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.
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!
I don’t normally read books written for middle schoolers, but I was in the children’s section of my local library picking up a book for my daughter the other day when I noticed a book with a bright yellow cover with a pretty Indian girl entitled My Basmati Bat Mitzvah, written by Paula J. Freedman, on display. I opened the book and started to read the summary on the inside cover: “For Tara Feinstein, life with her Jewish-Indian-American family is like a bowl of spicy matzoh ball soup. It’s a mix of cultures that is sometimes delicious, and sometimes confusing…”
I was hooked, and I immediately checked out the book. As someone who devotes my days to working with interfaith couples and families and advocating for a welcoming Jewish community, I couldn’t wait to start reading.
And I wasn’t disappointed. It was a lot of fun to read the story of Tara’s desi mispacha—a term that Tara describes in the book as a “Hindi + Yiddish made up term meaning a family that’s a little bit Indian and a little bit Jewish. Nicer than ‘Hin-Jew’…” I appreciated how the author depicted Tara’s struggles as she prepares to become a Bat Mitzvah—her questioning whether or not she believes in God; her worry that by celebrating becoming a Bat Mitzvah she will somehow be less Indian; her confusing relationship with her Catholic best friend who wants to be her boyfriend.
Tara’s Indian mother converted to Judaism years earlier, before marrying her father, but Tara still feels a deep connection to her Indian family and her Indian heritage. She deeply loved her mothers’ parents who lived in India and died several years earlier. She feels a special bond to her Nanaji(her mother’s father) and wants to be sure that celebrating her Bat Mitzvah won’t make her forget him. She adores Indian food, and though her mother doesn’t cook, her father—who grew up Jewish in America—makes great Indian food. Tara loves to watch and act out scenes from Bollywood movies. And for good luck, she rubs the statue of Ganesha that sits on her dresser.
One particular scene in the book really struck me. When Tara realizes that a friend of hers has stolen a bracelet, Tara grabs the bracelet and goes to the store to return it. As she’s reaching to put the bracelet back on the jewelry counter, she’s stopped by a security guard, who thinks that Tara’s involved in the shoplifting. When she tells the security guard that her name is “Tara Feinstein,” he looks at her skeptically and says to her: “No, really.”
That’s what it’s constantly like for Tara…people making assumptions about her, and her Jewishness, based on how she looks, and on her mother’s (and thus her) background. And this is what it’s like for so many children from interfaith, inter-racial and/or inter-cultural homes. Fortunately for Tara, she comes to realize that connecting to her Judaism on a deeper level doesn’t mean that she has to distance herself from her Indian heritage. As she says in her Bat Mitzvah speech: “…now I know that inspiration can come from many different sources, and that having multicultural experiences can actually make you stronger and more accepting of different points of view.” She comes to see that “Nanaji would really have liked my Bat Mitzvah…he was a very spiritual person…he would have approved, as long as I did it with an open heart.”
When my children write book reports for school, they always have to tell whether they would recommend the book, and why or why not. Well, I can say that I would highly recommend My Basmati Bat Mitzvah. It was refreshing to read about a young woman coming of age and dealing with the multiple aspects of her identity, and realizing that she could be fully Jewish AND still honor her Indian cultural heritage (as she did by wearing a treasured sari from her mother’s family which was made into a dress for her Bat Mitzvah).
The book shows in a touching way not just the challenges, but also the blessings, of growing up in an interfaith, inter-cultural family. It’s always said that kids need to see themselves reflected in the dolls they play with, the television and movies they watch, and the stories they read. I’d imagine that a middle schooler, especially a girl, growing up in an interfaith, inter-racial or intercultural home would at least find some aspects of herself reflected in Tara.
