A New Year With You In It Will Be Happy

My dear friend contacted me this past week and asked,

When you get some time in the next week, will you share with me some of your holiday traditions and things? I feel like I’m trying to build a Jewish family from basically scratch here, and need some help with ways to make  in terms of holidays, all my knowledge is liturgical and theological, and none of it is practical how-does-a-family celebrate kind of thing.

I immediately directed her to the Guide to the High Holidays for Interfaith Families that I wrote last year.

We’ve also published a lot of other pieces on the site with Rosh Hashanah customs, including several stories with recipes, including Recipes for a Happy Jewish New Year, which has a list of some of the foods traditionally eaten to symbolize a good year. I love Teresita Levy’s pieces for our site which always combine her Puerto Rican culinary heritage with her observant Judaism, and this one, Feliz Ano Nuevo has some great alternative New Year’s recipes. We also ran an article on Tunisian Jewish recipes for Rosh Hashanah.

I was glad to get a reminder from Amy Meltzer’s blog Homeshuling that I own the children’s book that tells how to make a Rosh Hashanah seder. Doesn’t that sound cool?

I think if I had to make a list of the customs of this season that don’t always make it into Jewish education, they would be:

–new clothes
–New Year’s cards
–symbolic foods with obscure Hebrew puns–beets for the win!
–honey cake
–other cakes and cookies, I don’t want to forget or diss any!
–fancy meals with relatives
–round hallah with raisins. My husband insists they must be yellow raisins. My mother says raisins “symbolize money.”
–apologizing to people for hurts done in the past year in the 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur
–visiting the cemetery between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and lighting a yahrzeit candle before the holidays if you are going to memorial services

Can you think of any that I missed? Any that you think a person who is new to the holiday would like to know?

If you are new to a Jewish family or to Judaism, this is a good time to bring insights from your past into your future together. That’s not just food (though of course, Jewish people want your unique cake recipes.) No, this is really the time to bring yourself to the table.

Ahoy Mateys

I know there aren’t many people who are terribly worried about this, but I am deeply amused that this year, Talk Like a Pirate Day falls on the first day of Rosh HaShanah.

“Shiver me timbers, it’s time to sing Avinu Malkenu and blow the shofar, mateys! Arrrrrr, me hearties, if you don’t pass me the teiglach, I’ll make ye walk the plank! Smartly with the grog, me beauties, ’tis kiddush we’ll be havin’!  L’Shanah Tovah! Arrrrr!”

My husband doesn’t think this is funny. 

(I know, we won’t be blowing the shofar or singing Avinu Malkenu this year on the first day of Rosh HaShanah, because it falls on Shabbat. But would a pirate know that?)

Survey: 60% of Progressive Rabbis Officiate

Sixty percent of rabbis at Reform, Reconstructionist, Jewish Renewal and unaffiliated congregations officiate at interfaith weddings, according to a new transdenominational survey by Dr. Caryn Aviv and Dr. Steven Cohen, reports JTA.

I haven’t seen the survey yet–it only was presented yesterday as part of a conference on best practices for engaging LGBT Jews–but if that number is correct, then it’s an astonishing development. The only comparable historical survey I know of is a 12-year-old rabbinic survey conducted by the Jewish Outreach Institute. That 1997 study showed that only 20 percent of rabbis across the denominations officiated at interfaith weddings, and even among the Reform rabbinate, only 36 percent officiated (although 85 percent of Reconstructionist rabbis did). Those numbers aren’t directly comparable to the reported number from the new study since the new study aggregates rabbis across several movements. But my guess is that officiation numbers are up across the board within movements that permit officiation at interfaith weddings.

The new survey polled 1,221 North American rabbis, synagogue directors and presidents in attempt to learn about how synagogues approach and engage gay and lesbian Jews. Among the other reported numbers: 73 percent of these leaders felt their synagogue did a good job welcoming gay and lesbian Jews; 33 percent said they held programs explicitly for gay people; 73 percent of synagogues had rabbis who officiated at same-sex ceremonies; and 47 percent of synagogue leaders said their attitudes toward gays and lesbians had become more favorable over the last decade.

