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Finding Your “Spark Moment” with the Jewish Community

I owe my Jewish identity to the Shining Lights. For most of my childhood, I participated in a Jewish youth singing and dancing group. We wore red mock turtlenecks, black skirts, and silk vests with musical notes on them. We sang songs about Jewish holidays and stories. We performed at Jewish Community Centers, Jewish senior centers, synagogues, and Jewish festivals. We sang solos, showed off our jazz hands, and step-ball-changed our way through the Jewish calendar.

The Shining Lights brought together a bunch of Jewish kids from across the Chicagoland area to perform together. Singing and dancing about Jewish themes excited and connected me in a way that Sunday School and Shabbat services never did. It allowed me to continue participating in the Jewish community when Hebrew school was over, my Bat Mitzvah was behind me, and my homework, part-time job, and after school activities conflicted with confirmation classes. Perhaps most importantly, it introduced me to other people who were like me. Performing with the Shining Lights was my “spark moment,” that activity or experience that leaves an impression forever.

In a way, the Big Tent Judaism Concierge is in the business of creating spark moments. Public Space Judaism offers a taste of Jewish culture through food, through an activity, or simply through a meaningful conversation. The taste of charoset (chopped fruit and nut salad) at Passover in the Matzah Aisle or the sampling of hamantaschen (traditional holiday pastries) and wine at Purim Pastry Pairing may provide the spark moment that brings Jewish individuals and families one step closer to exploring other Jewish experiences.

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People of the Book

“But there is another woman at the table, ebony-skinned and saffron-robed, holding a piece of matzoh. Too finely dressed to be a servant, and fully participating in the Jewish rite, the identity of that African woman in saffron has perplexed the book’s scholars for a century.”

The American Jewish community grows increasingly diverse. It can be easy to look at that diversity and assume that it’s a new phenomenon. However, even in a largely white western European-descended Jewish community, there are signs of the Jewish community’s unexpected history of diversity lurking all around us. For instance, I recently learned of an illustration of a black woman attending a Passover seder (ritual meal) in the Sarajevo Haggadah, a famous haggadah (book used during the seder) written in the 14th century.

I am reading People of the Book, a historical novel by Geraldine Brooks about a contemporary manuscript restoration specialist working on the Sarajevo Haggadah. Weaved throughout that story, Brooks also includes several brief narratives of the journey of the Sarajevo Haggadah from 14th century Spain to 20th century Sarajevo.

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The Membership Model is in Decline

Most membership organizations in the organized Jewish community are vulnerable and at risk. The membership model is in decline. Few are willing to admit it. Even fewer are willing to do anything about it. Most of the reluctance is because of what might be described as low risk tolerance. So only a few institutions have been willing to take any significant risks to change the model. It’s important to remember that the membership model was itself an innovation only about 100 years ago. It was risky then to introduce the model. Institutions didn’t know whether people would “join” institutions and make financial commitments to them.

Here is what I advise Jewish Community Centers. Determine the catchment area for your institution. This is admittedly easier for institutions that are community-wide rather than for those whose communities are served by numerous Jewish Community Centers. Determine what entry level membership should look like. Then provide free membership to everyone in the area—automatically as an entitlement. Promote it. Welcome everyone in. Make sure you provide a quality experience for everyone who enters the doors.

You will then be in a position to offer membership upgrades or premium membership, particularly for specific program areas, such as preschool or summer camp or the fitness center—but only once you have demonstrated the value of membership. This approach forces the institution to lead with value rather than cost, an approach that the Jewish community has not been undertaking. It assists in meeting the challenging of getting people inside the institution. Then it’s all up to you—and your institution to deliver on the promises of outreach.



We Got What We Asked For

Watch this video.

I know this may seem like a plug for JOI Executive Director Kerry Olitzky’s new book, Playlist Judaism: Making Choices for a Vital Future, and it may serve as such. But, that isn’t my intention.

The rabbi speaking, Rabbi David Paskin, realizes (quite vociferously) that “we got what we asked for!” When we hear the Jewish community lament the decrease in Jewish folks who are active and participatory, we need to remember – we got what we asked for. The Jews of the 1940s and ‘50s wanted to fit in – they didn’t want to be separate. We are finally a full generation of “American Jews.” And that’s how we wanted it.

When we hear people decry the increase of intermarriage, we need to remember – we got what we asked for. Our parents’ parents kept themselves separate because in their day Jews were discriminated against and seen as less than worthy. It wasn’t a good idea to “hang out” with a Jew, let alone marry one. Now other people’s parents want their children to marry us. We aren’t marrying out, as older generations refer to intermarriage, they are marrying in.

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How I’ll Carry on the Jewish Stories in my Interfaith Marriage

In my work as National Coordinator of The Mothers Circle, I have noticed a common thread: these women—not their partners—are often the ones who carry the lion’s share of the responsibility of imbuing their children’s lives with Judaism.

