Weblog Entries for November 2012

Happy Hanukkah: How will you share the light this Hanukkah?

The staff of Big Tent Judaism / The Jewish Outreach Institute wish you a Happy Hanukkah!

How are you sharing the light this Hanukkah? Click here tell us below!

In the spirit of opening the tent, our staff are opening their doors and sharing the light this Hanukkah in many ways– through both their work here at JOI, as well as at home and in public spaces with family and friends. We invite you to leave your comment about how you plan to share the light this Hanukkah, and we wish everyone a safe, bright, and happy holiday!

JOI Releases Report on Success of The Mothers Circle

Our recently released report on the success of The Mothers Circle is starting to make waves, as more communities are asking us to share this important program.

The fact is that when an intermarried couple decides to make a Jewish home for their children, it is often the mother who bears the primary responsibility for making the home Jewish. And when this mother does not have a Jewish background, the task may seem impossible. The fact is, too, that non-Jewish mothers in interfaith relationships have been less than welcomed by the Jewish community. Without the necessary support, many of these women may abandon Jewishness altogether.

Enter The Mothers Circle. At the Jewish Outreach Institute we believe that interfaith couples are an opportunity, not a threat to the Jewish community. With the right support, and the right welcoming attitude on the part of our communities, these mothers and their family can become part of our Big Tent, creating a Jewish home where there may not have been one before.

Which brings me back to this latest report. Through our research, we learned that participants of the 16-session course become more comfortable doing Jewish activities, bring more Jewish practices into the home (for example, the percentage of those who say they currently light Shabbat candles at home jumps from 50% to 83% following the course), and begin their journey toward greater Jewish engagement by choosing Jewish education for their children and participating in Jewish institutions.


“Raising the Bar” of LGBTQ Inclusion

As more and more states legalize gay marriage, and LGBTQ equality becomes a larger and more persistent topic on the news and internet, it becomes harder and harder to ignore the fact that we are in the midst of a modern-day civil rights movement of sorts. Taking into account the repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” in 2010, discussion of LGBTQ rights to adopt, anti-bullying efforts, and all the other debates centered around the LGBTQ community, it is evident that the issue of marriage equality is simply the first battleground in a larger movement that hopes to achieve complete and total equality and inclusion in all aspects of life, including the military, work place, and public schools.

The Jewish community has often taken a stance on issues of equality, from the Civil Rights Movement in the middle of the last century, to the Freedom March for Soviet Jewry in 1987; and it is now taking a stance on this issue as well. According to an article posted on eJewishPhilanthropy, Jewish organizations lead the way in the inclusion of the LGBTQ community and the rejection of discrimination of any kind. Jewish organizations have shown this through the banning of discriminatory hiring practices in large organizations (which is unbelievably not yet federal law), as well as LGBTQ inclusion in faith-based communities through special programming and statements of inclusion in mission statements.

As the world changes and evolves so must the Jewish community, and the Jewish community’s track record of aligning itself with equal rights movements shows its willingness and ability to do so. Although the LGBTQ equality movement has a long way to go (41 more states to go for marriage equality), its leaders and supporters can rest assured that a large part of the Jewish community will not hinder its progress, and will instead offer a helping hand. At JOI, we consider this a way of opening the tent, and are happy to see so much of the community opening their tents as well.

The Morning After

Most of America is returning to their normal routines now that the Thanksgiving holiday weekend is over. Some see this period of time as the beginning of the Christmas season (or should I say “Christmas shopping season” starting with the so-called Black Friday). The winter season, centered around the national holiday of Christmas, has been joined by Hanukkah as the national Jewish holiday, much to the chagrin of some in the Jewish community who try to minimize the holiday, among whom I do not consider myself.

Although Thanksgiving has its roots in the Biblical celebration of Sukkot, it has clearly evolved as one of the premier fully American holidays. While some may argue that Shavuot (which occurs in the spring) is the best example of an outreach holiday, since Ruth famously takes on Judaism when she says “Your people will be my people, your Gd will be my Gd,” for others it is Thanksgiving, since families don’t have to make any religious decisions (only with whom to spend Thanksgiving and that isn’t always easy). Nevertheless, there are many lessons learned during Thanksgiving that perhaps can inform the winter holiday season and the celebration of the holidays, which is often more difficult for some interfaith families.

