Making Challah and Conversation in Philly


By the IFF/Philadelphia Team: Robyn, Wendy and Robin

Robyn leading the group

Rabbi Robyn Frisch helps the group follow the steps to getting a perfect challah

Challah is the yummy braided bread with which many Jews begin Shabbat dinner. For those who grew up Jewish, the smell and taste of challah often invokes fond memories of family meals. For those who didn’t grow up Jewish (along with those who did), including challah with your Friday night dinner can be a fun and easy way to bring Judaism into your home.

In the Greater Philadelphia area, there are many grocery stores and bakeries where you can buy a delicious challah. But the best challot (plural for challah) are those that you make yourself—the ones you can smell baking in the oven and taste while they’re still warm. They’re the ones that may not be braided perfectly, but are made with lots of love.

Our staff in the Philadelphia office of InterfaithFamily heard from a lot of people that they wanted to learn how to make challah. And when our people ask for something, we want to deliver (or should we say “rise” to the occasion)! First, we arranged for “Challah and Conversation” to meet at Robyn Frisch’s house on a Thursday evening (so that everyone could have their challah for dinner the following evening). Next, we needed to decide what challah recipe to use. So, one morning the three of us got together for a little bake-off. We tried out a few recipes, and ended up deciding on a recipe that was a combination of different ones we had used.

Then Wendy went shopping… and after buying 30 bowls, 30 measuring spoons, eight packages of bread flour, yeast, salt, sugar, eggs and vegetable oil to make the challot (along with wine, cheese and snacks for the “Conversation” part of the evening)… we were ready!

Making challah

Everyone got their hands dirty

“Challah and Conversation” was a great success. Everyone learned how to proof their yeast, knead their dough and then punch it down before they braided it. In between the kneading and the punching—while the dough was having its “first rise”—we had time to learn about Friday night Shabbat rituals in general, and challah in particular. For example, have you ever wondered why challah is braided? Why it’s traditional to use two challot on Friday evening? Or why the challah is covered with a cloth? The “Challah and Conversation” attendees now know the answers to these questions and many more!

Many people have told us that they want to make their own challah but they’ve never baked bread before and they’re afraid they’ll mess up. They’re scared of words like “proofing,” “kneading” and “punching” when it comes to baking. We promise you that once you make challah with us, you won’t be scared. The result will be delicious, and your family and friends will be impressed! So keep an eye out for our upcoming “Challah and Conversation” programs and come join us for one of them.

And by the way, you don’t have to worry if you have challah left over after your Shabbat meal. It makes delicious French toast!


The “conversation” part of the event

Read on for Ruth Schapira, IFF/Philadelphia Advisory Council Member’s account of the evening, and then get our not-so-secret recipe!

Scoop, beat, pour, and mix—then knead, fold, knead, fold. It’s the methodical way that you’d make a dough for challah, and the process itself seems quite mechanical, if you were doing it alone in your own kitchen.

Challah rolls

Ruth’s finished challah rolls

But making challah with 20 people in someone’s home is quite a different experience, and creating challah with people who are doing it for the first time is exhilarating. The program, sponsored by IFF/Philadelphia and held in the Director’s home, attracted a demographic that would be the envy of any Jewish outreach movement. Four young millennial-aged couples attended, with a smattering of some young singles, older folks and a mom with her two kids—their common interest was in “doing Jewish.” That was the foundation upon which connections were built among those who shared Shabbat stories along with flour and measuring cups that were set aside at stations, like in some amazing challah bake-off on a Jewish Food Network show.

The event was called “Challah and Conversation” and by the end of the night, there was plenty of both. The environment was open, accepting and casual which allowed participants to feel comfortable asking about the many beautiful and significant rituals surrounding Shabbat. There was curiosity about egg-checking (for kashrut), traditions for candle-lighting, the custom some choose to follow for “taking challah,” and questions like: Why do some people tear the challah and not slice it with a knife? Why is salt sprinkled on it? Why is the challah covered? What is the “Parent’s Prayer”?

The most outstanding experience from the evening was not the beautifully braided specimens in personal aluminum baking dishes, ready to be baked that everyone was taking home. Nor was it that everyone would get to savor the experience all over again when that unmistakable luscious challah smell filled their homes the next night before the Sabbath. What was undeniably special was that people came together in the true spirit of learning and community, and shared an experience that brought them that much closer to Judaism, and that much closer to one another.

Here is the challah recipe we ended up using:
(Find more great recipes on our food blog!)

Couple with challah

Check out our perfect challot!


  • 3 to 3½ cups bread flour
  • 1 package yeast
  • ¾ cup lukewarm water
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • 4-6 Tbsp. sugar (depending on how sweet you want it)
  • 3 eggs (2 for the dough and one for egg wash before baking)
  • 6 Tbsp. vegetable oil
  • Optional: poppy seeds, sesame or cinnamon


1. Dissolve package of yeast in ½ cup lukewarm water and let sit for 5 minutes.  (This is how you “proof” the dough.)

2. Measure the flour into the bowl. Make a well.

3. Pour the yeast mixture into the well and let stand 5 minutes.

4. Blend in the salt and sugar.

5. Combine two eggs, oil and remaining ¼ cup water and mix together.

6. Add the liquid mixture to the flour and stir until flour is moistened.

7. Turn out onto a well-floured board using flour to dust the board and your hands. Use up to another cup of flour to handle the dough. Knead by hand until smooth. Let rise on the board (you can cover with dish towel) about 1½ hours or until doubled in bulk.

