Ten Steps to a Successful Interfaith Wedding from a Brand-New Bride:

  1. Get excited—it’s the best way to have fun with what may otherwise be a super stressful process:)
  2. Have a good foundation—talk about everything you can, learn about everything you can, explore ALL the issues; attending things like the Interfaith Couples Workshop, Intro to Judaism and Tying the Knot really helped
  3. Pin down your officiant(s) as early as possible, and keep ‘em in the loop (if you don’t have any yet, contact Jean Graubart at the 16th Street J and she’ll point ya in the right direction)
  4. Don’t be afraid to make it your own—interfaithfamily.com has some great sample ceremonies
  5. The most important thing to remember isn’t compromise, its respect—and as long as you’ve got that, you’ll make the right decisions
  6. Make programs so your (and his) family can follow along—it helps to have phonetics of the “heblish” translations so people don’t congratulate you on the beautiful “choopa”
  7. There are a million different meaningful explanations for everything (especially Jewish traditions!) mix and match, cherry-pick what fits you best or combine a few different interpretations—with so many options, no one’s ever wrong!
  8. There are also a million different ways to do a Ketubah (if you decide you want one) and some great interfaith texts out there (check out modernketubah.com for examples)—just don’t wait ‘till the day-of to print it!
  9. Plan away, but remember, “it’s the little imperfections that make the day so special” (this is from the Brand-New Groom)
  10. Finally, don’t forget to have fun!! Enjoy all the little things, big things and the in-betweens; there are sure to be ups and downs, but in the end, you’ll have created memories—and a partnership—to last a lifetime.

Young Professionals Mission to Cuba: An Amazing Week

by Sara Bistrow Smith, Director of EntryPointDC

I just returned from leading an extraordinary Jewish mission to Cuba sponsored by EntryPointDC with 14 other young Jewish adults in their 20s and 30s who live in the Washington DC Metropolitan area. The combination of these intelligent, adventurous, and compassionate participants with the charming and complex backdrop of Cuba made this one of the most amazing experiences of my life.

On our trip we visited five Jewish communities and met their leaders, got to know their members and learned how they live and practice Judaism in Cuba. We visited synagogues, cleaned up graves in Jewish cemeteries, and distributed much needed supplies. We took in the sights and immersed ourselves in Cuban culture. We also spent much of our time with members of the young adult Jewish Cuban community, and we saw historic and educational sites together, socialized on Havana’s seafront promenade the Malecon, and sang and danced to Cuban music. Having exceeded all expectations, the trip was more wonderful than we could have imagined.

Cuba is a fascinating country—a place of passionate music, lively dance and vibrant color. It is a living museum, filled with old American cars from the 50’s, apartment buildings from the 70’s and stunning Colonial, Baroque and Art Deco architecture. Music is everywhere and seems to be the soul of the island. Even though poverty is quite widespread, the Cubans we encountered were outgoing, social, and warm. They knew how to have a good time and keep spirits high.

While we had many experiences that were incredible on the trip, one of the most memorable was visiting the Jewish Sunday School in Havana. The children smiled with delight when our group arrived with several bags of American candies and chocolates. Many of the children did not speak English, but we found a way to communicate through dancing. Each child approached us and said “bailar” and they taught us the hippo song, which continued to be a favorite song amongst our group. Then we taught the children the song, David Melech Yisrael.

Since travel is only legally permissible under specific licensees granted by the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office, the Washington DCJCC obtained a license which allows travel by members of religious organizations to conduct religious activities. This is the first time that the JCC has ever sponsored a mission to Cuba for young professionals to bring support and aid to the Cuban Jewish community. These young professionals were incredibly generous and brought ample supplies of over-the-counter-medicines, powdered milk, films pertaining to Jewish life, sun block, and clothes, all of which are difficult to come by in Cuba.

There were over 20,000 Jews in Cuba before the Revolution in 1959, and now only about 1,500 remain.  Although this Jewish community is small in number, their pride, joyfulness, and spirit is undiminished.  We had the privilege to witness the strength and heart of this community firsthand and learned that the value of a Jewish community is not measured by its population, but by the determination and passion of its individuals to continue and celebrate the Jewish way of life.  Our trip to Cuba touched my life in so many ways: I made lasting friendships, built connections with the extraordinary Jewish community, and experienced the rich, lively culture and traditions of Cuba.

