The Real Menshes on Benches

I met two menshes on benches the Friday of Thanksgiving. You may now have the image of the Mensch on the Bench Hanukkah toy, but unlike this stuffed elf counterpart, these were true mensches.

One of the rules for this toy is that a “true mensch is one who puts smiles on other peoples’ faces.” The word mensch is Yiddish for human being. It means to be a true human; to live up to the depths of kindness, generosity, integrity and love that a human can muster. The two mensches I met put a smile on my face for sure.

My parents moved to Philadelphia over the summer from Boston to be near my youngest brother and his family. They joined Congregation Rodef Shalom which is near where they live. They joined because they had heard the synagogue was an architectural gem, which it is, that the clergy are accessible and warm, that the preaching and teaching is intellectually stimulating and that the worship is full of music and joy. As soon as they joined, another synagogue family called them and invited them out to dinner (which my parents were thrilled about since they don’t have any friends there yet). The synagogue staff greeted my parents at the door for several weeks after they moved to welcome them in and make sure they were getting acclimated. My parents were immediately swept off their feet with the ruach—the spirit—of the service. They kept telling me what a wonderful community this is. They love that each week there is a Shehecheyanu prayer sung after those in attendance share the good news that is happening in their lives.

Dickinson Park

Rabbi Ari and her kids at Dickinson Square Park

My family and I were visiting for Thanksgiving and my parents were so excited and proud to take us to their new temple. Well, my 5 and 7-year-old are not well behaved in synagogue. You might be surprised considering my husband is a pulpit rabbi and they go to synagogue a lot. My children are high energy, antsy, loud and boisterous. They get thirsty and have to pee a lot during services which requires them to go in and out of the sanctuary. They whine. They get hungry. No matter how many little activities and small snacks I bring, we have not fully mastered the art of sitting respectfully in synagogue with a “calm body” as we like to say.

On this Friday night, they were exhausted which mellowed them a little. But, my youngest ate through the whole hour long service (I so appreciated that the service was one hour including a Torah reading and short sermon). This synagogue has a quiet room where you can hear the service but people can’t hear us. However, we braved the actual sanctuary because my parents wanted the kids to try to fully participate. Wouldn’t you know, they did (sort of). When the time came to share a Shehecheyanu moment, my 5-year-old raised his hand for the microphone and said, “I am visiting my grandma and papa” which just made my parents kvell (swell with pride) and everyone in the community ooh and ahh with his cuteness.

During the Lecha Dodi prayer, they form a dancing chain and my children joined right in! The Rabbi made sure to welcome us specifically at the start of the service as well and he called my children up for the honor of helping to undress the Torah. Actively participating definitely helps one stay engaged, no matter how old you are. But, my kids were not perfect during that hour by any stretch of the imagination. There was a trail of popcorn under our seats to prove it.

After the service the two women sitting right behind us (on actual pews/benches) said, “Your children were such a delight. We loved their energy. We loved their dancing. They are so beautiful. What a joy to have you visiting.” They didn’t say, “Next time, you could try the Quiet Room.” Their response made me smile. It warmed my heart. It took a load off. I had been wondering how annoyed they would be sitting right behind us. It made me want to come back again. I told you I met two menshes on benches! They embodied what it means to be gracious, welcoming and empathetic.

Sukkot Reminds Us to Treat All Visitors as Honored Guests

This blog post was reprinted with permission from j., the Jewish news weekly of Northern California

Welcome at the doorI recently visited a San Francisco synagogue for the first time. I rang the bell and a teenage girl came to let me in.  She wasn’t working there; she was just doing her homework. She welcomed me with a warm smile and asked if she could help me. We chatted about her schoolwork and life at the synagogue, and then the rabbi came running out to meet me. He was in the middle of Bar Mitzvah lessons and apologized for his delay in welcoming me. He didn’t know I was a rabbi or what I was doing there; it appeared that this is how he welcomed anyone walking in the door. I explained that I was fine—just a bit early for a meeting. The night went on in this fashion. I have to admit that I was a bit flabbergasted. I had to wonder, why shouldn’t every encounter be this way?

