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This post originally appeared on www.edumundcase.com and is reprinted with permission
Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, a leading Conservative rabbi whose essay in March explained why he thought Conservative rabbis should continue to not officiate at weddings of interfaith couples, has a new essay arguing that “the Conservative movement should be the movement of conversion.” He wants to “meet people where they are,” and as I understand it make the conversion process easier, in particular not requiring converts to be “fully observant.”
I have always felt that conversion is a wonderful personal choice and I don’t have any issues with making the process easier including for some couples who are getting married. But the idea that making conversion more inviting and “doable” will enable Conservative rabbis to meet young couples who are getting married “where they are” is sorely misguided. Because neither partner is thinking that the partner who is not Jewish needs to make a fundamental change in who he or she is in order to be marriageable.
As David Wilensky and Gabriel Erbs have just written in A Taxonomy of Stupid Shit the Jewish Establishment Says to Millennials:
We really don’t understand how any thinking person believes an intra-communal breeding program will be a convincing appeal to young people. Jewish millennials chafe against this pearl-clutching because we embrace, overwhelmingly, progressive values about gender, sexuality, and marriage. To us, baby-boomer chatter on intermarriage sounds alarmingly like what a lot of “polite society” said at the advent of racial intermarriage….
If Jewish boomers are really anxious about generational continuity (a phrase that verges on eugenics in its subtext), they should stop their hardline rhetoric, which simply pushes millennials out of the communal fold. For interfaith Jewish families who wish to build their family life within the Jewish communal context, this kind of talk constantly reminds them of their second-class status – so they leave.
Shaul Magid writing in The Forward also disagreed with Rabbi Cosgrove, though for different reasons:
I do not think it is fair, or spiritually refined, to ask the non-Jew to become a Jew in order to solve a Jewish problem [intermarriage]. Or to allow us, as rabbis, to sleep at night. To do so is to make conversion into an instrument and the convert into a tool to benefit us.
Rabbi Cosgrove advances other interesting ideas. Since Conservative rabbis do not recognize patrilineal descent, he recommends that all marrying couples go to the mikveh before their weddings, which would “level the playing field of Jewish identity” – and, as I understand it, enable Conservative rabbis to officiate at those weddings. He also recommends that all b’nai mitzvah children go to the mikveh, which would confirm the Jewish identity of patrilineal children.
But these are band-aids that don’t address a much bigger issue. Rabbi Cosgrove has said we must be “passionate in creating a culture of warm embrace for Jew and non-Jew alike.” Not recognizing patrilineal descent, not allowing partners from different faith traditions to participate in Jewish ritual, and not officiating at weddings of interfaith couples – all of these undermine any possible warm embrace.
I am a rabbi and I love Christmastime. I love the twinkling lights in the cool dark nights. I love listening to carolers sing of joy and hope as I sip my spiced cider or hot chocolate. I love that everyone greets each other more than any other time of the year. (I am, however, terrified of Santa Claus because of a run in with a mall Santa as a child.) And one of my favorite songs is “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas.” It’s not my favorite because of its religious theme, or even because of its references to snow (I’m an Arizona kid after all). It’s my favorite because it was my dad’s favorite.
Here’s a little backstory on my family: My dad converted to Judaism when he married his first wife, decades before I was born. All my life he was extremely committed to being Jewish and for the last several years of his life he was dedicated to Jewish study and worship at his local synagogue. But he sang that song like it was his personal anthem. We even had it playing on the stereo during the luncheon after his funeral. I’m pretty sure that was the first (and last) time his synagogue has had Christmas music playing at a funeral… and maybe the only time it’s ever played at any funeral in August. But it was his favorite, and now that it’s Christmastime again I’m hearing it on the radio every day and thinking of my dad.
This year the first night of Hanukkah falls on Christmas Eve. Some people are very excited about this since it means that for the first time in decades Hanukkah has similar “status” as Christmas. To some people it means that Jews still get to take advantage of Christmas shopping sales, which doesn’t happen when Hanukkah falls in November. But for some interfaith families it is a source of a lot of conflict.
