Jewish Camp is a valuable way for interfaith families to learn and share in the joy of Judaism in a comfortable, fun and meaningful environment. See which camps identify as welcoming to interfaith families.
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 post originally appeared on PJ LibraryÂ and is reprinted with permission.
Chances are, your preschooler isnâ€™t an expert onÂ Rosh HashanahÂ celebrations (theyâ€™ve only been alive for a few of them so far). You may not be an expert on Rosh Hashanah either, and if the holiday is new to you, youâ€™re likely learning alongside your little one. Thereâ€™s no time like the present for you both to learn about the traditions that make Rosh Hashanah so special!
Between learning the colors and practicing how to write their own names, preschoolersâ€™ days are filled with learning â€“ and that learning wonâ€™t stop during Rosh Hashanah. The Jewish New Year itself has a lot of traditions for you to learn about together, such as why you dip apples in honey, blow theÂ shofar and bake round challah.
Get acquainted with Rosh Hashanah as a family using these amazing books, all of which are perfect for the preschool age!
With simple text, this book explains symbols and customs of Rosh Hashanah by comparing a child’s birthday celebration with the rituals of the Jewish New Year. A birthday cake or honey-dipped apples and a shofar or party horns are just two of the comparisons.
Beni loves getting together with family on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year — if only it werenâ€™t for his mischievous cousin, Max. Max is making trouble for everyone! But Grandpa has a few words of wisdom about starting off the New Year right.
With Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, just around the corner, Little Red Rosie wants to make a round challah to celebrate the holiday. Who will help her make the challahâ€”and then eat it? You might be surprised!
Hearing the shofar is an exciting experience for children. After beginning with this important holiday tradition, the author then introduces dipping apples in honey, making greeting cards and baking round challah.
Q:Â Recently, our twenty year old daughter called from college to announce that she is bringing home her first serious boyfriend for Rosh Hashanah. He is an A student, the leader of his a cappella group and involved in community service. Before she introduced him to us, she warned us that although he is a great person, he is not Jewish. We had always expected and hoped that she would date only Jewish guys, and we had talked about this ad nauseam before she left for college. The truth is, we were a little hurt that she rebelled against us. She had a strong Jewish education and continued Hebrew lessons throughout high school. We observe Shabbat weekly and celebrate all of the holidays. My daughter has been to Israel and remains an active member of Hillel on her campus.
From my daughterâ€™s perspective, we did not react well. We lectured her on the importance of marrying someone Jewish and of raising Jewish children. She ended up in tears.
What should we do from here?
A:Â First, your daughter was probably not thinking about rebelling against you when she decided to date this young man. Just like we did not follow all of our parents expectations, we canâ€™t expect that our children will always obey our dictates. In our pluralistic society, it is unrealistic to expect our children to date only within the Jewish religionâ€”unless, of course, we keep them in a totally Jewish world. The reality is that most Jewish Americans, other than the most Orthodox, send their children to secular colleges where they will meet people of other backgrounds.
Many Jewish parents feel that their commitment and effort in providing a Jewish education has been wasted, if their children choose to date outside the faith. I can assure you, the education is not wasted. Your daughter, no matter who she marries, has the knowledge to create a Jewish home.
Again, in America it is not unusual for young people to use their twenties to focus on their career. For many recent college grads, marriage is a distant plan. Too often, parents leap to the conclusion that the first serious boyfriend is the final â€śone.â€ť He might be, but unless your daughter is bringing home an engagement ring, it is unlikely. However, because there is the possibility of marriage or a long term relationship, you want to have a good relationship with this young man.
Since she is bringing him home, be welcoming. Try to appreciate the fine person he is, while showing him the best of our culture. If he is here for Shabbat, offer him a yarmulke and explain that the yarmulke is a sign of respect rather than a religious declaration. Explain why we light the candles and why we bless the wine. Whatever customs your family practices, ask him if he would like to join, but donâ€™t force him. For example, the children might put their hands on the challah and recite the blessing. He could be included. If you bless the children, bless him too, with his permission.
As for Rosh Hashanah, again explain the customs and the history. It is helpful if you can provide him with reading materials about the holiday, as the service can be long and tedious to those who have no idea whatâ€™s happening. You might also give him permission to walk in and out of the service. Whether you like it or not, many of our synagogues are crowded with young people socializing just outside the sanctuary.
If he is from a family that doesnâ€™t practice any religion, he may be receptive and curious about what religion adds to the family. Praise him for any interest or efforts he makes, however clumsily, to participate. Who knows, he might be looking for the community and acceptance that Judaism offers many.
