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“I feel I’m Jewish not just because I’ve chosen Judaism but because Judaism has chosen me.”
You might recognize David Gregory from his time as NBC newsman or as Meet the Press moderator. But he visited Combined Jewish Philanthropies, the Boston Federation–a supporter of InterfaithFamily/Boston and leader in interfaith issues–this morning in the role of author, husband and father. He was joined by Dr. Erica Brown, an extraordinary Jewish author and teacher. Gregory and Brown were interviewed by CJP President Barry Shrage about interfaith relationships and Jewish life.
Brown made a good point early on in the conversation: So often, it’s not Jewish ritual or prayer or the organized Jewish community that puts off people who are not Jewish. To a newcomer, it’s the inside jokes, that “tribalism” about Jewish culture—the very thing that makes many Jews feel pride—that can be so isolating.
Many of us have seen this play out, whether you are the Jewish one, joking about a Jewish stereotype or using insider lingo, or you’re the one hearing it and not quite feeling part of the conversation.
Gregory is in a unique position to speak on the pulse of interfaith relationships having felt like both insider and outsider. He is the product of an interfaith family (he was raised by a Catholic mother and Jewish father) and it was his wife’s strong Protestant faith that inspired him to explore his own faith and religion. After a great deal of religious and spiritual exploration, he said, “I feel more Jewish than I ever have in my life.”
It’s time for Jews to change their thinking, Gregory said. As his wife Beth put it: “I know what you are but what do you believe?”
Unfortunately, he points out, the idea of appreciating Judaism for its vibrancy, community and spirituality is an “elective.” The more powerful conversation on the table is still the endurance of Judaism and Jewish peoplehood, so it can be difficult to steer the conversation toward the richness of what Judaism has to offer; the “what you believe” rather than the “what you are.”
Gregory is by no means saying that it is futile to embrace and share the notion that Judaism has a great deal to offer those who are not already engaged, however. He challenged those in the room from Jewish organizations to think about creating inroads to the Jewish community that have authenticity for interfaith couples. Brown also pointed out that a one-size-fits-all approach will not work, as every person and couple is unique.
What was most compelling about the conversation was hearing Gregory talk from experience. He does not claim to have the answers for anyone else, but he has been on quite a journey with his personal relationship with Judaism. Its importance has the power to bring him to tears and to propel him forward on this intellectual and heartfelt journey with his family.
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I had the date on my calendar for weeks: a Shabbat dinner with some of the couples in my “Love and Religion” class. We’ve gotten together several times over meals and I knew that nobody has any eating restrictions besides “kosher style.” Emily was hosting the dinner at her house and had offered to order chicken from Zankou (a favorite LA chicken spot) with all the delicious fixings: hummus, babaganoush and tabbouleh. I was making challah and bringing wine. I knew everyone ate chicken which is perfect for Shabbat, convenient and would be a big hit. I was sure of it.
Then, as the three of us started trading emails to coordinate the menu, one of the guests said, “Chicken is great for me, but my boyfriend is observing Lent—we’ll bring fish.” Oh right. It’s Lent! And Shabbat! And he’s Catholic. This IS an interfaith couples’ Shabbat dinner after all. Now what the heck do I do for Lent?
Shabbat is a time for people to be together and celebrate community. It can be a time for inclusion and joy…and eating. When people feel singled out or excluded it is hard to strengthen relationships and build community, and that’s antithetical to so much of what I aim to create at a Shabbat dinner. I appreciated the participant bringing up her boyfriend’s tradition. I also appreciated her offer to bring something special for him, but it would have detracted from the spirit of the gathering. In order to create the best scenario for community and relationship-building, I realized I needed to learn more about his tradition in order to honor it and make sure everyone felt included.
I reached deep into my religious studies major memory bank to try to remember the rules about Lent—something about Fridays and fish but I have no clue. Are there special prayers? Do they HAVE to eat fish or can we get falafel and call it a day? (Does he even like falafel? It seems to be the go-to vegetarian option for Jewish functions, but is that a normal thing or one of those weird Jewish things that no one else does?)
I realized I need to call in reinforcements. I emailed some colleagues and I posted on Facebook: “Catholic friends, please tell me what you like to eat on Fridays during Lent!” I typed in a search in Pinterest: “Challah and fish recipes.”
