When should it matter whether or not your mother was born Jewish? That’s the question we at JOI found ourselves asking after receiving a mass email from Aish NY about an upcoming “Young Professionals in Entertainment” mixer here in New York City. The application form has a series of standard questions like name and address, plus an essay box asking what field of the entertainment industry you’re in—but also included the question “Was your mother born Jewish?” This question seems oddly out of place.
Ostensibly, the event is about “innovative networking for uniting Jewish Young Professionals in the Entertainment industry,” and includes a dinner where you change tables three times for the three courses, allowing you to meet and mingle with different people at each new table. If the sole rationale for the event is professional networking—as the marketing would have us believe—the question about participants’ mothers is irrelevant. Perhaps there is an additional unwritten rationale, to get young Jews to meet and marry each other, and the question about mothers’ religion then becomes one of Orthodox authenticity as to “Who is a Jew.”
We don’t object to Aish trying to facilitate marriage among young Jews, but this is an example where their normally sophisticated marketing not only falls short, but actually delivers an exclusionary message despite their claims to be a pluralistic outreach organization. Will Aish disqualify an “applicant” from the event if his or her mother was not born Jewish? When we called to find out, the answer was quite simply, yes. We were told it’s the policy that “all participants must have a Jewish mother.” If the applicant’s mother was not born Jewish but had an Orthodox conversion or if the applicant himself or herself had a similar conversion, they can register. But if the conversion was under the auspices of a Conservative or Reform rabbi, the applicant must put that on the registration form and the folks at Aish will “have to talk to their rabbis.”
These requirements are nowhere to be found on the registration page. We only learned this after calling. Imagine how many people end up disqualified for a professional networking event because Aish doesn’t recognize their Jewish background. If Aish has a definition of “Jewish” when they say their event is for “Jewish Young Professionals,” they should simply define who they consider Jewish rather than ask a question that creates doubt, confusion and self-consciousness among a substantial percentage of their stated target audience. At the very least, Aish should include an explanation of why they’re asking the question. But the ethical thing to do would be to simply state who is eligible for this event, period, rather than make people jump through hoops.