Connecting Interfaith Families to Jewish Life in Greater Cleveland by providing programs and opportunities for interfaith families to experience Judaism in a variety of venues, meet other interfaith families, and to connect to other Jewish organizations that may serve their needs.
A great way for Jewish professionals and volunteers who work with and provide programming for people in interfaith relationships to locate resources and trainings to build more welcome into their Jewish communities; connect with and learn from each other; and publicize and enhance their programs and services.
I’ve been to a lot of bar and bat mitzvahs in my life, but I’ve never been so deeply moved as I was on a recent Shabbat.
My cousin, Nancy Sharp, who I’ve always adored, has experienced a life of tragic loss and re-found joy. Her husband, Brett, who I remember vividly as a most wonderful young man, died of brain cancer when their twins, Casey and Rebecca, were 2 1/2 years old. Nancy decided to move from Manhattan to Denver, where she had one friend.
After relocating, Nancy read about Steve Saunders, a local TV journalist, in a magazine article about eligible bachelors; Steve’s wife had died of cancer and he was raising two young teens, Ryan and Dylan. Long story short, Nancy and Steve met, married and combined their families. Nancy has told her story in a remarkable book, Both Sides Now. And this spring, Casey and Rebecca became bar and bat mitzvah.
The service and the celebration were amazing. Brett’s family, though living at a distance, has remained very close to Nancy and her children. Brett’s mother, an aunt and uncle, and many cousins were all present and there were not a few tears when Brett’s mother presented his tallit to Casey at the start of the service. But Steve’s family, who are not Jewish, were very present too; I could see that Casey and Rebecca have acquired a third set of grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins. The kindness and the love that flowed between Steve and Brett’s family, and Steve’s family and my cousins, was plain for all to see.
I learned that Ryan and Dylan had many Jewish friends growing up, attended Jewish summer camp and one of Steve’s very adorable nephews (who is not Jewish) even attends the pre-school at Temple Micah, where Nancy and Steve are members. So the Saunders family was not unfamiliar with what happens at a bar or bat mitzvah. And Rabbi Adam Morris did an extraordinarily sensitive job of bringing Brett into the service while keeping the focus on the present.
Rebecca and Casey
But what I especially appreciated was how inclusive Rabbi Morris was of Steve and his family. In many Reform synagogues, part of a bar or bat mitzvah service is a symbolic passing of the Torah from grandparents to parents to child, but at many, the grandparents and parent who are not Jewish don’t get to participate (on the theory that the Torah is not “theirs” to pass, or perhaps that they couldn’t have passed Judaism to the child). At this b’nei mitzvah, I was very glad to see the Torah passed from my cousins Ron and Sue to Brett’s mother, to Steve’s parents, to Steve and Nancy and then to their children.
As in probably all Reform synagogues, part of the bar or bat mitzvah service involves the parents having an aliyah (saying the blessings before and after a portion of the Torah is read). But as best I know, the vast majority of Reform rabbis will not allow a parent who is not Jewish to join in reciting the Torah blessings at their own child’s bar or bat mitzvah. I believe this is based on theory that the blessing refers to God choosing “us” and giving “us” the Torah, and the parent who is not Jewish isn’t part of the “us.” I felt so grateful to Rabbi Morris, and told him so afterwards, for allowing Steve to join with Nancy in the parents’ aliyah. I wish the rabbis who wouldn’t have permitted that could have been at the b’nei mitzvah of Casey and Rebecca Zickerman. Maybe seeing the contribution that Steve, not to mention his extended family, has made to passing Judaism on to Casey and Rebecca might persuade them to change their minds. Something is very wrong, in my opinion, when rabbis can’t consider the family of a person like Steve to be the “us” to whom the Torah was given, making it fully authentic and appropriate for a person like Steve to thank God for giving the Torah to his family—to “us.”
Rabbi Morris’ inclusive approach should not have been a surprise; in 2004 he wrote an excellent sermon explaining why, as it says on the Temple Micah website, “I proudly officiate at the weddings of interfaith couples.” To our knowledge, he is the only congregational rabbi in Denver who will do so.
Nancy Sharp’s story is very personal and emotional for me, and one of, if not the, most inspiring stories I have ever encountered. I love Nancy and her family; the loss she suffered was painful, and the love that she found is a source of great joy. I think the lesson here is about being open to and choosing love. The love that Nancy was open to and chose with Steve, and the love that flows between their families, including Brett’s, is what makes their example so powerful. I hope that the inclusive approach of their rabbi, who chooses to privilege love and family over other concerns, becomes an increasingly powerful example to his colleagues, too.
