What Makes Us…Us

Topsfield FairI spent a recent autumn Sunday at the Topsfield Fair, in Topsfield, MA. I was expecting a day of food and rides and perhaps a huge pumpkin or two. I didn’t expect to gain a bit of perspective on diversity. As it happens, I got both.

The road to my grandparent’s house seemed never-ending, over many rivers and through several woods we drove. But, when we got off Interstate 95 onto Route 1, I knew we were close. No matter what time of year, this smaller two-lane road was beautiful. In the spring, the trees were just starting to bud and the colors in the fall were spectacular. Every time we drove to my grandparent’s house for a visit, I would feel the excitement in my stomach while driving along Route 1. And every time we made this four-hour journey, we would pass the Topsfield Fair grounds as we edged closer to Ipswich. And every time we passed the Topsfield Fair grounds, it seemed that the fair would be coming up soon or had just ended. I missed it every time.

So when I moved to Boston earlier this year and the trek to visit my family was a mere 30 minutes rather than four hours, I passed the fairgrounds many times and decided that finally, after decades of being deprived of the experience, I was going to the Topsfield Fair.

Giant pumpkinThe Topsfield Fair has been in existence since 1818 and was and remains today an experience in Americana. I saw a gigantic pumpkin and award-winning vegetables, huge and wacky looking chickens, pig races and a petting zoo. I played carnival games that looked like they were from a bygone era and watched someone deep fry butter. I marveled at beautiful quilts and some lovely local photography and was amazed at the sheer volume and variety of food, everywhere. I was especially delighted by the B’nai Brith food tent offering everything from matzah ball soup and homemade noodle kugel to potato pancakes and hot dogs! I sipped on perfect apple cider and just walked around finally enjoying my Topsfield Fair experience.

Beyond all of the fair offerings, I was taken by the diversity of fair goers. Every type of person went to the fair, every ethnic groups and socio-economic levels, young and old, those with disabilities, first timers and seasoned veterans, locals and transplants and everything in between. Not only was the fair a true slice of home grown Americana but the people who populated the fair seemed to be a true representation of America in all of her diverse glory.

Bnai Brith

Welcome to America. This is who we are. This lovely quaint fair reminiscent of that bygone era is the melting pot, a place for fun and family but more important, a representation of how we all somehow fit together.

Whether interfaith or intercultural, whether you scarfed down that kosher hot dog or tried some chocolate covered bacon in the booth next door, the things that bring us together far outweigh those that make us different and it turns out, everyone loves a fair. What an unexpected pleasure to encounter this reality that we all live amongst but rarely get to truly admire. Our diversity is what makes us strong, what makes us interesting, what makes us, us.

Jewish Genes: Are They in Our DNA or in Our Stories?

Mychal with map

Where are you from? It seems an innocent enough question. But as our families become more and more diverse, the answer can get wonderfully complicated. Recently at a “Saturdays Unplugged” event at the Jewish Community Center in San Francisco, I asked attendees about their ancestry and invited them to place pins in a world map marking their families’ journeys.

The map shows that a sampling of Jewish San Francisco families come from Argentina, Cyprus, Lithuania and China to name a few countries of origin. As kids turned to their parents and grandparents asking, “Where am I from?” I started to think about how complicated this question is.

So I asked one of my own kids: “Do you know where you’re from?” He started breaking it down into “sides” immediately. “Mama, your side is from Poland and Russia, right? Mommy’s side is from Germany, Scotland, Finland…” I was glad he added her ancestry without hesitation even though I gave birth to him and he isn’t biologically related to her. Clearly, where someone is from is not as easy as a DNA test. As he continued rattling off the countries where he felt he had a connection, I realized that I also hoped he would list his sperm donor’s ancestry. After all, he wouldn’t be here without him. So we added those to the mix. This child who was birthed by me, an American Jew with only Eastern European ancestry, can now identify himself with a good portion of Europe.

What about my other child? He was birthed by my partner, a mix of Northern European ancestry who converted to Judaism long before his birth. Along with those regions of the world, does this little boy also claim an Ashkenazi heritage? He certainly claims a Jewish one and our Jewish practice is largely Ashkenazi…but is he “from” Eastern Europe as my ancestors were?

Jews have long disagreed about what exactly Judaism is: a matter of biology, peoplehood, civilization, religion or ethnicity. Even early on in Jewish history, there were at least two strands of thought: Being Jewish was in some instances about claiming a certain lineage, and at other times about observance of a spiritual tradition. The first line of reasoning made it very difficult to join, for example, while the latter made it much easier to choose to identify as a Jew even if one wasn’t born one.

