My Name is Shannon, and I’m a Jew

By Shannon Naomi Zaid

My internship with the Jewish United Federation and InterfaithFamily has put me in religious Jewish settings that I wouldn’t have normally found myself in. During one of these times, working an InterfaithFamily booth at an event, an issue was brought to my attention that I’d never thought existed: prejudice based on names. In this day and age it seems so odd to assume something about a person based solely on their name, especially so in the U.S. where the culture is a founded on many different ethnicities and geographical backgrounds. Yet there I was, trying to defend my Judaism to a couple of older Jewish men who thought I was Catholic based off my name.

The River Shannon

River Shannon

The origin of the name Shannon is Irish. Depending on whom you ask it means: small and wise, or river. My name was given to me by my birth mother, and my parents chose to keep it when they adopted me. In some ways I can understand why these men assumed I was Catholic. The southern nation of Ireland has been and remained Catholic for centuries, and the name “Shannon” derives from Ireland’s longest river, River Shannon. That being said, I was upset that they couldn’t picture a Jew having my name, and it was only after I explained to them my family background, that they acknowledged me as Jewish.

I understand that in Judaism a name carries weight. Historically, there were three groupings of Jews: the Levites, Kohens and Israelites. Descendants of the Levites and Kohens were tasked with special religious duties (e.g. Kohens were priests and Levites served directly under the Kohens), while the Israelites (i.e. everyone else) held the lowest standing. At some synagogues, Kohens and Levites are still treated differently from everyone else. For example, Kohens can be called up to read from the Torah first, followed by Levites. Even outside the biblical context, a family’s name identifies a person. The Jewish community has always been tight knit, and last names now serve as a tool to help place a person in the community.

In the case of first names, I notice the repetition of certain names within the Jewish community. Daniel, Jeremy, Rachel, Joseph, Sarah, Ari, Noah, Adam, Elizabeth, Rebecca, David, Jonathan, Dana, Shana, Michael, Sam. Chances are you’ll come across these names in a Jewish community, but that doesn’t strictly mean all Jews take their names from the same set. There are Jews all over the world in many different countries. You can’t expect that they all share the same few names.

While I am proud to call myself Jewish, I recognize its drawbacks. Judaism is very good at being exclusive, even toward those who identify with it. Call it a design flaw, or a result of social conditioning from centuries of persecution, either way an individual shouldn’t have to be questioned on what faith they are because their name is different.

Growing up in an interfaith family, I always felt as if I was secretly having an identity crisis, never knowing where I really fit it. But I’ve grown into myself, and I know who I am. My name is Shannon. I identify as a secular Jew. I come from an interfaith family. I’m adopted. Part of my family is from Israel, and the other half is from Europe. I know and understand all of this. The problem is everyone who doesn’t understand.

Wade in the Water at Mayyim Hayyim

Well, I went to the water one day to pray.
And my soul got happy and I stayed all day.
[Don't you know that God's gonna trouble the water!]
- “Wade in the Water” Mary Mary

As a Jewish woman who feels deeply rooted in her African- and Native-American family’s heritage, the famous Negro spiritual “Wade in the Water” holds multiple and profound layers of visceral meaning for me. It was a central component of an alternative Rosh Hashanah ritual I created and observed in Washington, DC’s Rock Creek Park a couple years ago. And a couple years before that, “Wade in the Water” was bittersweetly at the heart of a soft-spoken, yet powerful conversation between Alana, a dear friend of mine from college, her Hungarian-Jewish grandmother and me in her grandmother’s home in Mayen, Germany.


This is one of my favorite contemporary renditions.

The classic spiritual was originally among a number of songs used as vocal instructions sung in the cotton fields to help fugitive slaves navigate the treacherous, but ultimately liberating path of the Underground Railroad.

One night during a five-day layover in Germany in 2009, Alana shared with me that the “Wade in the Water” segment of Alvin Ailey’s famed “Revelations” dance sequence was once playing on her grandmother’s television. She explained to her grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, how enslaved African-Americans used the song to escape from slavery. After a few moments of silence, her grandmother began crying as she asked Alana, in German, “Why didn’t we think to do that?” With Alana’s permission, I gently broached the subject with her bubbe a couple days later. What ensued was one of the most meaningful conversations of my life.

