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.
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.
This week was my Bat Mitzvah Anniversary. I always feel a little lighter on my feet on my Bat Mitzvah Anniversary, like it is a mini-birthday that only I celebrate. I’ve never really talked to anyone about their Bat Mitzvah Anniversary, to find out if other people walk around reflecting on their day when it rolls around each year. There would be something religiously poetic about talking about this coming from a sense of my anniversary being some kind of a spiritual birthday, that I take time on March 25 to re-read my Torah portion, or to go to minyan. But that’s not really why I feel so light. It’s about a lot of other things; things about family and friends and a shift in how I perceived myself as an individual, Jewish or not.
I may be wrong, but I’d imagine that for many people who grew up Jewishly, whether you practice Judaism or not as an adult, your anniversary, or at least the memory of your Bar or Bat Mitzvah would carry a little of that. In my estimation, the main difference between having had a Bar Mitzvah and not is not whether or not you ever became an adult, or people ever talked to you about “becoming an adult.” It’s that if you had a Bar Mitzvah, there was a moment in time that stood out in marking that progression (even if it was years before adulthood set in), rather than the multitude of smaller events that mark the passage from child to teen to adulthood over time for all of us.
So what is my Bat Mitzvah Anniversary about for me? As much as we can recognize that in today’s society, a child is hardly an adult, or near that, at 13, there are some big things that happen when you become a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. First, of course, you are called to the bimah to read from the Torah – the first time you are fully able to do all of the things adults do during religious observance. Through Torah and D’var Torah (the speech), you make a commitment to begin engaging with your community as an adult – to try out being a grown-up. But the other stuff? Here are a few things:
The dress. Stepping aside from my interest in creating a post-feminist framework for my girls where a woman’s appearance isn’t such a big deal (referenced in my last blog post), I will say that a lot of my memories are about the dress. But it’s not about buying a dress because I needed to look pretty. It was the dress as a symbol of passage. My mother and I spent hours and hours shopping, and my father got involved, too. The conversations were not about whether or not I was pretty enough, they were about looking “grown-up,” finding a costume that was respectful of traditions and appropriately mature, but also comfortable. And it meant lots of one-on-one time with Mom, which made me feel pretty special, since I was the oldest of three. Whether or not the dress achieved the goal was yet another story, but the learning was in the process.
The party. My party was a luncheon at the temple. It was a big and wonderful production. While I have mixed feelings about how big is too big for a Bar or Bat Mitzvah party, I will say that if you take away the high-priced disc jockey and the gorgeous catering, my real memories are of the warmth of having everyone I knew and loved under one roof. This only happens a very few times in any person’s life, and I feel lucky that I had the unique experience of a Bat Mitzvah to make this happen an extra time for me. And perhaps it is not about being an adult, but I would argue there are very few things that make you feel as solidly grounded in the universe as being in a room full of family, familiarity and love.
The expression of individualism. A Bar or Bat Mitzvah is an important moment during which a child makes an individual journey within their community. The one-on-one tutoring with my cantor, studying and planning, and reading my D’var Torah in front of a room full of people, all demanded an inner focus and ability to differentiate myself from others in the crowd. If you can remember back to your pre-teen years, this is not something many of us were trying to do at that particular moment in time. Being forced to say “Here I am,” at 13 wasn’t just about preparing religious life, but for everything from planning my wedding to prepping for a professional presentation. It was a big deal for me.
So perhaps my Bat Mitzvah Anniversary is a mini birthday for my individuality and independence, or perhaps it is just a day to remember how lucky I have been to have lots of great people around me in my life. If you were raised Jewishly, perhaps some of this resonates for you. If you weren’t raised Jewishly, and you have a Jewish partner, or a child who has become a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, give them a mazel tov on their anniversary this year.
For four years, we tried a day school education for our son. For the first two years, it worked. The secular education was excellent, our son’s Jewish identity blossomed, and his knowledge of Jewish history, texts, and the Hebrew language grew.
But our overall satisfaction with the education didn’t mean that we thought the school was perfect. It wasn’t, no school is. We wished there was a greater sense of community and felt that the Jewish studies program was too narrowly focused. But our son was thriving, so it was easy to overlook these issues.
In our son’s third year, the school put in place a new administration. It adjusted the secular curriculum and teaching style in a way that didn’t work for our son. Now the lack of community and the prayer and language focus of the Judaic education nagged at us. Still, we gave the changes a chance. But by year four, it was obvious it was time for a change.
Moving from day school to a non-Jewish learning environment meant that our son would attend religious school starting in the fall. Some of our extended Jewish family and the day school administrators suggested that we let him skip it for a year since he would be ahead of the other students. I wouldn’t consider it.