One scholar notes that tension ensued due to these “two distinct definitional standards…the religious and the ethnic.” [Porton, Gary. The Stranger Within Your Gates] We still struggle with those definitions, but today, with more and more conversion, intermarriage, adoption, donor insemination and surrogacy, we are moving away from a genetic definition (in my eyes a welcome shift) to a Judaism defined more as an affinity with a unique worldview. A lineup of kids at a typical Bay Area synagogue classroom is quite different than it would have looked 40 years ago when I was a kid.

A few years back, I worked with college students to create a photo exhibit of their peers who claim multiple ancestries. It was called, “Jews Untitled” and they challenged visitors to the exhibit to rethink the way they defined “Jewish” and allowed Jews to create their own self definitions. With the diversification of Jewish families, we asked one another how we can best teach children about their mix of rich backgrounds. How can we help Jews claim and take pride in their multitude of heritages? And how can we make sure that the entire Jewish community is engaging in this conversation as well?

I imagine us having an infinite capacity to claim a variety of stories as our own. I was recently at an author event for the book Just Parenting about creative family making. One participant with an adopted child told the group that she tossed out a baby book she had been given because on the first page there was a picture of a family tree to fill in. She was so overwhelmed by the challenge of fitting her child’s family story into a neatly defined map with two “sides” that she decided it needed to go.

For many of us, two “sides” doesn’t tell the full story of our origins and our affiliations. An Ashkenazi Jewish friend of mine adopted a child from China with her Filipino husband. The child says of herself at age 7, “I’m half Chinese, half Filipino, half American, and half Jewish.”  She has four sides! But, really, who doesn’t? We all have more complicated stories than “two sides” allows. She’s a model of how we can comfortably hold many identities within us.

BBYO Teens: Leadership of the Future

Staff at BBYO training

Wendy and Robyn (second and third from left) with BBYO trainees

I recently went to B’nai B’rith Perlman Camp to conduct a Sensitivity Training on being respectful of kids from interfaith homes with Rabbi Robyn Frisch for the B’nai Brith Youth Organization (BBYO) Kallah program. It was exciting to meet teenagers from all over the world attending this program where they can study about Judaism and learn how to work with groups of their peers. These teens are the future leaders of colleges, of non-profits and of businesses.

BBYO training

Teens participating in a training activity

We began our training with a discussion of whether the teens participating ever felt “different” in their community. The conversation then moved to the topic of different ways to handle potentially awkward situations regarding interfaith families. The teens had great ideas about respecting one another and not criticizing others even if they saw someone criticizing another peer. We were very impressed when one of the teens talked about creating a program to alleviate some of the ignorance that was occurring around them.

We then discussed how even if you don’t know all the answers, asking questions can educate you and empower someone who might feel awkward or not included. The process of asking questions can make someone go from feeling vulnerable to proud of their situation. We all agreed that an awkward situation can become a learning opportunity if people use non-judgmental questions to deflate the tension.

The teens were so incredibly respectful to us and one another. They were very welcoming regarding interfaith and diversity issues. We discussed awkward situations that might happen in school or with new members of BBYO. We all agreed that respecting others and even respecting the person who may be less educated/more judgmental is vital.

I clearly remember being a participant at this program many years ago and have many fond memories. I remember being exposed to many new concepts and finding my voice as a Jewish teen. The BBYO Kallah program is a unique leadership opportunity for all teens looking to explore their Jewish heritage. I hope that InterfaithFamily helped these teens find their voice regarding interfaith issues.

Finding a Jewish Community that Feels Like Home

HBT mother and daughter

Photo courtesy of HBT

Temple Hillel B’nai Torah (HBT) is a Reconstructionist congregation located in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, a middle-class Boston neighborhood just minutes from Newton and Brookline. HBT is a welcoming, egalitarian, multicultural and inclusive spiritual community, which I observed firsthand when I was a substitute religious school teacher there a few years back. As with any synagogue, worship is a focal point, but this community also dedicates much of its time and resources to social justice and being responsive to the broader world in which we live.

If you are looking for an inclusive Jewish spiritual community in the Greater Boston area, Temple Hillel B’nai Torah is an exceptional option. Even if you aren’t in search of a temple to join, but simply an inclusive Jewish space for an occasional holiday or social program to attend, HBT’s vibrant community strives to make visitors feel right at home.

I recently interviewed Hillel B’nai Torah’s rabbi, Barbara Penzner. Rabbi Penzner is an exceptional spiritual and community leader. Below she shares insight pertaining to interfaith families at HBT, as well as the congregation’s values around inclusion.

Sukkot

Learning about Sukkot with Rabbi Penzner. Photo courtesy of HBT

What are some of the insights you have learned from working with interfaith families at HBT?

In my 19 years at Temple Hillel B’nai Torah, I have observed many different kinds of families. In some families, both parents are active participants while in others, only one parent maintains a strong connection to our community. It’s interesting that these differences do not divide easily between families with two Jewish parents, interfaith families or even families where one parent has converted to Judaism.

