Weblog Entries for May 2012

Jewish Federation of Portland is Ahead of the Curve

In my travels, I come into contact with a lot of Jewish communal professionals who represent a wide range of Jewish communal institutions. Some of these institutions have historically been the pivotal institutions in the community. Of course, these include synagogues (still the most prevalent institution in the community, yet representing the minority of the Jewish community—only about 40%); Jewish Federations (which had been the umbrella organization for the community); and Jewish Community Centers (which provided for the non-religious aspects of Jewish community life). Some of these professionals understand the need to reimagine their institutions since their raison de’etre has, in most cases, long been surpassed. Mark Blattner, the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Portland, Oregon understands that need. He has been working to transform the community, asking the right, albeit tough, questions and making some difficult choices (such as closing the local Jewish community newspaper).

I was pleased to be in Portland last week to address the community, as well as several groupings of Jewish communal professionals. It is encouraging to note that most of the Jewish communal professionals from this particular cross-section of Jewish communal institutions welcomed my analysis of the Jewish community, its challenges, and some of the solutions that we recommend at JOI. In most of my travels, as in Portland, communities understand that they face many challenges and are looking for some resolution to those challenges, as well as an analysis of the source of those challenges so that they may be addressed.

However, this is not always the case, as I recently received pushback on the thought that the synagogue is not the be-all-end-all as a way to instill Jewish identity. One comment I recently heard was that “the job of the synagogue is to make Jews. And the synagogue is the only institution in the community capable of doing so.” I really thought that I was back in 1950—in the post-World War II suburbanization Baby Boom that initiated the community that we have inherited in this generation. How can people believe that to be the case in 2012? What about Jewish camps? What about day schools? What about intensive social justice experiences? What about independent educational enterprises? What about Israel experiences? Together we create Jews and a Jewish community, since none is really capable of doing so on its own.


They Came for the Talks, Will They Stay for the Holiday?

What motivates 200 people to participate in a tikkun layl Shavuot—an all-night program of study that marks the holiday of Shavuot and is intended to replicate the period of waiting undertaken by the ancient Israelites in anticipation of the giving of the Torah?

That was the question I asked myself while speaking about my work to the crowd at Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis, Minnesota where my son Avi is one of the rabbis. The presentation emerged from my book Twelve Jewish Steps to Recovery, which was reissued about a year or so ago after eight printings by Jewish Lights Publishing. And I think that the answer to the question was quite simple. The subject of healing addressed the specific needs of the people in attendance. It was not projected onto the audience by the program planners or presenters. Rather, the topic was chosen by identifying the needs of the potential target population.

Some people were there because they would have attended the event irrespective of the topic. It didn’t matter that it was a Saturday night. It didn’t matter that it was also Memorial Day weekend. Other people were clearly there for specific sessions and speakers. But I think that the pervasive issue was that people didn’t come for Shavuot. They came for the topic and, as a result, ended up sharing in the celebration of the holiday. Will they be more likely to attend the event next year because they benefited from their attendance this year? I believe so—provided that those who attended are nurtured in the meantime. We’ll have to wait until next year to be sure.

Farewell from a JOI Intern

The following post is from JOI intern Allison Poirier. We all loved working with Allison and while we are sad her time with us has ended, we wish her luck in all of her endeavors.

During my junior year of college at Barnard, I was fortunate enough to pick up where the last lovely JOI Intern, Addie Cunniff, left off. Thanks to all of Addie’s hard work, one of my first tasks was to write and distribute follow-up surveys to all the participants in the fall Color-Me Calendar program. As a new intern, I was extremely impressed by the number of participants and the very large number of people they reached. Over the rest of my time at JOI, I learned that while these numbers are important, outreach is not only about quantity; outreach is not just an event you do once a year or even once a month to boost membership numbers; and outreach is not something you can put on your to-do list to check off once you’ve finished. Outreach, really, is an attitude.

