Full of helpful advice for families starting to think about their child's bat or bar mitzvah, Bar & Bat Mitzvah For The Interfaith Family will be a helpful primer to all families (not just interfaith!).
This booklet explains the history of Hanukkah, the symbolism and significance of lighting candles for eight nights, the blessings that accompany the lighting of the candles, the holiday's foods, the game of dreidels, and more!
Connecting Interfaith Families to Jewish Life in Greater Cleveland by providing programs and opportunities for interfaith families to experience Judaism in a variety of venues, meet other interfaith families, and to connect to other Jewish organizations that may serve their needs.
This is an interactive, fun, and low-key workshop for couples who are dating, engaged or recently married. The sessions will give you a chance to ask questions about faith, to think about where you are as an adult with your own spirituality and to talk through what's important to you and your partner.
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.
Osmosis is a subtle or gradual absorption or mingling. Sometimes we joke that you can’t learn something through osmosis. Learning is active and involves studying and practice. Well, when it comes to prayer, I can assure you that the best way to learn the words and melodies is by just sitting in services and even passively hearing them.
I’ve written before about my children being terribly behaved in services. My children either feel too at home in Temple (my husband is the Rabbi there), or something about being in the spotlight as the rabbi’s kids makes them nervous. Or, they’re just high-energy, fidgety kids who struggle with sitting still when they’re bored. This is a continuing issue that we are working on.
Thus, we get into synagogue and my kids tend to run around. Once in the sanctuary, they sit and talk, sit and move, and they want to draw. A mess ensues all around us. They want to get up to get a drink and go to the bathroom, repeatedly. They want to run into Daddy’s office. They want to do anything but sit nicely with the prayer book open and participate. The more I try to encourage them in the positive or threaten them with the negative, the more energy I put into wanting them to have good behavior, it seems the more they embarrass me. It’s actually a huge source of stress for me around going to the congregation as a family.
For those who know me, I’ve been advocating for community to be focused on things in addition to communal prayer. I think that Friday night worship or Saturday morning services may be continuing a model that needs to be revamped more than tweaked or edited. No “Blue Jeans Shabbat” is going to fix what can feel like irrelevant, Hebrew-heavy, long, rote, sometimes cheesy experiences. Yes, there are vibrant, engaging worship experiences out there. People flock to them, seek them out and live for them. But, I’ve had a conflicting personal love-hate relationship with liberal Jewish worship lately.
I think that especially for people newer to Judaism, interfaith families and those who are not following along in the Hebrew and who are not familiar with the prayers and music, it can feel overwhelming and challenging to make Jewish prayer our own.
So, consider all of that with what I’m going to now say. My 7-year-old, who is not paying attention in synagogue and who may unconsciously sense my own stress and discomfort with communal worship, knows the main prayers in Hebrew, in tune. She gets most of the words slightly wrong, but she’s got the basic idea. When I asked her what the V’ahavta means, she said, “It’s a prayer to God.” She knows it’s central, important and about connecting with God. And, I’m happy for her that it works for her and proud that Judaism is a source of roots for her.
We go to synagogue once a month for the early, shorter family service and that’s how she’s learned this. Through osmosis. I am looking forward to her refining her pronunciation as she hears the correct words over and over.
I spend a lot of time at Starbucks. All different Starbucks locations. Lately, I have been seeing signs about it being a “Third Placein our daily lives.” We have our work places, our homes and we have the coffee shop. I think for lot of people, walking into Starbucks is comforting and familiar. The smells, the furniture, the vibe, the culture there, the drinks—we know what to expect and it feels good.
At our recent InterfaithFamily/Chicago event, Barbara Mahany read from her new book, Slowing Time. She talked about how children raised with both Judaism and Catholicism in their lives often understand the in-between spaces of life. They relate to the grays, to nuance, to ambiguity and discrepancy and can hold multiple identities and ideas in one intact soul and psyche. They don’t practice a new religion or a Jewish-Catholic blend. Rather, they hold both traditions in their hearts and minds. They keep them separate and draw from each at different times. They experience both. They understand about both of their parent’s backgrounds. In a way, this is a third place for Judaism and Christianity.
I have heard some people refer to the interfaith schools that exist around the country where families with one Christian parent and one Jewish parent come to learn and worship with the intent to raise their children as “both” as being Third Spaces. These communities aren’t synagogues or churches but have elements of both and clergy from both.