If you’re a mom or dad in an interfaith home and you have a child in middle school, I suggest that you get My Basmati Bat Mitzvah for your child. Better yet, read it with your kid! It’ll give you a great opening to discuss complex issues of belonging and identity. If you’re raising your child as a Jew, you can discuss with them how they can still be one hundred percent Jewish even if one parent did not grow up (and may still not be) Jewish. And you can talk about how being Jewish and proudly celebrating your Jewish identity doesn’t mean that you can’t love and honor family members who aren’t Jewish with a full heart or that you can’t embrace aspects of what you inherited from your parent who did not grow up Jewish.
I have to return My Basmati Bat Mitzvah to the library soon, before it’s overdue. And when I get there, I may just go back to the children’s section to see what other great books I can find for myself.
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.
The staff at InterfaithFamily is feeling grateful, humbled and inspired by the recent grant we received from BBYO. At their International Convention in February, BBYO teens were given the option to participate in a Shabbat learning session hosted by the Slingshot Fund. In this session, they experienced an expedited (but real!) 90 minute grant giving process.
They were first given the Slingshot Guide, which includes 50 innovative up-and-coming Jewish organizations and 17 “standard bearer” organizations, of which InterfaithFamily is one. The Guide states: “InterfaithFamily leads the conversation and demands a place for interfaith families in Jewish communal life.”
BBYOers were then split into groups and each group was assigned a handful of organizations from the Guide to research. After taking all 67 organizations in the Guide into consideration, each group got to pick their favorite and pitch it to the other groups. What a great exercise in philanthropy!
One of these groups chose InterfaithFamily as their grantee. The group members—one in particular who is in an interfaith family—found the work we do to be meaningful to them. When they pitched InterfaithFamily to the larger group, many other kids felt connected to our cause as well. Out of all of the organizations that they could have chosen to fund, the BBYOers chose one: InterfaithFamily!
Here at InterfaithFamily, we spend a lot of time working with parents and couples. We spend a lot of time thinking and talking about the children of intermarried parents, as does the greater Jewish community. But the minority voice in the equation is that of the children themselves. To know that our mission is important to them is extremely validating and adds a sense of responsibility to our daily work.
Going forward, look out for more essays and resources devoted to the children of interfaith families, because I plan to make sure we rise to the challenge of using the BBYO grant to help these kids feel welcomed and supported in the Jewish community.
InterfaithFamily/Chicago welcomes a new staff member to our office which is located on the second floor of the Weinger Northbrook JCC. Susie Field has a child at the JCC preschool and both of her children attend JCC camps. She is herself in an interfaith family and personally interested in our mission of supporting interfaith families open to exploring Jewish life. If you are ever at the JCC and wander upstairs, you will be glad to connect with Susie. She has a warm smile, a great laugh, a wonderful outlook on life and can share lots of ideas about everything from talking with extended family about religion to the day to day task of bringing spirituality and connectedness to our parenting. This is her first blog post with InterfaithFamily in which she shares the real things her son has said as he begins to process what he hears and learns about the religion and culture of Judaism.
My 5-year-old son attends a JCC Pre-Kindergarten Program. My husband is Jewish and I am not. Even the Jewish side of our family is learning as he learns. And, it’s lots of fun to watch and listen as his imagination runs wild. Here are some of the things he’s said lately that have made me smile:
To his Jewish Grandma and Grandpa, “We have to have a Shabbat candle to light. It’s Shabbat!” They rummage around in kitchen drawers and finally settle on a tiny birthday candle. “Now say the prayer!” They reach for their smartphones for assistance from the web. Candle lit, prayer said, he asks “Okay now, are we supposed to sing Happy Birthday?”
“I am God!… But, Mom, I can’t buckle myself in, can you help?” I guess even God needs a little help now and then.
“If I were God, I would bring people back to life.” Hmmm, wouldn’t that be nice.
“Hey Mom, I think Aquaman helped Moses part the Red Sea. God created Aquaman too…it’s true.”
As star of the week, his number one interest: creationism versus Big Bang. “Mom, maybe God created the big bang.”
While having his forehead stitched-up following a recent misadventure, he announced, “I will get my stitches out on Shabbat!” He was right; it was scheduled for Friday night.