Many of the JOI blogs reflect on the idea that simple little things can make a huge difference. This is so true. As a college student I often find myself in new and different Jewish situations, and my feelings about these situations depend on who comes up to say hello to me or welcome me. I frequent a synagogue on the Upper-West side largely because of the warm welcome I receive every time I enter, even though the rabbi and congregants are older and of a different denomination than I am. On my first three visits, the rabbi came over to where I was standing to introduce himself and to welcome me personally. On another occasion, a friend I was with was invited to lead one of the services that evening even though he is not a member of this congregation. Both of these gestures were small, but they meant a lot to me and my friends.

By now most people in this synagogue recognize me by face, if not by name. Most of them probably also know I do not pay dues there and that, as a student, I don’t really have the money to start paying in the near future. But no one ever asks, and I’ve never been made to feel like it’s important to them. Their lack of concern with my dues payment does not come from the fact that they are an extraordinarily wealthy congregation– they are not. Rather, it reflects an attitude that this synagogue understands and embraces: the Outreach Attitude. They, like many of JOI’s partners, know that outreach must extend to every corner of their community in order to work effectively. They cannot just talk the talk of welcoming newcomers at outreach events, they must also walk the walk of using inclusive language at all events, and of welcoming people with sincerity.

I’ve been attending this particular synagogue since the middle of my freshman year, and I have always felt welcome there. After working at JOI, I truly understand the great steps this congregation has taken to welcome me. They have made sure to attend to all the same little things that JOI trains and advocates about, and they have done this with an attitude of sincerity that ensures that all these little things appear everywhere in their community. They do this genuinely and continuously.

I started as an intern at JOI knowing that outreach was important, but not understanding how important it is to do outreach in every aspect of your community. Working at JOI has taught me about the outreach attitude, and about the importance of a genuine sustained approach to outreach. I hope my neighborhood synagogue will continue to promote this welcoming atmosphere, and that other communities will join them in sending a truly positive welcoming message. Embracing the outreach attitude is one big thing we can all do together.

I am so thankful to everyone at JOI for giving me the opportunity to learn this lesson and be part of the effort to bring a welcoming aspect to all of our communities. I feel so fortunate to have spent time working with these dedicated and passionate leaders of the Jewish community.

Who are the “Heirs of Intermarriage”?

A few weeks ago I had the honor and privilege of presenting at Colloquium 2012: “Half Jewish?” The Heirs of Intermarriage, a program of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism. The video of my presentation and the Q&A that followed can be viewed in its entirety here (as a .MOV file) and is covered in this article.

The conference was an excellent experience on a number of levels. First, the organizers—particularly Rabbi Adam Chalom—invited a slate of highly thoughtful presenters and panelists, from both within and beyond their own movement. Secondly, they utilized an interesting format whereby each presenter would offer a frontal presentation followed by questioning from a panel, then rotate to the panel for the other presentations, so that all presenters were given the opportunity to weigh in on each presentation throughout the course of the weekend.

But most importantly, it was an excellent experience because it was one of the first national conferences to directly address a hugely important topic, the children of intermarriage. During my presentation, I tried to convey what we at JOI have heard from young-adult children of intermarriage. But we as a community have much more listening and learning to do. It would benefit many other movements, organizations, and communities to replicate the kind of conversation hosted by the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, to find ways to better engage and serve a population that is essential to the future of American Jewry, and which is already the majority of Jews under age 25.

The Launch of the Big Tent Judaism Ambassadors Program

Last week, JOI officially launched our Big Tent Judaism Ambassadors Program, marking an exciting moment in our mission to prompt change and transform the North American Jewish community. Through the program, JOI will work to empower lay leaders and help them to identify the challenges related to inclusion in Jewish life, and offer them the tools with which they can address these challenges at a local level. JOI staff will hold ongoing conversations, as well as offer training and support. As such, Big Tent Judaism Ambassadors will be serving as our partners on the ground, working to create more actively welcoming environments in their Jewish communal institutions and broader Jewish communities.

As Big Tent Judaism Ambassadors, these lay leaders will take on new roles in their communities, promoting change using the strengths, skills, and connections readily at their disposal. Some will lead community-wide conversations; others may spearhead outreach projects; and still others may write op-eds advocating a change in policy. Regardless of the outreach path they choose, each Big Tent Judaism Ambassador will act with this purpose: helping their communities commit to the welcoming principles that they espouse.