What came to my mind that night is that this synagogue clearly practices and teaches what some have recently been calling audacious or radical hospitality. They went out of their way to make sure I was treated like an honored guest. This spirit of embrace is ingrained in their culture to the extent that even a teenager is among the initiated! We all know people who seem to go far above and beyond what might be considered polite or inclusive. And we know how encountering such an individual has the power to change our outlook. Those of us who work for Jewish organizations struggle to figure out how our institutions can reflect this value. We may have the best programs, the most beautiful services, the best school. But at the end of the day, what supersedes everything else is whether or not people feel in each and every personal encounter that they matter.

Sukkot is the Jewish season for nurturing this quality of openness in ourselves and our institutions. We move out of our homes into huts, and we invite people to join us in these temporary, yet holy spaces. The holiday goes by many names: the Feast of Booths, the Festival of Ingathering, and He-Chag (the holiday). But if we stress the injunction to welcome those in need into our sukkahs, we could also name it the Festival of Hospitality.

In a few weeks, we will read in the Torah about Abraham and Sarah in another kind of shelter, their tent in Mamre [Gen.18]. Three strangers passed through, and amidst a culture in which a stranger could be a major threat, they invited them in. They rushed to greet them, washed their feet, and fed them. The strangers turned out to be angels telling Sarah of her pregnancy. But the beauty of the story is that Sarah and Abraham had no idea that their visitors were divine guests. This is how they treated everyone they met. A midrash on the apocryphal book of Jubilees makes this connection between the holiday of Sukkot and Abraham and Sarah’s hospitality clear. It tells us that part of their preparations for their holy guests was, in fact, building the first sukkah to shelter them.

What would the world look like if we treated everyone we encountered as worthy of our attention? What would our Jewish communities look like if every person who walked through a door were greeted like Abraham and Sarah’s guests? What would the world look like if we treated even people we don’t know across the globe with that degree of humanity?

Sukkot is the holiday of the open tent. It seems it should be the most accessible holiday, but unfortunately it is also one of the harder holidays to celebrate. Not everyone has the space or strength to build a sukkah. If you are fortunate enough to have one, imitate Abraham and Sarah during the remaining days of the holiday and welcome someone who has never been to a sukkah or doesn’t think he knows enough about Judaism to partake. There is a kabbalistic custom to invite ushpizin, ancestral, transcendent guests, into the sukkah.  But even more important is filling your sukkah with real, flesh-and-blood visitors. This Sukkot, may we go above and beyond to make people feel like the divine guests that they are—when they enter our institutions, our work, our homes and our tents.

Creating Positive Community Memories

Community

This year on Rosh Hashanah, our synagogue tried something new. All of the kids were invited onto the bima to witness the blowing of the shofar. It was amazing to watch the kids’ faces while the shofar sounded. My daughter even jumped back a little at the sound initially. It was a sight to behold on many levels. First, I loved seeing all of the kids at the synagogue. Most of them were in awe of the Torahs, the Rabbi and the shofar. Second, when I spoke to my son later, he said he never realized that there were that many people at the synagogue. He seemed impressed that there were that many people observing the holidays. Since he attends a school with very few Jewish kids, he felt excited that “he wasn’t the only one” observing the holiday. Third, the Rabbi said that the twisting shape of the shofar is like life – there are ups and downs, twists and turns that keep going on a unique journey. Again, watching the kids comprehend this concept was gratifying.

I know that for a long time, synagogues would keep the kids in a different area of the building during services so they didn’t disrupt the adults and the prayers (I suspect the parents liked having a “break” from the kids, too). Some congregations create a group that prays and another group that discusses. There may be another group for the teenagers and another group for the toddlers. Unfortunately, some kids grow up thinking that synagogue is just for kids. I think that this is all fine and good but at some point, we should all be together.

I learn so much from the whole community: from my kids, from my friend’s 92- year-old-grandmother, and from the pleasant gentleman two rows back with a great smile. Our kids should see what their future looks like and we should look back on our childhood with wonderful memories. The good memories are what keep us going so we can manage the twists and turns of life.

