Last night I went to the tribute dinner for an organization with even more of a mouthful of an acronym name than most Jewish groups: BJENY-SAJES.
The initials stand for the Board of Jewish Education of New York-Suffolk Association for Jewish Education Services.
Without my super-duper investigative reporting skills and high-placed contacts, I actually might not have known what SAJES’ initials stood for, since it’s not on the Web site or any of the official materials.
The name is yet another example of the seemingly impenetrable alphabet soup acronym-heavy language of Jewish institutions we insiders tend to bandy about much to the bemusement of those outside and on the fringes: UJA, AIPAC, USY, JTA, NFTY, OU, JTS, JESNA, HUC, AJC, ADL, YU, RRC, JDC, JFREJ, SAR, KJ, KOE, ZOA, NIF, BBYO, JNF, RCA, CCAR, URJ (formerly UAHC), JOI and so forth. (Extra credit to all readers who e-mail me with the full names. And apologies to the numerous important institutions I’ve omitted! Were I a more diligent blogger, I’d include links for all, but then I’d have no time to fulfill more important job duties: so go ahead and Google if you are curious.)
The long tradition of Jewish acronyms actually predates the American Jewish establishment: many sages are referred to by Hebrew acronyms, such as RaMBaM, RaSHI, RaMBaN and so forth. Even the Bible is referred to by an acronym: TaNaK (Torah, Nev’iim, Ketuvim).
But I digress. Suffice it to say that the recently merged BJENY-SAJES is New York’s (and here I’ll get lazy and simply quote the text on a flyer I received last night) “only non-denominational community-wide educational agency in greater New York to focus on day school, early childhood, congregational and informal education” and works to “mobilize professional and lay leadership and connect them to resources they need to build new educational models relevant and resonant in the 21st century.”
I went to the event, on the breathtaking glass-walled 45th floor of Seven World Trade Center, wearing my “Jewish education reporter” hat rather than my “In the Mix” hat. However, towards the end of the program I was pleased to realize that not one speaker had said anything about intermarriage!
In my early days of reporting, it would have been virtually unheard of to sit through a lineup of speeches touting Jewish education without hearing the I-word repeatedly invoked as a scourge, an epidemic in desperate need of the prevention/vaccine only Jewish education can provide. Indeed, in the 1990s, on the heels of the National Jewish Population Survey reporting the (later disputed) intermarriage rate of 52 percent, intermarriage was the raison d’etre of sorts, the rallying cry behind everything from day schools to youth groups to campus Hillels.
Last night, the only time I heard “intermarriage” uttered was when UJA-Federation of New York CEO John Ruskay referenced the 1990 study which he called a “wake-up call,” adding that “for some people it was about intermarriage.”
But rather than lamenting Jews marrying out of the Tribe, Ruskay spoke positively about living in an “open society” and the community’s “challenge to strengthen the fabric of Jewish life” and “create vibrant Jewish life” that people will choose to participate in.
And Ruskay was not an anomaly. The other speakers, too, including Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, the longtime head of Manhattan’s Kehilath Jeshurun and the Ramaz School, were refreshingly positive and inclusive. This was particularly impressive considering that Rabbi Lookstein, the evening’s main honoree, is a prominent Orthodox rabbi, and Orthodoxy, despite its many strengths and accomplishments, is not generally at the forefront of welcoming or including the intermarried.
So, yasher koach (way to go) BJENY-SAJES!
And my children thank you for the lovely “swag” of PJ Library children’s books passed out at evening’s end.
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