Full of helpful advice for families starting to think about their child's bat or bar mitzvah, Bar & Bat Mitzvah For The Interfaith Family will be a helpful primer to all families (not just interfaith!).
This colorful booklet will give all the basics about this holiday which combines elements of Halloween, Mardi Gras and the secular new year. It is a holiday not only for children who know immediately that anything with a costume will be fun, but for adults too.
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.
This is an interactive, fun, and low-key workshop for couples who are dating, engaged or recently married. The sessions will give you a chance to ask questions about faith, to think about where you are as an adult with your own spirituality and to talk through what's important to you and your partner.
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.
News in the past few weeks highlights the issue of where interfaith families might find genuinely welcoming Jewish communities.
First, I was so pleased to learn that the smiling couple in the photo, Rev. Eleanor Harrison Bregman and Peter Bregman, are being honored by Romemu, a thriving emerging spiritual community in Manhattan where Eleanor, an ordained United Church of Christ minister, works as Director of Multi-Faith Initiatives.
That’s right – an ordained Protestant minister on staff at a Jewish spiritual community, which Eleanor describes as committed to radical hospitality and inclusivity: “At Romemu the diversity of traditions, voices, and practices in our midst is considered a gift that can support us all in living holy lives.” I first met Eleanor when she was a well-received speaker at the Interfaith Opportunity Summit in October 2016; she talked about the “Strangers No More” program she created to support interfaith families, couples, and those who are not Jewish at Romemu, and to expand the centrality of deep respect for all faith traditions there.
But there’s more to that story, because I first met Peter Bregman in July 2004, when he was trying, unsuccessfully, to find a seminary where he could be ordained as a rabbi despite being intermarried. What an amazing arc of developments over the thirteen years since then. Now, Peter could be accepted at the trailblazing Reconstructionist Rabbinical College if he were applying at this time, and now, a trailblazing Romemu is demonstrating genuine welcoming of interfaith families by putting a minister on staff.
A growing number of initiatives are giving intermarried couples a Jewish framework disconnected from synagogue services and outside the walls of legacy Jewish institutions. Instead of drawing them to Judaism with a preconceived goal, these programs allow intermarried couples to form community among themselves and on their own terms.
As quoted by Sales, one participant in a program says “It was nice to go to a group where everyone was in the same sort of boat. There’s a real dialogue rather than someone telling you their opinion of what your situation is.” One program creator says she wanted to enable couples that come from mixed religious backgrounds “to ask questions in a safe space.”
Sales quotes Jodi Bromberg, CEO of InterfaithFamily, as explaining that interfaith families that want to experience Jewish life have had to use other resources “because of the history of interfaith families not being welcoming and not being accepted.” (He could have added that InterfaithFamily/Your Community rabbis in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Washington DC are offering meet-ups, discussion groups and reunions that are attracting hundreds of interfaith couples.)
Sales also quotes Avi Rubel, co-CEO of Honeymoon Israel, as saying that “When it comes to building community and meeting other people, people want to bring their whole selves… in America that means being inclusive of [those who are not Jewish] and other friends.” I certainly agree with that. (The Pew Research Center coincidentally released a new report today about increased positive feelings Americans have for various religious groups, with Jews scoring the highest; Americans express warmer feelings toward religious groups when they are personally familiar with someone in the group, and 61 percent of Americans now say they know someone Jewish.)
Rubel also says that interfaith couples are “uncomfortable with settings that, by their nature, are not meant for [those who are not Jewish]….” – and that’s more complicated, and raises a profound question, and brings me back to Romemu.
The profound question is whether Jewish organizations, including synagogues and emerging spiritual communities, “are not meant for [those who are not Jewish]” or, to eliminate the double negative, are meant for just Jews. Romemu obviously would not say “we are not meant for [those who are not Jewish];” Eleanor says the diversity of traditions there is considered a gift that supports all. Romemu equally obviously would not say that is it meant only for Jews.
I believe that there are some synagogues that genuinely welcome interfaith families, and certainly that many more are trying to. But even Steven M. Cohen is quoted by Sales as acknowledging that the people who feel most welcome in synagogues are “the people who fit the demographic of the active group” – referring to inmarried Jews with children. Moreover,
[O]rganizers of the independent initiatives, and intermarried couples themselves, say even a welcoming synagogue can still be an intimidating space. The couples may not know the prayers or rituals, may feel uncomfortable with the expectation of becoming members, or may just feel like they’re in the minority.
