Providing quality experiences to enrich the lives of the community at large with award-winning preschool programs, summer camps and a wide array of enriching activities. JCC Chicago provides the opportunities to bring Jewish values to the lives of everyone from infants to adults.
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.
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 “We Totally Accept You (Almost): Ritual and Leadership Roles in Synagogues.” The participants learned about the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist perspectives regarding synagogue membership and prayers. Our presenter was InterfaithFamily’s 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 don’t want the partner who is not Jewish to participate in the prayers at a Bar and Bat Mitzvah is that the translation of the prayers are things like: “Who has sanctified us through the mitzvot” and “Who has chosen us.” The word “us” refers to the Jewish people, therefore, someone who isn’t Jewish isn’t allowed to participate.
I understand the principle of this – 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 isn’t 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 wasn’t 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 don’t 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, “I 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.” To me, this has great meaning and this concept strengthens the joy of the day. Here is this parent supporting their child’s Jewish journey – how great is that!?
Do I feel threatened that someone who isn’t 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 “moving” 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 child’s arrival into Jewish adulthood. And with that I say, Amen, L’chaim and WELCOME!
We run 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 or bat mitzvah, whether in the early stages of the process of anticipating the ceremony in the coming years.
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.
Sometimes a parent who was not born Jewish or who is newer to Judaism can feel a sense of loss around bar and bat mitzvah. The loss could stem from the reality that this child is not following in the religious footsteps they took (even if that parent had wanted to raise their child with Judaism and has been enthusiastic and on-board the whole time, these feelings can creep up out of seemingly nowhere and surprise us.) The loss can be because one may not feel they can fully participate for a variety of reasons (lack of Hebrew/Judaic knowledge, etc.) Of course, not every parent feels this way. But the point is to leave room if there are some who do.
Ritual Policy Explanations
Many families who celebrate a child’s bar or bat mitzvah in the synagogue have close family who aren’t Jewish. For some of these families, they will want and anticipate these relatives having a role in the service. For some families, they will wonder about the synagogue’s ritual policy. It can be very helpful to explain how the synagogue came up with its ritual policies and how everyone in a family can take a meaningful role in the service. This should be explained to all families, as most families today have relatives who aren’t Jewish, even when both parents are Jewish.
Connections with Extended Family
Some interfaith families may have questions about how to best explain the history of bar and bat mitzvah, to give this ceremony context as well as to articulate what it means to them that their child is experiencing this rite. When speaking with family members who aren’t Jewish and or are not as familiar with the process and ceremony, they’ll want to know how to explain the significance and the meaning. Directing families to inserts that can be placed in invitations as well as creating program guides can be reassuring and helpful.
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/bat mitzvah. Inevitably, this person’s parents are still in the area, but have not been members of a synagogue for many years. The person getting married went away to college and is now back working in the city, living with their partner, and trying to find clergy to connect with for their interfaith wedding.
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.
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.
What would your community feel like to a stranger?
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.
In his above-mentioned book (read an excerpt here), Bronfman wrote that among Jews and the Jewish community, the
task of building a significant Jewish future requires a newly hopeful attitude. Fear of assimilation and intermarriage should not replace fear of anti-Semitism…. We must open ourselves up to new ideas and new faces and be welcoming to all who choose to participate. Openness may not be the easiest way, but it is our only way.
And speaking of enjoyment — there is nothing more enjoyable than a good story. With that in mind, we move to the Maggid section of our ceremony — a Hebrew word meaning "to tell."
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:
When we got married, I asked the rabbi why it was ok with him that we were marrying and why he was willing to officiate at the wedding, and he replied, “Well, you are both good people, and I’d prefer to keep one of you than lose both of you. And maybe I’ll get both of you!” He not only kept me, we are raising three sons Jewishly. And my husband has a tremendous amount of respect and appreciation for our Jewish traditions.
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:
Host a sensitivity training program for all staff about interfaith issues. (Contact network@Interfaithfamily.com to see if a free sensitivity training is available in your community.)
Host at least one event each year in a public space that isn’t seen as “Jewish.” For many, synagogues can be intimidating. Having an event in a secular setting lowers the barriers for participation.
