Downton Abbey Portrays Reality of Interfaith RelationshipsBy Gerri Miller
Go inside Season 5 Episode 9 where the story line of Atticus and Rose's interfaith relationship comes to a head.Go To Pop Culture
InterfaithFamily/Chicago helps facilitate a class for grandparents about passing on their values to their grandchildren. The conversation can be especially nuanced and sensitive for those grandparents who have grandchildren being raised in interfaith homes in which the parents struggle with “what to do about religion and traditions.”
Grandparents often say that they want their grandchildren to be kind, happy, giving, empathetic people. We then discuss whether these traits are “Jewish.” Does Judaism have a monopoly on kindness? Certainly not. But, Judaism does have our own vocabulary, narratives and texts which teach us about this value. Does it “matter” if our grandchildren or children know the word “chesed” (kindness) for instance, or the phrase “gimilut chasadim” (acts of loving kindness)? Does it make a difference if they learn about references in the Talmud to acts of kindness being even greater than giving tzedakah (money to make things “right”—literally righteousness) because one can perform kindness to the living or the dead (through the honor of burial) as well as other reasons? I actually do think it adds a layer of richness, connectedness, roots, identity and pride to connect universal values with our distinct and special cultural references to it.
So what is distinct about Judaism? Rabbis are often worried about sustaining the unique, set-aside, separate and “special” ways of Judaism. This is what leads to continuity. Is it through being insular, ethnic and concerned with ritual barriers and religious barriers that keeps the Jewish civilization alive and thriving? What would happen if someone not Jewish participated in rituals intended for Jews? Could we lose the idea that there is a distinctiveness of our people and tradition? It is one thing to have an open, loving, accepting community, but when it comes to ritual participation should there be boundaries (as in boundaries of who can take communion, for instance, in Catholicism)?
When it comes to non-Orthodox Judaism—where we look to Jewish law and traditions as guidelines—to perhaps inspire or suggest a way of behavior, but where Jewish law can be molded, updated and changed, then our distinctiveness is not based on rituals and laws, but something else.
What makes progressive Judaism distinct is our approach to Judaism. We approach Judaism with a modern, feminist, historical, rational, spiritual and activist lens (among others). What makes this Jewish expression distinct is our ability to allow people who did not grow up with Judaism experience the culture fully (precisely because we are not wholly concerned with the letter of the law).
We are distinct from Christianity and other religions. We are distinct from other forms of Jewish expression. There are both religious and secular humanistic ways to live this form of Judaism. Is this just Judaism-light or watered down Judaism? What’s authentic about this kind of Judaism? Different people will answer this question differently. Nobody should be made to defend his or her identity and religious or cultural ties. Does an open, non-legalistic Judaism perpetuate Judaism? If grandchildren don’t know the phrase “gimilut chasadim” but only that being kind is of utter importance to the matriarchs and patriarchs of their family, will Judaism continue? I do not believe that the only way for Judaism to survive is if it is a Judaism concerned with legal boundaries.
Maybe when we stop stressing about what a parent who isn’t Jewish can say during a child’s bar or
Sometimes a lack of literacy is to blame for not understanding a tradition and simply writing it off without ever studying it or trying it. However, maybe we can “let it go” when it comes to ritual and legalistic distinctions and feel confident that it is not these boundaries that make progressive Judaism viable and special. It is our approach to Judaism which should be celebrated and highlighted.
Since I joined InterfaithFamily last fall, I’ve been thinking a lot about Jewish traditions and practice, and more importantly, what messages and ideals about Judaism I’d like to pass on to my children. I grew up in a Reform Jewish household, and while my family was actively involved in our synagogue and many other aspects of Jewish life, we didn’t often mark Shabbat in a meaningful way—something I have not much changed as an adult.
I’ve been thinking about how much time I’ve been spending at Target on Saturdays. We just moved, and well, there are things to buy. Important things, like diapers and shower curtains and hand soap. And more diapers. Or grocery shopping. Or picking up the dry cleaning. Or any one of the endless errands that seems to pop up and never get done during the week.
