Advice for Assimilated Family Reunions

  

By Dr. Ruth Nemzoff

Family Reunion

Q: I am having a family reunion. Half of the youngest generation has married people of other backgrounds. How can I use this opportunity to educate the Jewish members of my family about their heritage? And also to help those who do not currently identify as Jewish to understand how important Judaism has been in contributing to their lives?

A: I can only share my own experience in response to this question. A confluence of events—a bar mitzvah, a graduation, a wedding, a trip to Maine—brought four of the seven lines of children, grandchildren and great grandchildren of my grandparents, Zelda and Shmuel, to Boston. Thus, a long talked-about family reunion was planned and executed. It involved 54 cousins of four generations from ages 2 to 88 with two in utero. I was the host for the meal.Dr. Ruth Nemzoff gives advice about family reunions

 

Like so many assimilated families, progeny of a once very close extended family had scattered across the States. Though many of us had never met each other, family behavior immediately kicked in. Everyone volunteered to either bring food or to pay the expenses. Many of us, including myself, found old insecurities coming to the fore. Though my self concept is not “hostess with the mostest,” I worried whether or not my family would approve of my choice of paper plates. After all, a gracious table could mean china and silver for some in the family and for others, matching paper plates. Of course, no one cared.

We used the opportunity to tell our family history, which few of the third or fourth generation knew. My family owes its existence to the courage of two people who separated themselves from their families and all that was familiar to chance life in a strange new land. My family is also a product of world events beyond their control.

My grandfather left Russia because he heard at the market that the Russo-Japanese War had broken out. He sent a note to his pregnant wife and three children under six that he would send for them. He had already served four years in the Czar’s army and was not interested in fighting in a war which meant nothing to him. Over fifty future lives were changed by that decision, changed by a war that many of us had never heard, or knew only as a footnote in a history book. Our family’s history is also the story of their progeny, growing up with one foot in the Old World culture of their parents and one in the new.

I used the food, too, to educate about our grandparents’ customs. It did not seem fitting to mix milk and meat at the event, since my grandparents kept a Kosher home. Their lives revolved around Shabbat and the holidays. I knew a meat deli platter would horrify the younger generation, some of whom are vegetarian, which is, after all, the new Kosher. Like Kashrut, vegetarianism adds meaning to the daily task of eating. It makes us think about what we do and how we live in the world. I pointed this out to the attendees.

Kugels, garden salad and mandel bread were the solution, a way to bring back the smells and tastes of weekly gatherings for all the aunts and uncles and their families: the grandparents and great-grandparents of many of those in the room. Planning this menu proved to be a wonderful way to manage conflict. We were able to compromise and accommodate the needs of everyone, despite their gastronomical preferences.

Food gives sustenance to families both literally and figuratively. It allows us to pass our customs on generation to generation. Food is both a way to control children and  to educate them. We used the food to teach the younger generation about kashrut: how it helped Jews to maintain their community, and how the lack of it—more recently—is one way of demonstrating their assimilation.

There was, for the older generation, emotional memory in the food. It connected us with the past and honored our grandparents. Food was a way of including our progenitors and bringing religion and culture, into a family in which only some of them considered themselves Jewish. The food was also a way of reinforcing identity. It was a reminder of family life. But, also, of a more gendered time: a time when women were in the kitchen and men sat in the living room. In the English aristocracy, a family meal meant work for the servants. For Jewish peasants, a family meal meant the women gossiping, preparing and cleaning, creating both memories and nourishment.

We spent the day connecting and fantasizing about a simpler time, much as our grandparents would have done as they told stories of the old country. In both cases, the nostalgia glossed over the difficulties. In der haim (in the old country), my grandmother would nostalgically recall the family Shabbat, despite the fact that their life involved hunger and dirt floors. We explored the losses and gains of assimilation.

The food provided a way to manage conflict and a way to reconnect. As we collectively produced the food and cleaned up, it gave us a shared task and a way for us to act like family.

Whether family members considered themselves Jewish or “of Jewish heritage,” the serendipity of our births rested on the more than the accidental coming together or a particular sperm and a particular egg. It was a result of the kindness of Christians who protected our grandmother in the shtetl as the Cossacks came through on a killing spree. She had stayed long enough to experience the rampage resulting from the Czar’s blame of the Jews for the losing the  war.

The existence of each one of us was owed to the kindness of the Jewish community as Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) supported my grandmother when she was waylaid in Germany while my six-year-old Aunt Alice was cured of trachoma. My grandfather Shmuel had finally saved enough money working as a Kosher butcher to send passage for her and the kids. No one could deny that being Jewish was an integral part of their story, nor that each of us owes a debt to the organized Jewish community.

Zelda and Shmuel had seven children in total. The two boys won scholarships to college. The five girls settled for post-high school training. Who knows how far and how fast those five remarkable sisters might have gone had women had equal opportunity. We are indeed products of the opportunities our times give us.

What was evident as we sat and chatted, was that this family was built on Jewish values. Unlike most peasants, both my grandmother and grandfather could read. This gave them, and subsequently each of us, a leg up here in America. These values focused on family and education and involvement in their community.

