Shabbat Family Worship: Is it Possible?

We just finished an online class called Raising a Child with Judaism in Your Interfaith Family. Participants came to their computers on their own time and read essays, watched videos, read narratives written by other interfaith families and discussed with each other the content and meaning of the eight sessions. The sessions were about major aspects of parenting, from bedtime to meals to raising ethical children, and the wisdom Judaism can provide about these areas.

An interesting discussion arose about Shabbat family worship. Parents said that Friday evening services were too late for young children. Tot Shabbat was fun for the children but didn’t fill the adults with spirituality or insight. Parents who were raised Christian said that they had warm memories of attending Church as a family on Sunday mornings: adults were able to participate in communal worship and children could join in or attend the nursery program. The whole family had an enriching experience that grounded their week and brought them together.

Why did this not exist within liberal Judaism, they wondered? It seemed as if Reform temples had essentially private bar or bat mitzvahs on Shabbat mornings, with no childcare for young children. Some Conservative synagogues had more options on Shabbat morning for the whole family, but parents who aren’t Jewish worried that they wouldn’t know enough Hebrew and would feel out of place somehow. I encouraged all of the participants to try both Reform and Conservative worship to see how they felt in reality, as assumptions and apprehensions may or may not come true. But the frustration was clear. Parents spoke about how their Jewish neighbors were taking the kids to soccer and swim lessons and anything other than Shabbat family worship.

I can relate to this frustration. I have worked at different Reform congregations around the country, and at least once a year it seems the senior staff would get together to talk about what to do with Shabbat! Were there ways to meet for earlier Friday evening family programs with dinner? If it was too early, parents who worked outside the home couldn’t attend. Every idea for Shabbat morning family worship would be put forth: musical services, services with crafts and projects at the end for the children, services ending with lunch, and other ideas to make the service more “attractive” or “appealing.” However, time and time again no matter how Shabbat morning got programmed, few families would attend. Even when rabbis preached about the need for this gift called Shabbat, the gift of time, of joy, of changing pace if only for an hour or two, of re-connecting… nobody seemed to bite.

Some rabbis explain this by saying that Judaism is a religion of the home, and it is not cultural to feel a pull to attend congregational worship. Families often do the Shabbat blessings over their own special dinner and have friends over. The kitchen table is referred to as the mikdash m’at (a miniature temple) in rabbinic writings because what goes on around the Shabbat table is worship. But that still does not answer our questions.

Perhaps this challenge can help bring positive changes to our Jewish communities. Maybe interfaith families will take the lead in bringing Shabbat family worship to liberal Jewish families who may not even realize what spending an hour or two on a Saturday morning together in song and peace would do for their family. Imagine if it became the cultural norm for families to come to synagogue from 9:30-11:00 on Saturday mornings in order to ground their week in hope, love and community. It will be exciting to see what ideas congregations can come up with for participatory, inclusive and engaging family worship with nursery options and learner’s services so that the whole family can come together in making meaningful memories.

Who Are the “Half-Jewish”?

This is a guest post by Rabbi Adam Chalom.

Who are the “half Jewish?” Or is “half Jewish” like “half pregnant” – either you are, or you are not? For more than two decades, half of marriages involving Jews have been intermarriages. Today on college campuses, there are likely more students with one Jewish parent than with two. Hillels, Judaic Studies programs, and Holocaust memorial observances could be full to overflowing if the Jewish community could learn who these “heirs of intermarriage” really are and how to encourage them to explore the Jewish side of their family heritage.

The problem is that the organized Jewish community has been too slow to face this reality. This goes deeper than a welcoming approach to intermarriage ceremonies, which could start off these intercultural families on a note of welcoming rather than a feeling of rejection. Telling young adults, “I wouldn’t have married your parents” implies there is something wrong about what made them who they are. Too many still see the question of “who is Jewish” as either/or: either your mother is Jewish and thus you are, or you are not (without conversion). What if you want to be, what if you feel, what if you simply are “Jewish and…”?

We all live in many identities. I am Jewish, and a Humanistic Jew, and a rabbi, but I am also male, and a parent, and I grew up in Michigan, and I now live in the Chicago area. All of these identities exist in me simultaneously, and I cannot choose whether I am male or Jewish or Midwestern. An individual with a Jewish parent and an Irish/Italian/Latino/African American/etc. parent is unlikely to choose one or the other identity if it means they must deny, reject, or forget the other “half” of their family. These questions are not simply issues of individual identity; there are real live (and deceased) parents and grandparents and family traditions and heirlooms and memories at stake. There are almost as many varieties of “half Jewish” experiences as there are individuals. Some embrace the term while others reject it, but we all know what it means, even without Adam Sandler’s Hanukkah song.

This April 20-22, 2012, the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism will be exploring this crucial issue at its Colloquium 2012: “Half Jewish?” The Heirs of Intermarriage. Held on the Northwestern University campus in partnership with Fiedler Hillel of Northwestern University and Newberger Hillel of the University of Chicago, speakers and panelists will explore the “half Jewish” experience through qualitative and quantitative research, personal stories, and passionate debate. Voices from academia, Jewish outreach (including Rabbi Ari Moffic of InterfaithFamily/Chicago), the arts, Hillel, Birthright Next, and Israel will discover who this population is, in all of its diversity, and how we can speak to them as they are rather than as we imagine or wish them to be.

The truth is that the question of “half Jewish” is really a question of “what does it mean to be Jewish?” I vividly remember a conversation with a Reform rabbi friend who was strongly opposed to the concept of “half Jewish.” He asked, “How can you be two religions at once that believe different things?” I responded, “Can you be half Jewish and half Korean?” And that changed the discussion. While there are some who are raising children as “both religions” (and that experience will be part of the Colloquium discussion), for many heirs of intermarriage, their connection to both sides of their family, Jewish and other, is as culture and heritage more than religious belief and practice.

In this, they are not very different from most other Jews, who do not believe everything they are supposed to believe, do not avoid the foods they are supposed to shun, or do not perform the rituals tradition commands. Large numbers of American Jews connect to Jewish culture, history, and ethnic identity more strongly than to traditional Jewish religion and religious law; they may go to synagogue twice a year, but they feel Jewish all year round because it is who they are. Why should the heirs of intermarriage be any different?

Our hope is that Colloquium 2012 – “Half Jewish?” The Heirs of Intermarriage is the beginning of a wider conversation that will help determine the future of the Jewish community. Will we have the courage to be open and welcoming, the courage to change our expectations for the chance of success, or will we continue the self-inflicted losses of recent Jewish demographics? Will the heirs of intermarriage find Jewish homes, and create Jewish homes with their own families, even if their homes are “Jewish and…”? The choice will be theirs, and ours.

More information on the Colloquium, including registration forms, can be found on the IISHJ website.

Big Decisions: Be on TV!

We’re occasionally contacted by folks in the entertainment world. Seems we’re not the only ones obsessed with interfaith families, joys and struggles and all.

Do you have a big decision to make? A new network television show is looking to feature individuals in interfaith relationships who are facing tough decisions in their lives. Couples can be anywhere in the USA; if selected shooting would require five days. The casting director wrote,

As our criteria for “big decisions” is open, we invite all individuals facing a big decision to send us details of their situation — what they may consider “not important enough” may end up being perfect for our show.
[list]
[*] – Maybe you’re not sure how to reveal your relationship to loved ones;[/*]
[*] – Maybe you and your partner want to get married but are getting resistance from friends or family;[/*]
[*] – Maybe you are unsure how you want to raise your child in an interfaith family.[/*][/list]

“If you are going through one of the above situations or something similar,” he continues, “[email=jeffthieme.casting@gmail.com]contact us today[/email]!” Make sure to include your full name; city and state; contact information; several clear, recent photos of yourself; and details of the tough decision you are currently facing.