Increasingly, there’s something unsettling to me about dragging my 2-year-old boys around on errands on Shabbat. It’s one of the reasons that I’m so excited that InterfaithFamily is a community partner in Reboot’s National Day of Unplugging (NDU) on March 7-8. I’ve taken the pledge to unplug as long as I can for the day, and am using it as a way to reboot (yes, pun intended) the way we spend Shabbat.
I’ve been thinking about the NDU since I signed the pledge, and on Reboot’s website, found out that the program which InterfaithFamily is supporting (read Marilyn’s pledge) is an outgrowth of “The Sabbath Manifesto”, a project “designed to slow down lives in an increasingly hectic world.” The Manifesto is a list of principles to think about incorporating and interpreting in whatever way you see fit. My favorites? “Connect with loved ones” (What better way to spend the day?), “Get outside” (Is it spring yet?), and “Eat bread” (Nothing better than a freshly baked challah from my new favorite kosher bakery, Blacker’s Bakeshop!).
But more important, I’m using the National Day of Unplugging as a chance to think critically about how we spend the day, and whether it matches our family’s values and what I’d like my sons to understand about Shabbat and our priorities. I’m thinking that instead of errands, can we linger over challah French toast before playground and storytime? Check out that Tot Shabbat service at a nearby synagogue? Or have a dance party in the living room? Because what I want my sons to take away from Shabbat is that it’s a joyful break from the week, a chance for us all to spend time together, with family and friends. A day apart, a chance to reset, to reflect, to connect, to start over, to do something special. Away from the checkout line.
Interested in taking your own pledge? It’s not too late—click here.
Shabbat was created to give us one day of rest each week. Traditional Jews follow a very strict guide about what activities they avoid for 26 hours, beginning at sundown on Friday and ending after sunset on Saturday. They don’t work, clean, shop, spend money, watch movies, listen to music, write, draw, drive, cook with heat, turn on or off anything that is electrical, battery, or gas powered, or carry things outside the home. One of the widely promoted benefits of disconnecting from electronic devices is to reconnect with family, friends, and analog activities. It can be a special time to spend doing things that we have a hard time getting to.
For less traditional Jews, keeping Shabbat can take many forms. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time.” In the global scheme of the modern world, separating time from space seems like an impossible dream.
Technology is part of my identity. I am rarely without my smart phone, one of those people who checks email and social media first thing in the morning and after lights out at night. Giving it up for 26 hours is a frightening prospect. I have tried many times and failed miserably. Cooking, I can do without, lights and heat can be easily set to operate by timers, shopping can wait, and all other “don’ts” can be accomplished with my smart phone. That’s the thing, the smart phone is operation central of my life. How could I possibly live without it?
Reboot, “a non-profit group designed to ‘reboot’ the cultures, traditions and rituals of Jewish life” has created an event to help us see Shabbat in a whole new way. It is called the National Day of Unplugging and with this blog, I am publicly committing to unplug on Shabbat, March 7-8. (IFF President Jodi Bromberg made the pledge too–read why here.) Is it possible for me to succeed? My idea is to separate the space into manageable sections. The first section will be enjoyed at Unplug SF, a celebration of Reboot’s National Day of Unplugging from 7:00pm to 12:30am. Catching up on sleep will cover the hours well past dawn, so that leaves about 11 hours to fill until Havdalah at 6:49pm.
For liberal Jews living in the modern world, what is OK and what isn’t OK on Shabbat? Each individual must decide what a spiritually meaningful Jewish practice looks like. These are not always easy decisions. The world does not stop just because it is Shabbat for a small minority of people. My family and friends might not understand my lack of response to their calls, emails, and text messages. Maybe it is just hard to change old habits and try something new. I cannot know what it feels like to unplug unless I try it. There is a cool page of real people’s reasons for unplugging on the National Day of Unplugging website. A couple of my favorites are “play with my puppy,” “spend quiet time with my loved ones” and “get outside.”
The unplug pledge is really just one day out of my entire life. My dog needs a hike, my family needs my attention, I need some exercise and there is beautiful world waiting to be discovered. I unplug to stroll the happy trails on Montara Mountain!