I didn’t care that he was practically fluent in Hebrew. I didn’t care that his understanding of the Torah was deeper than other children his age. I didn’t care that weekday Hebrew and Sunday school might be filled with much drudgery. And I didn’t care to listen to my son whine about going before he even attended a single class. He was going to religious school. Period. The end.
I explained to him that religious school was not optional and that it was something that a majority of American Jews endured; a right of passage. I told him that if he didn’t go he’d feel left out when all of the other kids complained. I wanted him to have something to complain about too.
I knew it was futile to try to convince him that religious school was fun. I wasn’t sure it was. I knew from my position as a trustee at my synagogue that the religious school staff was working to improve the experience, but I wondered how much improvement there had really been in the past 30 years.
But it didn’t matter to me whether religious school changed a little or a lot. My son was still going. I cared too much about a Jewish future to make it optional.
People think that the faith of a marriage partner is a monolithic determinant of Jewish identity. It’s not, but Jewish education is. According to a 2008 Steinhardt Social Research Institute study, “every additional hour of Jewish education received has an exponentially greater impact than the hour that came before” on the relevance of Jewish identity and attitudes towards Israel.
Another significant predictor of future Jewish engagement is community. The Steinhardt study found that adults who grew up “with more densely Jewish social networks are…more likely to engage in ritual practice…and to raise their children as Jews.”
Religious school might be universally loathed, but it is a shared activity. And shared experiences create bonds. Like it or not, religious school bonds most American Jews. It builds community.
Over the course of a few hours each week, Jewish kids engage with other Jewish kids. For some, it’s the only time they interact with other Jews. For others, like my son, it’s a place to rekindle relationships with preschool friends and reconnect with kids from overnight camp. This community is what makes religious school tolerable, and dare I say it, enjoyable.
My son may complain about going, but on the way home he always says he enjoyed it. He likes his teachers, likes the discussions, and loves seeing his buddies. I’m surprised and thrilled because as Deb Morandi’s recent blog post points out religious school is not enjoyed or even tolerated by all.
I give Deb credit. She has not given up on Jewish education and is trying to find an alternative that can help make being Jewish meaningful and enjoyable for her children. Luckily, there are many choices that involve various levels of parent engagement. I hope Deb and other parents in similar situations find an educational method or tool that works for their family because education is too important to a Jewish future to be optional.
The other day, Ruthie and I were talking about one of her favorite topics—her cousins. She ticked off each one’s name, and talked about something special about them, or what they did the last time they were together. Then she started talking about some friends who are like family—she often brings up this topic of what to call her friends who are like family but who aren’t blood relatives. In speaking about two sisters in particular from a family that we often celebrate Jewish holidays with, she changed the subject a little bit.
“So,” she asked me, “which one of their parents wasn’t Jewish when they met, the mom or the dad?”
“Actually,” I told her, “they both were Jewish when they met.”
“Oh,” she said, and kept talking.
This was not a monumental question to her, but it gave me pause. Neither good nor bad, but it gave me pause. To her, the question was completely logical. First of all, there was no judgment in it. It wasn’t good or bad if they were or weren’t Jewish, it was just a normal question to her about families.
In Ruthie’s Jewish family (my side), most of the pairings in my generation are interfaith. In fact, of my three siblings and six first cousins, only one person has married someone from a Jewish background. This does not stand in the way of our lighting Hanukkah candles together or sharing the Passoverseder. What’s more, an openness to mixed faith couplings has brought seven fantastic people into our family, seven more adults who nurture and support our foursome.
Because of this, Ruthie really hasn’t been exposed to the idea that being Jewish necessitates having two Jewish parents. It is just not part of how she understands her identity. While I spend time every month blogging about navigating a somewhat new path in embracing multiple forms of Jewish identity, Ruthie thinks our family is completely ordinary within our religious community.
When she asked the question, my mind started embracing the 21st century outlook for interfaith families. I went to an exciting place: That maybe because of the work of community leaders, generous rabbis, individual families who choose love and acceptance and, of course, InterfaithFamily, our girls won’t ever know to feel different. They will know that we are Jewish through our actions. As they grow up they will understand that they have a choice about spirituality and connection to a religious community. If we are successful, the girls will understand that our goal as parents was to show them our choice, in the hopes that they’ll love it, but also in the hopes that they understand the benefits of choosing to make space for these connections in their adult lives.
