An Interfaith Family’s Bar Mitzvah

Bar Mitzvah JonahI recently had the honor of working with an interfaith family as their son, Jonah, prepared for his Bar Mitzvah. Here are his powerful words which describe what the study, process and ceremony meant to him. His family is part of a Jewish community that gathers for the holidays, and Jonah is excited to be able to read Torah again.

The ceremony began with his grandfather putting a tallit (a prayer shawl) on Jonah’s shoulders. His grandfather explained to him that this tallit had been bought in Israel by his great grandfather. This tallit had been worn by Jonah’s grandfather and father. Now Jonah, as a Bar Mitzvah, wore the tallit with pride. His grandfather said that his hope is that Jonah would give the tallit to his son one day. Continuity.

Here is what Jonah had to say:

Shabbat Shalom! Thank you for supporting me and being with me and my family as I take on the role of becoming a Bar Mitzvah. Bar Mitzvah means son of the commandments. A child becomes a Bar Mitzvah whenever he chooses as long as he is 13 or older. Part of this rite of passage means that I am honored with more responsibility within the Jewish religion and among the Jewish people. I can now wear a prayer shawl called a tallit. I can now say the blessings before and after the Torah. I can now be counted in a prayer group. I can now take on mitzvot. I should also be doing more ethical and moral deeds such as honoring my parents and the elderly, helping the weak and vulnerable, visiting the sick and doing acts to help the hungry and poor.

This is my Bar Mitzvah because it is the first time that I will have the opportunity to read aloud from the Torah. To do this, I had to learn to read Hebrew and even harder, learn to read without vowels and with the fancy Torah script. This took much time to study and practice. To me learning about my Jewish heritage is very important because it shows the other side of my religion that has not been so clear to me. Since I’m neither fully Jewish nor a full catholic, I declare myself a “cashew.”  No, I’m not the nut cashew but the cashew that means I have grasped both of my religions and wish to continue both of them in the future. This is very important to me.

My Torah portion is from the book of Deuteronomy. It is part of the Torah that is also read on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the calendar, because this narrative is so powerful. It is about God saying to the people to never give up. Even if it is so far out of your reach you must never give up because one day you will reach it. Also, I will be reading a part of the book of Jonah, not me, the prophet. It is traditional on Shabbat morning to read from the Torah and from the Prophets. I picked Jonah for obvious reasons. He has a cool name! What I learned from the story of Jonah is to trust God no matter what the circumstances. For example, Jonah was sent to Nineveh by God, but chose to go somewhere else because Nineveh is so outrageously uncivilized. Jonah was then swallowed by a whale and then spit out after three days of prayer and regretting his decision to disobey God. He was spat out onto the land of Nineveh where he brought forth God’s warning to change or bare the wrath of annihilation. Jonah waited patiently for the annihilation of the people but it never came. The moral is that you should never lose trust in God and that God has forgiveness and caring.”

There is a debate in the Jewish world about whether families who want both religions in their lives can find a place within the organized community for learning and fellowship. I hope that by sharing this experience of a family who has sought out Jewish learning and living in real and meaningful ways, can help us think about how we might be able to open our gates a little more.

I wish you all a happy and healthy new year. May this be a year of getting to know the individuals who call us for information, or stop in for programming. It is through hearing each other’s stories and intentions, struggles, questions and yearnings that assumptions can be dropped and judgment held so that sharing can ensue.

10Q: Reflection for All

The following is a guest blog post by Dina Mann, National Marketing and Outreach Coordinator for Reboot, an organization that engages and inspires young, Jewishly-unconnected cultural creatives, innovators and thought-leaders who, through their candid and introspective conversations and creativity, generate projects that impact both the Jewish and non-Jewish worlds.

Reboot logoEvery Yom Kippur, Viduy (Confessions) is recited by congregations around the world as a way to reflect on sins we did. Most of them do not apply to many of the readers here (we hope!) and can often seem a little off-putting. (We stole, we have transgressed, we have sinned…) The siddur literally creates a poem about sinning that goes from A to Z.

