Is the Jewish Community a Mean Girl?

  

Mean girls

“The organized Jewish community is nothing more than the mean girls from high school.”

What?! I think I literally stopped breathing for a moment. Could it be true? I knew this lovely person across from me believed what she was saying. So I wondered, “Could this community that brings me so much joy and comfort be unknowingly treating some individuals as though they are lesser than?”

Feeling compelled to learn the truth, I started asking around: Does the community ever look at you with eyes of judgment instead of acceptance; act unwelcoming to other’s differences; create distinctions and groupings—with some in and some out? Holy sh*t! Organized Jewish community can be just like the mean girls to those who don’t fit its idea of what normative participants should look like. And this realization now drives my work as director of InterfaithFamily/Bay Area.

Yes, it might stem from our own inner fears about our future, but the Jewish community can be the worst kind of mean kids. We can make others feel unaccepted, unimportant and unwelcome; and then we pretend it’s all in their minds.

Every day. Every year. We look at interfaith families and, sometimes purposefully and sometimes accidentally, with both verbal and nonverbal ques, we question their presence, their legitimacy and their worth.

Since beginning my work with IFF a few months ago, I have heard several painstaking revelations from a large variety of individuals, some Jewish, some who love Jews and some who are raising Jews. Each of these souls sat with me and shared deep pain. This pain came from the words and actions of clergy, staff, lay leaders and other participants in the congregations, schools and organizations these families looked to for community. One told me, “I had never experienced discrimination until I tried to embed myself in the Jewish community.” And another said, “Whatever I do, whatever I say—it’s never enough. They’ll never accept me.”

Obviously, this is hard to hear. Some of you are probably thinking it doesn’t apply to you, or your congregation, your organization. If only that were true.

Even while trying to be welcoming, many Jewish institutions still make interfaith families feel as though they’re lacking. We embrace them, to a point. Welcome them in, but speak about how their choices are flawed or problematic. As one person told me, “Conditional welcoming is not welcoming.” Or another who told me that welcoming her, while subtly pushing conversion, made her feel like her congregation was saying she wasn’t welcome as she was. Or as she put it, “It’s like they said, go ahead and lose 10 pounds and then we’ll hang out with you.”

Or we institute a don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy inviting everyone in, but offering unwritten rules that things such as Christmas trees should never be spoken about out loud. We say, just come: Everyone is welcome as you are, but then in an effort to not make distinctions between people we fail to provide proper instruction or explanation to the masses. As one mother told me, “It’s like I asked how to get to the kiddie pool and I was thrown into the deep end, with no life jacket.”

I have been blown away by the stories I’ve heard and the judgment some of our families and couples feel. And I am a rabbi who works for a Jewish organization. If people are interacting with me, they are trying. They are choosing to engage with Judaism and Jewish community enough that they’re at the dinner table with me.

Even a Jewish family, raising Jewish children, embracing Jewish community is accustomed to disrespectful comments and glances if they are intercultural, interracial or if one hasn’t formally converted to Judaism. Even though they are committed to Judaism in their home, they may receive strange looks and questions that imply we believe they are secretly turning their children away from Judaism. Let me clarify – they are not.

There are interfaith families in every congregation who are active Jewish community members and who, whether you know it or not, never converted. They are members of our religious school committee and regular service attendees. They are devoted to their family’s Jewish identity, even if they themselves are from different faith backgrounds. I fear we hurt these incredible souls the most, for they hear all of the unguarded and offhand comments which denigrate interfaith couples. As one person told me, “The part I don’t normally tell people is that it wasn’t a stranger who said it to me, it was a friend. A friend. I couldn’t respond. I couldn’t speak.”

When will these Jewish families feel like they’re not second-class citizens? Only when we stop treating them as such.

I get that this feels complicated and painful. I understand loving Judaism so much that you only want what’s best for her future. Here’s the thing—nothing excuses causing another pain. We need to love Judaism enough to know she will offer beautiful and wonderful lessons and rituals that will enrich people’s lives. That’s how Judaism will thrive through generations, not by shutting doors and creating barriers.

If we really want to be good Jews, we’ll remember to welcome our guests (hachnasat orchim), to prioritize love (ahavah) and respect (kavod), to offer respectful communication (shmirat halashon), to support creating peace in the home (shalom bayit) and loving our neighbors as ourselves (v’ahavta l’reacha kamocha).

