Something I’ve Been Thinking About…

I love brainstorming ideas for Jewish education and engagement (outreach). One idea I’ve been tossing around is about supporting interfaith couples who have Jewish clergy present at their wedding or union. These couples are our future. These couples cared about and felt connected enough with Judaism to seek out (sometimes in a tough process) Jewish clergy to officiate at their weddings.

What if every city’s Jewish community committed to supporting these couples for the first year (or two) after their ceremony? The time and resources spent continually working with these couples in meaningful ways would pay off ten-fold for the Jewish community — now and in the future.

What would this support involve?

  • Membership (I know — this is possibly an outdated model) at a congregation of their choosing. (We would hook them up with a Jewish professional who would get to know them and help direct them to a synagogue that would be a good fit.)
  • Full access to the programs at the local JCC.
  • A subscription series to the Jewish film festival, Jewish museum, and other cultural events for that year.
  • Maybe (gasp) send them to Israel as a honeymoon!?
  • Name and contact information on a magnet (are any refrigerators still magnetic?) for the marriage counselor at Jewish Child and Family Services.
  • Pay for them to take the Reform Movement’s Intro. To Judaism course or Taste of Judaism program, or Melton classes, or whatever level of continued Jewish education would be appropriate.

In exchange, we would ask them to volunteer and get involved with a Jewish social justice agency. Each segment of the Jewish community who tries to reach this age cohort (25-35ish) would decide what services they would most like these couples to know about and participate in. The couples would receive information about their options in a gift bag or maybe receive a link to a YouTube video made just for them, or something else creative (maybe an app for their phone which would keep them updated about programs and events that might interest them?). The different Jewish organizations would pay for the programs they would offer these couples.

The point would be that couples (whether interfaith or not) who wanted Judaism at this most sacred moment in their lives would be welcomed into the community with open arms. We would see their want for Jewish clergy to officiate at their weddings as a sign that there’s more work for us to do. The outpouring of outreach to them would be a beautiful and overwhelming testament to the many ways to get involved in Jewish life and would present the rainbow of potential for each and every couple to gain meaning from Judaism and give back in significant ways.

Now. Who’s going to make this happen?

The Inside Group is the Outside Group

We are experiencing a “profound demographic shift in American life,” according to Marc Dollinger, the keynote speaker at a Lehrhaus Judaica (non-denominational Jewish studies school for adults that’s open to people from different backgrounds) event last year during which he illuminated the intermarriage rate in the San Francisco Bay Area. National statistics suggest 50% of Jewish families are intermarried. In the Bay Area we have found that rate to be higher and, as demographer Dr. Dollinger states, “intermarriage rates where I live in Marin County are 75%, which is actually artificially low. Adjusted for age, it’s actually 90% for families with young children.”

“The late Gary Tobin of Bechol Lashon offered a critique of organized Jewish life. [Tobin asked,] ‘what percentage of American Jewish families were traditional,’ which he defined as: ‘a mom and a dad, neither ever divorced, both born Jewish, with children, who were not adopted.’ The answer, 5%, and that’s a national number. We can only imagine how much lower that percentage is here in the Bay Area.”

Dollinger continues, “Of my parents’ four kids, we have one Jewish-Jewish family, another Christian-Christian family, and two Jewish-Christian. God bless America! … We [Jews] have integrated ourselves so successfully that the same parents who raised a Jewish studies professor who appears so darn conventional, also raised a Christian convert.”

What did he say? 90% of families are intermarried? What a wonderful opportunity for the Jewish community to reach out to so many families and provide programs specifically designed for interfaith families, welcome interfaith families into the general programming, and listen to the needs of our interfaith families so that we can create new programs for you.

I look forward to the day when all parents can embrace their children and the choices their children make. Jewish-Jewish, Christian-Christian, or Jewish-Christian (or any other religion). Let us all focus on being good people. I encourage you to listen to Dr. Dollinger and discover for yourself what his family’s next generation looks like. America truly is the land of opportunity!

Hypocrisy?

At a casual event a few years ago, I had the opportunity to talk to several young people about interfaith families. Most of the people in attendance were intrigued by the benefits of welcoming interfaith couples. Many had been taught the interfaith marriages are bad for the Jewish people, but the group seemed to understand the idea that being welcoming to these couples and their families goes a long way toward keeping them involved in the Jewish community. Most of them got this concept, except for one person.