Another interpretation might be that Ruthie is 6. I wasn’t raised in an interfaith family myself, so for all I know every 6-year-old thinks that all families must be like their own, religiously or otherwise. Perhaps 6-year-olds with interfaith parents have been asking this question for generations; I have just never encountered their stories.
So, earth shattering or not, I have a new inspiration. To hold onto the kernel of celebration that I felt in that moment. To hold onto the idea that I can raise my girls in an environment where their Jewish identity is about our actions, and not about a rule that would prohibit the loving home Eric and I have created as a couple. To create a place where they can relish the heritage they carry on through the multiple traditions from both sides of their families, but also firmly choose a path of spirituality and connection that is personally fulfilling to them. And, ideally, to imagine a time that feels not that far off when being interfaith will be an important part of how we understand, respect and love our extended family, but won’t be a significant facet of our Jewishness.
There has been a lot of discussion in my Interfaith home this holiday season, but not about what you would think. My husband is Jewish, I am not, and we decided more than nine years ago when our twin sons were born that we were going to raise them Jewish.
We had many reasons: My husband knew more about his religion than I did mine, relatives we lived near are Jewish, the list goes on and on. This has not come into question, nor has the age-old “Do we have a Christmas tree” dilemma. We have a tree and celebrate Christmas out of respect to my heritage and family in a secular way. This had all been ironed out years ago and I think we navigate it pretty well. What is being discussed now is how we are on the verge of quitting Hebrew school. We have been struggling for months with what the right decision is and no matter how we spin it, it comes down to: Hebrew school just isn’t working for our family.
But after reading Hila Ratzabi’s article this week in the Forward about providing individualized at-home Hebrew school education, I realize there might be hope for a solution. The mere words “Hebrew school” bring tears from my boys because they are so miserable. This leads to my husband and me having the same conversation about how he needs to be more involved and do more to work with them. But the truth is, I can’t give them their Hebrew education and my husband works long hours and just isn’t home during the week at homework time.
So what does this mean? I think I am better able to express what it doesn’t mean. Going to Hebrew School doesn’t mean you should be this upset at the mere thought of it. Hebrew school shouldn’t be so dreaded that my sons question why their father has to be Jewish in the first place.
I have talked to the Hebrew school teacher and the religious director numerous times and it isn’t their fault. The whole format just isn’t working for us. Hebrew being taught without context at the end of a long day is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to why I sadly feel convinced we made the wrong decision two years ago when we started sending the boys to Hebrew school. We keep trying to make it work, but I think all our efforts have actually made it worse. We have let the boys suffer too long, and forcing them to endure another four years isn’t going to make them want to identify Jewishly afterwards.
So what happens now? Being the parent who is not Jewish, I have trouble visualizing the alternatives. We already chose Judaism rather than my religion, so I don’t want to change course now, and raising them with no religion doesn’t feel right. My husband also has a hard time visualizing the alternatives because he grew up going to a Conservative synagogue and thinks of Hebrew school as “just something that is boring and miserable for all Jewish kids.” This doesn’t seem right either.
Then I read Ms. Ratzabi’s article, and I started to think that maybe my feelings about Hebrew school had some merit. Could there be another way to navigate raising my sons with Judaism in their lives that they might actually enjoy? Could there be a way to hang on to a tangible sense of Judaism without going to a traditional Hebrew school?
The Jewish community is concerned with people making Jewish choices, but what happens when they do? It’s not always a happily ever after, this was a perfect fit, storybook ending. What resources do we turn to, to help navigate a less traditional path so that we don’t abandon practicing Judaism altogether? There has to be a way to create an educational experience that, although non-traditional, is still equally meaningful and respected in the Jewish community’s eyes.
I am not sure what the next steps will be for my family, but I hope there is a path out that there works for us. One that can illustrate to my boys that being Jewish can be meaningful and even enjoyable. If you have any tips or thoughts on this subject, please share!
When Sammy was little, everything about being Jewish and celebrating Jewish holidays was “awesome.” His love of all things Jewish stemmed, in part, from his loving and joyful experience at the preschool at our synagogue. It also came from a conscience effort made by me and Cameron to make religious engagement enjoyable.
As I wrote in Rosh Hashanah Party for the New Year, Cameron and I felt that when we were children faith was more serious than fun. We believed that this more formal approach to religion was one reason many in our generation were less religiously engaged as adults. In my own family, I had siblings and relatives–inmarried and intermarried–who celebrated Jewish holidays because they felt obligated to; not because they found them meaningful or fulfilling.
We wanted Sammy to have a different relationship with faith. We wanted him to see the joy in Judaism, so we tried to create fun and memorable celebrations. These holiday observances had a strong community component in order to help nurture Sammy’s connection to Judaism and the Jewish people.
