Entries by Rachel Gross
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Earlier this summer, in between eating cheese curds and dodging moose as I drove around Wisconsin, I went back to a Jewish summer camp for the first time in almost 10 years. Why was I wandering around the Midwest, swatting at flies and drinking “bug-juice” by the pitcher?
As part of an ongoing partnership with the Foundation for Jewish Camp, a national organization that helps raise awareness and support for Jewish camps, the Jewish Outreach Institute spent time working hands-on with this organization to help camps reach all those on the periphery of the Jewish community. Currently, Jewish summer camps primarily attract and engage campers from families that are already engaged in Jewish life. The premise of the summer project is that Jewish camps can better reflect the contemporary diversity of the Jewish people, including the great number of intermarried families, Jews-of-color and others traditionally marginalized from the Jewish community. In addition to working with camp directors on marketing strategies to recruit campers from these underrepresented target populations, JOI program officers traveled to eleven different camps to train camp staff members on the importance of embracing Jewish diversity and providing a safe space for campers of all backgrounds. By helping these camps identify opportunities to grow to become more inclusive communities, we hope that camps will increase the number of new campers they welcome each summer.
The sessions were transformative opportunities for the counselors to reflect on how they welcome those of different backgrounds to camp, and by extension, to the Jewish community. And on a personal note, it was a privilege to spend time with the incredible staff at these camps and work with them to create even more welcoming and inclusive environments. As an alumna of the Goldman Union Camp Institute in Zionsville, IN a Reform Jewish summer camp, I know how magically empowering camp can be. I hope that our efforts this summer and the big steps these camps are taking will make the Jewish summer camp experience more accessible to all!
Earlier this summer, I spent a day with fellow adult children of intermarriage in Philadelphia at a conference called “Jews of ALL Hues.” Sponsored by Birthright NEXT and Interfaithways, the conference environment provided a safe space to share stories, examine issues and find common ground among the growing population of children—now adults—raised in an interfaith household, in particular, and the expanding diversity of the Jewish people, in general. But beyond my personal connection to the issue, learning from my peers’ experiences and the opportunity to build solidarity among other children of intermarriage—and others on the periphery—on behalf of JOI, excited me. I hoped their stories could inform our work as we advocate for greater inclusion and welcoming of them across North America.
My fellow participants were Jews-by-choice, Jews of color, Orthodox, Reform, Reconstructionist and everything in-between. At first glance, one could justifiably ask, “What on earth do all these people have in common?” By the time we finished sharing our personal stories and struggles in the Jewish community, we found few telling surprises. Mutual feelings of judgment or marginalization in the Jewish community or in our families were evidence of our common bond. Beyond sharing our personal approached to negotiating Jewish identity and practice, we discussed the intersecting issues of race, class, divorce, secularism and authenticity. (Julie Wiener wrote about her take on the conference for the New York Jewish Week.)
At JOI, our listserves provide a similar safe space, albeit virtual, for the sharing of personal stories. As the facilitator of some of them, I know very well the importance of providing safe spaces for conversation among groups with unique experiences (such as men and women who are Jews-by-choice, interfaith families and intermarried Jewish communal professionals). “Jews of ALL Hues” reminded me of the importance of sharing diverse experiences for the sake of creating a cohesive community. In cultivating these opportunities to talk about challenges we might face, we validate the experiences of individuals who struggle to negotiate their role in the Jewish community. Creating these empowering conversations shows that we value their journeys in diversity.
My hope is that the Jewish community continues to listen to these voices, hear these stories and learn from them to shape the future landscape of the American Jewish community. We at JOI look forward to working across denominational boundaries to shape change by providing curricula, safe spaces, resources, and training for adult children of intermarriage and others who feel they are on the periphery and for the communities they wish to join.
A recent article in the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) highlighted efforts by the Orthodox Union (OU) to provide services to the estimated 14,000 Jews in America who are deaf. This includes a National Jewish Deaf Singles Registry that produces a newsletter featuring personal ads by single deaf Jews. The OU’s initiative was a response to a perceived higher intermarriage rate among Jews who are deaf. Similar to GLBT Jews, this higher intermarriage rate is probably more of a reflection of simple demographics rather than anything else. If those who are deaf primarily socialize with others who are deaf, irrespective of whether or not they are Jewish, then they are more likely to find a life partner who is not Jewish.
