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I spend a lot of time at Starbucks. All different Starbucks locations. Lately, I have been seeing signs about it being a â€śThird PlaceÂ in our daily lives.â€ťÂ We have our work places, our homes and we have the coffee shop. I think for lot of people, walking into Starbucks is comforting and familiar. The smells, the furniture, the vibe, the culture there, the drinksâ€”we know what to expect and it feels good.
At our recent InterfaithFamily/Chicago event, Barbara Mahany read from her new book, Slowing Time. She talked about how children raised with both Judaism and Catholicism in their lives often understand the in-between spaces of life. They relate to the grays, to nuance, to ambiguity and discrepancy and can hold multiple identities and ideas in one intact soul and psyche. They donâ€™t practice a new religion or a Jewish-Catholic blend. Rather, they hold both traditions in their hearts and minds. They keep them separate and draw from each at different times. They experience both. They understand about both of their parentâ€™s backgrounds. In a way, this is a third place for Judaism and Christianity.
I have heard some people refer to the interfaith schools that exist around the country where families with one Christian parent and one Jewish parent come to learn and worship with the intent to raise their children as â€śbothâ€ť as being Third Spaces. These communities arenâ€™t synagogues or churches but have elements of both and clergy from both.
At a recent teaching session at one of Chicagoâ€™s interfaith programs, the parents asked me whether any liberal synagogues could open their doors to families raising their children â€śboth.â€ť Could synagogues have a track for these families where they have a certain membership level knowing that the children wouldnâ€™t use the religious school? These families could send their children to mid-week Hebrew school and of course become part of the community on Shabbat and holidays, during social justice pursuits and on retreats. These children would have a sacred space to mark the first time they read from the Torah scroll, which is often very important to their families.
In order for this to happen, congregations would have to accept and appreciate families who want Judaism in their lives in this way. They would have to accept that everyoneâ€™s Jewish expression looks different and that every family configuration is different. These families who want both religions in their lives are often very thoughtful about faith and traditions and eager learners and worship regulars.
I think if synagogues could find their way toward working with and hearing families who want Judaism in their lives in authentic ways but who also need to have the children learn about and experience the other parent’s faith, it will enhance the community. Struggling to understand and define the boundaries of “in” and “out” will help us all clarify our path, our fears and hopes and our vulnerabilities. Having a community of diverse practices under a shared tent of united desire to see Judaism continue and flourish is good for all of us.
For some, the synagogue or being with their community is a third space in importance next to their home and their office. For others, it falls farther down their line of places they frequent (perhaps after Starbucks). Do you think the Jewish world can or should find space for families who see religion in a third way? Not as just Jewish or just Catholic but as something more fluid?
The following is a sermon I gave at Saint Elisabethâ€™s Church in Glencoe, Illinois, on February 22.
Thank you for welcoming me so warmly into your community. What a blessing it has been to become involved with St. Elisabethâ€™s. I have spent my rabbinate these past eight years working with interfaith couples and families and those who grew up in interfaith homes. I spend time with grandparents who have grandchildren growing up in interfaith homes and with Jewish clergy and professionals who want to welcome those from interfaith homes to what we call â€śorganizedâ€ť Jewish life. What I mean by an interfaith family is a situation in which one parent grew up with Judaism and one didnâ€™t. Sometimes these partners are raising Jewish children and have a Jewish homeâ€”donâ€™t ask me what a Jewish home isâ€”many Jews describe what having a Jewish home is differently. Sometimes these families have a parent who is Jew-ishâ€¦not a practicing anything else but hasnâ€™t converted to Judaism. Sometimes these families have a parent who is a practicing and believing Christian or Hindu. In some of these families they want their children to be exposed to both faiths.
In the past 10 years, excluding Orthodox marriages, 72 percent of Jewish marriages have been interfaith. The majority of American Jews are partnered with someone not Jewish. There are more children growing up now with one Jewish parent than two. So, what does this all mean for the future of liberal Judaism? (Orthodox Judaism will remain, it seemsâ€”the question is non-Orthodox Judaism.) For the kind of Judaism I subscribe to?
