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When I see a rainbow, Kermit the Frog singing “Rainbow Connection” comes to mind every time: âThe lovers, the dreamers, and meâŚâ
On our familyâs winter vacation we spotted an amazing rainbow running down the side of a mountain. It was truly breathtaking and left us oohing and aaahing. We were the lovers and the dreamers in that instant. I didnât think to say either the Shehecheyanu or the prayer to be said upon seeing a rainbow: We praise You, Eternal God, Sovereign of the universe, who remembers, is faithful to, and fulfills Your covenant with and promise to creation. We just gaped with open mouth in wonder at the beauty of creation. No words had to be said in that instant. We all felt our connection with each other and the One.
However, upon reflecting on that sighting, it would have been cool to mark the moment with Judaism by calling upon ancient words that are ever-new. So, I say them now to myself as my house hums with the noise from my dogâs collar and the peace of sleeping children.
What about the rainbow being a symbol of our covenant with God? God shows Noah the rainbow in the clouds as a sign of Godâs covenant with humankind that never again will there be a flood to destroy them (Genesis 9:8-17). After Katrina, we can only wonder what a flood covering the earth must have been like.
The covenant was made again at Mt. Sinai when Moses delivered the 10 Commandments. It is thought and taught in Judaism that every soul was presentâeven those who were yet to beâat that most awesome moment in our shared history and âmemory.â So, what about people who arenât Jewish and are members of our families and our congregations? Were they there too? Is this their covenant too? Is the rainbow their symbol as well as those born to Jewish parents or brought up with Judaism?
I believe that when someone joins a Jew in the overwhelming, sometimes arduous, joyful and profound task of living with Judaism, their soul gets wrapped up in the tapestry of Jewish tradition that is 4,000 years strong. It is strong because it has always been diverse and ever renewing. The rainbow is the sign of continual creation and we are partners with God is this task. This is the core of the meaning of life, for me.
As we enter a new year, let us remember our rainbow connection.
The United Synagogue Youth (USY), the Conservative movementâs youth group, recently re-evaluated the rules for its national and regional teen board members on dating. We shared the JTA story, and realized immediately that you, our readers, were interested in this news. From the number of clicks on Facebook to the comments you shared in favor of this decision, itâs clear this is a story that matters to you.
Why? I think a lot of us were unaware that USY prohibited its teen board members from dating outside the faith in the first place and found this news a little shocking. And the fact that the Conservative movement is supporting the dropping of this policy for its youthâthe future of Judaismâis also a bold statement. In the JTA article, Rabbi David Levy, the professional director of USY and director of teen learning at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, explains that the original USY âconstitutionâ was written by teens themselves and âit always has been their prerogative to change them.â
But the recent decision these teens made has been backed by the Conservative movement. Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of the USCJ said ââŚwe canât put our heads in the sand about the fact that we live in an incredibly free society, where even committed Jews will marry outside the faith. If they do, we must welcome them wholeheartedly and encourage them to embrace Judaism.â
Rabbi Levy is also quoted in the article as saying, âWhile we maintain the value that dating within the faith is key to a sustainable Jewish future, we want to be positive and welcoming to USYers, many of whom are from interfaith families.â
I commend the teens of USY and the USCJ for this decision, and I hope it leads to a more welcoming space for their members and potential members. Iâd like to know what you thinkâplease sound off below.
As the new year approaches, Iâve been thinking back over the past yearâparticularly about certain terms Iâve heard used in 2014 that bother me. Following are three terms I hope to hear less of in 2015.
NON-JEW: While ânon-Jewâ is an easy short-hand term and itâs clear what it means, this term can be offensive. Most people prefer to be described in the positive as what they ARE, rather than in the negative as what theyâre NOT. For example, I identify as a âfemale,â not a ânon-male;â and in my family Iâm a âwife and mother,â not a ânon-husband and non-father.â At InterfaithFamily, weâre concerned that when people in the Jewish community talk about ânon-Jewsâ in interfaith relationships, it sends the messageâeven if itâs interpreted subconsciouslyâthat the person who isnât Jewish is somehow âless thanâ by defining that person with an emphasis on his or her âoutsiderâ status.
Granted, not using the term ânon-Jewâ can sometimes cause us to have to do some linguistic gymnastics, but I think itâs better to sound a little wordy and awkward than to potentially offend someone. So far, I donât know of an ideal term to describe someone who isnât Jewish. One suggestion Iâve heard is PDF (âperson of a different faithâ), but that term has its own limitations in that the partner who isnât Jewish may not identify as part of another religious group, or may be an atheist of agnostic who doesnât have a âfaith.â Do you have any suggestions?
