Weblog Entries for October 2012

JOI Welcomes Three New Members to the Board of Directors

JOI is excited to announce three new members of its board of directors. Laura Kinyon of Avon, CT; Henry Salmon of New Brunswick, NJ; and Rabbi Abigail Treu of New York, NY will work closely with Executive Director Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky and the rest of the board of directors to promote JOI, help guide its development, oversee its management, and ensure that it has the resources, professional leadership, and policies needed to fulfill its mission.

Meet the new Board of Directors members here:

Laura R. Kinyon: a licensed clinical social worker residing in Avon, CT, and a facilitator of The Mothers Circle and Grandparents Circle programs in Hartford for eight years.
Henry Salmon: has received many awards for his service to his local New Jersey community, and is past president of the Solomon Schechter Day School of Raritan, NJ.
Rabbi Abigail Treu: a Rabbinic Fellow for the Jewish Theological Seminary and is the incoming National Director of the Torah Fund and Philanthropic Planning.

We are delighted to have these three leaders of the North American Jewish community as part of the board, and look forward to their continuing participation in the future of our organization.

The Awe-full Days are Over and the New Year Can Finally Begin

Some might say that the new year began with Rosh Hashanah. I know the technical argument: there are actually four new years in the Jewish calendar. (I have always said that calendation is probably the most confusing aspect of Jewish religious and ritual life.) And the one we recently celebrated might best be described as the religious New Year (because it is the anniversary on which the Jewish people acclaimed Gd as Sovereign Ruler. That is why this year is 5773, not because we actually believe that the world is only 6000 years old). But many of us contend now that the fall holidays have finally concluded, we can actually begin the year. And it is already the middle of October!

Ironically, the Hebrew month that begins next week has been renamed Marcheshvan (literally, the bitter Cheshvan, the original name of the month) supposedly because we are bitter that there are no Jewish holidays in that month. I have always explained its bitterness this way: no matter how much teshuvah (repentance) work we do on Yom Kippur (and even extend it to Hoshanah Rabbah), there is still some residual bitterness in our soul that is left to deal with. That is one of the spiritual reasons that Sukkot is so filled with joy and culminates with Simchat Torah, an attempt to flush our spiritual systems of any of this residual bitterness of spirit.

Nonetheless, the holidays, for those of us who fully embrace them, are overwhelming and all-consuming. I often joke, “Whose idea was it anyway to place them all together? Couldn’t they have been spread out just a little?” And, of course, no one ever thinks that the Jewish holidays are “on time.” They are either “early” or “late.” But I actually enjoy them—if that is the right word when we include Yom Kippur in the mix. They provide me with a strong foundation for the year ahead. In some sense, they function like Shabbat—which provides me with a respite so that I can face the week ahead. But unlike Shabbat, the fall holidays begin by raising me to the heights of Sinai on Rosh Hashanah, and then the depths of Sheol on Yom Kippur and then fill me with joy and celebration—even more so—on Sukkot and Simchat Torah.

I was fortunate to share the holidays with three different synagogue communities in three different geographical locations this year. They observed the calendars somewhat differently—even if the liturgy and ritual were the same. Some of the focus was on children, some on families, and some on adults. When the holidays are allowed to be fully observed and communicate on their own, they have a lot to say. We just have to rid ourselves of the internal noises that all too often claim our attention if we want to listen.
And if we listen carefully, there is profound wisdom to be heard.

It’s the Wrong Tree!

The UJA-Federation’s Jewish Community Study of New York continues to make waves. Recently, an article in The Forward cited the above study to the effect that the number of Jews who report being synagogue members is greater than the number of those who actually pay dues. Be that as it may, I want to suggest that our concern about declining synagogue affiliation rates, while understandable, completely misses the point.

At JOI we work to turn this debate on its head. Declining membership rates is simply not what the Jewish community should be worried about. We’re not only barking up the wrong tree, we’re in a completely wrong forest. What we should instead take from this recent New York study is the revelation (if anyone needed a reminder) that the majority of North American Jews (New York being a revealing case study) have no connection to Jewish practice whatsoever.

