Does Hanukkah Need an Elf on the Shelf?

Elf on the shelfGrowing up I was one of the few Jewish students in my school. I enjoyed going to holiday parties at my friend’s house, helping them decorate their trees, wearing a red and white Santa hat while passing out gifts, etc. I knew I was helping them celebrate their holiday while at home we celebrated Hanukkah, with our own traditions.

To be honest, I had never heard of the Elf on the Shelf until last year when friends posted daily pictures of their elf, Elliot, and his antics around the house. Somehow I hadn’t even noticed the elf kits at the stores until December 2012. Where had I been? My friends were so creative; I made it a point to go on Facebook each night to see what their elf was up to! In the past 30+ years, I don’t think I’ve ever been jealous of a Christmas tradition, until then.

I was a little jealous. I wanted an Elf on the Shelf! I didn’t even have children, but the idea of having fun creating poses and scenes for the elf each night was intriguing! Today I continue to celebrate Hanukkah, not Christmas, and I don’t know how I would introduce an Elf into our Hanukkah traditions.

Mensch on a BenchEnter Moshe, the Mensch on a Bench! Last spring I found a post on Kickstarter that Neal Hoffman, a former Hasbro Toys employee was trying to launch his Mensch on a Bench concept. I wasn’t sure what to make of it at the time. Remembering my own elf envy, part of me loved having a Jewish response. However, part of me likes keeping “religious” traditions separate. I wondered to myself, is this good for the Jews?

The Mensch on a Bench website offers a glimpse into Moshe’s story. Like the Elf on a Shelf (and the Maccabee on the Mantel, another Jewish response which we also recently blogged about), the Mensch on a Bench comes with his own story book. On page four he introduces himself to Judah Maccabee and offers to watch over the menorah to make sure it doesn’t go out while everyone else gets some sleep. I wondered, why is Moshe dressed as a modern religious Jew (with suit, tallit and large-brimmed hat) while Judah and the Maccabees are wearing more traditional clothing for the year in which the scene took place, 165 bce? Shouldn’t Moshe, the Mensch, be wearing clothing like his Maccabean contemporaries?

I also wonder if Hanukkah is the appropriate holiday for a Mensch on a Bench. According to the Jewish Virtual Library website, “Chanukah is probably one of the best known Jewish holidays, not because of any great religious significance, but because of its proximity to Christmas. Many non-Jews (and even many assimilated Jews!) think of this holiday as the Jewish Christmas, adopting many of the Christmas customs, such as elaborate gift-giving and decoration. It is bitterly ironic that this holiday, which has its roots in a revolution against assimilation and suppression of Jewish religion, has become the most assimilated, secular holiday on our calendar.”

Mensch on Bench Toy

As the most assimilated Jewish holiday, a Mensch on a Bench makes perfect sense. But I think I’m more of a Maccabee, and I want to rebel against assimilation. Perhaps Passover is a more appropriate holiday. Although Passover is not a gift-giving holiday, I could see a Mensch on a Bench watching over the cleaning of the house for Passover, or during the week of Passover, keeping an eye on the children to see if they eat matzah or bread. I could have fun with that, I think. Further, rule #2 for bringing a Mensch into your home is to add more “Funukkah into Hanukkah.” Hanukkah is already a fun holiday! What holiday needs fun more than when we’re eating matzah that tastes like cardboard and remembering that we were slaves in Egypt?

All this being said, my favorite is rule #7, “One night of Hanukkah don’t open presents yourself, instead buy presents and give them to people in need. Remember that a true Mensch is one who puts smiles on other people’s faces.” What a great rule—for any time of year!

The Mensch on a Bench seems to mimic the Elf on a Shelf and its whimsical fantasy; whereas the creators of the Maccabee on the Mantel state: “Toy Vey’s ambition, and expectation, is that together families will create a joyous custom that ignites a child’s excitement about their heritage as well as their desire to learn more about who they are and where they come from. This little Maccabee represents a safe and soothing place for all children; he is a friend, a protector, a symbol of their lineage and a smiling nod towards their future. ” I appreciate their desire to hold true to the story of Hanukkah, while infusing new traditions. It feels more natural, to me, than introducing an elf replacement.