My generation spanned thirty years. Our varied stories were a lesson in historiography. What is truth, what is memory, and why do they differ? Our various interpretations of our past was also a chance to reinforce a collective identity, and remind the youngest generation of their debt to Jewish values and to the Jewish community. We talked of how the lessons passed on to us influenced our life choices, why so many of us volunteered our time and so many of went into helping professions. We knew our lives depended on others.

I cannot reverse the tide of history, nor the results of assimilation. But, I think our reunion was powerful tool for educating even those family members who do not identify as Jewish that they owe a huge debt to Judaism and the Jewish community for their very existence and for some of their opportunities. My hope is that each person who attended was inspired to tell this story to their children.

You can use your family reunion to demonstrate that as marvelous, brilliant and creative as we may think we are, we are also products of our current time and place, as well as cultural-historical past.

This post originally appeared on The American Israelite and is reprinted with permission.

How to Pick an Interfaith-Friendly Synagogue

  

By Jordyn Rozensky

Couple terapy

When I asked my partner who is not Jewish if we could start visiting synagogues in hopes of finding a formal Jewish home for our worship and community, he agreed immediately.  His first step was to clear Sundays on his calendar—until I reminded him that while church meets on Sundays, Shabbat services are Friday nights and Saturday mornings in the Jewish community.

We started our search with Reform synagogues within a 20-30 minute drive. We wanted a synagogue with leadership that included women, whether in the form of a rabbi, cantor, executive director or board, and we were hoping for a community where a young(ish) couple like ourselves could find community.

I turned to a rabbi friend of mine to ask how to visit a new synagogue when you’re thinking about membership. His advice:

“Folks should set their first visit in accordance to what they think they will use as members. If they don’t plan on going to Shabbat services regularly, going to Shabbat services is not a great first visit—too much potential for alienation. 

 If they are looking for religious school, go to the education director. 

 If they are looking for fellowship, contacting the membership committee, the sisterhood or the executive director is a good start. 

 If the rabbi is really important, make a meeting. “

Still a bit overwhelmed with the idea of setting up meetings, we began our research at home with a list of values we needed in a Jewish setting. Well aware that this was just the tip of the iceberg, we placed disability accessibility and inclusion, LGBTQ equality and inclusion, and the full welcoming of interfaith families at the top of the list.

Knowing that inclusion and equality is more than a yes or no answer, we put together a list of questions for the synagogue. You’re welcome to use the questions in your own search for a synagogue, but I also encourage you to think beyond these questions and identify issues that may be important to you—such as how a synagogue embraces social justice or the environmental policies of the synagogue.

Disability accessibility:

  • How have you welcomed families with disabilities in the past?
  • Are your facilities accessible for folks with disabilities? Is there access to the bima for those with mobility issues (i.e.: folks with a walker, cane or wheelchair)? Do you have large-print prayer books?
  • Are people with disabilities active participants on committees, the board, sisterhood and men’s club, in all programs and services, and on the staff?
  • Are children with disabilities welcome in the religious school? Are there bar/bat mitzvah tutors who work with students with disabilities?

 

Interfaith inclusion:

  • Will my partner, who is not Jewish, be fully welcome? How have you welcomed interfaith families in the past?
  • Will my partner, who is not Jewish, be allowed on the bima during our child’s bar mitzvah?
  • Will my partner, who is not Jewish, be a welcome addition to the synagogue during events or services that I cannot attend?
  • Is religious school held on Easter (or other holidays that are part of another faith) and will accommodations be made if my child needs to miss school that day?

 

LGBTQ Inclusion:

  • How is your community inclusive for LGBTQ folks?
  • Do your membership forms utilize inclusive language?
  • Do you celebrate LGBTQ Jewish heroes in your religious school? Has your rabbi spoken about LGBTQ inclusion and acceptance during sermons?
  • Do you provide safe and gender-neutral spaces and bathrooms?
  • Are there active and out LGBTQ families regularly attending services?

 

We also came up with a list of questions that needed to be answered that touched on more of the tachlis or details:

  • What are the dues? Do you offer assistance or a sliding scale for lower income families?
  • What is the dress code?
  • How often are volunteer events held? How often are community social events held?
  • Who belongs to the synagogue? Will we find others in their ’20s and ’30s?
  • Do you offer adult education programs? Are there classes in learning Hebrew or Torah study?
  • What is the schedule of services and events?

 

Armed with these questions and a better idea of what we were looking for, we were ready to start our search. From here we found several synagogues in driving distance of our home that appeared to share our values.

We’re excited for our next steps: sitting down with leadership, observing a Shabbat service and imagining ourselves as active members of the synagogue.

