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.

The Shabbat Excuse

SaraSeveral years ago, my son’s 4-year-old classmate Sara was diagnosed with cancer. All of the families at our pre-school were devastated by the news. It could have been any of us, but it was sweet little Sara. We wanted to help. We were desperate to do something—ANYTHING—to help. We knew they had tons of toys, food and prayers. My friend Robyn Cohen and I spent hours on the phone trying to process the horror of it all and we knew we needed to do something for the family. Yet, there wasn’t much to be done.

Finally, on a Thursday afternoon, Robyn and I had an idea. We attended a pre-school where every week there was a “Shabbat Star” (even though many families at the school were not Jewish). We decided that this was our excuse to do something for Sara and her family. Because of the 40 minute drive to the hospital, we needed to pace ourselves. Each family in the class would sign up to drive to the hospital and bring Shabbat to Sara and her family. Since it was already Thursday, I raced to the bakery and got a challah and Robyn found candles. I gave the goodies to my husband whose office was a little closer to the hospital. He would be the first of many “deliverers” of Shabbat.

“Hi Sara! Guess who is the Shabbat Star this week? YOU are!” My husband announced to Sara and her parents. Sara beamed at the sight of the Shabbat kit and challah. And that was the beginning of our new ritual. The parents took turns each week. The school provided the challah and Sara’s family knew that every Friday there would be a Shabbat visitor. I vividly remember one of my visits. Sara wanted to know what was going on at school and was so happy to receive the latest artwork from her classmates.

We were fortunate to realize that Shabbat was good for Sara and her family. It guaranteed a visitor on a steady basis. It gave Sara a familiar structure from preschool. But, in retrospect, it benefited ALL of the families that stood by praying for Sara. It gave us an excuse to stop by and a way to feel useful. It united all of the families by discussing who would be the “deliverer” next week. We were delivering challah, but really it was so much more. We were delivering Shabbat. Another week of chemo was complete. Another hurdle had been jumped. We were honored to be able to deliver a challah and a smile to Sara and her family.

Sara's smiles logoSara survived another 10 months and her family made sure that every day had a positive experience. There is now an organization called “Sara’s Smiles” through which Sara’s family strives to help other families “Lift the cloud and inspire the joy.” Shabbat was a small piece of this quilt of positivity in the face of tragedy. If you want to learn more, check out saras-smiles.org. This non-profit currently delivers “inspiration kits” of positivity and support to 14 pediatric hospitals in six states, and the number is growing every month.

If you know of a family struggling, I’d recommend the “Shabbat excuse.” It is an easy way to support a family going through a rough time. A little challah and a little ritual can go a long way. And if you know of a family dealing with childhood cancer, check out “Sara’s Smiles.” It is a wonderful legacy to a very special little girl and her family.

What We’re Thankful for this November

By the InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia Team (Robyn Frisch, Wendy Armon and Robin Warsaw)

InterfaithFamily Shabbat—which actually consists of not just one Shabbat, but this year, the entire month of November—is a time for being thankful. InterfaithFamily urges all of us to make November a month of “30 Days of Abundant Appreciation.”

In honor of InterfaithFamily Shabbat, here are 30 things we are thankful for:

1)      The generous individuals and foundations that fund the important work that we do, including The Lasko Foundation, The Rubenstein Foundation and The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.

Shabbat

Shabbat dinner at Rabbi Robyn Frisch's house with folks involved with IFF/Philadelphia's classes and workshops

2)      The individuals and couples who use our clergy referral service to find Jewish clergy to officiate at their lifecycle events and who come to us for support and counseling.

3)      The parents (both Jewish parents and those of other faiths) of interfaith couples who honor and respect their children’s choices and engage in meaningful and productive conversation.

4)      The rabbis and cantors we refer for lifecycle events for interfaith couples and families.

5)      The synagogues and organizations that list their events on our online Network so that interfaith couples and families can find welcoming places in the Jewish community.

6)      Our fantastic InterfaithFamily Wedding Bloggers (who are also IFF/Philadelphia “Love and Religion” workshop alumni) Matt Rice (who married his wife Shannon in November 2013) and Sam Keefe and Anne Goodman (who were married in October 2014) for sharing their stories.

7)      The members of our IFF/Philadelphia Facebook Group for posting about upcoming events, sharing their thoughts and supporting the interfaith community online.

Shabbat dinner

IFF/Philadelphia's first participant-hosted InterfaithFamily Shabbat dinner

8)      The interfaith couples who have shared their stories with us and with each other in our “Love and Religion” workshops.

9)      The alumni of our “Raising a Child With Judaism in Your Interfaith Family” classes and “Love and Religion” workshops who have hosted Shabbat Dinners subsidized by InterfaithFamily.

