Being Part of a Community Conversation

The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington sponsored Welcoming Interfaith Families: A Community Conversation on April 28. Ed Case and I attended along with other representatives from fellow interfaith engagement organizations. Clergy and professionals from area organizations shared the work they are doing to welcome and engage interfaith families. Interfaith couples came to discuss their journey of Jewish involvement. Here are three points that I took away:

Language is Still a Challenge: For most of the conference almost every presenter and speaker referred to people who aren’t Jewish who are partnered with a Jew as “non-Jews.” Finally, Kathy Bloomfield, a local Jewish professional, asked them to re-think this term as it can be offensive and hurtful to be described as a “non-anything.” She suggested using the phrase, “person from a different faith,” which speakers immediately adopted, one saying to Kathy “you had real impact!” An alternative I use, given that some people grow up with no specific faith or are not practicing another faith, is to just describe that partner as a “person who is not Jewish.”

It is Important that Couples Be Able to Find Wedding Officiants: One panel included a college student (himself from an interfaith home) who works for Hillel, an interfaith couple, and three rabbis (one Conservative, one Reform and one at a non-denominational synagogue). The college student talked about his work trying to engage students from interfaith homes in Jewish life on campus, the couple told their personal story, and the rabbis discussed how they work to reach out to interfaith couples. However, the conversation ended up centered on rabbinic officiation at weddings. The couple explained how painful and confusing it was when the groom’s brother, a Reform rabbi, did not feel he could officiate at their interfaith wedding.  One rabbi spoke about how when his brother intermarried in the 1960s his father disapproved, resulting in severe damage to  the family’s relationships; in fact he said the first time his brother said something nice about this father was when he gave a eulogy at his funeral. Rabbi Gil Steinlauf from Adas Israel, a major Conservative synagogue, described his new “keruv aliyah.” Keruv, a Hebrew word which means to draw near, is the Conservative movement’s term for reaching out to interfaith couples and families. Aliyah means “going up” and can refer either to moving to Israel or coming to the Torah during worship for an honor. In his keruv aliyah, Rabbi Steinlauf has interfaith couples come up at a Shabbat morning service before their wedding for a blessing. Because Conservative rabbis are not allowed by their association to officiate for interfaith couples, this is a creative, bold and meaningful way to publicly honor in their community the unions of interfaith couples religiously and spiritually.

JCCs Can Be A Meaningful Address for Interfaith Couples: Several Jewish Community Centers in the Washington DC area are thinking creatively about how to engage interfaith couples and families in Jewish life. Many interfaith families do not “affiliate” in the sense that they do not officially join a congregation. There are many reasons for this: Cost, fear/uncertainty about what to expect, apprehension about ever “belonging” fully with a partner who isn’t Jewish, wondering about whether the partner who isn’t Jewish will be able to participate meaningfully in rituals and synagogue communal life, thinking that children will be treated as “less than” if they have a parent who isn’t Jewish, and more. Synagogues need to become cognizant of the concerns these couples could have and be able to address these concerns visibly and clearly so that barriers can come down and all can enter with ease and less anxiety. JCCs may be a comfortable first step to later synagogue membership, or they may be a long-term Jewish organizational home for interfaith couples and families to find community, programs of interest and learning. JCCs in Washington are now offering more ways for families to experience religious learning for children and ways to mark life cycle events. Because Jewish Community Centers can sometimes be more open with more flexible ways to engage, it seems a natural setting for interfaith couples and families to explore.

In the breakout session I led about preparing for a bar or bat mitzvah, one of the participants was a grandparent who said that he would be helped by talking points for grandparents like him to communicate respectfully and informatively to their adult children about why different parts of Jewish life, including bar/bat mitzvah, are important to them. Sometimes we feel things in our hearts but have trouble articulating their importance.

It was inspiring to be part of a communal conversation aimed at hearing what is happening already and which will set the stage to determine next steps and figuring out the most effective ways to reach interfaith couples and families around Washington DC. It was affirming to see interfaith couples and families regarded as precious to the Jewish community, as present and future links to add to the chain of Jewish tradition.

Preparing Parents For Their Child’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah

Our booklet, Bar & Bat Mitzvahs for the Interfaith Family, is available as an on-screen reading friendly PDF and as a printer-friendly, downloadable PDF. Our Bar/Bat Mitzvah Ideas and Primer for Interfaith Families also contains helpful tips, answers, and templates.