At a recent teaching session at one of Chicago’s interfaith programs, the parents asked me whether any liberal synagogues could open their doors to families raising their children “both.” Could synagogues have a track for these families where they have a certain membership level knowing that the children wouldn’t use the religious school? These families could send their children to mid-week Hebrew school and of course become part of the community on Shabbat and holidays, during social justice pursuits and on retreats. These children would have a sacred space to mark the first time they read from the Torah scroll, which is often very important to their families.
In order for this to happen, congregations would have to accept and appreciate families who want Judaism in their lives in this way. They would have to accept that everyone’s Jewish expression looks different and that every family configuration is different. These families who want both religions in their lives are often very thoughtful about faith and traditions and eager learners and worship regulars.
I think if synagogues could find their way toward working with and hearing families who want Judaism in their lives in authentic ways but who also need to have the children learn about and experience the other parent’s faith, it will enhance the community. Struggling to understand and define the boundaries of “in” and “out” will help us all clarify our path, our fears and hopes and our vulnerabilities. Having a community of diverse practices under a shared tent of united desire to see Judaism continue and flourish is good for all of us.
For some, the synagogue or being with their community is a third space in importance next to their home and their office. For others, it falls farther down their line of places they frequent (perhaps after Starbucks). Do you think the Jewish world can or should find space for families who see religion in a third way? Not as just Jewish or just Catholic but as something more fluid?
I love synagogues, in theory and many in reality. I have blogged before about my enduring connections with the congregation where I grew up, even though I haven’t lived in that community for over twenty years. I have written about just stopping in to congregations and hanging out there. Most recently, I wrote about my experience in my parent’s new congregation. I don’t think liberal Judaism can survive in America without synagogues. I am all for new and different models for congregations, like Mishkan Chicago. There are several congregations in Chicago with alternative dues structures and different religious school models like Sukkat Shalom.
I believe liberal Jews in America need a structure by which we can educate our children, join together for holidays and share in social justice pursuits. We need programs and classes that add meaning to our lives and help us infuse Judaism into the busy rhythm of our days. True, there are individuals who hire Jewish teachers to educate their children and to teach Hebrew and there are people who create individual and personalized life cycle ceremonies like bar and bat mitzvah outside the realm of an “organized” community. These people are often labeled as “unaffiliated” as if they are hurting the Jewish pursuit in America. I think that however people find Judaism and pass it on is important and should not be marginalized or demeaned. However, for many people who want their children to be raised with Judaism, joining a synagogue would be the easiest and most effective way to fulfill that holy objective (which is a pursuit that takes a lifetime, which is why leaving after bar/bat mitzvah is so problematic for continuity).
For many years, interfaith families in congregations felt or still feel that extended family and parents who are not Jewish are not fully embraced. Some express that their cultural and religious lives have to be dormant or invisible inside the realm of synagogue. Children in interfaith homes report that religious school teachers or other members of the congregation make off-handed comments which make them feel less than fully Jewish or different or other. When people feel close to clergy members who can’t officiate at their life cycle events, it can deeply sting. So even though the majority of American Jews are partnered with someone who is not Jewish and congregations are by and large welcoming and want interfaith families to be part of the community, it can take some convincing to encourage interfaith couples and families to try again, so to speak, when a negative experience has already occurred.
We at InterfaithFamily/Chicago have created a new offering (which I explained in this previous blog post) to encourage interfaith families to take a chance with a synagogue for their family because we feel that being part of a community is so intrinsic to our ability to live and pass on Judaism. We have asked congregations to designate an interfaith family that is active at their synagogue to be listed as a “connector” on their Temple’s profile on our website. You can email this person to ask them to share their honest experience at the synagogue. They can tell you about how the parent who isn’t Jewish feels there. They can tell you about the vibe at the religious school and how the diversity of the community is celebrated.
As well, each of these congregations has a link back to InterfaithFamily on their temple’s website as a show of support for the interfaith families in the community and as a sign that they want to be supportive with resources to help pave the way to exploring Judaism however they can.
The following is a list of synagogues that we endearingly call our Super Orgs!
The other day I saw a rabbi I know post a YouTube link to one of my favorite versions of the prayer, Hashkiveinu. Hashkiveinu is one word in English but means, “Grant that we may lie down” in Hebrew. In Hebrew, prefixes and suffixes are attached to the word. It is a petitionary prayer to be able to lie down in peace at night and to return to renewed life the following day.
