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In an article in Haâ€™aretz, Michael Oren: New book meant to enlist American Jews to fight Iran deal, Michael Oren, former Israeli ambassador to the US, has launched a PR tour for his new book â€śAlly,â€ť which according to press reports addresses President Obamaâ€™s attitudes and positions towards Israel.
One of Oren’s comments as reported in the Ha’aretz article demands a response:
Itâ€™s not clear if Orenâ€™s comment was meant to be limited to particular American Jews in the Obama administration; a Times of Israel article about the same interview has Oren saying that â€śthe non-Orthodox and the intermarried American Jews donâ€™t fully grasp Israelâ€™s position.â€ť In any case, there is a clear implication that Jews who are intermarried, because they are intermarried, are not supportive of Israel. Thatâ€™s an offensive notion to which we strongly object.
At InterfaithFamily we donâ€™t take positions on political issues about Israel. But we strongly support Israelâ€™s right to exist in peace, and we strongly encourage interfaith couples and families to travel to Israel, because all experience shows that doing so leads to further Jewish engagement, which is our ultimate goal. That increased Jewish engagement, for interfaith couples who do travel to Israel, can include increased feelings of attachment to and support for Israel â€“ in not only the Jewish partner, but the partner of another background as well. Thatâ€™s the kind of attitude shift that people who care about Israel should want to have happen.
People who want the American Jewish community to support Israel should be careful what they say about interfaith families, who make up a large and growing segment of our community. Suggesting that intermarried Jews are not supportive of Israel is likely to be discouraging and off-putting to them and hardly conducive to strengthening their support for Israel. Itâ€™s especially disappointing for that kind of comment to come from Ambassador Oren, who was raised in the United States and spent years here as Israelâ€™s ambassador. Letâ€™s hope he clarifies what he said or meant to say.
Today was a very big day for everyone who wants to see interfaith families engage in Jewish life and community.
As we previously covered in a post in January and another in April, the Genesis Prize Fund had announced that it was awarding its $1 million annual prize to Michael Douglas in order to emphasize the importance of welcoming interfaith families.
According to JTA,
The Genesis Prize Fund and the Jewish Funders Network simultaneously announced a $1.65 million matching grant fund for organizations and projects that support and enhance avenues to Jewish engagement for intermarried couples and their families. The goals of the matching grant are:
We are thrilled for our friends at Hillel and for the opportunity that this very significant funding provides to InterfaithFamily and other organizations in our field. Two years ago, in an essay in eJewishPhilanthropy, I asked whether interfaith families were even included in what was then a growing movement towards â€śinclusive Jewish philanthropy.â€ť The Genesis Prize Fund, by selecting Michael Douglas as its 2015 recipient, joined now by the Jewish Funders Network, has turned that corner. InterfaithFamily has been operating for fourteen years; now we are finally seeing significant philanthropic resources that will be devoted to what we believe is the most pressing opportunity the Jewish community has to grow and be enriched. This is truly a wonderful day.
And we hope that this philanthropic turn will lead many more leaders in the Jewish community to agree with Mikhail Fridman, a founder of the Genesis Philanthropy Group, who said in his comments at the award ceremony:
Today on eJewishPhilanthropy, Allison McMillan wrote an important piece, “Intermarried, Not Interfaith.” Her husband was an atheist when they met, had no religious connection to any holidays, is exploring Jewish traditions quite extensively, and has decided not to convert, in her words, â€śat least not right now.â€ť She says their biggest issue is that they are labeled an â€śinterfaith couple,â€ť a term which â€śdoes not describe who or what we are. We are not trying to join two faiths together in our relationship. He is not halachically Jewish but he is also not anything else.â€ť
I posted a response that Iâ€™d like to expand on here. For us at InterfaithFamily, the term â€śinterfaithâ€ť does not connote anything about religious practice. It does not mean a couple that is practicing two faiths or trying to join two faiths together, or a couple where one partner is practicing one faith and the other is practicing no faith. It doesnâ€™t mean a couple that is raising children â€śbothâ€ť or in two faiths. â€śInterfaithâ€ť in the context of a couple simply means that one partner comes from one faith tradition or background, and one comes from another faith tradition or background. In the context of a family it simply means a family that includes one or more Jews and one or more people from different faith traditions.
