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Where do Jewish-Christian interfaith families turn to find a community of like-minded souls? A church and a synagogue? A third-space option such as Unitarian Universalism, or an interfaith Sunday school that includes both traditions? What about muddling through without religious community, either due to living largely secular, busy lives or an inability to find out what might work best?
These questions have been on my mind lately as my family has participated in a tiny, fledgling interfaith group in Chicago’s North Shore. The group started enthusiastically last summer with a planning meeting and several families, only to see attendance decline over the course of the fall.
What happened to the initial enthusiasm? The group met monthly, alternating between a local synagogue and Episcopal church, both of which congregations had histories of friendliness to intermarried couples and families. We gathered for an hour once a month, with crafts for our children and conversation about holidays for the parents.
The idea—to learn about holidays based on the liturgical years of Judaism and Christianity—seemed promising at the start. Holidays offer one of the easiest entrees into an unfamiliar religious community, so the topic held promise.
Yet over the course of the fall, participation drifted away. My family attended eagerly at first, but at the second meeting, and then the third, my children wondered where we were going. Who would we see? Which church was this again, and had they been there before? Why couldn’t they stay with their parents, and why did they have to go off and do crafts with a babysitter they couldn’t remember? I sympathized with their questions: Even with nametags, I didn’t feel confident that I remembered the other participants from month to month.
One afternoon in December, both of my kids had colds and felt exhausted from their swimming lessons earlier that Sunday morning. My husband wanted to stay home and cheer on his favorite football team in their run for the playoffs, and knowing how he felt about his team, didn’t want to drag him away from the important event.
As it turned out, only one family attended that afternoon, a new family looking for an interfaith community. No one else, except the clergy, were in attendance to greet or welcome them.
What had happened? The group started with perhaps a conflicting set of goals. Would the group offer a “third option” for interfaith families along the model of The Interfaith Union School in Chicago or Washington, D.C.,’s Interfaith Families Project? What would be the role of the two clergy who offered so generously of their time? Certainly, they each welcomed all the families to their own congregations, a Reform Jewish congregation and a liberal Episcopalian parish.
The success of groups like this require families like mine to think about these questions, even if obliquely. What kind of interfaith community do we want? Do we want a third space option through which our children can learn about both traditions? And wouldn’t this option be convenient: we hardly have the time or clarity to set down roots in one congregation in one tradition, much less in a third?
For families already involved in other congregations in the area, the idea that they could also find both time and emotional energy to invest in a new “third space” option alongside other religious commitments boggled my mind. If any family can find time for possibly three religious groups, plus the myriad other activities with which modern family life consumes itself—from work to school, friends, sports, extra-curricular activities and other options unexplored—my family wasn’t one of them.
In fact, my family’s consistent participation in organized religion remains a question mark. While our daughters dance on Saturday mornings and swim on Sundays, what sometimes seems to be a slippery slide into being religious “nones” dances around the edges of our schedule. As much as we love our children, we parents long to do other things with our mornings: visit museums, go on bike rides when the weather warms, and as we make this list, finding religious community slips farther down on the list. Our dance steps falter and we crash headlong against the difficulty of doing even most of what we would like to do, much less doing it all.
I don’t know what will happen to this particular fledgling interfaith religious community. So many variables come into play as each family decides what to do with their own lives, schedules and priorities: to participate in religious community, or not participate at all? How to fit in what can seem like just one more activity, one more commitment among the many deserving possibilities that need our time?
No one family’s answer will fit for all, but perhaps, with luck and effort, enough similarities will emerge and a way forward will coalesce for a critical mass of interfaith parents and children.
How has your interfaith family answered the challenge of religious community in a busy world?
Recently, my family and I attended a “Sunday in the Park with Bagels” event sponsored by Big Tent Judaism, which appeared to be a consortium of Reconstructionist and Reform Jewish organizations, including InterfaithFamily.
I didn’t research the event beforehand and didn’t know what to really expect. Bagels were a great selling point, of course! But I thought it would just be few families camped out on blankets, eating bagels. I learned about the event from the IFF/Chicago’s Facebook group, and knowing how my family feels about bagels at any time of day, I knew it would be something we’d enjoy, particularly in a park on a nice sunny morning. I had no idea that we’d be a part of a very well-attended and well-thought-out morning of Jewish education and, yes, bagels.
When we arrived, we found more than a dozen tents, each hosted by a local Jewish organization and featuring a food and a craft activity based on a moment in the Jewish liturgical year.
