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entries tagged with: Jewish Outreach Institute


Passover 1945

The Passover blog

The following round-up is adapted from JTA’s Passover blog,

Helping interfaith families navigate Passover

The Jewish Outreach Institute has launched a “Preparing for Passover” blog. The catch: It features women from other religious backgrounds who are raising Jewish children.

One contributor identified as Elizabeth took to the blog to recall her spring situation from last year:

“My parents live 800 miles away, and wanted to come spend Easter with the kids. We don’t celebrate it, but anytime they want to come and under whatever context, that’s fine. The problem — they were scheduled to arrive at four on the afternoon of the seder. While I would be making my four dishes for the dinner, getting dressed up and dressing the kids, stowing the spare chairs and tables in the car, getting our ritual objects out of the attic, rehearsing the four questions with my youngest. But really, it wasn’t the logistics that bothered me. It was whether to invite them. Invite them to an event that would be held half in Hebrew, three hours long, after two days of driving, with people they don’t know and rituals that they had their own Christian interpretations for? I didn’t really want to spend my seder being the explainer, holding everyone and everything together and feeling all of that stress myself. ...

“[Eventually] I sucked it up, decided I could handle this and invited them. But they didn’t come — it was Holy Week and they wouldn’t miss going to church that night. Duh. Another interfaith religious dilemma solved itself here in my little corner of the tent.”

If anyone out there is facing a similar situation this year, Levi Gibian Fishman of the Jewish Outreach Institute has put together a list of tips for conducting an “inclusive interfaith seder.” One of his suggestions: Honor the newcomer.

“Go further than merely acknowledging the newcomers sitting around your seder table,” he wrote. “Let them know their presence is truly a blessing. By choosing to partake, the newcomers are aligning themselves with the Jewish community and casting their lot with the Jewish people. Vocalize your appreciation during the seder by expressing how thankful we are for their participation.”

Twittering the plagues

Stephanie Simon and Ann Zimmerman of The Wall Street Journal reported on Rabbi Oren Hayon’s innovative initiative: Passover twittering.

“Building on a growing movement to add a bit of fun to the plagues and pestilence, he has recruited a handful of fellow rabbis to act out the Passover story in 140-character Twitter messages, accessible at

“The drama began [March 16] with a link to a trailer for the 1956 film ‘The Ten Commandments’ followed by @The_Israelites complaining: ‘We have much to fear from @PharaohofEgypt. He tires of us… ‘ The improvised dialogue will continue for two weeks.”

Keep it simple

That’s the main piece of advice from Tamar Fox of MyJewishLearning: “When Passover approaches, it seems like everyone in the Jewish community goes a little bit (or more than a little bit) crazy. You start hearing about people going through every page of every book in their house, trying to eliminate minuscule crumbs. Kosher stores are clogged with families inspecting the new Passover-friendly products, and elaborate Passover recipes are getting passed around, each of which seems to call for potato starch, and seven egg yolks.

“If you’re into that, go for it. But if you don’t have an endless supply of time and money to buy and cook for Passover, then let me give you my foolproof Passover food tip: Chill out, and go as simple as possible. You do not need a kitchen full of new supplies, a full slew of kosher-for-Passover spices, or a new cookbook to get you through the week of Passover. In fact, you need the opposite. Strip it all down to the bare minimum.”

Matzoh balls and strikes

Matzoh balls won’t be the only spheres being served up on Passover — the Major League Baseball season opener is on April 4: Mariners vs. Giants and Yankees vs. Orioles. But what to eat if you’re going to the game? A hot dog on matzoh? There’s a great children’s book (ages 5-9) on just this theme, “Matzah Ball: A Passover Story,” by Mindy Avra Portnoy and Katherine Janus Kahn.

Seder rations

Need a seder that’s ready to go and ready to eat? Here’s one all individually packaged. What’s the catch? To order it you need to be in the U.S. Armed Services. Served up by the Defense Services Agency, each ration includes 1 disposable seder plate, 8 packets of horseradish, 2 cans gefilte fish, even 1 white yarmulke, and much more packed in a white recloseable sturdy box. (Sorry no wine, but there’s juice.) Order early.

Hillary plays Exodus card

The U.S. secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton, ended her speech at the AIPAC conference with a Passover flourish.

“We are entering the season of Passover. The story of Moses resonates for people of all faiths, and it teaches us many lessons, including that we must take risks, even a leap of faith, to reach the promised land. When Moses urged the Jews to follow him out of Egypt, many objected. They said it was too dangerous, too hard, too risky. And later, in the desert, some thought it would be better to return to Egypt. It was too dangerous, too hard, too risky. In fact, I think they formed a back-to-Egypt committee and tried to stir up support for that. And when they came to the very edge of the promised land, there were still some who refused to enter because it was too dangerous, too hard, and too risky.

