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This year InterfaithFamily/Atlanta hosted our first annual Promukkah: Prom-themed Hannukah party in our Ponce City Market office! The evening was a blast with rockin’ dance music spun by Russell Gotchalk of the Atlanta Jewish Music Festival, delicious nosh, a corsage/boutonniere making station and a very popular photobooth.
Highlights include dancing the hora as we celebrated the recent marriage of Baca Holohan and Kai Murga, some incredibly creative outfits with lights, wigs and glowing shoes, as well as enormous jelly filled doughnuts.
We celebrated the festival of lights with members of the greater Atlanta community including our co-sponsors: Moishe House-Inman Park,Â SOJOURN,Â the Sixth Point,Â Limmud Atlanta + Southeast,Â AAspire, Bechol Lashon, theÂ Jewish Federation of Greater AtlantaÂ andÂ Honeymoon Israel.Â Plans for next yearâ€™s gathering have already begun!
The following blog post has been reprinted with permission from Edmund Case, Founder of InterfaithFamily: edmundcase.com.
I think itâ€™s safe to say that we would all have to agree that an awful lot has happened in the past two months. That includes developments in the field of engaging interfaith families Jewishly, which I summarize here.
On October 10, eJewishPhilanthropy published my review of a demographic study of British Jews that I found to be unfortunately negative about intermarriage, given trends indicative of a generational shift in identity and practice that I thought supported increased efforts to engage interfaith couples and families.
The October 26 Interfaith Opportunity Summit marked a watershed moment, putting engaging interfaith families at a high level in the mainstream Jewish communityâ€™s agenda. eJewishPhilanthropy published Jodi Brombergâ€™s and my report on new understandings of how to influence engagement, new efforts to engage interfaith families, and the need for an attitudinal â€śnarrative shiftâ€ť about intermarriage discussed at the Summit.
The Cohen Center at Brandeis on the day of the Summit released a very important study on the impact of rabbinic officiation at weddings of interfaith couples. My op-ed, Are Rabbis Who Refuse to Marry Interfaith Couples Hurting Jewish Continuity?, was published in the Forward and eJewishPhilanthropy. I said that it is no longer tenable for rabbis not to officiate on the grounds that intermarriage is â€śbad for the Jews,â€ť when the new research shows strong association between officiation and interfaith couples raising their children as Jews and joining synagogues.
The Jewish People Policy Institute in Jerusalem released an important report in November on definitions of Jewishness in a time of fluid identity. In my blog post, what I found promising was the apparent consensus, among Â over 700 Jewish leaders from Israel, the US and other countries, on the need to be welcoming to interfaith couples. However, I noted a conflict with an accompanying desire to maintain community standards that express a preference for in-marriage.
In November CJP released the 2015 Greater Boston Jewish Community Study, conducted by the Cohen Center and Steinhardt Institute at Brandeis. In my blog post, I note that the Study confirms the very large extent of intermarriage in the community, and validates the wisdom of CJPâ€™s welcoming approach, with high rates of intermarried couples raising their children as Jews and promising rates of engagement in many other Jewish behaviors. The Study is also important for creating an Index of Jewish Engagement that recognizes multiple patterns of engagement and supports programmatic efforts targeted towards groups with different needs and interests.
We are clearly in a time of increased interest in the field, with new convenings and research supporting increased efforts. The question that remains is how to make a national coordinated effort to engage interfaith families a reality.
I am a rabbi and I love Christmastime. I love the twinkling lights in the cool dark nights. I love listening to carolers sing of joy and hope as I sip my spiced cider or hot chocolate. I love that everyone greets each other more than any other time of the year. (I am, however, terrified of Santa Claus because of a run in with a mall Santa as a child.) And one of my favorite songs is â€śIâ€™m Dreaming of a White Christmas.â€ť Itâ€™s not my favorite because of its religious theme, or even because of its references to snow (Iâ€™m an Arizona kid after all). Itâ€™s my favorite because it was my dadâ€™s favorite.
