Tuesday, October 27, 2009

"Lost Jews" video - is there an effective response?

Ed Case’s editorial about the MASA “Lost Jews” video appeared yesterday on JTA.
)Please read it here: http://jta.org/news/article/2009/10/25/1008716/op-ed-what-israelis-need-to-know-about-intermarriage-in-north-america)

Ed states what we professionals experience and wish the world knew, that many interfaith couples are seeking Jewish engagement, looking for programs, support and acceptance. Additionally many Jews in interfaith relationships become more involved in Jewish life than they would have had they married a Jew and been able to simply avoid the question of identity development all together.

But I am concerned that our stories and our defense of interfaith couples is the same song we’ve been singing for years and it is still not listened to.

What are the issues that prevent the Jewish community (in this case MASA) from absorbing our message? The kind of haunting sorrow expressed in the video could have come from an American Jewish institution and would certainly have been experienced as damning, judgmental and hurtful by interfaith couples. The only difference is that in America the messages have become more subtle because our community is more aware of the politically correct stance. So, what’s going wrong? Why do so many Jewish institutions still feel, expressed or concealed, an inability to hear that interfaith marriage is not the cause of assimilation and all it’s implications to the loss of Judaism?

1. Fear. People, Jewish or not, are paralyzed by fear. They do not become more open or creative, rather they tend to run faster in the same circle. So only a non-fear based message is going to reach them. Defensive messages reek of our own fear, so we just stimulate theirs.

2. Defensiveness. From fear to defense is a very short jump. After the outpouring of rage and hurt in reaction to the video MASA pulled the film and… and nothing. Smacked down by the reaction they got I’ve heard nothing more from MASA. So did we “win”? I don’t think so. Shutting down your opponent works only if you never want to have anything to do with them again. Winning in my mind is getting a new and good conversation going.

3. Lack of information. Our typical exchange has just been demonstrated: Statement against interfaith marriage, Anger and hurt expressed, Conversation shut down. No actual information has been exchanged. So the two sides go away, both of them hurt, both more certain of their “side” being right and neither better understanding the other.

What can we do better to get our message across?

In an angst ridden environment like this the first thing to do is listen. I doubt that anyone went to MASA and asked them, could you tell us about your concerns and what you were hoping to accomplish with your video? Let’s say the answer is, we want more Jews to come to Israel because that will make them feel more Jewish. AH! Great, we have two things to work on: How to get more Jews to Israel and how to make more Jews feel Jewish. So MASA, we could answer, it appears that that video didn’t do the job but let’s talk about how to accomplish your goals in other ways.

Back to America, how can we get out our message, that welcoming interfaith couples, supporting their family process and being their partners in their Jewish journeys (should they choose Judaism) is the best way to stem the lost of Jews?

First, we don’t attack, we talk. Again, we begin with listening to the fears of our Jewish agencies, CEOs, the guy sitting next to us in a meeting or the synagogue. Then, armed with the facts we begin a caring conversation. We express our own concern. “I’m in this work because I care deeply about the Jewish people.” We get to know their fears, their goals. Then we talk about how they can attain those goals, which are probably very much like MASA’s, for more Jews to be engaged and committed to Jewish life. We readily quote the data from studies. We give examples from our own work. And we acknowledge that, like Jewish education, there is no quick fix. This is the work of every generation, the work of a lifetime.

One approach that I am using more is to talk about the innocents in this turmoil, the children of intermarriage who did not do anything more than be born to their parents. Whether they are considered halachically Jewish or raised Jewish or are Christian with Jewish heritage, hurting them is cruel and wrong. There is nothing more self defeating than to dismiss the children, our children, as not truly a part of our family. In an article that I found very powerful, Benjamin Hartman, the son of a conversionary family said it well (emphasis is mine):

As a child of a mixed-marriage myself, I know quite intimately how a Jewish life lived on the frontiers of the Diaspora (Texas) in a family of suspect Jewish pedigree can still engender a very strong identity with Judaism.

If anything, I've learned that such a background can make the bonds stronger. I also have learned that no matter how strong that bond feels, and even if it does drive you to live in Israel, it's not up to the child of the mixed-marriage to decide whether they are alienated from Judaism, a simple dismissal by the Rabbinate of your Jewish credentials and your entire upbringing does a much better job.

