Full of helpful advice for families starting to think about their child's bat or bar mitzvah, Bar & Bat Mitzvah For The Interfaith Family will be a helpful primer to all families (not just interfaith!).
This booklet explains the history of Hanukkah, the symbolism and significance of lighting candles for eight nights, the blessings that accompany the lighting of the candles, the holiday's foods, the game of dreidels, and more!
Connecting Interfaith Families to Jewish Life in Greater Cleveland by providing programs and opportunities for interfaith families to experience Judaism in a variety of venues, meet other interfaith families, and to connect to other Jewish organizations that may serve their needs.
A great way for Jewish professionals and volunteers who work with and provide programming for people in interfaith relationships to locate resources and trainings to build more welcome into their Jewish communities; connect with and learn from each other; and publicize and enhance their programs and services.
I always spend some time as Rabbi in Residence at Camp Tawonga in California each summer, and it is always a highlight of my year. Camp’s Jewish theme changes each time, and this year we are focusing on the word from Torah “Hineni,” which means “I am present.” Many biblical heroes, notably Moses at the burning bush, respond to a challenge or opportunity by proclaiming, “Hineni!” or “I am here and I am spiritually ready.” This week, we offered campers a way to cultivate a state of Hineni through a mindful eating practice.
The hardest part for most campers was when they were handed a raisin and instructed to refrain from eating it until the end of the exercise to get the most out of the experience. We placed a raisin in the palm of their hands and asked them to contemplate every aspect of the morsel. What does it feel like? Smell like? What were the physical forces in the universe that made it possible for this bit of sustenance to arrive into our hands? Who were the people who contributed to its creation?
Campers talked about the laborers in the grapevines, the wind, sun and rain, the workers at Sysco’s plant who packaged the raisins and the truck drivers who brought them to camp. They were especially cognizant of the water necessary to sustain the vines amidst California’s water crisis. What a miracle to be holding this piece of food that was the result of so many complicated forces!
Finally, we thought about whether the food about to be consumed came from a tree or the ground so we could say a Jewish blessing before eating it. Pausing to think about where our food comes from and choosing either traditional Jewish words or creating our own prayers can turn every eating experience into a moment of Hineni. Prayer can be a ritual reminder in a fast-paced world to stop for a moment, bringing to mind all of the varied forces that went into the production of that bite of food.
When asked about the experience, campers had many responses:
“A raisin has never tasted so good!”
“It really made me appreciate the raisin a lot more, because we stopped and thought about where it came from.”
“I never thought about what it takes to get a simple raisin to a box.”
Others remarked on the fruit bursting with more sweetness than they usually notice. And in a few rare cases, kids who previously hated raisins reported liking them for the first time. Some remarked that they felt Hineni in their bodies after trying out this practice. The campers thought about other moments that seem to pass by unnoticed in their daily lives that they could mark as notable and sacred.
Rabbi Mychal with campers (and raisins) at Camp Tawonga
Some people are naturally inclined toward Hineni. Most of us struggle to slow life down and be present for the moments large and small that make up our complicated lives. Watching the campers experience this exercise reminded me that being present or some might even say “spiritual,” is not necessarily an inborn character trait with which we are either gifted or denied. Most people need to cultivate those skills, but they are completely learnable and need to be reinforced throughout our lives.
This sense of connectedness to ourselves and the world around us is available whether or not we grew up within a religious tradition or with more than one religious background. Many interfaith families struggle with how they are going to manage “religion” in their homes. But a first step might be to identify spiritual abilities or skills we want our kids to possess to deepen their experience of being alive: being present, expressing gratitude, feeling connected to other human beings and our environment.
Here at camp, kids are learning that Jewish prayer is one tool for cultivating that mindset which we have at our fingertips. In past years, my own kids have returned from camp wanting to sing the Ha’Motzi prayer of thanks for bread at our home table. I believe this was in part because there was such a boisterous energy in the dining hall when hundreds of kids sang the words together. But perhaps they also unwittingly wanted to bring it home because the rote repetition of this prayer three times a day provided an automatic moment of reflection and pause, lending an aura of the sacred to a monotonous, daily occurrence. This is just one of the ways campers at Jewish overnight camps learn the tools to be more present in their lives and more attuned to who they are who they are becoming.
To learn more about the array of interfaith-friendly Jewish overnight camps in the Bay Area, including URJ Reform Camp Newman, Camp Tawonga, Maccabi Sports Camp, and the brand new Conservative Camp Ramah Norcal, get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org or check out the list here!
Rabbi Mychal officiates an interfaith wedding in the Santa Monica Mountains in Southern California
You have chosen the date, the place, the guest list. But who will officiate at your ceremony? A family member? Friend? Clergy person? Justice of the peace? A celebrant?