8. Punch dough down and divide into three sections and braid.

9. Cover and let rise at least 30 minutes. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees while the dough is rising.

10. Brush with beaten egg mixed with a few drops of water and, if you want, sprinkle with poppy seeds, sesame seeds or cinnamon.

11. Bake on middle rack of oven at 350 degrees for 30-40 minutes (ovens heat differently—bake until light brown).

“Can we talk?” Can we listen?


Joan Rivers“Can we talk?”

The late great comedian Joan Rivers had many famous lines, but she was probably better known for these three words than for any others. For many of us, we just have to hear this phrase and Joan comes to mind.

Yet perhaps ironically, when Joan Rivers uttered the phrase “Can we talk?” it wasn’t that she really wanted to engage with her audience in discussion. She didn’t want to talk WITH us. She wanted to talk TO us. What she wanted wasn’t for us to RESPOND, but for us to LISTEN. She had something to say…and she wanted our undivided attention.

Many of us like to talk. We have something to say – perhaps a point to make or a feeling or opinion to express. We think of talking as active…it involves doing something.

We tend to think of listening, in contrast, as passive…as if we don’t have to do anything to listen. But in fact, truly listening isn’t always easy and it’s certainly not passive. As any therapist, chaplain, social worker or member of the clergy will tell you, active listening is a crucial skill—every bit as important to a conversation as speaking, and often more so. It’s incredibly powerful for a person to know that they’re being listened to—that they’re being “heard” (and this often involves much more than just words)—by someone else who’s taking in what they say without any agenda other than to be present for them.

In Judaism, our central prayer is the Shema. And what does the Hebrew word Shema mean? It means “Hear.” Hearing/listening is at the very heart of Judaism.

When I was growing up, there was a wonderful poem in the Friday night prayer book my synagogue used—it was read before reciting the Shema. The prayer, written by Rabbis Jack Riemer and Harold Kushner, was called “Listen.” It began as follows:

Judaism begins with the commandment: Hear, O Israel!

But what does it really mean to hear?

The person who attends a concert with a mind on business,

Hears—but does not really hear.

The person who walks amid the songs of the birds

And thinks only of what will be served for dinner, hears—but does not really hear.

The one who listens to the words of a friend, or spouse, or child, and does not catch the note of urgency: “Notice me, help me, care about me,” hears—but does not really hear….

I loved this poem (and still do) because it emphasizes the importance of being truly present in the moment … of hearing/listening to what is happening around you, or what another person is saying to you.

I’m not a poet, but I often wish that I could add some verses to Rabbi Reimer and Rabbi Kushner’s poem “Listen” and share them with the people I work with (interfaith couples as well as Jewish professionals) in my role as Director of InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia. The verses I’d add would be:

The person in an interfaith relationship who talks with her partner about religion but cares only about her own religious heritage, and not her partner’s, hears—but does not really hear.

The parent of a child in an interfaith relationship who worries about what other people in his community will say about his child “intermarrying” as his daughter tells him how much she loves her fiancé, hears—but does not really hear.

The parent whose child tells her about his partner of another faith and she thinks only that she would prefer that the partner be of the same faith, hears—but does not really hear.

The rabbi who sits with a couple in an interfaith relationship and thinks about how it would be better if Jews only dated other Jews, hears—but does not really hear.

The rabbi who talks to a Christian parent of a bat mitzvah student and is convinced that all parents raising Jewish children should themselves convert to Judaism, hears—but does not really hear.

The synagogue staff person or lay leader who insists that their synagogue is “welcoming” of interfaith families but isn’t comfortable with those who aren’t Jewish participating in the life of the synagogue, hears—but does not really hear.

When it comes to interfaith relationships, many people—those in the relationship, their parents and other family members, clergy and others—may have concerns that are legitimate, and that should perhaps be expressed. But just as each person involved might feel like they need time to TALK, each person should also be sure to take time to LISTEN. Listening can be a tremendous gift to others and to yourself as well. If you are able to actively listen to and hear someone else, it just may make it easier for them to hear you.

This Mother’s Day Let’s Honor Grandmothers of Jewish Kids Who Aren’t Themselves Jewish


Grandmother, daughter and granddaughter

There are usually two types of Jewish blogs written in connection with Mother’s Day:

1. Those that focus on the commandment to honor your parents and note that in Judaism EVERY day should be Mother’s Day. These blogs almost always make one of two arguments:  either that Mother’s Day isn’t necessary since we should be honoring our mothers every day; or that Mother’s Day is valuable in that it’s a time to re-focus on the importance of honoring our mothers, and to recommit to honoring them throughout the year.

2. Those that focus on the importance of the Jewish community honoring and supporting mothers who aren’t themselves Jewish, but are raising their children as Jews.

