Full of helpful advice for families starting to think about their child's bat or bar mitzvah, Bar & Bat Mitzvah For The Interfaith Family will be a helpful primer to all families (not just interfaith!).
This colorful booklet will give all the basics about this holiday which combines elements of Halloween, Mardi Gras and the secular new year. It is a holiday not only for children who know immediately that anything with a costume will be fun, but for adults too.
Connecting Interfaith Families to Jewish Life in Greater Cleveland by providing programs and opportunities for interfaith families to experience Judaism in a variety of venues, meet other interfaith families, and to connect to other Jewish organizations that may serve their needs.
This is an interactive, fun, and low-key workshop for couples who are dating, engaged or recently married. The sessions will give you a chance to ask questions about faith, to think about where you are as an adult with your own spirituality and to talk through what's important to you and your partner.
A great way for Jewish professionals and volunteers who work with and provide programming for people in interfaith relationships to locate resources and trainings to build more welcome into their Jewish communities; connect with and learn from each other; and publicize and enhance their programs and services.
The extreme weather conditions and the long dark nights of the winter months can be harsh for many of us. But from Thanksgiving until around Valentine’s Day, it’s also a popular time when couples get engaged. It can also be a time when couples who are getting married in the spring and summertime are knee-deep in wedding planning. Whether you’re dating, engaged, already married, considering or expecting children, winter can be a good time to hunker down, get cozy and talk about your vision for your partnership.
There have been many articles in recent years about questions for interfaith couples to discuss before getting married, like this one. Sometimes, interfaith or intercultural couples have more considerations. For example, if both partners come from very different cultural or religious families there is a lot to learn. If one is religious and the other isn’t, if one has a large family and the other doesn’t, or if one has a very tight knit family and the other doesn’t—any of these things can be an adjustment for both partners. There will need to be negotiation around which side of the family you celebrate which holidays with and about making sure everyone feels included, especially if both are religious, have strong cultural ties or close families. But let me be clear, these discussions are good for all couples. For every couple, there are family dynamics and personalities to navigate.
I often suggest to couples I work with that they create a vision for themselves—a vision for your life together, for the home you want to create, for the family you build together. If you’ve never considered creating a vision before, here are some questions to consider. Each partner should write down their own responses before sharing with the other partner.
Questions to Define Your Interfaith Family Vision:
What are the traditions, cultural/spiritual practices or values that you grew up with that you imagine having on your own, with your family or with your religious community?
What role do you want or hope your partner will play in these traditions with you, your family or your community?
What role do you imagine playing in your partner’s family’s holidays and traditions and in his or her religious practices/community?
What are the new traditions you will do together in your own home or with a community that are co-created?
Once each partner has had a chance to think about these questions for themselves, they should discuss with their partner. If you dread these kinds of big conversations or decision making, make this fun by doing it over your favorite meal or as a special date. Bring openness and curiosity to the process. You may surprise yourself or your partner. Be realistic about what your life looks like now but how it may look different in the future. If you’ve dropped a lot of your religious practices during your dating years but want your child to have a bar or bat mitzvah down the road, think about what that really means—likely getting back into your observance or joining a congregation and providing an education for your kids. If you’re partner has agreed to raise children in a faith different from their own, talk about what entails.
If you find this brings up more issues or your think you might need some help, consider taking the Love and Religion Workshop through InterfaithFamily, doing an Imago Therapy couples workshop or retreat or finding a couples counselor or coach. Any of these resources will give you more tools for your relationship and help in creating your interfaith family vision.
A significant upcoming convening may lay the groundwork for something missing from the liberal Jewish community for the past twenty-five years: concerted action by funders and community leaders to engage more interfaith families in Jewish life and community.
The goal of the Summit is to explore – with funders, federations, leaders of Jewish organizations and interfaith family engagement practitioners – the issues that need to be addressed to have more interfaith families engage in Jewish life and community, and begin to build consensus for increased efforts towards that end.
Jewish leaders have repeatedly expressed concern since high intermarriage rates were announced in the early 1990’s. In most fields – day schools, camps, teen engagement, Israel trips, social justice – funders and professionals have joined together to plan, support and execute major programmatic activities to strengthen organizations and expand recruitment.
