Advice for Jewish Parents when Your Child Gets Engaged to Someone Who isn’t Jewish

As a rabbi, it’s not unusual for me to get a call from a Jewish parent whose child is engaged to someone who isn’t Jewish. The parent usually asks if we can get together to talk—sometimes they want to talk because they’re having a hard time accepting the fact that their child is going to be in an interfaith marriage and other times they want to discuss a particular issue that has come up. Here is some advice that I often give to such parents (which is really just a variation on advice that I give to parents of adult children in general):

1. Your child’s marrying someone who isn’t Jewish isn’t necessarily a rejection of Judaism…or of you. As I wrote in my recent blog “Marrying Out” Is Not “Abandoning Judaism” just because a person falls in love with someone of another religion (or no religion) it doesn’t mean that they don’t value their Judaism. Many people today don’t see loving someone of a different faith and having a strong Jewish identity as being mutually exclusive. Your child can love their partner and they can love being Jewish—and they can love you too!

Father and daughter2. Give your child the time and space to make his/her own decisions. You probably have lots of questions: Will they have a Jewish wedding? Are they going to have a Jewish home? How are they going to raise their children? While you may want to know the answers to all of your questions NOW (if not yesterday…), your child and his/her partner may not have all of the answers yet, and even if they do, they may not be ready to share them with you. Let them know (through your words, and even more important, your actions) that you respect their right to make decisions on their own time frame and to share them with you when they are ready.

3. Accept that these are your child’s and his/her partner’s decisions to make. Notice that I didn’t say that you have to agree with—or even like—all of their decisions. It may be very upsetting to you that your daughter has decided not to be married by your rabbi or that she is going to have a Christmas tree in her home. But she is an adult and these are decisions for her and her partner to make, not for you to make. Odds are that she already knows how you feel about these things and if you critique everything she tells you then she may not want to keep sharing with you.

4. Be honest, but respectful. It’s OK to be honest about how you feel. You can tell your son that it makes you sad that he won’t be married in a synagogue or that his fiancé isn’t converting to Judaism. Most of us aren’t such great actors anyway and it’s always best to be honest—while recognizing that sometimes, as we learned as children, “if you don’t have something nice to say, then don’t say anything at all.” As you share your feelings, make sure that you are clear that they are your feelings—and while they are real and will hopefully be acknowledged by your son, remember that he and his partner are going to make their own decisions and that while the intent of these decisions isn’t to make you sad, this may be the unfortunate byproduct of some of their decisions.

5. Ask your child if s/he wants your opinion or advice. Your daughter may share with you some of the challenges she is dealing with in her interfaith relationship. For example, she may tell you that she’s angry at her fiancé for insisting that she go to church with his family on Easter, or that she’s hurt that her fiancé won’t come with her to synagogue on Yom Kippur. Odds are that if you offer advice and she doesn’t really want it, or you propose a solution that ends up not working for her and her fiancé, the result is that she will be mad at you. So how do you know what she wants? ASK! You can simply say: “Do you want to just vent and I’ll listen to your feelings, or do you want to hear my opinion and my advice?” That way, you’ll know her real purpose in sharing with you and you can respond accordingly. And if she tells you that she wants you to just listen but not offer your opinion, but this is too difficult for you to do, then you should be up front about it and not get into a conversation that won’t be productive for either of you.

6. Get to know your child’s partner. Your son fell in love with the woman he’s going to marry, so presumably there’s something very special about her. If you haven’t already done so, then get to know her and treat her with kindness and respect. Invite her to participate in Jewish events and celebrations—that is, if these are things you would be doing anyway. If you have Shabbat dinner as a family, invite your son and his fiancé to join you so she can share the beauty of Shabbat with your family. Be welcoming and explain to her what’s going on, while being careful not to be patronizing. But if you don’t regularly go to synagogue on Saturday mornings, don’t invite her to synagogue with you just so you can “counteract” the fact that she isn’t Jewish.

7. Talk to other parents whose children have intermarried. As in many situations, it’s often nice to feel like you’re not alone. It can be helpful to speak with someone who has had a similar experience who can understand how you are feeling and who can provide you with advice and support. If you’re in the Philadelphia area, join our Facebook group and get in the conversation.

