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Weblog Entries for March 2012

Seder Survival Guide Prepares Interfaith Families for Passover

In the weeks leading up to Passover, organizations throughout North America are hosting a variety of programming around the holiday. Many of these organizations have chosen to implement JOI’s Seder Survival Guide, a free half-day program designed to help interfaith families make the seder more engaging for themselves and their children.

The Seder Survival Guide teaches everything from how to select a haggadah (seder guide) that is meaningful to your family, to which foods are kosher for Passover, to a creative and open-ended take on the Four Questions. The participants in many of these programs have told us how helpful it was for them to learn more about family-friendly options for haggadot and activities during the seder, as well as the “why” behind many Passover rituals (such as why some Jews eat kitniyot— rice, legumes, and beans— and others do not). They come away from the class feeling better prepared to celebrate the holiday, whether it be at home or at a relative’s or friend’s home.

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Shevet Think Tank - What Does a “Jewish Family” Look Like?

Earlier this week, I attended a think tank for Shevet: the Jewish Family Education Exchange. Shevet’s goal is to provide Jewish family educators with the resources and support they need to teach Jewish families of all stripes. As part of this think tank, the staff of Shevet focused on broadening the scope of what the Jewish community pictures when it thinks of a “Jewish family.” I was asked to present to the staff and faculty of Shevet about how best to reach and support interfaith families and welcome them into the Jewish community.

My message to the Shevet staff, and to the whole organized Jewish community, is that interfaith families have the potential to greatly strengthen our existing institutions, and to help build the Jewish community of the future. Through our Mothers Circle course, JOI was the first organization to actively reach out and provide support exclusively for women of other backgrounds raising Jewish children. And we have learned that there is tremendous potential in interfaith families to create meaning, connection, and engagement with Judaism and with the organized Jewish community.

As the Jewish community moves forward, we must re-evaluate how we think about the Jewish family in order to serve all those who wish to connect with Judaism. As part of this process, it is important for Jewish organizations like Shevet to actively invite people doing work with traditionally marginalized segments of the Jewish community to speak about their experiences in serving, and being a part of, those populations. I would like to commend Shevet for taking concrete steps to serve the entire diverse Jewish community, and thank them for providing me with the opportunity to address their faculty.



Sitting Shiva Away From Home

I got up from shiva yesterday morning for my mother. My mother didn’t die in the community in which she was born; she didn’t die in the community in which I was raised. Instead, she died in the community in which we moved my parents to about 10 years ago, closer to one of my brothers, so that she could be cared for by one of her sons. As a result, I spent the beginning of my shiva period in a hotel. It seems that this is a growing phenomenon, given the mobility of the generations that make up the North American Jewish community today.

As a result, I was forced to go to a local synagogue for services—until I was able to come home and be surrounded and supported by my own community. And while I worried about what I might encounter, this congregation was incredibly welcoming and supportive. They saw me as a newcomer, and they quickly discerned that I was a mourner. As a result, they reached out to me—for the time I was in their community.

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Why Be Jewish?

I often argue that if the Jewish educational question of the last generation was “How to be Jewish?” then the Jewish educational question of this generation is “Why be Jewish?” Moreover, Jewish communal organizations and institutions, particularly synagogues, have to drill down even further. They have to ask, “Why be Jewish in the context of this community?” In other words, what benefit is there to participating in this community? How will your life—the life of your family and children—be made more meaningful as a result of participating in this community? These are some of the questions I asked of communal leaders with whom I met recently in Dayton, OH.

These questions are also critical to the issues relevant to engagement. For me, engagement may lead to affiliation; but affiliation does not necessarily lead to engagement. This is another of the myth-shattering statements that I often share with communities and institutions as I work with them to reach those less-engaged Jews, as well as unaffiliated interfaith families, both of which are segments of the largest movement of the North American Jewish community—the unaffiliated, the unengaged.

I invite you to enter the dialogue about “why be Jewish?” Here is where I would like to start the conversation about engagement (and you can quote me, or quote us at JOI): “We want to increase participation in the community because there is value to individuals when we help them find meaning in tradition, comfort in community, and wisdom through Jewish education.” So, how do you answer the question “why be Jewish?”



