Over the years, we have seen changes in various aspects of Jewish education, particularly on the professional level. Whether to reflect a trend or to shape one, Jewish communal institutions have created various positions in Jewish education that often disappear as quickly as they are formed. Often due to economic uncertainty or a lack of interest, these positions don’t always address the needs of an ever-changing community.
The focus of Jewish communal institutions has generally been on the Jewish education of children, or of families with young children, and seldom on adult Jewish learning. However, now that the baby boomer generation is approaching what used to be considered “retirement age,” many of them find themselves with more time on their hands to pursue Jewish studies. Some boomers will retire, while others will seek “encore” careers, often moving from jobs that make money to jobs that make meaning. It is time to consider the implications of the behaviors of boomers, and how they can impact our institutions, especially at a time when such institutions seem to be so vulnerable.
One very important part of our work at the Jewish Outreach Institute involves educating interfaith families about how to embrace Judaism in their day-to-day lives. Through programs such as The Grandparents Circle, The Mothers Circle, How Should I Know, and Answering Your Jewish Children, we seek to provide interfaith families with the tools they need to feel confident being a part of the Jewish people. Over the years, we have heard wonderful stories of our programs’ impact on the lives of participants and on communities as a whole. We would like to share the stories of such communities and the programs’ impact in transforming the North American Jewish community into a more welcoming place.
Congregation Shir Hadash in Los Gatos, CA began hosting the Grandparents Circle in 2009. The course focuses on teaching grandparents how to nurture the Jewish identities of their grandchildren from interfaith families by providing concrete tools such as arts and crafts, high-tech communication for long-distance grandparents, and swapping stories about family rituals. However, in many communities, including at Shir Hadash, the program also empowers grandparents to radically re-envision the way that they view intermarriage and the future Jewish identities of their grandchildren.
The following is a guest post written by one of our summer interns, Addie Cunniff, to whom we are grateful for dedicating a tremendous amount of time helping to get our “Color Me Calendar for the Jewish New Year” program into more communities this coming fall than ever before:
The opportunity to spend my summer as a college intern at JOI came at a time of transition in my own connection to Jewish life and engagement. During my sophomore year at Middlebury College, I began to explore what a personal relationship with Judaism would look like. I profoundly benefitted from Middlebury’s own efforts towards outreach and inclusion, and was thus overjoyed to begin work at JOI. I hoped to use the summer as a time to explore JOI’s vision of a more open and inclusive Jewish community.
After spending my summer speaking with more than one hundred Jewish communal professionals and lay leaders about community outreach and inclusive, low-barrier programming, the enthusiasm for outreach is apparent. These communities from all across North America are anxious to add exciting outreach initiatives to their year’s calendar. They are also conscious of the challenges involved in introducing Jewish life to unengaged families and individuals.
How do we introduce the Jewish community without being overwhelming? What parts of Jewish life should we emphasize? How can we be most helpful? Color-Me Calendar for the Jewish New Year, JOI’s Public Space Judaism activity for families with young children, saw incredible interest in only a short amount of time this summer. It is this kind of eagerness that was exciting and encouraging.
However, enthusiasm does not necessarily translate to a clear understanding of what inclusive programming involves. JOI’s vision of an inclusive Jewish community causes synagogues, community centers, and Jewish organizations to ask different questions than they may have previously. How can our programming step outside of Jewish spaces like synagogues and JCCs? What does a taste of Judaism look like? Where do people go during their daily lives and how might we meet them at these locations?
Jeremy Burton, who we previously blogged about for a courageous piece he wrote on grappling with being gay while growing up in an Orthodox community, has recently been named executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston. As far as we know, he is one of the youngest people to be named to such a position of leadership (age 42), and the first openly-gay JCRC executive director. In the coverage of his appointment in Boston’s Jewish Advocate newspaper (subscription required), we also learn of Burton’s ethnic diversity as well:
My mom grew up in California, and she comes from a Mexican-American family that is very typical of a Southwest US family. … There are members of my family who are fifth and sixth generation American citizens and others like my grandfather, who himself was an immigrant from Mexico. …My dad’s family was typical in a sense they were Jewish from Hungary who came to New York, lived in Harlem when Harlem was Jewish. … My grandfather was very much secular. … My grandmother was a southern Presbyterian from North Carolina. My biological grandmother was actually a Russian-Jewish woman, but she died when my father was less than a year old, so my father had two biological Jewish parents, but he was adopted by a Southern Presbyterian with deep American roots. She was a Daughter of the Confederacy, a Daughter of the American Revolution, so my father really grew up in an interfaith secular household…
As unique and remarkable as Burton’s story is—and it is!—we also believe it is going to represent the “new norm” of the Jewish community as a generational leadership shift takes place over the coming decades. His story demonstrates how the Jewish journey in America is in no way unidirectional, from observance and affiliation to secular assimilation to disappearance. In fact, by all the “traditional” “sociological indicators,” there’s no way Jeremy Burton should even be Jewish, let alone an observant Jew and communal leader. He serves as yet another example of how the old measures are increasingly unhelpful in telling us anything about the younger generation of Jewish leaders today—and tomorrow. We congratulate Jeremy once again and wish him the best of luck in his new role. The Boston Jewish community is lucky to have him (and his action-figure collection).
The following is a guest post written by one of our summer interns, Anam Bibi, who will be graduating from City College of New York at the end of this semester.