It follows from the fact that the new groups of intermarried couples by their nature are not “meant for Jews” that they are welcoming spaces for interfaith couples, who are comfortable with other people like them. I believe that it is important for mainstream Jewish organizations, including synagogues and emerging spiritual communities, to decide that they are not “meant for Jews” but instead are “meant for” Jews and their partners and all people who want to engage in Jewish traditions with other similarly engaged people. They are Jewish organizations not because they are “for Jews” but because Jewish traditions are engaged in there. Starting from that perspective would naturally lead to taking steps to making those who do not come from a Jewish background not feel intimidated or like a minority, and being less dogmatic and open to contributions from different traditions. That must be what is happening at Romemu, and what needs to happen at many more Jewish organizations, and I believe is the kind of thinking behind the Reconstructionists’ decision to ordain intermarried rabbis, too.
There’s an interesting exchange at the end of the JTA story. Rabbi Miriam Farber Wajnberg, who runs the Circles of Welcome program (and was another well-received speaker at the Interfaith Opportunity Summit) says intermarried Jews won’t remain forever separate, and sees her program “as a stepping-stone to a time when the larger community is more open to non-Jewish spouses.” She hopes her program won’t need to exist in the future.
But the couple quoted in the story says they feel a sense of belonging to the intermarried groups that have formed: “these are the people who get us… [t]his is our community.” The challenge for mainstream and emerging Jewish organizations is to make intermarried people feel about them, the way they feel about their intermarried groups. The starting point for that to happen is for organizations to decide they are for all who are interested, and then to demonstrate radical hospitality and inclusion.
Eleanor and Peter will be honored at Romemu’s benefit, “Awaken Your Voice,” on April 6, 2017. I hope the event will be a great success – it deserves to be.
The extreme weather conditions and the long dark nights of the winter months can be harsh for many of us. But from Thanksgiving until around Valentine’s Day, it’s also a popular time when couples get engaged. It can also be a time when couples who are getting married in the spring and summertime are knee-deep in wedding planning. Whether you’re dating, engaged, already married, considering or expecting children, winter can be a good time to hunker down, get cozy and talk about your vision for your partnership.
There have been many articles in recent years about questions for interfaith couples to discuss before getting married, like this one. Sometimes, interfaith or intercultural couples have more considerations. For example, if both partners come from very different cultural or religious families there is a lot to learn. If one is religious and the other isn’t, if one has a large family and the other doesn’t, or if one has a very tight knit family and the other doesn’t—any of these things can be an adjustment for both partners. There will need to be negotiation around which side of the family you celebrate which holidays with and about making sure everyone feels included, especially if both are religious, have strong cultural ties or close families. But let me be clear, these discussions are good for all couples. For every couple, there are family dynamics and personalities to navigate.
I often suggest to couples I work with that they create a vision for themselves—a vision for your life together, for the home you want to create, for the family you build together. If you’ve never considered creating a vision before, here are some questions to consider. Each partner should write down their own responses before sharing with the other partner.
Questions to Define Your Interfaith Family Vision:
What are the traditions, cultural/spiritual practices or values that you grew up with that you imagine having on your own, with your family or with your religious community?
What role do you want or hope your partner will play in these traditions with you, your family or your community?
What role do you imagine playing in your partner’s family’s holidays and traditions and in his or her religious practices/community?
What are the new traditions you will do together in your own home or with a community that are co-created?
Once each partner has had a chance to think about these questions for themselves, they should discuss with their partner. If you dread these kinds of big conversations or decision making, make this fun by doing it over your favorite meal or as a special date. Bring openness and curiosity to the process. You may surprise yourself or your partner. Be realistic about what your life looks like now but how it may look different in the future. If you’ve dropped a lot of your religious practices during your dating years but want your child to have a bar or bat mitzvah down the road, think about what that really means—likely getting back into your observance or joining a congregation and providing an education for your kids. If you’re partner has agreed to raise children in a faith different from their own, talk about what entails.
If you find this brings up more issues or your think you might need some help, consider taking the Love and Religion Workshop through InterfaithFamily, doing an Imago Therapy couples workshop or retreat or finding a couples counselor or coach. Any of these resources will give you more tools for your relationship and help in creating your interfaith family vision.
