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Weblog Entries for July 2013

What Intermarried Rabbis Can Teach Us

Below is an excerpt from a recent op-ed in the New Jersey Jewish News written by JOI Associate Executive Director Paul Golin in response to recent debate in the Jewish community about whether or not rabbis should be permitted to intermarry. To read the complete piece, please click here.

“[…] I’m not the typical intermarried unaffiliated Jew, since I’m also a Jewish communal professional. Still, I think I speak for many intermarried households when it comes to what I want and need from a rabbi. And that might be instructive to the seminaries, who are training clergy for a U.S. population that now has more intermarried than in-married households.

I have two admittedly broad criteria for what I want in a rabbi: Tell me I’m in and mean it — and show me why it’s so amazing.

[…] Rabbis with nontraditional families like my own make me feel more included. Conveying why Judaism is still relevant to them provides me with access I wouldn’t feel elsewhere. The focus is not on how you come in, but what you get out of doing Jewish — in other words, why it’s so amazing.

American liberal Judaism in the 21st century must be about conveying Jewish meaning, not ensuring ethnic survival. Some may lament that rabbis today must first answer “what can Judaism do for me as an individual,” rather than “what am I supposed to do because I’m Jewish.” But the days of obligation-before-meaning are gone.

So tell us why Judaism is better! Why should my children’s ethical foundation be provided by Jewish wisdom rather than the universal ethics they would receive as Americans? Why should I seek spirituality in synagogue when the local meditation studio promises results I never hear offered by rabbis? How can the millennia-long conversations in Jewish texts help make my own life — or the world — better?”

Read the complete text here.

To read New Jersey Jewish News Editor-in-Chief Andrew Silow-Carroll reaction to the piece, please click here.



JOI’s New Program Associate David A.M. Wilensky talks Jews, Judaism, and Jewishness

My non-Jewish roommates were confused by the idea that I would “convert” to Judaism. “From what?” Brent asked. It was a fair question. Jon seconded: “Yeah, if you’re not Jewish now, what are you?” There was no easy answer. My first attempt at answering them – I launched into a preamble about my half-baked idea of drawing a distinction between “converting” and “undergoing a conversion” – didn’t help much.

We met during college orientation, so the three of us had known each other for almost five years by the time I decided to undergo a conversion. A regular at Saturday morning services in college, they knew me as the rare college student who rose before noon on Saturday. My extensive collection of what Brent called “esoteric Hebrew t-shirts” (the result of spending high school in a never-ending series of positive Jewish youth events) had long been the butt of good-natured jokes in our circle of friends. In the time they’d known me, I had rarely shut up about Jews, Judaism, and Jewishness.

Without realizing the irony of it, Brent, Jon, and everyone else I knew in college would have placed me squarely in the “very Jewish” column. Yet, I am a patrilineal Jew, meaning my Jewish pedigree comes only from my father’s side. In the Orthodox understanding of Jewish legal tradition, only Jews-by-choice and the offspring of Jewish mothers are considered Jews. But there’s another detail complicating the issue: To be a Jew by birth, your mother must have already been a Jew herself at the time of your birth – and that’s where I ran into trouble: I was a little kid when my mother converted.

Already a regular at services and Sunday school, I remember beaming with pride when she came to the front of our congregation one Friday night for the public portion of her conversion, in which the convert is asked to quote the titular character of the biblical Book of Ruth: “Your people will become my people, and your God will become my God.”

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My Lox and Bagel Made Me Cry

My lox and bagel sandwich made me cry the other day. My almost four-year-old patted my knee and advised me to take a drink of water. But the tears weren’t caused by a bitten tongue, or even by the significant onion slice atop the garlic bagel.

I took a bite and was transported to my grandma’s kitchen circa 1990. I smelled the kugels (sweet noodle pudding) in the oven (made just for me, sans raisins, one to take home for later), saw the big bowl of sugar-laden blueberries next to my plate, and all the lox and bagels I could ever want to eat at the table. Grandma always fed me well.

I visited her a few days before the teary lox and bagel incident. She’s not doing any cooking these days, so it’s up to me to recreate her kugel for my family and introduce the concept of a smoked fish atop cream cheese and bagel to my children (so far, this has not gone over well). She suffered a stroke a few months ago; she has good days and bad days, but even on the good days, I miss the grandma who took such great pains to prepare my favorite meal. Thus, the tears.

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JOI’s Big Tent Judaism Initiative in Middlesex County, NJ

Middlesex County, New Jersey - a Jewish community like many others - familiar, yet unique.

