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 was interviewed by a major city’s Jewish newspaper this week. The reporter asked if it had gotten “easier” for interfaith couples over the past ten years since InterfaithFamily got started. I said I thought there was more acceptance among parents of young adults who are intermarrying. But there are still what I call “eternal” issues – not in the sense of never resolved, but in the sense that they confront each interfaith couple who is at all serious about having religious traditions together. Issues like what kind of wedding will we have, what kind of baby naming, and … what will we do in December.
This year JOI’s Paul Golin made a valiant effort to influence Jews not to tell interfaith couples not to have Christmas trees. Unfortunately it didn’t work.
Writing originally in hanukkah-and-christmas/">Kveller and then in the Forward, Jordana Horn attracted a huge amount of comment by asserting that the point of Hanukkah is to celebrate people who resisted practicing any religion other than Judaism, and to celebrate Christmas is to do just that — to celebrate the birth of someone who Christians believe is the son of God.
This argument is wrong and it’s pernicious. I say it’s wrong based on the eight years of December holidays surveys we’ve done at InterfaithFamily. They consistently show that interfaith families raising their children Jewish celebrate Christmas – with almost half having trees in their own homes – but not religiously. It is a warm family time, like Thanksgiving, that recognizes the traditions of the parent who is not Jewish.
It’s pernicious because the more that Jews tell interfaith couples that they shouldn’t celebrate Christmas, the less those interfaith couples will want to engage in Jewish life and community.
I simply fail to recognize how celebrating a secularized Christmas is a danger to me or my Judaism… The idea that my childhood – being raised to respect and understand the traditions of my father – somehow damaged my Judaism is downright offensive. In fact, I think it would only be more offensive if my mother had insisted upon banishing my dad’s traditions from our home entirely, despite his commitment to raising a Jewish child.
Sadly, it’s attitudes like these that lead interfaith couples and their children to feel alienated from, and unwelcomed by, the larger Jewish community – which is the exact opposite of their stated goal. If you ask me, that’s a much bigger problem than the Christmas tree in my living room.
People who are still uneasy about interfaith families celebrating Christmas might want to consider well-known Jewish journalist Sue Fishkoff’s experience. Sue grew up celebrating Christmas with her non-Jewish mother – and continues to do so.
I’d like to ask Jordana Horn, and Debra Nussbaum Cohen, who wrote a similarly negative piece, and those who share their views: if an interfaith couple said they were willing to raise their children Jewish, they just wanted to have a Christmas tree that they didn’t regard as a religious symbol – do you really want to tell that couple “no, not good enough, not Jewish enough, better you should go away?”
This is a guest post by Dr. Steve Moffic (my father-in-law, a Milwaukee psychiatrist). It was originally posted on his blog which deals with ethics.
How did a Jewish psychiatrist end up playing Santa Claus for his daughter 35 years ago? Is it possible that this could connect in any way to this same daughter now being a Sunday school teacher? And, even more of a possible stretch, even connect to her younger brother becoming a Rabbi and who also married a Rabbi? A blog just written by this psychiatrist begins to consider how Christmas, self-disclosure, and cross-cultural respect all come into play in trying to answer these questions. God, indeed, may work in mysterious ways.
The idea to play Santa for our young daughter was not mine. I was early in my career as a psychiatrist. Being a psychiatrist at that time would have led me in the other direction. At that time, the view of Freud, who of course came from a Jewish background, was that religion was like an opiate for people at best, a neurotic belief at worse. He could have been called an ethnic Jew, though we don’t for sure know if he turned more to religious beliefs as he was dying of cancer.
However, my wife wanted to do this and I wanted to please her. Moreover, it seemed like fun and I was just getting interested in masks, so I put on the mask and clothes of Santa. It worked, at least in its deception and enjoyment of our daughter. We later did this with our son, who was 8 years younger, though by then our daughter knew of the deception, so this time it wasn’t the same.
My wife recollected wanting to do this because it was a family tradition on her side. She felt it fulfilled a desire of her family to adapt to American values and traditions, while at the same time remaining strongly Jewish. She and her sisters all ended up marrying Jewish men and having long marriages. All of their children have married other Jews to date.
