Our Gay, Interfaith Family’s Surprising Synagogue-Shopping Experience

  

By Liat Katz

Pews in a synagogue facing the stage area

“A Y A M,” She writes.

“Um, Maya, I think you wrote your name backwards,” I respond.

“Nope, it’s just in Hebrew,” the 6-year-old says.

Maya is learning to read and write in English, while also learning Hebrew at our synagogue’s Sunday school. That makes it confusing. And she’s left-handed too, which makes this backwards-forwards thing even harder.

The whole figuring-out-the-Jewish thing in our modern world has been complicated. Finding a Jewish community that is both warm and accepts our two-mom interfaith family was also difficult, but I think we are starting to find a rhythm.

My wife, Lisa, is not Jewish (she is a recovering Baptist), but is completely on board with raising our kids Jewish. She took time to learn some Hebrew, she helps the kids get to Hebrew school, light candles, says prayers on Shabbat, and seems to be more knowledgeable about Judaism than I am at this point. She also makes the best latkes I have ever tasted.

For our oldest girl’s naming ceremony, we hired a Rabbi who was a humanist, gay, social worker, anarchist, vegan to do the ceremony in our home. I’m not kidding. Of course he had no problem with the fact that were gay and interfaith. And the ceremony was beautiful. But beyond candle lighting and the occasional high holiday service, we did not have much of a Jewish household after that ceremony.

That was, until a couple of years ago, when we heard that kids absolutely have to start by third grade in Hebrew School to be on the bat mitzvah track. Aviva, our older child, was almost in third grade. And being a child of a Holocaust survivor, I felt compelled to partake in this Jewish tradition for all those that could not. Besides, though I am not very religious, I wanted to have our kids have a sense of belonging to a larger Jewish community.

When I lived in Israel, I could be a part of the Jewish community—and feel Jewish by virtue of living in a Jewish land, speaking the language, interacting with the people. But here, in the U.S., going to temple seems to be where we need to connect to the Jewish community.

So we started shopping for synagogues to join. We started with the obvious ones for our family—Reconstructionist. We went to a few services and kids’ services at a relatively local Reconstructionist synagogue. I looked around: Lots of gay families, check. Interfaith families, check. Even racial diversity (pretty unusual at most synagogues), check. Interesting services with lots of opportunities for activities, check. The only thing missing was, well, warmth. Being Gay-friendly did not make them friendly-friendly. Nobody really spoke to us, looked at us or acknowledged us, or each other, either. Not the place for us.

We checked out Reform synagogues. The communities were nice, but huge. And somehow it wasn’t what I wanted. Why didn’t I like it? The people seemed nice, there were a few other gay families, a bit of diversity…but I realized it wasn’t like the services I grew up in. The tunes to the songs were different, and the prayers were mostly in English.

So it turned out that this non-traditional family that had babies in a non-traditional way, wanted a synagogue that was more…traditional.

Looking online for a Jewish community, I stumbled upon Kehilat Shalom, a small Conservative synagogue that was about 15 miles away from our house. The Rabbi looked nice. And the midweek Hebrew class was held online, which meant we wouldn’t have to drive anywhere after school every week.

I contacted the Rabbi and got a lovely response. We went to a service. No gay people, but the people were warm, asked us genuine questions, and invited us to various groups.

The services were mostly in Hebrew, and the tunes were as I remembered them. The sanctuary was beautiful, and bathed in natural light. I closed my eyes and exhaled. We enrolled our older daughter in Hebrew School—and the mid-week Hebrew school class with a special Skype-type program was so helpful and you know, just like the ancient Israelites had planned.

And as I dropped her off for Sunday classes, I went in to Rabbi Arian’s office to chat. Yes, he is knowledgeable about all things Rabbinic and Halachic, but he is also surprisingly, human. I got to know him and his great wife, Keleigh. And they got to know our family. They invited our family to their house, and we invited them to ours.

Of course, I did panic when we invited the Rabbi over. What do we cook? What plates do we use? We made pizza. Vegetarian pizza. My kids started to play a pretend restaurant game and offered the Rabbi a ham and cheese sandwich—he took it in stride.

