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.
Between the announcement that Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky are expecting a baby and an interfaith xoJane article about a Catholic mother choosing to raise her sons Jewish, mothers who aren’t Jewish but are raising Jewish children have been receiving positive press and gaining visibility in recent weeks—it’s about time! And well-timed too, considering we celebrated Mother’s Day earlier this month. (There are, of course, fathers who aren’t Jewish raising Jewish children as well. My “Jew-ish” father having been one.)
“They are models for the rabbi’s sermon about how to lead a good Jewish life. They light Sabbath candles and send their children to Hebrew school. They attend adult education classes on Jewish subjects. They sing boisterously at Jewish services and know the Hebrew words of every prayer. They serve on synagogue committees; they even become synagogue officers. …And they are not Jews.”
There are many non-Jews who fit this description, yet amidst the panicked communal conversation about the ‘shrinking Jewish population,’ these dedicated individuals and parents are often overlooked, not only in the communal conversation, but also in day-to-day religious life in synagogues all over the country.
Photo courtesy of Dorshei Tzedek
I’m heartened by the many interfaith outreach initiatives in the Greater Boston area. In particular, the efforts made by Dorshei Tzedek, a growing Reconstructionist congregation in West Newton. The measures they’ve taken to be an inclusive community embodies their name, which means “seekers of justice” in Hebrew. “We seek to engage all of our members, whether Jewish or not, in our activities and the life of the congregation,” Dorshei Tzedek Rabbi Toba Spitzer shared with me.
A few years ago, the congregation committed to a year-long study and discussion process around inclusion. One of the results was a brochure the congregation gives out to new families that is posted on their website. It states: “Some of the values that inform our approach to welcoming our non-Jewish members [are]: inclusivity, diversity, commitment both to shared values and to Jewish tradition. While there are non-Jewish partners of our Jewish members who choose not to become involved in the congregation, there are also many non-Jewish members who participate actively and meaningfully in the life of the community. The purpose of this guide is to help clarify what it means to be a non-Jewish member of a caring and inclusive congregation that is dedicated to Jewish practice and learning.”
Photo courtesy of Dorshei Tzedek
Interfaith families are also represented in other areas of Dorshei Tzedek’s website, including this wonderful set of Shabbat videos.
What makes Dorshei Tzedek such a model for inclusion is not only their interfaith brochure and website, but the communal process that produced them, which goes well beyond simply providing lip-service. They’re making it happen. Inclusion and sensitivity, like all values, only serve their purpose when practiced and tailored to address the needs of the people we seek to include.
Many people want to be welcoming but don’t necessarily know exactly how to provide the welcoming learning environment for interfaith families and kids. In this essay, I’ll provide some tips on how to engage kids from interfaith homes in classrooms and how to handle potentially awkward situations.
1. Respect the family. Keep your own opinion out of the conversation. The children need to feel validated, not uncomfortable. Be prepared for anything. Families come in all shapes and sizes and have all kinds of dynamics. Some families may be raising their children in “both” religions or incorporate varying degrees of each religion. Grandparents may not be supportive. Students may believe in Santa Claus. Relatives may celebrate Kwanza. There are infinite ways to be a family.
2. Respect the other parent’s religion. If a child refers to another holiday celebration with relatives who are not Jewish:
a. Listen. A key element of listening is eye contact. Pay attention to what the student is telling you about a religious experience. If you can relate their story to something Jewish, great. If not, just listen attentively. If you don’t have time to talk because class is starting, say that you would love to talk in greater detail after class and then make sure to offer to talk to them after class.
b. Ask questions. “Did you enjoy going to church?” If you end the conversation abruptly because you are uncomfortable or in a rush, the student may think that he said something wrong. Asking questions (within time constraints of the class) shows that you are interested.
c. Support. Your response of support will enable the student to be happy about their experience. Students should never feel bad if they participated in a family event that wasn’t Jewish. Responses like: “That is great that you had fun with your cousins. You are lucky to be exposed to so many different types of religion.”
d. Pay attention to all of the students. The whole class is potentially listening to your conversation about interfaith issues. The students will take their cues from you and it is key to set an example of support. If you hear another student give a negative response (or make a face) be sure to provide a supportive environment to all of the students. The student that provides a negative response should get the cue that in this classroom, we don’t judge other people but accept one another. It is a mitzvah to support your whole family.
