Weblog Entries for January 2012

It’s Complicated: How Can the Jewish Community Embrace the Children of Intermarriage?

In this article in the Daily Kos, author Sara Davies describes in poignant detail the challenge of being caught between often contradictory views that the Jewish community has of children of intermarriage. On the one hand, many Jews rejected her and her family as “not Jewish enough” and “unwelcome.” On the other hand, as a result of her Jewish heritage, there were many in the community who claimed that she was already Jewish but did not provide her with a mechanism, such as conversion, that would allow her to become unambiguously Jewish.

The challenge of growing up with two parents of different religious backgrounds stems from the complexity of managing an often intricate network of family loyalties and ethnic pride. As a child of intermarried parents myself, I often walk the delicate line between honoring both sides of my heritage (see my post last year on attending church on Christmas) and feeling a tremendous affinity for Judaism, while at the same time fending off questions from numerous segments of the Jewish community as to why I don’t plan to convert.

While this article explores the challenges and pain that often come from having a complicated Jewish identity, I would like to assert that children of interfaith families have a tremendous gift to offer the Jewish community. Because we have a multiplicity of identities to choose from, we are in a unique position to question and think critically about what it means for us to be Jews, thus forcing Jewish institutions to think seriously about the question of “why be Jewish?” and to create new and innovative answers to that question.

The challenge is that the Jewish community can only benefit from the gifts that children of intermarriage have to offer if they are willing to reach out and invite them in. As our Jewish community diversifies, we have much to learn, and we should consider the needs of all who wish to join us.

Jewish Kids, Non-Jewish Moms

Raising children can be difficult enough, but add in raising children in a different faith than your own, and the task becomes even more trying. This week, Johanna Ginsberg wrote a wonderful article for the New Jersey Jewish News about mothers of other religious backgrounds raising Jewish children, which highlights JOI’s Mothers Circle, a free program for this very demographic.

These mothers, whose backgrounds range from Catholic to Buddhist to non-religious, have not always had an easy path into the Jewish community. Some faced criticism and questions, especially pertaining to why they have chosen not to convert. However, more and more synagogues are making an effort to reach out to non-Jewish mothers raising Jewish children, realizing that they are often the force behind creating a Jewish home.

Tracy Lobel found Temple Shalom, a Reform congregation in Succasunna, welcoming and forthcoming from the outset. In fact, when she walked into the synagogue for the first time several years ago to enroll her oldest son, who is now 12, in religious school, she was greeted warmly and invited to join the religious school committee. She declined, explaining that she isn’t Jewish. “They said, ‘Oh, that’s okay. Maybe it’s even better because you will bring a different opinion from the rest of us,’” she said.

From December Dilemmas to standing on the bimah (raised platform or stage where the Torah is read) at a child’s bar/bat mitzvah, mothers of other religious backgrounds may confront many issues while raising Jewish children. I am excited to work for an organization that offers such a valuable program to these women, through a 16-session course, 3-session mini course, holiday prep classes, and a national listserve. If you are, or know some who is, a woman of another religious background raising Jewish children, please check out The Mothers Circle, and if there is a circle near you!

Welcoming LGBT Jews Into Synagogues

The Welcoming Synagogues project, highlighted in a recent article in the Huffington Post by Jessica Youseffi, seeks to not just welcome lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Jews—and their non-Jewish significant others, when applicable—but offer programming and support so that these individuals feel welcome and included. Dr. Joel L. Kushner of Hebrew Union College, the organization that first piloted the Welcoming Synagogues program, advocates that inclusion isn’t successful unless it is an active and on-going process.

He outlined four steps to inclusion: content, visibility, training and language. In implementation, this might mean having visual images on the website of two dads and a child, training clergy and staff on services the community offers for LGBT Jews, or ensuring the membership forms don’t just say “mother and father” but “parent or guardian.”

