Weblog Entries for August 2012

Surprises from the Conservative Movement

With a great deal of anticipation, I read the recent publication of the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs, which focused on a study of select practices concerning intermarried families in Conservative congregations. I was hoping that the work being done by the FJMC and JOI and others in the field had indeed made an impact—opening wider the doors of Conservative synagogues to intermarried couples and their families. This study of 100 random congregations, according to its author Rabbi Charles Simon, yielded some interesting results about Torah honors, in particular. It states that 79% of those surveyed allow non-Jewish partners to stand with their Jewish partners on the bimah (the raised platform in the front of the sanctuary), specifically during bar/bat mitvah family celebrations. However, among some of the congregations who do not permit this arrangement during bar/bat mitzvah, they do permit it during baby namings.

While this study may not be indicative of the entire Conservative movement (we will need to at least use the “reality test” to see whether indeed it reflects a larger group of synagogues), it does seem that change is afoot in the Conservative movement as it pertains to a welcoming attitude and practice for interfaith families. This is indeed a welcome change.

To view the publication, please click here.

The Mothers Circle FREE High Holiday Highlights Webinar Comes to the South!

As a native Houstonian, I’m particularly excited that JOI has recently begun a three year partnership with the Institute of Southern Jewish Life (ISJL), an organization dedicated to preserving, documenting, and promoting the practice, culture, and legacy of Judaism in the South. Living in New York City today, it’s easy to forget that Jewish life in the city is unique, that Jewish here is almost “normal,” and that American Jewish life has many regional flavors. Here, we don’t turn our heads when we see a man with a kippah, let alone a Hassid. And while this “normalcy” might not exist at home, I do want to see Jewish life in the South flourish more visibly. Thanks to my (Houston-based!) Jewish education at the Emery/Weiner Schools, I did once have the opportunity to travel beyond Jewish Texas into the Deep South (with stops in Jackson, Natchez, and New Orleans), to marvel at the old synagogues, learn about Jewish Civil Rights work at the sites where they actually took place, meander through Jewish cemeteries, and learn about the bustling Jewish life and the vestiges it left behind. Jewish life in a lot of the South is not always easy to find.

I see a partnership like the one between JOI and ISJL as an exciting and important step in making Southern Jewish life more vibrant and self-sustaining. Our partnership will be primarily focused on working to support intermarried couples and their families in all the communities that ISJL reaches. JOI will train the ISJL Fellows not only on the sensitivities surrounding intermarriage, but also the opportunities that intermarried couples provide; we have so much to learn from them! Additionally, JOI will provide and support courses, webinars, and take-home materials for its Mothers Circle (for women of other religious backgrounds raising Jewish children) and Grandparents Circle (for grandparents whose grandchildren are being raised in intermarried families) programs. I’m hoping that the training and services provided will help ISJL communities be all the more prepared to welcome and embrace our intermarried families, as well as help these families feel all the more supported by their peers.


I Didn’t Bring a Camera on my Recent Trip to Poland…

I had come as a pilgrim to the sacred ground where so many had been tortured and killed. I had come to say kaddish. I had come to put a name and a face and a personal story to those who lost their lives to the Nazi war machine that attempted a genocide of my people. And I refused to become one of the many tourists, attracted by what has become a tourist trade in death with banners offering discount and bundled tours to Auschwitz and Treblinka and Madanek. I couldn’t bring myself to take any photos. My mind is sufficiently flooded with images, some of which I will never be able to shake free of.

This was not my first trip to Poland, nor to Eastern Europe. But I knew after the first time I stepped foot in Poland—not something that I did without a great deal of deliberation—that I had to learn more. And each time I struggled to grasp the enormity of it all. While my first trip focused on the more common narrative of the Nazis and the so-called Final Solution, I sought a more nuanced story of what took place. I wanted to learn more about the history of Jewish Poland before World War II, as well as what took place following the war, what is going on now, and what the future holds for the Jews of Poland.


JOI Working with Local Partners to Distribute 20,000 Free Giveaways to Engage Jewish Families

Here at JOI, we are always excited to offer unique free materials to help Jewish communal professionals open the tent of their communities. This summer, JOI’s Big Tent Judaism Coalition has introduced a new tool to help families with young children instill the positive values and ethics found in our Jewish heritage, while creating quality time with their families: Torah Topics for Today.