(Read Benjamin’s article here: http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1113190.html)

I would like to add that Benjamin is NOT the child of an interfaith marriage; his mother converted. When will we stop dismissing the conversions our rabbis perform? That would be an excellent first step.

My friends, let’s put our own outrage and hurt in the freezer for now and engage our stressed and reactive community in healing conversations about effective methods that engage Jews in interfaith families. Along the way we will draw in a lot of other alienated Jews too, because a real welcome is a welcome to all.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The color of Jews

Most Jews are now considered ‘white.’* But more and more Jewish families are multicolored. There are many avenues to a multiracial family identity. Conversion, intermarriage, adoption, and plain old, born that way. Here is a terrific and affirming article about the Be’chol Lashon summer camp for multiracial families that started this year in northern California. Be’chol Lashon is a program that supports multiracial Jewish families and offers education to the Jewish community about the multiracial Jews among us. Their associate director is Rabbi Capers Funnye, First Lady Michelle Obama’s cousin.

You’ll note that the article says that the 2000 National Jewish Population Study found that 5.4% of America’s Jews are non-white. But a 2004 study by the Institute for Jewish and Community Research, Be’chol Lashon’s parent organization, puts the figure at about 10 percent. That’s national. In the San Francisco bay area two studies have found that the Jewish community has more like 14% non-white Jews.


*For Jews who grew up before Jews “turned white” in the 1970s, there is still a struggle to be seen for who they were growing up – a racial minority. Jewish demographer, Dr. Bruce Phillips, states that Jews “turned white” in America after years of being a brown race that, in the 1930s, was ranked as worse than Poles and Irish, but better than Hispanics and Blacks. You’ll note that a lot of people were being considered “not white.”

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Conservative Judaism & Interfaith Couples

There is a common, but ignorant, belief that Conservative synagogues are not supportive environments for interfaith couples. It's not true. Each couple must find their own place in community but never say never.

Here is an encouraging article from The Jewish Week by Rabbi David Lerner.


Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Outreach to the Birthright Alums

A few days ago, Aug. 26, 2009, the Forward ran this article:

Largest Outreach Effort for Alums Of Birthright Raises Concerns

What’s the “concern?” The charge is that the largest, most well-funded organizer of follow-up programs for Birthright alumni, the Jewish Enrichment Center, been given a virtual monopoly on reaching out to the tens of thousands of Birthright alumni who return to the New York Tri-State area and that they are Orthodox.

As I began reading I found nothing to be so upset about. The program is non-denominational, has a terrific sounding offering, and environment for young people to hang out, learn and get to know other young Jews. They have Hebrew classes, challah baking, Friday night dinners and a training program for those who didn’t have a bar or bat mitzvah. As a mom of a Birthright alum it all sounded good to me. In fact I’ve been hoping and asking for some meaningful followup for my San Francisco bay area alum daughter.

I don’t care that the Orthodox rabbi isn’t into labels; personally I have frum friends and I get tired of hearing them disparaged. The accusation that the program is “slanted towards religious observance” sounded like it is more of a problem for my generation than my daughter’s. I have no objection to traditional Torah study as long as it’s accepting and embracing. I am onboard for kosher snacks, which I’m assuming they serve.

But then the program moved from religion, where they appear to be low key and open, to politics, where there is a clear conservative agenda. OK, they lost me. And truthfully, they’d lose my daughter.

What makes me sad is that it always seems like the money for extensive programming and an expensive building/meeting place only goes to orthodox endeavors. The liberal areas of the community can’t see their way clear to spend this money. So while I agree with the concerns expressed by Rabbi Yoffie of the Union for Reform Judaism (see the article), what I see is that no one is willing to fund a program of Reform (or Reconstructionist or Renewal or Conservative) Jewish outreach on this scale.

We in Outreach to Interfaith readily acknowledge the powerful message and consistent openness of Chabad. The frequent statement is, “we need to become a liberal version of Chabad.” What does that mean? First of all it means feeling confident of who we are, knowing our own boundaries. From a secure core it is a lot easier to open your arms to others. I hope that a clear and consistent mission statement will help funders see their way through to funding a liberal program of outreach. To you my fellow professionals, I believe the better we coordinate with each other and support each other (as the Chabad couples do) the stronger we will become.

