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I hope your Jewish holidays this year were good. Despite all of the bad news in the world, my holidays were excellent. They ended with the first grade consecration of my oldest grandchild on erev Simchat Torah at Temple Sinai in Brookline, Massachusetts. The rabbi had all of the children present at the service sit cross-legged on both sides of the center aisle of the sanctuary and rolled out two Torah scrolls with the children holding them off the floor while the end of one and the beginning of the other were read; the look of awe on my grandsonâs face was wonderful to see. I wish all of the people who say that the grandchildren and children of interfaith marriages wonât be Jewish could have seen it.
My holidays began on an equal high, and thatâs saying a lot. Rabbi Allison Berry of Temple Shalom in Newton, Massachusetts gave a truly wonderful sermon,Â The View From Mt. Sinai â Building Our Inclusive Community. Recalling Jewish tradition that the people gathered at Mt. Sinai included generations past and future, she said âI was at Mt. Sinai. I was there, and so were you.â She said âall of us were part of the âŚ chain of tradition.â And then she made explicit who she was talking about, mentioning first by name the parents and children of an interfaith family (before mentioning her adopted Korean-American sister, an upcoming bat mitzvah who uses sign language, seniors and transgender people). Noting that nearly half of the Templeâs religious school students come from interfaith families, she said âyou are part of us. We appreciate the many ways you expand what it means to be JewishâŚ. We are honored you have chosen this community.â
Rabbi Berry is a rabbi who âgets it.â I wish the critics of interfaith marriage who say the Jewish community is already plenty welcoming to interfaith families would take this to heart: âIâve learned from experience there is a tremendous difference between being a welcoming community and being a community that actually includes. We need to allow our perceptions and assumptions to be challenged. We need to be vulnerable and sometimes uncomfortable. We need to be aware that language has the power to include or exclude.â
I was especially moved when Rabbi Berry quoted Rabbi Jonathan Sacks as saying âThe Jewish people is a living Sefer Torah [Torah scroll], and each of us is one of its letters.â While Rabbi Sacks is a brilliant Jewish scholar and teacher, he is a harsh critic of interfaith marriage; one of his many books,Â Will We Have Jewish Grandchildren, suggests he would be surprised that my grandson was just consecrated, and I donât think he would say there are letters in the Torah for partners of an interfaith marriage from different faith traditions, or for the children of mothers who are not Jewish. But Rabbi Berry does. She said that âSomewhere embedded on the scrolls behind me, in our ark, is the letter containingâ the story of the interfaith family she first mentioned;
We need more rabbis like Rabbi Berry whose deep-seated attitude is that there are letters in the Torah not just for every Jew, but for every Jewishly-engaged person.
It was quiet on the intermarriage front during the holidays. I was very pleased to be quoted in a greatÂ JTAÂ story aboutÂ How Mark Zuckerberg Is Embracing His Judaism; I had said in my last blog post, after Zuckerbergâs Facebook post that he had given his grandfatherâs Kiddush cup to his daughter, that âThe fact that such a super-influential couple clearly are making Jewish choices for their family is the best news with which to start the new year. Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan could really change the course of Jewish history if they got involved in efforts to engage interfaith families in Jewish life.â Iâd like to think there are letters in the Torah for Priscilla Chan and her children.
Before the holidays there was a lot of news aboutÂ developments in the Conservative movement. The leaders of the movement just today came out with aÂ statementÂ that affirms the movementâs invitation to partners from different faith traditions to convert, its prohibition on rabbis officiating at weddings of interfaith couples, and its desire to honor and include them:
There is a lot that is positive in this language. But with all respect, the stated reasoning behind the officiation prohibition â âHonoring the integrity of both partners in a wedding, and for the sake of deepening faithful Jewish livingâ â is misguided, in my view. The partner from a different faith tradition who wants a rabbi to officiate isnât dishonoring his or her integrity, and I believe it is clear that officiation leads to more faithful Jewish living, not less. They are saying, in effect, that that partner doesnât have a letter in the Torah unless he or she converts.
This post originally appeared onÂ www.edumundcase.comÂ and is reprinted with permission.
By Rabbi Robyn Frisch and Rabbi Malka Packer
Just like the approach of the secular new year, the approach of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year,Â is a great time to reflect on the past year and to make resolutions about how you can be better in the year ahead. (Click here to read how Jewish new year resolutions are different from secular new year resolutions.)
