Fostering Inclusivity in L.A.: How I Got Here

Keara and family

Keara with her family

I am the outlier in my family. The youngest of five, the only musician, the one who loved Sunday school and the only one to marry a Jewish partner. Growing up my mother said she wanted me to marry a “nice Jewish man” so that I could have a “nice Jewish last name”—apparently my maiden name, Cummings, didn’t sound Jewish enough to my mother, Froma. I know she was joking (mostly) and that having the last name “Stein” is secondary to the man I married and the relationship we’ve built. What neither of us knew was that because Jason was not raised as a liberal Jew like I was, a large part of our relationship deals with navigating our different Jewish backgrounds as we build a Jewish home with our children.

My mother was raised in an Orthodox Jewish household and my father had converted to Judaism when he married his late (first) wife years before I was born. Though we were steeped in Judaism, by the time I was born, my family’s Jewish observance had changed significantly. I have vivid memories of singing “apples and honey for a sweet new year” at Rosh Hashanah dinner in our living room and Passover seders at my cousins’ house, but very few memories of attending services or programs at synagogue. It was a moment in synagogue, however, that left a deep impact on my life and ultimately led me to pursue the rabbinate.

I was 6 or 7 years old and my mother took me on a trip for work. When we arrived back in town we happened to be near the synagogue and decided to go in for Friday night Shabbat services. Dressed in jeans, I was embarrassed that we would stand out and people would shame us. We went in anyway, and about halfway through the service I fell asleep on her lap. When I awoke at the end of the service, the rabbi’s tallit was draped around me like a blanket and I quickly realized that Rabbi Herring had taken it off his own back and offered it to me. I understand this gesture even more deeply now that I am a rabbi and know the significance of my own tallit, and the meaning it brings me when I use it to bless couples at their weddings, and babies and families at birth ceremonies.

We entered that room embarrassed and anxious that we would be turned away, but instead we were welcomed with open arms and kindness. This is how I view the Jewish community today: inviting, engaging, kind and open.

I attended Willamette University, a small liberal arts college in Oregon with roots in the Methodist Church. As one of only of seven Jewish students in the entire undergraduate student body, I was often the first Jewish person most people there had met. I was asked several times if I had horns. I was proselytized. I thought about transferring to a university with more Jewish students. After a lot of consideration I chose to stay at Willamette and to seek out a larger Jewish community for support. I learned that the people around me who were not Jewish strengthened my own Jewish life. By having to reflect on my own understanding of Judaism, I learned why certain things about being Jewish matter to me.

In college, I was the Jewish representative whether I liked it or not, and this experience is what led me to become a Jewish professional. I love thinking deeply about what Judaism means for people and how it is represented in our lives and in the world. I love being a resource, a reference and a trusted advisor to my friends, family and community.

Two of my sisters are married to men who are not Jewish and each of them has two children. I understand that religion is not a cut and dry issue for their families and I love being able to help them navigate religious life for their children. It brings me joy to answer questions like, “Does an English muffin count as bread on Passover?” and “Were Moses and Jesus friends?”

I came to L.A. in 2010 to attend rabbinical school at the Hebrew Union College and I’ve worked all over town—at UCLA Hospital in Westwood, at St. John’s hospital in Santa Monica, at OUR House Center for Grief Support at the 405 and Sawtelle, and at various synagogues in the Valley. There were days that I spent three hours driving through town commuting to work and back home in Pasadena. I love that each neighborhood in L.A. has its own personality and its own needs. I know that there are areas with concentrated Orthodox Jewish population around L.A., but there are not areas with concentrated liberal, secular, and interfaith Jewish families. This makes finding community that much more difficult, and my work important and challenging. I hope that we can gather people together in community for fun, inclusive events. I hope you will join me in celebrating Jewish holidays at CiclaVia, learning about the issues facing Jewish families at a local hangout, playing with our babies at the park, and playing with our friends at the Hollywood Bowl.