The other day I saw a rabbi I know post a YouTube link to one of my favorite versions of the prayer, Hashkiveinu. Hashkiveinu is one word in English but means, “Grant that we may lie down” in Hebrew. In Hebrew, prefixes and suffixes are attached to the word. It is a petitionary prayer to be able to lie down in peace at night and to return to renewed life the following day.
Rabbi Murray I. Rothman
The link on Facebook to the video caught my eye for two reasons: As I said, I love this musical rendition of this prayer. Also, this rabbi serves the congregation where I grew up, Temple Shalom of Newton, MA.
What does it mean to grow up at a synagogue? For me, I had heard stories from my dad about how his parents were among the earliest members. My dad had his Bar Mitzvah at this synagogue. I was named as an infant there. The senior rabbi at the time, Murray I. Rothman, of blessed memory, got my family through a horrendous time when my mother was struck by a car crossing the street in front of our house. My little brother was 1, my middle brother was 3 and I was a kindergartner. My mother could not get up the stairs of our house for almost a year. She was bedridden on a couch in our den. My father somehow managed the three of us. Neighbors and family came to the rescue. And Rabbi Rothman came to that den every Friday afternoon with a challah and a Torah commentary and studied a little Torah with my mom. This kept her going spiritually and emotionally.
What does it mean to grow up at a synagogue? I knew the halls of that place. I knew the smells, the classrooms, the chapel, the sanctuary, the bathrooms, the youth lounge, the social hall—I knew the building. My confirmation class photograph is on the wall there. In fact, I sat in the Rabbi’s study on more than one occasion philosophizing about God and Judaism (true, I was into this stuff, even as a kid). I felt at home there. I slept there in a sleeping bag on the floor as a teenager at a “shul-in.” I remember the Temple Shalom sukkah in detail even though the last time I helped decorate one was at least 20 years ago. I can still feel the pride I felt praying with my family in the sanctuary on the High Holidays, wearing my new dress. I can see my brothers as I write this, quietly folding the flyers and tickets into origami to keep occupied during the services.
Some say bricks and mortar don’t matter. Buildings are passé. We’ve got coffee houses now. Millennials don’t want to walk into synagogues. Too many barriers. A building fund is too onerous for members to carry. What’s important are the people. The community. This is also true. But, I loved that building and it went through changes and renovations and has a life of its own. I think one reason I felt so connected to the building was that I could walk there from my house. That is how we got to and from Hebrew School. It is rare today for kids to walk places by themselves (at least not as young as we used to). I loved that independence, and going to a place I felt was totally safe and mine.
What does it mean to grow up at a synagogue? It means you know the people. We knew the people who worked in the office, the maintenance crew, the teachers, the educators and the rabbis. These were the people who lived in the temple as far as I was concerned. They were the familiar faces who knew us by name. They were welcoming and warm. They kept the temple going. And, my friends were there. We came together from multiple public schools. We grew up there together. We came to one another’s Bar and Bat Mitzvah services. We had our parties in the synagogue social hall. My parents knew the other parents and the kids.
I learned to read Hebrew there. I may not have known how to translate each word into English but I learned to read the Hebrew prayers in Hebrew fluently by about fifth grade. I kept the old blue Gates of Prayer Book—the Reform Movement’s prayer book—on my nightstand growing up, which I received from Temple Shalom. A nameplate was placed in it for me at my Bat Mitzvah. I read the prayers to myself at night and they were a source of comfort.
My parents have now moved to Philadelphia to be near my little brother’s family. We have no ties to this building anymore. We don’t know many people who still go there. Yet, all these years later, when I see a Facebook post from Temple Shalom, it catches my eye. It makes me smile to see the new life that is there now. It is a part of me.
I marry lots of people who “grew up at an area congregation” but they left after their Bar or Bat Mitzvah. Maybe they have great and deep memories of being there. Maybe they barely remember their time there.
The only way one feels a sense of growing up in a synagogue is if you are there a lot and get really involved. I am thankful this was the case for me and my family growing up. It’s never too late to go back. It’s never too late to try a new congregation. Interfaith families are welcome at congregations, often with wide open arms.
Jillian (right) with her cousins and grandmother in Ipswich, MA.
Growing up, I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about what I ate. One of my parents and then a housekeeper for a while, used to cook dinner for me and made my lunch to take to school. We didn’t keep any sense of kosher; I didn’t really understand what kashrut was until I was much older. My parents attempted to instill the values of healthy eating, feeding us fresh produce, buying food from whatever farms existed in suburban New Jersey, but beyond the health aspects, we never really discussed food in any other way.
