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This guest blog post is by my husband, Andrew Garnett-Cook
Recently, I went to see Phish, one of my favorite bands. Over the course of 20 years, I’ve been to many of their shows. I was first introduced to Phish while in college and, despite a long period where I virtually stopped listening to them, I still enjoy their music and the community that surrounded them.
One thing that one must understand about Phish is that there is a tribal quality to its fans and their love for, and knowledge of, Phish music. Within the Phish world, there are stories, legends, unspoken understandings and a profound sense of shared experience borne of years of having spent time following the band from place to place during their sometimes extensive tours.
Even more interesting is the relationship of the band to the music. Phish fans spend a great deal of time examining and scrutinizing Phish’s live music, dissecting jams and comparing them with some of the best versions of particular songs ever done live. Certain live versions of their songs are considered classics among the fans and are spoken of with reverence that might seem excessive to anyone not familiar with the world of Phish.
However, once you step even an inch outside the tribal world of Phish and its community of fans, songs that are instantly recognizable classics are virtual unknowns. How many of you have ever heard of “You Enjoy Myself”? Or “Down with Disease”? Or “Ghost”? These are to Phish fans what “Hey Jude” and “Stairway to Heaven” are to the larger world of fans of rock music.
In short, fans of Phish have a shared community united around a shared past, common experience, rituals and intimate knowledge of the band and its music, though all of these things are foreign to the outside world.
For me, this is not unlike Judaism. As someone who is not Jewish, but is married to a Jew, entering the Jewish world meant being exposed to a community who also have a shared past, common experiences, rituals and intimate knowledge of the language, practices and songs associated with religious gatherings. Like the person who is not a fan of Phish, these things would be unfamiliar to someone who is not Jewish and has never been exposed to that world.
The thing to remember is that both the world of Phish and the Jewish community are, in my experience, inviting and supportive communities. A newbie at a Phish concert would be welcomed warmly and some dedicated Phishhead would be all too happy to walk them through the history of each song. Likewise, for me, introduction to the Jewish world has been at the heart of a supportive community at our synagogue, led by a rabbi who has embraced interfaith couples and made them feel welcome in the community. Because of this, I have had time to relax, become familiar with Judaism and feel like the Jewish community is one to which I can contribute.
My advice to other interfaith couples? Even if something seems unfamiliar at first or inaccessible to you, do not conclude it must be so. Like entry into the world of Phish, entering into the world of Judaism and becoming comfortable in that world takes time, commitment and a willingness to be a little uncomfortable for a while. But, a good community will welcome you in and give you the time and space to find your way.
The Chancellor of the Conservative Movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary wrote a recent article which appeared in the Wall Street Journal titled “Wanted: Converts to Judaism.” In the article, Eisen writes, “I am asking the rabbis of the Conservative movement to use every means to explicitly and strongly advocate for conversion, bringing potential converts close and actively making the case for them to commit to Judaism. I am asking Jewish leaders to provide the funding needed for programs, courses and initiatives that will place conversion at the center of Jewish consciousness and the community’s agenda.”
I can just see it now: When you enter a Conservative synagogue, there will be billboards that will say, “Have you considered conversion to Judaism?” Partners who are not Jewish but are part of a Jewish family and raising children with Judaism may want to run the other way or hide for fear of being encouraged to convert when they have not expressed a desire or openness to do so.
Today I spoke with someone whose husband describes himself as “Jew-ish.” He has no other faith or religion in his life today in his mind or heart or soul. He is raising a Jewish son and is enjoying the journey immensely. He leaves work early each month for a family Shabbat experience at our local JCC. He already dreams about his son’s
Instead of using “every means to explicitly and strongly advocate for conversion,” why not explicitly and strongly say that when an interfaith family joins a congregation, then the partner who isn’t Jewish has become a “member of the community.” Being a “member of the community” would be a status granted because this person is making a statement that the majority of American Jews are not making any more. That statement is that Judaism is best lived in community and that for the community to exist we need structures that can house and support learning, worship, life cycle events, pastoral care and social justice work. When an interfaith family joins a congregation, the surveys indicate they behave similarly to in-married families. The synagogue is a vehicle for Jewish behavior and Jewish continuity.
When someone becomes a “member,” he or she will hopefully be enticed to want more learning and may even want the spiritual experience that most liberal Jews have not enjoyed of immersing in a mikveh. I would encourage any liberal Jew to immerse in a mikveh when they as adults have chosen Judaism by supporting a congregation or raising children with Judaism.
