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Last month, I sat with 25 people who gathered over breakfast to talk about being part of interfaith families. As the Director of an InterfaithFamily community, there is nothing new or remarkable about that; I bring interfaith couples together regularly to share stories and support one another as they explore religious life. What is noteworthy about this particular group of people is that they were all Jewish professionals, working in Hillels around the country. We were attendees at the Hillel International Global Assembly and this was a first-of-its-kind meeting for people who work in Jewish campus life and are in interfaith relationships. Some of the participants in this discussion were “out” about their relationships while others hoped no one from their campus community or staff would know they had attended the meeting. Many others did not feel comfortable attending at all for fear they would be found out, possibly resulting in losing their jobs.
I have written about how one’s choice of partner does not necessarily reflect one’s commitment to Jewish life. This is certainly true personally, and I know scores of other Jewish professionals like me who are wholly dedicated to enriching Jewish life in our generation, and are themselves partnered with people from other cultural and religious backgrounds. With an intermarriage rate of around 70 percent in non-Orthodox Jewish communities, it is clear that Jewish-Jewish couples are about to become a rarer sight than interfaith ones. Many of those who marry someone from another background are active in Jewish life and have every intention of continuing that involvement. Some are so dedicated to a thriving Jewish community that they become Jewish professionals. Yet when they get there, they often feel that they can’t bring their whole selves to their work for fear of being labeled bad role models.
I hear the worry that Jewish campus professionals, more than professionals in other Jewish settings, are especially poised to be role models for young Jews at the time in their lives when they are getting serious about dating and marriage. Being intermarried would sanction the decision to marry out of the tradition, the argument goes. But let’s look realistically at the demographics of our current Jewish college students. According to a recent study, “Among millennials, born between 1981 and 1995, … partly as a result of the high rate at which millennial children of intermarriage identify as Jewish, half of all Jews in their generation are children of intermarriage” [the Brandeis Millennial Children of Intermarriage study, p.5].
This next generation is often trying to figure out how to honor both parents as they explore religious life on campus and chart a way forward. Furthermore, many if not most of them are interdating or have at least explored the idea. The same study shows that the percentage of young adults who think it is important to marry someone Jewish is extremely low for children of in-married parents and even lower for the children of intermarried parents [Ibid, pg. 43]. Pretending that Jewish college students are largely choosing only to date other Jews is causing us to miss out on some profound conversations. They are not merely deciding on a partner; they are contemplating how they will bring meaning into their lives, they are beginning to own and make decisions as adults for their own spiritual journeys, and they are determining what role Judaism will play in their lives going forward.
These college students need diverse role models, a plethora of professional exemplars so they can see how an adult makes Jewishly committed decisions when Judaism is not the default. They need models to demonstrate how interfaith families navigate raising kids in a still-conflicted Jewish community, and how couples have healthy conversations with in-laws and grandparents about religious choices. If they do partner with someone Jewish, they will inevitably have extended family members who marry someone outside of Judaism at their family holiday table. They need models and forums to discuss how we can best navigate the increasing diversity in the Jewish community.
We are also missing the whole picture when we think only of undergraduates in the Hillel picture. Many Hillels have vibrant graduate student and young adult communities. Large numbers of these young people arrive on campus already having made their decisions about a life partner, and many of those relationships are with people from different religious and cultural backgrounds. They also seek support and models as they begin their lives together.
Those of us with religiously diverse families are uniquely situated as Jewish professionals to bring wisdom, knowledge and compassion to interfaith families exploring Jewish life. Drawing on our personal stories and experience, we are poised to model for others how good communication, flexibility and introspection can help strengthen the next generation of seekers. The current generation of inter-partnered Jewish professionals aren’t the first … and won’t be the last. Judaism’s greatest leader, Moses, married Tzipporah. Not only was she not a Hebrew; she was the daughter of a Midianite priest. Her father, Jethro, condoned this union and even offered Moses sound advice on leading the Israelites.