If, however, he is a believer in another religion, you might show some curiosity by asking about his traditions and if he sees any similarities or any differences with Judaism. You are modeling the kind of interest you hope he will reciprocate. Be welcoming but not insisting that he participateâ€”you are not asking him to convert. After all, itâ€™s a new relationship, and marriage is probably not on their minds right now.
On the other hand, it is possible that he is not open to learning or participating in your familyâ€™s traditions because he is vehemently opposed to religion. You should celebrate as you always do. After all, it is your home. Once the kids have gone back to school, you might tell your daughter how much you enjoyed the young man but wonder how she would feel in the long term being with someone who is not supportive of something that is important to her.
No matter what happens between your daughter and this young man in the future, remember, that your behavior has the potential to make friends or enemies for the Jewish people. And goodness knows we need all the friends we can get.
The latest Jewish Population Survey shows that over 50% of our children are marrying people from other faith backgrounds. Our admonitions against marrying people from other faith backgroundsÂ are not working. However, interfaith marriageÂ does not necessarily mean the end of our people. Interfaith marriageÂ has been around and has been a part of our history from our beginningsâ€”and we are still here. Moreover, most American Jews gave up celebrating Shabbat and keeping Kosher well before the interfaith marriageÂ rate climbed. You might better use your energy to continue to show your children the beauty and value of our traditions than continue your rants against interfaith marriage.
One of the strengths of Judaism has been its ability to adapt over the years. We moved from a sacrificial religion to a non-sacrificial one; from one centered on the temple to thriving in the diaspora. Â Perhaps we need to now focus on how to deal with multiple religions in our extended families. If we can figure out how to live together as families, we can truly be a model of co-existence. Besides, interfaith marriage brings new genes into our pool, which can have some health benefits.
I want to be clear here. I am not necessarily promoting interfaith marriage, but I am saying there can be an â€śup sideâ€ť to it. It is up to us all to make sure that we increase our numbers by welcoming others, rather than decrease them by pushing our children away. The demographics are clear. Interfaith marriage is on the rise. We need to embrace it. Otherwise, we might be destroyed by it.
Helen Rose in her Hand Made Birthday Dress from her Abuelita in Mexico
I burned myself last week. Right after Rosh Hashanah I went into the kitchen to pour hot water into a single-cup coffee filter and ended up with a pot of boiling water splashing down the right side of my body. On the week of the Jewish New Year, my 1-year-old daughter, Helen Rose, had a bad head cold and I had a second-degree burn across my chest. Everything would have been fine, except it wasnâ€™t.
A little while later, the blisters that had formed on my breast ruptured while I was trying to carry Helen down four flights of stairs in our apartment building. I was in pain for five days. I walked around the apartment without a shirt on and tried to keep the area clean. Then, one night a few days before Yom Kippur, I noticed a thin red line spreading from my breast to my armpit; I could hardly move my arm.
As a Jew I feel that guilt has played a large role in my life. There are jokes in our community about â€śJewish guiltâ€ť and â€śJewish mothersâ€™ guilt.â€ť So my mind automatically went to that place we tell ourselves not to go: â€śWhat did I do? I did something wrong and itâ€™s almost Yom Kippur. Iâ€™m paying for something.â€ť Adrian, my Catholic partner, heard my lament.
â€śThatâ€™s the most ridiculous thing Iâ€™ve ever heard,â€ť he said. â€śIt was an accident.â€ť
I asked him if there was such a thing as Catholic guilt, especially in Mexico, where heâ€™s from. I even tried to find the word for â€śguiltâ€ť in Spanish. The only word I could come up with was â€śculpa.â€ť But culpa doesnâ€™t really mean â€śguiltâ€ť; it means â€śfault.â€ť It comes from the Latin root â€śculpa,â€ť also used in the well-known term felix culpa. The phrase means â€śhappy fault.â€ť Catholics believe that Jesus dying on the cross was a felix culpa, because although he died for mankindâ€™s sins, which was bad, the Catholics got to have him as their savior, which was good. So to me it was as if Catholic guilt, if there is such a thing, could never compare to Jewish guilt. For me, guilt is guilt, and there is no happiness involved.
As soon as Adrian got home from work, I rushed to the emergency room carrying all my guilt with me. My burn had become so infected that the doctors at my local hospital transferred me to the burn center at New York-Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan. I cried. Adrian was taking care of the baby, and I felt alone. It turned out I had cellulitis and was to stay at the hospital with an IV until my burn healed. I cried again. Helenâ€™s birthday was two days away and Yom Kippur was the day after her birthday, but I was informed I might have to stay in the hospital for three days.
