Connecting Interfaith Families to Jewish Life in Greater Cleveland by providing programs and opportunities for interfaith families to experience Judaism in a variety of venues, meet other interfaith families, and to connect to other Jewish organizations that may serve their needs.
A great way for Jewish professionals and volunteers who work with and provide programming for people in interfaith relationships to locate resources and trainings to build more welcome into their Jewish communities; connect with and learn from each other; and publicize and enhance their programs and services.
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.
Rabbi Moffic officiating the wedding of Mark Swartz and Liz Treacy
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.
As our booklet on baby girl naming ceremonies explains, names are the beginning of identity formation. Choosing your baby’s name helps to shape the kind of person you are hoping the baby will become. By selecting a Hebrew name, you connect your child to the generations that precede him or her, a community and a system of values. The Ashkenazi (Jews descended from Eastern Europe) have a tradition of naming a baby after a parent or grandparent who has died. This custom dates back to the 6th century B.C.E and naming children after their families’ ancestors remains the custom today.
Sephardic Jews (descendants of Spain and Portugal) often name their children after relatives that are alive. Because most American Jews are descendants of Ashkenazi Jews, parents often name their children after a family member who has died. Stories about the remembered relative bring a powerful emotional connection to the past and link to your hope for the future.
Some couples choose to have their sons circumcised in the hospital and opt for a Hebrew name ceremony later. Others choose to have a bris (brit milah: ritual circumcision) at eight days old during which the baby will be given his Hebrew name (even if the mother is not Jewish, if a couple wants to keep this ancient Jewish tradition and intends for their to child to be raised with Judaism, Reform mohelim—doctors with special training to perform a bris—will come to the home to perform the circumcision). Others choose not to circumcise and to have a naming ceremony later. For girls, parents often want to hold a ceremony to give her a Hebrew name.
Sometimes couples go back to the rabbi who married them to create a naming ceremony with them. Sometimes couples have found a synagogue and want the naming to take place in this community. However couples decide to publically “give” their child their Hebrew name, this can be a very special time for the family. For interfaith couples, it can be a time when the parents talk about the religious decisions they have made and to celebrate the arrival of their child and the sacred task of parenting.
Even though many couples have the naming ceremony when their baby is young, others hold the ceremony at the first birthday or another time. It is never too late to meet with Jewish clergy (a rabbi or cantor) to select a Hebrew name for a child.
Ari, right, with the Vickermans
Here are Nora Vickerman’s words which she spoke at the recent naming ceremony we had for her daughter, Chloe. What joy it was for me to have stood with this couple under the chuppah at their wedding and then to be able to bless their baby.
Chloe was born of parents who have a deep love for one another, a joy in our traditions and a commitment to Chloe, our daughter, to share and blend together as a family the beauty of both of our traditions. It is with this shared sense of commitment to all that is good and to all that is beautiful in our religions that we are here today to celebrate with our friends and with our family the first of many of our family traditions.
The naming of a Jewish child is a most profound spiritual moment. The sages said that naming a baby is a statement of her character, her specialness, and her path in life. For at the beginning of life, we give our child a name, and at the end of life, a “good name” is all we take with us. It is also the Jewish custom to name your child after a relative who has passed away. It is a great honor, keeping the name and memory of a deceased loved one forever alive, and in a metaphysical way, forms the bond between the soul of the baby and the relatives that she will be named for. My Jewish tradition calls for the naming of a baby with an English name as well as a Hebrew name, or names. Matt and I want our daughter to share in the richness of her heritage.
Chloe Rose shares a connection to her great grandfather Charles and hence her first name Chloe. Matt and I immediately knew that this would be her first name. My great grandfather came to this country from Russia. He brought with him the drive to succeed in a new land as well as a commitment to his Jewish religion and his love for tradition. He is honored in a book that described the History of the Jewish people in Beckley, West Virginia. He helped to establish the first Reform synagogue in the city. His courage, strength, and commitment to tradition and family are the traits that we wish for our Chloe. Her second English name is Rose. We also loved that name. She was given the name Rose to honor my great Aunt Roselyn, my great grandmothers’ oldest sister. She was a kind, intelligent, and beautiful lady who believed in the goodness of giving of oneself and to charity. The name Roselyn means a beautiful rose befitting our beautiful daughter.