But what should motivate our desire to reach out to this population should have nothing to do with their greater likelihood to intermarry. (And if they do intermarry, we should welcome them in, as we advocate for intermarried LGBT Jews, as well.) Inclusion has to mean more than the publication of a “singles” newsletter; inclusion must take a holistic approach to community life. We must break down the many barriers the deaf community faces regarding participation in Jewish life, beyond recognizing that one of the most central components of prayer in Jewish liturgy is the word “Sh’ma” (listen), as the article points out.
The OU has also responded to this need to break down barriers by creating educational materials and resources for Jewish holidays, including sign language supplements for the Passover Haggadah. Beyond the OU, there are other organizations that are working to build community among deaf Jews themselves while also ensuring that existing programs in the broader Jewish community are accessible to those with all levels of hearing impairment. Many steps have been taken to ensure the availability of interpreters at Jewish events and that hearing impaired Jews have access to a wide range of services and organizations.
As part of our Big Tent Judaism initiative, we at JOI recommend that you highlight in all of your publications how your organization is including those with hearing impairments, especially those publications that reach individuals on the periphery of the Jewish community.
As we continue to create a Big Tent Judaism community, what additional opportunities are there in your community to include Jews who are hearing impaired? What steps has your community taken to include Jews who are deaf in all areas of Jewish life?
We often blog and write about the importance of offering “free samples” of Jewish life. We think it is so important, that we even made it one of the Ten Principles of the Big Tent Judaism Coalition. Usually we talk about this in terms of free High Holiday tickets, discounts on membership, and other goods and services. But what if everything were free? Moving away from dues-based engagement in Jewish organizations is a big step, and one California group took the plunge. Cognizant of the fact that most area Jews are unengaged by the Jewish community, Rabbi Naomi Levy founded Nashuva, a Los Angeles Jewish community—not a congregation, she’s quick to point out.
She began the community in 2004 with monthly Friday evening Shabbat services in area churches who generously shared their space with Nashuva. She also developed social actions projects to rally people together. Today, there is no “membership” and, therefore, no dues to join Nashuva. Revenue instead is based on the free-will contributions of those who participate. Nashuva is also not affiliated with a particular Jewish religious stream, so everyone is welcome. Individual approaches and levels of observance are irrelevant. But the barriers Nashuva transcends don’t end there. Levy’s online High Holiday services impacted on nearly 200,000 viewers from around the world—proving that the internet can be a powerful tool for connecting to Jewish community.
One area Nashuva is still negotiating is intermarried families—who are invited to become part of the community. However, the question of bar and bat mitzvah for children of non-Jewish mothers has raised some questions for Levy, who was trained as a Conservative rabbi. Nashuva is considering an interesting approach—the creation of a pluralistic umbrella with connections to rabbis of various religious streams who would be comfortable taking on responsibilities for life cycle events for families with whom they are comfortable.
Nashuva is a work in progress, but with hundreds of people attending an average Nashuva Friday night service, it’s clear that many are interested in its low-barrier approach to Jewish community life. We at JOI are excited to see how Nashuva continues to develop its approach to what we at JOI call Big Tent Judaism.
Congregation Neve Shalom of Metuchen, New Jersey welcomed Max Rubin with open arms to its pre-school. While his cerebral palsy may have forecast a host of challenges for some school administrators, Neve Shalom saw an amazing opportunity.
A recent article in the New Jersey Jewish News describes how Max’s parents doubted Neve Shalom would be able to accommodate his needs, but the synagogue rose to the occasion and never said, “no.” From hiring a personal aide to resurfacing the playground, the synagogue worked tirelessly to create a welcoming Jewish educational experience for all, including Max. In the end, with Max graduating shortly, Neve Shalom recognized that everyone benefitted from his presence. As Nursery School Director Martha Mack stated:
“When we first started we thought this would only benefit Max, who is a typical kid—bright, funny, a real all-star. What we didn’t realize is what it would do for us, his classmates, his peers. Max truly gave us a gift—the gift of inclusion.”