Our Hanukkah Booklet sums up my thoughts, “New customs evolve with each new generation. Repeat the traditions that appeal to you and add your own new variations on the themes of Hanukkah: bringing light into dark places and renewing your dedication to teaching and living meaningfully.”

As I’m expecting my first child (due in early December, right after Hanukkah), and since the Mensch on the Bench has already sold out for 2013, I can’t introduce Moshe this year. I wonder if we will one day have a Moshe, a Maccabee, or neither in my house. I’m confident my family traditions will evolve over time and with the addition of children.

What will you do? Will you have a Maccabee on your mantle, will you pre-order the Mensch on a Bench for 2014 or do you think we should stop trying to make Hanukkah more like Christmas?

Helping My Conservative Synagogue Find Balance

The following post is by guest blogger Jodi Rosenfeld from the Philadelphia area.

JugglingI sometimes feel like I am one of many circus performers juggling a variety of hats while the audience watches to see if I drop one—but the circus is my synagogue and the audience is my fellow congregants. My goal is not to make anyone laugh or watch in awe but simply to maintain the peace while moving the show forward in preparation for the next act.

At my small, century-old, Conservative synagogue in the western suburbs of Philadelphia, I was the facilitator of the Interfaith Work Group, a group that met for many months for the purpose of clarifying and then codifying our synagogue’s policy on membership for interfaith couples and families. This means I had to wear and juggle my many hats at once. And for that, I had to learn about balance.

The Interfaith Work Group was born of a conflict. The conflict began when several interfaith families were preparing for their children’s B’nai Mitzvah and the parent who was not Jewish realized that, according to Conservative tradition, he or she was not welcome to stand on the bimah. Even the father who was not Jewish but who’d served on several committees, was an active part of the community and had studied Hebrew alongside his son, could not stand at the Torah with his wife when she said the blessings before and after the Torah reading.

Then there was an aufruf for a young woman and her fiancé who was not Jewish and, even though her family had been active members of the synagogue for 50 years, not only could they not be married by our rabbi, but they couldn’t come up on the bimah to receive a blessing. These interfaith families felt slighted at best, rejected and insulted at worst. So the Rabbi changed the rules; without crossing the lines of Halacha, she declared that the bimah was accessible to all—that the parent (who was not Jewish) of the Bar Mitzvah boy could stand at the Torah and that the young couple could receive the blessing on the bimah.

And then the backlash began. Some of the elders and more traditional long-time members of the congregation felt slighted at best, rejected and insulted at worst. For decades, they had poured themselves into “the way we’ve always done things.” They felt that these changes were a watering-down of Judaism. Some got angry. Some left.

The Interfaith Work Group was a small cross-section of all of the above constituents that came together to get the facts straight (from the Rabbi about issues of ritual inclusion and Halacha; and from the Board about issues of governance), and then to clearly articulate these policies through the synagogue’s website.

Was I the “right” person, with all those hats in the air, to lead this group? I am a psychologist, which means I am trained to observe everyone’s feelings, even those with whom I may disagree. I am a Reform Jew by upbringing, which means I am accustomed to inclusion. I am the granddaughter of an observant, Conservative Jewish man, whose tallis and tefillin I wear each week, which means he is with me, in my synagogue, even today. I am a Jew married to a Jew, which means I’m one of them. And I’m an activist who fights discrimination in all forms, which means I’m one of them. I am a proponent of change yet one who wants to preserve the past.

My learning about balance came from my utter failure at facilitating the Work Group. The facilitator needed to be impartial, to lead the group without taking sides. Despite my many hats, I wanted to forge ahead with change. I wanted both Jews and those who are not Jewish but who are part of Jewish families to feel fully included in all aspects of our community. I wanted all of the young, prospective interfaith families in Chester County to flock to us, to think, “Now this is the kind of Conservative synagogue I want to be a part of.” I wasn’t particularly balanced.

What I’ve learned is that if we want to evolve as a community, we all need to be empathic toward one another. Interfaith families want more inclusion of family members who are not Jewish not because they want to water down tradition, but because they want to be more fully a part of our rich Jewish heritage. Long-timers don’t resist these changes because they want interfaith families to leave, but because they have worked so hard to help the Jewish people thrive and they are afraid that change means loss. Change always means loss. But it also means gain.

