Who is a Jew? Who Cares?

Julie Wiener, in typically brilliant fashion, has written a great piece on the “Who is a Jew?” debate as seen through the eyes of her 3 1/2-year-old daughter:

At 3 ½ years old, she knows nothing about matrilineal or patrilineal descent, nor has she any clue about what is recognized by the State of Israel — or for that matter, what exactly Israel is.

But newly cognizant of the fact that she is Jewish, and that Jewishness is not universal, she has become fascinated with categorizing everyone she knows, sorting them into “Jewish” and “Christian.”

She is Jewish. Her friends Owen and Stephanie are Christian. The other kids at Tot Shabbat are Jewish. Her babysitter Maria is Christian.

Continue reading

Innovative Outreach Ideas

Our recent conference gathered 40 outreach professionals who are mostly doing the most established kinds of outreach: couples counseling and family education. But what are some new directions for outreach?

One idea comes from the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, which operates the “PJ Library,” a project that mails a year’s worth of free, age-appropriate Jewish children’s books and CDs to less-affiliated families with children, most of whom are interfaith families.

The PJ Library operates in 35 communities across the country. A recent survey showed that most of the families owned virtually no Jewish books before joining the program and now 75% of them read the PJ Library books to their children once a week or more. To extend the successful program into more communities, the Grinspoon Foundation has offered to match up to $100,000 raised for the program in any community by June 30, 2007.

I’ve also recently been in touch with one of the actors in “Both Sides of the Family,” a one-act play about intermarriage by Maryann Elder Goldstein that premiered in Cleveland in December. The play explores interfaith marriage through the lens of two characters: one, a divorced Jewish man remarried to a Christian woman who is raising his second family Christian, the other, a Christian woman raising her daughter Jewish with her Jewish husband. Well-written and well-acted, the play poignantly explores the challenges, both internal and social, that intermarried families face.

The small company that put on the play is looking to turn it into a roadshow in different Jewish communities. It could spark some very interesting conversations.

Is It OK for Jews to Proselytize?

Is it OK for Jews to proselytize?

A terrific new article in the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles tackles the question by looking at the Reform movement’s “Taste of Judaism” program. “Taste” is a three-part class that teaches the basics of Judaism to anyone who is interested–Jewish, non-Jewish, interfaith partner, whatever. Since its launch in 1994, more than 75,000 people have taken the class at 450 synagogues around the country. “Taste” is typically marketed through ads in secular newspapers.

While Orthodox Judaism still discourages converts, the Reform movement has been in favor of seeking converts for decades. In 1949, Leo Baeck established a “missionary center” to train Reform leaders to teach Judaism. In 1978, Rabbi Alex Schindler called on Reform Jews to offer Judaism to those unaffiliated with a particular Christian church.
Continue reading

The Link Sink

kitchendrain250.jpg

I need to unclog the drains of some links that have been piling up over the last two weeks:

  • In what can be categorized as the least surprising news of the last two weeks, the purported “agreement” between the Rabbinical Council of America and Israel’s chief rabbinate on conversion standards has hit a snag. Even more unsurprising is that the Israeli rabbinate appears to be to blame, demanding that U.S. rabbis who have never served in a rabbinical court must travel to Israel where they must pass an examination. As the two sides battle it out, sincere future Jews languish in limbo.
  • In a much more positive sign of intra-Jewish cooperation, the Conservative and Reform rabbinical seminaries recently announced that a few rabbinical students from each school will train and learn together as part of a pilot program. Beginning in 2008, four students each from the Reform Hebrew Union College and the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary will take part in joint classes on outreach to interfaith families, outreach to LGBT Jews, leadership development, fundraising and marketing. The Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation will be funding the project.
  • In late March, Robert Leiter, a fine writer for The (Philadelphia) Jewish Exponent, wrote an offensive article praising two books titled Why Marry Jewish? and Dear Rabbi, Why Can’t I Marry Her? We made our thoughts known in a letter to the editor of the Exponent. It garnered this response from Rabbi Eliezer Shemtov, author of Dear Rabbi.
  • The Kansas City Star has the haunting story of a half-Jewish, half-Catholic woman who once stood an arm’s length away from Adolf Hitler when she was a child:

    “He had this tremendous look and charisma about him, and he looked right into our eyes,” she said. “I saw his eyes. They seemed like they were violet to me. They had a dark, purplish appearance.”

