Weblog Entries for July 2011

Acknowledging a Clash of Generations

Some years ago, Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, an expert in liturgy and worship who founded Synagogue 2000 (now 3000) and is a member of the faculty of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, presented an interesting analysis of the various generations involved historically in building the American synagogue. He identified the generation of the founders and then the builders before locating the “spiritual seekers” in an effort to suggest that for synagogues to thrive, its leaders needed to meet the needs of those seeking a spiritual connection with the Divine.

This notion came to mind when working with a group of women from our Mothers Circle program. They quickly identified for me what they thought was lacking from the Jewish community that their spouses were so eager for them to join and in which they had made a commitment to raise their children. “There is no experience of God” was what they told me. “Sure, Jews are great about community and caring for one another, but for those of us who want to lead a more prayerful life, there doesn’t seem to be a place for us.” It took a great deal of effort to get the local rabbinate of the community in which this particular Mothers Circle was located to fully understand what these women were saying and the important critique they were offering.

But it wasn’t until I read the book When Generations Collide that I realized what was missing from both my friend Larry Hoffman’s analysis and the comments made by the women in the Mother’s Circle. Rather, it wasn’t what was missing, so much as what was preventing the necessary changes. As a developmentalist, Larry identified the salient characteristics of each generation. He might have even been implying that there was a quantum leap taken by each generation that made the previous generation totally unprepared for what was to come next. The real challenge that we have in organized Jewish life is a clash of the generations, and it often goes undetected because the millennial generation is often missing entirely from the conversation. As a result, along with Generation X (from which it is also distant), the millennial generation is eschewing the extant institutions in the Jewish community and either building their own (in a very different shape and form) or forgoing the community in its entirety, seeking what it needs from other aspects of North American society because it is really the first generation that can truly do so without hesitation or obstacle.

So if we want to shape a Jewish community for the future and we want our institutions to survive and grow, we have to acknowledge these “clashpoints” as Lynn Lancaster and David Stillman call them, and try quickly to resolve them. Then we can rebuild our communities in ways that provide a context that allows generations to complement one another rather than compete for its ownership.

Find and connect unengaged families with young children this High Holiday season (RECAP!)

Earlier this month, over 90 Jewish communal professionals and volunteer leaders from across the continent “gathered” on an interactive webinar to learn about the Jewish Outreach Institute’s High Holiday outreach tool and accompanying program model: The Color-Me Calendar for the Jewish New Year. Participants learned how to bring this brand new, FREE calendar (produced in collaboration with our friends at Shalom Sesame*) to their communities, and how Color-Me Calendar can accomplish the following:

• The program, built around decorating a dynamic kid-friendly activity calendar, functions educationally to introduce children to symbols of the High Holiday season.
• In addition, it provides a creative marketing opportunity, in that each Jewish community or organization can customize the calendar with its upcoming events and offerings that specifically target families with young children while they are in a planning mindset.
• This is a project around which communities can collaborate, ultimately reflecting and highlighting the diverse opportunities available within a local Jewish community.
• Color-Me Calendar also serves as an entry point to relationship building between these families and the Jewish communities.
• In order to find people where they are, Color-Me Calendar takes place in back-to-school shopping establishments, community fairs, farmers markets, food stores, bookstores, library, malls, playground/parks and other venues where families with young children spend their time at the end of the summer/beginning of school year. Color-Me Calendar can function on its own, or augment late summer and High Holiday family programs currently being planned.

It’s not too late! You still have a few days left to sign up to bring these exciting tools to your community and join the dozens of Jewish communities who are already on board! Email Eva Stern, JOI’s Senior Director of Training, to learn how to access this FREE tool and its accompanying programmatic methodology to find those who are not yet connected to your institutions this High Holiday season.


Institutions Need a Relevant Mission to Survive

Which Jewish communal institutions will survive? While I am mindful of the notion “I am neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet” which translates as “it is impossible to predict the future,” there are some things that can serve as indicators, prompting us to make some predictions about the future. And if we look at the history of the Jewish community in North America, we know that organizations and institutions arise according to a response to specific needs and they close when that need is not longer apparent.

Jewish hospitals are a great example of such a need. Jewish communities built Jewish hospitals when non-Jewish hospitals were unwilling to treat Jews, especially itinerant Jewish peddlers who happened to get sick along the way. These hospitals also gave Jewish physicians a place to fulfill their residency requirements and serve as interns when they were not permitted to do so in other hospitals or when their quotas for Jewish physicians were exceeded. And in the last 20 years, as the need for such hospitals has diminished almost entirely, communities have been selling hospitals to health care corporations and physician groups. The difference perhaps in the case of hospitals and other organizations/institutions that simply close shop is that the sale of hospitals realized a great deal of funds for the community (usually placed into an independent foundation and not always exclusively for the good of the Jewish community).

