Weblog Entries for April 2013

There is No One “Look” to a Jewish Family

In addition to my work here at JOI, I freelance as a bar/bat mitzvah tutor in Park Slope, a quaint but trendy, family-oriented neighborhood in Brooklyn, NY. I’ll never forget the first time I walked up the subway stairs at 7th Avenue and got my first taste of “The Slope,” as I affectionately call it; I felt like I had found Sesame Street! This is the kind of neighborhood where you will literally find children on stoops selling lemonade for 25 cents (the price might actually be a bit higher…I mean, it is New York). The community is incredibly diverse, and incredibly warm.

If I were to take a picture of myself with all of my tutees, it would be the perfect microcosm of the diverse landscape of the Jewish community about which we work to raise awareness here at Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute. My students are Chinese, Caucasian, biracial, adopted…some have one Jewish parent, some have two, some have same-sex parents. They are incredibly diverse both in background and personality, and each has been profoundly special to work with. I feel immensely blessed that I have the privilege of being their mentor on this part of the path to Jewish adulthood, one that is inherently high-pressure and which requires a lot of preparation. It is a huge responsibility, and is arguably the most fulfilling role I have ever had.


Thoughts from JOI’s Big Tent Judaism Coordinator-Chicago

Alyssa Latala is JOI’s new Big Tent Judaism Coordinator in Chicago. She partners with the Chicago Jewish community to create and implement low barrier, welcoming programs that serve all those who might find interest and meaning in Jewish life regardless of affiliation or family structure. We are excited to add her voice to the blog. Meet Alyssa here.

As is the case whenever one gets a new job, it’s exciting to share the new role with friends and family. In my case, as the newest Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) staff member, it has been an eye-opening experience that has inspired me further to do the work that we do.

The conversation that hit home for me the most took place with a friend who was unfamiliar with JOI. Upon learning about the mission and goals of the organization, she shared a story about a close friend who came to her for guidance after being rejected by a potential employer. The employer, a Jewish organization she had been connected to since childhood, told her she was unfit for the position because of her non-Jewish husband.


Meeting the Not-So-Small Family on Passover

The largest challenge I face as a Jew dating someone of another religious background is navigating the relationship between my girlfriend and my family. Having her meet my parents and gain their approval seems like the main obstacle; however, it is only the first step in a long process. As an immigrant who was raised in an area with a large Russian-Jewish presence, when I refer to my family, I’m not just talking about my mom and dad. What I’m really talking about is the large community of people around me, which includes aunts; uncles; cousins; distant relatives which I call my aunts, uncles, and cousins; close friends of the family; their distant relatives, in-laws, and their distant relatives; and so on. If you have a big “family,” this can sometimes include up to a third of your local Russian-Jewish community.

Having gained the approval of my parents some time ago, my girlfriend, Camilla, was now ready to meet other members of my “family.” This can be rather intimidating under any circumstance, but coming into a community that can be very closed off to outsiders can make the task even more difficult. Not only would she have to impress them as a person, she would have to overcome possible prejudices, not being a Russian or a Jew.


JOI Board Member Named to Forbes Most Powerful Women’s List

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JOI Board Member Rachel Cohen Gerrol has been named to the Forbes 100 Most Powerful Women’s List for 2013, and will take part in the 2013 Forbes Women’s Summit in May. The Forbes Women’s Summit “is a transformational and multigenerational meeting of 200 powerful minds: CEOs, entrepreneurs, philanthropists, innovators, disruptors, educators, heads of foundations and NGOs, artists, and politicians.”

Featuring women from Forbes Most Powerful Women, 30 Under 30 and Celebrity 100, the Summit will coincide with the 10th anniversary of the Most Powerful Women issue and will launch a yearlong Forbes editorial initiative that taps into the size, influence and scope of Forbes’ multiple platforms.

The list of participants includes such influential figures as Arianna Huffington and Gayle King.


Being Israeli and Secular in the North American Jewish Community

I’ve recently returned from a long-awaited vacation in Israel, where I had the pleasure of celebrating the Passover seder (ritual meal) at an Upper Galilee kibbutz (communal settlement) with my immediate family and… five hundred other kibbutz members, affiliates, and invitees. The cafeteria-style dining hall was filled with long tables arranged around a central stage on which local talent sang, recited, and performed segments of the Hagaddah (the text traditionally read on Passover, retelling the story of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt). The kibbutz first graders sang the Four Questions with the entire crowd responding with the refrain. Four child-and-parent pairs, dressed in appropriate costumes, acted out the story of the Four Children.

Aside from the size of the event, a sharp-eyed North American Jewish observer would have noticed some other differences between this celebration and a traditional seder. For one, there was virtually no mention of God. The kibbutz hagaddah - now close to a century in existence - removes God from the text and enhances it with content thought to be more relevant to life in Israel, such as songs about spring, renewal, and rebirth. Other sections considered problematic (such as the plea to “pour Your wrath on the nations who do not know You”) were replaced with statements about hope for peace. All during the week of Passover, the communal dining hall serves matzah AND bread. This bread is bought and frozen before the holiday (buying bread during Passover in Israel is possible, but entails driving the extra mile or two to the nearest Arab village. Freezing is easier). I grew up celebrating Passover in this way, so I greatly enjoyed the opportunity to come back to it, even more so now that I could share it with my young son.