And for the record, Iâd love to never again hear terms like shiksa and goy. These terms, which simply mean, respectively, âa woman who is not Jewishâ and âpeople who are not Jewish,â are too often used by Jews in a pejorative manner.
HALF-JEW: I used to really dislike this term no matter what the context in which it was used. But now Iâve come to see a difference between using it to define oneself and using it to define someone else. Before I worked for InterfaithFamily, if I were teaching a religious school class at a synagogue and a boy with one Jewish parent told me that he was âhalf-Jewishâ I would probably have said something like:Â âYouâre fully Jewish. Just because one of your parents isnât Jewish doesnât make you âhalf-Jewish.ââ (If the boy were older, I may even have joked: âwhich half, left or right?â) But as my colleague Rabbi Ari Moffic, Director of InterfaithFamily/Chicago, pointed out to me when I came to work here, people have the right to self-identify, and if someone identifies as âhalf-Jewishâ itâs not my place to tell him otherwise.
While I may have a tendency to want the boy in my religious school class to feel âwholeâ and to know that he is âauthenticallyâ Jewish even if one of his parents isnât Jewish, identity is complex. There are many things that a child (or, for that matter, an adult) could mean when he says that heâs âhalf-Jewish.â Perhaps thatâs his way of saying that he loves and identifies strongly with his parent who is not Jewish and that parentâs family. Itâs not my place to tell him that the way he self-identifies is wrong.
Yet while I now wouldnât âcorrectâ someone who identifies herself as âhalf-Jewishâ because of her right to identify as she chooses, I do find it offensive when people label others as âhalf-Jewish.âÂ In myâadmittedly liberalâunderstanding of Judaism, a person with a Jewish parent is Jewish, regardless of the gender of her Jewish parent. (I recognize that this view, which is consistent with the views of the Reform and Reconstructionist Movements, is inconsistent with traditional Halacha (Jewish law), and is not accepted by the Conservative Movement and Orthodox Jews, who require that a childâs mother must be Jewish in order for the child to be Jewish without being converted.) And such a person is as âfully Jewishâ as any person with two Jewish parents. Labelling someone a âhalf-Jewâ can be very hurtful to them (see, for example, Zach Cohenâs blog âDonât Call Me a Half-Jewâ) and risks alienating children in interfaith families from their Jewish roots.
Which brings me to the third term I donât likeâŚ
PATRILINEAL JEW: Traditional Jewish law requires that a personâs mother be Jewish in order for him to be Jewish without converting. But for years now the Reform, Reconstructionist and Humanist Movements have recognized âpatrilineal descentâ (i.e. a child with one Jewish parent, regardless of the parentâs gender, is Jewish so long as certain other criteria are met). CLICK HERE for an explanation of âWho is a Jew?â
Nobody ever refers to someone whose mother is Jewish and whose father isnât Jewish as a âmatrilineal Jewââsuch a person is simply a âJew.â Similarly, those of us who accept patrilineal descent shouldnât refer to someone whose father is Jewish (or who is being raised by two fathers, for that matter) as a âpatrilineal Jew.â The modifier âpatrilinealâ is unnecessary, and implies that having a Jewish father, as opposed to a Jewish mother, somehow puts one into a different, less authentic, category of Jewishness.
My hope for 2015 is that we can all spend more time focusing on our own religious and spiritual livesâŚand a LOT less time worrying about defining everyone elseâs.
Are there terms that youâd like to leave behind in 2014? Iâd love to hear what they are.
There was an important JTA article yesterday about a prominent Conservative rabbi who reportedly floated the idea of officiating at weddings of interfaith couples â something Conservative rabbis are prohibited from doing by their association, the Rabbinical Assembly â and then reportedly reversed course.
Since InterfaithFamily started operating thirteen years ago, we have always taken the position that Jewish clergy officiating at weddings of interfaith couples is a potential âdoor openerâ to future Jewish engagement by the couple, while refusals to officiate or difficulties finding an officiant are potential âdoor closers.â We have always tried to be respectful of rabbis who chose not to officiate, while encouraging some rabbis in all communities to officiate in order to minimize the âdoor closingâ effect.
Since InterfaithFamily got started we also have consistently tried to be helpful to the Conservative movement in its response to interfaith couples. Back in 2009 I wrote about how we were trying to recruit Conservative synagogues and professionals to list on our Network and thereby indicate that they welcomed interfaith families, and that we always publicized the Keruv initiative of the Federation of Jewish Menâs Clubs. At the time, we applauded a softening of the movementâs previous approach to aggressively promote conversion. In early 2013 we wrote about a prominent Conservative rabbi in New York who proposed a âfast trackâ conversion, in which a person who was not Jewish would convert first, and then study later, in order to enable Conservative rabbis to officiate at that personâs wedding.