We run two online courses for parents in interfaith families. One course is for parents with young children, and the other course is for parents with 4th-7th graders preparing for bar or bat mitzvah, whether in the early stages of the process of anticipating the ceremony in the coming years.

Most of the families who read through our materials are members of congregations and are actively raising children with Judaism. Many congregations offer family education around bar and bat mitzvah, to help make this rite of passage more meaningful for the full family. Congregational leaders often bemoan low enrollment or seeming disinterest in different programs the synagogue offers, but when it comes to bar and bat mitzvah, the family is lined up for each class and program, not wanting to miss anything relating to this central event for their child and family.

When I ask clergy and educators whether interfaith families have their needs met around bar and bat mitzvah, I’m met with quizzical looks. “These families are Jewish, they are raising Jewish kids, and the material we cover in family education sessions address all of our family’s questions and concerns,” I am told. I wonder though, whether for some parents who aren’t Jewish or who are newer to Judaism if there is a safe space to talk openly about their feelings.

The following are three ideas to keep in mind when planning family sessions in a synagogue. In addition, if you are reading this and you do work with synagogue families, they can always access our free, online materials to supplement and enrich all they learn at the synagogue. Anyone can email me for help accessing our materials.

  1. Personal Feelings
    Sometimes a parent who was not born Jewish or who is newer to Judaism can feel a sense of loss around bar and bat mitzvah. The loss could stem from the reality that this child is not following in the religious footsteps they took (even if that parent had wanted to raise their child with Judaism and has been enthusiastic and on-board the whole time, these feelings can creep up out of seemingly nowhere and surprise us.) The loss can be because one may not feel they can fully participate for a variety of reasons (lack of Hebrew/Judaic knowledge, etc.) Of course, not every parent feels this way. But the point is to leave room if there are some who do.
  2. Ritual Policy Explanations
    Many families who celebrate a child’s bar or bat mitzvah in the synagogue have close family who aren’t Jewish. For some of these families, they will want and anticipate these relatives having a role in the service. For some families, they will wonder about the synagogue’s ritual policy. It can be very helpful to explain how the synagogue came up with its ritual policies and how everyone in a family can take a meaningful role in the service. This should be explained to all families, as most families today have relatives who aren’t Jewish, even when both parents are Jewish.
  3. Connections with Extended Family
    Some interfaith families may have questions about how to best explain the history of bar and bat mitzvah, to give this ceremony context as well as to articulate what it means to them that their child is experiencing this rite. When speaking with family members who aren’t Jewish and or are not as familiar with the process and ceremony, they’ll want to know how to explain the significance and the meaning. Directing families to inserts that can be placed in invitations as well as creating program guides can be reassuring and helpful.

When you think about the programs you attended in preparation for your child’s bar or bat mitzvah, or when you think about what you would want in such a program and experience, what would you be looking for? If you think it would be helpful, chances are other families would think so too.

You Are Wanted!

As you may have surmised from my blogs over the past months, I love coming up with ideas about Jewish education and engagement. I actually enjoy philosophizing about this kind of thing! joining the communityTo the depths of my being, I find that liberal Judaism adds meaning, purpose, joy, order, connectedness, spirituality, and so much more to my life. I find that thinking about both how to teach Judaism and how to share the ways to live Judaism is a creative and endlessly fascinating pursuit. So here is my latest idea. As always, let me know what you think!

I meet with lots and lots of couples planning their weddings. Many of the couples have one partner who grew up in Chicagoland and “dropped out” of their synagogue sometime after bar/bat mitzvah. Inevitably, this person’s parents are still in the area, but have not been members of a synagogue for many years. The person getting married went away to college and is now back working in the city, living with their partner, and trying to find clergy to connect with for their interfaith wedding.

When I do my in-take, which consists of asking each person to tell me their life in a nutshell, one partner tells me that they grew up at a synagogue, but that the rabbi doesn’t officiate at interfaith weddings or they do not have a connection with the current rabbi because the rabbi who “did” their bar/bat mitzvah has left the congregation. It does not occur to this person to call the synagogue office, to explain that they grew up at the synagogue, and to meet with the current clergy. Most likely their parents still live near the synagogue.

