Our Sukkah without Walls

Maurice's sukkah

Our sukkah this year. As you can see, despite the Oregon Ducks’ train wreck of a loss last week, we continue to welcome them symbolically into our sukkah.

This year our sukkah is unkosher. It has no walls.

According to traditional Jewish law, a sukkah is supposed to have walls – four of them, actually, though one of them can be the side of a house if it’s been built up against a house. The walls can be made out of any material, but they have to be strong enough to withstand some wind without falling down.

Our sukkah has no walls because, in the midst of many challenges, we didn’t get around to putting them up. But that’s not the only reason. I confess that my wife and I also kind of like the way the sukkah looks and feels inside this way. A sukkah without walls is an appropriate religious symbol for our family.

Our nuclear family consists of four people and two dogs. It’s me, a liberal rabbi; Melissa, my spouse, who was my intermarried partner for part of the time I was a rabbinical student, before she converted; and Clarice and Hunter, neither of whom was born Jewish, and both of whom were old enough at the time of the adoption to have the right to decide whether or not to become Jewish. So far, they haven’t, at least not formally. On a day to day basis they alternate between identifying Jewishly and not. So, while neither of our kids identify with another religion, because, at least halakhically (according to Jewish law), they’re not Jewish, we are what gets referred to as an interfaith family.

For me, our sukkah without walls symbolizes Melissa’s and my core value of openness to welcoming the stranger deeply into our home and life. There’s a framework, a structure to our sukkah, as well as a roof made of foliage, and a lulav and an etrog too. Anyone who knows what a sukkah is who saw ours would know that it is a sukkah, or someone’s good try at erecting a proper sukkah. But our sukkah, perhaps inspired by Abraham and Sarah’s tent, is literally open on all sides. Like a sukkah with the traditionally prescribed walls that won’t fall down in a gust of wind, our “open architecture” sukkah also can withstand a gust of wind, but it accomplishes that feat not by resisting the movement of the air with sturdy barriers; rather, the changing winds blow right on through. (Metaphor now fully expressed, and possibly even overdone…)

Our sukkah without walls also speaks to me because our extended families consist of a really wide assortment of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins living on different continents, practicing different religions, and speaking different languages.Our open sukkah reminds me of the huppah at our wedding, where Melissa’s down home conservative evangelical country relatives mixed with my loud and effusive Moroccan-Israeli clan. Everyone was welcome. Jewish traditions, practiced with some creative deviation from traditional Jewish law (Melissa wasn’t Jewish at the time, after all), defined the space, but with very open access to people of many faiths and identities.

Our sukkah also represents, for me, what I call our local family of choice. Our dear friend, Ariel,* was the single mother of four kids when we first met her and began helping each other parent our collective half dozen children with different challenges. Because of what our kids went through to end up in the foster care system, we needed the strength and support of others to parent them without falling apart. And because Ariel, who was accepted to law school and is the hardest working person we know, grew up in foster care herself, she’s a great model of resilience to our kids, and she really gets them in ways that we don’t. We’ve been able to help each other out in countless ways, and our daughter practically thinks of Ariel as another parent.

Ariel, by the way, is Baha’i. A little over a year ago I officiated at her wedding to Nathan,* who is Christian, and he and his son from a previous marriage are now part of this growing hybridized nuclear fusion Brady Bunch. (Full disclosure: One of our two dogs is actually their dog, staying with us for the time being.)

The boundaries between our two families are kind of like, well, our sukkah without walls. There are structures there between our families that are real and that operate every day. And yet, there’s also a very easy flow between our families and our homes, even our vehicles. (You can tell this because the empty cups and food wrappers on the floors of our cars are a mixed multitude of representatives of our various bad food choice preferences.)

I’m not seeking pity with what I’m about to say, but one of the painful things in my life, as a rabbi and even just as a Jew, is that I’m all too aware that for a part of the Jewish community, it’s not just my sukkah that’s unkosher, but our family is kind of unkosher too. A previously intermarried rabbinical student? That’s not kosher! A spouse of a rabbi who converted but not in an Orthodox way? For some, that means I’m still an intermarried rabbi. Totally unkosher (well, maybe not anymore). A rabbi’s family and their kids aren’t Jewish?! It’s like it’s raining pork and shellfish. On Shabbos.

