Start by Dropping the ‘Non-Jew’

  

This article was cross-posted on HuffingtonPost.com.

ThinkstockPhotos-81754532 -webAs the editorial director at an organization that works toward the inclusion of interfaith couples and families in Jewish life, I read and hear a lot of commentary on the future of Judaism and how interfaith families fit into it. Over and over I hear or read Jewish professionals and rabbis say how much they would like to welcome non-Jews into the community.

Say for a minute you were thinking deeply about joining an exclusive tennis club. You’ve been wanting to become a tennis player for years and you’re finally taking the steps toward that goal. You found a club that alleges to be welcoming and in need of newcomers, but when you tell them you haven’t learned to play yet, and that you might continue to play basketball even after you join, they suddenly don’t seem as welcoming as you expected. The club members and leadership refer over and over to you as a non-tennis player, making you feel not so much like you will ever be a member of the club but a visitor.

Obviously “joining” Judaism is a much weightier life choice than playing tennis. Perhaps the analogy of “non-man” to describe a woman hits closer to home? Non-meat eater? In any case, the Jewish community’s decision making around welcoming new people into its fold should not be treated as trivial. But assuming you have decided that you do in fact want to welcome newcomers who are not Jewish to explore Jewish life within your organization (or family or neighborhood)–stand by that decision.

If you want interfaith couples and children of intermarriage to feel welcomed by your community I applaud you on your efforts. If you want that aspiration to translate to reality, start by thinking about the person you’re trying to welcome every time you speak on the topic or write language of welcoming or interact with this audience. How will your messages be perceived by that person? Will they hear that you have a policy of welcoming? Or will they also hear that you want them to be there?

These are two different things.

Step one: You intend to welcome.

Step two: You actually welcome.

Let’s start by speaking in terms of who someone is, not in terms of who someone is not. Respect the audience you seek to invite into your fold by treating them as equals to everyone else in your fold. If someone feels that they are being tolerated and not celebrated, they may not walk through your door. Or if they do walk in, they may turn around and leave.

There isn’t a good word for non-Jew. But you can use the words “partner who is not Jewish” or “partner of another faith.”

It’s not just about this one compound noun. It’s about speaking to interfaith families the way you would Jewish-Jewish families. It’s about deciding whether they are your future and if you answer yes, treating them like it.

A Letter to Chelsea For Her Second Pregnancy

  
Chelsea Clinton & Marc Mezvinsky

Chelsea and Marc after her mother’s announcement that she will seek nomination for the presidency in 2016. Credit: Andy Katz

Dear Chelsea & Marc,

First I want to say B’sha’ah tovah and mazel tov on your pregnancy. Your pregnancy announcement was adorable and I hope Charlotte adjusts to your pregnancy and the new baby once it arrives. I glanced below the article I read including your announcement and saw several comments from people who, for whatever reason, think they know what’s best for your family. If you haven’t read them yet, don’t. If you have read them, or if you’ve heard them elsewhere—I’m sorry people are treating you as the role model for interfaith families. I’m especially sorry your daughter will grow up hearing these comments and constantly having to explain her family to others.

But the truth is, you are a role model, and your daughter will be one too. No, not because you’re the daughter of a President (or maybe two?). And no, not because you are a public figure. But because you are married to a Jewish man. And you’re not alone in this. All interfaith couples and families become role models and representatives. You see, we Jews have a lot of opinions on how the Jewish people should behave. But the thing is, we all behave differently. We have no one standard of how a “Jewish” family should behave or how an “interfaith” child should act.

I hope that you and your family are able to look past all the judgment and shame that other people might place on you, and enjoy this time. There are many of us rooting for you and following your journey hoping to learn from your experience. Teach your daughter love and kindness and go from there. Being a mom to a toddler and pregnant is already enough to deal with. I hope that the love in your life and family only continues to grow, and that you can continue living the life you want for your daughter and your new addition.

Being a role model for interfaith families can be tough, but creates a groundwork for future families to follow. Let the love you have guide you and you will be supported. In the meantime—know that there are other families navigating this crazy road alongside you and that there are many of us in the Jewish community who welcome you with open arms. InterfaithFamily has loads of baby resources just for you. May your family go from strength to strength in this holiday season.