Familiar because they have the same strengths of many communities: diversity of institutions, committed leaders, and a desire to keep Judaism alive. Familiar also because they have the same issues many Jewish communities face: declining affiliation, apathy among members, lack of engagement. And familiar because the volunteer and professional leadership truly care about ensuring the future of the community and are searching for ways to help their institutions and individuals. And, like all communities, they are also unique: they have their own culture, history, specific successes, and particular challenges.

Middlesex County, however, is also unique in that they have committed to doing the hard work involved for true and lasting change. Through local individual and foundation support, JOI’s Big Tent Judaism Concierge will work closely and collaboratively with professionals and volunteers to identify newcomers and use each institution’s strengths to ensure those individuals and families are guided on a Jewish journey that is distinctively theirs.

The Big Tent Judaism Concierge is an employee of the Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) whose sole task is to identify unengaged individuals and, based on information gleaned through a personally built relationship, guide that individual toward participation in the Jewish community. S/he works with Big Tent Judaism Professional Affiliates (those Jewish communal professionals in a community who have signed on to a formal training program as well as committed to hold events that use specific techniques that are proven successful in engagement) and Big Tent Judaism Ambassadors (volunteer leaders who work together and singly to advocate for change in the community around these issues) to ensure collaboration and success.

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Exploring Germany’s Jewish Past & Present: The Fabrikaktion

I have learned and relearned many things while I spent the month of June teaching at the Abraham Geiger Kolleg in Berlin. I had never been to Germany before, but I wanted to make sure that I didn’t come as a tourist. So I accepted the invitation as a visiting professor so that I could explore Germany’s Jewish past and present—and help the community and its rabbinical students to shape a bright future.

One of the stories that was driven home for me once again was the story of the demonstration against the Nazis (the so-called Rosenstrasse protest) by spouses of other religious backgrounds of Jewish men who were imprisoned during the Fabrikaktion (Factory Action). It was the last round-up of men working in factories in February 1943. The action of these spouses led to the release of these men, almost all of whom survived the war and became the seeds of the Berlin Jewish community.

While I don’t like to mix the issues of Holocaust and intermarriage, for obvious reasons, in this case, it is necessary to do so. This is another example in which spouses of other religious backgrounds secured the future of the Jewish community—much in the same way as do the mothers in JOI’s own Mothers Circle program. Moreover, when these women of the Rosenstrasse protest died, there was a section reserved for them and for their spouses in the Berlin Jewish Community’s Weissensee Cemetery. No questions asked. No debate needed.

There are many lessons from history yet for us to learn.



JOI’s New Program Associate Sarah Sechan Looks Forward to Changing the Lexicon

When I was in high school, I had a friend from Hebrew school who frequently approached me to talk about how she was a “bad Jew.” “I don’t know any Hebrew, I’m such a bad Jew,” she said, launching into a conversation about how she didn’t go to synagogue, didn’t keep kosher, and didn’t participate in our synagogue’s youth group. At the time, I recall feeling unsettled by these conversations, though I could never articulate why.

I understood why she approached me with these concerns. I was a very active member of my Conservative synagogue, a frequent Torah reader and service leader, and a board member of my local and regional youth groups. I was, for all intents and purposes, a “Super Jew.”

However, my Jewish identity was often a source of conflict. My mom grew up Lutheran in rural Michigan, and discovered Judaism for the first time as a freshman at the University of Michigan (Go Blue!). Judaism spoke to her in a way that Christianity never did, and my mom underwent an Orthodox conversion shortly after graduating from college. Since then, my mom pursued a career as a cantorial soloist and Jewish educator, met and married my dad, and together raised my siblings and me in a vibrant Jewish home.

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Teaching Outreach in Germany

I have just returned from a month of teaching (they call it “lecturing”) at the Abraham Geiger Kolleg in Berlin. I accepted the invitation to teach “outreach” to a group of rabbinical students because I fervently believe that the methods we have developed at Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute can be successfully adapted to the German Jewish community as it rebuilds itself, a direct result of an influx of Jews from Russia, Israeli immigrants, and a large number of Jews-by-Choice—all of whom have both bolstered and eclipsed the tiny post-World War II Jewish community.

While it was probably one of the most interesting months of my life, I can best describe Berlin (and for that matter, most of Germany) as a place of contradictions. As much as I tried to focus on the future, I felt the tug of being constantly dragged into the past. Even things that appear simple, such as exiting a subway (U) station, force me back into it when I encounter a sign telling people (those who pay attention) the various destinations of those local Jews taken from their homes and transported through that particular station. Or looking for an address, only to find a “stumble stone” in front of it, indicating the former owners and where they had been deported and killed. Even taking a different route home from the grocery store, I stumbled across a plaque which suggested where the local synagogue (now an apartment building) once had been. Memorials abound if you look for them.

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