A recent headline readÂ â€śMore Bad News, but a Glimmer of Hope:Â Last yearâ€™s survey of American Jews brought dire newsâ€”rising intermarriage, falling birthrates, dwindlingÂ congregations.â€ť
Many in the Jewish world are scared. They are scared that young people wonâ€™t seek out congregations for their families. That they will privatize religion. That people donâ€™t value Jewish community anymore. That adults who grew up with Judaism now affirm a universal ethics or morality and want their children to â€śbe good peopleâ€ť and not specifically or distinguishably Jewish. Jews have been said to be the ever-dying people. Are we going to disappear into a generalized feel-good, do-good thing?
What about the mitzvot? The commandments? The specific way we live? Worship in Hebrew? Allegiance to Israel? A sense of Peoplehood? Of being part of the Tribe? Yiddish-isms? Judaism has been a religion of boundaries and distinctions and that has kept us a unique people, in some ways, for so many generations and generations. Now, in an open, global world, can Judaism be inclusive enough to allow participation by people who arenâ€™t Jewish and still remain true to Jewish traditions?
I think that we need to promote both radical inclusion and diversity. Ironically, in order to perpetuate a culture that is unique, we need to remove almost all boundaries that define who is permitted to participate.
This is the tension of my work and of this sermon: perpetuating a unique culture that is still authentically Jewish and yet allowing for diversity and inclusion. And, this brings us to the biblical reading for today. Did God choose each people to fulfill their own unique destiny, their own unique way? Does each people have its own covenant with God?
What happens when we blur the lines that define religion and think about theology as metaphor and as nuance? When we compartmentalize different aspects of different faiths so that we can accommodate many traditions and ways in one intact psyche? Isnâ€™t life more fluid nowadays with many things? Are we so separate and distinct? Each group with its own destiny?
When we see a rainbow in the sky is it a shared symbol of our partnership with God who promises never to destroy the world again? (God might not do it, but people seem to be doing a good job in this regard.)
We share these basic Noahide commandments of civil society. We share more than not. But, this holy time in both of our calendars, this time leading up to Passover and Easter sometimes highlights ourÂ theologicalÂ differences.
In an article written on InterfaithFamily, writerÂ Charlotte Honigman-Smith explains what Easter means to her:Â â€śEaster is the holiday that evokes in me the most ambivalence about my identity as a Jewish women with a Catholic father and extended family. Easter is harder (than Christmas) Edgier. More conflictedâ€¦I think that much of my reaction can be traced to the fact that Easter, for the Eastern European Jewish communities my mother’s grandparents came from, was a potentially deadly timeâ€¦local violence broke out at Easter. Easter, for me, seems to represent the final break between Judaism and Christianity, the point at which the two belief systems parted ways forever. I find that I resent that a little. Perhaps, deep down, I think it would be easier if we all believed the same things.
But growing up in an interfaith family and a multicultural neighborhood taught me something about dealing with differences and cultural contradictions. It’s good to be able to share, and to find common ground; for me it has been a blessing to have two cultures to draw on. But I’ve learned to use this holiday as a reminder that we are not all alike, that some things have no common ground to be found, and that still, this does not mean that there can’t be love, respect, and mutual humanity. It’s important, though harder, to know that there are some differences, both in families and in the wider world, that have to be accepted and embraced without understanding…as matters of faith.â€ť
We share the Noahide Covenant; we share the symbol of the rainbow. But there are other covenants made at other times that are meant for different peoples and different traditions. Later in the scroll, we read about the covenant given at Mt. Sinai.Â In his final appeal to the people of Israel, Moses reminds them that the covenant they are establishing with God will be valid for eternity. “I make this covenant with its sanctions, not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the Eternal our God and with those who are not with us here this day” (Deuteronomy 29:13-14).
There is a lot of commentary about who is not there that day. From an interfaith standpoint, I view this covenant as a covenant with anybody who would find themselves in a family with Jews. For any fellow-travelers. This can be an inclusive covenant because it included the then diverse people of Israel and it surely now encompasses a diverse group who (thank God) still think about it and struggle with it, and for whom these ancient laws and ways still have enduring truths so many thousands of years later.
The rabbis said that we should say 100 blessings a day and then spelled out specific blessings for various occasions that arose daily. When we see a rainbow, there is a special blessing that is said.
Barukh Ata Adonai, Eloheynu Melekh ha’Olam
Holy One of blessing, Your presence fills creation,
May each of us rise to perpetuate the unique traditions and religiosity we have inherited or hold true today. As well, may weÂ know that there are some differences, both in families and in the wider world, that have to be accepted and embraced, and that is good too.