When the holidays are separate on the calendar it is easier to separate their celebrations. For my family, it doesn’t matter that Hanukkah is on Christmas because Hanukkah is always on Thanksgiving for us. Growing up in a family that was geographically dispersed, Thanksgiving was the one weekend that we were all usually together. No matter when Hanukkah fell on the calendar, you could find us eating latkes and exchanging gifts on the Friday after Thanksgiving. In my family, Hanukkah was primarily about spending time with family, eating delicious food from family recipes, and presents.
To me, Hanukkah is a minor Jewish holiday from a religious perspective and does very little to define my Jewish identity. Which means that loving Christmastime does little to threaten my Jewish identity.
Because of my relationship with Hanukkah, when a friend recently asked me if it was OK for Jewish people to like Christmas movies and music, I chuckled thinking about my own annual tradition of watching “Elf” and my childhood memories of driving around town to see Christmas lights. And then I thought more closely about the question: IS it OK for Jewish people to like Christmas movies and music? What about lights? Trees?
As a Reform rabbi I do not feel it is my place to tell people what’s “OK” for them to do Jewishly. I do feel it’s my role to guide people along their path and offer expertise and opinions where appropriate. It is not my job to tell people not to listen to Christmas music, or not to have a tree or to keep kosher. It is my job to help people see how positive Jewish experience can impact your life and shape families’ lives.
When it comes to the winter holidays, there is so much more at play than religious beliefs. To one family Christmas music may symbolize songs of hope for a savior or faith in God. To another family it may symbolize beautiful melodies and joyful tunes. To me, it reminds me of my father who sung those songs with a huge smile and especially now that he’s gone, I want to listen to that music to remind me of him. I spoke with an interfaith family recently whose kids identify as Jewish, and who have a tree to honor one parent’s family tradition. They feel no guilt and they do not feel that having a tree in any way compromises their Jewish identity, but rather that it helps them represent their entire family.
Meanwhile, I hear rabbis and others tell scary tales of Christmas trees leading to diminishing Jewish communities and threatening Jewish identity. I’ve heard the sermons from rabbis who are committed to the survival of the Jewish people. I’ve read the articles describing how Jewish families (or interfaith families) having a Christmas tree is a threat to Jewish identity. I understand the argument that Jewish identity is important and the survival of Jewish community is essential. However, I believe that when many of our families are already embracing the tradition of the Christmas tree, despite the best efforts of some to discourage it, the real threat to our Jewish community is the dismissal and judgment of these families.
I think that if our Jewishness is defined by a tree or a movie or a song, we need to rethink our religious identity and spend the rest of the year strengthening it. There is more to a religious identity than physical symbols. It is about a way of life, a set of values and a tradition, and the ways in which we enact that tradition.
Recently, my colleague in Los Angles posted a question that piqued my interest on her personal Facebook page: “Did any of my Jewish professional friends grow up with a Christmas tree?” I knew where she was going with this. She was betting that a number of rabbis and Jewish educators had grown up in an interfaith family with a tree, or in a family with a Jewish parent or parents who had a tree for whatever reason, or they were Jews by choice who had grown up with a tree and became Jewish as an adult and then Jewish professionals. In any of these scenarios, having a tree did not deter them from becoming Jewish professionals. I had to delve into this!
So, I posted the same question with credit to Rabbi Keara and an amazing thing happened. There were over 50 comments made to my post, and they’re still coming in. I don’t think I had that many comments when my children were born or when my Grandmother, of blessed memory, died.
The amazing thing is it started with Jewish professionals admitting that they had grown up with trees and how and why that was the case and then morphed into other Jewish friends who do not work in the Jewish world writing about having trees or not having trees. And, some people even wrote that they didn’t have trees, which was as much a statement about attitudes on this subject as anything else people wrote because I had only asked to hear from people who did have a tree.
