When my husband read an early draft of this essay, he asked, "Why doesn't her partner have to support our daughter? After all, they agreed to raise children as Jews." What does it mean to raise a Jewish child?
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.
If you wanted to explain Humanistic Judaism in one sentence, it would be “Humanistic Judaism celebrates Jewish culture through our human-focused philosophy of life.” Since I have room for more than one sentence, I’ll expand a bit.
a logo for Humanistic Judaism
For Humanistic Jews, Jewish identity is an ethnic, family, cultural identity. This can include elements understood as “religious” like life cycle ceremonies or holidays, but also art, history, literature, food, language, jokes and more. And this is not unique to our movement; many Jews connect to Jewish culture more strongly than to Jewish religious beliefs or practices. There is no “Methodist-land,” while there is a sense of a Jewish homeland and a feeling of connection to other Jewish people, however diverse that peoplehood may be. Even the most traditional definition of “who is a Jew” is an ethnic definition: who your parents are rather than theological beliefs or rituals. Our cultural Jewish identity is who we are and where we come from, as well as what we do.
There are several implications from a cultural Jewish identity. First, culture evolves and changes, was created by people to respond to their time and place, responds to new circumstances and is open to new creativity. So what Jews 2000 ago believed or prescribed may or may not still inspire us. Second, cultures are available to choose from, just as we may connect with certain aspects of American culture and not others. In weddings I perform, couples choose which elements they want to include, and how to include them; for example, sometimes each one breaks a glass, rather than only one (male) partner. Most important [for this audience], we live in multiple cultures, multiple families at once. I am part of my own family, and also my wife’s family; even though both families are Humanistic Jewish, we learn from each other’s traditions and celebrate each other’s milestones. So, too, with intercultural families who are connected to both partners’ traditions (and both sets of grandparents!).
Humanistic Jews celebrate our identity, or our identities, through our human-focused philosophy. All too often religion is not about people — read a siddur/prayer book, particularly the Hebrew text or a clear translation. The focus is on what people CAN’T know, what people CAN’T do, how much help we need from above and beyond. Our Humanistic approach is to change the focus: instead of looking above and beyond for help, let’s celebrate what we CAN do, how much we HAVE achieved (individually and together). Let’s learn what really happened in our past, through critical study and archaeology, so we can discover how we really came to be who we are. And let’s celebrate the reality of the world we know, the life we share, the power we have, the inspiration we seek.
What are the implications of this philosophy? We can learn from our tradition, since it was created by people, and we also learn from modern human knowledge in the sciences, psychology, genetics and all the rest. We believe that all cultures, including Jewish culture, are responses to the human experience, and so we can find parallels and points of common ground between ours and others, and even learn from them. It’s not an accident that other cultures also have light-lighting holidays in the depths of winter! Most important, you are in charge of your own life — whom you choose to marry, how you create your family, what values you want to live. That means more responsibility, but also potentially great satisfaction for a life well lived.
This is why Humanistic Judaism has officiated at interfaith marriages and welcomed intercultural families from the very beginning, including our first policy statements in support of these families, both intermarriage and co-officiation, in 1974 and 1982.
Humanistic Judaism can be a comfortable Jewish home for intercultural families who share core human-focused values; we are very meaningful as the Jewish piece of an intercultural mosaic.
You can hear more about our/my approach to intermarriage in this audio podcast.
As you may have surmised from my blogs over the past months, I love coming up with ideas about Jewish education and engagement. I actually enjoy philosophizing about this kind of thing! To the depths of my being, I find that liberal Judaism adds meaning, purpose, joy, order, connectedness, spirituality, and so much more to my life. I find that thinking about both how to teach Judaism and how to share the ways to live Judaism is a creative and endlessly fascinating pursuit. So here is my latest idea. As always, let me know what you think!
I meet with lots and lots of couples planning their weddings. Many of the couples have one partner who grew up in Chicagoland and “dropped out” of their synagogue sometime after bar/bat mitzvah. Inevitably, this person’s parents are still in the area, but have not been members of a synagogue for many years. The person getting married went away to college and is now back working in the city, living with their partner, and trying to find clergy to connect with for their interfaith wedding.