But Israel’s history is the story of brave men and women who took risks. They did the hard thing because they believed and knew it was right. We know that this dream was championed by Herzl and others that many said was impossible. And then the pioneers — can you imagine the conversation, telling your mother and father ‘I’m going to go to the desert and make it bloom’? And people thinking, how could that ever happen? But it did.”



Chelsea’s wedding raises questions about intermarriage

Marc Mezvinsky and Chelsea Clinton during their wedding ceremony on Saturday. Genevieve de Manio

Is it possible that the first iconic Jewish picture of the decade is of an interfaith marriage?

Photographs taken Saturday show the Jewish groom wearing a yarmulke and a crumpled tallit staring into the eyes of his giddy bride under a traditional Jewish wedding canopy with a framed ketubah, a Jewish wedding contract, in the background.

The couple are Marc Mezvinsky, the banker son of two Jewish ex-members of Congress, and Chelsea Clinton, the daughter of the former U.S. president and current secretary of state.

The images and scant details of the tightly guarded wedding — dubbed by some the “wedding of the century” — have raised a number of questions about the significance of the union for American Jews and what it says about intermarriage in America.

We should “celebrate the full acceptance of Jews by the larger society that this marriage represents,” Hebrew Union College sociologist Steven Cohen told JTA via e-mail from Jerusalem.

At the same time, he noted, the fact that so few children of interfaith unions, particularly those between Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers, are raised solely as Jews raises the conundrum of our age: “How do we Jewishly engage and educate the intermarried, while at the same time maintaining our time-honored commitment to inmarriage?” Cohen asked.

“In short, we should celebrate the particular marriage of these two fine individuals, but we ought not celebrate the type of marriage it constitutes and represents.”

The wedding had more than just a Jewish flair.

It was officiated by a rabbi, James Ponet, head of the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale University, along with a Methodist minister. The marriage took place under a chuppah. Friends of the couple recited the traditional “sheva brachot,” the seven traditional Jewish blessings given to the bride and groom. The groom broke a glass with his foot, according to tradition. And according to several reports, guests danced the hora and lifted the former president and the secretary of state, Bill and Hillary Clinton, in chairs during the dance.

Yet some of the more liberal streams of American Judaism, which accept intermarriage if the couple’s children are raised as Jews, chafed at the fact that the wedding took place on Saturday, before the Jewish Sabbath ended. The Reform movement frowns upon its rabbis conducting weddings on the Sabbath, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, told JTA.

In 1973, the Reform movement decided officially that its rabbis would be allowed to perform intermarriages, though they would be discouraged from doing so, an edict that still stands today, he said.

“She has married in,” Paul Golin, the associate director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, a nondenominational group that reaches out to unaffiliated and intermarried families, said of Chelsea. “Some will say he married out, but if he was marrying out, there wouldn’t have been anything Jewish.

“The fact that they went to the effort to have a chuppah and have a rabbi and that he wore a tallis says a lot about their future direction. Otherwise, why bother?”

The marriage has pushed the internal Jewish community debate about intermarriage into the view of mainstream America.

In the days before the wedding, the Washington Post asked several rabbis in its “On Faith” column, “Is interfaith marriage good for American society? Is it good for religion? What is lost — and gained — when religious people intermarry?”

Rabbi Steven Wernick, the CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said intermarriage is certainly “not ideal,” but that the Conservative movement in 2008 decided that it must welcome interfaith families and “help their spouses along their spiritual journeys.”

Rabbi Shmuley Hecht, who is Orthodox and the rabbinical adviser at Yale University’s Eliezer Jewish Society, said intermarriage can work only if the non-Jewish spouse converts to Judaism through an Orthodox conversion and genuinely changes religions. Otherwise, he said, the marriage is doomed to fail because down the road any self-aware Jews, “however defined, will feel the call of their people and have the fullness of their being disrupted by intermarriage.”

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, also Orthodox and president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, said that when marriages break down it usually has little to do with religion. All religions should stop worrying about intermarriage and start worrying about how to help couples make their relationships work, he wrote.

Ed Case, the executive director of, said the Clinton wedding certainly had stirred interest in intermarriage, noting that traffic to his website was up 35 percent in July compared to the same month last year. Case said that accepting this marriage and welcoming this intermarried family into the Jewish fold could help pave the way for the Jewish community to be more accepting of others.

Golin said he is skeptical that the Clinton-Mezvinsky wedding does anything more than revive existing battle lines in the Jewish debate over intermarriage.

“The horse is so far out of the barn on this one,” Golin said, noting that as an intermarried person himself, he is turned off by much of the debate over intermarriage as a problem. “The folks who are fearful that my kind of Judaism is going to destroy Judaism are still going to be fearful. The folks who are fully embracing of interfaith families are going to be embracing. I don’t see a whole lot of movement.”

