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âI saw Aishwarya Rai on Oprah last week. You know, the Dollywood [she meant Bollywood] actress? Stunning girl!â Then came the truth bomb: âShe told Oprah that your boyfriend already has a bride arranged for him back in India. At some point, heâs going to leave you high-and-dry, marry the girl his parents chose, and move back into their house.â
I was pretty sure Aishwarya Rai hadnât been discussing my love life with Oprah. And while my future husband didnât actually have a clandestine bride arranged in India, he also wasnât the Jewish doctor to whom my grandmother had married me off in her fantasies.
âHe seems very nice,â she said of the love of my life. âBut thatâs just how they do things.â
They. Sheâd never met an Indian person before and, on some level, I was touched by her urge to protect me, even if it was born of her own frustrating, dated brand of xenophobia.
My boyfriend and I were born at the same hospital, raised in the same town and attended the same schools. From an objective eye, we werenât some sort of star-crossed pair. Still, he wasnât white and he wasnât Jewish, and for all the many things we had in common, those two facts seemed like insurmountable differences to her. At least at first.
In the years before our engagement, I ran interference, often dispelling bizarre myths about Hinduism and Indian traditions.
âJess. Your grandfather printed out an article from the computer. It said that Hindus have 300 million gods and that they worship monkeys.Â Monkeys.â
âJess. I just watched a program about women in India. If you marry him, youâll have to get a dot tattooed on your forehead. A tattoo.Â On your face.â
Super, super false (and racist.)
Without being too pushy, I tried to create opportunities for her to see us together, to help her understand why our relationship worked, despite what she believed to be deal-breaking differences.
And hereâs where the story gets surprising: during our visits, I watched my grandmother and my husband form an extraordinary bond.
As it turned out, they shared a mutual appreciation for beautiful thingsâart, music, even fashionâand were able to talk about everything from Matisse to Mozart to Alexander McQueen. It didnât hurt that my guy had developed a masterful knack for conversational Yiddish, having grown up in a predominantly Jewish suburbâand could confidently describe an ugly dress as aÂ schmatteÂ or flowery piece of music asÂ schmaltz.Â He literally and figuratively spoke her language.
Before the wedding, we invited her to visit our apartment. It was kind of a big deal. She entered tentatively, taking in all the unmarried, interfaith sin around her. Then she stopped in front of a painting by an emerging Indian artist that my husband had acquired before we started dating; a painting that I had made a lot of noise about hating, for no good reason. She gasped.
âThe colors. The lines. Itâs soâŚsensual!â I burst out laughing, not because my grandmother had said the word âsensualâ (which was definitely hilarious), but because she had simultaneously validated my husbandâs taste in art and solidified their unexpected connection.
Over the years, my husband asked her about gallery openings in the â70s and Coney Island in the 40âs. She clipped articles for him about contemporary art exhibits and Indian actors in Hollywood. They also shared one key interestâmeâand to her delight, sheâd finally found an audience for her outsized stories about my childhood. To anyone else, she would have been bragging, but between them, she was simply affirming his good taste.
My husband was attentive to her in ways that grandchildren whoâve had the luxury of time with a grandparent too often are not. And ultimately this was what made her change her mind and deem him aÂ menschÂ of the highest order.
From birth, my grandmother and I had a special relationship. My status as the favorite grandchild was an open family secret. But by the time she passed, we all agreed that my husband had become the apple of her eyeâwe even joked about their rocky start.
Friends and strangers alike often ask about the challenges my husband and I faced marrying outside our cultures. They assume that that our parents presented the biggest roadblocks. They didnât. Not by a long shot. The older generationâmy grandmother in particularâheld longer, more entrenched views on the importance of marrying within oneâs community, and thus they had a much steeper hill to climb to reach aÂ point of acceptance.
Thereâs that word: acceptance. Too often, we use it to describe some sort of blissful, interfaith end-game. In my experience, itâs just the cost of entry. Itâs what we need from the people we care about to maintain theÂ status quoÂ in our relationships. But beyond that threshold genuine love, messy and strong, is what we really crave. And that love can grow in unlikely, even inhospitable places.
