Author Archives: Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky

About Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky

Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky is Executive Director of Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute and the author of numerous books about Jewish spirituality.

What Can Southern Jews Teach The Rest of Us About Intermarriage and Outreach?

Rabbi Kerry Olitzky

Rabbi Kerry Olitzky

Usually we think of small, southern communities as being at least a beat behind their larger counterparts, especially when they have small—even “diminishing”—Jewish populations. Many of these Jewish communities were once thriving, but they have followed the American trend of younger generations abandoning smaller hometowns for larger urban centers.

These communities may be demographically small, but they should be considered ideologically large in their response to those who have intermarried.

How these communities respond should be instructive to other communities, regardless of size or region. It is true that the intermarriage rate—particularly among non-Orthodox Jews—is among the highest in these communities. Even if there is debate among demographers as to the exact rate of intermarriage, what is most important to consider is the trend lines. That’s why the well-practiced response of these communities is so important at a time when the rest of the North American community has finally transcended the question of “Should we reach out to those who have intermarried?” and moved to “How should we reach out to those who have intermarried?”

In a word, the only response of these smaller Southern communities has always been the same:

To be the most welcoming of communities is the only response possible and that is what these small communities have been doing. The synagogue remains the most numerous of Jewish communal organizations in the United States. In smaller communities, it is often the only Jewish communal institution and serves a multiplicity of functions. That’s why its actions are so demonstrative.

How have these Southern Jewish communities led the way?  While institutions in other parts of the country are still debating the roles for those of other religious backgrounds in synagogues throughout the country, many in the South have long seen “non-Jewish partners” take on key roles in their communities.

Diversity and Informal Jewish Education

Reprinted with permission from CAJE. Provided by the Berman Jewish Policy Archive.

In recent years, informal Jewish learning environments (youth groups, summer camps, and trips to Israel) have grown in stature and now occupy a place–and rightfully so–alongside formal environments such as day schools and supplementary schools. To meet the needs of the increasingly diverse Jewish community of the 21st century (one that spends more time outside of the community at its periphery than at its core), what might be called “episodic education” has to be given equal legitimacy and raised beyond the level of a program.

Public Space Judaism
brings Jewish education to places
like malls and grocery stores.



While such education admittedly may not yield the same immediate results as do more traditional programs, most of those on the periphery of the Jewish community will not be willing to take the quantum leap required to participate in those more demanding forms of Jewish education that are part of the inner core of the community. A more gradual approach is required, and that is where informal learning activities can serve a great purpose, acting as a bridge between the completely unengaged and those deeply and thoroughly involved in the Jewish community.

Unfortunately, it now appears that in the 21st century those on the periphery are increasingly unwilling to venture into even the informal environments of Jewish education. We can see much evidence for such a claim. Participation in summer programs is waning (perhaps exclusive of Birthright Israel), and the overall majority of the relevant cohort still are not involved in activities such as Jewish day schools and summer camps.

Public Space Judaism

We contend that this is why serious attention must be paid to what we at the Jewish Outreach Institute call “outreach” (defined as a methodology rather than a target population)—taking Judaism out to where people are, rather than waiting for them to come to us. Public Space Judaism, an important component to our outreach strategy, actually refers to a three-tiered approach to community programming that employs secular venues for effective Jewish programs.

On Saying Kaddish: A Story

Excerpted with permission from Grief in Our Seasons: A Mourner’s Kaddish Companion (Jewish Lights Publishing).

Rabbi Akiva, who lived in the second century CE, once saw a man struggling under a heavy load of wood. Rabbi Akiva stopped the man and said, "Why must you do this difficult work? If you are a slave and this labor is forced upon you, I will redeem you from your master and set you free. And if it is because you are poor and you must earn a living this way, I will make you rich." Frightened, the man responded, "Please let me go and do not detain me, so as not to anger those who are in charge of me."

