How I Chose Judaism for My Interfaith Family

Jillian with her sister and mother

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 at her ordination

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 jillianc@interfaithfamily.com). 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.

Finding a Jewish Community that Feels Like Home

HBT mother and daughter

Photo courtesy of HBT

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.

Sukkot

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

Open Doors on Beacon Hill

Front of Vilna ShulNestled 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 Vilna Shul

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.

What Makes Judaism Distinct

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.

Bar MitzvahSo 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 bat mitzvah or whether there is an alternative candle lighting blessing for someone not Jewish, we will see that in liberal Judaism our liturgy is metaphor and that the people in the pews may not be concerned only with Jewish law and that many ignore the law when it seems sexist, archaic, irrelevant or un-inspiring.

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.

Parents Who Aren’t Jewish Raising Jewish Children

Between the announcement that Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky are expecting a baby and an interfaith xoJane article about a Catholic mother choosing to raise her sons Jewish, mothers who aren’t Jewish but are raising Jewish children have been receiving positive press and gaining visibility in recent weeks—it’s about time! And well-timed too, considering we celebrated Mother’s Day earlier this month. (There are, of course, fathers who aren’t Jewish raising Jewish children as well. My “Jew-ish” father having been one.)

Rabbi David Regenspan wrote a piece for InterfaithFamily that beautifully described non-Jews he aptly calls sojourners:

“They are models for the rabbi’s sermon about how to lead a good Jewish life. They light Sabbath candles and send their children to Hebrew school. They attend adult education classes on Jewish subjects. They sing boisterously at Jewish services and know the Hebrew words of every prayer. They serve on synagogue committees; they even become synagogue officers. …And they are not Jews.”

There are many non-Jews who fit this description, yet amidst the panicked communal conversation about the ‘shrinking Jewish population,’ these dedicated individuals and parents are often overlooked, not only in the communal conversation, but also in day-to-day religious life in synagogues all over the country.

Dorshei Tzedek

Photo courtesy of Dorshei Tzedek

I’m heartened by the many interfaith outreach initiatives in the Greater Boston area. In particular, the efforts made by Dorshei Tzedek, a growing Reconstructionist congregation in West Newton. The measures they’ve taken to be an inclusive community embodies their name, which means “seekers of justice” in Hebrew. “We seek to engage all of our members, whether Jewish or not, in our activities and the life of the congregation,” Dorshei Tzedek Rabbi Toba Spitzer shared with me.

A few years ago, the congregation committed to a year-long study and discussion process around inclusion. One of the results was a brochure the congregation gives out to new families that is posted on their website. It states: “Some of the values that inform our approach to welcoming our non-Jewish members [are]: inclusivity, diversity, commitment both to shared values and to Jewish tradition. While there are non-Jewish partners of our Jewish members who choose not to become involved in the congregation, there are also many non-Jewish members who participate actively and meaningfully in the life of the community. The purpose of this guide is to help clarify what it means to be a non-Jewish member of a caring and inclusive congregation that is dedicated to Jewish practice and learning.”

Apples & Honey

Photo courtesy of Dorshei Tzedek

Interfaith families are also represented in other areas of Dorshei Tzedek’s website, including this wonderful set of Shabbat videos.

What makes Dorshei Tzedek such a model for inclusion is not only their interfaith brochure and website, but the communal process that produced them, which goes well beyond simply providing lip-service. They’re making it happen. Inclusion and sensitivity, like all values, only serve their purpose when practiced and tailored to address the needs of the people we seek to include.

Rabbi Ari Moffic’s Sermon on Today’s Judaism

Star

The following is my sermon given on March 7, 2014 at Temple Beth El in Munster, IN.

The weekly Torah portions now move into the book of Leviticus. The Five Books of Moses are referred to by Hebrew names which are the first main word in that section of Torah. Leviticus is known as Vayikra which in Hebrew means God called out. God calls out many things to the people throughout the long narrative. Sometimes the people heed God’s call and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes it is Moses or another leader who hears God’s call and then instructs the people what to do or not to do.

Do we believe God is still calling out? What is God calling? How does the call sound? When and how can we hear it? Some say God calls out through nature saying to stop destroying the environment. Some would say God calls out through people doing social justice work and bringing to our attention the suffering and plight of the vulnerable in society who need more help. Some might say God calls out through our inner voice which helps us calibrate our moral compass. Some say God calls out over and over and in new ways through this sacred text—through this scroll—through this ever-new message and that is why we read it over and over and over, and read commentaries about it over and over and over and continue to think about our own responses to these words. Do we hear God in the shofar? In the upcoming graggers and laughter of our youth?