Opening the Tent in Houston

Admittedly, I am on the road a lot. I travel for many reasons. But most of all, I travel to bring the message of an inclusive Jewish community—what I call Big Tent Judaism—to communities and institutions throughout North America. Last week, I was in Houston, meeting with a variety of community leaders and making presentations to the Community Leadership Council (representatives of every institution and organization in the Houston Jewish community), along with several committees and subcommittees of the Jewish Federation, all concerned about the Jewish future.

At one point, there was silence in the room. There were no more comments, no more questions. This is sometimes a difficult moment for a speaker/trainer.

The Federation president broke the silence. He said, “I have never seen this committee quiet before—and out of questions. But I think that I can explain the silence. We are stunned.” Then the various members of the group shook their heads in agreement. They had not heard such frank notions about the future of the Jewish community—the future of their Jewish community—articulated before. Perhaps they had thought about it. Perhaps they thought that small tweaks in the way they did business would be sufficient. But I was arguing—am arguing—for an overhaul in the way communities look at themselves and share this vision with the population they are trying to reach and inspire.


JOI at the JCCA Biennial

From May 6-9, several JOI staff members attended the JCCA Biennial, a 4-day conference for Jewish communal professionals and volunteer leaders from Jewish Community Center across North America. This year, the conference took place in the fun city of New Orleans, and included several different types of sessions, including seminar tracks, Jewish learning groups, and plenary (or keynote) sessions.

Throughout the conference, JOI Associate Executive Director Paul Golin, Senior Director of Training Eva Stern, and Director of Development Jamie Black met with Jewish communal professionals and volunteer leaders from across North America and beyond– including representatives from Spain, South America, Hungary, and Poland– about opening the tent of individual Jewish communities, as well as of the “big tent”, or as well like to call it, following the ideals of Big Tent Judaism.


Are Jews a “Race”?

I am often asked what my ethnicity is. My skin is olive and my hair is dark, leading most people to assume I’m Italian or Portuguese; but my last name (Kaletsky) is clearly Eastern European—Russian to be specific. My family comes from Russia and Poland, mostly, but I have never considered myself Russian or Polish. I didn’t grow up eating pirogues, and I don’t speak a lick of Russian beyond what I learned in the cartoon-movie Anastasia. Instead, when asked what my ethnicity is, I simply say, “Jewish.” But is it in my DNA?

My answer to the ethnicity question is sometimes, well, questioned. Some responses include “Judaism is a religion, not a culture,” or “if your family is from Russia, you are Russian.” It’s a complicated issue with a complicated bunch of answers, which now include a new book by Harry Ostrer entitled Legacy. Ostrer’s book discusses, in detail, the genetics of the Jewish people, raising questions such as “are Jews genetically unique?” and “are Jews a separate race?” in a day and age when the idea of “race” seems to be phasing out all-together.

But if our ethnicity is defined by our genetics, what does that mean for people who have not been born into Judaism, but rather have chosen it, whether because of a personal choice or intermarriage? And what of the children of one Jewish parent and one parent of another background? Does this mean they are half of one “race” and half of another?


Happy Mother’s Day from JOI!

Jewish…But Not Jewish Enough

Recently, the Huffington Post published an article in the ongoing narrative about the Jewish community’s uneasy relationship to people who have Jewish fathers but not Jewish mothers. In this article by Rivka Cohen, she describes her experience of being treated as less than Jewish by classmates and rabbis when her mother’s conversion was called into question, As a Jewish professional with a non-Jewish mother, this article is deeply troubling to me, as it speaks to the miles that we as a community have yet to go.

In my time at the Jewish Outreach Institute, I have realized that there is a true paradigm shift happening in American Jewish culture. More and more synagogues, JCCs, and other Jewish institutions are reaching out and looking for ways to welcome and actively include interfaith families. These families are increasingly able to shape the Jewish community through their participation and leadership, and I am grateful to see this.


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