Intermarriage as a Form of Outreach?

We often speak of Jewish outreach to intermarried families, where progressive organizations and programs can serve as a bridge between the intermarried and the Jewish community. But it works both ways. The intermarried can serve as a bridge between the Jewish community and the non-Jewish community. Intermarriage can actually be a form of outreach to the general secular world.

Rabbi Kerry Olitzky elaborates on this notion in an op-ed for the New Jersey Jewish News:

Numerous Jewish community relations councils (throughout the country and in cities of all sizes) have worked tirelessly to nurture tolerance among various segments of the non-Jewish population. Some of their efforts have been technically defensive but most of the time they have followed the notion that education through familiarity is the key to promoting tolerance. So they make sure that people in the community learn about the rhythms and idiosyncrasies of Jewish life, beginning with simple things such as the rituals surrounding Shabbat, kosher dietary laws, and the timing of the Jewish holidays. All of this is a sincere effort to make members of the Jewish community seem less like “others” or “outsiders” by actively sharing our rites and beliefs with people from other religious backgrounds.

Continue reading

Our First Ever Conference of Outreach Professionals

justmarried150.jpg

Last week was blog-free because I was at InterfaithFamily.com’s first-ever conference, a retreat for outreach professionals called “Nurturing Outreach: Embracing the Other, Taking Care of Ourselves.” Taking place at the Capital Camps and Retreat Center in Waynesboro, Pa., it was the first-ever national conference for professionals working exclusively in outreach to interfaith families.

More than 50 people attended, including:

  • every regional director of outreach for the Reform movement;
  • the national director of outreach for the Reform movement, Kathy Kahn;
  • Rabbi Chuck Simon, the head of the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs, who has been doing pioneering outreach work in the Conservative movement for years;
  • Rabbi Samuel Gordon, the founding rabbi of Congregation Sukkat Shalom in Illinois, a congregation that caters to the needs of interfaith families;
  • Rosanne Levitt, the creator of Interfaith Connection at the JCC of San Francisco, one of the first outreach programs in the country (1986);
  • Rabbi Gary Schoenberg and Rabbi Laurie Rutenberg, the creators of Gesher, an innovative 17-year-old outreach program in Portland, Ore., that immerses unaffiliated Jews in home-based Jewish celebrations;
  • and other longtime veterans of the field, like Debbie Antonoff, Dawn Kepler, Karen Kushner and Lynn Wolfe.

Among the highlights were a Biblical text study of midrash relating to intermarriage, led by Rabbi Brian Field; a session on research on outreach and intermarriage, led by Dr. Sherry Israel of Brandeis University; and a model outreach program visioning session. One of the most exciting developments was the broad-based support–the hunger, really–for a national organization of outreach professionals. Many of the people who work in outreach work in isolation, with little professional respect and for not much pay, and an organization could help them connect and share information in a way they haven’t done before. It could also potentially advocate for them, and the field of outreach in general, among major Jewish funders. As Eve Coulson, former assistant director of the Jewish Outreach Institute and IFF board member, said at the conference, we need to make outreach a fixture in Federation funding, like day schools, camps and Israel.

The Perils of Intermarriage–’70s-Style

justmarried150.jpg

Let me paint a picture: It’s the age of lava lamps and rollerskates. Lynyrd Skynyrd rules the airwaves. America has yet to discover the gritty urban raps of the Sugarhill Gang. It’s an innocent time, the ’70s, a time before intermarriage was commonplace, a time when a Jewish man and a Catholic woman would have to be crazy to fall in love. Can their passion survive the anti-Semitic glares of their neighbors? The disapproving tweed jackets of their fathers? The confused sideburns of their friends?

