Monday, April 7, 2008

The Golden Nugget

I want to invite you to go back over the Saxe/Chertok study, It’s Not Who Stands Under the Chuppah. Look at the numbers. The researchers divided the families into three categories: Jewish-Jewish Families, Interfaith Families, and Conversionary Families.

In all the categories the highest engagement was in the conversionary families. Leading me back to the statement: Conversion is good for the Jews. When an adult goes through the process of examining their identity, their practices, the values and behaviors that will define their lives and then decide that the best way to express the essence of their identity and values is to become a Jew it is not surprising that they then throw themselves into learning and practice.

Just a few months ago I was leading a workshop on Outreach to a group of about 30 professionals who run teen programs. We talked about the segments of our community from which our teens come - LGBT, multiracial Jews, interfaith families. I told them there is one group we haven’t spoken about. Of this group it is still acceptable to say:

they aren’t really Jewish
You can always tell one of them from us.
You know his/her father/mother is one of them.
They are way too into being Jewish.
You can’t really call them Jewish.

Who is this group? I asked the group.

Converts, they responded.

Conversionary families scored higher by all measures than Jewish-Jewish families. They are doing all the things we want parents to do to raise their children as Jews: giving them a Jewish education, practicing Judaism at home, and surrounding themselves and their kids with a Jewish social network. But they remain “other” in many Jewish environments. As recently as two weeks ago I asked a group of Jews by choice if we could take a picture of the group and put it on the website of their synagogue to let browsers know about the program. No, they told me, we won’t deny we are converts, but we don’t want to invite the second class citizenship.

Until we as a community does a better job with conversion and our golden nuggets - the converts - we will sap our own strength.

Much more open and enthusiastic support of these Jews is essential.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Hillel: Welcome to my Life!

So much great information has been coming our way lately, largely thanks to Dawn, that when I got this from another source, I wasn't sure whether we'd already seen it or not. So to be safe, I'm passing it along for your perusal and possible discussion among us.

Hillel opens doors to non-Jews

In a move that Hillel leaders say has been forced upon them by this generation's altered social landscape, the organization is throwing open its doors to everyone, designing programs that appeal to Jews and non-Jews and hyping its contribution to university -- not only Jewish - life.

Dear all,

Yes, this is groundbreaking! I began with the title, "Welcome to my Life!" As the mother of a college student I am seeing this process first hand. I am guessing that Eve, with your two college kids you had some of the same experiences.

My college-age daughter got Easter week off as spring break (please don't tell me that America is secular!) She and her roommate, an observant Catholic, and their suitemate, a mainstream American (I call them American folkloric Christians because they observe Christian practices and holidays as folk behaviors, not religion) drove down to Disneyland to see her close friend from high school, a black, gay male who used to be Christian but his church rejects gays. Her friend, Nate, works at Disneyland and got them in for free.

When she got home, my daughter immediately began planning the guests for seder. Her friends were an assumed "yes" from mom. Naturally she is right. I expect to welcome anyone she invites.

And here's the NEW TRUTH, my daughter expects her non-Jewish friends to enjoy being immersed in a Jewish practice.

What do we learn from this?

In our programming we must reflect the new reality - that young Jews are completely comfortable being public as Jews and expect to blend their Jewish behaviors with their non-Jewish friends and loved ones. That means that the concept of "inreach" - a program that engages those who are Jewish and brings them closer to Judaism is going to be MORE successful in attracting young Jews if those young Jews can bring their non-Jewish friends. So as we are developing programs - inreach needs to use outreach - and we have to think more complexly. We must plan a program that engages the experienced Jew, one raised with a Jewish education and Jewish practice in the home, AND also engages the novice.

I will use the example of the Passover Workshop that I just offered last Sunday. I promoted it as "whether you are a novice or an old hand at seder, you will learn something new" and I included a charoset tasting.
For the novice, we explained the elements of the seder table and seder plate. For the experienced seder-holder I took them through the years of evolving your seder to meet the needs of your guests as you go from pre-children, to children ages zero to teen, to a table of experienced adults. Add to that the experiencial part of tasting the five charoset, including a California charoset made with avocado, and there was lots of discussion and comparision. I also had a table of some 30 different haggadot to peruse. More conversations were generated as participants discussed what they liked or wanted in a haggadah and gave each other advice.

One woman told me, "I've never done seder before but now I see it's not so complicated as I thought. I'm going to do it this year!" Another woman who is a seasoned Jewish professional said, "I loved that! I'm a Passover junkie!"

That becomes our goal. A program that can stretch in each direction. That is what the young Jews are willing to come to.

Now do look at and some of the Jewish bloggers to see the Jewish events that go off into a new realm.