I wonder why this is such a common scenario. For some reason, this family did not feel part of the synagogue in an existential way. They were there to get a service and, when that ended, ties to the place ended. There has not been a void in their lives since leaving the synagogue. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the family either gathers for a meal and does not attend worship, or they attend services with friends or at a Hillel. Maybe the family actually had a bad experience at the synagogue, but most likely it was just a means to an end. Maybe all of their friends have since left, and they would not feel they would know anybody there anymore.

My idea is to reconnect these brides or grooms and their parents to the synagogue where they had their bar or bat mitzvah. Presumably there are still individuals at the synagogue who were important to the bride or groom, and their parents, when they were part of the congregation. These individuals would want to celebrate this next stage of life with them, just as they were part of their childhood and bar/bat mitzvah. I would ask the couple and their parents if I could tell the synagogue’s clergy that they’re getting married, ask them to help reconnect the former congregants with people there who remember them and who want to share in their joy.

I would then help the clergy create a “mazel tov package” that could be sent to this family. It would include a card, maybe an invitation to be blessed at a Friday night service (who wouldn’t want more blessings?!), and maybe a mezuzah or blessing for the home with a note that the clergy would be honored to come to the couple’s home and help them put it up. For the parents, maybe it would be a half-price re-connection, empty-nest membership rate, with brochures about study and social opportunities. Maybe the synagogue, which is mostly likely in the suburbs, could occasionally send clergy, educators, or lay leaders to the city to treat couples who grew up at the synagogue to dinner or Sunday brunch as a way to say that community is where you are, you are wanted, we miss you, and you are our future.

Maybe couples would not want to re-connect with their synagogue of origin. Maybe they would be turned off if the clergy there do not officiate at interfaith weddings. Yet maybe they would be excited about the chance to reconnect as adults. This would be a real chance to re-shape the community, to take part in ushering in young professionals to communal commitment, and to share a place of memories with their new life partner.

What do you think? Could this work?

Try Being a Stranger

We speak a lot about the importance of welcoming interfaith families to organized Jewish life. Congregations contact us to think about how they welcome people to their community. From the messages and images on a website, to the way the phone is answered, to what happens to couples calling for help with interfaith life cycle events, to language used on flyers, community organizations work at making the barriers to entry easy to cross.

What would your community feel like to a stranger?

This past Sunday, I had the privilege of speaking at an Episcopal church down the street from where I live. I have gotten to know their minister, Reverend Elizabeth Jameson, who holds office hours at our local coffee shop. There are interfaith families who are members of the church, and I was excited to speak to them and other interested people about how they could explore Judaism, especially with their children.

Worship was scheduled for 10:00-11:00 and was followed by my session. I decided to come for worship so that I could get a sense of the culture and feel of the community. When I walked in, members of the church greeted me and handed me the service booklet. The service had many elements that were familiar to me: responsive readings, songs (the service booklet included the words and music so that it was easy to follow the tunes even though I don’t read music), sitting and standing. The biblical reading was done dramatically with different congregants taking on different speaking roles. The sermon was about finding that space in life of safety, calm, and peace. They printed a welcome message to me in the booklet and Reverend Jameson welcomed me aloud during the service. There was also a time for everybody to greet the people near them. The coolest part of the worship for me was that the Shema, in Hebrew, was part of their liturgy for Lent. A parent who had taken our first Raising a Child With Judaism class was the soloist in the choir who lead it. This was a small world moment for sure! By and large, this community did everything possible to make me, a newcomer, feel welcome.

With all of this said, I didn’t feel totally comfortable because it was my first time there. I wasn’t always sure where we were in the booklet. I didn’t know what was coming next. Some of the rituals were totally new to me. I wasn’t sure of the meaning of some of the images I saw. I was a little nervous. Being Jewish and attending the service dictated which of the passages I felt comfortable saying or not saying. I was wondering the whole time if I was getting a glimpse into what someone who was not raised Jewish may feel the first time they attend Jewish worship or holiday celebrations.

Maybe rather than wordsmith mission statements behind board room doors, synagogue leadership should spend some time in other houses of worship. We are coming up to Passover, our holiday of freedom in which we think about the stranger in our midst. Try being a stranger and see how it feels. This may be the best way to really know how to welcome the outsider in.

