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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.
Yesterday my husband asked for my advice about how to help a friend of his. His friend wanted to know how he could motivate his wife to attend services and other Jewish events at our synagogue. They are empty nesters and he wants to grow their Jewish practice. My husband turned to me because I am the family psychologist, a.k.a., the in-house armchair analyst. While I am sympathetic to our friend’s situation, my answer may not have been the one he was looking for: “He can’t.”
For most of my life, I engaged with Judaism to please my family, not because it was something that I wanted or because it was my idea. It was easier for me to participate than it would have been to explain why I did not “feel it.” I always experienced a strong attachment to the music, the food and to Israel but these are not religious motivations, they are cultural. Sometimes I wonder where the line is between culture and religion.
Spirituality is personal. I am not sure how the flame gets going. Some have it from birth, others find it as a result of a life changing experience, and for me it appeared during my first visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem a few years ago. My internal flame was lit near midnight on a warm summer evening in Jerusalem.
When I returned home from Israel, I went looking for a Jewish community to join and I found one in San Francisco. From that first Shabbat morning, I always felt welcome and never self-conscious about showing up alone. There were always plenty of other people who came alone, just like me. Some were single, some with partners who chose not to go or who stayed home with their children or aging parents. We sat together at services and saved seats at the table for each other at events. Not once did I ever feel the awkward loneliness that can creep into one’s consciousness while going solo in a group setting. The positive experience I had the first time motivated me to try it a second, and then a third, and so on, until I joined the community as an official member.
Since then, I have married and my husband and I go to synagogue together. I no longer go alone but I know that I can, any time I want or need to. A while ago I heard a fellow congregant speak at a panel discussion about how, as a divorced parent, she has found her village in our community. She no longer feels awkward about attending as a single parent and comes to temple events a lot now. She even comes alone when her children are with their father. I have another friend who is always at Shabbat morning services and is rarely accompanied by his partner who works too hard and desperately needs the “Day of Rest” for actual horizontal rest.
I suggested to my husband that his friend could try joining us once or twice without his wife to see how he feels about walking in alone. Once he is inside, he will be joined by friends, swept away by the gorgeous opening song, and carried through the morning by Rabbi’s calm guidance of our prayers. Our friend may find out that his inner flame of spirituality can be nurtured through the warm and uplifting embrace of our community in San Francisco. He may also discover that the impression he walks away with is contagious.
To learn about what to expect at a synagogue, watch this video.
The last week of November was Celebration Central for my husband and me. We flew to Paris for a cousin’s 80th birthday, celebrated one day before a personal trio: Thanksgiving, the second night of Hanukkah and my husband’s birthday.
For Shabbat-Hanukkah (the Sabbath that occurs during Hanukkah), we made the 3/4 hour trek via Paris Metro to a suburban neighborhood to visit the city’s only liberal synagogue, Kehilat Gesher, the “American synagogue of Paris.” We found many jewels hidden away in this unmarked Jewish haven on Rue Leon Cogniet.
It can be uncomfortable to attend services in an unfamiliar house of worship, regardless of one’s religious upbringing, affiliation, or knowledge base. I am especially tentative in these situations, yet my desire to celebrate Shabbat Hanukkah in Paris and my curiosity moved me to make the effort to join the community for one evening.
The Kehilat Gesher congregation is a highly diverse group of regulars and visitors, all gathered together to experience liberal Judaism in Paris. Rabbi Tom Cohen conducts a trilingual Shabbat service that is inclusive, warm and rich with the joy of the occasion. His enthusiasm for welcoming Shabbat into our hearts was overflowing and we effortlessly settled in for the experience of a lifetime.
The Kehilat Gesher Siddur (prayer book) is quadrilingual. Each page has the prayers written in Hebrew, French, English, and the most fascinating transliteration using French accents! Rabbi Cohen has been leading services there since 1993 and is a master at making sure that the service is accessible to all. We took turns doing the readings in the language of our choice. We heard myriad accents in multiple languages: Hebrew with French, English with Russian, French with Hebrew, and some that I did not recognize.
After the service, we gathered for the blessings over the wine and bread and shared a special treat of traditional Hanukkah sufganiyot (fried foods) in the form of yummy jelly doughnuts. We had many warm and welcoming conversations with members and Rabbi Cohen made an extra effort to introduce himself and to genuinely engage with us about who we are and why we decided to attend services at Kehilat Gesher.