When Sammy was in preschool, we decided to host a Jewish New Year party. We created a carnival-like atmosphere in our backyard for Sammy and our friends’ families to enjoy. We had games and holiday crafts and apple and honey-themed treats.
We had an apple beanbag toss, a kid-safe version of bobbing for apples using Nabber Grabbers, and a Pin the Apple in the Tree game. There were Rosh Hashanah-themed coloring pages, a Design Your Own Apple Tree craft, and apple-shaped cookies to decorate. It was a lot of work, but it was, in the words of my then-preschooler, “awesome.” Our friends and their kids also loved it; so much so, that we decided to make it an annual event.
After several years of our Rosh Hashanah backyard carnival, Sammy and his friends outgrew the crafts and games. Our party had become too babyish. When Sammy told me this, I was a little shocked. He was still my little boy. Wasn’t it just yesterday that he stopped wearing diapers? How could he be too old for coloring pages and the beanbag toss?
However, the fact was that he stopped wearing diapers four years earlier, and sports were now much cooler than Pin the Apple in the Tree. Sammy asked if we could replace the little kids stuff with gaga. Gaga is an Israeli variation of dodgeball that is played in an octagonal or hexagonal shaped pit and is popular at US Jewish summer camps and day schools.
So, in order to maintain the awesomeness of our Rosh Hashanah party, we turned our backyard into a gaga pit. Doing it was a real sign of Cameron’s love for me and Sammy. Cameron derives much pleasure from working in the yard, and he sacrificed his grass for his Jewish family. I could tell that it took a lot of emotional energy for him to remain calm as he watched the lawn disappear inside the large space we used for the pit.
Once we established gaga as the party activity, I thought we had found a way for the tradition to grow with the kids, but Sammy and his friends were one step ahead of us on the coolness ladder. Last year we were told that gaga was out (Cameron was thrilled!), and choose your own adventure (or activity) was in. We adapted again.
We moved the party to a park in our neighborhood and invited our friends for coffee, juice and sweet (in honor of the New Year) breakfast treats. Some families brought their dogs and others brought balls. The kids played Frisbee, basketball, baseball and other games they invented; the adults spent time catching up.
The celebration was…awesome, and it was about what it has always been about: sharing the holiday with our community, creating happy Jewish memories for our family and friends, and helping Sammy and his friends learn to associate observance with fun and enjoyment, rather than simply obligation.
When we host our annual Jewish New Year celebration this weekend, it will again follow the freedom-to-do-what-you-want model, and I imagine that we will stick with this format for a while now that Sammy is moving into the tween years. But then again, it might change. If I’ve become hip to anything over the past few years, it’s that we must evolve to remain awesome. Just as we sometimes need to rethink our celebrations in order to keep them relevant to the next generation.
My feeling that the community is what makes camp special was reinforced when we dropped-off our son.
Last summer I wrote about that sometimes-indescribable element that makes Jewish summer camp special (See Jewish Summer Camp’s X Factor). I said that I thought Jewish summer camp’s specialness came from its sense of community and that feeling was recently reinforced when my husband and I brought our son to camp last week.
On the two-hour drive home after drop-off, my husband and I talked about camp and what makes the one we’ve chosen for our son such a wonderful experience for our family. As we talked, one word kept coming up: community.
We all have many communities that we are a part of including neighborhoods, synagogues, workplaces, schools, volunteer organizations, social media, and ethnic and cultural associations to name a few. But while my family finds connection and fellowship through many of these outlets, there is something unique about our son’s camp community. As a camp staffer recently said in a blog post, “We have one of the most welcoming communities I have ever been a part of.”
Now, this is not an advertisement for my son’s camp, but I do think our experience is worth considering as you look at and evaluate camps for your child. Here are several things that make our son’s camp community remarkable:
1)Community is built before opening day. A connection to camp is nurtured months and weeks before a child (and family) arrives for the summer. New families are matched with existing camp families in their area who have children in the same age group. The seasoned campers act as buddies for the freshman, welcoming them into the camp family and getting them excited for the summer. The families form relationships too and parents of existing campers become a resource for first time moms and dads.
Another way community is created pre-camp is through The Jewish Agency for Israel’s summer shlichim program. This program places Israeli young adults in staff positions at Jewish summer camps in various countries including the United States. My son’s camp brings the Israeli staff to the US several weeks before the start of summer for training.
When the Israeli staffers arrive, they spend two to three days with a camp family before traveling to camp for training and summer prep. This creates a beautiful home-camp connection. The families welcome the Israeli staff to Texas and the camp community, and in the 48 to 72 hour period, relationships are formed between the counselors and the families, deepening everyone’s bond with camp.
