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.
This post is based on an article by Rabbi Copeland that originally appeared on jweekly.com
There have always been Jews-by-association. Nowadays this term, JBA for short, is becoming well known as a catch-all category for people who hang out with Jews, including people who gravitate toward Judaism, have many Jewish friends, or are partnered with someone Jewish. But the only thing that is new about the category is the name.
Throughout our history, there have been categories of people who cast their lots with the Jewish people but, for a variety of reasons, were never fully integrated into Judaism. Some may have wanted to become fully Jewish, others not. But common to all of them was that they walked a common path with Jews.
We are about to celebrate Shavuot, the holiday when we study the Book of Ruth. Ruth was a Jew-by-Association. She married one Israelite, followed her mother-in-law back to their people after his death, and then married a second Israelite. She is hailed as the first convert, but historically, conversion did not yet exist as a mechanism one could undergo to become part of Judaism. What she did do was utter the words, “Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people.” [Ruth 1:16] She declared herself a fellow traveler.
But Ruth wasn’t the only one. A person who walked the path with us in the Torah was in the category of the ger toshav, the resident stranger who lived among the early Israelites and was to observe the same rituals and laws. There is even a rationale for treating the ger toshav like an Israelite: “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” [Leviticus 19:34] The presence of this group of people was perhaps a daily reminder of the lessons we learned from our enslavement.
These resident strangers were even included in the ceremony of covenant when the community heard the law from Moses in Moab [Dt. 29:9-11]: “You stand here this day, all of you, before YHWH Your God-your tribal heads, your elders and your officials…even the stranger within your camp—to enter into the covenant”. Just as they were not full Israelites, they were not considered foreigners either.
There was also the erev rav, the mixed multitude who left the slavery of Egypt along with the rest of the Israelites [Nu.15:16]. Later in our history, during the second temple period, there was a category of Jews-by-association called “God-fearers” who, like the other categories, were people who aligned themselves with the Jewish people. Since there was no such thing as conversion, such strangers among us were left as they were—people who clearly cast their lot with the Jewish people.
In our time, there are countless people who reside within Jewish communities who consider themselves fellow travelers. Now, we draw a sharper line between those who are Jewish and those who are not. As of the early centuries CE, we do have a way for people to become fully integrated into Judaism: Conversion. But as that category has become more and more solidified, there has been less and less space for people who don’t fit neatly into one group or the other.
Conversion should be celebrated. But we should also take time to celebrate those who would have fallen nicely into one of these historical categories as fellow travelers who do not wish to convert.
People walk the path with the Jewish people because they love someone Jewish or feel an affinity with Judaism. Many are helping to raise Jewish kids, keeping this tradition thriving into the next generation. As we celebrate Shavuot, let this season of Ruth be an invitation to appreciate our many fellow travelers.
I am a counter and a list maker. I use the calendar on my phone/computer and I have a paper calendar. I create a to-do list each week and sometimes add things I have already accomplished for the simple pleasure of being able to cross it out. I have a countdown app on my phone that provides me with the exact amount of time, down to the second, until an upcoming event. I am fascinated by the fact that time never changes and yet five more minutes until recess or your lunch break feels interminable while five more minutes with someone you love is never enough.
We all mark time in our lives in different ways: Facebook reminds us of birthdays, there are myriad apps to download and calendars in every size and color if you’d rather a physical book. If we take a step back from our ever present and much appreciated technology, we are reminded of the passage of time with every sun rise and set, with the changing of seasons, the warm fresh spring air following a difficult winter, even the beautiful and mysterious patterns of the stars in the vast inky blue on a clear night.
And so we all count, individually and collectively, slowly moving along with time, whether we like it or not.
Naturally, Judaism spends a lot of time contemplating and marking the passage of time as well, especially this time of year. On Passover we celebrate freedom, the bonds of cruel slavery broken as the Israelites follow Moses and Miriam out of Egypt and toward the Promised Land. We know the story, we’ve heard it, perhaps have even seen the animated version (I highly recommend The Prince of Egypt). Passover is both the culmination of this tale of slavery and the beginning of a new era of freedom and peoplehood.
