How to Rebuild on Yom Kippur

  

A few weeks ago my family had a hard day. It seemed that both my Jewish and my husband’s Mexican/Catholic faith were being tested. A 7.1 earthquake shook Mexico. The epicenter of the quake was in Puebla where my husband, Adrian, is from and where his immediate family still lives. We were at the laundromat with Helen, our 2-year-old. All of a sudden breaking news of the quake flashed across the two flat screens above us.

Both Mexico City and the small, unknown villages of Puebla suffered. What was even more striking was the undeniable factor that the same earth shook on the same date in 1985 when 10,000 people were killed in Mexico City. Adrian grabbed his phone immediately. But then, so had the rest of the world. There was no connection to his village and the phones seemed dead or the lines were all busy. We grabbed our laundry from the dryer, put it in the trunk of the car and drove home to fold it.

The 19th of September this year also marked one day before the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah. I wondered how we would be able to celebrate in the wake of such a tragedy.

As the day moved on, Adrian kept getting Facebook updates from friends in his town who had some access to the internet via their phones. Photos started being uploaded of demolished buildings. Another mutual friend of ours who was in Mexico City said 46 buildings had collapsed and there was chaos on the streets. Adrian went somewhere deep inside of himself with worry. I tried to play with Helen in the living room and not say too much. There was nothing to say, there was only waiting.

News came from Adrian’s brother that the church in their village had collapsed. The front was cracked down the middle and still standing but everything inside had fallen. Adrian started to cry. His mother went to that church every Sunday, every holiday and at every opportunity she had. He still hadn’t heard from her. I wondered what it would be like if my synagogue fell down, the same one I had been going to since I was a child. I couldn’t imagine the feeling. He went into the bedroom and prayed to his Virgin of Guadalupe.

At 6 o’clock Adrian’s sister got through to him. That was mostly due to the iPhone he had sent to her a year ago. She said that the town was a mess but that luckily the family was OK. However, a lot of the neighbors were left homeless and there were huge cracks in the earth. One wall in his mother’s house was cracked and the stove had fallen killing three live turkeys that had been running around the kitchen. I could see the relief on Adrian’s face even before he hung up with his sister. I could see his sadness but also his faith, that unshakable faith when you believe in something hard enough that it changes the outcome of your worst fears.

We found out later that one girl in the village had been rushed to the hospital after a house collapsed on her. We also heard later on about how money from the government was not reaching the pueblos and that people were forced to rebuild without help. Then someone in the village started a donation page and raised enough money for bottled water and supplies.

The next night was Rosh Hashanah. Adrian was still reeling from the destruction of his village and he had to work so he didn’t join Helen and me at the table in my mother’s house. But, my brother said a special prayer for his family and he was present even in his grief. Adrian was actually happy to go to work so that he could take his mind off of things.

As the Jewish New Year progressed I looked at Helen. I remember when Adrian and I decided that she would be of two faiths. It was way before she was born. We said that whatever she wanted to be, she would be part of both of us. So far she eats my mother’s chicken soup, jalapeños, challah and tacos. She smiles like her mother and looks like her father. She says “hello,” “hola” and “shalom.”

When Helen was just a year old I received an angry email from an irate woman asking me how I could raise my daughter in an interfaith household. She accused me of being a “bad Jew” and told me I was making my daughter into a “guinea pig.” The email had me in tears. I couldn’t believe someone would say such a thing. It took me weeks to realize that a voice like that is not a voice of strength but a voice of true weakness, full of misunderstandings. After the earthquake happened I thought about that woman’s email and how absurd it was. After all, Helen goes to the synagogue I went to when I was a child and she will help rebuild the church that her abuela cherishes. We have already asked when we can make a donation in her name.

This year on Yom Kippur I will wear black, say the Kaddish (the mourner’s prayer) for my father and for the people of Mexico who suffered during the earthquake. I will teach my daughter a Jewish prayer and a Catholic prayer. I will teach her that being part of an interfaith family does not make you less of one thing but more of both. After all, we have work to do. There are synagogues that need renovations and churches that are waiting to be rebuilt.

The Unraveling of Tradition

  

This year’s Rosh Hashanah became the beginning of a challenging New Year. Approaching the middle of my third trimester with a two-year-old at home I refused to cook. I spent the Wednesday afternoon before the festivities with my feet up while blowing bubbles for my daughter. There was only one small tantrum that occurred in the kitchen when I said “chicken” and my daughter said “cookie” and then when I pulled out a cutlet there were a few kicks and screams and “cookie, cookie, cookie!” demands. Other than that, things seemed to be going my way.

