Mom: What is Your Religion?

  

Jillian and her motherBeing from an interfaith family has influenced my life in myriad ways, most especially in my choice to focus my rabbinate on working with other interfaith families. I’ve written about my own upbringing and my parents several times over my tenure at InterfaithFamily, hoping that my own experiences might resonate with our readers. Yet, so far, everything I have shared has been in my voice and from my perspective. So, in honor of Mother’s Day and to honor my mother, I interviewed her to finally shine some light on her perspective.

I asked her a variety of questions about her early life and meeting my dad and then about how they made decisions about religion as they had children. While we have had many conversations throughout my life touching on similar topics, I have never sat down with my mother and asked her what it was like for her to be in an interfaith family, especially long before it was as accepted as it is now.

My mom is a special woman; quiet and thoughtful, passionate yet relaxed. I am the Jew, the rabbi, the human being I am because of her and my dad. I hope you enjoy a piece of her story.

Some background: My mother, Kathy, was one of five children born and raised on the North Shore of Massachusetts in a very Polish Catholic family. When she was 18, she packed her bags and headed to college, the first in her family to attend, where she met my father Richard, a nice Jewish boy from New Jersey. They were married by a justice of the peace in 1972 in Boston.

Me: When you were dating, did you ever have conversations about how you were from different backgrounds/religions?

Mom: We didn’t really have a big conversation. Neither of us were particularly active in our religions. I grew up in a pretty Catholic family. My grandmother lived with us and was from Poland. The church was her life. She grew flowers and every day brought them to put on the alter—it was within walking distance from the house. I never personally felt that connection even though, as a child, I attended every Sunday.

Richard’s family wasn’t particularly religious either. He wasn’t practicing Judaism when I met him. So obviously, we were more concerned about what our parents would think as opposed to what we were going to do together.

Me: When you did decide to get married, how did your family react?

Mom: There were certain members of my family, some aunts, who didn’t think it was right.  My grandmother, who lived with us, wasn’t supportive. They didn’t come to our wedding. It stung not having them at my wedding, but it didn’t disturb me for any length of time. But my parents and my sisters and brother were all on board after talking it through. It was just the way my parents were. They were very accepting and compromising and after having a conversation, my father said, “It’s your life, you make the decision.” And after that there were no repercussions.

Me: Did you know any other people who were also marrying someone from a different religion?

Mom: We went to college in Boston and there were a lot of people from the New York/New Jersey area and Massachusetts. So we were meeting different people all the time. My roommate, who was Catholic, met a Jewish guy from New Jersey and they were also married, a little after we were married. A couple of other people we knew in a similar situation also married. There didn’t seem to be a barrier. It was kind of exciting to meet someone who was different. And religion never seemed to be a problem. It was the end of the ’60s: These old barriers were meant to be broken.

Me: What was the conversation about who was going to officiate at your wedding?

Mom: We wanted a Justice of the Peace because it would just make it easier. Neither of us were connected to a synagogue or church and we felt that would be the easiest and cleanest. It wouldn’t be favoring one over the other. We didn’t care. We really didn’t take religion into account at that point.

Me: In the first years of your marriage, before you had children, did you have any connection to religion?

Mom: For the first 10 years of our marriage, before we had children, we were a-religious. We might have gone to a family friend’s house for Passover once, or Christmas at my parent’s house, but never at our home. Because my upbringing was pretty rote (learn the Catechism, study the prayers, follow whatever you needed to do), it didn’t feel relevant to my life at all. Judaism seemed interesting to me.

Me: When you were planning to have children, did you have any conversations about religion?

Mom: Recognizing we had two families each with different religions, we thought, we’ll wait until our child is old enough to choose. It lasted for a little while, but it was naïve to think that a child was going to grow up without a religion and suddenly pick one. When you were a baby, we thought that us teaching you would be enough.

Me: When did we start having any religion in our lives?