Most people think that it is the conflict of holiday theology and observance that causes friction to surface during the winter solstice season. In reality, what usually happens is that folks who don’t see each other during the year are suddenly placed in constant contact, sometimes even under the same roof. And long unresolved issues bubble to the surface. Perhaps this doesn’t happen when friends and family get together for Thanksgiving because of the shared values in Thanksgiving.

I am not advocating for a syncretism between Christmas and Hanukkah nor a blending of tradition. Each holiday needs its separate identity and celebration—even if the place of importance for these holidays differs in their requisite faith tradition. But as Judaism enters the marketplace of ideas, perhaps there are some ideas and values that emerge from Hanukkah that would be of interest to others, irrespective of their faith tradition.

Hanukkah celebrates the miracle of religious freedom. It reflects the strength and fortitude of a small group of people dedicated to this idea, willing to place themselves in mortal danger in order to advocate for such freedoms, an idea that can transcend differences in traditions. How’s that for starters?

JOI Program Associate Brenna Kearns Finds a Place in the Tent

Every December, I eagerly awaited Hanukkah with my mom and my brother. Lighting my great-grandmother’s menorah and together reciting the beautiful prayer whose words I carefully sounded out without knowing their meaning made me feel special. As the daughter of intermarried, non-religious parents growing up in small desert towns in the Southwest, I had little exposure to Judaism. I always knew that I was Jewish, but I had no idea what “being Jewish” meant. Our annual candle lighting gave me only a shadow of what I was grasping for—a fleeting sense of connection to a rich tradition and community.

It was not until college that I had the chance to grapple with what Judaism holds for me and craft a meaningful Jewish identity for myself. A few months into my freshman year, I tagged along with an acquaintance to Shabbat services at the campus Hillel. There, I found a warm and vibrant community of wonderful people to which I was immediately drawn. But though I desperately wanted to belong, I felt like kind of an imposter. After all, it seemed like everyone else had gone to Jewish summer camp; they knew what all those Hebrew words meant (even in transliteration, I was still lost); they had family stories of Bat Mitzvahs and Jewish grandmothers and hamantaschen (delicious triangular cookies made for the holiday of Purim); and I had none. How could I ever find my place in this community?

My own preconceived notions and others’ friendly assumptions proved major inhibitions. Inexplicably though, I kept returning each Friday night for services, sitting there silently, trying to fit in and follow along. I eventually realized that the homogeneity of “Super Jews” was a mirage, and people came from all sorts of backgrounds. The tent was bigger and more varied than I thought it was, but it took a long journey to find my place in it—even a big tent can have intimidating flaps.


What I Learned from the Birthright Israel Report

I have just read with interest the latest report about the impact of Birthright Israel. This celebrated 10-day Israel immersion program proves once again that its impact on participants is robust and–the point of this latest report–long-lasting. Even a decade after participating in the trip, participants show greater Jewish engagement on a wide range of measures (compared to similar kids who applied to the program but never got to go)–from feeling connected to Israel, to celebrating Jewish holidays, to synagogue membership. But the focus of this report seems to be the finding that:

Taglit alumni inmarry at rates greater than would be expected based on socio-demographic research, and at significantly greater rates than others who did not participate. (Page 30)

More precisely, Birthright participants are 45% more likely than nonparticipants to marry other Jews.

That this should be highlighted as the study’s most important finding is disappointing. Intermarriage by itself should not be seen as an ultimate ill plaguing the Jewish community, disengagement should. We know that, from a sociological standpoint, intermarried households who are Jewishly engaged look very similar to inmarried households; and additionally, unengaged Jewish households look very similar as well, regardless of whether both spouses are Jewish or only one.

I would like, instead, to highlight a different finding of this same report:

“Taglit participants and nonparticipants who are intermarried are equally likely to be raising their oldest child Jewish.” (Page 24)


The Mothers Circle Reaches Poland

As The Mothers Circle continues to provide education and support to women of other religious backgrounds raising Jewish children across North America, we are excited to announce that our reach has extended even further!

