O Menorah Tree! O Menorah Tree! Thy Candles Shine so Brightly!

‘Tis the season for Jewish Scrooges to say, “Bah! Humbug!” to anything that they judge to be a blend of Hanukkah and Christmas or an inflation of a minor Jewish holiday. Any attempt to sprinkle Hanukkah with a little tinsel is depicted as a perversion of the holiday’s message.

These Jewish grinches shout “syncretism” and “commercialization” from pulpits; in classrooms, traditional media outlets and homes; and across social media. Yet, many Jews and Jewish interfaith families, ignore the rhetoric and go big with Hanukkah anyway.

Some do it to assuage Christmas envy, others to honor the traditions of not Jewish family members or to simply make religion fun. But whatever the reason, there is a strong desire to inject Hanukkah with some of the holiday cheer present in our surrounding culture. That is the rationale behind the Menorah Tree.

The Menorah Tree was designed by two Jewish brothers as a way to “ramp up” the Festival of Lights, and honor the Christmas tree tradition of one of their wives. The goal was to create something that was as festive as a tree, but genuinely Jewish. Something, that was big enough to be the centerpiece of a family’s Hanukkah celebration.

While a giant 6-foot tall hanukkiah with Frazier pine garland isn’t something that everyone will embrace, there is nothing wrong with something that screams “Jewish” even if it does borrow from dominant Christian culture. Blending ideas, foods, symbols, and rituals from other cultures to increase Judaism’s fun-factor isn’t bad and doesn’t weaken Jewish identity as some in the community want us to believe.

Religious activities and observances that are perceived as fun create positive faith experiences and lasting memories. I share in From Generation to Generation the effect a lack of positive religious experiences in childhood has had on members of my own extended family. One inmarried sibling observes Jewish holidays out of obligation and not because he derives any fulfillment from the experience, and my Jewish uncle has a home that is absent of religion.

Examples like this highlight why adding fun to holidays now can make the celebrations more memorable than they would be otherwise without diminishing their significance. And positive memories increase the likelihood that children will want to carry on the tradition in adulthood. Christmas is the perfect case in point.

Many adults who grow-up with Christmas, have a strong emotional attachment to the holiday regardless of whether they are religious Christians. This connection is often not derived from recollections of going to services on Christmas Eve, but rather, from everything else that surrounds the holiday. My not Jewish mother-in-law, who is active in her church and faith, has never said that the reason Christmas is her favorite holiday is because of services, Jesus, God, or wise men. However, memories of decorating the tree, candy canes, gingerbread houses, holiday lights and carols, baking cookies and opening stockings and presents all contribute to her holiday love.

A community concerned about declining engagement, shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss things that can help build positive Jewish memories and connection. That’s the goal of the Menorah Tree, Maccabee on the Mantel and other Hanukkah-themed products. What’s wrong with that?

A child curled up with his Maccabee doll next to a Menorah Tree reading the Maccabee on the Mantel on the night before Hanukkah would be good for the Jews. Maybe he could even sing a few Hanukkah carols.

O Menorah Tree! O Menorah Tree!
Much pleasure thou can’st give me;
O Menorah Tree! O Menorah Tree!
Much pleasure thou can’st give me;
How often has the Menorah tree
Afforded me the greatest glee!
O Menorah Tree! O Menorah Tree!
Much pleasure thou can’st give me.

O Menorah Tree! O Menorah Tree!
Thy candles shine so brightly!
O Menorah Tree! O Menorah Tree!
Thy candles shine so brightly!
From base to summit, gay and bright,
There’s only splendor for the sight.
O Menorah Tree! O Menorah Tree!
Thy candles shine so brightly! – Adapted from “O Christmas Tree”

A Halloween Postscript: Why Opposition to Trick-or-Treating Won’t Strengthen Jewish Identity

I didn’t intend to write a post-Hallowen blog. To be honest, Halloween isn’t something that is big in my family. I’m not a costume or candy person, and neither is my husband. While our son Sammy enjoys trick-or-treating in our neighborhood, it isn’t something that he wants to do every year.