As I grew older, I was confronted with a variety of food ethics, whether cultural, religious or health related. As I spent time thinking about the food choices I make now, I realized that the decisions I make about most aspects of my life reflect how I think, how I was raised, my cultural context and my values. As a child of an interfaith marriage, there was always a combining of cultures in our household, from the most mundane of details to the most controversial. Whenever two people combine their lives and create a family even if they seem incredibly similar on the surface, there is bound to be a certain amount of combining (usually preceded by a hefty degree of compromise).
But my parents were not only intermarried in terms of their religious backgrounds, but my mother was from high treif (non-kosher) land, New England, and my father’s family was old Jewish Bronx (brisket, anyone?). Some of my fondest food memories are when we visited my mom’s family in Ipswich, MA: fried clams, steamers, lobster rolls, scallops, you name the seafood, we ate it, and we ate it joyfully. Since I did not live near my mom’s family and was being raised as a Jew, the love of seafood represented my connection with them. I thought about giving it up over the years, as I had given up pork, but those family moments, those points of connection always prevented me. I studied and contemplated and struggled with my decision because I wanted to maintain my own sense of integrity in who I am and what my title represents. But even as a rabbi, as a leader and example in the Jewish community, I long ago decided that having a connection to my family, being able to sit with them and break bread (and lobster claws) was more important than keeping kosher. And I have never once regretted it.
We live in a world of abundant choices and options and as our community grows ever more diverse, we will only continue to face these types of decisions. There is no one right answer, it’s up to each of us to take the time, do the work and decide how we want to live our lives.
One of the many lovely things about being a rabbi is you tend to know many other rabbis and when you move to a new place, inevitably you’ve probably got a few colleagues already there, happy to help you create a sense of community. I moved to the Boston area about a month ago and even before I arrived, I had a Shabbat dinner invitation waiting for me. There is a whole culture around Shabbat dinner and depending on how you define yourself, where you live and how you were raised, a good Shabbat dinner can sometimes trump any other Shabbat ritual. Shabbat dinner is about delicious food and wine, good company, long meandering conversation and hopefully the start to a restful weekend after a long week.
Despite the wide variety of Shabbat dinner traditions across the world, there are two constants: One, the most obvious, is the day of the week—Friday—night and two, the most important, connecting with other people.
So I drove a bit nervously to my Shabbat dinner invitation, wondering how the evening would go. This particular Shabbat dinner was sponsored by a ‘20s and ‘30s group from Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, MA, and I was told that there was going to be a big turnout. While you might imagine my comfort level to perhaps be a bit higher than the average Shabbat dinner attendee because I am a rabbi, I believe it is human to be a tad anxious about any new social situation. I wasn’t concerned about knowing the prayers but I was curious about who would be there and what kind of community this would be. Amidst my nerves I was also excited to meet new people, to hear new stories and to feel a part of something bigger than me on Shabbat.
I parked my car, walked to the backyard and the fear and anxiety faded as I was warmly welcomed by some I knew, some I had never met. I met newly married couples, recent college graduates, graduate students, teachers and doctors who all came from very different backgrounds. Some grew up with weekly Shabbat meals with their families, some had never really attended one before. Some diners were synagogue members, some were newly Jewish, some were in love with Jews and some were rabbis! And we all came together on this Friday night and laughed and drank and ate and created our own little community. This Shabbat dinner was a great equalizer for all there because it was shaped by those in attendance, by all of the things that made us unique and all of the things that brought us together. What a wonderful and peaceful way to end the week!
Have you had a particular memorable Shabbat dinner? How do you come together with friends and family to find peace in your life?
The first Monday of the month from 9-10 am I set up a booth at the Weinger JCC lobby (300 Revere Drive, Northrbook). I channel Lucy from Peanuts and her “5 cents Psychiatry booth.” I have done this twice so far. I feel a little awkward but I can’t think of a better way to make myself available to meet and talk. (And if someone just wants to go about their business, I certainly won’t get in their way.)
I know that some of you have questions and comments and welcome this way to connect. It is with anticipation and butterflies in my stomach that I wonder who might wander over and what we might discuss.
The first Monday in May someone came over and said, “Ask a Rabbi?”
I said, “I’m a rabbi, do you have any questions?”
She sat down and we talked about her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. We spoke about her youngest great-grandchildren being raised with Judaism by a mom who is not Jewish and her admiration for her.