I went into the living room to talk with my El Salvadorian, kind-of-Catholic nanny. “Do you know anything about Lent customs?” I asked. “Yes, you don’t eat meat on Fridays,” she said. “But sometimes people eat chicken. Not everyone will eat chicken. Chicken broth is OK for some Catholics, but not everyone. People like to eat fish.”
Oy, what had I gotten myself into? By this point, I had so many different opinions and answers and I just didn’t know what to do. And then I got a text from my InterfaithFamily/LA project manager. “Want me to have my wife call you to talk about Lent?”
Yes! How had it had slipped my mind that her wife is Catholic?
She tells me everything I need to know. Order fish: It’s one of those things that’s not necessary but it’s tradition. And either way, fish is delicious and healthy.
She responds, “I know of a few places, but there’s not really ‘Catholic fish.’ Catholics eat pretty much anything.”
Except chicken on Shabbat during Lent, apparently. As I kept trying to find a solution that worked for everyone, the emails continued and the couple offered again to bring their own fish. But I’ve been that person who had to bring her own food to gatherings and parties because they were making pork and I kept kosher. I hated being singled out like that and I always felt alienated. As much as she reassured me that they could bring their own food, I did not want her boyfriend to feel left out at this interfaith dinner.
I insisted on serving fish for dinner and, as it turned out, our host said she would rather have fish anyway and would love to cook it for everyone rather than ordering in from a restaurant. It was her first time hosting a Shabbat dinner and thought we were supposed to eat chicken on Shabbat, even though she would have rather eaten fish all along!
It’s been a few weeks since the dinner and I’m happy to share that it went extremely well. The Catholic partner and his Jewish girlfriend were touched that they were both made to feel so welcome and included. The fish was excellent. And after spending all afternoon Googling “How to braid a challah shaped like a fish,” I let it rise too long and it melted in the oven. So we had flatbread for our Lenten Shabbat dinner and I’m bringing in a better baker to teach us all how to make a proper challah next time.
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We love Mo Willems books in our house! My little one just brought home one of his gazillions of titles called, I Really Like Slop. As I have written before, I now see the world through interfaith family lenses. When we read this story, all I could think about was interfaith couples at Passover! How in the world did I make that leap?
The book tells the story of Piggie presenting her friend Gerald, the elephant, with a pot of her slop. Gerald looks at the smelly concoction with trepidation. He asks some questions about the make-up of the slop. Piggie begs him to try some. She explains that it’s part of Pig culture! Gerald touches his tongue to the slop and chokes and gags. Piggie asks Gerald if he likes it. Gerald explains that he does not like it, but he does like Piggie. And he is happy he tried it.
As are all of Mo Willems’ books, this story is precious and even poignant. It made me think about someone who didn’t grow up with, let’s say, gefilte fish, being presented with it for the first time at a Passover seder. This person is no doubt sitting with a significant other at their parents’ house, surrounded by family and trying to fit in and make a good impression. This person is trying to avoid any cultural faux pas. They may be worried that the haggadah (the book read during the Passover meal) will be read aloud going around the table and that there will be unfamiliar words and transliterated Hebrew to navigate (on four cups of wine, no less). And, now this person is presented with this foreign, kind of smelly food, with a gel-like substance wiggling around on top.
If you were brought up with this food and don’t like it, it is easier to dismiss it. But, for a newcomer, how does one politely excuse themselves from trying it? (Especially if is homemade. This usually makes it a lot better than if it’s cold from the jar—although some people love that. Who am I to yuck your yum, as my child’s feeding therapist implores.)
What Piggie and Gerald teach us is that we don’t have to like our partner’s cultural things. They don’t have to become ours. We don’t have to feel comfortable eating the food or donning certain garb. We don’t automatically have to feel comfortable with the language, traditions or dances. Maybe after experience and time, we will come to like things. We will make them our own. But, maybe we never will. And, that’s OK. Showing respect, asking questions, learning about and even trying aspects important to our loved ones is what matters.
Happy prepping for Passover!
Note: All comments on InterfaithFamily are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed.
