Weblog Entries for March 2013

JOI Creates a Concierge for the Middlesex County, NJ Jewish Community

Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute is taking another big step forward in opening the tent of the North American Jewish community by hiring a Big Tent Judaism Concierge for Middlesex County, New Jersey. The Big Tent Judaism Concierge will serve as a guide to the Middlesex County Jewish community, assisting organizations in Public Space JudaismSM program implementation, and creating partnerships to ensure that the Middlesex area Jewish community works together to open the tent to all who wish to enter it.

Partially funded by the local Federation’s Dave and Ceil Pavlovsky Jewish Education Fund, the Big Tent Judaism Concierge will also be working with the Federation’s new community engagement coordinator, Michal Greenbaum. A recent article in the New Jersey Jewish News highlights the work of these two positions to open and grow the Jewish community in New Jersey.

JOI’s “concierge,” meanwhile, will “become the pivotal person to meet with newcomers and guide them into the community and into community engagement,” said JOI executive director Rabbi Kerry Olitzky. “The biggest issue facing the North American Jewish community is engagement. We’ve found that those inside the Jewish community feel that it’s warm and welcoming. Those outside find it cold and prickly — and that gap is widening.”

In addition to working with the Federation’s community engagement coordinator and partnering institutions, the Big Tent Judaism Concierge will work directly with individuals in the community to guide them on their Jewish journeys, ensuring that they are led to the institution that fits their needs, and that that institution is trained in effective outreach techniques, to best welcome them in. Along with Greenbaum, several Middlesex-area Jewish communal professionals will be involved in JOI’s Big Tent Judaism Professional Affiliates program. This training program will allow these Jewish communal professionals to learn together proper outreach methodology, as well as work with one another so that they truly know what the community has to offer as a whole, not as individual institutions.


Should Every Disabled Child Who Wants One Get a Jewish Education?


Ok, now that I’ve answered that question, let me elaborate: every disabled child whose family wishes them to have a Jewish education should be able to receive one in some capacity.

A recent article in The Forward examined the offerings (and limitations) of Jewish day schools in serving children with disabilities. These disabilities range from mild learning disabilities such as dyslexia, to severe autism and into more physical disabilities such as cerebral palsy. What obligation are Jewish day schools, which are in essence private schools, under to accommodate these children? And with a system that is already struggling financially, can they afford it?

In my opinion, they have to find a way.


We are in the Hospitality Business

Here at Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI), we have been talking about the application of learnings from the hospitality industry for many years. My colleague Ron Wolfson, of Synagogue 3000 and American Jewish University, has been offering similar advice, some of which he learned from Disney University, who are masters at hospitality. As someone who is a “road warrior” for the Jewish community—that means I travel a lot for my work at JOI—I have the occasion to stay at many hotels. Some hotels practice “aggressive hospitality,” not a term that I coined, which charges each staff member with the responsibility to make sure that guests are accommodated. No staff member walks by without saying “hello,” or asking if the guest’s stay could be made more comfortable, or if there was anything that the staff member could do for the guest.

At JOI we have chosen to call this “proactive hospitality,” frankly, a term that doesn’t say it all but approximates what we are trying to teach—the responsibility of being hospitable, which has its roots in the foundation of Jewish values and thus is indeed a Jewish values construct. One colleague, Rabbi Baruch HaLevi calls this idea “radical hospitality,” perhaps an extension of the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s notion of “radical amazement” when one encounters the holy and sacred, and then applied to the everyday. I like this idea a lot.


Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute Teams Up with Shalom Sesame for Passover!

Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute is dedicated to providing education and support to those on the periphery of Jewish life through a wide array of programming, including The Mothers Circle and The Grandparents Circle. As part of that commitment, we have collaborated with our friends at Shalom Sesame to introduce you to free educational resources at From the creators of Sesame Street, Shalom Sesame is a cross-platform media initiative developed to introduce American children to Jewish culture, Hebrew language, and the diversity of Israel.

The Shalom Sesame site is easy to use, focusing on timely themed units. Each unit includes videos, worksheets, games and a series of parent articles. We are excited to share our new holiday-themed Shalom Sesame resource guides, which help you navigate the resources, with an eye toward the diversity that characterizes the Jewish community of today. As you bring Jewish tradition into your households, Shalom Sesame is a wonderful way for you and your children to learn together.


Lifetime’s Latest “Interfaith Love Story”

I am not a fan of Lifetime movies. While there’s always a time for an incredibly predictable love story, the idea of watching what is basically the same plot with different characters over and over again doesn’t appeal to me. The “heartstrings” channel’s latest variation on a theme is Twist of Faith, starring Toni Braxton as a gospel singer and David Julian Hirsch as an Orthodox Jewish cantor. The Forward’s Eitan Kensky’s broke down the plot of the movie, as well as analyzed it being advertised as an “interfaith love story,” in a recent article.

