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Weblog Entries for April 2012

The Spring Suite of Jewish Holidays

While we are still some weeks away from Shavuot, the culmination of this season, most see the holidays of Passover, Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Memorial Day), Yom HaZikaron (Israel Memorial Day), and Yom Ha’Atzmaut (Israel Independence Day) grouped together, primarily because of their calendar proximity, and do not include Shavuot, as it is among the least celebrated holidays. However, the fact that the Reform movement historically bolstered Shavuot with the placement of confirmation taking place on the holiday, and others renewed the practice of all night study—what is called a Tikkun Layl Shavuot— this unique holiday has found its renaissance in some communities.

So let’s take a look at the observance of this group of spring holidays. Passover remains as one of the two most celebrated holidays in the Jewish calendar, in one form or another, and is second only to Hanukkah. Yom Hashoah, as my colleague Rabbi Eliot Malomet has observed, has become a date marked primarily by survivors of the Holocaust and their families. Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut have become days relevant primarily to what might be called Diaspora Israelis (those Israelis who, irrespective of how many generations removed, live in the U.S).

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How intimidating is your synagogue? Maintenance workers, prayer books, and transliteration…oh my!

Below is an actual conversation we recently had in our office on a Monday morning:

Steven: Hi, Jamie. How was your weekend?
Jamie: Very nice. I went to a Bat Mitzvah at Synagogue ABC on Sunday.
Steven: So, how welcoming was it?
Jamie: Well, when I entered, I was a bit confused about where to go, and a maintenance worker helpfully came up and told me to go upstairs.
Steven: Oh, so very welcoming.
Jamie: Well, when I sat down, no one said anything to me. And then the cantor started the service by saying, “Turn to page 62…” without saying which book. He moved very quickly through the service with brief references to page numbers, so I was lost a lot. There were people there who seemed to know what was happening – I could tell they were regulars.
Steven: So, not unwelcoming, but there were some things that might have left a newcomer feeling a bit intimidated or out of place.
Jamie: Exactly. Have you ever been there?
Steven: Actually, I went there several years ago on a Friday night with my wife, just to check it out. She’s Chinese-American and not Jewish, and I noticed when we sat down, someone quickly came over to us and offered us a transliterated copy of the prayer book, which was very nice. So I always had a very positive impression of the synagogue.

The above conversation could be an example of how people talk about your synagogue or Jewish institution. And it demonstrates some of the little things that can have a big impact on people’s experience and impressions. Your maintenance worker; making clear which book you’re using, as well as mentioning the page number; offering a transliterated copy of the prayer book.

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Where Passover Falls in the Jewish Calendar

I generally do not explore the intricacies of “intercalation” (the way the calendar works) in this blog. They are just too confusing and of little interest to most people. However, I realize that, for some people, the most challenging aspect of entering the Jewish community is to get into the peculiar rhythm of its calendar. And this time of year, even more so than the fall holiday period, is quite confusing. But there is one thing that is unusual this year, even more than in most other years, for those who follow the regular cycle of Torah readings (one of the various things that identifies where we are in the ongoing journey of the Jewish people).

The weekly Torah reading is read publicly on Saturday (Shabbat) afternoons, Monday and Thursday mornings, and Saturday morning. It is also read on Rosh Chodesh (new moon/new month) mornings and festival mornings (and a few holiday afternoons), as well as on fast days. There are two basic systems for the cyclical reading of the Torah—either the annual cycle or the triennial cycle (for more information on the types of Torah reading cycles, click here)—although there are some institutions that have adapted these cycles to fit the needs of their own communities.

This year, because of the way Pesach (Passover) fell on the calendar, we read the beginning of the portion called Shemini on three Sabbath afternoons and numerous times during the week before and after Pesach (a total of eight times which, coincidentally, is what the root work for shemini means). While this is a peculiarity of the calendar, it is worth exploring that this portion has been read so many times, and why.

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Blessings from the Bimah: Who’s Allowed Up There?

When planning for a Jewish lifecycle event with family members of other faiths, the question often arises about whether non-Jewish family members should be allowed to participate in the ceremony, or more specifically, recite Hebrew blessings, especially when the ceremony takes place on a bimah. There is no one answer, and even synagogues within the same movement do not always agree.

In the Spring 2012 edition of Reform Judaism, the magazine distributed by the Union of Reform Judaism, the “Debatable” section posed the following question: May Non-Jews Recite Any Blessings from the Bimah?

The magazine includes responses from two rabbis: one who allows non-Jews to recite Hebrew blessings from the bimah, and one who does not. Both, in my mind, make solid cases for their reasoning. However, I side with Rabbi Elliot Strom’s decision to allow non-Jewish family members to participate. I was also moved by what prompted his decision—a non-Jewish father who wanted to recite a blessing with his wife for their son’s Bar Mitzvah. This particular congregant has chosen to not convert out of respect for his devout Catholic mother, but for all intents and purposes, lives “Jewishly.” After losing some sleep over the issue, Rabbi Strom decided to allow the father to recite the blessing with his wife, and immediately knew it was the right thing to do:

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All Suggestions Welcome

I met my best friend Renata in 1981, when we both first moved to New York. Years later, we stood up for each other in our respective marriage ceremonies, supported each other through child rearing, and propped each other up while we created meaningful careers. With both of our immediate families based in California, we often relied on each other, especially during holidays. Sharing celebrations, we split Thanksgiving; Renata had Easter and Christmas, and I had Passover. I was at her children’s christenings as godmother; she was at my son’s Bar Mitzvah.