Matt and I chose Chloe’s first Hebrew name to express our love for two family members who are no longer with us. We chose the Hebrew name Shira, when translated means song and light. How appropriate for our Chloe. She discovered the joy of song very early and has sung her sweet songs ever since the age of three months. And as you all may know Chloe is the light of our life. The S letter in Shira honors Matt’s grandfather Samuel, and the Hebrew letter Shin in Shira honors my mother’s mother Shirley, may their memories shine forever. May our beautiful daughter Chloe know that she will forever be connected in love to them as well as connected by family tradition. Chloe’s second Hebrew name is Yehudeet- a woman of great strength and fortitude (or in English, Judith). Yehudeet was given after my father’s father, Jacques. Our hope for Chloe is that as she grows she will always have the strength and conviction to do what is just and what is right throughout her life.
A recent blog has stirred up some disapproving comments on our Facebook page. This couple split their holiday card in half with the husband on the Christmas side and the wife on the Hanukkah side. The wife says, “We do it ALL.” They “bake” latkes. This is interesting considering the “traditional” way to make latkes is to fry them in oil to remember the miracle of the oil narrative. However, so many families today eat latkes with all kind of variations (baking is certainly healthier). She also says that she hopes her children will gravitate toward Judaism but that she is not “pushing” it.
It would be easy to read this and say, “Goodbye liberal American Judaism—it’s been nice knowing you.” This kind of flippant observation of Judaism and commercializing the minor holiday of Hanukkah to become like Christmas marks doomsday for an authentic Judaism to survive. However, I read this and think, “Wow…many people are living and creating a new Jewish expression.” This is “minhag America” (American tradition). I am referring to Isaac Mayer Wise’s first American Jewish prayer book when I use that expression.
It is possible that they teach their children to be mensches (and perhaps use the word), that they give tzedakah and care about social justice because of and based in their Jewish identity. It is possible that they turn to Jewish expression at important life cycle events like weddings, birth and death (and want their children turning 13 to mark that occasion Jewishly as well).
Is this good enough? Is this Jewish enough? Will this lead to future generations of Jews? Do we want these families in our synagogues or not? What would get a family like this to join a synagogue? What is the litmus test for when a family crosses a boundary that makes them not “really” Jewish?
I say, let’s build communities where we are not judgmental of whether the children are doing it ALL. A community that says that everyone in the family can participate in a totally open, accessible Judaism. A community where we celebrate the holidays with great food, timeless narratives of eternal truths, and live kindness and giving with audacity. A community that says that the Jewish way of wrestling with God and arguing for the sake of heaven nourishes our souls and is good for our spirits.
My children are too at home at our synagogue. Their dad is the rabbi there and they feel that his office is their play place. They know every inch of the building, including where to find snacks that aren’t theirs to take. They know the staff. They feel comfortable expressing themselves during services. I have been thinking about how many other places we frequent and what this says about our lifestyle.
We know the supermarket well. Other parents think I’m crazy for schlepping (Yiddish for dragging) my 4- and 6-year-olds to go grocery shopping, but we basically enjoy the weekly trip. One or both of them ride in the cart and we eat as we shop. We follow the same path each week and we take the same items. Sometimes a new product appears and we examine it which can be fun and guess at whether we will like it (especially if it is in the gluten free section as our 6-year-old has celiac disease). We have our favorite check-out cashier and my kids love to say “hi” to Miss Sandra and pretend that they are shy.
The preschool and elementary school are also like extensions of our home. My kids are proud to show me around when I’m there. They point out artwork on the wall, we schmooze (Yiddish for small talk) with the school staff, and they reminisce about what happened in the gym that day or on the playground.
Food shopping is an activity
Then there are other people’s homes. We are lucky to have cousins who live nearby: Aunt Stacie and Uncle Bill’s house is a comforting, familiar place to visit. The kids know how it works there as well. They take off their shoes in the right spot, they know what they can and can’t touch, etc. They look forward to the different toys and activities that they encounter there. And of course, the people in the home seal the deal for loving this stop.
Two last places we frequent a lot (I’m embarrassed to admit on a weekly basis) are both Target and Party City. They know the aisles there perfectly. They know which stops they want to make first and they always have a treasure in mind that they have been dreaming about.
I wonder about how many “normal” (non Rabbi-Rabbi families) think of a synagogue as a home away from home? Do you walk in and know where to go? Do you know the staff and do they know you? Do you know where to hang your coat, where the bathrooms are and when the building is even open? Would you ever think of stopping in at a time other than for services or Sunday School or Hebrew School?
You could come to read a book in-between meetings or appointments. You could come sit on a couch and do homework in a quiet and cozy spot with a child between afterschool activities. Dare I say, you could stop in to say hi to the educator and clergy! You could check out the flyers you may have missed, see what upcoming events are happening and read the Jewish magazines that are typically on display.