As I learned more about being a psychiatrist and how to help patients, I found out that self-disclosure on my part was filled with complexity and, despite any temptation, had to be done with utmost care and concern for how this would benefit my patients, not me.
In the field of psychiatry, the analysis of religion seemed to mature beyond Freud over the years. Religion could later be seen as a sound and normal social and cultural activity. At its best, at least in my opinion, it could not only complement the mental understandings of psychiatry, but take up where psychiatry left off and probe into the deeper questions of spiritual sustenance and the meaning of life. Psychiatry also didn’t have thousands of years of helping people cope with the challenges of life; we could certainly learn from religion.
I tried to apply this knowledge as best I could with being a parent as these same years went on. So that when my wife began to have thoughts and desires that our son should become a Rabbi, I didn’t tell her (or him) that she was “crazy”. Now that it happened, I think this, as well as our daughter teaching in a Jewish Sunday school, is one of the most wonderful legacies imaginable of being a parent.
Much later, after our son became firmly dedicated to becoming a Rabbi, I became more interested in Jewish religion and history. I finally succumbed to my wife’s request for us to attend weekly Torah study at our Reform synagogue. And, lo and behold, what did I find is that the Torah depicted human nature in all its successes and failures, that it could be analyzed in a depth even greater than Freudian interpretations, and that it left questions for us to ponder for the rest of our lives.
Self-disclosure in Torah was a prominent theme. Just consider God. God only reveals the qualities of God slowly and depending on circumstances. We are never allowed to see the “face” of God directly. God has an eternal mask of sorts, at least for us.
Jacob, with the direction of his mother, deceives his father by trying to disguise himself as his brother Esau. Was that really necessary to obtain the birthright? Did it lead to problems with Esau’s progeny over history all the way up to today? Interestingly, Jacob later is very open with his own children, conveying obvious favoritism to Joseph and somewhat berating all his children on his deathbed. Not what I would recommend as a psychiatrist. You may naturally have favorites as a parent, but that is best kept to yourself and try to treat all the children as having equivalent value in the image of God. And, before dying, it is psychologically best to resolve old animosities, if time and illness allows, rather than to disclose without time for discussion and better resolution.
Of course, Jacob’s father Isaac had already been subject to – a psychiatrist might say traumatized by – his father Abraham’s getting all set to sacrifice him. Was that what God really wanted, for Abraham to keep this from his son? Why not let Isaac argue with him, just like Abraham did with God once upon a time? Psychological trauma tends to repeat over family generations unless processed, reframed, and mistakes admitted and forgiven.
Then there is Moses. What is self-disclosed to him about his origins by his sister and other family? Perhaps all that can be concluded is that he likely learned of his background at the right age, at the right time, and with the right explanation for being “given up” for his own benefit.
As I specialized in treating patients from many different cultures, I learned that several things were essential for success. I had to respect other cultural values, even if I didn’t believe in them and even if I thought they were harmful. There were there for a historical reason. I had to not only empathize with the values of other cultures, but sometimes experience them directly, whether that be visiting those from other cultures or attending many of their cultural events. And, I had to be careful as to when I revealed my own cultural background and values. Timing was – and is – essential, for psychiatrists and parents. It needed to be when, as best as I could ascertain, and sometimes with the consultation of colleagues, that it should benefit the patient. Fantasy, imagination, and transference (what we call the projection of feelings to parents onto the psychiatrist) are all important – and inevitable – for a patient to experience in their relationship to a psychiatrist. Treatment, of course, had to be consistent with what their cultural identities valued. Over time, I developed multi-cultural holiday events for patients and staff at this time of year. I brought the Menorah and information about Hanukah.
An essential part of the development of any child is for them to know that they are a separate person from their parents, and that they have control over how much they may reveal of their own thoughts. Too much or too little can prove costly.
