Oh That Tree Question

Christmas treeThis is it. That time of year that many intermarried Jews dread: Christmas tree time. Especially if you go as far as getting a tree and stringing it up on the roof of your car and driving to your house as quickly as possible (maybe even ducking as you drive by your shul, so the rabbi doesn’t see). It used to feel so wrong, so shameful: “What will the others think?

Where do our values come from? How do these questioning voices appear in one’s head? Often our values are shaped by our parents and our teachers and our peers. My elementary school upbringing consisted of attending an Orthodox Hebrew Day School and the message growing up was clear: If a Jew has a Christmas tree in his house, he has gone “too far.” If you bring a tree into your house, you might as well put a swastika on top for you have betrayed the Jewish people.

My mother would mourn for the Jewish people if she saw it, and fear I would have lost focus on my roots. Oy, assimilation-1, Jews-0. My environmentalist friends would moan the betrayal of the earth, to drag a tree into one’s house for one week of the year. How horrifying! Don’t get me started on the gifts. The commercialism of Christmas is horrendous and the wrapping paper and packaging is tantamount criminal. The spoiling of kids with gift after gift. The plastic. The cookies. The elevated levels of acidity in one’s blood sugar as one holiday party bleeds into another. The drinks. The decadence.

But of course, I went to Hebrew School. My brother and sister and I would watch all of the holiday Christmas specials and feel like outsiders. We loved the cartoons and the stories of spreading cheer and goodness and charity. Charity and community service that we were taught to do regularly were emphasized on one special day for the majority of Americans, and we were on the fringe and couldn’t (or didn’t know how to) really participate at all.

And there I was 30 years later, a grown adult making decisions of my own. It’s true, if both people in a relationship are of the same religion, these kinds of things are rarely a problem. The best we could hope for would be to go out for Chinese food and play cards, which was the running joke of many of our childhoods, the thing that all American Jews do on that holiday.

But things have changed. These are different times. Would I choose to get a tree for my family like my friends from Baltimore? No. Not in a thousand years. Is it a ritual that I embrace and make my own filled with meaning? No, not that either. So what changed? For me, it is about respecting my wife’s background. Deb pointed it out like this: We have a very Jewish household. We light Shabbat candles, do Kiddush and blessings, make challah, send our kids to Hebrew school, sing Hebrew songs, have mezuzot on our doorways, give Tzedakah regularly, celebrate all the holidays, engage in Chevurah groups, the list goes on and on… But there is just one thing—just one thing—from her past tradition that she wants to keep and it shouldn’t be too much to ask.

She never converted, and to her, Christmas had nothing to do with religion (I know, I know, that one is really tough for me), but was about hot chocolate and sleigh rides and getting cozy and thankful and making snowmen and caroling and decorations and parties with friends and family and creating magic for the children. Time to relax as a family.

Well when you put it that way, it shouldn’t be too much to ask. So I go along for the sake of Shalom Bayit (peace in the house). I assure you that it’s not easy. And I still have a hard time with it since I am a committed Jewish educator (who is coming out of the closet with the confession to having a tree over the years). But relationships are about giving to the other and not ruling with an iron fist. Would I recommend that Jews have Christmas trees in their houses? Do I buy into the commercialization and environmental waste associated with Christmas? Not at all on either count.

But do I love my wife? Yes! Is this tradition really important to her and her family? Yes! If I grin and bear it for one week of the year, will my kids continue to go to Hebrew School and have bar and bat mitzvahs and identify as Jews throughout their lives? Yes! So all that was stopping me was closing my mind to honoring what my life partner wants. And that was no longer acceptable to me.

I am not the only Jew who struggles with this. So I wrote this blog to allow people to open up and share with their partners what they care about. There is more than enough evidence that children who grow up in committed Jewish households survive the Christmas Tree thing just fine and live their lives as committed Jews.

If you want to hear more perspectives on how intermarried Jews approach the Christmas tree issue, check out this insightful packet with some meaningful questions.

Interfaith Families Participate in Secular Christmas Activities While Raising Jewish Children

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Contact: Jodi Bromberg, President of InterfaithFamily
e: jodib@interfaithfamily.com
p: 617.581.6804

(Boston, MA) – Interfaith families raising their children Jewish are continuing at high and stable levels to participate in secular Christmas activities, to keep their Hanukkah and Christmas holiday celebrations separate, and to believe that their participation in Christmas celebrations does not compromise their children’s Jewish identity. These trends were confirmed in the tenth annual December Holidays Survey conducted by InterfaithFamily, an independent non-profit with headquarters in Newton, Mass.