This year we weren’t home for the holiday. We took Sammy to Legoland for a belated birthday celebration. As we relaxed at the hotel on Halloween night, I posted on Facebook pictures of the Shabbat set we built from the box of bricks in our room and scrolled through pictures of my friends’ children in costumes.

As I gazed at princesses and zombies, I came across a post by a non-Orthodox rabbi that a friend had commented on. It was a Halloween put-down. It griped about the overly commercialized pagan holiday that encourages children to play tricks on others and eat too much candy. It suggested that costumes be saved for the “truly fun holiday” of Purim.

Some friends of the post’s author shared his distaste for trick-or-treating. They said celebrating Halloween sent a confusing message to Jewish children since it wasn’t a Jewish holiday. That participating in such celebrations blurred the lines of who Jews were and what they stood for and contributed to the increased weakening of Jewish identity.

Really? I’m certain that Sammy has never been confused about his religious identity because we celebrate Halloween. He has never asked if we’re pagans instead of Jews or mistaken Halloween for a Jewish holiday. Like most people, he sees Halloween as an American tradition just like Thanksgiving. The more I read the comments from the Jewish anti-Halloween crusaders, the more I realized how out of touch some of these communal leaders were with the reality of Jewish life in America today.

According to the 2013 Pew report, many non-orthodox Jews now identify as Jews of no religion. They feel a cultural connection to Judaism but have few ties to Jewish organizations. They are Jews of the world–assimilated and cosmopolitan in their thinking and lifestyle. To reach them, they need to be met where they are–in secular life.

Demonizing a holiday that most American Jews view as a harmless, secular observance that enables children to dress up and have fun is not meeting them where they are. Nor is it the way to strengthen the ties of the loosely affiliated or bring Jews with a weak connection back to the faith. Anti-Halloween rhetoric is simply tone deaf.

I state in From Generation to Generation that we need to help all Jews–inmarried and intermarried, affiliated and unaffiliated–answer the question why be Jewish. We can do this by using opportunities presented by the secular and non-Jewish to demonstrate how Judaism is part of this world, not separate from it. Concerning Halloween, we can show families and children how Jewish values and traditions are mirrored in the holiday.

We can highlight the similarities between Halloween and Purim: both are joyous holidays that share a tradition of dressing in costumes, giving gifts of food (mishloach manot) and charity. We can discuss how collecting for UNICEF or donating Halloween candy to charities that help families in need is an act of tzedakah.

We can encourage people to celebrate their Jewish-Americanness by adding some Halloween fun to their Shabbat celebrations–enjoy challah stuffed with candy or a costume party Shabbat. And we can remind families that greeting their neighbors as their children go house-to-house or as they distribute candy is honoring the Jewish principle of loving thy neighbor (Leviticus 19:18 and 19:34).

These kinds of things make Judaism more accessible to modern American Jews because they help them see that they can embrace aspects of Jewish faith and culture regardless of affiliation, marriage partner or belief in God. On the other hand, loud and proud opposition to Halloween focuses on maintaining strict boundaries between Judaism and the secular world.

Jews who view themselves as Jews of the world are not interested in this kind of boundary maintenance. They want to have their candy corns and eat them too. Therefore, the drumbeat of the anti-Halloween crowd will likely do as much to strengthen people’s ties to Judaism as intermarriage prevention efforts have done to increase inmarriage and engagement.

Now that Halloween is over, the debate may have died down, but it will soon be back as the anti-Halloweeners turn their attention toward Hanukkah and Christmas. Their rants about the commercialization and inflation of Hanukkah, the syncretism of Hanukkah bushes and menorah trees, and the participation by Jews in any Christmas tradition is coming to your Twitter and Facebook feed. So, grab a gingerbread latte and read their holiday diatribes while you enjoy a little holiday cheer.

Don’t let the Weather Fool You, It’s Time to Think Camp

Registration for many Jewish overnight camps began in Oct. Don't wait until the spring to sign-up your camper.

While many people have apple cider and pumpkins, and maybe even turkey and holiday gifts on their mind, I’m thinking about camp. Part of why I have camp on the brain is that I just watched the American Camp Association’s 2009 video “Because of Camp.” My overnight camp posted it on Facebook.

