The Trees Are Coming!

Tu Bishvat is two weeks away!

As I said last year, “It’s a minor holiday and, as such, I think it gets lost among the bigger, better known holidays. But there’s a lot to it – and it’s a great way to gather friends and family in your home on a cool winter’s night to remind ourselves that, if nothing else, spring will soon be here.”

If you haven’t already, check out our beautiful new booklet on Tu Bishvat. It explains the historical roots of the holiday and Judaism’s long-standing sacred connection to trees and the environment. You’ll also find suggestions for activities for young children and ideas for hosting a Tu Bishvat seder.

And don’t let the spelling confusion prevent you from trying out this holiday!

It’s less than three weeks away, and you’ve started getting emails about Tu Bishvat events. You’re probably also getting emails about Tu B’Shvat and Tu B’Shevat, whatever those are. This blog has previously explained why “Tu Bishvat” is correct, while “Tu B’Shvat” and “Tu B’Shevat” are WRONG WRONG WRONG.

If you’re curious as to why Tu Bishvat is often spelled differently, or why this isn’t a difference of opinion (like the Hanukkah/Chanukah debate), check out The War on Tu Bishvat on the Mah Rabu blog. Why is proper spelling of this transliteration important?

Safeguarding the Earth’s future requires being prepared to accept inconvenient truths, whether that means the dangerous effects we are having on the climate, or whether that means that the first vowel in “Bishvat” isn’t the vowel you thought it was.

And, bonus!, we got a shout out on a subsequent Mah Rabu blog post for being among the few, the proud, the knowers of proper Tu Bishvat spelling.

Ready? Check out our collection of resources for hosting your own seder (festive meal) this year. Do you celebrate Tu Bishvat another way? Let us know! (I can’t be the only one thinking outside the box (or, rather, getting inspiration from TV’s How I Met Your Mother) by hosting a Tu Bishvat Pajama Jammy Jam…)

We Have a Say in Israel?

This article from the JTA is far too short, but let’s our imaginations run wild:

A substantial majority of Israelis want the country’s lawmakers to consider Diaspora Jewry when devising new legislation on Jewish identity issues, according to a poll.

Seventy-seven percent of respondents to a survey carried out last week by the Ruderman Family Foundation agreed that it was extremely important for members of the Knesset to consider Diaspora views, The Jerusalem Post reported.

The 509 Israeli adults were answering the question, “How important do you believe it is for Israeli lawmakers to consider the views of Jews in the Diaspora when creating legislation such as ‘Who is a Jew?’ ”

According to The Jerusalem Post, the poll was administered ahead of an event sponsored by the Israeli-American Jewish Knesset caucus in order to raise awareness on the important relationship between Israel and world Jewry.

Wow. Can you imagine what would happen if every single person who converted under Reform, Reconstructionist, or Conservative guidance in the Diaspora contacted Israelis, imploring them to view non-Orthodox conversions as “just as Jewish” as Orthodox conversions? Can you imagine what would happen if every single child of an intermarriage contacted Israelis, urging them to see their families, bar or bat mitzvahs, and marriages as “just as Jewish” as the child of inmarried parents? Can you imagine what would happen if every single Jewish organization that welcomes, includes, or otherwise supports interfaith families contacted Israeli organizations and explained their reasons for being welcoming, inclusive, and supportive of interfaith families in Israel?

77% of Israeli respondents think Diaspora Jews need to be kept in mind when Israeli law defines “who is a Jew.” Interfaith families are Jewish families in the Diaspora – and should be recognized as such in Israel as well.

[sub](Hat tip to Jeremy Burton's tweet, alerting me to this article.)[/sub]

Interfaith Family Shabbat- Total Joy

Friday, January 13, we hosted a JCC Makor Shabbat for Interfaith Families with Young Children, a community dinner organized by the JCC Shure Kehilla. The guidelines for the dinner we hosted were that participants need to be 21-39, and some of the parents who came to our house were pushing this, but everyone loved the idea of a program whose aim is to connect this cohort with great Jewish happenings all around Chicagoland. The night we held our interfaith family Shabbat, there were three other community Shabbat dinners organized by the Kehilla happening in the city (blue-line Shabbat, travelers Shabbat, music and arts) and another taking place out in Wheeling.
 
Preparing to host this Shabbat was exciting and inspiring. Typically our family lights the candles, takes a sip of wine or juice, and eats some challah. We parents then whispered a blessing to our children while holding their heads in our hands (my favorite part of the whole week) and then Evan runs off to lead services at Congregation Solel and I put our two-year-old and four-year-old to bed. 

