Full of helpful advice for families starting to think about their child's bat or bar mitzvah, Bar & Bat Mitzvah For The Interfaith Family will be a helpful primer to all families (not just interfaith!).
This booklet explains the history of Hanukkah, the symbolism and significance of lighting candles for eight nights, the blessings that accompany the lighting of the candles, the holiday's foods, the game of dreidels, and more!
Connecting Interfaith Families to Jewish Life in Greater Cleveland by providing programs and opportunities for interfaith families to experience Judaism in a variety of venues, meet other interfaith families, and to connect to other Jewish organizations that may serve their needs.
This is an interactive, fun, and low-key workshop for couples who are dating, engaged or recently married. The sessions will give you a chance to ask questions about faith, to think about where you are as an adult with your own spirituality and to talk through what's important to you and your partner.
A great way for Jewish professionals and volunteers who work with and provide programming for people in interfaith relationships to locate resources and trainings to build more welcome into their Jewish communities; connect with and learn from each other; and publicize and enhance their programs and services.
I have had the pleasure of watching Shaboom!, the new video series that BimBam Productions has created. InterfaithFamily/Chicago recently helped launch the video series at a few viewing parties around town. In all cases, the kids enjoyed the debut eight-minute video and the parents did as well. It’s catchy, colorful and has a great message. Everyone learns how to say one value in Hebrew and experiences how to apply it to our lives with realistic scenarios.
This is the first of the video series (you can see more below).
Here are my eight thoughts about this eight-minute video:
1. It’s important to learn Jewish values in Hebrew. The first video teaches the mitzvah (mitzvah literally means commandment, and is also thought about as ritual and ethical sacred deeds) of hachnast orchim—welcoming guests. Do other religions and cultures teach this same value? Absolutely. However, Judaism has our own texts about this value, quotes on it and vocabulary for it. We could teach our children to be good hosts. And, we can teach them to do the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim. I do believe there is a difference. When we talk about the latter, we feel connected, grounded, deeper, more spiritual, perhaps, and urged to do it in a different way than talking about a more universal idea of graciousness.
By knowing the Jewish approach to a value, the Jewish sensibility around it and the Hebrew words for it, it helps us live a life where we can point to the positive things we do that are specifically and particularly Jewish. Sometimes as a liberal Jew, it is hard to know what I “do” that is Jewish and this is one way in.
2. The show depicts racial diversity in the Jewish world. One spark is brown and one is pale. They are both Jewish and teaching about Judaism. This normalizes and makes visible people in Jewish communities and in Jewish families who have different color skin and different racial make-ups. It isn’t the point of the show and it isn’t talked about or an issue. This is simply Judaism. Children growing up today with Judaism in their lives know that you can’t “look” Jewish in terms of physical appearance.
3. Jews believe in angels. The main characters are invisible sparks (we’ll get to that next) but they also have wings. The word angel in Hebrew is translated as messenger and there are many messengers throughout the Bible.
As Rabbi Elliot Dorff reminds us, “the existence of angels is a Jewish notion,” and “if we do not make …angels idols, or pray to them as if they can replace God, then talk of angels is a helpful personification of the workings of God in our lives.” (My People’s Prayer Book, vol. 7, Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2004, pp. 69-70).
The angels in these videos are named Rafael and Gabi from Gabriel or Gabriella. There is a special prayer for protection in Jewish tradition that is said at night and includes the words:
In the name of Adonai the God of Israel: May the angel Michael be at my right,
and the angel Gabriel be at my left;
and in front of me the angel Uriel,
and behind me the angel Raphael… and above my head the Sh’khinah (Divine Presence).
4. Jewish Mysticism Teaches That Sparks Are Invisible: These cute little characters who have wings are known as invisible sparks in this show. This hearkens to the mystical notion of tikkun olam (repairing the world) which teaches that when God created the world, God’s light shattered into millions and billions of sparks or vessels that are spread all over. When we do mitzvot (good deeds), we free the sparks and send them back to a broken God who gets unified in the process. You never know if your good deed is the last one needed to bring complete healing and redemption to God and the world. I actually love the idea that God is fundamentally broken like we are and that we are partners in the task of repair. We yearn for God and God yearns for us.
