Inside Intermarriage: A Christian Partner’s Journey Raising a Jewish Family

  

book coverThis 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.

The Jewish Wedding Now

  

This post originally appeared on www.edumundcase.com and is reprinted with permission.

I don’t have any weddings in sight – my children are married and I’ve been married for 43 years myself. Nevertheless, I loved reading Anita Diamant’s The Jewish Wedding Now.

I’m most interested of course in interfaith couples, and highly recommend The New Jewish Wedding to them and their families too, because the book clearly is written with you in mind.

Describing changes over time, Diamant says “the huppah, the wedding canopy, has become a very large tent, open to Jews of all descriptions and denominations… and people from different faith traditions. The status and validity of some of these weddings is the subject of intense debate – par for the course in all things Jewish – but this edition reflects the facts on the ground.” She explains that there is no chapter devoted to interfaith couples because the book “is a menu for all who wish to include meaningful Jewish choices as they plan their ceremony and celebration; choices that are the same for everyone.”

That’s the overall tone Diamant takes toward interfaith couples – intermarriage is happening, interfaith couples are welcome to make the same Jewish choices as everyone. To those who say the presence of interfaith couples under the chuppah is a threat to Jewish tradition, she says “the countervailing tradition of adaptability is the reason why Judaism has survived and thrived.” The addition of new faces under the chuppah, she says, are “a healthy infusion of living waters, mayyim hayyim, and another chapter in a long, lively, disputatious history.”

If you stop to think about it, given that many in the Jewish community would not recognize a wedding of an interfaith couple as a Jewish wedding, it is quite remarkable that a prominent author revising a book about Jewish weddings for the third time would so matter-of-factly and explicitly help interfaith couples design their own Jewish weddings.

When I first read that there was no special chapter for interfaith couples, I was concerned, unnecessarily as it turned out, that the special considerations that interfaith couples do indeed have would not be addressed. To the contrary, in a few pages under the title “Non-Jews under the Huppah,” Diamant succinctly addresses the history of attitudes toward intermarriage, states that now “intermarriage is the communal norm” (I strongly agree), discusses some of the questions interfaith couples encounter, and says “Couples who can talk about religion before their weddings are much better prepared to handle knottier questions later on” (I strongly agree). She also addresses ways to inform relatives from different faith traditions about what will be happening, and ways to include them in the wedding ceremony. I love how she casually mentions the presence of other traditions, when she talks about including phrases written in Chinese or Hindi on wedding invitations, translations of interfaith ketubot into Spanish and Japanese, and chuppot made from Scottish tartan or African textile.

I love that she talks about the phenomenon of couples having friends ordained for the day to officiate at their weddings, but gently says “you need a rabbi” to create a Jewish wedding. I love that Diamant encourages interfaith couples to find a compatible rabbi to officiate at their weddings, describing some of the rejection they may encounter and resources available to help them.

As Diamant says, debate is par for the course in all things Jewish. I don’t agree with Diamant saying that the term “interfaith is only appropriate if the non-Jewish partner has an ongoing connection to another religion and wants that tradition reflected in the wedding ceremony and in married life.” As I’ve said before, “interfaith” today doesn’t mean anything about religious practice, that couples are practicing two faiths, or one and none; it just means they come from different faith traditions. I also try not to use the term “non-Jew” because people don’t define themselves as “nons” and would have preferred to see the admittedly ungainly phrase, “partner from a different faith tradition” throughout the book.

Moreover, a not insignificant proportion of interfaith couples are looking for rabbis to co-officiate their weddings with clergy from other religious traditions; The Jewish Wedding Now is, I believe, silent about that phenomenon. As I noted above, the book is extremely informative about Jewish wedding traditions, with parts appealing perhaps more to those interested in more traditional ceremonies. I would have liked to see a nod to couples looking for co-officiation – something like, “This is a book about Jewish weddings, not really about weddings that are conducted in Jewish and other traditions, although you can find elements of Jewish weddings in it that you might incorporate in such a wedding.”

It’s a tribute to The Jewish Wedding Now that it would in fact be informative and helpful to the whole range of interfaith couples planning a wedding and wanting their wedding to include Jewish traditions, and it’s written in a way that makes those traditions accessible and inviting to interfaith couples.

Stay tuned for InterfaithFamily’s Facebook Live with Anita Diamant. Follow us on Facebook here.

Three Denominations Under One Roof

  

A Reform rabbi, a Conservative rabbi and a 17-year-old Orthodox Yeshiva student sit down to eat Shabbat dinner… Sounds like the beginning of a joke, right?