What advice would you offer to a parent whose child is intermarrying? If your child is married to someone of a different religion, were you given any advice that you found helpful? Is there advice you found not to be helpful?

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Shabbat Hanukkah in Paris

The last week of November was Celebration Central for my husband and me. We flew to Paris for a cousin’s 80th birthday, celebrated one day before a personal trio: Thanksgiving, the second night of Hanukkah and my husband’s birthday.

For Shabbat-Hanukkah (the Sabbath that occurs during Hanukkah), we made the 3/4 hour trek via Paris Metro to a suburban neighborhood to visit the city’s only liberal synagogue, Kehilat Gesher, the “American synagogue of Paris.” We found many jewels hidden away in this unmarked Jewish haven on Rue Leon Cogniet.

It can be uncomfortable to attend services in an unfamiliar house of worship, regardless of one’s religious upbringing, affiliation, or knowledge base. I am especially tentative in these situations, yet my desire to celebrate Shabbat Hanukkah in Paris and my curiosity moved me to make the effort to join the community for one evening.

The Kehilat Gesher congregation is a highly diverse group of regulars and visitors, all gathered together to experience liberal Judaism in Paris. Rabbi Tom Cohen conducts a trilingual Shabbat service that is inclusive, warm and rich with the joy of the occasion. His enthusiasm for welcoming Shabbat into our hearts was overflowing and we effortlessly settled in for the experience of a lifetime.

Siddur

The Kehilat Gesher Siddur (prayer book) is quadrilingual. Each page has the prayers written in Hebrew, French, English, and the most fascinating transliteration using French accents! Rabbi Cohen has been leading services there since 1993 and is a master at making sure that the service is accessible to all. We took turns doing the readings in the language of our choice. We heard myriad accents in multiple languages: Hebrew with French, English with Russian, French with Hebrew, and some that I did not recognize.

After the service, we gathered for the blessings over the wine and bread and shared a special treat of traditional Hanukkah sufganiyot (fried foods) in the form of yummy jelly doughnuts. We had many warm and welcoming conversations with members and Rabbi Cohen made an extra effort to introduce himself and to genuinely engage with us about who we are and why we decided to attend services at Kehilat Gesher.

What made the experience so memorable was the recognition that even far away from home I can find a friendly connection at a liberal synagogue. As I sat in that small uncomfortable seat, listening to the opening song, a slightly non-traditional rendition of “Shabbat Shalom,” I truly understood that I was part of something unique and special. The amazing part was that nobody seemed to care if we were Jewish, or intermarried or, in our case, intra-faith (Reform and Orthodox).

At Kehilat Gesher Paris they say Shabbat Shalom with an international accent!

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Judaism the American Way?

Interfaith Holiday Card

A recent blog has stirred up some disapproving comments on our Facebook page. This couple split their holiday card in half with the husband on the Christmas side and the wife on the Hanukkah side. The wife says, “We do it ALL.” They “bake” latkes. This is interesting considering the “traditional” way to make latkes is to fry them in oil to remember the miracle of the oil narrative. However, so many families today eat latkes with all kind of variations (baking is certainly healthier). She also says that she hopes her children will gravitate toward Judaism but that she is not “pushing” it.

It would be easy to read this and say, “Goodbye liberal American Judaism—it’s been nice knowing you.” This kind of flippant observation of Judaism and commercializing the minor holiday of Hanukkah to become like Christmas marks doomsday for an authentic Judaism to survive. However, I read this and think, “Wow…many people are living and creating a new Jewish expression.” This is “minhag America” (American tradition). I am referring to Isaac Mayer Wise’s first American Jewish prayer book when I use that expression.

It is possible that they teach their children to be mensches (and perhaps use the word), that they give tzedakah and care about social justice because of and based in their Jewish identity. It is possible that they turn to Jewish expression at important life cycle events like weddings, birth and death (and want their children turning 13 to mark that occasion Jewishly as well).