Hereâ€™s a little backstory on my family: My dad converted to Judaism when he married his first wife, decades before I was born. All my life he was extremely committed to being Jewish and for the last several years of his life he was dedicated to Jewish study and worship at his local synagogue. But he sang that song like it was his personal anthem. We even had it playing on the stereo during the luncheon after his funeral. Iâ€™m pretty sure that was the first (and last) time his synagogue has had Christmas music playing at a funeralâ€¦ and maybe the only time itâ€™s ever played at any funeral in August. But it was his favorite, and now that itâ€™s Christmastime again Iâ€™m hearing it on the radio every day and thinking of my dad.
This year the first night of Hanukkah falls on Christmas Eve. Some people are very excited about this since it means that for the first time in decades Hanukkah has similar â€śstatusâ€ť as Christmas. To some people it means that Jews still get to take advantage of Christmas shopping sales, which doesnâ€™t happen when Hanukkah falls in November. But for some interfaith families it is a source of a lot of conflict.
When the holidays are separate on the calendar it is easier to separate their celebrations. For my family, it doesnâ€™t matter that Hanukkah is on Christmas because Hanukkah is always on Thanksgiving for us. Growing up in a family that was geographically dispersed, Thanksgiving was the one weekend that we were all usually together. No matter when Hanukkah fell on the calendar, you could find us eating latkes and exchanging gifts on the Friday after Thanksgiving. In my family, Hanukkah was primarily about spending time with family, eating delicious food from family recipes, and presents.
To me, Hanukkah is a minor Jewish holiday from a religious perspective and does very little to define my Jewish identity. Which means that loving Christmastime does little to threaten my Jewish identity.
Because of my relationship with Hanukkah, when a friend recently asked me if it was OK for Jewish people to like Christmas movies and music, I chuckled thinking about my own annual tradition of watching â€śElfâ€ť and my childhood memories of driving around town to see Christmas lights. And then I thought more closely about the question: IS it OK for Jewish people to like Christmas movies and music? What about lights? Trees?
As a Reform rabbi I do not feel it is my place to tell people whatâ€™s â€śOKâ€ť for them to do Jewishly. I do feel itâ€™s my role to guide people along their path and offer expertise and opinions where appropriate. It is not my job to tell people not to listen to Christmas music, or not to have a tree or to keep kosher. It is my job to help people see how positive Jewish experience can impact your life and shape familiesâ€™ lives.
When it comes to the winter holidays, there is so much more at play than religious beliefs. To one family Christmas music may symbolize songs of hope for a savior or faith in God. To another family it may symbolize beautiful melodies and joyful tunes. To me, it reminds me of my father who sung those songs with a huge smile and especially now that heâ€™s gone, I want to listen to that music to remind me of him. I spoke with an interfaith family recently whose kids identify as Jewish, and who have a tree to honor one parentâ€™s family tradition. They feel no guilt and they do not feel that having a tree in any way compromises their Jewish identity, but rather that it helps them represent their entire family.
Meanwhile, I hear rabbis and others tell scary tales of Christmas trees leading to diminishing Jewish communities and threatening Jewish identity. Iâ€™ve heard the sermons from rabbis who are committed to the survival of the Jewish people. Iâ€™ve read the articles describing how Jewish families (or interfaith families) having a Christmas tree is a threat to Jewish identity. I understand the argument that Jewish identity is important and the survival of Jewish community is essential. However, I believe that when many of our families are already embracing the tradition of the Christmas tree, despite the best efforts of some to discourage it, the real threat to our Jewish community is the dismissal and judgment of these families.
I think that if our Jewishness is defined by a tree or a movie or a song, we need to rethink our religious identity and spend the rest of the year strengthening it. There is more to a religious identity than physical symbols. It is about a way of life, a set of values and a tradition, and the ways in which we enact that tradition.
Recently, my colleague in Los Angles posted a question that piqued my interest on her personal Facebook page: “Did any of my Jewish professional friends grow up with a Christmas tree?” I knew where she was going with this. She was betting that a number of rabbis and Jewish educators had grown up in an interfaith family with a tree, or in a family with a Jewish parent or parents who had a tree for whatever reason, or they were Jews by choice who had grown up with a tree and became Jewish as an adult and then Jewish professionals. In any of these scenarios, having a tree did not deter them from becoming Jewish professionals. I had to delve into this!
So, I posted the same question with credit to Rabbi Keara and an amazing thing happened. There were over 50 comments made to my post, and they’re still coming in. I donâ€™t think I had that many comments when my children were born or when my Grandmother, of blessed memory, died.
