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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 person’s background. Sometimes I worry that pride can cross a line and become insulting or even prejudice. I’m 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. OK—I 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 “Boston Strong.” 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.
Here’s 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 religion—and 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 don’t want to have their thoughts censored in their effort to be politically correct. It’s 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 doesn’t 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, it’s not unusual for me to get a call from a Jewish parent whose child is engaged to someone who isn’t Jewish. The parent usually asks if we can get together to talk—sometimes they want to talk because they’re 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 child’s marrying someone who isn’t Jewish isn’t necessarily a rejection of Judaism…or of you. As I wrote in my recent blog “Marrying Out” Is Not “Abandoning Judaism” just because a person falls in love with someone of another religion (or no religion) it doesn’t mean that they don’t value their Judaism. Many people today don’t 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 Jewish—and 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 yesterday…), 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 child’s and his/her partner’s decisions to make. Notice that I didn’t say that you have to agree with—or even like—all 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. It’s OK to be honest about how you feel. You can tell your son that it makes you sad that he won’t be married in a synagogue or that his fiancé isn’t converting to Judaism. Most of us aren’t such great actors anyway and it’s always best to be honest—while recognizing that sometimes, as we learned as children, “if you don’t have something nice to say, then don’t say anything at all.” As you share your feelings, make sure that you are clear that they are your feelings—and 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 isn’t 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 she’s angry at her fiancé for insisting that she go to church with his family on Easter, or that she’s hurt that her fiancé won’t come with her to synagogue on Yom Kippur. Odds are that if you offer advice and she doesn’t really want it, or you propose a solution that ends up not working for her and her fiancé, the result is that she will be mad at you. So how do you know what she wants? ASK! You can simply say: “Do you want to just vent and I’ll listen to your feelings, or do you want to hear my opinion and my advice?” That way, you’ll 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 won’t be productive for either of you.
6. Get to know your child’s partner. Your son fell in love with the woman he’s going to marry, so presumably there’s something very special about her. If you haven’t already done so, then get to know her and treat her with kindness and respect. Invite her to participate in Jewish events and celebrations—that is, if these are things you would be doing anyway. If you have Shabbat dinner as a family, invite your son and his fiancé to join you so she can share the beauty of Shabbat with your family. Be welcoming and explain to her what’s going on, while being careful not to be patronizing. But if you don’t regularly go to synagogue on Saturday mornings, don’t invite her to synagogue with you just so you can “counteract” the fact that she isn’t Jewish.
7. Talk to other parents whose children have intermarried. As in many situations, it’s often nice to feel like you’re 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 you’re 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 don’t 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 ourselves—people 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 don’t know of many people who would want to give this up.
We don’t 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 “the one”—even 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 “checklist” of what they’re looking for in a partner. One of my friends always said she’d marry someone blonde, very physically fit and—most important—Jewish. So when she met a man at work who had dark hair, was chubby and didn’t like to work out—and was Methodist—she wasn’t concerned when they started to spend a lot of time together as friends. Sure he was smart, interesting and funny—but he wasn’t her “type.” But eventually their connection become deeper and they fell in love. It stopped mattering to her that he wasn’t blonde and fit. What mattered was that she loved him. And though she didn’t 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 “the one” she loved. Eventually, they got married.
For my friend, “the one” is a Methodist. For Rabbi Michal Woll (who co-wrote the recently published book Mixed-Up Love with her husband Jon Sweeney) “the one” is a Catholic author. For me, “the one” happens to be another rabbi. But just because my friend and Michal married Christian men that doesn’t mean that either of them values Judaism less than I do.
I’ve met numerous people who grew up with strong Jewish identities and who care deeply about the future of the Jewish people—many 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 didn’t 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 I’ve 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 today’s world, in most of the liberal Jewish community, having a partner who is not Jewish and living a committed Jewish life aren’t seen as necessarily mutually exclusive. As Michal and Jon share in Mixed-Up Love, faith and religion are VERY important to BOTH of them; that’s 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 don’t 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 aren’t 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:
“…how many of the 613 mitzvot were classical Reform Jews obligated to perform? My undergrads at SF State want to know.”