Consider as an alternative B’nai B’rith. It once housed Hillel and the ADL and BBYO, all three of which were spun off into independent organizations, the latter of which was destined to close had it not been bailed out by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation. And B’nai B’rith Women—now as Jewish Women International—is trying to redefine itself by championing such causes such as domestic violence.

What is quite clear is that those institutions that will survive—whether as reimagined institutions that have been around for a long time or as start-ups of recent vintage—are those that are mission-driven and transparent in that mission. Even if it was once the case, it is no longer sufficient for a synagogue, for example, to call itself Reform and affiliated with the Union for Reform Judaism. The same thing is true for any synagogue affiliated with a national movement. As national movements are trying to figure out what they stand for and how to serve their constituent members, it is even more important for local institutions to identify their own raison d’être. Then we can figure out if such a mission meets the needs of those who wish to claim it as their own.

New York and Same-Sex Marriage

(Cross-posted on

Like most people in the Jewish community, especially those on the more liberal end of the religio-political continuum of Jewish life, I have been following the same-sex marriage laws with a great deal of interest. Let me be clear. I am an advocate for the legalization of same-sex marriages for a variety of reasons. As someone who works in New York, I was thrilled when the legislature finally legalized same sex marriages and I was proud of the state for being one of only a few states to do so.

As someone who spends a lot of time thinking about intermarriage in the Jewish community, I also recognize that GLBT relationships are more likely to be interfaith than are straight relationships. And it is quite understandable. More than anything else, intermarriage or interpartnering is demographically driven. If there are fewer opportunities for infaith partnerships, then it is logical that more interfaith partnerships will take place.

While there have been many articles about the recent decision in Albany, there has been little discussion about its interfaith aspect and its ramifications on the Jewish community. Sure, there have been discussions about rabbis and officiation, especially in those communities where rabbis have been generally more conservative about such issues. But of all the articles that I have read about the decision, I found this New York Times article to be most interesting.

Why? Because of these two lines: “Mr. Saland opposed the measure in 2009, but at home in Poughkeepsie, two powerful forces seem to have quietly nudged him toward a yes vote: his wife, Linda, who wanted him to back the measure, and the rabbi at his longtime synagogue, who is an outspoken advocate of gay rights. And with a margin of victory in 2010 of nearly 20,000 votes, Mr. Saland is not seen as being in any particular danger of being defeated.” It seems that while much of the focus of rabbinic discussions is about officiation, at least one rabbi sought another approach. He sought to influence a decision-maker and did so out of the context of specific Jewish values.

For those who think that rabbis no longer have any influence in the community or in the decisions that people—especially people in power—make, I advise them to read this article carefully. I applaud Mr. Saland and I thank and applaud his rabbi, whomever that might be.

Epoch of Transition

I have been doing a lot of thinking about the future of the North American Jewish community, even before our recent conference Judaism2030. Perhaps that is one of the things that motivated us to plan the conference in the first place. But the conference was just the beginning. We have a lot more work to do if we are going to help guide the Jewish community successfully to the year 2030. I often like to say that historians—when they write about this period of time—will name this epoch as the “epoch of transition.” We are not yet sure when it will end and, quite frankly, it is not even clear when it actually began. I am persuaded (influenced by the author of The Starfish and the Spider) that the period begin with the introduction of Napster which was the beginning of decentralization in the marketplace. Some people blame the current state on the deterioration of the economy. However, economic decline only expedited (and in some cases exacerbated) matters. A diminished economy did not cause the predicament in which the Jewish community finds itself. The only thing of which we can be sure is that the Jewish community will look nothing at the end of this period like it looked when it began. We just don’t know exactly what it will look like.

So as we consider what the Jewish community will look like, which institutions will survive and which will have to be “sunsetted,” and which will emerge anew, I want to introduce one notion into the conversation. Most of the time we talk about non-profit institutions and organizations when we speak about the Jewish community. Yet this membership model, which has sustained a large segment of the community for the last two generations, is at significant risk and we have to look for alternatives. That is why I think we have to ask about the role of for-profit institutions in the community. By doing so, we may gain insights into as to how to finance the future of the community, something that is on the minds of most every leader in the community today. This is particularly important since Napster and the decentralization it caused has spawned the notion, especially for the generation of the so-called millennials, that nothing has to or should be paid for. Consider programs like Birthright Israel, perhaps the most game-changing program in this generation. It is totally free for those who participate in it.