“Wait, wait, we have to say the prayer before snack!” I reach for my smartphone…
“I haven’t decided whether I am Jewish, but I definitely want a bar mitzvah!”
As a mom in an interfaith family, I was worried my kids wouldn’t know where they belonged or how to communicate about their beliefs. Instead, I am fascinated by each new spiritual discovery as it develops into value and faith. As my husband and I shepherd them through their journey, we explore our own beliefs. We are re-introduced to Jewish heritage; albeit, sometimes with a superhero twist.
Many synagogues are holding their programs for Interfaith Family Shabbat this week and weekend. It is exciting to see the variety of programs that synagogues have created for this event. Some synagogues are having special movie screenings, others are hosting beginners’ services. One local synagogue, Main Line Reform Temple, was very creative and hosted a program entitled “Interfaith Family Shabbat Honoring our non-Jewish Spouses, Partners & Family Members: Everything You’ve Always Wanted to Know about Services (or anything Jewish) but Did Not Know Who or When to Ask.” This program invited all participants to email the Rabbi with any question prior to the service in which he would do his best to answer them. It was inspiring to see how many synagogues took advantage of the opportunity that Interfaith Family Shabbat provides to create a special program to re-energize their welcoming culture.
Conversely, a few synagogues said that Interfaith Family Shabbat doesn’t apply to their community because they are always welcoming. Without question, it is great to be committed to being welcoming throughout the year, but this is similar to celebrating Mother’s Day. We should always appreciate mothers but it is meaningful to moms everywhere to have one day when they are recognized. For an interfaith couple, a blessing or recognition of interfaith couples and their commitment to Judaism is inspiring to many who have chosen to support their spouse in Judaism.
In a society where we define ourselves with labels, welcoming of various groups will be critical. Some consider themselves “Jews” while others are “Protestant,” “Catholic,” “Hindu,” “Muslim,” etc. As long as we use labels, the need for constant and frequent welcoming will exist. After all, we are talking about walking into a synagogue, considered a haven for Jews—it makes sense that when a person walks into a house of worship that isn’t familiar, they will feel slightly uncomfortable. Even Jewish people may feel awkward in an unfamiliar synagogue and certainly in any other house of worship.
Hosts should let people know where to sit, what page the Rabbi is on, explain Hebrew references, etc. Guests may not know when it is ok to take a bathroom break or when to stand, so a helpful host could guide them in this. Hopefully, after multiple visits, a visitor will feel comfortable. But those first few visits are always slightly awkward. We hope that there will always be visitors, thus there will always be a need for welcoming!
I attended one of the Interfaith Family Shabbat events. One of the speakers said that he and his wife were greatly hurt when the Rabbi from his childhood Reform synagogue refused to marry them. He said that this interaction was so painful that he now refuses to go to that synagogue. Ten years later, he is still quite emotional about this rejection. I know that this synagogue considers itself welcoming but obviously, this person is scarred from the rejection.
After the service, many people remarked that “this community has always been a welcoming community.” Yet, there were many congregants who seemed to be enlightened when the Rabbi said “Just because someone marries someone of a different faith, they are not rejecting their parents. They are not rejecting their childhood. They simply fell in love.” There were congregants who really began to see the other side for the first time and understand interfaith marriage from a more loving perspective. It seemed that during this service, we learned that we should be more than understanding—we should welcome all people into the synagogue with open arms. Welcoming is a constant effort.
Did you attend a program for Interfaith Family Shabbat? Tell us about it in the comments section below!
Learn more about Interfaith Family Shabbat in Philadelphia here, and in other communities here.
I recently spoke with a couple that I’ve known for a while. The husband (I’ll call him Ben; not his real name) is Jewish and the wife (I’ll call her Rachel; also not her real name) is Lutheran. They are very excited because Rachel is pregnant with their first child. They both grew up in religious households, and each of them take their religion very seriously. They had agreed before they were married that while they would each continue to practice their own religion, they would raise their children in only one religion, but had not decided which one. Not long after Rachel became pregnant with their first child, they together decided that while Rachel would continue to attend her church and practice her religion, they would have a Jewish family and raise their children as Jews.