The first interesting point Kensky brings up is one I think about a lot: sure, intermarriages and inter-dating are becoming more common on TV and in movies, but usually at least one, if not both, of the people involved is not particularly religious—it’s the parents or grandparents stressing religion and culture, or family history. We see this in real life as well, as, understandably, having one “strong” faith is easier than two, and can make combining traditions a bit easier. So where, then, is Lifetime going with two main characters who each have such strong yet different religious backgrounds? According to blogger on, absolutely nowhere.


“Why Can’t I Marry Mary?”

Every so often, the subject of my denomination comes up in conversation. That is to say, I am asked if I am Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Orthodox, etc. I spent most of my life being so sure of the answer, but recently I find that the question just makes me uncomfortable.

I grew up in the Conservative movement, went to a Solomon Schechter Jewish Day School, lived in a kosher home– the whole shebang. But did I pray three times a day? No. Did I work on Shabbat? Once I turned 16, you could find me scanning groceries at the local Publix on most Saturdays. Do I eat cheeseburgers? Yes, but never in my parents’ house. All this is to say that I adapted my Conservative upbringing to accommodate a more modern lifestyle, which is essentially a Reform Jewish perspective. Yet, attending a Reform service has always felt uncomfortable to me. Why? Because it’s just not what I do. While many of my values align with the Reform movement, the religious setting feels unnatural to me because the melodies are different, there is more English, and there are often instruments. What appeals to me about Judaism in general IS the tradition, the memories I attach to it, and the sense of efficacy I feel when I am engaged in it. I prefer a Conservative service because I like that I know what to expect; it reminds me of my upbringing and makes me feel closer to my Jewish self. But I by no means adhere to Jewish law in the way that the Conservative movement propounds. I’m not prepared to give up my cheeseburgers.

I wrestle with my own hypocrisy a lot on this one. My views tend toward Reform, but my synagogue practices lean toward Conservative. It is largely because of this that, a recent Op-Ed from The Times of Israel really spoke to me.


Let’s Make Inclusion “The New Normal”

For anyone who, like me, is interested in creating a more inclusive Jewish community, The New Normal, Ari Ne’eman’s new blog in The Jewish Week, is more than worth reading. In the inaugural post, Ne’eman puts a mirror to the face of the Jewish community and poses a clear and provocative challenge: Can the organized Jewish community call itself truly inclusive as long as accessibility to people with disabilities is perceived as a matter of “extra rights, not equal rights?” When will Jewish communal institutions (who are exempted from the legal requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act) make full inclusion of people with disabilities a priority, rather than something that is merely nice to have? What will it take, in other words, to make an accessible Jewish community “the new normal?”

I am excited about Ne’eman’s blog because I think the same lesson can be applied more broadly. This is not meant to lessen the particular importance of including people with disabilities. Creating an inclusive Jewish community must mean making buildings wheelchair-accessible, posting signage in Brail, and offering Sign Language interpretation. But it must not stop there.


No (Jewish) Community is an Island

The Landings is a planned community set up on Skidaway Island, one of Savannah, Georgia’s barrier islands. Formerly a logging camp, it is now home to 8,500 residents with almost 4,000 houses. This gated community of 4,500 acres (including 90 acres of forested area) includes four athletic fields, 151 lagoons, 34 tennis courts, six golf courses, 91 miles of road, and 30 miles of trails. They also have an organization called Jewish Women of the Landings (JWOL), which, I was told on a recent visit, isn’t just for Jewish women – anyone can participate as long as they live in The Landings.

JWOL has a lot of activities; some are social, some are civic-minded, some are educational. For their February educational evening, over 30 men and women gathered at the home of Dr. Norton and Linda Rosensweig (Nort is on JOI’s board of directors) to hear Rabbi Kerry Olitzky speak about engagement, intermarriage, grandparenting, and the future of the Jewish community.


For Jewish Grandparents Whose Adult Children Have Intermarried: A Discussion on Celebrating Passover with Your Interfaith Grandchildren

Are you a Jewish grandparent whose adult children are intermarried, and you want to be able to share the holiday of Passover with your interfaith grandchildren? Then we invite you to join us for a free online discussion to help navigate the sometimes-choppy waters of sharing your traditions with your grandchildren being raised in the context of intermarriage.

With Passover right around the corner, Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute will be holding an online discussion for grandparent with interfaith grandchildren.

WHO: Jewish grandparents whose adult children have intermarried.
WHAT: The Grandparents Circle: Seder with the Whole Family Online Discussion
WHEN: Wednesday, March 13, 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.

During the session, grandparents will have the opportunity to share their concerns and approaches to instilling Judaism in their grandchildren, particularly in the context of the holiday of Passover. Co-led by Rabbi Joyce Siegel, a Grandparents Circle facilitator based in central Massachusetts, and myself, grandparents will also have a chance to discuss strategies on sharing the holiday with children and activities to introduce Passover to their grandchildren. Another topic will be how to share the holidays with grandchildren who may not live close by.

JOI wants to help make Passover an enjoyable holiday for everyone. As always, anyone can register for a Grandparents 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.

Hurry up! It’s almost time to get your matzah!

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