The Temple Where I “Grew Up”

The other day I saw a rabbi I know post a YouTube link to one of my favorite versions of the prayer, Hashkiveinu. Hashkiveinu is one word in English but means, “Grant that we may lie down” in Hebrew. In Hebrew, prefixes and suffixes are attached to the word. It is a petitionary prayer to be able to lie down in peace at night and to return to renewed life the following day.

Rabbi Rothman

Rabbi Murray I. Rothman

The link on Facebook to the video caught my eye for two reasons: As I said, I love this musical rendition of this prayer. Also, this rabbi serves the congregation where I grew up, Temple Shalom of Newton, MA.

What does it mean to grow up at a synagogue? For me, I had heard stories from my dad about how his parents were among the earliest members. My dad had his Bar Mitzvah at this synagogue. I was named as an infant there. The senior rabbi at the time, Murray I. Rothman, of blessed memory, got my family through a horrendous time when my mother was struck by a car crossing the street in front of our house. My little brother was 1, my middle brother was 3 and I was a kindergartner. My mother could not get up the stairs of our house for almost a year. She was bedridden on a couch in our den. My father somehow managed the three of us. Neighbors and family came to the rescue. And Rabbi Rothman came to that den every Friday afternoon with a challah and a Torah commentary and studied a little Torah with my mom. This kept her going spiritually and emotionally.

What does it mean to grow up at a synagogue? I knew the halls of that place. I knew the smells, the classrooms, the chapel, the sanctuary, the bathrooms, the youth lounge, the social hall—I knew the building. My confirmation class photograph is on the wall there. In fact, I sat in the Rabbi’s study on more than one occasion philosophizing about God and Judaism (true, I was into this stuff, even as a kid). I felt at home there. I slept there in a sleeping bag on the floor as a teenager at a “shul-in.” I remember the Temple Shalom sukkah in detail even though the last time I helped decorate one was at least 20 years ago. I can still feel the pride I felt praying with my family in the sanctuary on the High Holidays, wearing my new dress. I can see my brothers as I write this, quietly folding the flyers and tickets into origami to keep occupied during the services.

Temple Shalom of Newton

Some say bricks and mortar don’t matter. Buildings are passé. We’ve got coffee houses now. Millennials don’t want to walk into synagogues. Too many barriers. A building fund is too onerous for members to carry. What’s important are the people. The community. This is also true. But, I loved that building and it went through changes and renovations and has a life of its own. I think one reason I felt so connected to the building was that I could walk there from my house. That is how we got to and from Hebrew School. It is rare today for kids to walk places by themselves (at least not as young as we used to). I loved that independence, and going to a place I felt was totally safe and mine.

What does it mean to grow up at a synagogue? It means you know the people. We knew the people who worked in the office, the maintenance crew, the teachers, the educators and the rabbis. These were the people who lived in the temple as far as I was concerned. They were the familiar faces who knew us by name. They were welcoming and warm. They kept the temple going. And, my friends were there. We came together from multiple public schools. We grew up there together. We came to one another’s Bar and Bat Mitzvah services. We had our parties in the synagogue social hall. My parents knew the other parents and the kids.

I learned to read Hebrew there. I may not have known how to translate each word into English but I learned to read the Hebrew prayers in Hebrew fluently by about fifth grade. I kept the old blue Gates of Prayer Book—the Reform Movement’s prayer book—on my nightstand growing up, which I received from Temple Shalom. A nameplate was placed in it for me at my Bat Mitzvah. I read the prayers to myself at night and they were a source of comfort.

My parents have now moved to Philadelphia to be near my little brother’s family. We have no ties to this building anymore. We don’t know many people who still go there. Yet, all these years later, when I see a Facebook post from Temple Shalom, it catches my eye. It makes me smile to see the new life that is there now. It is a part of me.

I marry lots of people who “grew up at an area congregation” but they left after their Bar or Bat Mitzvah. Maybe they have great and deep memories of being there. Maybe they barely remember their time there.

The only way one feels a sense of growing up in a synagogue is if you are there a lot and get really involved. I am thankful this was the case for me and my family growing up. It’s never too late to go back. It’s never too late to try a new congregation. Interfaith families are welcome at congregations, often with wide open arms.

