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InterfaithFamily/Chicago helps facilitate a class for grandparents about passing on their values to their grandchildren. The conversation can be especially nuanced and sensitive for those grandparents who have grandchildren being raised in interfaith homes in which the parents struggle with “what to do about religion and traditions.”
Grandparents often say that they want their grandchildren to be kind, happy, giving, empathetic people. We then discuss whether these traits are “Jewish.” Does Judaism have a monopoly on kindness? Certainly not. But, Judaism does have our own vocabulary, narratives and texts which teach us about this value. Does it “matter” if our grandchildren or children know the word “chesed” (kindness) for instance, or the phrase “gimilut chasadim” (acts of loving kindness)? Does it make a difference if they learn about references in the Talmud to acts of kindness being even greater than giving tzedakah (money to make things “right”—literally righteousness) because one can perform kindness to the living or the dead (through the honor of burial) as well as other reasons? I actually do think it adds a layer of richness, connectedness, roots, identity and pride to connect universal values with our distinct and special cultural references to it.
So what is distinct about Judaism? Rabbis are often worried about sustaining the unique, set-aside, separate and “special” ways of Judaism. This is what leads to continuity. Is it through being insular, ethnic and concerned with ritual barriers and religious barriers that keeps the Jewish civilization alive and thriving? What would happen if someone not Jewish participated in rituals intended for Jews? Could we lose the idea that there is a distinctiveness of our people and tradition? It is one thing to have an open, loving, accepting community, but when it comes to ritual participation should there be boundaries (as in boundaries of who can take communion, for instance, in Catholicism)?
When it comes to non-Orthodox Judaism—where we look to Jewish law and traditions as guidelines—to perhaps inspire or suggest a way of behavior, but where Jewish law can be molded, updated and changed, then our distinctiveness is not based on rituals and laws, but something else.
What makes progressive Judaism distinct is our approach to Judaism. We approach Judaism with a modern, feminist, historical, rational, spiritual and activist lens (among others). What makes this Jewish expression distinct is our ability to allow people who did not grow up with Judaism experience the culture fully (precisely because we are not wholly concerned with the letter of the law).
We are distinct from Christianity and other religions. We are distinct from other forms of Jewish expression. There are both religious and secular humanistic ways to live this form of Judaism. Is this just Judaism-light or watered down Judaism? What’s authentic about this kind of Judaism? Different people will answer this question differently. Nobody should be made to defend his or her identity and religious or cultural ties. Does an open, non-legalistic Judaism perpetuate Judaism? If grandchildren don’t know the phrase “gimilut chasadim” but only that being kind is of utter importance to the matriarchs and patriarchs of their family, will Judaism continue? I do not believe that the only way for Judaism to survive is if it is a Judaism concerned with legal boundaries.
Maybe when we stop stressing about what a parent who isn’t Jewish can say during a child’s bar or bat mitzvah or whether there is an alternative candle lighting blessing for someone not Jewish, we will see that in liberal Judaism our liturgy is metaphor and that the people in the pews may not be concerned only with Jewish law and that many ignore the law when it seems sexist, archaic, irrelevant or un-inspiring.
Sometimes a lack of literacy is to blame for not understanding a tradition and simply writing it off without ever studying it or trying it. However, maybe we can “let it go” when it comes to ritual and legalistic distinctions and feel confident that it is not these boundaries that make progressive Judaism viable and special. It is our approach to Judaism which should be celebrated and highlighted.
The first Monday of the month from 9-10 am I set up a booth at the Weinger JCC lobby (300 Revere Drive, Northrbook). I channel Lucy from Peanuts and her “5 cents Psychiatry booth.” I have done this twice so far. I feel a little awkward but I can’t think of a better way to make myself available to meet and talk. (And if someone just wants to go about their business, I certainly won’t get in their way.)
I know that some of you have questions and comments and welcome this way to connect. It is with anticipation and butterflies in my stomach that I wonder who might wander over and what we might discuss.
The first Monday in May someone came over and said, “Ask a Rabbi?”
I said, “I’m a rabbi, do you have any questions?”
She sat down and we talked about her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. We spoke about her youngest great-grandchildren being raised with Judaism by a mom who is not Jewish and her admiration for her.