When I do my in-take, which consists of asking each person to tell me their life in a nutshell, one partner tells me that they grew up at a synagogue, but that the rabbi doesn’t officiate at interfaith weddings or they do not have a connection with the current rabbi because the rabbi who “did” their bar/bat mitzvah has left the congregation. It does not occur to this person to call the synagogue office, to explain that they grew up at the synagogue, and to meet with the current clergy. Most likely their parents still live near the synagogue.
I wonder why this is such a common scenario. For some reason, this family did not feel part of the synagogue in an existential way. They were there to get a service and, when that ended, ties to the place ended. There has not been a void in their lives since leaving the synagogue. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the family either gathers for a meal and does not attend worship, or they attend services with friends or at a Hillel. Maybe the family actually had a bad experience at the synagogue, but most likely it was just a means to an end. Maybe all of their friends have since left, and they would not feel they would know anybody there anymore.
My idea is to reconnect these brides or grooms and their parents to the synagogue where they had their bar or bat mitzvah. Presumably there are still individuals at the synagogue who were important to the bride or groom, and their parents, when they were part of the congregation. These individuals would want to celebrate this next stage of life with them, just as they were part of their childhood and bar/bat mitzvah. I would ask the couple and their parents if I could tell the synagogue’s clergy that they’re getting married, ask them to help reconnect the former congregants with people there who remember them and who want to share in their joy.
I would then help the clergy create a “mazel tov package” that could be sent to this family. It would include a card, maybe an invitation to be blessed at a Friday night service (who wouldn’t want more blessings?!), and maybe a mezuzah or blessing for the home with a note that the clergy would be honored to come to the couple’s home and help them put it up. For the parents, maybe it would be a half-price re-connection, empty-nest membership rate, with brochures about study and social opportunities. Maybe the synagogue, which is mostly likely in the suburbs, could occasionally send clergy, educators, or lay leaders to the city to treat couples who grew up at the synagogue to dinner or Sunday brunch as a way to say that community is where you are, you are wanted, we miss you, and you are our future.
Maybe couples would not want to re-connect with their synagogue of origin. Maybe they would be turned off if the clergy there do not officiate at interfaith weddings. Yet maybe they would be excited about the chance to reconnect as adults. This would be a real chance to re-shape the community, to take part in ushering in young professionals to communal commitment, and to share a place of memories with their new life partner.
The rabbi and congregation where I grew up never presented the messages that “you have to do XYZ” or “you aren’t Jewish if you do ABC.” I appreciate that. Instead, the rabbi encouraged us to learn what Judaism teaches, to explore the traditions, and to try on Judaism. If it fit, great! If it didn’t, try on different aspects of Judaism until we find what feels right for us.
What fits me may not fit you. What I’ve chosen in my life works for me and I don’t presume that it is what will work for everyone. Let me give you an example. I keep kosher. Sort of and sometimes. Yet some people may say because I added “sort of and sometimes” that I don’t keep kosher. OK, that’s their perspective.
I’m a vegetarian who will eat chicken broth in my soup. It works for me. I’ve had religious Jews tell me I should keep “more kosher.” And, I’ve had vegetarians tell me I shouldn’t eat eggs or drink milk. I don’t keep kosher for them and I’m not a vegetarian for others. I’m doing it for me in a way that feels good for me and that works for me.
InterfaithFamily supports interfaith families exploring Jewish life. Try something on. If it fits, wear it for a while. If it doesn’t, try something else.
Wondering what we’re up to in Philadelphia? The Jewish Exponent has a new article highlighting our new branch, InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia, and the resources we bring to the community.
Starting with marriage as the entry point to the article, they write:
For many interfaith families, the wedding ceremony is the point of entry into Jewish life and also a potential point of tension and conflict. A new group, InterfaithFamily, has just set up shop in Philadelphia to help families navigate such obstacles, from finding a rabbi to officiate to helping them feel more welcome. It could be the biggest local development in interfaith engagement in years.
We certainly hope we are!
For more than two decades, there was a conflict within much of the Jewish community over whether to adopt a more open, welcoming attitude toward interfaith families. Those opposed to embracing such families argued that intermarriage was threatening the future of the Jewish people and communal organizations needed to redouble their efforts to prevent such marriages from taking place.