5. We Are Attached to Screens: In the video, one spark teaches the other about welcoming guests by showing her to turn off her television when a friend comes over. Similarly, the mom and son in the Ploney family has to turn off the video games they are playing to hear the doorbell. Children as young as toddlers are staring at a screen for much of their day. We have to be taught to put it down or turn it off for human interaction. I am attached to my phone and I do see the toll it takes on my eyes, my posture and my level of distraction. Being aware is the first step to change, right?
6. Ploney is Used on Purpose: Ploney is used in the Talmud as a kind of John Doe. By calling the family the Ploneys, it is a clear reference to Talmud study.
7. Shabbat is Important: The family is coming together to welcome a relative from Israel to their Shabbat table. Shababt is about family, screen-free time and being connected. The reason the Jewish world spends so much money and resources on getting people together over Shabbat for dinners and services is because we still believe one hundred years later as Ahad Ha’am the Israeli poet wrote, “More than the Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jewish people.”
8. There are Layers to Jewish Learning: When I first watched the video, I was upset because I got the references I have mentioned here but figured many parents and kids who watch this won’t. I felt it reinforced the secret hand-shake of Judaism with insiders and outsiders. I worry that Judaism is hard to get into and that learning is often presented in such a pediatric way with coloring sheets that adults with little Jewish literacy or current connections to Jewish institutions don’t have many opportunities for real study to get to the good stuff.
But I realize that good family programming touches the viewers on different levels based on their age and life experiences. And I realized that the show is perfect because it shows the way Judaism approaches study. “Pardes” refers to different approaches to biblical understanding in rabbinic Judaism or to interpretation of text in Torah study. The term, sometimes also spelled PaRDeS, is an acronym formed from the same initials of the following four approaches:
Peshat (פְּשָׁט) — “surface” (“straight”) or the literal (direct) meaning.
Remez (רֶמֶז) — “hints” or the deep (allegoric: hidden or symbolic) meaning beyond just the literal sense.
Derash (דְּרַשׁ) — from Hebrew darash: “inquire” (“seek”) — the comparative meaning, as given through similar occurrences.
Sod (סוֹד) (pronounced with a long O as in ‘sore’) — “secret” (“mystery”) or the esoteric/mystical meaning, as given through inspiration or revelation.
This article was cross-posted on HuffingtonPost.com.
As the editorial director at an organization that works toward the inclusion of interfaith couples and families in Jewish life, I read and hear a lot of commentary on the future of Judaism and how interfaith families fit into it. Over and over I hear or read Jewish professionals and rabbis say how much they would like to welcome non-Jews into the community.
Say for a minute you were thinking deeply about joining an exclusive tennis club. You’ve been wanting to become a tennis player for years and you’re finally taking the steps toward that goal. You found a club that alleges to be welcoming and in need of newcomers, but when you tell them you haven’t learned to play yet, and that you might continue to play basketball even after you join, they suddenly don’t seem as welcoming as you expected. The club members and leadership refer over and over to you as a non-tennis player, making you feel not so much like you will ever be a member of the club but a visitor.
Obviously “joining” Judaism is a much weightier life choice than playing tennis. Perhaps the analogy of “non-man” to describe a woman hits closer to home? Non-meat eater? In any case, the Jewish community’s decision making around welcoming new people into its fold should not be treated as trivial. But assuming you have decided that you do in fact want to welcome newcomers who are not Jewish to explore Jewish life within your organization (or family or neighborhood)–stand by that decision.
If you want interfaith couples and children of intermarriage to feel welcomed by your community I applaud you on your efforts. If you want that aspiration to translate to reality, start by thinking about the person you’re trying to welcome every time you speak on the topic or write language of welcoming or interact with this audience. How will your messages be perceived by that person? Will they hear that you have a policy of welcoming? Or will they also hear that you want them to be there?
