Converting Meant Adding Judaism, Not Losing Japanese

  
Kristin conversion

Kristin at her synagogue, Congregation Emanu-el. Credit: Laurel Street Kitchen

On March 22, 2016, I completed a journey many years in the making when I sat before a beit din (rabbinical court), immersed myself in the waters of a mikveh (ritual bath), and converted to Judaism. It felt as if my soul had finally found the home it had been searching for my whole life. In Judaism, I found a sense of community I longed for, and so much comfort in the rituals of our thousands-of-years-old tradition. I also gained a new sense of responsibility as a Jew: to do my part to repair our world. It is a day I will always remember as one of the most powerful and meaningful days of my life.

My journey to Judaism started long before I met my now-husband Bryan, but my interest in it deepened because of him and his Jewish heritage. I’ve always been interested in learning about my Japanese heritage, so when Bryan and I started discussing our future together, I was quietly interested in conversion early on. Since I was not raised in a particular religion, I felt fortunate for the gift of choice given to me by both my parents. I’m grateful that they also fell in love with Bryan and supported my decision to convert wholeheartedly from the beginning. But that doesn’t mean the process was easy by any means.

After years of attending Jewish holiday gatherings at friends’ homes, Introduction to Judaism courses at our temple, countless meetings with my guide rabbi, Hebrew classes at the JCC, building Jewish community at our Reform synagogue, Congregation Emanu-el, regularly attending Shabbat services, reading Jewish books and cooking Jewish recipes, one would think that I would finally be ready.

There was just one problem: I was afraid that there wasn’t enough space within me to take on being Jewish. I felt I was barely holding onto my Japanese heritage. I had spent my entire life tightly gripping the few parts of my heritage that were left for me. My dad’s generation had lived through being Japanese-American in Hawaii during and after World War II, and they had to assimilate as quickly as possible if they were to keep their families safe and rebuild their lives here. Though my Mom is from Japan, she quickly learned the importance of assimilation as well. So much of my heritage was lost before I came into the world. The same can be said for Bryan’s Jewish heritage.

Luckily (though it did not feel so lucky on those early Saturday mornings), I grew up going to Japanese school and spending summers in Japan. But Saturday school and Japanese relatives don’t teach you how to navigate being Japanese-American in America. I’ve spent most of my life feeling painfully in between: Not behaving quite Japanese enough in Japan and not looking American enough in the US. To top that off, I’ve often felt the pressure of being the last “link” to the Japanese part of my family. I was hanging onto my complicated Japanese American heritage by a string. I worried that by adding Judaism to the mix I would lose it all, and my heart ached for my ancestors and for future generations of my family.

Synagogue

Kristin’s synagogue. Credit: Perfect Circle Photo

This is how I ended up in my guide rabbi’s office sobbing. I told him I wasn’t ready and that I didn’t think I could do it anymore. To which he responded, “You’re ready.” I was completely baffled, but he continued by asking me if I had ever considered that there was space for everything? I hadn’t. And that simple change of perspective was exactly what I needed to hear. I walked into his office only being able to see two options: Holding on to my Japanese heritage or letting go of it to be Jewish. Thankfully, he helped me to see there was a third choice: What if there was enough space for everything?

The funny thing is, now I have a company called Nourish that does exactly that: We help people define their cultural narrative, on their own terms. I’m not just Japanese. I’m not just Jewish. I’m not just American. I’m a Japanese-American Jew. While it’s complex, I have even more opportunities to celebrate who I am, and more opportunities to reinterpret my heritages in ways that help me connect more deeply. I may still use chopsticks incorrectly and unpack some takeout before lighting candles on Shabbat sometimes, but never have I felt so connected and nourished by my Japanese and Jewish traditions. I’d like to think that’s all our ancestors could have wanted for us, anyway.

Next spring, I will celebrate my bat mizvah at the same temple where Bryan and I were married. In a few weeks, I will travel to Japan to study my heritage. In some ways, I feel I am reclaiming the lost parts of my Jewish and Japanese heritage and now there’s plenty of room for both.

Advice for Assimilated Family Reunions

  

By Dr. Ruth Nemzoff

Family Reunion

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  

By Liat Katz

Pews in a synagogue facing the stage area

“A Y A M,” She writes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article was reprinted with permission from Kveller.com, a fast-growing, award-winning website for parents raising Jewish and interfaith kids. Follow Kveller on Facebook and sign up for their newsletters here.

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

Why We Say Yes to the Easter Invite

  

Family having Easter dinner

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.

How to Pick an Interfaith-Friendly Synagogue

  

By Jordyn Rozensky

Couple terapy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Disability accessibility:

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

 

Interfaith inclusion:

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

 

LGBTQ Inclusion:

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

Shabbat Unbound

  

By Jared David Berezin

Family and friends sitting at a dining tableMany 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.

Breast Cancer and An Unexpected Spiritual Journey

  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beyond the Bagel: A Vegan Shabbat Dinner

  

By Zoe Crum

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!

