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On January 7th, Steven Petrow, who writes a biweekly column for The New York Times titled “Civil Behavior” that addresses questions related to gay and straight etiquette, published a question about the intersection between Jewish religious practice and gender expression:
Dear Civil Behavior: I am a gay woman who tends to dress and identify on the masculine side. I’ll soon be attending a religious service at my extended family’s Orthodox synagogue, requiring modest attire, which means that women are not allowed to wear pants and can be denied entry. I think that as long as I dress respectfully and in the spirit of the religious mandates I should not have to compromise on my gender identity and expression. My family says that I’m being difficult and that “when in Rome …” Of course, there is no chance my relatives would dress according to a code I prescribed for an event if it conflicted with their religious identity. So why am I considered “difficult” for not compromising in the expression of my gender identity when they would be considered justified in not compromising their religious expression?—Name withheld
Both Petrow and the article’s many commenters provided a variety of answers to the woman’s question about the issues at hand: is it acceptable for the woman to purposely ignore the synagogue’s customs, and is it acceptable for the synagogue to expect her to wear a skirt? However, regardless of whether you agree with the responses, which run the gamut, there is a much larger concern: how can Jewish institutions create an inclusive space for the LGBT community while maintaining their religious customs?
With the recent New Year’s celebrations, I found myself thinking back to a different New Year—the Jewish New Year, and an experience I had while in Ukraine several years ago. Growing up in a Russian Jewish household, I always felt like a bit of an outsider, not being part of the Christian-centric society in which I lived and being an immigrant. But I also took great pride in being unique and believe that being able to look at things from the outside gave me a better perspective and allowed me to see things more clearly.
It had never occurred to me that I was also an outsider from the Jewish community. My family had never been very active in the local community and when we did participate we still felt set apart from the rest of the community, being Russian Jews and therefore having our own way of doing things. Not growing up part of a strong Jewish community, I was always excited when I encountered other Jews, not realizing that my lack of involvement, and my Russian background, set me aside from them. The realization came to me over many years, but really became a dominant part of my consciousness while I was living in Ukraine as a Peace Corps volunteer.
Everyone has their own Christmas story. When I say Christmas story, I am referring to what you do on December 25th. Regardless of your religion, if you live in the United States, the day has its own story for you.
Growing up in Houston, TX Christmas was the day that I spent with my friends who were not celebrating Christmas with their families. We attended a gathering of the same people for the better part of my childhood. As we all got older, the gathering became an opportunity for me to connect with friends and acquaintances that I did not see any other time.
As an adult, the first time I participated in anything for Christmas was with my husband’s family. It was my first opportunity to meet my mother-in-law of blessed memory and her family. Though my mother-in-law had converted to Judaism before my husband was born, Christmas was still a time for her family to get together. Each family member came on Christmas Day to say hello, and to share in the holiday. I remember thinking how much this reminded me of the Rosh Hashanah open house my mother had every year. For many years, even after my mother-in-law passed away, we attended Christmas Day with my husband’s family. My children looked forward to seeing their cousins, to eating macaroni and cheese, and to being part of the bigger family.
Gained traction in our systems approach to outreach. We have demonstrated that our approach is successful when our fully trained “army of engagement specialists” work together and collaborate in a local community. In Chicago, for example, our Concierge, together with a cadre of 35 Big Tent Judaism Professional Affiliates reached over 3,000 individuals through programming in secular public spaces (Public Space Judaism) and stewarded hundreds into deeper engagement with the Jewish community.
- Made progress with our strategic plan by training over 150 Jewish communal professionals as Big Tent Judaism Professional Affiliates, engaged over 100 volunteer leaders as Big Tent Judaism Ambassadors, and placed Big Tent Judaism Concierges in four cities across the country. 2014 will see expanded cohorts of Professional Affiliates, Ambassadors, and Concierges, beginning with a group of Big Tent Judaism Professional Affiliates in the Valley outside Los Angeles, thanks to a grant from the Los Angeles Jewish Federation and its Valley Alliance.
