Shabbat Dinner at the Shore

The following is a guest blog post by Sarah & David Falk

Shabbat group

It was a cool summer day in August down at the Jersey Shore. We were renting a beach house in Bradley Beach with some friends and family for the summer. My husband, David, and his family have been coming down to Bradley Beach for over 25 years and we thought it was the perfect place to host a Shabbat dinner. We set up chairs and tables for 15 people in our backyard and surrounded them with tiki torches. The food was served buffet-style to keep with our casual dinner atmosphere.

Who were we serving and why were we hosting 15 people for Shabbat to begin with? It all started when we got involved with InterfaithFamily through their Love and Religion workshop last fall. While searching for officiants for our May 2013 wedding, we came across the organization’s website. We have been together for nine years, and InterfaithFamily is the first organization we found that embodies both of our beliefs and is a common ground for both of us.

Dave & Sarah

David and Sarah lighting the Shabbat candles

Over the years, we have attended many Shabbat dinners together at friends’ and family’s houses. We love participating in Shabbat dinner with family and friends—it is always a great way to start the weekend.

When we met with the staff of InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia and others who have participated in their classes and workshops earlier this year to discuss programs and events that we would be interested in seeing within the organization, the staff was extremely receptive to the idea of a Shabbat dinner sponsorship program. We experienced a similar program through another organization which our friends had used to sponsor their Shabbat dinners.

The purpose of the IFF/Philadelphia Shabbat dinner program is to create a community of peers. You are encouraged to invite other interfaith couples and/or families to celebrate Shabbat, but we found that a mix of backgrounds at our Shabbat dinner helped with the discussions. IFF/Philadelphia will reimburse alumni of its classes and workshops up to $20 per adult ($10 per child) to host a Shabbat dinner. From our experience, the program not only encourages you to host a Shabbat dinner, but it gets the conversation started about the InterfaithFamily organization with those who may not be familiar already.

Alums

Alumni of Love & Religion (Dave & Sarah on right, Anne & Sam center)

The guests at our Shabbat dinner included friends that were staying at our beach house, family that lived close by and two other interfaith couples that were part of the Love and Religion workshop with us. It was great to catch up with them almost a year after our workshop ended, especially since one of the couples was getting married in a few months (congrats Sam and Anne who have now been married by IFF/Philadelphia’s Rabbi Robyn Frisch!).

Our menu included soup (which was especially refreshing since it was chilly outside), chicken, Israeli couscous with vegetables (recipe below), eggplant dip, salad and lots of our favorite kosher Bartenura Moscato Italian wine. We had a little trouble lighting the candles at first because of the wind, but eventually got them to work!

Our first Shabbat dinner was a success and we were so happy to be one of the first couples to host one through InterfaithFamily. It was a wonderful way to celebrate the week that was ending and spread the word about InterfaithFamily. We look forward to hosting another Shabbat dinner in the near future!

If you are interested in getting involved with InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia, drop a note to philadelphia@interfaithfamily.com.

Israeli Couscous
Makes 10-12 servings

Ingredients

  • 1 bag Israeli pearl couscous
  • 2 cups chicken stock
  • 1 shallot
  • 1 pint cherry tomatoes
  • 1 bag sugar snap peas
  • 1 ball of mozzarella, cut into small pieces
  • Few leaves of fresh basil, ripped into small pieces
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Cut the shallot and halve the tomatoes. Drizzle a few tablespoons of olive oil on a baking sheet and add the cut vegetables, sprinkling with salt and pepper as desired. Bring the chicken stock to a boil and add the couscous, stirring often so that the couscous does not stick to the saucepan. Remove couscous from heat once tender and chicken stock is absorbed (about 10 minutes). While the couscous is cooking, roast the vegetables until soft. Combine couscous and roasted vegetables. Mix in basil and mozzarella right before serving. Enjoy!

Creating Positive Community Memories

Community

This year on Rosh Hashanah, our synagogue tried something new. All of the kids were invited onto the bima to witness the blowing of the shofar. It was amazing to watch the kids’ faces while the shofar sounded. My daughter even jumped back a little at the sound initially. It was a sight to behold on many levels. First, I loved seeing all of the kids at the synagogue. Most of them were in awe of the Torahs, the Rabbi and the shofar. Second, when I spoke to my son later, he said he never realized that there were that many people at the synagogue. He seemed impressed that there were that many people observing the holidays. Since he attends a school with very few Jewish kids, he felt excited that “he wasn’t the only one” observing the holiday. Third, the Rabbi said that the twisting shape of the shofar is like life – there are ups and downs, twists and turns that keep going on a unique journey. Again, watching the kids comprehend this concept was gratifying.

