Connecting Interfaith Families to Jewish Life in Greater Cleveland by providing programs and opportunities for interfaith families to experience Judaism in a variety of venues, meet other interfaith families, and to connect to other Jewish organizations that may serve their needs.
A great way for Jewish professionals and volunteers who work with and provide programming for people in interfaith relationships to locate resources and trainings to build more welcome into their Jewish communities; connect with and learn from each other; and publicize and enhance their programs and services.
I am the outlier in my family. The youngest of five, the only musician, the one who loved Sunday school and the only one to marry a Jewish partner. Growing up my mother said she wanted me to marry a “nice Jewish man” so that I could have a “nice Jewish last name”—apparently my maiden name, Cummings, didn’t sound Jewish enough to my mother, Froma. I know she was joking (mostly) and that having the last name “Stein” is secondary to the man I married and the relationship we’ve built. What neither of us knew was that because Jason was not raised as a liberal Jew like I was, a large part of our relationship deals with navigating our different Jewish backgrounds as we build a Jewish home with our children.
My mother was raised in an Orthodox Jewish household and my father had converted to Judaism when he married his late (first) wife years before I was born. Though we were steeped in Judaism, by the time I was born, my family’s Jewish observance had changed significantly. I have vivid memories of singing “apples and honey for a sweet new year” at Rosh Hashanah dinner in our living room and Passover seders at my cousins’ house, but very few memories of attending services or programs at synagogue. It was a moment in synagogue, however, that left a deep impact on my life and ultimately led me to pursue the rabbinate.
I was 6 or 7 years old and my mother took me on a trip for work. When we arrived back in town we happened to be near the synagogue and decided to go in for Friday night Shabbat services. Dressed in jeans, I was embarrassed that we would stand out and people would shame us. We went in anyway, and about halfway through the service I fell asleep on her lap. When I awoke at the end of the service, the rabbi’s tallit was draped around me like a blanket and I quickly realized that Rabbi Herring had taken it off his own back and offered it to me. I understand this gesture even more deeply now that I am a rabbi and know the significance of my own tallit, and the meaning it brings me when I use it to bless couples at their weddings, and babies and families at birth ceremonies.
We entered that room embarrassed and anxious that we would be turned away, but instead we were welcomed with open arms and kindness. This is how I view the Jewish community today: inviting, engaging, kind and open.
I attended Willamette University, a small liberal arts college in Oregon with roots in the Methodist Church. As one of only of seven Jewish students in the entire undergraduate student body, I was often the first Jewish person most people there had met. I was asked several times if I had horns. I was proselytized. I thought about transferring to a university with more Jewish students. After a lot of consideration I chose to stay at Willamette and to seek out a larger Jewish community for support. I learned that the people around me who were not Jewish strengthened my own Jewish life. By having to reflect on my own understanding of Judaism, I learned why certain things about being Jewish matter to me.
In college, I was the Jewish representative whether I liked it or not, and this experience is what led me to become a Jewish professional. I love thinking deeply about what Judaism means for people and how it is represented in our lives and in the world. I love being a resource, a reference and a trusted advisor to my friends, family and community.
Two of my sisters are married to men who are not Jewish and each of them has two children. I understand that religion is not a cut and dry issue for their families and I love being able to help them navigate religious life for their children. It brings me joy to answer questions like, “Does an English muffin count as bread on Passover?” and “Were Moses and Jesus friends?”
I came to L.A. in 2010 to attend rabbinical school at the Hebrew Union College and I’ve worked all over town—at UCLA Hospital in Westwood, at St. John’s hospital in Santa Monica, at OUR House Center for Grief Support at the 405 and Sawtelle, and at various synagogues in the Valley. There were days that I spent three hours driving through town commuting to work and back home in Pasadena. I love that each neighborhood in L.A. has its own personality and its own needs. I know that there are areas with concentrated Orthodox Jewish population around L.A., but there are not areas with concentrated liberal, secular, and interfaith Jewish families. This makes finding community that much more difficult, and my work important and challenging. I hope that we can gather people together in community for fun, inclusive events. I hope you will join me in celebrating Jewish holidays at CiclaVia, learning about the issues facing Jewish families at a local hangout, playing with our babies at the park, and playing with our friends at the Hollywood Bowl.
