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.

InterfaithFamily’s New Board Chair

Lynda Schwartz

New Board Chair, Lynda Schwartz

When I was asked to take the role of Board Chair for InterfaithFamily, the business executive in me weighed costs, benefits, risks and rewards. Ultimately, however, I gladly accepted, knowing that the work of InterfaithFamily is well worth an investment of time, energy and resources.

I’ve known the InterfaithFamily organization almost from its inception, first as a user of its resources, later on its Advisory Board, and most recently, as a Board member and Treasurer. I’ve long felt that Ed Case and the IFF management team are incredibly nimble, creative and committed. The team has a relentless focus on getting things done and an aggressive plan to broaden and deepen InterfaithFamily’s impact.

InterfaithFamily and its Board are deeply indebted to our immediate past Board Chair, Mamie Kanfer Stewart. Her five years of leadership have been a period of incredible growth, increasing organizational maturity and continued innovation. Mamie has always impressed me with her strategic thinking, her insightful approach and personal warmth.  Working with the Board and IFF’s management, she recently led us in developing a robust strategic plan that provides a clear road map for IFF’s future. I am conscious that she leaves a well-run organization, and very big shoes to fill.

After reflection, however, I realized that my investment in IFF is more personal. I remember too well the teary times when my Jewish husband and I used to struggle to reconcile our personal goals and objectives in a way that honored our traditions and faiths. When we married, I was not willing to convert to Judaism, but I was willing to learn, to study and to support my husband’s observance.

Now, I am helping our twins grow from bris and baby naming to b’nai mitzvah (this coming spring!) and hopefully, Jewish adulthood. Over time, my family and I have become fully engaged in our local synagogue community. I still have so much to learn, but I think our family is a joy and a “net positive” for the Jewish community.

Intermarriage is a reality in the Jewish world, affecting every community, and extending beyond federation, denomination or geographic boundaries. In the same way, IFF is reaching across boundaries to help interfaith families more fully engage in exploration of Judaism.

For me, the investment proposition is clear: I want all families like mine to have the resources, support and welcome that were such a help to mine. Each family walks its own path, and I am glad that IFF inspires families to greater engagement with Judaism and the Jewish community from wherever they start. It is work of immense value, and as its new Board Chair, I am pleased to have a chance to play a greater part.

Belt It Out!

In my head I am an opera singer. When I sing in the shower, it sounds so good. Yet when I sing out loud, I quickly realize that I am not in tune and even my 4-year-old now tells me so! He attends the JCC Appachi Village Day Camp.

He comes home every Friday singing Shabbat music. He learns it by hearing it each week and it sticks. He does not get every word right, but he gets most of it. He loves the melodies, he loves the energy of the song leaders, he loves the music. He knows it is for Shabbat and that it goes with challah and grape juice. He knows it is a special part of the week and part of being Jewish. He sings Shabbat songs in the bathtub and the car. It tickles me that he and my older daughter sing Jewish music with pride and joy. Here’s a short video of him singing:

I was recently meeting with an interfaith couple who have adult children. The wife, who had supported her children learning about and celebrating aspects of Judaism, shared that Hebrew has always been a hurdle for her in Jewish participation. She asked why we haven’t removed more Hebrew from synagogue services like Latin in a Catholic Mass. Why don’t we encourage people to say the prayers in English at home? This way parents and kids would understand what they are saying and it would have more meaning. The thought of “doing” Jewish would be less intimidating and more accessible.

I really struggle with how much Hebrew should be in a service, how to teach people to read and say the prayers, how to teach meaning, how to transmit a reverence for this LIVING language with ancient roots and how to understand the values inherent in the Hebrew language itself. For instance, if we know that the root of kavod (respect) is the word for heavy, then we learn something about the Jewish understanding of the concept of respect. If we know that the root of shalom (peace) is wholeness, then we know more about the meaning of peace within Jewish tradition.

My son can’t translate mah yafe hayom (How lovely today is. Shabbat Shalom). He has no idea what the Hebrew words mean. Yet, he knows the words connect him to his friends at camp. He knows the words are special. If adults could approach Hebrew in this way, maybe it would be more poetic and less literal. Meaning is always good and something we should strive for. But Hebrew, in prayer and song, goes beyond grammar and translation and enters the realm of the sacred just by the sound and rhythm and feelings it can imbue and conjure up. Has this ever happened to you: that you memorized the Hebrew to a prayer or song and it felt good in some way to repeat it and sing it?

Baby Blessings

My weekend was full of babies – and beautiful ways to welcome them into the world.