And one Fall afternoon, there came a surprising new edition to the litany of endless childhood questions that often makes this mommy feel inadequate. In addition to my daughters’ questions like: Why don’t we have a…Christmas tree?…a daddy?…a beach house? they now, also ask me:“Why don’t we have a Sukkah?

As I got to talk with the Rabbi more, I began to understand conceptions of God and faith in a more relatable and fulfilling way. I discovered that maybe I want more than just Jewish culture in my life. And as the Rabbi got to know us and others in our community, he became more interested in LGBTQ issues.

In fact, he recently did a talk entitled, “Reflections on Ten Years of LGBT Inclusion in Conservative Judaism” at synagogue. And after he took a tour of civil rights sites (and the Names Project) in Atlanta, he wrote in a weekly Shabbat email and blog post: “The unspoken but very real question: what if anything is the connection between antisemitism, racism, and prejudice against the LGBT community? What is the role of religion in both creating and fighting prejudice?”

Maya is slowly learning to spell both in Hebrew and English. Aviva continues to connect via computer to her teacher and to class, and now she also connects to Judaism through an overnight camp. And as I connect to a Rabbi, a God, and a community that are both thoughtful and inclusive, I realize that our life is even more diverse and warmly Jewish than I ever expected it could be.

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.

Liat Katz, a clinical social worker, is a graduate of New Directions, a writing program offered by the Washington Center for Psychoanalysis. Her work has been published in Lilith, The Washington Post, Washingtonian, and the narrative medicine websites Pulse and KevinMD. Of herself, she says, “I write to make sense of the world I see through the lens of a mom, a clinician, a patient, a wife, and a person just muddling through life.” Liat lives in Rockville, Maryland with her wife, two daughters, four cats, and a bunny.

The Conversations We Should be Having

  

…with Grandparents with Grandchildren of Interfaith Marriages

 

By Rabbi Richard Address, D. Min. 

Portait of a big family with grandparents having a picnic at a vineyard

In my travels to congregations and Jewish organizations for Jewish Sacred Aging, many issues seem to emerge organically in discussions of family dynamics. More often than not, concerns about caregiving and end-of-life issues are quickly raised. Not unusually, as situations get unpacked, another issue emerges: that of how to grandparent our grandchildren who are products of interfaith marriages.

This issue is no longer representative of a small cohort of families. Indeed, as baby boomers age and become grandparents, we are beginning to see the impact of the gradual rise in interfaith marriages among our own children. How many of our friends have confronted their children when it comes to the question of “How will you be raising your children?” Those children—those names of those children—are part of our claim on immortality. Is it our name, our legacy that is at stake? Or is it something else – a sense of time passing, a loss of control and a sadness that the world we expected will not be ours?

Every clergy person who does weddings has walked this walk with families. Indeed, some of those very same clergy have dealt with this in their own families. The time has come for our community to begin a serious dialogue on this issue. Opportunities for discussions and support for grandparents who are dealing with this issue need to take place and include those grandparents who already are having the conversation and adults whose children are engaged and about to be married.

There are an increasing number of clergy who are now performing interfaith ceremonies. Often during premarital counseling, the issue of how one will raise children comes up. Rarely, in my experience, however, are there opportunities for a conversation with the potential grandparents on their feelings and concerns. We all wish our children to be “happy.” We take pride in the fact that we have raised independent adults, responsible for their own choices. We also are observing that our adult children are more and more choosing marital partners from diverse cultural backgrounds.

How is this growing cultural and religious pluralism given voice within the framework of the larger family system? Could greater opportunities for dialogue and honest sharing of emotions lead to greater harmony and understanding? Hiding those feelings surely can and does create barriers and in the end, don’t we all wish to nurture and savor these very primal family relationships? Aren’t these relationships ever more meaningful as we age?