As a person who values Judaism and Jewish peoplehood and continuity greatly, I was thrilled to hear that Ben and Rachel had decided to raise their children as Jews. I know many families in which mothers who are not Jewish are raising Jewish children while continuing to practice a different religion and finding this to work very well for themselves and their families. I see Ben and Rachel’s decision to raise their children as Jews as a testament to the fact that they were married by a rabbi who was open and understanding as well as to the fact that the Jewish community has become increasingly welcoming to interfaith couples and families. In addition, Ben’s family accepted Rachel from the very beginning, embracing her and welcoming her into their family.
I was very happy when Ben and Rachel shared their decision with me. A Jewish family! As a rabbi and as someone who advocates for inclusion of interfaith families in the Jewish community and works to encourage interfaith families to embrace Judaism—and as a Jewish person who greatly values the beliefs, values and traditions of my religion and who knows how wonderful and meaningful it is to be part of a Jewish family and the Jewish community—I was thrilled, both for Ben and Rachel, as well as for the Jewish community as a whole.
It's important to acknowledge how difficult this decision may be for the partner who is not Jewish
But I also felt a pang of sadness. I realized all that Rachel was giving up. I thought of how meaningful it is for me to say the Shabbat blessings with my children every Friday evening before dinner and how it connects me to saying those very same blessings with my parents on Friday evenings when I was growing up. I thought of how much I enjoy saying the Shema with my kids before they go to bed—just as I said the Shema with my parents before going to bed when I was a child. I love sharing MY rituals and MY beliefs with my children, as I pass them on l’dor va-dor, “from generation to generation” and they become OUR way of life.
Rachel, who has committed to raising her children in a religion different from the one in which she grew up, will be able to pass on her values to her children, but she won’t have the opportunity to pass on her beliefs and traditions—to share with them the religious rituals she enjoyed as a child and continues to find meaningful today. She won’t have the opportunity to raise her children in the church in which she grew up. When her kids celebrate Christmas and Easter with her, they won’t be THEIR holidays, they will be HER holidays. In committing to pass on Judaism, her husband’s religion, to the next generation, Rachel is giving up the opportunity to pass on her own religion from one generation to the next.
Rachel spoke of the sense of loss that she feels in having decided not to raise her children in the religion in which she grew up and which she still practices. She further spoke of how this loss isn’t felt just by her, but by her family as well. But she also spoke of how she has come to embrace her decision to raise her children as Jews, and how she is excited that she will be able to fully participate in her family’s Jewish celebrations and observances, while still having a religious life of her own. She knows that this is the right choice for her family—and for her…but that doesn’t mean it will always be easy.
Rachel and Ben have made a big decision. They are excited to have reached this decision and Rachel is happy with it. But she doesn’t deny the loss she feels, and neither does Ben. I am optimistic that as their children grow up they will both feel good about their decision to have a Jewish family and that Ben will continue to be supportive of Rachel in acknowledging that it may not always be easy for her. But just because something isn’t easy doesn’t mean it isn’t wonderful. I know first-hand the joy and rewards of raising Jewish children and I am excited for Ben and Rachel that they will know them as well.
I think it’s important for all of us in the Jewish community, when we celebrate a couple’s decision to raise their children as Jews, to acknowledge how difficult this may be for the partner who is not Jewish. Yes, we can (and we should) be excited that Judaism will be passed on to the next generation and that the children will be blessed to grow up as Jews and that the Jewish community will be blessed to have them in our midst. But we can’t pretend that this will always be easy for the partner who isn’t Jewish and we need to give them the opportunity to feel and express their loss as we respect the sacrifices they have made.
