My Wife Eats Cereal in The Garage

Passover cerealWe have been through 20 Passovers together. My wife does pretty well with the eating restrictions but somewhere around the middle of the holiday, there she is eating cereal in the garage. That’s where I store the chametz, the bread products that are off-limits during Passover, to make the rest of the house ready for the holiday. I “sell” it to a friend or neighbor who isn’t Jewish but is intrigued enough to play along. (That ensures that I don’t technically own it and it can stay there as long as it’s undisturbed.) But there it sits, calling out to Kirsti all week. Each bite of matzah brie and cardboard flavored Passover cereal increases her longing for the good stuff she knows is only steps away. Do I care? No, I have never cared. I have always drawn a line between my own, personal practice and hers. I need to clean the house of bread. I need to bring out the glass plates. But Kirsti didn’t grow up Jewish, and while many Jewish practices are meaningful to her, this one is not.

Now enter two kids. None of these differences in our practices made an impact on our home life until we had children. While she can practice however she likes, I do want to maintain a Jewish household for our kids. In similar cases, we tend to face our differences head on, explaining to our children where our beliefs or practices may differ from one another.

Many parents who come from different backgrounds will only tell one parent’s side of things until kids get older and can better handle the paradoxes. I see the value in that approach, but it’s not for us. We have always told the truth about where we differ religiously…for better or for worse. We have different ideas about theology and share with our boys that people generally—and even Jews—don’t all believe the same thing. We have different needs in terms of attending synagogue, and I am happy to be the regular Shabbat service goer with them, explaining that while she’ll go sometimes, it’s more of a regular practice for me.

But Passover is tough because it’s centered in the house. Do I want them to learn that it’s OK to run to the garage when they have a craving? I don’t need my partner to keep to it, but I want them to learn the discipline early on as a meaningful part of the Passover celebration. I want them to internalize their history as slaves being freed as they stop themselves instead of reaching for some bread. I hope they will share the excitement with me when the kitchen gets turned upside down to get ready for the holiday. But I also don’t want to denigrate my partner’s practices by making them lesser. I respect her and her relationship to Judaism. How do I hold both realities?

In truth, I’ve never lived in a house where we were all practicing Judaism in the same way.  I grew up in a home with two Jewish parents for whom Jewish eating practices held no meaning. We always laughed that it wasn’t Passover if there wasn’t a honey-baked ham on the table. OK, we never went that far, but ham and seafood were staples in our home. My mother would proudly say, “I don’t practice my religion through my stomach.” But even as a kid, I was drawn to the idea that refraining from bread made the week of my favorite holiday feel special, and I worked around my family’s need for their cupboards to remain untouched.

So we talked to our kids this Passover about the realities of different kinds of Jewish practice. They were informed that their Mommy sneaks some chametz (not surprising since they already knew that although she has tried valiantly to give them up over the years, she has a soft spot for cheeseburgers). But we didn’t dwell on the food-talk. What we did spend time discussing were the values we hope they took away from the holiday. Standing up for those who are oppressed. Using your own story of pain and difference to inspire you to rescue others. That freedom is possible. And for my partner, we know that her freedom is saying farewell to matzah for another year.

How I Met the Mother of My Children

Mychal's wedding

Mychal and Kirsti's wedding ceremony

Divinity school is an unlikely place for a rabbi to meet her spouse. In my first week of graduate school, I became friends with a Coptic nun from Egypt, a Southern Baptist minister, a Jewish Buddhist and a young scholar of Early Christianity. The last would one day become my wife. I was one of a handful of Jewish students and I relished the opportunity to study religion more broadly within this diverse community before making the final decision to become a rabbi. It became increasingly clear to me that I wanted to pursue a career like my classmates who were studying to become ministers and priests. They were community builders, teachers, healers in a fractured world. Apparently, I needed future ministers to help me decide that I wanted to become a rabbi.

