Connecting Interfaith Families to Jewish Life in Greater Cleveland by providing programs and opportunities for interfaith families to experience Judaism in a variety of venues, meet other interfaith families, and to connect to other Jewish organizations that may serve their needs.
A great way for Jewish professionals and volunteers who work with and provide programming for people in interfaith relationships to locate resources and trainings to build more welcome into their Jewish communities; connect with and learn from each other; and publicize and enhance their programs and services.
I met two menshes on benches the Friday of Thanksgiving. You may now have the image of the Mensch on the BenchHanukkah toy, but unlike this stuffed elf counterpart, these were true mensches.
One of the rules for this toy is that a “true mensch is one who puts smiles on other peoples’ faces.” The word mensch is Yiddish for human being. It means to be a true human; to live up to the depths of kindness, generosity, integrity and love that a human can muster. The two mensches I met put a smile on my face for sure.
My parents moved to Philadelphia over the summer from Boston to be near my youngest brother and his family. They joined Congregation Rodef Shalom which is near where they live. They joined because they had heard the synagogue was an architectural gem, which it is, that the clergy are accessible and warm, that the preaching and teaching is intellectually stimulating and that the worship is full of music and joy. As soon as they joined, another synagogue family called them and invited them out to dinner (which my parents were thrilled about since they don’t have any friends there yet). The synagogue staff greeted my parents at the door for several weeks after they moved to welcome them in and make sure they were getting acclimated. My parents were immediately swept off their feet with the ruach—the spirit—of the service. They kept telling me what a wonderful community this is. They love that each week there is a Shehecheyanu prayer sung after those in attendance share the good news that is happening in their lives.
Rabbi Ari and her kids at Dickinson Square Park
My family and I were visiting for Thanksgiving and my parents were so excited and proud to take us to their new temple. Well, my 5 and 7-year-old are not well behaved in synagogue. You might be surprised considering my husband is a pulpit rabbi and they go to synagogue a lot. My children are high energy, antsy, loud and boisterous. They get thirsty and have to pee a lot during services which requires them to go in and out of the sanctuary. They whine. They get hungry. No matter how many little activities and small snacks I bring, we have not fully mastered the art of sitting respectfully in synagogue with a “calm body” as we like to say.
On this Friday night, they were exhausted which mellowed them a little. But, my youngest ate through the whole hour long service (I so appreciated that the service was one hour including a Torah reading and short sermon). This synagogue has a quiet room where you can hear the service but people can’t hear us. However, we braved the actual sanctuary because my parents wanted the kids to try to fully participate. Wouldn’t you know, they did (sort of). When the time came to share a Shehecheyanu moment, my 5-year-old raised his hand for the microphone and said, “I am visiting my grandma and papa” which just made my parents kvell (swell with pride) and everyone in the community ooh and ahh with his cuteness.
During the Lecha Dodi prayer, they form a dancing chain and my children joined right in! The Rabbi made sure to welcome us specifically at the start of the service as well and he called my children up for the honor of helping to undress the Torah. Actively participating definitely helps one stay engaged, no matter how old you are. But, my kids were not perfect during that hour by any stretch of the imagination. There was a trail of popcorn under our seats to prove it.
After the service the two women sitting right behind us (on actual pews/benches) said, “Your children were such a delight. We loved their energy. We loved their dancing. They are so beautiful. What a joy to have you visiting.” They didn’t say, “Next time, you could try the Quiet Room.” Their response made me smile. It warmed my heart. It took a load off. I had been wondering how annoyed they would be sitting right behind us. It made me want to come back again. I told you I met two menshes on benches! They embodied what it means to be gracious, welcoming and empathetic.
Many parents avoid being divided on issues big and small with our kids. We particularly try to present a united front about discipline, decision making and responsibilities and attempt to not get triangulated. But what about God? Do we need to believe the same thing, or at least tell our kids we do? My partner and I don’t like lying to our kids…about anything. We don’t tell them things they can’t yet handle developmentally, but we don’t avoid the tough subjects when they ask.
