Full of helpful advice for families starting to think about their child's bat or bar mitzvah, Bar & Bat Mitzvah For The Interfaith Family will be a helpful primer to all families (not just interfaith!).
This booklet explains the history of Hanukkah, the symbolism and significance of lighting candles for eight nights, the blessings that accompany the lighting of the candles, the holiday's foods, the game of dreidels, and more!
Connecting Interfaith Families to Jewish Life in Greater Cleveland by providing programs and opportunities for interfaith families to experience Judaism in a variety of venues, meet other interfaith families, and to connect to other Jewish organizations that may serve their needs.
A great way for Jewish professionals and volunteers who work with and provide programming for people in interfaith relationships to locate resources and trainings to build more welcome into their Jewish communities; connect with and learn from each other; and publicize and enhance their programs and services.
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!
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.
Making 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 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.
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 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.
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.
It took me 20 years to find the love of my life. If you told me 10 years ago, or even 15 years ago that I’d end up with a man raised Presbyterian, on a farm, who is also a war veteran, I would have laughed at you. But if you asked me a full 20 years ago, it would have made perfect sense.
Growing up in an interfaith family with a Jewish mother and a Catholic father, I was drawn to my Judaism the way some kids are drawn to forbidden things. I was intrigued by it, wanted more of it and didn’t really know how to access it but for tiny, little tastes on holidays or special occasions. I knew that when I grew up, I was going to practice Judaism, have a Jewish home, Jewish friends—a Jewish life. But I didn’t quite know what that meant. It was more of an idea than a path at that point. A mission without a strategic plan.
Growing up in a town with very few Jews contributed to the fact that my own limited practice of Judaism was essentially expository. Everything I did, I also explained to those around me. This was a habit that naturally fed into my work as a Jewish educator in the first several years of my career, and not coincidentally, my interfaith relationships.
At age 14, almost exactly 20 years before I would meet my future husband, I went on my first date, with the son of a Methodist minister. That relationship lasted nine days. Then there was the Irish Catholic boy for a whole six months. Then the Presbyterian boy I worked with on the student newspaper for an entire season. And the final high school relationship, the one that stretched into college, with the Methodist basketball star. It never occurred to me then that I might date a Jewish boy in order to lead a Jewish life, but this was primarily because there were only a couple in my class and as a Jewish child of an interfaith marriage it didn’t yet occur to me that this made a difference.
As I’ve reflected on this as an adult, it has become clear to me that these formative years had an impact on who I would ultimately seek out, find attractive and most important, love deeply. College was the first time I actively pursued Jewish dating, despite the fact that I attended the Jesuit Catholic Boston College. While only around one percent of the student population at BC is Jewish, the Jewish student population in Boston is plentiful and I was a strong networker. Still lacking a strategic plan, I was ever mission-oriented and dated several “nice Jewish boys” during my college years. Still, the most formative relationship I had in college was with my Episcopalian on-again-off-again boyfriend.
The post-college years were my most strategic ones. I started working at Hillel, I signed up for JDate. I insisted on dating only Jews. In those 10 years or so, I met one man I felt a strong connection with. It turned out he felt a strong connection with someone else. It was frustrating, challenging, it made me feel sad and sometimes hopeless. I decided to stop trying so hard. I opened my heart, still with some hesitations, still believing I was meant to be with a Jewish man, but trying to simply let the universe do its work.
While still looking for a Jewish man, I dated men who weren’t Jewish casually: I fell head-over-heels for a man who turned out to be a liar and a cheater, I fell for a man who could never love me the way I deserved to be loved… and then I met my future husband. I didn’t know it at the time. I was trying to get over the last guy and just needed a distraction. “He’s not Jewish,” whispered my subconscious. We met at my cousin’s wedding in the fall. We went on our first date a month later. It was long distance, but he cleverly came up with reasons to pass through town every month. Then we started planning visits. After six months I realized I was an idiot if I let him get away.
Brianne and her fiance Jayson
I’m marrying a man who is kind, smart, generous, loving, more obsessed with Democratic politics and values than I am and also happens to have been raised Presbyterian. Last night I was relaying to him a metaphor I had used at my government job involving the Book of Esther. “Wait,” he said, as I finished the story, “but who would be Haman in this scenario?” It actually took me some time to come up with an answer to that question, as I realized I had been outwitted in my latest Jewish educational moment by my partner who isn’t Jewish.
