Expressing Gratitude During the High Holidays

  

By Jessica Tobacman

Rosh hashanah (jewish New Year) concept. Traditional symbolsRosh Hashanah—also known as the “birthday of the world”—is fast approaching. Soon we’ll celebrate the world’s big day with a round birthday cake of challah and apples, with honey on the side.

Common birthday gifts include standard prayers sung to melodies old and new, and foods that are as old as our great-grandparents with tweaks as young as the babies celebrating this holiday for the first time.

As we approach Rosh Hashanah, we have a chance to step back and look more closely at the path before us.

When I was growing up, I’d sit down to a holiday dinner, which included brisket and tsimmes, with my parents and two brothers. Now a cantorial soloist with little time to spare on the evening Rosh Hashanah begins, I’m grateful for the Wendy’s burgers my husband buys so we can sit down together, albeit briefly, and remind ourselves that the holiday isn’t just about getting to services with a few minutes to spare. Instead, he reminds us both that family time is integral to the High Holidays. I’m fortunate that my husband, who isn’t Jewish, almost always attends the services I lead, during which he pores over the English translations of the Torah and Haftarah portions and reads aloud with the congregation when they pray in English. These may seem like small actions within the larger context of a service or Judaism itself, but he helps fit the vital pieces of family, community and prayer into a much larger Jewish puzzle.

My parents set the precedent early on in my childhood that the secular New Year would always begin with a family dinner before any other non-family plans came into play. After dinner all bets were off, as the focus tended to be on where you were, and with whom, when the clock struck 12.

For the Jewish New Year, however, the holiday is always more of a kaleidoscope as you twist the end and see diamonds filled with families praying and singing together in communal services.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are arguably the two most important yearly holidays on the Jewish calendar. While the name of the first holiday translates to “head (rosh) of the year (hashanah),” the Day of Atonement is also about the “rosh.” It calls for paying attention to it in a different way, as we eat only in a spiritual sense, fasting for what amounts to about 25 hours.

One of the goals of the long fast is to attain spiritual clarity as a group by taking a break from the material world. Another is to build a sense of community as each of us pulls away from the rest of the world and toward Jewish worship simultaneously, for a common cause.

Judaism tells us to fast on Yom Kippur, unless you’re very young, pregnant, elderly or have a medical condition. Indeed, we refrain from eating as a community. In certain prayers, like “Sh’ma Koleinu,” the plural ending of “nu” is used to show how Jews take responsibility for one another and how important community is. The Jewish people have been persecuted and driven out from the lands they have inhabited on many occasions, including the Spanish Inquisition and the Holocaust. So it’s no wonder we’ve got a bit of a community mentality, despite the pretty accurate idea that if there are two Jews in a room, they generally have three opinions.

The number “three” is a lamppost lighting the way forward during the High Holy Days: To be inscribed in the Book of Life, we need to repent, pray and perform good deeds, as the prayer “U’t’shuvah” states.

The good thing about the High Holidays is there are plenty of opportunities to do all three. Congregations often have food drives, where bringing nonperishable items to services as donations is commonplace. Doing tefillah (prayer) is the modern substitute for sacrifices and is integral to High Holy Day services. And performing t’shuvah (repentance) is a huge reason we go to synagogue in the first place.

Recently, I started the practice of writing gratitude emails, thanking the people in my life for their good deeds. Each message evokes a positive sense of the relationship, bringing it back to ground zero if something has gone awry in the past or if we simply need a fresh start with the new year coming. During this time of year, I suggest combining the idea of gratitude emails with one of sending messages asking for forgiveness. It has the potential to reorganize your life and your relationships so you have a better sense of how to move forward as we start the year 5777.

If nothing else, it’s a great time to reach out to those you care about and reconnect during this potentially sweet, nostalgic time of year. It might be time for a reboot, or simply a chance to celebrate the beautiful world we live in.

To find out more about Jessica, visit her website at http://www.jessicaleestudio.com/.

Breast Cancer and An Unexpected Spiritual Journey

  

By Melissa K. Rosen, Director of National Outreach for Sharsheret

Melissa K. Rosen SharsheretI went to Shabbat services this morning for the first time in months. My long absence wasn’t an intentional decision. In fact, I only became aware of the “decision” recently.

A cancer diagnosis affects so much more than you think it will. Of course I expected the physical challenges. And it came as no surprise when I found myself emotionally drained. What I didn’t recognize for either of my two diagnoses was the impact cancer had on my spiritual life.

