Weblog Entries for October 2011

Community Spotlight: Mothers Circle Alumna in Providence, Rhode Island

Here at JOI, we believe in building Jewish community one encounter at a time. While our programs like The Mothers Circle show consistent impact on participants and their relationships to the Jewish community, we especially appreciate the chance to put a face on the success of our programs. In this “PJ Family Spotlight,” by Nicole Katzman, Mothers Circle alumna Lucy Freedman speaks about her current involvement in the Jewish community of Rhode Island, and expresses her deep appreciation for her involvement in The Mothers Circle program.

In the interview, Freedman says that “I owe my involvement in the community completely to The Mothers Circle.” In addition to participating in PJ Library events and Shalom Family, she regularly keeps in touch with women in her Mothers Circle class through Shabbat dinners. According to Freedman, the friendships and warm welcome that she experienced in The Mothers Circle “…made [her] feel like we have a special community of our own.”

Building Jewish community is all about building relationships. Not only do programs like The Mothers Circle educate people in interfaith families about the Jewish community, they also provide participants with a space to connect to people who are just like them. The sense of warmth and connection that participants experience encourages them not only to affiliate, but also to create and maintain deep and lasting ties with other members of the Jewish community. As the Jewish community increases points of connection and lowers barriers, more and more people like Lucy will be able to form lasting bonds with Judaism.

For more information about The Mothers Circle, please visit The Mothers Circle website or contact Mothers Circle National Coordinator Marley Weiner at

In Memory of Len Wasserman

The Jewish community lost an important leader this month. And while some people in the Philadelphia community may have known about Len Wasserman and his work, others may not have been so fortunate to have been touched by his unflagging desire to reach out and welcome in intermarried families. Unlike so many others who get involved in such work, Len’s adult children were not intermarried. He simply saw the logic and the moral imperative in creating a context, particularly in the synagogue community, to make interfaith families feel at home. So he started what became Interfaithways and when he couldn’t find funding to support this important endeavor, he funded it himself.

I met Len years ago—our first meeting was at the Philadelphia train station. He wanted to meet me, to learn more about JOI and our work with intermarried families. Over the years, he attended our conferences and we had many conversations. Sometimes, he and I disagreed about which approaches were most effective. But we never disagreed on goals or motivations. He will be sorely missed, but his imprint will be felt for many years to come.

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New Grandparents Circle Programs!

Through the help and hard work of our excellent partner institutions, we at the Jewish Outreach Institute have brought Grandparents Circles to 49 communities across North America. Over 800 grandparents like you have completed the course and now feel empowered to nurture the Jewish identities of their grandchildren in a respectful, yet meaningful way. Today, you can find circles in Greensboro, NC, Philadelphia, PA, Miami, FL and beyond!

Nevertheless, we know that some of you may not have access to Grandparents Circle courses. There may not be a class in your neighborhood, or you may prefer to explore these sensitive topics on your own. For this reason, we have created two new Grandparents Circle programs that will help you learn the strategies offered by the Grandparents Circle course in order to share your Judaism with your grandchildren. For example, you can now explore the Grandparents Circle recommendations and techniques through a an introspective new reading guide, Grandparenting Your Interfaith Grandkids, to accompany Twenty Things for Grandparents of Interfaith Grandchildren to Do (And Not Do) to Nurture Jewish Identity in Their Children by Rabbi Kerry Olitzky and Paul Golin. By signing up and working with this self-guide, you will emerge with an action plan and sense of optimism in sharing your Jewish identity with your grandchildren.

For those of you who would prefer to grapple with these topics through conversation and engagement, you now have the option to host a Grandparents Circle style get together yourself! If you know fellow grandparents who may benefit from the program, sign up to start a Grandparents Circle Discussion Salon. You can discuss techniques offered in the book, Twenty Things for Grandparents of Interfaith Grandchildren to Do…together in a casual setting; it is a great evening for book clubs, Sisterhood and Brotherhood meetings, or any other casual get-togethers. In fact, it can be a reason to have a get-together in the first place!

If you are interested in either of the two new programs, just sign up on our “Join the Grandparents Circle” page here

Jews in the Service

Due to the Diaspora, you can find members of the Jewish community in every corner of the earth, sometimes even in some of the world’s least accommodating communities. While some of these wandering Jews are descendants of long-established (but fading) Jewish communities, many are abroad alone, having traveled there for professional reasons. This is especially true for American Jews serving in war-torn countries like Iraq or Afghanistan, spots where identifying oneself as a Jew might not always be a good idea.