We’ve already had the big conversations: We’ll raise our kids Jewish, we’ll keep a kosher home, we’ll participate in Jewish community. We’ll also honor the traditions we had growing up, when we visit our parents’ homes. And we’ll go out into this world with the hope that our communities embrace our choices.
I know it won’t be easy. I can already tell in my own Jewish community that some are uncomfortable with the way that love found me. My closest friends are thrilled and they see what a good partner he is to me. But I cannot even count how many times I have been asked by Jewish friends if he is also Jewish, and when I say no, they quickly express support anyway, pretending it doesn’t matter to them. It hurts my heart when this happens. These are habits, not intentional barbs, but they affect how interfaith couples feel in community. And as the child of an interfaith family, I know this well. What’s even worse, there was a time when I acted this way toward other interfaith couples. Please consider this my apology.
As an adult from an interfaith family my Jewish identity is regularly called into question. Some people can’t quite believe I could have been raised in Grosse Pointe, MI. “But there are no Jews in Grosse Pointe!” they say. But here I am, standing before you as a Jew. “You don’t have a Jewish name,” some say. But here I am, standing before you as a Jew. “Who is Jewish, your mother or your father?” they ask. It’s my mother, so I pass the test. These are hurtful questions, although not intended as such. My children will likely experience the same.
I am lucky, because 20 years after I first started looking, the love of my life found me. If I hadn’t been willing to open my heart to what my Judaism could look like with a loving, supportive partner who isn’t Jewish, I might have missed out on it all.
I made a decision early in my life to pursue Judaism and despite the fact that biology, geography and many other factors were pulling me in different directions, I am still pursuing it. One of my favorite sayings about compassion is, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.” It’s something I am hoping our Jewish community will come to embrace as we learn to do a better job of welcoming our interfaith families. You may be born a Jew, but to be Jewish is not a passive thing. Pursuing Judaism is a choice you make every day of your life, a choice that is harder for some than for others, and as a community and as individuals we should all be supportive of this.
When our eyes begin to burn and tear up my wife and I look at each other and laugh. That’s when we know the horseradish is ready. We also bake our own homemade matzah, and the unleavened flat bread resembles pita or injera (Ethiopian bread). Preparing Passover-friendly food from scratch and arranging the seder table is a ritual my wife and I enjoy as much as the seder itself.
For many people, Passover is a journey that begins well before the first cup of wine (or grape juice). Some have been to dozens of seders in the past. Indeed, some of our seder guests may have attended a different seder (or two!) earlier in the week, while others have never been to a seder before. Regardless of a person’s experience or faith, everyone comes to the table with conscious and unconscious expectations, desires and concerns.
Ever since I can remember, Passover has always been my favorite holiday. As a restless kid, I could attend the Passover “service” (our family’s seder) without dressing up and going to synagogue, which also meant not having to sit still for an hour. My grandparents would host our family seder, and as they grew older my mother and aunt assumed the responsibility. Our family seders were always quick, predictable and familiar. I loved being surrounded by family, food and singing. As a teenager I’d just bring my guitar; it was always nice being able to simply arrive and have everything already prepared and laid out on the table.
Hosting Our Own Inclusive Seder
In my twenties, I became more curious about Judaism, particularly its intellectual and social justice elements. A few years later I met the love of my life who was raised Christian and has developed a dislike of all organized religion. Amidst my growing curiosity of Judaism and my love for my girlfriend (now my wife), I began to dream of more inclusive and meaningful Jewish moments and celebrations. I wondered what it would be like to host our own seder, one that could be welcoming for our friends of various faiths and (dis)comfort levels when it comes to religious activities.
Initially, I tried to formulate a highly-strategic seder and haggadah that would satisfy the needs of every person who might happen to join us—from Conservative Jews to Buddhists to atheists. I soon realized that although it’s important to be aware of one’s audience, I found myself drowning out my own individual spiritual beliefs and values. The early drafts were too distant from my vision of an inclusive experience; I had to accept that if I wanted to try new things, my guests and I would simply have to wander through the newness together. Fortunately, the story of Passover centers on faith and risk.