We think that the term â€śinterfaithâ€ť has become what in the legal field would be called a â€śterm of art,â€ť meaning a word that has an acquired meaning that may not be clear from the term itself. We think that most people coming from the Jewish world understand the term â€śinterfaithâ€ť the way we do. And we hope that people like Allison could come to understand the term in that way, and not be bothered or offended by it.
Allison writes that there are â€śplenty of different phrases that can and should be used in place of interfaith,â€ť but doesnâ€™t say what phrase she would prefer. Over the past fourteen years Iâ€™ve heard many unsatisfactory suggestions. â€śIntermarriedâ€ť doesnâ€™t work because not everyone is, or, sadly, can be married. â€śMixedâ€ť as in â€śmixed-marriedâ€ť or â€śmixed-faithâ€ť is old fashioned, â€śmixedâ€ť has a negative tone, and itâ€™s not more clear or precise than â€śinterfaith.â€ť â€śInterculturalâ€ť or â€śinter-heritagedâ€ť (if thatâ€™s even a term) doesnâ€™t work because Judaism is or certainly can be more than a culture or a heritage. No term is perfect to describe couples and families with members that come from Jewish background and another faith tradition â€“ and we say that no term is better to describe such couples and families than â€śinterfaith.â€ť
Allison writes in her article that her and her husbandâ€™s situation is not black and white, and we certainly agree with her that there are â€śmany shades of gray.â€ť But as we use the term, â€śinterfaith familyâ€ť is very inclusive, of both immediate and extended families â€“ interfaith couples where one person comes from a Jewish background and one come from another background, couples that include converts to Judaism who still have relatives who are not Jewish, people with one Jewish parent, parents of intermarried children, grandparents of children being raised by intermarried parents, etc.
Interfaith families may include those who identify their family as Jewish, as more than one religion, or who are unsure of how they identify. Our organizationâ€™s goal â€“ which we are working to make the goal of many more Jews and Jewish organizations â€“ is to meet these families where they are and facilitate deeper connection to Jewish life. Hopefully we can live with the limitations of terminology and all work toward that important goal.
In March Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky, a Conservative rabbi at Ansche Chesed in Manhattan, explaining “Why I Will Not Simply Accept Intermarriage,” wrote for the Forward that â€śCelebrating interfaith weddingsâ€¦ [would] diminish a sacred covenantal tradition, and risk making liberal Judaism into a jumble of traditional gestures that might please individuals but demand nothing from them.â€ť I wrote a letter to the editor which appeared in the March 20 print issue of the Forward (it’s not on the Forwardâ€™s website):
Today another Conservative rabbi, Michael Knopf from Temple Beth-El in Richmond VA, had a very important response published in Haâ€™aretz, “Getting over intermarriage: Judaismâ€™s guide to finding the right partner.” Rabbi Knopf says that â€śJewish leadersâ€™ obsession with discussing intermarriage through the prism of permissibility risks trivializing Judaism as a religion of policies, rather than as a fountain of relevant and enduring wisdom and values.â€ť Stating that Jewish tradition has much wisdom to offer about finding a partner that is just as relevant to those who intermarry, he says â€śWhat if, instead of trying to finger-wag Jews into endogamous relationships, we offered compassionate and nonjudgmental support to people, drawing from the riches of our tradition, as they seek to couple?â€ť Among his many refreshing comments are, â€śJudaism teaches that marrying Jewish is not a guarantee of a successful relationshipâ€ť and â€śpeople of different backgrounds can be oriented to faith in harmonious waysâ€ť and â€śtwo people of different backgrounds can sharpen each other in myriad ways.â€ť Rabbi Knopf concludes,
We applaud Rabbi Knopfâ€™s novel approach and the welcoming attitude he expresses. But what happens when interfaith couples are brought closer to Judaism, specifically to Conservative synagogues? In March, Rabbi David Lerner of Temple Emunah in Lexington, MA, wrote a blot post for The Times of Israel describing a New Conservative/Masorti ceremony for interfaith couples, which is described in greater length on the website of the Rabbinical Assembly (the association of Conservative rabbis).
