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Weblog Entries for December 2012

Helping Jewish Communal Professionals Work “Smarter”

With the prevalence of technology in our lives, we can stay connected wherever we are. That’s good and bad. On the one hand, we are responsive and communicative. On the other hand, we can easily be “on” 24 hours a day. The former is good; the latter creates illness and sloppy work. We’ve all seen those harried, stressed, co-workers who slide into each meeting at the last minute with stress written all over their faces. We all know it isn’t good for us – but what do we do to stop it?

One of our strategic initiatives at JOI is to work with Jewish communal professionals throughout North America. We even have a name for them: Big Tent Judaism Professional Affiliates. These are men and women who are committed to strengthening their work and improving their success by increasing outreach and engagement, and they are often overloaded with the task of reaching out and engaging their local Jewish communities. The Big Tent Judaism Professional Affiliates program provides them with the tools to work smart – not just hard.

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Origami to Open the Tent

I have found out recently that one of the wonderful things about working for JOI is that you never know what kind of skill set you may be called upon to apply. About a week ago, I had the pleasure of helping out at one of our Public Space JudaismSM programs, which took place here in New York City. These programs usually take place just before major Jewish holidays and are all about bringing Jewish content to where people are (rather than waiting for them to come to the JCC or the synagogue). This particular program was called Hands-On Hanukkah, and the name says it all. At the back of the Barnes and Noble store in Union Square, a crowd of parents and caretakers with young children began to gather, attracted by colorful flyers and a real-life dreidel who happily agreed to have her picture taken with the little ones. There was also a puppet show put on by Yellow Sneaker, coloring of JOI’s Sesame Street-themed Color-Me CalendarSM (thanks to our collaboration with Shalom Sesame), lots of dreidels to spin, and my personal favorite – dreidel origami (you can find several versions online but this is the one we used). I remember loving origami as a kid, and this certainly brought back memories. At any rate, the kids loved them and kept asking for more.

Over the years, Public Space Judaism has a proven record of success. From our research we know that these events have the potential to draw hundreds of participants, most of which “stumble upon” the event as they go about their day, not having planned to participate but drawn to the activities and displays. We know that out of this crowd, dozens (about 25% to be exact) are members of Jewish households (including family members of other religious or cultural backgrounds) who would otherwise have little or no engagement with the Jewish community. The success of these programs highlights the desire of this demographic to participate in the Jewish community; they just need to be given the (low-barrier) opportunity to do so.

Who knew that folding origami dreidels would come in handy in expanding an inclusive Jewish community?!



“We Should Acknowledge Their Sacrifice”: What the Story of Joseph has to do with Hanukkah

One of the most rewarding parts of my role as National Coordinator of The Mothers Circle is to be a part of the ongoing conversation on The Mothers Circle National Listserve. This is a venue for mothers of other backgrounds who are raising Jewish children to connect with other women like them across North America. The conversations are rich, and the support extended from one mom to the next is, in my opinion, the biggest strength of The Mothers Circle program.

Recently, a mom shared this article (reposted below) with the listserve from The Canadian Jewish News by Rabbi Erin Polansky of Neshamah Congregation of York Region in Vaughan, ON. I love the way she ties what is essentially the mission of The Mothers Circle to Biblical text, emphasizing that we need only look to our own religious tradition to understand the importance and impact of embracing these mothers.

It’s that time of year again. Christmas decorations are popping up everywhere; every other song on the radio is about jingle bells, silent nights or reindeer. We can’t escape it! We Jews often complain about how Christmas overtakes everything—and not just on December 25th, but from just after Halloween to well after New Year’s Eve!

For Jews-by-birth, it is an annual tradition to complain about the prevalence of Christmas. But how often have we stopped to think about how Christmas affects those members of our families who have either converted or have decided to join our families?

Toronto Jews are proud. We don’t hide our heritage and we educate others about it. Yet this pride can be chauvinistic or elitist. Many parents of intermarried children are embarrassed that their child has “married out” and try to hide this from their friends and synagogue communities. Those who have “married out” are looked down upon as if they didn’t achieve the ideal marriage—even if said spouse is wonderful, and a perfect match, there is still a sense of loss and failure.

