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The Big Tent Judaism Initiative in Westchester, NY Moves to Phase II

This year, Big Tent Judaism has been working in partnership with UJA-Federation of New York to open the tent of Jewish communities in the areas of Northern Westchester County, NY and the river towns. The first step was an initial assessment of the community, where Big Tent Judaism staff took an in-depth look at how institutions were welcoming newcomers via phone, email, and online. Now that the results of our study have been shared with the community, the Big Tent Judaism Initiative in Westchester is gearing up to enter Phase II.

In the past two months since I’ve joined the Big Tent Judaism staff, I’ve seen the Westchester community come alive around the idea of building a more inclusive Jewish community. From conversations with professionals and volunteers to the eager attendees at Eva Stern’s and Rabbi Kerry Olitzky’s presentations, the enthusiasm for change has been palpable. Jewish organizations in northern Westchester and the river towns are committed to making their communities more welcoming. They are ready to move forward by taking the tools Big Tent Judaism offers to make this change a reality.

This enthusiasm has been most noticeable in the many conversations I’ve had with Jewish communal professionals in Westchester. As we have begun recruiting for our Westchester cohort of Big Tent Judaism Professional Affiliates (Big Tent Judaism’s professional training program), I’ve heard from many professionals about how they’re looking to open their tents. They’re looking outward to consider whom they want to engage, like families with young children or LGBTQ individuals, and they’re looking inward to figure out the best way to reach them. The community is genuinely dedicated to making northern Westchester a more welcoming place for less-engaged Jews, such as those who are married to spouses or partners of another religious background, those with special needs, and those who don’t participate regularly in the Jewish community.

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Where (and Who) are the Grandparents?

Sunday, September 7th is National Grandparents Day. Grandparents Day was founded in 1978 with three purposes: 1) To honor grandparents; 2) To give grandparents an opportunity to show love for their children’s children; and 3) To help children become aware of the strength, information, and guidance older people can offer.

To celebrate Grandparents Day, Big Tent Judaism is hosting National Grandparents Circle Salon Weekend September 6th and 7th. Grandparents Circle Salons bring Jewish grandparents whose adult children have intermarried together in a peer-led setting to learn about strategies for nurturing their grandchildren’s Jewish identity and creating positive relationships with their adult children. Salons are part of Big Tent Judaism’s Grandparents Circle, for Jewish grandparents whose adult children have intermarried. By participating in National Grandparents Circle Salon Weekend, those who take part will be part of a broader network of grandparents coming together the weekend of Grandparents Day to supporting the Jewish future.

As we have begun to prepare for Grandparents Circle Salon Weekend here at Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute, we’ve started to reach out to communities nationwide to find grandparents to participate. In doing so, we’ve come across an interesting challenge—just where exactly are grandparents in the first place?

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Big Tent Judaism Coordinator for Chicago Alyssa Latala Named to Oy!Chicago’s “36 Under 36″

Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute is proud to announce that Big Tent Judaism Coordinator for Chicago Alyssa Latala has been named as one of Oy!Chicago’s “36 Under 36,” a list of young movers and shakers in the Chicago Jewish Community.

According to a press release from the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, the parent organization of Oy!Chicago:

[T]he list shines a spotlight on the faces of Chicago’s Jewish future and recognizes the amazing contributions of this generation. The young professionals featured are noted for making a difference through their work, giving back in their free time, and earning notoriety in the Jewish community and beyond.

“We were overwhelmed by both the volume and exceptionally high quality of the nominations this year,” said Stefanie Pervos Bregman, Founding Editor and Blogger-in-Chief for Oy!Chicago. “If this list is any indication, the future of Chicago’s Jewish community is incredibly bright.”

The Oy!Chicago website features a profile of each of the 36 young leaders, sharing their background, passions, and even celebrity Dopplegangers. The winners will be celebrated at an event on August 7th called “WYLD in Paris.” For more information, please click here. Below is a bit of Alyssa’s profile.

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What Can Southern Jews Teach The Rest of Us About Intermarriage and Outreach?

The following blog originally appeared in MyJewishLearning’s “Southern & Jewish” blog on July 1, 2014. Click here to view the original post.