Look through our listings for congregations that explicitly welcome interfaith couples and families, and check out this list of organizations hosting InterfaithFamily Shabbat events this month!

What Makes Us…Us

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

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

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

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

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

Bnai Brith

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

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

How to Parent “Jewishly”

Parenting through a Jewish lens

It seems these days that we are faced with more and more choices, whether in our personal or professional lives, whether at home or in public, whether small and inconsequential or life-changing. When choosing to raise a family, we now face more options and possibilities than any generation before us, from the most basic concerns of health and welfare to the more complex concerning character and values. Wading through a multitude of options is no easy task for any parent or grandparent or guardian. Add the even more complex decision-making process that interfaith couples and families face and the task of parenting and raising children seems even more daunting.

Have you ever asked yourself these questions?

How do I infuse Judaism into the lives of my children when I struggle with how it fits into my own life?

How do I teach my child Jewish values, when I’m not sure what they are?

How do I ensure that my co-parent who isn’t Jewish, feels comfortable and included?

How do I even begin to talk about God with my child?

How can I help my children become good people and help make the world a better place?

If you’ve asked yourself or your partner any of these or similar questions, you are certainly not alone and you have already begun to delve into the complexities of being a modern parent.

In the Greater Boston area, we are lucky to have an organization and an amazing group of experts who have come together to help all types of couples and parents to answer these questions and figure out their parenting choices through a Jewish lens. Hebrew College, an independent seminary, and the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston (CJP), has created an incredible 10-week course called, Parenting Through a Jewish Lens. This class will help participants explore core values that can strengthen your family, learn with expert instructors who understand your concerns as a parent and enjoy rich conversations with other parents on topics that matter.

Partners from different faith and cultural backgrounds will explore Jewish wisdom that can profoundly enrich yourselves and the loving families you have created. What a great opportunity to create a parenting community and have a space to learn and voice your own fears, joys and questions!

This year, InterfaithFamily and Reform Jewish Outreach Boston has joined up with Hebrew College to create a Parenting Through a Jewish Lens class that is geared specifically toward interfaith families. While so many parenting concerns and questions transcend religious affiliation, we wanted to help create a safe space for interfaith couples to share their own stories, learn from one another and our wonderful teacher and facilitator, Rabbi Julie Zupan.

 
If you are a parent or almost a parent and you are looking for some answers to those big questions or just want to feel part of a supportive community, here are the details:

Parenting Through a Jewish Lens

Where:  Hebrew College, Newton

When: Starting November 6, 2014, meets Thursdays, 7:30 – 9 p.m.

Cost (scholarships are available!): Individual: $145, Couple: $240

For more information or to sign up, click HERE!

If you have any other questions or just want to chat about something on your mind, please don’t hesitate to be in touch with me, Rabbi Jillian Cameron, Director of InterfaithFamily/Boston: jillianc@interfaithfamily.comor 617-581-6857. I look forward to hearing from you!

Why I Don’t Keep Kosher

Jillian

Jillian (right) with her cousins and grandmother in Ipswich, MA.

Growing up, I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about what I ate. One of my parents and then a housekeeper for a while, used to cook dinner for me and made my lunch to take to school. We didn’t keep any sense of kosher; I didn’t really understand what kashrut was until I was much older. My parents attempted to instill the values of healthy eating, feeding us fresh produce, buying food from whatever farms existed in suburban New Jersey, but beyond the health aspects, we never really discussed food in any other way.

As I grew older, I was confronted with a variety of food ethics, whether cultural, religious or health related. As I spent time thinking about the food choices I make now, I realized that the decisions I make about most aspects of my life reflect how I think, how I was raised, my cultural context and my values. As a child of an interfaith marriage, there was always a combining of cultures in our household, from the most mundane of details to the most controversial. Whenever two people combine their lives and create a family even if they seem incredibly similar on the surface, there is bound to be a certain amount of combining (usually preceded by a hefty degree of compromise).

