Last year, the Jewish community fell all over itself to merchandise the intersection of Hanukkah and Thanksgiving, but we all know that outside this special exception, the organized community tends to look down at the mixing of Jewish holidays and those of other faiths. Alexis Gewertz and Chelsea Scudder, two New Englanders from interfaith backgrounds with divinity school educations, aim to change that. They are the creators of Happy Challadays, a new line of greeting cards for those looking to celebrate the holidays without the drama of the “December Dilemma.”
The idea grew out of Alexis’s own experience as both the daughter of an interfaith marriage and as the Jewish partner in a Jewish-Catholic relationship. “It was a Christmas home growing up,” she told me, “but we started celebrating Hanukkah when my parents got divorced. My mom wanted to send me Christmas cards because we really do celebrate with both families, but she spends the whole year searching for interfaith cards that she can send to me and [my partner] Steve together. In the past she’s found maybe three really awesome ones.”
It turns out, greeting cards are sort of a passion for Alexis. “I love capturing my thoughts and the vibe of the moment when I’m writing a card and putting it in the mail,” she said, “knowing that a few days later, whenever the recipients check the mail, they’re going to get this message. These days people are used to getting email instantly. I love with cards the old-school mystery of ‘is it going to take one day or three days?’ not knowing at what point they’re going to check that mail. I love getting cards because I love knowing that someone is thinking about me, and I feel that connection across the miles in a way that isn’t the same with virtual connections.” More »
Editor’s Note: Inspired by this guest post, we’re looking for submissions from you – our creative, progressive readers- articulating a vision for a what a fearless Jewish future and community might look like. Email us at email@example.com with “Guest post” in the subject line. Look for posts on this subject from the Editors starting next week!
This is a guest post by Naomi Adland, a graduate student and Jewish professional living in Brooklyn, NY.
Three years ago, I sat down to write a personal statement for my application to the Wexner Graduate Fellowship, and poured out my heart in an essay about the importance of honoring and respecting the work of those who came before us, as those communal roots are the ones that support our future endeavors. This week I had the opportunity to attend the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America with my Wexner class – my first serious introduction to the world of Federation professionals and lay leaders, and a real chance to explore what it might look like to engage with an institution that has shaped what it means to be a Jew in the Diaspora. And 45 minutes before I left the conference yesterday, I was still waiting for someone – anyone – to articulate a compelling vision for the Jewish future that wasn’t rooted in fear.
In its own words, the GA is meant to “inspire and engage current and emerging Jewish leaders, tackle the most critical issues of the day and showcase the best of the Federation movement.” Despite the inherent complexity of programming for a varied Jewish community, it seems to me that delivering a compelling narrative at the GA should not be so hard. After all, the work of the Federation is integral to the health and wellbeing of our community. The Federation funds some of our most vital programs and institutions – social services for a vast array of populations, summer camps, schools, synagogues and more. I have heard the Federation system explained as the government of the North American Jewish community, meaning the GA is a three-day State of the Union address – a chance to articulate a vision for the coming year.
I was surprised to discover that the overwhelming narrative at the GA was not one of communal successes and impact, but rather one of fear. Ostensibly, the theme of the GA was “the world is our backyard.” Meant to evoke the importance of collective action, the exhibition hall was decorated like a backyard replete with picnic tables and fake picket fences. However, the three plenaries I attended over the course of two days and in breakout sessions, meals, and discussions in the hallway, the theme of collective action was consistently couched in the vocabulary of crisis. Be afraid of the imminent fall of the State of Israel. Be afraid of the dwindling Jewish population. Be afraid of BDS on campus. Be afraid of anyone who disagrees with our narrative. Be afraid of change. Be afraid.
Fear was present in the words of Michael Siegal, Chairman of JFNA, when he said he was “concerned that we have reached a plateau with interfaith families. Being Jewish is very much a numbers game, and some of the numbers should be keeping us all up at night.” It was in Vice President Joe Biden’s comparison of Israel to a survivor of domestic abuse, and it was in the words of the three young women, all campus leaders, who vocalized anxiety about being Jewish on campus while standing in front of a banner branded with a swastika underneath the words “Boycott Israel.”