Only by listening to one another and allowing ourselves to wear one another’s hats for a moment can we truly appreciate that this change is a process of growth for us all. The reality is that we all need to be jugglers—we need to understand one another’s many motivations, question the familiar and approach one another with kindness in order to truly facilitate the evolution of our Jewish population.

The product of our labor can be found here.

Is your synagogue struggling with policy issues and halacha? Do you have a policy document? Share your policies and experiences with our community. We can all learn from each other.

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.

How to Be Inclusive

Torah scrollA few weeks ago, my son was reading Torah at a Saturday evening service. It is a very small service of 15-20 people and a nice opportunity for him to read without a large audience and to practice reading before his Bar Mitzvah next year. My in-laws who live a few towns over decided to attend. They were excited for him. The Rabbi saw them and asked if they wanted to have the aliyah for my son’s torah reading. They both said no.

At first I thought they were uncomfortable because they were taking an honor from someone else. So I looked at them and said, “There is no one here, go ahead.” They said no thanks again. I was perplexed. They are both Jewish and have participated in synagogue life elsewhere. They are completely comfortable in a synagogue and knew most of the people in the room.

An Aliyah is an honor within the Torah service. It allows the honoree(s) to stand beside the Torah reader (their grandson) and witness his reading. I also always think it is fascinating to be up close and personal with the Torah. (I always am amazed that this beautiful scroll is in every synagogue in the world and created by hand. When you factor in the longevity of the text…it is really cool.) I thought my in-laws would be thrilled to be up there with their oldest grandson and to watch him read from the Torah. Wouldn’t they want this honor?

The concept of a Jewish person not wanting to accept an honor in a synagogue struck a chord. I recently wrote a blog about the beauty of the blessings given by someone who is not Jewish during a Bar/Bat Mitzvah. In many congregations, someone who is not Jewish cannot say a blessing for their child. My feeling is that the person who is not Jewish and blesses their child and the child’s Jewish learning is making a wonderful statement of support to the community. So why wouldn’t my in-laws want to participate?

Then I remembered my days in high school choir when we were in churches singing our hearts out. Sometimes there would be communion after we sang. Being raised in a strict Jewish household, I would refuse to participate even though I was the only one from the choir that wouldn’t go up to the altar. I had a friend who was also Jewish but she did go up for communion. We spoke of it once and she said she didn’t feel comfortable sitting on the pew when everyone else was kneeling or taking communion. I always remember this conversation and that one person’s comfort is another person’s discomfort.

Now, as I often think about welcoming a person of a different faith inside a Jewish institution, I have to remember: Sometimes people want to participate, and sometimes they want to opt out. Either way, we should do all in our power to make them feel comfortable whatever their preference.

I have been thinking about my in-laws since…we only do what we are comfortable doing. We all have different experiences and influences. Certainly no one should be forced to do something when they are uncomfortable. Religion is obviously a very personal decision and experience. My in-laws were not mentally prepared for an aliyah and this isn’t a synagogue where they are members. I get it—it wasn’t right for them. Still, I know they were very proud of their grandson and his ability and intent to carry on the traditions.

While many synagogues are re-evaluating the role of the family members from various religions during various ceremonies, we must realize that not every person who isn’t Jewish will WANT to participate. Some people think that their synagogue doesn’t need to offer options because, “Why would a person who isn’t Jewish want to participate?”  My response is: Let each individual decide what their comfort level is. We all have to remember that welcoming means offering options for inclusion. And, by simply offering the option for participation, the community sends the message of welcoming.

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.

Turn and Return on Simchat Torah

The “fall holidays”–Rosh Hashanah, followed ten days later by Yom Kippur and then just four days later by the week-long festival of Sukkot, which concludes with Simchat Torah at the end of this week–it feels like a marathon. In less than a month we’ve packed in quite a bit. Happy, sad, reflective, apologetic, celebratory, history-based and forward thinking. Of all the holidays at this time of year, Simchat Torah is one of my favorites. As a child we would dance with the Torah scrolls and then the rabbi would have all the adults make a LARGE circle as we unrolled an entire scroll around the room.

“Turn it and turn it for everything is in it.” Ben Bag Bag shares these words of wisdom about Torah. As a child I laughed at his name, but as an adult I appreciate the depth of this rather simple statement. Ben Bag Bag referred to the Torah, the ancient scroll on which the first five books of Moses and the beginning of the Jewish bible are written. Each year Jews around the world read a segment of these stories until this week when they (finally) reach the end…only to return to the beginning again with the word b’reishit (in the beginning).