Saturday started off with a baby naming ceremony for my cousin’s daughter. My cousin is in an interfaith marriage, and they are raising their children Jewish. When it was time for her aliyah (the honor of being called to say the blessing over the Torah reading), the rabbi invited the whole family up, even getting a chair for the new big brother to stand on so he could see the Torah and be part of what was going on. The whole congregation seemed to share in the joy as we welcomed this family and their adorable little girl into the community.

Bracelets for Indian Baby CeremonyLater that afternoon, I attended a “baby blessing” party for a friend of mine who is due in July. Neither she nor her husband is Jewish, but they invited all of the guests to share a blessing, poem or song in honor of the parents-to-be and their baby. The husband’s family is from India so they actually incorporated part of a traditional Indian baby blessing ceremony into the afternoon. The women were invited to paint my friend’s cheeks with sandalwood and her forehead with vermilion. We placed bracelets on her arms and the baby is supposed to be able to hear the clinking sound of the bracelets in the womb. We offered words or songs of blessing for the new parents and for a safe birth.

When I was trying to figure out what words I could offer, I looked at some of InterfaithFamily’s materials, including our Brit Bat booklet. There I found a familiar prayer—the Shehekhiyanu—said whenever you experience something new or do something for the first time. This was the perfect blessing for me to say in honor of all the friends and family that were gathered for the ceremony and in honor of my friends’ first born! I was glad to be able to offer something from my Jewish tradition that could resonate with everyone there.

The day was another reminder to me of the beauty of Judaism and the ways it can help us add meaning and joy to the special moments of our life.

Genetic Screening: Why you should consider it

Couple with a counselorWhen you fall in love and decide that your partner is going to be the person you want to share your life with, life can seem blissful. If you start thinking about children, the future seems rosy and exciting. Some of you might be aware that the Jewish population may be at risk for certain genetic diseases. When a couple is from two different religious backgrounds, a they may think they are in the clear. A mix of genes from a variety of cultures should lead to a more robust gene pool, they think. Remember we learned in high school that both parents have to carry the gene for the child to be at risk. So an interfaith couple should be unlikely to produce a child with genetic issues, right? Maybe not.

I recently saw a news story that members from the Irish community were having children with Tay Sachs (a genetic disease that can occur with people from eastern European descent). This got me thinking. Do all of us truly know who our great, great, great grandparents were? Is there a chance that our ancestors left Spain in 1492? Is there a chance that one of our ancestors was born to Jewish parents but decided to become another religion to avoid religious persecution? I realized, this entire country was founded upon the basis of freedom of religion! Obviously, throughout the world, the freedom to practice one’s religion has been (and in many places continues to be) at risk. So chances are high that one of our ancestors could have been from a different religion or culture. With such a possibility, it makes sense that we might not truly know our genetic makeup. When I think about it further, anti-Semitism has been around for thousands of years. So the chances that an ancestor was Jewish and then converted to another religion to avoid persecution is possibly quite high.

At the Victor center, statistics say that one in four Jews is a carrier for at least one of 19 preventable Jewish genetic diseases. The mission of the Victor Center for the Prevention of Jewish Genetic Diseases is to ensure ongoing access to comprehensive genetic education, counseling services and screenings. This is accomplished through Jewish community education programs and screening programs for healthy individuals at risk for being carriers of a gene mutation for any one of these diseases. The Victor Center recommends that the Jewish partner be tested first. If the Jewish partner has no issues, then there is no need for additional genetic testing.

It is obviously a scary proposition to think about “what if” and what decisions that might need to be made if there is a problem. That is the point of testing. Then you know and can move forward. More important, once you know that you are in the clear, you can stop worrying about genetic diseases. Genetic counselors can explain all the issues, risks and options. Genetic testing is a simple blood test but it can provide peace of mind. With peace of mind, you can start focusing on the other exciting aspects of upcoming parenthood.

If both are carriers, what are the reproductive options?

There are many reproductive options available to carrier couples, including prenatal diagnosis (chorionic villus sampling and amniocentesis), pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, gamete donation and adoption. Genetic counseling is recommended to learn more about all of the reproductive options. To speak with the genetic counselor at The Victor Center, please call (215) 456-8722. Additionally, your rabbi or other clergy may be able to provide insight and help in making these decisions.Everyone is different and every couple is different. The point is this: You and your partner should just think about being tested. It is a good discussion to have and there are genetic counselors ready to help no matter what you decide.

