Recognizing that going to synagogue for the first time can be a challenge, we offer you our booklet, What To Expect At A Synagogue. In it, you will find an overview of what Shabbat is, and how it is celebrated in synagogues. Language is explained, the prayer services are broken down, and many common questions are answered.
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InterfaithFamily Shabbat is an opportunity for your synagogue or organization to join with other welcoming communities in a bold statement that we will continue to build an inclusive Jewish community in our local areas and across the country.
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Do you know which of the following children would be considered Jewish without going through a conversion according to halacha(traditional Jewish law)?
a) A child born from the sperm of a Jewish male and the egg of a Jewish female, who was carried by a surrogate who was not Jewish and then raised by her Jewish biological parents.
b) The child of a biological father who was not Jewish and a biological mother who was not Jewish at the time of conception but who had a traditional Jewish conversion two days before giving birth to the child, who is adopted at birth and raised by parents who are not Jewish.
c) The biological child of a Jewish father and a mother who is not Jewish at the time she gives birth but later converts to Judaism, who is raised as a Jew by his biological parents.
In fact, only the child in (b) is considered Jewish according to halacha. The only factor that matters in determining the Jewish “status” of a child is the religion of the woman who gives birth to the child at the time she gives birth. Whether the biological father is Jewish; whether adoptive parents are Jewish; whether a biological mother is Jewish if she is not the one who gives birth to the child; even whether the child is raised as a Jew…all of these factors are not relevant in determining whether the child is Jewish according to halacha. (For discussion of this issue by a Conservative RabbiCLICK HERE.)
The issue of “Who is a Jew?” can be confusing; it can seem illogical, and at times unfair. Due to the traditional Jewish rule of “matrilineal descent,” when a birth-mother is Jewish—regardless of how (or by whom) the child is raised—the child is Jewish according to halacha. But when the father is Jewish (or, in the case of adoption or surrogacy, both parents may be Jewish) but the birth mother is not Jewish, even if the child is raised as a Jew, he is not Jewish according to halacha.
Nancy and Drew (not their real names) were aware of the traditional Jewish requirement of matrilineal descent when they sat in my office recently, Nancy six months pregnant with their first child, a girl. Drew, who is Jewish, and Nancy, a practicing Catholic, had decided that any children they had would be raised as Jews. “So,” Nancy said to me, her hand resting on top of her growing belly, “how long after the baby is born should we take her to the mikveh (the ritual bath which is used for conversion to Judaism)?”
As a Reform Rabbi, I was somewhat taken aback by Nancy’s question. It has been years since the Reform Movement began recognizing “patrilineal descent” (i.e., the child can be recognized as a Jew if the father is Jewish, even if the mother is not Jewish). Drew grew up in a Reform synagogue, and he and Nancy had even begun to discuss joining a local Reform synagogue, where nobody would ever question the Jewishness of their daughter. Why, I wondered, did they feel a need to convert their daughter to Judaism when she would already be Jewish? To me, a conversion would be not only unnecessary, but problematic, since it would imply that the baby wasn’t “really” Jewish even though Drew was Jewish and she would be raised as a Jew.
And so I asked the couple why they wanted to convert their daughter, since it wasn’t necessary. Their response was simple and practical: “What if we end up at a Conservative synagogue one day, or what if our daughter grows up and wants to be married by a Conservative or Orthodox rabbi? We wouldn’t want her to feel that her being Jewish is in question, so we figured it’s best to ‘cover all of the bases’ while she’s a baby. This way, more people will consider her to be Jewish.”
I understood where they were coming from. After all, if they decided at some point to join a Conservative synagogue—even one that was very welcoming of interfaith families—since “patrilineal descent” isn’t recognized by the Conservative movement, their daughter might be allowed to be enrolled in Religious School without converting, but she would have to convert before being allowed to become a Bat Mitzvah at the synagogue. Wouldn’t it make sense, they reasoned, for them to take her to the mikveh while she was still a baby? Then, if they did join a Conservative synagogue at some point, they wouldn’t have to tell her at the age of 12 that she had to go to the mikveh because she wasn’t “really” Jewish according to the standards of her community.
I understood and respected their motivation to shield their daughter from the potential future pain of having her Jewishness questioned…of being told by others that because her mother wasn’t Jewish, she wasn’t Jewish, even though she’d been living as a Jew her entire life and had always identified as a Jew. My own daughter, simply because she was born to a Jewish mother, will never have to endure such painful questioning of her identity by others; why should Nancy and Drew have to worry that their daughter would have to deal with such questioning?
But still, I felt that by embracing Nancy and Drew’s “solution” to “convert” a child that I would already consider Jewish, I wouldn’t be holding true to my belief in the legitimacy of “patrilineal descent.” And so while I acknowledged the benefits of the couple “converting” their daughter while she was still a baby, I also expressed my concerns.
