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.

Why Be Jewish Today?

  

Family holds red heart in hands

Anti-Semitic acts have been happening in our country every day for the past couple of months. And every day I get asked the same question, “Why should I be Jewish?”

To be Jewish is to accept the challenges along with the joys. To have Jewish heritage is to be born into a club of which you will always be a member, even if you choose not to engage in Jewish life. To choose to be Jewish, or to be partnered with someone Jewish, you are joining a family where you become part of its celebrations, accomplishments, disappointments, failures, challenges and tragedies.

So why choose to be part of a family with such tragic stories in the distant and not so distant past? Why wake up every day and make the choice to be part of a family that is the recipient of hateful speech and acts of terror and desecration? Why be a part of a group who sometimes seems to have more challenges than joys when, in America, you can choose to be anything?

I asked this question on Facebook and was given a lot of answers to why people choose to engage in Jewish life. But, I also received some questions:

How can you even choose?

Is it a choice to be Jewish?

Can you choose to ignore your family heritage?

What if you don’t have Jewish family heritage? 

How do you choose Judaism?

I want to add a few more questions to the above. If you’re in an interfaith relationship, why choose Judaism as your household religion, when it would be so easy to ignore or deny it? Being Jewish seems to come with all this extra baggage—why voluntarily carry it and ask your family to carry it?

Why do interfaith couples go out of their way to practice Judaism when being Jewish means subjecting yourself to scrutiny and possibly danger?

How about when it means sending your kid to school at a JCC or Jewish day school knowing it may get threatened and evacuated?  Or when it means going through a metal detector for synagogue? And after all that, when it means people repeatedly tell you that you’re not really Jewish, or your family’s not Jewish or your family and relationship is leading to the decline of Judaism? Why do interfaith couples and families keep it up?

For love.

Love of the past—of the parent to whom Judaism was so important. Or of the grandparent who died at Dachau or Sachsen-Hausen. Or for the mother-in-law who wants so badly for your children to be Jewish.

Love of the present—of the partner to whom Judaism is so important. The synagogue that needs your membership and participation to keep its doors open. The community that welcomes you and celebrates with you in times of joy and supports you in times of sadness. The connection you feel to other people as they navigate the journey of being Jewish in an interfaith family.

Love of the future—to give your children a tradition and culture. For Judaism to continue, thrive and flourish. For the Jewish tradition to think of the next generation and plant the seeds of faith and community that only our children and grandchildren with see the fruit of. For the story found in a Jewish text, called the Talmud (Ta’anit 23a), in which a man named Honi plants a carob tree, knowing that it will not bear fruit in his generation. When asked why he would care about a tree that wouldn’t offer him any fruit, he answered, “Perhaps not. However, when I was born into this world, I found many carob trees planted by my father and grandfather. Just as they planted trees for me, I am planting trees for my children and grandchildren so they will be able to eat the fruit of these trees.” This view of Jewish engagement is hope for the future.

Keeping faith in a time when you are unsure, when your people are being threatened, is an act of love. It’s an act that transcends you and is bigger than you and your family. You find your own reasons for engaging Jewishly and having a Jewish identity. And through it all, you know there’s a bigger reason for your family. Through the fear, threats, insults and the rejection, you stick with it and pass through your family the love you have for the past, present and future of Judaism.

Everyone has their own reasons for this love. Familial heritage may resonate with you or Jewish continuity may drive your Jewish identity. Maybe it’s the participation in community events or Jewish ritual that increases your connection with Judaism. In a world where anti-Semitism is part of our daily lives and freedom of religion is part of our society, people have a choice how they identify with Judaism.  I hope you will find your own reason for being in the family as you #ChooseLove each day.

Why do you #ChooseLove and choose Judaism? Share in the comments.

Rabbis Can Love Christmastime Too

  

Girl at Christmas market

I am a rabbi and I love Christmastime. I love the twinkling lights in the cool dark nights. I love listening to carolers sing of joy and hope as I sip my spiced cider or hot chocolate. I love that everyone greets each other more than any other time of the year. (I am, however, terrified of Santa Claus because of a run in with a mall Santa as a child.) And one of my favorite songs is “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas.” It’s not my favorite because of its religious theme, or even because of its references to snow (I’m an Arizona kid after all). It’s my favorite because it was my dad’s favorite.

