Writing a Religious School Pledge for All Families

From the moment I left the Kallah that we co-lead with the Community Foundation for Jewish Education, I haven’t stopped thinking about it.

One piece that I have been giving a lot of thought to is what I would write in my religious school handbook concerning interfaith families if I were still the Director of Education at an area congregation. Religious school handbooks typically have information about snacks served (for families concerned about allergies), information about carpool and pick up lines, the school attendance policy, dress code, how to make up work if classes are missed, whether students are required to attend religious services, and expectations about behavior. None of the schools in the area seem to have a policy for working with interfaith families. Some schools felt that there does not need to be a separate policy because it isolates interfaith families as having special needs and makes them feel different than, and not part of, the community.

I think interfaith families often do have special needs and the more we are sensitive to them, and explicit about meeting their needs, the better we do at bringing all of our families into the deeper layers of what it means to really be part of the community.

Here are my thoughts about what this part of my handbook would say:   

A Pledge for All of Our Families:

We know that we have families where one parent is not Jewish and yet is living a Jewish life, creating a Jewish home and raising Jewish children. We know that we have families in which one parent is not Jewish and still practices a different religion and yet is supportive of the children being raised with Judaism in the home and in their lives. We know that we have families in which one parent has chosen Judaism for himself or herself  as an adult and, while not having childhood memories of Judaism, finds Judaism to be the language by which he or she understands and engages with the world personally. We know that we have families in which one or both parents grew up in interfaith homes themselves and have varying degrees of Jewish education and memories of experiencing Judaism. We have families in which both parents were born into homes of two Jewish parents and are in need of and desire a deeper Jewish education as adults. And we have families that are some combination of these descriptions and have even different layers to their religious stories. This pledge is for all of our families:

  1. We pledge to make Judaism accessible. This means that we will translate every Hebrew or Yiddish word into English. This means that we will offer adult Hebrew classes so that you can learn to read Hebrew and gain a sense of the beauty and richness of this ancient language yourself. We will offer adult education classes from the introductory level to the intermediate levels and beyond. We will offer Learner’s Services so that anybody can learn the choreography of the  Friday night and Saturday morning worship services and understand the order of the liturgy, the history of the prayers, and be able to contemplate modern meanings for us today. We will offer family education so that you can learn with your children and have Jewish experiences with your children that will touch your senses and stay with you for years to come. We will offer ways to participate in mitzvot (commandments, ethical and religious living) from rituals to our ethical mandates of social justice. We will offer ways for individuals, couples and families to fully participate with this synagogue community in all aspects of Judaism because we affirm that Jewish living adds meaning, purpose, joy and order to our lives and a sense of rootedness and connectedness that we are all seeking.
  2. We pledge to interact with the children in our religious school and Hebrew school with respect, understanding and empathy, and with an openness to hearing what their experience in our program is. When children speak about celebrating non-Jewish holidays with family members, attending church or other houses of worship with family members, talk about feeling “half and half” in terms of their religious identity, wondering aloud about Jesus or other aspects of another religion in their lives, their comments will be met with respect. Comments will not be swept under the rug, but will be addressed aloud for the class because there are others in the room wondering the same things. Discussions can be had at times that will benefit all in the room about the diversity of the Jewish community, the common threads in the families, what it means to have Judaism as part of your identity and more.
  3. We want to know our families. Please help us get to know you by sharing your own religious stories. Let us know what you “do” in your home for religion, questions you have, challenges you have, and how we can better understand where you are coming from, what’s important to you for your children to absorb in this Jewish setting, and whether we can help bring families together for deeper communal experiences.

If you are reading this and send your children to religious school, what would you think of having such a statement in your school’s handbook? If you are reading this and are in Jewish education, could you imagine using pieces of this?

Interfaith Family Shabbat- Total Joy

Friday, January 13, we hosted a JCC Makor Shabbat for Interfaith Families with Young Children, a community dinner organized by the JCC Shure Kehilla. The guidelines for the dinner we hosted were that participants need to be 21-39, and some of the parents who came to our house were pushing this, but everyone loved the idea of a program whose aim is to connect this cohort with great Jewish happenings all around Chicagoland. The night we held our interfaith family Shabbat, there were three other community Shabbat dinners organized by the Kehilla happening in the city (blue-line Shabbat, travelers Shabbat, music and arts) and another taking place out in Wheeling.
 