Many people are part of the community of their neighborhood, preschool, elementary school, gym or office. I find that these communities are wonderful but fleeting; the people move, the kids grow up, the gym down the street offers a better deal or people get new jobs. The Jewish community is a little different on the holidays. No one has to send out an invitation, but lots of people show up to celebrate the holiday. We see families grow up and evolve. A hug from an old friend is commonplace. We may hear a tune that reminds us of a relative or humorous incident from childhood.

I know that many communities have a Jewish Community Center (JCC) which is a great place to find community. While I am not a member of a JCC, I find that my Jewish community IS my center. It is the most consistent presence in my life besides family. I don’t love everyone there but I enjoy a little something of everyone, young and old. Best of all, we all are collecting and reliving some very positive memories.

Interfaith Language Sensitivity

Speech bubbleWe here at InterfaithFamily believe, like the rabbis of old, that language is extremely important. The rabbis of the Talmud wrote about the power of words. God created the world with words. God said, “Let there be…” and there was. The rabbis said that to embarrass someone was akin to killing their soul (bringing blood to the face). They spoke against lashon harah (gossip—literally the evil tongue). There are prayers about guarding our tongues from evil and our lips from deceit. The Amidah, the central prayer in the Jewish worship service, begins with a line asking God to open our lips that our mouth can declare God’s glory. The old adage, “sticks and stones can break our bones but words can never hurt us” is indeed not very Jewish. The words “thing” and “word” in Hebrew share the same root “d’var” teaching that our words create reality.

It is because words are so important that you may notice that we avoid using the term, “non-Jew” because we don’t promote the idea that someone can be a “non-entity.” We rather say, “someone not Jewish.” You may feel that this is just semantics, but we disagree.

Many Jewish institutions ask people if they are affiliated with a congregation on membership forms and surveys. The Jewish world wants to know who is a member of a synagogue and what behaviors they have as opposed to people who are not members of a synagogue. We are also interested in tracking synagogue membership for dozens of other reasons (although the topic of another blog, I personally believe it is extremely difficult to raise children with Judaism without the help of a congregation or organized community whether school, community center or chavurah).

Here are my top five reasons for not using the word “unaffiliated” anymore:

  1. This is an insider Jewish professional term that creates even more distance between the paid leaders and the people. Sometimes people do not know what it means to be “affiliated” and thus again on Jewish flyers and brochures are words and sentiments that don’t ring a bell or resonate and can make people feel like outsiders.
  2. Affiliation is a euphemism (don’t you love euphemisms?) meaning that someone pays synagogue dues. In rare cases, someone may feel so connected to a Jewish Community Center that they feel they “go” there or “belong” there but by and large this term is asking if someone is a member of a synagogue. If we want to know if someone goes to a synagogue, we should ask that and then explain why “we” want to know that.
  3. People may be affiliated with many different things that bring them closer to Judaism and this question, implying synagogue membership, is outdated, not nuanced and doesn’t refer to the interesting places people go and what that brings them there. For instance, some people are affiliated with or connected to secular non-profits like food depositories, animal shelters, hospitals and educational programs. Volunteer work for these causes brings sacred purpose and is done in the name of tikkun olam (repairing our broken world).
  4. Some people have been turned off by synagogues and being asked over and over whether they are affiliated with a synagogue can feel like a reminder that they are outsiders, or even different from “good” Jews and that their disconnect is problematic. Maybe we should be asking people what synagogues could offer or feel like, and whether they would like to have clergy in their lives for counseling, life cycle events and learning opportunities. It’s not that people don’t want this. They are not sure if they will find these things in synagogues.
  5. Jewish leaders have a goal of increasing affiliation rates. There are many reasons for this. Interfaith families connected to congregations typically have high levels of Jewish behavior like celebrating holidays, sending children to religious school, etc. Jewish leaders want to ensure that people are “doing Jewish” because it is a civilization and a way of life worthy of living and passing on, and because we care about Jewish continuity. I think synagogues, in theory (and many in practice), are definitely the best vehicles for helping people live Jewishly and pass it on to the next generation. But because it is “positive” to be affiliated, it can be interpreted as “negative” to be unaffiliated, as though one is harming the Jewish people. Nobody wants to wear or own a negative label or have a finger pointed at them.

Language matters. Labels matter. This is how people end up feeling connected or disconnected. If we stop calling people “unaffiliated” and start talking about who they are, what they are interested in or what would make them want to join or help create an organized Jewish community, we may find more answers.

