsible for the challenging task of educating our children.



The Story of Ruth as a Model for Inclusion

Tonight, as we begin the observance of Shavout, we are especially grateful to have inspirational role models like the biblical Ruth and Naomi, who exemplify the importance of welcoming newcomers into our midst. The story of family members wanting to identify with the Jewish community is much the same today as it was in biblical times—we have to find ways to mentor and embrace not only Jews by Choice, but all those who cast their lot with the Jewish people. To read JOI’s illustrated version of the Book of Ruth with commentary, click here.

In a recent article that mentions JOI’s work, Edmon J. Rodman, a JTA columnist, writes about the connection between Shavuot, the Book of Ruth, and Jews by Choice. Mary Lane Potter, a Jew by Choice from Seattle, thinks the Book of Ruth is read at Shavuot because, “It’s the holiday commemorating ‘the moment of revelation,’ a moment when all need to be included and welcomed.”

Sometimes there are issues that are unique to Jews by Choice. To address their needs, JOI has developed several programs. These programs are designed to enhance their experiences within the Jewish community. Empowering Ruth is a free program that supports women Jews by Choice through a virtual email community and through an education course. We also offer Shofar, an online community for men who have converted to Judaism or are in the process of conversion. Through online discussions, we hope to develop a lively, thought-provoking place where individuals can talk about important issues unique to men who are Jews by Choice. This year, let’s not miss the opportunity to acknowledge those in our community—whether they are Jews by Choice or individuals dedicated to creating Jewish homes—and include them as an integral part of Jewish life. Through reaching out and welcoming them in, we will strengthen the Jewish community now and in the future.



Outreach to those on the periphery has to be systemic, strategic and systematic

Whenever I make community presentations (including the one I made last evening on behalf of the Jewish Community Alliance in Providence, Rhode Island to its leadership group), I usually emphasize this notion about outreach, because I believe that its implementation is indispensible to our success and growth as a community especially as we navigate this difficult “epoch of transition”—as I like to call the period of Jewish history in which we find ourselves. (We don’t know what the community will look like following this epoch, but it is clear that it will look nothing like what it looked like at the beginning of this period.)

If only we could pay attention to the impact of our work on reaching the newcomer (whether new to the community or just new to communal Jewish living) in everything we do, the urgent work of outreach would be made a lot easier. Most communal institutions ask the question of kashrut whenever they plan programs. Irrespective of the decision, the question is always asked, always considered. We should be doing the same for outreach. This would allow us to weave the best practices of outreach into the best programs we offer.

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A New Platform for the Grandparents Circle

JOI would like to highlight the recently-updated Grandparents Circle website, which now offers a weekly blog among its resources. The blog will chronicle news stories, offer expert advice, as well as provide a platform to grandparents who want to share their stories and the lessons they have learned. Recent blog posts include a video Q&A with Rabbi Kerry Olitzky and Paul Golin, the personal story of Sharon Morton and her intermarried adult child, and a story about new grandparent “title” trends and how it might impact Jewish or interfaith grandparenting.

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