Approached by JTA, the Orthodox Union declined to comment on the wedding. Separately, the head of its kashrut division, Rabbi Menachem Genack of Englewood, a longtime Clinton friend and political supporter, declined to comment.

The Mezvinsky-Clinton wedding is affirmation both of the success of the Jewish community and that American Jewry must learn how to deal with intermarried families and figure out how to bring them into the Jewish fold, the Reform movement’s Yoffie said.

“The price of our reaffirmation in American society is a high rate of intermarriage,” he said. “We can’t be embraced and not expect that our young people won’t be marrying with their young people. Unless we are prepared to withdraw into a ghetto, there is no solution.”

“I look at the couple and my response is, ‘I hope they will make a choice to raise their children in a single religion and tradition and second, as a Jew and rabbi, I hope it will be Judaism.’ I don’t know if they have had that conversation.”



JFS focuses on Jewish men in interfaith relationships

Effort is funded by Berrie Innovation Grant

The challenges facing interfaith families are more than just deciding between church and Chinese food on Christmas day. Often, the Jewish partner doesn’t have the answers to his or her spouse’s questions, and Judaism can disappear from the home because of that.

The Jewish Outreach Institute is partnering with Jewish Family Service of North Jersey to launch “How Should I Know?” geared toward Jewish men in interfaith relationships. The three-session program, which will begin in October at the YM-YWHA of North Jersey in Wayne, is meant to strengthen both partners’ knowledge of Judaism and spur them to create a Jewish home, organizers said.

“It’s focused on the assumption that Jewish partners in interfaith relationships have all of the answers to their non-Jewish partners’ questions,” said Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, director of the Manhattan-based JOI. “That’s an erroneous assumption. What this program does is help the Jewish partner prepare to answer the questions that their non-Jewish partner would have about basic Judaism.”

“How Should I Know?” is meant to empower Jewish men in interfaith relationships, says Leah Kaufman, executive director of Jewish Family Service of North Jersey. Courtesy JFS of North Jersey

The sessions will include discussion on why be Jewish, how to create a Jewish home, how to articulate to a non-Jewish spouse the desire to create a Jewish home, how to handle lifecycle events, and how to address holidays — both Jewish and non-Jewish.

“Traditionally women tend to be the ones to focus on the religious aspects within the home,” said Leah Kaufman, director of JFS of North Jersey. “Through this JOI initiative we’re helping men find their own voices and be able to articulate what they would like to see.”

JFS held an outreach program in Fair Lawn last year for parents of adult intermarried children. That program attracted 15 participants and more on a waiting list. Kaufman isn’t sure what kind of response the JOI program will receive but she is hopeful

“We felt through JFS we can provide Jewish men who are in these interfaith relationships with the education and support they need, provide them with some tools, and help them navigate the issues that obviously come up with interfaith marriages,” Kaufman said.

JOI received a Berrie Innovation Grant last year from the Berrie Fellows Network, sponsored by the Russell Berrie Foundation, that went toward development of its “For the Men” initiative, targeting men in interfaith marriages. In addition to “How Should I Know?” the initiative includes “The Nuts and Bolts of Raising Jewish Children,” with such topics as becoming a Jewish role model, holiday and lifecycle celebrations, and how to answer questions about life, death, and God.

Earlier this year, JOI held a pilot program of “How Should I Know?” in Indianapolis, Ind., which received positive feedback, according to Olitzky. If the Wayne pilot is successful, JOI will circulate the program nationwide.

“Our goal is always to provide low-barrier access to programming, particularly for those interfaith families but also for those unengaged by the Jewish community in general,” Olitzky said. “This is a reflection of the increasing openness that the Jewish community is showing to interfaith families, and I welcome that change in attitude and approach.”

JFS hopes to repeat the program if it is successful, according to Kaufman. Because of the Berrie Grant there is no charge to participants for the pilot program. If JOI cannot provide funding for future programs, JFS will continue the program on its own, Kaufman said.

“We’re just very excited to be able to partner with JOI, especially on this new initiative,” she said. “There is a need for it in the community and I hope this will be successful.”

For more information on “How Should I Know?” call Jewish Family Service of North Jersey at (973) 595-0111. For more information on “How Should I Know?” call Jewish Family Service of North Jersey at (973) 595-0111.


Program reaches out to intermarried men

Avodat Shalom uses JOI syllabus to get men talking

Intermarried couples can’t always predict the challenges they will face, says River Edge resident Russell Sagerman. But sometimes it helps to talk with others in the same situation.

That is the premise behind the recently concluded program for intermarried men held at Temple Avodat Shalom. Dubbed “How Should I Know” and targeted to Jewish men with non-Jewish partners, the venture was created by the Jewish Outreach Institute.

