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My Grandma Harriet died a few weeks ago, at the age of 95. She was beautiful, creative and could expertly apply her lipstick without a mirror. She was my favorite hug. She cooked up the yummiest tuna noodle casseroles and the tastiest matzah ball soup. She lived a long life full of family simchas (celebrations), fancy dinners out with my grandfather and travelling around the world. When I got the call that she passed away, I was sad, but grateful that she lived a long, rich life.
A week later, I found out that my colleague’s wife was tragically killed in a car accident at the age of 37. N was vibrant, involved in the wider Jewish community and the mother of three kids. She was passionate about education and inclusivity. My heart broke when I read the news of her unexpected passing.
Death confounds me. After these losses, my theology was shaken up, once again. Why was my grandmother blessed with a sweet long life when people like N are tragically taken away from us so suddenly? How is it determined: Who shall live and who shall die?
We are moving into the High Holiday season in the Jewish calendar. The Days of Awe (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) are a time of contemplation, reflection and spiritual awakening. The Shofar is sounded to pull us out of our sleepy routines and open our hearts. It is a time to deeply connect with ourselves. And it is a time to face our own mortality. In the “U-netaneh Tokef” prayer, it is sung, “Who shall live on and who shall die.”
As a kid, I was taught that on Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year), we are either written in the book of Life or the Book of Death. And on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), our fates are sealed. Like many children, I pictured Gd as an old man in the sky, who looked exactly like Moses with a long white beard and a cane. My personified Gd lived above the clouds and wrote two lists each year: those who would live and those who would die. And I worked hard to be my best self so that I wouldn’t be added to that dreaded death list.
I have outgrown my childhood theology. It doesn’t serve me anymore. This simplistic theology that only the good are rewarded with long life contradicts with my understanding of the world.
I don’t know why people die when we do. I don’t understand why my grandmother got to live a long healthy life while N was taken from us too soon. I continue to grapple with death. The answers to this are bigger than me and beyond my comprehension.
What I do know is that the Gd of my understanding provides me comfort in the midst of uncertainty. I can lean on The-Abundant-One when I feel scared, lost and sad. When my grandmother passed away, I felt held by a nurturing presence. I experience Gd working through my community as they surround me and my family with love. When I learned of N’s death, I cried out to the Mystery. It felt unfair and unjust! My heart cracked open and I felt a deep pain. And yet, I experienced a sense of awe at the outpouring of support and strength from the wider community. The way in which she has been memorialized in countless stories is breathtaking. To me, that is Gd.
Today, I understand the “U-netaneh Tokef” prayer to be about surrender. We are not in control. These words are a reminder of the cycle of life and death. How can I honor the ways in which death is always present? What legacies will live on? What old habits will die? This year, as I sing the line, “Who shall live and who shall die,” I will be reminded of my own mortality and how I choose to live my life this year.
I love synagogues, in theory and many in reality. I have blogged before about my enduring connections with the congregation where I grew up, even though I haven’t lived in that community for over twenty years. I have written about just stopping in to congregations and hanging out there. Most recently, I wrote about my experience in my parent’s new congregation. I don’t think liberal Judaism can survive in America without synagogues. I am all for new and different models for congregations, like Mishkan Chicago. There are several congregations in Chicago with alternative dues structures and different religious school models like Sukkat Shalom.
I believe liberal Jews in America need a structure by which we can educate our children, join together for holidays and share in social justice pursuits. We need programs and classes that add meaning to our lives and help us infuse Judaism into the busy rhythm of our days. True, there are individuals who hire Jewish teachers to educate their children and to teach Hebrew and there are people who create individual and personalized life cycle ceremonies like bar and
For many years, interfaith families in congregations felt or still feel that extended family and parents who are not Jewish are not fully embraced. Some express that their cultural and religious lives have to be dormant or invisible inside the realm of synagogue. Children in interfaith homes report that religious school teachers or other members of the congregation make off-handed comments which make them feel less than fully Jewish or different or other. When people feel close to clergy members who can’t officiate at their life cycle events, it can deeply sting. So even though the majority of American Jews are partnered with someone who is not Jewish and congregations are by and large welcoming and want interfaith families to be part of the community, it can take some convincing to encourage interfaith couples and families to try again, so to speak, when a negative experience has already occurred.
