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By Shawna Gale
My parents, who are both Jewish, were married in the 1970s. In the year they took their vows, only 36 percent of the Jewish respondents in a 2013 Pew Research Center survey had married spouses who were not Jewish. By 2005, the year I was married, that number had climbed to almost 60 percent. Now, as the children of this recent boom in interfaith marriages begin to explore their Judaic roots and, consequently, synagogues prepare to experience an influx of interfaith families, many Jewish communities are entering uncharted territory, endeavoring to preserve a tradition that is thousands of years old while accepting the realities of our modern time—a reality they must embrace if Judaism is to have a future.
I am a part of that reality. My husband and I met when we were in the ninth grade. By the time we left for college (at schools 1,000 miles apart), we had been a couple for over a year and we had every intention of staying that way. Our families were, for the most part, supportive of our relationship. But every so often they would remind us—sometimes subtly, sometimes not so subtly—that despite our many similarities, there was one defining difference.
I was raised in a Jewish home. My husband was brought up in an Episcopalian family. Yet at age 17, this didn’t even register as a concern for us. My husband knew even then that someday I intended to raise my children Jewish. It was never a point of contention. He was fine with it. I was fine with it. What was the problem? A challenge was maintaining a long-distance relationship in the age before cell phones and Skype. Being an interfaith couple at the dawn of the new millennium was no big deal, right?
Perhaps the writing was on the wall as we sat, eight years later and newly engaged, listening to my childhood rabbi patiently explain why he could not marry us. I was incensed. Was he for real? Did he not hear us say that we were intending to raise our children Jewish? Wasn’t that the important thing?
We were married in a civil ceremony by a Jewish judge who could perform all the rituals that mattered to me. We could still have the chuppah and the wine and the smashed glass. But the refusal stuck with me all the same. Already I felt the weight of our interfaith union.
Our early married years were uncomplicated by religious concerns. We celebrated holidays with both families, with Christmas dinners and Passover seders alike. But new challenges were on the horizon as we prepared for the birth of our first child.
After our son was born, we planned a Jewish naming ceremony, hung the decorative certificate bearing his Hebrew name on the nursery wall and then spent the next three years mostly teaching him to walk and talk and eat with a spoon. Religion took a back seat to sleep training—the only prayer in our house was for a full night’s rest.
It wasn’t until our second son was born and we enrolled our older child in a Jewish preschool that our interfaith parenting experiment began in earnest. I was delighted as our 3-year-old came home reciting Shabbat prayers, recounting the story of Hanukkah and asking to bake hamantaschen—all cultural hallmarks of my Jewish upbringing—but I also began to worry that my husband would feel left out. These things were not part of his childhood memories. How would he connect with our children and help them to form their Jewish identities when he had not experienced that himself? How could he feel comfortable in a community where he did not share in the collective subconscious?
These are the struggles of many of us who are parenting Jewish children as interfaith couples. Our journey is an ongoing series of tough questions and difficult answers. Often, we have no model to emulate, no map to follow. We are making up the rules as we go along.
I found the answers to those lofty existential questions in a surprising place. While attending an event at our local JCC, I enrolled my children in a program called PJ Library, which sends free Jewish books to children across the United States and Canada each month. Reading the books we receive monthly is such a simple thing, but the impact has been profound.
As my husband started sharing these stories with our sons at bedtime each night, he began to learn—right alongside our children—about Jewish holidays and celebrations; Hebrew words and Yiddish phrases; prayers and rituals and traditions. He discovered latkes and matzo balls and yes, hamantaschen. He started teaching our children about tzedakah, about doing a mitzvah and being a mensch—concepts so central and important in Jewish parenting. He is proud to be raising Jewish children and he is proud of the role he is playing in their spiritual upbringing.
I don’t mean to suggest that we have solved all our interfaith parenting challenges with a collection of bedtime stories. For example, we recently decided to suspend our attendance at my in-laws’ Christmas celebrations after our 5-year-old, excited about his burgeoning Jewish identity, expressed confusion about his place there. Needless to say, we were not the most popular family members that year.