A similar narrative was shared in an interfaith family column on the Jewish parenting blog Kveller. In her article, Lynnette Li-Rappaport, raised in an evangelical Christian home, shares how she brings her longtime love of Old Testament stories to her family, embracing the Jewish tradition of storytelling:

“While my husband, like many of my friends, dreaded going to religious school, my siblings and I listened eagerly as our mother told us of vain and tortured Absalom and mimed him weighing his beautiful hair. Our eyes widened as we learned of Daniel, protected by God in the hungry lions’ den. We played along to a recording of “Elijah,” a children’s musical we found in a box of music my dad, our church’s choir director, received several times a year. We sang the names of each of Jacob’s sons, the 12 tribes of Israel.”

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Gaining a Daughter Rather Than Losing a Son

As the youngest son in my family I didn’t have much trouble with getting engaged to someone who isn’t Jewish, since my older brother had already paved the way for me, forcing my parents to come to terms with the idea when he married his Eastern Orthodox wife. Having been intermarried for nine years now and raising two sons, my brother has closed the book on any concerns or arguments that my parents might have had regarding the issue. My parents have long since dealt with their misgivings and are actively encouraging that their grandchildren be raised with strong influences from their Jewish background and are happy with the results. Therefore, when I brought home a girl who wasn’t Jewish, they didn’t blink or put up any resistance; they just asked when I’m going to propose, and when I finally did they were extremely supportive.

However, it wasn’t like this for my brother. For a long time both he and I were always asked “is she Jewish?” If she wasn’t (which for my brother was rare, making this an even bigger revelation when he did get married) there were many follow-up questions: “okay but it’s not that serious right?” “How will you raise the kids?” “What if she’s turns out to be an anti-Semite?” (Apparently secret anti-Semites often marry Jews only to reveal themselves years later—according to my parents at the time.) Once my parents realized that this time it was, in fact, serious, it was made clear that my brother and sister-in-law’s main concern was how to raise their future kids; input from my parents was important, but secondary. My parents accepted that my sister-in-law and her family were indeed not secret anti-Semites, and the conversations turned to how to proceed with the wedding.

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How Do You Say “Engagement” in Hebrew?

As an Israeli living in the United States, I am drawn to news stories about American Israelis. One such story was published recently in the Israeli newspaper Israel Hayom (Israel Today). It describes a new study of American Israelis conducted by the Israeli polling company Midgam (famous for posting Israeli election exit polls). This latest survey was completed by 1,598 American Israelis in 40 states who were on lists of Israeli American organizations such as the Israeli-American Council and the Israeli House. While not necessarily representative of the entire population of American Israelis, it nevertheless cannot be easily dismissed.

This study finds that American Israelis who have lived here longer show higher levels of engagement. For example, they are more likely to attend synagogue and send their children to Jewish day schools. I find this finding surprising. Everything we know about the experience of immigrants to the United States indicates that the longer they live in the U.S., the more enculturated – the more similar to veteran Americans – they become. We also know that the great majority of Jewish Americans is not engaged with the organized Jewish community. The reasonable conclusion is that Israelis who have lived in the U.S. for many years would be less likely than their FOB (fresh-off-boat) compatriots to be affiliated with Jewish institutions. So why is this not the case?

There could be at least two explanations for these surprising findings. First, this seeming rise in engagement could be caused by natural life cycle changes. Most recent arrivals in the U.S. (and this is true not only of Israelis) are young and single. After ten years, however, many have become married with children – a population that, across the board, is more highly engaged and affiliated than singles.

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The Letter that Brought Us All Together

Families are like geodes - those rocks full of crystals. Each member of the family represents its own unique crystal, and when assembled, they form a beautiful stone. Like geodes, families are fragile. Pressure can either bring the crystals closer together and strengthen, or it can create fractures and undermine the integrity of the unit. For my family, the passing of my father-in-law was such an event.

My father-in-law, who we affectionately called “Nonno,” - the Ladino term for Grandfather - was the patriarch of our modern Jewish family. (Ladino is the language of western Sephardim, a mix of Hebrew and Spanish) Born in pre-state Palestine in 1942, my father-in-law had a complex relationship with his heritage, and everyone around him. Diagnosed with stage IIIa lung cancer this past January, Nonno fought and lived bravely. He was meticulous and had an eye for detail. Faced with his mortality, Nonno sought to wrap up the details of life. From the purchase of his final resting place to the details of his burial, Nonno helped to ensure that the bond between his precious crystals would be strengthened when stressed.

