Full of helpful advice for families starting to think about their child's bat or bar mitzvah, Bar & Bat Mitzvah For The Interfaith Family will be a helpful primer to all families (not just interfaith!).
This colorful booklet will give all the basics about this holiday which combines elements of Halloween, Mardi Gras and the secular new year. It is a holiday not only for children who know immediately that anything with a costume will be fun, but for adults too.
Connecting Interfaith Families to Jewish Life in Greater Cleveland by providing programs and opportunities for interfaith families to experience Judaism in a variety of venues, meet other interfaith families, and to connect to other Jewish organizations that may serve their needs.
This is an interactive, fun, and low-key workshop for couples who are dating, engaged or recently married. The sessions will give you a chance to ask questions about faith, to think about where you are as an adult with your own spirituality and to talk through what's important to you and your partner.
A great way for Jewish professionals and volunteers who work with and provide programming for people in interfaith relationships to locate resources and trainings to build more welcome into their Jewish communities; connect with and learn from each other; and publicize and enhance their programs and services.
I formally converted to Judaism one month after I lost my father and two weeks before getting married.
I hadn’t been raised with much religion. I was baptized Lutheran, but always joked that my parents did that more out of superstition than dogma. They didn’t do much to disabuse me of this notion—we attended services at the local Lutheran church on Christmas Eve, but beyond that and spending a week or so at an Episcopal church camp for a few summers, I didn’t have much of a religious identity.
My parents said they didn’t want to force religion on us. Other kids in that situation might never have gravitated toward organized religion at all, but my sister and I both wound up finding our own. She became a Mormon, drawn to it by the community she found in her Idaho college town and by the man who would become her husband. Mine also came through the man I’d eventually marry. Matt was raised in a conservative Jewish household, and though he wasn’t hugely religious himself, it was important to him that he marry a Jew.
As I began to study for my conversion, I was relieved that no one told me what to think and instead discussed with me how we see and live life through a Jewish lens. I was invited to take part in conversations rather than evaluated on obedience. Always uncomfortable with the idea of pledging allegiance to a transcribed set of beliefs, I was drawn to the idea that I could keep my curiosity, that it was OK to question leaders and make sense of the world myself, using the values of Judaism as a guide.
One reservation I did have was my father. He didn’t object to me marrying a Jewish man; to the contrary, he loved Matt and was incredibly proud of his achievements. As for his own daughter becoming Jewish… I’m not sure he understood the necessity. We didn’t speak about my conversion process much, as he was sick and I was planning a wedding. And then, before we had the chance to really discuss it, he was gone.
I wanted him to know that my conversion wasn’t a rejection of him and my mother, or of our upbringing. In fact, it was because of the way I was raised that becoming Jewish came to make sense to me. People often talk about their finding their spiritual homes, but for me, arriving at Judaism was less of a homecoming and more of a recognition of something that was always there. An emphasis on family. Intellectual curiosity. Passing on a shared history and traditions to the next generations.
The things that eventually drew me to Judaism were my father’s values, as well. From him, I learned that knowledge is liberating. He didn’t have much formal education but he shared with me his love for reading (he gave me his tattered copy of “The Diary of Anne Frank” when I was 8), and said attending college was a non-negotiable.
From him, I learned the value of being able to stand up for my own views. He played devil’s advocate every time we talked politics, driving me to distraction at times (though in the end he voted for Obama).
From him, I learned never to be passive or complacent. He may not have recognized the term tikkun olam (repairing the world), but I also never saw him turn away from somebody who he had the ability to help in any capacity. And he felt guilty when he didn’t have spare change for someone asking on the street.
These are all things that, as far as I can tell, embody Jewishness.
After he died, I found comfort in that oft-repeated phrase “may his memory be a blessing.” It doesn’t promise that I will see him again or that he is in a better place. It doesn’t force me to place hope in something that I’m not sure exists. It allows me, simply, to find joy in the fact that I had him for 27 years—and I have as many years’ worth of memories to hold close, when I can no longer pick up the phone to call him and argue about Hillary Clinton.
My husband and I had a traditional Jewish wedding, with the chuppah and the ketubah (marriage contract) and the hora and even—because both of our siblings had married before us—a double mezinke (a dance for parents whose last child is marrying). And as I watched the endless line of wedding guests dance around my husband’s mother and father and my own mother, and as I saw the mix of grief, pleasure, and bewilderment on my mom’s face, I wondered what my father would have thought of it all.
He knew that he would be leaving me before his time, and he never spoke about concrete ideas of heaven or hell, redemption, or eternal kingdoms. I think, though, that he would be at peace knowing that Judaism gave me a way to grieve him without clinging to a narrative that wouldn’t feel genuine to either of us.
It’s been three years now since I lost him. Every winter, both his birthday and the anniversary of his death pass in the same week. Every year, the anniversary of my conversion and the anniversary of my marriage follow close behind. The later dates are inextricably tied to the earlier ones. I light a candle and stand to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish—for a man who was not Jewish and who likely did not know what a yahrzeit was.