The field of engaging interfaith families, however, is different, distinguished by the lack of concerted action by funders and professionals. Individual organizations – notably the Reform movement, Big Tent Judaism, and InterfaithFamily – have developed and offered successful programmatic efforts, and generous foundations, federations and individuals have made those efforts possible with financial support. But there has never been concerted action like that in other fields, apart from a proposal for joint action by several foundations in 2008-2009 that failed because of losses dues to Madoff and the economic downturn.
It is interesting to speculate on the reasons why arguably the single most important issue for the liberal Jewish community has not attracted concerted action. It may be that intermarriage is still viewed so negatively by so many that funders and professionals are discouraged from supporting any related efforts that are not designed to discourage or prevent it. Or, that there is simply too wide a chasm between those who wish to prevent or discourage intermarriage and those that seek to embrace and welcome interfaith couples and families – and therefore, no shared understanding of the way forward.
Recent signs, however, indicate a growing shift in attitudes that could support significant concerted action to engage interfaith families – most notably, the award of the Genesis Prize to Michael Douglas in order to highlight the importance of welcoming intermarried families, followed by the Jewish Funders Network/Genesis Prize matching grant initiative to attract increased financial support for those welcoming efforts. In addition, there has been increased attention from organizations like Hillel, and the Union for Reform Judaism’s “Audacious Hospitality” work.
The Interfaith Opportunity Summit will now bring together everyone interested or potentially interested in engaging interfaith families Jewishly – foundations, federations, Jewish organizations and interfaith family engagement practitioners. The initial response to the Summit is another sign of shifting attitudes; in addition to partnering with the JFN and the JFNA, participants in the Summit program include:
the URJ, Big Tent Judaism, Honeymoon Israel and InterfaithFamily;
the Schusterman, Crown, Jacobson, Lippman Kanfer, Miller, Joyce & Irving Goldman, and Genesis Prize foundations;
the Philadelphia, Boston, New York and LA federations;
national organizations including Hillel, the Foundation for Jewish Camp, PJ Library, the JCC Association, the Society for Classical Reform Judaism, the Reconstructionist movement, the Federation of Jewish Mens Clubs and International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism;
thought leaders including Yehuda Kurtzer, Alan Cooperman, Ted Sasson, Tobin Belzer, Fern Chertok, Wendy Rosov, Susan Katz Miller, Keren McGinity, Paul Golin and Marion Usher;
numerous innovative organizations including Romemu, Lab/Shul, jewbelong, Tribe 12, Sixth & I, CentralSynagogue, Rodeph Shalom, the JCC in Manhattan, Jewish Learning Ventures.
Because of the importance of understanding the lived experiences of interfaith families, Summit participants will also hear from millennial children of intermarriage, young interfaith couples, and interfaith families with young children. The grantees of the JFN/Genesis Prize matching grant initiative, and other interfaith family engagement programs, have all been invited to participate and discuss their programs with interested attendees at tables over an extended lunchtime.
The Summit will provide a rich discussion of the issues that need to be addressed to have more interfaith families engage in Jewish life and community. How can Jews and their partners from different faith traditions experience the value of Jewish wisdom, express their spirituality in Jewish settings, and feel included in “the Jewish people?” How can we effectively reach the spectrum of interfaith couples, from those who are seeking to those who are not, through messaging and marketing to interfaith families, and relationship building/community organizing approaches to them? What services and programs are effective entry points and ways to facilitate progress into more engagement, and what promising trends are emerging? How can we address difficult attitude and boundary issues surrounding intermarriage: privileging in-marriage, wedding officiation, ritual participation, and conversion? Can those who say they are “doing both” be included in Jewish life and communities?
The concluding plenary will tie together the preceding sessions and address what a local Jewish community needs to offer to engage interfaith families, and the appropriate roles of general programs aimed at and marketed for everyone, and programs targeted at people in interfaith relationships.
