Why Be Jewish Today?

  

Family holds red heart in hands

Anti-Semitic acts have been happening in our country every day for the past couple of months. And every day I get asked the same question, “Why should I be Jewish?”

To be Jewish is to accept the challenges along with the joys. To have Jewish heritage is to be born into a club of which you will always be a member, even if you choose not to engage in Jewish life. To choose to be Jewish, or to be partnered with someone Jewish, you are joining a family where you become part of its celebrations, accomplishments, disappointments, failures, challenges and tragedies.

So why choose to be part of a family with such tragic stories in the distant and not so distant past? Why wake up every day and make the choice to be part of a family that is the recipient of hateful speech and acts of terror and desecration? Why be a part of a group who sometimes seems to have more challenges than joys when, in America, you can choose to be anything?

I asked this question on Facebook and was given a lot of answers to why people choose to engage in Jewish life. But, I also received some questions:

How can you even choose?

Is it a choice to be Jewish?

Can you choose to ignore your family heritage?

What if you don’t have Jewish family heritage? 

How do you choose Judaism?

I want to add a few more questions to the above. If you’re in an interfaith relationship, why choose Judaism as your household religion, when it would be so easy to ignore or deny it? Being Jewish seems to come with all this extra baggage—why voluntarily carry it and ask your family to carry it?

Why do interfaith couples go out of their way to practice Judaism when being Jewish means subjecting yourself to scrutiny and possibly danger?

How about when it means sending your kid to school at a JCC or Jewish day school knowing it may get threatened and evacuated?  Or when it means going through a metal detector for synagogue? And after all that, when it means people repeatedly tell you that you’re not really Jewish, or your family’s not Jewish or your family and relationship is leading to the decline of Judaism? Why do interfaith couples and families keep it up?

For love.

Love of the past—of the parent to whom Judaism was so important. Or of the grandparent who died at Dachau or Sachsen-Hausen. Or for the mother-in-law who wants so badly for your children to be Jewish.

Love of the present—of the partner to whom Judaism is so important. The synagogue that needs your membership and participation to keep its doors open. The community that welcomes you and celebrates with you in times of joy and supports you in times of sadness. The connection you feel to other people as they navigate the journey of being Jewish in an interfaith family.

Love of the future—to give your children a tradition and culture. For Judaism to continue, thrive and flourish. For the Jewish tradition to think of the next generation and plant the seeds of faith and community that only our children and grandchildren with see the fruit of. For the story found in a Jewish text, called the Talmud (Ta’anit 23a), in which a man named Honi plants a carob tree, knowing that it will not bear fruit in his generation. When asked why he would care about a tree that wouldn’t offer him any fruit, he answered, “Perhaps not. However, when I was born into this world, I found many carob trees planted by my father and grandfather. Just as they planted trees for me, I am planting trees for my children and grandchildren so they will be able to eat the fruit of these trees.” This view of Jewish engagement is hope for the future.

Keeping faith in a time when you are unsure, when your people are being threatened, is an act of love. It’s an act that transcends you and is bigger than you and your family. You find your own reasons for engaging Jewishly and having a Jewish identity. And through it all, you know there’s a bigger reason for your family. Through the fear, threats, insults and the rejection, you stick with it and pass through your family the love you have for the past, present and future of Judaism.

Everyone has their own reasons for this love. Familial heritage may resonate with you or Jewish continuity may drive your Jewish identity. Maybe it’s the participation in community events or Jewish ritual that increases your connection with Judaism. In a world where anti-Semitism is part of our daily lives and freedom of religion is part of our society, people have a choice how they identify with Judaism.  I hope you will find your own reason for being in the family as you #ChooseLove each day.

Why do you #ChooseLove and choose Judaism? Share in the comments.

Five Observations

  

Heart beat illustrationBelow are five observations from working with interfaith families that may get our hearts racing and hopefully prompt respectful discussion:

1. Language matters. God created the world with words, “Let there be light…and there was…” The rabbis said that to embarrass someone is to kill their soul—to bring blood to their face. The same word in Hebrew for “word,”—d’var—is also the word for “thing.” Words create reality. The old adage “sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me” is not Jewish. Thus, when we say, “non-Jew” for example, we are saying that someone is a “non-entity” or different from, and that isolates and estranges the very people we seek to endear and hold close. Thus, I say, “not Jewish” because I believe this difference is more than semantics.