Ask the Big Questions

10QWhen I was young, my sister taught me one of the most important things I needed to know about the High Holy Days: Always ask the big questions.

As kids, we attended services with the adults since child-friendly services hadn’t been invented yet. It was long. Really long. Now I lead services and understand why there is so much liturgy. But as teenagers it was tough to sit attentively for that long. My sister always brought a book with her to synagogue. But it wasn’t to pass the time, and it was not just any book. She felt that during the High Holy Days, we should be exploring the depths of religious and philosophical literature about the meaning of life. It was usually someone like Buber, Frankl, Hegel or Heidegger.

She loved finding the same themes they wrote about in the prayer book, and every now and then she would point out to me some kernel of wisdom she’d found or question that came up for her in one book or the other and we would ponder that in whispers for a while. What are we here for? Is there such a thing as a soul? What happens when we die and what makes us so afraid of it? She understood the true meaning of the season: to contemplate life, mortality and purpose. As I grew up, I started to see Rosh Hashanah and especially Yom Kippur as Judaism’s personal therapy session. When do we to put aside entire days to just focus on ourselves and the meaning of life?

My sister taught me that the Holy Days are about asking the big questions of life and death. Those questions are imbedded in our liturgy, but it can be hard to tease them out. These days, there are new prayer books that contain insightful meditations and commentary on each page. If you go to services, allow your eyes to wander all over the page, and allow your mind to wander where it needs to go. Things that come up while sitting in services are probably coming up for a good reason, and are pointing you to the work you need to do this year. If you don’t attend services, there are lots of ways to get into the High Holy Day spirit.

One Jewish organization, Reboot, has a great suggestion for digging deeply. It is called 10Q, for “ten questions.” There are ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur that are meant as a time to reflect on the year past and the year to come. 10Q puts a modern twist on this tradition and asks you (digitally) a big question every day during that period about your life plans, goals, relationships and how you relate to world events of the day.  People of any background can use them to delve deeply with their broad, spiritual questions. And in case the craziness of the intervening year causes you to forget what matters most to you, they will send you your responses before Rosh Hashanah of 2015.

However you mark the days of reflection coming up, try to not let them just go by. Whether you spend these days in nature, in synagogue, at home or work, take some time to ask yourself the big questions.

How I Chose Judaism for My Interfaith Family

Jillian with her sister and mother

Family tradition: Jillian (top) with her sister and mother on her grandfather's boat in Ipswich, MA after clamming, circa 1992

“Mom, Dad, I want to go to Hebrew School.” This was the simple phrase of 7-year-old me that changed the course of my life and the religious life of my family.

When I was in second grade my best friend, Julie invited me to come with her to Hebrew School after school one day. Being the kind of kid who loved school and learning, it didn’t take much convincing and a week or so later, I sat with Julie in her Hebrew School classroom, totally enthralled. When I came home that evening and announced to my parents with the innocent certainty belonging only to 7-year-olds that I wanted to continue attending Hebrew School, I can only imagine the sort of parental conversation that ensued after I went to sleep that evening.

You see, my mother was raised Catholic on the North Shore of Massachusetts and my father was raised a conservative Jew in New Jersey, although neither had much affinity for any sort of religion. They met at Northeastern University in the late 60s. They were hippies, they attended anti-war rallies and Woodstock and were married in a hotel in Boston by a justice of the peace. They didn’t give much or any thought to religion even after I was born ten years later.

When I was growing up, we celebrated a variety of holidays in very secular ways; cultural celebrations marked by food or family gatherings. I don’t remember really talking about religion at all until I decided that I wanted to attend Hebrew School and my parents had to make decisions that they perhaps did not want to make. Once I began Hebrew school and we had to join a synagogue, my whole family was welcomed into a warm and friendly community. Both of my parents served on various committees and my sister and I attended religious school and participated in youth group through the end of high school.

