Connecting Interfaith Families to Jewish Life in Greater Cleveland by providing programs and opportunities for interfaith families to experience Judaism in a variety of venues, meet other interfaith families, and to connect to other Jewish organizations that may serve their needs.
A great way for Jewish professionals and volunteers who work with and provide programming for people in interfaith relationships to locate resources and trainings to build more welcome into their Jewish communities; connect with and learn from each other; and publicize and enhance their programs and services.
We just finished an online class called Raising a Child with Judaism in Your Interfaith Family. Participants came to their computers on their own time and read essays, watched videos, read narratives written by other interfaith families and discussed with each other the content and meaning of the eight sessions. The sessions were about major aspects of parenting, from bedtime to meals to raising ethical children, and the wisdom Judaism can provide about these areas.
An interesting discussion arose about Shabbat family worship. Parents said that Friday evening services were too late for young children. Tot Shabbat was fun for the children but didn’t fill the adults with spirituality or insight. Parents who were raised Christian said that they had warm memories of attending Church as a family on Sunday mornings: adults were able to participate in communal worship and children could join in or attend the nursery program. The whole family had an enriching experience that grounded their week and brought them together.
Why did this not exist within liberal Judaism, they wondered? It seemed as if Reform temples had essentially private bar or bat mitzvahs on Shabbat mornings, with no childcare for young children. Some Conservative synagogues had more options on Shabbat morning for the whole family, but parents who aren’t Jewish worried that they wouldn’t know enough Hebrew and would feel out of place somehow. I encouraged all of the participants to try both Reform and Conservative worship to see how they felt in reality, as assumptions and apprehensions may or may not come true. But the frustration was clear. Parents spoke about how their Jewish neighbors were taking the kids to soccer and swim lessons and anything other than Shabbat family worship.
I can relate to this frustration. I have worked at different Reform congregations around the country, and at least once a year it seems the senior staff would get together to talk about what to do with Shabbat! Were there ways to meet for earlier Friday evening family programs with dinner? If it was too early, parents who worked outside the home couldn’t attend. Every idea for Shabbat morning family worship would be put forth: musical services, services with crafts and projects at the end for the children, services ending with lunch, and other ideas to make the service more “attractive” or “appealing.” However, time and time again no matter how Shabbat morning got programmed, few families would attend. Even when rabbis preached about the need for this gift called Shabbat, the gift of time, of joy, of changing pace if only for an hour or two, of re-connecting… nobody seemed to bite.
Some rabbis explain this by saying that Judaism is a religion of the home, and it is not cultural to feel a pull to attend congregational worship. Families often do the Shabbat blessings over their own special dinner and have friends over. The kitchen table is referred to as the mikdash m’at (a miniature temple) in rabbinic writings because what goes on around the Shabbat table is worship. But that still does not answer our questions.
Perhaps this challenge can help bring positive changes to our Jewish communities. Maybe interfaith families will take the lead in bringing Shabbat family worship to liberal Jewish families who may not even realize what spending an hour or two on a Saturday morning together in song and peace would do for their family. Imagine if it became the cultural norm for families to come to synagogue from 9:30-11:00 on Saturday mornings in order to ground their week in hope, love and community. It will be exciting to see what ideas congregations can come up with for participatory, inclusive and engaging family worship with nursery options and learner’s services so that the whole family can come together in making meaningful memories.
InterfaithFamily/Chicago is currently offering an online/in-person hybrid class called How to Raise a Child with Judaism in Your Interfaith Family. We have 21 families – raising young children – from all over Chicagoland participating.
The participants come to their computers in spare minutes to access the content of each week’s session. They can read essays and watch slide shows about the theme of the session, gain ideas for family projects, respond to discussion questions, write in their journals, watch videos, learn blessings, read narratives written by other interfaith families, and more.
The families in this class are diverse. Some have one partner who is Jewish and another who either was born into and practices another religion or was born into another religion but does not practice that religion now. For some families, both partners are questioning elements of the religion of their upbringing and thinking about what feels comfortable in terms of the religious observance of their new family.