I look forward to working with IFF to continue this important work of engaging people in community and helping people experience Judaism without the pain of closed doors, but rather with the kindness of a welcoming Jewish community.
Rabbi Ari (right) with her brother Jason & sister-in-law Galit
Rabbi Ari interviews her Israeli brother, Jason, and sister-in-law, Galit.
When did you make aliyah? (Literally this words means “to go up” and is used for someone who moves to Israel and connotes ascending in spiritual ways. The word is also used for being called up to the Torah during a worship service.) Jason: I moved to Israel after attending a Birthright trip at the end of December 2007.
Why did you move to Israel? Jason:Zionism. A belief that the land and people are part of me.
Galit adds that she felt a little lost and confused in America and she was looking for a different life, and Israel was calling her back.
What’s the most challenging part of living in Israel? How expensive it is. Everything costs more than in America—cars, rent, gas. It’s hard to finish the month with any money in your pocket even if you have a good job.
Do you think about politics all the time? We think about politics daily: more than when we were in America. And there was just an election. We think about it more during war time.
Do you know any interfaith couples? Is it common? And what’s it like for these couples in Israel? We do have one friend who married a Christian woman from Australia. It’s not very common (at least in our circle of friends) and it can be difficult for them here. A spouse who is not Jewish may have fewer rights here, especially if they did not move here as a citizen. It’s important for interfaith couples to come to Israel and engage. Change can come.
Tell me about your experience living in Israel It’s a fantastic place to live. There is plenty of work in all areas. Great medical care for no extra money beyond the taxes we pay. The people are great. We feel secure here and free. It’s a community; people know us and there is less anonymity. We don’t hear about people getting mugged on a bus, for instance. It must happen, but it’s not common.
What about this little known (in America) holiday coming up called Tu B’Av which begins the night of Friday, July 31? The [Hebrew] word “Tu” refers to the Hebrew letters Tet and Vuv. Each Hebrew letter represents a number and these letters add up to the number 15. This is the Hebrew month of Av. Thus, this holiday is on the 15th of Av (if you don’t have a Jewish calendar in your house, it could be a great thing to get. It’s a wonderful way to experience the many holidays and to get a sense of “Jewish time”).
This is a mysterious day on the Jewish calendar. The Talmud tells us that many years ago the “daughters of Jerusalem would go dance in the vineyards” on the 15th of Av, and “whoever did not have a wife would go there” to find himself a bride. Thus, it has become a Jewish love day.
Rabbi Ari: My brother and Galit said that Tu B’Av reminds them of Valentine’s Day in Israel. It has become commercialized. The stores sell heart-themed candy and gifts and people buy flowers for their loved ones. Couples dedicate songs to each other on the radio.
My brother and Galit #ChooseLove every day by living in Israel. They are far from most people in their family, and while in some ways living in America may be easier, their love for the vibe of the country and the life they have created sustains them.
Being raised interfaith (as I was, truly, with both Jewish and Catholic traditions and holidays) and observing two religions will inevitably lead to some confrontation with others. For me, the first time this happened was in elementary school, at the lunch table.
For some reason, the kids that I have seen talk about religion other than around holidays or in passing have been Jews. For better or worse, I have noticed that there can be an air of exclusivity amongst some Jewish people—even in young children. Surely this exclusivity can be part of the reason that the Jewish people remain alive and well as a culture and religion, but it can also be to our detriment.
As I sat across from a kid who seemed to be the elementary school dictionary of all things Jewish, it appeared the attention at the table was all his. I don’t remember how it all came up and I don’t know how it came back around to me but all of the sudden he called me in for questioning: “Is your mom or your dad Jewish?” he asked with his head cocked to the side, and a bit of a bobble to it. I answered him, and finished with, “But I am half-Jewish.” He looked smug. “That means that you’re Jewish. You can’t be both.” He said this with a professorial smirk.
I know he sounds a little devilish for an elementary school kid, but he was just proud of where he came from and of the knowledge he had acquired. If it helps to imagine him spewing crumbs of a peanut butter sandwich out of his mouth as he talks, then I recommend that you do that. I always do, and it helps diffuse the bits of white hot childhood rage that I still have left from the incident.
No matter how hard I tried to convince him of my dual faith identity he just came back with smart remarks. The whole table was on his side, and now they were laying into me too. Even the Rice Krispy treat that my mom packed me that day wasn’t going to cheer me up after that.