For this Shabbat, however, we were having four other couples with their combined eight children to our home for blessings, dinner, schmoozing and playing. I started by getting the whole house organized and cleaned up (which actually felt really good to do).  Then I went to Taboun Grill to pick up the food the JCC had ordered. When I got there, I met Genia who runs the Russian Hillel. I have known Genia in name for years through the work I have done in and around Odessa, Ukraine, but she didn’t know me. I was so excited to learn that she had become a Jewish professional in Chicago. I got to connect with her in person over some tea while we waited for our orders to be packed. (Genia was hosting the Wheeling Shabbat for Jews in the ‘Burbs, another of these community dinners organized through the Kehilla.) We talked about interfaith couples in the Russian community and what she is seeing in terms of identity and interests of her students.
 
Back home, we were still expecting four families to join us. One is made up of my childhood friend. We had lost touch and reconnected on Facebook a couple of years ago, only to find out that we both lived in Chicago with children the same age. She is married to someone not Jewish and they are raising Jewish kids, have a Jewish home, belong to a synagogue, send their son to the preschool there and celebrate Shabbat weekly with her husband’s family, who now loves Shabbat as well! One couple lives right next door to us and are still deciding what feels comfortable to them in terms of raising their children with Judaism. The husband, who is Jewish, has a long-time family connection to a temple here, and they say they will join a temple and send their children to religious school. Another couple included a mom who had converted to Judaism; they are raising two Jewish boys. They seek out anything family-oriented that is Jewish. The last couple has one partner who is Jewish and one partner who is Catholic; they are raising their children with an appreciation of both faiths. This shows the spectrum of interfaith families and the different decisions families make. There was a warmth and almost palpable holiness in the room when we said the blessings and prayed that our children stay safe and know peace. Everybody loved the food, parents enjoyed meeting each other, and the kids had a blast running around our basement building with blocks, dressing up and playing games. Our four-year-old told us that she loved our Shabbat party.
 
This was the most joyous Shabbat we have had in a long time. Evan and I said to each other that we should try to have families over at least once a month. Some families regularly have guests over and know this kind of energy and spirit weekly! Since we have had children, we don’t host guests nearly as much or enough. Shabbat is the perfect chance to bring people together in your home and feel the stress of the week slide away, to let time not matter for a few hours, to laugh and to feel connected. That is how we felt. We felt connected. Connected to generations and traditions of the past, connected to our neighbors, connected to our children… Connected to the new way we are going to “do” Shabbat, the traditions we are going to establish as parents now (different from what we grew up with). I loved every minute of our JCC Makor Shabbat for Interfaith Families with Children. In Hebrew each day of the week counts up to Shabbat (day one, day two, day three…), and now I know why in a way I hadn’t remembered for quite a long time…

Jewish Identity

A video has been making the rounds that explores what Jewish identity can mean – maybe you’ve seen it on Facebook already. It took me a while to get past the opening montage; I’m not a fan of “Jewish” being tied to Holocaust imagery, and the song from Schindler’s List is a little heavy-handed. But I stuck with it and found it interesting.

Watch it through, and let me know: Were you to create a video, poem or rant about how you relate to Judaism as an individual, what would you say? How would it differ from Andrew Lustig’s (that’s him in the video)? Would you mention your interfaith family, extended family, being a Jew by choice?

Kosher Jesus?

A difference between Christians and Jews, one could say, is that Christians believe the Messiah came (you might have heard of him – a fellow named Jesus?), while Jews are still waiting for the Messiah. Over the years, this basic difference has become, amongst some sects, more confusing:
[list][*] – some Orthodox (Chabad or Lubavitch) Jews believe their late-rebbe is the messiah;[/*]
[*] – Jews for Jesus and other Messianic Jews usually identify themselves as Jews who believe in Jesus as Messiah and as part of the Trinity, though they are Christians.[/*][/list]

But, Messianic Jews and some Chabadniks/Lubavitchers aside, the broad distinction remains; Jews and Christians view the role and level of importance of Jesus, as it pertains to their own theology, quite differently.

Until now? In his soon-to-be-published book, Kosher Jesus, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is making some unusual statements.

Boteach said he regrets that Jews allowed Jesus “to be ripped away from them without even a fight.”

“We just accepted a Christian interpretation of his life and narrative,” he said. “One of the most influential people of all time is seen as a Christian who loved the Romans and said about the Jews that they are all the children of the devil.”