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Washington Jewish Music Festival Opens with a Rocking Danny Sanderson Concert

Here are some pictures from last night’s Danny Sanderson concert, one of the best I’ve seen in my time here. He played for almost two hours and for that time, the past week of heartache and controversy surrounding things Israeli evaporated in the pure joy of the music. It was a welcome respite and a rocking good time — and we all needed it; perhaps no one more than Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren who was also in the crowd. Here are some pictures:

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Talking About the Gaza Flotilla – part two, with podcast

This morning’s briefing on the Gaza Flotilla crisis with Noam Katz, Minister of Public Diplomacy at the Embassy of Israel was really quite exciting. We had around 60 people attending and a very robust Q&A session following his introductory remarks. Those remarks are available here as an MP3 — the Q&A session was technically “off-the-record” so I can’t post any recording of that. However, it was a very broad cross-section of opinions from those who feel that Israel was completely justified in its actions and needs to do more to get out its story, to those who believe that the blockade of Gaza is both immoral and illegal, to those who feel that Israel’s strategic interests are no longer being well-served by the blockade, to those who want more public acknowledgement of the aid that is regularly transported to Gaza from around the world. Minister Katz handled all the questions respectfully and while his answers may not have satisfied everyone, it was generally agreed that the opportunity for the conversation was much appreciated.

It is our hope to have more discussions like this one with other speakers with differing perspectives.  In the mean time, here are Noam Katz’s opening remarks.

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Talking About the Gaza Flotilla

When I first learned of the ill-fated Israeli raid on the Gaza Flotilla boat Mavi Marmara I got a sick feeling in my stomach. Why? Because something had gone horribly wrong and already I was preparing myself for the recriminations that would be hurled against an Israeli state that I love at an elemental part of my being. Because there was a dizzying element of multiple asymmetries to the whole story as it unfolded: protesters versus soldiers, paintball guns versus knives and lead pipes, a dozen soldiers (each like my “brother” from my mishpacha me-ametzet) versus hundreds of violent opponents, nine dead people versus unspecified injuries, occupied Palestinians versus powerful Israelis, a tiny Jewish state versus a host of hostile neighbors that would smile on its annihilation. Because while I consider myself an unambiguous Zionist, I have great misgivings about this whole episode, from the motivations of the Turkish organizers who set it in-motion to those who would defend every aspect of Israel’s handling of the affair and question the loyalty of those who think otherwise. As I followed events on my Blackberry as they developed on Monday afternoon, I just kept saying to my wife, “This really upsets me.” But I couldn’t articulate beyond that.

When I came into work on Tuesday I felt like I needed to provide the beginnings of a process to make sense of this for myself, and so I picked-up the phone and called my colleague at the Embassy of Israel to arrange for a free and open to the public briefing from an Embassy spokesperson this Friday at 8 am. All are welcome. In the short time the event has be open for registration, I think I can conclude that I am not the only one with questions.

As I began spreading word of the event I got a note from a friend who asked, “Are [you] taking the Embassy line on the flotilla situation?  Or are [you] allowing for the Jeffery Goldberg / Amos Oz view to be articulated as well?” My response was that I (or the Washington DCJCC for that matter) am not taking anyone’s line. That’s not what we do. That’s not what this is intended to be. This is the start of a conversation. Or perhaps it is the continuation of a conversation we’ve been having since 1948. Or 1967. Or 70 C.E. In either case, it is not meant to be the totality of the conversation, only a point of departure. And it is my hope that it will not be an event where the audience passively absorbs without question everything that is asserted from the podium. My hope is that we can talk to each other. We’re starting with the Embassy, and while they won’t be there, I am sure Amos Oz and Jeffrey Goldberg will have their people in the room. And if we’re lucky, so will Alan Dershowitz, David Grossman, Marty Peretz, Max Boot, John Podhoretz, Gershom Gorenberg and Bernard-Henri Lévy. They are all welcome, because we all have to contend with a post-flotilla reality.

I don’t care if the Palestinians or their allies don’t “indulge” in this level of communal introspection. Perhaps they already do, we just aren’t privy to those conversations. Perhaps they will some day, or never will. It doesn’t truly matter to me. To abstain from discussion in the name of solidarity strikes me as the least Jewish thing we could do at a time like this. Whatever our separate conclusions, the goal is shared, a Jewish democratic Israel secure in its borders, at peace with its neighbors, and in-touch with its highest values.

You can register for the briefing here.

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Reacting to Elie Wiesel’s Reaction to “Imagining Madoff”

by Francine Zorn Trachtenberg

Theater J has been in the crosshairs of the press in the past few weeks, the subject of a controversy between a playwright and a world citizen, with an artistic director caught in the middle.  The crux of the matter is two-pronged:  whether or not a public figure can be the subject of a work of fiction without his consent; and whether or not a community theater should ever bow to pressure in making artistic decisions.  Two heady issues, indeed, are on the table.  Let’s look at them one at a time.