It’s been quiet on the intermarriage front for a while; it feels like most people’s attention is understandably in the political realm these days. But in the past two weeks there has been interesting news and comment on intermarriage in the more traditional, conservative parts of the Jewish community.
When people talk about intermarriage, for example about the 72 percent rate of intermarriage since 2000 among non-Orthodox Jews, the general understanding is that intermarriage isn’t much of a phenomenon in the Orthodox world. A fascinating blog post on intermarriage in the Orthodox world, The Rise of Interfaith Marriage in the Modern Orthodox Community, suggests that that may not be the case. The blog’s creator, Alan Brill, estimates that 7-8 percent of young Modern Orthodox Jews are intermarried, and says that “ordinary Modern Orthodox Jews are talking about this topic,…” He also says “cases of full Orthodox conversion … are now quite common.”
Most of the blog post is a guest post by “Ruvie,” a Modern Orthodox man, writing about his feelings about his son’s marriage to someone who was not Jewish – feelings that aren’t that different from those of many non-Orthodox Jews.
Ruvie says he is aware of five interfaith marriages in the past year and a half among children of his observant Modern Orthodox friends. “All parents went through various stages of shame, anger, confusion and guilt.” “This is something new and growing in the MO community.” He refers to estimates of 5 to 20 percent intermarriage rates in the Orthodox world.
Ruvie complains that there is a taboo about talking about intermarriage that no longer exists in other controversial topics in Orthodoxy, like homosexuality and people abandoning Orthodoxy:
Rabbis are afraid to be publicly associated with this topic. Parents are reluctant to talk to friends, Rabbis, and extended family. They first are embarrassed and in denial then hope and pray it goes away as a phase not wanting to alienate their children – or they fight and alienate their children.
Ruvie describes the reactions of his friends and himself:
On a personal level, for myself and others, there was a certain amount of: shame in being in this situation – didn’t discuss with my closest friends until later, anger at our ourselves (as failures) and our educational system, confusion – how could this have happened and where is my allegiance – son, family, community and Judaism? [A]nd lastly a certain amount of guilt.
It is very clear that Ruvie’s son may have left Modern Orthodoxy but has not left Jewish life. The officiating rabbi recommended that the young woman take an introduction to Judaism course and during the course she decided to undergo a Conservative conversion. Before the wedding the son asked the father to put up a mezuzah at his apartment; after the wedding the son asked his mother where he could ritually immerse their dishes.
It is also very clear that Ruvie prioritizes his relationship with his son:
My son’s happiness and ascent from loneliness is an important factor in the equation. I realize that being supportive leads to possible normalization of interfaith marriage. As a parent the best interest and wellbeing of my child supersedes other considerations that are communal in nature.
Ruvie’s conclusion: “There is a lack of open conversation and dialogue on this topic in our community. Let’s begin now.”
The Conservative movement currently restricts synagogue membership to Jews. The recent news, described in a JTA article, “Conservative movement proposes allowing non-jews as synagogue members,” is that the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (the association of Conservative synagogues) is asking the synagogues to vote in March to allow individual synagogues to decide whether to grant membership to those who are not Jewish. Rabbi Steven Wernick, head of USCJ, said that “the current standards don’t make sense in a world where many intermarried couples are active participants in Conservative congregations” and that “the language of ‘only Jews can be members of a synagogue’ makes it seem like [someone who is not Jewish] who is connected is not a member of that community.”
Rabbi Wernick also said that the USCJ is not changing the definition of who counts as Jewish: “What we’re trying to do with this is distinguish between community and covenant.” But Rabbi Chuck Simon, head of the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs and the most outspoken Conservative leader on intermarriage issues, recently created a pamphlet in which he essentially recommends that the Conservative movement adopt patrilineal descent. “The Elephant in the Room: Conservative Judaism and the Patrilineal Question.”
It will be interesting to see movement in the Modern Orthodox and the Conservative parts of the community toward more acceptance and welcoming of interfaith families.
I met Jeremy and Lisa at a coffee shop to plan their upcoming wedding. We had covered most of the usual pre-ceremony topics: communication, values and balancing work and home life. Lisa had a strong Jewish sense of self from her upbringing and was excited that Jeremy, who didn’t follow any particular religious tradition, was more than happy to go along for the ride. Jeremy expressed genuine interest in learning more about Lisa’s traditions.
