The Religious Identity of an Interfaith Home is a Journey, Not a Destination

  

Religious Identity is a Journey. Mother and three kids hiking through a dense forest. Kids are aged 6 and 10.

Up until recently, I thought the hardest part of navigating life as an interfaith family was determining the religious identity of the home. After all, that’s where 99.9 percent of the angst within the Jewish community lies and therefore, almost 100 percent of the community’s engagement efforts are focused. The idea that many in the Jewish community adhere to is to get couples to a decision point, and hopefully, have them choose Judaism, and then nurture the Jewish choices of couples in a way that helps them to create a “Jewish home.”

But in my recent experience working with other interfaith families in my community of Dallas, I’ve realized that our intense focus on the religious choices of young couples and families has us all but ignoring the challenges and struggles of older couples and families. Especially for the couples that have actively chosen to the be part of the Jewish community, raise Jewish children and/or affiliate with a synagogue or other Jewish spiritual group such as a minyan, we figure that they’ve got this. The religion decision has been made; the family is Jewishly active; our work is done. Not so much.

For my husband and me, our son’s upcoming bar mitzvah has suddenly brought up big religious questions that have, at times, left me feeling a similar uncertainty I experienced in the early part of our relationship. In the months since I wrote about this somewhat surprising experience in my blog post, I’ve made peace with the uncertainty because we’ve seemed to have settled some of the questions. My husband will not convert before the big day and to date, feels 100 percent included in the process. How he will feel the day of the event or post-ceremony is impossible to predict, but I look forward to hearing what he expresses.

We’ve navigated the disquiet on our own. I’ve occasionally mentioned my uneasiness or questions to a close friend, but have otherwise not spoken to anyone about it. I know that I could have raised the issues with a clergy member at my synagogue or the rabbi officiating at my son’s bar mitzvah, but I haven’t felt like we needed professional guidance. However, I have been thinking about how nice it might have been to have a forum to share our questions and experiences with other interfaith couples in the same life stage as us and hear from intermarried couples who recently celebrated a b’nai mitzvah, about their experiences. Essentially, I’d like to know if is this uncertainty is unique to my relationship or if other couples like my husband and me have had similar questions.

I’ve also had my eyes opened to the lack of professional support for older couples and families. I serve as the engagement director at my synagogue where I work with the interfaith dating and interfaith married couples. I recently organized a panel discussion for interfaith couples that are struggling with the religion decision. It consisted of two newly married couples who worked through the issue of religion in the home and a couple with elementary and middle school age children who have also worked through challenges of religious identity. The program was well attended by the target audience—dating, engaged or married young adult couples.

There were also several empty nesters. I wondered what these partners, who raised Jewish children in the context of an interfaith home, were doing at the program. They had Jewishly identifying college students or adult kids. They could be on the panel.

As I listened to the discussion during the question and answer period, I heard two of the empty nest couples say, “Just because you make a decision doesn’t mean that religious issues go away. The issues just change.” I thought, “Of course, they do.” I wrote about how dynamic the religious life of an interfaith family is in my book From Generation to Generation, pointing out that religious identity is often referred to as a journey for a reason—because it evolves as we age and move through different stages of life. How did I forget my words?

One couple shared that they are thinking about religion in the context of end-of-life issues. Another partner, a dedicated synagogue volunteer, mentioned that she is reconnecting with her Christianity now that one son is in college and the other has graduated, and she is struggling with how to incorporate her renewed interest in her faith into her marriage and Jewish family. A man admitted that, after 30 years of marriage and synagogue membership, he and his wife from another background “still haven’t figured it out.” Everyone said that they would appreciate a group for couples like themselves to talk about the religious issues that they are navigating in their lives.

For me, their request was a call to action. I’m now helping these partners form a small group. I’m in the process of reaching out to over 100 other interfaith couples in our congregation who are in a similar life stage to see if they are experiencing these challenges and if they would be interested in being part of a small group with their peers who are navigating a similar road.

My personal experiences have always been my best material for writing and supporting other interfaith couples and families. Based on my need for community right now, I’m already thinking about how my congregation can create a forum for interfaith couples navigating the b’nai mitzvah cycle to connect with each other, discuss issues and find support through shared experience.