That loveÂ grew for my grandmother as she got to know my husband, and I was more than happy to relinquish the title of favorite grandchild when she discovered it.
This article was reprinted with permission fromÂ Kveller.com, a fast-growing, award-winning website for parents raising Jewish and interfaith kids.Â Follow Kveller on FacebookÂ andÂ sign up for their newsletters here.
Jessica Melwani is a freelance writer and editor. A recent suburban transplant, she lives outside New York City with her husband and their two awesome, ridiculous boys. When she isn’t in the car overcoming her fear of highways and left turns, you can find her binge-watching British crime dramas or sometimes evenÂ blogging.
By Tara Worthey Segal
I formally converted to Judaism one month after I lost my father and two weeks before getting married.
I hadnât been raised with much religion. I was baptized Lutheran, but always joked that my parents did that more out of superstition than dogma. They didnât do much to disabuse me of this notionâwe 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 didnât have much of a religious identity.
My parents said they didnât 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 Iâd eventually marry. Matt was raised in a conservative Jewish household, and though he wasnât 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 didnât 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 JewishâŚ Iâm not sure he understood the necessity. We didnât 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 wasnât 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 fatherâs values, as well. From him, I learned that knowledge is liberating. He didnât have much formal education but he shared with me his love for reading (he gave me his tattered copy of âThe Diary of Anne Frankâ 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 devilâs 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 didnât 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 âmay his memory be a blessing.â It doesnât promise that I will see him again or that he is in a better place. It doesnât force me to place hope in something that Iâm not sure exists. It allows me, simply, to find joy in the fact that I had him for 27 yearsâand I have as many yearsâ 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 evenâbecause both of our siblings had married before usâa double mezinke (a dance for parents whose last child is marrying). And as I watched the endless line of wedding guests dance around my husbandâs mother and father and my own mother, and as I saw the mix of grief, pleasure, and bewilderment on my momâs 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 wouldnât feel genuine to either of us.
Itâs 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 Mournerâs Kaddishâfor 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.
This article was reprinted with permission from Kveller.com, a fast-growing, award-winning website for parents raising Jewish and interfaith kids. Follow Kveller on Facebook and sign up for their newsletters here.
ByÂ Debra Lipenta
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 — theÂ news that someone had spray-painted hateful messages and swastikas in my own neighborhood — I was horrified.
A swastika is just a symbol. Itâs 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 itâs 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.
By Steven Fisher
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. Itâs 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 didnât 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.Â 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, whenÂ Jared arranged a lunch date with Robina. During lunch, Jared began the conversation with the words every mother wants to hear: âI met a girl.Â I think sheâs the one!Â Her name is Jaina, sheâs a teacher and sheâs IndianâSouth Asian, not Native American.â
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.Â Jared learned to eat vegetarian Indian food and experienced the Hindu religion and culture at Jainaâs family home and temple.Â 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.Â 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.Â 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!Â We were immersed in Indian cultureâwe 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 peopleâs houses and even attended a Hindu funeral.
Jainaâs family joined us for Passover dinner, and we had our first Hanukkah party together.Â At this first party, Jainaâs 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 Jaredâs Jewish family.
As the wedding planning evolved, we learned how the bridal party reflected the diversity of Jared and Jainaâs friends. It was made up of friends white and black, Indian and Hispanic, Hindu, Christian and Jewish. It was a snapshot of ourÂ changing America.
Today we have beautiful granddaughters. You may wonder, âWill the girls be raised Hindu or Jewish?â The answer is they will be raised learning and respecting each religion and culture, as they are part of both.Â They will learn about the mezuzah on their front door and the Hindu shrine in their house.Â 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.