Synagogues are usually open during regular business hours. Stop in! Stay awhile. Say “Shalom.” Bring your kids. Feeling comfortable and familiar in a spot breeds connectedness and warmth.
I know we are supposed to be in a time of joy and merriment but if you’re feeling like I am, everything is overwhelming right now. Preparing for the holidays can be busy! Are you shopping, cooking, traveling, negotiating, planning, decorating, compromising, missing and wishing?
Are you feeling well or exhausted?
Are you busy squeezing everything in and rushing?
Are you worried about money this time of year?
Are you worried about pleasing everyone?
Did you just have school conferences and new worries have cropped up?
Hopefully the joy of family and friends being together and the excitement and magic that seems to be in the air is filling your heart. Maybe volunteering and giving back is a fulfilling experience that you look forward to each Thanksgiving or on Christmas or as part of Hanukkah?
If you are feeling stressed, Judaism can offer some solace. I use a mantra that I return to over and over when my heart is beating fast, the emails and voicemails are unanswered, when there is too much to do and not enough time and when everyone needs me at once.
The mantra is from the Torah. The line is: Ozi v’zimrat Ya, vayihi li, yishuah. (My strength and the song of God will be my salvation.) This is a line from Exodus 15:2 and Psalm 118:14. To me it means that our inner strength coupled with the poetic, the Mysterious, and the beauty around us will lift us above the mundane and ground us with stability.
I often feel that life is a series of days unless we pause occasionally to celebrate. There are definitely highs and lows of each day and some events stay with us for days or weeks, but generally days and weeks come and go. This is why entering a period of pause each week, called Shabbat is so crucial. This is why holidays and life cycle events are so important. They mark our time with meaning.
This past weekend, two events occurred in our house which felt they changed our lives. Although the two events were not monumental to most, they felt dramatic to me.
The first event was that my six-year-old had her first spelling test. First grade is very different from “half-day” kindergarten. In first grade, she gets on the bus at 8:30 and comes off the bus at 3:30 and has had all kinds of experiences that she navigates herself. Most of her day is at school—not at home now. However, this first spelling test brought me nearly to tears of joy. She had reached a new place in her young life. Now, she was being tested and judged based on what she studied and how she performed. Now, we as parents, had a new responsibility on our shoulders: to help her study.
The second event that occurred was that our daughter went on her first sleep-over at a friend’s house around the corner from where we live. We were proud and filled with nachas (a Yiddish word meaning pride from a loved one’s accomplishment). She had to make her needs known. She had to perform her own self-care.
I got into bed the night she was not home and felt God’s presence as I have not felt in a long time. Perhaps because I have been moved by the stories my colleagues—fellow rabbi-rabbi parents have shared about their own son’s brave fight of childhood cancer and about the thousands like him—I cherish even more keenly and with a different perspective our children’s lives.
When I say I felt God’s presence, what I felt was the support of thousands of other parents over generations who have had the joy of seeing their children accomplish new feats. I felt excitement at what was to come. I felt in awe of how life moves along and how obstacles are overcome.
I love the shehecheyanu prayer (the Jewish Kodak moment blessing). It is said at new and joyous occasions and it thanks God for sustaining us and enabling us to reach this new place. The word “chai” (life) is in the middle of this hard-to-pronounce word, shehecheyanu. Judaism is obsessed with life. With living the best life we can. Harold Kushner wrote a whole book called, To Life. Think Fiddler on the Roof, “To life, to life, l’chayim.”
Of course I said shehecheyanu. I say it at every wedding. I said it when a first tooth was lost. (I think I was too sleep deprived to say it when that tooth grew in at three or four months old!) I said it when it snowed for the first time this season a few days ago in Chicago. But, I wanted a different, more specific prayer for this occasion of watching my daughter grow up.
Those who were raised with Judaism can be skittish about spontaneous, personal prayer. We like scripted prayers that start, “Baruch Atah Adonai…” I wrote my rabbinic thesis on spontaneous Jewish prayer because I am terrified of it. But, I prayed to God from my heart in my bed that night.
Over Thanksgiving dinner or the first nights of Hanukkah, maybe give yourself the freedom to add your own words, your own sentiments to our scripted prayers. Or fill the words from the sheets you read or which flow from your mouth out of memory with kavannah, special intention.
Judaism is all about turning the mundane into the sacred. A spelling test? A sleep-over? Yes—these were sacred moments to mark.
I recently attended a think tank talking about how to expand “our” reach to interfaith families, Jews of all hues and LGBTQ individuals, couples and families. This is the visual I made during the sessions.
Who is the “our?” Who do “we” want to reach and why? Do people want to be reached in this way and come in? In to what? In to whom?