Hillel has come a very long way. When I began working for the campus organization, it was made clear that professionals would not be allowed to perform an interfaith marriage ceremony, let alone be partnered with someone from another background. Thank you, Hillel International, for providing the space for such an important conversation when field professionals were brave enough to step forward and express the deep need for community and support. I look forward to the time when all Jewish professionals can bring their whole selves to their workplaces, proud to be exemplars for the Jewish campus community as they dedicate their life and work to strengthening Judaism for the next generation.
This essay was reprinted with permission from J. Weekly.
Earlier this month I was the rabbi at the Fellowship for Affirming Ministries’ biennial conference at City of Refuge Church in Oakland. I was invited to blow the shofar for the new Hebrew month of Av, and I lit candles to usher in Shabbat before the worship began. I returned to my seat, filled with love for the extraordinary Christian leaders I had met that day, honored to bring a taste of Judaism into their prayer space and feeling welcomed as someone who had entered that morning as an outsider, now an insider sharing a sacred moment.
Then came the scriptural reading from the New Testament: “Everything [the Pharisees] do is done for people to see. … Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! … You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness” (Matthew 23:5, 27, 28).
How should I react? Was anyone looking at me? Do I show my discomfort as a Jew listening to these words? I tried to be invisible, wondering if anyone who was standing up and calling out affirmations of this reading might be associating me, the very public representation of Judaism at this gathering, with a Pharisee. Were the rituals Matthew was criticizing related to ones I just performed? Were they viewed as empty, for show?
It was mere minutes later that I felt a tap on my shoulder. The presiding pastor presented a handwritten note. “Please forgive me for my choice of scripture, which I’m sure was painful to hear. … I felt pain as I listened. … and apologize for any harm this may have done to your heart just after you gifted us with a Sabbath Blessing.” I caught her eye, expressing how deeply this touched me. Her apology doesn’t erase the reality of the text existing, or being read as sacred Scripture, nor should it. But it brought me peace.
What followed was a regular part of the weekly liturgy at her church. The entire congregation recited a five-minute “Confession for the misuse and abuse of Scripture” that speaks, among other things, to the harm done to Jews and others as a result of the misuse of Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament. At this point, feeling a swell of gratitude, I wondered if we Jews ever ask publicly for forgiveness for any harm our texts have caused. In drashes, I have condemned our use of anti-gay verses, I have openly challenged Torah that oppresses women or further disempowers the powerless. But do we ever apologize directly to the people sitting among us who are squirming in their seats as a result of our words?
Because I was the direct recipient of someone’s confession, my mind is fixed on the people who sit and listen to sacred text being chanted in our sanctuaries. For the first time in a long stretch of history, a large percentage of people sitting in services are not Jewish. Most of them have entered our holy spaces because they love someone who is, and many have made personal sacrifices to raise Jewish families. This Shabbat, they may open the Chumash and read, “You shall not intermarry with them: do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons. For they will turn your children away from Me to worship other gods, and God’s anger will blaze forth against you” (Deuteronomy 7:3-4).
This week, I would ask forgiveness from interfaith couples who came to synagogue in support of their Jewish families. They might historicize these verses (this addressed long-gone nations and a nascent people) or even think about our contemporary interreligious battles (Jews worry that their kids might worship the god of the very people who have tried to extinguish them for centuries). But at a time when more interfaith couples are choosing a Jewish life for their families, I feel what the pastor felt for me — that our texts, attitudes and parts of our liturgy may be doing harm to their hearts even as they gift us with their presence and the presence of their children.
If you could reach out to someone who may be hurt by our texts, who would it be?
In March 2015, InterfaithFamily conducted its 11th annual Passover/Easter Survey to determine the attitudes and behaviors of people in interfaith relationships during Passover and Easter. The survey attracted 1,136 responses—an increase of about 21% over 2014. Of those 1,136 respondents, 730 said they were in interfaith relationships. Of those, 501 have children and of those, 444 (89%) are raising their children with some Judaism, though not necessarily exclusively.
To simplify our findings, here are the top 10 things we learned from just those 444 respondents. (Of course, this does not reflect the behaviors of interfaith couples in general, or the behaviors of all interfaith couples with children, and the figures should not be reported as representative of all interfaith families.)
