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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.
Of course there is no such thing as the “best partner,” but you want your loved one to feel that you are their best partner, right? Whether you’re dating, married or seriously committed, the best gift you can give your loved one is to be supportive—even on those rare (or not so rare) occasions when you don’t see eye to eye.
1. Speak your mind: Speaking up is just as important as listening. If your partner doesn’t know how you feel, they can’t be sensitive to your feelings. If Passover’s coming up and you’d really like a hand preparing to host the holiday, don’t wait for them to offer—ask! So many relationship struggles come from lack of communication. If you’re visiting your significant other’s parents and you’re anxious about not being familiar with certain religious rituals that might come up during a holiday of a religion you don’t practice, ask for a primer (better yet, if it’s Jewish information you seek, find one here!). You’ll feel more comfortable and your loved one will appreciate your interest in their religion.
2. Go halfsies: My husband and I annoyingly like to tease each other that “what’s yours is mine” when it comes to that ice cream sundae or a winning scratch ticket. But it goes both ways. When I see him eyeing the last of my homemade Hanukkah cookies: “What’s mine is yours.” When that wine bottle is almost empty: “What’s mine is yours.” When you’re both generous with the little things, you might find you’re in a better mindset to compromise on the big stuff too.
3. Get creative: Feel like most of the time you’re on autopilot? Work, grocery store, gym, errands, pick up the kids (if you have kids), etc. That’s because we all are. So when you actually get a free minute to spare with your sweetheart, it can be hard to figure out what to do with it—besides a Netflix binge. But there are so many great events going on every week in the Jewish community, plus workshops from InterfaithFamily for couples and new parents. #ChooseLove by taking advantage of that precious free time in a more enriching way and learn something new together. Even if it’s just once in a while, you’ll be glad you got off the couch.
4. Take your time: Figuring out your religious identity as a couple or family takes time. You might want to feel like you have a plan for celebrating holidays and family gatherings that’s just right—from the get-go. Let yourself off the hook! Be OK with not being the perfect Passover host this year. Your what-went-wrongs will inform next year. And some unexpected moments worth repeating will almost certainly happen organically. As you see what works for you—hosting versus visiting, keeping the kids in school versus bringing them to a holiday observance, etc.—you’ll start to create your own traditions.
5. Let it go: I’m not saying you should avoid communication and let hurt feelings fester (especially about big issues), but this is about not “sweating the small stuff.” If your partner’s complaining about visiting your in-laws for Easter again, but you know she’s had a terrible, no good, very bad day, maybe let this one slide. Or if you’ve already made your opinion known that your grandmother has the best chicken soup recipe on the planet, and it would be a travesty not to serve it to your guests, put it in perspective: If it’s really important for your partner to connect with their grandma through an old passed-down recipe, perhaps it’s not worth ruining your holiday over soup. Often we expect a lot from our loved ones, but sometimes we lose sight of what’s worth getting worked up over. And more important: what’s not.
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?
There is a Jewish joke that says: Two Jews are in a synagogue, and one turns to the other as asks “when is Hannukah this year?” and the other responds “the same as always, on the 25th of Kislev.” This little tale helps us to learn about the Hebrew calendar. Jewish holidays are celebrated on the same day of the Hebrew calendar each year, but since the Hebrew year is not the same as the solar year used by most of the Western world, Jewish holidays always fall on a different Western calendar day each year.
This quirky calendar difference can be confusing. My husband likes to celebrate birthdays and anniversaries using the Hebrew date and this takes some effort on my part to keep track. I am fortunate that the two most important dates I need to remember happen to fall on important dates in both calendars. In the year that my husband was born, the first night of Hanukkah fell on December 25—Christmas Day—and that day is his birthday. Every year, we celebrate the first night of Hanukkah and Nathan’s birthday. Last year, it was also Thanksgiving, which made it a triple celebration! We got married on the 18th of the Hebrew month of Lyar, which is also the Jewish holiday of Lag B’Omer, another special day that is on every Jewish calendar, making it easy to remember our anniversary.
The Hebrew calendar has a fascinating twist, a method to reconcile the lunar and solar years. The secular calendar is based on the solar cycle, in which the earth revolves around the sun in approximately 365¼ days. Since we cannot measure a quarter of a day, we have 365 days each year, and every 4th year add a 366th day, creating a leap year every four years. The Jewish calendar consists of months based on the lunar cycle, the time it takes the moon to revolve around the earth. A lunar month consists of 29½ days. Again, since we cannot have ½ day, we have some Hebrew calendar months with 29 days, and some with 30 days. As a result of the extra half days, the Hebrew calendar also includes some leap years.
