Downton Abbey Portrays Reality of Interfaith RelationshipsBy Gerri Miller
Go inside Season 5 Episode 9 where the story line of Atticus and Rose's interfaith relationship comes to a head.Go To Pop Culture
Last winter, I received a request to fill out a survey from our friends at Keshet (working for the inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender individuals in the Jewish community) and the HRC (Human Rights Campaign, working for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender equal rights).
The survey, known as the Jewish Organization Equality Index (JOIE), looked at the human resources side of Jewish organizations (were workplace policies and employee benefits inclusive of all?) as well as the activities of the organizations (do we include the LGBTQ community in our resources, programming, and other materials?). The first-ever HRC study indexing LGBT inclusion in a faith-based community, it looked at over 200 Jewish nonprofit organizations in North America.
Last night, here at the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly in Baltimore, Keshet announced the results of the JOIE.
On our old website (think back before we re-launched the site in August), we very prominently featured a GLBT safe zone notice on our homepage. On our new design, that same safe zone notice rotates through on our homepage. From our “Learning” navigation menu, you can get to our LGBTQ Resource Page, with helpful links and articles for LGBTQ interfaith families.
After some follow up questions and conversations, we were tipped off that we rocked the index. Last night that was confirmed. I’d like to think that we skewed the bell curve, but I realize that’s just wishful thinking…
This summer I met with the senior staff at Temple Chai in Long Grove, IL. The staff told me about a chavurah (fellowship group) that had grown organically at their synagogue, made up of mostly interfaith families with young children. One request the staff at Temple Chai had heard from the parents in this group was the desire to have a learner’s service on Shabbat so that they (and older children) could come to understand the whole Jewish worship experience on a deeper level.
On November 17 at 10:00am, the Learner’s Service: Shabbat Unpacked will take place, and I will be co-leading the service with Rabbi Stephen Hart and Laura Siegel Perpinyal, their Director of Congregational Learning. We have been working on a handout that will unpack five main prayers in the Shabbat morning service. For each prayer we offer three ways to understand it by sharing the history and background information for the prayer, a brief “instruction manual” to understand how to “do” the prayer in terms of choreography, and a timing explanation in terms of when the prayer is said during the service and why.
As we go through the interactive service, we will highlight these five prayers and share even more through music, explanations about the meaning of the prayers historically, and how we can make them our own today. There will be childcare for young children, but children are welcome to join in the service as well.
In order for Jewish prayer to be meaningful, maybe especially for someone who didn’t grow up being exposed to Jewish worship, several things have to happen. Hebrew has to be grappled with. Most people in congregations can’t translate prayer book Hebrew word for word. Yet, through understanding basic Hebrew roots (the letter core of words), which often repeat and shed light on the meaning, one is able to gain a tremendous amount about the nature of the prayer. For instance, the root for “holy” in Hebrew is three letters, koof daled shin. These three letters form the word kiddush (blessing over wine), kadosh (the actual word meaning holy), and kaddish (the prayer said by mourners). Yet even if one knows many Hebrew root words, understanding prayer transcends literal understanding of the words. This is because much of prayer is poetry. So the sound the Hebrew makes and the rhythm is important (this can be understood by just listening to the Hebrew being said or sung). As well, reading the English translation can tell you what the prayer says, although thinking about the imagery and the repetition of words can bring deeper meaning. Thus even though Hebrew may feel like a barrier and a challenge, one can understand prayer on some level even when just beginning to learn Hebrew.
Other ways to make Jewish prayer more meaningful are to learn about the prayers (as will be a goal of this service), to contemplate Jewish views of God and one’s own sense of spirituality, and also to seek meaning in being part of community. Prayer can be deeply meaningful when the images in prayer of peace or shelter, for example, lead us to action to brings these ideals to reality on earth.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the 20th century’s leading theologians, once said those “Who rise from prayer better persons, their prayer is answered.” Jewish prayer can feel mysterious, boring, antiquated, and removed from what we know and understand today. Yet it can also elevate, inspire, and connect us. I hope those of you in Chicagoland will join us for a lively and upbeat prayer experience on November 17.
It’s interesting that so many in the Jewish community put an emphasis on Christmas. Specifically, whether or not interfaith families observe Christmas. And the assumption has been that if Christmas is observed, these families couldn’t be raising their kids in a Jewish home. And the focus of these Christmas celebrations has often been the tree.
