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 colorful booklet will give all the basics about this holiday which combines elements of Halloween, Mardi Gras and the secular new year. It is a holiday not only for children who know immediately that anything with a costume will be fun, but for adults too.
Connecting Interfaith Families to Jewish Life in Greater Cleveland by providing programs and opportunities for interfaith families to experience Judaism in a variety of venues, meet other interfaith families, and to connect to other Jewish organizations that may serve their needs.
This is an interactive, fun, and low-key workshop for couples who are dating, engaged or recently married. The sessions will give you a chance to ask questions about faith, to think about where you are as an adult with your own spirituality and to talk through what's important to you and your partner.
A great way for Jewish professionals and volunteers who work with and provide programming for people in interfaith relationships to locate resources and trainings to build more welcome into their Jewish communities; connect with and learn from each other; and publicize and enhance their programs and services.
I formally converted to Judaism one month after I lost my father and two weeks before getting married.
I hadn’t been raised with much religion. I was baptized Lutheran, but always joked that my parents did that more out of superstition than dogma. They didn’t do much to disabuse me of this notion—we attended services at the local Lutheran church on Christmas Eve, but beyond that and spending a week or so at an Episcopal church camp for a few summers, I didn’t have much of a religious identity.
My parents said they didn’t want to force religion on us. Other kids in that situation might never have gravitated toward organized religion at all, but my sister and I both wound up finding our own. She became a Mormon, drawn to it by the community she found in her Idaho college town and by the man who would become her husband. Mine also came through the man I’d eventually marry. Matt was raised in a conservative Jewish household, and though he wasn’t hugely religious himself, it was important to him that he marry a Jew.
As I began to study for my conversion, I was relieved that no one told me what to think and instead discussed with me how we see and live life through a Jewish lens. I was invited to take part in conversations rather than evaluated on obedience. Always uncomfortable with the idea of pledging allegiance to a transcribed set of beliefs, I was drawn to the idea that I could keep my curiosity, that it was OK to question leaders and make sense of the world myself, using the values of Judaism as a guide.
One reservation I did have was my father. He didn’t object to me marrying a Jewish man; to the contrary, he loved Matt and was incredibly proud of his achievements. As for his own daughter becoming Jewish… I’m not sure he understood the necessity. We didn’t speak about my conversion process much, as he was sick and I was planning a wedding. And then, before we had the chance to really discuss it, he was gone.
I wanted him to know that my conversion wasn’t a rejection of him and my mother, or of our upbringing. In fact, it was because of the way I was raised that becoming Jewish came to make sense to me. People often talk about their finding their spiritual homes, but for me, arriving at Judaism was less of a homecoming and more of a recognition of something that was always there. An emphasis on family. Intellectual curiosity. Passing on a shared history and traditions to the next generations.
The things that eventually drew me to Judaism were my father’s values, as well. From him, I learned that knowledge is liberating. He didn’t have much formal education but he shared with me his love for reading (he gave me his tattered copy of “The Diary of Anne Frank” when I was 8), and said attending college was a non-negotiable.
From him, I learned the value of being able to stand up for my own views. He played devil’s advocate every time we talked politics, driving me to distraction at times (though in the end he voted for Obama).
From him, I learned never to be passive or complacent. He may not have recognized the term tikkun olam (repairing the world), but I also never saw him turn away from somebody who he had the ability to help in any capacity. And he felt guilty when he didn’t have spare change for someone asking on the street.
These are all things that, as far as I can tell, embody Jewishness.
After he died, I found comfort in that oft-repeated phrase “may his memory be a blessing.” It doesn’t promise that I will see him again or that he is in a better place. It doesn’t force me to place hope in something that I’m not sure exists. It allows me, simply, to find joy in the fact that I had him for 27 years—and I have as many years’ worth of memories to hold close, when I can no longer pick up the phone to call him and argue about Hillary Clinton.
My husband and I had a traditional Jewish wedding, with the chuppah and the ketubah (marriage contract) and the hora and even—because both of our siblings had married before us—a double mezinke (a dance for parents whose last child is marrying). And as I watched the endless line of wedding guests dance around my husband’s mother and father and my own mother, and as I saw the mix of grief, pleasure, and bewilderment on my mom’s face, I wondered what my father would have thought of it all.
He knew that he would be leaving me before his time, and he never spoke about concrete ideas of heaven or hell, redemption, or eternal kingdoms. I think, though, that he would be at peace knowing that Judaism gave me a way to grieve him without clinging to a narrative that wouldn’t feel genuine to either of us.