Beyond self-identification, practicing Judaism while living far away from an organized community (and under constant threat of fire) can be particularly difficult. The likelihood of finding a functioning synagogue or a sukkah (ritual hut) in which to eat, let alone stumbling into a Public Space Judaism event, is very slim. Instead, Jews in the U.S. military either leave their Judaism at home or seek out answers and a community with the help of the handful of Jewish army chaplains. Joshua Knobel, a West Point graduate who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, saw the value and need for Jewish chaplains first-hand. Because of their scarcity, he served as a “designated faith group leader” (chosen by a fellow chaplain), in order to meet the needs of the Jewish service members spread across wide swaths of the Middle East. While fighting the “war on terror” as a captain in telecommunications, Knobel concurrently shuffled between military bases to lead holiday services, offer counseling to his unit, and host seders (ritual meals for Passover) for Jewish soldiers. Since returning from his deployment, Knobel has enrolled in rabbinical school, with the possibility of returning to the military to serve in the chaplaincy.


A Blessing for Spouses of Other Backgrounds

When I went off to college, my grandma laid it on thick: “If you marry someone who’s not Jewish, you’re responsible for shrinking the Jewish population! You have a responsibility!” She gave me the good ole Jewish guilt, but good. Up until this point, I had never had a Jewish boyfriend, and since then have only had one. Regardless, I made a decision that no matter who I marry, I will be Jewish, and my children will be Jewish. I would deal with the rest later. But I was concerned. I envision joining a synagogue, but if my spouse ends up not being Jewish, where can I go? Will my family be welcomed, or cast aside?

Since beginning my work here at JOI in August, I have been encouraged to learn of an important new trend toward inclusion. An increasing number of synagogues are not only welcoming interfaith families—whether by offering their own programming or running national programs like our Mothers Circle, or joining our Big Tent Judaism Coalition—but also by just saying “thank you,” in a very public way.

A recent article in the Chicago Tribune highlighted a beautiful gesture many Chicago-area synagogues made during Yom Kippur this year – a blessing for the non-Jewish spouse. The blessing, first given in 2007 by Rabbi Janet Marder of Los Altos Hills and presented in various forms at many Reform synagogues nationally, thanks spouses of other backgrounds for everything from welcoming Judaism into their lives to driving the Hebrew school car pool. This recognition shows a change in feeling towards interfaith families, acknowledging that the Jewish community is not in danger because of these spouses, but is instead being saved by them. By participating in a faith other than their own, and raising their children Jewish, these spouses give hope to a religion that currently accounts for less than 2% of the American population.

My grandmother may be right that the Jewish population is smaller than ever, but not that I have to marry Jewish to keep the culture alive. I’m excited by the steps more and more synagogues are taking to welcome interfaith families, and look forward to more doing so in the future.

What the Jewish Community Can Learn from Occupy Wall Street

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This past week, I spent the beginning of Sukkot in Washington DC building a sukkah at the Occupy K Street protests. One of the things that I was struck by was the amazing drawing power of publicly practicing Jewish ritual in the context of a protest. People from many different backgrounds were excited to join in the construction of this sukkah.

While different members of the Jewish community will have different opinions about the Occupy Wall Street movement, the Jewish community can learn a lot from social movements like Occupy Wall Street when thinking about how to engage the unengaged. There are several reasons for the excitement and energy around building the sukkah at the protests that can be applied to other Jewish communal projects.


The High Holidays as an Open House

Did something keep you from going to High Holiday services this year?

For many people, the answer is “yes” and the reason is “the cost.” With possibly thousands in synagogue dues, and additional costs for High Holy Day tickets, many Jews simply can’t afford to attend synagogue on the most important days of the year. This is especially true for young single Jews, and young Jewish families, who have no need yet for a Hebrew school, and may only attend synagogue two or three days a year.

Many synagogues are seeing drops in attendance due to the high costs associated with being a member, and are beginning to lower their financial barriers by providing free High Holy Day services. The model echoes that of the Chabad movement; according to Chabad’s media relations director, Rabbi Motti Seligson, “the way we see it, Judaism belongs to every Jew and we try to remove any barriers to engagement.”


