Entries by Lily Matusiak
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The marking of every bar/bat mitzvah is special for the student, family members and congregation. However, Ahavas Shalom in Newark, NJ recently had a particularly momentous Bat Mitzvah; a young woman, Mei Ming, a Jew-by-Choice, became the first person of Chinese descent to become Bar or Bat Mitzvah at the synagogue.
A decade after her adoption in Wuhan, China, Mei Ming decided that she “wanted somewhere to belong” and found such a warm and welcoming community at Ahavas Shalom. At this Conservative synagogue, “everybody knows your name. It is a place where people from different races and cultures can come together and celebrate one thing.” Eighteen months later, after intensive studies and training, Mei Ming stood on the bimah, chanting her Torah portion.
All of us at JOI congratulate Mei Ming, her family and Ahavas Shalom on what we are sure was a beautiful Bat Mitzvah celebration and a historic day for the synagogue. The “patchwork heritage” (to borrow a phrase from President Obama) of the North American Jewish community continues to grow and it is an inspiration to all of us when Jewish institutions embrace diversity with loving and open arms. In a few short years, I too will celebrate this diversity and witness my cousin of Asian background stand before her family and congregation in southern New Jersey chant her Torah portion.
There are many examples of Jewish communal institutions that are shedding assumptions of what Jews “look like” and how families are configured. They all add to the collective memory of the Jewish people as it marches forward. Jewish continuity is found in diversity. What story of diversity is your family or community/institution adding to the on-going saga of the Jewish people?
As September quickly approaches and summer fades away, many college-bound students are packing up and preparing for the upcoming year on campus. For some, this is new and unchartered territory: dorm life, new friends, unlimited extra-curricular activities, and doing your own laundry. And for a few students, this includes becoming a Bat Mitzvah.
Last year, according to the Dayton Jewish Observer, four students at Tufts University were called to the Torah as B’not Mitzvah during the spring semester. One of these young women, Kira Mikityanskaya, was inspired to have her Bat Mitzvah during her first trip to Israel the summer before her freshman year. Kira didn’t even learn that she was Jewish until the age of 6 when she and her family immigrated to the United States from Russia. Growing up she at attended Sunday school and was active in her local Jewish youth groups, but as she turned 13, when many of her friends started preparing for their Bar and Bat Mitzvah’s, Kira felt she wasn’t ready. So the time came and went, and she never had a Bat Mitzvah.
After a Birthright trip to Israel last year, Kira decided she wanted to finally have her Bat Mitzvah – she just didn’t know how to do it. When she arrived on Tufts’ campus for the first time last Fall, she saw a flyer at the campus Hillel for a program helping students who had never had a Bar or Bat Mitzvah to have one. Seven months and one mitzvah project later, Kira became a Bat Mitzvah at age 19.
Nearly 2000 miles away, four other women were recently called to the Torah for a B’not Mitzvah. They, like Kira and her friends, were also past the traditional Bat Mitzvah age – but a bit further along. At ages ranging from 76 to 90, these women, who grew up in a time when girls didn’t typically have a Bat Mitzvah, were finally able to celebrate. “It shows that you never get too old to do something you want,” said the eldest of the group, Diana T. Wunch, in the Houston Chronicle.
For many, a Bar or Bat Mitzvah comes hand-in-hand with a slew of requirements and rules, such as several years of study in the synagogue’s religious school, membership, Torah-trope tutors, mitzvah project, etc. These requirements and policies can often deter families and individuals looking to have a Bar or Bat Mitzvah outside of the traditional timeline. Unaffiliated and interfaith members of the community need to know that our doors are open, especially for the important lifecycle events – from Bar and Bat Mitzvah’s through weddings and funerals. For this reason, JOI is working in partnership with STAR: Synagogue Transformation and Renewal on Call Synagogue Home to help rabbis and synagogues look beyond their policies and seize these opportunities for engagement. Whether it’s a Bat Mitzvah at 19 or 90, or an interfaith family who wants to celebrate the birth of a child, we are working together to make sure that our community is welcoming to everyone who wants to share in these rich, family experiences.
