An Unexpected “Thank You”

As members of the Jewish community settled into their seats recently at Yom Kippur services, everyone had a pretty good idea of what to expect. It’s the annual spiritual cleansing, dedicated to recognizing a long list of human failings — from jealousy to gluttony to gossip.

But in many Reform synagogues across Chicago and the nation, the faithful heard something that had nothing to do with atonement and everything to do with celebration: a blessing for non-Jewish spouses.

“We want to tell you how much you matter to our congregation and how very grateful we are for what you have done.”

With that one line, sleepers suddenly snapped to attention.

A recent Chicago Tribune article looks at blessings offered, during Yom Kippur services, to non-Jewish spouses helping raise Jewish families. Wow.

At synagogues large and small, the myriad paths traveled were recognized. “Some of you are living a Jewish life in virtually all respects,” the blessing continued. “Some are devoutly committed to another faith. Some of you do not define yourself as religious at all.”

But by agreeing to raise Jewish offspring — “giving up the joy of passing your own religious traditions down to your kids” — the non-Jewish parent ensured a future for a very small tribe, the tribute said.

The blessing also cited other contributions: Driving Hebrew school carpool, nagging kids to get up on Sunday mornings, learning to make kugel (a noodle pudding) and latkes (potato pancakes), and even trying to like gefilte fish (an acquired taste, exempt from any marriage vows).

“With all our hearts, we want to thank you for your generosity and strength of spirit in making the ultimate gift to the Jewish people.”

It’s wonderful to hear such a public thank you as blessing!

“You should have told me that I was going to need Kleenex,” Lauren Kern told Rabbi Ellen Dreyfus, after services at B’nai Yehuda Beth Shalom in Homewood. Back in 1985, when she married her lapsed Christian husband, John, neither could have envisioned such inclusiveness.

Tears were also on hand at Oak Park Temple, where Rabbi Max Weiss led the congregation in paying tribute to some 75 to 100 spouses. The morning after, Weiss received a flurry of email. “I doubt that spouses make this commitment with the expectation or even the need of thanks,” wrote one woman. “And that’s what makes it even more important.”

Has your congregation thanked non-Jewish spouses in a similar way? Does your community have other ways of showing thanks and inclusion? Let us know!

October News Hodgepodge

It’s been a while since I last blogged in hodgepodge style. With the fall holidays (Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, sukkot/Sukkot_and_Simchat_Torah.shtml">Sukkot and Simchat Torah) behind us, a new year begun and so many interesting things happening the the Jewish community and wider communities around us, it seemed like a great time to share some interesting articles and blog posts that I’ve come across. Let me know what you think!

1.  In the Creation story in Genesis (the first book of the Torah), we read that a snake tricked Eve into tasting a “forbidden fruit” (and she, in turn, gave it to Adam to eat). On DovBear, they wonder what the unnamed fruit might have been. With 125 comments so far, this is far from an easy question to answer. Apple? Maybe. Figs? Perhaps. What about a pomegranate?

2.  You may remember that last year, we were asking you to vote for InterfaithFamily.com’s CEO, Ed Case, for Jewish Community Hero. No, I’m not going to ask you to vote for him again. Instead, I’m going to share a list of nominees you might want to vote for this year, all of whom are “heroes for their justice work combating racism, poverty and injustice.” The list, posted to Jewschool, was compiled by Kung Fu Jew (who admits to wearing “New York-tinted glasses”).

3.  There’s a lot going on with the Occupy movement that is specifically Jewish. First, Keith Olbermann debunks the anti-Semitic charges of Occupy Wall Street (the relevant part starts at the 1 minute mark). Now then, with that settled, let’s look at some of the amazing Jewish practices coming out of the Occupy movement. This long, personal piece by Avi Fox-Rosen examines his reasons for being involved with leading the Kol Nidre service at Occupy Wall Street, and how it played his “incredibly ambivalent” Jewishness and atheism off his enjoyment of ritual and “traditional cantorial a capella singing” (known as chazzanus). And on Jewschool, a bit about how there came to be Jewish practice at Occupy Wall St, Occupy K St and elsewhere.

