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Weblog Entries for July 2012

My Stepdaughter’s Same-Sex Interfaith Wedding, Part I

When my stepdaughter and her fiancé announced their engagement, there was much joy. In fact, there was double joy. There were two rings to design; two families to meet and merge; two religions to incorporate; and two wedding dresses to purchase. There were two brides - one was Jewish and one was not.

Responses to the announcement were varied. Everyone loved both Kyla and Sarah, but looking at a situation for decades in one way made it hard for some of our now extended family to get their arms around this new paradigm. Some relatives and friends were happy they found each other, but not so happy about them getting married – citing their belief that marriage was between a man and a woman. Interestingly, not one person questioned that Kyla, raised in a household with a grandmother who was a holocaust survivor, chose a non-Jewish spouse. I wonder if it would have been different had her grandparents still been with us. I also wonder if that is an unintended consequence of gay marriage – just as the marriage pool narrows for women as they age (just get married already!), does the marriage pool narrow for Jewish lesbians? (I also wonder if Kyla and Sarah will be horrified to read this, but I digress.)

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Remembering a Holiday of Remembrance

Sunday (July 29, 2012) is Tisha B’av, a day of commemoration named by its date on the Hebrew calendar. (Of course, it begins the prior evening, as do all Jewish calendar observances.) Ironically, this year, Tisha B’av (literally, the ninth day of the month of Av) is held on the tenth of the month of Av, a calendar shift made by the rabbis when the ninth day of Av falls on Shabbat. While this day marks the destruction of the ancient Temples in Jerusalem, it has come to be the day that marks much of Jewish historical catastrophe (except those that are marked separately such as Yom Hashoah—Holocaust Memorial Day). Tisha B’av is a full fast day (like Yom Kippur); it is a day of mourning. Thus, many—not all—of the behaviors associated with Yom Kippur are also associated with Tisha B’av.

Admittedly, I have always had a tough time with Tisha B’av. Early Reformers simply rejected it out of hand. I presume it snuck back into the calendar of liberals through the program staff at Jewish summer camps. And it is also caught in the trend of reclaiming those rituals and observances that were rejected because they were seen to separate us from our non-Jewish neighbors. This is no longer the case for this generation of fully American American Jews. Nevertheless, I struggle with Tisha B’av. I don’t buy the traditional reason for the destruction of the Temples as sinat chinam (senseless hatred, referring to the hate among Jews for one another), although I do see such behaviors as increasing in this generation, and I worry about them. I also don’t see the diaspora in its more traditional terms as galut (exile), something that was traditionally associated with the destruction of the Temple. Rather, I see the so-called diaspora as an opportunity for the Jewish people to fulfill its obligation as or lagoyim (a light unto the nations). And I certainly don’t see us mourning Jerusalem at a time where we celebrate her as the heart and soul of modern Israel, as a place, for me, where heaven and earth touch.

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Being an Interfaith Person

The recent New York Jewish Community Study can be (and has been) parsed from various angles (here, here, and here, for example). It turns out that while the Jewish population of the NYC metropolitan area (including Long Island and Westchester County) has grown slightly over the past decade, it has also become increasingly dichotomized. Rather than the familiar denominational spectrum, most New York Jews today fall either among the growing (and increasingly poorer) Ultra Orthodox, or among those (also growing in numbers) who are not affiliated with institutional Judaism.

In the rush to debate the significance and implications of this study, one finding is worth looking at more closely. Of those Jews surveyed, fully “12% […] consider themselves ‘partially Jewish.’” And this number, too, is on the rise.

Rising numbers of people report unconventional identity configurations. They may consider themselves “partially Jewish,” or may identify as Jews even while identifying with Christianity or another non-Jewish religion (many more do so now than who so reported in 2002). Of such people with unconventional configurations, 70% have a non-Jewish parent (or two).

Now, what are the implications and significance of this finding to the future of the American Jewish community?

When I joined JOI a couple of weeks ago, it was with the hope of using my research skills to help sustain the research-focused aspect of JOI’s work, both in terms of documenting our successes, and in terms of helping us think about ways to grow going forward. I fully believe in the power of research to help the American Jewish community be the best that it can be. Like many at JOI, I believe that interfaith couples are the largest untapped resource for the Jewish community; pushing them away just makes no sense. But I also think that the growing population of interfaith couples and their children challenges the more mainstream Jewish community to think harder about what it means to be an interfaith person.