While I think both of these focuses are very important, as Mother’s Day approaches this year, I want to focus on other mothers—a group of mothers we don’t always talk about in the Jewish community: the grandmothers of other faiths … that is, those mothers whose daughters and sons marry someone Jewish and decide to raise their children as Jews. These are the Catholic grandmothers who never have the chance to see their grandchildren christened or to attend a first communion; the Hindu grandmothers who come to their grandchildren’s B’nai Mitzvah and feel uncomfortable and out of place at synagogue—all those grandmothers of other religions who don’t get to watch their grandchildren grow up in their own faith traditions and who may feel like “outsiders” at their own grandchildren’s lifecycle celebrations.

Unlike their own sons and daughters, who fell in love with someone Jewish and made the choice to have a Jewish home and raise their children as Jews (whether or not they themselves became Jewish), these grandmothers never had a choice—they’re bound by their children’s decisions.

We in the Jewish community should acknowledge these grandmothers (and the grandfathers) who aren’t Jewish. Here are some ways we can do this:

  • By finding ways to help them become more knowledgeable about the lifecycle events of their grandchildren. There should be explanations as to the meaning of what’s happening and the appropriate etiquette for lifecycle ceremonies. For example, they can be given InterfaithFamily’s booklets that explain the significance of brit milah, baby namings and B’nai Mitzvah and what these ceremonies typically look like. These explanations should be easily accessible not just at the life cycle event itself, but in advance as well. Our informative booklets about lifecycle events (and other topics) are available at Before a grandchild’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah, grandparents who aren’t Jewish should be given one of these booklets or other explanatory materials so that they can have an idea of what to expect.


Of course, booklets shouldn’t be a substitute for conversation. Ideally, the booklet should be accompanied by an explanation by the grandparent’s own child who is raising Jewish kids, and/or the child-in-law who grew up Jewish. Depending on the age of the grandchild, perhaps the child can be involved in the conversation as well. For example, before a Bat Mitzvah, the granddaughter could talk to her grandparents and explain what will be happening in the service and answer any questions.

  • Synagogues need to include grandparents who aren’t Jewish in lifecycle events (if the grandparents want to be part of them—some may not be comfortable participating and that should be respected). Different synagogues have different policies, and I’m not saying that there needs to be a “one size fits all.” InterfaithFamily has published several articles about various synagogues’ policies on a variety of issues, such as who can open the Ark. Synagogues and their ritual committees should be sure to review their policies in regard to extended family members who aren’t Jewish on a regular basis to make sure that they’re comfortable with them and discuss whether they should perhaps be revised.


  • Grandparents who aren’t Jewish should be invited to join their children’s families for Jewish holiday celebrations and to accompany the family to other Jewish events and activities—such as when a grandson is “Shabbat Star” in his preschool class or when a granddaughter is being installed as the synagogue youth group president. (As noted above, advance explanation of what to expect should be given.) However, the parents and children should be understanding if the grandparent chooses not to attend events of a Jewish nature, and make sure to provide other opportunities for the family to be together, outside of a Jewish setting.


  • Parents should make sure to spend holiday time with the grandparents who aren’t Jewish. If the parents are comfortable doing so, they can take the children to the grandparents’ for holiday celebrations, such as Easter and Christmas, of the grandparents’ religion. Either way, the parents should make an extra effort to spend non-religious holidays (like Thanksgiving—and of course Mother’s Day and Father’s Day) with grandparents who aren’t Jewish, since these are holidays that everyone can feel comfortable celebrating together.


The list above is not intended to be exhaustive, but rather to get the conversation started. If you have other ideas of how Jewish families and the Jewish community can respect and honor grandparents who aren’t Jewish, please share them below.

Falling in Love…with Family


Granddaughter and grandfatherMy friend’s daughter is dating someone from a different faith and her grandparents are upset. The daughter called me and asked for advice. We talked about how people often participate in religion because of guilt or shame. For today’s society, guilt or pressure from families no longer works. In America, where everything is marketed so that you “need it now,” my philosophy is to make sure that the Jewish family is as welcoming, interesting, educational and inviting as possible. The family should be welcoming, not just because the new boyfriend or girlfriend is at the table, but for everyone. If a person has miserable memories associated with the family, they are not going to be inclined to practice Judaism when it is their turn.

If there is a new (or potential) family member at the table, make sure that the newcomer is having a positive and enjoyable experience. The family’s goal with any guest should be to put on their best version of themselves. In short, every parent’s goal should be to make the new family member fall in love with the family—its rituals, customs and craziness! Grandparents can tell stories of how important Judaism is to them and why they love it. Keep it positive, appreciative and most important, non-judgmental.

Maybe new family members will understand why the Jewish family has worked hard for so many years to maintain the beauty of Judaism. Maybe it’s the silliness. Maybe the bonding or the joy of special foods. No matter what, make it pleasant. Make it a wonderful memory. And if it gets awkward, just smile and plan to laugh about it the next day. We all have at least one annoying relative—just smile because they aren’t going to change just because you wish they would.