Rabbi Lerner was a co-chair of the Rabbinical Assemblyâ€™s Commission on Keruv (Outreach), Conversion, and Jewish Peoplehood and he concentrated on creating a ceremony to welcome interfaith couples, â€śa ritual through which a couple could celebrate their love and the Jewish choices they were making, while including family and friendsâ€¦ within our understanding of halakhah (Jewish law).â€ť The core of the Hanukkat Habayit ceremony is putting up a mezuzah; the ceremony is described at length in the blog post and on the RA website and it does appear to offer a lovely and meaningful ritual and celebrate the Jewish choices the couple has made. It also comes with a three- to six-month learning period with the rabbi before the ceremony and continuing conversations with the rabbi afterwards, all aimed as supporting the coupleâ€™s Jewish growth.
We applaud this effort to support and recognize interfaith couples who make Jewish choices in a Conservative context, but itâ€™s important to note that very clear Jewish choices are required for the ceremony: It is â€śfor interfaith couples who have decided to build an exclusively Jewish home and family together;â€ť â€śif the mother is not Jewish, the children would undergo a halakhic conversion;â€ť â€śThere should also be the clear expectation that non-Jewish symbols and observances would not be a part of the coupleâ€™s home, such as a Christmas tree.â€ť Many interfaith couples who might want to make Jewish choices in a Conservative context may note be quite as far along in terms of their decision making as is required for the ceremony. And there is continuing tension with those coming from the perspective of tradition â€“ as Rabbi Lerner says, â€śsomeâ€ť in the movement may be uncomfortable with the ceremony, even with its requirements, â€śas we seek to straddle the space between our tradition and keruv.â€ť
This will surely be a continuing discussion worth following.
Steven M. Cohen and Rabbi Joy Levitt have written an extremely important op-ed for JTA: “If You Marry a Jew, Youâ€™re One of Us.” For the past 14 years, we at InterfaithFamily have been advocating for Jews to welcome, embrace and fully include interfaith couples and families into Jewish life and community. We have always maintained that the attitudes Jews have toward intermarriage need to change from negative or ambivalent, to seeing the potential for positive Jewish engagement by interfaith families.
It is wonderfully affirming to now hear Jewish leaders like Levitt, the brilliantly successful director of the JCC in Manhattan, and Cohen â€“ until recently one of the most vociferous critics of intermarriage â€“ espouse the same views.
The crux of their essay (I am quoting what I feel are the most important points):
We know that where both parents identify as Jews, nearly all their children identify as Jews as well. And when only one parent sees himself/herself as Jewish, only a minority of their children grow up as Jews. Aside from raising the inmarriage rate, how can we create more households where both partners see themselves as part of the Jewish people?
One answer is for all of us to change the way we think of, and treat, those who love and marry our children, family members and friends. Basically we should agree and fully internalize the idea: If you marry a Jew, youâ€™re fully part of our community until proven otherwise.
Born Jews would undergo a subtle but critical shift in the way they relate to family members and friends not born Jewish. It would mean fully including them in holiday practices, life-cycle ceremonies, and Jewishly centered social action and political activities.
[F]or those who choose to be part of our community without formal conversion â€” who come to the Passover seder and drive their children to Hebrew school, who sit shiva with us, or who bring their sons into the community at a brit milah, who shep naches at their daughtersâ€™ bat mitzvah and who go to Israel on vacation â€” we say welcome. Itâ€™s a pleasure to know you. Come learn. Youâ€™re one of us if you want to be.
We couldnâ€™t have said it better ourselves.
I remember the day I introduced our kids to The Prince of Egypt.Â I loved this movie, and I was excited to be sharing it with them. Then my partner entered the living room: â€śHow can we teach our kids these stories?!â€ť The slavery, the plagues, and worse, God as a killer of babies. Suddenly, I felt the need to defend Passover, the Exodus story and Judaism as a whole. I know the Exodus is a tough story, but I also felt passionately about it.
It was not the first time my partner, who did not grow up Jewish, has challenged Judaism in this way to me. It began many years ago, before having children, at a Shabbat service. We were nearing the end of the liturgy, singing the â€śAleynuâ€ť prayer. She nudged me, whispering, â€śDo you know what youâ€™re saying?â€ťÂ Startled out of my rote recital, I looked at the page. â€śYou [God] have not created us like them, you have not made our lot like the families of the earth.â€ť
Eek! Honestly, I had never read the English, and didnâ€™t know enough Hebrew back then to have parsed it out myself. I had grown up with translations of this prayer that lessened the â€śchosennessâ€ť aspect. I didnâ€™t know what to say. So I stopped saying it. Not based solely on the Aleynu, I ended up choosing to become a rabbi through the Reconstructionist movement which deletes notions of chosenness from the liturgy.