By bringing together funders and organization leaders – people in a position to make things happen – with practitioners in the field, we hope to build consensus on what increased efforts need to be taken to engage interfaith families and to facilitate the possibility of concerted large-scale action towards that goal. We hope that you’ll be there to join the conversation.
As I have admitted before, I see the whole world through an interfaith family lens (see my past blog post HERE). I am so uber-saturated in this work that I am always thinking about the experience of the partner who isn’t Jewish who is connected to someone Jewish and what it means to have interfaith families as full members of congregations. So, when I was on a four-hour flight to meet with the other seven rabbis who direct InterfaithFamily offices around the country, I saw an ad that stopped me in my tracks. It is the new Kraft Macaroni & Cheese ad (which might understandably be torture to watch mid-way through Passover!).
The tag line is, “It’s changed, but it hasn’t.”
What does mac & cheese have to do with supporting interfaith families exploring Jewish life, our tag line at IFF? When interfaith families are truly part of a community doing Jewish (notice I don’t say Jewish community—this will be the subject of my next blog post), will the community and the experience of Judaism change? Will there be anything recognizable about Judaism in the generations to come? Will the recipe have changed so much that it becomes a different thing altogether? To continue the food analogy, will interfaith families be a sweetener and add something healthier for the overall enterprise of Judaism?
I hope that when interfaith families are members and leaders of their communities, everything will change for the better. We will frame liturgy and worship in new ways, cognizant that we need to give meaning because many people there are still learning (yes—this should always be the approach, but interfaith families dictate this approach). We will continue to adapt and change liturgy as it feels outdated and offensive to our diverse communities.This has been the Reform tradition since the beginning. We say what we believe.
Much of prayer is poetry and isn’t literal but is evocative. Our language will change and it should feel palpable. Those who visit a congregation’s website should sense change and it should feel inspiring and positive. We can look to the experience and narratives of those who didn’t grow up with Judaism to enrich the context and lens by which Judaism is now taught and lived.
What do you think? When interfaith families are truly part and parcel of a community, do you sense that their inclusion changes the community over time? Can you point to the changes? Is it so normative at this point that we have a diverse community that we take this fact for granted and have moved past it in some way? As always, more questions than answers and lots of right answers.
On Sunday, January 10, 2016, InterfaithFamily/Atlanta hosted a fabulous open house at our new office space in Ponce City Market. Over 100 Atlantans celebrated with us as we blessed our new home. After reciting the Shehecheyanu prayer, guests shared their blessings for IFF/ATL and our board member, Rebecca Hoelting, hung our new mezuzah from Atlanta’s own Modern Tribe Jewish gift shop. We enjoyed music from the Pussywillows, thanks to the Atlanta Jewish Music Festival, ate delicious food from the markets in PCM, and hung out in our cool new gathering spaces like the meditation room, the green room with picnic tables, and a secret room that looks like the inside of Jeanie’s bottle. Everyone left with a florescent green Shalom Y’all tote bag full of goodies and IFF resources.
We are looking forward to more exciting events in 2016!!
I’ve been to a lot of bar and bat mitzvahs in my life, but I’ve never been so deeply moved as I was on a recent Shabbat.
My cousin, Nancy Sharp, who I’ve always adored, has experienced a life of tragic loss and re-found joy. Her husband, Brett, who I remember vividly as a most wonderful young man, died of brain cancer when their twins, Casey and Rebecca, were 2 1/2 years old. Nancy decided to move from Manhattan to Denver, where she had one friend.
After relocating, Nancy read about Steve Saunders, a local TV journalist, in a magazine article about eligible bachelors; Steve’s wife had died of cancer and he was raising two young teens, Ryan and Dylan. Long story short, Nancy and Steve met, married and combined their families. Nancy has told her story in a remarkable book, Both Sides Now. And this spring, Casey and Rebecca became bar and bat mitzvah.
The service and the celebration were amazing. Brett’s family, though living at a distance, has remained very close to Nancy and her children. Brett’s mother, an aunt and uncle, and many cousins were all present and there were not a few tears when Brett’s mother presented his tallit to Casey at the start of the service. But Steve’s family, who are not Jewish, were very present too; I could see that Casey and Rebecca have acquired a third set of grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins. The kindness and the love that flowed between Steve and Brett’s family, and Steve’s family and my cousins, was plain for all to see.