Because my friends know I am a rabbi, I often get to field theological issues as they come up. I just got a text from a friend that said that her daughter wanted to know who invented God! And I was supposed to text back and answer! I did. I wrote: Great question! My belief is that God has always been with no beginning and end. One of the mystical names for God is ein sof—without end. But if she believes people invented God she is still a good Jew and if she doesn’t believe in the supernatural, she may be drawn to secular humanism. When I saw this friend at the park we both laughed about texting this kind of thing. Sometimes when these kinds of questions come up, we’ll mull them over, discuss with a parent or friend or handle it in a satisfying enough way without a “professional.”
However, if you are around Northbrook the first Monday of the month and want to share something your kids said, or something you have been thinking about, or a question about a holiday or practice, or something you saw at a bar or bat mitzvah or you want advice about speaking with your in-laws about a religious topic… I can’t wait to hear about it. I don’t have all the answers. My thoughts and approaches are only right if they feel right to you. I won’t tell you what to do. But, if it lends itself we will probably laugh. I can direct you to others in the community if you have a particular interest. I am a mom of two young kids, I think about how to raise mensches (Yiddish for good person), I live a harried life and I love the Shabbat rituals (although they rarely get accompanied by a sit-down family meal—some of you can share how you accomplish this with me). I would love to learn and talk with you.
My youngest has been asking a lot about where he was before he got into my tummy, what he did in there and where God is now. I yearn to meet other people who can stop for a minute and share our humanity. We can look at each other and see where we overlap and understand each other and sense where our diversity and different backgrounds bring us to our own questions and concerns.
I hope to see you June 2 at 9am in Northbrook. If this location and time doesn’t work for you, but you want to philosophize about something or just have a quick question, email me at email@example.com.
So many couples I marry have one partner who grew up at an area congregation but left after their bar or bat mitzvah. I have thought about creative ways to reunite this person and now this couple with their synagogue of origin, so to speak. There is probably still a picture of them from some class on the wall there! Then it occurred to me, why do synagogues let families just leave? If a family calls the executive director of a congregation to say that they are leaving, the conversation should end with them staying members unless they’re moving away or have a pressing need to leave the synagogue.
Why do people leave synagogues? Money. The synagogue can sympathize with the fact that the financial commitment is difficult to meet for many families. For some, they struggled to pay the dues in order to see their children through their bar or bat mitzvah and feel relieved to take these thousands of dollars of cost off their budget. Thus, the synagogue could say: You are not members because you pay dues. You are members because you have been part of this community. Anything you can contribute now that you are in a different stage of life will help our synagogue stay open and functioning. However, you are not off of our emails and off of our newsletter list and we do not bar you from holiday services because you need a break from the yearly dues after so many years of supporting the congregation in this way.
Whatever the synagogue then collects from this family will be more than if the family had left never to walk through its doors again. But now, won’t other people want to stop paying too? Each house of worship will have to figure out how this plan can work. Do they give post bar/bat mitzvah families a three year period of reduced dues and then hope that they have found value in the continued connection to the congregation and they can again make a bigger financial contribution? Money alone cannot make someone suddenly a “non-member.”
Another reason people may give for leaving a synagogue is that they don’t “need it anymore.” Now that their children are through this major life cycle event, the parents in the family don’t feel a need to attend the congregation. They are not Shabbat attendees, they don’t come for adult education or Torah study. They would like to come for High Holidays, but they are not going to pay $3,000 a year for this when they can be someone’s guest or just buy tickets. The response the synagogue could have is, “you are still members here.” We will still be in touch and you can still attend any or all programs of the Temple.
Then a conversation could take place (preferably in person) about what they would enjoy coming to. Do you like cooking? We have cooking classes. Do you like knitting? We have knitting circles? Downtown lunch and learns? Meeting occasionally with the rabbi to talk about your aging parents, trouble with your teenager, a new health diagnosis you are facing? Your own marriage issues? We are here for you. It turns out you don’t attend services because you can’t read Hebrew? We can help with this. We need to be relevant for people beyond bar and bat mitzvot.
We obviously cannot make someone stay a member who does not want to receive information from the synagogue and who has had a negative experience there. Some say that so much of the correspondence with a synagogue involves asking for more money: money for a building campaign, money for memorial plaques, etc. I think that most people would be thrilled to hear that they are still members, even if they can’t or won’t pay the same dues anymore.
Now, what about the people who do not call the office to say that they are stopping their membership. The synagogue knows who has just stopped paying. Those people probably receive a phone call and hopefully an in-person meeting to say, “We miss you…what’s going on?” When people have ties to a community, it is hard to leave. Let’s make it hard for people to leave.