For the first time in my life, I was dating a Jewish man. Since I was seriously considering becoming a rabbi by this time, I believed I had to marry someone Jewish, and he met all the criteria of a perfect spouse for me. He was not only Jewish; we had been counselors together at a Jewish camp, he spoke fluent Hebrew, had spent time in Israel and studied Judaism in college. But he simply wasn’t the right person for me.

My life took a major turn when I met Kirsti. She had grown up in a non-religious household with parents who had rejected Christianity. So, of course, she became fascinated by religion: religious people, religious texts, religious language. Like me, she was pursuing her masters at Harvard Divinity School. She would go on to earn a PhD in Early Christianity as I embarked on rabbinical school. We shared a love of religious mysticism and stayed up nights talking about Jewish and Christian mystical texts, and struggling with belief. In those early days, we also had to process the reality that dating a woman was new to both of us which, frankly, overpowered any worry about coming from different religious backgrounds.

Although she did convert many years into our relationship, Kirsti and I still question religion together and bring our knowledge, ideas and queries to the dinner table. We address our children’s musings with honesty and depth rather than supplying overly clear-cut answers we think they should be hearing. We hope our kids will be inspired to treat all people and ideas with respect and inquiry while being grounded in a rich, Jewish tradition. My Jewish life has been profoundly shaped by traveling this path with Kirsti for the past 20 years. She has led me to challenge pieces of our tradition that I blindly followed, and has deepened my connection to certain parts of our liturgy and rituals by seeing them in a new light.

I am delighted that as the new Director of InterfaithFamily/Bay Area, I have the opportunity to help families from mixed backgrounds navigate Judaism like we have. I will also strive to help Jewish communities become more welcoming to all types of people who don’t fit the long-gone model of a traditional, Jewish family. We are most enriched as a community when we offer space for people to bring their whole selves and their full narratives to Jewish life.

Maybe a rabbi meeting her spouse at divinity school is a rarity, but each family’s story is unique, with its own twists and turns. Who we love and choose to share our lives with cannot be reduced to a checklist of criteria to be met. Our stories are far more interesting than that.

Wrestling with the Ethics of the Sochi Olympics

The following is reprinted with permission from MyJewishLearning.org. We thank them for their words on this year’s Olympics which we know is weighing heavily on our readers’ minds. 

By Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

Sochi peace logoThe more I read and learn about what has been happening in Russia, the more I am afraid for its citizens. The attention that the fairly recently implemented “anti-gay propaganda” law is getting is certainly high on the list of reasons to be concerned. What begins as fines quickly becomes imprisonment. There is already more than enough evidence that creating an environment of state-sponsored discrimination against a section of the population based on an essential part of their being leads to violence against those individuals. There are numerous accounts of LGBT Russians being attacked by vigilantes and thugs.

We should all be concerned by these stories. As a Jew, and as a lesbian, I cannot help but think about Germany in the 1930s. We teach that history precisely so that we might better recognize the early signs of state-sponsored prejudice that can quickly escalate into something more. I don’t think I’m being reactionary. I’m truly and deeply concerned.

What does this mean for the Sochi Olympics, and beyond the events of the Olympics themselves. I admit, I find myself at a gut level drawn to the idea of boycott – of simply not watching. But I’m not convinced that this is an effective or meaningful response at this stage.  I would have supported the International Olympics Committee if they had made a decision to relocate or cancel the games at an earlier juncture, and I also recognize the logistical, legal, and political complexities of making such a decision.

Continue reading here

Embrace Gay Married Jews but not Intermarried Jews? I Don’t Think So

There is a pretty offensive article on the Forward today, Why Intermarriage Poses Threat to Jewish Life – But Gay Marriage Doesn’t. It’s by Yoel Finkelman, a lecturer at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, and like most Israeli commentators, he doesn’t understand liberal Jewish life and community in the US.

Finkelman says that liberal American Jewry has a lot to gain from embracing LGBT married Jews, but that embracing intermarried Jews is an “uphill climb” that will “depend on a huge investment” that he clearly thinks is not worth making.

