Our Sukkah without Walls

Maurice's sukkah

Our sukkah this year. As you can see, despite the Oregon Ducks’ train wreck of a loss last week, we continue to welcome them symbolically into our sukkah.

This year our sukkah is unkosher. It has no walls.

According to traditional Jewish law, a sukkah is supposed to have walls – four of them, actually, though one of them can be the side of a house if it’s been built up against a house. The walls can be made out of any material, but they have to be strong enough to withstand some wind without falling down.

Our sukkah has no walls because, in the midst of many challenges, we didn’t get around to putting them up. But that’s not the only reason. I confess that my wife and I also kind of like the way the sukkah looks and feels inside this way. A sukkah without walls is an appropriate religious symbol for our family.

Our nuclear family consists of four people and two dogs. It’s me, a liberal rabbi; Melissa, my spouse, who was my intermarried partner for part of the time I was a rabbinical student, before she converted; and Clarice and Hunter, neither of whom was born Jewish, and both of whom were old enough at the time of the adoption to have the right to decide whether or not to become Jewish. So far, they haven’t, at least not formally. On a day to day basis they alternate between identifying Jewishly and not. So, while neither of our kids identify with another religion, because, at least halakhically (according to Jewish law), they’re not Jewish, we are what gets referred to as an interfaith family.

For me, our sukkah without walls symbolizes Melissa’s and my core value of openness to welcoming the stranger deeply into our home and life. There’s a framework, a structure to our sukkah, as well as a roof made of foliage, and a lulav and an etrog too. Anyone who knows what a sukkah is who saw ours would know that it is a sukkah, or someone’s good try at erecting a proper sukkah. But our sukkah, perhaps inspired by Abraham and Sarah’s tent, is literally open on all sides. Like a sukkah with the traditionally prescribed walls that won’t fall down in a gust of wind, our “open architecture” sukkah also can withstand a gust of wind, but it accomplishes that feat not by resisting the movement of the air with sturdy barriers; rather, the changing winds blow right on through. (Metaphor now fully expressed, and possibly even overdone…)

Our sukkah without walls also speaks to me because our extended families consist of a really wide assortment of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins living on different continents, practicing different religions, and speaking different languages.Our open sukkah reminds me of the huppah at our wedding, where Melissa’s down home conservative evangelical country relatives mixed with my loud and effusive Moroccan-Israeli clan. Everyone was welcome. Jewish traditions, practiced with some creative deviation from traditional Jewish law (Melissa wasn’t Jewish at the time, after all), defined the space, but with very open access to people of many faiths and identities.

Our sukkah also represents, for me, what I call our local family of choice. Our dear friend, Ariel,* was the single mother of four kids when we first met her and began helping each other parent our collective half dozen children with different challenges. Because of what our kids went through to end up in the foster care system, we needed the strength and support of others to parent them without falling apart. And because Ariel, who was accepted to law school and is the hardest working person we know, grew up in foster care herself, she’s a great model of resilience to our kids, and she really gets them in ways that we don’t. We’ve been able to help each other out in countless ways, and our daughter practically thinks of Ariel as another parent.

Ariel, by the way, is Baha’i. A little over a year ago I officiated at her wedding to Nathan,* who is Christian, and he and his son from a previous marriage are now part of this growing hybridized nuclear fusion Brady Bunch. (Full disclosure: One of our two dogs is actually their dog, staying with us for the time being.)

The boundaries between our two families are kind of like, well, our sukkah without walls. There are structures there between our families that are real and that operate every day. And yet, there’s also a very easy flow between our families and our homes, even our vehicles. (You can tell this because the empty cups and food wrappers on the floors of our cars are a mixed multitude of representatives of our various bad food choice preferences.)

I’m not seeking pity with what I’m about to say, but one of the painful things in my life, as a rabbi and even just as a Jew, is that I’m all too aware that for a part of the Jewish community, it’s not just my sukkah that’s unkosher, but our family is kind of unkosher too. A previously intermarried rabbinical student? That’s not kosher! A spouse of a rabbi who converted but not in an Orthodox way? For some, that means I’m still an intermarried rabbi. Totally unkosher (well, maybe not anymore). A rabbi’s family and their kids aren’t Jewish?! It’s like it’s raining pork and shellfish. On Shabbos.

There are some Jewish thought leaders who argue that it’s families like ours that are putting the future of the Jewish people at risk. There are too many different identities in the household, they say, and the boundaries aren’t strong enough to promote Jewish children, and aren’t rabbis supposed to be exemplars of Jewish lives that are more emphatically and unambiguously Jewish? Well, I suppose I can’t prove that these critics are wrong, though the truth is that they don’t know for a certainty what will or won’t make for a vibrant and meaningful Jewish future. I think their claims tell us more about their values and preferences than about how the future is or isn’t going to unfold.

The same can be said about my values and preferences, I admit. My values and preferences favor a Judaism of open and welcoming structures, of joyful and sincere practices shared with people of any background freely, and of flexibility and trusting the unknown. Perhaps my marriage will not produce any children who become Jewish adults raising Jewish children, and perhaps, therefore, we’ll be judged by some as a failed Jewish family, a Jewish continuity dead end.