Kayn Yihi Ratzon, May this be Godâ€™s Will
This blog post arose after a conversation about the challenges for interfaith families in which one parent is a practicing Christian trying to raise Jewish children. We were speaking about many hot topics including:
So, here are my top five reasons for congregations to consider the idea of holding religious and Hebrew education on Shabbat morning given how many interfaith families are now in Jewish life. This switch of days could help with some of the above challenges.
The following is a guest blog post by Rabbi Evan Moffic, who is not a member of our staff but his wife, Rabbi Ari Moffic (Director of IFF/Chicago) is!
Win a copy of Rabbi Evan Moffic’s new book, What Every Christian Needs to Know About Passover!
Nothing brings people together like food. It is no accident, then, that among the most popular holiday for interfaith families is Passover. It is not only popular because it features prodigious amounts of food. It is popularâ€”and meaningfulâ€”because of the spiritual message it conveys. This message matters for Christians and Jews. And itâ€™s a message that can bring interfaith families closer together.
I believe so powerfully in this message that I wrote a book about it this year. The book was published by Abington Press, and it has spent several weeks as the top-selling book on Jewish holidays. Clearly, the Passover message resonates. Hereâ€™s why.
1. We are all searching for freedom: On Passover we recall the way God led the Israelites from slavery to freedom. We see the tools God gave them to rediscover that freedom in every generation by asking questions, praying, celebrating and retelling the story. As we do so, we shed light on the journey of our own lives. We ask ourselves where and how we might be enslaved. Are we enslaved to our possessions, our work, our addictions, our desire to please others?
2. We can all learn from one another: I passionately believe that religious and spiritual people can learn from traditions different from our ownâ€”perhaps especially from those traditions that are our next-door neighbor traditions, which is how I think of Judaism and Christianity. As a rabbi, I have found great inspiration in the description of love from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. My own prayer life has been transformed by what I have learned from pastors and Christian writers. Quite often, I learn more about my own faith when I encounter it with new questions and concerns prompted by those who do not share it.
I believe the same growth can happen for Christians interested in deepening their own faith. Passover in particular holds spiritual invitations that can speak powerfully to Christians. Passover was observed by Jesus. It is a holiday centered around family, food and freedom. It is accessible and relevant to Christians of all denominations.
3. We can see ourselves in the story: In a recent class I asked members of my synagogue what the Exodus story meant to them. Did it affect their self- understanding? Could they see themselves in the story? All of them said yes. They frequently connected the Exodus with their family history. Many had grandparents and great-grandparents who emigrated from Europe to the United States. They fled poverty and persecution to build a better in life here. America was their Promised Land. Europe was their Egypt.
More recent Jewish immigrants echoed this message. Between 1967 and 1991, almost half of the entire Jewish population of the Soviet Union left for freedom to Israel, America and other Western countries. They saw their journey as an exodus from oppression to freedom.
In churches where I have led Passover seders, I’ve asked the same question. Some draw on their family history. More often, however, participants saw the Exodus in the context of their spiritual journeys. A participant who became a Christian later in life saw crossing the Red Sea as a symbol for baptism. He had fled the oppression of his past life for freedom as a believer and follower of Jesus. Some women saw the Exodus story as a paradigm for gaining freedom from the past and strengthening their role in the Church.
Regardless of who we are, Passover reminds us we can gain our freedom. We can become the person we are meant to be.
Evan Moffic is the Rabbi of Congregation Solel in Highland Park, IL, a community of 500 families on the North Shore of Chicago. He graduated from Stanford University in 2000 and was ordained by Hebrew Union College in 2006. He appears regularly on CNN and Fox NewsÂ and writes for the Huffington Post, Beliefnet and his blog at www.rabbi.me. His first book, Words of Wisdom: From the Torah to Today, is a spiritual introduction to Judaism. His second book, What Every Christian Needs to Know About Passover, makes Passover come alive today for people of all faiths.Â
I love synagogues, in theory and many in reality. I have blogged before about my enduring connections with the congregation where I grew up, even though I havenâ€™t lived in that community for over twenty years. I have written about just stopping in to congregations and hanging out there. Most recently, I wrote about my experience in my parentâ€™s new congregation. I donâ€™t think liberal Judaism can survive in America without synagogues. I am all for new and different models for congregations, like Mishkan Chicago. There are several congregations in Chicago with alternative dues structures and different religious school models like Sukkat Shalom.