What made the experience so memorable was the recognition that even far away from home I can find a friendly connection at a liberal synagogue. As I sat in that small uncomfortable seat, listening to the opening song, a slightly non-traditional rendition of “Shabbat Shalom,” I truly understood that I was part of something unique and special. The amazing part was that nobody seemed to care if we were Jewish, or intermarried or, in our case, intra-faith (Reform and Orthodox).
At Kehilat Gesher Paris they say Shabbat Shalom with an international accent!
My children are too at home at our synagogue. Their dad is the rabbi there and they feel that his office is their play place. They know every inch of the building, including where to find snacks that aren’t theirs to take. They know the staff. They feel comfortable expressing themselves during services. I have been thinking about how many other places we frequent and what this says about our lifestyle.
We know the supermarket well. Other parents think I’m crazy for schlepping (Yiddish for dragging) my 4- and 6-year-olds to go grocery shopping, but we basically enjoy the weekly trip. One or both of them ride in the cart and we eat as we shop. We follow the same path each week and we take the same items. Sometimes a new product appears and we examine it which can be fun and guess at whether we will like it (especially if it is in the gluten free section as our 6-year-old has celiac disease). We have our favorite check-out cashier and my kids love to say “hi” to Miss Sandra and pretend that they are shy.
The preschool and elementary school are also like extensions of our home. My kids are proud to show me around when I’m there. They point out artwork on the wall, we schmooze (Yiddish for small talk) with the school staff, and they reminisce about what happened in the gym that day or on the playground.
Then there are other people’s homes. We are lucky to have cousins who live nearby: Aunt Stacie and Uncle Bill’s house is a comforting, familiar place to visit. The kids know how it works there as well. They take off their shoes in the right spot, they know what they can and can’t touch, etc. They look forward to the different toys and activities that they encounter there. And of course, the people in the home seal the deal for loving this stop.
Two last places we frequent a lot (I’m embarrassed to admit on a weekly basis) are both Target and Party City. They know the aisles there perfectly. They know which stops they want to make first and they always have a treasure in mind that they have been dreaming about.
I wonder about how many “normal” (non Rabbi-Rabbi families) think of a synagogue as a home away from home? Do you walk in and know where to go? Do you know the staff and do they know you? Do you know where to hang your coat, where the bathrooms are and when the building is even open? Would you ever think of stopping in at a time other than for services or Sunday School or Hebrew School?
You could come to read a book in-between meetings or appointments. You could come sit on a couch and do homework in a quiet and cozy spot with a child between afterschool activities. Dare I say, you could stop in to say hi to the educator and clergy! You could check out the flyers you may have missed, see what upcoming events are happening and read the Jewish magazines that are typically on display.
Synagogues are usually open during regular business hours. Stop in! Stay awhile. Say “Shalom.” Bring your kids. Feeling comfortable and familiar in a spot breeds connectedness and warmth.
One of my favorite camp counselors from my youth, now a respected university instructor and demographer, Marc Dollinger, Ph.D. is the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Chair in Jewish Studies and Social Responsibility at San Francisco State University. He recently posted the following query on Facebook:
“…how many of the 613 mitzvot were classical Reform Jews obligated to perform? My undergrads at SF State want to know.”
I was intrigued, so I started reading the 45+ comments. Professor Dollinger offered additional insight about the class that he was teaching when the question was posed: “Today’s lecture on post-Enlightenment denominationalism, at 75 minutes, was supposed to cover classical and modern Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox (overviews on questions of God, Torah, authority, practice) but we didn’t get past classical Reform. Thrilled with the student interest and passion. More queries coming…”
Rabbi Evan Goodman, formerly from the Bay Area and now the UC Santa Barbara Hillel Executive Director responds: “…I know you stated you need a number, not a theory. However, I don’t believe this question can be answered that way and be authentic to Reform [Judaism]. As you know, Reform Judaism is non-Halachic. Its starting point is the premise that the mitzvot and other traditions are not legally binding on us. It was and is up to each one of us to learn and interpret these traditions in our own generation…”
As the class continued its conversation with Professor Dollinger, he “taught how the early Reform theologians employed rationalist thought to determine which mitzvot remained relevant in modernity and which were considered dated in light of the rapidly changing world. In this sense, wearing kipot and talit would lose value while commandments against murder and stealing would, logically, remain. Students had a deeper concern that once Judaism becomes ethics, what makes it Jewish anymore?”