Membership Possibilities: the Give and Take Model

Many rabbis I meet with me tell me that they need more members in their synagogues. They want to retain their current members while adding new members. Congregations have tried different models for making membership more appealing to more people, from suggested donations rather than membership dues to low cost membership for the first year or for people under 30.Give (and Take) More and more congregations are going into secular spaces to try to meet potential congregants who may have misconceptions about synagogue membership or may not know all that a community has to offer.

There is much talk about what young professionals need and want. There is more and more talk about what newly empty nesters need and want and how to engage or re-engage them before they walk away from the synagogue where their children were called to the Torah as a bar or bat mitzvah. As a caveat to this thought, I meet so many couples where one partner had grown up at a local congregation but the family had “dropped out” after the bar/bat mitzvah and now they need to find a rabbi for a wedding.

I have been thinking about a possible new model for congregations. This is the Give and Take model of membership. What if congregations said to the wider community that they want people to associate with this congregation because:

  1. You live in the area.
  2. Judaism is best expressed and lived in community, from study and worship to holiday celebrations and life cycle events. True, Judaism is a religion anchored in the home, but “doing Jewish” with other people adds joy, support, depth, purpose, and more that can’t be felt when observing at isolated moments in private affairs.
  3. This community needs you to share your talents. Judaism is part of your story, part of your heritage and consciousness, and the intergenerational make-up of this synagogue will be enriched by you. Yes, this is a selfless act of volunteerism to benefit others who share part of your story, who are your “extended family,” but giving in this way will undoubtedly fill you.
  4. The Jewish community will change and adapt and learn from you when you are involved.
  5. You will need this community at times in your life and we need you now.

The way it works is that the person, couple, or family figures out what yearly financial contribution they can make to help sustain this local house of learning, worship, social justice, and fellowship. The new member then decides what they can give to the community in addition to money. Maybe it is time teaching in the religious school, preschool, or adult education realm. Maybe it is time sharing a background in PR, marketing, branding, website design, etc. Maybe it is time cooking for communal Shabbat and holiday meals. Maybe it is time visiting families with new babies or sitting with someone who has lost a spouse. Maybe it is job counseling. Maybe it is yoga classes. Whatever you do, the synagogue should make use of it. This is the “Give” part of the membership model.

The “Take” part of the membership model involves taking what those feel is a benefit. If people feel that they benefit from having a school for their children and for them to continue to learn about Judaism, then it has to be supported. If people feel that they benefit from communal holiday celebrations, there has to be space, prayer books, leaders, music, and food. People have to figure out what they value and find ways to keep those things running with vibrancy.

I know there is talk about how some people can’t articulate even why to be Jewish. Not only do most young professionals not want to join a synagogue, they feel no reason to enter one, investigate what’s out there, etc. Finding a rabbi for a life cycle event is one thing, but going to a temple is a whole other ball of wax. Judaism and religion are not on their minds. They are thinking about where to live, whether they like their jobs, whether they should marry their partner, how to keep a good relationship with parents. People think about having fun, how to make friends, whether they are happy. People think about the homeless, about their health, about international affairs. The environment, gun control, and whether all women will have access to safe abortions are topics discussed over coffee. People are secular. They don’t think about liberal religion on a daily basis. As I am writing this, I am sitting next to a neighbor at a coffee shop who said, “As a working mom I am just trying to survive!” Volunteering her time at a local temple would not see fathomable.

However, I am convinced that if this model began, and the people who are inclined to take part in the organized Jewish world find meaning in this Give and Take model, then the joy and sense of purpose and connectedness that they would garner from the experience would spread.

You may read this and say that all membership is give and take. You’re right, it is (or should be), but it needs to be made explicit. It needs to be organized with thoughtfulness and individuality.

What do you think? Could this work? Would people feel more engaged and committed in this model?

And through this, I haven’t even mentioned interfaith couples and families. For the partner who didn’t grow up with Judaism and for their extended family and friends who may find themselves at the synagogue, the community this person was actively giving and taking from would hopefully reflect their values and ideals as well. When people are active, not passive participants, their vision becomes reality.

