“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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Challenged, and Disturbed

Keeping with Wednesday’s theme, I’d like to write about two very different recently published articles.

In Thursday’s The (New York) Jewish Week, Julie Wiener writes about an organization that commits “the ultimate taboo”: teaching both Judaism and Christianity to the children of interfaith couples. Going to visit the Interfaith Community’s religious school in Long Island, she was skeptical, “expecting either Jews for Jesus or an all-religion-is-the-same, kumbaya-type gathering.” After all, by the orthodoxy of the progressive Jewish world, raising children in two religions is “naive,” “confusing to children” and “practically criminal.” But she came away from the experience “impressed by the group’s intelligence and seriousness.”

Carefully sidestepping endorsement of the group’s methods (Wiener does work for The Jewish Week after all), she acknowledges that the children weened in its school are better prepared for Jewish engagement than children raised with no religion at all.

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Outreach Pros and Cons

While I was at the Reform movement’s biennial last week, Anthony Weiss suggested in the Forward (Intermarriage Study Muddies Waters, December 12) that Boston’s figure of 60% of interfaith families raising their children as Jews may not be the result of its CJP-funded outreach programs, contrary to a Forward op-ed I co-wrote last year.

Weiss first argues that because other cities without outreach programs report similar rates, Boston’s rate cannot be tied to its outreach programs. But whether those rates are comparable is open to question. I am familiar with and confident in the survey methods (sampling and questions form) and results of the Boston survey; I don’t know the methods used in the other cities surveys and, as Ira Sheskin, the demographer who did those surveys, apparently told Weiss, “differing survey methods make it impossible to make precise comparisons between cities.” Continue reading

JOI Announces Outreach Coalition

At its oversubscribed conference in Washington, D.C., earlier this week, the Jewish Outreach Institute announced the creation of a national directory of Jewish organizations committed to reaching out to the unaffiliated, including the intermarried, gays and lesbians and converts. Called “The Big Tent Coalition,” the online directory will list organizations that are friendly to the unaffiliated as well as provide a space for organizations to share resources, provide organizations with a “stamp of approval” from JOI and give individuals a place to find outreach-friendly organizations.

Much of this is similar to our own Connections in Your Area system, which also allows interfaith-friendly organizations to sign up and individuals to search for organizations. But the addition of JOI’s coalition to the field is laudable nonetheless.

I unfortunately had to back out of the conference at the last minute because we are putting the finishing touches on a redesigned website that will launch on Thursday, Oct. 25. That’s why I’ve been MIA from blogging the last few weeks, and why I will probably blog little again until the relaunch. There will be some exciting new features of the site as it rolls out, and I will keep you updated.

Embracing Intermarriage?

Noam Shpancer, the always controversial columnist for The (Columbus, Ohio) New Standard, an undiscovered gem of a Jewish newspaper, has written a new essay sure to stir up the paper’s more traditional readers. It’s titled Nu’ Ma? Let’s embrace intermarriage.

He is for welcoming interfaith families, but for a slightly different, and more radical, reason than typical outreach advocates. He notes that both sides of the intermarriage debate in the Jewish community “agree that protecting Judaism is the superseding goal.” For Shpancer, the value of that goal deserves “critical scrutiny.”

Promoting Judaism is not superior, as a value, to advancing the cause of humanity as a whole. Being a good person is more important then being a good Jew. And it’s hard to deny that intermarriages, with their tendency to foster the intimate knowledge and full humanization of the “other,” embody a more promising future strategy for humanity than the bitter historical legacy of tribal separatism and animosity.

In Shpancer’s eyes, outreach advocates’ rationale is wrong even if their tactics are right. He sees the value of the continuity of any particular culture as ultimately contingent on its serving the greater purpose of bettering humanity. In Shpancer’s view, intermarried couples should be embraced because they promote humanity, not just Judaism. Moreover, the very phenomenon of intermarriage itself–not just already intermarried couples–should be promoted as a way to improve humanity.

If you accept Shpancer’s assumption that the ever-greater intermingling of races, religions and cultures will lead to greater peace and harmony, then his argument is rock-solid. But his universalist humanistic ethics are an ideal, not a reality.

While every religion or ideology may start out innocently as a system of universalist ethics, ultimately that belief system must gain cultural trappings to maintain group cohesion. And group cohesion is not merely a way of sustaining power and excluding the “other” to make insiders feel safe; group cohesion and discipline can help enforce sound moral codes. For all the faults of Islamist regimes, a widespread sense of moral responsibility (both self-enforced and state-enforced) keeps crime low. For whatever reason, humans have yet to be able to embrace a non-exclusive universalist system of ethics. We need cultural specificity and defined boundaries. To promote behaviors that don’t recognize this reality is naive at best and irresponsible at worst.

The “Communal Welcome Mat”

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Adam Bronfman, managing director of the Samuel Bronfman Foundation (one of our funders), has written an important essay for The Forward titled “Let’s Put Out a Communal Welcome Mat.”

Adam, grandson of Samuel, founder of the Seagram’s liquor conglomerate, considers himself both an “insider” and an “outsider” in the Jewish world:

My Jewish education was limited as a child. I did not participate in communal or institutional Jewish life. The concept that I would need to marry-in to be accepted was never discussed.

I married the non-Jewish woman I fell in love with as a teenager, and we have raised four wonderful children. We have enjoyed an exclusively Jewish home for the better part of the last 18 years.

If not for my status as a “Bronfman,” my connection to the Jewish world would be much more tenuous. Where do I fit in? What is my place in the Jewish world and in my Jewish community?

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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.

Our First Ever Conference of Outreach Professionals

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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.

Judaism Your Way, and “Seventh Heaven”

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The Intermountain Jewish News has a great article on Rabbi Brian Field, who leads Judaism Your Way, an innovative “synagogue without walls” based in Denver, Colo.

Judaism Your Way targets unaffiliated Jews, but it’s clear that Field’s passion is engaging the intermarried. He officiates at interfaith weddings without making any demands that the non-Jewish partner convert. It’s not a radical stance, but it is in opposition to the position of the local rabbinical association. Judaism Your Way’s services include wedding ceremonies between Jews and non-Jews, baby namings, Bar and Bat Mitzvahs or “alternative coming of age celebrations,” Shabbat services, regular holiday observances, and High Holiday services.

Judaism Your Way functions as an entryway toward Jewish practice, learning and community — if that’s what participants desire.

“One of the things we like to say is that wherever you are along your Jewish journey, we’ll meet you there and help you figure out the next step,” Rabbi Field says.

It’s an accommodating philosophy that sounds eerily similar to the approach used by Chabad.

But Rabbi Field stresses that unlike Chabad or other Jewish outreach groups, Judaism Your Way does not have a Jewish agenda that pulls participants toward more traditional forms of Judaism.

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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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