Hospitals are lonely, but if they do one thing itâ€™s test your faith. They test your faith in God and your faith in other human beings. One of my nurses wore a cross. Another wore a Star of David, and the third wore a heart with the word â€śMomâ€ť in the middle. I felt that all three of those nurses represented all three parts of my family and myself:Â Jewish, Catholic and motherly (and fatherly) love. They took great care of me while I thought more about guilt, about the New Year and about the Day of Atonement coming up. I thought about my daughterâ€™s smile and Adrianâ€™s sweet face.
I tried to remember that my wound was nothing. A burn center cares for people who have been truly disfigured by fire. I was lucky to have only been partially burned, and not across my entire body or face.
I thought of my little Helen Rose. How could I have let myself think God was punishing me for something by burning me? I burned my own breast! And it was an accident! Some people sit in the hospital for days, weeks, months. And then some peopleâ€™sÂ childrenÂ sit in the hospital. Guilt has nothing to do with itâ€”life happens. Tragedy happens. Sometimes death happens. These things happen to Jews, Catholics, Muslims and every human being on earth. They donâ€™t happen to make us pay; they happen to make us learn.
But Jewish guilt can come in handy sometimes. I dished out the Jewish guilt that was passed down to me to every doctor who came in contact with me. â€śYou know,â€ť I said as the IV dripped, â€śmy daughterâ€™s first birthday is on Monday, and if you donâ€™t fix me I may not be home for it.â€ť I remember one doctor said, â€śShe wonâ€™t remember.â€ť I could feel my Jewish ancestors rise up in my blood to reply, â€śBut Iâ€™ll remember! And what kind of mother would I be if I missed her birthday because of my burned breast?â€ť
I was released from the hospital on Monday, just in time for Helenâ€™s birthday. I took the kosher cake I had made days before out of the freezer. Our party plans were cancelled, but Adrian, my mother, Helen and I blew out a candle.
The Kosher Aztec Birthday Cake
I couldnâ€™t go to synagogue because I wasnâ€™t allowed to leave the house for a week, but I felt I had already atoned. A week later at my follow-up visit at the hospital, a doctor asked, â€śWhy didnâ€™t I see you when you were here? Were you in the burn unit?â€ť
â€śYes,â€ť I said, â€śI was released on Monday, just in time for my daughterâ€™sâ€¦.â€ť
Before I could finish, he cut me off: â€śYour daughterâ€™s first birthday? Yes, I know who you are now. There was a lot of talk about you. The staff felt so guilty about keeping you here that they decided it was OK for you to leave a day early.â€ť
Non-Orthodox institutional Judaism seems to suffer from a lack of young families â€“ and, more importantly, young people. We might see a handful of families with pre-school aged youngsters at the firstÂ FridayÂ “family service,â€ť but at most Shabbat services at Samâ€™s synagogue, there are rarely young children other than Jack in attendance. I know Jack is not the only infant at the synagogue, because we see other babies his age at “bagels and blocks” programÂ on SundayÂ mornings.Â In a congregation of about 300 families, why are so few young children engaged in ritual lifeat the synagogue?
Jack’s first synagogue outing in February. He has been to *almost* every Friday night service, since.
This was mirrored when we attended Rosh Hashanah at Sam’s parentsâ€™ synagogue earlier this month.Â Upon arriving, I noticed that JackÂ was the only baby, and practically the only child, in services.Â We sat as a family (of 4 generations!), during the early Rosh Hashanah service, and – as babies do – Jack fussed a little. While wandering the halls trying to calm him down, I found the children in classrooms and playgroups. It was surprising to me to see children not sitting with their parents during one of the most important holidays of the Jewish liturgical year.Â I learned that youngsters of all ages attend the family service, later in the day, which isÂ much shorter and geared to children, whereas the other services are for adults only.Â Even duringÂ FridayÂ nightÂ services at our local synagogue, Jack is by far the youngest one in attendance.
This is drastically different than what I am used to. Whether or not it is a major holiday, it seems like familiesÂ with young children are always present at Catholic churches.Â During mass, little children read books, color, and play quietly in the pews. If the babies/toddlers/children have outbursts, their parents take them into the lobby, calm them down, and then bring them right back into the mass.Â During the most important day of the Catholic liturgical year, the entire church is full of families.Â Just last Sunday, at the end of the mass, the priest addressed the moms, calming their fears about bringing their youngsters. He said that children at mass areÂ anything but distracting,Â saying “let the children come to me.”
