New flicks with celebs in interfaith relationships and from interfaith backgrounds, plus their baby news!Go To Pop Culture
This post originally appeared on www.edumundcase.com and is reprinted with permission.
August 1, 2017 is the publication date for the new version of Jim Keen’s Inside Intermarriage: A Christian Partner’s Journey Raising a Jewish Family. I was honored to write the foreword to this one-of-a-kind book: the warm, personal, light-hearted but very serious story of a Protestant man raising Jewish children together with his Jewish wife.
When Jim Keen and his fiancée Bonnie were planning their wedding, her Jewish grandmother wasn’t sure she would attend, because she disapproved of intermarriage. But she chose love, and danced with Jim at the wedding, saying “you’re my grandson now.” That story brought tears to my eyes, and it and others in this book might to yours.
Interfaith couples like Jim and Bonnie who care about religious traditions face what I call “eternal” issues. Not in the sense that the issues can’t be resolved, because they can be, as Jim’s story vividly demonstrates. But all interfaith couples who want to have religion in their lives have to figure out how to relate to each other and their parents and families over religious traditions; they all have to resolve whether and how to celebrate holidays, to be spiritual together, to find community of like-minded people.
This book follows Jim’s journey through all of those issues. From dating, falling in love, meeting the parents, deciding how children will be raised religiously, considering conversion, to getting married; from baby welcoming ceremonies, to celebrating holidays, finding community, and meeting his own needs in a Jewish family. It’s a deeply moving story, told with humor, and it’s an important one.
Jim Keen’s example of one interfaith couple’s journey to Jewish continuity is reassuring. Interfaith couples who are or might be interested in engaging in Jewish life and community can learn from Jim’s story how doing so can add meaning and value to their lives.
Along his journey, Jim shares extremely helpful insights. For example: His and his wife’s feelings and attitudes changed over time, with him moving from feeling different, “standing out,” “not belonging,” to feeling “part of.” For another: Interfaith couples, no matter what path they follow, have to make a conscious effort to work out their religious traditions, which can lead to more thoughtful and deeper engagement. And another: Interfaith couples aren’t alone, and it’s very helpful to become friends and work through issues with other couples.
Interfaith couples follow many paths, and Jim Keen doesn’t say his path is right for everyone. He continued to practice his own religion; some partners in his position don’t practice any religion, or practice Judaism, or even convert. Jim and his wife chose one religion for their children; some couples decide to raise their children in two religions, and many couples haven’t decided, or haven’t yet. The clear advice Jim does give is that there are solutions to the issues that interfaith relationships raise, and that the key to resolving them is early and ongoing respectful communication. How Jim spells out the negotiation and communication he and his wife had over many issues will help couples facing the same issues, no matter what paths they may be thinking of taking.
Jim expresses deep gratitude for finding very warm and welcoming JCC preschool and synagogue communities, and especially a rabbi by whom he felt genuinely embraced. It is essential that more interfaith couples experience that kind of welcome. Most Jews have relatives in interfaith relationships now, and many Jewish professionals are working with people in interfaith relationships. This book promotes better understanding not only of the eternal issues interfaith couples face, but in particular the perspective of the partner from a different faith background.
Jim Keen doesn’t promote interfaith marriage, but he does recognize its positive impacts, including an appreciation for tolerance and diversity. He writes that being in an interfaith relationship has broadened his perspective and enhanced not only his life, but also his parents’ and in-laws’ lives too. He still enjoys “belonging to [his] Scottish-American, Protestant group, but it’s a warm feeling being able to see the world through Jewish eyes, as well.” He also rightly recognizes his and his family’s contribution to the Jewish community: “I am proud to say, there are some Keens who happen to be Jewish. I love it.” I love it, and I think you will, too.
Today, with intermarriage so common, Jim Keen’s perspective is more important and valuable than ever. Jim Keen and his family – on both sides – are heroes of Jewish life. They are role models for how a parent from a different faith background and a Jewish parent, together with all of the grandparents, can support the Jewish engagement of their children and grandchildren. They all deserve deep appreciation for this utmost gift, Jim especially for shedding light on the journey.
You can order the book here.
I have had the pleasure of watching Shaboom!, the new video series that BimBam Productions has created. InterfaithFamily/Chicago recently helped launch the video series at a few viewing parties around town. In all cases, the kids enjoyed the debut eight-minute video and the parents did as well. It’s catchy, colorful and has a great message. Everyone learns how to say one value in Hebrew and experiences how to apply it to our lives with realistic scenarios.
This is the first of the video series (you can see more below).