I will let you know more once I get my hands on the report, but early signs suggest that the research will show that synagogues have become more welcoming towards gays and lesbians AND interfaith couples over the last decade. That’s a welcome development.

The Rap on Rent-a-Rabbis

Independent rabbis without congregations get a bad rap. There seems to be a general cultural assumption that unless you have a congregation–or you’re famous, the great reprieve of American culture–you are somehow not a “real” rabbi. Somehow the fact that a small group of volunteer leaders at a synagogue decided to pay you a salary confers more legitimacy on you than if you write, do freelance projects and travel the country to officiate at weddings and other life cycle events.

An otherwise quite thoughtful article in the Baltimore Jewish Times about changing attitudes toward intermarriage in the religious movements is marred by this prejudice:

Rabbi [Bradd] Boxman arrived at Har Sinai in 2003. Up until then, he had not officiated at a single interfaith ceremony. He had been thinking about it and, he felt, if he were going to make a change, this would be a good time.

Continue reading

The Associated Press and Officiation

Associated Press religion writer Rachel Zoll recently wrote an article about
the difficulties interfaith couples can face trying to find a rabbi to
officiate at their wedding. She gives examples of rabbis whose status as
rabbis is questionable, who do not respect Jewish tradition in the weddings
they conduct, and who charge unreasonable fees for their services.

Rabbi Lev Baesh and I were interviewed and photographed for the article. We
told her that there is a trend for more and more legitimate and respected
rabbis who do respect Jewish tradition to officiate at intermarriages
without charging unreasonable fees.
Continue reading

Ay, There’s the Snub

Leave it to Julie Wiener of The Jewish Week to come up with an original take on Noah Feldman’s The Orthodox Paradox.

Rather than use her column as an opportunity to critique or praise Feldman, she ponders the value of the snub–both Maimonides School’s snub of Feldman and Feldman’s snub of the school and the Modern Orthodox community. Does the snub work? Does it lead to a desired change in behavior, or does it just piss people off?

Wiener certainly leans toward the latter option. Feldman’s case provides a double dose of evidence that the snub doesn’t work: Feldman intermarried and was unashamed of his life decisions despite his exclusion from the announcement section of his day school’s alumni newsletter while the Modern Orthodox community has responded to Feldman’s essay not by reconsidering some of its policies but by counterattacking Feldman with often virulent force.
Continue reading

The Rising Tide on Officiation

Not to toot our own horn, but we appear to have tapped into something with the hiring of Rabbi Lev Baesh as the director of our Rabbinic Circle and rabbinic officiation referral service. Julie Wiener of The Jewish Week has written her most recent “In the Mix” column on the growing interest in officiation at intermarriages. At last year’s convention of Reform rabbis, Rabbi Jerome Davidson, of Temple Beth El in Long Island, advocated for the Reform rabbis’ association to change its position on officiation; currently its official line says that intermarriage “should be discouraged,” but leaves the decision on officiating to the discretion of individual rabbis.

Meanwhile, Rabbi Erica Greenbaum, a recent graduate of Hebrew Union College, the Reform rabbinical seminary, recently completed her senior thesis on rabbinic officiation at intermarriage.

Rabbi Greenbaum, who is director of Jewish life at the Jewish Community Project Downtown in Lower Manhattan, says the research for her thesis was heartening overall.

“There continues to be a perception in some parts of the non-Reform community that any rabbi officiating at intermarriages is a shady character just doing it for the money,” she [says]. “That’s not a fair characterization. Certainly there are those people, but lots of rabbis on both sides are doing what they’re doing with a lot of integrity.”

Further, we’re aware of two studies in different stages that look at the impact of rabbinic officiation on Jewish involvement.