He told me he thought it was a bad idea to support interfaith couples and that it would lead to the end of Judaism. I was a bit shocked. He was friendly and non-confrontational; I explained that the reality is that intermarriage happens and the best thing for Judaism is to embrace it and move forward. He looked at me quizzically. I said, “Think of it as making really great lemonade. Welcoming makes it possible to encourage people to live Jewishly. Negative behavior creates barriers. Negativity fulfills the assumption that the couple is ‘lost to Judaism’ through its lack of kindness.”

There was silence and then he said it. He was an Orthodox guy who was dating a person of a different faith. I was shocked. He was so adamant that interfaith marriage is “bad for the Jewish people” yet he was dating someone of a different faith. I asked, “Do your parents know? What are you going to do?”

His response was that the relationship wasn’t serious but they had been dating for nearly a year. As a woman who had been scorned in the past I asked, “Does SHE know that?” He said he thought so. I was unconvinced by his answer.

I then realized I had to try to remain kind. I wished him well, but now I wonder what happened to this guy and his girlfriend. Did they break up? Did he marry her? It isn’t my life and I shouldn’t judge — but what do you think of the situation? What would you have said to him? If someone feels so strongly about the issue of interfaith marriage, how could he be dating a person of a different faith? Was this hypocrisy?

How a Boycott is Inclusive

Temple Isaiah of Lafayette, CA (inland, due east of San Francisco) is making headlines. Their Board of Directors has “voted unanimously this week to to recommend that the rabbinical staff and synagogue members write letters stating their opposition to the policy, along with withdrawing financial support and refusing to participate in scouting events.”

Further, LGBTQNation reports:

The Board policy calls for a letter writing campaign to the local and national BSA councils, as well as encouraging Temple members and other community organizations to join in the effort to enact change through letters, financial pressure, postponing participation and supporting movements such as Scouts for Equality.

The board said it would also ask staff and others to decline [writing] Eagle Scout recommendations, or allow religious awards for the BSA until the policy is changed.

So why is a boycott something a Jewish community that prides itself on being welcoming of all might undertake? Inclusion shouldn’t just be lip-service. It’s not enough to say that LGBTQ people and their families are welcome in our synagogues — they’re demonstrating that they mean it by trying to change the homophobic policies of Boy Scouts of America. Temple Isaiah knows that folks will feel most welcome within its community when everyone feels they can be recognized as their full selves.

Which has me wondering: what actions can synagogues take to show they’re welcoming of interfaith families? They can join our Network so interfaith couples/families can find them. They can show they’re involved with us by adding our affiliate badge to their homepage. They can create inclusive policies. If you work at a synagogue and want to take actions to show you’re not just giving lip service to your welcome, check out our Resource Center for Program Providers for more suggestions.

NCIS: Interfaith Couple?

NCIS: promo for "Sabbat Shalom"

I enjoy watching NCIS (Naval Criminal Investigative Service), the CBS crime drama that airs Tuesday evenings. I appreciate the multi-culturalism on the show. Often I turn to my husband for a Spanish translation of a line here or there. I was excited when Cote de Pablo joined the cast in season three. She plays the Israeli former Mossad (Israel’s national intelligence agency) officer, Ziva David. For me, it is even more fun when they throw a little Hebrew into a show. I appreciate that they seem to “get it right” in both phrasing and accent.

Last week the episode “Shabbat Shalom” aired. Of course I was intrigued when I saw the title in my DVR. I assumed it had something to do with Ziva, why else the Hebrew title? As I watched the episode I learned that Ziva’s father, the head of Mossad, came to the U.S. to see her and to broker a peace agreement with his Iranian counterpart.

Little did I know that the episode was a cliffhanger. But this week on Tuesday night I was taking the red-eye to Boston to meet my InterfaithFamily coworkers in-person for the first time; I wasn’t able to watch the episode. As I was gathering my suitcase and heavy jacket, expecting it to be colder in Boston than it was in San Francisco, my best friend called me. She was also travelling for work this week and watched NCIS from her Maryland hotel room.

“What does Tony say to Ziva at the end of the episode?” she asked. I didn’t know, it wasn’t even going to air in California for another three hours. I was headed to the airport and wouldn’t be able to watch until Friday. She couldn’t wait until Friday for the answer; so, as any good friend would do, I googled it. “What does Tony say to Ziva at the end of NCIS?” Since the episode had just ended, there wasn’t much about it online yet. Apparently there was some buzz a few years ago when Tony said something to Ziva in Spanish. But that wasn’t what I was looking for.