So it only seems natural that Judaism would begin a count, called the “omer,” beginning on the second day of Passover and counting the 49 days leading up to the holiday of Shavuot, which celebrates the moment on Mt. Sinai when Moses received the Torah, the story of the Jewish people and the laws, values and ethics by which to live. Each day Jews around the world say a blessing for this count as we move ever closer to the next defining moment in our collective life as a community.
Whether you vigilantly count the omer each day or you have never heard of this before, it is an interesting concept. While we often assume that the biggest moments in our lives deserve that special mark on our calendar, a card and maybe flowers, the counting of the omer suggests that remembering the journey, taking that brief moment for a simple blessing, a moment of perspective, also counts (please, pardon the pun).
These in-between moments aren’t always splashy or exciting; no one is parting a sea or forming a nation every day. Just like the Israelites wandering through the desert, we complain, we bemoan our busy schedules, worry about what’s to come, wonder if we made the right choices. And this lovely April, all of that pent up energy collected during a particularly vicious winter has been released and we are all running around, making up for lost time, attending that that spring dance recital or those little league baseball games, maybe soon a weekend visit to your favorite beach. And just as those dark, dreary, snowy winter weeks moved at a snail’s pace, these lovely spring days seem to be flying by. And how often are we simply going through the motions, waiting for that next big event, cruising on autopilot?
So perhaps this year, amidst the craziness, on those average, nothing-special days, find a single moment and simply notice it, make it count. Give yourself a rest from the worry, from the anticipation or excitement of what’s next. It is the joy we find for ourselves in the most mundane of moments or the peace we create in a single deep breath that allow us to embrace, prepare for and celebrate the most life-changing events that we put on calendars and count down with apps. The tick of time will always be constant, but we can choose how we spend it, even if only for one brief tock. So this year I’m going to count the omer and try my best to make it count as well.
In March 2015, InterfaithFamily conducted its 11th annual Passover/Easter Survey to determine the attitudes and behaviors of people in interfaith relationships during Passover and Easter. The survey attracted 1,136 responses—an increase of about 21% over 2014. Of those 1,136 respondents, 730 said they were in interfaith relationships. Of those, 501 have children and of those, 444 (89%) are raising their children with some Judaism, though not necessarily exclusively.
To simplify our findings, here are the top 10 things we learned from just those 444 respondents. (Of course, this does not reflect the behaviors of interfaith couples in general, or the behaviors of all interfaith couples with children, and the figures should not be reported as representative of all interfaith families.)
1. Passover matters. The overwhelming majority of respondents—more than 92 percent—celebrate Passover, and for most, it had some religious significance. On a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being “deeply religious,” 67% rated Passover a 3, 4 or 5. Only 7% said it was entirely secular. For those who were having or attending a seder—420 respondents—most said it would include a seder plate (94%), reading from a Haggadah or telling the Passover story (92%), food rituals like dipping parsley in salt water, making a matzah sandwich, etc. (93%), hiding the afikoman (85%) or discussing the meaning of Passover (76%). And going to a seder wasn’t new—99% had been to or hosted one before.
2. It’s about the kids. When asked why they celebrate Passover, the vast majority of respondents—more than 86%—said “to share the holiday with my children,” and “sharing the holiday with my kids” was also respondents’ favorite part of Passover. Almost 70% said they were looking for “ways to make the seder fun for kids.”
3. And food. 86% of respondents said they would be eating matzah as one of their Passover activities, with 49% following dietary restrictions for most or all days of Passover. And the resource people wanted most, next to ways to make the seder fun for kids? Recipes.
4. If you’re going to buy a Haggadah, Maxwell House is still the haggadah you count on. More than half who responded said they use a store-bought haggadah (54%), and of those, 25% were planning to use the Maxwell House Haggadah this year—more than any other haggadah mentioned, which we found surprising considering how many new haggadahs are on the market these days. However, of those who planned to use a store-bought haggadah, 36% were not sure/couldn’t remember which one and 26% said “Other” to the haggadah options we provided—using everything from Sammy Spider’s Haggadah to congregational haggadahs. More than 8% planned to use the 30 Minute Seder and 7% said A Different Night, The Family Participation Haggadah.
5. Interfaith families look for resources to meet their specific challenges. 41% of respondents were looking for resources to make the seder comfortable and meaningful for relatives and friends who aren’t Jewish, while 38% wanted help navigating the Easter/Passover overlap. 88% would be or might be interested in a haggadah specifically for interfaith families—we’ll have one ready next year!