Are you raising your children in a religion different from the religion which you grew up? Has this been difficult for you? What are the greatest challenges? What are the rewards? Respond in the comments section below.
I recently had the opportunity to hear a presentation by Dr. Beth Cousens, a creative and strategic thinker, who works with leaders in Jewish education and in Jewish life to help organizations ensure success. Her focus on strategic thinking, partnership and creative and relevant Jewish educational ideas have helped her to be a respected voice in the field.
She shared with us her insights about engaging and empowering young adults in Jewish life. Our focus was Millennials, ages 22-35, how best to serve them, engage them, and what to expect from their “engagement” with our institutions. For example, she explained that many Jewish young adults don’t know how to be Jewish, as adults. They don’t want to register or sign up. They are very interested in the answer to the question “What value is added to my life?” and they are very much looking for meaning. They don’t want to be segmented unnaturally; i.e. don’t offer Torah study for singles. Offer Torah study if you want to offer Torah study and welcome the singles! Or, offer a singles event. But don’t try to combine two things that don’t naturally fit together.
They are definitely looking for DIY Judaism. No longer can Jewish institutions and congregations “do Jewish” for their members. These young adults want to do for themselves! They need our organizations to help them learn how to do it.
She shared 5 calls to action:
Go to them. Help infuse Jewish content into their networks.
Stand for something. Help them live within the context of Jewish ideas. (If they are looking for friends, love, work, etc. they will go elsewhere. They come to Jewish institutions for Jewish content!)
Talk about and teach Jewish adulthood.
Organize around Judaism. (Can we have house meetings to ask them what they are looking for and work with them to create programming for them?)
Open our institutions: Create low barriers with high content.
I love the format of InterfaithFamily’s classes and workshops. Our mission falls directly in line with what these Millennials are looking for with our Love and Religion and Raising a Child offerings. We offer accessible and non-judgmental information so that interfaith families and those who support them can incorporate more Judaism into their lives. Check out our current offerings and stay tuned for changes to come in 2014!
What would you add to Dr. Cousens’ five calls to action?
On Yom Kippur this year, I had the pleasure of listening to a personal, heartfelt and inspiring sermon by Rabbi Rachel Saphire of Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, MA. The sermon got my family thinking and talking and I thought you might enjoy it too. Rabbi Saphire has been kind enough to allow us to share this excerpt of her sermon, which is approximately the first half. Enjoy.
Whether you see it or not, you’ve made a choice to be here today. You may be thinking, “I don’t have a choice whether or not to observe Yom Kippur. It’s just what I do. It’s what I’ve always done.” You may observe in order to support your loved one or your family. Maybe you’re a teenager or child and your parents have simply told you, “You’re coming.” Either way: you’re here and that’s a big deal. And even if you may not realize you have, you’ve made that choice and THAT is a big deal, too.
Our Torah portion for Yom Kippur comes from Parashat Nitzavim from the Book of Deuteronomy. In just a few verses, God puts a big choice before us.
“You stand this day, all of you, before God —[leaders], elders, all the men, women and children of Israel, and even the non-Israelite living among you… to enter into the covenant of the Lord your God…
Surely, this Instruction that I command you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. [This Instruction] is not … beyond the sea – that you should say, ‘Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ No, the Intruction is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.
See, I set before you this day life and prosperity, death and adversity… Choose life — that you and your offspring will live”
I find this text to be symbolic. It is not only about choosing life in the physical sense (preserving our health), but I actually think it’s about choosing TO LIVE JEWISHLY in a meaningful way. For, the commandment to choose life is given as an instruction to connect to that which is sacred. Perhaps what’s most important is the fact that this strong charge does not explicitly say HOW we should choose to live Jewishly in a meaningful way. The text only states that this choice is not far out of reach “it is very close to you – in your mouth and in your heart.” What I think this really means is that the choice is within each and every one of us. It is upon us to choose for ourselves, from within our own being, how it is that we want to express our Jewish identity or connect to the Jewish community. And if that is the case, the pathway to choosing Jewish life may be different for each one of us! The point is that we each actively have to make the choice. Making this choice is a big deal.