- Partnered with UJA/Federation in New York by training Jewish communal professionals working with interfaith families. This work continues with an Environmental Outreach Scan in Westchester County (NY) in 2014. As the hit song suggests, “if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere….”
- Pilot programs for LGBT Interfaith couples in Los Angeles—to be rolled out nationally in years following.
- In our second year of partnership with the Institute of Southern Jewish Life, delivering our customized program content to small and rural Southern Jewish communities. This included a new first step approach for our Mothers Circle program called Mothers Circle Gatherings that are salon models. This partnership will continue for year three in 2014.
- Distributed the results of a research project on Adult Children of Intermarriage, one of the largest, fastest growing segments of the North American Jewish community. Look for the results of our study of Five Years of The Mothers Circle due out in a few weeks.
- Staking our claim as futurists with the publication of Playlist Judaism: Making Choices for a Vital Future (Alban Institute Press) by Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, Executive Director.
- Influencing the religious movements with presentations at the Union for Reform Judaism biennial convention and a (Conservative) Think Tank on Intermarriage sponsored by the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs.
- Expanding our reach into Europe: Rabbi Kerry Olitzky served as a visiting faculty member at the Abraham Geiger Kolleg in Berlin training European rabbinical students during the summer semester.
- Expanding our board to a gender-balanced 28 members with 50% women. In 2014, we intend to continue our board expansion under the leadership of newly-elected president Michael Rappeport.
- Expanded the pilot of Hands-on-Hanukkah, our newest Public Space Judaism program, thanks to the support of the Polinger Foundation, with further expansion planned for 2014. Our Public Space Judaism program has captured the imagination of the North American Jewish community, with shout-outs from such leaders as Rabbi Rick Jacobs of the Union for Reform Judaism.
- Shared our expertise with communal professionals in gatherings such as the JCCA (Jewish Community Centers Association); birthright NEXT; Lion of Judah; Limmud (NY), and PJ Library, as well as local meetings such as the Community Scholars Forum in Orange County, CA, Women of the Landings (Savannah, GA) and the Chicago Board of Rabbis.
- Reached the Gold Standard in charitable giving, according to Guidestar, the highest level of financial and governance transparency.
Some people are known for their wisdom. Others are known for their actions. Edgar Bronfman was known for both. Almost as often as we would meet, he would remind me that we are all responsible to leave the world a better place than when we entered it. He indeed lived what he preached. He became a spokesperson for groups on whose behalf we advocated, particularly the unengaged, as well those who had intermarried. Moreover, he believed fiercely in value constructs like an inclusive Jewish community, the foundation of which became Big Tent Judaism.
The individuals and families we serve benefited greatly from his philanthropic generosity, but also from his generosity of spirit. He will be greatly missed by all who had the opportunity to know him and by those who never knew him but were greatly affected by his benevolence.
Photo from JOI’s 2009 Women’s Summit
Today’s guest blog comes from Carin Mrotz. After growing up in sunny South Florida, Carin moved to Minnesota on a dare in 1997 and fell in love with the Twin Cities. She lives in Minneapolis with her husband and two children and works for Jewish Community Action. She loves biking and live music, and lives in constant pursuit of the perfect fish taco. The blog was originally posted on TCJewfolk.
I remember the time my son told me his father wasn’t Jewish.
He was 4, and it was December, and we were in the car on our way home from preschool. And he said it just like that. “Mom, Dad isn’t Jewish.” Technically, I already knew. We’d been married 8 years by then, it had come up. But we hadn’t discussed it with Henry yet. We planned to, but we were waiting for the right time, for him to be ready to understand.
We were waiting to talk to him about my father, too. To tell him that he had a fifth grandparent, one he’d never meet. My parents divorced when I was a baby and my mother married my stepfather just a few years later. He’s the man I call “Dad,” and he’s the man Henry knows as “Pop Pop,” but I did also have a father, whom I spent winter breaks and summers with, whom I loved very much, and who died when I was 25, long before Henry was born. And I was waiting to explain this extra grandparent who only exists in pictures now, to Henry, not because he didn’t understand death (we’d lost pets by then), but because we hadn’t yet broached the topic of divorce.