We propose that synagogues use this time to take stock of how theyâve been welcoming and inclusive to interfaith couples and families over the past year, and how they can be even more welcoming and inclusive in the year ahead. One way toÂ do this is to participate in InterfaithFamilyâs Interfaith Inclusion Leadership Initiative (IILI). But even for those not participating in IILI, this is a great time of year to come up with an action plan of how they can be more welcoming and inclusive. Below are suggestions based on a webinar on âLanguage and Opticsâ that we are presenting to IILI participants. These suggestions are the combined work of a number of InterfaithFamily staff members over the years based on our vast experience working with interfaith couples and families. What is your synagogueâs response to each of the following questions? Based on your responses, you can see where you have work to do.
Hopefully these questions can help guide your synagogue in institutional cheshbon nefesh (accounting of the soul) at this time of the year and encourage an action plan for becoming more welcoming and inclusive of interfaith couples and families in the year ahead.
To learn more about InterfaithFamilyâs Interfaith Inclusion Leadership Initiative click here.
This post originally appeared onÂ www.edumundcase.comÂ and is reprinted with permission
News in the past few weeks highlights the issue of where interfaith families might find genuinely welcoming Jewish communities.
First, I was so pleased to learn that Rev. Eleanor Harrison Bregman and Peter Bregman are being honored by Romemu, a thriving emerging spiritual community in Manhattan where Eleanor, an ordained United Church of Christ minister, works as Director of Multi-Faith Initiatives.
Thatâs right â an ordained Protestant minister on staff at a Jewish spiritual community, which Eleanor describes as committed to radical hospitality and inclusivity: âAt RomemuÂ theÂ diversity of traditions, voices, and practices in our midst is considered a gift that can support us all in living holy lives.âÂ I first met Eleanor when she was a well-received speaker at the Interfaith Opportunity Summit in October 2016; she talked about the âStrangers No Moreâ program she created to support interfaith families, couples, and those who are not Jewish at Romemu, and to expand the centrality of deep respect for all faith traditions there.
But thereâs more to that story, because I first met Peter Bregman in July 2004, when he was trying, unsuccessfully, to find a seminary where he could be ordained as a rabbi despite being intermarried. What an amazing arc of developments over the thirteen years since then. Now, Peter could be accepted at the trailblazing Reconstructionist Rabbinical College if he were applying at this time, and now, a trailblazing Romemu is demonstrating genuine welcoming of interfaith families by putting a minister on staff.
Second, and about the same time, the JTA ran an important and I think related story by Ben Sales, Outside the Synagogue, Intermarried are Forming Community With Each Other. He writes that interfaith couples are finding Jewish connection through a range of initiatives aimed at intermarried or unaffiliated couples, mentioning Honeymoon Israel and Circles of Welcome at the JCC Manhattan, among others.
Julie Wiener just wrote a great short history of the intermarriage debate for MyJewishLearning.com â one of her subtitles is âFrom Taboo to Commonplaceâ â that alludes to interfaith families finding community in new and alternative forms of organization when discussing resources for interfaith families.
As quoted by Sales, one participant in a program says âIt was nice to go to a group where everyone was in the same sort of boat. Thereâs a real dialogue rather than someone telling you their opinion of what your situation is.â One program creator says she wanted to enable couples that come from mixed religious backgrounds âto ask questions in a safe space.â
Sales quotes Jodi Bromberg, CEO of InterfaithFamily, as explaining that interfaith families that want to experience Jewish life have had to use other resources âbecause of the history of interfaith families not being welcoming and not being accepted.â (He could have added that InterfaithFamily/Your Community rabbis in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Washington DC are offering meet-ups, discussion groups and reunions that are attracting hundreds of interfaith couples.)
Sales also quotes Avi Rubel, co-CEO of Honeymoon Israel, as saying that âWhen it comes to building community and meeting other people, people want to bring their whole selvesâŚ in America that means being inclusive of [those who are not Jewish] and other friends.â I certainly agree with that. (The Pew Research Center coincidentally released a new report today about increased positive feelings Americans have for various religious groups, with Jews scoring the highest; Americans express warmer feelings toward religious groups when they are personally familiar with someone in the group, and 61 percent of Americans now say they know someone Jewish.)
Rubel also says that interfaith couples are âuncomfortable with settings that, by their nature, are not meant for [those who are not Jewish]âŚ.â â and thatâs more complicated, and raises a profound question, and brings me back to Romemu.