There are some Jewish thought leaders who argue that it’s families like ours that are putting the future of the Jewish people at risk. There are too many different identities in the household, they say, and the boundaries aren’t strong enough to promote Jewish children, and aren’t rabbis supposed to be exemplars of Jewish lives that are more emphatically and unambiguously Jewish? Well, I suppose I can’t prove that these critics are wrong, though the truth is that they don’t know for a certainty what will or won’t make for a vibrant and meaningful Jewish future. I think their claims tell us more about their values and preferences than about how the future is or isn’t going to unfold.

The same can be said about my values and preferences, I admit. My values and preferences favor a Judaism of open and welcoming structures, of joyful and sincere practices shared with people of any background freely, and of flexibility and trusting the unknown. Perhaps my marriage will not produce any children who become Jewish adults raising Jewish children, and perhaps, therefore, we’ll be judged by some as a failed Jewish family, a Jewish continuity dead end.

But here’s the thing. Because of our life choices, it’s not just our two kids who know what a sukkah is and have helped build and decorate a sukkah and have heard Melissa and me talk about the themes of trust and welcoming guests and vulnerability. It’s not just our kids who have, again, broken the pitom (the stem) off ouretrog halfway through the holiday, thus rendering the etrog unkosher like our sukkah, and who have had to hear me discover this and yell, “Dammit! Who the hell broke off the pitom!? That’s the first thing you learn you’re not supposed to do! And it cost, like, forty dollars!” It’s also Ariel’s kids, who’ve had great fun in our sukkah over the years, as have Nathan, and his son, and some of our neighbors. And because the rabbinical seminary I attended didn’t turn me away, despite my way of doing Jewish, and neither did the synagogue I served for 8 years, I’ve taught and worked with well over a hundred kids in helping them to develop a Jewish identity of warmth, pride, and ethics. And sorry to be all bragging on myself, but I’ve also had two Jewish non-fiction books published, both of which strive to open access to Judaism to people of all faiths.

So maybe our unkosher family and our unkosher sukkah is a symbol of the demise of liberal Judaism. Could be. Or maybe it’s something else, maybe even something wonderful.

* names have been changed


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Why We Should Accept Rabbis Who Intermarry


In a Forward editorial today, Jane Eisner says we should expect a rabbi to raise his or her children in a Jewish home, to maintain that home as the most sacred place in the Jewish eco-system. The fallacy in her argument is her assumption that intermarried rabbis would not do so. People who seek to become rabbis do so precisely because they are deeply committed to ongoing Jewish life – not only for themselves, but also for their communities, as the Reconstructionists realize. There is no reason to believe that intermarried rabbis would be any different; indeed, given the challenging process to become and then serve as a rabbi, it is absurd to do so.

When Eisner says we should expect a rabbi to partner with another Jew – that’s the tribalism that the Reconstructionists report alienates many younger progressive Jews and current or would be rabbinical students. If the goal is Jewish commitment to the home, synagogue and beyond, and if interfaith couples can demonstrate that commitment – as more and more do – then why is it necessary for Jews to partner with other Jews, beyond the assertion that “Jews should marry Jews” or worse, that “Jews are better.”

Interfaith couples resolve the “inherent complications” Eisner cites all the time, in ways that are conducive to ongoing Jewish engagement. There is no reason to think that intermarried rabbis would not do the same; in fact, there is more reason to think that they would. And because non-Orthodox Jewish communities are so heavily intermarried, intermarried rabbis would be excellent role models for those communities.

I’m glad to see Eisner say that “It is a propitious time to offer bold ideas to make Judaism more accessible and welcoming, to strengthen commitment among those born Jews and encourage others to join.” The Reconstructionists’ decision is precisely such a bold decision. Over the years I have talked with many would-be rabbis who lamented that because they were intermarried they could not attend any major seminary. I predict that being the first, the Reconstructionists will benefit from many excellent applicants and students.


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Vitality or Decline?


Today’s Statement on Jewish Vitality, advocating strategic responses to respond to the challenges of the Jewish future, is extremely disheartening for what it says and what it doesn’t say about interfaith families.

Twenty-five years after continuity efforts began, it is still the case that most of our Jewish thought leaders, exemplified by those who signed on to the Statement, still think that intermarriage is bad, still think that conversion is the “answer” to the intermarriage “problem,” and still oppose programmatic efforts to engage interfaith families.

The Statement says that many children of non-Orthodox Jews will identify as non-Jews when they grow up “owing to intermarriage,” even though the Pew Report found increasing numbers of children of intermarried parents identifying as Jews and even though “owing to” sounds a lot like saying that intermarriage causes children to not be raised as Jews but all of the surveys show correlation at best and not causation.