In one family, the mother never converted, but because she committed to raising children in the Jewish tradition—before the marriage—the boys both attended Jewish day school. In another family, the father who is not Jewish remains committed to his personal faith while attending every Jewish function with his family. Many of those who decided to convert to Judaism waited until their children were old enough to urge them to “take the plunge” and celebrated with them at the mikveh.

What policies or practices does HBT institute pertaining to interfaith families?

In the late 1990s, our congregation spent a year discussing the roles for members who aren’t Jewish in order to clarify our expectations for participation in ritual and governance. We all agreed that we wanted to include all family members for celebrations like a bar/bat mitzvah. The entire family stands together on the bimah for these occasions, and both parents give their child blessings, if they choose.

Our goal is to make our congregation a haven and a home, a place where people feel welcome no matter what their background: interfaith, multi-racial, LGBT and other seekers. Our bottom line is that we hope each member is willing to learn and grow.

What programming do you offer that supports and addresses the needs/concerns of interfaith families? How have those initiatives or programs helped the community and those families/couples?

In recent years, a new group of families with young children have asked for a special group to help them deal with the challenges of raising children when parents have different religious backgrounds. Our group began as a gathering for interfaith couples. By the second year, we realized that the questions we were grappling with were valuable to all parents. We renamed the group “Parenting through Our Differences.” The group has discussed observing Jewish holidays, responding to the demands of extended family members, dealing with death and mourning in a Jewish way, and of course, navigating the December holidays

What brings you the most joy about your work, particularly your leadership around diversity and inclusion?

Lately I’ve enjoyed spending time with young couples who are preparing to marry and wish to explore the complexities of creating an interfaith family. I have watched couples navigate the dynamics of family and community that inevitably raise questions about the meaning of family, identity, religion and God. These are not easy questions and the answers are not straightforward.

What gives me faith in the future is the intention these couples bring and the open-heartedness with which they discuss their challenges. That, after all, is what religion is ultimately about. How we live out our religious practices and how we name our faith springs forth from our own personal truth; without that honest self-assessment, religion is only window-dressing. Ideally, our community seeks to foster these heartfelt investigations and create bonds of compassion and support.

On Sunday, November 9, HBT will be featuring scholar Keren McGinity, author of Still Jewish: A History of Women and Intermarriage in America to speak about her new book Marrying Out: Jewish Men, Intermarriage and Fatherhood

You Shall Be Holy

Diverse groupI will be speaking as part of Diversity Shabbat on Friday, April 25. The Torah portion for this Shabbat includes the well-known and still profound statement, “You shall be holy, for I, the Eternal your God, am holy” (Leviticus 19:2). This difficult demand is directed to “the whole Israelite community” (19:2). It is addressed not only to the priests, elders and respected ones, but also to all men, women and children; young and old; and leaders as well as people in the community.

Here is what I believe:

Who is the “whole Israelite community?” It is all of you here. If you were brought up with Judaism, or have found yourself in Jewish life because you fell in love with someone Jewish, if you have a parent who isn’t Jewish, if you wandered away from organized Jewish life, whether you think about Judaism throughout the week or not…you are the whole Israelite community.

If you cast your fate, so to speak, with the Jewish people…feel proud of and part of our amazing history, feel inspired by our audacious hope even in the face of despair, want your children to learn values and ancient wisdom from our texts which we still argue with and confront today, you are the whole Israelite community. If you want American, liberal Judaism to exist in the years to come because it adds creativity, nuance, ingenuity, joy, order, sacred purpose, social justice, support for education and so much more to our society, then you are the whole Israelite community.

If you have a Christmas tree in your living room, enjoy a cheeseburger, have grandparents and cousins and extended family who share Christianity with your children, yet you are here because you identify with Judaism, you are the whole Israelite community. You are in. You are good enough. We want you here. You are worthy. Your Judaism is authentic. You have layered, complex, multi-faceted family dynamics and you work to create Shalom bayit—peace in your home and your wider home—which is one of the most important mitzvot (commandments)…we understand. It’s a journey. You make decisions. You revisit decisions. Identity grows and changes. You are the whole Israelite community.

There is one God of peace and love. We are one people, trying to make our family, our circle of friendships, our workplaces, our school communities, our Temple family, our world a more just, kind and decent place.

You shall be holy. This is holy work. The word in Hebrew for honor as in the 10 Commandments, to honor our parents, is kavod. This word also comes from the word for heavy. True honor and respect is a heavy pursuit. This is not for the faint of heart. This stretches us and brings us into new territory. But, ultimately, loving our neighbor next to us in these seats is holy because you are your neighbor. We are one.

