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Not knowing Hebrew was, and continues to be, one of my biggest barriers to Jewish life. Having grown up far outside of the organized Jewish community, my Hebrew education has been quite varied, sporadic, and only over the last couple years. The Jewish communities to which I am drawn, though, are often more traditionally religious in nature and do rely on a lot of Hebrew.
I found my first path into Judaism through non-denominational Friday night Shabbat services on my college campus. The prayers, even in transliteration, were completely foreign to me. Yet the comfort and sense of community—even a community in which I felt lost and unsure if I belonged—compelled me to return each week until I could mumble and even sing along with words I had memorized but still didn’t know.
Even after spending one summer in a Hebrew immersion language program, and another studying Jewish texts at an egalitarian yeshiva (place of intense Jewish study and worship), and another spring in an adult Hebrew class at a Jewish Community Center, my Hebrew is hesitant and halting. I declined the honor of doing an Aliyah (saying a blessing over the Torah), because I am embarrassed about my lack of fluency. I hesitate to say Kiddush, the Friday night blessing over wine, in front of all but a few people close to me (one of those I am comfortable in front of is my Catholic boyfriend). Certain Hebrew prayer services move impossibly fast for me to keep up, even when I read along in English.
As September winds down this weekend, Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) will be out and about in two locations bringing a taste of the fall Jewish holidays to passersby at two great events. JOI’s newest Public Space Judaism program for the High Holidays will give people the chance to not only learn a bit about the holiday, but also make connections in their local Jewish community, enabling them to find programs and events of meaning to them.
A Spoonful of Honey: Rosh Hashanah Gourmet Honey Tasting, JOI’s latest Public Space Judaism program, takes advantage of the myriad fall festivals happening around the country this time of year, as well as of the delicious tradition of eating apples and honey to celebrate the Jewish new year. Participants are offered a sample of several different flavors of honey, along with information on upcoming events in their local Jewish community. This weekend, JO’s Big Tent Judaism Coordinator in Chicago and Big Tent Judaism Concierge in Middlesex County, NJ will be at two large festivals reaching out to their respective communities through this exciting program.
So stop by, say hello, and check out the JOI team in action!
Long Grove, IL
Long Grove Apple Festival
September 27, 28, and 29, 2013
Alyssa Latala, Big Tent Judaism Coordinator for Chicago, and Amanda Kaletsky, Communications Manager, will be offering passersby a free taste of apples and honey from 10:00 AM to 6:00 PM each day at the 21st annual Long Grove Apple Festival.
There will also be fun fall activities for children, and an opportunity to chat with Alyssa about other exciting events coming up in the Chicago Jewish community.
All are welcome. $5 per person (children 12 and under are free). For more information, please click here.
New Brunswick, NJ
Raritan River Festival
September 29, 2013
Caren Heller, Big Tent Judaism Concierge for Middlesex County, NJ, along with other JOI staff, will be offering a taste of honey at the Raritan River Festival along with other JOI staff. The Raritan River Festival takes place in Boyd Park from 12:00 PM to 6:00 PM. Now in its 33rd year, the festival includes boat races, raft races, and music entertainment. This is a perfect opportunity to experience a unique festival and get to know Caren so that she can help you find a place in the Middlesex County Jewish community.
All are welcome. FREE Admission. For more information, please click here.
We hope to see you this weekend!
As the Big Tent Judaism Coordinator in Chicago, part of my role is to connect Jewish individuals and interfaith families with the programs, events, and organizations that meet their interests and needs. I’ve been fortunate to have some wonderful interactions and conversations with people by hosting Public Space Judaism events at area farmers’ markets over the last few weeks.
Public Space Judaism programs bring a taste of Judaism to where people are. They are Jewish programs in secular public venues that allow for unplanned participation—by everyone. By offering a taste of challah and honey to passersby, my table fit right into the laid-back, fun, foodie vibe of the market, and I connected with Jews, and those of other religious backgrounds, who literally stumbled upon my table.
Through these markets, I’ve met young adults looking for ways to connect Jewishly and socially, young families searching for a synagogue, and empty-nesters interested in reconnecting with the community. I am thrilled to have the opportunity to spend a beautiful summer morning getting to know people and offering a little taste of Jewish culture.
Admittedly, the building of a sukkah is what I usually call a high barrier ritual experience. Even with the growth of prefabricated sukkot (the plural of sukkah), and a growing number of people who install them, it is still a relatively small percentage of people who actually build sukkot in their backyards. As a result, most sukkot are limited to synagogue yards, some kosher restaurants, and, of course, the infamous Chabad sukkah-mobile, which is driven through major cities offering people the opportunity to step inside.