1. Passover matters. The overwhelming majority of respondents—more than 92 percent—celebrate Passover, and for most, it had some religious significance. On a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being “deeply religious,” 67% rated Passover a 3, 4 or 5. Only 7% said it was entirely secular. For those who were having or attending a seder—420 respondents—most said it would include a seder plate (94%), reading from a Haggadah or telling the Passover story (92%), food rituals like dipping parsley in salt water, making a matzah sandwich, etc. (93%), hiding the afikoman (85%) or discussing the meaning of Passover (76%). And going to a seder wasn’t new—99% had been to or hosted one before.
2. It’s about the kids. When asked why they celebrate Passover, the vast majority of respondents—more than 86%—said “to share the holiday with my children,” and “sharing the holiday with my kids” was also respondents’ favorite part of Passover. Almost 70% said they were looking for “ways to make the seder fun for kids.”
3. And food. 86% of respondents said they would be eating matzah as one of their Passover activities, with 49% following dietary restrictions for most or all days of Passover. And the resource people wanted most, next to ways to make the seder fun for kids? Recipes.
4. If you’re going to buy a Haggadah, Maxwell House is still the haggadah you count on. More than half who responded said they use a store-bought haggadah (54%), and of those, 25% were planning to use the Maxwell House Haggadah this year—more than any other haggadah mentioned, which we found surprising considering how many new haggadahs are on the market these days. However, of those who planned to use a store-bought haggadah, 36% were not sure/couldn’t remember which one and 26% said “Other” to the haggadah options we provided—using everything from Sammy Spider’s Haggadah to congregational haggadahs. More than 8% planned to use the 30 Minute Seder and 7% said A Different Night, The Family Participation Haggadah.
5. Interfaith families look for resources to meet their specific challenges. 41% of respondents were looking for resources to make the seder comfortable and meaningful for relatives and friends who aren’t Jewish, while 38% wanted help navigating the Easter/Passover overlap. 88% would be or might be interested in a haggadah specifically for interfaith families—we’ll have one ready next year!
6. Many interfaith families raising their kids with Judaism also celebrate Easter… About half of respondents (49%) said they would be participating in Easter celebrations this year, and another 16 percent said that they “maybe” would.
7. … But it’s a secular holiday for most. 59% said it was an “entirely secular” celebration. Most celebrations centered around Easter egg hunts or baskets—56% said they would be participating in an Easter egg hunt, and 51% said they would be decorating eggs, while 47% said they would give Easter baskets to kids or extended family. Another 55% would be attending an Easter meal at the home of family or extended family, while 15% would host an Easter meal (vs. the 47% who host a Passover seder).
8. Easter is not seen as a threat to Jewish identity. Likewise, 62% don’t think celebrating Easter will affect their children’s connection to Judaism. (27% said not applicable, which may mean that Easter is not celebrated.) Said one, “It’s a secular celebration that’s basically just having food with family. I was raised Jewish and I still ate Easter candy, decorated eggs, etc.”
9. Most do not struggle or expect to struggle with observing Passover and/or Easter, but of those who do… Of the 444 respondents, 261 responded to this write-in question asking what they struggle with, and many of those simply said these holidays weren’t a struggle for their family. Responses included:
“My in-laws are extremely open and welcome my Passover traditions at their Easter meal—they regularly put out matzah, without a request from me, and make desserts that are flourless for my benefit.”
“None. We’ve been doing this long enough, we have it down,” another said, while a third remarked:
“I expect the same challenges that I experience in other areas of my married life with a partner [who is not Jewish]. There are many areas of negotiation with this part of our identities; we practice good communication in order to resolve and acknowledge differences. There [are] always going to be challenges of understanding, of belief and of acceptance.”
Of those who answered with a specific struggle, some cited in-laws and extended families, or balancing the needs of both partners or holidays. Said one, “We have wondered whether to let our son eat Easter candy that contains corn syrup during Passover,” while another struggled with “Restrictions on my children eating chametz or bread during Easter.” Some cited in-laws and extended families as a concern, or simply that the extended family wants their children to observe holidays differently than how they are being raised. Several people expressed frustration with these family members not understanding or appreciating the Jewish holiday or trying to balance everyone’s needs during the two holidays.
