New flicks with celebs in interfaith relationships and from interfaith backgrounds, plus their baby news!Go To Pop Culture
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 oneâbut 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 synagogueâs 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 childrenâs Bânai 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 whoâd 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 fiancĂ© 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 couldnât 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 allâthat 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 âthe way weâve always done things.â 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 synagogueâs website.
Was I the ârightâ person, with all those hats in the air, to lead this group? I am a psychologist, which means I am trained to observe everyoneâs 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 Iâm one of them. And Iâm an activist who fights discrimination in all forms, which means Iâm 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, âNow this is the kind of Conservative synagogue I want to be a part of.â I wasnât particularly balanced.
What Iâve 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 donât 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 anotherâs 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 jugglersâwe need to understand one anotherâs 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 âourâ 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 âour?â Who do âweâ 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 âin groupâ that wants these unaffiliated, differently engaged people to walk through âtheirâ 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 Bar Mitzvah next year. My in-laws who live a few towns over decided to attend. They were excited for him. The Rabbi saw them and asked if they wanted to have the aliyah for my sonâs torah reading. They both said no.
At first I thought they were uncomfortable because they were taking an honor from someone else. So I looked at them and said, âThere is no one here, go ahead.â 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 textâŠit 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. Wouldnât 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 childâs Jewish learning is making a wonderful statement of support to the community. So why wouldnât 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 wouldnât 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 didnât feel comfortable sitting on the pew when everyone else was kneeling or taking communion. I always remember this conversation and that one personâs comfort is another personâs 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 sinceâŠwe 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 isnât a synagogue where they are members. I get itâit wasnât 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 isnât Jewish will WANT to participate. Some people think that their synagogue doesnât need to offer options because, âWhy would a person who isnât Jewish want to participate?âÂ 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, youâve made a choice to be here today.Â You may be thinking, âI donât have a choice whether or not to observe Yom Kippur.Â Itâs just what I do.Â Itâs what Iâve always done.âÂ You may observe in order to support your loved one or your family.Â Maybe youâre a teenager or child and your parents have simply told you, âYouâre coming.âÂ Either way: youâre here and thatâs a big deal.Â And even if you may not realize you have, youâve made that choice and THAT is a big deal, too.
Our Torah portion for Yom Kippur comes from Parashat Nitzavim from the Book of Deuteronomy.Â In just a few verses, God puts a big choice before us.
I find this text to be symbolic.Â It is not only about choosing life in the physical sense (preserving our health), but I actually think itâs about choosing TO LIVE JEWISHLY in a meaningful way.Â For, the commandment to choose life is given as an instruction to connect to that which is sacred.Â Â Perhaps whatâs most important is the fact that this strong charge does not explicitly say HOW we should choose to live Jewishly in a meaningful way.Â The text only states that this choice is not far out of reach âit is very close to you â in your mouth and in your heart.âÂ What I think this really means is that the choice is within each and every one of us.Â 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.Â And if that is the case, the pathway to choosing Jewish life may be different for each one of us!Â The point is that we each actively have to make the choice.Â 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 â men, women, and children.Â The text also mentions that even the ger, the one who is not from the Israelite community and is not Jewish stands among us.Â Â Today, a ger tzedek, also refers to one who makes the choice to convert or join the Jewish community.Â We affirmatively call him/her a âJew by Choice.âÂ I think the Torah is teaching us that WE SHOULD ALL BE JEWS BY CHOICE!Â What would it look like if each and every one of us consciously took hold of our choice to be Jewish?
Iâve thought about this question from a very young age.Â I grew up in an interfaith family.Â My mom is Jewish and my dad was raised as a Christian.Â My parents made the decision to raise my twin brother and me as Jews.Â My mother also wanted my father to feel comfortable observing his own customs.Â What did that mean?Â Â Culturally, we celebrated Christmas at home.Â 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.Â We celebrated Passover and Chanukah at home with active rituals.Â A few times a year, we lit the Shabbat candles.Â In my hometown, being Jewish was also âsomething different.âÂ My brother and I were the only Jewish kids in our grade and my mom was our schoolâs âJewish mom.âÂ 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.Â I knew that I was Jewish, but I also knew my father and his family members were not.Â I also liked to fit in among my classmates.Â And so, I matter-of-factly and quite simply called myself and considered myself to be âhalf-Jewish.â
Then, something began to change my perspective midway through elementary school.Â A new kid came to town.Â He was in the same grade as me, his grandparents lived up the street, and HE was JEWISH!Â Besides my brother, I had made my first Jewish friend.Â I began to learn about his family and their deeply-rooted Jewish practices.Â With joy and excitement, their extended family gathered for holidays, including festivals I had never experienced.Â Their traditions and rituals spanned generations.Â They went to temple together.Â Being Jewish even informed the way they ate and the things they talked about.Â 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.