The profound question is whether Jewish organizations, including synagogues and emerging spiritual communities, âare not meant for [those who are not Jewish]â or, to eliminate the double negative, are meant for just Jews. Romemu obviously would not say âwe are not meant for [those who are not Jewish];â Eleanor says the diversity of traditions there is considered a gift that supports all. Romemu equally obviously would not say that is it meant only for Jews.
I believe that there are some synagogues that genuinely welcome interfaith families, and certainly that many more are trying to. But even Steven M. Cohen is quoted by Sales as acknowledging that the people who feel most welcome in synagogues are âthe people who fit the demographic of the active groupâ â referring to inmarried Jews with children. Moreover,
It follows from the fact that the new groups of intermarried couples by their nature are not âmeant for Jewsâ that they are welcoming spaces for interfaith couples, who are comfortable with other people like them. I believe that it is important for mainstream Jewish organizations, including synagogues and emerging spiritual communities, to decide that they are not âmeant for Jewsâ but instead are âmeant forâ Jews and their partners and all people who want to engage in Jewish traditions with other similarly engaged people. They are Jewish organizations not because they are âfor Jewsâ but because Jewish traditions are engaged in there. Starting from that perspective would naturally lead to taking steps to making those who do not come from a Jewish background not feel intimidated or like a minority, and being less dogmatic and open to contributions from different traditions. That must be what is happening at Romemu, and what needs to happen at many more Jewish organizations, and I believe is the kind of thinking behind the Reconstructionistsâ decision to ordain intermarried rabbis, too.
Thereâs an interesting exchange at the end of the JTA story. Rabbi Miriam Farber Wajnberg, who runs the Circles of Welcome program (and was another well-received speaker at the Interfaith Opportunity Summit) says intermarried Jews wonât remain forever separate, and sees her program âas a stepping-stone to a time when the larger community is more open to non-Jewish spouses.â She hopes her program wonât need to exist in the future.
But the couple quoted in the story says they feel a sense of belonging to the intermarried groups that have formed: âthese are the people who get usâŚ [t]his is our community.â The challenge for mainstream and emerging Jewish organizations is to make intermarried people feel about them, the way they feel about their intermarried groups. The starting point for that to happen is for organizations to decide they are for all who are interested, and then to demonstrate radical hospitality and inclusion.
Eleanor and Peter will be honored at Romemuâs benefit, âAwaken Your Voice,â on April 6, 2017. I hope the event will be a great success â it deserves to be.
This post originally appeared onÂ www.edumundcase.comÂ and is reprinted with permission
Itâs been quiet on the intermarriage front for a while; it feels like most peopleâs attention is understandably in the political realm these days. But in the past two weeks there has been interesting news and comment on intermarriage in the more traditional, conservative parts of the Jewish community.
When people talk about intermarriage, for example about the 72 percent rate of intermarriage since 2000 among non-Orthodox Jews, the general understanding is that intermarriage isnât much of a phenomenon in the Orthodox world. A fascinating blog post on intermarriage in the Orthodox world, The Rise of Interfaith Marriage in the Modern Orthodox Community, suggests that that may not be the case. The blogâs creator, Alan Brill, estimates that 7-8 percent of young Modern Orthodox Jews are intermarried, and says that âordinary Modern Orthodox Jews are talking about this topic,âŚâ He also says âcases of full Orthodox conversion âŚ are now quite common.â
Most of the blog post is a guest post by âRuvie,â a Modern Orthodox man, writing about his feelings about his sonâs marriage to someone who was not Jewish â feelings that arenât that different from those of many non-Orthodox Jews.
Ruvie says he is aware of five interfaith marriages in the past year and a half among children of his observant Modern Orthodox friends. âAll parents went through various stages of shame, anger, confusion and guilt.â âThis is something new and growing in the MO community.â He refers to estimates of 5 to 20 percent intermarriage rates in the Orthodox world.
Ruvie complains that there is a taboo about talking about intermarriage that no longer exists in other controversial topics in Orthodoxy, like homosexuality and people abandoning Orthodoxy:
Ruvie describes the reactions of his friends and himself:
It is very clear that Ruvieâs son may have left Modern Orthodoxy but has not left Jewish life. The officiating rabbi recommended that the young woman take an introduction to Judaism course and during the course she decided to undergo a Conservative conversion. Before the wedding the son asked the father to put up a mezuzah at his apartment; after the wedding the son asked his mother where he could ritually immerse their dishes.