NCIS: promo for "Shiva"


I added “2013″ and “Shiva” (the title of this episode) to my search. IMDB wasn’t up-to-date yet so I had to rely on Yahoo answers where I found the question: “At the end of the newest NCIS episode tonight, what did Tony say to Ziva before she left? I think it was in Hebrew, but I didn’t catch it.”

Great! Someone must have posted the answer… the first two entries: “I love you” and “Ani ohev otach, I love you.” As much as I (and apparently others) want Tony and Ziva to get together, that didn’t seem right to me. I hadn’t seen the episode but I knew what happened last week and I was pretty confident it wasn’t time for Tony’s declaration of love for Ziva.

I kept reading the yahoo answers. “You are not alone.” Ok, that made more sense. The fifth post read: “he said ‘aht lo leh vahd‘ a translation thing on the internet said it means ‘you are not alone.’” I love that we can use the internet to translate Hebrew on mainstream TV in the U.S., and post the answer for others! I called my friend back and reported the two options. Having seen the episode she also ruled out “I love you.”

So this morning, finally back at home I watched the episode waiting (and waiting) for Tony’s line. He does say “aht lo leh vahd” which does mean “you are not alone.” What does it mean for the relationship between Tony and Ziva? All we can do is continue watching NCIS and see; I look forward to them being the next intermarried couple on TV.

Thanksgivvukah

I know, it’s only January, so why am I talking about Hanukkah? And, worse, why are others also talking about it? Because while Hanukkah has come close to overlapping with Thanksgiving before (even in our lifetimes; we shared articles when it last nearly happened in 2002, Using Thanksgiving Leftovers the Next Day for Hanukkah and Not Your Typical Jewish Family), it will actually overlap this year! Hanukkah 2013 will be a unique calendar anomaly. Brace yourself for Thanksgivukkah!

Never before has Hanukkah started on [American] Thanksgiving. (I’d like to pause and mention that it has never and will never overlap with Canadian Thanksgiving, though Sukkot frequently does. And that at least makes sense: both are harvest festivals.) Well, “the last time it would have happened is 1861. However, Thanksgiving was only formally established by President Lincoln in 1863. So, it has never happened before.” Cool, eh?

Why’s that? It all has to do with the Hebrew calendar, which uses a 19-year cycle, and the fact that Thanksgiving, set as the fourth Thursday in November, will repeat its date every 7 years.

Jonathan Mizrahi explains:

The first day of Hanukkah coincides with Thanksgiving, on 11/28/2013. I was curious how often this happens. It turns out that it has never happened before…and it will never happen again.

Thanksgiving is set as the fourth Thursday in November, meaning the latest it can be is 11/28. 11/28 is also the earliest Hanukkah can be. The Jewish calendar repeats on a 19 year cycle, and Thanksgiving repeats on a 7 year cycle. You would therefore expect them to coincide roughly every 19×7 = 133 years. Looking back, this is approximately correct…. Why won’t it ever happen again?

The reason is because the Jewish calendar is very slowly getting out of sync with the solar calendar, at a rate of 4 days per 1000 years (not bad for a many centuries old calendar!). This means that while presently Hanukkah can be as early as 11/28, over the years the calendar will drift forward, such that the earliest Hanukkah can be is 11/29. The last time Hanukkah falls on 11/28 is 2146 (which happens to be a Monday). Therefore, 2013 is the only time Hanukkah will ever overlap with Thanksgiving. You can see the start date of Hanukkah as a function of time in the attached plots. In the long timescale plot, the drift forward is clear.

Of course, if the Jewish calendar is never modified in any way, then it will slowly move forward through the Gregorian calendar, until it loops all the way back to where it is now. So, Hanukkah will again fall on Thursday, 11/28…in the year 79,811.

Further, my buddy Josh explains:

“For there to have been any overlap at all in the past 100 years or so (i.e. since the definition of Thanksgiving became the current one), you need the earliest possible Hanukkah (first candle 11/27) and the latest possible Thanksgiving (11/28). The only time that is happening is this year. Having Hanukkah a day later relative to T-day (either Thanksgiving and the first candle both on 11/27, or both on 11/28), on the other hand, has/can/will happen a couple times. But this is the only time in our lives or our parents lives that ALL of Thanksgiving has been / will be on Hanukkah.”

Again I say: cool, eh?