Joining a congregation can be a prohibitive financial pursuit and thus there are people who want to join who can’t. Our money should be going to creating different synagogue financial structures, not toward funding programs aimed at conversion. This looks at people in only two categories—Jewish or not Jewish. The statement Eisen is making is that we want all those in our community to be “Jews.” This doesn’t take into account that for a partner who is not Jewish to join a congregation, it means that they are more than “not Jewish.” And they don’t need to be changed in order to live as Jews and to enrich the Jewish community.
Nestled within Boston’s picturesque Beacon Hill neighborhood, the Vilna Shul is a gem that the city is lucky to have. The cultural center opens its doors widely to the entire Boston community, offering substantive Jewish programming, dynamic historical and contemporary exhibits and an egalitarian minyan (a Jewish prayer group).
In this interview, which is as fascinating as the Vilna Shul itself, Program Manager Jessica Antoline discusses what sets the Vilna Shul apart from many organizations, and provides a glimpse into the uniquely honest and well-rounded framework with which the shul’s staff coordinates programming.
The Vilna Shul continues to honor its long multicultural history and has been a wonderfully inclusive space for Jewish interfaith and interracial families to celebrate life cycle events and participate in programming.
There are so many things! I like to think that the Vilna stands apart for three reasons:
1. On a historical level, we are it—the last synagogue from the era that brought most Jews to Boston (1880-1924). It’s an era that changed the city entirely, and we are the only place where you can learn about the Jewish contribution to that change.
2. We are also a hybrid organization, functioning both spiritually and culturally when we need to. We are non-denominational and open to all walks of Jewish life. Just to give you an example, we can have a Shabbat one day and a lecture on the rise of Jewish atheists the next. It’s very exciting.
3. I like to think that all of us at the Vilna try to share a realistic rather than idealistic Jewish story. We love to tell the happy stories, but we will never shy away from the dark sides of Jewish history. Jews are humans. We can both build up and break the world so easily. As I like to say to our visitors, Jewish people are all pieces of one dynamic culture worth celebrating. But we were never a people apart, never a people who stayed static in our actions or philosophies. Like every person we have our light and dark sides to our history. Like every people we need to evaluate who we are and what we are doing in and for this world. At the Vilna, we challenge what it means to be Jewish, what Jewish traditions and histories are and where they come from without any judgment or criticism. Through this open line of communication, I like to think we help strengthen people’s understanding of themselves and their community.
What are the ways in which interfaith families and couples have enriched the Vilna Shul?
They help us keep our focus and ensure that we are doing our job. At the Vilna Shul our mission is to preserve and share Jewish culture in ways that are open and accessible to everyone, Jewish or not. What is the Vilna if it is not offering the public what it wants and needs? It becomes just a building without any life. Interfaith couples and families bring new perspectives, lead members of the community to think closely about their words and actions, and help everyone understand each other on a level far deeper than if they were absent from the community.
What programming do you offer that support the needs of interfaith families? How have those initiatives or programs helped the community and those families and couples?
All of our programming is open to interfaith families. Generally when it comes to addressing their needs, we do it within programs during the planning process rather than hosting programs about interfaith issues. (We know that is your field, not ours!) We ensure that every program we offer can be accessed equally by those who identify as Jewish and those who do not. From having words in transliteration and translation to working specifically with scholars, historians, musicians and others who are experienced in working with diverse groups, we always try to answer the question “would I understand this concept if I lived outside of a Jewish context?” before bringing a program to the public.
In your experience or based upon what members/visitors have told you, what are the salient considerations regarding interfaith families that the Vilna Shul takes into consideration when making institutional decisions or developing programming and education?
Language is always a consideration, based on what our community has told us. They appreciate that we try to make everything we do accessible so we always consider that when making a program. They also appreciate when we bring in many histories based on who is in the audience. For example, if we know that someone attending a program may have a friend, child, or partner who is Catholic-Irish or Hindu or Baptist African American, we try and take the time to make reference to their histories and any connections they have to Jewish history.
What brings you the most joy in your work, particularly your and the Vilna Shul’s leadership around diversity and inclusion?
Actually, what I just talked about brings me the most joy. Being open to everyone, being known as a safe, accessible place to talk about all aspects of Jewish culture, makes me love my job. No one is here to define your Jewishness for you. Instead, you are given access to information and a non-judgmental atmosphere. You must decide the rest! Sounds easy, right? But the pursuit of knowledge and freedom of choice are such difficult paths to take.
I smile when I see interfaith couples getting married at the Vilna. I love seeing a child of an interfaith and intercultural relationship shine as they read from the Torah during their bar or
I’ve been out and about lately (Diversity Shabbat at Temple Chai in Long Grove and the PJ Library Conference in Baltimore) hearing some things that are making me think. I am a philosophizing kind of gal, so I love to hear new nuggets that stop me and give me pause.
These are random comments I have heard which I share with you. I look forward to your thoughts about them.
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.