Kit Haspel is a veteran Mothers Circle facilitator in Rhode Island, where she will soon begin her fifth circle. Kit recently traveled to Poland on behalf of the Jewish Alliance of Rhode Island to facilitate a workshop at Limmud Keshet, a conference of Jewish learning. The Jewish community in Poland was decimated after the Holocaust and by the influence of communism, and continues to feel many of those effects even today. However, as she reports in this article in the Jewish Voice & Herald, Jewish life has begun to reemerge in the past 15 or so years. The Limmud Poland conference presented a unique opportunity to support this renewal in Jewish engagement, particularly amongst young Polish adults who were born into a free society and are seeking to learn more about their Jewish heritage.

Kit based much of her presentation, “Embracing Jewish Ritual,” on The Mothers Circle curriculum. With many Polish attendees only recently finding out they are Jewish (or only recently feeling free to express their Judaism), she focused much of the learning on starting small, as she incorporated topics like Shabbat and tzedakah (righteous giving). She hopes that participants not only learned more about Jewish life, but about how to transmit that enthusiasm to others.

We are truly honored that our curriculum could be a part of such an important educational opportunity for Jewish life abroad. I have felt Kit’s passion for Jewish learning since I first spoke with her, and we are so fortunate to have such a fantastic ambassador for The Mothers Circle!

The “Big Tent” in Baltimore

The term “General Assembly” can refer to a lot of different things. There’s the UN General Assembly, various state General Assemblies, and now even the General Assembly for the tech community. But to the Jewish communal professional world, the General Assembly refers to “the premier annual North American Jewish communal event, attracting Federation volunteer leaders and professionals, the leadership of our partner organizations and a range of national Jewish organizations,” as stated on the GA website.

Hosted by the Jewish Federations of North America, this year’s GA took place in Baltimore, MD, and I was lucky enough to attend for the first time. In a lot of ways, the GA looks like every other conference: a busy schedule of sessions and plenaries, a few notable speakers, and a marketplace of booths all clambering for your attention, many by giving out candy and reusable tote bags. While I definitely returned with plenty of chocolate and tote bags in tow, I also returned with an even deeper appreciation for the work we do here at JOI.

For this year’s marketplace, we chose to literally open the tent, as Chemi Shalev of Haaretz describes:

The Jewish Outreach [Institute] has set up a campaign entitled “Big Tent Judaism,” and just in case you miss the point, their booth is, indeed, a blue-topped tent.”

The tent featured testimonials from participants of The Mothers Circle, the Grandparents Circle, the Big Tent Judaism Professional Affiliates Program, and Passover in the Matzah AisleSM, one of our most popular Public Space JudaismSM programs. Several JOI staff and I spent the three-day conference literally inviting people into our tent to talk to them about Big Tent Judaism, and what it has to do with them and their community. We met with people from across world, including many from Israel and Canada, as well as many students there with their college Hillel programs.


We’re Going to Baltimore!

This weekend is going to be a first for me – my first time attending the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly. When I first started working in the Jewish world and heard about the GA, I thought my colleagues were going to the United Nations. And in a sense, they were. The Federated world encompasses so much of the Jewish communal world that it represents a vast diversity of North American Judaism. Scratch the surface of many Jewish institutions in any city and you’ll find a Jewish Federation.

We are pleased to co-lead a session titled, “Engaging Interfaith Families: Programs and tactics for increased community involvement.” Intermarried couples and the children and grandchildren of intermarriage represent a large segment of our community, and have often felt marginalized. This interactive session will allow staff and volunteer leaders from Federations and other Jewish organizations to explore the needs and challenges facing intermarried families, and discuss successful programs that increase their level of participation in the Jewish community.

If you are going to be at the GA in Baltimore this weekend, please join us for what should be a very engaging program. Be prepared to share your opinions, and leave with tools and resources.

And unlike the GA at the UN, IMHO u dnt hve 2 wr a trad costume.

Not sure what that says? Look for our Big Tent in the Marketplace (#711) and find out why using in-speak and acronyms excludes people. See you there! Do you think they’ll give me a first-timers badge?

It’s Just Stuff

Like so many in the Northeast, my wife and I have been displaced by Hurricane Sandy. No heat. (I jokingly said that it reminded me of my years in Jerusalem as a student when our apartment was cold all the time anyway.) No electricity. And, of course, no internet service. We were stuck out of town for several days before the airports opened, finally permitting us to travel home to survey the damage: lots of downed trees, utility wires everywhere. It will be a while before we are able to function close to normal again. But as I keep reminding people who are concerned about our property: “It is just stuff.” Many others are confronting real problems and are at risk. We are simply inconvenienced at worst. So we will continue to invite ourselves to more people’s homes for dinner and warmth—unless things are settled at home.