Here is what I conclude:
1. Many Jewish leaders grew up with a Christmas tree. Many interfaith families today raising children with Judaism have Christmas trees in their homes or at a close family member’s home. There seems to be a disconnect between these two realities. Somehow interfaith families don’t see their lives and reality always mirrored in the lives and reality of their clergy and educators.
2. Judaism from on high (I’m not sure who or what this is or if most people can even articulate this. It’s just a feeling or perception) seems to judge negatively Jewish families who have trees. This has not always been the case. There were times when many American Jews had trees and it was seen as typical and normative in their assimilating American Reform circles.
3. People who are active in Judaism today have amazing stories of interesting family dynamics and experiences and there could be more venues or formats for sharing our stories, learning from and seeing ourselves in one another. This would inform our way of transmitting Judaism if we understood more about the context and lens by which people were experiencing Jewish messages.
4. Symbols matter. The American flag is a symbol. We feel something when we see the flag. We feel something when we raise the flag at camp or when we see it at a sport’s event. We feel something when we see brand logos. The tree is symbolic. For many it symbolizes warmth, beauty, good memories, family time, gifts, glee and togetherness. It is all positive. If we tell those who love the tree that it is inconsistent with Judaism, they might hear that their warm family times (void of theology and religiosity, but maybe full of meaning and richness) is inconsistent with Judaism. This is confusing and hurtful. It puts people on the defensive and can lead to shame. It makes people feel they must justify the tree and argue for it lest they be seen as hurting a Judaism they are trying to perpetuate. It pits lay person against professional. It creates an us versus them.
5. If Jewish leaders said that the tree is secular (as the Supreme Court has declared—that’s why they can be erected in public spaces) or just stopped putting so much emotion into encouraging Jewish families to not have them, then there is a fear that the tree will become like a jack-o-lantern on Halloween and be deemed “secular American.” Would Jewish families who had never had a tree suddenly feel free, open and welcome to try one? I have no idea. Maybe it would happen or maybe it wouldn’t. Would Hanukkah practice be threatened by this? Is that our fear? What really is the fear?
6. This Facebook thread made me ask a question I come back to often which is, “What is the role I play as a Reform rabbi?” I do not believe I am a gatekeeper for Judaism. I do not believe I can tell people what to do in their Jewish expression as a one-size-fits-all or even most prescription. I believe I am supposed to inspire and inform, love and accept. Some things are outside the realm of Judaism. Some things are cool but are not Jewish. Sometimes Jewish leaders are afraid of what people want because we feel it will water down, taint and hurt an authentic, recognizable Judaism.
This is the same fear that happens when a parent, let’s say, suggests that there could be more choice in Hebrew School such as having a tutor, or coming one day a week or trying other alternatives. The educator fears that “everyone” will want a private tutor, so no changes are made. If there is a feeling that everyone wants something different than what is offered but the Jewish professional deems that desire “bad” or “wrong” or for “people who just want an easy way out,” then the people will make their own decisions and they won’t chose institutional Judaism. They will do it on their terms in ways that work for them. At a certain point the people decide and Judaism adapts and changes. If our communities are inspired, literate and invested, we should have no fear. We can trust.
I for one don’t get to decide if you have a tree, don’t have a tree, put a star on your tree or make s’mores latkes (this I recommend). I decide what my Jewish practice is and I work on this daily. I decide to hear you and try to understand you. May your holiday traditions be meaningful and lead to our defining what we are dedicated to (as the word Hanukkah reminds us to do). May I refrain from putting my judgment or my assumptions on your customs and allow you to define what they mean to you.
I was almost too old for Harry Potter when JK Rowling introduced her masterpiece to the world in 1997. I may have been almost too old but that didn’t stop me from spending the next 10 years voraciously reading, re-reading and waiting impatiently for the next book to arrive. When the final book was finally published, I was visiting my parents’ house for the weekend. Obviously, I had pre-ordered the book months in advance and I hadn’t realized that I wouldn’t be home that weekend. Panicked, I went online and changed the delivery location to my parents’ house, crisis averted. Perhaps I shouldn’t admit this, but I met the UPS driver in my parents driveway with unabashed glee and proceeded to ignore my family for the next 24 hours as I made my way through the final book. It was totally worth it.