Living Jewishly has been important to me since childhood. Through the years it has meant very different things, yet has always been an integral part of who I am. I grew up in a Reform temple. My husband, now a committed Jew, grew up in a Christian home. We have spent time in both Conservative and Orthodox communities. Those varied experiences have made us sensitive to both the ways we practice and our relationships with God and community.

During my first diagnosis, I instinctively turned to faith and spirituality. I went to synagogue, spoke with God, wore an amulet with Jewish text and even received a healing bracha, or blessing, from a rabbi. My community and my faith were a large part of my recovery. I drew strength from what had always been important to me.

Seventeen years later, at the time of my second diagnosis, without even realizing it, I shut down spiritually. In retrospect, it was as if a switch was flipped. I withdrew from my community. I stopped attending Shabbat services and drew little joy from holidays and Shabbat.

Navigating cancer places unique pressures not just on the patient, but on the family as well. A medical crisis can bring family together—and it can also highlight differences. In my family, with our joyful and carefully constructed religious life, changes of any type were a challenge that needed to be addressed. Were the changes I made permanent? How would they impact my family? Were they actually helping me deal with my diagnosis?

I realize now, both from the benefit of time and from the conversations I have had with other cancer survivors, that diagnosis can make a person spiritually fragile. When you are diagnosed you may look to find meaning in the experience. That may mean drawing closer to faith, changing the way your faith is expressed or turning away completely. It may be an intentional decision, or something you realize in retrospect. Maybe I was mad. Maybe I needed every ounce of strength I had to deal with my treatment. What I know now, healthy and long past treatment, is that my life is missing something.

Jewish observance and commitment has always been an active conversation in my home, so I’m not sure why it took me months to realize the changes that occurred at my second diagnosis. Now that I’m aware of what I have lost, I have made myself a promise to fight my way back to something that has always brought me joy and comfort. I’m not sure where I will find myself in the end, but I know one thing for sure: I’ll be in synagogue next Shabbat!

Sharsheret, Hebrew for “chain,” is a national not-for-profit organization that supports young women and families, of all Jewish backgrounds, facing breast cancer at every stage—before, during and after diagnosis.

If you are interested in learning more, or would like to run a Sharsheret Pink Shabbat®  to raise breast cancer awareness in your community, you can contact the author at mrosen@sharsheret.org.

A Millennial’s Take on Interfaith Dating

  

By Nicole Rodriguez

Interfaith Dating for MillenialsWhenever I meet someone new, there’s always an instant connection the moment I find out they’re Jewish. It’s almost like an immediate form of familiarity, even though we just met. However, when I meet someone from a different faith, I am just as interested to learn more about their culture as I am when someone is a different denomination of Judaism.

Growing up in a Reform Jewish household, I was often told by my parents, “You can marry anyone you want, but we prefer a nice Jewish boy.” A big emphasis was on the “prefer.” But I’ve dated many people and the religious aspect hasn’t weighed heavily. The one serious relationship I had was with someone who was not Jewish—he was Lutheran. But besides the occasional questions here and there about our faiths, we rarely talked about it. It just became one of the details I knew about him. We were both pretty non-observant religiously; less organizational and more family-centered and holiday-based. All the other positive aspects about him were more important to me than the fact that he came from a different faith and belief system, which ensured a successful relationship.

Interfaith dating forces some—not all—people to make the difficult decision of whether they should or should not pursue a potential relationship with someone of a different faith. My opinion as a millennial in this day and age is that beliefs are not a key factor in determining the outcome of a relationship; values are. Date whomever you want based on personality, sense of humor, how that person shows their love for you, etc. Truly good people are those who find ways to apply their beliefs to their lives and aspire to live a life by the right values.

Though all the different kinds of faiths across the globe may vary from one to the next, many of their values are universal. As long as both people share similar values and are able to maintain mutual respect for each other’s beliefs, there shouldn’t be anything holding them back from being together. Both parties can carry on the religious traditions important to them, share in each other’s practices and celebrate the unity of their values. There will be different approaches to how to be a good person, and that can potentially be enriching to learn about and process.

As a famous Beatle once said, “All you need is love.” Now, John, what do you mean by that? Specific love from specific people? Love as long as it’s with someone from your religion? No. I think he means that any love is worth your time and affection, regardless of religious differences. By limiting yourself to one cluster of people, you might be denying who can truly make you happy. Some couples might disagree, but in my opinion finding someone who will love you the way you truly are is the truest kind of love.

Judaism has a sense of peoplehood and a shared text, language and connection to a land. However, when you find a mate with real love and connection that isn’t Jewish, it doesn’t mean they can’t still be a great addition to the community. I won’t lose my Jewish connections and Jewish allegiances, identity and pride when I #ChooseLove. I’m not choosing love over sharing the same religion. If I can have both, awesome! I’m hoping for love with someone who will support me for me and let my beliefs inform them as well.