I know that for a long time, synagogues would keep the kids in a different area of the building during services so they didn’t disrupt the adults and the prayers (I suspect the parents liked having a “break” from the kids, too). Some congregations create a group that prays and another group that discusses. There may be another group for the teenagers and another group for the toddlers. Unfortunately, some kids grow up thinking that synagogue is just for kids. I think that this is all fine and good but at some point, we should all be together.

I learn so much from the whole community: from my kids, from my friend’s 92- year-old-grandmother, and from the pleasant gentleman two rows back with a great smile. Our kids should see what their future looks like and we should look back on our childhood with wonderful memories. The good memories are what keep us going so we can manage the twists and turns of life.

Many people are part of the community of their neighborhood, preschool, elementary school, gym or office. I find that these communities are wonderful but fleeting; the people move, the kids grow up, the gym down the street offers a better deal or people get new jobs. The Jewish community is a little different on the holidays. No one has to send out an invitation, but lots of people show up to celebrate the holiday. We see families grow up and evolve. A hug from an old friend is commonplace. We may hear a tune that reminds us of a relative or humorous incident from childhood.

I know that many communities have a Jewish Community Center (JCC) which is a great place to find community. While I am not a member of a JCC, I find that my Jewish community IS my center. It is the most consistent presence in my life besides family. I don’t love everyone there but I enjoy a little something of everyone, young and old. Best of all, we all are collecting and reliving some very positive memories.

Our New Year’s Apple Picking Event

Kids blowing shofars

One of my favorite things about living in the Northeastern United States is apple picking. Relating to the Rosh Hashanah tradition of eating apples and honey, an apple picking event is a wonderful opportunity to build community.

Apple pickingIn mid-September, InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia co-sponsored an apple picking event on a Sunday morning in Chester County with jkidphilly. It was a beautiful day and the orchard (Highland Orchards) was a wonderful spot. I was fortunate enough to be working with Robyn Cohen from jkidphilly and we assisted the kids in making a fun craft.

Did you know that with a small plastic horn blower and a paper plate, kids can make their own shofar? The kids decorated the paper plates with apple stickers and crayons and behold, the shofars were fabulous. The kids could make some noise with their new shofars and it didn’t bother anyone! And if they got a little “energetic” there was a playground right next to our picnic tables for them to let off a little joyous energy.

Family making shofars

The parents and kids were able to mingle and learn a little about the holiday of Rosh Hashanah. I particularly love the comparison of a shofar to an alarm clock—waking us up from our daily activities and alerting us to the new possibilities of the fall, a New Year and renewed spirit. There is something special about the fall sunshine on an orchard that warms the soul. Apples are so sweet and the kids love being involved in harvesting the fruits of their labor. There were over 25 families who attended the pre-Rosh Hashanah apple picking in Chester County. If you are interested in attending similar events, please email philadelphia@interfaithfamily.com and let us know. We look forward to hearing from you!

Patrilineal Descent: Should the Baby be Taken to the Mikveh for Conversion?

PregnantDo you know which of the following children would be considered Jewish without going through a conversion according to halacha (traditional Jewish law)?

a)      A child born from the sperm of a Jewish male and the egg of a Jewish female, who was carried by a surrogate who was not Jewish and then raised by her Jewish biological parents.

b)      The child of a biological father who was not Jewish and a biological mother who was not Jewish at the time of conception but who had a traditional Jewish conversion two days before giving birth to the child, who is adopted at birth and raised by parents who are not Jewish.

c)       The biological child of a Jewish father and a mother who is not Jewish at the time she gives birth but later converts to Judaism, who is raised as a Jew by his biological parents.

In fact, only the child in (b) is considered Jewish according to halacha. The only factor that matters in determining the Jewish “status” of a child is the religion of the woman who gives birth to the child at the time she gives birth. Whether the biological father is Jewish; whether adoptive parents are Jewish; whether a biological mother is Jewish if she is not the one who gives birth to the child; even whether the child is raised as a Jew…all of these factors are not relevant in determining whether the child is Jewish according to halacha. (For discussion of this issue by a Conservative Rabbi CLICK HERE.)