InterfaithFamily has surveyed how interfaith couples raising their children deal with the “December dilemma,” the confluence of Hanukkah and Christmas, annually for the past ten years. Some observers of intermarriage have cast a skeptical eye on interfaith families raising Jewish children participating in Christmas activities, arguing that interfaith families can’t impart a strong Jewish identity to their children and celebrate Christmas. The results of InterfaithFamily’s surveys suggest that they in fact are doing so.

This year the percentage of interfaith families raising Jewish children who participate in Christmas celebrations was 86%, up slightly from 83% year. These families still make clear distinctions between the holidays and are giving clear priority to Hanukkah over Christmas, as both a family celebration and a religious holiday. The overwhelming majority (99%) celebrates Hanukkah at home, while a little more than half (59%) celebrate Christmas at home.

Hanukkah is much more of a religious holiday for this population than is Christmas. Only 13% attend Christmas religious services and only 4.7% tell the Christmas story in their own home. While slightly more families will give Christmas gifts in their own homes this year (67%) compared to last year (63%), and slightly more (56.5%) will put up a Christmas tree in their own homes than last year (49%), 88% view their Christmas celebrations as secular in nature, the same as last year.

Many families (73%) celebrate Christmas at the home of relatives, suggesting that Christmas is largely centered around the extended family.

Eighty-three percent of interfaith couples who participate in Christmas celebrations keep them separate from their Hanukkah celebrations, and 73% think that their Christmas celebrations do not affect their children’s Jewish identity.

“Interfaith couples raising Jewish children and participating in Christmas continues to be common,” said Edmund Case, CEO of InterfaithFamily. “These families see their Christmas celebrations as secular in nature and not confusing to their children’s Jewish identity.”

The Pew study released this year, A Portrait of Jewish Americans, reported that 71% of interfaith families (where one partner was Jewish and one was not) had a Christmas tree in their home in the prior year. Likewise, in past years, some local Jewish community studies (Boston in 2005, New York in 2011) have reported on the frequency of interfaith families having Christmas trees, but acknowledged that the data does not indicate what having a Christmas tree means to interfaith families. The respondents to InterfaithFamily’s survey made hundreds of comments in response to open-ended questions that shed light on precisely that question:

  • Christmas does not have religious significance for many interfaith families who are raising their children as Jews.
  • They primarily are honoring the traditions of their parent and relatives who are not Jewish.
  • Children can understand clear explanations from their parents, such as that Christmas is not their holiday.
  • Interfaith families continue to grapple with the challenges of celebrating the holidays of two faiths in their families, and what it means for their, and their children’s Jewish identities.
  • Participating in Christmas celebrations can strengthen children’s Jewish identity by not letting them take it for granted.
  • Interfaith families raising Jewish children still experience Jews being uncomfortable with their celebrating Christmas and do not appreciate being questioned, censured or shamed.

For more information, read the attached report “What We Learned from the Tenth Annual December Holidays Survey.” It also can be found online here.

About InterfaithFamily

InterfaithFamily is the premier resource supporting interfaith couples exploring Jewish life and inclusive Jewish communities. We offer educational content at www.interfaithfamily.com; connections to welcoming organizations, professionals and programs; resources and trainings for organizations, clergy and other program providers; and our InterfaithFamily/Your Community initiative, providing coordinated comprehensive offerings in local communities, including Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia and the San Francisco Bay Area.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: InterfaithFamily has developed a resource page for interfaith families around Christmas and Hanukkah that includes a Thanksgivukkah Guide, and numerous articles that help interfaith families have a more enjoyable and meaningful holiday season which you can visit here.

My Life is Changing

I often feel that life is a series of days unless we pause occasionally to celebrate. There are definitely highs and lows of each day and some events stay with us for days or weeks, but generally days and weeks come and go. This is why entering a period of pause each week, called Shabbat is so crucial. This is why holidays and life cycle events are so important. They mark our time with meaning.

This past weekend, two events occurred in our house which felt they changed our lives. Although the two events were not monumental to most, they felt dramatic to me.

