Trees Are Sensitive

For years now, synagogues and Jewish community centers have been offering “December Dilemma” programs. The programs are centered on figuring out what to do as an interfaith family about the Christmas tree and all that comes with it in a Jewish home with children being raised with Judaism.

One might wonder why a Jewish family would have to figure out whether to have a tree in the home or not, because for some, the answer is clearly not. Yet we all know Jewish families that do enjoy decorating a tree and bringing Christmas symbols into the home.

Everyone has an opinion about this. Does this confuse children? Does this commercialize and secularize Christmas? Religion and identity are fluid and there are more grays than blacks and whites when it comes to emotions. For a parent who isn’t Jewish or even for a parent who has converted to Judaism, even if they are living a Jewish life and raising Jewish children, holidays may bring up feelings that still resonate. Should a parent helping to foster a Jewish family tell children that Christmas is a holiday that some in the family celebrate and keep Christmas separate from the home entirely — perhaps celebrating it at the grandparents’ Christian home instead?

In this open age when Christmas seems everywhere and we celebrate holidays with a multi-cultural mindset, it might seemed outdated, unnecessary, or irrelevant to need December Dilemma programs. Families do a mix of things already — from Buddhist meditation and finding spirituality in nature, to sending holiday greeting cards blending the names of the holidays into one fun, festive, family-centered, gift-giving, giving-back, time of warmth, lights and togetherness.

When a local reporter asked me to put her in touch with interfaith families in the area who could share their approach to the holidays, I thought I would have many emails to share with her. I asked all the participants in any workshop or class we have offered if anyone had time and interest in talking with a reporter. I posted a question to Facebook about what families in the area are doing around Christmas and Hanukkah. And I posted it as a discussion question on the Chicagoland homepage. Nobody wanted to talk to a reporter. Fascinating!

I could be wrong, but it seems that families are hesitant to so publically admit, declare, or share that in fact they are a Jewish family who “does” Christmas. We live such open and public lives and share all kinds of personal information daily… yet there is something about this tree that is still so emotional.

Are parents worried about being judged? Are parents worried that they have to defend their choices and prove their Jewishness more at this time? I look forward to hearing from you to help explain whether you still feel scrutinized and judged for the decisions you make around the holidays. Is this one time of year that still brings sadness, a sense of loss, or conflict because no matter what is decided as a family, one partner still feels that it is not exactly what they feel comfortable with or hoped for? Are December Dilemma programs still valuable if the stigma of attending can be overcome?

Welcoming in Philadelphia

Wondering what we’re up to in Philadelphia? The Jewish Exponent has a new article highlighting our new branch, InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia, and the resources we bring to the community.

Starting with marriage as the entry point to the article, they write:

For many interfaith families, the wedding ceremony is the point of entry into Jewish life and also a potential point of tension and conflict. A new group, InterfaithFamily, has just set up shop in Philadelphia to help families navigate such obstacles, from finding a rabbi to officiate to helping them feel more welcome. It could be the biggest local development in interfaith engagement in years.

We certainly hope we are!

For more than two decades, there was a conflict within much of the Jewish community over whether to adopt a more open, welcoming attitude toward interfaith families. Those opposed to embracing such families argued that intermarriage was threatening the future of the Jewish people and communal organizations needed to redouble their efforts to prevent such marriages from taking place.

Though the debate still goes on, decision-makers who favor a more open approach now appear to hold sway at many local communal organizations and congregations.

The 2009 “Jewish Population Study of Greater Philadelphia” revealed that the intermarriage rate has reached 45 percent for Jews under 40 in the five-county region, with only 29 percent of intermarried couples of all ages raising their children solely as Jews.

Those results raised calls for the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, which sponsored the study, and other groups to come up with ways to reach this population and encourage parents to educate and raise their children as Jews.

One way Federation has responded is by facilitating the merger of two organizations. InterFaithways, a small, local organization that has struggled financially in the last few years, has become part of InterfaithFamily, a 13-year-old organization with a national reputation that recently opened branches in San Francisco and Chicago. (The legal process of merging locally is expected to be completed by the new year.)