With 10Q, Nicola Behrman, Ben Greenman and Amelia Klein sought to do something a little different. To create a space of personal digital reflection where the important things in life could be measured from year to year.

How does it work? Sign up for 10Q and receive 10 questions in your inbox over the 10 days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. After Yom Kippur the answers to your questions will be put in a vault and returned to you the following year before Rosh Hashanah. Measure how far you have progressed and how far you have to go in your life goals. Your answers can be made private or public.

That’s it.

Since 2008, thousands of people have had the opportunity to reflect from year to year, and the response on Facebook and Twitter spans from heartwarming to heart breaking. Take the time to read through other people’s past responses at doyou10q.com.

We encourage people of all faith traditions and backgrounds to sign up for 10Q to reflect, react and renew. You can even bring it to your community or attend a live 10Q event.

As 5774 approaches, take some personal time to weigh your year and add more meaning when we come together to reflect.

Be a Better Person

I, like you, receive a large number of email messages every day. Messages from list serves often go unopened and unread. However, I was intrigued by the headline: “It’s that time of the year when Craig n’ Company offers you free Inspiration for the holy days without the Guilt!”

I kept reading. Jewels of Elul Vol IX, The Art of Welcoming is a booklet featuring “Jewels” from a wide variety of esteemed contributors. I don’t usually respond to name dropping, but this time it worked. On the list I saw my childhood rabbi, music specialists I worked with throughout my career, Rabbis and communal leaders I really look up to – I was in! Of course, it took 12 days before I finally clicked on my first (second, third and fourth) messages from this group of esteemed Jewish leaders. I quickly found that each message truly is a jewel!

Jewels of Elul

I want to share with you an excerpt from email #9 in the series (you can sign up to receive Jewels one by one in your inbox), the words of Rabbi David Saperstein, Director and Legal Counsel for the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. His article, titled Treat The Stranger That There Be No Stranger posits the following:

For more than a century, American Jewry’s passionate effort to ensure that America was a welcoming country for immigrants was infused by powerful historical lessons. We were, of course, the quintessential immigrant people, fleeing from land to land, looking for those rare countries that would welcome and perhaps even protect us. Our effort was, as well, a reflection of biblical values. We take pride that the most oft-repeated command of our tradition is to treat the stranger as ourselves. But what of our own community and our synagogues?

In 1978, Rabbi Alexander Schindler vigorously called on us to reach out to “all who enter,” to open our congregations to intermarried families, later to the LGBT community, then to Jews through paternal descent. And then he called for our synagogues to become “caring communities” serving the actual needs of their members. There followed a different kind of welcoming as synagogues opened their hearts, doors and resources to absorb the deluge of “boat people” from Southeast Asia; Soviet Jews, Sudanese refugees, Ethiopian Jews all followed.

Along the way, there were efforts to make our synagogues more accessible to differently abled Jews whose physical and mental capabilities made integration into our schools, our services, our programs an often discomforting challenge… In this New Year, may we so treat the stranger that there be no stranger in America’s synagogues.

I am challenging each of us as individuals to do our part for our community (big or small, near or far, no matter how you define community). In this New Year, what will YOU do to enable the differently abled, to welcome the stranger, the new immigrant, interfaith families, LGBTQ? How will you help the poor or feed the hungry?

If each of us does one thing to help the world, we can embody tikkun olam (repairing the world) and become a stronger world because of our efforts. You may not be required to solve all the world’s problems, but neither can you desist from trying to do your part (adapted from Pirkei Avot, 2:21).

Moms and Membership

Moms

I recently had the honor of meeting five women who are due with their first babies in the fall (one brought her four week old). While none of them grew up Jewish, they are married to Jews and they want to create a home with Judaism (traditions, holidays, values) for their growing families. They all felt that their spouses did not have the literacy or resolve to accomplish this goal alone. They are seeking fellowship among other women in the same boat, and they are eager for their own Jewish learning and for ways into Jewish communal life.

Sitting with these women reminded me of a core truth of the work we do: Intermarriage is not the end of Judaism. Intermarriage does not mean the Jew is abandoning Judaism. Partners who aren’t Jewish are often open and ready to take on aspects of Jewish living, even though the learning curve is often so darn steep.