These days, my love of Harry Potter lives in my heart as quiet embers, easily fanned into a greater flame when JK Rowling tweets something incredible (which is often) or more recently, when something new is announced. Yes, I have already pre-ordered a copy of Harry Potter and The Cursed Child, a West End play beginning this summer, telling the story of an adult Harry and company.
Perhaps it is unnecessary at this point to extoll the virtues of the Harry Potter series; the magic of Harry Potter is different for everyone. In the nine years since the final book was published and the 19 years since the first book, entire other books have been written about every possible angle and theme of the series, not to mention countless articles, blog posts and of course memes. If you’re a Harry Potter lover, you’ve had ample time to analyze the reasons why, and if you could care less about Harry Potter, thank you for getting this far into this blog post.
JK Rowling’s genius is making the world of Harry Potter seem almost possible. While I begrudgingly accepted my fate as that of a muggle, I still hope that even if I could not be a witch, somewhere someone is. This epic story speaks to those marginalized by society, those whose dreams seem too big, those who want to change their circumstances, those drawn to making the world a better place, to fighting against injustice.
As my life has changed and evolved since I first picked up Book 1 in 1997, so has my reading of the story. I hear the commentary on human nature more loudly. Not everything is always as it seems and rarely is what we see, what we actually get. We meet a wide swath of characters in Harry’s world, not simply heroes and villains, but complex individuals who make difficult decisions in the face of fear, of change, of darkness. Sometimes, those who come from the most “perfect, pure” families choose evil and destruction while those from the most humble, diverse roots—the “mudbloods”—are the ones who remind us what is truly important and even save our humanity. And sometimes the heroes make the wrong decisions, while the villains find the light.
I have always cringed at the term, “mudblood.” In college, I identified with it acutely when I was told I wasn’t Jewish because my mother wasn’t. How could I not belong in the only community I ever truly felt part of? Why didn’t it matter how I behaved, the choices I made, the way I lived my life? Why did none of that “count” because my mother’s blood ran through my veins? It threw me into an identity crisis that took years to reconcile.
These days, my life and my work at InterfaithFamily reminds me again of the powerful message of Harry Potter, as we strive to teach our beloved community to not only tolerate the diversity among us, but rather embrace it, learn from it and allow it to change us for the better. After all, where would we be without the most famous “mudblood,” Hermione? The more stories I hear, people I meet, families I am honored to learn from, the more I realize that we are all mutts, all a combination of geography, culture, history, and blood. We are all mudbloods. That doesn’t mean we are all the same or should be, but it does mean that the humanity we share can be more powerful than all the Voldemorts out there.
I would feel remiss if I didn’t end with the powerful and yes, magical, words of Professor Albus Dumbledore: “Differences of heart and language are nothing at all if our aims are identical and our hearts are open.”
I’ve been spending a lot of time in the bathroom lately. Let me explain: We’re potty training our twins. This past weekend I was in the bathroom every 20 minutes begging, pleading, praying for my kiddos to use the potty. We didn’t always leave that room excited and hopeful, but when we did it was amazing. And when there was success, there was even a blessing:
Praise to You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who formed the human body with skill creating the body’s many pathways and openings. It is well known before Your throne of glory that if one of them be wrongly opened or closed, it would be impossible to endure and stand before You. Blessed are You, Adonai, who heals all flesh, working wondrously.
I don’t generally recite this traditional “bathroom prayer,” but remembering that the body and its functions are a part of divine creation gives me a little bit more patience for my children as they learn to use their bodies. (For those of you in Jewish-Catholic relationships, there’s no patron saint of potty training, I looked. There have been some moments I could use more entities to pray to.)
