Our updated booklet, Weddings For The Interfaith Couple, walks you through all of the traditions for the big day, starting with two to think about in advance (choosing a wedding contract known as a ketubah and topics to consider when meeting with your wedding officiant).
The Voices & Visions program elicits the power of art to communicate great Jewish ideas. The project aims to inspire conversation, instill pride, and spark creativity among diverse audiences and ages. It is co-sponsored by the PJ Libraryź program.
As parents, we have expectations about what our children will be like when they grow up. Sometimes it's hard to accept our children's choices, especially when they fall in love with and decide to spend their life with someone who grew up in a different faith tradition.
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.
Nestled within Bostonâs 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 minyanÂ (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 shulâs 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 itâthe 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.Â 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 Shulâs 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.
If you havenât read Anita Diamantâs bestselling novel, The Red Tent, here is some extra incentive. Lifetime is launching what they call an âepic movie eventâ this fall starring Rebecca Ferguson, Minnie Driver, Morena Baccarin and Debra Winger based on the book. Even if it doesnât go on your summer reading list, here are five fun facts that will make watching it even more fun. Did you know that:
1) Â The book was a sleeper until Diamant got the idea to send doomed-to-be-shredded copies of the novel to rabbis who then used it in their teachings and made it a worldwide phenomenon?
2) Â Diamant used the first chapters of the book of Genesis as a launching pad for her creativity, based in the silence of the character of Dina who is said to have been raped in Genesis, Ch. 34?
3) Â Goddess worship in the novel is based in scholarship of the biblical period? In fact, even the Torah itself tells us of the matriarch, Rachel, taking off with the household idols.
4) Â The Red Tent purposely gets the birth order of the tribes wrong? The author plays throughout the novel with the ideas of storytelling and authorship, maintaining that women were absent from the construction of the Torah and, therefore, left out of the telling of our history.
5) Â Countless midwifery communities have named themselves, The Red Tent, after the novel?
And now a bit of explanation.
The Rent Tent was published in 1997 with limited success, and within a few years went from being unheard of to a bestseller. What turned it into a book group phenomenon? Anita Diamant was well-known long before the novel for those of us who help people create Jewish life-cycle rituals. She wrote several how-to Jewish books that are the first ones I recommend when someone is planning a Jewish wedding, baby naming or thinking about conversion (The New Jewish Wedding Book, The New Jewish Baby Book). But then Diamant wrote her first novel, The Red Tent, an imaginative telling of the life of the matriarchs in the book of Genesis. When the book wasnât finding great success, the author got an idea. She sent copies of the book to Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis, many of whom knew her earlier work well, and later to women ministers and independent booksellers. Leaders found that the book opened up a much needed conversation about women in our texts and historical silence. Before long, no book group was without its Red Tent month. It became a bestseller.
You donât have to know the story of Genesis to appreciate the book. But many readers have found that they want to crack open a Torah for the first time in eons to distinguish what is actually written in the Torah about the matriarchs of Genesis and what is Diamantâs creative retelling. She jumps off from the Genesis stories, only using them as a frame. But even the pieces she fabricated are largely based in research. Not only did she include details that come from traditional Jewish sources like the Midrash(see below), she based much of her story in research about the lives of women in the biblical period. She studied daily life in the region at that time, including ancient goddess worship, birthing rituals and midwifery, medicine and funeral practices.
The worship of gods and goddesses, for example, is rampant in her story which reflects what scholars know about near Eastern practice and is hinted at in the book of Genesis and the prophetic writings of the Torah. The matriarch, Sarah, is referred to as a priestess in The Red Tent, another gleaning from early feminist biblical scholarship. She gives names to women who are left unnamed in the Torah. She imagines that Dinah was following a tradition of being a midwife when the events of Genesis 34 unfold.
She once said of her novel, âDinah is one of the silent women of the Bible. Her silence intrigued me…gave me a window. Where there was silence, I created three-hundred pages.â [Cynthia Dettelbach, âEntering The Red Tent With Anita Diamant.â The Cleveland Jewish News 74, no. 2(1999): 4]Â In her version, women tell their own stories and, at times, are frustrated at hearing them mis-told by the men in the family. She goes as far as to insinuate that the âwritersâ of the biblical tales made mistakes because womenâs voices were not involved in the construction or transmission of the Torah.