The Torah portion also mentions that all of us stand before God on this day – every single one of us, no matter who we are – men, women, and children. The text also mentions that even the ger, the one who is not from the Israelite community and is not Jewish stands among us.Today, a ger tzedek, also refers to one who makes the choice to convert or join the Jewish community. We affirmatively call him/her a “Jew by Choice.” I think the Torah is teaching us that WE SHOULD ALL BE JEWS BY CHOICE! What would it look like if each and every one of us consciously took hold of our choice to be Jewish?
I’ve thought about this question from a very young age. I grew up in an interfaith family. My mom is Jewish and my dad was raised as a Christian. My parents made the decision to raise my twin brother and me as Jews. My mother also wanted my father to feel comfortable observing his own customs. What did that mean? Culturally, we celebrated Christmas at home. I have fond memories of decorating the tree, hanging holiday lights, putting up a stocking, listening to and singing carols, laying out cookies for Santa Claus, sitting down for a Christmas Eve dinner, and waking up to open presents.
I also remember my mother sharing her strong Jewish identity with us and teaching us to take pride in being Jewish. We celebrated Passover and Chanukah at home with active rituals. A few times a year, we lit the Shabbat candles. In my hometown, being Jewish was also ‘something different.’ My brother and I were the only Jewish kids in our grade and my mom was our school’s “Jewish mom.” She would go from room to room to teach about Chanukah and sometimes she even invited the class to our house.
All of these practices brought me joy. I knew that I was Jewish, but I also knew my father and his family members were not. I also liked to fit in among my classmates. And so, I matter-of-factly and quite simply called myself and considered myself to be “half-Jewish.”
Then, something began to change my perspective midway through elementary school. A new kid came to town. He was in the same grade as me, his grandparents lived up the street, and HE was JEWISH! Besides my brother, I had made my first Jewish friend. I began to learn about his family and their deeply-rooted Jewish practices. With joy and excitement, their extended family gathered for holidays, including festivals I had never experienced. Their traditions and rituals spanned generations. They went to temple together. Being Jewish even informed the way they ate and the things they talked about. I was fascinated by this new-found meaning and beauty that I experienced by having a Jewish friend.
I began to explore my own identity.
“Who am I really and what is important to me?”
And then the deep Jewish questions came up, too.
“If my friend is Jewish and he goes to temple, then why don’t I?”
“Can I celebrate the ‘new’ Jewish holidays that his family celebrates?”
And then a bit later as I began to visit religious school and temple functions with my friend…
“Mom, can I attend religious school, too?”
“Can you help me learn Hebrew?”
“Can we go to services?”
“How about a field trip to the Jewish gift shop?”
And then things like…
“Mom, why do we have a Christmas tree if we’re Jewish?”
“Can we have a youth group just like the Christian kids do?”
“Can I skip my soccer game on Yom Kippur?”
“Can I become Bat Mitzvah even if I’m now 17?”
“Can I study with the rabbi more?”
And so I did – all of these things. My brother and I formed a youth group at our temple. And there we built our own sense of Jewish community. And I became Bat Mitzvah on my 17th birthday – With a new year of life came a new understanding of the depth and richness of Torah. And I decided that I would find my own sense of peace by attending Shabbat services every week if I could – that even meant skipping THE high school football game on Friday night.
These choices were my own, ones that I was proud to make and explore. Some choices were different than the ones my brother made and many were different than the ones my school friends made. But, they were mine -my own conscious and meaningful choices – ones that allowed me to explore my passions and the things that were important to ME. These choices brought me joy, connection, a sense of purpose and even the feeling of being known and loved. Even though I was born a Jew, it is for these reasons that I am a Jew by Choice. And it is because of my Jewish journey that I want each of you to have the same opportunity to make your own conscious Jewish choices today, every day, in the year ahead.
