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I went to an edgy opera recently called, Lilith the Night Demon in One Lewd Act. Lilith isn’t mentioned in the book of Genesis, but the opera based itself on early Jewish tales of a woman who was created before Eve in the Garden of Eden. Unlike Eve, who was born out of Adam’s side, Lilith was created from the earth at the same moment as Adam. They fought about everything, especially her refusal to assume his desired sexual position. Adam made it clear to God that he didn’t appreciate this insubordination and wanted her out. Lilith left in a huff, followed by three angels who implored her to return to the Garden of Eden. When she refused, they told her that she would spend eternity as a demon, bearing and killing hundreds of demon babies daily. With Lilith gone, Eve was created, destined to play the obedient and submissive “good girl” to Lilith’s strong-willed and demanding “bad girl.” The legend also provided a rationale for the high numbers of babies and women dying in childbirth. Lilith became the scapegoat for the unexplained mysteries of life and death.
Lilith rose in contemporary times as a model of strength, and has an all-woman folk music festival named for her as well as a Jewish feminist magazine. Treating her as a feminist icon, we often conveniently forget the part of the story when she turns into a baby-killing demon. Or perhaps we quietly recognize that so often women have been metaphorically demonized when they demanded personhood.
But Lilith is also beloved because she is the quintessential outsider, allowing us to easily identify with her. It is an epidemic in Judaism to believe that each of us stands outside of some inner sanctum peeking in. In truth, I have met a handful of Jews who don’t feel this way. But many more share this uneasy feeling that we are the only ones who don’t know enough: We don’t know what’s going on during services, we don’t have the right parentage, we don’t know the Yiddish or Hebrew that is tossed around in conversation. We aren’t wealthy like other Jews. We were not born Jewish, or we are in an interfaith relationship. Like a kid on the school playground, many Jews and people who spend time in Jewish communities see ourselves as the kid left out of the club. Other people are the ones who really belong. If only we knew that most everyone feels this way.
Unfortunately, too many of us have actually been told at one time or another that we don’t quite fit an internal stereotypical image of what a Jew should be, or aren’t following the rules. This is natural within a community that defines itself both as one people, yet also contains within it many distinct ways of defining itself. Furthermore, throughout our history, Judaism has had to create walls to define who is in and who is out for its own survival and we still struggle over the height of those boundaries. Reality, yes. But it still hurts.
The problem is, I see us “othering” ourselves. Once we feel or are told that there is a bias against us, we often glorify our place on the outside. We revel in it. We define ourselves by it. We become Lilith peeking in at what everyone else is doing in the Garden of Eden.
There was a time in my life when I identified strongly with the figure of Lilith. I was a rabbinical student dating someone who wasn’t Jewish. I didn’t even know if I would finish my studies to become a rabbi. I felt like a boundary-breaker and wanted to own it. Perhaps even to flaunt it. I studied Lilith. I wrote about Lilith. I read every reference to her I could get my hands on. Except for the baby-killing part of the story, I wanted to be her. But I received some good advice from a trusted mentor to be wary of overly identifying with her. She was right. I was basking in my feelings of otherness. If I had stayed there, I wouldn’t have been able to see myself as a change-maker from inside Judaism.
Feeling that I was on the outside woke me up to how so many people in Jewish communities feel. And I started to realize what a loss it is for everyone if we accept a seat on the outside. Jewish communities need all of us—not just the ones who fit nicely into a box.
Lilith has a lot to teach us. She teaches us to figure out who we are and stand up for what we believe is right. And she teaches us that if we allow others to cut us out, we can’t effect change from within.
When I was in college, I had a serious boyfriend who wasn’t Jewish. At that time I also got involved as a leader with Hillel, the Jewish campus organization. For me, these two major preoccupations with my time were not in conflict. In fact, I brought him frequently to Hillel events and was the first to correct people when they assumed he was Jewish.