4.  Many organizations, including ours, examine statistics, look to data to know if we’re having an impact. One such source was the last national Jewish population survey, done in 2000-2001. Over ten years later, another study hasn’t come along to update those numbers. Gary Rosenblatt, in The Jewish Week, asks, How Many U.S. Jews, And Who Cares?

5.  You know who cares? Pat Buchanan. And he seems to have it all figured out. “In his new book, Suicide Of A Superpower, Pat Buchanan takes a look at the Jewish population of the United States and concludes that Americans Jews are disappearing because they decided, as a group, to have lots and lots of abortions.” Seriously. He blames the Jewish women who were among the leaders of the feminist movement and… oy, just read about it all here.

6.  And in Israel a campaign has been launched, encouraging “parents of non-Jewish children to inform them of their [non-Jewish] status in childhood.” This stems from patrilineal descent, largely among Israel’s Russian population. And the implication, according to the campaign, is that patrilineal descent Jews are finding out that they’re “not Jewish” as adults, which means they need to convert to Judaism in order to get married. I wonder if this is a common issue or discovery in North America, where the Reform movement also holds by patrilineal descent?

And there you go. Recent news in a nutshell.

Attention all Beatles Fans!

Attention all Beatles fans! That favorite of all tween and teen girls of the 60′s (confession: that would be me!) has chosen to be a Jew.

PAUL MCCARTNEY, baptized Roman Catholic but admittedly never very devout, quietly told pals after his marriage to socialite NANCY SHEVELL – who’s Jewish and takes her religion seriously – that he’s studying Judaism and promised his new bride he’ll convert, reports a friend of the star. The former Beatle’s first wife, LINDA EASTMAN, came from a prominent Jewish family and McCartney had talked about converting after they married, but just never got around to it. Paul told pals he’ll complete his conversion studies next year.

Dare we hope that he starts to write songs with Jewish themes?? I don’t usually care about what stars of stage, screen and music are doing, but this is different. (And we can trust the National Enquirer with this story, right?)

They Just Don’t Get It

You know what? Maybe I’ll go out of my way to buy a really expensive lemon, keep it in a box as I walk around town, just to use it as garnish for the fish I’m going to cook.

I want to buy a lovely bouquest for my partner, but flowers are just so cliche. I know, I’ll buy some branches and a palm frond instead!

Ok, snarky, yes, but that’s what some members of the press wrote about photos of Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, walking to/from synagogue with their lulav and etrog for the festival of Sukkot. (If anyone needed proof that Jews don’t actually control the media, here it is: we wouldn’t have made those mistakes!)

shul-on-sukkot-and.html">Jewish Humor Central writes,

The media’s interpretation of the photo is that of a celebrity launching a new hat style and her husband carrying flowers that he bought for her.

It doesn’t take much for anyone familiar with the Sukkot holiday to see that she’s wearing a hat because that’s what Orthodox Jewish women do when they go to shul and what Kushner is carrying is a lulav, wrapped in the cheap plastic bag that it comes in.

Rabbi Jason Miller, a writer for Jewish and internet sites and blogger at RabbiJason.com, points out the cluelessness of the media with this situation. In his current blog post, Miller comments on two funny aspects of this celebrity sighting:

    First is the fact that the well-to-do couple wouldn’t be using a fancy etrog holder. As Kushner was pushing their baby daughter Arabella Rose on the second day of Sukkot, he was also carrying a lulav and etrog. One would think that Donald Trump’s daughter and son-in-law would have a nice silver etrog carrying case, but it appears that the Kushner-Trump couple is sporting the simple cardboard box etrog carrying case along with the plastic bag the lulav comes in.

