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A few weeks ago, my son was reading Torah at a Saturday evening service. It is a very small service of 15-20 people and a nice opportunity for him to read without a large audience and to practice reading before his Bar Mitzvah next year. My in-laws who live a few towns over decided to attend. They were excited for him. The Rabbi saw them and asked if they wanted to have the aliyah for my sonâ€™s torah reading. They both said no.
At first I thought they were uncomfortable because they were taking an honor from someone else. So I looked at them and said, â€śThere is no one here, go ahead.â€ť They said no thanks again. I was perplexed. They are both Jewish and have participated in synagogue life elsewhere. They are completely comfortable in a synagogue and knew most of the people in the room.
An Aliyah is an honor within the Torah service. It allows the honoree(s) to stand beside the Torah reader (their grandson) and witness his reading. I also always think it is fascinating to be up close and personal with the Torah. (I always am amazed that this beautiful scroll is in every synagogue in the world and created by hand. When you factor in the longevity of the textâ€¦it is really cool.) I thought my in-laws would be thrilled to be up there with their oldest grandson and to watch him read from the Torah. Wouldnâ€™t they want this honor?
The concept of a Jewish person not wanting to accept an honor in a synagogue struck a chord. I recently wrote a blog about the beauty of the blessings given by someone who is not Jewish during a Bar/Bat Mitzvah. In many congregations, someone who is not Jewish cannot say a blessing for their child. My feeling is that the person who is not Jewish and blesses their child and the childâ€™s Jewish learning is making a wonderful statement of support to the community. So why wouldnâ€™t my in-laws want to participate?
Then I remembered my days in high school choir when we were in churches singing our hearts out. Sometimes there would be communion after we sang. Being raised in a strict Jewish household, I would refuse to participate even though I was the only one from the choir that wouldnâ€™t go up to the altar. I had a friend who was also Jewish but she did go up for communion. We spoke of it once and she said she didnâ€™t feel comfortable sitting on the pew when everyone else was kneeling or taking communion. I always remember this conversation and that one personâ€™s comfort is another personâ€™s discomfort.
Now, as I often think about welcoming a person of a different faith inside a Jewish institution, I have to remember: Sometimes people want to participate, and sometimes they want to opt out. Either way, we should do all in our power to make them feel comfortable whatever their preference.
I have been thinking about my in-laws sinceâ€¦we only do what we are comfortable doing. We all have different experiences and influences. Certainly no one should be forced to do something when they are uncomfortable. Religion is obviously a very personal decision and experience. My in-laws were not mentally prepared for an aliyah and this isnâ€™t a synagogue where they are members. I get itâ€”it wasnâ€™t right for them. Still, I know they were very proud of their grandson and his ability and intent to carry on the traditions.
While many synagogues are re-evaluating the role of the family members from various religions during various ceremonies, we must realize that not every person who isnâ€™t Jewish will WANT to participate. Some people think that their synagogue doesnâ€™t need to offer options because, â€śWhy would a person who isnâ€™t Jewish want to participate?â€ťÂ My response is: Let each individual decide what their comfort level is. We all have to remember that welcoming means offering options for inclusion. And, by simply offering the option for participation, the community sends the message of welcoming.
Jewish educators (including me) are constantly writing about interfaith familiesâ€”how to engage them, what their challenges are, what this means for the current state and future of Judaism. I thought an interesting way into the conversation would be to record quotes I have heard this week. These quotes are taken from different people and were said in different venuesâ€”from adult education, to talking with parents and grandparents on the phone or in person, to capturing what my own child said during bedtime. These comments capture the range of the concerns people have. Some of them go to the heart of the work we do, and others bring up policy and programmatic challenges.
What would your answers be to these questions or what would your follow-up questions be to these statements?
Things people have said to me this week:
â€śOne of the big issues grandparents face when grandchildren arenâ€™t being raised Jewish is our own guilt.â€ť
â€śI donâ€™t want to have to pass a litmus test to get a Jewish education for my children.â€ť
â€śIf God is in my heart, when does God come out? Does God sleep?â€ť (From my four year old)
â€śWe are so busy during the week that we donâ€™t want to be away more from our child on Sunday mornings for drop-off religious school.â€ť
â€śI want to drop off my child on Sundays and go get a coffee and read The New York Times.â€ť
â€śThe only way our priest would marry us was if we also had a rabbi and if we promised to pass on Judaism.â€ť
â€śI am very concerned about burial issues that will come up for all of these interfaith couples who arenâ€™t thinking about that yet.â€ť
Twitter challenge for October: Tweet comments you hear other people say about life as an interfaith couple or family, things said at your Jewish programs or by your kids. Your words are the best conversation starters for us at InterfaithFamily! Follow us at @InterfaithFam and tag us in your comments with the hashtag #InterfaithQuotes.