Connecting Interfaith Families to Jewish Life in Greater Cleveland by providing programs and opportunities for interfaith families to experience Judaism in a variety of venues, meet other interfaith families, and to connect to other Jewish organizations that may serve their needs.
A great way for Jewish professionals and volunteers who work with and provide programming for people in interfaith relationships to locate resources and trainings to build more welcome into their Jewish communities; connect with and learn from each other; and publicize and enhance their programs and services.
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.
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.
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.
Nestled within Boston’s picturesque Beacon Hill neighborhood, the Vilna Shul is a gem that the city is lucky to have. The cultural center opens its doors widely to the entire Boston community, offering substantive Jewish programming, dynamic historical and contemporary exhibits and an egalitarian minyan (a Jewish prayer group).
In this interview, which is as fascinating as the Vilna Shul itself, Program Manager Jessica Antoline discusses what sets the Vilna Shul apart from many organizations, and provides a glimpse into the uniquely honest and well-rounded framework with which the shul’s staff coordinates programming.
The Vilna Shul continues to honor its long multicultural history and has been a wonderfully inclusive space for Jewish interfaith and interracial families to celebrate life cycle events and participate in programming.
What sets the Vilna Shul apart from other organizations and spiritual communities?
There are so many things! I like to think that the Vilna stands apart for three reasons:
1. On a historical level, we are it—the last synagogue from the era that brought most Jews to Boston (1880-1924). It’s an era that changed the city entirely, and we are the only place where you can learn about the Jewish contribution to that change.
2. We are also a hybrid organization, functioning both spiritually and culturally when we need to. We are non-denominational and open to all walks of Jewish life. Just to give you an example, we can have a Shabbat one day and a lecture on the rise of Jewish atheists the next. It’s very exciting.
3. I like to think that all of us at the Vilna try to share a realistic rather than idealistic Jewish story. We love to tell the happy stories, but we will never shy away from the dark sides of Jewish history. Jews are humans. We can both build up and break the world so easily. As I like to say to our visitors, Jewish people are all pieces of one dynamic culture worth celebrating. But we were never a people apart, never a people who stayed static in our actions or philosophies. Like every person we have our light and dark sides to our history. Like every people we need to evaluate who we are and what we are doing in and for this world. At the Vilna, we challenge what it means to be Jewish, what Jewish traditions and histories are and where they come from without any judgment or criticism. Through this open line of communication, I like to think we help strengthen people’s understanding of themselves and their community.
Purim at the Vilna Shul in 2014
What are the ways in which interfaith families and couples have enriched the Vilna Shul?
They help us keep our focus and ensure that we are doing our job. At the Vilna Shul our mission is to preserve and share Jewish culture in ways that are open and accessible to everyone, Jewish or not. What is the Vilna if it is not offering the public what it wants and needs? It becomes just a building without any life. Interfaith couples and families bring new perspectives, lead members of the community to think closely about their words and actions, and help everyone understand each other on a level far deeper than if they were absent from the community.
What programming do you offer that support the needs of interfaith families? How have those initiatives or programs helped the community and those families and couples?
All of our programming is open to interfaith families. Generally when it comes to addressing their needs, we do it within programs during the planning process rather than hosting programs about interfaith issues. (We know that is your field, not ours!) We ensure that every program we offer can be accessed equally by those who identify as Jewish and those who do not. From having words in transliteration and translation to working specifically with scholars, historians, musicians and others who are experienced in working with diverse groups, we always try to answer the question “would I understand this concept if I lived outside of a Jewish context?” before bringing a program to the public.
Our Havurah on the Hill Shabbats and holiday celebrations are an excellent example of this. HOH was designed to be accessible to everyone. It’s actually the number one thing people love about the program. The young Jews who attend come from many backgrounds: children of traditional Jewish backgrounds, children of interfaith parents, couples who are interfaith but considering a Jewish path, Reform, Orthodox, Conservative, secular…everything!
In your experience or based upon what members/visitors have told you, what are the salient considerations regarding interfaith families that the Vilna Shul takes into consideration when making institutional decisions or developing programming and education?
Language is always a consideration, based on what our community has told us. They appreciate that we try to make everything we do accessible so we always consider that when making a program. They also appreciate when we bring in many histories based on who is in the audience. For example, if we know that someone attending a program may have a friend, child, or partner who is Catholic-Irish or Hindu or Baptist African American, we try and take the time to make reference to their histories and any connections they have to Jewish history.
