I’m not an “Interfaith Rabbi”

  

Rabbi Frisch officiating a wedding

“Meet Robyn,” my friend, who is Jewish, said with a smile as she introduced me to her Christian daughter-in-law. “She’s an interfaith rabbi.”

Ugh! I cringed on the inside—the same way I do when someone calls me a Reformed rabbi (rather than a Reform rabbi) or a “Rent-A-Rabbi.” I thought to myself: I’m not an interfaith rabbi. I’m a rabbi—a Jewish rabbi. And what is an interfaith rabbi anyway? To me, the term “interfaith rabbi” sounds like a rabbi whose Judaism, and rabbi-ness, is somehow not purely and authentically Jewish.

Of course I knew what my friend intended. She wanted her daughter-in-law, who was in an interfaith marriage, to know that I was welcoming and open; that I wouldn’t judge her marriage or look down on her husband because his wife isn’t Jewish or her for being married to someone Jewish.

But still… I’m not an “interfaith rabbi.” What I am is a rabbi who proudly spends my time working with and advocating for interfaith couples and families.

There are many rabbis from the Reform, Reconstructionist and Renewal movements who officiate interfaith weddings, and we’re all regular rabbis. We’re rabbis who want to open wide the door to Judaism, and who want to bring Judaism to the most sacred moments in people’s lives. We’re rabbis who don’t judge a Jew’s commitment to Judaism by who they’ve fallen in love with and decided to marry. We’re rabbis who feel blessed to work with Jews and the people they love and who love them.

So call us “non-judgmental rabbis.” Call us “welcoming rabbis.” Call us Rabbis. Just please don’t call us “interfaith rabbis.”

In all fairness, I realize the irony of my preferring not to be called an “interfaith rabbi” when I use the term “interfaith” all of the time. I often refer to “Jewish interfaith families” where one parent is Jewish and one isn’t, whereas the family may identify simply as a “Jewish family,” in which one parent just happens not to be Jewish. I realize that the term I, and the rest of us at InterfaithFamily use is less than ideal for a number of reasons, including the fact that the Jewish parent and/or the other parent may not see themselves as a person of “faith.” But I use it because I don’t have a better term or way of distinguishing the particular type of family with whom I work.

In my role as director of InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia, I work with all sorts of different types of families with one Jewish parent and one parent who isn’t Jewish, all of whom have a variety of blessings and challenges as a result of the parents having different religious backgrounds. I use the blanket term “Jewish interfaith family” not because it’s ideal, but because it helps—hopefully—to make clear who these families are.

I realize that my friend who introduced me to her daughter-in-law was trying to do what I do: to describe what type of rabbi I was in a short-hand form, limited by the language we have. I know what she really meant was that I’m an open-minded rabbi who works with interfaith couples and families, and she felt that by just saying “rabbi,” that wouldn’t come across.

While it still may make me cringe on the inside, and I’d prefer that you didn’t, I will say that if you really have to, go ahead and call me an “interfaith rabbi.”

But still please don’t call me a Reformed rabbi or a “Rent-A-Rabbi.”

Inside Intermarriage: A Christian Partner’s Journey Raising a Jewish Family

  

book coverThis post originally appeared on www.edumundcase.com and is reprinted with permission.

August 1, 2017 is the publication date for the new version of Jim Keen’s Inside Intermarriage: A Christian Partner’s Journey Raising a Jewish Family. I was honored to write the foreword to this one-of-a-kind book: the warm, personal, light-hearted but very serious story of a Protestant man raising Jewish children together with his Jewish wife.

When Jim Keen and his fiancée Bonnie were planning their wedding, her Jewish grandmother wasn’t sure she would attend, because she disapproved of intermarriage. But she chose love, and danced with Jim at the wedding, saying “you’re my grandson now.” That story brought tears to my eyes, and it and others in this book might to yours.

