Providing quality experiences to enrich the lives of the community at large with award-winning preschool programs, summer camps and a wide array of enriching activities. JCC Chicago provides the opportunities to bring Jewish values to the lives of everyone from infants to adults.
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.
As this New Year begins, we may have many hopes and dreams about what the months ahead will bring. Maybe you have an 11- or 12-year-old and have hope somewhere in your heart and mind that this child could somehow experience the rite of passage within Judaism called a bar or bat mitzvah.
To learn more about the bar or bat mitzvah, check out our booklet! (Click on the image.)
Maybe this is only a hope or dream because you have not found yourselves a synagogue and your child has not officially begun religious school or Hebrew school. Maybe you are members of a congregation or working with clergy, and this dream will soon be a reality.
When you hear someone say “having a bar or bat mitzvah,” they are typically referring to a ceremony during a prayer service that includes a Torah service, usually by a cantor or rabbi. Taking place around the 13th birthday of a child, it marks the transition into adulthood within the Jewish community. (Those 13 and over can take part in commandments designated only appropriate for adults, such as fasting on certain holidays, taking responsibility for one’s actions in new ways, being counted as adults in prayer groups and helping make up the quorum of at least 10 or more needed for prayer (called a minyan), wearing a tallit or prayer shawl during services, and more.) There are many different ways families mark this coming of age.
The truth is, whether your child is called to the Torah or not near their 13th birthday, your child, if being raised with Judaism in a family who wants the child to affirm this part of their heritage, becomes a bar/bat mitzvah upon turning 13 years of age. The Jewish world is open to this child for learning and participation (whether or not their mother is the Jewish parent). Just because this learning and formal participation has not yet begun, God willing, your child will have years and years to investigate and take part in Jewish living and community. It is never too late to join a congregation in your area, to find a Jewish teacher, to take part in Jewish communal programming from the Jewish Community Center or Jewish Child and Family Services, or to go to Jewish day camp or overnight camp.
If you are a member of a congregation and your child is preparing for this important event and you have questions about what this all means and how your family who is not Jewish can participate, or if you are not a member of a congregation but would like to think about how to make this ceremony possible for your child and family, we want to encourage you to take part in our online course for families like yours. We offer a class online so that you can come to the content whenever you get a chance to log on. You can read essays about the history and meaning of this ceremony, you can learn blessings and prayers associated with a bar or bat mitzvah, you will get ideas about how members of your family who are not Jewish or did not grow up experiencing the bar/bat mitzvah personally can be involved in this rite of passage, and more. We share essays, narratives written by other interfaith families, videos, family activities to bring more meaning to the process for everyone, a discussion board so that you can ask other parents questions and share ideas, and more.
Wondering what we’re up to in Philadelphia? The Jewish Exponent has a new article highlighting our new branch, InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia, and the resources we bring to the community.
Starting with marriage as the entry point to the article, they write:
For many interfaith families, the wedding ceremony is the point of entry into Jewish life and also a potential point of tension and conflict. A new group, InterfaithFamily, has just set up shop in Philadelphia to help families navigate such obstacles, from finding a rabbi to officiate to helping them feel more welcome. It could be the biggest local development in interfaith engagement in years.
We certainly hope we are!
For more than two decades, there was a conflict within much of the Jewish community over whether to adopt a more open, welcoming attitude toward interfaith families. Those opposed to embracing such families argued that intermarriage was threatening the future of the Jewish people and communal organizations needed to redouble their efforts to prevent such marriages from taking place.
Though the debate still goes on, decision-makers who favor a more open approach now appear to hold sway at many local communal organizations and congregations.
The 2009 “Jewish Population Study of Greater Philadelphia” revealed that the intermarriage rate has reached 45 percent for Jews under 40 in the five-county region, with only 29 percent of intermarried couples of all ages raising their children solely as Jews.
Those results raised calls for the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, which sponsored the study, and other groups to come up with ways to reach this population and encourage parents to educate and raise their children as Jews.