Two of the hit TV show The Big Bang Theory’s main characters, Howard and Bernadette, announced that they are having a baby. Mere moments after hearing the news, the father-to-be was fretting about how they would raise their child since they come from different religious backgrounds. “How’s this all going to work? You’re Catholic, I’m Jewish. What religion do we raise it?! And if it’s a boy, do we get him circumcised?”
While their different backgrounds have bubbled up in past episodes, I imagine that Wolowitz’ rant in this scene hit home for many interfaith couples. Navigating two distinct backgrounds is often quite simple…until someone is holding a positive pregnancy test in hand.
When does the topic of religion usually come up in interfaith relationships? Some begin talking about religion before anything gets serious, especially when a faith background is very important to one or both people. But the reality for many couples from different religious or cultural backgrounds is that they only start to discuss these potential differences well into their relationship. For those who plan to have children, conversations about raising children often occur only after having them. Bringing a child into the world can rouse religious questions for the first time. In fact, the least religiously connected time of many people’s lives is young adulthood, so when they meet a partner, religion may be the last thing on their minds.
My advice is to talk early and often. Try introducing the topic with these conversation starters—either before having kids or when kids are young:
1. Talk about your respective backgrounds. Do you both come from a religious heritage that is significant to you? Or just one?
2. Imagine your life about 5 or 10 years down the road. Do you picture particular religious rituals occurring (ie. baby namings, baptism, bris/Jewish ritual circumcision, bar or bat mitzvah, confirmation, etc)? Religious education? Explain to each other what is important to you and why—even if you never had to articulate it before.
3. Talk about holidays and milestones. Which will you celebrate? Why are they important to you? With whom will you spend them? How will you explain your decisions to your child so they feel pride and ownership over their identity or identities?
4. How will you include family members who don’t share traditions and celebrations you choose to observe?
5. You don’t have to have it all figured out right this minute, but setting the stage will help tremendously. You will develop a shared language and a better understanding of what is important to each of you. When issues do arise, it won’t be the first time you’ve thought about religion together.
The clearer you are about the decisions you are making, the clearer you can be with your kids, in-laws and other extended family and friends. Don’t shy away from talking about religion. You will actually become stronger as a couple when you learn to communicate about delicate subjects without fear of threatening the relationship between the two of you or extended family. Plus, as you learn more about one another’s backgrounds, hopes and desires, you could actually be uncovering stories that allow you to know each other on an even deeper level. If you feel more comfortable having a guide with you as you broach these questions, the InterfaithFamily staff is here to help.
Are Bernadette and Howard too late to figure out the logistics of an interfaith family? Not at all. But better to not be taken by surprise.
Naming things gives us a connection to them. Even little children name their lovies and their toys. We label and name to organize things in our minds and to recognize things. How surprising it has been for me as a mother to have a child who says she knows she is the gender not typically aligned with the anatomy she has. It made sense to me when she explained that she wants a name that goes with how she looks and feels. She started using her new name and slowly it has stuck.
When I officiate at a baby naming ceremony, I often explain how important names are within Jewish tradition. Our biblical ancestors’ names told their stories—Avraham, Father of a People; Miriam (from sea water), when she was alive, the people had water. Within the narratives of our ancient scroll, names changed when roles change. Jacob becomes Israel, for instance. The rabbis during the rabbinic period in the first centuries of the Common Era, spoke about having a crown of a good name, meaning your total reputation.
They helped us understand what Jews can believe about heaven. When you have been a good person and touched people who want to carry on your name and your memory, that is eternal life. Passing on the name of a loved one to the next generation is a way we enable this person, of blessed memory, to continue to impact the world through deeds done in their name. Sometimes elderly family members will say to the younger generation that they are their Kaddish (the prayer said to remember loved ones who have died). This means that they are looking to the ones living to carry on their memory.
A friend from childhood who has become a lawyer ushered my family through our minor name change process on Thursday, March 3. It was a profound moment when she reminded me that I named her children within the Jewish tradition and now she was naming my child in this way.
After the high and emotions of leaving court that day with a new name for my child, I drove into the city to help another family bestow Hebrew names on their three children ranging in age from 7 to 13. The mom in this family is Jewish and the father is Catholic. They have raised their children with the hopes of literacy, knowledge and comfortability within both religious realms and traditions. They have celebrated Jewish and Catholic holy days. These kids feel close to both rabbis and priests and both sides of their family. They know that they will have to wrestle like Jacob and discern what they believe about Jesus. They also know that they can turn to both traditions in times of joy and in times of need. They are enriched for this way of living and learning. They are not confused but full of joy. Their parents have a depth of compromise and respect for each other that is inspiring.