These are two different things.
Step one: You intend to welcome.
Step two: You actually welcome.
Let’s start by speaking in terms of who someone is, not in terms of who someone is not. Respect the audience you seek to invite into your fold by treating them as equals to everyone else in your fold. If someone feels that they are being tolerated and not celebrated, they may not walk through your door. Or if they do walk in, they may turn around and leave.
There isn’t a good word for non-Jew. But you can use the words “partner who is not Jewish” or “partner of another faith.”
It’s not just about this one compound noun. It’s about speaking to interfaith families the way you would Jewish-Jewish families. It’s about deciding whether they are your future and if you answer yes, treating them like it.
One of my favorite parts of being a rabbi and the director of InterfaithFamily/DC is working with couples to prepare for their wedding. I meet with a lot of couples that come from diverse backgrounds and no two couples are the same. Each is a unique set of individuals bringing together their life experience, their families, and their hopes for the future.
Whatever kind of wedding they have in mind, I tell them that my goal is to create a ceremony together, a ritual which we can personalize so that their wedding reflects who they are as individuals and as a couple and their intentions for their life together. On the simplest level, a ritual helps us mark sacred time and helps us to be present in the moment. And no matter what the individuals’ backgrounds, I want their wedding to be one of many beautiful, meaningful, and accessible Jewish rituals in their lives.
When I teach couples about the components of the Jewish wedding ceremony, it’s often the first time they have learned about the meanings behind the rituals. And as with most things in Judaism, there are often multiple explanations for why a tradition came into practice. That fact alone is empowering for many people to learn that it’s ok that some explanations resonate and some don’t.
The mission statement of Hebrew College, where I was ordained, says that “Judaism, at its best, is a creative, intellectual and spiritual encounter among the individual, the community and the received tradition.” As rabbinical students and rabbis, we are “encouraged and empowered to see ourselves as both inheritors and innovators—active participants in the unfolding story of the Jewish people.” My role as a rabbi is to transmit a Judaism that is expansive enough to be inclusive and meaningful.
Our Talmud class on weddings had a big impact on me. We read ancient ketubot (wedding contracts) that varied in content and formulation, written hundreds of years before the standard Orthodox ketubah came into wide spread use and thousands of years before the myriad of modern-day options. We also learned about other kinds of marriage and partnership documents and rituals. Historical and cultural variations in practices around the documents, huppah(canopy), wedding garments, and rituals objects have long encouraged couples to personalize and beautify the ceremony.
The history of Jewish creativity around ritual has been a wonderful way to see the current trends in reclaiming, modifying, and forming new rituals as an inherent part of Jewish tradition and practice. In my understanding, creativity and inclusion lead to an enriched, enlivened, and more beautiful Judaism. In my role as officiant and m’saderet kiddushin(one who orders wedding ceremony), my hope is that there will be a balance of tradition and creativity. I hope that all couples I work with, especially interfaith couples, will be empowered to make Jewish rituals and practices their own, thus opening the doorway for their engagement in Jewish life on their terms, in a way that is meaningful to them.
This November, congregations and Jewish organizations around the country are celebrating Interfaith Family Month. Some may choose to offer a blessing or do a special program. InterfaithFamily has created some lovely readings and blessings. But I also want to encourage other clergy and Jewish leaders to think about offering something from their heart. One way to do this is to think about the gifts that interfaith couples and families have given you and your community.
And with that in mind, I want to say thank you to the interfaith couples I’ve worked with for their willingness to engage with Judaism. Thank you to the individuals who want to honor and include their non-Jewish partners or family members so that we can create more inclusive rituals and more expansive experiences of Judaism. I want to say thank you to the individuals who want to incorporate rituals from other cultures who have showed me that there are more similarities than there are differences. I am grateful to work for an organization that has supported me to embrace interfaith couples and families and for our partnership with organizations like Ritualwell who enrich the work that I do.