Torah Topics are brief and meaningful conversation-starters drawn from the timeless stories/wisdom found in the Five Books of Moses, empowering parents to spark regular, relevant family discussions with almost no prep time or prior knowledge required.

Now, for the first time, we are able to offer Torah Topics for Today in hard-copy: a printed “starter set” of beautifully designed cards that include discussions about the first three weekly Torah portions, how-to instructions, and value questions. (Parents can then sign up to receive more weekly guides via email, free of charge, at

In partnership with Fred Claar of Torah Topics for Today, the Jewish Outreach Institute is mailing organizations multiple Torah Topics starter sets, and so far over 100 organizations have requested the sets, which are sealed in a clear plastic envelope for easy distribution. There is no charge to receive the cards; we are only asking that organizations distribute some of them beyond the walls of their institutions in order to reach families not currently engaging in organized Jewish life. To support that goal, the Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) will host a free webinar in late August, “Finding New People Through Giveaways in Secular Spaces,” for professionals and volunteers at all organizations who agree to distribute the starter sets.


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

Choosing to live your life by your own choice is the greatest freedom you will ever have.
– Shad Helmstetter.

About six months ago (post-Passover/Easter observance), I was sitting at the beach talking to my stepdaughter Kyla and her fiancé Sarah about their wedding. We had a good laugh looking at bizarre wedding cakes and thinking about some of the crazier things that people do at their weddings. While it was clear what Kyla and Sarah didn’t like, it was also clear what they wanted their “party” to be like. But what was a lot less clear was what they were expecting (if anything) of their ceremony.

They knew they wanted it to be special, but they weren’t sure how to begin. So we researched wedding ceremonies. My own ceremony was unusual. Robert and I were married on the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s death, and because of our commitment to social justice and equality we had a dear friend read Dr King’s inspirational “I Have a Dream” speech. Another friend read the “Apache Wedding Prayer” – just because we liked it. Oh, and I had 17 attendants—but I let them all wear whatever outfit they wanted as long as it was black. We’re New Yorkers.

My mom thought the ceremony should be as brief as possible—the party, especially the flowers, may have been more important to her. So I gave her full flower approval while Robert and I planned the ceremony. It was important to us that we share a meaningful, public ritual in front of and with the community of family and friends who would be by our sides in the blessings and trials to come in a long marriage. We would rely on their counsel and love to see us through, as we believed that the witnesses to a marriage are as responsible as the couple to do whatever they can to ensure the marriage thrives. This makes the guest list really important.


New Opportunities with The Mothers Circle!

Our circle has widened! This summer The Mothers Circle has debuted two new programs, High Holiday Highlights: A Holiday Prep Class and The Mothers Circle Self-Guide, both of which create avenues for mothers of other religious backgrounds to learn and feel empowered by their decision to raise Jewish children.

High Holiday Highlights will be hosted by 17 different organizations across North America, 13 of which will be offering Mothers Circle programs for the first time. Locations include classes in San Francisco, CA, Greensboro, NC, and Scranton, PA. In each of these communities, participants will be learning the “how-tos” and valuable conversation-starters to help them share the meaningful experience of honoring the High Holidays with their families. With class activities ranging from learning to recite the Rosh Hashanah blessings to listening to Leonard Cohen’s “Who By Fire?” (a comparison to the Rosh Hashanah prayer, “Unetanah Tokef”), High Holiday Highlights will be helping participants of all learning styles understand how both individuals and the community as a whole experience the High Holiday period in the synagogue and in the home.

Additionally, we are now proud to offer The Mothers Circle Self-Guide, a practical tool to accompany the book How to Raise Jewish Children…Even When You’re Not Jewish Yourself by Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky and Paul Golin. Those who use the Self-Guide will be able to reflect on the stories, recommendations, and questions posed in How to Raise Jewish Children…, as well as further articulate their goals and determine the choices they will make as they raise their Jewish children. By creating an introspective guide that a mother can work through alone at any given time, JOI hopes to serve more mothers who, whether due to geography or other commitments, may have previously felt alone in the venture to raise Jewish children.