Asking friends or relatives to officiateat wedding ceremonies is a relatively recent phenomenon with numbers rising in just the last decade with the advent of online ordination. If you have a friend or relative whom you believe to be the right officiant for you, this can be a very meaningful option. But if you are still deciding, consider a clergy person or other trained celebrant to lead you through this sacred moment in your life.
When you are standing before your family and friends exchanging vows, your life changes. You take on a new status, a new legal category. A clergy person or celebrant is trained to usher you through this life-shifting moment. We strive to deepen your experience—not only on the day—but throughout the process. By the time you take your places in front of your loved ones, you will hopefully see yourselves as participating in a timeless ritual, connected to couples who have taken this step throughout the ages.
Many couples shy away from inviting a religious leader to officiate at their ceremonies because they don’t consider themselves to be religious or spiritual. But regardless of your religiosity, a wedding ceremony is sacred, out of the ordinary. It marks one of the most significant choices you will ever make—and that is not to be taken lightly. The person leading your ceremony needs to know how to create sacred space,a practice clergy people hone over many years. We set the mood through words and song, and explain rituals in a way that is steeped in tradition and relevant to you. We come prepared to lead you through a process that is individualized for you, yet we aren’t starting from scratch. In fact, we have a storehouse of great material to work with.
As part of our seminary training, we learn about the essence of ritual and how rites like this one carry us safely through liminal, life-changing moments (regardless of how religious you are). We create meaningful ceremonies that flow seamlessly and get to the heart of why you are making this life choice. A friend or relative is often just figuring this out for the first time (they often call our offices seeking guidance, reassurance and outlines!). You might need someone who can put you and others at ease amidst wedding tensions rather than trying to keep their own nerves under wraps. We honor the generational nature of weddings, acknowledging the process of each family member as roles, relationships and names shift.
Rabbi Mychal officiates an interfaith wedding in the California Redwoods
If you aren’t sure how religion will play into your lives, this is precisely the time to figure that out. A clergy person can help you discern how religious or spiritual life can deepen your relationship and what is authentic to you both. With so many options today, choosing a clergy person is not the fallback that it once was. But if you come from a religious or cultural tradition, this is an opportunity to explore its meaning for you as an adult and avail yourself of the accumulated wisdom that tradition holds.
Many couples are concerned that a clergy person will not be respectful, accepting or inclusive of their non-traditional religious views. In addition, lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people may assume that there are no clergy people who understand and celebrate their relationships or identities. In both of these cases, there are clergy people who would be thrilled to work with you, many of whom might share your worldview and even your identities. It may not be the pastor of your youth, but taking the time to seek out someone who is aligned with your values and commitments could have a profound and even healing impact on your lives.
Interfaith couples often worry that they don’t yet know what elements of their respective traditions they will bring into their homes, so how can they decide what kind of clergy person should officiate? Meeting with potential officiants can help you sort out what makes sense for you and it might even be a great way to introduce one another to some of the wisdom and depth each of your traditions hold. Your wedding ceremony should reflect the choices you are going to make in your home and for your family. Don’t put off this important decision until the next major milestone. Officiants listed through InterfaithFamily’s officiation service are sensitive to these issues and will honor both of your backgrounds.
If you are not at all connected to any religious group, find a secular celebrant. They are trained to make your day sacred and meaningful, but often not from a religious perspective. Many are experienced in leading you through the important counseling work as well. But if you have some inkling of a religious or cultural background, I urge you to interview some clergy people. You aren’t the first couple to ask for a ceremony that is deeply meaningful without God language, or to want certain rituals while leaving out others. Many clergy people are prepared to engage with you about what matters most, and figure out how to create something that feels authentic to you.
Although the day of your ceremony is momentous, the most important part of your wedding… is not actually the wedding. It’s the work you do leading up to it. You are taking this step because you are marking that your lives will now be intertwined. Clergy people are trained in pastoral counseling and guide people through deep, spiritual work focusing on communication, finances, intimacy, religion, interfaith issues and end of life decisions. We lead you through the most profound spiritual questions so you’re prepared. Your friend probably can’t do this for you. If you do choose someone who is not trained in this area, sign up for couples counseling before the wedding. In the words of one couple, “We were both told on the wedding day that we seemed very calm. That is because we were completely ready.”
The expertise you get with a clergy person usually does come with a cost. But compared to what a typical wedding couple budgets for flowers and music at the party, it’s not much considering that it is most likely what you will most remember from the day. The officiant does not charge a fee merely for the time of the wedding ceremony but for the knowledge, time preparing a unique ceremony and counseling. For many, this is the core of their work and livelihood. If you are truly on a shoestring budget, be honest with potential officiants. Many clergy people are able to slide their scale for you or refer you to a colleague if you ask.
I often hear couples express that they don’t want a stranger to marry them and that they want the ceremony to feel personal. Believe me, this person won’t be a stranger after you have talked through the deepest questions, concerns and joys in your life. No, they didn’t know you when you were 5. But that isn’t necessarily what you need to prepare yourselves for a lifelong commitment.