Every so often, 7 times out of every 19 years, the Jewish calendar adds an extra month of Adar and names them Adar I and Adar II. This year, 2014/5774 has one of those fun occurrences. The reason for the extra Adar is that a solar year consists of 365 days, and a lunar year consists of 354 days, causing the same Hebrew calendar day to occur 11 days earlier in the following year. As a result, Passover which is supposed to occur in springtime, would happen earlier and earlier each year, eventually ending up in the winter, fall, and summer. To prevent this backward slippage, the Jewish sages added an extra month to reconcile the Jewish and secular calendars.
This leap month is called Adar Sheni, or Adar the 2nd (Adar II). Interestingly, Adar II is the month that is constant every year, where Adar I, is the one added in a Hebrew leap year. The way we know this is that Purim, which always occurs in the month of Adar, is celebrated during Adar II in a leap year. Interestingly, a year consisting of 13 months is not called a leap year, but Shana Me’uberet, a pregnant year.
During Talmudic times, the Hebrew calendar was established by the Rabbinic court in Jerusalem, based upon the sighting of the new moon by two witnesses, who were quizzed to determine the reliability of their testimony. In the 4th Century, the Jewish sage Hillel II, established a fixed calendar, basing it on mathematical and astronomical calculations. This is the Hebrew calendar that we use today to know precisely when to celebrate holidays in the current year, and to help us plan for the future.
It is a fun activity to compare the Hebrew and Western calendars to find out if you were born or married on a Jewish holiday, important day in Jewish history, or if you share a birthday with a famous Jewish leader or prophet. You can find a Hebrew date using the online HebCal date converter and then see what happened on that Day in Jewish History. I was born on the 30th day of the month of Sivan, which is a day of celebrating the new moon and the day before Joseph, the Son of Jacob and Rachel was born!
There is a great deal of concern in the Jewish world about the degree to which interfaith families are engaged or disengaged in Jewish life and community. A headline of the New York Jewish Community Study of 2011, released in June 2012, was that interfaith families generally score low on that study’s index of Jewish engagement, while interfaith families who join synagogues or send their children to Jewish education score comparably to in-married families. Community studies like New York’s, and other available communal research, however, tell us precious little about what factors contribute to interfaith families joining Jewish organizations and expanding their connections to Judaism – or what they experience as barriers to that expanded connection.
Starting in December 2009, Interfaith Family’s annual December Holidays survey and Passover/Easter survey have asked precisely those questions. We’ve just published a report on the responses to those questions. Our surveys are not “scientific” or based on a random sample; the respondents are self-selected and some may have responded to more than one survey. But no one else is asking these questions, and our report sheds what is currently the most available light on these important issues: it summarizes and analyzes close to 700 responses from six consecutive surveys from respondents who were in interfaith relationships, were raising their children as Jews, and were members of a synagogue or Jewish organization.
Interfaith families are attracted, in order of importance, by explicit statements that interfaith families are welcome; inclusive policies on participation by interfaith families; invitations to learn about Judaism and, to a much lesser extent, invitations to convert; the presence of other interfaith families; programming and groups specifically for interfaith couples; and officiation by rabbis at weddings of interfaith couples. Read the full report for the data and many comments to our open-ended questions.
The policy implications of these findings are that Jewish communities that want to increase engagement by local interfaith families need to:
That’s the approach we are taking in our InterfaithFamily/Your Community initiative.
Each week I post a discussion question on the Chicagoland page. We love your feedback, so check each Monday by 5pm for the question of the week and respond!
This week, the question was about whether parents with young children were joining congregations and registering children for religious school to start in September. In my family, I am busy signing our 5-year-old up for continued violin lessons (check out my recent blog post about the how the Suzuki method makes me wonder about Jewish religious school), swim lessons, pottery and gymnastics. She loves it all! I also just filled in the form for kindergarten religious school. True, my husband is a congregational rabbi, so this is a no-brainer.
One person posted to the discussion board that she inquired about enrolling her young child in the Jewish preschool at her local Reform congregation and was told that if a child is being raised with any parts of another religion, then the school wasn’t for them. The question is not as clear-cut as it seems. I wonder how many interfaith families can say that they are raising their child solely with Judaism, to the exclusion of learning about and participating at times in Christian holidays or church services on occasion.
Yet many of these families want Judaism to play a meaningful role in their lives and want their children to learn about Judaism, experience Judaism, identify with Judaism and engage in Jewish communal experiences. These families would not say that they are raising their children in both religions. They want to raise children with Judaism primarily. But family dynamics are complex. Having family of a different religion can blur lines. Holidays and culture, childhood memories of songs or favorite Bible stories may get passed on by a parent who isn’t Jewish. This same parent may be making challah on Shabbat, lighting candle, and hoping to take their child to Jewish religious school and synagogue services.