One respondent said “My Catholic Mother—she is trying very hard to be supportive, but struggles to find a way to feel connected to her grandchildren during holidays,” while a spouse said: “I love Easter merchandise: the colors, the bunnies, the eggs. I find all of it so cute but I don’t buy my daughters any of it because we’re raising them fully Jewish. It can be hard for me.”
10. Passover is a “lot of work” holiday. We were interested to hear why people think that surveys often indicate fewer interfaith couples participate in Passover seders than couples where both partners are Jewish. The overwhelming response was that Passover is a holiday celebrated at home and takes a lot of work; that it can be intimidating if it is not a holiday you grew up celebrating and the rituals are unfamiliar. As one person explained, “Passover is pretty involved. It’s a lot more than just showing up for a one hour service at a church. It takes a big commitment.”
Another said, “Try[ing] not to hurt anyone’s feelings, not having all the resources, not knowing where to start,” while a third responded, “It takes a serious time/travel commitment to attend one or both seders, especially if they’re during the work week. We typically return to my parents—a four-hour drive away—so if one member of the couple doesn’t take that commitment seriously, it’s hard to do.”
Raising a Child with Judaism in Your Interfaith Family. This week’s focus was “doing good” through mitzvot. In Hebrew, “mitzvah” means “commandment” but is also commonly understood to mean a good deed. Like most people, I want my children to care about others and take action to make the world a better place — to do mitzvot (the plural of mitzvah, commandments or good deeds). I try to teach by example and provide them with opportunities that make a difference for others.We are currently in week 5 of our Philadelphia-based online class,
Still, in our busy lives, I don’t always feel that we make it as much of a priority as it should be. This week, I was inspired by a simple message our facilitator, Tami Astorino, sent out to the class at the beginning of the week. Here is part of what she wrote:
Though I am not officially enrolled in the class, I have been following along and reading the class materials and discussion posts. As Tami predicted, this week’s theme did speak to me and I wanted to do something about it. As I was driving my children (ages 8 and 11) to their afternoon activity that day, I told them about Tami’s family ritual and asked them about trying it in our own home. My youngest was eager to get started, my oldest was a bit skeptical. I told my oldest he could have a ‘bye’ for the first night and see how he felt after hearing everyone else. The second night, he shared with no hesitation. We have now adopted this as a ritual in our own home.
We’ve only been doing it for a short time, but I can already see an impact. I have noticed that we are all sharing more with one another and making an effort to really listen. The highs and lows have been great conversation starters and the mitzvah discussions have made us all more mindful of trying to do good for others daily.
This weekend, my family is participating in a program called Stop Hunger Now. Stop Hunger Now is an international hunger relief organization that coordinates the distribution of food and other life-saving aid around the world. We will be joining with families from our synagogue and another local synagogue to pack dehydrated, high protein, and highly nutritious meals that will be used to help feed people in developing countries around the world. We have done this project in the past, but I am hoping that this year it will be even more meaningful because it is not just a one-time good deed or mitzvah, but part of something that our family is now making a priority each and every day.
If thinking about a high, a low, and a mitzvah gives you ideas for your family, consider enrolling in our next online session of Raising a Child with Judaism in Your Interfaith Family (currently offered in Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Chicago). For just 20 minutes a week, you will be inspired!
Many will agree that taboo topics of conversation include sex, politics, money, and religion. We’re guided not to discuss these things at work, sometimes not even with our extended family, but do we talk about them at home, with our spouse? With our children? If you don’t talk about these topics, how will your children know what’s important to you?
Jim Keen states, in response to his daughter’s query, “What is God?” in When My Jewish Child Asks Me about God: A Christian Parent’s Perspective,
Certainly, none of us want to leave a large gap in our child’s development. So, let’s start talking about it.
