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Weblog Entries for December 2011

In memoriam: Dr. Paula Hyman

We at the Jewish Outreach Institute often highlight the changes that need to be made in the American Jewish community to prepare for its future growth. As we struggle to broaden the Jewish community, it is equally important acknowledge the progress made through the hard work and advocacy of a few pioneers. The Jewish community has opened many doors in the last few decades as a result of these visionaries.

One such recently departed pioneer, Dr Paula Hyman, deserves her due. A historian and feminist, Dr. Hyman leaves quite a legacy. Beyond her critical historical research on Jewish women’s contributions to the American immigrant experience, Dr. Hyman’s feminism and advocacy catalyzed change within the Conservative movement and thereby the American Jewish community at large. Her 1972 delivery of the speech “Jewish Women Call for Change,” (with fellow Jewish feminists) to the rabbis of the Conservative movement called to end restrictions on women. At the time, Conservative Judaism’s views regarding women’s participation did not look too different from those of Modern Orthodox Judaism. However, with Dr. Hyman’s advocacy and subsequent appointment as the first woman dean of undergraduates at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Conservative Judaism veered in a new direction. Her leadership brought almost full equality to the movement of my own upbringing.

I want to acknowledge Dr. Hyman because I benefited from her fight. Entirely unaware of their struggles, I became a Bat Mitzvah at a Conservative synagogue and felt like an equal in the Houston Jewish community. Today, I regularly work with Reform and Conservative female rabbis and cantors, women who lead minyanim, and female leaders of the Jewish community. There is a pervasive sense of egalitarianism within the American Jewish community in no small party to the late Dr. Hyman. Tablet Magazine deemed her a “Shivah Star.” If only I had known her earlier.



JOI Meets with Australian Union of Jewish Students Members

After spending the day meeting with the likes of AIPAC and J Street, a contingency of 19 Australian Union of Jewish Students leaders visited JOI’s offices for an informal Q&A about JOI’s work. Associate Director Paul Golin and Senior Director of Training Eva Stern led the session, talking about innovative approaches to outreach such as Public Space Judaism, understanding of issues related to intermarriage, and the bigger picture question of why be Jewish. Students from the AUJS have visited the JOI offices for the past four years in a row now; we’re honored to host them and appreciate their interest in our work.

The students put forth extremely thoughtful questions and seemed genuinely appreciative of the responses and new perspectives. One student asked whether JOI’s work was perceived as encouraging of intermarriage. In response, Paul was able to explain that such a perception confused cause and effect, that intermarriage in North America has been a growing trend for decades at this point, that the Jewish community spent the 1960s through the 1990s trying to put its foot down during that period to no effect as the intermarriage rate continued to climb regardless. And that JOI’s work recognizes an opportunity to engage less-engaged Jews, including intermarried households, and try to help them answer the question of why be Jewish. Thoughtful, well-informed responses and explanations like this of JOI’s work seemed to have a deep impact on the students’ understanding of modern Jewish life, challenges and potential solutions.

We hope the students’ JOI experience, along with their other experiences (including last night’s performance of A Very Les Miz Hanukkah) will help them think about new approaches to outreach and inclusiveness in the Australian Jewish community as well.



“Outside the Box:” a new documentary by Lacey Shwartz

One of the big questions we Jewish professionals love to explore, particularly for organizations that deal with engaging those on the periphery, is “Why be Jewish?” In marketing terms, it’s the WIIFM– What’s In It For Me? In the end we all have to answer that question for ourselves, but for me, the answer has always come down to family. I’m Jewish because my family is Jewish. “Doing Jewish” means a Seder for 50 at my cousin’s place in LA. It means lighting the menorah and singing with my parents when I was 10. It means havdallah and matzah ball soup, and all the other things you share with a big Jewish family. For me, it’s an easy answer.