Preparing to host this Shabbat was exciting and inspiring. Typically our family lights the candles, takes a sip of wine or juice, and eats some challah. We parents then whispered a blessing to our children while holding their heads in our hands (my favorite part of the whole week) and then Evan runs off to lead services at Congregation Solel and I put our two-year-old and four-year-old to bed. 

For this Shabbat, however, we were having four other couples with their combined eight children to our home for blessings, dinner, schmoozing and playing. I started by getting the whole house organized and cleaned up (which actually felt really good to do).  Then I went to Taboun Grill to pick up the food the JCC had ordered. When I got there, I met Genia who runs the Russian Hillel. I have known Genia in name for years through the work I have done in and around Odessa, Ukraine, but she didn’t know me. I was so excited to learn that she had become a Jewish professional in Chicago. I got to connect with her in person over some tea while we waited for our orders to be packed. (Genia was hosting the Wheeling Shabbat for Jews in the ‘Burbs, another of these community dinners organized through the Kehilla.) We talked about interfaith couples in the Russian community and what she is seeing in terms of identity and interests of her students.
 
Back home, we were still expecting four families to join us. One is made up of my childhood friend. We had lost touch and reconnected on Facebook a couple of years ago, only to find out that we both lived in Chicago with children the same age. She is married to someone not Jewish and they are raising Jewish kids, have a Jewish home, belong to a synagogue, send their son to the preschool there and celebrate Shabbat weekly with her husband’s family, who now loves Shabbat as well! One couple lives right next door to us and are still deciding what feels comfortable to them in terms of raising their children with Judaism. The husband, who is Jewish, has a long-time family connection to a temple here, and they say they will join a temple and send their children to religious school. Another couple included a mom who had converted to Judaism; they are raising two Jewish boys. They seek out anything family-oriented that is Jewish. The last couple has one partner who is Jewish and one partner who is Catholic; they are raising their children with an appreciation of both faiths. This shows the spectrum of interfaith families and the different decisions families make. There was a warmth and almost palpable holiness in the room when we said the blessings and prayed that our children stay safe and know peace. Everybody loved the food, parents enjoyed meeting each other, and the kids had a blast running around our basement building with blocks, dressing up and playing games. Our four-year-old told us that she loved our Shabbat party.
 
This was the most joyous Shabbat we have had in a long time. Evan and I said to each other that we should try to have families over at least once a month. Some families regularly have guests over and know this kind of energy and spirit weekly! Since we have had children, we don’t host guests nearly as much or enough. Shabbat is the perfect chance to bring people together in your home and feel the stress of the week slide away, to let time not matter for a few hours, to laugh and to feel connected. That is how we felt. We felt connected. Connected to generations and traditions of the past, connected to our neighbors, connected to our children… Connected to the new way we are going to “do” Shabbat, the traditions we are going to establish as parents now (different from what we grew up with). I loved every minute of our JCC Makor Shabbat for Interfaith Families with Children. In Hebrew each day of the week counts up to Shabbat (day one, day two, day three…), and now I know why in a way I hadn’t remembered for quite a long time…

October News Hodgepodge

It’s been a while since I last blogged in hodgepodge style. With the fall holidays (Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, sukkot/Sukkot_and_Simchat_Torah.shtml">Sukkot and Simchat Torah) behind us, a new year begun and so many interesting things happening the the Jewish community and wider communities around us, it seemed like a great time to share some interesting articles and blog posts that I’ve come across. Let me know what you think!

1.  In the Creation story in Genesis (the first book of the Torah), we read that a snake tricked Eve into tasting a “forbidden fruit” (and she, in turn, gave it to Adam to eat). On DovBear, they wonder what the unnamed fruit might have been. With 125 comments so far, this is far from an easy question to answer. Apple? Maybe. Figs? Perhaps. What about a pomegranate?