So, clearly, playing Santa Claus many years ago did not harm my Jewish identity. Nor did it not harm that of my children. And, who knows, could it have paradoxically helped? Surely, it is impossible to tease out the influence of this one activity over 35 years. But, now, as I write this, our adult children are most capable of considering the reasons I did this, the complexity and even anguish of our parental decisions over time, and how they can do better. Someday, when our four grandchildren seem ready, we will tell them this family Santa story.
The holiday season is rife with analyses of interfaith families that celebrate both Christmas and Chanukah, but none have I found more offensive than Debra Nussbaum Cohen’s “Interfaith Mom Is Wrong About Chrismukkah” on The Forward’s Sisterhood blog. If you’re like me, you’ve already bristled at the title – and it’s only downhill from there.
Having chosen to fully educate our children about both family religions, the [December Dilemma] essentially disappears and December becomes primarily a delight. We celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas, with all of the trimmings, and seek to help our children to understand the religious meanings of both holidays.
Sounds open-minded and welcoming – the perfect sort of interfaith family, right? Not so, says Cohen: Because Chanukah is a celebration of the Jews’ triumph over a majority that sought to oppress and assimilate them, Cohen writes, Jews who celebrate Christmas essentially degrade the miracle of Chanukah “by advocating for that same assimilation.”
In a bulleted response to Miller’s description of her family’s holiday traditions, Cohen uses language so patronizing and condescending (“Hate to sound so maternal,” “Um, okay,” etc.) that it becomes difficult to see her point through her disrespectful tone. Ultimately, her point seems to be that interfaith families that do not opt for 100 percent Judaism at all times are subjecting their children to a lifetime of confusion and lack of connection to the Jewish faith.
I was raised in a household that celebrated both Christmas and Chanukkah, though the former was “Daddy’s holiday.” My agnostic father never went to church or tried to instill in me any sort of Christian values or beliefs – but my mother, a proud Reform Jew, felt he should not have to give up his traditions. Today, I am a committed, active Jewish adult who has spent four years working for a major Jewish organization. I would hardly say I grew up to be confused, disinterested or (horror of all horrors, Ms. Cohen!) assimilated.
While I recognize the history of both Chanukah and Christmas (as well as the many stories of the Jews’ oppression under majority rule), I simply fail to recognize how celebrating a secularized Christmas is a danger to me or my Judaism. When Christmas is over, I will return to my job as a Jewish professional, where I will continue to work to strengthen the future of the Jewish community. I’m even leading a Birthright trip in February! The idea that my childhood – being raised to respect and understand the traditions of my father – somehow damaged my Judaism is downright offensive. In fact, I think it would only be more offensive if my mother had insisted upon banishing my dad’s traditions from our home entirely, despite his commitment to raising a Jewish child.
Anti-interfaith voices like Cohen’s – and yes, I believe this piece qualifies her as such – think children of interfaith families are so fragile and confused that they will never choose Judaism unless essentially forced to; that they should be raised in such a delicate, careful manner that they are not permitted any connection whatsoever to their non-Jewish parents’ heritage for fear they may choose that path over Judaism. Cohen could benefit from actual interaction with interfaith families in an attempt to understand their struggles and choices. And frankly, whether she feels Chrismukkah-celebrating families are wrong for their chosen traditions and celebrations is not the complete issue – her blatant disrespect of differing views is. I wish the Sisterhood blog would think twice before publishing pieces that display such intolerance toward other Jews’ religious and cultural choices.
While I disagree with the views espoused in Cohen’s post, I recognize that they represent the opinion of a large segment of Jews toward interfaith families. Sadly, it’s attitudes like these that lead interfaith couples and their children to feel alienated from, and unwelcomed by, the larger Jewish community – which is the exact opposite of their stated goal. If you ask me, that’s a much bigger problem than the Christmas tree in my living room.
I watch my fair share of television. I have a pretty good grasp on pop culture. But when it comes to reality shows, I tend to stay away from them. (With the exception of competitions on the Food Network, of course.)
