Chicago, My Home

  

My name is Rabbi Reni Dickman, and I am very excited to be the new IFF/Chicago director. In the past month, I have already met incredibly thoughtful people. I have also begun to expand my knowledge of the Chicago Jewish Community. I am very proud of this community. I grew up here and I am inspired by the diversity of creative and innovative programs all over the Chicago area. There is something for everyone, and I hope to help interfaith couples and families find the right opportunities to meet other couples and families, to learn and celebrate and to serve those in need as all faiths ask us to do.

My work in a small congregation in Michigan City, Indiana, taught me about small town Jewish communities and the closeness they offer. In a big city like Chicago, our challenge is to create that same closeness. My experience teaching in Jewish day schools taught me about reaching students in different ways and always identifying the big ideas and essential questions within any text we study. I look forward to exploring life’s essential questions with you and helping you come to conclusions that are meaningful for your family.

I am excited to explore life’s questions with you at significant milestones in your life and in the years in between. I have two young children, and though my husband and I are both Jewish and I am a rabbi, I have been surprised by some of the issues we face as we navigate our family’s religious life. I would be happy to share my experience with you, my successes and my challenges and to hear yours as well. If there is one thing I’ve learned, it is that it’s always better to talk about it. I would love to grab coffee, go for a walk, meet your family or loved one, or talk one-on-one. I look forward to hearing your stories and your ideas.

Wishing our IFF community a happy and a healthy new year filled with creativity, communication and inspiration.

#WelcomeWaffleWednesday

  

For the past couple months, as I’ve settled into our office space at the San Francisco Federation building on Steuart Street, I’ve been surprised by how few Federation employees knew where we were. Since InterfaithFamily is an organization of welcoming and love, I decided this needed to change.

We began by re-envisioning our space. Where four desks once sat, we now have an open space working area with a desk, conference table, coffee/tea cart and some comfy couches—all donated to us by the Federation or local friends who were redecorating their homes. We added some art, some greenery and a couple of great lamps that shine a natural light. Our space was ready to welcome visitors; now we just needed people.

Enter #WelcomeWaffleWednesday! A couple of Wednesdays ago, we brought in a gourmet coffee cart and waffle bar for all of the people who work in our building and the one next to us. With the delicious scent of waffles welcoming all who walked in the building and coffee so fresh you could taste it in the air around you, a diverse group of Jewish professionals joined us for treats and mingling. Along with introducing ourselves and our space to the building, we were excited to be blessed by our visitors.

About half of our guests, while waiting for their waffles to cook, participated in an activity where they decorated cutouts with words and pictures of blessing and good wishes. We shaped the cutouts like hamsas, a beautiful symbol of protection in Judaism and many other faiths and cultures. The hamsa, which is believed to protect us from evil, was enriched by the blessings of our visitors. They now hang on our walls along with our art, bringing beauty, love, community and blessings to all who enter our office.

Now that Wednesday is over, and the waffles are gone, I look back on these past few weeks and a smile creeps over my face. I know this office welcome was just the beginning of a significant number of meaningful friendships and partnership opportunities. And the success of our event leaves me with one important conclusion: We need more #WelcomeWaffleWednesdays in this world!

The Weight of Our Words

  

In seventh grade, I was so excited when this boy from school asked me out. I asked my mother if she could drop me off at the movie theater, not yet able to go anywhere on my own, and was surprised by the questions she asked. I don’t remember exactly what was said at the beginning, but she communicated to me that he was not an appropriate person for me to date. In all my teenage glory, I yelled and made a scene and told her she was closed minded. She calmly responded, “No I’m not. I’m very open minded. You can date and marry any boy or girl you want, black, white or brown, as long as they are Jewish.”

Looking back on it, this conversation became one of the foundational truths I held onto in my younger days. Knowing that my mom was in fact very open minded and liberal in many ways, I came to believe the distinction she made must have been appropriate. And this comment was supported by thousands of others, large and small, from family members, teachers, youth group advisors and friends who all seemed to accept this idea as a truth: that as a Jew I should be with another Jew.