Focusing on young couples and families, and the choice of a religious identity for a home are absolutely critical for facilitating healthy religious discussions and engaging those who are intermarried in Jewish life. But we can’t be myopic and assume that once an interfaith couple makes a religion decision that our work is done. We must provide support for our couples, families and children through the various stages of life, just as we do for those who are intermarried because the religious identity of a home is a journey, not a destination.

Should We Pray for Bad People?

  

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Shortly before the inauguration in mid-January, I was contacted by a Chicago Tribune reporter about a story he was working on related to prayer. I worked with him on a Passover-Easter story in the past. This time, he was looking for various faith perspectives on the question: Should we pray for bad people?

The idea for the story came to the reporter after hearing Fidel Castro’s name included in the list of names read during a memorial prayer at his mainline Episcopal church. He was surprised to hear Castro’s name since he was not generally thought of as a good guy. He asked his priest if anyone questioned the inclusion of Castro. The priest said no one did, but people had asked if prayers would be offered for the new president.

The reporter posed this question to me: “Should we pray for bad people or bad leaders?” My first response was that bad was subjective. Who decided who was and was not bad? Bad to one person may not be bad to another. Assuming the debate over the definition of bad was settled, I continued my answer based on my Reform Jewish beliefs and rituals.

In the Ten Commandments, we are commanded to respect or honor our mothers and fathers, which can be extended to our elders and even leaders. We are not commanded to love them or even like them. One way to respect and honor them is through prayer.

I gave the example of the prayer for our country which was read at my synagogue during Shabbat morning services. It was recited regardless of whom was in office and to which party they belonged. It prayed for our leaders to have patience and wisdom and that they would help to make our country an example of justice and compassion. The prayer was said when those in government made decisions we agreed with, but also when they enacted policies which we opposed.

I was intrigued by the question and my thoughts returned to it throughout the day. I decided to pose the same question to my 12-year-old son preparing for his bar mitzvah and my husband who was raised Episcopal, but has been questioning the concept of the divine for years, during our regular Friday Shabbat dinner. Both strongly felt that prayers should be said for bad people.

They said that offering a prayer was a rebuke and it was a way to show that goodness and righteousness triumphed over evil. Neither suggested that prayers should be offered to “save a person’s soul.”

The consensus of the respondents from across faiths in the Chicago Tribune article was also to pray for bad people or leaders. You can read the responses here.

I’m curious to hear what others in the InterfaithFamily community think. Please join the conversation. Share your thoughts in the comments section.

Make the Most of this Valentine’s Day

  

Valentine's giftsI have not posted here in a little while. In part, because the business of life has caught up with me, and, in part, because in the midst of huge changes in this country, inspiration is not coming as quickly. But I can’t miss a chance to embrace this Valentine’s Day.  

You may call it a Hallmark holiday, or a day reserved for lovebirds, but as you may have read before, I disagree. Valentine’s Day is a day you can chose to dread or relish, or anything in-between. This year, as February 14 approaches I am hoping we can use it as a reminder that we all can actively #ChooseLove, and see if we can find some joy and maybe even understanding.

Remember when you were in elementary school, and had to spend all afternoon the day before Valentine’s Day making sure you had a card for every other kid in your class? Or remember last year, when you stayed up late finishing your child’s class cards? The Valentine’s Day of early childhood isn’t just about your romantic partner, it’s about your friends (and maybe some kids who aren’t really friends at all). It might be about buying things–cards, stickers, candy–but it is also about performing a gesture of caring for the people around you.

We are living in a time of tremendous divides in our country and our communities. Be it politics, faith, country of origin or some other line that separates one from another, this is a great time to #ChooseLove. You can choose whatever you want for your February 14: a hot date with your partner, a boycott of the Hallmark store, a giant candy heart to share or not to share, but I’d encourage you to think of it as a chance to try to see your friends, neighbors, colleagues or the strangers in your life with love.  

Just like writing Valentine’s cards for your classmates, it is easier to do this for some people than others. But I believe that the act of trying to extend love can bring us closer together, or, at the very least, warm our hearts just a bit more than the day before Valentine’s or the day after. So will you try it with me?  