The man’s reply puzzled Rabbi Akiva, who asked, "Who are you and what is this all about?" To this, the man replied, "I am one of those unfortunate souls condemned to the agonies of hell-fire, and every day I am sent to bring my own wood for my own torment." "Is there then no way for you to be relieved of this suffering?" asked Akiva. "Yes," the man answered. "I heard that if my little son, whom I left behind, were to say in public, ‘Yitgadal veyitkadash‘ and the others would answer, ‘Yehei Shemei rabba mevorakh,’ or if he were to say, ‘Barekhu et Adonai hamevorakh,’ and the congregation would answer, ‘Barukh Adonai hamevorakh l’olam va-ed,’ I would be set free from this judgment."

Akiva then asked the man for all the relevant details and promised to locate his child and teach him Torah so that he could stand in front of the congregation and say Yitgadal in praise of God. Akiva found the child and taught him Torah, the Sh’ma, the Amidah, and Grace After Meals and prepared him to stand before the congregation to recite Yitgadal. As soon as the boy did this, the father’s soul was delivered from its judgment and permitted its eternal rest. The man then appeared to Akiva in a dream and thanked him: "May it be God’s will that you rest in peace, for you made it possible for me to be at peace."

–Adapted from Netiv Binah I, pp. 367-68

We Are All Holy Before God

Provided by the Jewish Outreach Institute, an organization dedicated to creating a more open and welcoming Judaism.

Admittedly, I am not a big fan of men’s jewelry. Yet, I have always been fascinated by the priest’s breastplate–the choshen mishpat. Perhaps its weight, which can be inferred from the directions for its creation in this week’s Torah portion, reflect the weightiness of decision-making that the priest is forced to undertake as a result of his position in the community.

And the jewels indicate that the entire community (the 12 tribes and their descendents) is impacted by such decisions. And while I am not a big fan of most Torah adornments either, I think about the connection between the Torah and the role of the priest whenever the Torah is removed from the ark–assuming the Torah being used has a breastplate adorning it.

Moving to the Synagogue

By moving from the Temple cult into the synagogue (where the Torah is read to both simulate revelation and stimulate discussion), we have moved the weight of such decisions for the future of the Jewish community into a different context, but its weightiness has not changed.

jewish outreach instituteThus, the role of the Torah and its words–as indicative of the Divine foundation for our decisions–are extremely important as we consider the future of the Jewish community.

This is the way the text directs the people to fashion the breastplate for the priest: You shall make a breastpiece of decision, worked into a design; make it in the style of the ephod: make it of gold, of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and of fine twisted linen. It shall be square and doubled, a span in length and a span in width. Set in it mounted stones, in four rows of stones…

The first row shall be a row of carnelian, chrysolite, and emerald; the second row: a turquoise, a sapphire, and an amethyst; the third row: a jacinth, an agate, and a crystal; and the fourth row: a beryl, a lapis lazuli, and a jasper. They shall be framed with gold in their mountings. The stones shall correspond [in number] to the names of the sons of Israel: twelve, corresponding to their names. They shall be engraved like seals, each with its name, for the twelve tribes (Exodus 28: 15-21).

More Than a Contractor’s List

Provided by the Jewish Outreach Institute, an organization dedicated to creating a more open and welcoming Judaism.

For those looking for spiritual insight from the Torah, this portion may be a disappointment–but only if one undertakes a quick, superficial review of the text. This section of Exodus appears to read more like a contractor’s list of building supplies and instructions than it does sacred writ.

jewish outreach instituteThis week’s Torah portion is focused on the specific requirements for building the tabernacle. But this is the place where the Jewish people will focus their connection with the holy. It has to be more than just a prefabricated building or a set of architectural or interior designer plans for a local meeting hall. And to make sure that the Tabernacle reflects the deep, inner yearnings of the people, they are directed to bring gifts to further enhance the work of the builders and artisans, should they be motivated to do so.

While this may seem like a Torah reading for the mind–since the details are so specific–it is really one for the heart and soul. According to Tzena Urenah, one of my favorite commentaries on the Torah, this portion follows that of the giving of the Torah because God’s presence rests in a place of charity, when people are willing to give, and to give of themselves.