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: “Today’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…”
Rabbi Evan Goodman, formerly from the Bay Area and now the UC Santa Barbara Hillel Executive Director responds: “…I 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 generation…”
As the class continued its conversation with Professor Dollinger, he “taught 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?”
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 “the 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.”
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, “I’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.” 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 I’ve known for a while. The husband (I’ll call him Ben; not his real name) is Jewish and the wife (I’ll call her Rachel; also not her real name) is Lutheran. They are very excited because Rachel is pregnant with their first child. They both grew up in religious households, and each of them take their religion very seriously. They had agreed before they were married that while they would each continue to practice their own religion, they would raise their children in only one religion, but had not decided which one. Not long after Rachel became pregnant with their first child, they together decided that while Rachel would continue to attend her church and practice her religion, they would have a Jewish family and raise their children as Jews.
As a person who values Judaism and Jewish peoplehood and continuity greatly, I was thrilled to hear that Ben and Rachel had decided to raise their children as Jews. I know many families in which mothers who are not Jewish are raising Jewish children while continuing to practice a different religion and finding this to work very well for themselves and their families. I see Ben and Rachel’s decision to raise their children as Jews as a testament to the fact that they were married by a rabbi who was open and understanding as well as to the fact that the Jewish community has become increasingly welcoming to interfaith couples and families. In addition, Ben’s family accepted Rachel from the very beginning, embracing her and welcoming her into their family.
I was very happy when Ben and Rachel shared their decision with me. A Jewish family! As a rabbi and as someone who advocates for inclusion of interfaith families in the Jewish community and works to encourage interfaith families to embrace Judaism—and as a Jewish person who greatly values the beliefs, values and traditions of my religion and who knows how wonderful and meaningful it is to be part of a Jewish family and the Jewish community—I was thrilled, both for Ben and Rachel, as well as for the Jewish community as a whole.
But I also felt a pang of sadness. I realized all that Rachel was giving up. I thought of how meaningful it is for me to say the Shabbat blessings with my children every Friday evening before dinner and how it connects me to saying those very same blessings with my parents on Friday evenings when I was growing up. I thought of how much I enjoy saying the Shema with my kids before they go to bed—just as I said the Shema with my parents before going to bed when I was a child. I love sharing MY rituals and MY beliefs with my children, as I pass them on l’dor va-dor, “from generation to generation” and they become OUR way of life.
Rachel, who has committed to raising her children in a religion different from the one in which she grew up, will be able to pass on her values to her children, but she won’t have the opportunity to pass on her beliefs and traditions—to share with them the religious rituals she enjoyed as a child and continues to find meaningful today. She won’t have the opportunity to raise her children in the church in which she grew up. When her kids celebrate Christmas and Easter with her, they won’t be THEIR holidays, they will be HER holidays. In committing to pass on Judaism, her husband’s religion, to the next generation, Rachel is giving up the opportunity to pass on her own religion from one generation to the next.
Rachel spoke of the sense of loss that she feels in having decided not to raise her children in the religion in which she grew up and which she still practices. She further spoke of how this loss isn’t felt just by her, but by her family as well. But she also spoke of how she has come to embrace her decision to raise her children as Jews, and how she is excited that she will be able to fully participate in her family’s Jewish celebrations and observances, while still having a religious life of her own. She knows that this is the right choice for her family—and for her…but that doesn’t mean it will always be easy.
Rachel and Ben have made a big decision. They are excited to have reached this decision and Rachel is happy with it. But she doesn’t deny the loss she feels, and neither does Ben. I am optimistic that as their children grow up they will both feel good about their decision to have a Jewish family and that Ben will continue to be supportive of Rachel in acknowledging that it may not always be easy for her. But just because something isn’t easy doesn’t mean it isn’t wonderful. I know first-hand the joy and rewards of raising Jewish children and I am excited for Ben and Rachel that they will know them as well.