When I came home from school that day it turned out my parents had the same reaction I did. “How dare that child tell my child who he is or isn’t.” They essentially told me to not engage with him anymore. So I did exactly that, and he and I never really had any problems after that. The four other lunch tables were more than welcoming. To this day, he is still the same little know-it-all that I remember, and we are able to respectfully disagree without any mention of the old incident. In fact, I should thank him. This first confrontation prepared me for the many more to come in my life.
A message to parents who plan on raising their kids in more than one religion: Your child will not come out of this situation unscathed. But the emotional scars that come from it will heal and lead to a strong sense in character and identity. Without this instance and a handful of others, who knows where my tolerance level would be for people who don’t accept my Judaism. Not to mention, there are beautiful things that can come from being interfaith.
The late great comedian Joan Rivers had many famous lines, but she was probably better known for these three words than for any others. For many of us, we just have to hear this phrase and Joan comes to mind.
Yet perhaps ironically, when Joan Rivers uttered the phrase “Can we talk?” it wasn’t that she really wanted to engage with her audience in discussion. She didn’t want to talk WITH us. She wanted to talk TO us. What she wanted wasn’t for us to RESPOND, but for us to LISTEN. She had something to say…and she wanted our undivided attention.
Many of us like to talk. We have something to say – perhaps a point to make or a feeling or opinion to express. We think of talking as active…it involves doing something.
We tend to think of listening, in contrast, as passive…as if we don’t have to do anything to listen. But in fact, truly listening isn’t always easy and it’s certainly not passive. As any therapist, chaplain, social worker or member of the clergy will tell you, active listening is a crucial skill—every bit as important to a conversation as speaking, and often more so. It’s incredibly powerful for a person to know that they’re being listened to—that they’re being “heard” (and this often involves much more than just words)—by someone else who’s taking in what they say without any agenda other than to be present for them.
In Judaism, our central prayer is the Shema. And what does the Hebrew word Shema mean? It means “Hear.” Hearing/listening is at the very heart of Judaism.
When I was growing up, there was a wonderful poem in the Friday night prayer book my synagogue used—it was read before reciting the Shema. The prayer, written by Rabbis Jack Riemer and Harold Kushner, was called “Listen.” It began as follows:
Judaism begins with the commandment: Hear, O Israel!
But what does it really mean to hear?
The person who attends a concert with a mind on business,
Hears—but does not really hear.
The person who walks amid the songs of the birds
And thinks only of what will be served for dinner, hears—but does not really hear.
The one who listens to the words of a friend, or spouse, or child, and does not catch the note of urgency: “Notice me, help me, care about me,” hears—but does not really hear….
I loved this poem (and still do) because it emphasizes the importance of being truly present in the moment … of hearing/listening to what is happening around you, or what another person is saying to you.
I’m not a poet, but I often wish that I could add some verses to Rabbi Reimer and Rabbi Kushner’s poem “Listen” and share them with the people I work with (interfaith couples as well as Jewish professionals) in my role as Director of InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia. The verses I’d add would be:
The person in an interfaith relationship who talks with her partner about religion but cares only about her own religious heritage, and not her partner’s, hears—but does not really hear.
The parent of a child in an interfaith relationship who worries about what other people in his community will say about his child “intermarrying” as his daughter tells him how much she loves her fiancé, hears—but does not really hear.
The parent whose child tells her about his partner of another faith and she thinks only that she would prefer that the partner be of the same faith, hears—but does not really hear.
The rabbi who sits with a couple in an interfaith relationship and thinks about how it would be better if Jews only dated other Jews, hears—but does not really hear.
The rabbi who talks to a Christian parent of a bat mitzvah student and is convinced that all parents raising Jewish children should themselves convert to Judaism, hears—but does not really hear.
The synagogue staff person or lay leader who insists that their synagogue is “welcoming” of interfaith families but isn’t comfortable with those who aren’t Jewish participating in the life of the synagogue, hears—but does not really hear.
When it comes to interfaith relationships, many people—those in the relationship, their parents and other family members, clergy and others—may have concerns that are legitimate, and that should perhaps be expressed. But just as each person involved might feel like they need time to TALK, each person should also be sure to take time to LISTEN. Listening can be a tremendous gift to others and to yourself as well. If you are able to actively listen to and hear someone else, it just may make it easier for them to hear you.