Are children welcome your place of worship? If our experiences at our synagogueÂ match what youâ€™ve seen, how can we shift institutional Judaism to welcome young children and families, ensuring our faithâ€™s continuity for the next generation?
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 receivedÂ a phone call from Mexico informing him thatÂ 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. â€śI think my father feels very alone,â€ť he said.
The next day I found out that my motherâ€™s favorite cousin died from complications from Alzheimerâ€™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. â€śI think Tommyâ€™s death has finally hit me,â€ť 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 motherâ€™s kitchen trying to scrawl out a letter to Tommyâ€™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 donâ€™t have the will to pray. Sometimes praying means admitting something is wrong, and Adrian doesnâ€™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 didnâ€™t grow up Catholic like him, I donâ€™t know many of them. I assume they are similar to Jewish prayers, but I canâ€™t be sure.
Iâ€™ve been trying to teach Helen a few Jewish prayers. Because Adrian has beenÂ 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, â€śOur Lady of Guadalupe, mystical roseâ€¦.â€ť I liked that because Helenâ€™s middle name is Rose. I sat down on the floor with Helen and began to recite the prayer, even though itâ€™s not a Jewish prayer. Then we added a Hebrew prayer for cousin Tommy.
â€śThis is for Papi,â€ť I said to Helen, â€śand for Abuela (Grandma) to get better. And we will say one for cousin Tommyâ€™s family too.â€ť
Helen was silent; Iâ€™m not sure she understood, but comprehension will come later. For now itâ€™s important for me to keep up with my own traditions, as well as Adrianâ€™s, even when he canâ€™t. Iâ€™m sure he would do the same for me.
Sometimes Adrian and I donâ€™t understand each otherâ€™s faiths. For him, Judaism has a lot of rules and complex meanings to these rules. For me, as a Jew, I donâ€™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.
Growing up in a small, rural town in northern New Jersey in the â€™80s, I never had perfect attendance in school. Not because I was sick or because my family took vacations outside the school calendar, but rather because every fall, I needed to take two days off in observance of the Jewish holidays.
Unlike my friends who grew up in one of the predominantly Jewish parts of our stateâ€”where schools are closed for the High Holidaysâ€”I was one of about six Jewish families in our entire school district. So for us, school was definitely open and the High Holidays were consideredÂ excusedÂ absences (but still counted as absences), which meant Iâ€™d never have perfect attendance.
Of course, what I share today as a sore spot of my youth seems beyond frivolous now at 36 and a married mother of two. But at the time, it really bothered me. I already knew I was â€śdifferentâ€ť from the other kids.
Sometimes I really loved being unique. For example, my bat mitzvah was the first one my friends who weren’t Jewish had ever been toâ€”it was their inaugural exposure to Judaism and, not surprisingly, it was happily met with rave reviews. After all, whatâ€™s not to love? Thereâ€™s the party and the fancy dresses and the DJ and the neon necklaces and Shirley Temples.
Yet, other than the fact that I missed some school days each fall, or that I attended Hebrew School and had a bat mitzvah (whereas they all went to CCD at the same Catholic church and had confirmations), my religion remained a very personal thing for most of my childhood. It wasnâ€™t until I was getting ready to look at colleges that I realized finding a school with a large Jewish population was going to be really important to me.
I didnâ€™t want to be the only Jewish kid on the block anymore.
And so I accepted an offer from American University in our nationâ€™s capitalâ€”affectionately dubbed â€śGay Jewâ€ť (or at least it was called that when I attended, 1997-2001!).Â At American, I found myself part of the crowdâ€”religion often came up in conversation (as did politics, internship opportunities and study abroad plans). Suddenly, being JewishÂ bondedÂ me to others. And later my freshman year, I even dated an NJB (Nice Jewish Boy) for a few months.
I finally felt like I belonged atÂ AU, like I was among my people. And though the university didnâ€™t close for the High Holidays, many professors canceled class, either for their own observances or because they recognized many students would be going home to their families. Instead of being singled out at American, I feltÂ accepted, not having to explain at length why I couldnâ€™t present a group project on Rosh Hashanah. It was justÂ understood.
I didnâ€™t realize justÂ how muchÂ that understanding meant to me until I entered the working world in D.C. after graduation. I was naive and didnâ€™t know how things like vacation time/PTO workedâ€“or that theyâ€™d vary depending on company. I [wrongly] assumed that Iâ€™d be able to take my religious holidays off as personal days, no big deal.