We have been a host family for the past two years. It has been a great experience, especially for our son who greeted “our Israelis” with huge embraces on opening day.
2) Camp is for children and families. One thing that impresses us about our son’s camp is that the experience is a family affair. While there is a tremendous focus on developing a child’s relationship to other campers, counselors, and the camp itself, the camp also works to make the entire family a part of the community.
Camp starts on a Sunday, which allows parents to drop off their kids. This gives families a chance to experience the beginning of camp together, to visit the facilities, and meet the staff and other parents. Because of this opportunity to participate in the start of camp, we have developed relationships with the families of our son’s bunkmates and stay in touch with them throughout the year.
On opening day, parents and campers reconnect in the field outside the camp gates while they wait to check in. In between lines of cars are clusters of parents and children, greeting each other with hugs, talking, laughing, and catching-up on each other’s lives. Parents are encouraged to stay for lunch to continue the bonding. I think my husband and I had as much fun on opening day as my son did!
3) Audacious hospitality is practiced. One of the most notable things about our son’s camp is its welcoming spirit. Hospitality is embedded in the camp’s DNA and is embodied in the phrase, “Welcome to camp!”
The family guide begins with “Welcome to GFC.” Counselors and campers yell out, “Welcome to camp” in videos. Staff and volunteers from the camp committee greet you with a hearty “Welcome to camp” when you arrive. Campers welcome visitors in the same way, without a counselor asking them to.
You might think that this phrase sounds canned and insincere, but it’s neither. It’s simply genuine hospitality practiced regularly, by many people, and in many ways. And it’s contagious.
At lunch on opening day, my husband and I sat with a couple that was sending their child to overnight camp for the first time. Neither parent grew-up in Texas or had a prior connection to camp. When they told us this we said, “Welcome to camp!” We shared with them what we love about the place, and introduced them to “our Israelis” and other people we knew who stopped by our table. I’m sure that if their child continues at camp, that one day this couple will welcome another new family in the same way.
This community is a big reason why we chose this camp for our son. We like the super-sized (or Texas-sized) Jewish welcome, as do many kinds of Jewish families including inmarried, intermarried, multi-cultural, LGBT, and more. There is something special about hearing someone say, “Welcome to camp!”
As you evaluate camps, consider more than the facilities, philosophy, and cost. Think about community. It’s what makes camp special.
Community is created pre-camp when Israeli staff arrive before the start of summer and stay with a camp family, creating a home-camp connection.
My grandfather and me in 1975 at my Jewish family's Christmas celebration wearing our matching gifts.
Christmas is a week away and many interfaith families are busy with preparations for their family celebrations – buying gifts, packing for travel to relatives, baking, decorating, and shipping presents. This makes many in the Jewish community nervous.
They worry that engagement in this Christian holiday will confuse children who are otherwise being raised Jewish or diminish their Jewish identity. They believe that participation in Christmas is religious syncretism and will make it less likely that Judaism will be passed on to future generations. They say that to be Jewish; a home must not include any other religious observances because they create ambiguity.
Many interfaith families like mine agree with the point that a home should have one religious identity, and that is why we have chosen a singularly Jewish path. But identifying as Jews does not mean that we ban Christmas from our homes or decline to participate in the holiday activities of our extended families.
What many within the Jewish community fail to understand is that, for a large number of interfaith families, including mine, Christmas is not religious. Yes, Christmas is technically a religious holiday, although it is not considered to be the most important by the Church. It is simply the most popular culturally and socially, and that is how many Jewish interfaith families honor it.
According to InterfaithFamily’s 2013 December Holiday Survey, 88% of us celebrate a secular Christmas that lacks religious content. We give gifts; we enjoy a holiday meal and festive foods, and spend time with relatives. Most of us celebrate Christmas in the same way as I did as a Jewish kid growing-up in a Jewish family.
My childhood Christmas included a tree in my home, dinner and gifts on Christmas Eve with my father’s Jewish family, and a similar celebration on Christmas Day with my mother’s Jewish family. It was a period when everything slowed down, and was a convenient time for my family to reconnect with out-of-town relatives we did not see on a regular basis.
I thought that my family’s celebration was entirely secular because we were Jewish, and it was not “our” holiday. So, I assumed, when I met Cameron that I would experience a more religious observance. After all, my in-laws’ faith is very important to them.
My father-in-law is a graduate of theology school and a layman in the Episcopal Church, and my mother-in-law sits on the vestry. They attend services most Sundays. But not on Christmas or Christmas Eve (too many “C&Es” – people who only attend church on Christmas and Easter).