Basketball Star Chooses Judaism

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This is what former Florida Gators basketball star Alex Tyus wants people to know: “. . . you don’t have to be born Jewish to live a Jewish life.” As recent converts, he and his wife Alli are a shining example of successful inclusiveness into the Jewish community through Hillel and Gainseville’s B’nai Israel.

“As far as the conversion process, we met with our rabbi whenever we could. Sometimes that would be two times a week, or three times a week, and we had a lot of different discussions and he taught as a lot and has been a great teacher for us. Also, once we got to know enough people in the Jewish community, we would always know if there was an event going on which was really nice for us. We also attended Shabbat services on Friday nights when we could at B’Nai Israel in Gainesville, and did whatever I could during the season. Everything worked out so well for us, and we are really happy we chose this route.”

Now Alex has accepted an offer to play on Maccabi Ashod (an Israeli basketball team), and he and Alli will be living in Israel. What kind of welcome will they get there from the Jewish community? While the Tyus’s may make headlines, many men and women living less famous lives here in the United States may not be welcomed into their new communities. However, programs like Empowering Ruth for Jews by Choice and The Mother’s Circle for non-Jewish mothers raising Jewish children, created and promoted by JOI, are helping thousands of people—Jews, non-Jews, disenfranchised Jews—to integrate into Jewish communities. As Tyus says, “Judaism helps guide how you live your life through God and through family.”

Guest Blog: Empowering Ruth in Forest Hills, NY

The following is a guest blog from Rabbi Elizabeth Wood of the Reform Temple of Forest Hills in Queens, NY. Follow her on Twitter: @lizwood1982 and please share this post with anyone you think might be interested in the Empowering Ruth program.

Many people who are interested in Judaism come seeking answers about what Judaism is or how to learn more about it. When someone has made the decision to become Jewish, they may know a lot of the FAQs and the logistics of Judaism. But how do you teach someone how to begin a Jewish journey? How to live a Jewish life? How to feel comfortable living a tradition that you have chosen?

That is why I am so excited about this program, Empowering Ruth. It is a free program brought to us by the Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) and is aimed at women who have already converted to Judaism. It is open to the whole community and being taught at the Reform Temple of Forest Hills on Tuesday nights at 7:30, October 18 - March 27.

Come join us and discover the many paths and ways to be Jewish, both in your home and out in the world. Come learn new and exciting elements of Judaism with more in-depth study. Partner with other women in our community and around the country to begin having some deep and meaningful conversations about what it means to be a woman who has chosen Judaism.

If you or someone you know is interested, please contact me (Rabbi Elizabeth Wood) at to learn more or sign up. I look forward to seeing you there and learning more with you!

First Rosh Hashanah, and then Yom Kippur

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We have just concluded the first round of fall holidays, and will be readying ourselves on Wednesday night for another week of Jewish holidays. According to tradition, as soon as we break fast at the conclusion of Yom Kippur, we are to initiate the building of our sukkah (although depending on the way the calendar works each year, many Jewish institutions build their sukkot before Yom Kippur even starts). Admittedly, the Jewish religious calendar is quite complicated. Thus, it presents an additional barrier to entry for those new to Jewish life and the Jewish community, irrespective of their backgrounds. Those of us who have been immersed in Jewish life for many years take it all in stride. But I like to look at these issues from the perspective of a newcomer—so that we can all learn from his/her experience. I also like to take into consideration the religious aesthetic involved, since so many historical choices were made for this reason, as well.

It is bad enough that there are four new years in the Jewish calendar. Because we live in sync with the secular calendar, we expect Rosh Hashanah to be akin to January 1. But Rosh Hashanah is the beginning of the religious new year, not the count-off of the calendar. For the latter, we have to wait until the spring. What puzzles newcomers—and I have thought about this a great deal—is why, then, does Yom Kippur come after Rosh Hashanah? Wouldn’t it make more sense for a day of atonement to come before the beginning of a new year, not 10 days after its initiation?


The Mothers Circle comes to Foster City, CA

We are excited to welcome our newest group to The Mothers Circle from Foster City’s Peninsula Jewish Community Center.

The group was recently featured in the Mercury News, and the article highlights the importance of having such a group available to women of other religious backgrounds raising Jewish children.

Classes will begin in November. To register, click here.