Parents talk about understanding elements in Judaism and coming to feel at ease reciting prayers in Hebrew. Discussions have involved how young children perceive different prayers and how they process who they are religiously. We have discussed, online and in-person, which traditions have enduring meanings and which rituals are realistic to bring into the rhythm of the family’s life. For example, during the first session we grappled with the Shema prayer. We spoke online about wanting a peaceful and spiritual bedtime routine with our children and wondered if prayer is part of that experience. If it is, is the Shema that prayer or would it be something else? Do both parents say it, or just the Jewish partner?
This past Friday evening, we also met up in-person to connect comments written on a screen to actual faces. At the Board of Jewish Education in Northbrook, IL , we ushered in Shabbat together as a new community.
We were meeting for the first time, and some young children who had been in the car for an hour were understandably antsy, energetic, and curious, while others were apprehensive.
We started with three Shabbat blessings. We spoke about light in the face of the dreary evening weather and the light in our children’s eyes. We sipped wine and thought about which sweet moments we were looking forward to this Shabbat. We ate challah and thought about the goodness of being together.
In order for these parents to get to Northbrook, some of them left work early, ran to get children from daycares and nannies, faced traffic and stress. Yet they showed up. The message that we all felt is that Shabbat means honoring traditions, being with friends and loved ones, focusing on singing and playing, and stepping out of the norms of the week for a chance to experience time in a different way. This gift that is Shabbat is one we open in our own ways and with our own spirits.
The families also made placemats that said either Sabbath Peace or Shabbat Shalom. The children pasted on pictures of their homes and images of peace. They wrote the names of those they love all over their mats. They decorated their mats with their handprints and stamps. When they use their laminated mats at meals or on Shabbat, maybe they will look at the images and think about their role in bringing peace to their home, peace to their playdates, and peace to the playground… This eternal message of Shabbat will be realized in new ways by the children of this new generation.
We just finished our first Love and Religion Workshop in Chicago, a four-session workshop developed by Dr. Marion Usher in D.C. and offered at JCCs across the country. The workshop, for interfaith couples who are seriously dating, engaged or newly married, seeks to engender discussion about the role of religion in their lives. Couples can begin to openly discuss issues they face as partners from two different backgrounds. Hearing other couples’ stories and understanding that they are not alone also helps in the search for answers to challenges they face. In a safe environment, couples work on creating their religious lives, learning how they can make Jewish choices while still respecting their partner’s religion.
Four interfaith, Chicagoland couples, all of whom are getting married this summer, participated in our workshop. They logged into their computers with multiple video conferencing on Wednesday evenings so that we could see and hear each other from the comfort of our own homes. For the last session, we met in person at a Jewish deli on the North Shore.
Having tried to get a glimpse into these couples’ lives over the past month, here are my thoughts:
1. These couples (and many of the couples I marry) have not had backlash, ill-feelings or negativity from their parents and extended family at the thought of marrying someone from a different religion. There are, of course, exceptions. Some parents do find it hard to speak to their children about their disappointments and concerns. Not surprisingly, these issues often get exacerbated when grandchildren come into the picture. However, couples often share that their parents are happy for them: happy they found a partner who brings them joy and support.
2. Couples are interested and eager to plan their interfaith wedding ceremony and to unpack the meaning of the traditions. For couples who want to bring aspects of both religions into the ceremony and their lives as a married couple, they may feel that they are dancing on eggshells to make sure that both sides are represented in the ceremony. They want their ceremony to feel Jewish and yet honor the other partner’s religion as well in real ways. Couples are concerned that their family members who are not Jewish will feel part of the ceremony. Partners who are Jewish worry about the mention of Jesus as possibly alienating Jewish family members. Many of the couples printed out our wedding guide for help deciding on readings; gaining understanding about the meaning behind traditions; and to begin envisioning what their ceremony would look, feel and sound like. An interfaith ceremony has to present both religions’ traditions in ways that affirm the other. The wedding shouldn’t feel like two totally different ceremonies have been placed into one whole, going back and forth and back and forth with no connections being made and with ideas that conflict. As with many other aspects in Judaism, interfaith relationships are compelling us to look at liturgy and traditions with a new lens, with a new openness and with creativity to understanding the spirit behind the words and rites.