2.  You may remember that last year, we were asking you to vote for InterfaithFamily.com’s CEO, Ed Case, for Jewish Community Hero. No, I’m not going to ask you to vote for him again. Instead, I’m going to share a list of nominees you might want to vote for this year, all of whom are “heroes for their justice work combating racism, poverty and injustice.” The list, posted to Jewschool, was compiled by Kung Fu Jew (who admits to wearing “New York-tinted glasses”).

3.  There’s a lot going on with the Occupy movement that is specifically Jewish. First, Keith Olbermann debunks the anti-Semitic charges of Occupy Wall Street (the relevant part starts at the 1 minute mark). Now then, with that settled, let’s look at some of the amazing Jewish practices coming out of the Occupy movement. This long, personal piece by Avi Fox-Rosen examines his reasons for being involved with leading the Kol Nidre service at Occupy Wall Street, and how it played his “incredibly ambivalent” Jewishness and atheism off his enjoyment of ritual and “traditional cantorial a capella singing” (known as chazzanus). And on Jewschool, a bit about how there came to be Jewish practice at Occupy Wall St, Occupy K St and elsewhere.

4.  Many organizations, including ours, examine statistics, look to data to know if we’re having an impact. One such source was the last national Jewish population survey, done in 2000-2001. Over ten years later, another study hasn’t come along to update those numbers. Gary Rosenblatt, in The Jewish Week, asks, How Many U.S. Jews, And Who Cares?

5.  You know who cares? Pat Buchanan. And he seems to have it all figured out. “In his new book, Suicide Of A Superpower, Pat Buchanan takes a look at the Jewish population of the United States and concludes that Americans Jews are disappearing because they decided, as a group, to have lots and lots of abortions.” Seriously. He blames the Jewish women who were among the leaders of the feminist movement and… oy, just read about it all here.

6.  And in Israel a campaign has been launched, encouraging “parents of non-Jewish children to inform them of their [non-Jewish] status in childhood.” This stems from patrilineal descent, largely among Israel’s Russian population. And the implication, according to the campaign, is that patrilineal descent Jews are finding out that they’re “not Jewish” as adults, which means they need to convert to Judaism in order to get married. I wonder if this is a common issue or discovery in North America, where the Reform movement also holds by patrilineal descent?

And there you go. Recent news in a nutshell.

Attention all Beatles Fans!

Attention all Beatles fans! That favorite of all tween and teen girls of the 60′s (confession: that would be me!) has chosen to be a Jew.

PAUL MCCARTNEY, baptized Roman Catholic but admittedly never very devout, quietly told pals after his marriage to socialite NANCY SHEVELL – who’s Jewish and takes her religion seriously – that he’s studying Judaism and promised his new bride he’ll convert, reports a friend of the star. The former Beatle’s first wife, LINDA EASTMAN, came from a prominent Jewish family and McCartney had talked about converting after they married, but just never got around to it. Paul told pals he’ll complete his conversion studies next year.

Dare we hope that he starts to write songs with Jewish themes?? I don’t usually care about what stars of stage, screen and music are doing, but this is different. (And we can trust the National Enquirer with this story, right?)

JDate & The Search for Mr. Right

I suppose my desire to rejoin JDate was reinforced yesterday in an InterfaithFamily.com staff meeting while discussing our new 401K plan.  The sign up form was simple – but all I could see were two boxes looming at me:

    “Check here for Married.” 
    “Check Here for NOT MARRIED.” 

It was like a flashing beacon in the room.  I was the only unmarried one (well, unless you count Benjamin, but he’s got one foot down the aisle with his lovely fiancée).  So, I thought to myself, “It’s time to get back on the horse.”

It’s been a while since I’ve been on JDate.  I had taken a breather to move apartments, start a new job at IFF, and you know, smell the roses.