I think we must all have these things we wait to explain to our children, until they’re old enough to really understand. I have friends, also an interfaith family, who had explained to their son that Dad was Jewish and Mom wasn’t, only to end up with the misunderstanding that all boys are Jews and all girls are Christians. So we were waiting until it would make sense. But I think, for me, there was something more there. I wasn’t just worried that Henry wouldn’t understand what we were talking about, I was worried that he’d be confused about what it meant about who he is.
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While a few weeks have passed since Hanukkah, I am just now reflecting on the experience it was this year. For Thanksgiving, as I have done almost every year, I flew to my hometown to spend Thanksgiving with my parents. However, this year was going to be different for several reasons: it was the first time my fiance would experience Thanksgiving with my family; it was also the first time she would experience Hanukkah with my family, or anyone else’s family for that matter, being raised Catholic. But what was most exciting was that it was the first time any of us had experienced, and will ever experience, both holidays at once.
At my parents’ house, Thanksgiving involves inviting over my brother, his wife, his two kids, and my sister-in-law’s family— none of whom are Jewish. This dynamic normally wouldn’t make any difference: for Jewish holidays my brother, my sister-in-law, and their kids come over, but my sister-in-law’s family does not, although there have been exceptions; on secular holidays my sister-in-law’s family comes over en masse. This made me wonder what my family would do this year with the two holidays converging.
A recent article from Tablet caught my attention because I am constantly surprised by how much personal baggage many Jews bring to Judaism. As a Jewish summer camp Jew and Youth Group Jew, I didn’t have a lot of the experiences that have turned people away from the organized Jewish community. The article talks about Wilderness Torah – an environmental Jewish group that focuses celebrations on four holidays: Sukkot, Passover, Shavuot, and Tu B’shevat, and on connecting back to nature through a Jewish lens. With the exception of Passover, I think most American Jews might have a hard time finding any scarring negative experiences with these holidays, as many of us didn’t even grow up celebrating them except, perhaps, in Hebrew school.
Julie Wolk, an environmental and community organizer who is founding co-director of Wilderness Torah says, “I am not unique. There are tons of Jews looking for ways to connect in alignment with their values.” This is a very important statement for the future of the Jewish community. We need to provide opportunities (often outside the walls of our current institutions) that show each other there is value in Jewish life, and sometimes that means staying away from activities that might trigger negative memories. Those negative memories are unfortunately often within the walls of the institutions we were raised in, and we need to offer other options. And sometimes, it may not be the negative experience keeping people away, but rather that they have just found meaning somewhere else—like in nature.
I was in St. Augustine, Florida (the oldest city in the U.S. for those who are history buffs or who just play Jeopardy) for the local Arts Festival on the Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend. That Sunday was also, as everyone well knows, in the middle of Hanukkah. The sun was out and the temperature warm. There were hundreds of people. I enjoyed myself with family, but couldn’t help but think that it was a missed opportunity for the Jewish community to do Public Space Judaism.
There was no menorah lighting–no menorah even present. No Hanukkah booth. No Hanukkah activities amid the various children’s art activities set up. There was one artist who was showing her Jewish-themed art and selling quite well if that is any indicator of the population present, but not a single Jewish organization took advantage of this opportunity.
To the local Jewish community, I hope only one thing: Maybe next year.
Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute
Rabbi Charles Simon, Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs
Five-year benchmarks are quite commonly employed to measure the progress and success of initiatives. Were a Conservative/Masorti synagogue in the United States to choose to respond positively to demographic change implied by intermarriage, these are some of the issues that will have to be thoughtfully considered and employed.
- Disparaging remarks from the pulpit or in the pews will not be tolerated. Religious school children raised in Jewish families will be encouraged to share their experiences in the classroom. The conversation among synagogue leaders will move from who one is marrying to how one is raising children.