What would God call out if God could read this latest Pew study of American Jewry? Most American Jews are not members of a synagogue. Most American Jews marry someone not Jewish. Many liberal American Jews raise their children with another religious tradition in addition to some Judaism. Millennials by and large say they are Jewish of no religion? What is happening here? Where did everything go wrong? How do we get things back on track?

OK—as an aside—why must we personify God? It seems true, as Maimonides, the great Jewish, Spanish philosopher and writer in the 1100s thought, that we can only make negative statements about God—God is not human. The only positive statement we can make is that God is and even that limits God. So, I am of course speaking in metaphor.

But, there are those who would say that there is something fundamentally broken or off about American, liberal Judaism. Synagogues are outdated and cost too much money to maintain. Our liturgy does not resonate any more. We don’t know Hebrew and so prayer in Hebrew does not “work” as it once did. Since Judaism is a religion of boundaries and distinctions—the difference between the holy and profane, between day and night, between Shabbat and the rest of the week—we cannot have a truly inclusive Jewish community.

The nature of the Jewish religion is that it is insular and exclusivist to some extent. Jews can do and say certain things and those not Jewish cannot. Those younger than 13 cannot do certain things. On Passover, we cannot eat certain things. We are a religion of rules and boundaries and these rules have kept us a distinct people for millennia. As Rabbi Mark Washofsky, the Solomon B. Freehof Professor of Jewish Law and Practice at HUC-JIR/Cincinnati, our rabbinical school, just said to me, “There are many in the Jewish community now who straddle the fence and straddling a fence hurts.”

So, this is all bad news and negative. Goodbye American liberal Judaism as we know it. It’s been a nice run, but it’s over?

No way.

Things are better than ever. It is our diverse community that gives us new strength—new voices, new questions and new insights are good for Judaism. We are pushed to define ourselves, to understand who is a Jew and what makes something Jewish. We are forced to confront our own lack of literacy and to take ownership of our religion and our heritage. When we have a community made up of those who grew up with Judaism and those newer to it, we uncover what it really means to welcome the stranger and to believe in One God of all who is a God of peace and love. We are given the sacred opportunity to perform the mitzvah, the commandment, to love our neighbor as our self because we are our neighbor. We see the most often repeated commandment from the Torah come alive for us: Do not oppress the stranger because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

Does this always make it easy? Should we have no ritual barriers to full participation in Jewish life? (I kind of think so, but not everyone agrees with this). Should all rabbis officiate at any wedding where a Jew requests Jewish clergy to be with them? Can we find room in our religious schools for children being raised to also learn about and appreciate Catholicism, for instance? There are no easy answers but lots of important questions.

What is God calling to us now? I believe one message that is blatantly obvious and which can bring us closer to one another and God is that we need to open up, not create more rules and tighten our limits. We are a tiny “in” group and we are, by the way, not a homogeneous group; we are not different from those not in these seats tonight. The majority of liberal Jews are somewhere else. It is not for us to call them in. It is for our Jewish expression, our synagogue structures, and our leaders to open up. We have to act with love, respect, with joy and optimism, humility and inspiration, to individualize, accommodate and include anyone who might come to see that living with Judaism is a rich, vibrant, accessible, authentic way to structure one’s days.

Kayn Yihi Ratzon. May this be God’s will.

Amen.

Tell Your Congregants: Don’t Go

be welcomingSo many couples I marry have one partner who grew up at an area congregation but left after their bar or bat mitzvah. I have thought about creative ways to reunite this person and now this couple with their synagogue of origin, so to speak. There is probably still a picture of them from some class on the wall there! Then it occurred to me, why do synagogues let families just leave? If a family calls the executive director of a congregation to say that they are leaving, the conversation should end with them staying members unless they’re moving away or have a pressing need to leave the synagogue.

Why do people leave synagogues? Money. The synagogue can sympathize with the fact that the financial commitment is difficult to meet for many families. For some, they struggled to pay the dues in order to see their children through their bar or bat mitzvah and feel relieved to take these thousands of dollars of cost off their budget. Thus, the synagogue could say: You are not members because you pay dues. You are members because you have been part of this community. Anything you can contribute now that you are in a different stage of life will help our synagogue stay open and functioning. However, you are not off of our emails and off of our newsletter list and we do not bar you from holiday services because you need a break from the yearly dues after so many years of supporting the congregation in this way.