It took me a few years into my rabbinate until I could fully shed this thinking and not only welcome but truly embrace the (many, many) blessings interfaith families bring to the Jewish community. I am here now, as a voice for inclusion in my new role as director of InterfaithFamily/Bay Area, because I understand and believe deeply that it is the right Jewish and rabbinic thing to do—to see and embrace the holiness and blessings of each and every individual.

Those who live by Jewish values should see no option but audacious welcoming and sincere gratitude for interfaith couples families that choose to connect to Judaism or Jewish community in any way. Partners of different faith backgrounds are making Judaism a more vibrant and meaningful religion. I’m a rabbi to help people find meaning in their lives. Throughout time, rabbis have done this in a multitude of ways. Rabbinic roles, and Judaism, have continued to evolve throughout time, affected by the cultures surrounding us and enriching each generation.

This is why I find myself in a new city, new job and preparing my family for our fourth move in six months. Matt, Roey, Stella Mae and I are, like so many young families, exploring our new city of San Francisco and creating the friends and community we hope will enrich our lives for years to come. My heart brings me to the Bay Area, to work for InterfaithFamily and make sure every person exploring the Jewish community, or loving individuals who take part in Jewish community, may feel the same warmth and love I offer my own family. Especially now, as a parent, I am realizing the weight of my words and advice that I offer to my own children and others. Maybe we can all explore this world together and enrich the younger and older generations with our warmth, kindness, creativity and spunk. I hope to meet you soon, whether for a cup of coffee on me (drop me a note at samanthak@interfaithfamily.com), at an upcoming event, or at my welcome breakfast where I look forward to meeting new people from the area on August 23 in our Steuart Street office—please stop by!

What Do I Do?

  

Rabbi Jillian officiating at a wedding

Hi, I’m Rabbi Jillian Cameron, the director of InterfaithFamily/Boston. While many people have at least some idea of what a rabbi in a synagogue does, my work might seem a bit more mysterious; I thought I’d provide some clarity, in case what I do could coincide with your work or your life.

InterfaithFamily is a national organization dedicated to connecting interfaith couples and families to Jewish life in whatever way is comfortable.

Right off the bat, you might be wondering how we define “interfaith.” Well, for our work, “interfaith” means a couple or family where one person identifies as Jewish and one person identifies as something other than Jewish. As you might imagine, there are a lot of different combinations this loose definition can make, from families who are very connected to their respective religions, to couples who struggle with their connection to religion, to everything and anything in between.

Of course, this adds a complication because not everyone likes and identifies with the term “interfaith.” I often use the words “intercultural,” “multi-faith” and “diverse,” among several more, just in case those better align with a couple’s identity.

When all is said and done, no matter how a couple or family might define themselves, if they are interested in exploring any facet of Judaism, from just dipping in a toe, to jumping in completely, it is my job and my passion to help them find a way in.

One of the best parts of my work is listening to everyone’s stories—I mean everyone, from children of intermarriage, to the couple themselves, to their parents or grandparents, extended family and even friends. While interfaith families and couples are often viewed through the lens of statistics, I have found there is such beautiful and significant diversity in each personal journey and story. So I listen, informally compiling this important narrative of the Boston Jewish community, and then I try to help, using all my resources: knowledge of all that exists here in Boston that could be of interest, welcoming communities, events that coincide with existing interests, other Jewish professionals and organizations who are creating amazing things, classes to take and more.

Sometimes what a couple needs is just to talk to me, to work through questions they have individually and as a couple about the role of religion in their lives, as they are thinking about moving in together, or are getting married, having children, dealing with loss or great joys. Sometimes interfaith couples are interested in finding other similar couples to talk with, hear how they have made decisions and perhaps not feel like they are the only ones like them out there. This is why I created InterfaithFamily/Boston’s Coffee & Conversation, a once-a-month informal gathering for interfaith couples at Boston’s best coffee shops. (For our next date and location, click here.)