So what about God? We are unique in that both of our work lives involve religion. Part of her job is teaching the history of Judaism and Christianity to college students. She is enticed by the history, texts and language of religion but her role is to deconstruct it. I am a rabbi who is drawn to the spiritual and I look for ways to see the divine in everyday life. Even though we both highly value religion and its study, we have very different approaches to theology.
So what do we tell the kids? We have decided that as we don’t lie to them about other things, we will not lie to them about God. I read them books about God, encourage thanking God before meals, and provide as many ways as I can for them to envision what God might be. I share with them my own theological struggles. My partner tells them that she believes humans created the idea of God and when talking about the Bible she refers to God as a character in the story. In all of these conversations, I make sure that our kids know that debating God doesn’t have anything to do with them being or feeling Jewish. Since there are myriad ways Jews define ourselves, belief is certainly not a litmus test. In fact, about half of American Jews report doubting God’s existence.
Why have my partner and I rejected the idea that we must agree theologically, or that we should pretend that we do?
First, no two individuals are alike in their beliefs. Why would we expect two parents to share a theological view? Sure, some do, or their visions of the divine are close enough to present one shared story to their children. But the great majority do not. It is not only parents from different religious backgrounds who struggle with this question. Two Jewish, Catholic or Muslim parents can easily hold radically differing theological views and most traditions hold within them disparate views of divinity as well.
Second, we believe that parents shouldn’t refrain from teaching kids what they think just because they don’t agree with one another. Children are far more capable of handling complexity than we imagine. I encourage parents to talk it through between them first, and then commence sharing with their children what they think about the big questions and even how views evolve and change over time. By doing so, we will be teaching them personal integrity, authenticity, and the Jewish values of intellectual and theological struggle. I think children can handle that complexity. What is tougher to handle is a lack of clarity when parents haven’t figured out how they are going to talk to them about their differences.
On a related note, I don’t believe that kids will be confused if they are exposed to many ways to think about God. For me, this goes beyond what they are learning from us as parents. My theological views often differ from their religious school teachers’ views. I wouldn’t expect them to talk about God exactly as I would. I engage my children about those views as well and ask them what they think. In our home, we talk about God and gender. We sometimes change liturgical language to fit our ideological or theological beliefs, such as excluding language in our Friday night Kiddush about Jews being the chosen people. I don’t believe that God acts in human history (as in God being our salvation in a battle). There are times when I disagree with how a movie, book or teacher presents God and I welcome those opportunities to refine how we communicate about belief as a family.
Last and most important, I want to teach my children about telling the truth. The value of trust is higher for me and my partner than anything else. If they find out someday that we misrepresented ourselves, they could question other things we had said along the way as well. So we tell them our viewpoints, and we fess up when we aren’t sure.
The result? At this moment, our kids approach God differently. Our 7-year-old made up a joke that God was walking around one day and the big bang blew him up. He says he doesn’t believe in God and often has much to say about the subject. Our 9-year-old thinks God exists but struggles with the Shema prayer because he really likes the polytheism of the Greek myths. Under the sukkah recently, we got into a philosophical discussion with them about whether there was some kind of matter present before the universe came into being or if it was born out of nothingness. Everyone had an opinion and struggled with the question. We are pleased. We aren’t teaching them what to believe, but they know how the two of us feel about God. We are teaching them how to think about their relationship to the world around them and giving them language to speak about it.
For further reading…
Children’s theological books:
God’s Paintbrush and God In-Between by Sandy Sasso
Because Nothing Looks Like God and Where is God? by Karen Kushner and Lawrence Kushner
When it comes to religion, many parents don’t want to choose for their kids. Their hesitation isn’t just about choosing a single religion over another—they are hesitant to make any choices about religious education for their children at all. What I most often hear is that people want to allow their kids to choose for themselves.
In an age when we value our kids for being independent thinkers and want to allow them to develop freely, I completely understand this sentiment. Many adults don’t look favorably on the religious education they received when they were children. They don’t want to force their own kids to believe anything in particular. And if they are part of an interfaith couple, they often don’t want one religion to take precedence. The result is that they often do…nothing. Or very little.
Even though I can see where this well-intentioned reasoning is coming from, I’d like to play the devil’s advocate. Here’s why:
1) Every adult has the option to make choices around religion. In fact, adult children will make decisions about religion no matter what we have given them. So I would like to eliminate this as a concern for parents raising young children. No matter what you do, they will choose what works for them.
2) Parents are scared of indoctrinating their kids. I know that the word sounds terrible, authoritarian. And of course I’m using it in a tongue-in-cheek manner to make a point. All I’m saying is that parents try and pass on what we hope our kids will learn according to values we think are worth living by. Call it “parenting” or “teaching.” We teach our kids about our values in many arenas: political and social values, the importance of education, open mindedness, how to treat others. We “indoctrinate” from the moment they get up in the morning to the moment they lay their heads down through the stories we tell, the schools we choose, the way we talk about daily events. We teach them the value of music as we schlep them, often against their will, to piano lessons. It’s not a bad thing.
We are teaching them the values we hold dear because we believe that our values lead to treating others well, and a life well lived. So why do we feel terrified to teach our kids about religion? If you develop a clear idea of what values, traditions, holidays and ritual are important to you and your family, there is nothing wrong with teaching them what it looks like to live within that framework. If they don’t like it, they will reject it, or pieces of it. But they will never be able to say that they didn’t know what was important to you.
3) Give them some knowledge! If they know more about the traditions represented in their home, they will be better able to make those decisions as adults we all want to see them make. If you give them nothing or very little, from my experience, they will grow up having many questions, little foundation, and perhaps feel frustrated that they were cheated out of not one, but TWO great legacies. Give them the knowledge and experience so that they can be better educated choosers. If you don’t, they will likely grow up feeling like they don’t know enough to even walk into a religious institution. (I have to thank my father for this one. He enrolled me, reluctantly, in Hebrew school as a kid. He argued that I would clearly rebel against it as he had, but wanted to ensure that I knew what I was rebelling against. He ended up with a kid who is a rabbi. See how you just can’t control them no matter what you do?)
4) That leads me to my last point. One thing is for sure: You can’t win! I know plenty of adults who felt they received far too much religious instruction, and plenty who complain that they were given very little. As with everything in parenting, follow your instincts and know that your kids will, indeed, be independent thinkers and not necessarily follow your path…no matter what you do.
I am fully aware that I inculcate my values at home. I send my kids to a dual-immersion Spanish program because I want them to value other cultures and be able to see from the inside what another person’s experience of the world might be like. I tell them who I’m voting for, and why. And I teach them Jewish values. I tell them as we are stopping by the road to give a homeless person some food that the Jewish value, tzedakah, means that humans are responsible for bringing justice to the world.
At Passover time, I press the idea that no one should ever be enslaved and we need to lift up those who cannot lift themselves up. Every time we say “motsi,” the Jewish prayer before eating bread, I am teaching them through a Jewish lens that we must pause in gratitude before delving in.
I am inculcating values they will live by and someday grapple with as they are deciding who they want to be. Sure, I’d love for them to always value the same things I do, but at some point they will grow to be independent beings who may reject any or all of what we’ve given them. Which is what we all want in the first place.
It seems these days that we are faced with more and more choices, whether in our personal or professional lives, whether at home or in public, whether small and inconsequential or life-changing. When choosing to raise a family, we now face more options and possibilities than any generation before us, from the most basic concerns of health and welfare to the more complex concerning character and values. Wading through a multitude of options is no easy task for any parent or grandparent or guardian. Add the even more complex decision-making process that interfaith couples and families face and the task of parenting and raising children seems even more daunting.
Have you ever asked yourself these questions?
How do I infuse Judaism into the lives of my children when I struggle with how it fits into my own life?
How do I teach my child Jewish values, when I’m not sure what they are?
How do I ensure that my co-parent who isn’t Jewish, feels comfortable and included?
How do I even begin to talk about God with my child?
How can I help my children become good people and help make the world a better place?
If you’ve asked yourself or your partner any of these or similar questions, you are certainly not alone and you have already begun to delve into the complexities of being a modern parent.
In the Greater Boston area, we are lucky to have an organization and an amazing group of experts who have come together to help all types of couples and parents to answer these questions and figure out their parenting choices through a Jewish lens. Hebrew College, an independent seminary, and the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston (CJP), has created an incredible 10-week course called, Parenting Through a Jewish Lens. This class will help participants explore core values that can strengthen your family, learn with expert instructors who understand your concerns as a parent and enjoy rich conversations with other parents on topics that matter.
Partners from different faith and cultural backgrounds will explore Jewish wisdom that can profoundly enrich yourselves and the loving families you have created. What a great opportunity to create a parenting community and have a space to learn and voice your own fears, joys and questions!
This year, InterfaithFamily and Reform Jewish Outreach Boston has joined up with Hebrew College to create a Parenting Through a Jewish Lens class that is geared specifically toward interfaith families. While so many parenting concerns and questions transcend religious affiliation, we wanted to help create a safe space for interfaith couples to share their own stories, learn from one another and our wonderful teacher and facilitator, Rabbi Julie Zupan.
If you are a parent or almost a parent and you are looking for some answers to those big questions or just want to feel part of a supportive community, here are the details:
If you have any other questions or just want to chat about something on your mind, please don’t hesitate to be in touch with me, Rabbi Jillian Cameron, Director of InterfaithFamily/Boston: firstname.lastname@example.org 617-581-6857. I look forward to hearing from you!
This year on Rosh Hashanah, our synagogue tried something new. All of the kids were invited onto the bima to witness the blowing of the shofar. It was amazing to watch the kids’ faces while the shofar sounded. My daughter even jumped back a little at the sound initially. It was a sight to behold on many levels. First, I loved seeing all of the kids at the synagogue. Most of them were in awe of the Torahs, the Rabbi and the shofar. Second, when I spoke to my son later, he said he never realized that there were that many people at the synagogue. He seemed impressed that there were that many people observing the holidays. Since he attends a school with very few Jewish kids, he felt excited that “he wasn’t the only one” observing the holiday. Third, the Rabbi said that the twisting shape of the shofar is like life – there are ups and downs, twists and turns that keep going on a unique journey. Again, watching the kids comprehend this concept was gratifying.
I know that for a long time, synagogues would keep the kids in a different area of the building during services so they didn’t disrupt the adults and the prayers (I suspect the parents liked having a “break” from the kids, too). Some congregations create a group that prays and another group that discusses. There may be another group for the teenagers and another group for the toddlers. Unfortunately, some kids grow up thinking that synagogue is just for kids. I think that this is all fine and good but at some point, we should all be together.
I learn so much from the whole community: from my kids, from my friend’s 92- year-old-grandmother, and from the pleasant gentleman two rows back with a great smile. Our kids should see what their future looks like and we should look back on our childhood with wonderful memories. The good memories are what keep us going so we can manage the twists and turns of life.
Many people are part of the community of their neighborhood, preschool, elementary school, gym or office. I find that these communities are wonderful but fleeting; the people move, the kids grow up, the gym down the street offers a better deal or people get new jobs. The Jewish community is a little different on the holidays. No one has to send out an invitation, but lots of people show up to celebrate the holiday. We see families grow up and evolve. A hug from an old friend is commonplace. We may hear a tune that reminds us of a relative or humorous incident from childhood.
I know that many communities have a Jewish Community Center (JCC) which is a great place to find community. While I am not a member of a JCC, I find that my Jewish community IS my center. It is the most consistent presence in my life besides family. I don’t love everyone there but I enjoy a little something of everyone, young and old. Best of all, we all are collecting and reliving some very positive memories.
One of my favorite things about living in the Northeastern United States is apple picking. Relating to the Rosh Hashanah tradition of eating apples and honey, an apple picking event is a wonderful opportunity to build community.
In mid-September, InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia co-sponsored an apple picking event on a Sunday morning in Chester County with jkidphilly. It was a beautiful day and the orchard (Highland Orchards) was a wonderful spot. I was fortunate enough to be working with Robyn Cohen from jkidphilly and we assisted the kids in making a fun craft.
Did you know that with a small plastic horn blower and a paper plate, kids can make their own shofar? The kids decorated the paper plates with apple stickers and crayons and behold, the shofars were fabulous. The kids could make some noise with their new shofars and it didn’t bother anyone! And if they got a little “energetic” there was a playground right next to our picnic tables for them to let off a little joyous energy.
The parents and kids were able to mingle and learn a little about the holiday of Rosh Hashanah. I particularly love the comparison of a shofar to an alarm clock—waking us up from our daily activities and alerting us to the new possibilities of the fall, a New Year and renewed spirit. There is something special about the fall sunshine on an orchard that warms the soul. Apples are so sweet and the kids love being involved in harvesting the fruits of their labor. There were over 25 families who attended the pre-Rosh Hashanah apple picking in Chester County. If you are interested in attending similar events, please email email@example.com and let us know. We look forward to hearing from you!
There are more and more projects sprouting up around the country to encourage people to have Sabbath meals or Shabbat experiences with others. In the non-Orthodox world, many people who grew up with Judaism or are exploring it as adults do not have a Shabbat practice and so it takes programs to support this new practice people are willing to take on. In fact, as we make spiritual promises and resolutions for our new Jewish year, one of my personal goals is to make more frequent and regular my own family’s Shabbat practice.
Why so much emphasis on “doing Shabbat?” It’s funny because Shabbat is thought to be a cessation of work and adding Shabbat to your routine does take a little planning and organization. However, whatever input is needed, I think the results will feel worthwhile.
Here are my top 5 reasons for why it’s so important to have Shabbat in our lives:
1. Rest: Shabbat is a Hebrew word that comes from the words for rest, sit and pause. This is an ancient nugget of wisdom which is timeless. If we never get off the merry-go-round we get dizzier and dizzier. It’s fun for awhile when we’re whirling and twirling and building speed and laughing and getting things done, but eventually we need to slow it down and gain equilibrium and perspective. Pausing on Friday evening or marking a time apart on Saturday can do this for us.
2. Beauty: We need beauty and poetry in our lives. Sometimes the school/work week seems to make us as efficient, robotic, programmed and structured as possible. These qualities are needed to keep schedules intact and to get everything done, like homework and people to where they are supposed to be. Hopefully, the school day or work day does have moments of creativity, new experiences, closeness, nuance, fun, learning and more which is beautiful, but the week as a whole can feel bland and monotonous. Shabbat is beautiful. The glow of the candles is mesmerizing. Communal prayer can be uplifting. The adorned ritual items like a Kiddush cup or challah cover bring art to the table.
3. Perspective: It’s one thing to say that we should not sweat the small stuff but when so many small things pile up it can feel overwhelming and exhausting. When the car breaks down and you forgot to pack your child’s lunch and your child is having problems with friends at school and you are not seeing eye-to-eye with your co-worker and you need to make the second trip to the pediatrician that week because the first child got strep and now the next one’s ear hurts and you are sleep deprived, and, and, and, (and sometimes there are big, chronic things we are dealing with) it’s easier said than done to keep perspective.
Shabbat doesn’t take away our troubles. Shabbat doesn’t make the woes of our week go away. But it provides us a respite. Even if your respite is only thirty minutes on Friday evening over dinner when the mood feels different and the rituals and prayers usher in a connection to the Sacred, it helps. This time, however brief, takes you out of your own little bubble and brings you a taste of paradise, of perfection. And if we can store up this feeling, this mood, these images, it sweetens the difficulties we endure. And the messages about creation that are woven through a Jewish Sabbath remind us to help create the world we want to live in.
4. Gateway: There is an idea in Judaism that one mitzvah (commandment: often thought of as ethical and ritual living) leads to another. One mitzvah may encourage us or inspire us to learn about and try out another. The more one observes, the more connected one can be to Judaism, to the People, history and culture. I don’t think more is “better” and that there is an ideal way to practice one’s Judaism. However, I do feel that observing Shabbat reminds us of the rubric Judaism provides throughout the whole week to add order, purpose, social justice and awareness to our lives. If we love taking time to observe a Sabbath, then we may also be inclined to wake up each morning listening to Modeh Ani, a prayer exclaiming one’s gratitude for the new day. If we live by the rhythm of the Jewish week and usher in some time of observing Shabbat, we may be inclined to observe Jewish holidays and to see how the sonar-lunar calendar connects us with nature and with history and narratives in powerful ways.
5. Intimacy: Maybe it’s because we are tied to our phones, but many of us crave a time when it feels safe to put the phone away for a minute. We use our phones as distractions, as entertainment, as sources of information, as ways to stay connected and as a safety net for knowing what is happening all the time. I for one like to be able to be reached almost all the time. But, I also love having a moment when I don’t need to hold my phone. For me, that moment is Friday night Shabbat.
The way our Friday nights shake down is that our Sabbath consists of the three main prayers—it doesn’t, incidentally, involve dinner most weeks. This is because my kids usually eat early and my husband is a congregational rabbi. He is often preparing for his services and may grab dinner somewhere before he comes home. Also, we are not foodies. I am not a good cook and I don’t enjoy it. I am working all day on Friday and it’s hard for me to get the family dinner piece together with our schedules. See, I sometimes feel a bit defensive about not basing our Sabbath on the Friday night family/friend dinner.
What we do is we light candles, we say Kiddush (Hebrew word meaning holy referring to the prayer over the fruit of the vine; often wine or grape juice), we eat challah and my favorite part is when we bless our children and each other. I take my kid’s head in my hands and I whisper to them my prayer for them. It is specific and spontaneous. I also say Aaron’s blessing to them. The traditional prayer said to sons and daughters is too gender-binary for my family (this is the topic of another blog). I look at my partner and we soak each other in, what we have, what we hope for; we breathe. We kiss. We hug each other. It is intimate. When we have friends over, we bless one another with our words and we feel each other’s actual presence. When you are alone on Shabbat, this last piece especially, may feel sad or distant. It is not good to be alone on Shabbat. This is why Jewish organizations are working hard and putting resources into creating opportunities for people to find one another over Shabbat.
There are many more reasons to do something to mark the Sabbath each week. Among your Jewish New Year’s resolutions, will adding or creating a Shabbat ritual be among them? If you are not Jewish but you love someone who is Jewish, how does this all feel for you? Let us know what you are thinking about doing or what you already do. When we hear from one another, we get ideas for what we might want to try. Here’s to opening this ancient gift and making it come alive in ways that work for you.
Family tradition: Jillian (top) with her sister and mother on her grandfather's boat in Ipswich, MA after clamming, circa 1992
“Mom, Dad, I want to go to Hebrew School.” This was the simple phrase of 7-year-old me that changed the course of my life and the religious life of my family.
When I was in second grade my best friend, Julie invited me to come with her to Hebrew School after school one day. Being the kind of kid who loved school and learning, it didn’t take much convincing and a week or so later, I sat with Julie in her Hebrew School classroom, totally enthralled. When I came home that evening and announced to my parents with the innocent certainty belonging only to 7-year-olds that I wanted to continue attending Hebrew School, I can only imagine the sort of parental conversation that ensued after I went to sleep that evening.
You see, my mother was raised Catholic on the North Shore of Massachusetts and my father was raised a conservative Jew in New Jersey, although neither had much affinity for any sort of religion. They met at Northeastern University in the late 60s. They were hippies, they attended anti-war rallies and Woodstock and were married in a hotel in Boston by a justice of the peace. They didn’t give much or any thought to religion even after I was born ten years later.
When I was growing up, we celebrated a variety of holidays in very secular ways; cultural celebrations marked by food or family gatherings. I don’t remember really talking about religion at all until I decided that I wanted to attend Hebrew School and my parents had to make decisions that they perhaps did not want to make. Once I began Hebrew school and we had to join a synagogue, my whole family was welcomed into a warm and friendly community. Both of my parents served on various committees and my sister and I attended religious school and participated in youth group through the end of high school.
Jillian (second from right) with her sister, mother and father at her ordination from HUC-JIR Rabbinical School in 2012
While I didn’t really understand it at the time, I know now how amazing my parents are to have allowed and encouraged me to follow my Jewish path, despite their own personal reservations. Perhaps it should have been no surprise to them or me, after essentially choosing Judaism for my whole family, that I would choose Judaism over and over again and choose to make Judaism my life’s work by becoming a rabbi.
And now I find myself happily in my mom’s home state, as the new Director of InterfaithFamily/Boston, hoping to meet all kinds of people and families as you navigate your religious life and look to find ways to connect.
My story may be unique, but then, so is yours and I look forward to hearing all of them (contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org). I truly believe that the great strength of Judaism is its continued evolution and the growing diversity of our population will only add to the color, richness and relevance of Judaism for generations to come.
Where are you from? It seems an innocent enough question. But as our families become more and more diverse, the answer can get wonderfully complicated. Recently at a “Saturdays Unplugged” event at the Jewish Community Center in San Francisco, I asked attendees about their ancestry and invited them to place pins in a world map marking their families’ journeys.
The map shows that a sampling of Jewish San Francisco families come from Argentina, Cyprus, Lithuania and China to name a few countries of origin. As kids turned to their parents and grandparents asking, “Where am I from?” I started to think about how complicated this question is.
So I asked one of my own kids: “Do you know where you’re from?” He started breaking it down into “sides” immediately. “Mama, your side is from Poland and Russia, right? Mommy’s side is from Germany, Scotland, Finland…” I was glad he added her ancestry without hesitation even though I gave birth to him and he isn’t biologically related to her. Clearly, where someone is from is not as easy as a DNA test. As he continued rattling off the countries where he felt he had a connection, I realized that I also hoped he would list his sperm donor’s ancestry. After all, he wouldn’t be here without him. So we added those to the mix. This child who was birthed by me, an American Jew with only Eastern European ancestry, can now identify himself with a good portion of Europe.
What about my other child? He was birthed by my partner, a mix of Northern European ancestry who converted to Judaism long before his birth. Along with those regions of the world, does this little boy also claim an Ashkenazi heritage? He certainly claims a Jewish one and our Jewish practice is largely Ashkenazi…but is he “from” Eastern Europe as my ancestors were?
Jews have long disagreed about what exactly Judaism is: a matter of biology, peoplehood, civilization, religion or ethnicity. Even early on in Jewish history, there were at least two strands of thought: Being Jewish was in some instances about claiming a certain lineage, and at other times about observance of a spiritual tradition. The first line of reasoning made it very difficult to join, for example, while the latter made it much easier to choose to identify as a Jew even if one wasn’t born one.