3. It is not a far leap from talking about a wedding ceremony to talking about how couples will raise their future children. Before we could talk about what role religion would play, we tried to articulate what each partner believes about major aspects of their own religion. This is where I got a lot of blank stares. For some people who grew up Jewish, they never heard a rabbi or teacher ever talk about theology. For many, what Jews do or don’t believe about God, about life and after death, about sin and other major life questions are mysteries. A lack of our own Jewish knowledge and literacy makes it more difficult to figure out, in thoughtful and purposeful ways, what we want to pass on to our children. Some say they just want to celebrate holidays in secular ways. However, if there is interest in infusing deeper meaning, both cultural and religious, couples may need guidance. How does one begin to fill in some of these holes in their own religious education? I highly recommend participating, as a couple in, an introduction to Judaism class. They are held regularly, throughout the year, in various congregations around Chicagoland.
Talking regularly with our partners about different aspects of religion helps both people sort out what is important to them, what questions they still have, areas they want to explore more and where similarities and difference lie. The way couples experience religion will no doubt look different from what either partner grew up with. That can be liberating and exciting or challenging, frustrating and even sad. Yet being willing to actively grapple with these issues can lead interfaith couples to find a new religious vibrancy and identity.
One piece that I have been giving a lot of thought to is what I would write in my religious school handbook concerning interfaith families if I were still the Director of Education at an area congregation. Religious school handbooks typically have information about snacks served (for families concerned about allergies), information about carpool and pick up lines, the school attendance policy, dress code, how to make up work if classes are missed, whether students are required to attend religious services, and expectations about behavior. None of the schools in the area seem to have a policy for working with interfaith families. Some schools felt that there does not need to be a separate policy because it isolates interfaith families as having special needs and makes them feel different than, and not part of, the community.
I think interfaith families often do have special needs and the more we are sensitive to them, and explicit about meeting their needs, the better we do at bringing all of our families into the deeper layers of what it means to really be part of the community.
Here are my thoughts about what this part of my handbook would say:
A Pledge for All of Our Families:
We know that we have families where one parent is not Jewish and yet is living a Jewish life, creating a Jewish home and raising Jewish children. We know that we have families in which one parent is not Jewish and still practices a different religion and yet is supportive of the children being raised with Judaism in the home and in their lives. We know that we have families in which one parent has chosen Judaism for himself or herself as an adult and, while not having childhood memories of Judaism, finds Judaism to be the language by which he or she understands and engages with the world personally. We know that we have families in which one or both parents grew up in interfaith homes themselves and have varying degrees of Jewish education and memories of experiencing Judaism. We have families in which both parents were born into homes of two Jewish parents and are in need of and desire a deeper Jewish education as adults. And we have families that are some combination of these descriptions and have even different layers to their religious stories. This pledge is for all of our families:
We pledge to make Judaism accessible. This means that we will translate every Hebrew or Yiddish word into English. This means that we will offer adult Hebrew classes so that you can learn to read Hebrew and gain a sense of the beauty and richness of this ancient language yourself. We will offer adult education classes from the introductory level to the intermediate levels and beyond. We will offer Learner’s Services so that anybody can learn the choreography of the Friday night and Saturday morning worship services and understand the order of the liturgy, the history of the prayers, and be able to contemplate modern meanings for us today. We will offer family education so that you can learn with your children and have Jewish experiences with your children that will touch your senses and stay with you for years to come. We will offer ways to participate in mitzvot (commandments, ethical and religious living) from rituals to our ethical mandates of social justice. We will offer ways for individuals, couples and families to fully participate with this synagogue community in all aspects of Judaism because we affirm that Jewish living adds meaning, purpose, joy and order to our lives and a sense of rootedness and connectedness that we are all seeking.
We pledge to interact with the children in our religious school and Hebrew school with respect, understanding and empathy, and with an openness to hearing what their experience in our program is. When children speak about celebrating non-Jewish holidays with family members, attending church or other houses of worship with family members, talk about feeling “half and half” in terms of their religious identity, wondering aloud about Jesus or other aspects of another religion in their lives, their comments will be met with respect. Comments will not be swept under the rug, but will be addressed aloud for the class because there are others in the room wondering the same things. Discussions can be had at times that will benefit all in the room about the diversity of the Jewish community, the common threads in the families, what it means to have Judaism as part of your identity and more.