Other times, a couple or family is looking for a rabbi to officiate at a lifecycle event. Helping to connect the right rabbi with a couple or family is another piece of my work. InterfaithFamily has a national clergy referral service, providing information for interfaith-friendly Jewish clergy around the country. In Boston, sometimes it’s me, but there are a wealth of local rabbis and cantors who are proudly on our list and who create incredibly meaningful lifecycle moments for so many interfaith families and couples. While you’re on our website, you can also check out the plethora of resources we have, like guides for lifecycles and holidays, and a whole host of stories from people we have encountered since our creation in 2002.

The Boston Jewish community is a special one, both in its makeup and offerings. Organizations and professionals work together, support each other and create incredible things in partnership. I work to create interesting, fun, creative and intellectual programming with any number of other Jewish organizations, as well as help those same organizations think more deeply about the diverse population that might walk through their door. I want the Jewish community to continue to be innovative, relevant and welcoming and engaging to all.

I love being a rabbi and I especially love being a rabbi who works at InterfaithFamily in Boston. If I’ve piqued your interest, if you would like to hear more about what we do, if you want to tell me your story, if you want to explore Judaism, if you’re looking for a good cup of coffee and a good listener, I’m here and more than happy to help in whatever way I can.

You can find me on our website or Facebook group, or reach out to me via email.

Reprinted with permission from JewishBoston.com

Remembering Jonathan Woocher

  

Jonathan Woocher

This post originally appeared on www.edumundcase.com and is reprinted with permission.

Editor’s note: InterfaithFamily is heartbroken over the recent loss of longtime supporter Jonathan Woocher. He made an incredible and lasting impact on our organization and the greater Jewish community for which we are forever grateful.

The Jewish world has lost a truly remarkable leader with the death of Jonathan Woocher on July 7. Many tributes and memories can be found on Jon’s Facebook page, a statement from the Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah which he led and more recently served as Senior Fellow, a JTA story in the Forward, a statement from the Jewish Federations of North America, on eJewishPhilanthropy, and more.

In addition to being one of the smartest and most enlightened thinkers in the Jewish world, what stood out most about Jon Woocher to me was how kind and supportive he was, of me personally, and of the work of InterfaithFamily. Looking through my old email I find that as early as 2005, when I asked Jon for help to make IFF’s first new hire since it was founded in 2002, he said “very nice – kol hakavod” and had helpful suggestions to offer, as he did several times over the years in connection with other hires and potential funders and partners.

Jon replied to one of our regular updates in 2008 with “incredibly impressive” and again, what must have been a favorite phrase, “kol hakavod.” When we launched InterfaithFamily/Chicago in 2011 as our first direct service, on-the-ground operation, Jon said “Wow!  This is great news. Mazal tov and yasher koach. I look forward to seeing this initiative unfold.” In response to a 2014 report from Jodi Bromberg, Jon said “What an exciting report. Kol hakavod to you, Ed, and the staff and Board for continuing to build on IFF’s solid base. It’s gratifying to see how many communities are now recognizing the valuable contribution IFF can make on the ground locally.”

All of this encouragement might not seem particularly special, as many people have commented on how supportive Jon was to them. But the difference is that the cause of engaging interfaith families Jewishly has not been a popular one. I often felt I was knocking my head against walls. Support from Jon Woocher, such a highly regarded scholar and professional, meant a great deal to me – it inspired me to keep working to advance the issue. And when the issue finally started to get more positive attention, Jon was there to help, gracing the October 2016 Interfaith Opportunity Summit as a panelist.

In 2015 when a group of leaders issued their Statement on Jewish Vitality, J.J. Goldberg wrote in the Forward that the two main criticisms (though for different reasons) were from me and from Jon. I told Jon I felt that I had been elevated into really good company. In his typical humble way, he said he liked the company he was in, too – but truly I was the one who was honored to be mentioned along with him.