âWho am I really and what is important to me?â
And then the deep Jewish questions came up, too.
âIf my friend is Jewish and he goes to temple, then why donât I?â
âCan I celebrate the ânewâ Jewish holidays that his family celebrates?â
And then a bit later as I began to visit religious school and temple functions with my friendâŠ
âMom, can I attend religious school, too?â
âCan you help me learn Hebrew?â
âCan we go to services?â
âHow about a field trip to the Jewish gift shop?â
And then things likeâŠ
âMom, why do we have a Christmas tree if weâre Jewish?â
âCan we have a youth group just like the Christian kids do?â
âCan I skip my soccer game on Yom Kippur?â
âCan I become Bat Mitzvah even if Iâm now 17?â
âCan I study with the rabbi more?â
And so I did â all of these things.Â My brother and I formed a youth group at our temple.Â And there we built our own sense of Jewish community.Â And I became Bat Mitzvah on my 17th birthday â With a new year of life came a new understanding of the depth and richness of Torah.Â And I decided that I would find my own sense of peace by attending Shabbat services every week if I could â 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.Â Some choices were different than the ones my brother made and many were different than the ones my school friends made.Â But, they were mine -my own conscious and meaningful choices â ones that allowed me to explore my passions and the things that were important to ME.Â These choices brought me joy, connection, a sense of purpose and even the feeling of being known and loved.Â Even though I was born a Jew, it is for these reasons that I am a Jew by Choice.Â 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.Â We could choose to create a new Shabbat ritual for ourselves every week.Â We could choose to read more Jewish texts or books or explore the world of Jewish music.Â We could act in more concrete ways that heal our world.Â Or we could visit those who are lonely and in need.Â We could commit to teaching our children something of our own Jewish interest.Â We could share our own familyâs history.Â We could question and explore our faith.Â If we could choose to do any of these types of things (the choices are endless)âŠThen, we would not be passive inheritors of our tradition, but rather active participants, consciously acting upon our choice to live Jewishly.Â
I recently had the honor of working with an interfaith family as their son, Jonah, prepared for his Bar Mitzvah. Here are his powerful words which describe what the study, process and ceremony meant to him. His family is part of a Jewish community that gathers for the holidays, and Jonah is excited to be able to read Torah again.
The ceremony began with his grandfather putting a tallit (a prayer shawl) on Jonahâs shoulders. His grandfather explained to him that this tallit had been bought in Israel by his great grandfather. This tallit had been worn by Jonahâs grandfather and father. Now Jonah, as a Bar Mitzvah, wore the tallit with pride. His grandfather said that his hope is that Jonah would give the tallit to his son one day. Continuity.
Here is what Jonah had to say:
âShabbat Shalom! Thank you for supporting me and being with me and my family as I take on the role of becoming a Bar Mitzvah. Bar Mitzvah means son of the commandments. A child becomes a Bar Mitzvah whenever he chooses as long as he is 13 or older.Â Part of this rite of passage means that I am honored with more responsibility within the Jewish religion and among the Jewish people.Â I can now wear a prayer shawl called a tallit.Â I can now say the blessings before and after the Torah.Â I can now be counted in a prayer group.Â I can now take on mitzvot.Â I should also be doing more ethical and moral deeds such as honoring my parents and the elderly, helping the weak and vulnerable, visiting the sick and doing acts to help the hungry and poor.
This is my Bar Mitzvah because it is the first time that I will have the opportunity to read aloud from the Torah.Â To do this, I had to learn to read Hebrew and even harder, learn to read without vowels and with the fancy Torah script.Â This took much time to study and practice.Â To me learning about my Jewish heritage is very important because it shows the other side of my religion that has not been so clear to me.Â Since I’m neither fully Jewish nor a full catholic, I declare myself a “cashew.”Â No, I’m not the nut cashew but the cashew that means I have grasped both of my religions and wish to continue both of them in the future. This is very important to me.