So you can imagine I was none too happy when I learned Iâ€™d have to take PTO for the Jewish holidays, as at this particular company, sick, vacation, personal and religious holidays all fell in one PTO bucket. It didnâ€™t seem fair to me when Iâ€™d be perfectly willing to work Christmas Day and Christmas Eveâ€”which were considered company holidays.
It was a poignant reminder that, once again, I was back to being in the minorityâ€”even in a culturally, religiously, ethnically diverse city like Washington, I still had to â€śexplainâ€ť myself.
Years later, when my husband (who isn’t Jewish) and I moved to Kalamazoo for his job, I told my parents, â€śGREAT. Iâ€™ll be the only Jew in Kalamazoo!â€ť And it sure felt that way for a while. My one Jewish friend here was my friend Dana in Chicago, two hours away. But then my husband introduced me to his new colleague, Emilyâ€”and said, half-kidding, â€śSheâ€™s JewishÂ andÂ has curly hair, too; youâ€™ll be best friends!â€ť
And he was right. She is one of my best friends, to this day.
When the ad agency I worked for was acquired by a global marketing firm a couple years ago, one of the best changes to come out of the acquisition was that now religious holidays are counted as personal days, versus PTO. Though Iâ€™m still the only Jew in our Kalamazoo office, I no longer feel â€śalone,â€ťÂ or like I have to explain myself, knowing this is an across-the-board policy.
Which brings me to present day. Our 5-year-old daughter Maya is really into the Jewish holidays, traditional foods and singing the songs Iâ€™ve taught her. She can begin Hebrew school this coming fall, and Iâ€™m excited to begin her formal Jewish educationâ€”but I know how small the Jewish community is here in Kalamazoo. Itâ€™s just a tad bit larger than my hometown community was, and I worry about how sheâ€™ll feel, being one of just a few Jewish kids in her elementary school.
While Iâ€™ve always been proud of who I am and love our faith and its teachings, I remember that hard-to-explain, nagging feeling of not belonging growing upâ€¦ and it plagues me. Though I know as parents, we shouldnâ€™t project our emotions onto our kids, itâ€™s hardÂ notÂ to when experience is tainting how we feel. Fortunately, the synagogue we will be joining has a lot of young families and even some interfaith families like oursâ€”so I am sure we will get some guidance from those who have gone before us. But itâ€™s hard living in a community where we really are a minority.
Itâ€™s my hope that I can instill in her that being â€śdifferentâ€ť is what makes her specialâ€”what makes her (and our family) interesting and unique. We might have to explain ourselves to some people, especially living here in the Midwest in a city without many Jewish families, but thatâ€™s OK. Who knows, maybe sheâ€™ll find her place in college, just like her mama did.
MelissaÂ HenriquezÂ is red-headed Jew from Jersey who married a wonderful dark-haired Catholic guy from El Salvador. They met in college, endured several years of long-distance love, married in 2006 and now liveÂ in Michigan with their two wonderful children: Maya (5) and Ben (2).Â By day, she is a marketing manager at a global marketing agency and by night she blogs atÂ Let There Be LightÂ (est. 2008).Â Melissa’s writing has been featured on Babble.com and The Huffington Post.
â€śBut youâ€™re not really Jewish right?â€ť This has been a question I have been asked since I was big enough to walk. My family celebrates all of the big holidays: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Passover to name a few. The women in my family donâ€™t wear long skirts and the men donâ€™t wear black hats. But, yes, we ARE Jewish.
â€śBut youâ€™re not really Jewish, right?â€ť is an insulting question. First of all, what does that mean? Thatâ€™s usually my response: â€śWhat does that mean?â€ť And people respond by changing the subject because they know theyâ€™ve offended me or they keep asking questions that further insult me. Since I live in a very religious neighborhood, these are a few of the questions I get: â€śYou donâ€™t wear a wig right?â€ť â€śYou donâ€™t keep kosher, right?â€ť (wrong), â€śItâ€™s so strange that youâ€™re Jewish,â€ť they say, â€śYou donâ€™t look Jewish.â€ť Again, what does that mean?
This year I had a baby with Adrian, my lifelong partner. He is Catholic from Mexico and I am Jewish from Brooklyn. We decided before we had the baby that ours would be an interfaith family. We wanted the beauty of both cultures and both religions to be a part of who our child was and who she would become. She is a Mexican-American-Jewish-Catholic child.
Adrian and I live in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood. The stores are kosher, on Saturday none of the stores are open and on Jewish holidays women in pretty dresses and men in ironed suits walk in the middle of the streets because there are hardly any cars around. Our kitchen is kosher. Adrian eats pork but not in our home. Does this make me less Jewish? Does loving a man from another faith make me less Jewish? Is my daughter less Jewish because sheâ€™s also Catholic?