Because my friends know I am a rabbi, I often get to field theological issues as they come up. I just got a text from a friend that said that her daughter wanted to know who invented God! And I was supposed to text back and answer! I did. I wrote: Great question! My belief is that God has always been with no beginning and end. One of the mystical names for God is ein sof—without end. But if she believes people invented God she is still a good Jew and if she doesn’t believe in the supernatural, she may be drawn to secular humanism. When I saw this friend at the park we both laughed about texting this kind of thing. Sometimes when these kinds of questions come up, we’ll mull them over, discuss with a parent or friend or handle it in a satisfying enough way without a “professional.”
However, if you are around Northbrook the first Monday of the month and want to share something your kids said, or something you have been thinking about, or a question about a holiday or practice, or something you saw at a bar or bat mitzvah or you want advice about speaking with your in-laws about a religious topic… I can’t wait to hear about it. I don’t have all the answers. My thoughts and approaches are only right if they feel right to you. I won’t tell you what to do. But, if it lends itself we will probably laugh. I can direct you to others in the community if you have a particular interest. I am a mom of two young kids, I think about how to raise mensches (Yiddish for good person), I live a harried life and I love the Shabbat rituals (although they rarely get accompanied by a sit-down family meal—some of you can share how you accomplish this with me). I would love to learn and talk with you.
My youngest has been asking a lot about where he was before he got into my tummy, what he did in there and where God is now. I yearn to meet other people who can stop for a minute and share our humanity. We can look at each other and see where we overlap and understand each other and sense where our diversity and different backgrounds bring us to our own questions and concerns.
I hope to see you June 2 at 9am in Northbrook. If this location and time doesn’t work for you, but you want to philosophize about something or just have a quick question, email me at email@example.com.
I’ve been out and about lately (Diversity Shabbat at Temple Chai in Long Grove and the PJ Library Conference in Baltimore) hearing some things that are making me think. I am a philosophizing kind of gal, so I love to hear new nuggets that stop me and give me pause.
These are random comments I have heard which I share with you. I look forward to your thoughts about them.
I will be speaking as part of Diversity Shabbat on Friday, April 25. The Torah portion for this Shabbat includes the well-known and still profound statement, “You shall be holy, for I, the Eternal your God, am holy” (Leviticus 19:2). This difficult demand is directed to “the whole Israelite community” (19:2). It is addressed not only to the priests, elders and respected ones, but also to all men, women and children; young and old; and leaders as well as people in the community.
Here is what I believe:
Who is the “whole Israelite community?” It is all of you here. If you were brought up with Judaism, or have found yourself in Jewish life because you fell in love with someone Jewish, if you have a parent who isn’t Jewish, if you wandered away from organized Jewish life, whether you think about Judaism throughout the week or not…you are the whole Israelite community.
If you cast your fate, so to speak, with the Jewish people…feel proud of and part of our amazing history, feel inspired by our audacious hope even in the face of despair, want your children to learn values and ancient wisdom from our texts which we still argue with and confront today, you are the whole Israelite community. If you want American, liberal Judaism to exist in the years to come because it adds creativity, nuance, ingenuity, joy, order, sacred purpose, social justice, support for education and so much more to our society, then you are the whole Israelite community.
If you have a Christmas tree in your living room, enjoy a cheeseburger, have grandparents and cousins and extended family who share Christianity with your children, yet you are here because you identify with Judaism, you are the whole Israelite community. You are in. You are good enough. We want you here. You are worthy. Your Judaism is authentic. You have layered, complex, multi-faceted family dynamics and you work to create Shalom bayit—peace in your home and your wider home—which is one of the most important mitzvot (commandments)…we understand. It’s a journey. You make decisions. You revisit decisions. Identity grows and changes. You are the whole Israelite community.
There is one God of peace and love. We are one people, trying to make our family, our circle of friendships, our workplaces, our school communities, our Temple family, our world a more just, kind and decent place.
You shall be holy. This is holy work. The word in Hebrew for honor as in the 10 Commandments, to honor our parents, is kavod. This word also comes from the word for heavy. True honor and respect is a heavy pursuit. This is not for the faint of heart. This stretches us and brings us into new territory. But, ultimately, loving our neighbor next to us in these seats is holy because you are your neighbor. We are one.