Black people, my people, literally found their way to freedom through song. Similar to making aliyah or immersing oneself in the mikveh, song is a spiritual vehicle that guides and elevates both individuals and communities to higher ground. The Jewish people, also my people, are well-versed in spiritual elevation, as well as immersion. It is embedded in the mundane to mystical elements of our religion.

One of the nicest ways that spiritual immersion is still alive and thriving in the Boston area is found at Mayyim Hayyim. Now in its 10th year of existence, the Mayyim Hayyim Living Waters Mikveh and Paula Brody & Family Education Center is a community mikveh that has stayed true to its mission of reclaiming and reinventing one of Judaism’s most ancient rituals—immersion in the mikveh. Mayyim Hayyim has brought this sacred tradition to life by encouraging its traditional, as well as creative contemporary spiritual use. Each year the center teaches thousands of interested visitors. And on a daily basis, it models how to make the mikveh a sacred space that is open and accessible to all Jews and those who are becoming Jews. This was the vision of Mayyim Hayyim founder and acclaimed author Anita Diamant.

As Mayyim Hayyim’s founding executive director Aliza Kline once stated, “The explicit mission of Mayyim Hayyim is to provide a space that is warm and welcoming of the broadest sense of the Jewish community.” In a world where not enough Jewish communal spaces fully embrace interfaith families, let alone the rest of the Jewish community’s expansive diversity, the Newton-based non-profit stands in a distinctive category of its own. It has become a destination for interfaith families and Jews across the spectrum of observance and affiliation. Mayyim Hayyim actively welcomes interfaith, multiracial and LGBTQ members and families.

“Wade in the Water,” along with many other songs and poetry from Jewish and other spiritual traditions are resources Mayyim Hayyim has available for visitors of their mikvehs to use as they feel inspired.

Whether you are undergoing conversion, a life cycle event or a personal journey of healing or transformation, I recommend you schedule a visit to Mayyim Hayyim Living Waters Mikveh.

Breaking Bread with the In-Laws

Last Friday night, I watched as my kids lit Shabbat candles and said the prayers at our table with my in-laws standing by. My partner’s parents are not Jewish, and I felt a deep appreciation for them in this moment. When we all met, none of us could have imagined this scene. Nearly two decades ago, I stayed at their home for the first time. My partner and I were graduate students on the East Coast and we headed west to see her folks at their ranch in central Oregon over break. Like many people, Jewish or not, they really aren’t into religion at all. Here we were, a rabbinical student and a PhD candidate in religious studies. We pretty much ate, drank and breathed religion.

I wanted to be careful not to overwhelm them with Jewish talk or Jewish practice. That was tough because I was starting to observe Shabbat and other rituals for the first time. I chose carefully which ones I absolutely had to do. One of my new, favorite Shabbat rituals was baking challah. As Friday morning rolled around, it felt strange not to make it. I started to get the ingredients out, and the implications ran through my mind:

1) This kitchen is going to be really, really messy.

2)  It would feel weird to me if we ate challah on Friday night without saying the prayer over it.  But saying it will feel really weird too.

3) Oh no…it will feel weird to do the prayer over the bread without doing all three Shabbat blessings.  Now it’s a full ceremony and it’s going to be awkward.

In the end, I did it anyway. The result? Wow, these people love challah. I know most people like it. What’s not to like? My recipe includes eggs, flour and tons of sugar and butter which make it more like a Shabbat dessert. It’s always a crowd pleaser. But I have never seen anyone so overtaken by it. Seeing how excited her parents were and knowing how worried I was about engaging in Jewish ritual in their house, my partner made sure they knew that getting to the challah meant that there would be Jewish prayers at their table. For people who really disagree with religion as a whole, don’t believe in the God we are thanking in these prayers and have no context for the foreign language being spoken at their table, this could have been a huge deal.

It wasn’t.