The Mothers Circle - Houston

This week, I had the pleasure of speaking with one of our enthusiastic Mothers Circle facilitators, Rabbi Adrienne Scott, the Associate Rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel of Houston, TX about her Mothers Circle group and its successes. In our conversation, Rabbi Scott noted the many benefits of the program both for the participants and the congregation, as well as indicated her hope for the continuation of such programming.

Why? Since participating in the class, The Mothers Circle women have felt more comfortable creating Jewish homes, getting involved in synagogue life, and considering new options for their children’s Jewish education. In turn, Congregation Beth Israel has created a community for these women to join, and the synagogue can now pride itself on actively welcoming non-Jewish spouses/partners into their community. These women are not only being acknowledged, but actually served! As Rabbi Scott explained in the March 2012 Congregation Beth Israel bulletin:

The participants in The Mothers Circle and I have enjoyed our time together. It has been helpful for each woman to learn from one another in a safe place, where previously each person felt alone. By gathering together to discuss issues that are shared by everyone, tensions are diffused and questions are answered…. It is my hope that The Mothers Circle is a program we will continue to offer. These sensitive religious issues are important for every member of our congregation and most especially our non-Jewish congregants who are equally dedicated to raising Jewish children with strong morals and ethics.

As a native Houstonian, I feel especially proud to be working with Rabbi Scott and Congregation Beth Israel, a synagogue that embraces intermarried/interpartnered couples in the community and helps them create Jewish homes. Because the congregation has offered programming that creates a safe space, actively invited participants (not just though emails!), and publicized the importance of non-Jewish members in the community, intermarried/interpartnered couples know that Beth Israel can be a home for them. I hope their work in creating a big Jewish tent continues to foster Congregation Beth Israel’s leadership and growth in the Houston Jewish community.



There’s No Shame in Asking… Your Rabbi

I was nervous about asking my rabbi to marry us. Not because my wife is not Jewish– that wasn’t the issue. I was nervous because I haven’t paid dues to the synagogue in over a year, and have been ambiguous about my membership. I hadn’t been to any synagogue events in over a year, and wasn’t participating in other ways either. If I essentially didn’t belong to the synagogue, could I still consider him my rabbi?

So when I picked up the phone and tentatively said “hi,” hoping he would remember me before I made my semi-audacious request, I felt somewhat relieved when his friendly voice answered my request with “sure.”

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Giving a Bar Mitzvah Boy a Voice

The concept of Big Tent Judaism is something that drew me to JOI when I first applied here last summer. The idea that all are welcome—intermarried/interpartnered families, Jews of color, Jews-by-choice—is one that I was raised to believe in, yet rarely saw practiced before working here. Now, almost every day, an article arrives in my inbox telling of a community who is opening its tent to those on the periphery of Jewish life. One group that is often forgotten about, however, is the physically and intellectually disabled Jews who often get lost in the shuffle of a Jewish community, especially the children.

So, when I came across the story of Matthew Emmi, an autistic boy from Andover, Massachusetts, I was encouraged to hear about a synagogue that found a way to help him become a Bar Mitzvah. Matthew cannot read or write, let alone recite his Haftorah, but thanks to the wonders of an iPad, he was able to not only participate, but largely lead, the service for his Bar Mitzvah. By tapping various icons on the tablet’s screen, Matthew was able to “call up” members of his family to the bimah for their blessings, and, through the voice of the synagogue’s cantor, even “recite” the Sh’ma.

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”Our Jewish Home” Opens the Tent in St. Louis

A longstanding Jewish education program in St. Louis, “Our Jewish Home,” takes the Big Tent Judaism principle of going to where people are literally—by providing Jewish education in people’s homes. The program provides an educator to visit a family’s home and conduct lessons throughout the year, often involving the entire family. Focusing on an age range of 3 to 6 year olds, lessons deal with everything from the basics of Passover and Shabbat, to the High Holidays.

