Jewish Outreach is a buzz term nowadays. Every organization seeks to do outreach in order to demonstrate relevancy to its board and donors. In addition, outreach is an effective way to increase participation in the organization and financial support in an era of struggling economic times and growing disaffection with organized Jewish life. Indeed, outreach is about taking one’s message public and sharing it with a larger disconnected audience. We should support genuine outreach in our communities.
As someone who has served both in a campus context and in synagogues I have seen numerous Jewish outreach organizations. In fact, during my time as a campus chaplain I developed close friendships with Christian outreach professionals as well. The one thread that united all the genuine outreach organizations was honesty and integrity.
There is nothing inherently wrong with being a Christian Evangelical outreach professional on campus. Do I need to make sure my students are educated about their own faith and confident in their own beliefs? Absolutely. Yet, I cannot rightfully condemn a open and honest Christian from spreading her or his beliefs. I can only do my best to teach and inspire my constituents.
However, as many times as I have encountered genuine outreach organizations I have encountered illegitimate ones as well. What makes an outreach organization not really genuine? These are some of the indicators that I have observed over the years:
- Where do the outreach professionals or rabbis spend most of their time? Do they linger in existing Jewish institutions like synagogues or the local Hillel where they will only encounter already affiliated people?
- Where does the outreach organization set up shop? In the heart of the affiliated Jewish neighborhood or in a place where many Jews live but few who are connected to Jewish life?
- Do the programs the organization run exist in consonance with the values of the people who lead the organization? For example, if the Jewish outreach organization is a black hat yeshiva do they do programming that violates their principles or core beliefs, like a non-gender segregated religious service?
- Who is a successful “graduate” of their outreach? Where do they end up in their Jewish journeys? Be careful to pay attention to the diversity in lifestyles among the graduates and not the newcomers.
It is very important to identify genuine Jewish outreach organizations from the others. Genuine Jewish outreach organizations spend their time not in the Jewish neighborhood and work with people who have no existing Jewish connection. Their programming reflects the values they hold important and they do not compromise their core values in order to attract new participants.
Oftentimes, groups or individuals seek to co-opt the term Jewish Outreach when what they really mean is Jewish Redirection. In other words, their aim is to disaffiliate people currently connected to Jewish life and re-affiliate them to other organizations they deem more “kosher.” They do not exist in a holistic relationship with the rest of communal Jewish life but rather are in a constant state of competition with it.
The more informed we are about the various Jewish organizations within our communities the better choices we can make about what to attend and participate in and who to support. Jewish outreach deserves our support, Jewish redirection does not.
In the past couple of weeks I’ve had some very interesting enquiries from couples seeking to be married by a rabbi. A couple of them are especially interesting because they have two things in common – they found me through a website resource that specializes in reaching out to interfaith couples and families… and in both cases both parties to the marriage were Jewish. I think its worth sharing and reflecting on these interactions, because they have something to teach us about the changing face of religious engagement, and the landscape that some of us are working in today.
I recently moved to a new congregation in central Massachusetts – Congregation B’nai Shalom – and when I made the move, one of the places where I updated my information was Interfaithfamily.com. This wonderful site is a depository for hundreds of articles; some written by clergy or for clergy, but the vast majority written by and for people in interfaith families. They provide introductions to the holidays and Jewish ritual for a non-Jewish family member wanting to understand more. They provide thought-pieces on the choices people make around raising their children. They provide a resource for Jewish grandparents figuring out their role in their children’s interfaith family. And much, much more. One of the things they also do is provide a referral service to help couples find a rabbi who will say ‘yes’ to the question of officiating at their marriage. This referral service was designed to bypass the historical experience of many Jews marrying non-Jews who, in the past, would often have to hear many ‘no’ answers before they found a ‘yes’… if they persevered that long.
Now, I know that rabbis officiating at interfaith marriages is a tough topic for many of my colleagues. And I do respect the path each takes in determining what role they feel they can have, if any. But today I’m not writing about that choice. I am a rabbi who says ‘yes’ most of the time.
But I am fascinated by my recent experiences. One might expect that most of the people who think to use the referral service are Jews marrying a non-Jew. One probably would less expect to find enquiries coming from two Jews.
In one of my recent exchanges, the bride-to-be was quite clear about how she had taken this route. She is the child of an interfaith couple. She was raised Jewish and is fully Jewish according to Jewish law. But she wanted to find a rabbi to marry her who would have said ‘yes’ to her parents.