Mom: Well you know this story, Jillian. You had a friend named Julie, who was Jewish. She invited you go to her Hebrew School class and you came home and asked. You knew your dad’s family was Jewish and mine was Catholic. We did explain this to you, that one family celebrated certain things and the other family celebrated other things. We wanted you to experience the world, so we said yes to you going to Hebrew School. But this came as a surprise to us.  We were cringing that now we would have to deal with this issue.

So you went, loved it and asked if you could go again. And we thought, uh oh, this is the beginning. So we went to the temple to check it out and we spoke to a few people and were told we had to join, even though we were not eager to join. But we joined, so you could go to Hebrew School.

It was a Reform synagogue, so there was never a problem with me not being Jewish. They were eager to have us and they welcomed us wholeheartedly.

Me: What was your experience at synagogue?

Mom: It was like deer in the headlights! When do I stand or sit, what do I do? It was just a totally foreign way of having a religion as opposed to Catholicism. I was confused but learning as I went along. I felt welcome, everyone was very nice. We met a lot of older members of the synagogue who were thrilled we were there, and we are still friends with them now. It was a great community to be a part of. After learning more about Judaism, talking with people, listening to the Rabbi, I realized that this is a whole different animal than Catholicism. It was more about finding meaning, things you could bring into your life. It wasn’t about memorizing; it was about thinking and challenging yourself. When I caught onto that, I thought, this is interesting to be a part of. It was a better religious experience for me than I had as a child.

Me: The question I can’t believe I don’t know the answer to: If someone were to ask you now what religion you are, what would you say?

Mom: I would say I’m Jewish, just to make it easier.  I never converted, so I know I’m not technically Jewish.  But from a view of the world, a philosophy, I am.

My mom’s story might be a bit like yours. Perhaps you related to a few things she said, remembered feeling similarly or maybe your story is vastly different. Whichever the case, telling and listening to stories is such a wonderfully and necessary human thing to do. We learn from each other, we gain perspective, we feel connected and less alone when we take the time to listen and learn about each other.

Finally, I want to thank my mother, Kathy Cameron, for being open with me, allowing me to make her story public and for being the best mom a girl could ask for. Happy Mother’s Day, Mom.

Jillian's Mom

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Let’s Stop Using the Word “Problem” When Talking About Interfaith Marriage

  

Recently I read two thought-provoking articles in the Jewish press: Rabbi Elliot Cosgove’s article in the New York Jewish Week, “Mikveh Can Solve Conversion Problem” and Rabbi Shaul Magid’s article in The Forward “Why Conversion Lite Won’t Fix The Intermarriage Problem.”  Like so many articles dealing with issues related to interfaith marriage, the headlines of both articles contained the word “problem.”

I realize that, when someone writes an article, the headline they propose often isn’t the one ultimately used. I have written several articles which have then been published with different headlines than the ones I proposed—in fact, I often don’t know what the article is going to be called until I see it online or in print. Editors give headlines to articles that they think will attract readers. And so, I presume that it wasn’t Rabbi Cosgrove or Rabbi Magid who decided to use the word “problem” in the headline of either of their articles about interfaith marriage (though in the first sentence of his article Rabbi Magid stated that intermarriage is “arguably the most pressing problem of 21st century American Jewry”). But, the editors of the articles did choose to use the word and I find that disturbing.

For too long, the Jewish community has referred to interfaith marriage as a problem. It implies that the people in those marriages—the Jewish partner as well as the partner from a different background—are also problems for the Jewish community. As a community, we’ve been talking out of both sides of our mouth. On the one hand, we spend our resources (both time and money) trying to figure out how to engage people in interfaith relationships in Jewish life, and on the other hand, we tell these people that they’re a problem. So, here’s a statement of the obvious: If we want to engage people in interfaith relationships, let’s stop referring to their relationships, and thus to them, as a problem.