Well, it’s not.

It was my family last Friday night. We were also joined by my two younger children. In my family, we’ve got a taste of k’lal Yisrael—the whole Jewish community—under one roof. I often tell my younger kids jokingly (well, mostly joking) that if my oldest son goes on to get Orthodox smicha (rabbinic ordination, which many males in his Orthodox community do) then I want one of them to be ordained at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, so we can have rabbis in all four major denominations of Judaism in our immediate family.

I was thrilled to have my oldest son home for a weekend break from his Yeshiva (Orthodox boarding school focused primarily on the study of traditional Jewish texts) and to have my whole family gathered together around our Shabbat dinner table. As I blessed my children after lighting the Shabbat candles, I put my hands on each of their heads and then kissed them, and I thought about how lucky I was to have each of them and how much I love each and every individual in my religiously diverse Jewish family.

Sure, having a very observant Orthodox child (which he has been for two years now) in our family isn’t always easy. I had always assumed that my kids would all live at home until going off to college at the age of 18, but instead my oldest began boarding at an out-of-town Yeshiva this past September, when he was 16-and-a-half, and I miss having him at home. But when he is at home it’s challenging that our level of kashrut (Jewish dietary observance) isn’t as strict as his. While my husband and I will eat fish or vegetables at regular restaurants, he’ll only eat at a kosher restaurant with a hashgacha (kosher certification) that he accepts. His lifestyle’s very different from ours so that, even when he’s not at school, it’s not really possible for him to travel with us unless we were to go to places where predominately Orthodox families travel, so that he can pray, eat and follow laws of modesty in ways that are comfortable to him. But those same lifestyle choices might be uncomfortable for the rest of us.

We make it work. When he’s home, we go to our favorite kosher restaurant. Last December we took our two younger kids out of school a few days early to go away over winter break so that we’d be back in time for our oldest son to come home for his long weekend off that started on December 29.

As I tell the interfaith couples that I work with, and as I’ve come to appreciate in my own life: Being in a relationship means respecting differences, honoring the person you love even when you disagree, compromising where you can, and knowing what issues are non-negotiable for you and for the other person. (For example, my son won’t attend a service where men and women sit together, so I accept that he won’t come to my synagogue when he’s home. And he accepts that, while I’ll wear a long skirt and follow the other laws of dressing modestly while visiting him at school, unlike his classmates’ mothers, I normally wear pants.)

Equally important is working hard not to judge the other person. When my son started to become very observant, my husband and I sat him down and said to him: “We’re very concerned about you being Orthodox, because Orthodoxy is so judgmental.” My son looked us in the eyes and without missing a beat said: “Do you have any idea how judgmental you’ve been of me and of my being Orthodox?” The words stung, because we knew he was right. We weren’t really being as open-minded, tolerant and accepting as we thought we were. Sure, it’s easy to be tolerant of whatever you’re already comfortable with. It’s a lot more challenging to be tolerant when something is outside of your comfort zone.

I often speak to parents whose adult children are in interfaith relationships. I tell them that when our children are young, we can choose how we raise them and what we expose them to. We have all kinds of expectations about what they should be like and what they should do as they grow older. And we think that by what we tell them and with the example we set, we can control how they’ll later lead their lives and the choices they’ll make.

Sometimes this is true. But other times, our children will follow their own paths, and fall in love with someone—or in my son’s case, a way of life—that’s different from what we’d planned. This can be difficult, but ultimately we need to respect and honor our children’s choices. This same advice I give to parents whose kids are in interfaith relationships applies to my own religiously diverse family.

Being in a family with intra-faith differences, like being in an interfaith family, has its challenges. But just like being in an interfaith family, it also has its blessings. The bottom line is that I love my wonderful, crazy family with all of our intra-faith diversity. It isn’t always easy, but it’s my family, and I couldn’t imagine it any other way.

Mom: What is Your Religion?

  

Jillian and her motherBeing from an interfaith family has influenced my life in myriad ways, most especially in my choice to focus my rabbinate on working with other interfaith families. I’ve written about my own upbringing and my parents several times over my tenure at InterfaithFamily, hoping that my own experiences might resonate with our readers. Yet, so far, everything I have shared has been in my voice and from my perspective. So, in honor of Mother’s Day and to honor my mother, I interviewed her to finally shine some light on her perspective.

