Connecting Interfaith Families to Jewish Life in Greater Cleveland by providing programs and opportunities for interfaith families to experience Judaism in a variety of venues, meet other interfaith families, and to connect to other Jewish organizations that may serve their needs.
A great way for Jewish professionals and volunteers who work with and provide programming for people in interfaith relationships to locate resources and trainings to build more welcome into their Jewish communities; connect with and learn from each other; and publicize and enhance their programs and services.
I love synagogues, in theory and many in reality. I have blogged before about my enduring connections with the congregation where I grew up, even though I haven’t lived in that community for over twenty years. I have written about just stopping in to congregations and hanging out there. Most recently, I wrote about my experience in my parent’s new congregation. I don’t think liberal Judaism can survive in America without synagogues. I am all for new and different models for congregations, like Mishkan Chicago. There are several congregations in Chicago with alternative dues structures and different religious school models like Sukkat Shalom.
I believe liberal Jews in America need a structure by which we can educate our children, join together for holidays and share in social justice pursuits. We need programs and classes that add meaning to our lives and help us infuse Judaism into the busy rhythm of our days. True, there are individuals who hire Jewish teachers to educate their children and to teach Hebrew and there are people who create individual and personalized life cycle ceremonies like bar and 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!
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.
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 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 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.
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.
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.
Nestled 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 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.
I have a tradition with a friend whose birthday is also in April, of going out for lobster to celebrate. This is the fourth year we have done this. She is a former synagogue president and Jewish volunteer and as you know, I am a rabbi. I do not promote or broadcast my decision not to keep kosher (each liberal Jew has to learn about and make an educated, autonomous choice about how to practice Judaism) and for some, keeping kosher is a daily reminder about ethical living, environmentalism, animal rights, our sacred responsibility to feed the hungry, choices we are making about the food we consume and the blessings around us all the time.
Ari (right) with her server, Josh S.
Our server’s name was Josh S. We told Josh S. that this was our “un-kosher” birthday lunch and we were hungry and excited to eat! He chuckled. During the meal my friend was telling me about how her son, who married a Catholic woman, just got baptized over Easter as a Hebrew Catholic. It was with some sadness, internal wrestling and wonderment that she shared this news with me. She and her family attended his baptism and her son cried tears of joy and relief that his family supported him through his spiritual and religious journey.
My friend knows that some other mothers would have said, “love is lost and you are no longer my son,” and other mothers would have said, “love is not lost, but I can’t come to your ceremony.” Her son was an active Reform Jew his whole life and even sought out his local synagogue when he was living on his own after college. He did not feel he was greeted there with warmth, welcome or interest from anyone in the community as a newcomer. When he went to church with his wife, however, he was greeted with retreat opportunities to get to know others in a relaxed, fun and engaging atmosphere. He was greeted with love and open arms. We spoke about the need for radical cultural shifts in many synagogues to become a place not of “membership” like a private club, but “My House Shall Be a House of Prayer for All People” as is emblazed across Chicago Sinai a verse from Isaiah, for instance. My friend has come to a beautiful place of acceptance and peace because her child is happy.
At the end of our two-pound lobster lunch (in addition to multiple coleslaws and garlic bread—yes we felt a little sick!) our waiter came with the check. Something made me ask him about being “Josh S.” He explained that he was the new Josh and had to have his last initial on his name tag. He went on to tell us that the S. stands for Schwartz and his Dad is Jewish and mom is Catholic. He was raised Catholic but certainly feels close to his Jewish side of the family. He spoke about going to his grandma’s for holidays and of Jewish foods. He told me he was open to talking more and learning more about InterfaithFamily/Chicago. He said he was confused or conflicted at times growing up, but as an adult has a religious identity.
Oh, I have so many questions for this young man. Are there any ways the Jewish community could be accessible to him if he wants to learn about his heritage? I am going to suggest a Taste of Judaism class among other ideas. He shared his email address so that we can continue the conversation. I taught him the Yiddish word, “beshert” meaning inevitable or preordained (often referring to one’s soul mate).
What’s my take-away from this lunch? There are many, many people who have family members who are Jewish, who are heirs to this great culture and way of life. Whatever paths they have chosen, they may be interested in learning more about Judaism and connecting in some way as adults. We need to make sure our synagogues are accessible, period. And Jewish Community Centers and other Jewish cultural centers like Spertus should also be celebrated by our community as places where someone can tentatively tip toe in and maybe end up staying a while.