What brings you the most joy in your work, particularly your and the Vilna Shul’s leadership around diversity and inclusion?
Actually, what I just talked about brings me the most joy. Being open to everyone, being known as a safe, accessible place to talk about all aspects of Jewish culture, makes me love my job. No one is here to define your Jewishness for you. Instead, you are given access to information and a non-judgmental atmosphere. You must decide the rest! Sounds easy, right? But the pursuit of knowledge and freedom of choice are such difficult paths to take.
I smile when I see interfaith couples getting married at the Vilna. I love seeing a child of an interfaith and intercultural relationship shine as they read from the Torah during their bar or bat mitzvah. My heart soars when a Muslim student tells me he finally found a place and a person to ask the questions he was holding inside for so long.
Parenting Through a Jewish Lens is a program offered through Hebrew College in over a dozen locations in the Greater Boston area (many providing free child care in the daytime!). I recently participated in the program, and it was an incredible experience. The curriculum itself has been continuously updated and modified for several years now (the class used to be called Ikkarim) and has been well supported by CJP since its inception 10 years ago.
PTJL has assembled some of the best educators around. And the content of the materials are worth their weight in gold. This is one notebook you will want to keep in your library, as the lessons really help parents to open up and share ideas and real experiences, which are universal to all parents, yet center around the particular beauty of building one’s Jewish identity inside a growing family.
There are ten lessons in this brilliant yet very accessible curriculum. The lessons are grouped into four domains: Outward Bound (the interpersonal domain), Inward Bound (the domain of personal meaning), Upward Bound (the transcendent domain) and finally Homeward Bound (the domain of identity).
Joshua (left) and his family
The program is a great way to meet other parents who are going through similar struggles in parenting in the modern age. Rather than throw our arms into the air in total bewilderment of twenty-first century parenting, it turns out that there are some very relevant concepts in parenting within Jewish education as old as the Torah itself. Delving into these texts with a diverse group of parents and fantastic teachers, all one needs is a love of learning and a curiosity about what Judaism has to offer.
I took the class myself this past semester and have relished every moment. I was one of the “elders” as my kids are 6 and 9 and most of the group had 0-3-year-olds. Either way, parenting is parenting, and there is no need to feel any sense of isolation with such a loving and caring Jewish community that we are blessed with in Boston. This non-denominational water is nice—so jump in!
Additionally, InterfaithFamily is helping to promote a PTJL class that specifically focuses on intermarried parents, which will be wonderful as well. Any chance you have to take this class, I highly recommend it. Who couldn’t be a better parent? This is precisely the kind of family education that will deepen your lives with elevated meaning and purpose, and you might even make a new friend or two. I can’t say enough about this class. Sign Up!
PTJL offers three types of classes that support parents with children in all stages of development:
Parenting Through a Jewish Lens (for parents of children birth to 10)
Parenting your Tween Through a Jewish Lens (for parents of tweens age 10 to 12)
Parenting your Teen Through a Jewish Lens (for parents of teens age 13 to 19)
Participants come from all backgrounds and include interfaith couples, LGBTQ parents, single parents and those raised in other faiths. This fall, PTJL is holding a class specifically for interfaith families! It will take place on Thursdays, 7:30-9:00pm in Newton starting November 6, 2014.The early bird registration rate ends on June 30, so sign up soon!
You can learn more about Parenting Through a Jewish Lens by visiting its website or by checking out the PTJL blog where past PTJL participants and instructors share their stories and insights.
Have you taken this class? Let us know what you thought in the comments!
My childhood synagogue, Temple Or Rishon, was a hodgepodge of Jews and interfaith families, all of whom were happy to find a Jewish home in an otherwise Christian and Seventh Day Adventist area. Despite the Jewish community in Sacramento being very small, I feel blessed that I grew up in an incredibly eclectic and inclusive Reform synagogue in Orangevale, California.
I wish that more people could have such an affirming Jewish religious and/or community experience in their childhood—and adulthood as well. But synagogue-based religious life and education isn’t a good fit for everyone, for a variety of reasons.
While I am the Jew and leader that I am today in large part because of the synagogue in which I grew up, I recognize that day schools and synagogues don’t work for all Jews. There are other models where families can find Jewish learning and community. So where can Jews in the Greater Boston area send their children for formal Jewish education?