Beyond the Bagel: A Vegan Shabbat Dinner

  

By Zoe Crum

My husband, Erik, and I recently attended “Love and Religion,” a workshop for interfaith couples who are exploring their spirituality and how their religion, spirituality and traditional practices will play into their future lives. I myself am not Jewish—Erik is—and I was raised, as we collectively decided to put it in class, with “Christian undertones.”

Erik and I have known each other since our undergraduate years at Drew University. We have been engaged for almost three years and will be getting married later this summer. Erik recently moved to Washington, D.C., to join me there. Since we have been living together we have decided to spend this time, and the early years of our marriage, experimenting with traditions and deciding what we want to nurture in our household from both of our upbringings. This is what led us to “Love and Religion” and eventually to this blog post!

Through this workshop at the DC JCC, we were lucky enough to meet the wonderful Rabbi Sarah Tasman, director of InterfaithFamily/DC, and hear about the “Jewish Food Experience: Beyond the Bagel Program Grants for Interfaith Families.”

beyond_bagel_dinner

I could gush forever about this program, as I’m a self-proclaimed vegan foodie. Cooking and baking are a huge passion of mine, and I love the opportunity to cook for people I care about. When we found out there was a program that would not only help fund a dinner for our friends but would allow me to explore new recipes and that directly related to our new relationship mission of exploring each other’s cultural traditions, we didn’t have to think twice. Of course we were going to host an interfaith veggie Shabbat—my very first.

We applied for the grant and the rest was delicious.

Friends of all backgrounds joined us for Shabbat, including both of the couples with whom we attended “Love and Religion.” We started the night with homemade hummus with veggies and flatbread, vegan cashew cheese with crackers, and dates and olives to snack on. Many people drank wine, which I have learned is standard for Shabbat, and a tradition the group wholeheartedly embraced.

Erik led us through the Shabbat rituals and got everyone involved. We lit candles and broke the vegan challah. We washed our hands and drank the wine. I wish I had gotten more pictures, but we implemented a strict no-phones-at-the-table rule. Then we sat down for strawberry, walnut and spinach salad and challah.

beyond_bagel_baked3Making challah was an interesting challenge, especially since I had never tasted it myself. However, from my understanding, it’s a heavily egg-based bread. Luckily, I found a nice and easy recipe from the cookbook “Betty Goes Vegan” and started the dough for two loaves. One was a classic challah, and the other I quickly decided should be a cheesy, garlic bread challah of my own devising. Apparently I didn’t do too badly (or my friends are just too nice). Everyone loved the challah, and one person even commented that they would buy the cheesy garlic one at the store if they could!

For the main course we had summer squash lasagna roll-ups with a walnut and sundried-tomato pesto, roasted lemon asparagus and roasted purple potatoes with rosemary. I had hoped to make a few more veggies but ran out of time (and it’s a good thing too, since there was plenty left over!).

On to the most important course: dessert. One of our fabulous guests brought a delightful peach crisp and coconut-based vanilla ice cream. I paired this with a vegan blueberry cheesecake with a graham-cracker crust from the cookbook “Vegan Pie in the Sky.”

The night was a huge success, filled with many insightful questions about Shabbat, Judaism and veganism. We are looking forward to our next chance to host a big dinner, and are so incredibly grateful to Sarah for connecting us with this opportunity. Shabbat shalom!

We Chose Love with a Full Moon Ritual

  

By Kelly Banker

Kelly & Courtney

The moon has recently become new, and therefore our Jewish calendar has just transitioned to the month of Av, one of my favorite months of the year. Av is a time to celebrate love and to recognize destruction in our histories and in our world. I appreciate this duality, the way that the Jewish tradition allows space for two of the most powerful human experiences in one short month.

I am absolutely head over heels in love with the moon and her cycles, and adore creating ritual around the new moon and around the full moon. I particularly enjoy marking the full moon, because to me it is wonderful preparation for the new Jewish month to come in two short weeks. That said, about two weeks ago my boyfriend and I did our first “interfaith” ritual together around the full moon.

I knew that I wanted to ritually mark the fullness of the moon, and Courtney was willing to join me. We discussed how to make the ritual meaningful for each of us, with reference to our respective faith backgrounds but not allowing either one to eclipse the other. Our care and thoughtfulness around truly making the ritual interfaith and, therefore, comfortable for both of us, was critical to its success.