To all this, we say “Mazel tov!” We’ve long been of the opinion that the Jewish community is missing a golden opportunity to attract interfaith couples to Judaism through officiation at intermarriages. Nobody yet knows whether a rabbi’s involvement in an interfaith wedding makes it more likely for an interfaith couple to engage with Judaism, but it certainly can’t hurt. A rabbi’s involvement in an interfaith wedding gives a couple a personal, emotional connection to the Jewish community that they might otherwise not have. We have received numerous thank you notes from couples who we’ve helped find a Jewish officiant.

In the coming months, I suspect we will hear even more about this issue.

An Unnoticed Outreach Hero

Rabbi Abraham J. Klausner died on June 28. The obituaries in the Jewish press, including JTA and the Jerusalem Post, described how Rabbi Klausner, the leader of a Reform synagogue in Yonkers, N.Y., for 25 years, was the first Jewish chaplain in the US Army to enter Dachau and had been a leading advocate for Holocaust survivors. The New York Times obituary tells that story too, with quotes from Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, that Rabbi Klausner was “the father figure” for more than 30,000 survivors found at Dachau, and was instrumental in improving conditions in the displaced persons camps after the war. But the Times tells one more story about Rabbi Klausner that the Jewish press didn’t mention.
Continue reading

Officiation as a Litmus Test?

The question of rabbinic officiation at intermarriages threatens a schism in the Reform movement, writes Steve Lipman’s in today’s The (New York) Jewish Week:

A decade after the movement’s rabbinical arm, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, examined the effects of intermarriage and outreach within its ranks, the largest Jewish denomination in the United States is again dealing with a question that may determine its immediate future: Is the marriage ceremony threatening to cause a divorce in Reform Judaism?

I wouldn’t quite go that far, but Lipman does focus on a growing phenomenon: friction between rabbis who won’t officiate at intermarriages and members of their synagogue who want them to officiate. According to the story, officiation has become a litmus test for hiring in many congregations, especially congregations in small Jewish communities. “Officiating has become a sine qua non for rabbinic placement,” says Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, who is leaving The Temple in Atlanta partly due to his refusal to perform intermarriages and the tension that causes.

This kind of controversy shows the importance and relevance of our recent hiring of Rabbi Lev Baesh to run our Rabbinic Circle. Rabbis grappling over the issue need a safe space to talk about the issue. Those who do officiate need templates for ways to articulate their decision to their congregations, and those who don’t need ideas for how to welcome and engage interfaith couples. And those on the fence need intelligent, reasoned arguments for and against.

The fact that there is a gap between the desires of the lay membership and the consciences of their rabbis further demonstrates the need for the service Rabbi Baesh will be providing. People who are Jewishly engaged, as demonstrated by their membership in Reform synagogues, want authentic, credible rabbis to officiate at their interfaith weddings and don’t want to wade through the hazardous seas of the web, where it is difficult to determine who’s “legit” and who’s not.

We’ve Hired a Rabbi

Rabbi Lev Baesh

The story broke today. We have hired our first rabbi. Rabbi Lev Baesh, who led a congregation in Dover, N.H., for 12 years and has taught classes for the Reform movement’s Northeast region, will start July 9 as director of our Rabbinic Circle.

His role will have two goals:

  1. To help couples find rabbis to officiate at their interfaith weddings and help them connect with synagogues in their local communities. This will entail responding to requests, developing our referral list, establishing standards for the inclusion of rabbis on the list and following up with couples.
  2. To provide a safe space for rabbis to discuss and consider the question of officiation, without pressuring them to officiate. The enhanced Rabbinic Circle section of our site will include arguments for and against officiation, sermons from rabbis who have decided to officiate and other resources for rabbis interested in the question.

We are well aware that rabbinic officiation is one of the most controversial issues among rabbis today–even the Reform movement’s rabbis are divided on the issue. We’re not looking to tell rabbis to officiate, but we are looking to provide greater reliability, efficiency and integrity to the process of looking for a rabbi to officiate.