I am what many in the Jewish community would label as an “insider.” I work for a Jewish organization, attend Shabbat services regularly and am an active participant on several committees at my synagogue, of which I am a proud dues-paying member. With that being the case, many of my fellow “insiders” assume that I’ll be spending a portion of my weekend fasting and at synagogue, observing Tisha B’Av, a day of mourning on the Jewish calendar. Last year was the first time I observed Tisha B’Av, choosing to fast and attend services several times with hopes of connecting to the power and meaning of the day. But by sun-down after a long day, I just found myself hungry and disappointed, not having felt any spiritual or religious connection.
This year, I hesitate to observe in the same, traditional manner as last year, despite the expectations of being an “insider.” Instead, I’m considering observing Tisha B’Av, a day reminding us of destruction and exile, in an alternative way, one that might provide me with a deeper spiritual connection. This year I’d like to do my part to ensure that in the future, no community will ever have a reason to mourn for the same reasons that many will fast this Saturday night and Sunday. We can not reverse history, but we can make a difference for communities that currently face devastation, including the refugees of Darfur and the survivors of Hurricane Katrina. For those on the “inside” or “outside,” fasting all day or not at all, why not take a moment to reflect and even act to make certain that no other People have a day of mourning like Tisha B’Av?
A recent article published in the Cleveland Jewish News shares several Hillel professionals’ feelings about the organization’s recently updated mission to reach out to more students on a college campus. News of the updated mission statement caused quite a buzz when it was written about previously in the JTA. However, this new article gives Hillel professionals from across Ohio the chance to create their own buzz - one of support for the new and more complete mission statement.
The new mission statement is “to enrich the lives of Jewish undergraduate and graduate students so that they may enrich the Jewish people and the world.” The campus Hillel professionals featured in this article stress that the Jewish organization always has and will continue to “expand Jewish life on campus for Jewish students” and that the essential goals for Hillel have not changed – including the fact that Hillel programs are open to everybody on campus. Jennifer Chestnut, executive director of Hillel at Kent State University, says the misunderstanding stemmed from the JTA’s inaccurate summary of the mission statement. She explains the difference:
The wording in the JTA article seems to indicate Hillel has shifted its focus to improving the overall world, rather than nurturing Jewish students to do just that, Chestnut explains. “We’re simply empowering Jewish students to do good.”
Nuanced phrasing aside, many Hillels are using the new mission statement to take a fresh look and approach to programming for the current generation of Jewish students - a more diverse student population that includes a large percent of adult children of intermarriage. This student population has voiced a need for a greater variety of inclusive programs where they can both interact with other Jewish students as well as bring along their friends—some of whom they are dating—of other religious backgrounds. The Hillels in Ohio, such as Ohio State University and Kent State University have found success by bringing these types of programs to where the students are, rather than the other way around. Much like JOI’s Public Space JudaismSM model, this helps to lower the location barrier and reach out to Jewishly uninvolved students on their turf, where they are most comfortable. These events also attract non-Jewish students who may be interested in Judaism or community service.
We are grateful for the support of the Samuel Bronfman Foundation. As a result, I can look forward to continuing JOI’s work with both Hillel International and campus Hillels across the U.S. I can’t wait to see how they will expand their programming to reach out to students where they are, creating a more inclusive and welcoming environment.
Birthright Israel has provided thousands of Jewish young adults with a powerful, if not exhausting first experience in Israel. Many of the participants board their El Al flight to Israel with some inkling of what they can expect over the 10 day trip: time at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, a dip in the Dead Sea, an early morning trek up Masada, and a “nudge,” or push, by trip organizers and leaders to find that special, Jewish someone.
