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Divinity school is an unlikely place for a rabbi to meet her spouse. In my first week of graduate school, I became friends with a Coptic nun from Egypt, a Southern Baptist minister, a Jewish Buddhist and a young scholar of Early Christianity. The last would one day become my wife. I was one of a handful of Jewish students and I relished the opportunity to study religion more broadly within this diverse community before making the final decision to become a rabbi. It became increasingly clear to me that I wanted to pursue a career like my classmates who were studying to become ministers and priests. They were community builders, teachers, healers in a fractured world. Apparently, I needed future ministers to help me decide that I wanted to become a rabbi.
For the first time in my life, I was dating a Jewish man. Since I was seriously considering becoming a rabbi by this time, I believed I had to marry someone Jewish, and he met all the criteria of a perfect spouse for me. He was not only Jewish; we had been counselors together at a Jewish camp, he spoke fluent Hebrew, had spent time in Israel and studied Judaism in college. But he simply wasnât the right person for me.
My life took a major turn when I met Kirsti. She had grown up in a non-religious household with parents who had rejected Christianity. So, of course, she became fascinated by religion: religious people, religious texts, religious language. Like me, she was pursuing her masters at Harvard Divinity School. She would go on to earn a PhD in Early Christianity as I embarked on rabbinical school. We shared a love of religious mysticism and stayed up nights talking about Jewish and Christian mystical texts, and struggling with belief. In those early days, we also had to process the reality that dating a woman was new to both of us which, frankly, overpowered any worry about coming from different religious backgrounds.
Although she did convert many years into our relationship, Kirsti and I still question religion together and bring our knowledge, ideas and queries to the dinner table. We address our childrenâs musings with honesty and depth rather than supplying overly clear-cut answers we think they should be hearing. We hope our kids will be inspired to treat all people and ideas with respect and inquiry while being grounded in a rich, Jewish tradition. My Jewish life has been profoundly shaped by traveling this path with Kirsti for the past 20 years. She has led me to challenge pieces of our tradition that I blindly followed, and has deepened my connection to certain parts of our liturgy and rituals by seeing them in a new light.
I am delighted that as the new Director of InterfaithFamily/Bay Area, I have the opportunity to help families from mixed backgrounds navigate Judaism like we have. I will also strive to help Jewish communities become more welcoming to all types of people who donât fit the long-gone model of a traditional, Jewish family. We are most enriched as a community when we offer space for people to bring their whole selves and their full narratives to Jewish life.
Maybe a rabbi meeting her spouse at divinity school is a rarity, but each familyâs story is unique, with its own twists and turns. Who we love and choose to share our lives with cannot be reduced to a checklist of criteria to be met. Our stories are far more interesting than that.
A couple of months ago I officiated at the wedding of a wonderful coupleâthe bride was Jewish and the groom was Christian. Several days after the wedding, I received the following email from the bride, Susan (not her real name):
I have a question for you about Purim. Esther married the king, who wasnât Jewish, and ended up saving her people. If she had not married the king, all of the Jews in the kingdom would have died. Extrapolating from this example, why is it considered such a bad thing for one to marry outside of the Jewish faith?
What a great question! Susan made a good point. In Megillat Esther (The Book of Esther, where we find the Purim story), the beautiful young Jewish Esther marries the Persian King Ahasuerus. At first, following the instructions of her cousin Mordechai, Esther hides the fact that she is Jewish. But when the evil Haman convinces the king that all of the Jews in the kingdom should be killed, Mordechai tells Esther that she should go to the king and reveal her true identity. At first Esther refuses, explaining to Mordechai that the king hasnât summoned her for the past thirty days, and if she goes before the king without being summoned he may order that she be killed. But Mordechai replies, in words that have become very famous: âDo not imagine that you, of all the Jews, will escape with your life by being in the kingâs palace. On the contrary, if you keep silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another quarter, while you and your fatherâs house will perish. And who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis.â (Esther 4:13-14 â JPS translation)
Having been convinced by Mordechaiâs powerful words of her responsibility to her people, Esther, after fasting for three days, goes before the king. Ultimately, Esther reveals to the king that she is a Jew, and she asks that the Jews of Persia not be exterminated. The evil Haman is impaled on the stake which he had put up for Mordechai, and the Jews survive.