Interfaith couples like Jim and Bonnie who care about religious traditions face what I call “eternal” issues. Not in the sense that the issues can’t be resolved, because they can be, as Jim’s story vividly demonstrates. But all interfaith couples who want to have religion in their lives have to figure out how to relate to each other and their parents and families over religious traditions; they all have to resolve whether and how to celebrate holidays, to be spiritual together, to find community of like-minded people.

This book follows Jim’s journey through all of those issues. From dating, falling in love, meeting the parents, deciding how children will be raised religiously, considering conversion, to getting married; from baby welcoming ceremonies, to celebrating holidays, finding community, and meeting his own needs in a Jewish family. It’s a deeply moving story, told with humor, and it’s an important one.

Jim Keen’s example of one interfaith couple’s journey to Jewish continuity is reassuring. Interfaith couples who are or might be interested in engaging in Jewish life and community can learn from Jim’s story how doing so can add meaning and value to their lives.

Along his journey, Jim shares extremely helpful insights. For example: His and his wife’s feelings and attitudes changed over time, with him moving from feeling different, “standing out,” “not belonging,” to feeling “part of.” For another: Interfaith couples, no matter what path they follow, have to make a conscious effort to work out their religious traditions, which can lead to more thoughtful and deeper engagement. And another: Interfaith couples aren’t alone, and it’s very helpful to become friends and work through issues with other couples.

Interfaith couples follow many paths, and Jim Keen doesn’t say his path is right for everyone. He continued to practice his own religion; some partners in his position don’t practice any religion, or practice Judaism, or even convert. Jim and his wife chose one religion for their children; some couples decide to raise their children in two religions, and many couples haven’t decided, or haven’t yet. The clear advice Jim does give is that there are solutions to the issues that interfaith relationships raise, and that the key to resolving them is early and ongoing respectful communication. How Jim spells out the negotiation and communication he and his wife had over many issues will help couples facing the same issues, no matter what paths they may be thinking of taking.

Jim expresses deep gratitude for finding very warm and welcoming JCC preschool and synagogue communities, and especially a rabbi by whom he felt genuinely embraced. It is essential that more interfaith couples experience that kind of welcome. Most Jews have relatives in interfaith relationships now, and many Jewish professionals are working with people in interfaith relationships. This book promotes better understanding not only of the eternal issues interfaith couples face, but in particular the perspective of the partner from a different faith background.

Jim Keen doesn’t promote interfaith marriage, but he does recognize its positive impacts, including an appreciation for tolerance and diversity. He writes that being in an interfaith relationship has broadened his perspective and enhanced not only his life, but also his parents’ and in-laws’ lives too. He still enjoys “belonging to [his] Scottish-American, Protestant group, but it’s a warm feeling being able to see the world through Jewish eyes, as well.” He also rightly recognizes his and his family’s contribution to the Jewish community: “I am proud to say, there are some Keens who happen to be Jewish. I love it.” I love it, and I think you will, too.

Today, with intermarriage so common, Jim Keen’s perspective is more important and valuable than ever. Jim Keen and his family – on both sides – are heroes of Jewish life. They are role models for how a parent from a different faith background and a Jewish parent, together with all of the grandparents, can support the Jewish engagement of their children and grandchildren. They all deserve deep appreciation for this utmost gift, Jim especially for shedding light on the journey.

You can order the book here.

More Shifting Ground

  

This post originally appeared on www.edumundcase.com and is reprinted with permission.

choices

It’s been busy the past two weeks. As Shmuel Rosner just pointed out, since his original article a month ago, “The volume of writing on Jewish interfaith marriage in America is high.”

Rosner had said that in the absence of definitive studies or any consensus, the debate about whether interfaith marriage will weaken or strengthen us will be decided by trial and error over three or four generations, with some rabbis officiating and some not. I said his was an incredibly non-activist approach and that “arguing that intermarriage weakens us is self-fulfilling. Intermarriage won’t be an opportunity to grow in numbers and vitality if the messages the Jewish community sends – like by rabbis not officiating – disapprove of interfaith couples [and] relationships.”

