Weblog Entries for June 2012

The Greatest of All Time Has a Jewish Grandson?

I grew up around boxing– not your average Northeastern Jewish upbringing, I admit, but my dad has had a passion for the sport forever, and so naturally, I have been raised with an appreciation for the sport as well, especially when it comes to Muhammad Ali. Ever since my dad was 14, he has idolized the charismatic boxer, writing a book about him, and even turning our basement into an Ali museum (I kid you not, he’d be happy to show it to you). So, my ears always perk up when I hear some news about Muhammad Ali, as was the case a few weeks ago when I came across an article from Be’chol Lashon, a non-profit organization celebrating the racial and ethnic diversity of Jews, about how one of Ali’s grandson’s was recently Bar Mitzvah’d.

Muhammad Ali’s family now includes three religions: his mother was Baptist, he is (and raised his family) Muslim, and one of his daughters, Khaliah Ali-Wertheimer, married a Jew. Khaliah’s son Jacob decided on his own to be Bar Mitzvah’d, saying that he felt a connection to Judaism, and both Khaliah and her father supported Jacob’s desire to be Bar Mitzvah’d.

Ali’s family is a wonderful representation of the current diversity of the Jewish community, and of its willingness to accept people from all backgrounds and faiths; and Ali himself has been an amazing voice for inclusion. While Ali is best known for some of the greatest fights in boxing history (The Rumble in the Jungle, the Thrilla’ in Manila), Muhammad Ali instilled values of welcoming and peace in all of his children. Despite his poor health (Ali has Parkinson’s), he did attend his grandson’s Bar Mitzvah, and followed along with the service as best he could. It’s just one more reason to look up to the Greatest of All Time. (at left, my Dad with Muhammad Ali and trainer Angelo Dundee at Ali’s 70th birthday celebration)

My Recent “Almost Trip” to Jackson, MS and the Annual Educational Conference of the Institute of Southern Jewish Life (ISJL)

As someone who travels frequently, I only have one criterion: get there safely. I gave up on worrying about flight delays and cancellations a long time ago. People will just have to understand—and they usually do—when you can’t get where you need to go. Such was the case with my intended trip south to lead several sessions on outreach, Big Tent Judaism, and intermarriage at the Institute of Southern Jewish Life’s education conference. But I never left the airport in Newark, NJ.

You know the story: delays prevented me from making my connection; later flights were already booked. And so I wouldn’t get to Jackson until near the end of the conference. But thankfully, the participants still wanted to hear what I had to say, and the conference organizers had the technology to set up the session remotely. So I conducted my sessions via teleconference while the participants were watching the PowerPoint slides I had prepared as an outline to enhance the words that I had to offer. Not as good as dialogue, but certainly acceptable, and better than nothing.

This effort to still have me speak despite my not being there is due to our long affectionate relationship with the Institute of Southern Jewish Life, and it is also part of our emerging partnership with them, in which we are committed to sharing our content—especially the programs of The Mothers Circle (for women of other religious backgrounds raising Jewish children) and The Grandparents Circle (for Jewish grandparents of grandchildren being raised in interfaith homes)—with those in smaller, more rural communities in the south, with similarly small Jewish communal populations.


Merging Our Tents - Out of Necessity or Desire?

Just as we see a lot of mergers and acquisitions taking place in the for-profit world, we are now experiencing the same in the Jewish community. However, what is often taking place in the secular community (Google gobbling up tech start-ups for their talent more than for their market niche) is not necessarily what is motivating the various mergers in the Jewish community. Rather, it is sometimes a declining population that forces two institutions (former “competitors” or representatives of different religious movements) to merge. Sometimes, it starts out as a simple space-sharing arrangement, since many of the edifices that were built to accommodate the suburban baby boom in post-World War II expansion often stand empty. Thus, these mergers are usually motivated by economic necessity rather than by shared values. Is this a reflection of post-denominational Judaism? Or perhaps it is a step toward the eventuality of post-institutional Judaism (something no one wants to talk about).

I wonder: what would the community—and its myriad institutions—look like if we decided to share space, or to merge, because we believe that it will benefit the community and the people we serve, instead of as a result of the economic downturn or the shrinking community? If we highlight the positive values such mergers can represent over the latter expressions of survivalism, could we create institutions (not campuses) that reflect the ideals of Big Tent Judaism—where there would be different expressions of worship, different expressions of Zionism, and different forms/formats for study all under the same roof? Perhaps before your institution makes its next decision about its building and facilities, we can look at the community around us, and work in the direction of merging our tents for the betterment of the Jewish community.

