Weblog Entries for November 2011

Add Meaning to Hanukkah This Year

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Celebrating Hanukkah is certainly an exciting part in creating a Jewish home. We light the hanukiyah, sing songs, play dreidel, and commemorate the triumph of religious freedom. Of course many of us also exchange gifts and participate in the season’s theme of giving. There are plenty of smiles during the gift-giving, but it also may seem overwhelming; one may feel that a sense of meaning has been lost if the activity does not take into account the world we live in today. As we prepare for Hanukkah this year, consider using Hanukkah as an opportunity to look beyond our home and to our greater world.


New Mothers Circle in Toronto

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We at JOI are always excited to help start new Mothers Circle courses. The program receives such a positive response from participants, that we are eager to offer the course in more locations. We are extremely encouraged that Beth Tzedec, a Conservative synagogue in Toronto, is implementing a Mothers Circle course, and that it has received the same great response that the program has seen elsewhere in Canada and the United States.

There is a clear need for the Mothers Circle, a program for women of other backgrounds raising Jewish children, and Beth Tzedec is acknowledging this fact by offering an opportunity for these women to meet and learn together about raising Jewish children. The Conservative movement has been more accepting, as of late, of intermarried families, and synagogues like Beth Tzedec can help set the tone for a more welcoming, inclusive future.

We wish this new Mothers Circle the best of luck, and look forward to hearing from the participants on their experience!

Jewish Organizational Quality Index Launched

Returning from a recent trip to Houston, where JOI Executive Director Kerry Olitzky and I had the opportunity to meet with a number of senior leaders of the Houston Jewish community, I was struck by an article in eJewish Philanthropy on the Jewish Organizational Quality Index espoused by Adam Simon from the Schusterman Foundation.

Here at JOI, we completely agree that the Jewish community must become more welcoming and inclusive to all who are unengaged. Our Mothers Circle (for women from other backgrounds raising Jewish children), our Grandparents Circle (for grandparents whose children have married spouses of other backgrounds and whose grandchildren may or may not be raised Jewishly) and Empowering Ruth (for women who are Jews by Choice) are just three of our many programs that work to open the tent to welcome those who have found barriers within our community. The success of the Jewish Organizational Equality Index lies not in the counting and evaluation, but in what we as a community do after we find out how open we are to diversity. A program here or there is not going to be the answer to engaging those on the periphery of Jewish life - we need systemic organizational change that affects entire communities in order to break down the barriers for groups currently on the fringe to feel welcome. Our JOI Fellows are “boots on the ground” for communities interested in that kind of change, and we look forward to having them in several communities over the next year.

For more information on the JOI Fellows program, email Eva Stern at

“A Quintessentially American Family Story”

For years, we at JOI have tried to balance the negative messages about “marrying out” that still emanate from parts of the Jewish community (though much less frequently) with a vision of intermarriage as “marrying in.” And we continue to hear story after story of individuals who were not born Jewish yet are now important members of the Jewish community. Last week, the editor of the Jewish Forward, Jane Eisner, conducted a fascinating interview with newsman Mark Whitaker, who said, “My grandpapa saved Jews; I married a Jew, and I’m raising my children as Jews.” But of course, Whitaker himself is not (yet) Jewish.

Whitaker was the first African American to head a major newsweekly when he became editor of Newsweek in 1998, and he is currently the managing editor of CNN. In the interview, he describes the kinship he felt toward Jews even before meeting the Jewish woman who would become his wife:


Thoughts on the American Jewish Community

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I have been traveling a great deal lately, consulting with communities, making presentations, attending conferences. And there seems to be a pervasive feeling of paralysis among many Jewish community members who are fearful about the future and about the era of transition and change in which we currently find ourselves. While I am adamantly optimistic about the Jewish future, I worry about the ability of many of our institutions and its leadership to make the “adaptive changes” necessary for us as a community to grow and prosper. And the changes are necessary. Many of our communal institutions are hemorrhaging, but most people are willing to only make cosmetic changes, and think that they will be sufficient.

We are at the dawn of a new generation, one that is fully American. Thus, many of the institutions that were created to serve an immigrant population and a population not fully accepted no longer serve the current population. We created a parallel universe, but that universe is crumbling because it has lost the majority of its raison d’être.


Jewish Identity in America: Half-Full or Half-Empty?

Earlier this month, featured a piece by James Hyman discussing the American Jewish identity. What does it mean to be an American Jew today, and how involved in Jewish life should we be? If we consider ourselves Jewish but don’t practice the religion or participate in the community, are we still Jewish?

Hyman begins his article by citing a study that shows there to be some 6 million people who self-identify as Jewish in the United States. This number is much higher than originally thought, yet there certainly aren’t 6 million members of synagogues in the United States. So who are these Jewish Americans? Some belong to synagogue and are active in their local Jewish communities, but most are on the periphery, identifying with Judaism more as a culture than a religion.


Beyond the “Dilemma”

As soon as the fall holidays pass and a chill descends upon the Northeast, we at the Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) start receiving calls about Hanukkah programming.

“What can we do for Hanukkah?” a Jewish communal professional asks in hopes of reaching the unaffiliated. “Do you offer a December Dilemma class?” a synagogue educator asks in hopes of welcoming interfaith couples.

These calls mark progress in the Jewish community. We can see a shift among Jewish institutions in that they are thinking more about how to serve a broader spectrum of Jewish households. We applaud this growing awareness and encourage the Jewish community to offer many more programs around the holidays that are low-barrier, easy-access, and serve people where they are. This includes the many intermarried households that are not yet engaging with the organized Jewish community.


