Connecting Interfaith Families to Jewish Life in Greater Cleveland by providing programs and opportunities for interfaith families to experience Judaism in a variety of venues, meet other interfaith families, and to connect to other Jewish organizations that may serve their needs.
A great way for Jewish professionals and volunteers who work with and provide programming for people in interfaith relationships to locate resources and trainings to build more welcome into their Jewish communities; connect with and learn from each other; and publicize and enhance their programs and services.
A couple of months ago I officiated at the wedding of a wonderful couple—the bride was Jewish and the groom was Christian. Several days after the wedding, I received the following email from the bride, Susan (not her real name):
I have a question for you about Purim. Esther married the king, who wasn’t Jewish, and ended up saving her people. If she had not married the king, all of the Jews in the kingdom would have died. Extrapolating from this example, why is it considered such a bad thing for one to marry outside of the Jewish faith?
What a great question! Susan made a good point. In Megillat Esther (The Book of Esther, where we find the Purim story), the beautiful young Jewish Esther marries the Persian King Ahasuerus. At first, following the instructions of her cousin Mordechai, Esther hides the fact that she is Jewish. But when the evil Haman convinces the king that all of the Jews in the kingdom should be killed, Mordechai tells Esther that she should go to the king and reveal her true identity. At first Esther refuses, explaining to Mordechai that the king hasn’t summoned her for the past thirty days, and if she goes before the king without being summoned he may order that she be killed. But Mordechai replies, in words that have become very famous: “Do not imagine that you, of all the Jews, will escape with your life by being in the king’s palace. On the contrary, if you keep silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another quarter, while you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis.” (Esther 4:13-14 – JPS translation)
Having been convinced by Mordechai’s powerful words of her responsibility to her people, Esther, after fasting for three days, goes before the king. Ultimately, Esther reveals to the king that she is a Jew, and she asks that the Jews of Persia not be exterminated. The evil Haman is impaled on the stake which he had put up for Mordechai, and the Jews survive.
So here’s how I responded to Susan’s email:
Over the years rabbis and Jewish commentators have offered various explanations about Esther’s marriage to the gentile Persian king. Of course the explanations/commentaries generally reflect more about the writer/commentator (who often has his—and historically it always was a “him”—own agenda/bias he is trying to promote when commenting on the text) than they reflect about the text. There are rabbis (clearly opposed to intermarriage) who have claimed that Esther was forced to marry the king against her will. The Zohar even says that the Shekhinah concealed Esther’s soul and sent another soul in its place, so that when King Ahasuerus slept with Esther, he wasn’t sleeping with the real Esther.
Of course the biblical text doesn’t say this at all. In the biblical text itself no judgment is made on Esther marrying out of her faith. And as you point out, by marrying someone who wasn’t Jewish, Esther ended up saving her people.
So here’s what I have to say about Esther: By marrying a man who wasn’t Jewish, and ultimately “coming out” to her husband, the king, as a Jew, Esther saves her people. The text doesn’t comment on the fact that Esther is in an interfaith marriage, and I agree that she should be held out as a positive example to interfaith couples.
In my view, the only thing Esther should be faulted for in the story is denying Mordechai’s first request to tell the King that she is Jewish, though she does this because she fears that the king may have her killed. But at Mordechai’s urging she ultimately reveals her true identity to the king and in doing so she saves the Jewish people. The bottom line is: There’s no problem with Esther’s intermarriage—the only problem would have been keeping her Jewish identity secret.
Esther can be a terrific role model for the idea that it’s OK to marry someone who isn’t Jewish so long as you openly and proudly maintain your connection to Judaism and the Jewish people. And just like Esther, you could end up “saving” the Jewish people along the way. The problem is NOT intermarriage…it is when someone stops identifying as a Jew.
Once again, Susan, mazel tov on your wedding. May you, like Esther, have a husband who supports you in that which is most important to you and honors your connection to Judaism and the Jewish people. And may you always be proud of your Jewish identity.
This is it. That time of year that many intermarried Jews dread: Christmas tree time. Especially if you go as far as getting a tree and stringing it up on the roof of your car and driving to your house as quickly as possible (maybe even ducking as you drive by your shul, so the rabbi doesn’t see). It used to feel so wrong, so shameful: “What will the others think?”