Rabbi Murray I. Rothman
The link on Facebook to the video caught my eye for two reasons: As I said, I love this musical rendition of this prayer. Also, this rabbi serves the congregation where I grew up, Temple Shalom of Newton, MA.
What does it mean to grow up at a synagogue? For me, I had heard stories from my dad about how his parents were among the earliest members. My dad had his Bar Mitzvah at this synagogue. I was named as an infant there. The senior rabbi at the time, Murray I. Rothman, of blessed memory, got my family through a horrendous time when my mother was struck by a car crossing the street in front of our house. My little brother was 1, my middle brother was 3 and I was a kindergartner. My mother could not get up the stairs of our house for almost a year. She was bedridden on a couch in our den. My father somehow managed the three of us. Neighbors and family came to the rescue. And Rabbi Rothman came to that den every Friday afternoon with a challah and a Torah commentary and studied a little Torah with my mom. This kept her going spiritually and emotionally.
What does it mean to grow up at a synagogue? I knew the halls of that place. I knew the smells, the classrooms, the chapel, the sanctuary, the bathrooms, the youth lounge, the social hall—I knew the building. My confirmation class photograph is on the wall there. In fact, I sat in the Rabbi’s study on more than one occasion philosophizing about God and Judaism (true, I was into this stuff, even as a kid). I felt at home there. I slept there in a sleeping bag on the floor as a teenager at a “shul-in.” I remember the Temple Shalom sukkah in detail even though the last time I helped decorate one was at least 20 years ago. I can still feel the pride I felt praying with my family in the sanctuary on the High Holidays, wearing my new dress. I can see my brothers as I write this, quietly folding the flyers and tickets into origami to keep occupied during the services.
Some say bricks and mortar don’t matter. Buildings are passé. We’ve got coffee houses now. Millennials don’t want to walk into synagogues. Too many barriers. A building fund is too onerous for members to carry. What’s important are the people. The community. This is also true. But, I loved that building and it went through changes and renovations and has a life of its own. I think one reason I felt so connected to the building was that I could walk there from my house. That is how we got to and from Hebrew School. It is rare today for kids to walk places by themselves (at least not as young as we used to). I loved that independence, and going to a place I felt was totally safe and mine.
What does it mean to grow up at a synagogue? It means you know the people. We knew the people who worked in the office, the maintenance crew, the teachers, the educators and the rabbis. These were the people who lived in the temple as far as I was concerned. They were the familiar faces who knew us by name. They were welcoming and warm. They kept the temple going. And, my friends were there. We came together from multiple public schools. We grew up there together. We came to one another’s Bar and Bat Mitzvah services. We had our parties in the synagogue social hall. My parents knew the other parents and the kids.
I learned to read Hebrew there. I may not have known how to translate each word into English but I learned to read the Hebrew prayers in Hebrew fluently by about fifth grade. I kept the old blue Gates of Prayer Book—the Reform Movement’s prayer book—on my nightstand growing up, which I received from Temple Shalom. A nameplate was placed in it for me at my Bat Mitzvah. I read the prayers to myself at night and they were a source of comfort.
My parents have now moved to Philadelphia to be near my little brother’s family. We have no ties to this building anymore. We don’t know many people who still go there. Yet, all these years later, when I see a Facebook post from Temple Shalom, it catches my eye. It makes me smile to see the new life that is there now. It is a part of me.
I marry lots of people who “grew up at an area congregation” but they left after their Bar or Bat Mitzvah. Maybe they have great and deep memories of being there. Maybe they barely remember their time there.
The only way one feels a sense of growing up in a synagogue is if you are there a lot and get really involved. I am thankful this was the case for me and my family growing up. It’s never too late to go back. It’s never too late to try a new congregation. Interfaith families are welcome at congregations, often with wide open arms.
This year on Rosh Hashanah, our synagogue tried something new. All of the kids were invited onto the bima to witness the blowing of the shofar. It was amazing to watch the kids’ faces while the shofar sounded. My daughter even jumped back a little at the sound initially. It was a sight to behold on many levels. First, I loved seeing all of the kids at the synagogue. Most of them were in awe of the Torahs, the Rabbi and the shofar. Second, when I spoke to my son later, he said he never realized that there were that many people at the synagogue. He seemed impressed that there were that many people observing the holidays. Since he attends a school with very few Jewish kids, he felt excited that “he wasn’t the only one” observing the holiday. Third, the Rabbi said that the twisting shape of the shofar is like life – there are ups and downs, twists and turns that keep going on a unique journey. Again, watching the kids comprehend this concept was gratifying.