It is also very clear that Ruvie prioritizes his relationship with ÂÂÂhis son:
Ruvieâs conclusion: âThere is a lack of open conversation and dialogue on this topic in our community. Letâs begin now.â
The Conservative movement currently restricts synagogue membership to Jews. The recent news, described in a JTA article, “Conservative movement proposes allowing non-jews as synagogue members,” is that the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (the association of Conservative synagogues) is asking the synagogues to vote in March to allow individual synagogues to decide whether to grant membership to those who are not Jewish. Rabbi Steven Wernick, head of USCJ, said that âthe current standards donât make sense in a world where many intermarried couples are active participants in Conservative congregationsâ and that âthe language of âonly Jews can be members of a synagogueâ makes it seem like [someone who is not Jewish] who is connected is not a member of that community.â
Rabbi Wernick also said that the USCJ is not changing the definition of who counts as Jewish: âWhat weâre trying to do with this is distinguish between community and covenant.â But Rabbi Chuck Simon, head of the Federation of Jewish Menâs Clubs and the most outspoken Conservative leader on intermarriage issues, recently created a pamphlet in which he essentially recommends that the Conservative movement adopt patrilineal descent. “The Elephant in the Room: Conservative Judaism and the Patrilineal Question.”
It will be interesting to see movement in the Modern Orthodox and the Conservative parts of the community toward more acceptance and welcoming of interfaith families.
There was also a piece on eJewishPhilanthropy about Hebrew Collegeâs new certificate program in Interfaith Families Jewish Engagement, and a positive comment by Phoebe Maltz Bovy in the Forward.
I am a rabbi and I love Christmastime. I love the twinkling lights in the cool dark nights. I love listening to carolers sing of joy and hope as I sip my spiced cider or hot chocolate. I love that everyone greets each other more than any other time of the year. (I am, however, terrified of Santa Claus because of a run in with a mall Santa as a child.) And one of my favorite songs is âIâm Dreaming of a White Christmas.â Itâs not my favorite because of its religious theme, or even because of its references to snow (Iâm an Arizona kid after all). Itâs my favorite because it was my dadâs favorite.
Hereâs a little backstory on my family: My dad converted to Judaism when he married his first wife, decades before I was born. All my life he was extremely committed to being Jewish and for the last several years of his life he was dedicated to Jewish study and worship at his local synagogue. But he sang that song like it was his personal anthem. We even had it playing on the stereo during the luncheon after his funeral. Iâm pretty sure that was the first (and last) time his synagogue has had Christmas music playing at a funeralâŚ and maybe the only time itâs ever played at any funeral in August. But it was his favorite, and now that itâs Christmastime again Iâm hearing it on the radio every day and thinking of my dad.
This year the first night of Hanukkah falls on Christmas Eve. Some people are very excited about this since it means that for the first time in decades Hanukkah has similar âstatusâ as Christmas. To some people it means that Jews still get to take advantage of Christmas shopping sales, which doesnât happen when Hanukkah falls in November. But for some interfaith families it is a source of a lot of conflict.
When the holidays are separate on the calendar it is easier to separate their celebrations. For my family, it doesnât matter that Hanukkah is on Christmas because Hanukkah is always on Thanksgiving for us. Growing up in a family that was geographically dispersed, Thanksgiving was the one weekend that we were all usually together. No matter when Hanukkah fell on the calendar, you could find us eating latkes and exchanging gifts on the Friday after Thanksgiving. In my family, Hanukkah was primarily about spending time with family, eating delicious food from family recipes, and presents.
To me, Hanukkah is a minor Jewish holiday from a religious perspective and does very little to define my Jewish identity. Which means that loving Christmastime does little to threaten my Jewish identity.
Because of my relationship with Hanukkah, when a friend recently asked me if it was OK for Jewish people to like Christmas movies and music, I chuckled thinking about my own annual tradition of watching âElfâ and my childhood memories of driving around town to see Christmas lights. And then I thought more closely about the question: IS it OK for Jewish people to like Christmas movies and music? What about lights? Trees?
As a Reform rabbi I do not feel it is my place to tell people whatâs âOKâ for them to do Jewishly. I do feel itâs my role to guide people along their path and offer expertise and opinions where appropriate. It is not my job to tell people not to listen to Christmas music, or not to have a tree or to keep kosher. It is my job to help people see how positive Jewish experience can impact your life and shape familiesâ lives.
