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Focus on Jewish Diversity Discussion Guide

Prepared by the William and Lottie Daniel Department
of Outreach and Synagogue Community

To the discussion leader: The following materials have been prepared for use in a variety of settings: Board meetings, WRJ or Brotherhood study sessions, Membership/Outreach Committee meetings, oneg Shabbat program, adult education classes or Shabbatonim. Begin with an introduction similar to that outlined below and then choose from among the activities according to your goals and the amount of time available.

In preparation

  • Ask participants to read the articles in “Focus on Jewish Diversity” in advance and to bring their copy of Reform Judaism Spring 2004 with them to the session
  • Display your congregation’s copy of The Face of Reform Judaism: Outreach at 25 poster where it can be viewed easily by participants.

Brief Introduction (5 minutes)
The face of Judaism in North America isn’t “changing;” it has changed. The introductory paragraph of the recently released 2000-1 National Jewish Population Survey of the Jewish population in the United States makes this point:

American Jews possess many strengths, face important challenges, and exhibit notable diversity. They maintain frequent points of involvement in Jewish religious and ethnic group life, but many are disengaged from the Jewish community. As a group, American Jews have relatively high educational levels and socioeconomic status, but significant pockets of poverty and social service needs also exist within the population. Intermarriage, delayed marriage and low fertility rates constitute challenges to Jewish continuity. The diversity across these areas -- religious, cultural, social, communal and demographic -- is truly striking, making simple, global characterizations difficult to reach. The American Jewish landscape, while full of common themes, is also marked by systematic variation. (www.ujc.org/njps)

The Reform Movement’s commitment to include Jews and Jewish families from diverse backgrounds with diverse perspectives significantly strengthens our congregations and is a value to celebrate.

General Discussion Questions (50 minutes)
Use the Reform Judaism focus articles and “The Face of Reform Judaism” poster as texts. Begin with questions 1 – 3 and then choose two from questions 4-10.

  1. How is Jewish diversity reflected in the Reform Judaism Focus on Jewish diversity?
  2. What picture of diversity is reflected on “The Face of Reform Judaism: Outreach at 25” poster?
  3. How do they differ? What does diversity mean to you? Who is diverse? Generate a list of “diverse” groups. What did you learn from this activity?
  4. Review the sample findings of the 2000-1 National Jewish Population Study. In what ways is the diversity of North American Jews and Jewish families represented in your congregation? Who is left out (present in the community, but not in your membership)? How do you know?
  5. Consider different aspects of temple life, such as Board membership, pre-school enrollment, choir or social action participants, the worshiping congregation, etc. Where do you see the greatest diversity? The least? Why?
  6. The Jews of color who speak in the Reform Judaism Focus on Jewish Diversity express a variety of feelings about the welcome they received in their congregations. Carlton Watson says: “Looking back on my ten years at Temple Emanuel, I am proud to say that not once, not for the briefest moment, have I experienced overt or covert mistreatment, hostility, rejection, discrimination, or prejudice. I have been treated, always, with dignity and respect, judged by the content of my character and my actions.” Others have had to defend their Jewishness repeatedly. What is the experience of Jews of color in your congregation? How do you know?
  7. Most of those writing in Reform Judaism and those whose faces appear on “The Face of Reform Judaism” poster are Jewish leaders. All speak powerfully of the meaning of Judaism in their lives. What venues are available in your congregation for your members to speak personally about the meaning of being Jewish? Does your leadership reflect the diversity of your congregation?
  8. What are the challenges a diverse community presents?
  9. How does diversity strengthen your congregation?
  10. What steps can your congregation take to honor and celebrate its diversity, to hear the voices of all its members, and to meet the challenges posed by diversity?

Quotes from articles in Reform Judaism Focus on Jewish Diversity

Brenner: “The more I’ve seen of Judaism, both in the Diaspora and in Israel, the less I understand what being Jewish actually means. If I looked for continuity, I’ve found only discontinuity.”

Q: What does being Jewish mean to you? Are there Jews who would not be included in your definition? What does Brenner mean by “discontinuity”? Is “continuity” a value?

Magda Elias: It is not easy to be a Latino Jew. Although we have been members of our congregation for seven years, other congregants sometimes say hurtful things, making us feel like outsiders. We sometimes are asked, in our own synagogue, “Are you Jewish?”