    The second funny thing is that the Daily Mail first published this photo over the weekend in its online edition explaining that “Jared, wearing a casual black jacket, pushed little Arabella Rose’s pram along the streets on their way to lunch. He also held some flowers in one hand – perhaps a gift for his wife.” I suppose you could combine a palm branch with some myrtle and willow branches to form a bouquet of sorts, but I don’t think it’s a popular gift for ones wife.

    There was no word on where the couple was headed for yuntif lunch or if they had their own sukkah outside of their Manhattan home.

Interfaith Families Prefer Programs Marketed as “For Interfaith Families”

At InterfaithFamily.com we’ve always believed that programs designed and marketed explicitly as “for interfaith families” — sometimes called “targeted” programs — are very effective in engaging interfaith families in Jewish life and community. We’ve argued that the Boston Jewish community sees 60% of interfaith families raising their children as Jews in part because it is one of the few local communities that offers targeted programs. We’ve been dismayed at how little targeted programming is offered around the country, and with our InterfaithFamily/Chicago initiative we are piloting an approach that could turn that situation around.

We think that one of the reasons so little targeted programming is offered is that too many people have the notion that interfaith families are not interested in targeted programming, that they don’t want to be “segregated,” that they prefer to attend general programs for everyone. We’ve always believed that while some interfaith families don’t want to be singled out and prefer general programs, many others are interested in programs designed specifically for them, or in attending programs where they will find others like them. We’ve always believed that when couples first put a toe in the water of Jewish life and community, they are likely to be more comfortable with others like them, while later on they may no longer feel that need. These beliefs have often been dismissed as mere “anecdotes.”

Two years ago, we started adding questions to our annual December Holidays and Passover/Easter surveys, in an effort to get some data on what interfaith families really do prefer. We finally analyzed the data in four surveys, and the responses of just under 500 intermarried parents raising their children as Jews confirm what we believed: significant percentages of interfaith families are interested in targeted programs and are attracted to organizations that offer them.

We’re issuing a press release tomorrow, and posting it below. You can find the full report on the surveys here.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Edmund Case, edc@interfaithfamily.com, 617-581-6805

Surveys Reveal That Interfaith Families Prefer To Attend Programs Marketed As “For Interfaith Families” Attracted To Jewish Organizations That Offer Targeted Programs As Well As Programs For Everyone

(Newton, MA) – October 19, 2011 – Jewish communities and organizations offer very few programs that are designed and explicitly marketed as “for interfaith families.” Many Jewish professionals say that interfaith families do not want to be “singled out” and prefer to attend Jewish programs that are for everyone. New surveys by InterfaithFamily.com (IFF) reveal for the first time that in fact, interfaith families are attracted to Jewish organizations and synagogues that offer programs marketed as “for interfaith families” and prefer to attend programs targeted to them as well as general programs for everyone.

Respondents to InterfaithFamily.com’s annual Passover/Easter and December Holidays Surveys starting in December 2009 were asked whether they preferred to attend programs described as “for interfaith families” or programs for everyone, and what attracted them to Jewish organizations and synagogues.
• Out of 498 responses from people who were intermarried and were raising their children Jewish, 13% said they preferred programs “for interfaith families” – and another 64% said that it “depends on the program.”
• Fully 88% of respondents said that it was “important” in attracting them to a Jewish organization or synagogue that it offered programs described as “for interfaith families,” with almost three-quarters saying it was “a lot” or “somewhat” important. 
• In the most recent survey, 61% said that the program title “Raising a Jewish Child in Your Interfaith Family” would be more likely to interest them than the title “Raising a Jewish Child.”