Talk to your parents and grandparents and tell them to show off a bit. Tell them to keep all interaction inviting. Tell them that you love them and you have so many positive family memories. Tell them you want your new (potential) family member to have these great memories too. For instance: “Grammy and Pops, I love you. I hope that he falls in love with you too. It will be easy since you are so loveable! And please get to know him. Ask him questions so you can learn how wonderful he is.” A positive tone with a little flattery should go a long way toward new wonderful memories.

Good luck and keep us posted! We want to hear about your family experiences, questions and advice.

It’s Time to Dispel the Urban Legend of the Orange on the Seder Plate


If you, like me, are past the age of 40, you may remember years ago hearing the claim that Little Mikey of LIFE cereal fame died from the explosive effects of mixing Pop Rocks candy with soda pop. Or you may have heard that children’s television show host Mr. Rogers (Fred Rodgers) always wore long-sleeved shirts and sweaters on his show to conceal the tattoos on his arms he obtained while serving in the military. Or perhaps you’ve heard that alligators live under the New York City sewer system. But, in reality, none of these stories are true. They’re all “urban legends.” And I’m proud to say that I never believed any of them (well, except the one about Mikey and Pop Rocks—I did believe that one for awhile…).

illustration of an orangeBut there’s another urban legend, one connected to the Passover seder, that I’ve believed for years. In fact, I’ve told this story many times at my own seders. It’s the story of the “orange on the seder plate.” And until this week, I always thought the story I told was true—after all, I’d heard it so many times, and read it in so many different places.

The story goes something like this: Professor Susannah Heschel was giving a lecture in Miami Beach, when a man stood up and yelled: “A woman belongs on a bimah like an orange belongs on a seder plate.” In order to show that women DO belong on the bimah—that women have the right to a place in Jewish ritual and in Jewish leadership—Heschel and others began to place oranges on their seder plates. (According to another version of the story, the man yelled: “A woman belongs on the bimah like a piece of bread belongs on the seder plate.” Wanting to make a point about women’s rightful place in Judaism, but not wanting to place bread, which is forbidden on Passover, on her seder plate, Heschel replaced “bread” with “an orange,” since the incident took place in Florida, “The Orange State.”)


I learned the story of “the orange on the seder plate” sometime in the late 1990s, when I was a rabbinical student. At the time I was in my early 30s, hosting my own seders for the first time.  Like many of my colleagues, I strived to make my seders authentic, relevant and meaningful by balancing tradition with creativity and innovation. I embraced the traditional symbols of the seder (the four cups of wine, matzah, egg, parsley, etc.) and also newer symbols, such as Miriam’s Cup and the orange. For the past 15 years or so, when I’ve gone to the produce store to buy parsley, horseradish and apples and nuts for my charoset, I’ve made sure to purchase an orange for my seder plate as well. And at every seder I’ve hosted, I’ve shared the “story of the orange on the seder plate” and how it represents women’s equality in Judaism.

But recently I found out that the story I’ve been telling simply isn’t true. Here’s the TRUE STORY, in Professor Susannah Heschel’s own words, from an article that she wrote for The Jewish Daily Forward in 2013:

“At an early point in the seder…I asked each person to take a segment of the orange, make the blessing over fruit and eat the segment in recognition of gay and lesbian Jews and of widows, orphans, Jews who are adopted and all others who sometimes feel marginalized in the Jewish community.

“When we eat that orange segment, we spit out the seeds to repudiate homophobia and we recognize that in a whole orange, each segment sticks together. Oranges are sweet and juicy and remind us of the fruitfulness of gay and lesbian Jews and of the homosociality that has been such an important part of Jewish experience, whether of men in yeshivas or of women in the Ezrat Nashim.”

Heschel went on to write of the Miami Beach lecture urban legend:

“That incident never happened! Instead, my custom had fallen victim to a folktale process in which my original intention was subverted. My idea of the orange was attributed to a man, and my goal of affirming lesbians and gay men was erased.

“Moreover, the power of the custom was subverted: By now, women are on the bimah, so there is no great political courage in eating an orange, because women ought to be on the bimah.

“For years, I have known about women whose scientific discoveries were attributed to men, or who had to publish their work under a male pseudonym. That it happened to me makes me realize all the more how important it is to recognize how deep and strong patriarchy remains, and how important it is for us to celebrate the contributions of gay and lesbian Jews, and all those who need to be liberated from marginality to centrality. And Passover is the right moment to ensure freedom for all Jews.”

I’m glad to have finally learned the “true story” of “the orange on the seder plate.” And now that I know it, will I still put an orange on MY seder plate this Passover? I sure will! But, like Professor Heschel, I’ll invite each of the participants at my seder to take a segment of the orange, make the blessing over fruit that grows on trees and eat the segment in recognition of gay and lesbian Jews and of widows, orphans, Jews who are adopted, interfaith couples and families and all others who sometimes feel marginalized in the Jewish community.

After all, the Passover seder is very much a time for asking questions (for the importance of questions in the Passover seder—beyond the “Four Questions”—see my blog from last year about the seder). And if I’ve learned anything from discovering the truth about the urban legend of the “orange on the seder plate,” it’s that we need to constantly be questioning: even those things that we’re confident we already “know.”