When it comes to the winter holidays, there is so much more at play than religious beliefs. To one family Christmas music may symbolize songs of hope for a savior or faith in God. To another family it may symbolize beautiful melodies and joyful tunes. To me, it reminds me of my father who sung those songs with a huge smile and especially now that heâs gone, I want to listen to that music to remind me of him. I spoke with an interfaith family recently whose kids identify as Jewish, and who have a tree to honor one parentâs family tradition. They feel no guilt and they do not feel that having a tree in any way compromises their Jewish identity, but rather that it helps them represent their entire family.
Meanwhile, I hear rabbis and others tell scary tales of Christmas trees leading to diminishing Jewish communities and threatening Jewish identity. Iâve heard the sermons from rabbis who are committed to the survival of the Jewish people. Iâve read the articles describing how Jewish families (or interfaith families) having a Christmas tree is a threat to Jewish identity. I understand the argument that Jewish identity is important and the survival of Jewish community is essential. However, I believe that when many of our families are already embracing the tradition of the Christmas tree, despite the best efforts of some to discourage it, the real threat to our Jewish community is the dismissal and judgment of these families.
I think that if our Jewishness is defined by a tree or a movie or a song, we need to rethink our religious identity and spend the rest of the year strengthening it. There is more to a religious identity than physical symbols. It is about a way of life, a set of values and a tradition, and the ways in which we enact that tradition.
Recently, my colleague in Los Angles posted a question that piqued my interest on her personal Facebook page: “Did any of my Jewish professional friends grow up with a Christmas tree?” I knew where she was going with this. She was betting that a number of rabbis and Jewish educators had grown up in an interfaith family with a tree, or in a family with a Jewish parent or parents who had a tree for whatever reason, or they were Jews by choice who had grown up with a tree and became Jewish as an adult and then Jewish professionals. In any of these scenarios, having a tree did not deter them from becoming Jewish professionals. I had to delve into this!
So, I posted the same question with credit to Rabbi Keara and an amazing thing happened. There were over 50 comments made to my post, and they’re still coming in. I donât think I had that many comments when my children were born or when my Grandmother, of blessed memory, died.
The amazing thing is it started with Jewish professionals admitting that they had grown up with trees and how and why that was the case and then morphed into other Jewish friends who do not work in the Jewish world writing about having trees or not having trees. And, some people even wrote that they didnât have trees, which was as much a statement about attitudes on this subject as anything else people wrote because I had only asked to hear from people who did have a tree.
Here is what I conclude:
1. Â Many Jewish leaders grew up with a Christmas tree. Many interfaith families today raising children with Judaism have Christmas trees in their homes or at a close family memberâs home. There seems to be a disconnect between these two realities. Somehow interfaith families donât see their lives and reality always mirrored in the lives and reality of their clergy and educators.
2. Â Judaism from on high (Iâm not sure who or what this is or if most people can even articulate this. Itâs just a feeling or perception) seems to judge negatively Jewish families who have trees. This has not always been the case. There were times when many American Jews had trees and it was seen as typical and normative in their assimilating American Reform circles.
3. Â People who are active in Judaism today have amazing stories of interesting family dynamics and experiences and there could be more venues or formats for sharing our stories, learning from and seeing ourselves in one another. This would inform our way of transmitting Judaism if we understood more about the context and lens by which people were experiencing Jewish messages.
4. Â Symbols matter. The American flag is a symbol. We feel something when we see the flag. We feel something when we raise the flag at camp or when we see it at a sportâs event. We feel something when we see brand logos. The tree is symbolic. For many it symbolizes warmth, beauty, good memories, family time, gifts, glee and togetherness. It is all positive. If we tell those who love the tree that it is inconsistent with Judaism, they might hear that their warm family times (void of theology and religiosity, but maybe full of meaning and richness) is inconsistent with Judaism. This is confusing and hurtful. It puts people on the defensive and can lead to shame. It makes people feel they must justify the tree and argue for it lest they be seen as hurting a Judaism they are trying to perpetuate. It pits lay person against professional. It creates an us versus them.
5. Â If Jewish leaders said that the tree is secular (as the Supreme Court has declaredâthatâs why they can be erected in public spaces) or just stopped putting so much emotion into encouraging Jewish families to not have them, then there is a fear that the tree will become like a jack-o-lantern on Halloween and be deemed âsecular American.â Would Jewish families who had never had a tree suddenly feel free, open and welcome to try one? I have no idea. Maybe it would happen or maybe it wouldnât. Would Hanukkah practice be threatened by this? Is that our fear? What really is the fear?