- Staff members and volunteer leaders in interfaith relationships will not be discouraged nor penalized.
- Youth group participants will be welcome to bring friends to events irrespective of their religious backgrounds. Youth leaders will not be limited in their relationships.
Administration and Program
- Teachers will be sensitive and respectful of children who have intermarried parents and strongly support their efforts to raise Jewish children.
- Synagogue application forms will reflect the religious traditions of people married or partnered to Jews in an equal and non-judgmental manner. Celebrations of those who have intermarried will be affirmed in synagogue publications without distinction. Those who wish to honor their children’s choices with a Kiddush or other celebration will be encouraged/welcomed.
- Educational and social programming will be designed to engage people of different religious traditions.
- Youth group events will be viewed as an opportunity to bring people close to Judaism and will not be governed by the fear that they promote interfaith relationships.
- Aufrufen (pre-marital blessings) and “Keruv aliyot” (recognition of the decision to have a Jewish family) will serve as an important step to integrate intermarried couples into the community.
- Clergy will be able to attend and participate in some capacity in the interfaith weddings of congregants and their children.
- Clergy will officiate at funerals and burials of their members and their families who are part of the community irrespective of their religious backgrounds.
- An adult partner or grandparent from another religious tradition will be able to participate in the life cycle events of their family and their family members.
- Patrilineal children will be welcomed in the synagogue and will undergo a “completion ceremony” in anticipation of b’nai mitzvah (rather than a “conversion ceremony”).
- People of different religious traditions will be permitted to sit on synagogue boards as voting members.
- People who are part of the community will be considered full members of the synagogue and will be permitted to vote on all issues.
To read the featured article in The Forward referencing this piece, please click here.
It has become popular in the engaged core of the Jewish community to look down on Hanukkah. It is an unimportant holiday, some say. Others say that celebrating Hanukkah in a big way compromises Jewish values, worrying that it is emphasized only because of its proximity to Christmas. We beg to differ. There is nothing wrong with fun holidays like Hanukkah and Purim. In fact, they’re a great opportunity to engage those who have become bored with or alienated from Jewish life.
The “unimportant” holiday of Hanukkah has a lot going on, something for everyone: Inspiring miracles, military campaigns, a controversial revolt, the fight against assimilation, a connection to other cultures’ winter light festivals – not to mention delectable fried foods and fun parties and games. On top of that, its wide popularity (regardless of whether its popularity stems from the proximity to and association with Christmas) make it a perfect gateway holiday: Less engaged Jews and their families may already be thinking more about their Jewish background at this time of year because of Hanukkah’s high name recognition in the broader culture. Instead of sneering at Hanukkah, we should embrace it as a chance to meet less engaged Jews and help them become more involved in the Jewish community.
To that end, we have created this list of Eight Values for Building an Inclusive Jewish Community on Hanukkah. We hope this list will help you see Hanukkah for the important outreach opportunity that it is – and the deeply meaningful holiday that it can be.
- Warmth: Share the friendly warmth of the Jewish community as the weather turns colder.
- Light: No matter how you got here, no matter what road you took, the light will illuminate your way to the Jewish community.
- Faith: Many cultures have a winter light festivals of light, making this a great holiday to share with others from different backgrounds.
- Communal Memory: See yourself as part of the collective story of the Jewish people, see how it unfolds in the story of Hanukkah, and claim it as your own.
- Rededication: There is a place for you in the Jewish community no matter how long you’ve been away or even if you’ve never been a part of it before.
- Reconciliation: Leave behind internal conflict within the Jewish community as your community celebrates Hanukkah.
- Accessibility: Make sure that all are not only welcome to celebrate, but able to celebrate as well.
- Renewal: Adapt old Hanukkah traditions so that they continue to live and have meaning in your life.
Written by Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky and David A.M. Wilensky. Published in the New Jersey Jewish Standard Friday, November 21, 2013.
For everyone here at Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) —and for all who work toward the creation of a more inclusive Jewish community—there is much to be thankful for this year.