My Torah portion is from the book of Deuteronomy.Â It is part of the Torah that is also read on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the calendar, because this narrative is so powerful.Â It is about God saying to the people to never give up.Â Even if it is so far out of your reach you must never give up because one day you will reach it.Â Also, I will be reading a part of the book of Jonah, not me, the prophet.Â It is traditional on Shabbat morning to read from the Torah and from the Prophets. I picked Jonah for obvious reasons. He has a cool name! What I learned from the story of Jonah is to trust God no matter what the circumstances. For example, Jonah was sent to Nineveh by God, but chose to go somewhere else because Nineveh is so outrageously uncivilized.Â Jonah was then swallowed by a whale and then spit out after three days of prayer and regretting his decision to disobey God.Â He was spat out onto the land of Nineveh where he brought forth God’s warning to change or bare the wrath of annihilation. Jonah waited patiently for the annihilation of the people but it never came. The moral is that you should never lose trust in God and that God has forgiveness and caring.â
There is a debate in the Jewish world about whether families who want both religions in their lives can find a place within the organized community for learning and fellowship. I hope that by sharing this experience of a family who has sought out Jewish learning and living in real and meaningful ways, can help us think about how we might be able to open our gates a little more.
I wish you all a happy and healthy new year. May this be a year of getting to know the individuals who call us for information, or stop in for programming. It is through hearing each otherâs stories and intentions, struggles, questions and yearnings that assumptions can be dropped and judgment held so that sharing can ensue.
I recently had the honor of meeting five women who are due with their first babies in the fall (one brought her four week old). While none of them grew up Jewish, they are married to Jews and they want to create a home with Judaism (traditions, holidays, values) for their growing families. They all felt that their spouses did not have the literacy or resolve to accomplish this goal alone. They are seeking fellowship among other women in the same boat, and they are eager for their own Jewish learning and for ways into Jewish communal life.
Sitting with these women reminded me of a core truth of the work we do: Intermarriage is not the end of Judaism. Intermarriage does not mean the Jew is abandoning Judaism. Partners who arenât Jewish are often open and ready to take on aspects of Jewish living, even though the learning curve is often so darn steep.
One of the moms-to-be said that they are ready to join a synagogue but that she âheardâ the membership dues were $3,000. Someone else chimed in that there must be a lower rate for a new family or first time members. The first mom seemed hesitant to call the synagogue to find out.
On the High Holidays, synagogues will be filled with non-members. This is not a great term. InterfaithFamily suggests trying to avoid ânonâ in any kind of description about someone. We advocate saying ânot Jewishâ verses ânon-Jew.â The people who are not dues paying members may be friends and family of members or they may have no connection to the congregation other than they bought a ticket. How can we tell all of these people that they already âbelong?â
One idea is to have members say aloud the following words and to write them on literature that is handed out and on the homepage of every synagogue website: If you are interested in learning more about this open and warm community, please call (give the name and title of the membership person with his or her direct line and email). It is helpful to have a real person to call rather than have to search a website for membership information which is anonymous. We want our words to reflect a sentiment of welcome. If I were writing something, I would say:
I know there are lots of people studying new dues structures. This is not about a dues structure–fee for service, voluntary donations, etc. This is about the feeling of what it means to be a âmember.â
Each of these five women and the new faces in synagogues over the next few weeks will make great synagogue members.
My last blog post was a plea to program providers to look at their enrollment forms with new lenses this summer. This blog post is for Jewish educators with the hope that they keep it real and honest with their curriculum.
Some synagogues have a ritual policy that women who are not Jewish cannot light Shabbat candles on Friday nights at the congregation. This blog post is not about the ramifications of this ritual boundary. Ritual committees, clergy and synagogue board of directors sometimes spend time studying the meaning of the ritual, the words to be said, the act itself. They look to denominational guidelines, see if their policies make sense given their population, and probe their hearts and souls about when to include those policies in ritual participation of the community of people who aren’t Jewish.
Often, if the synagogue finds that the ritual cannot be performed by someone not Jewish using the traditional Hebrew, for instance, another reading or another way of performing the ritual can be created. This can sometimes work very well. In addition, some can understand and appreciate that it would not make sense for them to say certain words if they havenât officially joined the Jewish people, entered into the covenant and taken on the religion. Other times, those who are not Jewish feel totally comfortable saying Hebrew and performing rituals because the deeds are personally meaningful to that person and their family.