6. Many interfaith families raising their kids with Judaism also celebrate Easter… About half of respondents (49%) said they would be participating in Easter celebrations this year, and another 16 percent said that they “maybe” would.
7. … But it’s a secular holiday for most. 59% said it was an “entirely secular” celebration. Most celebrations centered around Easter egg hunts or baskets—56% said they would be participating in an Easter egg hunt, and 51% said they would be decorating eggs, while 47% said they would give Easter baskets to kids or extended family. Another 55% would be attending an Easter meal at the home of family or extended family, while 15% would host an Easter meal (vs. the 47% who host a Passover seder).
8. Easter is not seen as a threat to Jewish identity. Likewise, 62% don’t think celebrating Easter will affect their children’s connection to Judaism. (27% said not applicable, which may mean that Easter is not celebrated.) Said one, “It’s a secular celebration that’s basically just having food with family. I was raised Jewish and I still ate Easter candy, decorated eggs, etc.”
9. Most do not struggle or expect to struggle with observing Passover and/or Easter, but of those who do… Of the 444 respondents, 261 responded to this write-in question asking what they struggle with, and many of those simply said these holidays weren’t a struggle for their family. Responses included:
“My in-laws are extremely open and welcome my Passover traditions at their Easter meal—they regularly put out matzah, without a request from me, and make desserts that are flourless for my benefit.”
“None. We’ve been doing this long enough, we have it down,” another said, while a third remarked:
“I expect the same challenges that I experience in other areas of my married life with a partner [who is not Jewish]. There are many areas of negotiation with this part of our identities; we practice good communication in order to resolve and acknowledge differences. There [are] always going to be challenges of understanding, of belief and of acceptance.”
Of those who answered with a specific struggle, some cited in-laws and extended families, or balancing the needs of both partners or holidays. Said one, “We have wondered whether to let our son eat Easter candy that contains corn syrup during Passover,” while another struggled with “Restrictions on my children eating chametz or bread during Easter.” Some cited in-laws and extended families as a concern, or simply that the extended family wants their children to observe holidays differently than how they are being raised. Several people expressed frustration with these family members not understanding or appreciating the Jewish holiday or trying to balance everyone’s needs during the two holidays.
One respondent said “My Catholic Mother—she is trying very hard to be supportive, but struggles to find a way to feel connected to her grandchildren during holidays,” while a spouse said: “I love Easter merchandise: the colors, the bunnies, the eggs. I find all of it so cute but I don’t buy my daughters any of it because we’re raising them fully Jewish. It can be hard for me.”
10. Passover is a “lot of work” holiday. We were interested to hear why people think that surveys often indicate fewer interfaith couples participate in Passover seders than couples where both partners are Jewish. The overwhelming response was that Passover is a holiday celebrated at home and takes a lot of work; that it can be intimidating if it is not a holiday you grew up celebrating and the rituals are unfamiliar. As one person explained, “Passover is pretty involved. It’s a lot more than just showing up for a one hour service at a church. It takes a big commitment.”
Another said, “Try[ing] not to hurt anyone’s feelings, not having all the resources, not knowing where to start,” while a third responded, “It takes a serious time/travel commitment to attend one or both seders, especially if they’re during the work week. We typically return to my parents—a four-hour drive away—so if one member of the couple doesn’t take that commitment seriously, it’s hard to do.”
My friend’s daughter is dating someone from a different faith and her grandparents are upset. The daughter called me and asked for advice. We talked about how people often participate in religion because of guilt or shame. For today’s society, guilt or pressure from families no longer works. In America, where everything is marketed so that you “need it now,” my philosophy is to make sure that the Jewish family is as welcoming, interesting, educational and inviting as possible. The family should be welcoming, not just because the new boyfriend or girlfriend is at the table, but for everyone. If a person has miserable memories associated with the family, they are not going to be inclined to practice Judaism when it is their turn.
If there is a new (or potential) family member at the table, make sure that the newcomer is having a positive and enjoyable experience. The family’s goal with any guest should be to put on their best version of themselves. In short, every parent’s goal should be to make the new family member fall in love with the family—its rituals, customs and craziness! Grandparents can tell stories of how important Judaism is to them and why they love it. Keep it positive, appreciative and most important, non-judgmental.