Good luck!

Interfaith Family Shabbat- Total Joy

Friday, January 13, we hosted a JCC Makor Shabbat for Interfaith Families with Young Children, a community dinner organized by the JCC Shure Kehilla. The guidelines for the dinner we hosted were that participants need to be 21-39, and some of the parents who came to our house were pushing this, but everyone loved the idea of a program whose aim is to connect this cohort with great Jewish happenings all around Chicagoland. The night we held our interfaith family Shabbat, there were three other community Shabbat dinners organized by the Kehilla happening in the city (blue-line Shabbat, travelers Shabbat, music and arts) and another taking place out in Wheeling.
 
Preparing to host this Shabbat was exciting and inspiring. Typically our family lights the candles, takes a sip of wine or juice, and eats some challah. We parents then whispered a blessing to our children while holding their heads in our hands (my favorite part of the whole week) and then Evan runs off to lead services at Congregation Solel and I put our two-year-old and four-year-old to bed. 

For this Shabbat, however, we were having four other couples with their combined eight children to our home for blessings, dinner, schmoozing and playing. I started by getting the whole house organized and cleaned up (which actually felt really good to do).  Then I went to Taboun Grill to pick up the food the JCC had ordered. When I got there, I met Genia who runs the Russian Hillel. I have known Genia in name for years through the work I have done in and around Odessa, Ukraine, but she didn’t know me. I was so excited to learn that she had become a Jewish professional in Chicago. I got to connect with her in person over some tea while we waited for our orders to be packed. (Genia was hosting the Wheeling Shabbat for Jews in the ‘Burbs, another of these community dinners organized through the Kehilla.) We talked about interfaith couples in the Russian community and what she is seeing in terms of identity and interests of her students.
 
Back home, we were still expecting four families to join us. One is made up of my childhood friend. We had lost touch and reconnected on Facebook a couple of years ago, only to find out that we both lived in Chicago with children the same age. She is married to someone not Jewish and they are raising Jewish kids, have a Jewish home, belong to a synagogue, send their son to the preschool there and celebrate Shabbat weekly with her husband’s family, who now loves Shabbat as well! One couple lives right next door to us and are still deciding what feels comfortable to them in terms of raising their children with Judaism. The husband, who is Jewish, has a long-time family connection to a temple here, and they say they will join a temple and send their children to religious school. Another couple included a mom who had converted to Judaism; they are raising two Jewish boys. They seek out anything family-oriented that is Jewish. The last couple has one partner who is Jewish and one partner who is Catholic; they are raising their children with an appreciation of both faiths. This shows the spectrum of interfaith families and the different decisions families make. There was a warmth and almost palpable holiness in the room when we said the blessings and prayed that our children stay safe and know peace. Everybody loved the food, parents enjoyed meeting each other, and the kids had a blast running around our basement building with blocks, dressing up and playing games. Our four-year-old told us that she loved our Shabbat party.
 
This was the most joyous Shabbat we have had in a long time. Evan and I said to each other that we should try to have families over at least once a month. Some families regularly have guests over and know this kind of energy and spirit weekly! Since we have had children, we don’t host guests nearly as much or enough. Shabbat is the perfect chance to bring people together in your home and feel the stress of the week slide away, to let time not matter for a few hours, to laugh and to feel connected. That is how we felt. We felt connected. Connected to generations and traditions of the past, connected to our neighbors, connected to our children… Connected to the new way we are going to “do” Shabbat, the traditions we are going to establish as parents now (different from what we grew up with). I loved every minute of our JCC Makor Shabbat for Interfaith Families with Children. In Hebrew each day of the week counts up to Shabbat (day one, day two, day three…), and now I know why in a way I hadn’t remembered for quite a long time…

Six Words: Go!

Looking for something a little different?

SMITH Magazine and our friends at Reboot have teamed up and need your help: They’re seeking “six-word memoirs on the Jewish life.” The best ones will be included in a new book, Oy! Only Six? Why Not More — Six Words on the Jewish Life, out in early 2012.