Throughout the four years that I’ve been working for InterfaithFamily, a national organization whose mission is to support interfaith families exploring Jewish life and to advocate for the inclusion of people in interfaith relationships in the Jewish community, I’ve been especially sensitive to the language that’s used in the Jewish community to speak about people in interfaith relationships. I’m constantly struck by the negative nature of the language we use, even today, with an intermarriage rate of over 71 percent for Jews who aren’t Orthodox. We hear about the “problems” and “challenges” of interfaith relationships and we see classes on “the December Dilemma” and so forth. The focus is almost exclusively on the negative.

I’m proud to work for an organization that seeks to reframe the discussion and change the language we use when talking about intermarriage. Language doesn’t just reflect the way we think; it also shapes the way we think. At InterfaithFamily, we speak about the challenges *and* blessings of being in an interfaith relationship and we offer classes on “the December Dialogue” or “the December Discussion.”

We at InterfaithFamily also advocate for framing discussions about interfaith marriage not as how we can solve a problem, but rather as how we can view interfaith marriage as an opportunity—an opportunity not simply to increase our numbers in the Jewish community, but also for the Jewish community to evolve in a rich and meaningful way, with people who did not grow up Jewish bringing new insights and perspectives as they choose to engage in Jewish life.

I ask the editors of the Jewish press and others in the Jewish community to join us in our effort to reconsider the language being used to discuss interfaith marriage. Please, whether you see interfaith marriage as an opportunity or not, stop calling it a problem. At the very least, why not just name it as what it is, and what it’s sure to remain in the future: reality. Once we accept this reality, and stop referring to it as a problem to be solved, we can surely have a more productive conversation about how to best engage people in interfaith relationships in Jewish life in a way that’s meaningful for them and for the future of Judaism and the Jewish community.

Meeting People Where They Are

  

This post originally appeared on www.edumundcase.com and is reprinted with permission

Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, a leading Conservative rabbi whose essay in March explained why he thought Conservative rabbis should continue to not officiate at weddings of interfaith couples, has a new essay arguing that “the Conservative movement should be the movement of conversion.” He wants to “meet people where they are,” and as I understand it make the conversion process easier, in particular not requiring converts to be “fully observant.”

I have always felt that conversion is a wonderful personal choice and I don’t have any issues with making the process easier including for some couples who are getting married. But the idea that making conversion more inviting and “doable” will enable Conservative rabbis to meet young couples who are getting married “where they are” is sorely misguided. Because neither partner is thinking that the partner who is not Jewish needs to make a fundamental change in who he or she is in order to be marriageable.

As David Wilensky and Gabriel Erbs have just written in A Taxonomy of Stupid Shit the Jewish Establishment Says to Millennials:

We really don’t understand how any thinking person believes an intra-communal breeding program will be a convincing appeal to young people. Jewish millennials chafe against this pearl-clutching because we embrace, overwhelmingly, progressive values about gender, sexuality, and marriage. To us, baby-boomer chatter on intermarriage sounds alarmingly like what a lot of “polite society” said at the advent of racial intermarriage….

If Jewish boomers are really anxious about generational continuity (a phrase that verges on eugenics in its subtext), they should stop their hardline rhetoric, which simply pushes millennials out of the communal fold. For interfaith Jewish families who wish to build their family life within the Jewish communal context, this kind of talk constantly reminds them of their second-class status – so they leave.

Shaul Magid writing in The Forward also disagreed with Rabbi Cosgrove, though for different reasons:

I do not think it is fair, or spiritually refined, to ask the non-Jew to become a Jew in order to solve a Jewish problem [intermarriage]. Or to allow us, as rabbis, to sleep at night. To do so is to make conversion into an instrument and the convert into a tool to benefit us.

Rabbi Cosgrove advances other interesting ideas. Since Conservative rabbis do not recognize patrilineal descent, he recommends that all marrying couples go to the mikveh before their weddings, which would “level the playing field of Jewish identity” – and, as I understand it, enable Conservative rabbis to officiate at those weddings. He also recommends that all b’nai mitzvah children go to the mikveh, which would confirm the Jewish identity of patrilineal children.