But my father deserves to be honored, and his Jewish daughter intends to do so.
Many years ago I was in a book club and read a collection of essays called Righteous Indignation: A Jewish Call For Justice. The book explored how Jewish thought intersects with issues of social justice, and each chapter focused on a different subject: poverty, the environment, health care, human rights, reproductive rights and Israel.
In one chapter, an environmental activist described her time canvassing in a small town in Texas, and how difficult it was to garner local support for her team’s initiative. One Friday evening as her despondent team gathered around a table for dinner, she had an idea. She asked everyone to pass a cup around the table, and as each person poured a little wine into the cup, they would say one victory they had in the past week, no matter how small. Even having a nice conversation with someone outside the grocery store counted as a victory during those tough times. As the cup went around and filled up with everyone’s victories, the activist realized to her surprise that they were, in essence, celebrating Shabbat.
Despite the absence of candles, challah or Hebrew prayers, these activists were recognizing the light, sweetness and sustenance in their lives. They were marking the end of a difficult week by taking a moment for reflection.
Inspired by this book, my wife and I—who are interfaith and unaffiliated—hosted a participatory Shabbat with some friends a while back. One guest came with her teenage son and daughter, who at the time were not enjoying each other’s company (to put it lightly!). Tweaking the ritual from Righteous Indignation, as the challah was passed around we asked people to share a moment from the past week that provided sustenance in their lives. When the challah reached the woman’s teenage son, he looked down at the bread and thought about it for a moment. He then told us that what had sustained him over the past week was being able to spend so much time with his sister. We were all taken aback. His mother’s eyes went wide, and his sister turned to him and asked in amazement, “Really?!”
It was such a real and honest moment and, I believe, a very sacred one for that family and all of us there. Who wouldn’t want to live in a world where a brother can tell his sister how he truly feels without reservation?
The possibility of these moments is why I keep coming back to Shabbat, even after weeks and sometimes months of letting Friday nights sail by without any acknowledgment. For me and my wife, who was not raised Jewish, Shabbat can be an inclusive way to mark the end of a busy week. It can be an opportunity to create an accessible space for honesty and shared reflection with good people.
But what about when we’re not home on Friday night? Oftentimes my wife and I find ourselves at a concert, a friend’s house or in the car heading off to a weekend adventure. Can a special space be created in these situations? Does every Shabbat need to look, sound and feel the same?
Years back I met with a rabbi and asked him how my wife and I could celebrate Shabbat in a meaningful way outside of the home. He looked me in the eyes and said: “Find some light, find some bread and find some sweetness. Then tell each other that you love each other.”
Those beautiful words—so simple, so honest, so free of biblical or quorum rules—provide us with basic ingredients for our Shabbat experiments. Amidst the variable settings and circumstances of any given Friday evening, creating space for love, honesty and unguarded reflection among friends and family can get the weekend going in a positive direction. Whether it’s reading a poem together, reflecting on a victory or struggle from the past week, whether we’re at home or on the road, whether we have the traditional Shabbat accoutrements or not, we can take a moment to find light, sustenance and sweetness around us and within each other.
Rosh Hashanah—also known as the “birthday of the world”—is fast approaching. Soon we’ll celebrate the world’s big day with a round birthday cake of challah and apples, with honey on the side.
Common birthday gifts include standard prayers sung to melodies old and new, and foods that are as old as our great-grandparents with tweaks as young as the babies celebrating this holiday for the first time.
As we approach Rosh Hashanah, we have a chance to step back and look more closely at the path before us.
When I was growing up, I’d sit down to a holiday dinner, which included brisket and tsimmes, with my parents and two brothers. Now a cantorial soloist with little time to spare on the evening Rosh Hashanah begins, I’m grateful for the Wendy’s burgers my husband buys so we can sit down together, albeit briefly, and remind ourselves that the holiday isn’t just about getting to services with a few minutes to spare. Instead, he reminds us both that family time is integral to the High Holidays. I’m fortunate that my husband, who isn’t Jewish, almost always attends the services I lead, during which he pores over the English translations of the Torah and Haftarah portions and reads aloud with the congregation when they pray in English. These may seem like small actions within the larger context of a service or Judaism itself, but he helps fit the vital pieces of family, community and prayer into a much larger Jewish puzzle.
My parents set the precedent early on in my childhood that the secular New Year would always begin with a family dinner before any other non-family plans came into play. After dinner all bets were off, as the focus tended to be on where you were, and with whom, when the clock struck 12.
For the Jewish New Year, however, the holiday is always more of a kaleidoscope as you twist the end and see diamonds filled with families praying and singing together in communal services.
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are arguably the two most important yearly holidays on the Jewish calendar. While the name of the first holiday translates to “head (rosh) of the year (hashanah),” the Day of Atonement is also about the “rosh.” It calls for paying attention to it in a different way, as we eat only in a spiritual sense, fasting for what amounts to about 25 hours.