The Statement touts Jewish education programs, PJ Library, camps, trips to Israel, youth groups, etc. because they raise the in-marriage rate, instead of because they are critically important for and successful at strengthening Jewish engagement.

Yes, the Statement acknowledges that large numbers of Jews will intermarry, but immediately says “we must bear in mind that intermarriages can be transformed to in-marriages by the act of conversion” and advocates for more conversion-oriented courses.

If Jewish leaders wanted to drive away from Jewish engagement the 71% of non-Orthodox Jews who intermarried since 2000, and the majority of college-age Jews who have one Jewish parent, they couldn’t do so more effectively than by espousing the response to intermarriage expressed in the Statement. Interfaith couples do not want to participate in a community that describes their relationships as something to be prevented, let alone tells one partner that they’re welcome if they convert but not as they are.

This fundamental distaste for intermarriage is manifested by the complete absence of any support in the Statement for programs that are targeted expressly at recruiting, attracting and embracing interfaith families. Sure, it’s okay with these leaders if the children of intermarried parents participate in their immersive programs – but G-d forbid that the community do anything that explicitly states, and demonstrates with programmatic responses, that Jews want interfaith families to engage in Jewish life and community.

All of the programmatic steps outlined in the Statement are important and should be supported. But if they are marketed as leading to in-marriage and conversion, and if they are not accompanied by programs for interfaith families, they will amount to just circling the wagons around a continuing diminishing group.

Fortunately, there are other Jewish thought leaders who recognize the importance of efforts to engage interfaith families. I’m thinking of the Genesis Prize Fund which boldly chose to honor Michael Douglas, and now in partnership with the Jewish Funders Network is offering a matching grant initiative “to encourage the creation of a culture of welcoming and acceptance within the Jewish community of intermarried couples, their families, and individuals who come from these families [and] to energize and strengthen organizations working in this field and to encourage the creation of new programs in that area.”

I’m thinking of federations and family foundations and community foundations in Chicago, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Boston, Los Angeles, Atlanta and Washington DC who provide support for InterfaithFamily/Your Community projects in each of those cities, where a full-time rabbi and a project manager build trusted advisor relationships with interfaith couples and families (including by helping them find officiants for life cycle events) and offer a range of Jewish learning and community building experiences for young couples seeking help deciding what to do about religious traditions in their lives and young interfaith families seeking help raising their children with Judaism.

It would have been so smart for the signatories of the Statement to eliminate their anti-intermarriage tone and to include programs for interfaith families among their list of efforts deserving support. I long for the day when the more enlightened view becomes predominant. Because if Jews and Jewish leaders can’t overcome fundamental deep-seated antipathy toward intermarriage, we’re going to see not vitality, but decline.


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Bravo Reconstructionists!


The Reconstructionist movement has once again led the way to a more inclusive Judaism by taking the bold step to accept and graduate rabbinic students who are intermarried or in committed relationships with partners who are not Jewish.

The main argument advanced against ordaining intermarried rabbis is that rabbis should serve as role models for Jewish life and commitment. The Reconstructionist movement reaffirmed that “all rabbinical candidates must model commitment to Judaism in their communal, personal, and family lives” – but explained their decision in large part because “Jews with non-Jewish partners demonstrat[e] these commitments every day in many Jewish communities.”

Reconstructionism approaches Jews and Judaism not simply as representing a culture or a religion, but as a people and a civilization. Its borders and boundaries are porous and constantly evolving. “The Jewish present and Jewish future depend on our shifting focus toward Jews ‘doing Jewish’ in ways that are meaningful to them rather than on ‘being Jewish’ because of bloodline or adherence to mandated behaviors,”… “The issue of Jews intermarrying is no longer something we want to police; we want to welcome Jews and the people who love us to join us in the very difficult project of bringing meaning, justice, and hope into our world.”

We send our very hearty congratulations to the Reconstructionist movement for their courageous leadership. For years we have heard from people eager to become rabbis who were barred by the major seminaries from applying. A prediction: the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College will be attracting and graduating some very outstanding rabbis – with partners from different faith traditions – in the future, and those rabbis in turn will lead the way to a more inclusive Judaism.


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Do Today’s Women Understand What/Who Came Before Us?

Anita Hill and Letty Pogrebin

Anita Hill and Letty Cottin Pogrebin. Photo by Zanefa Walsh

The first week of September I was privileged to introduce a discussion at Brandeis University between Anita Hill and Letty Cottin Pogrebin about faith, feminism and race. The discussion was framed by Pogrebin’s new book, Single Jewish Male Seeking Soul Mate.