We had Rosh Hashanah dinner at my mother’s house and my daughter and nephews played until they exhausted themselves and then we all went to bed. The real Rosh Hashanah tradition begins in the morning when my mother and I walk one mile to our Orthodox synagogue every year. This is purely tradition. We are not Orthodox and I have been running an interfaith household with my Mexican/Catholic partner since before our first daughter was born. But the walking to the synagogue where my father prayed and where we went to visit my grandmother as children, because she lives half a block away, is the tradition I have kept because it is most important to me. It is also important for me to share that tradition with my own daughter and the new baby girl on the way.

It was so humid for our walk in the morning that my mother and I had to stop every few blocks. (At 72, my mother is in better shape than her pregnant daughter.) We huffed and puffed and made it in time to hear the shofar, the traditional ram’s horn that the rabbi blows into every year. And every year he says the same thing—that no one can hear the shofar in the streets without trembling. I always tremble when he says this because it is such a unique image and I imagine the olden days when perhaps this was true.

It is always the walk to synagogue with my mother that matters on the High Holy Day. Of course we pray and we listen to the rabbi’s sermon, but when we walk, we share memories. We wonder and are in awe of how we both made it so far with so much heartache. We look at my daughter and marvel how a baby so Jewish and so Catholic at the same time can be so blessed.

Our walk home this year is what changes things. On our way back to the house, my mother tells me she is excited because she will be going with my nephews to synagogue on Friday morning. At first, I think my brother will be bringing them to our synagogue. He doesn’t live too far away but he would have to drive them over. But then my mother assures me that he is not driving, in fact SHE is driving to their house in the morning and going to a new synagogue in my brother’s neighborhood. I stop walking and have to sit down.

During my most challenging times of trying to balance two cultures and two religions in my own home and trying to give my daughter the gift of both beautiful worlds, I have never broken my own traditions to do so. I have never told my mother I was not going to synagogue with her. I have never missed a Passover seder. So it shocked me when my mother decided to do something she has never done before on our most important holiday. It also shocked me that I hadn’t been invited. I was stunned.

The next morning was a beautiful day in Brooklyn. It was what Rosh Hashanah is made of. The neighborhood was green and the sky was a piercing blue. There was no humidity. The sidewalks had cooled off and the Orthodox women in my neighborhood shuffled by in their best dresses. Lilac, burgundy, opal and sea foam green were the colors of the day’s fabric. I walked out of my house without my mother. At first, I thought that I should try a new synagogue. Next door to our apartment, where I held a baby naming for my daughter, they had a service. When I walked in and the woman asked if I needed help I told her I had forgotten something at home and I walked back out onto the street.

I took the long walk to synagogue alone. When I approached my seat inside, the rabbi had just brought out the torah and everyone stood. Rosh Hashanah signifies a new beginning. It is the day God opens a new page and decides whether or not we will be forgiven for our past sins. It is a joyous holiday celebrated by the tradition of eating apples dipped in honey for the desire for a sweet year to come. It is on this day that I can always hear my father singing, even though he has been gone for so long. It is on this day that I thank God for the opportunities I have, for a family I have made with two faiths. But it was never in my mind that on this day, I would sit without my mother when she is still alive and well. It was never in my mind that I would miss someone. It never occurred to me that the matriarch of my own childhood family would be the first one to truly break tradition, to unravel it like a typewriter ribbon—as if at the last minute she decided to change the story.

Charting a New Course

  

We live in a world filled with hate. It seems as each new day dawns, we are reminded of this very concept. Charlottesville, Paris, London, France, Spain, the list continues to grow. Even my beloved alma mater, The Ohio State University, a college with a diverse student population of nearly 60,000 is not immune. Can it really be that we have ushered in a new era where it has not only become popular but acceptable to preach hate and bigotry while encouraging violence at targeted groups? This seemingly commonplace behavior has captivated headlines on a daily basis and often includes attacks on various groups including women, LGBT, minorities and Jews.

America is the land of opportunity. A great country founded on the basic principal of speaking out and rebelling against tyrants forcing their ideologies. Each of us is entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. People love to hide behind the First Amendment as a reason to spout vulgar insults and racial epithets. It has been uplifting to see many Americans coming together to rally against hate. But it’s important to remember that freedom OF speech is not freedom FROM speech. Do I support or encourage the Ku Klux Klan and its supporters gathering in arms, bearing torches and shouting references to Hitler along with chants echoing through the night, “Jews will not replace us!”? Of course not, but while we, as equal rights supporters stand unified against hate, we don’t encourage violence to solve violence. The hateful actions of these people are deplorable and do not embody the principles this nation was founded on.