If we turn away families who want Judaism in authentic ways because the child may be exposed to Christianity, we are going to lose an enormous amount of families. Why not get these families in our doors, welcome them with sensitivity and inclusivity, with adult education, and joy-filled communal activities and allow their children to soak in this important part of their heritage? What are we afraid of? That these families will water down Judaism for everyone else? That children will talk about Santa? Many children of all religions in America talk about Santa because Dora’s Christmas Adventure is on morning cartoons. Are we afraid that families who are honest about their religious questions and struggles will give others an opening to raise their own concerns? Are we afraid that children who grow up with knowledge about and memories of Christianity will not continue Judaism? We can be sure of this if we deprive them of Jewish education and community.
We’ve just reported on the first full year of the InterfaithFamily/Chicago two-year pilot of our InterfaithFamily/Your Community initiative. You can find the full report here. We are on to something big that can transform the Jewish community’s response to intermarriage in a very significant and positive way.
Four years ago a group of leading national family foundations studied the field of engaging interfaith families Jewishly and concluded that three elements were needed: a world class website, inclusivity training of Jewish professionals and lay leaders, and comprehensive programs in local communities. A Task Force of the UJA-Federation of New York reached the same conclusion in 2011. We developed the InterfaithFamily/Your Community initiative to provide these “missing links” and in particular to coordinate and provide a comprehensive set of interfaith engagement programs in local communities.
The theory behind our model is that a comprehensive local community approach to engaging people in interfaith relationships Jewishly must address five important needs:
Awareness and Connection. People in interfaith relationships need to be made aware of the resources in their local Jewish community – organizations, professionals and programs – that are interested in welcoming them, and they need easy avenues to connect to those resources and to others couples like them in their community.
Warm Welcomes from Jewish Organizations and Leaders. When interfaith couples and families do connect with Jewish community resources, they need to find a genuinely warm welcome.
Officiation as an Entryway. Interfaith couples should find it easy to find clergy to officiate at their weddings and other life cycle events, and officiating clergy should stay connected with their couples and help them connect to Jewish life and community.
Help for New Couples Making Decisions about Religion. Newwly married or seriously dating interfaith couples need help learning how to talk with each other and make decisions about how to have religious traditions in their lives together.
Help Learning How and Why To Live Jewishly. Interfaith couples and families need help learning how they can live Jewishly – and how doing so can add value and meaning to their lives.
With generous funding from the Crown Family Philanthropies, the Marcus Foundation, the Jack and Goldie Wolfe Miller Fund, and a private gift, we launched the first two-year pilot of our initiative, InterfaithFamily/Chicago, in July 2011. The results of our first full year are very positive:
Awareness and Connection. Rabbi Ari Moffic, Director of IFF/Chicago, introduced the project this year in meetings with more than 60 local organizations and professionals, led or participated in 9 adult education classes and other programs, and blogged and tweeted frequently. As a result the IFF website had 36,559 visits from the Chicago area, the new Chicagoland Community Page had 3,200 visits, we added 15 more local clergy to our officiation referral list for a total of 31, and we added to our Network 46 more organizations for a total of 72, 56 more professionals for a total of 70, and 154 more non-professional individuals for a total of 241. IFF/Chicago was featured in a story in the hanukkah-1221-20111221_1_interfaith-couples-interfaithfamily-com-jewish-life">Chicago Tribune, in a local community paper, and in the JUF News.
Warm Welcomes from Jewish Organizations and Leaders. IFF/Chicago conducted 7 inclusivity and sensitivity trainings for 80 participants, including for religious school teachers at three synagogues, for preschool teachers at two synagogues, a workshop for rabbis to discuss wedding officiation, and a two-day training with three sessions at the Community Foundation for Jewish Education’s Principals’ Kallah for Reform and Conservative synagogue religious school educators. We already have 3 trainings lined up for the second year. One rabbi said, “I will say that… the presence of an organization with this approach in the city has really affected the way I talk and write about interfaith Jews in our community and beyond.”
Officiation as an Entryway. The IFF Jewish Clergy Officiation Referral Service responded to 103 requests for officiation, and Rabbi Moffic had 24 follow-up conversations and 5 in-person meetings, all aimed at connecting couples beyond their wedding ceremony to synagogues and other community resources. We created two resources, available to members of our Resource Center for Jewish Clergy, for clergy to use to stay in touch with their couples.