Perhaps there are moments when it makes sense to turn to a narrative of fear. After the complex events of the summer’s war in Gaza, the tensions of the past few days in Jerusalem, and with rising anti-Semitism in Europe, it is understandable that our communal conversations touch on themes of conflict and survival. When we are concerned for our own safety, we tend to act swiftly and respond from a place of deep emotion.
Despite the recent indications to the contrary, the Jewish community is living in a context of unprecedented safety and opportunity in a larger number of places than ever before. In committing to a narrative of fear, we miss an opportunity to elevate what Judaism and the work of the Federation is actually about. In caring for an aging population, supporting Jewish education, and strengthening the global Jewish community, the Federation is living out deep Jewish values of justice rooted in the notion of b’tzelem elohim (that we are all created in the image of God), and creating and supporting communities of joy and vitality.
Arguing that “we must support the Federation because if we don’t, Judaism as we know it will disappear” assumes that Jews who support the Federation are incapable of recognizing the value of the sacred work the Federation system is doing, and makes it impossible for those who don’t already feel a connection to the community to create one. Rather than operate from a place of fear, the Federation should be fearless – articulating a vision for the coming years that includes not just the power of collective action as a defense strategy, but the power of collective action as a way to build relationships between disparate parts of the Jewish community, that engages with complex value questions in a serious, thoughtful fashion, and that roots the work of caring for members of our community in rich Jewish values and traditions. The Federation already has a powerful legacy and a compelling narrative. Why try and supplant that with a message that is so far off the mark?
by guestpost [➚] · Wednesday, September 24th, 2014
This is a guestpost by Liya Rechtman.
My family’s Passover Seder this year marked two firsts for my boyfriend: his first time meeting my dad and his first time eating homemade gefilte fish. As we read the haggadah around the table, I felt myself tensing up: ‘oh no, what if he gets that passage about Hillel and Shamai and he can’t pronounce the weird Hebrew town names?’ and ‘Worse! What if he winds up with “Tell me morano, my brother” and he has no idea what it’s about?’ When a reading did finally fall on him, and my boyfriend started on with “I am a Jew because…” I sort of giggled, loudly. My mom, tactful as always, told him that perhaps they would let someone else read the passage and come back to him. The first minor, awkward, interfaith hurdle had been managed gracefully by all parties involved.
The Seder moved on that night, and for several months to come the disparity between my Jewish tradition and his ex-Muslim atheism were significant parts of our identity, but not prohibitively so in the context of our relationship. Our faith/non-faith perspectives consistently yielded to thoughtful, extended discussion and debate about God, materialism, and meaning, among other things. That is, until three boys were declared dead in Israel and I stayed up all night crying. More »
For better or for worse, we’ve become totally accustomed to it. I am Jewish, my fiancée is not, and we are getting married. People feel they have license to say some of the most chutzapahdik things to us–mostly her–both online and in real life. We’ve chosen to have a Jewish wedding, raise Jewish children, and keep a Jewish home. Not that this is a defense, it’s just some background. Our decisions are enough of a threat to people that they feel the need to say pretty aggressive things to us. We had grown used to it and it wasn’t until my fiance was having a conversation with my mother (who affectionately calls my fiancée and her family the machatunim, as she should). My mother was shocked and appalled that people would say such things to our faces. This led me to believe that maybe there were others who thought we were skating by.
“You know your kids won’t be Jewish.”
“You’ll be living a fantasy land.”
“You won’t really have a Jewish home.”
“You’re doomed with an unpleasant process of kids who won’t be accepted by the majority of Jews” [isn’t the internet wonderful?]
Let’s be clear. I grew up under the auspices of the Conservative movement and have worked for the organized Jewish community. We’re very aware of what we’re up against and what our kids risk going through. I don’t expect our practice and observance to work for everyone, particularly those who don’t accept patrilineal descent. What I don’t understand is the vitriol.