Challah

Mychal's family's homemade challah

It’s been almost two decades, and I’m still making challah for my in-laws. Now when we visit, our kids help bake and decorate. We do the entire Shabbat ceremony consisting of all three prayers: lighting candles, saying kiddush over wine and grape juice and the motsi over the challah, my partner’s parents stand by, knowing that challah is coming.

I am greatly appreciative that my in-laws have been able to witness our family’s rituals and other religious choices. Clearly, some of these rituals have been easier to stomach than others. My mother-in-law enjoys the challah far more than she did the bris (then again, I’m with her on that one). It’s not easy when your kids choose a lifestyle so different from your own. In one sense, I credit the challah. It was one of the first moments when we came together around a Jewish custom, and unlike lots of other Jewish foods that are acquired tastes, challah was the one that could allow them to see into a completely new religious framework and even allow for it to happen at their family table. In a way, it’s just bread. But “breaking bread” together is also the way people from many cultures have traditionally and symbolically expressed that they can cross a difficult boundary. So maybe it’s no accident that this openness was instigated by a couple of loaves of home-baked bread. But at a deeper level, I credit my in-laws for demonstrating incredible openness to new ideas and most of all, for embracing us. That, and helping me clean the kitchen.

Sweet Egg Bread (Challah) 

Ingredients

5-6 cups of flour
2-3 tsp. salt
1 package dry yeast or equivalent of 1 Tbs.
4 Tbs. sugar (yep, really) or try honey
1 stick margarine or butter (Butter is better…but for those observing the kosher laws, butter poses a problem if there is meat on the table. Oil can also be used.)
1 cup hot water (130 degrees or whatever the yeast you are using requires)
4 eggs

  • Start boiling water and take your margarine/butter and yeast out of the refrigerator to get them to room temperature.
  • In a large bowl, mix 1 and 1/8 cups of flour, the sugar and the salt.
  • Put the yeast (room temperature) in a small bowl with a smattering of sugar.
  • Measure out the hot water at desired heat for yeast.
  • Pour some of the hot water into the yeast/sugar and mix vigorously with a spoon until the yeast dissolves. Let it sit for about 4 minutes until it bubbles up and rises.
  • Pour the yeast/sugar/water mixture into the large bowl with the flour and stir.
  • Cut a stick of softened margarine/butter into the mixture and stir, leaving a little aside.
  • Add the rest of the cup of hot water. The mixer bowl should feel warm, not hot.
  • Separate one egg, putting the white into the mixture while keeping the yolk in the refrigerator for later.
  • Add ½ cup flour into the mixture and the other 3 eggs into the bowl. Mix.
  • Add 3 more cups of flour and stir until it gets too thick to mix with a cooking spoon.
  • Spread some flour onto a large cutting board and begin kneading the dough, adding flour as necessary to keep it from getting sticky. Knead for about 10 minutes or until it seems right.  Really get your palms into it. If you have kids around let them make handprints in it.
  • Butter a bowl (with the extra margarine) and place the dough in the bowl. Find a cool, dark place to let the dough rise for about an hour with a damp dish towel covering it.
  • After an hour, remove the dough and punch it (with a buttered fist).
  • Divide it into two pieces (this is for two loaves, but kids like making several small ones instead so they can decorate their own). Divide each half into three sections and braid it. Remove an olive-sized piece of dough as an offering for the Levites. Say the blessing: Baruch ata Adonai, eloheinu melekh haolam, asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav vitzivanu l’hafrish challah min ha-isah (who has commanded us to separate challah from the dough). Leave the little ball on the side of the pan and cook it with the rest.
  • Butter/margarine/crisco a cookie sheet and place the braided loaves on it in a cool, dark place for another hour.
  • Beat the reserved egg yolk with a little water and brush it over the tops of the loaves. Sprinkle poppy seeds, cinnamon/sugar, sesame seeds, chocolate chips, rainbow sprinkles or whatever you think sounds good. Bake at 400 degrees for about 20 minutes to half an hour, testing it often with a toothpick. When the toothpick comes out mostly dry, it’s done!