How Do You Answer the Question “Why Be Jewish?”

I often think about the question “Why be Jewish?” It is something that I frequently review when working with institutions and communities. I believe that each institution, organization, and community has to be able to concretely articulate an answer to that question. More particularly, “Why be Jewish in the context of a particular institution or the organized Jewish community in general?” I sometimes get pushback when I pose this notion. Some will argue that it is not the responsibility of an individual institution to answer that question; in other words, people have to answer that question for themselves. But I feel quite differently, especially for people—like those who are intermarried or are Jews by choice—who really reflect on this question a great deal. “What benefit will I,” they pose, “get from participating in the Jewish community?” “What benefit will my children gain from their participation?”

I often get the answer of “community.” And while I think I understand what they mean, they aren’t often able to distinguish between the benefit of participating in the Jewish community over any other assemblage of people who might also call themselves a community. Martin Buber, the great Jewish philosopher of the last century, has some insights from his notion of an I-Thou experience, one that is modeled on the experience of the individual with the Divine—what might be called a Sinaitic or covenantal relationship. Buber argued that it is impossible to share with others the exact nature and experience of an I-Thou relationship. If you leave a part of yourself out of the relationship, enough of the rational self to observe and reflect on the experience so that you can share it with others, then you can never fully have that experience. And if you put your entire self into the relationship, so that it can be fully I-Thou, then there is nothing of the rational self left outside of the relationship in order to reflect and share.


Love, Romance, and Disabilities

The following is a guest blog by Michelle K. Wolf, 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 You can also follow her on Twitter @SpecialNeedsIma

When we talk about opening the tent to Jews with special needs, we must go beyond welcoming them in and nurturing their involvement with synagogue life. Part of leading a “normal life” also involves falling in love. As Michelle discusses here, the Jewish community can support these needs, as well.

It’s almost summertime, and as the weather gets warmer and flowers are budding, thoughts of romance are everywhere. But for adults with developmental disabilities, moving from thought to action is tough to do. Although they may be working in paid employment, providing volunteer hours at a local Meals-on-Wheels program, or playing basketball at the Jewish Community Center, figuring out the complicated rules of dating and romance is often a black hole.

Most of these young adults aren’t at college with access to Hillels or other Jewish young adult programming. Even in the most observant portion of the Orthodox world, making a match using a shadchan (matchmaker) for a young adult with developmental disabilities is still a challenge, although less so for a young woman than a young man.

Should they start talking to the cute stranger at the mall? How will the objects of their affection respond to their overtures? Are parents or other family members ready and/or willing to help facilitate these types of relationships? And then there’s the whole issue of birth control.

“My 26-year old son really wants a girlfriend,” one mother said at a recent family meeting I attended, “but just doesn’t know where to start.” Another parent there who had a daughter close in age jokingly said that perhaps they should fix the two of them up. We lightly tossed around the idea of starting a paid, on-line dating service for adults with disabilities to help pay for on-going support services.


The Changing Face of Today’s Jewish Community

When my son was entering preschool in the early 1990s in New York City, I noticed that a lot of the white mothers had Asian children. It was becoming increasingly common for white, Jewish women of a certain age and socio-economic background to adopt children from other countries. Adopting an infant girl from China was the easiest route at the time, and it occurred to me then that these children would eventually change the face (literally) of the Jewish community, at least in larger cities. As these children grew up Jewish, they would undoubtedly begin to change the typical stereotype of Jews being mostly white and of Eastern European decent, and they would be just as much Jewish as the white children around them.

The increasing diversity of the Jewish community is due only in part to international adoption, but it is undeniable that the “face” of the Jewish community is changing, as highlighted in the UJA-Federation’s recently-released 2011 Jewish Community Study of New York. The study shows there to be some 161,000 New York area Jews in biracial or nonwhite households. (We will look further at some of the statistics of the study in upcoming blogs.) The question now becomes how to show that the tent of the Jewish community is open to these families.

We still have a lot to do to educate institutions about sensitivity and inclusion, but it is heartening to hear how so many voices that historically have been stifled are now being heard. The status quo is being challenged and, as a result, the Jewish community must respond by becoming more engaging and inclusive.

