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Being from an interfaith family has influenced my life in myriad ways, most especially in my choice to focus my rabbinate on working with other interfaith families. I’ve written about my own upbringing and my parents several times over my tenure at InterfaithFamily, hoping that my own experiences might resonate with our readers. Yet, so far, everything I have shared has been in my voice and from my perspective. So, in honor of Mother’s Day and to honor my mother, I interviewed her to finally shine some light on her perspective.
I asked her a variety of questions about her early life and meeting my dad and then about how they made decisions about religion as they had children. While we have had many conversations throughout my life touching on similar topics, I have never sat down with my mother and asked her what it was like for her to be in an interfaith family, especially long before it was as accepted as it is now.
My mom is a special woman; quiet and thoughtful, passionate yet relaxed. I am the Jew, the rabbi, the human being I am because of her and my dad. I hope you enjoy a piece of her story.
Some background: My mother, Kathy, was one of five children born and raised on the North Shore of Massachusetts in a very Polish Catholic family. When she was 18, she packed her bags and headed to college, the first in her family to attend, where she met my father Richard, a nice Jewish boy from New Jersey. They were married by a justice of the peace in 1972 in Boston.
Me: When you were dating, did you ever have conversations about how you were from different backgrounds/religions?
Mom: We didn’t really have a big conversation. Neither of us were particularly active in our religions. I grew up in a pretty Catholic family. My grandmother lived with us and was from Poland. The church was her life. She grew flowers and every day brought them to put on the alter—it was within walking distance from the house. I never personally felt that connection even though, as a child, I attended every Sunday.
Richard’s family wasn’t particularly religious either. He wasn’t practicing Judaism when I met him. So obviously, we were more concerned about what our parents would think as opposed to what we were going to do together.
Me: When you did decide to get married, how did your family react?
Mom: There were certain members of my family, some aunts, who didn’t think it was right. My grandmother, who lived with us, wasn’t supportive. They didn’t come to our wedding. It stung not having them at my wedding, but it didn’t disturb me for any length of time. But my parents and my sisters and brother were all on board after talking it through. It was just the way my parents were. They were very accepting and compromising and after having a conversation, my father said, “It’s your life, you make the decision.” And after that there were no repercussions.
Me: Did you know any other people who were also marrying someone from a different religion?
Mom: We went to college in Boston and there were a lot of people from the New York/New Jersey area and Massachusetts. So we were meeting different people all the time. My roommate, who was Catholic, met a Jewish guy from New Jersey and they were also married, a little after we were married. A couple of other people we knew in a similar situation also married. There didn’t seem to be a barrier. It was kind of exciting to meet someone who was different. And religion never seemed to be a problem. It was the end of the ’60s: These old barriers were meant to be broken.
Me: What was the conversation about who was going to officiate at your wedding?
Mom: We wanted a Justice of the Peace because it would just make it easier. Neither of us were connected to a synagogue or church and we felt that would be the easiest and cleanest. It wouldn’t be favoring one over the other. We didn’t care. We really didn’t take religion into account at that point.
Me: In the first years of your marriage, before you had children, did you have any connection to religion?
Mom: For the first 10 years of our marriage, before we had children, we were a-religious. We might have gone to a family friend’s house for Passover once, or Christmas at my parent’s house, but never at our home. Because my upbringing was pretty rote (learn the Catechism, study the prayers, follow whatever you needed to do), it didn’t feel relevant to my life at all. Judaism seemed interesting to me.
Me: When you were planning to have children, did you have any conversations about religion?
Mom: Recognizing we had two families each with different religions, we thought, we’ll wait until our child is old enough to choose. It lasted for a little while, but it was naïve to think that a child was going to grow up without a religion and suddenly pick one. When you were a baby, we thought that us teaching you would be enough.
Me: When did we start having any religion in our lives?
Mom: Well you know this story, Jillian. You had a friend named Julie, who was Jewish. She invited you go to her Hebrew School class and you came home and asked. You knew your dad’s family was Jewish and mine was Catholic. We did explain this to you, that one family celebrated certain things and the other family celebrated other things. We wanted you to experience the world, so we said yes to you going to Hebrew School. But this came as a surprise to us. We were cringing that now we would have to deal with this issue.