The first event was that my six-year-old had her first spelling test. First grade is very different from “half-day” kindergarten. In first grade, she gets on the bus at 8:30 and comes off the bus at 3:30 and has had all kinds of experiences that she navigates herself. Most of her day is at school—not at home now. However, this first spelling test brought me nearly to tears of joy. She had reached a new place in her young life. Now, she was being tested and judged based on what she studied and how she performed. Now, we as parents, had a new responsibility on our shoulders: to help her study.

The second event that occurred was that our daughter went on her first sleep-over at a friend’s house around the corner from where we live.  We were proud and filled with nachas (a Yiddish word meaning pride from a loved one’s accomplishment). She had to make her needs known. She had to perform her own self-care.

I got into bed the night she was not home and felt God’s presence as I have not felt in a long time. Perhaps because I have been moved by the stories my colleagues—fellow rabbi-rabbi parents have shared about their own son’s brave fight of childhood cancer and about the thousands like him—I cherish even more keenly and with a different perspective our children’s lives.

When I say I felt God’s presence, what I felt was the support of thousands of other parents over generations who have had the joy of seeing their children accomplish new feats. I felt excitement at what was to come. I felt in awe of how life moves along and how obstacles are overcome.

I love the shehecheyanu prayer (the Jewish Kodak moment blessing). It is said at new and joyous occasions and it thanks God for sustaining us and enabling us to reach this new place. The word “chai” (life) is in the middle of this hard-to-pronounce word, shehecheyanu. Judaism is obsessed with life. With living the best life we can. Harold Kushner wrote a whole book called, To Life. Think Fiddler on the Roof, “To life, to life, l’chayim.”

Of course I said shehecheyanu. I say it at every wedding. I said it when a first tooth was lost. (I think I was too sleep deprived to say it when that tooth grew in at three or four months old!) I said it when it snowed for the first time this season a few days ago in Chicago. But, I wanted a different, more specific prayer for this occasion of watching my daughter grow up.

Those who were raised with Judaism can be skittish about spontaneous, personal prayer. We like scripted prayers that start, “Baruch Atah Adonai…” I wrote my rabbinic thesis on spontaneous Jewish prayer because I am terrified of it. But, I prayed to God from my heart in my bed that night.

Over Thanksgiving dinner or the first nights of Hanukkah, maybe give yourself the freedom to add your own words, your own sentiments to our scripted prayers. Or fill the words from the sheets you read or which flow from your mouth out of memory with kavannah, special intention.

Judaism is all about turning the mundane into the sacred. A spelling test? A sleep-over? Yes—these were sacred moments to mark.

We Need to Acknowledge the Losses Parents Who are Not Jewish Feel When Committing to Raise their Children as Jews

I recently spoke with a couple that I’ve known for a while. The husband (I’ll call him Ben; not his real name) is Jewish and the wife (I’ll call her Rachel; also not her real name) is Lutheran. They are very excited because Rachel is pregnant with their first child. They both grew up in religious households, and each of them take their religion very seriously. They had agreed before they were married that while they would each continue to practice their own religion, they would raise their children in only one religion, but had not decided which one. Not long after Rachel became pregnant with their first child, they together decided that while Rachel would continue to attend her church and practice her religion, they would have a Jewish family and raise their children as Jews.

As a person who values Judaism and Jewish peoplehood and continuity greatly, I was thrilled to hear that Ben and Rachel had decided to raise their children as Jews. I know many families in which mothers who are not Jewish are raising Jewish children while continuing to practice a different religion and finding this to work very well for themselves and their families. I see Ben and Rachel’s decision to raise their children as Jews as a testament to the fact that they were married by a rabbi who was open and understanding as well as to the fact that the Jewish community has become increasingly welcoming to interfaith couples and families. In addition, Ben’s family accepted Rachel from the very beginning, embracing her and welcoming her into their family.

I was very happy when Ben and Rachel shared their decision with me. A Jewish family! As a rabbi and as someone who advocates for inclusion of interfaith families in the Jewish community and works to encourage interfaith families to embrace Judaism—and as a Jewish person who greatly values the beliefs, values and traditions of my religion and who knows how wonderful and meaningful it is to be part of a Jewish family and the Jewish community—I was thrilled, both for Ben and Rachel, as well as for the Jewish community as a whole.