Happy Hanukkah, Merry Christmas and mazel tov,

Rabbi Keara Stein

My Vision Board Came to Life

  

Ponce City Market

It was just over a year ago that my partner, Mercy, and I were dreaming and praying as we co-created a vision board for the year 2015. Vision boards are one of my favorite ways to create sacred art; a display of what I want to manifest in my life in the coming year. After journaling and sharing our wishes with each other, Mercy and I glued pictures, colors, words and shapes that represented our hopes and dreams for the coming year onto a big white board. This process allowed me to surrender my wants over to the universe and open myself to the organic unfolding of my life.

Malka and Mercy

Mercy and Malka

My job and her schooling were coming to a close, and I was getting anxious about what would happen next. At the time, I was working as the interim Hillel Director at Vassar College and Mercy was completing her graduate program; we were gearing up for our next adventure together. There were so many unknowns—where would we get work? Could we both find jobs in the same city? What if only one of us found a job? Would we be able to find fulfilling work that paid a decent salary? How do we know if we should apply for jobs that we find to be less exciting? It was a very stressful time for both of us.

The combined images on our board served as a constant reminder of our dreaming process and kept us focused on our hopes for our next jobs. We wanted to live in a warm climate, walking distance to nature, with farmer’s markets and bike paths. We wanted jobs that were spiritually fulfilling, close to home and that offered good health insurance. Affordable housing was important, and a progressive queer community was a must.

After months of searching, interviewing, traveling, rejection letters, job offers, tears and a ton of prayers, our visions finally came to life!

We moved into a tiny apartment in Virginia Highland, GA, this summer, just a block and a half from the entrance to the Beltline and a short walk to Piedmont Park. We have found spiritually nourishing communities, beautiful hiking trails and delight in the Tiny Doors Project.

And, most important, I found the job of my dreams!! I love the work that I do at IFF. It’s one of those jobs where it doesn’t feel like work, and every day is full of exciting adventures and creative opportunities.

Malka at her new office

The new IFF/Atlanta HQ!

I am blessed to serve as a resource and guide for folks in interfaith families and relationships as the Director of IFF/Atlanta. I am honored to support and empower them as they make Jewish choices, meeting them where they are at in their lives and decision-making processes. Officiating at lifecycle events has been truly life affirming. As I work with Jewish organizations to become more welcoming and inclusive, I have found some incredibly supportive community partners!

And, I am thrilled to announce that we have just signed the lease to our new office space in Ponce City Market!! What a gift to have found a space that is a 10-minute walk from my home in the center of town.

While our office itself is quite small, just large enough for four comfy chairs and an end table, it is perfect for intimate conversations with couples, meetings with my fabulous project manager, Laurel Snyder, and catching up on emails. But, the best part is that we have access to so many incredibly funky spaces and conference rooms. There’s a meditation room, complete with pillow rocks (yes, big pillows that look like rocks) and a cozy space for intimate yoga classes and grounding meditation sessions. We are also looking forward to taking advantage of the indoor picnic table area—a perfect spot for catered meals, book groups and conversations. Lastly, we are already planning Love and Religion workshops and movie nights in the hidden party lounge.  With a big, long couch, silky pillows and a popcorn machine, it feels like the inside of Jeannie’s bottle!!

Atlanta office

To celebrate, we are hosting a fabulous Hannukat Habayit: a festive Housewarming Party, on Sunday, January 10, from 2-4pm. The entire community is invited (get more info here) to help us bless and toast our new home at Ponce City Market, and hang our mezuzah from Modern Tribe! We will be enjoying live music by the Pussy Willows, provided by the Atlanta Jewish Music Festival, and will serve refreshments from the award-winning chefs of the Ponce City Market.

Working as the director for InterfaithFamily/Atlanta has been beyond my wildest dreams. I am grateful for the opportunity to serve in a dynamic and diverse city. Living and exploring in Atlanta has been a true gift.