But these are band-aids that don’t address a much bigger issue. Rabbi Cosgrove has said we must be “passionate in creating a culture of warm embrace for Jew and non-Jew alike.” Not recognizing patrilineal descent, not allowing partners from different faith traditions to participate in Jewish ritual, and not officiating at weddings of interfaith couples – all of these undermine any possible warm embrace.

Another Step Toward Inclusion: Conservative Synagogues Decide Who Can Join

  

Local Synagogue

We are glad to report that the Conservative movement is making an important step toward inclusion. In an official move on March 1, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism voted 94-8 to allow individual congregations to permit people who are not Jewish to be members. Some Conservative synagogues, like many in the Bay Area, have already welcomed those who are not Jewish as members of their congregations.

In a recent article, Religion News Service stated that there were Conservative synagogues that considered those who were not Jewish as members through family memberships. With this official vote, individuals can now be welcomed as members without being part of a family membership.

There is speculation that this could pave the way for the Conservative rabbis’ association to allow rabbis to officiate at interfaith weddings in the future.

The Sacred Goal of Interfaith Family Inclusion

  

I recently got introduced to a children’s book called Zero by Kathryn Otoshi. It’s a book aimed at preschoolers, but adults will also love it. In the book, Zero feels left out of the counting that all the other numbers get to do. They have value as counted numbers, but Zero doesn’t. She tries to impress those numbers with little success and even tries to look like them. Zero then realizes that she can convince the other numbers that if they add her on, they will count as a higher number. With Zero, they became 10, 20, 30, 100 and more. After reading this book, my kids and I were prompted to a discussion about how it feels to be left out and how sometimes we want to dress like someone else or act like someone else to fit in.

Photo credit: Amazon.

As the story of Zero unfolded, my interfaith family inclusion buzzer went right off! (This happens to me quite often.) It reminded me of a talk I heard earlier this year at Temple Sholom that was sponsored by A Wider Bridge. The talk was given by the leaders of The Aguda, an Israeli National LGBT Task Force. They shared about a tour they did in LA of one of the largest LGBTQ agencies in the world. When they asked an agency executive about where their work would be headed in the next 10 or 15 years, the executive responded that maybe they can work themselves out of a job in the decades to come. The Aguda leaders thought this was a sad answer because they believe it will take years to win legal equal rights across all areas that touch LGBTQ people in America and internationally. It might take just as long to bring about cultural acceptance including ending homophobic and transphobic discrimination. The Aguda leaders hope that when that day comes, there would be many more agencies and organizations devoted to LGBTQ people because communities around the globe would feel incomplete without the overt contributions that queer people would bring. In other words, queer people and their varied lenses of life would add essential value to leadership positions, boards and councils in all professions.

To me, the same is true when it comes to interfaith family inclusion in Jewish life. Congregations need to find ways to support couples around lifecycle events, especially weddings. They may also need to translate Hebrew so that people reading their website or sitting in services will have a more meaningful experience. Classes should be offered so that people who need a refresher or a first-time explanation have ways to learn. Rabbis need to share stories during family Shabbat gatherings that represent same-sex parents, single parents, interfaith families, gender non-confirming children and racially diverse families.

Congregations should look at membership forms, school enrollment materials and written ritual policy statements to make sure they are inclusive and sensitive. It will go far when congregants acknowledge the gift a parent who didn’t grow up with Judaism is giving to help raise children with Judaism. It is wonderful when the parent who isn’t Jewish can be referred to in the positive (rather than just “non-Jew,”) as someone who is Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, atheist, secular and so forth, along with the other parts of their identity like activist, volunteer, their profession, etc.

For families like mine, where both partners are Jewish, and for Jewish professionals, the main lesson from Zero is that we need to realize people from different backgrounds in our communities enrich our expression of Judaism. Inclusion of people who didn’t grow up with Judaism should be seen as equal to those of us who did grow up with Judaism, and the gazillions of complicated amalgamations in between help us all count more. A diverse community adds energy, creativity, beauty and depth to this ancient and always dynamic civilization of Judaism.

Thank you to Zero for reminding me of this sacred goal.