How a Boycott is Inclusive

Temple Isaiah of Lafayette, CA (inland, due east of San Francisco) is making headlines. Their Board of Directors has “voted unanimously this week to to recommend that the rabbinical staff and synagogue members write letters stating their opposition to the policy, along with withdrawing financial support and refusing to participate in scouting events.”

Further, LGBTQNation reports:

The Board policy calls for a letter writing campaign to the local and national BSA councils, as well as encouraging Temple members and other community organizations to join in the effort to enact change through letters, financial pressure, postponing participation and supporting movements such as Scouts for Equality.

The board said it would also ask staff and others to decline [writing] Eagle Scout recommendations, or allow religious awards for the BSA until the policy is changed.

So why is a boycott something a Jewish community that prides itself on being welcoming of all might undertake? Inclusion shouldn’t just be lip-service. It’s not enough to say that LGBTQ people and their families are welcome in our synagogues — they’re demonstrating that they mean it by trying to change the homophobic policies of Boy Scouts of America. Temple Isaiah knows that folks will feel most welcome within its community when everyone feels they can be recognized as their full selves.

Which has me wondering: what actions can synagogues take to show they’re welcoming of interfaith families? They can join our Network so interfaith couples/families can find them. They can show they’re involved with us by adding our affiliate badge to their homepage. They can create inclusive policies. If you work at a synagogue and want to take actions to show you’re not just giving lip service to your welcome, check out our Resource Center for Program Providers for more suggestions.

We Must Be Doing Something Right

Yesterday my 8-year-old son came home and told my husband a troubling story about a comment another child made to him at his after school program.

Apparently, during a conversation with some other children, my son mentioned that he was Jewish. This other child said “Yeah, well, Jewish people are weird.” At this point in hearing the story, I think I began holding my breath. My initial reaction was, “Oh no, I’m not prepared to deal with this yet! What do I say? How do I help him deal with this?” Panic set in. I asked my husband what he had said to our son when he told him. My husband’s response was to acknowledge that the other child was ignorant and probably didn’t know any other Jewish people — and left it at that.

This morning I asked my son about the comment and how he reacted. He said he told the kid, “DUDE, that’s not nice! Saying that hurts my feelings.” WHOO HOO! I was so proud of him for standing up for himself and told him so. Then he told me he didn’t understand why the other child had said this. “Aren’t Jews exactly the same as Christians?”

Ignorance is a hard concept to explain to an 8-year-old. We talked a bit more about how there are people out there who sometimes don’t like you because you believe something different than they do. You should listen to what they have to say and, if it’s said because they don’t know any better, then you have to stand up for your beliefs like he did with this child.

If anyone has had any similar experiences, or has any advice on how to talk to children about these issues, I’d love to hear them. In the meantime, I’m just proud of my son for standing up for himself!

The Struggle to Tolerate the Intolerant… One Parent’s View

I heard someone say, “I hate the xxxx people. They are so intolerant.” I thought this was a very hypocritical statement and it was very… well, intolerant. You can insert any extremist group for xxxx, but the person seemed to think that they were very progressive and open minded in their thinking. I thought otherwise. I have struggled with this concept for months: I don’t want to be intolerant of people who are themselves intolerant because then I would be a hypocrite.

I try to teach my children to set high standards in order to do their best. Somehow, the implication of trying to attain high standards implies that other people have low standards. Who hasn’t heard the argument, “Well Joey gets to watch TV all day,” followed by, “I‘m not Joey’s parent!” I don’t want to insult or second-guess the judgment of another parent. I try not to criticize other people because, for all I know, maybe Joey doesn’t watch TV all day or his parents are not home when Joey watches TV. In the heat of the moment, it is difficult not to imply that we think we are better than others. However, as a parent, it is important to instill respect and acceptance of others.

For example, during the most recent election, I tried to teach my kids how lucky we are that we can vote for our president without fear. I punctuated the conversation by saying that in some countries, women aren’t allowed to vote. The kids were surprised and asked which countries and why. We have friends of many nationalities and I dodged the question because I didn’t want to create any inadvertent prejudice. My son’s good friend is Muslim and I didn’t want to get into a discussion about religious influence on politics in some countries.

While I don’t want to be a hypocrite, there are times when striving to be the best that we can be may come across as a little condescending. The crux of it is, as long as we are aware of where the line of tolerance is, we are doing the best we can. None of us can be “politically correct” all of the time, but as long as we are trying to be sensitive, that’s a very good first step.

In the Jewish community, there is often scorn or lack of respect toward intermarried couples. We need to embrace the different choices people make (even if we would choose differently) and encourage intermarried Jews to keep a piece of their Jewish identity. As Jews, if we are welcoming to the person of a different faith, they will likely gain additional respect for their spouse’s Jewish identity. Jewish people should treat all individuals regardless of their religion or background with chesed — kindness. We will all sleep a bit better knowing that we have been kind and respectful to others.