What more needs to be said about an inclusive Jewish community? If we gather in those who would come close to the community, regardless of their background, and they give of themselves, surely it is a place where God’s presence dwells. Just as the people made a Tabernacle of their lives in the ancient world to correspond to the one that they were building, perhaps we can invite people to do the same in our age: build a tabernacle that reflects the kind of inclusive Jewish community that we desire to build.

Who’s In, Who’s Out

Provided by the Jewish Outreach Institute, an organization dedicated to creating a more open and welcoming Judaism.

Rules. Parameters. Boundaries. That’s what this Torah portion is all about.  It’s also about that which sets apart ancient Israel from its neighbors. It is infrequent that the text is so self-evident that the reader can clearly determine whether the various things listed in the Torah are designed to keep Israel in, or those who are not part of Israel out. It actually might be one of the reasons why even those inside the community have trouble determining the extent of their commitment to following these regulations.

jewish outreach instituteThese rules seem mundane, especially when compared to the grandeur of the previous week’s scene at Mount Sinai, until close to its completion where we read “And the people beheld the God of Israel….” (Ex. 24:10).

There is no story here, no bold narrative. This is its simple lesson. It is not merely on the occasions of Sinai–to which few of us are ever witness–that we experience the Divine, but it is also in the occurrence of our everyday lives.

Perhaps the reason the Torah chooses to use the Hebrew word mishpatim (ordinances) rather than mitzvot (commandments) is to emphasize that these issues are relevant to society and the interactions among groups. And it is in the interactions with others–even those outside the camp of Israel (which this parashah helps us to navigate)–that the sacred can be found.

Separation and Togetherness

Provided by the Jewish Outreach Institute, an organization dedicated to creating a more open and welcoming Judaism.

This portion amazes me for many reasons. Besides its retelling of the experience at Sinai, an experience we try to reconstruct, to simulate, each time we get together as a community to read Torah, it is amazing that the entire relationship between humanity and the Divine can be reduced at all, especially to a mere ten statements.

Of course, there are 603 other mitzvot (sacred instructions, commandments) contained in the rest of the Torah. And I realize that as humans we need to take large, abstract concepts and make them more concrete, more digestible. We are led to believe that these ten seem to represent the rest. Perhaps they are instead meant to lead us to the rest.

jewish outreach instituteHoliness & Separation

Parashat Yitro is about holiness, separation. Consider these texts from this portion about neighborliness, which are contained in the Ten Commandments: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house: you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female slave, or his ox or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor’s (Exodus 20:13-14).”

Some even say that observing the last commandment will prevent us from transgressing any others. Because of a desire to be someone else, to have what s/he owns, we are motivated to act inappropriately, to transgress, to sin–to do what would be necessary to get us to that place.

But these texts and the entire portion are not about separating us from our neighbors simply because they are our neighbors. This portion comes to teach us that there are things that we have to distance ourselves from if we want to become a holy nation. We are never told to avoid our neighbors; indeed we are taught that the opportunity is there to open our doors and welcome in all those who wish to join us in our quest to reach heavenward.

Risky Travels

Provided by the Jewish Outreach Institute, an organization dedicated to creating a more open and welcoming Judaism.

“Now when Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer; for God said, ‘The people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt.’ So God led the people roundabout, by way of the wilderness at the Sea of Reeds [the Red Sea] (Exodus 13:17-18).”

jewish outreach institute

It wasn’t enough that God led the Israelites the long way around. They had to pass through the sea in order to survive–before they could rejoice by singing the Song at the Sea. They had to experience an extra measure of deliverance before they could confront their own destiny. It was through the expression of the Song that they were able to taste their freedom for the first time.

Taking the Long Way

It is clear that God had many reasons to take the ancient Israelites the long way to the Promised Land. By definition, it is always a long road to the Promised Land. There are lots of explanations as to why this took place in the Torah. Perhaps the most persuasive is that the ancient Israelites had to purge their souls of slavery. They were free, but they had to then wrestle themselves free of the shackles that remained.

When you live as a slave for so many generations, slavery begins to be the prism through which you look at the entire world. It shapes your entire identity–everything you see or do. The long road traveled did more than just allow the slave generation to die out. It also encouraged a new generation to grow in the desert, to take root, to become the desert as some of the rabbis suggest in their commentaries on this section of the Torah.

