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Weblog Entries for September 2011

JOI - Year in Review

At the Jewish Outreach Institute, we are always seeking new ways to welcome newcomers and lower barriers for those on the periphery of Jewish life. As a new Jewish year begins tonight at sundown, we take this time to reflect on our work.

This past year, JOI expanded the tent by…

  • Helping over 200 communal professionals and volunteer leaders focus on who we’ll need to serve in the future at our Judaism2030 Conference in New York City;

  • Assisting over 30 communities in meeting hundreds of people “in the aisles” of supermarkets before Passover with our “Passover in the Matzah Aisle” program;

  • Helping over 300 grandparents connect with their adult intermarried children and interfaith grandchildren through Jewish cultural experiences with the help of our Grandparents Circle program and listserve;

  • Distributing fun Hanukkah “Visual Guides” to over 8,000 households through 84 Big Tent Judaism Coalition members;

  • Training synagogue front-line staff and volunteers from nearly 100 organizations in welcoming newcomers during the High Holidays, through a webinar and in-person seminar;

  • Continuing to launch new Mothers Circles across the country, adding an additional 20 communities;

  • And traveling all across North America, from New York to Canada to California, to meet with members of local Jewish Federations, JCCs, synagogues, grassroots and start-up Jewish organizations, and many others to continue the conversation on including the intermarried, engaging the unengaged and welcoming all newcomers.

We look forward to another year of continued efforts to include all who would be part of the Jewish community and hope everyone has a very Sweet New Year!



A (Yummy) Taste of Rosh Hashanah

Rosh Hashanah is a time of new beginnings. It is a time to open our minds and hearts to build a more inclusive Jewish community that recognizes the customs and traditions of all its members. To help you celebrate Jewish diversity and the High Holidays, here are some traditional Rosh Hashanah recipes from around the world.

Loubia - Egyptian Black-Eyed Peas
Reposted from Be’chol Lashon

1 onion, chopped
3 tablespoons sunflower oil
2 garlic cloves, minced or crushed in a press
1.5 lb (750 g) lamb or veal, cubed
1 lb (500 g) tomatoes, peeled and chopped
3 tablespoons tomato paste
1 lb (500 g) dried black-eyed peas, soaked for 1 hour
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon allspice
Salt and pepper
1-2 teaspoons sugar

Fry the onion in the oil till golden. Add the garlic, and when aroma rises add the meat. Stir to brown it all over. Add the tomatoes and tomato paste.

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Tailoring Religion

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For Jews, questioning is a good thing. We are taught not just to read the Torah, but to ask questions, to find our own explanations (to a certain extent). However, we are not told to branch out into a new sect whenever we disagree with something. As religion statistic expert George Barna said in a recent USA Today article, that would result in America having “310 million people with 310 million religions.” But Barna’s research shows that personalizing religion is catching on, the latest craze in a society set on customization.

While the bulk of Barna’s research is focused on Christianity, his recognition that people are simply “finding their own answers” applies to Judaism as well. There are those who, as Barna puts it, “accept Jesus as their savior” and those who don’t attend church at all. In Judaism, there is a similar spectrum. There are those who keep Kosher and observe the Sabbath, attending synagogue every weekend; those who simply don’t participate in organized religion at all yet still identify as Jewish; and those who live somewhere in between. Perhaps this speaks to the concept that Judaism is a culture, not just a religion; and when Jewish magazine Moment recently posed the question “Can there be Judaism without belief in God?” the answer was a resounding “yes.”

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An Insular or Extroverted Community?

Our friend and anonymous Jewschool.com blogger “Kung Fu Jew” wrote a raw and emotional piece a few weeks ago exploring an important tension in the Jewish communal profession, and in the Jewish community in general: are we only for ourselves, or are we serving all people? He concisely identified several different points where these tensions converge, from supporting Israel to intermarriage, and tried to explain how his work as a Jewish communal professional is actually in service to the entire world through a Jewish lens, and not in a parochial interest to perpetuate the Jewish bloodline. In doing so, he gives a powerful voice to sentiments shared by many young Jews:

There are plenty Jews in my world of the predominantly young and unaffiliated who are tired of the drumming of “Jew Jew Jew” and recoil from its incessant self-centered, self-referential, self-ish concerns. Every synagogue is just a ghetto to lock out the goyyim, they feel, every Jewish social event serves the agenda of the claustrophobic “marry a Jew!” crowd. Tied to a community that is lacking in fulfillment yet insists on their loyalty, they can’t stand to be around it. I feel the same. Yet here I am, working in the Jewish world. A young career-nik.