6. Â This Facebook thread made me ask a question I come back to often which is, “What is the role I play as a Reform rabbi?” I do not believe I am a gatekeeper for Judaism. I do not believe I can tell people what to do in their Jewish expression as a one-size-fits-all or even most prescription.Â I believe I am supposed to inspire and inform, love and accept. Some things are outside the realm of Judaism. Some things are cool but are not Jewish. Sometimes Jewish leaders are afraid of what people want because we feel it will water down, taint and hurt an authentic, recognizableÂ Judaism.
This is the same fear that happens when a parent, letâs say, suggests that there could be more choice in Hebrew School such as having a tutor, or coming one day a week or trying other alternatives. The educator fears that âeveryoneâ will want a private tutor, so no changes are made. If there is a feeling that everyone wants something different than what is offered but the Jewish professional deems that desire âbadâ or âwrongâ or for âpeople who just want an easy way out,â then the people will make their own decisions and they wonât chose institutional Judaism. They will do it on their terms in ways that work for them. At a certain point the people decide and Judaism adapts and changes. If our communities are inspired, literate and invested, we should have no fear. We can trust.
I for one don’t get to decide if you have a tree, don’t have a tree, put a star on your tree or make s’mores latkes (this I recommend). I decide what my Jewish practice is and I work on this daily. I decide to hear you and try to understand you. May your holiday traditions be meaningful and lead to our defining what we are dedicated to (as the word Hanukkah reminds us to do). May I refrain from putting my judgment or my assumptions on your customs and allow you to define what they mean to you.
Iâve been spending a lot of time in the bathroom lately. Let me explain: Weâre potty training our twins. This past weekend I was in the bathroom every 20 minutes begging, pleading, praying for my kiddos to use the potty. We didnât always leave that room excited and hopeful, but when we did it was amazing. And when there was success, there was even a blessing:
Praise to You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who formed the human body with skill creating the bodyâs many pathways and openings. It is well known before Your throne of glory that if one of them be wrongly opened or closed, it would be impossible to endure and stand before You. Blessed are You, Adonai, who heals all flesh, working wondrously.
I donât generally recite this traditional âbathroom prayer,â but remembering that the body and its functions are a part of divine creation gives me a little bit more patience for my children as they learn to use their bodies. (For those of you in Jewish-Catholic relationships, thereâs no patron saint of potty training, I looked. There have been some moments I could use more entities to pray to.)
For me, potty training is an act of faith. For my twin toddlers, itâs tortureâunless they get to watch Daniel Tiger. Hearing Daniel and his friends sing the calm, uplifting tune of, âWhen you have to go potty, stop and go right awayâ motivates them and keeps them happy. When I start singing along, their faces light up. The hymnal of Daniel Tiger makes me forget my desperate desire to hear that familiar tinkle and a feeling of connection and joy overcomes the three of us sitting there in the crowded bathroom.
We repeat this ritual over and over, prompted by the ring of a timer. Excitement mingles with fear and anxiety as we all rush into the bathroom hoping for a positive outcome. We mostly know what to expect in there: sit in the same seat as last time, sing the same familiar song, pray to God for what we need and give praise often.
This isnât the spiritual practice Iâm used to, yet the ritual feels strikingly familiar. For most of my adult life Iâve engaged in the spiritual and religious practice of prayer that includes repeated ritual either alone or in a community. When the clock nears 6 pm on Friday or 10 am on Saturday I rush to the synagogue, sometimes with excitement and sometimes with anxiety or reluctance. The rabbi reads the familiar opening prayer that helps the congregation settle in.Â The cantor sings a song to raise our excitement for joining together in community, and smiles fill the room when a familiar song is shared. We continue in this ritual for an hour or so and then we leave the room and go on with our lives until the next time. Sometimes I leave the room feeling energized and excited, and sometimes I feel sad or dejected. But I know that I will return to that room and that ritual and have another opportunity to try it again and to feel that spiritual connection I so long for.