When my kids were young, I introduced them to the practice of saying the Hebrew blessing, the motzi, before eating. Thank you, God, who brings forth bread from the earth.
My older child instantly connected not only to the routine of the ritual but the theological aspect as well. But a few years ago, my other son started to challenge the idea of God. At a young age, he was already an avowed atheist and didn’t want to thank God for our food. I explained that he still needs to stop for a moment and acknowledge what it took for that food to get to his plate.
As a pre-dinner ritual, we started to list all the physical conditions and individuals who made our food possible: the sun, rain, seeds, individuals who plant and harvest under harsh conditions without sufficient pay or job security, the people who process it, those who drive it to the store, the store clerks who sell it to us whom we see as we pay our grocery bill. And me, to make it into dinner.
Motzi is a moment of gratitude so we don’t take for granted the deep blessing of sustenance. I learned this practice many years ago when I helped organize a Passoverseder for Worker Justice (laborers seeking justice) in Los Angeles. Included in our haggadah was this prayer as part of the Kiddush ritual:
A toast to those who made this wine! ¡Un saludo a los que hicieron este vino!
To the holy-oneness of everything whose creation gives us sweet fruit for the mouth, eye and nose to enjoy Al unidad-sagrado-de-todo quien hizo una creacion que nos da frutas dulces para gozar la boca, los ojos, y el nariz
To those who put passion, dreams and capital into wine and entrepreneurship A los quienes invertieron su passion, sus suenos, y sus fondos al negocio del vino
To those who plowed the fields A los quienes araron la tierra
To those who planted the vines A los sembradores de los vides
To those who tended the vines A los cultivadores de vides
To those who picked the grapes Alos quienes sacaron las uvas
To those who fermented the fruit A los que hicieron el vino
To those who cleaned and maintained the winery A los limpiadores y cuidadores de la fabrica
To those who bottled the wine A los que lo pusieron en botellas
To those who loaded and trucked the bottles for delivery A los que metieron a las botellas en las trocas y que las cargaron
To those who sold the wine A los que lo vendieron
And to those who served the wine here this evening!
¡Y a los que sirvieron el vino esta noche!
We give you our thanks!
This got our family thinking about what we were really trying to accomplish when we said the motzi. We talked about the most important part of that moment:taking time to stop and appreciate our food. But those particular words we say are human-made. Yes, they have survived thousands of years, but they are the expressions of a certain group of rabbis a long time ago. We make these ancient words into idols, enshrining them while depriving us of a creative thought process—the kind of passionate engagement with ideas and words that must have inspired those rabbis to formulate such poetry so long ago.
Liturgist Marsha Falk encourages us to exercise our creativity: “No convention of prayer ought to become completely routine; lest it lose its ability to inspire authentic feeling.” My son would probably agree with her assertion that our traditional opening blessing formula “is an example of a dead metaphor… a greatly overused image that no longer functions to awaken awareness of the greater whole.” (The Book of Blessings, p.xvii)
Greatly influenced by Falk’s ideas, I have been crafting my own prayers for years. So I asked my son what he would want to say instead of the motzi. This is what my young atheist came up with: “Thank you, source of stuff, for the food.” Sometimes he says, “Thanks to the universe and science and all that stuff… for the food.”
These days, we take turns saying a blessing at our table so everyone’s interests and concerns are heard. I don’t want to lose the traditional prayer language completely and I want my kids to know those formulations. When we say the motzi in the usual way, I talk to my kids about how I infuse those sacred words and sounds with my own theological understanding of the universe; how we are interconnected with the food, the sources of that food and the people who made it possible for such bounty to reach our plates. To me, that holy process is God.
Other nights, our sons offer their favorite renditions. Lately as they start to cook parts of the meal themselves, the son who helps gets to offer his favorite way of blessing the food. But we always stop, appreciate and bless.
Two of the hit TV show The Big Bang Theory’s main characters, Howard and Bernadette, announced that they are having a baby. Mere moments after hearing the news, the father-to-be was fretting about how they would raise their child since they come from different religious backgrounds. “How’s this all going to work? You’re Catholic, I’m Jewish. What religion do we raise it?! And if it’s a boy, do we get him circumcised?”
While their different backgrounds have bubbled up in past episodes, I imagine that Wolowitz’ rant in this scene hit home for many interfaith couples. Navigating two distinct backgrounds is often quite simple…until someone is holding a positive pregnancy test in hand.
When does the topic of religion usually come up in interfaith relationships? Some begin talking about religion before anything gets serious, especially when a faith background is very important to one or both people. But the reality for many couples from different religious or cultural backgrounds is that they only start to discuss these potential differences well into their relationship. For those who plan to have children, conversations about raising children often occur only after having them. Bringing a child into the world can rouse religious questions for the first time. In fact, the least religiously connected time of many people’s lives is young adulthood, so when they meet a partner, religion may be the last thing on their minds.