JDate has changed since I first joined (let’s just say….) many years ago.  I think one of the best changes is that it now offers the option for non-Jews to join the site and can choose one of the following as the “religion” option:

It appears that this was an important shift with JDate.  According to its mission, JDate is “deeply committed to Israel and Jewish cultural programs” but also provides “support for numerous non-profit organizations of all faiths.” With about 50% of the population intermarrying, this is an important option for those of us still looking for Mr. or Ms. Right.  For support and more information on interdating, visit here.

I’m off to find my Mr. Right.

In Other News…

Three stories of interest to readers of InterfaithFamily.com:

Kansas!

The new president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Kansas City, Miriam Scharf, is on the right track.

In addition to other goals, like education and resource development, she plans to make “welcoming interfaith families a priority”:

“Studies show that in some communities as many as 50 percent of Jewish families are interfaith,” she said. “In a community like Kansas City, I think we can do a better job of addressing some of the needs that interfaith families have, engaging the interfaith family in Jewish community activities and making them feel welcome.”

Miriam, if you need any help, we’re here for you and your community.


Speaking up for Jews by Choice

Writing in Haaretz, Rabbi Michael Knopf busts myths about Jews by Choice (aka, converts to Judaism). He lays out possible historical reasons for being skeptical, or even critical, of those who convert (or want to convert) to Judaism. But his bottom line?

But here is the truth: A Jew by Choice is just as Jewish as any Jew by Birth. For over two millennia, this has been the normative position of the Jewish tradition toward those brave and blessed souls who have chosen to become part of the Jewish people.

It is a position that has its pedigree in Talmudic law (Babylonian Talmud, Yevamot 47), and, according to many scholars, likely predates the Mishna itself.

Although the sincerity of any potential convert must be ascertained prior to bringing them into the Jewish fold, once they emerge from the mikveh (the ritual bath), they are a Jew in every way.

When a convert becomes Jewish, it is irrevocable. The Talmud, Maimonides, Jacob ben Asher, and Joseph Caro (to name but a few) all agree that conversion means a complete shedding of non-Jew status; a Jew by Choice is as fully Jewish as any Jew by Birth.

Thanks for reiterating this, rabbi. Let’s hope that more people hear your message and treat all of us, by choice or by birth, equally.


Chinese Jews

I was surprised to stumble across an article about the “who’s a Jew” debate in the Wall Street Journal. The Jews of the Chinese town of Kaifeng followed patrilineal descent (“Kaifeng Jews trace their heritage through their father, as Chinese traditionally do”). But when they visit Israel, or get in touch with the Chabad House in Beijing, they’re told they’re not actually Jewish (“They may stem from Jewish ancestry, but they aren’t Jewish,” says Rabbi Shimon Freundlich, who runs the orthodox Chabad House in Beijing. “There hasn’t been a Jewish community in Kaifeng in 400 years.”).

Except there is one, though it’s divided and diminished. Somewhere between 500 and 1,000 people in the city say they are descendants of Kaifeng Jews and cling to at least some Jewish traditions. A canvas poster at No. 21 Teaching the Torah Lane announces the street as the site of a synagogue that was destroyed in an 1860 flood and never rebuilt. Inside a tiny courtyard house, “Esther” Guo Yan works as a tour guide and sells knick-knacks decorated with Jewish stars.

When tourists stop by, she quizzes them on Jewish ceremonies, like what prayers to say when lighting Sabbath candles. She says she hasn’t yet managed to fast a full day on Yom Kippur, though she is trying. As the granddaughter of a Kaifeng Jew, she says the orthodox standard on Judaism is unfair: “We read the Torah with Eastern thoughts; deal with it.”

The first Jewish merchants arrived when Kaifeng was in its heyday as the Song dynasty capital. They married the local women and rose to become mandarins and military officials. Over the centuries they blended in ethnically and were forgotten by the world until 1605, when a Jewish scholar from Kaifeng, Ai Tien, met Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci in Beijing. The missionary then spread the news that Jews had been living in China for centuries.

The Kaifeng Jewish population is thought to have peaked at around 5,000, but by the early 1900s, none could read Hebrew and the community’s Torah scrolls were sold to collectors. Jews were called “the Muslims with the blue caps,” referring to the color of the yarmulkes some still wore.

