A Hanukkah Giving Ritual Takes the Competition Out of The 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?

Hanukkah menorah and tzedakah box

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.

For more tzedakah Hanukkah ideas, check out these ideas from the URJ. And for more Hanukkah resources for families, go here.

InterfaithFamily Joins #GivingTuesday

Giving Tuesday Logo

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.

As our fundraising cause, InterfaithFamily has chosen our new initiative, providing Shabbat dinners to groups of individuals in IFF/Your Community cities who wish to join together for a Shabbat experience. IFF/Your Communities include: Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles. If you would like to participate in a Shabbat dinner but do not live in one of those regions, please contact us at network@interfaithfamily.com. To see what our first sponsored Shabbat dinner was like, read this recent blog post written by the hosts.

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.”

An Inclusive Holiday Wish

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.

Sukkot Reminds Us to Treat All Visitors as Honored Guests

This blog post was reprinted with permission from j., the Jewish news weekly of Northern California

Welcome at the doorI 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.

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.

Try Shabbat Dinner – We’ll Help!

Shabbat dinner in PhiladelphiaOn Friday evening, July 18, I had a great time welcoming Shabbat. My family’s Shabbat dinner guests were six young interfaith couples who I’ve come to know over the past year—either through officiating at their weddings or through my work at InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia. My IFF/Philadelphia colleague Wendy Armon, her husband Bruce and daughter Tess also joined us.

It was wonderful celebrating Shabbat with these six couples. For some of the attendees who were not Jewish it was their first time attending a Shabbat dinner and I felt privileged to be able to make this happen for them and to share in their experience.

After everyone arrived and had the chance to meet one another (none of the couples knew one another previously) and talk for a while, we all gathered to recite the Shabbat blessings. Anyone who wanted one was given a kippah and/or a copy of InterfaithFamily’s “Shabbat Made Easy” booklet. Then I lit the candles and recited the blessing. Before Wendy and I blessed our kids with the traditional Friday evening blessing for children, I pointed out that the blessing for sons begins with the phrase “May you be like Ephraim and Menashe.” Interestingly, the mother of Ephraim and Menashe (Joseph’s sons in the Bible) was Asenath, an Egyptian woman. It felt quite appropriate to bless my own son Benji with the words “May you be like Ephraim and Menashe” (two men who grew up in an “interfaith” family in the Bible) as I was surrounded by interfaith couples who will one day have families, like Joseph and Asenath’s, where the parents are from different religious backgrounds.

I shared with the couples how in some traditional Jewish homes the husband sings Eishet Chayil (“A Woman of Valor”—from Proverbs 31) to his wife. Rather than reciting “A Woman of Valor,” I invited the couples to each share with their partners what they loved about them, or perhaps a wish for the week ahead. Each couple did this as Wendy and I blessed our children.

My son Benji recited the kiddush (blessing over the wine) after which I invited each couple to share from their own cup of wine (just as those who were married had done at their wedding ceremonies). In truth, my impetus for doing this was that I had enough silver kiddush cups for six couples, but not enough for twelve individuals.

After we said ha-motzi (the blessing over the bread) it was time to eat! We all relaxed and socialized over our meal and no one had to check their cellphones or rush to get anywhere.

My hope is that the interfaith couples who attended the Shabbat dinner at my house will now “pay it forward” and host Shabbat dinners of their own. IFF/Philadelphia wants to help them with this, so we have created a Shabbat Dinner Program. Here’s how it works: Anyone who attended our Shabbat dinner—or who has participated in one of our Love and Religion workshops for interfaith couples or our online “Raising a Child with Judaism in your Interfaith  Family” classes for parents of young children—is invited to host a Shabbat dinner of their own, which will be subsidized by InterfaithFamily. We encourage participants in our Shabbat Dinner Program to invite other interfaith couples and/or families to celebrate Shabbat with them so that they can create a community of their peers. However, we also believe that inviting guests from different backgrounds can help inspire a lively discussion about Shabbat and Jewish life, so participants in our Shabbat Dinner Program are also welcome to invite others who are not in interfaith relationships to their Shabbat dinner.

IFF/Philadelphia will not only provide those participating in the program with resources for hosting a Shabbat dinner, we will also help pay. And while the Shabbat dinner at my house can be a model for those who attended, we encourage people to “make Shabbat their own” in a way that feels right for them.