When in Doubt, Look About
When I worked in marketing years ago a colleague would often say, “When in doubt, look about.” I searched online and read through all of the haggadot I could find, along with any Passover-related information on InterfaithFamily.com and other websites. I wanted to learn how others approach the holiday, along with any stories and songs that I hadn’t heard before.
I also reached out to several friends to hear about their seder experiences, as well as my dear friend, Rabbi Lev Baesh, a longtime champion of interfaith marriage and inclusiveness, who is a consultant with InterfaithFamily. My wife and I had performed music the year prior at a seder led by Lev. He interpreted the Passover story in many different ways—social, political, economic and psychological—and helped me understand how themes from an ancient tale can become relevant and inspire urgency among people of different faiths and backgrounds.
Our Interfaith-Humanist-Vegan Seder Experiment
What emerged from my research and spiritual searching was a heightened awareness of my own values, questions and priorities. The result was the creation of an imperfect and ever-changing Interfaith-Humanist-Vegan seder that my wife and I have hosted for the past four years. Most of the guests at our seder tend to be interfaith couples with one Jewish partner as well as couples and friends of other faiths. Every year we invite at least one person who has never attended a seder before.
Interfaith-Humanist-Vegan Seder Plate
Our accompanying interfaith-humanist-vegan haggadah, which I also revise each year, includes original writing as well as a patchwork of borrowed text, images and songs. The introductory pages of the haggadah recount the Passover story, and explore questions such as “Why Celebrate if the Story Isn’t True?” and “Why a Vegan Passover Seder?” These questions, and others in the haggadah, offer a way of inviting everyone to explore and question the Passover rituals and their purpose in our lives in new ways. Rather than dump my ideas and beliefs on my friends, I try my best to steer conversations and lead rituals that allow me to learn from them, and all of us to learn from each other. For example, rather than declare what the various items on the seder plate signify, our haggadah asks: “What do you think the items on the seder plate represent? How might they connect with oppression, slavery and freedom?” These open-ended questions for which there are no “correct” answers allow guests of all faiths to contribute their perspective and enhance everyone else’s understanding.
An Incomplete Haggadah
I think the best conversations and learning occur when people are present and looking at one another. When a haggadah has all the information we need, everyone is looking down at their booklets for hours. In contrast, our haggadah is intentionally sparse and incomplete. Before the start of the seder I ask each of our friends, individually, if they’d like to read a short excerpt of text that I provide. The readings include writings from intellectuals, feminists, rabbis, writers, activists and philosophers of all faiths, and I “schedule” them to read at different points in the seder. It’s fun to pick out certain readings that relate in some way to each of my friends. As the seder progresses and friends share the words on their respective slip of paper, we all in a way become pages in a “haggadah,” and together we make the seder complete.
Music adds a fantastic quality to any evening, and it’s a huge part of our seder. At the very beginning of the meal, rather than jump right into the Passover story, we all sing a song together. The first year we sang David Crosby’s “Music Is Love.” It’s easy since the repeated lyric is almost a chant: “Everyone’s sayin’ that music is love, everyone’s sayin’ it’s love.” My wife and I scatter percussive shakers, drums and a couple acoustic guitars around the room for folks to play, and of course, everyone brings their voices.
In addition to familiar seder songs, such as the African-American Spiritual “Go Down Moses” and Dayenu, there are a host of secular songs that touch upon various Passover themes: slavery, oppression, freedom and of course the need to continually ask questions of ourselves and our world. And on the “night of questions,” I can’t help but want to sing Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” a song with questions in every verse.
Thinking About Hosting Your Own (Alternative) Seder?
For those who want to embark on your own journey of hosting a seder (or any holiday) in a new way, keep in mind that certain aspects of your alternative rituals and ideas may stir strong reactions (positive or negative) among some of your guests. Inspiration can look and sound different for each of us.
As I was planning my first seder, I remembered Rabbi Lev Baesh’s sage words: “Just remember that Moses had lots of whining to deal with in the story.” Humor is critical! I’ve laughed at myself many times during our seders, particularly when I’m taking myself too seriously, and laughter creates more laughter and openness. Dig into both the rich traditions of the past and present. Experiment. Do what feels right, and see what happens.
These types of homegrown celebrations take effort on our part, otherwise they wouldn’t exist. I think that’s part of the magic and meaningfulness: the effort, creativity, and time it takes to create a relevant and inclusive Jewish experience. My favorite moments during our seder are when I find myself wandering through the desert behind my guests who have taken the conversation in new directions.