However, according to a new participant survey from PJ Library, a majority of families like mine are finding help and support from the program in raising their children grounded in Jewish traditions. Three years and dozens of books later, PJ Library continues to provide my husband with a platform of knowledge, a fine substitute for those roots he lacked having not been raised Jewish. It gives him the vocabulary he needs to play an active role in our children’s religious education, and it allows him to feel more comfortable within our synagogue community where he participates confidently and often. We laugh when other members are surprised to find out that my husband is not actually Jewish. We are glad to be forging a path for the growing number of interfaith families in our community, and we are proud to be shaping a more introspective, responsive Judaism for this new era.
Shawna Gale is a blogger, wife and mother of two young boys living in Glastonbury, CT. Her website, www.outandaboutmom.com helps local parents find fun activities to do with their children. Shawna is an active member of her synagogue community and was recently elected to the board of trustees.
By Sarah Rizzo
The phone rang and I heard my dad’s apprehensive voice. “Hi Sarah. I have a bit of a strange question for you. We are thinking ahead about Easter and we would like to have everyone over for brunch and an Easter egg hunt. We would of course love to have you there, but we know you’re raising Shira Jewish and we don’t want to offend you by extending the invitation.”
I cut him off before he could even muster up the right words for the question that would follow. I was ready for this moment and said, “We will be there. I’m glad you brought this up, since we haven’t had a conversation about it yet. Yes, we are raising her Jewish, but we want her to understand that her grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins celebrate other holidays. We won’t observe them in any religious capacity, but whenever invited, we want her to participate in those holidays to appreciate what her loved ones celebrate.”
He and I both seemed relieved that the conversation, albeit brief, finally took place. My daughter is 2 years old and we’re now on our third round of celebrating Easter. We just got through her third Christmas as well. I found the timing of the conversation to be funny because we made it this far without having a need for it.
Then I remembered that earlier in the day, my dad had been over at our house and Shira was sharing leftover challah with him. I told him that making and eating the challah is her favorite part of our weekly Shabbat routine. He could see the challah cover, kiddush cup and Shabbat candlesticks proudly standing on our kitchen table. I understand now that up until that moment, he didn’t realize that we practiced Jewish traditions together as a family on such a regular basis. He knew we had done the Simchat Bat ceremony and we observe Passover and Hanukkah, but other than the celebrations and holidays we’ve included him in, our Jewishness is mostly kept rather quiet and simple within our own home.
It must have struck him that we were indeed raising her Jewish in the everyday, not just on the seemingly big holidays. He may have been surprised to come to that realization because it was in stark contrast to how I was raised.
Like my daughter, I was born into an interfaith family. My mother, now deceased, was Jewish, and my father is Protestant. Growing up, we celebrated Hanukkah and Christmas, Passover and Easter, but that was the extent of the religiously affiliated holidays we celebrated as a family. None of our holiday observances felt religious in nature. Our celebrations were much more about culture and family traditions. As a young child, I didn’t feel any strong religious identity.
After my mom passed, my dad remarried someone who was Catholic. With this change in our household religious dynamic, any element of Judaism that I once had some connection to had to continue on my own will. My dad and stepmom were both supportive of me lighting the Hanukkah menorah, going to Friday night Shabbat services with friends and joining a local Jewish youth group to explore my roots. They always joined in and happily participated whenever my mom’s family invited us to a Passover seder.
At the same time, I joined them in their celebrations of Christmas and Easter. I had celebrated them when my mom was around, so it felt normal to continue celebrating those occasions with my family. For this reason, I couldn’t see raising my own family without Christmas and Easter. These holidays have always been a part of my upbringing. While my husband and I are raising our family Jewishly, in a more religious and observant way than how I was raised, we both grew up celebrating these Christian holidays and we want our daughter as well as any future children to understand that these holidays are an important piece of our family fabric.