Judaism Without Walls

  

By Jared David Berezin

Jared wedding

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

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

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

Re-Discovering Judaism

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

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

Shul Shopping

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

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

 

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

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

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

Finding a Meaningful Practice

Jared and Laurie

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

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

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

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

I’m Down with Shabbat… After I Look Up What It Is

  

By Robyn Bacon

Baby Sam in Choose Love shirt

Baby Sam

Like his other mother, my 4-month old son Sam is Jewish. I am not. I was born and raised Catholic. My mother and her sister converted to Catholicism while attending the Catholic schools that offered a better education to black families than the separate but equal public schools in the segregated South. My mother went to mass every day and, after she died, the congregation at her local church planted a tree in her honor outside the front door. My aunt (her sister) regularly serves communion at Sunday mass. My father’s family has been Catholic for generations—his cousin was Mother Superior of a convent of black nuns in New Orleans. My Catholic background was such a point of pride for me that, even after agreeing that our son would be Jewish, I still wanted to name him Ignatius Xavier in honor of the founders of the Jesuits.

With this history, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I told my family that Sam was going to be Jewish. I was especially concerned about my father. Dad’s family is Louisiana Creole. For him, being Catholic is not just about religion. It’s a core part of his identity, as integral to his sense of self as being black and from Texas. Sam was already biracial and a native Californian. I was afraid that when Dad learned that Sam was going to be Jewish, he might decide Sam was too different to be his grandson.

To my surprise, my father was not only accepting, he was also enthusiastic. And full of questions. Why was Sam going to be Jewish? How could my baby be Jewish if I’m not? Was he going to be baptized Jewish? What were the Jewish holidays? It was a bit overwhelming. Figuring that it would be better to let him find his own answers, I asked IFF/LA’s Rabbi Keara Stein for book recommendations.

Dad came to visit Sam for the first time a week ago. When he called before the visit, he mentioned that he had read the books. Judaism had made a strong impression on him and he was “excited” that it was going to be a part of Sam’s life. He liked the Jewish sense of community and the rituals, but most of all he liked how, as he described it, Judaism emphasized study over knowledge. “I feel like that really resonates with me,” he said.

I suggested that he join us for Shabbat dinner while he was in town. (His text message response was “I’m down w/‘Shabbat’ after I look up what it is.”) We also invited my cousin, who just moved to LA, and my mother’s brother, who happened to be in town. So my father experienced his first Shabbat with his grandson, surrounded by family. It was the first time he had ever shared a family meal at my house. It was also the first time he ate challah, which he thoroughly enjoyed.

At his suggestion, he and I took Sam to services on Saturday morning, where, after seeing me navigate the prayer book, he asked if I knew Hebrew. (“Not really,” I answered. “But it’s OK to just la la la if you don’t know the words.” He laughed.) Driving home, we talked about what to expect at Sam’s bar mitzvah. And he finally asked an easy question. Dad wanted to know why Sam didn’t have my last name. “Easy,” I said. “Our name is Bacon. That’s just not very Jewish.”

Before he left, my father told me how much he enjoyed his trip, even the two hours we spent at services. Looking back, it might have been the best visit we’ve had as adults. Talking about Judaism made for some of the longest and most personal conversations we’ve ever had. And his curiosity gave me a chance to think more deeply about what it means to raise our son in our Jewish community. Dad’s parting words were a request that I let him know when holidays were coming so he could be prepared. Perhaps I’ll give him a call for Shavuot.

 

Jake Chooses Love and We Choose Jake

  

Jake with torahBy Rebecca Redner

Meet Jake: He’s a student at Gateways: Access to Jewish Education.  After more than two years of studying, Jake will become a bar mitzvah this fall. How does Jake #ChooseLove?

Jake loves the Torah. He stands up proudly as he carries it in his arms, declaring “I’m doing it independently!” He places the Torah in the ark with great tenderness, stroking its velvety cover before he says goodbye and closes the door.

 

Jake with a classmateJake loves his classmates. He leans in toward his friends and says hello as he peers at them through his thick glasses. Jake doesn’t seem to mind that one classmate is in a wheelchair, or another struggles to sit still during class; he simply loves them. When Jake goes to a separate room for individual tutoring, he asks where his friends are. And he asks to sit next to friends in circle or during prayer services, where he basks in their presence.

 

Jake's bar mitzvahJake loves praying. When he hears the class begin to sing prayers, he rocks back and forth and flaps his hands with a look of pure euphoria on his face. Now that Jake has learned to sing the prayers himself, he joins in with the same enthusiasm as fans cheering at a football game (and often the same volume). Jake understands that we direct our prayers to God, and has remarked: “I love Eloheinu.”

Jake loves Judaism. The joy he feels when studying, praying or celebrating a holiday is palpable. He wears his kippah (small head covering worn in synagogue) with pride. He feels at home in his synagogue and in his religious school. He gleefully uses Yiddish words, saying “I am a little vantz*” after a moment of mischief.

Jake with a teacher

Jake chooses love, and we, his teachers, #ChooseLove, too. We love teaching Jake and watching him learn. We love the challenge of making lessons and materials accessible to him. But most important, we embrace both Jake’s strengths and his special needs, and we love the unique, mischievous, delightful young man that he is becoming.

*A vantz literally means a louse, and is slang for troublemaker.

chooseloveThere are so many ways to #ChooseLove! See how InterfaithFamily chooses love, and share your love on our photo gallery here!