Usually we think of small, southern communities as being at least a beat behind their larger counterparts, especially when they have small—even “diminishing”—Jewish populations. Many of these Jewish communities were once thriving, but they have followed the American trend of younger generations abandoning smaller hometowns for larger urban centers.

These communities may be demographically small, but they should be considered ideologically large in their response to those who have intermarried.

How these communities respond should be instructive to other communities, regardless of size or region. It is true that the intermarriage rate—particularly among non-Orthodox Jews—is among the highest in these communities. Even if there is debate among demographers as to the exact rate of intermarriage, what is most important to consider is the trend lines. That’s why the well-practiced response of these communities is so important at a time when the rest of the North American community has finally transcended the question of “Should we reach out to those who have intermarried?” and moved to “How should we reach out to those who have intermarried?”

In a word, the only response of these smaller Southern communities has always been the same: welcome.

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Sunday in the Park With Bagels, Huge Crowds and Happy Faces

The following blog is written by Marilyn Price, one of JOI’s three new board members. In addition to being a professional puppeteer and educator, Price serves as an advisor to Big Tent Judaism Chicago, most recently attending one of our largest Public Space Judaism events, Sunday in the Park with Bagels at Deerpath Park in Vernon Hills, IL.

I just spent some time at one of Big Tent Judaism’s incredible events to reach out, and to teach out as well. Although I have some history with this remarkable organization, programmatic and personal, and have even done puppetry for other programs, attracting not just “people in the know” but passersby as well, this was my first experience as a new JOI Board Member (and itinerant puppeteer). And… it was awesome.

The day was beautiful, the crowd was huge (way more than anticipated or dreamed about), and the ambience of energy and excitement from both the presenters and the participants was equal. The quality of caring and preparation from the staff and the volunteers was amazing. Standing ovation!

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Are We Fouling Out?

Have you ever gone to a sporting event and felt clueless? I have. Growing up, my brother was a tremendous athlete. He played multiple sports and played them well. He could recite statistics about players, the history of the games, and could even be an announcer at a sporting event. I, on the other hand, was the exact opposite. I dreaded gym class. Learning more rules and playing more games were completely boring and irrelevant to me.

Recently, I was sitting at my daughter’s basketball game and felt as clueless as I was in gym class 30 years prior. I tapped the woman’s shoulder in front of me to ask why her son got two free throws this time and only one last time. She looked at me with mild disdain and then proceeded to explain the rules in a condescending tone. I was mortified. Was I inferior because I didn’t understand basketball? (more…)



Eight Things I Have Learned From My Time at Big Tent Judaism

After almost two years working at Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute, I will be leaving my position at the end of this week to move to Boston. It has been a pleasure to work together to open the tent, helping the North American Jewish community reach out and embrace families like my own. As a way to sum up my time here, I prepared the following list of eight things I have learned:

Eight Things I Have Learned From My Time at Big Tent Judaism (more…)



Getting a Head Start on the High Holidays

Last Thursday, over 40 Jewish communal professionals and volunteer leaders from across North America came together for a conference call to begin thinking about their outreach programming efforts around the High Holidays. As many institutions begin to set their program calendar for 2014-2015 now, this is an optimal time to make outreach and engagement a year-round imperative, instead of being caught off-guard in late August with no time or resources to plan.

The group truly spanned North America, with callers from New York to California, Utah to Montreal, and also came from a diverse set of institutions and positions. Synagogues from several denominations were represented, as well as JCCs and Federations. We had rabbis, executive directors, membership chairs, and programming volunteers—all of whom are crucial to the way their institutions “do outreach.” (more…)



We Are All Gatekeepers to Our Jewish Communities

In a recent Kveller article, Rachel Minkowsky writes about an experience she had at work, where a woman made an aspersing comment related to the holiday of Shavuot, assuming that Minkowsky was—in the author’s words—“in on the joke.” Minkowsky successfully neutralized the situation, letting the speaker know that she was Jewish without chastising.