What’s interesting is what has changed. When we were first dating, getting serious, and discussing marriage, the first question I got was either “so will she convert?” Funny enough, the variation she received was “so will you convert?” Putting aside the presumption that she would be the one to convert (that’s another whole discussion), why was she once viewed as a prospective Jew? What happened? I neither asked–let alone insisted–that she convert and she has not elected to. She’s comfortable and happy in her own faith. When it came to discuss children, there were no arguments. She was happy to support a Jewish home and children. In terms of the commitments like this that we made to each other, she’s actually in the lead. Just as I want to raise children who identify Jewishly, she wants to raise children who will identify as Latin@. To give you a sense of the score, she put Pesach dinner on the table when I got sick last year and I haven’t taken one Spanish lesson yet. No bueno.
As we approach our wedding, just two months away, I have to observe: the only person to ever say “hey, you’d make a great Jew, we’d love to have you,” is the wonderful Rabbi who’s marrying us. I understand that we’ve long been out of the business of proselytizing and I promise he didn’t make a hard sell. But, no one else has taken a look at what she’s already given to the community and suggested she join the team.
The goal should not be her conversion. I firmly believe that should be her decision. But don’t we want to make Judaism and the Jewish community look a little appealing, like a community others might want to be a part of? If, fundamentally, we’re not opposed to people joining, should we actively be pushing people away? Aren’t the people making the effort then the folks you’d want to further extend an arm towards? If we take conversion off the table, doesn’t the community want to support the parents that are trying to raise Jewish children, particularly in a time when many are pouring money into programming to keep kids Jewish? There’s a disconnect here.
Thankfully, we’ve mostly felt accepted. We’re smart enough to hang in circles where we’d be accepted. (It’s worth noting that one of the above comments came at what I thought to be a liberal-minded Jewish discussion taking place at a Reform shul.) These are the communities we’ll invest our time and love into, and we know will invest their time into us and the family we’re going to build. For those who take issue with the way we do things, consider that we’re not trying to spite your practice before you feel the need to say something.
We hope you can join us tomorrow night (Tuesday, July 15) at 7:30pm for a special break-the-fast communal gathering in Harlem at the Malcolm Shabazz Mosque(Malcolm X’s mosque, located near the corner of W 116th St and Lenox Ave.). Especially in light of the tragic violence besetting the Middle East, we want to come together as a community in the spirit of peace and unity.
When I first skimmed the press release for Handle With Care, a play currently running off-Broadway in the theater that used to house Old Jews Telling Jokes, I thought I had the whole thing figured out in advance: a non-Jewish playwright married an Israeli actress and wrote a show for her. Simple, I thought. It must be a comedy exploring the hilarity of intermarriage, like an Abie’s Irish Rose for the Pew Report generation. I couldn’t have been more wrong. For although playwright Jason Odell Williams has written a play about love bridging disparate lives, it’s about a burgeoning love affair between an Israeli Jew and an American Jew, finding each other in the most unlikely of circumstances: their “meet cute” occurs when a delivery man loses the box containing the remains of Ayelet’s recently deceased grandmother, which he was supposed to be bringing to the airport for return to Israel. Josh, Ayelet’s love interest, is the delivery man’s only Jewish friend, so naturally he gets the call to help translate the situation to the distressed Israeli who speaks very little English.
The result is a charming romantic comedy that would be right at home on JCC stages anywhere in the country. That the play was written by someone who’s not himself Jewish (although he is part of a Jewish family) is surprising, so I was glad to have the opportunity to speak with both Williams and his wife (and star of the show) Charlotte Cohn about that play, their marriage, and working with one’s spouse. More »
This summer, the Jewish Theological Seminary’s List College is introducing an exciting new pre-college summer program focusing on service learning. Inspired by the success of its undergraduate program in social and entrepreneurial initiatives, List College wants to extend its resources to a wider audience of rising junior and senior high school students from across the country looking for a hands-on combination of Jewish traditional text study and internships in social change agencies in New York City.
Participants will have the opportunity to choose from a wide array of internship sites, including government NGOs, sustainability and environmental non-profits, interfaith groups, and education and youth organisations. Before beginning the internships, which will include direct mentorship, students will participate in an orientation, in which they will be trained to work as service professionals in social change agencies. Throughout the program, participants will reconvene together regularly to engage in facilitated Jewish text study, focusing on the theological and historical underpinnings of social action. Additionally, participants will enjoy a guest lecture series and a college prep workshop series offered by Barnard College.