Jillian at her ordination

Jillian (second from right) with her sister, mother and father at her ordination from HUC-JIR Rabbinical School in 2012

While I didn’t really understand it at the time, I know now how amazing my parents are to have allowed and encouraged me to follow my Jewish path, despite their own personal reservations. Perhaps it should have been no surprise to them or me, after essentially choosing Judaism for my whole family, that I would choose Judaism over and over again and choose to make Judaism my life’s work by becoming a rabbi.

And now I find myself happily in my mom’s home state, as the new Director of InterfaithFamily/Boston, hoping to meet all kinds of people and families as you navigate your religious life and look to find ways to connect.

My story may be unique, but then, so is yours and I look forward to hearing all of them (contact me at jillianc@interfaithfamily.com). I truly believe that the great strength of Judaism is its continued evolution and the growing diversity of our population will only add to the color, richness and relevance of Judaism for generations to come.

Wanted: Members

The Chancellor of the Conservative Movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary wrote a recent article which appeared in the Wall Street Journal titled “Wanted: Converts to Judaism.” In the article, Eisen writes, “I am asking the rabbis of the Conservative movement to use every means to explicitly and strongly advocate for conversion, bringing potential converts close and actively making the case for them to commit to Judaism. I am asking Jewish leaders to provide the funding needed for programs, courses and initiatives that will place conversion at the center of Jewish consciousness and the community’s agenda.”

I can just see it now: When you enter a Conservative synagogue, there will be billboards that will say, “Have you considered conversion to Judaism?” Partners who are not Jewish but are part of a Jewish family and raising children with Judaism may want to run the other way or hide for fear of being encouraged to convert when they have not expressed a desire or openness to do so.

Today I spoke with someone whose husband describes himself as “Jew-ish.” He has no other faith or religion in his life today in his mind or heart or soul. He is raising a Jewish son and is enjoying the journey immensely. He leaves work early each month for a family Shabbat experience at our local JCC. He already dreams about his son’s bar mitzvah. He does not want to convert at the present time. He feels that it would hurt his family to become a different religion. He feels it is too much of a break from his family of origin and too drastic. He loved his upbringing and feels close to his extended family and this seems like it would cause unnecessary pain to them.

Instead of using “every means to explicitly and strongly advocate for conversion,” why not explicitly and strongly say that when an interfaith family joins a congregation, then the partner who isn’t Jewish has become a “member of the community.” Being a “member of the community” would be a status granted because this person is making a statement that the majority of American Jews are not making any more. That statement is that Judaism is best lived in community and that for the community to exist we need structures that can house and support learning, worship, life cycle events, pastoral care and social justice work. When an interfaith family joins a congregation, the surveys indicate they behave similarly to in-married families. The synagogue is a vehicle for Jewish behavior and Jewish continuity.

When someone becomes a “member,” he or she will hopefully be enticed to want more learning and may even want the spiritual experience that most liberal Jews have not enjoyed of immersing in a mikveh. I would encourage any liberal Jew to immerse in a mikveh when they as adults have chosen Judaism by supporting a congregation or raising children with Judaism.

Joining a congregation can be a prohibitive financial pursuit and thus there are people who want to join who can’t. Our money should be going to creating different synagogue financial structures, not toward funding programs aimed at conversion. This looks at people in only two categories—Jewish or not Jewish. The statement Eisen is making is that we want all those in our community to be “Jews.” This doesn’t take into account that for a partner who is not Jewish to join a congregation, it means that they are more than “not Jewish.” And they don’t need to be changed in order to live as Jews and to enrich the Jewish community.

Finding a Jewish Community that Feels Like Home

HBT mother and daughter

Photo courtesy of HBT

Temple Hillel B’nai Torah (HBT) is a Reconstructionist congregation located in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, a middle-class Boston neighborhood just minutes from Newton and Brookline. HBT is a welcoming, egalitarian, multicultural and inclusive spiritual community, which I observed firsthand when I was a substitute religious school teacher there a few years back. As with any synagogue, worship is a focal point, but this community also dedicates much of its time and resources to social justice and being responsive to the broader world in which we live.

If you are looking for an inclusive Jewish spiritual community in the Greater Boston area, Temple Hillel B’nai Torah is an exceptional option. Even if you aren’t in search of a temple to join, but simply an inclusive Jewish space for an occasional holiday or social program to attend, HBT’s vibrant community strives to make visitors feel right at home.