Where do our values come from? How do these questioning voices appear in one’s head? Often our values are shaped by our parents and our teachers and our peers. My elementary school upbringing consisted of attending an Orthodox Hebrew Day School and the message growing up was clear: If a Jew has a Christmas tree in his house, he has gone “too far.” If you bring a tree into your house, you might as well put a swastika on top for you have betrayed the Jewish people.
My mother would mourn for the Jewish people if she saw it, and fear I would have lost focus on my roots. Oy, assimilation-1, Jews-0. My environmentalist friends would moan the betrayal of the earth, to drag a tree into one’s house for one week of the year. How horrifying! Don’t get me started on the gifts. The commercialism of Christmas is horrendous and the wrapping paper and packaging is tantamount criminal. The spoiling of kids with gift after gift. The plastic. The cookies. The elevated levels of acidity in one’s blood sugar as one holiday party bleeds into another. The drinks. The decadence.
But of course, I went to Hebrew School. My brother and sister and I would watch all of the holiday Christmas specials and feel like outsiders. We loved the cartoons and the stories of spreading cheer and goodness and charity. Charity and community service that we were taught to do regularly were emphasized on one special day for the majority of Americans, and we were on the fringe and couldn’t (or didn’t know how to) really participate at all.
And there I was 30 years later, a grown adult making decisions of my own. It’s true, if both people in a relationship are of the same religion, these kinds of things are rarely a problem. The best we could hope for would be to go out for Chinese food and play cards, which was the running joke of many of our childhoods, the thing that all American Jews do on that holiday.
But things have changed. These are different times. Would I choose to get a tree for my family like my friends from Baltimore? No. Not in a thousand years. Is it a ritual that I embrace and make my own filled with meaning? No, not that either. So what changed? For me, it is about respecting my wife’s background. Deb pointed it out like this: We have a very Jewish household. We light Shabbat candles, do Kiddush and blessings, make challah, send our kids to Hebrew school, sing Hebrew songs, have mezuzot on our doorways, give Tzedakah regularly, celebrate all the holidays, engage in Chevurah groups, the list goes on and on… But there is just one thing—just one thing—from her past tradition that she wants to keep and it shouldn’t be too much to ask.
She never converted, and to her, Christmas had nothing to do with religion (I know, I know, that one is really tough for me), but was about hot chocolate and sleigh rides and getting cozy and thankful and making snowmen and caroling and decorations and parties with friends and family and creating magic for the children. Time to relax as a family.
Well when you put it that way, it shouldn’t be too much to ask. So I go along for the sake of Shalom Bayit (peace in the house). I assure you that it’s not easy. And I still have a hard time with it since I am a committed Jewish educator (who is coming out of the closet with the confession to having a tree over the years). But relationships are about giving to the other and not ruling with an iron fist. Would I recommend that Jews have Christmas trees in their houses? Do I buy into the commercialization and environmental waste associated with Christmas? Not at all on either count.
But do I love my wife? Yes! Is this tradition really important to her and her family? Yes! If I grin and bear it for one week of the year, will my kids continue to go to Hebrew School and have bar and bat mitzvahs and identify as Jews throughout their lives? Yes! So all that was stopping me was closing my mind to honoring what my life partner wants. And that was no longer acceptable to me.
I am not the only Jew who struggles with this. So I wrote this blog to allow people to open up and share with their partners what they care about. There is more than enough evidence that children who grow up in committed Jewish households survive the Christmas Tree thing just fine and live their lives as committed Jews.
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.
Acts 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:
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.
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.
I 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.
Growing 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.
Enter 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.”
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?
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?
2. What is the official name of this turkey-shaped Hanukkiyah being sold online as well as at Jewish museums?
c. Turkey Menorah
3. How old is Asher Weintraub, the Brooklyn boy who trademarked this Hanukkiyah?
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?
6. Approximately how much money has Manischewitz, a leading producer of kosher products, spent marketing products for Thanksgivukkah?
7. When was the last time the first day of Hanukkah coincided with Thanksgiving?
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
(a) Gittel got a trademark for “Thanksgivukkah.”
(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.
(a) 9-year-old Asher is in fourth grade.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(c) 1888. This happens, coincidentally, to also be the year that Manischewitz was founded.
(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.
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!
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.
Traditionally, 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 SimchatTorah 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:
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 way. For, 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.