Whether Nancy or Drew will take their daughter to a mikveh for conversion while she is still a baby is their decision to make, and I will honor whatever decision they come to. But it saddens me that they have to make such a decision: choosing between their own liberal Jewish beliefs and the desire for their daughter to be recognized as a Jew by the larger Jewish community.
What would you do in Nancy and Drew’s situation? Would you take your child to the mikveh? What if the child were adopted and neither of the biological parents were Jewish?
Stacie, her husband Andrew and Sammy, the day of the aliyah
This past weekend, our 5-month-old son was formally welcomed into our synagogue community when our family was honored with an aliyah (being called to the honor of Torah). Our rabbi offered blessings, everyone sang “Siman tov u’mazel tov” and we talked about how Sammy got his name. He is named in honor of both of his grandfathers and we described the qualities we hope he will inherit from each: creativity, curiosity, intellect, humor and a big heart.
It was wonderful for us to celebrate the birth of our son together with our synagogue community and receive their congratulations. Every new parent needs all the support they can get!
But it also made me think about a comment my husband, who is not Jewish, made to me a few months ago. He said that now that he is raising a Jewish son, he feels like he is connected to and belongs to the Jewish people in a stronger way.
This comment surprised me a little because I thought he already felt like he belonged. After all, we’ve been celebrating Jewish holidays together since we started dating, we regularly attend neighborhood Shabbat dinner potlucks, and say Hamotzi (the blessing over bread) before dinner each night. Even when I was pregnant and not fasting, my husband decided to keep the fast during Yom Kippur anyway!
But then I thought about it. Being married to a Jewish woman is one thing. Committing yourself to raising a Jewish child is another. It is an awesome responsibility, and I hope, an opportunity. How wonderful that fulfilling that role has brought my husband closer to Judaism!
I hope that as we move through our life together and reach various Jewish milestones of Sammy’s—starting Hebrew school, having a Bar Mitzvah, being confirmed—that this sense of belonging is reinforced by our synagogue community and continues to grow. There are opportunities to invite both of us in as parents—Jewish and not Jewish—to learn along with Sammy and share in the lessons from Hebrew school; to think about the deeper meaning of becoming a Bar Mitzvah and taking on the responsibilities of a Jewish adult; and to engage with the synagogue community.
From our experience so far in our synagogue, I have faith that there will be a place for both of us as Sammy’s parents. Even during the aliyah, there was an alternate blessing for my husband to recite that acknowledges his different and special relationship to Torah while I recited the traditional blessings. I hope that continues to be the case for us, and I hope that all interfaith families have the opportunity to feel like they “belong” to the Jewish people.
Is it the spirit of the law or the letter of the law that counts the most?
“Your kids aren’t Jewish because your wife is not Jewish,” my friend said to me over coffee recently. I laughed so hard that my coffee spilled. “What’s so funny?” she asked.
“I know that you totally did not mean for that to come across as offensive.” I said, “But that is EXACTLY the kind of thing that we are trying to teach people not to say. InterfaithFamily wants to help build welcoming and inclusive Jewish communities and saying something like what you just said, for many people, is offensive.”
There are many times in one’s life that a person might find himself doing something without asking the question, “Why am I doing this?” One of the most divisive rabbinic rulings that is adhered to by various Jewish movements is that the religion of a baby is determined by the religion of the mother, not the father. So if a person is intermarried (as over 50 percent of the American Jewish population is), and they want their child to be recognized as Jewish to people within these movements, according to halacha—traditional Jewish law—it is the religion of the mother that “matters.” There are other views, such as the Reform movement, that recognizes a child as being Jewish if either parent is Jewish and the child is being raised Jewish (often referred to as patrilineal descent).
One of the most interesting aspects of the origin of religious descent is that originally in the Torah (the centerpiece and master story of the Jewish people), the religion of the offspring was determined by patriarchal descent, not matriarchal. There was a change around 2,000 years ago, many scholars found, that was based on the very tragic circumstances the Jewish people were facing. Jews were being wiped out by the Roman Empire in the 1st Century. The victimization and rape of Jewish women by Roman soldiers was not an uncommon occurrence.
There was no genetic testing back then, of course, and since the Jewish people were facing extinction, the rabbis rightfully decreed that the only parental origin that “mattered” for determining the religion of the baby was the religion of the mother. This law, which is still practiced by many Jewish communities today, had a very practical design.
But as Bob Dylan would say, “The times they are a-changin’.” It is true that there is still horrific “ethnic cleansing” that goes on around the world, such as in Bosnia and Darfur. But the problem that Jews were facing 2,000 years ago is, thankfully, no longer a common occurrence or threat. The law that once was helpful is no longer necessary.