Over the past few years, we have seen some sukkot in public spaces such as Reboot’s “Sukkah in the City” project held in New York City’s Union Square last year. (This has recently been issued as a film, just in time for Sukkot.) Although this holiday epitomizes the Jewish value of “welcoming guests,” fewer people are invited into sukkot than invited around the Passover seder table, for example. Thus, I am proposing that we bring back the notion of Sukkot as a “pop-up” experience and actually install temporary sukkot—even more temporary than the festival itself, which lasts eight days—in public spaces for all to enjoy. At Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI), we advocate a theoretical construct called Public Space Judaism, actually taking Judaism outside—from the four walls of community institutions—to public spaces so that people can “stumble over Judaism,” as I am want to say.
I recently sat in an audience of several hundred people in a Broadway theater to watch the life story of a modern rabbi, Shlomo Carlebach. The show was called Soul Doctor. This is the second theater production that I have seen on his life, but it is the first one to have made it to Broadway. This reinforces the notion that I and others have been speaking and writing about lately: Judaism has entered the marketplace of ideas. While there were many Jews in the audience (socially visible because of those of us who keep our heads covered), there were clearly many people who had absolutely no connection to the Jewish community and were simply interested in the life of a man, a rabbi, whose influence on contemporary Jewish music and prayer is unparalleled. For me, this is what is most important about the show. Like Carlebach’s music, his teachings have found their way into many faith communities.
I met Carlebach for the first time in 1971. I was in Israel for the year and he played to a small group of us, maybe thirty people, gathered at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. It was intimate and uplifting, and I became immediately attracted to his music and his gentle soul at that moment. A special charisma oozed from his soul.
Yesterday we shared an excerpt from the latest Institute of Southern Jewish Life (ISJL) newsletter, which features Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI). Today, we would like to share another piece from that same newsletter, a list of ten promises Jewish institutions can make to partners of other backgrounds. To read the entire newsletter, please click here.
Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) is excited to again be featured in the September edition of the Institute of Southern Jewish Life’s (ISJL) E-Newsletter. The monthly newsletter, distributed to ISJL’s network of supporters and educators throughout the South, focused on opening the tent of the Southern Jewish community, with the help of JOI Executive Director Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky. Below is one excerpted piece for the upcoming holiday of Sukkot. To read the entire newsletter, please click here.
There have been numerous pieces about intermarriage in the press lately. I am not really sure why they have suddenly emerged. Perhaps it is the result of several books that have been recently published. But I have decided to follow the advice of one of my teachers in rabbinical school, Alvin Reines z”l (of blessed memory). And while I usually disagreed with much of his religious philosophy, I often appreciated his practical advice. He often told us that sometimes silence is the best response, especially to public positions taken that are patently absurd. Rather, he suggested, let people determine on their own how absurd are the positions. You, he would argue, do not need to point it out. So here are some reasons why I have chosen not to respond, in particular, to those articles that are being written.
1. Unlike in previous articles, neither Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) nor I were named explicitly or implicitly. Our board made a decision some years ago not to respond to such pieces unless we were specifically named since it does no one any good to engage in what I call “Jew wars.”
2. During this time of year, I am particularly mindful of the challenge of being respectful to one another, even in the context of a philosophical debate.
3. I refuse to allow someone else to set the agenda for our work. Rather than responding, I would prefer to follow the advice of my colleague Paul Steinberg z”l who would often say “let your deeds sing your praises.” After 25 years of work, JOI has a proven track record. It can stand on its own as a rebuttal to any claim our critics make.
4. The positions that are being taken are old arguments. We have publicly responded to them on numerous occasions. Since there are no new arguments being made in these articles, it is silly to repeat those arguments.
5. I refuse to allow the work we are doing with regard to intermarriage to be classified in terms like “war” or “battle.” Any response would be an affirmation of such terms.
6. To divide the Jewish community along the lines of intermarriage is archaic. The great divide is along the lines of engagement.
7. To intermarry is a choice people are entitled to make. The goal of the Jewish community must be to provide meaning to these couples, and not to judge the decisions they have made.
8. I fear that these articles allow some people to respond and use such reactions as cover for the positions they take, which are commonly known. Our positions are known and we welcome people who want to work along with us.