So, I stood with a priest who has become a friend and mentor as he baptized the children with water and anointed them with oil. I blessed them. We spoke about the loved ones for whom they were named and what their names in Hebrew mean. This was a ceremony of symbolism, metaphor and meaning.
Last year InterfaithFamily launched a social media campaign called #ChooseLove. As InterfaithFamily/Your Community Directors, we discussed whether our rabbinic colleagues would think we were suggesting that couples should choose love over religion, which was not our intention. Thursday, March 3 was a day when I understood what it means to choose love. Love rises above expectations and assumptions. It envelopes fear and uncertainty. It sweetens disappointment and loss. We don’t always have control over the circumstances of our lives, but we can choose to have compassion at all times.
Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haolam, shehechehyanu, v’kiy’manu, v’higianu laz’man hazeh. We praise You, Eternal our God, Sovereign of all: for giving us life, sustaining us, and enabling us to reach this joyful time.
Here’s what my “To Do” List on a recent day looked like:
And that was only about the first third of the list. I like having to “To Do” lists. They give order to my day, and ensure that I (usually) don’t forget to do what I need to get done on a given day. Plus, there’s that little rush I get when I cross something off the list. Even if it’s a simple task that I’ve completed, I have at least a momentary sense of accomplishment and the thrill of seeing the number of things that have to get done lessened … at least until a few minutes later when I think of something new to add to the list.
I always have lots to “do”—and I’m really good at getting things “done.” But often, at the end of the day, it’s not a sense of accomplishment that I feel, but a sense of exhaustion. I may have crossed many items off my “To Do” list that day, but I already have a whole new list for the next day. And then there are those things—really important things—that too often haven’t gotten the time and attention that they deserve; things like: hanging out with my kids (not in the car on the way to some activity or errand, but just on the couch); eating a relaxed meal; having an uninterrupted conversation with my husband; relaxing and reading a book; or meditating. These are things that aren’t about “doing” but simply about “being,” and on most days I don’t get to all, or sometimes any, of them.
And even worse, sometimes I’m so busy “doing” the things on my oh-so-important list—usually something like writing a text or email, or looking something up on my computer, something that involves being “connected”—that when one of my kids is talking to me, sensing that I’m not fully present for them, they’ll say: “Are you listening?”
I’ll respond half-heartedly: “Of course I am,” as I go about my typing.
And then, they’ll call me on it: “What did I say?”
“Um, I don’t know exactly,” comes my lame response, as my kid’s eyes drop and they walk away.
Sometimes I’m so busy doing … and so “connected” … that I become “disconnected” from the people that matter the most.
Fortunately in Judaism we have a built-in mechanism that encourages us to “disconnect” from our phones and other devices so that we can “connect” with the people that matter to us … and to our own selves. It’s Shabbat. Shabbat reminds us of what we truly are: not “human DOINGS” but “human BEINGS.” (For more on the idea that we are “human beings” and not “human doings,” you can read my blog on The Spirituality of Mindfulness Meditation.)
Observing Shabbat in a traditional manner involves lots of things that one can’t “do.” For example, if you’re Shomer Shabbat (i.e, if you “keep Shabbat” according to the rules of traditional Jewish law) you don’t drive on Shabbat, or use electricity or make phone calls. Often, I hear people who, like myself, aren’t Shomer Shabbat, say that observing Shabbat in a traditional sense sounds too difficult, perhaps even unpleasant. Most of all, they can’t imagine being “unplugged” for an entire day.
But honestly, I long for a day of being totally unplugged … totally “disconnected.” And that’s why I’m going to participate in the National Day of Unplugging on March 4-5, 2016.
Why am I so excited about unplugging from Friday at sundown until Saturday at sundown? Because if I can’t “do” things like check my email, texts and voice messages, it’ll force me to put a lot more focus on “being.” After returning home from Shabbat morning services and lunch at my synagogue on Saturday, I’ll be able to: spend time hanging out with my husband and kids; read a book; play with my dog; or maybe just take a well-needed nap, not worrying that the sound of my phone ringing will wake me up.