3. Truth. What if a child says: “My cousins told me that the Jews killed Jesus—but I told them, I didn’t.” This is simply not true but it is a long stated myth. This is a good opportunity to set the record straight by saying. 1) That’s not true. 2) The Romans killed Jesus. 3) That was a long time ago and Romans are predominantly Christian now. Please remember that what you teach the students now is what they will remember their entire life. This opportunity to teach not only this student, but the whole class, will be important for defending against anti-Semitic comments in the future.
4. Unconditional support. Families and children need encouragement. Religious school for many families is not a requirement like a high school diploma so a negative interaction can be catastrophic. Families frequently switch to another synagogue if they have a bad experience in Hebrew school. In some cases, families will leave Jewish life completely. The burden is on you (not easy, is it?!). Make it fun, be welcoming, be supportive and teach the students as much as you can.
5. Adaptation. Whenever you can, point out ways in which interfaith families have been important to the Jewish culture. The story of Ruth (an ancestress of King David), a Moabite woman who married a Jewish man and identified with the Jewish people and God, that we read on Shavuot is a great example. The story of Esther, who married a King who wasn’t Jewish and saved the Jews, which read on Purim, is another example.
6. Instill pride. Jessica is part Jewish, Cherokee, Irish and Italian. She is special and unlike any other human being. She should finish her year in your class feeling happy that she has learned some stories, some songs, some traditions, some Hebrew, some of the commandments, and wants to come back next year! Jessica should be proud to be Jessica. Interfaith kids should NEVER be made to feel like anything less than ALL JEWISH when they are in your classroom. All students should be proud of their differences and proud of their Judaism. People will participate in a culture where they feel like they are part of the “home team.” You should never call a child “half-Jewish” or their parent a “goy” and should try to stay away from saying “non-Jew” as well. If a child is attending religious school, then that child is Jewish.
7. Turn it around. There will be many awkward situations throughout your career. Take the opportunity to turn the situation into a “teachable moment.” Many families may not be enlightened about how to be welcoming. You will set the example for the kids about how to be proud and accepting of people’s differences, not only regarding religion but other differences as well.
You are an educator and your role in the development of your students is meaningful and powerful. On behalf of Jewish families in America, thank you for your efforts.
We are thrilled to announce that many Jewish overnight camps in New England have expressed great interest in being included in InterfaithFamily’s Jewish Camps that Welcome Interfaith Families resource webpage! These wonderful camps have made it very clear through their enthusiasm and commitment to welcoming campers from interfaith families that being a welcoming and open community is an important part of the good work that they do. Some camps have a space on their website that expresses the camps’ dedication to welcoming and supporting current and prospective campers from interfaith families and answer frequently asked questions from interfaith families.
Thank you URJ Camps Crane Lake, 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy, and Eisner! We would love to see more camps in New England across the country follow suit. Efforts like these truly make a difference in creating a welcoming and inclusive atmosphere for all campers. Boston-area camps that wish to be included on our resource page can contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The traditional camp enrollment season is winding down. While a few camps may still have spots available, most are full. But don’t despair! If you haven’t or can’t register your children for June/July sessions, you haven’t missed the 2014 Jewish summer camp boat! In most cases, camps still have beds available for second session, which typically starts mid- to late-July and ends mid-August.
Photo courtesy of CJP Camping Initiatives
Choosing to go to overnight camp is a big decision with many factors to consider. The first question most parents ask is “Is my child ready for overnight camp?”
Camp directors tell us that a good guideline is if he or she has slept over a friend’s house successfully. If they have, you, the parent, are likely to be the one who is unsure if you are ready. To assist prospective families with the decision-making process, most camps offer opportunities to visit and get a real life “taste” of camp.