According to the article’s author, Josh Nathan-Kazis, “many Jews don’t believe that synagogue membership is determined by dues payment.” Well, I agree, but I would add that many Jews (many more!) don’t believe being Jewish is dependent on synagogue membership of any kind. So let’s stop worrying about who is or is not paying synagogue dues, and let’s start worrying instead about people (like myself) who don’t go to synagogue at all – Jews who will never go to synagogue because they don’t believe in God, or because synagogue, for them, has ceased to be a meaningful way to “do Jewish.”

As JOI’s evaluation officer I work with others to develop tools for measuring Jewish engagement, rather than affiliation. We use our initiatives such as Big Tent Judaism and outreach methods such as Public Space JudaismSM, in order to engage those on the periphery of the Jewish community and pull them into the tent. At the same time, by insisting on ‘engagement’ rather than ‘affiliation’ as the driving force of the debate, we try to open up our definition of what ‘the Jewish community’ means. Because it can no longer be only about synagogue dues.

Reaching the iPhone Generation

What happens when a generation of Jews remains disinterested in synagogue life? Is there a way to attract adults without families to a traditional service? How can synagogues adapt and begin to better accommodate the needs of Americans who are increasingly choosing to live life “going solo”? Considering the recent trends in marriage rates and child-rearing (e.g. marriage being delayed in life, a rise in cohabitation rather than marriage, and the raising of fewer children), synagogues, which in many ways are so bound to the religious school model, need to reevaluate how they interact, appeal, and reach adults of the Millennial generation. While they have done well integrating families with young children (e.g. Tot Shabbat services, kids leading Adon Olam, parenting programs, etc.), synagogues are much less likely to appeal to younger adults who are still navigating their career paths, love lives, new cities, and the economic realties of our depressed economy.

So, what can synagogues do to reach the adults who are living alone, and who are interacting through social networks – virtual and not? When a generation is taking longer to buy homes and buy cars (or not doing so at all!) and is instead attaching status to phones, is there something a synagogue can do to harness such a cultural shift? When being connected does not rely upon getting into your car to go meet people in order to feel a part of the community, what should a synagogue be doing? Should synagogues be streaming their services, as has become increasingly possible? Should synagogues be tweeting one-liners from sermons? Will shaking up the traditional service with technology be the answer?


First Contact: The Phone Call

Over the summer, I went to a new city to visit some friends for the weekend. I thought I’d check out a local synagogue for Shabbat services, so I made the call…

Me: Hello! I’m calling to find out about services this evening.
Receptionist: They are at 6:00.
Me: Thanks, I actually saw the time on your website… I was calling to find out what they are like?
Receptionist: Oh, I really couldn’t tell you. I’ve never been to them.
Me: Do you know if they are musical? Mumbly? Participatory?
Receptionist: I really don’t know. By the way, are you a member?
Me: Um, no, I’m coming for the first time.

I’ll spare you the rest of the conversation because it didn’t get better. Within the span of a few moments, I was not helped, not guided, certainly not welcomed, and on top of that, made to feel like an outsider because I was not a member. Had I been a first-timer (or a first in a long-timer) gathering the courage to approach organized Jewish communal life, I might have felt turned off not only to this particular congregation, but from other opportunities to connect Jewishly as well.

Unfortunately, one negative encounter with one Jewish community has the potential to affect a person for a very long time, and severely impact their perception of the Jewish community as a whole. As Jewish communal professionals, we are constantly reminded of this as we engage in conversation with those who are disconnected from Jewish life. That is why here at JOI, we dedicate a significant portion of our time to helping to prevent such negative interactions, and protect the experience of potential newcomers to Jewish life. We believe that the organized Jewish community must reach out to connect those on the periphery of Jewish life in innovative ways (another core piece of our work), but some preliminary steps must take place first.