It was a great example of someone with fresh eyes pushing me to think more deeply and critically at my own tradition. I had to resist a knee-jerk reaction and listen. This kind of dialogue, I believe, is an interfaith relationship at its best. Since then, my partner has pointed out countless issues to me, shaking me out of my complicity to call out where Judaism needs to evolve and transform.
But it also raises the issue: Who gets to criticize? Itâ€™s a common interfaith scenario: An issue comes up around a holiday, or a rabbi or pastor says something during services that rubs someone the wrong way. Suddenly, one partner feels responsible for defending an entire tradition spanning thousands of years. But something else happens as well. Often, the â€śdefenderâ€ť gets worried. What if my partner is so angry about this that we canâ€™t have this tradition alive in our home?
The truth is that every one of us has gripes with our own religion. And in Judaism, criticizing from within is built into this tradition that loves to hold many opinions as equally valid. But something different happens when a person of another faith criticizes your own, and when that person is your partner, different dynamics can arise. Perhaps at another point in your life, such a critique may have been the entrĂ©e into an interesting interfaith dialogue about why a tradition does this or that. But in this moment it can feel threatening.
Interfaith couples keep a lot of our religious or cultural issues swept nicely under the carpet. We fear that if we really explore what we want our lives to look like, or what we really believe or donâ€™t believe, we could threaten our relationship. So we tuck issues away because it seems to go just fine if we do. That is, until they come up again. And they always do.
I would like to offer some tips for getting through â€ścritiqueâ€ť moments:
1. Â Everyone picks at the little things. Get past the â€śOh no, he is going to want to throw the baby out with the bathwater!â€ť mentality. Discuss long range, overarching plans for spirituality and religion in your home. Then you will be freed up to discuss the details of how those broad decisions will play out in your everyday lives. The little things can be merely interesting, philosophical conversations instead of â€śmake it or break itâ€ť moments.
2. Â Use those critiques as opportunities to learn together. What does Jewish tradition say about that ritual? Was it always observed in that way? Do other movements in Judaism see it differently, and is there flexibility in how the practicing partner executes it?
3. Â Take a deep breath. If you do feel the need to defend a ritual, a piece of liturgy or a theological stance, ask yourself why you feel aligned with it. Is it nostalgic? A deeply held belief? Or because â€śthat is the way it has always been?â€ť Do you feel the need to present a â€śperfectâ€ť version of your tradition to your partner? What is coming up for you?
4. Â Judaism holds that all Jews were standing at Mount Sinai (where the Ten Commandments were given to Moses by God according to the Book of Exodus). That means that everyone heard the revelation of the tradition, and everyone has equal allowance to interpret it for themselves. But there was also an â€śerev ravâ€ťâ€”a mixed multitude of fellow travelers who left with the Israelites from Egypt. They heard it as well and, therefore, get to weigh in on this evolving tradition. That means that by bringing a partner into a Jewish life who isnâ€™t Jewish, she or he gets to have a say. Listen carefully to each otherâ€™s critiquesâ€”there is often great wisdom and insight when someone is coming from another perspective.
Often couples come from different backgrounds and it can be difficult to find common ground. But usually, if people have similar value systems, couples can work out compromises in their relationship. There are a variety of differences that affect a relationship. These differences make life interesting but sometimes differences cause conflict (and hopefully resolution). My family often says â€śThatâ€™s why there are so many different flavors of ice cream!â€ť Here is an overview about some of the types of differences couples may face.
Religious Differences: In my large family, each of us siblings observe our religion in a different way. Many people remark that they canâ€™t believe we were raised in the same house. As each of us has gotten married, we have evolved so that we have similar practices to our spouses. In fact, now that our society moves around so much more than people did 50 years ago, it makes sense that altering oneâ€™s religious practices to suit our spouse is the norm, not the exception. Indeed, the proximity to oneâ€™s parents may affect the level of practice. For example, if you are hundreds of miles from your parents but around the corner from your in-laws, your householdâ€™s religious practices are likely to evolve toward the practice of your in-laws. Sharing holidays with extended family is going to change your practices as well.