The first table we visited was Rosh Hashanah, and Laurel jumped at the chance to decorate an apple with stickers and crayons, as well as stringing beads on it to make a necklace. We didn’t follow a regular order from table-to-table, as Laurel spent considerable time decorating her apple, and 2-year-old Holly preferred to wander much more speedily from table-to-table in search of games and, preferably, food.
Both children eagerly rolled blue paper around two toilet paper rolls, topped with silver tin-foil points, to make their own tiny Torahs. We found the promised bagels at the Shavuot table, where Rabbi Ari wore a paper crown with green leaves. She helpfully explained that the leaves were a reference to the idea that Mount Sinai had actually been a desert oasis. Both kids ate the bagels with relief and delight! Laurel made a crown, while Holly determinedly stuffed bean bags directly into the goal point of the bean-bag-toss game.
Nearby, we saw representatives wearing gold paper crowns on their heads, and guessed correctly that we’d found Purim. Holly focused on the hamantaschen at the table, while Laurel skillfully decorated the front and back of an appropriately abrasively noisy wooden gregor. We somehow avoided Sukkot, which offered falling-down sukkahs made of graham crackers and melting green icing (in a summery and sugary rendition of a Jewish gingerbread house).
By the time we worked our meandering way to the Shabbat table, I found myself fully in the arts-and-crafts mode, too. At the Shabbat table, the craft consisted of using permanent markers to decorate a challah cover, and I wanted to help little Holly not get permanent marker all over the wrong places (such as her clothes). I grabbed a cut-out of a challah, placed it on the center of the cover, and traced it. Holly scribbled big black lines along the bottom. I grabbed a candlestick and placed it just above and to the left of the challah, and traced it. I was about to trace a Jewish star when I decided it would be really strange not to add the second customary Shabbat candlestick to my challah cover, so I traced a second candlestick as well, and drew a couple of free-hand flames on each. Holly scribbled gleeful blue lines all over the orange challah in the center. When we finished, we all enjoyed a slice of challah to cap the experience.
Working side-by-side with my children, I found an open and accessible entry point into the Jewish childhood I never had, but which my children are clearly enjoying. This version of Judaism centered on food and crafts rather than Torah, Talmud and ritual observance. Certainly, the emphasis came in part from the types of Jewish organizations sponsoring the event, but the end result emphasized Judaism as something accessible and fun for the whole family, even for family members of a different faith. Some of the crafts my kids made, like the challah cover or the gregor, will likely serve a ritual purpose in our home. The crafts allowed even the youngest of children a way to enjoy the Jewish environment.
Even more so, food is the great equalizer. By eating together, people cement their shared allegiance. That morning, it wasn’t the food of kosher laws that brought people together, but the simple act of eating foods in a Jewish context—from the menorah dripped with too much icing and sprinkles to the off-season hamentaschen (Purim cookie). Food transcended both age and artistic ability: Everyone, of whatever age or background could enjoy a slice of challah or an icing-dipped graham cracker. No wonder the tote bag said “We ‘heart’ Jewish food!”
This year, I’ll be celebrating my 13th Passover with my husband. As a way of introducing myself as a new InterfaithFamily parenting blogger, I want to reflect back on what’s become many years of shared Passover meals. I was happy to share some reflections on the December holidays in a post late last year, and I’m very glad to be starting a regular blog here with InterfaithFamily.
When I mentioned it to my husband, Ben, he was surprised to hear that we have shared 13 Passovers together. We met in graduate school for religious studies in 2001, and were married in an interfaith ceremony in 2005. I was raised Episcopalian, but have been involved with Unitarian Universalism for about 15 years; Ben grew up in Reform Judaism. We had our first daughter in the fall of 2009; at 5 1/2 she is a delight, and full of questions. Our younger daughter is just shy of 2 years old, and looks just like her older sister.
For my first Passover with my then-boyfriend, we traveled from our graduate school program to North Carolina, where Ben’s brother lived at the time. I would be meeting his family for the first time, and I worried endlessly about what to wear, what to say, what to do, and how to help. The mood at that first Passover was at times both joyous—as when my boyfriend’s family got out of their chairs and started to twirl each other in circles during “Dayenu”—and nerve-wracking, when the conversation turned to the current state of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I remember sitting through that conversation, terrified to say anything, lest whatever I said be the wrong thing to say. We used a homemade haggadah that my boyfriend’s father had created and recreated over the years, photocopying, cutting and pasting together his favorite versions of songs, poems, stories, and images. The obvious love that went into preparing the text for the meal impressed me, and gave me an early window into why Passover had always been my then-boyfriend’s favorite holiday.