It’s 1972. An off-duty, dark haired young cabbie drives by a young blond woman. Slowing down and noticing that the woman is attractive, he switches his light to “on duty” and backs up to pick her up. He drops her off at the school where she teaches, then watches as she walks in. Flash forward to the end of the school day and as the teacher leaves school, the cabbie’s there waiting to pick her up. A montage unfolds: The good looking couple walking over a bridge in New York’s Central Park with their arms around each other; him playfully chasing her; the two of them kissing in the back of the cab; kissing more by the bridge. And then, they finally speak:
Woman: “You know, this is crazy. I don’t even know your full name.”
Man: “Bernie….Steinberg. What’s yours?”
Woman: “Bridget….Bridget – Theresa – Mary – Helene – Fitzgerald.”
Then they both say at the same time: “I think we have a problem.”
So opened the pilot episode of Bridget Loves Bernie (you can CLICK HERE to see it yourself), about the interfaith marriage of Irish Catholic Bridget (played by Meredith Baxter) and Jewish Bernie (played by David Birney).
Bridget Loves Bernie had a primetime Saturday night slot between two very popular shows and it was the fifth highest rated TV show of the 1972-1973 season. But it was cancelled by CBS executives in response to hate mail from viewers who opposed its portrayal of the couple’s interfaith marriage. To this day, Bridget Loves Bernie is the highest rated TV show to be cancelled after only one season.
I was a young girl when Bridget Loves Bernie was on TV, but I still remember the show. And I remember the atmosphere in which it aired, at least in the Jewish community—and certainly in the tight-knit Conservative synagogue where I grew up. It was a shonda (a shame, a pity) if you were Jewish and you married someone from another faith. People assumed you didn’t care about Judaism. When you “married out” you were seen as “writing off” your Judaism. I heard stories of parents who “sat shiva” (performed the Jewish mourning rituals) for a child who “married out.” The parents wondered what they had done wrong. The married children usually cut off ties with the synagogue and the Jewish community. (Can you blame them?)
To a large extent, things have changed. The days when I grew up, when Bridget Loves Bernie’s interfaith marriage was too controversial for primetime television, are fading—at least in a large segment of the liberal Jewish community. In today’s world—a world in which, according to the 2013 Pew Portrait of American Jews, 71 percent of liberal Jews who are getting married are marrying someone who isn’t Jewish—it’s not a shock when Bridget loves Bernie (or, for that matter, when Bridget loves Bernice). And now, with the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College’s recent decision to allow inter-partnered candidates apply to the school, it may become less of a big deal when Bridget loves RABBI Bernie or Bernice.
If you identify as a liberal (non-Orthodox) Jew you almost certainly have friends, and most likely family members, who are in interfaith relationships. If you belong to a Conservative, Humanist, Reconstructionist, Reform, Renewal or unaffiliated synagogue, you almost certainly know fellow-congregants who are in interfaith marriages. And you probably know parents who aren’t Jewish who are actively involved in the Jewish education and upbringing of their children.
Today, there are lots of real couples like Bridget and Bernie, each with their own unique stories, and we can’t just “cancel the show” and ignore reality. (For years, the Jewish community’s response to intermarriage was to preach against it. Not only did intermarriage rates continue to rise, but people in interfaith relationships often felt alienation from and resentment toward the Jewish community.)
If Bridget and Bernie were real people living today, InterfaithFamily, and many like-minded people in the Jewish world, would see Bernie’s marriage to Bridget not as a threat to Jewish continuity, but rather as an opportunity. We’d want to celebrate Bridget and Bernie’s marriage (they could even use our free clergy referral service to find a rabbi or cantor to officiate at their wedding), to provide Jewish resources and support and a safe, non-judgmental space to explore the role of religion in their lives and their marriage. If Bridget and Bernie decided to move to Philadelphia (or one of the other cities that has an InterfaithFamily/Your Community office) they could take our “Love and Religion” workshop and meet with other interfaith couples to discuss how to have religious traditions in their lives together. When they had kids, they could take our online “Raising a Child with Judaism in Your Interfaith Family” class to consider “how” and “why” to bring Jewish traditions into their lives.