I know it won’t be easy to spend an entire day totally unplugged … I’ll miss that rush of dopamine that I get when I see a new text or email come in. But I also know of the benefits that can come if I resist the cravings to connect to technology for a whole day. And if I’m lucky, really lucky, I may just be able to sense what the rabbis meant when they spoke of Shabbat as “a taste of the World to Come.”
Rather than making a “To Do” list for the National Day of Unplugging, I’ve made a “To Be” list, and here’s what it says:
Will you join me in unplugging on March 4-5, 2016? Here are some ideas of ways to unplug with your family.
Last week, my son started wondering about the edge of the universe. What is at the end? Is there an end? What does the word “everything” really mean? Is there anything outside of “everything”?
I could tell as we talked that his mind was trying to expand enough to picture our expanding universe. We weren’t just talking big. We were talking about something larger than our imaginations could hold. He was awe-stricken.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement… To be spiritual is to be amazed” and, “Wonder is an act in which the mind confronts the universe.” Sometimes we are privileged to experience or think about something that religious mystics would say lifts the veil, exposing something deeper, clearer or more intense about the universe and our place in it. At those moments, we become overcome by a sense of the grandeur of life that is hard to describe. Religious writers would say it is ineffable, impossible, to convey in words.
When my son had this experience, we wanted him to know that some people call that expansiveness, that interconnectedness, or that feeling he was having—G!d. The medieval Kabbalists called that expansiveness, “Eyn Sof,” literally describing G!d as “Endlessness.” But do we need religion to feel that sense of being connected to the entire universe? Do we need to call it G!d?
Of course not. Some people may label such experiences “holy,” “miracles” or even “G!d,” while many others would not. Richard Dawkins, contemporary atheist and scientist, imagines himself as a child lying under the stars, “dazzled by Orion, Cassiopeia and Ursa Major, tearful with the unheard music of the Milky Way” (The God Delusion, p.11).
Although no two experiences of awe are alike, the feeling of interconnectedness and awe in the face of the vastness of the universe Dawkins describes is akin to the writings of many mystics across religious traditions. He wonders in the book why he could have such an experience and become a scientist while his friend could have that same type of experience and go into the priesthood. This is his premise for undoing religion. For me, his observation only reinforces that it doesn’t matter what we call it. His friend called it G!d. He didn’t. Why should it matter, when what is truly important is that they both had an expansive experience of awe as young children? They both went on into lines of work where they could cultivate that skill, living in awe of the universe. For Dawkins and the rest of us, those moments of clarity can influence the way we live our lives.
Dawkins is far from being alone. According to a Pew Research study, a rising number of Americans across the religious spectrum report that they often feel a deep sense of spiritual peace and well-being as well as a sense of wonder about the universe. But what is more surprising, especially since fewer and fewer Americans affiliate themselves with any religion, is that a rising number of atheists also reported feelings of wonder about the universe. That number rose from 37 to 54 percent from 2007 to 2014, which means that their sense of awe is even higher than those within some religious traditions.
What has changed for atheists that they are reporting a sense of increased wonder? Perhaps one of the reasons that the “nones” and atheists are finding awe is that it has become clear that wonder in no way negates the intellectual, the scientific. For Dawkins, a feeling of “becoming one with the universe” is eventually tied to his reverence for science.
The 20th century Jewish thinker, Aaron Zeitlin, warns us in a poem that if we look at the stars and yawn, then we have been created in vain. Although Dawkins rejects any religious explanation of his experience, he would never look at the stars and yawn. In the words of sociologist Ryan Cragun, “It could be that those who are now admitting they are atheists … are also more willing to admit that they do experience what many people consider ‘spiritual’ feelings. Perhaps normalizing “atheism” has benefitted those seeking non-religious language to express wonder.
We certainly do not need religion to feel a sense of the grandeur of life and the universe. But religion at its best is about the cultivation of awe. Embedded in most religious traditions is a deep sense of wonder, and an examination of the self in relation to the vastness of the universe. We all begin life with innate curiosity, but where is that ability to live in awe cultivated as we grow up? Our religious spaces could—and should—be the places we take those questions that shake us and challenge us. Not to answer them, but to provide the space to wonder. And religious practice can serve as a catalyst to invoke these feelings. Many religious rituals are designed to lead us to those spaces of awe and wonderment on a regular basis, and encourage us to feel gratitude at the magnificence of the universe.