I have visceral memories of Passover as a child. It was a time, not a meal. My mother who worked more than full time was home.
We would rush to the kosher butcher for a huge slab of brisket. I loved going (this was the only time we went to the butcher during the year) because I felt part of something. There were so many other women there shopping for their Passover food. We spoke the same language, we were sharing the same busy-ness. It didn’t matter who was Orthodox and who Reform. We were one extended family. We brought a list to the supermarket for our food and other items (something that signified major cooking). We bought Manishevitz at the liquor store. I felt that everyone knew we were celebrating Passover. I felt that each stop was one step on the journey of doing Passover. We bought flowers for the table at the florist.
There was adrenaline and joy in my young soul. I was with the women of my family. We did Passover the same way each year. The familiarity of our preparations was warm to me, and precious. We set a beautiful, fancy table. I loved setting the table as a child. I had a job. It was a real job. People admired my work.
My beloved grandparents were at my house. I dressed up and so did everyone else. My Papa, of blessed memory, sang Chad Gadya in one breath. We dipped fingers in wine for the plagues. I proudly sang the Four Questions, showing off. We looked for the afikomen and claimed our dollar prize from a man at the table—tradition?
Fresh, bright, spring, freedom.
I loved eating matzah with cinnamon and sugar. I don’t think I can replicate this heaven. My family is scattered geographically. My child doesn’t sit still. I don’t cook like my mom did. I am a rabbi married to a rabbi. You could have predicted my profession from my love of Jewish holidays.
Now I have two lenses by which I view Passover. I think about the seder in terms of my kids. I think about the seder in terms of interfaith families. How does someone who didn’t grow up with Passover experience it in a loved one’s house with their family? When does one become part of the family? How does the message of going from slavery to freedom translate? How can someone with no memories of a holiday come to make it their own as an adult?
But the truth is, only my family has the memories I have. It draws us close and it is fun to reminisce. Those years are forever a part of me. What memories will stay with my children about Passover?
Who will they remember?
What foods will they long for?
What traditions will they hold in their hearts?
Lindsey Silken and I recently attended TribeFest which is a conference of the Jewish Federations of North America. It was an entertaining, interactive and educational celebration that drew around 1,500 Jewish young adults (ages 22-45) from across North America to the city of New Orleans. Some of the attendees are professionals at Federations, synagogues, Jewish Community Centers and other Jewish organizations and some are volunteer leaders or involved as young adults in the Jewish community. InterfaithFamily had the pleasure of co-leading two sessions.
Our first session was lead with HIAS. HIAS is an international Jewish non-profit that protects refugees. I am proud that the Jewish community keeps its ancient mandate to protect the vulnerable and the stranger in our midst in this way.
Why were IFF and HIAS paired to run a session? We share the mission of being welcoming and we spoke about what it means to welcome. Whether welcoming interfaith families to Jewish life or helping those fleeing persecution to get acclimated as our neighbors, we need to grapple with insider/outsider mentality, what it means to lower barriers to participation and how to quell assumptions we make about others.
Our second session involved several other organizations including JFNA and the LA Federation, Big Tent Judaism and Keshet, all working, again, to widen the doors of entry to Jewish life for the diverse range of people who may be interested. In the break-out part of the session, we lead a group which went deeper into the conversation of how to be welcoming. What does an organization have to do to be welcoming? Is there a standard formula that can be instituted across the board in Jewish life to yield welcoming success?
The people who joined our group said that in each denomination and in each circle of Jewish life, the institution would have to figure out what criteria they could uphold that would signal the most welcoming culture and climate they could. For some synagogues which are largely interfaith communities, the only way to truly be welcoming may be to have clergy available to officiate and even co-officiate weddings. If there are many in the community who aren’t Jewish who are actively invested in supporting a Jewish partner or raising children with Judaism, it may be that the only way to be truly welcoming is to celebrate them when ushering in Shabbat by lighting the candles, for example (a ritual traditionally reserved for Jews because of the language of “being commanded”). In congregations made up of a community cognizant of Jewish law, there would be other examples of being inclusive and welcoming that they would want to specifically enumerate and articulate. (We’ll share more specifics of what we came up with in a future blog post!)