The issue of “Who is a Jew?” can be confusing; it can seem illogical, and at times unfair. Due to the traditional Jewish rule of “matrilineal descent,” when a birth-mother is Jewish—regardless of how (or by whom) the child is raised—the child is Jewish according to halacha. But when the father is Jewish (or, in the case of adoption or surrogacy, both parents may be Jewish) but the birth mother is not Jewish, even if the child is raised as a Jew, he is not Jewish according to halacha.

Nancy and Drew (not their real names) were aware of the traditional Jewish requirement of matrilineal descent when they sat in my office recently, Nancy six months pregnant with their first child, a girl. Drew, who is Jewish, and Nancy, a practicing Catholic, had decided that any children they had would be raised as Jews.  “So,” Nancy said to me, her hand resting on top of her growing belly, “how long after the baby is born should we take her to the mikveh (the ritual bath which is used for conversion to Judaism)?”

As a Reform Rabbi, I was somewhat taken aback by Nancy’s question. It has been years since the Reform Movement began recognizing “patrilineal descent” (i.e., the child can be recognized as a Jew if the father is Jewish, even if the mother is not Jewish). Drew grew up in a Reform synagogue, and he and Nancy had even begun to discuss joining a local Reform synagogue, where nobody would ever question the Jewishness of their daughter. Why, I wondered, did they feel a need to convert their daughter to Judaism when she would already be Jewish? To me, a conversion would be not only unnecessary, but problematic, since it would imply that the baby wasn’t “really” Jewish even though Drew was Jewish and she would be raised as a Jew.

And so I asked the couple why they wanted to convert their daughter, since it wasn’t necessary. Their response was simple and practical: “What if we end up at a Conservative synagogue one day, or what if our daughter grows up and wants to be married by a Conservative or Orthodox rabbi? We wouldn’t want her to feel that her being Jewish is in question, so we figured it’s best to ‘cover all of the bases’ while she’s a baby. This way, more people will consider her to be Jewish.”

I understood where they were coming from. After all, if they decided at some point to join a Conservative synagogue—even one that was very welcoming of interfaith families—since “patrilineal descent” isn’t recognized by the Conservative movement, their daughter might be allowed to be enrolled in Religious School without converting, but she would have to convert before being allowed to become a Bat Mitzvah at the synagogue. Wouldn’t it make sense, they reasoned, for them to take her to the mikveh while she was still a baby? Then, if they did join a Conservative synagogue at some point, they wouldn’t have to tell her at the age of 12 that she had to go to the mikveh because she wasn’t “really” Jewish according to the standards of her community.

I understood and respected their motivation to shield their daughter from the potential future pain of having her Jewishness questioned…of being told by others that because her mother wasn’t Jewish, she wasn’t Jewish, even though she’d been living as a Jew her entire life and had always identified as a Jew. My own daughter, simply because she was born to a Jewish mother, will never have to endure such painful questioning of her identity by others; why should Nancy and Drew have to worry that their daughter would have to deal with such questioning?

But still, I felt that by embracing Nancy and Drew’s “solution” to “convert” a child that I would already consider Jewish, I wouldn’t be holding true to my belief in the legitimacy of “patrilineal descent.” And so while I acknowledged the benefits of the couple “converting” their daughter while she was still a baby, I also expressed my concerns.

Whether Nancy or Drew will take their daughter to a mikveh for conversion while she is still a baby is their decision to make, and I will honor whatever decision they come to. But it saddens me that they have to make such a decision: choosing between their own liberal Jewish beliefs and the desire for their daughter to be recognized as a Jew by the larger Jewish community.

What would you do in Nancy and Drew’s situation? Would you take your child to the mikveh? What if the child were adopted and neither of the biological parents were Jewish?

Try Shabbat Dinner – We’ll Help!

Shabbat dinner in PhiladelphiaOn Friday evening, July 18, I had a great time welcoming Shabbat. My family’s Shabbat dinner guests were six young interfaith couples who I’ve come to know over the past year—either through officiating at their weddings or through my work at InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia. My IFF/Philadelphia colleague Wendy Armon, her husband Bruce and daughter Tess also joined us.

It was wonderful celebrating Shabbat with these six couples. For some of the attendees who were not Jewish it was their first time attending a Shabbat dinner and I felt privileged to be able to make this happen for them and to share in their experience.