My advice is to talk early and often. Try introducing the topic with these conversation starters—either before having kids or when kids are young:
1. Talk about your respective backgrounds. Do you both come from a religious heritage that is significant to you? Or just one?
2. Imagine your life about 5 or 10 years down the road. Do you picture particular religious rituals occurring (ie. baby namings, baptism, bris/Jewish ritual circumcision, bar or bat mitzvah, confirmation, etc)? Religious education? Explain to each other what is important to you and why—even if you never had to articulate it before.
3. Talk about holidays and milestones. Which will you celebrate? Why are they important to you? With whom will you spend them? How will you explain your decisions to your child so they feel pride and ownership over their identity or identities?
4. How will you include family members who don’t share traditions and celebrations you choose to observe?
5. You don’t have to have it all figured out right this minute, but setting the stage will help tremendously. You will develop a shared language and a better understanding of what is important to each of you. When issues do arise, it won’t be the first time you’ve thought about religion together.
The clearer you are about the decisions you are making, the clearer you can be with your kids, in-laws and other extended family and friends. Don’t shy away from talking about religion. You will actually become stronger as a couple when you learn to communicate about delicate subjects without fear of threatening the relationship between the two of you or extended family. Plus, as you learn more about one another’s backgrounds, hopes and desires, you could actually be uncovering stories that allow you to know each other on an even deeper level. If you feel more comfortable having a guide with you as you broach these questions, the InterfaithFamily staff is here to help.
Are Bernadette and Howard too late to figure out the logistics of an interfaith family? Not at all. But better to not be taken by surprise.
Last week, my son started wondering about the edge of the universe. What is at the end? Is there an end? What does the word “everything” really mean? Is there anything outside of “everything”?
I could tell as we talked that his mind was trying to expand enough to picture our expanding universe. We weren’t just talking big. We were talking about something larger than our imaginations could hold. He was awe-stricken.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement… To be spiritual is to be amazed” and, “Wonder is an act in which the mind confronts the universe.” Sometimes we are privileged to experience or think about something that religious mystics would say lifts the veil, exposing something deeper, clearer or more intense about the universe and our place in it. At those moments, we become overcome by a sense of the grandeur of life that is hard to describe. Religious writers would say it is ineffable, impossible, to convey in words.
When my son had this experience, we wanted him to know that some people call that expansiveness, that interconnectedness, or that feeling he was having—G!d. The medieval Kabbalists called that expansiveness, “Eyn Sof,” literally describing G!d as “Endlessness.” But do we need religion to feel that sense of being connected to the entire universe? Do we need to call it G!d?
Of course not. Some people may label such experiences “holy,” “miracles” or even “G!d,” while many others would not. Richard Dawkins, contemporary atheist and scientist, imagines himself as a child lying under the stars, “dazzled by Orion, Cassiopeia and Ursa Major, tearful with the unheard music of the Milky Way” (The God Delusion, p.11).
Although no two experiences of awe are alike, the feeling of interconnectedness and awe in the face of the vastness of the universe Dawkins describes is akin to the writings of many mystics across religious traditions. He wonders in the book why he could have such an experience and become a scientist while his friend could have that same type of experience and go into the priesthood. This is his premise for undoing religion. For me, his observation only reinforces that it doesn’t matter what we call it. His friend called it G!d. He didn’t. Why should it matter, when what is truly important is that they both had an expansive experience of awe as young children? They both went on into lines of work where they could cultivate that skill, living in awe of the universe. For Dawkins and the rest of us, those moments of clarity can influence the way we live our lives.
Dawkins is far from being alone. According to a Pew Research study, a rising number of Americans across the religious spectrum report that they often feel a deep sense of spiritual peace and well-being as well as a sense of wonder about the universe. But what is more surprising, especially since fewer and fewer Americans affiliate themselves with any religion, is that a rising number of atheists also reported feelings of wonder about the universe. That number rose from 37 to 54 percent from 2007 to 2014, which means that their sense of awe is even higher than those within some religious traditions.
What has changed for atheists that they are reporting a sense of increased wonder? Perhaps one of the reasons that the “nones” and atheists are finding awe is that it has become clear that wonder in no way negates the intellectual, the scientific. For Dawkins, a feeling of “becoming one with the universe” is eventually tied to his reverence for science.
The 20th century Jewish thinker, Aaron Zeitlin, warns us in a poem that if we look at the stars and yawn, then we have been created in vain. Although Dawkins rejects any religious explanation of his experience, he would never look at the stars and yawn. In the words of sociologist Ryan Cragun, “It could be that those who are now admitting they are atheists … are also more willing to admit that they do experience what many people consider ‘spiritual’ feelings. Perhaps normalizing “atheism” has benefitted those seeking non-religious language to express wonder.