Baby Helen and Adrian in Prospect Park
The challenge so far has been trying to live a balanced life. When our daughter was first born these questions nagged at me. Would someone one day ask my daughter, â€śBut youâ€™re not really Jewish, right?â€ť What would she say? What should I teach her to say? How would I explain to her a double faith? An interfaith? The more these questions loomed over me the more I decided to challenge the ignorance of these interrogations.
I found myself in the lobby of a large synagogue next to my apartment building where I was to inquire about a baby naming for my daughter. This was when my daughter was just 2 months old. The woman who ran the functions at the synagogue was all smiles when I walked in with the baby strapped to me in my ergo carrier. She asked me the babyâ€™s name. â€śHelen Rose CastaĂ±eda,â€ť I said. She handed me a piece of paper and asked me to spell it. I wrote it out in both Hebrew and English.
â€śOh, you write in Hebrew,â€ť she said surprised. After all, I was wearing jeans and a sweatshirt and I was not in a skirt or dressed up at all. I had only gone to inquire. I had not gone to pray. As I filled out the rest of the information on the sheet I realized I had to write Adrianâ€™s name in Hebrew and my daughterâ€™s name. Her Hebrew name is Chaya Rachel but how was I to write â€śCastanedaâ€ť in Hebrew? I sounded it out.
The woman stared at the paper. I was waiting for the question, any question. I was waiting for her to say, â€śWell thatâ€™s interesting,â€ť or â€śIs this a Jewish name?â€ť I was waiting for the insult. It never came. Instead, before she could speak I said, â€śMiss, Iâ€™d like to tell you, before we begin the process of setting up this baby naming event, that my family is an interfaith family. I am Jewish and my partner is Catholic. We are not married and our daughter is both. Is this going to be a problem?â€ť
Her reaction was not what I expected. She was calm and smiled. She said, â€śThatâ€™s absolutely OK.â€ť There were no insulting questions, no asking if I was really Jewish. We had a beautiful baby naming ceremony at the synagogue and I felt at home. I felt accepted and my family felt accepted. But, I had also for the first time accepted myself.
I am a Jew always in my heart and I live my life according to Jewish law, meaning I treat others with compassion, I speak to G-d, I meditate and I try to do good deeds. I donâ€™t always succeed at all of these laws but I try my best to abide by them. I was born Jewish and I celebrate Judaism. I come from a long line of prophets and strong biblical women. This is what I will teach our daughter who has Jewish and Aztec blood in her. I also understand that people will always question my â€śJewishness.â€ť Iâ€™ve learned now to respond in a different way. Now, when someone approaches me with the question, â€śbut youâ€™re not really Jewish, right?â€ť my answer is always a flip of my hair and a long laugh.
MyÂ daughter Sophie will be 3 this November. My husband Philippe and I have decided to let her start half-day preschool (sheâ€™s begged). Still, weâ€™re late starting to look at options. I canâ€™t settle on anything, and as a doctoral student in education, I fear my knowledge of the researchâ€”my vise-grip on â€śhow things should beâ€ťâ€” has gotten in the way.
Ironically, in the world of parenting and education, it seems as though you can really know too much, or at least can be tooÂ critical.Â Then, I see an ad for a Jewish preschool not far from our home.
My own religious past is complicated. I was raised Protestant because of my father, but my motherâ€™s entire family was Jewish. My maternal grandfather and his brother were the only ones who survived the Holocaust, traveling from Hungary to Ellis Island in the hold of a ship. As both my grandparents died when I was a child, I was never able to ask any more. If I had a story to tell about my past, it would be one of absence and loss, of lacking knowledgeâ€”hardly the only story I want to pass down.
â€śLetâ€™s check it out,â€ť I tell my Catholic-raised husband, who was actually taught by nuns in his early years. Weâ€™d decided not to push Sophie towards any faith, but the school looks like a good option, emphasizing respectful interactions, strong routines and a balance of strictness and care. At least thatâ€™s what the website says.
In my work, I know the importance of high-quality early education. As decades-long studies have shown, such as the Perry Preschool Study, children who were placed in a â€śhigh-qualityâ€ť program were found to commit less crime, have higher educational attainment and income and need less welfare assistance than a control group.