But I do it for the Other, not myself. For those outside my tribe, not ourselves, though beneficial to us it is. I fulfill the admonishment of Rabbi Hillel “for myself” and “for others” simultaneously. Just as the encounter with the “not me” defines “me” more than I could by myself alone, my work for others through us defines our quality…. What I abhor about the fight “against” intermarriage is the drive to identify and then root out non-Jewishness to protect us against its invasion. Jewish identity is an idea, not a bloodline; Jewish values and ideas are a legacy of appropriated Gentile ideals, not an ideology straight from Mount Sinai.

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Guest Blog: The High Holy Days - A Classical Reform Perspective

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The following is a guest blog from Rabbi Howard A. Berman, the Executive Director of the Society for Classical Reform Judaism. We commend Rabbi Berman for his work with interfaith families in several cities including Boston and Chicago, and are happy to share his thoughts on the High Holy Days with you.

The Society for Classical Reform Judaism was founded in 2008, by a group of rabbis and lay leaders from congregations throughout the United States, as a national voice of advocacy for the broad, universalistic ideals of the Classical Reform tradition - the historic progressive interpretation of liberal Judaism in America. The society seeks to preserve and creatively renew the deep spiritual values, rich intellectual foundations and distinctive worship traditions that have historically distinguished the Reform Movement.”


The High Holy Days:
The Spirit and the Challenge of Renewal and Return:
A Classical Reform Perspective

Rabbi Howard A. Berman, The Society for Classical Reform Judaism

The High Holy Days offer each of us an opportunity for a powerful spiritual experience. For the sensitive, attentive individual, open in mind and heart to the transforming themes of this sacred season, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur can be an inspiring reaffirmation of personal faith and spiritual quest. Even for those whose faith is less defined, or whose spirituality is more ambivalent, these timeless observances can be deeply meaningful.

The complex connections of emotional stirrings, intellectual challenge, and the aesthetic interplay of the language and music of worship, all have the potential to be a compelling and renewing encounter with our tradition. The cadence of familiar words and phrases – the strains of ancient and well-loved melodies, the experience of coming together as loved ones and friends in community – are all elements that combine to touch so many people of differing styles and understandings of personal spirituality, in many significant ways.

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The Culture of Disclosure

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When I was a rabbinical student, we were taught not to talk about ourselves or the people with whom we work; never use personal anecdotes since they may border on breaching confidentiality and trust. And since we were all young and our life experiences were not that significant, no one was really interested in hearing about our life experiences (in school, for example). I followed that advice for many years. Even in my writing, I was very careful about the use of anecdotes as illustrations, and waited until I, in fact, had some life experiences from which others might learn, before sharing anything with others. Then when I was teaching rabbinical students, I often told them, “If you are doing things right, then no one knows what you are doing.” In other words, rabbis should protect the confidentiality of their work with others. It should not be the subject of conversation.

Of course, we had all read George Orwell’s 1984. It became an idiom, part of American cultural literacy, as had the phrase “big brother.” We did not want someone else to know what we were doing or where we were doing it. It was part of our personal freedom, something that animated even our religious lives. I even refused to enter one particular school because it required me to sign a document about my personal observances. I figured that was between Gd and me, not the school and me.

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Welcoming the High Holidays with a Flash Mob

This Sunday, flash mobs will “spontaneously” descend upon several global Jewish hubs (New York, Jerusalem, Budapest, etc.) to sound the shofar, a daily practice during the Hebrew month of Elul in anticipation of the incipient arrival of the High Holidays. With shofarot (pl. shofar, an animal’s horn, usually that of a ram) in tow, participants of the Shofar Flash Mob will be blasting the horns for two minutes as a call for teshuvah (repentance). This action, a tradition in the month leading up to the High Holidays, serves to remind us of our obligation to engage in a period of self-reflection prior to the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah. While we usually hear the shofar in the synagogue, these flash mobs will bring the sound of the shofar to the streets, introducing (or reintroducing) the tradition and its purpose to thousands of passers-by.