Help for New Couples Making Decisions about Religion. IFF/Chicago offered a hybrid online/in-person four-session workshop, Love and Religion created by Marion Usher, Ph.D., in February with four couples participating and again in May with eight couples. The in-person sessions facilitate community building, while online sessions make it easier for busy young adults to participate without going out every week. In post-workshop surveys most participants said that they felt empowered to talk about interfaith issues with their partners, and that they gained an understanding of how Judaism can fit into their interfaith relationships. Three workshop offerings have been scheduled for the second year.
Help Learning How and Why To Live Jewishly. We developed and offered our first hybrid online/in-person class, Raising a Child with Judaism in Your Interfaith Family, to 21 couples. It includes eight sessions learned online with background reading, audio and video files, and personal journal entries and discussion board posts commented on by the facilitator, and two in-person meetings, a Shabbat experience and a wrap-up session. Each session is designed to teach a Jewish practice that responds to a universal parenting need and value (having a calm and reflective bedtime, appreciation for food and concern for hunger, making a regular time to be grateful, ethical behavior, etc.). Almost all respondents to the post-class surveys said that they felt more knowledgeable about Judaism and Jewish practice and gained more of an understanding of how Judaism can fit into their interfaith family; 10 respondents said their practices had changes as a result of the class to include saying the bedtime Shema, the Hamotzi, and/or Shabbat blessings. In the second year we will have two offerings of Raising a Child and two of our next class, Preparing for a Bar or
JESNA is our evaluation consultant and will be administering surveys, conducting follow-up interviews, and issuing a report in 2013. But we are already confident that our model is meeting its important goals. More resources are being listed and attracting more traffic. Professionals are more aware of and sensitive to the needs of interfaith families. Couples are finding clergy to officiate at their life-cycle events and through our workshop are learning how to talk with each other and make decisions about religious traditions for their family. Parents with young children are learning about Judaism and Jewish practices and trying them out.
Every Jewish community should have on-the-ground staff whose job is 100% aimed at addressing these needs of interfaith families in order to engage them Jewishly. The IFF/Your Community model is the first framework that has ever demonstrated the ability to effectively work toward that result, and it can and will be enhanced and expanded as we continue to learn from our experience in Chicago and new communities as we add them. We are close to having the funding necessary to implement IFF/San Francisco and IFF/Philadelphia later in 2012, we have an ambitious plan to be in eleven communities in five years, and we have just launched a job search for a national Director of IFF/Your Community to manage this growth.
We think this is “big” and we hope many Jewish leaders will agree.
I read a post on the Reform Judaism blog with great interest, as, based on the title alone, Youth Engagement is Not The Curriculum – It’s THE Curriculum clearly jibes with my beliefs. The authors offer 12 tips to keeping youth engaged in/with Judaism through the end of high school. As too many youth end their education with their bar/
Treat teens as young adult learners. If you are successful, they will learn the other topics that you think are important later in life; for now, try to ask (and answer) the question, “What do the kids want to learn?” Ours, for example, are interested in Jewish/Christian/Muslim issues and our popular yearly program titled “Choosing a College Jewishly.”
Basic Jewish literacy is not only the key to the Jewish community’s survival, but it fills one’s life with meaning, awe, purpose, joy, connectedness and so much more. Teens may take a Jewish studies class in college, but if synagogues have not prepared our most involved students to live Jewishly we have failed. Our students must be able to confidently walk into their colleges’ Hillel, participate in and even lead tefillah (prayers), and talk with facts and context about liberal Judaism. A basic knowledge of both conversational and liturgical Hebrew is essential.
I meet with many late 20-somethings who are getting married. Over and over I have seen the partner who is not Jewish asking their love what Judaism believes about life after death and the meaning of suffering, how we bring the messiah, what they believe about God, what meaning they find in the prayer book and the stories of the holidays, what the Jewish perspective is on Bible stories, and the Jewish partner is clueless. They immediately explain it away by identifying as a cultural Jew or by saying they’re more spiritual than religious. It is the partner who isn’t Jewish and remains curious that often pushes the Jew to learn about their own religion, traditions and faith; inevitably the Jewish partner talks about how they learned nothing in religious school or remembers nothing.
Our teens learn other languages, read great literature in high school, know about art, have opinions about current events, and yet are not exposed to the depth and complexity of their own religion. Why? We think learning about Judaism will be boring, will feel irrelevant!
It is wonderful if our teens go to Israel, enjoy Jewish summer camp and take part in social justice work. But if our teens are functionally illiterate about Judaism, none if it will have any deeper meaning or enduring value.