As relatively new parents, this is continuously a topic of discussion in our house. Today, we live in a community only a few miles from where I experienced first-hand that hate is not limited to racially divided cities or foreign countries calling for war against the West. I was maybe only 10 years old when our baseball team traveled out to a wealthy suburb on the east side of Cleveland. (For those who don’t know me, I grew up in a predominately Jewish community that was well known for its religious concentration.) I was raised in a Reform Jewish household and became a bar mitzvah. I have been blessed to be married to the most wonderful, kind and loving Catholic woman in the world (although not very religious herself). My life experiences both as a Jew and being in an interfaith marriage have allowed me to view this anecdote differently as I got older.

We arrived for the game on a sunny afternoon and began to warm up. It didn’t take long before we could hear the undertones and whispers coming from the home team dugout. “F-ing (expletive) Jews. Why don’t you go home back where you came from?” These were phrases that, while familiar with, I had not experienced them directly, especially as a young boy. I was raised in an environment to be conscious of the fact that the world did not always like Jews and anti-Semitism was a very real thing. Now to experience it first hand was a little jarring. As the game went on there were similar remarks being made under their breathe. Later in the game, on a close play, I slid into second base and was involved in a little scuffle while colliding with the other player trying to tag me out. The play ended and through the cloud of settling dirt, I heard, “Go home you stupid k___ (derogatory word for Jews that sounds like “kite”).”

These awful words still ring in my ears more than 25 years later. My perspective on the world has evolved over the years—from a young Jewish man to a husband and father, raising my own family, in an interfaith marriage. The world is a cruel place; people are cruel; children are cruel. The events of the recent past can be avoided, but it has to start now. Hate is a learned behavior—it is taught to our youth at a very tender and impressionable age. We breed hate as we pass on our distaste for one culture, religion or ethnic group. Information is so readily available today and can be accessed, at our fingertips, within a moment’s notice. Hate groups are using this to unify and unite their cause with propaganda and recruit new soldiers to fight in the battle.

Today does not feel like the world I grew up in. It is fueled by violence and hate, almost as if we have taken a step back in our progression as a society. This is not the world I want my daughter to grow up in. Not a place where she has to be afraid or embarrassed that her last name is known as a common Jewish name. Not a place where she is afraid to walk into a synagogue. Not a place where she cannot be proud of who she is and the heritage she carries with her. We have to do our part, speak out when you see an injustice being committed. I believe that good can and will prevail over evil. However, it starts with us as individuals. The words we use in our homes, the way we speak to colleagues, the way we greet strangers. We CAN make a difference and chart a new course.

Does Religion Dictate Where We Send our Daughter to Preschool?

  

dropping daughter off at daycare

I grew up in the same town where I currently reside. I remember going to high school with only a handful of other students who called themselves Jewish. I knew that raising my family in my hometown meant we would have to go to the very small synagogue in the next town over or if we wanted to be part of a larger community, we would need to drive 20 to 30 minutes north or south to more Jewish areas to find that.

It never crossed my mind that we would run into the issue of being the minority in what I thought would be a simple search for a preschool. Admittedly, I was a bit late in my search, thinking that with a baby due at the end of August and the school year starting in early September, I might want to hold off on sending my daughter to preschool to avoid her having too many changes at once. It turned out that she really wanted to go to school, so who was I to keep that from her?

With the limited openings available to those of us who started our search late, I found that there were very few secular schools with openings. There was one within walking distance, but it only had openings for the afternoon session, which I thought may not be ideal for a still-napping toddler. My daughter toured the school with my stepmother and they both absolutely loved it. But I was unable to make it to the tour and was still apprehensive about sending her to school during prime nap time.

My search had to broaden. The Jewish preschools, like the Jewish communities, were quite a drive from my house, so it seemed unlikely for that to work out as we readjust to life with a newborn again. A highly recommended preschool in our area with morning openings just happened to be a Christian preschool. I scheduled a tour and reached out to the InterfaithFamily Facebook group, “Raising a Child with Judaism Participants and Alumni,” to ask whether other parents would send their children to a preschool of a faith other than Judaism and what kinds of questions they would ask on a tour.