I remember my brother saying that his decisions should not be affected by the decisions of his brother-in-law. The reality is that once the in-laws moved to the same city, celebrations were modified. He adjusted and the family holidays look a bit different. I think my brotherâ€™s anticipation of what potential modifications might be was much scarier than the reality. I once told my kids I didnâ€™t just marry Daddy, I married his whole family: his mom, his sister, his dad. If you have any concerns about your future in-laws, think carefully. Especially if kids are in the picture, any differences are magnified.
Geographic Differences: Being from different parts of the country can be another area where a couple needs to find compromise. East Coast, West Coast, Northeast, Deep Southâ€”finding common ground can be challenging in this area as well. As a Southerner, I have lived in the Northeast most of my adult life. Yet, during a recent cold snap, I mentioned that I wished I lived in the South. A friend commented, â€śShouldnâ€™t you be used to the cold by now?â€ť I responded, â€śI guess the novelty has worn off.â€ť Celebrating Christmas or Hanukkah in a snowy climate when you are used to never wearing a coat can be an adjustment. Similar adjustments include city vs. suburbs vs. rural living. My husband loves the city and I would be quite happy living in a rural environment. Suburb is the obvious compromise but not all issues can be resolved as easily.
Nationality Differences: For one couple in my extended family, the parents were from Europe and the daughter was born in Israel. She moved to the U.S. when she was a child but always called herself an Israeli. Her parents always referred to themselves as European. She married an American but always made comments referring to her Israeli pride. I think that this difference was a point of contention for the woman and her husband. Attitudes, manners, celebrations were always an issue for them. Both partners were Jewish but the nationality differences were a struggle for them. Ultimately, the couple divorced for a variety of reasons but nationality differences definitely caused some of their disagreement.
Cultural Differences: Some families have a sit-down dinner every night. Other families never eat together because the parents are always working. Some families believe that there should be a stay-at-home parent while other families prefer a live-in caretaker. Differences of opinion regarding parochial school or public school or even boarding school can exist in the same family. Some issues such as school can be worked out with relative ease but other issues can be a huge hurdle in a relationship. Do both partners intend to work? Do you believe in daycare or nannies or neither? Differences in attitudes can rise up. If one parent stays home for a while, will there be resentment? If one parent travels for work, will there be resentment?
Financial Differences: Some people like to spend money, others like to save it.Â If one partner wants to travel to the Caribbean every winter but the financial situation does not allow for that, there should be some discussion. Does one partner want to eat out four nights a week at a sit-down restaurant? Do you agree on savings? Financial issues can be a major point of contention after several years of marriage. It is important to discuss what you and your partner expect regarding savings and debt. Donâ€™t be afraid to disagree, but do have these discussions.
While you are dating, â€śwhat ifâ€ť scenarios are helpful (but not binding because circumstances always change). It is good to discuss these issues to assess whether you and your partner can compromise. As they say, â€śVive La DiffĂ©rence!â€ť but keep your eyes open. You should be thinking like a team. If you find that you are feeling â€śaloneâ€ť in your thinking, it might be good to seek counseling. Entering a marriage with confidence is paramount.
There was an important JTA article yesterday about a prominent Conservative rabbi who reportedly floated the idea of officiating at weddings of interfaith couples â€“ something Conservative rabbis are prohibited from doing by their association, the Rabbinical Assembly â€“ and then reportedly reversed course.
Since InterfaithFamily started operating thirteen years ago, we have always taken the position that Jewish clergy officiating at weddings of interfaith couples is a potential â€śdoor openerâ€ť to future Jewish engagement by the couple, while refusals to officiate or difficulties finding an officiant are potential â€śdoor closers.â€ť We have always tried to be respectful of rabbis who chose not to officiate, while encouraging some rabbis in all communities to officiate in order to minimize the â€śdoor closingâ€ť effect.
Since InterfaithFamily got started we also have consistently tried to be helpful to the Conservative movement in its response to interfaith couples. Back in 2009 I wrote about how we were trying to recruit Conservative synagogues and professionals to list on our Network and thereby indicate that they welcomed interfaith families, and that we always publicized the Keruv initiative of the Federation of Jewish Menâ€™s Clubs. At the time, we applauded a softening of the movementâ€™s previous approach to aggressively promote conversion. In early 2013 we wrote about a prominent Conservative rabbi in New York who proposed a â€śfast trackâ€ť conversion, in which a person who was not Jewish would convert first, and then study later, in order to enable Conservative rabbis to officiate at that personâ€™s wedding.