This is a conversation about making sure that there is not a disconnect between what children in the religious school learn and are expected to come home and do and what is done in communal worship at the synagogue.
If there are children in the synagogue who have moms who aren’t Jewish and the children learn about Shabbat with pictures in books and suggestions made that it is the mom who lights the candles, then the school should assume and expect that moms who aren’t Jewish would be the ones to fulfill this mitzvah, this important and beautiful aspect of bringing in Shabbat.
If the synagogue has a rule that only Jews can light Shabbat candles, then should the instructions to the children reflect that? Children can be taught that either parent, depending on who is Jewish, can light the candles. The synagogue could teach that men can light Shabbat candles by calling up Jewish dads to perform this act. Perhaps the whole family could come up and the father could light the candles but all of the faces of the family members would reflect the glow from the Sabbath light. Maybe families would be encouraged to share Shabbat together.
While it is challenging, I do believe that there are ways to explain ritual policies which show respect to a parent who isn’t Jewish who is raising Jewish children and doing Jewish in the home. There are ways to talk about all of the ways a parent who is not JewishÂ canÂ participate in so many aspects of Judaism.
Children and families should be expected to practice what children learn in religious school in home and at shul. You could say some families donât keep kosher at home but understand that their synagogue does have kosher standards. Synagogues keep a higher level of observance than people do in the home. However, it could be a negative experience for a child to learn that only women light the candles while their own mother is not allowed to light the candles in the synagogue.
What are your feelings about this?
Like many, I grew up in a community with lots of relatives and close family friends. I always knew that even though I wasn’t with my parents, there was always the likelihood (or inevitability) that there was a family friend or relative nearby. It definitely discouraged me from making a bad or embarrassing decision. More important, when I walked down the street, I felt loved and connected.
As a parent, I want that sense of connection for my kids. Though we are friends with some of our neighbors, our kids can no longer wander through the neighborhood as carelessly as we did 30 years ago. Our neighborhood doesnât provide the same sense of a tight knit community as it did during my childhood. I know my neighbors well but I wouldnât pick up the phone and call them for help when my washer breaks down.
Joining a synagogue was one of the first things that my husband and I did when we moved to our town. We didnât know anyone and we felt like we needed an anchor. I have to say, it was one of the best decisions (and investments) we ever made. Developing close friendships within the synagogue took a few years but the more we participated, the more friends we made, and the more connected we felt. Through our synagogue membership, we became friends with people of all ages and backgrounds. Our kids know that they are being watched and loved. It is amazing to see that they appreciate this love of community even at a young age.
We have lots of friends outside of the synagogue and Jewish community, but those from our synagogue are particularly special to me. I think itâs because our shared experiences that there is a comfort level that canât be matched. For all couples and families, including interfaith couples, finding a synagogue community with other couples or families exploring similar issues provides a place for dialogue, support and grounds for deeper friendship.
Several years ago I was on bedrest with my third child while my older two were still toddlers. The synagogue community stepped in to help by making meals, driving my kids and supporting me in ways that I never dreamt. Many of those that helped were people I barely knew before but became close friends just because they reached out to help.
My experience is not unique. This type of support is an added benefit of synagogue life. One friend was our synagogue president a few years ago. I once asked why she was doing all of this work for the synagogue. She replied that she had had cancer several years back and the synagogue community took care of her. She promised herself that she would âpay it forwardâ since people had been so good to her.
There are lots of benefits to synagogue membership but the most important one to me is community. You may not feel it the first time you walk through the door, but when it happens, there is nothing more valuable. If you would like to find out more about some welcoming synagogues in the Philadelphia area, visit our list of organizations. If you donât see your synagogue on the Organizations tab of our Philadelphia page, but know it is a place that welcomes interfaith couples and families, email us atÂ firstname.lastname@example.org.
Have you had a similar experience in your synagogue community? Please tell us about it in the comments section below.
Itâs that time of the summer when we need to register for fall activities. This blog is a request to synagogues administrators, Jewish preschool and day school directors and program providers to look at your enrollment forms, preferably with a participant who isnât Jewish to figure out how to best ask questions to get the information that is needed and to leave the one filling it out with a sense that they are meant for this program.