After everyone arrived and had the chance to meet one another (none of the couples knew one another previously) and talk for a while, we all gathered to recite the Shabbat blessings. Anyone who wanted one was given a kippah and/or a copy of InterfaithFamily’s “Shabbat Made Easy” booklet. Then I lit the candles and recited the blessing. Before Wendy and I blessed our kids with the traditional Friday evening blessing for children, I pointed out that the blessing for sons begins with the phrase “May you be like Ephraim and Menashe.” Interestingly, the mother of Ephraim and Menashe (Joseph’s sons in the Bible) was Asenath, an Egyptian woman. It felt quite appropriate to bless my own son Benji with the words “May you be like Ephraim and Menashe” (two men who grew up in an “interfaith” family in the Bible) as I was surrounded by interfaith couples who will one day have families, like Joseph and Asenath’s, where the parents are from different religious backgrounds.

I shared with the couples how in some traditional Jewish homes the husband sings Eishet Chayil (“A Woman of Valor”—from Proverbs 31) to his wife. Rather than reciting “A Woman of Valor,” I invited the couples to each share with their partners what they loved about them, or perhaps a wish for the week ahead. Each couple did this as Wendy and I blessed our children.

My son Benji recited the kiddush (blessing over the wine) after which I invited each couple to share from their own cup of wine (just as those who were married had done at their wedding ceremonies). In truth, my impetus for doing this was that I had enough silver kiddush cups for six couples, but not enough for twelve individuals.

After we said ha-motzi (the blessing over the bread) it was time to eat! We all relaxed and socialized over our meal and no one had to check their cellphones or rush to get anywhere.

My hope is that the interfaith couples who attended the Shabbat dinner at my house will now “pay it forward” and host Shabbat dinners of their own. IFF/Philadelphia wants to help them with this, so we have created a Shabbat Dinner Program. Here’s how it works: Anyone who attended our Shabbat dinner—or who has participated in one of our Love and Religion workshops for interfaith couples or our online “Raising a Child with Judaism in your Interfaith  Family” classes for parents of young children—is invited to host a Shabbat dinner of their own, which will be subsidized by InterfaithFamily. We encourage participants in our Shabbat Dinner Program to invite other interfaith couples and/or families to celebrate Shabbat with them so that they can create a community of their peers. However, we also believe that inviting guests from different backgrounds can help inspire a lively discussion about Shabbat and Jewish life, so participants in our Shabbat Dinner Program are also welcome to invite others who are not in interfaith relationships to their Shabbat dinner.

IFF/Philadelphia will not only provide those participating in the program with resources for hosting a Shabbat dinner, we will also help pay. And while the Shabbat dinner at my house can be a model for those who attended, we encourage people to “make Shabbat their own” in a way that feels right for them.

For those of you who are alumni of one of our workshops or classes, please be in touch with us at philadelphia@interfaithfamily.com and we are happy to tell you more about our Shabbat Dinner Program and give you any assistance you need in planning your own Shabbat dinner. If you happen to live in Philadelphia or South Jersey and you aren’t yet connected with IFF/Philadelphia but would like to attend a Shabbat dinner hosted by an interfaith couple or family, let us know and we’ll try to hook you up with someone who is hosting a Shabbat dinner near you.

And finally, even if you don’t live in the Philadelphia area, consider having a Shabbat dinner of your own. All you need are two candlesticks and candle holders (or you can use two tealights) and matches; a kiddush cup (though any cup is fine) and some wine or juice; challah (which, depending on where you live, you can probably get at a local bakery or grocery store, or you can make your own—Rabbi Mychal Copeland recently shared her recipe) and a challah cover (or you can just cover your challah with a napkin); and kippot for your guests if you want to offer them. You can print out InterfaithFamily’s “Shabbat Made Easy” Booklet for explanations, blessings, etc. And you don’t have to make a big deal about dinner: You can make or order something simple, or you can even make it potluck. The point is that you’re together with others to share the beauty and joy of celebrating Shabbat.

We’d love to hear about your Shabbat experiences. Whether you celebrate Shabbat regularly in your home, or whether you just hosted or attended a Shabbat dinner for your first time, tell us about it. Who did you invite to share Shabbat with you? What was your favorite part of the evening? What will you do the same next time? What will you do differently?

Converts Not Necessarily Wanted – An Open Letter to Arnold Eisen

Chancellor Eisen,

I just read your article in the Wall Street Journal, Wanted: Converts to Judaism, in which you advocate for “the rabbis of the Conservative movement to use every means to explicitly and strongly advocate for conversion.”  Considering that you are the Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of the Conservative Movement, your words carry great weight.  And because of this, I am asking you to reconsider your position.