Something I’ve Been Thinking About…

I love brainstorming ideas for Jewish education and engagement (outreach). One idea I’ve been tossing around is about supporting interfaith couples who have Jewish clergy present at their wedding or union. These couples are our future. These couples cared about and felt connected enough with Judaism to seek out (sometimes in a tough process) Jewish clergy to officiate at their weddings.

What if every city’s Jewish community committed to supporting these couples for the first year (or two) after their ceremony? The time and resources spent continually working with these couples in meaningful ways would pay off ten-fold for the Jewish community — now and in the future.

What would this support involve?

  • Membership (I know — this is possibly an outdated model) at a congregation of their choosing. (We would hook them up with a Jewish professional who would get to know them and help direct them to a synagogue that would be a good fit.)
  • Full access to the programs at the local JCC.
  • A subscription series to the Jewish film festival, Jewish museum, and other cultural events for that year.
  • Maybe (gasp) send them to Israel as a honeymoon!?
  • Name and contact information on a magnet (are any refrigerators still magnetic?) for the marriage counselor at Jewish Child and Family Services.
  • Pay for them to take the Reform Movement’s Intro. To Judaism course or Taste of Judaism program, or Melton classes, or whatever level of continued Jewish education would be appropriate.

In exchange, we would ask them to volunteer and get involved with a Jewish social justice agency. Each segment of the Jewish community who tries to reach this age cohort (25-35ish) would decide what services they would most like these couples to know about and participate in. The couples would receive information about their options in a gift bag or maybe receive a link to a YouTube video made just for them, or something else creative (maybe an app for their phone which would keep them updated about programs and events that might interest them?). The different Jewish organizations would pay for the programs they would offer these couples.

The point would be that couples (whether interfaith or not) who wanted Judaism at this most sacred moment in their lives would be welcomed into the community with open arms. We would see their want for Jewish clergy to officiate at their weddings as a sign that there’s more work for us to do. The outpouring of outreach to them would be a beautiful and overwhelming testament to the many ways to get involved in Jewish life and would present the rainbow of potential for each and every couple to gain meaning from Judaism and give back in significant ways.

Now. Who’s going to make this happen?

Jewish Dreams For Your Pre-Teen

As this New Year begins, we may have many hopes and dreams about what the months ahead will bring. Maybe you have an 11- or 12-year-old and have hope somewhere in your heart and mind that this child could somehow experience the rite of passage within Judaism called a bar or bat mitzvah.

Bar & Bat Mitzvahs For The Interfaith Family

To learn more about the bar or bat mitzvah, check out our booklet! (Click on the image.)

Maybe this is only a hope or dream because you have not found yourselves a synagogue and your child has not officially begun religious school or Hebrew school. Maybe you are members of a congregation or working with clergy, and this dream will soon be a reality.

When you hear someone say “having a bar or bat mitzvah,” they are typically referring to a ceremony during a prayer service that includes a Torah service, usually by a cantor or rabbi. Taking place around the 13th birthday of a child, it marks the transition into adulthood within the Jewish community. (Those 13 and over can take part in commandments designated only appropriate for adults, such as fasting on certain holidays, taking responsibility for one’s actions in new ways, being counted as adults in prayer groups and helping make up the quorum of at least 10 or more needed for prayer (called a minyan), wearing a tallit or prayer shawl during services, and more.) There are many different ways families mark this coming of age.

The truth is, whether your child is called to the Torah or not near their 13th birthday, your child, if being raised with Judaism in a family who wants the child to affirm this part of their heritage, becomes a bar/bat mitzvah upon turning 13 years of age. The Jewish world is open to this child for learning and participation (whether or not their mother is the Jewish parent). Just because this learning and formal participation has not yet begun, God willing, your child will have years and years to investigate and take part in Jewish living and community. It is never too late to join a congregation in your area, to find a Jewish teacher, to take part in Jewish communal programming from the Jewish Community Center or Jewish Child and Family Services, or to go to Jewish day camp or overnight camp.

If you are a member of a congregation and your child is preparing for this important event and you have questions about what this all means and how your family who is not Jewish can participate, or if you are not a member of a congregation but would like to think about how to make this ceremony possible for your child and family, we want to encourage you to take part in our online course for families like yours. We offer a class online so that you can come to the content whenever you get a chance to log on. You can read essays about the history and meaning of this ceremony, you can learn blessings and prayers associated with a bar or bat mitzvah, you will get ideas about how members of your family who are not Jewish or did not grow up experiencing the bar/bat mitzvah personally can be involved in this rite of passage, and more. We share essays, narratives written by other interfaith families, videos, family activities to bring more meaning to the process for everyone, a discussion board so that you can ask other parents questions and share ideas, and more.