What I have learned since joining the Larkins, is that just because a family is Christian does not mean that their observance of a Christian holiday is religious. The Larkin family Christmas has no religious component; no church services or prayers, no reading of scripture or discussion of the nativity story. It is with the exception of stockings and more decorations, the same as my childhood Christmas.
Christmas Eve is a buffet dinner and a grab bag with my father-in-law’s extended family, and Christmas is a lazy, relaxing day filled with food and gift giving. Like my Jewish family’s Christmas, the Larkin’s Christian Christmas is about enjoying time with family.
So the concern in the Jewish world about interfaith families’ religious observance of Christmas made me cull through my memories for my most religious Christmas moment. What I realized is that the most religious thing that my family has ever done on Christmas is light Hanukkah candles.
When Hanukkah falls on Christmas, we observe, the holiday, religiously after our secular Christmas. If we are in Dallas, Cameron, Sammy, and I light the candles at sundown in front of our tree often with Jewish friends. If we are in Vermont, we kindle the menorah with my in-laws, sister-in-law, and nephew. Sammy, Cameron, and I say the prayers in Hebrew and our not Jewish extended family read the blessings in English. In these moments, there is more religion, spirituality and talk of God than there is in any other part of our family Christmas celebration.
I wish more Jewish academics; leaders, professionals, and laypeople took the time to understand the significance or lack thereof that Christmas has in the lives of many interfaith families choosing Judaism. Instead, they assume, like I did, that because Christmas is a religious holiday any observance of it must be religious too.
They also assume that all intermarrieds are the same; we all raise our children in two faiths or none at all, and allow our children to choose their religion when they are older. Therefore, celebrating holidays from different faiths must be syncretic and confusing. But just as there are different kinds of in-married families – secular, cultural, ritually observant, and somewhere in between – there are different kinds of intermarrieds including ones who have a solely Jewish identity.
For interfaith families like us who have chosen Judaism, and nurture their Jewish identity year-round through Shabbat and holiday observance, Jewish education and community engagement; what happens on one day in December has little, if any, impact on our embrace of and commitment to Jewish life. Just as the lighting of a menorah with Jewish relatives by an interfaith family that has chosen Christianity does not call into question the family’s Christian identity.
For dual-faith or no-faith families observing Christmas may well create ambiguity and confusion. I do not know; I am not one of them. All I can say is that our Christmas celebration has no power to shape the identity of my Jewish (interfaith) household, just as it had no power to influence my childhood connection to Judaism. So excuse me for rolling my eyes at the prognosticators who predict that Jewish continuity is in jeopardy because people like me are celebrating Christmas.
The most religious thing our family has ever done on Christmas is light Hanukkah candles.
Sammy and I with my 96-year-old grandfather in October. We had a special visit.
About a month ago, I visited my 96-year-old grandfather at his skilled nursing facility in New Jersey while in the area for a family event. It was Shabbat morning, my favorite time to go see him.
My grandfather and I have always been very close. As the oldest grandchild and the only girl, we share a special bond that is different from the one he has with my brother and male cousins. I make it a point to spend time with him whenever I go east to see my family, and I always bring Sammy.
It is important to me to visit with him, even though I am not certain that he knows me or that Sammy is his great-grandson. My grandfather has dementia. On some visits, he does not seem to connect our smiling faces to any name or person that he can recall, but is just happy to have some visitors. On others, I can see that he recognizes me when I walk over.
But even with the uncertainty of his response, I still go and I still bring Sammy. I do not do this out of obligation, or because Jews are commanded to visit the sick. The mitzvah Bikur Cholim, a concept I learned from my grandfather when I was a young child, and he took me to visit his infirmed and elderly parents, tells us to be with someone who is ill because the presence of a loving and kind person is a gift that can lighten the burden of illness.
No, I do not perform this mitzvah because I am told to. I go to visit him because I love him, and I have a deep desire for him to know Sammy as best he can and for Sammy to know him, even though the man he will know is not the vibrant grandparent I remember. But I want Sammy to have some connection to the person he hears about in stories and sees in pictures.
I also go with Sammy because I want my grandfather to hear about my son’s life and our home, our Jewish home. See, I made a promise to my grandfather 12 years ago when Cameron and I became engaged that my children would be raised as Jews, even though Cameron was not one. I remember the conversation.
“Janey, will your children be raised Jewish?” my grandfather asked.
“Yes,” I said. “Cameron and I have agreed to have a Jewish home and raise our children as Jews.”
“Oh, okay. Is he going to convert?”