BJEP student theater
Enter BJEP, the Boston-Area Jewish Education Program.
BJEP provides an excellent alternative to traditional synagogue-based Hebrew school. The Boston-Area Jewish Education Program is a welcoming, independent and unaffiliated Sunday school located on the Brandeis campus in Waltham, MA. Brandeis University undergrad and grad students apply their knowledge and passion by teaching BJEP’s first through seventh grade students. The program embraces Greater Boston families from all backgrounds (interfaith, interracial, LGBT, varying Jewish denominations) interested in learning Hebrew and exploring Jewish traditions, values and culture.
Experiential learning and Jewish arts and culture are central to their program. They offer extended day options so students can learn modern Hebrew, Jewish dance and Jewish theater. BJEP also offers adult learning and family education, runs High Holiday services and provides bar and bat mitzvah support. Headed by Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari as the education director, BJEP is organized and funded by the parents of students enrolled in the school and is governed by a volunteer parent board of directors. For more information, visit www.bjep.com.
This past weekend, Hebrew College ordained a new graduating class of talented and committed rabbinical and cantorial students—mazel tov! Among them is Ari Lev Fornari, the newly-hired BJEP Director. He comes to BJEP with a dynamic and ambitious vision.
“BJEP is a vibrant community of learners and teachers, including multi-faith, multi-racial and LGBTQ families. We share a desire to create and transmit a Judaism that is relevant and meaningful. A Judaism that celebrates the many constellations of family. BJEP is a place where young people learn to value difference, curiosity and critical thinking. It is a place of imagination, creativity and play.
I was drawn to BJEP because of its out-of-the-box approach to Jewish education and its commitment to making Judaism real and meaningful. Traditionally there were different models for how to organize Jewish communal life. One of them was prayer, which grew into the synagogue model. Another was learning, known as the Heder. I see BJEP reinventing a model of Jewish community built around learning. It is my hope that as we grow the program, it will increasingly become a place of intergenerational learning, where we can support families on their Jewish and spiritual journeys.”
I’m thrilled that InterfaithFamily/Boston will have the privilege of working with Ari Lev to support BJEP’s interfaith families in the coming school year!
Between the announcement that Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky are expecting a baby and an interfaith xoJane article about a Catholic mother choosing to raise her sons Jewish, mothers who aren’t Jewish but are raising Jewish children have been receiving positive press and gaining visibility in recent weeks—it’s about time! And well-timed too, considering we celebrated Mother’s Day earlier this month. (There are, of course, fathers who aren’t Jewish raising Jewish children as well. My “Jew-ish” father having been one.)
“They are models for the rabbi’s sermon about how to lead a good Jewish life. They light Sabbath candles and send their children to Hebrew school. They attend adult education classes on Jewish subjects. They sing boisterously at Jewish services and know the Hebrew words of every prayer. They serve on synagogue committees; they even become synagogue officers. …And they are not Jews.”
There are many non-Jews who fit this description, yet amidst the panicked communal conversation about the ‘shrinking Jewish population,’ these dedicated individuals and parents are often overlooked, not only in the communal conversation, but also in day-to-day religious life in synagogues all over the country.
Photo courtesy of Dorshei Tzedek
I’m heartened by the many interfaith outreach initiatives in the Greater Boston area. In particular, the efforts made by Dorshei Tzedek, a growing Reconstructionist congregation in West Newton. The measures they’ve taken to be an inclusive community embodies their name, which means “seekers of justice” in Hebrew. “We seek to engage all of our members, whether Jewish or not, in our activities and the life of the congregation,” Dorshei Tzedek Rabbi Toba Spitzer shared with me.
A few years ago, the congregation committed to a year-long study and discussion process around inclusion. One of the results was a brochure the congregation gives out to new families that is posted on their website. It states: “Some of the values that inform our approach to welcoming our non-Jewish members [are]: inclusivity, diversity, commitment both to shared values and to Jewish tradition. While there are non-Jewish partners of our Jewish members who choose not to become involved in the congregation, there are also many non-Jewish members who participate actively and meaningfully in the life of the community. The purpose of this guide is to help clarify what it means to be a non-Jewish member of a caring and inclusive congregation that is dedicated to Jewish practice and learning.”
Photo courtesy of Dorshei Tzedek
Interfaith families are also represented in other areas of Dorshei Tzedek’s website, including this wonderful set of Shabbat videos.