Without ruining the book for those who haven’t picked it up yet, the main character, Zach, early on in the book promises his mother, a Holocaust survivor that he would marry a Jew and raise Jewish children (you can read more about it here). This promise is made at a young age, before the randomness and magnitude of life has the chance to impact Zach, and he tries to make his choices based on this promise. As you might imagine, it proves difficult and has a long lasting impact on his integrity and morality as the book continues. While the book is heavy with interfaith decision-making, interracial and intercultural issues and a variety of incarnations of feminism, the conversation between these two prolific authors was one devoted largely to generational division.

The question arose, “What do we really owe our parents?”

Pogrebin and Hill spoke not of interfaith or racial concerns when thinking through this question but rather of feminism. Do the women coming of age today understand what and who came before them that enables them to make the choices they make today? What sort of reverence or respect do second wave feminists deserve even if third or even fourth wave feminists make different—or  even opposite—decisions about their lives, their bodies or their politics. The questions are easier to ask than answer. While I am no feminist scholar I understand the motivation behind these questions and the concerns, especially in the context of the complex and diverse interfaith population.

Rabbi Jillian

Jillian (left) waiting to introduce the speakers. Photo by Zanefa Walsh

We do owe our parents and those who came before us respect, not merely for existing, and perhaps in having a hand in our existence, but also because they want to make the world better for us. We benefit from their hand in the evolution of the world. We benefit from what was bestowed upon us: the values, the cultural and/or religious ideology taught, the opportunities provided whether big or small, the love given.

Now I am not too cockeyed optimistic to understand that far too many people don’t have good parents and the evolution of our world has had long reaching negative consequences. But I am not willing to give up and I don’t think you are either. So we can respect and revere those on whose shoulders we stand and take up our own mantle of evolution, perhaps righting some wrongs not yet accomplished. For an inspiring look at this topic, see Dr. Ruth Nemzoff’s recent piece in the Huffington Post advising the next generation about how to promote feminism.

Zach’s life was ruled by what he felt he owed his mother and each of us live with expectations from those who raised us, deserved or not, realistic or not, achieved or not. I spend a fair amount of time counseling parents/grandparents/family members about the expectations they have carried with them for their children, whether it is something they could never accomplish themselves, or a life a bit better than theirs, a higher paying job, security, loving and marrying someone of the same faith background, raising children of that faith, etc. Sometimes children grow up aware of these hopes and dreams, sometimes they aren’t verbalized, but all parents have expectations for their children. It’s natural, it’s expected, and it’s what should happen. Inevitably though, each person turns out to want, care about, excel at or love different things. The trick is: How do we mourn the loss of our expectations without asking our children to bear the weight of that loss?

For some it comes easier than others; some expectations are easier to let to go; while others linger like heartbreak. Maybe the question becomes: What do we owe our children?

The world is not perfect and neither are we, but I think we owe our children a chance. A chance to make their own decisions, to trust in their capabilities and the opportunities we provided—the values and heritage we taught. We owe our children the love they need from us, to right past wrongs, to continue that evolution, to find fulfillment in ways we never could have imagined, let alone expected.

And together, we owe ourselves a little bit of hope and faith. Hope that each generation can and will achieve more and faith that this achievement reflects the best of humanity. Hope that each of our rich histories and sense of heritage and culture will endure and faith that we will continue to seek and create relevance in them. Hope that we get what we want and faith that we get what we need.

Please join in this conversation with me, there is so much we learn from one another.


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How Do We Accept the Things We Cannot Change?



A few weeks ago, I bonked my head while getting ready for bed and got a concussion. This was not my first time experiencing brain damage. I bruised my tender brain two-and-a-half years ago after a small car accident when I was living in Philadelphia. The air bag went off and temporarily knocked me out. It took two years to fully recover from this intense blast. My doctor informed me that I was more prone to “re-concuss” my brain because of my previous accident and wasn’t at all surprised that this recent slight blow to my head was so traumatizing.

My symptoms include mega migraines, difficulty focusing, memory loss and utter exhaustion. The path to healing includes copious amounts of sleep, hours of meditation, brain rest, bed rest, no screen time, asking for help, accepting help, radical acceptance and deep surrender.

