Entries by Rachel Gross
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If I recall my teenage youth group memories correctly, what comes to mind is certainly not a bastion of tolerance for difference.
Maybe it was just adolescent growing pains and hormones, or my super awkward stage falling victim to the teasing of the “cool kids,” but I definitely remember dreading some “pizza drop-ins” as much as my weekly visits to the orthodontist.
For kids with special needs, youth groups can be even more exclusionary. A lack of physically accessible programs and social environments welcoming of those with developmental challenges or physical differences can inhibit engagement. But the Jewish youth group BBYO is working hard to change all that. In a recent article in the Washington Jewish Week, we learned that the DC chapter of BBYO is kicking off what they are calling the Kol Echad Youth (KEY) program.
Kol Echad Youth (Kol Echad in Hebrew means One Voice)’s goal is, “fostering personal growth, promoting acceptance and broadening social opportunities for Jewish teens across the community.”
The beautiful thing about BBYO’s program is that, as with all BBYO’s chapters, the groups are teen led. KEY empowers teens to reach out to their differently-abled peers and build bridges to create a community inclusive of all and embracing of difference. In preparation for the kick-off, 19 teens participated in sensitivity training to gain insight into the learning and physical differences their peers may have.
To take it one step further, KEY is open to any teen, with no requirement of BBYO membership.
One BBYO alumnus who brings his 16 year-old son to the chapter said, “To be able to bring [Ben] here with other kids is a mitzvah [good deed or commandment] on so many levels.”
I hope that this initiative by BBYO, a Big Tent Judaism Coalition member, can serve as an example for youth groups and organizations nationwide. Take a moment to consider if YOUR group’s programs are accessible for teens who are differently-abled, whether they are already engaged or potential newcomers. What can you do to make that rock climbing/ice-skating/laser-tag event open to all? How can you sensitize all teens that you engage with to embrace the differences of their peers, no matter how apparent those differences may be?
On November 4, 2008, most were focused on the monumental election of our nation’s first President of color, Barack Obama. Obama’s ascension to America’s highest office represented a transformative shift in culture and society that will change our country for generations to come.
As I danced in the streets outside my apartment with strangers who set their politics aside to recognize the historic occasion, I quickly forgot about the number of ballot measures weighing in on the rights of some American citizens to marry whom they please.
Last Tuesday, California joined Florida and Arizona in passing ballot measures that declared same-sex marriage unconstitutional in the states’ constitutions.
Much of the media glare focused on the mobilization of evangelical Christian and Mormon organizations who worked to pass the ban. And the projectmarriage.com website includes a testimonial from an Orthodox Rabbi in favor of Proposition 8. But not all religious leaders joined the campaign to pass Prop 8. A number of rabbis and lay leaders leveraged their positions to advocate for the rights of gay and lesbian couples.
Jewish organizations and individuals alike formed a cohesive movement in parts of California to oppose the ban and state clearly that the LGBT community deserves equal rights in the eyes of the law and society. While the ban eventually passed in California, the JTA reports that Jews in Los Angeles voted overwhelmingly (78%) against the ban.
Despite this defeat, I hope that the Jewish community continues to advocate for inclusiveness and equal rights both in the secular world and the Jewish community itself. We can take this moment to look inside the community at our policies, our attitudes and our actions to consider whether or not we welcome all as equal stakeholders in our community.
As the Big Tent Judaism coalition principles state, we must “Leave behind assumptions about what Jews ‘look like’, or how families are configured and welcome all.”
Once we reach that point, then I’ll really be dancing in the streets!
Anyone walking up Broadway in New York City this past Friday was sure to turn their heads at the impromptu “Parks” set up along the roadway. Park(ing) Day, first held in San Francisco, is a national initiative taking over roadways and reclaiming them as public space one parking spot at a time. Activists, artists and others can sign up for a parking spot and turn it into a “Park” for one day only. The idea being that 70% of outdoor space in cities is monopolized by motorized vehicles. “Imagine what you can do in a space usually dedicated to private vehicle storage,” challenges Park(ing) Day’s organizers. 15 such parks dotted the NYC landscape last Friday, including two sponsored by Jewish organizations who knew EXACTLY what they could do with a mere 10×20 plot of land: engage with people where they are!