One of the goals of the long fast is to attain spiritual clarity as a group by taking a break from the material world. Another is to build a sense of community as each of us pulls away from the rest of the world and toward Jewish worship simultaneously, for a common cause.
Judaism tells us to fast on Yom Kippur, unless you’re very young, pregnant, elderly or have a medical condition. Indeed, we refrain from eating as a community. In certain prayers, like “Sh’ma Koleinu,” the plural ending of “nu” is used to show how Jews take responsibility for one another and how important community is. The Jewish people have been persecuted and driven out from the lands they have inhabited on many occasions, including the Spanish Inquisition and the Holocaust. So it’s no wonder we’ve got a bit of a community mentality, despite the pretty accurate idea that if there are two Jews in a room, they generally have three opinions.
The number “three” is a lamppost lighting the way forward during the High Holy Days: To be inscribed in the Book of Life, we need to repent, pray and perform good deeds, as the prayer “U’t’shuvah” states.
The good thing about the High Holidays is there are plenty of opportunities to do all three. Congregations often have food drives, where bringing nonperishable items to services as donations is commonplace. Doing tefillah (prayer) is the modern substitute for sacrifices and is integral to High Holy Day services. And performing t’shuvah (repentance) is a huge reason we go to synagogue in the first place.
Recently, I started the practice of writing gratitude emails, thanking the people in my life for their good deeds. Each message evokes a positive sense of the relationship, bringing it back to ground zero if something has gone awry in the past or if we simply need a fresh start with the new year coming. During this time of year, I suggest combining the idea of gratitude emails with one of sending messages asking for forgiveness. It has the potential to reorganize your life and your relationships so you have a better sense of how to move forward as we start the year 5777.
If nothing else, it’s a great time to reach out to those you care about and reconnect during this potentially sweet, nostalgic time of year. It might be time for a reboot, or simply a chance to celebrate the beautiful world we live in.
ByMelissa K. Rosen, Director of National Outreach for Sharsheret
I went to Shabbat services this morning for the first time in months. My long absence wasn’t an intentional decision. In fact, I only became aware of the “decision” recently.
A cancer diagnosis affects so much more than you think it will. Of course I expected the physical challenges. And it came as no surprise when I found myself emotionally drained. What I didn’t recognize for either of my two diagnoses was the impact cancer had on my spiritual life.
Living Jewishly has been important to me since childhood. Through the years it has meant very different things, yet has always been an integral part of who I am. I grew up in a Reform temple. My husband, now a committed Jew, grew up in a Christian home. We have spent time in both Conservative and Orthodox communities. Those varied experiences have made us sensitive to both the ways we practice and our relationships with God and community.
During my first diagnosis, I instinctively turned to faith and spirituality. I went to synagogue, spoke with God, wore an amulet with Jewish text and even received a healing bracha, or blessing, from a rabbi. My community and my faith were a large part of my recovery. I drew strength from what had always been important to me.
Seventeen years later, at the time of my second diagnosis, without even realizing it, I shut down spiritually. In retrospect, it was as if a switch was flipped. I withdrew from my community. I stopped attending Shabbat services and drew little joy from holidays and Shabbat.
Navigating cancer places unique pressures not just on the patient, but on the family as well. A medical crisis can bring family together—and it can also highlight differences. In my family, with our joyful and carefully constructed religious life, changes of any type were a challenge that needed to be addressed. Were the changes I made permanent? How would they impact my family? Were they actually helping me deal with my diagnosis?
I realize now, both from the benefit of time and from the conversations I have had with other cancer survivors, that diagnosis can make a person spiritually fragile. When you are diagnosed you may look to find meaning in the experience. That may mean drawing closer to faith, changing the way your faith is expressed or turning away completely. It may be an intentional decision, or something you realize in retrospect. Maybe I was mad. Maybe I needed every ounce of strength I had to deal with my treatment. What I know now, healthy and long past treatment, is that my life is missing something.
Jewish observance and commitment has always been an active conversation in my home, so I’m not sure why it took me months to realize the changes that occurred at my second diagnosis. Now that I’m aware of what I have lost, I have made myself a promise to fight my way back to something that has always brought me joy and comfort. I’m not sure where I will find myself in the end, but I know one thing for sure: I’ll be in synagogue next Shabbat!
Sharsheret, Hebrew for “chain,” is a national not-for-profit organization that supports young women and families, of all Jewish backgrounds, facing breast cancer at every stage—before, during and after diagnosis.
Whenever I meet someone new, there’s always an instant connection the moment I find out they’re Jewish. It’s almost like an immediate form of familiarity, even though we just met. However, when I meet someone from a different faith, I am just as interested to learn more about their culture as I am when someone is a different denomination of Judaism.