We at InterfaithFamily/Chicago have created a new offering (which I explained in this previous blog post) to encourage interfaith families to take a chance with a synagogue for their family because we feel that being part of a community is so intrinsic to our ability to live and pass on Judaism. We have asked congregations to designate an interfaith family that is active at their synagogue to be listed as a “connector” on their Temple’s profile on our website. You can email this person to ask them to share their honest experience at the synagogue. They can tell you about how the parent who isn’t Jewish feels there. They can tell you about the vibe at the religious school and how the diversity of the community is celebrated.
As well, each of these congregations has a link back to InterfaithFamily on their temple’s website as a show of support for the interfaith families in the community and as a sign that they want to be supportive with resources to help pave the way to exploring Judaism however they can.
The following is a list of synagogues that we endearingly call our Super Orgs!
By the InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia Team (Robyn Frisch, Wendy Armon and Robin Warsaw)
InterfaithFamily Shabbat—which actually consists of not just one Shabbat, but this year, the entire month of November—is a time for being thankful. InterfaithFamily urges all of us to make November a month of “30 Days of Abundant Appreciation.”
In honor of InterfaithFamily Shabbat, here are 30 things we are thankful for:
1) The generous individuals and foundations that fund the important work that we do, including The Lasko Foundation, The Rubenstein Foundation and The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.
2) The individuals and couples who use our clergy referral service to find Jewish clergy to officiate at their lifecycle events and who come to us for support and counseling.
3) The parents (both Jewish parents and those of other faiths) of interfaith couples who honor and respect their children’s choices and engage in meaningful and productive conversation.
4) The rabbis and cantors we refer for lifecycle events for interfaith couples and families.
5) The synagogues and organizations that list their events on our online Network so that interfaith couples and families can find welcoming places in the Jewish community.
6) Our fantastic InterfaithFamily Wedding Bloggers (who are also IFF/Philadelphia “Love and Religion” workshop alumni) Matt Rice (who married his wife Shannon in November 2013) and Sam Keefe and Anne Goodman (who were married in October 2014) for sharing their stories.
7) The members of our IFF/Philadelphia Facebook Group for posting about upcoming events, sharing their thoughts and supporting the interfaith community online.
8) The interfaith couples who have shared their stories with us and with each other in our “Love and Religion” workshops.
9) The alumni of our “Raising a Child With Judaism in Your Interfaith Family” classes and “Love and Religion” workshops who have hosted Shabbat Dinners subsidized by InterfaithFamily.
10) The parents who have participated in our online “Raising a Child With Judaism in Your Interfaith Family” classes—those who grew up Jewish and those who did not—who have seriously explored how to include Jewish practices and values in the lives of their families.
11) Tami Astorino, the fantastic facilitator of IFF/Philadelphia’s online “Raising A Child With Judaism In Your Interfaith Family” classes and in-person “Love and Religion” workshops for interfaith couples, for her ability to stimulate important and sometimes difficult discussions and to honor and inspire the participants in her classes and workshops.
12) All of the organizations that IFF/Philadelphia has had the opportunity to partner with, including The Collaborative, The Jewish Graduate Student Network, The Renaissance Group of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, Einstein Healthcare Network’s Victor Center for Jewish Genetic Diseases and jkidphilly.
13) The synagogues and organizations who have invited us to provide Sensitivity Trainings for their professional staff and lay leaders.
14) The Religious School and Preschool Directors who have brought IFF/Philadelphia in to train their staffs so that they will be better equipped to meet the needs of their students from interfaith homes, as well as the students’ parents.
15) The synagogues and organizations that have invited us to lead Adult Education programs on interfaith issues.
16) Rabbi Erin Hirsch and the GratzNEXT Professional Learning Program for Supplementary School Teachers for working with us to create the online teacher training program “Truly Welcoming Children of Interfaith Families.”
19) Rabbi Isaac Saposnik, Executive Director of Camp JRF, a wonderfully inclusive place, for having us come to camp this past summer to provide a Sensitivity Training for all of the counselors.
21) The Gershman Y, for inviting Rabbi Robyn Frisch to facilitate The December Dilemma: Strategies for Interfaith Families During the Holidays on December 14, 2014.
22) Ross Berkowitz and Steven Share of The Collaborative for working with us to create meaningful programming for young adults in interfaith relationships and individuals in their 20s and 30s who grew up in interfaith homes.
23) Ed Case, Founder and CEO of InterfaithFamily, for his vision and leadership. For 13 years InterfaithFamily has provided unparalleled resources and support for interfaith couples and families exploring Jewish life.
