Such Traditionalists

Even though InterfaithFamily.com represents a whole new attitude in the Jewish community toward interfaith marriage, about some things we are surprisingly traditional.

For example, when I write about Jewish food, I do not approve of blueberry bagels. They may be very nice pieces of bread, but they are not bagels.

One thing we do that’s innovative is that we are part of a whole collective of related and unrelated Jewish organizations here at 90 Oak Street. The Forward ran an article about how we are all in the same office space together. That’s how we knew about the fundraising video that my old friend Ellen Krause-Grosman produced for Jbooks.com. I pass Ken Gordon’s desk every day on my way in and out of the building. (I do leave eyeball tracks on his books, I admit it.)

We at IFF tend to be more traditional about fundraising, too. We don’t get the former poet laureate of the United States to play piano and sing (well, sort of) for us. No, we do the more usual: networking, making phone calls, writing proposals, making phone calls, meeting with donors and prospective donors and making phone calls. (Also we have a donate button. Over there, on the right. It’s blue.)
It doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy Robert Pinsky singing for Jbooks.com’s supper. We’re hip. Sort of. Continue reading

Survey: 60% of Progressive Rabbis Officiate

Sixty percent of rabbis at Reform, Reconstructionist, Jewish Renewal and unaffiliated congregations officiate at interfaith weddings, according to a new transdenominational survey by Dr. Caryn Aviv and Dr. Steven Cohen, reports JTA.

I haven’t seen the survey yet–it only was presented yesterday as part of a conference on best practices for engaging LGBT Jews–but if that number is correct, then it’s an astonishing development. The only comparable historical survey I know of is a 12-year-old rabbinic survey conducted by the Jewish Outreach Institute. That 1997 study showed that only 20 percent of rabbis across the denominations officiated at interfaith weddings, and even among the Reform rabbinate, only 36 percent officiated (although 85 percent of Reconstructionist rabbis did). Those numbers aren’t directly comparable to the reported number from the new study since the new study aggregates rabbis across several movements. But my guess is that officiation numbers are up across the board within movements that permit officiation at interfaith weddings.

The new survey polled 1,221 North American rabbis, synagogue directors and presidents in attempt to learn about how synagogues approach and engage gay and lesbian Jews. Among the other reported numbers: 73 percent of these leaders felt their synagogue did a good job welcoming gay and lesbian Jews; 33 percent said they held programs explicitly for gay people; 73 percent of synagogues had rabbis who officiated at same-sex ceremonies; and 47 percent of synagogue leaders said their attitudes toward gays and lesbians had become more favorable over the last decade.

I will let you know more once I get my hands on the report, but early signs suggest that the research will show that synagogues have become more welcoming towards gays and lesbians AND interfaith couples over the last decade. That’s a welcome development.

Happy Shrove Tuesday! Happy Mardi Gras!

It’s no secret around my office that I’m in the middle of rewriting a quickie guide to Jewish food. I have to pare down an encyclopedic 3,000 word monster of an anthropological study into something people can use. We are still discussing whether anyone needs to know about calves’ NOLA image by Ben Greenbergfoot jelly.

So I took a little internet research side-trip to learn about the foods associated with today’s holiday. No, it’s not a Jewish holiday as far as I know! Today is Fat Tuesday, also known as Mardi Gras, Shrove Tuesday or Pancake Day. It’s a day on which Roman Catholics have traditionally eaten a lot of goodies in anticipation of a solemn season of prayer and self-deprivation before Easter. Some called it Carnival because it was the last day they ate meat before not having any for 40 days. Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, which starts Lent. 