One way Federation has responded is by facilitating the merger of two organizations. InterFaithways, a small, local organization that has struggled financially in the last few years, has become part of InterfaithFamily, a 13-year-old organization with a national reputation that recently opened branches in San Francisco and Chicago. (The legal process of merging locally is expected to be completed by the new year.)
InterfaithFamily’s local branch will maintain a comprehensive database of clergy members who will perform interfaith ceremonies as well as provide other services. The group will also introduce two new educational initiatives, first introduced in Chicago, that are aimed at interfaith couples.
But wait, there’s not just this one article. The Jewish Exponent has a few other columns of interest to our readers.
For those not inclined to bury their heads in the sand, it’s time to recognize an established fact: The tide has turned when it comes to intermarriage. While many of us rightly worry about the long-term impact of the escalating number of intermarriages on our community, it is wiser to address the issue openly and honestly than to pretend it doesn’t exist.
And the last that I’ll mention here is a really lovely column by a woman (“I had cornered the market on non-Jewish credentials. I was a card-carrying member of the Mayflower Society, the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Colonial Dames. I was a practicing Episcopalian.”) who married a Jewish man, the “son of Holocaust survivors.” She goes on to talk about how she found many wonderfully welcoming places and individuals in the Jewish community, people who shaped her life — and her family’s. Definitely worth a read.
Six years ago, under the leadership of Leonard Wasserman, InterFaithways board member Bill Schwartz urged the organization to begin a program called “InterFaithways Family Shabbat Weekend.” Bill thought that if the organization could convince just one synagogue to welcome interfaith families for one event at the beginning of November, others would follow. Bill was right. Under the guidance of then Vice President Rabbi Mayer Selekman (current Chairman of the Board) who helped develop the model, Interfaith Family Shabbat Weekend has become an important ritual for nearly 50 synagogue communities in the greater Philadelphia area.
From its inception, the number of participating congregations grew rapidly. Interfaith Shabbat Weekend is now an integral part of these congregations’ programming, along with other programmatic spin-offs as a result of this program. The numbers have grown but, more importantly, the programming has become more enriching and impactful. With this year’s theme, “For Jewish Tomorrows,” many synagogues are reaching out to interfaith couples and families, between November 3-12, and welcoming them to beginner services, tot Shabbats, seminars, and panels of interfaith grandparents. Now that InterFaithways is merging with a national organization, InterfaithFamily, to become InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia, there is an opportunity to expand our Interfaith Shabbat Weekend model nationwide.
While many synagogues have thought that hosting a weekend for interfaith couples and families would be good for their membership rolls, it is much more than that. Through sharing personal journeys about their own interfaith experiences in their own congregations, listeners are sensitized to the reality that interfaith families need a sense of belonging and desire to be included in the Jewish community. Many non-Jewish spouses embrace Judaism, attend services, drive their children to Hebrew school, encourage the practice of Jewish holidays — often more enthusiastically than their Jewish spouse. In fact, many synagogues are enriched and benefit from the involvement of their interfaith couples in many ways.
Any element of rejection is a negative reflection on the Jewish people. But, if couples are welcomed, they are more likely to embrace Judaism and share it with their children. InterFaithways has heard so many stories where the child experiences a little Judaism at a young age and then chooses to become a bar or bat mitzvah. Does InterFaithways encourage interfaith marriage? Absolutely not. However, InterFaithways recognizes that since there are so many interfaith marriages in the American Jewish community, the welcoming of interfaith families is not only necessary but an opportunity for growth. Growth in numbers, as a culture, and in spirit. Jews have always been at the forefront of civil rights — fighting for minorities, the poor, the oppressed. Yet isn’t it time to welcome our interfaith children and families? We have nothing to lose and everything to gain.
This summer I met with the senior staff at Temple Chai in Long Grove, IL. The staff told me about a chavurah (fellowship group) that had grown organically at their synagogue, made up of mostly interfaith families with young children. One request the staff at Temple Chai had heard from the parents in this group was the desire to have a learner’s service on Shabbat so that they (and older children) could come to understand the whole Jewish worship experience on a deeper level.