Now in its 18th year, educators tailor the lessons not just to the age-group, but to each individual child and family, creating a personal experience for all involved. And the program has expanded beyond its original city of St. Louis to now include places like Philadelphia, Montreal, and San Francisco. This unique program is giving dozens of families access to Jewish education they may not otherwise be able to receive. By going to people where they are, in their homes, “Our Jewish Home” is opening the tent of each community it offers the program in. That’s why we were proud to have provided a grant to “Our Jewish Home” in the early 2000s through our grant-giving mechanism at that time, the Jewish Connection Partnership, in order to help them provide such a service in more intermarried households. We congratulate them on their ever-expanding success, and look forward to see where they take the program in the future!



My Amazing Travels with JFNA, JAFI, and the Joint

One of the many amazing things about traveling on behalf of JFNA (Jewish Federations of North America), JAFI (Jewish Agency for Israel), and the Joint (American Joint Jewish Distribution Committee) is the incredible access these organizations have around the world. In the space of a few days, we met with the Director of the Ministry of Defense in Israel (in the Defense Compound in Israel); the Prime Minister’s chief advisor and his chief spokesman (in the cabinet room); and Natan Scharansky (now leading the Jewish Agency) among others. And in Hungary, we met with the Israeli Ambassador to Hungary; the American Ambassador to Hungary (in her official residence); and one of two Jewish members of the political party leading the Parliament, among others. During this trip with 30 colleagues on the Rabbinic Cabinet of the JFNA, we also met with numerous every-day people and every-day heroes, those who are facing the daily challenges of living.

Among the many people we met were Rabbi Haim Amselem, a Haredi Member of Knesset who was thrown out of the SHAS party for his liberal views—relatively speaking—on various issues of personal status, including and most particularly, conversion. We also met his chief advisor, Rabbi Dov Lippman, who figured significantly in the battle against religious extremism in Bet Shemesh, where we spent the day with the teachers, students and parents of the Orot School for Girls and where Dov Lippman lives. While I always see an incredible amount of light whenever I visit Israel, even amidst the various challenges it faces which we learned once more about—such as the threat of a nuclear Iran—I was lifted by the spirit of everyone we met in Bet Shemesh and by these two Haredi men.

I am sure that there are many things that Rabbis Lippman and Amselem and I disagree about. But I think that they are committed to the same Big Tent Judaism concept to which I am committed: a Jewish community that allows for lots of people, many of whom may disagree with one another, but nonetheless believe in the other’s legitimate place in the tent. While the road ahead still remains long and circuitous, I am much more optimistic today than I was 10 days ago before I ventured to Israel.



Special Presentation: Interfaith Romance, Gender, and Pop Culture

For those of you in the Boston, MA area, we encourage you to check out author Keren McGinity’s presentation “Interfaith Romance, Gender, and Pop Culture.” Dr. McGinity, a Brandeis professor, and author of Still Jewish: A History of Women and Intermarriage in America will be speaking at Newton North High School on March 15th.

Have you or someone you know ever loved or been highly attracted to someone outside your religion? Join Brandeis U. Professor Keren R. McGinity for an evening of entertainment, history, and culture, as she weaves together interfaith romance, gender, and popular culture, revealing how love across religious lines has been depicted in movies and on TV–throughout our culture in other words. You just might be surprised to discover how life imitates art–and creates myths in the process. A signing of Ms. McGinity’s new book, Still Jewish: A History of Women and Intermarriage in America will follow the presentation.

To register for the program, click here.



A Shout-out to [Jewish] Mothers

A few days ago, a friend posted a video on Facebook in honor of all Jewish mothers. It’s an advertisement for a tea company, but what struck me was that while it does celebrate Jewish mothers, you don’t know it’s only about them until the very end. Until then, the commercial could be about mothers anywhere.

And that got me thinking about Jewish mothers. They come in all shapes, sizes, denominations, and skin colors. In fact, Jewish mothers look a lot like non-Jewish mothers; and Jewish mothers act a lot like non-Jewish mothers. They care for their children, make meals, celebrate holidays, try to balance work and family, carpool, shop, fret, push and prod…

So when we are working to create a more welcoming environment in the Jewish community, we have to remember that we have to welcome everyone, because we can’t tell by looking at people what their religious backgrounds or interests are. We have to actually talk to them and find out. We can’t assume that a family is or isn’t Jewish, or that a parent is or isn’t Jewish. In fact, we have to assume that everyone is interested, not the other way around.