We hadn’t been intentionally avoiding the subject with our families, but we knew that with Shira being so young, her understanding of differing religions, rituals and celebrations is still very limited. My husband and I knew we would need to address it with her, and our respective families, once she reached an age of more awareness. We were preparing for the topic to come up eventually, and this challah-snacking Shabbat day just happened to present the perfect opportunity.
By Elizabeth Vocke
When my husband and I first started dating I was what you might call a serial monogamist—I had a string of long-term relationships that never really went anywhere. So when we met, I decided to change things up and ignore some of those relationship “milestones” that I’d sped toward in the past.
First on this list was meeting my family. I love them dearly, truly I do. But, we’re a large group that some (i.e. my husband) may call intense. I’d had previous boyfriends feel overwhelmed by the number of family events and obligations.
Second was religion. My husband is not Jewish and I am, and while I’m OK with that, I didn’t know how he felt. Now, this isn’t a conversation I typically rush into. I’m not the most observant Jew. I don’t keep kosher or go to synagogue regularly. But, I do go to services during the high holidays and celebrate all the holidays with my family, and Judaism is definitely a part of my upbringing.
So, I decided these milestones could wait.
Until they couldn’t, and both converged just a few months into our relationship.
Passover was coming up and my sister was planning a big seder with all our family at her house. That meant my parents, sister, brother, in-laws, nephews, niece and more would all be in town just a few miles away for a big, raucous Jewish family event.
My husband (boyfriend at the time) knew I was going but I had already decided not to invite him. Who wants to meet a big family of another faith at a religious event that includes taking turns reading out loud, singing and speaking Hebrew? Apparently my husband.
As Passover neared I could tell that he actually wanted an invitation. That should have been my first sign that he was a keeper. But I resisted until it finally became more awkward not to invite him. And? It was great. He met my entire family at our Passover seder and the rest is history. So what did I know?
What I do know, now, is the importance of communication. While I initially waited to bring up the conversation about religion, we eventually did talk, long before we got engaged, then again once we were engaged, many times throughout the wedding planning process, again when planning our family and after, and we continue to have these discussions today.
We talked about what religion meant to us as individuals and as a couple, and most important, as a family. We made decisions early on, before we were married, about how we would raise our children. We talked about if and how this would impact our extended families, and what that meant to us as a couple. Mostly, we both felt strongly about respecting each other’s beliefs and needs.
We are lucky. Our religious backgrounds are widely different, but what is important to us about religion is the same. For us, it’s first and foremost about family. Then, tradition, history and heritage; and those are things we both respect and believe in regardless of the formal aspects of the religions.
We decided early on to raise our daughter with aspects of both religions. My parents disagreed, thinking it would be confusing, but my husband and I had already discussed this and felt strongly about our decision.
We believed that our daughter’s generation would be filled with kids from different faiths, races and combinations and that she would fit into this evolving world. And so far that has proven true.
Now, our daughter is 8 and we need to make decisions about joining a synagogue, Hebrew and/or Sunday School and a bat mitzvah. We also continue to celebrate Christian holidays and make that religion available as well. Because we’ve already talked about much of this, those decisions are easier to make and typically in line with our shared beliefs.
This is what works for us. I will not tell you that an interfaith marriage or a mixed religious upbringing is right for everyone. And I’m sure we’ll face obstacles and have to redefine our thinking and our plans. But, the best advice I can offer is advice that will fare well in any aspect of a marriage or relationship: Communicate openly; communicate often.
By Nicole Rodriguez
I am Jewish. I identify as being Jewish. Well, actually, I identify as being Jew-ish. I was born Jewish, but was raised in a non-observant home. No synagogue, no bat mitzvah and no serious Jewish boyfriend (yet?) to help me learn about Judaism and Jewish culture. We did have the occasional tradition (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.
By Jared David Berezin
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:
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:
After belting out an energetic rendition of “The Bare Necessities” recently, my 8-year-old daughter Molly asked me, “Where do I get my love of music from?”