I know that for a long time, synagogues would keep the kids in a different area of the building during services so they didn’t disrupt the adults and the prayers (I suspect the parents liked having a “break” from the kids, too). Some congregations create a group that prays and another group that discusses. There may be another group for the teenagers and another group for the toddlers. Unfortunately, some kids grow up thinking that synagogue is just for kids. I think that this is all fine and good but at some point, we should all be together.
I learn so much from the whole community: from my kids, from my friend’s 92- year-old-grandmother, and from the pleasant gentleman two rows back with a great smile. Our kids should see what their future looks like and we should look back on our childhood with wonderful memories. The good memories are what keep us going so we can manage the twists and turns of life.
Many people are part of the community of their neighborhood, preschool, elementary school, gym or office. I find that these communities are wonderful but fleeting; the people move, the kids grow up, the gym down the street offers a better deal or people get new jobs. The Jewish community is a little different on the holidays. No one has to send out an invitation, but lots of people show up to celebrate the holiday. We see families grow up and evolve. A hug from an old friend is commonplace. We may hear a tune that reminds us of a relative or humorous incident from childhood.
I know that many communities have a Jewish Community Center (JCC) which is a great place to find community. While I am not a member of a JCC, I find that my Jewish community IS my center. It is the most consistent presence in my life besides family. I don’t love everyone there but I enjoy a little something of everyone, young and old. Best of all, we all are collecting and reliving some very positive memories.
We here at InterfaithFamily believe, like the rabbis of old, that language is extremely important. The rabbis of the Talmud wrote about the power of words. God created the world with words. God said, “Let there be…” and there was. The rabbis said that to embarrass someone was akin to killing their soul (bringing blood to the face). They spoke against lashon harah (gossip—literally the evil tongue). There are prayers about guarding our tongues from evil and our lips from deceit. The Amidah, the central prayer in the Jewish worship service, begins with a line asking God to open our lips that our mouth can declare God’s glory. The old adage, “sticks and stones can break our bones but words can never hurt us” is indeed not very Jewish. The words “thing” and “word” in Hebrew share the same root “d’var” teaching that our words create reality.
It is because words are so important that you may notice that we avoid using the term, “non-Jew” because we don’t promote the idea that someone can be a “non-entity.” We rather say, “someone not Jewish.” You may feel that this is just semantics, but we disagree.
Many Jewish institutions ask people if they are affiliated with a congregation on membership forms and surveys. The Jewish world wants to know who is a member of a synagogue and what behaviors they have as opposed to people who are not members of a synagogue. We are also interested in tracking synagogue membership for dozens of other reasons (although the topic of another blog, I personally believe it is extremely difficult to raise children with Judaism without the help of a congregation or organized community whether school, community center or chavurah).
Here are my top five reasons for not using the word “unaffiliated” anymore:
This is an insider Jewish professional term that creates even more distance between the paid leaders and the people. Sometimes people do not know what it means to be “affiliated” and thus again on Jewish flyers and brochures are words and sentiments that don’t ring a bell or resonate and can make people feel like outsiders.
Affiliation is a euphemism (don’t you love euphemisms?) meaning that someone pays synagogue dues. In rare cases, someone may feel so connected to a Jewish Community Center that they feel they “go” there or “belong” there but by and large this term is asking if someone is a member of a synagogue. If we want to know if someone goes to a synagogue, we should ask that and then explain why “we” want to know that.
People may be affiliated with many different things that bring them closer to Judaism and this question, implying synagogue membership, is outdated, not nuanced and doesn’t refer to the interesting places people go and what that brings them there. For instance, some people are affiliated with or connected to secular non-profits like food depositories, animal shelters, hospitals and educational programs. Volunteer work for these causes brings sacred purpose and is done in the name of tikkun olam (repairing our broken world).
Some people have been turned off by synagogues and being asked over and over whether they are affiliated with a synagogue can feel like a reminder that they are outsiders, or even different from “good” Jews and that their disconnect is problematic. Maybe we should be asking people what synagogues could offer or feel like, and whether they would like to have clergy in their lives for counseling, life cycle events and learning opportunities. It’s not that people don’t want this. They are not sure if they will find these things in synagogues.
