Share the Gift of Giving

Jewish American families have a pretty fantastic start for festivities this year since Hanukkah starts so early in the season—and in case you missed it—Hanukkah begins Thanksgiving style. It is a fascinating calendar correlation, and as cute as Thanksgivukkah is, Thanksgiving ends in a day, and Hanukkah still goes on for a full eight days that the oil lasted instead of the expected single day.

The candles will still burn long after the turkey leftovers disappear, and the celebration will continue.

Fried foods, dreidel spinning and songs are wonderful, but next to lighting the candles and saying the blessings, the only other obligation is to “publicize the miracle.” The miracle gets stronger every day and it is never too late to give thanks for the miracles and wonder all around us. How glorious to live in a country where we can celebrate our religious freedom. How fortunate to live in a time that is embracing interfaith relationships more and more every day.

Whether it is for Hanukkah or for Christmas, consider making at least one night extra special this month by creating a miracle for those less fortunate.

DonateActs of loving kindness and charity are timeless.

It is Jewish obligation to give consistently to others less fortunate throughout one’s life. We call this tradition tzedakah. It’s pretty well understood as charity, but technically it means “righteous giving.” We give because God has blessed us and it is the right thing to do—to share the blessings with others. I love this part of Jewish tradition. Jews have been giving tzedakah for thousands of years. The ideal is to give 10 percent of your income to charity but do not get hung up on that, the most important thing is that everybody give something.

I encourage parents and grandparents and friends and family all around to support empowering tzedakah choices. There are around 1.5 million non-profits to choose from online (!) which can be pretty overwhelming, but here are some superb tzedakah choices for the holidays:

1. Go shopping as a family to a toy store and pick out a toy to donate to children less fortunate. Project Dreidel at CJP for Jewish Big Brothers and Sisters will deliver gift baskets to local kids in need.

2. You can look no further than the site you’re already on! Giving to InterfaithFamily is not only a wonderful and easy gift, but it helps us to continue creating resources and programs to support you. Donate here and we’ll send a Hanukkah e-card to your friend or family member.

3. Buy charity gift cards from JChoice.org. Rather than limit the experience to one charity that the recipient might not connect to, you can send your honoree a charity gift card (electronically by email, which is instant or by mail) that empowers the next generation to choose from 250 causes that are meaningful to the giver.

Want more choices? Check out these great blogs for more great tzedakah suggestions:

Stefanie Zelkind’s blog for giving rituals on Thanksgivukkah and Kathy Bloomfield’s blog about family giving and generosity during the holidays.

Expanding the awareness of what it means to give from a Jewish perspective is just one click away. Giving is the greatest activity known to the world.

Have very happy holidays filled with joy and giving and a festival of light in your lives and the ones that you shine to.

Creating Thanksgivukkah Memories with Beyond Bubbie

This is a guest post by Dina Mann

Turkey brined in Manischewitz. Check.
Sweet potato latkes. Check.
Cranberry dreidel mold. Check.
Pumpkin Donuts. Check.
Thanksgivukkabob. Check.

Thanksgivukkah has been the butt and the pride of the media in the past few weeks. From Conan O’Brien’s Dreidel Turkey to the worst Thanksgivukkah foods on Bon Appetit to Stephen Colbert’s denouncement of a two holiday solution. There was even a show that combined Chanukah and Halloween in a spoof worthy of a good chuckle.

Thanksgivukkah has highlighted the endless possibilities in combining two holidays that give a great amount of civic pride to Jews in America. But now that the table is set with the dynamic duo’s crimson and blue settings, how will your family do something a little different to not only capture the wonderful foods but also the spirit of both holidays?

I propose bringing Bubbie into the conversation. Beyond Bubbie, that is.

Beyond Bubbie is a website that shares photos, recipes and stories from the people who made us who we are. Every Bubbie has a recipe and every recipe tells a story. Thanksgivukkah is the perfect time to share those stories and recipes at your table. Better yet, why not cook and bake the classic treats.

At a time in life when it is so hard for extended families to get together, make this Thanksgivukkah meaningful. Instead of simply going around the table asking, “What are you grateful for this year?” ask everyone what their favorite food memory is from your family. Pre-Thanksgivukkah, ask loved ones to share their recipes on Beyond Bubbie, tag your family name and have a place where your whole family can log-on for that cranberry brisket recipe or that Hanukkah lasagna.