This analysis is misguided on many levels, but what immediately comes to mind is the very small numbers of people who would be impacted by embracing LGBT married Jews. Please don’t get me wrong, I’m all in favor of including LGBT Jews – and their partners – in Jewish life and community. But it is well known (perhaps not to Finkelman) that the rate of interfaith relationships is much higher among LGBT Jews than among straight Jews. The 2011 New York community study, for example, found (at 249) that while 22% of married Jews there were intermarried, 44% of LGBT married Jews were intermarried.

These wedge-driving arguments are really troublesome; many lay Jews are already upset with rabbis who will not officiate for interfaith couples but will officiate for LGBT couples if both partners are Jewish. I can’t imagine that advocates of Jewish LGBT inclusion would agree with Finkelman’s analysis and encourage more attention to the LGBT community at the expense of efforts to engage the intermarried. There has to be room in our communal efforts to do both.

Comic Wedding

Mazel tov to Kathy Kane and Maggie Sawyer on their engagement!

What’s that? You haven’t heard of them? What if I use their aliases, Batwoman and Captain Sawyer?

Spoiler alert!

In the DC Comic universe, Batwoman is Jewish. Towleroad reports:

Kathy Kane, the Batwoman, DC’s leading lesbian lady asks Maggie Sawyer, Captain Sawyer, her secret girlfriend to…be her wife. No idea how well that’s going to go down. And you have to read the build up to this — and the rather dangerous epilogue. There’s no guarantee we’re going to hear wedding bells.”

There may not be a guarantee, but if they do get to the chuppah, our free Jewish Clergy Referral service could help them find a rabbi or cantor to officiate the wedding. Well, maybe… We’ll need to find some fictional, 2 dimensional rabbis to add to the list!

Thanks to Bleeding Cool for the image.

Jewish Organization Equality Index

Last winter, I received a request to fill out a survey from our friends at Keshet (working for the inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender individuals in the Jewish community) and the HRC (Human Rights Campaign, working for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender equal rights).

The survey, known as the Jewish Organization Equality Index (JOIE), looked at the human resources side of Jewish organizations (were workplace policies and employee benefits inclusive of all?) as well as the activities of the organizations (do we include the LGBTQ community in our resources, programming, and other materials?). The first-ever HRC study indexing LGBT inclusion in a faith-based community, it looked at over 200 Jewish nonprofit organizations in North America.

Last night, here at the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly in Baltimore, Keshet announced the results of the JOIE.

Key findings from the index create a preliminary snapshot of how a broad range of Jewish organizations — from national umbrella and advocacy groups to local nonprofits and synagogues — address LGBT diversity and inclusion in three categories of practice: organizational inclusion efforts, community/client engagement and workplace policies.

An estimated 10% of the organizations invited to take the 89-question survey completed it, which is consistent with HRC’s experience in launching inaugural indices of this type. Of the 204 Jewish nonprofit organizations that participated, 50% received the top score of “inclusion,” meaning they are taking significant steps to welcome LGBT individuals and families. By contrast, the first year of HRC’s Corporate Equality Index, which rates Fortune1000 companies on inclusion for LGBT employees, only 13 organizations of the 319 rated—or 4%—received the highest score.

On our old website (think back before we re-launched the site in August), we very prominently featured a GLBT safe zone notice on our homepage. On our new design, that same safe zone notice rotates through on our homepage. From our “Learning” navigation menu, you can get to our LGBTQ Resource Page, with helpful links and articles for LGBTQ interfaith families.

After some follow up questions and conversations, we were tipped off that we rocked the index. Last night that was confirmed. I’d like to think that we skewed the bell curve, but I realize that’s just wishful thinking…

The New Normal: Rediscovering Religion

Who else is watching The New Normal on Tuesday nights (or whenever you get to it on your DVRs)? The show follows a gay couple who will soon become fathers, the single mother who is their surrogate, and her young daughter. There are other characters thrown in for color and tension, but they’re the heart of the show.

