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Teaching the lesson of faith(s)
While some Jewish institutions are still struggling to figure out how to attract interfaith families, the Sunday School for Jewish Studies gets them in droves.
By Dori Stern, Education Director, Sunday School for Jewish Studies
About once a month I am asked a version of the following questions:
So, tell me why do you do what you do?
How did you end up directing a school that is becoming increasingly a school not only for traditional Jewish families but also for interfaith, inter-everything and definitely populated by some who are ardent non-joiners?
These are valid questions, especially since my graduate work was at Brandeis in the Hornstein Program for Jewish Communal Service. I thought that I might be a fundraiser for Combined Jewish Philanthropies in Boston, or some other well-established, mainstream organization. Those of you who know me well are undoubtedly laughing uproariously right now, because you realize that I have totally no aptitude for financial issues.
Also, the above questions become particularly interesting when it is known that both my parents were holocaust survivors. But their version of Judaism was all about us vs. them; being different and feeling like outsiders. It was rarely about celebrating the joys of Judaism.
And I suppose therein lies the answer. I never want Judaism to be about us vs. them. I never want someone to feel like an outsider because they don't have the proper ancestors. And I never want children to feel excluded for whoever and whatever their family is or does.
One of our parents recently pointed out to me that I draw no line in the sand when considering who is Jewish nor how to be Jewish. That is accurate. It is indeed who I am. I also believe that this unguarded view of Judaism is a necessity. It is imperative to consider that if Judaism is to exist generations from today, we will all need to redefine whom and what is a Jew.
Judaism has always risen to the challenge of redefining itself. I am hopeful that it will continue to find ways to share its wealth of moral, social and ethical beliefs. I am hopeful that it will continue to find ways to share the beauty of it's liturgy and it's wonderfully nourishing life cycle events.
So here is the answer:
I do what I do, obviously because of, or in spite of, my background. I started this effort wanting to work within the Jewish community. I now work inside and outside of the Jewish community, eager to make the best of Judaism accessible to all who want to learn about Judaism. My goal is to convey Judaism to all the remarkable, non-joining, sometimes ambivalent, searching people and their children who are probing for meaning and community in their lives. I am pleased to be able to accomplish this purpose at the Sunday School for Jewish Studies.
Our interfaith family has had a pretty laid back approach to the holiday dilemma. I come from a Scandinavian tradition, so the December holidays are in many ways more cultural than religious. It was a time of year of candles and celebrations in my grandparentsâ native Denmark because it also was a time of year with little daylight. The holidays dispelled some of the cold and dark. The holidays were always a special time in my family too with a visit to my grandmother where the whole big family came together and we saw cousins and second cousins we saw just once a year. And of course growing up in the Midwest I remember Christmas concerts at school and the community Christmas sing a long. These were fond memories and family traditions that I wanted to be able to share with my own child.
-Contributed by Margaret Albright, Sunday School for Jewish Studies Parent
Both of my biological parents are Jewish. When I was 4 years old, my father remarried a Christian. Every winter break when I visited my father, we would celebrate Christmas with my step-motherâs family. My childhood memories include Passover with my Orthodox grandparents in Brooklyn, NY, Hanukkah with my mother and step-father in Newton, and Christmas in California with my dad, my step-mother and her family.
Ten years ago I became part of another interfaith family, my own. My husband is a non-practicing Christian and our children are being raised Jewish. We are fortunate to have found The Sunday School for Jewish Studies, a once-a-week Hebrew school where my children learn about their Jewish identity. They learn about the holidays, eat raisins under the sukkah, spin the dreidel, light candles, and participate in Passover Seders. And, like many of their SS4JS friends, on December 25th, they celebrate Christmas.
We just canât help it. Christmas for me is a holiday of family traditions. Visiting my step-grandparents, filling stockings, opening presents, and eating Christmas pancakes are some of my favorite memories. For my husband, Christmas is the one Christian holiday he canât do without. My 8 and 10 year old children now have their own Christmas traditions, decorating the tree, eating candy canes and hot chocolate, visiting their Christian cousins, and of course opening presents.
And yes, my kids have asked why we celebrate Christmas if we are Jewish. My husband and I explain that for us Christmas isnât a religious holiday, it is a holiday about family.
-Contributed by Liz Davis, Parent and Board Co-President, Sunday School for Jewish Studies
By Erica Noonan
Want to get a funny look at parties? Tell people you have a child named Dennis McCormick enrolled at the Sunday School for Jewish Studies.
First people make the most reasonable assumption: I must be a Jew who married an Irishman.
âWhat's your maiden name?â they ask.
âNoonan,â I say.
That doesn't clear anything up, so they peer at me a little more closely, searching for a reassuring Semitic look around the eyes and nose. It is there, so they start peppering me with questions.
So, ARE you Jewish? Which synagogue do you go to? What is the SS4JS?
At this point, I usually start babbling defensively. âWell, my dad is Catholic but my mom is half-Jewish, and a bunch of my relatives are Jewish, but I was baptized and had First Communion in the Episcopal Church, but a Unitarian did our wedding... And uh, David is an atheist, but he kind of likes the Flying Spaghetti Monster, but he put me in charge of the kids religious education because he likes to sleep late on Sunday, but I think atheism is too cynical of a view to press on children...â
The person now looks truly horrified, yet my mouth wonât stop moving.