Camp JORI has a family camp at which families stay for a three-day weekend, giving them a mini camp experience without having to commit to sending their child(ren) to a two-week session. Other camps also offer a “taste of camp” where campers can visit for three-to-four days. If the dates of the multi-day visits don’t fit with your schedule, most camps also have tours throughout the summer and Tel Noar invites prospective families to attend their Super Camp Day. If a particular camp is of interest to you and you don’t see a sampler event, do a little digging on their website or contact them.
We have been through 20 Passovers together. My wife does pretty well with the eating restrictions but somewhere around the middle of the holiday, there she is eating cereal in the garage. That’s where I store the chametz, the bread products that are off-limits during Passover, to make the rest of the house ready for the holiday. I “sell” it to a friend or neighbor who isn’t Jewish but is intrigued enough to play along. (That ensures that I don’t technically own it and it can stay there as long as it’s undisturbed.) But there it sits, calling out to Kirsti all week. Each bite of matzah brie and cardboard flavored Passover cereal increases her longing for the good stuff she knows is only steps away. Do I care? No, I have never cared. I have always drawn a line between my own, personal practice and hers. Ineed to clean the house of bread. I need to bring out the glass plates. But Kirsti didn’t grow up Jewish, and while many Jewish practices are meaningful to her, this one is not.
Now enter two kids. None of these differences in our practices made an impact on our home life until we had children. While she can practice however she likes, I do want to maintain a Jewish household for our kids. In similar cases, we tend to face our differences head on, explaining to our children where our beliefs or practices may differ from one another.
Many parents who come from different backgrounds will only tell one parent’s side of things until kids get older and can better handle the paradoxes. I see the value in that approach, but it’s not for us. We have always told the truth about where we differ religiously…for better or for worse. We have different ideas about theology and share with our boys that people generally—and even Jews—don’t all believe the same thing. We have different needs in terms of attending synagogue, and I am happy to be the regular Shabbat service goer with them, explaining that while she’ll go sometimes, it’s more of a regular practice for me.
But Passover is tough because it’s centered in the house. Do I want them to learn that it’s OK to run to the garage when they have a craving? I don’t need my partner to keep to it, but I want them to learn the discipline early on as a meaningful part of the Passover celebration. I want them to internalize their history as slaves being freed as they stop themselves instead of reaching for some bread. I hope they will share the excitement with me when the kitchen gets turned upside down to get ready for the holiday. But I also don’t want to denigrate my partner’s practices by making them lesser. I respect her and her relationship to Judaism. How do I hold both realities?
In truth, I’ve never lived in a house where we were all practicing Judaism in the same way. I grew up in a home with two Jewish parents for whom Jewish eating practices held no meaning. We always laughed that it wasn’t Passover if there wasn’t a honey-baked ham on the table. OK, we never went that far, but ham and seafood were staples in our home. My mother would proudly say, “I don’t practice my religion through my stomach.” But even as a kid, I was drawn to the idea that refraining from bread made the week of my favorite holiday feel special, and I worked around my family’s need for their cupboards to remain untouched.
So we talked to our kids this Passover about the realities of different kinds of Jewish practice. They were informed that their Mommy sneaks some chametz (not surprising since they already knew that although she has tried valiantly to give them up over the years, she has a soft spot for cheeseburgers). But we didn’t dwell on the food-talk. What we did spend time discussing were the values we hope they took away from the holiday. Standing up for those who are oppressed. Using your own story of pain and difference to inspire you to rescue others. That freedom is possible. And for my partner, we know that her freedom is saying farewell to matzah for another year.
…if your child tells you they are dating someone from another religion (race, culture or same gender).
By Wendy Armon and Joycellen Young Auritt Ph.D.
What you should do:
1. Breathe and smile. Your child has just told you that they are seeing someone seriously. Your child is happy and is hoping for your approval of their happiness.
2. Be happy that your child is happy. Think about the joy in your child’s face. Does your child seem happy for the right reasons? Does this person make your child feel confident? We want our children to have happy and stable relationships where they can evolve into the best versions of themselves. If you think that the person is a bad fit for your child, proceed cautiously with concrete examples of your concerns. The fact that their partner wasn’t brought up the way you had hoped becomes a lesser priority if you feel that their partner is not kind, accommodating or considerate of your child. Such concerns can and should be expressed in a careful and thoughtful way.
