Weblog Entries for February 2013

The Mothers Circle: Seder Survival Guide Online!

Are you a mom looking for guidance on sharing Passover with your children? If you are, or know someone who is, we are here to help!

With Passover just around the corner, beginning on March 25th, Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute is excited to offer a free online discussion about celebrating the holiday of Passover, during which we will talk about the details of the seder (ritual meal), what to eat/not to eat, how to involve your children, and more!

WHO: Mothers of other religious backgrounds raising Jewish children, and anyone else interested.
WHAT: The Mothers Circle: Seder Survival Guide Online Discussion
WHEN: Tuesday, March 12, 2013 at 1:00 PM EST
WHERE: Online! All you need is a computer and a phone.
HOW: Register for this free class by clicking here.

We at JOI consider mothers of other religious backgrounds raising Jewish children to be the unsung heroes of the Jewish community. Therefore, we want to make sure they have the resources necessary to create a Jewish home. By offering this class in an online discussion format, moms from across North America who may not have a local Mothers Circle will be able to get their questions answered while virtually surrounded by moms just like them.

The online discussion will be co-led by Laura Kinyon, a long-time Mothers Circle facilitator based in Hartford, CT, and myself, and participants will be able to submit questions in advance to ensure they are answered during the session (submitted during registration).

We hope you will join us, and will pass this information on to anyone who you think might be interested!

JOI wants to help make Passover an enjoyable holiday for everyone. As always, anyone can register for a Mothers Circle online session, and JOI welcomes participants to do so by clicking the link above. For questions about either session, how to participate, or how to get a question about Passover answered, I invite you to be in touch with me at or 212-760-1440.

Funny, You Don’t Look Jewish

The following is a guest blog from JeriAnn Geller. Ms. Geller is a writer, editor, teacher, artist, and occasional wrangler of adolescents. Judaically conservative, politically progressive, romantically infinitive.

Question: Which Jewish group has the most African genes?

A. Ashkenazi
B. Sephardi
C. Mizrahi

The answer, actually, is “all of the above.” According to researchers at the New York University School of Medicine, sub-Saharan African genes are consistently found in all Jewish groups at the rate of 3-5 percent. In fact, it is the strongest clue to date that there is a common biological ancestry among modern Jews. If you couple this with the finding that 20 percent of the current world Jewish population is non-white, you might begin to wonder—where did we get the idea that a Jewish person looks only one particular way?

Could it be a problem of perception? When many of us were growing up, images of Jews of Color in the media were usually limited to entertainers who had converted—Sammy Davis Jr. and Nell Carter. Few people knew that versatile character actor Yaphet Kotto came from a long line of African Jews—or that he was Jewish at all. In fact, many of us grew up with the misperception that there were only two ways a person could be black and Jewish: conversion or having Ethiopian ancestors.


What Makes a (Jewish) Community?

It is a year since my mother died. Many have written books about their experience saying kaddish during their first year of mourning and about the developmental genius implicit in the traditional approach to mourning and bereavement. (Years ago, I prepared Grief in our Seasons as a vehicle that implicitly combines the Kubler-Ross approach with the rabbinic approach.) Some of the kaddish memoir books reflect my own experiences, especially as one who travels frequently and is often away from one’s home community. And as a result, I have found community in a variety of places, sometimes permanent (like the daily minyan in my home synagogue), sometimes semi-permanent (like the regular local minyanim in which I drop in during my travels), and sometimes limited by time (like the “pick up” minyanim assembled so that I might say kaddish or simply catch in an airport or at a conference as one who traditionally engages in formal prayer three times a day). I think about the notion of community a great deal. While it is not a concept that I take lightly, I find it increasingly difficult to define, especially as a value promoted by the organized Jewish community.

When I visit synagogues, they often tell me that one of the benefits of participating in their synagogue is being a part of a community. And I know that the nature of this kind of community is most evident at the time of tragedy or loss. And it is sometimes also evident during times of celebration. But this can’t be enough. Newcomers can’t be expected to wait for celebrations or, Gd forbid, tragedy or loss, to find community. So synagogues have to do more than provide community. Community itself is insufficient. I find community in lots of places, like the fitness center where I play a regular game of racquetball. What Jewish communal institutions have to provide, particularly synagogues, is not just community, but community with meaning. While I find community in many places, what is rare today is finding community with meaning, a community that helps me to find my purpose in the world, that helps to anchor me in a chaotic world, and that helps to answer the big questions of life. If synagogues can do so, then there will be lots of folks interested in participating in their community.