For those of you who are alumni of one of our workshops or classes, please be in touch with us at philadelphia@interfaithfamily.com and we are happy to tell you more about our Shabbat Dinner Program and give you any assistance you need in planning your own Shabbat dinner. If you happen to live in Philadelphia or South Jersey and you aren’t yet connected with IFF/Philadelphia but would like to attend a Shabbat dinner hosted by an interfaith couple or family, let us know and we’ll try to hook you up with someone who is hosting a Shabbat dinner near you.

And finally, even if you don’t live in the Philadelphia area, consider having a Shabbat dinner of your own. All you need are two candlesticks and candle holders (or you can use two tealights) and matches; a kiddush cup (though any cup is fine) and some wine or juice; challah (which, depending on where you live, you can probably get at a local bakery or grocery store, or you can make your own—Rabbi Mychal Copeland recently shared her recipe) and a challah cover (or you can just cover your challah with a napkin); and kippot for your guests if you want to offer them. You can print out InterfaithFamily’s “Shabbat Made Easy” Booklet for explanations, blessings, etc. And you don’t have to make a big deal about dinner: You can make or order something simple, or you can even make it potluck. The point is that you’re together with others to share the beauty and joy of celebrating Shabbat.

We’d love to hear about your Shabbat experiences. Whether you celebrate Shabbat regularly in your home, or whether you just hosted or attended a Shabbat dinner for your first time, tell us about it. Who did you invite to share Shabbat with you? What was your favorite part of the evening? What will you do the same next time? What will you do differently?

Breaking Bread with the In-Laws

Last Friday night, I watched as my kids lit Shabbat candles and said the prayers at our table with my in-laws standing by. My partner’s parents are not Jewish, and I felt a deep appreciation for them in this moment. When we all met, none of us could have imagined this scene. Nearly two decades ago, I stayed at their home for the first time. My partner and I were graduate students on the East Coast and we headed west to see her folks at their ranch in central Oregon over break. Like many people, Jewish or not, they really aren’t into religion at all. Here we were, a rabbinical student and a PhD candidate in religious studies. We pretty much ate, drank and breathed religion.

I wanted to be careful not to overwhelm them with Jewish talk or Jewish practice. That was tough because I was starting to observe Shabbat and other rituals for the first time. I chose carefully which ones I absolutely had to do. One of my new, favorite Shabbat rituals was baking challah. As Friday morning rolled around, it felt strange not to make it. I started to get the ingredients out, and the implications ran through my mind:

1) This kitchen is going to be really, really messy.

2)  It would feel weird to me if we ate challah on Friday night without saying the prayer over it.  But saying it will feel really weird too.

3) Oh no…it will feel weird to do the prayer over the bread without doing all three Shabbat blessings.  Now it’s a full ceremony and it’s going to be awkward.

In the end, I did it anyway. The result? Wow, these people love challah. I know most people like it. What’s not to like? My recipe includes eggs, flour and tons of sugar and butter which make it more like a Shabbat dessert. It’s always a crowd pleaser. But I have never seen anyone so overtaken by it. Seeing how excited her parents were and knowing how worried I was about engaging in Jewish ritual in their house, my partner made sure they knew that getting to the challah meant that there would be Jewish prayers at their table. For people who really disagree with religion as a whole, don’t believe in the God we are thanking in these prayers and have no context for the foreign language being spoken at their table, this could have been a huge deal.

It wasn’t.

Challah

Mychal's family's homemade challah

It’s been almost two decades, and I’m still making challah for my in-laws. Now when we visit, our kids help bake and decorate. We do the entire Shabbat ceremony consisting of all three prayers: lighting candles, saying kiddush over wine and grape juice and the motsi over the challah, my partner’s parents stand by, knowing that challah is coming.

I am greatly appreciative that my in-laws have been able to witness our family’s rituals and other religious choices. Clearly, some of these rituals have been easier to stomach than others. My mother-in-law enjoys the challah far more than she did the bris (then again, I’m with her on that one). It’s not easy when your kids choose a lifestyle so different from your own. In one sense, I credit the challah. It was one of the first moments when we came together around a Jewish custom, and unlike lots of other Jewish foods that are acquired tastes, challah was the one that could allow them to see into a completely new religious framework and even allow for it to happen at their family table. In a way, it’s just bread. But “breaking bread” together is also the way people from many cultures have traditionally and symbolically expressed that they can cross a difficult boundary. So maybe it’s no accident that this openness was instigated by a couple of loaves of home-baked bread. But at a deeper level, I credit my in-laws for demonstrating incredible openness to new ideas and most of all, for embracing us. That, and helping me clean the kitchen.

