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 colorful booklet will give all the basics about this holiday which combines elements of Halloween, Mardi Gras and the secular new year. It is a holiday not only for children who know immediately that anything with a costume will be fun, but for adults too.
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.
This morning, the meeting I was in at the synagogue I work at in Dallas was interrupted by one of the rabbis on the clergy team. “I’m sorry I need to miss the meeting. There’s been a bomb threat at the JCC. Last week, 17 JCCs in cities around the country received threats. Today, seven more received them, including the one in Dallas. We’re meeting to determine our response and next steps. There will be a staff meeting in 15 minutes. Unfortunately, this is the world we now live in.”
Yes, unfortunately, this is the situation in which we live. I called my husband after the staff meeting at which we were briefed on the threat and security protocols for our building were reviewed. I shared what I knew.
“Hateful cowards!” he responded. After we had spoken, I went back to my office to try to return to my “to do” list. But my thoughts kept returning to the state of our union.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there were 867 cases of reported hateful harassment and intimidation in the 10 days after the November election, including in schools, business and on the street. The post-election incidents followed a year in which the FBI reported a 67 percent increase in hate crimes against Muslim Americans, and similar crimes against Jews, African Americans and LGBT individuals also increased. Overall, reported hate crimes spiked 6 percent. Since many incidents go unreported, the actual number was probably higher. As a Jew and a member of an interfaith family, it is my responsibility to demand and work toward inclusivity in the Jewish community and in this country.
Our country has been through dark periods before with leaders who refused to speak up and stand up for those suffering injustice and experiencing violence. We know the consequences of hate both on our soil and abroad. So why are our leaders and fellow Americans not doing more to stop this alarming trend of hateful harassment, intimidation and episodes of anti-Semitic, racist and xenophobic behavior? And, what will it take for our leaders and communities to say, “Enough”?
When will those who #ChooseLove speak louder than those who hate?
My mother-in-law’s email about Christmas gifts for her was simple: “Have composed an extensive ‘Wish List’ on Amazon for those who might be looking for ideas!” When I logged onto her list, I found her typical requests for puzzles and small housewares mixed in with requests for items such as “a picture of the three Dallas people” (that would be my family).
As I scrolled through her requests deciding what to purchase, I came across one item that puzzled me: “Jewish prayer book like in the temple.” I wondered why my mother-in-law wanted a copy of Mishkan T’filah; the prayer book my Reform synagogue used. I knew she loved to talk religion with me and I knew she was very spiritual but I was curious as to why she wanted a Jewish prayer book. My best guess was that she wanted to familiarize herself with some of the prayers before my son’s bar mitzvah in October.
I purchased a copy of the prayer book at my congregation’s gift shop, wrapped it and shipped it to my in-laws in Vermont so it would arrive well before Christmas and our arrival at their home for the holiday. I was eager for my mother-in-law to open the gift and to find out the reason for her very Jewish Christmas request.
On Christmas Day, I watched as my mother-in-law unwrapped the prayer book. Her eyes lit up, and she said, “Oh, I’m so happy to get this!” I couldn’t contain my curiosity any longer, and I asked her why she wanted a copy of the prayer book we use in our Dallas synagogue.
“Well, whenever we’ve gone to services with you I’ve always noticed how similar the liturgy is to our Episcopal church. I’ve enjoyed the services and wanted to read more of the prayers,” she answered.
I smiled. My mother-in-law’s generosity of spirit when it comes to religion never ceases to amaze me. Her openness to and curiosity about Judaism was present from the moment I met her. She always accepted my Jewishness and my husband and my decision to raise our son Jewish. She was involved in our Jewish life and educated herself about Judaism. She celebrated Shabbat and Hanukkah, participated in our son’s bris and will be a part of his bar mitzvah. She has never said, “No,” or “I won’t” or even “I’m not comfortable” to any Jewish thing we asked her to do.
I know I hit the jackpot in the in-law lottery. I know I’m lucky. Not all parents or in-laws of intermarried children are willing to bridge the religious divide or be so accepting.