Big Tent Judaism Initiative Comes to Hartford, CT Thanks to the Jewish Community Foundation

This week, JOI staff will be in the Greater Hartford, CT area consulting with over 30 Jewish organizations, made possible by the Jewish Community Foundation’s New Initiative Grants Program. Over the next three days, Executive Director Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky, Associate Executive Director Paul Golin, and Senior Director of Training Eva Stern will visit with staff from local Jewish organizations, including area synagogues and community centers to help them affect positive change in the Greater Hartford Jewish community by ensuring that their institutions are open and welcoming.

The first step will be a presentation this evening, Tuesday, June 11th at the Mandell JCC at 6:30 PM. JOI staff will be presenting a community outreach scan on how welcoming and inclusive Greater Hartford Jewish community organizations are. The next step will be individual consultations with each organization over the next few days, and continuing work in the months to come.

The Big Tent Judaism Initiative, a program of the Jewish Outreach Institute, takes its lead from the values and vision of our Biblical forbearers Abraham and Sarah’s tent, which was open on four sides to welcome all who approach. Individuals and organizations that practice a Big Tent Judaism seek to engage, support and advocate for all those who would cast their lot with the Jewish people, regardless of prior knowledge or background. For more information on Big Tent Judaism, and to join the coalition of over 500 organizations, click here.

JOI Receives Guidestar Exchange Seal

I often argue that one of the many challenges facing the organized Jewish community today as it attempts to reach the under-engaged, particularly the so-called millenials (but also those in the boomer generation who have left) is the spate of “hidden agendas” and lack of transparency. This lack of transparency contains many factors. While not all of it is financial, we applaud those organizations that are totally transparent in their finances, as well as in their fundraising. That is why we were thrilled to be granted a “GuideStar Exchange Seal,” indicating the transparency of our finances by Guidestar, a well-known resource in the field of philanthropy and non-profit organizations.

JOI Included in the Jewish Organization Equality Index

Big Tent Judaism means a lot of things here at JOI. Most of all, it means that we are working toward creating a more inclusive Jewish community, irrespective of what your subgroup might be. This is particularly important in an era where the great divide in the Jewish community is increasingly between the so-called inside and so-called outside of the organized Jewish community (and that includes all of its institutions). It is true that the landscape is shifting rapidly, especially with the growing number of start-ups in the Jewish community. Nevertheless, patterns of engagement—and affiliation—are being redefined and certainly realigned. That is why we were pleased to be informed that the Jewish Organization Equality Index (2012), sponsored by the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, has named JOI as an inclusive organization. While we don’t boast often about the accolades we have received, we are proud to be affirmed in our work to be inclusive of the LGBTQ members of the Jewish community, as well as all those in the community’s orbit.

Being Black, Gay, and Jewish… and a Hip-Hop Star

While I am not a typical follower of celebrity gossip, I do tend to follow stories in the world of Jewish celebrities. So I was excited to read in Jewcy Magazine that Yitz Jordan, the rapper known as Y-Love, has recently “come out”. In this article, he talks about his experiences as a Jew of color, an Orthodox Jew, and a Jew by choice, and how these other variables have influenced his decision to come out.

I was particularly struck by his description of an experience at a Jews of color round-table, where one producer’s comment about the “impossibility” of finding an LGBTQ Jew of color for the panel struck a nerve. He talks about how Jews like him have “been in existence forever,” and how hurtful it is when others in the Jewish community do not recognize that there are others in their midst very much like him.

It is important to remember from this article that a single individual or family may differ from the stereotypical Jew in many different ways. Just as Yitz is a Jew of color, a Jew by choice, and gay, so there are multiracial intermarried families, and same-sex couples where one partner has a disability, and interfaith blended families. As a new paradigm emerges in which the Jewish community becomes more aware and inviting of interfaith marriages, there is still much work to be done around accepting Jews of color, financially-challenged Jews, Jews with disabilities, LGBTQ Jews, and many other groups.

As Jewish professionals, it is our duty to keep all of these variables in mind as we seek to create a more inviting and inclusive Jewish community. As an organization seeks to become more welcoming and inclusive of LGBTQ Jews, for example, it is important for them to think about their intermarriage policies, as LGBTQ Jews partner with non-Jews at higher rates than straight Jews. As the community seeks to include interfaith families, it is important to create policies that will explicitly welcome people of color, whether Jewish or not. As we seek to widen the tent, it is important to think about all of the variables that may serve as barriers to true welcoming. We at JOI are happy to hear stories like Jordan’s, and congratulate him on his decision to officially come out. We hope his story will inspire others like him, and look forward to sharing their stories as well.