Many observers have said that the Conservative movement has lost many members because the Reform movement is perceived to be more welcoming to interfaith couples. Promoting conversion â which appeared to be getting renewed emphasis just this past summer from Arnold Eisen, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary â continues to be a potential obstacle to a more welcoming stance. The inability of Conservative rabbis to officiate for interfaith couples is another obstacle.
A year or two ago, a highly-regarded Conservative rabbi told me that within five to ten years, Conservative rabbis would be officiating. I know another highly-regarded Conservative rabbi who is trying to figure out a way to be involved with interfaith couples along with another rabbi who would ultimately officiate at the wedding. And on Yom Kippur this year, Rabbi Adina Lewittes, a Conservative rabbi who had served as assistant dean of the Jewish Theological Seminary, delivered a sermon in which she revealed that she would officiate at intermarriages and had resigned from the Rabbinical Assembly.
According to yesterdayâs JTA article, Rabbi Wesley Gardenswartz of Temple Emanuel in Newton, MA, one of the largest Conservative synagogues in the country, had sent an email to congregants seeking support for a policy that would enable him to officiate at interfaith weddings where the couple had committed to a âCovenant to Raise Jewish Children.â Apparently there were significant reservations about the proposed âCovenant,â so the proposed policy was withdrawn, although Rabbi Gardenwartz said the congregation would âexplore ways to be more welcoming to interfaith families both before and after the wedding.â
I agree with Rabbi Chuck Simon of the Federation of Jewish Menâs clubs who is quoted in the JTA article as describing âthe move by someone of Gardenswartzâs stature to review policy on interfaith unionsâ as a potential âgame changer for the movementâ and âthe beginning of a huge paradigm shift.â Although the head of the Rabbinical Assembly is quoted in the article as saying âwe donât see the performance of intermarriage as something rabbis can do,â we expect that as more and more Conservative leaders see officiation as a potential âdoor openerâ and their existing policy as a potential âdoor closer,â we will see more moves like Rabbi Gardenswartzâs toward a change in that approach.
The other night, my husband was watching arguably his favorite show, Shark Tank. He shouted from the other room (literally, the only other room in our wee Boston apartment), âLindsey, come see this!â I thought maybe I knew someone on the show. Turned out, in a way, I did. It was a holiday episode featuring some interfaith holiday items, ones Iâm familiar with. Pitching his company was Neal Hoffman of Mensch on a Benchâitâs a Hanukkah plush toy that looks like an old rabbi modeled after the Christmas Elf on a Shelf (sound a little scary? One of the Sharks, Barbara Corcoran, pointed out as much, and was ready to give The Mensch a makeover). After Hoffman explained his own interfaith background and made a deal with Sharks Lori Greiner and Robert Herjavec, we caught up with someone from Season 5 who made a deal with his Star of David âHanukkah Tree Topper.â
I loved that Shark Tank was doing an interfaith episode before Hanukkah, and here at IFF, we donât tell people theyâre doing religion âwrongâ or which way is the right way. Whatever way you want to connect with Judaism is great! But we also havenât been advertising what seem to me to be Christmas items for Jews. Personally, I can see how an interfaith family might end up with all kinds of Jewish items from around their home on their Christmas tree, but something about purchasing a Jewish symbol as a tree topper might cross the line for some people and, truth: makes me cringe a bit. Same with an Elf on the Shelf for Hanukkah. That said, lots of people love itâand I do mean it when I say that you should enjoy any way you like to celebrate the holidays!
Regardless of what any of us think, this episode of Shark Tank drove home the fact that Jewish and interfaith merchandise for the holidays could quickly find their place in our local Target, CVS, maybe even the Christmas Tree Shops. So I may as well weigh in now, and say that if more toys and decorations are being created for Hanukkah, Iâd like to see some that are uniquely related to Hanukkah.
Instead of blending Christmas and Hanukkah into one holiday, why not respect them each for what they are, and come up with some fun new ways to celebrate Hanukkah for families of all kinds? Is there a candy menorah? Maybe one that doubles as a musical instrument? Musical candles that play the blessings? An app for kids thatâs actually fun and entertaining? Some plush singing Maccabees? If any of you entrepreneurs out there capitalize on any of these ideas, just send the royalty checks my way. Thanks.
What did you think of the Shark Tank episode and interfaith holiday merchandise? If you missed it, you can catch the Battle Over Mensch on a Bench here.