When we ask people to fill out enrollment forms for religious school and synagogue membership and to sign up for Jewish programs, the forms may seem clear-cut and simple to us, yet feel frustrating to the person filling it out. We need to figure out what we want to know and then try to ask questions in a way to gather that information. We need to know what we want to do with the information we collect and let the person filling out the form know why we are asking the question so that they know what information to provide.
For instance, one question that congregations usually want answered on forms is whether the parents are Jewish and if not, what religion they grew up with or now identify as. Sometimes the choices are: Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Secular, Traditional, Other. The âotherâ category is for someone who didnât grow up Jewish.Â Maybe some wouldnât mind checking âotherâ to describe themselves. I imagine some would feel other and different just from this seeming innocuous registration question.
Synagogues and program leaders may need to know whether the parents are Jewish for halachic (legal) reasons in terms of matrilineal or patrilineal descent. They may want to know this to better understand the make-up of the program or congregation. Maybe they will seek to bring together people with similar backgrounds.
As we all know, the simple question of: âState the religion of parent 1 and parent 2â can be complicated.
Here is an excerpt of an email I received which illustrates the messiness and wonderfulness of this all:
âI was raised in a culturally Jewish household and have never received any religious education. My father was raised Catholic, but since marrying my mother has become very interested in the Jewish faith. We often joke he is the most Jewish out of all of us despite not being raised so. My partner was raised with slightly more religious Jewish education and went to a reconstructionist temple and attended some Sunday School and Hebrew school. She had a bat mitzvah but does not currently attend temple. Both of her parents are Jewish and her dad still attends temple for high holidays. Cultural traditions are more important to her then religious aspects.â
We love simple labels and easy check-offs. This helps us with tracking and data entry. However, maybe instead of boxes to check and short lines to write answers to profound questions, we need to leave room on forms for people to call in their answers. The call-in option would connect the person registering to the teacher or leader so that they could engage in a conversation of meaning.
If you are a program administrator and help create forms, visit our Resource Center for Program Providers to find best practices in terms of enrollment forms and website language.
Recently, a good of friend of mine suggested to an interfaith couple who was looking for a rabbi for their wedding ceremony that they be in touch with me. I met with the couple for about an hour and we had a great conversation, at the end of which they asked me to officiate at their wedding. I told them that Iâd be honored, and over the next year we would get together several more times so that I could get to know them as individuals and as a couple before standing with them under their chuppah (wedding canopy) next July to unite them in marriage.
The other day, I saw my friend who referred this couple to me. âIâm so excited!â she exclaimed. âThe rabbi of the brideâs congregation wouldnât marry them because her fiancĂ© isnât Jewish. They were going to hire a ârent-a-rabbi.â Iâm so happy that they are going to be married by YOU instead!â While my friend meant to give me a compliment, instead I felt offended by her pejorative term ârent-a-rabbi.â I felt that she was implying that non-congregational rabbis who perform wedding ceremonies (or baby namings, Bânai Mitzvah, funerals or other life-cycle events) were simply doing so to âmake a quick buckâ and were of inferior quality to congregational rabbis. According to her logic, the only thing that separated me from the ârent-a-rabbisâ that she disparaged was that she personally knows and respects me.
For the past ten years, since leaving my position as assistant rabbi at a large synagogue in order to spend more time with my family, I have officiated privately at life-cycle events â what some would refer to as a ârent-a-rabbi.â Iâve continued to do so over the past five years even as Iâve worked part-time at a small congregation. (My congregation, which I absolutely love, is made up mostly of members in their 70s and 80s, so it would not be an ideal âfitâ for many of the young couples and families with whom Iâve worked privately. Plus, many of them do not live near the synagogue.)
The fact is that Iâve gotten to know the wedding couples Iâve worked with who are not congregants of mine just as well as I knew couples who were congregants that I married; and Iâve gotten to know the parents and siblings of the babies that Iâve named just as well as I knew the parents and siblings of babies that I named in my congregation. And whereas when I served over ten years ago as a congregational rabbi at a synagogue in which there were as many as a hundred Bânai Mitzvah each year, now that I only work with a handful of Bânai Mitzvah students a year I get to know them MUCH better than I ever could as a rabbi at a large congregation. When I work privately with Bânai Mitzvah students, I meet with them on a regular basis so that by the time of the Bar or Bat Mitzvah I know the student â and usually the parents and any siblings â very well.