It’s been three years now since I lost him. Every winter, both his birthday and the anniversary of his death pass in the same week. Every year, the anniversary of my conversion and the anniversary of my marriage follow close behind. The later dates are inextricably tied to the earlier ones. I light a candle and stand to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish—for a man who was not Jewish and who likely did not know what a yahrzeit was.
But my father deserves to be honored, and his Jewish daughter intends to do so.
I, like many people, was deeply shaken after the results of the presidential election. After feeling so hopeful and then having that hope shattered, I really struggled internally. I feared the recent divisive and hateful rhetoric might take our nation and our communities back to a less accepting, less safe time. When I saw the first evidence of this — the news that someone had spray-painted hateful messages and swastikas in my own neighborhood — I was horrified.
A swastika is just a symbol. It’s a small visible representation of something much larger: pure hate. Hate to the point of mass murder. Mass murder of my people. The symbol itself should not be able to hurt me, but it does. Each time I see a swastika, it elicits a strong, visceral reaction from deep inside me. I was inconsolable at the thought that this kind of hate still exists, and so close to my own home.
I’m grateful to have a loving, supportive and thoughtful partner, John. Though he is not Jewish, John saw and understood the pain that the swastikas had caused me. We had recently moved into the neighborhood together, our first home. When I called him, distraught, his reaction, unprompted and immediate, was, “We’re going to hang up our mezuzah tonight.”
A mezuzah is just a symbol. Yes, it holds a blessing for a home and to hang one is a mitzvah, but it’s also a symbol that, by its very presence, says, “A Jewish person lives here.” It is a mark of solidarity among the Jewish community, and it does not hide in the face of hate. We, John and I, would not hide in the face of hate. In this seemingly small gesture, John reassured me of my safety and his solidarity. It was both an outward-facing sign to our community, and a personal act of support for me. It meant more to me than he ever could have known.
We hung our mezuzah that evening, he with the hammer while I said the blessing. For me, it is now also a symbol of his love, and I can find comfort and hope knowing that love always wins.
This is the story of how a Jewish couple added to and became part of our changing America. But more important, this story is about what I learned when my wife, Robina, and I were introduced via our son to a religion, culture and traditions that we thought were so different from ours. It’s also a story about love, respect and acceptance.
On October 17, 1971, I married my high-school sweetheart. Nine years later, after two miscarriages and years of fertility treatments, our son, Jared, was born. Because we didn’t want Jared to be an only child, we continued our fertility treatments and suffered another devastating miscarriage of triplets that nearly cost Robina her life. We then looked into adoption to complete our family.
While on a business trip, Robina called to tell me we had 24 hours to make a decision about adopting a little girl. A month later, we received a birth certificate for Judith. After completing a mountain of paperwork, we were on our way to Paraguay, South America, to bring home our little Latina daughter, Elana Judith.
Fast forward to 2006, when Jared arranged a lunch date with Robina. During lunch, Jared began the conversation with the words every mother wants to hear: “I met a girl. I think she’s the one! Her name is Jaina, she’s a teacher and she’s Indian—South Asian, not Native American.”
Like any Jewish mother, Robina wanted our son to marry a nice Jewish girl. She was shocked and disappointed, and it showed in her expression during lunch. That evening we discussed the situation and decided to stay neutral and take a wait-and-see approach, not wanting to drive our son away.
Their relationship grew. Jared learned to eat vegetarian Indian food and experienced the Hindu religion and culture at Jaina’s family home and temple. Jaina, for her part, ate latkes and matzo brie and came to our house for Passover and Hanukkah, and attended High Holiday services at our synagogue. Their love grew, and in 2008 they became engaged.
Planning a wedding is difficult any time, but blending cultures and religions is a real challenge. Jaina wanted a traditional Hindu wedding, and we wanted a Jewish ceremony. In the end, it was decided that there would be no combined ceremony; instead we would honor both religions and traditions and have two separate traditional ceremonies with one reception to be held after the Jewish ceremony. What we learned from the process of planning these weddings was that although we came from different religions and traditions, we had so much in common.
Our families worked together on every aspect of both ceremonies and the reception. The year leading up to the wedding was crazy! We were immersed in Indian culture—we ate Indian food, learned about the Hindu religion and discussed the differences and similarities with Judaism. We attended services at both a Hindu and Jain temple, we attended Punjab ceremonies at people’s houses and even attended a Hindu funeral.