So if we look at for-profit institutions, and consider their role in the organized Jewish community, we may be able to gain some insight as to how to shape business plans for those many organizations and institutions that dot the familiar landscape of most Jewish communities in North America. And as we do so, it is important to invite these businesses into the Big Tent of the Jewish community.

Will Bob Marley’s Grandchildren Be Jewish?

For decades now, panicked voices in the Jewish community have responded to the high rates of intermarriage by asking the provocative question, “Will your grandchildren be Jewish?” While in recent years we at JOI are gratified to see the community move away from fear-based program decisions to a focus on positive Jewish engagement –- and feel that we’ve helped change the discourse –- we are disappointed that there are still communal professionals who maintain as part of their reports or presenting repertoire the highly-deceiving statistics “demonstrating” that almost no grandchildren of an intermarried Jewish grandparent will be raised Jewish.

We think anyone still asking that question should instead imagine themselves asking, in the 1970s, “Will Bob Marley’s grandchildren be Jewish?” Of course, nobody had the foresight to ask that question while reggae great and global icon Bob Marley was still alive. He was Rastafarian, not Jewish, and did not marry a Jewish woman. Yet according to a recent article and video on, his grandkids are being raised Jewish! His son Ziggy, also a reggae singer, married an Israeli women and together they are raising their children Jewish. Ziggy Marley speaks admiringly of the way Jewish holiday celebrations help maintain Jewish tradition and identity.

Here’s the problem with the interfaith grandparenting statistics: even if they are taken from the latest National Jewish Population Study in 2000 (the most recent national survey conducted), it means that in order to measure the results on grandkids, the grandparents’ intermarriages had to have taken place at least twenty years earlier for there to even be any grandchildren, and in most cases it would have been many more decades earlier. In 1980, there was an almost-universal rejection of intermarriage in the Jewish community, and the Reform movement had yet to accept patrilineal descent. Now imagine 1970, or even 1960, when the majority of those marriages took place. The likelihood of such intermarried “future-grandparents” raising Jewish children was much lower in those days than the rates of intermarried parents raising Jewish children today.

That this context is never included as a disclaimer to that fear-tactic demography, or that no explanation is provided that the numbers will inevitably rise with the increase in Jewish communal programming that includes intermarried families, is at best irresponsible sociology. Ziggy Marley’s wife is just one of countless hundreds of thousands of intermarried Jews raising Jewish children, which is exponentially larger than that cohort size was in 1980 or earlier. And in a community that welcomes all who seek meaning and connection, there is no reason to believe her grandkids won’t also be Jewish. Anecdotally we have already begun to encounter large numbers of Jewish grandchildren of intermarriage being raised Jewish, and fully expect that percentage to increase in the coming decade. While we don’t necessarily advocate for Ziggy Marley’s other avocation, we do recommend that those in the community who continue to stir fear around intermarriage find a way to instead share our positive vibrations.

Challenging the Torah

As I am sure is that case for many people, our email inboxes are filled with lots of messages, some more wanted than others. I intentionally like to receive the various spins on the Torah portion of the week which come as “Torah commentaries.” It helps me to get in sync with the Jewish calendar—something, by the way, which is among the most difficult things for those entering the Jewish community from the outside to do. Some weeks I read them all carefully. Other weeks I simply skim them. But it has usually more to do with content than with the time I have available.

This week’s Torah reading, Parashat Pinchas, has two salient elements to it: the daughters of Zelophechad (whose inheritance as daughters is called into question) and the rewarding of the zealot Pinchas who kills an interfaith couple because they were involved in a “forbidden” relationship, forbidden because they come from different religious backgrounds. I read each commentary that I received this week, including those from the more liberal on the religio-political spectrum in our community. And each one focused on the women’s issues implicit in the “daughters of Zelophechad.” None of them questioned the actions of Pinchas. After all, the tradition celebrated his action. It even named a Torah portion in his honor.

I for one am tired of defending the actions of those in the Torah, especially when those actions seem to have a Divine imprimatur on them. The classical Reform movement had its way of dealing with objectionable segments in the Torah. It simply skipped over them and didn’t read them in public. But I believe we have an obligation to study these segments and confront them head on. And when they are morally repugnant, as is this section, to challenge the tradition.

Some colleagues will argue that any tradition needs its boundaries and this is the Torah’s way of demonstrating its boundaries. Well let it find its boundaries another way, not in the death of a couple whose only sin is that they have fallen in love with one another.

