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Temple Hillel B’nai Torah (HBT) is aÂ Reconstructionist congregation located in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, a middle-class Boston neighborhood just minutes from Newton and Brookline. HBT is a welcoming, egalitarian, multicultural and inclusive spiritual community, which I observed firsthand when I was a substitute religious school teacher there a few years back. As with any synagogue, worship is a focal point, but this community also dedicates much of its time and resources to social justice and being responsive to the broader world in which we live.
If you are looking for an inclusive Jewish spiritual community in the Greater Boston area, Temple Hillel Bânai Torah is an exceptional option. Even if you arenât in search of a temple to join, but simply an inclusive Jewish space for an occasional holiday or social program to attend, HBTâs vibrant community strives to make visitors feel right at home.
I recently interviewed Hillel Bânai Torahâs rabbi, Barbara Penzner. Rabbi Penzner is an exceptional spiritual and community leader. Below she shares insight pertaining to interfaith families at HBT, as well as the congregationâs values around inclusion.
What are some of the insights you have learned from working with interfaith families at HBT?
In my 19 years at Temple Hillel Bânai Torah, I have observed many different kinds of families. In some families, both parents are active participants while in others, only one parent maintains a strong connection to our community. Itâs interesting that these differences do not divide easily between families with two Jewish parents, interfaith families or even families where one parent has converted to Judaism.
In one family, the mother never converted, but because she committed to raising children in the Jewish traditionâbefore the marriageâthe boys both attended Jewish day school. In another family, the father who is not Jewish remains committed to his personal faith while attending every Jewish function with his family. Many of those who decided to convert to Judaism waited until their children were old enough to urge them to âtake the plungeâ and celebrated with them at the mikveh.
What policies or practices does HBT institute pertaining to interfaith families?
In the late 1990s, our congregation spent a year discussing the roles for members who arenât Jewish in order to clarify our expectations for participation in ritual and governance. We all agreed that we wanted to include all family members for celebrations like a bar/
Our goal is to make our congregation a haven and a home, a place where people feel welcome no matter what their background: interfaith, multi-racial, LGBT and other seekers. Our bottom line is that we hope each member is willing to learn and grow.
What programming do you offer that supports and addresses the needs/concerns of interfaith families? How have those initiatives or programs helped the community and those families/couples?
In recent years, a new group of families with young children have asked for a special group to help them deal with the challenges of raising children when parents have different religious backgrounds. Our group began as a gathering for interfaith couples. By the second year, we realized that the questions we were grappling with were valuable to all parents. We renamed the group âParenting through Our Differences.â The group has discussed observing Jewish holidays, responding to the demands of extended family members, dealing with death and mourning in a Jewish way, and of course, navigating the December holidays
What brings you the most joy about your work, particularly your leadership around diversity and inclusion?
Lately Iâve enjoyed spending time with young couples who are preparing to marry and wish to explore the complexities of creating an interfaith family. I have watched couples navigate the dynamics of family and community that inevitably raise questions about the meaning of family, identity, religion and God. These are not easy questions and the answers are not straightforward.
What gives me faith in the future is the intention these couples bring and the open-heartedness with which they discuss their challenges. That, after all, is what religion is ultimately about. How we live out our religious practices and how we name our faith springs forth from our own personal truth; without that honest self-assessment, religion is only window-dressing. Ideally, our community seeks to foster these heartfelt investigations and create bonds of compassion and support.
On Sunday, November 9, HBT will be featuring scholar Keren McGinity, author of Still Jewish: A History of Women and Intermarriage in America to speak about her new book Marrying Out: Jewish Men, Intermarriage and Fatherhood.Â
Today in The Jewish Daily Forward, Jay Michaelson praises inclusion of LGBT Jews. “Among almost all denominations, in all geographical areas, Jewish institutions have become more inclusive of LGBT people, and, I think, have been enriched as a result,” he says.