The post had some lively discussion and I found that resource very helpful in gathering my thoughts, both before and after the tour. I went into the tour thinking I would be OK with the education if the religious component was strictly value-teaching. When speaking with the director, I asked whether they’d had students of other faith backgrounds in their school before. The comforting answer was a “Yes, we’ve had Hindu and Jewish students in our school before.”

We started moving through the motions of a typical day, and while my daughter happily played and worked on a craft with the other children, I asked about prayer time and the Bible stories that they read. It turned out that the Bible stories were sometimes familiar ones like Noah’s ark, but at other times, they pull from specifically Christian liturgy. They also do an annual Christmas pageant and talk about the story of Easter. I left the tour thankful to have had the opportunity to ask those questions, but feeling unsure about the school.

I went home, talked to my husband about it, and thought it over. Yes, even if we chose a secular school, she would be exposed to Christian holidays. We are an interfaith family, so she will be exposed in our own family’s celebrations as well. However, teachings of Jesus would not be a part of a secular school’s curriculum. With that in mind, I scheduled a second tour of the neighborhood school with afternoon openings. My daughter jumped right into all of the activities again, already feeling like this was a familiar place. My husband and I asked lots of questions and they were all answered the way we hoped. It felt right, despite the fact that it would mean missing naps two days a week. We took home the registration paperwork and I got started on it right away, so we would not miss out on the few remaining openings.

In the registration packet, I was thrilled to find a questionnaire on celebrations and holidays. The questions were excellent, with sensitive wording and dug much deeper than I would have expected. The questions included the following:

What special days do you celebrate in your family?
How would you like our program to be involved in your celebration?
What are some of the myths/stereotypes about your culture that you would like us to understand so as not to perpetuate them?
How do you feel about celebrations at the center that are not part of your family’s tradition?
What kinds of things can we do to celebrate our center as an inclusive human community?

This put my mind at ease. I answered each question thoroughly, probably with more detail than the school is used to, but this was of utmost importance in my preschool search. I want my daughter to understand and appreciate that other families may have different celebrations and beliefs than we do and I want her to be able to share some of our traditions with her new friends. This school will allow for both, and to me, that is the perfect setting for her first few years of schooling.

Now What?

  

Quinn at PassoverYou just spent several hours or days in the hospital giving birth to your child or, in our case, several months going through your whirlwind adoption. But the moment you have long awaited is here: You are finally home. You left the house as two, but returned with three. For those of us as first time parents, the panic and paranoia is just setting in. As you slowly learn how to care for the newest member of your family, you begin to contemplate the next stages of life. How will we raise them? Jewish? Catholic? Both? Neither?

Or maybe you’ve already contemplated these questions. Kimberly and I had this discussion long before that first moment of staring into our baby daughter’s big brown eyes. We thought it was important to talk openly about these topics early in our marriage. Too many people wait until game time to have the discussion and make decisions which can lead to poor decision making and being short sighted. Our wedding day was not about different religious upbringings, but was a celebration of love that including a “wink” to religious heritage. We were not married by a rabbi or priest. In fact, one of my best friends in the world got ordained and performed the ceremony that we wrote. It was special to have someone who truly knew and loved us both bring our marriage to fruition. At the end I stepped on the covered glass while everyone shouted, “Mazel Tov!”

So much like our marriage, we wanted our daughter to have some religious structure and affiliation in her life, but not necessarily be the driving factor that determined her day-to-day activities. We wanted to make sure our home was a healthy balance between knowing where you came from (even more important with adoption) and having different faiths represented.

One of the first religious rituals we experienced as parents was the naming ceremony of our daughter while observing a long standing tradition of choosing names that begin with the letter of a loved one no longer with us. Quinn’s Hebrew name is Pelia Davi (meaning beautiful gift). The “P” is for my grandmother, Paula, and the “D” is for Kimberly’s grandmother, Dominica—a blend of the old world and the new by bringing two different backgrounds together in the name of loving and caring for the next generation.

Since we were coming from different backgrounds and experiencing life with a Reform religious involvement, we wanted a celebration that similarly mirrored our life: one that was about the love for our new child with a nod to the Jewish heritage she would now be entering. The gathering was intentionally small and consisted of our parents, siblings and our twin niece and nephew. It was important to give Quinn a Hebrew name to follow tradition, honor loved ones and give her a Jewish identity when she is called to the bimah. While this was Quinn’s introduction into her newly minted life as a Maccabee, it was our first introduction as a family into a religious celebration that will set the tone for years to come.