Here’s a little backstory on my family: My dad converted to Judaism when he married his first wife, decades before I was born. All my life he was extremely committed to being Jewish and for the last several years of his life he was dedicated to Jewish study and worship at his local synagogue. But he sang that song like it was his personal anthem. We even had it playing on the stereo during the luncheon after his funeral. I’m pretty sure that was the first (and last) time his synagogue has had Christmas music playing at a funeral… and maybe the only time it’s ever played at any funeral in August. But it was his favorite, and now that it’s Christmastime again I’m hearing it on the radio every day and thinking of my dad.

This year the first night of Hanukkah falls on Christmas Eve. Some people are very excited about this since it means that for the first time in decades Hanukkah has similar “status” as Christmas. To some people it means that Jews still get to take advantage of Christmas shopping sales, which doesn’t happen when Hanukkah falls in November. But for some interfaith families it is a source of a lot of conflict.

When the holidays are separate on the calendar it is easier to separate their celebrations. For my family, it doesn’t matter that Hanukkah is on Christmas because Hanukkah is always on Thanksgiving for us. Growing up in a family that was geographically dispersed, Thanksgiving was the one weekend that we were all usually together. No matter when Hanukkah fell on the calendar, you could find us eating latkes and exchanging gifts on the Friday after Thanksgiving. In my family, Hanukkah was primarily about spending time with family, eating delicious food from family recipes, and presents.

To me, Hanukkah is a minor Jewish holiday from a religious perspective and does very little to define my Jewish identity. Which means that loving Christmastime does little to threaten my Jewish identity.

Because of my relationship with Hanukkah, when a friend recently asked me if it was OK for Jewish people to like Christmas movies and music, I chuckled thinking about my own annual tradition of watching “Elf” and my childhood memories of driving around town to see Christmas lights. And then I thought more closely about the question: IS it OK for Jewish people to like Christmas movies and music? What about lights? Trees?

As a Reform rabbi I do not feel it is my place to tell people what’s “OK” for them to do Jewishly. I do feel it’s my role to guide people along their path and offer expertise and opinions where appropriate. It is not my job to tell people not to listen to Christmas music, or not to have a tree or to keep kosher. It is my job to help people see how positive Jewish experience can impact your life and shape families’ lives.

When it comes to the winter holidays, there is so much more at play than religious beliefs. To one family Christmas music may symbolize songs of hope for a savior or faith in God. To another family it may symbolize beautiful melodies and joyful tunes. To me, it reminds me of my father who sung those songs with a huge smile and especially now that he’s gone, I want to listen to that music to remind me of him. I spoke with an interfaith family recently whose kids identify as Jewish, and who have a tree to honor one parent’s family tradition. They feel no guilt and they do not feel that having a tree in any way compromises their Jewish identity, but rather that it helps them represent their entire family.

Meanwhile, I hear rabbis and others tell scary tales of Christmas trees leading to diminishing Jewish communities and threatening Jewish identity. I’ve heard the sermons from rabbis who are committed to the survival of the Jewish people. I’ve read the articles describing how Jewish families (or interfaith families) having a Christmas tree is a threat to Jewish identity. I understand the argument that Jewish identity is important and the survival of Jewish community is essential. However, I believe that when many of our families are already embracing the tradition of the Christmas tree, despite the best efforts of some to discourage it, the real threat to our Jewish community is the dismissal and judgment of these families.

I think that if our Jewishness is defined by a tree or a movie or a song, we need to rethink our religious identity and spend the rest of the year strengthening it. There is more to a religious identity than physical symbols. It is about a way of life, a set of values and a tradition, and the ways in which we enact that tradition.

Many Paths Up the Mountain

  

Friends hike a mountainIn college, I was a Jewish representative on the student Multi-Faith Council. I have always been fascinated by other religious traditions, cultures and belief systems, while feeling strongly rooted and passionate about my own.

Like many in the more liberal branches of religion, I do not believe that Judaism is the one right religion, but rather, that there are multiple ways of living righteously and of reaching God or a higher power.

I picture a large mountain, with many paths up to the summit. Some paths meander by mountain lakes. Others offer wonderful vistas of the valley below. They all have rougher and smoother patches, and some are steeper than others. They all offer opportunities to challenge ourselves and rejoice in the beauty of the world around us. So why pick just one?