So it’s more than a little annoying that, when my colleague Heather emailed me a recap of a recent episode involving that K-family, I knew who all the players were. In recent weeks they seem to have permeated certain levels of general, casual discourse in ways few others have. Everyone seemed to have an opinion on the wedding of Kim and Kris, on the eleventy-billion hour television wedding special, and, of course, on their divorce after 72 days. I wish I didn’t know any of that.
So I read the article, in the Wall Street Journal of all places, and was relieved to discover that I wasn’t as current in my Kardashian knowledge as I had feared. I seem to have, thankfully, missed this bit:
Mason saying hello to God makes Scott think he should rediscover his Judaism.
You can see the exchange in the first minute of this clip:
If we’ve said it once, we’ve said it a hundred times: talk about religion before you have kids! By the look on both Scott and Kourtney’s faces (not to mention Kim, Kourtney’s sister), they’ve clearly never discussed the religious upbringing of their son before. (I stopped watching this clip when Scott was accused of not being a “real Jew” because he didn’t know Bible stories. Knowledge does not a Jew make…)
Now if, like me, you were thrown by the two names without Ks, let me explain. Scott is the on-again-off-again boyfriend of Kourtney Kardashian. Mason is their toddler. I hadn’t known that Scott was Jewish – did you?
In this clip (about 20 seconds in), we see Scott heading to a learner’s service at a synagogue:
Someone get Scott a clip or bobby-pin to keep his kippah on!
The recap continues, showing that Kourtney wasn’t exactly supportive of Scott’s exploration:
Scott talks to Kourtney more about his Judaism. She says “There is no way that Scott is going to risk messing up his hair and wearing his yarmulke.”
Things start off with Scott Disick, Kourtney’s boyfriend, and the father of their two-year-old boy, Mason; deciding that he wants to get back to his true self and explore his Jewish heritage. He’d like to have some sort of religion in his life that he can pass on to his kids.
Kourtney laughs at the idea, saying Scott’s interest in Judaism is just “another one of his fads and he’ll be over it in a week.” She reminds him later that at one point he wanted to be a race car driver too and that went nowhere.
The above exchange and the following can be viewed in this clip.
Back to the WSJ‘s recap:
And Scott, in his velvet blazer, is trying to put on a Shabbat dinner, while Kourtney looks on wondering “Do you know how to set a table?” He says a tablecloth is part of the tradition. Um, yeah, it’s not.
Then he suddenly says he’s like the worst Jew ever and doesn’t know what he’s doing. “I don’t want to do this,” he says and stalks off, leaving tons of full shopping bags, and candlesticks half full.
But Kourtney is sympathetic, saying he seems so vulnerable. He says her questions have made him feel worse, and she admits she’s been giving him a hard time but now she thinks it’s great. And she says we’ll have a nice dinner and she will help.
So, do you watch these K-shows? What do you think? Publicity stunt or something more genuine?
SMITH Magazine and our friends at Reboot have teamed up and need your help: They’re seeking “six-word memoirs on the Jewish life.” The best ones will be included in a new book, Oy! Only Six? Why Not More — Six Words on the Jewish Life, out in early 2012.
Need some inspiration? Check out the “memoirs” submitted by others here or watch the video:
If you watch the video trailer for the book, you’ll notice that there are a whole bunch of succinct memoirs touching on interfaith families, which is great! But let’s help them collect memoirs from the full diversity of our community.
I recently spent an hour with religious school teachers in a Reform synagogue, talking about the children from interfaith homes in their classrooms. It amazed me just how emotional and personal even talking about interfaith families was for them. Everyone had a story to share about someone in his or her own family who intermarried or a story about what a child said in the classroom.
It was clear that at this time of year especially, children in Reform religious schools are talking about Hanukkah and Christmas. They are talking about the Christmas trees in their own homes; they are talking about going to their grandparents’ for Christmas; they are discussing how many presents they are going to get; they are trying to work out who they are, what they are experiencing and what it all means.