“Our survey responses are illustrative of the attitudes and behaviors of interfaith families who are interested in Jewish life: significant percentages of them are interested in programs that are marketed as ‘for interfaith families’ and are attracted to synagogues and Jewish organizations that offer such programs,” said Edmund Case, CEO of InterfaithFamily.com. Respondents explained the reasons behind their preferences:
• they want to be with and share stories with others like them;
• interfaith families have unique issues and some topics are best addressed in interfaith family specific programs;
• programs for interfaith families are more comfortable for partners who are not Jewish.
Some pointed out that when interfaith couples start out, they may be more interested in interfaith family specific programs, than when they feel more integrated. And some pointed out that the fact that an organization offers programs for interfaith families is important as a statement that interfaith families are welcome.

The need for explicitly targeted programs at a wide range of Jewish organizations and especially at our gateway portals like Jewish Community Centers has increased and will continue to increase as interfaith relationships continue to grow and the population of adult children of interfaith marriages of the 80’s and 90’s reaches maturity and considers their religious choices. “This is an opportunity that the Jewish community ignores at its peril,” said Karen Kushner, the director of InterfaithFamily.com’s Resource Center for Program Providers. “Attracting interfaith couples and families to Jewish programming successfully will determine the Jewish future of the children of today and tomorrow.”

About InterfaithFamily.com
InterfaithFamily.com is the premiere web based resource for interfaith couples exploring Jewish life and making Jewish choices, and the leading web based advocate for attitudes, policies and practices that welcome and embrace them. Visit www.InterfaithFamily.com.

InterfaithFamily.com Named a “Standard Bearer” by Slingshot!

[sup]We're excited and honored to be recognized as a “Standard Bearer” by Slingshot. We just sent out a press release, and thought we'd share it here too, below:[/sup]

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Joanna Rothman, joannar@interfaithfamily.com, (617) 581-6804

InterfaithFamily.com Named One of North America’s Most Innovative Jewish Nonprofits Recognized as “Standard Bearer” for Continuing Innovation, Impact, Leadership and Efficacy

(Newton, MA) – October 18, 2011 – For the seventh consecutive year, InterfaithFamily.com has been included in Slingshot, the resource guide that features the 50 most innovative Jewish organizations in North America. This year, InterfaithFamily.com is one of just ten organizations to be named a Standard Bearer as a leader within the community and a mentor to other organizations. The Standard Bearers, listed in at least five editions of Slingshot were chosen not only for sustainability but also because they continue to achieve Slingshot’s core criteria of innovation, impact, leadership and organizational efficacy.

Slingshot is used by philanthropists, volunteers, not-for-profit executives, and program participants to identify path-finding and trailblazing organizations grappling with concerns in Jewish life such as identity, community, and tradition. Organizations are selected from among hundreds of nominees by a panel of 36 foundation professionals from across North America.

As the premiere web based resource for interfaith couples exploring Jewish life, InterfaithFamily.com empowers couples to engage in Jewish life and make Jewish choices and helps their families embrace the choices they make.

“We are thrilled not only to be included in the Slingshot guide for the seventh straight year, but to be one of ten organizations to be honored as a Standard Bearer,” said Edmund Case, CEO of InterfaithFamily.com. “Efforts to engage interfaith families in Jewish life have not been well funded in the past. Recognition of the importance of those efforts by Slingshot, which represents the next generation of Jewish funders, will influence the community’s attitudes to change in a positive direction. Being named a Standard Bearer can only help InterfaithFamily.com to grow our capacity and take our programming to the next level.”

According to Will Schneider, Executive Director of Slingshot, “Seven editions of Slingshot ago, Jewish innovation was still largely undefined and unexplored, and 66% of the organizations listed in this year’s guide weren’t even founded yet. Over the years, the Standard Bearers consistently set, exceeded and reset the high standards that emerging organizations and projects in Jewish life aspired to match. In truth, we had trouble selecting a name that would set them apart as examples of ongoing excellence without placing them on an “emeritus” list or implying that their innovative days were behind them. We settled on Standard Bearers because these groups set benchmarks for the field and led by example with ongoing innovation and relevancy.”