One of the moms-to-be said that they are ready to join a synagogue but that she “heard” the membership dues were $3,000. Someone else chimed in that there must be a lower rate for a new family or first time members. The first mom seemed hesitant to call the synagogue to find out.

On the High Holidays, synagogues will be filled with non-members. This is not a great term. InterfaithFamily suggests trying to avoid “non” in any kind of description about someone. We advocate saying “not Jewish” verses “non-Jew.” The people who are not dues paying members may be friends and family of members or they may have no connection to the congregation other than they bought a ticket. How can we tell all of these people that they already “belong?”

One idea is to have members say aloud the following words and to write them on literature that is handed out and on the homepage of every synagogue website: If you are interested in learning more about this open and warm community, please call (give the name and title of the membership person with his or her direct line and email). It is helpful to have a real person to call rather than have to search a website for membership information which is anonymous. We want our words to reflect a sentiment of welcome. If I were writing something, I would say:

If you are on this website looking for information about a place to come for Shabbat, to celebrate holidays, for classes and religious school, to meet friends or to do social justice work, join us. If you want to build a relationship with clergy who care about you, join us. Joining us isn’t about writing a check. It is about showing up when you want inspiration and fellowship, support and grounding. Whether you grew up with Judaism or not, whether you want introductory classes or higher level learning, whether you can read Hebrew or have never been to a synagogue, join us. We are a diverse group and this gives us strength and purpose. All are welcome. You can help support our congregational efforts at every level and means of giving.

I know there are lots of people studying new dues structures. This is not about a dues structure–fee for service, voluntary donations, etc. This is about the feeling of what it means to be a “member.”

Each of these five women and the new faces in synagogues over the next few weeks will make great synagogue members.

How to Be at Home in the Minority

Straddling two worlds, feeling like an outsider, taking on the identity of your family but still retaining your own—these are all difficult positions to be in, but familiar to many. In a recent blog post on Huffington Post, Rev. Eleanor Harrison Bregman talks about being a minister married to a Jew and raising Jewish children. She is often in the minority, but as she points out, she is just as uncomfortable when she is among other Christians, because of the lack respect for other religions she sometimes witnesses.

The author was recently at the Chautauqua Institute in western New York state. She found herself among many religious leaders, discussing topics of inclusiveness. There, post yoga-session, she found herself getting a very spiritual reminder of “what is possible when we can be confidently rooted in our own traditions enough to reach out, embrace, and learn from ‘the other.’”

You can read her blog post here.

Membership Has Its Benefits

Like many, I grew up in a community with lots of relatives and close family friends. I always knew that even though I wasn’t with my parents, there was always the likelihood (or inevitability) that there was a family friend or relative nearby. It definitely discouraged me from making a bad or embarrassing decision. More important, when I walked down the street, I felt loved and connected.

As a parent, I want that sense of connection for my kids. Though we are friends with some of our neighbors, our kids can no longer wander through the neighborhood as carelessly as we did 30 years ago. Our neighborhood doesn’t provide the same sense of a tight knit community as it did during my childhood. I know my neighbors well but I wouldn’t pick up the phone and call them for help when my washer breaks down.

Joining a synagogue was one of the first things that my husband and I did when we moved to our town. We didn’t know anyone and we felt like we needed an anchor. I have to say, it was one of the best decisions (and investments) we ever made. Developing close friendships within the synagogue took a few years but the more we participated, the more friends we made, and the more connected we felt. Through our synagogue membership, we became friends with people of all ages and backgrounds. Our kids know that they are being watched and loved. It is amazing to see that they appreciate this love of community even at a young age.

Synagogue event

Wendy, right, with synagogue friends

We have lots of friends outside of the synagogue and Jewish community, but those from our synagogue are particularly special to me. I think it’s because our shared experiences that there is a comfort level that can’t be matched. For all couples and families, including interfaith couples, finding a synagogue community with other couples or families exploring similar issues provides a place for dialogue, support and grounds for deeper friendship.