But “Christian ideas of Jesus as divine messiah emerged as a savvy adaptation following the destruction of the Second Temple,” Boteach explained. Once Jews understand that, he writes that they “can take inspiration from Jesus’ often beautiful ethical teachings and appreciate Jesus as a devoted Jewish son who became martyred while trying to lift the Roman yoke of oppression from his beloved people.”

The excerpt, from an interview with Ha’aretz, continues. Let me quote Shmarya Rosenberg of FailedMessiah.com:

Enter Jesus, the latest subject of Boteach’s ‘scholarship.’

Boteach is about to publish a new book called “Kosher Jesus.” To be sure, there is no shortage of hucksters and delusional messianic types writing books about the man-god, but most of those less than honest writers don’t command the media audience our slurping egomaniac does. That means Botech has the potential to do more good or, more likely, more harm, than they do.

Ha’aretz interviewed Boteach about his latest ‘scholarship’ which, Ha’aretz says, is based primarily on another non-expert, the late British author Hyam Maccoby. Maccoby’s works are based on outdated science and were rejected by scholars almost out of hand when they were originally published because Maccoby has a tendency to make the facts fit his theories rather than letting the facts shape his theories. And this bodes poorly for Boteach’s book.

That said, Ha’aretz reports that Jewish-Christian relations expert Rabbi Jeremy Rosen likes Boteach’s book, so perhaps Boteach has managed to avoid doing any serious damage.

On the other hand, Alan Dershowitz endorses the book (but not necessarily its content) and the unber-crazy, uber-irresponsible hard right radio show host Glenn Beck endorses it. Make of this what you will.

Here’s some of what King Shmuley the Self-Anointed told Ha’aretz:

“This book is telling the Jews to reclaim Jesus, the authentic Jesus, the historical Jesus, the Jewish Jesus” and to be inspired by his “beautiful” teachings, the U.S.-born author and TV show host told Anglo File this week in Jerusalem. “It’s asking Christians to make an effort to enrich their Christianity through an understanding of the Jewishness of Jesus.”

“Suddenly we have evangelical Christians emerging as the foremost supporters of the state of Israel,” he said. “We have this political alliance. What is a lacking is a theological bridge.”

“Christians don’t know the Jewish Jesus,” Boteach continued. “They know the Christ-divinity but not the Jewish man Jesus. There’s a need to discover the humanity of Jesus.”

“Kosher Jesus” amalgamates research (mostly by Hyam Maccoby ) which suggests that the gospels give the wrong impression of Jesus. “There was a lot of embellishment and editing,” Boteach said. “We have to remember Paul [the apostle] never met Jesus. He cannot offer us a first-hand account of Jesus’ life.”

Christian scripture “doesn’t add up” when it portray Jesus as a self-hating Jew, or when it lists sins that allegedly led Jews to condemn him, Boteach said. Jesus never declared himself God or meant to abolish Jewish law, he asserts.

And the fact that Jesus thought of himself as the messiah shouldn’t bother Jews, he insists: “I could declare myself the messiah right now. There’s nothing blasphemous about this,” Boteach said. “I even encourage people to have a certain messianic tendency in their lives, a desire to redeem the world.”

[/quote]

Lest this post come across as too biased, here are other hechsher-from-rabbi-shmuley-boteach">reviews, plus Rabbi Shmuley’s own take.

What do you think? Will you be reading the book? Will it further relations and bridge-building between Christians and Jews? Are you, like Shmarya Rosenberg, skeptical and worried?

A Mover and Shaker

We’re thrilled that our friend Elana MacGilpin, one of our Parenting Blog regulars, was recognized by the Connecticut Jewish Ledger as one of their 2011 Movers and Shakers!

The article notes that Elana is best known for is coordinating outreach programs specifically for interfaith families and couples. Elana is quoted as saying, “One of the great challenges and opportunities of the current and future Jewish community is to provide a warm and welcoming environment for interfaith families and extended family members who aren’t Jewish… Interfaith families are searching for ways to connect with the Jewish community and Judaism in ways that are comfortable as well as meaningful.”

Jewish communities don’t often enough single out for praise people working to engage interfaith families in Jewish life and community. It’s significant that both the Hartford federation president and JCC executive director sing Elana’s praises in this article. And the honor couldn’t happen to a nicer and more dedicated and capable person. Congratulations!