Rosner now says that I was right, in the sense that a clear and unified message might be better. But he says critics of intermarriage can make the same argument, that “arguing that sticking with in-marriage weakens us is self-fulfilling. In-marriage won’t be an opportunity to grow in numbers and vitality if the messages the Jewish community sends – like by rabbis officiating – disapprove of insistence on Jewish couples and relationships.”

That is a false equivalency, in my view. There can’t be any question that decrying interfaith marriage turns interfaith couples away, or that insisting on “in-marriage” doesn’t work. No one is arguing that Jews marrying Jews is bad. Rabbis officiating for interfaith couples does not send a message of disapproval of Jewish-Jewish marriages. Interfaith marriage could be regarded as an equal norm, along with Jews who marry Jews; they can co-exist. It’s the insistence that there is only one right way that’s the problem.

Rosner says a Conservative rabbi who refers to “the naive hope that [a rabbi] standing under the chuppah will have a significant impact on the Jewishness of interfaith couples or the families they build” is right. How anyone can hold that position after the Cohen Center’s latest research showing the positive impact of rabbinic officiation escapes me. (Rosner cites an article by Roberta Rosenthal Kwall that rolls out the tired old, previously failed strategy to “actively” encourage conversion, and an interesting “descriptive, not opinionated” analysis by Emma Green in the Atlantic.)

The Continued Decay of Jewish Federations, which generated a lot of comment on eJewishPhilanthropy, takes pot shots at intermarriage; the anonymous author says “If the person I walk down the aisle with isn’t Jewish, how much am I really going to care about the [Jewish] folks down the block?” and “72% of non-Orthodox intermarrying is … about Jewish apathy.” Fortunately one comment wagers that the writer “holds outdated views that intermarriage… divorce from the Jewish community,” while another says “this resentment of people in interfaith relationships has got to stop.”

Thankfully there has been more positive perspective in the media. Rob Eshman, publisher and editor of the LA Jewish Journalsays:

But I know — we all know — too many wonderful intermarried couples. They continue to serve the community as volunteers, funders, activists. They raise children who go on to practice Judaism, embody its values and contribute to the Jewish community and the world. They succeed at being Jewish far, far better than any number of “in-married” Jewish couples who stay uncurious and uninvolved, whose biggest contribution to Jewish life was paying the rabbi who married them.

This truth puts rabbis and movements who resist intermarriage in the same bind as many were before acknowledging same-sex marriage. How do you exclude a committed, loving constituency, willing to belong and contribute to Jewish life, from meaningful Jewish rituals? Can intermarriage done correctly actually be not a curse, but a cure?

The ground has shifted on this issue, and something tells me we’re about to find the answer.

One outstanding example of an answer is Debbie Karl, who tells “How One Interfaith Family Found a Home in a Synagogue“: because a wonderful rabbi agreed to officiate for her and “turned the whole process into a positive experience for both of us.” If she hadn’t, “that could have been the end of Judaism for me… I could easily have written off organized Jewish life, as so many disenchanted Jews choose to do.” This is one of the most persuasive pieces by a lay person that I’ve ever read; I wish every rabbi who doesn’t officiate would read it and take to heart what she says about the children of intermarriage:

If they do choose a non-Jewish partner, and try to find a rabbi to marry them, will they be accepted and counseled warmly and openly? Will their interest in honoring their Jewish heritage with a Jewish-style wedding be respected and appreciated? Or will they be made to feel that they are being judged for marrying the person with whom they have fallen in love, who happens not to be Jewish? Will they feel unwelcome in the very synagogues and communities which raised them?

An outstanding example of a cantor who “gets it” is Erik Contzius, who says “Let’s Stop Calling It ‘Intermarriage.’” He used to not officiate, but “Coming to understand how a hostile attitude from clergy turns young couples away from Jewish identity and practice changed my mind.”

I can almost guarantee that a couple of divergent religions will not affiliate, identify, or become otherwise involved with the Jewish community if they are turned away and thus invalidated by Jewish clergy who tell them that they will not officiate at their wedding.