Rabbi David Cohen, also formerly from the Bay Area and now at Congregation Sinai in Milwaukee, WI, chaperoned my teen trip to Israel (many years ago). He offered that “the classical reformers distinguished between rational, ethical mitzvot and non-rational ritual mitzvot. The rabbis of old would have called these mishpatim and khukim. Ethical mitzvot were obligatory; ritual mitzvot were optional. Each Jew was to make a personal, informed choice, choosing to perform a ritual mitzvah if s/he found it spiritually uplifting.”
He points out that a distinction is made between ritual (i.e. religious) and ethical commandments. Fast forward to today. My post read as follows, “I’m curious how your students would respond to the recent Pew Study finding that most of their contemporaries would describe themselves as non-religious Jews. Is this the same or different from classical Reform Judaism shifting away from halacha? It seems that among the non-Orthodox Millennials today, ethical/cultural Judaism is their focus of interest, over religious Judaism.” The distinction between religious and ethical continues.
So, what happens when Judaism becomes ethics? What do you think?
Many synagogues are holding their programs for Interfaith Family Shabbat this week and weekend. It is exciting to see the variety of programs that synagogues have created for this event. Some synagogues are having special movie screenings, others are hosting beginners’ services. One local synagogue, Main Line Reform Temple, was very creative and hosted a program entitled “Interfaith Family Shabbat Honoring our non-Jewish Spouses, Partners & Family Members: Everything You’ve Always Wanted to Know about Services (or anything Jewish) but Did Not Know Who or When to Ask.” This program invited all participants to email the Rabbi with any question prior to the service in which he would do his best to answer them. It was inspiring to see how many synagogues took advantage of the opportunity that Interfaith Family Shabbat provides to create a special program to re-energize their welcoming culture.
Conversely, a few synagogues said that Interfaith Family Shabbat doesn’t apply to their community because they are always welcoming. Without question, it is great to be committed to being welcoming throughout the year, but this is similar to celebrating Mother’s Day. We should always appreciate mothers but it is meaningful to moms everywhere to have one day when they are recognized. For an interfaith couple, a blessing or recognition of interfaith couples and their commitment to Judaism is inspiring to many who have chosen to support their spouse in Judaism.
In a society where we define ourselves with labels, welcoming of various groups will be critical. Some consider themselves “Jews” while others are “Protestant,” “Catholic,” “Hindu,” “Muslim,” etc. As long as we use labels, the need for constant and frequent welcoming will exist. After all, we are talking about walking into a synagogue, considered a haven for Jews—it makes sense that when a person walks into a house of worship that isn’t familiar, they will feel slightly uncomfortable. Even Jewish people may feel awkward in an unfamiliar synagogue and certainly in any other house of worship.
Hosts should let people know where to sit, what page the Rabbi is on, explain Hebrew references, etc. Guests may not know when it is ok to take a bathroom break or when to stand, so a helpful host could guide them in this. Hopefully, after multiple visits, a visitor will feel comfortable. But those first few visits are always slightly awkward. We hope that there will always be visitors, thus there will always be a need for welcoming!
I attended one of the Interfaith Family Shabbat events. One of the speakers said that he and his wife were greatly hurt when the Rabbi from his childhood Reform synagogue refused to marry them. He said that this interaction was so painful that he now refuses to go to that synagogue. Ten years later, he is still quite emotional about this rejection. I know that this synagogue considers itself welcoming but obviously, this person is scarred from the rejection.
After the service, many people remarked that “this community has always been a welcoming community.” Yet, there were many congregants who seemed to be enlightened when the Rabbi said “Just because someone marries someone of a different faith, they are not rejecting their parents. They are not rejecting their childhood. They simply fell in love.” There were congregants who really began to see the other side for the first time and understand interfaith marriage from a more loving perspective. It seemed that during this service, we learned that we should be more than understanding—we should welcome all people into the synagogue with open arms. Welcoming is a constant effort.
Did you attend a program for Interfaith Family Shabbat? Tell us about it in the comments section below!
The following post is by guest blogger Jodi Rosenfeld from the Philadelphia area.
I sometimes feel like I am one of many circus performers juggling a variety of hats while the audience watches to see if I drop one—but the circus is my synagogue and the audience is my fellow congregants. My goal is not to make anyone laugh or watch in awe but simply to maintain the peace while moving the show forward in preparation for the next act.