We want to know our families. Please help us get to know you by sharing your own religious stories. Let us know what you “do” in your home for religion, questions you have, challenges you have, and how we can better understand where you are coming from, what’s important to you for your children to absorb in this Jewish setting, and whether we can help bring families together for deeper communal experiences.
If you are reading this and send your children to religious school, what would you think of having such a statement in your school’s handbook? If you are reading this and are in Jewish education, could you imagine using pieces of this?
InterfaithFamily/Chicago co-lead the Community Foundation for Jewish Education (CFJE) Principal’s Kallah on Sunday and Monday, January 29 and 30. About 20 Chicagoland Jewish educators (including directors of lifelong learning, religious school principals and early childhood directors) from the Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative denominations gathered at the Schaumburg Hyatt Place on Sunday evening. Anita Diamant was the key-note speaker; she spoke about the American Jewish family in the 21st century. She taught us about the growth in number of conversions to Judaism. Did you know that the rate of conversions to Judaism has not been this high since 500 C.E.? She talked about how the rabbinic codes and laws concerning conversion were written at that time to be open and welcoming.
Today, American Jews are so successful and assimilated into every aspect of American culture (including the outspoken and proud Jon Stewart), that marrying someone Jewish seems like a realistic and wonderful choice for someone who grew up a different religion and is not practicing, or even for someone who still practices another religion. American Judaism is open, flexible, adaptable, and so young couples think intermarriage “works.”
She said that it is now statistically normative to be intermarried, which is a powerful statement with many ramifications. She spoke about how labels can impact our sense of identity. She said at the end that she is optimistic about the future of American Judaism and wouldn’t want to live at any other time than now.
On Monday, Karen Kushner (who lives and works in San Francisco) and I ran three workshops for the Kallah participants.
The first workshop involved getting to know each other and starting to think about the most welcoming language for synagogue membership forms. Filling in a form should leave one with the feeling that this synagogue is inclusive and respectful of all backgrounds. All of the educators at our conference said that they work with interfaith families. Many said that they were sure they had students in their classes who felt that they were “half and half” or confused about their religious identity. Many affirmed that they have children from interfaith homes who feel proud to be Jewish, love their family and feel whole and secure. So, we spoke about how interfaith families come through our doors with different needs, issues, desires, backgrounds, questions and more.
It was so interesting for the educators to take a good look at their own congregation’s website and their school forms. Many confessed that they hadn’t read through the language in quite some time and were either pleasantly surprised by how inclusive their language was or turned off by the lack of specific mention that interfaith families are welcome in their community. We had the educators circle or highlight every Hebrew or Yiddish word on their forms, all “insider” language terms and references to synagogue lingo that some parents may not “get.” We debated if one should actually translate the words, “Shabbat,” “matzah” and “Torah” for example as “everyone knows what these words mean…” Interestingly, many may not know the origins of even these Hebrew words. For instance, Shabbat comes from the Hebrew word for rest; Torah has the same etymological root as horim and morim (parents and teachers) and means learning.
We ended Monday with a session on how children form a sense of self and gain a Jewish identity. We spoke about the challenges to having a “full” Jewish identity when a parent is bringing Christianity or another religion into the home.
We talked about how these issues aren’t black and white, but full of grays. For some, a Christmas tree or Easter egg hunt are purely secular, so adding these elements into a Jewish home doesn’t feel like they create theological problems. I see this, for example, when I meet with couples who are preparing for their weddings. I usually start by saying, “Tell me your life in a nutshell…” I sometimes ask myself what children growing up in interfaith homes will they tell their rabbi before they get married. Will s/he say that their Jewish story is that they grew up going to a temple, attended religious school, celebrated Jewish holidays in the home and that mom or dad also celebrated another religion’s holidays, and they occasionally went to church with family members but that they want a rabbi at their wedding because they feel a core inside connection to Judaism…? It will differ for each child.
We do know, however, how important a connection to a synagogue is. We do know how important it is to have positive, joy filled, meaningful Jewish experiences that touch the senses. These experiences stay with us, and we want our children to experience them too. This is how we pass on our values, our memories, and live with and through our children fully.