For me, potty training is an act of faith. For my twin toddlers, it’s torture—unless they get to watch Daniel Tiger. Hearing Daniel and his friends sing the calm, uplifting tune of, “When you have to go potty, stop and go right away” motivates them and keeps them happy. When I start singing along, their faces light up. The hymnal of Daniel Tiger makes me forget my desperate desire to hear that familiar tinkle and a feeling of connection and joy overcomes the three of us sitting there in the crowded bathroom.
We repeat this ritual over and over, prompted by the ring of a timer. Excitement mingles with fear and anxiety as we all rush into the bathroom hoping for a positive outcome. We mostly know what to expect in there: sit in the same seat as last time, sing the same familiar song, pray to God for what we need and give praise often.
This isn’t the spiritual practice I’m used to, yet the ritual feels strikingly familiar. For most of my adult life I’ve engaged in the spiritual and religious practice of prayer that includes repeated ritual either alone or in a community. When the clock nears 6 pm on Friday or 10 am on Saturday I rush to the synagogue, sometimes with excitement and sometimes with anxiety or reluctance. The rabbi reads the familiar opening prayer that helps the congregation settle in. The cantor sings a song to raise our excitement for joining together in community, and smiles fill the room when a familiar song is shared. We continue in this ritual for an hour or so and then we leave the room and go on with our lives until the next time. Sometimes I leave the room feeling energized and excited, and sometimes I feel sad or dejected. But I know that I will return to that room and that ritual and have another opportunity to try it again and to feel that spiritual connection I so long for.
While the potty training ritual is messier, smellier and quicker, it has all the makings of a spiritual or religious practice. Every time I walk into that room with my toddlers, I hope and pray that we will all leave it excited and successful. I hope and pray that they will feel empowered and “grown up.” In some ways it feels as though my higher power in that ritual is not the god I pray to regularly, but instead, my toddler or sometimes the potty chair that we have all come to worship. My prayers are directed at my little ones as I say, “You can do it! Go pee-pee in the potty!” all the while praying silently, “Please, please, please let her go pee in the potty this time” or “Please God I don’t want to clean up an accident right NEXT to the potty as soon as he stands up.”
These aren’t (usually) the prayers I say in synagogue, but they are prayers. They are the language of my hopes and dreams, motivated by love and gratitude, and sometimes even fear.
Potty training is a hard and confusing task filled with extreme ups and downs. We’re doing our best to muddle our way through and within an hour our moods can swing from wild desperation to joyous celebration. Potty training is an act of faith and the ritual helps us through when it’s hard and lets us celebrate when it’s great. One day my kids will be potty trained and will forget that this was ever something they struggled with. But until that time, I’ll have my prayers, Daniel Tiger and a large canister of Clorox wipes at the ready.
To read more about parenting, check out the InterfaithFamily Parenting Blog.
Following are brief descriptions of wedding ceremonies of interfaith couples I know (all names have been changed) who were married in recent months:
[* Note that either a rabbi or cantor can officiate a Jewish or interfaith wedding ceremony. InterfaithFamily’s Jewish clergy referral service refers both rabbis and cantors.]
All of these ceremonies were “interfaith weddings,” yet they were all very different. And each rabbi and cantor has different comfort levels and boundaries as to what they will do as part of an interfaith wedding.
One rabbi said to me recently: “I officiate at weddings where one partner isn’t Jewish, but they’re really ‘Jewish weddings.’ Essentially I do everything the same as I would do for two Jewish partners, with a few minor changes. I never let clergy or relatives from other faith traditions have any role in the ceremony, and I would never include a New Testament reading or any kind or any reference to or ritual from the other partner’s religious tradition.”
At the other end of the spectrum, another rabbi I was speaking with not long ago said: “I think it’s really important to honor the religious heritages of both partners. I always ask the partner who isn’t Jewish if they have a clergy person or other representative from their religion that they want to invite to take part in the ceremony. If not, I encourage them to think about including readings or rituals from their religious tradition that they find meaningful.”
Clearly, these two rabbis are on two ends of the spectrum as to how they understand their roles in officiating interfaith weddings—and most Jewish clergy fall somewhere in between. Neither of these rabbis is “right” or “wrong”—but it can be frustrating and uncomfortable for a couple to meet with a rabbi or cantor who falls toward one end of the spectrum when they’re really looking for someone who falls toward the other end. Needless to say, this can be uncomfortable for the clergy as well.