Whatever the synagogue then collects from this family will be more than if the family had left never to walk through its doors again. But now, won’t other people want to stop paying too? Each house of worship will have to figure out how this plan can work. Do they give post bar/bat mitzvah families a three year period of reduced dues and then hope that they have found value in the continued connection to the congregation and they can again make a bigger financial contribution? Money alone cannot make someone suddenly a “non-member.”

Another reason people may give for leaving a synagogue is that they don’t “need it anymore.” Now that their children are through this major life cycle event, the parents in the family don’t feel a need to attend the congregation. They are not Shabbat attendees, they don’t come for adult education or Torah study. They would like to come for High Holidays, but they are not going to pay $3,000 a year for this when they can be someone’s guest or just buy tickets. The response the synagogue could have is, “you are still members here.” We will still be in touch and you can still attend any or all programs of the Temple.

Then a conversation could take place (preferably in person) about what they would enjoy coming to. Do you like cooking? We have cooking classes. Do you like knitting? We have knitting circles? Downtown lunch and learns? Meeting occasionally with the rabbi to talk about your aging parents, trouble with your teenager, a new health diagnosis you are facing? Your own marriage issues? We are here for you. It turns out you don’t attend services because you can’t read Hebrew? We can help with this. We need to be relevant for people beyond bar and bat mitzvot.

We obviously cannot make someone stay a member who does not want to receive information from the synagogue and who has had a negative experience there. Some say that so much of the correspondence with a synagogue involves asking for more money: money for a building campaign, money for memorial plaques, etc. I think that most people would be thrilled to hear that they are still members, even if they can’t or won’t pay the same dues anymore.

Now, what about the people who do not call the office to say that they are stopping their membership. The synagogue knows who has just stopped paying. Those people probably receive a phone call and hopefully an in-person meeting to say, “We miss you…what’s going on?” When people have ties to a community, it is hard to leave. Let’s make it hard for people to leave.

What Does it Mean to Be Welcoming

The following is a guest post by Gina Hagler, reprinted from her blog, Musings of Ruth

WelcomeI’ve been part of the interfaith community for many years. I’ve felt comfortable, uncomfortable, welcome, tolerated, and most points between on the spectrum. I can tell you which things left me feeling more or less comfortable. I can even give you a definition-in-progress of what I would consider a welcoming congregation. What I hadn’t thought of before last night, is how many aspects of welcome are universal.

Why are we making it so complicated when we sit together as Jews to assess how welcoming our congregations are? Why are we trying to look at ourselves through the eyes of others – especially others who are coming to us from a world view we have not experienced firsthand? Why are we making this such a Herculean task?

Perhaps we should first think about what has made us feel welcome in new experiences. We’ve all been the fish out of water at one point or another. What made it less painful? What eased our introduction? What made us feel we could return? What made us want to return? Why isn’t this our simple first step to understanding how to put “strangers” at ease.

While I was still shaky in my Jewish identity, I took my kids up to New York several years in a row for winter break. I wanted to take them to services but I certainly didn’t know any synagogues in NYC. I wasn’t that confident that I would know exactly what to do once I got into the synagogue, but I wanted my kids to see that the services they participated in at our temple had elements in common with services at all synagogues. I did a search on synagogues in Manhattan and found Central Synagogue.

From the moment the site opened, I knew this was where we would go. The tone of the site, the readily available information, the pride the synagogue had in its history — all lent itself to the implicit expectation that of course we would want to visit and of course we were welcome. We went and sat in the way back – clearly newcomers and clearly not your standard Jews since 2/3 of the kids were Asian. People turned around to smile at us. Someone approached us to ask if we needed a Siddur as he held one up for us to see. He told us we were welcome to join them downstairs after the service for an Oneg made up of simple food.

Within five minutes of entering the building, we had been informally welcomed, given what we needed to participate if we chose to in a way that did not assume we were familiar with the object, and invited to something we may not have known about in a way that explained all we needed to know to feel bold enough to check it out. My kids felt right at home. They were delighted to hear prayers they knew and to be able to join in. They were thrilled to hear tropes that were familiar. There was no way they were leaving without the Oneg. They met some other kids. Several adults made it clear I was welcome to join in their conversations. Ever since, we make it a point to attend services there whenever we are in New York.

This synagogue was not specifically trying to attract interfaith families, or even families from ambiguous or undecided Jewish backgrounds. They were trying to attract those interested in a Jewish life, without making a distinction between faith backgrounds. As strange as it may seem, I felt more immediately welcome at that temple than I have at any other temple I’ve visited. I’m convinced it is because they were genuinely proud of what they had to offer and genuinely happy to have us.

