Weblog Entries for February 2012

Introducing the Seder Survival Guide

Passover is a wonderful time for families to come together. While the prospect of hosting a seder for the first time can be quite daunting, being raised in a Jewish household affords you a familiarity with the Passover story and its greater themes of hardship, survival and freedom. Preparing the food, selecting the haggadot (seder guides), and answering your children’s questions are all part of this significant Jewish holiday, and having attending seders as a child may help you to better prepare your home and your family for Passover.

But what if you never grew up attending seders, yet are still committed to raising Jewish children? What if you want to attend a seder with your family (or even host one!) and want to feel empowered enough to ask and answer questions about Passover with your children? It is for these parents—those who are in intermarried/interpartnered relationships raising Jewish children—that The Mothers Circle now offers a FREE holiday prep-class, the Seder Survival Guide. In this workshop, participants will have the chance to explore the story and themes of Passover; and learn how to prepare for the holiday’s unique culinary traditions, how to answer their children’s questions, and how to engage the family throughout the evening meal!

The Seder Survival Guide serves as a pathway to make Passover as accessible and fun as possible for parents in intermarried/interpartnered relationships. For Jewish communities and organizations looking for new ways to engage these young families, the session offers a unique environment, conducive both to Jewish learning as well as the essential development of relationships between young parents from intermarried/interpartnered couples. If your community is ripe for a change and looking for a new Passover program, host a Seder Survival Guide! To learn about the program and its curriculum, contact The Mothers Circle National Coordinator, Marley Weiner at

Purim — story of intermarriage gone right?

With Purim just around the corner, it’s time to reflect on the story behind the holiday. For many of us, we picture making hamentashen in Hebrew school, and attending Purim carnivals at local synagogues and Jewish Community Centers. But the real story of Purim has little to do with delicious cookies and face-painting. One could even make an argument that it is one of the best historical demonstrations of a successful intermarriage. In the article below, originally posted in the Washington Jewish Week, JOI Executive Director Kerry Olitzky discusses why we should celebrate not just what Esther did for her people during Purim, but also the success of her interfaith marriage.

It sounds like an everyday story: A beautiful young Jewish woman marries a rich and powerful non-Jewish man.

She’s raised in an acculturated upper-class household, where the religion of power and influence is of greater importance than the religion of her ancestors. Synagogue attendance and Jewish education are not priorities.

So when our heroine meets a non-Jew who can give her everything she wants and more, they marry. Eventually she comes to identify with her people and, luckily for all of us, her husband also throws in his lot with the Jews at a crucial moment in history.

The Purim narrative is rarely seen through the prism of a successful interfaith marriage, yet clearly the holiday we celebrate is based on the relationship between a Jewish woman and a non-Jewish man.


Transforming a Taste of Matzah into a Lifetime of Engagement, Version 2012

Two weeks ago, the Jewish Outreach Institute welcomed 60 Jewish communal professionals and volunteer leaders to discover how to create new access points to Jewish life this Passover. “Gathering” for an interactive webinar, participants from across North America learned how to bring JOI’s signature Passover in the Matzah Aisle program to markets and grocery stores in their communities.

Passover in the Matzah Aisle serves as “step one” in a strategy to find individuals and families who are minimally or not at all engaged with Jewish life (including many intermarried families) and offer them a positive Jewish communal connection. It is an entry point program for introducing them to meaningful and non-threatening Jewish experiences, and supporting their increased participation in Jewish life.


“Money Makes the World Go Round”

As the North American Jewish community continues to open the tent to interfaith families, Jews of color, LGBT Jews, and all those who choose to welcome Judaism into their and their family’s lives, we must be able to provide compelling answers to a simple question: “Why be Jewish?” In essence, we are attempting to answer “what’s in it for me?” through programming and engaging activities that welcome and include. As the article “Money Makes the World Go Round” by Abigail Pickus in eJewish Philanthropy explains, the Jewish community is beginning to think outside the box in answering this question, and new creative solutions are beginning to pay off.

The Jewish Communal Fund of New York, in fact, has seen a significant increase in the number of Next Gen fund holders under the age of 40, according to Michelle Lebowits, Director of their NextGen Philanthropy. But true to the individualized nature of these generations, young people are giving their way.

Young Jews will no longer affiliate simply because their parents and grandparents were affiliated. Instead, they seek meaningful experiences that speak both to their particular Jewish identity and to the universal ideals that they hold dear as a result of a Jewish upbringing. However, when they are given meaningful answers to the question of “Why be Jewish?” they will engage in Jewish communal life and support Jewish causes. As the Jewish community moves forward, it must consider what it is that the average Jew finds meaningful about their heritage, and use those values and traditions as gateways to deeper Jewish involvement.