Many synagogues are holding their programs for Interfaith Family Shabbat this week and weekend. It is exciting to see the variety of programs that synagogues have created for this event. Some synagogues are having special movie screenings, others are hosting beginners’ services. One local synagogue, Main Line Reform Temple, was very creative and hosted a program entitled “Interfaith Family Shabbat Honoring our non-Jewish Spouses, Partners & Family Members: Everything You’ve Always Wanted to Know about Services (or anything Jewish) but Did Not Know Who or When to Ask.” This program invited all participants to email the Rabbi with any question prior to the service in which he would do his best to answer them. It was inspiring to see how many synagogues took advantage of the opportunity that Interfaith Family Shabbat provides to create a special program to re-energize their welcoming culture.
Conversely, a few synagogues said that Interfaith Family Shabbat doesn’t apply to their community because they are always welcoming. Without question, it is great to be committed to being welcoming throughout the year, but this is similar to celebrating Mother’s Day. We should always appreciate mothers but it is meaningful to moms everywhere to have one day when they are recognized. For an interfaith couple, a blessing or recognition of interfaith couples and their commitment to Judaism is inspiring to many who have chosen to support their spouse in Judaism.
In a society where we define ourselves with labels, welcoming of various groups will be critical. Some consider themselves “Jews” while others are “Protestant,” “Catholic,” “Hindu,” “Muslim,” etc. As long as we use labels, the need for constant and frequent welcoming will exist. After all, we are talking about walking into a synagogue, considered a haven for Jews—it makes sense that when a person walks into a house of worship that isn’t familiar, they will feel slightly uncomfortable. Even Jewish people may feel awkward in an unfamiliar synagogue and certainly in any other house of worship.
Hosts should let people know where to sit, what page the Rabbi is on, explain Hebrew references, etc. Guests may not know when it is ok to take a bathroom break or when to stand, so a helpful host could guide them in this. Hopefully, after multiple visits, a visitor will feel comfortable. But those first few visits are always slightly awkward. We hope that there will always be visitors, thus there will always be a need for welcoming!
I attended one of the Interfaith Family Shabbat events. One of the speakers said that he and his wife were greatly hurt when the Rabbi from his childhood Reform synagogue refused to marry them. He said that this interaction was so painful that he now refuses to go to that synagogue. Ten years later, he is still quite emotional about this rejection. I know that this synagogue considers itself welcoming but obviously, this person is scarred from the rejection.
After the service, many people remarked that “this community has always been a welcoming community.” Yet, there were many congregants who seemed to be enlightened when the Rabbi said “Just because someone marries someone of a different faith, they are not rejecting their parents. They are not rejecting their childhood. They simply fell in love.” There were congregants who really began to see the other side for the first time and understand interfaith marriage from a more loving perspective. It seemed that during this service, we learned that we should be more than understanding—we should welcome all people into the synagogue with open arms. Welcoming is a constant effort.
Did you attend a program for Interfaith Family Shabbat? Tell us about it in the comments section below!
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
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, koof daled shin. 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.
We just finished an online class called Raising a Child with Judaism in Your Interfaith Family. Participants came to their computers on their own time and read essays, watched videos, read narratives written by other interfaith families and discussed with each other the content and meaning of the eight sessions. The sessions were about major aspects of parenting, from bedtime to meals to raising ethical children, and the wisdom Judaism can provide about these areas.
An interesting discussion arose about Shabbat family worship. Parents said that Friday evening services were too late for young children. Tot Shabbat was fun for the children but didn’t fill the adults with spirituality or insight. Parents who were raised Christian said that they had warm memories of attending Church as a family on Sunday mornings: adults were able to participate in communal worship and children could join in or attend the nursery program. The whole family had an enriching experience that grounded their week and brought them together.
Why did this not exist within liberal Judaism, they wondered? It seemed as if Reform temples had essentially private bar or bat mitzvahs on Shabbat mornings, with no childcare for young children. Some Conservative synagogues had more options on Shabbat morning for the whole family, but parents who aren’t Jewish worried that they wouldn’t know enough Hebrew and would feel out of place somehow. I encouraged all of the participants to try both Reform and Conservative worship to see how they felt in reality, as assumptions and apprehensions may or may not come true. But the frustration was clear. Parents spoke about how their Jewish neighbors were taking the kids to soccer and swim lessons and anything other than Shabbat family worship.