Sweet Egg Bread (Challah) 

Ingredients

5-6 cups of flour
2-3 tsp. salt
1 package dry yeast or equivalent of 1 Tbs.
4 Tbs. sugar (yep, really) or try honey
1 stick margarine or butter (Butter is better…but for those observing the kosher laws, butter poses a problem if there is meat on the table. Oil can also be used.)
1 cup hot water (130 degrees or whatever the yeast you are using requires)
4 eggs

  • Start boiling water and take your margarine/butter and yeast out of the refrigerator to get them to room temperature.
  • In a large bowl, mix 1 and 1/8 cups of flour, the sugar and the salt.
  • Put the yeast (room temperature) in a small bowl with a smattering of sugar.
  • Measure out the hot water at desired heat for yeast.
  • Pour some of the hot water into the yeast/sugar and mix vigorously with a spoon until the yeast dissolves. Let it sit for about 4 minutes until it bubbles up and rises.
  • Pour the yeast/sugar/water mixture into the large bowl with the flour and stir.
  • Cut a stick of softened margarine/butter into the mixture and stir, leaving a little aside.
  • Add the rest of the cup of hot water. The mixer bowl should feel warm, not hot.
  • Separate one egg, putting the white into the mixture while keeping the yolk in the refrigerator for later.
  • Add ½ cup flour into the mixture and the other 3 eggs into the bowl. Mix.
  • Add 3 more cups of flour and stir until it gets too thick to mix with a cooking spoon.
  • Spread some flour onto a large cutting board and begin kneading the dough, adding flour as necessary to keep it from getting sticky. Knead for about 10 minutes or until it seems right.  Really get your palms into it. If you have kids around let them make handprints in it.
  • Butter a bowl (with the extra margarine) and place the dough in the bowl. Find a cool, dark place to let the dough rise for about an hour with a damp dish towel covering it.
  • After an hour, remove the dough and punch it (with a buttered fist).
  • Divide it into two pieces (this is for two loaves, but kids like making several small ones instead so they can decorate their own). Divide each half into three sections and braid it. Remove an olive-sized piece of dough as an offering for the Levites. Say the blessing: Baruch ata Adonai, eloheinu melekh haolam, asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav vitzivanu l’hafrish challah min ha-isah (who has commanded us to separate challah from the dough). Leave the little ball on the side of the pan and cook it with the rest.
  • Butter/margarine/crisco a cookie sheet and place the braided loaves on it in a cool, dark place for another hour.
  • Beat the reserved egg yolk with a little water and brush it over the tops of the loaves. Sprinkle poppy seeds, cinnamon/sugar, sesame seeds, chocolate chips, rainbow sprinkles or whatever you think sounds good. Bake at 400 degrees for about 20 minutes to half an hour, testing it often with a toothpick. When the toothpick comes out mostly dry, it’s done!

Making Shavuot Meaningful

On Shavuot, Jews celebrate Matan Torah, the Giving of the Torah. If you didn’t grow up Jewish, or even if you did, you may not know much about Shavuot. Although Shavuot is one of the Shelosh Regalim (the three Pilgrimage Festivals), equal in importance to Passover and Sukkot, it’s less commonly celebrated than the other two holidays. Maybe this is because Shavuot doesn’t have a well-known home component, like the Passover Seder (celebrated by more Jews than almost any other Jewish ritual) or the sukkot (huts) some Jews build outside of their homes on Sukkot. Maybe it’s because Shavuot comes at the end of the school year, so even if you have kids in a Jewish preschool, religious school or day school, there’s not as much time available in the curriculum to focus on Shavuot. Whatever the reason, I for one would love to see a change, and for more people to learn about Shavuot, and celebrate the holiday in meaningful ways.

In that spirit, as Shavuot approaches, I have seven suggestions for how to make the holiday more meaningful. Why seven? Because Shavuot marks the fiftieth day after the start of the counting of the Omer. (We begin counting the Omer, which links Passover to Shavuot, on the second night of Passover.) Shavuot (which means “weeks” in Hebrew) marks the completion of counting seven weeks of seven days.