“In our family, we didn’t eat pork, that’s for sure,” says Nina Wang, a 24-year-old Kaifeng native who now lives in Israel and underwent orthodox Jewish conversion. The family had menorahs and Sabbath cups, she said, “but we didn’t know what to do with those things.”

It’s a really interesting read about a community not known to many of us!

Celebrity Updates: Ivanka and Gwyneth

Despite the frequency with which I blog about them, I actually have little care about celebrities’ lives. But they keep coming up in the news, saying things of relevance to intermarriage, interfaith families, so I guess I’ll have to keep blogging…

First, mazal tov to Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner on the birth of their daughter on July 17.

The AP tells us,

Kushner is the owner of the New York Observer newspaper. He and Trump wed in 2009. She converted to Judaism before the wedding.

They’ve named their daughter Arabella Rose. I’m not quite sure where the name fits on the bizarre-celeb-baby-name chart, though it’s certainly saner than “Alef” (and has been described as “exotic” by Donald Trump).

If you want to follow the goings on in the Trump/Kushner home, Ivanka’s tweeting, starting with this one from Arabella’s second day:

Jared and I are having so much fun playing with our daughter! Arabella Rose is beyond adorable. She’s truly a blessing.

The next update is about Gwyneth Paltrow, a regular feature in our interfaith celebrities column.

An =http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-2016674/Gwyneth-Paltrow-Ill-raise-Apple-Moses-Jewish.htmlarticle in the Daily Mail reveals,

She once claimed that she did not believe in religion.

But now Gwyneth Paltrow has revealed she wants to raise her children in the Jewish faith, following an appearance on the ancestry programme Who Do You Think You Are

The American actress, whose late father was Jewish film producer Bruce Paltrow, was moved to discover earlier this year on the show that her family came from a long line of influential East European rabbis.

And this has inspired her to raise daughter Apple, seven, and five-year-old son Moses in a Jewish environment, she told guests of a London event hosted by Jewish charity the Community Security Trust.

Her decision is a far cry from comments she made last year about her experience of being raised as both Jewish and Christian.

‘It was such a nice way to grow up,’ she said, but later added: ‘I don’t believe in religion. I believe in spirituality. Religion is the cause of all the problems in the world.’

Gwyneth, if you need any resources for yourself, your husband or your family, we’re here for you.

On Dame Elizabeth Taylor z”l and Conversion

Yesterday, the world lost an actress, an activist and a humanitarian when rabbi">Elizabeth Taylor died, at age 79.

She was really one of the first people in the public eye to take on the AIDS epidemic and embrace those living with HIV and AIDS. She took some of the fear away, and led a fight that still survives.

Late in life she became a social activist. After her friend Rock Hudson died, she helped establish the American Foundation for AIDS Research and helped raise money for it. In 1997, she said, “I use my fame now when I want to help a cause or other people.”

She was a really remarkable woman.

Increasingly, Ms. Taylor divided her time between her charitable works (including various Israeli causes) and commercial enterprises, like a line of perfumes marketed under her name. She helped raise more than $100 million to fight AIDS. In February 1997, she celebrated her 65th birthday at a party that was a benefit for AIDS research. After the party Ms. Taylor entered Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles for an operation on a brain tumor. (From the NYTimes obit.)

Elizabeth Taylor also converted to Judaism over 50 years ago, sometime between her marriage to Mike Todd and wedding Eddie Fisher*. Fisher was Jewish, so it’s possible that she converted to marry him. 

Which got me thinking: How common were conversions circa 1958/1959?

In the book of Ruth, Naomi tried to get Ruth to go back to her own people 3 times before Ruth became a part of the Hebrew people. As a result, some rabbis “reject” a potential convert three times before discussing conversion with them. In 1950s Hollywood, did Taylor have to do that? And how did that take less than a year?

Today, it’s common for conversion to take at least a year (at least two years in many cases). And for many individuals it’s an even longer process than that, between deciding to explore Judaism, talking with a rabbi, taking conversion classes, and finally taking the dip in the mikvah (or otherwise completing the process). How did Dame Elizabeth convert in under a year? Was that the norm back then?

