A resource for Jewish communal professionals engaged in outreach to those on the periphery of Jewish life.
Below are some of JOI's most recent thoughts on current issues about creating a more welcoming Jewish community. What do YOU think? Please feel free to leave comments.
If you haven’t noticed, the landscape of the North American Jewish community is changing. In many Jewish communities and institutions the flaps or our proverbial tent are being opened wider than ever before. In many places (though certainly not everywhere) there are many who are active participants, even leaders in the Jewish community who, under strict Jewish law or halacha, would not be considered Jewish. They are the partners and spouses of Jews, they are the children of intermarriage (who, if their mother is not Jewish, are not considered Jewish according to halacha), and they are spiritual seekers who have found a home in the Jewish community even as they made the choice not to convert formally. We see these changes in our work every day; we have been advocating, programming, and training the Jewish community to open its tent for the past quarter century.
Still, these changes have not taken their due place on the forefront of our communal conversation. This is why I was happy to read a recent article in Ha’aretz which discusses the finding that an increasing number of people of other religious and cultural backgrounds are active members in Jewish synagogues. According to Yaakov Ariel, a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina, “Sometimes as many as half the people in a synagogue are either non-Jews or married to non-Jews, or have a close non-Jewish relative.” There are several points in this article that I find especially noteworthy.
A popular mystical teaching explains the uniqueness of the period leading up to the High Holidays with the following metaphor: During the majority of the year, the king sits in his palace and those who wish to meet him must travel all the way to the capitol city, negotiate through many layers of bureaucracy, and then navigate through the many antechambers in the palace, just to have a brief audience with the king. Not to mention, the visitor must also be meticulously dressed and display the most decorous speech and mannerisms if he or she dares to stand in the presence of the king. Yet, on occasion, the king will go out for a stroll in the fields, at which time he is totally accessible to even the most simple farmer or laborer. Anyone can approach him, regardless who they are, what they know, how much money they have, or what they are wearing.
Traditionally, this metaphor is understood as explaining how the King, God, is more merciful and accessible to repentant sinners during the month leading up to Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, but I think it also gives us a model for understanding how to make Judaism, in general, more inclusive and accessible. Jewish life is often perceived as being like the king in his palace, hidden behind the walls of ornate synagogues and spacious community centers. Those who wish to participate must navigate the barriers of perquisite background knowledge, costly membership dues, and, for some, an overall feeling of not being welcome. While this institutionally-oriented aspect of Jewish life is still valid and important, it cannot be the only way. There must come a time when we go out into the fields, literally wherever the people are, and bring a taste of Judaism to them.
Most Saturday mornings, when I am home, I can be found at Torah study at Temple Israel in Boston. But, when I travel I often let this practice lapse. This past weekend, however, I traveled solo and decided to take in Shabbat services at a local highly esteemed congregation.
Services were energetic; the music infectious; and, the Rabbi’s teaching was truly enlightening. The weekly Torah reading included Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden. The Rabbi demonstrated through Rabbinic texts that the Jewish understanding of the expulsion myth is very different than the overwhelming prevailing Christian understanding of this narrative, as best exemplified by John Milton’s, Paradise Lost.
I was uplifted. I love learning something that is so simple and so clear and so patently obvious, but which I have somehow missed in the past 50+ years.
Yet, notwithstanding the empowerment of new knowledge, and the overall richness of the services, I left with the distinct feeling that something was missing. Something important.
The missing piece was easy to identify.
It’s hard to believe it’s that time of year already, but the High Holidays have come and gone. As summer has faded into fall, Jewish communal professionals and volunteers across North America have brought Public Space JudaismSM to their communities, using the holidays to share a taste of Jewish life in public secular spaces.
When people think of where most Public Space Judaism programs are held, their minds often jump to a grocery store—for good reason, since many Public Space Judaism programs involve using food as an entry point into the holidays. Since most people regularly go grocery shopping, the supermarket is a great place to meet them where they are and introduce Jewish life and community through food. This is certainly true for the High Holidays, where our “A Spoonful of Honey” program uses gourmet apples and honey tasting in a public space to connect people with their Jewish community.
But there’s more to Public Space Judaism than grocery stores, and this year Big Tent Judaism and our partners have continued to bring Public Space Judaism to increasingly innovative new spaces. Over 20 of the 90 Public Space Judaism programs that took place this High Holiday season were held in “alternative” locations such as fairs, museums, and restaurants.
There remains a lot of controversy in the Jewish community over rabbinic officiation of weddings for intermarried couples. It is an important subject, especially since peer pressure among rabbis—and sometimes even a cabal—prevents individual rabbis from acting on their conscience, regardless of the decision. Some people argue that this is what keeps intermarried couples out of the synagogue or, at least, from wanting to affiliate with it. And, of course, we have seen the domino effect of parents, long time synagogue members, resigning their membership when their rabbi won’t or can’t officiate at the wedding of their adult child.
Nevertheless, I think that this conversation is an example of “not seeing the forest for the trees.” The real issue regarding officiation is that rabbis—and other religious clergy throughout the United States—have lost hegemony over life cycle events. All one has to do is review the weddings pages in the New York Times on any given Sunday. Take a look at how many weddings have mainstream religious clergy as officiants and how many are officiated by those friends and relatives who got some sort of a religious license in order to officiate at the wedding.