We’re All Mudbloods

  

Harry Potter booksI was almost too old for Harry Potter when JK Rowling introduced her masterpiece to the world in 1997. I may have been almost too old but that didn’t stop me from spending the next 10 years voraciously reading, re-reading and waiting impatiently for the next book to arrive. When the final book was finally published, I was visiting my parents’ house for the weekend. Obviously, I had pre-ordered the book months in advance and I hadn’t realized that I wouldn’t be home that weekend. Panicked, I went online and changed the delivery location to my parents’ house, crisis averted. Perhaps I shouldn’t admit this, but I met the UPS driver in my parents driveway with unabashed glee and proceeded to ignore my family for the next 24 hours as I made my way through the final book. It was totally worth it.

These days, my love of Harry Potter lives in my heart as quiet embers, easily fanned into a greater flame when JK Rowling tweets something incredible (which is often) or more recently, when something new is announced. Yes, I have already pre-ordered a copy of Harry Potter and The Cursed Child, a West End play beginning this summer, telling the story of an adult Harry and company.

Perhaps it is unnecessary at this point to extoll the virtues of the Harry Potter series; the magic of Harry Potter is different for everyone. In the nine years since the final book was published and the 19 years since the first book, entire other books have been written about every possible angle and theme of the series, not to mention countless articles, blog posts and of course memes. If you’re a Harry Potter lover, you’ve had ample time to analyze the reasons why, and if you could care less about Harry Potter, thank you for getting this far into this blog post.

JK Rowling’s genius is making the world of Harry Potter seem almost possible. While I begrudgingly accepted my fate as that of a muggle, I still hope that even if I could not be a witch, somewhere someone is. This epic story speaks to those marginalized by society, those whose dreams seem too big, those who want to change their circumstances, those drawn to making the world a better place, to fighting against injustice.

As my life has changed and evolved since I first picked up Book 1 in 1997, so has my reading of the story. I hear the commentary on human nature more loudly. Not everything is always as it seems and rarely is what we see, what we actually get. We meet a wide swath of characters in Harry’s world, not simply heroes and villains, but complex individuals who make difficult decisions in the face of fear, of change, of darkness. Sometimes, those who come from the most “perfect, pure” families choose evil and destruction while those from the most humble, diverse roots—the “mudbloods”—are the ones who remind us what is truly important and even save our humanity. And sometimes the heroes make the wrong decisions, while the villains find the light.

I have always cringed at the term, “mudblood.” In college, I identified with it acutely when I was told I wasn’t Jewish because my mother wasn’t. How could I not belong in the only community I ever truly felt part of? Why didn’t it matter how I behaved, the choices I made, the way I lived my life? Why did none of that “count” because my mother’s blood ran through my veins? It threw me into an identity crisis that took years to reconcile.

These days, my life and my work at InterfaithFamily reminds me again of the powerful message of Harry Potter, as we strive to teach our beloved community to not only tolerate the diversity among us, but rather embrace it, learn from it and allow it to change us for the better. After all, where would we be without the most famous “mudblood,” Hermione? The more stories I hear, people I meet, families I am honored to learn from, the more I realize that we are all mutts, all a combination of geography, culture, history, and blood. We are all mudbloods. That doesn’t mean we are all the same or should be, but it does mean that the humanity we share can be more powerful than all the Voldemorts out there.

I would feel remiss if I didn’t end with the powerful and yes, magical, words of Professor Albus Dumbledore: “Differences of heart and language are nothing at all if our aims are identical and our hearts are open.”

What’s Wrong with Saying “Jewish Community?”

  

volunteers at soup kitchenBecause I have tweens in my house (today that means 7- and 9-year-olds), I have pop songs playing in the soundtrack of my brain all day. As I write the title for this blog, I am thinking of Demi Lovato’s “What’s Wrong with Being Confident?” My question is: What’s wrong with saying “Jewish community?”