The gay couple is also interfaith. In the first few episodes, we’ve learned that Bryan (played by Andrew Rannells, best known as Tony-nominated Elder Price from Broadway’s The Book of Mormon) is a Christian, and likely lapsed. Last week, we found out that he was raised Catholic and was rather devout — an altar boy and all. From the pilot, it’s been clear that Bryan’s partner David (Justin Bartha, Dark Horse, Holy Rollers, The Hangover II) is a nice, Jewish doctor. And not practicing (religion; he is a practicing gynecologist). Though he is stereotypically close with his mother…

In last week’s episode, David and Bryan were introduced to the concept of Godparents. As neither currently have spiritual lives themselves, they decided their child ought to have someone to turn to with spiritual questions. The hunt began. (Spoiler alert!) By the end of the episode, Bryan had gone to church, talked with a priest, and had encouraged David to go back to synagogue. We also learned that David had not been to temple since he had moved to New York as an undergrad. Feeling alone his freshman year, he took comfort going to temple, surrounded by the familiar rituals and tunes, until he got his bearings in the city. But once he got into med school, he no longer had time for prayer, “except praying I didn’t kill someone.” He hadn’t been back since.

David and Bryan aren’t so unique. Many interfaith couples (heck, many in-married couples too) let religion fall by the side until children come into the picture. At that point, future or new parents might start questioning, like these characters have, how they’ll teach their kids to be ethical and have a greater belief. Others return to religion because they remember happy memories (holidays, food, songs, family and friends coming together for celebrations) and want their children to have them too. Whatever the reason, it’s helpful to discuss how this might look for you and your (future, hypothetical) family before kids appear on the scene. Bryan and David have started this conversation somewhere in the 2nd trimester of surrogate Goldie’s pregnancy. Not bad. (Goldie is played by Georgia King — known mostly for her work in the U.K.) If you’re looking for ideas on how to start conversations, click on the Learning menu at the top of our site and pick a topic that interests you. Happy reading!

From “Estranged” to Beyond Welcoming

There’s an article in yesterday’s Miami Herald about a photo credit: Emily Michot, the Miami Herald father and daughter. But it’s not your typical fluff piece. From a “traditional” Jewish family, they became estranged after she told him she was getting married — and that her husband was not Jewish.

Fast forward, and not only have the reconciled, but they now work together: Debbie as a cantor and her father as a rabbi. They’ve created a congregation with an explicitly welcoming message:

Now, as a freelance cantor in Broward County, she has created her own congregation, welcoming anyone who isn’t comfortable in a traditional setting because they’re married to a non-Jew, don’t want to pay hefty synagogue dues, or are lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender.

And she is joined by her once-estranged father, who began studying for the rabbinate at age 65 expressly to join his daughter’s mission.

If you’ve just read the post Ari wrote this morning, wondering why more interfaith couples and families aren’t joining synagogues, it might be interesting to compare the two… Is the goal for people to “join,” or is the goal for people to be moved, feel connected to spirituality and religion? It seems this father/daughter duo have taken a different approach — and it’s working.

Four Ways to Make your Jewish Institution Inclusive for LGBTQ Interfaith Families

Originally written for Keshet’s blog. Keshet is a national grassroots organization that works for the full inclusion and equality of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Jews in all facets of Jewish life.

The High Holidays — Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur — can be the most synagogue-centric of the Jewish calendar year. They’re also among the most-well attended, even by those who may not otherwise go to synagogue.

Many interfaith couples and families, along with adults raised in interfaith homes, don’t feel welcome in Jewish organizations. And since many LGBTQ Jews feel excluded from Jewish communal organizations, it’s a double challenge for interfaith LGBTQ Jews. This might be one of the reasons LGBTQ Jews are more likely to interdate and intermarry than their straight peers. But it’s also a reason why our organizations must ensure that every member of the Jewish community is welcomed and included this holiday season — and all year long.

Here on four easy steps your organization can take right now.

