New Inclusive Language

People often call me a foodie. And because I’m a vegetarian environmentalist, sometime’s I’m called “a crunchy tree-hugger.” I don’t always feel like I fit these descriptions, but I still walk away flattered by these “labels.” Call me crazy, but I like it when people label me based on things I am passionate about and work actively towards.

As Jim Keen wrote in a recent column in the Detroit Jewish News, “Our society craves labels. We love to know how to identify and classify objects, places and people.”

But labels can also make people or a group feel excluded. Jim identified a struggle that JOI has long championed: inclusive language and inclusive labels, specifically the language we use to refer to those in our community who have religious backgrounds other than Judaism. All too often individuals who contribute much to our community are referred to using words that are explicitly derogatory (is my mother who has been a member of a synagogue for 20 years, a “stranger”), or in a language that only the ‘inside’ know intimately.

Jim tackled this issue in his column and challenged the Jewish community to find another word—he resorts to Spanish: otrafe or, “other faith.” We at JOI do our best to also include what people “are” rather than what they “aren’t.” The moms in our Mothers Circle program aren’t non-Jewish women raising Jewish children; they are mothers of other religious backgrounds raising Jewish children. We still need to work to overcome that challenge of negatively identifying individuals who are an integral part of our community. While difference and diversity are beautiful and contribute to the strength of the Jewish community, how can we derail that language of inequality and instead embrace the diversity in a proactive manner?

I appreciate Jim’s sentiment and, while he might not have the perfect solution, I agree with many of his challenges to the words currently employed to refer to “non-Jews” who are a part of our community. Look out for JOI’s continuing efforts to create a vocabulary that identifies what these folks are, as opposed to what they are not, in a language that we can all understand.


  1. Er, um, doesn’t the word ‘otrafe’ sound a little like ‘treife’?

    Comment by Dave — March 8, 2009 @ 1:44 pm

  2. Enjoyed your blog. I agree we have to get away from US vs. Them mentality.

    Comment by Kevin Wittman — March 10, 2009 @ 8:32 am

  3. I tried to sign up for a Mother’s Circle class but was barred from doing so because, although I was not raised religiously and had a non-Jewish father, my mother was Jewish.

    At that time, I was approaching Judaism as an outsider, having been rejected by other Jews more than once in my attempts to learn about Judaism and access Jewish community. How anyone can complain about assimilation while simultaneously being so determinedly exclusive and unhelpful is beyond me. I get the feeling that even if the ranks of the assimilated could be retrieved and reintegrated into Jewish life, we wouldn’t be wanted. What’s up with that?

    But I’ve made my decision: I’m not going to let those attitudes stop me from learning as much as possible, maintaining a Jewish practice at home to the extent that I’m able to learn to do so, and taking from Jewish tradition what is meaningful and personally enriching. I am giving up the idea that some day someone will tell me I’m welcome or that I belong. I’m giving up the idea that my children would be welcome if they ever wanted to be Jewish. I’m burned out on feeling hurt, angry, frustrated, and unwanted. It’s up to me to define myself.

    Comment by Sara — March 10, 2009 @ 5:37 pm

  4. Just saw a great Film- The green Chariot- A russina Jew comes to Israel and wanr=ts to become an orthodox Israeli. On his quest he finds out his maternal grandmother was not Jewish. The story centers on his doubts about who he is. A very powerful moment comes - after he deiceds ” to convert” to Judaism - he passes the Beit Din and just as he’s about to go into the mikvah the rabbi’s say to him ” you will emerge with a new soul” with theat he does not partake in the mikvah– ” What was wrong with my old soul? I am still me! ”
    It is truley up to us to define who/what we are - but byour standards not by someone else’s view of who we should be. Don’t feel hurt, don’t feel angry. Who you are is between you and Hashem - let no one come between you. In your heart you know what is right. Continue on that path, for that is the only path for you.
    Hag Purim Sameach


    Comment by Ell — March 11, 2009 @ 6:30 am

  5. Elliot:

    Thank you for your generosity of spirit. This is what I need to learn. Jewish ethics should inspire self-improvement rather than a critique of others. What I do is between me and G-d. This is true, and is all that matters. I am curious about Mussar.

    Maybe you saw that movie on Shalom TV. Shalom TV is a good resource.



    Comment by Sara — March 11, 2009 @ 12:29 pm

  6. Dear Sara,

    I just read your comment and was so moved by what you said. I’m the Coordinator of the Mothers Circle program at JOI and I want to connect with you about the program because it sounds like your interaction with the course left you feeling rejected and on your own.

    I am truly impressed that after feeling like an outsider in Jewish life, you had the courage to try to connect to Judaism on your own terms and tenaciously keep learning about it. The Jewish community still has a lot to learn about honoring each person’s path and it sounds like you’ve experienced discouragement from the community many times.

    I’m so sorry that you feel upset about the Mothers Circle and I want to explain some of the back story that went into the formation of the program. The course was created just for non-Jewish women because they are a population that’s never had a space set aside just for them before. That doesn’t mean, though, that you are not equally deserving of a space where you, too, feel safe to learn and be who you are. It’s one of the policies of the program that we help those who apply but are not part of the Mothers Circle demographic to find alternative resources, such as local intro to Judaism classes, in their area. When no other resources are available, the facilitator can use her discretion in deciding to include people who were born Jewish into the course. If you were turned away without alternatives, I’m so sorry and I’d like to do whatever I can to make it right. I would be happy to help you find resources in your area that will help you keep learning about Judaism and finding your place in the community. Much of Jewish life assumes that every person learns how to be Jewish as a child and that everyone has the same experiences – as you’ve found, that assumption is unfair, untrue, and makes a false line between who belongs and who does not.

    I hope you’ll contact me at if you want to speak more about this or if I can be of any help to you. You are certainly not alone in the experience you described and you deserve support, encouragement, and a joyful place in Jewish life.

    Best wishes,
    Pippi Kessler

    Comment by Pippi Kessler — March 11, 2009 @ 2:04 pm

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