When my son was born, my wife and I decided to have a bris and our search began to find a mohel that was willing to perform this ritual ceremony on a child from an interfaith marriage. At that time, f the mother was Jewish, it was much easier. Because I was the Jewish parent, many of themohels we spoke to would only perform the ceremony if my wife and son wen to the mikveh together. “So what’s the big deal?” I ignorantly asked. “It will be fun to go to the mikveh.” Sounded simple enough from an unaware Jewish dad’s perspective. (By the way, if you are looking for clergy to help with a birth ceremony for your interfaith family, we are here to help—just visit interfaithfamily.com/findarabbi.)
My wife was not too excited about this idea. Her initial reaction was, “Who are we trying to please?” or in other words “Why?”
Our kids are brought up Jewish in a Jewish house with mezuzahs on the doors. They attend Hebrew school and we celebrate Shabbat in our own meaningful way. And to us, right now, that is enough.
If you have questions about a bris or baby naming for an interfaith family, check out our baby naming booklet that you might find helpful. And please send me your stories (email@example.com), I would love to hear about your experiences as I continue this series of Halachah Unplugged.
As our booklet on baby girl naming ceremonies explains, names are the beginning of identity formation. Choosing your baby’s name helps to shape the kind of person you are hoping the baby will become. By selecting a Hebrew name, you connect your child to the generations that precede him or her, a community and a system of values. The Ashkenazi (Jews descended from Eastern Europe) have a tradition of naming a baby after a parent or grandparent who has died. This custom dates back to the 6th century B.C.E and naming children after their families’ ancestors remains the custom today.
Sephardic Jews (descendants of Spain and Portugal) often name their children after relatives that are alive. Because most American Jews are descendants of Ashkenazi Jews, parents often name their children after a family member who has died. Stories about the remembered relative bring a powerful emotional connection to the past and link to your hope for the future.
Some couples choose to have their sons circumcised in the hospital and opt for a Hebrew name ceremony later. Others choose to have a bris (brit milah: ritual circumcision) at eight days old during which the baby will be given his Hebrew name (even if the mother is not Jewish, if a couple wants to keep this ancient Jewish tradition and intends for their to child to be raised with Judaism, Reform mohelim—doctors with special training to perform a bris—will come to the home to perform the circumcision). Others choose not to circumcise and to have a naming ceremony later. For girls, parents often want to hold a ceremony to give her a Hebrew name.
Sometimes couples go back to the rabbi who married them to create a naming ceremony with them. Sometimes couples have found a synagogue and want the naming to take place in this community. However couples decide to publically “give” their child their Hebrew name, this can be a very special time for the family. For interfaith couples, it can be a time when the parents talk about the religious decisions they have made and to celebrate the arrival of their child and the sacred task of parenting.
Even though many couples have the naming ceremony when their baby is young, others hold the ceremony at the first birthday or another time. It is never too late to meet with Jewish clergy (a rabbi or cantor) to select a Hebrew name for a child.
Ari, right, with the Vickermans
Here are Nora Vickerman’s words which she spoke at the recent naming ceremony we had for her daughter, Chloe. What joy it was for me to have stood with this couple under the chuppah at their wedding and then to be able to bless their baby.
Chloe was born of parents who have a deep love for one another, a joy in our traditions and a commitment to Chloe, our daughter, to share and blend together as a family the beauty of both of our traditions. It is with this shared sense of commitment to all that is good and to all that is beautiful in our religions that we are here today to celebrate with our friends and with our family the first of many of our family traditions.
The naming of a Jewish child is a most profound spiritual moment. The sages said that naming a baby is a statement of her character, her specialness, and her path in life. For at the beginning of life, we give our child a name, and at the end of life, a “good name” is all we take with us. It is also the Jewish custom to name your child after a relative who has passed away. It is a great honor, keeping the name and memory of a deceased loved one forever alive, and in a metaphysical way, forms the bond between the soul of the baby and the relatives that she will be named for. My Jewish tradition calls for the naming of a baby with an English name as well as a Hebrew name, or names. Matt and I want our daughter to share in the richness of her heritage.
Chloe Rose shares a connection to her great grandfather Charles and hence her first name Chloe. Matt and I immediately knew that this would be her first name. My great grandfather came to this country from Russia. He brought with him the drive to succeed in a new land as well as a commitment to his Jewish religion and his love for tradition. He is honored in a book that described the History of the Jewish people in Beckley, West Virginia. He helped to establish the first Reform synagogue in the city. His courage, strength, and commitment to tradition and family are the traits that we wish for our Chloe. Her second English name is Rose. We also loved that name. She was given the name Rose to honor my great Aunt Roselyn, my great grandmothers’ oldest sister. She was a kind, intelligent, and beautiful lady who believed in the goodness of giving of oneself and to charity. The name Roselyn means a beautiful rose befitting our beautiful daughter.