Long ago, we decided that Quinn would be raised Jewish, but we would also continue to observe all holidays from our religious backgrounds. She will go to temple and eventually go on to become a bat mitzvah. When she is old enough she can decide for herself if we put her on the right path and will have the opportunity to choose otherwise.

My wife Kimberly didn’t stop being Catholic the day we got married or the day our daughter was born. That part of her life will never leave her whether she ever steps foot in a church again. She has so many fond memories of her childhood that centered around Catholic celebrations that we cannot ignore (nor should we ignore) them. Those experiences helped shape the person she is today and I wouldn’t change that for anything. She has happily chosen to raise our daughter as Jewish as we forge a new path for our family that represents a true blend. We want to provide a warm and loving home that celebrates her parents’ individuality. But those differences are what brings us together and keeps us together.

These decisions and discussions came relatively easy to us. We have an open, honest and loving relationship that allows us to tackle what seems like, at times, daunting tasks. If you are starting your marriage or just entering parenthood, this is an opportunity, not a roadblock. Talk to your spouse about what is important to you and keep an open mind. Be prepared to compromise and show empathy by putting yourself in their shoes. How would you feel if they said it was their way or nothing? That open dialogue will serve you well—not just today but throughout the rest of your marriage. Our daughter is a precious gift and we want to give her the gift of love in return. Our love for each other and for our daughter will always preside over any religious celebration.

Avoiding “That Look” on Purim

  

Kids dressed up for Purim

It’s Purim again and I’m afraid to leave the house. During Purim, my neighborhood is like being inside a disco ball at Studio 54 in 1976—only there are a lot more Jews and no sign of Bianca Jagger riding a white horse. When I was growing up, Purim was not one of the major holidays celebrated by my family. In the Yeshiva I attended we got to dress up, but there were only four biblical characters we could choose from: Esther, Mordechai, King Achashverosh or Haman. In first grade, I got so bored with dressing up as Esther that my mother hung two pieces of oak tag off my shoulders and I went as a castle. Nowadays, it’s different. Kids go as all sorts of things.

When Adrian and I decided to finally leave the house with our now 16-month-old daughter Helen, it was because we had a craving for quesadillas and grapefruit soda—not because we were delivering Shalach Manot (the bags of wine and food that are customary to gift to friends and neighbors on Purim).

Our car was inconveniently parked three blocks away in my mother’s driveway. I say inconveniently because anything goes on Purim in the Midwood section of Brooklyn. Again, it reminds me of Laura Luft’s famous quote, “Studio 54 made Halloween in Hollywood look like a PTA meeting.” The same can be said about Midwood on Purim.

Adrian thinks it’s hilarious. He grew up in Mexico in a small Catholic village and as we’re walking to the car, he says to me, “You know, in my town there’s a guy whose name is Purim.” I absolutely don’t believe him and tell him to stop mocking my people. He says, “I’m so serious!” Then he laughs and yells, “Feliz Purim!” to a boy running past us while wearing a donkey mask and roller skates.

Where were these costumes when I was a kid and what will our daughter want to dress up as when she gets older?

This year, when Purim wasn’t so visible because everyone was in synagogue for the Sabbath, my brother and his wife invited us to join their synagogue’s Purim celebration. I paused at my brother’s invitation because Adrian had to work, it was 20 degrees outside and when I took Helen last year, it was the weirdest Purim party I had ever been to. Also, as much as I think Purim is strange in my own neighborhood, it was ten times more zany in their neighborhood of Bay Ridge.

I remember that there was a big screen TV with videos of the Purim story for kids at last year’s Bay Ridge Purim celebration. The kids ran around singing songs and getting their faces painted. I also remember wrapping the fruit roll ups that they had around my fingers and pretended to have long nails like I did when I was 10 years old. No one found that as hilarious as I did and then I had a huge stomachache when I got home. Come to think of it, maybe I just made Purim weird in Bay Ridge.

This year, I opted out of Purim even though I’m trying hard to have my interfaith family celebrate every holiday. I knew I wouldn’t be able to resist the fruit roll ups, but also, the only costume I had for Helen was a sad and tired monkey costume that she already wore for Halloween. Yes, I’m that parent that never wants my child to wear the same costume twice.