I recently sat down with a grandparents whose children married partners who are not Jewish. Not atypical, this couple was in a second marriage and so we add the issues of “blended” relationships and the boundaries that come with this reality. We discussed some of the issues that these grandparents, both active and involved within their Jewish community, faced when dealing with their married children and their grandchildren. I asked them if they could suggest a brief checklist of issues that would be good to keep in mind. Some of the issues they raised were:

  • What does the role of “family” play in your religious tradition? What does the role of religion play within your family’s tradition?
  • How much discussion was there between your adult children and you, the parent, regarding their decision on how to raise children?
  • Looking back, what were the issues that influenced how you responded to this issue? How did friends, family, community, religious identification and philosophy influence you?
  • Was this the first interfaith marriage within your family or extended family? If not, how was it handled before? What lessons were learned?
  • Are the feelings you have for your grandchildren who are being raised in another tradition different from your feelings for grandchildren who are being raised in your own tradition? Do you feel less connected? Is your love of a “different” nature?
  • How do you handle speaking to your grandchildren about your tradition? Do you seek permission from the children’s parents to discuss holidays, books, etc.?
  • Have the two sets of grandparents ever discussed this issue?
  • If your adult child converted to their spouse’s religion, what were your emotions? Likewise, if your grandchild was baptized, how did you react?

These questions and concerns are being discussed and considered by an increasing number of grandparents now. It’s time for our community to create meaningful and non-judgmental opportunities for these issues to be raised. Our most important social connection remains family. How can we have an open conversation and honest dialogue? To repress emotions leads only to anger and discomfort and in an age which is so fraught with uncertainty, let’s open these doors to a pathway to “shalom bayit.”

How a Symbol Proved to Me that Love Always Wins

  

Mezuzah touch and kiss.

By 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 — 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.

Breast Cancer and An Unexpected Spiritual Journey

  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 

This is Why Purim is the Original Interfaith Holiday

  

By Dana Marlowe

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.

Celebrating Purim_newWhen I explain Purim to those less familiar with the holiday, I tell them it’s kind of like Jewish Halloween. Not so much because of the history and story behind each (Purim has no ghosts), but related to the joyful spirit, costumes, food, and fun.

Full disclosure: My neighborhood doesn’t celebrate Halloween in the way other areas decorate with cobwebs, spiders, and screaming doormats. In my little suburban neighborhood nestled in Silver Spring, Maryland, the population is predominately Orthodox. I might be a bit of an outsider with my cultural Jewish upbringing and unaffiliated interfaith family, but luckily our ‘hood’ doesn’t check your synagogue membership at all. The arms of the community are always open, especially this month.

In our community, we celebrate Purim in our neighborhood with hundreds of kids running from house to house. Bedazzled with costumes of Batman and Mordechai, they load in and out of cars, dropping off and picking up mishloach manot. We have a large street in the neighborhood that closes off to have a “Purim on Fulham” festival, which is all driven by the folks who live on that long block.

The celebration doesn’t stop there. There are also countless carnivals and events held nearby. My kids love assembling the mishloach manot, handing them out to a neighborhood in a candied frenzy state. My husband, the engineer, marvels at the endless creative themes of the mishloach manot, ranging from international food themes to play on words baskets, along with LEGO groggers and gourmet hamentaschen. The excitement mounts in my house as my children stuff the paper bags and draw on the outside of the sacks—and it’s only matched by the myriad of moon bounces that pop up on street corners.

For us, it’s a fun day. The fact that we don’t do the more observant part of the holiday—like attend a megillah reading or fast beforehand—is inconsequential. People welcome us regardless, but like any neighborhood, it’s a two way street in respect. We are careful to make sure the mishloach manot include the diverse food items needed for differing blessings, and that everything has clear kosher labels. Purim is a joyful holiday. Our joy is increased by bringing Kosher wine to the meals we are invited to and by our friends translating the blessings into English for us.

In addition to Purim, while my husband and I often work on these holidays that are deemed of the utmost significance in Judaism, our Orthodox friends don’t judge us or make us feel wrong. There is such a deeply rooted understanding that we all celebrate our Judaism and other holidays in our own respective ways.

Purim by nature is an interfaith holiday: Esther saves the Jewish people by teaching tolerance to Ahashverosh to save her people and have them co-exist in Shushan together. I feel that same spirit of inclusion daily in our neighborhood.

In a conventional neighborhood, people are united simply by geography. Literally, of course, we share a zip code, garbage day pick-up schedule, a post office, and the same unfortunate power grid in winter storms. But a neighborhood can be so much more than a regional district. It’s a shared identity. In a close-knit community, people are united by common goals, collective activities, and group events that give the residents a sense of true belonging. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the countless instances witnessed over the past years and the holiday season. My neighbors have opened their homes, hearts, and kitchens to us during the holidays, and for Shabbat meals.