In my sophomore year, I was invited to a major conference for Jewish professionals. I was excited to be one of the few representatives of engaged college students. The highlight of the conference was a plenary about intermarriage. I was surprised to walk into a room full of hundreds of people. I honestly, and naively, hadn’t realized what a major hot-button issue this had become. So there I was, a teen amidst a sea of (mostly angry, frustrated) Jewish leaders, listening to them try to figure out why Jewish young people were interdating and intermarrying, surmising that it must be a result of those Jews not having a strong Jewish identity. I was a shy kid, and it took a lot for me to muster up the courage to raise my hand. When they saw me, a real live flesh-and-blood Jewish teenager, the room hushed. I told them about my boyfriend. I told them that I was a Jewish leader on my campus. I had come to their conference. Clearly, I was a Jew with a strong identity.
I wanted to dispel what I still consider a myth: that interdating and identity are always necessarily linked. No one knew what to do with my proclamation as it flew in the face of everything they thought they knew. Was I the ideal product of their Jewish educational system? Or did I represent their deepest failure? I think it made an impression (my quote appeared in Jewish newspapers). What I didn’t know at the time was that a major population study had just been published that year, the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey. That survey was famous for reporting that the national Jewish intermarriage rate had risen 27% since the year I was born. I had unwittingly stepped into one of the earliest moments of communal panic, and I was a confusing representative of my age cohort. Looking back, I would say it was my first public piece of advocacy for the Jewish interfaith community.
A few weeks ago, a conference of Jewish scholars met to explore the idea of “Jewish identity,” co-organized by Professor Ari Kelman, a friend of mine from Stanford University and a leading thinker in the field of Jewish education. He says of the subject, “No one has the foggiest idea what Jewish identity even means.” He asks, “Why is identity the desired outcome of Jewish education?” It’s a great question. The Jewish leaders in my workshop back in 1990 figured that this elusive thing called Jewish identity must ensure that someone would want to marry within Judaism. But, even as a college student, I had every intention of leading a Jewish life, and my choice of partner was not going to change that.
As if he was at that workshop with me as a teen, Kelman asks, “In what other world is marital choice”—[which is thought to be] a key indicator of Jewish identity—“a valuable educational outcome?” I remember lots of talk when I was growing up in a synagogue about Jewish identity. If they could instill in us a sense of deep Jewish connection, we would marry someone Jewish and raise Jewish kids. But I don’t think that as a community we were asking the right questions. The mistake was that one can’t always make accurate assumptions about the degree of an individual’s Jewish passion merely by asking who they are dating or marrying.
When I look at my kids around the Shabbat table (or even my college students when I worked for Hillel), I’m not thinking, “Phew, I’m doing a good job. They are going to have strong Jewish identities.” What am I hoping? I hope that because they are learning to live life through a Jewish lens, they will grow up looking at the world with wonder and awe, possess a strong sense of self, and understand that they are interconnected with other people and the natural world. The goal is living a life of meaning, not possessing a Jewish identity.
Perhaps when a Jewish person is partnered with someone who isn’t, instead of making assumptions about a faulty Jewish identity, we can ask instead what fills their lives with meaning. Now that’s an answer I can’t wait to hear.
We have been through 20 Passovers together. My wife does pretty well with the eating restrictions but somewhere around the middle of the holiday, there she is eating cereal in the garage. That’s where I store the chametz, the bread products that are off-limits during Passover, to make the rest of the house ready for the holiday. I “sell” it to a friend or neighbor who isn’t Jewish but is intrigued enough to play along. (That ensures that I don’t technically own it and it can stay there as long as it’s undisturbed.) But there it sits, calling out to Kirsti all week. Each bite of
Now enter two kids. None of these differences in our practices made an impact on our home life until we had children. While she can practice however she likes, I do want to maintain a Jewish household for our kids. In similar cases, we tend to face our differences head on, explaining to our children where our beliefs or practices may differ from one another.