That’s what the Big Tent Judaism Coalition is all about. Having organizations in the community who have the interest of the “client” at heart – no membership quotas, no fundraising goals, no denominational leaning—just people who will constantly ask the important questions: “What does the person want from the Jewish community?” and “How can we help them find it?”

And here’s to all mothers everywhere!



I Am a Road Warrior

Among those who staff non-profit organizations in the Jewish community, I am known as a “road warrior.” There are many of us—Jewish communal professionals who spend a lot of time on the road. In my case, most of my travels are related to my goal to promote “Big Tent Judaism,” a term that we coined at the Jewish Outreach Institute to refer to the notion of an inclusive Jewish community. When I am asked to define what I mean as a “big tent,” I often say that the Jewish community is big enough and strong enough to contain those people with whom I disagree. I may disagree with many people in the Jewish community and the positions that they may take, but I vehemently argue for their right for a place in the tent.

Not all of my travels are for the strict purpose of spreading the message of an inclusive Jewish community. Sometimes, I travel in order to learn more about the community and its efforts around the world. This helps me to understand the community better and emboldens my efforts to bring more people into the community, especially from its periphery. I just returned from one such trip: a mission of the Rabbinic Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America to Hungary and Israel. While I have been to Hungary before and am blessed to travel to Israel at least once a year, this trip promised to be different. It gave me the opportunity to engage in dialogue with rabbis representing the various points along the continuum of the Jewish religious community. It also provided me access to parts of the Jewish community and government that only JAFI (Jewish Agency for Israel), the Joint (the Joint Distribution Committee) and the JFNA (Jewish Federations of North America) can provide.

And so I joined 30 colleagues on an 8-day journey of exploration and learning. This is particularly important to me as a loving critic of the Federation system in the United States and Canada, pushing Federations in the local communities with which we at JOI work to reimagine and reinvent themselves so that they can continue to provide service to the Jewish community. I have to admit that this trip hardened my resolve. Everything we saw and everything we experienced, the good work that these organizations are doing in particular in these two countries (and in Jewish communities throughout the world) made me even more determined to help fix whatever may be broken in local communities in the United States and Canada.

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Checking in: Empowering Ruth in Forest Hills, NY

Rabbi Elizabeth Wood has served as Associate Rabbi Educator at the Reform Temple of Forest Hills since September 2010. She is currently facilitating the temple’s first Empowering Ruth group, which began in October 2011 and will continue through March 2012. Also be sure to check out her blog.

In my work as a Rabbi, I had heard about JOI and their successful Mothers Circle program. So you can imagine my intrigue when I heard about Empowering Ruth - a continuing education program for women who had already converted to Judaism. What intrigued me so much was the idea that it was intended for both members and non-members alike, that it would be a way to continue educating women about Judaism as they explore their new Jewish lives, and that one of its main goals was to create friendship, trust, and community.

As the leader of this program at the Reform Temple of Forest Hills, I am delighted by the members and non-members who we have attracted from the greater Queens, NY area. And because Queens is such a diverse neighborhood, we have an incredibly diverse group, rich with stories of their past - a few African American women, one from Japan, and another from Eastern India. Their insights and stories always fill our learning with laughter, joy, and poignancy.

One of the greatest strengths of this program has been the way in which it has fostered community. These women in our Empowering Ruth program are their own community. They share, trust, and care for one another. And they’ve also begun to join our greater synagogue community - many of them bringing their small children to Temple Tots, religious school, and other holiday events that we hold. On top of that, they are also connected to a greater community of women who participate in Empowering Ruth throughout the country. They can connect with them on a listserve and stay connected to their learning and this class even after our time together is complete.

I am so grateful for the opportunity that JOI has provided these women and our synagogue to continue learning, growing, and creating sacred community with one another. I always look forward to my Tuesday evenings with the ER ladies!





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