Maybe new family members will understand why the Jewish family has worked hard for so many years to maintain the beauty of Judaism. Maybe it’s the silliness. Maybe the bonding or the joy of special foods. No matter what, make it pleasant. Make it a wonderful memory. And if it gets awkward, just smile and plan to laugh about it the next day. We all have at least one annoying relative—just smile because they aren’t going to change just because you wish they would.
Talk to your parents and grandparents and tell them to show off a bit. Tell them to keep all interaction inviting. Tell them that you love them and you have so many positive family memories. Tell them you want your new (potential) family member to have these great memories too. For instance: “Grammy and Pops, I love you. I hope that he falls in love with you too. It will be easy since you are so loveable! And please get to know him. Ask him questions so you can learn how wonderful he is.” A positive tone with a little flattery should go a long way toward new wonderful memories.
Good luck and keep us posted! We want to hear about your family experiences, questions and advice.
When I was little, my mom made a huge deal of the Passoverafikomen hunt. The prize for finding the broken pieces of matzah throughout the house was the hot toy of the day (I vividly remember the year of the Beanie Baby craze). She also created an elaborate Easter egg hiding game in which one rhyming clue (starting on our pillows in the morning) led to another, with a big basket filled with eggs as the grand finale. What is the allure of the hide-and-seek element of both Easter and Passover? Do they have anything in common?
As early as the age of peek-a-boo, hiding and finding is a huge part of our development of object permanence. Dad leaves the room but it’s OK! He still exists and will come back in a minute. Just because we can’t see or hear something doesn’t mean it’s gone. Then, as we grow, the basic game of hide-and-seek excites us for an amazingly long stretch of years. I have to imagine, as my kids are playing hide-and-seek with me at the park, that the moments when I can’t see them—while panicky for me—are exhilarating for them. A sweet taste of future independence. Perhaps our spring rituals capture the excitement and expectation of these early forays into mystery and autonomy.
Both Passover and Easter share a theme of rebirth in springtime. For Christianity, Christ’s rebirth is symbolized in the egg. On the seder plate we place an egg as a symbol of hope, recalling the Israelites’ escape from slavery and birth as a free nation. Although in Judaism, the egg isn’t hidden, both rituals harken back to celebrations of the bursting forth of life at this season that far predate either religious tradition and are shared by many peoples around the world.
But when did people start hiding Easter eggs? Legend has it that the Protestant Christian reformer, Martin Luther, held egg hunts in which men hid the eggs for the women and children. Some Christians have claimed the egg as a symbol of Christ’s tomb, symbolizing his rebirth, and the hunt for eggs was likened to the hunt for Jesus in the tomb. There are images of Mary Magdelene with an egg as well. The Easter bunny didn’t enter the picture as the deliverer of those eggs until the 17th century.
The afikomen ritual clearly has very different origins, and there is no evidence that the hide-and-seek rituals are linked. Afikomen means “that which comes after” or “dessert” in Greek, and the hunt for it is a clever ploy to keep kids engaged in the often lengthy seder until the end. The kids’ elevated role is in keeping with the entire Passover experience; the holiday ritual is an elaborate scheme to pass the story of enslavement to freedom onto children.
How does it work? Early in the seder, the leader breaks the middle matzah on the table and leaves half of it as “dessert” to be eaten after the meal. Then after everyone has eaten, the leader cannot close the seder until the dessert matzah is found and eaten. Families enact this in myriad ways, but here are two popular options:
The children grab the afikomen at some point when the leader isn’t looking and hold it hostage until the adults find it in the house and pay a ransom, or
The adults have hidden it and the children have to find it in order to move the night along. It is now common practice that an adult hides enough pieces for every kid at the seder to find one and turn it in for a prize of a special coin, candy or gift. I use chocolate-covered matzah to make it more dessert-y. (Hint: put them in Ziploc bags so you don’t end up with a mess, which also allows you to hide them in tricky spots such as inside books, a piano or drawers with a corner sticking out for less savvy seekers.)
Either way, the ritual empowers children. It’s always fun to put one over on your parents. But the kids also learn that while they often feel less important than adults, at this moment they are powerful!