Love, Religion and Cocktails!

Love, religion and cocktails event

Rabbi Robyn Frisch, Director of IFF/Philadelphia (left) with a participant at Love, Religion & Cocktails

A few weeks ago, InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia hosted our first gathering for young adults from interfaith homes and those who are in interfaith relationships: Love, Religion & Cockatils. We were fortunate enough to work with The Jewish Collaborative, a local organization that works with people in their 20s and 30s. In addition, our programming committee was terrific in coming up with the right type of program and the appropriate language for the marketing materials. Lots of organizations have mixers or programs, but this event was a little bit of both. It was an amazing night!

Drinks and appetizers: Everyone was given two drink tickets and there was a table with appetizers so that everyone could snack and mingle. We wanted everyone to have a chance to engage in casual conversation before we broke up into two groups. We served the “Love & Religion” as our signature cocktail. We’re pretty sure our participants enjoyed our special concoction.

A unique format: We wanted people to talk casually about their experiences and to connect with one another. The programming committee thought that the best way to achieve this would be to ask lighthearted questions such as, “What is your favorite holiday movie and why?” We hoped participants would explain their points of view as to why they liked certain movies, thus sparking conversation about issues such as how childhood memories inform our identity. We know that for many people, there is a lot of passion about their religion that has to do with memories. We asked other fun questions such as “If you described your family as a food, what would it be?” We heard, “a pizza bagel,” “a potato latke.” The answers were fun and touched upon the backgrounds of each person. One person talked about feelings associated with a Christmas tree. Another person talked about family meals and holidays.

Love religion & cockatils

During our conversations, we heard the most fascinating stories. One woman who grew up in America went to Israel and is now engaged to a Muslim from Sudan. Another woman told us about growing up in a Jewish/Puerto Rican household. One of the couples talked about how the rabbi at their wedding was so wonderful and welcoming that the partner who did not grow up Jewish is now considering converting.

A measure of success: we handed out short evaluations and all data indicated that everyone seemed quite happy with the program. The real measure of success in my mind was that people stayed for an hour after the event ended to talk to one another and our staff. Obviously, there is a real need for a forum for folks to connect and share their stories. I’m proud that IFF/Philadelphia offered that space for them and I’m pleased to be part of an organization that offers a safe space for people to share and communicate online and in person.

Would you like to attend Love, Religion and Cocktails in the future in Philadelphia or elsewhere? Share your comments and ideas below.

We’re Mostly Jewish

Campers at Tawonga

Photo courtesy of Camp Tawonga

I spent last week at California’s Camp Tawonga as the rabbi on staff for their “Taste of Camp” (a six-day introduction to the camp experience for kids who aren’t ready for a longer session yet). I overheard two 8- or 9-year-olds getting to know each other’s backgrounds on the way back to the cabin.

Excitedly, one girl told the other, “My Mom is Jewish and my Dad is Christian. But we are mostly Jewish.”

The other smiled and piped in, “In our house, we are also mixed! We eat some Hebrew food, and some Mexican food.”

This comment cracked me up and reminded me of being a little kid and having other kids ask me, “Are you Hanukkah or Christmas?” The conversation went on, comparing which holidays they each celebrate that are “Hebrew” and delighting in finding much commonality between their families.

What impressed me most about the conversation was their comfort and ease with the subject. Tawonga is a camp unaffiliated with any particular Jewish denomination, and many kids come from interfaith households. It seemed the perfect place for two kids to explore how they view their backgrounds and make sense of who they are becoming.

I don’t know the full picture of these kids’ family lives, but I would venture to say that they have been given a great gift: clarity. There is much worry that children with parents from different backgrounds will be confused, especially if the parent who is not Jewish continues to be connected to her or his religious heritage. From my experience working with interfaith families, some children are confused, and others—not in the least bit. And a lot of that is dependent on how intentional, clear and forthcoming parents are about what their “religious plan” is for the family. When they know how they are planning on affiliating with religions, communicate that effectively to their children and follow through on it, the kids are more likely to feel secure in who they are religiously as well—regardless of what the plan actually is.