It’s not enough to say that a congregation is welcoming. The community has to be able to describe what welcoming means to them. When you think about how you welcome people to your home, you know what you do, how you do it, how you feel doing it, how hopefully your guest feels and what you show and teach your children about graciousness. And a congregational family should know how they welcome both newcomers and regulars to the building, to classes and to gatherings.
Although we could scarcely agree on which things a congregation could or should do to be welcoming, everyone thought that one action that indicated “welcome” was that any couple—interfaith couples included—should be greeted with “mazel tov” when they announce their engagement.
We also had an interesting conversation about the word “inclusive.” What does it mean to include people in the life of the synagogue? By definition, does that act change the nature of the situation that existed before the person was included? Do we include people by having them join what we are doing or does adding someone to the mix necessitate being flexible and dynamic?
There were few easy answers but lots of good questions and discussion. The attendees care about their Jewish lives and the future of Judaism in America. It could have been because we were in New Orleans, but there was a palpable energy and harmony to the buzz of voices.
The following is my sermon given on March 7, 2014 at Temple Beth El in Munster, IN.
The weekly Torah portions now move into the book of Leviticus. The Five Books of Moses are referred to by Hebrew names which are the first main word in that section of Torah. Leviticus is known as Vayikra which in Hebrew means God called out. God calls out many things to the people throughout the long narrative. Sometimes the people heed God’s call and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes it is Moses or another leader who hears God’s call and then instructs the people what to do or not to do.
Do we believe God is still calling out? What is God calling? How does the call sound? When and how can we hear it? Some say God calls out through nature saying to stop destroying the environment. Some would say God calls out through people doing social justice work and bringing to our attention the suffering and plight of the vulnerable in society who need more help. Some might say God calls out through our inner voice which helps us calibrate our moral compass. Some say God calls out over and over and in new ways through this sacred text—through this scroll—through this ever-new message and that is why we read it over and over and over, and read commentaries about it over and over and over and continue to think about our own responses to these words. Do we hear God in the shofar? In the upcoming graggers and laughter of our youth?
What would God call out if God could read this latest Pew study of American Jewry? Most American Jews are not members of a synagogue. Most American Jews marry someone not Jewish. Many liberal American Jews raise their children with another religious tradition in addition to some Judaism. Millennials by and large say they are Jewish of no religion? What is happening here? Where did everything go wrong? How do we get things back on track?
OK—as an aside—why must we personify God? It seems true, as Maimonides, the great Jewish, Spanish philosopher and writer in the 1100s thought, that we can only make negative statements about God—God is not human. The only positive statement we can make is that God is and even that limits God. So, I am of course speaking in metaphor.
But, there are those who would say that there is something fundamentally broken or off about American, liberal Judaism. Synagogues are outdated and cost too much money to maintain. Our liturgy does not resonate any more. We don’t know Hebrew and so prayer in Hebrew does not “work” as it once did. Since Judaism is a religion of boundaries and distinctions—the difference between the holy and profane, between day and night, between Shabbat and the rest of the week—we cannot have a truly inclusive Jewish community.
The nature of the Jewish religion is that it is insular and exclusivist to some extent. Jews can do and say certain things and those not Jewish cannot. Those younger than 13 cannot do certain things. On Passover, we cannot eat certain things. We are a religion of rules and boundaries and these rules have kept us a distinct people for millennia. As Rabbi Mark Washofsky, the Solomon B. Freehof Professor of Jewish Law and Practice at HUC-JIR/Cincinnati, our rabbinical school, just said to me, “There are many in the Jewish community now who straddle the fence and straddling a fence hurts.”
So, this is all bad news and negative. Goodbye American liberal Judaism as we know it. It’s been a nice run, but it’s over?