How I, a die-hard former camper and lover of all things camp, did not see this video previously escapes me. It features celebrities, athletes and journalists speaking about how camp changed their lives. It made me reflect on how camp helped me realize that I was a good athlete even though I was always the smallest girl on the court or field.

It also made me think about how summer camp is affecting my son Sammy. He is discovering new passions and broadening his horizons, learning life skills and independence. Because his camp is Jewish, he is also deepening his connection to the Jewish people, and experiencing Judaism in ways that are often more relevant to him than religious school, services or home ritual.

The other reason I have camp on my mind is because it’s registration season. Many Jewish camps open enrollment following Yom Kippur and offer early birds discounts. I signed up Sammy three weeks ago and paid a discounted rate. Now is also the period to investigate and apply for camp scholarships if this is a consideration.

If you or your children still have questions about camp, the fall and winter are the seasons to get answers. Check out camp videos online; attend a camp presentation at a synagogue, school, community center or private home, or schedule a meeting with the camp director when he or she visits your area.

Another reason that the time is right to think about camp is that between the fall and early spring, some camps invite existing and potential campers to camp for youth retreats. For first-time campers, these weekends are a chance to experience camp to see if they like it or are ready to be away from home. For returning campers, they are a great opportunity to reconnect with friends and make new ones before the summer. Sammy will be going to his camp for a retreat in early November, and he can’t wait.

It sounds counter-intuitive, but sweater weather is really the best time to think about camp. June, July and August are great months to see camps fully operational, but apple season is when you should make your children’s summer plans. To help you in your planning, refer to these InterfaithFamily resources:

Don’t let the fall leaves and crisp air fool you. Now is the time to “think camp.” You and your kids will be glad you did.

 

The Evolution of an Awesome Rosh Hashanah Observance

A game at our first Rosh Hashanah party

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.

American Jewish Community Must Learn From Jewishly Engaged Intermarrieds to Remain Vital

The Jewish community needs to engage more interfaith families in Jewish life.

When I set out to write my book From Generation to Generation: A Story of Intermarriage and Jewish Continuity, I wanted to demonstrate through the telling of my family’s story that intermarriage has not been as bad for the Jews as many in the Jewish community would have us believe. I wanted to show that the reality of the religious lives of mixed faith families is more nuanced and richly Jewish, than is often portrayed through surveys, statistics, and snapshot anecdotes.

For years, the Jewish community’s belief that intermarriage is a significant factor in the decline of the Jewish population has been reinforced by how it collects its data. Jewish demographic surveys mostly look at rates of intermarriage and Jewish childrearing by intermarrieds. There have been few studies that I’ve come across that dig deeper into this issue through qualitative and quantitative research; few researchers, academics, or community leaders interested in understanding the hows and the whys of Jews who are intermarried.

This focus on calculating the percentage of Jews that intermarry and raise singularly Jewish children has failed to move the debate about how to best address intermarriage and its effect on Jewish continuity forward in a meaningful way. Instead, it continuously creates communal hysteria and vitriol with the release of each new study.

One of the problems with the data on intermarriage is that it captures the religious choices of families at a single point in time. This method assumes that interfaith family life is static. However, an intermarried family’s relationship to faith can be as dynamic as an inmarried family’s.

For example, some not Jewish partners choose to convert after many years of living a Jewish life. Previously uncommitted couples decide to engage Jewishly when a child is born or starts preschool. Interfaith families who identify as Jews of no religion become more involved after a significant life event. Families who start out as dual-faith later make the decision to have singularly Jewish homes. Children of intermarriage choose to identify as Jews in some way when they reach adulthood.

Until recently, most demographic studies have failed to measure the Jewish identification, engagement, and experience of interfaith families in a way that captures scenarios such as the ones highlighted above. However, after the publication of the Pew report, Theodore Sasson, a senior research scientist at the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies asked the Pew research team to look at the rate at which young adult children of intermarriage identified as Jews.

He found that over the years, “the proportion of adult children of intermarriage identifying as Jewish has steadily increased, reaching 59%” for children born after 1980. The result was almost evenly split between those identifying as Jews by religion and those identifying as Jews of no religion.