As a type-A, physically and socially active 40-year-old in a new city (I moved to Atlanta in May of this year), I find slowing down to be quite challenging. I love being out in the world; hiking in the North Georgia Mountains, biking on the Beltline, yoga-ing at Kashi and exploring various cafes and shops. I also love catching up with friends on social media and reading articles about social justice and spirituality. To lie in bed all day, every day, for weeks without much human contact or brain stimulation is very challenging. Needless to say, practicing radical acceptance and deep surrender don’t come naturally to me.

At first, I was in complete denial. “This is just a really, really bad headache. I feel like an anvil is smooshing my head, but I’ll be OK. I’m just overtired/dehydrated/stressed out,” I justified.

As the pain and the fuzzy thinking worsened, it became obvious that I had acquired a second concussion and that’s when I began to suffer. “How could this happen to me…again?!?!?!? How will I work, make money, make friends, go on dates with my partner, exercise, shop at the farmer’s markets, buy a house? How can I possibly slow down again and survive this intense pain and boredom? Didn’t I already go through this a few years ago?WHY IS THIS HAPPENING TO ME?”

It can be very difficult for me to accept when things don’t go MY way. I’m fairly certain that I know how my life is supposed to unfold and putting it on hold was not an option. Being present with what is, is countercultural. In a culture that likes to numb out with instant gratification, instant messaging, fast food, home delivery and smart phones, we are trained to avoid discomfort at all costs.

MalkaIn Mussar, a Jewish spiritual movement that started in the 19th century, there is a spiritual concept called “Accepting Suffering” (Kabbalat Ha’Yissurin). In this practice, we are first asked to explore the difference between suffering and pain. According to Alan Morinis in his book With Heart in Mind: Mussar Teachings To Transform Your Life, “Pain is a direct reaction to an invasive stimulus and reflects simple cause and effect. Suffering, on the other hand, arises from interpretation and expectation.”  In other words, when we experience physical pain and think, “Ouch! That hurt!” That is pain. While we try our best to avoid pain, sometimes it is unavoidable. But when we think, “why me?” we are entering into the world of suffering.

Once we have discovered our suffering, our challenge is acceptance. We are called to be present with it. It is only when we are present with our suffering that it can pass. How can we be present with the suffering and accept our lack of control?

For me, this is not easy. It is not about pushing it away and stuffing it down. That only allows it to further manifest itself in another way. And it isn’t about becoming a victim and allowing everything to happen to me. It is about accepting my powerlessness in life. There are some things that we just cannot change. When we practice acceptance, we are allowing the world to run as it does. We are accepting our reality.

A prayer that has helped me tremendously with acceptance comes from the 12-step recovery model: “G-d/Higher Power, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.”

I cannot change the fact that I bruised my brain a second time. I am powerless over my limited abilities and the speed of my healing process. But what I do have power over is my perspective and attitude. Every day I have a choice: I can choose faith or I can choose fear. When I choose fear, I spiral into panic. “This. Is. Not. OK.,” becomes my matra and I am only able to see how this is just plain wrong. It doesn’t seem right or fair. But, when I move into faith, I feel a deep sense of peace and am able to surrender to what is. I am able to observe my body as it heals and relax my brain. My heart opens as I practice gratitude. When I accept my situation, I ask for help and receive the gifts of living in community.

May this new year of 5776 bring moments of radical acceptance, deep surrender and inner peace.


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Keep Judaism Wonderfully Weird


Shaking the LulavYears ago, a colleague of mine told me that as a rabbi, I should try to make Judaism, “cool,” At the time, I knew I was put off by this comment, but only years later do I fully understand why. What I love about Judaism is that it is generally “uncool.” In fact, it is wonderfully weird. Sometimes it is edgy. Even counter-cultural. I am part of religious life because it is meaningful, not because it’s the hip thing to do on a Friday night.

An article caught my eye recently, entitled, Want millennials back in the pews? Stop trying to make church ‘cool.’ The writer, Rachel Held Evans, criticizes flashy, trend-setting techniques to get millennials into churches. “The trick isn’t to make church cool,” she writes, “it’s to keep worship weird.” She goes on to share what most attracts her and other young bloggers to religious life. “I do not want to be entertained…I want to be asked to participate in the life of an ancient-future community.” She is intrigued by “those strange rituals and traditions” that have been practiced in her tradition for thousands of years.