3. Think before you talk. You may have told your child that you hoped they would marry someone of the same religion, race or culture. Do you still feel the same way? Think about what you are afraid might happen if this person is your child’s partner for life. Are you worried that your child will reject their upbringing? If you say something negative, realize that your child may fulfill your fear of rejection of their upbringing—this could be a self-fulfilling prophecy. With positive reinforcement, you are likely to encourage your child and/or their partner to have good feelings about their upbringing.
The best way to express your concerns is through general, positive and thoughtful questions. Your concerns could be valid, but your child may not realize it so don’t expect an immediate revelation. For example, if you feel that your child has a dramatically different background and value system, a conversation might begin with this type of statement: “That is terrific that you and your partner are able to work out the differences from your backgrounds. I’m glad that you two are so thoughtful that you can work out such dramatic variables. I don’t think I could do that. I am very impressed.”
4. Encourage compatibility. It is OK to remind your children (throughout their childhood) that it is important to consider compatibility qualities in their future partners. Similar values in financial management, politics, education, family and discipline are all important in a long term relationship. Many clergy encourage couples to complete a survey to analyze and discuss these similarities and differences. Compatibility is very important and it is an OK topic to ask your child about delicately and privately.
5. If you are upset, think about why. Do you feel rejected? Your child didn’t reject you, he/she simply fell in love. (See Rabbi Robyn Frisch’s blog “Marrying Out is Not Abandoning Judaism”) Do you feel like you did a poor job raising your child? Think about whether your child is a kind person who is leaving a positive impact on society—if you can say yes, you did a great job as a parent. If you are upset that friends and relatives may be upset, you should relax. Any friends are likely to be supportive and to have experienced similar situations. Judgment from family members is an unacceptable reason to reject your child and their relationship. People who love your child and you will adapt and support their happiness if you set a positive example.
6. Be welcoming. If you are worried that your future grandchildren won’t be raised in the manner that you had hoped you should understand that you are not going to have control over how your grandchildren will be raised. Accept this lack of control. Then, embrace the couple and their future offspring. Only good can come from welcoming. Encourage them to participate in your holidays and culture. Positive behavior can lead to positive results. Negativity usually causes a backlash down the road.
What not to do?
1. Don’t be angry. Your child probably isn’t trying to make you angry. Even if your child is trying to be spiteful, reacting in a negative way will simply fulfill your child’s goal. Being angry serves no benefit. Your response to your child when your child tells you that he or she is serious with a potential life partner will be remembered.
2. Don’t threaten or reject your child. Your child needs to know that you will be there no matter what. This feeling of security that you will continue to love your child will provide satisfaction in the future. You will likely want your child to feel comfortable and unjudged if there are problems in the future. We all want have a safe place to go with our joys and our sadness. The arms of our parents should always provide us with that loving safety net.
Divinity school is an unlikely place for a rabbi to meet her spouse. In my first week of graduate school, I became friends with a Coptic nun from Egypt, a Southern Baptist minister, a Jewish Buddhist and a young scholar of Early Christianity. The last would one day become my wife. I was one of a handful of Jewish students and I relished the opportunity to study religion more broadly within this diverse community before making the final decision to become a rabbi. It became increasingly clear to me that I wanted to pursue a career like my classmates who were studying to become ministers and priests. They were community builders, teachers, healers in a fractured world. Apparently, I needed future ministers to help me decide that I wanted to become a rabbi.
For the first time in my life, I was dating a Jewish man. Since I was seriously considering becoming a rabbi by this time, I believed I had to marry someone Jewish, and he met all the criteria of a perfect spouse for me. He was not only Jewish; we had been counselors together at a Jewish camp, he spoke fluent Hebrew, had spent time in Israel and studied Judaism in college. But he simply wasn’t the right person for me.