Growing up in a Reform Jewish household, I was often told by my parents, “You can marry anyone you want, but we prefer a nice Jewish boy.” A big emphasis was on the “prefer.” But I’ve dated many people and the religious aspect hasn’t weighed heavily. The one serious relationship I had was with someone who was not Jewish—he was Lutheran. But besides the occasional questions here and there about our faiths, we rarely talked about it. It just became one of the details I knew about him. We were both pretty non-observant religiously; less organizational and more family-centered and holiday-based. All the other positive aspects about him were more important to me than the fact that he came from a different faith and belief system, which ensured a successful relationship.
Interfaith dating forces some—not all—people to make the difficult decision of whether they should or should not pursue a potential relationship with someone of a different faith. My opinion as a millennial in this day and age is that beliefs are not a key factor in determining the outcome of a relationship; values are. Date whomever you want based on personality, sense of humor, how that person shows their love for you, etc. Truly good people are those who find ways to apply their beliefs to their lives and aspire to live a life by the right values.
Though all the different kinds of faiths across the globe may vary from one to the next, many of their values are universal. As long as both people share similar values and are able to maintain mutual respect for each other’s beliefs, there shouldn’t be anything holding them back from being together. Both parties can carry on the religious traditions important to them, share in each other’s practices and celebrate the unity of their values. There will be different approaches to how to be a good person, and that can potentially be enriching to learn about and process.
As a famous Beatle once said, “All you need is love.” Now, John, what do you mean by that? Specific love from specific people? Love as long as it’s with someone from your religion? No. I think he means that any love is worth your time and affection, regardless of religious differences. By limiting yourself to one cluster of people, you might be denying who can truly make you happy. Some couples might disagree, but in my opinion finding someone who will love you the way you truly are is the truest kind of love.
Judaism has a sense of peoplehood and a shared text, language and connection to a land. However, when you find a mate with real love and connection that isn’t Jewish, it doesn’t mean they can’t still be a great addition to the community. I won’t lose my Jewish connections and Jewish allegiances, identity and pride when I #ChooseLove. I’m not choosing love over sharing the same religion. If I can have both, awesome! I’m hoping for love with someone who will support me for me and let my beliefs inform them as well.
My husband, Erik, and I recently attended “Love and Religion,” a workshop for interfaith couples who are exploring their spirituality and how their religion, spirituality and traditional practices will play into their future lives. I myself am not Jewish—Erik is—and I was raised, as we collectively decided to put it in class, with “Christian undertones.”
Erik and I have known each other since our undergraduate years at Drew University. We have been engaged for almost three years and will be getting married later this summer. Erik recently moved to Washington, D.C., to join me there. Since we have been living together we have decided to spend this time, and the early years of our marriage, experimenting with traditions and deciding what we want to nurture in our household from both of our upbringings. This is what led us to “Love and Religion” and eventually to this blog post!
I could gush forever about this program, as I’m a self-proclaimed vegan foodie. Cooking and baking are a huge passion of mine, and I love the opportunity to cook for people I care about. When we found out there was a program that would not only help fund a dinner for our friends but would allow me to explore new recipes and that directly related to our new relationship mission of exploring each other’s cultural traditions, we didn’t have to think twice. Of course we were going to host an interfaith veggie Shabbat—my very first.
We applied for the grant and the rest was delicious.
Friends of all backgrounds joined us for Shabbat, including both of the couples with whom we attended “Love and Religion.” We started the night with homemade hummus with veggies and flatbread, vegan cashew cheese with crackers, and dates and olives to snack on. Many people drank wine, which I have learned is standard for Shabbat, and a tradition the group wholeheartedly embraced.
Erik led us through the Shabbat rituals and got everyone involved. We lit candles and broke the vegan challah. We washed our hands and drank the wine. I wish I had gotten more pictures, but we implemented a strict no-phones-at-the-table rule. Then we sat down for strawberry, walnut and spinach salad and challah.
Making challah was an interesting challenge, especially since I had never tasted it myself. However, from my understanding, it’s a heavily egg-based bread. Luckily, I found a nice and easy recipe from the cookbook “Betty Goes Vegan” and started the dough for two loaves. One was a classic challah, and the other I quickly decided should be a cheesy, garlic bread challah of my own devising. Apparently I didn’t do too badly (or my friends are just too nice). Everyone loved the challah, and one person even commented that they would buy the cheesy garlic one at the store if they could!
For the main course we had summer squash lasagna roll-ups with a walnut and sundried-tomato pesto, roasted lemon asparagus and roasted purple potatoes with rosemary. I had hoped to make a few more veggies but ran out of time (and it’s a good thing too, since there was plenty left over!).
On to the most important course: dessert. One of our fabulous guests brought a delightful peach crisp and coconut-based vanilla ice cream. I paired this with a vegan blueberry cheesecake with a graham-cracker crust from the cookbook “Vegan Pie in the Sky.”