I’ll admit, I greedily credited my side of our family. After all, my Jewish grandmother was a piano teacher who played beautifully. I have lovely memories of being about 8 myself and dancing in her living room as she played tunes from Fiddler on the Roof and Mary Poppins. Then there’s my Irish grandfather who played the accordion and sang with a lilting brogue. They passed along their love of music (if not their talent) to me, and now I’m passing it along to Molly and my sons.
It got me thinking about the things we inherit from our families and how those things impact our lives. Celebrating Mother’s Day this weekend, I see that my mom—and her interfaith experience—have been a big influence on how I see the world, parent, work and love.
My mom, Mary Margaret Theresa Mahoney, converted when she married my Jewish father, Paul Melvin Hurwitz in the 1960s. With Irish immigrant parents, she grew up immersed in Catholicism but had lost her faith by her late teens. She was happy to convert if it meant marrying my father: a dashing, intellectual Navy pilot. It didn’t really matter to my father, but his family would never have accepted the two as a couple if my mom didn’t convert.
When my brother and I were born, it was my mom who took charge of our Jewish education, which is both ironic and quite common as women often drive their household’s religion—even if it’s not the religion they grew up in. She drove us to and from Hebrew school every week and organized my bat mitzvah. She planned and implemented our Jewish holiday celebrations at Hanukkah, Passover, etc. Looking back, she worked hard to raise us Jewishly.
I think because of her interfaith experience, she has always been an advocate for people who feel excluded or marginalized. She taught me the importance of making people feel welcome, accepted and important.
That lesson extended beyond our family to the larger world. My mom worked with children and adults with special needs and often invited them to our home for holidays. We were always encouraged to reach out to lonely or ostracized classmates and neighborhood kids.
My mother was also an important feminist role model. When I was in kindergarten in Iceland (my dad was stationed there), she started a Women’s Consciousness Raising Group. When we moved to San Francisco a few years later, she went to grad school and I remember her typing papers late into the night at our dining room table. She had cool hippy friends who were artists and writers. She worked (when many Navy wives didn’t) and she and my dad split household chores. My dad cooked dinner most nights.
I grew up with the expectation that I, too, would study and work and be an equal partner in my relationships. These are all lessons that I am teaching my own children.
Often, I see my mom and dad in my children—in the way they interact with their siblings or tell a story or write an essay for school. And I wonder, what about me will my children pass along to their kids? The thought actually reminds me to live more mindfully—because I know my kids are watching, the same way I was 40 years ago. It’ll also motivate me to sing more often—and energetically.
Growing up with a dad who was a Navy pilot, my family celebrated Jewish holidays in some pretty far-flung places around the world. We gathered with other Jewish military families or new Jewish friends in whatever country we happened to be living in. Seders were lovely, multi-cultural and welcoming.
In Morocco, we sang Passover songs with Sephardic melodies. In Iceland, my parents welcomed the only other Jewish family they could find for a small, intimate seder. Stationed in Virginia Beach, we heard the hagaddah read with a southern accent.
Each year we’d celebrate with new friends in a new location somewhere in the world. Far from our extended family in Boston, seders became a way for us to feel close to something from home—Judaism.
I asked my mom Mary, who was raised Irish Catholic and converted when she married my dad, what those seders were like for her. She said, “I remember thinking, ‘So this is what it’s like to be Jewish. You’re linked to all these people around the world; Jews who come together to celebrate their ethnicity and their community.’” She had never experienced anything like it.
Then, when I was 10, my dad retired after 20 years in the Navy and my parents moved back to Boston to be closer to their families. That’s when we started going to seders at my Jewish grandparents’ home. Tovah and Jacob attended an Orthodox synagogue and kept kosher. Their seders were more serious affairs. They were completely in Hebrew and lasted for hours.
My parents, brother and I didn’t understand much Hebrew and Passover suddenly became a stressful holiday. I felt lost at the seder, often on the wrong page of the hagaddah and afraid to make a misstep. I didn’t want to read the Four Questions, terrified that I might mispronounce the transliterated Hebrew. While I respected (and still do) my grandparents’ approach to Passover, it just didn’t feel accessible to me.