But my parents were not only intermarried in terms of their religious backgrounds, but my mother was from high treif (non-kosher) land, New England, and my father’s family was old Jewish Bronx (brisket, anyone?). Some of my fondest food memories are when we visited my mom’s family in Ipswich, MA: fried clams, steamers, lobster rolls, scallops, you name the seafood, we ate it, and we ate it joyfully. Since I did not live near my mom’s family and was being raised as a Jew, the love of seafood represented my connection with them. I thought about giving it up over the years, as I had given up pork, but those family moments, those points of connection always prevented me. I studied and contemplated and struggled with my decision because I wanted to maintain my own sense of integrity in who I am and what my title represents. But even as a rabbi, as a leader and example in the Jewish community, I long ago decided that having a connection to my family, being able to sit with them and break bread (and lobster claws) was more important than keeping kosher. And I have never once regretted it.

We live in a world of abundant choices and options and as our community grows ever more diverse, we will only continue to face these types of decisions. There is no one right answer, it’s up to each of us to take the time, do the work and decide how we want to live our lives.

How I Chose Judaism for My Interfaith Family

Jillian with her sister and mother

Family tradition: Jillian (top) with her sister and mother on her grandfather's boat in Ipswich, MA after clamming, circa 1992

“Mom, Dad, I want to go to Hebrew School.” This was the simple phrase of 7-year-old me that changed the course of my life and the religious life of my family.

When I was in second grade my best friend, Julie invited me to come with her to Hebrew School after school one day. Being the kind of kid who loved school and learning, it didn’t take much convincing and a week or so later, I sat with Julie in her Hebrew School classroom, totally enthralled. When I came home that evening and announced to my parents with the innocent certainty belonging only to 7-year-olds that I wanted to continue attending Hebrew School, I can only imagine the sort of parental conversation that ensued after I went to sleep that evening.

You see, my mother was raised Catholic on the North Shore of Massachusetts and my father was raised a conservative Jew in New Jersey, although neither had much affinity for any sort of religion. They met at Northeastern University in the late 60s. They were hippies, they attended anti-war rallies and Woodstock and were married in a hotel in Boston by a justice of the peace. They didn’t give much or any thought to religion even after I was born ten years later.

When I was growing up, we celebrated a variety of holidays in very secular ways; cultural celebrations marked by food or family gatherings. I don’t remember really talking about religion at all until I decided that I wanted to attend Hebrew School and my parents had to make decisions that they perhaps did not want to make. Once I began Hebrew school and we had to join a synagogue, my whole family was welcomed into a warm and friendly community. Both of my parents served on various committees and my sister and I attended religious school and participated in youth group through the end of high school.

Jillian at her ordination

Jillian (second from right) with her sister, mother and father at her ordination from HUC-JIR Rabbinical School in 2012

While I didn’t really understand it at the time, I know now how amazing my parents are to have allowed and encouraged me to follow my Jewish path, despite their own personal reservations. Perhaps it should have been no surprise to them or me, after essentially choosing Judaism for my whole family, that I would choose Judaism over and over again and choose to make Judaism my life’s work by becoming a rabbi.

And now I find myself happily in my mom’s home state, as the new Director of InterfaithFamily/Boston, hoping to meet all kinds of people and families as you navigate your religious life and look to find ways to connect.

My story may be unique, but then, so is yours and I look forward to hearing all of them (contact me at jillianc@interfaithfamily.com). I truly believe that the great strength of Judaism is its continued evolution and the growing diversity of our population will only add to the color, richness and relevance of Judaism for generations to come.

Jewish Genetic Diseases: Interfaith Doesn’t Equal Immunity

The Victor CenterThanks to various Jewish ad campaigns and informational events, I know the big, scary Jewish genetics statistic: One in four Ashkenazi Jews is a carrier for at least one of the 19 preventable genetic diseases. But when Dr. Jodi Hoffman of Tufts Medical Center informed me that, “a big misconception is that interfaith couples are not at risk for having children affected with Jewish genetic diseases and therefore do not need to get screened before starting a family,” it was news to me. Unlike my colleague Wendy Armon who wrote an informative article on the subject last year, I had no idea, nor did many of my friends.

Who knew interfaith and interracial couples are not exempt from the need to test for Jewish genetic diseases? (Besides Wendy and Dr. Hoffman, that is.)