At my small, century-old, Conservative synagogue in the western suburbs of Philadelphia, I was the facilitator of the Interfaith Work Group, a group that met for many months for the purpose of clarifying and then codifying our synagogue’s policy on membership for interfaith couples and families. This means I had to wear and juggle my many hats at once. And for that, I had to learn about balance.
The Interfaith Work Group was born of a conflict. The conflict began when several interfaith families were preparing for their children’s B’nai Mitzvah and the parent who was not Jewish realized that, according to Conservative tradition, he or she was not welcome to stand on the bimah. Even the father who was not Jewish but who’d served on several committees, was an active part of the community and had studied Hebrew alongside his son, could not stand at the Torah with his wife when she said the blessings before and after the Torah reading.
Then there was an aufruf for a young woman and her fiancé who was not Jewish and, even though her family had been active members of the synagogue for 50 years, not only could they not be married by our rabbi, but they couldn’t come up on the bimah to receive a blessing. These interfaith families felt slighted at best, rejected and insulted at worst. So the Rabbi changed the rules; without crossing the lines of Halacha, she declared that the bimah was accessible to all—that the parent (who was not Jewish) of the Bar Mitzvah boy could stand at the Torah and that the young couple could receive the blessing on the bimah.
And then the backlash began. Some of the elders and more traditional long-time members of the congregation felt slighted at best, rejected and insulted at worst. For decades, they had poured themselves into “the way we’ve always done things.” They felt that these changes were a watering-down of Judaism. Some got angry. Some left.
The Interfaith Work Group was a small cross-section of all of the above constituents that came together to get the facts straight (from the Rabbi about issues of ritual inclusion and Halacha; and from the Board about issues of governance), and then to clearly articulate these policies through the synagogue’s website.
Was I the “right” person, with all those hats in the air, to lead this group? I am a psychologist, which means I am trained to observe everyone’s feelings, even those with whom I may disagree. I am a Reform Jew by upbringing, which means I am accustomed to inclusion. I am the granddaughter of an observant, Conservative Jewish man, whose tallis and tefillin I wear each week, which means he is with me, in my synagogue, even today. I am a Jew married to a Jew, which means I’m one of them. And I’m an activist who fights discrimination in all forms, which means I’m one of them. I am a proponent of change yet one who wants to preserve the past.
My learning about balance came from my utter failure at facilitating the Work Group. The facilitator needed to be impartial, to lead the group without taking sides. Despite my many hats, I wanted to forge ahead with change. I wanted both Jews and those who are not Jewish but who are part of Jewish families to feel fully included in all aspects of our community. I wanted all of the young, prospective interfaith families in Chester County to flock to us, to think, “Now this is the kind of Conservative synagogue I want to be a part of.” I wasn’t particularly balanced.
What I’ve learned is that if we want to evolve as a community, we all need to be empathic toward one another. Interfaith families want more inclusion of family members who are not Jewish not because they want to water down tradition, but because they want to be more fully a part of our rich Jewish heritage. Long-timers don’t resist these changes because they want interfaith families to leave, but because they have worked so hard to help the Jewish people thrive and they are afraid that change means loss. Change always means loss. But it also means gain.
Only by listening to one another and allowing ourselves to wear one another’s hats for a moment can we truly appreciate that this change is a process of growth for us all. The reality is that we all need to be jugglers—we need to understand one another’s many motivations, question the familiar and approach one another with kindness in order to truly facilitate the evolution of our Jewish population.
The product of our labor can be found here.
Is your synagogue struggling with policy issues and halacha? Do you have a policy document? Share your policies and experiences with our community. We can all learn from each other.
I recently attended a think tank talking about how to expand “our” reach to interfaith families, Jews of all hues and LGBTQ individuals, couples and families. This is the visual I made during the sessions.
Who is the “our?” Who do “we” want to reach and why? Do people want to be reached in this way and come in? In to what? In to whom?
Is the premise that the “in group” that wants these unaffiliated, differently engaged people to walk through “their” doors not the same as those outside? Thus, the in group has to learn about them and understand them so that they can welcome them better?
Relationships are based on learning about the other person, so in this way, asking questions and gaining insights into what some people in these categories consider offensive or inviting is helpful. Learning about situations that have caused pain and struggle can give sensitivity and background for when they will meet and speak.
Once people are invited in, is it to share the same experience as those already on the inside, or to help mold and shape a new experience based on the new voices and backgrounds present? Is there a core that has to stay consistent and unchanged no matter who comes in?