So hereâs how I responded to Susanâs email:
Over the years rabbis andÂ Jewish commentators have offered various explanations about Estherâs marriage to the gentile Persian king. Â Of course the explanations/commentaries generally reflect more about the writer/commentator (who often has hisâand historically it always was a “him”âown agenda/bias he is trying to promote when commenting on the text) than they reflect about the text.Â There are rabbis (clearly opposed to intermarriage) who have claimed that Esther was forced to marry the king against her will.Â The Zohar even says that the Shekhinah concealed Estherâs soul and sent another soul in its place, so that when King Ahasuerus slept with Esther, he wasnât sleeping with the real Esther.
Of course the biblical text doesn’t say this at all. In the biblical text itself no judgment is made on Esther marrying out of her faith. And as you point out, by marrying someone who wasnât Jewish, Esther ended up saving her people.
So here’s what I have to say about Esther: By marrying a man who wasnât Jewish, and ultimately “coming out” to her husband, the king, as a Jew, Esther saves her people. The text doesnât comment on the fact that Esther is in an interfaith marriage, and I agree that she should be held out as a positive example to interfaith couples. Â
In my view, the only thing Esther should be faulted for in the story is denying Mordechaiâs first request to tell the King that she is Jewish, though she does this because she fears that the king may have her killed. But at Mordechai’s urging she ultimately reveals her true identity to the king and in doing so she saves the Jewish people. The bottom line is: Thereâs no problem with Estherâs intermarriageâthe only problem would have been keeping her Jewish identity secret. Â
Esther can be a terrific role model for the idea that it’s OK to marry someone who isnât Jewish so long as you openly and proudly maintain your connection to Judaism and the Jewish people. And just like Esther, you could end up “saving” the Jewish people along the way. The problem is NOT intermarriage…it is when someone stops identifying as a Jew. Â
Once again, Susan, mazel tov on your wedding. May you, like Esther, have a husband who supports you in that which is most important to you and honors your connection to Judaism and the Jewish people. And may you always be proud of your Jewish identity.
âBen Zoma asks, âWho is worthy of honor?
My wife and I are always reminding our children that there is nothing more important than being kind. Hearing the âmean talkâ of childrenâs taunts or playground mishapsâwhich of course happens everywhereâmakes our ears perk up. Mess up on your homework, that can be resolved pretty quickly, but if you treat another person with disrespect, the consequences can be devastating.
The Hebrew word for respect is kavod. It is also translated as honor, dignity, and even glory. KavodÂ is a cherished word in Judaism. The Hebrew root of the word, (KVD) likens itself to weight, importance and abundance. Simply stated, kavodÂ is not something to be taken lightly. It is all about how one treats their fellow person. This is ascribed an indisputable holiness that is essential in Jewish philosophy. Right in the heart of the Torah, we are instructed to âlove your neighbor as yourselfâ (Leviticus 19:18).
A psychologist studying the aftermath of a Golden Gate Bridge jumper in 2003 said, âI went to this guyâs apartment afterward with the assistant medical examiner. The guy was in his thirties, lived alone, pretty bare apartment. Heâd written a note and left it on his bureau. It said, âIâm going to walk to the bridge. If one person smiles at me on the way, I will not jump.ââ (New Yorker, 2003)
Apparently no one smiled at him and the rest is a tragic moment in the history of the Golden Gate Bridge, and suicide in general. Of course, there was a deep psychological imbalance in his life that led to such a horrific decision. Yet, the fact that people continue to regularly disregard each other is troubling. Admittedly, no one passing by this tortured soul could have known the level of despair he was in, but perhaps back then and even now, people could make an effort to show a stranger in our midst a little pre-emptive kavod. Surely all of us have felt uplifted by the gift of anotherâs smile in passing. How much the more so for people we know!
So what are you doing to show honor and respect to the ones you love? How do you express dignity and kindness to the people you meet? The littlest gesture can make such a difference.
Interfaith relationships offer an incredible opportunity to contribute to Judaismâs enduring strength and diversity. All people should be welcomed and included in Jewish rituals that are such an incredible source of value and meaning to all who participate in them. Perhaps the question when planning life cycle events should not be what are you going to get out of this moment or the person involved in the ritual, but rather, what can you give to the relationship? How can you help break down the barriers and include others?
I invite you to think about this as you peruse our interfaith forums and dialogues here at InterfaithFamily. Letâs open our hearts and minds, for kavodÂ is all around us and it all starts by recognizing the holiness inside you.