At Emanu-el in San Francisco they have Spookalot at Sukkot, blending together the national folkloric holiday of Halloween with Sukkot. They get together in a sukkah and the rabbi reads them ghostly stories. Are there Jewish ghost stories? Of course!

Please share with the group any events or programs you are planning or currently offer that address any of these ideas.

Is there something you would like to do? A half formed idea that you'd like help fleshing out?

Toss it out there. Let's see what people say.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Jewish DNA, non-Jews and Converts

Here is a fascinating article on the current research done on Jewish DNA.

I sent it out to my Jews by Choice to help them think about the elements of Jewish history that contribute to the challenge of being seen as a Jew by born Jews, many of whom remain attached to the idea of a Jewish bloodline.

You'll note that towards the end of the article Jon Entine is asked about the value of non-Jews entering the Jewish gene pool. He refers to the value of hybrid vigor* - a term that Joel Crohn has used to me -- it is the new genetic input that biologically strengthens the creatures in question -- here, the Jews.
I don’t think it will change the thinking of the ultra Orthodox, but it is a fascinating revelation to see that science proves that there may be halachically non-Jewish Jews all through the most traditional of Jewish communities. Additionally, it shows that in the past Jewish men traveled the globe and took non-Jewish wives who then raised their children as Jews. Of course, we are also talking about a time in which women has no rights and were the property of their husbands, taking on the ways of the family/people into which they had married. No, I don't want to go THERE! But what can we learn from this? Interesting stuff!

Link to article:

Quote from article:
From an evolutionary point of view, then, it’s healthy to bring people from other communities into the Jewish community, so the Jewish gene pool doesn’t become so homogenous.
From this perspective, yes, intermarriage is great; it’s what geneticists call hybrid vigor. In mixing populations genetically, we’re assuring that future Jewish generations will be healthier. From a genetic and Jewish cultural continuity perspective, however, the best of all possible worlds is for Jews to marry non-Jews who convert to Judaism.

*The encyclopedic definition is:
Heterosis is a term used in genetics and selective breeding. The term heterosis, also known as hybrid vigor or outbreeding enhancement, describes the increased strength of different characteristics in hybrids; the possibility to obtain a "better" individual by combining the virtues of its parents.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

It's Not Just Who Stands Under the Chuppah

The Fern Chertok and Leonard Saxe study is out and it is a superb result - informative and useful.

I want to look beyond the headlines. This is not a rosy affirmation that interfaith couples turn out to be just like Jewish - Jewish couples.

What is the study saying?
Yes, interfaith couples, when you control for Jewish education level, look very much like JJ couples in the Reform movement.
But look closely, the JJ couples don’t look so good. This is a bit like saying people with pneumonia don’t look any worse than people with the plague.
Looking at the levels of observance and practice studied we see low numbers for both groups.

Very emotionally attached to Israel
JJ couples 17% IF couples 16%
Any Jewish organizational ties
JJ couples 54% IF couples 57%
Usually light Shabbat candles
JJ couples 13% IF couples 12%
Very important to be Jewish
JJ couples 37% IF couples 29%

In essence, this is a startling revelation of the low level of the Reform Jews’ engagement with Jewish life.

But don’t throw in the towel, there is also good news.

Chertok/Saxe identify three critical elements to Jewish engagement.

1) Jewish Education
Remember that all of the above statistics are based on “controlling for education.” That is, a poorly educated Jew, no matter who they marry, doesn’t do much Jewishly. A well educated Jew, no matter who they marry, does – or is significantly more likely to.

As one highly educated Jew in my community put it, “I painted a very orthodox picture of life with me to my (now) husband when we were talking about marriage.” Indeed, she and her husband and children are synagogue affiliated, active in Federation, and the children attend day school.

2) Home Ritual
The study finds that those who have a bank of Jewish memories are more likely to repeat the behaviors those memories are based on. This makes abundant common sense. If you can’t play the piano, do you really identify as a pianist? Do you believe yourself capable of things you have no personal, repeated experience of doing? In order to BE Jewish, one must know how to DO Jewish.

For those who remember the scent of challah baking, the excitement of staying up for Shavuot, making decorations for the sukkah, there is the desire and knowledge to repeat them in adulthood. These practices from childhood are no less powerful than the memories associated with Christmas. We must stock up the Jewish bank with Jewish capital.

Side note: You may be aware that scientists have found that the sense of smell is our longest carrier of memories. In other words, you can smell something from your past and it will arouse a memory better and longer than visual or auditory stimuli. Interestingly this carrying over to smell’s companion sense - taste. Immigrants retain the cuisine of their home culture even after assimilating in other ways to the dominate culture. I frequently encourage my interfaith couples to integrate sensory Jewish experiences into their lives.