For me, I choose the path of Judaism for many reasons.  It is the path that my parents and some (not all) of my grandparents walked before me. I have felt a sense of kinship and connection with other Jews who come from all over the world. I love the songs that echo through the hills and the teachings on signposts along the way. And I have found comfort and meaning on this trail at those key moments in my life—after my father died, on my wedding day and in sharing Jewish holidays with my son.

Being in an interfaith marriage adds another layer to this metaphor. I see paths that intersect my own, perhaps merging for a while to diverge and wander off again; maybe looping back on each other at different times. My husband walks his own path, although he does not adhere to another particular religion at this point in his life. (He was raised Protestant and drifted away.) And our paths definitely join together for certain stretches, particularly around holidays that we share as a family, and the core values we want to pass on to our son who we are raising Jewish. But I am walking on a deeply grooved part of the trail, while in this vision he is sometimes on the grassy edge.

Then I think about families who want to incorporate both religions into their homes and family life. Can one path be wide enough to actually overlap with other paths? What do you gain in experience and what might you lose in that image?

I also think about the fellow travelers I have invited to walk with me, my mother-in-law in particular. Even when we are walking together, I expect that her perspective on the view is a little different than mine. Her history is different, and maybe I haven’t done as good a job as I could explaining the different rituals and holidays that we’ll encounter on the way up.

I always love to hear stories from hikers on other trails, and maybe I’ll join them on their path for a while to take in a special sight or moment, but I keep coming back to Judaism. My path is right for me, and I hope my son will find meaning in it, too.

But I like to think about intersecting trails. Interfaith families help form a bridge between paths.  We don’t have to shout across the chasms at each other, but can walk together for all or part of the way. This mountain has many sides, and all invite us to look with wonder, appreciation and amazement at the world around us and at the people who share in this journey.

What does your path look like?

Talking About Christmas Trees… in July

  

Young family choosing Cristmass treeTwo years ago, I was sitting at a table on a warm summer evening with five young couples. They were the newest cohort of InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia’s “Love and Religion” workshop for interfaith couples. None of the couples had ever met before, and everyone listened quietly as we went around the table and each couple introduced themselves, sharing how they’d met and what had originally attracted them to each other.

Then I asked each couple to share when the issue of religion first came up in their relationship. Sarah (all names have been changed) said: “It was the first December. We’d just moved in together. He really wanted to have a Christmas tree and I made it very clear that I would never have a Christmas tree in my home.”

“I’m with you!” said Joan, who was sitting across from Sarah. “I’d never allow that! It’s just wrong for a Jewish person to have a Christmas tree in their home!” And with that, Sarah and Joan high five’d across the table… newly bonded by their refusal to let their significant others have Christmas trees.

Meanwhile, I watched another couple, Amy and Dan, squirm uncomfortably in their seats. It was Amy and Dan’s turn to share next and I happened to know that after much discussion Dan had agreed to Amy’s request to have a Christmas tree in their home the prior December, even though it made Dan, who’s Jewish, uncomfortable. Realizing that I needed to jump in as facilitator, I reminded the couples of one of the “ground rules” of our group: That we weren’t discussing what was “right or wrong” or judging each other, but creating a safe space for discussion for all of the couples to communicate openly and figure out what was best for them. Fortunately, we were able to move on, and the five couples bonded over the following weeks, sharing openly about the challenges and blessings of their interfaith relationships.

I’ve been thinking back to that summer evening a lot in recent weeks—as the topic of Christmas trees has come up multiple times in my meetings with interfaith couples… even though it’s July!

What is it about Christmas trees? Why are they so often such a big source of conflict for interfaith couples? Here’s some of what I’ve learned from working with many Christian/Jewish couples.

For the Christian partners:

-Some of their best childhood memories are of Christmas. Christmas trees remind them of family togetherness and warmth. They often want to have a Christmas tree not just for their own sake, but so that their children can experience the magical feeling that they had when they woke up on Christmas morning and found lots of presents under their tree. So many families have special traditions and rituals for decorating their trees, opening presents, etc. Parents who have wonderful memories of Christmas as a child often want to be able to re-create their experiences for their own children, even if their children are being raised as Jews.