Lacey Shwartz had a slightly more complex journey. I met her in Israel last summer at the ROI conference for young Jewish innovators, sponsored by the Schusterman Foundation . She shared with us a few short clips from her then work-in-progress film, “Outside the Box.” The film chronicles an unusual and sometimes uncomfortable identity crisis that in one simple moment, explodes an 18 year old Shwartz’s knowledge of self. She finds out that her white Jewish father is not, in fact, her father; her mother had an affair with an African-American man and she was the result. The film chronicles her exploration of this astounding revelation, and the reasons behind her parents choice to keep it from her for her entire childhood. At our event, Lacey spoke wonderfully about her experience, about pushing her parents for the truth which they had been denying her entire life, and about why she looked different from the rest of the family, who are all white. She has since become a vocal advocate to help the Jewish community better recognize that there is no right way to “look Jewish.”

For anyone interested in Jewish identity and issues of multi-racial and multi-culturalism, I highly recommend this film.



Judaism in the Marketplace of Ideas

Among the various topics that I include in presentations about the future of the Jewish community is the notion that Judaism has entered the marketplace of ideas. We see evidence of it in various places, especially when Jewish wisdom is included in educational curricula, particularly in the discussion of values and morality. I often joke and suggest that when the bagel went from New York Jewish to fast food, it was the beginning of Jewish mainstreaming. It is also evident this time of year when the underlying values of the winter holidays are discussed, as Hanukkah has become the national Jewish holiday. What has yet to be considered, however, are the implications of this notion of Judaism entering the marketplace of ideas and how the community is going to respond to it.

Historically, such interest in Judaism has generally been in two categories: the option of conversion, or the use of Judaism to nurture the religious roots of believing Christians. While we have sometimes offered to share Judaism with believing Christians (often in the form of modeling Passover seders or through programs such as the Jewish Chautauqua Society), the only path into Judaism has been religious conversion. (Some, like Yossi Beilin, have argued for an alternative path to conversion outside of the religious sphere, but this idea has gotten no real traction.) Of course, with the increasing numbers of interfaith marriages, there are now many within the orbit of the Jewish community who will be exposed to Judaism but who are not interested in converting. However, there are those who may now be interested in converting yet they don’t fit the standard configuration of what has become more commonplace (either individuals who come to Judaism on their own, adopted children who are converted by their parents, or partners of Jews who want to convert to Judaism). And how are we to respond to them? I think that we have to be open to those who are interested in Judaism, according to their interests and not necessarily to what suits us best.

Furthermore, as evidenced in the controversial Kabbalah Centre, there are those who are interested in the various ideas of Judaism, but have no interest in converting to the Jewish religion. Yet, I see more of such interest and the development of such programs that expose people to Judaism and the ideas of Jewish thinkers without the presumption of conversion as a requirement, and I welcome them.



Sweet Potato Kimchi Hanukkah

A year ago, I met a wonderful woman who is Korean American and grew up going to church. Last night for Hanukkah, that same woman (now my wife-to-be) hosted a latke fry for our friends and made sweet potato kimchi latkes. (All completely her idea.) And they were delicious! When we first started dating, we worried about our differences. But now we see our differences as opportunities. (Especially when it comes to food.)

She’s not converting. She even said she still wants a Christmas tree, because it’s what she grew up with. But she loves the idea of Hanukkah and other Jewish traditions. She appreciates the family aspect, the songs, the tradition…..and of course the opportunity to fuse our cultures together in creative ways.

What’s particularly interesting to me is that, before I met her, I was what you might call a not-so-engaged Jew. But the more I see Jewish holidays, traditions, and culture through her eyes, the more I appreciate what I like about being Jewish, and the better I am able to answer the question for myself of why be Jewish. As a result of our flexibility, open-mindedness, and teamwork, plus all the great things about Judaism, we are in a much better position to make sure our children grow up with Judaism as well.

I’m not saying sweet potato kimchi latkes are by themselves the key to interfaith bliss. But they are a tasty representation of how one plus one can equal three when it comes to interfaith relationships. That said, just in case you do want to try them out yourself, here’s the recipe from Epicurious.com:


* 1 pound sweet potatoes
* 1 cup packed kimchi (7 ounces), very thinly sliced
* 1 1/2 teaspoons finely chopped garlic
* 1 to 2 tablespoons chopped fresh serrano chiles (including seeds; amount depends on heat of kimchi)
* 1 cup thinly sliced scallions (from about 2 bunches)
* 1 large egg, lightly beaten
* 1 teaspoon kosher salt
* 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
* About 1/2 cup corn oil or lard

Peel sweet potatoes and julienne using slicer (about 6 cups).