Many parents who come from different backgrounds will only tell one parent’s side of things until kids get older and can better handle the paradoxes. I see the value in that approach, but it’s not for us. We have always told the truth about where we differ religiously…for better or for worse. We have different ideas about theology and share with our boys that people generally—and even Jews—don’t all believe the same thing. We have different needs in terms of attending synagogue, and I am happy to be the regular Shabbat service goer with them, explaining that while she’ll go sometimes, it’s more of a regular practice for me.
But Passover is tough because it’s centered in the house. Do I want them to learn that it’s OK to run to the garage when they have a craving? I don’t need my partner to keep to it, but I want them to learn the discipline early on as a meaningful part of the Passover celebration. I want them to internalize their history as slaves being freed as they stop themselves instead of reaching for some bread. I hope they will share the excitement with me when the kitchen gets turned upside down to get ready for the holiday. But I also don’t want to denigrate my partner’s practices by making them lesser. I respect her and her relationship to Judaism. How do I hold both realities?
In truth, I’ve never lived in a house where we were all practicing Judaism in the same way. I grew up in a home with two Jewish parents for whom Jewish eating practices held no meaning. We always laughed that it wasn’t Passover if there wasn’t a honey-baked ham on the table. OK, we never went that far, but ham and seafood were staples in our home. My mother would proudly say, “I don’t practice my religion through my stomach.” But even as a kid, I was drawn to the idea that refraining from bread made the week of my favorite holiday feel special, and I worked around my family’s need for their cupboards to remain untouched.
So we talked to our kids this Passover about the realities of different kinds of Jewish practice. They were informed that their Mommy sneaks some chametz (not surprising since they already knew that although she has tried valiantly to give them up over the years, she has a soft spot for cheeseburgers). But we didn’t dwell on the food-talk. What we did spend time discussing were the values we hope they took away from the holiday. Standing up for those who are oppressed. Using your own story of pain and difference to inspire you to rescue others. That freedom is possible. And for my partner, we know that her freedom is saying farewell to matzah for another year.
Divinity school is an unlikely place for a rabbi to meet her spouse. In my first week of graduate school, I became friends with a Coptic nun from Egypt, a Southern Baptist minister, a Jewish Buddhist and a young scholar of Early Christianity. The last would one day become my wife. I was one of a handful of Jewish students and I relished the opportunity to study religion more broadly within this diverse community before making the final decision to become a rabbi. It became increasingly clear to me that I wanted to pursue a career like my classmates who were studying to become ministers and priests. They were community builders, teachers, healers in a fractured world. Apparently, I needed future ministers to help me decide that I wanted to become a rabbi.
For the first time in my life, I was dating a Jewish man. Since I was seriously considering becoming a rabbi by this time, I believed I had to marry someone Jewish, and he met all the criteria of a perfect spouse for me. He was not only Jewish; we had been counselors together at a Jewish camp, he spoke fluent Hebrew, had spent time in Israel and studied Judaism in college. But he simply wasn’t the right person for me.
My life took a major turn when I met Kirsti. She had grown up in a non-religious household with parents who had rejected Christianity. So, of course, she became fascinated by religion: religious people, religious texts, religious language. Like me, she was pursuing her masters at Harvard Divinity School. She would go on to earn a PhD in Early Christianity as I embarked on rabbinical school. We shared a love of religious mysticism and stayed up nights talking about Jewish and Christian mystical texts, and struggling with belief. In those early days, we also had to process the reality that dating a woman was new to both of us which, frankly, overpowered any worry about coming from different religious backgrounds.
Although she did convert many years into our relationship, Kirsti and I still question religion together and bring our knowledge, ideas and queries to the dinner table. We address our children’s musings with honesty and depth rather than supplying overly clear-cut answers we think they should be hearing. We hope our kids will be inspired to treat all people and ideas with respect and inquiry while being grounded in a rich, Jewish tradition. My Jewish life has been profoundly shaped by traveling this path with Kirsti for the past 20 years. She has led me to challenge pieces of our tradition that I blindly followed, and has deepened my connection to certain parts of our liturgy and rituals by seeing them in a new light.