InterfaithFamily’s local branch will maintain a comprehensive database of clergy members who will perform interfaith ceremonies as well as provide other services. The group will also introduce two new educational initiatives, first introduced in Chicago, that are aimed at interfaith couples.

But wait, there’s not just this one article. The Jewish Exponent has a few other columns of interest to our readers.

There’s an interesting editorial piece on welcoming interfaith couples/families. It starts:

For those not inclined to bury their heads in the sand, it’s time to recognize an established fact: The tide has turned when it comes to intermarriage. While many of us rightly worry about the long-term impact of the escalating number of intermarriages on our community, it is wiser to address the issue openly and honestly than to pretend it doesn’t exist.

Then there’s an opinion column from a rabbi, addressing how synagogues and rabbis might welcome (“embrace”) intermarried couples and their families.

And the last that I’ll mention here is a really lovely column by a woman (“I had cornered the market on non-Jewish credentials. I was a card-carrying member of the Mayflower Society, the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Colonial Dames. I was a practicing Episcopalian.”) who married a Jewish man, the “son of Holocaust survivors.” She goes on to talk about how she found many wonderfully welcoming places and individuals in the Jewish community, people who shaped her life — and her family’s. Definitely worth a read.

We Must Be Doing Something Right

Yesterday my 8-year-old son came home and told my husband a troubling story about a comment another child made to him at his after school program.

Apparently, during a conversation with some other children, my son mentioned that he was Jewish. This other child said “Yeah, well, Jewish people are weird.” At this point in hearing the story, I think I began holding my breath. My initial reaction was, “Oh no, I’m not prepared to deal with this yet! What do I say? How do I help him deal with this?” Panic set in. I asked my husband what he had said to our son when he told him. My husband’s response was to acknowledge that the other child was ignorant and probably didn’t know any other Jewish people — and left it at that.

This morning I asked my son about the comment and how he reacted. He said he told the kid, “DUDE, that’s not nice! Saying that hurts my feelings.” WHOO HOO! I was so proud of him for standing up for himself and told him so. Then he told me he didn’t understand why the other child had said this. “Aren’t Jews exactly the same as Christians?”

Ignorance is a hard concept to explain to an 8-year-old. We talked a bit more about how there are people out there who sometimes don’t like you because you believe something different than they do. You should listen to what they have to say and, if it’s said because they don’t know any better, then you have to stand up for your beliefs like he did with this child.

If anyone has had any similar experiences, or has any advice on how to talk to children about these issues, I’d love to hear them. In the meantime, I’m just proud of my son for standing up for himself!

The Struggle to Tolerate the Intolerant… One Parent’s View

I heard someone say, “I hate the xxxx people. They are so intolerant.” I thought this was a very hypocritical statement and it was very… well, intolerant. You can insert any extremist group for xxxx, but the person seemed to think that they were very progressive and open minded in their thinking. I thought otherwise. I have struggled with this concept for months: I don’t want to be intolerant of people who are themselves intolerant because then I would be a hypocrite.

I try to teach my children to set high standards in order to do their best. Somehow, the implication of trying to attain high standards implies that other people have low standards. Who hasn’t heard the argument, “Well Joey gets to watch TV all day,” followed by, “I‘m not Joey’s parent!” I don’t want to insult or second-guess the judgment of another parent. I try not to criticize other people because, for all I know, maybe Joey doesn’t watch TV all day or his parents are not home when Joey watches TV. In the heat of the moment, it is difficult not to imply that we think we are better than others. However, as a parent, it is important to instill respect and acceptance of others.

For example, during the most recent election, I tried to teach my kids how lucky we are that we can vote for our president without fear. I punctuated the conversation by saying that in some countries, women aren’t allowed to vote. The kids were surprised and asked which countries and why. We have friends of many nationalities and I dodged the question because I didn’t want to create any inadvertent prejudice. My son’s good friend is Muslim and I didn’t want to get into a discussion about religious influence on politics in some countries.

While I don’t want to be a hypocrite, there are times when striving to be the best that we can be may come across as a little condescending. The crux of it is, as long as we are aware of where the line of tolerance is, we are doing the best we can. None of us can be “politically correct” all of the time, but as long as we are trying to be sensitive, that’s a very good first step.