We grappled with what the “best” response should be when children share parts of their lives that involve family members who aren’t Jewish or experiences such as going to church. Should the teacher just say, “Thank you for sharing that but now we are focusing on learning about Judaism…” and just move on in the lesson? Should the teacher say, “Wow…our Jewish families are each different. Some of you have a parent who isn’t Jewish or wasn’t born Jewish, some of you have cousins and grandparents who aren’t Jewish… but there are lots of things that tie each of you together. Each of you is here because your parents hope you find meaning in Judaism.” Should the teacher stop the lesson and explain that each of us is made up of many traits, attributes, relationships and talents? Some of us are sisters or brothers. We are a daughter or son. We are neighbors and friends. Some of us are known by the sports we play, the art we create, our abilities in math. Some of us are known by our humor or our generosity. We are many things, but in amongst our traits is our Judaism and that is why we are here… to learn about that part of us.
The religious school teachers and I debated how to best approach a lesson with language that would be the most sensitive and inclusive to a child who has a parent who isn’t Jewish. Is it okay to make blanket statements such as, “Jewish homes have mezuzot,” when in fact some of the children (whether both parents are Jewish or not) have a Jewish home without a mezuzah? Or is it better to talk about some Jewish homes having this or that and explain the meaning behind the ritual or tradition followed by sending materials home so that parents can learn about the ideas as well and have a chance to discuss with their children whether that tradition feels right for their family?
Is it possible to be sensitive to every unique kind of family so that no child in the room could possibly feel alienated or marginalized? Some teachers wondered if they could say anything at all that wouldn’t rub one child or another the wrong way. I think that when a teacher speaks from his or her heart and soul about his or her own love of Jewish living, and when a teacher imagines that each child in his or her class is the current link in our chain of tradition that goes back thousands of years, and when a teacher gets to know the parents of the children in his or her class so that the teacher can be as understanding as possible of where that child is coming from so that the teacher can make the bridge from the class to the car ride home to the dinner table to the tuck-in time at night… that teacher has done everything he or she can do to fulfill the mandate to teach our children from the V’ahavta (the full version of the Shema which instructs us to, among other things, “teach our children diligently.”)
In the last Hanukkah blog post, I pointed out JWA’s request for progressive, Jewish holiday videos. And they’ve followed up, suggesting that the Fountainhead’s “Light Up The Night” might be the answer:
Our goal is to produce fun and meaningful music videos that put smiles on people’s faces and help them connect with their Jewishness in new ways. We also want to showcase the diverse, vibrant and highly-engaged Israeli-Jewish identity that is emerging in our generation of Israelis today.
The Jewish federation of Chicago (Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago) took a different approach in their video, asking you to show your “inner Maccabee” this year. Thankfully, they actually want you to do good deeds, be kind and practice tikkun olam, and not actually emulate the Maccabee’s religious fanaticism, violence or frequent parricides.
I want to like the premise of this one except… Hanukkah’s not actually a major holiday. The significance of Hanukkah for the Jews doesn’t compare to the religious significance of Christmas for Christians. (Minor holiday elevated to fill the dark nights of winter versus the birth of Christianity’s messiah? Not really on the same level…) Nonetheless, it has some amusing moments:
Also for kids? Behrman House has published a Hanukkah story, Too Many Latkes, as an interactive iPad app! It’s full of fun features, and your little kids can press a button to have the app read the story out loud in the pre-recorded voice – or in yours! You can check out their video introduction to the app or head over to the app store to download it yourself.
But back to the videos. When I first saw this one, I didn’t get why folks were hatin’ on it. But then I kept watching… There’s someone in blackface. (Not ok!) But on the other hand, it’s probably the most accessible in terms of language… But… I don’t know. What do you think?
Pella busts out some boy band a capella moves in their “Holiday Party” (to the tune of Hot Chelle Rae’s “Tonight Tonight”), which goes through not only Hanukkah, but all the Jewish holidays.
This one’s an older tune. I think I first heard Eric “Smooth-E” Schwartz’s Jewish parody tunes in 2001; one of his Passover songs made the rounds for years, falsely attributed to many different people. Anyway, here’s his ode to Hanukkah gelt, “Chocolate Gelt.”