Particularly in light of this pervasive ignorance, renowned geneticist and pediatrician Dr. Hoffman has dedicated years to doing outreach to Jewish and interfaith families, working to dispel misconceptions like the one I had. Nationally recognized for her expertise in screening for Jewish genetic diseases, she is currently the Director of the Victor Outreach and Screening Program for Ashkenazi Jews at Tufts Medical Center in Boston. One of U.S. News & World Report’s “Top Doctors” in 2012, Dr. Hoffman is determined to reach as many people as she possibly can.

Shortly after I connected with Dr. Hoffman, Elizabeth Freid Vocke, one of our regular contributors on InterfaithFamily, wrote about the scare her interfaith family endured prior to the birth of their daughter Mirabelle. I asked Dr. Hoffman for her thoughts on Vocke’s article.

In light of common misinformation about proper genetic testing, is the article accurate? Is there anything you believe is particularly important to highlight?

Yes, it is definitely relevant. I think the key points to emphasize are:

  1. Any of the Jewish genetic diseases can be carried by someone of non-Eastern European background.
  2. The most accurate screening for Tay-Sachs includes DNA and enzyme (blood testing—which is not provided by the JScreen test).
  3. If the partner of Ashkenazi Jewish background screens positive, the follow-up screening needs to be based on the ethnic background of the other partner–not the Ashkenazi Jewish screening panel.
  4. Screening is best done prior to pregnancy to allow for the most reproductive options.

What recommendations would you give to interfaith couples?

Get screened and update your screening. A simple blood test will tell you if you are a carrier. There are 3 ways to get screened:  1) Contact your physician or OB/GYN. 2) Schedule an appointment at the Victor Outreach and Screening Program Clinic at Tufts Medical Center. Call (617) 636-7721 to make an appointment. 3) Attend a Victor Center community screening. You can find an upcoming screening and more information at www.victorcenters.org/screening.

Why Phish is Like Judaism for Newbies

This guest blog post is by my husband, Andrew Garnett-Cook

Andrew at Phish

Andrew at a Phish show

Recently, I went to see Phish, one of my favorite bands.  Over the course of 20 years, I’ve been to many of their shows. I was first introduced to Phish while in college and, despite a long period where I virtually stopped listening to them, I still enjoy their music and the community that surrounded them.

One thing that one must understand about Phish is that there is a tribal quality to its fans and their love for, and knowledge of, Phish music. Within the Phish world, there are stories, legends, unspoken understandings and a profound sense of shared experience borne of years of having spent time following the band from place to place during their sometimes extensive tours.

Even more interesting is the relationship of the band to the music.  Phish fans spend a great deal of time examining and scrutinizing Phish’s live music, dissecting jams and comparing them with some of the best versions of particular songs ever done live.  Certain live versions of their songs are considered classics among the fans and are spoken of with reverence that might seem excessive to anyone not familiar with the world of Phish.

 

However, once you step even an inch outside the tribal world of Phish and its community of fans, songs that are instantly recognizable classics are virtual unknowns. How many of you have ever heard of “You Enjoy Myself”? Or “Down with Disease”? Or “Ghost”? These are to Phish fans what “Hey Jude” and “Stairway to Heaven” are to the larger world of fans of rock music.

In short, fans of Phish have a shared community united around a shared past, common experience, rituals and intimate knowledge of the band and its music, though all of these things are foreign to the outside world.

For me, this is not unlike Judaism. As someone who is not Jewish, but is married to a Jew, entering the Jewish world meant being exposed to a community who also have a shared past, common experiences, rituals and intimate knowledge of the language, practices and songs associated with religious gatherings. Like the person who is not a fan of Phish, these things would be unfamiliar to someone who is not Jewish and has never been exposed to that world.

The thing to remember is that both the world of Phish and the Jewish community are, in my experience, inviting and supportive communities. A newbie at a Phish concert would be welcomed warmly and some dedicated Phishhead would be all too happy to walk them through the history of each song. Likewise, for me, introduction to the Jewish world has been at the heart of a supportive community at our synagogue, led by a rabbi who has embraced interfaith couples and made them feel welcome in the community. Because of this, I have had time to relax, become familiar with Judaism and feel like the Jewish community is one to which I can contribute.