May we always elevate the values of knowing a whole person (kaf zechut), of offering explanations and choosing our words wisely so as not to embarrass or leave anyone out (lo levayesh) and may we never gossip or insult (lo lashon hara), whether we believe they may hear us or not.

If we embrace who our tradition truly wants us to be, the members of the organized Jewish community will transform from mean girls to ambassadors. We will offer guidance, excitement, connection and true community. When we use our hearts for love, true welcome will flow forth.

Objective Social Science?

  

Taking a closer look at research and being objectiveThis post originally appeared on www.edumundcase.com and is reprinted with permission.

Michelle Shain, a researcher at the Cohen Center at Brandeis, has written a very damaging article about the Cohen Center’s game-changing study, Under the Chuppah: Rabbinic Officiation and Intermarriage, about which I’ve said, “The many rabbis who don’t officiate at weddings of interfaith couples because they think those couples won’t engage in Jewish life no longer have that leg to stand on.” Shain says she is a social scientist and wants people to understand exactly what the study demonstrates and what it does not—but she picks and chooses pieces of the study that support the apparent intention of her article to support maintaining Conservative rabbis’ opposition to officiation for interfaith couples.

The key findings of the study were that interfaith couples who had a rabbi as sole officiant were far more likely to join synagogues and raise their children as Jews. Shain’s main point is that those who chose to have a rabbi had richer Jewish experiences, so that the “logical conclusion is that their stronger pre-existing Jewish commitments led them both to seek a rabbi to officiate at their weddings and to engage in Jewish life after their weddings.” She says that on four measures, including having a special meal on Shabbat, there was no difference between couples who had a rabbi and those who did not after controlling for the pre-existing differences.

What she doesn’t say is that the study says (at p. 21) that after controlling for pre-existing differences, “intermarried couples who married with a sole Jewish officiant were still significantly more engaged in Jewish life than other intermarried couples on many of the outcomes discussed above. In particular, they were significantly more likely to raise their oldest child Jewish by religion, enroll children in a Jewish early childhood education setting, belong to a synagogue, attend religious services, celebrate Jewish holidays, participate in Jewish community activities, donate to Jewish or Israeli causes, and talk to family and friends about Judaism.” (emphasis added)

Shain also stretches to mention—without citation—a 2010 study that she says shows that officiating rabbis don’t have subsequent contact with couples, and take the standard pot-shot that without a random sample survey, no one can say anything about the impact of officiation on subsequent Jewish engagement.

Shain like anyone else is entitled to her views on policy, but is it appropriate to position oneself as an objective, dispassionate researcher and be selective like this? Conservative rabbis who oppose officiation have already made the pre-existing differences argument, and now have support from a researcher at the Cohen Center itself, when the key findings about raising children and synagogue membership aren’t touched by that argument.

I would urge Conservative rabbis to consider what the study very carefully does say, without claiming causation: ““Interactions with Jewish clergy in preparation for the wedding may serve to welcome the non-Jewish partner into Judaism, establish the groundwork for a continuing relationship, and affirm the couple’s prior decision to raise a Jewish family. However, the opposite may also be true. Rejection by Jewish clergy may serve to dissuade couples from pursuing other Jewish commitments and connections.” That is entirely consistent with common sense and experience, which sometimes are as important as research.

Fortunately, there have been five very positive responses to intermarriage in recent weeks — you can read about them here.

Postscript September 19
Len Saxe and Fern Chertok have an excellent response in eJewishPhilanthropy, Neither Fact Nor Fallacy.

Resolutions Your Synagogue Can Make This Rosh Hashanah

  

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, 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 they’ve 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 to do this is to participate in InterfaithFamily’s 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 “Language and Optics” 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 synagogue’s response to each of the following questions? Based on your responses, you can see where you have work to do.