And let’s end with a video that came out oh, I don’t know, about three minutes ago. My buddy Naomi Less singing her new “8 Nights” song. She prefaces the video with
This winter 18 Jewish social entrepreneurs from several countries worldwide shared images about their personal meanings of Hanukkah – seeing a miracle inside of someone during the season
I admit that I recognize too many people in the video to not be biased in its favor…
If you’ve seen other Hanukkah videos you think we should share, post them in the comments or email them to me (email@example.com). Bonus gelt if they include interfaith families!
Last week the UJA-Federation of New York released what could be the most important report ever written for the field of engaging interfaith families in Jewish life and community.
The report, of the Federation’s Task Force on Welcoming Interfaith Families, recognizes that there is potential for Jewish engagement among interfaith families that is not being fulfilled and recommends
an approach that unapologetically announces its welcome, provides sustained, networked, professionally staffed, and well-advertised gateway educational programs targeted to interfaith couples and families, and provides ongoing training for professionals and lay leaders.
At InterfaithFamily.com we have long advocated for the need for comprehensive, coordinated local programs for people in interfaith relationships. Our InterfaithFamily/Your Community initiative, with InterfaithFamily/Chicago as its first implementation, is based on a three-pronged approach of web platform publicity, trainings, and programs. We find it incredibly affirming that the staff and board of the UJA-Federation of New York – one of the most highly-regarded organizations in the entire Jewish world – has now endorsed that approach.
Wertheimer first argues that welcoming interfaith families is not necessary because there is no evidence that interfaith families do not feel welcome in the Jewish community. I wonder if he has ever spent any time talking with interfaith families about their experiences. The Task Force did, and reported on what it heard in its deliberations. At InterfaithFamily.com we do, and hear about unwelcoming experiences all the time.
Wertheimer next argues that the voices of intermarrieds and their children themselves explain their complex or non-existing relationship with organized Jewish life. He actually suggests that material on InterfaithFamily.com supports his view:
Thanks to websites such as Interfaithfamily.com, it is easy to access [the views of intermarrieds and their children]. Many write candidly about the deep religious fissures running through families, about the impossible dilemmas posed by dual-religion households, about personal psychological barriers to participation in Jewish life.
The plain truth is that there are hundreds of positive personal narratives on our site of happy families who are not experiencing division or conflict over their different religious backgrounds and who are engaging in Jewish life and community. The fact the Wertheimer could summarize our material in the skewed way that he does suggests that he is simply blind to any reality that does not fit his world view that intermarriage is bad.
Wertheimer refers to “the religious and communal imperative to perpetuate Jewish life through endogamy.” I’ve written before that encouraging in-marriage is a strategy that is bound to produce fewer Jews by alienating the many who will intermarry anyway.
Wertheimer concludes by suggesting that the UJA-Federation of New York should assert that “intermarriage is bad for the Jewish people and the perpetuation of Judaism.” To the contrary, we should all be deeply grateful to the lay and professional leaders of the Federation for rejecting that approach and choosing instead to embrace the reality of intermarriage and respond to it in a way that maximizes the opportunities for Jewish outcomes.
Yes, it means 11 more days until Christmas, 6 more days until Hanukkah and 12 days until Kwanza!
But, it also means 17 more days to get your end-of-the-year contributions in to your favorite charity (InterfaithFamily.com, perhaps?). Last night, I went online and made my personal contributions. In addition to volunteering my time at local nonprofits, I give what I can. Why? Because I know that every gift can make a difference, no matter the amount. So, if you like what we do, please consider making a small donation. Believe it not, a $5 contribution can make a difference, and, even better, when we get a bunch of $5 donations, they add up!
This year, InterfaithFamily.com is aiming to receive contributions from 1,800 supporters. Please help us reach our goal.
Why give to IntefaithFamily.com? Your contribution, no matter what amount, will be have a tremendous impact. In the last twelve months, 563,0000 people visited our website. Over 2,040 people requested clergy to officiate their lifecycle event. 172,000 people accessed our “Jewish Holidays Cheat Sheet.” Talk about impact!
Thank you for making a contribution to InterfaithFamily.com. We look forward to continuing to support interfaith families exploring Jewish life in the year to come.