Beyond the “Dilemma”

As soon as the fall holidays pass and a chill descends upon the Northeast, we at the Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) start receiving calls about Hanukkah programming.

“What can we do for Hanukkah?” a Jewish communal professional asks in hopes of reaching the unaffiliated. “Do you offer a December Dilemma class?” a synagogue educator asks in hopes of welcoming interfaith couples.

These calls mark progress in the Jewish community. We can see a shift among Jewish institutions in that they are thinking more about how to serve a broader spectrum of Jewish households. We applaud this growing awareness and encourage the Jewish community to offer many more programs around the holidays that are low-barrier, easy-access, and serve people where they are. This includes the many intermarried households that are not yet engaging with the organized Jewish community.

Often, the community’s only programmatic offering is a “December Dilemma” class to serve intermarried and inter-partnered couples who are seeking guidance as they struggle with the choices of religious observance and familial duties during the holiday season. This program is often helpful and meaningful to couples who may be celebrating the holidays together for the first time or still struggling to find a balance, and it demonstrates that they community is here to provide such a service when needed—though we worry if calling it a “dilemma” implies that intermarriage itself is the problem or that such couples never come to a resolution.

For many if not most interfaith couples, if December was ever a “dilemma” it is often resolved after the first year or two, by coming to some key decisions, which may then be tweaked from time to time along the journey. For the majority who are not struggling with “dilemmas,” we in the organized community must ask ourselves: What are the needs and interests of other newcomers, less-engaged Jews, and unaffiliated intermarried households around this season? How can we share the meaning of Hanukkah and help them celebrate?

We at the Jewish Outreach Institute want to provide many additional avenues for engagement that allow everyone to celebrate Hanukkah, especially intermarried households. We encourage programs that show how fun and easy celebrating Hanukkah can be. For example, through The Mothers Circle we now offer an interactive, educational holiday prep class called Hanukkah Helper. The class will help Jewish institutions model the supportive “how-to” approach, as well as provide participants (like mothers of other religious backgrounds) with the know-how to say the blessings over the Hanukkah candles, play dreidel with their children, and tell the Hanukkah stories themselves.

In addition, to share the meaning of Hanukkah with everyone regardless of whether or not they are already engaged with the organized Jewish community, JOI encourages implementing educational Hanukkah-themed “Public Space Judaism” programs. By programming in commercial spaces, Jewish institutions can introduce Hanukkah to curious passers-by who they may have never reached. JOI offers several Public Space Judaism programs: Eight Days of Oil, which engage adults (especially younger adults); Color-Me Calendar: Hanukkah Edition, for families with young children; and our soon-to be-piloted event for families with young children, Hands-On Hanukkah. While one institution may not be able implement each program, it is important to recognize the needs of various cohorts within the community and address those needs with programs for them. Not everyone is facing a “dilemma.” Some Jews on the periphery do not know how to begin to celebrate! If we want to ease the challenges that may still exist in this holiday season, let’s make Hanukkah accessible and help as many Jews on the periphery have the opportunity to spin the dreidel.

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