The night was a huge success, filled with many insightful questions about Shabbat, Judaism and veganism. We are looking forward to our next chance to host a big dinner, and are so incredibly grateful to Sarah for connecting us with this opportunity. Shabbat shalom!
I am Jewish. I identify as being Jewish. Well, actually, I identify as being Jew-ish. I was born Jewish, but was raised in a non-observant home. No synagogue, no bat mitzvah and no serious Jewish boyfriend (yet?) to help me learn about Judaism and Jewish culture. We did have the occasional tradition (that’s an oxymoron, right?) of watching The Ten Commandments and Eight Crazy Nights on Passover and Hanukkah, put on by my father, who converted to Judaism before my parents got married. I still light the candles on Hanukkah with my parents and many of my best friends are Jewish. I was very happy growing up Jew-ish, but it has led to my fair share of awkward questions.
“OMG, your dad converted? So you’re technically half Catholic!?” Nope! Some Jewish denominations might disagree, but I am actually 100 percent Jewish.
“I’m confused, you’re Jewish but don’t Mexicans celebrate Christmas?” My Dad converted but we still join his family on Christmas as guests, not to celebrate.
“You’re Mexican, can you help me with my Spanish homework?” I doubt I know more Spanish than you do.
“What synagogue do you belong to?” My family and I don’t belong to one.
“You don’t look Jewish.” Um OK? What does a Jewish person look like?
I recently read an article about people who say “You don’t look Jewish,” as if it’s a compliment.
There is no such thing as a “Jewish” look. You wouldn’t tell someone on the street that they don’t look American. Children are taught to value diversity and respect those of other ethnic backgrounds because America is a land of many cultures. The same goes for anyone who is Jewish.
In addition to being Jew-ish, I try to maintain a deep connection with my Mexican heritage. Although I am not fluent, I try to speak Spanish as much as I can with my Mexican half of the family. However, I do not celebrate The Day of the Dead nor does my family play Selena music throughout the house or watch George Lopez 24/7. Stereotypes, man.
I have been dogged by many stereotypes and presumptions for as long as I can remember. I’m not your average Jew or average Mexican—but honestly, today’s world is becoming less and less stereotypical. For example, more interfaith families are becoming part of American Judaism.
By interning at InterfaithFamily this summer as part of the Chicago JUF Lewis Intern Program, I am able to connect with other young adults like me. I see a whole network of people out there trying to find meaning and make our way in our Jewish world. Sometimes this world feels welcoming and embracing and sometimes I feel out of place and awkward. Meet me, an eager newbie with lots to learn, a deep sense of pride of who I am, with new Jewish memories and an open heart and soul ready to forge our future.
Jared and his (now) wife Laurie being married by Rabbi Lev Baesh on Laurie’s parents’ farm in Pennsylvania
Why am I an unaffiliated Jew? In many ways, I should want to join a congregation. I’m in my early 30s. I’ve had a bar mitzvah. I’ve traveled to Israel. I enjoy celebrating Jewish holidays, including Shabbat. Passover is my favorite time of the year, and my wife and I love hosting our annual interfaith-humanist-vegan seder with friends of many faiths. The central question of why I am not a member of a synagogue, and why I have no desire to join one, spawns more questions:
Many of us have read articles about shifting demographics, aging congregations, low service attendance and the increasing number of unaffiliated Jews. Many of these articles pit affiliation and unaffiliation against one another as competitors, with blame often irrationally ascribed to young Jews, especially those who fall in love with someone of another faith. These articles resemble conversations I’ve had over the years with older affiliated Jews, in which being young, Jewish and unaffiliated was treated as a temporary illness that would cure itself once the patient got married (to another Jew) or had children. What is often missing from these discussions is the spiritual value of being unaffiliated, and how creating Jewish moments outside of a synagogue can be meaningful and fulfilling.
My childhood experiences in a Reform synagogue convinced me that religion was something you learned and performed, whereas spirituality was something you felt and experienced in the secular world. The first crack in this logic occurred in college when I read the “Song of Songs.” Then I attended a few events sponsored by the campus Hillel group, enrolled in a Hebrew language course and delved into Kafka’s works. I began to associate Judaism not just with coldness and formality, but with intellectual curiosity and growth.
Years later I participated in a Birthright trip to Israel where music, nature, spontaneity, adventure, politics and Judaism intertwined. Judaism became bigger, complicated and more interesting. I was living at the time with my girlfriend (now my wife) who was raised Christian but has an aversion to all organized religion and rituals that tend to suppress individuality. So when I got home from Israel and was suddenly very excited about Judaism it freaked her out a little bit. But she could see that I was inspired, and so we began celebrating Shabbat together on Friday nights. We’d put out the challah, grape juice and candles, and I’d recite the prayers in Hebrew and English. But it all felt just as cold and empty as the rituals from my childhood; none of the vibrancy that I felt in Israel was there.