Matt Lyons, an adult child of intermarriage, recently returned from his birthright Israel trip. In a piece that he wrote for Interfaith Family.com, he describes not only his personal connection with Israel, but explains why he agrees only in part with the trip organizer’s in-marriage “nudge.” Yes, Matt whole-heartedly sees the importance in someday raising Jewish children to not only support Israel but also to support Judaism, its people and history. However, he doesn’t necessarily agree that the only way to do this is to marry someone Jewish.
“…the obligation to pass along my Judaism does not require me to marry someone Jewish. I am surely evidence of that, as were the other young Jews on my trip from interfaith families. The Taglit-Birthright trip, at the same time, strengthened both my desire to raise my children Jewish and my belief that a loving, honest and open-minded interfaith marriage can help me accomplish it.”
Matt’s statement, which we couldn’t have said any better ourselves, is an important reminder to the community that intermarriage is not necessarily a problem or an ending, but it can be used as an opportunity for engagement. Here at JOI, we work with and offer support for many interfaith families who share in Matt’s views on interfaith marriage and raising Jewish children. To do so, we have developed programs like The Mothers Circle and The Grandparents Circle which are designed to help engage families and strengthen the Jewish community. We hope through programs like these and through adult children of intermarriage like Matt, the community will open its eyes to the interfaith families who make Jewish choices.
Congratulations to Rabbi Karen Bender of Temple Judea in the greater Los Angeles area for an inspiring congregational column addressing the congregation’s efforts to create a more welcoming environment for interfaith families.
In the column, Rabbi Bender expresses her belief that the act of welcoming congregant’s family members of other religious backgrounds is not only a moral responsibility, but a matter of Torah.
No less significant is the moral principle that is put forth thousands of years ago by the prophet Isaiah: “My House will be called a house of prayer for all Peoples.” In other words our commitment to Torah and its values includes a welcoming attitude towards non-Jews in our house of worship. We are not threatening Jewish ideals by welcoming non- Jews into the synagogue, we are fulfilling them.
This congregation is fulfilling these Jewish ideals by taking full advantage of Call Synagogue Home, a JOI project in partnership with STAR (Synagogue: Transformation and Renewal), generously supported by the Samuel Bronfman Foundation. Call Synagogue Home is designed for congregations of all denominations to use life cycle events to reach out to and nurture the relationship with interfaith families. Congregations can use these events—which range from the traditional, such as birth or marriage, to non-traditional, such as moving into a new home –to foster the relationship (and retention) of those who are already part of the synagogue community. Temple Judea has created a committee of invested lay and professional leaders who have dedicated themselves to look closely at how welcoming the congregation is toward interfaith families as they approach the Bar/Bat Mitzvah experience.
Now with their research behind them, we at JOI look forward to working with the Call Synagogue Home Committee to further their efforts in helping Temple Judea create a religious home for interfaith families and everyone else who has chosen to be a part of the Jewish community.
If you held a Purim carnival at your synagogue or Jewish institution that attracted 1,000 people, would you consider the event a success? If your goal was to have a large turn out, then your answer to the question is probably a resounding “yes, it was.” However, if your goal was to engage those who attended the carnival, you must actually know who showed up in order to determine your success. For that, you need an effective name collection technique.
Several weeks ago, Congregation Emanu-El in New York City took advantage of JOI’s name collection methodology at their annual Purim Carnival, collecting the program attendees’ interests and contact information through a fun, quick and easy raffle. Amy Geldzahler, Department Manager of the Department of Lifelong Learning Congregation Emanu-el, implemented the raffle after learning about JOI’s best outreach practices and methodology. She later reflected on her experience with the raffle:
“…it has actually been very interesting to see how it works in real-life. The activity of collecting names in a way other than a sign-in sheet was a great way to engage with people, a chance for education with the signs we put on the table, and it was nice to give them something back in exchange for their information (a chance to win a Purim-related prize).”