A piece of logistical advice: A seder can be held any evening during Passover. Scheduling ours toward the end of the holiday week allows us to join my family’s traditional first or second night seder, and our Jewish guests can do the same. Beyond avoiding scheduling conflicts, setting an atypical seder date sets the stage for something new and different, and prepares your guests for a different kind of seder experience.
If you decide to create your own kind of seder, it’s important to remember that if you’re inspired and engaged, those around you will want to participate and be inspired too. Togetherness, making connections, and generating meaning is really what it’s all about. And remember, whatever happens, there’s always next year!
The most popular days to get engaged are Christmas (and I assume Hanukkah!), New Year’s Eve, and Valentine’s Day. That means this time of year is one when rabbis like me get lots of phone calls to officiate at upcoming wedding ceremonies.
One of my favorite parts of my rabbinate is officiating at weddings. It is such a joyous time in people’s lives, and they are eager to share their stories, to plan a wedding that celebrates their values, and to bring their friends and families together for a wonderful celebration. As a rabbi, I get to learn about people and to work with couples to think about their future together and the family life they are beginning to create.
Of all the weddings that I do each year, most are for interfaith couples. This makes sense, since most couples getting married include partners with diverse backgrounds and religious identities. As my colleague and friend Rabbi Jesse Gallop often says, “interfaith families are modern Jewish families.” I agree; they are not outliers or some group that needs to be treated as outsiders to the Jewish community.
Today’s Jewish community is beautifully diverse. Whether a Jewish person marries another Jew or someone who identifies with a different background, what I believe matters more are shared values. Yes, it is possible for a person who is Jewish and a person who is Christian to have very different values, just as it is possible for two Jewish people to have very different values. It is also possible for someone who identifies as Jewish and someone who identifies as Christian to have common values. At the end of the day, conversations about values, traditions, rituals, and frameworks for living one’s life are more important to me than a conversation exclusively about religious identity.
It is for these reasons, among others, that I am happy to officiate at interfaith marriages, including some ceremonies where I co-officiate with clergy of another faith. In recent conversations with InterfaithFamily, a group that (among other activities) matches couples with prospective of officiants, I learned that they get many requests for rabbis to co-officiate and that many rabbis are unwilling to do so.
Of course, I respect that my rabbinic colleagues can and should make individual choices about which ceremonies they are comfortable officiating. That said, I am here to say that I have had only positive experiences working with co-officiants. When I officiate any wedding, whether between two Jews or a Jewish person and someone who is not Jewish, I make case-specific choices about whether it’s a wedding I am comfortable officiating. There are times that I say no because I am not comfortable for any of a number of reasons; a couple wanting an interfaith ceremony or a co-officiant is not a reason in and of itself for me to say no.
In those ceremonies, I bring Jewish elements and my clergy colleagues bring elements from their tradition into the ceremony. We make sure we are all comfortable with the specific elements chosen. We each explain what we are doing so that all of the people there understand the elements of the service. We work with couples to talk about what matters to them – so they are very intentional about the choices they are making for their ceremony, which is really just the beginning of a series of choices they will make throughout their married lives. I would so much rather an interfaith family hears welcoming and positive messages from a rabbi rather than being told “no, I can’t be there for you.”
Throughout my rabbinate, I have seen how amazingly involved parents who aren’t Jewish often are in their children’s Jewish identity. They are often the ones driving kids to Hebrew school, helping them prepare for their bar or bat mitzvahs, and volunteering at synagogue. There are so many parents who do not identity as Jewish who still strongly cultivate their children’s Jewish identity. Let’s celebrate that. Let’s also celebrate the families where couples choose not to become parents and have a wonderful marriage celebrating both of their religious identities, learning from one another.
So to all of the couples who just got engaged or are about to get engaged, mazel tov and congratulations! If you’re looking for a rabbi to officiate at your interfaith marriage, we exist and are happy to do it. Don’t give up. Keep calling, and you will find a community that welcomes you.
This blog post originally appeared at Rituallwell.org in honor of Interfaith Family Month
I have never suggested to my Catholic-born husband that he convert. As a child of intermarriage myself, whose parents always maintained their own distinct religions (but raised me Jewish), conversion wasn’t part of my heritage.