Here are my eight thoughts about this eight-minute video:
1. It’s important to learn Jewish values in Hebrew. The first video teaches the mitzvah (mitzvah literally means commandment, and is also thought about as ritual and ethical sacred deeds) of hachnast orchim—welcoming guests. Do other religions and cultures teach this same value? Absolutely. However, Judaism has our own texts about this value, quotes on it and vocabulary for it. We could teach our children to be good hosts. And, we can teach them to do the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim. I do believe there is a difference. When we talk about the latter, we feel connected, grounded, deeper, more spiritual, perhaps, and urged to do it in a different way than talking about a more universal idea of graciousness.
By knowing the Jewish approach to a value, the Jewish sensibility around it and the Hebrew words for it, it helps us live a life where we can point to the positive things we do that are specifically and particularly Jewish. Sometimes as a liberal Jew, it is hard to know what I “do” that is Jewish and this is one way in.
2. The show depicts racial diversity in the Jewish world. One spark is brown and one is pale. They are both Jewish and teaching about Judaism. This normalizes and makes visible people in Jewish communities and in Jewish families who have different color skin and different racial make-ups. It isn’t the point of the show and it isn’t talked about or an issue. This is simply Judaism. Children growing up today with Judaism in their lives know that you can’t “look” Jewish in terms of physical appearance.
3. Jews believe in angels. The main characters are invisible sparks (we’ll get to that next) but they also have wings. The word angel in Hebrew is translated as messenger and there are many messengers throughout the Bible.
As Rabbi Elliot Dorff reminds us, “the existence of angels is a Jewish notion,” and “if we do not make …angels idols, or pray to them as if they can replace God, then talk of angels is a helpful personification of the workings of God in our lives.” (My People’s Prayer Book, vol. 7, Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2004, pp. 69-70).
The angels in these videos are named Rafael and Gabi from Gabriel or Gabriella. There is a special prayer for protection in Jewish tradition that is said at night and includes the words:
In the name of Adonai the God of Israel:
4. Jewish Mysticism Teaches That Sparks Are Invisible: These cute little characters who have wings are known as invisible sparks in this show. This hearkens to the mystical notion of tikkun olam (repairing the world) which teaches that when God created the world, God’s light shattered into millions and billions of sparks or vessels that are spread all over. When we do mitzvot (good deeds), we free the sparks and send them back to a broken God who gets unified in the process. You never know if your good deed is the last one needed to bring complete healing and redemption to God and the world. I actually love the idea that God is fundamentally broken like we are and that we are partners in the task of repair. We yearn for God and God yearns for us.
5. We Are Attached to Screens: In the video, one spark teaches the other about welcoming guests by showing her to turn off her television when a friend comes over. Similarly, the mom and son in the Ploney family has to turn off the video games they are playing to hear the doorbell. Children as young as toddlers are staring at a screen for much of their day. We have to be taught to put it down or turn it off for human interaction. I am attached to my phone and I do see the toll it takes on my eyes, my posture and my level of distraction. Being aware is the first step to change, right?
6. Ploney is Used on Purpose: Ploney is used in the Talmud as a kind of John Doe. By calling the family the Ploneys, it is a clear reference to Talmud study.
7. Shabbat is Important: The family is coming together to welcome a relative from Israel to their Shabbat table. Shababt is about family, screen-free time and being connected. The reason the Jewish world spends so much money and resources on getting people together over Shabbat for dinners and services is because we still believe one hundred years later as Ahad Ha’am the Israeli poet wrote, “More than the Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jewish people.”
8. There are Layers to Jewish Learning: When I first watched the video, I was upset because I got the references I have mentioned here but figured many parents and kids who watch this won’t. I felt it reinforced the secret hand-shake of Judaism with insiders and outsiders. I worry that Judaism is hard to get into and that learning is often presented in such a pediatric way with coloring sheets that adults with little Jewish literacy or current connections to Jewish institutions don’t have many opportunities for real study to get to the good stuff.
But I realize that good family programming touches the viewers on different levels based on their age and life experiences. And I realized that the show is perfect because it shows the way Judaism approaches study. “Pardes” refers to different approaches to biblical understanding in rabbinic Judaism or to interpretation of text in Torah study. The term, sometimes also spelled PaRDeS, is an acronym formed from the same initials of the following four approaches:
So, this eight-minute video can be taken on any of these levels. Now that you’ve read this, how do you watch it? What will you say to your children?
Here are Shaboom videos 2-5. Stay tuned for 6-11!