Judaism has a blessing for everything, from the appearance of a rainbow or an unusual sight to the seemingly mundane, daily miracles of eating food and using the bathroom (yes, that is truly awe-inspiring when you think about it). Daily life is filled with large and small moments of awe. Amidst the busyness of our everyday lives, from time to time we slow down for long enough that we are allowed to glimpse something deeper: the magnificence, the terrifying immensity of it all.
Because the blessings are associated with specific moments or acts, they are not allowed to pass by unnoticed. We learn how to better notice and embrace these moments. I hope to teach my kids not that one needs religion to feel awe, but that religious rituals and language can help us cultivate a sense of awe and express gratitude for the universe we live in. I want to give them a religious language to talk about wonder and perhaps to feel comforted by the fact that people have been feeling that sense of grandeur and awe for ages.
However you find your sense of awe, embrace it. Don’t worry too much about what you call it. But at the same time, don’t be afraid to seek it out within religious structures. You might find new language and more opportunities to discover your own Radical Amazement.
Note on the spelling of G!d’s name: Traditionally the divine name is written G-d. But here I use G!d to connote the idea that the divine is one way of expressing Radical Amazement.
You might find it hard to believe but I love going to church. I don’t go very often, but the times that I have been, I have found it very moving and spiritual. I have prayed and spoken with God in a variety of settings: in the desert, in the forest, in the ocean, in non-denominational campus chapels, in hospital rooms, on my yoga mat, though conversations with my friends and colleagues who are ministers and chaplains of other faiths and yes, in a church.
Sunday, January 31, 2016 I had the opportunity to worship with the community at Calvary Baptist Church and to give a sermon and the benediction. The clergy team, the choir and the congregation warmly welcomed me and I felt right at home. What helped was that I had been there before to speak to an adult education class and that my colleague at Calvary, Pastor Erica Lea, had spent a lot of time sharing with me about the congregation and the service so I knew what to expect. Not only did she let me brainstorm sermon ideas with her that would resonate with the congregation but she encouraged me to be myself and to share my own words of Torah (scripture) and to teach from my heart.
The occasion for my visit to Calvary Baptist Church was Interfaith Sunday, a service in celebration of the UN Resolution on Interfaith Harmony Week. I spoke about sowing the seeds of interfaith harmony. In the physical sense, I connected the idea of planting seeds to the Hebrew month of Shevat. There is a teaching that the seeds that are planted in the month of Shevat (in winter) will bloom in Nissan (the month of spring time, in the time of Passover, redemption and freedom). Interfaith Harmony doesn’t happen overnight. It must be achieved by planting seeds and nourishing those seeds to blossom.
In the metaphorical sense of sowing seeds for Interfaith Harmony, I spoke about building relationships. I drew inspiration from the recent Torah portion from the book of Exodus in which we read about Moses’ relationship with his father-in-law Yitro. Yitro was a Midianite priest, and he served as mentor and counsel to Moses, the leader of the Israelites.
The relationship between Moses and his father-in-law is one of the earliest and most powerful examples of interfaith harmony in our tradition. Though they come from different faiths, they understand each other’s language and liturgy, each other’s spiritual practice and each other’s laws. Moreover, they understand something universal: how important is for spiritual leaders to have support and mentorship of their own.
I have been blessed with guidance and mentorship from spiritual leaders of other faiths and I have found time and time again how valuable those relationships are in my life. As I think of the support Moses received from Yitro, I am reminded of the support I received from my high school guidance counselor, Dr. Melanie-Prejean Sullivan, who is now Director of Campus Ministry at Bellarmine University in Louisville, KY, who helped me understand my calling. I think of Rev. Sheila McNeill-Lee who was my Clinical Pastoral Education Supervisor at Sibley Memorial Hospital when I was chaplain intern, who helped me to articulate my beliefs, the value of self-care and how to check my assumptions. I think of my dear friend and interfaith collaborator on creative expression and spirituality, Erin Brindle, who is an art therapist. I also think of my new colleagues at Calvary including Pastor Erica Lea and her team.