Ten Minutes Inside My Head: Why I’m Unplugging on March 6, 2015


Robyn unplugsOn February 17, after enjoying having my three kids off for four days for President’s Weekend, I was ready for them to return to school, and for me to get a lot of work done. But by 5:45 am I learned that their schools were cancelled because of snow. By 11:30 am, as I was trying to respond to work emails, my daughter Tali was complaining that she was bored and wanted to me to play Rummikub with her. My two sons each had friends over, and all of the boys were playing on various electronic devices.

I wrote down what went through my head for the next ten minutes. Here it is:

Really?  A snow day after they’ve been off school for the last four days. Why not just a two hour delay? The streets don’t look so bad. How am I supposed to get my work done today? I have 22 emails to respond to already.  How on earth could I play Rummikub with Tali now? I feel guilty that I don’t have time to play with her (and it would be fun)…did I really just tell her to go watch TV?

Ugh! Now the phone’s ringing. Who is it? Oh, it’s my friend. I’m not picking up. Should I text her that I’ll call her later? Now I just lost my train of thought. What was I thinking about?

Seriously…there are four boys sitting in the family room all on different electronic devices. My oldest son Benji is watching a movie on his laptop while his friend is playing a game on his phone. My middle son Noah is texting his friends as part of a “group chat” (boy do I hate the “ping” sound that goes off every time he receives a text…didn’t I ask him to disable that sound a hundred times yesterday?) while his friend is texting from his phone. Why do they even bother to have friends over if they’re not going to interact with each other? Should I make them go sledding outside?

No!  They’re old enough to figure out what to do themselves. And I need to get back to work. Now I have 26 emails in my inbox. Sometimes I feel like my life is just one long to-do list. I feel like that woman in the commercial from when I was a kid who said: “Calgon, take me away!” She had lots of chaos at home, and she probably didn’t even have a job. I want to relax in a quiet bath like she did in the commercial…or at least not have to answer 26 emails…and not feel guilty that I’m not interacting with my daughter and instead sent her to watch TV.

I wish I could just shut down my computer right now…and my phone…and turn off the TV…and go take the various devices out of all of the boys’ hands….and we could all just hang out and play Rummikub.

OK, I can’t realistically do it right now. But I CAN unplug—and I can encourage my whole family to unplug—as part of the National Day of Unplugging on March 6-7. We already do things differently on Shabbat than we do the other days of the week. I love it that as a family we always say the blessings and have Shabbat dinner on Friday night (no phones at the table—that’s one thing I insist on every night!), even if I do have to rush off at 7 pm to get to services at my synagogue. And though it’s not always easy being a family in which both parents are rabbis, I do especially enjoy those Saturdays when my kids and I go to my husband’s synagogue for services and we’re all together. Wouldn’t it be great if I didn’t use my phone or computer at all on those days? Could I really do that? Not check my email, voice messages or texts, before leaving for services on Saturday morning? And not check them when I get home? 

I could just put my phone in a drawer Friday before sundown and not take it out until Saturday after sundown. I remember when I went away on a Jewish meditation retreat last year and I had to put my phone away from Friday afternoon until Sunday afternoon. It felt weird…even scary. And refreshing. And nice. It was humbling to realize that everyone I know (in that case even my husband and three kids, because they were home without me) would be just fine without me. And they were. And I had two days to just BE…to appreciate life…and creation. It was hard…really hard…not getting that dopamine rush I get when I get a text or email for two days straight…not having anything to distract me…but it was also wonderful…really wonderful.

I could recreate that wonderful feeling on the National Day of Unplugging.  That feeling of being more fully present in the moment.  Rather than emailing, calling or texting people and making plans for when Shabbat is over, I could be more truly in the moment of Shabbat.  Rather than playing my favorite game on my phone as a way of relaxing after services, I could finally play that game of Rummikub with Tali.  And the boys would probably play too.  We always have a lot of fun when we all play games together.  And we really don’t do it enough.

But for now, back to work….there it goes again, the annoying “ping” letting us all know that Noah’s getting a text. And now I have 35 emails in my inbox. How many more days until March 6th? I don’t need Calgon. For me, it can be “National Day of Unplugging…Shabbat…take me away!” And by “take me away” what I really mean is: “Take me away from technology…and let me be present right where I am.”

Do you plan to unplug on March 6-7? What will you do with your tech-free time?

Finding Common Ground When You Have Different Backgrounds


Ice cream

Often couples come from different backgrounds and it can be difficult to find common ground. But usually, if people have similar value systems, couples can work out compromises in their relationship. There are a variety of differences that affect a relationship. These differences make life interesting but sometimes differences cause conflict (and hopefully resolution). My family often says “That’s why there are so many different flavors of ice cream!” Here is an overview about some of the types of differences couples may face.