The night of the full moon, we ate dinner together, watching the sun slip lower and lower into the sky. As darkness was falling, we went upstairs and together did a full moon yoga practice. The movement was slow and meditative, bringing us into a state of embodied presence. By the time we had completed our practice, the moon was rising in the sky.

Excited and enamored at the moon’s beauty, we gathered all of the ritual items we planned on using and began setting up our space on the picnic table in front of the house. We assembled each part of our ritual together; first, we placed a circle of tea lights on a plate, and around the edges we placed objects that are sacred to both of us. These objects included shells, dried sage, flowers, family heirlooms, and meaningful pieces of art.

Once our arrangement was complete, we took turns lighting the candles and gazing up at the moon. With the candle flames dancing on the table in front of us, we read to each other from a book of poems we both love, selecting poems that focused on fullness and creativity. Then we wrote down our individual and shared intentions for the rest of the month, using only the light of the candles to see. At that point, we shared our intention (kavannah) for the next two weeks with each other, and then we gently crumpled up the slips of paper and burned them to symbolize the release. Then, together we blew out the candles, calling out all that we wanted to release and bring into our spaces for the remainder of the month. We then sat in the light of the full moon only, taking in the magic of the experience we had just co-created.

What made this an interfaith ritual? For me, interfaith ritual is about co-creating a space that is inclusive, welcoming and meaningful for people from diverse backgrounds. While that certainly can include specific teachings, liturgy or ritual from individual traditions, I believe it can also be about making the passage of time sacred, named and ritualized. Interfaith ritual need not be filled with complex theological comparison or discourse, although it certainly could be. It can be as simple as lighting candles, reading poetry, enjoying the power and stillness of yogic movement and setting intentions in alignment with the cycles of the earth. More than anything, I believe that our ritual was about choosing love and trust to build a holy experience together. Our ritual was sacred not only because of the actions and objects we chose, but because we chose to bridge difference while maintaining its integrity.

I feel proud to be in an interfaith relationship where celebrating and honoring our differences is a powerful way we express love for each other. As Tu B’Av, the Jewish/Israeli holiday in which we celebrate love, approaches, I am praying for a Jewish community and larger world where love becomes a primary site of encountering and honoring the blessing of difference.

Kelly Banker works as a Jewish educator and as an intern at Mayyim Hayyim. She is also a resident organizer at Moishe Kavod House. Kelly recently earned her BA from Carleton College in Religion and Women’s Studies and has worked as an advocate for survivors of sexual violence. Kelly is a doula, a farmer and a certified yoga teacher. She loves feminist theory, ritual, movement, exploring the woods, poetry and the moon.

Take the Fifth: How an Intermarried Woman Honors Parents

  

By Joy Fields

Dinner

We are commanded to honor our parents. The fifth commandment can present a few challenges, however, like when my Jewish mother is sitting next to my Presbyterian father-in-law in his favorite Chinese restaurant, waving a pink morsel around on her fork and loudly asking, “What is this?”

“It may be pork, Mom, just eat around it,” I whisper. OK, maybe I hiss. I’d prefer to think I whisper. Loudly. I’m sure I try to make a point of using an indoor voice without actually telling Mom to shut it.

She holds the morsel closer and focuses through her bifocals as if checking a diamond for flaws.

“Put it down and eat around it,” I repeat, trying not to appear angry.

“Oh, fine. I have plenty to eat anyway. Who needs rice?” She refocuses on her dinner plate. “Do you think I can eat the moo goo gai pan?”

Not with your mouth open. Remember, that’s your rule, Mom.

Of course I don’t verbalize this because it’s not going to help to argue with her in front of my in-laws, the restaurateurs they’ve been visiting for 20 years and the general public. I can just quietly break my chopsticks under the tablecloth, so no one will notice. Ah, that feels better.

I make a mental note to do a little advance preparation in the future. There must be ways to avoid confrontation and honor my parents. Not to mention my mental health.

To start, I try looking at the situation from my parents’ viewpoint. I made a decision to embrace an interfaith relationship, but Mom didn’t. I’m open to new experiences and accepting of different cultures; she loves me and is OK with my spouse, but isn’t comfortable outside of her own microcosm. Before bringing her into an unfamiliar situation, I should have discussed it with her so she would be a bit more prepared.

I would also try to use a positive viewpoint to appeal to her. Next time I’ll say: “Mom, the Smiths have invited you to their favorite restaurant because they really want you to enjoy a meal with them. They really love the food there and don’t realize it’s not what you’re used to. There will be something on the menu you will be able to eat, but the most important thing will be enjoying each other’s company. They really look forward to seeing you.” I’ll print a menu from the restaurant’s website (in large font, no less) so Mom can be thinking about what she could comfortably tolerate before she even gets there.