New Survey Explores the Lives of Jewish Adults 18 and Over

It is unfortunate but true that a lot of the data we have on the American Jewish community comes from a National Jewish Population Study that was conducted more than a decade ago. As a consequence, much of the decisions made by communities and funders today are based on outdated information.

This is all about to change. A new survey was launched last week by Dr. David Elcott (The Henry and Marilyn Taub Professor of Practice in Public Service and Leadership at NYU’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service) and Stuart Himmelfarb (CEO and, with Dr. Elcott, co-founder of B3/The Jewish Boomer Platform, an initiative dedicated to engaging – or re-engaging – Boomers in Jewish life) that explores the attitudes, activities, plans, priorities, and beliefs of Jewish adults 18 and over.


Synagogue Hopping with Generation Y

My husband and I were in Paris recently to celebrate our 20th anniversary. As we walked around the city, we noticed how welcoming the churches were, especially in comparison to the locked doors at the synagogues. Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, JOI’s Executive Director, explained to me that, unlike a church, the synagogue was not meant to be the center of religious life – that the home (for rituals) and the beit midrash (for study) held that place. So when Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute Board Member, Rachel Cohen Gerrol, posted this article on Facebook, I thought – well, when the synagogue doors are open, we should be as welcoming as possible.

The article brings to light, once again, that we need a different model for engagement in the Jewish community. Affiliation, the tried and tired membership model, is not appealing. And it’s not just the millenials who don’t find it appealing – it isn’t appealing to young families who can’t afford dues and day care or day school fees, or to baby boomers who, after their children are Bar/Bat Mitzvah’d are not interesting in paying what amounts to a facilities fee for a building they don’t need to feel Jewish or practice their Judaism.


Moving from the Language of Obligation to the Language of Benefit

While my native tongue is English, I actually grew up in the Jewish language of obligation. Whenever I confronted a Jewish institution, organization, or fund-raising campaign, I was told of my obligations as a Jew. As a child, I was given a list of 613 of them—rather overwhelming to be sure. The only benefit I was taught about being Jewish, however, was that I was part of a chosen people. My Christian friends were taught by their ministers and priests, “if you give me your life, I will give you eternal life.” I always thought that was a pretty good deal and I wondered what my childhood rabbi was offering in its place beyond being part of the chosen people.

There are those who believe that the Jewish language of obligation is counter-cultural. They argue that Judaism becomes the antidote to the narcissistic Facebook culture in which my world is insinuated into the lives of everyone else (through the newsfeed, for example). Further, those who advocate a language of obligation contend that obligations provide their own benefit, following the adage, “the more you give, the more you receive.”


Is There a Future for LGBTIQ Synagogues?

On my recent travels to Jewish communities to talk about bringing Big Tent Judaism initiatives to bear, I was struck, yet again, by how open and engaging people think their institutions are. In reality, they are inadvertently putting up barriers to participation.

Synagogues that don’t actively welcome those on the periphery – Jews by Choice, intermarried Jews, LGBTIQ Jews, Jews of Color, etc. – will continue to find it hard to attract new members. And I don’t mean just members from the traditionally marginalized communities listed above. Why would I, a straight-married-to-another-Jew-family-oriented-person, want to join a synagogue where my best friend and his partner don’t feel welcome? It isn’t about being tolerant. It is about creating policies out of a need, and more importantly a desire, to be engaging, inclusive, and welcoming.


The Struggles of a Jewish Atheist

I have written before about my struggles with characterizing my Jewish practice. Having done extensive research on the “millennial” generation of which I am a part, I have come to understand the nuances of living in a world in which options and choice are valued above all else, and how my religious practice plays into this, or plays against it.

For this reason, I was taken by a recent article in Tablet magazine, in which self-proclaimed “Jewish atheist” Jonathan Zimmerman chronicles his experience attending a Humanistic synagogue. Humanistic Judaism identifies with the history and traditions of Jewish culture independent of a higher power. That is, the focus is on “[celebrating] the centrality of human reason and responsibility from a uniquely Jewish perspective.” This would objectively seem like a perfect fit for Zimmerman, and yet, for him, the experience was totally uncomfortable, even laughable…not in and of itself, but when compared to formative prayer experiences from his Conservative Jewish upbringing.


Taking Outreach and Engagement to the Next Level: The Big Tent Judaism Professional Affiliates Program

If you read our blog or follow us on social media, you’ve probably seen mention of the Big Tent Judaism Professional Affiliates program, a free training series and networking opportunity for Jewish communal professionals from across North America. This program allows Jewish communal professionals the chance to learn both as a group and one-on-one from JOI staff the “ins and outs” of JOI’s outreach methodology, as well as about implementing Public Space JudaismSM program to best reach out to newcomers and welcome them in. Begun in 2012, the program now has over 75 professionals, and is beginning the fourth North American cohort this month.

JOI Program Officer for Evaluation, Zohar Rotem, recently compiled a report on the success of the pilot cohort of Professional Affiliates, which we shared with eJewishPhilanthropy earlier this week:

The small pilot cohort of 16 dedicated professionals was able to engage 8,000 individuals in outreach programs over a 12-months period, of which 5,000 were Jews who are unengaged or under-engaged with the Jewish community and non-Jewish members of interfaith households. With new cohorts already formed and undergoing training, those numbers will grow exponentially in 2013.

To read the entire report, please click here to download a PDF, and click here to meet our pilot cohort. For more information on the Professional Affiliates program, please contact JOI Program Associate Brenna Kearns at or 212-760-1440.

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