We certainly do not need religion to feel a sense of the grandeur of life and the universe. But religion at its best is about the cultivation of awe. Embedded in most religious traditions is a deep sense of wonder, and an examination of the self in relation to the vastness of the universe. We all begin life with innate curiosity, but where is that ability to live in awe cultivated as we grow up? Our religious spaces could—and should—be the places we take those questions that shake us and challenge us. Not to answer them, but to provide the space to wonder. And religious practice can serve as a catalyst to invoke these feelings. Many religious rituals are designed to lead us to those spaces of awe and wonderment on a regular basis, and encourage us to feel gratitude at the magnificence of the universe.
Judaism has a blessing for everything, from the appearance of a rainbow or an unusual sight to the seemingly mundane, daily miracles of eating food and using the bathroom (yes, that is truly awe-inspiring when you think about it). Daily life is filled with large and small moments of awe. Amidst the busyness of our everyday lives, from time to time we slow down for long enough that we are allowed to glimpse something deeper: the magnificence, the terrifying immensity of it all.
Because the blessings are associated with specific moments or acts, they are not allowed to pass by unnoticed. We learn how to better notice and embrace these moments. I hope to teach my kids not that one needs religion to feel awe, but that religious rituals and language can help us cultivate a sense of awe and express gratitude for the universe we live in. I want to give them a religious language to talk about wonder and perhaps to feel comforted by the fact that people have been feeling that sense of grandeur and awe for ages.
However you find your sense of awe, embrace it. Don’t worry too much about what you call it. But at the same time, don’t be afraid to seek it out within religious structures. You might find new language and more opportunities to discover your own Radical Amazement.
Note on the spelling of G!d’s name: Traditionally the divine name is written G-d. But here I use G!d to connote the idea that the divine is one way of expressing Radical Amazement.
Last month, I sat with 25 people who gathered over breakfast to talk about being part of interfaith families. As the Director of an InterfaithFamily community, there is nothing new or remarkable about that; I bring interfaith couples together regularly to share stories and support one another as they explore religious life. What is noteworthy about this particular group of people is that they were all Jewish professionals, working in Hillels around the country. We were attendees at the Hillel International Global Assembly and this was a first-of-its-kind meeting for people who work in Jewish campus life and are in interfaith relationships. Some of the participants in this discussion were “out” about their relationships while others hoped no one from their campus community or staff would know they had attended the meeting. Many others did not feel comfortable attending at all for fear they would be found out, possibly resulting in losing their jobs.
I have written about how one’s choice of partner does not necessarily reflect one’s commitment to Jewish life. This is certainly true personally, and I know scores of other Jewish professionals like me who are wholly dedicated to enriching Jewish life in our generation, and are themselves partnered with people from other cultural and religious backgrounds. With an intermarriage rate of around 70 percent in non-Orthodox Jewish communities, it is clear that Jewish-Jewish couples are about to become a rarer sight than interfaith ones. Many of those who marry someone from another background are active in Jewish life and have every intention of continuing that involvement. Some are so dedicated to a thriving Jewish community that they become Jewish professionals. Yet when they get there, they often feel that they can’t bring their whole selves to their work for fear of being labeled bad role models.
I hear the worry that Jewish campus professionals, more than professionals in other Jewish settings, are especially poised to be role models for young Jews at the time in their lives when they are getting serious about dating and marriage. Being intermarried would sanction the decision to marry out of the tradition, the argument goes. But let’s look realistically at the demographics of our current Jewish college students. According to a recent study, “Among millennials, born between 1981 and 1995, … partly as a result of the high rate at which millennial children of intermarriage identify as Jewish, half of all Jews in their generation are children of intermarriage” [the Brandeis Millennial Children of Intermarriage study, p.5].
This next generation is often trying to figure out how to honor both parents as they explore religious life on campus and chart a way forward. Furthermore, many if not most of them are interdating or have at least explored the idea. The same study shows that the percentage of young adults who think it is important to marry someone Jewish is extremely low for children of in-married parents and even lower for the children of intermarried parents [Ibid, pg. 43]. Pretending that Jewish college students are largely choosing only to date other Jews is causing us to miss out on some profound conversations. They are not merely deciding on a partner; they are contemplating how they will bring meaning into their lives, they are beginning to own and make decisions as adults for their own spiritual journeys, and they are determining what role Judaism will play in their lives going forward.
These college students need diverse role models, a plethora of professional exemplars so they can see how an adult makes Jewishly committed decisions when Judaism is not the default. They need models to demonstrate how interfaith families navigate raising kids in a still-conflicted Jewish community, and how couples have healthy conversations with in-laws and grandparents about religious choices. If they do partner with someone Jewish, they will inevitably have extended family members who marry someone outside of Judaism at their family holiday table. They need models and forums to discuss how we can best navigate the increasing diversity in the Jewish community.