On November 17 at 10:00am, the Learner’s Service: Shabbat Unpacked will take place, and I will be co-leading the service with Rabbi Stephen Hart and Laura Siegel Perpinyal, their Director of Congregational Learning. We have been working on a handout that will unpack five main prayers in the Shabbat morning service. For each prayer we offer three ways to understand it by sharing the history and background information for the prayer, a brief “instruction manual” to understand how to “do” the prayer in terms of choreography, and a timing explanation in terms of when the prayer is said during the service and why.
As we go through the interactive service, we will highlight these five prayers and share even more through music, explanations about the meaning of the prayers historically, and how we can make them our own today. There will be childcare for young children, but children are welcome to join in the service as well.
In order for Jewish prayer to be meaningful, maybe especially for someone who didn’t grow up being exposed to Jewish worship, several things have to happen. Hebrew has to be grappled with. Most people in congregations can’t translate prayer book Hebrew word for word. Yet, through understanding basic Hebrew roots (the letter core of words), which often repeat and shed light on the meaning, one is able to gain a tremendous amount about the nature of the prayer. For instance, the root for “holy” in Hebrew is three letters, koofdaledshin. These three letters form the word kiddush (blessing over wine), kadosh (the actual word meaning holy), and kaddish (the prayer said by mourners). Yet even if one knows many Hebrew root words, understanding prayer transcends literal understanding of the words. This is because much of prayer is poetry. So the sound the Hebrew makes and the rhythm is important (this can be understood by just listening to the Hebrew being said or sung). As well, reading the English translation can tell you what the prayer says, although thinking about the imagery and the repetition of words can bring deeper meaning. Thus even though Hebrew may feel like a barrier and a challenge, one can understand prayer on some level even when just beginning to learn Hebrew.
Other ways to make Jewish prayer more meaningful are to learn about the prayers (as will be a goal of this service), to contemplate Jewish views of God and one’s own sense of spirituality, and also to seek meaning in being part of community. Prayer can be deeply meaningful when the images in prayer of peace or shelter, for example, lead us to action to brings these ideals to reality on earth.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the 20th century’s leading theologians, once said those “Who rise from prayer better persons, their prayer is answered.” Jewish prayer can feel mysterious, boring, antiquated, and removed from what we know and understand today. Yet it can also elevate, inspire, and connect us. I hope those of you in Chicagoland will join us for a lively and upbeat prayer experience on November 17.
I’ve heard rabbis say that the most important part of the synagogue is not the ark where the Torah scrolls are kept but the front door. It seems that at the forefront of outreach techniques are ideas for synagogue staff and lay leaders for how to be welcoming, how to help ease the way into organized Jewish life. (Do we ever ask how we help longer time members bridge the gap between being welcomed new members and feeling at home?) In other words, when does needing to be welcomed begin and end?
You might ask yourself why there have to be manuals written teaching people how to be welcoming. The same ways we welcome guests to our home and host people at functions should translate into how we welcome people to our synagogue or community center. We smile, take someone’s coat, offer refreshments, and try to get to know the person. We talk about subjects of mutual interest, we suggest activities that would be engaging for all involved, we share news and ideas that we think the other person would enjoy hearing and learning about, etc.
The study reports that the vast majority of the intermarried say they do not feel uncomfortable attending most Jewish events and activities — only 14% feel uncomfortable, compared to 10% of the in-married (144). In an exchange with Shmuel Rosner, Cohen says, “If discomfort is not a major obstacle to Jewish engagement, then welcoming is not the solution.” Cohen seems to recognize, however, that there is a big difference between not feeling uncomfortable, and feeling truly invited to engage: “Rather than focusing all our energies on welcoming the intermarried, we ought to be focusing on engaging the intermarried, approaches that certainly include welcoming, but go to building relationships and offering opportunities to educate and participate.”