â...um,so, anyhow, I am identifying more as an adult with Judaism, but we celebrate Christmas because the grandparents would kill us if we didn't, and we are part Christian. Uh, sort of...."
By now the person has backed away, suddenly remembering an urgent appointment to talk to someone else -- anyone else -- except me.
Oddly, traditionally raised Jewish people are often the least tolerant. There is the âyou aren't Jewish enough to countâ camp or the âyour kids can't be Jewish!â delivered with a dismissive shake of the head. Or sometimes the discussion turns into a rather intimate genetic search-and-destroy mission capped off with, âso, WHAT was your motherâs mother?â Sometimes people sneer. Or say dismissively, "that interfaith stuff never works out."
It took years, but I have finally come to regard these folks as a gang of judgemental creeps. Because of decisions made three generation ago my kids don't get access to this thread of their heritage? Their bloodline is too muddied? Who gets the right to say that I am not âenoughâ of something to âcount?â
My childrenâs grandparents passed down many excellent things -- but a well-defined relationship with God and a parochial attachment to ethnicity -- were not among them.
As children of the 1960s, my parents and in-laws thought they were doing us a gigantic favor by not imposing religious dogma or an airtight lifestyle choice. As an adult, I appreciate that.
I hope my kids are as equally grateful for the religious structure I am imposing on their generation. I want to give them access to Judaism, with its rich spiritual and intellectual heritage and its proud tradition of moral leadership and social justice. I want them to become compassionate and funny adults who love life.
So, every Sunday morning they go to SS4JS -- a place that manages to be welcoming, tolerant, yet intellectually rigorous enough so that Dennis, age 8, recently out "Alef Bet-ed" a kid belonging to one those those ârealâ Jewish people. (Who's sneering now, I ask you?)
Whenever I take them to Sunday School, I feel like I am making up for lost time. The kids know they can choose at age 13 what they want to be -- Jewish, Christian, atheist, or something else entirely.
I see the Sunday School, as one politician put it the context of immigration, as a path to citizenship. By then they will have earned a Jewish identity fair and square. It will be up to them to embrace it for life.
The year is coming to an end and the new year potent with possibilities is approaching.
Take time to reflect and open the heart to forgiveness. Forgiving yourself and others is the royal road to happiness and joy.
Shanah Tova! May the new year be pregnant with new possibilities and joy for you and family.
In 2005-2006, I served part time as the rabbi of Congregation Sholom Aleichem with Cantor Isaac Kriger. We have wanted to share a bimah for the Fall Holy Days again ever since. If your congregation, traditional or liberal wants an inspiring Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur, please contact us here in Central Florida. Cantor Kriger lives in Orlando with his talented voice coach/accompanist/musical directress Elizabeth Brahms-Kriger; I live in Daytona Beach, and work part time in my retirement as the chaplain for Haven Hospice, DeLand, FL. They met in Israel, singing for the Israeli Opera Company, then sang in Europe before returning to the USA. I am reachable at 386-405-4432 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ever since I moved to Newton, Mass., I have found services to be just boring. Maybe itâs because now we go to a bigger, less personal synagogue, or when the rabbi talks, I often find myself dozing off. This year I was determined to make Rosh Hashanah meaningful for my family, especially my three year old little boy, Ariel.
I decided to make a birthday party for the world. By making Rosh Hashanah a birthday for the world, I felt my son would truly understand the meaning of the day or at least think it was really cool that we were all dressed up wearing birthday hats and eating sweet food.
For each of the two days of Rosh Hashanah we invited Arielâs friends and their parents over to our house. We had a mix of families with guests who originated from New York, Canada, China, Ukraine, and Australia. We started each meal with apples and honey and a new fruit. It is a tradition on this holiday to try an unusual fruit for the first time in the season and recite the Shehecheyanu, a prayer of thanks that is said on many occasions including when something new happens,â.
We then moved on to the typical fare of homemade gefilte fish, brisket, noodle kugel, and carrots but we were all wearing birthday hats. Each meal was finished with birthday cookies; We keep kosher and donât mix diary and meat, and I had a hard time finding a pareve birthday cake (one that is not dairy) and am not the type to bake it myself!
We also talked about how G-d created the world with all of the animals and plants on Rosh Hashanah. Then we talked about how nice it would be if we did good deeds or mitzvahs all year because G-d was nice enough to create the world for us. (I figured that as Ariel and his little friends are only three, we could include a discussion on evolution a few years down the road.)
It was the best Rosh Hashanah weâd had in a long while and I hope it will continue for many more years.
Last Saturday, I co-officiated at a beautiful wedding ceremony at Curtis Farm in Wilton, New Hampshire. The bride is Catholic and the groom is Jewish, and I co-officiated with a wonderful and welcoming Priest from Bedford, NH. The wedding was in an open field with a view of the mountains and fortunately, the weather was warm and sunny, even though rain was in the forecast. I believe that both families were very happy with the ceremony, and a great time was had by all.