We are also missing the whole picture when we think only of undergraduates in the Hillel picture. Many Hillels have vibrant graduate student and young adult communities. Large numbers of these young people arrive on campus already having made their decisions about a life partner, and many of those relationships are with people from different religious and cultural backgrounds. They also seek support and models as they begin their lives together.
Those of us with religiously diverse families are uniquely situated as Jewish professionals to bring wisdom, knowledge and compassion to interfaith families exploring Jewish life. Drawing on our personal stories and experience, we are poised to model for others how good communication, flexibility and introspection can help strengthen the next generation of seekers. The current generation of inter-partnered Jewish professionals aren’t the first … and won’t be the last. Judaism’s greatest leader, Moses, married Tzipporah. Not only was she not a Hebrew; she was the daughter of a Midianite priest. Her father, Jethro, condoned this union and even offered Moses sound advice on leading the Israelites.
Hillel has come a very long way. When I began working for the campus organization, it was made clear that professionals would not be allowed to perform an interfaith marriage ceremony, let alone be partnered with someone from another background. Thank you, Hillel International, for providing the space for such an important conversation when field professionals were brave enough to step forward and express the deep need for community and support. I look forward to the time when all Jewish professionals can bring their whole selves to their workplaces, proud to be exemplars for the Jewish campus community as they dedicate their life and work to strengthening Judaism for the next generation.
Is converting to Judaism “for” someone so bad after all?
As an avid follower of the hit show, New Girl, I couldn’t pass up an article in Us Weekly about its star, Zooey Deschanel, converting to Judaism. The headline revealed that she converted for her husband, producer Jacob Pechenik. “The things we do for love!” began the article, which went so far as to say that she “made a grand gesture” by deciding to join the Jewish people for him.
I know that many people within the Jewish community frown upon the idea that someone converted “for” someone else. We often have an idealized kind of conversion in our minds: Someone discovers Judaism on their own, learns about it and seeks a community, studies toward conversion until they are immersed in Jewish life and ultimately take the plunge into the Mikveh (ritual bath necessary for conversion by Jewish law). They might speak of having a “yiddishe neshama,” a Jewish soul that has found its rightful home. We especially love it when this conversion candidate far surpasses what Jews who grew up with the tradition know or practice.
This is a great image, and I have worked with dozens of such Jews-to-be over the years as a rabbi. It is incredibly gratifying to study with someone who is so drawn to our tradition. But it is not the way everyone comes to join our community. Since our earliest history, individuals have joined and strengthened our people because they fell in love. Abraham heard the call of God and became the first adherent to this new faith. But God didn’t speak directly to Sarah; she trusted her husband that this was a revolutionary way to live and a God worthy of uprooting her life.
She followed her husband.
Countless others followed, building up what we now know as the Jewish people. We would not exist were it not for all of the individuals who loved someone who was part of this community. Were they lesser? Would we challenge their commitment?
I work with so many interfaith couples in which a partner is considering conversion but battles with this notion that one might only be converting “for” someone else. My reply is, “Wow, you would consider converting to our tradition because you love this person that much? That is a beautiful thing.” I would never suggest or urge someone to make this commitment, but if they think it might be the right step for them, I hope they don’t get stuck on an image of what an “ideal” Jew-by-choice is like.
If they are passionate about this move, I want to support them without questioning their motives. I have to admit that I do have an ideal scenario in my mind. This person hopefully studies and begins to practice Judaism… along with their Jewish partner who, often times, may not know too much about Judaism either. Together, they discover meaningful practices along with a vibrant community that speaks to the home and life they are creating together. That process may feel spiritual, but it might also feel practical or logical. That is for each Jew to determine, and people who convert shouldn’t be held to a different standard than other Jews.
Of course, conversion is not for everyone. We have finally arrived at a moment in contemporary Judaism in which many communities and leaders view “fellow travelers” who have not chosen to convert as having an important role as members of the Jewish community. Anyone who enters the door to Jewish life should be welcome, no matter what their status. And, of course, no one should be coerced into converting. Ideally, everyone who decides to make the commitment to become Jewish is doing so on their own terms, even Zooey. But let’s not judge people’s decisions when they do follow someone into our tradition… let’s celebrate the fact that they love someone that much.
Friends lighting the menorah at Mychal’s family’s Hanukkah party circa 1986
When I was growing up, my parents threw the most elegant Hanukkah parties. My mom is a decorator at her core and relished the opportunity to throw a party with pizazz. There was fancy juice for the kids, our best dresses and most of all, a gorgeously decorated house. Down the bannister streamed a garland she would create—some years a deep green theme with flowers or elegant dreidels, other years covered in white like the snow we would never see in Southern California. The entire house became transformed by whatever festive theme she had chosen for that year.