And yet, I know that a childâ€™s experiences include far more than a single classroom. Developmental psychologist Uri Bronfenbrenner, in his â€śecological systems theoryâ€ť developed in 1979, describes how everything in a childâ€™s environment affects her development, ranging from the microsystem, or her immediate surroundings, through the macrosystem, or remote issues such as the national economy, which affect a childâ€™s experiences in surprising ways. Choosing a preschool means choosing a microsystem, where Sophie will have thousands of interactions with teachers and peers over the course of the day.
No pressure, I tell myself.
When I visit the school, I stand in the temple while the children sit in a semicircle singing Shabbat songs. Their voices mix together, high and low, and bring me to tears. The narrative I had about myself, about my past as a source of loss, didnâ€™t have to be the one I passed down. My pastâ€”and the culture surrounding itâ€”could be a source of joy, of learning and of life.
Even more, seeing the school in action helps me change my narrative about what Sophie needs, and what I need as well. Itâ€™s not about what should work for a child, I concede, but what actually does work, for the child as well as the family. Itâ€™s about the values we want to move toward, the history we want to honor and the past we want to bring to light. What resonates for one family might mean nothing to another. In the ecological model, context is everything.
We decide to send Sophie to that school in the fall. My own life comes full circle, in a twist that I couldnâ€™t have predicted. In attending a JewishÂ preschool, Sophieâ€”blonde and blue-eyed like her fatherâ€”will have a chance to touch her past through her present, to eat apples and honey for Rosh Hashanah, smell sweet spices for HavdalahÂ and play in a sukkah for Sukkot. I never went to temple until college. In helping Sophie know her past, Iâ€™m returning to a system of traditions that I, in my own life, have ignored.
The Jewish part of my history has been buried until now, and with it, my story about myself. Without searching for a preschoolâ€”and without finding this oneâ€”we probably never would have made this decision at all. Not only that: as we light candles for Shabbat, and as we tear into a loaf of challah bread, Iâ€™m helping change my story of the past into something sweeter. History can be a chance for celebration, not simply mourning. Those traditions are coming alive for us once again.
One of the biggest challenges for me as an interfaith spouse and parent has been learning to think ahead about holidays that arenâ€™t part of my own internalÂ calendar. Iâ€™m used to many things that return with fallâ€™s cooler temperatures: school schedules, extra-curricular activities, busy lives. Pumpkins, squash, and apples appear at stores and farmersâ€™ markets, and, as a lover of sweater-weather, I look forward to cooler temperatures.
What Iâ€™m not used to anticipating is a major holiday season right at this major turning point in the year. This forgetfulness remains regrettably true even after more than a decade of having an interfaith partner. I still forget that he might take a day off on Rosh Hashanah (and Iâ€™m still surprised when he, despite being Jewish from birth, forgets to think ahead about it, too).
Eventually, I get used to the rhythm of fall. School starts, schedules become chaotic, but by the time Halloween and Thanksgiving roll around, the â€śnewâ€ť schedule is old-hat, and Iâ€™m good and ready to begin planning for the craziness of December. Itâ€™s not easy, but Iâ€™m used to the idea of thinking about a Thanksgiving menu or winter holiday shopping on top of all the regular chaos.
The New Year, thoughâ€”the Jewish New Yearâ€”surprises me every time. Itâ€™s getting better. Iâ€™m learning to think ahead.Â I know, for example, that weâ€™ll have time this Sunday to watch the football game and bake a round loaf of challah in the process.
My first daughter was born around the time of Rosh Hashanah. That year, I ate apples and honey while still in the recovery room.Â Now that sheâ€™s turning six, she knows that the return of fall means not just school starting again, but also her birthday, which comes with cakeâ€”and apples and honey. Sheâ€™s already planning to bring apples and honey in to share with her classmates, so perhaps planning ahead for Rosh Hashanah and the High Holidays wonâ€™t be such a jolt to her internal calendar as it remains for mine.
Perhaps itâ€™s the doubleÂ whammy of the new school year and a childâ€™s birthday to plan (often baking a cake at home, as well as healthier treats for her classmates at school, not to mention planning a party) that makes fitting in a major holiday season that much more challenging to remember, to plan for.
Somehow, we find a way to get it done. It feels haphazard, but somehow, our daughter has a party, has her cake, has her treats for her friendsâ€”both for Rosh Hashanah and her birthday. We look for, and usually choose, child-friendly Rosh Hashanah services to attend. We remember to check our stock of apples and honey. My spouse forgets which apple-and-honey cake heâ€™s baked in the past, so he looks through cookbooks and websites, trying to choose one, but eventually he does, and the cake is delicious, sweet, subtly spiced, another taste of fall.
Iâ€™m ready for fall, for a birthday, for Rosh Hashanahâ€”but Iâ€™m still not sure what weâ€™ll do for Yom Kippur this year. By the time the Day of Atonement rolls around 10 days later, Iâ€™m sure weâ€™ll have that figured out, as well.
Has anyone else had this trouble gearing up for the holidays because they did not grow up with them, or just because they always seem to occur before we’ve come out of our summer haze?
Recently, my family and I attended a â€śSunday in the Park with Bagelsâ€ť event sponsored by Big Tent Judaism, which appeared to be a consortium of Reconstructionist and Reform Jewish organizations, includingÂ InterfaithFamily.
Bagels are a serious business in our family, and despite the long faces, we all enjoyed the whole event, including the bagels!
I didnâ€™t research the event beforehand and didn’t know what to really expect. Bagels were a great selling point, of course! But I thought it would just be few families camped out on blankets, eating bagels. I learned about the event from the IFF/Chicago’s Facebook group, and knowing how my family feels about bagels at any time of day, I knew it would be something weâ€™d enjoy, particularly in a park on a nice sunny morning. I had no idea that weâ€™d be a part of a very well-attended and well-thought-out morning of Jewish education and, yes, bagels.
When we arrived, we found more than a dozen tents, each hosted by a local Jewish organization and featuring a food and a craft activity based on a moment in the Jewish liturgical year.
The first table we visited was Rosh Hashanah, and Laurel jumped at the chance to decorate an apple with stickers and crayons, as well as stringing beads on it to make a necklace. We didnâ€™t follow a regular order from table-to-table, as Laurel spent considerable time decorating her apple, and 2-year-old Holly preferred to wander much more speedily from table-to-table in search of games and, preferably, food.
Rabbi Ari and Tam enjoy the day
Both children eagerly rolled blue paper around two toilet paper rolls, topped with silver tin-foil points, to make their own tiny Torahs. We found the promised bagels at the Shavuot table, where Rabbi Ari wore a paper crown with green leaves. She helpfully explained that the leaves were a reference to the idea that Mount Sinai had actually been a desert oasis. Both kids ate the bagels with relief and delight! Laurel made a crown, while Holly determinedly stuffed bean bags directly into the goal point of the bean-bag-toss game.
Nearby, we saw representatives wearing gold paper crowns on their heads, and guessed correctly that weâ€™d found Purim. Holly focused on the hamantaschen at the table, while Laurel skillfully decorated the front and back of an appropriately abrasively noisy wooden gregor. We somehow avoided Sukkot, which offered falling-down sukkahs made of graham crackers and melting green icing (in a summery and sugary rendition of a Jewish gingerbread house).
By the time we worked our meandering way to the Shabbat table, I found myself fully in the arts-and-crafts mode, too. At the Shabbat table, the craft consisted of using permanent markers to decorate a challah cover, and I wanted to help little Holly not get permanent marker all over the wrong places (such as her clothes). I grabbed a cut-out of a challah, placed it on the center of the cover, and traced it. Holly scribbled big black lines along the bottom. I grabbed a candlestick and placed it just above and to the left of the challah, and traced it. I was about to trace a Jewish star when I decided it would be really strange not to add the second customary Shabbat candlestick to my challah cover, so I traced a second candlestick as well, and drew a couple of free-hand flames on each. Holly scribbled gleeful blue lines all over the orange challah in the center. When we finished, we all enjoyed a slice of challah to cap the experience.
All the fun crafts we got to make! Apples on a string, a toilet-paper roll Torah, seder plate, challah cover, crown of leaves and a gregor.
Working side-by-side with my children, I found an open and accessible entry point into the Jewish childhood I never had, but which my children are clearly enjoying. This version of Judaism centered on food and crafts rather than Torah, Talmud and ritual observance. Certainly, the emphasis came in part from the types of Jewish organizations sponsoring the event, but the end result emphasized Judaism as something accessible and fun for the whole family, even for family members of a different faith. Some of the crafts my kids made, like the challah cover or the gregor, will likely serve a ritual purpose in our home. The crafts allowed even the youngest of children a way to enjoy the Jewish environment.
Even more so, food is the great equalizer. By eating together, people cement their shared allegiance. That morning, it wasnâ€™t the food of kosher laws that brought people together, but the simple act of eating foods in a Jewish contextâ€”from the menorah dripped with too much icing and sprinkles to the off-season hamentaschen (Purim cookie). Food transcended both age and artistic ability: Everyone, of whatever age or background could enjoy a slice of challah or an icing-dipped graham cracker. No wonder the tote bag said â€śWe ‘heart’ Jewish food!â€ť