Religious Differences: In my large family, each of us siblings observe our religion in a different way. Many people remark that they can’t believe we were raised in the same house. As each of us has gotten married, we have evolved so that we have similar practices to our spouses. In fact, now that our society moves around so much more than people did 50 years ago, it makes sense that altering one’s religious practices to suit our spouse is the norm, not the exception. Indeed, the proximity to one’s parents may affect the level of practice. For example, if you are hundreds of miles from your parents but around the corner from your in-laws, your household’s religious practices are likely to evolve toward the practice of your in-laws. Sharing holidays with extended family is going to change your practices as well.

I remember my brother saying that his decisions should not be affected by the decisions of his brother-in-law. The reality is that once the in-laws moved to the same city, celebrations were modified. He adjusted and the family holidays look a bit different. I think my brother’s anticipation of what potential modifications might be was much scarier than the reality. I once told my kids I didn’t just marry Daddy, I married his whole family: his mom, his sister, his dad. If you have any concerns about your future in-laws, think carefully. Especially if kids are in the picture, any differences are magnified.

Geographic Differences: Being from different parts of the country can be another area where a couple needs to find compromise. East Coast, West Coast, Northeast, Deep South—finding common ground can be challenging in this area as well. As a Southerner, I have lived in the Northeast most of my adult life. Yet, during a recent cold snap, I mentioned that I wished I lived in the South. A friend commented, “Shouldn’t you be used to the cold by now?” I responded, “I guess the novelty has worn off.” Celebrating Christmas or Hanukkah in a snowy climate when you are used to never wearing a coat can be an adjustment. Similar adjustments include city vs. suburbs vs. rural living. My husband loves the city and I would be quite happy living in a rural environment. Suburb is the obvious compromise but not all issues can be resolved as easily.

Nationality Differences: For one couple in my extended family, the parents were from Europe and the daughter was born in Israel. She moved to the U.S. when she was a child but always called herself an Israeli. Her parents always referred to themselves as European. She married an American but always made comments referring to her Israeli pride. I think that this difference was a point of contention for the woman and her husband. Attitudes, manners, celebrations were always an issue for them. Both partners were Jewish but the nationality differences were a struggle for them. Ultimately, the couple divorced for a variety of reasons but nationality differences definitely caused some of their disagreement.

Cultural Differences: Some families have a sit-down dinner every night. Other families never eat together because the parents are always working. Some families believe that there should be a stay-at-home parent while other families prefer a live-in caretaker. Differences of opinion regarding parochial school or public school or even boarding school can exist in the same family. Some issues such as school can be worked out with relative ease but other issues can be a huge hurdle in a relationship. Do both partners intend to work? Do you believe in daycare or nannies or neither? Differences in attitudes can rise up. If one parent stays home for a while, will there be resentment? If one parent travels for work, will there be resentment?

Financial Differences: Some people like to spend money, others like to save it.  If one partner wants to travel to the Caribbean every winter but the financial situation does not allow for that, there should be some discussion. Does one partner want to eat out four nights a week at a sit-down restaurant? Do you agree on savings? Financial issues can be a major point of contention after several years of marriage. It is important to discuss what you and your partner expect regarding savings and debt. Don’t be afraid to disagree, but do have these discussions.

While you are dating, “what if” scenarios are helpful (but not binding because circumstances always change). It is good to discuss these issues to assess whether you and your partner can compromise. As they say, “Vive La Différence!” but keep your eyes open. You should be thinking like a team. If you find that you are feeling “alone” in your thinking, it might be good to seek counseling. Entering a marriage with confidence is paramount.

Three Terms I Hope Not to Hear in the New Year


As the new year approaches, I’ve been thinking back over the past year—particularly about certain terms I’ve heard used in 2014 that bother me. Following are three terms I hope to hear less of in 2015.

NON-JEW: While “non-Jew” is an easy short-hand term and it’s clear what it means, this term can be offensive. Most people prefer to be described in the positive as what they ARE, rather than in the negative as what they’re NOT. For example, I identify as a “female,” not a “non-male;” and in my family I’m a “wife and mother,” not a “non-husband and non-father.” At InterfaithFamily, we’re concerned that when people in the Jewish community talk about “non-Jews” in interfaith relationships, it sends the message—even if it’s interpreted subconsciously—that the person who isn’t Jewish is somehow “less than” by defining that person with an emphasis on his or her “outsider” status.

Granted, not using the term “non-Jew” can sometimes cause us to have to do some linguistic gymnastics, but I think it’s better to sound a little wordy and awkward than to potentially offend someone. So far, I don’t know of an ideal term to describe someone who isn’t Jewish. One suggestion I’ve heard is PDF (“person of a different faith”), but that term has its own limitations in that the partner who isn’t Jewish may not identify as part of another religious group, or may be an atheist of agnostic who doesn’t have a “faith.” Do you have any suggestions?

And for the record, I’d love to never again hear terms like shiksa and goy. These terms, which simply mean, respectively, “a woman who is not Jewish” and “people who are not Jewish,” are too often used by Jews in a pejorative manner.