InterfaithFamily/Chicago helps facilitate a class for grandparents about passing on their values to their grandchildren. The conversation can be especially nuanced and sensitive for those grandparents who have grandchildren being raised in interfaith homes in which the parents struggle with “what to do about religion and traditions.”
Grandparents often say that they want their grandchildren to be kind, happy, giving, empathetic people. We then discuss whether these traits are “Jewish.” Does Judaism have a monopoly on kindness? Certainly not. But, Judaism does have our own vocabulary, narratives and texts which teach us about this value. Does it “matter” if our grandchildren or children know the word “chesed” (kindness) for instance, or the phrase “gimilut chasadim” (acts of loving kindness)? Does it make a difference if they learn about references in the Talmud to acts of kindness being even greater than giving tzedakah (money to make things “right”—literally righteousness) because one can perform kindness to the living or the dead (through the honor of burial) as well as other reasons? I actually do think it adds a layer of richness, connectedness, roots, identity and pride to connect universal values with our distinct and special cultural references to it.
So what is distinct about Judaism? Rabbis are often worried about sustaining the unique, set-aside, separate and “special” ways of Judaism. This is what leads to continuity. Is it through being insular, ethnic and concerned with ritual barriers and religious barriers that keeps the Jewish civilization alive and thriving? What would happen if someone not Jewish participated in rituals intended for Jews? Could we lose the idea that there is a distinctiveness of our people and tradition? It is one thing to have an open, loving, accepting community, but when it comes to ritual participation should there be boundaries (as in boundaries of who can take communion, for instance, in Catholicism)?
When it comes to non-Orthodox Judaism—where we look to Jewish law and traditions as guidelines—to perhaps inspire or suggest a way of behavior, but where Jewish law can be molded, updated and changed, then our distinctiveness is not based on rituals and laws, but something else.
What makes progressive Judaism distinct is our approach to Judaism. We approach Judaism with a modern, feminist, historical, rational, spiritual and activist lens (among others). What makes this Jewish expression distinct is our ability to allow people who did not grow up with Judaism experience the culture fully (precisely because we are not wholly concerned with the letter of the law).
We are distinct from Christianity and other religions. We are distinct from other forms of Jewish expression. There are both religious and secular humanistic ways to live this form of Judaism. Is this just Judaism-light or watered down Judaism? What’s authentic about this kind of Judaism? Different people will answer this question differently. Nobody should be made to defend his or her identity and religious or cultural ties. Does an open, non-legalistic Judaism perpetuate Judaism? If grandchildren don’t know the phrase “gimilut chasadim” but only that being kind is of utter importance to the matriarchs and patriarchs of their family, will Judaism continue? I do not believe that the only way for Judaism to survive is if it is a Judaism concerned with legal boundaries.
Maybe when we stop stressing about what a parent who isn’t Jewish can say during a child’s bar or bat mitzvah or whether there is an alternative candle lighting blessing for someone not Jewish, we will see that in liberal Judaism our liturgy is metaphor and that the people in the pews may not be concerned only with Jewish law and that many ignore the law when it seems sexist, archaic, irrelevant or un-inspiring.
Sometimes a lack of literacy is to blame for not understanding a tradition and simply writing it off without ever studying it or trying it. However, maybe we can “let it go” when it comes to ritual and legalistic distinctions and feel confident that it is not these boundaries that make progressive Judaism viable and special. It is our approach to Judaism which should be celebrated and highlighted.
The following is my sermon given on March 7, 2014 at Temple Beth El in Munster, IN.
The weekly Torah portions now move into the book of Leviticus. The Five Books of Moses are referred to by Hebrew names which are the first main word in that section of Torah. Leviticus is known as Vayikra which in Hebrew means God called out. God calls out many things to the people throughout the long narrative. Sometimes the people heed God’s call and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes it is Moses or another leader who hears God’s call and then instructs the people what to do or not to do.
Do we believe God is still calling out? What is God calling? How does the call sound? When and how can we hear it? Some say God calls out through nature saying to stop destroying the environment. Some would say God calls out through people doing social justice work and bringing to our attention the suffering and plight of the vulnerable in society who need more help. Some might say God calls out through our inner voice which helps us calibrate our moral compass. Some say God calls out over and over and in new ways through this sacred text—through this scroll—through this ever-new message and that is why we read it over and over and over, and read commentaries about it over and over and over and continue to think about our own responses to these words. Do we hear God in the shofar? In the upcoming graggers and laughter of our youth?