In the desert are contained certain risks, but as the ancient Israelites will testify, the risks were worth it for they were then able to find their way to the Promised Land. We have taken many risks in this land of freedom. As those in our families will indicate, the risks had to be taken for they had no choice but to come to these shores.

The ancient Israelites took a risk by leaving Egypt, by following Moses under God’s direction, but then they were able to sing the Song at the Sea. We too are on a journey, one that will renew our definition of Israel–perhaps similar to the mixed multitude that formed our people at its beginning. But at the end of the process, we too will sing a song at the sea. Let us write the words together.

Come, My Pretty

Provided by the Jewish Outreach Institute, an organization dedicated to creating a more open and welcoming Judaism.

Many times the tenor of the Torah portion is indeed determined by its opening word or words–what gives the portion its name. Some will argue that it is a simple device to name each portion and nothing more. Others will say that the names of the portion are actually markers along the spiritual path that the Israelites traveled, and that we can find our own such path by following these markers as well. The challenge, of course, is to discern their meaning for our lives.

The portion begins “Adonai said [to Moses] ‘GO’ to Pharaoh.” But the Hebrew word that is used by the text is “Bo,” usually translated as “come” rather than “go.” And it is clear that it is not Pharaoh speaking, saying to Moses “come,” but rather God.

jewish outreach instituteThis would be reminiscent of the wicked witch in the Wizard of Oz calling out to Dorothy “Come, my pretty” when you know the witch means to do Dorothy harm. Is God attempting to say to Moses “Come to Pharoah”? Maybe contained in the word “come” is God’s attempt to communicate to Moses the posture that he needs to take to confront his enemies.

Facing Fears

As we see so many times in the Torah, the main character has to face his or her fears before he or she can move forward on the desired path in life.  Here, God is commanding Moses to “come” to Pharoah because it is in his approach that he will find the wisdom and insight to take the people out of Egypt.

It is clear that Pharaoh is an enemy of the Jewish people, even though his predecessors befriended Joseph and his brethren. It was hard for Moses to “come” close to him–but he could only find a way out of Egypt if he came close to his enemy.

Perhaps we have to take the same steps and come close to those in our community that we have avoided in the past. We have to challenge what we see as a threat to ourselves if we are going to find a path out of the slavery that continues to bind us.

Unwilling Audiences

Provided by the Jewish Outreach Institute, an organization dedicated to creating a more open and welcoming Judaism.

The lights of Hanukkah are behind us. The secular New Year has just begun. And we ready ourselves for the long haul of winter, at least those of us who live in cold winter climes.

jewish outreach instituteAs Moses prepares himself to lead the Israelites into freedom, God directs him, tells him what to do and how to do it. “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Go and tell Pharaoh king of Egypt to let the Israelites depart from his land.’ But Moses appealed to the Lord, saying, ‘The Israelites would not listen to me; how then should Pharaoh heed me, a man of impeded speech!’ So the Lord spoke to both Moses and Aaron in regard to the Israelites and Pharaoh king of Egypt, instructing them to deliver the Israelites from the land of Egypt (Exodus 6:10-13).”

Delivering the Message

It isn’t easy to deliver a message to the king of Egypt. Moses will soon discover it takes ten plagues to get Pharaoh to listen. At the same time, Moses will learn it isn’t so easy to deliver a message to the people of Israel either.

That is one of the reasons that the Torah text tells us about all the clans just afterwards and lists their names. It indicates what Moses was up against. He had to persuade not only Pharaoh to let go of the people, but he also had to persuade the people to go. It is never easy to tell people to do something that is physically and emotionally challenging when they don’t realize such actions are for their own good.

Perhaps that is also our challenge with regard to our message about shaping a more inclusive Jewish community. Opening our doors and embracing the mixed multitudes among us might be difficult for some, but it will make us stronger in the future. Moses discovered that even when the status quo isn’t so good, it is indeed comfortable. It takes a great deal of courage to leave what is comfortable and enter into the wilderness.

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