Within Jewish circles, there has been some controversy stirred by the novel about who is âallowedâ to interpret and reinterpret Jewish texts. Diamant says she wrote a work of historical fiction, not midrash (a creative elaboration of the Torah, filling in the gaps in the Torah narratives), but still some argued that her work pretends to fit into that textual tradition dating back to the Rabbis of the 2nd-6th centuries BCE. Her response to one such opponent was that, âIt is my birthright. My audacity is the Jewish approach to ScriptureâŠEvery word of Torah has seven hundred faces of God and six hundred meanings. There is no one correct interpretation of Scripture as Jews have made up storiesâŠfor centuriesâ. [Joan Gross, âJacobâs Daughter Hits the Bigtime in 2001.â The Jewish News Weekly of Northern California 105, no. 13 (2001): 40.]
Parenting Through a Jewish Lens is a program offered through Hebrew College in over a dozen locations in the Greater Boston areaÂ (many providing free child care in the daytime!). I recently participated in the program, and it was an incredible experience. The curriculum itself has been continuously updated and modified for several years now (the class used to be called Ikkarim) and has been well supported by CJP since its inception 10 years ago.
PTJL has assembled some of the best educators around. And the content of the materials are worth their weight in gold. This is one notebook you will want to keep in your library, as the lessons really help parents to open up and share ideas and real experiences, which are universal to all parents, yet center around the particular beauty of building oneâs Jewish identity inside a growing family.
There are ten lessons in this brilliant yet very accessible curriculum. The lessons are grouped into four domains: Outward Bound (the interpersonal domain), Inward Bound (the domain of personal meaning), Upward Bound (the transcendent domain) and finally Homeward Bound (the domain of identity).
Joshua (left) and his family
The program is a great way to meet other parents who are going through similar struggles in parenting in the modern age. Rather than throw our arms into the air in total bewilderment of twenty-first century parenting, it turns out that there are some very relevant concepts in parenting within Jewish education as old as the Torah itself. Delving into these texts with a diverse group of parents and fantastic teachers, all one needs is a love of learning and a curiosity about what Judaism has to offer.
I took the class myself this past semester and have relished every moment. I was one of the âeldersâ as my kids are 6 and 9 and most of the group had 0-3-year-olds. Either way, parenting is parenting, and there is no need to feel any sense of isolation with such a loving and caring Jewish community that we are blessed with in Boston. This non-denominational water is niceâso jump in!
Additionally, InterfaithFamily is helping to promote a PTJL class that specifically focuses on intermarried parents, which will be wonderful as well. Any chance you have to take this class, I highly recommend it. Who couldnât be a better parent?Â This is precisely the kind of family education that will deepen your lives with elevated meaning and purpose, and you might even make a new friend or two. I canât say enough about this class. Sign Up!
PTJL offers three types of classes that support parents with children in all stages of development:
Parenting Through a Jewish Lens (for parents of children birth to 10)
Parenting your Tween Through a Jewish Lens (for parents of tweens age 10 to 12)
Parenting your Teen Through a Jewish Lens (for parents of teens age 13 to 19)
Participants come from all backgrounds and include interfaith couples, LGBTQ parents, single parents and those raised in other faiths. This fall, PTJL is holding a class specifically for interfaith families! It will take place on Thursdays, 7:30-9:00pm in Newton starting November 6, 2014.The early bird registration rate ends on June 30, so sign up soon!
You can learn more about Parenting Through a Jewish Lens by visiting its website or by checking out the PTJL blog where past PTJL participants and instructors share their stories and insights.
Have you taken this class? Let us know what you thought in the comments!
I donât normally read books written for middle schoolers, but I was in the childrenâs section of my local library picking up a book for my daughter the other day when I noticed a book with a bright yellow cover with a pretty Indian girl entitled My Basmati Bat Mitzvah, written by Paula J. Freedman, on display. I opened the book and started to read the summary on the inside cover:Â âFor Tara Feinstein, life with her Jewish-Indian-American family is like a bowl of spicy matzoh ball soup. Itâs a mix of cultures that is sometimes delicious, and sometimes confusing…â
I was hooked, and I immediately checked out the book. As someone who devotes my days to working with interfaith couples and families and advocating for a welcoming Jewish community, I couldnât wait to start reading.