In discussing his findings, Sasson states in the Spring 2014 issue of Contact, “the higher-than-expected rate of Jewish identification among the adult children of intermarriage is…a significant milestone. The rate at which young adult children of intermarriage identify as Jewish exceeds the rate at which their parents claimed to be raising them as Jewish in the NJPS 2000-01 survey.”

Sasson’s data captures people like my cousin, the child of a Jewish father and not Jewish mother raised in a home with no religion. During his first year of college, he met other kids like him. Some of his friends had heard of Birthright and suggested that they all look into it.

The idea of exploring his Jewish heritage interested my cousin enough that he announced at his family’s secular Christmas dinner that he was planning to apply to go on the Israel trip with his friends. My Jew of no religion uncle, who had been turned-off by the faith after his bar mitzvah, did not resist the idea. He said, “I’d be okay with that.”

By collecting data on intermarriage and the child-rearing choices of intermarried Jews in the way that we do, we do not allow for the possibility that being Jewish or engaging in Judaism can become important or of interest to interfaith families and children of intermarriage over time. Dr. Sasson’s findings will hopefully get the Jewish research community to consider additional ways to study intermarriage’s effect on Jewish identity.

I hope to see more qualitative research being done too in order to better understand why intermarrieds are or are not choosing Judaism, and how they are engaging in Judaism if they are associating themselves with the Jewish people in some way. But, until communal leaders start asking these questions, it is up to intermarrieds who are actively choosing Judaism to make our voices heard.

By sharing my family’s interfaith and Jewish journey in From Generation to Generation, I hope others will be encouraged to share their story. Our narratives can help answer questions such as why, how, and when are intermarrieds making Jewish choices.

The Jewish community needs to learn from and leverage the experiences of interfaith families living Jewishly in order to draw more intermarrieds into American Jewish life. If it does not, the predictions of the communal pessimists will eventually become reality.

Sasson suggests that the Jewish community support efforts to maximize the percentage of intermarrieds raising Jewish children and welcome young adults not raised as Jews to explore their Jewish heritage. He seems to recognize what many Jewishly engaged intermarrieds already know; Jewish spouses will not sustain us, but Jewish engagement will.

From Generation to Generation: A Story of Intermarriage and Jewish Continuity is available at Indibound, Amazon and other retail outlets.

Resource:

Theodore Sasson, “Investing in the Children of Intermarriage,” Contact: The Journal of the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life, Spring 2014, Volume 16, no. 1, 8-9. http://www.steinhardtfoundation.org/wp-install/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/spring_2014.pdf

 

 

 

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.

The Lord of the Rings’ Passover Connection

The third book in The Lord of the Rings trilogy triggered a discussion about Pharaoh and Passover.

My son Sammy and I have a tradition – we read a novel together on the weeknights during dinner. Usually, the book has themes or ideas that are targeted to a child several years older than Sammy, making it helpful to have an adult with whom to discuss the book. Over the years, we have read the Harry Potter series, The Chronicles of Narnia, and The Hobbit to name a few.

The other night, we were nearing the end of The Return of the King, the last book in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. We had reached the part when the primary protagonist, the hobbit Frodo Baggins, returns to his homeland, the Shire, after succeeding in his quest to destroy the One Ring of power. He finds that the area has been taken over by the evil wizard Saruman who was defeated during the War of the Ring by Frodo’s companions.

In an act of revenge, Saruman enslaves and oppresses the hobbits and moves to destroy the natural beauty of the countryside. When Frodo discovers what he has done, he confronts him and orders him to leave the shire forever. But the other hobbits want Saruman to be killed for the murderous and villainous acts he has committed. Frodo will not allow it, saying, “I will not have him slain. It is useless to meet revenge with revenge: it will heal nothing. Go, Saruman, by the speediest way.”

As Saruman leaves, he passes Frodo and stabs him with a knife. Frodo is wearing an armored coat, so the knife breaks. Even though Frodo is unharmed, a group of hobbits lurches forward trying to kill Saruman, but Frodo stops them. “Do not kill him even now. For he has not hurt me. And in any case I do not wish him to be slain in this evil mood. He was great once, of a noble kind that we should not dare to raise our hands against. He is fallen, and his cure is beyond us; but I would still spare him, in the hope that he may find it.”