This past year in Chicagoland, I have worked hard trying to spread the word about how to find and access welcoming synagogues and opportunities for engagement with the Jewish community. Yet, by and large, interfaith families are still not walking in the front door of congregations to join the synagogue as “regulars.” Many families come for a free, family holiday service but do not make the next step to join the congregation and enroll children in religious school. The following are questions I have which I am asking in a non-judgmental, sincerely curious way. If you have comments about any of these, please share.
Is it because they are just not ready to make this major commitment?
Is it because they feel they won’t truly feel like an insider there, that they won’t know enough people, know where to sit, know the customs and traditions? That they will make some kind of mistake or faux pas?
Is it because they assume the price of membership is too expensive and that the process for a dues reduction is too humiliating?
Is it because they feel they would not take advantage of synagogue activities, such as Friday night or Shabbat morning worship, adult education or social justice programs, because they legitimately don’t easily fit into their busy work and family schedules?
Is it because the partner who did not grow up with Judaism has hesitations or concerns about what joining a congregation would mean for them personally and for their extended family?
Is the goal in all of this synagogue membership? I think there are lots and lots of ways people can engage with Jewish living that can be meaningful and fulfilling. But, this blog post is focused on this one question of what prevents people who take part in family holiday programs at synagogues and community centers from joining as members.
Originally written for Keshet’s blog. Keshet is a national grassroots organization that works for the full inclusion and equality of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Jews in all facets of Jewish life.
The High Holidays — Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur — can be the most synagogue-centric of the Jewish calendar year. They’re also among the most-well attended, even by those who may not otherwise go to synagogue.
Many interfaith couples and families, along with adults raised in interfaith homes, don’t feel welcome in Jewish organizations. And since many LGBTQ Jews feel excluded from Jewish communal organizations, it’s a double challenge for interfaith LGBTQ Jews. This might be one of the reasons LGBTQ Jews are more likely to interdate and intermarry than their straight peers. But it’s also a reason why our organizations must ensure that every member of the Jewish community is welcomed and included this holiday season — and all year long.
Here on four easy steps your organization can take right now.
Mention the “I” Word: when creating publicity materials for your Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services, events, and programming. Don’t forget to explicitly invite “interfaith families,” and “LGBT families.” (InterfaithFamily’s studies have found that 72% of our users find it “important” that a synagogue say its programming is “for interfaith families” in marketing material.)
4. Don’t assume.
We all have different levels of Jewish knowledge and hurdles that match, so:
Translate all Hebrew/Yiddish language;
Avoid terms like “non-Jew” to describe a partner who isn’t Jewish (I can only speak for myself, but I do not identify as a “non-Christian”);
Provide easy access material (like our booklets), for visitors and others who might want a refresher; locate them near main doors as well as in low traffic areas.
I read a post on the Reform Judaism blog with great interest, as, based on the title alone, Youth Engagement is Not The Curriculum – It’s THE Curriculum clearly jibes with my beliefs. The authors offer 12 tips to keeping youth engaged in/with Judaism through the end of high school. As too many youth end their education with their bar/bat mitzvah, this is a great model. However, I see concerns with point # 4. To quote:
Treat teens as young adult learners. If you are successful, they will learn the other topics that you think are important later in life; for now, try to ask (and answer) the question, “What do the kids want to learn?” Ours, for example, are interested in Jewish/Christian/Muslim issues and our popular yearly program titled “Choosing a College Jewishly.”
Basic Jewish literacy is not only the key to the Jewish community’s survival, but it fills one’s life with meaning, awe, purpose, joy, connectedness and so much more. Teens may take a Jewish studies class in college, but if synagogues have not prepared our most involved students to live Jewishly we have failed. Our students must be able to confidently walk into their colleges’ Hillel, participate in and even lead tefillah (prayers), and talk with facts and context about liberal Judaism. A basic knowledge of both conversational and liturgical Hebrew is essential.