Is this good enough? Is this Jewish enough? Will this lead to future generations of Jews? Do we want these families in our synagogues or not? What would get a family like this to join a synagogue? What is the litmus test for when a family crosses a boundary that makes them not “really” Jewish?

I say, let’s build communities where we are not judgmental of whether the children are doing it ALL. A community that says that everyone in the family can participate in a totally open, accessible Judaism. A community where we celebrate the holidays with great food, timeless narratives of eternal truths, and live kindness and giving with audacity. A community that says that the Jewish way of wrestling with God and arguing for the sake of heaven nourishes our souls and is good for our spirits.

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He Will Be Missed: Remembering Edgar M. Bronfman, Sr.

All of us at InterfaithFamily are mourning the loss of Edgar Bronfman, who died last night.

Edgar BronfmanEdgar had a powerful wonderful personal impact on our organization. He was a true pioneer and visionary for the cause of engaging interfaith families in Jewish life and community.

As early as 2004, we reprinted an article from the Jerusalem Post whose title conveyed Edgar’s attitude and foreshadowed all of his future efforts in our field: Bronfman: Children of Intermarriage Are Also Jews.

Back in 2008 I wrote that InterfaithFamily, which started as an independent non-profit in 2002, had plateaued at a funding level of $375,000 until 2006, and that I had given serious thought to closing IFF because of lack of funding support for our cause. But a tide turned in 2006, and we raised over $500,000 that year, and over $800,000 in 2007. How did this happen? Because Edgar Bronfman was the key catalyst. The Samuel Bronfman Foundation was our first major new funder that year.

We enjoyed support from Edgar and SBF for many years after. I’ve only been to the Jewish Funders Network annual conference (which isn’t meant to be a place for grant-seekers to seek grants) once: because Edgar and SBF sponsored a reception at which we spoke about IFF. And I had two memorable lunches with Edgar at what I understood to be “his” table at the Four Seasons.

More important than his impact on InterfaithFamily, though, was his impact on the cause of engaging interfaith families. The importance of welcoming interfaith families was the centerpiece of his important 2008 book, Hope, Not Fear: A Path to Jewish Renaissance. Edgar’s son, Adam, has also been outspoken in the past on the same issues, with coverage in a 2007 JTA article, and in a speech at the 2008 GA.

But the sentiments that Edgar Bronfman spoke so explicitly and repeatedly about welcoming interfaith families have sadly been rare among Jewish leaders. Unfortunately, I can’t think of anyone of Edgar’s stature who has been willing to forcefully assert the critical importance of engaging interfaith families to the liberal Jewish future. When the Pew Report generated huge discussion in the Jewish world starting this past October, the voices of the leadership of the Jewish community seemed to all be delivering the tired old “stem the tide of intermarriage” message.

No one comparable to Edgar Bronfman was heard delivering his prophetic message, in Hope, Not Fear:

If we speak about intermarriage as a disaster for the Jewish people, we send a message to intermarried families that is mixed at best. How can you welcome people in while at the same time telling them that their loving relationship is in part responsible for the destruction of the Jewish people? No one should be made to feel our welcome is conditional or begrudging. The many non-Jews who marry Jews must not be regarded as a threat to Jewish survival but as honored guests in a house of joy, learning and pride.

 

The oft-cited figure that among intermarried families only 33 percent of children are raised Jewish does not take into account the possibility that if the Jewish community were more welcoming, those numbers could grow dramatically.

We can only hope that some Jewish leader somewhere will pick up the mantle Edgar has left behind and continue to champion the cause of engaging interfaith families Jewishly.

We send our condolences to Edgar’s family and to the staff of The Samuel Bronfman Foundation and the non-profit organizations that were closest to his heart.

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Oh That Tree Question

Christmas treeThis is it. That time of year that many intermarried Jews dread: Christmas tree time. Especially if you go as far as getting a tree and stringing it up on the roof of your car and driving to your house as quickly as possible (maybe even ducking as you drive by your shul, so the rabbi doesn’t see). It used to feel so wrong, so shameful: “What will the others think?”

