Concepts and Strategies for Families and Synagogue Leaders

by Charles Simon


Book Details

The material in this manual was designed to provide you, the reader, with the perspective necessary to more fully understand the impact intermarriage and changing attitudes towards marginalized populations are having on the Jewish community as a whole. It also offers the insight of men and women who have been working with intermarrieds for a number of years in the hope that a fuller understanding will emerge of what is occurring, more specifically, within our families and in our communities. Families, like synagogue communities, need to learn how to make Judaism embracing for emerging generations. Each family, each synagogue, has its unique culture, and as a consequence needs to develop its own strategy or strategies. The introductory essays offer perspective. The section entitled Building Sensitivity suggests ways family members and institutions need to develop if they hope to aid our increasingly diverse families. The unit devoted to Family Dynamics offers guidance to parents, grandparents, and clergy who must come to understand the nature of their influence. The units devoted to Improving Community and Providing Comfort help define the concept of ‘welcoming’ and place it in proper perspective. Finally, the unit entitled Conversion, when coupled with some of the essays from preceding units, positions conversion in what is believed to be its contemporary context. This manual is food for thought. It raises questions, encourages discussion, and attempts to broaden one’s understanding to strengthen our families and communities.


Book Excerpt

The Bulletin vs. the Bimah : New Frontiers in Synagogue Communications Rabbi Charles Simon We have all grown up with a Jerusalem-centric vision of Jewish life. To wit: Jerusalem is the center of the Jewish world and all other Jewish communities, including those elsewhere in Israel, to say nothing of New York, Paris, Buenos Aires, and Budapest, are peripheral and therefore, less relevant to defining authentic Jewish values and practice. But what if we were to shift our lens and look at the development of Jewish community through the eyes of a cultural historian? What might we learn about how to better communicate with our congregations within the context of welcoming and being sensitive to the concerns of interfaith families? According to the cultural-historical worldview, contemporary Jewish life has evolved within different and distinct centers, each interacting with a host culture and forming connections between and among one another. For example, Jerusalem, New York, Paris, Buenos Aires, and Budapest are influenced by the society at-large in Israel, the United States, France, Argentina, and Hungary, and also by ties among Jews living in these separate locations. The development of Jewish life along the lines of cultural history is nowhere more evident than in the creative realm, in the visual and performing arts, and in the world of media and technology. How is this perspective useful to today’s synagogue leadership? The bimah and the synagogue bulletin are both cultural-historical constructs, reflections of Jewish culture. The bimah, in its choreography, and the bulletin, in its content, are both vehicles that telegraph a congregation’s boundaries, values, and ideals. Understanding the nuances of each can be of enormous benefit as professional and lay leaders try to minimize confrontation when reaching out to interfaith families. The bimah has traditionally been a platform to protect the Torah (encased in the Ark), the Jewish way of life, from encroachment by ‘the other.’ Attempts to integrate non-Jewish family members into rituals performed on the bimah were long repelled by those, including clergy, who were opposed to and fearful of change. For many, therefore, the bimah became a symbolic battleground, whose territory, the Torah, must, at all costs, be defended. But, does it have to be? In truth, the bimah is a place where community comes together and where, increasingly, people believe Jewish family milestones, regardless of the religious composition of the family, must be celebrated. As Liz Cox, an FJMC Keruv consultant, wrote in a communication to me, “They aren’t ‘the other.’ They aren’t ‘them’; ‘they’ are ‘us.’ We stand up together to our synagogue, with our work, our enthusiasm, and our belief in our community. We raise Jewish children together, lovingly and honestly. We create amazing, wonderful lives together, filled with tradition, togetherness, and hope for the future.” Hence, the evolution of choreography on the bimah—elaborate rules about who is permitted to stand where and who is entitled to recite which prayer—has become a favorite “token” of concession to the family member of another faith. The bimah, it seems, has taken the place of the chuppah, the wedding canopy, as the physical locale to promote or reflect a degree of acceptance. While I often wonder what is it that actually is at risk—and I am certain that our sages never considered the idea that the bimah, if they had one, could be polluted—the cultural historian would understand bimah choreography as a cultural development, created because the culture feared it was at risk. Conservative rabbis today aren’t afraid, but they are concerned. Each wrestles with the question of where one should stand if they are Jewish and where one should stand if they are ‘the other.’ And our congregations are also concerned. After more than a decade of FJMC Keruv Rabbinic Think Tanks, the need to discuss bimah choreography has not diminished. If one were to take the time to interview rabbis and compile the numerous ways they have created to address this concern, one would be able to create manuals, complete with charts, maps, and timeframes. Even though most rabbis realize that people who have chosen not to convert are just seeking social acceptance, not religious equality, it has not deterred their choreographic efforts. Turning our attention from the bimah to the bulletin, the cultural historian suggests that the bulletin may be a less risky venue than the bimah for acknowledging certain realities of congregational life. The bulletin brings together different sectors of the community. In the bulletin are announcements about social action activities that foster communal responsibility. The bulletin highlights interfaith adult education activities and provides the opportunity for community members to learn about the life-cycle events of their friends and acquaintances. The bulletin is a community’s primary vehicle for communication. When a non-Jewish relative of a Jew-by-Choice dies, the community is informed through the bulletin. When a member’s child achieves a milestone, it is recorded in the bulletin. The bulletin—electronic or otherwise—is the border vehicle, the place where communities intersect. The issue of intermarriage and its relationship to the bulletin raises a number of questions for the congregational decision-makers. They ask: • How can we acknowledge intermarriage in our bulletin without undermining our commitment to in-marriage? • Should acknowledgements be placed in a column entitled “Mazal Tovs”? • Should acknowledgements be limited to wedding announcements, or should they be extended to include engagements and births of children and grandchildren? On the one hand, many reason that the acknowledgement of the birth of a non-Jewish grandchild who might live hundreds of miles away, or even next door, is a wonderful occasion for a grandparent, and grandparents should not be ‘penalized’ for children’s decisions to marry outside the faith. Many further reason that since we know that intermarriage today is not necessarily a rejection of Jewish identity or of Jewish practice, erecting a boundary that inflicts discomfort or pain is an ill-conceived strategy for membership recruitment and retention. Frankly, I sincerely doubt anyone would decide not to enter into marriage with a non-Jew because the couple’s names would be excluded from the synagogue bulletin. On the other hand, there are those who are resistant to acknowledging the changing landscape of our communities because they ascribe to the ‘slippery slope’ theory. The slippery slope, in my eyes, has to do with alcoholics and drug addicts, not with religious observance and belief. By adhering to the slippery slope mentality, we are confusing religion and religious behaviors with culture. Our challenge is to live with both. We need to promote in-marriage while recognizing intermarriage. We need to acknowledge and respect the changing culture in which we live and at the same time, strive to preserve and respect our community and encourage a full embrace of our way of life. The bimah should not be considered a battleground, but a place where one shows respect for those who participate. It should be a place where whether people stand or sit is considered a cultural, not a religious, issue. At the same time, the place where the community members learn about one another and their extended families—the bulletin—should be the vehicle that honors our diversity by honoring and respecting the choices its members have made. Rabbi Charles Simon is the Executive Director of the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs.