Exemplifying JOI’s Public Space JudaismSM model and outreach best practices, Congregation Bnai Jeshurun and Hazon—the national Jewish environmental organization–set up shop on their plot of asphalt far away from their own institution’s buildings. Hazon staff enjoyed the crisp fall day inviting passersby to dip apples in honey, and enjoy a respite in their “park,” which prominently featured a Shabbat table set with Challah, candlesticks and bright flowers.
I enjoyed the later part of my Friday afternoon eating local apples and honey and engaging with folks from many religious backgrounds. While many just wanted to know what on earth we were doing in the “middle” of the street, others enjoyed learning about apples and honey and the items dotting the Shabbat table. Park(ing) Day created a great opportunity for an accessible outdoor experience for all—Jewish or not.
While Park(ing) Day may not be in your city yet, every community provides an opportunity for engaging individuals where they are: street fairs, festivals and even a busy Sunday at your local grocer. Public Space JudaismSM advocates secular partnerships to create welcoming, low barrier opportunities for engagement to meet those on the periphery of the Jewish community ”where they’re at.” All those who implement the Public Space JudaismSM model, like Bnai Jeshurun and Hazon, can continue to deepen Jewish engagement and create a more welcoming community by following up with those who stopped by through emails or phone calls - extending their reach and their community beyond the parking space or the street fair.
Embracing diversity in the North American Jewish community is not limited to the inclusion of Jews-by-Choice, intermarried families, and Jews of Color. Truly embracing diversity also entails recognizing the diversity of those raising Jewish children who are not Jewish themselves.
Just like Jews, those from other religious backgrounds who are a part of the extended Jewish family—whether raising Jewish children, married to a Jewish partner or otherwise— represent a diverse constituency. An earlier post highlighted the rumors about a trend towards Catholic-Jewish intermarriages. Most make the assumption that if you aren’t Jewish, you’re probably Christian or from a similar religious background—assuming these individuals have a cherished religious background at all.
The Mothers Circle facilitator Kit Haspel of Providence, RI was recently interviewed by the Warwick Beacon in an article about the important work of The Mothers Circle to support interfaith families in the area. Kit made sure to note that interested mothers have come from a vibrant patchwork of backgrounds: Catholic, Buddhist and those professing no religion at all. She emphasizes that the thread tying them together is their commitment to raise children steeped in Jewish community, culture and life.
We at JOI do our best to use inclusive language to recognize the diversity of all those from other religious backgrounds that are raising Jewish children. Hopefully we as a North American Jewish community can continue these efforts through the content of our language and our programs, such as The Mothers Circle or The Grandparents Circle (for grandparents of interfaith grandchildren). As our community grows more diverse, maybe one day instead of just focusing on the Christmas tree, we’ll be adding Ramadan to the topic of those December dilemma conversations.
My best friend throughout high school and college was Catholic. We understood one another and our family traditions well. Her mother buried a saint figurine upside down in the backyard when they were trying to sell their house. My family sat in a tent in our family room for hours reading the Passover Haggadah, throwing plastic locusts at one another at the right time. We both understood the power and importance of ritual and traditions, even the most obscure and eccentric.
Knowing my own ‘Jewish-Catholic’ connection, I was excited to read Julie Weiner’s recent article titled “The Jewish-Catholic Connection” in The Jewish Week. Weiner notes her own social circle as anecdotal evidence for a high percentage of Jewish-Catholic marriages, including her own marriage to Joe, a “lapsed Catholic.” Weiner also talks to Suzette Cohen, a longtime Mothers Circle facilitator in Atlanta, who says that nearly 60 percent of the mothers in her circle are Catholic. Our own research at JOI puts the number somewhere around 40 percent, still a remarkably high number. Weiner has an interesting hypothesis for this connection:
As I’ve learned more about both Judaism and Catholicism, I see many parallels in the two religions, which — in contrast to Protestantism — both emphasize ritual and good deeds over faith and communal worship over a personal relationship with God. While the two are in many ways poles apart, both tend to place a high premium on the obligation of individuals and government to help the poor. And as Joe often notes on Shabbat, Jewish and Catholic rituals may differ in their meaning and symbolism, but they share common elements: candles, bread and wine. Both also employ sacred languages and, just as the Reform movement, which once eliminated most Hebrew from worship, has reintroduced it, the Catholic Church has in recent years brought back some Latin.