I believe liberal Jews in America need a structure by which we can educate our children, join together for holidays and share in social justice pursuits. We need programs and classes that add meaning to our lives and help us infuse Judaism into the busy rhythm of our days. True, there are individuals who hire Jewish teachers to educate their children and to teach Hebrew and there are people who create individual and personalized life cycle ceremonies like bar and bat mitzvah outside the realm of an â€śorganizedâ€ť community. These people are often labeled as â€śunaffiliatedâ€ť as if they are hurting the Jewish pursuit in America. I think that however people find Judaism and pass it on is important and should not be marginalized or demeaned. However, for many people who want their children to be raised with Judaism, joining a synagogue would be the easiest and most effective way to fulfill that holy objective (which is a pursuit that takes a lifetime, which is why leaving after bar/bat mitzvah is so problematic for continuity).
For many years, interfaith families in congregations felt or still feel that extended family and parents who are not Jewish are not fully embraced. Some express that their cultural and religious lives have to be dormant or invisible inside the realm of synagogue. Children in interfaith homes report that religious school teachers or other members of the congregation make off-handed comments which make them feel less than fully Jewish or different or other. When people feel close to clergy members who canâ€™t officiate at their life cycle events, it can deeply sting. So even though the majority of American Jews are partnered with someone who is not Jewish and congregations are by and large welcoming and want interfaith families to be part of the community, it can take some convincing to encourage interfaith couples and families to try again, so to speak, when a negative experience has already occurred.
We at InterfaithFamily/Chicago have created a new offering (which I explained in this previous blog post) to encourage interfaith families to take a chance with a synagogue for their family because we feel that being part of a community is so intrinsic to our ability to live and pass on Judaism. We have asked congregations to designate an interfaith family that is active at their synagogue to be listed as a â€śconnectorâ€ť on their Templeâ€™s profile on our website. You can email this person to ask them to share their honest experience at the synagogue. They can tell you about how the parent who isnâ€™t Jewish feels there. They can tell you about the vibe at the religious school and how the diversity of the community is celebrated.
As well, each of these congregations has a link back to InterfaithFamily on their templeâ€™s website as a show of support for the interfaith families in the community and as a sign that they want to be supportive with resources to help pave the way to exploring Judaism however they can.
The following is a list of synagogues that we endearingly call our Super Orgs!
When I see a rainbow, Kermit the Frog singing “Rainbow Connection” comes to mind every time: â€śThe lovers, the dreamers, and meâ€¦â€ť
On our familyâ€™s winter vacation we spotted an amazing rainbow running down the side of a mountain. It was truly breathtaking and left us oohing and aaahing. We were the lovers and the dreamers in that instant. I didnâ€™t think to say either the Shehecheyanu or the prayer to be said upon seeing a rainbow: We praise You, Eternal God, Sovereign of the universe, who remembers, is faithful to, and fulfills Your covenant with and promise to creation. We just gaped with open mouth in wonder at the beauty of creation. No words had to be said in that instant. We all felt our connection with each other and the One.
However, upon reflecting on that sighting, it would have been cool to mark the moment with Judaism by calling upon ancient words that are ever-new. So, I say them now to myself as my house hums with the noise from my dogâ€™s collar and the peace of sleeping children.
What about the rainbow being a symbol of our covenant with God? God shows Noah the rainbow in the clouds as a sign of Godâ€™s covenant with humankind that never again will there be a flood to destroy them (Genesis 9:8-17). After Katrina, we can only wonder what a flood covering the earth must have been like.
The covenant was made again at Mt. Sinai when Moses delivered the 10 Commandments. It is thought and taught in Judaism that every soul was presentâ€”even those who were yet to beâ€”at that most awesome moment in our shared history and â€śmemory.â€ť So, what about people who arenâ€™t Jewish and are members of our families and our congregations? Were they there too? Is this their covenant too? Is the rainbow their symbol as well as those born to Jewish parents or brought up with Judaism?
I believe that when someone joins a Jew in the overwhelming, sometimes arduous, joyful and profound task of living with Judaism, their soul gets wrapped up in the tapestry of Jewish tradition that is 4,000 years strong. It is strong because it has always been diverse and ever renewing. The rainbow is the sign of continual creation and we are partners with God is this task. This is the core of the meaning of life, for me.