Seders lost their joy for me, and so I opted to avoid them. It wasn’t until recently, with my own children, that I have started to rediscover and re-imagine the tradition, especially as an opportunity to pause and be thankful for our freedom and remember those who still are not free.
This year, my husband and I are inviting our families to a personalized, less structured seder. In addition to telling the Passover story, we’ll spend time talking about refugees in the world today, fleeing war in search of a safe place to raise their children.
We’ll explain everything to our kids as we go along and answer all their questions, so no one feels left behind. In addition to the traditional items, our seder plate will feature an orange, a symbol of people around the world who are marginalized or excluded.
Our little girl, Molly, 8, will read the Four Questions and we’ll sing songs and share stories. We’ll try to recapture the charm and magic of my family’s seders in Reykjavik, Casablanca and beyond… in hopes that our children grow up looking forward to Passover as a meaningful and inclusive holiday.
By Jared David Berezin
When our eyes begin to burn and tear up my wife and I look at each other and laugh. That’s when we know the horseradish is ready. We also bake our own homemade matzah, and the unleavened flat bread resembles pita or injera (Ethiopian bread). Preparing Passover-friendly food from scratch and arranging the seder table is a ritual my wife and I enjoy as much as the seder itself.
For many people, Passover is a journey that begins well before the first cup of wine (or grape juice). Some have been to dozens of seders in the past. Indeed, some of our seder guests may have attended a different seder (or two!) earlier in the week, while others have never been to a seder before. Regardless of a person’s experience or faith, everyone comes to the table with conscious and unconscious expectations, desires and concerns.
Ever since I can remember, Passover has always been my favorite holiday. As a restless kid, I could attend the Passover “service” (our family’s seder) without dressing up and going to synagogue, which also meant not having to sit still for an hour. My grandparents would host our family seder, and as they grew older my mother and aunt assumed the responsibility. Our family seders were always quick, predictable and familiar. I loved being surrounded by family, food and singing. As a teenager I’d just bring my guitar; it was always nice being able to simply arrive and have everything already prepared and laid out on the table.
Hosting Our Own Inclusive Seder
In my twenties, I became more curious about Judaism, particularly its intellectual and social justice elements. A few years later I met the love of my life who was raised Christian and has developed a dislike of all organized religion. Amidst my growing curiosity of Judaism and my love for my girlfriend (now my wife), I began to dream of more inclusive and meaningful Jewish moments and celebrations. I wondered what it would be like to host our own seder, one that could be welcoming for our friends of various faiths and (dis)comfort levels when it comes to religious activities.
Initially, I tried to formulate a highly-strategic seder and haggadah that would satisfy the needs of every person who might happen to join us—from Conservative Jews to Buddhists to atheists. I soon realized that although it’s important to be aware of one’s audience, I found myself drowning out my own individual spiritual beliefs and values. The early drafts were too distant from my vision of an inclusive experience; I had to accept that if I wanted to try new things, my guests and I would simply have to wander through the newness together. Fortunately, the story of Passover centers on faith and risk.
When in Doubt, Look About
When I worked in marketing years ago a colleague would often say, “When in doubt, look about.” I searched online and read through all of the haggadot I could find, along with any Passover-related information on InterfaithFamily.com and other websites. I wanted to learn how others approach the holiday, along with any stories and songs that I hadn’t heard before.
I also reached out to several friends to hear about their seder experiences, as well as my dear friend, Rabbi Lev Baesh, a longtime champion of interfaith marriage and inclusiveness, who is a consultant with InterfaithFamily. My wife and I had performed music the year prior at a seder led by Lev. He interpreted the Passover story in many different ways—social, political, economic and psychological—and helped me understand how themes from an ancient tale can become relevant and inspire urgency among people of different faiths and backgrounds.
Our Interfaith-Humanist-Vegan Seder Experiment
What emerged from my research and spiritual searching was a heightened awareness of my own values, questions and priorities. The result was the creation of an imperfect and ever-changing Interfaith-Humanist-Vegan seder that my wife and I have hosted for the past four years. Most of the guests at our seder tend to be interfaith couples with one Jewish partner as well as couples and friends of other faiths. Every year we invite at least one person who has never attended a seder before.