Knish off

At the Beyond Bubbie Knish-Off in San Francisco

Looking for an activity for kids while the turkey is being basted? Grab Bubby Ruth’s Sugar Cookies and have a bake-off. Pre-bake the cookies. Display an array of various frostings and sprinkles and have kids go to town creating dynamic cookies and memories. Have the elders in your family judge the competition.

Not into football? Ask everyone to bring an old family photo and set up a quasi-gallery in your living room. Give grandchildren the opportunity to digitize these memories by taking photos with your smart phone. Photos and stories can then be shared on Beyond Bubbie.

There is no time like the present to give the present of culinary memories. Making the foods that warm your stomach is one thing, but making food that pulls at your heart strings elevates this once in a universe occasion to a whole new level.

Dina Mann is the National Marketing and Outreach Coordinator for Reboot. Please email Dina@Rebooters.net with any questions about Beyond Bubbie and ways to bring it to your community.

A Mantra For Holiday Stress (and other challenging circumstances)

CookiesI know we are supposed to be in a time of joy and merriment but if you’re feeling like I am, everything is overwhelming right now. Preparing for the holidays can be busy! Are you shopping, cooking, traveling, negotiating, planning, decorating, compromising, missing and wishing?

Are you feeling well or exhausted?

Are you busy squeezing everything in and rushing?

Are you worried about money this time of year?

Are you worried about pleasing everyone?

Did you just have school conferences and new worries have cropped up?

Hopefully the joy of family and friends being together and the excitement and magic that seems to be in the air is filling your heart. Maybe volunteering and giving back is a fulfilling experience that you look forward to each Thanksgiving or on Christmas or as part of Hanukkah?

If you are feeling stressed, Judaism can offer some solace. I use a mantra that I return to over and over when my heart is beating fast, the emails and voicemails are unanswered, when there is too much to do and not enough time and when everyone needs me at once.

The mantra is from the Torah. The line is: Ozi v’zimrat Ya, vayihi li, yishuah. (My strength and the song of God will be my salvation.) This is a line from Exodus 15:2 and Psalm 118:14. To me it means that our inner strength coupled with the poetic, the Mysterious, and the beauty around us will lift us above the mundane and ground us with stability.

Hear a sung version of this line here. 

Repeating the same line over and over can calm us, bring a smile to our face, and remind us what is important.

I wish you all a happy and healthy holiday season. May your strength and the song of God be a saving grace to you.

Does Hanukkah Need an Elf on the Shelf?

Elf on the shelfGrowing up I was one of the few Jewish students in my school. I enjoyed going to holiday parties at my friend’s house, helping them decorate their trees, wearing a red and white Santa hat while passing out gifts, etc. I knew I was helping them celebrate their holiday while at home we celebrated Hanukkah, with our own traditions.

To be honest, I had never heard of the Elf on the Shelf until last year when friends posted daily pictures of their elf, Elliot, and his antics around the house. Somehow I hadn’t even noticed the elf kits at the stores until December 2012. Where had I been? My friends were so creative; I made it a point to go on Facebook each night to see what their elf was up to! In the past 30+ years, I don’t think I’ve ever been jealous of a Christmas tradition, until then.

I was a little jealous. I wanted an Elf on the Shelf! I didn’t even have children, but the idea of having fun creating poses and scenes for the elf each night was intriguing! Today I continue to celebrate Hanukkah, not Christmas, and I don’t know how I would introduce an Elf into our Hanukkah traditions.

Mensch on a BenchEnter Moshe, the Mensch on a Bench! Last spring I found a post on Kickstarter that Neal Hoffman, a former Hasbro Toys employee was trying to launch his Mensch on a Bench concept. I wasn’t sure what to make of it at the time. Remembering my own elf envy, part of me loved having a Jewish response. However, part of me likes keeping “religious” traditions separate. I wondered to myself, is this good for the Jews?

The Mensch on a Bench website offers a glimpse into Moshe’s story. Like the Elf on a Shelf (and the Maccabee on the Mantel, another Jewish response which we also recently blogged about), the Mensch on a Bench comes with his own story book. On page four he introduces himself to Judah Maccabee and offers to watch over the menorah to make sure it doesn’t go out while everyone else gets some sleep. I wondered, why is Moshe dressed as a modern religious Jew (with suit, tallit and large-brimmed hat) while Judah and the Maccabees are wearing more traditional clothing for the year in which the scene took place, 165 bce? Shouldn’t Moshe, the Mensch, be wearing clothing like his Maccabean contemporaries?