Many observers have said that the Conservative movement has lost many members because the Reform movement is perceived to be more welcoming to interfaith couples. Promoting conversion â€“ which appeared to be getting renewed emphasis just this past summer from Arnold Eisen, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary â€“ continues to be a potential obstacle to a more welcoming stance. The inability of Conservative rabbis to officiate for interfaith couples is another obstacle.
A year or two ago, a highly-regarded Conservative rabbi told me that within five to ten years, Conservative rabbis would be officiating. I know another highly-regarded Conservative rabbi who is trying to figure out a way to be involved with interfaith couples along with another rabbi who would ultimately officiate at the wedding. And on Yom Kippur this year, Rabbi Adina Lewittes, a Conservative rabbi who had served as assistant dean of the Jewish Theological Seminary, delivered a sermon in which she revealed that she would officiate at intermarriages and had resigned from the Rabbinical Assembly.
According to yesterdayâ€™s JTA article, Rabbi Wesley Gardenswartz of Temple Emanuel in Newton, MA, one of the largest Conservative synagogues in the country, had sent an email to congregants seeking support for a policy that would enable him to officiate at interfaith weddings where the couple had committed to a â€śCovenant to Raise Jewish Children.â€ť Apparently there were significant reservations about the proposed â€śCovenant,â€ť so the proposed policy was withdrawn, although Rabbi Gardenwartz said the congregation would â€śexplore ways to be more welcoming to interfaith families both before and after the wedding.â€ť
I agree with Rabbi Chuck Simon of the Federation of Jewish Menâ€™s clubs who is quoted in the JTA article as describing â€śthe move by someone of Gardenswartzâ€™s stature to review policy on interfaith unionsâ€ť as a potential â€śgame changer for the movementâ€ť and â€śthe beginning of a huge paradigm shift.â€ť Although the head of the Rabbinical Assembly is quoted in the article as saying â€śwe donâ€™t see the performance of intermarriage as something rabbis can do,â€ť we expect that as more and more Conservative leaders see officiation as a potential â€śdoor openerâ€ť and their existing policy as a potential â€śdoor closer,â€ť we will see more moves like Rabbi Gardenswartzâ€™s toward a change in that approach.
Chip Edelsberg, executive director of the Jim Joseph Foundation, and Jason Edelstein published a very important essay today in Mosaic. The title is The Ever-Renewing People and the sub-heading aptly summarizes the essay: â€śJewish lifeÂ in America is actually flourishing, thanks in part to the energyÂ of children of intermarriage.â€ť Itâ€™s a response to another hand-wringing condemnation of intermarriage from Jack Wertheimer and Steven M. Cohen published a few weeks ago
In a nutshell, where Wertheimer and Cohen cite a decades-ago sociologist who when asked what the grandchildren of intermarried Jews should be called responded â€śChristian,â€ť Edelsberg and Edelstein dismiss that notion as neither apt nor helpful. They note that thousands of young Jews â€“ up to half of whom would be dismissed by Wertheimer and Cohen as â€śChristianâ€ť â€“ attend Jewish summer camps, Jewish teen programs, Hillel and Moishe House. They put Wertheimer and Cohenâ€™s pessimism in its place:
Every piece of research that has asked people in interfaith relationships why they are or are not engaged Jewishly cites numerous instances of interfaith couples feeling judged, or they or their children evaluated as â€śless Jewish.â€ť Interfaith families still experience or perceive negative attitudes about their marriage choices from Jews and Jewish leaders â€“ attitudes that are fueled by essays like Wertheimer and Cohenâ€™s. Thatâ€™s why the optimistic view of the future, on the part of one of the Jewish communityâ€™s most important philanthropists, is so important. That view supports increased efforts to engage even more interfaith families and children of interfaith families in Jewish life and community â€“ to insure, in Edelsberg and Edelsteinâ€™s words, that diverse Jews â€świll continue to invigorate contemporary Judaism and invent new ways to experience American Jewish life.â€ť
The other day I saw a rabbi I know post a YouTube link to one of my favorite versions of the prayer, Hashkiveinu. Hashkiveinu is one word in English but means, â€śGrant that we may lie downâ€ť in Hebrew. In Hebrew, prefixes and suffixes are attached to the word.Â It is a petitionary prayer to be able to lie down in peace at night and to return to renewed life the following day.