Before we reach the car, a group of teenage boys dressed as giant cows and rabbits cross the street toward us. One of them looks defiant and drunk. It reminds me of another thing about Purim—everyone gets completely blitzed and runs around the neighborhood like it’s a ’70s disco party. This boy looks at me, then he looks at Adrian and finally looks at my Helen in the stroller. I can see judgement on his face and I feel that he’s thinking: Who are we? Why are we in Midwood? What are we doing on this block on this day? Don’t we know it’s Purim? He, more likely, could have been thinking, “Man I shouldn’t have done that last shot of tequila.” But the look, whatever it said, meant something. I felt uncomfortable as this giant boy child dressed as a floppy bunny looked at me and then at my family. I felt as if I had to explain that I grew up in this neighborhood, went to a Yeshiva, but found a different path and that I love my family, our differences, our two cultures and our two religions. I felt I wanted to say all of this to a 15-year-old boy in a rabbit costume. Why? Because of that look.

I have been getting that look long before I had an interfaith family. I got that look when I wore jeans on Sabbath and smoked cigarettes behind my parents’ house on the High Holy Days. I know that look well. The look has nothing to do with the person giving it and everything to do with the person getting it. I feared that look for a long time. I fear it now for my Helen Rose. She will get that look. She may get it in more ways that I received it. Maybe this is what I realize as the teenagers prance past us. With all our colorful cultural and religious differences as a family, how will I protect Helen from the look? My eyes meet the look and lock on it as if on a dare. I’m 14 years old again. The one boy who catches my eye turns away from me and I hear myself say as if for the first time, “Chag Sameach” (Joyous Festival) and then, “Feliz Purim.”

Why Choosing Love Didn’t Mean Conversion for Me

  

Holding hands

Although I am the half that’s not Jewish in an interfaith marriage, my husband never put conversion on the table–not until I brought the question up on my own, three years after we got married.

Shortly after my husband and I first started dating, Ben brought me to Friday night Shabbat services at a large Reform synagogue in Boston. A cantor with a guitar led the congregation in a wordless melody at the beginning of the service, and as the service progressed into as-yet-unfamiliar Hebrew phrases, I appreciated his help guiding me through the prayer book, not all of which offered transliterations of the Hebrew. Afterwards, we drank small cups of Manischewitz and ate tiny chunks of challah at the oneg. He led me excitedly past cases of shimmering, evocative Judaica: menorahs, kiddush cups, haggadot with messages such as the feminist haggadot or Haggadah for the Liberated Lamb (a vegetarian Passover classic). Afterwards, we went out to dinner at a Thai restaurant, holding hands across a table and talking about religion.

Conversion wasn’t on the table that night, and it wasn’t even on the table when we became engaged, and then married. The only thing truly on the table that night, and in the nights since, was our desire to choose each other, and by doing so, to choose love.

Five years after that first date, three years into our marriage, though, I almost converted to Judaism. I’d attended a friend’s conversion ceremony, and during the joyous celebration of her joining the People of Israel, I found myself unexpectedly and profoundly moved by the experience. She converted in a Reconstructionist synagogue, and in keeping with the vision of Reconstructionism’s founder, Mordecai Kaplan, of Judaism as a religious civilization, the congregation emphasized a joyful spiritual approach that offered no insult to the modern intellect.

When my friend stood on the bimah and received her Jewish name and held the Torah in her arms, my mind flashed forward to times when I’d seen babies dedicated in the synagogue, being welcomed into the Jewish people. I realized, in a flash, what it might mean to hold my own child, and welcome her into the Jewish people, when I myself was not Jewish. There, in that room, with the resonant Hebrew prayers resounding throughout, it seemed that perhaps the covenant could extend to me as well.

I returned home and bought books about conversion, about Jewish ritual, about interfaith families. I listened to all of the major prayers on YouTube, and wondered how long it would take to do formal morning and evening prayers. I whispered the Shema to myself, imagining that my Jewish husband would look at me as if I were “going frum,” a somewhat pejorative way of referring to becoming overly observant.

A few days before Valentine’s Day, I couldn’t keep my curiosity in any longer. I wrote Ben a letter, explaining, in convoluted, circular words, how drawn I felt to Judaism at that moment and how much I appreciated many aspects of his religion. I gave the letter to him at breakfast on a Saturday, and the question of conversion now glimmered there between our held hands, right there on the table. He looked up at me with tears in his eyes.

That afternoon, we went on a hike in the mountains near our home, holding hands, marveling in the wonder of the world we live in, and wondering what it might be like to have a religiously united family.