Stir potato together with remaining ingredients except oil. Let mixture stand at room temperature until wilted and moist, about 5 minutes, then stir again.

Heat 2 tablespoon oil in a 12-inch heavy skillet over medium-high heat until it shimmers. Filling a 1/3-cup measure halfway full with potato mixture for each pancake and working in batches of 5 or 6, tap out into oil, gently flattening pancakes with a spatula to about 1/4 inch thick. Cook until golden brown, 1 1/2 to 2 minutes. Flip, adding a little more oil if necessary, and cook until golden brown, 1 to 2 minutes more. Transfer to paper towels to drain. Add oil to skillet between batches as needed. Serve warm, with dipping sauce.



Hanukkah on TV

I love this time of year. I’m actually a fan of snow, unlike so many people, and while I don’t celebrate Christmas, who doesn’t love the classics like A Christmas Story, or my personal favorite, Love Actually? But, growing up Jewish, there wasn’t much in the way of television specials. Very few families on television were Jewish, or even knew anybody Jewish, as far as I can remember, and while a menorah would somehow be stuck next to a Christmas tree on all of the TV specials, it never took center stage. So, thankfully, Jewish Woman Magazine has put out a list of the Top 8 Chanukah TV Episodes of All Time, to remind us that the Nanny was indeed Jewish, and even the “Friends” crew dealt with the “December Dilemma.”

What is most interesting about this list is how many involve interfaith marriages and families. From “Brothers & Sisters” to the now-famous Chrismukkah episode from “The O.C.,” TV may just be doing what it often does best: reflecting the world around us. With interfaith households becoming more of a majority than a minority, even fictional television families are taking part in the Festival of Lights, and are often lighting the menorah right next to the Christmas tree.

Here are a couple of my favorites from the list:

The Colbert Report – “A Colbert Christmas”

Everyone’s favorite political commentator, Jon Stewart, born Jon Stuart Leibowitz, joins comedy giant Stephen Colbert to convince him that Chanukah is actually pretty fun. Isn’t everything more entertaining in song? “When’s it start?” “On the 25th!” “Of December?” “Kislev…” “Which is when exactly?” “I’ll check.”

The Rugrats – “A Rugrats Chanukah”

Any person, adult or child, Jewish or not Jewish, who watches “A Rugrats Chanukah” can’t help but feel touched by the passion of Grandpa Boris as he tells the story of Chanukah and the amusing curiosity of Tommy Pickles and his gang as they re-enact the timeless story of bravery and miracles. Grandpa Boris’ friend Schlomo provides a memorable and meaningful explanation of the menorah: “The nightlight of our people. In times of darkness it shines on the whole world, reminding us not to be afraid to be different, but to be proud of who we are.” Simply put, you can’t get a better Chanukah episode than this one.



Don’t Tell Me Not to Have a Christmas Tree


Tablet Magazine featured an article by JOI Associate Executive Director Paul Golin in response to a recent trend of non-intermarried Jews telling intermarried Jews that they shouldn’t put up a Christmas tree in their home. He raises the point that each family has a right to decide for themselves how they are going to tackle the December holidays. Even though he does not choose to have a Christmas tree in his own home, despite his wife’s upbringing with one, he respects others’ decisions to include this symbol of the season:

For many Jews looking in from the outside, a Christmas tree might represent the threatening, monolithic assertion: “Christian Household.” But for vast swaths of the intermarried population who put up Christmas trees but still successfully raise strongly identified Jews, that’s just not factually correct. And it’s why Tablet’s Marc Tracy drew the wrong red line when he wrote on the Scroll that the flexibility of identity requires some limits “and celebrating Christmas is beyond that limit.”