My recollection is that the first time I ever spoke to Jon, he mentioned that his wife Sherry thought highly of InterfaithFamily’s content and used it in her own work. I am sending my very sincere condolences and sympathy to Sherry and her family on their terrible loss.

Postscript July 11: You can read Joe Kanfer’s incredibly meaningful eulogy here.

Why Facebook’s New Mission Is Good for Jewish Community

  

Friends

Mark Zuckerberg recently announced that he is changing the mission of Facebook. He cares less about helping people count how many friends they have and more about helping people feel interconnected in communities. Exactly! This is the work of rabbis too!

As I approach my last week as Director of InterfaithFamily/Chicago, I continue to think about the idea of Jewish community. Over the past six years, I have spent countless hours sitting with couples planning their weddings (and talking about their hopes for their marriages) at Starbucks. We have conversations about how they want to raise children (those who want children) in terms of religion, culture and traditions coming from two different backgrounds. These conversations have been the joy of my rabbinate.

When couples shared their stories, they would start to remind me of one another. I was then able to play matchmaker! I could connect the couple planning a Jewish-Muslim wedding with someone who had done it the summer before. I could connect newbie couples with more seasoned interfaith families for mentoring (If you would like to be paired with a mentor, email Judy Jury, Director of Special Projects). I have recently discovered a group of men who didn’t grow up with Judaism who are expert challah bakers. I can’t wait to bring them together for a kick-ass challah baking session. If you think you fit into this category or would like to, be in touch!

Over the years, couples and families have asked if they can join “my community.” It’s been a struggle at IFF to figure out if we are a community. We have been hesitant to own that label. Our approach has been to usher people, with lots of support, into existing communities and congregations and to one another.

Each of the IFF communities (see—there I go with THAT word) has a Facebook group so that local professionals can share upcoming events and opportunities, so that the IFF staff can share articles and content of interest and so that interfaith families can ask questions and support one another. There isn’t always the level of engagement in the group in Chicago that I had hoped for. I think part of that is that being “interfaith” isn’t the main identity or the way people are thinking of themselves day in and day out. It sure feels salient when planning a wedding, or wondering about a bris, baby naming and/or baptism, but interfaith families often have other main interests.

I am a member of a few Facebook groups that get unbelievable traction and I think it’s because they represent such important parts of our lives. Like parents of children with ADHD need to discuss with each other medication and therapies. Other parents living this reality get each other on a deep and immediate level. I find oftentimes that the people in the group share a major facet of their lives in common but are extremely diverse other than that. In addition, we are part of many different groups, generally, that represent all the different identities we carry with us.

Zuckerberg believes that the world will need to connect better in order to take on international problems such as climate change. He is promoting Facebook groups and making them easier to manage because, as he says, “In order to get there, you need to build a world where every person has a sense of support and purpose in their life so they don’t just focus narrowly on what’s going on in their lives, but can think about these broader issues as well.”

As a Rabbi who has been labeled a “community rabbi” (meaning that I am not a pulpit rabbi) as part of IFF/Chicago, I am often derided by other rabbis for offering Judaism outside of community—meaning synagogue. It’s ironic, I know. And, I’m not sure who my community is exactly.

See below my ELI Talk about community:

The other reason I cringe when even saying the phrase “Jewish community” is because it feels exclusive and leaves people out. We’re not a community of only Jews. How do we encompass all people who are gathered because of Judaism and are themselves diverse?

I wasn’t able to keep the amazing people who came into my life through this work as a cohesive community. And I have been unsure how to even talk about Jewish community with an interfaith lens. This has brought me to the question of whether Judaism could be practiced without a focus on community?

For non-Orthodox families, our expression and practice of Judaism doesn’t lend itself easily to community. We don’t necessarily live near each other or see each other because of our Judaism. Congregational rabbis try to encourage people to bond and offer lots of opportunities for people to get to know one another. However, lifecycle events from bar/bat mitzvahs to shivas still tend to be private (meaning our friends and family come), not necessarily the people from the synagogue.