I can relate to this frustration. I have worked at different Reform congregations around the country, and at least once a year it seems the senior staff would get together to talk about what to do with Shabbat! Were there ways to meet for earlier Friday evening family programs with dinner? If it was too early, parents who worked outside the home couldn’t attend. Every idea for Shabbat morning family worship would be put forth: musical services, services with crafts and projects at the end for the children, services ending with lunch, and other ideas to make the service more “attractive” or “appealing.” However, time and time again no matter how Shabbat morning got programmed, few families would attend. Even when rabbis preached about the need for this gift called Shabbat, the gift of time, of joy, of changing pace if only for an hour or two, of re-connecting… nobody seemed to bite.
Some rabbis explain this by saying that Judaism is a religion of the home, and it is not cultural to feel a pull to attend congregational worship. Families often do the Shabbat blessings over their own special dinner and have friends over. The kitchen table is referred to as the mikdash m’at (a miniature temple) in rabbinic writings because what goes on around the Shabbat table is worship. But that still does not answer our questions.
Perhaps this challenge can help bring positive changes to our Jewish communities. Maybe interfaith families will take the lead in bringing Shabbat family worship to liberal Jewish families who may not even realize what spending an hour or two on a Saturday morning together in song and peace would do for their family. Imagine if it became the cultural norm for families to come to synagogue from 9:30-11:00 on Saturday mornings in order to ground their week in hope, love and community. It will be exciting to see what ideas congregations can come up with for participatory, inclusive and engaging family worship with nursery options and learner’s services so that the whole family can come together in making meaningful memories.
Purim is a great holiday for families and kids: there are costumes, excuses to make noise and act silly, and many communities have parties, carnivals or other celebrations appropriate for the littlest members or our families (or those who feel young at heart). This post is about making Purim fun for the whole family. Let us know how your family celebrates by sharing your customs, ideas and suggestions in the comments!
The mom who blogs at Bible Belt Balabusta explains that she’s “worked hard to go from zero to….whatever speed I’m going these days, and I love sharing what I’ve learned with anyone who is even vaguely interested.” She’s all about the DIY as she says, “I especially love the ‘why’ behind it: I explore the customs and traditions behind holiday projects. If I’m learning, I’m happy.” So I was totally excited to see her LEGO gragger for Purim, that actually works! But if that’s still not geekily awesome enough for you, she has 4 different models and instructions to make your own. Amazing.
In a recent blog post for the URJ, Rabbi Vicki Tuckman explained the importance of being a “kitchen Jew.”
There is not a Jewish holiday that comes around that I do not partially practice – and reinforce my own Jewish identity as a cultural Jew – in the kitchen. To me, Mordecai Kaplan was correct when he first stated in 1934 that “Judaism is more than a religion; it is an entire civilization. Not merely religious texts but also language, literature, and even arts and crafts are a part of it.”
So how can you bring Purim into your kitchen? There’s plenty to bake on Purim! Looking for a way to explain hamantaschen, a popular Purim treat, to your kids or their friends? Check out Shalom Sesame’s video on making hamantaschen. Want some recipes? Check out our hamantaschen recipes, including a video recipe for “slacker hamantaschen” (what could be easier than 2 ingredients?). Or maybe you’d rather try some recipes for orejas de Haman (“Haman’s ears”) a Purim treat from the Sephardi communities.
As a bonus, there’s always the intersection between kitchen Judaism and math. Yes, math. Because you too can bake your way to the “Sierpinski Hamantaschen.”What’s that? “You may be familiar with the Sierpinski triangle, a mathematically attractive, self-repeating fractal that starts with one equilateral triangle and breaks down into ever-smaller triangles.” Some basics of the Sierpinski triangle:
First of all, when rotated to any side, it looks the same; I couldn’t even tell where I’d started it. Also, as the triangles get smaller, notice a pattern in the quantity of each size: 1, 3, 9, 27…. I’m sure it would go on if I could make really really tiny hamantaschen, but I don’t have that much power. Also, technically this triangle has no area, so maybe all the sugar doesn’t count? But careful with that logic: it has infinite perimeter, and that dough for the perimeter is full of not-healthy ingredients like flour and sugar and oil.