You’ll hear some Jewish leaders talk about the Jewish community as if it’s one enterprise that needs saving and fixing. Even here at InterfaithFamily, we want the people we work with to feel connected to the “Jewish community,” to feel part of it and to know how to access it. We are open to the idea that “Jewish community” can be your dining room table with friends or a synagogue sanctuary or a soup kitchen with volunteers if it’s sponsored by a Jewish organization. However, I have a problem with the language.

If we start with the word Jewish then some of the people at these events automatically may feel other or not included. Jewish modifies the word community. It is a community in this case because it’s Jewish. I don’t believe we can have an inclusive community—a community that respects, honors, sees and appreciates everyone—if we start with what some of the people are not.

Can we start with community and modify that with Judaism? A community is made up of the people coming together for a shared purpose. Maybe they are coming together for comradery around Shabbat or for social justice inspired by religion or for prayer or holidays. Judaism is a civilization that everybody can experience, learn about, try, be inspired by, commit to, carry on, speak about and support. Some of the people who take part in Judaism will be Jewish by upbringing and continue to make the choice to engage and affirm. Others will be Jewish through a conversion process, meaning that they made a decision to identify as Jewish. Others in the community cast their fate with the larger Jewish enterprise and are aligned with their Jewish family through marriage and partnership but do not call themselves personally Jewish.

I want people to engage with Judaism: a living, dynamic civilization with a land, language, history, texts, foods, cultures, music, rituals, traditions, customs and more. I want people to engage with community around these aspects of Judaism because Judaism is done with people. I hope people will call themselves Jewish with pride and raise children who see themselves as connected to Judaism and as the next link in the chain of tradition. But, if we keep saying “Jewish community,” I feel we are putting the emphasis on the wrong thing. We become ethnic and exclusive more than open and diverse.

Maybe you say that people know that the phrase “Jewish community” means a community gathering for the pursuit of Jewish living and learning more than a community of Jews. I say language matters and by catering to inclusion, we will emphasize that each person who shows up to engage with Judaism is equal and good enough—and a blessing.  

 

My Macaroni & Cheese Lightbulb Moment

  

Boy eating mac_cheeseAs I have admitted before, I see the whole world through an interfaith family lens (see my past blog post HERE). I am so uber-saturated in this work that I am always thinking about the experience of the partner who isn’t Jewish who is connected to someone Jewish and what it means to have interfaith families as full members of congregations. So, when I was on a four-hour flight to meet with the other seven rabbis who direct InterfaithFamily offices around the country, I saw an ad that stopped me in my tracks. It is the new Kraft Macaroni & Cheese ad (which might understandably be torture to watch mid-way through Passover!).

The tag line is, “It’s changed, but it hasn’t.”

What does mac & cheese have to do with supporting interfaith families exploring Jewish life, our tag line at IFF? When interfaith families are truly part of a community doing Jewish (notice I don’t say Jewish community—this will be the subject of my next blog post), will the community and the experience of Judaism change? Will there be anything recognizable about Judaism in the generations to come? Will the recipe have changed so much that it becomes a different thing altogether? To continue the food analogy, will interfaith families be a sweetener and add something healthier for the overall enterprise of Judaism?

I hope that when interfaith families are members and leaders of their communities, everything will change for the better. We will frame liturgy and worship in new ways, cognizant that we need to give meaning because many people there are still learning (yes—this should always be the approach, but interfaith families dictate this approach). We will continue to adapt and change liturgy as it feels outdated and offensive to our diverse communities.This has been the Reform tradition since the beginning. We say what we believe.

Much of prayer is poetry and isn’t literal but is evocative. Our language will change and it should feel palpable. Those who visit a congregation’s website should sense change and it should feel inspiring and positive. We can look to the experience and narratives of those who didn’t grow up with Judaism to enrich the context and lens by which Judaism is now taught and lived.

What do you think? When interfaith families are truly part and parcel of a community, do you sense that their inclusion changes the community over time? Can you point to the changes? Is it so normative at this point that we have a diverse community that we take this fact for granted and have moved past it in some way? As always, more questions than answers and lots of right answers.

