Weblog Entries for May 2013

You Found the Teens, Now What?

In the late afternoon leading up to Shavuot, I happened to be the only person left in the office and answered the phone. It was a Jewish communal professional who works with teens. She told me that every teen in her city was a member of her organization, and she was hoping that our Big Tent Judaism Professional Affiliates program and Big Tent Judaism Concierge could help her out. But it didn’t sound like a problem—at first.

Of the 500 teen members, she could identify only about 100 as engaged – meaning those who actually attend activities. Since I am very familiar with her organization, I postulated that it was the parents who were signing up their children and paying the dues each year. But it was up to the organization’s leaders to actually create meaningful experiences in which the members would like to participate, so that it didn’t feel like an obligation to the parents, but a desire from the young members.


Being a “Non”

A hot topic of conversation here in the Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) office is the barrier of language. We often consult with Jewish organizations about language used on their program marketing and websites, identifying the use of Hebrew and Yiddish words or organizational acronyms as potential barriers to participation. But the language barrier goes beyond invitations to programs and events.

Take, for example, The Mothers Circle, a program of education and support for women of other backgrounds raising Jewish children within the context of intermarriage/partnership. The question often arises of why not just say participants are “non-Jewish women” raising Jewish children? It would certainly save space on flyers and Facebook posts, so what’s so bad about being a “non?”

A few weeks ago, I faced this very issue. But this time, I was the “non,” and I didn’t like it.


A Courageous Rabbi Asks Hebrew Union College to Make a Change

As someone who not only works with intermarried, but is also immersed in the Brooklyn Jewish community, I was extremely moved by the recent open letter to Hebrew Union College from Rabbi Ellen Lippmann of Kolot Chayeinu of Brooklyn, NY. Published in the Jewish Daily Forward, Rabbi Lippmann urges the seminary, of which she counts herself an alumna, to reconsider their policy of prohibiting admission to rabbinical school candidates in interfaith relationships. Lippmann has been in an interfaith, same-sex relationship for nearly thirty years, during which time she and her partner have raised a daughter in a Jewish home. While Lippmann’s partner feels that conversion is not the right choice for her, she still embraces Jewish traditions, including Shabbat and the counting of the Omer (ritual countdown of the days from Passover to Shavuot).

“We are like the thousands of Jews across America who commit to strongly Jewish lives with their non-Jewish spouses. Interfaith families tell me that having a rabbi who mirrors their relationships makes an enormous difference to being able to commit to Jewish life.”

As inspiring as it was to read such an eloquent and heartfelt expression of inclusion as a core Jewish value, I was extremely disheartened upon scrolling to the bottom of the page, where Rabbi Lippmann’s words were met with a litany of hateful responses. Most of the comments decry intermarriage as sacrilegious, and some even go so far as to denounce the Reform movement altogether as “not Jewish anyway.” What really got to me, though, was seeing the golden calf and even Hitler invoked with careless ignorance. All I kept thinking was, “this is not Jewish.”


Join Rabbi Kerry Olitzky Tomorrow in Middlesex County, NJ

A Special Invitation for
Jewish Communal Professionals
& Volunteer Leaders
in Middlesex County

Please join us Monday, May 20th at 3:00 PM for a FREE presentation by JOI Executive Director Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky, How Big Tent Judaism Can Help Grow Your Institution. We will discuss what we can do to help unengaged Jews find their place in the Middlesex Jewish community, and how we can engage newcomers in the Jewish community.

When: Monday, May 20, 2013 3:00-5:00 PM
Where: New Brunswick Free Public Library, 60 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, NJ 08901
Who: Middlesex County Jewish communal professionals and volunteer leaders (please feel free to bring your colleagues, and share this information with others.)

There is no cost, but we ask that you please RSVP so we can provide enough refreshments. To RSVP or for more information, please contact Brenna Kearns at BKearns [at]

To view the full invitation, please click here, and share this invitation with others!

Jewish Culture Not Just for Jews; Even Hulk Hogan Buys Kosher

An interesting story in The Jewish Chronicle caught my eye recently. In it, writer Sarah Angrist argues that, when looking at the current state of the North American Jewish community, “bemoaning the decline in synagogue membership, high rates of intermarriage, and our aging population” misses the point. She thinks that Judaism in America is (and has been) extremely successful because Jewish culture is flourishing. She finds that:

Encouraging signs in North America are evident in the proliferation of university Jewish studies programs, the widespread appeal of klezmer music, camps for children and adults, innovative art forms and exhibits, Jewish music performances, film festivals, and the success of the Yiddish Book Center in preserving materials.

I think Angrist is making an important point. While for many, being Jewish and connecting to Judaism takes a primarily religious form, this is not the case for others, and probably not for most North American Jews. On the other hand, Jewish cultural experiences and expressions such as the ones mentioned above are often more accessible to those for whom religion has lost its relevance.


Did You Say Cheesecake is a Jewish Food?

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New York cheesecake is thick and dense, just the way I like it. I have never been predisposed to smooth French cheesecakes. But whether New York style or French, cheesecake is a Jewish food. “A Jewish food?” you might ask, “I thought those were limited to bagels, chicken soup, and hummus.” But cheesecake is indeed a Jewish food, made most popular this time of year because of the holiday of Shavuot.

A holiday under the radar for most people, including those in the Jewish community, the holiday of Shavuot celebrates the first harvest, the ripening of the first fruits, and most importantly, the giving of the Torah. The holiday is celebrated by late-night study sessions and meals largely consisting of fruits and dairy, such as cheesecake!