What about bringing these overlapping spring rituals together in an interfaith home? This is a matter for each family to decide. But some might find it comforting to know that egg painting in springtime is a tradition older than either Judaism or Christianity and it celebrates rebirth, hope, life and fertility. In fact, some Israelis even remember growing up decorating eggs for Passover, and might find it surprising that American Jews don’t generally approve of it on the grounds that in the United States, it is associated with Christianity. There are important historical reasons why some customs have become considered off limits in order for Jews to retain their particular status as separate from the dominant culture around them. But if you end up with a colored egg on your seder plate, you are far from alone. It is common enough that a great guidebook for grandparents of interfaith grandchildren is called, There’s an Easter Egg on Your Seder Plate.
How will you celebrate this year? Do spring traditions overlap or collide in your home? When planning a seder or Easter rituals, think about what you want to convey through the games and symbols you share. Think back with your partner or other family members about the rituals you each grew up with around the spring holidays and share what was meaningful—or confusing—about them. Articulate what you need out of the experience to feel personally and spiritually fulfilled. Together, explore the messages you hope your kids will take away from this season.
Years ago, I struggled with how I was going to do Hanukkah in our home. Christmas was already set. We visit my partner’s parents who aren’t Jewish for the holiday season. I tell our kids, as many Jewish parents in interfaith relationships do, that we are helping their grandparents celebrate Christmas. It may sound a little weak but it is really true. Their grandparents would be sad to not have family around their tree, as would my partner. And our Jewish kids love getting a taste of Christmas even though they know it’s not “our” holiday.
But what to do about Hanukkah? This still posed a problem. My kids come to expect presents for Christmas, and I didn’t want them to receive too much at this time of year. Did they really need the eight nights of presents I grew up with if they were about to receive mounds of gifts a few weeks later? And what if the holidays overlapped? It would send a message of overabundance I try to temper all year long and would feel antithetical to the values I’m trying to instill.
I also didn’t want to fall into the trap of pitting the two holidays against each other. When Hanukkah and Christmas compete, Hanukkah loses every time. It is a minor Jewish holiday only made grand here in the United States by its proximity to Christmas. I’m not a fan of lifting it up in importance to make a point. Instead, in our family, we expend that energy by celebrating the more important Jewish holidays and Shabbat year round.
So the question remained: What would I want my kids to associate with Hanukkah as they grow up?
Our kid-friendly menorah and tzedakah box
The answer came to me one year when I was doing my end-of-year philanthropic donations. I thought about the proximity of Hanukkah and the symbol of gelt, and the larger societal messages about December as a time of giving. As I waded through the mail, I recalled the piles of leaflets on my kitchen table growing up and how much I learned from my parents teaching me about the organizations they support. The timing was perfect! I decided to make Hanukkah into a holiday of giving—not receiving. In the glow of the Hanukkah candles, I taught my kids that tzedakah comes from the Hebrew root meaning “justice” and that philanthropic giving is a way we can help bring justice to the world. At their ages, they loved the idea that life could be fairer.
I gathered all of the leaflets we received from organizations and asked the kids what they thought. Which communities would they want to support? What makes them upset as they look around their world, from natural disasters to homelessness to our treatment of the environment? We poked around online as they thought about people who had had a particularly rough year. I told them how much we had to give, and asked them to make the tough choices about how to divide it up. Do we give a lot to a few places and really make an impact? Or give a little to many organizations so they know we care about them? Each year as they grow in maturity, I give them new problems to solve. Now, we put coins in a tzedakah box throughout the year before lighting candles on Friday night and they know that this money will also go to the Hanukkah giving pot.
Their choices have evolved over time. The first time we did this, they were excited about Sesame Workshop because bright red Elmo was (wisely) featured on the organization’s envelope. Next was their Jewish summer camp that suffered fire damage. Then we tackled the question of whether to give to local food banks or to hunger advocacy organizations trying to stamp out poverty from the top down. Would they rather support people in their neighborhood, in other regions of the country or the elsewhere in the world? The year DOMA was struck down, we discussed giving to Lambda Legal, an organization defending cases for the LGBT community. As they become more concerned about the environment, we have looked for organizations that address their concerns. This year, we will add to the list the importance of InterfaithFamily, helping families like ours navigate the holidays! (Yes, that was a not-so-subtle plug!) There is so much to do that it easily lasts eight nights.