I also wonder if Hanukkah is the appropriate holiday for a Mensch on a Bench. According to the Jewish Virtual Library website, “Chanukah is probably one of the best known Jewish holidays, not because of any great religious significance, but because of its proximity to Christmas. Many non-Jews (and even many assimilated Jews!) think of this holiday as the Jewish Christmas, adopting many of the Christmas customs, such as elaborate gift-giving and decoration. It is bitterly ironic that this holiday, which has its roots in a revolution against assimilation and suppression of Jewish religion, has become the most assimilated, secular holiday on our calendar.”

Mensch on Bench Toy

As the most assimilated Jewish holiday, a Mensch on a Bench makes perfect sense. But I think I’m more of a Maccabee, and I want to rebel against assimilation. Perhaps Passover is a more appropriate holiday. Although Passover is not a gift-giving holiday, I could see a Mensch on a Bench watching over the cleaning of the house for Passover, or during the week of Passover, keeping an eye on the children to see if they eat matzah or bread. I could have fun with that, I think. Further, rule #2 for bringing a Mensch into your home is to add more “Funukkah into Hanukkah.” Hanukkah is already a fun holiday! What holiday needs fun more than when we’re eating matzah that tastes like cardboard and remembering that we were slaves in Egypt?

All this being said, my favorite is rule #7, “One night of Hanukkah don’t open presents yourself, instead buy presents and give them to people in need. Remember that a true Mensch is one who puts smiles on other people’s faces.” What a great rule—for any time of year!

The Mensch on a Bench seems to mimic the Elf on a Shelf and its whimsical fantasy; whereas the creators of the Maccabee on the Mantel state: “Toy Vey’s ambition, and expectation, is that together families will create a joyous custom that ignites a child’s excitement about their heritage as well as their desire to learn more about who they are and where they come from. This little Maccabee represents a safe and soothing place for all children; he is a friend, a protector, a symbol of their lineage and a smiling nod towards their future. ” I appreciate their desire to hold true to the story of Hanukkah, while infusing new traditions. It feels more natural, to me, than introducing an elf replacement.

Our Hanukkah Booklet sums up my thoughts, “New customs evolve with each new generation. Repeat the traditions that appeal to you and add your own new variations on the themes of Hanukkah: bringing light into dark places and renewing your dedication to teaching and living meaningfully.”

As I’m expecting my first child (due in early December, right after Hanukkah), and since the Mensch on the Bench has already sold out for 2013, I can’t introduce Moshe this year. I wonder if we will one day have a Moshe, a Maccabee, or neither in my house. I’m confident my family traditions will evolve over time and with the addition of children.

What will you do? Will you have a Maccabee on your mantle, will you pre-order the Mensch on a Bench for 2014 or do you think we should stop trying to make Hanukkah more like Christmas?

Thanksgivukkah Quiz

I’ll admit it. I’m obsessed with Thaksgivukkah—the once-in-a-lifetime event occurring on November 28, 2013 when Thanksgiving will coincide with the first day of Hanukkah. The two holidays seem destined to go together: Both celebrate religious freedom and both involve family gatherings and special holiday foods. And, being a holiday that falls in 2013, there’s the modern twist to this unique day:  It has its own Facebook pages (two of them), Twitter account, e-cards, songs (check out YouTube), t-shirts, mugs, menorah, recipes and more. By the time Thanksgivukkah has come and gone we will probably all be glad that it only happens once in a lifetime!

But in the meantime, with a few more weeks left until the holiday, I wanted to make my own contribution by sharing a Thanksgivukkah Quiz with eight questions, representing the eight days of Hanukkah. Find out if you’re a Thanksgivukkah expert. Answers are below.

1. On July 26, 2013, Dana Gitell, a marketing specialist from Massachusetts, received a U.S. trademark for the name of the holiday. For which spelling did she receive the trademark?

a. Thanksgivukkah
b. Thanksgivukah
c. Thanksgivakah
d. Thanksgivakkah

2. What is the official name of this turkey-shaped Hanukkiyah being sold online as well as at Jewish museums?

a. Turkiyah
b. Turkorah
c. Turkey Menorah
d. Menurkey

 

 