Two local Jewish community studies (Boston’s from 2005 and New York’s from 2011 (released in 2012)) noted the frequency of interfaith families having Christmas trees. Both studies also noted the lack of data indicating what a Christmas tree means to interfaith families. Wouldn’t you know it? We’ve been asking just that question in our annual December holiday surveys!
To those of you who took our survey in September-October, thanks!
Read on for more about the results of our 9th annual December holidays survey, interfaith families, and the December dilemma:
As many of you know, all the best Christmas songs were written by Jews. But what about Hanukkah songs? Many of us might be able to hum a few bars of Adam Sandler’s parody or “I Had a Little Dreidel,” but surely there must be more, right?
The Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation (I hadn’t heard of them either), has just announced the release of an album that will highlight both Christmas and Hanukkah music, but with a twist: it’s bringing listeners through the holidays’ dueling history.
I just listened to Dreidel, and was super impressed to find a Hanukkah tune that I hadn’t previously known.
The two disc album, ‘Twas the Night Before Hanukkah: The Musical Battle Between Christmas and the Festival of Lights, comes out November 15, and might be a fun way to lighten the December dilemma in our homes.
With a big thanks to our friend David at JewishBoston.com.
Last week, the Rabbinical Assembly (the rabbis’ guild for the Conservative movement), sent out a press release. Together with representatives from the Schechter Day School Network (the Jewish day schools affiliated with the Conservative denomination), they met in late-October to talk about “outreach to and inclusion of intermarried families.” Great!
This isn’t the first time we’ve looked at how to attract and include interfaith families in Jewish day schools. We blogged about the AviCHAI foundation’s conversation and I participated in their day of meetings, which brought together teachers, school administrators, other Jewish educators, parents, and community professionals such as myself.
Back to the Rabbinical Assembly’s press release. It didn’t take long for me to realize that the consensus reached in their meetings would likely continue to alienate the families they want to attract and include.
Our studies have shown that having conversion as the focus of the Jewish community’s outreach creates barriers to inclusion and welcome. “Perceived pressure to convert” is ranked as a barrier to expanded connection with Jewish community institutions, such as synagogues and, I’m extrapolating here, day schools. If that pressure is a deterrent from going to Shabbat services, wouldn’t it also be a deterrent from sending kids to day school?
The focus on conversion as the ideal continued, as exemplified by one of the “challenging questions” the group discussed:
Before getting to a timeline, let’s take a step back. A great place to start would be using inclusive language. If a child is going to your school, chances are their parents are raising them as Jews. So clarify what you actually mean, but do it in a way that does not further alienate these families. How about,
I would, of course, recommend defining such a term on your forms. Make sure to explain why the Conservative movement does not view patrilineal descent as “Jewish,” unlike the Reform movement. (Conservative Judaism determines who they consider to be a Jew through matrilineal descent — a Jew is someone who is born to a Jewish mother, or who has converted to Judaism in a ceremony that meets their requirements.) For these children of patrilineal descent, the assumption is that their parents would want them to convert, that their families need additional support and Jewish education as well. In some cases, sure; we’ve received plenty of feedback from parents over the years, telling us they’d love to learn along with their kids. But for others, the additional resources might not be wanted. (I wonder if all families at the schools are viewed equally: are resources offered to parents who have in-married but who do not practice Judaism at home? What about intermarried families where the mother is Jewish, thus the Conservative movement considers the children Jewish — are they offered resources too?)
As my colleague, Ari Moffic, wrote in February, 2012, you might also consider creating “A Pledge for All of Our Families” for your schools. Her suggested template offers inclusive language that could be inserted in every school’s handbook and/or posted to the school’s website.
It’s great to see that the follow-up activities will include “drafting recommended language for admission applications to the schools.” Hopefully the resources on our site will help with that process.
And when you start looking for professionals to join your focus groups, you know where to find me.
We just sent out the following press release, which we’re excited to share with you here. We’re honored to be recognized by the Slingshot Fund again this year, and included in their Slingshot guide as a Standard Bearer.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
InterfaithFamily Named One of North America’s Most Innovative Jewish Nonprofits
(Newton, MA) — November 5, 2012 — For the eighth consecutive year, InterfaithFamily has been included in Slingshot, the resource guide that features the 50 most innovative Jewish organizations in North America. For the second time, InterfaithFamily is one of just fourteen organizations to be named a “Standard Bearer” as a leader within the community and a mentor to other organizations. The Standard Bearers, listed in at least five editions of Slingshot, were chosen not only for sustainability but also because they continue to achieve Slingshot’s core criteria of innovation, impact, leadership, and organizational efficacy.