I meet with many late 20-somethings who are getting married. Over and over I have seen the partner who is not Jewish asking their love what Judaism believes about life after death and the meaning of suffering, how we bring the messiah, what they believe about God, what meaning they find in the prayer book and the stories of the holidays, what the Jewish perspective is on Bible stories, and the Jewish partner is clueless. They immediately explain it away by identifying as a cultural Jew or by saying they’re more spiritual than religious. It is the partner who isn’t Jewish and remains curious that often pushes the Jew to learn about their own religion, traditions and faith; inevitably the Jewish partner talks about how they learned nothing in religious school or remembers nothing.
Our teens learn other languages, read great literature in high school, know about art, have opinions about current events, and yet are not exposed to the depth and complexity of their own religion. Why? We think learning about Judaism will be boring, will feel irrelevant!
It is wonderful if our teens go to Israel, enjoy Jewish summer camp and take part in social justice work. But if our teens are functionally illiterate about Judaism, none if it will have any deeper meaning or enduring value.
I recently spent an hour with college juniors, talking about how the Jewish community can respond to interfaith couples and families. There was resistance when I suggested that synagogue websites translate all Hebrew/Yiddish terms and any insider language so that anybody new to Judaism – a new member of a Jewish family or anyone Jewish who lacks this knowledge – can fully access the content, and its meaning, on the website. I have encountered similar resistance when suggesting religious school or preschool teachers take on this same practice when sending emails home or having students work on projects.
For instance, if a class makes a “hamotzi placemat” (a placemat that includes the blessing over bread), the prayer could be pasted to their placemat in Hebrew, English and transliteration so that any parent can use it with the child. I have wondered why there would be resistance to this simple idea for sensitivity and inclusion. The comments I have heard in opposition to this are that parents will think that nobody knows anything Jewish in this synagogue or that the message gets watered down or dumbed down if no Hebrew can be assumed to be known. Others have said that it is so easy in the age of Google to look something up that if there was real interest in learning the Hebrew or the term it could be easily ascertained. If we make things too easy for folks, they will not take the initiative to learn it themselves, which is empowering.
I have been caught off guard by these statements. I hadn’t thought there could possibly be resistance to making Judaism as accessible and meaningful as possible.
As I have tried to unpack this dilemma, here is the insight I have come up with: I think the idea that people who aren’t Jewish will require the Jewish community (members of a synagogue, religious school or preschool teachers, or Jewish family members) to offer translations and explanations, could, potentially point out the community’s own inadequacies or illiteracy with Hebrew and Jewish terminology and this feels threatening or unsettling.
I wonder how many of us could translate the name of our congregation into English or the names of most major holidays into English? This is in no way a critique of anybody with a lack of knowledge. Hebrew, even when translated directly into English, sometimes needs extra explanation and context. (“sukkot">Festival of Booths” comes to mind.)
Sometimes people who grew up Jewish just know or “get” something cultural while not being able to articulate it easily. Some Jewish people may want to remain in a tight-knit community in which there is a sacred language (even when not exactly understood, the individual still finds meaning). Being insular in some ways, set-apart and even having insider language feels authentic and means continuity for some. One would think that meaning leads to continuity but maybe Hebrew leads to continuity through connectedness to the past and particularism. Maybe one doesn’t have to understand everything to have meaning. And my asking people to translate everything demystifies it in some ways and makes the message too secular and mundane.
This has been an interesting conundrum for me to think about. I look forward to hearing your insights!
[table][tr][td][/td][td] Developed by a psychologist who specializes in marriage counseling, Love and Religion is offered throughout the country, usually housed in Jewish community centers. If you are not in Chicago and you or someone you know would like to take part in a Love and Religion workshop, it is highly possible a JCC near you is or could offer it. Just [email@example.com]email Dr. Marion Usher[/email], the creator of the program, [/td][/tr][/table]to ask her where and when it is being offered. In Chicago we have already offered the workshop twice and we have two more sessions coming up in August and October.