In a second instance, an older couple getting married, one for the second time, sought out the website referral service because of a more complex concern involving the first marriage only having been dissolved with a civil divorce and not a ‘get’ – a Jewish divorce. The details are not important here (although I will say that this was not a case where there was any possibility of children being an issue). What is interesting is that there was a desire to consecrate a marriage in a traditional, Jewish manner, and a website initially conceived of to primarily serve interfaith families is being seen as a resource for a much wider range of individuals whose particular paths don’t entirely conform with some of the strictures found in some areas of organized Jewish life. This couple came to interfaithfamily.com because they perceived it to be a place where one could more easily find Rabbis who do Jewish things beyond some of the traditional borders of Jewish life.
In the first instance, we see a case where a young woman practices and identifies with her Jewish heritage. She chooses to do so, and actively embraces and desires the Jewish religious sanctification of her marriage, even while knowing that there are parts of the Jewish community that would not have warmly welcomed her parents. The search for a Rabbi who would not only say ‘yes’ to her, but would have said ‘yes’ to her parents is a search for a personal Judaism that offers up the rich wisdom tradition that is ours, with all its beauty, yet also demands a contemporary and inclusive response to the plurality of Jewish identity that exists in America today.
As a rabbi, I’m quite adept at the ‘on on the one hand’ and ‘on the other hand’ argument. There is no question that one could put forth an argument regarding the rabbi’s role in preserving traditional communal boundaries and practices. There are many rabbis who do so passionately. I certainly do not seek to judge that path. At the same time, as I observe the pathways that many Jews, like the ones above, are navigating to maintain their ties to our faith and traditions, yet on different terms, I believe that it is important for some of us to be there to meet them when they come knocking. And I believe, based on what we observe as the changing face of the religious and spiritual landscape in America, that these pathways are likely to become more diverse and multi-faceted with time.
In the meantime, to the couples above, and others, I start by saying ‘Mazel tov!’
The Western Wall beckoned at the beginning of the new Hebrew month of Kislev, 5760.
I was studying at the Conservative Yeshiva for a month and residing at the Ratisbonne, a French Catholic monastery in the heart of downtown Jerusalem. My neighbor for the month was a sixty year old nun from South Africa named Trudy.
Although I had lived in Israel and visited there many times, I had never ventured into the Holy Sepulchre where the Tomb of Jesus resided. Trudy, who had been in Israel nine months, had never experienced the Western Wall, known in Israel as the Kotel. We made a deal on that rainy early morning in December that we would share each other’s holy places.
Trudy and I awoke before dawn and started the 30-minute walk to the Old City. We wanted to be present for the Rosh Chodesh morning prayers that are being sustained by the Women of the Wall, an organization of religiously and socially diverse women who come together once a month on the New Moon at the Western Wall. We reached the Kotel and immediately gazed at the gathering of women on the separated women’s section of the Western Wall. In lullaby hush tones we heard the singing and chanting of some sixty women. We drew closer to this monthly prayer circle. We lingered with them in a bittersweet prayer cocoon for twenty minutes. Like pregnant women getting ready to give birth, they packed their prayer books and the Sefer Torah (the Scroll that held the Five Books of Moses) in anticipation of their journey towards motherhood.
Since the religious municipality that governs the Wall prohibits women from chanting directly from the Sefer Torah’s scroll, the women journey half a mile to a more secluded and less public space known as Robinson’s arch.
The ancient space offered a stone carved table for our precious Sefer Torah. Several women unwrapped the scroll from a large blue duffel bag, and like a newborn baby, they placed her gently and lovingly on this changing table.
The rain turned sun reigned on us; the chatter turned silence shone inside. Trudy and I watched and waited for the next prayer chapter.
As the women prepared the sacred scroll for the reading, they asked if anyone would like to come up and receive an aliya, an honor.
I scanned the women’s faces, absorbed the question and hesitated before I answered. ”Yes, I would like an aliya.”
The woman standing next to me was wearing a special “Women of the Wall” tallit embroidered with the names of the four matriarchs on each corner.
“May I borrow your tallit for my aliya?” I asked this stranger pleading as I spoke.
“Yes, but of course,” came her quick unequivocal reply.
The tallit made my aliya complete. This slow holy motion moment remains in my memory.
I returned to my place next to Trudy and removed the tallit from my shoulders. I thanked this beautiful lady for her generosity.
“What a wonderful way to inaugurate my new tallit with your blessings. This is my first time wearing it. Thank you.”
“You are the blessing,” I said.
Sometimes what we need someone else has to give.