Remembering Newt Becker

As you can imagine, there have been a lot of ups and downs for me since starting InterfaithFamily.com, Inc. ten years ago. I have a very distinct memory of one of the high points. Although I’m not completely certain where it happened – I believe it was at the then-United Jewish Communities General Assembly in Cleveland in 2004 where we had a booth in the exhibit hall – I specifically remember a man I didn’t know stopping by our booth and starting to talk. It was the start of a wonderful and sustaining relationship with Newt Becker, who sadly died two days ago.

If the Jewish world had more philanthropists like Newt Becker, we would be in much better condition. Not that it was easy to gain his support – in fact he was very inquisitive and he was very tough-minded. I have six pages of notes from a phone call with Newt in October 2005 filled with his questions on what we were doing and suggestions for projects we should undertake. He gave me many names of people to call and I noted “use Newt’s name” by each one of them.

I have an email Newt sent to a colleague, a professional fundraiser, after that call. He said he had made a commitment to IFF “but Edmund needs more than money.” He asked his friend to critique my powerpoint and pointed out a slide that he thought was important and missing. Fortunately, although the presentation needed improvement, Newt said that I was a “serious person.” The commitment he made was the largest individual gift we received in our early years.

We talked once or twice a year and the calls always lasted at least an hour. Newt wanted to know what was going on and when it was something he knew about – like distance learning and web based instruction and local chapters in our case – he shared his experience, made suggestions, and asked to review what we came up with. But he was very generous, and he was a committed funder over the years, and one of the nicest things he ever did was increase his gift by 25%  – without being asked – after Madoff and the economic downturn in late 2008. The last time I talked to Newt this fall, in response to a matching challenge, he increased his gift again, this time by 33%.

Engaging interfaith families in Jewish life was not a popular funding area in 2005 (it still isn’t popular enough) but I don’t think Newt cared much about what was popular or not. He didn’t hesitate to support our efforts and my notes and emails are replete with his comments that the federations and movements should be doing more.

I didn’t really know Newt personally but I’m fortunate to have gotten to know his daughter-in-law Ann a little more. I’m sure Newt was a loving parent and grandparent because he often spoke to me proudly about his family, and because Ann has often mentioned happy family occasions like her son’s recent Bar Mitzvah. I hope Newt’s family will find comfort in what should be an outpouring of affection and gratitude for the very positive impact he had on our world.

Is This You?

InterfaithFamily/Chicago is offering our first two classes this year, which I am excited to be facilitating.

The first class is for interdating or newly married interfaith couples, offering the chance to think through how they want to bring religion into their lives. The second class is for interfaith families with young children, trying to figure out how to bring aspects of Judaism to their home (more than just Hanukkah!). This class with help the parent who isn’t Jewish gain knowledge about major aspects of Judaism that directly impact parenting and to see which of these traditions they feel comfortable embracing and making their own. 

As I have been talking to different people about both of these classes, a couple of interesting things have come up. Here are two scenarios I have heard:

[list]
[*]1. I Don’t Get It/Want it/Seek It:[/*][/list]
This is the sentiment I have heard from the Jewish parent who thinks they have no interest in joining a synagogue, attending Shabbat activities or the like. Maybe this partner grew up minimally connected to Judaism, and married someone who is minimally connected to their own religion. For this parent, it can be a hard sell to talk about religiosity, traditions, blessings and customs. For the partner who grew up Jewish but didn’t “do” much Judaism in the home, who attended Sunday School and then maybe stopped going to synagogue after their bar or bat mitzvah, there may not be too many warm Jewish experiences to draw on, let alone share with their children. Some Jewish traditions may be just as new for this partner as for their partner who isn’t Jewish. This partner feels they have a full life, a busy life, a life with a good community of friends. Maybe holidays are still celebrated secularly at extended families’ homes, but this family isn’t looking to bring “too much” religion to their lives. These parents want their children to be good people who make their world a better place. Lighting Shabbat candles would seem awkward, unfamiliar and unnecessary. 

To these families I say, you don’t think you want the rubrics of religion in your lives but your children, like you, crave rituals and order, meaning and purpose.  Every Jewish tradition and holiday has an ethical message or undertone to it.  Lighting the Shabbat candles is as much about the spiritual as it is about the ethical, bringing family together for a special meal and time to share once a week. The Hebrew and blessings will come as you feel comfortable, but there is room within authentic Judaism for you to “do” Judaism in your own way, with your own language and your own interpretations, filling you in ways you may not yet be able to imagine. 