I am delighted that as the new Director of InterfaithFamily/Bay Area, I have the opportunity to help families from mixed backgrounds navigate Judaism like we have. I will also strive to help Jewish communities become more welcoming to all types of people who don’t fit the long-gone model of a traditional, Jewish family. We are most enriched as a community when we offer space for people to bring their whole selves and their full narratives to Jewish life.
Maybe a rabbi meeting her spouse at divinity school is a rarity, but each family’s story is unique, with its own twists and turns. Who we love and choose to share our lives with cannot be reduced to a checklist of criteria to be met. Our stories are far more interesting than that.
Following a special diet can be a challenge. Most of us have followed a diet in the past to lose weight, or for humanitarian or health reasons. Some of us are on one right now. In my own small circle of family, friends and colleagues, almost all of the major diet categories are covered. We have gluten free, low fat, dairy free, sugar free, vegan, vegetarian, Kosher, high protein and low carb. Passover is coming and my diet-centered world is about to short circuit. What kind of meals can I make if I have to eliminate gluten, fat, dairy, sugar, eggs, meat and all of the items that are not consumed during Passover from the list of acceptable ingredients?
There can be some confusion about how to make our choices about what to eat during Passover. Tradition plays a strong role for religious Jews and can influence the decisions we make in our modern interpretation of our holiday observance. Jews from Eastern Europe (Ashkenazim) refrain from eating Kitnyot (KIT-NEE-OT) during the eight days of Passover. Kitnyot are grains and legumes such as, rice, corn, beans, soy, peanuts, string beans, peas, lentils, mustard, seeds (sesame, poppy, sunflower, etc.), and their derivatives which can be found in corn starch, corn syrup and soy sauce. Jews from other lands (Sephardim) do eat Kitnyot during Passover. Why is there a distinction?
The Torah tells us not to eat leaven (also called Chametz) during the holiday of Passover. Chametz consists of “five grains” from wheat, spelt, barley, oats and rye. In ancient times, a strict observance of this commandment caused the Jews in lands where these grains were grown to be extra careful. All grains were stored in the same type of sack and could be easily mixed up or misidentified. The only way to be sure of not eating the five grains was to avoid any foods that could possibly have a similar appearance. Sephardim did not have this tradition because the five grains were not grown in their lands.
A little research on the Internet results in some obscure and interesting items to avoid during Passover. Who would have known that organic lipstick may contain wheat or oat flour? We must also avoid eating anything that contains vinegar like ketchup, mayonnaise, and pickles, anything with glucose or dextrose, such as sugar alternatives, and decaf coffee and tea, which are processed using an additive called Maltodextrin, which is made from starch. Whisky and beer are also prohibited because they contain wheat or barley.
There are some very good menu and recipe suggestions available if one is willing to dig around a bit on the web. Daniella Silver has a list of Healthy Gluten/Dairy Free Vegetarian Passover Recipes that look very yummy. I am definitely going to try the Garlic Sweet Potato Rice and the Triple Chocolate Hamentaschen. My favorite site is from Shana Lebowitz called 34 Healthy Passover Recipes and it is full of interesting Passover relevant twists on regular dishes. Try her Grain-Free Banana Bread (it does include eggs) or the Bitter Herbs Salad that she found in a 2012 New York Times post.
It is a highly personal decision to change our diet for eight days. Whether or not you give up just bread, bread-like foods, or choose to follow all of the ancient traditions is up to you. Please share your favorite healthy Passover recipe with our readers so that we all have more food options to consider as we decide what our own unique celebration will entail.
Chag sameach (Happy holiday)!
There is a Jewish joke that says: Two Jews are in a synagogue, and one turns to the other as asks “when is Hannukah this year?” and the other responds “the same as always, on the 25th of Kislev.” This little tale helps us to learn about the Hebrew calendar. Jewish holidays are celebrated on the same day of the Hebrew calendar each year, but since the Hebrew year is not the same as the solar year used by most of the Western world, Jewish holidays always fall on a different Western calendar day each year.