I asked her a variety of questions about her early life and meeting my dad and then about how they made decisions about religion as they had children. While we have had many conversations throughout my life touching on similar topics, I have never sat down with my mother and asked her what it was like for her to be in an interfaith family, especially long before it was as accepted as it is now.

My mom is a special woman; quiet and thoughtful, passionate yet relaxed. I am the Jew, the rabbi, the human being I am because of her and my dad. I hope you enjoy a piece of her story.

Some background: My mother, Kathy, was one of five children born and raised on the North Shore of Massachusetts in a very Polish Catholic family. When she was 18, she packed her bags and headed to college, the first in her family to attend, where she met my father Richard, a nice Jewish boy from New Jersey. They were married by a justice of the peace in 1972 in Boston.

Me: When you were dating, did you ever have conversations about how you were from different backgrounds/religions?

Mom: We didn’t really have a big conversation. Neither of us were particularly active in our religions. I grew up in a pretty Catholic family. My grandmother lived with us and was from Poland. The church was her life. She grew flowers and every day brought them to put on the alter—it was within walking distance from the house. I never personally felt that connection even though, as a child, I attended every Sunday.

Richard’s family wasn’t particularly religious either. He wasn’t practicing Judaism when I met him. So obviously, we were more concerned about what our parents would think as opposed to what we were going to do together.

Me: When you did decide to get married, how did your family react?

Mom: There were certain members of my family, some aunts, who didn’t think it was right.  My grandmother, who lived with us, wasn’t supportive. They didn’t come to our wedding. It stung not having them at my wedding, but it didn’t disturb me for any length of time. But my parents and my sisters and brother were all on board after talking it through. It was just the way my parents were. They were very accepting and compromising and after having a conversation, my father said, “It’s your life, you make the decision.” And after that there were no repercussions.

Me: Did you know any other people who were also marrying someone from a different religion?

Mom: We went to college in Boston and there were a lot of people from the New York/New Jersey area and Massachusetts. So we were meeting different people all the time. My roommate, who was Catholic, met a Jewish guy from New Jersey and they were also married, a little after we were married. A couple of other people we knew in a similar situation also married. There didn’t seem to be a barrier. It was kind of exciting to meet someone who was different. And religion never seemed to be a problem. It was the end of the ’60s: These old barriers were meant to be broken.

Me: What was the conversation about who was going to officiate at your wedding?

Mom: We wanted a Justice of the Peace because it would just make it easier. Neither of us were connected to a synagogue or church and we felt that would be the easiest and cleanest. It wouldn’t be favoring one over the other. We didn’t care. We really didn’t take religion into account at that point.

Me: In the first years of your marriage, before you had children, did you have any connection to religion?

Mom: For the first 10 years of our marriage, before we had children, we were a-religious. We might have gone to a family friend’s house for Passover once, or Christmas at my parent’s house, but never at our home. Because my upbringing was pretty rote (learn the Catechism, study the prayers, follow whatever you needed to do), it didn’t feel relevant to my life at all. Judaism seemed interesting to me.

Me: When you were planning to have children, did you have any conversations about religion?

Mom: Recognizing we had two families each with different religions, we thought, we’ll wait until our child is old enough to choose. It lasted for a little while, but it was naïve to think that a child was going to grow up without a religion and suddenly pick one. When you were a baby, we thought that us teaching you would be enough.

Me: When did we start having any religion in our lives?

Mom: Well you know this story, Jillian. You had a friend named Julie, who was Jewish. She invited you go to her Hebrew School class and you came home and asked. You knew your dad’s family was Jewish and mine was Catholic. We did explain this to you, that one family celebrated certain things and the other family celebrated other things. We wanted you to experience the world, so we said yes to you going to Hebrew School. But this came as a surprise to us.  We were cringing that now we would have to deal with this issue.

So you went, loved it and asked if you could go again. And we thought, uh oh, this is the beginning. So we went to the temple to check it out and we spoke to a few people and were told we had to join, even though we were not eager to join. But we joined, so you could go to Hebrew School.

It was a Reform synagogue, so there was never a problem with me not being Jewish. They were eager to have us and they welcomed us wholeheartedly.

Me: What was your experience at synagogue?

Mom: It was like deer in the headlights! When do I stand or sit, what do I do? It was just a totally foreign way of having a religion as opposed to Catholicism. I was confused but learning as I went along. I felt welcome, everyone was very nice. We met a lot of older members of the synagogue who were thrilled we were there, and we are still friends with them now. It was a great community to be a part of. After learning more about Judaism, talking with people, listening to the Rabbi, I realized that this is a whole different animal than Catholicism. It was more about finding meaning, things you could bring into your life. It wasn’t about memorizing; it was about thinking and challenging yourself. When I caught onto that, I thought, this is interesting to be a part of. It was a better religious experience for me than I had as a child.