According to Aliyah Vinikoor, assistant Dean of List College and director of their Fellowship for Jewish Social Entrepreneurship, JustCity hopes to empower pre-college students to engage in direct service while also building Jewish community across denominational lines. The program also aspires to reach out to other faith-based groups to help build a multi-faith social change network.
The program dates this summer are from June 30-July 28; participants have the option of living on JTS’ campus. Partial need-based scholarships available. Registration is currently open and applications are due May 1. You can learn more about Just City here. You can also email JustCity at firstname.lastname@example.org
“I am worried that our present policy is internally conflicted and thus strategically self-defeating,” the rabbi said. “The idea of refusing to be present for the wedding and then expecting the couple to feel warmly embraced by the Jewish people strikes me as a policy constructed by someone who doesn’t know the mind of a young couple…. I am not exactly clear on the message the Conservative movement is sending out into the world, and I am not sure if it is a viable policy in the long term.”
Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove of NYC's Park Avenue Synagogue
This quote is from Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, a rabbi of the Park Avenue Synagogue, a Conservative shul in NYC. He’s not talking about a policy shift within his synagogue or the Conservative movement, but sharing his thoughts on conversion and intermarriage, as reported in the New York Jewish Week (Time To Rethink Conversion Policy).
He likened [the current approach] to joining a gym, noting that a potential gym member is not told first to exercise, get in good shape and then join. Rather, if the person is willing to join, he or she signs up and then the work begins. Moreover, the rabbi added, this logic is not just one of good consumer policy but is consistent with traditional Jewish teaching.
In one of the most famous Talmud stories, the man who wants to learn all of the Torah while standing on one foot is shooed away by Shammai, who has no patience for him, but welcomed by Hillel.
“First, Hillel converts, and then Hillel teaches,” Rabbi Cosgrove said. “First you join and then, once you are a vested member, you figure out what it’s all about.”
In that way, the rabbi suggested that it might be more effective for Conservative rabbis to first accept converts and then teach them.
This would be a huge shift! Compare it to the usual course of action someone follows if converting within Conservative Judaism: a year of study followed by formal conversion (going to the mikveh, and brit milah or brit hadam if the convert is a male).
Imagine if, when an interfaith couple approached a Conservative rabbi to officiate their wedding, the response wasn’t “I can’t officiate, but consider conversion!” or “I can’t officiate, but you’re still welcome to come to synagogue!” but instead was “Welcome! Let’s bring you into the community, celebrate your wedding, and then, as you and your partner establish this next phase of your lives together, let’s make sure Jewish learning is included!”
“My priority is to create Jewish homes, and everything I do is toward that goal,” he said. When a congregant’s adult child comes to him with a non-Jewish partner and wants to get married, he now describes the yearlong conversion program requirement that is a prerequisite to the wedding. Many of them, he says, never come back, choosing a justice of the peace or other [Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal] clergy to marry them.
As Rabbi Cosgrove points out, “love trumps religious affiliation, with the result being that few families are immune from the situation of a child coming home with a non-Jewish partner and wanting to be married in a Jewish ceremony.” So the question becomes: how do rabbis keep up? Do you think Rabbi Cosgrove’s idea to convert the partner who isn’t Jewish so that Conservative rabbis can officiate their weddings and then bring them to study would work? Do you have other ideas?
Last week, the Rabbinical Assembly (the rabbis’ guild for the Conservative movement), sent out a press release. Together with representatives from the Schechter Day School Network (the Jewish day schools affiliated with the Conservative denomination), they met in late-October to talk about “outreach to and inclusion of intermarried families.” Great!
This isn’t the first time we’ve looked at how to attract and include interfaith families in Jewish day schools. We blogged about the AviCHAI foundation’s conversation and I participated in their day of meetings, which brought together teachers, school administrators, other Jewish educators, parents, and community professionals such as myself.
Back to the Rabbinical Assembly’s press release. It didn’t take long for me to realize that the consensus reached in their meetings would likely continue to alienate the families they want to attract and include.
The rabbis expressed their commitment to conversion according to the standards of Conservative Judaism, as the ideal for our keruv (outreach) to these families.