 

What to Eat on Lenten Shabbat

  

Shabbat dinner during LentI had the date on my calendar for weeks: a Shabbat dinner with some of the couples in my “Love and Religion” class. We’ve gotten together several times over meals and I knew that nobody has any eating restrictions besides “kosher style.” Emily was hosting the dinner at her house and had offered to order chicken from Zankou (a favorite LA chicken spot) with all the delicious fixings: hummus, babaganoush and tabbouleh. I was making challah and bringing wine. I knew everyone ate chicken which is perfect for Shabbat, convenient and would be a big hit. I was sure of it.

Then, as the three of us started trading emails to coordinate the menu, one of the guests said, “Chicken is great for me, but my boyfriend is observing Lent—we’ll bring fish.” Oh right. It’s Lent! And Shabbat! And he’s Catholic. This IS an interfaith couples’ Shabbat dinner after all. Now what the heck do I do for Lent?

Shabbat is a time for people to be together and celebrate community. It can be a time for inclusion and joy…and eating. When people feel singled out or excluded it is hard to strengthen relationships and build community, and that’s antithetical to so much of what I aim to create at a Shabbat dinner. I appreciated the participant bringing up her boyfriend’s tradition. I also appreciated her offer to bring something special for him, but it would have detracted from the spirit of the gathering. In order to create the best scenario for community and relationship-building, I realized I needed to learn more about his tradition in order to honor it and make sure everyone felt included.

I reached deep into my religious studies major memory bank to try to remember the rules about Lent—something about Fridays and fish but I have no clue. Are there special prayers? Do they HAVE to eat fish or can we get falafel and call it a day? (Does he even like falafel? It seems to be the go-to vegetarian option for Jewish functions, but is that a normal thing or one of those weird Jewish things that no one else does?)

I realized I need to call in reinforcements. I emailed some colleagues and I posted on Facebook: “Catholic friends, please tell me what you like to eat on Fridays during Lent!” I typed in a search in Pinterest: “Challah and fish recipes.”

I went into the living room to talk with my El Salvadorian, kind-of-Catholic nanny. “Do you know anything about Lent customs?” I asked. “Yes, you don’t eat meat on Fridays,” she said. “But sometimes people eat chicken. Not everyone will eat chicken. Chicken broth is OK for some Catholics, but not everyone. People like to eat fish.”

Oy, what had I gotten myself into? By this point, I had so many different opinions and answers and I just didn’t know what to do. And then I got a text from my InterfaithFamily/LA project manager. “Want me to have my wife call you to talk about Lent?”

Yes! How had it had slipped my mind that her wife is Catholic?

She tells me everything I need to know. Order fish: It’s one of those things that’s not necessary but it’s tradition. And either way, fish is delicious and healthy.
We hang up the phone and I text her. “Any restaurant recommendations for good Catholic fish?”

She responds, “I know of a few places, but there’s not really ‘Catholic fish.’ Catholics eat pretty much anything.”

Except chicken on Shabbat during Lent, apparently. As I kept trying to find a solution that worked for everyone, the emails continued and the couple offered again to bring their own fish. But I’ve been that person who had to bring her own food to gatherings and parties because they were making pork and I kept kosher. I hated being singled out like that and I always felt alienated. As much as she reassured me that they could bring their own food, I did not want her boyfriend to feel left out at this interfaith dinner.

I insisted on serving fish for dinner and, as it turned out, our host said she would rather have fish anyway and would love to cook it for everyone rather than ordering in from a restaurant. It was her first time hosting a Shabbat dinner and thought we were supposed to eat chicken on Shabbat, even though she would have rather eaten fish all along!
Problem solved. We had fish. And I even tried my hand at a fish-shaped challah. Because if you can’t braid your challah into a fish on lent, when can you?

It’s been a few weeks since the dinner and I’m happy to share that it went extremely well. The Catholic partner and his Jewish girlfriend were touched that they were both made to feel so welcome and included. The fish was excellent. And after spending all afternoon Googling “How to braid a challah shaped like a fish,” I let it rise too long and it melted in the oven. So we had flatbread for our Lenten Shabbat dinner and I’m bringing in a better baker to teach us all how to make a proper challah next time.