Utilizing incentive-based name collection like Amy’s raffle is a win-win situation for both those planning, and those attending the event. It provides greeters and name collectors with an unobtrusive technique to gather key contact information they can use to follow-up with program attendees, as well as providing the participants with an opportunity to meet friendly representatives from the Jewish institution. Plus, they get to win an attractive, program-related prize! If your synagogue or Jewish institution had success with a raffle or other unobtrusive, name collection technique with a unique incentive, we at JOI would love to hear about it!
Congratulations to both Rabbi Josh Feigelson and Aaron Weil for their recent coverage in a JTA article. The article highlights how they have helped Hillel move beyond designing successful outreach programs for students on the periphery of Jewish life – their programs are now attracting students campus-wide. Thanks to the generous support of The Samuel Bronfman Foundation, JOI has had the privilege of working with both of these innovative Hillel professionals through a partnership with Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.
Last November I had the opportunity to travel to Northwestern University to meet with Rabbi Feigelson and the Hillel’s student leadership. After a presentation on outreach methodology for the student leadership and a short tour of campus, I got to see first hand the diverse group of students involved and engaged by Hillel’s “Ask Big Questions” Initiative. This initiative, in which students are encouraged to pose questions to www.AskBigQuestions.com, tries to use Jewish wisdom to answer contemporary challenges. Students from across the religious and cultural spectrum posed questions, and the reactions were discussed during one of the Hillel’s Fireside Chats, featuring a professor who spoke about that week’s headlining “Big Question.”
That’s just one example of Hillel “throwing open it’s doors” to everyone. Hillel chapters are also organizing interfaith programs, and non-Jews now sit on Hillel boards. This reflects what many Hillel directors see as a growing desire by students to make Hillel as culturally diverse as possible. As a JOI program officer and former participant/student leader at my alma mater’s campus Hillel, it’s exciting to read that Hillel International and local campus Hillels are breaking down boundaries and lowering the barriers to all students’ participation in Jewish life on campus. Aaron Weil sums it up nicely, and we at JOI agree:
“The benefit to us,” Weil continued, “is by making ourself a place that is open to all, Jews are going to feel more comfortable to go there because they’re not going to a place that is Jewish only. Jews are looking today, in general, for opportunities to be Jewish but not to be separate.”
What’s the best thing about being “half-Jewish”? And in contrast, what is the hardest thing about being “half-Jewish”?
Whether or not you believe that someone can truly be considered “half-Jewish,” there are countless adult children of intermarriage that grapple with this notion in their every day lives. Last week, I attended a presentation and discussion on a research project completed by Ben Greene, a program associate at The Samuel Bronfman Foundation, who utilized the social networking website Facebook to explore the emerging identity of “half-Jewish” among young adults.
Ben discussed his survey-based research, which targeted members of “half-Jewish” and Jewish Facebook groups. He asked questions about the individuals’ views on being “half-Jewish,” their various experiences and Jewish connections, and their thoughts on Jewish continuity. Not to disclose the details of Ben’s intriguing research, but these surveys provide important insight on the perspectives and challenges of growing up in an interfaith family. For example, one of the conclusions from the research states that “there is a clear clash of views in how people that identify as ‘half-Jewish’ understand the term, and how the more engaged ‘Jewish’ population views the term, potentially leading to tension between the two groups.”
Ben’s research brings to light the many difficult questions that this population is often forced to deal with. While these young adults strive to build both their individual and group identity as Jews, it is essential that we, as the Jewish community, support them in their journey and provide them with opportunities to explore and deepen their Jewish connections. With the generous support of The Samuel Bronfman Foundation, JOI has had the opportunity to work with organizations such as Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life to welcome young adults who are interested in finding Jewish meaning and community, no matter what “percent” of the person is Jewish.
Over the past several years, The Jewish Outreach Institute and Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life have partnered to create a more welcoming and inclusive space for Jewishstudents on college and university campuses. We have worked together to reach out and provide opportunities for all Jewish students, specifically the unengaged, by targeting different student groups, including freshman, often referred to as FYSH (First Year Students of Hillel); graduate students; those involved in Greek Life; and students interested in environmental issues.