But I think about the prayer, Eilu Devarim: “These are The Things” we do in life as people connected to Judaism. The things we are supposed to do are: visiting the sick, praying in a group, studying with others, rejoicing with wedding parties, consoling the bereaved…all acts that involve PEOPLE.

I’ve come to realize that even though I can’t easily describe what community is, Judaism is supposed to be done with community. You can’t do most of these things with a rabbi at a Starbucks. You can’t do these things with just your family at your kitchen table. However, just belonging to a synagogue doesn’t mean you’re automatically doing these things either.

So, we know it’s hard to talk about “the Jewish community” as if it’s one entity you can point to, which is tangible and over there somewhere to be joined. Yet, we know we need community in order to live Jewishly. So, we’re going to have to rethink our language to catch up with our reality.

What we do have is micro-communities, like what I think we can provide through InterfaithFamily. These should be supported and honored. And while we need other people with whom to do Jewish things, many of us are yearning for these smaller groups and for one-on-one individualized support from someone who knows us. That’s why my work with InterfaithFamily has felt so meaningful.

So much of life seems one-size-fits-most. We’re wearing the same workout clothes and driving the same cars and ordering the same coffees and buying our kids the same fidget spinners, and there is familiarity in that. We belong. We are not alone. Yet, we also want to be seen as individuals under all of that sameness.

I imagine that while I am at this coffee shop with someone talking about how to navigate a discussion with our kids about death, there is a rabbi not far away meeting with a couple in her office that wants to join her congregation. Meanwhile, a couple is hosting their first ever Shabbat dinner (ask your IFF/Community about this—we’ll pay for it!). Their friends are on the floor around their coffee table because there aren’t enough chairs and they are laughing and enjoying their meal. We’re all in an interconnected web of people trying to connect and see each other and find meaning.

There are certain words that are hard to define. We use them, but when pressed to say what we really mean, we’re not so sure and so we speak in broad generalities. Community is sure one of those words. Yet, our communities are the web that connects our humanity and our Judaism.

I’ll miss you as the InterfaithFamily/Chicago director. Stay in touch.

How Audacious Will Our Hospitality to Interfaith Families Be?

  

How Audacious Will Our Hospitality to Interfaith Families Be?

This post originally appeared eJewishPhilanthropy and also appears on www.edumundcase.com and is reprinted with permission

I applauded in 2013 when Rabbi Rick Jacobs announced the Reform movement’s audacious hospitality initiative, and again in 2015 when my colleague April Baskin was appointed to lead it. But the recent release of the Audacious Hospitality Toolkit surfaces a deep question: just how audacious will our hospitality to interfaith families be?

The Toolkit is an excellent resource. I recommend it to every congregation, not just Reform. It offers guiding principles and concrete steps synagogues can take to self-evaluate, develop and implement efforts to welcome diverse populations. It builds on pioneering work by the Reform movement’s own Outreach Department, Big Tent Judaism and InterfaithFamily.

But missing from the Toolkit is discussion or guidance about the difficult issues that I believe must be addressed for interfaith families to engage in Jewish life and community.

In 2000 I wrote an op-ed, Redefine Jewish Peoplehood, for Reform Judaism magazine, and a longer We Need a Religious Movement that is Totally Inclusive of Intermarried Jewish Families for InterfaithFamily. I said that we need to include – indeed, embrace – not only Jews but also their partners from different faith traditions, and their children, as “in,” as part of “us,” as included in the Jewish people more broadly defined as the Jewish community. Not as “out,” “other,” not allowed to participate and engage fully in Jewish life. Instead of focusing on identity, on whether a person “is” Jewish, I said we needed to focus on engagement, on whether a person wants to “do” Jewish.

It’s not surprising that in the seventeen years since there has been some but not enough change. This kind of fundamental shift is hard, and generates exactly the issues that I believe Jews and their communities need to address.