“The project was funded by a Berrie Innovation Grant … so we committed to piloting the program in northern New Jersey, an area we felt would benefit from the program,” said Liz Offenbach, program director of JOI. (The Berrie Fellows program is administered by UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey.)

Rabbi Neal Borovitz

A previous segment, for non-Jewish men with Jewish partners, was held in the fall. Members of both groups belong to Avodat Shalom, though the programs were originally advertised to the entire community.

“It gave us the opportunity to give answers to people who needed them,” said Sagerman of the most recent program, which brought together 10 intermarried Jewish men. “It’s not so easy to go to somebody and ask for help. But when you’re sitting at a table having coffee with a group of people who have things in common,” it’s much easier to do.

Sagerman, who serves on the Temple Avodat board and is active in the shul’s religious activities committee, served as program facilitator, “staying as close to the JOI syllabus as we could.”

Still, said the group leader, who is himself intermarried, the group “seemed to find a life of its own in terms of what direction it wanted to go.”

The curriculum, he said, spurred “inclusive and sharing discussion,” and it was clear that the group did not respond as readily to structured activities — such as writing on flip charts — as it did to verbal interchange.

Nevertheless, said Sagerman of the JOI syllabus, “it got things moving.”

Participants came from a wide range of religious backgrounds, said the facilitator, adding that a number of them were involved in both interreligious and interracial marriages.

“It brought up some very interesting individual hurdles for them to get over,” he said. One member is married to an Asian woman, another to a Hindu. Some are married to Christian women raised in very religious families, while others are married to Christian women who gave up religion at an early age.

“It’s very interesting to hear about other people’s experiences,” said Sagerman, adding that the group suggested to one participant, married to a practicing Roman Catholic, that he bring his daughter to the shul’s Purim carnival in order to expose her to Jewish practice.

The question, Sagerman said, is “How does he impart the influence of his Jewish culture?” One answer is “making our synagogue a ‘haimish’ kind of place where a child wants to go.” Group members also suggested that the father begin a family ritual of lighting Shabbat candles and making challah with his daughter.

Rather than categorize group members by age, Sagerman said it was more helpful to look at the ages of their children, ranging from preschool age to fully grown.

The goal of the program, he said, “was to assist people in this demographic in dealing with the challenges of having a Jewish home and raising kids in a Jewish environment.”

The syllabus got the ball rolling by asking participants to tell their “Jewish stories,” creating a timeline of significant Jewish events in their lives. In another session, attendees were asked “Why be Jewish?” and were asked to choose from a variety of options.

“We got a diverse number of reasons,” said Sagerman. “One of the last things was spirituality. There was a much stronger connection to family and tradition than to anything else. “

The facilitator said holidays and family gatherings were cited often. In addition, some men said they were the last to bear their family name and “felt a responsibility to their heritage on both a personal and larger level.”

Another shared value was food, he said, and some men asked whether they should be the “Jewish cook” in their family.

While anti-Semitism was not listed among the JOI options, it still came up quite a bit in discussion, said Sagerman.

The group leader noted that while “we didn’t become a support group, there was a lot of support there.” The group that met last fall did become a support group, he said, and now meets once a month.

Sagerman, who noted that feedback from participants was “absolutely positive,” said he has provided his own feedback to JOI and hopes there will be future programs of this kind. He pointed out that questions remain to be discussed, such as how to deal with children whose extended families are of mixed faiths, even when their parents are not.

Participant Michael Chakansky of River Edge said the group was valuable because “we talked about problems and how to solve them.”

In some cases, he said, men with younger children were made aware of challenges they might face as their children grow older.

“We told them things we’ve tried,” he said. “Anytime you get people to talk, it’s positive. It breaks down some of the isolation. It lets people know they’re not alone, and it’s a platform to exchange ideas.”

Chakansky said some of the issues raised transcend interfaith marriages, involving “melding traditions together so they both feel they’re included.”

He said it would be helpful for the shul to offer the program to women as well.

Rabbi Neal Borovitz, religious leader of the synagogue, said he is hoping to pursue additional outreach programs to interfaith families, focusing on women next.

The rabbi said that he and Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, director of JOI, “are talking about writing a proposal for an Adler Innovation Grant so we can reach out into the larger community.”

He noted that his ads for participants “did not work, so I had to recruit participants. Men don’t volunteer for discussion groups. You have to invite them. The challenge is how to reach out to others in the community and invite them as well. It’s not enough to say the door is open. You have to bring them in, in a positive, non-coercive way. That is the challenge we face.”

Borovitz called the JOI research “absolutely amazing and important. I’m proud that the Bergen County Jewish community has come together to work on this and grateful to the Berrie Foundation for funding the development of the program we piloted.”

While it is easy to find fault with the community for things left undone, he said, “sometimes we do things well.”

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