I learned that Ryan and Dylan had many Jewish friends growing up, attended Jewish summer camp and one of Steve’s very adorable nephews (who is not Jewish) even attends the pre-school at Temple Micah, where Nancy and Steve are members. So the Saunders family was not unfamiliar with what happens at a bar or bat mitzvah. And Rabbi Adam Morris did an extraordinarily sensitive job of bringing Brett into the service while keeping the focus on the present.
Rebecca and Casey
But what I especially appreciated was how inclusive Rabbi Morris was of Steve and his family. In many Reform synagogues, part of a bar or bat mitzvah service is a symbolic passing of the Torah from grandparents to parents to child, but at many, the grandparents and parent who are not Jewish don’t get to participate (on the theory that the Torah is not “theirs” to pass, or perhaps that they couldn’t have passed Judaism to the child). At this b’nei mitzvah, I was very glad to see the Torah passed from my cousins Ron and Sue to Brett’s mother, to Steve’s parents, to Steve and Nancy and then to their children.
As in probably all Reform synagogues, part of the bar or bat mitzvah service involves the parents having an aliyah (saying the blessings before and after a portion of the Torah is read). But as best I know, the vast majority of Reform rabbis will not allow a parent who is not Jewish to join in reciting the Torah blessings at their own child’s bar or bat mitzvah. I believe this is based on theory that the blessing refers to God choosing “us” and giving “us” the Torah, and the parent who is not Jewish isn’t part of the “us.” I felt so grateful to Rabbi Morris, and told him so afterwards, for allowing Steve to join with Nancy in the parents’ aliyah. I wish the rabbis who wouldn’t have permitted that could have been at the b’nei mitzvah of Casey and Rebecca Zickerman. Maybe seeing the contribution that Steve, not to mention his extended family, has made to passing Judaism on to Casey and Rebecca might persuade them to change their minds. Something is very wrong, in my opinion, when rabbis can’t consider the family of a person like Steve to be the “us” to whom the Torah was given, making it fully authentic and appropriate for a person like Steve to thank God for giving the Torah to his family—to “us.”
Rabbi Morris’ inclusive approach should not have been a surprise; in 2004 he wrote an excellent sermon explaining why, as it says on the Temple Micah website, “I proudly officiate at the weddings of interfaith couples.” To our knowledge, he is the only congregational rabbi in Denver who will do so.
Nancy Sharp’s story is very personal and emotional for me, and one of, if not the, most inspiring stories I have ever encountered. I love Nancy and her family; the loss she suffered was painful, and the love that she found is a source of great joy. I think the lesson here is about being open to and choosing love. The love that Nancy was open to and chose with Steve, and the love that flows between their families, including Brett’s, is what makes their example so powerful. I hope that the inclusive approach of their rabbi, who chooses to privilege love and family over other concerns, becomes an increasingly powerful example to his colleagues, too.
The other night, my husband was watching arguably his favorite show, Shark Tank. He shouted from the other room (literally, the only other room in our wee Boston apartment), “Lindsey, come see this!” I thought maybe I knew someone on the show. Turned out, in a way, I did. It was a holiday episode featuring some interfaith holiday items, ones I’m familiar with. Pitching his company was Neal Hoffman of Mensch on a Bench—it’s a Hanukkah plush toy that looks like an old rabbi modeled after the Christmas Elf on a Shelf (sound a little scary? One of the Sharks, Barbara Corcoran, pointed out as much, and was ready to give The Mensch a makeover). After Hoffman explained his own interfaith background and made a deal with Sharks Lori Greiner and Robert Herjavec, we caught up with someone from Season 5 who made a deal with his Star of David “Hanukkah Tree Topper.”