Parent and child

It's important to acknowledge how difficult this decision may be for the partner who is not Jewish

But I also felt a pang of sadness. I realized all that Rachel was giving up. I thought of how meaningful it is for me to say the Shabbat blessings with my children every Friday evening before dinner and how it connects me to saying those very same blessings with my parents on Friday evenings when I was growing up. I thought of how much I enjoy saying the Shema with my kids before they go to bed—just as I said the Shema with my parents before going to bed when I was a child. I love sharing MY rituals and MY beliefs with my children, as I pass them on l’dor va-dor, “from generation to generation” and they become OUR way of life.

Rachel, who has committed to raising her children in a religion different from the one in which she grew up, will be able to pass on her values to her children, but she won’t have the opportunity to pass on her beliefs and traditions—to share with them the religious rituals she enjoyed as a child and continues to find meaningful today. She won’t have the opportunity to raise her children in the church in which she grew up. When her kids celebrate Christmas and Easter with her, they won’t be THEIR holidays, they will be HER holidays. In committing to pass on Judaism, her husband’s religion, to the next generation, Rachel is giving up the opportunity to pass on her own religion from one generation to the next.

Rachel spoke of the sense of loss that she feels in having decided not to raise her children in the religion in which she grew up and which she still practices. She further spoke of how this loss isn’t felt just by her, but by her family as well. But she also spoke of how she has come to embrace her decision to raise her children as Jews, and how she is excited that she will be able to fully participate in her family’s Jewish celebrations and observances, while still having a religious life of her own. She knows that this is the right choice for her family—and for her…but that doesn’t mean it will always be easy.

Rachel and Ben have made a big decision. They are excited to have reached this decision and Rachel is happy with it. But she doesn’t deny the loss she feels, and neither does Ben. I am optimistic that as their children grow up they will both feel good about their decision to have a Jewish family and that Ben will continue to be supportive of Rachel in acknowledging that it may not always be easy for her. But just because something isn’t easy doesn’t mean it isn’t wonderful. I know first-hand the joy and rewards of raising Jewish children and I am excited for Ben and Rachel that they will know them as well.

I think it’s important for all of us in the Jewish community, when we celebrate a couple’s decision to raise their children as Jews, to acknowledge how difficult this may be for the partner who is not Jewish. Yes, we can (and we should) be excited that Judaism will be passed on to the next generation and that the children will be blessed to grow up as Jews and that the Jewish community will be blessed to have them in our midst. But we can’t pretend that this will always be easy for the partner who isn’t Jewish and we need to give them the opportunity to feel and express their loss as we respect the sacrifices they have made.

Are you raising your children in a religion different from the religion which you grew up? Has this been difficult for you? What are the greatest challenges? What are the rewards? Respond in the comments section below.

Best Advice Ever—Pick Three Things

We all know lots of people who won’t compromise. One friend spent so much time compromising that he didn’t realize his partner wasn’t compromising at all. Not only was there no balance in that relationship, there was no respect. Trying to find balance is a constant effort but crucial to the success of any relationship.

I remember when I was engaged and planning our wedding, my family had strong opinions about many things. It felt like we were arguing about everything. A friend gave me the best advice: Pick three things.

This seemed too easy.

I could easily pick the three things I cared about: the music, the city and my dress. My fiancé picked the three things that were important to him: the venue, the food and the hotel. Then the parents got to pick. Suddenly, the agony of negotiation dissipated. The pains in my neck began to subside (literally) and everyone got along wonderfully.

Home buyingI have found that this advice can be applied to so many things. When making decisions with a partner, there are a variety of aspects to the decision. Take any hot topic and divide it into sections. The great thing about having a piece of a decision in your control is that you are in control of something. For many people, it is the lack of control that brings out frustration and even anger. And leaving pieces of the decision in other people’s hands means that you aren’t acting like a “control freak” and that you are respecting the desires and needs of others.

For example, when you and your partner are looking to buy a house, instead of debating about a specific house, one of you can pick the general location and the other can pick the style of house. If the decision making process gets too contentious, you and your partner should switch priorities. You may find that when you switch roles, the stress disappears.

When searching to buy our home where would be raising our kids, my husband and I debated about schools and school districts. We realized that finding a synagogue to join with a religious school we liked was also a part of the equation. After a while when we still couldn’t reach an agreement on where we wanted to live, we switched priorities. Quickly, we resolved the issue. As long each of us had control over some aspect of the decision process, we ultimately came up with a plan that made us both happy. We both felt that we had input and we were able to respect the other’s wishes.  And now for 8 years we’ve been living in a house and an area that we love!