I recently interviewed Hillel B’nai Torah’s rabbi, Barbara Penzner. Rabbi Penzner is an exceptional spiritual and community leader. Below she shares insight pertaining to interfaith families at HBT, as well as the congregation’s values around inclusion.

Sukkot

Learning about Sukkot with Rabbi Penzner. Photo courtesy of HBT

What are some of the insights you have learned from working with interfaith families at HBT?

In my 19 years at Temple Hillel B’nai Torah, I have observed many different kinds of families. In some families, both parents are active participants while in others, only one parent maintains a strong connection to our community. It’s interesting that these differences do not divide easily between families with two Jewish parents, interfaith families or even families where one parent has converted to Judaism.

In one family, the mother never converted, but because she committed to raising children in the Jewish tradition—before the marriage—the boys both attended Jewish day school. In another family, the father who is not Jewish remains committed to his personal faith while attending every Jewish function with his family. Many of those who decided to convert to Judaism waited until their children were old enough to urge them to “take the plunge” and celebrated with them at the mikveh.

What policies or practices does HBT institute pertaining to interfaith families?

In the late 1990s, our congregation spent a year discussing the roles for members who aren’t Jewish in order to clarify our expectations for participation in ritual and governance. We all agreed that we wanted to include all family members for celebrations like a bar/bat mitzvah. The entire family stands together on the bimah for these occasions, and both parents give their child blessings, if they choose.

Our goal is to make our congregation a haven and a home, a place where people feel welcome no matter what their background: interfaith, multi-racial, LGBT and other seekers. Our bottom line is that we hope each member is willing to learn and grow.

What programming do you offer that supports and addresses the needs/concerns of interfaith families? How have those initiatives or programs helped the community and those families/couples?

In recent years, a new group of families with young children have asked for a special group to help them deal with the challenges of raising children when parents have different religious backgrounds. Our group began as a gathering for interfaith couples. By the second year, we realized that the questions we were grappling with were valuable to all parents. We renamed the group “Parenting through Our Differences.” The group has discussed observing Jewish holidays, responding to the demands of extended family members, dealing with death and mourning in a Jewish way, and of course, navigating the December holidays

What brings you the most joy about your work, particularly your leadership around diversity and inclusion?

Lately I’ve enjoyed spending time with young couples who are preparing to marry and wish to explore the complexities of creating an interfaith family. I have watched couples navigate the dynamics of family and community that inevitably raise questions about the meaning of family, identity, religion and God. These are not easy questions and the answers are not straightforward.

What gives me faith in the future is the intention these couples bring and the open-heartedness with which they discuss their challenges. That, after all, is what religion is ultimately about. How we live out our religious practices and how we name our faith springs forth from our own personal truth; without that honest self-assessment, religion is only window-dressing. Ideally, our community seeks to foster these heartfelt investigations and create bonds of compassion and support.

On Sunday, November 9, HBT will be featuring scholar Keren McGinity, author of Still Jewish: A History of Women and Intermarriage in America to speak about her new book Marrying Out: Jewish Men, Intermarriage and Fatherhood

“Belonging” as a Parent with a Jewish Son

Stacie and family

Stacie, her husband Andrew and Sammy, the day of the aliyah

This past weekend, our 5-month-old son was formally welcomed into our synagogue community when our family was honored with an aliyah (being called to the honor of Torah). Our rabbi offered blessings, everyone sang “Siman tov u’mazel tov” and we talked about how Sammy got his name. He is named in honor of both of his grandfathers and we described the qualities we hope he will inherit from each: creativity, curiosity, intellect, humor and a big heart.

It was wonderful for us to celebrate the birth of our son together with our synagogue community and receive their congratulations. Every new parent needs all the support they can get!

But it also made me think about a comment my husband, who is not Jewish, made to me a few months ago. He said that now that he is raising a Jewish son, he feels like he is connected to and belongs to the Jewish people in a stronger way.

This comment surprised me a little because I thought he already felt like he belonged. After all, we’ve been celebrating Jewish holidays together since we started dating, we regularly attend neighborhood Shabbat dinner potlucks, and say Hamotzi (the blessing over bread) before dinner each night. Even when I was pregnant and not fasting, my husband decided to keep the fast during Yom Kippur anyway!