So what should a couple do when they’re searching to find a rabbi or cantor who is the right “fit” to officiate their wedding?
1. First of all, before even reaching out to clergy, the couple needs to have an honest conversation (or, likely, several conversations) about what’s important to them in their wedding ceremony. How does each partner feel about having Jewish clergy? Assuming that they want to have a Jewish officiant, they should decide: Do we want clergy of another faith to participate as well, and if so in what way? Are there rituals from the religious tradition of the partner who isn’t Jewish that they want to include? Are there elements of Judaism (e.g., use of Hebrew, mention of God) that they are not comfortable with? Do they want their ceremony to take place before sundown on a Saturday? (Rabbi Keara Stein’s blog How To Avoid This Wedding Nightmare offers couples good advice on how to have some important conversations.)
2. Once the couple has had these conversations, they should begin looking for clergy as soon as possible. If a couple doesn’t already have a relationship with a rabbi or cantor, they can go to interfaithfamily.com/findarabbi and fill out a brief form with some basic information, and we will email them a list of rabbis and cantors in their area who officiate at interfaith weddings. Among other questions, the online form asks if the couple plans to have clergy of another faith participate in the service—if they do, they will be sent a list including only those Jewish clergy who are comfortable co-officiating weddings.
3. Once they have a list of rabbis and cantors, it’s time for the couple to reach out and talk to them. The couple and the rabbi or cantor need to be very clear up front about what their expectations and comfort levels are when deciding if they are going to work together. As I often say when I met with couples (whether both partners are Jewish or they’re an interfaith couple): “This is going to be one of the holiest, most special moments of your life. We should ALL be comfortable with the ceremony. If I’m not OK with something that’s important to you, I want to help you find a rabbi or cantor that is totally comfortable with what you want. And if you don’t feel like I’m the right ‘fit’ for you, it doesn’t mean that I’m not a good rabbi or you should feel badly not working with me, but you should find someone who feels right for you.”
The couple should be very clear with the rabbi or cantor about what they’re expecting their wedding ceremony to look like. They should also feel free to ask any questions (after all, for most people this is their first time having a wedding, so they shouldn’t feel like they need to be an “expert”), and to be honest if there are some things they’re not yet sure about. Similarly, the rabbi or cantor should be clear about what they are and are not comfortable with.
Hopefully, when all is said and done, the couple will be very excited about the person they choose to officiate their wedding. Ideally, it will be just the beginning of a relationship that continues not only through the wedding, but for many years into the future.
I just saw the play Marjorie Prime written by Jordan Harrison and directed by Kimberly Senior at Writer’s Theatre in Glencoe, IL. The premise of the play is that it’s the age of artificial intelligence, but 86-year-old Marjorie is worried that her memory may be fading. That is until the appearance of Walter, a mysterious and charming young visitor programmed to help Marjorie uncover the intricacies of her own past. As Walter’s true nature is revealed, new levels of complexity emerge, leading to profound questions about the limits of technology and whether memory might be a purely human invention. Walter is a Prime—a robot of sorts who can act like Siri times a million. He is sort of like a person and the lines between robot and human are blurred.
Certainly writers and thinkers from Kurt Vonnegut to present day Martine Rothblatt have been wondering about these same questions. I recently heard a report on NPR which details how cars are going to become “smarter and smarter.” In the years to come, our refrigerators will be able to sense when we need milk and that will alert the grocery delivery service to bring it over. The lines between thinking and computing will be hazy. Much of our lives will be able to be automated. Ordering food, house cleaning and driving cars could all be automatic. They will not involve us having to think, plan work or do.
So, where does this leave religion? Being a rabbi is one job that I don’t think can be automated. When I sit with a couple to talk about their families, how they were raised and what’s important to them, we need to see each other and sense each other. Emails, Facetime and following each other on Facebook definitely fills in gaps and builds rapport quicker than before these technologies were used. It helps me get to know couples and get a sense for their vibe and their style, but nothing replaces one-on-one time together.