As we were putting the final touches on the ceremony, he asked an honest and important question: “Do I need to break the glass at our wedding?” Many couples I work with both break a glass or fight over who gets to do it. Performing Jewish rituals with Lisa felt fine to Jeremy, but doing it alone seemed to be making a statement that this tradition was his. The idea of the ritual itself was not the issue, but what it represented.
Jeremy wanted to make sure Lisa understood that he would be a supportive partner in any way he could, but that didn’t mean he would become Jewish by default without actually choosing it. What, exactly, would his role be in raising Jewish children? How far would he need to go to feel he had satisfied what was expected of him? If he were to go to services or host a Shabbat dinner, would it be enough to be present, or would he be expected to pray using Hebrew words? His concern was encapsulated by one grand symbolic gesture of breaking a glass, but the broader concern he was raising was whether he would be required to pretend he is someone he is not. It was a fair question.
Although breaking the glass is the quintessential symbol of a Jewish wedding, it is, in fact, a folk custom. One does not need to close a ceremony with this ritual for the union to be considered Jewish, and they aren’t the only couple I have married to skip this tradition altogether at their Jewish wedding. Indeed, my hope is that couples from different backgrounds will be drawn to the beauty and meaning in such traditions and take part in them because they bring deep value to their ceremony and to their lives.
In voicing his question, Jeremy highlighted how important it is for couples to hear what is emerging for each partner. Partners who aren’t Jewish often report feeling a de facto assumption that they will live a Jewish life going beyond just supporting their family members. We are getting better at welcoming people as “fellow travelers” who do not wish to convert, but we still expect a lot of them.
Partners in interfaith relationships need clarity around their roles. A common phrase in contemporary ketubahs is that each partner pledges to support the other’s traditions. But what does “support” entail? There is no single answer, but the question needs to be asked. Jeremy had the courage and confidence in his relationship to consider the future and what might be asked of him. He didn’t want surprises later and he didn’t want his partner to feel blindsided or disappointed at some future pivotal moment.
If you are in an interfaith relationship and getting married soon, this is the perfect time to ask yourselves some of the hard questions. Learning how to have conversations like this lays the groundwork for other challenges that will come your way. Be honest and clear about what you envision, and be as detailed as you can be about your hopes and plans. For example, if you are Jewish and say you will support your partner’s desire to celebrate Christmas, talk about what that will look like, what will be expected of you and what kinds of traditions are important to your partner. If you are not Jewish and you’re happy to support Jewish holiday traditions or children’s education, talk about what exactly will be asked of you. How would a child be welcomed into the world, if at all? Would you see a religious education in that child’s future? Shabbat dinners? Will you hold each other responsible to ensure certain traditions are present in your lives? In the event of a breakup, would you expect the other to support these decisions?
Don’t leave these issues for later because they feel too difficult or, conversely, because they feel insignificant. This is the time, and we at InterfaithFamily are here to guide you.
Dottie with two of her sons and their wives and all of her grandchildren
For the past eight-and-a-half years, I’ve been the rabbi of Temple Menorah Keneseth Chai (TMKC). It’s a small community with a close-knit group of congregants. During our Friday night Shabbat service each week, we have Simcha Time: when people are invited to come up to the bimah and share about birthdays, anniversaries and other good news.
Dottie Bricker, a TMKC congregant, is an amazing woman with a very strong Jewish background and connection to Judaism and the Jewish people. Dottie grew up in an Orthodox Jewish home. As a young girl, Dottie spoke only Yiddish at home – she didn’t even learn English until she went to kindergarten. Dottie comes to services regularly and often comes to the bima to kvell about her four grandchildren.
Dottie is, in every way, the consummate Jewish grandmother. She bursts with love and pride when she speaks about each of her four grandchildren, all of whom call her “Bubba.” Though she’s a Jewish grandmother, not all four of Dottie’s grandchildren are Jewish. Here, in her own words, are Dottie’s thoughts about being a grandmother in an interfaith family.
My Journey that Started Twenty-Two Years Ago (by Dottie Bricker)
It was a few days before Hanukkah when my son Howard called and asked if he could bring someone to our party. I said, “Of course.” And he said, “Mom, she’s not Jewish.” I asked, “Is she nice?” And he answered, “Very.”