It’s such a natural cycle to turn and return. We cycle through the seasons, the yearly holidays and the cycle of life. Ben Bag Bag informs us that if we look deep into the words of the Torah we can find “everything.”

Cain and Abel teach us that we are responsible for and cannot hide our own actions. Abraham shows us (and God) the importance of mercy when God wants to destroy Sodom and Gemorrah. Jacob and Esau demonstrate sibling rivalry while Joseph and his brothers take it one step further demonstrating the weakness of family relationships that can be restored by the strength of forgiveness. Moses teaches us that even with physical limitations, we can still do great things.

Throughout the Torah we are reminded to treat others with respect and dignity. We are also reminded to take care of the poor, the widow, the orphan and the stranger among us. Commentary on the Torah takes these guidelines even further and extrapolates how we treat those who work for us and our animals. For example, one must be paid for his/her work in a timely fashion, so as not to cause unnecessary strife on his/her life. We must also feed animals and pets before we feed ourselves.

The guidance one can glean from the Torah can apply to all people. Those who practice Judaism and those who do not. I think every person should strive to be a good person and I find stories from the Torah provide good examples of how to (and sometimes how not to) act.

I encourage you to pick up a copy of the Torah and/or Bible stories and start reading. Discuss what you read with your family and discuss what everyone thinks. How might you want to incorporate examples into your life? What stories will you choose to use as examples of what not to do?

A personal favorite is the JPS Illustrated Children’s Bible. The Bible stories included in this volume include fifty-three Bible stories (Torah and additional books), retold by Ellen Frankel. Each story is only a few short pages, so you can read one each night or each week. The full-color illustrations by Avi Katz help bring the stories to life!

I look forward to hearing your thoughts and insights! Please share what you think in the comment section below.

An Interfaith Family’s Bar Mitzvah

Bar Mitzvah JonahI recently had the honor of working with an interfaith family as their son, Jonah, prepared for his Bar Mitzvah. Here are his powerful words which describe what the study, process and ceremony meant to him. His family is part of a Jewish community that gathers for the holidays, and Jonah is excited to be able to read Torah again.

The ceremony began with his grandfather putting a tallit (a prayer shawl) on Jonah’s shoulders. His grandfather explained to him that this tallit had been bought in Israel by his great grandfather. This tallit had been worn by Jonah’s grandfather and father. Now Jonah, as a Bar Mitzvah, wore the tallit with pride. His grandfather said that his hope is that Jonah would give the tallit to his son one day. Continuity.

Here is what Jonah had to say:

“Shabbat Shalom! Thank you for supporting me and being with me and my family as I take on the role of becoming a Bar Mitzvah. Bar Mitzvah means son of the commandments. A child becomes a Bar Mitzvah whenever he chooses as long as he is 13 or older. Part of this rite of passage means that I am honored with more responsibility within the Jewish religion and among the Jewish people. I can now wear a prayer shawl called a tallit. I can now say the blessings before and after the Torah. I can now be counted in a prayer group. I can now take on mitzvot. I should also be doing more ethical and moral deeds such as honoring my parents and the elderly, helping the weak and vulnerable, visiting the sick and doing acts to help the hungry and poor.

This is my Bar Mitzvah because it is the first time that I will have the opportunity to read aloud from the Torah. To do this, I had to learn to read Hebrew and even harder, learn to read without vowels and with the fancy Torah script. This took much time to study and practice. To me learning about my Jewish heritage is very important because it shows the other side of my religion that has not been so clear to me. Since I’m neither fully Jewish nor a full catholic, I declare myself a “cashew.”  No, I’m not the nut cashew but the cashew that means I have grasped both of my religions and wish to continue both of them in the future. This is very important to me.