Really? Why does anyone get to decide that limit for someone else?

The overwhelming majority of Jews pick and choose which Jewish laws they find meaningful and which they reject. Keeping kosher all the time? Rejected by 85 percent of American Jewry. Believing homosexuality is an abomination? Thankfully, rejected by a growing majority. When we start telling each other that our own individual red lines are the universally accepted “Jewish” red lines—and if you cross them, you’re a bad Jew—our community descends into recriminations. Those of us working to actually grow the Jewish community understand that the message of “our way or the highway” more often than not results in the highway. Rather than telling people what they shouldn’t do, why not provide more ways for them to express their Jewish identity?

We at JOI support intermarried families raising Jewish children, regardless of their decision to have or not have Christmas trees in their homes. As Jews, we should be thankful for the fact that they have chosen to raise their children in the Jewish faith, and be open to the idea that they have a right to decide if and how to incorporate the non-Jewish partner’s traditions. Let’s focus on sharing what we love about being Jewish rather than chastising people for doing it “wrong.”



Israel and Intermarriage

In the past 24 years, we at the Jewish Outreach Institute have seen a dramatic change in the attitudes of the American Jewish community around intermarriage. The community has become more welcoming and open to providing support to intermarried partners who wish to raise their children as Jews. And as the American intermarriage rate remains high, we seek to continue to help interfaith families feel at home in Jewish organizations.

Israel, however, is a different story. Because of the intertwining of “synagogue and state,” questions about the acceptance of interfaith families have real legal consequences. In Israel, one’s religious identity influences a number of legal standings, especially who one can marry. Because of this, questions about intermarriage are inherently political. From the Israeli Ministry of Immigration’s recent anti- immigration and anti-intermarriage ads, to this story in Tablet magazine of a small but growing movement of Israelis formally giving up their legal religious standing in solidarity with the children of interfaith marriages, intermarriage is a hot political topic in Israel as well as the United States.

As we at JOI champion the rights of intermarried families, we understand that many challenges will remain to the children of those unions as they experience the full spectrum of opinions in Jewish life. As such, we seek to bring our message of tolerance and inclusion to all who will hear it. Because the truth is, given the demographics of emigration in Israel and of intermarriage here, the intermarried family is the new face of the Jewish community.



Finally, The Right Way to Spell the December Jewish Holiday

[cross-posted from the Huffington Post]

There has long been a war brewing in America over a December religious holiday and no, I don’t mean the silly non-issue “War on Christmas.” I’m talking about the heated debate that has pitted brother against brother, rabbi against gabbai: The Hubbub Over How to Spell the Jewish Festival of Lights.”

Every year around this time we at the Jewish Outreach Institute receive several “correct spelling” requests for the holiday’s name, usually from well-meaning grade-school teachers who want to present a multicultural front for the inevitable celebrating of Christmas in their public schools. My answer to them is always the same. Yes, there is only ONE way to spell the holiday’s name, and that is: חנוכה.

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The Rituals of Mourning in an Interfaith Family

Last month, JOI highlighted an article from Tablet in the blog Mourning a Non-Jewish Parent, where we spoke of one man’s question of how to mourn his non-Jewish mother, now that he was a convert to Judaism.

This month, the Huffington Post has published another interesting piece on the same subject, but with a different twist. The Reverend Eleanor Harrison Bregman’s husband and children are Jewish, but she is a Christian minister. When her mother passed, she found comfort in the Jewish mourning rituals such as saying the Mourner’s Kaddish and lighting a yahrzeit candle. Reverend Bregman talks about how the Jewish mourning rituals have helped her as she approaches the second anniversary of her mother’s passing, and how she has chosen to incorporate her family’s Jewish traditions into her Christian practices.

Reverend Bregman is an excellent example of someone who has welcomed Judaism into her life, while not converting to the religion. Her children are being raised Jewish, even as she is a Christian minister and continues to practice her faith.



Happy Hanukkah from JOI!