What makes Dorshei Tzedek such a model for inclusion is not only their interfaith brochure and website, but the communal process that produced them, which goes well beyond simply providing lip-service. They’re making it happen. Inclusion and sensitivity, like all values, only serve their purpose when practiced and tailored to address the needs of the people we seek to include.
We are thrilled to announce that many Jewish overnight camps in New England have expressed great interest in being included in InterfaithFamily’s Jewish Camps that Welcome Interfaith Families resource webpage! These wonderful camps have made it very clear through their enthusiasm and commitment to welcoming campers from interfaith families that being a welcoming and open community is an important part of the good work that they do. Some camps have a space on their website that expresses the camps’ dedication to welcoming and supporting current and prospective campers from interfaith families and answer frequently asked questions from interfaith families.
Thank you URJ Camps Crane Lake, 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy, and Eisner! We would love to see more camps in New England across the country follow suit. Efforts like these truly make a difference in creating a welcoming and inclusive atmosphere for all campers. Boston-area camps that wish to be included on our resource page can contact us at email@example.com.
The traditional camp enrollment season is winding down. While a few camps may still have spots available, most are full. But don’t despair! If you haven’t or can’t register your children for June/July sessions, you haven’t missed the 2014 Jewish summer camp boat! In most cases, camps still have beds available for second session, which typically starts mid- to late-July and ends mid-August.
Photo courtesy of CJP Camping Initiatives
Choosing to go to overnight camp is a big decision with many factors to consider. The first question most parents ask is “Is my child ready for overnight camp?”
Camp directors tell us that a good guideline is if he or she has slept over a friend’s house successfully. If they have, you, the parent, are likely to be the one who is unsure if you are ready. To assist prospective families with the decision-making process, most camps offer opportunities to visit and get a real life “taste” of camp.
Camp JORI has a family camp at which families stay for a three-day weekend, giving them a mini camp experience without having to commit to sending their child(ren) to a two-week session. Other camps also offer a “taste of camp” where campers can visit for three-to-four days. If the dates of the multi-day visits don’t fit with your schedule, most camps also have tours throughout the summer and Tel Noar invites prospective families to attend their Super Camp Day. If a particular camp is of interest to you and you don’t see a sampler event, do a little digging on their website or contact them.
The best bat mitzvah service I ever attended was my niece Maya’s in California last year. There were 200 people gathered outdoors to participate in a beautiful Shabbat service run by Maya where she led us all in the prayers, read her Torah and Haftorah portions, gave a wonderful D’var Torah (speech), and invited family and friends to be called up for aliyahs.
Like me, my sister is intermarried. All of our partners were called up for a family aliyah, reciting the Hebrew and following along as Maya chanted each word of Torah line by line, word by word. My wife was very excited for what was her first aliyah. Many of the spouses and friends who were called to the Torah, experienced their first “calling.” There was a lot of practicing of Hebrew and blessings and learning of Torah throughout the weekend, as the whole extended family was getting ready for this wonderful honor and appreciation of our beautiful traditions.
The songs we sang during the service varied from traditional prayers with folk rock melodies to perfectly appropriate lifecycle songs such as “The Circle Game” by Joni Mitchell and “My Own Two Hands” by Ben Harper. Not a dry eye in the house, my wife said to me, “Now THIS is the kind of Jewish prayer service I really love.” And why is that? Because it was an alternative service and took place outside (connecting to nature is how many experience God and wonder), and she felt something meaningful. It was about praising God and creation and exploring what it means to be making the world a better place from a Jewish perspective. It was about being part of a wonderful family and community that really cares about one another and the world we live in. It was about witnessing this once little child becoming a woman through her actions of social responsibility and community activism. Maya did a wonderful mitzvah project raising money on JChoice to help one of her favorite causes: Pregnant Mare Rescue as Maya really LOVES horses.
Then we took out the Torah and passed it around. There were no issues about who has the right to touch it. Whoever was there and felt moved to show their kavod (respect) for the holiness was free to do so. In fact, once the Torah was opened, the rabbi invited all who were interested, regardless of their religious background, to come up and see what an actual Torah looks like. In this case, it was opened to Maya’s parshah. The outpouring of curiosity was amazing. Virtually all 200 people lined up and came up to the bima and passed by in a procession of appreciation, opening their eyes to the history and language of this incredible sacred text.