Our hope is that Jewish organizations across the country can appreciate the impact of inclusion—that welcoming all and lowering barriers to participation by accommodating specific needs can benefit everyone. Max’s parents hope that many others can learn from Neve Shalom’s example. In honor of his graduation from Nursery School, his parents hired a team of professional film-makers to create a short film documenting the community’s efforts toward inclusion. “Saying Yes: The Story of Max Rubin” premiered last week and will hopefully serve as inspiration for schools and organizations everywhere to say “Yes.”
We at JOI love the idea of sharing steps towards inclusion with colleagues at other organizations. If you’re interested in sharing your success story “welcoming all” or learning from the triumphs of others, we invite you to join the Big Tent Judaism Coalition of nearly 300 organizations committed to greater inclusiveness.
The mechitzah, the separation barrier erected in traditional synagogues between men and women during prayer services, symbolizes the gender norms that once permeated Jewish life. While the mechitzah still plays an important spiritual role in the context of prayer for many traditional synagogues, many no longer maintain this division. Even those who do not embrace the mechitzah still maintain a gender binary that excludes many who wish to be full contributors to the organized Jewish community. The organization Kol Tzedek (which means Voice of Justice) authored a recent report on Transgender Inclusion in the Bay Area and notes:
The strength of gender norms and our community’s discomfort with the violation of those norms has frequently hindered transgender people from taking the first step toward participating in the life of the community.
In the past few years many public and noble subversions of these gender norms have occurred—which JOI believes the Jewish community is all the better for (including TransTorah which we previously blogged about). But Kol Tzedek points out that many areas are left for improvement. Empowering and fully embracing transgender people in the Jewish community is imperative —even in San Francisco, a city with a history of embracing gender diversity.
Kol Tzedek recommends to the Bay Area Jewish community a number of action steps, many of which JOI implements in regard to the inclusion of intermarried families: Organizational audits (much like JOI’s Environmental Scans), educational curriculum, community forums (like JOPLIN and Empowering Ruth) and safe spaces for the exploration and articulation of “a uniquely Jewish trans/gender ethic and experience.”
Furthermore, Kol Tzedek recommends the “inclusion of transgender outreach to interfaith families and conversion efforts.” We at JOI are excited to explore the intersection of transgender social justice and inclusion and engagement of interfaith families. Both subvert the antiquated social norms and boundaries which we believe keep the Jewish community from growing more vibrant.
In that vein, educate yourself! Below the jump find a review of some commonly misunderstood words in the Genderqueer (like this one!) lexicon*:
Why might a certain group of ancient Israelites wandering through the desert make the Passover offering on the 14th of Iyar instead of the 14th of Nisan (the day of the Exodus from Egypt)? I thought you’d never ask! And in the answer, we get an important reminder that the grassroots struggle for inclusion is biblically rooted.
The answer is Pesach Sheni, or Second Passover. This holiday, which is marked on the calendar one month later, was created as a way for Israelites who had were unable to participate in the Passover sacrifice in the ancient Temple for a variety of reasons could finally do so. The reason might have been that they were away on a journey or that they were ritually and therefore temporarily prohibited from making the Passover sacrifice. This “minority” demanded the right to fulfill this important Passover mitzvah in some way and God answered (through Moses), by providing a designated time, the 14th of Iyar (which fell on May 8th this year), for the group to fulfill the mitzvah.
Tirtzah, an online community of self-identifying frum (religiously observant) queer women, featured a guest blog about the Second Passover, relating it to their own struggle for equality in Jewish ritual and practice. Dina Berman and Tamar Gan-Zvi Bick write that Pesach Sheni is a divinely sanctioned opportunity to provide new solutions and rituals for inclusion for many groups—from gay men to single women. In their interpretation, this biblical effort to include an otherwise excluded minority encourages the ritual empowerment of marginalized populations.
JOI is excited to be a part of this biblical tradition, hearing the voices of those marginalized from our communities and reclaiming Jewish ritual on behalf of those unnecessarily excluded. New rituals for those who have been historically unwelcomed enrich our community, rather than degrade it. The Big Tent Judaism Coalition’s recent “Fifth Cup of Wine for the Newcomer” is one contemporary example. Let Pesach Sheini serve as a reminder to continue thinking “outside the box.” Reclaiming Jewish life cycle events and ritual activities is a powerful way to include all who are on the periphery of the Jewish community.