Me: The question I can’t believe I don’t know the answer to: If someone were to ask you now what religion you are, what would you say?

Mom: I would say I’m Jewish, just to make it easier.  I never converted, so I know I’m not technically Jewish.  But from a view of the world, a philosophy, I am.

My mom’s story might be a bit like yours. Perhaps you related to a few things she said, remembered feeling similarly or maybe your story is vastly different. Whichever the case, telling and listening to stories is such a wonderfully and necessary human thing to do. We learn from each other, we gain perspective, we feel connected and less alone when we take the time to listen and learn about each other.

Finally, I want to thank my mother, Kathy Cameron, for being open with me, allowing me to make her story public and for being the best mom a girl could ask for. Happy Mother’s Day, Mom.

Jillian's Mom

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Why Is There an Orange on the Seder Plate?

  

Seder plate

Anything boys can doAs a kid, my mother taught us to put an orange on the seder plate as an act of feminism. Around that same time, she gave me a hot pink T-shirt with rainbow sparkle letters that read, “Anything boys can do, girls can do better.” It was the ’80s and my passions for girl power, rainbows and Jewish rituals were ignited.

My mom, and many other feminists, passed on the famous origin story of the orange, that Dr. Susannah Heschel was lecturing in Miami, and, while she was speaking of feminism, an Orthodox man supposedly shouted that “a woman belongs on the bimah [pulpit] as much as an orange belongs on the seder plate.” And so, as feminists, we all added the orange as an act of resistance; a symbol of women’s rights.

But, alas, that story that I had heard and retold for decades was a myth

(IFF/Philadlephia’s Rabbi Robyn Frisch discusses the myth here). And while I was studying at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, I was quite surprised as the story was debunked by my rabbi and I learned what REALLY happened.

It was the 1980s, and Heschel was speaking at the Hillel Jewish student group at Oberlin College. While there, she came across a Haggadah written by a student that included a story of a young girl who asks her rabbi if there is room in Judaism for a lesbian. The rabbi in the story replies in anger, “There’s as much room for a lesbian in Judaism as there is for a crust of bread on the seder plate!”—implying that lesbians are impure and are a violation of Judaism.

The next year, Heschel put an orange on her seder plate and shared that she chose the orange “because it suggests the fruitfulness for all Jews when lesbians and gay men are contributing and active members of Jewish life.”

The seeds of the orange, like other items on the seder plate, symbolize rebirth and renewal. And some folks have taken on the tradition of spitting the seeds to remind us to spit out the hatred experienced by all marginalized members of our communities.

Since the addition of the orange, other symbols have been added to the traditional seder plate (watch our fun video guide for what to put on a seder plate). Some vegetarians and vegans have added a “paschal yam,” in place of the shank bone, which traditionally represents the paschal lamb. Others have included olives for peace in the Middle East. And some have placed potato peels on their plates to commemorate Jews who starved during the Holocaust.

Most recently I learned that members of Rabbis For Human Rights, who work to support the under-paid and over-worked tomato pickers in Florida, have included a tomato as a symbol of contemporary slavery.

“We who believe in FREEDOM, cannot rest until it comes.” This year, as I prepare to lead the Passover seder for my family and friends, I am emboldened to add these various symbols to our plate as reminders of who is not free. What segments of my community are still enslaved? What human rights issues must be addressed?

I am empowered to take action and commit to do the social justice work to bring equality and dignity to everyone. In the words of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “No one is free until we are all free.”

Why Be Jewish Today?

  

Family holds red heart in hands

Anti-Semitic acts have been happening in our country every day for the past couple of months. And every day I get asked the same question, “Why should I be Jewish?”

To be Jewish is to accept the challenges along with the joys. To have Jewish heritage is to be born into a club of which you will always be a member, even if you choose not to engage in Jewish life. To choose to be Jewish, or to be partnered with someone Jewish, you are joining a family where you become part of its celebrations, accomplishments, disappointments, failures, challenges and tragedies.

So why choose to be part of a family with such tragic stories in the distant and not so distant past? Why wake up every day and make the choice to be part of a family that is the recipient of hateful speech and acts of terror and desecration? Why be a part of a group who sometimes seems to have more challenges than joys when, in America, you can choose to be anything?