As we enter a new year, let us remember our rainbow connection.
I met two menshes on benches the Friday of Thanksgiving. You may now have the image of the Mensch on the Bench Hanukkah toy, but unlike this stuffed elf counterpart, these were true mensches.
One of the rules for this toy is that a â€śtrue mensch is one who puts smiles on other peoplesâ€™ faces.â€ť The word mensch is Yiddish for human being. It means to be a true human; to live up to the depths of kindness, generosity, integrity and love that a human can muster. The two mensches I met put a smile on my face for sure.
My parents moved to Philadelphia over the summer from Boston to be near my youngest brother and his family. They joined Congregation Rodef Shalom which is near where they live. They joined because they had heard the synagogue was an architectural gem, which it is, that the clergy are accessible and warm, that the preaching and teaching is intellectually stimulating and that the worship is full of music and joy. As soon as they joined, another synagogue family called them and invited them out to dinner (which my parents were thrilled about since they donâ€™t have any friends there yet). The synagogue staff greeted my parents at the door for several weeks after they moved to welcome them in and make sure they were getting acclimated. My parents were immediately swept off their feet with the ruachâ€”the spiritâ€”of the service. They kept telling me what a wonderful community this is. They love that each week there is a Shehecheyanu prayer sung after those in attendance share the good news that is happening in their lives.
My family and I were visiting for Thanksgiving and my parents were so excited and proud to take us to their new temple. Well, my 5 and 7-year-old are not well behaved in synagogue. You might be surprised considering my husband is a pulpit rabbi and they go to synagogue a lot. My children are high energy, antsy, loud and boisterous. They get thirsty and have to pee a lot during services which requires them to go in and out of the sanctuary. They whine. They get hungry. No matter how many little activities and small snacks I bring, we have not fully mastered the art of sitting respectfully in synagogue with a â€ścalm bodyâ€ť as we like to say.
On this Friday night, they were exhausted which mellowed them a little.Â But, my youngest ate through the whole hour long service (I so appreciated that the service was one hour including a Torah reading and short sermon). This synagogue has a quiet room where you can hear the service but people canâ€™t hear us. However, we braved the actual sanctuary because my parents wanted the kids to try to fully participate. Wouldnâ€™t you know, they did (sort of). When the time came to share a Shehecheyanu moment, my 5-year-old raised his hand for the microphone and said, â€śI am visiting my grandma and papaâ€ť which just made my parents kvell (swell with pride) and everyone in the community ooh and ahh with his cuteness.
During the Lecha Dodi prayer, they form a dancing chain and my children joined right in! The Rabbi made sure to welcome us specifically at the start of the service as well and he called my children up for the honor of helping to undress the Torah. Actively participating definitely helps one stay engaged, no matter how old you are. But, my kids were not perfect during that hour by any stretch of the imagination. There was a trail of popcorn under our seats to prove it.
After the service the two women sitting right behind us (on actual pews/benches) said, â€śYour children were such a delight. We loved their energy. We loved their dancing. They are so beautiful. What a joy to have you visiting.â€ť They didnâ€™t say, â€śNext time, you could try the Quiet Room.â€ť Their response made me smile. It warmed my heart. It took a load off. I had been wondering how annoyed they would be sitting right behind us. It made me want to come back again. I told you I met two menshes on benches! They embodied what it means to be gracious, welcoming and empathetic.
Rabbi Ari is the Director of InterfaithFamily/Chicago. She also has children who will not eat matzah ball soup or a bagel and lox and is continually surprised and dismayed at their culinary preferences. She was inspired by this story because of how culturally astute the grandparents were to how their grandchildren were being raised and how quickly they made a bridge between the familiar to the new and exotic (the world of the matzah ball!). Â
A woman recently told me the story of her grandchildren who live out of state and arenâ€™t being raised Jewish.* They come to visit for a week each summer. This past summer they went right from the airport to the deli. Not that there isnâ€™t Jewish deli where these kids live, but the grandparents wanted the experience of eating Jewish foods with their grandchildren at one of their favorite spots. This is one way they share their love of Jewish culture with their grandchildren.