A few weeks later, I found myself in New York on a Friday night, and decided to attend services at a historic synagogue on Fifth Avenue. I had never been in a synagogue that so closely resembled a cathedral before: soaring ceilings, gilded walls covered in elaborate mosaics, and at the back, a Star-of-David “rose” window and a very impressive organ. A professional choir, accompanied by the organ, sang the prayers, while the well-dressed and equally well-heeled congregation listened in aesthetic appreciation of the music’s beauty. I left feeling confused, out of place, wondering what had happened to that initial inspiration.

In the end, this “crisis of faith,” so to speak, lasted for a few months. I talked with my friend who had converted, with other friends, with my parents. All were supportive, but cautious, not wanting me to confuse one moment of inspiration with making the right choice for both myself and my husband.

I found myself coming back to several facts from which I couldn’t escape: Unlike some converts to Judaism, including my friend, I don’t (so far as I know) have Jewish relatives somewhere on the less-well-known branches on my family tree, other than my husband’s family. In addition, although I appreciate Jewish religion and culture, my own understandings of religious culture, if I’m honest with myself, were shaped in the liberal, liturgical church in which I was raised.

It wasn’t an easy choice, mind you. I struggled with how to choose loving my spouse (and eventually, God willing, our children), with choosing a religion, and with being true to myself. I’d made religious choices for a significant other once before–choices I came to regret–and in the end, wasn’t willing to do that again, no matter how well-intentioned a similar choice might have been, this time around.

Throughout it all, my Jewish spouse stood steadfastly with me, choosing to love me every day, even if that meant we would remain an interfaith family. We knew, in the end, as the words on our ketubah had suggested, that we could choose love by letting each other be ourselves.

Should We Pray for Bad People?

  

temples

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.

The Gift Of An Inclusive and Welcoming Community

  

Heart-shape for the sun.

I met my friend Tracie at an interfaith moms event at my synagogue. She was friendly, and we bonded over her husband and in-laws being from the same part of New Jersey as me. Tracie immediately got involved and eventually joined the interfaith moms’ leadership team.

Tracie was raised Christian but was raising Jewish children with her husband. Actually, in many ways, Tracie was raising Jewish children on her own in a house that she shared with her Jewish husband. Her husband Bob’s connection to Judaism ebbed and flowed. There were times where he taught Sunday school and then there were times when he completely disengaged and even argued that it would be easier to let the kids be Christian.

Tracie let Bob wrestle with his Judaism even when his wrestling was hurtful to her. During these times, she never reneged on her commitment to create a Jewish home. In fact, she doubled down on Jewish engagement for herself and her children – adult Jewish learning and lay leadership for her; Jewish preschool, religious school and summer camp for the boys.

One of the things that always struck me about Tracie was her embrace of Judaism, its traditions, and teachings, and her resolve to make them a part of her and her family’s life. Tracie, a voracious reader and an eager participant in various Jewish learning courses, was so knowledgeable about Judaism that people were surprised to learn that she wasn’t Jewish.

One day, I asked her if she had ever considered converting. She said, “Why do I need to convert to become something that I already feel I am?” She wasn’t offended by my question, and as many conversations go with Tracie, we had a great discussion about identity, boundaries, norms and more. I assumed she would continue living as a ger toshav, a person from a different religious background who accepts and observes the Noahide Laws (the seven commandments which are said to apply to people who are not Jewish), and certain other Jewish religious and cultural traditions.

The other day, I ran into Tracie in the halls of our temple after not seeing her for a while. She was leaving a pre-bar mitzvah meeting with one of our rabbis and her son who is preparing for his bar mitzvah in December. We hugged. It was so good to see her. She looked happy and sounded excited about her son’s upcoming milestone.

As we talked, she said, “I need to schedule some time to speak to you. I’m ready. I’m ready to make it official.” I knew what she was talking about. “It” was Judaism. I was surprised but not shocked, and really, just excited.

One of the beautiful parts of my job as the director of community engagement at my synagogue is that I oversee conversion and get to share in the journey of those interested in choosing Judaism. The experience is even more meaningful when I get to walk the path to an “official” Jewish identity with a friend or someone I’ve known for years because of their involvement in our community.

In these situations, I’m reminded of the gift an open, welcoming and inclusive Jewish community is because it allows those from other backgrounds to explore Judaism in their own way and at their own pace with no pressure to convert. The willingness to patiently nurture Jewishness in everyone, not just Jews, enables many ger toshavs to take their place among the Jewish people when it is right for them, rather than for a communal leader, spouse or future in-law. I’m so glad to be part of this kind of community and to be able in my professional life to be part of these journeys to Judaism.