My advice to other interfaith couples? Even if something seems unfamiliar at first or inaccessible to you, do not conclude it must be so. Like entry into the world of Phish, entering into the world of Judaism and becoming comfortable in that world takes time, commitment and a willingness to be a little uncomfortable for a while. But, a good community will welcome you in and give you the time and space to find your way.

Wade in the Water at Mayyim Hayyim

Well, I went to the water one day to pray.
And my soul got happy and I stayed all day.
[Don't you know that God's gonna trouble the water!]
- “Wade in the Water” Mary Mary

As a Jewish woman who feels deeply rooted in her African- and Native-American family’s heritage, the famous Negro spiritual “Wade in the Water” holds multiple and profound layers of visceral meaning for me. It was a central component of an alternative Rosh Hashanah ritual I created and observed in Washington, DC’s Rock Creek Park a couple years ago. And a couple years before that, “Wade in the Water” was bittersweetly at the heart of a soft-spoken, yet powerful conversation between Alana, a dear friend of mine from college, her Hungarian-Jewish grandmother and me in her grandmother’s home in Mayen, Germany.


This is one of my favorite contemporary renditions.

The classic spiritual was originally among a number of songs used as vocal instructions sung in the cotton fields to help fugitive slaves navigate the treacherous, but ultimately liberating path of the Underground Railroad.

One night during a five-day layover in Germany in 2009, Alana shared with me that the “Wade in the Water” segment of Alvin Ailey’s famed “Revelations” dance sequence was once playing on her grandmother’s television. She explained to her grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, how enslaved African-Americans used the song to escape from slavery. After a few moments of silence, her grandmother began crying as she asked Alana, in German, “Why didn’t we think to do that?” With Alana’s permission, I gently broached the subject with her bubbe a couple days later. What ensued was one of the most meaningful conversations of my life.

Black people, my people, literally found their way to freedom through song. Similar to making aliyah or immersing oneself in the mikveh, song is a spiritual vehicle that guides and elevates both individuals and communities to higher ground. The Jewish people, also my people, are well-versed in spiritual elevation, as well as immersion. It is embedded in the mundane to mystical elements of our religion.

One of the nicest ways that spiritual immersion is still alive and thriving in the Boston area is found at Mayyim Hayyim. Now in its 10th year of existence, the Mayyim Hayyim Living Waters Mikveh and Paula Brody & Family Education Center is a community mikveh that has stayed true to its mission of reclaiming and reinventing one of Judaism’s most ancient rituals—immersion in the mikveh. Mayyim Hayyim has brought this sacred tradition to life by encouraging its traditional, as well as creative contemporary spiritual use. Each year the center teaches thousands of interested visitors. And on a daily basis, it models how to make the mikveh a sacred space that is open and accessible to all Jews and those who are becoming Jews. This was the vision of Mayyim Hayyim founder and acclaimed author Anita Diamant.

As Mayyim Hayyim’s founding executive director Aliza Kline once stated, “The explicit mission of Mayyim Hayyim is to provide a space that is warm and welcoming of the broadest sense of the Jewish community.” In a world where not enough Jewish communal spaces fully embrace interfaith families, let alone the rest of the Jewish community’s expansive diversity, the Newton-based non-profit stands in a distinctive category of its own. It has become a destination for interfaith families and Jews across the spectrum of observance and affiliation. Mayyim Hayyim actively welcomes interfaith, multiracial and LGBTQ members and families.

“Wade in the Water,” along with many other songs and poetry from Jewish and other spiritual traditions are resources Mayyim Hayyim has available for visitors of their mikvehs to use as they feel inspired.

Whether you are undergoing conversion, a life cycle event or a personal journey of healing or transformation, I recommend you schedule a visit to Mayyim Hayyim Living Waters Mikveh.

Finding a Jewish Community that Feels Like Home

HBT mother and daughter

Photo courtesy of HBT

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

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

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

Sukkot

Learning about Sukkot with Rabbi Penzner. Photo courtesy of HBT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Open Doors on Beacon Hill

Front of Vilna ShulNestled 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 Vilna Shul

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.