About a week after we arrived home from our Christmas visit, I received an email from my mother-in-law with the subject line “Your Gift.”
Dear Jane, Want you to know I spent all yesterday dipping into your prayer book and being vastly impressed both with the lyricism of the prayers and the frequency of the liturgical elements exactly matching some of our Christian customs and events–perhaps if one studied all religions one would find common themes like that. I’ve got to dig out my “Judaism for Dummies,” and I’m trying to figure out some of the Hebrew–I make up my own pronunciation, of course, but it’s like I’m beginning to understand it a bit! Especially liked the Kaddish prayers and the post-Shabbat resolutions. Was talking with my friend Kathy at church today, and she wants to come over to the house to examine it, too. Thank you so much for adding depth to my spirituality!
The appreciation is all mine. Thank you for choosing love, for being a powerful example of how parents can navigate their relationship with intermarried or interdating children, and for modeling how to welcome and embrace the stranger.
Digging into some fish and chips, a meal with Jewish roots.
A week before Thanksgiving, I stood in the doorway of a building on Skulagata, a street in Reykjavik, Iceland, with my husband and son looking out at the North Atlantic and trying to find shelter from the blustery wind that was making the 30-degree evening feel much colder. We were waiting for our tour guide to pick us up for our search for the Northern Lights. Other tourists were waiting to be picked up by other tour operators. I started talking to a young American woman who was traveling alone. Our conversation turned to the election. I mentioned that I was concerned about some of the president-elect’s choices for advisors because of their association with the alt-right movement.
“My son and I are Jewish,” I said.
“Me too,” the woman said.
We talked for a few more minutes and then our guide arrived. The woman and I wished each other good luck in finding the Northern Lights and safe travels. As we drove out of the city, I smiled and started quietly humming the opening lines of Rabbi Larry Milder’s famous Jewish tune:
Wherever you go,
There’s always someone Jewish.
You’re never alone when you say you’re a Jew.
So when you’re not home, and you’re somewhere kind of newish,
The odds are, don’t look far, ‘cause they’re Jewish, too.
Milder was right; even in Iceland, which has a permanent Jewish population of about 100 people, it wasn’t hard to stumble across a fellow tribe member. After Iceland, we traveled to London, with a Jewish population of 172,000. I can’t say if we met any Jewish Londoners, but we did see a few Hasidic Jews snapping photos of Buckingham Palace as we walked back to our flat one evening, and we took in some Jewish history.
We walked through biblical times at the British Museum, which has a large collection of archaeological material and ancient art from Mesopotamia, Iran, the Levant (Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Israel), Anatolia (Turkey), Arabia and Central Asia and the Caucasus. Highlights of the collection include Assyrian reliefs, treasure from the Royal Cemetery of Ur, the Oxus Treasure, Phoenician ivories and the library of cuneiform tablets from Nineveh. Items from Ur, Abraham’s home which he left for Canaan, and Nineveh, mentioned in Genesis 10:10-12 as the home of Nimrod and again in the Book of Jonah, brought the stories of the Torah to life.
The Assyrian Flood Tablet, which tells the story of a plan by the gods to destroy the world using a great flood, was startlingly similar to the story of Noah. Utu-napishtim, a character in the Epic of Gilgamesh, was warned in secret by the god Ea that humankind would be destroyed and told to build a huge boat to ensure the survival of humans and animals. Birds were released from the ark before it landed safely.
This item was of particular interest to us because Noah is my son’s Torah portion for his bar mitzvah. It was cool to look at his parshawritten not in Hebrew, but in cuneiform! And versions of this familiar story existed at least 1,000 years before the Assyrian tablet. This object sparked a conversation about how Judaism developed and evolved from and in response to other ancient societies, and how the writers of the Torah made important stories from other cultures part of Jewish literature.