It is time to move the conversation away from who people marry to how they raise their children. We welcome all those who want to work with us—and join us in the opportunity to shape an optimistic Jewish future.
Open houses work for real estate agents, but they don’t work for synagogues. Nevertheless, this is the time of year when synagogues invest a lot of time and energy into open houses, thinking that this is the best way for an increase in new memberships to be realized. Realtors want to help you realize the American dream of owning your own home, of imagining yourself living in that new home, and even go to great lengths to decorate the home and furnish it to make the home more appealing to potential buyers. It is true that a good real estate agent will also try to build a relationship with the home-buyer, but ultimately the mark of a good agent is in the sale, not in the relationship.
Synagogues convince themselves that if they can just get you in the building, they can persuade you to buy into membership, as if the building itself is what may attract a person to join a synagogue community. And while it is true that some buildings enhance membership while other buildings detract from membership, the building is generally irrelevant to whether or not a person chooses to participate in the community life of a congregation.
So maybe open houses should not be held in synagogues at all, especially at a time when programs are not taking place that reflect what it is that the synagogue’s leaders want to demonstrate to the newcomer. Instead, we should ask leaders in the community who are “connectors” to open their homes and invite friends, at which time something that is reflective of the institution is shared. Or perhaps we should prepare experiences in the many fall festivals that take place this time of year that too are reflective of the institution we want to promote—and then build a programmatic path from the fall festival into the institution. Or maybe we should establish a few pop-ups in the community with prayer experiences indicative of the synagogue we are publicizing—so that people can get a taste of what the synagogue has to offer.
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I enjoyed reading this recent article in the Forward in which Jordan Kutzik suggests that the study of Jewish languages such as Yiddish, Ladino, and Hebrew should be an important tool in the effort to assure a viable North American Jewish future. In historic Jewish communities, he argues, belonging was not primarily about religious ties but about ethnic ones, with language playing a key role in determining group boundaries.
There was less need for debate about who was and was not a Jew. Whether a person was religious, a closeted heretic or an open Epicurus, she was a Jew if she spoke a Jewish language as her mother tongue.
I think Kutzik in on to something. Perhaps Jewish institutions should offer classes in Jewish languages as one of their offering on the menu of Jewish engagement opportunities. When Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) conducted a study of adult Jews raised in intermarried households, one of the findings was that religious activities and activities focused primarily on ethnic ties are less appealing to this population.
While the notion of an erev rav (mixed multitude) is mentioned in various places in rabbinic literature—where the rabbis take a neutral notion and make it negative—and is used in contemporary Hebrew to refer to various groupings (including a confluence of art forms or a gathering of people at a rally), erev rav is only mentioned once in the entire Torah. In Exodus 12:38, the term refers to the group of people who joined the Israelites upon their Exodus from Egypt. The Rabbis, as is their predilection, will blame various things on this group, including the Golden Calf incident—a behavior pattern that is too often replicated today. Nevertheless, it is clear in the Torah that this group of former outsiders was absorbed into the people without distinction. They became part of the community, wandered in the desert, and their children entered the Land of Israel.
We are at a time in Jewish history that the term erev rav seems once again applicable. The Jewish community is made up of various groups, all of which add color, hue, and dimension to the beautiful tapestry we call the Jewish people. The Jewish community has never been monolithic. We at Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute value diversity; and as such, we believe that Jewish continuity and a secure Jewish future can only be assured by an affirmation of its diversity.
What are you doing to acknowledge and welcome the diverse Jewish population in your community, particularly in preparation for the High Holidays?
One of my responsibilities as a Program Associate at Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) is to moderate the listserves for our Mothers Circle, Grandparents Circle, and Empowering Ruth programs. These listserves act as online support groups, where participants can bounce questions off of each other and receive support and advice from people who are going through similar experiences. While this task mostly involves keeping an eye out for the occasional automated spam message, it also offers me the opportunity to be a fly on the wall and gain invaluable insight into the lives of the people who participate in JOI’s inclusive Judaism programs.
Because there are fewer classes running in the summer, the listserves have been pretty quiet. The notable exception is the Grandparents Circle listserve. There have been several days where I’ve come into the office, opened my email, and been bombarded with notifications about vibrant discussions. As I read about participants’ experiences with their interfaith grandchildren, I am alternately overcome with joy and sorrow. While some grandparents share positive experiences interacting with their married children and grandchildren, others feel frustrated and isolated because they cannot share their Judaism and Jewish identity with their grandchildren. Other listserve members chime in, offering anecdotes of similar situations as well as advice for coping with these challenges. There are no quick solutions for the problems raised, but it is heartwarming to see the virtual community come together to support its members.