I also consider my in-laws’ viewpoint. My father-in-law typically enjoys ordering family-style to show his prowess at selecting the best flavor combinations. So I would politely let him know in advance that Mom has complicated dietary concerns, and although everyone appreciates his expertise, it might be better this time to let everyone order their own thing. He would understand and reward me with a detailed recount of his recent gallbladder surgery recuperation that required a special diet. He would be careful to remind me that it’s now perfectly OK to bring him a plate of those pecan cookies anytime I want to.

I would discuss with Mom their before-meal prayer routine. Most Jews I know don’t say Kiddush (the prayer over wine) before sipping wine in a restaurant, but my Christian family bows their heads slightly as the head of the family says a blessing before digging in to the meal.

I would point out the similarities between this and saying Ha’Motzi (the prayer before meals) before Mom’s Shabbat meal. I’d let her know that although some may bow, she’s certainly not required to. Most will voice “amen,” which is also not required of her. She can just keep her lips sealed. (I vaguely remember seeing her do this at some point in time and feel reasonably sure she can replicate it if she practices.)

Instead of focusing on differences, another great way to prepare is letting my family know what they have in common with others at the gathering. People of all backgrounds love gardening, crafting, investing and complaining about how long it takes their fancy new phone to update.

“Mom, why don’t you sit next to Ralph?” I would suggest. “He read that same Patterson novel you just did, and you can discuss the plot flaws with him until the cows come home while the rest of us talk about something we’re interested in.”

Finally, I heed the advice I received from a nurse experienced with dementia patients, which is applicable to all families: Don’t correct or argue about recanted memories. If Mom wants to tell Ralph and Mary all about her experience as a Broadway chorus girl, I’ll sit back and enjoy the show. I don’t mention that Mom grew up in New Jersey and couldn’t dance her way out of a paper bag. The family is entertained, everyone is happy and the fifth commandment has been fulfilled.

Key Ingredients for a Lasting Interfaith Marriage

  

By Elizabeth Vocke

Elizabeth's wedding

When my husband and I first started dating I was what you might call a serial monogamist—I had a string of long-term relationships that never really went anywhere. So when we met, I decided to change things up and ignore some of those relationship “milestones” that I’d sped toward in the past.

First on this list was meeting my family. I love them dearly, truly I do. But, we’re a large group that some (i.e. my husband) may call intense. I’d had previous boyfriends feel overwhelmed by the number of family events and obligations.

Second was religion. My husband is not Jewish and I am, and while I’m OK with that, I didn’t know how he felt.  Now, this isn’t a conversation I typically rush into. I’m not the most observant Jew. I don’t keep kosher or go to synagogue regularly. But, I do go to services during the high holidays and celebrate all the holidays with my family, and Judaism is definitely a part of my upbringing.

So, I decided these milestones could wait.

Until they couldn’t, and both converged just a few months into our relationship.

Elizabeth and Devon

Elizabeth and her now-husband, Devon, on a trip to Italy before they were married

Passover was coming up and my sister was planning a big seder with all our family at her house. That meant my parents, sister, brother, in-laws, nephews, niece and more would all be in town just a few miles away for a big, raucous Jewish family event.

My husband (boyfriend at the time) knew I was going but I had already decided not to invite him. Who wants to meet a big family of another faith at a religious event that includes taking turns reading out loud, singing and speaking Hebrew? Apparently my husband.

As Passover neared I could tell that he actually wanted an invitation. That should have been my first sign that he was a keeper. But I resisted until it finally became more awkward not to invite him. And? It was great. He met my entire family at our Passover seder and the rest is history. So what did I know?

What I do know, now, is the importance of communication. While I initially waited to bring up the conversation about religion, we eventually did talk, long before we got engaged, then again once we were engaged, many times throughout the wedding planning process, again when planning our family and after, and we continue to have these discussions today.

We talked about what religion meant to us as individuals and as a couple, and most important, as a family. We made decisions early on, before we were married, about how we would raise our children. We talked about if and how this would impact our extended families, and what that meant to us as a couple. Mostly, we both felt strongly about respecting each other’s beliefs and needs.

On chairs at the wedding

We are lucky. Our religious backgrounds are widely different, but what is important to us about religion is the same. For us, it’s first and foremost about family. Then, tradition, history and heritage; and those are things we both respect and believe in regardless of the formal aspects of the religions.

We decided early on to raise our daughter with aspects of both religions. My parents disagreed, thinking it would be confusing, but my husband and I had already discussed this and felt strongly about our decision.