Kushner’s suggestions fit within JOI’s Big Tent Judaism’s 10 Principles of Inclusion, which outline methods for institutions to welcome intermarried families, Jews of color, LGBT Jews, and all who either consider themselves or their households Jewish or are involved in the Jewish community. The idea of creating not just a welcoming physical space, but a welcoming web space, is one we also advocate for, in addition to training “front-line” staff to ensure they are greeting all members with the same open arms.

Yet while it’s clear that in many ways “welcoming” is welcoming, regardless of who approaches our doors, at the same time there are specific sensitivities that need to be addressed depending on the unique needs and interests of each individual. That’s why we at JOI are so supportive of Dr. Kushner’s work and believe the Welcoming Synagogues project will help many synagogues address the specific interests and needs of LGBT Jews. We look forward to helping, particularly on the additional challenges and opportunities inherent in welcoming LGBT Jews in interfaith relationships. And as is implied by the project, it’s not just about weaving a better welcome mat, but making sure we build lasting, meaningful relationships and pathways into Jewish life through ongoing inclusive programming and community activities.

What Kind of “Jewish” are You?

I heard a lecturer once talk about the idea of MOT and MOB– Member of the Tribe and Member of the Book– essentially dividing Jewish identity into two categories. It’s never that simple by the way, but it states the issue well. Am I a Jew because my family was Jewish (MOT) or am I a Jew because I keep Kosher, walk to Shul on Shabbat, obey as many of the 613 mitzvot that I can remember, and can recite the whole Amidah (a very long prayer) from memory (MOB)? Is one better than the other? Can I claim to be “Jewier” than thou? Can you?

It’s certainly a common way to look at our community, and an interesting point that we’ve been debating since the parting of the Red Sea, but it misses one truly important factor. Our community is far more than just MOT’s and MOB’s, and trying to divide it into this one or that one does us all a great disservice. Like any truly vibrant community, homogeny is an illusion. It’s our diversity that makes us interesting and the blending of cultures and practices that keeps things interesting. We are Sephardic and Ashkenazi and Ethiopian. We come from Italy and Spain, Russia and Iran and Tucson, AZ (that would be yours truly) and each culture brings something unique to the celebration of Jewish identity.

Most importantly however, neither idea, MOT or MOB, take into account one of the largest segments of our Community (and I use Community with a capital C here): the wonderful and loving partners of other religious backgrounds who have chosen to marry into a Jewish family. Let’s forget for a moment where we come from, and choose to see and appreciate the choices we’ve made today. While much of our Jewish identity is wrapped up in where we come from, I think we do ourselves harm if we don’t also include where we are going. And where we are going will be defined by everyone who is making this journey with us, not just those of us who were born into the Jewish community, and it’s important that we not forget that.

JOI has spent years advocating for openness and inclusion in our communities. More and more we are seeing the results as organizations around the country are actively reaching out to these families and encouraging them to come and share those most Jewish of values: learning and being a part of something greater. What those open arms say more than anything else is, “You belong here. We value you and we believe there is something here that you will find valuable.”

Was 2011 the Tipping Point for “Public Space Judaism”? has featured an article by JOI Executive Director Rabbi Kerry Olitzky and Associate Executive Director Paul Golin on the progress of the Public Space Judaism model.

A phrase coined by JOI after a landmark study in 2001, Public Space Judaism is the methodology of bringing Judaism to where people are, outside of the walls of our Jewish institutions, and into public spaces such as supermarkets and bookstores. 2011 saw the rise of public space programs from other organizations in the Jewish community, pointing to a rise in the method’s acceptance and success. We are seeing more and more outreach programming for less-engaged Jews and intermarried households, and the success of these programs is encouraging.

Rabbi Olitzky and Paul Golin look forward to what 2012 has in store:

JOI’s outreach comes from a place of genuine optimism about the future of Jewish life in America. This isn’t a desperation membership drive. We’re out there sharing what we love about being Jewish and helping individuals explore their own connections to whatever they find meaningful in our tradition, culture, and/or peoplehood. We look forward to continuing to share what we’ve learned about outreach and engagement with as many Jewish communal professionals and volunteer leaders as we possible can in 2012.