What would God call out if God could read this latest Pew study of American Jewry? Most American Jews are not members of a synagogue. Most American Jews marry someone not Jewish. Many liberal American Jews raise their children with another religious tradition in addition to some Judaism. Millennials by and large say they are Jewish of no religion? What is happening here? Where did everything go wrong? How do we get things back on track?
OK—as an aside—why must we personify God? It seems true, as Maimonides, the great Jewish, Spanish philosopher and writer in the 1100s thought, that we can only make negative statements about God—God is not human. The only positive statement we can make is that God is and even that limits God. So, I am of course speaking in metaphor.
But, there are those who would say that there is something fundamentally broken or off about American, liberal Judaism. Synagogues are outdated and cost too much money to maintain. Our liturgy does not resonate any more. We don’t know Hebrew and so prayer in Hebrew does not “work” as it once did. Since Judaism is a religion of boundaries and distinctions—the difference between the holy and profane, between day and night, between Shabbat and the rest of the week—we cannot have a truly inclusive Jewish community.
The nature of the Jewish religion is that it is insular and exclusivist to some extent. Jews can do and say certain things and those not Jewish cannot. Those younger than 13 cannot do certain things. On Passover, we cannot eat certain things. We are a religion of rules and boundaries and these rules have kept us a distinct people for millennia. As Rabbi Mark Washofsky,the Solomon B. Freehof Professor of Jewish Law and Practice at HUC-JIR/Cincinnati, our rabbinical school, just said to me, “There are many in the Jewish community now who straddle the fence and straddling a fence hurts.”
So, this is all bad news and negative. Goodbye American liberal Judaism as we know it. It’s been a nice run, but it’s over?
Things are better than ever. It is our diverse community that gives us new strength—new voices, new questions and new insights are good for Judaism. We are pushed to define ourselves, to understand who is a Jew and what makes something Jewish. We are forced to confront our own lack of literacy and to take ownership of our religion and our heritage. When we have a community made up of those who grew up with Judaism and those newer to it, we uncover what it really means to welcome the stranger and to believe in One God of all who is a God of peace and love. We are given the sacred opportunity to perform the mitzvah, the commandment, to love our neighbor as our self because we areour neighbor. We see the most often repeated commandment from the Torah come alive for us: Do not oppress the stranger because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
Does this always make it easy? Should we have no ritual barriers to full participation in Jewish life? (I kind of think so, but not everyone agrees with this). Should all rabbis officiate at any wedding where a Jew requests Jewish clergy to be with them? Can we find room in our religious schools for children being raised to also learn about and appreciate Catholicism, for instance? There are no easy answers but lots of important questions.
What is God calling to us now? I believe one message that is blatantly obvious and which can bring us closer to one another and God is that we need to open up, not create more rules and tighten our limits. We are a tiny “in” group and we are, by the way, not a homogeneous group; we are not different from those not in these seats tonight. The majority of liberal Jews are somewhere else. It is not for us to call them in. It is for our Jewish expression, our synagogue structures, and our leaders to open up. We have to act with love, respect, with joy and optimism, humility and inspiration, to individualize, accommodate and include anyone who might come to see that living with Judaism is a rich, vibrant, accessible, authentic way to structure one’s days.
So many couples I marry have one partner who grew up at an area congregation but left after their bar or bat mitzvah. I have thought about creative ways to reunite this person and now this couple with their synagogue of origin, so to speak. There is probably still a picture of them from some class on the wall there! Then it occurred to me, why do synagogues let families just leave? If a family calls the executive director of a congregation to say that they are leaving, the conversation should end with them staying members unless they’re moving away or have a pressing need to leave the synagogue.
Why do people leave synagogues? Money. The synagogue can sympathize with the fact that the financial commitment is difficult to meet for many families. For some, they struggled to pay the dues in order to see their children through their bar or bat mitzvah and feel relieved to take these thousands of dollars of cost off their budget. Thus, the synagogue could say: You are not members because you pay dues. You are members because you have been part of this community. Anything you can contribute now that you are in a different stage of life will help our synagogue stay open and functioning. However, you are not off of our emails and off of our newsletter list and we do not bar you from holiday services because you need a break from the yearly dues after so many years of supporting the congregation in this way.
Whatever the synagogue then collects from this family will be more than if the family had left never to walk through its doors again. But now, won’t other people want to stop paying too? Each house of worship will have to figure out how this plan can work. Do they give post bar/bat mitzvah families a three year period of reduced dues and then hope that they have found value in the continued connection to the congregation and they can again make a bigger financial contribution? Money alone cannot make someone suddenly a “non-member.”