Sometimes as a Jewish leader, I feel pressure to make Judaism seem cool. But the fact is—I want to keep Judaism wonderfully weird. Take this season of the High Holidays. My favorite parts of the liturgy and practice at this sacred time of year often appear the strangest, and take some time to get used to. One of the rarest is the practice of kneeling and then putting my face to the ground during a certain prayer during Rosh Hashanah; prostrating myself like a child’s pose in yoga, feeling the ground beneath me and my vulnerability as a human being. I relish this because I want, at that moment, to feel a bit small with a sense of the grandeur of the world outside of me. My family loves the ritual of tashlich. We throw breadcrumbs into a creek to symbolize our shortcomings over the past year—with full knowledge that this ritual was borne out of a desire to appease water demons.

When sukkot begins, I shake the lulav: that strange collection of four natural species we bring together inside our little autumn hut (sukkah). Who doesn’t feel a little awkward shaking it in all directions? I love this ancient, agricultural ritual for all of its quirkiness. It connects me to the earth. It reminds me how interdependent we are with the natural world, and I become cognizant that the livelihood of others is tied to the whims of the weather more than mine will ever be.

It is not, actually, the endurance of the rituals alone that propels me to keep practicing them. They are relevant to me because they contain kernels of wisdom, and I bring my contemporary consciousness to them as Jews always have. They are not flashy or slick, hip or even always fun. Some are even difficult. But they are authentic.

The famous Rav Kook wrote that, “The old becomes new, and the new becomes holy.” That is what an “ancient-future” community looks like; always looking back to discover the sources of our wisdom while we discern how that tradition continues to inform us in the present day. That doesn’t mean that we should keep doing exactly what we always did, or in exactly the same way. Our job is to renew and reconstruct where necessary, and make the ancient come alive in a new generation with contemporary relevance.

Whether Jewish practice is new to you or familiar, whether this is your first High Holiday season or your fiftieth, embrace the quirkiness. Try something new. Don’t worry if it’s not all flashy, or if you find that you need to slow down your mind to take it in. Hopefully, the experience will bring introspection, meaning and depth to your life. Above all, find out why we practice the way we do. Ask questions. Most people probably have the same questions you do. Reshape rituals and add your own flavor. As Evans puts it, “[Rituals] don’t need to be repackaged or rebranded; they just need to be practiced, offered and explained in the context of a loving, authentic and inclusive community.”  


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SORRY: The Hardest, And Perhaps Most Powerful, Word


Child Holding Sign That Says SorryOne of my favorite children’s books for Yom Kippur is Jacqueline Jules’ The Hardest Word: A Yom Kippur Story. It’s about the Ziz, an enormous bird with dark red wings and a purple forehead. The Ziz’s giant wings are always knocking things over. One day, after the Ziz mistakenly knocks over a big tree with his wings and the tree then knocks over another tree, which smashes a children’s vegetable garden, the Ziz goes to God and asks God how he can make things better.

God instructs the Ziz to search the earth and bring back “the hardest word.” The Ziz stretches out his big red wings and goes off to search, coming back to God over one hundred times with a variety of words. Each time God sends the Ziz back out, insisting that there is still a harder word.

Finally, the Ziz, discouraged, flies back for one last discussion with God:

“What word did you bring this time?” asks God.

“No word,” the Ziz says quietly.

“No word?” God asks.

“No,” the Ziz says sadly. “I’ve come to say I’m sorry. I can’t find the hardest word.”

“You can’t?” God asks.

“No,” Ziz shakes his head. “I’m sorry.”

“You’re sorry?” God asks.

“Yes.” Ziz nods his big purple head. “I’m sorry.”

“Good job!” God says. “You found the hardest word.”

“I did?” wonders the Ziz. At this point, the Ziz is very confused.

“Yes,” God says. “The hardest word is Sorry. While the other words you brought were hard, Sorry is the hardest.”

I love the story of the Ziz because it draws our attention to a universal aspect of human nature: the difficulty of apologizing. Elton John pointed out this fundamental truth years ago with the title to his song “Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word.” And if you’re like me and you’re old enough to remember the TV show Happy Days, you may recall how Fonzie, the cool guy who all the guys wanted to be like and all the girls wanted to date, struggled whenever he had to even admit that he was wrong, let alone apologize. In one episode, when Mrs. Cunningham, a woman Fonzie greatly respects who’s like a surrogate mother to him, tells him that he has to be an adult and apologize to a guy named Roger, Fonzie finally says: “Alright look, I went a little nutso, alright. So the whole thing was my fuhvv-vu-vu…and I’m really suzz-zzz-zzz. Alright?”