But, he points out, “Hereâs who doesnât get included: Jews who support BDS (or perhaps even J Street); people with multiple religious traditions; Jews with strong critiques of the 1%-fueled, $30 billion Jewish establishment, especially the federation system; Jews with more radical critiques of Jewish culture or tradition; Jews who donât âpassâ as middle or upper class; queer Jews who donât pass as ânormalâ because of their gender presentation, or tattoos, or clothing.”
Michaelson has a point. The Jewish community should absolutely be accepting and inclusive of the LGBT community, but should LGBT Jews be singled out or should they simply be welcomed along with everyone else, including interfaith couples and families?
Between the announcement that Chelsea Clinton and Marc MezvinskyÂ are expecting a baby and an interfaith xoJane article about a Catholic mother choosing to raise her sons Jewish, mothers who arenât Jewish but are raising Jewish children have been receiving positive press and gaining visibility in recent weeksâitâs about time! And well-timed too, considering we celebrated Mother’s Day earlier this month. (There are, of course, fathers who arenât Jewish raising Jewish children as well. My âJew-ishâ father having been one.)
Rabbi David Regenspan wrote a piece for InterfaithFamily that beautifully described non-Jews he aptly calls sojourners:
âThey are models for the rabbi’s sermon about how to lead a good Jewish life. They light Sabbath candles and send their children to Hebrew school. They attend adult education classes on Jewish subjects. They sing boisterously at Jewish services and know the Hebrew words of every prayer. They serve on synagogue committees; they even become synagogue officers. âŚAnd they are not Jews.â
There are many non-Jews who fit this description, yet amidst the panicked communal conversation about the âshrinking Jewish population,â these dedicated individuals and parents are often overlooked, not only in the communal conversation, but also in day-to-day religious life in synagogues all over the country.
Iâm heartened by the many interfaith outreach initiatives in the Greater Boston area. In particular, the efforts made by Dorshei Tzedek, a growing Reconstructionist congregation in West Newton. The measures theyâve taken to be an inclusive community embodies their name, which means âseekers of justiceâ in Hebrew. âWe seek to engage all of our members, whether Jewish or not, in our activities and the life of the congregation,â Dorshei Tzedek Rabbi Toba Spitzer shared with me.
A few years ago, the congregation committed to a year-long study and discussion process around inclusion. One of the results was a brochure the congregation gives out to new families that is posted on their website. It states: âSome of the values that inform our approach to welcoming our non-Jewish members [are]: inclusivity, diversity, commitment both to shared values and to Jewish tradition. While there are non-Jewish partners of our Jewish members who choose not to become involved in the congregation, there are also many non-Jewish members who participate actively and meaningfully in the life of the community. The purpose of this guide is to help clarify what it means to be a non-Jewish member of a caring and inclusive congregation that is dedicated to Jewish practice and learning.â
Interfaith families are also represented in other areas of Dorshei Tzedekâs website, including this wonderful set ofÂ Shabbat videos.
What makes Dorshei Tzedek such a model for inclusion is not only their interfaith brochure and website, but the communal process that produced them, which goes well beyond simply providing lip-service. Theyâre making it happen. Inclusion and sensitivity, like all values, only serve their purpose when practiced and tailored to address the needs of the people we seek to include.
I attended an informative and provocative session at Limmud Philly. This conference is held in several major cities and is a usually a day or weekend of Jewish learning. The learning includes philosophy, prayer, entertainment and socializing. It is quite an event for those that like to think Jewish!
I attended a session entitled âWe Totally Accept You (Almost): Ritual and Leadership Roles in Synagogues.â The participants learned about the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist perspectives regarding synagogue membership and prayers. Our presenter was InterfaithFamilyâs own Benjamin Maron. Benjamin did a great deal of research regarding different synagogues and their policies regarding interfaith involvement.