I wasn’t always into Judaism and my journey to become a rabbi was not typical. While I grew up steeped in Jewish tradition and community, I spent my twenties rejecting the religion of my childhood. I grew up in the Conservative Jewish movement in Schenectady, New York and to me, Judaism felt homophobic, misogynistic and exclusive. The traditional teachings and practices didn’t seem relevant to me. I was out as a lesbian, I was a feminist and my partner at the time was Christian. I did not feel welcome.
It was while praying, singing and dancing at ecstatic prayer services in Berkeley, California, that I experienced a passionate connection with a Higher Power and felt the spiritual calling to become a rabbi. I knew then that I wanted to share the beauty, traditions and deep spirituality of Judaism and help others to connect with the Holy.
Some of my friends did not feel welcome, either. I was pained every time my Jewish friends married their partners of other faiths. NOT because they were committing to their sweeties who were not Jewish, but rather because they felt rejected by so many Jewish clergy. It was disheartening to watch them struggle as they tried to find someone willing to officiate at their interfaith weddings. Many times this rejection was coupled with the fact that members of their own families were judgmental of their choice of partners.
Through my discovery of inclusive, queer and spiritual Jewish communities in the Bay Area, I reconnected with my Jewish heritage. While working as an educator for over a decade, my relationship with the God of my understanding deepened. I practiced yoga, meditated daily and eventually joined a welcoming synagogue. After several years, I felt compelled to immerse myself in Jewish studies and to join the tradition of God wrestling as a Morat Haderech (spiritual guide).
Today, inclusion is at the heart of my rabbinate. My passion is creating inspiring and relevant rituals and ceremonies and invigorating Jewish practices. As I teach, I empower people to make choices that feel authentic and meaningful to them. I am honored to officiate at interfaith weddings and to guide couples as they navigate their journeys together.
I am thrilled to serve as the new director of InterfaithFamily/Atlanta!! After living in Virginia Highland for only a few weeks, I am already fully enjoying all that Atlanta has to offer including the beltline, Piedmont Park, weekly festivals and that sweet southern hospitality! I am looking forward to partnering with local organizations, connecting with people in interfaith families and relationships, and now that all marriage is legal, I can’t wait to officiate at legal local weddings!
Please be in touch!! I am always available by email to answer questions or discuss anything interfaith. Also, we have a local Facebook group and are in the planning stages for lots of workshops and resources for different life stages and events. Let me know if you would like more info or have any ideas about how we can make InterfaithFamily/Atlanta thrive.
A new college student just began his summer internship at InterfaithFamily/Chicago. Curious what he’ll be writing about? I’m here to introduce you to the blogging that you’ll see from him this summer.
“OMG there is a new intern at InterfaithFamily. I wonder what he’s like…”
That’s right, and my name is Jake Weis. I am an incoming junior at the University of Iowa and I am also a resident of Deerfield, IL. My two majors are English and Communication Studies and I was raised in an interfaith family. I hope to bring my unique religious experience and my (green) skills as a writer together in order to provide helpful insight, information and advice on all things InterfaithFamily related.
“Does this mean every blog from here on out is going to be written by some kid?”
I wish I could write them all, but you probably don’t. Expect to see other authors writing on a variety of topics just as before. I will mainly be writing about the experience of growing up in an interfaith family.
“I don’t even know this person. Why would I listen to the intern when I could hear it from the Rabbi? Millennials these days!”
I was too busy snapchatting and texting to read the whole question but I think you asked if you could get to know me. I am 20 years old, soon to be 21. (Is Manischewitz good by the way?) My older sister’s name is Sarah and she is 26. My older brother’s name is Ben, and he is 23. I have two loving parents by the names of Hope and Dan. One of them is Jewish. The other is Catholic.
“Which one is Jewish?”
Thanks for asking. Sorry everyone, but I don’t feel too comfortable answering such a loaded question. If my mother is Jewish then some Jewish readers will consider me a true Jew. But if my mother is Catholic, then I am not a true Jew to some people who do not accept patrilineal descent. I will tell you this much though, both religions claim me as part of their group in many cases, and both shun me in many other cases.
“OK sassypants, what else can we expect from you?”