As I read this section, Sammy interrupted. “I can’t believe he didn’t kill Saruman!”

“Do you think he should have killed him?” I asked.

“Well,” he said, and paused to think about his answer.

“Consider the situation in the context of Passover, which we’re about to celebrate,” I said. “Do you think drowning the Egyptians in the Red Sea changed Pharaoh’s evil ways?”

“Probably not,” Sammy said. “Killing all of the firstborns didn’t either and it also punished innocent Egyptians.”

“You’re right. As we think about the plagues and fate of the Egyptians at the sea, we have to ask, does one crime justify another? Frodo doesn’t think so, he says it’s useless and doesn’t heal anything. His language suggests that he believes it just perpetuates anger and hate.”

“I think Frodo was right to show mercy to Saruman because I think if the hobbits killed him, then Saruman would have been allowed to escape from his crimes,” Sammy said. “By letting him go he has to live without the power he once had and with the knowledge of what he has done. This is, in a way, a punishment too.”

“I agree, and I think Frodo and Saruman recognize this also.”

“How so?” Sammy asked.

In answer to his question, I read the next section.

Saruman rose to his feet, and stared at Frodo. There was a strange look in his eyes of mingled wonder and respect and hatred. ‘You have grown, Halfling,’ he said. ‘Yes, you have grown very much. You are wise, and cruel. You have robbed my revenge of sweetness, and now I must go hence in bitterness, in debt to your mercy. I hate it and you!’

“Saruman is like Pharaoh in that his heart is so hardened that he has lost all ability to change, and, therefore, any chance at ever really being free. Sometimes making someone carry the burden of their wrongful actions is the harshest punishment,” I said.

After dinner, I could tell that Sammy was still considering our discussion, and I suspect that he will continue to think about it over the next few weeks as we celebrate the holiday. The convergence of epic high fantasy and Torah has made the issues and questions raised in the Passover story more relevant to his 9-year-old world. That is a good thing. Because the more he sees how his everyday secular life intersects with his Jewish life, the more salient Judaism and his connection to it will be.

I did not plan to link the fictional narrative created by Tolkien to Passover or Judaism. It just happened. The key to making these kinds of Jewish connections is in recognizing and being open to these opportunities, and then seizing them when they present themselves.

How a Tin Can and Piece of Paper Taught me to Speak for the Trees

A Jewish National Fund Blue Box similar to the one my grandfather kept on his desk.

This week, the Jewish world, will celebrate Tu Bishvat, the New Year of trees. Often referred to as Judaism’s Earth Day, it is a time when Jews renew their commitment to care for the earth, celebrate nature and anticipate the renewal of the natural world.

The other day, as I thought about the coming holiday, I reflected on my own environmentalist roots. I remember the famous 1970s “Crying Indian” public service campaign by the group Keep America Beautiful that said, ‘People start pollution; People can stop it.”

As a child, I took the campaign’s message seriously and would pick up garbage on the beach when my family went to the Jersey Shore. Years later as a counselor on a teen tour, I made my campers pick up trash at the national parks we visited two and three times before leaving.

Another thing that shaped my desire to care for the environment was The Lorax by Dr. Seuss. Published when I was one-year-old, the book tells the story of the Once-ler and the fuzzy little man who implores him to stop destroying the earth by shouting, “I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees!”

But while the message of the ’70s environmental movement resonated with me as a young girl, two other things influenced my commitment to ecological causes – a tin can, and a paper certificate. These items were not found during one of my garbage pick-ups, but rather in my grandparent’s home and at my synagogue.

When I was a child, I often would go to my grandparent’s house. During these visits, I would go upstairs and play dress-up with the clothes and jewelry in my grandmother’s bedroom closet. When I was finished, I would go across the hall to my grandfather’s office and sit at his desk. I would open his drawers and examine the various trinkets on his desktop – a University of North Carolina paper weight, a beer stein with the university logo used as a pencil holder, and newspaper clippings and photos my poppy had tucked into the side of his desk blotter.