These grandchildren have been raised on sushi and other international cuisine. When the youngest grandson looked at his bowl of matzah ball soup, he did not want to eat it. He said that he is used to more â€śnormalâ€ť food (like sushi!). The grandparent telling the story said that her husband turned to the grandchild without missing a beat and said, â€śItâ€™s just like miso soupâ€¦â€ť and the child dove in. Once that broth touched his lips, he was sold! He even liked the matzah ball.
We at InterfaithFamily/Chicago are partners with the JUF (our Federation) and Grandparents for Social Action on a new program for grandparents called GIFTS: Grandparents, Inspiration, Family, Tzedakah, Sharing. We are offering a five-session class at 15 congregations and Jewish organizations around Chicagoland taking place now through the spring (to find a class, go to www.juf.org/gifts).
The classes consist of interactive lessons about how grandparents can pass on their values and deepen their engagement with their grandchildren. The fifth session is specifically geared toward talking about grandchildren raised in interfaith homes as well as any family situation that you might not have planned for or anticipated. The session is called â€śChanging our Narrativeâ€ť and it is a hopeful session about what continuity means to us.
We just had a meeting for grandparents who are alumni of the classes that were offered this past year to talk about how to improve the program and to help plan an exciting city-wide Grandparent Conference to take place this spring (more information to come). One of the grandparents shared that fantastic story with me.
Our kids and grandkids have different cultural references than we have. They are growing up on different foods, their â€śnormalâ€ť is nothing like what our life was like at their age and we have to constantly translate for ourselves and them as we bond and communicate. Is eating matzah ball soup with Jewish grandparents going to make these children Jewish? Thatâ€™s not the point or the goal here. Feeling closeness, sharing our soul food, hearing the names of the foods in Yiddish, making connections, expanding oneâ€™s repertoire and experiences and creating memories of things only done with oneâ€™s grandparents is meaningful, impactful and important. Who these kids will be will happen over time. The closeness they feel with loving, open-minded, insightful, aware grandparents who know what their lives are like and who are willing to translate and help them relate to new things is priceless.
*We often hear this phrase. It means different things to different people who say it. For some it means that the family isnâ€™t a member of a synagogue. For others it means that the parents do not articulate that the children are being raised with a Jewish identityâ€”the parents want to raise them without specific religious references. Some say it means that the children are being raised â€śnothing.â€ť This is one I particularly dislike as many children who are not raised with Jewish holidays or going to synagogue are raised with lotsâ€”not nothingâ€”when it comes to values, for example. â€śNothingâ€ť portrays such an empty, void and negative image.
Surprisingly, many children whose parents did not participate in Judaism and Jewish living affirm their Jewish identity as adults and seek avenues for engagement then because of relationships with grandparents, and other connections made along the way. Just knowing the cultural and religious heritage they inherited, even if it has been latent for some time, may mean something to oneâ€™s identity.
So, when you read or hear that children arenâ€™t being raised Jewish, it is often an overly simplistic statement that may not capture a whole picture. As well, it hints at but doesnâ€™t fully capture where the parents may be with their own religiosity, spirituality or communal ties. The parentsâ€™ own background and Jewish baggage may be coming in to play here and it may be complicated and messy in terms of how to raise children. Or, it may be that the parents are just not religiously, culturally or communally inclined even in the most open senses of Jewish expression. Itâ€™s not their thing, but itâ€™s in their family and so a confrontation (whether warm and inviting or stressful) with Judaism occurs every now and then for their family.
The other day I saw a rabbi I know post a YouTube link to one of my favorite versions of the prayer, Hashkiveinu. Hashkiveinu is one word in English but means, â€śGrant that we may lie downâ€ť in Hebrew. In Hebrew, prefixes and suffixes are attached to the word.Â It is a petitionary prayer to be able to lie down in peace at night and to return to renewed life the following day.
The link on Facebook to the video caught my eye for two reasons: As I said, I love this musical rendition of this prayer. Also, this rabbi serves the congregation where I grew up,Â Temple Shalom of Newton, MA.