Howard married Gail a year later. Two years later my Charlie was born, and when he was 3, my Rachel was born. Oh, happy day-I’m the mother of three boys, the grandmother of three boys and now I finally had my little girl!
After Rachel was born, my son called and said that Gail wanted to raise the kids in her Catholic faith. Then he asked me if I would be OK with this. My answer was, “Are you nuts?! I love them the same as the other grandkids. They are the air I breathe. They are my naches.”
When Charlie and Rachel started school, I became very familiar with their school, Our Lady of Good Counsel. When they received awards, I was there at Mass to see them honored. My Charlie’s third grade teacher, Mrs. Yerkes, asked if his Bubba would come to read the story of Hanukkah to his class. I said I would love to. I read the story and taught them to play dreidel. I bought them jelly doughnuts to eat and they had a great time. A few months later, Mrs. Yerkes asked if I would read the story of Passover, and I was happy to go back. I brought matzah for the students to try. They said they liked it, but they liked the jelly doughnuts better.
When Charlie was in fifth grade, he told his teacher about his dad’s small Torah. The teacher asked if he could bring it to school. My Charlie called me and asked if I’d come to school and teach about the Torah. Once again, I said, “Of course.” It was a wonderful experience for me.
Dottie with all of her grandchildren
My grandkids are now in high school and I have just been retired from my job at Our Lady of Good Counsel. There’s a new “Bubbie” in Mrs. Yerkes’ class.
My grandkids know that if they need Bubba I will be there for them. I have chaperoned school trips, gone to Phillies games with Rachel and even taken Charlie to the Mother-and-Son Dance when Gail was called into work at the last minute.
I like to say that my family is a “blended family.” We learn from each other. It’s special.
They are truly the air I breathe.
Some Jewish grandparents whose grandchildren are being brought up in a different religious tradition may understandably have a much harder time accepting that reality than Dottie. In my blog post about honoring grandmothers of Jewish kids who aren’t themselves Jewish, I noted that, “Unlike their own sons and daughters, who fell in love with someone Jewish and made the choice to have a Jewish home and raise their children as Jews (whether or not they themselves became Jewish), these grandparents who aren’t Jewish never had a choice—they’re bound by their children’s decisions.” Of course, the same is true for Jewish grandparents whose grandchildren are being raised in a different religious tradition. It can be difficult to accept your own child’s decision to not raise your grandchild as a Jew.
Ultimately, it’s a parent’s decision how to raise their child. With mutual respect and lots of communication between grandparents and adult children, grandparents can hopefully find ways to share their Jewish traditions with their grandchildren without the parents feeling that the grandparent is “pushing” Judaism on their child. This may be hard, and the grandparent may legitimately feel a sense of loss that their grandchild isn’t Jewish (see my blog on acknowledging the loss of a parent who commits to raise children in a religious tradition other than the one they grew up with-this can be all the more difficult for grandparents who didn’t have the choice to make.) But hopefully, like Dottie, the grandparent will love their grandchildren unconditionally, and describe them as nothing less than “the air I breathe.”
It was all over the news. “Ivanka and Jared can ride in cars on inauguration Shabbat” proclaimed the New York Post on Thursday, January 19. “Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner Get Rabbinic Pass to Ride in Car on Inauguration Shabbat” said a headline in The Forward. All of my friends were talking about this and posting about it on social media. How could Ivanka and Jared say that they’re modern Orthodox Jews, who observe the Sabbath, and yet they’d be traveling in a car following Donald Trump’s inauguration on Friday, after the beginning of Shabbat? Why were they granted special permission by a rabbi to use a vehicle on Shabbat out of safety? After all, my friends would point out, Ivanka and Jared didn’t have to go to the inaugural balls and galas. Other friends were saying that they probably got the dispensation because they’re rich and powerful.
The more I heard people criticize Ivanka and Jared, the more uncomfortable I got. Whether or not I like or support them or the president is irrelevant; I don’t think I have the right to criticize Ivanka and Jared’s Jewish observance.
I often hear people judge interfaith couples and families just as they’ve been judging Ivanka and Jared.
If the Jewish partner truly cared about Judaism, they say, then they wouldn’t have married someone who isn’t Jewish. (For my personal thoughts on this issue, see my post ‘Marrying Out is not ‘Abandoning Judaism’.)