But let me issue a cautionary note to the Jewish Enrichment Center, please ask yourself:
Will a conservative speaker (Grace-Marie Turner) who is opposed to public funding for abortions and is anti-President Obama catch the interest of this group of young Jews? If you think she will, you don’t know your audience. I suggest you check out the YouTube video, Sarah Silverman and the Great Schlep – that’s where the young Jews are.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Core Interfaith Programs Hard to Find

The central workshop of interfaith programming is certainly the Couples Discussion Group. The idea has been around for several decades and like mother's milk, it's an old idea that is still good today.

The problem is that there are fewer communities that offer couples discussion groups. Groups are time and labor intensive. It takes money and tenacity to do the marketing, reach the couples, build their trust and get them signed up for a group. Then you have to run it! For seven or eight weeks. That means that a facilitator commits on the order of 14 to 16 hours to 5 to 7 couples. Fees must be kept reasonably low, so these are not money makers for agencies or synagogues.

When I get emails from couples around the country looking for help I look for a couples group. A few months ago I was emailed and then called by a young woman seriously dating a Jewish man. They were in New York City. Of all the cities where you'd expect to find interfaith programming, surely that was the city. Even the 92nd Street Y wasn't offering groups. I turned to my network of colleagues. Since the young man was raised in the Conservative movement I wanted to connect him with a Conservative program or person if possible. Fortunately, Rabbi Charles Simon of the Federation of Jewish Mens Clubs told me to send them his way.

But it has been equally hard in Los Angeles and Florida.

My wish is that a national funder would put money into supporting these groups - which provide a vital and powerful experience for the interfaith couple. I would like to see these groups available in every Jewish community.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Comments on the Bronfman Book

Several questions/comments were sent to me about the last post.

1. How did you (Dawn) get the book?
Rosanne Levitt, in a visit to the east coast, spoke with an employee of the Bronfman Foundation. She told the woman about the Alliance’s efforts to support advanced education among Interfaith Outreach workers and was offered several copies of the book.

2. Given that Bronfman didn’t connect with the professionals will you (Dawn) be sharing your thoughts with Bronfman and copying key individuals?
I spoke with the same young man who interviewed a number of us for the Foundation about a year ago, Ben Greene. Other key individuals in the work would be YOU ALL!

3. I have begun reading the book but have not found it compelling.
As a professional in this field you will find that the material in the book is already well known to you. In fact we discussed some of this in our Think Tank last September 2008. The book is basically a layperson’s survey of current data. The good news is that we can hope that more people will read and learn some of this basic information. The bad news is that, as a novice, his deductions are not always on target.

Two more thoughts
Perceptions of interfaith couples/families
One problem is that Bronfman uses his intermarried son to gain insight. This is a very common error: The survey of one. You now have a single individual’s experience representing a huge population. This is frequent in our line of work. A parent sees their child intermarry and it impacts them. They come to us with an adamant view informed solely by their child. Or an intermarried Jew comes and believes that all interfaith couples’ marriages are just like theirs. It would have been useful had Bronfman then been aware of this and ackn

Level of sophistication
Second, the challenge to those of us who are long time practitioners in this field is that we may feel discouraged by the lack of experience around us. All the more reason that we need to work on developing a more sophisticated and informed professional group.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Hope Not Fear - the new book

I recently received a copy of Hope Not Fear by Edgar M. Bronfman and Beth Zasloff. The first thing that struck me in reading it was that here is a wealthy man with extensive access to probably anyone he wanted to interview and yet he did not speak to a single individual who is currently working in outreach to interfaith couples. He spoke to people who do a lot of talking about it, to people who do outreach that happens to include interfaith couples, but no one who does this for a living. The closest he came was Dru Greenwood who used to run the Union for Reform Judaism's Outreach Department. But Dru has been gone several years.

What this tells me is that Professional Interfaith Outreach is so far under the radar that even Bronfman couldn't find it.

What does this mean?

First I think it reflects the community's continued ambivalence towards the entire issue of interfaith marriage. We are afraid that any effort might give permission to intermarry. So we don’t fund ongoing, strong programs. Thus no programs emerge onto the general community landscape and consciousness. How many programs have we seen open and close?