In the Jewish community, there is often scorn or lack of respect toward intermarried couples. We need to embrace the different choices people make (even if we would choose differently) and encourage intermarried Jews to keep a piece of their Jewish identity. As Jews, if we are welcoming to the person of a different faith, they will likely gain additional respect for their spouse’s Jewish identity. Jewish people should treat all individuals regardless of their religion or background with chesed — kindness. We will all sleep a bit better knowing that we have been kind and respectful to others.

Hanukkah for the Whole Family

It’s that time of year: Hanukkah is nearly here and you’re looking for new ways to share the holiday with your family.

With the help of some friends, we’ve got you covered.

Games
Boston area parent Emily Sper is back with an expanded Hanukkah offering. Her Hanukkah Coloring & Activity Book, includes a basic history of the Hanukkah story, relevant Hebrew terms (and a handy pronunciation key on the back cover!), games and activities (don’t miss the checkers game with a dreidel twist), and more. I particularly enjoyed the inclusion of both Ashkenazi customs (descending from eastern Europe) and Sephardi (Spanish and Portuguese descent) and Mizrahi (Middle Eastern) — it’s not just latkes but jelly doughnuts too, and there’s a coloring page for a Moroccan menorah. Some activities are geared at older kids, but there’s at least something for everyone, ages 4 or 5 and up.

If colouring isn’t your speed, or you’d like to give a Hanukkah spin to games your kids likely already know, Emily’s Hanukkah Card Games are for you. $10 gets you three card decks (one each for go fish, crazy 8s, and rummy) plus a small handbook that contains a glossary and an explanation:

Playing cards on Hanukkah is an old Jewish custom. Some decks had Judah instead of jacks, Hannah and/or Judith instead of queens, and Mattathias instead of kings. Other decks had the 31 kings of Canaan (Joshua 12).

Who knew playing card games was part of the Hanukkah tradition?! The decks come with concise explanations of the Hanukkah story and customs, Hebrew names for the numbers so you can learn to count while you play, and each suit depicts a different Hanukkah icon (dreidels, candles, etc., instead of spades, hearts, etc.). A nice and easy gift for kids and families — you can play some cards after enjoying some latkes (potato pancakes).

Crafts
Over on JewishBoston.com, they reviewed Kiwi Crate’s Handmade Hanukkah. What is it?

“A monthly subscription program designed around fun themes and filled with all of the materials and inspiration for hands-on projects. We know that getting creative with your kids can sometimes be overwhelming (where to start? what to buy?), but this program takes care of the guesswork for you and even includes activity cards that tell you the messiness level, grownup involvement necessary and things to think about to engage parents and kids in conversation.”

Kali, JewishBoston.com’s Community Manager, was clearly excited and impressed by this product — and your family likely will be too.

Food
When we think of Hanukkah foods, many of us think of latkes or sufganiyot (doughnuts), but if you’re looking for more options for your family, check out Maccabee Meals: Food and Fun for Hanukkah, by Judye Groner and Madeline Wikler. More than just a cookbook, the Hanukkah story is included, along with trivia, instructions and blessings for lighting the Hanukkah candles, ideas for Hanukkah decorations and crafts, and party etiquette.

More than just the standard fried foods, there are suggested menus and recipes for brunch, afternoon tea party, Shabbat dinner, winter picnic, open house, after-school snacks, pajama party, and Rosh Chodesh (new month) twilight supper — all Hanukkah themed! All recipes are clearly marked as meat, dairy, or parve (neither meat nor dairy), for families that keep kosher. Additionally, so that kids can help in the kitchen, the difficulty level is included with each recipe.

Understanding Our Commandments

We are half-way through one of our online classes, Preparing for a Bar or Bat Mitzvah in Your Interfaith Family. One of the sessions is about the concept of “mitzvah,” the word in the name of this life cycle event, “bar mitzvah” or “bat mitzvah.”

Mitzvah is a Hebrew word that means commandment. The word mitzvah is in many Jewish blessings. The Friday night candle lighting blessing says, “Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe, Who make us holy through commanding us to light the Sabbath lights.”