Apologizing was SO HARD for Fonzie that he couldn’t even pronounce the word “sorry.” I, for one, can relate. And I know that I’m not alone. Mental health professionals have pointed out that many people view apologizing as a sign of weakness. The perception is that the person who apologizes is the “loser,” whereas the person who receives the apology is the “winner.” Apologizing can make us feel vulnerable—like we’re losing power, or even control. Like Fonzie, most of us don’t like the feeling of not being in control—too often we let our pride get in the way and prevent us from apologizing.

But in reality, apologizing isn’t a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of strength. It takes strength to exhibit the moral character necessary to offer an apology, thereby admitting that you’ve hurt someone or done something wrong.

And think about it: Have you ever regretted apologizing to someone? If you’re like me, then you probably haven’t, or at least not often. For most of us, the time leading up to offering an apology is stressful, but once we’ve gotten over the hump of saying “I’m sorry,” it’s usually a big relief. In the best of situations, an apology is accepted. But even when an apology isn’t accepted, when it’s offered sincerely, we at least have the consolation of knowing that we’ve tried to make things better.

On the other hand, have you ever regretted NOT apologizing to someone? For most of us, the answer to this question is “yes.” Surely, if we take the time to think about it, we can all point to times when we didn’t say “I’m sorry,” even though we now wish we had.

The Jewish New Year is an ideal time to reflect on the year that has just passed and think about those people to whom we owe apologies. Jewish tradition urges us to recount the people we’ve wronged in the past year and to apologize and ask for forgiveness before Yom Kippur. “Sorry” may be the hardest word, but it also has the potential to be one of the most powerful words—a word of restoration, a word of healing and a word of starting over.

I can think of several people I want to apologize to before Yom Kippur for things I’ve done in the past year: my husband; my children; some friends and colleagues. I know that apologizing won’t be easy, but I also know that it’s worth it, and that the year ahead will be better because of it.

What about you? Have you ever regretted apologizing? Have you ever regretted NOT apologizing? Do you plan to apologize to anyone in preparation for Yom Kippur?


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Surviving Our First High Holy Days as Brand New Parents

Keara's newborn twins

Keara’s twins around the time of their first Jewish New Year

I have always loved Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. They were among the few Jewish holidays I remember celebrating as a child, and I can still picture the Post-It notes my mom would put in the various dishes as she was setting up for Rosh Hashanah dinner to help her remember which kugel would go in which dish. I loved the first sweet taste of apples and challah dipped in honey for the new year, and sitting in that large hotel ballroom (where my synagogue held its High Holy Day services in order to accommodate the larger crowd) listening to our beloved rabbi declare after every song “this is my favorite one.”

And for Yom Kippur, my family (including all of the “cousins”—whether or not we were related) would gather to break the fast. I looked forward to these two holidays every year, less for their religious significance and more for the time spent together with family and community. When I moved out of my family home in college and in the years after, I continued many of these traditions and traveled home when possible to spend this joyous time with my family. And then last year, everything changed. I had twins two short months before Rosh Hashanah.

During a time when I would normally be booking airline tickets or menu planning or sermon writing, I was just trying to stay afloat, learning how to be a new mom of twins and a new rabbi, all on very little sleep. They were born on July 2 and we spent the Fourth of July in the hospital; our first holiday as a family passed without any mention. Those first two months were beyond difficult for me physically and emotionally. Every day felt like an eternity, but September crept up on us out of the blue and we had no idea what to do for the High Holy Days.

We arranged childcare for Rosh Hashanah morning service, and decided to switch off for Yom Kippur services. We also planned on switching off for the evening services: My husband would go to erev (the first night of) Rosh Hashanah and I would go to Kol Nidre (the first night of Yom Kippur). It was my first night alone with my babies, and it did not go well. My husband ended up leaving services early to come and help me with them, and by the next morning we were exhausted and in no mood to pray or celebrate with community. But we had a sitter and we went to services together, our first time alone together out of the house since the twins were born. I had to leave services twice in order to pump breastmilk and we ended up leaving before services were over to get home in time to relieve the sitter.

Am I glad I went? No. Did I have a fulfilling and joyful Rosh Hashanah last year? No. I tried so hard to recreate the experience I used to have, that I completely missed the point of the holiday. For Yom Kippur we decided to put the kids to bed and watch services live online. I fell asleep halfway through. My experience of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur from last year left me disappointed, sad and lonely.


Keara, more recently, with her kids

I vowed to make this year different. My twins are 14 months old now, I am away from them every day, I sleep seven hours a night and I can finally create the experience I want. So how is it that two weeks before Rosh Hashanah, my husband and I just decided what we are going to do?