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The Importance of Grandparents, through the lens of “My Basmati Bat Mitzvah”

I recently indulged in tween fiction and read My Basmati Bat Mitzvah, the story of Tara Feinstein, your average Indian Jewish American middle school girl. The book, written by Paula Freedman, follows Tara in the lead-up to her Bat Mitzvah, as she struggles with friends, boys, parents, and her identity as both an Indian American and a Jewish American.

Tara’s connection to her grandparents figures prominently throughout the novel. Nani and Nanaji, her Indian grandparents, live large in her heart and memory. Her Jewish grandmother, Gran, lives 15 blocks away. In her quest to be “a normal Jewish kid—with a healthy sprinkling of masala [a delicious blend of Indian spices] on top,” Tara doesn’t want to alienate either parts of her family.

Thankfully, both sides of the family, led in spirit or action by the grandparents, are supportive and welcoming. When Tara accidentally damages the beautiful heirloom sari (draped fabric worn by women) that originally belonged to Nani, her Indian grandmother, it is Gran who takes her to the tailor to transform it into a dress. The two sides of Tara’s family come together for both the Diwali (Hindu festival of lights) celebration—with Gran bringing the traditional vat of matzah ball soup—and (spoiler alert!) Tara’s Bat Mitzvah at the end of the book.

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“Jewish Pro You Should Know”: Pat Nisenholz

Pat Nisenholz has always been a searcher. Her openness, her eagerness to learn, and her desire to make a difference in the lives of others brought her from an early career in interior design to her current position as Early Childhood Family Engagement Educator at the Jewish Community Center (JCC) of Chicago. After completing a degree in Art Therapy through the Barat College Psychology School, Pat furthered her Jewish journey by enrolling in the Melton program for teachers. Through a chance meeting with the Director of the Bernard Weinger JCC while working out at the JCC gym, Pat’s career with the JCC took off.

Pat embodies the JCC mission of bringing Jewish values to life. “My job is to raise awareness,” she says. “I want people to be action-oriented. I don’t want to just talk about being kind, I want us to go out there and show how to be kind. I want to model for my directors and model for my parents.”

Pat’s training as a Big Tent Judaism Professional Affiliate has helped her to refocus and reassess the kinds of experiences provided by the JCC. She is JOI’s first “Jewish Pro You Should Know,” and she answers The Four Questions below.

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What Does Intermarriage Look Like?

“Intermarriage” means a lot of things. It can mean a marriage between people of different faiths, different cultures, different races, or even more subtle differences, such as differences within a single religion. (It is common to hear a marriage between a Sephardi [Mediterranean] Jew and an Ashkenazi [Eastern European] Jew referred to as an intermarriage). So then what does intermarriage look like?

An Israeli photographer decided to find out, recently releasing a book of photos entitled Intermarried, and several of her photos were recently featured in the Sunday Review section of The New York Times. To compile her subjects, photographer Yael Ben-Zion, herself intermarried, simply put a call out on a New York parents listserve for couples who consider themselves mixed. The result is a beautiful collection of candid photos with simple captions below—some of which paint a picture of how the couple or individual views themselves, and some of which describe how society around them reacted to their union.

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No “But” About It

The language we use when talking about inclusion, or to those we wish to include, is delicate. Instead of “non-Jewish mother,” we prefer to say “woman of another background raising Jewish children” (see this recent blog about being a “non”). Instead of “convert,” we prefer to say “Jew-by-choice.” Some phrases and words, however, are much more subtle.

Take for example the following sentences:

“My daughter is raising her children Jewish but her husband is Protestant.”

“My son is dating a Muslim girl, but she’s very nice.”

At first glance, these phrases seem harmless and perhaps even appropriate. The daughter is raising her children Jewish; the son is dating a nice girl. However, the common thread is the use of the conjunction “but,” which gives a decidedly negative flavor to an otherwise innocuous phrase. Many times when I come across phrases like the one above, the speaker or writer has no idea they’ve said something negative. To a trained ear or eye, the negativity is all too apparent, and sometimes that eye is the person about who you are speaking. To say something like what is said above is to say that there is something amiss, something wrong with the person. It’s as if someone were to say “he’s Jewish, but he’s a nice person”—as if Jews aren’t inherently nice.

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“Must This Lesbian Wear a Dress to an Orthodox Synagogue?”

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?

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Being an Outsider

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.

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December 25th: a Day For Everyone

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.

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13 Celebrated Moments in Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute in 2013— Get Ready for 2014

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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….”
  4. Pilot programs for LGBT Interfaith couples in Los Angeles—to be rolled out nationally in years following.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. 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.
  13. Reached the Gold Standard in charitable giving, according to Guidestar, the highest level of financial and governance transparency.


Thoughts on the Passing of Edgar Bronfman, Sr.

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



Interfaith, According to My Four Year Old

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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Inclusiveness Works!

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Thanksgivukkah in Cleveland

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.

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