There are many things that I am proud of about my background. I am proud of my heritage, my hometown and my family. Being proud helps our self-esteem and drives us to reach for new goals. But from time to time, when speaking about my background, I want to be careful that I am not insulting another personâs background. Sometimes I worry that pride can cross a line and become insulting or even prejudice. Iâm going to put it out there: I am a conservative Jew who likes country music and cheers for Duke and the Phillies. But many people who I adore are Catholic, like heavy metal, are UNC fans and love the Red Sox. OKâI said it. We all make our own choices.
No one would argue that being proud of your family, school, city and heritage is a wonderful thing. Last year, after the Boston Marathon bombings, it was powerful to see the slogan âBoston Strong.â The concept of uniting the city to find the bombers was a crucial first step in the healing process for a city that had suffered such a devastating event. Similarly, I greatly admire people who serve in our military because they love our country so very much that they put their lives on the line. There is nothing worse than the feeling of being attacked, so it makes sense to unify as a community or country to take back a feeling of control.
In the past 100 years there were two World Wars, the Cold War, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan to name a few. During the Second World War, Jews were targeted and murdered. As a result, many Jews have had a strong sense of pride as a way of overcoming such a horrific event in history. After centuries of persecution, many Jewish people felt very protective of their religion and culture. Many people dedicated their lives to working for Jewish causes. That sentiment is weakening as younger generations feel a distant connection to the Holocaust. Currently, some Jews do not feel threatened by anti-Semitism and feel very welcomed into American culture.
Hereâs the problem. Pride is a wonderful motivator and generally exudes positive energy. However, sometimes pride comes at the expense of another city, town or culture or religionâand becomes prejudice. It is a very fine line between the two. The risk of misinterpretation or offending someone is constant. (And, there will always be people who are overly sensitive.) Yet, people donât want to have their thoughts censored in their effort to be politically correct. Itâs OK to have an opinion and to express it. But I think it is infinitely important to be aware that pride can easily step over the line and become prejudice.
Here is my recommendation: Think of pride versus prejudice like a sporting event. Everyone can and should cheer for their team. Competition is a great motivator and perseverance leads to wonderful self-esteem. Players and fans should exercise good sportsmanship. Occasionally there is a player or fan who steps out of line. Occasionally a player breaks a rule or there is even a flagrant violation. That doesnât indicate that every player on that team is vindictive. We should exercise good sportsmanship and sensitivity and maintain the balance between pride and prejudice.
As a rabbi, itâs not unusual for me to get a call from a Jewish parent whose child is engaged to someone who isnât Jewish. The parent usually asks if we can get together to talkâsometimes they want to talk because theyâre having a hard time accepting the fact that their child is going to be in an interfaith marriage and other times they want to discuss a particular issue that has come up. Here is some advice that I often give to such parents (which is really just a variation on advice that I give to parents of adult children in general):
1. Your childâs marrying someone who isnât Jewish isnât necessarily a rejection of JudaismâŠor of you. As I wrote in my recent blog âMarrying Outâ Is Not âAbandoning Judaismâ just because a person falls in love with someone of another religion (or no religion) it doesnât mean that they donât value their Judaism. Many people today donât see loving someone of a different faith and having a strong Jewish identity as being mutually exclusive. Your child can love their partner and they can love being Jewishâand they can love you too!
2. Give your child the time and space to make his/her own decisions. You probably have lots of questions: Will they have a Jewish wedding? Are they going to have a Jewish home? How are they going to raise their children? While you may want to know the answers to all of your questions NOW (if not yesterdayâŠ), your child and his/her partner may not have all of the answers yet, and even if they do, they may not be ready to share them with you. Let them know (through your words, and even more important, your actions) that you respect their right to make decisions on their own time frame and to share them with you when they are ready.
3. Accept that these are your childâs and his/her partnerâs decisions to make. Notice that I didnât say that you have to agree withâor even likeâall of their decisions. It may be very upsetting to you that your daughter has decided not to be married by your rabbi or that she is going to have a Christmas tree in her home. But she is an adult and these are decisions for her and her partner to make, not for you to make. Odds are that she already knows how you feel about these things and if you critique everything she tells you then she may not want to keep sharing with you.