By Jared David Berezin
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 teamâs 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 everyoneâs 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 Iâwho are interfaith and unaffiliatedâhosted 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 otherâs 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 womanâs 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 motherâs eyes went wide, and his sister turned to him and asked in amazement, âReally?!â
It was such a real and honest moment and, I believe, a very sacred one for that family and all of us there. Who wouldnât 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 weâre not home on Friday night? Oftentimes my wife and I find ourselves at a concert, a friendâs 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: âFind some light, find some bread and find some sweetness. Then tell each other that you love each other.â
Those beautiful wordsâso simple, so honest, so free of biblical or quorum rulesâprovide 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 itâs reading a poem together, reflecting on a victory or struggle from the past week, whether weâre 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.
ByÂ Melissa K. Rosen,Â Director of National Outreach for Sharsheret
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 didnât 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 togetherâand 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 Iâm not sure why it took me months to realize the changes that occurred at my second diagnosis. Now that Iâm 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. Iâm not sure where I will find myself in the end, but I know one thing for sure: Iâll be in synagogue next Shabbat!
Sharsheret, Hebrew for âchain,â is a national not-for-profit organization that supports young women and families, of all Jewish backgrounds, facing breast cancer at every stageâbefore, during and after diagnosis.
By Elizabeth Vocke
When my husband and I first started dating I was what you might call a serial monogamistâI 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 âmilestonesâ that Iâd sped toward in the past.
First on this list was meeting my family. I love them dearly, truly I do. But, weâre a large group that some (i.e. my husband) may call intense. Iâd 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 Iâm OK with that, I didnât know how he felt.Â Now, this isnât a conversation I typically rush into. Iâm not the most observant Jew. I donât 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 couldnât, and both converged just a few months into our relationship.
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 otherâs 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, itâs 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 daughterâs 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 weâve 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.Â I will not tell you that an interfaith marriage or a mixed religious upbringing is right for everyone. And Iâm sure weâll 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.
By Nicole Rodriguez
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 (thatâs 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.
âOMG, your dad converted? So youâre technically half Catholic!?â Nope! Some Jewish denominations might disagree, but I am actually 100 percent Jewish.
âIâm confused, youâre Jewish but donât Mexicans celebrate Christmas?â My Dad converted but we still join his family on Christmas as guests, not to celebrate.
âYouâre Mexican, can you help me with my Spanish homework?â I doubt I know more Spanish than you do.
âWhat synagogue do you belong to?â My family and I donât belong to one.
âYou donât look Jewish.â Um OK? What does a Jewish person look like?
I recently read an article about people who say âYou donât look Jewish,â as if itâs a compliment.
There is no such thing as a “Jewish” look. You wouldnât tell someone on the street that they donât 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. Iâm not your average Jew or average Mexicanâbut honestly, todayâs 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.
By Kelly Banker
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 dâvar 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 Courtneyâs family. At that point, I had never met anyone from Courtneyâs 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, âAre you a Jew?â 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 Courtneyâs family, and interested that the primary point of difference had seemed to be religious.
I believe that these two experiencesâattending a Moishe Kavod Shabbat with Courtney and spending Thanksgiving with his familyâhighlight 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 experiencesâbut 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.
ByÂ Jared David Berezin
Why am I an unaffiliated Jew? In many ways, I should want to join a congregation. Iâm in my early 30s. Iâve had a bar mitzvah. Iâve 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 Iâve 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 âSong of Songs.â Then I attended a few events sponsored by the campus Hillel group, enrolled in a Hebrew language course and delved into Kafkaâs 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. Weâd put out the challah, grape juice and candles, and Iâd 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 wasnât inspiring. The predictability of the services, together with the congregationâs 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 didnât 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 theseÂ questions:
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: âKeep looking. When it comes to religion you should never settle; you should be inspired.â
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 congregationâs 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 âoutsiders.â 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 othersâ 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 donât. In addition to our annual seder weâve started a Yom Kippur tradition with a fellow interfaith couple: a day of fasting, focused conversation, meditation and a nature walk. Iâve also officiated my maternal grandparentsâ funerals.Â These experiences require self-reliance and effort, and thatâs 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 congregationâmy needs have changedâmany 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 communityâs 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: