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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.
“But you’re not really Jewish right?” 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 don’t wear long skirts and the men don’t wear black hats. But, yes, we ARE Jewish.
“But you’re not really Jewish, right?” is an insulting question. First of all, what does that mean? That’s usually my response: “What does that mean?” And people respond by changing the subject because they know they’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: “You don’t wear a wig right?” “You don’t keep kosher, right?” (wrong), “It’s so strange that you’re Jewish,” they say, “You don’t look Jewish.” 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 she’s also Catholic?
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, “But you’re not really Jewish, right?” 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 baby’s name. “Helen Rose Castañeda,” I said. She handed me a piece of paper and asked me to spell it. I wrote it out in both Hebrew and English.
“Oh, you write in Hebrew,” 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 Adrian’s name in Hebrew and my daughter’s name. Her Hebrew name is Chaya Rachel but how was I to write “Castaneda” 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, “Well that’s interesting,” or “Is this a Jewish name?” I was waiting for the insult. It never came. Instead, before she could speak I said, “Miss, I’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?”
Her reaction was not what I expected. She was calm and smiled. She said, “That’s absolutely OK.” 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 don’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 “Jewishness.” I’ve learned now to respond in a different way. Now, when someone approaches me with the question, “but you’re not really Jewish, right?” my answer is always a flip of my hair and a long laugh.
Two weeks ago, I wrote that I didn’t know yet what I would do for Yom Kippur. In the end, the Books of Life and Death helped me answer that question. Just before Yom Kippur, a beloved relative in my husband’s family passed away after a brief illness. On Erev Yom Kippur, we found ourselves driving the short distance from the Chicago suburbs to the Milwaukee suburbs for the funeral and interment ceremony of Ben’s great-aunt Elaine.
Elaine, already in her eighties, became ill a few weeks ago with a blood disorder. Doctors told her that she had two to four weeks to live. Just days before Rosh Hashanah when the Days of Awe would begin, sealing all lives in the Book of Life or the Book of Death for the years to come, phones across the country rang as Ben’s family shared this sad news.
Elaine and her sister Pauline had hosted Ben’s and my rehearsal dinner: As always, Elaine baked cookies and desserts by the hundreds, bringing them on the plane to the celebration. Her sister Pauline, always the artist, made delightful tissue-paper flower decorations for the rehearsal dinner tables, decorations that still brighten our home more than ten years later.
My in-laws purchased emergency plane tickets and visited Elaine in her hospital room. With over a week remaining until she eventually passed away, she talked vigorously, offered advice and stories, and, knowing the end was near, ate chocolate of every variety at nearly every meal.
Although I could not know for sure, to me it seemed that Elaine had done what so few of us have the courage or opportunity to attempt: She had chosen that this would be the end of her life. She rejected invasive, intrusive treatments that might cure a body that was already into its eighties, and a mind which must have missed the presence of her husband Al, who passed just over two-and-a-half years ago.
I did not know Elaine very well, although I often felt I knew her through her baking, her generosity and warmth, and the stories I’ve heard through the years. My encounters with her were always studded with humor, welcome, compassion and joy. Before I first met Elaine, my future mother-in-law (herself a convert to Judaism) told me that Elaine “taught [her] how to be Jewish.” Living in the same city, Elaine welcomed Karen lovingly as a new member of the family and of the Jewish people.
This effusive welcome greeted me the first time I met Elaine, who enfolded me in a bear hug before passing the plate of Hanukkah cookies, insisting I eat some. Elaine always brought desserts to funerals, bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings and any other gatherings at which food offered welcome in ways that went beyond words. I remember especially her mandelbrot and her crescent cookies dusted with powdered sugar, and my surprise when I learned that she received “her” cheesecake recipe from my mother-in-law!
Elaine’s funeral service at her synagogue was filled with the sounds of tears and occasional laughter as her sister, daughter and son offered eulogies. Already set up for High Holiday services, the chapel had been closed off from the large hall outside, where chairs already stood in rows waiting for that evening’s Kol Nidre service.
At the graveside interment, friends and relatives carried her plain wooden casket with a Jewish star engraved on top to the open grave on a beautiful, warm-but-not-hot fall day. A gentle breeze stirred the leaves in the trees, and the sky glowed that bright blue that only happens when the darker days of fall hover just around the corner. After a prayer and the Kaddish, everyone present helped to shovel soil back into the grave until the hole was filled and Elaine lay at rest next to her husband. I couldn’t help but feel that Elaine would be happy to be near him again.
“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” I thought to myself, searching for words to describe the symmetry, and finding I could only use those which were most familiar.
As the stunning blue sky of the day before Yom Kippur waned toward the darkness of night, Ben and I drove home, our thoughts on the year that had just passed and the one just starting. He hummed Leonard Cohen’s “Who By Fire,” a folk song inspired by the High Holiday liturgy. It’s a powerful song even after the Days of Awe have closed and when a beloved person hasn’t, herself, chosen “by brave assent” that this could be her time.
If Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement, of making amends for the sins of the past year, I feel that all of us who knew Elaine received a special blessing over these last few weeks. As she lay in the hospital and then in hospice, holding tenaciously onto life even as it slipped from her grasp, she found time to make peace, again, for the hundredth time, with every one who came to visit. For each person, she offered a final message, shared one more story, and once again made the people in her life feel welcome. I was not there in her final moments, but I am comforted by the hope that she found atonement (or “at-one-ment” as I’ve heard it be called) with her life as she had lived it, a life which was, by all accounts, beautifully lived.
Rest in peace, Elaine. May your memory be always for a blessing, and may those whose lives you touched be inscribed this year in the Book of Life.
Last summer I wrote about that sometimes-indescribable element that makes Jewish summer camp special (See Jewish Summer Camp’s X Factor). I said that I thought Jewish summer camp’s specialness came from its sense of community and that feeling was recently reinforced when my husband and I brought our son to camp last week.
On the two-hour drive home after drop-off, my husband and I talked about camp and what makes the one we’ve chosen for our son such a wonderful experience for our family. As we talked, one word kept coming up: community.
We all have many communities that we are a part of including neighborhoods, synagogues, workplaces, schools, volunteer organizations, social media, and ethnic and cultural associations to name a few. But while my family finds connection and fellowship through many of these outlets, there is something unique about our son’s camp community. As a camp staffer recently said in a blog post, “We have one of the most welcoming communities I have ever been a part of.”
Now, this is not an advertisement for my son’s camp, but I do think our experience is worth considering as you look at and evaluate camps for your child. Here are several things that make our son’s camp community remarkable:
1) Community is built before opening day. A connection to camp is nurtured months and weeks before a child (and family) arrives for the summer. New families are matched with existing camp families in their area who have children in the same age group. The seasoned campers act as buddies for the freshman, welcoming them into the camp family and getting them excited for the summer. The families form relationships too and parents of existing campers become a resource for first time moms and dads.
Another way community is created pre-camp is through The Jewish Agency for Israel’s summer shlichim program. This program places Israeli young adults in staff positions at Jewish summer camps in various countries including the United States. My son’s camp brings the Israeli staff to the US several weeks before the start of summer for training.
When the Israeli staffers arrive, they spend two to three days with a camp family before traveling to camp for training and summer prep. This creates a beautiful home-camp connection. The families welcome the Israeli staff to Texas and the camp community, and in the 48 to 72 hour period, relationships are formed between the counselors and the families, deepening everyone’s bond with camp.
We have been a host family for the past two years. It has been a great experience, especially for our son who greeted “our Israelis” with huge embraces on opening day.
2) Camp is for children and families. One thing that impresses us about our son’s camp is that the experience is a family affair. While there is a tremendous focus on developing a child’s relationship to other campers, counselors, and the camp itself, the camp also works to make the entire family a part of the community.
Camp starts on a Sunday, which allows parents to drop off their kids. This gives families a chance to experience the beginning of camp together, to visit the facilities, and meet the staff and other parents. Because of this opportunity to participate in the start of camp, we have developed relationships with the families of our son’s bunkmates and stay in touch with them throughout the year.
On opening day, parents and campers reconnect in the field outside the camp gates while they wait to check in. In between lines of cars are clusters of parents and children, greeting each other with hugs, talking, laughing, and catching-up on each other’s lives. Parents are encouraged to stay for lunch to continue the bonding. I think my husband and I had as much fun on opening day as my son did!
3) Audacious hospitality is practiced. One of the most notable things about our son’s camp is its welcoming spirit. Hospitality is embedded in the camp’s DNA and is embodied in the phrase, “Welcome to camp!”
The family guide begins with “Welcome to GFC.” Counselors and campers yell out, “Welcome to camp” in videos. Staff and volunteers from the camp committee greet you with a hearty “Welcome to camp” when you arrive. Campers welcome visitors in the same way, without a counselor asking them to.
You might think that this phrase sounds canned and insincere, but it’s neither. It’s simply genuine hospitality practiced regularly, by many people, and in many ways. And it’s contagious.
At lunch on opening day, my husband and I sat with a couple that was sending their child to overnight camp for the first time. Neither parent grew-up in Texas or had a prior connection to camp. When they told us this we said, “Welcome to camp!” We shared with them what we love about the place, and introduced them to “our Israelis” and other people we knew who stopped by our table. I’m sure that if their child continues at camp, that one day this couple will welcome another new family in the same way.
This community is a big reason why we chose this camp for our son. We like the super-sized (or Texas-sized) Jewish welcome, as do many kinds of Jewish families including inmarried, intermarried, multi-cultural, LGBT, and more. There is something special about hearing someone say, “Welcome to camp!”
As you evaluate camps, consider more than the facilities, philosophy, and cost. Think about community. It’s what makes camp special.