3. How old is Asher Weintraub, the Brooklyn boy who trademarked this Hanukkiyah?

a. 9
b. 12
c. 13
d. 15

4. Which one the following is NOT one of the four versions of Thanksgivukkah doughnuts being sold at Zucker Bakery in Manhattan:

a. spiced pumpkin doughnuts with jelly filling
b. spiced pumpkin doughnuts with turkey and gravy filling
c. spiced pumpkin doughnuts with turkey and cranberry filling
d. spiced pumpkin doughnuts with cranberry sauce filling

5. When is the next time that the first day of Hanukkah will coincide with Thanksgiving?

a. 2022
b. 2070
c. 2146
d. 79,811

6. Approximately how much money has Manischewitz, a leading producer of kosher products, spent marketing products for Thanksgivukkah?

a. $1,000,000
b. $2,500,000
c. $4,000,000
d. $5,500,000

7. When was the last time the first day of Hanukkah coincided with Thanksgiving?

a. 2000
b. 1972
c. 1888
d. 1843

8.  The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City is 87-years-old. Besides regular helium/air balloons, the Macy’s Day Parade now also has Baloonicles (self-powered balloon vehicles). Which of the following is NOT going to be one of this year’s Baloonicles?

a. Spinning Dreidel
b. Kool Aid Man
c. The Aflac Duck
d. Kermit the Frog

ANSWERS:

  1. (a) Gittel got a trademark for “Thanksgivukkah.”
  2. (d) Check out the official website for the Menurkey at menurkey.com. Not surprisingly, the Menurkey also has its own Facebook page, and a song, “Hanukkah, O Hanukkah (Introducing the Menurkey!)” by The Dirty Sock Funtime Band.
  3. (a) 9-year-old Asher is in fourth grade.
  4. (a) You can buy all of the other kinds of doughnuts at Zucker Bakery, along with sweet potato doughnuts with toasted marshmallow cream filling, for $3.50-$5.
  5. (d) Although the first night of Hanukkah will occur on Thanksgiving day in 2070 (Thursday, November 27, 2070), the first day of Hanukkah (which, like all Jewish days, begins at sunset the night before) will not occur on Thanksgiving day until 79,811.
  6. (b) In addition to spending approximately $2,500,000 on marketing for Thanksgivukkah, Manischewitz has added turkey broth to its line of broths this year.
  7. (c) 1888. This happens, coincidentally, to also be the year that Manischewitz was founded.
  8. (d) For the first time ever, Macy’s will have a Hanukkah float: a 3-story Spinning Dreidel Balloonicle. No pictures of the dreidel have been made available, so you’ll have to watch the parade on Thanksgiving morning to see it. Sorry, there won’t be a Kermit Balloonicle!

HOW DID YOU DO?

  • 1-3 correct answers: Thanksgivukkah Novice. Google “Thanksgivukkah” and start reading up before November 28th!
  • 4-6 correct answers: Average Knowledge of Thanksgivukkah. There’s still time to learn more and to start making your sweet potato latkes.
  • 7-8 correct answers: Thanksgivukkah Expert. Gobble Tov! Go treat yourself to a spiced pumpkin doughnut with turkey and gravy filling and get out your menurkey.

Happy Thanksgivukkah to all!

Thanksgivukkah Roundup

ThanksgivukkahBoston

ThanksgivukkahBoston.com's holiday logo

If you haven’t heard about Thanksgivukkah yet, it’s time to crawl out from under that rock. I’ll help by filling you in on everything you missed. This is a roundup of recent news as well as holiday ideas and resources for celebrating Thanksgivukkah, the Thanksgiving/Hanukkah mega-holiday that you won’t live to see again. Now get cooking!

Thanksgivukkah is Coming –an interfaith family guide, from InterfaithFamily

ThanksgivukkahBoston.com –the Thanksgivukkah micro site from JewishBoston.com, with contributions from InterfaithFamily

Thanksgivukkah –the official Facebook page

Thanksgivukkah –the official Twitter account

How To Celebrate Thanksgivukkah, The Best Holiday Of All Time -Buzzfeed

Convergence of Hanukkah, Thanksgiving unleashes creativity –The Boston Globe

6 Crazy Things for Thanksgivukkah –The Forward

Everything You Need to Know About Thanksgivukkah –TIME

Celebrating Thanksgivukkah, a Once-in-a-Lifetime Holiday –Reform Judaism

Thanksgivukkah Food Face-off –The Forward

Why I Will Not Be Celebrating ‘Thanksgivukkah’ –Huffington Post

Thanksgivukkah: A Once-in-a-Lifetime Holiday –The URJ’s Pinterest page

A Thanksgivukkah Manifesto –Huffington Post

Carve the Turkey and Pass the Latkes, as Holidays Converge –The New York Times

Eight Giving Rituals for Your Family: Making the Most of Thanksgivukkah –eJewishPhilanthropy

Hanukkah Gift Guide: Thanksgivukkah Goodies –Kveller

Let’s Celebrate the Convergence of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah –The Forward

Thanksgivukkah 101 –Chicago Tribune

There’s lots more out there about Thanksgivukkah. Share what you’ve found below!