This serves in contrast to when I was at a large synagogue and I was only scheduled to have two or three half-hour sessions with each Bânai Mitzvah student. At the congregation (which was often referred to as a âBar Mitzvah mill,â another term I dislike), if the Bar or Bat Mitzvah student and his/her family were not âregularsâ at Shabbat services or other synagogue activities, I did not know them nearly as well as I know the students with whom I now work privately.
Just because many of the wedding couples, baby naming parents and Bânai Mitzvah students that I have worked with over the past decade do not belong to the congregation that I serve, their life-cycle events are no less important, meaningful and sacred to me as a rabbi â or to them. And I am certain that this is true of the vast majority of my colleagues who privately officiate at lifecycle events. Yes, we charge a fee for what we do, since we do not receive a salary to be available for these services as full-time congregational rabbis do. But just because we are paid directly for our services does not make the experience any less meaningful for anyone involved.
Over the years I have paid doctors, therapists, yoga teachers and a vast array of others for their services. They have almost without exception been caring and committed to helping and healing, often getting to know me on a deeply personal level â yet there is no doubt that they are entitled to compensation for their work.
I have heard people claim that when rabbis officiate privately at lifecycle events this makes it easier for people not to join congregations. Personally, I would love it if every Jewish person and family (whether every member is Jewish or the family is interfaith) would join a synagogue, but that is simply not the reality in which we live, and it is not the fault of so-called ârent-a-rabbis.â The fact is that in this day and age congregational life just isnât for everyone â at least not at every moment of their lives.
There are a multitude of reasons why people donât join synagogues, ranging from financial reasons (while the vast majority of synagogues will âwork withâ potential congregants to make membership financially feasible, this sometimes requires submitting tax returns and other personal information, which many people are not comfortable doing) to not feeling welcome to the fact that they simply are not interested. I cannot imagine that that the availability of non-congregational rabbis to officiate at their lifecycle events has very much to do with their decision not to affiliate.
When a wedding couple comes to me â either because a congregational rabbi with whom one of them is connected (usually his or her parents are members of the congregation) will not marry them because their partner is not Jewish or because they are not connected to a congregation â I strongly believe that the best thing I can do to increase the odds that they will become more involved in the Jewish community, and hopefully join a synagogue at some point, is to work with them and make them feel welcome. After all, they have many options besides going to a rabbi (such as hiring a celebrant or a justice of the peace) and by working with them I have the opportunity to expose them to the beauty of Judaism.
I feel the same way about the baby naming and Bânai Mitzvah families that come to me. I would much rather work with them and enable the parents of the baby or the Bar or Bat Mitzvah student to have a positive, meaningful experience than to turn them away. And when I am approached about officiating at the funeral of a Jewish person who was not affiliated with a congregation, I feel privileged to be able to help his or her family to mourn the deceased according to Jewish tradition and to bring honor to his or her memory through Jewish ritual. Is this really something to be looked down upon?
Ironically, when congregational rabbis officiate â for compensation â at lifecycle events for non-congregants (some rabbisâ contracts with their synagogues allow for them to do this, while others do not) they are rarely referred to as ârent-a-rabbis.â I think that the fact that I serve as a part-time congregational rabbi is another reason why the friend I mentioned at the beginning of this blog, the one who had referred a wedding couple to me, did not view me as one of the ârent-a-rabbisâ that she disparaged. But the reality is that congregational rabbis officiating for non-congregants who do not join their synagogues is really no different than non-congregational rabbis officiating.
There are many fantastic rabbis who do not work in congregations, perhaps because they work at other jobs within or outside of the Jewish community or perhaps because they currently are not employed, either by choice or by circumstance. Just because they earn money by officiating privately at life-cycle events does not mean that they are not talented, committed and sincere. So please, donât call them ârent-a-rabbis.â Just call them ârabbis.â
What has your experience been? If you are married, were you married by the rabbi or cantor of a congregation to which you and/or your partner belonged, or the rabbi or cantor of a congregation in which one of you grew up?
Were you married by a rabbi or cantor (as a sole officiant or co-officiant) that you found outside of a synagogue setting? If so, how did you find this rabbi or cantor? And what was your experience with him or her like?
Have you ever used the term ârent-a-rabbi?âÂ How do you feel about this term?