Most research leads to some conclusions - but more often than not it just points to more questions requiring exploration and research. Just this week, the Pew Forum released a follow-up study to its 2007 “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey.” The survey painted a broad picture of current religious affiliation rates and raised many questions about the changing religious behaviors of Americans. It also shed light on the great number of individuals who change religious affiliation over the life course.
“Faith in Flux,” analyzes this religious fluidity amongst a sample of Catholics and Protestants. We learn what influences those who are unaffiliated, and that affiliation is fluid in itself. The study states:
The unaffiliated have one of the lowest retention rates of any of the major religious groups, with most people who were raised unaffiliated now belonging to one religion or another.
The study provides a glimpse into why some leave the faiths in which they are raised and become unaffiliated. Among other things is the lack of belief in teachings or a religious establishment that is perceived as money or power driven. We also learn what influences those who eventually re-affiliate or affiliate for the first time (if they were raised unaffiliated):
Those who leave the ranks of the unaffiliated cite several reasons for joining a faith, such as the attraction of religious services and styles of worship (74%), having been spiritually unfulfilled while unaffiliated (51%) or feeling called by God (55%).
The major theme that unaffiliation is neither a permanent identity nor a monolithic group of people reinforces the importance of both lowering barriers and not making assumptions about the experiences or beliefs of those on the periphery of organized religious communities. Those who are unaffiliated have valid, diverse experiences and may place a high importance on religion - but meaningful (and plentiful) entry points are necessary! The question still remains whether conclusions about other religious groups’ behaviors are applicable to the Jewish community.
However, the study’s implications for our understanding of religious patterns in America validate JOI and many others’ work of creating a more welcoming and dynamic Jewish community. The Big Tent Judaism Coalition, for instance, encourages organizations to provide free, innovative, and meaningful resources to those who are unaffiliated or find themselves newly a part of the Jewish community. Consumers can find all this information online, making Judaism more “user friendly.” This proactive hospitality is the kind of thing that will make unaffiliated members of the community feel more comfortable, more welcome and more inclined to participate.
JOI has learned that just as religious behavior increasingly transcends the boundaries of religious life, so too should the Jewish community’s offerings reach beyond the barriers of our institutions to meet people where they are physically and metaphysically.
Whether Jews-by-Choice, or women of other religious backgrounds raising Jewish children, JOI’s methods for outreach recognize the growing rates of unaffiliation and religious ‘flux’ in America as an opportunity rather than a problem.
Never forget your place in the Haggadah again…OR the importance of welcoming all!
“During Passover, it’s a tradition to open our doors and welcome the stranger to our Seder table,” says Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky. “Just as we were once strangers in Egypt, it’s our obligation to include the newcomer and all those on the margins of the Jewish community. But it shouldn’t be limited to Passover. At a time when we welcome guests into our home, we must remember to do the same 365 days a year at our communal institutions.”
To drive home this statement, several weeks ago, member organizations of the Big Tent Judaism Coalition received a one-page, color PDF document containing six bookmarks per page called “A Fifth Cup for Inclusion” with a message welcoming newcomers that can be printed or distributed electronically. It is just one more way the Big Tent Judaism Coalition is advocating for greater inclusion in the Jewish community. The PDF is now available for download by the general public. We encourage you to download, print it, and use it at your Seder—and pass it along to anyone else who might be interested.
At JOI, when we talk about the importance of inclusive language, it usually relates to our use of Hebrew and Yiddish words, organization acronyms and other terms that often go unexplained. When used, they create an expectation of Jewish background and knowledge. But the importance of inclusive language goes even deeper than translating Hebrew, or not referring to those of other religious backgrounds as “goyim.” If somebody doesn’t know what the terms mean, they might feel left out, like they are an outsider. A recent New York Post article about real estate, of all things, brought this point home.
New York City real estate firm Corcoran recently banned the use of over 200 words including, “family friendly,” “professional,” and “walking” in apartment advertisements. While these words are often used to sell apartments and give a sense of value, they can also unintentionally alienate and discriminate potential buyers. Family-friendly building? Does that mean singles aren’t welcome? Not necessarily, but the marketing of a building as such could raise a perceptual barrier for those browsing the classified section.