According to Jewish folk tradition, there are several reasons for cheesecake to be associated with Judaism and the holiday most noted for the giving of the Torah on Mt Sinai around the year 1250 BCE. First, since this is when the Torah was given, the rules for eating meat had not yet been given, so the Jews largely stuck to milk products only, or, in other words, a diet rich in dairy. A second reason is that the Torah itself is actually likened to milk in the phrase “milk and honey” (Song of Songs 4:11), as is the journey to the land of Israel (which “flows with milk and honey” Exodus 3:8-17). Between the references to milk and the lack of Kosher meat laws, dairy played a very important role in the early diets of the Jewish people, a tradition that carries on today.

Sometimes it is tough to find a spiritual connection to Judaism, particularly through a holiday as obscure as Shavuot. And sitting in the synagogue doesn’t always do it for me. But cheesecake and God—that is something that I could get my mind (or should I say mouth) around.

Is an Emphasis on Jewish Education Good or Bad?

Today we are seeing a growing number of Jews choosing to not affiliate with the Jewish community, yet still identifying as Jewish. Whereas in the past, community and shared experiences have defined what it means to be Jewish, Jews today seem to be shying away from many communal practices, such as synagogue affiliation and Jewish day school education, and finding their “Jewishness” elsewhere.

An article that was recently published on entitled “The Chosen Few” makes an interesting argument for returning to more traditional routes of Jewish connection: Jewish day school education leads to Jewish affiliation. The article introduces the idea that while in the past Jews sent their children to Jewish day schools because other education was not available or because it was easier to not be exposed to the general public, now, especially in America, the access to public education coupled with the lack of discrimination towards Jews has made the practice obsolete for the sake of education alone. However, since Jewish day school education is seen as one of the main vehicles for connecting to the Jewish community, are lower affiliation rates directly related to less Jewish children attending Jewish day schools? Maybe, but it doesn’t mean people feel any less Jewish.

Author Steven Weiss writes that “a majority of American Jews today are unaffiliated with the synagogues the Pharisaic rabbis emphasized, and yet 79 percent report feeling ‘very positive’ about being Jewish.” This then begs the question: why choose Jewish day school?


This Mother’s Day, Celebrate the Unsung Heroes of the Jewish Community

Taking a Cue from Costa Rica

I just returned from Costa Rica, an exciting country, known especially for its monkeys. Of course, it is also known for its coffee, pineapple, beaches, rain forests, and zip line adventure parks, among other things. Perhaps it is my sensitivity to the notion of “welcoming,” but no one mentioned that particular aspect of the country and its inhabitants before we prepared for our trip. Yet the “ministry of welcoming” as it is sometimes called in other contexts was apparent everywhere we went. Perhaps it is because a country of 4.5 million citizens understands that it is dependent on a tourist trade that welcomes 6 million people each year.

So I thought to myself, why doesn’t the organized American Jewish community of 2 million understand its dependency (perhaps its future) on the 4 million American Jews (and the many more people who are not Jewish but who live in Jewish households) who are not part of the organized Jewish community? Perhaps if we could extend the Costa Rican culture of welcoming into the culture of the American Jewish community, we might extend our “tourist trade,” as well. The difference, however, is that we must not just welcome people to visit, but to stay.

Sharing Our Unique Stories on Shavuot

In our latest edition of The Mothers Circle-Shalom Sesame holiday resource guide, we take a look at the upcoming holiday of Shavuot, which begins at sundown on Tuesday May 14th, and ends at sundown on Thursday May 16th.

Shavuot is a spring holiday that celebrates the first harvest, the ripening of the first fruits, and most importantly, the giving of the Torah. The holiday can offer a wonderful entry point into Jewish life. Entry points, in fact, are at the very heart of this holiday, particularly because of its connection to the Book of Ruth, which is traditionally read on Shavuot during late-night (or even all night!) study sessions. Shavuot is also known for the delicious foods eaten, including blintzes and cheesecake.

For more about this unique holiday, including activities, video and discussion questions, and more, click here to download the free Shavuot resource guide. And please feel free to share!

Also, be sure to visit The Mothers Circle Facebook page to share how you will be celebrating Shavuot with your family, by leaving us a comment on the post about this fun guide. You can even share photos of the tzedakah boxes you make!

When Faith is Not a Part of the Conversation

We here at Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) believe in unequivocally welcoming all Jews and their loved ones into the Jewish community. We know how difficult it can be for some couples to reconcile their different religious backgrounds with their love for each other. JOI has programs like The Mothers Circle, which is designed to support women of other backgrounds raise Jewish children, as well as others that help newcomers navigate the at-times murky waters of the Jewish community. But we shouldn’t make the assumption that every “interfaith” couple is going to have religious issues. Religion is an important question to discuss if it’s important to you, but we as a Jewish community have to recognize that it may simply not be that important to everyone.

I recently came across an op-ed entitled “Interfaith Marriage: A Mixed Blessing” by journalist Naomi Schaefer Riley. Schaefer Riley, who identifies as “a conservative Jew married to a former Jehovah’s Witness,” paints a decidedly tepid portrait of intermarriage, which she expands upon in an upcoming book. After describing the unintended consequences of interfaith marriage for both society and the individual, she writes that “remarkably, less than half of the interfaith couples in my survey said they’d discussed, before marrying, what faith they planned to raise their kids in.”


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