One issue is the preference Jews express for their children marrying other Jews. A friend who has a lesbian daughter in a long-term relationship told me last week that he hated it when well-intentioned people said to him, “it’s wonderful that your daughter has a partner – but wouldn’t you prefer that she were straight?” No, he wouldn’t, thank you.

The same kind of preferential thinking applies to interfaith couples, and I’ve been guilty of it myself; once when a friend wanted to introduce my son to a young woman, I said “is she Jewish”? right in front of my daughter’s husband who is not Jewish himself. (Fortunately, it gave me a chance to tell him I loved him just as he was.) Jewish leaders and their communities need to address the attitudes that Jews have about partners from different faith traditions, and that consider relationships with them to be “sub-optimal.”

Another issue is the attitude that partners from different faith traditions are welcome but with limitations, that their patrilineal children aren’t “really” Jewish or Jewish enough, or that conversion or some new special status like “ger toshav” is the answer to inclusion and recognition. Partners from different faith traditions want to be welcomed as they are, without ulterior motives that they convert, and they don’t want their children’s status questioned. Creating new categories of who is more “in” or “out” and which status confers more or less benefits, is not inclusive. Jewish leaders and their communities need to examine and explicitly address their policies – and assert the Jewishness of patrilineals in dialogue with other movements.

A third issue is ritual participation policies, like the parent from a different faith tradition not being allowed to pass the Torah or join in an aliyah at the bar or bat mitzvah of the child they have raised with Judaism. Those parents could say the Torah blessing with full integrity because their family is part of the “us” to whom the Torah was given. They want to feel united with their family and want their child to see them participate and be honored fully. Maintaining the boundary that only a Jew can have an aliyah excludes them. Jewish leaders and their communities need to examine and articulate their policies, and whether they will allow anyone who wants to participate fully to do so.

After the Cohen Center’s recent research showed strong association between officiation and interfaith couples raising their children as Jews and joining synagogues, it is no longer tenable for liberal rabbis not to officiate on the grounds that intermarriage is not good for Jewish continuity. Jewish leaders should ensure that that at least some of their synagogue’s clergy officiate. It is time for the Reform rabbinate to change the resolution still on the CCAR’s books that disapproves of officiation. Statements of position set a tone that matters, and bold leadership helps people adapt their attitudes to address new realities. That’s why Hebrew Union College, the Reform seminary, should follow the Reconstructionists’ lead by admitting and ordaining intermarried rabbinic students. The growth and vitality of liberal synagogues depends on engaging more interfaith families. What better role model for them could there be than an intermarried rabbi?

Finally, the real frontier of audacious hospitality is how Jewish communities will respond to couples who think they may or say they want to “do both.” What appears to be a growing population wants to educate their children about both religious traditions in the home, without merging them together. When they knock on Jewish doors – when couples ask rabbis to co-officiate at their weddings, or parents ask synagogue religious schools to accept children who are receiving formal education in another religion – they mostly get “no” for an answer. While more rabbis appear to be officiating for interfaith couples, most won’t co-officiate, saying they want a commitment to a Jewish home and family. But participating in those weddings holds the door open to later Jewish commitment for couples who haven’t decided yet, while refusing to risks shutting that door. Similarly, while we don’t have to recommend or favor raising children as “both,” providing Jewish education to them if they seek it opens doors to later engagement.

The more confident we are that Jewish traditions are so compelling that people will gravitate to them once exposed, the more we will openly discuss these issues, dismantle barriers, and articulate and implement a totally inclusive – yes, a truly audacious – hospitality. People who say Jewish communities are already welcoming enough, and don’t need to talk about or do anything specific for interfaith families, are out of touch; Jewish communities can do a lot to attract and engage interfaith families with explicit statements, invitations, and programs designed for them, especially meet-ups and discussion groups where new couples can talk out how to have religious traditions in their lives.

As summer approaches, many congregational rabbis are thinking about their High Holiday sermons. The Reform movement will gather again in December at its biennial. Will Jewish leaders seize these occasions to forthrightly address just how audacious their hospitality to interfaith families needs to be?