I recently spent an hour with college juniors, talking about how the Jewish community can respond to interfaith couples and families. There was resistance when I suggested that synagogue websites translate all Hebrew/Yiddish terms and any insider language so that anybody new to Judaism – a new member of a Jewish family or anyone Jewish who lacks this knowledge – can fully access the content, and its meaning, on the website. I have encountered similar resistance when suggesting religious school or preschool teachers take on this same practice when sending emails home or having students work on projects.
For instance, if a class makes a “hamotzi placemat” (a placemat that includes the blessing over bread), the prayer could be pasted to their placemat in Hebrew, English and transliteration so that any parent can use it with the child. I have wondered why there would be resistance to this simple idea for sensitivity and inclusion. The comments I have heard in opposition to this are that parents will think that nobody knows anything Jewish in this synagogue or that the message gets watered down or dumbed down if no Hebrew can be assumed to be known. Others have said that it is so easy in the age of Google to look something up that if there was real interest in learning the Hebrew or the term it could be easily ascertained. If we make things too easy for folks, they will not take the initiative to learn it themselves, which is empowering.
I have been caught off guard by these statements. I hadn’t thought there could possibly be resistance to making Judaism as accessible and meaningful as possible.
As I have tried to unpack this dilemma, here is the insight I have come up with: I think the idea that people who aren’t Jewish will require the Jewish community (members of a synagogue, religious school or preschool teachers, or Jewish family members) to offer translations and explanations, could, potentially point out the community’s own inadequacies or illiteracy with Hebrew and Jewish terminology and this feels threatening or unsettling.
I wonder how many of us could translate the name of our congregation into English or the names of most major holidays into English? This is in no way a critique of anybody with a lack of knowledge. Hebrew, even when translated directly into English, sometimes needs extra explanation and context. (“sukkot">Festival of Booths” comes to mind.)
Sometimes people who grew up Jewish just know or “get” something cultural while not being able to articulate it easily. Some Jewish people may want to remain in a tight-knit community in which there is a sacred language (even when not exactly understood, the individual still finds meaning). Being insular in some ways, set-apart and even having insider language feels authentic and means continuity for some. One would think that meaning leads to continuity but maybe Hebrew leads to continuity through connectedness to the past and particularism. Maybe one doesn’t have to understand everything to have meaning. And my asking people to translate everything demystifies it in some ways and makes the message too secular and mundane.
This has been an interesting conundrum for me to think about. I look forward to hearing your insights!
My 5-year-old daughter just started violin lessons. Her lessons use the Suzuki method; parents come to lessons and learn along with the child so that when then child practices at home, the parent can help. Parents are expected to take notes during lessons and often video pieces of the lesson to watch with their child at home for reinforcement. I have not only thoroughly enjoyed the uninterrupted time with my daughter, but I have loved the pursuit of gaining these skills with her – new skills with which neither of us has any familiarity. Hannah teaches me and reminds me just as much as I help her. When we practice at home, we laugh a lot, we concentrate a lot, we learn together and get better together.
It recently occurred to me that this concept of Teacher, Parent-Learner-Teacher and Child-Learner-Teacher could be a great model to bring into the religious school classroom. Family education has become normative and popular in most synagogue congregations. Parents spend time in the classroom and engage in projects with the child. But what if family education meant that the parent and child were as engaged and highly focused on mastering the skills, on learning the techniques, on understanding the rhythm as they are in these violin lessons? What if parents prized the possibility of their child learning how to do Jewishly: how to perform rituals and traditions, how to read and speak Hebrew, how to study Torah and how to live based on mitzvot (commandments)? What if parents took notes in the religious school classroom, and all were silent, mouths gaped open in awe, as the teacher hummed a niggun (wordless melody), offered an appropriate blessing or translated a portion of Torah? What if the teacher gave homework that the parent and child had to do together and gave stickers when the parent-child team brought back their weekly homework chart filled in?
In some ways, many families have outsourced their child’s Jewish education to the synagogue school. Just as there is no way violin or a foreign language can really be learned unless it is practiced at home, there is no way Judaism can be learned unless it is practiced at home. I think that for interfaith families in particular, in which one parent did not grow up with Jewish knowledge and traditions, it would be even more powerful to gain these insights with their child. And, for a parent who grew up Jewish and has a deep level of knowledge, they can learn from the teacher how to teach and transmit that knowledge to their child. There is a parent in our Suzuki class who teaches flute. She knows music. She doesn’t know the violin. She is learning with all the other parents who don’t have her musical background. For a parent who grew up Jewish and needs a refresher, what better way than with your child?
I am looking forward to hearing your thoughts about how this could translate to the religious school classroom. Could you imagine making the commitment to learn with your child each week and then practicing at home? If you believe Judaism provides the framework for structuring a life of meaning, joy, order and purpose, it would seem to be worth the time and effort!