Before I could read and write in English, I spoke Yiddish. At age 3 I learned the Hebrew alef-bet alongside the English alphabet. Together they remain by my side, right to left and left to right. This summer while in Israel I will continue my love affair with Hebrew and study yet again all the cool new phrases and lingo that I have missed since my last visit five years ago.
In my sixth decade, I continue teaching the holy Hebrew tongue from scratch to my budding bar/bat mitzvah students. I chant the Sh’ma and the V’ahavta with them and I empower them to decode the mysteries in all those final letters and strange vowels that play upon our gutteral abilities. Some Americans can do it better than others, but most struggle with a more perfect “chet.” Each one of them succeeds in getting close to their Hebrew heritage.
Some parents ask me again and again: “Can my child have a bar mitzvah without learning Hebrew? Hebrew is such a barrier. It takes too much time to learn. They’ll never use it again. I hated learning it myself during Hebrew school. Why put the pressure on them? ”
Ah, yes, the Hebrew controversy yet again. Why Hebrew?
I listen and I empathize for there is truth in everything they say. And then there is another truth: The veracity that the Jews have a special relationship with this ancient language with its venerable sounds. Hebrew is the best kept spiritual secret of the Jewish people.
Classical Hebrew is used for prayer or study in Jewish communities around the world. The language is attested from the 10th century BCE to the late Second Temple period, after which the language developed into Mishnaic Hebrew. Modern Hebrew is spoken by most of the eight million people in Israel, and it is one of the official languages of the country, along with Arabic. As a foreign language it is studied by Jews and students of Judaism and Israel, by archaeologists and linguists specializing in the Middle East and its civilizations, by theologians, and by Christian seminarians.
To learn Hebrew is to tap into a resource that offers more than just the acquisition of knowledge. Hebrew connects the Jewish child with a historical telescope that reaches beyond our insular present. Putting sounds and words together creates a jigsaw puzzle of revelations. Like a mathematical logarithm, when they figure out how to read the most familiar of prayers, a light sparks inside of them.
The child delights in himself/herself when upon entering the synagogue they can read from the siddur that only a few months ago looked like a Chinese manuscript from a disappearing dynasty. They embrace this “adult” practice. This mandatory mitzvah to learn the Hebrew language, one prayer at a time, is magical, mystical and memorable.
I teach Hebrew by design. God’s design.
I prepared the bimah with two kiddush cups, a bottle of kosher wine and a glass wrapped in a white linen napkin. With the chuppah above me, I waited for the processional music to begin. The bridesmaids and the groomsmen walked down respectfully. The Chatan savored his steady pace as his parents walked by his side.
As the music changed its melody, the drama inside the sanctuary began. The congregation turned their heads towards the action behind them. They stood and gazed at the beautiful Kallah as if she was the Shechinah herself entering into this holy palace. When the Chatan took the hand of his beloved and guided her up the steps to the chuppah, a rush of spiritual seduction filled the cavernous space at the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in the District of Columbia.
The music stopped. An expectant stillness descended while the couple circled each other before settling inside the sanctified chuppah for the single purpose: to wed each other.
At that moment in time and space, we become the witnesses to their private love story and we are inoculated with a joy drip.
After the exchange of rings and their vows, the ketubah was read.
One of the joys of being a rabbi is witnessing the making of a marriage. The journey towards the chuppah may be a few months or a few years or sometimes a few decades. When the invitations arrive by email or by snail mail, many of us sigh knowing that we have the possibility of being moved, inspired and transformed, if only momentarily.
Last week, I brought two families together under the chuppah with an energy I didn’t think I had. I imagined that we were in the Garden of Eden and that all our desires were taken care of and all the craziness of life had somehow disappeared. Time and space evolved to make this love story come alive.
The connection between bride, groom and rabbi doesn’t just happen. For me there is no pro forma wedding ceremony. I meet with all my couples for a minimum of three sessions and a maximum of five sessions. Through face to face meetings, skype and phone calls and emails, I contract with them for a period of time from their engagement to the chuppah.
My relationship with them and the relationship to each other creates a vibration field of energy that promotes a spiritual outcome. Why would any couple want less from their officiant? But are they willing to spend the time and the money to enhance not just the ceremony but the marriage itself?
As a rabbi, I know that when a couple decides to marry, they want someone who understands their joy and their pain, their deepest dreams and their darkest fears. They want someone who is interested in their spiritual interiority and can listen without judgment or critique. Who else will have these conversations if not their spiritual leader and confidante? These transitional times in our lives call for reflection, mindfulness and soul expansion.
The Baal Shem Tov expressed it best.