TeenHALF-JEW: I used to really dislike this term no matter what the context in which it was used. But now I’ve come to see a difference between using it to define oneself and using it to define someone else. Before I worked for InterfaithFamily, if I were teaching a religious school class at a synagogue and a boy with one Jewish parent told me that he was “half-Jewish” I would probably have said something like:  “You’re fully Jewish. Just because one of your parents isn’t Jewish doesn’t make you ‘half-Jewish.’” (If the boy were older, I may even have joked: “which half, left or right?”) But as my colleague Rabbi Ari Moffic, Director of InterfaithFamily/Chicago, pointed out to me when I came to work here, people have the right to self-identify, and if someone identifies as “half-Jewish” it’s not my place to tell him otherwise.

While I may have a tendency to want the boy in my religious school class to feel “whole” and to know that he is “authentically” Jewish even if one of his parents isn’t Jewish, identity is complex. There are many things that a child (or, for that matter, an adult) could mean when he says that he’s “half-Jewish.” Perhaps that’s his way of saying that he loves and identifies strongly with his parent who is not Jewish and that parent’s family. It’s not my place to tell him that the way he self-identifies is wrong.

Yet while I now wouldn’t “correct” someone who identifies herself as “half-Jewish” because of her right to identify as she chooses, I do find it offensive when people label others as “half-Jewish.”  In my—admittedly liberal—understanding of Judaism, a person with a Jewish parent is Jewish, regardless of the gender of her Jewish parent. (I recognize that this view, which is consistent with the views of the Reform and Reconstructionist Movements, is inconsistent with traditional Halacha (Jewish law), and is not accepted by the Conservative Movement and Orthodox Jews, who require that a child’s mother must be Jewish in order for the child to be Jewish without being converted.) And such a person is as “fully Jewish” as any person with two Jewish parents. Labelling someone a “half-Jew” can be very hurtful to them (see, for example, Zach Cohen’s blog “Don’t Call Me a Half-Jew”) and risks alienating children in interfaith families from their Jewish roots.

Which brings me to the third term I don’t like…

PATRILINEAL JEW: Traditional Jewish law requires that a person’s mother be Jewish in order for him to be Jewish without converting. But for years now the Reform, Reconstructionist and Humanist Movements have recognized “patrilineal descent” (i.e. a child with one Jewish parent, regardless of the parent’s gender, is Jewish so long as certain other criteria are met). CLICK HERE for an explanation of “Who is a Jew?”

Nobody ever refers to someone whose mother is Jewish and whose father isn’t Jewish as a “matrilineal Jew”—such a person is simply a “Jew.” Similarly, those of us who accept patrilineal descent shouldn’t refer to someone whose father is Jewish (or who is being raised by two fathers, for that matter) as a “patrilineal Jew.” The modifier “patrilineal” is unnecessary, and implies that having a Jewish father, as opposed to a Jewish mother, somehow puts one into a different, less authentic, category of Jewishness.

My hope for 2015 is that we can all spend more time focusing on our own religious and spiritual lives…and a LOT less time worrying about defining everyone else’s.

Are there terms that you’d like to leave behind in 2014? I’d love to hear what they are.

The Real Menshes on Benches


I met two menshes on benches the Friday of Thanksgiving. You may now have the image of the Mensch on the Bench Hanukkah toy, but unlike this stuffed elf counterpart, these were true mensches.

One of the rules for this toy is that a “true mensch is one who puts smiles on other peoples’ faces.” The word mensch is Yiddish for human being. It means to be a true human; to live up to the depths of kindness, generosity, integrity and love that a human can muster. The two mensches I met put a smile on my face for sure.

My parents moved to Philadelphia over the summer from Boston to be near my youngest brother and his family. They joined Congregation Rodef Shalom which is near where they live. They joined because they had heard the synagogue was an architectural gem, which it is, that the clergy are accessible and warm, that the preaching and teaching is intellectually stimulating and that the worship is full of music and joy. As soon as they joined, another synagogue family called them and invited them out to dinner (which my parents were thrilled about since they don’t have any friends there yet). The synagogue staff greeted my parents at the door for several weeks after they moved to welcome them in and make sure they were getting acclimated. My parents were immediately swept off their feet with the ruach—the spirit—of the service. They kept telling me what a wonderful community this is. They love that each week there is a Shehecheyanu prayer sung after those in attendance share the good news that is happening in their lives.

Dickinson Park

Rabbi Ari and her kids at Dickinson Square Park

My family and I were visiting for Thanksgiving and my parents were so excited and proud to take us to their new temple. Well, my 5 and 7-year-old are not well behaved in synagogue. You might be surprised considering my husband is a pulpit rabbi and they go to synagogue a lot. My children are high energy, antsy, loud and boisterous. They get thirsty and have to pee a lot during services which requires them to go in and out of the sanctuary. They whine. They get hungry. No matter how many little activities and small snacks I bring, we have not fully mastered the art of sitting respectfully in synagogue with a “calm body” as we like to say.

On this Friday night, they were exhausted which mellowed them a little. But, my youngest ate through the whole hour long service (I so appreciated that the service was one hour including a Torah reading and short sermon). This synagogue has a quiet room where you can hear the service but people can’t hear us. However, we braved the actual sanctuary because my parents wanted the kids to try to fully participate. Wouldn’t you know, they did (sort of). When the time came to share a Shehecheyanu moment, my 5-year-old raised his hand for the microphone and said, “I am visiting my grandma and papa” which just made my parents kvell (swell with pride) and everyone in the community ooh and ahh with his cuteness.