From the Bible, we jumped in Jewish time to the 17th century and the Spanish Inquisition by way of lunch at Kerbisher & Malt, a fish-and-chips restaurant. We learned that fish and chips have Jewish roots—Spanish and Portuguese Jews who fled the Inquisition introduced the crispy, light fish to the British. Typically, street vendors sold the fish from large trays hung from their necks. In the 1800s, fish shops, or “fish warehouses,” were serving fish with bread or baked potatoes.
Encounters with other Jews and discoveries of Jewish connections are intriguing because they remind us that we are part of something bigger, that our family extends beyond our family tree to include a community we feel connected to but do not know personally. This bond created between Jews by shared history and experience is called peoplehood. And it’s best learned through engagement in Jewish life.
I met my friend Tracie at an interfaith moms event at my synagogue. She was friendly, and we bonded over her husband and in-laws being from the same part of New Jersey as me. Tracie immediately got involved and eventually joined the interfaith moms’ leadership team.
Tracie was raised Christian but was raising Jewish children with her husband. Actually, in many ways, Tracie was raising Jewish children on her own in a house that she shared with her Jewish husband. Her husband Bob’s connection to Judaism ebbed and flowed. There were times where he taught Sunday school and then there were times when he completely disengaged and even argued that it would be easier to let the kids be Christian.
Tracie let Bob wrestle with his Judaism even when his wrestling was hurtful to her. During these times, she never reneged on her commitment to create a Jewish home. In fact, she doubled down on Jewish engagement for herself and her children – adult Jewish learning and lay leadership for her; Jewish preschool, religious school and summer camp for the boys.
One of the things that always struck me about Tracie was her embrace of Judaism, its traditions, and teachings, and her resolve to make them a part of her and her family’s life. Tracie, a voracious reader and an eager participant in various Jewish learning courses, was so knowledgeable about Judaism that people were surprised to learn that she wasn’t Jewish.
One day, I asked her if she had ever considered converting. She said, “Why do I need to convert to become something that I already feel I am?” She wasn’t offended by my question, and as many conversations go with Tracie, we had a great discussion about identity, boundaries, norms and more. I assumed she would continue living as a ger toshav, a person from a different religious background who accepts and observes the Noahide Laws (the seven commandments which are said to apply to people who are not Jewish), and certain other Jewish religious and cultural traditions.
The other day, I ran into Tracie in the halls of our temple after not seeing her for a while. She was leaving a pre-bar mitzvah meeting with one of our rabbis and her son who is preparing for his bar mitzvah in December. We hugged. It was so good to see her. She looked happy and sounded excited about her son’s upcoming milestone.
As we talked, she said, “I need to schedule some time to speak to you. I’m ready. I’m ready to make it official.” I knew what she was talking about. “It” was Judaism. I was surprised but not shocked, and really, just excited.
One of the beautiful parts of my job as the director of community engagement at my synagogue is that I oversee conversion and get to share in the journey of those interested in choosing Judaism. The experience is even more meaningful when I get to walk the path to an “official” Jewish identity with a friend or someone I’ve known for years because of their involvement in our community.
In these situations, I’m reminded of the gift an open, welcoming and inclusive Jewish community is because it allows those from other backgrounds to explore Judaism in their own way and at their own pace with no pressure to convert. The willingness to patiently nurture Jewishness in everyone, not just Jews, enables many ger toshavs to take their place among the Jewish people when it is right for them, rather than for a communal leader, spouse or future in-law. I’m so glad to be part of this kind of community and to be able in my professional life to be part of these journeys to Judaism.
The email had arrived a week before I was to travel to Houston to speak to a congregation about intermarriage and creating a Jewish home as an interfaith couple. It said that the following week, instead of regular Sunday school, there would be a program for sixth-grade students and their parents related to b’nai mitzvah and those children whose bar or bat mitzvah was in the fall of 2017 would pick their Torah portion.
Great, I thought, another pre-bar mitzvah project or meeting that I would miss due to work or a speaking engagement. Once again my not Jewish husband would be called upon to be the religious school, no, the Jewish parent. I was annoyed and disappointed that I wouldn’t get to be part of this activity with my son. I was grateful that my husband who has always been supportive of and involved in creating our Jewish home was willing to step in.