Year after year, relatives, friends and our synagogue’s rabbi criticized her elaborate decorations as too Christmassy. Not one to shrink away from a challenge, she quickly quipped that Christmas had not cornered the market on decorations.
But then one year, there were angels. She streamed them up and down the bannister. This time, her critics were livid. They claimed that this was now, officially, a Christmas party. My mother retorted that angels were ours. They originate in ourTorah—they visited our patriarchs Abraham and Sarah, ascended and descended Jacob’s ladder, and there were the angels Michael, Rafael, Gabriel and Uriel. Cherubim were even pictured above the holy ark in the Temple in Jerusalem. [More on Jewish angels can be found here.]
She argued that many seasonal symbols like poinsettias, snow and even her angels, had been co-opted by American-style Christmas. She didn’t see why Jews should be deprived of them. There was nothing left that was “kosher” for Hanukkah decorating if she obeyed the ever-growing list of off-limits symbols and colors. Yes, there were paper menorahs and the like. But she hated the kitschy Jewish stuff most people hung and waited for the one holiday when she could get away with more of a flare.
What were her skeptics, many of whom weren’t so traditionally Jewish themselves, worried about? I think her flare set off a knee-jerk reaction. Maybe for them, Christmas was an annual symbol of how our tiny Jewish minority is threatened by a dominant Christian culture—and my mom was blurring that line. Maybe attending this Hanukkah party represented their need to be in a distinctly Jewish place during the onslaught of the Christmas commercial season. Perhaps her decorations were encroaching on their Jewish particularism.
Mychal and her dad lighting the menorah
Of course, Hanukkah only rose to its prominent position in Jewish American life because of Christmas. Anywhere else in the world, Hanukkah is the most minor of Jewish holidays. But here in the United States, we felt it needed to combat the red and green tinsel, and we lifted up from the complicated story of Hanukkah a simple message of religious tolerance.
My mom wanted in on the fun. It is a little sad to be part of a society in which the majority is participating in something magical while we merely peer in at it from outside as a matter of principle. We are confused as a group about what to do with Christmas as it morphs from a religious holiday into an American cultural festival. And now that our families are more diverse, that confusion is only exacerbated. A tree—which seems like it should be just that and no more—often holds a lot of history for Jews. Participating in Christmas can serve as a symbol that we have given up trying to be unique. At worst, it can feel like Jews have caved to the majority: the very majority that many times throughout history tried to obliterate us. Yet for someone who grew up with Christmas, the prospect of giving it up means sacrificing a powerful sense of comfort, love, memories and family.
What I advocate most for interfaith couples is that they listen to each other as they describe their needs at the holidays. I often hear people talking past each other about what they can or cannot tolerate. But they rarely dig deeply enough into the particulars of why they need what they need at this time of year.
Even for families who have it all figured out, emotions at this time of year can set off new discussions and tensions. It is one of the few times of the year when extended family enter the picture and have needs and expectations of their own. Whatever your Decembers are like, this is a great time to open up about what the season felt like for you as a child and what emotions—positive, negative or neutral—they bring up as adults. No matter what you choose as your own family traditions, getting that clarity about what you expect and need will help make the season what you want it to be.
Years ago, a colleague of mine told me that as a rabbi, I should try to make Judaism, “cool,” At the time, I knew I was put off by this comment, but only years later do I fully understand why. What I love about Judaism is that it is generally “uncool.” In fact, it is wonderfully weird. Sometimes it is edgy. Even counter-cultural. I am part of religious life because it is meaningful, not because it’s the hip thing to do on a Friday night.
An article caught my eye recently, entitled, Want millennials back in the pews? Stop trying to make church ‘cool.’ The writer, Rachel Held Evans, criticizes flashy, trend-setting techniques to get millennials into churches. “The trick isn’t to make church cool,” she writes, “it’s to keep worship weird.” She goes on to share what most attracts her and other young bloggers to religious life. “I do not want to be entertained…I want to be asked to participate in the life of an ancient-future community.” She is intrigued by “those strange rituals and traditions” that have been practiced in her tradition for thousands of years.
Sometimes as a Jewish leader, I feel pressure to make Judaism seem cool. But the fact is—I want to keep Judaism wonderfully weird. Take this season of the High Holidays. My favorite parts of the liturgy and practice at this sacred time of year often appear the strangest, and take some time to get used to. One of the rarest is the practice of kneeling and then putting my face to the ground during a certain prayer during Rosh Hashanah; prostrating myself like a child’s pose in yoga, feeling the ground beneath me and my vulnerability as a human being. I relish this because I want, at that moment, to feel a bit small with a sense of the grandeur of the world outside of me. My family loves the ritual of tashlich. We throw breadcrumbs into a creek to symbolize our shortcomings over the past year—with full knowledge that this ritual was borne out of a desire to appease water demons.