I look forward to working with IFF to continue this important work of engaging people in community and helping people experience Judaism without the pain of closed doors, but rather with the kindness of a welcoming Jewish community.

Ari’s Q&A with Her Brother: Choosing Love by Living in Israel

Ari with her brother and sister-in-law

Rabbi Ari (right) with her brother Jason & sister-in-law Galit

Rabbi Ari interviews her Israeli brother, Jason, and sister-in-law, Galit.

When did you make aliyah?
(Literally this words means “to go up” and is used for someone who moves to Israel and connotes ascending in spiritual ways. The word is also used for being called up to the Torah during a worship service.)
Jason: I moved to Israel after attending a Birthright trip at the end of December 2007.

Why did you move to Israel?
Jason: Zionism. A belief that the land and people are part of me.

Galit adds that she felt a little lost and confused in America and she was looking for a different life, and Israel was calling her back.

What’s the most challenging part of living in Israel?
How expensive it is. Everything costs more than in America—cars, rent, gas. It’s hard to finish the month with any money in your pocket even if you have a good job.

Do you think about politics all the time?
We think about politics daily: more than when we were in America. And there was just an election. We think about it more during war time.

Do you know any interfaith couples? Is it common? And what’s it like for these couples in Israel?
We do have one friend who married a Christian woman from Australia. It’s not very common (at least in our circle of friends) and it can be difficult for them here. A spouse who is not Jewish may have fewer rights here, especially if they did not move here as a citizen. It’s important for interfaith couples to come to Israel and engage. Change can come.

Tell me about your experience living in Israel
It’s a fantastic place to live. There is plenty of work in all areas. Great medical care for no extra money beyond the taxes we pay. The people are great. We feel secure here and free. It’s a community; people know us and there is less anonymity. We don’t hear about people getting mugged on a bus, for instance. It must happen, but it’s not common.

What about this little known (in America) holiday coming up called Tu B’Av which begins the night of Friday, July 31?
The [Hebrew] word “Tu” refers to the Hebrew letters Tet and Vuv. Each Hebrew letter represents a number and these letters add up to the number 15. This is the Hebrew month of Av. Thus, this holiday is on the 15th of Av (if you don’t have a Jewish calendar in your house, it could be a great thing to get. It’s a wonderful way to experience the many holidays and to get a sense of “Jewish time”).

This is a mysterious day on the Jewish calendar. The Talmud tells us that many years ago the “daughters of Jerusalem would go dance in the vineyards” on the 15th of Av, and “whoever did not have a wife would go there” to find himself a bride. Thus, it has become a Jewish love day.

Rabbi Ari: My brother and Galit said that Tu B’Av reminds them of Valentine’s Day in Israel. It has become commercialized. The stores sell heart-themed candy and gifts and people buy flowers for their loved ones. Couples dedicate songs to each other on the radio.

My brother and Galit #ChooseLove every day by living in Israel. They are far from most people in their family, and while in some ways living in America may be easier, their love for the vibe of the country and the life they have created sustains them.

How will you #ChooseLove on Tu B’Av this year?

In Defense of Being Both at the Lunch Table


By Jacob Weis

Kids at the school cafeteriaBeing raised interfaith (as I was, truly, with both Jewish and Catholic traditions and holidays) and observing two religions will inevitably lead to some confrontation with others. For me, the first time this happened was in elementary school, at the lunch table.

For some reason, the kids that I have seen talk about religion other than around holidays or in passing have been Jews. For better or worse, I have noticed that there can be an air of exclusivity amongst some Jewish people—even in young children. Surely this exclusivity can be part of the reason that the Jewish people remain alive and well as a culture and religion, but it can also be to our detriment.