When someone has a sick family member, the neighborhood provides food. Neighborhood Facebook pages exist for toy and costume swaps as well as: “I just need one thing from Costco” which comes in handy more times than you can count. One such helpful example was when I needed to bring my older son to the emergency room when my husband was out of town for business. I posted a message and within minutes, friends showed up to babysit.

I recently heard a community described as a circle to which you feel you belong. If you’re away, that circle will miss your presence; it reaches out to you when you’re absent, and you long for it when you’re not there.

We are happy to celebrate another Purim here. Our minivan will brim with hamantaschen and smiles. As we drive up the streets sharing in the festivities, we celebrate in our own way, and our neighbors in another. And I know that just as we get pumped up to celebrate Purim, our friends and neighbors will be excited to see my interfaith family’s Easter egg hunt just a few weeks after we put away the groggers and masks. Because that’s how we, as a community, roll.

The Message I Wish I Heard in Hebrew School

  

By Emily Waife

Emily's family

Emily (right) with her parents and sister

I’m Emily, the summer intern at InterfaithFamily/Boston! I thought I would kick off my internship by sharing a story about my family.

I grew up in a Conservative synagogue. Every Saturday morning, my mom, sister and I would attend Shabbat services. I learned the prayers and the meanings behind them at the youth services led by a beloved Hebrew school teacher. Twice a week I attended Hebrew after-school where we learned about the Jewish holidays, learned basic Hebrew and studied the Torah stories in creative ways. After I became a bat mitzvah, I chose to continue my Jewish learning at an after-school Hebrew high school program. I continued studying there until graduation my junior year, and became a teacher’s aid my senior year of high school. I have always felt a strong connection to my Jewish heritage and Judaism continues to be an important part of my daily life.

Throughout my Jewish education, I have been told that if nothing else sticks from my education, the one thing I must do, as a Jew, is marry a Jew.

It’s been like a broken record throughout all of my youth: “Marry a Jew! Marry a Jew!”

To be honest, I never thought much of it. I’m sure when I was told this countless times as a third-grader in Hebrew school, it was in some round-about way. Or maybe the love that I have always felt for Judaism shielded me from realizing that this message was not a benign suggestion, but was being pushed down my throat. It was something I listened to, almost without thinking—never truly questioning what I was being told.

I remember just four years ago, on one of the last days of Hebrew high school the director came and spoke to my class. All seniors, all about to graduate high school and leave the comfortable, sheltered bubble of our Jewish community. The one thing I remember the director telling us that day was that we had to promise her that we would marry Jews. She did not specify that just raising our children Jewish passed the test, she specifically told us that we had to marry Jews and expressed concern about interfaith relationships. We all nodded and listened to her explain the reasons for marrying a Jew.

It did not dawn on me until later that if my parents had followed this same message, I wouldn’t be here today.

I am part of an interfaith family. My dad grew up in a Reform household in a Midwestern suburb where there were not a lot of Jews at the time. My mom grew up with a Jewish father and a Unitarian mother and was raised in a Unitarian church in New England. My mom converted to Judaism in her adult life and committed to teaching my sister and me about Judaism. I have always known that no matter what, I am Jewish. For my whole life we have shared Christmas dinner with my cousins, Rosh Hashanah at my synagogue and large Passover seders made up of people from a variety of religious backgrounds.

Being a part of an interfaith family has taught me that there are many different ways to celebrate Jewish holidays, as well as secular holidays. I have been taught to invite people of all faiths to our home for holiday meals, treat people with respect and learn from one another. My family has taught me to open my heart and my door to those in need, which come from our Jewish values and being a kind person in general.

It is my hope that in Hebrew schools in the future, even at a young age, students are taught the same things I was taught about Jewish holidays, traditions and the Hebrew language. But there must be a way for us as Jews to impart our values and traditions on to the next generation while accepting and embracing those in our community who are in interfaith relationships. Interfaith relationships and families are a very important part of the Jewish community and create more opportunities for learning about and exploring the Jewish faith.

I am first-hand proof of how interfaith families are positive assets to the Jewish community. That is what the new message should be.