If they wanted to have a Jewish home, they wouldn’t have a Christmas tree.
Their children aren’t really Jewish because the mother is Christian and they never took the children to a mikveh (ritual bath) to convert them.
How could they have had both a rabbi and a priest at their wedding?
How can the Christian mom be raising Jewish kids if she herself goes to church?
Many years ago, Rabbi Israel Salanter said, “Most men worry about their own bellies and other people’s souls, when we all ought to be worried about our own souls and other people’s bellies.” What a beautiful teaching! Wouldn’t it be great if all of us could spend less time focusing on and talking about the ways in which other people practice their religion, and more time trying to bring healing to our fractured world?
I spend a lot of time advocating for interfaith couples and families to be accepted by the Jewish community “as they are” and encouraging synagogues and Jewish institutions to welcome and embrace all those who want to walk through their doors, rather than judging them. I think that it’s only fair that I speak out in favor of giving that same respect to Ivanka and Jared. Let’s not obsess over the fact that they traveled in a car on Shabbat – it’s not really news. We’d all be a lot better off, to paraphrase Rabbi Salanter, focusing on our own spiritual and religious lives and concerning ourselves with eliminating hunger and poverty. Now that’s something to talk about.
This year InterfaithFamily/Atlanta hosted our first annual Promukkah: Prom-themed Hannukah party in our Ponce City Market office! The evening was a blast with rockin’ dance music spun by Russell Gotchalk of the Atlanta Jewish Music Festival, delicious nosh, a corsage/boutonniere making station and a very popular photobooth.
Highlights include dancing the hora as we celebrated the recent marriage of Baca Holohan and Kai Murga, some incredibly creative outfits with lights, wigs and glowing shoes, as well as enormous jelly filled doughnuts.
The following blog post has been reprinted with permission from Edmund Case, Founder of InterfaithFamily: edmundcase.com.
I think it’s safe to say that we would all have to agree that an awful lot has happened in the past two months. That includes developments in the field of engaging interfaith families Jewishly, which I summarize here.
On October 10, eJewishPhilanthropy published my review of a demographic study of British Jews that I found to be unfortunately negative about intermarriage, given trends indicative of a generational shift in identity and practice that I thought supported increased efforts to engage interfaith couples and families.
The October 26 Interfaith Opportunity Summit marked a watershed moment, putting engaging interfaith families at a high level in the mainstream Jewish community’s agenda. eJewishPhilanthropy published Jodi Bromberg’s and my report on new understandings of how to influence engagement, new efforts to engage interfaith families, and the need for an attitudinal “narrative shift” about intermarriage discussed at the Summit.
The Cohen Center at Brandeis on the day of the Summit released a very important study on the impact of rabbinic officiation at weddings of interfaith couples. My op-ed, Are Rabbis Who Refuse to Marry Interfaith Couples Hurting Jewish Continuity?, was published in the Forward and eJewishPhilanthropy. I said that it is no longer tenable for rabbis not to officiate on the grounds that intermarriage is “bad for the Jews,” when the new research shows strong association between officiation and interfaith couples raising their children as Jews and joining synagogues.
The Jewish People Policy Institute in Jerusalem released an important report in November on definitions of Jewishness in a time of fluid identity. In my blog post, what I found promising was the apparent consensus, among over 700 Jewish leaders from Israel, the US and other countries, on the need to be welcoming to interfaith couples. However, I noted a conflict with an accompanying desire to maintain community standards that express a preference for in-marriage.
In November CJP released the 2015 Greater Boston Jewish Community Study, conducted by the Cohen Center and Steinhardt Institute at Brandeis. In my blog post, I note that the Study confirms the very large extent of intermarriage in the community, and validates the wisdom of CJP’s welcoming approach, with high rates of intermarried couples raising their children as Jews and promising rates of engagement in many other Jewish behaviors. The Study is also important for creating an Index of Jewish Engagement that recognizes multiple patterns of engagement and supports programmatic efforts targeted towards groups with different needs and interests.
We are clearly in a time of increased interest in the field, with new convenings and research supporting increased efforts. The question that remains is how to make a national coordinated effort to engage interfaith families a reality.