I think it’s important for all of us in the Jewish community, when we celebrate a couple’s decision to raise their children as Jews, to acknowledge how difficult this may be for the partner who is not Jewish. Yes, we can (and we should) be excited that Judaism will be passed on to the next generation and that the children will be blessed to grow up as Jews and that the Jewish community will be blessed to have them in our midst. But we can’t pretend that this will always be easy for the partner who isn’t Jewish and we need to give them the opportunity to feel and express their loss as we respect the sacrifices they have made.
Are you raising your children in a religion different from the religion which you grew up? Has this been difficult for you? What are the greatest challenges? What are the rewards? Respond in the comments section below.
This 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. It’s 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. It’s 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 it’s not a fancy picture and it’s not a fancy office for that matter (not that there is anything wrong with it. It’s 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, “Welcome Josh.”
I smiled when I arrived. This is exactly what the staff of IFF does: We welcome people. I’m 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. It’s a big deal in Judaism (and many cultures) when guests come to your door.
And it’s 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, something…sacred. 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 well…left out, a stranger in a strange land. No, no, no…that 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. It’s 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, “What will the others think?” 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. 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. It’s my job so please don’t 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, who works with leaders in Jewish education and in Jewish life to help organizations ensure success. Her focus on strategic thinking, partnership and creative and relevant Jewish educational ideas have helped her to be a respected voice in the field.
She shared with us her insights about engaging and empowering young adults in Jewish life. Our focus was Millennials, ages 22-35, how best to serve them, engage them, and what to expect from their “engagement” with our institutions. For example, she explained that many Jewish young adults don’t know how to be Jewish, as adults. They don’t want to register or sign up. They are very interested in the answer to the question “What value is added to my life?” and they are very much looking for meaning. They don’t want to be segmented unnaturally; i.e. don’t offer Torah study for singles. Offer Torah study if you want to offer Torah study and welcome the singles! Or, offer a singles event. But don’t try to combine two things that don’t naturally fit together.
They are definitely looking for DIY Judaism. No longer can Jewish institutions and congregations “do Jewish” for their members. These young adults want to do for themselves! They need our organizations to help them learn how to do it.
She shared 5 calls to action:
I love the format of InterfaithFamily’s classes and workshops. Our mission falls directly in line with what these Millennials are looking for with our Love and Religion and Raising a Child offerings. We offer accessible and non-judgmental information so that interfaith families and those who support them can incorporate more Judaism into their lives. Check out our current offerings and stay tuned for changes to come in 2014!
What would you add to Dr. Cousens’ five calls to action?
I saw it first on Facebook, then my inbox and finally it was brought up at an “Interfaith Café” I attended last week. The Jewish community is abuzz with A Portrait of Jewish Americans: Findings from a Pew Research Center Survey of U.S. Jews. The first article I read on this study was quite inflammatory. Some of their “highlights” included:
Thirty-two percent of Jews born after 1980—the so-called millennial generation—identify as Jews of no religion, compared to 19% of baby boomers and just 7% of Jews born before 1927. Overall, 22% of US Jews describe themselves as having no religion, meaning they are much less connected to Jewish organizations and much less likely to be raising their children Jewish.
The analytical side of my brain wanted to know what questions were asked, how they were asked and how the Pew Research Center defined the first layer of the question, “of Jews.” Thankfully, there was a sidebar defining who is a Jew.
I appreciate their stance, to “cast the net widely” such that if anyone answered yes to any of three statements, then they were considered Jewish for purposes of participating in the rest of the survey:
(a) that their religion is Jewish, or
(b) that aside from religion they consider themselves to be Jewish or partially Jewish, or
(c) that they were raised Jewish or had at least one Jewish parent, even if they do not consider themselves Jewish today
With that information, I was not surprised by the results. Liberal Jewish congregational professionals have long been talking about the decline in religion and what that means for the sustainability of their congregation.
I feel it especially in California where I would say many people (Jewish and not) are “not religious.” People connect with heritage, tradition and culture. This was especially true in our last Love and Religion workshop. It became very hard for spouses/partners who were raised in a faith tradition other than Judaism to understand their partner’s Jewish identity, when that identity was void of religion.