The amazing thing is it started with Jewish professionals admitting that they had grown up with trees and how and why that was the case and then morphed into other Jewish friends who do not work in the Jewish world writing about having trees or not having trees. And, some people even wrote that they didnâ€™t have trees, which was as much a statement about attitudes on this subject as anything else people wrote because I had only asked to hear from people who did have a tree.
Here is what I conclude:
1. Â Many Jewish leaders grew up with a Christmas tree. Many interfaith families today raising children with Judaism have Christmas trees in their homes or at a close family memberâ€™s home. There seems to be a disconnect between these two realities. Somehow interfaith families donâ€™t see their lives and reality always mirrored in the lives and reality of their clergy and educators.
2. Â Judaism from on high (Iâ€™m not sure who or what this is or if most people can even articulate this. Itâ€™s just a feeling or perception) seems to judge negatively Jewish families who have trees. This has not always been the case. There were times when many American Jews had trees and it was seen as typical and normative in their assimilating American Reform circles.
3. Â People who are active in Judaism today have amazing stories of interesting family dynamics and experiences and there could be more venues or formats for sharing our stories, learning from and seeing ourselves in one another. This would inform our way of transmitting Judaism if we understood more about the context and lens by which people were experiencing Jewish messages.
4. Â Symbols matter. The American flag is a symbol. We feel something when we see the flag. We feel something when we raise the flag at camp or when we see it at a sportâ€™s event. We feel something when we see brand logos. The tree is symbolic. For many it symbolizes warmth, beauty, good memories, family time, gifts, glee and togetherness. It is all positive. If we tell those who love the tree that it is inconsistent with Judaism, they might hear that their warm family times (void of theology and religiosity, but maybe full of meaning and richness) is inconsistent with Judaism. This is confusing and hurtful. It puts people on the defensive and can lead to shame. It makes people feel they must justify the tree and argue for it lest they be seen as hurting a Judaism they are trying to perpetuate. It pits lay person against professional. It creates an us versus them.
5. Â If Jewish leaders said that the tree is secular (as the Supreme Court has declaredâ€”thatâ€™s why they can be erected in public spaces) or just stopped putting so much emotion into encouraging Jewish families to not have them, then there is a fear that the tree will become like a jack-o-lantern on Halloween and be deemed â€śsecular American.â€ť Would Jewish families who had never had a tree suddenly feel free, open and welcome to try one? I have no idea. Maybe it would happen or maybe it wouldnâ€™t. Would Hanukkah practice be threatened by this? Is that our fear? What really is the fear?
6. Â This Facebook thread made me ask a question I come back to often which is, “What is the role I play as a Reform rabbi?” I do not believe I am a gatekeeper for Judaism. I do not believe I can tell people what to do in their Jewish expression as a one-size-fits-all or even most prescription.Â I believe I am supposed to inspire and inform, love and accept. Some things are outside the realm of Judaism. Some things are cool but are not Jewish. Sometimes Jewish leaders are afraid of what people want because we feel it will water down, taint and hurt an authentic, recognizableÂ Judaism.
This is the same fear that happens when a parent, letâ€™s say, suggests that there could be more choice in Hebrew School such as having a tutor, or coming one day a week or trying other alternatives. The educator fears that â€śeveryoneâ€ť will want a private tutor, so no changes are made. If there is a feeling that everyone wants something different than what is offered but the Jewish professional deems that desire â€śbadâ€ť or â€śwrongâ€ť or for â€śpeople who just want an easy way out,â€ť then the people will make their own decisions and they wonâ€™t chose institutional Judaism. They will do it on their terms in ways that work for them. At a certain point the people decide and Judaism adapts and changes. If our communities are inspired, literate and invested, we should have no fear. We can trust.
I for one don’t get to decide if you have a tree, don’t have a tree, put a star on your tree or make s’mores latkes (this I recommend). I decide what my Jewish practice is and I work on this daily. I decide to hear you and try to understand you. May your holiday traditions be meaningful and lead to our defining what we are dedicated to (as the word Hanukkah reminds us to do). May I refrain from putting my judgment or my assumptions on your customs and allow you to define what they mean to you.