10)   The parents who have participated in our online “Raising a Child With Judaism in Your Interfaith Family” classes—those who grew up Jewish and those who did not—who have seriously explored how to include Jewish practices and values in the lives of their families.

 

Raising a Child Shabbat dinner

Rabbi Robyn Frisch with class participants and their children sharing Shabbat dinner at Wendy Armon's

11)   Tami Astorino, the fantastic facilitator of IFF/Philadelphia’s online “Raising A Child With Judaism In Your Interfaith Family” classes and in-person “Love and Religion” workshops for interfaith couples, for her ability to stimulate important and sometimes difficult discussions and to honor and inspire the participants in her classes and  workshops.

12)   All of the organizations that IFF/Philadelphia has had the opportunity to partner with, including The Collaborative, The Jewish Graduate Student Network, The Renaissance Group of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, Einstein Healthcare Network’s Victor Center for Jewish Genetic Diseases and jkidphilly.

13)   The synagogues and organizations who have invited us to provide Sensitivity Trainings for their professional staff and lay leaders.

14)   The Religious School and Preschool Directors who have brought IFF/Philadelphia in to train their staffs so that they will be better equipped to meet the needs of their students from interfaith homes, as well as the students’ parents.

15)   The synagogues and organizations that have invited us to lead Adult Education programs on interfaith issues.

16)   Rabbi Erin Hirsch and the GratzNEXT Professional Learning Program for Supplementary School Teachers for working with us to create the online teacher training program “Truly Welcoming Children of Interfaith Families.”

17)   Ellen Walters of Jewish Learning Venture for inviting us to offer workshops on “Diversity in the Classroom” at the Yom Limmud for Early Childhood Educators in 2013 and 2014.

18)   Lori Rubin and Robyn Cohen of jkidphilly for partnering with us to provide programming in Chester County.

19)   Rabbi Isaac Saposnik, Executive Director of Camp JRF, a wonderfully inclusive place, for having us come to camp this past summer to provide a Sensitivity Training for all of the counselors.

at BBYO

Wendy Armon and Rabbi Robyn Frisch, center, with BBYO counselors

20)   BBYO, for inviting us to lead Sensitivity Trainings for teens at its 2014 summer Kallah.

21)   The Gershman Y, for inviting Rabbi Robyn Frisch to facilitate The December Dilemma: Strategies for Interfaith Families During the Holidays on December 14, 2014.

22)   Ross Berkowitz and Steven Share of The Collaborative for working with us to create meaningful programming for young adults in interfaith relationships and individuals in their 20s and 30s who grew up in interfaith homes.

23)   Ed Case, Founder and CEO of InterfaithFamily, for his vision and leadership. For 13 years InterfaithFamily has provided unparalleled resources and support for interfaith couples and families exploring Jewish life.

 

Shofar blowing

A child at an IFF/Philadelphia apple-picking event this year with make-your-own shofars

24)   Rabbi Mayer Selekman, who served on the Board of InterFaithways (predecessor to InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia) and is the Chair of IFF/Philadelphia’s Advisory Council. Rabbi Selekman is a true pioneer. He started officiating at interfaith weddings in the 1960s and has been advocating for the inclusion of interfaith couples and families in the Jewish community for years.

25)   Leonard Wasserman, of blessed memory, Founder of InterFaithways, a visionary who saw intermarriage as an opportunity for the Jewish community, rather than a threat. And we’re thankful to Leonard’s wife of 64 years, Dorothy Wasserman, who worked with him to ensure the success of InterFaithways, and continues to support InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia and serve on our Advisory Council.

26)   Bill Schwartz, InterfaithFamily National Board member and IFF/Philadelphia Advisory Council member, who leads our Philadelphia fundraising efforts. In 2006 Bill came up with the idea of having an InterFaithways Family Shabbat Weekend in Philadelphia and urged local synagogues to participate. Eight years later, over 100 synagogues and organizations in five cities are participating in InterfaithFamily Shabbat 2014.

27)   Laurie Franz and Mindy Fortin, two amazing women from Philadelphia who serve on InterfaithFamily’s National Board and who support our work in the Philadelphia community.

28)   The fantastic Advisory Council of IFF/Philadelphia, the members of which support and guide us in the work we do.

29)   The talented and dedicated InterfaithFamily national staff in Boston as well as in communities throughout the country that we have the privilege of working with, as well as the InterfaithFamily National Board.

30)   The 63 Philadelphia area synagogues and organizations that are participating in InterfaithFamily Shabbat 2014 and The Jewish Exponent for being a Media Affiliate. And all of the individuals who are going to attend InterfaithFamily Shabbat services, dinners and programs, helping to ensure that this year’s InterfaithFamily Shabbat will be the most successful one yet!

What are you thankful for this November?

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?