During my chaplaincy training, a colleague who is now a Presbyterian chaplain led us in what has become one of my favorite spiritual experiences which I recreated for the community at Calvary. At the end of my sermon, I invited all of the congregants to write their prayers on paper flowers and then bring them up to the altar and place them in a glass vase. Together we planted our own seeds for interfaith harmony by offering up a beautiful bouquet of our prayers. I truly hope that the seeds we planted at Calvary that day continue to be nourished through conversation and discussion and community partnership.
I had a very interesting day yesterday.
It started with a phone interview with a graduate student in journalism writing a story about Jewish-Muslim relationships. She had a Jewish parent and a Muslim parent herself, and was involved with a group of young Jewish-Muslim couples. She told me that some of them had decided to raise their children with Judaism and some hadn’t decided. I told her that at InterfaithFamily we are always interested in what influences some interfaith couples to get involved in Jewish life or not.
She said she thought that Jews were “exclusivist” and told me that one couple in the group approached a rabbi, I think she said about conversion, and the rabbi made a comment about Arabs and breeding that was so derogatory I don’t want to repeat it here. She couldn’t see it, but my jaw dropped, it was such an insulting and ignorant comment.
But sadly I shouldn’t have been surprised. I immediately thought of a good friend in the San Francisco Bay Area, not Jewish herself but active in her Reform synagogue, who reported last year that a woman at the synagogue said in her presence “we Jews are dumbing ourselves down by intermarrying.” My friend – herself at the highest level of anyone’s intelligence scale — was so shocked at how insulting the comment was that she couldn’t immediately respond. And then I thought of a survey that a major city federation asked me to analyze a year or two ago in which one couple said that at a Reform synagogue someone who learned they were interfaith said “maybe people like you would be more comfortable” at some other synagogue. It’s hard to believe that these comments are true – yet they keep on happening.
After the phone call I went to a terrific event at the Brown-RISD Hillel co-sponsored by the Genesis Prize, Hillel International and the Jewish Agency for Israel that featured Michael Douglas and Natan Sharansky talking about their Jewish journeys. I sat next to a man who asked me what I did and then told me his story. He grew up Orthodox, had a child with his first wife, got divorced, and then married a woman who is not Jewish. His wife doesn’t intend to convert but she keeps a strictly kosher home and his grandchildren call her “bubbe.” But after he re-married his synagogue told him he couldn’t have an aliyah (recite blessings before and after the Torah is read) any longer, so he left the synagogue.
This morning the Good Morning America team was talking about new variations of the Barbie doll and one of the correspondents said that her young children “don’t see color” meaning they don’t distinguish other children based on race. I’m not sure how widespread it is that people see people of other races as “normal.” I do think that young children see different constellations of parents as “normal;” I recently asked my 5-year-old grandson if one of “Joe’s” two mothers wasn’t a police officer, and I am quite sure he doesn’t think twice about his classmates who have two mothers or two fathers.
All of this made me wonder if Jews will ever see “non-Jews” and Jews marrying “non-Jews” as “normal.” At InterfaithFamily we try very hard not to use the term “non-Jew” which is why I put it in quotes; it’s off-putting and people don’t identify as “non-“ anything. We prefer to say “partners from different faith traditions.” But we keep on hearing people say “non-Jew” and it’s very use appears to support viewing the other as not “normal” – an Arab who breeds … or “non-Jews” who aren’t smart – as well as penalizing Jews who marry them.
The last thing that happened yesterday was hearing Michael Douglas tell his story again. As he said last night, and in a great story in the Jewish Week last week, Michael Douglas was told his whole life that he wasn’t Jewish because his mother wasn’t Jewish. When the people from the Genesis Prize came to him and said they wanted to award him the Genesis Prize as an outstanding Jew, he said “this is a mistake, I’m not Jewish.” But his son has gotten the family interested, and became
Dare I say that the Genesis Prize being awarded to Michael Douglas is a statement that Jews need to not only recognize and welcome, but normalize intermarriage, the children of intermarriage, Jews who intermarry and most important, the partners from different faith traditions married to Jews? It was a ray of hope to end a very interesting day.