From every human being there rises a light that reaches straight to heaven. And when two souls that are destined to be together find each other, their streams of light flow together, and a single brighter light goes forth from their united being.
As a rabbi, I am called to bring these lights together and to add my light and the light of the Holy One into the love story called Kiddushin. You may now break the glass! Mazal Tov!
The eldest son was chosen by his father to recite the Kaddish in his memory.
Standing at the gravesite where his mother and father lay side by side, the son gathers his large black and white bar mitzvah tallit and drapes himself like a flag on the fourth of July. Enveloped in white, he illuminates the cemetery’s grey exterior. He speaks to the mourners and friends who have come to grieve with him.
“Two years ago my father told me that I would be expected to say Kaddish for him when he died. The Kaddish was a familiar prayer to me, but could I chant it by myself, by heart? So soon after I came home from my visit with my dad, I went on the Internet to get acquainted with this venerable prayer. I wanted to be ready when the time came. Today, two years later, I am prepared to say the Kaddish for my father.”
He then proceeded to enunciate every vowel and syllable in this transcendent prayer. His voice, confident and grounded, remained steady throughout the upside down mantra-like sounds. No hesitations. No pauses. No mistakes. A solid-gold performance sincere and sacred.
A Kaddish recited by heart from the heart.
Kaddish is the ancient memorial prayer written in Aramaic and recited by those who are mourning a loved one. In traditional Judaism, it was the eldest son who was obligated to say this prayer three times a day for eleven months to honor his parent and to raise the soul of the lost one to a higher realm. Today, in most denominations, women and men, the eldest and the youngest, chant this prayer in a communal setting. It serves as a therapeutic ritual for the grief work necessary to heal from our losses.
I run a pretty rockin’ Bar (or Bat) Mitzvah service. I’ve officiated at several hundred of these events. I’ve been to hundreds more by some great Rabbis, but even with the warmest clergy, the best intended preparation programs, and helpful guidance of thoughtful books such as Putting God on the Guest List (by, Jeffrey K. Salkin), Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebrations are missing the mark.
The original meaning of the celebration was that a child was entering puberty, and now was responsible for the commandments. Puberty can be a tricky time, no wonder so many wise traditions developed rituals for its arrival. Age 13 boys (and 12 for girls), is the average on-set of puberty. In the Mishnah (200 CE), this corresponded to having grown 2 pubic hairs (2 is for real, 1 eh, might just be shmutz), B. Talmud Niddah 52a. As a rite of passage, dealing with the physical changes of adolescents might be meaningful. However, we live in an age where people are rightfully creeped-out by almost anybody talking about sexuality with minors. Perhaps, especially clergy. So puberty remains the elephant in the room. Even dealing with the physical and hormonal changes of becoming a teen is a topic that most clergy wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole.
Because we collectively fail to connect what is really happening in the life of the teen, the celebration’s meaning, both the service and party, has been diminished. When a rite of passage looses its core it can become fairly comical, think Keeping the Faith with Ben Stiller and Ed Norton, or more recently the Coen Brother’s A Serious Man. Faux-Mitzvahs have been popping up over the past few years. These are celebrations for 13 year-olds of any religion that want to celebrate the way their Jewish friends are doing. And why not? Have you heard the joke: “That was more ‘bar’ than ‘mitzvah’?”
I love the “today you are a man” speech. This kid doesn’t have a job, nor has he seriously considered how he intends on investing his 401k. Even being a little league star hardly counts as manhood. In truth, this kid is about to head into some fairly big ups and downs. Such is the nature of becoming a teenager: All the physical capabilities without the sechel (smarts) to navigate. Consider this insight from the Department of Health and Human Services:
With an immature prefrontal cortex, even if teens understand that something is dangerous, they may still go ahead and engage in the risky behavior. Recognizing the asynchrony of development of the regions of the brain helps us to see adolescent risk-taking in a whole new light. This broadened view of risk-taking and the concept of self-regulation are explored in the next section.
As my Head of School at New Community Jewish High School, Dr. Bruce Powell, says, “The car rental agencies have it right.” It turns out, you can’t rent a car until you are 25 years old, the accurate age of the end of adolescence. With brain scans, neurologists tell us that the frontal lobe continues to develop until the age of 25 (leave it to the free-market to figure it out before science). If we’re not going to deal with kids’ physical and psychic development at Bar Mitzvah, we might be wise to wait until the next, more politically correct milestone, maybe getting a driver’s license, or high school graduation. And if we want to hold onto the golden “today you are a man” line, might I suggest waiting till age 25.