Do you have a technique that helps you negotiate life’s decisions? Tell us about it!

The Conversation Starts Here

Jewish educators (including me) are constantly writing about interfaith families—how to engage them, what their challenges are, what this means for the current state and future of Judaism. I thought an interesting way into the conversation would be to record quotes I have heard this week. These quotes are taken from different people and were said in different venues—from adult education, to talking with parents and grandparents on the phone or in person, to capturing what my own child said during bedtime. These comments capture the range of the concerns people have. Some of them go to the heart of the work we do, and others bring up policy and programmatic challenges.

Ari in conversation

Rabbi Ari Moffic (left) leading a Jewish education discussion

What would your answers be to these questions or what would your follow-up questions be to these statements?

Things people have said to me this week:

“One of the big issues grandparents face when grandchildren aren’t being raised Jewish is our own guilt.”

“I don’t want to have to pass a litmus test to get a Jewish education for my children.”

“If God is in my heart, when does God come out? Does God sleep?” (From my four year old)

“We are so busy during the week that we don’t want to be away more from our child on Sunday mornings for drop-off religious school.”

“I want to drop off my child on Sundays and go get a coffee and read The New York Times.”

“The only way our priest would marry us was if we also had a rabbi and if we promised to pass on Judaism.”

“I am very concerned about burial issues that will come up for all of these interfaith couples who aren’t thinking about that yet.”

Twitter challenge for October: Tweet comments you hear other people say about life as an interfaith couple or family, things said at your Jewish programs or by your kids. Your words are the best conversation starters for us at InterfaithFamily! Follow us at @InterfaithFam and tag us in your comments with the hashtag #InterfaithQuotes.

How to Be at Home in the Minority

Straddling two worlds, feeling like an outsider, taking on the identity of your family but still retaining your own—these are all difficult positions to be in, but familiar to many. In a recent blog post on Huffington Post, Rev. Eleanor Harrison Bregman talks about being a minister married to a Jew and raising Jewish children. She is often in the minority, but as she points out, she is just as uncomfortable when she is among other Christians, because of the lack respect for other religions she sometimes witnesses.

The author was recently at the Chautauqua Institute in western New York state. She found herself among many religious leaders, discussing topics of inclusiveness. There, post yoga-session, she found herself getting a very spiritual reminder of “what is possible when we can be confidently rooted in our own traditions enough to reach out, embrace, and learn from ‘the other.’”

You can read her blog post here.

Mazel Tov Adam Levine!

Adam Levine is EngagedYesterday I overhead the following conversation between a Jewish mother and her 10-year-old son about the recent engagement of Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine:

Mom: Did you hear that Adam Levine just got engaged to a shiksa?*

Son: He’s Jewish ** and she’s not…that’s a sin. It’s a disgrace to HaShem (God).

Mom: That’s right. I’m so proud of you for knowing that. And since she’s not Jewish, his kids will be goyim.* 

Son:  Really? That’s so awful.

Compare that conversation with the following, which I read just a few hours later on Jewishjournal.com:

Mazel Tov to Adam Levine and his brand-new fiancé, Victoria’s Secret Angel Behati Prinsloo….We wish them well!

Now, I have never met Adam Levine or Behati Prinsloo, and I don’t know much about either of them. But I do know that all too often when interfaith couples get engaged I hear conversations like the one I quoted above between the mother and her son—conversations disparaging the couple and their relationship.

I think that if we in the Jewish community continue to speak like that—to insult people who marry out of the faith by using derogatory terms and referring to their marriage as a sin—then it’s unlikely that they will want to become part of the Jewish community and to raise children that they may have as Jews. Like the Jewish Journal, I would rather wish these couples well. Rather than treating interfaith marriage as a threat, isn’t it better to treat it as an opportunity for the Jewish people to grow, evolve and thrive?

Would I like to see Adam Levine and every other Jewish man out there marry a Jewish woman? Sure I would. But that’s not always the way things work. And the fact is that Adam Levine didn’t ask me who he should marry—nor have any of the Jewish men at whose interfaith wedding ceremonies I have officiated. Instead, they’ve come to me already in love, asking me to officiate at their wedding ceremonies—asking me, in essence, to accept their choices and to be welcoming toward the women with whom they have fallen in love and chosen to spend the rest of their lives. I’m honored to be approached by these couples, and I embrace the opportunity not just to bless their unions but also to teach them about Judaism and to serve as a welcoming representative of the Jewish religion and the Jewish people.