As 2015 draws to a close, Mercy and I are preparing to create our 2016 vision board. In preparation, we created a blessings jar—a spiritual “thank you” container, acknowledging the Divine for the many gifts we have received. On colorful slips of paper, we are reflecting upon 2015 and sharing our deep gratitude for: our adorable apartment, our incredibly awesome jobs, our spiritual teachers, health insurance, bike paths, healthy colons, colorful dreidel spandex, etc.

Next week, during the winter solstice, we will, once again, journal and share our wishes with each other and then glue pictures, colors, words and shapes that represent our hopes and dreams for the coming year onto a big white board. I’m curious to see what 2016 brings.

The Real Story of Hanukkah

  

Lighting the candles for HanukkahIn rabbinical school, I learned what you might call the “real” story of Hanukkah. I also learned about the “real” story of Purim – there is more beyond the Disney version which includes a violent ending to the Book of Esther, which I never knew about as a child. I also learned about other gruesome stories in the Torah like the punishment for those who built the Golden Calf (they had to drink an elixir made from the ground-up golden calf and subsequently died) as well as consequences such as being swallowed alive by the earth for other disobedience.

What I mean when I say that I learned the “real” story of Hanukkah is that I became acquainted with the historical and rabbinic ambivalence toward the holiday. For starters, unlike all other Jewish holidays (with the exception of modern day Israeli holidays instituted after the creation of the state of Israel), the story and holiday of Hanukkah is not in the Hebrew Bible. It’s part of another genre of literature called the Apocrypha. Secondly, the holiday was established by the Maccabees to commemorate a military victory in which their small Jewish army defeated the huge Greek army. This war was forged by the Maccabees against both the Jews who had become too assimilated into Greek culture and against the Greeks themselves who had forbidden the Jews certain practices of Judaism.

The Maccabees were quite zealous in their religious fervor and it makes me wonder if they would have found my family, my community and me too assimilated as well. Though many of our holidays are also a celebration of our survival, the Maccabees’ establishment of the holiday in honor of their military victory was a distinctly Greek practice. The Rabbis of the Talmud were troubled by much of this and they even asked, “Mai Hanukkah” which, loosely translated from the Aramaic, means, “What the heck is Hanukkah?”

In the Talmud, the rabbis go on to tell the story of the destruction of the Temple, the re-dedication of the Temple and the lighting of the menorah with one tiny cruse of oil that was supposed to last only one night, but lasted eight nights. For the rabbis, that was the miracle of Hanukkah. The Talmud does not mention the military victory.

Ever since my rabbinical studies of Hanukkah, I’ve also wondered culturally about how Greek Jews feel about the Hanukkah story. (I also wonder how the Greeks feel about getting a bad rap in this story.) As a former Hillel staff member and Hillel rabbi, I also thought about the Greek Jews on campus, meaning the Jewish students who were members of Jewish fraternities and sororities. How did they feel about the Maccabees’ fight against the Jews who were too Hellenized — the Jews who were too Greek?

Jews of all communities and cultures learn to preserve their heritage but are also influenced by the area of the world in which they live. Jews from just about every Sephardic country have their own foods, recipes, and songs that most of us who grow up Ashkenazi don’t know about. I love learning about different kinds of Jewish cultural practices, which to me, are not about assimilation, but about embracing the creativity and the survival of the Jewish people.

Being the eager student ready to share what I had just learned about the “real” story of Hanukkah in rabbinical school, I told it all to my family at Hanukkah. I thought they would find it all as fascinating as I had. But sadly, they were not intrigued or excited by the ambivalence in our tradition to the different versions of the stories. My grandma was actually upset. “So the story of the Maccabees isn’t real? It’s not what Hanukkah is really about?” she asked.

“Well,” I said, “it’s only one part of the story. It’s not the whole story but it is one part of it.” So she asked me what I thought the real miracle was. I told her that I thought the real miracle was when everyone in our family was lighting Hanukkah candles – even when we weren’t together, even if we were far apart – that at one time of year – we each lit the candles, and saw our own hope, joy and memories reflected in the light of the candles.

Wherever you are; wherever your loved ones are; from whatever culture or background; I hope that your Hanukkah was a chance for you to come together.