“No, I didn’t ask him to.”
“Okay. Well maybe one day he’ll decide to,” my grandfather said.
I understood my grandfather’s questions and his hopes. He was the oldest son of observant Jewish immigrants from Hungary. His father was a chazzan, a cantor, who grew-up at the Great Synagogue, also known as the Dohany Street Synagogue, in Budapest on the Pest side of the Danube. Judaism was a central part of his upbringing and identity, and Jewish continuity was important to him, especially given that intermarriage was widespread in my family.
He watched his son, my uncle; marry a woman who was not Jewish; as well as several of his brothers’ children. With my engagement, another generation was continuing the pattern. While some of my intermarried relatives raised children within Judaism, others had no connection to Jewish practice or community, or any other religion either.
As someone who was a young adult during World War II and the Holocaust, my grandfather understood that every Jewish child was precious to the community, and he did not want our family’s connection to the faith to disappear. He wanted some assurance that someone would pass on our tradition.
I know that he was glad to hear that Cameron and I would have a Jewish home, but I think that while he hoped for the best, he believed, like others in my family that our promise was empty and that little action would be taken to fulfill our commitment. Unfortunately, shortly after Cameron and I were married, my grandfather’s mental health began to decline. By the time Sammy was born, he had been moved from assisted living to the nursing facility’s memory unit.
He has never been able to experience or appreciate the central role Judaism has in our home. Yet, regardless of my grandfather’s mental state, I still want him to know that Cameron and I have kept our promise.
When we visit with him, I talk about the many things he and I have done together, and about my synagogue involvement and holiday rituals. I share with him Cameron’s commitment to and engagement in our Jewish home.
Sammy sings him Jewish holiday songs in Hebrew and tells him about his Jewish day school. He talks to him about his Jewish summer camp and his kippah collection that his not Jewish grandmother has crocheted for him. And because Sammy loves sports as much as my grandfather once did, especially tennis, he talks sports too.
I do not know if any of this means anything to my grandfather, but it is important to me that I demonstrate that I have honored the commitment I made to him, and show him, in whatever way possible, that his hope for a Jewish future is being realized through Sammy. So we will keep visiting, I will keep talking, and Sammy will keep singing Jewish songs.
Sammy with "our Israelis" Tal and Gilad. Two weeks ago, Gilad was in Dallas to help Sammy celebrate his 9th birthday.
Two weeks ago Sammy celebrated his ninth birthday. It was a day filled with love, excitement and camp.
The day started like all Saturdays do in our house, with cinnamon challah French toast and quickly progressed to getting ready for Sammy’s weekend sports event. This week it happened to be a swim meet.
Sammy was excited for this particular meet because he was going to graduate from the 8-and-under division to the 9-10 section. After his races we planned a celebratory family dinner at his favorite restaurant followed by his requested birthday dessert – a cookie cake like they make at camp.
The experience of overnight camp has been a powerful one for Sammy, and has impacted him in large and small ways. The cookie cake is an example of the little influences, while a phone call I received during his swim meet reminded me of the big ones.
Prior to one of Sammy’s races Gilad, one of the Israeli staff members from camp, called to say that he was in Dallas and would love to see us later in the day. “Absolutely!” I responded, “Join us for dinner and Sammy’s birthday celebration.”
We all have a special relationship with Gilad not because he was Sammy’s counselor, he was not, but because prior to the start of the summer we were his Texas host family. We volunteered to house for two days two staffers from Israel before they traveled to camp for orientation.
During that time we introduced Gilad and our other guest, Tal, to Tex-Mex food, Dallas culture, and the heat and humidity that is summer in Texas. They reminded us of the joy in welcoming the stranger and the magic that happens when we take time to disconnect from our busy lives and engage in meaningful conversations with others.
With Gilad’s call we had the opportunity to reconnect with one of “our Israelis” and give Sammy the gift of a little bit of camp on his birthday. When Sammy finished his race, I told him that Gilad would be joining us for dinner. “Yes!” he said with a celebratory fist pump.
It is said that camp is a great way for children to develop lasting relationships and deepen their connections to Jewish life. But it has done both of these not just for Sammy but for Cameron and me too. Opening our home to counselors from abroad enable all of us to participate in this bonding experience. It expanded our sense of Jewish community and brought us into a more personal relationship with Israel.
No longer are the events in the Middle East just something we read in the media or are interested in because of our affiliation with Judaism. Now they affect real people who we are in real relationship with. As we listen to the news we hope that Tal, who is finishing his military service, is stationed far from any potential conflict and we are thankful that Gilad is in the U.S. for the year while he works for The Jewish Agency for Israel.