We believed that our daughter’s generation would be filled with kids from different faiths, races and combinations and that she would fit into this evolving world. And so far that has proven true.

Now, our daughter is 8 and we need to make decisions about joining a synagogue, Hebrew and/or Sunday School and a bat mitzvah. We also continue to celebrate Christian holidays and make that religion available as well. Because we’ve already talked about much of this, those decisions are easier to make and typically in line with our shared beliefs.

This is what works for us.  I will not tell you that an interfaith marriage or a mixed religious upbringing is right for everyone. And I’m sure we’ll face obstacles and have to redefine our thinking and our plans. But, the best advice I can offer is advice that will fare well in any aspect of a marriage or relationship: Communicate openly; communicate often.

How Jewish Am I?

  

By Nicole Rodriguez

Nicole and her parents

Nicole and her parents

I am Jewish. I identify as being Jewish. Well, actually, I identify as being Jew-ish. I was born Jewish, but was raised in a non-observant home. No synagogue, no bat mitzvah and no serious Jewish boyfriend (yet?) to help me learn about Judaism and Jewish culture. We did have the occasional tradition (that’s an oxymoron, right?) of watching The Ten Commandments and Eight Crazy Nights on Passover and Hanukkah, put on by my father, who converted to Judaism before my parents got married. I still light the candles on Hanukkah with my parents and many of my best friends are Jewish. I was very happy growing up Jew-ish, but it has led to my fair share of awkward questions.

“OMG, your dad converted? So you’re technically half Catholic!?” Nope! Some Jewish denominations might disagree, but I am actually 100 percent Jewish.

“I’m confused, you’re Jewish but don’t Mexicans celebrate Christmas?” My Dad converted but we still join his family on Christmas as guests, not to celebrate.

“You’re Mexican, can you help me with my Spanish homework?” I doubt I know more Spanish than you do.

“What synagogue do you belong to?” My family and I don’t belong to one.

“You don’t look Jewish.” Um OK? What does a Jewish person look like?

I recently read an article about people who say “You don’t look Jewish,” as if it’s a compliment.

There is no such thing as a “Jewish” look. You wouldn’t tell someone on the street that they don’t look American. Children are taught to value diversity and respect those of other ethnic backgrounds because America is a land of many cultures. The same goes for anyone who is Jewish.

In addition to being Jew-ish, I try to maintain a deep connection with my Mexican heritage. Although I am not fluent, I try to speak Spanish as much as I can with my Mexican half of the family. However, I do not celebrate The Day of the Dead nor does my family play Selena music throughout the house or watch George Lopez 24/7. Stereotypes, man.

I have been dogged by many stereotypes and presumptions for as long as I can remember. I’m not your average Jew or average Mexican—but honestly, today’s world is becoming less and less stereotypical. For example, more interfaith families are becoming part of American Judaism.

By interning at InterfaithFamily this summer as part of the Chicago JUF Lewis Intern Program, I am able to connect with other young adults like me. I see a whole network of people out there trying to find meaning and make our way in our Jewish world. Sometimes this world feels welcoming and embracing and sometimes I feel out of place and awkward. Meet me, an eager newbie with lots to learn, a deep sense of pride of who I am, with new Jewish memories and an open heart and soul ready to forge our future.

Our Most Important Difference

  

By Kelly Banker

Kelly & CourtneyI had been living at Moishe Kavod House (a home-based Jewish community for young adults) for about a month when my boyfriend, Courtney, and I decided it would be exciting for him to accompany me to Shabbat services. The gatherings are always well-attended by lots of friendly folks, so I figured it would be a perfect way to introduce him to the beauty of Shabbat. I brought Courtney up the stairs to the services and we took a seat together on the floor. The services began, and although I had prepared him for the Hebrew prayers and songs, I had forgotten just how challenging it can be to follow along in a Jewish service if one is unfamiliar with its choreography and language. Each time we would rise, or bow, or face toward the door, I would hastily try to signal to him what was happening, but it was always a moment too late. Our visibility as an interfaith couple was clear, but it was made even more clear by the fact that Courtney was one of the only people of color in the room.

Once services ended, we connected briefly before heading downstairs. I asked him how he was feeling, and he explained to me that despite the warmth and kindness of all the people he had met, it was hard to shake the feeling of being an outsider. We spent the rest of the evening meeting community members, eating delicious food and discussing the powerful d’var that a local social justice leader had given. But he and I were left with a lingering feeling of otherness. We were full of questions as to how we might be able to attend such an event with both of our full identities intact.