How to Pray with Two Faiths

  

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Our family has had a hard few weeks. Every day we open the news to a different headline about hatred and anger. Sometimes it feels as if the whole world has gone bonkers. To top it off, my significant other, Adrian, recently received a phone call from Mexico informing him that his mother is ill. Her diabetes has taken a turn for the worse, and her doctor told her she could no longer eat tortillas, a staple food in Mexico. Adrian came home from work one night and put his head in his hands, defeated. “I think my father feels very alone,” he said.

The next day I found out that my mother’s favorite cousin died from complications from Alzheimer’s disease. He had been living in a care facility where his wife would go three times a day to bring him food, company, laughter and a lot of love. My mother came home from work one day and put her head in her hands, defeated. “I think Tommy’s death has finally hit me,” she said.

My almost 1-year-old daughter, Helen, does not understand death and sickness yet. She has just begun learning how to live, how to crawl, how to hold onto something and pull herself up, how to grab onto the coffee table and take one step at a time.

With Rosh Hashanah right around the corner, we leave the house daily with lists of ingredients to buy for honey cake. I want her first Jewish New Year to be a joyous one full of hope. But there is some despair in our home right now.

Adrian checks his phone for messages about his mother. He calls Mexico. He meets with his brothers to discuss how much money they need to send back to Mexico for his mother to see a good doctor.

I sit in my mother’s kitchen trying to scrawl out a letter to Tommy’s wife, searching for words to explain my sympathy.

I want to pray. It is important to me that my daughter learns to pray, and because we are an interfaith family, it is important that both Adrian and I teach her how we both pray, especially because we pray so differently. But Adrian does not feel like praying lately. His statue of The Virgin of Guadalupe rests dusty on the bureau. I take this as an opportunity to learn that sometimes we as human beings don’t have the will to pray. Sometimes praying means admitting something is wrong, and Adrian doesn’t want there to be anything seriously wrong with his mother.

In Judaism it seems there is a prayer for everything. There is a prayer for death, life, sadness, forgiveness, women, men and children. There are prayers before going to bed, before eating lunch, after eating lunch and a prayer upon waking up in the morning. Adrian has different prayers, and because I didn’t grow up Catholic like him, I don’t know many of them. I assume they are similar to Jewish prayers, but I can’t be sure.

I’ve been trying to teach Helen a few Jewish prayers. Because Adrian has been feeling so down, I looked up a prayer that Helen and I could recite for him and his mother. After coming across prayers similar to those in Judaism, I found a prayer to Guadalupe that begins, “Our Lady of Guadalupe, mystical rose….” I liked that because Helen’s middle name is Rose. I sat down on the floor with Helen and began to recite the prayer, even though it’s not a Jewish prayer. Then we added a Hebrew prayer for cousin Tommy.

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“This is for Papi,” I said to Helen, “and for Abuela (Grandma) to get better. And we will say one for cousin Tommy’s family too.”

Helen was silent; I’m not sure she understood, but comprehension will come later. For now it’s important for me to keep up with my own traditions, as well as Adrian’s, even when he can’t. I’m sure he would do the same for me.

Sometimes Adrian and I don’t understand each other’s faiths. For him, Judaism has a lot of rules and complex meanings to these rules. For me, as a Jew, I don’t bow down to idols. But I can enter into a realm of understanding and ask his saints to care for him just as I can ask Hashem, my God, at the same time to care for him.

Our goal as an interfaith family is to bring just that: faith. How do people survive bombings, terror, heartache and grief? We survive by faith. Helen has two faiths. She will learn, and is learning, two faiths. At times these two faiths can be difficult to maneuver, but their deep messages are the same: Have compassion. Be a good person. Help others. Do good work in the world. And our two faiths teach us that when our significant other comes home defeated, we can be the strength they need to keep going. Our two faiths teach us to watch our child and learn from her as well. She teaches us how to live, how to crawl, how to hold onto something so we can pull ourselves up and how to hold onto a coffee table, a chair, a bench, something, anything, so that we can take our steps slowly and one at a time until we are able to walk.

A Walk in the Woods, A Conversation About Life and Death, A Moment of Connection

  

A nurse log in the Tongass National Forest in southeastern Alaska.

I have a talkative family. Mostly, our everyday conversations are about routine topics such as schedules, work, food, sports, and updates on family and friends, but there are moments when we have rich conversations about meatier subjects such as ethics, history, faith and fate.