How will You Celebrate Simchat Torah?

The following is a guest blog post by Dina Mann, National Marketing and Outreach Coordinator for Reboot, an organization that engages and inspires young, Jewishly-unconnected cultural creatives, innovators and thought-leaders who, through their candid and introspective conversations and creativity, generate projects that impact both the Jewish and non-Jewish worlds.

UnscrolledTraditionally, this is a day of celebration. Dancing, music and even some drinking is quite common. The question is: What’s everyone so happy about? Or a better question: How can we bring the spirit of creativity, excitement and joy from Simchat Torah and spread it throughout the year?

Enter Unscrolled. It’s a reinterpretation, a reimagining, a creative celebration: 54 leading Jewish writers, artists, photographers and screenwriters, plus actors, an architect, a musician and others grapple with the Torah, giving new meaning to the 54 Torah portions.

What is Unscrolled? First and foremost, it is a book that sums up the weekly Torah portion and then goes even further by creating interpretations that no medieval rabbi would think possible. More than a book, Unscrolled is a project that seeks to create a conversation around the Torah. With Unscrolled, we hope to give people who have never read the Torah, people who read the Hebrew Torah portions every week and people who think it’s a whole lot of brisket an opportunity to engage with the text in a fun, entertaining and offbeat way.

 

Want to get in on the action?

  • Visit Unscrolled.org to see sample pages, sign up for emails with parasha prompts and upcoming Unscrolled events.
  • Follow UNSCROLLED on Facebook and Twitter. Join the conversation and share your interpretations.
  • Keep it Simple. Sum up the weekly Torah portion in 140 character or less. Share on Twitter with #Torahin140
  • Go Deep. Respond to weekly prompts that will have you bringing the Torah into the 21st century.
  • Create an event for your community and sign up to receive a DIY kit.
  • Get tickets for launch events in San Francisco (Oct 2) and Los Angeles (Oct 28).
  • Order UNSCROLLED and start looking at the Bible a little differently.

 

B’reishit (“In the beginning…”) is the first portion. Take some time to:

  • Keep it Simple. Sum up the portion in 140 characters or less.
  • Go Deep. Write about a time you went somewhere that was off limits.

 

Bring your diverse voice to the conversation and get Unscrolled.

The Choosing People

On Yom Kippur this year, I had the pleasure of listening to a personal, heartfelt and inspiring sermon by Rabbi Rachel Saphire of Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, MA. The sermon got my family thinking and talking and I thought you might enjoy it too. Rabbi Saphire has been kind enough to allow us to share this excerpt of her sermon, which is approximately the first half. Enjoy.

Whether you see it or not, you’ve made a choice to be here today.  You may be thinking, “I don’t have a choice whether or not to observe Yom Kippur.  It’s just what I do.  It’s what I’ve always done.”  You may observe in order to support your loved one or your family.  Maybe you’re a teenager or child and your parents have simply told you, “You’re coming.”  Either way: you’re here and that’s a big deal.  And even if you may not realize you have, you’ve made that choice and THAT is a big deal, too.

Our Torah portion for Yom Kippur comes from Parashat Nitzavim from the Book of Deuteronomy.  In just a few verses, God puts a big choice before us.

“You stand this day, all of you, before God —[leaders], elders, all the men, women and children of Israel, and even the non-Israelite living among you… to enter into the covenant of the Lord your God…

Surely, this Instruction that I command you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach.  [This Instruction] is not … beyond the sea – that you should say, ‘Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ No, the Intruction is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.

See, I set before you this day life and prosperity, death and adversity… Choose life — that you and your offspring will live”

I find this text to be symbolic.  It is not only about choosing life in the physical sense (preserving our health), but I actually think it’s about choosing TO LIVE JEWISHLY in a meaningful wayFor, the commandment to choose life is given as an instruction to connect to that which is sacred.   Perhaps what’s most important is the fact that this strong charge does not explicitly say HOW we should choose to live Jewishly in a meaningful way.  The text only states that this choice is not far out of reach “it is very close to you – in your mouth and in your heart.”  What I think this really means is that the choice is within each and every one of us.  It is upon us to choose for ourselves, from within our own being, how it is that we want to express our Jewish identity or connect to the Jewish community.  And if that is the case, the pathway to choosing Jewish life may be different for each one of us!  The point is that we each actively have to make the choice.  Making this choice is a big deal.