These same perceptual barriers exist in the organized Jewish community. This article reminds us that many of the words we readily incorporate into our marketing to paint the value of a specific program or offering, make implicit - or explicit - assumptions about who the organized Jewish community and its offerings are for. While JOI definitely advocates for identifying target audiences for program offerings (families with young children for instance), it is important to keep in mind the unintentional consequences of language in all materials, and always remember to welcome all!
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.
The Big Tent Judaism Coalition, which launched a little over a year ago, has already grown to include 250 organizations that span North America and the world. They represent the increasing number of individuals and institutions that are committed to creating a more inclusive and welcoming Jewish community for interfaith families and everyone else choosing to cast their lot with the Jewish people.
To help bring this network of organizations together, we have created a monthly newsletter called the “Voices of Big Tent Judaism.” This will provide a place for all those interested in building this movement for welcoming to receive resources from JOI, share best practices and successful programs, and learn from peers working across the country.
This month’s newsletter features: best practices for Celebrating Diversity (in honor of Black History Month), tips on LGBT Inclusion from Jewish Mosaic Executive Director Gregg Drinkwater, and highlights of one synagogue’s attempt to break a little known Guiness World Record. Get the full scoop on everything here!
Not a member of Big Tent Judaism? I invite you to click here to learn more and join the coalition.
The month of February marks many things; Black History Month, President’s Day and a certain love-filled holiday made highly profitable by Hallmark and Godiva.
This year, many in the American Jewish community also recognize February as Jewish Disability Awareness Month. While over 30 Washington D.C. area synagogues have observed this event for the past 8 years, 2009 marks the first time it’s being recognized on a national level. This movement is a great step towards inclusion and welcoming for those with special needs inside of—or excluded from—our communities.
Jewish Disabilities Awareness Month, a collaborative effort of many national and local Jewish organizations, works to raise awareness about the physical and perceptual barriers erected for those with disabilities within our organizations. In addition to advocacy, many resources are available to those hoping to tear down these barriers to Jewish engagement for those with special needs.
JOI applauds these efforts to welcome all who cast their lot with the Jewish people. To find out more about this initiative and to download a Disability Awareness Month Resource packet, check out the Partnership for Jewish Life and Learning’s website.
After the month of February, if you want to learn more about how to make your organization inclusive of those with special needs, join us at JOI’s North American conference in Philadelphia from June 7-9, 2009. Limor Hartmann, who runs the D.C. area’s Shalom BBYO program for teens with special needs, will share about Shalom BBYO and best practices for all!
In a recent op-ed in the JTA just in time for Martin Luther King Day, Edmon J. Rodman calls for a “’devar acher,’ a fresh look at our relationship with the black community and how we welcome others into our own.”
Rodman goes on to recommend that we establish a “Yom Ger,” a day of welcoming the stranger. While we appreciate the sentiment, we at JOI hope that this imperative is never limited to a 24 hour period. Martin Luther King Jr. Day commemorates the life of a civil rights hero, though to create change we could never limit our work for civil rights and against cultural and institutional racism to that day.
Rather, our work is a year-round, life-long, community wide (including those who identify as members of both the black and Jewish community) drive for change. Everyone who identifies with the Jewish people helps create a patchwork. It’s imperative for our strength in both numbers and identity that welcome and acknowledge each individual as an equal contribution to the Jewish community and embrace the inherent diversity of all those who cast their lot with our own.
Rodman draws on an ancient call to action to make his point,
“Jewish tradition drives home more than any other concept that we welcome and befriend the ger, the stranger — those not of our faith or community. As it is says in Deuteronomy, “You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in Egypt.”
So, we are reminded of a two fold task as we celebrate the leadership of Dr. King: We must embrace—not merely tolerate—our differences, whether we find them inside or outside of the Jewish community.
Throughout the 20th century, barriers created in the Jewish community due to gender have been lowered or eliminated. Many congregations and institutions across the Jewish spectrum have created dynamic egalitarian environments that allow both men and women to operate on equal footing both spiritually and civically. Normative gender roles have been redefined and re-imagined.