Where do our values come from? How do these questioning voices appear in one’s head? Often our values are shaped by our parents and our teachers and our peers. My elementary school upbringing consisted of attending an Orthodox Hebrew Day School and the message growing up was clear: If a Jew has a Christmas tree in his house, he has gone “too far.” If you bring a tree into your house, you might as well put a swastika on top for you have betrayed the Jewish people.

My mother would mourn for the Jewish people if she saw it, and fear I would have lost focus on my roots. Oy, assimilation-1, Jews-0. My environmentalist friends would moan the betrayal of the earth, to drag a tree into one’s house for one week of the year. How horrifying! Don’t get me started on the gifts. The commercialism of Christmas is horrendous and the wrapping paper and packaging is tantamount criminal. The spoiling of kids with gift after gift. The plastic. The cookies. The elevated levels of acidity in one’s blood sugar as one holiday party bleeds into another. The drinks. The decadence.

But of course, I went to Hebrew School. My brother and sister and I would watch all of the holiday Christmas specials and feel like outsiders. We loved the cartoons and the stories of spreading cheer and goodness and charity. Charity and community service that we were taught to do regularly were emphasized on one special day for the majority of Americans, and we were on the fringe and couldn’t (or didn’t know how to) really participate at all.

And there I was 30 years later, a grown adult making decisions of my own. It’s true, if both people in a relationship are of the same religion, these kinds of things are rarely a problem. The best we could hope for would be to go out for Chinese food and play cards, which was the running joke of many of our childhoods, the thing that all American Jews do on that holiday.

But things have changed. These are different times. Would I choose to get a tree for my family like my friends from Baltimore? No. Not in a thousand years. Is it a ritual that I embrace and make my own filled with meaning? No, not that either. So what changed? For me, it is about respecting my wife’s background. Deb pointed it out like this: We have a very Jewish household. We light Shabbat candles, do Kiddush and blessings, make challah, send our kids to Hebrew school, sing Hebrew songs, have mezuzot on our doorways, give Tzedakah regularly, celebrate all the holidays, engage in Chevurah groups, the list goes on and on… But there is just one thing—just one thing—from her past tradition that she wants to keep and it shouldn’t be too much to ask.

She never converted, and to her, Christmas had nothing to do with religion (I know, I know, that one is really tough for me), but was about hot chocolate and sleigh rides and getting cozy and thankful and making snowmen and caroling and decorations and parties with friends and family and creating magic for the children. Time to relax as a family.

Well when you put it that way, it shouldn’t be too much to ask. So I go along for the sake of Shalom Bayit (peace in the house). I assure you that it’s not easy. And I still have a hard time with it since I am a committed Jewish educator (who is coming out of the closet with the confession to having a tree over the years). But relationships are about giving to the other and not ruling with an iron fist. Would I recommend that Jews have Christmas trees in their houses? Do I buy into the commercialization and environmental waste associated with Christmas? Not at all on either count.

But do I love my wife? Yes! Is this tradition really important to her and her family? Yes! If I grin and bear it for one week of the year, will my kids continue to go to Hebrew School and have bar and bat mitzvahs and identify as Jews throughout their lives? Yes! So all that was stopping me was closing my mind to honoring what my life partner wants. And that was no longer acceptable to me.

I am not the only Jew who struggles with this. So I wrote this blog to allow people to open up and share with their partners what they care about. There is more than enough evidence that children who grow up in committed Jewish households survive the Christmas Tree thing just fine and live their lives as committed Jews.

If you want to hear more perspectives on how intermarried Jews approach the Christmas tree issue, check out this insightful packet with some meaningful questions.

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The Beginning of The Journey

Rabbi Simchah Green, a veteran Modern Orthodox rabbi and graduate of Yeshiva University sees intermarriage as an opportunity for the Jewish people. He recently wrote for InterfaithFamily: “Now is not the time for us to bury our heads in the sand. Now is not the time for us to bemoan the situation. Now is not the time to sound off against this phenomenon.”

“And without question I shall not consider that an intermarriage represents the END OF THE LINE, BUT RATHER THE BEGINNING OF A JOURNEY.” (See his full essay here.) Rabbi Green is right! Intermarriage is not the end of the Jewish people. Intermarriage is not a time for us to hem and haw or say “woe is me” about the future. We must look at intermarriage as an opportunity. An opportunity to embrace those around us who are interested in learning more about Judaism and participating in Jewish life with those they care about.