Things are better than ever. It is our diverse community that gives us new strength—new voices, new questions and new insights are good for Judaism. We are pushed to define ourselves, to understand who is a Jew and what makes something Jewish. We are forced to confront our own lack of literacy and to take ownership of our religion and our heritage. When we have a community made up of those who grew up with Judaism and those newer to it, we uncover what it really means to welcome the stranger and to believe in One God of all who is a God of peace and love. We are given the sacred opportunity to perform the mitzvah, the commandment, to love our neighbor as our self because we are our neighbor. We see the most often repeated commandment from the Torah come alive for us: Do not oppress the stranger because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
Does this always make it easy? Should we have no ritual barriers to full participation in Jewish life? (I kind of think so, but not everyone agrees with this). Should all rabbis officiate at any wedding where a Jew requests Jewish clergy to be with them? Can we find room in our religious schools for children being raised to also learn about and appreciate Catholicism, for instance? There are no easy answers but lots of important questions.
What is God calling to us now? I believe one message that is blatantly obvious and which can bring us closer to one another and God is that we need to open up, not create more rules and tighten our limits. We are a tiny “in” group and we are, by the way, not a homogeneous group; we are not different from those not in these seats tonight. The majority of liberal Jews are somewhere else. It is not for us to call them in. It is for our Jewish expression, our synagogue structures, and our leaders to open up. We have to act with love, respect, with joy and optimism, humility and inspiration, to individualize, accommodate and include anyone who might come to see that living with Judaism is a rich, vibrant, accessible, authentic way to structure one’s days.
Kayn Yihi Ratzon. May this be God’s will.
InterfaithFamily/Chicago welcomes a new staff member to our office which is located on the second floor of the Weinger Northbrook JCC. Susie Field has a child at the JCC preschool and both of her children attend JCC camps. She is herself in an interfaith family and personally interested in our mission of supporting interfaith families open to exploring Jewish life. If you are ever at the JCC and wander upstairs, you will be glad to connect with Susie. She has a warm smile, a great laugh, a wonderful outlook on life and can share lots of ideas about everything from talking with extended family about religion to the day to day task of bringing spirituality and connectedness to our parenting. This is her first blog post with InterfaithFamily in which she shares the real things her son has said as he begins to process what he hears and learns about the religion and culture of Judaism.
My 5-year-old son attends a JCC Pre-Kindergarten Program. My husband is Jewish and I am not. Even the Jewish side of our family is learning as he learns. And, it’s lots of fun to watch and listen as his imagination runs wild. Here are some of the things he’s said lately that have made me smile:
As a mom in an interfaith family, I was worried my kids wouldn’t know where they belonged or how to communicate about their beliefs. Instead, I am fascinated by each new spiritual discovery as it develops into value and faith. As my husband and I shepherd them through their journey, we explore our own beliefs. We are re-introduced to Jewish heritage; albeit, sometimes with a superhero twist.
So many couples I marry have one partner who grew up at an area congregation but left after their bar or bat mitzvah. I have thought about creative ways to reunite this person and now this couple with their synagogue of origin, so to speak. There is probably still a picture of them from some class on the wall there! Then it occurred to me, why do synagogues let families just leave? If a family calls the executive director of a congregation to say that they are leaving, the conversation should end with them staying members unless they’re moving away or have a pressing need to leave the synagogue.
Why do people leave synagogues? Money. The synagogue can sympathize with the fact that the financial commitment is difficult to meet for many families. For some, they struggled to pay the dues in order to see their children through their bar or bat mitzvah and feel relieved to take these thousands of dollars of cost off their budget. Thus, the synagogue could say: You are not members because you pay dues. You are members because you have been part of this community. Anything you can contribute now that you are in a different stage of life will help our synagogue stay open and functioning. However, you are not off of our emails and off of our newsletter list and we do not bar you from holiday services because you need a break from the yearly dues after so many years of supporting the congregation in this way.
Whatever the synagogue then collects from this family will be more than if the family had left never to walk through its doors again. But now, won’t other people want to stop paying too? Each house of worship will have to figure out how this plan can work. Do they give post bar/bat mitzvah families a three year period of reduced dues and then hope that they have found value in the continued connection to the congregation and they can again make a bigger financial contribution? Money alone cannot make someone suddenly a “non-member.”
Another reason people may give for leaving a synagogue is that they don’t “need it anymore.” Now that their children are through this major life cycle event, the parents in the family don’t feel a need to attend the congregation. They are not Shabbat attendees, they don’t come for adult education or Torah study. They would like to come for High Holidays, but they are not going to pay $3,000 a year for this when they can be someone’s guest or just buy tickets. The response the synagogue could have is, “you are still members here.” We will still be in touch and you can still attend any or all programs of the Temple.
