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Recently, my colleague in Los Angles posted a question that piqued my interest on her personal Facebook page: “Did any of my Jewish professional friends grow up with a Christmas tree?” I knew where she was going with this. She was betting that a number of rabbis and Jewish educators had grown up in an interfaith family with a tree, or in a family with a Jewish parent or parents who had a tree for whatever reason, or they were Jews by choice who had grown up with a tree and became Jewish as an adult and then Jewish professionals. In any of these scenarios, having a tree did not deter them from becoming Jewish professionals. I had to delve into this!
So, I posted the same question with credit to Rabbi Keara and an amazing thing happened. There were over 50 comments made to my post, and they’re still coming in. I don’t think I had that many comments when my children were born or when my Grandmother, of blessed memory, died.
The amazing thing is it started with Jewish professionals admitting that they had grown up with trees and how and why that was the case and then morphed into other Jewish friends who do not work in the Jewish world writing about having trees or not having trees. And, some people even wrote that they didn’t have trees, which was as much a statement about attitudes on this subject as anything else people wrote because I had only asked to hear from people who did have a tree.
Here is what I conclude:
1. Many Jewish leaders grew up with a Christmas tree. Many interfaith families today raising children with Judaism have Christmas trees in their homes or at a close family member’s home. There seems to be a disconnect between these two realities. Somehow interfaith families don’t see their lives and reality always mirrored in the lives and reality of their clergy and educators.
2. Judaism from on high (I’m not sure who or what this is or if most people can even articulate this. It’s just a feeling or perception) seems to judge negatively Jewish families who have trees. This has not always been the case. There were times when many American Jews had trees and it was seen as typical and normative in their assimilating American Reform circles.
3. People who are active in Judaism today have amazing stories of interesting family dynamics and experiences and there could be more venues or formats for sharing our stories, learning from and seeing ourselves in one another. This would inform our way of transmitting Judaism if we understood more about the context and lens by which people were experiencing Jewish messages.
4. Symbols matter. The American flag is a symbol. We feel something when we see the flag. We feel something when we raise the flag at camp or when we see it at a sport’s event. We feel something when we see brand logos. The tree is symbolic. For many it symbolizes warmth, beauty, good memories, family time, gifts, glee and togetherness. It is all positive. If we tell those who love the tree that it is inconsistent with Judaism, they might hear that their warm family times (void of theology and religiosity, but maybe full of meaning and richness) is inconsistent with Judaism. This is confusing and hurtful. It puts people on the defensive and can lead to shame. It makes people feel they must justify the tree and argue for it lest they be seen as hurting a Judaism they are trying to perpetuate. It pits lay person against professional. It creates an us versus them.
5. If Jewish leaders said that the tree is secular (as the Supreme Court has declared—that’s why they can be erected in public spaces) or just stopped putting so much emotion into encouraging Jewish families to not have them, then there is a fear that the tree will become like a jack-o-lantern on Halloween and be deemed “secular American.” Would Jewish families who had never had a tree suddenly feel free, open and welcome to try one? I have no idea. Maybe it would happen or maybe it wouldn’t. Would Hanukkah practice be threatened by this? Is that our fear? What really is the fear?
6. This Facebook thread made me ask a question I come back to often which is, “What is the role I play as a Reform rabbi?” I do not believe I am a gatekeeper for Judaism. I do not believe I can tell people what to do in their Jewish expression as a one-size-fits-all or even most prescription. I believe I am supposed to inspire and inform, love and accept. Some things are outside the realm of Judaism. Some things are cool but are not Jewish. Sometimes Jewish leaders are afraid of what people want because we feel it will water down, taint and hurt an authentic, recognizable Judaism.
This is the same fear that happens when a parent, let’s say, suggests that there could be more choice in Hebrew School such as having a tutor, or coming one day a week or trying other alternatives. The educator fears that “everyone” will want a private tutor, so no changes are made. If there is a feeling that everyone wants something different than what is offered but the Jewish professional deems that desire “bad” or “wrong” or for “people who just want an easy way out,” then the people will make their own decisions and they won’t chose institutional Judaism. They will do it on their terms in ways that work for them. At a certain point the people decide and Judaism adapts and changes. If our communities are inspired, literate and invested, we should have no fear. We can trust.
I for one don’t get to decide if you have a tree, don’t have a tree, put a star on your tree or make s’mores latkes (this I recommend). I decide what my Jewish practice is and I work on this daily. I decide to hear you and try to understand you. May your holiday traditions be meaningful and lead to our defining what we are dedicated to (as the word Hanukkah reminds us to do). May I refrain from putting my judgment or my assumptions on your customs and allow you to define what they mean to you.
After 12 years of working and volunteering in L.A.’s Jewish community, I had stepped away. I’d loved all of the places I’d been: The Jewish Federation, Sinai Temple, with Rabbi Sherre Hirsch, and Temple Beth Israel of Highland Park and Eagle Rock, but something was always slightly off. Not the work, which was rewarding. Not the people, who were wonderful. It was me. I had a deep, dark secret that was keeping me at arm’s length from the organizations I worked for and the communities I was serving.
In reality, that secret was neither deep nor dark. Everyone knew, but it was always on my mind. I was living in an interfaith household. And it was a topic I avoided. Not because communities weren’t welcoming—many were, but the conversations around interfaith families that I had at work were so vastly different from those I was having at home. It became harder and harder to imagine that the reality of my life, and the lives of many of my peers, was ever going to connect with the Jewish community as I knew it.
So I left. While stepping away was hard, it also felt right. Working outside of the Jewish community was challenging and fun and, most of all, not personal. There were some bumps, of course. It took ages to realize that when someone agreed with me, it was sincere. Without the “buts” and complaints and opposing opinions I couldn’t imagine that “yes” meant yes. And I often found myself calling synagogue board members to catch up on gossip and getting coffee with friends in faith communities just to hear them talk about work. But I felt I couldn’t go back.
Then I heard that InterfaithFamily was opening a “Your Community” in L.A. It was the first time I hesitated in those two Jewish-free work years.
Nah…Well, maybe…Mmm…I mean, I might as well find out what they’re about…Right?
The more I spoke with the staff at IFF, the more I learned about the communities they were already in and the work they do nationally, the more my guard fell. I had no idea that there was an organization that was openly engaging the very issues my family and I had been struggling with alone.
I admit that until I walked into the national office, I remained a bit skeptical. But even someone who doesn’t believe in signs from above couldn’t miss these. My start date coincided with a pre-planned trip to Boston, and while at IFF HQ, every game of Jewish geography bore fruit and every conversation was one I’d had in my head but never had the opportunity to have out loud.
It felt like home on that very first day.
As IFF/LA launches, every day has been amazing. Engaging with the extraordinary and diverse interfaith community here in L.A. and the institutions that welcome them has been inspiring and energizing. I’m working with teen librarians at the main branch of the Los Angeles Public Library on a Passover-Easter family program. With Haggadot.com, we’ll be offering a program on incorporating the traditions of family members who did not grow up Jewish into their seder. For Tu B’Av we’re working on a celebration with Honeymoon Israel.
I’ve met with amazing professionals and families from across the spectrum of Judaism and cannot wait to meet more. Instead of just acknowledging that Judaism has interfaith families, our conversations are about ways we can incorporate and honor them. And for the first time, “them” is me.
It’s almost embarrassing to be this enthusiastic about work. But as IFF/LA grows, I hope that the interfaith families here in the city and the Jewish institutions that welcome them will grow with us.