This program is only four sessions long. It is meant for interfaith couples (where one partner is Jewish and the other partner is not (whether or not they practice another religion) or is new to Judaism) who are engaged or were married within the last couple of years. The first night we meet, we treat all of the couples to dinner in the city so that we can get to know each other. The next 3 sessions take place from the comfort of your own home: couples use WebEx’s video conferencing on their computers or smart phones. So, for four Thursdays you devote an hour to thinking about your relationship, about religion and spirituality, and about which traditions you find important and want to establish in your home.
The couples participating in the past two sessions have felt that their understanding of their partner (and other couples) increased through this sharing process. They nodded their heads as each one told of the feelings they had for their partner when they met; they shared so much camaraderie around coming from two different religions. For many couples, the fact that they are two different religions is not a big deal; neither family expressed concerned about this. In lots of cases, either or both partners grew up with family members of different religions and celebrated all of the holidays with joy and cheer. The specifics of theological or cultural differences seem minimal in comparison to the sense that they have found their soul mate. This workshop does not create issues where there are none. It does help couples come to articulate aspects of what’s important to them religiously that maybe they hadn’t yet thought about. And, of course, couples makes decisions about a whole host of major life issues over time and with change. This workshop helps set a foundation for making those decisions together as they arise.
The hardest part about offering this workshop is finding interfaith couples who are engaged or recently married. The workshop is normally just $36 per couple, but mention this blog post and it’s free! Please share this blog post with anybody you know who lives in Chicagoland if you think they would get something out of having an experience like this. Whether a couple is getting married by a rabbi, a rabbi and clergy from another religion, only clergy from another religion, a Judge or by a friend; whether the couple is getting married for the first time or whether one or both has been previously married; whether the couple is LGBTQ or straight; everybody should know that this is open to them. At InterfaithFamily/Chicago our goal is to reach interfaith couples with programs in which they can strengthen relationships, find ways to connect with Judaism and with the Jewish community, and to understand more about the role Judaism can play in an interfaith relationship, in ways that will feel natural, comfortable, accessible and meaningful to both partners.
The InterfaithFamily/Chicago initiative began this past July. Since then, I have connected with clergy across the denominations, with religious school and preschool teachers working in Jewish settings, with Jewish communal professionals, with couples getting married and with interfaith parents with young children.
With professionals, I have talked about how to be welcoming to interfaith families, how to be more inclusive and accessible. With couples and parents we have spoken about creating a religious life that feels comfortable to both parents and which leaves children with a strong sense of self.
I have begun meeting with those who work with interfaith couples to plan weddings and other life cycle events that take into account two different cultures. These event planners figure out how both cultures can be represented in the ceremony, in the setting, in the food and in the ambiance. These professionals work with interfaith couples who may not even know that there are resources available to them in the Jewish world, nor Jewish clergy who want to work with them.
Through all of these meetings, classes and workshops, I still know that there are so many who do not know that InterfaithFamily/Chicago exists and is here for them. I am on a continual awareness campaign. I even think about going to jewelry stores to meet people who help interfaith couples find engagement rings – they could tell the couples about our Love and Religion Workshops or wedding guide!
One of the most effective ways of engaging is reaching out in partnership with Chicago's vast cultural landscape. For example, InterfaithFamily/Chicago is partnering with Spertus on a program that is geared towards interfaith couples engaged or newly married. On June 20 at 6pm, their beautiful gift store will be open with discounts on items for weddings and the home. Couples will enjoy food and wine as they shop. Spertus staff will be on hand to answer questions about the traditions behind the items and to share information about the artists who made them; they sell everything from menorahs to mezuzahs to blessings for the home. We will also enjoy a tour of the magnificent building, receive Spertus membership giveaways and more. If you live in the city and are engaged or have gotten married recently, please come by after work. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to RSVP. This event is free of charge.
Each Monday I am now posting a discussion question on the Chicagoland Community Page. One way I hope to get to know more interfaith couples and parents in Chicagoland is by reading your responses to my questions. I look forward to learning with you in this way.
I hope to see you at Spertus, June 20th, and your responses, online, soon!
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