When I think back to where I first experienced my love of Judaism, I remember instantly my many summers at Goldman Union Camp Institute in Zionsville, Indiana. Camp was my first experience of celebrating Shabbat with friends (I can still smell the fried chicken and the Shabbat candles), of singing songs in Hebrew at the top of my lungs at song session, and of guitar strings gently strumming during Debbie Friedman’s version of the V’ahatva prayer at evening services.
I’ll admit it, I was bit of a nerd: I loved our daily Jewish educational programs, our evening and Shabbat services written by the campers, and the fact that every building and every item on our daily schedule was called by its Hebrew name. In college, my co-counselors and I were responsible for coming up with creative ways to teach Judaism to our campers. Thanks to that preparation, whenever I am asked to teach now, I try to think about what would make the session engaging and interactive for participants.
As a rabbi and Jewish educator, when I think back to what made camp so influential for me, it was the notion that Judaism and Jewish practice could and should be something meaningful—Jewish learning could and should be accessible and fun. It seems simple, but it is really quite profound. And to this day, I credit my experience of camp for instilling in me these values and the charge to make Judaism creative, meaningful and accessible for all I teach.
When people ask me what kind of rabbi I am, I almost always say I’m a community rabbi. I was ordained at the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College, a transdenominational program in Newton, MA (right near the InterfaithFamily headquarters!). And when people ask me what transdenominational means, I tell people about my own family (and I find this resonates for many other families as well): We’ve got a very wide range of Jewish involvement from secular, Orthodox, American, Israeli, Humanistic, Conservative and Reform members of the family. We’ve got family members who have converted and some who have not, and many of my family members are intermarried or are in interfaith relationships.
When I realized that my diverse family was a microcosm of the Jewish community, I began to see the reality of the Jewish community as a beautiful, multifaceted, sometimes challenging whole, and I wanted to be in a position that would allow me serve as much of the community as possible.
I am thrilled to have stepped into the role of director to launch InterfaithFamily/DC this summer. I am grateful to be serving the DC, MD and VA communities where I have the opportunity to work with community partners, be a resource to other clergy and can help connect interfaith couples and families with the Jewish community. I look forward to meeting you, working together and building community here in the Greater DC area.
Please be in touch with me via email, the IFF/DC Facebook group (coming soon!) or at one of our upcoming events over Rosh Hashanah! Join me and the Jewish Food Experience at a Sephardic Erev Rosh Hashanah dinner at the Heights on Sunday September 13 or come and help us decorate the InterfaithFamily/DC sukkah at the SukkahVillage at the JCC of Greater Washington on Sunday September 27.
Warmest wishes to you and your family for a Shanah Tova u’Metukah—a happy healthy and sweet new year!
-Rabbi Sarah Tasman
I spend a lot of time at Starbucks. All different Starbucks locations. Lately, I have been seeing signs about it being a “Third Place in our daily lives.” We have our work places, our homes and we have the coffee shop. I think for lot of people, walking into Starbucks is comforting and familiar. The smells, the furniture, the vibe, the culture there, the drinks—we know what to expect and it feels good.
At our recent InterfaithFamily/Chicago event, Barbara Mahany read from her new book, Slowing Time. She talked about how children raised with both Judaism and Catholicism in their lives often understand the in-between spaces of life. They relate to the grays, to nuance, to ambiguity and discrepancy and can hold multiple identities and ideas in one intact soul and psyche. They don’t practice a new religion or a Jewish-Catholic blend. Rather, they hold both traditions in their hearts and minds. They keep them separate and draw from each at different times. They experience both. They understand about both of their parent’s backgrounds. In a way, this is a third place for Judaism and Christianity.
I have heard some people refer to the interfaith schools that exist around the country where families with one Christian parent and one Jewish parent come to learn and worship with the intent to raise their children as “both” as being Third Spaces. These communities aren’t synagogues or churches but have elements of both and clergy from both.
At a recent teaching session at one of Chicago’s interfaith programs, the parents asked me whether any liberal synagogues could open their doors to families raising their children “both.” Could synagogues have a track for these families where they have a certain membership level knowing that the children wouldn’t use the religious school? These families could send their children to mid-week Hebrew school and of course become part of the community on Shabbat and holidays, during social justice pursuits and on retreats. These children would have a sacred space to mark the first time they read from the Torah scroll, which is often very important to their families.
In order for this to happen, congregations would have to accept and appreciate families who want Judaism in their lives in this way. They would have to accept that everyone’s Jewish expression looks different and that every family configuration is different. These families who want both religions in their lives are often very thoughtful about faith and traditions and eager learners and worship regulars.