I was fascinated by the discussion of prayers and who is allowed to say what from the bimah. Frequently synagogues limit the participation of the parent who is not Jewish. We discussed that the reason that some synagogues donât want the partner who is not Jewish to participate in the prayers at a Bar and
I understand the principle of this â Jews have been through a lot. Our ancestors have been persecuted in our efforts to practice our religion and we have worked hard to educate ourselves. Those that have had a bar or bat mitzvah know that there is a lot of work and education going into this process. We feel the need to hold fast to our religion. Will someone who isnât practicing Judaism threaten my Judaism by saying a prayer?
The children of many of my friends are becoming bar and bat mitzvah. I am familiar with the frequent scene of the parents and grandparents surrounding their young teenager, beaming with pride. I was thinking about this further. I know many families where the spouse does not practice Judaism but has agreed to raise the kids in Judaism. How do they feel during the blessings? Do they feel included, awkward, proud? Maybe a mixture of feelings and emotions? If there were a blessing from the parent who wasnât Jewish, what would that look like? Would it be sacrilege to bless your child in their arrival in their Jewish adulthood?
As a Jew, I want anyone standing on the bimah during a simcha to feel joy! I donât want anyone to feel excluded or simply tolerated. I want them to feel WELCOME! So now, I look at this from another perspective: the parent who is not Jewish, standing in front of the Jewish community, blessing this event is equivalent to saying, âI was not raised Jewish, but I am proud, thrilled, and elated that my child is entering into Jewish adulthood. I fully support this choice and my child.â To me, this has great meaning and this concept strengthens the joy of the day. Here is this parent supporting their childâs Jewish journey â how great is that!?
Do I feel threatened that someone who isnât practicing Judaism is saying a prayer and including themselves in the Jewish community? Not at all. In fact, I am elated that this parent is allowing and encouraging their child to be Jewish! While I know some of the movements are having trouble âmovingâ forward toward adapting to interfaith issues within our American society, it is critical that they work to keep those that want to be Jewish.
I will be attending two bar/bat mitzvahs this weekend, and I know that I will be thrilled to witness each child stepping into the role of being a Jewish adult. I love Judaism and am delighted to see someone make the choice to practice Judaism. I think that their parents should be allowed to bless their childâs arrival into Jewish adulthood. And with that I say, Amen, Lâchaim and WELCOME!
I wrote a piece for eJewishPhilanthropy that was published today. Itâs wonderful to see the attention that Jewish philanthropists are giving to inclusion of Jews with disabilities and LGBT Jews, but I canât help asking: Are Interfaith Families Included in Inclusive Philanthropy? I hope to get some positive answers!
two online courses for parents in interfaith families. One course is for parents with young children, and the other course is for parents with 4th-7th graders preparing for bar orWe run
Most of the families who read through our materials are members of congregations and are actively raising children with Judaism. Many congregations offer family education around bar and bat mitzvah, to help make this rite of passage more meaningful for the full family. Congregational leaders often bemoan low enrollment or seeming disinterest in different programs the synagogue offers, but when it comes to bar and bat mitzvah, the family is lined up for each class and program, not wanting to miss anything relating to this central event for their child and family.
When I ask clergy and educators whether interfaith families have their needs met around bar and bat mitzvah, I’m met with quizzical looks. “These families are Jewish, they are raising Jewish kids, and the material we cover in family education sessions address all of our family’s questions and concerns,” I am told. I wonder though, whether for some parents who aren’t Jewish or who are newer to Judaism if there is a safe space to talk openly about their feelings.
The following are three ideas to keep in mind when planning family sessions in a synagogue. In addition, if you are reading this and you do work with synagogue families, they can always access our free, online materials to supplement and enrich all they learn at the synagogue. Anyone can email me for help accessing our materials.
When you think about the programs you attended in preparation for your child’s bar or bat mitzvah, or when you think about what you would want in such a program and experience, what would you be looking for? If you think it would be helpful, chances are other families would think so too.
As you may have surmised from my blogs over the past months, I love coming up with ideas about Jewish education and engagement. I actually enjoy philosophizing about this kind of thing! To the depths of my being, I find that liberal Judaism adds meaning, purpose, joy, order, connectedness, spirituality, and so much more to my life. I find that thinking about both how to teach Judaism and how to share the ways to live Judaism is a creative and endlessly fascinating pursuit. So here is my latest idea. As always, let me know what you think!