1. Read the Book of Ruth. Traditionally, the Biblical Book of Ruth is read in synagogues on Shavuot. Ruth’s story is read on this holiday for several reasons:

a. The Book of Ruth describes the harvest season and Shavuot is also known as Hag HaKatsir, the Harvest Festival.

b. On Shavuot, when Jews celebrate God’s giving—and the Jewish people’s accepting—the Torah, we read of Ruth’s willingly entering into the Jewish faith and thus, according to Jewish understanding, a life of Torah.

c. The end of the Book of Ruth describes the lineage of King David, who is Ruth’s great-grandson. According to Jewish tradition, King David was born and died on Shavuot.

Even if you don’t go to services on Shavuot, you can read and discuss the story of Ruth with family members or friends. Ruth is often celebrated as the first Jew by Choice, but as I argue in my recent blog, I think she really should be celebrated as a woman in an interfaith marriage who helps to ensure the Jewish future.

2. Study the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments are traditionally read from the Torah at Shavuot services. Take time to read the Ten Commandments and learn about them. If you have younger kids, your family can decide what Ten Commandments/Rules should be followed in your home. Older kids and adults can discuss how they feel about posting the Ten Commandments in public places such as court houses. Click here to read the position the Anti-Defamation League took on this issue in 2005.

For fun, check out Godcast’s Ten Commandments song or bake a Ten Commandments Challah.

3. Attend a Tikkun Leil Shavuot. There’s a wonderful custom of staying up all (or part of) the first night of Shavuot to study Torah. One of my personal favorite Shavuot experiences was when I was living in Jerusalem and I spent all night learning at a Tikkun Leil Shavuot and then at sunrise walked with the rest of the people attending the Tikkun to the Kotel for the morning service.

Look online to see if a synagogue or other Jewish organization near you is having a Tikkun.  Or host your own Tikkun and invite friends over to study Torah.

Cheesecake4. Make (and eat!) Dairy Foods. It’s customary to eat dairy foods like cheesecake and cheese-filled blintzes on Shavuot. Some say that this is because the Bible compares Torah to “honey and milk…under your tongue” (Song of Songs 4:11). Another explanation is that when the Israelites received the Torah and learned for the first time the laws for keeping kosher, they didn’t have time right away to prepare kosher meat. In order not to eat meat that wasn’t kosher, they ate dairy. And so, on Shavuot, when the Giving of the Torah is celebrated, many Jews eat dairy in commemoration of how the Israelites ate when they first received the Torah.

In keeping with the tradition of eating dairy on Shavuot, after dinner on Shavuot I like to put out different flavors of ice cream and bowls with all kinds of toppings for everyone in my family to make their own ice cream sundae. My kids love doing this—and so do I!

5. Bake a Special Challah. Even those familiar with the braided challot for Shabbat and the round challot traditionally eaten on Rosh Hashanah may not be aware of the tradition of having specially shaped challot for Shavuot. This Shavuot, bake a challah in the shape of the Ten Commandments, as mentioned above, or in the shape of a Heavenly Ladder, a Torah or Mount Sinai (where God gave the Torah to Moses). To learn how to make these challot click here.

6. If You Have Young Children, Read Books Related to Shavuot: Check out PJ Library for a list of Shavuot books.

7. Attend a Shavuot Service. In Israel and most Reform and Reconstructionist congregations outside of Israel, Shavuot is observed for one day. In Orthodox and most Conservative congregations outside of Israel, Shavuot is observed for two days. In many congregations, Confirmation (a group ceremony, generally at the end of tenth grade, celebrating the completion of a religious curriculum) is celebrated on Shavuot. Not only is Shavuot near the end of the school year, but the association of Shavuot with the Giving of Torah is thematically connected to the study of Torah acknowledged at Confirmation as well as the idea of students committing themselves to a life of Torah. You can look at the websites of local synagogues to find out when their Shavuot services are being held.

Chag Sameach! Have a happy holiday!

My Wife Eats Cereal in The Garage

Passover cerealWe have been through 20 Passovers together. My wife does pretty well with the eating restrictions but somewhere around the middle of the holiday, there she is eating cereal in the garage. That’s where I store the chametz, the bread products that are off-limits during Passover, to make the rest of the house ready for the holiday. I “sell” it to a friend or neighbor who isn’t Jewish but is intrigued enough to play along. (That ensures that I don’t technically own it and it can stay there as long as it’s undisturbed.) But there it sits, calling out to Kirsti all week. Each bite of matzah brie and cardboard flavored Passover cereal increases her longing for the good stuff she knows is only steps away. Do I care? No, I have never cared. I have always drawn a line between my own, personal practice and hers. I need to clean the house of bread. I need to bring out the glass plates. But Kirsti didn’t grow up Jewish, and while many Jewish practices are meaningful to her, this one is not.