My life took a major turn when I met Kirsti. She had grown up in a non-religious household with parents who had rejected Christianity. So, of course, she became fascinated by religion: religious people, religious texts, religious language. Like me, she was pursuing her masters at Harvard Divinity School. She would go on to earn a PhD in Early Christianity as I embarked on rabbinical school. We shared a love of religious mysticism and stayed up nights talking about Jewish and Christian mystical texts, and struggling with belief. In those early days, we also had to process the reality that dating a woman was new to both of us which, frankly, overpowered any worry about coming from different religious backgrounds.
Although she did convert many years into our relationship, Kirsti and I still question religion together and bring our knowledge, ideas and queries to the dinner table. We address our children’s musings with honesty and depth rather than supplying overly clear-cut answers we think they should be hearing. We hope our kids will be inspired to treat all people and ideas with respect and inquiry while being grounded in a rich, Jewish tradition. My Jewish life has been profoundly shaped by traveling this path with Kirsti for the past 20 years. She has led me to challenge pieces of our tradition that I blindly followed, and has deepened my connection to certain parts of our liturgy and rituals by seeing them in a new light.
I am delighted that as the new Director of InterfaithFamily/Bay Area, I have the opportunity to help families from mixed backgrounds navigate Judaism like we have. I will also strive to help Jewish communities become more welcoming to all types of people who don’t fit the long-gone model of a traditional, Jewish family. We are most enriched as a community when we offer space for people to bring their whole selves and their full narratives to Jewish life.
Maybe a rabbi meeting her spouse at divinity school is a rarity, but each family’s story is unique, with its own twists and turns. Who we love and choose to share our lives with cannot be reduced to a checklist of criteria to be met. Our stories are far more interesting than that.
Passover is one of the most widely celebrated Jewish holidays and many Jewish families have some type of Passoverseder, but preparing to host a seder can be intimidating. This is true whether or not you grew up Jewish—and, as I can personally attest, even if you’re a rabbi!
Seder means “order” in Hebrew, and there is a set order for how the seder is to proceed, set forth in the haggadah. As an avid haggadahcollector, I can tell you that there are LOTS of different haggadotto choose from—or you may put one together yourself. But even once you’ve selected a haggadah, if you have kids coming to your seder there’s the added pressure of wanting them to be engaged throughout the evening.
Here are some things that have worked for me in the past:
MAD LIBS, COLORING PAGES, ETC.: One year, when the kids arrived at my seder, I gave them a Passover Mad Libs game. Playing Mad Libs is a great way to keep kids busy before the seder starts (especially if you don’t want them running all over your house!) or after they have eaten their meal—which we all know takes kids a lot less time than it takes adults. If there are kids who are too young for Mad Libs, you can give them Passover coloring pages and crayons to keep them occupied (Google “Passover Coloring Pages” and you’ll find lots of pages you can print for free) or if you happen to be using a digital haggadah, like this one from JewishBoston.com, the younger set can enjoy this fun online seder matching game. Coloring in their own Passover placemats (which you can buy in many grocery stores, Judaica shops or online—or make your own) kept my kids happy and quiet during seders when they were little, as did kids’ haggadot that they could color in.
PASSOVER GRANOLA: Several years ago, I attended a pre-Passover workshop led by Noam Zion, one of the authors of A Different Night, The Family Participation Haggadah. Zion suggested that when the seder begins, the host should give each guest a bag of granola, which they can nosh on so they won’t be hungry and anxious for the meal, and thus will be more engaged during the pre-meal part of the seder, which is the majority of the haggadah. So when we all sat down, I gave everyone, adults as well as children, a bag filled with raisins, nuts, and Kosher for Passover chocolate chips and marshmallows. I explained that just as our Israelite ancestors went on a long journey after leaving Egypt, we too would have a “journey” before we began our meal, and the bag was filled with some food to keep us nourished along the way. (I also promised my guests that our journey would be a lot shorter than 40 years!). Another fun thing about the Passover granola was that my daughter, who was four at the time, had a great time preparing all of the bags with me before our guests arrived.