Bridget and Bernie are ready for primetime. And for InterfaithFamily, “primetime” is the month of November, when we celebrate Interfaith Family Month. This is a time for synagogues and Jewish organizations to publicly acknowledge and thank those members of our community who aren’t Jewish; to let them know that we don’t just tolerate them, but we are grateful to them for their commitment to Judaism and Jewish continuity. It’s a time to let those Jews who have partners who aren’t Jewish know that not only are we not “sitting shiva” for them, but we hope that they will fully engage in the Jewish community, and that we don’t see their choice of a life-partner as a reflection on their Jewish commitment. It’s a time to declare that rather than fighting against intermarriage, we are working for a vibrant Jewish community—and we welcome anyone who wants to join us.
Interfaith Family Month is a time to let all of the “Bernies” out there know that we don’t love them any less because they love “Bridget.” And for all of the “Bridgets” out there, we hope that just as you love “Bernie,” you will come to love his Jewish community too, because we are committed to building a Jewish community where the two of you can truly feel at home.
Today’s Statement on Jewish Vitality, advocating strategic responses to respond to the challenges of the Jewish future, is extremely disheartening for what it says and what it doesn’t say about interfaith families.
Twenty-five years after continuity efforts began, it is still the case that most of our Jewish thought leaders, exemplified by those who signed on to the Statement, still think that intermarriage is bad, still think that conversion is the “answer” to the intermarriage “problem,” and still oppose programmatic efforts to engage interfaith families.
The Statement says that many children of non-Orthodox Jews will not identify as Jewish when they grow up “owing to intermarriage,” even though the Pew Report found increasing numbers of children of intermarried parents identifying as Jews and even though “owing to” sounds a lot like saying that intermarriage causes children to not be raised as Jews but all of the surveys show correlation at best and not causation.
The Statement touts Jewish education programs, PJ Library, camps, trips to Israel, youth groups, etc. because they raise the in-marriage rate, instead of because they are critically important for and successful at strengthening Jewish engagement.
Yes, the Statement acknowledges that large numbers of Jews will intermarry, but immediately says “we must bear in mind that intermarriages can be transformed to in-marriages by the act of conversion” and advocates for more conversion-oriented courses.
If Jewish leaders wanted to drive away from Jewish engagement the 71% of non-Orthodox Jews who intermarried since 2000, and the majority of college-age Jews who have one Jewish parent, they couldn’t do so more effectively than by espousing the response to intermarriage expressed in the Statement. Interfaith couples do not want to participate in a community that describes their relationships as something to be prevented, let alone tells one partner that they’re welcome if they convert but not as they are.
This fundamental distaste for intermarriage is manifested by the complete absence of any support in the Statement for programs that are targeted expressly at recruiting, attracting and embracing interfaith families. Sure, it’s OK with these leaders if the children of intermarried parents participate in their immersive programs – but G-d forbid that the community do anything that explicitly states, and demonstrates with programmatic responses, that Jews want interfaith families to engage in Jewish life and community.
All of the programmatic steps outlined in the Statement are important and should be supported. But if they are marketed as leading to in-marriage and conversion, and if they are not accompanied by programs for interfaith families, they will amount to just circling the wagons around a continuing diminishing group.
Fortunately, there are other Jewish thought leaders who recognize the importance of efforts to engage interfaith families. I’m thinking of the Genesis Prize Fund which boldly chose to honor Michael Douglas, and now in partnership with the Jewish Funders Network is offering a matching grant initiative “to encourage the creation of a culture of welcoming and acceptance within the Jewish community of intermarried couples, their families, and individuals who come from these families [and] to energize and strengthen organizations working in this field and to encourage the creation of new programs in that area.”