This year, since the first two nights of Passover and Easter Sunday fell on the same weekend, our families decided to gather our clans and rent a house on the Jersey Shore. Usually our events are distinct – Easter Sunday is about giving thanks in a spiritual realm for the sacrifices of a wise man; Passover is about the strength it takes to ensure generation after generation has the ability to worship as it chooses. In both cases, a story is told. The story is repeated year after year, in some houses exactly as it was the year before, in others with different twists and turns, as the tale-tellers themselves have evolved.

When we went around the table this year and shared what freedom meant to each of us personally, we found ourselves melding into cross-religious themes. When we talked about the Jews escaping slavery, how could we not talk about the African-Americans who escaped slavery? When we marveled at the right to participate in religious freedom, how could we not think about gay marriage and religious intolerance in other countries?

The beach house is in Ocean City, NJ, a town that until the late 1960s didn’t allow Blacks or Jews. Yet there we sat in our home on the Boardwalk while people walked past our deck and open windows. They didn’t see that one of our guests was from Russia, where he and his family weren’t allowed to practice their Judaism. They couldn’t tell that two women in the group, one a Jew and the other a Christian, would be getting married to each other in August with a Muslim woman officiating. No one could have guessed which person at the table was half-Israeli. Certainly there was no way to know who was celebrating Passover and who was celebrating Easter. Most likely, none of them knew the days, years, and centuries of turmoil it took for us to be there, all together, in one place at that special moment.

Two “Jewish” goals were operating for me: opening the Jewish tent to include those who are traditionally marginalized, and welcoming all those who would like to eat (and play Scrabble, ride bikes, and enjoy the view). The Jewish Outreach Institute and our Big Tent Judaism initiatives are about just that: ensuring that the community is engaging and welcoming to all who would cast their lot with the Jewish people.

Here’s a photo of our group: 4.5 Christians (including 2 Quakers), 8.5 Jews, 3.5 Blacks, 8.5 Whites, .5 Israelis, .5 Jamaicans, 1 Russian and 2 Lesbians (there was a third, but she went home before the photo was taken).

I bet you some matzah and an Easter egg that you can’t identify who is who.



Is Jewish Education the “Vaccine” for Intermarriage?

Today, the New Jersey Jewish News published an Op-Ed by JOI Associate Executive Director Paul Golin in response to Peter Beinart’s article suggesting that Jewish education is the key to ending intermarriage. Golin looks at why the anti-intermarriage narrative is focused solely on Jewish education, and challenges readers to see intermarriage as a positive for the Jewish community, and an opportunity to share Judaism with all who may want to enter the tent.

It wasn’t higher levels of Jewish education that kept intermarriage rates so low in the first half of the 20th Century, and it’s not lack of Jewish education that drives high intermarriage rates today. There are many other, more important factors. Primary among them: the rest of America simply stopped hating us.

See Paul Golin’s response in the New Jersey Jewish News here, and share your thoughts on our Facebook page or by tweeting to us @JewishOutreach.



Intermarriage Bullying

Growing up Jewish with mostly non-Jewish friends, I often found myself answering questions like “what’s the big deal?” The question usually referred to intermarriage, marrying someone of another religion, or even to not having school off on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. It can be hard to articulate why being Jewish is important to me, and even harder to explain why it’s important for my children to be Jewish without sounding like my grandmother (who for years laid the guilt on thick about the fate of the Jewish people being in my hands; she has since eased up).

Thankfully, my friends and I were not surrounded by religious or cultural intolerance growing up. Plenty of kids were from interfaith families, and to this day I almost never hear about family feuds regarding religion. So when I read Rachel Figueroa-Levin’s blog on Kveller.com, I was taken aback, and quickly reminded that not all families and communities are as accepting and as easy-going as mine. Rachel’s situation is also unique in that, when I have heard of family squabbles over religion (including in my own family) the bitterness tended to come from the Jewish side of the family. But in her case, several of her non-Jewish in-laws, as she says, border on anti-Semitic.

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JOI Associate Executive Director Paul Golin to Speak at Conference on Patrilineal Descent

JOI Associate Executive Director Paul Golin will be one of seven presenters at “Half Jewish? The Heirs of Intermarriage,” a colloquium held at Northwestern University in Evanston, IL, in cooperation with Newberger Hillel at the University of Chicago, and Fiedler Hillel at Northwestern University, on April 20-22, 2012.

“Half Jewish?” is crucial to the future of American Judaism–an opportunity and a challenge. For two decades, half of the marriages involving Jews have been intercultural. Their children are now young adults, choosing their own identities. Who are they? How do they relate to being Jewish, and to both sides of their families? Is “half Jewish” like “half pregnant,” or can the Jewish world accept multiple identities in an open tent? … The IISHJ’s Colloquium 2012: “Half Jewish?” The Heirs of Intermarriage will be a fascinating exploration of the future of the Jewish people.