Weiner goes on to put this percentage of Catholic mothers engaged with The Mothers Circle in perspective in her article by discussing the work of Rabbi Arthur Blecher:
In his recent book, “The New American Judaism: The Way Forward on Challenging Issues From Intermarriage to Jewish Identity” (Palgrave Macmillan), Rabbi Arthur Blecher notes that in the approximately 1,000 Washington, D.C.-area interfaith couples he has interviewed in the past two decades, slightly more than half of the gentile spouses were Catholic. “It made no difference whether a man or woman was the Jewish partner,” he writes, adding later that Jews and Catholics share a “social affinity.”
Over half the non-Jewish spouses in an interfaith marriage were Catholic, despite “the fact that American Protestants outnumber American Catholics nearly 2 to 1.” While the numbers are certainly interesting, Weiner admits there is little hard data on the Jewish-Catholic connection — but it’s still a trend worth noting. And we’re glad The Mothers Circle continues to be an outlet for those Catholic mothers seeking to raise their children Jewish, and we will continue working earnestly to ensure that this significant population is welcomed with open arms into the Jewish community, along with all other families raising Jewish children.
With summer in full swing, planning for The Mothers Circle is moving forward rapidly in communities across North America, with at least a dozen communities set to launch The Mothers Circle course for the first time in the fall. An eight month, 16 session educational experience, the course brings together mothers from other religious backgrounds raising Jewish children. The moms have an opportunity to learn about everything from Jewish values and parenting to how to bring Shabbat into their home.
The Washington D.C. Jewish community is fully participating in this Mothers Circle boom by providing support for seven courses in the Greater D.C. area, including Maryland and Northern Virginia. Washington Hebrew Congregation is running the program independently, and the other six circles are part of a larger Jewish Federation initiative to engage those on the periphery of the community, most notably, intermarried families. Jennifer Scher of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington explained:
“The Engagement Implementation Plan, approved by the Federation Board last year, focuses on three key target markets - young professionals, families with young children and interfaith families, with a particular focus to bring services to under-served areas. Because the goals of the Mothers/Parents Circle are so closely aligned with the Federation’s engagement goals and because it has demonstrated success in other communities, Mothers/Parents Circle was identified as a high priority Engagement program.”
While I am excited by this outpouring of enthusiasm for The Mothers Circle, I have been even more inspired by the collaboration of communal agencies, done in the name of making Washington D.C. as welcoming and inclusive as possible. The Jewish Federation’s engagement goals, in particular The Mothers Circle program, are providing an incredible outlet for community collaboration. Those agencies organizing The Mothers Circle are coordinating marketing, meeting times, location and community family events. Ultimately the creation of these partnerships will ensure the success of each individual organization, while also ensuring a welcoming community. When organizations link arms in an effort to create a more inclusive community, they have a much better chance of truly embracing all those on the periphery.
The title of an Atlanta Journal article, “Judaism Drawing More Black Americans,” caught our eye a few weeks ago for a variety of reasons. Rachel Pomerance’s article highlights the growing number of Black American Jews-by-choice and the ensuing need for increased Jewish communal inclusivity, which JOI is cognizant of as evidenced in our Big Tent Judaism Coalition. The article explores the various reasons Black Americans are drawn to Judaism – which for some is a spiritual journey, but for others it’s returning to their roots.
In the article, Gary Tobin of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research (an organization that studies the demography of the Jewish people) cites three reasons for the growing numbers: religious identity is increasingly fluid across the American landscape (as recently illustrated by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life survey); the Internet makes information much more accessible; and the rise in interracial intermarriage, which has led to more multicultural families and communities.
While these points infer a growing sense of religious and cultural ‘mobility’ resulting in conversions to different faiths, Pomerance also writes about a population that throughout history was often marginalized and questioned in their own right - Jews of Color who were born and raised Jewish.
Lewis Gordon, founder of Afro-Jewish Studies at Temple University, says this population was “swept up in the tides of racism in scholarship and institutions” that saw Jews as exclusively white. He describes a history of segregated congregations and private observance amongst Black Jews due to exclusivity in the broader (white) Jewish community. But, according to Gordon, times have changed:
“There have always been communities of either black people who are already Jewish or black people considering coming to Judaism. What is different is that institutional structures are changing,” he said. “There is an increased effort to create a welcoming environment for them.”
Gordon speculates that as many as 1 million black people in the United States have Jewish roots, among them African-Americans, African and Caribbean immigrants and Afro-Latinos.
Which is why Gordon thinks that, among the rising numbers of black Americans coming to Judaism, some of them are simply returning to it.
