Sukkot Adventures

Most years I spend Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur sitting in a synagogue. Sometimes, I feel inspired by the singing and spirit of the congregation, but in recent years that has not been the case and I have wished I was someplace else.  It is not that I would like to be at work or a mall, but I would rather be on a hike or exploring my own questions and interests within Jewish spirituality. As we  start Sukkot/Sukkot_101.shtml">Sukkot, the holiday where we build sukkahs (temporary dwellings outside which are reminiscent of biblical times) and celebrate the coming of autumn and the traditional fall harvest, I am hoping to find some time to go on a hike and enjoy the change.

This week I had the opportunity to speak with Jeff Finkelstein of Adventure Rabbi, a Denver based organization that brings Jews back into communal religious life through innovative religious programs which combine the outdoors and Jewish practice. Adventure Rabbi offers many programs including retreats for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Passover. You can also book a private ski weekend, in which Rabbi Jamie Korngold not only guides you on the slopes but through Jewish spirituality.  To me a weekend exploring the Colorado slopes and my own spirituality sounds ideal.

Conversion Shifts

It feels like an inexplicable coincidence. On July 8 I wrote an appreciation of Gary Tobin, a leading Jewish thinker andreaching hands supporter of outreach to interfaith families who just passed away. I remembered his support for us and our tactical disagreement about how much to promote conversion to non-Jewish partners in interfaith marriages. On the same day, the New York Jewish Week wrote about a major shift in the Conservative Movement about … how much to promote conversion as part of interfaith outreach. Continue reading

Emancipation of the Non-Jewish Partner

During Passover–which began Wednesday night–Jews are commanded to make a “mishna,” or commentary, on the story of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt. The rabbis who drew up the Passover rituals demanded that each successive generation find ways to connect the ancient story of enslavement and freedom to their lives.

One of today’s parallels has less to do with restrictions of freedom on Jews than it has to do with restrictions on their partners of different religious backgrounds. Perversely, other Jews are the ones restricting their freedom.

In yesterday’s The (New York) Jewish Week, Kerry Olitzky, director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, and Adam Bronfman, managing director of the Samuel Bronfman Foundation, wrote an op-ed urging the Jewish community to reconsider its restrictions on synagogue membership and ritual involvement for non-Jews:

… it was not Moses but his non-Jewish wife Zipporah who took into her own hands, quite literally, the task of circumcising their sons.

Today, we know of many intermarried households where the partner who is not Jewish is an equal contributor in raising Jewish children. In many cases the non-Jewish partner has the greatest influence over the children’s Jewish identities. Yet it is not difficult to imagine that if Moses and Zipporah were alive today, some synagogue administrator would be sitting them down to explain why their household of four is eligible for an individual membership because only Moses can join, and that only Moses’ name will appear on temple mailings to their home.

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Attracting Interfaith Families Through Jewish Spirituality

Synagogue 3000 (S3K) has released a fascinating new study by Steven M. Cohen and Lawrence Hoffman, How Spiritual Are America’s Jews? Narrowing the Spirituality Gap Between Jews and Other Americans. Given some of Mr. Cohen’s previous writings on intermarriage, both the tone and the substance of this report are noteworthy for highlighting an important path to more Jewish engagement by interfaith families and their adult children. Continue reading

Programs Targeted to Interfaith Couples

There is a very interesting discussion going on on a listserv for Jewish professionals maintained by our friends at the Jewish Outreach Institute. I wanted to share here the (very slightly edited) posting that I put on that listserv today.

I believe it is of utmost importance for Jewish organizations and communities to offer programs targeted to interfaith couples and families. It is more than a little dismaying to see uncertainty among the Jewish professionals on JOI’s listserv. Continue reading

Save Reform Outreach Again

The Reform movement made a public announcement today that it is closing its regional offices and replacing existing program departments in its national office with teams of specialists. Everyone who cares about outreach to interfaith families should be deeply concerned about the implications of these developments on outreach to interfaith families, which the Reform movement pioneered and has led for more than 25 years.