4. Be honest, but respectful. Itâs OK to be honest about how you feel. You can tell your son that it makes you sad that he wonât be married in a synagogue or that his fiancĂ© isnât converting to Judaism. Most of us arenât such great actors anyway and itâs always best to be honestâwhile recognizing that sometimes, as we learned as children, âif you donât have something nice to say, then donât say anything at all.â As you share your feelings, make sure that you are clear that they are your feelingsâand while they are real and will hopefully be acknowledged by your son, remember that he and his partner are going to make their own decisions and that while the intent of these decisions isnât to make you sad, this may be the unfortunate byproduct of some of their decisions.
5. Ask your child if s/he wants your opinion or advice. Your daughter may share with you some of the challenges she is dealing with in her interfaith relationship. For example, she may tell you that sheâs angry at her fiancĂ© for insisting that she go to church with his family on Easter, or that sheâs hurt that her fiancĂ© wonât come with her to synagogue on Yom Kippur. Odds are that if you offer advice and she doesnât really want it, or you propose a solution that ends up not working for her and her fiancĂ©, the result is that she will be mad at you. So how do you know what she wants? ASK! You can simply say: âDo you want to just vent and Iâll listen to your feelings, or do you want to hear my opinion and my advice?â That way, youâll know her real purpose in sharing with you and you can respond accordingly. And if she tells you that she wants you to just listen but not offer your opinion, but this is too difficult for you to do, then you should be up front about it and not get into a conversation that wonât be productive for either of you.
6. Get to know your childâs partner. Your son fell in love with the woman heâs going to marry, so presumably thereâs something very special about her. If you havenât already done so, then get to know her and treat her with kindness and respect. Invite her to participate in Jewish events and celebrationsâthat is, if these are things you would be doing anyway. If you have Shabbat dinner as a family, invite your son and his fiancĂ© to join you so she can share the beauty of Shabbat with your family. Be welcoming and explain to her whatâs going on, while being careful not to be patronizing. But if you donât regularly go to synagogue on Saturday mornings, donât invite her to synagogue with you just so you can âcounteractâ the fact that she isnât Jewish.
7. Talk to other parents whose children have intermarried. As in many situations, itâs often nice to feel like youâre not alone. It can be helpful to speak with someone who has had a similar experience who can understand how you are feeling and who can provide you with advice and support. If youâre in the Philadelphia area, join our Facebook group and get in the conversation.
What advice would you offer to a parent whose child is intermarrying? If your child is married to someone of a different religion, were you given any advice that you found helpful? Is there advice you found not to be helpful?
Jews donât live in ghettos anymore, and I think most of us would agree that this is a good thing. In our daily lives we interact with all sorts of people who are different from ourselvesâpeople with different political views, people from different socio-economic backgrounds, people of different races and people of different religions. This exposure to diversity makes our lives varied and interesting. I for one donât know of many people who would want to give this up.
We donât live in a world of arranged marriages, and the simple fact is that people fall in love for all kinds of reasons, many of them inexplicable. Sometimes you just know when you have met âthe oneââeven if that person is someone totally different from you, and even if that person is totally different from what you had imagined for yourself.
Many people, before finding their mate, have a âchecklistâ of what theyâre looking for in a partner. One of my friends always said sheâd marry someone blonde, very physically fit andâmost importantâJewish. So when she met a man at work who had dark hair, was chubby and didnât like to work outâand was Methodistâshe wasnât concerned when they started to spend a lot of time together as friends. Sure he was smart, interesting and funnyâbut he wasnât her âtype.â But eventually their connection become deeper and they fell in love. It stopped mattering to her that he wasnât blonde and fit. What mattered was that she loved him. And though she didnât value her Jewish identity any less after falling in love with him than before falling in love with him, she was determined to find a way to make their relationship work since he was âthe oneâ she loved. Eventually, they got married.
For my friend, âthe oneâ is a Methodist. For Rabbi Michal Woll (who co-wrote the recently published book Mixed-Up Love with her husband Jon Sweeney) âthe oneâ is a Catholic author. For me, âthe oneâ happens to be another rabbi. But just because my friend and Michal married Christian men that doesnât mean that either of them values Judaism less than I do.
Iâve met numerous people who grew up with strong Jewish identities and who care deeply about the future of the Jewish peopleâmany of whom spent much of their lives certain that they would never even date, let alone marry, someone who was not Jewish but who simply fell in love with someone they knew, like a college classmate, a work colleague or a best friend. Some of them shared with me that they went through deep soul searching and many tears after having fallen in love with someone of a different faith, but ultimately they came to the conclusion that they could spend their life with the person they loved as well as live a committed Jewish life and raise a Jewish family.
