Sh’ma, a Journal of Jewish Responsibility, has devoted an entire issue to exploring one of the most significant topics in Judaism today: Jewish identity. This notion is important because it covers some of the biggest questions we seem to continually grapple with in the Jewish community. Who is a Jew? What do Jews look like? What does it mean to belong? What is Jewish peoplehood? As we see it, the future landscape of the Jewish community as a whole rests on our ability to find answers to these questions and forge a path that will lead us to an optimistic Jewish future.
The essays in Sh’ma explore a wide range of opinion and experience. You might agree with some of the sentiments, you might disagree with others. But devoting an entire issue to Jewish identity opens the door for some thoughtful discussions on how the Jewish community is perceived by various segments of the population. They even include a discussion guide, with questions like: What does “Jewish” look like, and how do our own stereotypes limit our openness to and welcoming of a wider array of Jews? What should joining the Jewish people require? How does one become Jewish?
These are exactly the kind of questions we should be asking ourselves as we move into a future that will increasingly include more intermarried families, children of intermarriage, mixed-heritage Jews, and other minority groups. At our upcoming conference, Judaism2030, we will bring together forward thinking visionaries with on-the-ground practitioners to talk about all of these issues and more. As we grow more diverse, what will the future look like? What are the steps we can take to ensure a vibrant Jewish future? We invite you to join us and bring your perspective on what we can do to help grow the Jewish community of tomorrow.
The Jewish community has spent a lot of time creating binary oppositions as a way to categorize and organize the Jewish people. Someone is an insider or an outsider, affiliated or unaffiliated, Jew or non-Jew. But how legitimate are these oppositions, and are they still relevant in a world in which there are so many different ways of identifying with the Jewish community?
Writing in the Forward, Rabbi Susan P. Fendrick, a senior research associate at the Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education at Brandeis University, believes we need to move beyond “yes or no” distinctions in Judaism. “We need language that is both precise and expansive, naming and reflecting the multiple ways that people are and aren’t Jewish,” she writes. “Not only to avoid hurt and alienation, but to name and see our Jewish world, and the people in it, as they are.”
[Today’s blog entry comes to us from Esther Safran Foer, director of Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in Washington DC. She will be leading a session at our upcoming conference on what we can do to re-think traditional membership models at Jewish institutions. Click Here to learn more about Esther and to preview the rest of our exciting schedule!]
You wanna go where people know,
people are all the same,
You wanna go where everybody knows your name.
- Cheers lyrics
Belonging is a basic human desire, but attaining that sense of feeling welcome in a place – be it a bar or a synagogue – can often feel like maneuvering a complex maze. I am excited to participate in Judaism 2030 because of its progressive and future-oriented approach to shaping a Jewish community that welcomes all. That’s no small feat, and I’m honored to be part of a dynamic group of Jewish community professionals who are committed to breaking down barriers and building up tolerance.
As the director of a non-denominational, non-membership, non-traditional synagogue, I’ll share the positive outcomes I’ve witnessed both on macro and micro levels within a congregation without borders, including greater cooperation among area synagogues and Jewish institutions and enhanced feelings of belonging among young people who find affiliation on their terms. Communities have their own personality just as individuals do. Living Jewishly in Washington, DC looks and feels different than engaging with Jewish culture in Boulder, CO, but there are tenets of peoplehood that defy geography. I am eager to share what I have learned about what can unite us all, while still carving out our own unique interpretations of Jewish community.
JOI was deeply saddened to hear about the recent passing of our friend and supporter, Michael Rukin. As past chair of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Boston, he was known for his dedication to social justice, particularly in the area of inclusion and welcoming towards intermarried families.
Michael served as co-chair for JOI’s 2005 National Conference in Atlanta, and gave a rousing keynote address that included a discussion of his own family’s personal experience with intermarriage and a call for the Jewish community to break away from old modes of thinking. He implored the community to look for the truth where it actually is, in the great potential of intermarried families to create Jewish homes and strengthen our community. He was a true champion of the cause for greater inclusion.
His deep commitment to Jewish communal life served as an inspiration to all who knew him, and his vision for a vibrant Jewish future will continue to motivate countless others, including JOI, to create a Jewish community that truly welcomes all who approach.
At JOI, we do our best to measure the success of our various programs, which have been implemented in over 100 communities in the US and Canada. It’s easy to track the hard data to show our growth. Over 1,000 women have graduated the 8-month Mothers Circle course since the programs inception, we’ve trained thousands of Jewish communal professionals on outreach best practices, and our Big Tent Judaism Coalition has grown to include over 450 institutions worldwide.
But our work isn’t just about numbers – it’s also about the people we serve.