Recently, Hillel developed a new practice for its professionals to use in providing resources and a welcoming space for a different Jewish student population on campus: the LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer) Jewish community. This marks the first time Hillel has published material related to the LGBTQ community, and the Hillel International website states that it “is designed to help Hillel professionals reach out to and engage the LGBTQ Jewish student population and provides tools for welcoming and working with this growing population.” The resource guide will include personal accounts from LGBTQ Jewish students, instructions for inclusive language, alternative prayers and blessings, and a listing of LGBTQ and Allied contacts and programs. Hillel President Wayne Firestone sees the importance this guide will have in “opening the doors for all Jewish students, of all sexual orientations and gender identities. The resource guide provides Hillel directors with practical recommendations for welcoming this important population into our Hillels.”
Here at JOI, we fully support Wayne Firestone and the Hillel professionals’ recent efforts to “open the Hillel tent” to the LGBTQ community on campus. Following several of JOI’s Big Tent Judaism principles, including “Celebrate Diversity” and “Lower Barriers to Participation,” these efforts will allow Hillel to better serve LGBTQ and Allied Jewish students. By celebrating the diversity of today’s Jewish student population and lowering the barriers to participation that may have kept this population away in the past, Hillel can truly provide a safe and welcoming space for all Jewish students.
Several months ago I had the opportunity to spend an afternoon at the University of Maryland. The campus was gorgeous; green lawns, classic “southern” architecture and, I happened to notice, a particularly beautiful Hillel building. It’s so nice that one would think UMD students wouldn’t want to go anywhere else to participate in Jewish life at their university. But in fact, during a Friday night this past December, students seemed to go everywhere else to share a Shabbat experience.
At JOI, we believe one of the best ways to engage the unaffiliated Jewish community is through Public Space Judaism – instead of waiting for people to come to us, we need to go out to them. This idea was recently put into practice by the University of Maryland Hillel, which sponsored “Shabbat Across Maryland”, or SHAM, a program that strives to make Shabbat more accessible to students by providing low-pressure, positive contacts with the organized Jewish community. According to an article by Richard Greenberg in the Washington Jewish Week titled “Kiddush with the Turtle,” kosher dinners were held at over 70 locations, including apartments, dormitories, fraternity houses, and even the newsroom at the campus newspaper. This was quite different from the centralized, large scale Shabbats that Hillel had organized in years past. Many students found these settings to be more intimate, including junior Megan Eckstein. She commented that the SHAM Shabbat experience “definitely felt more accessible and welcoming. It’s really nice to be around people you’re comfortable with… This gave me a chance to really feel part of the Jewish community.”
After attending a SHAM Shabbat dinner, Eckstein said she would like to hold a Shabbat dinner in her own home, allowing her friends the opportunity to connect with the Jewish community outside the walls of the Hillel building. This student, as well as an estimated 1,000 other student participants, showed that meaningful Shabbat experiences can happen anywhere, as long as the doors are open for anyone who would like to attend.
Here’s one for the record books – literally! The University of Maryland has recaptured the Guinness World Record for having the most dreidels spinning simultaneously for 10 seconds. They previously held his record from 2000-2005, then lost it to a synagogue in New Jersey.
Open to the wider university community, the Hillel hosted 603 dreidel spinners in the Ritchie Coliseum, in order to accommodate for the large number of participants and to lower the barrier of location for those who may not be comfortable entering the Hillel building, but still wanted to participate. Maryland Hillel also utilized this event as an opportunity to partner with other campus student organizations (a JOI Best Practice) including Jewish, pro-Israel and business groups, as well as several sororities and fraternities. Rabbi Ari Israel, executive director of Maryland Hillel, was particularly touched by the involvement of the mixed university community. Writing in an opinion piece titled “Spinning Toward Success” for the university’s paper The Diamondback, he said:
“Jewish university students who participated took a few moments to reconnect with a rich heritage and tradition that informs Jewish identity and purposeful journey. The non-Jewish spinners showed the strength of community that exists on the campus.”