Booklet coverCarol, my sister’s mother-in-law, demonstrates this fully and completely. She recently asked me, “Where can we go to learn more about Judaism?” She explained that she (who was not raised Jewishly) wanted to be fully involved in helping to raise my newborn niece with a Jewish identity. Carol is amazing! Even before her granddaughter was born, she reached out to learn more, to become more educated about Judaism, the holidays and the values.

I was excited to help educate Carol. I first led her to the free booklets from InterfaithFamily, formatted for online reading and printing: interfaithfamily.com/booklets. I also suggested that she may be interested in signing up for an upcoming Raising a Child with Judaism in Your Interfaith Family class. And, as I would offer to everyone in the community, staff at InterfaithFamily/Bay Area are always available to answer your questions.

I hope that all grandparents, parents and partners are welcomed by those around them. Let us all help each other explore Jewish life in a way that feels comfortable and may that exploration be supported by those we love as well as the leaders of the Jewish community.

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“Marrying Out” Is Not “Abandoning Judaism”

Jews don’t live in ghettos anymore, and I think most of us would agree that this is a good thing. In our daily lives we interact with all sorts of people who are different from ourselves—people with different political views, people from different socio-economic backgrounds, people of different races and people of different religions. This exposure to diversity makes our lives varied and interesting. I for one don’t know of many people who would want to give this up.

We don’t live in a world of arranged marriages, and the simple fact is that people fall in love for all kinds of reasons, many of them inexplicable. Sometimes you just know when you have met “the one”—even if that person is someone totally different from you, and even if that person is totally different from what you had imagined for yourself.

Many people, before finding their mate, have a “checklist” of what they’re looking for in a partner. One of my friends always said she’d marry someone blonde, very physically fit and—most important—Jewish. So when she met a man at work who had dark hair, was chubby and didn’t like to work out—and was Methodist—she wasn’t concerned when they started to spend a lot of time together as friends. Sure he was smart, interesting and funny—but he wasn’t her “type.” But eventually their connection become deeper and they fell in love. It stopped mattering to her that he wasn’t blonde and fit. What mattered was that she loved him. And though she didn’t value her Jewish identity any less after falling in love with him than before falling in love with him, she was determined to find a way to make their relationship work since he was “the one” she loved. Eventually, they got married.

For my friend, “the one” is a Methodist. For Rabbi Michal Woll (who co-wrote the recently published book Mixed-Up Love with her husband Jon Sweeney) “the one” is a Catholic author. For me, “the one” happens to be another rabbi. But just because my friend and Michal married Christian men that doesn’t mean that either of them values Judaism less than I do.

Happy familyI’ve met numerous people who grew up with strong Jewish identities and who care deeply about the future of the Jewish people—many of whom spent much of their lives certain that they would never even date, let alone marry, someone who was not Jewish but who simply fell in love with someone they knew, like a college classmate, a work colleague or a best friend. Some of them shared with me that they went through deep soul searching and many tears after having fallen in love with someone of a different faith, but ultimately they came to the conclusion that they could spend their life with the person they loved as well as live a committed Jewish life and raise a Jewish family.

These people didn’t see themselves as having to make a choice between EITHER the person they loved OR the religion and community that they loved. Rather, they made the decision to BOTH spend their life with the person they loved AND to live a Jewish life and raise a Jewish family. Most people I’ve talked to who have made this BOTH/AND decision have acknowledged that there are challenges to being in an interfaith relationship (just like there are challenges in any relationship, especially one in which there are fundamental differences between the partners), but they would rather deal with those challenges together with their mate than having to choose EITHER/OR between their mate and Judaism, and they find meaning and often joy in facing those challenges TOGETHER.

The fact is that in today’s world, in most of the liberal Jewish community, having a partner who is not Jewish and living a committed Jewish life aren’t seen as necessarily mutually exclusive. As Michal and Jon share in Mixed-Up Love, faith and religion are VERY important to BOTH of them; that’s a large part of what attracted them to each other. It just happens that in their case they each have a DIFFERENT religion. Together they are raising a Jewish daughter and making it work for themselves and their family.