And I wasnât disappointed. It was a lot of fun to read the story of Taraâs desi mispachaâa term that Tara describes in the book as a âHindi + Yiddish made up term meaning a family thatâs a little bit Indian and a little bit Jewish. Nicer than âHin-JewââŠâ I appreciated how the author depicted Taraâs struggles as she prepares to become a Bat Mitzvahâher questioning whether or not she believes in God; her worry that by celebrating becoming a Bat Mitzvah she will somehow be less Indian; her confusing relationship with her Catholic best friend who wants to be her boyfriend.
Taraâs Indian mother converted to Judaism years earlier, before marrying her father, but Tara still feels a deep connection to her Indian family and her Indian heritage. She deeply loved her mothersâ parents who lived in India and died several years earlier. She feels a special bond to her Nanaji(her motherâs father) and wants to be sure that celebrating her Bat Mitzvah wonât make her forget him. She adores Indian food, and though her mother doesnât cook, her fatherâwho grew up Jewish in Americaâmakes great Indian food. Tara loves to watch and act out scenes from Bollywood movies. And for good luck, she rubs the statue of Ganesha that sits on her dresser.
One particular scene in the book really struck me. When Tara realizes that a friend of hers has stolen a bracelet, Tara grabs the bracelet and goes to the store to return it. As sheâs reaching to put the bracelet back on the jewelry counter, sheâs stopped by a security guard, who thinks that Taraâs involved in the shoplifting. When she tells the security guard that her name is âTara Feinstein,â he looks at her skeptically and says to her: âNo, really.â
Thatâs what itâs constantly like for TaraâŠpeople making assumptions about her, and her Jewishness, based on how she looks, and on her motherâs (and thus her) background. And this is what itâs like for so many children from interfaith, inter-racial and/or inter-cultural homes. Fortunately for Tara, she comes to realize that connecting to her Judaism on a deeper level doesnât mean that she has to distance herself from her Indian heritage. As she says in her Bat Mitzvah speech: ââŠnow I know that inspiration can come from many different sources, and that having multicultural experiences can actually make you stronger and more accepting of different points of view.â She comes to see that âNanaji would really have liked my Bat Mitzvah…he was a very spiritual personâŠhe would have approved, as long as I did it with an open heart.â
When my children write book reports for school, they always have to tell whether they would recommend the book, and why or why not. Well, I can say that I would highly recommend My Basmati Bat Mitzvah. It was refreshing to read about a young woman coming of age and dealing with the multiple aspects of her identity, and realizing that she could be fully Jewish AND still honor her Indian cultural heritage (as she did by wearing a treasured sari from her motherâs family which was made into a dress for her Bat Mitzvah).
The book shows in a touching way not just the challenges, but also the blessings, of growing up in an interfaith, inter-cultural family. Itâs always said that kids need to see themselves reflected in the dolls they play with, the television and movies they watch, and the stories they read.Â Iâd imagine that a middle schooler, especially a girl, growing up in an interfaith, inter-racial or intercultural home would at least find some aspects of herself reflected in Tara.
If youâre a mom or dad in an interfaith home and you have a child in middle school, I suggest that you get My Basmati Bat Mitzvah for your child. Better yet, read it with your kid! Itâll give you a great opening to discuss complex issues of belonging and identity. If youâre raising your child as a Jew, you can discuss with them how they can still be one hundred percent Jewish even if one parent did not grow up (and may still not be) Jewish. And you can talk about how being Jewish and proudly celebrating your Jewish identity doesnât mean that you canât love and honor family members who arenât Jewish with a full heart or that you canât embrace aspects of what you inherited from your parent who did not grow up Jewish.
I have to return My Basmati Bat Mitzvah to the library soon, before itâs overdue. And when I get there, I may just go back to the childrenâs section to see what other great books I can find for myself.
Today in The Jewish Daily Forward, Jay Michaelson praises inclusion of LGBT Jews. “Among almost all denominations, in all geographical areas, Jewish institutions have become more inclusive of LGBT people, and, I think, have been enriched as a result,” he says.
But, he points out, “Hereâs who doesnât get included: Jews who support BDS (or perhaps even J Street); people with multiple religious traditions; Jews with strong critiques of the 1%-fueled, $30 billion Jewish establishment, especially the federation system; Jews with more radical critiques of Jewish culture or tradition; Jews who donât âpassâ as middle or upper class; queer Jews who donât pass as ânormalâ because of their gender presentation, or tattoos, or clothing.”
Michaelson has a point. The Jewish community should absolutely be accepting and inclusive of the LGBT community, but should LGBT Jews be singled out or should they simply be welcomed along with everyone else, including interfaith couples and families?