I was reminded of several things following the aftermath of the storm, all reminding me of the power of community that we often take for granted. First, the organized Jewish community went into high gear, in particular, the synagogue community with which I am affiliated. Everyone had to be accounted for and taken care of. And the synagogue served as a “comfort center,” something certainly new to add to the traditional designations as house of assembly, prayer, and study. And in our neighborhood, people helped one another—and continue to do so—all working together, no matter the religion, color, or creed. Everyone knew that we are in this together. The Big Tent was truly represented.

At JOI, we talk about community and its value—something that needs to be articulated frequently. And now we have yet another example of the power of community and one of the reasons it should be supported—it is always there, especially when you need it.

Open the Tent; Help Those in Need

We are incredibly thankful here at the JOI office in Manhattan that our staff is safe and making it through the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy. We have heard from some of our partner organizations, and while many here in the Northeast were hard-hit and some still have no power or water, all are fairing well and staying strong.

Opening the tent to the Jewish community is not just about welcoming in newcomers, but it is also about taking care of those who wish to be in the tent. On an average day, this may mean assisting families in our community who are having financial difficulties, or reaching out to those who are sick. Today, and for the foreseeable future, this means even more. As we begin to get back to work here in New York, we are looking for ways to help those around us.

Many websites have begun listing ways you can help, whether local or out-of-the-area, whether on the ground or financially. We are compiling a list of ways you can help, and if you have anything to add, please let us know.

Donate to the Red Cross Disaster Relief
*You can also donate by texting REDCROSS to 90999
Donate Blood
Donate to the UJA Disaster Relief Fund
Donate to North Shore Animal League

Volunteer with Repair the World
Volunteer at a Red Cross Shelter

HELP BY COMMUNITY (Donations and Volunteering):
Lower East Side Recovers
Red Hook Recovers
Staten Island Recovers
Astoria Recovers
New York Cares
Jersey Cares

The Jewish community is often cited for its resilience and how it comes together in difficult times. Here at the Jewish Outreach Institute, we include everyone in our community, and expand the tent to include all who wish to enter it, and all who need assistance in times like this. We hope that you will take a few moments to open your tent by either donating or volunteering. We thank you in advance for your support of our community, and plan to get back to the business of opening the tent of the Jewish community.

Black Sabbath: No, Not That One

A friend of mine recently asked if I had heard of Black Sabbath. Before I had the chance to launch into my best Ozzie Osborne-inspired rendition of the 1970 heavy metal classic “War Pigs,” he added that he was not speaking of the band, but rather an album title. It was then that he introduced me to Black Sabbath: The Secret Musical History of Black-Jewish Relations, a compilation of Jewish music as performed by legendary African American artists such as Lena Horne, Aretha Franklin, and Billie Holiday.

He began this musical introduction with a recording of The Temptations performing a Fiddler on the Roof medley, and I’m fairly certain my jaw literally dropped. To hear one of my all-time favorite groups perform music from one of my all-time favorite musicals was stirring enough, but that was only the beginning. Black Sabbath encompasses Israeli, Yiddish, and even religious music in its survey of the Jewish music catalogue. As my friend played the next track, I was overcome by the coolness of Nina Simone’s take on the Israeli folk classic, “Eretz Zavat Chalav,” as performed at Carnegie Hall in 1963. Her signature smoky, bluesy tone brought new life to a song I grew up adoring, and despite its repetitive nature (ideal for Israeli dancing), Simone manages to infuse each line with such freshness, such life, such pizzazz.

After introducing me to those two tracks, my friend gifted me with a copy of the entire album. Upon later listening, I came upon Johnny Mathis’ rendition of “Kol Nidre,” an Aramaic liturgical piece traditionally performed as a cantorial solo on the eve of Yom Kippur. Growing up, my father always looked forward to Yom Kippur services so that he could hear Kol Nidre; he was so moved by its beauty, whereas I could not imagine how anyone could be excited by the beginning of the fast. But when I heard Johnny Mathis perform it—and I realize how cheesy this sounds—I got choked up. I felt it in my bones, in my stomach, everywhere. After all these years, I finally understood what my dad meant. I finally understood why this piece of music means so much to so many people.


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