Finding Prayer at Creating Change

  
Ari at Creating Change

From left: Rabbi Shoshana Conover from Temple Sholom, Rabbi Judith Golden from Or Chadash & Rabbi Ari Moffic from IFF/Chicago

I have a confession to make: For a while now, I’ve been pretty anti-Jewish prayer. I know that may sound startling coming from a rabbi. But I’ve kind of been dreading Friday night services lately. All that rote Hebrew that many people aren’t following and don’t understand what they’re saying. Now that I’ve been working with interfaith families, I am especially aware of the barrier that Hebrew creates and have wondered about all different ways to get over that wall. Many in the Jewish world think that some of our prayers (especially ones that have the words “v’tzivanu,” like the Shabbat candle blessings) can only be said by Jews and this poses other problems for those in our families who want to join in and are not sure where they fit.

Friday night services can have highs and music definitely helps get into the mood of the often universal and timeless themes in the liturgy. Sometimes it’s nice to just be with others and feel a sense of camaraderie, joint mission and shared purpose. It’s good to put my phone away for an hour and move at a different pace. Taking a deep breath, being in a beautiful space and hearing words from our tradition can be good for the soul. But, actual liturgy or communal prayer has been my nemesis for a while.  

In fact, I was wondering if we could start a congregation with no prayer. There would be no Friday night or Saturday morning “services.” We would come together when we were up for it and looking forward to it for experiences of meaning. A bar or bat mitzvah service could involve a few major words of our faith tradition like the Shema or our Kaddish because a couple of prayers are transcendent. Their sound and their words are wholly evocative and needed. But, the core of the life cycle event would be to read from the sacred Torah scroll, to interpret the ancient text, to share who this child is at this moment and to celebrate a coming of age. To say words that feel compelling, engaging, inspiring and relevant. This is what has been going on in my heart and mind lately.

And then I was invited by A Wider Bridge to help lead Friday night worship at the Creating Change Conference in Chicago. I was invited because InterfaithFamily/Chicago works for inclusion and our mission aligns with the mission of this massive conference. I was invited because I am a proud ally for LGBTQ people within the Jewish world and non-profits in this realm. I was honored to help plan a service with Rabbi Shoshana Conover from Temple Sholom and Judith Golden from Congregation Or Chadash. But all did not go smoothly, and you can read multiple news stories about the drama and trauma that happened that night at the conference. I am still not sure what to do when you find that you agree with a group on so many grounds but have a major schism of belief in an area that is fundamental to your world view. But, the political pieces aside, I have to report that something happened to me in that service.

There was no guitar. Judith sang with emotion and feeling and it was participatory. I. Was. Moved. I felt it. I think other people in the room felt it (and maybe that’s why we, the prayer leaders, felt it). We sang for purpose. We sang for freedom. We prayed for help from the Source above. We were in the moment. We weren’t thinking about what we need at the grocery store. We were there together. A new group. People from all over the world and from all different backgrounds. Pluralistic. Egalitarian. The beat was contagious. Clapping and moving, smiles and swaying. Maybe because each of the prayer leaders desperately, and with all of our hearts and souls, wanted every person in that room to feel supported and part of it and included and loved—the vibe went out and it reverberated back.

I got my prayer mojo back. Now, how to keep it?

I had a few takeaways from this experience, and here’s what I suggest might make prayer more meaningful for me and possibly others:

  1. Services should be short and sweet.
  2. Services should include singing throughout and songs should be sung through enough times that people can catch the tune.
  3. When there are readings, have people who are representative or people who “get” the reading, read them.
  4. Think about who is sitting around you and pray with them.
  5. Look at the people around you and see what vibes you can get from being in the same space.

Thank you Creating Change for reminding me that I love to pray with other people. I’m sorry there was so much tumult. I’m sorry there was so much pain. I pray we will all know peace.