Finding the Light this Hanukkah

  

Menorah in the dark

It’s the time of year when the days are short, the nights are dark, and the joyful music and decorations abound.  Wherever we go we hear celebratory music and greetings of “merry” and “happy.” I usually love this time of the year with its crisp air, sweet smells, and joyful song. But this year I am having trouble getting into that spirit.

This year I’m scared.

This year I want to be joyful and I want to spread the cheer and I want to celebrate—but I’m sad. These few months have been rough for my community, my people, my country and my Israel. Every day for the past few months I’ve seen stories of terror in Israel. People are walking up to strangers, pulling knives out of pockets and purses and stabbing them. Others are driving cars onto sidewalks into crowds, killing and injuring several people at a time.

In San Bernadino, a town not far from where I live, a town where my grandparents are buried, where my friends live and work, two people entered a regional center and murdered 14 human beings who were gathered to celebrate the winter holidays.

In the Jewish Journal last week a man published an article publicly humiliating a local Rabbi for his transgender identification, calling this rabbi and his congregation an embarrassment to Judaism, desecrating our Torah by bullying someone in its name.

And today, a public figure stated that all Muslims should be banned from entering the United States.

I see all of this in the newspaper, on the news and in my Facebook feed. And then when I recycle the paper, turn off the TV, and put away my phone, I see my two toddlers. They know nothing of these horrific and saddening acts. They see that I’m upset so they come to sit in my lap.

All my kids know is love.

In their 17 months they have received nothing but love from everyone they meet. They don’t yet know the desperation and hate that drives someone to stab a stranger or murder a group of people. They don’t know the fear that leads someone to bully and humiliate another. And they don’t yet know why a public figure stating that he would disallow an entire religious community from entering a country would be triggering and scary.

All they know is love. And I want to keep it that way for as long as possible. I want this time of year to be magical and special and joyful for my kids, and for myself too. So we spent the afternoon decorating the house for Hanukkah. And we took a walk to see the neighbor’s decorations, saying “hi” to everyone on our way. And when we put them to bed we gave them extra kisses and extra cuddles and read one extra story. Because the more love we give them, the more love they will give others, and some days it feels like that’s all we can do.

So I’m scared and sad, but I’m also hopeful. I light the candles of my hanukkiah and sing joyful songs with my family. I wish people a “merry” and “happy” holiday on the street and in the store. I sign petitions and write letters to my representatives on issues I think are important. And I give love. It’s a scary world, but the story of Hanukkah teaches us that hope can win over fear. That light and love can win over darkness.

What’s the Right Holiday Greeting?

  

Holiday greetingsI have to say that I have mixed feelings about “the holiday season.” While I love the beauty of the lights and decorations, it can feel a bit overwhelming and ostracizing to someone who did not grow up celebrating Christmas.

And then what to do when someone wishes me—a Jew—a “merry Christmas”? How to reply?

I have gone through my own evolution on this front. It used to feel very important for me to make a statement that I did not celebrate Christmas, and that in fact, my own holiday of Hanukkah was coming up. When someone wished me a merry Christmas, I used to reply with “Thanks, I’ll have a happy Hanukkah.” Sometimes I’d say this good naturedly, other times more pointedly, depending on my mood. But what did this really accomplish? Maybe making me feel a little less invisible amidst all the green garlands, but it probably embarrassed the well-wisher more than enlightening them.

Interestingly, being in an interfaith relationship has softened me somewhat and made it easier for me to accept these greetings in the spirit in which they were given. For the first time, I felt like I actually had a personal way to connect to and celebrate Christmas even if it wasn’t my holiday. I would celebrate with my significant other’s family so I didn’t feel so left out. And I didn’t feel disingenuous by accepting a “merry Christmas.”

So what to say during this time? “Happy holidays” is always broad enough to encompass many celebrations. “Happy New Year” can also work for virtually everybody.

Here are my top tips for Holiday Greetings:

1.  Try to accept greetings in the spirit in which they are given. If you are not celebrating Christmas, this can be hard to do, but usually the person offering a “merry Christmas” wants to be friendly. If this makes you feel uncomfortable, see #2.