This quirky calendar difference can be confusing. My husband likes to celebrate birthdays and anniversaries using the Hebrew date and this takes some effort on my part to keep track. I am fortunate that the two most important dates I need to remember happen to fall on important dates in both calendars. In the year that my husband was born, the first night of Hanukkah fell on December 25—Christmas Day—and that day is his birthday. Every year, we celebrate the first night of Hanukkah and Nathan’s birthday. Last year, it was also Thanksgiving, which made it a triple celebration! We got married on the 18th of the Hebrew month of Lyar, which is also the Jewish holiday of Lag B’Omer, another special day that is on every Jewish calendar, making it easy to remember our anniversary.
The Hebrew calendar has a fascinating twist, a method to reconcile the lunar and solar years. The secular calendar is based on the solar cycle, in which the earth revolves around the sun in approximately 365¼ days. Since we cannot measure a quarter of a day, we have 365 days each year, and every 4th year add a 366th day, creating a leap year every four years. The Jewish calendar consists of months based on the lunar cycle, the time it takes the moon to revolve around the earth. A lunar month consists of 29½ days. Again, since we cannot have ½ day, we have some Hebrew calendar months with 29 days, and some with 30 days. As a result of the extra half days, the Hebrew calendar also includes some leap years.
Every so often, 7 times out of every 19 years, the Jewish calendar adds an extra month of Adar and names them Adar I and Adar II. This year, 2014/5774 has one of those fun occurrences. The reason for the extra Adar is that a solar year consists of 365 days, and a lunar year consists of 354 days, causing the same Hebrew calendar day to occur 11 days earlier in the following year. As a result, Passover which is supposed to occur in springtime, would happen earlier and earlier each year, eventually ending up in the winter, fall, and summer. To prevent this backward slippage, the Jewish sages added an extra month to reconcile the Jewish and secular calendars.
This leap month is called Adar Sheni, or Adar the 2nd (Adar II). Interestingly, Adar II is the month that is constant every year, where Adar I, is the one added in a Hebrew leap year. The way we know this is that Purim, which always occurs in the month of Adar, is celebrated during Adar II in a leap year. Interestingly, a year consisting of 13 months is not called a leap year, but Shana Me’uberet, a pregnant year.
During Talmudic times, the Hebrew calendar was established by the Rabbinic court in Jerusalem, based upon the sighting of the new moon by two witnesses, who were quizzed to determine the reliability of their testimony. In the 4th Century, the Jewish sage Hillel II, established a fixed calendar, basing it on mathematical and astronomical calculations. This is the Hebrew calendar that we use today to know precisely when to celebrate holidays in the current year, and to help us plan for the future.
It is a fun activity to compare the Hebrew and Western calendars to find out if you were born or married on a Jewish holiday, important day in Jewish history, or if you share a birthday with a famous Jewish leader or prophet. You can find a Hebrew date using the online HebCal date converter and then see what happened on that Day in Jewish History. I was born on the 30th day of the month of Sivan, which is a day of celebrating the new moon and the day before Joseph, the Son of Jacob and Rachel was born!
Shabbat was created to give us one day of rest each week. Traditional Jews follow a very strict guide about what activities they avoid for 26 hours, beginning at sundown on Friday and ending after sunset on Saturday. They don’t work, clean, shop, spend money, watch movies, listen to music, write, draw, drive, cook with heat, turn on or off anything that is electrical, battery, or gas powered, or carry things outside the home. One of the widely promoted benefits of disconnecting from electronic devices is to reconnect with family, friends, and analog activities. It can be a special time to spend doing things that we have a hard time getting to.
For less traditional Jews, keeping Shabbat can take many forms. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time.” In the global scheme of the modern world, separating time from space seems like an impossible dream.
Technology is part of my identity. I am rarely without my smart phone, one of those people who checks email and social media first thing in the morning and after lights out at night. Giving it up for 26 hours is a frightening prospect. I have tried many times and failed miserably. Cooking, I can do without, lights and heat can be easily set to operate by timers, shopping can wait, and all other “don’ts” can be accomplished with my smart phone. That’s the thing, the smart phone is operation central of my life. How could I possibly live without it?