Jewish, Baseball Player, and Child of Intermarriage

I was already excited to go see my beloved Tampa Bay Rays in their last regular season series at Yankee Stadium this year. I was even more overjoyed to see that Sam Fuld was playing (and that the Rays won). Fuld had been injured most of the season, and this was his first New York appearance since being off the DL. He is an exciting player to watch, and even more exciting than that…he is Jewish!

Fuld addressed his Jewishness in a New Yorker article last year with a bit of insecurity. “I wasn’t bar-mitzvahed,” he explained. “I feel like I’m almost letting [my Jewish fans] down when I tell them, ‘Well, my mom’s Catholic, and I was kind of raised celebrating both.’ ”

Yet regardless of his own feelings of authenticity in terms of being a Jewish role model, any amount of Jewishness is enough to instill a sense of pride in identifying with Fuld as a fellow Jew. Jewish celebrities can have an extremely powerful impact on Jewish identity, particularly amongst young children. I recall winning over my 4th grade students in my first year of teaching religious school by telling them that I had seen Kevin Youkilis of the Boston Red Sox (at the time) at Yom Kippur services. Despite our heated arguments over the quality of the Red Sox, the knowledge that a professional athlete was Jewish made it infinitely cooler to be in religious school.


If You Build It, Will They Come?

One of my favorite movies of all time is Field of Dreams, the Kevin Costner baseball classic famous for the line “if you build it, he will come.” Granted, the quote refers to dead baseball players, but the concept can easily be applied to those less-engaged in the Jewish community, can’t it?

In a recent two-part blog, Esther Kustanowitz shared her thoughts on engaging young Jewish adults. Many of these 20s and 30s, like myself, went to Hebrew School, had families who belonged to a synagogue, and now, being in between childhood and “married with children,” believe they have no real need for a Jewish institution. What can a synagogue or JCC offer that a group or social networking club can’t? Why Jdate over Kustanowitz says:

“Affiliation is a choice. Civic engagement is a choice. Social activism is a choice. And when it comes to making space in their lives for those choices, many of which exist concurrently and definitely non-exclusively, most NextGen people don’t rely on organizations to do it for them, because they can do it better, faster, stronger and cheaper themselves.”

So perhaps the question isn’t “if we build it, will they come?” but what should we build? What can the Jewish community create that is so enticing, less-engaged Jewish 20s and 30s will want to be involved? If Ray Kinsella (Costner’s character) had built a football field, the 1919 Black Sox probably wouldn’t have walked through the corn to play baseball. We can’t just invite people to our institutions; we have to have to know what to provide for them.


The Sukkot Experience

Alicia Scotti, a former Mothers Circle participant turned facilitator of Mothers Circle programs, has blogged for in the past and is especially good at sharing her experiences raising Jewish children. Today, she offers her perspective on what celebrating Sukkot has meant to her family. For more guidance on how you can bring Sukkot into your family’s life, visit The Mothers Circle Guide to Sukkot here.

Sukkot was never much on my radar. Actually it didn’t really get there until several years ago, when my oldest was already halfway through high school (We live in NYC, which explains a lot.) Every year our temple would have a sukkah decorating party, to which we’d bring gourds, apples, and different things to tie to the structure that the maintenance staff had erected earlier that day. Afterward, we’d attend a Sukkot service, and we’d all huddle in the structure to shake the lulav and smell the etrog. It was always fun, but that was the extent of our Sukkot.

One year, out of the blue, my husband decided we should get our own lulav and etrog. Once he made that decision, it was a big deal! He did a lot of research about where to get the best ones, and conveniently one was our local Judaica store. Of course, however, he was working and couldn’t get away, so he sent me. Inside, there was a table stacked with etrogs, and another with the lulavs. The place was packed with people reaching over each other and pushing to get closest to the table to smell and examine each one until somehow miraculously the perfect one was found, and then on to the next table! I had no idea what I was doing, but I can smell. I can examine and take a good guess. So that’s what I did.


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