Apples and Honey and Whole Foods, Oh My!

As the High Holidays approach, we see our grocery lists lengthen with accoutrements needed to prepare the perfect Rosh Hashanah meal. The masses in the grocery aisles provide an excellent opportunity to hold a Public Space Judaism event. While shoppers picked out organic apples at a Whole Foods in Seattle, Rabbi Dov Gartenberg, with whom JOI has worked over the past several years, seized the opportunity to speak to shoppers about hospitality within the Jewish community and about Panim Hadashot, “New Faces,” The Jewish learning community that he leads. He writes in his blog:

The Whole Foods booth has taught me how much Jewish demographics have changed. Jews have fully integrated in Seattle. Many are intermarried, they do not socialize exclusively with Jews, and their identities are complex in which Judaism is only a part of who they are. It has also taught me the value of educating non-Jews about the beautiful traditions of Shabbat, festivals, and home traditions.

Rabbi Gartenberg clearly recognizes the importance of finding Jews where they are, which is exactly how we define outreach at JOI. “By making hospitality our primary value and goal we reverse a very negative view of Judaism held by many Jews,” Gartenberg comments.

What can we do this Rosh Hashana to find Jews and their families where they are? What other sorts of Public Space Judaism events can we hold? And how can we ensure, through name collection and follow-up, that these events represent the beginning of further Jewish engagement? Whether it is an apple and honey tasting or a Color-Me Calendar for the Jewish New Year, use this time of year to get out in to your community and welcome newcomers in!


  1. Preaching in Whole Foods? Wow! I’m surprised he didn’t get thrown out immediately!

    While I support finding Jews where they are, let’s BE VERY CAREFUL that we don’t open Pandora’s Box by PUBLIC PROSELTYZING!!!

    Or, we will need to be prepared for those of other faiths to hold a “Public Space religious event”

    Clearly this is not appropriate behaviour for a Rabbi or anyone. Shame on Rabbi Gartenberg!

    Comment by S Johnson — September 20, 2006 @ 12:12 pm

  2. Public Space Judaism events do not have the goal of converting people to our religion (the definition of proselytizing). Rabbi Gartenberg’s table at Whole Foods, like other PSJ programs, does not seek to convert. Rather, it offers a cultural experience and helps Jews and intermarried families engage more deeply with Jewish customs (food, in this case). The type of programs JOI recommends go where people are and lower location barriers. Some people are not comfortable going to a JCC or synagogue for Jewish programming, so a table at a grocery store offers a low key alternative to connecting with the High Holidays.

    Comment by Liz Marcovitz — September 20, 2006 @ 1:17 pm

  3. I’m not doubting that this was well intended nor do I doubt that this was not intended as a conversion attempt, however, whatever the goal, religion, however it may be couched, does NOT belong in the grocery store. A rabbi should know better!

    A PSJ event could be held appropriately in a park or on the street — truly a public space.

    A grocery store is NOT a public space. This behaviour is reprehensible! We cannot have a double standard and expect our views to be tolerated and expect others not to share their views.

    I was actually approached in the grocery store by some “well intended” Christians, seeking to share their culture and their “Good News” with me. They incorrectly assumed I was Christian. I promptly called the store manager and had them removed. Had I encounted Rabbi Gartenberg ’seizing an opportunity’ to share Judaism, I would have done the same.

    Again, a grocery store is NOT a public space!

    Comment by S Johnson — September 28, 2006 @ 9:27 am

  4. Hi S Johnson,

    We realize that this program is not going to work for everyone and you raise valid concerns that we at JOI try to address.

    You’re right that a grocery store is not a public space, but it isn’t a private space either; it’s a commercial space. Many commercial spaces allow organizations to offer cultural programs and events in those spaces. Jews are in a unique position, in that we are both a religion and a culture (and a people). You probably wouldn’t have been offended if an Italian-American club was offering free pasta cooking on Columbus Day, right? It is more difficult for a Rabbi to seem like he or she is not “pushing religion,” but what Rabbi Gartenberg is talking to people about is the cultural aspects of Jewish celebration. So he offers apples with honey and explains that it is eaten for a sweet New Year. I’ve been to many grocery stores before Christmas where I was offered a free taste of eggnog and did not find that offensive. Granted, I was not then offered an invitation to come down to a local church if I accepted the eggnog, but neither is Rabbi Gartenberg asking random people to get involved with his Jewish community just because they’ve taken a slice of apple with honey.

    When we train outreach professionals, we emphasize the need to be respectful of people’s personal spaces. What you experienced was indeed prosletizing, and we do not believe that is the experience presented by JOI’s “Passover in the Matzah Aisles” program or what Rabbi Gartenberg was doing in Whole Foods for the High Holidays. He was not “preaching,” as you say. He was offering himself as a resource in a place where people could find him more easily.

    I haven’t seen Rabbi Gartenberg’s outreach. My hope is that if you had walked by him you would not have been offended. I know he does this several times a year and the response has been overwhelmingly positive. But in consideration to yours and others’ concerns we will continue to make sure that the focus is on cultural celebration and the outreach is unobtrusive (which we believe it is).

    Thanks for raising this important issue.

    Comment by Paul Golin — September 28, 2006 @ 12:08 pm

  5. Hi Paul,

    Thanks for your thoughts. Maybe I’m a bit of prude, but I WOULD have been offended if the Italian-American club was offering free pasta cooking on Columbus Day — IF THIS WAS NOT A STORE SANCTIONED EVENT.

    I’m not clear on whether Rabbi Gartenberg’s event was store-approved or not.

    When I go into a store, I expect my personal space to be respected. What’s next? Random mimes, clowns, and jugglars doing an unauthorized “public space event” in Whole Foods? Or maybe even Wal-Mart?

    I expect the store to try to market and sell me things - but not every Tom, Dick, and Harry.

    May you have an easy fast,

    Comment by SueJohnson — September 29, 2006 @ 3:38 pm

  6. I’m sure Rabbi Gartenberg had permission from the store to be there. In my example, I took for granted that the Columbus Day celebration would be sanctioned by the store. Perhaps that’s where we’ve been unclear. This is not covert! We work with the merchants every step of the way.

    The stores we work with when we run Public Space Judaism events grant us permission because they understand that we will actually bring more people into the store, not drive them away by invading their personal space.

    Take for example the popular “Sukkah-Building in Home Depot” pioneered by a JOI-sponsored program of the Suffolk Association for Jewish Educational Services (SAJES) on Long Island and now run all over the country. It is Jews demonstrating to other Jews how to build a Sukkah, and what materials they will need to buy (the part Home Depot likes!) in order to do so. Likewise our “Passover in the Matzah Aisles” program, that helps bewildered families understand the various holiday foods they need to buy, offers them recipe cards and food samples, and provides them with additional information. These are all done to augment the holiday experience for those already planning to celebrate them, or for those who used to celebrate them but let their Jewish engagement drop off, or for those who were not born Jewish but are now married to Jews due to intermarriage and are eager to learn about the holidays. It is also for those Jews who celebrate the holidays but are not connected to the organized Jewish community—they may even be intimidated to walk into a synagogue or JCC—as an opportunity to show them that the community is a warm and welcoming one for them.

    And sadly, lots of stores still hire “mimes, clowns, and jugglers” as a way of engaging their customers, though I have yet to see it done “unauthorized.” Not even here in NYC. ;)

    Comment by Paul Golin — October 3, 2006 @ 1:10 pm

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