But the item that most intrigued me was a blue tin box with a slot on top and a map of Israel, a Jewish star, Hebrew letters, and the words Jewish National Fund on the sides. I would toy with the box, turning it over-and-over and wonder what was this mysterious piggy bank. What did my grandfather do with the money he saved in it? What kind of magic was there in the country pictured on the box?

I learned over the years that my grandfather sent the money he collected to the Jewish National Fund (JNF), an organization dedicated to developing and cultivating the land of Israel. The group was, and is an environmental leader and focused resources on afforestation and water among other things. I understood that if my poppy were collecting money for trees in Israel, then trees must be important.

The other object that taught me to revere nature was the tree certificate I received in religious school after planting a tree in Israel. I recalled my Sunday school teacher telling my class that trees were to be respected and how we could help the earth by planting one in the Jewish state. I remember she said that if we did, we could even visit our tree when we were older.

The idea of having my very own tree in a foreign country that I could go see one day sounded awesome. I had to have one! I already knew from my grandfather’s Blue Box that our planet needed trees because they had both community and social value. I imagined that the tree I planted would bear a sign with my name and stand in a forest in Israel doing very important things like providing oxygen and preserving soil.

You can understand the disappointment I felt when I discovered, as a 16-year-old that none of the many trees planted by Diaspora Jews in Israel had my name on it. But while I realized that the sapling I planted as a young child was simply one among millions, I still believed it made a difference. It still was part of a larger ecosystem that supported wildlife and improved air quality.

The JNF Blue Box and tree certificates issued when you purchased a tree in Israel were an integral part of my childhood memories and helped me to understand my obligation for caring for the earth. Now, as a parent, it is my responsibility to ensure that my child understands that he too is a Shomrei Adamah or guardian of the earth, and like the Lorax, he also speaks for the trees.

Luckily, Cameron shares my interest in ecological issues, so Sammy learns about the importance of caring for nature from both of us. To reinforce the message of environmental stewardship that we deliver through our everyday actions, such as picking up garbage on walks with our dog, recycling, organic gardening and supporting sustainable agriculture, we also put tzedakah into a Blue Box and plant trees in Israel.

We do this because, in today’s fast-paced, disposable world, someone needs to heed the Lorax’s call to care “a whole awful lot.” This Tu Bishvat consider planting a tree, and please, remember to treat it with care, give it clean water and feed it fresh air.

Our Blue Box with certificates for trees we have planted in Israel in Sammy's honor.

Why We Chose Judaism

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 zeh bazeh. 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.

Converting to Jewish – the book

I’m working on a book (actually, I’m more working on the book proposal and gathering data for the book). Essentially, the book is about my own conversion story, but also about my own struggle to raise a Jewish family that also embraces and celebrates a non-Jewish heritage. I’ve got a questionnaire so I can get others’ stories to interweave with my own.  Here’s a brief overview of the topic, and I’ve attached a copy of the questionnaire.

It’s estimated that nearly half of all Jewish marriages are ones in which one member of the couple is not Jewish. While this raises all sorts of questions about the future survival of the Jewish people, what interested me most are the questions that were more personal in nature. What does a marriage between people of different backgrounds look like? If the decision is made to raise your children in one faith, or one tradition, who compromises what? Converting to Jewish explores those questions and offers some much needed guidance on what happens after the conversion, and what raising a family with someone of a dramatically different culture and tradition is really like.

This book will serve as a inspirational guide to anyone in a relationship that deals with interfaith or intercultural differences. For those of us who convert because our spouse is Jewish, and we don’t want our family to be something we aren’t. This is the book I wish I had had when I started, an honest look at what it takes to be in an interfaith or intercultural relationship, how to navigate the trickiest aspects, and how to respect, celebrate and embrace the differences, even as you focus on what brings you together as a family.

If you’d like to fill out the questionnaire (a Word document), I’d love it. Ideally, what I’d like is to be able to weave in others’ stories along with my own. All responses will be anonymous. Please let me know if you have any questions or thoughts; my email is melissa.cohen0214@yahoo.com and my website is melissaannecohen.com.