I began to wonder whether the missing ingredient was community. I drew up a list of about 15 Reform and Renewal congregations in the Boston area and visited one every Friday night. I mumbled along with the prayers and songs, but it wasn’t inspiring. The predictability of the services, together with the congregation’s passive reliance on their rabbis felt all too familiar. Although this familiarity provided sentimental comfort and a sense of belonging for me, since my girlfriend was not raised Jewish, nothing was familiar to her, and she didn’t share the sense of comfort that I felt for the objects, rituals and language. Going to these various congregations with an interfaith partner was immensely valuable for me, because it caused me to ask myself these questions:
What am I learning in these services? What am I feeling?
What do I want my wife to experience? What do I want to experience?
What do I gain from the rituals and prayers in the synagogue?
What values are expressed in the services by the rabbi?
What values are expressed in the services by the congregants?
After attending dozens of synagogues both familiar and alternative, I was frustrated with myself for not feeling satisfied. I asked a rabbi whom I had been meeting with if I should just pick a synagogue, stay for a while and hope that it eventually felt right. His memorable response: “Keep looking. When it comes to religion you should never settle; you should be inspired.”
My girlfriend encouraged me to try one more place, and to our surprise it seemed perfect for us. The community lived within its means, renting rather than owning a space, which lessened the financial burden on the congregants. There was spontaneous conversation and dancing during services. The rabbi was explicitly welcoming of every type of person, a strong supporter of lay participation and able to connect Jewish teachings and rituals to the reality we live in. We became members and joined the shul band, and a year later I was asked to join the board.
Although the congregation’s practices were very alternative and free-spirited, it turned out that the key decision-makers in the community were just as obsessed with preserving their own way of doing things as I had found at the more formal synagogues. Deviations from their norm were considered inappropriate and without value. It pained me to hear board members refer to non-members (and even new members) as “outsiders.” During one meeting, several board members decided that the purpose of services should always be to satisfy the congregants who have been there the longest, rather than engaging with younger generations. I soon felt like a distant member of a community built for others’ needs. I resigned from the board several months later and the following year we did not renew our membership.
Finding a Meaningful Practice
Being unaffiliated does not prevent someone from being Jewish. It took me a while, however, to understand that being unaffiliated also does not prevent someone from having meaningful Jewish experiences. My wife and I are finding inspiration by celebrating Jewish holidays in our own way, tweaking traditions and developing new ones that have emotional and intellectual meaning for us. Some work, some don’t. In addition to our annual seder we’ve started a Yom Kippur tradition with a fellow interfaith couple: a day of fasting, focused conversation, meditation and a nature walk. I’ve also officiated my maternal grandparents’ funerals. These experiences require self-reliance and effort, and that’s in large part what makes them so special.
As much as we enjoy our Jewish life outside synagogue walls, there are many things that congregations provide that a couple like us simply cannot: a place for communal prayer, access to rabbis steeped in knowledge and a support network. There is a beautiful timelessness in large groups of people gathering together in a single space.
While I’m not planning to join a congregation—my needs have changed—many Jews and interfaith families desire to find a community that fits their needs. For congregations looking to grow, rather than speak only to those already in the building (those who already understand the coded behavior and language, those who share the same expectations of a service experience), rabbis and their congregants could look around and notice who is not in the seats. Cultivating a community of explicit (rather than implicit) inclusiveness requires open, honest conversations among rabbis and congregants about their community’s core mission, the unintended consequences of existing cultural norms and the potential for change. Here are some questions that I think about, and that I hope unaffiliated and affiliated readers can ponder and help me better understand:
What values underlie traditional Jewish congregational behavior?
What values do we see in secular organizations?
How do Jewish and secular experiences intersect in our lives?
Before we seek to inspire others, are we keeping ourselves inspired?
It took me 20 years to find the love of my life. If you told me 10 years ago, or even 15 years ago that I’d end up with a man raised Presbyterian, on a farm, who is also a war veteran, I would have laughed at you. But if you asked me a full 20 years ago, it would have made perfect sense.
Growing up in an interfaith family with a Jewish mother and a Catholic father, I was drawn to my Judaism the way some kids are drawn to forbidden things. I was intrigued by it, wanted more of it and didn’t really know how to access it but for tiny, little tastes on holidays or special occasions. I knew that when I grew up, I was going to practice Judaism, have a Jewish home, Jewish friends—a Jewish life. But I didn’t quite know what that meant. It was more of an idea than a path at that point. A mission without a strategic plan.
Growing up in a town with very few Jews contributed to the fact that my own limited practice of Judaism was essentially expository. Everything I did, I also explained to those around me. This was a habit that naturally fed into my work as a Jewish educator in the first several years of my career, and not coincidentally, my interfaith relationships.
At age 14, almost exactly 20 years before I would meet my future husband, I went on my first date, with the son of a Methodist minister. That relationship lasted nine days. Then there was the Irish Catholic boy for a whole six months. Then the Presbyterian boy I worked with on the student newspaper for an entire season. And the final high school relationship, the one that stretched into college, with the Methodist basketball star. It never occurred to me then that I might date a Jewish boy in order to lead a Jewish life, but this was primarily because there were only a couple in my class and as a Jewish child of an interfaith marriage it didn’t yet occur to me that this made a difference.