I of course agree with you that there is much beauty and deep meaning in living a Jewish life.  I am overjoyed when someone comes to me and says that she has decided to pursue the path toward conversion—whether it is because she has lived with a Jewish partner and raised Jewish children and now wholeheartedly desires to become a Jew; she has fallen in love with a Jewish person and thinks that living as a Jew could elevate her own life; or because, independent of any personal relationships, she has found Judaism and has come to believe that she is meant to be a Jew.

It is incumbent upon those of us who are rabbis as well as all people and institutions that are committed to Jewish continuity that we let all people, and especially those family members in our midst who are not Jewish, know that they are always welcome to become Jewish if that is what their soul desires, and that our doors are open wide.  As a rabbi, there are few things I have done that are more rewarding than accompanying someone on their journey to becoming a Jew. Conversion, when done for the right reasons, is a blessing for the new Jew as well as for the Jewish community.  But conversion isn’t the only option, and it isn’t always the right option.  And while I am sure you in no way intended this, I greatly worry that by advocating for conversion, the Jewish community will give the impression that any conversion is OK, even without the sincerity of conviction and belief that a genuine conversion would require.

I agree with you that we should ensure that “opportunities for serious adult study of Judaism and active participation in Jewish life” are always available.  Over the years, I have seen many family members who are not Jewish take Jewish learning very seriously, and I have seen such family members actively participating in Jewish communal life.  I am sure you have witnessed this as well. Sometimes family members who are not Jewish decide over time to become Jewish themselves (often before a significant life-cycle event, such as a child’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah).  Others choose not to become Jewish but to remain part of the community.  Their reasons for not becoming Jewish are as diverse as individuals themselves – including the fact that they may believe in and practice another religion; they may not want to convert out of respect for their own parents or other family members; or they may simply not believe in God, thus feeling that conversion to any religion would be insincere.

While I believe that family members who are not Jewish should always know that they are welcome to explore becoming Jewish and that we would be honored to have them as converts if this is what they truly want and believe, I worry that if  “Jewish institutions and their rabbis…actively encourage non-Jewish family members in our midst to take the next step and formally commit to conversion,” as you suggest we do, we will not only encourage conversions for the wrong reasons, but that we will also be putting undue pressure on family members who are not Jewish.  Rather than bringing them into the fold, as you desire, I fear that we could turn them away.

Instead, I think we need to send the message that we welcome family members who are not Jewish as part of our community just as they are (rather than trying to turn them into what we want them to be).  Rather than “explicitly and strongly advocat[ing] for conversion” as you suggest, I believe that we should let family members who are not Jewish know that we would be honored to help them become Jewish if that is what they wish for themselves, and we would be equally honored if they do not convert but make the commitment to raise their children as Jews.  What we really need to do is to ensure that resources are available for parents who did not grow up Jewish (as well as those who did grow up Jewish) to raise their children with Judaism in their lives, whether or not they themselves convert.

Toward the end of your article, you make reference to the biblical character Ruth, the “most-famous convert in Jewish tradition.”  While we often refer to Ruth as a “convert,” using such a term is anachronistic, since “conversion” as we now know it did not exist in Biblical times.  But, more important, as I point out in my blog Re-reading Ruth: Not “Ruth and Her Conversion” but “Ruth and Her Interfaith Marriage,” we cannot ignore the timing of Ruth’s conversion.  As I noted in my blog, by the time Ruth made her famous declaration of commitment to her mother-in-law Naomi and to the people and God of Israel, Ruth’s Israelite husband, Noami’s son Machlon, was already deceased.  This was already after Ruth’s marriage—not before it.

Ruth may have found, as you point out, “community, meaning and direction by entering deeply into her new identity,” but this didn’t happen because Naomi or anyone else in her family encouraged Ruth or advocated for her to take on a new identity.  In fact, the Book of Ruth explicitly informs us that after Machlon had died and Naomi was leaving Ruth’s homeland of Moab to return to Bethlehem, Naomi repeatedly urged Ruth to “turn back” (Ruth 1:11-15) rather than accompany Naomi on her journey.  Ruth uttered the words “Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God  (Ruth 1:16) not because Naomi “actively encouraged her” but because Naomi had already accepted her for so many years for who she was—a Moabite, an “outsider,” that was married to her son.  It was because of Naomi’s unconditional love for Ruth that Ruth linked her future with that of Naomi, her people and her God—and ultimately went on to become the great-grandmother of King David.