But then I thought about it. Being married to a Jewish woman is one thing. Committing yourself to raising a Jewish child is another. It is an awesome responsibility, and I hope, an opportunity. How wonderful that fulfilling that role has brought my husband closer to Judaism!

I hope that as we move through our life together and reach various Jewish milestones of Sammy’s—starting Hebrew school, having a Bar Mitzvah, being confirmed—that this sense of belonging is reinforced by our synagogue community and continues to grow. There are opportunities to invite both of us in as parents—Jewish and not Jewish—to learn along with Sammy and share in the lessons from Hebrew school; to think about the deeper meaning of becoming a Bar Mitzvah and taking on the responsibilities of a Jewish adult; and to engage with the synagogue community.

From our experience so far in our synagogue, I have faith that there will be a place for both of us as Sammy’s parents. Even during the aliyah, there was an alternate blessing for my husband to recite that acknowledges his different and special relationship to Torah while I recited the traditional blessings. I hope that continues to be the case for us, and I hope that all interfaith families have the opportunity to feel like they “belong” to the Jewish people.

When Traditional Hebrew School Just Isn’t a Good Fit

My childhood synagogue, Temple Or Rishon, was a hodgepodge of Jews and interfaith families, all of whom were happy to find a Jewish home in an otherwise Christian and Seventh Day Adventist area. Despite the Jewish community in Sacramento being very small, I feel blessed that I grew up in an incredibly eclectic and inclusive Reform synagogue in Orangevale, California.

I wish that more people could have such an affirming Jewish religious and/or community experience in their childhood—and adulthood as well. But synagogue-based religious life and education isn’t a good fit for everyone, for a variety of reasons.

While I am the Jew and leader that I am today in large part because of the synagogue in which I grew up, I recognize that day schools and synagogues don’t work for all Jews. There are other models where families can find Jewish learning and community. So where can Jews in the Greater Boston area send their children for formal Jewish education?

BJEP students

BJEP student theater

Enter BJEP, the Boston-Area Jewish Education Program.

BJEP provides an excellent alternative to traditional synagogue-based Hebrew school. The Boston-Area Jewish Education Program is a welcoming, independent and unaffiliated Sunday school located on the Brandeis campus in Waltham, MA. Brandeis University undergrad and grad students apply their knowledge and passion by teaching BJEP’s first through seventh grade students. The program embraces Greater Boston families from all backgrounds (interfaith, interracial, LGBT, varying Jewish denominations) interested in learning Hebrew and exploring Jewish traditions, values and culture.

Experiential learning and Jewish arts and culture are central to their program. They offer extended day options so students can learn modern Hebrew, Jewish dance and Jewish theater. BJEP also offers adult learning and family education, runs High Holiday services and provides bar and bat mitzvah support. Headed by Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari as the education director, BJEP is organized and funded by the parents of students enrolled in the school and is governed by a volunteer parent board of directors. For more information, visit www.bjep.com.

AriThis past weekend, Hebrew College ordained a new graduating class of talented and committed rabbinical and cantorial students—mazel tov! Among them is Ari Lev Fornari, the newly-hired BJEP Director. He comes to BJEP with a dynamic and ambitious vision.

“BJEP is a vibrant community of learners and teachers, including multi-faith, multi-racial and LGBTQ families. We share a desire to create and transmit a Judaism that is relevant and meaningful. A Judaism that celebrates the many constellations of family. BJEP is a place where young people learn to value difference, curiosity and critical thinking. It is a place of imagination, creativity and play.

I was drawn to BJEP because of its out-of-the-box approach to Jewish education and its commitment to making Judaism real and meaningful. Traditionally there were different models for how to organize Jewish communal life. One of them was prayer, which grew into the synagogue model. Another was learning, known as the Heder. I see BJEP reinventing a model of Jewish community built around learning. It is my hope that as we grow the program, it will increasingly become a place of intergenerational learning, where we can support families on their Jewish and spiritual journeys.”

I’m thrilled that InterfaithFamily/Boston will have the privilege of working with Ari Lev to support BJEP’s interfaith families in the coming school year!