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.
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.
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?
Rabbi Amy Memis-Folder is the rabbi of Temple Judea Mizpah in Skokie, IL and is also a Big Tent Judaism Professional Affiliate. below is an excerpt from her “erev Rosh Hashanah” (the first night of Rosh Hashanah) sermon, in which she discusses the importance of being a Big Tent Judaism community and synagogue with her congregation. Photo credit: Michael Jarecki for Sun-Times Media
Speaking of marking milestone years, this year Temple Judea Mizpah (TJM) is celebrating our 60th year. Through the coming months we will be marking this milestone with a variety of simchas [festive occasions], such as a ribbon cutting for our new archives, a gala evening and monthly blessings on the bima [raised platform from which the Torah is read] for every group in the congregation. Keep posted to hear how you can participate and how we’re honoring you.
Temple Judea Mizpah too needs to grow. How?
Do we want to grow the population of people in the congregation and get more members? Well yes, but there are other ways to grow too.
Elise Passy is JOI’s new Big Tent Judaism Coordinator in Houston. She partners with the Houston Jewish community to create and implement low barrier, welcoming programs that serve all those who might find interest and meaning in Jewish life regardless of affiliation or family structure. We are excited to add her voice to the JOI.org blog. Meet Elise here.
Why am I involved with Big Tent Judaism? Because I am part of an American Jewish family. Growing up in Houston, Texas on the “not Jewish” side of town, I was always one of a few in my class at school. I remember my mother going into my class and explaining about Hanukkah and making latkes for all of the kids in the third grade. I knew I was different. I liked it. I was the kid who taught religious school, who was in the leadership of multiple youth groups. I was deeply involved.
After I graduated high school, my mom, a widow, remarried. My step-father has three kids, and together they had emigrated from South Africa. The American Jewish community was different from what they had known. Blending a family is not easy. My parents were fortunate in that only one of us lived at home full-time.
Last week, JOI Associate Executive Director Paul Golin weighed in on the recent Pew research study regarding the current Jewish population in the United States. His comments, which appeared in the article “Half Full or Half Empty” in the New Jersey Jewish News, point out the positives in the study where many are seeing the negatives. Instead of focusing on the million-person increase to the Jewish population over the last decade or so, many are focusing on the high intermarriage rate, believing it spells disaster for the future of the Jewish population. Paul Golin doesn’t see it that way.
“We found an extra million Jews since the last time we counted — and we found it a great disaster!” quipped Paul Golin, associate executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute in New York. His organization tries to integrate unaffiliated and intermarried families into the Jewish community.
“The question people are asking is: What kind of Jews are they? It’s one of the most divisive questions you could ask,” said Golin. “The panic I see being expressed is because the Jews they are finding are not like the Jews who run the Jewish community. They don’t find resonance in the same things, so what do we do about it?”
For us at JOI, the question is not “what kind of a Jew are you,” but simply “do you want to participate in the Jewish community?” If the answer is yes, then we as Jewish communal professionals should help these people and their families to find a place in the community.
Do you agree? Then we invite you to show your support for the 61% of Jewish interfaith families who are raising their children with Jewish identities by sharing the photo below on Facebook.
The recent publication of the Steinhardt Social Research Institute’s (SSRI) American Jewish Population Estimate: 2012, coupled only a few days later by the release of the Pew Research Center’s A Portrait of American Jews threw some in the community into a tail spin of lamentations.
In a New York Times article on the Pew Study Jack Wertheimer, to give just one example, called the findings “a very grim portrait of the health of the American Jewish population.” And the other comments from Jewish communal professionals and researchers closely dovetail Wertheimer’s comment. Non-Orthodox American Jews are now intermarrying at an all-time high rate of 71%. This, surely, spells the destruction of the Jewish community – at least the non-Orthodox Jewish community. Unfortunate references to a “modern Holocaust” have already been made.
But wait a minute. The authors of the SSRI, who have been the primary consultants to the Pew study, makes a very different case: they claim to draw “a portrait of American Jewry [which is,] at least numerically, in ascent rather than in decline.” They estimate the overall number of United States Jews (including children) at a surprisingly high 6.8 million, up 5% from a 6.5 million figure estimated by the same folks, using the same methods, in 2010. “The U.S. Jewish population is substantially larger than previously estimated,” the SSRI authors conclude.
Usually we think of the annual challenge facing American Jews—and especially interfaith families—as the conflict between Christmas and Hanukkah. I have gone on record and said many times, “Hanukkah is not a minor festival. In North America, it is a major holiday.” By now, many people have realized that this year’s calendar conflict will occur in November rather than in December: between Thanksgiving and Hanukkah. While these two holidays seem never to have been in conflict with one another, it will nevertheless challenge the religious mindset of folks as they consider which celebration will take precedence over the other, especially since Hanukkah has become the national Jewish holiday. One enterprising young man has already weighed in with his Menurkey, a Hanukkiyah that looks like a turkey. I am sure that as we leave this string of fall holidays behind, more ingenuity and practical solutions will emerge.
Admittedly, the Jewish holiday cycle and calendation, that is, figuring out when holidays take place and for how long (in the soli-lunar Hebrew calendar), is among the most challenging for those on the periphery of Jewish life. It gets even more confusing when you add the Israeli interpretation of the holiday calendar (slightly different and mostly followed by the Reform movement, as well). (I’ll let you in on a little secret: it is also challenging for those on the inside.) That’s among the reasons why people often find it difficult to get in sync with the rhythm of Jewish life. As a result, especially when a creative environment is not built for them, they simply opt out.
There are basically two primary holiday cycles in the Jewish religious calendar. The fall holidays actually begin toward the end of the summer, at the beginning of the Hebrew month of Elul. This initiates the period of intensive introspection that includes Rosh Hashanah and culminates in Yom Kippur. But the seasonal cycle doesn’t conclude until the holiday that is the end cap for Sukkot: Simchat Torah, which celebrates the year-long cycle of reading the Torah. The spring holidays begin with Pesach (Passover) and after a period of counting down toward the barley harvest (called Sefirat Haomer) and the giving of the Torah at Sinai, this period concludes with the holiday of Shavuot, which celebrates the spring harvest, or more specifically, the barley harvest.