Answer these questions for yourself: Where does God live? How does God listen? Does God ever sleep? Does God forgive me? Does God hear my prayers? Children are thinking about these things and developing their own responses. Ask your child what he/she thinks. Share your ideas. If you’re stuck, check out the Children’s Spirituality Quest Set published by Skylight Paths Publishing in Woodstock, VT. They are designed for children ages 3-6, but I’ve used them when teaching teens. This set is perfect for any family; it has been “endorsed by Protestant, Catholic, Jewish and Buddhist religious leaders.”
Another book you may consider adding to your child’s library (or your own), In God’s Name shares insights from many different people about qualities that they see in God and what each calls God. This book allows the reader to create his/her own connection to God and adapt one of the names in the book or develop his/her own name for God.
My personal favorite is called God’s Paintbrush. In writing this, I discovered that there is now a special 10th Anniversary Edition of God’s Paintbrush. In the introduction, Sandy Eisenberg Sasso tells a sweet story of a child explaining to his grandmother why he likes this book so much. “It’s because it asks questions.” When asked if the answers to the questions were in the back of the book, she explained, “no, the answers are inside you.”
She goes on to share some ideas for how to read and utilize the book to open the door for conversation.
So start your conversation. Take the “taboo” label off God and start talking about God with your partner, with your children, with your family, and maybe even with your friends!
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.
I have often wondered if, had I not been raised Jewish, I would convert to Judaism. I know many Jews who are intermarried and who don’t believe in God, who consider themselves atheist, agnostic, or “just Jewish” Jews. I know many Jewish people who don’t believe in, or question the existence of, God. If a person was not raised Jewish, but enjoys cultural aspects of Judaism, would they convert? Would I convert had I not been born into this religion? Do I love the Jewish religion? Or do I love the Jewish customs and culture? For me, I think these answers are fluid as I grow with my Judaism. I think everyone is different and has their own spiritual and cultural journey. For many individuals and couples, community is really what they are seeking.
In Philadelphia, I experienced an interesting option: the Jewish Children’s Folkshul. It is a secular humanistic community for children and adults. There is no rabbi or cantor, but they sing songs in English, Yiddish, and Hebrew. They say a secular kaddish with a translation of “We remember them,” without invoking God. The kids learn all the Bible stories as stories, not as miracles or acts of God. They tell the Purim story and identify themes that are relevant today. They learn about the Holocaust. They learn about tikkun olam (repairing the world), tzedakah (righteous giving), kindness, and ethics. They experience social action/social justice projects and what it is like to be part of a soup kitchen and stand in line for their soup for the day.
I met with the teachers to provide them with some sensitivity training. They learned about the resources at InterfaithFamily and we discussed how they teach kids from interfaith families. I was truly impressed that any discussion about other religions is met with absolute respect. It was a wonderful exercise for the teachers and I truly enjoyed their enthusiasm and wisdom.
For those who are interested in a Jewish option that emphasizes ethics and culture, check out a Secular Humanistic community like the Folkshul. It is an intriguing option for those who enjoy Jewish culture and community in a non-religious environment.
I admit it: when I watch
Here’s how Heeb magazine introduced “The Best Half-Jewish/Half-Asian, Queen-Inspired Bar Mitzvah Video You’ll Ever See”:
“Easy come, easy go, will you say ‘Shalom’?”
(And no, the dad’s not waving Monopoly money, that’s a handful of colourful Canadian bills.)
Are you a Jewish grandparent navigating your relationship with your child, their partner, and your grandchild? Are you the adult, sandwiched between your parent and your young child, respecting the one who raised you and hoping they will respect your choices in raising your own family? I am curious what works (and what doesn’t work). Please comment below and join me as we start a dialogue about the role of grandparents!
I believe step one should be to have a conversation. The grandparent should sit down with their adult child and discuss how each sees the other’s role. Share thoughts, feelings, hopes, and dreams. Respect each other. Recognize that this can be easier said than done!
But then what? Grandparents: what do you do (have you done) that has worked really well? What didn’t work so well that you would do differently next time? Children, what have your parents done that worked (or didn’t)? What do you wish they would do?
I have five ideas to get us started; I’m interested to hear if you think these will be well received.
What would you like to add to this list?