There was definitely a lot of discussion. Many people asked questions. Many answers, suggestions and opinions were shared. The most important thing is that 20 Chicagoland educators devoted two days from their hectic schedules – juggling childcare, work obligations and more – to think about the precious subject of the American Jewish family today and how we can best bring interfaith families into the tent of Jewish living. It was an honor to be part of such a workshop.
Friday, January 13, we hosted a JCC Makor Shabbat for Interfaith Families with Young Children, a community dinner organized by the JCC Shure Kehilla. The guidelines for the dinner we hosted were that participants need to be 21-39, and some of the parents who came to our house were pushing this, but everyone loved the idea of a program whose aim is to connect this cohort with great Jewish happenings all around Chicagoland. The night we held our interfaith family Shabbat, there were three other community Shabbat dinners organized by the Kehilla happening in the city (blue-line Shabbat, travelers Shabbat, music and arts) and another taking place out in Wheeling.
Preparing to host this Shabbat was exciting and inspiring. Typically our family lights the candles, takes a sip of wine or juice, and eats some challah. We parents then whispered a blessing to our children while holding their heads in our hands (my favorite part of the whole week) and then Evan runs off to lead services at Congregation Solel and I put our two-year-old and four-year-old to bed.
For this Shabbat, however, we were having four other couples with their combined eight children to our home for blessings, dinner, schmoozing and playing. I started by getting the whole house organized and cleaned up (which actually felt really good to do). Then I went to Taboun Grill to pick up the food the JCC had ordered. When I got there, I met Genia who runs the Russian Hillel. I have known Genia in name for years through the work I have done in and around Odessa, Ukraine, but she didn’t know me. I was so excited to learn that she had become a Jewish professional in Chicago. I got to connect with her in person over some tea while we waited for our orders to be packed. (Genia was hosting the Wheeling Shabbat for Jews in the ‘Burbs, another of these community dinners organized through the Kehilla.) We talked about interfaith couples in the Russian community and what she is seeing in terms of identity and interests of her students.
Back home, we were still expecting four families to join us. One is made up of my childhood friend. We had lost touch and reconnected on Facebook a couple of years ago, only to find out that we both lived in Chicago with children the same age. She is married to someone not Jewish and they are raising Jewish kids, have a Jewish home, belong to a synagogue, send their son to the preschool there and celebrate Shabbat weekly with her husband’s family, who now loves Shabbat as well! One couple lives right next door to us and are still deciding what feels comfortable to them in terms of raising their children with Judaism. The husband, who is Jewish, has a long-time family connection to a temple here, and they say they will join a temple and send their children to religious school. Another couple included a mom who had converted to Judaism; they are raising two Jewish boys. They seek out anything family-oriented that is Jewish. The last couple has one partner who is Jewish and one partner who is Catholic; they are raising their children with an appreciation of both faiths. This shows the spectrum of interfaith families and the different decisions families make. There was a warmth and almost palpable holiness in the room when we said the blessings and prayed that our children stay safe and know peace. Everybody loved the food, parents enjoyed meeting each other, and the kids had a blast running around our basement building with blocks, dressing up and playing games. Our four-year-old told us that she loved our Shabbat party.
This was the most joyous Shabbat we have had in a long time. Evan and I said to each other that we should try to have families over at least once a month. Some families regularly have guests over and know this kind of energy and spirit weekly! Since we have had children, we don’t host guests nearly as much or enough. Shabbat is the perfect chance to bring people together in your home and feel the stress of the week slide away, to let time not matter for a few hours, to laugh and to feel connected. That is how we felt. We felt connected. Connected to generations and traditions of the past, connected to our neighbors, connected to our children… Connected to the new way we are going to “do” Shabbat, the traditions we are going to establish as parents now (different from what we grew up with). I loved every minute of our JCC Makor Shabbat for Interfaith Families with Children. In Hebrew each day of the week counts up to Shabbat (day one, day two, day three…), and now I know why in a way I hadn’t remembered for quite a long time…
InterfaithFamily/Chicago is offering our first two classes this year, which I am excited to be facilitating.
