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Stepping Into a New Community
Rachel Gross
The Jewish Outreach Institute Blog
June 16, 2008

Moving to New York just prior to Shavuot, I was excited to enter my new Jewish community in tandem with a favorite Jewish holiday. After perusing local community calendars, I decided that the all night JCC in Manhattan Tikkun Leil Shavuot would provide eclectic programming in a non-denominational environment. From Torah Study to Trance-dance and Yoga, I hoped to celebrate the initial receipt of the Torah at Sinai as I oriented myself to my new Jewish neighbors and community.

I walked into the JCC in Manhattan, went through some metal detectors, and continued past security personnel in suits who waved participants into the lobby, shoving program guides into everyone's hand. Surrounded by unfamiliar faces, I attended a few sessions and, quickly enough, found myself at the end of a mile long line for cheesecake.

But amidst all these people and activities, I still hadn't been welcomed on an individual level. That soon changed while I was waiting in line, where I was approached by a stranger dressed in a full body owl costume. She sidled up next to me and pushed a piece of paper into my hands. At first glance it looked like a printed out personal ad from J-Date, the Jewish singles website. I figured out quickly that the ad was a humorous parody on the ways in which Jewish women-approaching a certain age-feel the need to market themselves to Jewish men for the sake of reproduction. Or excuse me, 'continuity.' This owl was an anonymous advocate from the group Jewish Women Watching, a group devoted to highlighting what they see as "discriminatory practices in the American Jewish community." The group implements awareness campaigns such as this one to coincide with holidays. At the end of the ad the group made their point:

The Jewish community's priorities of marriage and parenthood aren't a match for everyone. This Shavuot, as we celebrate the deliverance of Jewish law, deliver a message that isn't about delivering Jewish babies.
Broaden the standards that are used to evaluate a Jewish life.
Recognize Jewish women as powerful beyond their reproductive abilities.
Celebrate the many types of families in the Jewish community...
...These are the keys to Jewish continuity.

This message resonated with me on the eve of joining JOI as its newest Program Officer. Jewish Women Watching hopes that the Jewish community is inclusive of all those cultivating Jewish life and a Jewish future. For some this means falling in love and raising Jewish children. For others, this means creating a Jewish home and life as an individual. Just like one of the principles of our Big Tent Judaism initiative, JWW celebrates the diversity of today's Jewish individuals and households, leaving behind assumptions of what Jews "look like" or how families are configured. That all are embraced and welcomed into a broader Jewish 'family' is an ideal that JOI and JWW have in common, and one that I am excited to work towards.

So while this interaction with the owl left me inspired, I still left my first event as a member of the Manhattan Jewish community feeling like an outsider. As I join JOI, I look forward to ensuring that such events in the Jewish community include designated greeters to welcome all participants, especially newcomers like me.