I asked this question on Facebook and was given a lot of answers to why people choose to engage in Jewish life. But, I also received some questions:

How can you even choose?

Is it a choice to be Jewish?

Can you choose to ignore your family heritage?

What if you don’t have Jewish family heritage? 

How do you choose Judaism?

I want to add a few more questions to the above. If you’re in an interfaith relationship, why choose Judaism as your household religion, when it would be so easy to ignore or deny it? Being Jewish seems to come with all this extra baggage—why voluntarily carry it and ask your family to carry it?

Why do interfaith couples go out of their way to practice Judaism when being Jewish means subjecting yourself to scrutiny and possibly danger?

How about when it means sending your kid to school at a JCC or Jewish day school knowing it may get threatened and evacuated?  Or when it means going through a metal detector for synagogue? And after all that, when it means people repeatedly tell you that you’re not really Jewish, or your family’s not Jewish or your family and relationship is leading to the decline of Judaism? Why do interfaith couples and families keep it up?

For love.

Love of the past—of the parent to whom Judaism was so important. Or of the grandparent who died at Dachau or Sachsen-Hausen. Or for the mother-in-law who wants so badly for your children to be Jewish.

Love of the present—of the partner to whom Judaism is so important. The synagogue that needs your membership and participation to keep its doors open. The community that welcomes you and celebrates with you in times of joy and supports you in times of sadness. The connection you feel to other people as they navigate the journey of being Jewish in an interfaith family.

Love of the future—to give your children a tradition and culture. For Judaism to continue, thrive and flourish. For the Jewish tradition to think of the next generation and plant the seeds of faith and community that only our children and grandchildren with see the fruit of. For the story found in a Jewish text, called the Talmud (Ta’anit 23a), in which a man named Honi plants a carob tree, knowing that it will not bear fruit in his generation. When asked why he would care about a tree that wouldn’t offer him any fruit, he answered, “Perhaps not. However, when I was born into this world, I found many carob trees planted by my father and grandfather. Just as they planted trees for me, I am planting trees for my children and grandchildren so they will be able to eat the fruit of these trees.” This view of Jewish engagement is hope for the future.

Keeping faith in a time when you are unsure, when your people are being threatened, is an act of love. It’s an act that transcends you and is bigger than you and your family. You find your own reasons for engaging Jewishly and having a Jewish identity. And through it all, you know there’s a bigger reason for your family. Through the fear, threats, insults and the rejection, you stick with it and pass through your family the love you have for the past, present and future of Judaism.

Everyone has their own reasons for this love. Familial heritage may resonate with you or Jewish continuity may drive your Jewish identity. Maybe it’s the participation in community events or Jewish ritual that increases your connection with Judaism. In a world where anti-Semitism is part of our daily lives and freedom of religion is part of our society, people have a choice how they identify with Judaism.  I hope you will find your own reason for being in the family as you #ChooseLove each day.

Why do you #ChooseLove and choose Judaism? Share in the comments.

A Jewish Grandmother and Her Catholic Grandchildren: A Love Story

  
Dottie and grandchildren

Dottie with two of her sons and their wives and all of her grandchildren

For the past eight-and-a-half years, I’ve been the rabbi of Temple Menorah Keneseth Chai (TMKC). It’s a small community with a close-knit group of congregants.  During our Friday night Shabbat service each week, we have Simcha Time: when people are invited to come up to the bimah and share about birthdays, anniversaries and other good news.

Dottie Bricker, a TMKC congregant, is an amazing woman with a very strong Jewish background and connection to Judaism and the Jewish people. Dottie grew up in an Orthodox Jewish home. As a young girl, Dottie spoke only Yiddish at home – she didn’t even learn English until she went to kindergarten. Dottie comes to services regularly and often comes to the bima to kvell about her four grandchildren.

Dottie is, in every way, the consummate Jewish grandmother. She bursts with love and pride when she speaks about each of her four grandchildren, all of whom call her “Bubba.” Though she’s a Jewish grandmother, not all four of Dottie’s grandchildren are Jewish. Here, in her own words, are Dottie’s thoughts about being a grandmother in an interfaith family.

My Journey that Started Twenty-Two Years Ago (by Dottie Bricker)

It was a few days before Hanukkah when my son Howard called and asked if he could bring someone to our party. I said, “Of course.” And he said, “Mom, she’s not Jewish.” I asked, “Is she nice?” And he answered, “Very.”