Need some inspiration? Check out the “memoirs” submitted by others here or watch the video: 

If you watch the video trailer for the book, you’ll notice that there are a whole bunch of succinct memoirs touching on interfaith families, which is great! But let’s help them collect memoirs from the full diversity of our community.

The deadline to submit your six-word memoir is December 25 31, 2011. Go for it!

InterfaithFamily.com Named a “Standard Bearer” by Slingshot!

[sup]We're excited and honored to be recognized as a “Standard Bearer” by Slingshot. We just sent out a press release, and thought we'd share it here too, below:[/sup]

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Joanna Rothman, joannar@interfaithfamily.com, (617) 581-6804

InterfaithFamily.com Named One of North America’s Most Innovative Jewish Nonprofits Recognized as “Standard Bearer” for Continuing Innovation, Impact, Leadership and Efficacy

(Newton, MA) – October 18, 2011 – For the seventh consecutive year, InterfaithFamily.com has been included in Slingshot, the resource guide that features the 50 most innovative Jewish organizations in North America. This year, InterfaithFamily.com is one of just ten organizations to be named a Standard Bearer as a leader within the community and a mentor to other organizations. The Standard Bearers, listed in at least five editions of Slingshot were chosen not only for sustainability but also because they continue to achieve Slingshot’s core criteria of innovation, impact, leadership and organizational efficacy.

Slingshot is used by philanthropists, volunteers, not-for-profit executives, and program participants to identify path-finding and trailblazing organizations grappling with concerns in Jewish life such as identity, community, and tradition. Organizations are selected from among hundreds of nominees by a panel of 36 foundation professionals from across North America.

As the premiere web based resource for interfaith couples exploring Jewish life, InterfaithFamily.com empowers couples to engage in Jewish life and make Jewish choices and helps their families embrace the choices they make.

“We are thrilled not only to be included in the Slingshot guide for the seventh straight year, but to be one of ten organizations to be honored as a Standard Bearer,” said Edmund Case, CEO of InterfaithFamily.com. “Efforts to engage interfaith families in Jewish life have not been well funded in the past. Recognition of the importance of those efforts by Slingshot, which represents the next generation of Jewish funders, will influence the community’s attitudes to change in a positive direction. Being named a Standard Bearer can only help InterfaithFamily.com to grow our capacity and take our programming to the next level.”

According to Will Schneider, Executive Director of Slingshot, “Seven editions of Slingshot ago, Jewish innovation was still largely undefined and unexplored, and 66% of the organizations listed in this year’s guide weren’t even founded yet. Over the years, the Standard Bearers consistently set, exceeded and reset the high standards that emerging organizations and projects in Jewish life aspired to match. In truth, we had trouble selecting a name that would set them apart as examples of ongoing excellence without placing them on an “emeritus” list or implying that their innovative days were behind them. We settled on Standard Bearers because these groups set benchmarks for the field and led by example with ongoing innovation and relevancy.”

Jonathan Raiffe, the Chairman of Slingshot shared, “The Slingshot guide makes a statement to the Jewish community and beyond that next gen funders embrace change, innovation, and evaluation when meeting the needs of our community. Slingshot promotes organizations that hold themselves accountable to all their stakeholders and up to the same scrutiny as for-profit organizations, while pushing the boundaries of how to solve the most pressing issues. Slingshot is about making a statement as to what we believe are the greatest needs and what organizations are doing the best job to fulfill those needs.”

Slingshot ’11/’12 was released on October 18, 2011. The community will meet on March 14 in New York City at the annual Slingshot Day, where over 250 not-for-profit leaders, foundation professionals, and funders of all ages will engage in candid conversations about philanthropy and innovation.