This event truly provided students, faculty and community members a low barrier opportunity to engage with the Jewish community and it gave the Hillel a chance to strengthen its ties with the greater-campus community. JOI congratulates the University of Maryland Hillel and the 603 participants in capturing this new World Record.
Over the past several months, I have had the pleasure of working with several university Hillels in their efforts to reach out to unengaged Jewish students on their campuses. These schools include Eastern Michigan University, Johns Hopkins, Kent State, Northwestern, Stony Brook, University of Minnesota, and University of Vermont. Thanks to the generous support from the Samuel Bronfman Foundation through the Bronfman Strategic Engagement Grant, these Hillels took Jewish life out of their Hillel buildings and into the everyday lives of students by planning and implementing Public Space Judaism programs on campus.
The last grant-funded event for the semester was held by the staff members at University of Minnesota, who planned a week’s worth of Chanukkah activities. Their culminating program was a Latke (Potato Pancake) Taste Test with three different kinds of latkes, including a traditional potato latke, sweet potato, and vegetable. Located on a pedestrian foot bridge that connects the two sides of campus, the potato pancakes were prepared for students to taste and rank. This gave everyone walking by a chance to share in a Jewish experience, and it gave the Hillel an opportunity to connect with a wider variety of students.
Now that the fall semester has ended and the Hillels are taking a short hiatus until the students return from their winter breaks, I would like to thank the staff and students from those seven Hillels for all of their hard work and a terrific semester. They have made great strides in reaching unengaged Jewish students on their campuses and I am sure that their efforts will continue to pay-off in upcoming semesters. I look forward to hearing about all their future successes.
Watch out Chanukkah and Passover! You may have proven yourselves to be two of the most celebrated holidays in the Jewish community, but Rosh Chodesh is hot on your trail. Events and programs celebrating the day a new Jewish month begins are on the rise, and their popularity could give you a run for your money.
For example, this past November the University of Vermont Hillel held their “Once in a New Moon: Women’s Spa Night” to celebrate the new month and women empowerment. Female students learned about the event through a variety of sources, including their sororities, Facebook, Hillel follow-up efforts, and word-of-mouth. The participants, all female students, were invited to honor and celebrate the important women in their lives during an informal candle ceremony, then pamper themselves with organic spa products, sample home-made tasty treats, and win some prizes in a raffle. Students who had prior knowledge of the event were also asked to bring toiletries to donate to the local LUND Family Center, who sent a representative to speak about the organization.
During the event, the University of Vermont Hillel also took advantage of the Bronfman Strategic Engagement Grant and name collection tools recommended by JOI. By including an “interests” section on the raffle ticket, they were able to create an opportunity for students to indicate interest in joining a Jewish women’s group, as well as streamline the Hillel’s efforts in targeted follow-up. With Public Space Rosh Chodesh events like this happening at college campuses around the country, perhaps we’ll see a new name at the top of the Most Often Celebrated Jewish Holidays list.
I’ve recently returned from Northwestern University, located just outside of the Windy City (Chicago, Illinois). At this university’s Hillel (Jewish student organization), the staff and students have taken a creative spin on JOI’s Public Space Judaism methodology, taking Jewish student life out of the Hillel house and into cyberspace.
Fiedler Hillel at Northwestern University launched its website www.AskBigQuestions.com this fall thanks to the Bronfman Strategic Engagement Grant, giving students an opportunity to blog about a new “Big Question” every 2-3 weeks. Banners, flyers and Post-It Notes strategically placed around campus publicize the thought-provoking questions and direct students to the website. The students can then voice their opinions regarding the current Big Question, view YouTube video responses and be linked to other related websites.