When sukkot begins, I shake the lulav: that strange collection of four natural species we bring together inside our little autumn hut (sukkah). Who doesn’t feel a little awkward shaking it in all directions? I love this ancient, agricultural ritual for all of its quirkiness. It connects me to the earth. It reminds me how interdependent we are with the natural world, and I become cognizant that the livelihood of others is tied to the whims of the weather more than mine will ever be.
It is not, actually, the endurance of the rituals alone that propels me to keep practicing them. They are relevant to me because they contain kernels of wisdom, and I bring my contemporary consciousness to them as Jews always have. They are not flashy or slick, hip or even always fun. Some are even difficult. But they are authentic.
The famous Rav Kook wrote that, “The old becomes new, and the new becomes holy.” That is what an “ancient-future” community looks like; always looking back to discover the sources of our wisdom while we discern how that tradition continues to inform us in the present day. That doesn’t mean that we should keep doing exactly what we always did, or in exactly the same way. Our job is to renew and reconstruct where necessary, and make the ancient come alive in a new generation with contemporary relevance.
Whether Jewish practice is new to you or familiar, whether this is your first High Holiday season or your fiftieth, embrace the quirkiness. Try something new. Don’t worry if it’s not all flashy, or if you find that you need to slow down your mind to take it in. Hopefully, the experience will bring introspection, meaning and depth to your life. Above all, find out why we practice the way we do. Ask questions. Most people probably have the same questions you do. Reshape rituals and add your own flavor. As Evans puts it, “[Rituals] don’t need to be repackaged or rebranded; they just need to be practiced, offered and explained in the context of a loving, authentic and inclusive community.”
This essay was reprinted with permission from J. Weekly.
Earlier this month I was the rabbi at the Fellowship for Affirming Ministries’ biennial conference at City of Refuge Church in Oakland. I was invited to blow the shofar for the new Hebrew month of Av, and I lit candles to usher in Shabbat before the worship began. I returned to my seat, filled with love for the extraordinary Christian leaders I had met that day, honored to bring a taste of Judaism into their prayer space and feeling welcomed as someone who had entered that morning as an outsider, now an insider sharing a sacred moment.
Then came the scriptural reading from the New Testament: “Everything [the Pharisees] do is done for people to see. … Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! … You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness” (Matthew 23:5, 27, 28).
How should I react? Was anyone looking at me? Do I show my discomfort as a Jew listening to these words? I tried to be invisible, wondering if anyone who was standing up and calling out affirmations of this reading might be associating me, the very public representation of Judaism at this gathering, with a Pharisee. Were the rituals Matthew was criticizing related to ones I just performed? Were they viewed as empty, for show?
It was mere minutes later that I felt a tap on my shoulder. The presiding pastor presented a handwritten note. “Please forgive me for my choice of scripture, which I’m sure was painful to hear. … I felt pain as I listened. … and apologize for any harm this may have done to your heart just after you gifted us with a Sabbath Blessing.” I caught her eye, expressing how deeply this touched me. Her apology doesn’t erase the reality of the text existing, or being read as sacred Scripture, nor should it. But it brought me peace.
What followed was a regular part of the weekly liturgy at her church. The entire congregation recited a five-minute “Confession for the misuse and abuse of Scripture” that speaks, among other things, to the harm done to Jews and others as a result of the misuse of Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament. At this point, feeling a swell of gratitude, I wondered if we Jews ever ask publicly for forgiveness for any harm our texts have caused. In drashes, I have condemned our use of anti-gay verses, I have openly challenged Torah that oppresses women or further disempowers the powerless. But do we ever apologize directly to the people sitting among us who are squirming in their seats as a result of our words?
Because I was the direct recipient of someone’s confession, my mind is fixed on the people who sit and listen to sacred text being chanted in our sanctuaries. For the first time in a long stretch of history, a large percentage of people sitting in services are not Jewish. Most of them have entered our holy spaces because they love someone who is, and many have made personal sacrifices to raise Jewish families. This Shabbat, they may open the Chumash and read, “You shall not intermarry with them: do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons. For they will turn your children away from Me to worship other gods, and God’s anger will blaze forth against you” (Deuteronomy 7:3-4).
This week, I would ask forgiveness from interfaith couples who came to synagogue in support of their Jewish families. They might historicize these verses (this addressed long-gone nations and a nascent people) or even think about our contemporary interreligious battles (Jews worry that their kids might worship the god of the very people who have tried to extinguish them for centuries). But at a time when more interfaith couples are choosing a Jewish life for their families, I feel what the pastor felt for me — that our texts, attitudes and parts of our liturgy may be doing harm to their hearts even as they gift us with their presence and the presence of their children.
If you could reach out to someone who may be hurt by our texts, who would it be?