The Jewish Community in Cuba

I just returned from an incredible mission to visit the Jewish community of Cuba—with Anshe Emet Memorial Temple, under the leadership of my good friend and colleague Rabbi Bennett Miller. Community is the correct term. While there are Jews scattered in several cities throughout Cuba (a total population approximating 1500 in an island country the size of England), they really consider themselves one community, and act toward one another that way. Cuba is a country of contrasts and contradictions, as is the Jewish community there. Bennett Miller aptly put it this way: “What you see is not always real. And what is real is not always what you see.” But there are two things I was reminded of during my visit: First, the Jewish spirit is indestructible no matter what odds it faces, and second, intermarriage (which is estimated at 95% in Cuba) can be a way to grow the community rather than diminish it.

Like many Hebrew words that are really value constructs, the word that went through my mind during the visit was bitachon. Much more than “security” or “insurance” (as modern Hebrew would have it), the word really means “indestructible”, and is used in reference to the Jewish people. In the case of the Jewish community of Cuba, there is no better word. While out-migration has undermined the community (from a population of 15,000 in pre-Castro Cuba), the community is now experiencing growth, primarily through those who are marrying into the Jewish community. And against all odds, there are those who are building community for those who are left—and for those on the outside who seek it.

Intermarriage is almost a given in Cuba, as is a welcome mat for those who marry in. While the Jewish community there can learn a lot from what we have to offer, this lesson is one that the Jewish community of Cuba can certainly teach us here in North America.

FaceTime Shabbat with the Grandparents!

Thanks to the purchase of a new iPhone and tech-savvy parents with an iPad, this past Friday night my parents were able to light the Shabbat candles with my two-year old daughter—while she was in the bathtub, no less.

What made this moment all the more significant is the fact that my daughter is being raised in an interfaith household. It is important to my parents to have Jewish experiences with her, even from another state; and with the help of technology like FaceTime, they can.

We’ve been using FaceTime religiously (so to speak) since I upgraded my iPhone last week. So as we started bath-time, I decided to reach out to my folks (who recently joined the Grandparents Circle listserve and have been looking for ways to share their Judaism with my daughter). They were just getting ready to sit down to dinner, so they lit the candles and said the blessing while my daughter looked on.

My daughter’s reaction? She tried to blow out the candles through the phone and started asking about a cake. (She’s two years old, after all, so candles must mean cake!) But her grandparents couldn’t have been more pleased. And while our daughter doesn’t understand the full significance of it right now, lighting the Shabbat candles is a Jewish activity I hope we’ll be sharing frequently in the years to come. My wife (who is not Jewish) also appreciates the sharing of this tradition. To her, lighting the candles means bringing family together and sharing our cultures— something important to both of us. With the help of modern technology, and my parents, we are creating a foundation that will always underlie our daughter’s Jewish identity as she grows up.

So what’s next? Maybe a FaceTime seder?

Assimilation: A Melting Pot or a Salad Bowl?

American society has moved from a melting pot of “sameness” into a salad bowl of diversity, where people are proud to be different and show it. Supporting interfaith families who choose to raise Jewish children is only part of the conversation.

Paul Golin, Associate Executive Director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, believes that the word “assimilation” doesn’t really describe what happened to most American Jews, and that intermarriage is not synonymous with assimilation-out-of-existence for the Jewish community. In a recent article in “Chai Lights” (PDF) the newsletter of the Pacific Community of Cultural Jews, he discusses his views on assimilation and intermarriage:

“A growing percentage of the organized Jewish community now recognizes intermarriage as an opportunity for growth,” Golin says, “and not the exit that was once presumed.” Many intermarried couples raise their children Jewish. Golin says, “When our organization, the Jewish Outreach Institute, began in 1987, we had to spend over a decade advocating that intermarriage does not automatically mean the end of Judaism in that household, and that the community needs to welcome interfaith families.” Our movement is helping to stem the tide of assimilation by welcoming intermarried couples, thus providing a comfortable Jewish experience for the children. “I would actually suggest that liberal and secular Jews stop seeking motivation from demographic fears,” Golin says, “and instead focus on Jewish meaning and values as the most important step for continuing to grow our community.”

The major question nowadays, as Golin states, “is about strength-of-connection to Judaism.” People who walk away from Judaism do so not because of the pull of assimilation, but because Judaism is no longer speaking to them. So, we have to ask ourselves how to re-create connections to Judaism for less-engaged and intermarried families, and how to encourage them to celebrate their diversity not only as Jewish families or families raising Jewish children, but within the Jewish community from each other, to show how we all contribute to a thriving American Jewish community.