  • Does your synagogue’s website have photos that present the diversity of your community—including people of color, members of LGBTQ families, mixed-race families, etc.? While presenting diversity, you also want to be sure to be honest and make sure to present your community as it actually is, not how it aspires to be.
  • Are all Hebrew words and Jewish “insider terms” that you use on your website translated and transliterated?
  • Is there an explicit statement on your website letting interfaith couples and families know that you want them to be part of your community?
  • Does your website have resources and links to resources (such as interfaithfamily.com) for interfaith couples and families?
  • Who can be a member of your synagogue? Where are membership policies stated? Are they clearly stated on the website or in a pamphlet/brochure?
  • Who can be on which committees in your synagogue and who can hold leadership roles? Where is this stated? On the website or in a pamphlet/brochure?
  • Are printed ritual policies with explanations accessible? Where are they? On the website? In a pamphlet/brochure? In a b’nai mitzvah manual? Do you also have clearly stated policies on all of the following:
    1. What role can parents and other family members, who are not Jewish, have during a baby naming?
    2. What role can parents and other family members, who are not Jewish, have during a bar/bat mitzvah?
    3. Can members who are not Jewish open the ark?
    4. If there is a synagogue cemetery (or local cemetery), can family members who are not Jewish be buried there?
  • Does your religious school handbook include information about children from interfaith homes?
  • Does your b’nai mitzvah handbook include information about interfaith families and extended family from other backgrounds?
  • Are resources for interfaith families (such as InterfaithFamily’s booklets on a variety of topics) set out and easily accessible?
  • Is there a guide to your Shabbat service available for those who aren’t comfortable with the service (b’nai mitzvah guests and others)?

 

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 InterfaithFamily’s Interfaith Inclusion Leadership Initiative click here.

Hybrid Identity, Every Person Counts, Shifting Boundaries and Intermarriage on TV

  

Women talking together.

This post originally appeared on www.edumundcase.com and is reprinted with permission

Rabbi Darren Kleinberg has written a very important essay published in eJewishPhilanthropy this week, Hybrid Judaism: The Transformation of American Jewish Identity. Kleinberg was ordained as an Orthodox rabbi in 2005 but describes himself as no longer Orthodox. He writes that identity is not a psychological category that describes who one “is,” but rather a sociological category that describes one’s affiliations, the product of social interactions. As our interactions have become more complex, so does our identity, which he says is best described as “hybrid.”

Given this reality, it is fair to state that the binary distinction between Jew and non-Jew is an increasingly ineffective way to describe those people found in and outside of the American Jewish community.

[W]hat matters is whether people wish to be affiliated with the Jewish community, not how, or to what extent, they choose to identify themselves – after all, affiliation is identity. If we are able to do this, our Jewish communities will grow, even as their constitution will likely undergo significant change.

One practical consequence: Kleinberg recommends that synagogues that are not bound by Jewish law should remove all distinctions among participants so that those who do not self-identify as Jewish but affiliate with the Jewish community through a synagogue (for example, a spouse from a different faith tradition) should have full access to all ritual and leadership opportunities.

This is an essay that is well worth reading.

Rabbi Mychal Copeland, Director of InterfaithFamily/Bay Area, wrote How Reporting Made Me a Better Rabbi for eJewishPhilanthropy also this week. She writes that tracking and recording interactions reflects that every person is important and every encounter can be profound. Keeping track reminds her to follow up, and people are shocked and overwhelmingly grateful that she gave them time and followed up with them.

Many of us profess a commitment to radical hospitality, but are we living it? When I am compiling my reports, I ask myself: Did I go above and beyond what I needed to do to make sure this individual I am “counting” feels embraced? If they were to reflect on our encounter, would they feel they had been respected and seen as a holy being? Did they leave the interaction feeling more connected to Judaism and our community? If they are outside the scope of my organization’s mandate, have I done all I can to connect them elsewhere? Did anyone fall off my radar?

Mychal writes that an “every person counts” mentality is “our best shot as a Jewish community to speak to younger generations yearning for connection and individual attention. In the end, everyone wants to feel like they matter.”

She also writes that InterfaithFamily “strive to be the Jewish organization that says ‘yes’ after people have heard too many ‘no’s.’ That doesn’t mean we don’t have our own boundaries as individual professionals or as an organization. It means that we say ‘yes’ to having a deep interaction regardless of what someone seeks.”

The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism has passed a resolution to “allow individual congregations to decide whether to grant membership to non-Jews.” Some Conservative synagogues were already accepting as members people from different faith traditions, but the practice has now been officially sanctioned. Rabbi Stewart Vogel, treasurer of the Rabbinical Assembly (the Conservative rabbis’ association) and vice chair of USCJ’s Commission on Community and Covenant which considers ways to engage interfaith couples, said “The Rabbinical Assembly believes in the idea that synagogue life should be open to those who wish to be part of the Jewish community and we are enriched by their presence.” The JTA article on the membership change noted,

The Conservative movement prohibits its rabbis from marrying or attending the wedding ceremonies of interfaith couples, though some of its synagogues celebrate intermarriages before they occur and welcome the couples afterward. In recent years, several Conservative rabbis have protested the intermarriage prohibition.