2. Owning It. Many people who grew up with Judaism and are getting married describe themselves as “culturally Jewish.” I have started pushing people to define what this means. Which culture? Ashkenazkic Jewish? If you go to your parent’s for the holidays and your mother makes kugel and brisket, she is a cultural Jew. Can you claim this as an authentic identity as an adult vicariously? Is there a cut-off age for this when you have to own it yourself? Are people cultural Jews because they grew up culturally Jewish: going to Jewish camp (or camp with lots of Jews), having Jewish friends, getting together with family for break-fast and Passover?

As adults, we identify as Jewish, but maybe this hasn’t been actualized since the Bar/Bat Mitzvah circuit or since a Jewish sorority or fraternity or a birthright trip. When people say they are culturally Jewish, they may be describing their upbringing more than anything. They may also be saying what they are not. They are not members of a synagogue (neither are their parents, often) and they do not think about Judaism on a regular basis. But lifecycle moments often must be Jewish. There is no other way for them to imagine getting married or welcoming a baby than to have a rabbi present and to look to Jewish tradition. Is this empty or lacking? Not to me. This is real. This is a basis upon which new learning and experiences can take place. This is roots. This is connectedness and family closeness. If we dismiss this, we will lose another generation of people who grew up with Judaism and need to be sold on its value as a way of life.

3. Re-branding Judaism. Selling Judaism. I find myself cheerleading for Judaism. I hear story after story about not having loved religious school; leaving the synagogue after the Bar/Bat Mitzvah; finding services boring, hard to follow, irrelevant; being disappointed by rabbis for whatever reasons; etc. I try to re-sell an open-minded, loving, vibrant, relevant Judaism in which people will find moral grounding, inspiration, other young people, accessible clergy, and rituals open to anybody who loves a Jew and is comfortable being part of everything—whether or not they formally convert. Does this Judaism exist? Should it exist? I tell people that this Judaism exists because I have experienced it in many places here in Chicago and in many different ways.

4. Inclusion. Can Judaism be an inclusive religion? Inclusion is a recent American ideal. For instance, we aim to create neuro-diverse classrooms because we believe that inclusion of different kinds of learners benefits everyone. But, can it be a Jewish ideal? We have been an insular, tight knit, ethnically bound people and this has kept us going. We are a religion of boundaries: day and night, holy and profane, Shabbat and the rest of the week, before 13 and after 13, kosher or treif. Can we have a Judaism that is totally open and includes everybody? This will change our Judaism. Is this OK? What will it look and feel like? Will there be a reason to formally convert anymore? (Anecdotally, I have found that when those come to experience Judaism they want more and more and do end up wanting a formal conversion, quite often…)

Beyond being welcoming, the real question is how and to what extent can Judaism be an inclusive religion?

5. Both religions. Each of these observations I have gleaned from working with interfaith families’ present challenges and opportunities in the Jewish world. But, this last point is perhaps the most tricky. This one really gets our hearts racing and leads to arguments among Jewish leaders. What about families who want both religions of the parents to be part of their lives? What does it mean anymore to raise Jewish children? Is there a litmus test to this? Can one raise Jewish children and not belong to a synagogue (pretty hard to do in America, I personally think). Can one raise Jewish children if those children attend church with one parent or grandparent or cousins and take part in Christian holidays? Only if those holidays are celebrated “culturally” and not “religiously”? Can one raise Jewish children if Shabbat is not part of their lives, if they do not give tzedakah and if Judaism may not come up in the course of a day or week?

Many, many couples I meet with think they will want some aspects of both religions in their lives. They don’t believe this will confuse children. They feel that if the parents are on the same page, the children will be too. If there is love, tolerance, respect, empathy, a willingness to learn and experience and a depth of compromise, it will enrich the family to become literate in both faiths and to celebrate aspects of both faiths. Whatever we think about this, we are going to have to confront this reality. How can and should the liberal Jewish world respond? What will our religious schools look like if we have more and more children exposed to both religions who feel “half and half” and say it with wholeness and pride? Will this dilute Judaism? Will this expand Judaism? Will all children raised within liberal Judaism today come to love the idiosyncrasies of our way in to the big questions of life: kindness, social justice, the meaning of sin, how to talk about God, what it means to have lived a good life?

If you are an interfaith couple, do these observations resonate? What are your answers? What are your questions? Have I captured some of this? We want to know the top things you are thinking about so that we can think this stuff through with you. Judaism needs your voices and your presence.

Ask the Big Questions

  

10QWhen I was young, my sister taught me one of the most important things I needed to know about the High Holy Days: Always ask the big questions.