What is the “religious plan” for the little girl who says she is “mostly Jewish”? I don’t know. But I imagine that she is comfortable saying her family is “mostly Jewish” and talking freely about it because they have an idea of how they are living spiritually and have communicated that to her. Perhaps she is being raised Jewishly and being sent to a Jewish camp. But she is also keenly aware that there is more to the story and honors her parent who is not Jewish as a contributor to her emerging identity.

We’ve all heard about “half Jews.” And people who say they are “part Jewish,” or “a quarter Jewish.” I think these kids just came up with a new category. Mostly Jewish. And proud of it.

Own Your Judaism

KetubahSometimes Jews who don’t live their lives by the rubrics of Jewish law feel inauthentic in their identity or less Jewish than more observant Jews. I often hear phrases like, “we weren’t that religious” or “we were very Reform” to describe an upbringing that did not include regular synagogue attendance or Shabbat rituals, for instance.  Sometimes a person who marries a Jew not concerned with Jewish tradition as it applies to food, prayer or holiday observances can be confused when that person wants a rabbi at his or her wedding and wants to raise Jewish children because it doesn’t seem the person cares that much about being Jewish.

There are many ways into Judaism and many ways to practice one’s Judaism.

Sometimes Jews are worried about “doing it wrong” or not following the tradition (as if there is only one) at major life cycle moments. For instance, in preparing for a wedding, many people are concerned with who can sign their ketubah. I explain that “traditionally” it would be people who are Jewish and not related to the couple but that since this is a “non-halachic, not legal” ketubah signed by a bride or groom who isn’t Jewish that they should pick witnesses who they trust and wish to honor and worry less about whether that person is Jewish and related to them. Sometimes brides or grooms are worried about wearing a yarmulke at their wedding when they don’t intend to wear one regularly again. They have to pause to ask themselves why they would want to wear one on their wedding day, what it symbolizes to them and then see if it feels meaningful.

Some of my colleagues have recently been discussing whether they should write that the couple is getting married on Shabbat in a ketubah (even if the wedding is before sundown on Saturday which is still Shabbat) since it is not traditionally thought permissible to hold a wedding on Shabbat. I feel very strongly that if the wedding is on Shabbat that the ketubah in an unapologetic way reflect that by stating the accurate day of the week in both English and Hebrew (rather than writing “Sunday”). This couple and this rabbi must not be accustomed to keeping Shababt in ways that prohibit driving, exchanging money, etc. and thus getting married on Saturday evening fits with their Jewish expression.

In fact, Rabbi Eugene Mihaly who died in 2002 at the age of 83, a professor at Hebrew Union College, the Reform Rabbinical Seminary wrote about whether marriage on the Sabbath is allowed according to the Jewish rabbinic sources.  He concluded that:

“A religious marriage ceremony is a profound spiritual experience. The goals of Sabbath observance for the Reform Jew are also based on the traditional themes of the Sabbath as a day of delight (oneg), of refreshment of soul, of perfect freedom, a day devoted to hallowing of life, the enhancement of person, a weekly projection into the messianic. The spirit of a religious marriage ceremony is thus in perfect consonance with the spirit of the Sabbath. Halachic (legal) tradition, liberally interpreted, as it must be by Reform Judaism, far from prohibiting a marriage on the Sabbath would, on the contrary, encourage it as a most appropriate and fitting activity, congruent with and an enhancement of the highest reaches of Sabbath observance.”

We have a tendency as Jews to put a hierarchy on Jewish practice and observance level. When one is able to learn about Judaism and then live it in a meaningful, thoughtful way, it becomes part of the life force of that person and not something to try on for an hour here or there. The ability to own one’s own Judaism is crucial. When one can talk about it with confidence and not in what one doesn’t do but in what one does and believes and values, then it fills the person. How can we nurture the next generation to be able to do this? If we worry less about “tradition” which is certainly not monolithic and more about knowing why we do what we do, then our identity can sustain us in real ways.