The Torah portion also mentions that all of us stand before God on this day – every single one of us, no matter who we are – men, women, and children.  The text also mentions that even the ger, the one who is not from the Israelite community and is not Jewish stands among us.  Today, a ger tzedek, also refers to one who makes the choice to convert or join the Jewish community. We affirmatively call him/her a “Jew by Choice.”  I think the Torah is teaching us that WE SHOULD ALL BE JEWS BY CHOICE!  What would it look like if each and every one of us consciously took hold of our choice to be Jewish?

I’ve thought about this question from a very young age.  I grew up in an interfaith family.  My mom is Jewish and my dad was raised as a Christian.  My parents made the decision to raise my twin brother and me as Jews.  My mother also wanted my father to feel comfortable observing his own customs.  What did that mean?   Culturally, we celebrated Christmas at home.  I have fond memories of decorating the tree, hanging holiday lights, putting up a stocking, listening to and singing carols, laying out cookies for Santa Claus, sitting down for a Christmas Eve dinner, and waking up to open presents.

I also remember my mother sharing her strong Jewish identity with us and teaching us to take pride in being Jewish.  We celebrated Passover and Chanukah at home with active rituals.  A few times a year, we lit the Shabbat candles.  In my hometown, being Jewish was also ‘something different.’  My brother and I were the only Jewish kids in our grade and my mom was our school’s “Jewish mom.”  She would go from room to room to teach about Chanukah and sometimes she even invited the class to our house.

All of these practices brought me joy.  I knew that I was Jewish, but I also knew my father and his family members were not.  I also liked to fit in among my classmates.  And so, I matter-of-factly and quite simply called myself and considered myself to be “half-Jewish.”

Then, something began to change my perspective midway through elementary school.  A new kid came to town.  He was in the same grade as me, his grandparents lived up the street, and HE was JEWISH!  Besides my brother, I had made my first Jewish friend.  I began to learn about his family and their deeply-rooted Jewish practices.  With joy and excitement, their extended family gathered for holidays, including festivals I had never experienced.  Their traditions and rituals spanned generations.  They went to temple together.  Being Jewish even informed the way they ate and the things they talked about.  I was fascinated by this new-found meaning and beauty that I experienced by having a Jewish friend.

I began to explore my own identity.

“Who am I really and what is important to me?”

And then the deep Jewish questions came up, too.

“If my friend is Jewish and he goes to temple, then why don’t I?”

“Can I celebrate the ‘new’ Jewish holidays that his family celebrates?”

And then a bit later as I began to visit religious school and temple functions with my friend…

“Mom, can I attend religious school, too?”

“Can you help me learn Hebrew?”

“Can we go to services?”

“How about a field trip to the Jewish gift shop?”

And then things like…

“Mom, why do we have a Christmas tree if we’re Jewish?”

“Can we have a youth group just like the Christian kids do?”

“Can I skip my soccer game on Yom Kippur?”

“Can I become Bat Mitzvah even if I’m now 17?”

“Can I study with the rabbi more?”

And so I did – all of these things.  My brother and I formed a youth group at our temple.  And there we built our own sense of Jewish community.  And I became Bat Mitzvah on my 17th birthday – With a new year of life came a new understanding of the depth and richness of Torah.  And I decided that I would find my own sense of peace by attending Shabbat services every week if I could – that even meant skipping THE high school football game on Friday night.

These choices were my own, ones that I was proud to make and explore.  Some choices were different than the ones my brother made and many were different than the ones my school friends made.  But, they were mine -my own conscious and meaningful choices – ones that allowed me to explore my passions and the things that were important to ME.  These choices brought me joy, connection, a sense of purpose and even the feeling of being known and loved.  Even though I was born a Jew, it is for these reasons that I am a Jew by Choice.  And it is because of my Jewish journey that I want each of you to have the same opportunity to make your own conscious Jewish choices today, every day, in the year ahead.