These thoughtful discussions are never planned, they happen organically. But while the timing of them is unpredictable, I have noticed that they tend to take place in three locations: in the car, around the Shabbat table, and in nature.

Maybe these conversations happen in these spots because we are relaxed, our minds are cleared of to-do lists, and our hands and eyes are freed from electronics. Or maybe the settings put us in a contemplative mood. Whatever the cause, I cherish these opportunities to connect with my family, and especially my son Sammy who is about to enter his preteen years officially.

In these magical moments, my husband and I get to hear our son’s thoughts about life, values, God, and spirituality, and our son hears the same from us. Depending on the themes we’re discussing, we weave in details about history, Judaism, books, science and other relevant topics. Because our son is present and engaged in these conversations, he absorbs and is more receptive to the information being presented.

On a walk in the Vermont woods during our recent summer vacation, the subjects of life and death came-up. I pointed out a nurse log on the side of the path. A nurse log is a decomposing tree trunk that provides the moisture and nutrients necessary for the growth of new plants. We learned about them last summer during a hike in Alaska.

As we looked at the log, Sammy said that all living things, including people, are like nurse logs. He explained his theory of what happens when people die and are buried. He said that as the bodies decay, nutrients are added to the soil, the enriched soil nourishes the growth of new life in the form of plants.

I thought his idea was quite logical, in line with Sammy’s often scientifically oriented thinking. Then he said, “But the question is, do people live on in some way. What happens to a person’s soul?”

I explained that many Jews believe we live on through the legacy that we leave behind – our family, reputation, work and good deeds. Sammy acknowledged that this was one way–a tangible way–to think about living on, but that wasn’t what he was talking about. His thoughts were metaphysical in nature.

He said he believed that when the body decays part of its soul moves into the plant that grows from the soil that has been nourished during decomposition. When an animal eats the plant, it absorbs the soul. In this way, the soul moves up the food chain eventually reaching another person.

My husband and I listened intently while Sammy shared his ideas. We were fascinated by how he easily his mind moved between rational and mystical thinking, and how he interwove concrete and abstract concepts.

I shared with him that the idea that the soul moves through different realms after death is present in Judaism. “Really?” He said.

“Really. Some Jews believe that when they recite the Kaddish for a loved one who has died, it lifts the soul of the deceased from one spiritual world to another moving it ever higher each year that the Mourner’s Prayer is said.”

“Wow. That’s pretty cool,” Sammy replied. He then added, “Don’t you love when we have these kinds of conversations? I mean we were talking about a nurse log and now we’re talking about the soul.”

My husband and I do love these conversations as much as Sammy. They are unlike our everyday parent-child interactions. There is no nagging, admonishing, reminding or repeating. We appreciate these small opportunities to build connection and family intimacy because, in our hyperscheduled, too-busy-for-downtime lives these moments aren’t always easy to find.

Thinking Like a Jew

  

A family member of my husband’s, whom I’ll call Devorah, recently told me that although I may have converted, “you will never think like a Jew.” At the time I didn’t say anything. This woman is an elder and I respect her opinion. But later I kept running that sentence through my head, and I realized it struck a nerve. Is she right? As an adult convert, will I never “think” like a Jew? And by extension, will my children never think like Jews, either?

After ruminating for days, I decided to ask my husband about Devorah’s comment. He explained that Devorah believed that I converted out of a sense of duty to him, rather than on my own terms. I thought back to my conversion process and it struck me: I had kept the process intensely private, and I sat before the beit din (rabbinic court) and had my mikveh (ritual bath) only one week before my son was born. In Devorah’s mind, I was Jewish for the sake of my children.

Rather than being upset with an elderly relative with whom I had never explained my conversion process, I realized that I needed to work on becoming comfortable discussing my beliefs and my very real reasons for converting. And I needed to be discussing it with both my non-Jewish relatives and my husband’s Jewish ones. This will be difficult for me. I came from a family where we didn’t discuss faith or religion, and we certainly didn’t discuss individual belief in the context of religious doctrine. My discomfort with discussing faith is rooted in not having any prior experience talking about it, and I have to explore how to do that. Additionally, I need to learn to share my beliefs with my children and teach them to verbalize what they believe. Not because I want them to fit into any particular doctrine, but because I never want a comment like “you don’t think like a Jew” to silence them.