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Five Ways Hanukkah and Christmas are Alike, and Five Ways They Are Different

This year, more people will celebrate the holiday of another religion with friends and family than ever before, largely due to intermarriage and our increasingly multicultural society. When helping others to celebrate their traditions, it may be fun and useful to know a little about how the two main December holidays are similar, and how they differ. The below tidbits may add to the appreciation of the other’s holiday, or enable you to better explain your own traditions—or simply provide a good ice-breaker over eggnog or latkes.

Did you know the holidays are similar in that…

1. Both Hanukkah and Christmas have roots in the Winter Solstice. The shortening of the days was the basis for many holidays that pre-date Hanukkah and Christmas. In ancient Rome, December 25th was considered the birthday of the sun, and many cultures who celebrate the Winter Solstice do so by lighting large bonfires both in public and near their homes. Others see it as a purifying holiday and incorporate ritual cleansings into their celebrations.

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So Many Menorahs, So Little Time…

I’ve been thinking about Hanukkah. Who hasn’t? And with thinking about Hanukkah comes thinking about gifts. I made a pledge this year that I wouldn’t buy a single present from any place that had decorations up before Thanksgiving. That pretty much left me with Nordstrom (which isn’t in NYC) and Judaica shops. Luckily, my younger stepdaughter just got engaged and moved in with her boyfriend (who happens to be Jewish), making the gifting decision fairly easy. So, I bought them a mezuzah.

Maybe I’ll get them a menorah, too. My menorah is simple – it’s a piece of metal that curves with eight holes in it. It’s rare for me to get through Hanukkah lighting all the candles – though I think it is very cool that the candle boxes have exactly the right amount of candles. It reminds me of that expression you hear around the High Holidays—“they’re never too late or too early, they’re always right on time.”

There are an enormous amount of menorahs on the market these days, from metal to glass to baseball-themed to a menorah made out of bowling pins. In fact, I bought my son one for his dorm room from the drug store – it doubles as a decorative tin.

And while there is only one way to light a menorah, there are many unique takes on how to go about it… but I kind of like this way.

Have you found a unique take on lighting the hanukiyah? Share with us on our Big Tent Judaism Facebook page by clicking here.



Hands-On Hanukkah Reaches New Families and Brings Communities Together

Hanukiyot have appeared in shop windows. Presents have been wrapped. And the Jewish Outreach Institute has deployed programs, training webinars, staff, and even dreidel costumes to help Jewish communal professionals bring Hanukkah to their public spaces. JOI’s Public Space Judaism program, Hands-On Hanukkah, is officially coming to town – that is, to 10 distinct communities across North America. Taking place in bookstores, malls, toy stores, and community centers, these events are designed to engage families and newcomers, who may otherwise not participate in the organized Jewish community.

The first five Hands-On Hanukkah events occurred this past weekend in Columbus, OH, Fairfax, VA, Vancouver, BC, Long Island, NY, and Houston, TX. It was my privilege to attend the Hands-On Hanukkah in Houston, TX, where our host partner Congregation Emanu-El brought the event to Learning Express Kids, a colorful, fun toy store bustling during the holiday shopping season. Before and during the event, I also had the opportunity to train and interact with the dynamic staff and volunteers representing Congregation Emanu-El. Their enthusiasm and willingness to literally put themselves out there (in painted faces and dreidel costumes!) brought smiles to all who passed by and participated. More importantly, volunteers and staff alike understood why we were there and why reaching newcomers in the public space can transform newcomers to engaged Jews.

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When To Talk About the Religion of Your Children (Hint: Not as they’re being born)

Years ago, the television world seemed to be mostly Christian families with the occasional Jewish family, often “the kid next door” or a family that popped up during the winter holiday season. Nowadays, not only is it more common to see Jewish families at the center of a TV show, but we are also seeing more interfaith couples.

It used to be the case that this only came up on the yearly holiday episodes, but ABC drama Private Practice has highlighted the interfaith marriage of Charlotte and Cooper several times over the last year or so, such as when the couple got hitched, and most significantly in this week’s episode, Life Support.