What does it mean to grow up at a synagogue? For me, I had heard stories from my dad about how his parents were among the earliest members. My dad had his Bar Mitzvah at this synagogue. I was named as an infant there. The senior rabbi at the time, Murray I. Rothman, of blessed memory, got my family through a horrendous time when my mother was struck by a car crossing the street in front of our house. My little brother was 1, my middle brother was 3 and I was a kindergartner. My mother could not get up the stairs of our house for almost a year. She was bedridden on a couch in our den. My father somehow managed the three of us. Neighbors and family came to the rescue. And Rabbi Rothman came to that den every Friday afternoon with a challah and a Torah commentary and studied a little Torah with my mom. This kept her going spiritually and emotionally.
What does it mean to grow up at a synagogue? I knew the halls of that place. I knew the smells, the classrooms, the chapel, the sanctuary, the bathrooms, the youth lounge, the social hallâ€”I knew the building. My confirmation class photograph is on the wall there. In fact, I sat in the Rabbiâ€™s study on more than one occasion philosophizing about God and Judaism (true, I was into this stuff, even as a kid). I felt at home there. I slept there in a sleeping bag on the floor as a teenager at a â€śshul-in.â€ť I remember the Temple Shalom sukkah in detail even though the last time I helped decorate one was at least 20 years ago. I can still feel the pride I felt praying with my family in the sanctuary on the High Holidays, wearing my new dress. I can see my brothers as I write this, quietly folding the flyers and tickets into origami to keep occupied during the services.
Some say bricks and mortar donâ€™t matter. Buildings are passĂ©. Weâ€™ve got coffee houses now. Millennials donâ€™t want to walk into synagogues. Too many barriers. A building fund is too onerous for members to carry. Whatâ€™s important are the people. The community. This is also true. But, I loved that building and it went through changes and renovations and has a life of its own. I think one reason I felt so connected to the building was that I could walk there from my house. That is how we got to and from Hebrew School. It is rare today for kids to walk places by themselves (at least not as young as we used to). I loved that independence, and going to a place I felt was totally safe and mine.
What does it mean to grow up at a synagogue? It means you know the people. We knew the people who worked in the office, the maintenance crew, the teachers, the educators and the rabbis. These were the people who lived in the temple as far as I was concerned. They were the familiar faces who knew us by name. They were welcoming and warm. They kept the temple going. And, my friends were there. We came together from multiple public schools. We grew up there together. We came to one anotherâ€™s Bar and Bat Mitzvah services. We had our parties in the synagogue social hall. My parents knew the other parents and the kids.
I learned to read Hebrew there. I may not have known how to translate each word into English but I learned to read the Hebrew prayers in Hebrew fluently by about fifth grade. I kept the old blue Gates of Prayer Bookâ€”the Reform Movementâ€™s prayer bookâ€”on my nightstand growing up, which I received from Temple Shalom. A nameplate was placed in it for me at my Bat Mitzvah. I read the prayers to myself at night and they were a source of comfort.
My parents have now moved to Philadelphia to be near my little brotherâ€™s family. We have no ties to this building anymore. We donâ€™t know many people who still go there. Yet, all these years later, when I see a Facebook post from Temple Shalom, it catches my eye. It makes me smile to see the new life that is there now. It is a part of me.
I marry lots of people who â€śgrew up at an area congregationâ€ť but they left after their Bar or Bat Mitzvah. Maybe they have great and deep memories of being there. Maybe they barely remember their time there.
The only way one feels a sense of growing up in a synagogue is if you are there a lot and get really involved. I am thankful this was the case for me and my family growing up. Itâ€™s never too late to go back. Itâ€™s never too late to try a new congregation. Interfaith families are welcome at congregations, often with wide open arms.
1. Language matters. God created the world with words, â€śLet there be lightâ€¦and there wasâ€¦â€ť The rabbis said that to embarrass someone is to kill their soulâ€”to bring blood to their face. The same word in Hebrew for â€śword,â€ťâ€”dâ€™varâ€”is also the word for â€śthing.â€ť Words create reality. The old adage â€śsticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt meâ€ť is not Jewish. Thus, when we say, â€śnon-Jewâ€ť for example, we are saying that someone is a â€śnon-entityâ€ť or different from, and that isolates and estranges the very people we seek to endear and hold close. Thus, I say, â€śnot Jewishâ€ť because I believe this difference is more than semantics.