Jonathan Raiffe, the Chairman of Slingshot shared, “The Slingshot guide makes a statement to the Jewish community and beyond that next gen funders embrace change, innovation, and evaluation when meeting the needs of our community. Slingshot promotes organizations that hold themselves accountable to all their stakeholders and up to the same scrutiny as for-profit organizations, while pushing the boundaries of how to solve the most pressing issues. Slingshot is about making a statement as to what we believe are the greatest needs and what organizations are doing the best job to fulfill those needs.”

Slingshot ’11/’12 was released on October 18, 2011. The community will meet on March 14 in New York City at the annual Slingshot Day, where over 250 not-for-profit leaders, foundation professionals, and funders of all ages will engage in candid conversations about philanthropy and innovation.

About Slingshot
Slingshot was created by a team of young funders as a guidebook to help funders of all ages diversify their giving portfolios with the most innovative and effective organizations and programs in North America. This guide contains information about each organization’s origin, mission, strategy, impact and budget, as well as details about its unique character. Now in its seventh edition, Slingshot has proven to be a catalyst for next generation funding and offers a telling snapshot of shifting trends in North America’s Jewish community. The book, published annually, is available in hard copy and as a free download at www.slingshotfund.org.

About InterfaithFamily.com
InterfaithFamily.com is the premiere web based resource for interfaith couples exploring Jewish life and making Jewish choices, and the leading web based advocate for attitudes, policies and practices that welcome and embrace them. Visit www.InterfaithFamily.com.

A Novel of Muslim Jewish Love

There is a new novel out that strikes me as significant. It is A New Song by Sarah Isaias. It is about an interfaith relationship between a Jewish doctor and a Muslim poet and it is a relationship not only of warmth and respect between those two individuals but of their two families.

Growing up in a Jewish enclave in Detroit and spending my adult life fully involved in the Jewish world, I knew next to nothing about the Koran and very little about the practice of Islam before reading this fast paced novel.

Sarah Isaias has written a story that held me through 400 pages taking me to the libraries of Cambridge, to Jews in Spain before the expulsion, Egypt, Israel, Palestine and through the steps of the Haj. As the characters explore the origins of a legend in both their Abrahamic traditions that tells of a poem that could redeem the world, they share passages in the Koran and contrast them to passages in the Hebrew bible.

Their quest isn’t only academic. As they travel the world together there are shadowy conspirators and extremists who intend to stop them at any cost.

This story is such a wonderful model of an interfaith relationship between two religions and cultures that are most often portrayed in the media as enemies. In a delicately portrayed love story with authentic Jewish and Moslem characters we can see how their openness to each other and to each other’s cultures helps them discover a truth that is powerfully simple and never more urgent.

Remembering Leonard Wasserman

One of my heroes died last week, on October 7, erev Yom Kippur.

Leonard Wasserman was unique in my experience. He is the only Jewish lay leader I’ve ever known who became passionate about engaging interfaith families in Jewish life and then created an organization that works to do just that – Interfaithways.

I first met Leonard when the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly was last held in Philadelphia, in 2002. Rabbi Rayzel Raphael was escorting Leonard around the GA; he was on a mission to learn as much as he could about what was being done around the country to engage interfaith families. I don’t know exactly how old Leonard was, but even back in 2002 he appeared to be pretty elderly, and he was quite hard of hearing, but he was insatiably curious about our field.

That was a common theme over the nine years that I knew him – he always wanted to be current, to know if anything new was happening that could be put into use in Philadelphia. I think he attend every JOI national conference on outreach. He regularly wanted to take a train up to New York to meet with me there. A year or two ago Leonard asked if I could set up a meeting for him with Barry Shrage, head of the Boston federation and the most visionary leader in the federation world when it comes to engaging interfaith families. Probably well into his 80’s by then, Leonard flew to Boston with his wonderful colleague Rabbi Mayer Selekman, and continued to ask what the best practices were and how he could bring them to his home town.