BINGO: One of the biggest hits was when I used a website to make a Passover Bingo game for my younger guests. The squares on the Bingo game had phrases such as: “I recited the four questions,” “I drank the second cup of wine/juice,” “I asked a question” and “I tasted maror.” I gave each kid a small cup of raisins, and told them to put a raisin on a square once they had done what was written in the square. This kept the kids engaged throughout the evening—nobody wanted to miss doing something and not be able to fill in that square on their card. I recently found a similar Passover Bingo game online here.
QUESTIONS! QUESTIONS! AND MORE QUESTIONS!: Any good seder involves a lot more than just the Four Questions in thehaggadah. Originally, the items on the seder plate and many of the Passover rituals were meant to spark questions. Your seder won’t be nearly as rewarding if you just read through the haggadah without taking time for questions and discussion. Here are some fun ways to incorporate questions into your seder:
Ask lots of questions: Before the seder, go to a Dollar Store or party store and buy a bunch of cheap little toys to use as prizes. Throughout the seder, stop to ask questions about the story and celebration of Passover. Whoever answers the question correctly gets a prize. You’ll probably find that the adults like to play along and show off their knowledge as much as the kids do. Or better yet…
Have your guests ask the questions: Encourage questioning by giving out a prize every time someone asks a question. Then let someone else answer the question—and they can get a prize too.
Put questions under everyone’s plates: One year I put an index card with a Passover-related question on it under each plate before everyone arrived at my seder. Some of the questions were serious (e.g., “If you could invite anyone to a seder, who would it be and why?”) while others were more light-hearted (e.g., “If you could eat only one thing for the rest of your life, would you rather it be matzah or bitter herbs?”). At different points throughout the seder, I would randomly pick a person and ask them to take the index card out from under their plate (no peeking at the card until you’re called on!), read their question and answer it.
Advanced planning is key to a successful seder. But that being said, once your planning is finished and your guests arrive, do your best to relax and enjoy!
Are there things you’ve done at a seder in the past that have been fun for kids and kept them engaged? What are you planning for this year?
My mother, Beatrice Case, died one week ago, on March 16, 2014. She was 95 and had been remarkably healthy until just two months ago. She was a much-loved woman, especially by my 97-year-old father with whom she shared 72 years of marriage. My dad says his “secret” for a long and happy marriage is to never go to bed mad and always say “I love you.”
Bea Case holding her third great-grandchild at his bris in November 2013
I don’t usually like to talk about my family in connection with my work at InterfaithFamily. But there is something important that I want to share to honor her memory.
My mother’s father was a traditionally observant Jew. My parents were founding members of the Conservative synagogue to which my mother schlepped my older brother and then me to religious school three times a week, a 25-minute drive each way. They made their opposition to intermarriage unmistakable to my brother and me.
In my eulogy I said that in the spring of 1968, when I was a senior in high school, I had started going out with Wendy, who wasn’t Jewish at the time (or for many years later). One day I asked my mom, “what would be so bad if I kept on going out with Wendy?” She said: “Well, you might really like her a lot, and you might go to college and not meet any one you like as much, and then you might get back together with her, and then you might want to get married.” That’s exactly what happened.
I also said in my eulogy that six years later, when I told my parents that I wanted to marry Wendy, they had a choice to make, and they put their love for me and their devotion to their family above anything else. Wendy feels that they came to embrace her as their own daughter.
At shiva the next day a cousin, who visited with my father while the funeral was taking place (he isn’t able to travel), told me that at about the same time as I was giving my eulogy, my father started telling her about exactly the same thing. He said, “Bea and I talked about it. We decided that we didn’t want to turn our backs and lose our son. And look at the wonderful family that we got.”
Also at shiva my mother’s childhood next-door neighbor and friend Elaine was talking to Wendy and said that my mother lived a “charmed” life. Wendy said, “probably the worst thing that happened to her is that Ed married me” and Elaine said, “that’s right.” Wendy said, “if I’m the worse thing that happened to her, I guess she did have a pretty charmed life,” and Elaine readily agreed. Because Wendy and I have been married for almost 40 years. Our daughter and son are happily married to wonderful partners; my mother adored all of them, and the feeling was mutual. My mother got to meet and know three great-grandchildren; the oldest one, who is three, is asking, “where is great-grandma?”