Another reason people may give for leaving a synagogue is that they don’t “need it anymore.” Now that their children are through this major life cycle event, the parents in the family don’t feel a need to attend the congregation. They are not Shabbat attendees, they don’t come for adult education or Torah study. They would like to come for High Holidays, but they are not going to pay $3,000 a year for this when they can be someone’s guest or just buy tickets. The response the synagogue could have is, “you are still members here.” We will still be in touch and you can still attend any or all programs of the Temple.
Then a conversation could take place (preferably in person) about what they would enjoy coming to. Do you like cooking? We have cooking classes. Do you like knitting? We have knitting circles? Downtown lunch and learns? Meeting occasionally with the rabbi to talk about your aging parents, trouble with your teenager, a new health diagnosis you are facing? Your own marriage issues? We are here for you. It turns out you don’t attend services because you can’t read Hebrew? We can help with this. We need to be relevant for people beyond bar and bat mitzvot.
We obviously cannot make someone stay a member who does not want to receive information from the synagogue and who has had a negative experience there. Some say that so much of the correspondence with a synagogue involves asking for more money: money for a building campaign, money for memorial plaques, etc. I think that most people would be thrilled to hear that they are still members, even if they can’t or won’t pay the same dues anymore.
Now, what about the people who do not call the office to say that they are stopping their membership. The synagogue knows who has just stopped paying. Those people probably receive a phone call and hopefully an in-person meeting to say, “We miss you…what’s going on?” When people have ties to a community, it is hard to leave. Let’s make it hard for people to leave.
The following is a guest post by Gina Hagler, reprinted from her blog, Musings of Ruth
I’ve been part of the interfaith community for many years. I’ve felt comfortable, uncomfortable, welcome, tolerated, and most points between on the spectrum. I can tell you which things left me feeling more or less comfortable. I can even give you a definition-in-progress of what I would consider a welcoming congregation. What I hadn’t thought of before last night, is how many aspects of welcome are universal.
Why are we making it so complicated when we sit together as Jews to assess how welcoming our congregations are? Why are we trying to look at ourselves through the eyes of others – especially others who are coming to us from a world view we have not experienced firsthand? Why are we making this such a Herculean task?
Perhaps we should first think about what has made us feel welcome in new experiences. We’ve all been the fish out of water at one point or another. What made it less painful? What eased our introduction? What made us feel we could return? What made us want to return? Why isn’t this our simple first step to understanding how to put “strangers” at ease.
While I was still shaky in my Jewish identity, I took my kids up to New York several years in a row for winter break. I wanted to take them to services but I certainly didn’t know any synagogues in NYC. I wasn’t that confident that I would know exactly what to do once I got into the synagogue, but I wanted my kids to see that the services they participated in at our temple had elements in common with services at all synagogues. I did a search on synagogues in Manhattan and found Central Synagogue.
From the moment the site opened, I knew this was where we would go. The tone of the site, the readily available information, the pride the synagogue had in its history — all lent itself to the implicit expectation that of course we would want to visit and of course we were welcome. We went and sat in the way back – clearly newcomers and clearly not your standard Jews since 2/3 of the kids were Asian. People turned around to smile at us. Someone approached us to ask if we needed a Siddur as he held one up for us to see. He told us we were welcome to join them downstairs after the service for an Oneg made up of simple food.
Within five minutes of entering the building, we had been informally welcomed, given what we needed to participate if we chose to in a way that did not assume we were familiar with the object, and invited to something we may not have known about in a way that explained all we needed to know to feel bold enough to check it out. My kids felt right at home. They were delighted to hear prayers they knew and to be able to join in. They were thrilled to hear tropes that were familiar. There was no way they were leaving without the Oneg. They met some other kids. Several adults made it clear I was welcome to join in their conversations. Ever since, we make it a point to attend services there whenever we are in New York.
This synagogue was not specifically trying to attract interfaith families, or even families from ambiguous or undecided Jewish backgrounds. They were trying to attract those interested in a Jewish life, without making a distinction between faith backgrounds. As strange as it may seem, I felt more immediately welcome at that temple than I have at any other temple I’ve visited. I’m convinced it is because they were genuinely proud of what they had to offer and genuinely happy to have us.
Maybe when we’re trying to decide how to make someone comfortable at our temple, we should start by thinking about what makes us comfortable and ask ourselves if our congregation is welcoming anyone – Jewish or not – in such a way. Maybe the first step in making people feel welcome is to be welcoming.