One traditional food in the United States is the King Cake that people in New Orleans share as part of Mardi Gras. Back in France they make a gallete de rois that’s frangipane (almond paste) and puff pastry, but here in the US it’s more like a giant cinnamon roll with colored sugar on top. I’ve never had this cake and now I really want to make one! Like a lot of Americans, I have a place in my heart for New Orleans because it’s the cradle of jazz and because of the terrible damage wrought by Hurricane Katrina. I’ve never been there, but my husband has been several times and took amazing photographs, some of which are on his Flickr page. (He took the one at right, too.) Continue reading

Blessing the Sun and Other Talmud Goodies

Look at this! On April 8, the Jewish community will have its first opportunity in 28 years to bless the sun. Apparently, the rabbis in the Talmud, in Tractate Berachot 59a, recorded an earlier Jewish tradition about where the sun was in the sky Sun by Warm and Fuzzywhen it was created. A group of Jewish environmental organizations (including, I see, a lot of IFF’s friends) has put up a website, Bless the Sun to give an overview of why we do this every 28 years and to provide a clearinghouse of listings of community events and a platform for advocating for sustainable energy in a Jewish context. They are also running an art competition with entries due March 1.

(If you like this adorable sun picture, click it, and tell the photographer.)

I have another Talmud goodie for you: this page of Talmud Comics. I haven’t looked at all of these yet, but my favorite so far is probably this one, The Holy One’s Promise to Women. The artist is Yonah Lavery. I am hoping like crazy that this is going to become a book. Several Jewish bloggers have covered this before me, but I figure this work can’t have too much exposure.

Fishy Logic

I get a lot out of the investigative journalism that Shemarya Rosenberg provides for free to the Jewish community, and he mainly gets a lot of undeserved mean and nasty comments for it. But this guest post on Rosenberg’s blog Failed Messiah did not pass the logic test.

gefilte fish in LA deli from flickrBased on reading a story by Hillel Halkin in Commentary the anonymous, Orthodox guest blogger made the case that Jews have always intermarried, and that only recently has this been a source of contention in the Jewish community.

The basis of this claim is that many Jewish men have a genetic marker associated with Levites on their Y chromosome. Jewish women, on the other hand, do not have a genetic marker. So, the nameless guest blogger suggests, this must mean that Jewish men married non-Jewish women and were perhaps more relaxed about them converting.

But how does he deduce that? It’s a Jewish genetic marker on the Y chromosome. Continue reading

We’ve Got the Shabbat Spirit!

It has been awhile since I blogged about my adventures with my almost 2-year-old son, Ariel. I am happy to report that Ariel and I have been taking a Friday morning class together. We are taking Shabbat in a Box, a class sponsored by the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Boston’s (JCCGB) PJ Library. The premise of the class is simple. Each week we meet for the Shabbat blessings and Shabbat themed songs, stories and crafts. The PJ Library is this wonderful program where every Jewish child is sent a Jewish themed book once a month for free or a very reasonable cost.

My son’s favorite song is “We’ve got the Shabbat Spirit.” I think he likes the little dance we do as we sing about how the Shabbat Spirit is inside of different parts of our bodies and within our inner-self. Every week we do a craft, which goes in our special Shabbat box. So far we have made candle sticks and candle holders. Next class is “Things that Cover: challah covers and yarmulkes.”

The class is wonderful. Ariel understands the content and now we sing and dance about Shabbat every week. When it is time to light candles, he covers his eyes and then he loves to hold his kiddush cup up high above his head. Every week Ariel is able to participate in more of our Shabbat routine.

I hope the JCCGB’s PJ library continues to offer programming which interests and educates him, preferably on Friday mornings. Most of the parents in the class are there because, like me, they do not work on Fridays.

Another Shabbat in the Box class is starting up in Ashland, Mass. under the sponsorship of the Jewish Family Network. The first session is on March 6.

If you know of any innovative programs that we should be listing on InterfaithFamily’s calendar, please send me an email at robins@interfaithfamily.com.

The Eleventh Day and the Rest of Your Life.

Birthright Israel is an amazing program that gives young Jews from all over the world a 10 day trip to Israel. The goal is to connect young Jewish adults to each other, their community and Israel. A variety of organizations facilitate the actual tours. This year Birthright Israel is celebrating its 10th year and their 200,000th participant in their program. The trips are wildly popular and have helped many young people to better understand their Jewish identity, including young adult children of interfaith families.

dlisbona safed photoAfter returning from the trip, participants are looking for more ways to explore their identity and the Jewish community is stepping up to the plate. As a recent article in The Jewish Week describes, the Jewish Enrichment Center (JEC) in New York is catering their programming to their children of Interfaith parents whose first formal affiliation with Judaism has been Birthright Israel. They host Friday night dinners, classes which are actually relevant, and a Bar Mitzvah program for those who never had the opportunity. I love how the Jewish community is welcoming these young adults on their own terms and offering programming to specifically meet their needs.