A new play has been written by Deb Margolin titled, “Imaging Madoff.”   Madoff is of course the infamous Bernie Madoff, a.k.a. gonif of the Western World, who duped his friends as well as strangers, stole billions of dollars and upset the financial network of hundreds of families, foundations and social organizations around the world.  His escapades have come to symbolize chicanery and evil.  His misplaced sense of entitlement ruined lives, set back programs and epitomizes the phrase, “it is a shanda fur die goy”  – he is a Jew who did something embarrassing and wrong in front of non-Jews. 

The setting of the Margolin play is a fictional (made-up, never happened, imagined) encounter between Madoff and Elie Wiesel.  Mr. Wiesel, of course, is the most famous writer, thinker and spokesperson for understanding the Holocaust.  He has won the Nobel Prize.  He is a survivor.  He is the symbol of righteous indignation about all that is evil in the world and how to make wrong right.  He and Madoff are opposites, the extreme edges of morality. 

Ari Roth, the Washington DCJCC’s artistic director of Theater J read the play, liked it and placed it at the beginning of next season’s lineup.  Like almost everything Theater J presents, this play, Roth believed, would get people thinking and talking.  Theater J is known for its provocative productions. 

Ms. Margolin sent her script to Elie Wiesel.  She is proud of her work.  She believed her pairing of good vs. evil – Wiesel vs. Madoff – showed the Nobel Laureate in good light.  Mr. Wiesel, however, though a writer of fiction himself, took her play literally not figuratively and said in a letter back to Margolin, “This is not me.”  And then, with all the melodrama of the movie Casablanca, he went to say, “I am shocked, appalled and offended…”

Theater J and the playwright were stunned by Wiesel’s response.  The condemnation of this work and its pending public production is coming from a man who is the paragon of freedom, a man who in a concentration camp understood that his thoughts were always free from oppression.

There are a handful of public figures in the 20th century who life work commands the respect bestowed up Wiesel, including Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Menachem Mendel Schneerson and Mother Teresa.  These are individuals whose courage and/or ethical standing puts them in a category above most women and men.  If any one of them asked any one of us to look carefully at something, we would do so.  Their requests command respect. 

Elie Wiesel said, “I formally oppose it [the play] being performed any time in any venue.”  Strong words.  He got everyone’s attention.  He stopped production in its tracks.  For a brief moment, he left everyone speechless.  And then, in a whispering voice people said, “Wiesel said ‘no’ to the play.”  (In full disclosure, no specific person said that specific phrase – it is a made-up sentence to make a point).

What now should the theater and its artistic director do?

Ari Roth is not known as a shrinking violet.  He likes plays that are edgy.  He likes plays that arouse strong feelings and he likes the audience to ponder deep questions.   He is articulate and eloquent in his explanation of choices for Theater J.  He is not one to cut and run.  He enjoys debate, is good at confronting controversy and gets his “opponents” to hone their arguments and he can stand his ground with almost anyone. 

Why offend a paragon of virtue?  Ari Roth had to make a very difficult choice.  Should artistic freedom trump personal objection?  He had to step back from the rim of controversy and ponder if perhaps it isn’t the time to go forward with this particular play.   Roth is quoted as saying about Wiesel, “He’s had in our minds an overreaction,” and Roth is probably right.  Wiesel overreacted and the Washington DCJCC, rather than meeting him at the barricades of indignation, thought it best to let cooler heads prevail and move on to other plays. 

Does this mean Theater J has capitulated?  No it does not. 

Elie Wiesel will be 82 on his next birthday; his life is long and he has witnessed much, far too much at times.  After winning the Nobel Prize he established the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity whose “mission, rooted in the memory of the Holocaust, is to combat indifference, intolerance and injustice through international dialogue and youth-focused programs that promote acceptance, understanding and equality.”   The endowment funds supporting Wiesel’s foundation were decimated by Bernie Madoff; over night millions of dollars were lost.  Dreams disappeared.  Wiesel is once again pushing the rock up the hill.  The imagery is biblical. 

Ari Roth and Theater J and the Washington DCJCC decided that Elie Wiesel was allowed a little wiggle room.  Wiesel over-reacted.  No need for the rest of us to do the same. 

Ms. Trachtenberg is a past-president of the Washington DC Jewish Community Center. She is a former Senior Vice President at WETA and adjunct faculty member at the George Washington University’s art department, teaching the history of photography.

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