Avram Mlotek, a courageous Orthodox rabbi, reports that he “encountered fierce opposition” to his op-ed about welcoming interfaith families and “ adopting a posture of radical hospitality,” but steadfastly believes that “providing a space that caters to every Jew’s spiritual needs — even if that Jew is married to someone of another faith — is the most practical way to ensure the future of the Jewish family.”

Two of the smartest thinkers on intermarriage happen to be senior leaders of the secular humanist movement. Rabbi Adam Chalom offers “Intermarriage Agony? Been There, Past That“:

So when the Conservative Movement grapples publicly with whether or not their rabbis should maybe consider a way to possibly be less than fully rejectionist, the arguments for inclusion are what we [secular humanists] have been saying and living for 40 years. We who have celebrated interfaith and intercultural families for a generation are pleased to have company, but like the woman in a board meeting whose ideas are overlooked until repeated by a man, we are not amazed. Better late than never, and better now than later, and still better to recognize that you are late to the party.

 

Today the Reform Movement trumpets its “audacious hospitality”, the Conservative Movement will accept non-Jews as members (with limited privileges), and intermarriage-friendly rabbis are easily found online at InterfaithFamily.com. The one piece missing in most of this dialogue is, “we’re sorry, we were wrong.” For the thousands of couples, families, and children pushed away by Jewish communal shortsightedness over the past decades, some teshuva (repentance) might also be helpful.

Paul Golin offers two excellent pieces. “Intermarriage is the Wrong Bogeyman” (an edited version of a longer piece on Medium) explains that the approach that intermarriage is the cause of declining Jewish engagement is based on

…a dishonest sociology…, promulgated by a handful of academicians who’ve been at it for decades…. Shmuel Rosner, a reporter who contributed to this latest effort, displays this confusion when he writes, “interfaith marriage leads to eventual assimilation.” Such purposeful oversimplification is not sociology, it’s smear. “Assimilation” is not the story we’ve seen for huge swaths of intermarried households. Intermarried Jews are involved in all Jewish denominations and most organizations. There are literally hundreds of thousands of exceptions to the supposed rule.

Golin argues that theism is the problem – most people do not believe in the concept held by most of organized Judaism of a God that answers personal prayers. I agree with Golin that “When there’s no magical ‘Jewish gene’ to perpetuate, Judaism must be about meaning and benefit. And if Judaism is meaningful and beneficial, why would we limit it to just Jews?” But while secular humanism may be an approach that would suit many interfaith couples, many others are interested in spirituality, and the religious movements could do a lot of work developing concepts of God and liturgies that express those concepts that contemporary couples would be far more comfortable with.

In his second piece, Golin uses the terrible situation of government of Israel reneging on a deal for egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall to point out that the Chief Rabbinate’s claim that liberal expressions of Judaism are invalid is not unlike liberal Jewish leaders’ claims that intermarriage makes a Jew “not Jewish enough.” I agree that his as usual trenchant comment: “policing of Jewish observance by Jews against other Jews is disastrous regardless of who’s doing it.”

What Do I Do?

  

Rabbi Jillian officiating at a wedding

Hi, I’m Rabbi Jillian Cameron, the director of InterfaithFamily/Boston. While many people have at least some idea of what a rabbi in a synagogue does, my work might seem a bit more mysterious; I thought I’d provide some clarity, in case what I do could coincide with your work or your life.

InterfaithFamily is a national organization dedicated to connecting interfaith couples and families to Jewish life in whatever way is comfortable.

Right off the bat, you might be wondering how we define “interfaith.” Well, for our work, “interfaith” means a couple or family where one person identifies as Jewish and one person identifies as something other than Jewish. As you might imagine, there are a lot of different combinations this loose definition can make, from families who are very connected to their respective religions, to couples who struggle with their connection to religion, to everything and anything in between.

Of course, this adds a complication because not everyone likes and identifies with the term “interfaith.” I often use the words “intercultural,” “multi-faith” and “diverse,” among several more, just in case those better align with a couple’s identity.