2.  Pick your battles. Pointing out that you or your family celebrate Hanukkah to the cashier in the busy checkout line is not likely to elicit much change on their part. However, if “merry Christmas” is encroaching in your school or work place, consider talking with someone in authority. Call them aside at a calm moment to explain how the good intentions can actually backfire and make those not celebrating Christmas feel invisible or excluded. Offer some alternatives instead.

3.  Consider what is causing the sting for you. Sometimes understanding our reactions can help us manage them. I realized that part of my reaction was due to defining my Judaism as NOT Christmas. When I recognized this, I could shift my focus away from what I’m not and onto what I am, and enjoy Hanukkah and the parts of the holiday season that appealed to me.

4.  In an interfaith family, know how your partner wants to handle things. Whether you are the Jewish partner or the partner raised in another faith, what feels inclusive and celebratory to you? To your partner? What feels exclusionary? The holidays can trigger people in unexpected ways, so be sure to communicate with each other ahead of time, and be there to back each other up.

5.  Communicate clearly with your extended family members. How will you handle family celebrations and gifts? Is it OK for someone to wish you or your child a “Merry Christmas” if you are attending a family Christmas dinner? Is “Happy Hanukkah” appropriate for everyone at the Hanukkah party, even if some of the guests are not Jewish? Sometimes the setting and circumstances matter.

6.  Be conscious and considerate. If you do not know what holiday or holidays someone celebrates, ask them, or use a more generic greeting like “Happy Holidays” or “Happy New Year.”

7.  Enjoy! Amidst the craziness that sometimes engulfs the holidays, and the missteps that are bound to happen, remember what is most important to you during this season and celebrate that.

Does The Good Dinosaur Have a Not-So-Good Message About Family?

  

The Good DinosaurThe new movie, The Good Dinosaur, a Pixar Entertainment film directed by Peter Sohn, debuted in theatres on November 25. I took my 6-year-old and 8-year-old to see it at a sold-out movie theatre.

Perhaps it is because I have been working with interfaith couples and families in an intense way for over four years as Director of IFF/Chicago, but my sensitivity alarm went off in a major way during this film.

Here are my impressions:

1.  The dinosaur dad dies as well as Spot’s (the cave-boy) parents. The death of parents in animated films has no doubt been the basis of more than one thesis. It’s important to be comfortable seeing death, talking about loss and understanding memory. The death of parents in so many films for children is thought-provoking, for sure. But why does there have to be so much of it?

2.  There is a theme in the movie that if you are going to really engage with life, then there will be fear. You will be scared. The important thing is what to do about it. How we react and how we cope and get through something tough shows our character.

Unfortunately, the way Arlo, Spot’s dinosaur friend, shows he can face fear is through physically fighting and warding off the predators. This is the way he leaves his mark; this is how he shows he has done something worthy and important. I wished there was a way he showed his inner strength and resolve without fighting. Standing up for oneself and defending against harm is important at times. However, more often than needing to physically harm someone else to protect oneself when standing up to bullies or navigating difficult people and circumstances, is the need to think with ingenuity and resolve.

Ari's kids

Ari’s kids at the movie

3.  The last theme I want to discuss is the one with interfaith connotations, for me. In one scene, Arlo shows Spot what a family is. He puts sticks in the ground for each family member and draws a circle around them. Then Spot does the same thing and draws a circle around his family of sticks. At the end, Spot is taken in by another cave family and Arlo reunites with what is left of his dinosaur family. There seems to be a message that each kind stays with their group. I was waiting for Arlo and Spot to join their circles and show symbolically that they have become a family because they have cared for each other. This does not happen. They go their separate ways at the end.

The cave parents show Spot how to walk on two feet, and it is clear that only within your species can you learn certain skills. The dinosaurs on all fours would not have been able to teach him this. I think this raises all kinds of questions about adoption, whether different cultures can raise each other, and whether different animals, in the most figurative way, can be a family. With my interfaith family hat on, I was hoping there would be a message of unity within diversity.

Did you cry through it like we did? Did you have a similar take on these themes? As Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav taught us, “The whole world is a narrow bridge, and the most important thing is not to be afraid.”