Then a conversation could take place (preferably in person) about what they would enjoy coming to. Do you like cooking? We have cooking classes. Do you like knitting? We have knitting circles? Downtown lunch and learns? Meeting occasionally with the rabbi to talk about your aging parents, trouble with your teenager, a new health diagnosis you are facing? Your own marriage issues? We are here for you. It turns out you don’t attend services because you can’t read Hebrew? We can help with this. We need to be relevant for people beyond bar and bat mitzvot.
We obviously cannot make someone stay a member who does not want to receive information from the synagogue and who has had a negative experience there. Some say that so much of the correspondence with a synagogue involves asking for more money: money for a building campaign, money for memorial plaques, etc. I think that most people would be thrilled to hear that they are still members, even if they can’t or won’t pay the same dues anymore.
Now, what about the people who do not call the office to say that they are stopping their membership. The synagogue knows who has just stopped paying. Those people probably receive a phone call and hopefully an in-person meeting to say, “We miss you…what’s going on?” When people have ties to a community, it is hard to leave. Let’s make it hard for people to leave.
In the recent article in The Forward, a Rabbi in Los Angeles explains that he will officiate for an interfaith couple at their wedding if they commit to a Jewish future, Jewish education for their children and a Jewish home. A Conservative Rabbi who left his rabbinical union over being able to officiate at interfaith weddings quotes Israeli President Shimon Peres saying: “It’s not important if your grandparents are Jewish. What is important is if your grandchildren are.” The only condition he has is that an interfaith couple getting married “should commit to running a Jewish household, raising Jewish children and to learn with me what that means.”
Some rabbis may make all couples (whether they are both Jewish or only one is Jewish) promise to raise Jewish children in order to marry them, but many only speak about this test for interfaith couples. It makes sense for rabbis to speak about how the couple will raise their children. Couples often sit with the rabbi who will perform their wedding for several meetings which gives them ample time to plan the ceremony and usually also time to discuss where they are with religion, extended family issues and what they are thinking their home will look like in the years to come. If a couple wants a rabbi at their wedding, they care about Judaism in some ways. Certainly a conversation can be had about how they plan to live Jewishly and raise their children.
However, I think that too much focus, as is clear from this Forward article, is placed on having a premarital couple talk about Judaism only in terms of how it will affect their children. I for one care more about what the adults who will stand under the chuppah with me think about their own Judaism.
Do they know anything about the religion that they think they don’t want in their lives? Do they know what Judaism says about the major questions of life such as the meaning of sin or suffering or ideas about afterlife and heaven? Do they understand who is Israeli (and for that matter when, why and how Israel exists)? Do they search for calm, anecdotes to stress, balance, order, meaning, peace, love and purpose? Judaism addresses these areas of our lives.
Did they once attend religious school at a congregation and even celebrate becoming a bar or bat mitzvah by reading Torah, but have not gone into a synagogue since (maybe except for some High Holiday services as a passive participant?) I hope that by developing a relationship with the couple as we plan their wedding that the couple will think about exploring Judaism in new ways. I hope that the Judaism they find is open, accessible, relevant, realistic, challenging, inspiring, uplifting, beautiful, joyful and sophisticated. If adults are turned on by Judaism; if they are called to action, supported by community, filled with pride at Jewish accomplishments…if they cook the food, live the values of tzedakah and menschlekeit (being a good person), if they visit Israel, find the words of the prayers to resonate, they will want their children to experience Judaism.
Are there congregations where one can experience Judaism like this? There are. Are there study groups, trips, volunteer opportunities and cultural events that have this kind of Jewish vibe? There are.
If we ignore the Jewish life of adults and simultaneously try to get them to follow the patterns of their parents in joining congregations so that children can have a bar or bat mitzvah, that experiment is over. We can’t infuse guilt or a sense of responsibility or obligation as the vehicle to promulgate Judaism to the next generation. People getting married aren’t swayed by that. Instead, we need to ask these adults getting married to give Judaism a second chance for the sake of their own souls.