About the Author

Charles Simon

Rabbi Charles Simon has served as the Executive Director of the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs since 1981. Under his guidance, FJMC has produced numerous books, guides, films, and programs designed to enhance Jewish life, for men and women and their communities at large. Rabbi Simon has been responsible for the production of a host of materials designed to make Jewish life more accessible. These accomplishments include the development of the highly acclaimed Art of Jewish Living series, authored by Dr. Ron Wolfson, the writing and production of two educational films, A Guide to the Shabbat Morning Torah Service and The Ties That Bind. He edited and supervised the Hearing Men’s Voices series, a series of five manuals designed to assist Jewish men to address issues facing them today. Rabbi Simon has also written 2 books devoted to teaching people how to lead and participate in community prayer. He has been published in Commentary Magazine, Judaism Magazine and Reform Judaism. Rabbi Simon was instrumental in the creation of the Leadership Council of Conservative Judaism. In addition, he is responsible for starting and nurturing three Masorti congregations in France and two in the United Kingdom. His Mezuzah Housewarming party was translated into Spanish in 2005 as was his film The Ties That Bind. In November 2007 Rabbi Simon received the prestigious Sheirut l’am (Service to our People) award from the World Council of Synagogues and in 2011 the Yuval Award from the Cantors Assembly. He currently serves as the Conservative/Masorti Movement’s representative to Europe. His most recent endeavors are a weekly haftarah commentary that began in October 2009 and a book titled Developing a Successful Volunteer Culture, a 1977 graduate of the Rabbinical School of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, Rabbi Simon served as a congregational rabbi before coming to the FJMC. His primary interest is the development of lay leadership and the cultivation of volunteers. He lives in New York with his wife Mary Katzin.

Also by Charles Simon

Understanding the Haftarot
Jewish Men at the Crossroads