Two articles in February in the New York Jewish Week and the New Jersey Jewish News describe tensions in the Conservative movement over interfaith issues.

Finally, the TV show Switched at Birth has a new story line involving a Jewish woman married to a Christian man, and the man’s mother. The mother-in-law wants her new grandchild baptized, the mother doesn’t, the father is in between.  ‘Switched at Birth’ gets an interfaith marriage dilemma just right.

Hoping to convince Lily to agree to the baptism, Katherine [the mother-in-law] invites her minister to explain the details of the ritual. It backfires. “I just sat there growing more and more uncomfortable. Hearing that reverend say ‘Christ’ a million times, I have never felt more Jewish in my life,” Lily tells Toby afterwards.

Even though she isn’t religious, Lily realizes Judaism is an important part of her identity and she wants that for her son as well. “Jews are defined by being other than. Not Christian. For me you’re either Jewish different from the rest of the world and proud of it or you’re not. And I’m Jewish,” she says….

Lily perfectly explains the cultural bond Jews feel towards each other: “We have our own history. Our own language. Our own food. Our own sense of humor. And everyone who is Jewish is bonded by that and I want my son to be in that little circle with me.”

Toby and his parents eventually come to terms with Lily raising Carlton Jewish. but they acknowledge they have a lot of learning to do. Toby says he will be taking some classes in Judaism, and Katherine responds that she will also.

There are of course different patterns of behaviors that interfaith couples follow to resolve issues like how to raise their children with religious traditions. The review makes this couple sound very unambiguous, and the mother-in-law very tolerant. But it sounds worth watching.

Jason Segel: “The Dumbest Thing You Can Do For a Kid”

  
Jason Segel

Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images

In Marc Maron’s recent podcast “WTF,” he interviews Jason Segel (of How I Met Your Mother fame) at length and touches on his interfaith upbringing early on. (The interview itself begins at 14 minutes in, and the conversation turns to religion at about 15 ½ minutes.)

Segel’s father is Christian and his mother is Jewish, and he tells Maron, “Neither of them are religious. So they made this decision that they were going to let me decide, which is like the dumbest thing you can do for a kid. Because you don’t really care [at that age].”

He goes on to say, “At Christian school you’re the Jewish kid and at Hebrew school you’re the Christian kid. I think that’s the nature of groups.”

It’s not surprising that Haaretz picked up on the message that being a “half-Jew” (their words, not ours—we do not promote this term) equaled “outsider” for Segel. Being brought up with two religions does not work for everyone, and perhaps having parents who Segel did not consider religious themselves, he didn’t have the necessary context for religion at home that is necessary to form a religious identity.

Susan Katz Miller takes issue with Haartez’s framing of the interview: “Clearly, by leading with this idea [of interfaith equals outsider], the intent was to use Segel’s story as a cautionary tale, warning parents away from dual-faith education, or from interfaith marriage in general.”

The argument that raising children in an interfaith family can lead to them not identifying as Jewish is nothing new. And Katz Miller makes some good points in response to this assertion, including:

“Yes, it is essential for interfaith children to have support for integrating two (or more) cultures in their families, rather than bouncing back and forth between two separate religious worlds.”

Katz Miller touches on the danger in simply being dropped into two different religious institutions without enough context at home or awareness within the religious institutions themselves about interfaith families. We don’t know exactly what Segel’s religious life was like at home, but it sounds like there might not have been much reinforcement of what he was learning outside the home. At InterfaithFamily, we try to educate parents and offer many ways to boost their knowledge of Judaism and how to do Jewish at home, so that a child has a framework for what they are learning and why it’s important to their family. And we work to help Jewish organizations create a welcoming environment where kids will feel they belong–regardless of their background.