Visiting the Jewish Community of Seattle

Seattle, Washington. Two presentations. One on the future of the Jewish community to the staff of the local Jewish Federation. The second to the staff of the Jewish Community Center on the principles of Big Tent Judaism.

Both are institutions whose leadership understands that major changes are necessary if they are going to continue to be relevant to the community they serve. And they are in the process of making those changes. That is why I was glad to be there to help them reflect on the changes in the context of the various things that JOI is teaching the community about engagement, especially to those on the so-called “outside” of the Jewish community.

As far as I am concerned, radical change is necessary. There will be some institutions that may be needed to nurture the status quo for those who are interested in maintaining it. But that is the minority—as we see from those who have already “voted with their feet” not to engage with the community. The question before us is what is the extent of the change that is necessary? It is clear that tweaking the current models will be insufficient. Community institutions have already tried that approach without success. It is also clear that the potential reward is only as great as the risk that institutions and communities are willing to take. To use a colloquial expression that seems to fit, as far as I am concerned, “one has to be willing to risk the farm.” Anything short of that will not yield the results necessary to meet the needs of the generation that is in front of us.

A Historic Day for Israel

I love Israel. It sounds trite, but it is true. From my first trip when I was sixteen and spent a year there, to as recently as two months ago when I only spent three days in the midst of a rabbinic mission, I travel there every chance that I get—even if it is for a short period of time. I even get teary-eyed when I pass by Newark airport and see the El Al plane standing there amidst all of the others. I admit it is sappy, but it is true. For me, Jerusalem really is the center of the world, where heaven and earth touch.

Should you be misled, please know that I am not one whose unconditional love for Israel is not accompanied by criticism. There are times when I am not pleased, particularly when her actions do not resonate with my sense of justice and morality. Nevertheless, I am convinced that the reason why people in this generation have walked away from vocalizing their support of Israel is because there are few places for civil discourse about Israel in the United States today, particularly in the Jewish community. This is particularly true for many of the people with whom I work on a daily basis. As a result, it seems that people would rather abandon the conversation than seek a place for such discourse.

There are times when the news that comes out of Israel seems to make its announcements irrelevant, especially when they are issued by a variety of so-called religious authorities. This week, the news warmed the hearts of many, when we learned that Rabbi Miri Gold, an Israeli Reform rabbi, would be recognized by the Israeli government and that Reform and Conservative rabbis would earn salaries along with their Orthodox colleagues, for the first time in Israel’s history. It is what some might call a shehechayanu moment – named for the blessing said on special occasions thanking the Divine for sustaining us and bringing us to this moment in time.

While there is still hard work to be done since these rabbis are still not sanctioned by the government to officiate at weddings—nor to supervise other life cycle matters—the window that we thought was closing has been pushed open a little more, and is letting the fresh air of Big Tent Judaism enter into the Land once again.

What makes Staten Island So Different?

Last week, I addressed supporters of the Hillel of the College of Staten Island. This is an interesting Hillel, an interesting school, and an interesting part of the city. We have been working with individual Hillels for about 12 years now-even after our three-year project with International Hillel concluded, and Hillels on a local basis continue to reach out to JOI for insight and directions.

Now some will argue, as I often do, that New York City is sui generis. In other words, we can’t apply what we learn in New York to other communities. Yet, Staten Island is not Manhattan, and therefore I think it merits review. I don’t believe it can be classified in the same way as other things in New York. The Jewish community of “the Island” is growing (even if its synagogues are suffering). Some of this growth can be attributed to an influx of those from the FSU (Former Soviet Union). The Staten Island JCC is a model institution that has a quite substantial pre-school. The College of Staten Island is growing; part of the CUNY system, and once a commuter school, it is now opening new residential halls. And the school’s Hillel is serving a growing number of students-with its indefatigable one-person staff, Amy Posner.

I spoke a great deal about the trends in the Jewish community, especially as I see them emerging in the generation of our children, that same generation that is populating college campuses, although my kids are admittedly long past college. I also talked about the program changes that need to be made in Jewish communal institutions if we are to reach that generation. And while the agreement with much of what I had to say, however challenging, was affirming, what I really appreciated was the fact that this small Hillel understood and was directing its program accordingly. Its staff and board members understand that Hillel has to meet the needs of its students, rather than its own projected needs. They also understand that the key to “success” is the tracking of students to greater engagement, one relation at a time.

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