Weblog Entries for January 2013

Smaller Congregations Experimenting to Stay Vibrant

One of the overarching messages we value here at Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute is getting Jewish organizations to move beyond “business as usual” in order to secure a future for the Jewish community. This includes lowering barriers such as cost and language, but also thinking creatively about programs, who they serve, and what those people’s needs are. By simply stepping back and viewing the situation from the point of view of those being served, an institution can become much more attractive (and much more of an asset) to the community.

Rabbi Michael Friedland at Sinai Synagogue in South Bend, Indiana knows this from personal experience. As described in an article published by JTA, Friedland nearly doubled participation in the synagogue’s Hebrew Sunday school, by moving it to Saturday mornings and adding a brunch. A small change, but one that served the needs of his community, as well as intrigued them. Yisrael Shapiro, the article’s author, writes “congregants with and without children saw something interesting happening, and participation soared from about 50 members on a typical Shabbat morning to 90.”

Smaller congregations around the country are attempting to follow suit. What does this say about the state of the Jewish community today? In order to stay relevant, institutions must stay fresh and in tune with those they wish to serve, and perhaps most importantly, be willing to take risks. Here at Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute, this is exactly the kind of attitude we encourage, and look forward to hearing about more congregations like Sinai Synagogue, and more forward thinkers like Rabbi Friedland.

10 Things I Learned (or Re-Learned) About Outreach from Kerry Olitzky on My Trip to Los Angeles

Last week, I traveled with JOI Executive Director Rabbi Kerry Olitzky to Los Angeles to meet with some wonderful people from the various Federations and other Jewish organizations around the city, as well as individuals. As we made our way from meeting to meeting, I was reminded of so many important aspects of outreach, as well as learned a few new ones.

1. You can’t be a prophet in your own land. Bringing in experts to put a mirror up to current practices and work with leaders in your community will move a community forward faster than you trying to convince your peers - lay leaders or professionals - that they need to risk the barn to save the farm.

2. Baby steps are for babies. The Jewish community is not a baby; we need to be bold and take large steps forward. I would have added “before it’s too late” but I am optimistic for the future of the Jewish community. (See #9.)

3. The future of any Jewish family can change in a nano-second. In the split-second between when a child tells a parent s/he is “serious” about a potential partner who is not Jewish and the response from the parent, the relationship between the parent and child, the parent and future grandchildren, the parent and the child’s partner, and the partner and the Jewish community all hang in the balance. Be the warm, welcoming Jewish community in which someone will want to participate.

4. Non-Jewish spouses are not included in mailings from synagogues. That’s right. A mother from a different background whose family joined the synagogue, who drives the children to Hebrew School, who makes Shabbat every Friday night, who sends her kids to Jewish day schools and enrolls a them in Jewish camps doesn’t rank high enough to have her name included on the envelope for the newsletter the synagogue sends to her home. What other policies are in place that are exclusionary?

5. We need to trust our children more. If we want our children to have Jewish spouses we need to be straight about it and not try to trick them. Send them to day school because we value Jewish education. Support Moishe Houses because they provide meaningful Jewish experiences. Provide free trips to Israel so that young adults can feel connected to the land. Then get out of the way and trust the kids to make decisions that are right for them. After all, we raised these brilliant beings…


Looking for a Public Space Judaism Coordinator in Chicago, to Serve as a Concierge into Jewish Life

Through the generosity of our supporters and after many years of working with Jewish communal professionals in the Windy City, Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute is hiring a Public Space Judaism Coordinator in Chicago. In this (initially) part-time role, the Public Space Judaism Coordinator will take JOI’s training on best outreach and engagement practices, and use them to coordinate and implement outreach programming in public spaces. The programs are designed to reach and engage all those who may benefit from the meaning and value of participation in the organized Jewish community, including intermarried households. The Public Space Judaism Coordinator will foster collaboration between Chicago’s Jewish institutions, as there is now a broad coalition interesting in casting the widest possible net through Jewish holiday programming and experiential education in secular spaces. The Coordinator will also steward newcomers to other relevant programs and organizations that meet their needs, as our approach is “client-centered” and about serving the individuals’ interests and needs. For the complete job description, click here.

Most importantly, the Public Space Judaism Coordinator will be providing a crucial service for the community – someone who can independently provide a doorway into the entire gamut of Jewish communal programming and organizations. We envision that our Public Space Judaism Coordinator will promote the value of Jewish life, no matter the route one chooses.

