Is the Jewish Community a Mean Girl?

  

Mean girls

“The organized Jewish community is nothing more than the mean girls from high school.”

What?! I think I literally stopped breathing for a moment. Could it be true? I knew this lovely person across from me believed what she was saying. So I wondered, “Could this community that brings me so much joy and comfort be unknowingly treating some individuals as though they are lesser than?”

Feeling compelled to learn the truth, I started asking around: Does the community ever look at you with eyes of judgment instead of acceptance; act unwelcoming to other’s differences; create distinctions and groupings—with some in and some out? Holy sh*t! Organized Jewish community can be just like the mean girls to those who don’t fit its idea of what normative participants should look like. And this realization now drives my work as director of InterfaithFamily/Bay Area.

Yes, it might stem from our own inner fears about our future, but the Jewish community can be the worst kind of mean kids. We can make others feel unaccepted, unimportant and unwelcome; and then we pretend it’s all in their minds.

Every day. Every year. We look at interfaith families and, sometimes purposefully and sometimes accidentally, with both verbal and nonverbal ques, we question their presence, their legitimacy and their worth.

Since beginning my work with IFF a few months ago, I have heard several painstaking revelations from a large variety of individuals, some Jewish, some who love Jews and some who are raising Jews. Each of these souls sat with me and shared deep pain. This pain came from the words and actions of clergy, staff, lay leaders and other participants in the congregations, schools and organizations these families looked to for community. One told me, “I had never experienced discrimination until I tried to embed myself in the Jewish community.” And another said, “Whatever I do, whatever I say—it’s never enough. They’ll never accept me.”

Obviously, this is hard to hear. Some of you are probably thinking it doesn’t apply to you, or your congregation, your organization. If only that were true.

Even while trying to be welcoming, many Jewish institutions still make interfaith families feel as though they’re lacking. We embrace them, to a point. Welcome them in, but speak about how their choices are flawed or problematic. As one person told me, “Conditional welcoming is not welcoming.” Or another who told me that welcoming her, while subtly pushing conversion, made her feel like her congregation was saying she wasn’t welcome as she was. Or as she put it, “It’s like they said, go ahead and lose 10 pounds and then we’ll hang out with you.”

Or we institute a don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy inviting everyone in, but offering unwritten rules that things such as Christmas trees should never be spoken about out loud. We say, just come: Everyone is welcome as you are, but then in an effort to not make distinctions between people we fail to provide proper instruction or explanation to the masses. As one mother told me, “It’s like I asked how to get to the kiddie pool and I was thrown into the deep end, with no life jacket.”

I have been blown away by the stories I’ve heard and the judgment some of our families and couples feel. And I am a rabbi who works for a Jewish organization. If people are interacting with me, they are trying. They are choosing to engage with Judaism and Jewish community enough that they’re at the dinner table with me.

Even a Jewish family, raising Jewish children, embracing Jewish community is accustomed to disrespectful comments and glances if they are intercultural, interracial or if one hasn’t formally converted to Judaism. Even though they are committed to Judaism in their home, they may receive strange looks and questions that imply we believe they are secretly turning their children away from Judaism. Let me clarify – they are not.

There are interfaith families in every congregation who are active Jewish community members and who, whether you know it or not, never converted. They are members of our religious school committee and regular service attendees. They are devoted to their family’s Jewish identity, even if they themselves are from different faith backgrounds. I fear we hurt these incredible souls the most, for they hear all of the unguarded and offhand comments which denigrate interfaith couples. As one person told me, “The part I don’t normally tell people is that it wasn’t a stranger who said it to me, it was a friend. A friend. I couldn’t respond. I couldn’t speak.”

When will these Jewish families feel like they’re not second-class citizens? Only when we stop treating them as such.

I get that this feels complicated and painful. I understand loving Judaism so much that you only want what’s best for her future. Here’s the thing—nothing excuses causing another pain. We need to love Judaism enough to know she will offer beautiful and wonderful lessons and rituals that will enrich people’s lives. That’s how Judaism will thrive through generations, not by shutting doors and creating barriers.

If we really want to be good Jews, we’ll remember to welcome our guests (hachnasat orchim), to prioritize love (ahavah) and respect (kavod), to offer respectful communication (shmirat halashon), to support creating peace in the home (shalom bayit) and loving our neighbors as ourselves (v’ahavta l’reacha kamocha).

May we always elevate the values of knowing a whole person (kaf zechut), of offering explanations and choosing our words wisely so as not to embarrass or leave anyone out (lo levayesh) and may we never gossip or insult (lo lashon hara), whether we believe they may hear us or not.

If we embrace who our tradition truly wants us to be, the members of the organized Jewish community will transform from mean girls to ambassadors. We will offer guidance, excitement, connection and true community. When we use our hearts for love, true welcome will flow forth.