For several years, I enjoyed learning about the Passover tradition Ben had enjoyed with his friends from college. Every year, a large group of twenty-somethings descended on someone’s vastly rearranged living room for a raucous seder involving jello Manischevitz shots, “death-by-matzah” (matzah covered in butter, brown sugar, and melted chocolate), plenty of good food and excellent camaraderie.
The year after we married, Ben and I hosted a large Passover seder at our new home in New Jersey. My mother’s siblings and some of their children lived in the area, creating a 13-person seder at which the only Jewish attendees were my new spouse and his parents. Thankfully, I am blessed with in-laws whose company I enjoy greatly, and the two mothers also like each other, which went a long way to create a joyous, rather than stressful, occasion. Ben adapted his family haggadah to be intelligible and approachable for the seder’s many gentile participants.
Two years later, Ben and I found ourselves living in rural North Carolina, in a town where the tiny Jewish population consisted almost entirely of retirees. We started hosting annual seders with some of our friends, all of whom were not Jewish and unfamiliar with the Passover seder. Ben had fully embraced the idea of the seder as a time when all people should experience the feeling of freedom that the ancient Israelites experienced in the Exodus, and I entered into that spirit gladly. Some friends came back year after year, looking for another taste of Ben’s family recipe of Sephardic charoset, or amusing renditions of songs like “Clementine” translated into verses about Passover. Perhaps, like me, they waited for the hilarity of these songs to die down, so that the peace offered by singing “Oseh Shalom” at the end of the seder could rise to the surface, and giving the evening with a sense of tranquil wonder. If peace is a type of freedom, that moment of peace always set my heart free to celebrate as a fellow traveler with the Jewish people.
When I was pregnant with our first daughter, I announced my pregnancy to our friends by drinking non-alcoholic wine at the seder, preferring that to the overly sweet taste of grape juice. Once Laurel was born, she added an increasing level of chaos to a meal that seemed, to her, to drag on for too long before real food appeared. Suddenly, matzah crumbs were everywhere, and one year, a haphazardly-thrown plush pull-toy plague ended up in someone’s water glass. We moved our seder from the dining table to the couches, allowing our increasingly mobile child, and our friends’ children, to enjoy themselves as we attempted to stay on track with the haggadah. Each year, Ben streamlined the haggadah more and more to make up for her small attention span and growling stomach.
When Laurel was three, we moved from North Carolina to the suburbs of Chicago, and our seders changed yet again. Some of Ben’s extended family live nearby, and and the past two seders became family affairs, painted with memories of too much pepper in the gefilte fish, or the year the power went out and the seder became a candle-lit night to remember.
Now, after over a decade of attending and hosting seders, I pitch right in. I know the recipes, and I know the main prayers. Last year we attended a seder at the home of some of Ben’s extended family, and I found that I know the traditions well enough to feel comfortable at someone else’s seder. It reminds me that even within families who celebrate the same holidays, traditions vary and the emotional tenor of an event can change with the hosts.
This year’s seder will present perhaps the biggest challenge yet. We’re hosting, and we expect to have 19 guests. Between my 22-month-old baby and my husband’s great aunt, who is in her 80s, our seder runs the gamut of ages and experiences. I am not quite sure if all of the guests will have chairs to go with the pillows on which they will recline, but I do know that I am excited to once again be a beloved stranger within the gates for a night that truly is like no other.
My Jewish husband and I (a Unitarian Universalist) might not have known what we were getting into when we decided to raise our kids Jewish—but keep celebrating Christmas—my favorite holiday. That was ten years ago. Fast forward five years, to this past January. We took our then-4-year-old daughter to a
I’ve since realized that, at the still-tender age of now-5 years old, our daughter is still learning what “religion” is, or to be more precise, what religions are. She knows what holidays are, and her memory is now good enough that she can recall many dazzling and exciting details about both of the upcoming exciting winter holidays: Hanukkah (lighting the menorah! Presents! The dreidel!) and Christmas (Santa! More presents! A pretty tree!).
But in her life, these two holidays are part of what’s still a continuous cycle of celebrations, which in our secular-religious American culture involves everything from Thanksgiving, Halloween and Martin Luther King Jr., Day to St. Patrick’s Day, July 4th and Columbus Day. That list doesn’t even include Easter and Christmas, or Passover, the High Holy Days and Hanukkah, but they too belong on her exciting list of yearly liturgical celebrations.