So bring your love of math to the kitchen, teach your kids about the wonders of fractals, and have fun creating this uberhamantaschen.
Want a fun way to encourage your kids to act on one of Purim’s four commandments (mitzvot)? Try using unopened boxes of pasta as noisemakers during the reading of the Book of Esther (Megillat Esther). Shake those boxes for a satisfying rattling noise each time Haman’s name is read. Then donate the boxes of food to a local food bank, fulfilling the mitzvah (commandment) to give to the poor on Purim.
And, finally, for those of you with teens or older kids who appreciate the finer offerings of Broadway, enjoy this new video made by Reform rabbinic and cantoral students studying at HUC-JIR Jerusalem campus. “The Book of Purim” is a spoof of The Book of Mormon.
Friday, January 13, we hosted a JCC Makor Shabbat for Interfaith Families with Young Children, a community dinner organized by the JCC Shure Kehilla. The guidelines for the dinner we hosted were that participants need to be 21-39, and some of the parents who came to our house were pushing this, but everyone loved the idea of a program whose aim is to connect this cohort with great Jewish happenings all around Chicagoland. The night we held our interfaith family Shabbat, there were three other community Shabbat dinners organized by the Kehilla happening in the city (blue-line Shabbat, travelers Shabbat, music and arts) and another taking place out in Wheeling.
For this Shabbat, however, we were having four other couples with their combined eight children to our home for blessings, dinner, schmoozing and playing. I started by getting the whole house organized and cleaned up (which actually felt really good to do). Then I went to Taboun Grill to pick up the food the JCC had ordered. When I got there, I met Genia who runs the Russian Hillel. I have known Genia in name for years through the work I have done in and around Odessa, Ukraine, but she didn’t know me. I was so excited to learn that she had become a Jewish professional in Chicago. I got to connect with her in person over some tea while we waited for our orders to be packed. (Genia was hosting the Wheeling Shabbat for Jews in the ‘Burbs, another of these community dinners organized through the Kehilla.) We talked about interfaith couples in the Russian community and what she is seeing in terms of identity and interests of her students.
Wow, I really hate this new Hotmail ad campaign. I noticed and loathed it for the first time yesterday on a poster in a bus shelter in Boston, a big green field with the words, “THE NEW BUSY THINK 9 TO 5 IS A CUTE IDEA” in white letters.
Now, there are a lot of reasons to hate this. First, as one Seattle-area blogger pointed out in an aptly-titled post, New Ad Campaign for Hotmail Is Everything We Expect From Microsoft–Awkward, Baffling, Hard to Escape, “This exercise in tone-weirdness, this ball of syntactical confusion, has started showing up on billboards, buses, banner ads, and the signature lines of Hotmail users everywhere. ” Local Boston journalist Alex Beam considers this campaign part of “the War Against the English Language.” It’s a bad ad campaign for what seems to be an inferior product, a 15-year-old web-based email system.
I’m not all that crazy about Hotmail, since they seem to me to be more than usually vulnerable to hacking–but that’s not why I’m writing about this on our blog. I’m writing about it because I am finding our 24/7 work culture an affront to basic human dignity, because it flies in the face of the reason I observe Shabbat.
Shabbat is the opposite of the New Busy. Shabbat is the very old Not Busy. Shabbat is a time to unplug. Shabbat is the time when your family can be together without working. Without working! No working! Stop working! Rest! Because you have a RIGHT to rest sometimes! Your boss cannot possibly pay you enough to justify working all the time!
This isn’t only a Jewish issue–I’m not saying this just to get interfaith families to go to Tot Shabbat. (Though that’s also so nice.) I am saying it’s time for everyone to get off of this treadmill and admit that we need to rest.
I’m giving you advice about what you should do tonight. Go have a nice meal with your lovely family or friends, and then afterward, lie down and sleep. Take a DAY OFF this weekend. You are a person with needs and relationships. Affirm the basic inherent dignity of human individuals, the beauty of the natural world and its rhythms, something good that is not work. The New Busy is the old oppression.