Read one couple’s story about coping with genetic disease

The Challenge of a Jewish Education – A Plea to Educators

I am a day school kid. I didn’t like learning Hebrew much but I didn’t like school much either. I have some anxious  memories of Hebrew verb conjugation from second grade in the 1970s. Through Jewish camps and youth groups, I learned to love Jewish music. I have since recovered from day school and have picked the parts of Judaism that I like and find that I am quite happy.

When it came time to think about a Jewish education for my own kids, I had some flashbacks. But I also have some fun memories. We would have lively gatherings of the Jewish kids in the community for various holidays. Later we had youth group activities and fun parties. I enjoyed being with the kids that I had known forever. I have many memories associated with Judaism that are not necessarily religious. I attended a leadership program in high school and much of it was just fun—the focus was not on religion but being a good person.

My husband and I have struggled with what to do for our own kids’education. We considered day school. We considered camp. We joined a synagogue with a reputable Hebrew school. We decided to enroll them in a Jewish camp. We celebrate the holidays—decorating a sukkah is a favorite for the kids (but tons of work for me and my husband). Everyone has their own path and we are navigating our way so that our kids enjoy Judaism.

I have spoken with many people who have had a Jewish education. They often say they hated Hebrew school or day school. Still, many of them enroll their children in Jewish schools. Though some Hebrew schools have made a great effort to ensure that the new generation of students have positive experiences, it makes me so sad that some Hebrew schools have turned people off to the joys of being Jewish.

So, for the future of the Jewish people, I encourage educators to make sure that kids are engaged in the Hebrew school experience. A fun Purim spiel can be entertaining for the whole family. Spirited music, cooking classes and dressing up in costume for holidays are all wonderful ideas. Let’s encourage creative and fun ways to learn Hebrew. Decorate the sukkah and learn prayers with joy instead of dread.

Religious schools must bring Judaism into the 21st century in dynamic and fun ways. The educational system of the 1950s will not ensure the future of Judaism—indeed, it can be detrimental. Many parents complain that their child seems to be a round peg and the Jewish educational system is trying to force the child into a square hole. A lackluster Jewish education will adversely affect the future of Judaism. Teachers and schools must adapt to the families of today, whether Conservative, Orthodox, Reform, interfaith, etc. Sensitivity to the families and kids is key. Accept families and kids where they are and help them on their own journey. Welcoming kids in the door and keeping them there with a smile on their face is crucial. The entire family should feel welcomed and engaged. Hebrew school should not be torture—there are so many positive aspects of Judaism and it’s time to break the cycle.

Do you have a suggestion of something that your kids loved at their Hebrew School? Please post it in the comments below. Sharing your positive experiences is a great benefit to everyone.

Sliders and Moon Jars Oh My…

If you have never taken your children to visit the Chicago History Museum, June 9 is your day. The Chicago History Museum is a gem for us in Chicago. Visitors of all ages will find  stories, information about their city, and fun and interactive exhibits. The museum is featuring a very special exhibit at this time called Shalom Chicago.

Shalom Chicago features more than three hundred artifacts and images organized into three main sections:

The early community takes you back to the German Jewish community that began arriving in the 1840s. Rare artifacts from pre-fire Chicago and first-person accounts help tell their inspiring stories to a new generation.

The next phase takes us to the 1910 garment workers’ strike, a kosher food interactive and a rich array of ritual objects.

The last part called “New Challenges and Opportunities” introduces visitors to Jewish Chicagoans who protested against Hitler and served in World War II. There is a concluding video which features members of today’s community.

On Sunday June 9, starting at noon, InterfaithFamily/Chicago is partnering with the museum to offer a Family Fun Day. All can enjoy an outdoor barbeque, play games and participate in meaningful craft projects. Whether you come by outside to make a “moon jar” (come to see what this is!) and grab a slider or feel you have the bandwidth with young children to go through the actual exhibit that day or not, a question to consider is:

This exhibit features the history of Jewish Chicago, but what is the future of Jewish Chicago?

Without a doubt, interfaith families are a major facet of the future of Jewish life in Chicago. As interfaith families, how do you wish our communal organizations from synagogues to community centers to Jewish learning programs looked and felt, and what do you wish they focused on? What do you wish rabbis, educators and Federation leaders knew about your interfaith family and your commitments to bringing Jewish living and ideals to the rhythm of your life? Where could you use support and understanding? You are the future of Jewish Chicago!

We hope to see you Sunday, June 9. Come by and meet InterfaithFamily leadership and enjoy a great family day.

Let us know if you think you can make it at: arim@interfaithfamily.com.

Accessing Judaism

I recently attended the confirmation ceremony at a local congregation in the Bay Area. During the ceremony the students led the congregation in services, chanted the Ten Commandments from the Torah, and shared words of wisdom that they learned during their studies with the rabbi.