When I was very small, my family used to light our Hanukkah menorah alongside our decorated Christmas tree. Christmas was never a religious holiday for us but we decorated and listened to Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby and my mother filled stockings with our names on them with precious goodies.Â I was one of those obnoxious kids who bragged about getting Christmas presents AND Hanukkah presents! But when our family decided to join a synagogue we decided to formally end Christmas in our home. For my younger sister and I, this meant no more tree, no more decorations around our house, no more snowy Snoopy musical figurine spinning slowly, singing carols and certainly no more bragging rights. But we were young and we adaptedâŚfor the most part. But a few traditions were harder to let go of than others.
My sister happened to be very attached to the shiny twinkly lights of Christmas and one year, she badgered my parents as the holiday season began about hanging Christmas lights. But they had made a choice for our family and stuck with it: We were Jewish, so no Christmas. But could there be a compromise? As it turns out, there was, in the form of a string of Hanukkah lights.
My sister happily draped these lights all over her room and even came up with the cleverest of names. They were her âIsrael-lights.â Interfaith pun extraordinaire.
My mom always loved to seek out all the fun little trinkets to stuff into our stockings and so she continued to do so, every year, without fail. When each of us were first born, she had gone to a craft fair and bought us beautiful hand knit stockings and had sewn our names on them herself. One year we were in Switzerland on vacation over Christmas. My sister and I were convinced that the stockings must have stayed home, but lo and behold, Christmas morning, they magically appeared, full of Swiss treats. I also assumed that once I began studying to be a rabbi, perhaps my stocking days would be over, but I should have known to never underestimate my mom. My first year of rabbinical school I was living in Jerusalem and my parents came to visit me at the end of the first semester in December and what was packed in my momâs suitcase? You guessed it! My stocking, filled with treats from home. Iâm pretty sure I am the only rabbi out there who gets a Christmas stocking every year (though if thatâs not the case, by all means let me know in the comments!).
I could argue that this particular family tradition says more about my incredible mother than anything else, but itâs also just a practical reminder that families and traditions are ever evolving and adapting.
My family made it work because my very smart parents stuck to their guns but also allowed for our family to make these sort of meaningful compromises. I donât really remember that much about our transition from a house with a Christmas tree to a house without, but I do remember vividly the Israel-lights and I am still very excited each year to get my stocking. There is no one right way to celebrate holidays or life eventsâjust find a way that feels authentic to the choices you have made in your familyâs life. I remember the holiday seasons of my childhood with joy and fondness rather than strife because I was taught that we could always find a way to celebrate who we were and who we had become.
Years ago, I struggled with how I was going to do Hanukkah in our home. Christmas was already set. We visit my partnerâs parents who arenât Jewish for the holiday season. I tell our kids, as many Jewish parents in interfaith relationships do, that we are helping their grandparents celebrate Christmas. It may sound a little weak but it is really true. Their grandparents would be sad to not have family around their tree, as would my partner. And our Jewish kids love getting a taste of Christmas even though they know itâs not âourâ holiday.
But what to do about Hanukkah? This still posed a problem. My kids come to expect presents for Christmas, and I didnât want them to receive too much at this time of year. Did they really need the eight nights of presents I grew up with if they were about to receive mounds of gifts a few weeks later? And what if the holidays overlapped? It would send a message of overabundance I try to temper all year long and would feel antithetical to the values Iâm trying to instill.
I also didnât want to fall into the trap of pitting the two holidays against each other. When Hanukkah and Christmas compete, Hanukkah loses every time. It is a minor Jewish holiday only made grand here in the United States by its proximity to Christmas. Iâm not a fan of lifting it up in importance to make a point. Instead, in our family, we expend that energy by celebrating the more important Jewish holidays and Shabbat year round.
So the question remained: What would I want my kids to associate with Hanukkah as they grow up?
The answer came to me one year when I was doing my end-of-year philanthropic donations. I thought about the proximity of Hanukkah and the symbol of gelt, and the larger societal messages about December as a time of giving. As I waded through the mail, I recalled the piles of leaflets on my kitchen table growing up and how much I learned from my parents teaching me about the organizations they support. The timing was perfect! I decided to make Hanukkah into a holiday of givingânot receiving. In the glow of the Hanukkah candles, I taught my kids that tzedakah comes from the Hebrew root meaning âjusticeâ and that philanthropic giving is a way we can help bring justice to the world. At their ages, they loved the idea that life could be fairer.