Slingshot organizations grapple with concerns in Jewish life such as identity, community, social justice, and tradition, each with different missions, perspectives, and strategies. The Slingshot resource guide is distributed to 7,500 funders, foundation professionals, and organizational leaders annually, in addition to tens of thousands of online downloads. Readers use Slingshot to identify the most inspiring and trail blazing organizations, projects, and programs in the North American Jewish community today. Since its inception, Slingshot has highlighted 173 innovative Jewish organizations in North America. Organizations are selected from among hundreds of nominees by an independent panel of 48 foundation professionals from across North America.
InterfaithFamily, the premier resource supporting interfaith couples exploring Jewish life and inclusive Jewish communities, was chosen as a Standard Bearer because:
“Being included in Slingshot and as a Standard Bearer is strong validation for our work,” said Edmund Case, CEO of InterfaithFamily. “Efforts to engage interfaith families in Jewish life are still not well funded. We believe that our InterfaithFamily/Your Community initiative is the single best opportunity the Jewish community has to engage more interfaith families in Jewish life, which is essential to the community’s growth and vitality. Recognition of its importance by Slingshot, which represents the next generation of Jewish funders, should very positively influence the community’s willingness to support this critically important effort.”
According to Julie Finkelstein, Program Director of Slingshot, “Slingshot is a celebration of those Jewish organizations and projects successfully breathing new energy into Jewish life. The guide highlights both newly formed organizations and innovative projects happening at established Jewish institutions, all making an impact by meeting the changing needs of today’s Jewish community. The Standard Bearers also consistently raise the high standards that emerging organizations and projects in Jewish life aspired to match. This year’s guide is a testament to their continued impact and sustainability; in addition to the inclusion of four new Standard Bearer organizations on the list, all ten of last year’s Slingshot Standard Bearers reappear in the guide this year.”
Sarah Gelman Rueven, Slingshot Board member, shared, “The Slingshot guide promotes organizations that are pushing the boundaries and negotiating what it means to be Jewish in the 21st century, while at the same time, promoting transparent business practices and strong leadership. The Slingshot guide is important because by supporting Jewish innovation, we are really investing in the continuity of the Jewish people.”
Slingshot ’12-’13 was released on November 5, 2012. The community will meet on May 6th in New York City at the annual Slingshot Day, where over 250 not-for-profit leaders, foundation professionals, and funders of all ages will engage in candid conversations about philanthropy and innovation in the Jewish community.
Our friends over at Jewish Holidays in a Box just posted this to their blog. And, because it’s now November 1, and, because there’s less than 6 weeks until Hanukkah, and, because the post is filled with great ideas for all sorts of families, we’ve decided to cross-post it here. (It was written by marketer/teacher/writer Ellen Zimmerman, who founded Jewish Holidays in a Box to support families who want to lead more joyous home holiday observances with less stress.) Enjoy!
Our expanding, diverse family just expanded again. Mazal tov to the newlyweds! So as each Jewish holiday rolls around, I wonder what this huge mix of ages, interests, and backgrounds might enjoy.
For the first time at Rosh Hashanah dinner, for example, we used Bugles (the salty, crunchy snack food) to pretend that we were blowing the shofar, through a series of tekiahs, shevarims, and teruahs. Everyone at the table, except the baby, played along.
One Passover, we wrote new lyrics to a popular tune (“You Are My Sunshine”) as a welcome-to-our-Seder song, then played it on banjo and guitar. We handed out song sheets, so everyone could sing along with us at what might have been the first-ever bluegrass Seder.
As you think about celebrating Hanukkah this year, what does your family care about most? And how can you draw on their talents and interests to create a rich, multi-textured holiday? Do you have:
There are endless ways to draw on their unique abilities – from simple, quickie projects to more complicated ones. In bringing them into the preparations through their passions, you add to the joy.
Hanukkah cookies, quick or fancy
If you have bakers in your group, find a recipe for classic Hanukkah sugar cookies or just slice some rounds from ready-to-bake cookie dough. To decorate, use blue and silver sprinkles, a mixture of cinnamon and sugar, or colored sugar.
Or use the fun and easy stained glass painting technique: mix egg yolk with a little water and add a few drops of food coloring to small batches of the yolk mixture. Provide new watercolor paint brushes for each bowl and watch the creativity bloom. After the cookies are painted, pop them into the oven.