Rather than looking at the results as Wertheimer describes, “[a] very grim portrait of the health of the American Jewish population in terms of their Jewish identification,” I prefer to look at it as an opportunity to embrace other aspects of Judaism—beyond sitting in services and praying. I also feel this is an amazing opportunity for our interfaith families, in that there are so many ways they can connect with Judaism!
The Bay Area is rich with non-religious options for Jewish involvement and community. EcoJews of the Bay, G-dcast, PJ Library, The Contemporary Jewish Museum and Wilderness Torah are just some of the non-religious institutions that one can connect with in the Bay Area.
The future of Judaism is not doomed. This is an opportunity! Benji Lovitt’s response sheds light on another way of interpreting the data. I look forward to hearing your thoughts!
Jewish educators (including me) are constantly writing about interfaith families—how to engage them, what their challenges are, what this means for the current state and future of Judaism. I thought an interesting way into the conversation would be to record quotes I have heard this week. These quotes are taken from different people and were said in different venues—from adult education, to talking with parents and grandparents on the phone or in person, to capturing what my own child said during bedtime. These comments capture the range of the concerns people have. Some of them go to the heart of the work we do, and others bring up policy and programmatic challenges.
What would your answers be to these questions or what would your follow-up questions be to these statements?
Things people have said to me this week:
“One of the big issues grandparents face when grandchildren aren’t being raised Jewish is our own guilt.”
“I don’t want to have to pass a litmus test to get a Jewish education for my children.”
“If God is in my heart, when does God come out? Does God sleep?” (From my four year old)
“We are so busy during the week that we don’t want to be away more from our child on Sunday mornings for drop-off religious school.”
“I want to drop off my child on Sundays and go get a coffee and read The New York Times.”
“The only way our priest would marry us was if we also had a rabbi and if we promised to pass on Judaism.”
“I am very concerned about burial issues that will come up for all of these interfaith couples who aren’t thinking about that yet.”
Twitter challenge for October: Tweet comments you hear other people say about life as an interfaith couple or family, things said at your Jewish programs or by your kids. Your words are the best conversation starters for us at InterfaithFamily! Follow us at @InterfaithFam and tag us in your comments with the hashtag #InterfaithQuotes.
On Yom Kippur this year, I had the pleasure of listening to a personal, heartfelt and inspiring sermon by Rabbi Rachel Saphire of Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, MA. The sermon got my family thinking and talking and I thought you might enjoy it too. Rabbi Saphire has been kind enough to allow us to share this excerpt of her sermon, which is approximately the first half. Enjoy.
Whether you see it or not, you’ve made a choice to be here today. You may be thinking, “I don’t have a choice whether or not to observe Yom Kippur. It’s just what I do. It’s what I’ve always done.” You may observe in order to support your loved one or your family. Maybe you’re a teenager or child and your parents have simply told you, “You’re coming.” Either way: you’re here and that’s a big deal. And even if you may not realize you have, you’ve made that choice and THAT is a big deal, too.
I find this text to be symbolic. It is not only about choosing life in the physical sense (preserving our health), but I actually think it’s about choosing TO LIVE JEWISHLY in a meaningful way. For, the commandment to choose life is given as an instruction to connect to that which is sacred. Perhaps what’s most important is the fact that this strong charge does not explicitly say HOW we should choose to live Jewishly in a meaningful way. The text only states that this choice is not far out of reach “it is very close to you – in your mouth and in your heart.” What I think this really means is that the choice is within each and every one of us. It is upon us to choose for ourselves, from within our own being, how it is that we want to express our Jewish identity or connect to the Jewish community. And if that is the case, the pathway to choosing Jewish life may be different for each one of us! The point is that we each actively have to make the choice. Making this choice is a big deal.
The Torah portion also mentions that all of us stand before God on this day – every single one of us, no matter who we are – men, women, and children. The text also mentions that even the ger, the one who is not from the Israelite community and is not Jewish stands among us. Today, a ger tzedek, also refers to one who makes the choice to convert or join the Jewish community. We affirmatively call him/her a “Jew by Choice.” I think the Torah is teaching us that WE SHOULD ALL BE JEWS BY CHOICE! What would it look like if each and every one of us consciously took hold of our choice to be Jewish?