My Torah portion is from the book of Deuteronomy. It is part of the Torah that is also read on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the calendar, because this narrative is so powerful. It is about God saying to the people to never give up. Even if it is so far out of your reach you must never give up because one day you will reach it. Also, I will be reading a part of the book of Jonah, not me, the prophet. It is traditional on Shabbat morning to read from the Torah and from the Prophets. I picked Jonah for obvious reasons. He has a cool name! What I learned from the story of Jonah is to trust God no matter what the circumstances. For example, Jonah was sent to Nineveh by God, but chose to go somewhere else because Nineveh is so outrageously uncivilized. Jonah was then swallowed by a whale and then spit out after three days of prayer and regretting his decision to disobey God. He was spat out onto the land of Nineveh where he brought forth God’s warning to change or bare the wrath of annihilation. Jonah waited patiently for the annihilation of the people but it never came. The moral is that you should never lose trust in God and that God has forgiveness and caring.”

There is a debate in the Jewish world about whether families who want both religions in their lives can find a place within the organized community for learning and fellowship. I hope that by sharing this experience of a family who has sought out Jewish learning and living in real and meaningful ways, can help us think about how we might be able to open our gates a little more.

I wish you all a happy and healthy new year. May this be a year of getting to know the individuals who call us for information, or stop in for programming. It is through hearing each other’s stories and intentions, struggles, questions and yearnings that assumptions can be dropped and judgment held so that sharing can ensue.

It’s Raining Coconuts!

CoconutsI have some really strange memories of childhood and unusual events. One of these memories is about the celebration of the first fruit on Rosh Hashanah. The custom is to enjoy a new fruit to celebrate the New Year and say a special blessing (Shehecheyanu) recognizing the blessing of arriving at this moment.

Our family would stay at my Grandmother’s (Gran) for Rosh Hashanah and eat our meals there. My mother always made sure there was a new fruit at the table so that we could say the Shehecheyanu. The tradition is that it should be a fruit that you haven’t had in many months.

One year, the new fruit was a coconut. With the chaos of five kids and several meals, my mother didn’t realize that we didn’t have any way to open the coconut. One of my brothers decided it was a good idea to throw the coconut from my Gran’s balcony onto the busy street. The rest of us thought this was a great idea. One of us went out to the sidewalk to make sure there was no traffic coming to give the “OK.”  (About now, you may be wondering where our parents were at this time and I have no idea, but I am sure they were busy with something.)

“All clear!”

“One. Two. Three.”

BOUNCE with a thud and a roll into the street!

The coconut didn’t break! We couldn’t believe it. We were laughing and watching for traffic. I come from a very determined family, so we threw it back up to the second floor balcony and tried again two more times with the same result. On the fourth time:

“All clear!”

“One. Two. Three.”

CRACK!

We did it! The coconut broke open into several sections. I don’t remember how we cut it up but I assume it involved some sharp knives and minimal supervision. Our parents may have been paying attention at this point but thought the whole scene was clever and funny. When we sat down for dinner, we said our Shehecheyanu blessing giggling and smiling the whole time. I’m not sure if Gran knew what we had done but she never said anything.

Every year after this inaugural event, my mother bought a coconut. Each year we hurled it off the balcony, laughing while watching for traffic. I love this memory and so do my four siblings. It reminds us of family, holiday and custom. The Jewish holidays have some customs that you may think are a little wacky in our American culture but the wackiness is what creates the memories. My siblings and I all laugh at our respective homes when we eat our “first fruit” of the New Year…especially if someone has a coconut.

To this day, I must admit I really don’t like coconut. But I do try to make every Rosh Hashanah out of the ordinary in hope that it becomes an “extraordinary” memory for my family.

I wish you an extraordinary holiday season with many wonderful and wacky memories. Share your wackiest below!

Jewish Educators: Keeping It Real

My last blog post was a plea to program providers to look at their enrollment forms with new lenses this summer. This blog post is for Jewish educators with the hope that they keep it real and honest with their curriculum.

Shabbat CandlesSome synagogues have a ritual policy that women who are not Jewish cannot light Shabbat candles on Friday nights at the congregation. This blog post is not about the ramifications of this ritual boundary. Ritual committees, clergy and synagogue board of directors sometimes spend time studying the meaning of the ritual, the words to be said, the act itself. They look to denominational guidelines, see if their policies make sense given their population, and probe their hearts and souls about when to include those policies in ritual participation of the community of people who aren’t Jewish.