However, the Jewish Community—and American society at large—is currently confronting the important issue of those who fall outside our gender norms of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ as determined by anatomy and external organs. A recent article by Rebecca Spence of The Forward highlighted this new focus on creating an environment welcoming to transgender individuals—and all.
Rabbi Elliot Kukla, a transgender Reform Rabbi based in San Francisco, spoke about the issue at a recent West Coast regional conference of Reform rabbis. He said that he is proud of the recent shift he has seen in the acceptance of transgendered Jews:
“I’m so amazed at the old ladies who will turn to their friends and say, ‘Did you meet the nice, young transgender rabbi?’” Kukla said. “Some of that is San Francisco, but that conversation would never have happened a few years ago.”
The number of innovative projects actively advocating for this new awareness and appreciation of the inclusion of transgender individuals has “increased to a level never seen before,” according to the article (Details on these programs are below the jump). It’s another step towards creating a Jewish community that is open to all who approach, and we are glad to see a growing number of people who are beginning to address this issue.
All too often, intermarried Jewish professionals face overt prejudice, an unacknowledged glass ceiling, and couched criticisms that make them self-conscious in their capacity as Jewish role models for children, young adults and seniors alike. Others see their experience as an asset as they relate to diverse groups.
The Jewish Outreach Institute is launching an email discussion forum for intermarried/inter-partnered Jewish communal professionals who wish to discuss the workplace dynamics of being in an interfaith relationship. JOI is acknowledging their unique struggles enriching the Jewish community amidst judgment and inequity by creating an online discussion forum exclusively for intermarried Jewish professionals.
By providing a platform for intermarried Jewish professionals to share their experiences and find support in one another, it is JOI’s hope that awareness about this issue will grow and professionals will feel at ease identifying as intermarried in the workplace.
This listserve will provide a place for them to discuss their experiences, find solidarity, support and seek or provide advice.
We invite you to join the conversation! If your spouse or partner is of another religious background and you identify as a Jewish professional, email Rachel Gross.
Hundreds are already participating in other JOI listserves that support those in the context of intermarriage. JOI’s longest running forum, The Mothers Circle supports over 400 women of other religious backgrounds raising Jewish children. Mothers discuss their diverse but shared experiences relating to in-law relationships, teaching children about Jewish holidays and maintaining their own heritage. Many express that the listserve community has empowered them as they raise Jewish children and provided them with concrete tools to do so.
Now that Hanukkah is over you probably hope nobody puts another potato pancake or jelly donut in front of you for at least a year.
But we’ll always have another Jewishly-gastronomic event around the corner, and it is important to remember that just as Hanukkah is a time to ‘come out’ of whatever closet you’re in, it is also a time to uncover the diversity of Jewish food.
Jewish food can’t be reduced to kugel and matzo balls, just like Jews don’t all look alike or come from the same place. Never has this been clearer than during Hanukkah. That’s why the “Two Saucy Chicks” of Join Us at the Table, a blogtalkradio.com show, invited JOI to join them last week and share the cultural traditions of Hanukkah and the many edible delights individuals eat in observance of the holiday.
And this year we heard some great new recipes. On our various free listserves, including Mothers Circle and Empowering Ruth, people shared all sorts of colorful versions of traditional food for this holiday – from gingerbread dreidels to green chili latkes.
Click here to listen to me talk about some surprise Hanukkah foods (my segment starts about 16 minutes in) and hear why THIS vegetarian prefers the fried foods of Hanukkah to any other holiday.
Still considering how you’re going to celebrate Hanukkah this year? Does your new diet force you to look beyond latkes (fried potato pancakes) and other oil-saturated delicacies?
Well, Jay Michaelson, editor of Zeek: a Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture, suggests another way to enjoy the 8-Day celebration of Hanukkah: “Come out!”
Writing in The Forward, Michaelson reflects on his own personal struggle coming out as a gay and observant Jew, and he also understands that there are many others on the periphery whose differences are not celebrated but merely tolerated. The holiday season makes this ever more apparent; with Christmas front and center, some in the Jewish community might be inclined to just, “put on the dumb red hat and wait until it’s over.” Michaelson writes:
To celebrate Hanukkah today is thus a form of coming out: admitting difference, recognizing that one is not the same as everyone else and, hopefully, celebrating the unique gifts that being different offers.