Our Thoughts on Israel

Like everyone in the Jewish world, we at InterfaithFamily are deeply concerned about recent developments in Israel.

IFF does not take positions on the Israel-Palestinian issue, what the Israeli government or the Palestinian authorities should or shouldn’t do. We have staff and stakeholders who represent different views on this highly charged topic.

We do feel strongly, however, that exposure to Israel is a very positive experience for people in interfaith relationships. We have always encouraged content representing Israel in a positive and welcoming light, whether it is a story about a Birthright Israel participant who has one Jewish parent, or a story about an intermarried parent taking his family to Israel. These types of stories have always had a home at InterfaithFamily.

This December InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia is sponsoring a trip to Israel for interfaith families. We believe this trip will be an incredible experience for our participants. We are also in the process of exploring our role in the efforts to send newly married interfaith couples to Israel on a wider scale in the future.

We also feel strongly that Israel is threatened by negative opinion and vilification around the world, and that it is important to express support for Israel and for efforts to peacefully resolve conflict there. We are hopeful that steps will be taken in that direction speedily. Our hearts and minds are with our friends in Israel who are currently dealing with violence at this time.

“How We Be” – Our Day at Camp JRF

Training with counselorsEveryone stand in a big circle. If you have a parent who is not Jewish, take a step inside the circle. Stay there. Now, if you are still in the outside circle, and you have a close relative who is not Jewish, take a step inside the circle. 

Everyone looked around and saw that nearly all of the more than 75 participants had taken a step inside the circle.

And so began InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia’s Sensitivity Training for counselors at Camp JRF (the Reconstructionist movement’s overnight camp in the Pennsylvania Poconos) for working with children from interfaith homes. This training—which I conducted along with my IFF/Philadelphia colleagues Wendy Armon and Robin Warsaw—was part of the camp’s Inclusivity Training for counselors in the week before campers arrived. It was clear to all of the counselors in attendance that being part of an interfaith family isn’t just a theoretical issue for liberal Jews today, it’s something that touches almost every one of us personally.

Training with counselorsOver the next hour, we explored how the counselors could best handle various issues that might come up during the summer. For example, what do you do as a counselor when you’re leading a discussion about God and one of the campers brings up Jesus? The counselors also divided up into small groups and discussed and acted out various scenarios involving interfaith issues, such as how to react when a camper says that she is “half Jewish and half [another religion]” or when a camper claims that his bunkmate “isn’t really Jewish.”

Staff at camp training

From left: Rabbi Robyn Frisch, Wendy Armon, Rabbi Isaac Saposnik, Executive Director of Camp JRF, Robin Warsaw

 

I was amazed at the counselors’ thoughtfulness and sensitivity, their insight and creativity, and their openness to discussing challenging issues. After the training, the three of us from IFF/Philadelphia had the pleasure of joining the counselors for a healthy and delicious (really!) lunch—which was followed by a rousing song session in which the counselors sang some of the songs they’ve been learning in advance of the campers’ arrival. Then we were in for a real treat, as the camp’s director, Rabbi Isaac Saposnik, took us on a tour (by golf cart) of the camp. We saw how the different activity areas were labeled with signs that looked like Israeli street signs, naming the activity in Hebrew, English and Arabic. A highlight of the tour was the camp’s new Eco-Village (designed with the input of campers from the past year), a super cool area where campers entering their freshman and sophomore years of high school will live in yurts.

More than once throughout our day at Camp JRF, we heard someone use the camp expression “How We Be.” At Camp JRF, diversity isn’t just tolerated…it isn’t just accepted…it’s embraced! One thing was clear:  “We all be different…and that’s wonderful!” Camp JRF is very much a JEWISH camp, but every person at camp—counselor or camper—is encouraged to express his or her Judaism in a way that is personally meaningful. And each person understands that he or she has to respect how others “be.” There’s no “one size fits all.” Each individual is unique, and that makes for a vibrant camp community.