We at the Jewish Outreach Institute wish you a Happy Hanukkah! Below is this year’s JOI Hanukkah card, encouraging those who are already a part of the Jewish community to reach out to those who are newcomers by introducing them to the Festival of Lights. We hope you enjoy the card, and will share it with friends.

- The Staff of the Jewish Outreach Institute



Vote for Shiksa in the Kitchen!

A good friend of JOI, Tori Avey has a great blog, which she calls “Shiksa in the Kitchen.” Tori is a convert to Judaism, as well as her family’s “resident chef,” and her blog provides delicious recipes and helpful information for Jewish families, especially those including family members of other backgrounds. While we are sensitive to language, Tori’s use of the word “shiksa” is helping to remove its negative connotations, and we welcome her.

Tory’s blog, TheShiksa.com, is a nominee in the Best Kosher Food Blog contest, so we hope you will take a moment to vote for her, and of course check out her blog! We wish her the best of luck with the contest, and are glad to be able to support her!



Rabbi Olitzky speaks to the Jewish Federation of Ottawa

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On November 29th, JOI Executive Director Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky spoke to members of the Jewish Federation of Ottawa at its semi-annual meeting. Rabbi Olitzky spoke on the future of the North American Jewish communities, and his belief that we are in “an epoch of transition.”

Michael Regenstreif of the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin wrote a piece on Rabbi Olitzky’s visit, highlighting some major points of the talk in the December 12th issue:

Click the article to view full-size.



The Relationship between Outreach to the Unengaged and Outreach to those who are Intermarried

JOI has been in the outreach business since its inception nearly 25 years ago. Throughout its history it has developed an expertise in intermarriage. Thus, communal professionals, volunteer leaders, community planners, couples, and family members seek the advice and guidance of JOI’s professional staff. As a result, JOI has developed a reputation in the field. But JOI is not solely focused on the needs of those who are intermarried and their families, and the community institutions that want to welcome them in. Rather, as experts in all things outreach (that is, outreach best practices), JOI’s professional staff applies its expertise to a variety of target populations, particularly those who are unengaged—sometimes referred to as those on the periphery of the Jewish community. Among the largest segments of that population, those who are unaffiliated and unengaged, is the intermarried. That now includes the growing population of adult children of intermarriage. So, while it seems that JOI’s work is exclusively reserved to the intermarried, its work is far more comprehensive of what is the greatest issue facing the North American Jewish community today: reaching less-engaged Jews and unaffiliated intermarried families and their children.



Something for the Christmas Tree

A lot of conversation in the inter-married world at this time of year is about the so-called “December Dilemma.” How do we celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas? I was raised by two Jewish parents in a neighborhood with only two other Jewish families. Each year my dad set up the white fake Christmas tree upon which we hung silver, blue, and white tinsel and ornaments. Each night of Hanukkah, we got to open two presents – one practical (underwear, socks) and one fun (books, bikes, dolls). If there were any presents left over (and there always were!) we got to open those on Christmas morning. My father didn’t have much of a religious upbringing, but my mother was raised in a modern Orthodox family before there was such a thing as modern Orthodox.

But back to the tree … I don’t remember if we ever had anything to put on the top. I am certain we didn’t put a “Christian” star – but I wish we had one of these. The magazine we all read on the plane, SkyMall, has introduced a Christmas tree topper geared towards families who celebrate both holidays.

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Support the Portland Jewish Academy with just $1!

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Here at JOI, we don’t just look at the current state of the Jewish community, we also look to the future. One of the seminars at our Judaism 2030 conference back in May was to speak to Jewish teens, and to hear about their Jewish experience thus far. They are, after all, the future of the Jewish people, so it is important for Jewish communal professionals to know how they define being Jewish, and what it means to them.

Going to Israel is often an important right of passage for a Jewish teen, and this trip can help shape their Jewish identities. The eight grade class at the Portland Jewish Academy in Portland, OR, is currently raising money for their trip to Israel this spring, and have shown just how creative this generation can be by putting together a fundraising video. The students are asking people to donate just $1 each, and then to pass the video on to their family and friends. Their hope is that the video will go viral, and that the bulk of their fundraising will be received through this innovative campaign.

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