These people didnât see themselves as having to make a choice between EITHER the person they loved OR the religion and community that they loved. Rather, they made the decision to BOTH spend their life with the person they loved AND to live a Jewish life and raise a Jewish family. Most people Iâve talked to who have made this BOTH/AND decision have acknowledged that there are challenges to being in an interfaith relationship (just like there are challenges in any relationship, especially one in which there are fundamental differences between the partners), but they would rather deal with those challenges together with their mate than having to choose EITHER/OR between their mate and Judaism, and they find meaning and often joy in facing those challenges TOGETHER.
The fact is that in todayâs world, in most of the liberal Jewish community, having a partner who is not Jewish and living a committed Jewish life arenât seen as necessarily mutually exclusive. As Michal and Jon share in Mixed-Up Love, faith and religion are VERY important to BOTH of them; thatâs a large part of what attracted them to each other. It just happens that in their case they each have a DIFFERENT religion. Together they are raising a Jewish daughter and making it work for themselves and their family.
So donât just assume that because a Jewish person is in a relationship with or married to someone who is of a different faith that their Judaism, the Jewish community and Jewish continuity arenât important to them. Rather than EITHER/OR, perhaps they have chosen to commit to BOTH/AND.
One of my favorite camp counselors from my youth, now a respected university instructor and demographer, Marc Dollinger, Ph.D. is the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Chair in Jewish Studies and Social Responsibility at San Francisco State University. He recently posted the following query on Facebook:
ââŠhow many of the 613 mitzvot were classical Reform Jews obligated to perform? My undergrads at SF State want to know.â
I was intrigued, so I started reading the 45+ comments. Professor Dollinger offered additional insight about the class that he was teaching when the question was posed: âToday’s lecture on post-Enlightenment denominationalism, at 75 minutes, was supposed to cover classical and modern Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox (overviews on questions of God, Torah, authority, practice) but we didn’t get past classical Reform. Thrilled with the student interest and passion. More queries coming…â
Rabbi Evan Goodman, formerly from the Bay Area and now the UC Santa Barbara Hillel Executive Director responds: ââŠI know you stated you need a number, not a theory. However, I don’t believe this question can be answered that way and be authentic to Reform [Judaism]. As you know, Reform Judaism is non-Halachic. Its starting point is the premise that the mitzvot and other traditions are not legally binding on us. It was and is up to each one of us to learn and interpret these traditions in our own generationâŠâ
As the class continued its conversation with Professor Dollinger, he âtaught how the early Reform theologians employed rationalist thought to determine which mitzvot remained relevant in modernity and which were considered dated in light of the rapidly changing world. In this sense, wearing kipot and talit would lose value while commandments against murder and stealing would, logically, remain. Students had a deeper concern that once Judaism becomes ethics, what makes it Jewish anymore?â
Rabbi David Cohen, also formerly from the Bay Area and now at Congregation Sinai in Milwaukee, WI, chaperoned my teen trip to Israel (many years ago). He offered that âthe classical reformers distinguished between rational, ethical mitzvot and non-rational ritual mitzvot. The rabbis of old would have called these mishpatim and khukim. Ethical mitzvot were obligatory; ritual mitzvot were optional. Each Jew was to make a personal, informed choice, choosing to perform a ritual mitzvah if s/he found it spiritually uplifting.â
He points out that a distinction is made between ritual (i.e. religious) and ethical commandments. Fast forward to today. My post read as follows, âI’m curious how your students would respond to the recent Pew Study finding that most of their contemporaries would describe themselves as non-religious Jews. Is this the same or different from classical Reform Judaism shifting away from halacha? It seems that among the non-Orthodox Millennials today, ethical/cultural Judaism is their focus of interest, over religious Judaism.â The distinction between religious and ethical continues.
So, what happens when Judaism becomes ethics? What do you think?
I recently spoke with a couple that Iâve known for a while. The husband (Iâll call him Ben; not his real name) is Jewish and the wife (Iâll call her Rachel; also not her real name) is Lutheran. They are very excited because Rachel is pregnant with their first child. They both grew up in religious households, and each of them take their religion very seriously. They had agreed before they were married that while they would each continue to practice their own religion, they would raise their children in only one religion, but had not decided which one. Not long after Rachel became pregnant with their first child, they together decided that while Rachel would continue to attend her church and practice her religion, they would have a Jewish family and raise their children as Jews.