I have a tradition with a friend whose birthday is also in April, of going out for lobster to celebrate. This is the fourth year we have done this. She is a former synagogue president and Jewish volunteer and as you know, I am a rabbi. I do not promote or broadcast my decision not to keep kosher (each liberal Jew has to learn about and make an educated, autonomous choice about how to practice Judaism) and for some, keeping kosher is a daily reminder about ethical living, environmentalism, animal rights, our sacred responsibility to feed the hungry, choices we are making about the food we consume and the blessings around us all the time.
Ari (right) with her server, Josh S.
Our serverâs name was Josh S. We told Josh S. that this was our âun-kosherâ birthday lunch and we were hungry and excited to eat! He chuckled. During the meal my friend was telling me about how her son, who married a Catholic woman, just got baptized over Easter as a Hebrew Catholic. It was with some sadness, internal wrestling and wonderment that she shared this news with me. She and her family attended his baptism and her son cried tears of joy and relief that his family supported him through his spiritual and religious journey.
My friend knows that some other mothers would have said, âlove is lost and you are no longer my son,â andÂ other mothers would have said, âlove is not lost, but I can’t come to your ceremony.âÂ Her son was an active Reform Jew his whole life and even sought out his local synagogue when he was living on his own after college. He did not feel he was greeted there with warmth, welcome or interest from anyone in the community as a newcomer. When he went to church with his wife, however, he was greeted with retreat opportunities to get to know others in a relaxed, fun and engaging atmosphere. He was greeted with love and open arms. We spoke about the need for radical cultural shifts in many synagogues to become a place not of âmembershipâ like a private club, but âMy House Shall Be a House of Prayer for All Peopleâ as is emblazed across Chicago Sinai a verse from Isaiah, for instance. My friend has come to a beautiful place of acceptance and peace because her child is happy.
At the end of our two-pound lobster lunch (in addition to multiple coleslaws and garlic breadâyes we felt a little sick!) our waiter came with the check. Something made me ask him about being âJosh S.â He explained that he was the new Josh and had to have his last initial on his name tag. He went on to tell us that the S. stands for Schwartz and his Dad is Jewish and mom is Catholic. He was raised Catholic but certainly feels close to his Jewish side of the family. He spoke about going to his grandmaâs for holidays and of Jewish foods. He told me he was open to talking more and learning more about InterfaithFamily/Chicago. He said he was confused or conflicted at times growing up, but as an adult has a religious identity.
Oh, I have so many questions for this young man. Are there any ways the Jewish community could be accessible to him if he wants to learn about his heritage? I am going to suggest a Taste of Judaism class among other ideas. He shared his email address so that we can continue the conversation. I taught him the Yiddish word, âbeshertâ meaning inevitable or preordained (often referring to oneâs soul mate).
Whatâs my take-away from this lunch? There are many, many people who have family members who are Jewish, who are heirs to this great culture and way of life. Whatever paths they have chosen, they may be interested in learning more about Judaism and connecting in some way as adults. We need to make sure our synagogues are accessible, period. And Jewish Community Centers and other Jewish cultural centers like Spertus should also be celebrated by our community as places where someone can tentatively tip toe in and maybe end up staying a while.
My grandmother was a force to be reckoned with. Smart as a whip and made up her own mind about everything. Incredibly independent considering she was married at 19 and never spent a night away from my grandfather in their 72 years together. She had a masterâs degree. Traveled the world. Cared deeply about Judaism. All of her strength and character was put to the test when she developed esophageal cancer in her 70s. She moved from Florida to New York for treatment, which no one was particularly hopeful about. People much younger than her rarely beat this type of cancer. She did.
In the year before my grandmother passed at age 91, I explained to her what my new job was at InterfaithFamily, and while I donât think she fully understood what it is that we do, I think she understood that we help people to live Jewishly. It seems like a simple goal: to help all kinds of people connect with Judaism at all different stages in their lives.
But most often, itâs when someone dies, or someone gets married or is born that people turn to religion. I felt the truth of this over the last week at her funeral and while sitting shiva with my family and friends. Having a rabbi from my familyâs synagogue lead us in prayer at our house was unexpectedly comforting.