A few months after that Shabbat dinner, we flew to Atlanta to spend Thanksgiving with Courtney’s family. At that point, I had never met anyone from Courtney’s family, so spending the week with his immediate and extended family felt daunting, but exciting. I was prepared to feel a stronger sense of difference than usual, given that I would be the only white person there. Before the Thanksgiving meal, we stood in the guest room as Courtney assuaged my anxiety about meeting his extended family. Confident that the most important point of difference would be drawn across racial lines, I geared myself up for an evening of relative discomfort.

However, when I stepped out of that guest room, Courtney at my side, I found that I was completely wrong. His family welcomed me with open arms. To my surprise, there were only two moments that felt heavy and slightly uncomfortable. The first of these moments came when the family sat down with overflowing plates to say grace before eating, offering praise to the Lord, the Son and the Holy Ghost with a painting of the Last Supper in the background. Needless to say, at that moment, I was hyper-aware of being the only Jewish person in the space. The second moment came when Courtney casually mentioned to one of his young nieces that I work as a Jewish educator in Boston. She turned to me with wide eyes and said, “Are you a Jew?” In response, I laughed and said yes, and proceeded to answer her questions. I was taken aback by her shock until I realized that she has probably never encountered a Jewish person before, whereas of course my whiteness was unremarkable to her. When we flew home later that week, I was pleasantly surprised by how comfortable I felt with Courtney’s family, and interested that the primary point of difference had seemed to be religious.

I believe that these two experiences—attending a Moishe Kavod Shabbat with Courtney and spending Thanksgiving with his family—highlight critical, surprising truths about being in a relationship that is both interfaith and interracial. Our most important difference as a couple is neither racial, nor gendered, nor religious, nor socioeconomic, rather it is a fluid meeting and shifting of those identities and experiences. There is no hierarchy or primacy of identities. Instead, there are only shifts in context and experience that dictate which of us may or may not feel comfortable in a given situation.

I have given much thought to a feeling of otherness as Courtney and I navigate a relationship that many perceive to be built on difference. We attract quite a few stares and whispers when we are out in public and even though by now we are accustomed to sometimes rude responses, we refuse to adopt such a simplistic view of our differences.

Courtney and I met nearly six years ago when we were both undergraduates at Carleton College and throughout our time in school we became deeply, powerfully connected to one another. We see ourselves as interconnected, intertwined; in short, we do not perceive our relationship to be one focused primarily on navigating difference. The intersectionalities of race, gender, class and religion absolutely play a prominent role in our relationship and our related experiences—but even so, that feeling of otherness still feels like an imposition from the outside world.

Each and every day, I feel proud to be grappling with these complex questions about belonging, identity and community. I am excited that we draw from two rich, beautiful religious traditions as we shape our life together. We are blessed to be doing this work in a world that seeks to delineate inflexible categories based on race, gender, class, religion and so many other visible and invisible identities. Honoring our connections while maintaining and celebrating our differences is challenging, humbling, heart-opening, holy work. How blessed we are to be struggling and striving to be better for ourselves and for the world.

Judaism Without Walls

  

By Jared David Berezin

Jared wedding

Jared and his (now) wife Laurie being married by Rabbi Lev Baesh on Laurie’s parents’ farm in Pennsylvania

Why am I an unaffiliated Jew? In many ways, I should want to join a congregation. I’m in my early 30s. I’ve had a bar mitzvah. I’ve traveled to Israel. I enjoy celebrating Jewish holidays, including Shabbat. Passover is my favorite time of the year, and my wife and I love hosting our annual interfaith-humanist-vegan seder with friends of many faiths. The central question of why I am not a member of a synagogue, and why I have no desire to join one, spawns more questions:

Jared's questions 1Many of us have read articles about shifting demographics, aging congregations, low service attendance and the increasing number of unaffiliated Jews. Many of these articles pit affiliation and unaffiliation against one another as competitors, with blame often irrationally ascribed to young Jews, especially those who fall in love with someone of another faith. These articles resemble conversations I’ve had over the years with older affiliated Jews, in which being young, Jewish and unaffiliated was treated as a temporary illness that would cure itself once the patient got married (to another Jew) or had children. What is often missing from these discussions is the spiritual value of being unaffiliated, and how creating Jewish moments outside of a synagogue can be meaningful and fulfilling.

Re-Discovering Judaism

My childhood experiences in a Reform synagogue convinced me that religion was something you learned and performed, whereas spirituality was something you felt and experienced in the secular world. The first crack in this logic occurred in college when I read the “Song of Songs.” Then I attended a few events sponsored by the campus Hillel group, enrolled in a Hebrew language course and delved into Kafka’s works. I began to associate Judaism not just with coldness and formality, but with intellectual curiosity and growth.