While the potty training ritual is messier, smellier and quicker, it has all the makings of a spiritual or religious practice. Every time I walk into that room with my toddlers, I hope and pray that we will all leave it excited and successful. I hope and pray that they will feel empowered and âgrown up.â In some ways it feels as though my higher power in that ritual is not the god I pray to regularly, but instead, my toddler or sometimes the potty chair that we have all come to worship. My prayers are directed at my little ones as I say, âYou can do it! Go pee-pee in the potty!â all the while praying silently, âPlease, please, please let her go pee in the potty this timeâ or âPlease God I donât want to clean up an accident right NEXT to the potty as soon as he stands up.â
These arenât (usually) the prayers I say in synagogue, but they are prayers. They are the language of my hopes and dreams, motivated by love and gratitude, and sometimes even fear.
Potty training is a hard and confusing task filled with extreme ups and downs. Weâre doing our best to muddle our way through and within an hour our moods can swing from wild desperation to joyous celebration. Potty training is an act of faith and the ritual helps us through when itâs hard and lets us celebrate when itâs great. One day my kids will be potty trained and will forget that this was ever something they struggled with. But until that time, Iâll have my prayers, Daniel Tiger and a large canister of Clorox wipes at the ready.
To read more about parenting, check out the InterfaithFamily Parenting Blog.
As I have admitted before, I see the whole world through an interfaith family lensÂ (see my past blog postÂ HERE). I am so uber-saturated in this work that I am always thinking about the experience of the partner who isnât Jewish who is connected to someone Jewish and what it means to have interfaith families as full members of congregations. So, when I was on a four-hour flight to meet with the other seven rabbis who direct InterfaithFamily offices around the country, I saw an ad that stopped me in my tracks. It is the new Kraft Macaroni & Cheese adÂ (which might understandably be torture to watch mid-way through Passover!).
The tag line is, âItâs changed, but it hasnât.â
What does mac & cheeseÂ have to do with supporting interfaith families exploring Jewish life, our tag line at IFF? When interfaith families are truly part of a community doing Jewish (notice I donât say Jewish communityâthis will be the subject of my next blog post), will the community and the experience of Judaism change? Will there be anything recognizable about Judaism in the generations to come? Will the recipe have changed so much that it becomes a different thing altogether? To continue the food analogy, will interfaith families be a sweetener and add something healthier for the overall enterprise of Judaism?
I hope that when interfaith families are members and leaders of their communities, everything will change for the better. We will frame liturgy and worship in new ways, cognizant that we need to give meaning because many people there are still learning (yesâthis should always be the approach, but interfaith families dictate this approach). We will continue to adapt and change liturgy as it feels outdated and offensive to our diverse communities.This has been the Reform tradition since the beginning. We say what we believe.
Much of prayer is poetry and isnât literal but is evocative. Our language will change and it should feel palpable. Those who visit a congregationâs website should sense change and it should feel inspiring and positive. We can look to the experience and narratives of those who didnât grow up with Judaism to enrich the context and lens by which Judaism is now taught and lived.
What do you think? When interfaith families are truly part and parcel of a community, do you sense that their inclusion changes the community over time? Can you point to the changes? Is it so normative at this point that we have a diverse community that we take this fact for granted and have moved past it in some way? As always, more questions than answers and lots of right answers.
I had a very interesting day yesterday.
It started with a phone interview with a graduate student in journalism writing a story about Jewish-Muslim relationships. She had a Jewish parent and a Muslim parent herself, and was involved with a group of young Jewish-Muslim couples. She told me that some of them had decided to raise their children with Judaism and some hadnât decided. I told her that at InterfaithFamily we are always interested in what influences some interfaith couples to get involved in Jewish life or not.
She said she thought that Jews were âexclusivistâ and told me that one couple in the group approached a rabbi, I think she said about conversion, and the rabbi made a comment about Arabs and breeding that was so derogatory I donât want to repeat it here. She couldnât see it, but my jaw dropped, it was such an insulting and ignorant comment.
But sadly I shouldnât have been surprised. I immediately thought of a good friend in the San Francisco Bay Area, not Jewish herself but active in her Reform synagogue, who reported last year that a woman at the synagogue said in her presence âwe Jews are dumbing ourselves down by intermarrying.â My friend â herself at the highest level of anyoneâs intelligence scale — was so shocked at how insulting the comment was that she couldnât immediately respond. And then I thought of a survey that a major city federation asked me to analyze a year or two ago in which one couple said that at a Reform synagogue someone who learned they were interfaith said âmaybe people like you would be more comfortableâ at some other synagogue. Itâs hard to believe that these comments are true â yet they keep on happening.