Actress Elizabeth Banks Talks About Converting to Judaism

This past weekend, I finally watched Pitch Perfect, a hilarious take on the world of college a cappella. In addition to bringing back a ton of memories from my days in the Golden Blues at the University of Delaware (Go Blue Hens!), it also reminded me how much I enjoy Elizabeth Banks, who is also one of the movie’s producers.

As luck would have it, the Hunger Games actress and UPenn grad was recently interviewed by Marc Maron for his WTF Podcast, which I learned about thanks to an article by writer Stephanie Butnick which highlights the fact that Banks is a Jew-by-choice. Banks, raised a Catholic in Massachusetts, married a Jewish man, and eventually converted. But, Maron asks, “are you, like, officially a Jew?” Banks replies, “I’m not officially stamped, but by all accounts yes…My kids go to Jewish pre-school, we only celebrate Jewish holidays, I love seder…Frankly, because I’m already doing everything, I feel like I’m as Jewish as I’m ever going to be.” She goes on to say:


Bold Essay Offers Fresh Approach to Intermarriage

The following essay, “Loving the Stranger: Intimacy between Jews and Non-Jews,” offers both a moving personal testimonial and a profound new understanding of Jewish intermarriage. Dr. Rachel Baum, Adjunct Assistant Professor of Jewish Studies & Hebrew Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, writes, “Is it possible that marrying a non-Jew might help us understand Judaism better. See something against a new background, which we couldn’t see in the sea of sameness? Is it possible that we, above others, embody most profoundly Judaism’s injunction to love the stranger?” The essay is collected in a new book, “Encountering the Stranger: A Jewish-Christian-Muslim Trialogue,” and is an important addition to the intermarriage conversation. We’re honored to excerpt it here for the first time anywhere:

Loving the Stranger: Intimacy between Jews and Non-Jews

I am a Jew. There is no branch of Judaism that would deny this, despite my maternal grandmother’s marriage to a non-Jew, despite my having celebrated Christmas throughout my childhood, despite my occasional affection for bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwiches. I am a Jew, because my mother is a Jew, and her mother before her, and her mother before that.1

Am I a good Jew? I admit that I bristle at the question. Yet the question, “Is person X a good Jew, Christian, Muslim, etc.?” lies at the heart of much conversation within and among religious communities. Many debates within religious communities can be understood as disagreements over what it means to be a good member of the community. What is essential to the community, what must one have or be in order to identify with that community?

The branches of Judaism define its essence differently. Halacha (the body of Jewish religious jurisprudence) is central to Orthodoxy; Jewish ethics is of fundamental importance to Reform Judaism. Yet the determination of what makes a “good Jew” is not limited to religious Judaism, but extends to secular Jewish culture as well. And here, despite the differences between the religious and the secular, there is a surprising amount of agreement on the challenges facing the Jewish community.


The Changing Face of the Jewish Community

Earlier this month, The Forward featured a piece on the way the Jewish community looks today. The article highlights an ethnically diverse set of photos, all of Jewish children who, just a decade or so ago, would never have been assumed Jewish, and discusses The Forward’s 2013 project documenting the “changing Jewish landscape.”

The point, of course, is that there is no such thing as “looking Jewish,” nor is there one way to “be Jewish”—not here in America, and not in any of the over 50 countries where Jews live. Here at Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute, we are constantly talking about the changing face of the Jewish community and how to better serve those who feel marginalized. Once largely (but never entirely) white and Eastern European, the American Jewish community is evolving. With interfaith families, adoptions, and conversions, we have to cast aside our mental picture of who is Jewish, and instead focus on helping those on the periphery of Jewish life feel welcome, regardless of their background.

Before looking at this small collection of photos, picture in your head what you think “Jewish” looks like, then click through and prepare to throw your preconceived notions aside. We look forward to seeing the results of The Forward’s project, and to continuing to guide and contribute to the conversation.

Public Space Judaism and the Internet

One of the things I love most about being Jewish is that the calendar offers so many opportunities for celebrating. The holidays truly provide “tent poles” for my year in more ways than one. I bust out my food processor once a year to make latkes, I synthesize Halloween and Purim costumes, I suffer through abstaining from hot dog buns when I catch a Rays game during Passover… and the list goes on.

In the age of YouTube, a new holiday tradition has begun to emerge: the holiday parody video. It’s particularly fresh on my mind coming off of Hanukkah, but you can find songs for all sorts of Jewish holidays. I even created my own video when I ran special programs at a religious school. In the spirit of the Maccabeats’ extremely popular “Candlelight” video, the entire school came together to film a parody I had written of Sean Kingston’s “Fire Burning” which I called “Oil Burning.” The kids were thrilled to be a part of it, because who doesn’t want to be a YouTube star? It worked wonders for “Gangnam Style” (though I don’t know that our video had quite the same reach).