But even though we were both brought up Jewish, we were not born with Jewish knowledge of how to have a Jewish funeral or a Jewish wedding. We needed the rabbi at the cemetery to tell us not to pass the shovel we were using to toss dirt into the grave from one person to another, but to stick it back in the earth first (so as not to pass death), and why to form a path for the immediate family to walk through on their departure from the cemetery (we were supporting my father, uncle and great aunts). While we don’t know all the answers, it is easier for us to find them: We have rabbis and religious family members to turn to with our questions. We had a cousin translate our ketubah into Hebrew.
What if what we needed was not within armâs length? Where would we turn to find it? Would we even bother?
Creating inclusive Jewish resources for pivotal times in our lives as well as every day that couples with little or no prior religious knowledge can use, and letting people know we have themâand theyâre freeâis what I think about every day. I also think about my grandmother every day. I donât think she believed for a second that she would succumb to cancer, and she moved back to Florida after her treatment like nothing had happened. Her natural way of moving through life was to persevere and to be proud of who she was and where she came from. I hope that when you visit this website, you feel welcomed for who you are and supported in finding what youâre looking for.
The first commandment in the Torah is to be fruitful and multiply. Judaism takes that very seriously. One blog sums it up this way: âJewish mothers like to bug their kids about âhurrying up and getting married and giving me some grandchildren already before I die because Iâm not going to be around forever you know my health isnât what it used to be.ââ Judaism is so concerned about the next generation that in some families, anything and everything is forgiven as soon as there are children involved.
We come by this emphasis on children honestly. Judaism is a small minority and there is profound panic that a people with a deep history, wisdom and beauty will die out if we donât procreate like crazy. For a tiny tribe to grow to survival, and then withstand the many historical trials we have endured, reproducing ourselves at a rapid rate has truly seemed a necessary component of our survival. Now, more than ever, the pressure is mounting. More of us who do want kids are delaying until later in life, facing more difficulties getting pregnant and having fewer of them. Some Jewish leaders have made it their mission to encourage people to marry younger and start bringing in the babies. So I know Iâm going against the grain of thousands of years of Jewish thinking, and contradicting scores of contemporary Jewish thought leaders. But I have some serious fears about our procreation-obsession.
Here are my top 4 reasons we should ease up on the pressure:
1) Â Many people donât want children. And who would want a person who doesnât want kids to actually become a parent? Childrearing is tough enough even if you really wanted them.
2) Â Some want themâŠbut not yet. By pushing women to find mates earlier and start reproducing, we are reversing decades of feminist progress that afforded women a wider array of choices about childbearing.
3) Â There are so many who cannot have kids, due to fertility challenges, societal, economic or other personal issues. Within the LGBT community, although it is far easier than it once was, having kids can still be challenging.
4) Â Finally, I believe the emphasis on children has great implications for interfaith couples. When a couple from different backgrounds is pondering questions about religion in their home, often the first thing we ask is, âWill your children be Jewish?â How we ask this question is crucial. I am a huge proponent of couples exploring this question long before there are children. I have seen countless families struggle because they avoided these tough conversations when it was still hypothetical. But more often, the tone of this question is one of urgency: All is not lost if we can make sure the kids are Jewish.
The results of this pressure are manifold. People who choose not to or cannot have children are left to struggle with their sense of purpose Jewishly. Not having children can be a source of pain and even a feeling of rejection from Judaism.Â Some who do have kids donât know why they should raise them Jewishly because they donât know for themselves why Judaism is important.Â This can even affect those who do raise their kids in the Jewish tradition. I remember a feisty and resistant bar mitzvah student asking his parents point-blank why Judaism was important to them. They were dumbfounded by the question.
My overarching fear is that Judaism appears more concerned with our survival than perpetuating something worth keeping alive. We pay an inordinate amount of attention to âpediatric Judaism,â the overemphasis of the childâs experience of Judaism. Donât get me wrongâI strive mightily to make Jewish holidays, rituals and values engaging for my own kids and in my teaching in the Jewish community. It is crucial to introduce children to an active, relevant and joyful Judaism that will carry them through a lifetime of meaningful Jewish connection. This is a central piece of my work, and I love and value it. But I fear that while we are fretting about the kids, we sometimes forsake adultsâ spiritual journeys.
If Judaism is to survive, it is often times because an adult discovers that it is centering to light Shabbat candles after a long day at work on Friday night as she takes in the warmth of the fire. It is because an adult who loses a parent finds that the Jewish shiva rituals give him the time and space he needs to mourn. It is because an adult finds a community with which to celebrate, learn and argue. This is not to say that kids cannot also discover those experiences for themselves, but the vast majority of the time, itâs the adults who will feel compelled to pass on Judaism because it is a frame for the values they are trying to live and instill in their kids if they have them. Those kids will see their parents engaged and fulfilled by Jewish ritual, activism or conversation. What they will preserve is a meaningful tradition that enables them to live life with more depth, inquiry, and intention.
