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ByÂ Elizabeth Vocke
Almost two years ago we started talking about joining a synagogue. We knew it was time to put our daughter in Sunday school if she was going to be a bat mitzvah (which so far, is the planâ€”her choice). The synagogue we chose for Sunday school gave us a year before we had to fully commit and join, so we waited. But this year, we had to join for her to continue to attend Sunday school.
Boy do I feel like an adult.
This is the first time Iâ€™ve belonged to a synagogue since attending with my family as a child. And, itâ€™s the first time my husband has belonged ever since, well, heâ€™s not Jewish.
Choosing a synagogue was not an easy decision. There are two local synagogues that we were trying to choose between. One is a Conservative synagogue that my extended family has belonged to for more than 60 years. Our name is on a Torah, and, itâ€™s also where our daughter attended preschool. So we have a strong sense of history there.
The other is a Reform synagogue that has a much larger congregation, and in particular a much larger group of children.
In the end, this was the deciding factor. But it took us a while to get there.
Over the years, weâ€™ve visited both during the High Holidays, and enjoyed both. They are very inclusive and we felt comfortable as an interfaith family. This is great, but it didnâ€™t help us in trying to choose one over the other. We talked to friends at each congregation and weighed the pros and cons.
The Conservative synagogue is where I had family, a sense of history and connectionâ€” that on its own was almost enough to sway us to join. But when I compared the religious schools and thought about my own experiences in religious school, in a very small Jewish community, we saw the benefits of the larger Reform synagogue.
There were other things we considered.
I write a weekly â€śMensch of the Weekâ€ť column and during one interview, I learned about our Reform synagogueâ€™s annual Mitzvah Day. Dozens of congregants go out to organizations across the community and spend a day giving back. I loved this emphasis on community and volunteerism. Plus, there were many opportunities to get involved socially and the events looked like fun.
Iâ€™m sure there are similar opportunities for events and social engagements at both synagogues, and ultimately, it came down to the number of children in the larger congregation.
During that first year, as I dropped my daughter off at Sunday school, I saw my own friends, watched families greet each other with excitement and saw how happy my daughter was when I picked her up. She made new friends and wanted to do play dates after Sunday school with the kids in her class.
So, we chose to stick with the Reform synagogue and have been happy with our decision. And while the fact that the synagogue we joined is a Reform congregation didnâ€™t really play into our decision, I certainly see the benefits for an interfaith family like ours.
We recently attended our first High Holy Day services as members. I was struck by the sense of peace I experienced. For the first time that day I could quiet my mind, enjoy the choir, think and just be.
Our next step is to figure out if and how the synagogue will be a part of our daily lives. For my husband, thatâ€™s a bigger question. Synagogue has never been a big part of my life, but when I join something I tend to enjoy it more if Iâ€™m active, so now Iâ€™m trying to figure out if and how to get involved. Maybe Sisterhood, maybe volunteering in some capacity. Maybe next year.
For now, Iâ€™m enjoying bumping into friends at Sunday school drop-off and reflecting on those peaceful moments I had during the holidays.
By Jacob Weis
Anybody who has had even the most menial part in celebrating Christmas can probably acknowledge the beauty in it.Â Whether Jewish-Jewish or interfaith, families sometimes run in to the question of what they are â€śgoing to do about Christmas.â€ť Part of the reason for this question is that people assume that celebrating Christmas may dilute their Judaism or go against their practices. Participating in Christmas may be seen as one step deeper into assimilation. Christmas may feel like what Jews â€śdonâ€™t doâ€ť and so there are taboos and judgement around a Jew being part of Christmas from a tree in the house to allowing children to receive Christmas presents.
I propose a different view on what it would mean for a Jew or someone in an interfaith family to celebrate Christmas.Â I propose that celebrating Christmas not only will be an amazing time for you and your family, but can also bridge the gap between those who celebrate Christmas and those who donâ€™t in the celebration of a worthy figure. I propose that itâ€™s good for Jewish children and those in interfaith homes to be able to talk about Jesus and to learn the lessons Jesus is known for. This will help make children literate, world citizens but will also give the holiday season more context and enrich their own Jewish faith. Being able to learn about Jesus as a historic figure and to learn the parables that maybe one parent or cousins have grown up with will not steer them away from Judaism but will bridge some gaps, create more understanding and allow love to connect the family rather than fear of the other or fear of becoming something else.
Any excuse to gather around with friends and family and eat good food should be taken.Â For me this is not an opinion, this is fact. Maybe you wonâ€™t be diving into the Christmas ham, but the feeling of community is wonderful nonetheless. I take every opportunity to gather with my extended family. However, the question undoubtedly will remain, especially for the parent or grandparents who are Jewish, about what role a Jewish child can comfortably have during Christmas.
Some Jews feel awkward talking about Jesus. Jesus was a historical figure, and whether or not you feel he was the messiah, a prophet or anything more than a good person, is up to you. There has been so much bitter history of those accusing Jews of killing Jesus, blood-shed and anti-Semitism. I understand why some Jews may feel unsure about participating in Christmas. Some Jewish leaders suggest that if Jewish children mark Christmas with family who arenâ€™t Jewish in purely cultural ways then it is â€śfine.â€ť The idea is that this kind of hallmark marking of the holiday wonâ€™t confuse children and they will understand itâ€™s about family, memories, giving, beauty and lights. But, how much richer and deeper for a Jewish child to actually learn about what Jews believe about Jesus and not be afraid to ask questions. Religions preach acceptance, and what better way to show your own family members of a different religion that Judaism promotes this tenant then to just be present in the celebration?
Acceptance, love, building bridges, sharing and learning will enrich children this holiday season. So, instead of being leery of Jewish children participating in Christmas because it will take away from their own identity, encourage an understanding of what the holiday symbols mean and explain the biblical narrative. Those who participate in this way will find shared messages and come away with a sense of family unity and peace.