Though the debate still goes on, decision-makers who favor a more open approach now appear to hold sway at many local communal organizations and congregations.
The 2009 “Jewish Population Study of Greater Philadelphia” revealed that the intermarriage rate has reached 45 percent for Jews under 40 in the five-county region, with only 29 percent of intermarried couples of all ages raising their children solely as Jews.
Those results raised calls for the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, which sponsored the study, and other groups to come up with ways to reach this population and encourage parents to educate and raise their children as Jews.
One way Federation has responded is by facilitating the merger of two organizations. InterFaithways, a small, local organization that has struggled financially in the last few years, has become part of InterfaithFamily, a 13-year-old organization with a national reputation that recently opened branches in San Francisco and Chicago. (The legal process of merging locally is expected to be completed by the new year.)
InterfaithFamily’s local branch will maintain a comprehensive database of clergy members who will perform interfaith ceremonies as well as provide other services. The group will also introduce two new educational initiatives, first introduced in Chicago, that are aimed at interfaith couples.
But wait, there’s not just this one article. The Jewish Exponent has a few other columns of interest to our readers.
For those not inclined to bury their heads in the sand, it’s time to recognize an established fact: The tide has turned when it comes to intermarriage. While many of us rightly worry about the long-term impact of the escalating number of intermarriages on our community, it is wiser to address the issue openly and honestly than to pretend it doesn’t exist.
And the last that I’ll mention here is a really lovely column by a woman (“I had cornered the market on non-Jewish credentials. I was a card-carrying member of the Mayflower Society, the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Colonial Dames. I was a practicing Episcopalian.”) who married a Jewish man, the “son of Holocaust survivors.” She goes on to talk about how she found many wonderfully welcoming places and individuals in the Jewish community, people who shaped her life — and her family’s. Definitely worth a read.
Six years ago, under the leadership of Leonard Wasserman, InterFaithways board member Bill Schwartz urged the organization to begin a program called “InterFaithways Family Shabbat Weekend.” Bill thought that if the organization could convince just one synagogue to welcome interfaith families for one event at the beginning of November, others would follow. Bill was right. Under the guidance of then Vice President Rabbi Mayer Selekman (current Chairman of the Board) who helped develop the model, Interfaith Family Shabbat Weekend has become an important ritual for nearly 50 synagogue communities in the greater Philadelphia area.
From its inception, the number of participating congregations grew rapidly. Interfaith Shabbat Weekend is now an integral part of these congregations’ programming, along with other programmatic spin-offs as a result of this program. The numbers have grown but, more importantly, the programming has become more enriching and impactful. With this year’s theme, “For Jewish Tomorrows,” many synagogues are reaching out to interfaith couples and families, between November 3-12, and welcoming them to beginner services, tot Shabbats, seminars, and panels of interfaith grandparents. Now that InterFaithways is merging with a national organization, InterfaithFamily, to become InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia, there is an opportunity to expand our Interfaith Shabbat Weekend model nationwide.
While many synagogues have thought that hosting a weekend for interfaith couples and families would be good for their membership rolls, it is much more than that. Through sharing personal journeys about their own interfaith experiences in their own congregations, listeners are sensitized to the reality that interfaith families need a sense of belonging and desire to be included in the Jewish community. Many non-Jewish spouses embrace Judaism, attend services, drive their children to Hebrew school, encourage the practice of Jewish holidays — often more enthusiastically than their Jewish spouse. In fact, many synagogues are enriched and benefit from the involvement of their interfaith couples in many ways.
Any element of rejection is a negative reflection on the Jewish people. But, if couples are welcomed, they are more likely to embrace Judaism and share it with their children. InterFaithways has heard so many stories where the child experiences a little Judaism at a young age and then chooses to become a bar or bat mitzvah. Does InterFaithways encourage interfaith marriage? Absolutely not. However, InterFaithways recognizes that since there are so many interfaith marriages in the American Jewish community, the welcoming of interfaith families is not only necessary but an opportunity for growth. Growth in numbers, as a culture, and in spirit. Jews have always been at the forefront of civil rights — fighting for minorities, the poor, the oppressed. Yet isn’t it time to welcome our interfaith children and families? We have nothing to lose and everything to gain.