[list]
[*]2. We are Not Religious, We are Spiritual:[/*][/list]
Sometimes when an interfaith couple meets with me to prepare for their wedding, and they say they are not religious, it is because neither partner wants to offend the other by bringing too much of their religion to the ceremony or their lives. They fear it would make the other partner feel alienated and left-out. Or maybe these two partners really do not have knowledge, familiarity or comfort with their religions’ traditions and see organized Judaism as boring and irrelevant. This couple may care about feeling spiritual and may seek out spiritual outlets by partaking in nature activities, yoga or discussing philosophy, but they don’t access spirituality through traditional Judaism. 

To these couples I say, there is no such thing as “traditional” Judaism. You can connect to authentic Judaism, which is so richly spiritual that hearing the words of old told through a modern lens will fill you with awe, wonder, inspiration, joy and connectedness (that perhaps you never felt growing up at synagogue!). You can connect to Judaism today through nature, through yoga, through meditation, through study, social justice, and just hanging out with other interfaith couples and talking about what’s really important in your lives and families.

* * *

If any part of either or both of these scenarios resonates for you at all, join us for the Raising a Child with Judaism in Your Interfaith Family course or Love and Religion workshop.     

Love and Religion – Online is a four-session workshop for interfaith couples who are seriously dating or newly married, on exploring the issue of religion in their relationships. This workshop offers a safe environment for couples to work on creating religious lives together. The sessions will be each Wednesday for four weeks, starting February 1 in person, and then online February 8, 15 and 22. Each session runs 7:00-9:00pm and includes online resources including facilitation via videoconferencing. The cost is $36 per couple.

Interested couples can learn more, and watch a short video, about the workshop and then find more details and register here.

Raising a Child with Judaism in Your Interfaith Family is a one-of-a-kind, eight-session class for interfaith parents thinking about whether and how to bring Judaism to their home, their lives and their parenting. This class runs February 27 through April 27. Participants will learn one session each week online, with two additional in-person meetings for the whole family: a Shabbat experience on March 23 and a wrap-up session on April 22.

Each of the eight sessions addresses a major parenting situation, looking at how Jewish teachings and traditions offer insights into making these times meaningful and spiritual. We will explore bedtime and meal-times, marking time with meaning on a weekly and yearly basis, doing good deeds, loving learning, spirituality and personal journeys. Class materials include: background essays and slide shows on Jewish teachings; “hear/read” resources to help participants learn how to say blessings; videos; family projects; bedtime book suggestions; personal stories written by other interfaith families; journaling questions and discussion prompts for talk between partners and with other parents; and more!

Interested parents can get more details and register for the class here.

The stuff of identity (childhood memories and experiences, what works for you today, what’s important to you right now) is so complicated and can’t be summed up or wrapped up neatly in a scenario. But these are all of the kinds of things we can explore more deeply in these classes. I look forward to learning with you!

Welcoming Communities

One of our readers wanted to make sure I (and through me, all of you) saw this blog post. Part of the Reform movement’s “Spotlight on Welcoming Interfaith,” the author writes about feeling like an outsider as a non-Jewish parent raising a Jewish family.

We contacted their Day School and set-up an interview.  “You know, I’m not Jewish”, was one of my 1st comments.  Their response was “Many of our mom’s are not Jewish.  You’ll find lots of friends here”.  And, they were right.

I found a community where I was not just accepted, but embraced – a community where I did not have to give up who I was – a school able to provide our son a wonderful education integrated with strong reform Jewish values – a school family willing to take me from my childlike desire to understand this culture to a more mature understanding of the Jewish faith and traditions.  I found a home away from home where l’dor v’dor included both my Appalachian Christian family and my husband’s Iraqi ancestors.

Suddenly, there was an extended Day School family who made sure that we were invited to Shabbat dinners, Passover Seders, and Chanukah parties.  Like a family, they seemed to actually enjoy my childlike enthusiasm to learn the hows and whys of Jewish traditions.  Like a family, they cried with me when my father died.  They were there to celebrate our son’s bar mitzvah and to make sure my Christian family members were embraced and welcomed, just as I had been 7 years earlier.

I think this speaks to the power that we as Jewish professionals, organizations, lay leaders, and just “regular” members of the Jewish communities, have in ensuring that all are welcomed and accepted.

As professionals, think about the answers you give new or potential members in your synagogues or schools, look at how you can make your website more welcoming by adding statements of inclusion, and find more resources and tips in our Resource Center for Program Providers.