With the power of imagination, knowledge, innovation, and tolerance, great Jewish mystics claimed to have experienced the existence of the ultimate Being. However, in the secular world, a combination of these factors helps us to achieve oneness with humanity at large. Indeed-these important ingredients make up the Judaic Studies Program the most exceptional, inclusive and diverse in the City College of New York. Even though I am a practicing Muslim, I was welcomed to become a part of this brilliant program one that has taught me the intricacies of the historic Sephardic and Ashkenazi communities and also gave me an opportunity to work in the vibrant Jewish world. For the past few weeks, I served as an intern at Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI), an organization that has helped me experience the very essence of Jewish life beyond what I had learned about in classes and books.
When I was in rabbinical school, we were offered a lot of advice about our future rabbinates from a variety of individuals who were held in high esteem at the time. I remember, for example, being told that we should anticipate five career moves over the course of our careers. That would translate into five city moves too. We were also told that after five years of graduate study, we should be no one’s assistant. We should pursue our own rabbinates. Along with such practical advice came real wisdom, as well. One teacher told us that we should put our rabbinate on the line every day. If we were doing something that didn’t risk our jobs, then it probably wasn’t worth doing. Then when I was in a position to teach rabbinical students, I often translated what I learned into my own pithy statements, like “Make a distinction between your job and your work. It is easy to find a job, much harder to find work.” Or “don’t get confused between personal preferences and issues of principle. The former is not worth fighting about.”
Many things have changed in the rabbinate over the last generation. The entry of women in the rabbinate, for example, has thankfully undermined the notion about moving from place to place to find a bigger and therefore better position, as most did not buy into the bigger-is-better myth. And our understanding of aging certainly has challenged the notion of when we hit our stride in our rabbinical careers.
I have been reading a lot about the notion of retirement and the generational divide lately—then applying it to the rabbinate. While the rabbinate has become a second career for a growing number of people (moving from careers of money to careers of meaning, as they are sometimes called), for those of us who have been privileged to be in the rabbinate since our early days, there are other implications. While people have blamed the failing economy as the reason for those in the rabbinate staying longer, particularly in the pulpit (and limiting younger rabbis from entering the field and finding a job), I think that there is something else going on. First, there are those who retire from the pulpit and reimagine their rabbinates, doing things that there were unable to do while serving congregations. Or they are using their seniority that allows them the freedom—and perhaps wisdom—to do things differently and more expansively.
In any case, an improved economy will not change this. Instead, I think that we will see more and more of it taking place. And we, in the Jewish community, have to mine this wisdom, especially if we want to use it to paint an optimistic future for us all.
We at JOI are always excited to share the impact of our programs and methodologies on Jewish communities throughout North America. Recently, the Jewish Federation of Greater Indianapolis implemented a video project to catalogue the wide variety of exciting Jewish programming in the area. One of the people interviewed was Patti Freeman Dorson, who has facilitated JOI’s Mothers Circle program in Indianapolis since 2008. Check out the video of her interview below:
We would like to thank Patti for sharing her experience with The Mothers Circle and explaining how the program helps to build strong Jewish families that are fully participating in the Jewish lives of their communities.
We would also like to thank Patti for her mention of Public Space Judaism, a phrase coined by JOI for a methodology of outreach that we’ve been refining for a decade. JOI continues to promote Public Space Judaism in various communities through a wide variety of innovative programs, such as Color-Me Calendar for the Jewish New Year. We are pleased to see this term become ubiquitous among Jewish communal professionals who are incorporating the methodology into their programming.
For more information about The Mothers Circle, please visit The Mothers Circle website or contact Mothers Circle National Coordinator Marley Weiner at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information about Public Space Judaism, visit the Public Space Judaism website or contact Senior Director of Training Eva Stern at email@example.com.
Lea Khayata and Elettra Fiumi, two students at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, have recently completed a compelling digital masters project on Jewish-Christian interfaith families called “Being Interfaith.” As part of the project, Khayata and Fiumi looked at teenagers who have been raised in two religions through participation in the Interfaith Community, a non-profit organization that supports interfaith families by catering to the spiritual needs of both spouses.
Interfaith Community holds services, celebrations for Jewish and Christian holidays, and classes for children and adults. Two teachers, one Jewish and one Christian, lead classes for children with “each sharing his or her own faith’s history, traditions, and practices, to give the teenagers the tools to make informed decisions regardless of the religious path they choose.” The organization’s focus is on a small segment of the population – intermarried parents who will not or cannot choose just one religion for their children, yet still want to provide their kids with a deep understanding of both. Many more intermarried couples do, in fact, choose one religion (or no religion) on behalf of their children, or do “both” in a very perfunctory way, a little of Hanukkah/Christmas, a little of Passover/Easter, what we at JOI call “American Civil Religion.” For those who choose “both” and still want to provide a deep understanding for their kids, there are few alternatives like the Interfaith Community, which provides children the education and capability to eventually choose for themselves. They make informed decisions, and many choose Judaism, a choice that might not have otherwise happened if their parents had chosen “none” rather than “both.”
One very important part of our work at the Jewish Outreach Institute involves educating interfaith families about how to embrace Judaism in their day-to-day lives. Through programs such as the Grandparents Circle, The Mothers Circle, How Should I Know, and Answering Your Jewish Children, we seek to provide interfaith families with the tools they need to feel confident being a part of the Jewish people. Over the years, we have heard wonderful stories of our programs’ impact on the lives of participants and on communities as a whole. We would like to share the stories of such communities and the programs’ impact in transforming the North American Jewish community into a more welcoming place. (more…)