Thoughts from Outreach Workshop on Death and Mourning

Post by Ronnie Friedland, Web Magazine Editor:

I attended a fascinating conference, Comforting the Bereaved: Issues of Loss and Mourning in the Interfaith Family, an Outreach Training Institute program led by The Union for Reform Judaism, Northeast Council, which was organized and run by Paula Brody on Wednesday, March 28. The conference had varied interesting speakers who spoke about nuances of interfaith mourning I’d never considered before.

An intermarried woman spoke of two funerals she had attended recently, one for her grandfather, the other for her Jewish husband’s grandmother. The speaker, a non-Jew, mentioned that her family is not comfortable expressing their emotions, unlike her husband’s family, which is. These differences were manifest in the different mourning rituals for these funerals she attended. Her family was very comfortable with gathering for a family dinner the night before her grandfather’s funeral, then attending the funeral and then returning to their normal lives the day after the funeral. The long shiva period for her husband’s grandmother, and all the emotions expressed, made her uncomfortable, and she felt overwhelmed.

Jews-by-choice spoke of the emotional complexities of arranging funerals for loved ones from their non-Jewish family, how feelings they had had of ambiguous loss are amplified at the time of bereavement. In addition, one mentioned how a member of his congregation left a basin of water and towels outside his home for when he returned from the Christian funeral, and how affirming this was for him of his Jewish identity. Another mentioned the loneliness of loss for Jews-by-choice, who don’t have Jewish family members to attend shiva with them. One spoke of the comfort of having Jewish mourning rituals a requirement for him.
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The Top 50 Rabbis, The Resurgence of Reform Ritual

About two months ago, the Jewish Outreach Institute presented the findings of its “outreach scan” to Jewish professionals in Morris County, New Jersey. To conduct the “outreach scan,” JOI cold calls and emails, and checks out the websites of, institutions in a particular area. The goal is to determine how welcoming–or unwelcoming–an area’s institutions are to unaffiliated Jews, including the intermarried.

I mention it now because JOI’s executive director, our friend, Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, was recently named one of the top 50 rabbis in America by a very unscientific three-man poll published in Newsweek. He ranked 27th, putting him behind such famous rabbis as Harold Kushner and Shmuley Boteach but ahead of such luminaries as Elliot Dorff and Avi Weiss. Rabbis have already started scoffing at the list, but I’m guessing it will draw more attention to the work of many of these rabbis than they’ve ever had before. A few, like Kushner, Boteach and Michael Lerner, already have a well-established presence in the secular non-Jewish world, but many others are names known only to Jewish community insiders. And while the selection process was bizarre (since when do three Hollywood media barons know so much about rabbis?) and the ranking is biased towards the West Coast, all the names that should be on a list like this are on there.
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April Aggravation? The Spring Situation?

Sue Fishkoff calls it “April aggravation.” We call it the “spring situation.” Whatever you call it, there’s something to it. It’s the annual conflict between Easter and Passover in interfaith families, and the JTA’s Fishkoff has written a story about our survey of interfaith families juggling the two holidays.

The survey specifically looked at interfaith families raising their children exclusively in Judaism, and we found results both familiar and surprising. Generally, they negotiated the holidays in the same way they negotiated the December holidays: they celebrated more Jewish rituals, kept the holidays separate and saw the Jewish holiday as more religious than the Christian one. But once we started slicing up the population, we found some interesting results. There was no difference in Passover behaviors between families where the woman is Jewish vs. families where the woman isn’t Jewish, but there were significant differences in the Easter behaviors, especially “secular” rituals like decorating Easter eggs and participating in an Easter egg hunt. There were also significant differences between Jewish and Christian respondents on their level of comfort with, and anticipation of, Easter.

Love in the Time of War

Joshua Gross, a public affairs consultant in Washington, D.C., wrote a poignant story in last week’s Forward about how his relationship with a Lebanese woman was threatened by last summer’s war between Israel and Lebanon.

As is the case with many Arab-Jewish or Muslim-Jewish relationships, politics was a topic typically avoided in their relationship:

Together, Helen and I had tried to create a tidy little universe with a population of two. In this universe, it didn’t matter that I was a Jew and Helen was an Arab. We were beyond the politics.