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 email@example.com if you have any questions on how to attract and retain interfaith couples in your organization. We look forward to working with you!
“I am worried that our present policy is internally conflicted and thus strategically self-defeating,” the rabbi said. “The idea of refusing to be present for the wedding and then expecting the couple to feel warmly embraced by the Jewish people strikes me as a policy constructed by someone who doesn’t know the mind of a young couple…. I am not exactly clear on the message the Conservative movement is sending out into the world, and I am not sure if it is a viable policy in the long term.”
Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove of NYC's Park Avenue Synagogue
This quote is from Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, a rabbi of the Park Avenue Synagogue, a Conservative shul in NYC. He’s not talking about a policy shift within his synagogue or the Conservative movement, but sharing his thoughts on conversion and intermarriage, as reported in the New York Jewish Week (Time To Rethink Conversion Policy).
He likened [the current approach] to joining a gym, noting that a potential gym member is not told first to exercise, get in good shape and then join. Rather, if the person is willing to join, he or she signs up and then the work begins. Moreover, the rabbi added, this logic is not just one of good consumer policy but is consistent with traditional Jewish teaching.
In one of the most famous Talmud stories, the man who wants to learn all of the Torah while standing on one foot is shooed away by Shammai, who has no patience for him, but welcomed by Hillel.
“First, Hillel converts, and then Hillel teaches,” Rabbi Cosgrove said. “First you join and then, once you are a vested member, you figure out what it’s all about.”
In that way, the rabbi suggested that it might be more effective for Conservative rabbis to first accept converts and then teach them.
This would be a huge shift! Compare it to the usual course of action someone follows if converting within Conservative Judaism: a year of study followed by formal conversion (going to the mikveh, and brit milah or brit hadam if the convert is a male).
Imagine if, when an interfaith couple approached a Conservative rabbi to officiate their wedding, the response wasn’t “I can’t officiate, but consider conversion!” or “I can’t officiate, but you’re still welcome to come to synagogue!” but instead was “Welcome! Let’s bring you into the community, celebrate your wedding, and then, as you and your partner establish this next phase of your lives together, let’s make sure Jewish learning is included!”
“My priority is to create Jewish homes, and everything I do is toward that goal,” he said. When a congregant’s adult child comes to him with a non-Jewish partner and wants to get married, he now describes the yearlong conversion program requirement that is a prerequisite to the wedding. Many of them, he says, never come back, choosing a justice of the peace or other [Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal] clergy to marry them.
As Rabbi Cosgrove points out, “love trumps religious affiliation, with the result being that few families are immune from the situation of a child coming home with a non-Jewish partner and wanting to be married in a Jewish ceremony.” So the question becomes: how do rabbis keep up? Do you think Rabbi Cosgrove’s idea to convert the partner who isn’t Jewish so that Conservative rabbis can officiate their weddings and then bring them to study would work? Do you have other ideas?
Jewish status in Israel is controlled by the Chief Rabbinate, and conversions by non-Orthodox rabbis – and now even under by some Orthodox rabbis – are not recognized. Because Rabbi Hoover converted to Judaism under Reform auspices, her conversion is not recognized, and she concludes, “Israel doesn’t want me.”
I think Rabbi Hoover is exactly right when she says,
One of the messages that American Jews receive relentlessly is that we need to support Israel. There is much hand wringing over the perceived lessening of American Jewish connection to Israel among teens and young adults, and even among rabbinical students. I believe this lessening of connection is in part due to a growing number of American Jews who cannot fully live as Jews in Israel because their status as Jews is not recognized by the Chief Rabbinate….
The question of Jewish status depends on who you are asking, or whose opinion you care about. Rabbi Hoover tells people in her congregation who are converts under liberal auspices, and people who identify as Jewish whose mothers were not Jewish, that “they are, in fact, Jewish,” but she wants them to be prepared that there are those who will not recognize them as such. That’s important, especially for the many young adults raised as Jews in interfaith families whose Jewish status would be questioned by others.
I think Rabbi Hoover also is exactly right when she concludes,
It is crucial that American Jews of all denominations join to support religious pluralism in Israel, and in the United States as well. We need to find ways to respect and recognize each other’s conversions and life-cycle rituals. There are not so many of us that we can afford to be divided, and if Israel continues to disenfranchise American Jews, she cannot expect their support to continue indefinitely.