I am a rabbi and I love Christmastime. I love the twinkling lights in the cool dark nights. I love listening to carolers sing of joy and hope as I sip my spiced cider or hot chocolate. I love that everyone greets each other more than any other time of the year. (I am, however, terrified of Santa Claus because of a run in with a mall Santa as a child.) And one of my favorite songs is “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas.” It’s not my favorite because of its religious theme, or even because of its references to snow (I’m an Arizona kid after all). It’s my favorite because it was my dad’s favorite.
Here’s a little backstory on my family: My dad converted to Judaism when he married his first wife, decades before I was born. All my life he was extremely committed to being Jewish and for the last several years of his life he was dedicated to Jewish study and worship at his local synagogue. But he sang that song like it was his personal anthem. We even had it playing on the stereo during the luncheon after his funeral. I’m pretty sure that was the first (and last) time his synagogue has had Christmas music playing at a funeral… and maybe the only time it’s ever played at any funeral in August. But it was his favorite, and now that it’s Christmastime again I’m hearing it on the radio every day and thinking of my dad.
This year the first night of Hanukkah falls on Christmas Eve. Some people are very excited about this since it means that for the first time in decades Hanukkah has similar “status” as Christmas. To some people it means that Jews still get to take advantage of Christmas shopping sales, which doesn’t happen when Hanukkah falls in November. But for some interfaith families it is a source of a lot of conflict.
When the holidays are separate on the calendar it is easier to separate their celebrations. For my family, it doesn’t matter that Hanukkah is on Christmas because Hanukkah is always on Thanksgiving for us. Growing up in a family that was geographically dispersed, Thanksgiving was the one weekend that we were all usually together. No matter when Hanukkah fell on the calendar, you could find us eating latkes and exchanging gifts on the Friday after Thanksgiving. In my family, Hanukkah was primarily about spending time with family, eating delicious food from family recipes, and presents.
To me, Hanukkah is a minor Jewish holiday from a religious perspective and does very little to define my Jewish identity. Which means that loving Christmastime does little to threaten my Jewish identity.
Because of my relationship with Hanukkah, when a friend recently asked me if it was OK for Jewish people to like Christmas movies and music, I chuckled thinking about my own annual tradition of watching “Elf” and my childhood memories of driving around town to see Christmas lights. And then I thought more closely about the question: IS it OK for Jewish people to like Christmas movies and music? What about lights? Trees?
As a Reform rabbi I do not feel it is my place to tell people what’s “OK” for them to do Jewishly. I do feel it’s my role to guide people along their path and offer expertise and opinions where appropriate. It is not my job to tell people not to listen to Christmas music, or not to have a tree or to keep kosher. It is my job to help people see how positive Jewish experience can impact your life and shape families’ lives.
When it comes to the winter holidays, there is so much more at play than religious beliefs. To one family Christmas music may symbolize songs of hope for a savior or faith in God. To another family it may symbolize beautiful melodies and joyful tunes. To me, it reminds me of my father who sung those songs with a huge smile and especially now that he’s gone, I want to listen to that music to remind me of him. I spoke with an interfaith family recently whose kids identify as Jewish, and who have a tree to honor one parent’s family tradition. They feel no guilt and they do not feel that having a tree in any way compromises their Jewish identity, but rather that it helps them represent their entire family.
Meanwhile, I hear rabbis and others tell scary tales of Christmas trees leading to diminishing Jewish communities and threatening Jewish identity. I’ve heard the sermons from rabbis who are committed to the survival of the Jewish people. I’ve read the articles describing how Jewish families (or interfaith families) having a Christmas tree is a threat to Jewish identity. I understand the argument that Jewish identity is important and the survival of Jewish community is essential. However, I believe that when many of our families are already embracing the tradition of the Christmas tree, despite the best efforts of some to discourage it, the real threat to our Jewish community is the dismissal and judgment of these families.
I think that if our Jewishness is defined by a tree or a movie or a song, we need to rethink our religious identity and spend the rest of the year strengthening it. There is more to a religious identity than physical symbols. It is about a way of life, a set of values and a tradition, and the ways in which we enact that tradition.
Recently, my colleague in Los Angles posted a question that piqued my interest on her personal Facebook page: “Did any of my Jewish professional friends grow up with a Christmas tree?” I knew where she was going with this. She was betting that a number of rabbis and Jewish educators had grown up in an interfaith family with a tree, or in a family with a Jewish parent or parents who had a tree for whatever reason, or they were Jews by choice who had grown up with a tree and became Jewish as an adult and then Jewish professionals. In any of these scenarios, having a tree did not deter them from becoming Jewish professionals. I had to delve into this!