Who knows what messages my kids will take away from the holiday season as they grow up? What will Christmas represent? What will they remember most about Hanukkah? I hope that by consciously highlighting tzedakah as a specific value, they will take the best from both of the December holidays that are part of their lives.
InterfaithFamily has joined #GivingTuesday, a first-of-its-kind effort that began in 2013 and will harness the collective power of a unique blend of partners—charities, families, businesses and individuals—to transform how people think about, talk about and participate in the giving season. Coinciding with the Thanksgiving Holiday and the kickoff of the holiday shopping season, #GivingTuesday will inspire people to take collaborative action to improve their local communities, give back in better, smarter ways to the charities and causes they support and help create a better world.
Taking place December 2, 2014 – the Tuesday after Thanksgiving – #GivingTuesday will harness the power of social media to create a national movement around the holidays dedicated to giving, similar to how Black Friday and Cyber Monday have become days that are, today, synonymous with holiday shopping.
On December 2, we will be asking you to give to this cause via social media (but if you’re itching to throw a few bucks our way now, feel free!). You can find us on Facebook and Twitter.
Your contribution can provide something as simple as a challah for a Shabbat meal, or full meals for several interfaith families or couples who we will help bring together for an inclusive Shabbat experience.
Rabbi Robyn Frisch, Director of IFF/Philadelphia, who has gotten our Shabbat dinners off the ground in her neck of the woods, says: “Our Shabbat Dinner Program began in response to feedback from alumni of our classes and workshops. When we asked what kind of meaningful experiences we could help provide for them they suggested subsidized Shabbat dinners for interfaith couples and families. Several of them had already attended Shabbat dinners hosted by IFF/Philadelphia staff members and they loved the idea of starting to create Shabbat experiences of their own in their own homes. We are so excited to have this program where we are able to provide not just resources and support in planning the dinners but also financial support. And we love hearing about everyone’s Shabbat experiences.”
Seeing an opportunity to channel the generous spirit of the holiday season to inspire action around charitable giving, this initiative began with a group of friends and partners, led by the 92nd Street Y (92Y), who came together to find ways to promote and celebrate the great American tradition of giving. Thought leaders in philanthropy, social media and grassroots organizing joined with 92Y to explore what is working in modern philanthropy and how to expand these innovations throughout the philanthropic sector. The concept gained steam, and with the help of the United Nations Foundation and other founding partners, more than 10,000 organizations have joined the movement and are providing creative ways people can embrace #GivingTuesday and collaborate in their giving efforts to create more meaningful results.
“#GivingTuesday is a counter narrative to Black Friday and Cyber Monday because it reminds us that the spirit of the holiday giving season should be about community and not just consumerism,” said Kathy Calvin, CEO of the UN Foundation. “The most meaningful gift we can give our children, loved ones, friends and neighbors is the commitment to work together to help build a better world.”
My Facebook feed tends to get filled with rabbis and other Jewish professionals’ lives. This is the circle I run in. Around the holidays, lots of these people offer well wishes to their Facebook friends.
“To all my Jewish friends, may it be an easy fast.” What’s wrong with this statement? Anything? Am I too sensitive about language?
My friends were just trying to direct their message only to those who observe the Jewish holidays. Innocent enough. But when I read wishes like this I cringe. I cringe because many, many partners of Jews who are not themselves Jewish also fast (for example). They also sit in contemplative meditation for hours in synagogue. They celebrate lots of aspects of Jewish holidays. And, they don’t just go through the motions. They find participation to be personally edifying and meaningful. Not to mention that “going through the motions” is easier said than done. Try bringing yourself way out of a comfort zone by attending a religious service offered in another language with lots of foreign ethnic and cultural references. The experience, depending on the welcome one receives, the research one has done ahead of time and the mind-set one has, can be isolating, confusing and uncomfortable or interesting, inspiring and eye opening.