As I sat across from a kid who seemed to be the elementary school dictionary of all things Jewish, it appeared the attention at the table was all his. I don’t remember how it all came up and I don’t know how it came back around to me but all of the sudden he called me in for questioning: “Is your mom or your dad Jewish?” he asked with his head cocked to the side, and a bit of a bobble to it. I answered him, and finished with, “But I am half-Jewish.” He looked smug. “That means that you’re Jewish. You can’t be both.” He said this with a professorial smirk.

I know he sounds a little devilish for an elementary school kid, but he was just proud of where he came from and of the knowledge he had acquired. If it helps to imagine him spewing crumbs of a peanut butter sandwich out of his mouth as he talks, then I recommend that you do that. I always do, and it helps diffuse the bits of white hot childhood rage that I still have left from the incident.

No matter how hard I tried to convince him of my dual faith identity he just came back with smart remarks. The whole table was on his side, and now they were laying into me too. Even the Rice Krispy treat that my mom packed me that day wasn’t going to cheer me up after that.

When I came home from school that day it turned out my parents had the same reaction I did. “How dare that child tell my child who he is or isn’t.” They essentially told me to not engage with him anymore. So I did exactly that, and he and I never really had any problems after that. The four other lunch tables were more than welcoming. To this day, he is still the same little know-it-all that I remember, and we are able to respectfully disagree without any mention of the old incident. In fact, I should thank him. This first confrontation prepared me for the many more to come in my life.

A message to parents who plan on raising their kids in more than one religion: Your child will not come out of this situation unscathed. But the emotional scars that come from it will heal and lead to a strong sense in character and identity. Without this instance and a handful of others, who knows where my tolerance level would be for people who don’t accept my Judaism. Not to mention, there are beautiful things that can come from being interfaith.

“Can we talk?” Can we listen?


Joan Rivers“Can we talk?”

The late great comedian Joan Rivers had many famous lines, but she was probably better known for these three words than for any others. For many of us, we just have to hear this phrase and Joan comes to mind.

Yet perhaps ironically, when Joan Rivers uttered the phrase “Can we talk?” it wasn’t that she really wanted to engage with her audience in discussion. She didn’t want to talk WITH us. She wanted to talk TO us. What she wanted wasn’t for us to RESPOND, but for us to LISTEN. She had something to say…and she wanted our undivided attention.

Many of us like to talk. We have something to say – perhaps a point to make or a feeling or opinion to express. We think of talking as active…it involves doing something.

We tend to think of listening, in contrast, as passive…as if we don’t have to do anything to listen. But in fact, truly listening isn’t always easy and it’s certainly not passive. As any therapist, chaplain, social worker or member of the clergy will tell you, active listening is a crucial skill—every bit as important to a conversation as speaking, and often more so. It’s incredibly powerful for a person to know that they’re being listened to—that they’re being “heard” (and this often involves much more than just words)—by someone else who’s taking in what they say without any agenda other than to be present for them.

In Judaism, our central prayer is the Shema. And what does the Hebrew word Shema mean? It means “Hear.” Hearing/listening is at the very heart of Judaism.

When I was growing up, there was a wonderful poem in the Friday night prayer book my synagogue used—it was read before reciting the Shema. The prayer, written by Rabbis Jack Riemer and Harold Kushner, was called “Listen.” It began as follows:

Judaism begins with the commandment: Hear, O Israel!

But what does it really mean to hear?

The person who attends a concert with a mind on business,

Hears—but does not really hear.

The person who walks amid the songs of the birds

And thinks only of what will be served for dinner, hears—but does not really hear.

The one who listens to the words of a friend, or spouse, or child, and does not catch the note of urgency: “Notice me, help me, care about me,” hears—but does not really hear….

I loved this poem (and still do) because it emphasizes the importance of being truly present in the moment … of hearing/listening to what is happening around you, or what another person is saying to you.

I’m not a poet, but I often wish that I could add some verses to Rabbi Reimer and Rabbi Kushner’s poem “Listen” and share them with the people I work with (interfaith couples as well as Jewish professionals) in my role as Director of InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia. The verses I’d add would be:

The person in an interfaith relationship who talks with her partner about religion but cares only about her own religious heritage, and not her partner’s, hears—but does not really hear.