To register for the colloquium, click here, and for more information, please click here.



For the Child Who Knows Not How to Ask

Michelle K. Wolf is a special needs parent activist and non-profit professional who has worked in the governmental and non-profit sectors for the past 26 years. She blogs weekly at www.jewishjournal.com/jews_and_special_needs . You can follow her on Twitter @SpecialNeedsIma

After our Danny was diagnosed at 13 months with cerebral palsy and development delays, it felt like an emotional body-blow to read the words aloud from the Haggadah at Passover, “And for the fourth child, who knows not how to ask, thou shall begin for him, as it is said…”

Would Danny ever understand the meaning of the Exodus from Egypt? Was it cruel to withhold his beloved toast during the 8 days of Passover if he didn’t understand what was going on? And even more importantly, would he ever be able to ask us any questions?

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Adult Children of Intermarriage and Their Place in Judaism’s Big Tent

The other day, while picking up my two-year-old daughter from daycare, I ended up chatting with a mom going in to pick up her daughter. She asked what I do, and I explained that I work for the Jewish Outreach Institute, which seeks to promote a more welcoming, inclusive approach to the Jewish community. That was all the prompting she needed to share her “Jewish disengagement” story with me.

She and her husband are both adult children of intermarriage who grew up identifying as Jewish. However, when they decided to get married, they talked to two different Reform rabbis, and neither was willing to marry them. As far as this mother was concerned, she was no longer interested in seeking out the Jewish community. And yet when I talked about JOI’s efforts to change the traditional view of intermarriage and mentioned an upcoming informal Tot Shabbat in our neighborhood, she was very interested. Something in her was clearly seeking a connection to Jewish life; she just needed to be engaged in a positive way that could overcome the negative vibes that had pushed her away.

I should mention that I’m relatively sensitive these days to issues pertaining to adult children of intermarriage, given that I now have some skin in this game—literally. My daughter is herself a product of intermarriage, which makes her a future “adult child of intermarriage.” Of course, to me she’s just my child, and I want her to be Jewish. Yet, I’m concerned to hear the experience of this other mother, because I know that the path she and other adult children of intermarriage forge—or don’t forge—may impact the type of welcome my daughter receives when she comes of age and naturally begins contemplating her Jewish—and other—identities.

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Rabbi Kerry Olitzky named one of America’s Top 50 Rabbis by Newsweek

Often, when we begin a new job, we ask ourselves “who am I really working for?” While we may know the organization’s mission, we may not know the work of our director. When I began here at JOI in August 2011, I hadn’t heard much about our executive director, Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, simply because I had not been involved in the Jewish communal world. However, over the last seven months, I have seen why Rabbi Olitzky was again chosen as one of America’s Top 50 Rabbis by Newsweek and The Daily Beast.

Rabbi Olitzky works tirelessly to help communities and organizations open the tent to the Jewish community. Through JOI’s programs such as The Mothers Circle, and Public Space JudaismSM programs such as Passover in the Matzah Aisle, Rabbi Olitzky helps to make Jewish experience accessible to everyone, especially the intermarried and unaffiliated. In just the last few months, Rabbi Olitzky’s travels have brought him to Ottawa, Cuba, Budapest, and Israel—to name a few—and he has spoken with Jewish communal professionals and lay leaders from across North America, most recently leading a webinar for the program staff of the Institute for Southern Jewish Life.

Many rabbis seek to “open the tent” of the Jewish community, but it has been my experience that Rabbi Olitzky is a pioneer in the field of Jewish community outreach, and sets an example that I hope many will follow.

Congratulations to Rabbi Kerry Olitzky on being named #31 of America’s Top 50 Rabbis by Newsweek and The Daily Beast. I look forward to continuing to help open the tent of the Jewish community to all who wish to enter it.



The Fifth Son

Cross-posted on The Examiner

Each year at the Passover Seder, we speak about four sons (now four children). In some respects, the story of the Exodus that is retold at the Seder is a response to these children and the questions they ask. Some scholars argue that these children are not four distinct people. Rather, they are four attributes that are part of the complex personality of every human being. Nevertheless, these four children, including the so-called “evil one,” are sitting around the table. They may be argumentative. They may be distanced from us. They may be contrary. They may even be rude. But they are sitting around the table. They are contributing to the growing historical memory of the Jewish people by being part of it. And these children are there, regardless of their age—because we have invited them to join us. And they have agreed to do so.

But what about the children who are not sitting around our table, the ones who may refuse to do so, primarily because we have not welcomed them—with their non-Jewish partners—to join us? Ironically, the very time of the year when we realize what it is to be strangers in a foreign land, what it is to be shackled to a past, we hesitate far too often to invite those “strangers” who have become our friends, who have become our family members, to join us.

When the ancient Israelites left Egypt, there were many who joined them along their journey to freedom. During Passover this year, let’s make an effort to welcome in “all those who are hungry” for what the Jewish family and the Jewish community has to offer.





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