Our studies have shown that having conversion as the focus of the Jewish community’s outreach creates barriers to inclusion and welcome. “Perceived pressure to convert” is ranked as a barrier to expanded connection with Jewish community institutions, such as synagogues and, I’m extrapolating here, day schools. If that pressure is a deterrent from going to Shabbat services, wouldn’t it also be a deterrent from sending kids to day school?
The focus on conversion as the ideal continued, as exemplified by one of the “challenging questions” the group discussed:
What is the optimal timeline for conversion after admitting a child who is not yet Jewish to the school?
Before getting to a timeline, let’s take a step back. A great place to start would be using inclusive language. If a child is going to your school, chances are their parents are raising them as Jews. So clarify what you actually mean, but do it in a way that does not further alienate these families. How about,
What is the optimal timeline for conversion after admitting a child who is a patrilineal Jew?
I would, of course, recommend defining such a term on your forms. Make sure to explain why the Conservative movement does not view patrilineal descent as “Jewish,” unlike the Reform movement. (Conservative Judaism determines who they consider to be a Jew through matrilineal descent — a Jew is someone who is born to a Jewish mother, or who has converted to Judaism in a ceremony that meets their requirements.) For these children of patrilineal descent, the assumption is that their parents would want them to convert, that their families need additional support and Jewish education as well. In some cases, sure; we’ve received plenty of feedback from parents over the years, telling us they’d love to learn along with their kids. But for others, the additional resources might not be wanted. (I wonder if all families at the schools are viewed equally: are resources offered to parents who have in-married but who do not practice Judaism at home? What about intermarried families where the mother is Jewish, thus the Conservative movement considers the children Jewish — are they offered resources too?)
As my colleague, Ari Moffic, wrote in February, 2012, you might also consider creating “A Pledge for All of Our Families” for your schools. Her suggested template offers inclusive language that could be inserted in every school’s handbook and/or posted to the school’s website.
It’s great to see that the follow-up activities will include “drafting recommended language for admission applications to the schools.” Hopefully the resources on our site will help with that process.
And when you start looking for professionals to join your focus groups, you know where to find me.
From our friends at Bend the Arc, the organization(s) formerly known as Jewish Funds for Justice-Progressive Jewish Alliance-Shefa Fund, the Community Organizing Residency is accepting applications — and nominations. The application deadline for COR has been extended to June 15th and we have created an online form for you to nominate applicants. You can nominate them here.
Where else can you find a Muslim organizer trained by a Jewish organization to work with a coalition comprised mostly of Christian churches? Nowhere but Bend the Arc’s Community Organizing Residency, as covered recently in the NY Times. More »
A very unique program is recruiting a few more rabbinic students near New York (especially Orthodox, Reform or Reconstructionist) for an intensive, interfaith exploration of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with Christian seminarians. The program is a joint project of the Auburn Theological Seminary and the American Jewish Committee.
Ever wondered what Christians really think about Israel? Ever thought about how to engage the regional conflict constructively across faith lines? This intensive and life-changing program features a series of study and dialogue sessions followed by a 9-day travel encounter to Israel and the Palestinian Territories in January 2012. Auburn Seminary and the American Jewish Committee (NY Chapter) jointly run the program, which has openings for a few more rabbinic students. All program costs, including travel and accommodations, are covered in exchange for a $400 program fee (waived for those with financial difficulty). Application and details are available online and are due ASAP.
Video featuring our very own Josh Frankel. For more Auburn resources to bridge religious divides click here.
Over the past several years, we have seen quite a number of Jewish or pseudo-Jewish practices picked up by non-Jews. While this isn’t exactly a novel occurrence – Christians sort of invented it with the creation of their new religion not quite two millenia ago, and Christian “Passover seders” of various sorts have been going on for some number of decades- it’s worth considering how Jews should react to the “democratization” of Jewish practices.
Whether it’s the pseudo-Jewish kabbalah center (whose practices misrepresent kabbalah quite a huge amount) and its superstitious practices, or Justin Bieber saying the Shema before concerts, we can expect to see more of this kind of thing.