Several years ago I was on bedrest with my third child while my older two were still toddlers. The synagogue community stepped in to help by making meals, driving my kids and supporting me in ways that I never dreamt. Many of those that helped were people I barely knew before but became close friends just because they reached out to help.

My experience is not unique. This type of support is an added benefit of synagogue life. One friend was our synagogue president a few years ago. I once asked why she was doing all of this work for the synagogue. She replied that she had had cancer several years back and the synagogue community took care of her. She promised herself that she would “pay it forward” since people had been so good to her.

There are lots of benefits to synagogue membership but the most important one to me is community. You may not feel it the first time you walk through the door, but when it happens, there is nothing more valuable. If you would like to find out more about some welcoming synagogues in the Philadelphia area, visit our list of organizations. If you don’t see your synagogue on the Organizations tab of our Philadelphia page, but know it is a place that welcomes interfaith couples and families, email us at philadelphia@interfaithfamily.com.

Have you had a similar experience in your synagogue community? Please tell us about it in the comments section below.

What Does it Mean to Be Jewish?

I love questions that do not have one right answer. They allow each of us to explore the question and connect in our own way. Defining what it means to be Jewish is a perfect example. Close your eyes. What images come to mind when you think about what it means to be Jewish?

The InterfaithFamily staff from across the country (San Francisco, Chicago, Philadelphia and Boston) came together for two days of retreat and meetings in our national office. One of the first questions posed to us was “What does it mean to be Jewish?” In true retreat style, paper and markers were brought out and we each got to draw our own answer to this profound question.

What would you draw to show what it means to be Jewish?

Staff Day

I drew a picture of a home and, next to it, people holding hands in a circle. You may notice that my artistic ability is not amazing. My people took the form of stick figures and I showed diversity by using every color of marker that was available. As I started to think about how to explain my drawing to my colleagues, I realized you could “read” my picture from left to right like English, or from right to left like Hebrew.

In “English,” my drawing says that one needs Judaism in their home to transmit values and traditions to the next generation. Then, one needs a community to share those values and traditions. To deepen the connections and share the experiences. But my explanation didn’t stop there.

I thought about my own family’s history and that of many interfaith households. For them, Judaism often starts with the community, reading my picture in “Hebrew.” It is with this community and their support that each individual family can find Jewish traditions and values that they want to embrace. Often they don’t have the tools to do this on their own. For them the community aspect is imperative. And with a supportive community, Judaism can infuse into traditions in the home as well.

My colleagues came up with so many different interpretations. I’m curious what you imagine when you answer the question, “What does it mean to be Jewish?” Please share your thoughts in the comments section—and remember, there is not one “right” answer.

InterfaithFamily’s New Board Chair

Lynda Schwartz

New Board Chair, Lynda Schwartz

When I was asked to take the role of Board Chair for InterfaithFamily, the business executive in me weighed costs, benefits, risks and rewards. Ultimately, however, I gladly accepted, knowing that the work of InterfaithFamily is well worth an investment of time, energy and resources.

I’ve known the InterfaithFamily organization almost from its inception, first as a user of its resources, later on its Advisory Board, and most recently, as a Board member and Treasurer. I’ve long felt that Ed Case and the IFF management team are incredibly nimble, creative and committed. The team has a relentless focus on getting things done and an aggressive plan to broaden and deepen InterfaithFamily’s impact.

InterfaithFamily and its Board are deeply indebted to our immediate past Board Chair, Mamie Kanfer Stewart. Her five years of leadership have been a period of incredible growth, increasing organizational maturity and continued innovation. Mamie has always impressed me with her strategic thinking, her insightful approach and personal warmth.  Working with the Board and IFF’s management, she recently led us in developing a robust strategic plan that provides a clear road map for IFF’s future. I am conscious that she leaves a well-run organization, and very big shoes to fill.

After reflection, however, I realized that my investment in IFF is more personal. I remember too well the teary times when my Jewish husband and I used to struggle to reconcile our personal goals and objectives in a way that honored our traditions and faiths. When we married, I was not willing to convert to Judaism, but I was willing to learn, to study and to support my husband’s observance.