As a non-practicing Russian Jew, when I got engaged to a non-practicing Catholic, I did not foresee any problems. Sure, our heritages are different and we both have our own distinct cultures, but our morals and values are the same, and although we come from different backgrounds we are both more agnostic than anything else. Our wedding ceremony would be simple and secular, and our families get along so there would be no real problems there…
How naïve I was. The first real bump in the road came when my fiancée and I showed my future mother-in-law the venue: a beautiful spot in Central Park. When the question of who would officiate came up we told her it would be a friend of ours. She very calmly explained to us that not having a religious leader present makes the whole thing unofficial and if we are not going to be married in the eyes of the Church, we might as well not be married at all.
To many people who have learned about Public Space Judaism from us at Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute, it may seem like an effective response to the reality of contemporary American Jewish life—a growing number of people are not coming through the doors of our institutions. Thus, if we want to reach them, we have to go where they spend the majority of their time—and that is not inside Jewish communal institutions. That is why we advocate for programming in public spaces.
While we may take credit for the proliferation of Public Space Judaism, as well as the development of its theoretical construct, and we are certainly the force behind such programs as Passover in the Matzah Aisle and Hands-on Hanukkah, the idea really emerges directly from the Hebrew Bible and the work of Ezra the Scribe. I was reminded of this notion as I began preparation with Rabbi Dan Moskovitz (of Temple Sholom in Vancouver, BC) for a session on Public Space Judaism that we will be delivering together at the Union of Reform Judaism Biennial Conference this fall. In the book of Nehemiah (8:1-8), we read about how Ezra brought the Torah into the marketplace and read it aloud to the people gathered there. Moreover, he interpreted the text so that those who were gathered could understand it.
The following is a recent think-piece written by Rabbi Amy Memis-Foler, rabbi at Temple Judea Mizpah in Skokie, IL, and also a Big Tent Judaism Professional Affiliate.
Since January 2013, I’ve been involved with some very interesting training with the Jewish Outreach Institute’s (JOI) Big Tent Judaism. I like JOI’s way of thinking, and it’s changed my approach on how I as a rabbi and we as a congregation can engage potential members in our congregation.
Engagement is the key word. Often we think about affiliation or membership, but before we get there, we need to “engage” people. When we engage people, we create a meaningful experience hand-in-hand with a relationship. Big Tent Judaism’s philosophy teaches about lowering barriers to reach out to people.
One way to achieve lower barriers is by holding events outside of our building, in public areas. The way I imagine it is that we need to extend the “four walls” of our building in such a way that we shift from being a tent to a chupah (wedding canopy). The walls of a tent are closed, but if it’s Big Tent Judaism, I imagine lifting the four flaps and spreading them out, so that the ceiling is extended and walls are open like that of a chupah–open to the community and those who can see and enter.
To read the rest of Rabbi Memis-Foler’s piece, please click here.
Welcome to the second of two parts of my interview with John Propper. There are many paths into the Jewish community—some involving conversion, some not—but at only 24 years old, John’s story has already taken many twists and turns. He comes from a Pentecostal family, went to a Catholic college, converted with a Reform rabbi, changed his last name, married into the interfaith family of a nice Jewish girl—and he’ll be a first-year student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in the fall. At the end of Part 1, John discussed how he found a place for himself in the Jewish community—by boldly deciding what kind of place he wanted and making it happen. Now, in Part 2, we pick up with the barriers he encountered along the way:
What barriers to entry did you feel early on—and how did you overcome them?
I have no ethno-cultural memories. My biological family has been rooted to the same region of American soil since before Americans were American. We’ve never been institutionally oppressed, kept out of country clubs, or called slurs. In the cultural privilege lottery, we won the Powerball. Yet a shared heritage of suffering and survival is as formatively Jewish as reciting the Shema [a key Jewish prayer about the unity of God] before bedtime or being embarrassed by Adam Sandler’s “Chanukah Song.”
While I’m thankful I’ve never been subject to that kind of suffering, there’s a piece of me that feels strangely privileged, and oddly out of place, as a middle-class white guy who belonged to the majority until, one day, he decided not to. I learn to listen, and the stories become mine, like the Kaddish [a Jewish prayer used for, among other things, periods of mourning] has become mine, like Torah has become mine. It’s not profound, and there’s no internal angelic choir when it happens—just the sound of time passing. Moments arise when I share as well as listen; my voice accents their [Jews born into the narrative] own.