Minkowsky should be commended for the way she handled the situation. However, my focus is not her response, but the woman’s assumption that Minkowsky was “in on the joke.” By making this assumption, the woman created a dichotomy of insider-outsider that could have unwittingly alienated the author. As an individual whose job was to welcome participants to the workshop, she did the opposite, by indicating that those who celebrate Shavuot—or simply know anything about the holiday—are outsiders. (more…)



Thinking Like a Freak to Create a Welcoming Community

I read a great many popular business books. I am always trying to discern how these principles and theories can be applied to organizations in the Jewish community, particularly the one that I am privileged to lead: Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute. I often wonder whether these theories are built from a post-facto analysis of institutions or they were developed in the minds of leaders and then built proactively. In either case, the challenge remains the same: can they be applied (even if adapted) to current organizations and institutions, especially at a time of such rapid transition.

I recently read the latest in the series of Freakenomics. The recent entry is called Think Like a Freak. While it might not be the best of monikers for those who want to follow the authors’ reasoning, I decided to apply its counter-intuitive approach we have been using at Big Tent Judaism, especially as it impacts on our understanding of the growing phenomenon of intermarriage in the Jewish community. (more…)



For-Profit Organizations Can Learn from Non-Profits

When I was a pulpit rabbi years ago in West Hartford, Connecticut (at The Congregation Beth Israel), Nancy Lublin was a bat mitzvah student of mine. She went on to become a well-known player in the not-for-profit world, founding the very successful Dress for Success and transforming Do Anything. (I take no credit for either.) Recently, she penned her first book called Zilch. While it is an important book for many reasons, her central thesis is what caught my attention. She argues that the for-profit world has a lot to learn from successful not-for-profits. This is particularly affirming—and not simply because I am responsible for Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute, a non-profit—but because there seems to be a disturbing trend in hiring in the organized Jewish community. It goes something like this: if someone is successful in the for-profit world, his/her success can be easily translated into the not-for-profit since it is harder to be successful in the for-profit world. And, further goes the argument, we have to start running our non-profits like businesses. (more…)



We Think You’re an All-Star, Dad!


Please click here for a helpful guideline coaching answers to some of kids’ toughest questions!

Happy Fathers Day from Big Tent Judaism!



JOI’s New Program Associate Hopes to Lower Barriers in the Jewish Community

“You’re from Austin? Do you know [so-and-so]? We were part of [Jewish summer camp/youth group/something else Jewish] together!”

When I was asked these questions at a Jewish campus organization’s event at the beginning of my freshman year of college, my answer was almost always a small shake of my head accompanied by a “No.” And it always elicited the same response: “Oh…”

Suddenly, the conversation stalled as the fellow student I was talking to struggled to find something else to relate to me with, other than the “Jewish Geography” they expected would work. Even the professional staff relied on the same tactic to start conversations, asking me if I knew a fellow Rabbi or other Jewish communal professional who worked in Austin. When I replied that, no, I didn’t know Rabbi “So-and-So,” the conversation would again fizzle and the staff member would move on to mingle with students who could play “Jewish Geography” better than I could. (more…)



Jewish Communal Professionals in Northern Westchester and the River Towns Learn to Open the Tent

On June 9th, Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute’s Executive Director, Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, shared important knowledge and resources about building a more inclusive Jewish community with Jewish communal professionals in Westchester County, NY as a part of a partnership with UJA-Federation of New York. Speaking at the Rosenthal JCC in Pleasantville, Rabbi Olitzky challenged professionals to rethink traditional methods of outreach and find new ways to increase engagement.

Two major difficulties many Jewish institutions face is finding people where they are and lowering barriers that may prevent newcomers from wanting to engage in Jewish life. Kerry’s presentation focused on Big Tent Judaism’s model of Public Space JudaismSM to find and engage more people. Public Space Judaism takes programming outside the four walls of a Jewish institution into a public space, bringing Jewish life to where people are. Rabbi Olitzky also spoke about how to positively engage specific populations these Jewish communal professionals may find, such as less-engaged Jews and intermarried families. (more…)



Public Space Judaism as Experiential Education

I am a trained Jewish educator and yet there are those who scrutinize our various educational programs. As a result, I decided to apply objective criteria to some of our work, specifically the training of outreach professionals who are engaged in Public Space Judaism. The following article is a result (as published in EJewishPhilanthropy).