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Remaking the Reform Movement

Rabbi David Forman, the founder of Rabbis for Human Rights, wrote a provocative op-ed in the Jerusalem Post arguing that the Reform movement needs to change if it hopes to engage Jews in Israel, the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and Germany. While Chabad has emerged as a dominant Jewish force in many of these places, and other more far-flung communities, the Reform movement “has barely made a dent in the consciousness of Jews in these places.”

He doesn’t blame the the leadership of the international Reform movement (the World Union for Progressive Judaism) or the leadership of the North American Reform movement (the Union for Reform Judaism), but rather the constitutents of the North American Reform movement.

…while … the Union of Reform Judaism … has adopted WUPJ’s religious ideology, whereby both Jewish peoplehood and the centrality of Israel to Jewish theology should be primary forces in the life of a Jew, the URJ’s constituents have not. Preaching by North American Reform leaders about commitment to the Jewish people does not resonate with most US Jews.

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All Julie Wiener, All the Time

Julie Wiener, our prolific friend at The (New York) Jewish Week, has a new column in today’s paper that marks her 10-year anniversary in the Jewish media.

One of the interesting points she tackles is whether or not her column promotes intermarriage? We receive that question–and that criticism–regularly as well, and the answer is complex. Wiener answers it ably:

Does my column, as some have complained, promote intermarriage? That is not my intention. I have no regrets about my own choice of husband (other than wishing he worked fewer hours and was a little handier around the house), but I am hardly out to get new recruits for some interfaith families’ lobby. All other things being equal, I have no doubt that it is easier to live a Jewish life and raise Jewish children if one has a Jewish partner. But I don’t think that means intermarriage is a disaster or, as one sociologist recently claimed, “the single greatest threat to Jewish continuity.”

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Not the Sunday School You Remember

The Washington Jewish Week had a very interesting article yesterday about a new, non-traditional Sunday school starting at a synagogue in Maryland.

It’s interesting for a number of reasons: first off, the impetus for the new school came from a woman whose daughter is married to a Catholic man and has two children. The fact that a grandmother was looking for ways to communicate Jewish heritage to her interfaith grandchildren highlights a phenomenon that we expect to see more of in the coming years. We expect to see grandparents take an increasing role in the Jewish education of their grandchildren as the grandparents are often the population most concerned about passing on Jewish heritage.
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The Link Sink

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Julie Wiener, author of the column “In the Mix” for The (New York) Jewish Week, is probably the most widely read regular writer on intermarriage. It doesn’t hurt that she’s also a terrific writer with an eye for interesting takes on the subject (and she’s intermarried to boot). She just started a website to catalogue her columns.

The cover story of the new issue of the j., the Jewish news weekly of northern California, is about interfaith burials. It combines the JTA article from January with original reporting, including the encouraging news that a new cemetery has opened in San Francisco’s East Bay that will primarily cater to intermarried couples.
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The Threat of Messianic Judaism

Our new issue on The Threat of Messianic Judaism came out today. We decided to do a story on Messianic Judaism because on the surface, it appears to offer a harmonization of Christian belief and Jewish ritual practice–”the best of both worlds,” so to speak. But dig a little deeper and it becomes clear that it’s not, that few Jews consider Messianic Jews to be Jewish, that some Messianic organizations are merely fronts for evangelical Christian missionaries.

In the issue, we look at how Messianic missionaries use a variety of approaches to proselytize to Jews: in Phoenix, Messianic Jews run a Judaica store; on the campus of Colorado State University, they hand out pamphlets with fabricated rabbinical quotes; in New York last summer, Jews for Jesus set up kiosks at a shopping mall; and in Germany, they target Russian Jewish immigrants for conversion.
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Balancing the Spring Holidays

The Fort Wayne News-Sentinel has a well-thought-out piece on the potential pitfalls of planning a Passover or Easter dinner for interfaith guests. The kosher dietary laws, and the even stricter kosher-for-Passover laws, are of course one constraint, but so is the Catholic prohibition on eating meat on Fridays during Lent. The article includes some helpful suggestions on how to make a meal that will please–or more importantly, won’t offend–everybody.

The article reminds me of a great story from our Archives about a Puerto Rican woman’s menu for a Latino-tinted kosher dinner for Easter.