Michaelson draws the connection between Jews who defied Hellenism by not conforming (read: assimilating) and the modern-day imperative to embrace difference, be true to one’s self and “come out.”
Stop repressing and stop equivocating. Whatever closet you’re hiding in, whether it’s sexual, religious, professional, cultural, or just plain dull and repressive, light the Hanukkah candles (or don’t!), celebrate nonconformity — and, for God’s sake and yours, come out, please, wherever you are.
For some of us this might mean more publicly celebrating Hanukkah—putting that electric menorah in the window and inviting friends (non-Jewish and Jewish) to a feast of latkes—or embracing our personal differences within the Jewish community and the world at-large.
There is a LONG history of asking questions in the Jewish community. This practice is encouraged because you can’t find answers without asking lots of questions. This holds true in both the study of religious texts and in everyday life. Besides the ancient tradition of Jewish legal discourse, contemporary sources - such as the Jewish Daily Forward’s Bintel Brief (now the Bintel Blog) - encourage people to be as inquisitive as possible.
So it came as no surprise when we at JOI stumbled upon Rabbi Ari Vernon’s advice column on the Jewish Federation of St. Louis’ website. Readers submit questions anonymously on any topic and “Rabbi Ari” will answer.
One recent questioner inquired about interfaith dating – specifically, how to handle a close friend’s serious relationship with a non-Jewish woman. The writer loved “Alice,” but what to do about the fact that she wasn’t Jewish? According to the inquirer’s upbringing this was unacceptable!
With the social reality of intermarriage, many find themselves in a similar quandary. Rabbi Ari had some advice that hit the nail on the head; you care about your friend and you don’t want to lose the relationship. Considering that there is nothing you can do to stop their relationship, disapproving words may in fact cause you to loose your friend. Instead, approach the situation delicately and open the door to conversation – don’t close it.
This, Rabbi Ari continues, is also the best way for the Jewish community to take on the issue:
None of the barriers erected against intermarriage have had any meaningful effect on the trends. Jews have simply switched their affiliation to congregations, rabbis and communities who accept their choice or have left the Jewish community altogether. Jews are going to date and marry non-Jews, because we live in and embrace an open and accepting society and people are comfortable and even encouraged to cross ethnic and cultural barriers.
We at JOI couldn’t agree more. Instead of “erecting barriers” to those who intermarry, we should open the conversation and increase points of access for engagement.
Just like a relationship with a friend, the Jewish community must look to the future and consider how to maintain relationships with interfaith families rather than leave them behind.
JOI Senior Program Officer Eva Stern received an interesting call a few months ago from KAM Isaiah Israel synagogue in Chicago, Illinois.
What for? Well, KAM Isaiah Israel is conveniently located within earshot of now President Elect-Barack Obama’s Hyde Park residence. KAM Isaiah was confronted with the challenge of maintaining a welcoming, inclusive disposition in the face of security barriers, check-points and Secret Service agents littering their ‘welcome mat.’
According to a recent article in Haaretz, congregants expressed feeling overjoyed by the fact that their neighbor, and a person of color, was elected President. The article quotes one congregant, who remarked on the historic congregation’s memory of the struggle for civil rights in this urban area:
“I’ve been channeling my parents lately, because 50 years ago, this was the dream,” said Roberta Siegel, an active KAM-II member whose father was the president of Isaiah Israel in the 1950s.
So, while the congregation didn’t view this extraordinary security issue as a gross inconvenience, they knew that they needed to go out of their way to maintain a welcoming presence for newcomers and members alike.
Rabbi Kerry Olitzky of JOI and Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, CA recently co-wrote a compelling op-ed about balancing inclusion with increased security measures at the High Holidays. But many congregations face security challenges year-round. Not necessarily the unique situation KAM Isaiah Israel finds itself in, but nonetheless many congregations are aware of the need to increase their welcoming presence beyond security barriers and guards that are all necessary to ensure the safety of the congregation. An inviting welcoming sign and a walk through of any security measures in place at your location on your organization’s website can ensure that newcomers feel comfortable, too.
What does your organization do to promote welcoming and balance the presence of security?