Can the training of outreach professionals engaged in Public Space Judaism be considered Experiential Education by academic standards?

by Dr. Kerry M. Olitzky

While not all programs of Jewish engagement are necessarily experiential education, at Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute, we were purposeful in incorporating experiential education into our programs of Public Space Judaism?, a phrase we coined to refer to a method that we began to advocate some 15 years ago. While there had been other ad hoc examples of doing programs in public spaces, particularly through Chabad, we developed a theoretical construct for this approach to programming, and educate and continue to innovate in this space through such programs at Passover in the Matzah Aisle™ and Hands on Hanukkah™. These programs are operated by Jewish communal professionals and volunteers at synagogues, JCCs, federations, and other Jewish organizations across denominational lines through JOI’s formalized program of professional training. (more…)



Everybody Thinks They’re ‘Chosen’

Why is it that Jewish people are considered “chosen?”
In this piece, featured in New York Jewish Week on Tuesday, June 3, 2014, Associate Executive Director Paul Golin tackles the issue.

I’ve come to see how the disconnect between “everyone is equal” versus “only marry Jewish” is part of a larger and longer-term clash of narratives: universalism versus Jewish particularism, or “chosenness.” Apparently, it’s something the Rabbis have struggled with for millennia, and is relevant to consider this eve of Shavuot when we mark the anniversary of being “chosen” to accept the Torah and covenant.

Read the rest of the article here.



Moms’ Night Out

Moms’ night out is therapy, and this week I had a great session. Sangria and seemingly endless tapas helped stretch the conversation for several hours, until we realized (once again) that we were the last table in the restaurant.

While the talk tends to revolve around our children (“Is my daughter ever going to (fill in the blank)?”), our spouses (“Is my partner ever going to (fill in the blank)?”), and our jobs (“Am I ever going to (fill in the blank)?”), last night the conversation turned to the Jewish community. (more…)



Welcoming Everyone into the Tent this Shavuot

As we enter the holiday of Shavuot, which commemorates Moses receiving the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai, our attention also turns to the Book of Ruth, which is read during this holiday. The Book of Ruth recounts the story of Ruth, a Moabite woman who becomes a Jew-by-Choice and is the great-grandmother of King David. Ruth is presumed to have converted after uttering the following words: “Where you go, I will go. Where you sleep, I will sleep. Your people will be my people. Your God will be my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. Thus may the LORD do to me, and worse, if anything but death parts you and me.”

In her moving article in the Times of Israel, Shoshanna Jaskoll outlines modern day contentions surrounding conversion. People who wish to convert to Judaism must undergo an arduous process, and Jaskoll argues that based on the story of Ruth and her conversion, the conversion practices maintained by the Orthodox rabbinate (as outlined in the article) are inaccurate. Jaskoll interprets Ruth’s proclamation of conversion as such: (more…)



Celebrating Ruth for Shavuot

Shavuot begins the evening of June 2nd and ends the evening of June 4th.
Commemorating the receiving of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai, the holiday of Shavuot is also when we traditionally read the Book of Ruth - the story of a woman of another background who embraces the Jewish People as her own.

The namesake of our Empowering Ruth program, Ruth exemplifies what can happen when the Jewish community truly opens its tent to all who wish to enter. Empowering Ruth is a program for women who have chosen Judaism and offers education and support as they continue their Jewish journeys. We invite you to celebrate Shavuot by reading the Book of Ruth - in graphic novel form! Please consider sharing this image on Facebook, and read the Book of Ruth graphic novel by clicking here.



Massage the Message

Mitchell Shames is the Chair of the Board for Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute. Here is what he had to say about feeling excluded.

This piece was originally featured in eJewish Philanthropy on Thursday, May 29, 2014. To read it, please click here.

Last Wednesday night my wife and I attended the annual fundraising dinner for Boston’s Jewish Family and Children’s Services. Although somewhat formulaic, as these evenings tend to be, we nonetheless had a wonderful time catching up with longstanding friends and reconnecting with a vitally important agency within our community.

The evening included a sweeping review of the agency’s 150 year history, comments by extraordinary teenagers whose disintegrating family (due to death and illness) was saved in large part through the efforts of JF&CS, and lastly, a compelling pitch, steeped in Torah, for JF&CS’s new fund-raising campaign to alleviate poverty. (more…)





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