I loved that Shark Tank was doing an interfaith episode before Hanukkah, and here at IFF, we don’t tell people they’re doing religion “wrong” or which way is the right way. Whatever way you want to connect with Judaism is great! But we also haven’t been advertising what seem to me to be Christmas items for Jews. Personally, I can see how an interfaith family might end up with all kinds of Jewish items from around their home on their Christmas tree, but something about purchasing a Jewish symbol as a tree topper might cross the line for some people and, truth: makes me cringe a bit. Same with an Elf on the Shelf for Hanukkah. That said, lots of people love it—and I do mean it when I say that you should enjoy any way you like to celebrate the holidays!
Regardless of what any of us think, this episode of Shark Tank drove home the fact that Jewish and interfaith merchandise for the holidays could quickly find their place in our local Target, CVS, maybe even the Christmas Tree Shops. So I may as well weigh in now, and say that if more toys and decorations are being created for Hanukkah, I’d like to see some that are uniquely related to Hanukkah.
Instead of blending Christmas and Hanukkah into one holiday, why not respect them each for what they are, and come up with some fun new ways to celebrate Hanukkah for families of all kinds? Is there a candy menorah? Maybe one that doubles as a musical instrument? Musical candles that play the blessings? An app for kids that’s actually fun and entertaining? Some plush singing Maccabees? If any of you entrepreneurs out there capitalize on any of these ideas, just send the royalty checks my way. Thanks.
What did you think of the Shark Tank episode and interfaith holiday merchandise? If you missed it, you can catch the Battle Over Mensch on a Bench here.
Below are five observations from working with interfaith families that may get our hearts racing and hopefully prompt respectful discussion:
1. Language matters. God created the world with words, “Let there be light…and there was…” The rabbis said that to embarrass someone is to kill their soul—to bring blood to their face. The same word in Hebrew for “word,”—d’var—is also the word for “thing.” Words create reality. The old adage “sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me” is not Jewish. Thus, when we say, “non-Jew” for example, we are saying that someone is a “non-entity” or different from, and that isolates and estranges the very people we seek to endear and hold close. Thus, I say, “not Jewish” because I believe this difference is more than semantics.
2. Owning It. Many people who grew up with Judaism and are getting married describe themselves as “culturally Jewish.” I have started pushing people to define what this means. Which culture? Ashkenazkic Jewish? If you go to your parent’s for the holidays and your mother makes kugel and brisket, she is a cultural Jew. Can you claim this as an authentic identity as an adult vicariously? Is there a cut-off age for this when you have to own it yourself? Are people cultural Jews because they grew up culturally Jewish: going to Jewish camp (or camp with lots of Jews), having Jewish friends, getting together with family for break-fast and Passover?
As adults, we identify as Jewish, but maybe this hasn’t been actualized since the Bar/Bat Mitzvah circuit or since a Jewish sorority or fraternity or a birthright trip. When people say they are culturally Jewish, they may be describing their upbringing more than anything. They may also be saying what they are not. They are not members of a synagogue (neither are their parents, often) and they do not think about Judaism on a regular basis. But lifecycle moments often must be Jewish. There is no other way for them to imagine getting married or welcoming a baby than to have a rabbi present and to look to Jewish tradition. Is this empty or lacking? Not to me. This is real. This is a basis upon which new learning and experiences can take place. This is roots. This is connectedness and family closeness. If we dismiss this, we will lose another generation of people who grew up with Judaism and need to be sold on its value as a way of life.
3. Re-branding Judaism. Selling Judaism. I find myself cheerleading for Judaism. I hear story after story about not having loved religious school; leaving the synagogue after the Bar/Bat Mitzvah; finding services boring, hard to follow, irrelevant; being disappointed by rabbis for whatever reasons; etc. I try to re-sell an open-minded, loving, vibrant, relevant Judaism in which people will find moral grounding, inspiration, other young people, accessible clergy, and rituals open to anybody who loves a Jew and is comfortable being part of everything—whether or not they formally convert. Does this Judaism exist? Should it exist? I tell people that this Judaism exists because I have experienced it in many places here in Chicago and in many different ways.