Prior to 2003, the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ, the Reform movement) had a national outreach department and a part-time regional outreach director in each of its 14 regions around the country. Then the outreach department was combined with synagogue membership, and in 2003, because of stated budgetary concerns, most of the regional outreach positions were eliminated. At IFF we started a “Save Reform Outreach” campaign at the time, which some people say played a significant role in preserving some of the positions. Continue reading

Is Intermarriage Worse Than Bernie Madoff?

Jonathan Tobin is a fiercely intelligent, exceptionally eloquent Jewish journalist who was recently appointed editor of Commentary, an esteemed conservative (small-c) Jewish magazine. I would be a big fan, if it weren’t for his equally fierce, equally exceptional retrograde politics on Jewish issues. Intermarriage, unsurprisingly, is one of his favorite bugbears.

In his first op-ed as editor of Commentary, Tobin makes the remarkable argument that intermarriage and assimilation are bigger villains than Bernard Madoff. Moreover, he says, the whole notion of marketing Judaism to Jews “on the fringe”–the “outreach model”–has been a failure. Therefore, in this brave new world of shrunken philanthropic resources, Jewish givers should abandon outreach and focus only on inreach, like Jewish day camps, day schools and the like.

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Happy 2009?

Two weeks ago, Rabbi Kerry Olitzky and Levi Fishman of the Jewish Outreach Institute wrote an op-ed for The Jewish Week about how 2008 was a year of advances in the field of outreach. 2008 may have been a good year for outreach, but 2009 looks like it could be far different.

The big difference in 2009 will be funding–or rather, the lack of it. A number of financial supporters of outreach have been hurt by Bernard Madoff’s $50 billion investment fraud. One small foundation that focused on engaging the unaffiliated in Boston’s North Shore closed down in mid-December; more recently, the Picower Foundation, a much larger foundation that funded both us and JOI, closed its doors after its nearly billion-dollar endowment was wiped out. Because of the complexities of the investments involved, the full impact of the scandal on the Jewish non-profit world has yet to be determined.

Last night, on NECN (New England Cable News), our CEO, Ed Case, spoke about the impact of the Madoff scandal on IFF’s fortunes, and Jewish non-profits in general:
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Independent Minyan Conference

pomegranate groupLast Monday I went to Mechon Hadar’s Independent Minyan conference. Mechon Hadar is an organization dedicated to observant and egalitarian Judaism. They have a yeshiva in New York and also serve as consultants for independent minyanim around the country that share a belief in egalitarian Judaism. The independent minyan movement meets the needs of observant Jews who prefer a traditional prayer service, but feel the participation of women should be equal to that of men.

The conference was amazing because everyone who was there seemed to share the vision of being part of an active spiritual community. This movement is really new and most of the approximately 60 of these minyans have been founded within the last few years. These groups are still emerging and it did not seem that the needs of or outreach to interfaith families was even on the radar. Hopefully in time, interfaith families can find homes at these minyanim.

If you are part of a spiritual community that is welcoming to Interfaith families please drop me a line. As the network director at Interfaithfamily.com I would love to contact them and make sure they are part of the InterfaithFamily.com network.

“Code”: Read

As a member of the Jewish Outreach Institute’s Big Tent Judaism, we recently received JOI’s newest outreach tool, a business-card sized glossary to common Jewish terms. This little pamphlet, called “Cracking the Code,” defines words familiar to insiders–like Shabbat, minyan, Reform Judaism, Hillel–but often bewildering to outsiders.

It’s a great little resource; I gave one to a non-Jewish woman who has been working for a Jewish organization for more than a year. “This is fantastic,” she practically squealed. She’s had to pick up the terminology as she’s gone, but never knew what Kabbalah was (“Something to do with Madonna?”) and had no clear idea about the differences between the major movements. She plans to put it up in her cubicle.

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