Jewish leaders have a goal of increasing affiliation rates. There are many reasons for this. Interfaith families connected to congregations typically have high levels of Jewish behavior like celebrating holidays, sending children to religious school, etc. Jewish leaders want to ensure that people are “doing Jewish” because it is a civilization and a way of life worthy of living and passing on, and because we care about Jewish continuity. I think synagogues, in theory (and many in practice), are definitely the best vehicles for helping people live Jewishly and pass it on to the next generation. But because it is “positive” to be affiliated, it can be interpreted as “negative” to be unaffiliated, as though one is harming the Jewish people. Nobody wants to wear or own a negative label or have a finger pointed at them.
Language matters. Labels matter. This is how people end up feeling connected or disconnected. If we stop calling people “unaffiliated” and start talking about who they are, what they are interested in or what would make them want to join or help create an organized Jewish community, we may find more answers.
On our Chicagoland page there is a Connect with Community tab on the left. If you click on that tab you will find many listings of Jewish organizations in Chicagoland. We list these organizations on our page so that interfaith families can read about welcoming communities in their neck of the woods.
Here are a few new features to look for:
The “About Me” Section: When you click on an organization, you’ll see their description of their mission and their experience working with interfaith couples and families. This section will give you a feel for the congregation or Jewish communal organization.
Interfaith family connector: Look for this new feature on organizational listings. Take a look at Congregation Solel and Anshe Emet Synagogue. You will see that a partner in an interfaith family who are members of the community is listed. It is one thing to connect with a professional at a congregation or organization and another to connect with an actual interfaith family who has been part of the community. Emailing with another interfaith family can be so empowering and helpful because you can ask questions directly to someone who is in a similar situation.
IFF Badge: Note that our “Super Orgs” place the IFF logo on their website or share links to our resources on their website. We hope you will tell these synagogues and organizations how much you appreciate them posting the InterfaithFamily badge on their website. Clicking on the badge brings people to our site and gives them access to resources written specifically for interfaith families. And the badge is a visual show of support for interfaith families in the community and those looking to belong somewhere.
Jewish organizations in Chicagoland are trying so hard to share a message of welcome with interfaith couples and families, those who grew up in interfaith homes, those struggling to figure out how to balance both parents’ traditions and religious backgrounds in their lives and grandparents with grandchildren in interfaith homes. These “Super Orgs” have put in a lot of time and energy to create organizational listings that will be helpful for interfaith families. Please check them out!
Family tradition: Jillian (top) with her sister and mother on her grandfather's boat in Ipswich, MA after clamming, circa 1992
“Mom, Dad, I want to go to Hebrew School.” This was the simple phrase of 7-year-old me that changed the course of my life and the religious life of my family.
When I was in second grade my best friend, Julie invited me to come with her to Hebrew School after school one day. Being the kind of kid who loved school and learning, it didn’t take much convincing and a week or so later, I sat with Julie in her Hebrew School classroom, totally enthralled. When I came home that evening and announced to my parents with the innocent certainty belonging only to 7-year-olds that I wanted to continue attending Hebrew School, I can only imagine the sort of parental conversation that ensued after I went to sleep that evening.
You see, my mother was raised Catholic on the North Shore of Massachusetts and my father was raised a conservative Jew in New Jersey, although neither had much affinity for any sort of religion. They met at Northeastern University in the late 60s. They were hippies, they attended anti-war rallies and Woodstock and were married in a hotel in Boston by a justice of the peace. They didn’t give much or any thought to religion even after I was born ten years later.
When I was growing up, we celebrated a variety of holidays in very secular ways; cultural celebrations marked by food or family gatherings. I don’t remember really talking about religion at all until I decided that I wanted to attend Hebrew School and my parents had to make decisions that they perhaps did not want to make. Once I began Hebrew school and we had to join a synagogue, my whole family was welcomed into a warm and friendly community. Both of my parents served on various committees and my sister and I attended religious school and participated in youth group through the end of high school.
Jillian (second from right) with her sister, mother and father at her ordination from HUC-JIR Rabbinical School in 2012
While I didn’t really understand it at the time, I know now how amazing my parents are to have allowed and encouraged me to follow my Jewish path, despite their own personal reservations. Perhaps it should have been no surprise to them or me, after essentially choosing Judaism for my whole family, that I would choose Judaism over and over again and choose to make Judaism my life’s work by becoming a rabbi.
And now I find myself happily in my mom’s home state, as the new Director of InterfaithFamily/Boston, hoping to meet all kinds of people and families as you navigate your religious life and look to find ways to connect.