Years later I participated in a Birthright trip to Israel where music, nature, spontaneity, adventure, politics and Judaism intertwined. Judaism became bigger, complicated and more interesting. I was living at the time with my girlfriend (now my wife) who was raised Christian but has an aversion to all organized religion and rituals that tend to suppress individuality. So when I got home from Israel and was suddenly very excited about Judaism it freaked her out a little bit. But she could see that I was inspired, and so we began celebrating Shabbat together on Friday nights. We’d put out the challah, grape juice and candles, and I’d recite the prayers in Hebrew and English. But it all felt just as cold and empty as the rituals from my childhood; none of the vibrancy that I felt in Israel was there.

Shul Shopping

I began to wonder whether the missing ingredient was community. I drew up a list of about 15 Reform and Renewal congregations in the Boston area and visited one every Friday night. I mumbled along with the prayers and songs, but it wasn’t inspiring. The predictability of the services, together with the congregation’s passive reliance on their rabbis felt all too familiar. Although this familiarity provided sentimental comfort and a sense of belonging for me, since my girlfriend was not raised Jewish, nothing was familiar to her, and she didn’t share the sense of comfort that I felt for the objects, rituals and language. Going to these various congregations with an interfaith partner was immensely valuable for me, because it caused me to ask myself these questions:

  • What am I learning in these services? What am I feeling?
  • What do I want my wife to experience? What do I want to experience?
  • What do I gain from the rituals and prayers in the synagogue?
  • What values are expressed in the services by the rabbi?
  • What values are expressed in the services by the congregants?

 

After attending dozens of synagogues both familiar and alternative, I was frustrated with myself for not feeling satisfied. I asked a rabbi whom I had been meeting with if I should just pick a synagogue, stay for a while and hope that it eventually felt right. His memorable response: “Keep looking. When it comes to religion you should never settle; you should be inspired.”

My girlfriend encouraged me to try one more place, and to our surprise it seemed perfect for us. The community lived within its means, renting rather than owning a space, which lessened the financial burden on the congregants. There was spontaneous conversation and dancing during services. The rabbi was explicitly welcoming of every type of person, a strong supporter of lay participation and able to connect Jewish teachings and rituals to the reality we live in. We became members and joined the shul band, and a year later I was asked to join the board.

Although the congregation’s practices were very alternative and free-spirited, it turned out that the key decision-makers in the community were just as obsessed with preserving their own way of doing things as I had found at the more formal synagogues. Deviations from their norm were considered inappropriate and without value. It pained me to hear board members refer to non-members (and even new members) as “outsiders.” During one meeting, several board members decided that the purpose of services should always be to satisfy the congregants who have been there the longest, rather than engaging with younger generations. I soon felt like a distant member of a community built for others’ needs. I resigned from the board several months later and the following year we did not renew our membership.

Finding a Meaningful Practice

Jared and Laurie

Being unaffiliated does not prevent someone from being Jewish. It took me a while, however, to understand that being unaffiliated also does not prevent someone from having meaningful Jewish experiences. My wife and I are finding inspiration by celebrating Jewish holidays in our own way, tweaking traditions and developing new ones that have emotional and intellectual meaning for us. Some work, some don’t. In addition to our annual seder we’ve started a Yom Kippur tradition with a fellow interfaith couple: a day of fasting, focused conversation, meditation and a nature walk. I’ve also officiated my maternal grandparents’ funerals. These experiences require self-reliance and effort, and that’s in large part what makes them so special.

As much as we enjoy our Jewish life outside synagogue walls, there are many things that congregations provide that a couple like us simply cannot: a place for communal prayer, access to rabbis steeped in knowledge and a support network. There is a beautiful timelessness in large groups of people gathering together in a single space.

While I’m not planning to join a congregation—my needs have changed—many Jews and interfaith families desire to find a community that fits their needs. For congregations looking to grow, rather than speak only to those already in the building (those who already understand the coded behavior and language, those who share the same expectations of a service experience), rabbis and their congregants could look around and notice who is not in the seats. Cultivating a community of explicit (rather than implicit) inclusiveness requires open, honest conversations among rabbis and congregants about their community’s core mission, the unintended consequences of existing cultural norms and the potential for change. Here are some questions that I think about, and that I hope unaffiliated and affiliated readers can ponder and help me better understand:

  • What values underlie traditional Jewish congregational behavior?
  • What values do we see in secular organizations?
  • How do Jewish and secular experiences intersect in our lives?
  • Before we seek to inspire others, are we keeping ourselves inspired?