I’ve thought about this question from a very young age. I grew up in an interfaith family. My mom is Jewish and my dad was raised as a Christian. My parents made the decision to raise my twin brother and me as Jews. My mother also wanted my father to feel comfortable observing his own customs. What did that mean? Culturally, we celebrated Christmas at home. I have fond memories of decorating the tree, hanging holiday lights, putting up a stocking, listening to and singing carols, laying out cookies for Santa Claus, sitting down for a Christmas Eve dinner, and waking up to open presents.
I also remember my mother sharing her strong Jewish identity with us and teaching us to take pride in being Jewish. We celebrated Passover and Chanukah at home with active rituals. A few times a year, we lit the Shabbat candles. In my hometown, being Jewish was also ‘something different.’ My brother and I were the only Jewish kids in our grade and my mom was our school’s “Jewish mom.” She would go from room to room to teach about Chanukah and sometimes she even invited the class to our house.
All of these practices brought me joy. I knew that I was Jewish, but I also knew my father and his family members were not. I also liked to fit in among my classmates. And so, I matter-of-factly and quite simply called myself and considered myself to be “half-Jewish.”
Then, something began to change my perspective midway through elementary school. A new kid came to town. He was in the same grade as me, his grandparents lived up the street, and HE was JEWISH! Besides my brother, I had made my first Jewish friend. I began to learn about his family and their deeply-rooted Jewish practices. With joy and excitement, their extended family gathered for holidays, including festivals I had never experienced. Their traditions and rituals spanned generations. They went to temple together. Being Jewish even informed the way they ate and the things they talked about. I was fascinated by this new-found meaning and beauty that I experienced by having a Jewish friend.
I began to explore my own identity.
“Who am I really and what is important to me?”
And then the deep Jewish questions came up, too.
“If my friend is Jewish and he goes to temple, then why don’t I?”
“Can I celebrate the ‘new’ Jewish holidays that his family celebrates?”
And then a bit later as I began to visit religious school and temple functions with my friend…
“Mom, can I attend religious school, too?”
“Can you help me learn Hebrew?”
“Can we go to services?”
“How about a field trip to the Jewish gift shop?”
And then things like…
“Mom, why do we have a Christmas tree if we’re Jewish?”
“Can we have a youth group just like the Christian kids do?”
“Can I skip my soccer game on Yom Kippur?”
“Can I become
“Can I study with the rabbi more?”
And so I did – all of these things. My brother and I formed a youth group at our temple. And there we built our own sense of Jewish community. And I became Bat Mitzvah on my 17th birthday – With a new year of life came a new understanding of the depth and richness of Torah. And I decided that I would find my own sense of peace by attending Shabbat services every week if I could – that even meant skipping THE high school football game on Friday night.
These choices were my own, ones that I was proud to make and explore. Some choices were different than the ones my brother made and many were different than the ones my school friends made. But, they were mine -my own conscious and meaningful choices – ones that allowed me to explore my passions and the things that were important to ME. These choices brought me joy, connection, a sense of purpose and even the feeling of being known and loved. Even though I was born a Jew, it is for these reasons that I am a Jew by Choice. And it is because of my Jewish journey that I want each of you to have the same opportunity to make your own conscious Jewish choices today, every day, in the year ahead.
Instead of thinking of ourselves as the CHOSEN people (people for whom our destiny is chosen and dictated), we could become the CHOOSING people. We could choose to create a new Shabbat ritual for ourselves every week. We could choose to read more Jewish texts or books or explore the world of Jewish music. We could act in more concrete ways that heal our world. Or we could visit those who are lonely and in need. We could commit to teaching our children something of our own Jewish interest. We could share our own family’s history. We could question and explore our faith. If we could choose to do any of these types of things (the choices are endless)…Then, we would not be passive inheritors of our tradition, but rather active participants, consciously acting upon our choice to live Jewishly.