Last month, I sat with 25 people who gathered over breakfast to talk about being part of interfaith families. As the Director of an InterfaithFamily community, there is nothing new or remarkable about that; I bring interfaith couples together regularly to share stories and support one another as they explore religious life. What is noteworthy about this particular group of people is that they were all Jewish professionals, working in Hillels around the country. We were attendees at the Hillel International Global Assembly and this was a first-of-its-kind meeting for people who work in Jewish campus life and are in interfaith relationships. Some of the participants in this discussion were “out” about their relationships while others hoped no one from their campus community or staff would know they had attended the meeting. Many others did not feel comfortable attending at all for fear they would be found out, possibly resulting in losing their jobs.
I have written about how one’s choice of partner does not necessarily reflect one’s commitment to Jewish life. This is certainly true personally, and I know scores of other Jewish professionals like me who are wholly dedicated to enriching Jewish life in our generation, and are themselves partnered with people from other cultural and religious backgrounds. With an intermarriage rate of around 70 percent in non-Orthodox Jewish communities, it is clear that Jewish-Jewish couples are about to become a rarer sight than interfaith ones. Many of those who marry someone from another background are active in Jewish life and have every intention of continuing that involvement. Some are so dedicated to a thriving Jewish community that they become Jewish professionals. Yet when they get there, they often feel that they can’t bring their whole selves to their work for fear of being labeled bad role models.
I hear the worry that Jewish campus professionals, more than professionals in other Jewish settings, are especially poised to be role models for young Jews at the time in their lives when they are getting serious about dating and marriage. Being intermarried would sanction the decision to marry out of the tradition, the argument goes. But let’s look realistically at the demographics of our current Jewish college students. According to a recent study, “Among millennials, born between 1981 and 1995, … partly as a result of the high rate at which millennial children of intermarriage identify as Jewish, half of all Jews in their generation are children of intermarriage” [the Brandeis Millennial Children of Intermarriage study, p.5].
This next generation is often trying to figure out how to honor both parents as they explore religious life on campus and chart a way forward. Furthermore, many if not most of them are interdating or have at least explored the idea. The same study shows that the percentage of young adults who think it is important to marry someone Jewish is extremely low for children of in-married parents and even lower for the children of intermarried parents [Ibid, pg. 43]. Pretending that Jewish college students are largely choosing only to date other Jews is causing us to miss out on some profound conversations. They are not merely deciding on a partner; they are contemplating how they will bring meaning into their lives, they are beginning to own and make decisions as adults for their own spiritual journeys, and they are determining what role Judaism will play in their lives going forward.
These college students need diverse role models, a plethora of professional exemplars so they can see how an adult makes Jewishly committed decisions when Judaism is not the default. They need models to demonstrate how interfaith families navigate raising kids in a still-conflicted Jewish community, and how couples have healthy conversations with in-laws and grandparents about religious choices. If they do partner with someone Jewish, they will inevitably have extended family members who marry someone outside of Judaism at their family holiday table. They need models and forums to discuss how we can best navigate the increasing diversity in the Jewish community.
We are also missing the whole picture when we think only of undergraduates in the Hillel picture. Many Hillels have vibrant graduate student and young adult communities. Large numbers of these young people arrive on campus already having made their decisions about a life partner, and many of those relationships are with people from different religious and cultural backgrounds. They also seek support and models as they begin their lives together.
Those of us with religiously diverse families are uniquely situated as Jewish professionals to bring wisdom, knowledge and compassion to interfaith families exploring Jewish life. Drawing on our personal stories and experience, we are poised to model for others how good communication, flexibility and introspection can help strengthen the next generation of seekers. The current generation of inter-partnered Jewish professionals aren’t the first … and won’t be the last. Judaism’s greatest leader, Moses, married Tzipporah. Not only was she not a Hebrew; she was the daughter of a Midianite priest. Her father, Jethro, condoned this union and even offered Moses sound advice on leading the Israelites.
Hillel has come a very long way. When I began working for the campus organization, it was made clear that professionals would not be allowed to perform an interfaith marriage ceremony, let alone be partnered with someone from another background. Thank you, Hillel International, for providing the space for such an important conversation when field professionals were brave enough to step forward and express the deep need for community and support. I look forward to the time when all Jewish professionals can bring their whole selves to their workplaces, proud to be exemplars for the Jewish campus community as they dedicate their life and work to strengthening Judaism for the next generation.