Often, if the synagogue finds that the ritual cannot be performed by someone not Jewish using the traditional Hebrew, for instance, another reading or another way of performing the ritual can be created. This can sometimes work very well. In addition, some can understand and appreciate that it would not make sense for them to say certain words if they haven’t officially joined the Jewish people, entered into the covenant and taken on the religion. Other times, those who are not Jewish feel totally comfortable saying Hebrew and performing rituals because the deeds are personally meaningful to that person and their family.

This is a conversation about making sure that there is not a disconnect between what children in the religious school learn and are expected to come home and do and what is done in communal worship at the synagogue.

If there are children in the synagogue who have moms who aren’t Jewish and the children learn about Shabbat with pictures in books and suggestions made that it is the mom who lights the candles, then the school should assume and expect that moms who aren’t Jewish would be the ones to fulfill this mitzvah, this important and beautiful aspect of bringing in Shabbat.

If the synagogue has a rule that only Jews can light Shabbat candles, then should the instructions to the children reflect that? Children can be taught that either parent, depending on who is Jewish, can light the candles. The synagogue could teach that men can light Shabbat candles by calling up Jewish dads to perform this act. Perhaps the whole family could come up and the father could light the candles but all of the faces of the family members would reflect the glow from the Sabbath light. Maybe families would be encouraged to share Shabbat together.

While it is challenging, I do believe that there are ways to explain ritual policies which show respect to a parent who isn’t Jewish who is raising Jewish children and doing Jewish in the home. There are ways to talk about all of the ways a parent who is not Jewish can participate in so many aspects of Judaism.

Children and families should be expected to practice what children learn in religious school in home and at shul. You could say some families don’t keep kosher at home but understand that their synagogue does have kosher standards. Synagogues keep a higher level of observance than people do in the home. However, it could be a negative experience for a child to learn that only women light the candles while their own mother is not allowed to light the candles in the synagogue.

What are your feelings about this?

Membership Has Its Benefits

Like many, I grew up in a community with lots of relatives and close family friends. I always knew that even though I wasn’t with my parents, there was always the likelihood (or inevitability) that there was a family friend or relative nearby. It definitely discouraged me from making a bad or embarrassing decision. More important, when I walked down the street, I felt loved and connected.

As a parent, I want that sense of connection for my kids. Though we are friends with some of our neighbors, our kids can no longer wander through the neighborhood as carelessly as we did 30 years ago. Our neighborhood doesn’t provide the same sense of a tight knit community as it did during my childhood. I know my neighbors well but I wouldn’t pick up the phone and call them for help when my washer breaks down.

Joining a synagogue was one of the first things that my husband and I did when we moved to our town. We didn’t know anyone and we felt like we needed an anchor. I have to say, it was one of the best decisions (and investments) we ever made. Developing close friendships within the synagogue took a few years but the more we participated, the more friends we made, and the more connected we felt. Through our synagogue membership, we became friends with people of all ages and backgrounds. Our kids know that they are being watched and loved. It is amazing to see that they appreciate this love of community even at a young age.

Synagogue event

Wendy, right, with synagogue friends

We have lots of friends outside of the synagogue and Jewish community, but those from our synagogue are particularly special to me. I think it’s because our shared experiences that there is a comfort level that can’t be matched. For all couples and families, including interfaith couples, finding a synagogue community with other couples or families exploring similar issues provides a place for dialogue, support and grounds for deeper friendship.

Several years ago I was on bedrest with my third child while my older two were still toddlers. The synagogue community stepped in to help by making meals, driving my kids and supporting me in ways that I never dreamt. Many of those that helped were people I barely knew before but became close friends just because they reached out to help.

My experience is not unique. This type of support is an added benefit of synagogue life. One friend was our synagogue president a few years ago. I once asked why she was doing all of this work for the synagogue. She replied that she had had cancer several years back and the synagogue community took care of her. She promised herself that she would “pay it forward” since people had been so good to her.

There are lots of benefits to synagogue membership but the most important one to me is community. You may not feel it the first time you walk through the door, but when it happens, there is nothing more valuable. If you would like to find out more about some welcoming synagogues in the Philadelphia area, visit our list of organizations. If you don’t see your synagogue on the Organizations tab of our Philadelphia page, but know it is a place that welcomes interfaith couples and families, email us at philadelphia@interfaithfamily.com.

Have you had a similar experience in your synagogue community? Please tell us about it in the comments section below.