Because of the commanded language, some rabbis hesitate to permit those who aren’t Jewish, who have not formally through conversion taken on the commandments, to say the blessing and do the ritual. Thus, a mom who is not Jewish, who has raised Jewish children, may not be able to light the candles at the Friday night service before her child’s bat or bar mitzvah in some synagogues.

In the session on mitzvot (plural of mitzvah meaning commandments), we asked our class how the parents understood the concept of being commanded. Two interesting comments came up:

“I want to lead a spiritual and ethical life, and in that way there is a sense of commandment, but if someone were to ask me if I’m commanded by God to be ethical and spiritual, I don’t feel particularly comfortable thinking of it in these terms….”

“When I hear/read “commanded by God” what I feel is “connected to God.” Being mindful of performing mitzvot not only makes the world better (animals are being taken care of, kindness is extended and experienced) but also helps to keep me grounded. It’s easy to get caught up in my life, my own needs, wants, etc. I like the way the concept of connectedness helps me to remember others and my place in the world — as a contributor and vessel for good things beyond me.”

It seems that those connected to liberal Jewish families understand “mitzvah” in much broader terms than adhering to the actual ritual or ethical commandments of the Torah, as elucidated by the rabbis in the first centuries of the common era. This should be no surprise as Reform Judaism, in particular, can be fully expressed when lived within the spirit more than the letter of the law.

I would think that liberal rabbis would also understand “b’mitzvotav vitzivnu” — “with God’s commandments, God has commanded us” in a broader sense. There are moms and dads connected to Jewish families who understand the concept of “commanded” as guiding their lives in profound ways. To keep someone from saying blessings with commanded language because they are not technically commanded seems misguided in some circumstances, as the comments above beautifully prove.

Leo Baeck (1873-1956) was a German rabbi, teacher and writer who led the push for Progressive Judaism (which today encompasses Reform Judaism). He taught that God’s commandments can be understood by the individual as boiling down to the ultimate statement of “Thou shalt.” It is up to each of us to fill in that blank, “Thou shalt _______.” It’s clear that the parents in this class are harkening a call for ethical and moral living by filling in the commandments in a broad sense — and this is powerful.

If you are in Chicagoland and would like to take one of our on-line classes (with opportunities for in-person sessions), please register at www.interfaithfamily.com/Chicago. The next round starts in February.

Is There a Jewish Prayer for Thanksgiving?

There’s a great feature on JewishBoston.com called “Ask A Rabbi.” And you needn’t be in the Boston area to benefit from this column! Today’s seem particularly apt to cross-post to our blog, given that the question posed was:

My wife grew up Christian. For her family, Thanksgiving always starts with a prayer. I’ll be joining my in-laws for Thanksgiving this year, and they’ve asked if I’d like to share a Jewish prayer. I want to pick the right one; what should I say?

Here’s how Rabbi Baruch HaLevi responded on JewishBoston.com:

Dear Friend,

Great question and obviously a timely one for us all, since the majority of us have family members of other faiths and will likely break bread with them this Thanksgiving. 

Thanksgiving is perhaps the perfect intersection of our two great religious traditions in Judaism and Christianity. Unlike Christmas vs. Chanukah or Easter vs. Passover, where there are clear theological conflicts and a myriad of real-life complications, Thanksgiving is conflict-free (unless you talk politics, in which case you’ll probably need more than prayers to navigate that terrain with grace and peace). 

Thanksgiving, on the other hand, contains the best of what it means to be an American — gratitude for abundance, inclusivity in our society and around our table, open hands, open arms, open hearts. Thanksgiving is, in many ways, the summation of the heart of both Judaism and Christianity — faith, gratitude, peace and brotherly love.

Too easily, however, it turns into just another meal, another family gathering, another seemingly ordinary day. The religious mission, however, is to elevate the mundane into the sublime, to remind us that the ordinary can and should become the extraordinary. That is one of the reasons we might choose to bring religious readings to the table and something I applaud you for doing.

created at: 2012-11-20

There are so many prayers in both of our traditions which bring to light these themes of gratitude and abundance, welcome and compassion. With that said, I think it’s important to choose some that bring you a sense of integrity. One should never speak words in prayer or in life which don’t reflect your beliefs, your integrity, your soul. One should also take into consideration both the nature of the day and the others around the table. In this case, with your in-laws being Christian, there are plenty of prayers to be drawn from our shared tradition of the Hebrew Bible, specifically the latter part of the Hebrew Bible, known as “the Writings” and “the Prophets.” I encourage you to peruse these sections of the Bible — but most likely you will end up within the Psalms.  