- Raising Jewish Children: The Pew Forum’s study of the American Jewish community confirmed that the majority (61%) of intermarried households are raising their children with a Jewish identity.
- Changing the Conversation: Jewish communal leaders are beginning to shift the conversation away from handwringing about who people marry to helping households of all configurations determine how to raise Jewish children, and how to find meaningful answers to the great Jewish question of the 21st Century: “Why be Jewish?”
- Seizing the Opportunity: Some of the most prominent Jewish communal organizations in America are increasingly joining us to do the actual work of providing Jewish programming for all of those who are historically marginalized, lowering the barriers to their participation while still offering meaningful content.
- Broadening Our Vocabulary: The phrase “Big Tent Judaism,” which we coined to refer to our inclusive approach to Jewish communal life, has made it into the vocabulary of the Jewish community.
- Beyond the Walls: Our signature series of programs designed to move the Jewish community’s outreach efforts beyond the walls of Jewish communal institutions, Public Space JudaismSM, has become a prominent program model for Jewish communal institutions that want to meet potential newcomers where they are.
- Radical Welcoming: People have come to realize that welcoming is a strategy that requires more than just a warm and friendly “hello.” Greeting a newcomer at the door is a wonderful start—but it is only a start. We must learn to follow through by getting to know our newcomers as complex human beings, and serving their needs and interests with relevant programming and events.
- Aiming for Engagement Over Affiliation: Synagogues and other member-based institutions are recognizing that new models are needed for new times. They are beginning to see that affiliation (whether someone pays to be part of the community) is no longer as relevant a goal of outreach as engagement (actually participating in Jewish activities).
- The Grandparent Connection: Grandparents are embracing their grandchildren being raised in interfaith homes, and growing closer to their adult children who have intermarried—all with an eye toward a more inclusive and optimistic Jewish future.
From all of us here at JOI, we hope you have a warm and meaningful Hanukkah, and of course Thanksgiving.
Parents and doting relatives of young children, take note: a new collection of Jewish stories has arrived just in time for Hanukkah. The Barefoot Book of Jewish Tales by Rabbi Shoshana Boyd Gelfand transforms rich Jewish tradition into accessible stories for a new generation of children ages four and above.
Stories like “The Prince Who Thought He Was a Rooster” and “Clever Rachel” are gorgeously illustrated by Amanda Hall and feature a more gender-balanced representation of role models than Jewish tradition can sometimes provide. As a trained outreach professional and an experienced babysitter, I also appreciate the glossary of signs and symbols in the last pages of the book; while explanations are offered throughout, they are rather vague and too subtle for younger readers.
The tales collected here convey Jewish values—compassion for others, being clever and kind, the importance of human choice—that every family will find worthwhile.
Read the New York Times review here.
Jewish grandparents whose grandchildren are being raised in intermarried households can play a big role in shaping the Jewish identities of their grandchildren. And they’re more likely to get the chance to share the fun and meaning of Hanukkah with their grandchildren this year because of the once-in-a-lifetime convergence of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah.
If you’re a Jewish grandparent who often gets to spend Thanksgiving with your grandchildren, but rarely Hanukkah, can you introduce a menorah-lighting before or after the Thanksgiving meal? Or whip out a dreidel for a little fun during halftime of the Lions game? Or maybe you can add latkes to the usual Thanksgiving dishes?
Careful! Just because this year’s holiday conflict is with Turkey Day instead of Christmas, it doesn’t mean you can disregard the sensitivities of your adult children and children-in-law. Broach the subject beforehand. Keep it lighthearted and fun. Don’t let the season’s joy get gobbled up by any preexisting tensions!
To talk it out beforehand with your peers who are also thinking about this opportunity, and to address other challenges and opportunities of being a Jewish grandparent of children being raised in interfaith families, join the free Grandparents Circle email listserve at www.GrandparentsCircle.org. We welcome your voice in the conversation!
And Happy Thanksgivukkah from the Grandparents Circle and everybody at Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute!