As a person who values Judaism and Jewish peoplehood and continuity greatly, I was thrilled to hear that Ben and Rachel had decided to raise their children as Jews. I know many families in which mothers who are not Jewish are raising Jewish children while continuing to practice a different religion and finding this to work very well for themselves and their families. I see Ben and Rachelâs decision to raise their children as Jews as a testament to the fact that they were married by a rabbi who was open and understanding as well as to the fact that the Jewish community has become increasingly welcoming to interfaith couples and families. In addition, Benâs family accepted Rachel from the very beginning, embracing her and welcoming her into their family.
I was very happy when Ben and Rachel shared their decision with me. A Jewish family! As a rabbi and as someone who advocates for inclusion of interfaith families in the Jewish community and works to encourage interfaith families to embrace Judaismâand as a Jewish person who greatly values the beliefs, values and traditions of my religion and who knows how wonderful and meaningful it is to be part of a Jewish family and the Jewish communityâI was thrilled, both for Ben and Rachel, as well as for the Jewish community as a whole.
But I also felt a pang of sadness. I realized all that Rachel was giving up. I thought of how meaningful it is for me to say the Shabbat blessings with my children every Friday evening before dinner and how it connects me to saying those very same blessings with my parents on Friday evenings when I was growing up. I thought of how much I enjoy saying the Shema with my kids before they go to bedâjust as I said the Shema with my parents before going to bed when I was a child. I love sharing MY rituals and MY beliefs with my children, as I pass them on lâdor va-dor, âfrom generation to generationâ and they become OUR way of life.
Rachel, who has committed to raising her children in a religion different from the one in which she grew up, will be able to pass on her values to her children, but she wonât have the opportunity to pass on her beliefs and traditionsâto share with them the religious rituals she enjoyed as a child and continues to find meaningful today. She wonât have the opportunity to raise her children in the church in which she grew up. When her kids celebrate Christmas and Easter with her, they wonât be THEIR holidays, they will be HER holidays. In committing to pass on Judaism, her husbandâs religion, to the next generation, Rachel is giving up the opportunity to pass on her own religion from one generation to the next.
Rachel spoke of the sense of loss that she feels in having decided not to raise her children in the religion in which she grew up and which she still practices. She further spoke of how this loss isnât felt just by her, but by her family as well. But she also spoke of how she has come to embrace her decision to raise her children as Jews, and how she is excited that she will be able to fully participate in her familyâs Jewish celebrations and observances, while still having a religious life of her own. She knows that this is the right choice for her familyâand for herâŠbut that doesnât mean it will always be easy.
Rachel and Ben have made a big decision. They are excited to have reached this decision and Rachel is happy with it. But she doesnât deny the loss she feels, and neither does Ben. I am optimistic that as their children grow up they will both feel good about their decision to have a Jewish family and that Ben will continue to be supportive of Rachel in acknowledging that it may not always be easy for her. But just because something isnât easy doesnât mean it isnât wonderful. I know first-hand the joy and rewards of raising Jewish children and I am excited for Ben and Rachel that they will know them as well.
I think itâs important for all of us in the Jewish community, when we celebrate a coupleâs decision to raise their children as Jews, to acknowledge how difficult this may be for the partner who is not Jewish. Yes, we can (and we should) be excited that Judaism will be passed on to the next generation and that the children will be blessed to grow up as Jews and that the Jewish community will be blessed to have them in our midst. But we canât pretend that this will always be easy for the partner who isnât Jewish and we need to give them the opportunity to feel and express their loss as we respect the sacrifices they have made.
Are you raising your children in a religion different from the religion which you grew up? Has this been difficult for you? What are the greatest challenges? What are the rewards? Respond in the comments section below.
ThisÂ first blog for InterfaithFamily/Boston is about doors opening and lives filled with new beginnings because we welcome each other. There was a time not long ago when almost all doors were shut on intermarried couples. As you can see in this photo, there is a picture of a door. This is not just any door. Itâs not a stock photo either, but the actual door to my actual office in Newton, MA. I wanted to begin my blog by showing you the door to my office. Itâs open and I guarantee you that it will remain open 95 percent of the time. And on the rare occasion that it might be closed, it is still a glass door, where one can easily knock and see and be seen.