To learn more about the class or to join in, go to Preparing for a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. I hope to connect with you soon through this exciting opportunity!

Trees Are Sensitive

For years now, synagogues and Jewish community centers have been offering “December Dilemma” programs. The programs are centered on figuring out what to do as an interfaith family about the Christmas tree and all that comes with it in a Jewish home with children being raised with Judaism.

One might wonder why a Jewish family would have to figure out whether to have a tree in the home or not, because for some, the answer is clearly not. Yet we all know Jewish families that do enjoy decorating a tree and bringing Christmas symbols into the home.

Everyone has an opinion about this. Does this confuse children? Does this commercialize and secularize Christmas? Religion and identity are fluid and there are more grays than blacks and whites when it comes to emotions. For a parent who isn’t Jewish or even for a parent who has converted to Judaism, even if they are living a Jewish life and raising Jewish children, holidays may bring up feelings that still resonate. Should a parent helping to foster a Jewish family tell children that Christmas is a holiday that some in the family celebrate and keep Christmas separate from the home entirely — perhaps celebrating it at the grandparents’ Christian home instead?

In this open age when Christmas seems everywhere and we celebrate holidays with a multi-cultural mindset, it might seemed outdated, unnecessary, or irrelevant to need December Dilemma programs. Families do a mix of things already — from Buddhist meditation and finding spirituality in nature, to sending holiday greeting cards blending the names of the holidays into one fun, festive, family-centered, gift-giving, giving-back, time of warmth, lights and togetherness.

When a local reporter asked me to put her in touch with interfaith families in the area who could share their approach to the holidays, I thought I would have many emails to share with her. I asked all the participants in any workshop or class we have offered if anyone had time and interest in talking with a reporter. I posted a question to Facebook about what families in the area are doing around Christmas and Hanukkah. And I posted it as a discussion question on the Chicagoland homepage. Nobody wanted to talk to a reporter. Fascinating!

I could be wrong, but it seems that families are hesitant to so publically admit, declare, or share that in fact they are a Jewish family who “does” Christmas. We live such open and public lives and share all kinds of personal information daily… yet there is something about this tree that is still so emotional.

Are parents worried about being judged? Are parents worried that they have to defend their choices and prove their Jewishness more at this time? I look forward to hearing from you to help explain whether you still feel scrutinized and judged for the decisions you make around the holidays. Is this one time of year that still brings sadness, a sense of loss, or conflict because no matter what is decided as a family, one partner still feels that it is not exactly what they feel comfortable with or hoped for? Are December Dilemma programs still valuable if the stigma of attending can be overcome?

Understanding Our Commandments

We are half-way through one of our online classes, Preparing for a Bar or Bat Mitzvah in Your Interfaith Family. One of the sessions is about the concept of “mitzvah,” the word in the name of this life cycle event, “bar mitzvah” or “bat mitzvah.”

Mitzvah is a Hebrew word that means commandment. The word mitzvah is in many Jewish blessings. The Friday night candle lighting blessing says, “Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe, Who make us holy through commanding us to light the Sabbath lights.”

Because of the commanded language, some rabbis hesitate to permit those who aren’t Jewish, who have not formally through conversion taken on the commandments, to say the blessing and do the ritual. Thus, a mom who is not Jewish, who has raised Jewish children, may not be able to light the candles at the Friday night service before her child’s bat or bar mitzvah in some synagogues.

In the session on mitzvot (plural of mitzvah meaning commandments), we asked our class how the parents understood the concept of being commanded. Two interesting comments came up:

“I want to lead a spiritual and ethical life, and in that way there is a sense of commandment, but if someone were to ask me if I’m commanded by God to be ethical and spiritual, I don’t feel particularly comfortable thinking of it in these terms….”