I’m thinking of federations and family foundations and community foundations in Chicago, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Boston, Los Angeles, Atlanta and Washington DC who provide support for InterfaithFamily/Your Community projects in each of those cities, where a full-time rabbi and a project manager build trusted advisor relationships with interfaith couples and families (including by helping them find officiants for life cycle events) and offer a range of Jewish learning and community building experiences for young couples seeking help deciding what to do about religious traditions in their lives and young interfaith families seeking help raising their children with Judaism.
It would have been so smart for the signatories of the Statement to eliminate their anti-intermarriage tone and to include programs for interfaith families among their list of efforts deserving support. I long for the day when the more enlightened view becomes predominant. Because if Jews and Jewish leaders can’t overcome fundamental deep-seated antipathy toward intermarriage, we’re going to see not vitality, but decline.
There are many in the Jewish community, including Steven M. Cohen in his recent response in The Forward’s Seesaw column, who put forward a two-pronged approach to sustain the American Jewish community in light of the high rate of intermarriage. First, they encourage in-marriage. But when that fails, they encourage interfaith families to engage Jewishly and raise their children within the Jewish community.
But just listen to that language – when in-marriage “fails.” Those are my words, but it is certainly the message I received from many in the Jewish community. Those who take this two-pronged approach are in essence saying that interfaith marriage is second best, so it is not a far leap for interfaith families to feel like second class citizens. That is not a good starting point if you want interfaith families to engage Jewishly.
Would we feel comfortable telling our children to only marry within their race? Or within their socio-economic class? Of course, religion is not exactly the same as race or class. It also makes a difference if you are in the minority or the privileged position. But it is worth asking ourselves how these questions make us feel.
I understand where many Jews are coming from in wanting to preserve a minority population. But what is it we are really trying to preserve? For me, I want to perpetuate Jewish practice, history, belief, thought, food, culture, and community. There are so many treasured memories I look back on from my childhood and want to pass on to my son. Because all of these elements of Judaism have beautiful things to offer the world and the individuals who hold them dear.
So let’s focus on that. Instead of encouraging in-marriage, let’s encourage young adults to find a life partner who shares their values and who will help them celebrate and live their Jewishness. Someone who is open to sharing in and contributing to the life of the Jewish community whether or not that person is Jewish themselves. That is what I found in my husband who actively helps me build a Jewish home, but who is not Jewish himself.
From that starting point, it is easy to move to step two of encouraging interfaith families to engage Jewishly. In fact, from this starting point, we can be sharing the same message with all new families and welcoming everyone on even footing.
I love synagogues, in theory and many in reality. I have blogged before about my enduring connections with the congregation where I grew up, even though I haven’t lived in that community for over twenty years. I have written about just stopping in to congregations and hanging out there. Most recently, I wrote about my experience in my parent’s new congregation. I don’t think liberal Judaism can survive in America without synagogues. I am all for new and different models for congregations, like Mishkan Chicago. There are several congregations in Chicago with alternative dues structures and different religious school models like Sukkat Shalom.
I believe liberal Jews in America need a structure by which we can educate our children, join together for holidays and share in social justice pursuits. We need programs and classes that add meaning to our lives and help us infuse Judaism into the busy rhythm of our days. True, there are individuals who hire Jewish teachers to educate their children and to teach Hebrew and there are people who create individual and personalized life cycle ceremonies like bar and bat mitzvah outside the realm of an “organized” community. These people are often labeled as “unaffiliated” as if they are hurting the Jewish pursuit in America. I think that however people find Judaism and pass it on is important and should not be marginalized or demeaned. However, for many people who want their children to be raised with Judaism, joining a synagogue would be the easiest and most effective way to fulfill that holy objective (which is a pursuit that takes a lifetime, which is why leaving after bar/bat mitzvah is so problematic for continuity).
For many years, interfaith families in congregations felt or still feel that extended family and parents who are not Jewish are not fully embraced. Some express that their cultural and religious lives have to be dormant or invisible inside the realm of synagogue. Children in interfaith homes report that religious school teachers or other members of the congregation make off-handed comments which make them feel less than fully Jewish or different or other. When people feel close to clergy members who can’t officiate at their life cycle events, it can deeply sting. So even though the majority of American Jews are partnered with someone who is not Jewish and congregations are by and large welcoming and want interfaith families to be part of the community, it can take some convincing to encourage interfaith couples and families to try again, so to speak, when a negative experience has already occurred.