I meet with lots and lots of couples planning their weddings. Many of the couples have one partner who grew up in Chicagoland and “dropped out” of their synagogue sometime after bar/
When I do my in-take, which consists of asking each person to tell me their life in a nutshell, one partner tells me that they grew up at a synagogue, but that the rabbi doesn’t officiate at interfaith weddings or they do not have a connection with the current rabbi because the rabbi who “did” their bar/bat mitzvah has left the congregation. It does not occur to this person to call the synagogue office, to explain that they grew up at the synagogue, and to meet with the current clergy. Most likely their parents still live near the synagogue.
I wonder why this is such a common scenario. For some reason, this family did not feel part of the synagogue in an existential way. They were there to get a service and, when that ended, ties to the place ended. There has not been a void in their lives since leaving the synagogue. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the family either gathers for a meal and does not attend worship, or they attend services with friends or at a Hillel. Maybe the family actually had a bad experience at the synagogue, but most likely it was just a means to an end. Maybe all of their friends have since left, and they would not feel they would know anybody there anymore.
My idea is to reconnect these brides or grooms and their parents to the synagogue where they had their bar or bat mitzvah. Presumably there are still individuals at the synagogue who were important to the bride or groom, and their parents, when they were part of the congregation. These individuals would want to celebrate this next stage of life with them, just as they were part of their childhood and bar/bat mitzvah. I would ask the couple and their parents if I could tell the synagogue’s clergy that they’re getting married, ask them to help reconnect the former congregants with people there who remember them and who want to share in their joy.
I would then help the clergy create a “mazel tov package” that could be sent to this family. It would include a card, maybe an invitation to be blessed at a Friday night service (who wouldn’t want more blessings?!), and maybe a mezuzah or blessing for the home with a note that the clergy would be honored to come to the couple’s home and help them put it up. For the parents, maybe it would be a half-price re-connection, empty-nest membership rate, with brochures about study and social opportunities. Maybe the synagogue, which is mostly likely in the suburbs, could occasionally send clergy, educators, or lay leaders to the city to treat couples who grew up at the synagogue to dinner or Sunday brunch as a way to say that community is where you are, you are wanted, we miss you, and you are our future.
Maybe couples would not want to re-connect with their synagogue of origin. Maybe they would be turned off if the clergy there do not officiate at interfaith weddings. Yet maybe they would be excited about the chance to reconnect as adults. This would be a real chance to re-shape the community, to take part in ushering in young professionals to communal commitment, and to share a place of memories with their new life partner.
What do you think? Could this work?
We speak a lot about the importance of welcoming interfaith families to organized Jewish life. Congregations contact us to think about how they welcome people to their community. From the messages and images on a website, to the way the phone is answered, to what happens to couples calling for help with interfaith life cycle events, to language used on flyers, community organizations work at making the barriers to entry easy to cross.
This past Sunday, I had the privilege of speaking at an Episcopal church down the street from where I live. I have gotten to know their minister, Reverend Elizabeth Jameson, who holds office hours at our local coffee shop. There are interfaith families who are members of the church, and I was excited to speak to them and other interested people about how they could explore Judaism, especially with their children.
Worship was scheduled for 10:00-11:00 and was followed by my session. I decided to come for worship so that I could get a sense of the culture and feel of the community. When I walked in, members of the church greeted me and handed me the service booklet. The service had many elements that were familiar to me: responsive readings, songs (the service booklet included the words and music so that it was easy to follow the tunes even though I don’t read music), sitting and standing. The biblical reading was done dramatically with different congregants taking on different speaking roles. The sermon was about finding that space in life of safety, calm, and peace. They printed a welcome message to me in the booklet and Reverend Jameson welcomed me aloud during the service. There was also a time for everybody to greet the people near them. The coolest part of the worship for me was that the Shema, in Hebrew, was part of their liturgy for Lent. A parent who had taken our first Raising a Child With Judaism class was the soloist in the choir who lead it. This was a small world moment for sure! By and large, this community did everything possible to make me, a newcomer, feel welcome.