Of course you are probably not surprised that this is not a stock photo as itâs not a fancy picture and itâs not a fancy office for that matter (not that there is anything wrong with it. Itâs a lovely office. I am very happy to be here). The reason I put this photo in is not so much for the door itself but rather for the sign that our COO Heather made for me, which greeted me on my first day as director of our newest Your Community, InterfaithFamily/Boston last week, âWelcome Josh.â
I smiled when I arrived. This is exactly what the staff of IFF does: We welcome people. Iâm lucky to be located within the InterfaithFamily Headquarters, and to be joining the national staff to bring InterfaithFamily/Boston to the community in which they have made their home. This organization has a very clear purpose and a very important mitzvah that has been role modeled since the days when father Abraham (really the first Jew by choice) ran to welcome three strangers (that turned out to be angels) and did all he could to help make his guests feel more comfortable. Abe washed their feet and ran around being the host with the most, checking in with Sarah, who was making dinner and getting in on the hospitable action. It was a family affair indeed. Everyone took part. Itâs a big deal in Judaism (and many cultures) when guests come to your door.
And itâs funny, because not that much has changed when you think about what makes a good host (or a good guest for that matter). It is all about appreciation. Let me take it up a notch. We are actually acknowledging that there is a holiness in each other by wanting to help the other. For what is holiness when you get right down to it? Holiness is something special, something apart from the ordinary, somethingâŠsacred. You do not need to put on a robe or wave around an object or build an ark to get in touch with what is sacred. There is a beauty inside us that is the best of us, and it is in everyone. It is not even hard to find. You are important. You are loved. You count. You matter. And your family matters. Everyone should feel included. The alternative is to be wellâŠleft out, a stranger in a strange land. No, no, noâŠthat will not do. We know what that is like. We remember. We have been taught for thousands of years to welcome people, to help people and be grateful for what we have and to share with others. It is what we do. It is the love of life that makes Judaism so special.
If you are from a religion or culture that has some clear differences of background and ritual from your significant other, that can cause some challenges. We know it and we see it. Itâs not easy to be intermarried sometimes. I myself am intermarried and have been a Jewish educator for 13 years. There are questions to be answered and it can be overwhelming trying to please family members and adhere to the demands of a tribe that constantly asks, âWhat will the others think?â Much more to come on that topic and how we deal with that question in future blog posts.
But in the meantime, if you live in the Boston area, and are exploring what it means to be in a family of interfaith, I invite you to come visit me or call me or send me an email.Â In fact, part of my job includes leaving my office and meeting you wherever you are. (How cool is that!?) This is both metaphoric and for convenience. Where you are at, I will come to you. Itâs my job so please donât be shy. My door is open. I believe that there will come a day when many more doors will be open as will hearts and minds. And it all starts here. Welcome.
I recently had the opportunity to hear a presentation by Dr. Beth Cousens, a creative and strategic thinker,Â whoÂ works with leaders in Jewish education and in Jewish life to help organizations ensure success. Her focus on strategic thinking, partnership and creative and relevant Jewish educational ideas have helped her to be a respected voice in the field.
She shared with us her insights about engaging and empowering young adults in Jewish life. Our focus was Millennials, ages 22-35, how best to serve them, engage them, and what to expect from their âengagementâ with our institutions. For example, she explained that many Jewish young adults donât know how to be Jewish, as adults. They donât want to register or sign up. They are very interested in the answer to the question âWhat value is added to my life?â and they are very much looking for meaning. They donât want to be segmented unnaturally; i.e. donât offer Torah study for singles. Offer Torah study if you want to offer Torah study and welcome the singles! Or, offer a singles event. But donât try to combine two things that donât naturally fit together.
They are definitely looking for DIY Judaism. No longer can Jewish institutions and congregations âdo Jewishâ for their members. These young adults want to do for themselves! They need our organizations to help them learn how to do it.
She shared 5 calls to action:
I love the format of InterfaithFamilyâs classes and workshops. Our mission falls directly in line with what these Millennials are looking for with our Love and Religion and Raising a Child offerings. We offer accessible and non-judgmental information so that interfaith families and those who support them can incorporate more Judaism into their lives. Check out our current offerings and stay tuned for changes to come in 2014!
What would you add to Dr. Cousensâ five calls to action?