The first class is for interdating or newly married interfaith couples, offering the chance to think through how they want to bring religion into their lives. The second class is for interfaith families with young children, trying to figure out how to bring aspects of Judaism to their home (more than just Hanukkah!). This class with help the parent who isn’t Jewish gain knowledge about major aspects of Judaism that directly impact parenting and to see which of these traditions they feel comfortable embracing and making their own.
As I have been talking to different people about both of these classes, a couple of interesting things have come up. Here are two scenarios I have heard:
[*]1. I Don’t Get It/Want it/Seek It:[/*][/list]
This is the sentiment I have heard from the Jewish parent who thinks they have no interest in joining a synagogue, attending Shabbat activities or the like. Maybe this partner grew up minimally connected to Judaism, and married someone who is minimally connected to their own religion. For this parent, it can be a hard sell to talk about religiosity, traditions, blessings and customs. For the partner who grew up Jewish but didn’t “do” much Judaism in the home, who attended Sunday School and then maybe stopped going to synagogue after their bar or bat mitzvah, there may not be too many warm Jewish experiences to draw on, let alone share with their children. Some Jewish traditions may be just as new for this partner as for their partner who isn’t Jewish. This partner feels they have a full life, a busy life, a life with a good community of friends. Maybe holidays are still celebrated secularly at extended families’ homes, but this family isn’t looking to bring “too much” religion to their lives. These parents want their children to be good people who make their world a better place. Lighting Shabbat candles would seem awkward, unfamiliar and unnecessary.
To these families I say, you don’t think you want the rubrics of religion in your lives but your children, like you, crave rituals and order, meaning and purpose. Every Jewish tradition and holiday has an ethical message or undertone to it. Lighting the Shabbat candles is as much about the spiritual as it is about the ethical, bringing family together for a special meal and time to share once a week. The Hebrew and blessings will come as you feel comfortable, but there is room within authentic Judaism for you to “do” Judaism in your own way, with your own language and your own interpretations, filling you in ways you may not yet be able to imagine.
[*]2. We are Not Religious, We are Spiritual:[/*][/list]
Sometimes when an interfaith couple meets with me to prepare for their wedding, and they say they are not religious, it is because neither partner wants to offend the other by bringing too much of their religion to the ceremony or their lives. They fear it would make the other partner feel alienated and left-out. Or maybe these two partners really do not have knowledge, familiarity or comfort with their religions’ traditions and see organized Judaism as boring and irrelevant. This couple may care about feeling spiritual and may seek out spiritual outlets by partaking in nature activities, yoga or discussing philosophy, but they don’t access spirituality through traditional Judaism.
To these couples I say, there is no such thing as “traditional” Judaism. You can connect to authentic Judaism, which is so richly spiritual that hearing the words of old told through a modern lens will fill you with awe, wonder, inspiration, joy and connectedness (that perhaps you never felt growing up at synagogue!). You can connect to Judaism today through nature, through yoga, through meditation, through study, social justice, and just hanging out with other interfaith couples and talking about what’s really important in your lives and families.
Love and Religion – Online is a four-session workshop for interfaith couples who are seriously dating or newly married, on exploring the issue of religion in their relationships. This workshop offers a safe environment for couples to work on creating religious lives together. The sessions will be each Wednesday for four weeks, starting February 1 in person, and then online February 8, 15 and 22. Each session runs 7:00-9:00pm and includes online resources including facilitation via videoconferencing. The cost is $36 per couple.
Raising a Child with Judaism in Your Interfaith Family is a one-of-a-kind, eight-session class for interfaith parents thinking about whether and how to bring Judaism to their home, their lives and their parenting. This class runs February 27 through April 27. Participants will learn one session each week online, with two additional in-person meetings for the whole family: a Shabbat experience on March 23 and a wrap-up session on April 22.
Each of the eight sessions addresses a major parenting situation, looking at how Jewish teachings and traditions offer insights into making these times meaningful and spiritual. We will explore bedtime and meal-times, marking time with meaning on a weekly and yearly basis, doing good deeds, loving learning, spirituality and personal journeys. Class materials include: background essays and slide shows on Jewish teachings; “hear/read” resources to help participants learn how to say blessings; videos; family projects; bedtime book suggestions; personal stories written by other interfaith families; journaling questions and discussion prompts for talk between partners and with other parents; and more!