4. Inclusion. Can Judaism be an inclusive religion? Inclusion is a recent American ideal. For instance, we aim to create neuro-diverse classrooms because we believe that inclusion of different kinds of learners benefits everyone. But, can it be a Jewish ideal? We have been an insular, tight knit, ethnically bound people and this has kept us going. We are a religion of boundaries: day and night, holy and profane, Shabbat and the rest of the week, before 13 and after 13, kosher or treif. Can we have a Judaism that is totally open and includes everybody? This will change our Judaism. Is this OK? What will it look and feel like? Will there be a reason to formally convert anymore? (Anecdotally, I have found that when those come to experience Judaism they want more and more and do end up wanting a formal conversion, quite often…)
Beyond being welcoming, the real question is how and to what extent can Judaism be an inclusive religion?
5. Both religions. Each of these observations I have gleaned from working with interfaith families’ present challenges and opportunities in the Jewish world. But, this last point is perhaps the most tricky. This one really gets our hearts racing and leads to arguments among Jewish leaders. What about families who want both religions of the parents to be part of their lives? What does it mean anymore to raise Jewish children? Is there a litmus test to this? Can one raise Jewish children and not belong to a synagogue (pretty hard to do in America, I personally think). Can one raise Jewish children if those children attend church with one parent or grandparent or cousins and take part in Christian holidays? Only if those holidays are celebrated “culturally” and not “religiously”? Can one raise Jewish children if Shabbat is not part of their lives, if they do not give tzedakah and if Judaism may not come up in the course of a day or week?
Many, many couples I meet with think they will want some aspects of both religions in their lives. They don’t believe this will confuse children. They feel that if the parents are on the same page, the children will be too. If there is love, tolerance, respect, empathy, a willingness to learn and experience and a depth of compromise, it will enrich the family to become literate in both faiths and to celebrate aspects of both faiths. Whatever we think about this, we are going to have to confront this reality. How can and should the liberal Jewish world respond? What will our religious schools look like if we have more and more children exposed to both religions who feel “half and half” and say it with wholeness and pride? Will this dilute Judaism? Will this expand Judaism? Will all children raised within liberal Judaism today come to love the idiosyncrasies of our way in to the big questions of life: kindness, social justice, the meaning of sin, how to talk about God, what it means to have lived a good life?
If you are an interfaith couple, do these observations resonate? What are your answers? What are your questions? Have I captured some of this? We want to know the top things you are thinking about so that we can think this stuff through with you. Judaism needs your voices and your presence.
Over the three years since InterfaithFamily/Chicago began, many brides and grooms have asked me to connect them with another couple in a similar religious situation to see how they have successfully navigated their relationship. Many times a Catholic woman marrying a Jewish man has wanted to speak to someone else who can understand how her mother and grandmother feel about the faith, upbringing and baptism, specifically, of a theoretical baby one day.
No matter what wisdom I can share from how other couples have worked out interfaith issues, there is nothing like speaking one-on-one with someone who has actually been there. We have done our best to connect couples over the years and have heard back about how helpful those matches have been.
Because we have seen what an organic need this is, we are thrilled that we received a JUF Breakthrough Fund grant to launch a comprehensive and supported new, innovative Mentoring Program for interfaith couples and families.
We are just beginning the program. If you are an interfaith couple seriously dating, engaged or married or an interfaith family with young children who would like to be paired with another couple or family who shares a similar religious story and lives near you, we would be so happy to make a match for you.
The mentors will be available to you through email, phone and in-person to talk through how they handle holidays and extended family, how they made religious decisions, how their kids have felt about their family’s decisions and all the other questions that can come up for interfaith families. The mentors will also invite their mentees to their home between December and May. You may be able to get together in-person (depending on your schedules) for certain holidays or at least to see how the other couple observes a Sabbath and brings peace, time for reflection and revitalization to their lives.
We will stay in touch with everybody and make sure the matches have been successful and that participants are benefitting from their new relationships. This is really a shehecheyanu moment for us at InterfaithFamily (the prayer of joy and gratitude that is said upon doing something for the first time). In the middle of this hard-to-pronounce Hebrew word is the word “chai” (life). This is a prayer about celebrating the joys of life. We have wanted to pair couples with one another in an organized program for some time and we are so proud and happy that the time has come.