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Saying Goodbye to JOI

For the past two and a half years, I have worked for the Jewish Outreach Institute helping to provide Jewish professionals with the tools they need to build a more welcoming and inclusive Jewish community. After a semester-long internship helping to evaluate our Public Space Judaism initiatives, I accepted a position as Program Associate, training Jewish professionals all over North America in bringing resources and support to all those who may wish to enter the tent of the Jewish community, including less-engaged Jews, Jews by choice, Jews of color, Jews with special needs, and the group I worked with the most, interfaith families. I have spoken to countless professionals and volunteer leaders, assisting them in bringing programs like The Mothers Circle and The Grandparents Circle into their communities. However, my time doing this work is coming to an end. In less than two months, I will begin my rabbinic training at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia. While I am very excited to take this next step professionally, I will miss the work that I am doing here.

The Jewish Outreach Institute’s work carries a deep personal meaning for me. As a patrilineal Jew, my family has struggled with finding meaning and acceptance in the Jewish community. I took this job partly out of a sense of personal responsibility, in order to help families like mine find the acceptance and support that would lead them to deeper involvement in Judaism.

I leave JOI tremendously optimistic that the Jewish community is headed toward ever more inclusion and support. In my time as Mothers Circle and Grandparents Circle National Coordinator, I have heard firsthand the tremendous impact our programs have on families. We have helped parents bring Shabbat into their homes for the first time. We have helped grandparents communicate about religion with their adult children with confidence and respect. And all of this is leading to rich and engaging Jewish upbringings for thousands of children from interfaith homes across North America.

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How to Grow Our Synagogues

While not everyone in the Jewish community is predisposed to spirituality, prayer, or an encounter with the Divine—and I recognize and support their rightful place and position—I count myself among the believers. That is probably no surprise to those who have read some of my titles, including Sparks Beneath the Surface (with Rabbi Lawrence Kushner) and Jewish Spiritual Guidance (with Dr. Carol Ochs), among others. It is certainly not a surprise to those who sit next to me at minyan (literally a prayer quorum, but generally used as a reference for daily services) each morning, or on Shabbat, at my local synagogue. I often reflect on the various elements that draw me there, hoping to discern how to explicate those elements for others so that they might likewise be drawn. This is a particularly critical question as participation in synagogue life in North America continues to diminish, along with its membership rolls.

I also recognize that synagogues are not the only places that promote spirituality and prayer. My own spin on the famous phrase from the Torah, ascribed to Gd: “Asu li mikdash. . . .” usually translated as “Make Me a sanctuary so that I may dwell in your midst,” is “Make Me a sanctuary BUT I will dwell in your midst.” The well-known Hasidic Rebbe, known as the Kotzker, responded to a question of his students, “Where does Gd dwell?” with this oft-quoted response, “Wherever you let Gd in.” (Actually, the Kotzker was gender-specific in his reference to Gd, so I edited it somewhat.)

Some may even argue that the contemporary form of synagogue structure has the potential to work against the creation of an accessible prayer environment. Services are long; the language (Hebrew and English) is difficult to surmount; the list of challenges is long. I often argue, moreover, that synagogues need to spend more time on prayer and less time on liturgy. This is true in worship environments as well as in education programs. So what is it about the synagogue that makes it the right place?

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JOI Welcomes Two New Staff Members

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Over the past month, JOI has welcomed two new staff members, and we are excited to introduce them to you as they help JOI open the tent of the Jewish community. Each new staff member who joins JOI brings with them unique experiences that help to broaden our ability to connect with all those who wish to enter the tent of Jewish life.

Zohar Rotem, Program Officer for Evaluation
Zohar is JOI’s Program Officer for Evaluation. He is responsible for coordinating and leading JOI’s research and evaluation initiatives. His other passions include hiking, urban gardening, biking, foraging, and cooking. Read his full bio here.

Menachem Edjelman, Database Manager
Menachem is JOI’s Database Manager, and manages all of the data at JOI. He also enjoys soccer, swimming, nature, math, smoked salmon, and music theory. Read his full bio here.

We look forward to working with Menachem and Zohar, and officially welcome them to the JOI family!





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