One scholar notes that tension ensued due to these “two distinct definitional standards…the religious and the ethnic.” [Porton, Gary. The Stranger Within Your Gates] We still struggle with those definitions, but today, with more and more conversion, intermarriage, adoption, donor insemination and surrogacy, we are moving away from a genetic definition (in my eyes a welcome shift) to a Judaism defined more as an affinity with a unique worldview. A lineup of kids at a typical Bay Area synagogue classroom is quite different than it would have looked 40 years ago when I was a kid.
A few years back, I worked with college students to create a photo exhibit of their peers who claim multiple ancestries. It was called, “Jews Untitled” and they challenged visitors to the exhibit to rethink the way they defined “Jewish” and allowed Jews to create their own self definitions. With the diversification of Jewish families, we asked one another how we can best teach children about their mix of rich backgrounds. How can we help Jews claim and take pride in their multitude of heritages? And how can we make sure that the entire Jewish community is engaging in this conversation as well?
I imagine us having an infinite capacity to claim a variety of stories as our own. I was recently at an author event for the book Just Parentingabout creative family making. One participant with an adopted child told the group that she tossed out a baby book she had been given because on the first page there was a picture of a family tree to fill in. She was so overwhelmed by the challenge of fitting her child’s family story into a neatly defined map with two “sides” that she decided it needed to go.
For many of us, two “sides” doesn’t tell the full story of our origins and our affiliations. An Ashkenazi Jewish friend of mine adopted a child from China with her Filipino husband. The child says of herself at age 7, “I’m half Chinese, half Filipino, half American, and half Jewish.” She has four sides! But, really, who doesn’t? We all have more complicated stories than “two sides” allows. She’s a model of how we can comfortably hold many identities within us.
Thanks to various Jewish ad campaigns and informational events, I know the big, scary Jewish genetics statistic: One in four Ashkenazi Jews is a carrier for at least one of the 19 preventable genetic diseases. But when Dr. Jodi Hoffman of Tufts Medical Center informed me that, “a big misconception is that interfaith couples are not at risk for having children affected with Jewish genetic diseases and therefore do not need to get screened before starting a family,” it was news to me. Unlike my colleague Wendy Armon who wrote an informative article on the subject last year, I had no idea, nor did many of my friends.
Who knew interfaith and interracial couples are not exempt from the need to test for Jewish genetic diseases? (Besides Wendy and Dr. Hoffman, that is.)
Particularly in light of this pervasive ignorance, renowned geneticist and pediatrician Dr. Hoffman has dedicated years to doing outreach to Jewish and interfaith families, working to dispel misconceptions like the one I had. Nationally recognized for her expertise in screening for Jewish genetic diseases, she is currently the Director of the Victor Outreach and Screening Program for Ashkenazi Jews at Tufts Medical Center in Boston. One of U.S. News & World Report’s “Top Doctors” in 2012, Dr. Hoffman is determined to reach as many people as she possibly can.
In light of common misinformation about proper genetic testing, is the article accurate? Is there anything you believe is particularly important to highlight?
Yes, it is definitely relevant. I think the key points to emphasize are:
Any of the Jewish genetic diseases can be carried by someone of non-Eastern European background.
The most accurate screening for Tay-Sachs includes DNA and enzyme (blood testing—which is not provided by the JScreen test).
If the partner of Ashkenazi Jewish background screens positive, the follow-up screening needs to be based on the ethnic background of the other partner–not the Ashkenazi Jewish screening panel.
Screening is best done prior to pregnancy to allow for the most reproductive options.
What recommendations would you give to interfaith couples?
Get screened and update your screening. A simple blood test will tell you if you are a carrier. There are 3 ways to get screened: 1) Contact your physician or OB/GYN. 2) Schedule an appointment at the Victor Outreach and Screening Program Clinic at Tufts Medical Center. Call (617) 636-7721 to make an appointment. 3) Attend a Victor Center community screening. You can find an upcoming screening and more information at victorcenters.org/.