Because I wasn’t going to be at the program, I wanted my husband and son to know what to expect and to prepare them with any information they needed. I told one of our rabbis that my husband and son were coming without me. She said, “Jane, Cameron will be fine. In fact, he probably knows more than many of the Jewish parents who will be in the room. Just make sure he and Sammy know how many aliyahs you want or need. If you don’t have a big family with a lot of people to honor, Sammy only needs three.” (An aliyah is the honor of reciting the blessings over the Torah at the bimah before the Torah is read. During bar or bat mitzvah services, it is common for the bar mitzvah child to give these honors to family.) I passed the information on to my husband and son – three aliyahs.
I knew my rabbi was right. My husband would be fine. My son would be fine. In fact, my son was glad I wasn’t going to be there. He wanted to feel like he was in control of as much of the bar mitzvah planning as possible. My absence made him feel independent.
Still, I couldn’t believe I wasn’t going to be present when my son picked his Torah portion. I felt like I was missing out, not getting to be fully involved in the process, and that I was somehow falling down on the job of Jewish parent. At the same time, I smiled at the irony of the situation–the Jewish mom busy with other things leaving her child’s not Jewish dad in charge of making sure their son got to religious school and became a bar mitzvah.
As I spoke to the assembled parents at the congregation in Houston on the morning of the Torah portion picking, my watch vibrated, and a text from my husband came through. “Three aliyahs, right?” I apologized to the audience for the distraction and shared that my husband was helping my son pick his Torah portion for his bar mitzvah as I spoke to them. I said, “You don’t get a better example of life as an interfaith family living Jewishly than that! Sometimes the Jewish parent is the Jewish parent, and sometimes the parent from another background fills the role of Jewish parent.”
When I got home in the evening, I looked at the materials on the Torah portion and requirements for b’nai mitzvah students that my son received. His Torah portion was from Parsha Noach (Noah). He chose the first part of the chapter, where God tells Noah that the earth is corrupt and lawless, and instructs Noah to build an ark because he is going to flood the earth in order to destroy all that lives that is unclean. I turned to my son, “Did the kid pick the portion, or the portion pick the kid? What a perfect piece for my child who wants to be an engineer that designs and builds ships with water purification systems so he can repair our waterways!”
“It was the most interesting part to me,” my son responded. “That’s why I picked it.” My rabbi was right. My son was fine, and my husband did a great job.
I’ve written many times, about how lucky I feel to have a spouse who is so engaged and supportive of our family’s Jewish journey. I went to sleep that night feeling incredibly grateful once again for all that my husband does to make this Jewish thing happen and for the sweet ironies that are part of life as an interfaith family.
My son (right) with his best camp friend in the dining hall this summer at URJ Greene Family Camp.
I recently discovered the secret to motivating my son to go to religious school. I stumbled upon it. Hours after Hebrew school last Tuesday while we were eating dinner, my son spilled the beans.
“I had a really bad sinus headache at school this afternoon and felt crummy. I almost went to Nurse Julie to ask her to call you and tell you that I couldn’t go to Hebrew and that I needed to go home. But I was really looking forward to seeing Josh, so I decided to deal with it.”
Wow! Impressive. Typically, an ailment would not need to be that bad to ask for a Hebrew school pass. But knowing that he would see Josh, his best friend from camp, trumped a headache and the pain that is known by Jewish children everywhere as Religious School. The bonds of friendship formed at Jewish summer camp were more powerful than I thought. Jewish summer camp was the gift that kept on giving.
Study after study has shown the power of Jewish camp on creating strong Jewish identities in participants. The Greenbook, published by the Jewish Funders Network to inform the conversation of the role of Jewish camp in fostering Jewish identity says,
“Simply put: Jewish camp works to help create a more vibrant Jewish future. Those who experienced summers at Jewish overnight camp are far more likely as adults to be engaged in the Jewish community. The 2011 Camp Works study compared adults who participated in Jewish overnight camp as children to Jewish adults who did not have a Jewish camp experience. The study found that those who attended Jewish camp are…55% more likely to feel very emotionally attached to Israel, 37% more likely to light Shabbat candles regularly, 21% more likely to feel that being Jewish is very important to them.”