My story may be unique, but then, so is yours and I look forward to hearing all of them (contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org). I truly believe that the great strength of Judaism is its continued evolution and the growing diversity of our population will only add to the color, richness and relevance of Judaism for generations to come.
Temple Hillel B’nai Torah (HBT) is a Reconstructionist congregation located in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, a middle-class Boston neighborhood just minutes from Newton and Brookline. HBT is a welcoming, egalitarian, multicultural and inclusive spiritual community, which I observed firsthand when I was a substitute religious school teacher there a few years back. As with any synagogue, worship is a focal point, but this community also dedicates much of its time and resources to social justice and being responsive to the broader world in which we live.
If you are looking for an inclusive Jewish spiritual community in the Greater Boston area, Temple Hillel B’nai Torah is an exceptional option. Even if you aren’t in search of a temple to join, but simply an inclusive Jewish space for an occasional holiday or social program to attend, HBT’s vibrant community strives to make visitors feel right at home.
I recently interviewed Hillel B’nai Torah’s rabbi, Barbara Penzner. Rabbi Penzner is an exceptional spiritual and community leader. Below she shares insight pertaining to interfaith families at HBT, as well as the congregation’s values around inclusion.
Learning about Sukkot with Rabbi Penzner. Photo courtesy of HBT
What are some of the insights you have learned from working with interfaith families at HBT?
In my 19 years at Temple Hillel B’nai Torah, I have observed many different kinds of families. In some families, both parents are active participants while in others, only one parent maintains a strong connection to our community. It’s interesting that these differences do not divide easily between families with two Jewish parents, interfaith families or even families where one parent has converted to Judaism.
In one family, the mother never converted, but because she committed to raising children in the Jewish tradition—before the marriage—the boys both attended Jewish day school. In another family, the father who is not Jewish remains committed to his personal faith while attending every Jewish function with his family. Many of those who decided to convert to Judaism waited until their children were old enough to urge them to “take the plunge” and celebrated with them at the mikveh.
What policies or practices does HBT institute pertaining to interfaith families?
In the late 1990s, our congregation spent a year discussing the roles for members who aren’t Jewish in order to clarify our expectations for participation in ritual and governance. We all agreed that we wanted to include all family members for celebrations like a bar/bat mitzvah. The entire family stands together on the bimah for these occasions, and both parents give their child blessings, if they choose.
Our goal is to make our congregation a haven and a home, a place where people feel welcome no matter what their background: interfaith, multi-racial, LGBT and other seekers. Our bottom line is that we hope each member is willing to learn and grow.
What programming do you offer that supports and addresses the needs/concerns of interfaith families? How have those initiatives or programs helped the community and those families/couples?
In recent years, a new group of families with young children have asked for a special group to help them deal with the challenges of raising children when parents have different religious backgrounds. Our group began as a gathering for interfaith couples. By the second year, we realized that the questions we were grappling with were valuable to all parents. We renamed the group “Parenting through Our Differences.” The group has discussed observing Jewish holidays, responding to the demands of extended family members, dealing with death and mourning in a Jewish way, and of course, navigating the December holidays
What brings you the most joy about your work, particularly your leadership around diversity and inclusion?
Lately I’ve enjoyed spending time with young couples who are preparing to marry and wish to explore the complexities of creating an interfaith family. I have watched couples navigate the dynamics of family and community that inevitably raise questions about the meaning of family, identity, religion and God. These are not easy questions and the answers are not straightforward.
What gives me faith in the future is the intention these couples bring and the open-heartedness with which they discuss their challenges. That, after all, is what religion is ultimately about. How we live out our religious practices and how we name our faith springs forth from our own personal truth; without that honest self-assessment, religion is only window-dressing. Ideally, our community seeks to foster these heartfelt investigations and create bonds of compassion and support.
On Sunday, November 9, HBT will be featuring scholar Keren McGinity, author of Still Jewish: A History of Women and Intermarriage in America to speak about her new book Marrying Out: Jewish Men, Intermarriage and Fatherhood.
Nestled within Boston’s picturesque Beacon Hill neighborhood, the Vilna Shul is a gem that the city is lucky to have. The cultural center opens its doors widely to the entire Boston community, offering substantive Jewish programming, dynamic historical and contemporary exhibits and an egalitarian minyan (a Jewish prayer group).