Matt and I chose Chloe’s first Hebrew name to express our love for two family members who are no longer with us. We chose the Hebrew name Shira, when translated means song and light. How appropriate for our Chloe. She discovered the joy of song very early and has sung her sweet songs ever since the age of three months. And as you all may know Chloe is the light of our life. The S letter in Shira honors Matt’s grandfather Samuel, and the Hebrew letter Shin in Shira honors my mother’s mother Shirley, may their memories shine forever. May our beautiful daughter Chloe know that she will forever be connected in love to them as well as connected by family tradition. Chloe’s second Hebrew name is Yehudeet- a woman of great strength and fortitude (or in English, Judith). Yehudeet was given after my father’s father, Jacques. Our hope for Chloe is that as she grows she will always have the strength and conviction to do what is just and what is right throughout her life.
I recently had the honor of meeting five women who are due with their first babies in the fall (one brought her four week old). While none of them grew up Jewish, they are married to Jews and they want to create a home with Judaism (traditions, holidays, values) for their growing families. They all felt that their spouses did not have the literacy or resolve to accomplish this goal alone. They are seeking fellowship among other women in the same boat, and they are eager for their own Jewish learning and for ways into Jewish communal life.
Sitting with these women reminded me of a core truth of the work we do: Intermarriage is not the end of Judaism. Intermarriage does not mean the Jew is abandoning Judaism. Partners who aren’t Jewish are often open and ready to take on aspects of Jewish living, even though the learning curve is often so darn steep.
One of the moms-to-be said that they are ready to join a synagogue but that she “heard” the membership dues were $3,000. Someone else chimed in that there must be a lower rate for a new family or first time members. The first mom seemed hesitant to call the synagogue to find out.
On the High Holidays, synagogues will be filled with non-members. This is not a great term. InterfaithFamily suggests trying to avoid “non” in any kind of description about someone. We advocate saying “not Jewish” verses “non-Jew.” The people who are not dues paying members may be friends and family of members or they may have no connection to the congregation other than they bought a ticket. How can we tell all of these people that they already “belong?”
One idea is to have members say aloud the following words and to write them on literature that is handed out and on the homepage of every synagogue website: If you are interested in learning more about this open and warm community, please call (give the name and title of the membership person with his or her direct line and email). It is helpful to have a real person to call rather than have to search a website for membership information which is anonymous. We want our words to reflect a sentiment of welcome. If I were writing something, I would say:
If you are on this website looking for information about a place to come for Shabbat, to celebrate holidays, for classes and religious school, to meet friends or to do social justice work, join us. If you want to build a relationship with clergy who care about you, join us. Joining us isn’t about writing a check. It is about showing up when you want inspiration and fellowship, support and grounding. Whether you grew up with Judaism or not, whether you want introductory classes or higher level learning, whether you can read Hebrew or have never been to a synagogue, join us. We are a diverse group and this gives us strength and purpose. All are welcome. You can help support our congregational efforts at every level and means of giving.
I know there are lots of people studying new dues structures. This is not about a dues structure–fee for service, voluntary donations, etc. This is about the feeling of what it means to be a “member.”
Each of these five women and the new faces in synagogues over the next few weeks will make great synagogue members.
My weekend was full of babies – and beautiful ways to welcome them into the world.
Saturday started off with a baby naming ceremony for my cousin’s daughter. My cousin is in an interfaith marriage, and they are raising their children Jewish. When it was time for her aliyah(the honor of being called to say the blessing over the Torah reading), the rabbi invited the whole family up, even getting a chair for the new big brother to stand on so he could see the Torah and be part of what was going on. The whole congregation seemed to share in the joy as we welcomed this family and their adorable little girl into the community.
Later that afternoon, I attended a “baby blessing” party for a friend of mine who is due in July. Neither she nor her husband is Jewish, but they invited all of the guests to share a blessing, poem or song in honor of the parents-to-be and their baby. The husband’s family is from India so they actually incorporated part of a traditional Indian baby blessing ceremony into the afternoon. The women were invited to paint my friend’s cheeks with sandalwood and her forehead with vermilion. We placed bracelets on her arms and the baby is supposed to be able to hear the clinking sound of the bracelets in the womb. We offered words or songs of blessing for the new parents and for a safe birth.
When I was trying to figure out what words I could offer, I looked at some of InterfaithFamily’s materials, including our Brit Bat booklet. There I found a familiar prayer—the Shehekhiyanu—said whenever you experience something new or do something for the first time. This was the perfect blessing for me to say in honor of all the friends and family that were gathered for the ceremony and in honor of my friends’ first born! I was glad to be able to offer something from my Jewish tradition that could resonate with everyone there.
The day was another reminder to me of the beauty of Judaism and the ways it can help us add meaning and joy to the special moments of our life.
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