I have no doubt that the campers who attend Camp JRF this summer will have an amazing time. They’ll swim and play Frisbee; dance and sing; make new friends and have all kinds of exciting and rewarding experiences. If they’re going into ninth or tenth grade—they’ll even get to live in a yurt! But most important, they’ll know that they’re living in a community where their uniqueness is embraced and they are accepted for who they are, as they are. And THAT is a great way to “be.”

What I’ve Learned from Growing Up in an Interfaith Family

By Shannon Naomi Zaid

Staff of IFF/Chicago

Shannon (right) with IFF/Chicago staff: Jennifer Falkenholm & Rabbi Ari Moffic

My name is Shannon and I was brought up in a secular Jewish and secular Unitarian setting. I identify as Jewish, but deeply love and respect my Unitarian roots. In my experience, I’ve come to believe that one of the most important, and difficult parts of being a child raised under two different faiths is acknowledging the presences of each religion’s essence, and finding a way for them to coexist in the heart and mind.

As of last week I started an eight-week internship at InterfaithFamily/Chicago in Northbrook (as part of the JUF Lewis Summer Intern program). I was drawn to this position since I also come from an interfaith family background. When my supervisor, Rabbi Ari Moffic, came to me with the opportunity to blog about my experiences growing up in an interfaith setting, I was (and still am) so excited to be given the chance to share my story with others. By doing this, I hope to address any concerns, and uncertainties you may have about raising a child when parents come from two different faiths.

It’s not an easy task finding a common ground when beliefs butt heads, but it’s not impossible. It’s important to remember that everyone handles this struggle differently. Some people pick one religion and do not practice any aspects of the other religion. Some partake in syncretism (e.g. Jewbu, Hinjew, etc.). Some become secular and or identify themselves as not practicing. Some may even go against organized religions entirely. Anything is possible.

I’ve switched my stance on religion multiple times. For a large portion of my life, I refused to identify with either of my parents’ religions. I didn’t want to have to choose between the two, and it left me in an awkward situation. So, at the time, I decided to go against organized religion. I refused to learn anything about either religion and held this stance until sophomore year of high school. My parents accepted my views, which I thank them for because it allowed me to find my own spiritual path.

During my high school career many events took place that pushed me toward the Jewish life I lead today. One of the major factors in my decision was pride. I have two moms, and at school it pained me to see my Christian peers speak out against them.  That year I also experienced my first taste of anti-Semitism, and although I didn’t consider myself Jewish, I still fell victim to cruel jokes and bitter comments. I always took pride in the fact that I had two moms. I took pride in being different. The reason I sided with Judaism was because it was also different, and I felt a powerful need in my heart to defend it, more so than I ever felt with Unitarianism.

Sophomore year I started identifying as Jewish, and during that time I left Christianity out of my life. I did this until my freshman year in college, when I took several religious studies courses that focused on historical relationships between different religious faiths. It was in one of these classes that I asked myself the question: Why couldn’t the religions of my parents coexist for me in some way?

And why couldn’t they?

I now identify as a secular Jew. I relate to the Jewish culture. I feel a strong connection to Israel and I believe in the Jewish people. But I respect Unitarianism, and as a Jew, I feel I can relate to the constant struggle Unitarians have to face from other Christian denominations.

Here are some things I’ve figured out along the way about growing up in an interfaith home. I hope you find my experience helpful.

Shannon and her sister

Shannon (left) and her sister

My younger sister feels no connection to Judaism and is Unitarian. We have agreed to avoid talking to each other about religion. We do talk about up coming holidays and such, but we try and avoid getting into any religious debates. Good communication is crucial in family relationships. Together we decided to set up boundaries so we could coexist in an atmosphere in which we all felt respected.

Relatives are always hard to deal with. They don’t understand that our family has split beliefs, and they might say or do something that isn’t completely respectful toward the other faith. When this happens I’ve found it important to pull that person to the side, and remind them or explain to them that they need to be considerate of different values and beliefs.

When I’m able, I like going to church and learning about Unitarianism. Despite being Jewish, I think it’s important to be knowledgeable about both faiths. I also celebrate holidays like Christmas and Easter. By doing these things I feel it’s my way of showing respect for the other religion, even if it doesn’t resonate with me. My sister does the same by lighting the menorah at Hanukkah, participating during Purim and reading the questions with me at Seder during Passover.