Our accompanying interfaith-humanist-vegan haggadah, which I also revise each year, includes original writing as well as a patchwork of borrowed text, images and songs. The introductory pages of the haggadah recount the Passover story, and explore questions such as “Why Celebrate if the Story Isn’t True?” and “Why a Vegan Passover Seder?” These questions, and others in the haggadah, offer a way of inviting everyone to explore and question the Passover rituals and their purpose in our lives in new ways. Rather than dump my ideas and beliefs on my friends, I try my best to steer conversations and lead rituals that allow me to learn from them, and all of us to learn from each other. For example, rather than declare what the various items on the seder plate signify, our haggadah asks: “What do you think the items on the seder plate represent? How might they connect with oppression, slavery and freedom?” These open-ended questions for which there are no “correct” answers allow guests of all faiths to contribute their perspective and enhance everyone else’s understanding.
An Incomplete Haggadah
I think the best conversations and learning occur when people are present and looking at one another. When a haggadah has all the information we need, everyone is looking down at their booklets for hours. In contrast, our haggadah is intentionally sparse and incomplete. Before the start of the seder I ask each of our friends, individually, if they’d like to read a short excerpt of text that I provide. The readings include writings from intellectuals, feminists, rabbis, writers, activists and philosophers of all faiths, and I “schedule” them to read at different points in the seder. It’s fun to pick out certain readings that relate in some way to each of my friends. As the seder progresses and friends share the words on their respective slip of paper, we all in a way become pages in a “haggadah,” and together we make the seder complete.
Music adds a fantastic quality to any evening, and it’s a huge part of our seder. At the very beginning of the meal, rather than jump right into the Passover story, we all sing a song together. The first year we sang David Crosby’s “Music Is Love.” It’s easy since the repeated lyric is almost a chant: “Everyone’s sayin’ that music is love, everyone’s sayin’ it’s love.” My wife and I scatter percussive shakers, drums and a couple acoustic guitars around the room for folks to play, and of course, everyone brings their voices.
In addition to familiar seder songs, such as the African-American Spiritual “Go Down Moses” and Dayenu, there are a host of secular songs that touch upon various Passover themes: slavery, oppression, freedom and of course the need to continually ask questions of ourselves and our world. And on the “night of questions,” I can’t help but want to sing Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” a song with questions in every verse.
Thinking About Hosting Your Own (Alternative) Seder?
For those who want to embark on your own journey of hosting a seder (or any holiday) in a new way, keep in mind that certain aspects of your alternative rituals and ideas may stir strong reactions (positive or negative) among some of your guests. Inspiration can look and sound different for each of us.
As I was planning my first seder, I remembered Rabbi Lev Baesh’s sage words: “Just remember that Moses had lots of whining to deal with in the story.” Humor is critical! I’ve laughed at myself many times during our seders, particularly when I’m taking myself too seriously, and laughter creates more laughter and openness. Dig into both the rich traditions of the past and present. Experiment. Do what feels right, and see what happens.
These types of homegrown celebrations take effort on our part, otherwise they wouldn’t exist. I think that’s part of the magic and meaningfulness: the effort, creativity, and time it takes to create a relevant and inclusive Jewish experience. My favorite moments during our seder are when I find myself wandering through the desert behind my guests who have taken the conversation in new directions.
A piece of logistical advice: A seder can be held any evening during Passover. Scheduling ours toward the end of the holiday week allows us to join my family’s traditional first or second night seder, and our Jewish guests can do the same. Beyond avoiding scheduling conflicts, setting an atypical seder date sets the stage for something new and different, and prepares your guests for a different kind of seder experience.
If you decide to create your own kind of seder, it’s important to remember that if you’re inspired and engaged, those around you will want to participate and be inspired too. Togetherness, making connections, and generating meaning is really what it’s all about. And remember, whatever happens, there’s always next year!
For more information about Passover and the seder, check out our Guide to Passover for Interfaith Families