This summer I met with the senior staff at Temple Chai in Long Grove, IL. The staff told me about a chavurah (fellowship group) that had grown organically at their synagogue, made up of mostly interfaith families with young children. One request the staff at Temple Chai had heard from the parents in this group was the desire to have a learner’s service on Shabbat so that they (and older children) could come to understand the whole Jewish worship experience on a deeper level.
On November 17 at 10:00am, the Learner’s Service: Shabbat Unpacked will take place, and I will be co-leading the service with Rabbi Stephen Hart and Laura Siegel Perpinyal, their Director of Congregational Learning. We have been working on a handout that will unpack five main prayers in the Shabbat morning service. For each prayer we offer three ways to understand it by sharing the history and background information for the prayer, a brief “instruction manual” to understand how to “do” the prayer in terms of choreography, and a timing explanation in terms of when the prayer is said during the service and why.
As we go through the interactive service, we will highlight these five prayers and share even more through music, explanations about the meaning of the prayers historically, and how we can make them our own today. There will be childcare for young children, but children are welcome to join in the service as well.
In order for Jewish prayer to be meaningful, maybe especially for someone who didn’t grow up being exposed to Jewish worship, several things have to happen. Hebrew has to be grappled with. Most people in congregations can’t translate prayer book Hebrew word for word. Yet, through understanding basic Hebrew roots (the letter core of words), which often repeat and shed light on the meaning, one is able to gain a tremendous amount about the nature of the prayer. For instance, the root for “holy” in Hebrew is three letters, koofdaledshin. These three letters form the word kiddush (blessing over wine), kadosh (the actual word meaning holy), and kaddish (the prayer said by mourners). Yet even if one knows many Hebrew root words, understanding prayer transcends literal understanding of the words. This is because much of prayer is poetry. So the sound the Hebrew makes and the rhythm is important (this can be understood by just listening to the Hebrew being said or sung). As well, reading the English translation can tell you what the prayer says, although thinking about the imagery and the repetition of words can bring deeper meaning. Thus even though Hebrew may feel like a barrier and a challenge, one can understand prayer on some level even when just beginning to learn Hebrew.
Other ways to make Jewish prayer more meaningful are to learn about the prayers (as will be a goal of this service), to contemplate Jewish views of God and one’s own sense of spirituality, and also to seek meaning in being part of community. Prayer can be deeply meaningful when the images in prayer of peace or shelter, for example, lead us to action to brings these ideals to reality on earth.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the 20th century’s leading theologians, once said those “Who rise from prayer better persons, their prayer is answered.” Jewish prayer can feel mysterious, boring, antiquated, and removed from what we know and understand today. Yet it can also elevate, inspire, and connect us. I hope those of you in Chicagoland will join us for a lively and upbeat prayer experience on November 17.
A video has been making the rounds that explores what Jewish identity can mean – maybe you’ve seen it on Facebook already. It took me a while to get past the opening montage; I’m not a fan of “Jewish” being tied to Holocaust imagery, and the song from Schindler’s List is a little heavy-handed. But I stuck with it and found it interesting.
Watch it through, and let me know: Were you to create a video, poem or rant about how you relate to Judaism as an individual, what would you say? How would it differ from Andrew Lustig’s (that’s him in the video)? Would you mention your interfaith family, extended family, being a Jew by choice?
The false crisis — declining Jewish continuity, caused by assimilation and an intermarriage rate of 52 percent — has become the rallying cry of institutional Judaism. But fundamentally, it is a red herring. The real crisis is one of meaning and engagement. For the first time in centuries, two Jews can marry each other and have Jewish children without any connection to Jewish heritage, wisdom or tradition.
My first reaction to Kaunfer’s argument that the key is peer engagement and intellectually rigorous study is “Right on!” After all, that’s been my life in the Jewish world. Though I did train as a Jewish academic, my main Jewish experiences have been informal study in a havurah and in people’s homes in Boston, Jerusalem and Cleveland.