Howard married Gail a year later. Two years later my Charlie was born, and when he was 3, my Rachel was born. Oh, happy day-I’m the mother of three boys, the grandmother of three boys and now I finally had my little girl!

After Rachel was born, my son called and said that Gail wanted to raise the kids in her Catholic faith. Then he asked me if I would be OK with this. My answer was, “Are you nuts?! I love them the same as the other grandkids. They are the air I breathe. They are my naches.”

When Charlie and Rachel started school, I became very familiar with their school, Our Lady of Good Counsel. When they received awards, I was there at Mass to see them honored. My Charlie’s third grade teacher, Mrs. Yerkes, asked if his Bubba would come to read the story of Hanukkah to his class. I said I would love to. I read the story and taught them to play dreidel. I bought them jelly doughnuts to eat and they had a great time. A few months later, Mrs. Yerkes asked if I would read the story of Passover, and I was happy to go back. I brought matzah for the students to try. They said they liked it, but they liked the jelly doughnuts better.

When Charlie was in fifth grade, he told his teacher about his dad’s small Torah. The teacher asked if he could bring it to school. My Charlie called me and asked if I’d come to school and teach about the Torah. Once again, I said, “Of course.” It was a wonderful experience for me.

Dottie's grandchildren

Dottie with all of her grandchildren

My grandkids are now in high school and I have just been retired from my job at Our Lady of Good Counsel. There’s a new “Bubbie” in Mrs. Yerkes’ class.

My grandkids know that if they need Bubba I will be there for them. I have chaperoned school trips, gone to Phillies games with Rachel and even taken Charlie to the Mother-and-Son Dance when Gail was called into work at the last minute.

I like to say that my family is a “blended family.” We learn from each other. It’s special.

They are truly the air I breathe.

Some Jewish grandparents whose grandchildren are being brought up in a different religious tradition may understandably have a much harder time accepting that reality than Dottie. In my  blog post about honoring grandmothers of Jewish kids who aren’t themselves Jewish, I noted that, “Unlike their own sons and daughters, who fell in love with someone Jewish and made the choice to have a Jewish home and raise their children as Jews (whether or not they themselves became Jewish), these grandparents who aren’t Jewish never had a choice—they’re bound by their children’s decisions.” Of course, the same is true for Jewish grandparents whose grandchildren are being raised in a different religious tradition. It can be difficult to accept your own child’s decision to not raise your grandchild as a Jew.

Ultimately, it’s a parent’s decision how to raise their child. With mutual respect and lots of communication between grandparents and adult children, grandparents can hopefully find ways to share their Jewish traditions with their grandchildren without the parents feeling that the grandparent is “pushing” Judaism on their child.  This may be hard, and the grandparent may legitimately feel a sense of loss that their grandchild isn’t Jewish (see my blog on acknowledging the loss of a parent who commits to raise children in a religious tradition other than the one they grew up with-this can be all the more difficult for grandparents who didn’t have the choice to make.) But hopefully, like Dottie, the grandparent will love their grandchildren unconditionally, and describe them as nothing less than “the air I breathe.”

Rabbis Can Love Christmastime Too

  

Girl at Christmas market

I am a rabbi and I love Christmastime. I love the twinkling lights in the cool dark nights. I love listening to carolers sing of joy and hope as I sip my spiced cider or hot chocolate. I love that everyone greets each other more than any other time of the year. (I am, however, terrified of Santa Claus because of a run in with a mall Santa as a child.) And one of my favorite songs is “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas.” It’s not my favorite because of its religious theme, or even because of its references to snow (I’m an Arizona kid after all). It’s my favorite because it was my dad’s favorite.

Here’s a little backstory on my family: My dad converted to Judaism when he married his first wife, decades before I was born. All my life he was extremely committed to being Jewish and for the last several years of his life he was dedicated to Jewish study and worship at his local synagogue. But he sang that song like it was his personal anthem. We even had it playing on the stereo during the luncheon after his funeral. I’m pretty sure that was the first (and last) time his synagogue has had Christmas music playing at a funeral… and maybe the only time it’s ever played at any funeral in August. But it was his favorite, and now that it’s Christmastime again I’m hearing it on the radio every day and thinking of my dad.

This year the first night of Hanukkah falls on Christmas Eve. Some people are very excited about this since it means that for the first time in decades Hanukkah has similar “status” as Christmas. To some people it means that Jews still get to take advantage of Christmas shopping sales, which doesn’t happen when Hanukkah falls in November. But for some interfaith families it is a source of a lot of conflict.