2. Owning It. Many people who grew up with Judaism and are getting married describe themselves as â€śculturally Jewish.â€ť I have started pushing people to define what this means. Which culture? Ashkenazkic Jewish? If you go to your parentâ€™s for the holidays and your mother makes kugel and brisket, she is a cultural Jew. Can you claim this as an authentic identity as an adult vicariously? Is there a cut-off age for this when you have to own it yourself? Are people cultural Jews because they grew up culturally Jewish: going to Jewish camp (or camp with lots of Jews), having Jewish friends, getting together with family for break-fast and Passover?
As adults, we identify as Jewish, but maybe this hasnâ€™t been actualized since the Bar/Bat Mitzvah circuit or since a Jewish sorority or fraternity or a birthright trip. When people say they are culturally Jewish, they may be describing their upbringing more than anything. They may also be saying what they are not. They are not members of a synagogue (neither are their parents, often) and they do not think about Judaism on a regular basis. But lifecycle moments often must be Jewish. There is no other way for them to imagine getting married or welcoming a baby than to have a rabbi present and to look to Jewish tradition. Is this empty or lacking? Not to me. This is real. This is a basis upon which new learning and experiences can take place. This is roots. This is connectedness and family closeness. If we dismiss this, we will lose another generation of people who grew up with Judaism and need to be sold on its value as a way of life.
3. Re-branding Judaism. Selling Judaism. I find myself cheerleading for Judaism. I hear story after story about not having loved religious school; leaving the synagogue after the Bar/Bat Mitzvah; finding services boring, hard to follow, irrelevant; being disappointed by rabbis for whatever reasons; etc. I try to re-sell an open-minded, loving, vibrant, relevant Judaism in which people will find moral grounding, inspiration, other young people, accessible clergy, and rituals open to anybody who loves a Jew and is comfortable being part of everythingâ€”whether or not they formally convert. Does this Judaism exist? Should it exist? I tell people that this Judaism exists because I have experienced it in many places here in Chicago and in many different ways.
4. Inclusion. Can Judaism be an inclusive religion? Inclusion is a recent American ideal. For instance, we aim to create neuro-diverse classrooms because we believe that inclusion of different kinds of learners benefits everyone. But, can it be a Jewish ideal? We have been an insular, tight knit, ethnically bound people and this has kept us going. We are a religion of boundaries: day and night, holy and profane, Shabbat and the rest of the week, before 13 and after 13, kosher or treif. Can we have a Judaism that is totally open and includes everybody? This will change our Judaism. Is this OK? What will it look and feel like? Will there be a reason to formally convert anymore? (Anecdotally, I have found that when those come to experience Judaism they want more and more and do end up wanting a formal conversion, quite oftenâ€¦)
Beyond being welcoming, the real question is how and to what extent can Judaism be an inclusive religion?
5. Both religions. Each of these observations I have gleaned from working with interfaith familiesâ€™ present challenges and opportunities in the Jewish world. But, this last point is perhaps the most tricky. This one really gets our hearts racing and leads to arguments among Jewish leaders. What about families who want both religions of the parents to be part of their lives? What does it mean anymore to raise Jewish children? Is there a litmus test to this? Can one raise Jewish children and not belong to a synagogue (pretty hard to do in America, I personally think). Can one raise Jewish children if those children attend church with one parent or grandparent or cousins and take part in Christian holidays? Only if those holidays are celebrated â€śculturallyâ€ť and not â€śreligiouslyâ€ť? Can one raise Jewish children if Shabbat is not part of their lives, if they do not give tzedakah and if Judaism may not come up in the course of a day or week?
Many, many couples I meet with think they will want some aspects of both religions in their lives. They donâ€™t believe this will confuse children. They feel that if the parents are on the same page, the children will be too. If there is love, tolerance, respect, empathy, a willingness to learn and experience and a depth of compromise, it will enrich the family to become literate in both faiths and to celebrate aspects of both faiths. Whatever we think about this, we are going to have to confront this reality. How can and should the liberal Jewish world respond? What will our religious schools look like if we have more and more children exposed to both religions who feel â€śhalf and halfâ€ť and say it with wholeness and pride? Will this dilute Judaism? Will this expand Judaism? Will all children raised within liberal Judaism today come to love the idiosyncrasies of our way in to the big questions of life: kindness, social justice, the meaning of sin, how to talk about God, what it means to have lived a good life?
If you are an interfaith couple, do these observations resonate? What are your answers? What are your questions? Have I captured some of this? We want to know the top things you are thinking about so that we can think this stuff through with you. Judaism needs your voices and your presence.