Jaina’s family joined us for Passover dinner, and we had our first Hanukkah party together. At this first party, Jaina’s niece and nephew, ages 4 and 6, surprised us by singing the dreidel song. They had learned the song at school, and from their mother learned it was a song for the holiday they were going to celebrate with Jared’s Jewish family.
As the wedding planning evolved, we learned how the bridal party reflected the diversity of Jared and Jaina’s friends. It was made up of friends white and black, Indian and Hispanic, Hindu, Christian and Jewish. It was a snapshot of our changing America.
Today we have beautiful granddaughters. You may wonder, “Will the girls be raised Hindu or Jewish?” The answer is they will be raised learning and respecting each religion and culture, as they are part of both. They will learn about the mezuzah on their front door and the Hindu shrine in their house. Jewish and Hindu traditions will be celebrated with both families watching them with pride. Although we are not social friends with Jaina’s parents, we have become family!
Jared and Jaina are my inspiration. Together they live a life of acceptance. They are an example of how America and the world could be if we looked past our differences and embraced our similarities with understanding, respect and love.
Steven Fisher is in sales and lives in Deerfield, IL with his wife of 45 years.
Many years ago I was in a book club and read a collection of essays called Righteous Indignation: A Jewish Call For Justice. The book explored how Jewish thought intersects with issues of social justice, and each chapter focused on a different subject: poverty, the environment, health care, human rights, reproductive rights and Israel.
In one chapter, an environmental activist described her time canvassing in a small town in Texas, and how difficult it was to garner local support for her team’s initiative. One Friday evening as her despondent team gathered around a table for dinner, she had an idea. She asked everyone to pass a cup around the table, and as each person poured a little wine into the cup, they would say one victory they had in the past week, no matter how small. Even having a nice conversation with someone outside the grocery store counted as a victory during those tough times. As the cup went around and filled up with everyone’s victories, the activist realized to her surprise that they were, in essence, celebrating Shabbat.
Despite the absence of candles, challah or Hebrew prayers, these activists were recognizing the light, sweetness and sustenance in their lives. They were marking the end of a difficult week by taking a moment for reflection.
Inspired by this book, my wife and I—who are interfaith and unaffiliated—hosted a participatory Shabbat with some friends a while back. One guest came with her teenage son and daughter, who at the time were not enjoying each other’s company (to put it lightly!). Tweaking the ritual from Righteous Indignation, as the challah was passed around we asked people to share a moment from the past week that provided sustenance in their lives. When the challah reached the woman’s teenage son, he looked down at the bread and thought about it for a moment. He then told us that what had sustained him over the past week was being able to spend so much time with his sister. We were all taken aback. His mother’s eyes went wide, and his sister turned to him and asked in amazement, “Really?!”
It was such a real and honest moment and, I believe, a very sacred one for that family and all of us there. Who wouldn’t want to live in a world where a brother can tell his sister how he truly feels without reservation?
The possibility of these moments is why I keep coming back to Shabbat, even after weeks and sometimes months of letting Friday nights sail by without any acknowledgment. For me and my wife, who was not raised Jewish, Shabbat can be an inclusive way to mark the end of a busy week. It can be an opportunity to create an accessible space for honesty and shared reflection with good people.
But what about when we’re not home on Friday night? Oftentimes my wife and I find ourselves at a concert, a friend’s house or in the car heading off to a weekend adventure. Can a special space be created in these situations? Does every Shabbat need to look, sound and feel the same?
Years back I met with a rabbi and asked him how my wife and I could celebrate Shabbat in a meaningful way outside of the home. He looked me in the eyes and said: “Find some light, find some bread and find some sweetness. Then tell each other that you love each other.”
Those beautiful words—so simple, so honest, so free of biblical or quorum rules—provide us with basic ingredients for our Shabbat experiments. Amidst the variable settings and circumstances of any given Friday evening, creating space for love, honesty and unguarded reflection among friends and family can get the weekend going in a positive direction. Whether it’s reading a poem together, reflecting on a victory or struggle from the past week, whether we’re at home or on the road, whether we have the traditional Shabbat accoutrements or not, we can take a moment to find light, sustenance and sweetness around us and within each other.
ByMelissa K. Rosen, Director of National Outreach for Sharsheret
I 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.
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.
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.
I 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.
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:
Many 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.
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.
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
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?
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.