So you went, loved it and asked if you could go again. And we thought, uh oh, this is the beginning. So we went to the temple to check it out and we spoke to a few people and were told we had to join, even though we were not eager to join. But we joined, so you could go to Hebrew School.
It was a Reform synagogue, so there was never a problem with me not being Jewish. They were eager to have us and they welcomed us wholeheartedly.
Me: What was your experience at synagogue?
Mom: It was like deer in the headlights! When do I stand or sit, what do I do? It was just a totally foreign way of having a religion as opposed to Catholicism. I was confused but learning as I went along. I felt welcome, everyone was very nice. We met a lot of older members of the synagogue who were thrilled we were there, and we are still friends with them now. It was a great community to be a part of. After learning more about Judaism, talking with people, listening to the Rabbi, I realized that this is a whole different animal than Catholicism. It was more about finding meaning, things you could bring into your life. It wasn’t about memorizing; it was about thinking and challenging yourself. When I caught onto that, I thought, this is interesting to be a part of. It was a better religious experience for me than I had as a child.
Me: The question I can’t believe I don’t know the answer to: If someone were to ask you now what religion you are, what would you say?
Mom: I would say I’m Jewish, just to make it easier. I never converted, so I know I’m not technically Jewish. But from a view of the world, a philosophy, I am.
My mom’s story might be a bit like yours. Perhaps you related to a few things she said, remembered feeling similarly or maybe your story is vastly different. Whichever the case, telling and listening to stories is such a wonderfully and necessary human thing to do. We learn from each other, we gain perspective, we feel connected and less alone when we take the time to listen and learn about each other.
Finally, I want to thank my mother, Kathy Cameron, for being open with me, allowing me to make her story public and for being the best mom a girl could ask for. Happy Mother’s Day, Mom.
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In college, I was a Jewish representative on the student Multi-Faith Council. I have always been fascinated by other religious traditions, cultures and belief systems, while feeling strongly rooted and passionate about my own.
Like many in the more liberal branches of religion, I do not believe that Judaism is the one right religion, but rather, that there are multiple ways of living righteously and of reaching God or a higher power.
I picture a large mountain, with many paths up to the summit. Some paths meander by mountain lakes. Others offer wonderful vistas of the valley below. They all have rougher and smoother patches, and some are steeper than others. They all offer opportunities to challenge ourselves and rejoice in the beauty of the world around us. So why pick just one?
For me, I choose the path of Judaism for many reasons. It is the path that my parents and some (not all) of my grandparents walked before me. I have felt a sense of kinship and connection with other Jews who come from all over the world. I love the songs that echo through the hills and the teachings on signposts along the way. And I have found comfort and meaning on this trail at those key moments in my life—after my father died, on my wedding day and in sharing Jewish holidays with my son.
Being in an interfaith marriage adds another layer to this metaphor. I see paths that intersect my own, perhaps merging for a while to diverge and wander off again; maybe looping back on each other at different times. My husband walks his own path, although he does not adhere to another particular religion at this point in his life. (He was raised Protestant and drifted away.) And our paths definitely join together for certain stretches, particularly around holidays that we share as a family, and the core values we want to pass on to our son who we are raising Jewish. But I am walking on a deeply grooved part of the trail, while in this vision he is sometimes on the grassy edge.
Then I think about families who want to incorporate both religions into their homes and family life. Can one path be wide enough to actually overlap with other paths? What do you gain in experience and what might you lose in that image?
I also think about the fellow travelers I have invited to walk with me, my mother-in-law in particular. Even when we are walking together, I expect that her perspective on the view is a little different than mine. Her history is different, and maybe I haven’t done as good a job as I could explaining the different rituals and holidays that we’ll encounter on the way up.
I always love to hear stories from hikers on other trails, and maybe I’ll join them on their path for a while to take in a special sight or moment, but I keep coming back to Judaism. My path is right for me, and I hope my son will find meaning in it, too.
But I like to think about intersecting trails. Interfaith families help form a bridge between paths. We don’t have to shout across the chasms at each other, but can walk together for all or part of the way. This mountain has many sides, and all invite us to look with wonder, appreciation and amazement at the world around us and at the people who share in this journey.