Many rabbis I meet with me tell me that they need more members in their synagogues. They want to retain their current members while adding new members. Congregations have tried different models for making membership more appealing to more people, from suggested donations rather than membership dues to low cost membership for the first year or for people under 30. More and more congregations are going into secular spaces to try to meet potential congregants who may have misconceptions about synagogue membership or may not know all that a community has to offer.
There is much talk about what young professionals need and want. There is more and more talk about what newly empty nesters need and want and how to engage or re-engage them before they walk away from the synagogue where their children were called to the Torah as a bar or bat mitzvah. As a caveat to this thought, I meet so many couples where one partner had grown up at a local congregation but the family had “dropped out” after the bar/bat mitzvah and now they need to find a rabbi for a wedding.
I have been thinking about a possible new model for congregations. This is the Give and Take model of membership. What if congregations said to the wider community that they want people to associate with this congregation because:
You live in the area.
Judaism is best expressed and lived in community, from study and worship to holiday celebrations and life cycle events. True, Judaism is a religion anchored in the home, but “doing Jewish” with other people adds joy, support, depth, purpose, and more that can’t be felt when observing at isolated moments in private affairs.
This community needs you to share your talents. Judaism is part of your story, part of your heritage and consciousness, and the intergenerational make-up of this synagogue will be enriched by you. Yes, this is a selfless act of volunteerism to benefit others who share part of your story, who are your “extended family,” but giving in this way will undoubtedly fill you.
The Jewish community will change and adapt and learn from you when you are involved.
You will need this community at times in your life and we need you now.
The way it works is that the person, couple, or family figures out what yearly financial contribution they can make to help sustain this local house of learning, worship, social justice, and fellowship. The new member then decides what they can give to the community in addition to money. Maybe it is time teaching in the religious school, preschool, or adult education realm. Maybe it is time sharing a background in PR, marketing, branding, website design, etc. Maybe it is time cooking for communal Shabbat and holiday meals. Maybe it is time visiting families with new babies or sitting with someone who has lost a spouse. Maybe it is job counseling. Maybe it is yoga classes. Whatever you do, the synagogue should make use of it. This is the “Give” part of the membership model.
The “Take” part of the membership model involves taking what those feel is a benefit. If people feel that they benefit from having a school for their children and for them to continue to learn about Judaism, then it has to be supported. If people feel that they benefit from communal holiday celebrations, there has to be space, prayer books, leaders, music, and food. People have to figure out what they value and find ways to keep those things running with vibrancy.
I know there is talk about how some people can’t articulate even why to be Jewish. Not only do most young professionals not want to join a synagogue, they feel no reason to enter one, investigate what’s out there, etc. Finding a rabbi for a life cycle event is one thing, but going to a temple is a whole other ball of wax. Judaism and religion are not on their minds. They are thinking about where to live, whether they like their jobs, whether they should marry their partner, how to keep a good relationship with parents. People think about having fun, how to make friends, whether they are happy. People think about the homeless, about their health, about international affairs. The environment, gun control, and whether all women will have access to safe abortions are topics discussed over coffee. People are secular. They don’t think about liberal religion on a daily basis. As I am writing this, I am sitting next to a neighbor at a coffee shop who said, “As a working mom I am just trying to survive!” Volunteering her time at a local temple would not see fathomable.
However, I am convinced that if this model began, and the people who are inclined to take part in the organized Jewish world find meaning in this Give and Take model, then the joy and sense of purpose and connectedness that they would garner from the experience would spread.
You may read this and say that all membership is give and take. You’re right, it is (or should be), but it needs to be made explicit. It needs to be organized with thoughtfulness and individuality.
What do you think? Could this work? Would people feel more engaged and committed in this model?
And through this, I haven’t even mentioned interfaith couples and families. For the partner who didn’t grow up with Judaism and for their extended family and friends who may find themselves at the synagogue, the community this person was actively giving and taking from would hopefully reflect their values and ideals as well. When people are active, not passive participants, their vision becomes reality.
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