For more information regarding these programs, visit or feel free to be in contact with Hannah Morris here.

Israel Experience Programs in Tzfat for 20somethings

Laurie Rappeport of Livnot U’Lehibanot shares a bit about her work in this guest blog. For more information, please visit this website.

“Livnot U’Lehibanot” is an Israel Experience Program offering volunteering and hiking programs in Northern Israel for young Jewish adults since 1980. Livnot (literally “To Build and Be Built”) is unique in that it provides opportunities for participants to explore Israel through hiking, community service, archaeological excavations, and workshops—and is specifically geared to young Jewish adults in their 20s who have little or no Jewish background or affiliation but who are interested in exploring their heritage, and who can join the open Livnot environment of an immersive Jewish community living experience.

Livnot is located in the mountain town of Tzfat and offers participants the opportunity to integrate into the “real Israel” by interacting with local residents as they participate in a wide range of experiential activities. The subsidized Livnot programs are offered as both one- and four-week Israel Experience. During each program the participants learn about the day-to-day lives of Israelis, the Land of Israel, and Judaism through a variety of events and encounters. It is a proven transformative opportunity for young Jewish people to come together, live in a communal Jewish atmosphere, and experience a Jewish life with Jewish peers for one or more weeks. The whole thrust of the program is to break down barriers and make the program, and Judaism, as accessible as possible to as many young Jewish adults as possible.

Livnot’s subsidized programs provide opportunities for participants to explore issues and questions that relate to Jewish philosophies, beliefs, and traditions as each individual considers how to find his or her own place in the Jewish world. The programs present different aspects of Jewish ways of life and beliefs through the classes, which are taught by staff members, local artists, scholars, and community members with differing perspectives of Jewish life and religious observance. They are not “religious” programs but allow each individual to acquire experiences and information that will give them tools to explore their own Judaism. Seminar and class subjects range widely including “Art, Music and Me” (connecting the physical and the spiritual in Judaism), “Judaism and the Environment” (including what we learn about Judaism from the plants and animal life of the Land of Israel) and a “Tzfat Library Workshop” in which the writings of Tzfat sages are explored as they relate to our lives and values today.

Some recent quotes from Summer 2012 evaluations:

J.S. “Livnot added a more focused opportunity to discuss and explore my Judaism and Israel”
R.A. “This program has opened my eyes to so many things and has been an opportunity to take a step back and think about my Jewish identity.”

R.B.” The Livnot program and staff are incredibly amazing. I’ve had an awesome time here and wouldn’t change it for the world. Keep up the good work. Livnot Rocks!”

M.D. “Thank you so much to everyone who made Livnot possible for me. It was exactly what I needed at the right time. Almost every day, during most of the activities, I would stop and think to myself “this is amazing; I can’t believe that I’m actually here doing these things.” This has literally been one of, if not the absolute, best month of my life. I’ve become a much better person because of Livnot. Thank you!!!”

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

I nervously asked my stepdaughter, Kyla, if she and her fiancé, Sarah, would be having any religious rituals in their wedding. Why “nervously”? Because the only other time I brought up religion, there seemed to be some discord and I didn’t want to add any angst. I knew they were being married by a female Muslim friend who became a minister for the occasion. I was pretty sure she wouldn’t know about circling and the seven blessings, but I didn’t want to push anything on them.

When my mom asked what she could give the brides, I suggested a Ketubah (a non-binding Jewish wedding contract). My mother had given Kyla’s dad and me our beautiful Ketubah – which actually Kyla and her sister, my husband’s other daughter, Arielle, signed as “junior witnesses.” As has become common practice, the ketubah is a piece of art now framed and hanging on our wall. Robert and I don’t know what it says – though he can read the Hebrew and I cannot – but we know what it means. It is a contract of commitment.

I hadn’t asked about a Ketubah, but I thought it was benign enough that they would accept the gift. Why did I need a benign gift? Because I was afraid to bring up the religion issue. However, Kyla and Sarah wanted one, so I went to the store in Los Angeles ( where my mom had purchased ours 19 years ago. The staff were very excited that they had their first second generation wedding ever.


Click Here!