Is the premise that the “in group” that wants these unaffiliated, differently engaged people to walk through “their” doors not the same as those outside? Thus, the in group has to learn about them and understand them so that they can welcome them better?
Relationships are based on learning about the other person, so in this way, asking questions and gaining insights into what some people in these categories consider offensive or inviting is helpful. Learning about situations that have caused pain and struggle can give sensitivity and background for when they will meet and speak.
Once people are invited in, is it to share the same experience as those already on the inside, or to help mold and shape a new experience based on the new voices and backgrounds present? Is there a core that has to stay consistent and unchanged no matter who comes in?
These were some of the questions we were grappling with. What do you think?
We here at IFF talk a lot about insider/outsider language and how those in Jewish life can be sensitive to language that not all who find themselves in the Jewish community may know. So, I thought I would take this chance to make sure you all know how the IFF website works.
InterfaithFamily is a national non-profit organization whose mission is to support interfaith couples and families exploring Judaism. IFF is based in the greater Boston area and has additional “Your Community” local offices in Chicago, Philadelphia and San Francisco. (If you think your city would like a full-time person whose job is devoted solely to engaging interfaith couples and families in Jewish life, contact us for more information). The IFF website is vast! There are articles on every subject related to experiencing Judaism, specifically written with modern interfaith life in mind. There are narratives, videos, ways to learn blessings, recipes, blogs, pop-culture and more.
Each IFF/Your Community has a page devoted to the work being done in that community. I want those in Chicagoland to know about events going on around town that might be of interest and have ways to connect to welcoming congregations and professionals. One category that we have on our Chicagoland page is “People.” Who are these people? Might you be one of them? They are people who have listed themselves as members of InterfaithFamily. When you become a member (for free) you can pick the subjects that are interesting to you and when a new piece of content is written, it will be suggested on your profile. You can list your zip code so that when events in your neck of the woods come up, you will know. We designed this membership system so that when people “join” IFF as members, you can then connect to each other!
Do you ever wonder if other parents of toddlers give presents each night of Hanukkah? Do you wish your 10-year-old could experience a bar or bat mitzvah, but you are not members of a congregation? Do you want to be able to explain your religious decisions better to your in-laws? Did you grow up in a home with two religions/traditions and now have a lot of questions?
You can ask each other about these things on our discussion boards! You can learn from others in similar situations. Community means: a feeling of fellowship with others as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests and goals. We speak about “virtual communities” a lot. You can be a real virtual community for each other.
If you are already a member in Chicago and want to see your profile, just log in and click on “my personal page” at the top right of the screen.
You can see other members in Chicago by going here and clicking on “People.”
If you have a question or comment and want others to reply, click on “discussions” and “add a topic.”
I have been slowly but surely looking at member profiles and trying to reach out to see if you have specific areas you want to discuss with me. If you would like to connect, email me at email@example.com.
“She had blue skin,
And so did he.
He kept it hid
And so did she.
They searched for blue
Their whole life through,
Then passed right by-
And never knew.”
― Shel Silverstein, Every Thing on It
Jewish educators (including me) are constantly writing about interfaith families—how to engage them, what their challenges are, what this means for the current state and future of Judaism. I thought an interesting way into the conversation would be to record quotes I have heard this week. These quotes are taken from different people and were said in different venues—from adult education, to talking with parents and grandparents on the phone or in person, to capturing what my own child said during bedtime. These comments capture the range of the concerns people have. Some of them go to the heart of the work we do, and others bring up policy and programmatic challenges.
Rabbi Ari Moffic (left) leading a Jewish education discussion
What would your answers be to these questions or what would your follow-up questions be to these statements?
Things people have said to me this week:
“One of the big issues grandparents face when grandchildren aren’t being raised Jewish is our own guilt.”
“I don’t want to have to pass a litmus test to get a Jewish education for my children.”
“If God is in my heart, when does God come out? Does God sleep?” (From my four year old)
“We are so busy during the week that we don’t want to be away more from our child on Sunday mornings for drop-off religious school.”
“I want to drop off my child on Sundays and go get a coffee and read TheNew York Times.”
“The only way our priest would marry us was if we also had a rabbi and if we promised to pass on Judaism.”
“I am very concerned about burial issues that will come up for all of these interfaith couples who aren’t thinking about that yet.”
Twitter challenge for October: Tweet comments you hear other people say about life as an interfaith couple or family, things said at your Jewish programs or by your kids. Your words are the best conversation starters for us at InterfaithFamily!Follow us at @InterfaithFam and tag us in your comments with the hashtag #InterfaithQuotes.