-Many (though certainly not all) parents who grew up celebrating Christmas say that they don’t think of a Christmas tree as “religious.” They can’t understand why their Jewish partner is uncomfortable having something in their home that to them is all about family togetherness and fond memories, and doesn’t have religious significance.

For the Jewish partners:

-They often see having a Christmas tree as “selling out” their Judaism; the final step to full assimilation into the majority Christian culture. No matter what Jewish practices they do or don’t follow, they view having a Christmas tree in their own home as a boundary that they’re not comfortable crossing.

-Many Jews are concerned about what other Jews (often their own parents) will think or how they’ll feel coming into their home if it has a Christmas tree.

Recently, Sue and Mark, an interfaith couple, shared with me the frustration they’re both feeling as they discuss whether or not to have a Christmas tree in their home this December. Sue lamented: “It’s July, and we find ourselves sitting on the beach arguing about Christmas.” She said that every time they start to discuss whether or not they’ll have a Christmas tree, they both start talking over each other and just shut each other out. Mark looked at me and wondered: “What should we do? What’s the right solution?”

Of course only Sue and Mark can determine what’s right for them as a couple, and what’s right for them this December may not be what’s right for them next December—and it certainly may not be what’s right for a different couple. But there’s one thing I could tell them is right for sure: to take the time to truly listen to each other and to each try to understand the emotions behind what their partner is saying.

Whether or not they’ll have a Christmas tree may be something that they finally resolve and come to agree on over time, or perhaps the issue will be a source of conflict for years. But if they can each respect where the other is coming from—and discuss the issue from a place of love and respect rather than anger and intolerance—then their relationship will be much healthier… in July—and in December.

If you are an interfaith couple where one partner is Jewish and one is Christian, do you plan to have a Christmas tree? Has having/not having a tree been a source of conflict in your relationship? Do you have other reasons than the ones I’ve mentioned above for having/not having a Christmas tree?

Mindful Parenting: Raising a Child with Judaism in Your Interfaith Family

  

Young couple with little girlOver the years I’ve enjoyed—and benefited greatly from—the practice of mindfulness meditation. Studying and practicing mindfulness has helped me to be less judgmental (of myself and others), to be more present in the moments that make up my life and to better appreciate the simple beauty in the world around me.

Often, when thinking about a lesson I’ve learned in mindfulness I’ll say to myself, “Judaism teaches this!” I’m struck by how so many of Judaism’s rituals and teachings can help us to lead a more mindful life. Or, as I put it in another blog that I wrote, “my mindfulness practice is fully interwoven with my Jewish spirituality.”

What do I mean by this? Well, for example, when learning about “mindful eating,” I was taught the importance of not just devouring food, but of thinking about where the food comes from and how it got to me, as well as what it looks and smells like and how it tastes when really focusing on it. I remember thinking, Judaism teaches us not to just eat our food mindlessly. We have blessings to recite before and after eating that make us stop and pause, to remind us of the sacred nature of eating and of how lucky we are to have our food. This mindfulness lesson is inherent in Judaism.

 As I practiced mindfulness over a long period of time, I became especially grateful for the way in which it affected my parenting, enabling me to become more fully engaged with my children and more aware of special moments spent with them. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized how much Judaism has to offer when it comes to tools for mindful parenting. Judaism gives us the Shema, a beautiful prayer to say with our children before putting them to sleep, helping to calm their minds and make them feel a sense of connectedness. Judaism gives us Shabbat, a special day to focus on family and rest and to take a break from the hustle and hassles of the rest of the week. And Judaism gives us HaMotzi, a special blessing to recite as we stop and pause before eating.

The wisdom of Judaism in regard to mindful parenting is just one of the reasons that I’m thrilled that InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia is offering a free email series called “Raising a Child with Judaism in Your Interfaith Family.” This popular email series is for parents who want to explore bringing Jewish traditions into their family life. Participants receive eight emails over four weeks (emails are sent on Mondays and Thursdays) about how to bring spirituality and traditions to their parenting in realistic and meaningful ways.

The emails share ideas, videos, question prompts to discuss with your partner, ideas for family projects, personal stories written by other interfaith families who have brought these same aspects of Judaism into their lives and book suggestions around sleeping, eating, playing, praying and more. Essentially, the emails offer lots of ways to bring mindfulness to your parenting, to their own lives and to the lives of their children—it’s mindful parenting through a Jewish lens.