I know that as Cameron and I discussed sending Sammy to a Jewish overnight camp we did not think of how the experience might benefit our family. Like many parents we focused on what camp would do for our child – help him unplug, build character and community, develop self-reliance, and create habits of Jewish engagement and practice. But what we have learned is that camp’s influence extends beyond the summer and children, and can touch the entire family.
According to the new Pew Center survey of Jewish Americans, 45 percent of intermarrieds are raising their children Jewish or partially Jewish by religion. That is great news since the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey found that only one-third of intermarrieds choose Judaism in some way.
But simply knowing that that the number of us living Jewishly has increased is not enough for me. I want to know why. Is it because of outreach efforts, changes in policies that have made some organizations more accepting of interfaith couples or a larger number of clergy who will officiate at interfaith weddings? Is it that more mixed faith couples are finding relevance in the history, culture, values, beliefs and observances of Judaism? Maybe the driver is something else.
Whatever it is, inquiring minds in the Jewish community should want to know. Why? Because if we want to build meaningful relationships with interfaith families or develop initiatives that entice families to explore Jewish life than we must understand what excites families like mine about Judaism and what attributes make religious connection important to us.
So in the interest of creating a better understanding of what drives intermarrieds to engage Jewishly, I want to share why Cameron and I have chosen a Jewish identity for our family. I recognize that our home is a sample size of one. But I hope that by sharing the drivers of our engagement that it will encourage other interfaith families to join the conversation and make their voice heard.
So here are the reasons we chose to be Jewish:
1. Community: A large part of why we decided that we would have a Jewish identity is because of community. When Cameron and I were dating we would often discuss how we should approach faith in the context of intermarriage. I wanted a Jewish home; Cameron wanted to celebrate both traditions. I needed to make a case for Judaism. While I could not provide a spiritual reason for having a Jewish family except that I did not believe in the divinity of Jesus, I did feel strongly about Jewish peoplehood.
I explained that there is a bond that unites every individual Jew with the larger Jewish community. This connection is expressed in the Hebrew phrase, Kol Yisrael arevim zehbazeh. All Jews are responsible for one another. I wanted my children to feel a part of this bigger group.
Cameron accepted the idea that there is more to being Jewish than faith and on the night he agreed to raise our children as Jews he said, “In our society you don’t need to do anything to feel Christian. We could do nothing in our home and our children would think they were Christian. There is more to being Jewish than just religion. For our children to be Jewish they need to be taught what it means to be Jewish.”
2. Deed vs. Creed: Modern Judaism’s emphasis on action rather than belief is another reason we chose a Jewish identity for our family. While I believe that there is something larger at work in the universe, Cameron is less certain that a divine presence exists. Since Judaism teaches that doing good deeds is more important than believing in a certain idea about God, there is no pressure to conform to or accept a specific religious belief.
Cameron was raised in a home that took its responsibility for serving the larger community seriously, so the concept of tikkun olam, repairing the world, was attractive to him. Regardless of what we each believed about God, we shared a view that our purpose is to make the world a better place. Judaism provided us a framework to teach this idea to our children.
3. One Family, One Identity: Before Cameron and I got engaged we struggled to resolve our faith in the home dilemma. We read books that presented various interfaith arrangements from pursuing one to conversion to raising children in two religions to joining the Unitarian church. But it was a class on interfaith relationships at the Center for Religious Inquiry in New York City that helped us to find a solution. A rabbi and a rector taught the course, and one evening they impressed upon us the importance of choosing one religion.
“Your child is asked to make a winter holiday art project. She can make only one,” said the rector. “She must choose red and green paper to create a Christmas theme or blue and white for Chanukah. It appears that this is a simple choice, but for a child being raised in a home with two religions, with no clear religious identity, this is not a choice between colored papers, it is a choice between mommy and daddy. And that’s a decision no child wants to make.”
The story shocked us into thinking about our situation from a very different point of view. Rather than focusing on the compromises and feelings of adults, it made us see a child’s perspective and asked us to consider how our decision would impact our future children. Neither one of us could think about putting our child in the position described. After the discussion Cameron told me that he was comfortable with raising our children as Jews because being Jewish was about more than faith.
I would love to know why other 45-percenters chose a Jewish identity for their family. I would also like to know why 55 percent of intermarrieds made a different choice. I believe that we need to go beyond the numbers to learn what is driving behavior so that we can more effectively engage interfaith families. Because let’s face it, with almost 60 percent of recently married Jews choosing a partner from outside the faith the future of Judaism depends on bringing more families like mine into the tent.