During the Lecha Dodi prayer, they form a dancing chain and my children joined right in! The Rabbi made sure to welcome us specifically at the start of the service as well and he called my children up for the honor of helping to undress the Torah. Actively participating definitely helps one stay engaged, no matter how old you are. But, my kids were not perfect during that hour by any stretch of the imagination. There was a trail of popcorn under our seats to prove it.

After the service the two women sitting right behind us (on actual pews/benches) said, “Your children were such a delight. We loved their energy. We loved their dancing. They are so beautiful. What a joy to have you visiting.” They didn’t say, “Next time, you could try the Quiet Room.” Their response made me smile. It warmed my heart. It took a load off. I had been wondering how annoyed they would be sitting right behind us. It made me want to come back again. I told you I met two menshes on benches! They embodied what it means to be gracious, welcoming and empathetic.

My Interfaith Holiday Card Dilemma


“Let’s send out holiday cards!” I said to Wendy and Robin, my co-workers at InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia. We have so many people who’ve supported our work in the past year—our Advisory Council, donors, class and workshop alumni and others—that Wendy and Robin agreed that it would be a great idea to send each of them a card thanking them for their support and wishing them a happy holiday season. It would be a nice thing to do. AND EASY! Or so we thought…

Just picking a graphic for the front of the card—not to mention the language for the inside—was anything but easy.

Should we have a picture of a Hanukkiyah (Hanukkah menorah) on the front? Considering that many of the recipients of the card would be interfaith couples, that seemed insensitive. Only acknowledging the holiday that was from one partner’s religious tradition didn’t feel like the right thing to do.

We all agreed that we’re not into the “Christmakkuh” mash-up of Christmas and Hanukkah. An image of a reindeer with antlers that look like a Hanukkiyah or Santa playing dreidel wasn’t the way we wanted to go.

We also knew that we didn’t want to go the route of last year’s (admittedly creative) half Hanukkah-half Christmas card (you can read Rabbi Ari Moffic’s comments on it here).

holiday card

Aside from a bifurcated card not feeling quite right, we didn’t want to send the message that we think every Jewish person in an interfaith relationship has a Christian partner. What about Jewish-Hindu, Jewish-Buddhist, Jewish-Muslim, etc., couples?

So we decided to stay away from images directly associated with any particular faith tradition—Jewish or otherwise—whether those symbols were “religious” or “secular.” No Jewish stars; no Hanukkiyah; no latkes; no dreidels; and no Hanukkah gelt. No nativity scenes; no Christmas trees or ornaments; no Santa Claus; and no reindeer.

IT WOULD BE EASY! Or so we thought…

What about a snowman? Snowmen aren’t associated with any religious tradition, are they? But for some reason, when I think of pictures of snowmen, Christmas cards come to my mind. So I veto-ed the snowman.

What about snowflakes, they’re neutral, right? But I couldn’t help thinking of all of the Christmas cards I’d seen over the years with snowflakes on them.

So, whether or not I was being rational, snowmen and snowflakes were now removed the discussion. Surely NOW IT WOULD BE EASY. Or so we thought…

Robin then suggested that we find a picture of candles. After all, for many of us the winter holidays are a time to celebrate light amidst the darkness. Candles are used in lots of religious traditions, and non-religious ones as well. So why did I suddenly feel like candles—which are lighted every night of Hanukkah—reminded me of a Christmas card? Embarrassed to critique yet another seemingly-neutral idea as “too Christmas card-y” I suggested: “How about blue candles?” (Blue and white being “Jewish colors.”) And “How about nine candles?” (Since there are nine candles in a Hanukkiyah.)

Robin actually found a beautiful picture that had nine blue candles and they weren’t in a Hanukkiyah, just nine small blue candles all with shining flames. We all agreed that the image didn’t look “too Jewish” or “too Christian” (or “too anything else”) but yet it had a nice winter holiday feel. We had it!  Or so we thought… Turns out that image wasn’t available for reproduction.

holiday card

Finally, after I rejected a few more images that just didn’t “feel right” for various reasons, Wendy came up with a card that we all agreed upon.

I liked it! It didn’t seem to represent just one religious tradition. I was pretty sure that nobody receiving it would feel excluded by the image (because in the end, we left the image off) or the language. EASY! Or was it? Now I’m left wondering, by making it so “neutral”…by being so careful to try to ensure that nobody who received it would feel left out…by being so sensitive to not “exclude” anyone, were we “including” anyone?

Hopefully, everyone who receives our card in the mail will recognize that our intentions are good and that we are grateful to them and want them to have a happy holiday season—no matter what holidays they do, or do not, celebrate.

I’d love to hear from all of you. For those of you in interfaith families, do you send holiday cards? Are they for a particular holiday, more than one holiday, or just general holiday greetings? Please share what you do as well as the thought process behind it.