But here’s the thing. Because of our life choices, it’s not just our two kids who know what a sukkah is and have helped build and decorate a sukkah and have heard Melissa and me talk about the themes of trust and welcoming guests and vulnerability. It’s not just our kids who have, again, broken the pitom (the stem) off ouretrog halfway through the holiday, thus rendering the etrog unkosher like our sukkah, and who have had to hear me discover this and yell, “Dammit! Who the hell broke off the pitom!? That’s the first thing you learn you’re not supposed to do! And it cost, like, forty dollars!” It’s also Ariel’s kids, who’ve had great fun in our sukkah over the years, as have Nathan, and his son, and some of our neighbors. And because the rabbinical seminary I attended didn’t turn me away, despite my way of doing Jewish, and neither did the synagogue I served for 8 years, I’ve taught and worked with well over a hundred kids in helping them to develop a Jewish identity of warmth, pride, and ethics. And sorry to be all bragging on myself, but I’ve also had two Jewish non-fiction books published, both of which strive to open access to Judaism to people of all faiths.

So maybe our unkosher family and our unkosher sukkah is a symbol of the demise of liberal Judaism. Could be. Or maybe it’s something else, maybe even something wonderful.

* names have been changed

Finding a Jewish Community that Feels Like Home

HBT mother and daughter

Photo courtesy of HBT

Temple Hillel B’nai Torah (HBT) is a Reconstructionist congregation located in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, a middle-class Boston neighborhood just minutes from Newton and Brookline. HBT is a welcoming, egalitarian, multicultural and inclusive spiritual community, which I observed firsthand when I was a substitute religious school teacher there a few years back. As with any synagogue, worship is a focal point, but this community also dedicates much of its time and resources to social justice and being responsive to the broader world in which we live.

If you are looking for an inclusive Jewish spiritual community in the Greater Boston area, Temple Hillel B’nai Torah is an exceptional option. Even if you aren’t in search of a temple to join, but simply an inclusive Jewish space for an occasional holiday or social program to attend, HBT’s vibrant community strives to make visitors feel right at home.

I recently interviewed Hillel B’nai Torah’s rabbi, Barbara Penzner. Rabbi Penzner is an exceptional spiritual and community leader. Below she shares insight pertaining to interfaith families at HBT, as well as the congregation’s values around inclusion.


Learning about Sukkot with Rabbi Penzner. Photo courtesy of HBT

What are some of the insights you have learned from working with interfaith families at HBT?

In my 19 years at Temple Hillel B’nai Torah, I have observed many different kinds of families. In some families, both parents are active participants while in others, only one parent maintains a strong connection to our community. It’s interesting that these differences do not divide easily between families with two Jewish parents, interfaith families or even families where one parent has converted to Judaism.

In one family, the mother never converted, but because she committed to raising children in the Jewish tradition—before the marriage—the boys both attended Jewish day school. In another family, the father who is not Jewish remains committed to his personal faith while attending every Jewish function with his family. Many of those who decided to convert to Judaism waited until their children were old enough to urge them to “take the plunge” and celebrated with them at the mikveh.

What policies or practices does HBT institute pertaining to interfaith families?

In the late 1990s, our congregation spent a year discussing the roles for members who aren’t Jewish in order to clarify our expectations for participation in ritual and governance. We all agreed that we wanted to include all family members for celebrations like a bar/bat mitzvah. The entire family stands together on the bimah for these occasions, and both parents give their child blessings, if they choose.

Our goal is to make our congregation a haven and a home, a place where people feel welcome no matter what their background: interfaith, multi-racial, LGBT and other seekers. Our bottom line is that we hope each member is willing to learn and grow.

What programming do you offer that supports and addresses the needs/concerns of interfaith families? How have those initiatives or programs helped the community and those families/couples?

In recent years, a new group of families with young children have asked for a special group to help them deal with the challenges of raising children when parents have different religious backgrounds. Our group began as a gathering for interfaith couples. By the second year, we realized that the questions we were grappling with were valuable to all parents. We renamed the group “Parenting through Our Differences.” The group has discussed observing Jewish holidays, responding to the demands of extended family members, dealing with death and mourning in a Jewish way, and of course, navigating the December holidays

What brings you the most joy about your work, particularly your leadership around diversity and inclusion?

Lately I’ve enjoyed spending time with young couples who are preparing to marry and wish to explore the complexities of creating an interfaith family. I have watched couples navigate the dynamics of family and community that inevitably raise questions about the meaning of family, identity, religion and God. These are not easy questions and the answers are not straightforward.

What gives me faith in the future is the intention these couples bring and the open-heartedness with which they discuss their challenges. That, after all, is what religion is ultimately about. How we live out our religious practices and how we name our faith springs forth from our own personal truth; without that honest self-assessment, religion is only window-dressing. Ideally, our community seeks to foster these heartfelt investigations and create bonds of compassion and support.

On Sunday, November 9, HBT will be featuring scholar Keren McGinity, author of Still Jewish: A History of Women and Intermarriage in America to speak about her new book Marrying Out: Jewish Men, Intermarriage and Fatherhood