Is Lady Grantham Jewish?

Being a Jewish teenager in Los Angeles in the 1970s, I was sent to camp to learn about being Jewish. I went. The boys were cute. But I quickly tired of the conversation around “who is a Jew?” and “who says who is a Jew?” I just felt that if someone thought they were Jewish it was good enough for me. Even asking the question seems to create barriers to participation. Yet, when watching television programs or movies, I often find myself wondering if some characters are Jewish or not. It is not always explicitly stated, except perhaps in holiday-themed episodes, but some characters with seemingly Jewish names must but Jewish, right?

Which brings me to this article about Lady Grantham and the BBC Masterpiece Series Downton Abby. Is Lady Grantham Jewish? Who gets to say if she is or isn’t? In this particular case, the question arises from the fact that Lady Grantham is “the beautiful daughter of Isidore Levinson, a dry goods multi millionaire from Cincinnati.” Marc Tracy, the author of the article, does quite a bit of research to uncover if Lady Grantham’s father was or wasn’t Jewish (yes, I know we’re talking about a fictional character), and discovers that he probably was.


The Religion Inquisition?

For the North American Jewish community, religion can sometimes be a taboo subject. Many American Jews describe themselves as culturally Jewish, thinking Judaism as a religion doesn’t seem relevant to their lives. Moreover, discussing God or practicing ritual with meaning can be seen as a social snafu. In many corners of the American Jewish population, the “opiate-for-the-masses” attitude regarding religion prevails. This rather condescending mindset stands on the opinion that anyone with religious beliefs is not a thinker. How this attitude affects the more spiritually-inclined, especially those seeking to convert or recent Jews-by-choice, is one that Jews by birth should be aware of and take into consideration. A few weeks ago, Lindsy Van Gelder, a Jew-by-choice, explained her experience of telling her friends about her decision to convert to Judaism in the Jewish Daily Forward article, “A Fraught Journey to Judaism”:

Several friends whose lives seemed to be no less screwed up than mine expressed alarm when they heard my plans, their premise being that no intelligent person would turn to religion except to salve a deep existential wound; hence, things with me must be far more horrendous than they had realized…This holding up of a secular cross against the vampire of religions was true of recovering Christians and lifelong atheists, but among the most adamant were the pastrami Jews who hadn’t been in a synagogue for decades.

That her conversations with fellow Jews proved to be so “fraught” begs a number of questions. Are we becoming intolerant of theism and new believers? Is Jewish skepticism of God and religion imposing on others’ experiences of Judaism? It is true that there are many active participants of the Jewish community who do not feel that belief in God or the meaning in Jewish ritual are important to their Jewish identities; however, some downplay these aspects of Judaism even to newcomers, unaware that for some, these rituals and beliefs represent the core of their Jewish selves. Certainly the relative lack of God-speak in modern Jewish dialogue (beyond prayer) does not help the situation. However, the paucity should not lead to intolerance, nor preclude us from welcoming conversations about God and belief without disparagement. In fact, we have the obligation to welcome all newcomers who looking for ways to find meaning in Jewish life; an obligation that comes right from the Torah.


Asking the Important Questions

My bubbe (grandmother in Yiddish) was one of those classic Russian Jewish immigrants, the last of her generation in our family. She was less interested in whether I learned something new at school than whether I asked good questions. And when we lived on the second floor of her home when I was a young child, that is what she would ask me each day when I came home from school. It was never: “What did you do in school today?” She was smart enough to know that the answer would probably be, “Nothing.” Instead, she would probe: “What question did you ask today? Was it a good question?” Perhaps it was that push that shaped my (sometimes overly) critical eye even as a young child.

Questions are important in Judaism. It isn’t coincidental that one of the many stereotypes about Jews is focused on how we answer questions with questions. While that may or may not be true, I don’t think that we spend enough time answering the big questions—especially in the context of our programs and institutions.

Because of the success of the project called Ask Big Questions, developed by Rabbi Josh Feigelson when he was at Northwestern University Hillel (a project that we at JOI helped shape as a result of a partnership between Hillel and JOI, funded by the Samuel Bronfman Foundation), Hillel International has taken the program national—an important step forward and a recognition of its importance. The questions posed are mostly personal—more existential, as they should be.

But there are other questions that the Jewish community has to ask, as well. Of the various questions being posed by the Jewish community today, we at JOI are thrilled at the change we see in some of these questions. In particular, even in the most inflexible institutions we have seen a real change in attitude from “Should we engage those who are intermarried?” to “How do we effectively engage the intermarried?” And even more, we at JOI have many of the answers.

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