When the holidays are separate on the calendar it is easier to separate their celebrations. For my family, it doesn’t matter that Hanukkah is on Christmas because Hanukkah is always on Thanksgiving for us. Growing up in a family that was geographically dispersed, Thanksgiving was the one weekend that we were all usually together. No matter when Hanukkah fell on the calendar, you could find us eating latkes and exchanging gifts on the Friday after Thanksgiving. In my family, Hanukkah was primarily about spending time with family, eating delicious food from family recipes, and presents.

To me, Hanukkah is a minor Jewish holiday from a religious perspective and does very little to define my Jewish identity. Which means that loving Christmastime does little to threaten my Jewish identity.

Because of my relationship with Hanukkah, when a friend recently asked me if it was OK for Jewish people to like Christmas movies and music, I chuckled thinking about my own annual tradition of watching “Elf” and my childhood memories of driving around town to see Christmas lights. And then I thought more closely about the question: IS it OK for Jewish people to like Christmas movies and music? What about lights? Trees?

As a Reform rabbi I do not feel it is my place to tell people what’s “OK” for them to do Jewishly. I do feel it’s my role to guide people along their path and offer expertise and opinions where appropriate. It is not my job to tell people not to listen to Christmas music, or not to have a tree or to keep kosher. It is my job to help people see how positive Jewish experience can impact your life and shape families’ lives.

When it comes to the winter holidays, there is so much more at play than religious beliefs. To one family Christmas music may symbolize songs of hope for a savior or faith in God. To another family it may symbolize beautiful melodies and joyful tunes. To me, it reminds me of my father who sung those songs with a huge smile and especially now that he’s gone, I want to listen to that music to remind me of him. I spoke with an interfaith family recently whose kids identify as Jewish, and who have a tree to honor one parent’s family tradition. They feel no guilt and they do not feel that having a tree in any way compromises their Jewish identity, but rather that it helps them represent their entire family.

Meanwhile, I hear rabbis and others tell scary tales of Christmas trees leading to diminishing Jewish communities and threatening Jewish identity. I’ve heard the sermons from rabbis who are committed to the survival of the Jewish people. I’ve read the articles describing how Jewish families (or interfaith families) having a Christmas tree is a threat to Jewish identity. I understand the argument that Jewish identity is important and the survival of Jewish community is essential. However, I believe that when many of our families are already embracing the tradition of the Christmas tree, despite the best efforts of some to discourage it, the real threat to our Jewish community is the dismissal and judgment of these families.

I think that if our Jewishness is defined by a tree or a movie or a song, we need to rethink our religious identity and spend the rest of the year strengthening it. There is more to a religious identity than physical symbols. It is about a way of life, a set of values and a tradition, and the ways in which we enact that tradition.

The Tree Strikes a Chord Like No Other

  

christmas tree

Recently, my colleague in Los Angles posted a question that piqued my interest on her personal Facebook page: “Did any of my Jewish professional friends grow up with a Christmas tree?” I knew where she was going with this. She was betting that a number of rabbis and Jewish educators had grown up in an interfaith family with a tree, or in a family with a Jewish parent or parents who had a tree for whatever reason, or they were Jews by choice who had grown up with a tree and became Jewish as an adult and then Jewish professionals. In any of these scenarios, having a tree did not deter them from becoming Jewish professionals. I had to delve into this!

So, I posted the same question with credit to Rabbi Keara and an amazing thing happened. There were over 50 comments made to my post, and they’re still coming in. I don’t think I had that many comments when my children were born or when my Grandmother, of blessed memory, died.

The amazing thing is it started with Jewish professionals admitting that they had grown up with trees and how and why that was the case and then morphed into other Jewish friends who do not work in the Jewish world writing about having trees or not having trees. And, some people even wrote that they didn’t have trees, which was as much a statement about attitudes on this subject as anything else people wrote because I had only asked to hear from people who did have a tree.

Here is what I conclude:

1.  Many Jewish leaders grew up with a Christmas tree. Many interfaith families today raising children with Judaism have Christmas trees in their homes or at a close family member’s home. There seems to be a disconnect between these two realities. Somehow interfaith families don’t see their lives and reality always mirrored in the lives and reality of their clergy and educators.

2.  Judaism from on high (I’m not sure who or what this is or if most people can even articulate this. It’s just a feeling or perception) seems to judge negatively Jewish families who have trees. This has not always been the case. There were times when many American Jews had trees and it was seen as typical and normative in their assimilating American Reform circles.