These were some of the questions we were grappling with. What do you think?
A few weeks ago, my son was reading Torah at a Saturday evening service. It is a very small service of 15-20 people and a nice opportunity for him to read without a large audience and to practice reading before his
At first I thought they were uncomfortable because they were taking an honor from someone else. So I looked at them and said, “There is no one here, go ahead.” They said no thanks again. I was perplexed. They are both Jewish and have participated in synagogue life elsewhere. They are completely comfortable in a synagogue and knew most of the people in the room.
An Aliyah is an honor within the Torah service. It allows the honoree(s) to stand beside the Torah reader (their grandson) and witness his reading. I also always think it is fascinating to be up close and personal with the Torah. (I always am amazed that this beautiful scroll is in every synagogue in the world and created by hand. When you factor in the longevity of the text…it is really cool.) I thought my in-laws would be thrilled to be up there with their oldest grandson and to watch him read from the Torah. Wouldn’t they want this honor?
The concept of a Jewish person not wanting to accept an honor in a synagogue struck a chord. I recently wrote a blog about the beauty of the blessings given by someone who is not Jewish during a Bar/Bat Mitzvah. In many congregations, someone who is not Jewish cannot say a blessing for their child. My feeling is that the person who is not Jewish and blesses their child and the child’s Jewish learning is making a wonderful statement of support to the community. So why wouldn’t my in-laws want to participate?
Then I remembered my days in high school choir when we were in churches singing our hearts out. Sometimes there would be communion after we sang. Being raised in a strict Jewish household, I would refuse to participate even though I was the only one from the choir that wouldn’t go up to the altar. I had a friend who was also Jewish but she did go up for communion. We spoke of it once and she said she didn’t feel comfortable sitting on the pew when everyone else was kneeling or taking communion. I always remember this conversation and that one person’s comfort is another person’s discomfort.
Now, as I often think about welcoming a person of a different faith inside a Jewish institution, I have to remember: Sometimes people want to participate, and sometimes they want to opt out. Either way, we should do all in our power to make them feel comfortable whatever their preference.
I have been thinking about my in-laws since…we only do what we are comfortable doing. We all have different experiences and influences. Certainly no one should be forced to do something when they are uncomfortable. Religion is obviously a very personal decision and experience. My in-laws were not mentally prepared for an aliyah and this isn’t a synagogue where they are members. I get it—it wasn’t right for them. Still, I know they were very proud of their grandson and his ability and intent to carry on the traditions.
While many synagogues are re-evaluating the role of the family members from various religions during various ceremonies, we must realize that not every person who isn’t Jewish will WANT to participate. Some people think that their synagogue doesn’t need to offer options because, “Why would a person who isn’t Jewish want to participate?” My response is: Let each individual decide what their comfort level is. We all have to remember that welcoming means offering options for inclusion. And, by simply offering the option for participation, the community sends the message of welcoming.
On Yom Kippur this year, I had the pleasure of listening to a personal, heartfelt and inspiring sermon by Rabbi Rachel Saphire of Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, MA. The sermon got my family thinking and talking and I thought you might enjoy it too. Rabbi Saphire has been kind enough to allow us to share this excerpt of her sermon, which is approximately the first half. Enjoy.
Whether you see it or not, you’ve made a choice to be here today. You may be thinking, “I don’t have a choice whether or not to observe Yom Kippur. It’s just what I do. It’s what I’ve always done.” You may observe in order to support your loved one or your family. Maybe you’re a teenager or child and your parents have simply told you, “You’re coming.” Either way: you’re here and that’s a big deal. And even if you may not realize you have, you’ve made that choice and THAT is a big deal, too.
I find this text to be symbolic. It is not only about choosing life in the physical sense (preserving our health), but I actually think it’s about choosing TO LIVE JEWISHLY in a meaningful way. For, the commandment to choose life is given as an instruction to connect to that which is sacred. Perhaps what’s most important is the fact that this strong charge does not explicitly say HOW we should choose to live Jewishly in a meaningful way. The text only states that this choice is not far out of reach “it is very close to you – in your mouth and in your heart.” What I think this really means is that the choice is within each and every one of us. It is upon us to choose for ourselves, from within our own being, how it is that we want to express our Jewish identity or connect to the Jewish community. And if that is the case, the pathway to choosing Jewish life may be different for each one of us! The point is that we each actively have to make the choice. Making this choice is a big deal.