Public Space Judaism: Exploring Judaism in All Its Varieties

A recent story in the New York Times tells of an Orthodox couple who are hosting posh, “buzz filled” parties at their SoHo loft in Manhattan, where social mingling of affluent young Jewish professionals weaves seamlessly into a Talmudic study session. And these two seem to be doing it right; according to the story, these parties are increasing in popularity, and the couple is looking to expand to other cities outside of New York.

The North American Jewish community has been feeling the pinch of disengagement for decades now. At any given time, the majority of American Jews simply do not participate in organized Jewish life, in part because many Jewish institutions have become self-contained and alienating to those on the outside. So, the Jewish community has had to get creative, just like the couple mentioned in the New York Times article, and just like Public Space Judaism –– a program model bringing Jewish programming to spaces where anyone can access it, regardless of how or whether they affiliate with the Jewish community.

Public Space Judaism is something that Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) has done successfully for a decade now. However, we were never the only ones, of course. The difference in our work is that when JOI and our local partners bring Hanukkah to Barnes and Noble or Passover to your nearest grocery store, what we offer is an open door to an exploration of the entire gamut of what Judaism could mean and what participation in the organized Jewish community can provide. We offer fun activities for kids and engaging conversation for adults – whether they identify as Jews themselves or are part of a Jewish family – in order to learn about their needs and interests so that we can invite them to continue their Jewish journey with the help of their local Jewish community.

Now, this exploration could entail, at some point or other, attending a Shabbat dinner or a menorah lighting at a local synagogue. But it certainly does not have to mean that. Perhaps a passerby can enjoy Passover in the Matzah Aisle and then be invited to a Jewish film festival, or donate to a Jewish cause, or just talk to his or her kids about it. The reason we bring Judaism to public spaces is not to hook people into joining a synagogue. The reason is that we believe Judaism is something valuable enough to be shared in public. Jewish experience, and experience with Judaism, should not be limited to the four walls of Jewish institutions, or even our homes, and should not require membership.

So how do you do it? How do you successfully bring Purim, or Passover, or Shavuot to where anyone can access it? There’s no need to start from scratch or reinvent the wheel. JOI works with hundreds of communities across North America, offering free materials and training, and implementing events that have engaged tens of thousands of individuals over the past decade. We have learned that those who follow through on our guidance and adopt our best practices are that much more likely to produce a successful Public Space Judaism event. Would you like to bring Judaism to your community’s public space this spring? Please let us know.

Drew Barrymore Raising Her Daughter “Traditionally Jewish”

I’ve written before about Jewish celebrities, and how they inherently invoke a sense of pride simply through association. Adam Sandler touched upon that pride in a big way through his Hanukkah songs, in which he goes through long lists of celebrities who are in any way Jewish. As he sings, “Harrison Ford’s a quarter Jewish: not too shabby!” (Note: as it turns out, Ford’s mother is Jewish on both sides; Sandler should probably fix his math on that one!)

But there’s a new category of celebrity Jewish pride that Sandler has yet to address, and that category includes stars like Drew Barrymore. Drew recently spoke to the ladies of The View about her decision to raise her new baby girl, Olive, as “traditionally Jewish.” Barrymore married her husband, art dealer Will Koppelman, about seven months ago in a Jewish ceremony performed by a rabbi, complete with a ketubah (Jewish marital contract), yarmulkes (Jewish head coverings, also called kippahs), and a chuppah (canopy under which a Jewish couple stands during the ceremony).

While Barrymore has not converted and has not intimated that she will choose to, she has embraced Judaism into her life, calling it “a beautiful faith” that she is “so honored” to be around.

“It’s so family-oriented,” she said. “The stories are so beautiful and it’s incredibly enlightening. I’m really happy.”

I would have been excited by Drew’s Jewish connection regardless. But now that I am working with moms just like Drew, who are raising Jewish children without being brought up Jewish themselves, I connected to her words on a new level. I am constantly inspired by the commitment of our Mothers Circle moms to take on such a huge and potentially daunting task, and am so privileged to be part of a team that supports them in their journeys. I hope that Drew’s story gives our moms the same pride and connection I feel when I hear about a Jewish celebrity. Beyond that, I hope it gives Jews everywhere a sense of pride that there are so many who wish to cast their lot with the Jewish people.

Perhaps it’s time for Adam Sandler to start writing The Hanukkah Song Part 4: The Celebrity Mothers Circle!

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