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.

When Traditional Hebrew School Just Isn’t a Good Fit

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 students

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.

AriThis 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!

The Carrot or the Stick: Musings from ‘The Runaway Bunny’

Runaway BunnyI was recently giving a presentation about being sensitive to interfaith families and we talked about how Judaism has changed. I compared Judaism’s motivations to “the carrot or the stick.” Many of us were taught that we must follow the commandments or else…(the stick). I felt like scare tactics were part of the education. How many people hated their Hebrew school? And now, how many people really want to put their children through a rite of passage that they despised?

But now, in a society where we can do anything with just a few clicks, there needs to be an alternate approach showing the positive side of Judaism. Judaism teaches us a structure to life—how to celebrate, how to mourn, how to be healthy. There are also so many wonderful aspects about Judaism—the joy of decorating a sukkah, the peace of a beautiful Shabbat dinner, the joy of singing and cheering for a couple after their wedding.

One of my favorite children’s books is The Runaway Bunny. In this story, the bunny talks about running away from his mother and the mother replies each time that she will be there for him no matter where he goes. At the end, he gives up. The mother’s response is “Have a carrot.” “Have a carrot” is a wonderful metaphor for Judaism. No matter where we go, our ancestors have provided us with the sustenance to go forward. It may not be super sweet but it will be nourishing. Indeed, the positive carrot (rather than the stick) will sustain us and give us energy and nourishment for the future. Negative motivations may work in the short term but are unlikely to work for future generations.

I want my kids to enjoy Hebrew school and learning about Judaism. I am proud to say that through Jewish camp, and a lot of active parents in the religious school, the kids are having a good time.  My husband and I also incorporate fun stuff relating to Judaism into our lives whenever possible. My kids enjoy learning when it’s fun. I hope that all children who are getting a Jewish education are enjoying it on a regular basis; perhaps through fun songs, Jewish cooking, a quiz bowl or a Hanukah party. If not, it is our responsibility to insist that their education be pleasant and not torture. Surely, religious education (in any religion) isn’t all joy and play but it should provide us sustenance for our future as human beings.

The Challenge of a Jewish Education – A Plea to Educators

I am a day school kid. I didn’t like learning Hebrew much but I didn’t like school much either. I have some anxious  memories of Hebrew verb conjugation from second grade in the 1970s. Through Jewish camps and youth groups, I learned to love Jewish music. I have since recovered from day school and have picked the parts of Judaism that I like and find that I am quite happy.

When it came time to think about a Jewish education for my own kids, I had some flashbacks. But I also have some fun memories. We would have lively gatherings of the Jewish kids in the community for various holidays. Later we had youth group activities and fun parties. I enjoyed being with the kids that I had known forever. I have many memories associated with Judaism that are not necessarily religious. I attended a leadership program in high school and much of it was just fun—the focus was not on religion but being a good person.

My husband and I have struggled with what to do for our own kids’education. We considered day school. We considered camp. We joined a synagogue with a reputable Hebrew school. We decided to enroll them in a Jewish camp. We celebrate the holidays—decorating a sukkah is a favorite for the kids (but tons of work for me and my husband). Everyone has their own path and we are navigating our way so that our kids enjoy Judaism.

I have spoken with many people who have had a Jewish education. They often say they hated Hebrew school or day school. Still, many of them enroll their children in Jewish schools. Though some Hebrew schools have made a great effort to ensure that the new generation of students have positive experiences, it makes me so sad that some Hebrew schools have turned people off to the joys of being Jewish.

So, for the future of the Jewish people, I encourage educators to make sure that kids are engaged in the Hebrew school experience. A fun Purim spiel can be entertaining for the whole family. Spirited music, cooking classes and dressing up in costume for holidays are all wonderful ideas. Let’s encourage creative and fun ways to learn Hebrew. Decorate the sukkah and learn prayers with joy instead of dread.

Religious schools must bring Judaism into the 21st century in dynamic and fun ways. The educational system of the 1950s will not ensure the future of Judaism—indeed, it can be detrimental. Many parents complain that their child seems to be a round peg and the Jewish educational system is trying to force the child into a square hole. A lackluster Jewish education will adversely affect the future of Judaism. Teachers and schools must adapt to the families of today, whether Conservative, Orthodox, Reform, interfaith, etc. Sensitivity to the families and kids is key. Accept families and kids where they are and help them on their own journey. Welcoming kids in the door and keeping them there with a smile on their face is crucial. The entire family should feel welcomed and engaged. Hebrew school should not be torture—there are so many positive aspects of Judaism and it’s time to break the cycle.

Do you have a suggestion of something that your kids loved at their Hebrew School? Please post it in the comments below. Sharing your positive experiences is a great benefit to everyone.