As I’ve reflected on this as an adult, it has become clear to me that these formative years had an impact on who I would ultimately seek out, find attractive and most important, love deeply. College was the first time I actively pursued Jewish dating, despite the fact that I attended the Jesuit Catholic Boston College. While only around one percent of the student population at BC is Jewish, the Jewish student population in Boston is plentiful and I was a strong networker. Still lacking a strategic plan, I was ever mission-oriented and dated several “nice Jewish boys” during my college years. Still, the most formative relationship I had in college was with my Episcopalian on-again-off-again boyfriend.
The post-college years were my most strategic ones. I started working at Hillel, I signed up for JDate. I insisted on dating only Jews. In those 10 years or so, I met one man I felt a strong connection with. It turned out he felt a strong connection with someone else. It was frustrating, challenging, it made me feel sad and sometimes hopeless. I decided to stop trying so hard. I opened my heart, still with some hesitations, still believing I was meant to be with a Jewish man, but trying to simply let the universe do its work.
While still looking for a Jewish man, I dated men who weren’t Jewish casually: I fell head-over-heels for a man who turned out to be a liar and a cheater, I fell for a man who could never love me the way I deserved to be loved… and then I met my future husband. I didn’t know it at the time. I was trying to get over the last guy and just needed a distraction. “He’s not Jewish,” whispered my subconscious. We met at my cousin’s wedding in the fall. We went on our first date a month later. It was long distance, but he cleverly came up with reasons to pass through town every month. Then we started planning visits. After six months I realized I was an idiot if I let him get away.
Brianne and her fiance Jayson
I’m marrying a man who is kind, smart, generous, loving, more obsessed with Democratic politics and values than I am and also happens to have been raised Presbyterian. Last night I was relaying to him a metaphor I had used at my government job involving the Book of Esther. “Wait,” he said, as I finished the story, “but who would be Haman in this scenario?” It actually took me some time to come up with an answer to that question, as I realized I had been outwitted in my latest Jewish educational moment by my partner who isn’t Jewish.
We’ve already had the big conversations: We’ll raise our kids Jewish, we’ll keep a kosher home, we’ll participate in Jewish community. We’ll also honor the traditions we had growing up, when we visit our parents’ homes. And we’ll go out into this world with the hope that our communities embrace our choices.
I know it won’t be easy. I can already tell in my own Jewish community that some are uncomfortable with the way that love found me. My closest friends are thrilled and they see what a good partner he is to me. But I cannot even count how many times I have been asked by Jewish friends if he is also Jewish, and when I say no, they quickly express support anyway, pretending it doesn’t matter to them. It hurts my heart when this happens. These are habits, not intentional barbs, but they affect how interfaith couples feel in community. And as the child of an interfaith family, I know this well. What’s even worse, there was a time when I acted this way toward other interfaith couples. Please consider this my apology.
As an adult from an interfaith family my Jewish identity is regularly called into question. Some people can’t quite believe I could have been raised in Grosse Pointe, MI. “But there are no Jews in Grosse Pointe!” they say. But here I am, standing before you as a Jew. “You don’t have a Jewish name,” some say. But here I am, standing before you as a Jew. “Who is Jewish, your mother or your father?” they ask. It’s my mother, so I pass the test. These are hurtful questions, although not intended as such. My children will likely experience the same.
I am lucky, because 20 years after I first started looking, the love of my life found me. If I hadn’t been willing to open my heart to what my Judaism could look like with a loving, supportive partner who isn’t Jewish, I might have missed out on it all.
I made a decision early in my life to pursue Judaism and despite the fact that biology, geography and many other factors were pulling me in different directions, I am still pursuing it. One of my favorite sayings about compassion is, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.” It’s something I am hoping our Jewish community will come to embrace as we learn to do a better job of welcoming our interfaith families. You may be born a Jew, but to be Jewish is not a passive thing. Pursuing Judaism is a choice you make every day of your life, a choice that is harder for some than for others, and as a community and as individuals we should all be supportive of this.
Throughout my life, I was a person in search of a religion to call my own. Born in the United Kingdom to a non-practicing Hindu father and a non-practicing Church of England mother, I never received any kind of religious upbringing beyond weddings and the hymns I was forced to sing in grammar school—words that were as meaningless to me as the tunes were depressing.
From an early age, I began to discover my identity. I was a teenager in 1980s England. The word ‘transgender’ was never used. All I knew was that the horrific bullying and abuse I suffered growing up had to be because God didn’t care for me very much.
When I was 18, I fled England for the United States. Without the internet or any U.S. history taught beyond “Oh and, by the way, in 1776 we lost the colonies,” my education about the United States revolved entirely around Dallas, Dynasty, Starsky & Hutch and Quincy, M.E.