We can’t follow the prescribed routine of spending all day in synagogue praying and singing and then fasting. So what can we do as a family? Should we leave our kids with the nanny and celebrate the holidays without them? Should we skip the adult services and only go to the kid’s service? Are they even old enough to “get” it?

These holidays are so important to me, but how can I honor my own need for celebration and introspection while also including my kids? Is it OK to be selfish on the High Holy Days?

I don’t have the answers to these questions yet, but I am talking to other families about how they do it, and then trying some things out for my family. Part of the joy of the holidays is seeing it through my children’s eyes and that is the lens through which I am trying to view Rosh Hashanah this year. Yesterday my babies heard the shofar for the first time and were equally excited and afraid—the exact emotions that the sound of the shofar should evoke from all of us. We are planning on attending adult services together and bringing the kids to the tot service later in the day, but also being prepared for the fact that when you have kids, plans can change in an instant.

Rosh Hashanah is about celebrating a new year and sharing the sweetness with our family and friends. Yom Kippur is about looking deep within and finding areas for improvement in my own character to better myself, my family and the world around me. By reflecting on my experience of past High Holy Days, and adjusting this years’ experience I can better serve myself and my family, thus teaching my children the most important values I want to pass on to them. We are honoring past traditions and hoping to create some new ones together.

For those of you who are parents navigating the High Holy Days, check out our Celebrating the High Holy Days with Kids booklet and our Guide to the High Holy Days, including sections on family, school, activities and more.


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My Transdenominational Family

Sarah's family

The Tasman-Hathaway clan gathers for Shabbat dinner at our wedding weekend in Martha’s Vineyard, June 2012

When I think back to where I first experienced my love of Judaism, I remember instantly my many summers at Goldman Union Camp Institute in Zionsville, Indiana. Camp was my first experience of celebrating Shabbat with friends (I can still smell the fried chicken and the Shabbat candles), of singing songs in Hebrew at the top of my lungs at song session, and of guitar strings gently strumming during Debbie Friedman’s version of the V’ahatva prayer at evening services.

I’ll admit it, I was bit of a nerd: I loved our daily Jewish educational programs, our evening and Shabbat services written by the campers, and the fact that every building and every item on our daily schedule was called by its Hebrew name. In college, my co-counselors and I were responsible for coming up with creative ways to teach Judaism to our campers. Thanks to that preparation, whenever I am asked to teach now, I try to think about what would make the session engaging and interactive for participants.

As a rabbi and Jewish educator, when I think back to what made camp so influential for me, it was the notion that Judaism and Jewish practice could and should be something meaningful—Jewish learning could and should be accessible and fun. It seems simple, but it is really quite profound. And to this day, I credit my experience of camp for instilling in me these values and the charge to make Judaism creative, meaningful and accessible for all I teach.

When people ask me what kind of rabbi I am, I almost always say I’m a community rabbi. I was ordained at the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College, a transdenominational program in Newton, MA (right near the InterfaithFamily headquarters!). And when people ask me what transdenominational means, I tell people about my own family (and I find this resonates for many other families as well): We’ve got a very wide range of Jewish involvement from secular, Orthodox, American, Israeli, Humanistic, Conservative and Reform members of the family. We’ve got family members who have converted and some who have not, and many of my family members are intermarried or are in interfaith relationships.

When I realized that my diverse family was a microcosm of the Jewish community, I began to see the reality of the Jewish community as a beautiful, multifaceted, sometimes challenging whole, and I wanted to be in a position that would allow me serve as much of the community as possible.

I am thrilled to have stepped into the role of director to launch InterfaithFamily/DC this summer. I am grateful to be serving the DC, MD and VA communities where I have the opportunity to work with community partners, be a resource to other clergy and can help connect interfaith couples and families with the Jewish community. I look forward to meeting you, working together and building community here in the Greater DC area.

Please be in touch with me via email, the IFF/DC Facebook group (coming soon!) or at one of our upcoming events over Rosh Hashanah! Join me and the Jewish Food Experience at a Sephardic Erev Rosh Hashanah dinner at the Heights on Sunday September 13 or come and help us decorate the InterfaithFamily/DC sukkah at the SukkahVillage at the JCC of Greater Washington on Sunday September 27.

Warmest wishes to you and your family for a Shanah Tova u’Metukah—a happy healthy and sweet new year!

-Rabbi Sarah Tasman


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