Reboot, “a non-profit group designed to ‘reboot’ the cultures, traditions and rituals of Jewish life” has created an event to help us see Shabbat in a whole new way. It is called the National Day of Unplugging and with this blog, I am publicly committing to unplug on Shabbat, March 7-8. (IFF President Jodi Bromberg made the pledge too–read why here.) Is it possible for me to succeed? My idea is to separate the space into manageable sections. The first section will be enjoyed at Unplug SF, a celebration of Reboot’s National Day of Unplugging from 7:00pm to 12:30am. Catching up on sleep will cover the hours well past dawn, so that leaves about 11 hours to fill until Havdalah at 6:49pm.
For liberal Jews living in the modern world, what is OK and what isn’t OK on Shabbat? Each individual must decide what a spiritually meaningful Jewish practice looks like. These are not always easy decisions. The world does not stop just because it is Shabbat for a small minority of people. My family and friends might not understand my lack of response to their calls, emails, and text messages. Maybe it is just hard to change old habits and try something new. I cannot know what it feels like to unplug unless I try it. There is a cool page of real people’s reasons for unplugging on the National Day of Unplugging website. A couple of my favorites are “play with my puppy,” “spend quiet time with my loved ones” and “get outside.”
The unplug pledge is really just one day out of my entire life. My dog needs a hike, my family needs my attention, I need some exercise and there is beautiful world waiting to be discovered. I unplug to stroll the happy trails on Montara Mountain!
It is with great disappointment that I take in the flurry of media articles about the son of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s relationship with a Norwegian student who is not Jewish. In a world filled with monumental challenges, the press focuses our attention on the dating choice of one young man, even going as far as making a comparison between young Mr. Netanyahu and Prince Edward VII. Why is the news interest focused on the matrilineal inheritance of the young woman, rather than her character? The real story here is that the press thinks a high profile interfaith relationship is a scandal and it isn’t.
Is there a relationship between the future of Judaism and the person we date? The truth is, we really do not know. Many smart and engaged Jewish leaders have interpreted the results of the October Pew survey with a resounding “Yes”! I would like to offer up a different perspective, one that is rooted in InterfaithFamily CEO Ed Case’s intelligent commentary on the topic. The future of Judaism is not at risk as a result of intermarriage. It is at risk due to a lack of engagement among Jews, their partners and families, and the organized Jewish professional community. We do not know how the statistics on Jewish identity would differ if we had chosen to promote a different philosophy on intermarriage 20 years ago.
We should be looking inward, to ourselves and our behavior as the keepers of Judaism. It serves no purpose to fault an individual person’s behavior for our shortcomings as a community. What if once a month, each of us who are connected to the Jewish community took the time to reach out to another individual or family who is not connected? We could invite someone into our home for Shabbat dinner, accompany them to a service at our synagogue, to a Jewish fair, festival, or concert. It is amazing what can happen when we reach out our hand to another person. As connected Jews, our individual daily actions, including our words, can and will make a great impact on the future of Judaism in our communities.
Yesterday my husband asked for my advice about how to help a friend of his. His friend wanted to know how he could motivate his wife to attend services and other Jewish events at our synagogue. They are empty nesters and he wants to grow their Jewish practice. My husband turned to me because I am the family psychologist, a.k.a., the in-house armchair analyst. While I am sympathetic to our friend’s situation, my answer may not have been the one he was looking for: “He can’t.”
For most of my life, I engaged with Judaism to please my family, not because it was something that I wanted or because it was my idea. It was easier for me to participate than it would have been to explain why I did not “feel it.” I always experienced a strong attachment to the music, the food and to Israel but these are not religious motivations, they are cultural. Sometimes I wonder where the line is between culture and religion.
Spirituality is personal. I am not sure how the flame gets going. Some have it from birth, others find it as a result of a life changing experience, and for me it appeared during my first visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem a few years ago. My internal flame was lit near midnight on a warm summer evening in Jerusalem.