The stuff of identity (childhood memories and experiences, what works for you today, what’s important to you right now) is so complicated and can’t be summed up or wrapped up neatly in a scenario. But these are all of the kinds of things we can explore more deeply in these classes. I look forward to learning with you!
This is a guest post by Dr. Steve Moffic (my father-in-law, a Milwaukee psychiatrist). It was originally posted on his blog which deals with ethics.
How did a Jewish psychiatrist end up playing Santa Claus for his daughter 35 years ago? Is it possible that this could connect in any way to this same daughter now being a Sunday school teacher? And, even more of a possible stretch, even connect to her younger brother becoming a Rabbi and who also married a Rabbi? A blog just written by this psychiatrist begins to consider how Christmas, self-disclosure, and cross-cultural respect all come into play in trying to answer these questions. God, indeed, may work in mysterious ways.
The idea to play Santa for our young daughter was not mine. I was early in my career as a psychiatrist. Being a psychiatrist at that time would have led me in the other direction. At that time, the view of Freud, who of course came from a Jewish background, was that religion was like an opiate for people at best, a neurotic belief at worse. He could have been called an ethnic Jew, though we don’t for sure know if he turned more to religious beliefs as he was dying of cancer.
However, my wife wanted to do this and I wanted to please her. Moreover, it seemed like fun and I was just getting interested in masks, so I put on the mask and clothes of Santa. It worked, at least in its deception and enjoyment of our daughter. We later did this with our son, who was 8 years younger, though by then our daughter knew of the deception, so this time it wasn’t the same.
My wife recollected wanting to do this because it was a family tradition on her side. She felt it fulfilled a desire of her family to adapt to American values and traditions, while at the same time remaining strongly Jewish. She and her sisters all ended up marrying Jewish men and having long marriages. All of their children have married other Jews to date.
As I learned more about being a psychiatrist and how to help patients, I found out that self-disclosure on my part was filled with complexity and, despite any temptation, had to be done with utmost care and concern for how this would benefit my patients, not me.
In the field of psychiatry, the analysis of religion seemed to mature beyond Freud over the years. Religion could later be seen as a sound and normal social and cultural activity. At its best, at least in my opinion, it could not only complement the mental understandings of psychiatry, but take up where psychiatry left off and probe into the deeper questions of spiritual sustenance and the meaning of life. Psychiatry also didn’t have thousands of years of helping people cope with the challenges of life; we could certainly learn from religion.
I tried to apply this knowledge as best I could with being a parent as these same years went on. So that when my wife began to have thoughts and desires that our son should become a Rabbi, I didn’t tell her (or him) that she was “crazy”. Now that it happened, I think this, as well as our daughter teaching in a Jewish Sunday school, is one of the most wonderful legacies imaginable of being a parent.
Much later, after our son became firmly dedicated to becoming a Rabbi, I became more interested in Jewish religion and history. I finally succumbed to my wife’s request for us to attend weekly Torah study at our Reform synagogue. And, lo and behold, what did I find is that the Torah depicted human nature in all its successes and failures, that it could be analyzed in a depth even greater than Freudian interpretations, and that it left questions for us to ponder for the rest of our lives.
Self-disclosure in Torah was a prominent theme. Just consider God. God only reveals the qualities of God slowly and depending on circumstances. We are never allowed to see the “face” of God directly. God has an eternal mask of sorts, at least for us.
Jacob, with the direction of his mother, deceives his father by trying to disguise himself as his brother Esau. Was that really necessary to obtain the birthright? Did it lead to problems with Esau’s progeny over history all the way up to today? Interestingly, Jacob later is very open with his own children, conveying obvious favoritism to Joseph and somewhat berating all his children on his deathbed. Not what I would recommend as a psychiatrist. You may naturally have favorites as a parent, but that is best kept to yourself and try to treat all the children as having equivalent value in the image of God. And, before dying, it is psychologically best to resolve old animosities, if time and illness allows, rather than to disclose without time for discussion and better resolution.
Of course, Jacob’s father Isaac had already been subject to – a psychiatrist might say traumatized by – his father Abraham’s getting all set to sacrifice him. Was that what God really wanted, for Abraham to keep this from his son? Why not let Isaac argue with him, just like Abraham did with God once upon a time? Psychological trauma tends to repeat over family generations unless processed, reframed, and mistakes admitted and forgiven.