3.  People who are active in Judaism today have amazing stories of interesting family dynamics and experiences and there could be more venues or formats for sharing our stories, learning from and seeing ourselves in one another. This would inform our way of transmitting Judaism if we understood more about the context and lens by which people were experiencing Jewish messages.

4.  Symbols matter. The American flag is a symbol. We feel something when we see the flag. We feel something when we raise the flag at camp or when we see it at a sport’s event. We feel something when we see brand logos. The tree is symbolic. For many it symbolizes warmth, beauty, good memories, family time, gifts, glee and togetherness. It is all positive. If we tell those who love the tree that it is inconsistent with Judaism, they might hear that their warm family times (void of theology and religiosity, but maybe full of meaning and richness) is inconsistent with Judaism. This is confusing and hurtful. It puts people on the defensive and can lead to shame. It makes people feel they must justify the tree and argue for it lest they be seen as hurting a Judaism they are trying to perpetuate. It pits lay person against professional. It creates an us versus them.

5.  If Jewish leaders said that the tree is secular (as the Supreme Court has declared—that’s why they can be erected in public spaces) or just stopped putting so much emotion into encouraging Jewish families to not have them, then there is a fear that the tree will become like a jack-o-lantern on Halloween and be deemed “secular American.” Would Jewish families who had never had a tree suddenly feel free, open and welcome to try one? I have no idea. Maybe it would happen or maybe it wouldn’t. Would Hanukkah practice be threatened by this? Is that our fear? What really is the fear?

6.  This Facebook thread made me ask a question I come back to often which is, “What is the role I play as a Reform rabbi?” I do not believe I am a gatekeeper for Judaism. I do not believe I can tell people what to do in their Jewish expression as a one-size-fits-all or even most prescription. I believe I am supposed to inspire and inform, love and accept. Some things are outside the realm of Judaism. Some things are cool but are not Jewish. Sometimes Jewish leaders are afraid of what people want because we feel it will water down, taint and hurt an authentic, recognizable Judaism.

This is the same fear that happens when a parent, let’s say, suggests that there could be more choice in Hebrew School such as having a tutor, or coming one day a week or trying other alternatives. The educator fears that “everyone” will want a private tutor, so no changes are made. If there is a feeling that everyone wants something different than what is offered but the Jewish professional deems that desire “bad” or “wrong” or for “people who just want an easy way out,” then the people will make their own decisions and they won’t chose institutional Judaism. They will do it on their terms in ways that work for them. At a certain point the people decide and Judaism adapts and changes. If our communities are inspired, literate and invested, we should have no fear. We can trust.

I for one don’t get to decide if you have a tree, don’t have a tree, put a star on your tree or make s’mores latkes (this I recommend). I decide what my Jewish practice is and I work on this daily. I decide to hear you and try to understand you. May your holiday traditions be meaningful and lead to our defining what we are dedicated to (as the word Hanukkah reminds us to do). May I refrain from putting my judgment or my assumptions on your customs and allow you to define what they mean to you.

To Name or Not to Name: That is the Question

  
Jewish baby naming

During a recent baby naming ceremony that Moser officiated, the uncle (left) and father (right) help wrap the mother in a tallis

Who should receive a Hebrew name? What requirements should be met? Should a Hebrew name only come with a stated commitment from the child’s parents to raise their child Jewishly? What if one of the parents is not Jewish? What if the child might not be raised as a Jew?

I have thought deeply about these questions in recent weeks as opportunities to officiate at baby-namings for interfaith families presented themselves.

I spoke with rabbis, friends and family members, and heard a variety of passionate points of view. In the process, I became passionate about what the answers are for me. I’m curious to know what you think.

The spirit of the naming ceremony is to bring a child into the covenant of the Jewish people. It includes a commitment from parents to raise their child as a Jew. For most people, this is an unbendable requirement. I understand, and respect, that point of view, but I have come to disagree.

A baby-naming ceremony is an opportunity for a family to connect with Judaism during a powerful moment in that family’s life. It is a chance for us, as a Jewish community, to be an open, welcoming door. The family may only want to put their baby’s toe through the door for now, but that is enough to keep the door open. This is a defining moment, and it will set the tone for their interest in future engagement.

After the ceremony, the name will forever belong to the child. It may never be thought of again, or it might possess the power to open the door to Judaism further. It could be a catalyst for curiosity. The name may, one day, whisper in the child’s ear, “Go find out more about these people you are a part of.”

To me, a Hebrew name is a good seed planted.

What do you think?