You matter. You, the adult reading this blog, matter. Your spiritual journey is important and of immense value. Your questions, brilliant insights and challenges are part of the continuous unfolding of the Jewish story, whether or not you were raised in this tradition. Itâs not only about the kids.
Mitchell Shames, chairman of the Jewish Outreach Institute, wrote a terrific piece in eJewishPhilanthropy today about the perhaps unintended consequences that occur when Jewish communal organizations take a xenophobic approach to fundraising or community building. Attending a fundraiser of a local Jewish social agency, he had this experience:
In one form or another, the overwhelming message of the evening was [that] âJews help Jews.â While the Jewish community has experienced unprecedented affluence there remain significant pockets of poverty and families in crisis all within the Jewish community. Therefore, âJews must help Jewsâ.
My heart swelled with pride, but my brain cringed at the language. âJews help Jewsâ. In 2014, this feels uncomfortable.
I wondered; âhow many non-Jewish spouses are sitting in the audience?â âWhat do they hear when words such as these are spoken?â âHow do they feel when they hear this message?â
As Shames says, weâve got to broaden our beliefs and expand beyond our traditional, insular language to include Jews helping all community, repairing the world. Check out the rest of his article here.
My childhood synagogue, Temple Or Rishon, was a hodgepodge of Jews and interfaith families, all of whom were happy to find a Jewish home in an otherwise Christian and Seventh Day Adventist area. Despite the Jewish community in Sacramento being very small, I feel blessed that I grew up in an incredibly eclectic and inclusive Reform synagogue in Orangevale, California.
I wish that more people could have such an affirming Jewish religious and/or community experience in their childhoodâand adulthood as well. But synagogue-based religious life and education isnât a good fit for everyone, for a variety of reasons.
While I am the Jew and leader that I am today in large part because of the synagogue in which I grew up, I recognize that day schools and synagogues donât work for all Jews. There are other models where families can find Jewish learning and community. So where can Jews in the Greater Boston area send their children for formal Jewish education?
BJEP student theater
Enter BJEP, the Boston-Area Jewish Education Program.
BJEP provides an excellent alternative to traditional synagogue-based Hebrew school. The Boston-Area Jewish Education Program is a welcoming, independent and unaffiliated Sunday school located on the Brandeis campus in Waltham, MA. Brandeis University undergrad and grad students apply their knowledge and passion by teaching BJEPâs first through seventh grade students. The program embraces Greater Boston families from all backgrounds (interfaith, interracial, LGBT, varying Jewish denominations) interested in learning Hebrew and exploring Jewish traditions, values and culture.
Experiential learning and Jewish arts and culture are central to their program. They offer extended day options so students can learn modern Hebrew, Jewish dance and Jewish theater. BJEP also offers adult learning and family education, runs High Holiday services and provides bar and bat mitzvah support. Headed by Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari as the education director, BJEP is organized and funded by the parents of students enrolled in the school and is governed by a volunteer parent board of directors. For more information, visit www.bjep.com.
This past weekend, Hebrew College ordained a new graduating class of talented and committed rabbinical and cantorial studentsâmazel tov! Among them is Ari Lev Fornari, the newly-hired BJEP Director. He comes to BJEP with a dynamic and ambitious vision.
âBJEP is a vibrant community of learners and teachers, including multi-faith, multi-racial and LGBTQ families. We share a desire to create and transmit a Judaism that is relevant and meaningful. A Judaism that celebrates the many constellations of family. BJEP is a place where young people learn to value difference, curiosity and critical thinking. It is a place of imagination, creativity and play.
I was drawn to BJEP because of its out-of-the-box approach to Jewish education and its commitment to making Judaism real and meaningful. Traditionally there were different models for how to organize Jewish communal life. One of them was prayer, which grew into the synagogue model. Another was learning, known as the Heder. I see BJEP reinventing a model of Jewish community built around learning. It is my hope that as we grow the program, it will increasingly become a place of intergenerational learning, where we can support families on their Jewish and spiritual journeys.â
Iâm thrilled that InterfaithFamily/Boston will have the privilege of working with Ari Lev to support BJEPâs interfaith families in the coming school year!