3) Social Networks
This study states that having Jewish friends increased the likelihood that an individual will engage in Jewish life and practice.

Studies in all the social sciences report the power of peer influence. A recent study on Early Childhood Education looked at what causes parents to put their children in Jewish preschools. They found the number one factor was the actions of their friends. They titled this: Peer Influence.

What causes kids to join gangs? What supports alcoholics in remaining “dry”? The support and influence of a peer group.

Chertok/Saxe state it brilliantly:
Having Jewish friends growing up and especially in high school may help make Jewish identity and home ritual normative. Jewish summer camps, youth movements, and campus organizations provide environments in which to enact Jewish values and practice Jewish behaviors with peers. Without opportunities for social comparison with a group of Jewish friends, teens and young adults may come to believe that acting out one’s Jewish identity is potentially uncomfortable and isolating.

(The bold is my emphasis.) This is no different from all “fitting in” behaviors of normal human beings. Whether our couple is JJ or IF, they need Jewish friends for all of the above reasons.

From this study, we can readily conclude that by increasing EDUCATION, HOME RITUAL, and SOCIAL NETWORKS we can positively influence JJ and IF couples to become comfortable with Jewish life and encourage them to embrace and deepen their Jewish practice.

Recommendations to the community
The question that simply leaps off the page is:

If interfaith families in a Reform environment become like Reform Jews, do interfaith families in a Conservative environment become like Conservative Jews?

Are interfaith couples being assimilate into the Jewish community in which they live?

The question can be extended to interfaith couples in an Orthodox environment and a secular environment.

A colleague of mine who was the non-Jewish partner (she has since converted) in a Conservative congregation and participated in a self study that the bay area Conservative moment did of interfaith in their congregations said, “Interfaith families in the Conservative moment know what they are getting into and make the choice to go for greater practice.”

Additionally, I know an interfaith couple at a local Orthodox congregation who is kosher and shomer Shabbos.

We, the on the ground professionals, must press the demographers to explore this vital finding. Perhaps Steven Cohen, a Conservative Jew, would be able to help. Key to the Saxe study is a survey done of the Reform movement’s lay leaders. Perhaps Steve Cohen would know of a comparable study from the Conservative movement that could be used with the 2000 NJPS and the data from Birthright.


1) Jewish education
Since the 1990 NJPS the community’s focus has been on Jewish education and many studies say it is paying off. But Jewish education must be better, cheaper and longer.
The VAST MAJORITY of our children are educated in synagogue Hebrew schools. These schools have teachers who are not credentialed, poorly paid, part-time and sometimes barely ahead of their students.

Synagogues are perennially short of money, staff and time. Until Jewish funders stop worrying about denominations and movements and put real money into the synagogue schools that are actually educating most Jewish children, we will continue to have inadequately educated Jews. We will continue to lose the struggle to retain a generation.

2) Home ritual
Adult Jews must be provided with the skills and knowledge to practice at home. But that will most likely start outside their home. They need classes that are fun, meaningful and transformative. Here is where Outreach is essential. Our programs are often labeled as NOT supporting the core of born Jews. But we know differently. We have to start collecting the statistics that show the number of shy and ambivalent Jews that utilize our entry point programs to come in. They are often more comfortable in the presence of some non-Jews whom they expect to be less knowledgeable than themselves and therefore, less threatening.

3) Social Networks
In this hideously busy world it is hard to build relationships. Chavurot, classes, and other ongoing multi-session programs are needed to create time and opportunity for individuals to connect. In a couples group or a class setting, people get to know each other over discussion of shared interests and concerns. Outreach programs offer unaffiliated couples and families these bridging opportunities.

I ran a one-year chavura for unaffiliated interfaith families three years ago. They were one of the most disengaged groups I have ever experienced. But they clicked and they continue to meet. Several of them have since joined congregations and I hope their influence will draw in, or at least support, the remaining couples. Time and repetition has an amazing power.

I also used to form chavurot in a synagogue environment 20 years ago. Those chavurot remain intact and the families have not left the synagogue as their children aged and are now leaving home.

Where Do We, the Outreach Professionals, Fit In?

There are no street signs saying, “This way to be Jewish.” There is no section of the Yellow pages in my community that is labeled “Jewish.” In fact, the synagogues in my area are listed under CHURCHES.

The Outreach Professional creates a bridge between the unaffiliated and Jewish life. Our ads in secular media, our websites, our programs - are all entry points to participation.

A community without an Outreach professional is a community without a guide. The Outreach professional functions as the hub to all possible points of engagement for the uninformed seeker - Jewish or not yet Jewish.