Chicago Synagogues Are Showing Their Support

  

Super heroesI 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 bat mitzvah outside the realm of an “organized” community. These people are often labeled as “unaffiliated” as if they are hurting the Jewish pursuit in America. I think that however people find Judaism and pass it on is important and should not be marginalized or demeaned. However, for many people who want their children to be raised with Judaism, joining a synagogue would be the easiest and most effective way to fulfill that holy objective (which is a pursuit that takes a lifetime, which is why leaving after bar/bat mitzvah is so problematic for continuity).

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!

Anshe Emet Synaogue

Bayit

Beth Chaverim Humanistic Jewish Community

Beth Tikvah Congregation

Center for Jewish Genetics

Congregation Kneseth Israel

Congregation Or Chadash

Congregation Or Shalom

Congregation Solel

Congregation Sukkat Shalom

Emanuel Congregation

Ezra Habonim Niles Township

JCC Chicago

JUF Right Start

KAM Isaiah Israel Congregation

Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation

Makom Shalom

Mishkan Chicago

North Shore Congregation Israel

PJ Library Chicago

Shir Hadash

Temple Beth-El

Temple Chai

Temple Jeremiah

Time to Junk Jewish Jargon?

  

You’re at a social or family gathering when someone starts throwing around a bunch of Jewish gobblygook you don’t understand. One guy is talking about a cool, new “minyan” in town and you’re picturing this guy.

Minion

Someone else is talking about her “boobie” and you wonder if this is really too intimate a conversation for a party (Bubbie = Yiddish for Grandmother). Has this ever happened to you? A few minutes into a conversation among people who are Jewishly identified, and you’re likely to hear a little Yiddish, maybe bits of Hebrew or references to things that would be obscure outside of a Jewish context. Jews love Jewish jargon. Even some who aren’t Jewish love it (Check out Ed Begley Jr. turning on the Yiddish in the film, A Mighty Wind).

Some throw around Jewish jargon without realizing it and assume everyone understands. It is just part and parcel of being immersed in a civilization with a particular set of texts, languages, history and cultural terminology. They might feel that a Jewish context—a Jewish Community Center, synagogue or Jewish home—is a place where they can let their pent-up inner Jew run free. Jewish jargon can signal in-group solidarity as well. To be honest, though, I think others use it so they sound “in the know” or to purposely alienate someone else—which is unfortunate.

Whether intended or not, the result of Jewish insider-speak is that it can alienate people who aren’t Jewish and often even those who are. Judaism often seems like a club for the initiated. But we are becoming so diverse that one can’t expect even in Jewish places that everyone shares a common knowledge base anymore. And with the growing numbers of intermarried couples involved in Jewish life, there are bound to be a significant portion of people at any given Jewish happening who weren’t raised with Judaism.

I am hearing more and more often that if the Jewish community wants to be truly welcoming of interfaith couples, we need to make sure people don’t feel alienated by insider-speak, and that we should eliminate or curb some of our Jewish particularisms. Some even think that since we don’t want to create situations that make people stand out as unknowledgeable, we might want to tone down Hebrew in services to make them more universal. I remember speaking with one interfaith couple in which the partner who isn’t Jewish felt this way, remarking that he’ll never feel comfortable in a space where there is so much Hebrew because it’s not welcoming to him.

To become a truly welcoming Jewish community, do we need to become, well, a little less Jewish? Is it time to junk Jewish jargon?

Absolutely not. Judaism can be both welcoming and uniquely Jewish. My grandparents and parents grew up in the American melting pot era. Anyone “different,” including Jews, tried to play down their uniqueness and blend in. But we live in a very different time. We wouldn’t dream of asking any other minority, ethnic or religious group to abandon the very particulars that make it unique. In fact, most of us find these differences among us to be the interesting byproducts of living in a multi-cultural society (and maybe even what attracted us to our partners who come from a different background!).

So why would we rob Judaism of what makes it Jewish? Contemporary Judaism is more and more open to anyone who wants to be a part of it, and we are enriched by the diversity of people who are being drawn to Jewish life. That may mean that we can no longer assume we are all in on the jargon. But it doesn’t mean we have to dilute it. Instead, here are a few suggestions to make Judaism more welcoming while retaining its unique flavor, and some others that might help those less knowledgeable about Jewish life navigate Jewish jargon moments.