Making Her own Mikveh

When Jessica Langer-Sousa was about to get married to her Catholic husband, she sought a spiritual cleansing of sorts, similar to how her husband would go to church and confess his sins. In Judaism, the closest equivalent of this for women could be considered the mikveh—a bath used for the purpose of a ritual cleansing. Mikvehs can be social places, but they can also be healing and meditative places, perfect for right before a wedding.

But to Jessica’s dismay, when she spoke to a woman at a California mikveh, she was promptly told she could not partake of this Jewish tradition because she was not marrying someone Jewish. It is saddening that in this day and age, this woman would go so far as to tell Jessica she “would pray for” her to find a nice Jewish boy, but that until then, she was not welcome. Luckily, Jessica had already found a wonderful (and welcoming) rabbi to preside over her wedding, whom she was able to call for advice.


A Warm Welcome on the High Holidays

This past week, Rabbis around the world gave some of their most important sermons of the year—if measured by the size of their audience. The High Holidays present rabbis with the opportunity to speak to many more congregants than usual, and we are always appreciative when they take the opportunity to address issues of Jewish engagement, intermarriage, and conversion, the most important conversations for 21st Century American Judaism. How do we welcome in interfaith families? How do we extend a hand to Jews-by-choice?

Rabbi Jonathan Freirich of Temple Beth El in Charlotte, NC, gave a beautiful sermon last week that focused on welcoming intermarried families and Jews-by-choice, as well as Jews of color, LGTBQ Jews, and Jews by birth looking for deeper meaning and a more enriching experience with their religion and heritage. He spoke candidly of his own experiences, and also cited some great stories of how we as a community can be welcoming to all those who wish to be Jewish and/or raise Jewish families:

Every time someone comes to speak to me, I have the opportunity to open the door to Judaism for them. I work to welcome everyone through that door. Any discussion any of us have may be their first step into our community, or, God forbid, as it was with my grandmother, their last step away from our community and all of Judaism.

Rabbi Freirich is setting an example that synagogues should consider following: one of inclusiveness through an overall change in how the Jewish communities welcome those they see as “outsiders.” It is Rabbi Freirich’s belief that these “outsiders” may actual hold the future of the Jewish people, helping to raise Jewish families and keeping the traditions alive.

A New Year and a New Vision in Philadelphia

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The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia recently named Sherrie Savett as its new executive director, and with Sherrie come ideas of inclusivity and openness, wanting to expand the “Federation tent.” Savett talked about her vision for the Federation in a recent article in the Jewish Exponent.

Highlighting the need for inclusiveness, especially for the younger generation and intermarried families, Savett sees the Federation as “the central core of a caring, compassionate and inclusive Jewish community.” her goal is to reach out and show that the Federation can be a place for people of varying backgrounds to share experiences, and bond over common values and a love of the Jewish people.

We at JOI commend her vision, and are excited to watch the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia open its tent to the community and welcome in all who seek a connection to those around them.

Engaging a New Generation

At the Jewish Outreach Institute, we seek to welcome newcomers and engage those on the periphery of Jewish life. Increasingly, Jews in their 20s, 30s, and 40s fit into this latter group, feeling no need to affiliate with a synagogue, and with no other way to connect with other young Jews. As a member of this demographic, I often wonder what organizations can do to engage us, to get us involved in “something Jewish” so as to not completely lose our cultural identity, while not making us feel obligated to join a synagogue.

While in college at the University of Delaware, I attended events at both the Hillel and Chabad; but outside of college, Jewish experiences for those in my generation are not as readily available. There is also an increasing perspective that my generation doesn’t want to have to go searching for opportunities, we want them easily accessible.

A recent article in the Minnesota Post shows that many are starting to think along these lines, and some are beginning to take action. Following some of the basic principles of JOI’s Big Tent Judaism Coalition, as well as the model created by Tempo, the Minnesota Opera’s young adults group, Rabbi Avi Olitzky (son of JOI Executive Director Rabbi Kerry Olitzky) has started a young-adults group at Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park, MN, designed to reach young adults where they are. The group’s events include Jewish happy hours and young-adult Sabbaths, with the goal of reaching young Jewish adults where they are.

The work of Rabbi Olitzky and others is a step in the right direction, and I am excited to see other groups offer opportunities to young Jews in the 20s, 30s, and 40s to reinvigorate our interest not necessarily in Judaism, but in being Jewish together.

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