As kids, we attended services with the adults since child-friendly services hadn’t been invented yet. It was long. Really long. Now I lead services and understand why there is so much liturgy. But as teenagers it was tough to sit attentively for that long. My sister always brought a book with her to synagogue. But it wasn’t to pass the time, and it was not just any book. She felt that during the High Holy Days, we should be exploring the depths of religious and philosophical literature about the meaning of life. It was usually someone like Buber, Frankl, Hegel or Heidegger.

She loved finding the same themes they wrote about in the prayer book, and every now and then she would point out to me some kernel of wisdom she’d found or question that came up for her in one book or the other and we would ponder that in whispers for a while. What are we here for? Is there such a thing as a soul? What happens when we die and what makes us so afraid of it? She understood the true meaning of the season: to contemplate life, mortality and purpose. As I grew up, I started to see Rosh Hashanah and especially Yom Kippur as Judaism’s personal therapy session. When do we to put aside entire days to just focus on ourselves and the meaning of life?

My sister taught me that the Holy Days are about asking the big questions of life and death. Those questions are imbedded in our liturgy, but it can be hard to tease them out. These days, there are new prayer books that contain insightful meditations and commentary on each page. If you go to services, allow your eyes to wander all over the page, and allow your mind to wander where it needs to go. Things that come up while sitting in services are probably coming up for a good reason, and are pointing you to the work you need to do this year. If you don’t attend services, there are lots of ways to get into the High Holy Day spirit.

One Jewish organization, Reboot, has a great suggestion for digging deeply. It is called 10Q, for “ten questions.” There are ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur that are meant as a time to reflect on the year past and the year to come. 10Q puts a modern twist on this tradition and asks you (digitally) a big question every day during that period about your life plans, goals, relationships and how you relate to world events of the day.  People of any background can use them to delve deeply with their broad, spiritual questions. And in case the craziness of the intervening year causes you to forget what matters most to you, they will send you your responses before Rosh Hashanah of 2015.

However you mark the days of reflection coming up, try to not let them just go by. Whether you spend these days in nature, in synagogue, at home or work, take some time to ask yourself the big questions.

Is God Taboo?

  

Many will agree that taboo topics of conversation include sex, politics, money, and religion. We’re guided not to discuss these things at work, sometimes not even with our extended family, but do we talk about them at home, with our spouse? With our children? If you don’t talk about these topics, how will your children know what’s important to you?

Children's Spirituality Quest Set

Children's Spirituality Quest Set

Jim Keen states, in response to his daughter’s query, “What is God?” in When My Jewish Child Asks Me about God: A Christian Parent’s Perspective,

“My wife and I had never really discussed the topic of how we would explain God to our kids. The frequent discussions we had had about raising our children in an interfaith family had left what suddenly seemed to be a large gap.”

Certainly, none of us want to leave a large gap in our child’s development. So, let’s start talking about it.

Answer these questions for yourself: Where does God live? How does God listen? Does God ever sleep? Does God forgive me? Does God hear my prayers? Children are thinking about these things and developing their own responses. Ask your child what he/she thinks. Share your ideas. If you’re stuck, check out the Children’s Spirituality Quest Set published by Skylight Paths Publishing in Woodstock, VT. They are designed for children ages 3-6, but I’ve used them when teaching teens. This set is perfect for any family; it has been “endorsed by Protestant, Catholic, Jewish and Buddhist religious leaders.”

Another book you may consider adding to your child’s library (or your own), In God’s Name shares insights from many different people about qualities that they see in God and what each calls God. This book allows the reader to create his/her own connection to God and adapt one of the names in the book or develop his/her own name for God.

My personal favorite is called God’s Paintbrush. In writing this, I discovered that there is now a special 10th Anniversary Edition of God’s Paintbrush. In the introduction, Sandy Eisenberg Sasso tells a sweet story of a child explaining to his grandmother why he likes this book so much. “It’s because it asks questions.” When asked if the answers to the questions were in the back of the book, she explained, “no, the answers are inside you.”

Sandy continues,

“For children to give us a glimpse of what is deep inside them is their great gift to us. For adults to give our children the language to talk about their spiritual lives is our great gift to them. Time and again parents have read these pages to open a window in the soul, their children’s and their own.”

She goes on to share some ideas for how to read and utilize the book to open the door for conversation.

So start your conversation. Take the “taboo” label off God and start talking about God with your partner, with your children, with your family, and maybe even with your friends!