In this environment very few professionals continue to work in the field for more than five years. Therefore, no experience is developed, no institutional memory is sustained. Programs are constantly run by novices. I could count on my two hands the professionals that have done this work continuously for more than 10 years.

If you were going in for surgery would you want a doctor who was making it up as he/she went along or would you prefer someone who had actually done your procedure hundreds of times on hundreds of different people?

Until we transcend fear and begin to believe that we as a community will survive, we will continue to have programs that rotate in and out of existence with staff that lack experience sufficient to address the needs and challenges of this growing population.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Gary Tobin, a friend to interfaith professionals

No doubt you have read the articles about Gary Tobin, researcher, pioneer, founder of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research in San Francisco. Google his name and you'll find wonderful articles praising him. One of his most meaningful legacies is surely Be'chol Lashon, an organization that "reaches out to Jews of color and helps educate the mainstream community about Jewish diversity." Here in the San Francisco bay area the majority of multiracial Jews and Jewish families are aware of the organization. Thank goodness his wife, Diane Tobin, will keep it going.

Another gift he gave to us was his focus on bringing people INTO Judaism. Interfaith couples, seekers, Jews by Choice, who ever wanted to be part of Judaism, Gary said, bring 'em in. Why waste time fussing about "how Jewish" are they? They want to be a Jew? Fine.

Finally, I must say that attending Gary's funeral made one thing crystal clear. Gary's greatest project, with his wife, Diane, was his family. His six children each spoke lovingly of him and of each other. He was a good dad who created and sustained an amazing family. May we all learn from him that it is possible and necessary to be even better at home than we are at work.

Here are some links to articles online:





His website, www.garytobin.org, has a full list of media coverage.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

How Spiritual are America’s Jews?

A recent study by Steven Cohen and Lawrence Hoffman is titled:

How Spiritual are America’s Jews?

There is a good summary of the study done by Ed Case and I won’t repeat it. You can read it here

Let’s turn to the key findings that relate to our work in interfaith outreach:

* Unlike young non-Jewish Americans, young Jewish Americans are more spiritual than their elders.

* Two growing populations that are more spiritual – Orthodox Jews and “Extended Jews by Choice.” This second group, Extended Jews by Choice, is made up of Converts, individuals who did not convert but identify as Jewish, and the Adult children of interfaith couples who identify as Jewish. The combination of these three distinct groups as a single group is problematic if you are working with each of them. However, for the purposes of the study, they do share some interesting characteristics.

* Extended Jews by Choice have a greater comfort with spirituality perhaps because of their greater exposure to Christianity – a religion that is significantly more comfortable with and accustomed to God talk

* Mainstream Judaism lacks words for spirituality and spiritual experiences.

* Jews want their rabbis to talk about God, afterlife, meaning of life, individual meaning

What can we add to these conclusions from our own experience? We must ask, what does Orthodox Judaism have that we can learn from?

* Orthodox Judaism has spiritual words & comfort with God talk.

* Orthodox Judaism is not focused on pediatric Judaism but continues Jewish education through life with increasingly sophisticated views of the meaning of life and the role of human beings.

* Reflecting on the Interfaith component:

A growing segment of our population, interfaith families, want to learn more about the spiritual aspect of Jewish life as they consider how they will choose to live. We can and must engage them at a sophisticated, adult level. We are overly focused on educating the children at the risk of ignoring the needs of the adults. When we fail to reach out to people as individuals we give the impression that we only want their children. We need to value every human life beyond a person’s capacity to have babies.

Additionally, we must let Jews and non-Jews see that Judaism can have personal meaning for those who seek a life of the soul/spirit. Jews do have a God concept; in fact, a very interesting and complex array of God concepts. Jews do have ideas about the afterlife, reincarnation, resurrection, heaven – as well as acceptance of those who believe there is no afterlife, no heaven, no resurrection. As a Jew, you can believe pretty much anything and still fit within the diverse teachings of the rabbis. We do no interpret the bible literally and Judaism expects you to bring your brain to the discussion.