So here’s what I have to say to Adam and Behati, and to all newly engaged interfaith couples:  Mazel Tov on your engagement! I hope that the two of you will be blessed with a long and happy marriage. Adam (and all of the partners in interfaith couples who grew up Jewish): I hope that you will explore your Jewish heritage and incorporate Judaism into your home and into your life in a way that is meaningful for you. Behati (and all of the partners in interfaith couples who did not grow up Jewish): I hope that you will learn about the Jewish heritage of your fiancé, and that you will feel embraced by the Jewish people.

I hope that the two of you will have honest conversations about the role religion plays in your lives, even if it isn’t always easy. And if you have children, I hope that you will seriously explore the option of raising them as Jews. For now, know that we here at InterfaithFamily, and many people in the Jewish community, are happy for you and we would love to welcome both of you into our midst.

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*The terms shiksa (woman who is not Jewish) and goyim (people who are not Jewish) are sometimes, as in the case of this conversation, used by Jews in a pejorative manner.

** After I came home and Googled Adam Levine, I learned that his father and maternal grandfather were Jewish and he considers himself Jewish, but his mother is not Jewish. This means that according to traditional Jewish law, which requires that the mother be Jewish in order for the child to be Jewish, Adam isn’t Jewish. So while I, as a Reform Jew, accept the idea of patrilineal descent and I recognize him as Jewish, ironically, the woman having the conversation with her son would not even consider Adam to be Jewish if she were aware of his lineage.

Don’t Call Me a “Rent-A-Rabbi”

marriage counselingRecently, a good of friend of mine suggested to an interfaith couple who was looking for a rabbi for their wedding ceremony that they be in touch with me. I met with the couple for about an hour and we had a great conversation, at the end of which they asked me to officiate at their wedding. I told them that I’d be honored, and over the next year we would get together several more times so that I could get to know them as individuals and as a couple before standing with them under their chuppah (wedding canopy) next July to unite them in marriage.

The other day, I saw my friend who referred this couple to me. “I’m so excited!” she exclaimed. “The rabbi of the bride’s congregation wouldn’t marry them because her fiancé isn’t Jewish. They were going to hire a ‘rent-a-rabbi.’ I’m so happy that they are going to be married by YOU instead!” While my friend meant to give me a compliment, instead I felt offended by her pejorative term “rent-a-rabbi.” I felt that she was implying that non-congregational rabbis who perform wedding ceremonies (or baby namings, B’nai Mitzvah, funerals or other life-cycle events) were simply doing so to “make a quick buck” and were of inferior quality to congregational rabbis. According to her logic, the only thing that separated me from the “rent-a-rabbis” that she disparaged was that she personally knows and respects me.

For the past ten years, since leaving my position as assistant rabbi at a large synagogue in order to spend more time with my family, I have officiated privately at life-cycle events – what some would refer to as a “rent-a-rabbi.” I’ve continued to do so over the past five years even as I’ve worked part-time at a small congregation. (My congregation, which I absolutely love, is made up mostly of members in their 70s and 80s, so it would not be an ideal “fit” for many of the young couples and families with whom I’ve worked privately. Plus, many of them do not live near the synagogue.)

The fact is that I’ve gotten to know the wedding couples I’ve worked with who are not congregants of mine just as well as I knew couples who were congregants that I married; and I’ve gotten to know the parents and siblings of the babies that I’ve named just as well as I knew the parents and siblings of babies that I named in my congregation. And whereas when I served over ten years ago as a congregational rabbi at a synagogue in which there were as many as a hundred B’nai Mitzvah each year, now that I only work with a handful of B’nai Mitzvah students a year I get to know them MUCH better than I ever could as a rabbi at a large congregation. When I work privately with B’nai Mitzvah students, I meet with them on a regular basis so that by the time of the Bar or Bat Mitzvah I know the student – and usually the parents and any siblings – very well.