The Weight of Our Words

  

In seventh grade, I was so excited when this boy from school asked me out. I asked my mother if she could drop me off at the movie theater, not yet able to go anywhere on my own, and was surprised by the questions she asked. I don’t remember exactly what was said at the beginning, but she communicated to me that he was not an appropriate person for me to date. In all my teenage glory, I yelled and made a scene and told her she was closed minded. She calmly responded, “No I’m not. I’m very open minded. You can date and marry any boy or girl you want, black, white or brown, as long as they are Jewish.”

Looking back on it, this conversation became one of the foundational truths I held onto in my younger days. Knowing that my mom was in fact very open minded and liberal in many ways, I came to believe the distinction she made must have been appropriate. And this comment was supported by thousands of others, large and small, from family members, teachers, youth group advisors and friends who all seemed to accept this idea as a truth: that as a Jew I should be with another Jew.

It took me a few years into my rabbinate until I could fully shed this thinking and not only welcome but truly embrace the (many, many) blessings interfaith families bring to the Jewish community. I am here now, as a voice for inclusion in my new role as director of InterfaithFamily/Bay Area, because I understand and believe deeply that it is the right Jewish and rabbinic thing to do—to see and embrace the holiness and blessings of each and every individual.

Those who live by Jewish values should see no option but audacious welcoming and sincere gratitude for interfaith couples families that choose to connect to Judaism or Jewish community in any way. Partners of different faith backgrounds are making Judaism a more vibrant and meaningful religion. I’m a rabbi to help people find meaning in their lives. Throughout time, rabbis have done this in a multitude of ways. Rabbinic roles, and Judaism, have continued to evolve throughout time, affected by the cultures surrounding us and enriching each generation.

This is why I find myself in a new city, new job and preparing my family for our fourth move in six months. Matt, Roey, Stella Mae and I are, like so many young families, exploring our new city of San Francisco and creating the friends and community we hope will enrich our lives for years to come. My heart brings me to the Bay Area, to work for InterfaithFamily and make sure every person exploring the Jewish community, or loving individuals who take part in Jewish community, may feel the same warmth and love I offer my own family. Especially now, as a parent, I am realizing the weight of my words and advice that I offer to my own children and others. Maybe we can all explore this world together and enrich the younger and older generations with our warmth, kindness, creativity and spunk. I hope to meet you soon, whether for a cup of coffee on me (drop me a note at samanthak@interfaithfamily.com), at an upcoming event, or at my welcome breakfast where I look forward to meeting new people from the area on August 23 in our Steuart Street office—please stop by!

Grandparents Get to Go to Camp in Chicago

  
Grandparent

JCC’s grandparent camp at Camp Chi

We at InterfaithFamily/Chicago are spending more and more time with parents of adult children who are intermarrying and grandparents whose grandchildren are being raised in interfaith homes. The question I hear from them is often about how they can share their own love of Judaism and the family heritage and traditions with their grandchildren. We talk about the relationship with their adult children, honoring the decisions they have made and being in respectful dialogue about that. We speak about how grandchildren learn through osmosis the Jewish values grandparents live and breathe and will enjoy learning family recipes, participating in holiday celebrations and hearing the stories of their family.

The goal isn’t to make grandchildren Jewish unless that’s a shared goal with their parents. The goal is to love, accept, learn from, honor and celebrate this child for who they are and to show pride in who you are and how you became who you are. Will this lead to Jewish continuity? That’s in the stars. You’ve got your relationship with your children and grandchildren now. If there is bonding and togetherness and warm memories and sharing of values, not only will these young souls flourish but those who come into their circles will be enriched. If there is positivity and connectedness associated with Judaism, it’s all good.

My question to you, Chicago area grandparents: What are you doing June 19-21? Are your grandchildren done with school and not yet in camp? Take the plunge and try a special weekend away with them at the JCC’s Grandparents Weekend. The weekend is filled with programming that will engage children 4-12 years old in fun and meaningful activities. There is plenty of time for running around, enjoying the beautiful retreat center, playing games within the structure of the weekend, and also free time downtown when the magic of even more grandparent-grandchildren bonding happens.

The Kesslers

Barb and Denny Kessler with two of their grandkids

Here are words from grandparents Barb and Denny Kessler who have participated in this JCC retreat for many years and have found it to be deeply worthwhile:

In a few months we will be returning to the L’Dor Va-Dor Grandparents & Grandkids program at Camp Chi for our 8th year!!! The opportunity to be with our grandkids for a weekend—without their parents—in a Jewish/camping setting has been our great pleasure. We take two of our seven grandkids each year for a truly fun and meaningful weekend together. The kids hear about it from their older sibs and cousins and can’t wait to be old enough to go. We have found this to be a unique way to deepen our relationship with our grandkids. Several of our grandkids are from an interfaith home and spending a weekend at Camp Chi has been a wonderful way to have them be part of a Jewish community, celebrate Shabbat and Jewish traditions as a family and interact with other Jewish kids. We usually take two cousins, rather than siblings, because our grandkids are from different cities and they love being together. At the end of the weekend we make a photo album for each of the kids, write about the weekend and give it to them so they remember our special weekend together. They all treasure their albums and even many years later talk about our weekends together at grandparent’s camp.