Evaluation is a buzzword among Jewish nonprofits these days (see here for example). More and more, organizations realize that to improve their content, deliver services, and recruit supporters for their causes they have to be accountable and work in a data-oriented environment. With the Jewish High Holidays just around the corner (due to the oddity of the Hebrew calendar, Jewish holidays are very early this year), I am reminded that evaluation is also a very Jewish thing to do.
What few realize, however, is that one of the most gratifying aspects of conducting program evaluation is that once you dig your teeth into those data, you often come up with stuff you never expected to find. Here are just some examples from the programs we run here at Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI):
Ex. 1: The Mothers Circle is a program for mothers of others religious and cultural backgrounds who are raising Jewish children. Participants benefit from a supportive environment in which to learn about Jewish parenting and to share the challenges of their unique position – raising a child in a culture that is different from the one in which they were raised. We know that these women become more comfortable participating in the Jewish community (many become leaders in their synagogues) and that they often go on to choose Jewish education for their children.
How well are you able to share the meaning and value of the Jewish High Holidays with your family?
Here’s how NOT to feel lost and confused during the High Holidays, and truly find the benefit, even if you didn’t grow up celebrating Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We invite you to join us for High Holiday Highlights.
High Holiday Highlights is a FREE one-time webinar (interactive online session) from the staff of Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute and Kit Haspel, a Mothers Circle Coordinator at the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island.
This webinar will empower you to better understand the value and meaning of the holidays, and provide the opportunity not only to learn, but to interact with fellow participants about blessings and prayers, food traditions, and activities you can do to share the beauty of the holiday with your family.
• When: Wednesday, August 21 at 2:00pm EDT.
• Where: Via phone and any computer connected to the Internet!
• How: RSVP to JOI Communications Manager Amanda Kaletsky here to receive the link.
• Who: Anyone who wants to learn more about Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Please feel free to invite any friends, family, or colleagues who may be interested!
High Holiday Highlights is brought to you by The Mothers Circle, a program for women of other religious backgrounds raising Jewish children.
There are many paths into the Jewish community—some involving conversion, some not—but at only 24 years old, John’s Propper’s path has already taken many twists and turns. He comes from a Pentecostal family, went to a Catholic college, converted with a Reform rabbi, changed his last name, married into the interfaith family of a nice Jewish girl—and he’ll be a first-year student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in the fall. John is a good friend of mine. Until now, I’ve been learning his story in bits and pieces. So, to get a more complete picture—and believing readers of this blog would find his journey as interesting as I do—I interviewed him about his story so far. Here is the first half of our conversation. Look for the second part to be posted soon.
What is your family background? What was your life like before you became part of the Jewish community?
For the first 20 years of my life, I lived in northern Georgia, in the foothills. My hometown is small, just over 700 people, many of them farmers. My father was a traveling Pentecostal evangelist. Even much of Christianity was alien to me till I left the Church at 16.
After that, I hopped from church to church, and read about religion enthusiastically. But I never felt comfortable. Eventually my parents divorced, and an opportunity for me to go to college presented itself. I picked someplace far away from my home—West Michigan—and something new—a Catholic school called Aquinas College. It was there, at a shul [synagogue] across the street from my dorm, that I was exposed to Judaism.
The Jewish community sometimes has difficulty articulating enticing, relevant answers to the question of, “Why be Jewish?” Despite no previous connection to the Jewish community, you clearly found your way to some good personal answers to the question. So, for you, “Why be Jewish?”
Community is essential to me. During my undergrad, I spent more time in shul than anywhere else. I converted at the shul. My wife and I met there; we taught there; we were married there. It’s home. That said, community is found in most faiths.
So how about this: As an ideology, Judaism places a unique emphasis on the present. Novelist James Michener once aptly described it as—and I’m paraphrasing here— “a system for organizing life.” There’s an emphasis on contemporary ethics, personal development, and the marking of mundane existence through ritual. Most monotheisms are eternity-minded, always in search of the never-ending or the final or the ultimate. But Judaism emphasizes recognizing the ordinary holiness of each day.
Once you knew you were interested in Judaism, what was your path into the community like?
Once, I sat in a circle of fellow converts. We were asked, “Do you feel as much a part of the wider community as you’d like?” Some said, “Yes,” others, “No.” When asked why I answered, “Yes,” I replied, in effect, “I just made a place for myself.”