Maybe when we’re trying to decide how to make someone comfortable at our temple, we should start by thinking about what makes us comfortable and ask ourselves if our congregation is welcoming anyone – Jewish or not – in such a way. Maybe the first step in making people feel welcome is to be welcoming.

The Carrot or the Stick: Musings from ‘The Runaway Bunny’

Runaway BunnyI was recently giving a presentation about being sensitive to interfaith families and we talked about how Judaism has changed. I compared Judaism’s motivations to “the carrot or the stick.” Many of us were taught that we must follow the commandments or else…(the stick). I felt like scare tactics were part of the education. How many people hated their Hebrew school? And now, how many people really want to put their children through a rite of passage that they despised?

But now, in a society where we can do anything with just a few clicks, there needs to be an alternate approach showing the positive side of Judaism. Judaism teaches us a structure to life—how to celebrate, how to mourn, how to be healthy. There are also so many wonderful aspects about Judaism—the joy of decorating a sukkah, the peace of a beautiful Shabbat dinner, the joy of singing and cheering for a couple after their wedding.

One of my favorite children’s books is The Runaway Bunny. In this story, the bunny talks about running away from his mother and the mother replies each time that she will be there for him no matter where he goes. At the end, he gives up. The mother’s response is “Have a carrot.” “Have a carrot” is a wonderful metaphor for Judaism. No matter where we go, our ancestors have provided us with the sustenance to go forward. It may not be super sweet but it will be nourishing. Indeed, the positive carrot (rather than the stick) will sustain us and give us energy and nourishment for the future. Negative motivations may work in the short term but are unlikely to work for future generations.

I want my kids to enjoy Hebrew school and learning about Judaism. I am proud to say that through Jewish camp, and a lot of active parents in the religious school, the kids are having a good time.  My husband and I also incorporate fun stuff relating to Judaism into our lives whenever possible. My kids enjoy learning when it’s fun. I hope that all children who are getting a Jewish education are enjoying it on a regular basis; perhaps through fun songs, Jewish cooking, a quiz bowl or a Hanukah party. If not, it is our responsibility to insist that their education be pleasant and not torture. Surely, religious education (in any religion) isn’t all joy and play but it should provide us sustenance for our future as human beings.

It’s OK to Go Alone

MarilynYesterday my husband asked for my advice about how to help a friend of his. His friend wanted to know how he could motivate his wife to attend services and other Jewish events at our synagogue. They are empty nesters and he wants to grow their Jewish practice. My husband turned to me because I am the family psychologist, a.k.a., the in-house armchair analyst. While I am sympathetic to our friend’s situation, my answer may not have been the one he was looking for: “He can’t.”

For most of my life, I engaged with Judaism to please my family, not because it was something that I wanted or because it was my idea. It was easier for me to participate than it would have been to explain why I did not “feel it.” I always experienced a strong attachment to the music, the food and to Israel but these are not religious motivations, they are cultural. Sometimes I wonder where the line is between culture and religion.

Spirituality is personal. I am not sure how the flame gets going. Some have it from birth, others find it as a result of a life changing experience, and for me it appeared during my first visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem a few years ago. My internal flame was lit near midnight on a warm summer evening in Jerusalem.

When I returned home from Israel, I went looking for a Jewish community to join and I found one in San Francisco. From that first Shabbat morning, I always felt welcome and never self-conscious about showing up alone. There were always plenty of other people who came alone, just like me. Some were single, some with partners who chose not to go or who stayed home with their children or aging parents. We sat together at services and saved seats at the table for each other at events. Not once did I ever feel the awkward loneliness that can creep into one’s consciousness while going solo in a group setting. The positive experience I had the first time motivated me to try it a second, and then a third, and so on, until I joined the community as an official member.

Since then, I have married and my husband and I go to synagogue together. I no longer go alone but I know that I can, any time I want or need to. A while ago I heard a fellow congregant speak at a panel discussion about how, as a divorced parent, she has found her village in our community. She no longer feels awkward about attending as a single parent and comes to temple events a lot now. She even comes alone when her children are with their father. I have another friend who is always at Shabbat morning services and is rarely accompanied by his partner who works too hard and desperately needs the “Day of Rest” for actual horizontal rest.

I suggested to my husband that his friend could try joining us once or twice without his wife to see how he feels about walking in alone. Once he is inside, he will be joined by friends, swept away by the gorgeous opening song, and carried through the morning by Rabbi’s calm guidance of our prayers. Our friend may find out that his inner flame of spirituality can be nurtured through the warm and uplifting embrace of our community in San Francisco. He may also discover that the impression he walks away with is contagious.

To learn about what to expect at a synagogue, watch this video.