When I returned home from Israel, I went looking for a Jewish community to join and I found one in San Francisco. From that first Shabbat morning, I always felt welcome and never self-conscious about showing up alone. There were always plenty of other people who came alone, just like me. Some were single, some with partners who chose not to go or who stayed home with their children or aging parents. We sat together at services and saved seats at the table for each other at events. Not once did I ever feel the awkward loneliness that can creep into one’s consciousness while going solo in a group setting. The positive experience I had the first time motivated me to try it a second, and then a third, and so on, until I joined the community as an official member.
Since then, I have married and my husband and I go to synagogue together. I no longer go alone but I know that I can, any time I want or need to. A while ago I heard a fellow congregant speak at a panel discussion about how, as a divorced parent, she has found her village in our community. She no longer feels awkward about attending as a single parent and comes to temple events a lot now. She even comes alone when her children are with their father. I have another friend who is always at Shabbat morning services and is rarely accompanied by his partner who works too hard and desperately needs the “Day of Rest” for actual horizontal rest.
I suggested to my husband that his friend could try joining us once or twice without his wife to see how he feels about walking in alone. Once he is inside, he will be joined by friends, swept away by the gorgeous opening song, and carried through the morning by Rabbi’s calm guidance of our prayers. Our friend may find out that his inner flame of spirituality can be nurtured through the warm and uplifting embrace of our community in San Francisco. He may also discover that the impression he walks away with is contagious.
To learn about what to expect at a synagogue, watch this video.
The last week of November was Celebration Central for my husband and me. We flew to Paris for a cousin’s 80th birthday, celebrated one day before a personal trio: Thanksgiving, the second night of Hanukkah and my husband’s birthday.
For Shabbat-Hanukkah (the Sabbath that occurs during Hanukkah), we made the 3/4 hour trek via Paris Metro to a suburban neighborhood to visit the city’s only liberal synagogue, Kehilat Gesher, the “American synagogue of Paris.” We found many jewels hidden away in this unmarked Jewish haven on Rue Leon Cogniet.
It can be uncomfortable to attend services in an unfamiliar house of worship, regardless of one’s religious upbringing, affiliation, or knowledge base. I am especially tentative in these situations, yet my desire to celebrate Shabbat Hanukkah in Paris and my curiosity moved me to make the effort to join the community for one evening.
The Kehilat Gesher congregation is a highly diverse group of regulars and visitors, all gathered together to experience liberal Judaism in Paris. Rabbi Tom Cohen conducts a trilingual Shabbat service that is inclusive, warm and rich with the joy of the occasion. His enthusiasm for welcoming Shabbat into our hearts was overflowing and we effortlessly settled in for the experience of a lifetime.
The Kehilat Gesher Siddur (prayer book) is quadrilingual. Each page has the prayers written in Hebrew, French, English, and the most fascinating transliteration using French accents! Rabbi Cohen has been leading services there since 1993 and is a master at making sure that the service is accessible to all. We took turns doing the readings in the language of our choice. We heard myriad accents in multiple languages: Hebrew with French, English with Russian, French with Hebrew, and some that I did not recognize.
After the service, we gathered for the blessings over the wine and bread and shared a special treat of traditional Hanukkah sufganiyot (fried foods) in the form of yummy jelly doughnuts. We had many warm and welcoming conversations with members and Rabbi Cohen made an extra effort to introduce himself and to genuinely engage with us about who we are and why we decided to attend services at Kehilat Gesher.
What made the experience so memorable was the recognition that even far away from home I can find a friendly connection at a liberal synagogue. As I sat in that small uncomfortable seat, listening to the opening song, a slightly non-traditional rendition of “Shabbat Shalom,” I truly understood that I was part of something unique and special. The amazing part was that nobody seemed to care if we were Jewish, or intermarried or, in our case, intra-faith (Reform and Orthodox).
At Kehilat Gesher Paris they say Shabbat Shalom with an international accent!