It was enough, I thought, that my husband supported me in raising Jewish kids. It was enough that he came to shul now and then. It was enough that he raced home from work in time for me to light the candles on Friday night, so that we could all be together for Shabbat. To be honest, I have inmarried friends whose partners are less supportive in this way. I felt lucky.
Then, last year, something happened I’d never expected. I was out of town, for work. I don’t remember where, but I know that I was busy on Friday night, and didn’t call home until Saturday afternoon, when my son picked up.
“Sorry, Mom,” he said right away. “But we couldn’t remember all the words last night.”
“What words?” I asked, confused.
“The words to the prayers,” he explained. “We tried. We did our best! We got most of them right.”
It took me a minute to realize was he was saying. There was a long pause before I asked. “Oh… did you guys light the candles… for Shabbat?”
“Yeah,” he said. “Dad did.”
“Huh, cool,” I said. I pretended like it was no big deal. We talked about other things, and after a minute we hung up.
But then I sat there, in my silent hotel room, and I felt my eyes fill with tears. Because while I’ve never asked my husband to convert, or even really thought about that possibility, I have wondered what would happen if I were hit by an eighteen wheeler. I’ve wondered whether Judaism is just the mom-show in our house. I’ve wondered whether it would continue in my absence. Whether anyone besides me wanted it enough to make it happen.
This proof that they did want it stunned me.
Here’s the thing—I didn’t grow up lighting candles each week. That wasn’t my heritage any more than conversion was. Shabbat candles were something I decided to do as an adult, as a mother. They were something I added into my life by choice. They weren’t automatic.
One could blame that fact on my parents’ intermarriage, but one would be wrong in doing so, because in fact my very inmarried grandparents didn’t light Shabbat candles either. So for me, an intermarried child of intermarriage, to light candles each week had to be a choice.
Of course there is value in tradition, in heritage, in routine. There is value in doing something because we have been imprinted, conditioned to do the thing. But there is also value in making a choice, in consciously deciding.
After my parents divorced, my father became more observant than he’d ever been before. As an adult, I watched him change. He began to cover his head. He began to keep kosher. He chose to do so, and if I have a Jewish heritage, I think that’s what it is. Choice. Mindful observance. Constant reevaluation. My parents married without a religious blueprint, and so they had to puzzle out a household. They had to make decisions. Periodically, they had to revise those decisions. That process continues to this day. In their homes, and now in mine.
People often assume that as Jews continue to intermarry, observance will decline. But that’s an incredibly pessimistic view. That doesn’t take into account the joy of discovery, or the pure pleasure of Jewish practice. The human inclination to do better next time. Such pessimism assumes that observance must be linked to tradition and routine.
It doesn’t make room for families like mine, for my Catholic-born husband and my second-generation-intermarried kids, lighting the candles, saying the prayers, all on their own, for the very first time. And getting most of the words right, anyway.
By Rabbi Keith Stern Temple Beth Avodah, Newton, MA
My friend Marcus and I were in rabbinic school together. He was a rebel, a guy who reflexively said no when anyone said yes. No one could tell him what to do. He was raised in a predominantly Jewish community in New Jersey that unceremoniously fled en masse for the suburbs when the first black family moved into town. (We don’t like discussing this, but Jewish families were certainly in the first waves of white flight). He says that he was the only white kid whose family stuck around. Within four years he was the only white kid on the block. This, Marcus says, is the crucible in which he learned to be his own man.
Marcus exercised his rebellious philosophy at various times in rabbinic school. His biggest “no one can tell me what to do” was his girlfriend Nonnie. Nonnie was not born Jewish. She came from a hippie family that lived for a time on a commune and who worshipped the sacredness of the cosmos in a pretty eclectic way that generally included cannabis and ’shrooms. Nonnie was what demographers call unchurched. She rarely went to Jewish/school events with Marcus. Then again, Marcus rarely went.
When the dean of HUC took Marcus aside a year before ordination and told him that in order to be ordained Nonnie had to convert, he was, as you might imagine, a tad upset. Marcus fought and cursed, but in those days the notion that a rabbi could have a significant other who wasn’t Jewish was ludicrous. But Nonnie converted, albeit without much joy. They got married, had a kid three years later and divorced two years after that. It still makes Marcus angry that he was forced into a series of actions he opposed.