The parent of a child in an interfaith relationship who worries about what other people in his community will say about his child “intermarrying” as his daughter tells him how much she loves her fiancé, hears—but does not really hear.

The parent whose child tells her about his partner of another faith and she thinks only that she would prefer that the partner be of the same faith, hears—but does not really hear.

The rabbi who sits with a couple in an interfaith relationship and thinks about how it would be better if Jews only dated other Jews, hears—but does not really hear.

The rabbi who talks to a Christian parent of a bat mitzvah student and is convinced that all parents raising Jewish children should themselves convert to Judaism, hears—but does not really hear.

The synagogue staff person or lay leader who insists that their synagogue is “welcoming” of interfaith families but isn’t comfortable with those who aren’t Jewish participating in the life of the synagogue, hears—but does not really hear.

When it comes to interfaith relationships, many people—those in the relationship, their parents and other family members, clergy and others—may have concerns that are legitimate, and that should perhaps be expressed. But just as each person involved might feel like they need time to TALK, each person should also be sure to take time to LISTEN. Listening can be a tremendous gift to others and to yourself as well. If you are able to actively listen to and hear someone else, it just may make it easier for them to hear you.

Bringing InterfaithFamily to HOTlanta

Malka Packer

Rabbi Malka Packer

I wasn’t always into Judaism and my journey to become a rabbi was not typical. While I grew up steeped in Jewish tradition and community, I spent my twenties rejecting the religion of my childhood.  I grew up in the Conservative Jewish movement in Schenectady, New York and to me, Judaism felt homophobic, misogynistic and exclusive. The traditional teachings and practices didn’t seem relevant to me. I was out as a lesbian, I was a feminist and my partner at the time was Christian. I did not feel welcome.

It was while praying, singing and dancing at ecstatic prayer services in Berkeley, California, that I experienced a passionate connection with a Higher Power and felt the spiritual calling to become a rabbi. I knew then that I wanted to share the beauty, traditions and deep spirituality of Judaism and help others to connect with the Holy.

Some of my friends did not feel welcome, either. I was pained every time my Jewish friends married their partners of other faiths. NOT because they were committing to their sweeties who were not Jewish, but rather because they felt rejected by so many Jewish clergy. It was disheartening to watch them struggle as they tried to find someone willing to officiate at their interfaith weddings. Many times this rejection was coupled with the fact that members of their own families were judgmental of their choice of partners.

Through my discovery of inclusive, queer and spiritual Jewish communities in the Bay Area, I reconnected with my Jewish heritage. While working as an educator for over a decade, my relationship with the God of my understanding deepened. I practiced yoga, meditated daily and eventually joined a welcoming synagogue. After several years, I felt compelled to immerse myself in Jewish studies and to join the tradition of God wrestling as a Morat Haderech (spiritual guide).

Today, inclusion is at the heart of my rabbinate. My passion is creating inspiring and relevant rituals and ceremonies and invigorating Jewish practices. As I teach, I empower people to make choices that feel authentic and meaningful to them. I am honored to officiate at interfaith weddings and to guide couples as they navigate their journeys together.

I am thrilled to serve as the new director of InterfaithFamily/Atlanta!!  After living in Virginia Highland for only a few weeks, I am already fully enjoying all that Atlanta has to offer including the beltline, Piedmont Park, weekly festivals and that sweet southern hospitality!  I am looking forward to partnering with local organizations, connecting with people in interfaith families and relationships, and now that all marriage is legal, I can’t wait to officiate at legal local weddings!

Please be in touch!! I am always available by email to answer questions or discuss anything interfaith. Also, we have a local Facebook group and are in the planning stages for lots of workshops and resources for different life stages and events. Let me know if you would like more info or have any ideas about how we can make InterfaithFamily/Atlanta thrive.

I’m looking forward to meeting you.