So don’t just assume that because a Jewish person is in a relationship with or married to someone who is of a different faith that their Judaism, the Jewish community and Jewish continuity aren’t important to them. Rather than EITHER/OR, perhaps they have chosen to commit to BOTH/AND.

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Synagogue Can Be Your Second Home

My children are too at home at our synagogue. Their dad is the rabbi there and they feel that his office is their play place. They know every inch of the building, including where to find snacks that aren’t theirs to take. They know the staff. They feel comfortable expressing themselves during services. I have been thinking about how many other places we frequent and what this says about our lifestyle.

We know the supermarket well. Other parents think I’m crazy for schlepping (Yiddish for dragging) my 4- and 6-year-olds to go grocery shopping, but we basically enjoy the weekly trip. One or both of them ride in the cart and we eat as we shop. We follow the same path each week and we take the same items. Sometimes a new product appears and we examine it which can be fun and guess at whether we will like it (especially if it is in the gluten free section as our 6-year-old has celiac disease). We have our favorite check-out cashier and my kids love to say “hi” to Miss Sandra and pretend that they are shy.

The preschool and elementary school are also like extensions of our home. My kids are proud to show me around when I’m there. They point out artwork on the wall, we schmooze (Yiddish for small talk) with the school staff, and they reminisce about what happened in the gym that day or on the playground.

Food shopping

Food shopping is an activity

Then there are other people’s homes. We are lucky to have cousins who live nearby: Aunt Stacie and Uncle Bill’s house is a comforting, familiar place to visit. The kids know how it works there as well. They take off their shoes in the right spot, they know what they can and can’t touch, etc. They look forward to the different toys and activities that they encounter there. And of course, the people in the home seal the deal for loving this stop.

Two last places we frequent a lot (I’m embarrassed to admit on a weekly basis) are both Target and Party City. They know the aisles there perfectly. They know which stops they want to make first and they always have a treasure in mind that they have been dreaming about.

I wonder about how many “normal” (non Rabbi-Rabbi families) think of a synagogue as a home away from home? Do you walk in and know where to go? Do you know the staff and do they know you? Do you know where to hang your coat, where the bathrooms are and when the building is even open? Would you ever think of stopping in at a time other than for services or Sunday School or Hebrew School?

You could come to read a book in-between meetings or appointments. You could come sit on a couch and do homework in a quiet and cozy spot with a child between afterschool activities. Dare I say, you could stop in to say hi to the educator and clergy! You could check out the flyers you may have missed, see what upcoming events are happening and read the Jewish magazines that are typically on display.

Synagogues are usually open during regular business hours. Stop in! Stay awhile. Say “Shalom.” Bring your kids. Feeling comfortable and familiar in a spot breeds connectedness and warmth.

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Share the Gift of Giving

Jewish American families have a pretty fantastic start for festivities this year since Hanukkah starts so early in the season—and in case you missed it—Hanukkah begins Thanksgiving style. It is a fascinating calendar correlation, and as cute as Thanksgivukkah is, Thanksgiving ends in a day, and Hanukkah still goes on for a full eight days that the oil lasted instead of the expected single day.

The candles will still burn long after the turkey leftovers disappear, and the celebration will continue.

Fried foods, dreidel spinning and songs are wonderful, but next to lighting the candles and saying the blessings, the only other obligation is to “publicize the miracle.” The miracle gets stronger every day and it is never too late to give thanks for the miracles and wonder all around us. How glorious to live in a country where we can celebrate our religious freedom. How fortunate to live in a time that is embracing interfaith relationships more and more every day.

Whether it is for Hanukkah or for Christmas, consider making at least one night extra special this month by creating a miracle for those less fortunate.

DonateActs of loving kindness and charity are timeless.

It is Jewish obligation to give consistently to others less fortunate throughout one’s life. We call this tradition tzedakah. It’s pretty well understood as charity, but technically it means “righteous giving.” We give because God has blessed us and it is the right thing to do—to share the blessings with others. I love this part of Jewish tradition. Jews have been giving tzedakah for thousands of years. The ideal is to give 10 percent of your income to charity but do not get hung up on that, the most important thing is that everybody give something.