Eli Valley, Jewcy.com’s talented humorist, has the answer.

In his recent post, “When Jewish David Met Irish Eileen,” Eli analyzes a 9-part series from the obscure ’70s comic book series “Just Married.” The storyline? An Orthodox Jew–who never wears a yarmulke but is partial to turtlenecks–falls in love with a devout Catholic woman. A typically hilarious passage from his analysis:

Although they have already eloped, David and Eileen get remarried, twice, to please their parents – first in a church, and then in a synagogue. In the storyline’s solitary visit to a Jewish house of worship, we glean fascinating insights into Orthodox Jewish customs – the burning incense, the rabbi wearing a circular necklace, the resemblance of the rabbi to Jesus, the prayer book inscribed with a Jewish Star drawn to resemble a Pentagram. It is as if the comic book is asking, are not all religions the same? Especially if they all look like Christianity? Finally, the comic book reveals that in Orthodox Jewish weddings, it is customary for the rabbi to make out with the bride, particularly if she is a Gentile.

Now, if in the wake of the Don Imus affair, you’re wondering what is acceptable to joke about and laugh at, and what is not, Peter Moore, a self-described “half-Jewish” (“I always tell people that I’m not really one of the Chosen People, but I am an Alternate.”) actor and director, created a list of guidelines for telling jokes in the PC age, in the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star-Tribune.

Jewish Identity in Anti-Semitic Lands

Russia and England provide interesting contrasts when it comes to anti-Semitism. Both have rather shameful histories of Jewish persecution–anti-Jewish pogroms were a common feature of 19th century Russian life, Jews were banned from England for more than 350 years from 1290-1656–and both retain legacies of anti-Semitism. In Russia, Jews are openly discriminated against and blamed for the ills of society, while in Britain, anti-Semitic statements are surprisingly commonplace.

Two recent stories illustrate how the particular cultures of these countries can affect people’s sense of religious and cultural identity. The JTA tells the fascinating story of Bella Leidentel, the 73-year-old matriarch of a a small Jewish community in Russia’s Far East. As a child she doesn’t remember much anti-Semitism, but after World War II, she noticed that people began blaming Jews for the war. As a young woman, she found anti-Semitism so overt that she made a decision to turn her back on Judaism. She told people her Jewish-looking features were actually Armenian.

“I promised myself that there wouldn’t be a single Jew in my family,” she said… without even a whisper of regret. “So I married a Russian.”

Continue reading

Israeli Conversion Impasse Broken–Sort of

The (New York) Jewish Week broke the news last week that the Chief Rabbinate of Israel has agreed to recognize all conversions by the Rabbinical Council of America, the largest Orthodox rabbinical association in North America. In exchange, the RCA will set up regional conversion courts that will follow the strict standards requested by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate.

I’ve written about the sorry state of affairs for would-be converts in Israel before, and this is welcome news. Would-be converts from the U.S. who are looking to undergo an Orthodox conversion can now be confident that their conversion will be recognized in Israel. At the same time, there are numerous groups that this decision doesn’t help, including: those who converted before the official network of regional courts were established; those who went through the state-funded conversion academy in Israel; those who converted under Conservative or Reform auspices; and those who converted under Orthodox auspices outside of North America.

While potential converts still face numerous obstacles in Israel, the Orthodox in America, to their credit, are beginning to open up toward non-Jewish spouses looking to convert. Traditionally, Orthodox rabbis did not accept intermarriage as a legitimate reason to convert, but Eternal Jewish Family, a non-profit based out of New York, is looking to change that.

The group is holding a seminar in Phoenix May 13-15 on “Universally Accepted Conversion in Interfaith Marriage.”