But then I realize that Kaunfer isn’t speaking for all Jews. When he says “Even people who are in-married by and large have little connection to Torah, Jewish practice and values,” I think that “even” is too much of a concession to the (strictly biological) continuity fallacy. I’ve seen in this work how many intermarried Jews and their partners become more engaged with Jewish life because they have to do something different in order to raise Jewish children. (Not that there’s only one experience of interfaith marriage, of course.) I agree that who we marry isn’t the sole determinant of what we have to pass down as Jewish religion and culture to our children–it’s only one piece. That “even” sticks out, a little pebble in my shoe.
Further, though, for all of us who love a good group of people sitting around with texts and dictionaries arguing over what some words mean, there are people who aren’t so interested in words. They want to bake bread, or dance, or do something with their hands. They like to sing or they like the gossip in the hallway or the kitchen of the synagogue. (Well, who doesn’t? That’s where you find out everything important.) I remember when my havurah did a lot of “movement midrash,” dance interpretations of the Torah portion. I found it uncomfortable and felt silly trying to do it, but it drew in some people who became very committed Jews–because they liked to dance.
In essence, I agree with Kaunfer–we shouldn’t dumb down Judaism, we need more empowered Jewish education and the best way to make sure that we have a very stimulating Jewish life is to take it into our own hands. I like Kaunfer’s model of the do-in-yourself, small, modular minyan; that’s how I’ve chosen to live. I’m just not ready to believe that everyone in the Jewish community has the same background, needs, learning style or tastes as I do.
“I’m a positive person,” my 6-year-old told me. He is! During this month of Elul before Rosh Hashanah, I’m working on being more positive, too. Sometimes it feels good just to point out all the great things Jewish organizations are doing to reach out to people from interfaith families, and all the great things people in interfaith families are doing in the world.
On Wednesday we published a great feature on Jewish healing rituals for interfaith families. Many of the organizations we mentioned wanted further contact with us, and I had a chance to speak with Rabbi Eric Weiss, the director of the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center. I think I persuaded him to join our network, since he’d like to do more outreach to people in interfaith couples and families, but I wanted to be sure to announce the Healing Center’s Grief and Growing Weekend, because it’s this weekend, September 11-13. If you know someone who just suffered a catastrophic loss, this program is to support them. I liked the way the web page explicitly welcomed non-Jewish participants in the Jewish programming.
Later this week we’re going to run an article by Jeffrey Grover about his experience developing a play on interfaith marriage, but just in case you live in Cleveland and don’t know about Thursday’s performance at the Ratner School of “Both Sides of the Family”, I wanted to give you a heads-up. The cool thing about this program is that the audiences demanded the discussion period after the show, by sticking around in their seats. I’m from Cleveland and I have to tell you, that’s pretty unusual!
I also wanted to give a shout-out to Matthew Scott, who wrote a story for us about cooking Jewish food in an interfaith relationship. He’s started a new job teaching fourth grade in the Baltimore City Public Schools. Isn’t that cool? I would love to update people on the great things our authors are doing–would you like to hear more about that? I don’t mind a little kvelling in the comments, you know.
InterfaithFamily.com is a member of the American Jewish Press Association, which sponsors an annual conference and a journalistic competition, the Simon Rockower awards, every year. The staff at the AJPA let us know we would be receiving a Rockower Award months before I went to the AJPA conference in Chicago last week, but we didn’t know which item we’d submitted for consideration had won. Was it one of the two personal essays, Letting Go: A Lesbian Mom Brings Her Son to the Mikveh by Johanna Hammer or Back Talk by Alina Adams, or was it the website as a whole? No one on our team at IFF could decide. At first the Hammer piece was a heavy favorite, but when I asked the staff to bet on the day I left for the conference, we were evenly divided.
Everyone at IFF was very pleased to win the first place award for the best website. Here’s what they said about us:
A fabulous resource site that answers the easy and tough questions surrounding an interfaith family life. The site is easy to use, accessibly written, and discreet when necessary. This site makes a valuable contribution to the Jewish community using technology.
We competed with other website-only publications; it was the second year the prize was awarded. Continue reading →
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