What the study does not say is that camp can motivate your children to want to go to Hebrew school, but apparently, it does that too! If it is possible to love camp more than I already do, I do.
When my son returned from camp, I suspected that this summer had been different from the previous four. The connections to friends seemed deeper. After all, he had now been with, for the most part, the same group of boys for five years. And he had discovered three years ago, that several of his camp friends lived in Dallas and went to our synagogue. Summer plus seeing each other twice a week at temple had created a tight bond between these boys.
There is a case to be made for sending your child to any camp, Jewish, secular, near, or far. When a kid is at a camp that is the right fit for him or her, camp is magical. As someone who spent summers at a YMCA camp and now sees Jewish summer camp, I feel there is something uniquely magically about Jewish camp, something that creates a deeper community connection. And I could not be happier that we chose a regional camp rather than sending our son to one farther away because shared year-round experiences, including religious school, enhances the community connection. Something made clear to me last Tuesday night.
Jewish camp and the community connection it creates are getting my son to Hebrew school without complaint. That’s a benefit of the Jewish camp experience that any parent who has driven Hebrew school carpool can cheer.
Before I signed the contract for the place where we would have our son’s bar mitzvah, I needed a rough idea of the size of our group so I could let the venue know the number of people we would guarantee. I started a spreadsheet with names of family, friends, and acquaintances: anyone I could think of that we possibly wanted to invite.
I wasn’t concerned that the list was big. It’s a destination bar mitzvah, and the destination isn’t a beach in the Caribbean or the mountains of Colorado or lakeside in Maine; it’s our son’s Jewish overnight camp outside of Waco, TX. An incredibly special place for our family, especially our son, but not a location where most people will be eager to travel. Except for our son’s camp friends who would jump at the chance to spend a weekend at camp, I assume that 40-50 percent of those invited will send regrets.
My family accounted for 20 people. My husband’s extended family is large, and we see all of the cousins in the summer and on Christmas Eve when we visit Vermont. These family members know our son, know he is being raised Jewish and I thought they should be invited to the bar mitzvah. I added 50 people to the list.
By the time I was done, I was at just under 300 people. I reviewed the list with my son. I told him it was preliminary; it would be refined and tweaked over the next year. With a few minor comments, such as, “By the time I have my bar mitzvah I will probably want to invite some girls,” he was OK with what I put together.
Then I went over the list with my husband. “We don’t need to invite my family. Just my parents, sister, her boyfriend and son,” he said.
What?!? The bar mitzvah was a significant milestone in our life. I wanted to invite the entire world to be part of our simcha (joy)! I wanted our family to be part of it. I explained this to my husband.
“They’re not going to come,” he said.
“So what? We can invite them so that they feel included,” I responded.
“They won’t know what a bar mitzvah is.”
“Sammy and I are not the first Jews your family has ever met. They have heard of bar mitzvahs, and if they haven’t, they know Jewish people to ask.”
“They will think that we are asking for gifts.”
“That’s ridiculous. People don’t assume they’re invited to a wedding just so the marrying couple can get a gift. Guests know the hosts want them to be part of the celebration. Plus, we’re going to encourage people to make a donation to a cause Sammy chooses in lieu of gifts.”
“I don’t want to invite them.”
Exasperated by my husband’s response, I said, “I’m calling your parents!” I assumed they’d be more reasonable.
They weren’t. My in-laws’ response was similar. My mother-in-law said she “didn’t even know how to think” of a bar mitzvah. I said to think of it like a wedding. I thought that would help. After all, all of the family members in question were invited to our wedding reception. Still, my mother-in-law insisted on just the immediate family.
I contrasted my husband and his parents’ response to my mother’s. While I was trying to convince my husband and in-laws to include more family, I was telling my mom she couldn’t invite her network of friends in New Jersey.