Things Toddlers Say At Services

  

Happy singing girlWith the drama of the High Holidays receding into the past, I find myself thinking about the charms and challenges of bringing a toddler to synagogue services.

This past summer, our family moved to a different, nearby suburb, one that’s full of as many synagogues as we could reasonably hope to shop around. With the business of moving, we didn’t attend services very often this summer, saving the serious shul-shopping for a more settled time.

Not attending services, though, has meant that our 3-year-old daughter has virtually forgotten what happens at synagogue. During this time she’s also moved more firmly into the phase of life where every other statement begins with, “Mommy, why?”

Given these two facts, I shouldn’t have been surprised by what happened recently at an early-evening outdoor service billed as “family friendly.” We arrived just as the service was starting, and sat on benches at the back of the group as the congregation sang “Bim Bam” over the harmonious strains of a guitar.

That’s when the questions began.

“Mommy, why are we on benches?”

“There aren’t enough chairs right now, honey, but that nice woman over there is bringing more out.”

“Why aren’t there enough chairs?”

I leaned down to whisper to my daughter between phrases of the song. “It’s a busy night, sweetie.” The singing ended; the service began in earnest, and my daughter continued her queries.

“Mommy, who are the people up front?”

“Why are my sister and daddy wearing those hats?”

“What is everyone saying? I don’t know the words to this song.” (We were singing “L’cha Dodi.”)

“Mommy, they said ‘stars!’ I know that word!” This caused particular excitement.

When the service leaders lit the Shabbat candles, I knew the drill.

“Mommy, I know this song,” she said with excitement as the blessings were recited. “Mommy, are there candles up there?” She stood on her tiptoes, trying to peer over the grown-ups to see the candles in front.

At various points, she asked me, “Mommy, why are we sitting outside? When are we going inside?”

On my other side, my 6-year-old asked her own very pressing and important question: “Mommy, when is it time for dessert?” She meant, of course, the oneg, at which she usually made a beeline for cookies after consuming a healthy chunk of challah.

“I don’t know if they do an oneg Shabbat here,” I replied cautiously.

“But I really want dessert,” she explained, as if this would make the appropriate oneg appear.

“I know,” I replied. “We’ll just have to wait and see. Besides, challah is sweet like dessert.”

My daughter answered me with a skeptical glance any teen would envy.

Eventually we came to the Shema, which my daughters both know from bedtime, and their eyes lit up. My youngest asked, “Mommy, how do these people know this song too?”

“It’s a very important Jewish prayer,” I whispered between syllables.

The service became quiet as the congregation entered a moment of silent prayer and meditation. She noticed, and said, not exactly loudly, but not very quietly, “Why is everyone being so quiet?” I leaned down and whispered, “Shhhh. People are praying and thinking about important things, quietly. Please be quiet.”

“I am being quiet,” she stage-whispered. One moment later: “Can we talk louder now?” Me, still whispering: “Not yet, OK?”

And thus the service continued. At one point, I left with both girls to explore the outside of the synagogue, an adventure that was accompanied by a conversation about whether or not there was a playground (and if so, could they play on it), when “dessert” would be, and whether or not the service had moved indoors yet.

I’m an interfaith parent. As an outsider, it’s tough for me to know if this adorable little girl, with a remarkably precise voice, is cute, or is simply annoying to the other worshippers. Part of me wanted to praise my daughter’s constant questioning, her curiosity, her innate sense that “this night is different from (most) other nights,” at least in her recent 3-year-old memory.

By contrast, my oldest sat quietly in her seat (for the most part), standing and sitting. While her better behavior pleased me, I also missed the spontaneous, exuberant ritual dancing she used to burst out with at the slightest strain of music. I had always worried that her expressions of joy would simply be seen as a nuisance, a disruption. Now I wondered about her sister’s incessant questions. Would we be asked to leave? Were people frowning at us? I felt torn between a desire to conform to what I thought was likely appropriate (quiet, seated behavior) and a true delight in my children’s participatory joy.

I asked my husband about this later, and was surprised to learn that he, too, although Jewish, felt uncertainty as an outsider to that particular congregation. His words surprised me. Norms vary between congregations of whatever faith, I realized. Maybe my questions weren’t so much a matter of being Jewish or not, but of simply being a newcomer, learning to breathe, knowing that kids will be kids, and knowing that one day we may well miss those days when they asked every question and danced to each note of music.