The Torah portion also mentions that all of us stand before God on this day – every single one of us, no matter who we are – men, women, and children. The text also mentions that even the ger, the one who is not from the Israelite community and is not Jewish stands among us. Today, a ger tzedek, also refers to one who makes the choice to convert or join the Jewish community. We affirmatively call him/her a “Jew by Choice.” I think the Torah is teaching us that WE SHOULD ALL BE JEWS BY CHOICE! What would it look like if each and every one of us consciously took hold of our choice to be Jewish?
I’ve thought about this question from a very young age. I grew up in an interfaith family. My mom is Jewish and my dad was raised as a Christian. My parents made the decision to raise my twin brother and me as Jews. My mother also wanted my father to feel comfortable observing his own customs. What did that mean? Culturally, we celebrated Christmas at home. I have fond memories of decorating the tree, hanging holiday lights, putting up a stocking, listening to and singing carols, laying out cookies for Santa Claus, sitting down for a Christmas Eve dinner, and waking up to open presents.
I also remember my mother sharing her strong Jewish identity with us and teaching us to take pride in being Jewish. We celebrated Passover and Chanukah at home with active rituals. A few times a year, we lit the Shabbat candles. In my hometown, being Jewish was also ‘something different.’ My brother and I were the only Jewish kids in our grade and my mom was our school’s “Jewish mom.” She would go from room to room to teach about Chanukah and sometimes she even invited the class to our house.
All of these practices brought me joy. I knew that I was Jewish, but I also knew my father and his family members were not. I also liked to fit in among my classmates. And so, I matter-of-factly and quite simply called myself and considered myself to be “half-Jewish.”
Then, something began to change my perspective midway through elementary school. A new kid came to town. He was in the same grade as me, his grandparents lived up the street, and HE was JEWISH! Besides my brother, I had made my first Jewish friend. I began to learn about his family and their deeply-rooted Jewish practices. With joy and excitement, their extended family gathered for holidays, including festivals I had never experienced. Their traditions and rituals spanned generations. They went to temple together. Being Jewish even informed the way they ate and the things they talked about. I was fascinated by this new-found meaning and beauty that I experienced by having a Jewish friend.
I began to explore my own identity.
“Who am I really and what is important to me?”
And then the deep Jewish questions came up, too.
“If my friend is Jewish and he goes to temple, then why don’t I?”
“Can I celebrate the ‘new’ Jewish holidays that his family celebrates?”
And then a bit later as I began to visit religious school and temple functions with my friend…
“Mom, can I attend religious school, too?”
“Can you help me learn Hebrew?”
“Can we go to services?”
“How about a field trip to the Jewish gift shop?”
And then things like…
“Mom, why do we have a Christmas tree if we’re Jewish?”
“Can we have a youth group just like the Christian kids do?”
“Can I skip my soccer game on Yom Kippur?”
“Can I become
“Can I study with the rabbi more?”
And so I did – all of these things. My brother and I formed a youth group at our temple. And there we built our own sense of Jewish community. And I became Bat Mitzvah on my 17th birthday – With a new year of life came a new understanding of the depth and richness of Torah. And I decided that I would find my own sense of peace by attending Shabbat services every week if I could – that even meant skipping THE high school football game on Friday night.
These choices were my own, ones that I was proud to make and explore. Some choices were different than the ones my brother made and many were different than the ones my school friends made. But, they were mine -my own conscious and meaningful choices – ones that allowed me to explore my passions and the things that were important to ME. These choices brought me joy, connection, a sense of purpose and even the feeling of being known and loved. Even though I was born a Jew, it is for these reasons that I am a Jew by Choice. And it is because of my Jewish journey that I want each of you to have the same opportunity to make your own conscious Jewish choices today, every day, in the year ahead.
Instead of thinking of ourselves as the CHOSEN people (people for whom our destiny is chosen and dictated), we could become the CHOOSING people. We could choose to create a new Shabbat ritual for ourselves every week. We could choose to read more Jewish texts or books or explore the world of Jewish music. We could act in more concrete ways that heal our world. Or we could visit those who are lonely and in need. We could commit to teaching our children something of our own Jewish interest. We could share our own family’s history. We could question and explore our faith. If we could choose to do any of these types of things (the choices are endless)…Then, we would not be passive inheritors of our tradition, but rather active participants, consciously acting upon our choice to live Jewishly.