“I just want a few,” she said. Yeah right, I thought. “I’ll pay for them. I’ll pay for Friday night dinner.”
My answer: None of the grandparents were inviting friends. This event was about family and the people who knew our son well.
I wonder if the difference in approach to celebrating is religious. Certainly, a joyous celebration is a big part of Jewish ritual and culture from blessing the wine on Shabbat to raucous Purim parties to shouts of L’chaim and dancing the hora. But these things aren’t part of Christian celebrations.
Maybe it’s cultural. My husband is a New Englander, and I’m from the less genteel New York Metro area. The difference is probably a combination of both.
I grudgingly accepted my husband and in-laws’ little family guest list. My son did not. He reminded me that the bar mitzvah was about him, and he wanted to invite his Vermont cousins. I put them back on the list in a “maybe” column.
With plenty of planning ahead, we’ll see if father or son wins the battle of the guest list.
Last Friday morning I took my cup of coffee and my smoothie outside to my patio. I sunk into an Adirondack chair with my cup of Joe, breakfast, and the newspaper. It was early. I had finished my workout, my husband was asleep, and my son was at overnight camp. It was just the dog and me enjoying a few moments of peace before I got ready for work.
As I finished the paper and savored my last few sips of coffee, I felt a calmness wash over me. Hmm…I thought, a little bit of Shabbat to start my day. A preview of what was to come when the sun set. I peeled myself out of the chair and headed inside to shower.
While I was getting dressed, I remembered a video that my son’s camp made a few years ago. There was a shot of Kabbalat Shabbat services. A teen camper was speaking about what camp had meant to her over the years and how it was unlike any of her year-round experiences. As she concluded her remarks, she said, “Camp is the Shabbat of the year.” I smiled at the thought. The girl was right; camp was the Shabbat of the year for kids and parents.
I’m not suggesting that Shabbat with my son isn’t special. On the contrary, it is the most meaningful and connective family experience of the week. Our daily lives are so hectic as we juggle work, school, sports and extracurricular activities that striking the match to light candles feels like crossing a finish line. We all relax into the evening, talk about things other than family logistics and linger over dinner so long, that I often find myself shocked to see that it’s after 10 pm. Because of the magic of our family Shabbat, I guard our Friday nights. With few exceptions, we rarely deviate from our routine.
But the three-and-a-half weeks that my son is away at camp is deeply connective and spiritual in a different way. It is said, that to be an effective parent, we must take time for self-care and to care for our relationship with our spouse or partner. Often the time we take for ourselves consists of an hour workout, watching TV or reading after the kids go to bed, occasionally catching up with a friend over dinner or lunch or a little time at the spa or salon. The time we reconnect with our partner is called “date night” and is a couple of hours spent in a dark movie theater or talking mostly about our kids and plans. These moments are passable. They give us a pause or a break but are not especially rejuvenating.
The slower pace of our life when our son is at camp gives us time to be with friends without rushing to get to the next activity. It gives me a chance to spend some time each day with myself, alone in thought without distraction or just daydreaming, rather than thinking about the next appointment on my calendar. It gives my husband and me the opportunity every night to talk, not about what the plan is for the next day or who is picking our son up from sports practice, but about life, family, relationships, politics and more. It reminds me of our pre-child years and all the reasons I fell in love with my husband.
It would be difficult to celebrate the daily Shabbat moments that my husband and I enjoy when our son is away if our son wasn’t safe and happy. This time is guilt-free because of the peace-of-mind that comes with knowing that our son is in a place that he considers sacred space with staff and kids who he thinks of as family.
Ten days before camp, we were in Austin for a water polo tournament. On the drive home, we passed the camp exit. When we saw it, I asked my son if he was looking forward to going. He said, “I can’t wait. Three-and-a-half weeks of FREEDOM! It’s the best. And I bet it’s good for you and Daddy too. It’s good for all of us to have a break.”
Yes, camp is good for all of us. It’s the Shabbat of the year.