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CSI: Inclusive

The goal of JOI’s Big Tent Judaism Coalition is to reach and serve all Jewish individuals and households—including the majority at any given time that is not participating in Jewish communal life. The image of Abraham and Sarah’s tent, open on all four sides to welcome in all who approach, is a strong representation of JOI’s belief that we must reach out to the unengaged and unaffiliated of the Jewish community, and welcome them into “the tent.” Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham of Congregation Sons of Israel (CSI) in Upper Nyack, NY has created such a tent—metaphorically speaking, of course.

Rabbi Abraham recently spoke to the Jewish Federation of Rockland County (story quoted below) about his decision to join JOI’s Big Tent Judaism Coalition, one of his first decisions as rabbi of this Conservative, egalitarian synagogue.

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Do-It-Yourself Judaism

We at JOI are always looking for new sources of vibrancy and innovation in communal Jewish life. In a recent article in The Jewish Daily Forward, Jay Michaelson explores his recent experiences creating and adapting Jewish rituals to fit his own needs and the needs of his loved ones. He argues that more laypeople should engage with Judaism in this way, and that the Jewish community does itself a disservice by relying on Jewish professionals to preside over Jewish life-cycle events.

This notion of “Do-it-Yourself Judaism,” and how the wider community can move toward it, is worth exploring. In the modern technological age, where anyone can publish a blog, or create a video, or teach hundreds of other people through the internet, the idea that an amateur can create something worthwhile is becoming ever more prevalent. However, many in the American Jewish community do not see Jewish ritual as something that they can “do themselves.” But, why not?

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The High Holidays: Moving People from “See You Next Year” to “See You All Year”

The High Holidays mean different things to different people. For some, attending services is a social gathering – a way to catch up with friends you may only see at High Holiday services. For others, it is simply an obligation – the one “Jewish” thing they may do all year. And for others still, it may have deeper meaning – starting a new year with a clean slate on a deeply spiritual level. Across the country, this last group is often the smallest, causing synagogue professionals and volunteers to scratch their heads and wonder how to create a deeper and more lasting relationship with more of their community. They seek to make coming to synagogue a more frequent and meaningful experience, and to find ways to take “three-day-a-year” Jews, and help them become “all-year” Jews.

Last night, SYNERGY: UJA-Federation and Synagogues Together, hosted JOI executive director Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, associate executive director Paul Golin, and senior director of training Eva Stern for a seminar entitled “High Holidays: How to Move Three-Day-a-Year Jews from ‘See You Next Year’ to ‘See You All Year.’” Dozens of Jewish communal professionals and lay leaders from the Greater New York area attended in person or via web conference. The evening’s focus was centered on how to not only welcome newcomers during the High Holidays, but also to further engage current members—those who are affiliated, but are not active—and demonstrate the genuine meaning and value that engagement in their communities can provide.

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Courage in the Rabbinate Today

What does it take to be a courageous rabbi today? Are there issues for which rabbis would risk losing their jobs to take a position? And what are some of those unpopular issues? My own teacher, Rabbi Samuel Sandmel, of blessed memory, told me that I should be willing to risk my job everyday or I wasn’t worth my salt as a rabbi. (Perhaps I took him too seriously and have taken on too many unpopular positions in my career.) Understandably, too often, colleagues are careful to take positions that might put them at odds with those they are charged with leading, but who are also responsible for their well-being. It is an odd paradox—to lead people where they are often unwilling to go.

So what does one make of a successful rabbi in a successful congregation, in a mid-sized active Jewish community who is willing to talk about things that to many appear desperate? As for me, I applaud his courage and his frankness, his desire to be dugri (the Arabic word that has entered Hebrew to mean candid). Rabbi Aaron Bisno of Rodef Shalom Congregation in Pittsburgh wants to have a no holds barred conversation about the future of the North American Jewish community. He wants to talk about what we have to do to secure our future—no matter how unpopular the conversation—and the decisions that emerge from it.

This is the second time Rabbi Bisno has invited folks to the conversation.
I welcome the opportunity to join him in the conversation and would invite others to do so, as JOI did with our recent Judaism2030 Conference. If we don’t help shape the future, then it will shape us.