When all is said and done, no matter how a couple or family might define themselves, if they are interested in exploring any facet of Judaism, from just dipping in a toe, to jumping in completely, it is my job and my passion to help them find a way in.

One of the best parts of my work is listening to everyone’s stories—I mean everyone, from children of intermarriage, to the couple themselves, to their parents or grandparents, extended family and even friends. While interfaith families and couples are often viewed through the lens of statistics, I have found there is such beautiful and significant diversity in each personal journey and story. So I listen, informally compiling this important narrative of the Boston Jewish community, and then I try to help, using all my resources: knowledge of all that exists here in Boston that could be of interest, welcoming communities, events that coincide with existing interests, other Jewish professionals and organizations who are creating amazing things, classes to take and more.

Sometimes what a couple needs is just to talk to me, to work through questions they have individually and as a couple about the role of religion in their lives, as they are thinking about moving in together, or are getting married, having children, dealing with loss or great joys. Sometimes interfaith couples are interested in finding other similar couples to talk with, hear how they have made decisions and perhaps not feel like they are the only ones like them out there. This is why I created InterfaithFamily/Boston’s Coffee & Conversation, a once-a-month informal gathering for interfaith couples at Boston’s best coffee shops. (For our next date and location, click here.)

Other times, a couple or family is looking for a rabbi to officiate at a lifecycle event. Helping to connect the right rabbi with a couple or family is another piece of my work. InterfaithFamily has a national clergy referral service, providing information for interfaith-friendly Jewish clergy around the country. In Boston, sometimes it’s me, but there are a wealth of local rabbis and cantors who are proudly on our list and who create incredibly meaningful lifecycle moments for so many interfaith families and couples. While you’re on our website, you can also check out the plethora of resources we have, like guides for lifecycles and holidays, and a whole host of stories from people we have encountered since our creation in 2002.

The Boston Jewish community is a special one, both in its makeup and offerings. Organizations and professionals work together, support each other and create incredible things in partnership. I work to create interesting, fun, creative and intellectual programming with any number of other Jewish organizations, as well as help those same organizations think more deeply about the diverse population that might walk through their door. I want the Jewish community to continue to be innovative, relevant and welcoming and engaging to all.

I love being a rabbi and I especially love being a rabbi who works at InterfaithFamily in Boston. If I’ve piqued your interest, if you would like to hear more about what we do, if you want to tell me your story, if you want to explore Judaism, if you’re looking for a good cup of coffee and a good listener, I’m here and more than happy to help in whatever way I can.

You can find me on our website or Facebook group, or reach out to me via email.

Reprinted with permission from JewishBoston.com

Meeting People Where They Are

  

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.

Rabbis Can Love Christmastime Too

  

Girl at Christmas market

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.

The Tree Strikes a Chord Like No Other

  

christmas tree

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.

We’re All Mudbloods

  

Harry Potter booksI 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.”

The Bathroom Is My New Synagogue

  

twins on the pottyI’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.

How to Find a Wedding Officiant Who’s the Right Fit for You

  

Back of a couple in love

Following are brief descriptions of wedding ceremonies of interfaith couples I know (all names have been changed) who were married in recent months:

  • Matthew and Stacie were married by a rabbi* in a ceremony that was very similar to the ceremony the rabbi would have performed if both of them were Jewish. A few small liturgical changes were made due to the fact that Matthew is Christian.
  • Sam and Beth were married by a cantor* in a service involving Jewish wedding liturgy. Friends of the couple read from the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament and the New Testament. At Beth’s mother’s request, a Unity Candle was included in the ceremony, which was lit by Sam and Beth’s mothers.  
  • Christopher and Ellie were married by a rabbi and near the end of the ceremony Christopher’s uncle, a Lutheran minister, offered a blessing.
  • Mark and Adrienne were married at a ceremony co-officiated by a rabbi and a Catholic priest.

 

[* 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.