Got ambitious and experienced bakers? Try making your own jelly-filled doughnuts, sufganiyot. (Try this yummy-sounding recipe for sufganiyot.) [For those of you who follow my blog, you’ll know that this is far above my current abilities. One day. Maybe.]
Capturing the moments
Ask family photographers and videographers to preserve holiday prep, candle lighting, and games. For example, budding videographers can capture, then edit a three-minute show featuring baking, table setting, drawing, and present wrapping. Invite them to present their show one evening after you light the candles.
We haven’t gotten organized enough to do this ourselves, but I want to start getting a group shot at family gatherings. The key is planning ahead to identify a place in the house where everyone can fit into the shot, get the camera and tripod ready, and review how to set the timer. Is the best moment at the beginning, before the flow of food and games and candles? Or with everyone surrounding platters of hot latkes, just before they’re served? If you have a technique that works for this, please share. I love the idea of taking an annual shot that becomes a Hanukkah history of your family.
Building with Legos and wood
Do you have a passion for woodworking and some tools? You can make your own wooden menorah. My husband experimented with a prototype using a piece of red oak, but you could make it from a piece of a 2 x 4. Here, he drilled holes for the nuts with a Forstner bit, then glued nuts into the holes. To create the shamash (the higher candle), he used a piece of 7/8-diameter wooden dowel. First, he drilled a 7/8” hole in the wood to hold the dowel, then glued in the dowel, and finally, drilled a hole in the top of the dowel for the nut. (NOTE: This prototype is far from perfect. And I apologize to my husband for showing it here. See how one of the holes cuts into the beveled edge? I didn’t, but he sure did. Still, you get the concept. He donated the other, more perfect menorahs he made to soldiers serving abroad.)
Want some other ideas? Just do an online search for “make your own menorah.”
Decorating for Hanukkah
All of these are ways to call out the artistic spirit of your family.
In our Hanukkah in a Box , we provide coloring pages, plus orange, blue, and white curling ribbons to make your home festive, as well as other decorating ideas. We also include Hanukkah napkins. Just dressing up your dinner table with these says, “It’s a party!”
In our Hanukkah Games Box , we have a menorah cut-and-color activity that little hands can color and “light” every night. There’s also a design-your-own banner that can end up a dramatic six-foot-long piece of art, suspended from ribbon. It can be decorated simply, just with crayons. Or it can be masterfully designed and layered with fabrics, buttons, glitter glue, holographic papers, origami, markers, or any other design tools that your artists prefer.
Musicians lead a songfest
If you are lucky enough to have singers or musicians in your midst, you can do a little advance prep and get them a CD of Hanukkah songs or sheet music. Music teachers will often help recommend music at the right level of complexity. Or explore www.jewishmusic.com. I’ve purchased some of my favorite books of Jewish and Israeli music from them, like “Harvest of Jewish Song” and “The Ultimate Jewish Piano Book.”
Your musicians can then lead the group in singing the classic tunes and introduce you to new songs.
Got songwriters? Ask them to come up with new lyrics to a tune everyone knows or pen a whole new creation to unveil.
Bottom line: you can showcase many of the talents in your family to make this a DIY Hanukkah, filled with warmth and bright memories.
For more free holiday ideas, sign up at www.JewishHolidaysInABox.com.
We’re excited to announce that we’re growing and expanding! We just sent out this press release — let us know what you think!
Who else is watching The New Normal on Tuesday nights (or whenever you get to it on your DVRs)? The show follows a gay couple who will soon become fathers, the single mother who is their surrogate, and her young daughter. There are other characters thrown in for color and tension, but they’re the heart of the show.
The gay couple is also interfaith. In the first few episodes, we’ve learned that Bryan (played by Andrew Rannells, best known as Tony-nominated Elder Price from Broadway’s The Book of Mormon) is a Christian, and likely lapsed. Last week, we found out that he was raised Catholic and was rather devout — an altar boy and all. From the pilot, it’s been clear that Bryan’s partner David (Justin Bartha, Dark Horse, Holy Rollers, The Hangover II) is a nice, Jewish doctor. And not practicing (religion; he is a practicing gynecologist). Though he is stereotypically close with his mother…
In last week’s episode, David and Bryan were introduced to the concept of Godparents. As neither currently have spiritual lives themselves, they decided their child ought to have someone to turn to with spiritual questions. The hunt began. (Spoiler alert!) By the end of the episode, Bryan had gone to church, talked with a priest, and had encouraged David to go back to synagogue. We also learned that David had not been to temple since he had moved to New York as an undergrad. Feeling alone his freshman year, he took comfort going to temple, surrounded by the familiar rituals and tunes, until he got his bearings in the city. But once he got into med school, he no longer had time for prayer, “except praying I didn’t kill someone.” He hadn’t been back since.