The emails can be read on your own time, whenever works best for you. And there’s specific advice on how to address the topics covered in an interfaith family. There’s no pressure to do things a certain way –just basic information and an opportunity for parents who didn’t grown up Jewish (as well as those who did) to learn about Jewish traditions and practices.

While some parents just want to receive the emails and perhaps choose their own aspects of Judaism to bring into their family’s life, for those who want to take it a step further, there’s an opportunity for interaction. In each email there are suggested questions for discussion with your partner and the opportunity to respond to me with your answers, or with anything else you may be thinking about. I’m happy to engage in discussion about any of the topics covered (or anything else that comes up in your interfaith family) or to share your thoughts or questions with others who are receiving the email series.

Registration for the email series is always open… so if you click here and register now you’ll start getting the emails in your inbox as soon as the next series begins. And before you know it, you can be raising your child with more Judaism—and more mindfully—than perhaps you’d ever imagined.

Interested in this email series but don’t live in the Philly area? Let me know at robynf@interfaithfamily.com.

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.

 

Start by Dropping the ‘Non-Jew’

  

This article was cross-posted on HuffingtonPost.com.

ThinkstockPhotos-81754532 -webAs the editorial director at an organization that works toward the inclusion of interfaith couples and families in Jewish life, I read and hear a lot of commentary on the future of Judaism and how interfaith families fit into it. Over and over I hear or read Jewish professionals and rabbis say how much they would like to welcome non-Jews into the community.

Say for a minute you were thinking deeply about joining an exclusive tennis club. You’ve been wanting to become a tennis player for years and you’re finally taking the steps toward that goal. You found a club that alleges to be welcoming and in need of newcomers, but when you tell them you haven’t learned to play yet, and that you might continue to play basketball even after you join, they suddenly don’t seem as welcoming as you expected. The club members and leadership refer over and over to you as a non-tennis player, making you feel not so much like you will ever be a member of the club but a visitor.

Obviously “joining” Judaism is a much weightier life choice than playing tennis. Perhaps the analogy of “non-man” to describe a woman hits closer to home? Non-meat eater? In any case, the Jewish community’s decision making around welcoming new people into its fold should not be treated as trivial. But assuming you have decided that you do in fact want to welcome newcomers who are not Jewish to explore Jewish life within your organization (or family or neighborhood)–stand by that decision.

If you want interfaith couples and children of intermarriage to feel welcomed by your community I applaud you on your efforts. If you want that aspiration to translate to reality, start by thinking about the person you’re trying to welcome every time you speak on the topic or write language of welcoming or interact with this audience. How will your messages be perceived by that person? Will they hear that you have a policy of welcoming? Or will they also hear that you want them to be there?

These are two different things.

Step one: You intend to welcome.

Step two: You actually welcome.

Let’s start by speaking in terms of who someone is, not in terms of who someone is not. Respect the audience you seek to invite into your fold by treating them as equals to everyone else in your fold. If someone feels that they are being tolerated and not celebrated, they may not walk through your door. Or if they do walk in, they may turn around and leave.

There isn’t a good word for non-Jew. But you can use the words “partner who is not Jewish” or “partner of another faith.”

It’s not just about this one compound noun. It’s about speaking to interfaith families the way you would Jewish-Jewish families. It’s about deciding whether they are your future and if you answer yes, treating them like it.

A Secular Jewish Alternative

  

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.

Jewish Children's Folkshul of PhiladelphiaIn 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.

The bar/bat mitzvah program includes a project where the student can learn about any topic that helps them connect with their Jewish identity; they prepare a research project to present to family, friends, and the Folkshul community. I was able to watch a young girl give her bat mitzvah presentation. She conducted an entire research project about wedding traditions. She, like her peers at the Folkshul, was encouraged to pick songs and music for the ceremony that are meaningful to her and her family. It was different than a traditional ceremony, yet still a rite of passage and just as lovely. The kids who complete their bar/bat mitzvah stay a part of the Folkshul community because they want to. They work in their community on Sundays. They assist the teachers for the younger grades. The director mused that when the teens assist with the curriculum they themselves learned in younger grades, their learning is enhanced because now they see the teachings from a new perspective.

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.