Q: Is it appropriate to ask someone if he/she is Jewish? How can a congregation establish a context of acceptance?

Patricia Lin: “I’ve learned that while many [Asian American Jews] have experienced difficulties reconciling their dual-minority identities in their early years, as adults most have come to appreciate their uniqueness as Jews of Asian descent. At the same time, many tell me of their isolation, even in cosmopolitan Jewish areas. They do not like having to prove they are Jewish and wonder if Ashkenazi Jews may reject them as potential romantic partners because they are Asian. They rarely see their faces reflected in Jewish periodicals….”

Q: What are the challenges and the advantages of having a “dual-minority identity”? What experiences help a person to appreciate his/her uniqueness? Can congregations help?

Carlton Watson: “In the beginning I felt somewhat odd in temple. As a person of color who had focused on issues of racial equality throughout my life, was this really my path? As the only Black worshiper in the sanctuary, did I really belong? How could Judaism speak to me as a Black? How would continuing on this Jewish journey alter my role in the Black community? How would I feel about being defined as a Jew by others—predominantly White others?”

Q: “Odd man out” means being an outsider. Are there times you’ve felt “odd” in your community? How do you reconcile various roles in your life with your Jewishness? In what ways do others define your Jewishness?

Alyssa Stanton: “I am a Jew and I am an African American. These identities are not mutually exclusive in my life. My daughter Shana and I are both Jewish and Black. We do not have to choose. We will not choose. We proudly embrace both cultures.”

Q: Does every North American Jew have two cultures? More? What does it mean to have plural identities?

Rabbi/Cantor Angela Warnick Buchdahl: “Throughout my adolescence and early adulthood, I struggled to integrate my Jewish, Korean, and secular American identities. I did not look Jewish and did not want this heavy burden of having to explain and prove myself every time I entered a new Jewish community.”

Q: What was it like for you to enter a new Jewish community? Did you feel you had to “explain and prove” yourself? Is there a way for your community to ease this burden for newcomers?

Text Study (35 minutes)
Begin with blessing for Torah study (in Hebrew, transliteration and English.) Divide participants into small groups for self-directed study. (20 minutes) Debrief by asking each group for suggested next steps. (15 minutes)

  1. The Changed Jewish Family—Diversity in the Jewish Community

    Texts: Take from among you gifts to the Lord, everyone whose heart so moves him shall bring them—gifts for the Lord: gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple, and crimson yearns, fine linen, and goats’ hair; tanned ram skins, dolphin skins, and acacia wood; oil for lighting; spices for the anointing oil and for the aromatic incense; lapis lazuli and other stones for setting, for the ephod and the breastpiece. And let all among you who are skilled come and make all that the Lord has commanded: the Tabernacle, its tent and its covering, its clasps and its planks, its bars, its posts, and its sockets. Exodus 35:5-11

    You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt. Exodus 23:9

    1. At the beginning of the parasha from which the first text is taken, it says: “And Moses assembled all the congregation of the children of Israel.” The Rabbis say “all the congregation” means that the Sanctuary is the concern of every child of Israel. What does “the Sanctuary” mean?
    2. Why do you think the text enumerates the variety of gifts needed to create the Sanctuary? What could these gifts symbolize?
    3. What are the blessings of a diverse Jewish community? What are the special challenges?
    4. Discuss multiple forms of diversity present in your Jewish community. (Think outside the box. For example, consider lifestyle and lifestage differences, physical differences, differing levels of and interest in spirituality, Jewish knowledge, etc.) In what ways and/or with what groups is your congregation good at bringing together a diverse group into community with each other and with God? Where could you improve?
    5. Personally, what is a form of “strangeness” you experience in your synagogue community? Where do you feel different at times? What aspects of feeling like “the stranger” are common experiences? How can your temple support keruv—drawing us “nearer” from wherever and however we feel “far”?
  2. The Changed Jewish Family—Outreach and Inreach
    Texts: God loves the stranger, providing food and clothing for each one. You too must love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. Deuteronomy 10:18-19

    Rabbi Eliezer observes that the Torah specifies not less than thirty-six times that Jews should “love the stranger.”