Finding a Jewish Community that Feels Like Home

HBT mother and daughter

Photo courtesy of HBT

Temple Hillel B’nai Torah (HBT) is a Reconstructionist congregation located in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, a middle-class Boston neighborhood just minutes from Newton and Brookline. HBT is a welcoming, egalitarian, multicultural and inclusive spiritual community, which I observed firsthand when I was a substitute religious school teacher there a few years back. As with any synagogue, worship is a focal point, but this community also dedicates much of its time and resources to social justice and being responsive to the broader world in which we live.

If you are looking for an inclusive Jewish spiritual community in the Greater Boston area, Temple Hillel B’nai Torah is an exceptional option. Even if you aren’t in search of a temple to join, but simply an inclusive Jewish space for an occasional holiday or social program to attend, HBT’s vibrant community strives to make visitors feel right at home.

I recently interviewed Hillel B’nai Torah’s rabbi, Barbara Penzner. Rabbi Penzner is an exceptional spiritual and community leader. Below she shares insight pertaining to interfaith families at HBT, as well as the congregation’s values around inclusion.

Sukkot

Learning about Sukkot with Rabbi Penzner. Photo courtesy of HBT

What are some of the insights you have learned from working with interfaith families at HBT?

In my 19 years at Temple Hillel B’nai Torah, I have observed many different kinds of families. In some families, both parents are active participants while in others, only one parent maintains a strong connection to our community. It’s interesting that these differences do not divide easily between families with two Jewish parents, interfaith families or even families where one parent has converted to Judaism.

In one family, the mother never converted, but because she committed to raising children in the Jewish tradition—before the marriage—the boys both attended Jewish day school. In another family, the father who is not Jewish remains committed to his personal faith while attending every Jewish function with his family. Many of those who decided to convert to Judaism waited until their children were old enough to urge them to “take the plunge” and celebrated with them at the mikveh.

What policies or practices does HBT institute pertaining to interfaith families?

In the late 1990s, our congregation spent a year discussing the roles for members who aren’t Jewish in order to clarify our expectations for participation in ritual and governance. We all agreed that we wanted to include all family members for celebrations like a bar/bat mitzvah. The entire family stands together on the bimah for these occasions, and both parents give their child blessings, if they choose.

Our goal is to make our congregation a haven and a home, a place where people feel welcome no matter what their background: interfaith, multi-racial, LGBT and other seekers. Our bottom line is that we hope each member is willing to learn and grow.

What programming do you offer that supports and addresses the needs/concerns of interfaith families? How have those initiatives or programs helped the community and those families/couples?

In recent years, a new group of families with young children have asked for a special group to help them deal with the challenges of raising children when parents have different religious backgrounds. Our group began as a gathering for interfaith couples. By the second year, we realized that the questions we were grappling with were valuable to all parents. We renamed the group “Parenting through Our Differences.” The group has discussed observing Jewish holidays, responding to the demands of extended family members, dealing with death and mourning in a Jewish way, and of course, navigating the December holidays

What brings you the most joy about your work, particularly your leadership around diversity and inclusion?

Lately I’ve enjoyed spending time with young couples who are preparing to marry and wish to explore the complexities of creating an interfaith family. I have watched couples navigate the dynamics of family and community that inevitably raise questions about the meaning of family, identity, religion and God. These are not easy questions and the answers are not straightforward.

What gives me faith in the future is the intention these couples bring and the open-heartedness with which they discuss their challenges. That, after all, is what religion is ultimately about. How we live out our religious practices and how we name our faith springs forth from our own personal truth; without that honest self-assessment, religion is only window-dressing. Ideally, our community seeks to foster these heartfelt investigations and create bonds of compassion and support.

On Sunday, November 9, HBT will be featuring scholar Keren McGinity, author of Still Jewish: A History of Women and Intermarriage in America to speak about her new book Marrying Out: Jewish Men, Intermarriage and Fatherhood