“When I hear/read “commanded by God” what I feel is “connected to God.” Being mindful of performing mitzvot not only makes the world better (animals are being taken care of, kindness is extended and experienced) but also helps to keep me grounded. It’s easy to get caught up in my life, my own needs, wants, etc. I like the way the concept of connectedness helps me to remember others and my place in the world — as a contributor and vessel for good things beyond me.”

It seems that those connected to liberal Jewish families understand “mitzvah” in much broader terms than adhering to the actual ritual or ethical commandments of the Torah, as elucidated by the rabbis in the first centuries of the common era. This should be no surprise as Reform Judaism, in particular, can be fully expressed when lived within the spirit more than the letter of the law.

I would think that liberal rabbis would also understand “b’mitzvotav vitzivnu” — “with God’s commandments, God has commanded us” in a broader sense. There are moms and dads connected to Jewish families who understand the concept of “commanded” as guiding their lives in profound ways. To keep someone from saying blessings with commanded language because they are not technically commanded seems misguided in some circumstances, as the comments above beautifully prove.

Leo Baeck (1873-1956) was a German rabbi, teacher and writer who led the push for Progressive Judaism (which today encompasses Reform Judaism). He taught that God’s commandments can be understood by the individual as boiling down to the ultimate statement of “Thou shalt.” It is up to each of us to fill in that blank, “Thou shalt _______.” It’s clear that the parents in this class are harkening a call for ethical and moral living by filling in the commandments in a broad sense — and this is powerful.

If you are in Chicagoland and would like to take one of our on-line classes (with opportunities for in-person sessions), please register at www.interfaithfamily.com/Chicago. The next round starts in February.

Learning to Pray

This summer I met with the senior staff at Temple Chai in Long Grove, IL. The staff told me about a chavurah (fellowship group) that had grown organically at their synagogue, made up of mostly interfaith families with young children. One request the staff at Temple Chai had heard from the parents in this group was the desire to have a learner’s service on Shabbat so that they (and older children) could come to understand the whole Jewish worship experience on a deeper level.

On November 17 at 10:00am, the Learner’s Service: Shabbat Unpacked will take place, and I will be co-leading the service with Rabbi Stephen Hart and Laura Siegel Perpinyal, their Director of Congregational Learning. We have been working on a handout that will unpack five main prayers in the Shabbat morning service. For each prayer we offer three ways to understand it by sharing the history and background information for the prayer, a brief “instruction manual” to understand how to “do” the prayer in terms of choreography, and a timing explanation in terms of when the prayer is said during the service and why.

As we go through the interactive service, we will highlight these five prayers and share even more through music, explanations about the meaning of the prayers historically, and how we can make them our own today. There will be childcare for young children, but children are welcome to join in the service as well.

In order for Jewish prayer to be meaningful, maybe especially for someone who didn’t grow up being exposed to Jewish worship, several things have to happen. Hebrew has to be grappled with. Most people in congregations can’t translate prayer book Hebrew word for word. Yet, through understanding basic Hebrew roots (the letter core of words), which often repeat and shed light on the meaning, one is able to gain a tremendous amount about the nature of the prayer. For instance, the root for “holy” in Hebrew is three letters, koof daled shin. These three letters form the word kiddush (blessing over wine), kadosh (the actual word meaning holy), and kaddish (the prayer said by mourners). Yet even if one knows many Hebrew root words, understanding prayer transcends literal understanding of the words. This is because much of prayer is poetry. So the sound the Hebrew makes and the rhythm is important (this can be understood by just listening to the Hebrew being said or sung). As well, reading the English translation can tell you what the prayer says, although thinking about the imagery and the repetition of words can bring deeper meaning. Thus even though Hebrew may feel like a barrier and a challenge, one can understand prayer on some level even when just beginning to learn Hebrew.

Other ways to make Jewish prayer more meaningful are to learn about the prayers (as will be a goal of this service), to contemplate Jewish views of God and one’s own sense of spirituality, and also to seek meaning in being part of community. Prayer can be deeply meaningful when the images in prayer of peace or shelter, for example, lead us to action to brings these ideals to reality on earth.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the 20th century’s leading theologians, once said those “Who rise from prayer better persons, their prayer is answered.” Jewish prayer can feel mysterious, boring, antiquated, and removed from what we know and understand today. Yet it can also elevate, inspire, and connect us. I hope those of you in Chicagoland will join us for a lively and upbeat prayer experience on November 17.