Public Space Judaism can take place almost anywhere, and JOI can provide the resources for your community to run programs like Passover in the Matzah Aisle and Hands-On Hanukkah. We encourage institutions and organizations to continue to look beyond their physical walls and reach out to the community at large, and the Public Space Judaism model that JOI has created allows for greater outreach. We must also keep in mind that it’s not just the location that matters, but what takes place there: outreach methodology includes many other techniques such as data collection, follow-up, and next-step program planning. JOI can offer resources and tools to maximize the potential of these programs, and we look forward to working with new communities in 2012.

Tim Tebow and My Interfaith Relationship

Two things to share about myself:

1. I’m the Jewish half of an interfaith relationship with a fiancée who grew up in a committed Christian culture.

2. I’ve been fairly fascinated (obsessed?) with the Tim Tebow phenomenon. (See the latest eerie commentary from ESPN.)

After bothering a number of Jewish friends and acquaintances with my Tebowmania obsession, I decided to get my fiancee’s reaction. (For the record, she is a very occasional watcher of football and improbably came in third-place in our family’s fantasy football league despite never having played before.)

Her response: In principle, there’s nothing wrong with it. He’s a good guy doing good things. But there’s something about the frequency and public nature of how he does it that seems self-serving. She feels that he should let his acts speak for themselves without having to say it out loud so much, a point she said had been addressed by her minister in sermons long before Tebowmania. (Although according to this ESPN article, he apparently does that as well.)


Changing the Membership Model of Synagogues

Just after the High Holidays, we posted a blog about the wave of synagogues who not only offered free High Holiday services this year, but in same cases threw their membership model out the window completely. Some synagogues here in New York have switched to a model of “pay what you can,” and the idea seems to be spreading.

In an article posted on today, Dan Judson highlights a Boston area synagogue that has changed their membership dues model, and is now seeing a slow and steady increase in membership. Temple Israel of Sharon, MA was seeing a decline in membership, and was not meeting its annual budget. Families were leaving as the synagogue increased dues every year to compensate for the slow economy and rising costs of maintenance. So, after considering several options, the synagogue decided to “scrap” the current model, and replace it with a voluntary system by which families can essentially pay what they want to be members.

While the first two years continued to see a deficit, it was smaller than with the dues system, and this past year actually saw positive numbers, as well as an increase in membership. Creating a system in which people don’t feel like they have to pay encourages them to pay, and the synagogue is finally turning around financially.

Here at JOI, we acknowledge that changes to the synagogue culture like the change seen at Temple Israel, are a slow and steady process. It can be scary for synagogues to let go of the monetary reigns and allow congregants to dictate when and how much they will pay to be members of their local Jewish community. However, in these difficult economic times, new financial models may be worth exploring. We are eager to see what other new membership models synagogues try, particularly those that can not only raise the necessary funds but that also promote inclusion by welcoming in all families regardless of financial standing and the ability to give.

“A Place for Gays in Orthodoxy”

As the gay rights movement has developed and restructured our secular and Jewish worlds, we have witnessed a change in perception regarding gay rights among North Americans. With realistic (and non-stereotypical) gay characters and couples abounding on TV shows, the legalization of gay marriage in the state of New York, and the Conservative movement’s ordination of the first openly gay rabbi in 2011, it comes as no surprise that the Orthodox Jewish community has begun to wrestle with the seeming paradox of open homosexuality in Orthodox practice. While the debate is not new (the 2001 provocative documentary, Trembling Before God certainly attests to this), we must thank Rabbi Steven Greenberg, an openly gay Orthodox rabbi, for his dedication to shaking up the protocol regarding gays in the Orthodox world. His advocacy, both through his words and actions, has pushed the bounds of Halacha (Jewish law).