Instead of thinking of ourselves as the CHOSEN people (people for whom our destiny is chosen and dictated), we could become the CHOOSING people. We could choose to create a new Shabbat ritual for ourselves every week. We could choose to read more Jewish texts or books or explore the world of Jewish music. We could act in more concrete ways that heal our world. Or we could visit those who are lonely and in need. We could commit to teaching our children something of our own Jewish interest. We could share our own family’s history. We could question and explore our faith. If we could choose to do any of these types of things (the choices are endless)…Then, we would not be passive inheritors of our tradition, but rather active participants, consciously acting upon our choice to live Jewishly.
I recently had the honor of working with an interfaith family as their son, Jonah, prepared for his Bar Mitzvah. Here are his powerful words which describe what the study, process and ceremony meant to him. His family is part of a Jewish community that gathers for the holidays, and Jonah is excited to be able to read Torah again.
The ceremony began with his grandfather putting a tallit (a prayer shawl) on Jonah’s shoulders. His grandfather explained to him that this tallit had been bought in Israel by his great grandfather. This tallit had been worn by Jonah’s grandfather and father. Now Jonah, as a Bar Mitzvah, wore the tallit with pride. His grandfather said that his hope is that Jonah would give the tallit to his son one day. Continuity.
Here is what Jonah had to say:
“Shabbat Shalom! Thank you for supporting me and being with me and my family as I take on the role of becoming a Bar Mitzvah. Bar Mitzvah means son of the commandments. A child becomes a Bar Mitzvah whenever he chooses as long as he is 13 or older. Part of this rite of passage means that I am honored with more responsibility within the Jewish religion and among the Jewish people. I can now wear a prayer shawl called a tallit. I can now say the blessings before and after the Torah. I can now be counted in a prayer group. I can now take on mitzvot. I should also be doing more ethical and moral deeds such as honoring my parents and the elderly, helping the weak and vulnerable, visiting the sick and doing acts to help the hungry and poor.
This is my Bar Mitzvah because it is the first time that I will have the opportunity to read aloud from the Torah. To do this, I had to learn to read Hebrew and even harder, learn to read without vowels and with the fancy Torah script. This took much time to study and practice. To me learning about my Jewish heritage is very important because it shows the other side of my religion that has not been so clear to me. Since I’m neither fully Jewish nor a full catholic, I declare myself a “cashew.” No, I’m not the nut cashew but the cashew that means I have grasped both of my religions and wish to continue both of them in the future. This is very important to me.
My Torah portion is from the book of Deuteronomy. It is part of the Torah that is also read on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the calendar, because this narrative is so powerful. It is about God saying to the people to never give up. Even if it is so far out of your reach you must never give up because one day you will reach it. Also, I will be reading a part of the book of Jonah, not me, the prophet. It is traditional on Shabbat morning to read from the Torah and from the Prophets. I picked Jonah for obvious reasons. He has a cool name! What I learned from the story of Jonah is to trust God no matter what the circumstances. For example, Jonah was sent to Nineveh by God, but chose to go somewhere else because Nineveh is so outrageously uncivilized. Jonah was then swallowed by a whale and then spit out after three days of prayer and regretting his decision to disobey God. He was spat out onto the land of Nineveh where he brought forth God’s warning to change or bare the wrath of annihilation. Jonah waited patiently for the annihilation of the people but it never came. The moral is that you should never lose trust in God and that God has forgiveness and caring.”
There is a debate in the Jewish world about whether families who want both religions in their lives can find a place within the organized community for learning and fellowship. I hope that by sharing this experience of a family who has sought out Jewish learning and living in real and meaningful ways, can help us think about how we might be able to open our gates a little more.
I wish you all a happy and healthy new year. May this be a year of getting to know the individuals who call us for information, or stop in for programming. It is through hearing each other’s stories and intentions, struggles, questions and yearnings that assumptions can be dropped and judgment held so that sharing can ensue.