24) Rabbi Mayer Selekman, who served on the Board of InterFaithways (predecessor to InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia) and is the Chair of IFF/Philadelphia’s Advisory Council. Rabbi Selekman is a true pioneer. He started officiating at interfaith weddings in the 1960s and has been advocating for the inclusion of interfaith couples and families in the Jewish community for years.
25) Leonard Wasserman, of blessed memory, Founder of InterFaithways, a visionary who saw intermarriage as an opportunity for the Jewish community, rather than a threat. And we’re thankful to Leonard’s wife of 64 years, Dorothy Wasserman, who worked with him to ensure the success of InterFaithways, and continues to support InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia and serve on our Advisory Council.
26) Bill Schwartz, InterfaithFamily National Board member and IFF/Philadelphia Advisory Council member, who leads our Philadelphia fundraising efforts. In 2006 Bill came up with the idea of having an InterFaithways Family Shabbat Weekend in Philadelphia and urged local synagogues to participate. Eight years later, over 100 synagogues and organizations in five cities are participating in InterfaithFamily Shabbat 2014.
27) Laurie Franz and Mindy Fortin, two amazing women from Philadelphia who serve on InterfaithFamily’s National Board and who support our work in the Philadelphia community.
28) The fantastic Advisory Council of IFF/Philadelphia, the members of which support and guide us in the work we do.
29) The talented and dedicated InterfaithFamily national staff in Boston as well as in communities throughout the country that we have the privilege of working with, as well as the InterfaithFamily National Board.
30) The 63 Philadelphia area synagogues and organizations that are participating in InterfaithFamily Shabbat 2014 and The Jewish Exponent for being a Media Affiliate. And all of the individuals who are going to attend InterfaithFamily Shabbat services, dinners and programs, helping to ensure that this year’s InterfaithFamily Shabbat will be the most successful one yet!
What are you thankful for this November?
This guest blog post is by my husband, Andrew Garnett-Cook
Recently, I went to see Phish, one of my favorite bands. Over the course of 20 years, I’ve been to many of their shows. I was first introduced to Phish while in college and, despite a long period where I virtually stopped listening to them, I still enjoy their music and the community that surrounded them.
One thing that one must understand about Phish is that there is a tribal quality to its fans and their love for, and knowledge of, Phish music. Within the Phish world, there are stories, legends, unspoken understandings and a profound sense of shared experience borne of years of having spent time following the band from place to place during their sometimes extensive tours.
Even more interesting is the relationship of the band to the music. Phish fans spend a great deal of time examining and scrutinizing Phish’s live music, dissecting jams and comparing them with some of the best versions of particular songs ever done live. Certain live versions of their songs are considered classics among the fans and are spoken of with reverence that might seem excessive to anyone not familiar with the world of Phish.
However, once you step even an inch outside the tribal world of Phish and its community of fans, songs that are instantly recognizable classics are virtual unknowns. How many of you have ever heard of “You Enjoy Myself”? Or “Down with Disease”? Or “Ghost”? These are to Phish fans what “Hey Jude” and “Stairway to Heaven” are to the larger world of fans of rock music.
In short, fans of Phish have a shared community united around a shared past, common experience, rituals and intimate knowledge of the band and its music, though all of these things are foreign to the outside world.
For me, this is not unlike Judaism. As someone who is not Jewish, but is married to a Jew, entering the Jewish world meant being exposed to a community who also have a shared past, common experiences, rituals and intimate knowledge of the language, practices and songs associated with religious gatherings. Like the person who is not a fan of Phish, these things would be unfamiliar to someone who is not Jewish and has never been exposed to that world.
The thing to remember is that both the world of Phish and the Jewish community are, in my experience, inviting and supportive communities. A newbie at a Phish concert would be welcomed warmly and some dedicated Phishhead would be all too happy to walk them through the history of each song. Likewise, for me, introduction to the Jewish world has been at the heart of a supportive community at our synagogue, led by a rabbi who has embraced interfaith couples and made them feel welcome in the community. Because of this, I have had time to relax, become familiar with Judaism and feel like the Jewish community is one to which I can contribute.
My advice to other interfaith couples? Even if something seems unfamiliar at first or inaccessible to you, do not conclude it must be so. Like entry into the world of Phish, entering into the world of Judaism and becoming comfortable in that world takes time, commitment and a willingness to be a little uncomfortable for a while. But, a good community will welcome you in and give you the time and space to find your way.