I freely admit that I’m a big fan of Private Practice, having started watching the show in the beginning when Dr. Addison Montgomery left Seattle Grace Hospital for greener (and warmer) pastures (the character left Grey’s Anatomy, prompting Private Practice, which is essentially a spin-off). The show has featured interracial couples, lesbian and gay couples, single parent families, and plenty of other family and couple “structures,” if you will. In this weeks’ episode, Charlotte is about to give birth, and the couple’s son, Mason (who has his own complicated interfaith family storyline), asks Cooper, his father, if he can have a Bar Mitzvah. This prompts the couple to briefly discuss if the soon-to-be-born triplets will be having Bat Mitzvahs, or if they will be baptized.

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A Choosing-Judaism Holiday Dilemma: What Do We Do with Santa?

Originally posted on State of Formation in 2011 and reposted with permission from the author, Yaira Robinson.

“But Mom, we can’t celebrate Hanukkah—because then Santa won’t come, right?”

This was the question from my clearly worried 7-year old last December as we prepared to celebrate our first Hanukkah. And just like that, all of the confusing family issues surrounding my conversion to Judaism were distilled into one simple, innocent wondering. In that moment, standing there in the kitchen with my youngest son, there was really only one answer: “No, sweetie… Santa loves Hanukkah!”

I tell this story in answer to a question I’m getting a lot recently, since I converted to Judaism this past spring and am committed to raising my children as Jews: “Just how does your family celebrate the holidays now?”

As with most things in life that really matter, a full and honest answer is not a simple one. My husband isn’t Jewish, and doesn’t plan to become Jewish, but he is supportive—and for the last almost two years, our boys and I have been moving into Judaism in meaningful, deliberate ways. We light Shabbat candles on Friday night, regularly attend synagogue, and celebrate holidays with friends. I converted this past April. As of this fall, the kids are learning Hebrew and attending religious school on Sunday mornings.

They increasingly think of themselves as Jewish. At the beginning of this school year, my 6th grader came home from youth group and exclaimed, “Mom, I’m not the only Jewish kid at school!” And the other day when I caught him watching YouTube videos instead of cleaning his room, I had a hard time feigning anger; he was watching “Candlelight,” the Maccabeats’ Hanukkah song, on my laptop.

Their growing sense of Jewish identity and at-home-ness in Judaism gives me a deep sense of joy, and a fair amount of relief. I am glad to know that they will grow up with a sense of belonging, even though they were 7 and 9 before we found our permanent religious home. (Read my previous essay, “Choosing My Religion,” for more on the importance of having a religious home.)

But now, we find ourselves faced with a choosing-Judaism holiday dilemma: What do we do with Santa?

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A Story of a Jewish Girl & a Not-So-Jewish Boy Leads to a Place in the Tent

Sandra Armstrong is a special education preschool teacher and author who lives in Kailua, Hawaii. She recently published an autobiography, “A Jewish Girl & a Not-So-Jewish Boy,” about Judaism and her interfaith marriage.

With Christmas and Hanukkah around the corner, it made me think back 35 years to when my husband Don and I were newly married.

I called the local synagogue and spoke directly to the secretary. Since my married name was Armstrong, she did not mince words with me. She stated clearly that because my husband was not Jewish, we could not be members of the synagogue. Ouch! Obviously, it was not a pleasant phone conversation. She preempted the Rabbi, to whom I should have spoken to directly. I was young and hurt, but I didn’t let it stop us from attending High Holidays services or participating in the Young Couples Club. Long-standing members were gracious and welcoming to us. We fondly remember the warm glow of acceptance that was cast upon us by them. There is something very unique about Judaism. It seeps deep into your soul, and even if you were raised without a Jewish education, you maintain an ethnic identity. This is how it was for me.

We began our married lives celebrating Jewish holidays like Hanukkah and Passover. I always observed Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur because I didn’t know how to celebrate any others yet. We also celebrated Christmas and Easter for Don. We attended synagogue on the High Holidays and a church service once while visiting with Don’s Grandmother Armstrong in North Carolina. We did just fine with this arrangement. Don was raised with Christmas and Easter, and my family celebrated Hanukkah and Passover. I have to admit that I was not thrilled the first time we brought a Christmas tree home. I grew up believing that Jews were not allowed to celebrate Christmas. It was the big no-no.

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