Making that video was a successful experiential education activity because it was about latching onto a trend and showing that we could put a spin on it that was Jewish, and that was uniquely ours. As an educator, it is my primary goal to show how Jewish life is relevant and applicable to everyday life. That includes infusing Judaism into existing interests; as a religious school teacher, all I had to do was say “YouTube” and I immediately had a captive audience, which is no easy feat in an after school program.


Wait, This is a Donor Event?

I know that I shouldn’t be surprised. But I am constantly surprised. No matter how much training we do with regard to the “welcoming in” part of “reaching out and welcoming in,” it seems that Jewish communal professionals and volunteers go on automatic pilot and seem to be oblivious to the customer service culture in which they are competing.

The other night, my wife and I attended an out-of-town event. It was sponsored by a local synagogue and national Jewish organization. We ordered tickets on-line and picked them up at the door. (Actually, we picked them up from three folks sitting behind a table.) There was no one there to greet us or welcome us. There was no attempt to capture our contact information or follow up with us.

It turned out that the event, which was advertised as a concert, was really a donor event for a specific cause. While I resonate with the cause and was happy to support it, I really thought that I was attending a concert, not a fundraising event. Had I been a newcomer to the community, simply looking for an event to attend with my spouse, I would quite possibly have been “turned off” by the lack of transparency of the event’s true intent. Another lesson that we continue to try to teach the community: be transparent and stay away from hidden agendas. They will distance you from a potential target population.

Including the Non-Jewish Partner: What’s a Parent to Do?

As someone in an interfaith relationship, one thing I am tremendously thankful for is the support of my parents. While they would prefer I be with someone of the Jewish persuasion, at this point what they want most is for me to be happy and loved, regardless of the religion of the person I am with. They have made an incredible effort to both get to know, and include, my boyfriend, and while this may not be the relationship they would have chosen for me, they support it nonetheless (perhaps because my boyfriend is the only person who can go toe-to-toe with my dad on world geography).

Many questions remain, but several of those questions center around including my non-Jewish boyfriend in Jewish traditions, such as Passover seder and lighting the Hanukkah candles. There is a delicate balance to be struck between including someone of another faith, and being sure to not make them uncomfortable participating in, or being around, traditions they have never experienced before. I remember all too well the first time I attended church with my best friend (who is Catholic), and hunched low in the pew as her family knelt so that the rest of the congregation couldn’t see that I wasn’t kneeling.

It was refreshing to read a recent column from the Ufberg/Sclamberg family, Our Two Cents, featured in the Jewish News Weekly of Northern California. In the column, the mother of a 37-year-old woman asks the family (a mother, and her son and two daughters) how to gently introduce her daughter’s new beau to their Jewish traditions in a way that he will be comfortable with. The mother makes it clear that she is OK with the fact that her daughter is dating a non-Jewish man. Similar to my mother, what she wants most is for her daughter to be happy. However, she would still like to include him in Jewish family traditions and asks the columnists what suggestions they have. The question was not about “getting rid of” the non-Jewish partner, but instead about how to include him.


Remembering Suzette Cohen

It is with heavy hearts that we announce the passing of Suzette Cohen, who was among the first Mothers Circle coordinators and facilitators in the country. Suzette served as the second facilitator of The Mothers Circle in Atlanta, GA, where the program began, and went on to coordinate the Circle there for several years. She was also a kindergarten teacher at Temple Kol Emeth, as well as the lead teacher of the primary grades, and additionally, served as the Director of Community Outreach for Atlanta Area Psychological Associates, P.C.

Below is Suzette’s obituary, posted in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