This serves in contrast to when I was at a large synagogue and I was only scheduled to have two or three half-hour sessions with each B’nai Mitzvah student. At the congregation (which was often referred to as a “Bar Mitzvah mill,” another term I dislike), if the Bar or Bat Mitzvah student and his/her family were not “regulars” at Shabbat services or other synagogue activities, I did not know them nearly as well as I know the students with whom I now work privately.

Just because many of the wedding couples, baby naming parents and B’nai Mitzvah students that I have worked with over the past decade do not belong to the congregation that I serve, their life-cycle events are no less important, meaningful and sacred to me as a rabbi – or to them. And I am certain that this is true of the vast majority of my colleagues who privately officiate at lifecycle events. Yes, we charge a fee for what we do, since we do not receive a salary to be available for these services as full-time congregational rabbis do. But just because we are paid directly for our services does not make the experience any less meaningful for anyone involved.

Over the years I have paid doctors, therapists, yoga teachers and a vast array of others for their services. They have almost without exception been caring and committed to helping and healing, often getting to know me on a deeply personal level – yet there is no doubt that they are entitled to compensation for their work.

I have heard people claim that when rabbis officiate privately at lifecycle events this makes it easier for people not to join congregations. Personally, I would love it if every Jewish person and family (whether every member is Jewish or the family is interfaith) would join a synagogue, but that is simply not the reality in which we live, and it is not the fault of so-called “rent-a-rabbis.” The fact is that in this day and age congregational life just isn’t for everyone – at least not at every moment of their lives.

There are a multitude of reasons why people don’t join synagogues, ranging from financial reasons (while the vast majority of synagogues will “work with” potential congregants to make membership financially feasible, this sometimes requires submitting tax returns and other personal information, which many people are not comfortable doing) to not feeling welcome to the fact that they simply are not interested. I cannot imagine that that the availability of non-congregational rabbis to officiate at their lifecycle events has very much to do with their decision not to affiliate.

When a wedding couple comes to me – either because a congregational rabbi with whom one of them is connected (usually his or her parents are members of the congregation) will not marry them because their partner is not Jewish or because they are not connected to a congregation – I strongly believe that the best thing I can do to increase the odds that they will become more involved in the Jewish community, and hopefully join a synagogue at some point, is to work with them and make them feel welcome. After all, they have many options besides going to a rabbi (such as hiring a celebrant or a justice of the peace) and by working with them I have the opportunity to expose them to the beauty of Judaism.

I feel the same way about the baby naming and B’nai Mitzvah families that come to me. I would much rather work with them and enable the parents of the baby or the Bar or Bat Mitzvah student to have a positive, meaningful experience than to turn them away. And when I am approached about officiating at the funeral of a Jewish person who was not affiliated with a congregation, I feel privileged to be able to help his or her family to mourn the deceased according to Jewish tradition and to bring honor to his or her memory through Jewish ritual. Is this really something to be looked down upon?

Ironically, when congregational rabbis officiate – for compensation – at lifecycle events for non-congregants (some rabbis’ contracts with their synagogues allow for them to do this, while others do not) they are rarely referred to as “rent-a-rabbis.” I think that the fact that I serve as a part-time congregational rabbi is another reason why the friend I mentioned at the beginning of this blog, the one who had referred a wedding couple to me, did not view me as one of the “rent-a-rabbis” that she disparaged. But the reality is that congregational rabbis officiating for non-congregants who do not join their synagogues is really no different than non-congregational rabbis officiating.

There are many fantastic rabbis who do not work in congregations, perhaps because they work at other jobs within or outside of the Jewish community or perhaps because they currently are not employed, either by choice or by circumstance. Just because they earn money by officiating privately at life-cycle events does not mean that they are not talented, committed and sincere. So please, don’t call them “rent-a-rabbis.” Just call them “rabbis.”

What has your experience been? If you are married, were you married by the rabbi or cantor of a congregation to which you and/or your partner belonged, or the rabbi or cantor of a congregation in which one of you grew up?

Were you married by a rabbi or cantor (as a sole officiant or co-officiant) that you found outside of a synagogue setting? If so, how did you find this rabbi or cantor? And what was your experience with him or her like?

Have you ever used the term “rent-a-rabbi?”  How do you feel about this term?