The Discrepancy of Rabbinical Recognition

When it comes to the question of Jewish identity, whether for those who are children of intermarriage or in the process of conversion, the need for recognition by denominations and rabbinical courts can strike an emotional chord. In this age of self-determination, in which people can create and mold their identities, this necessity for a higher authority to vouchsafe their identity as Jews can be seen as quite archaic. Who are these Israeli rabbis to determine their Jewishness? And, why are they needed for acceptance by the wider community?

This question reemerged for me upon reading of a seminal rabbinical court decision this past week, as described in the New York Times article, “Majorcan Descendants of Spanish Jews Who Converted Are Recognized as Jews.” The religious ruling applies to the small Majorcan community of 20,000 people known as chuetas, descendants of Jews forced to convert to Catholicism during the Inquisition. Because the chuetas lived on the island of Majorca (which, by definition, is isolated), they remained a tight-knit group that intermarried amongst themselves. As Rabbi Israel Wiesel, a judge from Israel, explained, “Unlike other Marranos in Spain and Portugal, who lost their line of history, this particular community is unique and kept the pure line of history for the last 700 years, which means they are Jewish.” The rabbinical court bolstered this view its opinion and a public statement, which argued that because of the intermarriage pattern of the chuetas, “‘all those who are related to the former generations are Jews.’”


Exploring Jewish Diversity

The New York Jewish Week newspaper just released its July “Text/Context” special section, which this month is focuses on “some challenging questions about how the Jewish community relates to those among us who might be considered other, or different, whether Jews of color or with disabilities, gay and lesbian, converts, nonbelievers or women.” We of course appreciate any focus on underserved populations within the Jewish community, though if you add “intermarried” to that list (which the Jewish Week thankfully covers regularly through its columnist Julie Wiener), you’ve actually just described the majority of the community, not really “the other.” A collection of articles like this might help the Jewish community to stop considering “the norm” as two heterosexual able-bodied able-minded married white Jews with children. That’s actually the decreasing minority.

Two of the pieces in the special section address multiracial Jews. In “Jews of Many Colors,” Eric Goldstein mentions how “the Jewish Multiracial Network, a community-building, education and advocacy group promoting Jewish diversity, has created what it calls an ‘Ashkenazi/White Jewish Privilege Checklist,’ with items designed to make white/Ashkenazi Jews more aware of the slights experienced by Jews of color in synagogue and communal life.” And in “Lighting A Candle For Sammy Davis Jr.,” renowned journalist and author Samuel G. Freedman makes a persuasive argument for inclusion, though I was concerned with the way the piece ends.


It’s not watered down, it’s ramps up and doors open

I was surprised to read the latest op/ed by Rabbi Donniel Hartman, whose forward and progressive thinking has become a mainstay of the liberal Orthodox community, as the main voice coming out of the Shalom Hartman Institute, founded by his father in memory of his grandfather. Like the institution, Hartman is a pluralist whose grappling with the reality of the 21st century in combination with a deep rootedness in sacred texts and Jewish tradition is often refreshing and inspiring. But this latest op/ed reads—perhaps unintentionally—as a diatribe against entry level programs, especially those for interfaith families and their children, as if somehow these programs are “watered down.”

As someone who has worked with those who have intermarried over the last decade and poured over the statistics and trends emerging from that population, I do agree with part of Rabbi Hartman’s analysis. One of the major reasons that intermarriages have increased is because large numbers of non-Jews are now willing to marry Jews. That was not the case in prior generations. Why would someone want to marry into a community that was vulnerable and at-risk? But the immigration trajectory of Jews in the United States has changed all that. The Jewish community is now mainstream. And young Jews feel fully American. The Holocaust is part of history and not the recent past for them. And the state of Israel came into being before they were born. And if they received a Jewish education, it was an expression of what I call “joyful Judaism” rather than the survivalist Judaism that marked my own early Jewish education, like the rest of the boomer generation of which I am part.

What’s more, as my colleague Rabbi Irwin Kula is fond of saying, Judaism has entered into the marketplace of ideas. And with that free market economy, there will be ramifications—positive and negative. Rabbi Hartman may want to anguish over its dark side but we must also celebrate its bright side and recognize that such light also causes shadows. This light has also caused Jews who come from secular or minimalist families to embrace more ritual than had their parents or grandparents. It is thrilling to know that Jewish thought is being considered an option by so many, including those who were not born Jewish, something that might have been inconceivable only a few years ago.

But my real complaint is that Rabbi Hartman, like others, claims that programs of outreach to those on the periphery are “watered down” without identifying specific programs. And such a description reveals a lack of understanding of the sophisticated methodology of outreach practice used by many organizations, including the Jewish Outreach Institute.


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