To a certain extent, a certain amount of syncretism is inevitable. More »
On Monday, the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs (of the Conservative/Masorti Movement) posted a video to YouTube explaining the importance of having a welcoming website. Aimed at synagogues, the video was publicized by an email sent out by the FJMC.
What’s interesting about the video (and email) is that it never explicitly states something like, “synagogue websites should say, ‘Our synagogue is welcoming of all families, including interfaith families and families of diverse backgrounds.’”
Instead, it suggests:
Your congregation’s website is your most important tool to attracting today’s Jewish family. Your website’s ‘welcome’ must be obvious. It needs to greet the visitor in a meaningful and sincere way. For example, if you’re welcoming interfaith families, children and adults with different ethnic backgrounds, or gay and lesbian families, words like ‘welcome,’ ‘open,’ and ‘diverse’ need to be prominent and obvious.
Buzz words aren’t enough. If you’re welcoming of “interfaith families, children and adults with different ethnic backgrounds, or gay and lesbian families,” say so! Use those descriptive words! The video shows interfaith families (a family standing in front of a Christmas tree and a menorah!) and shows that we should be welcoming to interfaith families (the word “interfaith” on a doormat!), but doesn’t say to use the words on the websites.
It seems like the Conservative Movement wants to be welcoming of interfaith families, but doesn’t think it can outright say so. But it can. And should.
This is a great start. I appreciate that the FJMC is making this effort, and we all know that making changes in synagogues can be a slow and arduous process, but… Let’s just take it a step further.
What do you think? Watch the video and leave a comment:
First of all, let’s just set aside for a moment the ridiculousness of mentioning Islamic extremists in every other breath – really, I have to say (I never thought I’d defend Beck in any way whatsoever) that really, his comments weren’t about Reform Jews being terrorists. While his comments were completely inane, his point was that Reform Jews are primarily a political organization rather than a religious one. How many ways this is a stupid comment leaves me gasping, but it’s not what most people seem to have taken it as – i.e. a claim that Reform Jews are terrorists.
However, the level of stupidity remains pretty high: More »
There will be a 3 year congregation certification program offered in conjunciton with GreenFaith’s environmental education fellowship and a set of Webinars offered through Jewish National Fund. Resources will be offered on conservation, sustainable food, and advocacy.
The initiative will unfold over three years, beginning in December with the release of the first resource focusing on energy conservation and renewable energy. Two free resources will be issued each year to help congregations and households address environmental concerns. Materials will be provided to help congregations incorporate environmental practices into their daily functioning and educational curricula, as well as giving tips to individuals to use at home.
I have yet to compare this with the Reconstructionist movement’s Sustainable Synagogue program (RavBoaz- chime in?), but on the surface am impressed by the initiative, the range of leaders it draws on and the tachlis approach it takes to affecting chance in the shul.
L’kovod the aseres yamey tshuva, I present two interesting writers who converted from Judaism to Christianity. Let’s put it this way: They had to worry about a whole different kind of Tshuva:
Jacobo Fijman (1898-1970)
Poet and Madman. Born in Bessarabia, Fijman lived and died in Argentina. Spent much of his life in a state mental asylum. Surrealist poet, gnostic and anarchist. A taste:
el camino más alto y más desierto.
Oficio de las máscaras absurdas; pero tan humanas.
Roncan los extravíos;
tosen las muecas
y descargan sus golpes
dilatación vidriosa de los ojos
en el camino más alto y más desierto.
Se erizan los cabellos del espanto.
La mucha luz alaba su inocencia…
Nicolae Steinhardt (1912–1989). Theologian and Memoirist. Underground Favorite. Revered in Romania for his Jurnalul fericirii (The Diary of Happiness; 1991), an account of his journey to orthodox Christianity during the years he spent in Communist prisons. A Taste:
Outside a bakery, an old beggar, small, discreet. I give him 3 or 4 lei. He takes off his hat, respectfully, and thanks me for a long while. Why, I don’t know – the memory of my father, the physical resemblance (small and stooping) – his gesture – so polite, the shame of being saluted by an old man for a few lei, the onslaught of images of prison in my memory, revelatory of the human condition’s wretchedness – but I burst out crying in the middle of the street, like a madman.