WHEN YOU’RE FEELING “IN THE KNOW”:

Translate. Does your mother-in-law talk about the machatenem (the other set of parents-in-law)? Whether you’re speaking at a party or speaking from the bima, take a page from our InterfaithFamily website. We always hyperlink words that might not be known (point in case: bima).  What if we all talked this way, offering subtle explanations just in case someone needs it? The worst that can happen is that everyone nods as if to say, “We already know.” Far better than the alternative: making someone feel that he or she is the only one who doesn’t.

Explain. You never know if people have the same cultural or religious contexts you do, so it’s always a good idea to explain what you mean when talking about ideas particular to a certain field or group of people.

Transliterate. Hebrew, Aramaic, Yiddish and Ladino are hallmarks of our rich, Jewish cultures. Let’s not abandon them. Instead, transliterate as a regular practice—whether it is a synagogue handout or a wedding booklet.

WHEN YOU’RE NOT FEELING “IN THE KNOW”:

Ask for help. If you are in need of more contextual information to make sense of something that was said, don’t be scared to ask for an explanation. You will be reminding the speaker that not everyone shares her or his knowledge and you may be saving the next listener from the same situation. Don’t just continue to nod as if you know—Judaism is a tradition with thousands of years of history, text and language. No one knows it all—even the person who’s speaking.

Don’t apologize. You have vast areas of knowledge that others don’t possess. There is nothing wrong, embarrassing or shameful about not knowing something!

Be open to learning. Judaism is a rich and complex tradition. Don’t assume that something within it isn’t meant for you. Delve in and learn something new or try to follow along in the transliterated Hebrew. Give it a try rather than expecting Judaism to cut out the pieces you don’t yet understand.

As our society and our families become more diverse, we are in the wonderful position of celebrating rather than diminishing our differences. So go ahead…embrace what is yours and learn about what isn’t. It’s a mechiah! (A great relief or blessing.)

The Temple Where I “Grew Up”

  

The other day I saw a rabbi I know post a YouTube link to one of my favorite versions of the prayer, Hashkiveinu. Hashkiveinu is one word in English but means, “Grant that we may lie down” in Hebrew. In Hebrew, prefixes and suffixes are attached to the word. It is a petitionary prayer to be able to lie down in peace at night and to return to renewed life the following day.

Rabbi Rothman

Rabbi Murray I. Rothman

The link on Facebook to the video caught my eye for two reasons: As I said, I love this musical rendition of this prayer. Also, this rabbi serves the congregation where I grew up, Temple Shalom of Newton, MA.

What does it mean to grow up at a synagogue? For me, I had heard stories from my dad about how his parents were among the earliest members. My dad had his Bar Mitzvah at this synagogue. I was named as an infant there. The senior rabbi at the time, Murray I. Rothman, of blessed memory, got my family through a horrendous time when my mother was struck by a car crossing the street in front of our house. My little brother was 1, my middle brother was 3 and I was a kindergartner. My mother could not get up the stairs of our house for almost a year. She was bedridden on a couch in our den. My father somehow managed the three of us. Neighbors and family came to the rescue. And Rabbi Rothman came to that den every Friday afternoon with a challah and a Torah commentary and studied a little Torah with my mom. This kept her going spiritually and emotionally.

What does it mean to grow up at a synagogue? I knew the halls of that place. I knew the smells, the classrooms, the chapel, the sanctuary, the bathrooms, the youth lounge, the social hall—I knew the building. My confirmation class photograph is on the wall there. In fact, I sat in the Rabbi’s study on more than one occasion philosophizing about God and Judaism (true, I was into this stuff, even as a kid). I felt at home there. I slept there in a sleeping bag on the floor as a teenager at a “shul-in.” I remember the Temple Shalom sukkah in detail even though the last time I helped decorate one was at least 20 years ago. I can still feel the pride I felt praying with my family in the sanctuary on the High Holidays, wearing my new dress. I can see my brothers as I write this, quietly folding the flyers and tickets into origami to keep occupied during the services.

Temple Shalom of Newton

Some say bricks and mortar don’t matter. Buildings are passé. We’ve got coffee houses now. Millennials don’t want to walk into synagogues. Too many barriers. A building fund is too onerous for members to carry. What’s important are the people. The community. This is also true. But, I loved that building and it went through changes and renovations and has a life of its own. I think one reason I felt so connected to the building was that I could walk there from my house. That is how we got to and from Hebrew School. It is rare today for kids to walk places by themselves (at least not as young as we used to). I loved that independence, and going to a place I felt was totally safe and mine.