As the not Jewish spouse in our family, I share—but feel ambivalent about—our older daughter’s excitement about Christmas, which she proclaims as happily as she does her Jewish identity. I don’t really want her to want to sit on Santa’s lap, but I know she wants him to bring her presents, just as she wants a present each night when we light our menorah. I’d like to honor the promise I made to my husband before we got married that we’d raise our children in the Jewish tradition, but I don’t think I understood how children’s own expectations and perspectives about, say, something as pervasive as Christmas, might put an interesting twist on those well-meant decisions. As she gets older (and as her toddler sister grows, too), I know my husband and I will somehow help our children figure out why they shouldn’t mention the Christmas tree at a Tu Bishvat celebration. They will eventually learn that holidays can be secular, national or religious events and that they have different and distinct traditions of origin.
For now, I’m just glad that our daughter is eager to celebrate both traditions. Popular winter holiday books for interfaith children promote this “more the merrier” perspective on the winter holidays. In Blintzes for Blitzen, by Elise Okrend, a hungry reindeer enjoys a tasty Jewish treat during a break in Santa’s annual rounds. In My Two Holidays, by Danielle Novack, a confused schoolboy learns that although his friends celebrate one holiday, he gets to celebrate two. The more the merrier.
Neither book offers a clear perspective on what it means to celebrate two holidays: two distinct religious traditions practiced by one family. Nor do I believe that should be the primary goal of these books. My daughters, even our toddler, experience the wonder and joy of light in a dark time of the year. If they choose to celebrate either holiday, follow either tradition, in their adult years, it will likely be in part because of memories from childhood. If celebrating two holidays creates strong and hopefully happy, memories, then more is merrier indeed. Understanding that these two holidays are from two traditions will come as they each grow older and learn more about the world into which they were born. For now, I look only for the wonder in their eyes.
Emily R. Mace lives outside Chicago, IL, where she is the director of the Harvard Square Library and the co-parent of two young daughters. Follow her on Twitter @lemilym.
I just loaded my baby on a bus and sent him away for a month.
Ok, I realize it isn’t exactly a month. It is 4 weeks. Ok, I realize that it is 2 days shy of 4 weeks. Yes, you are right, my baby isn’t a baby really… he is a big boy of almost 12. But, still, I loaded my baby on a bus and sent him a way for a month.
He is going to, what we call, Jew Camp. We laugh about Jew Camp, because we are the only family in our general area with a kid going to Jew Camp. We aren’t going to Happy something camp, because we aren’t Christian. All the kids in our area go to the Happy something camp. The parents talk to me endlessly about it. You would think I would be able to remember the name. I always tune them out and smile sweetly and say, we got camp covered. One parent persisted in knowing exactly what our plans were, and my daughter looked up at her and said, “We go to Jew Camp. You can’t come.” End of conversation.
As I watch the bus pull out of the parking lot, I know that for many reasons it is the right thing. First, he loves it. He loves the activities, the kids, the counselors, everything. Second, he will come home referring to most things in Hebrew. He will sing the prayers every night. He will come home from this experience feeling entirely Jewish. He will feel like he is part, of as my daughter implied, an exclusive club and it is a pretty awesome club.
My oldest son has many things about him that aren’t like the other kids. Aside from the fact that he has some special needs that separate him from the others, he is a Jew in a sea of Christianity. For a month this summer he will be just like everyone else. When he makes a joke in Hebrew the kids will get it… well if they don’t at least it won’t be because they don’t understand. When he references Torah and his
I am certain that these kids don’t really talk about that sort of stuff. But, I think they know that the other kids “get” them. They know that no one is going to give them a hard time because they are not going to see Santa or celebrate Easter. These kids will all embrace Shabbat and celebrate it as it was meant to be celebrated. There is a party going on right here and it is all about being Jewish. Mac comes home from camp feeling love for his Jewishness. What more could we ask for?
As I watched my somewhat socially awkward child board the bus without a care in the world, laughing with his friends, I knew in my heart I did the right thing. He was confident, happy and full of joy. I realized that I was in fact doing a good job. We will miss him.
As I pulled into the parking lot at the temple, I was amused by the fact that my van, which is being held together by duct tape, string, paper clips and prayer, was parked next to a new Porsche. The juxtaposition of the two vehicles seemed to represent how I felt about going into my son’s
I walked in, saw familiar faces, said some hellos, got my folder, sat down and whipped out my knitting. I knit when I am nervous. The meeting started right on time (odd, I know). The Rabbi asked us to introduce ourselves and tell a story about our experience with Bar/Bat Mitzvahs. I have no story. The only story I have is the one I am telling you all right now. Knit, knit, knit. I messed up the introduction. Knit, knit, knit.
The Rabbi begins to go over everything. He talks about how each ceremony is structured to fit the needs of each child and their family. I am still knitting, but it is slowing. I am starting to feel calmer, or maybe the magnitude of the whole event is just so overwhelming that I am in shock, hard to tell. More talking. Eventually, there is a need for some paper shuffling and I put my knitting away. I am starting to think this is doable. Planning is something I am good at.