It reminds me of the beautiful part of a Passoverseder when we open the front doors of our houses and say, “All who are hungry, please come join us and eat.” This is the Judaism that I love. It is sharing and inclusive. It is sensitive to others and families feel welcome to be there and take part in the service.
My sister’s husband made a wonderful speech at the bat mitzvah, and it was so clear that even though he wasn’t officially Jewish, he was a big part of raising a Jewish family in a meaningful way. It is too bad that many communities do not allow the parent who is not Jewish to participate on the bimah. For example, some institutions have a policy that those who are not Jewish cannot touch the Torah or come up for an aliyah. I understand the argument that there is an element of choosing to be part of the Jewish people in one of the lines of the aliyah, so things seem amiss for one to announce that they are part of it if they are not. But that is precisely the point: The partner who was not born Jewish, regardless if they have undergone conversion, has taken on the tremendous commitment (a choice) to raise Jewish children. How even greater an endeavor it is to raise a child with commitment to a faith that you were not initially brought up with.
In the end, the only thing that matters is the love that we give to the world. If organized religion can continue to evolve to open its doors and welcome all those on a religious journey, think how much greater our people can be. Strength comes from flexibility as we bend with the reeds in a beautiful world that welcomes all.
Is it the spirit of the law or the letter of the law that counts the most?
“Your kids aren’t Jewish because your wife is not Jewish,” my friend said to me over coffee recently. I laughed so hard that my coffee spilled. “What’s so funny?” she asked.
“I know that you totally did not mean for that to come across as offensive.” I said, “But that is EXACTLY the kind of thing that we are trying to teach people not to say. InterfaithFamily wants to help build welcoming and inclusive Jewish communities and saying something like what you just said, for many people, is offensive.”
There are many times in one’s life that a person might find himself doing something without asking the question, “Why am I doing this?” One of the most divisive rabbinic rulings that is adhered to by various Jewish movements is that the religion of a baby is determined by the religion of the mother, not the father. So if a person is intermarried (as over 50 percent of the American Jewish population is), and they want their child to be recognized as Jewish to people within these movements, according to halacha—traditional Jewish law—it is the religion of the mother that “matters.” There are other views, such as the Reform movement, that recognizes a child as being Jewish if either parent is Jewish and the child is being raised Jewish (often referred to as patrilineal descent).
One of the most interesting aspects of the origin of religious descent is that originally in the Torah (the centerpiece and master story of the Jewish people), the religion of the offspring was determined by patriarchal descent, not matriarchal. There was a change around 2,000 years ago, many scholars found, that was based on the very tragic circumstances the Jewish people were facing. Jews were being wiped out by the Roman Empire in the 1st Century. The victimization and rape of Jewish women by Roman soldiers was not an uncommon occurrence.
There was no genetic testing back then, of course, and since the Jewish people were facing extinction, the rabbis rightfully decreed that the only parental origin that “mattered” for determining the religion of the baby was the religion of the mother. This law, which is still practiced by many Jewish communities today, had a very practical design.
But as Bob Dylan would say, “The times they are a-changin’.” It is true that there is still horrific “ethnic cleansing” that goes on around the world, such as in Bosnia and Darfur. But the problem that Jews were facing 2,000 years ago is, thankfully, no longer a common occurrence or threat. The law that once was helpful is no longer necessary.
When my son was born, my wife and I decided to have a bris and our search began to find a mohel that was willing to perform this ritual ceremony on a child from an interfaith marriage. At that time, f the mother was Jewish, it was much easier. Because I was the Jewish parent, many of themohels we spoke to would only perform the ceremony if my wife and son wen to the mikveh together. “So what’s the big deal?” I ignorantly asked. “It will be fun to go to the mikveh.” Sounded simple enough from an unaware Jewish dad’s perspective. (By the way, if you are looking for clergy to help with a birth ceremony for your interfaith family, we are here to help—just visit interfaithfamily.com/findarabbi.)
My wife was not too excited about this idea. Her initial reaction was, “Who are we trying to please?” or in other words “Why?”
Our kids are brought up Jewish in a Jewish house with mezuzahs on the doors. They attend Hebrew school and we celebrate Shabbat in our own meaningful way. And to us, right now, that is enough.
If you have questions about a bris or baby naming for an interfaith family, check out our baby naming booklet that you might find helpful. And please send me your stories (firstname.lastname@example.org), I would love to hear about your experiences as I continue this series of Halachah Unplugged.