However, my history professor did at least provide some education about the Holocaust and the founding of Israel. While naturally horrified, I was drawn immediately to the nobility of the Jewish people. I also obsessively watched and re-watched the miniseries Masada with Peter O’Toole and Peter Strauss. (It told the story of the historic Roman attack on a Jewish citadel and its leader Eleazar, and the Jews’ mass suicide as the Romans advanced.)
I believed America was where anything could happen and anyone was free to be whomever they wished to be. I was in for a bit of a rude awakening when the foreign exchange company placed me in New Albany, Indiana, with a Mormon family. They tried to convert me but I couldn’t make sense of any of it.
My identity started to take over with full force and I suffered the consequences of America’s Judeo-Christian rejection of what some people considered a “perverse cross dresser.” I was in the middle of the Bible Belt and a doomed marriage to an evangelical Christian led to moments, in church, where I questioned my own validity as a human being.
In 2001, I attempted suicide. Most transgender people can tell you a similar story. I wasn’t trying to follow Eleazar’s defiant end. I just wanted the pain to stop. I did not credit God with my change of heart, but instead set the blame at God’s feet for my failure to remain an active part of the world
In fact, I flirted with atheism, believing that there could not be a God given the inner conflict I was suffering and the endless torment of knowing that I could not live as myself in a society which just would not accept me. Yet I could never reject God completely. I just had no hope that God would not reject me.
Fifteen years after the day I stood on the sidewalk of Indianapolis’s busiest street and was one step away from death, I met with Rabbi Ari Moffic, Director of InterfaithFamily/Chicago, in a suburban Chicago coffee shop. From there I joined Rabbi Cindy Enger’s classroom at Temple Beth Emet in Evanston.
By this point, my physical transition from Jonathon to Gretchen was over and I was beginning my journey toward finding God in Reform Judaism. There was just one missing piece.
I found it last year when, for one week I joined my LGBTQ brothers, sisters and gender nonconformists in their day-to-day struggle for equal rights in Israel. I was a secular transgender journalist invited to join a writers and bloggers tour of Israel during the 2015 Pride Celebrations. I wanted to know what life was like for the average Israeli lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer individual.
Tel Aviv Pride Parade 2015. Photo by Gretchen Rachel Hammond
After eight days in Israel, I realized that the lives of LGBTQ people there are not so dissimilar from our lives in America and I knew I wanted to be a part of the passion, solidarity and fight of the Israeli LGBTQ community. I knew it the moment I was invited to take hold of a corner of the immense transgender flag on its journey through Tel Aviv’s streets.
There was no question about whether I was an outsider or what my religious affiliation might be. As far as the transgender marchers were concerned, I might as well have been living and fighting along with them for years.
The lesbian, gay and bisexual communities may be celebrating more social acceptance in Israel but they are still fighting against religious intolerance and for pro-LGBTQ legislation that has stalled or even moved backwards. This has left them even further behind, say, a LGBTQ person in Mississippi.
In the end, I discovered the Israeli LGBTQ community is involved in a fight that is just as brutal and essential for their rights to exist as those in the trenches of any other country, or state, where such a right is being denied.
I had hoped to go to the summit of Masada and breath in the place Eleazar had made his last stand, but alas, the schedule didn’t allow for it. Instead, I found the people of Israel and especially their LGBTQ community to be as beautiful and flawed as those in the rest of the world. There is a passion to get a lot of things changed for the better and I believe they will.
I will be honest. Recent events in North Carolina, Mississippi and Orlando, Florida, have not only tied me further in solidarity to my LGBT community but also with the community in Israel. That is why I want to join them. Oppression must and can be fought no matter where it rears its head. The story of Masada taught me that.
I have found the God I have searched for all my life in Reform Judaism. It is a place I am accepted, where I can question God but love at the same time. I have been a part of many religions whether through circumstance or family, but this is home.
My life as a secular British transplant in the United States amounted to a 25-year discovery of my authentic self. Now that I have discovered where I belong—as a proud Jewish transgender individual in Israel—I expect the road to get there to be as challenging as it is long.
But it is a journey I can hardly wait to begin. Next year, in Tel Aviv.
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Gretchen Rachel Hammond was born in Manchester, England. She came to America at the age of 18 as part of a foreign exchange and was placed with a family in New Albany, Indiana. In the course of her career, Gretchen has worked as an actor, screenwriter, film critic for FOX 59 and WXNT radios in Indianapolis, a fundraiser for theaters and educational organizations and is currently a senior staff writer for the Windy City Times in Chicago with a focus upon investigative pieces and features. A transgender woman, Gretchen was inducted in to the Trans 100 in 2015 and has lectured on transgender issues for the Adler School of Professional Psychology and Roosevelt University in Chicago. Gretchen sits on the Board of the Trans Life Center at the Chicago House. Her book The Last Circle was published in 2013.