What does it mean to grow up at a synagogue? It means you know the people. We knew the people who worked in the office, the maintenance crew, the teachers, the educators and the rabbis. These were the people who lived in the temple as far as I was concerned. They were the familiar faces who knew us by name. They were welcoming and warm. They kept the temple going. And, my friends were there. We came together from multiple public schools. We grew up there together. We came to one another’s Bar and Bat Mitzvah services. We had our parties in the synagogue social hall. My parents knew the other parents and the kids.

I learned to read Hebrew there. I may not have known how to translate each word into English but I learned to read the Hebrew prayers in Hebrew fluently by about fifth grade. I kept the old blue Gates of Prayer Book—the Reform Movement’s prayer book—on my nightstand growing up, which I received from Temple Shalom. A nameplate was placed in it for me at my Bat Mitzvah. I read the prayers to myself at night and they were a source of comfort.

My parents have now moved to Philadelphia to be near my little brother’s family. We have no ties to this building anymore. We don’t know many people who still go there. Yet, all these years later, when I see a Facebook post from Temple Shalom, it catches my eye. It makes me smile to see the new life that is there now. It is a part of me.

I marry lots of people who “grew up at an area congregation” but they left after their Bar or Bat Mitzvah. Maybe they have great and deep memories of being there. Maybe they barely remember their time there.

The only way one feels a sense of growing up in a synagogue is if you are there a lot and get really involved. I am thankful this was the case for me and my family growing up. It’s never too late to go back. It’s never too late to try a new congregation. Interfaith families are welcome at congregations, often with wide open arms.

Look through our listings for congregations that explicitly welcome interfaith couples and families, and check out this list of organizations hosting InterfaithFamily Shabbat events this month!

An Inclusive Holiday Wish

  

My Facebook feed tends to get filled with rabbis and other Jewish professionals’ lives. This is the circle I run in. Around the holidays, lots of these people offer well wishes to their Facebook friends.

“To all my Jewish friends, may it be an easy fast.” What’s wrong with this statement? Anything? Am I too sensitive about language?

My friends were just trying to direct their message only to those who observe the Jewish holidays. Innocent enough. But when I read wishes like this I cringe. I cringe because many, many partners of Jews who are not themselves Jewish also fast (for example). They also sit in contemplative meditation for hours in synagogue. They celebrate lots of aspects of Jewish holidays. And, they don’t just go through the motions. They find participation to be personally edifying and meaningful. Not to mention that “going through the motions” is easier said than done. Try bringing yourself way out of a comfort zone by attending a religious service offered in another language with lots of foreign ethnic and cultural references. The experience, depending on the welcome one receives, the research one has done ahead of time and the mind-set one has, can be isolating, confusing and uncomfortable or interesting, inspiring and eye opening.

A wish to Jews for a happy holiday is not malicious or meant to leave out interfaith couples and families. But, it may be insensitive and potentially hurtful. It doesn’t take into account that the Jewish community is now made up of those brought up with Judaism, those newer to Judaism and those who are not Jewish at all, but who observe Jewish practices with their partner or family. This is our diverse, wonderful community. If we forget that a large number of the people in our pews and at our programs are not Jewish and fail to acknowledge and see these people for who they are and the contributions, insights and passion they can bring to our community, we are diluting our resources by a good percentage.

If we could change our thinking about who is in the Jewish community, our sensitivity would carry over when we meet with interfaith couples, listen to the journeys families are on, think about our worship experiences and pay attention to the language we use. If our wishes on Facebook and in person would be for anyone who will be part of a Jewish holiday experience to find beauty, redemption, meaning and sacred purpose and so much more, then we give the Jewish civilization the credit it deserves for being such a rich, inspiring way of life.

“It is a tree of life to all who grasp it, and whoever holds on to it is happy; its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all of its paths are peace.” (Proverbs 3:17-18)

To all who find themselves in the Jewish holiday spirit this time of year, may you find happiness and peace.

Open Doors on Beacon Hill

  

Front of Vilna ShulNestled within Boston’s picturesque Beacon Hill neighborhood, the Vilna Shul is a gem that the city is lucky to have. The cultural center opens its doors widely to the entire Boston community, offering substantive Jewish programming, dynamic historical and contemporary exhibits and an egalitarian minyan (a Jewish prayer group).