Instead of thinking of ourselves as the CHOSEN people (people for whom our destiny is chosen and dictated), we could become the CHOOSING people.  We could choose to create a new Shabbat ritual for ourselves every week.  We could choose to read more Jewish texts or books or explore the world of Jewish music.  We could act in more concrete ways that heal our world.  Or we could visit those who are lonely and in need.  We could commit to teaching our children something of our own Jewish interest.  We could share our own family’s history.  We could question and explore our faith.  If we could choose to do any of these types of things (the choices are endless)…Then, we would not be passive inheritors of our tradition, but rather active participants, consciously acting upon our choice to live Jewishly. 

My Dream Guest List for Sukkot

I love the holiday of Sukkot! As a congregational rabbi, Sukkot—which comes just five days after Yom Kippur—offers me a welcome break after the pressure of High Holy Day sermons.  Plus, Sukkot is a lot of fun. I always have a great time putting up our Sukkah in our backyard in the days following Yom Kippur and then decorating it with my kids.

And I love inviting guests to our Sukkah—both real guests as well as ushpizin. Ushpizin (Aramaic for “guests”) are Biblical guests that are symbolically “invited” into a Sukkah, a different one each night of the festival. The traditional list of ushpizin includes Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron and David. (Other lists include the four matriarchs—Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah—and other Biblical heroines.) There is a ritual formula for “welcoming” the ushpizin and it is traditional to learn about and discuss the Biblical guest of the evening.

SukkahMany people expand on the custom of welcoming ushpizin and use Sukkot as a time to discuss who they would like to welcome as guests: people who have been part of their own lives or people they have never met, living or deceased.

This year as I prepare for Sukkot I have been thinking about who I would want to invite as ushpizin—that is, who I would want to invite for dinner in my Sukkah. As the Director of InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia, I have been thinking in particular about people in interfaith relationships and people with relatives in interfaith relationships (individuals from Biblical times as well as groups of people from modern times) that I would like to have as ushpizin. Here is my list:

1. Tziporah: Tziporah, who we read about in the Book of Exodus in the Bible, was a daughter of a Midianite priest. Tziporah married Moses and was the mother of his two sons. I would ask Tziporah what it was like, as a non-Israelite, being married to a man who went on to become the leader of the Israelites. When she first met Moses she thought he was Egyptian since he had come to Midian from Egypt, where he had been raised in the Pharaoh’s palace as the adopted son of Pharaoh’s daughter and from where he had fled when it was discovered that he had killed an Egyptian taskmaster. What did she think of this man, quite possibly the first person she had ever met who was not from her own people? Was she concerned when she married him that he was not a Midianite? What was it like in her day to be married to someone from a different culture and who worshipped a different god? Did they ever discuss their different backgrounds and beliefs?

2. Ruth: Ruth, whose story we read in the Biblical Book of Ruth, is often viewed as the first Jew-by-choice since she accepted the God of the Israelites as her God and the Israelite people as her people. In the Book of Ruth, Ruth said to her Israelite mother-in-law, Naomi: “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16)

I would ask Ruth why she, a Moabite woman, married an Israelite man in the first place. Then, after her husband (Naomi’s son) had died, why did she choose to leave her homeland of Moab to go to Israel with Naomi? What did it feel like for Ruth to leave behind everything that was familiar to her and did she miss her family when she left? What was it like to give up the beliefs and ways of her people? What was it about the people of Israel and the God of Israel that drew her to them? When she raised the twin sons that she had with Boaz (a relative of her deceased husband, as was instructed by the laws of levirate marriage), even though they were Israelite, did she teach them anything about Moabite culture or tell them about her Moabite family?

3. Parents who did not grow up Jewish who are actively involved in raising Jewish children (whether or not they have chosen to become Jewish themselves): I know many parents who grew up practicing other religions (some of whom still practice them, others who do not) who are raising their children as Jews. If I had such a group in my Sukkah, I would ask them to discuss the sacrifices they have made by committing to raise their children in a faith tradition different from the one in which they grew up. How did they come to the conclusion that they wanted to raise their children as Jews? What are the challenges they have faced, as well as the rewards? I would thank them for their commitment to the future of Judaism.

4. Jewish parents whose children are in interfaith relationships: I would like these Jewish parents to be able to have an honest conversation about how they feel about their children being seriously involved with someone who is not Jewish. Surely some would feel disappointed—perhaps even hurt or rejected—and their feelings should not be ignored. Hopefully, though, they would understand that it is their adult child’s choice who they are going to date and/or marry and they would respect their child’s decision. I would encourage all of them to accept their children’s partners and welcome them into their family.