The Psalms, attributed to King David, express a soul’s longing for God, gratitude for living, uncertainty about the future and the quest for faith, compassion and goodness.  Here are some Psalms you might want to consider, though I’d encourage you to read through them all and choose what speaks to your soul the most. Also, there are many different versions of these, so Google until you find a translation that speaks to you. 

Psalm 118 – Thanksgiving Day Prayer: God is Good

Psalm 100 – Thanksgiving Psalm: Praise     

Psalm 111 – Thanksgiving Psalm: Nourishment

Psalm 30 – Thanksgiving: Give Thanks Forever

Psalm 28 – Psalm for Thanksgiving: Let God be Your Strength

Psalm 150 – Thanksgiving Day Psalm: Every Soul Rejoice

Beyond the Psalms:

Thanksgiving Prayer by Rabbi Maralee Gordon

A Thanksgiving Prayer by Rabbi Naomi Levy

A Thanksgiving Prayer (author unknown)

We Pray For Children by Ina Hughs

In addition, here are a few more “edgier” but interesting selections (tread lightly with these at your in-laws’ table):

Pray For Peace by Ellen Bass

Love Is The New Religion by Brian Piergrossi

Hope this helps. Enjoy your turkey. Watch your football. Stuff yourself with pie. Talk politics if you must. But above all else, remember that love and peace, and gratitude and celebration, are what this is all about. Thank you for reminding us that this holiday is an expression of the great Judeao-Christian ethic upon which this great country has been built. Eat, drink and be merry, and read some Psalms as well.

Encouraging the Welcoming of Interfaith Couples and Families

Six years ago, under the leadership of Leonard Wasserman, InterFaithways board member Bill Schwartz urged the organization to begin a program called “InterFaithways Family Shabbat Weekend.” Bill thought that if the organization could convince just one synagogue to welcome interfaith families for one event at the beginning of November, others would follow. Bill was right. Under the guidance of then Vice President Rabbi Mayer Selekman (current Chairman of the Board) who helped develop the model, Interfaith Family Shabbat Weekend has become an important ritual for nearly 50 synagogue communities in the greater Philadelphia area.

From its inception, the number of participating congregations grew rapidly. Interfaith Shabbat Weekend is now an integral part of these congregations’ programming, along with other programmatic spin-offs as a result of this program. The numbers have grown but, more importantly, the programming has become more enriching and impactful. With this year’s theme, “For Jewish Tomorrows,” many synagogues are reaching out to interfaith couples and families, between November 3-12, and welcoming them to beginner services, tot Shabbats, seminars, and panels of interfaith grandparents. Now that InterFaithways is merging with a national organization, InterfaithFamily, to become InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia, there is an opportunity to expand our Interfaith Shabbat Weekend model nationwide.

While many synagogues have thought that hosting a weekend for interfaith couples and families would be good for their membership rolls, it is much more than that. Through sharing personal journeys about their own interfaith experiences in their own congregations, listeners are sensitized to the reality that interfaith families need a sense of belonging and desire to be included in the Jewish community. Many non-Jewish spouses embrace Judaism, attend services, drive their children to Hebrew school, encourage the practice of Jewish holidays — often more enthusiastically than their Jewish spouse. In fact, many synagogues are enriched and benefit from the involvement of their interfaith couples in many ways.

Any element of rejection is a negative reflection on the Jewish people. But, if couples are welcomed, they are more likely to embrace Judaism and share it with their children. InterFaithways has heard so many stories where the child experiences a little Judaism at a young age and then chooses to become a bar or bat mitzvah. Does InterFaithways encourage interfaith marriage? Absolutely not. However, InterFaithways recognizes that since there are so many interfaith marriages in the American Jewish community, the welcoming of interfaith families is not only necessary but an opportunity for growth. Growth in numbers, as a culture, and in spirit. Jews have always been at the forefront of civil rights — fighting for minorities, the poor, the oppressed. Yet isn’t it time to welcome our interfaith children and families? We have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

The Disgrace of a Nice Jewish Girl?