Mrs. Cohen was a social worker employed by the Atlanta Area Psychological Associates and an active Jewish educator, but her main emphasis and source of much pride was raising her three sons. Along with being lead teacher at Temple Kol Emeth, she also was lead teacher at Gesher L’Torah in Alpharetta. Mrs. Cohen graduated from Georgia State University with a B.A. degree in Urban Life, and also received a M.A. in Judaic Education from the Siegal College of Jewish Studies. She was a member of Temple Kol Emeth in Marietta and Shalom B’Harim in Dahlonega, where her husband serves as spiritual leader. Survivors include her husband, Mitchell of Alpharetta; sons, Dr. Zachary, Jordan and Eric Cohen; mother, Mrs. Rose Sowadsky of Alpharetta; sister, Jeanine (Zvi) Bekerman of Atlanta; brother, David (Jennifer) Felsberg of Atlanta; mother-in-law, Roslyn Cohen of Alpharetta; brothers-in-law and sisters-in-law, Howie and Deborah Cohen of Alpharetta, and Sandra Cohen-Goldberg and Jack Goldberg of Savannah; nieces, Elana Frank of Israel, Arielle Furman and Carey Felsberg of Atlanta, and Lainey and Rachel Cohen of Alpharetta; and nephews, Daniel Bekerman and Noah Felsberg of Atlanta. She is loved and will be greatly missed by all whose lives she touched and the people she transformed. An online guestbook is available at In lieu of flowers, memorial donations may be made to Kfar Chassidim (contact Mitch for information) or to the Temple Kol Emeth Adult Education Fund. Services will be 1:00 PM TODAY, Monday, January 14, 2013 at Temple Kol Emeth, 1415 Old Canton Rd., Marietta, GA 30062, and will be officiated by Rabbi Steven Lebow. Burial will follow at Arlington Memorial Park in Sandy Springs. Arrangements by Dressler’s Jewish Funeral Care, 770-451-4999.

The staff of Big Tent Judaism / Jewish Outreach Institute sends our condolences to Suzette’s family, and is so happy to have had the opportunity to work with such a wonderful advocate of Jewish outreach.

Parashat Bo - We Were Strangers

Torah commentary originally posted for the JFNA Rabbinic Cabinet’s weekly email, Mekor Chaim.

The various parshiot read this time of year concerning the Exodus from Egypt are among what may be described as the foundational texts of the Jewish people. It is the experience in Egypt and then in the desert that helped shape the religious psyche—and values system—of the Jewish people. We were strangers—and we learned what it is to be an outsider. We were slaves—and we learned what it is to be free.

In this portion, Moses is directed by Gd to go back to Pharaoh and demand the release of the Jewish people. Gd hardens Pharaoh’s heart (perhaps understood as allowing Pharaoh to act without any conscience or self-control). In so doing, Pharaoh once again refuses to release the Israelites from Egypt. So Gd sends forth three additional plagues, the last of which contains the unthinkable: the destruction of the first-born of Egypt. According to the Torah, it is the witnessing of these acts—and others—that bolster the Jewish people’s faith in Gd and their willingness to engage in a covenantal relationship later at Sinai. We frequently bring these acts to the forefront in the context of Jewish ritual and celebration (zecher yitziat Mitzrayim). The liturgy brings our ancestors to the present to serve as witness to Gd’s miraculous deliverance of the Jewish people. But I think that those who interpret the text in this way have it wrong. As a result of this interpretation, people are constantly looking for experiences that will parallel the experience of the Exodus (and the later giving of Torah). They search for the “wow” moments and are disappointed if they do not find them. They want a constant demonstration of Gd’s wondrous acts to raise them to the heights of Sinai, as it did their ancestors.


Let Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute Help You Evaluate Your Outreach Strategies

It’s a new year. And as always, a new year is an opportunity to reflect on the past and plan for the year to come. Looking back at 2012, we can contently say it has been a wonderful year of growth and expansion for us at Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute. This past year, to give just few examples, we offered new models of our successful Mothers Circle program (for mothers of other backgrounds raising Jewish children); we piloted (and we keep growing!) our cadre of Big Tent Judaism Professional Affiliates and Ambassadors; and we brought new Public Space JudaismSM programs to more communities than ever before. And in 2013, there is at least one more new Public Space Judaism program coming your way (stay tuned…)

My own piece of the pie has been to harness social research methods to document and demonstrate this growth. Social research has been part of our legacy ever since Egon Mayer founded JOI in 1987 as a think tank housed within the City University of New York. We are now bringing this legacy back to life.

And yet, one thing I learned in my years of working in the field is that program evaluation is one area that nonprofit organizations (Jewish ones being no exception) find particularly challenging. How do I best construct a survey questionnaire on an interview protocol? What are the best ways to analyze my data? What is a control group, and do I need one to make a compelling case to my funders? And can we afford to do all the number crunching in-house?

At the beginning of this New Year, Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute would like to invite anyone out there who is struggling with these issues (especially those of you working on issues of engagement and outreach) to share your questions with us in the hope that we will be able to offer insight. Bring us your evaluative challenges, your spreadsheets, your data – your tired, your poor, your huddled masses… and we might be able to make them into (or guide you through making them into) informed and informative reports. Together, we can create a more welcoming Jewish community.