A wish to Jews for a happy holiday is not malicious or meant to leave out interfaith couples and families. But, it may be insensitive and potentially hurtful. It doesn’t take into account that the Jewish community is now made up of those brought up with Judaism, those newer to Judaism and those who are not Jewish at all, but who observe Jewish practices with their partner or family. This is our diverse, wonderful community. If we forget that a large number of the people in our pews and at our programs are not Jewish and fail to acknowledge and see these people for who they are and the contributions, insights and passion they can bring to our community, we are diluting our resources by a good percentage.
If we could change our thinking about who is in the Jewish community, our sensitivity would carry over when we meet with interfaith couples, listen to the journeys families are on, think about our worship experiences and pay attention to the language we use. If our wishes on Facebook and in person would be for anyone who will be part of a Jewish holiday experience to find beauty, redemption, meaning and sacred purpose and so much more, then we give the Jewish civilization the credit it deserves for being such a rich, inspiring way of life.
“It is a tree of life to all who grasp it, and whoever holds on to it is happy; its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all of its paths are peace.” (Proverbs 3:17-18)
To all who find themselves in the Jewish holiday spirit this time of year, may you find happiness and peace.
I recently visited a San Francisco synagogue for the first time. I rang the bell and a teenage girl came to let me in. She wasn’t working there; she was just doing her homework. She welcomed me with a warm smile and asked if she could help me. We chatted about her schoolwork and life at the synagogue, and then the rabbi came running out to meet me. He was in the middle of Bar Mitzvah lessons and apologized for his delay in welcoming me. He didn’t know I was a rabbi or what I was doing there; it appeared that this is how he welcomed anyone walking in the door. I explained that I was fine—just a bit early for a meeting. The night went on in this fashion. I have to admit that I was a bit flabbergasted. I had to wonder, why shouldn’t every encounter be this way?
What came to my mind that night is that this synagogue clearly practices and teaches what some have recently been calling audacious or radical hospitality. They went out of their way to make sure I was treated like an honored guest. This spirit of embrace is ingrained in their culture to the extent that even a teenager is among the initiated! We all know people who seem to go far above and beyond what might be considered polite or inclusive. And we know how encountering such an individual has the power to change our outlook. Those of us who work for Jewish organizations struggle to figure out how our institutions can reflect this value. We may have the best programs, the most beautiful services, the best school. But at the end of the day, what supersedes everything else is whether or not people feel in each and every personal encounter that they matter.
Sukkot is the Jewish season for nurturing this quality of openness in ourselves and our institutions. We move out of our homes into huts, and we invite people to join us in these temporary, yet holy spaces. The holiday goes by many names: the Feast of Booths, the Festival of Ingathering, and He-Chag (the holiday). But if we stress the injunction to welcome those in need into our sukkahs, we could also name it the Festival of Hospitality.
In a few weeks, we will read in the Torah about Abraham and Sarah in another kind of shelter, their tent in Mamre [Gen.18]. Three strangers passed through, and amidst a culture in which a stranger could be a major threat, they invited them in. They rushed to greet them, washed their feet, and fed them. The strangers turned out to be angels telling Sarah of her pregnancy. But the beauty of the story is that Sarah and Abraham had no idea that their visitors were divine guests. This is how they treated everyone they met. A midrash on the apocryphal book of Jubilees makes this connection between the holiday of Sukkot and Abraham and Sarah’s hospitality clear. It tells us that part of their preparations for their holy guests was, in fact, building the first sukkah to shelter them.
What would the world look like if we treated everyone we encountered as worthy of our attention? What would our Jewish communities look like if every person who walked through a door were greeted like Abraham and Sarah’s guests? What would the world look like if we treated even people we don’t know across the globe with that degree of humanity?
Sukkot is the holiday of the open tent. It seems it should be the most accessible holiday, but unfortunately it is also one of the harder holidays to celebrate. Not everyone has the space or strength to build a sukkah. If you are fortunate enough to have one, imitate Abraham and Sarah during the remaining days of the holiday and welcome someone who has never been to a sukkah or doesn’t think he knows enough about Judaism to partake. There is a kabbalistic custom to invite ushpizin, ancestral, transcendent guests, into the sukkah. But even more important is filling your sukkah with real, flesh-and-blood visitors. This Sukkot, may we go above and beyond to make people feel like the divine guests that they are—when they enter our institutions, our work, our homes and our tents.
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 (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 firstname.lastname@example.org). 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.