Marking lifecycle moments from the promises and hopes two committed adults share in front of their family and friends to the arrival of a baby, to honoring someone’s life at the time of their death, or studying with someone and helping them to ritually announce that they want to identify and live as a Jew: These are times that we need to be in person. With that said, there have been dozens of times during these events when someone has set up an iPad with Skype so that an elderly grandparent or a friend far away can “be” there with us.
There is a power in gatherings. Joining your voice with others, knowing that those standing with you share something important is the precious part of community. Judaism is about the senses: it’s about holding, seeing, feeling, hearing, smelling and tasting. You can get an app for sounding the shofar or lighting a virtual menorah but there is nothing like seeing the flickering flame in a window with the dark night behind it. There is no other noise like the alarm of the ram’s horn during the long blast marking the end of an epic day of prayer.
So, while I cannot wait to see what phones, cars and refrigerators will be like in the next five or so years, I don’t think we’ll ever be able to replace the moments of humanity when we need one another to be close. I don’t think a Prime or any version of Siri will replace humans coming together to try to organize, mark, find meaning in and celebrate life…do you?
I know this will embarrass you (and definitely make you cry) because that’s who you are, but in the spirit of this month of Thanksgiving, I wanted to say thank you.
Thank you for…
…saying yes when I was 7 and came home from a visit to Hebrew School and declared that I wanted to go back and learn Hebrew. I often imagine what the conversation was like between you and Dad that evening, but you had the courage to let me follow my heart and we joined a synagogue so that I could. There’s no way you or anyone could have known the impact that decision would have on all of our lives. Since you were never really moved by your family’s Catholicism or any sense of religion, I bet it was scary and uncomfortable at first, but you put me first and have always encouraged me to follow my passions.
…participating in my Jewish life, learning the prayers and the music the best you could, showing up for everything, being so proud of me at my bat mitzvah and then confirmation and encouraging me to make every Jewish choice I wanted. Not only did I want to learn Hebrew, but I also wanted to belong to a community and I wanted you and Dad and my sister, Evyn, to belong too. We were lucky to find a community that embraced us all, found committees for you to add your voice to, made sure you felt comfortable and allowed us to find meaning and make life long friends.
…influencing the person and the rabbi I am today. The odd rude person has asked me through the years if I ever was frustrated that you hadn’t converted or even that you weren’t Jewish. Once I got over my offense at the question, I always answered that so much of who I am is due to the person you are and I wouldn’t change that even if I could. When I became a rabbi, I made sure that your name was on my ordination certificate, transliterated into Hebrew because both you and Dad created me and saw me through those many years of study, struggle and triumph in order for me to reach that particular life long dream. You are the calm voice in my head, reminding me of what I can achieve, telling me sometimes to relax, urging me to stand up for myself, reminding me how proud I make you.
…enduring any ignorance that might have come your way: the people who didn’t understand how you could have a daughter who is a rabbi or those who simply didn’t include you, or even ignored you. You never let it bother you because you knew who you were and you showed me by your example how to be strong in a world where not everyone is accepting or kind.
Thank you for all the ways you choose love, by loving me, accepting me and always being my champion and my most fervent supporter (along with Dad, of course). I wouldn’t be who I am; wouldn’t be doing the work I love; couldn’t live the happy life I do—without your example of a strong woman, your humor, your quiet confidence, your effortless style and your soft heart. There will never be enough words to express how grateful I am for all that you are.
So thanks Mom, for being you.
P.S. Writing this made me cry—thanks for that too!
There are many reasons I enjoy co-officiating weddings. Here are some of the important ones.