A Transformative Camp Experience for Young Jews of Color

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Earlier this month, the New York Times featured a story about Camp Be’chol Lashon (“In Every Tongue”), a summer home-away-from-home for Jewish children of color. The two year-old camp is operated by Be’chol Lashon, an organization aiming “to strengthen the Jewish people through ethnic, cultural, and racial inclusiveness.” While Camp Be’chol Lashon offers standard camp fare like canoeing and sing-alongs, the camp also provides a Jewish experience that speaks to a broader understanding of what being a North American Jew in the 21st century is. The infusion of globalism into the camp ethos (e.g. making challah covers of fabrics from India) serves to reflect the increasing diversity within the American Jewish community. With the last decades’ rise of conversion, adoption, and intermarriage—along with the segment of our community that has always been racially diverse—close to ten percent of the American Jewish community is now non-white. Still, because the Jewish community has often been slow to acknowledge these demographic changes, Camp Be’chol Lashon has made it a mission to provide an open Jewish setting for children who may not always feel welcome in more Ashkenazi-biased North American Jewish communities.

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Calling Ushers, Greeters, Phone-Answerers, Ticket Collectors, and More!

With Labor Day upon us, those of us in the Jewish communal world are heavily focused on the fast approaching High Holiday season! We recognize that this time of year marks the annual peak in Jewish communal participation, and we are here to help synagogues maximize the impact of their High Holiday encounters! At the Jewish Outreach Institute, we believe that “the front-line is the bottom line,” and that each encounter a potential newcomer to Jewish life has with our institution can help shape his or her future Jewish connections. As such, it is critical that each moment is maximized to promote future engagement and positive connections!

The Jewish Outreach Institute is thrilled to offer an interactive webinar to help Jewish communal professionals and volunteer leaders prepare your synagogue front lines for effective outreach during the High Holidays. Together we will identify opportunities to welcome in newcomers, as well as engage occasional synagogue-goers, and involve active members in reaching out to those on the periphery. We will discuss…

• How to engage newcomers and members beyond two or three days a year
• Making every interaction relevant and welcoming
• Empowering volunteers to act as ambassadors for your community
• Last minute tips for marketing
… And much more!

So spread the word! Encourage your front-line staff and volunteers to take this webinar! We welcome all those involved in High Holiday programming and planning, including volunteer leaders, ushers, ticket-collectors, and other volunteer positions - along with the professionals or volunteers who coordinate and/or oversee them. Share your challenges and successes around outreach during the High Holidays, so we can make the most of the High Holiday season!

Making the Most of the High Holidays -
A webinar for High Holiday volunteers and synagogue front-line staff

TO REGISTER: Click here

COST: $10 per person

TO VIEW THE FULL INVITATION: Click here



Woody Allen in Kentucky?

The Forward posted a first-person narrative this week penned by a Kentucky woman, raised Catholic, who converted to Judaism as an adult after years of wanting to “immigrate to Judaism.” Writer Lynn Marie Hulsman offers a unique perspective of someone raised very much outside of the Jewish community, surrounded by little knowledge of Jews and even anti-Semitism, yet still desperately wanted to be a member of the Jewish community. Her experiences growing up in Louisville, KY watching Woody Allen movies and “Welcome Back, Kotter” bring up an important point, that in converting to Judaism, someone is not just embracing a different faith, but a different culture.

The culture of (Ashkenazi) Judaism was extremely appealing to Hulsman, who even refers to her move to New York City as making aliyah, a term traditionally saved for one’s immigration to Israel. Seeing Judaism through her eyes can serve as a learning opportunity to Jewish communal professionals and those involved with Jews-by-choice and interfaith families, showing the perspective of someone once on the “outside” who is now on the “inside,” and what that can tell us about how Jews are viewed not just as a religion, but as a social group.

Part of creating an inclusive Jewish community is to welcome Jews-by-choice, whether they were first drawn to Judaism in order to raise their children Jewish, or because of a spiritual path they have embarked on. Empowering Ruth is a free program sponsored by the Jewish Outreach Institute that supports women Jews-by-choice through an online community and education course. It provides a safe space for further learning and sharing of experiences, and a genuine community of peer-to-peer support. We encourage all who might benefit from it to sign up—and men Jews-by-choice to join our Shofar listserve.



Conservative Synagogues and Intermarriage

We at JOI are always excited to read about evolving trends toward inclusion in the Jewish communal world, and are encouraged by a recent article in the Forward, in which JOI Executive Director Kerry Olitzky is quoted. The article explains the evolution of the relationship between Conservative synagogues and interfaith families, which remains complicated. However, as the article highlights, many Conservative synagogues are opening their doors, and their membership.

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