InterfaithFamily/Chicago just offered a book talk on David Wolpe’s book Teaching Your Children about God. In the book, Wolpe makes a couple of observations. He writes that we often sense God or something bigger than ourselves in beginnings. This is why when something new starts, we sometimes feel an urge to mark that with prayer or a ritual. He also explains that it is through God’s presence that we can truly see each other. I pray that as we start this new program that it draws people closer to one another and to sacred purpose, hope and inspiration.
If you would like to be paired with a mentor couple or you would like to serve as a mentor couple, please email Judy Jury at firstname.lastname@example.org. Judy is the Jewish educator who will be directing this new program. The mentors will participate in a training program on Sunday, November 9 at the Weinger Northbrook JCC to consciously articulate and think about their religious journeys and how they can best support a couple just starting out. At that meeting, the mentors will receive the contact information for who they will be working with. Mentees can be expected to be contacted by their mentors soon after that date.
The Chancellor of the Conservative Movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary wrote a recent article which appeared in the Wall Street Journal titled “Wanted: Converts to Judaism.” In the article, Eisen writes, “I am asking the rabbis of the Conservative movement to use every means to explicitly and strongly advocate for conversion, bringing potential converts close and actively making the case for them to commit to Judaism. I am asking Jewish leaders to provide the funding needed for programs, courses and initiatives that will place conversion at the center of Jewish consciousness and the community’s agenda.”
I can just see it now: When you enter a Conservative synagogue, there will be billboards that will say, “Have you considered conversion to Judaism?” Partners who are not Jewish but are part of a Jewish family and raising children with Judaism may want to run the other way or hide for fear of being encouraged to convert when they have not expressed a desire or openness to do so.
Today I spoke with someone whose husband describes himself as “Jew-ish.” He has no other faith or religion in his life today in his mind or heart or soul. He is raising a Jewish son and is enjoying the journey immensely. He leaves work early each month for a family Shabbat experience at our local JCC. He already dreams about his son’s bar mitzvah. He does not want to convert at the present time. He feels that it would hurt his family to become a different religion. He feels it is too much of a break from his family of origin and too drastic. He loved his upbringing and feels close to his extended family and this seems like it would cause unnecessary pain to them.
Instead of using “every means to explicitly and strongly advocate for conversion,” why not explicitly and strongly say that when an interfaith family joins a congregation, then the partner who isn’t Jewish has become a “member of the community.” Being a “member of the community” would be a status granted because this person is making a statement that the majority of American Jews are not making any more. That statement is that Judaism is best lived in community and that for the community to exist we need structures that can house and support learning, worship, life cycle events, pastoral care and social justice work. When an interfaith family joins a congregation, the surveys indicate they behave similarly to in-married families. The synagogue is a vehicle for Jewish behavior and Jewish continuity.
When someone becomes a “member,” he or she will hopefully be enticed to want more learning and may even want the spiritual experience that most liberal Jews have not enjoyed of immersing in a mikveh. I would encourage any liberal Jew to immerse in a mikveh when they as adults have chosen Judaism by supporting a congregation or raising children with Judaism.
Joining a congregation can be a prohibitive financial pursuit and thus there are people who want to join who can’t. Our money should be going to creating different synagogue financial structures, not toward funding programs aimed at conversion. This looks at people in only two categories—Jewish or not Jewish. The statement Eisen is making is that we want all those in our community to be “Jews.” This doesn’t take into account that for a partner who is not Jewish to join a congregation, it means that they are more than “not Jewish.” And they don’t need to be changed in order to live as Jews and to enrich the Jewish community.
Nestled within Boston’s picturesque Beacon Hill neighborhood, the Vilna Shul is a gem that the city is lucky to have. The cultural center opens its doors widely to the entire Boston community, offering substantive Jewish programming, dynamic historical and contemporary exhibits and an egalitarian minyan (a Jewish prayer group).
In this interview, which is as fascinating as the Vilna Shul itself, Program Manager Jessica Antoline discusses what sets the Vilna Shul apart from many organizations, and provides a glimpse into the uniquely honest and well-rounded framework with which the shul’s staff coordinates programming.
