Five Observations

Heart beat illustrationBelow are five observations from working with interfaith families that may get our hearts racing and hopefully prompt respectful discussion:

1. Language matters. God created the world with words, “Let there be light…and there was…” The rabbis said that to embarrass someone is to kill their soul—to bring blood to their face. The same word in Hebrew for “word,”—d’var—is also the word for “thing.” Words create reality. The old adage “sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me” is not Jewish. Thus, when we say, “non-Jew” for example, we are saying that someone is a “non-entity” or different from, and that isolates and estranges the very people we seek to endear and hold close. Thus, I say, “not Jewish” because I believe this difference is more than semantics.

2. Owning It. Many people who grew up with Judaism and are getting married describe themselves as “culturally Jewish.” I have started pushing people to define what this means. Which culture? Ashkenazkic Jewish? If you go to your parent’s for the holidays and your mother makes kugel and brisket, she is a cultural Jew. Can you claim this as an authentic identity as an adult vicariously? Is there a cut-off age for this when you have to own it yourself? Are people cultural Jews because they grew up culturally Jewish: going to Jewish camp (or camp with lots of Jews), having Jewish friends, getting together with family for break-fast and Passover?

As adults, we identify as Jewish, but maybe this hasn’t been actualized since the Bar/Bat Mitzvah circuit or since a Jewish sorority or fraternity or a birthright trip. When people say they are culturally Jewish, they may be describing their upbringing more than anything. They may also be saying what they are not. They are not members of a synagogue (neither are their parents, often) and they do not think about Judaism on a regular basis. But lifecycle moments often must be Jewish. There is no other way for them to imagine getting married or welcoming a baby than to have a rabbi present and to look to Jewish tradition. Is this empty or lacking? Not to me. This is real. This is a basis upon which new learning and experiences can take place. This is roots. This is connectedness and family closeness. If we dismiss this, we will lose another generation of people who grew up with Judaism and need to be sold on its value as a way of life.

3. Re-branding Judaism. Selling Judaism. I find myself cheerleading for Judaism. I hear story after story about not having loved religious school; leaving the synagogue after the Bar/Bat Mitzvah; finding services boring, hard to follow, irrelevant; being disappointed by rabbis for whatever reasons; etc. I try to re-sell an open-minded, loving, vibrant, relevant Judaism in which people will find moral grounding, inspiration, other young people, accessible clergy, and rituals open to anybody who loves a Jew and is comfortable being part of everything—whether or not they formally convert. Does this Judaism exist? Should it exist? I tell people that this Judaism exists because I have experienced it in many places here in Chicago and in many different ways.

4. Inclusion. Can Judaism be an inclusive religion? Inclusion is a recent American ideal. For instance, we aim to create neuro-diverse classrooms because we believe that inclusion of different kinds of learners benefits everyone. But, can it be a Jewish ideal? We have been an insular, tight knit, ethnically bound people and this has kept us going. We are a religion of boundaries: day and night, holy and profane, Shabbat and the rest of the week, before 13 and after 13, kosher or treif. Can we have a Judaism that is totally open and includes everybody? This will change our Judaism. Is this OK? What will it look and feel like? Will there be a reason to formally convert anymore? (Anecdotally, I have found that when those come to experience Judaism they want more and more and do end up wanting a formal conversion, quite often…)

Beyond being welcoming, the real question is how and to what extent can Judaism be an inclusive religion?

5. Both religions. Each of these observations I have gleaned from working with interfaith families’ present challenges and opportunities in the Jewish world. But, this last point is perhaps the most tricky. This one really gets our hearts racing and leads to arguments among Jewish leaders. What about families who want both religions of the parents to be part of their lives? What does it mean anymore to raise Jewish children? Is there a litmus test to this? Can one raise Jewish children and not belong to a synagogue (pretty hard to do in America, I personally think). Can one raise Jewish children if those children attend church with one parent or grandparent or cousins and take part in Christian holidays? Only if those holidays are celebrated “culturally” and not “religiously”? Can one raise Jewish children if Shabbat is not part of their lives, if they do not give tzedakah and if Judaism may not come up in the course of a day or week?

Many, many couples I meet with think they will want some aspects of both religions in their lives. They don’t believe this will confuse children. They feel that if the parents are on the same page, the children will be too. If there is love, tolerance, respect, empathy, a willingness to learn and experience and a depth of compromise, it will enrich the family to become literate in both faiths and to celebrate aspects of both faiths. Whatever we think about this, we are going to have to confront this reality. How can and should the liberal Jewish world respond? What will our religious schools look like if we have more and more children exposed to both religions who feel “half and half” and say it with wholeness and pride? Will this dilute Judaism? Will this expand Judaism? Will all children raised within liberal Judaism today come to love the idiosyncrasies of our way in to the big questions of life: kindness, social justice, the meaning of sin, how to talk about God, what it means to have lived a good life?

If you are an interfaith couple, do these observations resonate? What are your answers? What are your questions? Have I captured some of this? We want to know the top things you are thinking about so that we can think this stuff through with you. Judaism needs your voices and your presence.

A Secular Jewish Alternative

I have often wondered if, had I not been raised Jewish, I would convert to Judaism. I know many Jews who are intermarried and who don’t believe in God, who consider themselves atheist, agnostic, or “just Jewish” Jews. I know many Jewish people who don’t believe in, or question the existence of, God. If a person was not raised Jewish, but enjoys cultural aspects of Judaism, would they convert? Would I convert had I not been born into this religion? Do I love the Jewish religion? Or do I love the Jewish customs and culture? For me, I think these answers are fluid as I grow with my Judaism. I think everyone is different and has their own spiritual and cultural journey. For many individuals and couples, community is really what they are seeking.

Jewish Children's Folkshul of PhiladelphiaIn Philadelphia, I experienced an interesting option: the Jewish Children’s Folkshul. It is a secular humanistic community for children and adults. There is no rabbi or cantor, but they sing songs in English, Yiddish, and Hebrew. They say a secular kaddish with a translation of “We remember them,” without invoking God. The kids learn all the Bible stories as stories, not as miracles or acts of God. They tell the Purim story and identify themes that are relevant today. They learn about the Holocaust. They learn about tikkun olam (repairing the world), tzedakah (righteous giving), kindness, and ethics. They experience social action/social justice projects and what it is like to be part of a soup kitchen and stand in line for their soup for the day.

The bar/bat mitzvah program includes a project where the student can learn about any topic that helps them connect with their Jewish identity; they prepare a research project to present to family, friends, and the Folkshul community. I was able to watch a young girl give her bat mitzvah presentation. She conducted an entire research project about wedding traditions. She, like her peers at the Folkshul, was encouraged to pick songs and music for the ceremony that are meaningful to her and her family. It was different than a traditional ceremony, yet still a rite of passage and just as lovely. The kids who complete their bar/bat mitzvah stay a part of the Folkshul community because they want to. They work in their community on Sundays. They assist the teachers for the younger grades. The director mused that when the teens assist with the curriculum they themselves learned in younger grades, their learning is enhanced because now they see the teachings from a new perspective.

I met with the teachers to provide them with some sensitivity training. They learned about the resources at InterfaithFamily and we discussed how they teach kids from interfaith families. I was truly impressed that any discussion about other religions is met with absolute respect. It was a wonderful exercise for the teachers and I truly enjoyed their enthusiasm and wisdom.

For those who are interested in a Jewish option that emphasizes ethics and culture, check out a Secular Humanistic community like the Folkshul. It is an intriguing option for those who enjoy Jewish culture and community in a non-religious environment.