We at InterfaithFamily/Chicago have created a new offering (which I explained in this previous blog post) to encourage interfaith families to take a chance with a synagogue for their family because we feel that being part of a community is so intrinsic to our ability to live and pass on Judaism. We have asked congregations to designate an interfaith family that is active at their synagogue to be listed as a “connector” on their Temple’s profile on our website. You can email this person to ask them to share their honest experience at the synagogue. They can tell you about how the parent who isn’t Jewish feels there. They can tell you about the vibe at the religious school and how the diversity of the community is celebrated.
As well, each of these congregations has a link back to InterfaithFamily on their temple’s website as a show of support for the interfaith families in the community and as a sign that they want to be supportive with resources to help pave the way to exploring Judaism however they can.
The following is a list of synagogues that we endearingly call our Super Orgs!
I recently visited a San Francisco synagogue for the first time. I rang the bell and a teenage girl came to let me in. She wasn’t working there; she was just doing her homework. She welcomed me with a warm smile and asked if she could help me. We chatted about her schoolwork and life at the synagogue, and then the rabbi came running out to meet me. He was in the middle of Bar Mitzvah lessons and apologized for his delay in welcoming me. He didn’t know I was a rabbi or what I was doing there; it appeared that this is how he welcomed anyone walking in the door. I explained that I was fine—just a bit early for a meeting. The night went on in this fashion. I have to admit that I was a bit flabbergasted. I had to wonder, why shouldn’t every encounter be this way?
What came to my mind that night is that this synagogue clearly practices and teaches what some have recently been calling audacious or radical hospitality. They went out of their way to make sure I was treated like an honored guest. This spirit of embrace is ingrained in their culture to the extent that even a teenager is among the initiated! We all know people who seem to go far above and beyond what might be considered polite or inclusive. And we know how encountering such an individual has the power to change our outlook. Those of us who work for Jewish organizations struggle to figure out how our institutions can reflect this value. We may have the best programs, the most beautiful services, the best school. But at the end of the day, what supersedes everything else is whether or not people feel in each and every personal encounter that they matter.
Sukkot is the Jewish season for nurturing this quality of openness in ourselves and our institutions. We move out of our homes into huts, and we invite people to join us in these temporary, yet holy spaces. The holiday goes by many names: the Feast of Booths, the Festival of Ingathering, and He-Chag (the holiday). But if we stress the injunction to welcome those in need into our sukkahs, we could also name it the Festival of Hospitality.
In a few weeks, we will read in the Torah about Abraham and Sarah in another kind of shelter, their tent in Mamre [Gen.18]. Three strangers passed through, and amidst a culture in which a stranger could be a major threat, they invited them in. They rushed to greet them, washed their feet, and fed them. The strangers turned out to be angels telling Sarah of her pregnancy. But the beauty of the story is that Sarah and Abraham had no idea that their visitors were divine guests. This is how they treated everyone they met. A midrash on the apocryphal book of Jubilees makes this connection between the holiday of Sukkot and Abraham and Sarah’s hospitality clear. It tells us that part of their preparations for their holy guests was, in fact, building the first sukkah to shelter them.
What would the world look like if we treated everyone we encountered as worthy of our attention? What would our Jewish communities look like if every person who walked through a door were greeted like Abraham and Sarah’s guests? What would the world look like if we treated even people we don’t know across the globe with that degree of humanity?
Sukkot is the holiday of the open tent. It seems it should be the most accessible holiday, but unfortunately it is also one of the harder holidays to celebrate. Not everyone has the space or strength to build a sukkah. If you are fortunate enough to have one, imitate Abraham and Sarah during the remaining days of the holiday and welcome someone who has never been to a sukkah or doesn’t think he knows enough about Judaism to partake. There is a kabbalistic custom to invite ushpizin, ancestral, transcendent guests, into the sukkah. But even more important is filling your sukkah with real, flesh-and-blood visitors. This Sukkot, may we go above and beyond to make people feel like the divine guests that they are—when they enter our institutions, our work, our homes and our tents.