The Vilna Shul continues to honor its long multicultural history and has been a wonderfully inclusive space for Jewish interfaith and interracial families to celebrate life cycle events and participate in programming.
What sets the Vilna Shul apart from other organizations and spiritual communities?
There are so many things! I like to think that the Vilna stands apart for three reasons:
1. On a historical level, we are it—the last synagogue from the era that brought most Jews to Boston (1880-1924). It’s an era that changed the city entirely, and we are the only place where you can learn about the Jewish contribution to that change.
2. We are also a hybrid organization, functioning both spiritually and culturally when we need to. We are non-denominational and open to all walks of Jewish life. Just to give you an example, we can have a Shabbat one day and a lecture on the rise of Jewish atheists the next. It’s very exciting.
3. I like to think that all of us at the Vilna try to share a realistic rather than idealistic Jewish story. We love to tell the happy stories, but we will never shy away from the dark sides of Jewish history. Jews are humans. We can both build up and break the world so easily. As I like to say to our visitors, Jewish people are all pieces of one dynamic culture worth celebrating. But we were never a people apart, never a people who stayed static in our actions or philosophies. Like every person we have our light and dark sides to our history. Like every people we need to evaluate who we are and what we are doing in and for this world. At the Vilna, we challenge what it means to be Jewish, what Jewish traditions and histories are and where they come from without any judgment or criticism. Through this open line of communication, I like to think we help strengthen people’s understanding of themselves and their community.
Purim at the Vilna Shul in 2014
What are the ways in which interfaith families and couples have enriched the Vilna Shul?
They help us keep our focus and ensure that we are doing our job. At the Vilna Shul our mission is to preserve and share Jewish culture in ways that are open and accessible to everyone, Jewish or not. What is the Vilna if it is not offering the public what it wants and needs? It becomes just a building without any life. Interfaith couples and families bring new perspectives, lead members of the community to think closely about their words and actions, and help everyone understand each other on a level far deeper than if they were absent from the community.
What programming do you offer that support the needs of interfaith families? How have those initiatives or programs helped the community and those families and couples?
All of our programming is open to interfaith families. Generally when it comes to addressing their needs, we do it within programs during the planning process rather than hosting programs about interfaith issues. (We know that is your field, not ours!) We ensure that every program we offer can be accessed equally by those who identify as Jewish and those who do not. From having words in transliteration and translation to working specifically with scholars, historians, musicians and others who are experienced in working with diverse groups, we always try to answer the question “would I understand this concept if I lived outside of a Jewish context?” before bringing a program to the public.
Our Havurah on the Hill Shabbats and holiday celebrations are an excellent example of this. HOH was designed to be accessible to everyone. It’s actually the number one thing people love about the program. The young Jews who attend come from many backgrounds: children of traditional Jewish backgrounds, children of interfaith parents, couples who are interfaith but considering a Jewish path, Reform, Orthodox, Conservative, secular…everything!
In your experience or based upon what members/visitors have told you, what are the salient considerations regarding interfaith families that the Vilna Shul takes into consideration when making institutional decisions or developing programming and education?
Language is always a consideration, based on what our community has told us. They appreciate that we try to make everything we do accessible so we always consider that when making a program. They also appreciate when we bring in many histories based on who is in the audience. For example, if we know that someone attending a program may have a friend, child, or partner who is Catholic-Irish or Hindu or Baptist African American, we try and take the time to make reference to their histories and any connections they have to Jewish history.
What brings you the most joy in your work, particularly your and the Vilna Shul’s leadership around diversity and inclusion?
Actually, what I just talked about brings me the most joy. Being open to everyone, being known as a safe, accessible place to talk about all aspects of Jewish culture, makes me love my job. No one is here to define your Jewishness for you. Instead, you are given access to information and a non-judgmental atmosphere. You must decide the rest! Sounds easy, right? But the pursuit of knowledge and freedom of choice are such difficult paths to take.
I smile when I see interfaith couples getting married at the Vilna. I love seeing a child of an interfaith and intercultural relationship shine as they read from the Torah during their bar or bat mitzvah. My heart soars when a Muslim student tells me he finally found a place and a person to ask the questions he was holding inside for so long.