About Slingshot
Slingshot was created by a team of young funders as a guidebook to help funders of all ages diversify their giving portfolios with the most innovative and effective organizations and programs in North America. This guide contains information about each organization’s origin, mission, strategy, impact and budget, as well as details about its unique character. Now in its seventh edition, Slingshot has proven to be a catalyst for next generation funding and offers a telling snapshot of shifting trends in North America’s Jewish community. The book, published annually, is available in hard copy and as a free download at www.slingshotfund.org.

About InterfaithFamily.com
InterfaithFamily.com is the premiere web based resource for interfaith couples exploring Jewish life and making Jewish choices, and the leading web based advocate for attitudes, policies and practices that welcome and embrace them. Visit www.InterfaithFamily.com.

Mazal Tov, Chely and Lauren

When our celebrity columnist, Nate Bloom, wrote about the engagement of Chely Wright to Lauren Blitzer, he posited, in an earlier draft, that theirs was the first celebrity, lesbian, interfaith wedding. I wasn’t certain. Much to the amusement of my friend and colleague over at Jewish Boston, David Levy, I started googling for proof. I tweeted,

This is not what feminism looks like: http://ow.ly/4OnQ0 (“Why are so many famous Jewish women lesbians?”)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, googling failed to be helpful. The Google results ranged from highly amusing to pornographic to conspiracy theory meets anti-Semitism and homophobia (the latter can be seen, at your own discretion, by following the link in the above tweet), so I turned to some twitter buddies for help.

Both David and I asked questions to our followers at large, and to specific twitter buddies like Jewish musician Julie Silver and the folks at Keshet and Jewish Womens’ Archive, if they knew of other celebrity lesbian interfaith couples. (I believe Julie’s answer included her and her beloved wife…)

Unable to prove with certainty whether or not Chely and Lauren would be the first lesbian, interfaith, celebrity couple to be wed, the assertion was cut from the celeb column.

So why am I mentioning this now? Chely and Lauren will be married this weekend!

Although few details of the big day have been revealed thus far, Chely dished that it will be an outdoor ceremony with both a reverend and rabbi officiating, as the singer is Christian and her fiancée is Jewish. The reception will have a deejay, and guests would be wise to bring their dancing shoes!

And we, at IFF headquarters, are curious: which rabbi is co-officiating the ceremony? Lauren and Chely, if you’d recommend her/his officiating prowess to others, please recommend that they join our free Jewish Clergy Referral Service. We’re always looking out for rabbis who will officiate for interfaith couples, will co-officiate with clergy of other religions, and are LGBTQ friendly!

Mazal tov to the brides (kallot), whether they’re the first or amongst other happy couples!

We Can Help…

Sarah Silverman, if the unicorn wasn’t Jewish, we could help you.

Do you know someone who’s looking for a rabbi for their interfaith wedding? Let them know about our clergy officiation referral service, matching couples, individuals and families with Jewish clergy for weddings, bris or baby namings, bar or bat mitzvahs, conversions, counseling*, funerals, and more.

[sub]*Sarah, you and your unicorn might be most interested in this…[/sub]

[Guest Post] PresenTense NYC Fellowship

Guest post by Mamie Kanfer Stewart

You may know that founding InterfaithFamily.com as an independent non-profit was the brilliant idea of its CEO, Ed Case. But did you know that Ed had a 22 year career in law before he decided to focus full time on interfaith issues? We never know where good ideas come from, but we do know that unless you do something about it, nothing will ever happen. We have all benefited from Ed’s work and the incredible resources available through InterfaithFamily.com, so lets take a moment to thank Ed for acting on his idea, taking a risk and working so hard to make the Jewish community more inclusive.

Now its your turn to act on an idea that will change our community. PresenTense Group (www.presentense.org) runs 7 Fellowships in 6 cities, through which they provide tools and community support so that anyone can turn an idea or early stage program into a sustainable venture. PresenTense is currently seeking applicants for the NYC Fellowship. So if you live in the NYC area and have an idea for improving the New York Jewish and greater community – through social justice, interfaith work or anything else, this message is for you: Embrace your entrepreneurial side and apply today!