I think if synagogues could find their way toward working with and hearing families who want Judaism in their lives in authentic ways but who also need to have the children learn about and experience the other parent’s faith, it will enhance the community. Struggling to understand and define the boundaries of “in” and “out” will help us all clarify our path, our fears and hopes and our vulnerabilities. Having a community of diverse practices under a shared tent of united desire to see Judaism continue and flourish is good for all of us.
For some, the synagogue or being with their community is a third space in importance next to their home and their office. For others, it falls farther down their line of places they frequent (perhaps after Starbucks). Do you think the Jewish world can or should find space for families who see religion in a third way? Not as just Jewish or just Catholic but as something more fluid?
The following is a sermon I gave at Saint Elisabeth’s Church in Glencoe, Illinois, on February 22.
Thank you for welcoming me so warmly into your community. What a blessing it has been to become involved with St. Elisabeth’s. I have spent my rabbinate these past eight years working with interfaith couples and families and those who grew up in interfaith homes. I spend time with grandparents who have grandchildren growing up in interfaith homes and with Jewish clergy and professionals who want to welcome those from interfaith homes to what we call “organized” Jewish life. What I mean by an interfaith family is a situation in which one parent grew up with Judaism and one didn’t. Sometimes these partners are raising Jewish children and have a Jewish home—don’t ask me what a Jewish home is—many Jews describe what having a Jewish home is differently. Sometimes these families have a parent who is Jew-ish…not a practicing anything else but hasn’t converted to Judaism. Sometimes these families have a parent who is a practicing and believing Christian or Hindu. In some of these families they want their children to be exposed to both faiths.
In the past 10 years, excluding Orthodox marriages, 72 percent of Jewish marriages have been interfaith. The majority of American Jews are partnered with someone not Jewish. There are more children growing up now with one Jewish parent than two. So, what does this all mean for the future of liberal Judaism? (Orthodox Judaism will remain, it seems—the question is non-Orthodox Judaism.) For the kind of Judaism I subscribe to?
A recent headline read “More Bad News, but a Glimmer of Hope: Last year’s survey of American Jews brought dire news—rising intermarriage, falling birthrates, dwindling congregations.”
Many in the Jewish world are scared. They are scared that young people won’t seek out congregations for their families. That they will privatize religion. That people don’t value Jewish community anymore. That adults who grew up with Judaism now affirm a universal ethics or morality and want their children to “be good people” and not specifically or distinguishably Jewish. Jews have been said to be the ever-dying people. Are we going to disappear into a generalized feel-good, do-good thing?
What about the mitzvot? The commandments? The specific way we live? Worship in Hebrew? Allegiance to Israel? A sense of Peoplehood? Of being part of the Tribe? Yiddish-isms? Judaism has been a religion of boundaries and distinctions and that has kept us a unique people, in some ways, for so many generations and generations. Now, in an open, global world, can Judaism be inclusive enough to allow participation by people who aren’t Jewish and still remain true to Jewish traditions?
I think that we need to promote both radical inclusion and diversity. Ironically, in order to perpetuate a culture that is unique, we need to remove almost all boundaries that define who is permitted to participate.
This is the tension of my work and of this sermon: perpetuating a unique culture that is still authentically Jewish and yet allowing for diversity and inclusion. And, this brings us to the biblical reading for today. Did God choose each people to fulfill their own unique destiny, their own unique way? Does each people have its own covenant with God?
What happens when we blur the lines that define religion and think about theology as metaphor and as nuance? When we compartmentalize different aspects of different faiths so that we can accommodate many traditions and ways in one intact psyche? Isn’t life more fluid nowadays with many things? Are we so separate and distinct? Each group with its own destiny?
When we see a rainbow in the sky is it a shared symbol of our partnership with God who promises never to destroy the world again? (God might not do it, but people seem to be doing a good job in this regard.)
We share these basic Noahide commandments of civil society. We share more than not. But, this holy time in both of our calendars, this time leading up to Passover and Easter sometimes highlights our theological differences.
In an article written on InterfaithFamily, writer Charlotte Honigman-Smith explains what Easter means to her: “Easter is the holiday that evokes in me the most ambivalence about my identity as a Jewish women with a Catholic father and extended family. Easter is harder (than Christmas) Edgier. More conflicted…I think that much of my reaction can be traced to the fact that Easter, for the Eastern European Jewish communities my mother’s grandparents came from, was a potentially deadly time…local violence broke out at Easter. Easter, for me, seems to represent the final break between Judaism and Christianity, the point at which the two belief systems parted ways forever. I find that I resent that a little. Perhaps, deep down, I think it would be easier if we all believed the same things.