This online Public Space Judaism interaction is then followed with a Fireside Chat in the campus student union building. These programs—modeled after the television program “Inside the Actors Studio”—feature a popular professor who has sponsored the current Big Question and speaks with students about his/her interpretation of the question and how s/he would answer it.
These Fireside Chats are a great example of JOI’s Public Space Judaism model in action, providing low-barrier opportunities for students to become more engaged with the organized Jewish Community, in this case through a Destination Jewish Culture event. [The first step along this path to increased engagement is a Public Space Judaism event, the online blog in this case. The second step, the Destination Jewish Culture event, requires prior knowledge of the event, but is still held in a secular venue.] Fiedler Hillel has had continued success with this model through its AskBigQuestions.com website and Fireside Chats and we at JOI look forward to hearing and reading more about the program next semester.
Hillel at Johns Hopkins University is on to something. JOI has been working with their 2nd year Jewish Campus Service Corps (JCSC) Fellow throughout the fall semester to create events for Jewish students interested in the arts, a population previously overlooked on campus. Their focus during the first half of the semester was to create an Arts Sukkah and related programming, titled the Arts Explosion, during Sukkot.
JOI Senior Program Officer Eva Stern [pictured above in the Arts Sukkah] and I were lucky enough to join the students at Johns Hopkins for the Arts Explosion’s culminating event, the “Arts Attack!”, featuring several extremely talented student a cappella groups, poets and improv performances. This event, as well as other programs throughout the week, took place in a public courtyard where the beautiful sukkah was placed on campus.
Hopkins Hillel’s sukkah was particularly eye-catching as its three walls were created and decorated by art produced by students. These students had taken part in a series of art workshops, including glass mosaics, painting, ceramic tiles, print making, drawing, and felting. The combination of these mediums generated a superb sukkah that left those passing by in awe.
Hopkins Hillel’s art initiative, generously funded by the Bronfman Strategic Engagement Grant, will continue into the second half of the semester to celebrate Hanukkah. I can only imagine what beautiful art the students will create this winter.
On Monday evening I will be attending a session at the Jewish Theological Seminary discussing current research on the history of women and Jewish intermarriage in America. The event, presented by The Jewish Feminist Research Group, will feature Keren McGinity, Ph.D., in discussion with Leslie Fishbein, Ph.D, professor of American Studies and Rutgers University, and Rabbi Charles Simon. Rabbi Simon, Executive Director of the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs, has made great strides in creating a place for intermarried couples and their children within Conservative Judaism (previously blogged about here).
The discussion will be dedicated to Dr. McGinity’s most recent work, specifically regarding what intermarriage meant to and for Jewish women who married men of other religious backgrounds, these women’s ethnic and religious heritage and how it has changed, and how intermarriage was portrayed by mass media and religious activists. McGinity’s doctoral study regarding these issues was written about in a summer 2005 issue of Lilith Magazine. It will be interesting to learn about her most recent findings in the field of Jewish women in intermarriages.
The event, titled “Matriarchs on the Margin: Intermarried Jewish Women’s Modus Vivendi” will be held on Monday, October 29th from 5:30-7:00 pm at the Jewish Theological Seminary. For more information and to RSVP, please find the contact information here.
Recently JOI senior program officer Eva Stern and I traveled to Long Island to visit the Hillel at Stony Brook University. This visit was in anticipation of the Hillel and Resident Hall Association (RHA)-sponsored Block Party during their first few days of classes. The Block Party featured food, fun and music—all free for students (who only had to complete a RHA required waiver and supply Hillel with their contact information).
The Hillel-sponsored portion of the Block Party included Israeli snacks; apples-and-honey for Rosh Hashanah; Tie-dye shirt giveaways; an interactive drum circle; and the headlining event, Remedy, a popular Jewish hip-hop artist. These activities and concerts were interspersed amongst the various RHA sponsored booths, creating an open and welcoming environment for students to interact with Hillel and participate in low-barrier Jewish opportunities.