In this interview, which is as fascinating as the Vilna Shul itself, Program Manager Jessica Antoline discusses what sets the Vilna Shul apart from many organizations, and provides a glimpse into the uniquely honest and well-rounded framework with which the shul’s staff coordinates programming.
The Vilna Shul continues to honor its long multicultural history and has been a wonderfully inclusive space for Jewish interfaith and interracial families to celebrate life cycle events and participate in programming.
What sets the Vilna Shul apart from other organizations and spiritual communities?
There are so many things! I like to think that the Vilna stands apart for three reasons:
1. On a historical level, we are it—the last synagogue from the era that brought most Jews to Boston (1880-1924). It’s an era that changed the city entirely, and we are the only place where you can learn about the Jewish contribution to that change.
2. We are also a hybrid organization, functioning both spiritually and culturally when we need to. We are non-denominational and open to all walks of Jewish life. Just to give you an example, we can have a Shabbat one day and a lecture on the rise of Jewish atheists the next. It’s very exciting.
3. I like to think that all of us at the Vilna try to share a realistic rather than idealistic Jewish story. We love to tell the happy stories, but we will never shy away from the dark sides of Jewish history. Jews are humans. We can both build up and break the world so easily. As I like to say to our visitors, Jewish people are all pieces of one dynamic culture worth celebrating. But we were never a people apart, never a people who stayed static in our actions or philosophies. Like every person we have our light and dark sides to our history. Like every people we need to evaluate who we are and what we are doing in and for this world. At the Vilna, we challenge what it means to be Jewish, what Jewish traditions and histories are and where they come from without any judgment or criticism. Through this open line of communication, I like to think we help strengthen people’s understanding of themselves and their community.
Purim at the Vilna Shul in 2014
What are the ways in which interfaith families and couples have enriched the Vilna Shul?
They help us keep our focus and ensure that we are doing our job. At the Vilna Shul our mission is to preserve and share Jewish culture in ways that are open and accessible to everyone, Jewish or not. What is the Vilna if it is not offering the public what it wants and needs? It becomes just a building without any life. Interfaith couples and families bring new perspectives, lead members of the community to think closely about their words and actions, and help everyone understand each other on a level far deeper than if they were absent from the community.
What programming do you offer that support the needs of interfaith families? How have those initiatives or programs helped the community and those families and couples?
All of our programming is open to interfaith families. Generally when it comes to addressing their needs, we do it within programs during the planning process rather than hosting programs about interfaith issues. (We know that is your field, not ours!) We ensure that every program we offer can be accessed equally by those who identify as Jewish and those who do not. From having words in transliteration and translation to working specifically with scholars, historians, musicians and others who are experienced in working with diverse groups, we always try to answer the question “would I understand this concept if I lived outside of a Jewish context?” before bringing a program to the public.
Our Havurah on the Hill Shabbats and holiday celebrations are an excellent example of this. HOH was designed to be accessible to everyone. It’s actually the number one thing people love about the program. The young Jews who attend come from many backgrounds: children of traditional Jewish backgrounds, children of interfaith parents, couples who are interfaith but considering a Jewish path, Reform, Orthodox, Conservative, secular…everything!
In your experience or based upon what members/visitors have told you, what are the salient considerations regarding interfaith families that the Vilna Shul takes into consideration when making institutional decisions or developing programming and education?
Language is always a consideration, based on what our community has told us. They appreciate that we try to make everything we do accessible so we always consider that when making a program. They also appreciate when we bring in many histories based on who is in the audience. For example, if we know that someone attending a program may have a friend, child, or partner who is Catholic-Irish or Hindu or Baptist African American, we try and take the time to make reference to their histories and any connections they have to Jewish history.
What brings you the most joy in your work, particularly your and the Vilna Shul’s leadership around diversity and inclusion?
Actually, what I just talked about brings me the most joy. Being open to everyone, being known as a safe, accessible place to talk about all aspects of Jewish culture, makes me love my job. No one is here to define your Jewishness for you. Instead, you are given access to information and a non-judgmental atmosphere. You must decide the rest! Sounds easy, right? But the pursuit of knowledge and freedom of choice are such difficult paths to take.
I smile when I see interfaith couples getting married at the Vilna. I love seeing a child of an interfaith and intercultural relationship shine as they read from the Torah during their bar or bat mitzvah. My heart soars when a Muslim student tells me he finally found a place and a person to ask the questions he was holding inside for so long.