In this interview, which is as fascinating as the Vilna Shul itself, Program Manager Jessica Antoline discusses what sets the Vilna Shul apart from many organizations, and provides a glimpse into the uniquely honest and well-rounded framework with which the shul’s staff coordinates programming.

The Vilna Shul continues to honor its long multicultural history and has been a wonderfully inclusive space for Jewish interfaith and interracial families to celebrate life cycle events and participate in programming.

 


What sets the Vilna Shul apart from other organizations and spiritual communities?

There are so many things! I like to think that the Vilna stands apart for three reasons:

1. On a historical level, we are it—the last synagogue from the era that brought most Jews to Boston (1880-1924). It’s an era that changed the city entirely, and we are the only place where you can learn about the Jewish contribution to that change.

2. We are also a hybrid organization, functioning both spiritually and culturally when we need to. We are non-denominational and open to all walks of Jewish life. Just to give you an example, we can have a Shabbat one day and a lecture on the rise of Jewish atheists the next. It’s very exciting.

3. I like to think that all of us at the Vilna try to share a realistic rather than idealistic Jewish story. We love to tell the happy stories, but we will never shy away from the dark sides of Jewish history. Jews are humans. We can both build up and break the world so easily. As I like to say to our visitors, Jewish people are all pieces of one dynamic culture worth celebrating. But we were never a people apart, never a people who stayed static in our actions or philosophies. Like every person we have our light and dark sides to our history. Like every people we need to evaluate who we are and what we are doing in and for this world. At the Vilna, we challenge what it means to be Jewish, what Jewish traditions and histories are and where they come from without any judgment or criticism. Through this open line of communication, I like to think we help strengthen people’s understanding of themselves and their community.

Purim at Vilna Shul

Purim at the Vilna Shul in 2014

What are the ways in which interfaith families and couples have enriched the Vilna Shul?

They help us keep our focus and ensure that we are doing our job. At the Vilna Shul our mission is to preserve and share Jewish culture in ways that are open and accessible to everyone, Jewish or not. What is the Vilna if it is not offering the public what it wants and needs? It becomes just a building without any life. Interfaith couples and families bring new perspectives, lead members of the community to think closely about their words and actions, and help everyone understand each other on a level far deeper than if they were absent from the community.

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

All of our programming is open to interfaith families. Generally when it comes to addressing their needs, we do it within programs during the planning process rather than hosting programs about interfaith issues. (We know that is your field, not ours!) We ensure that every program we offer can be accessed equally by those who identify as Jewish and those who do not.  From having words in transliteration and translation to working specifically with scholars, historians, musicians and others who are experienced in working with diverse groups, we always try to answer the question “would I understand this concept if I lived outside of a Jewish context?” before bringing a program to the public.

Our Havurah on the Hill Shabbats and holiday celebrations are an excellent example of this. HOH was designed to be accessible to everyone. It’s actually the number one thing people love about the program. The young Jews who attend come from many backgrounds: children of traditional Jewish backgrounds, children of interfaith parents, couples who are interfaith but considering a Jewish path, Reform, Orthodox, Conservative, secular…everything!

In your experience or based upon what members/visitors have told you, what are the salient considerations regarding interfaith families that the Vilna Shul takes into consideration when making institutional decisions or developing programming and education?

Language is always a consideration, based on what our community has told us. They appreciate that we try to make everything we do accessible so we always consider that when making a program. They also appreciate when we bring in many histories based on who is in the audience. For example, if we know that someone attending a program may have a friend, child, or partner who is Catholic-Irish or Hindu or Baptist African American, we try and take the time to make reference to their histories and any connections they have to Jewish history.

What brings you the most joy in your work, particularly your and the Vilna Shul’s leadership around diversity and inclusion?

Actually, what I just talked about brings me the most joy. Being open to everyone, being known as a safe, accessible place to talk about all aspects of Jewish culture, makes me love my job. No one is here to define your Jewishness for you. Instead, you are given access to information and a non-judgmental atmosphere. You must decide the rest! Sounds easy, right? But the pursuit of knowledge and freedom of choice are such difficult paths to take.

I smile when I see interfaith couples getting married at the Vilna. I love seeing a child of an interfaith and intercultural relationship shine as they read from the Torah during their bar or bat mitzvah. My heart soars when a Muslim student tells me he finally found a place and a person to ask the questions he was holding inside for so long.