One student shared his understanding of (Progressive/Reform) Judaism. He explained, “Judaism is different than most other religions. There are two different aspects of it: The first are the traditional aspects, the praying and the beliefs; the second are the Jewish teachings and participation in the Jewish community. Although Judaism is based on a belief in one God, not all Jews actually believe in God. Those who believe in God tend to connect to Judaism through prayer and belief. Others are agnostic; they do not believe in God. They tend to connect to Judaism mostly through Jewish community and culture.”

Judaism has room for those who believe in God, those who do not and those who struggle with their relationship with God. The ability to connect to Judaism either through belief or through community and culture allows for partners and spouses of Jews to fully participate in Jewish life, without converting to Judaism.

The beauty of Judaism is that each individual can find his/her own connection. They can decide what feels right and what their practice will include. For example, some Jews say the Shema every night before going to sleep. Others do not. Similarly, some parents who are not Jewish, but who have committed to raising their children with Judaism, say the Shema with their child every night (while others do not).

There are many options for your practice of Judaism. If you are a parent, check out our booklets, specifically “Good Night Sleep Tight,” if you’re interested in saying the Shema or other bedtime rituals. You may also be interested in our next Raising a Child with Judaism class for more ideas that you can incorporate into your family life. You may also find inspiration from others in our articles about growing up in an interfaith family.

Whether you connect through belief and prayer or community and culture, we welcome you!

The Blessing of the Parents

I attended an informative and provocative session at Limmud Philly. This conference is held in several major cities and is a usually a day or weekend of Jewish learning. The learning includes philosophy, prayer, entertainment and socializing. It is quite an event for those that like to think Jewish!

I attended a session entitled “We Totally Accept You (Almost): Ritual and Leadership Roles in Synagogues.” The participants learned about the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist perspectives regarding synagogue membership and prayers. Our presenter was InterfaithFamily’s own Benjamin Maron. Benjamin did a great deal of research regarding different synagogues and their policies regarding interfaith involvement.

I was fascinated by the discussion of prayers and who is allowed to say what from the bimah. Frequently synagogues limit the participation of the parent who is not Jewish. We discussed that the reason that some synagogues don’t want the partner who is not Jewish to participate in the prayers at a Bar and Bat Mitzvah is that the translation of the prayers are things like: “Who has sanctified us through the mitzvot” and “Who has chosen us.” The word “us” refers to the Jewish people, therefore, someone who isn’t Jewish isn’t allowed to participate.

I understand the principle of this – Jews have been through a lot. Our ancestors have been persecuted in our efforts to practice our religion and we have worked hard to educate ourselves. Those that have had a bar or bat mitzvah know that there is a lot of work and education going into this process. We feel the need to hold fast to our religion. Will someone who isn’t practicing Judaism threaten my Judaism by saying a prayer?

The children of many of my friends are becoming bar and bat mitzvah. I am familiar with the frequent scene of the parents and grandparents surrounding their young teenager, beaming with pride. I was thinking about this further. I know many families where the spouse does not practice Judaism but has agreed to raise the kids in Judaism. How do they feel during the blessings? Do they feel included, awkward, proud? Maybe a mixture of feelings and emotions? If there were a blessing from the parent who wasn’t Jewish, what would that look like? Would it be sacrilege to bless your child in their arrival in their Jewish adulthood?

As a Jew, I want anyone standing on the bimah during a simcha to feel joy! I don’t want anyone to feel excluded or simply tolerated. I want them to feel WELCOME! So now, I look at this from another perspective: the parent who is not Jewish, standing in front of the Jewish community, blessing this event is equivalent to saying, “I was not raised Jewish, but I am proud, thrilled, and elated that my child is entering into Jewish adulthood. I fully support this choice and my child.” To me, this has great meaning and this concept strengthens the joy of the day. Here is this parent supporting their child’s Jewish journey – how great is that!?

Do I feel threatened that someone who isn’t practicing Judaism is saying a prayer and including themselves in the Jewish community? Not at all. In fact, I am elated that this parent is allowing and encouraging their child to be Jewish! While I know some of the movements are having trouble “moving” forward toward adapting to interfaith issues within our American society, it is critical that they work to keep those that want to be Jewish.

I will be attending two bar/bat mitzvahs this weekend, and I know that I will be thrilled to witness each child stepping into the role of being a Jewish adult. I love Judaism and am delighted to see someone make the choice to practice Judaism. I think that their parents should be allowed to bless their child’s arrival into Jewish adulthood. And with that I say, Amen, L’chaim and WELCOME!