We have a lot to offer when we choose to provide adult education to individuals who did not receive a Jewish education as a child – whether they are Jewish or not.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Visiting Outreach Expert in Princeton

When Rabbi Sam Gordon came to her town, Eve Coulson jumped on the opportunity to have him speak to her local Interfaith Task Force. Take a look at the article below. Often a local voice, despite experience and expertise, is not heard out in the same way an outsider is. Take advantage of visiting professionals in your own community to bring together interested community leaders for a powerful dialog. You maybe be able to leaverage such a gathering into a communal leap forward.

Family service session focuses on outreach
Task force hears outreach specialists message of inclusion

A chance visit by Rabbi Sam Gordon to the Princeton area in mid-February provided a unique opportunity for the Interfaith Task Force of the Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Greater Mercer County to broaden its outlook on outreach, said Linda Meisel, JFCS executive director.
A specialist in the field of outreach for the past quarter century, Gordon is the founding rabbi of Congregation Sukkat Shalom in Wilmette, Ill., a progressive congregation with outreach to the intermarried and unaffiliated.
read entire article online here:

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Can We Afford to Publicize our Programs?

I could begin by arguing that we can’t afford NOT to publicize - most Jews, let alone interfaith couples - are not reading the Jewish News. But the fact is, if you don’t have the money, you can’t spend it.

So, let’s talk about money
Most people see the word “publicity” and think in terms of a monetary outlay for advertizing, something few non-profits can afford anytime but especially now. However, in today’s internet dominated environment any organization, even an organization without a website, can promote their events on free calendars and social networks.

But don’t look for fast results. Unless you have the money to advertize on TV you won’t be seeing sign-ups rolling in. You must go for what I can, the Grand Canyon Method - drop by drop, incessant bits of information raining down on your community. Put your events, every one of them, on the Jewish online calendars, the secular online calendars, all the local newspapers online and in-print community calendars. Don’t do it hoping to fill a program; do it to get your message out.

What result are you looking for?
When I moved onto a new street and met my neighbors one of them was a woman, a Christian, not married to a Jew, just a gal who reads the paper. She said, “Are you that lady who offers Jewish classes? I see them listed in the Montclarion.” (The Montclarion is a small, neighborhood paper that comes out twice a week.)

You must be tenacious and not expect immediate gratification. You are in this for the long haul.

Get yourself a website - a free one or just a Facebook page. You need a place to post your events. People no longer look in the phone book, they look on the internet, so get yourself a public face.

What should you say on your page/site?
Browse the sites of others in the interfaith outreach business. What do they offer that you want to emulate? Pictures? Stories? Links?
Be sure your site has your tone - that is, that it sounds like you/your program. Do you want to sound casual and accessible? Professional? Experienced? Compassionate? Be true to your own message and you’ll be fine.

If you want to talk to someone about your efforts, you may contact one of us from the column at the right.

A Definition of "Interfaith" "Outreach"

It might strike you as odd that I put two words in quotations in the title above. I did it for a reason. I hear many people tossing those words around singly and together without fully understanding what they mean. This cavalier use of the words means that they are often misused and that misuse leads to loss of support for and engagement in true “Interfaith Outreach.”

What is an INTERFAITH and OUTREACH Program?

An interfaith program specifically addresses the issues and concerns of interfaith couples and family members.

Many programs can function as part of an interfaith program that are not true “interfaith” programs. Some of them are: any introduction course, how-to classes for holidays and life cycle events, spiritual/theological education like A Jewish View of Jesus, social events like Israeli Folk Dance or Kosher Wine Tasting. Wonderful as these programs are, they do not help an interfaith couple dissect and evaluate the challenges that two different religious/cultural traditions bring to their relationship. They need programs that discuss personal identity, couple identity, community, children, and personal choices. They need that to happen with others who share their interests and concerns.

This is education on a very adult level. These couples must look deeply into themselves and evaluate their own interests and values. They deserve an experienced and knowledgeable facilitator. They deserve workshops that trust their emotional curiosity and intellectual integrity.

An outreach program is publicized beyond the membership of the sponsoring institution.

Any program that is publicized only to the members of the hosting organization is not an “outreach” program. Hoping that your members will spread the word or that people will cruise your website shows a total lack of understanding of Marketing and Publicity.

A program is only an “outreach” program if you specifically invite the outside world to participate.

Unfortunately few people are doing programs that are both INTERFAITH and OUTREACH.