The link on Facebook to the video caught my eye for two reasons: As I said, I love this musical rendition of this prayer. Also, this rabbi serves the congregation where I grew up,Â Temple Shalom of Newton, MA.
What does it mean to grow up at a synagogue? For me, I had heard stories from my dad about how his parents were among the earliest members. My dad had his Bar Mitzvah at this synagogue. I was named as an infant there. The senior rabbi at the time, Murray I. Rothman, of blessed memory, got my family through a horrendous time when my mother was struck by a car crossing the street in front of our house. My little brother was 1, my middle brother was 3 and I was a kindergartner. My mother could not get up the stairs of our house for almost a year. She was bedridden on a couch in our den. My father somehow managed the three of us. Neighbors and family came to the rescue. And Rabbi Rothman came to that den every Friday afternoon with a challah and a Torah commentary and studied a little Torah with my mom. This kept her going spiritually and emotionally.
What does it mean to grow up at a synagogue? I knew the halls of that place. I knew the smells, the classrooms, the chapel, the sanctuary, the bathrooms, the youth lounge, the social hallâ€”I knew the building. My confirmation class photograph is on the wall there. In fact, I sat in the Rabbiâ€™s study on more than one occasion philosophizing about God and Judaism (true, I was into this stuff, even as a kid). I felt at home there. I slept there in a sleeping bag on the floor as a teenager at a â€śshul-in.â€ť I remember the Temple Shalom sukkah in detail even though the last time I helped decorate one was at least 20 years ago. I can still feel the pride I felt praying with my family in the sanctuary on the High Holidays, wearing my new dress. I can see my brothers as I write this, quietly folding the flyers and tickets into origami to keep occupied during the services.
Some say bricks and mortar donâ€™t matter. Buildings are passĂ©. Weâ€™ve got coffee houses now. Millennials donâ€™t want to walk into synagogues. Too many barriers. A building fund is too onerous for members to carry. Whatâ€™s important are the people. The community. This is also true. But, I loved that building and it went through changes and renovations and has a life of its own. I think one reason I felt so connected to the building was that I could walk there from my house. That is how we got to and from Hebrew School. It is rare today for kids to walk places by themselves (at least not as young as we used to). I loved that independence, and going to a place I felt was totally safe and mine.
What does it mean to grow up at a synagogue? It means you know the people. We knew the people who worked in the office, the maintenance crew, the teachers, the educators and the rabbis. These were the people who lived in the temple as far as I was concerned. They were the familiar faces who knew us by name. They were welcoming and warm. They kept the temple going. And, my friends were there. We came together from multiple public schools. We grew up there together. We came to one anotherâ€™s Bar and Bat Mitzvah services. We had our parties in the synagogue social hall. My parents knew the other parents and the kids.
I learned to read Hebrew there. I may not have known how to translate each word into English but I learned to read the Hebrew prayers in Hebrew fluently by about fifth grade. I kept the old blue Gates of Prayer Bookâ€”the Reform Movementâ€™s prayer bookâ€”on my nightstand growing up, which I received from Temple Shalom. A nameplate was placed in it for me at my Bat Mitzvah. I read the prayers to myself at night and they were a source of comfort.
My parents have now moved to Philadelphia to be near my little brotherâ€™s family. We have no ties to this building anymore. We donâ€™t know many people who still go there. Yet, all these years later, when I see a Facebook post from Temple Shalom, it catches my eye. It makes me smile to see the new life that is there now. It is a part of me.
I marry lots of people who â€śgrew up at an area congregationâ€ť but they left after their Bar or Bat Mitzvah. Maybe they have great and deep memories of being there. Maybe they barely remember their time there.
The only way one feels a sense of growing up in a synagogue is if you are there a lot and get really involved. I am thankful this was the case for me and my family growing up. Itâ€™s never too late to go back. Itâ€™s never too late to try a new congregation. Interfaith families are welcome at congregations, often with wide open arms.