I encourage parents and grandparents and friends and family all around to support empowering tzedakah choices. There are around 1.5 million non-profits to choose from online (!) which can be pretty overwhelming, but here are some superb tzedakah choices for the holidays:

1. Go shopping as a family to a toy store and pick out a toy to donate to children less fortunate. Project Dreidel at CJP for Jewish Big Brothers and Sisters will deliver gift baskets to local kids in need.

2. You can look no further than the site you’re already on! Giving to InterfaithFamily is not only a wonderful and easy gift, but it helps us to continue creating resources and programs to support you. Donate here and we’ll send a Hanukkah e-card to your friend or family member.

3. Buy charity gift cards from JChoice.org. Rather than limit the experience to one charity that the recipient might not connect to, you can send your honoree a charity gift card (electronically by email, which is instant or by mail) that empowers the next generation to choose from 250 causes that are meaningful to the giver.

Want more choices? Check out these great blogs for more great tzedakah suggestions:

Stefanie Zelkind’s blog for giving rituals on Thanksgivukkah and Kathy Bloomfield’s blog about family giving and generosity during the holidays.

Expanding the awareness of what it means to give from a Jewish perspective is just one click away. Giving is the greatest activity known to the world.

Have very happy holidays filled with joy and giving and a festival of light in your lives and the ones that you shine to.

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What Happens When Judaism Becomes Ethics?

One of my favorite camp counselors from my youth, now a respected university instructor and demographer, Marc Dollinger, Ph.D. is the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Chair in Jewish Studies and Social Responsibility at San Francisco State University. He recently posted the following query on Facebook:

“…how many of the 613 mitzvot were classical Reform Jews obligated to perform? My undergrads at SF State want to know.”

I was intrigued, so I started reading the 45+ comments. Professor Dollinger offered additional insight about the class that he was teaching when the question was posed: “Today’s lecture on post-Enlightenment denominationalism, at 75 minutes, was supposed to cover classical and modern Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox (overviews on questions of God, Torah, authority, practice) but we didn’t get past classical Reform. Thrilled with the student interest and passion. More queries coming…”

Rabbi Evan Goodman, formerly from the Bay Area and now the UC Santa Barbara Hillel Executive Director responds: “…I know you stated you need a number, not a theory. However, I don’t believe this question can be answered that way and be authentic to Reform [Judaism]. As you know, Reform Judaism is non-Halachic. Its starting point is the premise that the mitzvot and other traditions are not legally binding on us. It was and is up to each one of us to learn and interpret these traditions in our own generation…”

As the class continued its conversation with Professor Dollinger, he “taught how the early Reform theologians employed rationalist thought to determine which mitzvot remained relevant in modernity and which were considered dated in light of the rapidly changing world. In this sense, wearing kipot and talit would lose value while commandments against murder and stealing would, logically, remain. Students had a deeper concern that once Judaism becomes ethics, what makes it Jewish anymore?”

Rabbi David Cohen, also formerly from the Bay Area and now at Congregation Sinai in Milwaukee, WI, chaperoned my teen trip to Israel (many years ago). He offered that “the classical reformers distinguished between rational, ethical mitzvot and non-rational ritual mitzvot. The rabbis of old would have called these mishpatim and khukim. Ethical mitzvot were obligatory; ritual mitzvot were optional. Each Jew was to make a personal, informed choice, choosing to perform a ritual mitzvah if s/he found it spiritually uplifting.”

He points out that a distinction is made between ritual (i.e. religious) and ethical commandments. Fast forward to today. My post read as follows, “I’m curious how your students would respond to the recent Pew Study finding that most of their contemporaries would describe themselves as non-religious Jews. Is this the same or different from classical Reform Judaism shifting away from halacha? It seems that among the non-Orthodox Millennials today, ethical/cultural Judaism is their focus of interest, over religious Judaism.” The distinction between religious and ethical continues.

So, what happens when Judaism becomes ethics? What do you think?

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