Now, I am helping our twins grow from bris and baby naming to b’nai mitzvah (this coming spring!) and hopefully, Jewish adulthood. Over time, my family and I have become fully engaged in our local synagogue community. I still have so much to learn, but I think our family is a joy and a “net positive” for the Jewish community.

Intermarriage is a reality in the Jewish world, affecting every community, and extending beyond federation, denomination or geographic boundaries. In the same way, IFF is reaching across boundaries to help interfaith families more fully engage in exploration of Judaism.

For me, the investment proposition is clear: I want all families like mine to have the resources, support and welcome that were such a help to mine. Each family walks its own path, and I am glad that IFF inspires families to greater engagement with Judaism and the Jewish community from wherever they start. It is work of immense value, and as its new Board Chair, I am pleased to have a chance to play a greater part.

Boxed In: The Call in Option

FormsIt’s that time of the summer when we need to register for fall activities. This blog is a request to synagogues administrators, Jewish preschool and day school directors and program providers to look at your enrollment forms, preferably with a participant who isn’t Jewish to figure out how to best ask questions to get the information that is needed and to leave the one filling it out with a sense that they are meant for this program.

When we ask people to fill out enrollment forms for religious school and synagogue membership and to sign up for Jewish programs, the forms may seem clear-cut and simple to us, yet feel frustrating to the person filling it out. We need to figure out what we want to know and then try to ask questions in a way to gather that information. We need to know what we want to do with the information we collect and let the person filling out the form know why we are asking the question so that they know what information to provide.

For instance, one question that congregations usually want answered on forms is whether the parents are Jewish and if not, what religion they grew up with or now identify as. Sometimes the choices are: Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Secular, Traditional, Other. The “other” category is for someone who didn’t grow up Jewish. Maybe some wouldn’t mind checking “other” to describe themselves. I imagine some would feel other and different just from this seeming innocuous registration question.

Synagogues and program leaders may need to know whether the parents are Jewish for halachic (legal) reasons in terms of matrilineal or patrilineal descent. They may want to know this to better understand the make-up of the program or congregation. Maybe they will seek to bring together people with similar backgrounds.

As we all know, the simple question of: “State the religion of parent 1 and parent 2” can be complicated.

Here is an excerpt of an email I received which illustrates the messiness and wonderfulness of this all:

“I was raised in a culturally Jewish household and have never received any religious education. My father was raised Catholic, but since marrying my mother has become very interested in the Jewish faith. We often joke he is the most Jewish out of all of us despite not being raised so. My partner was raised with slightly more religious Jewish education and went to a reconstructionist temple and attended some Sunday School and Hebrew school. She had a bat mitzvah but does not currently attend temple. Both of her parents are Jewish and her dad still attends temple for high holidays. Cultural traditions are more important to her then religious aspects.”

We love simple labels and easy check-offs. This helps us with tracking and data entry. However, maybe instead of boxes to check and short lines to write answers to profound questions, we need to leave room on forms for people to call in their answers. The call-in option would connect the person registering to the teacher or leader so that they could engage in a conversation of meaning.

If you are a program administrator and help create forms, visit our Resource Center for Program Providers to find best practices in terms of enrollment forms and website language.

Mazel Tov Rabbi Moffic!

We at IFF are excited to share the news that Rabbi Ari Moffic, our director of InterfaithFamily/Chicago has just been named one of the 36 Under 36 by Oy!Chicago and the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago‘s Young Leadership Division. Oy!Chicago is an outreach website for Chicago 20- and 30-somethings. The community-minded organization shares ideas, conversations and events in Chicago. Their second annual 36 Under 36 list highlights 36 people in the Chicago Jewish community who are improving the world.

OyChicago

Rabbi Ari Moffic is an energetic member of our team at InterfaithFamily who reaches out to the Jewish community in Chicago to train, welcome and inform about the issues facing interfaith families and couples. We’re proud of the work she does, and this honor is well deserved.

To learn more about InterfaithFamily/Chicago, click here. Access our resources for parents in Chicago and learn about our Love and Religion workshop for seriously dating or newly married couples.