Then there is Moses. What is self-disclosed to him about his origins by his sister and other family? Perhaps all that can be concluded is that he likely learned of his background at the right age, at the right time, and with the right explanation for being “given up” for his own benefit.
As I specialized in treating patients from many different cultures, I learned that several things were essential for success. I had to respect other cultural values, even if I didn’t believe in them and even if I thought they were harmful. There were there for a historical reason. I had to not only empathize with the values of other cultures, but sometimes experience them directly, whether that be visiting those from other cultures or attending many of their cultural events. And, I had to be careful as to when I revealed my own cultural background and values. Timing was – and is – essential, for psychiatrists and parents. It needed to be when, as best as I could ascertain, and sometimes with the consultation of colleagues, that it should benefit the patient. Fantasy, imagination, and transference (what we call the projection of feelings to parents onto the psychiatrist) are all important – and inevitable – for a patient to experience in their relationship to a psychiatrist. Treatment, of course, had to be consistent with what their cultural identities valued. Over time, I developed multi-cultural holiday events for patients and staff at this time of year. I brought the Menorah and information about Hanukah.
An essential part of the development of any child is for them to know that they are a separate person from their parents, and that they have control over how much they may reveal of their own thoughts. Too much or too little can prove costly.
So, clearly, playing Santa Claus many years ago did not harm my Jewish identity. Nor did it not harm that of my children. And, who knows, could it have paradoxically helped? Surely, it is impossible to tease out the influence of this one activity over 35 years. But, now, as I write this, our adult children are most capable of considering the reasons I did this, the complexity and even anguish of our parental decisions over time, and how they can do better. Someday, when our four grandchildren seem ready, we will tell them this family Santa story.
When I last blogged, I asked two questions: Do interfaith families want their own unique programs and opportunities within synagogues, JCCs and other organizations? And should we be asking more about the religious background of parents and couples in organizational membership forms? These are two important questions that we should be talking about so that Jewish institutions have best practices to follow. The key challenge, however, is that the vast majority of interfaith families are not affiliated with synagogues and other organizations, making such data hard to gather.
That truth raises my broader question of this week: how do we bring unaffiliated interfaith couples and families into Jewish organizations? This is a huge question that everyone wants to know the answer to, although communities around the country sadly have invested very little resources of time and money to try to address. The assumption behind the question is that being part of organized Jewish life leads to identification of the family as Jewish and children growing up affirming their identity. What happens in a synagogue that leads to this? Finding the answer is not easy, since studies about the effectiveness of religious school in instilling knowledge and identity is mixed. Yet, what synagogues succeed in doing is creating a context for Jewish life. The harder job is complimenting that context in the home. The best way to instill identity and an appreciation for Jewish values is to compliment what happens at home with what happens in the synagogue. At the same time, we can find new ways to strengthen Jewish life in both the home and the synagogue, recognizing that not every family will have the opportunity to maximize Jewish life in both settings.
On the synagogue side, we need to put resources into making membership open and accessible to as many families as possible and to making synagogue life as engaging, relevant and meaningful as possible. And, it makes sense to look to every model of Jewish community from synagogues with buildings, to those sharing space with other organizations, to more informal havurot (Jewish fellowship groups).
On the home front, we can continue providing opportunities for learning and engagement. To that end, we will be offering a class called Raising a Child with Judaism in Your Interfaith Family. Chicagoland parents will be able to take this class this spring, and it will include eight sessions online and two in-person family gatherings. The goal of the class will be to introduce and teach home traditions that can feel comfortable, spiritual and meaningful for interfaith families to incorporate into their lives. From bedtime to meal-times, from daily blessings to weekly and annual holidays, to doing good deeds, learning together, cultivating a sense of spirituality and plotting out our personal and family’s religious journeys, there is much parents with young children can do to bring Jewish traditions and customs into their regular parenting. I hope many interfaith families will register for this class and carve out time over two months to think about and experiment with their own home observances. When interfaith families consciously engage with Judaism in the home, children will internalize the holiness inherent in struggling, learning and compromise and come out richer people for being part of that ride.