Whatever my bosses tell me to write about I will write about. I am not a good liar so expect the wholehearted truth in everything I write. If you disagree with what I write feel free to comment, but remember to be nice. Think of what I say as more of a suggestion and if you don’t like it, toss it. But don’t hurt my feelings: You wouldn’t want to make the new intern cry on his first day, would you?
In late April, I attended the Consultation on Conscience, a social justice conference in Washington D.C., created and organized by the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism. I wrote about it in a previous blog, but I left out one very important detail: By some stroke of luck, I was able to get into the Supreme Court to hear a portion of the arguments for the case that would decide on marriage equality in all 50 states. I write this blog post many weeks later, knowing now how the case turned out, still in awe and in a state of permanent pride both as a member of the gay community and as an American. So here is my story:
The final day of the conference was Tuesday, April 28, the day that the Supreme Court was scheduled to hear arguments on the historic case, Obergefell v Hodges, the case that could possibly make gay marriage legal in all 50 states. I decided to skip the final morning of the conference and head over to the Supreme Court; I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else. I arrived at 8am and the plaza was near full already! The energy was infectious and colorful, rainbows abound. People were singing, chanting and praying, sending all their energy toward the looming white building in front of them.
Rabbi Jillian with her ticket
Of course there were also those there shouting for an entirely different result. I found a few friends and grabbed as much rainbow paraphernalia as I could and joined in with the crowd. In the midst of the chaos I also joined a long line, hoping to get one of those elusive bright yellow squares of paper, given out by the Supreme Court security guards that allowed the recipient a full three minutes INSIDE the courthouse. I was absolutely sure there was no way I was going to get in—there were too many people ahead of me, too many people on the plaza, but I waited in that line, next to a man spewing such vile hatred in the name of his God that I almost moved several times. But I stood my ground, blocked out the noise, focused on the rainbows as the clock ticked down.
Thirty minutes before the end of the arguments, the word came down the line that they were allowing one more group in, as there had been a protester who had gotten in to the court earlier and caused quite a commotion. The security guard walked down the line and one by one, handed out the yellow tickets. I put my hand out, took a deep breath, and he placed one in my palm. I was in!
We were led onto the large plaza directly in front of the court to a side entrance. After two metal detectors and stuffing my large bag into a very small locker so fast I didn’t even remember which locker number I had chosen, I waited with my group of about 10 outside the large imposing doors of the Supreme Court courtroom. I was buzzing. After several more instructions given by even more security guards, none of which I had even a small hope of remembering, the doors opened and I walked into the Supreme Court in the middle of the closing arguments. As I walked to my seat, I stared at each justice, down the line and tried to figure out as quickly as possible, what was going on in the case.
One lawyer for the plaintiff was telling the story of a career Army man who served his country for many years with honor and pride and was married to his husband in a state where it was legal. He was then transferred to a base in a state that did not recognize his marriage. All of a sudden, so many of the equal rights he and his husband had enjoyed were no longer available to them through no choice of their own: He was following his transfer orders.
This man’s story was one of thousands of stories of discrimination that could change if the court voted it so. I think I held my breath the entire time I was inside the courtroom, afraid I would miss something. Since I had been the last group in, as we were led out of the courtroom and back to the locker room (thankfully, I sort of remembered where I put my things!), the court let out and I watched in awe as well-known senators and congressmen and women walked by, every major director of every organization fighting for marriage equality walked by and then the plaintiffs themselves and their lawyers walked right by.
We all ended up on the large plaza, news anchors and paparazzi yelling, a whirlwind of flashes and chaos. I think I finally took a breath. When I think about it now, I still can’t believe I was able to hear a bit of the closing arguments on a case that would not only allow millions of people in this country to choose love and would right a very long standing wrong, but would also affect me personally. I wasn’t sure how I was going to wait until the end of June to hear how those nine justices would rule.
Fast forward to this past Friday morning: While on vacation, feverishly scanning Twitter and stuck in front of CNN, I heard the news, saw the scroll on the bottom of the screen: “Same Sex Marriage Legal in All 50 States.” I blinked…it was still there. Tears filled my eyes and I had goosebumps on my arms—we did it, it was done, same-sex couples can legally get married in each and every single state of our Union.