Barbara Pash, associate editor of the Baltimore Jewish Times, wrote a wonderful piece for Interfaithfamily.com that shows how participants in our Grandparents Circle program (for Jewish grandparents whose adult children have intermarried) in Baltimore, have been able to use the tools they learned to help nurture – and in some cases establish – the Jewish identity of their grandchildren.
Technology seems to move faster and faster. Social media has made it possible to share information instantly while cell phones allow us to be reachable anytime and anywhere. Yet even as we increase our connectivity, it sometimes feels like we are losing our connectedness—to the people and places in our lives. Now more than ever, we have an opportunity to encourage people to step back, slow down, and embrace the beauty of Shabbat, a day of rest.
That’s why the Jewish Outreach Institute is proud to partner with Reboot for its National Day of Unplugging. For 24 hours, starting at sundown Friday March 4, 2011, people across the nation will reclaim time, slow down their lives and reconnect with friends, family, the community and themselves. Though based on Jewish traditions, the day can be enjoyed by anyone, regardless of background. Click Here to learn more about the National Day of Unplugging and to sign up individually for the challenge.
There have been many “faddish” words in the language of institutional Judaism, writes Dr. Erica Brown in a recent article for the [New York] Jewish Week. These words include “continuity,” “renaissance,” and “solidarity.” Each one “enjoyed their philological heyday in taglines and fundraising campaigns.” But a current buzzword, she writes, deserves more attention and a real definition: “Peoplehood.”
As co-author of the book “The Case for Jewish Peoplehood: Can We Be One,”(Jewish Lights Publishing; $21.99) Brown isn’t sure if the word “peoplehood” is yet a “real word” for the Jewish community. Does it refer to nationality, ethnicity, or faith? And why is it such a relevant word today when talking about identity and affiliation in Jewish life?
Preparing for a bar or bat mitzvah can be a daunting challenge for many in the Jewish community, particularly those who aren’t fully engaged in Jewish life. Not only are the logistics demanding, trying to squeeze in lessons between other extra-curricular activities, but the lessons themselves are intensive. A young man or woman is expected to gain a certain level of proficiency in Hebrew, to a level where they can comfortably read from the Torah. The barriers are high for almost any family in the Jewish community, perhaps enough to keep some from even choosing to participate in this important life-cycle event.
A new website, launched by a 3rd year rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary, aims to lower these barriers by offering bar and bat mitzvah tutoring lessons online. The website MyBarMitzvahTutors.com (and MyBatMitzvahTutors.com) is an interactive resource that “allows for learning to take place in the comfort of your own home.”
How did you take that first step towards greater participation in Jewish life? What happened when you did? We invite you to share your stories – whether good or bad – in the comments section below so that Jewish communal professionals and volunteer leaders can hear directly from the people they seek to serve, and devise even better ways to meet your needs.
For too long, the subject of intermarriage has been dealt with in an unproductive manner. Arguments have typically been ruled by fear (it’s the greatest threat to the Jewish community, some often say), and millions of dollars are spent on convincing Jews to only marry other Jews. But, Yair S, a blogger for the website JewsbyChoice.org, believes that by approaching and talking about intermarriage in this way, we are missing the bigger picture: intermarried couples are just as capable of raising Jewish children and living a Jewish life. We simply need to create a community where they are supported and allowed to do so.
The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore has just released the preliminary findings of a new population study. While some if it seems positive (the number of Jewish households has grown in the last ten years), it also found we are lacking in one very substantial area. Only thirty percent of children in intermarried households, the study claims, are “being raised Jewish.”
In taking a deeper look at the number of intermarried households raising Jewish children, we see the numbers aren’t as troubling, but can still use some major improvements.
Recently we blogged about the increase of funding and interest from established Jewish organizations such as the Jewish Federations of North America in what we call Public Space Judaism. These organizations have finally recognized that the best way to meet and engage all those who are not affiliated with the Jewish community is by going to where they are and holding Jewish themed events in secular, public spaces. We often promote doing this around holidays like Passover or Hanukkah, when a majority of Jews, affiliated and unaffiliated, will be preparing to celebrate.
But a rabbi in Los Angeles decided that these events don’t need to be tethered to a holiday. For the past few months, Rabbi Dan Moskovitz has been holding Torah study sessions at a Whole Foods grocery store in Tarzana, “in the back near the bulk bins of nuts and trail mix.”
The editors of Heeb Magazine have gained a reputation for pushing the envelope of Jewish satire, often to a degree which many find offensive. Others see them as a hip, anti-establishment publication that serves as a critical voice of mainstream Jewish America. Whatever your opinion may be, they have never been afraid to take on serious issues in an edgy and provocative manner.