So, while there may be increasing religious ‘mobility’ contributing to more black Americans being drawn to (or returning to) Judaism, Gordon says that these groups have been a fixture in Jewish history. It’s only now that they are starting to be embraced by the broader Jewish community.
And that, we think, is a wonderful thing. Through a variety of initiatives including the Big Tent Judaism Coalition, which serves as an advocate for newcomers, intermarried families and others on the periphery, JOI is proud to be a part of this movement towards a diverse, inclusive and more dynamic North American Jewish community.
For many people, summer means great weather and a tendency to spend as much time as possible outdoors. That’s good for us because outdoor activities provide amazing opportunities for engaging Jews on the periphery. One of our Big Tent Judaism Coalition members, Hazon (Vision), is taking full advantage of the summer weather by providing low barrier outdoor activities that engage, educate and empower the Jewish community. Hazon’s activities include bike rides and hikes in the U.S. and Israel, and encouragement of Jewish environmentalism and sustainable living everywhere.
As a part of their ‘vision’, all Hazon events foster a “radically inclusive,” accessible community that emphasize “tolerance, respect, and diversity.” Hazon has outlined the crucial facets of their programs that help them reach this goal. This outline can be used by anyone looking to embody the principles of Big Tent Judaism and engage Jews on the periphery—outside or inside:
All of our programs have these characteristics in common:
- A deep commitment to inclusive community
- A determination to reach people where they are, not where we might like them to be
- Putting significant resources into participant empowerment and leadership development
- Enabling people to integrate learning and action
To kick off a summer of inclusive activities, Hazon is hosting their annual “Bike to the Beach” event on June 29th. Free to the public, riders leave from 8 locations throughout New York City and ride to Coney Island. All are welcome to meet for lunch at the Shorefront Y, including people–like myself–who don’t even own a bike. Look for me there!
Moving to New York just prior to Shavuot, I was excited to enter my new Jewish community in tandem with a favorite Jewish holiday. After perusing local community calendars, I decided that the all night JCC in Manhattan Tikkun Leil Shavuot would provide eclectic programming in a non-denominational environment. From Torah Study to Trance-dance and Yoga, I hoped to celebrate the initial receipt of the Torah at Sinai as I oriented myself to my new Jewish neighbors and community.
I walked into the JCC in Manhattan, went through some metal detectors, and continued past security personnel in suits who waved participants into the lobby, shoving program guides into everyone’s hand. Surrounded by unfamiliar faces, I attended a few sessions and, quickly enough, found myself at the end of a mile long line for cheesecake
But amidst all these people and activities, I still hadn’t been welcomed on an individual level. That soon changed while I was waiting in line, where I was approached by a stranger dressed in a full body owl costume. She sidled up next to me and pushed a piece of paper into my hands. At first glance it looked like a printed out personal ad from J-Date, the Jewish singles website. I figured out quickly that the ad was a humorous parody on the ways in which Jewish women–approaching a certain age–feel the need to market themselves to Jewish men for the sake of reproduction. Or excuse me, ‘continuity.’ This owl was an anonymous advocate from the group Jewish Women Watching, a group devoted to highlighting what they see as “discriminatory practices in the American Jewish community.” The group implements awareness campaigns such as this one to coincide with holidays. At the end of the ad the group made their point:
The Jewish community’s priorities of marriage and parenthood aren’t a match for everyone. This Shavuot, as we celebrate the deliverance of Jewish law, deliver a message that isn’t about delivering Jewish babies.
Broaden the standards that are used to evaluate a Jewish life.
Recognize Jewish women as powerful beyond their reproductive abilities.
Celebrate the many types of families in the Jewish community…
…These are the keys to Jewish continuity.
This message resonated with me on the eve of joining JOI as its newest Program Officer. Jewish Women Watching hopes that the Jewish community is inclusive of all those cultivating Jewish life and a Jewish future. For some this means falling in love and raising Jewish children. For others, this means creating a Jewish home and life as an individual. Just like one of the principles of our Big Tent Judaism initiative, JWW celebrates the diversity of today’s Jewish individuals and households, leaving behind assumptions of what Jews “look like” or how families are configured. That all are embraced and welcomed into a broader Jewish ‘family’ is an ideal that JOI and JWW have in common, and one that I am excited to work towards.
So while this interaction with the owl left me inspired, I still left my first event as a member of the Manhattan Jewish community feeling like an outsider. As I join JOI, I look forward to ensuring that such events in the Jewish community include designated greeters to welcome all participants, especially newcomers like me.