What does your path look like?
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?
Mitchell Shames, chairman of the Jewish Outreach Institute, wrote a terrific piece in eJewishPhilanthropy today about the perhaps unintended consequences that occur when Jewish communal organizations take a xenophobic approach to fundraising or community building. Attending a fundraiser of a local Jewish social agency, he had this experience:
As Shames says, we’ve got to broaden our beliefs and expand beyond our traditional, insular language to include Jews helping all community, repairing the world. Check out the rest of his article here.
The following is a guest blog post by Dina Mann, National Marketing and Outreach Coordinator for Reboot, an organization that engages and inspires young, Jewishly-unconnected cultural creatives, innovators and thought-leaders who, through their candid and introspective conversations and creativity, generate projects that impact both the Jewish and non-Jewish worlds.
Traditionally, this is a day of celebration. Dancing, music and even some drinking is quite common. The question is: What’s everyone so happy about? Or a better question: How can we bring the spirit of creativity, excitement and joy from Simchat Torah and spread it throughout the year?
Enter Unscrolled. It’s a reinterpretation, a reimagining, a creative celebration: 54 leading Jewish writers, artists, photographers and screenwriters, plus actors, an architect, a musician and others grapple with the Torah, giving new meaning to the 54 Torah portions.
What is Unscrolled? First and foremost, it is a book that sums up the weekly Torah portion and then goes even further by creating interpretations that no medieval rabbi would think possible. More than a book, Unscrolled is a project that seeks to create a conversation around the Torah. With Unscrolled, we hope to give people who have never read the Torah, people who read the Hebrew Torah portions every week and people who think it’s a whole lot of brisket an opportunity to engage with the text in a fun, entertaining and offbeat way.
Want to get in on the action?
B’reishit (“In the beginning…”) is the first portion. Take some time to:
Bring your diverse voice to the conversation and get Unscrolled.
We are half-way through one of our online classes, Preparing for a Bar or Bat Mitzvah in Your Interfaith Family. One of the sessions is about the concept of “mitzvah,” the word in the name of this life cycle event, “bar mitzvah” or “bat mitzvah.”
Mitzvah is a Hebrew word that means commandment. The word mitzvah is in many Jewish blessings. The Friday night candle lighting blessing says, “Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe, Who make us holy through commanding us to light the Sabbath lights.”
Because of the commanded language, some rabbis hesitate to permit those who aren’t Jewish, who have not formally through conversion taken on the commandments, to say the blessing and do the ritual. Thus, a mom who is not Jewish, who has raised Jewish children, may not be able to light the candles at the Friday night service before her child’s bat or bar mitzvah in some synagogues.
In the session on mitzvot (plural of mitzvah meaning commandments), we asked our class how the parents understood the concept of being commanded. Two interesting comments came up:
It seems that those connected to liberal Jewish families understand “mitzvah” in much broader terms than adhering to the actual ritual or ethical commandments of the Torah, as elucidated by the rabbis in the first centuries of the common era. This should be no surprise as Reform Judaism, in particular, can be fully expressed when lived within the spirit more than the letter of the law.
I would think that liberal rabbis would also understand “b’mitzvotav vitzivnu” — “with God’s commandments, God has commanded us” in a broader sense. There are moms and dads connected to Jewish families who understand the concept of “commanded” as guiding their lives in profound ways. To keep someone from saying blessings with commanded language because they are not technically commanded seems misguided in some circumstances, as the comments above beautifully prove.
Leo Baeck (1873-1956) was a German rabbi, teacher and writer who led the push for Progressive Judaism (which today encompasses Reform Judaism). He taught that God’s commandments can be understood by the individual as boiling down to the ultimate statement of “Thou shalt.” It is up to each of us to fill in that blank, “Thou shalt _______.” It’s clear that the parents in this class are harkening a call for ethical and moral living by filling in the commandments in a broad sense — and this is powerful.
If you are in Chicagoland and would like to take one of our on-line classes (with opportunities for in-person sessions), please register at www.interfaithfamily.com/Chicago. The next round starts in February.