David and Bryan aren’t so unique. Many interfaith couples (heck, many in-married couples too) let religion fall by the side until children come into the picture. At that point, future or new parents might start questioning, like these characters have, how they’ll teach their kids to be ethical and have a greater belief. Others return to religion because they remember happy memories (holidays, food, songs, family and friends coming together for celebrations) and want their children to have them too. Whatever the reason, it’s helpful to discuss how this might look for you and your (future, hypothetical) family before kids appear on the scene. Bryan and David have started this conversation somewhere in the 2nd trimester of surrogate Goldie’s pregnancy. Not bad. (Goldie is played by Georgia King — known mostly for her work in the U.K.) If you’re looking for ideas on how to start conversations, click on the Learning menu at the top of our site and pick a topic that interests you. Happy reading!
I recently officiated a wedding in which there were only a few Jewish people there (and I was one of them). I had met the now bride a few years ago, when she came to me to study about Judaism. She had grown up with Christianity and as an adult was searching. She had always been interested in Judaism, loved the rituals and traditions, and felt she might be home with the people Israel. After a year of regular study, she went to the mikveh and formally cast her lot with the Jewish people. She lit the Sabbath candles and even taught in the early childhood room in the congregation where I was the educator.
A couple of years later, this Jew fell in love with someone who was raised Christian. She came to me again to officiate their wedding. I met with this couple several times to talk about the meaning of the Jewish wedding rituals and to unpack the Jewish wedding liturgy. This couple participated in InterfaithFamily’s Love and Religion — Online workshop. They were able to share with other couples about how they would weave Judaism into their lives and involve their Christian family in holidays and traditions. They had a small wedding of mostly family and almost everyone there were raised with Christianity.
When I stood with them under the chuppah and explained to all present about what they were going to see and hear, my fear was that it would feel anthropological in nature. That people were observing a Jewish wedding but would not be able to participate in it themselves. I was wrong. All present understood the meaning of the open chuppah being a symbol of their home, open to friends and relatives with unconditional hospitality. All understood the symbol of sharing a sip of sweet wine to be a symbol of the beauty of creation and the beauty of what this couple was creating. All understood the seven wedding blessings to be about affirming the potential in human beings to combine love, wisdom and courage and to forge a life of joy and gratitude. All understood the breaking of the glass to be about the fragility of life and finding joy within sorrow. All understood that Judaism had become meaningful not only to the bride, but to her supportive partner and that it could be accessible and meaningful to their whole family.
What I hope for this couple is that they find a Jewish community that can also support them. I have directed them to Jewish communal institutions that provide fellowship and classes for couples just like them. I will encourage them to participate in an Introduction to Judaism class sponsored by Reform Jewish Chicago. But it will be friends and Jewish lay and professional leaders who will help this couple sustain and strengthen their Jewish home and Jewish involvement.
I was meeting with Anita Silvert (who wears many hats in Chicago — she co-chairs Limmud Chicago (look for me there, details to come!) as well as directs a new program in Chicago called Chai Mitzvah). She was telling me today of her hopes to start a cohort of around eight people who are either in an interfaith relationship (either the Jewish partner or partner who isn’t Jewish) or people touched by interfaith families personally. This group would meet once a month to study Jewish texts and each would participate in social justice work throughout the year (serving a cause or charity of interest). Lastly, each would take on a new spiritual practice, guided by a mentor. As she was telling me about the program, she taught me a Rashi teaching from Numbers 5:8, “If a man has no kinsman to whom restitution can be made, the amount repaid shall go to the Lord for the priest…” Rashi, a medeival rabbi and important scholar, asks how an Israelite could possibly have no kinsmen, no family, no people. He concludes that this verse must be talking about the ger, a convert.
I could not believe how fitting it was that Anita shared this teaching with me exactly when I was thinking about this wedding of a Jew by choice. We need to make sure that all in the community have people, have kinsmen. That is our sacred and holy task.
If you would like more information about either our Love and Religion — Online workshop for interfaith couples or the Chai Mitzvah program, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.