I would like to think that my mother and my father could see into the future the whole little universe of our loving family that would result from their loving embrace. But that embrace made something more than a loving family possible – they opened doors to continuing Jewish life. Wendy and I have been very Jewishly engaged. We can’t know for certain what our children’s families’ long-term relationship to Judaism will be – but our daughter’s wedding was officiated by a rabbi – my parents got to attend – and so was our son’s; each of our grandsons had a bris – my mother got to attend the second one, just last November; and our 8-month old granddaughter currently is a regular attendee with her parents at services at Mishkan in Chicago.
I said in my eulogy that my mother leaves behind the ongoing radiating ripple effect on the world that she and her thousands of interactions have had. She set a great deal of warmth and brightness and loving-kindness in motion. And she set the possibility of an ongoing Jewish future in motion too. I know that for me and my family her memory will always be a blessing.
Is it the spirit of the law or the letter of the law that counts the most?
“Your kids aren’t Jewish because your wife is not Jewish,” my friend said to me over coffee recently. I laughed so hard that my coffee spilled. “What’s so funny?” she asked.
“I know that you totally did not mean for that to come across as offensive.” I said, “But that is EXACTLY the kind of thing that we are trying to teach people not to say. InterfaithFamily wants to help build welcoming and inclusive Jewish communities and saying something like what you just said, for many people, is offensive.”
There are many times in one’s life that a person might find himself doing something without asking the question, “Why am I doing this?” One of the most divisive rabbinic rulings that is adhered to by various Jewish movements is that the religion of a baby is determined by the religion of the mother, not the father. So if a person is intermarried (as over 50 percent of the American Jewish population is), and they want their child to be recognized as Jewish to people within these movements, according to halacha—traditional Jewish law—it is the religion of the mother that “matters.” There are other views, such as the Reform movement, that recognizes a child as being Jewish if either parent is Jewish and the child is being raised Jewish (often referred to as patrilineal descent).
One of the most interesting aspects of the origin of religious descent is that originally in the Torah (the centerpiece and master story of the Jewish people), the religion of the offspring was determined by patriarchal descent, not matriarchal. There was a change around 2,000 years ago, many scholars found, that was based on the very tragic circumstances the Jewish people were facing. Jews were being wiped out by the Roman Empire in the 1st Century. The victimization and rape of Jewish women by Roman soldiers was not an uncommon occurrence.
There was no genetic testing back then, of course, and since the Jewish people were facing extinction, the rabbis rightfully decreed that the only parental origin that “mattered” for determining the religion of the baby was the religion of the mother. This law, which is still practiced by many Jewish communities today, had a very practical design.
But as Bob Dylan would say, “The times they are a-changin’.” It is true that there is still horrific “ethnic cleansing” that goes on around the world, such as in Bosnia and Darfur. But the problem that Jews were facing 2,000 years ago is, thankfully, no longer a common occurrence or threat. The law that once was helpful is no longer necessary.
When my son was born, my wife and I decided to have a bris and our search began to find a mohel that was willing to perform this ritual ceremony on a child from an interfaith marriage. At that time, f the mother was Jewish, it was much easier. Because I was the Jewish parent, many of themohels we spoke to would only perform the ceremony if my wife and son wen to the mikveh together. “So what’s the big deal?” I ignorantly asked. “It will be fun to go to the mikveh.” Sounded simple enough from an unaware Jewish dad’s perspective. (By the way, if you are looking for clergy to help with a birth ceremony for your interfaith family, we are here to help—just visit interfaithfamily.com/findarabbi.)
My wife was not too excited about this idea. Her initial reaction was, “Who are we trying to please?” or in other words “Why?”
Our kids are brought up Jewish in a Jewish house with mezuzahs on the doors. They attend Hebrew school and we celebrate Shabbat in our own meaningful way. And to us, right now, that is enough.
If you have questions about a bris or baby naming for an interfaith family, check out our baby naming booklet that you might find helpful. And please send me your stories (email@example.com), I would love to hear about your experiences as I continue this series of Halachah Unplugged.