Chancellor Eisen, you note in the first paragraph of your article that “Judaism needs more Jews.”  I agree with you that the high rate of intermarriage  “presents the Jewish community…perhaps, with a unique opportunity.”  But where we disagree is on what that opportunity is.  In my view, the opportunity we have is not to necessarily convince those who are married to Jews to convert.  Instead, like Naomi, we can help to ensure our Jewish “tomorrows” by unconditionally welcoming spouses and partners of Jews into our Jewish community and making it as easy and meaningful as possible for them to raise Jewish children.

Sincerely,

Rabbi Robyn Frisch
Director, InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia

Love, Religion and Cocktails!

Love, religion and cocktails event

Rabbi Robyn Frisch, Director of IFF/Philadelphia (left) with a participant at Love, Religion & Cocktails

A few weeks ago, InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia hosted our first gathering for young adults from interfaith homes and those who are in interfaith relationships: Love, Religion & Cockatils. We were fortunate enough to work with The Jewish Collaborative, a local organization that works with people in their 20s and 30s. In addition, our programming committee was terrific in coming up with the right type of program and the appropriate language for the marketing materials. Lots of organizations have mixers or programs, but this event was a little bit of both. It was an amazing night!

Drinks and appetizers: Everyone was given two drink tickets and there was a table with appetizers so that everyone could snack and mingle. We wanted everyone to have a chance to engage in casual conversation before we broke up into two groups. We served the “Love & Religion” as our signature cocktail. We’re pretty sure our participants enjoyed our special concoction.

A unique format: We wanted people to talk casually about their experiences and to connect with one another. The programming committee thought that the best way to achieve this would be to ask lighthearted questions such as, “What is your favorite holiday movie and why?” We hoped participants would explain their points of view as to why they liked certain movies, thus sparking conversation about issues such as how childhood memories inform our identity. We know that for many people, there is a lot of passion about their religion that has to do with memories. We asked other fun questions such as “If you described your family as a food, what would it be?” We heard, “a pizza bagel,” “a potato latke.” The answers were fun and touched upon the backgrounds of each person. One person talked about feelings associated with a Christmas tree. Another person talked about family meals and holidays.

Love religion & cockatils

During our conversations, we heard the most fascinating stories. One woman who grew up in America went to Israel and is now engaged to a Muslim from Sudan. Another woman told us about growing up in a Jewish/Puerto Rican household. One of the couples talked about how the rabbi at their wedding was so wonderful and welcoming that the partner who did not grow up Jewish is now considering converting.

A measure of success: we handed out short evaluations and all data indicated that everyone seemed quite happy with the program. The real measure of success in my mind was that people stayed for an hour after the event ended to talk to one another and our staff. Obviously, there is a real need for a forum for folks to connect and share their stories. I’m proud that IFF/Philadelphia offered that space for them and I’m pleased to be part of an organization that offers a safe space for people to share and communicate online and in person.

Would you like to attend Love, Religion and Cocktails in the future in Philadelphia or elsewhere? Share your comments and ideas below.

“How We Be” – Our Day at Camp JRF

Training with counselorsEveryone stand in a big circle. If you have a parent who is not Jewish, take a step inside the circle. Stay there. Now, if you are still in the outside circle, and you have a close relative who is not Jewish, take a step inside the circle. 

Everyone looked around and saw that nearly all of the more than 75 participants had taken a step inside the circle.

And so began InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia’s Sensitivity Training for counselors at Camp JRF (the Reconstructionist movement’s overnight camp in the Pennsylvania Poconos) for working with children from interfaith homes. This training—which I conducted along with my IFF/Philadelphia colleagues Wendy Armon and Robin Warsaw—was part of the camp’s Inclusivity Training for counselors in the week before campers arrived. It was clear to all of the counselors in attendance that being part of an interfaith family isn’t just a theoretical issue for liberal Jews today, it’s something that touches almost every one of us personally.

Training with counselorsOver the next hour, we explored how the counselors could best handle various issues that might come up during the summer. For example, what do you do as a counselor when you’re leading a discussion about God and one of the campers brings up Jesus? The counselors also divided up into small groups and discussed and acted out various scenarios involving interfaith issues, such as how to react when a camper says that she is “half Jewish and half [another religion]” or when a camper claims that his bunkmate “isn’t really Jewish.”