5. Rabbis and cantors who officiate at interfaith wedding ceremonies: I would ask each clergy person to share his or her own reasons for officiating at interfaith weddings. There are many clergy, like myself, who did not officiate at interfaith weddings immediately following ordination, but rather began to do so after some time for a variety of reasons. (Read why I now officiate at interfaith weddings.) I think it would be fascinating to hear about my colleagues’ personal journeys and to hear from each of them the most rewarding, as well as the most challenging experiences they have had in working with interfaith couples.

6. Children growing up in interfaith households: I would love to invite a group of children of all different ages who are currently growing up in interfaith households. I would ask them what they find to be the most rewarding and what they find to be the most challenging about growing up as part of an interfaith family. In what ways, if any, do they find that having a parent who is not Jewish impacts their Jewish identity?

7. Dating, engaged and newly married interfaith couples: I would begin by asking them to share their experiences as interfaith couples. What are the rewards and what are the challenges? Have they discussed how they are going to raise children if they have them? How can they make Jewish choices while honoring the traditions of both partners? Can they discuss these issues with their parents?

Okay, I’ll admit it: While it is true that I would love to have a group of interfaith couples in my Sukkah, I’m also plugging InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia’s upcoming Love and Religion workshop that starts in October. If you and your partner or a couple you know may be interested in discussing questions such as these, then you should find out about Love and Religion here.

Chag Sameach (happy holiday)!  May this Sukkot be one in which we can all be welcoming and one in which we all feel welcomed!

What about you? Who are your dream ushpizin? If you could spend an evening with any person or group of people (real or fictional, living or deceased), who would you choose? What would you want to talk about?

Turn and Return on Simchat Torah

The “fall holidays”–Rosh Hashanah, followed ten days later by Yom Kippur and then just four days later by the week-long festival of Sukkot, which concludes with Simchat Torah at the end of this week–it feels like a marathon. In less than a month we’ve packed in quite a bit. Happy, sad, reflective, apologetic, celebratory, history-based and forward thinking. Of all the holidays at this time of year, Simchat Torah is one of my favorites. As a child we would dance with the Torah scrolls and then the rabbi would have all the adults make a LARGE circle as we unrolled an entire scroll around the room.

“Turn it and turn it for everything is in it.” Ben Bag Bag shares these words of wisdom about Torah. As a child I laughed at his name, but as an adult I appreciate the depth of this rather simple statement. Ben Bag Bag referred to the Torah, the ancient scroll on which the first five books of Moses and the beginning of the Jewish bible are written. Each year Jews around the world read a segment of these stories until this week when they (finally) reach the end…only to return to the beginning again with the word b’reishit (in the beginning).

It’s such a natural cycle to turn and return. We cycle through the seasons, the yearly holidays and the cycle of life. Ben Bag Bag informs us that if we look deep into the words of the Torah we can find “everything.”

Cain and Abel teach us that we are responsible for and cannot hide our own actions. Abraham shows us (and God) the importance of mercy when God wants to destroy Sodom and Gemorrah. Jacob and Esau demonstrate sibling rivalry while Joseph and his brothers take it one step further demonstrating the weakness of family relationships that can be restored by the strength of forgiveness. Moses teaches us that even with physical limitations, we can still do great things.

Throughout the Torah we are reminded to treat others with respect and dignity. We are also reminded to take care of the poor, the widow, the orphan and the stranger among us. Commentary on the Torah takes these guidelines even further and extrapolates how we treat those who work for us and our animals. For example, one must be paid for his/her work in a timely fashion, so as not to cause unnecessary strife on his/her life. We must also feed animals and pets before we feed ourselves.

The guidance one can glean from the Torah can apply to all people. Those who practice Judaism and those who do not. I think every person should strive to be a good person and I find stories from the Torah provide good examples of how to (and sometimes how not to) act.

I encourage you to pick up a copy of the Torah and/or Bible stories and start reading. Discuss what you read with your family and discuss what everyone thinks. How might you want to incorporate examples into your life? What stories will you choose to use as examples of what not to do?

A personal favorite is the JPS Illustrated Children’s Bible. The Bible stories included in this volume include fifty-three Bible stories (Torah and additional books), retold by Ellen Frankel. Each story is only a few short pages, so you can read one each night or each week. The full-color illustrations by Avi Katz help bring the stories to life!

I look forward to hearing your thoughts and insights! Please share what you think in the comment section below.