Mourning a Non-Jewish Parent

Here at JOI, we spend much of our time focusing on enriching the lives of the intermarried, and welcoming the unengaged into the community. Through programs like Empowering Ruth, we also offer resources to Jews-by-choice, hopefully serving as one of many guides on their Jewish journeys. However, all of our work is, essentially, focused on the living—creating programming to learn about the Jewish holidays, helping communities hold Public Space Judaism programs, etc. But what happens when a Jew-by-choice faces the death of a loved one, and isn’t quite sure how to mourn? Can kaddish (the Jewish prayer for mourning) be said for a non-Jewish parent? Can a yahrzeit candle (memorial candle) be lit in their memory?

In a recent article for Tablet, Thomas Israel Hopkins, a Jew-by-choice, discusses this very issue, and how he found the answer to mourning his mother. Hopkins goes through years of changes in how he and his family honored his mother. From a tree planted on a family farm, to his father’s own recollection of his wife’s death, the family grapples with finding a physical mode to remember her with. In Judaism, a yahrzeit candle can serve this very purpose—a small flame lit for 24 hours, as a reminder of a loved one’s passing. Personally, I have always found comfort when I see this candle lit in my house, almost as if my loved one is there with us. But Hopkins’ serious question, of whether or not he can say kaddish for his non-Jewish mother, is a legitimate one.

Luckily, he seems to have found his answer somewhat easily, and I believe he has found the right one. Judaism is centered on love and understanding, inclusion and not exclusion. Why, then, should a son not be able to mourn his mother, regardless of her religion? Judaism also teaches to honor our parents. The books don’t say “only honor a parent who is Jewish.” It is this concept that I have always loved about Judaism—family and friends first, politics and religion later.

Widening the Tent of Jewish Camping in America

Jewish summer camps are often a staple for Jewish children. As someone who went to a Jewish camp for four years, I can tell you that it was an extremely important part of not only growing up, but of finding my Jewish identity. In fact, some of my fondest memories of camp are the beautiful outdoor Havdallah services every week (the service to end the Sabbath). Interestingly, many of my fellow campers came from intermarried families, and some were not Jewish at all. The camp welcomed campers of all backgrounds, and when I think back on my experience, I don’t think “oh, how integrated!” I just think “wow, those were some great summers.”

Welcoming in campers who either may not have been raised Jewish, or only have a distant Jewish relative, can be a struggle for some Jewish camps. How far back in the generational tree do we go? Can we exclude campers who don’t have at least one Jewish relative? The answer is probably no. Judaism is a culture of warmth and family, not of turning people away. So how can we truly extend a hand to children and even grandchildren of intermarried families?


Going “Halfsies” on the Holidays

After nearly twenty-five years of existence, it is often gratifying for us at JOI to look back and see the changes in the Jewish community. Nowhere is this more evident than in the shifts in the Jewish community around intermarriage, and the way that families from interfaith backgrounds relate to Judaism. In this story in Tablet magazine, Jeffrey Sharlet reflects on his early experiences navigating a world in which interfaith families were emphatically not the norm, and it is nice to see how much has changed.

To me, the most poignant part of this story is the author’s complete ignorance, at age five, about the story and meaning of Hanukkah. It is interesting to me that Sharlet says, when speaking about the Christmas story, that, “this was an answer we all knew.” And yet he had never heard the word Judaism in his young life, let alone the story of the Maccabees.


Auf Wiedersehen: Til We Meet Again

I attended the New Jersey Jewish Film Festival recently, the twelfth installment of the well-attended festival sponsored by the Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Life at Rutgers University. It was a Sunday, so I simply attended what was playing, not a typical behavior for most movie-goers. But I always enjoy the festival offerings, and know I might be entertained by what I would see. It was with this nonchalant attitude that I entered the theater for a showing of Auf Wiedersehen: Til We Meet Again. It promised to be a Holocaust film of the now common variety—survivor returns to his/her place of origin with family members.

As the film unfolded, I half-expected this to be a rerun of Out of Faith (a film that begins as a Holocaust film and ends up as a film about how the protagonist’s granddaughter marries someone who is not Jewish, which causes friction and creates a distance between grandmother and granddaughter). At the outset, one of the film’s writer/producers Linda Mills, mentions that while she is Jewish, her husband (the other writer/producer) Peter Goodrich is not (turns out he hails from an Anglican background that he has left behind). She never returns to the topic. (Spoiler alert!) Instead, the film reveals the contrast between how Linda’s mother and aunt react differently to the same experiences of the Holocaust. Ostensibly, all of this is to expose Linda and Peter’s son to the Holocaust and the running away forced upon Linda’s mom and aunt, as well as the running of Linda and Peter—particularly their son—on September 11, 2001.

But the question for me was really not about the memory of the Holocaust. Instead, the question that was mostly avoided by the filmmakers (and only touched upon by a bold question from a viewer in the audience in the post-screening discussion with the filmmakers), was “How are you, as an intermarried couple, raising your children (or, in this case, your child)?” This is essentially the question of post-Holocaust American Judaism.

The film has given the audience, along with Linda and Peter’s son, a lot to grapple with. Perhaps there is a program in JOI’s For the Men Initiative that might be of interest to Peter? We’d welcome all of them into our programs.

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