I asked Leonard once why he cared so much about engaging interfaith families. The amazing thing to me is that none of Leonard’s four children were intermarried. He told me that he and his beloved wife Dorothy were honored one year by Philadelphia’s Jewish Family & Children’s Service. He said, smiling, that of course when one is honored, one is expected to give more money. He asked what the JF&CS needed, and the executive director at the time, Drew Staffenberg, said they wanted to get into providing programming for interfaith couples. So Leonard and Dorothy agree to fund the program that eventually grew into Interfaithways, housed for several years at the JF&CS, and then as an independent non-profit.

Leonard was unique in that he didn’t come to the issue out of personal experience – it was suggested to him, he studied it, he realized how important it was, and he took it way beyond the expected initial gift, to many years of supporting the organization that he created. And, sadly, he was unique in that I’m not aware of any other Jewish lay leader who single-handedly created and largely funded an organization dedicated to the cause of engaging interfaith families. It is too bad that there haven’t been any other leaders like him.

Over the years Leonard had some wonderful people working at Interfaithways. He did attract some foundation and individual support, but he was disappointed that the cause of engaging interfaith families did not attract significant funding from the Philadelphia community as a whole. Despite those setbacks, he never gave up and was determined to keep Interfaithways going.

This summer when I learned Leonard was failing I sent him a note. I told him I was sorry that the progress towards engaging interfaith families had been so slow, but that I was confident that we would get there some day, and when we did, he would have played an important role.

On a personal level, Leonard was a kind and gracious and generous man. I remember very well visiting him at his homes in Florida and in Bala Cynwyd, and I remember him driving me to lunch at the nearby Jewish deli– I don’t know if it was Hymie’s, or Murray’s, or Katz’s, but it was good. I will miss him very much.

Andy Dick Speaks Out

Earlier this fall, I blogged about a rift between Howard Stern and Andy Dick.  Last night, I was drifting to sleep, listening to SiriusXM, and I heard a recent interview with Andy Dick.  In a blur, I heard him say that his father was Jewish.  Seriously?  If that is the case, then Andy Dick is the product of an interfaith family.  So, this morning, I did a little more research and found an interview with Dick online where he elaborates on this. (Please note that the interview is for adult eyes only!)

As it turns out, Dick was adopted by a family as a child  – his father was Jewish and his mother was not.  In addition, Dick had children with a Jewish woman, so, in fact, he continues to be part of an interfaith family.

Now, for the anti-semitic remarks, that’s a whole other can of worms….

Choosing Life in the New Year, Part 2

I just read my friend Julie Wiener’s latest blog post put up just before Yom Kippur, Bad Day at the Mikveh, Good Day at the Beach. I usually agree with Julie but I’m not sure in this case.

Jessica Langer-Sousa, a Jewish woman who was intermarrying, wrote in the  Huffington Post that she was rebuffed by a mikveh lady who told her that her marriage would not be recognized in the eyes of God.

I don’t think Julie let the mikveh lady off too easily – she says the mikveh lady “no doubt behaved inappropriately and rudely: she could easily (and with no compromise to her own morals) have politely explained her concerns, then referred Langer-Sousa elsewhere” and she says that “Representatives of Jewish institutions do need to be welcoming and respectful.”

But I think she shifts blame to Langer-Sousa or tries to equalize blame when she says that “respect also has to be a two-way street. It’s not fair to expect everyone to agree with you, particularly when you are on their turf and your behavior violates something they hold sacred” and “I think it’s also important for individual Jews to give others the benefit of the doubt and not overreact to a single negative encounter.”

That doesn’t sit right with me. It’s like the editors of the Jerusalem Post in today’s editorial saying that intermarriage “plagues” the Diaspora and that there is declarative value in legislation to prevent it. Interfaith couples who are seeking Jewish connection and engagement – people like Langer-Sousa, who remember was wanting to go to a mikveh in advance of her wedding – shouldn’t have to experience the judgmental condemnation of the editors of the Jerusalem Post, or people like this mikveh lady.