Staff at camp training

From left: Rabbi Robyn Frisch, Wendy Armon, Rabbi Isaac Saposnik, Executive Director of Camp JRF, Robin Warsaw

 

I was amazed at the counselors’ thoughtfulness and sensitivity, their insight and creativity, and their openness to discussing challenging issues. After the training, the three of us from IFF/Philadelphia had the pleasure of joining the counselors for a healthy and delicious (really!) lunch—which was followed by a rousing song session in which the counselors sang some of the songs they’ve been learning in advance of the campers’ arrival. Then we were in for a real treat, as the camp’s director, Rabbi Isaac Saposnik, took us on a tour (by golf cart) of the camp. We saw how the different activity areas were labeled with signs that looked like Israeli street signs, naming the activity in Hebrew, English and Arabic. A highlight of the tour was the camp’s new Eco-Village (designed with the input of campers from the past year), a super cool area where campers entering their freshman and sophomore years of high school will live in yurts.

More than once throughout our day at Camp JRF, we heard someone use the camp expression “How We Be.” At Camp JRF, diversity isn’t just tolerated…it isn’t just accepted…it’s embraced! One thing was clear:  “We all be different…and that’s wonderful!” Camp JRF is very much a JEWISH camp, but every person at camp—counselor or camper—is encouraged to express his or her Judaism in a way that is personally meaningful. And each person understands that he or she has to respect how others “be.” There’s no “one size fits all.” Each individual is unique, and that makes for a vibrant camp community.

I have no doubt that the campers who attend Camp JRF this summer will have an amazing time. They’ll swim and play Frisbee; dance and sing; make new friends and have all kinds of exciting and rewarding experiences. If they’re going into ninth or tenth grade—they’ll even get to live in a yurt! But most important, they’ll know that they’re living in a community where their uniqueness is embraced and they are accepted for who they are, as they are. And THAT is a great way to “be.”

Relief in the Summer Months

Donating foodI am trying to raise my kids to think more about the world than their next playdate, TV show or snack. Recently a friend decided to host her 40th birthday party at a food distribution warehouse for the hungry. My first thought was, I’d rather take my friend out for a drink to toast her birthday, but I knew this was a nice thing to do. I thought about bringing a gift for her but I will do that another time. Little did I realize, I was the one to receive the real gift.

It was a Sunday morning on a beautiful day. My kids wanted to swim, sleep, watch TV… anything but go to the food warehouse. Through some serious and exhausting negotiation, I was able to encourage my oldest child to go with me.

In the warehouse, there are lots of smiling volunteers handing out cans and boxes of food to other volunteers holding boxes. Once the boxes are filled, they are closed and given to volunteers to distribute locally. I heard the requests over the loudspeaker to come and sign up for a route to deliver boxes to the elderly. My son and I hadn’t planned on delivering boxes. The boxes are a little heavy and, well, he’d rather be swimming. Frankly, so would I. But we decided that these boxes needed to be delivered and so we stepped up to get our list and directions to the address building where we would be delivering food.

When we arrived, we saw lots of people in the apartment building going out for the day and receiving Sunday visitors. What surprised me was that I drive by this building a few times a week. I never knew that there were hungry people living there. But there are. And the people in the building look just like my parents, aunts and uncles. Retired, happy. But some of them don’t have enough food to eat. I realized that one day that person without enough food to eat could be me. Or it could be you.

I dutifully delivered the boxes and suddenly wished I could do more. I thought about how lucky I am that I don’t worry at the grocery store about whether there will be enough money to pay for the food. It certainly puts life in perspective. And last night, I slept better than I would have, had I just gone swimming all day. Once again, by giving, I ended up receiving so much more through an increased level of appreciation for all that I have.

In Judaism, there is a concept of tikkun olam—repair the world. It happens that the organization that coordinated the food distribution is the Jewish Relief Agency based in Philadelphia. The organization distributes food once a month throughout the Philadelphia area. Many of the hungry folks are immigrants but some are not. Many are Jewish but some are not. (Click here to learn about upcoming dates to volunteer with JRA.)

In this crazy time of graduations, camp and vacations, repairing the world is important to remember. It also helps us repair a little of ourselves!