I hope that Jewish community organizations continue to engage and interest this important demographic, the adult children of interfaith parents, which they have overlooked in the past. Better yet, I hope these young people can become builders of a North American Jewish future where Judaism and Israel are meaningful.

Madoff and Intermarriage, Part 2

 Last week, Micah Sachs posted about Jonathan Tobin’s first article as editor of Commentary magazine. In a time of limited resources and funding difficulties facing Jewish non-profits, Tobin is arguing for a “circle the wagons” approach against reaching out to interfaith families. I wanted to share the letter to the editor that I’ve submitted:

Dear Editor,

I take exception to Jonathan Tobin’s comment (The Madoff Scandal and the
Future of American Jewry, February 2009) that “the results of the past two
decades suggest that the outreach model is a failure.” Tobin quotes Gary
Tobin’s estimate that the annual amount of Jewish philanthropic giving is $5
billion.  InterfaithFamily.com tracks all outreach programs that target
interfaith families; the Jewish community spends less than $4 million on
such programs — less than 1/10 of 1% of its total spending. The outreach
model cannot be deemed a failure because it has never been implemented on a
national scale. Continue reading

Role Models

I really enjoyed this week’s G-dcast. I blogged about this Jewish web resource when it first started publishing. It’s a way to learn about the Torah portion of the week. This week’s portion is Yitro, which is the Hebrew pronunciation of Jethro. The portion is named after Moses’ father-in-law, who was not Jewish. Leah Jones, who narrates the nice little cartoon of the portion, draws from the story a lesson about how to give constructive criticism. This is, you cultural Jews may be surprised, a big issue in Judaism. How do you let someone know they are doing something wrong without shaming them or causing them to rebel and not reform their behavior? You aren’t just supposed to come up and kvetch at the person…even though that’s what we often do. Continue reading

The Jewish Writing Project and a Plateful of Gefilte Fish

I had a great phone conversation yesterday with Bruce Black, the editor of The Jewish Writing Project. Bruce is looking for people to write about what it means to them to be Jewish. Here’s how he described what he’s seeking:

We come to our writing without pre-conditions, seeking through words a path that will lead us to a deeper understanding of our connection to our heritage. When you participate in The Jewish Writing Project, it doesn’t matter if you’re born Jewish or if you converted to Judaism, if only one of your parents is Jewish or if neither parent is Jewish. All that matters is that you possess the desire to tell others about a particular experience that may have shaped your understanding of what it means to be a Jew, the willingness to explore a memory about being Jewish that holds a special place in your heart, or the wish to express your thoughts about how being Jewish has enriched your life (or made your life more difficult).

 There is clearly some overlap between the people I’m seeking to write for InterfaithFamily.com and the people Bruce wants. I want people from interfaith families, whether they are Jewish or not, to write about what it’s like to negotiate the lifecycle events, holidays, family and community relationships they encounter.

I articulated something to Bruce that I haven’t said out loud before, about letting people define themselves as Jews. It’s very easy to get hung up on how to do things right. Judaism is a religious system of doing rather than one of believing. Even Jewish culture separate from our religion is about doing. (I’m sounding like Gertrude Stein in The Making of Americans, aren’t I?)

Working in the Jewish community with its narrow self-image and wide actual diversity often means that I have to get over myself. I don’t get to tell people “What do you mean, you don’t like gefilte fish? It’s not Passover without gefilte fish!” or whatever other less silly example you can name. You can’t get all worked up about whether people are doing Judaism just like you are, or you’ll have apoplexy within a week, and all those nice people you want to welcome will back away slowly, hands outstretched, warding off the gefilte fish. You won’t save the Jewish people by being a jerk to individuals.

Listening to their stories and enjoying them is definitely the better way.