1. Partnership: Working with clergy of other faiths is extremely rewarding. Through planning the wedding, I have the opportunity to build a relationship with a clergy person of another faith and this enables me to teach about Judaism and to learn the tenets and practices of Catholicism and Hinduism, for example, from a true teacher. I also have the privilege of growing a community of liberal, progressive, open-minded clergy who support each other. I have enjoyed talking with them about families who want both faiths in their lives, how they deal with membership, and other spiritual and community building ideas that we share. The last Jewish-Hindu wedding I lead, the pundit asked me about the length of a Jewish wedding. I said, “Oh, about 12 minutes” with a chuckle. He looked at me with a smile and said, “Hindu weddings are 6 days long.”
2. Teaching: I’m able to think about Jewish rituals, symbolism and meaning in different ways when I’m required to explain it to half or more of the wedding attendees who are of a different faith. I think about how I can fit, as a rabbi, within a multi-cultural celebration. Through conveying warmth and joy and through sharing timeless blessings with universal themes, I am able to show that Judaism can be appreciated and experienced by a diverse community. I am able to share the ever-new Jewish messages of continual creation, partnership, commitment, appreciation and thanksgiving and so many other themes which are relevant and inspiring.
3. Respect: I am able to work with couples who care deeply about their religious upbringing, current beliefs and connections to their family. Neither one of them can give up their religious and cultural identities and want them present at this most sacred moment in their lives. These are couples who are eager to talk about process, meaning and symbolism. They have a depth of respect for each other and a sense of compromise that is inspiring.
4. Pastoral Care: I am able to help parents—the future grandparents (because, let’s face it, it’s the future babies on parents’ minds at the time of the wedding). I am able to engage in meaningful pastoral care with parents of the couple to sort out what it means that their child is marrying someone who is an active participant in a different religion. This is a time parents think about the role they will play with grandchildren one day in terms of passing on Judaism and Jewish values.
5. Inclusivity: I am able to be a representative of liberal Judaism at an interfaith wedding where hundreds of people may be in attendance. I can show that the people Israel is a diverse people and this gives us strength and adds beauty to our expression. I can show that the Jewish community is made up of people who have grown up with Judaism, people who have come to Judaism as adults and those who are not Jewish but who love, partner and support members of their family who are Jewish. I can show that Judaism can be experienced and practiced by those who are not Jewish. This is seen when a bride or groom who isn’t Jewish signs a ketubah, breaks the glass or shares in Kiddush (the blessing over wine) for example. It is with pride, love and respect that the two partners share in each other’s traditions.
6. Continuity: I make sure that in my pre-wedding meetings with a couple who will have a co-officiated wedding, that we talk through what their religious and spiritual lives look like as a couple. We talk about continued learning opportunities. We talk about where they struggle with their own faith traditions. We talk through questions they have about Judaism. We also talk about how they will pass on religious literacy and experiences to their children. It’s such a privilege to talk to a couple just getting married about how to enhance their own religious lives now, what practices they may want to take on and to be a positive, supportive presence as they tell me about how they want to pass on cultural and religious aspects of Judaism and possibly other religions to the next generation. This is a truly fascinating and profound conversation to have with a couple who is serious about observance, about how this will look and feel.
7. Focus on What’s Shared: When I started officiating with Catholic priests I would write out the English to the Priestly Benediction for them so that I could say it in Hebrew at the end of a wedding and the Priest could translate it into English. Finally one priest told me that they say it at weddings too and know it! I have studied the Lord’s Prayer more and more and see its Jewish roots so clearly now. I find the number seven, our number of completion and perfection—which is alluded to in the seven circles as well as in the seven blessings—to also be woven throughout Hindu wedding ceremonies.
Co-officiating weddings has been a highlight of my rabbinate. I am honored each wedding to be able to support the Jewish family who is proud and fulfilled to have a rabbi with them on this sacred occasion. We form a bond that is solidified under the chuppah and continues in the years ahead when I am often invited to help bless their babies or to help them affix a mezuzah at their new home. Together, we continue to learn, brainstorm and mark time with meaning.
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.
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.
Learn about InterfaithFamily’s #ChooseLove campaign and to tell us how you #ChooseLove, here: interfaithfamily.com/chooselove.
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