Rabbi Greenberg’s recent article, “A Place for Gays in Orthodoxy,” in the Jewish Daily Forward, specifically articulates the steps necessary to allow for Orthodox Judaism to make room for gays in the Orthodox community. His words are particularly potent, as they speak to the struggles of gay individuals, both Jewish and non-Jewish alike. Rabbi Greenberg explains:

I was recently told in a single New York City psychiatric clinic there is a suicide attempt by a gay Orthodox person yearly. Sadly, the healthiest of these young people, having read the tea leaves years earlier, decide that they will have no life in the Orthodox world and are no longer frum by the time their parents find out.

Though Rabbi Greenberg does demand Orthodox rabbis to begin to reevaluate their Halachic interpretation of homosexuality, he more importantly calls for actions that can immediately affect the lives of gay individuals dealing with communal rejection. To ensure that gay Orthodox Jews do not desert the movement for more accepting communities, Orthodox Judaism should follow in the footsteps of their sister movements and take ownership of a “welcoming” mindset. It cannot be just the Orthodox family’s acceptance of the gay family member. It cannot be just Rabbi Greenberg and a few Orthodox rabbis who secretly articulate the profound conundrums they face. Instead, “communal expectations,” which can degrade the dignity of gay community members, must be eliminated.


And So You Were Born- Interfaith Education and Technology

We at JOI are always looking for new and innovative ways for parents to educate their children about the diverse world that we live in, which reflect the changing nature of the Jewish community. Recently, we were alerted to a new application for the iPad called “And So You Were Born,” an electronic book that promotes the important values of love and respect for diversity. This electronic book features videos, games, text, and music to help young children learn about different faiths and to feel accepted and welcome in a diverse world.

There are two advantages to presenting interfaith education in a format such as an iPad application. The first is the diversity of material. The application feature quotations from a variety of different faiths, including Ba’hai, Buddhism, and Islam. This exposure will help children to learn not only about the faiths in their own family, but the religions of their friends and others in their community as well. We at the Jewish Outreach Institute are increasingly seeing intermarriages between Jews and people of non-Christian backgrounds such as Islam and Buddhism, and this application could help to address the needs of families from these backgrounds.

The second advantage of this technology is its engaging nature and ease of use. It presents the option of customizing video, text, and audio to include the child’s family and friends, and it provides games so that children can interact with the information beyond the story component. For children who are used to interacting with media such as iPads and iPods, presenting a message of interfaith through these media will feel comfortable and engaged by this virtual story.

We at JOI are excited to see creative use of new technologies in promoting interfaith acceptance and education. In this age of virtual communication, building innovative and low barrier technological applications enables religious educators to meet people where they are.

She’s Jewish, She’s Hindu, and She’s a State Legislator

For 25-year-old Vermont state legislator Kesha Ram, life is about much more than just politics. As the daughter of a Jewish mother and a Hindu father, Ram was raised to cherish and respect both religions. Having already visited India several times, Ram, at the suggestion of her brother, recently visited Israel as part of a Taglit-Birthright trip.

While in Israel, Ram says “it’s important to see ancient spaces and to understand history where it happened.” Spending time in Israel allowed her to reconnect with her Jewish side, and also to bring some political ideas back home. In addition to learning about Israel’s use of solar energy, she would also like to see the United States adopt a voluntary service model similar to the Israel Defense Force’s.

Growing up in an interfaith family in which both religions claim her as their own (Judaism uses matrilineal descent while Hinduism uses patrilineal), has helped shape Kesha Ram into the person she is today, which is, in fact, the youngest state legislator in the country. Ram’s college rabbi attributes this to her open ear and open mind, and I believe that by being raised essentially in two cultures and two religions, she has a greater understanding about not just keeping that open mind, but accepting others’ beliefs and opinions as well.

Here at JOI, we see the adult children of intermarriage as an important part of the future of the Jewish community. 20-somethings like Kesha will help shape this future into a positive, nurturing, and welcoming Jewish community in which all sorts of Jews will be included.

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