But growing up in an interfaith family and a multicultural neighborhood taught me something about dealing with differences and cultural contradictions. It’s good to be able to share, and to find common ground; for me it has been a blessing to have two cultures to draw on. But I’ve learned to use this holiday as a reminder that we are not all alike, that some things have no common ground to be found, and that still, this does not mean that there can’t be love, respect, and mutual humanity. It’s important, though harder, to know that there are some differences, both in families and in the wider world, that have to be accepted and embraced without understanding…as matters of faith.”
We share the Noahide Covenant; we share the symbol of the rainbow. But there are other covenants made at other times that are meant for different peoples and different traditions. Later in the scroll, we read about the covenant given at Mt. Sinai. In his final appeal to the people of Israel, Moses reminds them that the covenant they are establishing with God will be valid for eternity. “I make this covenant with its sanctions, not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the Eternal our God and with those who are not with us here this day” (Deuteronomy 29:13-14).
There is a lot of commentary about who is not there that day. From an interfaith standpoint, I view this covenant as a covenant with anybody who would find themselves in a family with Jews. For any fellow-travelers. This can be an inclusive covenant because it included the then diverse people of Israel and it surely now encompasses a diverse group who (thank God) still think about it and struggle with it, and for whom these ancient laws and ways still have enduring truths so many thousands of years later.
The rabbis said that we should say 100 blessings a day and then spelled out specific blessings for various occasions that arose daily. When we see a rainbow, there is a special blessing that is said.
Barukh Ata Adonai, Eloheynu Melekh ha’Olam
Holy One of blessing, Your presence fills creation,
May each of us rise to perpetuate the unique traditions and religiosity we have inherited or hold true today. As well, may we know that there are some differences, both in families and in the wider world, that have to be accepted and embraced, and that is good too.
Kayn Yihi Ratzon, May this be God’s Will
In the wake of the horrific attack at the office of Charlie Hebdo in Paris and the subsequent deaths in the kosher deli, there has been much talk on television, in print and online about the xenophobic and anti-Muslim reaction that followed in France and around the world. I have fielded angry and scared questions about how to punish those responsible and how we can maintain our sense of faith when we see so much violence in the world. And unfortunately, this isn’t the first time we have been exposed to such violence born of hatred and fear in our lifetime and certainly over the course of human history.
The Jewish community has known more than our fair share of this strain of human nature. Yet each time it happens, one very loud reaction seems to focus on the same call for violence and hatred pointed at the perpetrators. It seems only natural that we direct our rage and hurt and fear in the direction of those responsible. However, this rage we feel can darken and dull our sense of real justice and so many of us end up hating and persecuting those around us who in appearance or only in our minds have some tangential connection to the perpetrators. We too are often bound by fear of the other, that which we do not fully understand and the cycle of mistrust, of misinformation and blind hatred continues.
I understand the worry and even the hopelessness that we all felt when we received the first breaking news email about the attack in Paris and turned on the news to watch the events unfold—another instance of the worst of humanity. I imagine so many of us spent time asking why and then how. I cannot understand the intense anti-Muslim rhetoric, the assumption that all who believe different than we are responsible and should be exiled or worse.
We have come so far in the world, have so much more than our parents and grandparents; the ability to reach across the globe and communicate, the ability to access information at speeds unheard of a mere 10 or 20 years ago, the deep celebration and appreciation of diversity and struggle for complete equality in so many places that seemed impossible in generations past. Nevertheless, we are still plagued with the most basic of human reactions, revenge and hatred of what we do not know.
The work that we do at InterfaithFamily is about celebrating and embracing diversity, about opening our communities and ourselves to the possibility that there is more to gain than fear from “the other.” I try to live my life by this message because I want to live in a world where true and lasting peace in the broadest and the narrowest lens exists between family members and between nations. It saddens me when all of the remarkable strides we humans have made are diminished by violence and by the reactions to violence.
So let us remember and honor those who were killed in the choices we make every day, how we treat the strangers we encounter and what we teach our children about those with whom we disagree or just don’t understand. A Muslim man, Lassana Bathily was working at the Paris kosher grocery that day and saved several people by hiding them in the store’s walk-in freezer. Tell this story and find hope every day in all the individuals who make a difference, who act with bravery in the face of fear and who teach us that although we may at times witness the very worst of humanity, we can also, every day, see the spark of the best.
Our diversity is our strength and our future and I hope we will not allow our anger to weaken our commitment to it. Let us seek peace and pursue it, even in the face of those set to destroy it, even amid our justified fear and concern as we have done time and time again. Let our compassion and hope guide our reactions as we search for the light in humanity to dispel the darkness.
I 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.
The 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.