Have a happy 2013!

Celebrating Our Accomplishments of 2012

While the secular New Year is a time to take stock and make resolutions for change, and the Jewish calendar includes a large block of time in late summer and early fall to do so, Judaism actually has a variety of times and places that encourage self-evaluation and reflection, what is called cheshbon hanefesh (literally, an accounting of the soul, a fitting name for a time when lawmakers in the United States are worried about the fiscal cliff and debt ceilings). It seems to me, therefore, that this is a great time to look at the successes and strides we have made in Big Tent Judaism as we make our resolve for 2013. Among our accomplishments in 2012:

More women from other backgrounds are raising Jewish children. The Mothers Circle data indicates that 97% of women who take the course will choose or have chosen Jewish education for their children and 80% feel they are raising Jewish children in a Jewish home. Over 1500 women have taken a Mothers Circle course since 2004 and 77% of them will affiliate with a Jewish institution.

Grandparents whose children are intermarried report a greater comfort in instilling Jewish values in their grandchildren who are not being raised Jewishly. The Grandparents Circle evaluations tell us that 70% of grandparents who take the course have not only increased Jewish activities with their grandchildren of mixed faith, but they themselves have become more active in their Jewish observance. There have been 75 circles in nearly 100 communities in the four years since inception.

Volunteer and Professional leaders in 49 U.S. States, 9 Canadian Provinces and 8 international communities have utilized our outreach and engagement strategies. We help them to make their institutions more welcoming through improved websites, better trained staff members and by taking their programming out of the four walls of their institution into the community – where the people are.

If your community or institution has been impacted upon by our work, please feel free to add to the list by leaving a comment in the area below.

A Hebrew School that Breaks the Mold

Here at Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute, we often talk about Jewish communities trying alternative structures to welcome in more families and individuals. Whether it be for High Holiday tickets, Shabbat services, Hebrew school, or by implementing our Public Space JudaismSM model. In Newton, Massachusetts, one school is indeed functioning in an alternative format. Instead of being attached to a synagogue, the Sunday School for Jewish Studies functions independent of synagogue membership, allowing it to attract a large number of interfaith families. The school also offers students the option of a b’nai mitzvah, some of which take place in local synagogues, but many of which happen in backyards and conference centers.

The Jewish Advocate recently featured an article, “Teaching the lesson of faith(s)” by Elise Kigner (available on-line to subscribers here), about the school, which maintains a traditional Sunday School curriculum focusing on learning Hebrew as well as studying Torah and Jewish culture, says director Dori Stern. She goes on to say “I try to give them an experience that is fun and traditional.” The article also describes one interfaith family’s decision to send their children to the school instead of join a traditional synagogue:

“Marjie McDaniel said she and her husband Eamon, who isn’t Jewish, explored joining a local Reform temple when their kids were young. The Natick couple was put off, however, when they learned there were restrictions on how much a non-Jewish spouse could participate in services… The Sunday School, however, felt right. It was a place where kids could get a Jewish education, without them joining a temple. And the Sunday School services feel comfortable for her husband.”

When an interfaith family decides to raise their children Jewish, we like to say that this creates a Jewish family where there would not have been one. It is then the responsibility of the Jewish community to welcome these families in and give them the tools and resources to do so. By creating an environment in which interfaith families feel not just welcome, but comfortable, the Sunday School of Jewish Studies is breaking down some of the barriers we so often discuss in our work, such as cost and inclusiveness, and opening their tent in new and innovative ways.

Hanukkah in the News, and Not Just Menorah Lightings

When I was a student, I worked as an archivist at the American Jewish Archives. It was there that I got into the habit of reading as many Anglo-Jewish newspapers as possible. This allowed me to keep up on the various activities in local Jewish communities. It also helped bolster my interest in American Jewish history and the contemporary American Jewish community, an interest that I maintain to this day. I also continue to read all of those Anglo-Jewish newspapers, although there are fewer today than there were 35 years ago when I was a student. And while on-line news is eclipsing print newspapers very quickly, there are still many things that I can glean from a print newspaper that I don’t always catch when reading something on-line. Perhaps it is a generational thing or perhaps it is the difference in media.

Each year, about this time, I review all of the coverage of Hanukkah events. And usually the photos that I see are what I expect; bearded rabbis lighting giant menorahs (hanukiyot) with local politicians. While I have nothing against these rabbis and generally celebrate their work and their methods, I am always disillusioned, feeling that the American Jewish community has defaulted the public celebration of Hanukkah to a small group of American Jews and their rabbis.

Until this year.


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