When I was ordained as a Reform Rabbi in 2000 I was certain that I would never officiate at interfaith wedding ceremonies. I felt that as a rabbi, my role was to preside over ceremonies only for Jews. I was fully comfortable welcoming interfaith couples into the congregation where I worked and recognized that this could be beneficial for both the couple and the congregation. I accepted patrilineal descent (meaning that if the father is Jewish and the mother is not Jewish, their child is recognized as Jewish if he or she is raised as a Jew; in contrast, traditional Jewish law recognizes only matrilineal descent, insisting that the mother be Jewish in order for the child to be considered Jewish) and so I recognized the children of all interfaith marriages as Jewish.
When a couple with one Jewish partner and one partner of another faith tradition would come to me and ask me to officiate at their wedding ceremony, I would say something to the effect of: “No. But I will fully welcome you into my community after your wedding and I hope that you and any children you may have will be active participants.”
For years, I was comfortable with this position—what I now think of as my “No. But…” stance. Over time, however, I came to realize that what many of these couples heard me say was simply the “No,” and not anything that I said after the “But.” While I thought I was being welcoming, I only looked at the situation through my own eyes, rather than from the perspective of the couple that I was, in essence, turning away.
I eventually came to see that the Jewish partner, who was coming to a rabbi and asking for acceptance and for a rabbi to be part of this major event in his or her life, could feel very hurt by my stance—as if he or she was being rejected by me (and by implication by the Jewish community) for having fallen in love with someone who was not Jewish. And for the partner who was from another faith tradition (or perhaps did not feel connected to any tradition), for whom this was sometimes his or her first contact with a member of the Jewish clergy, the first thing they were told was “no.” No matter what came after my “But,” it was often the “no” that resonated most loudly.
Fortunately, I live in an area where there are many wonderful rabbis and cantors who have officiated at interfaith wedding ceremonies for years, so the couples that I turned away were able to find other Jewish clergy to officiate at their weddings. To this day, I have remained in touch with some of the couples at whose weddings I had refused to officiate, and I have seen what the power of being welcomed by other rabbis and cantors from the very beginning has meant to them. I only hope that there are not any couples I declined to marry who were so turned off by the perceived rejection that they did not seek out other Jewish clergy to officiate at their wedding, and then did not seek out further involvement in the Jewish community.
For me, there was not any great epiphany that caused me to start officiating at interfaith weddings, but rather it was a slow evolution. My evolution came about as I saw many couples where one partner was not Jewish–and families where one parent was not Jewish–being actively engaged in Jewish life and the Jewish community. It came about as I learned that things are not always “black and white” and that real life is about the “grey” areas–the complicated family dynamics, the fact that someone who practices one religion can fall deeply in love with someone who practices another religion, and so on. This is the complicated, messy–and often beautiful–reality of life. And I decided that rather than view it as a threat, I would view it as an opportunity.
About four years ago, I began for my first time to work with an interfaith couple in preparation for their wedding. I loved working with them and having the opportunity to discuss all of the challenges and blessings of their relationship. I wondered, though, how I would feel as I stood under the chuppah(wedding canopy) with this couple. After all, this would be a new experience for me–something outside of my usual comfort zone that would mean doing something that for years I had professed I would never do. And you know what? Lighting didn’t strike me as I stood under the chuppah!
In fact, when the ceremony was over and I had a chance to reflect on my emotions, I felt great. I had participated in a sacred moment with this couple. I had honored their differences and celebrated their union. And hopefully, on their journey toward marriage, I had exposed them to some of the richness and beauty of Judaism and made them feel TRULY welcome.
In the last few years, I’ve been blessed to work with a number of terrific interfaith couples as they have prepared for their weddings. In each case, I have welcomed the conversations of complex issues of identity and belonging, honoring and sharing, feelings of gain and of loss. I feel that I have grown as a rabbi and a person from my connections with these couples–from embracing the complexity of life and the beauty of their relationships. I hope that they too have grown from our working together, both as individuals and as a couple.
My stance toward interfaith couples is no longer “No. But…” Now it is “Yes. And…” In essence, I now tell couples: “Yes, I will marry you. And I hope that you and your family will feel welcome and become involved in the Jewish community.”
I think that after hearing “Yes” from me, they are a lot more likely to hear what comes after the “And…” I believe with all my heart that if a couple sees the door to Judaism as wide open and welcoming, they are more likely to cross over the threshold. Rather than shut that very first door in the face of an interfaith couple, I now hold it open for them and accompany them as they walk through.