*This got the office excited, so I’ve got to include a footnote: Eddie Fisher was married to Debbie Reynolds, who wasn’t Jewish. Together, they had two children: Carrie and Todd (quite probably named after Elizabeth’s husband, Mike Todd, who died around the time of Todd’s birth). Eddie ended his marriage to Debbie to marry Elizabeth. Elizabeth is Carrie’s step-mother (maybe). But more importantly: Princess Leia is from an interfaith family!

More Who Is a Jew

A month ago I blogged about the “who is a Jew” questionthat arose from the tragic attack on Gabrielle Giffords. My main point was this:

It behooves everyone in the Jewish community, Orthodox included, to regard Gabrielle Giffords as a Jew for all purposes except where halachic status matters. Many would say that the entire community benefits from having a staunch supporter of Israel in the US Congress, for example. When halachic status is important, it can be dealt with. A Jew to whom halachic status is important in a marriage partner, for example, can choose not to marry someone who does not measure up to his or her halachic standards, or the non-halachic Jew can convert according to those same standards. It would be a major advance if the idea took hold that the Jewish community consists of Jews who are halachic and who are not halachic and that issues of halachic status could be dealt with when they arise.

The Forward issue dated today has two related articles of interest. My former colleague Rabbi Sue Fendrick, in Beyond ‘Yes or No’ Jewishness,
seems to agree with me. She makes the interesting point that the State of Israel recognizes the advantages of distinguishing “Jewish for what purpose?” – the state’s eligibility rules for immigration and for ritual status are different. I loved her statement,

… we gain nothing by ignoring or failing to name the ways that an individual’s Jewishness “counts” – whether they live a Jewish life and identify as a Jew, come from a Jewish family or are “half-Jewish,” or are simply identified by other Jews as being “one of us.” … Simple yes/no definitions of Jewishness are inadequate to the task of naming reality. We need to make room for descriptions that tell us about Jewishness as it is, not obscure its realities and complexities.

Rabbi Andy Bachman, in Patrilineal Promise and Pitfalls, suggests that children raised as Jews who are not considered Jews outside of the Reform movement because their mothers are not Jewish should be taken to the mikveh for conversion by Reform rabbis by the age of Bar of Bat Mitzvah. The problem with that approach is that the Jews who don’t consider those children Jewish, wouldn’t recognize such a conversion if it were under Reform auspices. If Reform conversions were so recognized, I would be in favor of this kind of process, or even of incorporating conversion into a bris or baby naming ceremony. Sadly this is not in the cards.

House, MD

How did I miss this when it originally aired?

I was watching a backlog of House episodes, when I came to the episode “Larger Than Life”, which originally aired on January 17, 2011. I was impressed by the interfaith dating questions that came up.

For those who don’t know. Dr. Lisa Cuddy (Jewish, played by Lisa Edelstein) is dating Dr. Gregory House (who, in this episode, declares himself an atheist and is played by Hugh Laurie). Cuddy’s mother, Arlene  (played by Candice Bergen), visits the couple – and meets House for the first time. We learn that she had converted to Judaism to marry Cuddy’s father.

Anyway. They’re all having dinner together, and Bergen asks, “if you were to marry, would you (House) convert to Judaism?” House explains that it’s a little early to be thinking of such things. His best friend, Dr. Wilson, who is also at the meal, jumps in, “actually, that’s really interesting…”

Cuddy’s mother doesn’t see House’s atheism as reason not to convert. “Half the Jews I know are atheists,” she replies. Adding, “it’s about community.”

House, being House, manages to evade the discussion as only he can.

But it made me think: is there such a thing as too early to talk about religious differences in a relationship? Were Cuddy and House real people, and not just characters on a television program, what would we tell them? I’d hope they’d talk about what their expectations were of one another, how they viewed their relationship, plan on spending holidays  together. And I’d suggest they take a look at Issues Interfaith Families Confront, Plus Six Tips for Couples Considering Intermarriage in addition to our other resources for couples interdating.