But wait, there’s more! If you’re really curious about how the Hebrew calendar works, how it drifts (when compared to our Gregorian calendar), how this affects other Jewish holidays in 2013, where President Roosevelt fits in (and he does), the difference between “applesauce years” and “sour cream years,” and so much more, I encourage you to join Mah Rabu in geeking out over all of this on his blog. (Make sure to check out the comments (he’ll answer them!) both on his blog and on Jewschool, where he’s crossposted.)

Still not convinced? Mizrahi even made charts to demonstrate the calendar phenomenon. Impressive! (Visit his site for larger versions.)

It is not lost on me that all of the Hanukkah 2013 posts on this blog will be in the wrong blog category, “December Holidays.”

Rethinking the Bar or Bat Mitzvah

A rabbinical student recently wrote a post for Kveller called Ban the Bar Mitzvah. In the post, he argues that bar and bat mitzvahs generally fail for four main reasons. They don’t accomplish much, they aren’t part of Jewish tradition or continuity, the money parents pay for the bar/bat mitzvah keep synagogues afloat which would otherwise drown, and it makes parents look like hypocrites since their children are learning skills and taking part in ritual and worship that adults don’t know or regularly take part in.

The article was posted just as the Reform Movement is beginning their “bnai mitzvah revolution”, hoping to help children and families find more relevance in the process and prayer services, and as a larger attempt to retain youth in congregational life after the bar/bat mitzvah is over.

There have been dozens of posts written in response on how to re-imagine the bar/bat mitzvah. Many argue that the bar/bat mitzvah may seem to be all about a lavish party, but in reality it can be a transformative experience for the child and family. College students look back at pivotal Jewish experiences of their youth and name having a bar/bat mitzvah as being a top, identity building time. Others have pointed out that the time the child spends with clergy one-on-one and in small groups preparing for this rite of passage is priceless. Family education is part of many congregational programs as children prepare for bar/bat mitzvah, offering parents the opportunity to explore topics that perhaps will (re-)kindle interest in worship, learning, or performing mitzvot (commandments).

Perhaps the point of the Banning Bar Mitzvah blog post was to force us to re-think why we spend so much time, effort and money around this one- or two-day affair. Children spend countless hours in tutoring to prepare for their day. When “successful,” the preparation and effort stays with a young person for years and years to come. Families are touched deeply. “Mitzvah projects” (projects focusing on community service and/or social justice in the child’s local community or in the world at large) have left an impact and sometimes are continued long after the synagogue service and party are over. However, if we want the bar/bat mitzvah to be more meaningful, then perhaps we should look at how we bring family members who aren’t Jewish to this sacred time. There are educators and clergy who spend special time speaking to interfaith families about the role for their family members who aren’t Jewish and who work creatively and with empathy and openness to involve parents and grandparents, from both sides of the family, in the service.

One great way that parents can find more meaning in this process, especially if they didn’t grow up having experienced bar/bat mitzvah personally, is to access our online resources around this theme. We will share eight sessions which will teach you more about the meaning of the worship service and rituals and which can help you think about how to bring deeper spirituality and connectedness to this process for your pre-teen. We suggest parents access this material as early as when your child is in 4th grade and you are starting to wrap your heads and hearts around what this can all mean. If you would like log-in information to look at this course content, just email me, Rabbi Ari, at arim@interfaithfamily.com.

Community’s Response to Intermarriage

Over on the Forward, there’s an interesting opinion piece on intermarriage that responds to Jane Eisner’s concerns. She wrote:

What haunts me and the many parents I know who have children in their twenties and thirties is whether they will marry and, if so, whether they will marry Jews.

The fact that this concern is rarely discussed publicly by the organized Jewish community highlights the disconnect between our so-called leadership and how most of us live our lives. And it reflects the extreme reluctance liberals feel to express out loud what may be perceived as a traditional, even intolerant point of view.

I found this interesting to read, given that I hear the conversations about intermarriage all the time. Of course, I work here at InterfaithFamily. But even when working at other Jewish organizations, intermarriage was a topic frequently discussed (and ususally from the perspective of “how are we going to prevent this second Holocaust?!?”). And, yes, these discussions happened amongst individuals who would be labeled as “liberal.”

Eisner’s conclusion?

We need to figure out how to honor individual choice and the desire to move beyond ghettoization with the communal need to promote marriage as the foundation for a healthy Jewish culture.