With Hanukkah coming early this year, many families and couples are already planning their Hanukkah meals, making their gift lists, and digging out their latke (potato pancake) recipes. But for those whose partners are Jewish, but are not themselves, it can be challenging to bring a holiday into the home that one didn’t grow up celebrating.
The LGBT Interfaith Parents Circle offers the first of its kind parenting programs to LGBT couples who are raising, or are considering raising, Jewish children. The first program will center around the holiday of Hanukkah, offering a safe space to learn about and discuss how to celebrate the holiday for LGBT interfaith couples. In addition to topics like the story of Hanukkah and the themes of the holiday, participants will also have an opportunity to delve into topics unique to LGBT interfaith couples raising Jewish children, such as how to reclaim the holiday and making the connection between the themes of identity and rededication as they relate to Hanukkah and LGBT interfaith families.
There are two opportunities to participate in the free class, so we hope you will share this information with those you think may be interested, to help spread the word about this wonderful program. For more information, or to RSVP, please contact JOI’s LGBT Interfaith Parents Circle Coordinator, Lisa Hanish, at LHanish[at]JOI.org .
Today’s guest blog is from Laurie Rappeport. Laurie made aliyah (moved to Israel) from Detroit in 1983. She is the mother of five and lives in Safed, a Northern Israeli town. She teaches for JETS, the Jerusalem EdTech Solutions group, which facilitates a wide range of Jewish online educational opportunities, including the JconnecT Online Hebrew School program.
According to recent surveys approximately 50% of American Jewish families send their children to an afternoon Jewish enrichment program.
It’s clear that congregational complementary schools are not for everyone. Some kids live in rural areas in which they don’t have access to a synagogue or temple school. Others don’t integrate well into an available Hebrew school framework. Day school students whose education took them through the 5th or 6th grade often look for high quality post-day-school learning options while other kids, with no Jewish learning background, want to explore Judaism in a way that allows them to comfortably step into a structure in which they’ll feel comfortable as beginners.
I often think about how significant social trends in American culture affect the Jewish community. Some argue that Judaism, by definition, is and should continue to be counter-cultural. Of course, such a position is only relevant when those trends are perceived to be out of sync with the evolution of Judaism and the Jewish community. There is one trend, however, that I think requires deep exploration. It is particularly important because, unlike many trends today that might be described as micro trends, this is certain to be a mega trend. This trend is what I call “radical disclosure,” the notion that there are no limits to personal disclosure, fostered perhaps by the ubiquitous nature of social media. That is why there are those who are motivated to share anything and everything about their personal lives on sites like Facebook and Twitter. In turn, these sites unwittingly turn the rest of us into voyeurs, hungry for every bit of personal information. Now we can know just about anything about anybody—because they have told us.
Admittedly, some of these issues may emerge as a result of a generational divide. It is like calling something a virtual relationship because it is being nurtured on-line. I may call it virtual; someone younger may scoff at the application of the adjective “virtual.” It is real, nothing virtual about it at all, from someone else’s perspective.
Last week a series of minor earthquakes hit the northern Israeli town of T’veria (Tiberius). No harm done, but it did remind everyone in the area that they are living on top of one of the Earth’s major tectonic fault lines. Now everyone is talking about home preparedness kits and aftershocks.
Over here, the North American Jewish community has experienced its own minor earthquake: the image presented by the Pew Research Center’s comprehensive study of the U.S. Jewish population. No harm done, but we were all forcefully reminded of a couple of major fault lines of our own.
On the one hand, we were reminded that the Jewish community extends beyond religious affiliation. Not only are a growing number of Jews identifying as having no religion, but even among those who do consider Judaism their religion, only 39% are synagogue members and only 29% visit a synagogue more than a few times a year.
On the other hand, the Pew aftershocks also brought to the fore the fault lines within the organized Jewish community, which is divided on the issue of how to respond to this increasing lack of institutional affiliation. Is it best to hunker down and focus on the few who still consider Jewish institutions relevant, or is it more advisable to transform existing institutions to accommodate the needs and wants of those who don’t show up?