Be a Fly On the Wall: Hear What Jewish Leaders Talk About

InterfaithFamily/Chicago co-lead the Community Foundation for Jewish Education (CFJE) Principal’s Kallah on Sunday and Monday, January 29 and 30. About 20 Chicagoland Jewish educators (including directors of lifelong learning, religious school principals and early childhood directors) from the Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative denominations gathered at the Schaumburg Hyatt Place on Sunday evening. Anita Diamant was the key-note speaker; she spoke about the American Jewish family in the 21st century. She taught us about the growth in number of conversions to Judaism. Did you know that the rate of conversions to Judaism has not been this high since 500 C.E.? She talked about how the rabbinic codes and laws concerning conversion were written at that time to be open and welcoming.

Today, American Jews are so successful and assimilated into every aspect of American culture (including the outspoken and proud Jon Stewart), that marrying someone Jewish seems like a realistic and wonderful choice for someone who grew up a different religion and is not practicing, or even for someone who still practices another religion.  American Judaism is open, flexible, adaptable, and so young couples think intermarriage “works.” 

She said that it is now statistically normative to be intermarried, which is a powerful statement with many ramifications. She spoke about how labels can impact our sense of identity. She said at the end that she is optimistic about the future of American Judaism and wouldn’t want to live at any other time than now. 

On Monday, Karen Kushner (who lives and works in San Francisco) and I ran three workshops for the Kallah participants.

The first workshop involved getting to know each other and starting to think about the most welcoming language for synagogue membership forms. Filling in a form should leave one with the feeling that this synagogue is inclusive and respectful of all backgrounds. All of the educators at our conference said that they work with interfaith families. Many said that they were sure they had students in their classes who felt that they were “half and half” or confused about their religious identity. Many affirmed that they have children from interfaith homes who feel proud to be Jewish, love their family and feel whole and secure. So, we spoke about how interfaith families come through our doors with different needs, issues, desires, backgrounds, questions and more. 

It was so interesting for the educators to take a good look at their own congregation’s website and their school forms. Many confessed that they hadn’t read through the language in quite some time and were either pleasantly surprised by how inclusive their language was or turned off by the lack of specific mention that interfaith families are welcome in their community. We had the educators circle or highlight every Hebrew or Yiddish word on their forms, all “insider” language terms and references to synagogue lingo that some parents may not “get.” We debated if one should actually translate the words, “Shabbat,” “matzah” and “Torah” for example as “everyone knows what these words mean…” Interestingly, many may not know the origins of even these Hebrew words. For instance, Shabbat comes from the Hebrew word for rest; Torah has the same etymological root as horim and morim (parents and teachers) and means learning. 

We ended Monday with a session on how children form a sense of self and gain a Jewish identity. We spoke about the challenges to having a “full” Jewish identity when a parent is bringing Christianity or another religion into the home. 

We talked about how these issues aren’t black and white, but full of grays. For some, a Christmas tree or Easter egg hunt are purely secular, so adding these elements into a Jewish home doesn’t feel like they create theological problems. I see this, for example, when I meet with couples who are preparing for their weddings. I usually start by saying, “Tell me your life in a nutshell…” I sometimes ask myself what children growing up in interfaith homes will they tell their rabbi before they get married. Will s/he say that their Jewish story is that they grew up going to a temple, attended religious school, celebrated Jewish holidays in the home and that mom or dad also celebrated another religion’s holidays, and they occasionally went to church with family members but that they want a rabbi at their wedding because they feel a core inside connection to Judaism…? It will differ for each child.

We do know, however, how important a connection to a synagogue is. We do know how important it is to have positive, joy filled, meaningful Jewish experiences that touch the senses. These experiences stay with us, and we want our children to experience them too. This is how we pass on our values, our memories, and live with and through our children fully.

There was definitely a lot of discussion. Many people asked questions. Many answers, suggestions and opinions were shared. The most important thing is that 20 Chicagoland educators devoted two days from their hectic schedules – juggling childcare, work obligations and more – to think about the precious subject of the American Jewish family today and how we can best bring interfaith families into the tent of Jewish living. It was an honor to be part of such a workshop.

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