Just as the calm is beginning to settle in, the dates are handed out. I am not sure what I expected, but what was printed on that green index card was a shocker for me. I think I expected that the Bar Mitzvah date would be within a few weeks of my son’s birthday, not almost three months later. I am sure that the fact that an actual date makes all of this real also contributed. I was shell-shocked by the information on the card.
I could have requested a date. I didn’t do that. I just figured they would give us the right date. It is two years from now, so really, I don’t have anything scheduled. When I got the date, all the days that would have been bad flooded my mind. The anniversary of my father’s death is in the same month as Mac’s bar mitzvah, but it never occurred to me to request it to not be on that date, it was so far away from Mac’s birthday.
While driving home I called a friend and freaked out a bit. She listened to me go on, and then calmly reminded me that this is G-d’s party and that what will be will be. The people that are important will be there. That this is about more than just dates and the potential for blizzards to cause havoc with travel plans. That in the end, it will be ok, Mac will do great, and everyone who needs to be there will be there. The people that love him will come.
I asked her to remind me of this over the next two years when I am having some sort of cosmic meltdown. I also am laying in a goodly supply of yarn, just in case.
My kids just walked in the door. The boys are laughing and retelling stories of their afternoon and laughing some more. As they grab something to eat, they both agree that they love to go to Religious School. Assembly was so much fun this week, they tell me. The Rabbi is hysterical.
Jewish education is part of developing a strong Jewish identity. I was always uncertain about how the kids would respond to what seemed to me to be “extra” school. But the Educator does a great job making it fun for everyone. This is great, because our belief is that unless you are sick, you are going to Religious School. My husband and I do not generally let the kids miss for social events.
The problem is soccer, which is almost religion in our household. Our kids play soccer every single day, even in the snow. They kick the ball in the house, in spite of the fact that I tell them not to kick the ball in the house. Last winter, our middle son started to play on the local travel team. The travel team uses fields that are not available on Saturday mornings, so games are generally played on Saturday afternoons and Sunday mornings.
Can you guess what the conflict is? Do we as good Jewish parents let our kids miss Religious School to play soccer? Do we let the one kid who would die on the sword for soccer miss occasionally to do the one thing he truly loves? As the schedules were being determined for the soccer season, we request no practice on Wednesday. We ask for no games on Sunday mornings. But this isn’t always feasible.
We agree that it is important for the kids to develop a strong Jewish foundation and going to Religious School is part of creating a Jewish identity, it is also important to consider the whole child. Right now my kids like to go to Religious School. They understand the importance of going. We recognize that “making” them go when they might want to do something else could cause resentment.
Granted it is a slippery slope: miss a day for soccer and another for a play date, what if soccer practices conflict with Wednesday Religious School, everyone is too tired from the week, when does it stop? We walk a fine line maintaining the importance of obtaining a religious education/identity and living our lives in modern society. We work hard to keep that balance for our kids. This Sunday, while our youngest and oldest are in Religious School, our soccer player will be on the soccer pitch stopping goals. (He promised to study his Hebrew extra hard this week and to get the assignments he will miss so that he will be prepared.)
Greetings interfaith families!
As a Catholic who converted to Judaism three and a half years ago, I thought at first that my family and I had put the “interfaith” part of our religious life behind us. I was raised in an interfaith family—my mother was Catholic and my father at turns Baptist and Methodist—and let’s just say that religion was hotly debated in my childhood home.
My Jewish husband and I are raising our three children—ages 16, 11, and 7—as Jews. I’ve memorized the prayers and figured out how to make latkes. We’re active participants in our interfaith synagogue. I faithfully sat in on my older daughter’s Hebrew lessons and watched with tears in my eyes as she recited her portion at her
But I’m learning that in reality we will always be interfaith. When my mother died a few months ago after a brief, heartbreaking struggle with cancer, I found myself thrust back decades. Memories of my mother and I attending Mass, going to confession, and saying the rosary together came flooding back. It turns out the language of my grief right now isn’t Jewish—the prayers that pour out of me are Hail Marys and Psalm 23. I tried to say Kaddish to myself in her final moments, but couldn’t remember the words. Our family and friends, Jews and Christians alike, came to my mother’s funeral in a beautiful, old Catholic church on a chilly spring day. My youngest asked what the kneeling pads were for, which came as a weird shock to me. I’m trying to take comfort now in the fact that, as my husband pointed out, my mother is remembered in (at least) three faiths.