Now enter two kids. None of these differences in our practices made an impact on our home life until we had children. While she can practice however she likes, I do want to maintain a Jewish household for our kids. In similar cases, we tend to face our differences head on, explaining to our children where our beliefs or practices may differ from one another.

Many parents who come from different backgrounds will only tell one parent’s side of things until kids get older and can better handle the paradoxes. I see the value in that approach, but it’s not for us. We have always told the truth about where we differ religiously…for better or for worse. We have different ideas about theology and share with our boys that people generally—and even Jews—don’t all believe the same thing. We have different needs in terms of attending synagogue, and I am happy to be the regular Shabbat service goer with them, explaining that while she’ll go sometimes, it’s more of a regular practice for me.

But Passover is tough because it’s centered in the house. Do I want them to learn that it’s OK to run to the garage when they have a craving? I don’t need my partner to keep to it, but I want them to learn the discipline early on as a meaningful part of the Passover celebration. I want them to internalize their history as slaves being freed as they stop themselves instead of reaching for some bread. I hope they will share the excitement with me when the kitchen gets turned upside down to get ready for the holiday. But I also don’t want to denigrate my partner’s practices by making them lesser. I respect her and her relationship to Judaism. How do I hold both realities?

In truth, I’ve never lived in a house where we were all practicing Judaism in the same way.  I grew up in a home with two Jewish parents for whom Jewish eating practices held no meaning. We always laughed that it wasn’t Passover if there wasn’t a honey-baked ham on the table. OK, we never went that far, but ham and seafood were staples in our home. My mother would proudly say, “I don’t practice my religion through my stomach.” But even as a kid, I was drawn to the idea that refraining from bread made the week of my favorite holiday feel special, and I worked around my family’s need for their cupboards to remain untouched.

So we talked to our kids this Passover about the realities of different kinds of Jewish practice. They were informed that their Mommy sneaks some chametz (not surprising since they already knew that although she has tried valiantly to give them up over the years, she has a soft spot for cheeseburgers). But we didn’t dwell on the food-talk. What we did spend time discussing were the values we hope they took away from the holiday. Standing up for those who are oppressed. Using your own story of pain and difference to inspire you to rescue others. That freedom is possible. And for my partner, we know that her freedom is saying farewell to matzah for another year.

Passover Memories

I have visceral memories of Passover as a child. It was a time, not a meal. My mother who worked more than full time was home.

We would rush to the kosher butcher for a huge slab of brisket. I loved going (this was the only time we went to the butcher during the year) because I felt part of something. There were so many other women there shopping for their Passover food. We spoke the same language, we were sharing the same busy-ness. It didn’t matter who was Orthodox and who Reform. We were one extended family. We brought a list to the supermarket for our food and other items (something that signified major cooking). We bought Manishevitz at the liquor store. I felt that everyone knew we were celebrating Passover. I felt that each stop was one step on the journey of doing Passover. We bought flowers for the table at the florist.

There was adrenaline and joy in my young soul. I was with the women of my family. We did Passover the same way each year. The familiarity of our preparations was warm to me, and precious. We set a beautiful, fancy table. I loved setting the table as a child. I had a job. It was a real job. People admired my work.

My beloved grandparents were at my house. I dressed up and so did everyone else. My Papa, of blessed memory, sang Chad Gadya in one breath. We dipped fingers in wine for the plagues. I proudly sang the Four Questions, showing off. We looked for the afikomen and claimed our dollar prize from a man at the table—tradition?

Fresh, bright, spring, freedom.

Ari's children

I loved eating matzah with cinnamon and sugar. I don’t think I can replicate this heaven. My family is scattered geographically. My child doesn’t sit still. I don’t cook like my mom did. I am a rabbi married to a rabbi. You could have predicted my profession from my love of Jewish holidays.

Now I have two lenses by which I view Passover. I think about the seder in terms of my kids. I think about the seder in terms of interfaith families. How does someone who didn’t grow up with Passover experience it in a loved one’s house with their family? When does one become part of the family? How does the message of going from slavery to freedom translate? How can someone with no memories of a holiday come to make it their own as an adult?

But the truth is, only my family has the memories I have. It draws us close and it is fun to reminisce. Those years are forever a part of me. What memories will stay with my children about Passover?

Who will they remember?

What foods will they long for?

What traditions will they hold in their hearts?