Starting now, we live in a more just country, a place I am a little happier to be from, a place where our children won’t remember a time when loving couples who choose to marry were discriminated against, told they weren’t worthy, their love wasn’t enough, wasn’t valid, wasn’t real love. This decision is monumental, it is life changing and it is above all, justice. I had the honor of officiating at a wedding this weekend, on a little piece of paradise in the Caribbean and toward the end of the ceremony, I recited the words of Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion:
May we all seek and receive equal dignity for the decisions we make and the relationships we have in the eyes of the law, within our families and in our own hearts.
As we say in Judaism, Ken Y’hi Ratzon, May it be so!
We have many more fights to achieve true equality and lasting justice in our country but let us revel in this win and let that rainbow flag fly high with pride alongside our American flag.
Kurt Vonnegut wrote in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater: “Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—’God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.'”
Up here at Camp Tawonga in Northern California, the Jewish theme of the summer is “being a mensch.” One of those Yiddish words that has found its way into the English lexicon, a mensch is a good person. It could be argued that Judaism, as well as every religion, is built around making us good people. A related Jewish term is “derech eretz,” or, how we are in the world as human beings.
I often talk to my kids about this idea. There are many things I hope for my children: happiness, success… But if they aren’t kind, if they aren’t at a basic level good people, none of the rest matters.
A great tool for figuring out how to be a good person (and raise a good person) is the Making Mensches Periodic Table. It lists 43 of the attributes Jewish Mussar (ethics movement of the 19th century) named as mensch-like qualities, for example: compassion, love, joy, modesty, justice and integrity. This chart can be particularly helpful to interfaith couples. When partners come from different backgrounds, it can be difficult to figure out which tradition to emphasize or how two religious traditions can be expressed side by side.
Try this exercise that I ask of every couple I marry: Figure out what values you share. Some couples value education more than saving money, others value a shared sense of human responsibility toward the natural world. For others, a peaceful home is more important than hospitality. These values are, most likely, part of what attracted you to one another, how you saw yourself intertwined with that person, or maybe even what one of you lacked growing up that you value in the other. Think about these values that underpin your relationship.
If you need ideas, scan the Table. Which five values or qualities are most important to you? Which are lower on your list? Have your partner do the same. Talk about why certain values rose to the top for each of you and why. What do you share? Where do you differ? Do you express your commitment to those values in unique ways based on where you first learned about them? Who passed them on to you? Don’t worry if they aren’t completely aligned. Talk about what you want this shared life to look like so you can start to intentionally live according to those values and make them come alive in your home and your relationships.
Many of us were raised with some iteration of the Golden Rule. In the Torah, Leviticus 19:18 teaches us to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Whatever you name it, wherever you learned it, “God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”
One of Oren’s comments as reported in the Ha’aretz article demands a response:
Oren discussed what he described as the unprecedented predominance of American Jews in the Obama administration – “there were discussions in the White House in which there were six Jews – 3 Americans and 3 Israelis, discussing a Palestinian state – and the only non-Jewish person in the room was the President or the Vice President.” He said that the non-Orthodox and the intermarried American Jews in the administration – “have a hard time understanding the Israeli character.”
It’s not clear if Oren’s comment was meant to be limited to particular American Jews in the Obama administration; a Times of Israel article about the same interview has Oren saying that “the non-Orthodox and the intermarried American Jews don’t fully grasp Israel’s position.” In any case, there is a clear implication that Jews who are intermarried, because they are intermarried, are not supportive of Israel. That’s an offensive notion to which we strongly object.
At InterfaithFamily we don’t take positions on political issues about Israel. But we strongly support Israel’s right to exist in peace, and we strongly encourage interfaith couples and families to travel to Israel, because all experience shows that doing so leads to further Jewish engagement, which is our ultimate goal. That increased Jewish engagement, for interfaith couples who do travel to Israel, can include increased feelings of attachment to and support for Israel – in not only the Jewish partner, but the partner of another background as well. That’s the kind of attitude shift that people who care about Israel should want to have happen.
People who want the American Jewish community to support Israel should be careful what they say about interfaith families, who make up a large and growing segment of our community. Suggesting that intermarried Jews are not supportive of Israel is likely to be discouraging and off-putting to them and hardly conducive to strengthening their support for Israel. It’s especially disappointing for that kind of comment to come from Ambassador Oren, who was raised in the United States and spent years here as Israel’s ambassador. Let’s hope he clarifies what he said or meant to say.