Last week my family hosted some of the international staff from my son’s Jewish camp before they went to camp for training. We have done this for the past four summers and it’s been a wonderful experience. Most of the staffers are Israeli, and we have built lasting relationships with them, giving us the opportunity to one day visit each of them in Israel.
This year, camp participated in a program with other Reform camps to bring young adult members of the Ugandan Jewish community to Jewish summer camps throughout the U.S. Most people’s reaction when I mentioned that camp would have Ugandan and Israeli staff this year said, “There are Jews in Uganda?” Yes, there are Ugandan Jews.
About a week before the international staff arrived, I received an email from one of the assistant camp directors asking if my family would host the Ugandan, rather than the Israeli, counselors. “Of the families who can host next week, you immediately jumped to mind as someone who could provide the most hospitable experience for these two new staff members.” How could I say no? Plus, it seemed like an amazing opportunity to learn and enable our entire family to experience the diversity of the global Jewish community.
Most Jews in Uganda are members of the Abayudaya (“People of Judah”), a 100-year-old community of nearly 2,000 Jews who live mostly in villages in Eastern Uganda. Unlike Ethiopian Jews, who are descendants of Israelite tribes that settled in Ethiopia, Ugandan Jews trace their Jewish origins to the turn of the 20th century and two powerful leaders, Joswa Kate Mugema, an influential Buganda chief, and Semei Kakungulu, who was selected by the British to be a Christian missionary.
Mugema and his tribe were dissident Protestants who were devoted to the Bible and adopted many Jewish traditions. They recognized Saturday as the Sabbath, violently opposed any sign of idol worship and forbade the eating or pork. Kakungulu, bitterly disillusioned by the British authorities, cooperated with the Mugema tribe, helping to spread its faith. During this period, Kakungulu was drawn to the teachings of the Old Testament and in 1919 he and his community began practicing Judaism.
When Idi Amin Dada rose to power in the early 1970s, he banned Jewish practice and many Jews were forced to convert to other religions. After the fall of Amin in 1979, the remaining members of the Abayudaya gathered to rebuild the Jewish tradition. Today, there are seven Jewish communities in Uganda and members try to come together as often as possible to interact, connect, worship and learn.
Our guests told us that Conservative rabbis in the early part of the 21st century began to come to Uganda to supervise the “conversion” of Uganda’s Jews. Some in the global Jewish community did not see the Abayudaya as Jewish since they didn’t have a biological link to Israel. While the rabbis viewed the ritual they were performing as a conversion, the community saw it as an “affirmation” of its Jewish faith. Our visitors told us, “Many people, especially in Israel, still do not accept us as Jews.”
I told them that they were not the only Jews with this problem. I explained patrilineal descent and how the Reform movement accepts as a Jew anyone raised Jewish with one Jewish parent but that many non-Reform traditions and the Chief Rabbinate of Israel do not accept this definition of “Who is a Jew.” We also discussed how those who convert to Judaism through a non-Orthodox tradition are also not considered Jewish according to some denominations and the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. I emphasized that they would meet many campers this summer who, like themselves, are not accepted as Jews by parts of the world Jewish community, and who, like them, feel strongly that their religious identity is Jewish.
The discussion made me think about how these two groups of Jewish outsiders would spend the summer nurturing each others’ Jewish growth. I smiled as I thought about the richness outsiders bring to the Jewish tradition and how we outsiders are slowly becoming insiders thanks to the efforts of those, including InterfaithFamily, who believe that Judaism’s tent is big, and its doors wide open.
There are days when my preteen son is angry with me for reasons that neither of us knows. There are days when he’s embarrassed by me because of a comment or action that I’m quite certain no one has seen. There are days when he’s ornery, gloomy, argumentative or grumpy or sometimes all of the above.
And then there are days when the sweet, loving boy with the heart filled with goodness shines through. Days when he is quick with a smile, a hug or an I-love-you and wants to snuggle close or just do something with me. Days like today, when he reminds me that while being his mom is the hardest job I’ll ever have, it’s also the very best job I’ll ever have.