I am deeply distressed by the publication in Reform Judaism magazine of an article that undermines the Reform movement’s historic approach to welcoming and engaging interfaith families Jewishly.

The current issue of Reform Judaism includes the article "The Disgrace of a Nice Jewish Girl."


The article, titled The Disgrace of a Nice Jewish Girl, tells an admittedly sad story of a Jewish woman who divorced her husband who was not Jewish after he had an affair when their first child was 16 months old. Unfortunately, the back story is all about how the woman’s father was opposed to her intermarriage as a “shanda” — something that would bring shame on him, his family, and the Jewish community. She hoped to prove him wrong, but after the divorce, her father still thinks intermarriage is a shanda.

The author says that she doesn’t think intermarriage is a shanda, that “we should welcome non-Jews into our communities,” that “plenty of Jews… cheat on their spouses,” and that “I want to believe that my divorce is not related in any way to the fact that my ex was not Jewish.”

But her conclusion is, “I can’t help but think sometimes, Maybe things would have turned out differently had my husband been Jewish.” And “these days I nonetheless find myself searching again for a ‘nice Jewish boy.’”

The Reform movement pioneered the modern Jewish effort to welcome and engage interfaith families. Under the leadership of Rabbi Alexander Schindler z”l, the movement created an Outreach Department and the movement’s rabbis decided that Jewish identity is based on how a child is raised not just the mother being Jewish. Some Reform synagogues today go out of their way to thank the partners who are not Jewish for their contribution to and participation in Jewish life. Many Reform rabbis officiate at weddings of interfaith couples hoping that doing so increases the chances for a Jewish future for that couple and their family.

This article, despite all of its caveats, sends a completely contrary message to those partners who aren’t Jewish. It suggests, as the author “can’t help thinking,” that intermarriage is the cause of marital unhappiness. Worse, it suggests that the author’s father was right in thinking that intermarriage will cause “the ultimate demise of the Jewish people through assimilation.” I can’t overstate how sad it is to read that message in the official publication of the Union for Reform Judaism.

Interfaith Rollercoaster

I recently attended the symposium called “Interfaith Rollercoaster: Navigating the Challenges, Enjoying the Ride,” sponsored by Congregation Kol Ami in Elkins Park, PA and their Interfaith Relationship Dialogue. It was a great opportunity for sharing ideas and solutions for couples and families in our communities.

I attended the workshop “Out of the Mouths of Babes: Young Adults Share Their Experience of Growing Up Interfaith.” The teens on this panel had varying perspectives, but were all raised interfaith and were members at the synagogue hosting the event. It was fascinating to hear about their experiences. One panelist discussed her relationship with her grandparents who aren’t Jewish, including their attitudes toward elements of Judaism. The teen remarked how she enjoyed teaching her grandparents about the various holidays.

At the workshop entitled “Managing Your In-Laws,” the facilitator introduced the concept that managing our in-laws is not really what we need to do — we need to learn to manage ourselves. One suggestion was to manage our own issues by prioritizing them into three baskets: “A,” really important; “B,” negotiable; and “C,” doesn’t really matter. The strategy is to have a small “A” basket and try to put more issues in the “C” basket. I found this to be a great tool to manage all aspects of life beyond the issues raised in an intermarriage or interfaith family.

During discussion groups, it was great to hear how everyone is addressing similar items over the course of their marriage. Many couples go through the same things, but have a varying array of solutions and compromises. What was really gratifying was that many members of the congregation said that the rabbi was always learning new perspectives. The rabbi discussed this with the group, saying that he was often revisiting concepts and frequently revising his opinion. This was very refreshing and encouraging to all attendees.

My favorite story from Anita Diamant, the keynote speaker, was when she told us about a man who was Catholic but celebrates all of the High Holidays with his wife and daughters. He said that he was “Jew-ish.” The symposium was a wonderful model for sharing that would be beneficial for any interfaith community.

To read more about it, check out this article from the Jewish Exponent.