So, I posted the same question with credit to Rabbi Keara and an amazing thing happened. There were over 50 comments made to my post, and they’re still coming in. I don’t think I had that many comments when my children were born or when my Grandmother, of blessed memory, died.
The amazing thing is it started with Jewish professionals admitting that they had grown up with trees and how and why that was the case and then morphed into other Jewish friends who do not work in the Jewish world writing about having trees or not having trees. And, some people even wrote that they didn’t have trees, which was as much a statement about attitudes on this subject as anything else people wrote because I had only asked to hear from people who did have a tree.
Here is what I conclude:
1. Many Jewish leaders grew up with a Christmas tree. Many interfaith families today raising children with Judaism have Christmas trees in their homes or at a close family member’s home. There seems to be a disconnect between these two realities. Somehow interfaith families don’t see their lives and reality always mirrored in the lives and reality of their clergy and educators.
2. Judaism from on high (I’m not sure who or what this is or if most people can even articulate this. It’s just a feeling or perception) seems to judge negatively Jewish families who have trees. This has not always been the case. There were times when many American Jews had trees and it was seen as typical and normative in their assimilating American Reform circles.
3. People who are active in Judaism today have amazing stories of interesting family dynamics and experiences and there could be more venues or formats for sharing our stories, learning from and seeing ourselves in one another. This would inform our way of transmitting Judaism if we understood more about the context and lens by which people were experiencing Jewish messages.
4. Symbols matter. The American flag is a symbol. We feel something when we see the flag. We feel something when we raise the flag at camp or when we see it at a sport’s event. We feel something when we see brand logos. The tree is symbolic. For many it symbolizes warmth, beauty, good memories, family time, gifts, glee and togetherness. It is all positive. If we tell those who love the tree that it is inconsistent with Judaism, they might hear that their warm family times (void of theology and religiosity, but maybe full of meaning and richness) is inconsistent with Judaism. This is confusing and hurtful. It puts people on the defensive and can lead to shame. It makes people feel they must justify the tree and argue for it lest they be seen as hurting a Judaism they are trying to perpetuate. It pits lay person against professional. It creates an us versus them.
5. If Jewish leaders said that the tree is secular (as the Supreme Court has declared—that’s why they can be erected in public spaces) or just stopped putting so much emotion into encouraging Jewish families to not have them, then there is a fear that the tree will become like a jack-o-lantern on Halloween and be deemed “secular American.” Would Jewish families who had never had a tree suddenly feel free, open and welcome to try one? I have no idea. Maybe it would happen or maybe it wouldn’t. Would Hanukkah practice be threatened by this? Is that our fear? What really is the fear?
6. This Facebook thread made me ask a question I come back to often which is, “What is the role I play as a Reform rabbi?” I do not believe I am a gatekeeper for Judaism. I do not believe I can tell people what to do in their Jewish expression as a one-size-fits-all or even most prescription. I believe I am supposed to inspire and inform, love and accept. Some things are outside the realm of Judaism. Some things are cool but are not Jewish. Sometimes Jewish leaders are afraid of what people want because we feel it will water down, taint and hurt an authentic, recognizable Judaism.
This is the same fear that happens when a parent, let’s say, suggests that there could be more choice in Hebrew School such as having a tutor, or coming one day a week or trying other alternatives. The educator fears that “everyone” will want a private tutor, so no changes are made. If there is a feeling that everyone wants something different than what is offered but the Jewish professional deems that desire “bad” or “wrong” or for “people who just want an easy way out,” then the people will make their own decisions and they won’t chose institutional Judaism. They will do it on their terms in ways that work for them. At a certain point the people decide and Judaism adapts and changes. If our communities are inspired, literate and invested, we should have no fear. We can trust.
I for one don’t get to decide if you have a tree, don’t have a tree, put a star on your tree or make s’mores latkes (this I recommend). I decide what my Jewish practice is and I work on this daily. I decide to hear you and try to understand you. May your holiday traditions be meaningful and lead to our defining what we are dedicated to (as the word Hanukkah reminds us to do). May I refrain from putting my judgment or my assumptions on your customs and allow you to define what they mean to you.