And that’s where things get interesting. Enter Dan Brotman’s response, also in the Forward.

Intermarriage is a deeply personal affair for American Jews, as most of us have a close relative or friend who has married out of the faith. If Eisner takes a look at the personal lives of major non-Orthodox Jewish donors and lay leaders in the United States, she will find that many of them are themselves married to non-Jews, or have children who are married to non-Jews.

How can she expect American Jewry’s “so-called leadership” to fight the battle against intermarriage when many of them have married out of the faith or have intermarried children? We are talking about people’s lives here, so a Jewish leader aggressively fighting against intermarriage will most likely risk hurting their intermarried children, friends and relatives. Like it or hate it, it is much easier to focus on Israel than to discuss an issue which so personally affects each and every one of us.

A great point to start us off. He continues,

Eisner’s alarmist language (“If current trends continue, worrying about whether our children hear an anti-Israel slur in the college dorm will be the least of our concerns”) makes intermarriage out to be a zero-sum game. But I know from personal experience that it is not. If Jewish continuity is Eisner’s biggest concern, she should first look at how the American Jewish establishment can make it easier for young people to raise Jewish families. This means highly subsidizing Jewish education and institutions, which will incentivize young Jewish professionals to get married and have children sooner.

If we accept that intermarriage cannot be wished away, then we need to ask whether the American Jewish establishment (federations, synagogues, schools, etc.) have been welcoming enough of interfaith families. Families which feel included in the Jewish community are more likely to raise Jewish children than if they are shut out. A single negative experience at a Jewish communal event or institution can sufficiently traumatize a non-Jewish spouse to the extent that they will distance themselves and their family from the Jewish community.

By the same token, a parent who rejects their child’s decision to marry a non-Jew risks that child not raising a Jewish family at all. It is much more effective for parents to actively assist their children to incorporate Judaism into their interfaith family than to treat it as an all-or-nothing situation.

Just read the whole response. He makes excellent points that mirror the mission and work of InterfaithFamily.

Grounded in Judaism

Mayim Bialik at the Golden Globes

When you’ve had a tough week, month, or year, where do you find your strength to keep going? Are you able to find optimism, a belief that things will improve?

According to People, Mayyim Bialik credits her rootedness in Judaism:

“When you’ve had a 2012 like me, things can only get better,” she told PEOPLE on Sunday at the Golden Globe Awards. “That’s the glass half-full.”

Judaism has helped get her through the tough times.

“I’m a person of deep religious faith,” the Terani-clad actress, 37, explained. “I really believe that things will be right in the universe. Things are hard, but I’ve really been taught in my tradition that the harder things are, the greater the potential reward. I really believe that.”

Adds the Big Bang Theory star, “I don’t want to say everything happens for a reason, but every day is lined up right next to the other one for a reason. The best you can do is do each day well with kindness and as a good person.”

Adaptation and Flexibility for Death and Mourning Customs

My Aunt just died. She had been sick, lived to be 88, and had a wonderful marriage of 62 years. One of the sweetest people I ever knew. Her dear husband is 96 and devastated. He is in excellent health and still drives. He keeps remarking, “who lives to be 96?” He bought a car last year and the salesman offered an extended service plan. He looked at his daughter and laughed. He was lucky she was letting him get a car. My uncle is stunned to be alive and well but now without his beloved wife.

Our family is understandably sad and is in mourning. Typically in Judaism there is a funeral and a mourning process called shiva. What is unique about this case is that her husband (my uncle) doesn’t want a funeral or to observe shiva. To provide you with his perspective, he escaped the Holocaust, leaving Vienna for the US. His parents however were killed in a concentration camp. He feels that his parents had no funeral or religion associated with their death and he and my aunt decided long ago that there was no need for any ceremonies for them either.

My side of the family is quite religious and would like to observe shiva, but we completely respect his wishes. I would have gone to a funeral or to see my uncle and cousins but that is not what my uncle wants. My father has decided to sit shiva at his home (in another state). Many of my father’s cousins who knew my aunt will come to the house and tell sweet stories about her. This process will likely help my father and his brother grieve the loss of their sister. My father will say kaddish for a month (a prayer at daily services) and this too will help him grieve.

What I find so beautiful is that Jewish culture supports both wishes and both needs. Everyone grieves in their own way, and I love that Jewish culture provides us with what we need, when we need it. Grief is personal but can be lonely. Judaism provides the constructs for people to move forward at their own pace.