I gathered all of the leaflets we received from organizations and asked the kids what they thought. Which communities would they want to support? What makes them upset as they look around their world, from natural disasters to homelessness to our treatment of the environment? We poked around online as they thought about people who had had a particularly rough year. I told them how much we had to give, and asked them to make the tough choices about how to divide it up. Do we give a lot to a few places and really make an impact? Or give a little to many organizations so they know we care about them? Each year as they grow in maturity, I give them new problems to solve. Now, we put coins in a tzedakah box throughout the year before lighting candles on Friday night and they know that this money will also go to the Hanukkah giving pot.
Their choices have evolved over time. The first time we did this, they were excited about Sesame Workshop because bright red Elmo was (wisely) featured on the organizationâs envelope. Next was their Jewish summer camp that suffered fire damage. Then we tackled the question of whether to give to local food banks or to hunger advocacy organizations trying to stamp out poverty from the top down. Would they rather support people in their neighborhood, in other regions of the country or the elsewhere in the world? The year DOMA was struck down, we discussed giving to Lambda Legal, an organization defending cases for the LGBT community. As they become more concerned about the environment, we have looked for organizations that address their concerns. This year, we will add to the list the importance of InterfaithFamily, helping families like ours navigate the holidays! (Yes, that was a not-so-subtle plug!) There is so much to do that it easily lasts eight nights.
Who knows what messages my kids will take away from the holiday season as they grow up? What will Christmas represent? What will they remember most about Hanukkah? I hope that by consciously highlighting tzedakah as a specific value, they will take the best from both of the December holidays that are part of their lives.
I met two menshes on benches the Friday of Thanksgiving. You may now have the image of the Mensch on the Bench Hanukkah toy, but unlike this stuffed elf counterpart, these were true mensches.
One of the rules for this toy is that a âtrue mensch is one who puts smiles on other peoplesâ faces.â The word mensch is Yiddish for human being. It means to be a true human; to live up to the depths of kindness, generosity, integrity and love that a human can muster. The two mensches I met put a smile on my face for sure.
My parents moved to Philadelphia over the summer from Boston to be near my youngest brother and his family. They joined Congregation Rodef Shalom which is near where they live. They joined because they had heard the synagogue was an architectural gem, which it is, that the clergy are accessible and warm, that the preaching and teaching is intellectually stimulating and that the worship is full of music and joy. As soon as they joined, another synagogue family called them and invited them out to dinner (which my parents were thrilled about since they donât have any friends there yet). The synagogue staff greeted my parents at the door for several weeks after they moved to welcome them in and make sure they were getting acclimated. My parents were immediately swept off their feet with the ruachâthe spiritâof the service. They kept telling me what a wonderful community this is. They love that each week there is a Shehecheyanu prayer sung after those in attendance share the good news that is happening in their lives.
My family and I were visiting for Thanksgiving and my parents were so excited and proud to take us to their new temple. Well, my 5 and 7-year-old are not well behaved in synagogue. You might be surprised considering my husband is a pulpit rabbi and they go to synagogue a lot. My children are high energy, antsy, loud and boisterous. They get thirsty and have to pee a lot during services which requires them to go in and out of the sanctuary. They whine. They get hungry. No matter how many little activities and small snacks I bring, we have not fully mastered the art of sitting respectfully in synagogue with a âcalm bodyâ as we like to say.
On this Friday night, they were exhausted which mellowed them a little.Â But, my youngest ate through the whole hour long service (I so appreciated that the service was one hour including a Torah reading and short sermon). This synagogue has a quiet room where you can hear the service but people canât hear us. However, we braved the actual sanctuary because my parents wanted the kids to try to fully participate. Wouldnât you know, they did (sort of). When the time came to share a Shehecheyanu moment, my 5-year-old raised his hand for the microphone and said, âI am visiting my grandma and papaâ which just made my parents kvell (swell with pride) and everyone in the community ooh and ahh with his cuteness.
During the Lecha Dodi prayer, they form a dancing chain and my children joined right in! The Rabbi made sure to welcome us specifically at the start of the service as well and he called my children up for the honor of helping to undress the Torah. Actively participating definitely helps one stay engaged, no matter how old you are. But, my kids were not perfect during that hour by any stretch of the imagination. There was a trail of popcorn under our seats to prove it.
After the service the two women sitting right behind us (on actual pews/benches) said, âYour children were such a delight. We loved their energy. We loved their dancing. They are so beautiful. What a joy to have you visiting.â They didnât say, âNext time, you could try the Quiet Room.â Their response made me smile. It warmed my heart. It took a load off. I had been wondering how annoyed they would be sitting right behind us. It made me want to come back again. I told you I met two menshes on benches! They embodied what it means to be gracious, welcoming and empathetic.