1. Update your website.

Making Your Jewish Institution More LGBT Interfaith Inclusive

Courtesy InterfaithFamily

  • State explicitly on your homepage that your community includes and welcomes both LGBTQ and interfaith families and looks forward to engaging them in all activities;
  • Use photos that reflect your community’s diversity.

2. Create a Welcoming Policy Document.

  • Start the policy with a statement of inclusion;
  • Let interfaith LGBTQ families know what their membership status will be;
  • Let partners and spouses who are not Jewish know if there are restrictions for leadership positions.

3. Make your inclusion visible.

  • Add an Organizational Affiliate Badge from InterfaithFamily to your homepage, in your links section, or on your about us page.
  • Put a Safe Zone sticker on your door or your website.
  • Mention the “I” Word: when creating publicity materials for your Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services, events, and programming. Don’t forget to explicitly invite “interfaith families,” and “LGBT families.” (InterfaithFamily’s studies have found that 72% of our users find it “important” that a synagogue say its programming is “for interfaith families” in marketing material.)

4. Don’t assume.

  • We all have different levels of Jewish knowledge and hurdles that match, so:

    • Translate all Hebrew/Yiddish language;
    • Avoid terms like “non-Jew” to describe a partner who isn’t Jewish (I can only speak for myself, but I do not identify as a “non-Christian”);
    • Provide easy access material (like our booklets), for visitors and others who might want a refresher; locate them near main doors as well as in low traffic areas.

For more information on making your synagogue welcoming and inclusive to all types of interfaith families, check out InterfaithFamily’s Resource Center for Program Providers.

Responding to a Recent Article About our Parenting Class

Chai Wolfman, a contributor to OyChicago, recently wrote about the online/in-person class we just offered, Raising a Child with Judaism in Your Interfaith Family.

She wrote that the great thing about having the material online is that she could come to it in five minutes here or there and get a nugget of content to ponder. Even though this class has ended, the material can still be accessed online. If any Chicagoland interfaith families with young children would like to learn more about this class, just email me: arim@interfaithfamily.com.

Chai also wrote about whether it is possible to get to know the other families in a primarily online class, which was one of our goals. I think families learned from each other's posts, but building friendships can only happen if they see each other for shared experiences. To that end, I will continue to share opportunities for our community to meet in person, like the JCC’s Got Shabbat or PJ Library programs.

The last point she made was particularly interesting: What does the term "interfaith" imply? I'm not sure how many kids use this term to describe their own family. Interfaith families run the gamut from families who want to incorporate both religions and traditions, to those in which one partner converts and they still feel that they are "interfaith" because they have extended family that isn't Jewish, to those in which one partner does not feel they have (or were raised in) any faith. When both partners are on the same page religiously they may feel that they are "just Jewish" or whatever other labels they give themselves. When families in similar religious situations can participate together in a program, it often leads to meaningful conversations about ideas that came up, what other people do, etc., and families often feel that having these affinity-type groups is meaningful. Congregations and communal organizations do wonder, though, what the best term is to use when wanting to reach all families across the interfaith spectrum. One congregation, temple-har-zion">West Suburban Har Zion, uses the term “multi-culti.” Whatever the term, I look forward to hearing from Chicagoland families who have a partner who is Jewish and one who didn't grow up Jewish or isn't Jewish: let us know what you are interested in, what challenges, if any, you have, and how we can better connect with you.

Chai mentioned wanting to find a welcoming congregation. Check out the amazing congregations from an independent minyan like Mishkan to all of the Humanist, Reform, Reconstruction, Conservative and other congregations in your area on our Chicagoland community page.

Lastly, as for requesting gluten-free challah as a pre-requisite for a congregational fit, this blogger is in complete agreement! Maybe fellow gluten-free families should have a challah-making group every Thursday afternoon. Or better yet, let's just meet at Rose's in Evanston! 

All interfaith families with young children in Chicago, who want meaningful Judaism and spirituality in your lives, there are so many options and resources for you. Help us get to know you so we can point you in the right direction.