Why Jewish Life? (Part II)


While we don’t push non-Jewish spouses in intermarriages to convert to Judaism, converts often have an extraordinary perspective on Judaism. Where born Jews have the culture first and then learn the religion, converts find the religion first and then learn the culture. This outsider’s perspective on Jewish identity can lead to amazing insights into Judaism; they are capable of shining a bright light on Judaism’s forgotten virtues as well as its hidden flaws.

Gail Nord Ginsburg, a former pastor at an evangelical mega-congregation, wrote a brilliant piece for the World Jewish Digest last month called “Why Choose Judaism?” (login required) She is a rare kind of convert: one who was immersed and deeply engaged in a different religious tradition before choosing Judaism. As such, she can offer a comparative analysis of Judaism that few others can.

Her piece is simultaneously a tribute to Judaism and a critique of the way it is lived and practiced in modern-day America.
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Outreach, from Reform to Orthodox


There seems to be a real uptick in attention to outreach programs lately.

Last week’s issue of the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles had a story from Adam Wills about a community scan that the Jewish Outreach Institute did in the West San Fernando and Conejo Valleys. A community scan works like this: workers from the New York-based JOI anonymously call and email synagogues and community agencies in a particular area pretending they’re unaffiliated and Jewishly unknowledgeable to determine how welcoming a particular community is. They also look at websites of local community institutions and interview local Jewish communal professionals. According to the Jewish Journal story, the West Valley/Conejo Valley area was the second most-welcoming community JOI has scanned, with a 77 percent favorable response rate.
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Open House?


There was a fascinating story two weeks ago by Sue Fishkoff about a new project called Moishe House, a network of subsidized homes for Jews in their 20s who are committed to building a Jewish community with their peers. In exchange for hosting eight to 12 events a month, making weekly reports and maintaining a website, three or four Jews receive a rent subsidy of up to $2,500 for a month, plus $500 for programming. Funding comes from The Forest Foundation, a Santa Barbara, Calif.-based philanthropy run by a 25-year-old executive director, David Cygielman.

While they all host regular Shabbat meals, the houses aren’t restricted to hosting only Jewish-themed events. The houses in Seattle, Los Angeles and San Francisco, for example, host a lot of poker parties and film nights, while the Boston house focuses more on social action.

“I won’t tell them what’s a wrong or a right program,” Cygielman says. “I don’t care, so long as they’re building community and lots of people are coming.”

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The Link Sink


A little catch-up on some relevant stories from the last two weeks or so:

  • The j., the Jewish news weekly of Northern California has another great intermarriage-related article. It’s a feature on an interfaith discussion group led by Helena McMahon, who runs Interfaith Connection in San Francisco. Founded 20 years ago, Interfaith Connection is one of the granddaddies of outreach to interfaith families.
  • I’m not sure if they were inspired by Associated Press reporter Rachel Zoll’s recent piece on conversion, but the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram recently ran a piece on the Conservative movement’s push to convert non-Jewish spouses.
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    Interfaith Dating, Take Two (or is it 10…)


    How’s this for a coincidence: a writer named Susan Jacobs has written an article on “The allure of interfaith dating” for the Jewish Journal Boston North barely a week after a different writer, also named Susan Jacobs, wrote an article on interfaith dating for the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle. Like the first article, this piece on interfaith dating is good overall but flawed in spots.

    The intro to the article very sensibly discusses why Jews date non-Jews:

    In today’s society, where Jews are no longer confined to ghettos and the ratio of non-Jews is far greater than Jews, inter-dating is inevitable.

    But the Jacobs isn’t happy to leave it at that. Instead, she posits the existence of something called “shiksappeal”:
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    Intermarriage Does Not Equal Assimilation


    Binyamin Netanyahu, the leader of Israel’s Likkud party, was reported in an article in the Jerusalem Post to have said that there is no future for Jewish life outside of Israel because of “assimilation and intermarriage.” Netanyahu clarifies that he didn’t say that; what he says he said was that there is no future for Jewish life in the Diaspora without the state of Israel. But he still says “we have lost countless Jews in the Diaspora to assimilation and intermarriage.”

    It is a terrible mistake for Jewish leaders like Netanyahu to equate assimilation and intermarriage, for reasons which I tried to explain–succinctly–in this letter to the editor of the Jerusalem Post:
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    What Makes a Celebrity Jewish


    Around a year ago, the website Jewhoo.com went off-line. Created and maintained by Nate Bloom, an Oakland-based writer, Jewhoo was the definitive site to go to to find out which celebrities were Jewish–and which weren’t. It was an amazing resource for Jewish journalists, and I’m sure I was not the only one who mourned its loss.

    The site sort-of lives on in a different form in a series of columns that Bloom continues to write for the New Jersey Jewish Standard, j., the Jewish news weekly of Northern California and three other Jewish papers. Bloom’s research is impeccable; he pores through every article on celebrities with Jewish-sounding names he can find to determine what their Jewish connection is. Are both parents Jewish? (Not that often.) Was the father Jewish? (Sometimes, but that can mean the celebrity practices some other religion.) Was the mother Jewish? What religion does the celebrity practice now?

    It’s tricky work, especially because so many celebrities are secular and are uncomfortable talking about religion. He’s like an ethnic/religious detective, snooping out who’s really Jewish–and who just has a -berg in their surname.
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    The Power of Letters


    One of the small but important ways IFF advocates for making the Jewish community more welcoming is by writing letters to the editor of papers that run stories on intermarriage. Sometimes we are able to congratulate newspapers and writers for shedding light on important issues and talking about them in a fair, sensitive manner. Other times we’re forced to set the record straight.
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    Some Personal Business, and Some Plain Old Business


    I would like to share a little news with our faithful readers. Last week while on a vacation in Hawaii, I got engaged to a wonderful non-Jewish woman! We’ve been dating longer than two people of our age should, and you can probably blame me for that. So the whole debate on intermarriage has just gotten a bit more personally meaningful for me, and I’m sure issues in our relationship will occasionally surface on the blog (although I’m not planning on turning this into a play-by-play of our wedding planning. IFF’s wedding blog, which will be coming soon, will be a forum for that.).

    In other news…
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    Why Jewish Life?


    My Yom Kippur experience was especially meaningful this year–I hope yours was too. It’s a wonderful opportunity to reflect on and evaluate my life, and consider what I can do better. I feel I have an entire clean slate of a New Year to fill, and the prospect is very exciting.

    I think my main motivation in founding InterfaithFamily.com, Inc. was my belief, based on my own experience and that of many friends, that participating in Jewish life can be a great source of meaning and fulfillment, not just for Jews, but in particular for interfaith couples. The Yom Kippur opportunity to reflect and evaluate is one example of that. Coincidentally or not, a wonderful article in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine is another great example.
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