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By Liat Katz
“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.
By Jordyn Rozensky
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.
We also came up with a list of questions that needed to be answered that touched on more of the tachlis or details:
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.
By Melissa K. Rosen, Director of National Outreach for Sharsheret
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.
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:
By Stacey Zisook Robinson
Editor’s note: This author describes difficulty finding a rabbi to officiate her wedding in Chicago. We urge couples to utilize our free rabbi referral service, available here. If you are in the Chicago area, or any of our InterfaithFamily/Your Community areas, our rabbi/directors can help guide you.
I’m dating. Again. Post-divorce, post 50, I’m dating. I suppose it’s fitting—I didn’t do much dating during the prime dating years of adolescence and young adulthood. My teens and 20s (and if we’re being really honest, most of my 30s) were relatively unscathed by the trials and tribulations of this particular social lubricant.
Not by choice, mind you. I wanted to date. Would have loved to dive into the dating pool. I envied my friends who wept and wailed and crowed with delight, sometimes all in the same conversation. I was just weird enough and insecure enough to assume that no one would ever actually want to date me, so I remained everyone’s confidante and confessor. I gave awesome advice and my ears grew muscles with the constant stream of listening that they did.
By the time I was dating, it was less “dating” and more a series of negotiations over a meal or three to determine relationship status. I mean, come on: Who dated at my age? Who did small talk and boundaries? Time was ticking; let’s get a move on. In or out, whaddya say?
My criteria read something like an EEOC banner: any and all applicants accepted, regardless of race, color or religion. I probably would have given pause at political leanings; that is (still) a deal-breaker. But all the other stuff? Not a whit did I care. I fell in love, deeply, passionately, forever and for always with someone’s soul.
It was probably no surprise to anyone that when I finally found The One, he was not Jewish. It was a huge surprise to me when I called my rabbi—the man who had been my rabbi throughout most of my childhood and young adulthood—and he refused to marry us.
“What?” I cried—literally cried—into the phone. How could that be? Never in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine that my rabbi (whom I’d not seen in more than 20 years, but who’s counting, right?) would refuse. “Mazel tov,” he said, kindly and with finality. ”I wish you luck.” And he hung up the phone.
It took a while, but I found a rabbi, apparently the one rabbi in Chicago who performed mixed marriage ceremonies. On a magical day in May, there was a chuppah and a glass and a rabbi, and my somewhat befuddled bridegroom who wasn’t Jewish.
Nine months and a day later—exactly nine months and a day—we had our son. But as time went on, I watched as my world, my marriage, fell apart. I forgot that if you have a relationship based upon need (because really, who on earth could ever love me; need was almost as good, right?), when the need goes away, what’s left to hold all the pieces together?
And so my husband became my ex-husband, and I jumped back into the (non)dating pool. I wound up with a handful of relationships to call my own. Though now there was a difference: These were all Jewish men.
It’s not that I had refused to go the Jewish route when I was younger. This was no misplaced rebellion from God or my parents. Had some Jewish man, in need of fixing or just plain in need, offered, I’d have been all over that. I’d have loved that. Maybe it was timing or luck. Maybe it was my subconscious. Regardless, I’d never dated within the tribe before.
At some point in my more desperate attempts to find healing with the ex of note, however, I had found, much to my surprise, God. And with God, synagogue and Torah and community and services and committees and temple politics and devotion and Talmud and chanting and teaching and… OK, I’ll make this easy: I found my Judaism. I felt as if I had finally come home. Outside of being a mother to my son, being a devoted, mindful Reform Jew was the central fact of my life, and I was determined to make “Jewish” central to my dating criteria from now on.
So, of course, when I least expected it, there it was—love. Again. Dating. Again—no, not again. For the first time. Actual dating. The I’ll-pick-you-up-and-we’ll-go-to-dinner-and-then-I’ll-take-you-home kind of a date. The I’ll-call-you-in-a-few-days-and-we’ll-make-plans-for-another-day kind of date, because we don’t have to do everything right now; later is also good, because there will be a later.
And now here I am, dating. He’s kind and funny and smart. He loves me, which is awesome, since I love him. We met in junior high and we found each other again in a hailstorm of good timing and strange coincidence. He likes pizza and the Cubs, has a cat named Einstein, and he’s not Jewish.
Dammit, he’s not Jewish. And it never, ever mattered to me before. But I found God, and Judaism, and mindful devotion—shouldn’t it matter?
“I don’t know about him,” I said to my son, now 17. We were talking just after I’d come home from a date—not the first one, not even the second or third, but right at that tipping point of figuring out where it all fit, having no idea if I was doing it right at all, since I’d never actually done this before. “He’s not Jewish. That feels kinda weird.”
My son, filled with that heady mix of cynicism and ennui that pervades every 17-year-old, said, “Mom, you just want someone who believes what you believe.”
“No,” I replied, with a growing sense of wonder, “not that. I want someone who thinks like I think. Someone who’s willing to dive in and learn and argue and discuss and discover. He’s devoted to his faith and to what his faith calls him to do—serve those in need, fix what’s broken in the world. How is that different from what I want?”
I wonder sometimes if I am betraying my faith, my people. He and I, we talk about it from time to time. He comes to synagogue with me on occasion. I go to church every once in a while with him. I think we are both a bit smugly sure, in a most loving way, that each of us is right about the whole God thing, and we kindly indulge the other in their misplaced faith.
There’s a chance that God smiles indulgently at the both of us, too.
But we dive and struggle and wrestle with faith, with God, with love and our imperfections—not to change the other, or to prove our rightness. We wrestle because it is part of the thing we share: devotion and faith.
We are completely together, differently. That is, ever and always, enough.
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.
Stacey Zisook Robinson is a single mom. She sings whenever she can. She writes, even when she can’t. She worked in Corporate America for a long time. Now she works at her writing and looks for God and grace, meaning, connection, and a perfect cup of coffee, not necessarily in that order. Stacey has been published in several magazines and anthologies. Her book, Dancing in the Palm of God’s Hand, has just been published by Hadasah Word Press. She recently launched a Poet in Residence program designed to work with both adults and kids in a Jewish setting to explore the connection between poetry and prayer as a way to build a bridge to a deepened Jewish identity and faith. She blogs athttp://staceyzrobinson.blogspot.com, and her website can be found at www.stumblingtowardsmeaning.com.