Lessons from ‘My Basmati Bat Mitzvah’

I don’t normally read books written for middle schoolers, but I was in the children’s section of my local library picking up a book for my daughter the other day when I noticed a book with a bright yellow cover with a pretty Indian girl entitled My Basmati Bat Mitzvah, written by Paula J. Freedman, on display. I opened the book and started to read the summary on the inside cover:  “For Tara Feinstein, life with her Jewish-Indian-American family is like a bowl of spicy matzoh ball soup. It’s a mix of cultures that is sometimes delicious, and sometimes confusing…”

I was hooked, and I immediately checked out the book. As someone who devotes my days to working with interfaith couples and families and advocating for a welcoming Jewish community, I couldn’t wait to start reading.

And I wasn’t disappointed. It was a lot of fun to read the story of Tara’s desi mispacha—a term that Tara describes in the book as a “Hindi + Yiddish made up term meaning a family that’s a little bit Indian and a little bit Jewish. Nicer than ‘Hin-Jew’…” I appreciated how the author depicted Tara’s struggles as she prepares to become a Bat Mitzvah—her questioning whether or not she believes in God; her worry that by celebrating becoming a Bat Mitzvah she will somehow be less Indian; her confusing relationship with her Catholic best friend who wants to be her boyfriend.

Tara’s Indian mother converted to Judaism years earlier, before marrying her father, but Tara still feels a deep connection to her Indian family and her Indian heritage. She deeply loved her mothers’ parents who lived in India and died several years earlier. She feels a special bond to her Nanaji (her mother’s father) and wants to be sure that celebrating her Bat Mitzvah won’t make her forget him. She adores Indian food, and though her mother doesn’t cook, her father—who grew up Jewish in America—makes great Indian food. Tara loves to watch and act out scenes from Bollywood movies. And for good luck, she rubs the statue of Ganesha that sits on her dresser.

One particular scene in the book really struck me. When Tara realizes that a friend of hers has stolen a bracelet, Tara grabs the bracelet and goes to the store to return it. As she’s reaching to put the bracelet back on the jewelry counter, she’s stopped by a security guard, who thinks that Tara’s involved in the shoplifting. When she tells the security guard that her name is “Tara Feinstein,” he looks at her skeptically and says to her: “No, really.”

That’s what it’s constantly like for Tara…people making assumptions about her, and her Jewishness, based on how she looks, and on her mother’s (and thus her) background. And this is what it’s like for so many children from interfaith, inter-racial and/or inter-cultural homes. Fortunately for Tara, she comes to realize that connecting to her Judaism on a deeper level doesn’t mean that she has to distance herself from her Indian heritage. As she says in her Bat Mitzvah speech: “…now I know that inspiration can come from many different sources, and that having multicultural experiences can actually make you stronger and more accepting of different points of view.” She comes to see that “Nanaji would really have liked my Bat Mitzvah…he was a very spiritual person…he would have approved, as long as I did it with an open heart.

When my children write book reports for school, they always have to tell whether they would recommend the book, and why or why not. Well, I can say that I would highly recommend My Basmati Bat Mitzvah. It was refreshing to read about a young woman coming of age and dealing with the multiple aspects of her identity, and realizing that she could be fully Jewish AND still honor her Indian cultural heritage (as she did by wearing a treasured sari from her mother’s family which was made into a dress for her Bat Mitzvah).

The book shows in a touching way not just the challenges, but also the blessings, of growing up in an interfaith, inter-cultural family. It’s always said that kids need to see themselves reflected in the dolls they play with, the television and movies they watch, and the stories they read.  I’d imagine that a middle schooler, especially a girl, growing up in an interfaith, inter-racial or intercultural home would at least find some aspects of herself reflected in Tara.

If you’re a mom or dad in an interfaith home and you have a child in middle school, I suggest that you get My Basmati Bat Mitzvah for your child. Better yet, read it with your kid! It’ll give you a great opening to discuss complex issues of belonging and identity. If you’re raising your child as a Jew, you can discuss with them how they can still be one hundred percent Jewish even if one parent did not grow up (and may still not be) Jewish. And you can talk about how being Jewish and proudly celebrating your Jewish identity doesn’t mean that you can’t love and honor family members who aren’t Jewish with a full heart or that you can’t embrace aspects of what you inherited from your parent who did not grow up Jewish.

I have to return My Basmati Bat Mitzvah to the library soon, before it’s overdue. And when I get there, I may just go back to the children’s section to see what other great books I can find for myself.