Through this workshop at the DC JCC, we were lucky enough to meet the wonderful Rabbi Sarah Tasman, former director of InterfaithFamily/DC, and hear about the “Jewish Food Experience: Beyond the Bagel Program Grants for Interfaith Families.”

beyond_bagel_dinner

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.

beyond_bagel_baked3Making 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!

Our Most Important Difference

  

By Kelly Banker

Kelly & CourtneyI had been living at Moishe Kavod House (a home-based Jewish community for young adults) for about a month when my boyfriend, Courtney, and I decided it would be exciting for him to accompany me to Shabbat services. The gatherings are always well-attended by lots of friendly folks, so I figured it would be a perfect way to introduce him to the beauty of Shabbat. I brought Courtney up the stairs to the services and we took a seat together on the floor. The services began, and although I had prepared him for the Hebrew prayers and songs, I had forgotten just how challenging it can be to follow along in a Jewish service if one is unfamiliar with its choreography and language. Each time we would rise, or bow, or face toward the door, I would hastily try to signal to him what was happening, but it was always a moment too late. Our visibility as an interfaith couple was clear, but it was made even more clear by the fact that Courtney was one of the only people of color in the room.

Once services ended, we connected briefly before heading downstairs. I asked him how he was feeling, and he explained to me that despite the warmth and kindness of all the people he had met, it was hard to shake the feeling of being an outsider. We spent the rest of the evening meeting community members, eating delicious food and discussing the powerful d’var that a local social justice leader had given. But he and I were left with a lingering feeling of otherness. We were full of questions as to how we might be able to attend such an event with both of our full identities intact.

A few months after that Shabbat dinner, we flew to Atlanta to spend Thanksgiving with Courtney’s family. At that point, I had never met anyone from Courtney’s family, so spending the week with his immediate and extended family felt daunting, but exciting. I was prepared to feel a stronger sense of difference than usual, given that I would be the only white person there. Before the Thanksgiving meal, we stood in the guest room as Courtney assuaged my anxiety about meeting his extended family. Confident that the most important point of difference would be drawn across racial lines, I geared myself up for an evening of relative discomfort.

However, when I stepped out of that guest room, Courtney at my side, I found that I was completely wrong. His family welcomed me with open arms. To my surprise, there were only two moments that felt heavy and slightly uncomfortable. The first of these moments came when the family sat down with overflowing plates to say grace before eating, offering praise to the Lord, the Son and the Holy Ghost with a painting of the Last Supper in the background. Needless to say, at that moment, I was hyper-aware of being the only Jewish person in the space. The second moment came when Courtney casually mentioned to one of his young nieces that I work as a Jewish educator in Boston. She turned to me with wide eyes and said, “Are you a Jew?” In response, I laughed and said yes, and proceeded to answer her questions. I was taken aback by her shock until I realized that she has probably never encountered a Jewish person before, whereas of course my whiteness was unremarkable to her. When we flew home later that week, I was pleasantly surprised by how comfortable I felt with Courtney’s family, and interested that the primary point of difference had seemed to be religious.

I believe that these two experiences—attending a Moishe Kavod Shabbat with Courtney and spending Thanksgiving with his family—highlight critical, surprising truths about being in a relationship that is both interfaith and interracial. Our most important difference as a couple is neither racial, nor gendered, nor religious, nor socioeconomic, rather it is a fluid meeting and shifting of those identities and experiences. There is no hierarchy or primacy of identities. Instead, there are only shifts in context and experience that dictate which of us may or may not feel comfortable in a given situation.

I have given much thought to a feeling of otherness as Courtney and I navigate a relationship that many perceive to be built on difference. We attract quite a few stares and whispers when we are out in public and even though by now we are accustomed to sometimes rude responses, we refuse to adopt such a simplistic view of our differences.

Courtney and I met nearly six years ago when we were both undergraduates at Carleton College and throughout our time in school we became deeply, powerfully connected to one another. We see ourselves as interconnected, intertwined; in short, we do not perceive our relationship to be one focused primarily on navigating difference. The intersectionalities of race, gender, class and religion absolutely play a prominent role in our relationship and our related experiences—but even so, that feeling of otherness still feels like an imposition from the outside world.

Each and every day, I feel proud to be grappling with these complex questions about belonging, identity and community. I am excited that we draw from two rich, beautiful religious traditions as we shape our life together. We are blessed to be doing this work in a world that seeks to delineate inflexible categories based on race, gender, class, religion and so many other visible and invisible identities. Honoring our connections while maintaining and celebrating our differences is challenging, humbling, heart-opening, holy work. How blessed we are to be struggling and striving to be better for ourselves and for the world.

Judaism Without Walls

  

By Jared David Berezin

Jared wedding

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

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

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

Re-Discovering Judaism

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

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

Shul Shopping

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

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

 

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

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

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

Finding a Meaningful Practice

Jared and Laurie

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

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

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

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