At our meeting before the event, Eva and I connected with a handful of student volunteers who would act as greeters and would be directing student traffic during the event. These extremely enthusiastic students learned the various methods of greeting and name collection, in order to ensure that they could welcome and reach out to as many students as possible, particularly those on the periphery and unengaged in Jewish life.
We at JOI congratulate the staff and student volunteers at Stony Brook University Hillel for a creative, engaging and successful event. Their dedication to reaching out to unengaged Jewish students and those on the periphery, paired with the generous support from the Samuel Bronfman Foundation, have allowed for a more inclusive, welcoming environment on the Stony Brook campus. We look forward to working with Stony Brook Hillel throughout the semester and with their future endeavors.
JOI’s blog tends to focus primarily on current events, but an article from the Spring 2005 edition of the “Reconstructionism Today” newsletter just came to our attention and rings as true today as two years ago. The article, “Jews and Fellow Travelers: Appreciating the Gifts of Non-Jewish Partners” by Rabbi Maurice Harris, discusses a 2004 Jewish Reconstructionist Federation convention workshop that focused on the gifts that non-Jewish Partners—or “Fellow Travelers” as the workshop called them—can provide to Jewish life.
Rabbi Harris maintains that it can be greatly beneficial for Jewish communities to welcome and further engage Fellow Travelers. He gives examples that he himself witnessed, including when his synagogue board needed assistance thinking outside of the box about membership issues and a Fellow Traveler provided valuable “outside” perspectives from a different religious community. A few other benefits that Fellow Travelers can bring to Jewish life, as mentioned in the piece, include:
- Fellow Travelers are sometimes able to see and appreciate things about Jewish life that born Jews take for granted or don’t notice;
- Children growing up in intermarried households often learn that cultural sensitivity and tolerance of difference are wholesome family values;
- Sometimes Fellow Travelers are valuable bridges between Jewish and other religious or cultural communities in North America.
We agree with Rabbi Harris that Fellow Travelers can greatly contribute to Jewish institutions and Jewish life if given the chance to do so, and we encourage the Jewish community to welcome intermarried families and Fellow Travelers. By looking beyond the “costs” of intermarriage to embrace the gifts that these Fellow Travelers provide, we can strengthen Jewish life and further enriched our community.
An old college roommate and I were comparing our plans for the upcoming weekend at the end of dinner one evening. Amidst my own itinerary, I included Shabbat services at my favorite New York City synagogue. Not expecting any response at all, I was completely taken off-guard when she stared back at me with complete surprise. It was not uncommon during our time as roommates that I would spend some portion of my Friday nights at the university Hillel, so why would moving to New York change my Shabbat practices? Noticing my surprise, she quickly articulated, “But don’t you have to be a member? Isn’t that really expensive? How could you possibly afford that?”
Then understanding her reaction, I answered her questions. No, you did not have to be a dues-paying member to attend a Shabbat service. As for membership fees, yes, they can be expensive for families, but in fact, there is a new, emerging trend of Jewish institutions such as synagogues and JCCs who offer discounted rates for young adults looking to join a Jewish community. These reduced fees make engagement easier for young professionals who may be hesitant to become active in a Jewish community due to personal budget restrictions.
In “JOI-speak,” these lowered membership fees translate further into lower barriers to engagement and are greatly encouraged. But why just lower it when you can remove it? Currently, there are several Jewish institutions around the country tearing down this pecuniary obstacle for the unengaged, offering half-price or even free membership for a year or sometimes more. These significantly reduced or nonexistent fees allow for a more accessible Jewish community for unaffiliated or unengaged Jews who may have hesitated to participate in the past because of financial limitations. They are able to make these offers through the support of generous donors who recognize that we need to remove cost as a barrier for accessing Jewish life. At JOI, we applaud these donors and their institutions’ initiative and look forward to seeing more of these efforts in the future.
So, in response to my friend’s questions: No, you do not have to be a dues-paying member and no, it does not have to be expensive—in fact, it can be free!