With all of this said, I didn’t feel totally comfortable because it was my first time there. I wasn’t always sure where we were in the booklet. I didn’t know what was coming next. Some of the rituals were totally new to me. I wasn’t sure of the meaning of some of the images I saw. I was a little nervous. Being Jewish and attending the service dictated which of the passages I felt comfortable saying or not saying. I was wondering the whole time if I was getting a glimpse into what someone who was not raised Jewish may feel the first time they attend Jewish worship or holiday celebrations.
Maybe rather than wordsmith mission statements behind board room doors, synagogue leadership should spend some time in other houses of worship. We are coming up to Passover, our holiday of freedom in which we think about the stranger in our midst. Try being a stranger and see how it feels. This may be the best way to really know how to welcome the outsider in.
Actually, I’m having a hard time not just quoting this whole, short article, so just read it now. I’ll wait here.
In his above-mentioned book (read an excerpt here), Bronfman wrote that among Jews and the Jewish community, the
Keeping with the themes of openness, new ideas, and inclusion, Bronfman has written a new Passover Haggadah, the book used as a guide for the ritual dinner, the seder.
His own family seders are large and celebratory affairs and include intermarried family members and friends old and new who are welcomed to enjoy the annual feast together.
Well-chosen readings from luminaries, including abolitionist Frederick Douglass and poet Marge Piercy, highlight the story of slavery and freedom. Bronfman’s creative and interactive approach is a story for all ages, in which readers assume a character in the Exodus journey.
It also diverts from the traditional Haggadah in a way that is extremely welcoming to interfaith families. “I decided to open the door to Elijah at the beginning of the meal instead of at the end. I always found it slightly odd that Elijah was invited to the table after the meal. My wife, Jan, and I both believe it is before this joyous feast begins that we ought to invite the stranger into our homes,” he writes in the Haggadah.
In Bronfman’s view, Elijah represents a redeemed world — a world free of racism, slavery, cruelty, poverty and greed. Elijah also represents the hungry stranger. This gesture reminds us to open the doors of our hearts to those in need during this holiday season and the rest of the year.
Inviting and inclusive, and with illustrations by Bronfman’s wife, Jan Aronson, it looks like a nice new alternative for families who want to share the storytelling and keep the seder to English.
What do you think? Is this a Haggadah your family will try out this Passover?
Recently, a friend of mine told me about her experience as a Jewish woman in an interfaith marriage of 20 years. She wrote:
Some people have been dubious that welcoming works, but my friend’s experience is the perfect example of why welcoming can and will ensure the future of the Jewish people.
Welcoming interfaith couples is so incredibly important, I’d actually say that it’s critical. Looking at the statistics, it’s not surprising that interfaith couples are a large component of our Jewish communities. Not investing in programming for interfaith couples is a decision the Jewish community cannot afford to make. It would be akin to recognizing that children and youth make up a large component of our community, but not offering any programming or outreach to them.
The good news is that many organizations understand that we need to welcome and embrace interfaith families. There has been some improvement over the years, but it is still happening in stages and could go further. Some organizations are saying the right things and beginning to market appropriately to interfaith couples, but their work is not yet done.
Recently, a Jewish professional said that their Jewish educational program was very welcoming to interfaith families. She did not think that there was a need for any additional interfaith sensitivity training in their organization. Yet, a week later, a child in that program told her mother that she wasn’t part of the chosen people because she was not Jewish — a message she internalized during her Jewish education. There is always room for improvement.
What steps should an organization take to be more welcoming? Here are some ideas:
A lot of progress has been made, but there is much more we need to do. Saying that your organization is welcoming is a good first step but implementation is never a task that is fully complete. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions on how to attract and retain interfaith couples in your organization. We look forward to working with you!