Recently, they introduced a new feature on their website that takes on the issues of Jewish diversity and identity in a uniquely straightforward way.
What do we want the Jewish community to look like in 2030? How can we ensure that the timeless messages embedded in the Jewish tradition continue to resonate for future generations?
These are some of the biggest questions facing the Jewish community today. From May 23-24 in New York City, the Jewish Outreach Institute will bring together forward-thinking visionaries with on-the-ground practitioners from organizations across denominational and institutional lines to grapple with these questions and more at Judaism2030: A Working Conference for a Vibrant Jewish Future. Registration is now open and we invite you to join us as we tackle big ideas, such as what it will mean to be Jewish in 20 years and how can we better position our organizations and institutions to best respond to the changing landscape of Jewish life?
This two-day conference will explore four broad themes of Jewish life: Spirituality, Belonging, Globalism, and Peoplehood. Through in-depth discussions between Jewish communal professionals and some of the leading thinkers in the Jewish community, conference attendees will determine the practical steps we can take to ensure that we remain a vibrant and positive force in the world. Together, we will discover just what is necessary for our optimistic vision of a flourishing Jewish community to come true.
We invite you to visit our new conference website, explore the schedule and reserve your space today. We look forward to seeing you there!
This weekend, we were horrified to read of the brutal and senseless attack in Tucson, AZ that left numerous people dead and wounded. The target of the attack, Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, is reportedly still in critical condition, and we – along with the rest of the nation – are praying for a full recovery.
We had the pleasure of meeting and working with Rep. Giffords in 2007, when she co-chaired, with Adam Bronfman, our North American Conference in Washington, D.C. She spoke eloquently about her experience as a child of intermarriage who came back to Judaism as an adult. In both her personal and political life, she took up Jewish causes and never shied away from her background as a Jew. Jewish newspapers include her religion in headlines about the shooting tragedy, never questioning her status as a member of our community.
The website Jewschool.com noticed the collective acceptance of Gifford’s Jewish background, and a blogger with the moniker Kung Fu Jew wishes this standard of acceptance were applied to all children of intermarriage who are involved in the Jewish community, not just the ones who are famous.
It’s no secret that synagogue and institutional membership is down in the Jewish community. Many Jewish communal leaders look at this trend and begin to wonder – if people, especially younger families, aren’t joining synagogues or other traditional centers of Jewish life, how are they leading Jewish lives? And more importantly, how can we still engage with these folks outside of Jewish institutions?
According to an article in the Forward, Jewish organizations have developed a “new” strategy. Instead of waiting for these unaffiliated families – many of whom are intermarried – to walk through their doors, they are instead holding programs in secular venues in an effort to lower barriers and increase points of access to Jewish life. The article doesn’t put a name on the strategy, but we can. We call it Public Space Judaism, and it’s been a cornerstone of our outreach methodology for years.
The two most celebrated holidays in the Jewish community are Hanukkah and Passover. Both are attractive to unaffiliated families and those on the periphery because they take place in the home, not the synagogue, and there is a lot of flexibility in how these holidays are celebrated. As we move from Hanukkah into the secular New Year, we also move closer to Passover. Though the holiday is still a few months away (it begins on the evening of April 18, 2011), we believe it’s never too early to start planning for your Passover celebration.
The interview, which you can watch on YouTube, is a great starting point for anyone who wants to not only understand the work we do, but also understand why we feel so strongly that being open and inclusive toward intermarried families is vital to our future as a Jewish community.
Among the thousands of interfaith marriages that occurred last year, one in particular sticks out: that of Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky. Everyone, including JOI, had something to say about the wedding and what it meant for the Jewish community. As always with intermarriage, some saw it as Marc marrying out, while others looked at is at Chelsea marrying in. We saw it as the latter. Marc has an amazing opportunity to share the value and meaning of Judaism and Jewish culture with not just his wife, but because of their celebrity, also with the entire nation. And with the level of interest by the secular media, interfaith couples across the world saw that they were not alone.
On the cusp of 2011, two other high profile interfaith relationships have been announced, and both have the potential to ignite similar media scrutiny and Jewish communal conversation.
The month of December, as almost any interfaith family will tell you, can be a tricky month to navigate. Whether holidays overlap or fall at opposite ends of the month – as Hanukkah and Christmas do this year – families still encounter sensitive issues of celebration. For intermarried families raising Jewish children, this time of year can be especially challenging. How can these families instill a strong Jewish identity while at the same time honoring the backgrounds of their non-Jewish family members?
This topic is big enough that it isn’t relegated to Jewish media, as every year there are numerous articles in the secular media about interfaith parenting during December.