After the phone call I went to a terrific event at the Brown-RISD Hillel co-sponsored by the Genesis Prize, Hillel International and the Jewish Agency for Israel that featured Michael Douglas and Natan Sharansky talking about their Jewish journeys. I sat next to a man who asked me what I did and then told me his story. He grew up Orthodox, had a child with his first wife, got divorced, and then married a woman who is not Jewish. His wife doesnât intend to convert but she keeps a strictly kosher home and his grandchildren call her âbubbe.â But after he re-married his synagogue told him he couldnât have an aliyah (recite blessings before and after the Torah is read) any longer, so he left the synagogue.
This morning the Good Morning America team was talking about new variations of the Barbie doll and one of the correspondents said that her young children âdonât see colorâ meaning they donât distinguish other children based on race. Iâm not sure how widespread it is that people see people of other races as ânormal.â I do think that young children see different constellations of parents as ânormal;â I recently asked my 5-year-old grandson if one of âJoeâsâ two mothers wasnât a police officer, and I am quite sure he doesnât think twice about his classmates who have two mothers or two fathers.
All of this made me wonder if Jews will ever see ânon-Jewsâ and Jews marrying ânon-Jewsâ as ânormal.â At InterfaithFamily we try very hard not to use the term ânon-Jewâ which is why I put it in quotes; itâs off-putting and people donât identify as ânon-â anything. We prefer to say âpartners from different faith traditions.â But we keep on hearing people say ânon-Jewâ and itâs very use appears to support viewing the other as not ânormalâ â an Arab who breeds âŚ or ânon-Jewsâ who arenât smart â as well as penalizing Jews who marry them.
The last thing that happened yesterday was hearing Michael Douglas tell his story again. As he said last night, and in a great story in the Jewish Week last week, Michael Douglas was told his whole life that he wasnât Jewish because his mother wasnât Jewish. When the people from the Genesis Prize came to him and said they wanted to award him the Genesis Prize as an outstanding Jew, he said âthis is a mistake, Iâm not Jewish.â But his son has gotten the family interested, and became bar mitzvah, and they traveled to Israel, and the Genesis Prize people very wisely recognized the importance of making a statement that the Jewish community needs to recognize and welcome people who are the children of intermarriage or are intermarried themselves but engaging in Jewish life.
Dare I say that the Genesis Prize being awarded to Michael Douglas is a statement that Jews need to not only recognize and welcome, but normalize intermarriage, the children of intermarriage, Jews who intermarry and most important, the partners from different faith traditions married to Jews? It was a ray of hope to end a very interesting day.
âHold on sweetheart, mama needs to send an email.â
âOne minute baby, I really need to type something!â
Thankfully my boss understands when my emails have random letters and characters written in them since he also has a young child. Being a working mom is hard, but itâs also incredibly fulfilling. Being able to work from home is hard, but itâs also amazing. As I write this I hear my toddlers giggling with the nanny through the baby monitor. I know that I have an hour to work until the nanny leaves and hopefully they will be sleeping so I can squeeze some more work in today. Otherwise, Iâll send emails and schedule meetings after they go to sleep, over a glass of wine and perhaps while watching Project Runway.
Some days it feels like Iâm never getting anything done and some days it feels like Iâm always working. Some days I feel like Iâm giving my kids everything and some days it feels like I am ignoring them. Some days it feels like Iâm doing amazing things for the interfaith families and couples in LA. Some days it feels like the work I do will never be enough.
Some days my husband I are on the same page with our calendars, our child rearing techniques and our relationship. Some days we barely see each other and only have time to sing with the kids as we are putting them to bed right before we both fall asleep after an exhausting day of work. We treasure our Saturdays as the only day all four of us can do something as a family all day, but we also want to watch our Oregon Ducks play football.
During the fall months, we find ourselves asking: Do we go to kidâs services or the pumpkin patch with the one day my husband and I have off at the same time? Which is more important to imprinting my childrenâs identity? Tot Shabbat. They wonât remember either, but by taking them to synagogue and to celebrate Shabbat weâre teaching them the values that a pumpkin patch never could.
Having balance in the family doesnât mean everything is equal all the time. It means that sometimes the balance shifts heavy toward work, and sometimes it shifts heavy toward kids and every now and then it falls somewhere in the middle. I have learned that the most important yet most difficult part of the work/family balance is accepting the fact that it will need to be flexible.
âMama! Mama! Clap!â
âOK darling, letâs sing a song and clap together.â