    Questions for Discussion:

    1. Who is the “stranger” outside of your temple? Who is missing? Why?
    2. Discuss the mission of a synagogue community regarding reaching out beyond the temple walls. What is your philosophy? Your congregation’s philosophy? How does your budget and allocation of resources reflect that philosophy?
    3. Who is the “stranger” inside your congregation? How were you integrated into the community? How are new or prospective members welcomed and integrated into the community today?
    4. How could the changed demographics of the Jewish people reflected in data from the NJPS affect outreach within and outside synagogue walls?
    5. Where are your temple’s strengths in reaching out? In what areas can you improve your commitment to keruv—drawing near those who are far?

Some Findings from the 2000-1 National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS 2000)

American Jewish population
NJPS 2000: 5.2 million people, 4.1 million adults and 1 million children in 2.9 million households with a total of 6.7 million people, both Jews and non-Jews. 100,000 Jews are institutionalized.

“A Jew is defined as a person whose religion is Jewish, or whose religion is Jewish and something else, or who has no religion and has at least one Jewish parent or a Jewish upbringing, or who has a non-monotheistic religion, and has at least one Jewish parent or a Jewish upbringing.”

The population with stronger Jewish connections who answered the long-form questionnaire consists of 4.3 million people, including over 3.3 million adults and more than 900,000 children.

Marital Status
57% of Jewish adults are currently married; 9% are divorced, 8% are widowed, and 1% are separated. 25% are single and have never been married.

Mobility (NJPS, Fall 2003)

35% of adult Jews moved during the past 5 years.

12% moved within the same city
10% moved to another location in the same state
10% moved to a different state
2% moved from a different country

Regional distribution:

43% live in the Northeast (57% born in Northeast)
13% live in the Midwest (18% born in Midwest)
23% live in the South (14% born in South)
22% live in the West (11% born in West)

Synagogue Affiliation
These figures refer to the population (4.3 million Jewish adults and children) who answered the long form questionnaire.

46% belong to a synagogue

39% Reform
33% Conservative
21% Orthodox

Reform Synagogue Affiliation (reported by Leonard Saxe)
55% of inmarried couples who identify as Reform report membership in a synagogue.
31% of intermarried couples who identify as Reform affiliate with a synagogue
75% of conversionary households who identify as Reform affiliate with a synagogue

NJPS 2000 reports that between 1996-2001, 47% of Jews who married, married someone who was not Jewish. The 1990 NJPS reported a comparable intermarriage rate of 43%.

NJPS 2000 gives the following stats over time:

Before 1970, 13% of Jews who married married someone who was not Jewish.
1970-79: 28%
1980-84 38%
1985-90 43%
1990-95 43%
1996-01 47%

“Among all married Jews today—including those recently married and those married long ago whose marriages are still intact—31% are intermarried.”

From the American Religious Identification Survey (2001, Egon Mayer, et al)

Race/Ethnic Make-up of Jews by Religion
White 92%
Black 1%
Asian 1%
Hispanic 5%
Other 1%


Questions for discussion:

  1. Are you surprised by any of the findings listed above?
  2. NJPS indicates that 19% of Jewish households are a married couple with children in the home. What percentage of your congregation falls into this demographic group? According to the figures listed above, 43% of Jewish adults are single. What percentage of the households in your congregation include a single adult? Do your budget and resource allocations (time, space) reflect the needs of households of each type that make up your membership? Do they reflect the needs of households in your community? Why? Why not?
  3. How reflective is the membership of your congregation of the national data on racial diversity and on intermarriage? Do your programming and your materials reflect a priority of inclusion? Should they?

Further Resources from the Union for Reform Judaism

On the web:
Suggestions for using the “Outreach at 25: The Face of Reform Judaism” poster in your congregation.

From the URJ Press (1-888-489-8242):
Engaging Generation Aleph provides program and organizational guidance for congregations wishing to include 20s and 30s.

Kulanu (All of Us) helps congregations welcome and gay and lesbian Jews.

The Life-Cycle of Synagogue Membership is a user-friendly guide for congregational leaders to improve recruitment, integration and retention of all members.

Reform Jewish Outreach: The Idea Book Series presents award-winning programs to welcome and integrate interfaith couples and families, Jews-by-choice, young adults, and the full diversity of Jewish families.

From the William and Lottie Daniel Department of Outreach and Synagogue Community (212-650-4230):
The Shalom! Guide aids synagogue administrators and support staff in responding warmly and informatively to questions from non-synagogue members on a range of issues from interfaith wedding officiation to funeral practices.