I’ve been to a lot of bar and bat mitzvahs in my life, but I’ve never been so deeply moved as I was on a recent Shabbat.
My cousin, Nancy Sharp, who I’ve always adored, has experienced a life of tragic loss and re-found joy. Her husband, Brett, who I remember vividly as a most wonderful young man, died of brain cancer when their twins, Casey and Rebecca, were 2 1/2 years old. Nancy decided to move from Manhattan to Denver, where she had one friend.
After relocating, Nancy read about Steve Saunders, a local TV journalist, in a magazine article about eligible bachelors; Steve’s wife had died of cancer and he was raising two young teens, Ryan and Dylan. Long story short, Nancy and Steve met, married and combined their families. Nancy has told her story in a remarkable book, Both Sides Now. And this spring, Casey and Rebecca became bar and bat mitzvah.
The service and the celebration were amazing. Brett’s family, though living at a distance, has remained very close to Nancy and her children. Brett’s mother, an aunt and uncle, and many cousins were all present and there were not a few tears when Brett’s mother presented his tallit to Casey at the start of the service. But Steve’s family, who are not Jewish, were very present too; I could see that Casey and Rebecca have acquired a third set of grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins. The kindness and the love that flowed between Steve and Brett’s family, and Steve’s family and my cousins, was plain for all to see.
I learned that Ryan and Dylan had many Jewish friends growing up, attended Jewish summer camp and one of Steve’s very adorable nephews (who is not Jewish) even attends the pre-school at Temple Micah, where Nancy and Steve are members. So the Saunders family was not unfamiliar with what happens at a bar or bat mitzvah. And Rabbi Adam Morris did an extraordinarily sensitive job of bringing Brett into the service while keeping the focus on the present.
Rebecca and Casey
But what I especially appreciated was how inclusive Rabbi Morris was of Steve and his family. In many Reform synagogues, part of a bar or bat mitzvah service is a symbolic passing of the Torah from grandparents to parents to child, but at many, the grandparents and parent who are not Jewish don’t get to participate (on the theory that the Torah is not “theirs” to pass, or perhaps that they couldn’t have passed Judaism to the child). At this b’nei mitzvah, I was very glad to see the Torah passed from my cousins Ron and Sue to Brett’s mother, to Steve’s parents, to Steve and Nancy and then to their children.
As in probably all Reform synagogues, part of the bar or bat mitzvah service involves the parents having an aliyah (saying the blessings before and after a portion of the Torah is read). But as best I know, the vast majority of Reform rabbis will not allow a parent who is not Jewish to join in reciting the Torah blessings at their own child’s bar or bat mitzvah. I believe this is based on theory that the blessing refers to God choosing “us” and giving “us” the Torah, and the parent who is not Jewish isn’t part of the “us.” I felt so grateful to Rabbi Morris, and told him so afterwards, for allowing Steve to join with Nancy in the parents’ aliyah. I wish the rabbis who wouldn’t have permitted that could have been at the b’nei mitzvah of Casey and Rebecca Zickerman. Maybe seeing the contribution that Steve, not to mention his extended family, has made to passing Judaism on to Casey and Rebecca might persuade them to change their minds. Something is very wrong, in my opinion, when rabbis can’t consider the family of a person like Steve to be the “us” to whom the Torah was given, making it fully authentic and appropriate for a person like Steve to thank God for giving the Torah to his family—to “us.”
Rabbi Morris’ inclusive approach should not have been a surprise; in 2004 he wrote an excellent sermon explaining why, as it says on the Temple Micah website, “I proudly officiate at the weddings of interfaith couples.” To our knowledge, he is the only congregational rabbi in Denver who will do so.
Nancy Sharp’s story is very personal and emotional for me, and one of, if not the, most inspiring stories I have ever encountered. I love Nancy and her family; the loss she suffered was painful, and the love that she found is a source of great joy. I think the lesson here is about being open to and choosing love. The love that Nancy was open to and chose with Steve, and the love that flows between their families, including Brett’s, is what makes their example so powerful. I hope that the inclusive approach of their rabbi, who chooses to privilege love and family over other concerns, becomes an increasingly powerful example to his colleagues, too.