Why I Now Officiate at Interfaith Weddings

WeddingWhen I was ordained as a Reform Rabbi in 2000 I was certain that I would never officiate at interfaith wedding ceremonies. I felt that as a rabbi, my role was to preside over ceremonies only for Jews. I was fully comfortable welcoming interfaith couples into the congregation where I worked and recognized that this could be beneficial for both the couple and the congregation. I accepted patrilineal descent (meaning that if the father is Jewish and the mother is not Jewish, their child is recognized as Jewish if he or she is raised as a Jew; in contrast, traditional Jewish law recognizes only matrilineal descent, insisting that the mother be Jewish in order for the child to be considered Jewish) and so I recognized the children of all interfaith marriages as Jewish.

When a couple with one Jewish partner and one partner of another faith tradition would come to me and ask me to officiate at their wedding ceremony, I would say something to the effect of: “No. But I will fully welcome you into my community after your wedding and I hope that you and any children you may have will be active participants.”

For years, I was comfortable with this position—what I now think of as my “No. But…” stance. Over time, however, I came to realize that what many of these couples heard me say was simply the “No,” and not anything that I said after the “But.” While I thought I was being welcoming, I only looked at the situation through my own eyes, rather than from the perspective of the couple that I was, in essence, turning away.

I eventually came to see that the Jewish partner, who was coming to a rabbi and asking for acceptance and for a rabbi to be part of this major event in his or her life, could feel very hurt by my stance—as if he or she was being rejected by me (and by implication by the Jewish community) for having fallen in love with someone who was not Jewish. And for the partner who was from another faith tradition (or perhaps did not feel connected to any tradition), for whom this was sometimes his or her first contact with a member of the Jewish clergy, the first thing they were told was “no.” No matter what came after my “But,” it was often the “no” that resonated most loudly.

Fortunately, I live in an area where there are many wonderful rabbis and cantors who have officiated at interfaith wedding ceremonies for years, so the couples that I turned away were able to find other Jewish clergy to officiate at their weddings. To this day, I have remained in touch with some of the couples at whose weddings I had refused to officiate, and I have seen what the power of being welcomed by other rabbis and cantors from the very beginning has meant to them. I only hope that there are not any couples I declined to marry who were so turned off by the perceived rejection that they did not seek out other Jewish clergy to officiate at their wedding, and then did not seek out further involvement in the Jewish community.

For me, there was not any great epiphany that caused me to start officiating at interfaith weddings, but rather it was a slow evolution. My evolution came about as I saw many couples where one partner was not Jewish–and families where one parent was not Jewish–being actively engaged in Jewish life and the Jewish community. It came about as I learned that things are not always “black and white” and that real life is about the “grey” areas–the complicated family dynamics, the fact that someone who practices one religion can fall deeply in love with someone who practices another religion, and so on. This is the complicated, messy–and often beautiful–reality of life. And I decided that rather than view it as a threat, I would view it as an opportunity.

About four years ago, I began for my first time to work with an interfaith couple in preparation for their wedding. I loved working with them and having the opportunity to discuss all of the challenges and blessings of their relationship. I wondered, though, how I would feel as I stood under the chuppah (wedding canopy) with this couple. After all, this would be a new experience for me–something outside of my usual comfort zone that would mean doing something that for years I had professed I would never do. And you know what? Lighting didn’t strike me as I stood under the chuppah!

In fact, when the ceremony was over and I had a chance to reflect on my emotions, I felt great. I had participated in a sacred moment with this couple. I had honored their differences and celebrated their union. And hopefully, on their journey toward marriage, I had exposed them to some of the richness and beauty of Judaism and made them feel TRULY welcome.

In the last few years, I’ve been blessed to work with a number of terrific interfaith couples as they have prepared for their weddings. In each case, I have welcomed the conversations of complex issues of identity and belonging, honoring and sharing, feelings of gain and of loss. I feel that I have grown as a rabbi and a person from my connections with these couples–from embracing the complexity of life and the beauty of their relationships. I hope that they too have grown from our working together, both as individuals and as a couple.

My stance toward interfaith couples is no longer “No. But…” Now it is “Yes. And…” In essence, I now tell couples: “Yes, I will marry you. And I hope that you and your family will feel welcome and become involved in the Jewish community.”

I think that after hearing “Yes” from me, they are a lot more likely to hear what comes after the “And…” I believe with all my heart that if a couple sees the door to Judaism as wide open and welcoming, they are more likely to cross over the threshold. Rather than shut that very first door in the face of an interfaith couple, I now hold it open for them and accompany them as they walk through.