According to Professor Steven M. Cohen, a sociologist at HUC known for demographic studies of American Jewry, “in-marriage” has historically “been central to what it means to be a Jew.” Its modern importance, he explains, is amplified because of the ongoing population decline among non-Orthodox Jews, which he attributes largely to intermarriage.
Cohen also argues that American Jews put “rabbis at the top of the symbolic hierarchy.” As a result, “it is logical for rabbinical schools to hold rabbis to higher standards.” While Cohen affords some merit to the suggestion that intermarried rabbis could serve as models for interfaith communities, he cautions that “we don’t know for sure what the impact of having intermarried rabbis will be upon those families.” We do know, he says, that “intermarried rabbis will have no chance of teaching the next generation the importance of marrying Jews.” Or at least, so he said in 2009.
Nearly all of the country’s rabbinical colleges have firm policies that prohibit the admission and ordination of students who are in committed relationships with partners who are not Jewish. Even as interfaith couples are increasingly being welcomed into congregations of all denominations, they are effectively barred from pursuing the rabbinate.
But as Bob Dylan adjures, “the times they are a’changing.” The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, which ordains rabbis for the denomination’s more than 100 congregations across the country, just ended their policy prohibiting applications from students in interfaith relationships. Says Rabbi Deborah Waxman, Ph.D., president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, “We believe that the only strategy that will work in today’s world of choice is one that engages rather than polices, one that truly welcomes and provides role models for intermarried Jews rather than one that disowns them.”
And Keren McGinity, a former member of TBA opines, “the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College’s new policy to welcome and graduate Jewish students who are in committed relationships with partners of other faith backgrounds is an excellent, forward-thinking decision.”
But Jane Eisner, editor of the Forward, disagrees with McGinity’s assessment and she disagrees with the RRC as well. Eisner, a friend and fellow Wesleyan grad who spoke here for the Margaret Miller Memorial lecture series, hangs onto the atavistic belief that intermarriage is the biggest crisis for American Jewry. She writes that letting interfaith people get too involved, too close with Jewish life is dangerous. She says that “… at some point… inclusion leads to diminishment. At some critical point, boundaries become so porous that they no longer function as boundaries, and standards become so vacuous that they lose all meaning. This decision brings the Reconstructionist movement to that point, and to the degree that it places pressure on other denominations—and history suggests that it will—then it risks damaging our religious, moral and spiritual leadership at a time when we need it the most.”
It would be wonderful to find a true whipping boy for the various phenomena that plague postmodern American Jewry. If we could just say intermarriage is the cause of our troubles we can spend a lot of money trying to fix it, lest we damage “our religious, moral and spiritual leadership” beyond repair. But as Rabbi Waxman says, “For those of you still fighting, the battle was lost years ago. The Pew report, citing that 58 percent of marriages since 2005 are intermarriages, has disabused all of North American Jewry of the notion that Jews intermarrying can somehow be stopped by pressure from families, rabbis, or editorials from editors of Jewish publications.”
Reconstructionist rabbis will choose the partners they choose. If their partner is Jewish, I hope their partner will support them in their work. If their partner is not Jewish, I hope their partner supports them in their work. Intermarriage will not make or break American Jewry. The more open hearted a temple is to welcoming interfaith families, the more likely that synagogue and their interfaith families will thrive.
The true threat to American Jewry, and to mainline Protestant denominations and to Catholicism is the extent to which Americans consider religious and church/synagogue affiliation important. More important than soccer practice, ski trips or sleeping late on weekends. For Jews a synagogue must be a place that provides meaning and community and connection and fun. A synagogue must be like Cheers, where everybody knows your name. That’s the real work of Jewish survival, not who the rabbi is married to. And to provide that kind of institution is hard and will only become harder.
It would be so much easier to make intermarriage the bugaboo. But it’s not. To make a synagogue relevant and worthwhile for millennials as well as baby boomers is complicated and will require more and more nontraditional solutions. Eisner’s idea that too much inclusion leads to diminishment is an outdated Conservative movement cry—that has led them over the cliff.
As Tevye said to Golda, “It’s a new world.” That must be our mantra now as we consider our trajectory as American Jews, and as a Reform temple in Newton, MA. We are going to have to be courageous and audacious as we dare to move in new ways. Looking back with yearning is not a recipe; just ask Lot’s wife.