We here at InterfaithFamily believe, like the rabbis of old, that language is extremely important. The rabbis of the Talmud wrote about the power of words. God created the world with words. God said, “Let there be…” and there was. The rabbis said that to embarrass someone was akin to killing their soul (bringing blood to the face). They spoke against lashon harah (gossip—literally the evil tongue). There are prayers about guarding our tongues from evil and our lips from deceit. The Amidah, the central prayer in the Jewish worship service, begins with a line asking God to open our lips that our mouth can declare God’s glory. The old adage, “sticks and stones can break our bones but words can never hurt us” is indeed not very Jewish. The words “thing” and “word” in Hebrew share the same root “d’var” teaching that our words create reality.
It is because words are so important that you may notice that we avoid using the term, “non-Jew” because we don’t promote the idea that someone can be a “non-entity.” We rather say, “someone not Jewish.” You may feel that this is just semantics, but we disagree.
Many Jewish institutions ask people if they are affiliated with a congregation on membership forms and surveys. The Jewish world wants to know who is a member of a synagogue and what behaviors they have as opposed to people who are not members of a synagogue. We are also interested in tracking synagogue membership for dozens of other reasons (although the topic of another blog, I personally believe it is extremely difficult to raise children with Judaism without the help of a congregation or organized community whether school, community center or chavurah).
Here are my top five reasons for not using the word “unaffiliated” anymore:
This is an insider Jewish professional term that creates even more distance between the paid leaders and the people. Sometimes people do not know what it means to be “affiliated” and thus again on Jewish flyers and brochures are words and sentiments that don’t ring a bell or resonate and can make people feel like outsiders.
Affiliation is a euphemism (don’t you love euphemisms?) meaning that someone pays synagogue dues. In rare cases, someone may feel so connected to a Jewish Community Center that they feel they “go” there or “belong” there but by and large this term is asking if someone is a member of a synagogue. If we want to know if someone goes to a synagogue, we should ask that and then explain why “we” want to know that.
People may be affiliated with many different things that bring them closer to Judaism and this question, implying synagogue membership, is outdated, not nuanced and doesn’t refer to the interesting places people go and what that brings them there. For instance, some people are affiliated with or connected to secular non-profits like food depositories, animal shelters, hospitals and educational programs. Volunteer work for these causes brings sacred purpose and is done in the name of tikkun olam (repairing our broken world).
Some people have been turned off by synagogues and being asked over and over whether they are affiliated with a synagogue can feel like a reminder that they are outsiders, or even different from “good” Jews and that their disconnect is problematic. Maybe we should be asking people what synagogues could offer or feel like, and whether they would like to have clergy in their lives for counseling, life cycle events and learning opportunities. It’s not that people don’t want this. They are not sure if they will find these things in synagogues.
Jewish leaders have a goal of increasing affiliation rates. There are many reasons for this. Interfaith families connected to congregations typically have high levels of Jewish behavior like celebrating holidays, sending children to religious school, etc. Jewish leaders want to ensure that people are “doing Jewish” because it is a civilization and a way of life worthy of living and passing on, and because we care about Jewish continuity. I think synagogues, in theory (and many in practice), are definitely the best vehicles for helping people live Jewishly and pass it on to the next generation. But because it is “positive” to be affiliated, it can be interpreted as “negative” to be unaffiliated, as though one is harming the Jewish people. Nobody wants to wear or own a negative label or have a finger pointed at them.
Language matters. Labels matter. This is how people end up feeling connected or disconnected. If we stop calling people “unaffiliated” and start talking about who they are, what they are interested in or what would make them want to join or help create an organized Jewish community, we may find more answers.
This guest blog post is by my husband, Andrew Garnett-Cook
Andrew at a Phish show
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.