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Classes and Workshops with InterfaithFamily

Updated March, 2013

Interested? Classes and workshops are currently offered in the following communities. Click for more information about dates and registration:

InterfaithFamily offers classes and workshops for interfaith couples, online with in-person components. Read on for information about


Love and Religion — Online

Being part of an interfaith couple can be challenging, but you don't need to find the answers alone. This workshop offers you a safe environment to work on creating your religious lives together. You can make Jewish choices while honoring the traditions of both partners.

InterfaithFamily is now pleased to offer Love and Religion — Online, a four session workshop, based on Love and Religion: An Interfaith Workshop for Jews and Their Partners, created by Marion L. Usher, Ph.D.

Love and Religion — Online includes four sessions with a combination of in-person get-togethers and online meetings.

You can learn more and watch a short video about the workshop at www.interfaithfamily.com/loveandreligion.

Couples should participate if they are dating, engaged or newly married, exploring the issue of religion in their relationship, and

  • want to have a religious life and are unclear how to discuss this issue with each other;
  • want to be with other couples who are struggling with the same issues;
  • want answers to their questions about religious life together, including: Where can we find Jewish clergy to marry us? Can our children be Jewish if my wife does not convert? What does a conversion require? How can we respect both our religions if we decide to have Judaism as the "lead religion"? How can we approach our parents to help us with these dilemmas? Can our children go to Hebrew school if they are not converted at birth?

 

Visit our Chicago, San Francisco Bay Area or Philadelphia community pages to see when this is being offered. Or sign up now for the Chicago class.


Raising a Child with Judaism in Your Interfaith Family

InterfaithFamily is offering a one of a kind class for interfaith parents thinking about whether and how to bring Jewish wisdom, traditions and customs to their home, their lives and their parenting.

Raising a Child with Judaism in Your Interfaith Family is an 8 session class. Each week of the class the material for a new session will be added. You access the material on your own time during that week, read essays (print them for later), hear/learn blessings, watch videos, get ideas for family activities, post in a journal, and more. You will be able to interact with other parents through discussion boards. You will have access to a facilitator so that you can ask questions as you go, and the facilitator will respond to both your journal posts and the discussion boards. In addition, two of the eight sessions include an in-person program for the whole family — a Friday night Shabbat dinner and a wrap-up and next-steps send-off.

Each of the eight lessons is about a major parenting situation and how Jewish teachings and traditions offer insights about how to make these times meaningful and spiritual. We will explore bedtime and food and eating rituals, marking time with meaning on a weekly and yearly basis, doing good deeds, loving learning, spirituality and personal journeys. Every aspect of this class was created with modern interfaith families in mind.

Parents will be able to log on during the week and read interesting essays and/or look at slide shows that give background and literacy about the Jewish ideas involved in the lesson. Each lesson comes with "hear/read" files to help you learn how to say blessings in Hebrew, YouTube-type videos, family projects and bedtime book suggestions, personal stories written by other interfaith families who have tried these same aspects of Judaism in their lives, journaling questions, questions to discuss with your partner, shared discussions with other parents, and more.

This is a non-judgmental, supportive and open forum for you to learn, experience, question, and share.

These eight lessons have the ability to positively impact the rhythm of your interfaith family's life!

Visit our ChicagoSan Francisco Bay Area or Philadelphia community pages to see when this is being offered.

Preparing for a Bar or Bat Mitzvah in Your Interfaith Family

InterfaithFamily is offering a new, one of a kind class for interfaith parents who have a 4th-7th grader preparing, whether in early stages or later stages, for a bar or bat mitzvah.

Preparing for a Bar or Bat Mitzvah in Your Interfaith Family is an eight session class. Each week of the class the material for a new session will be added. You access the material on your own time during that week, read essays (print them for later), hear/learn blessings, watch videos, get ideas for family activities, post in a journal and more. You will be able to interact with other parents through discussion boards. You will have access to a facilitator so that you can ask questions as you go, and the facilitator will respond both to your journal posts and on the discussion boards. In addition, two of the eight sessions include an in-person program for the whole family.

Each of the eight sessions is about a major aspect of the bar/bat mitzvah ceremony and experience. We will explore the history of the bar/bat mitzvah ceremony, the meaning of Torah, putting the "mitzvah" back in the bar/bat mitzvah, Shabbat morning and evening worship, ritual policies in synagogues, and the enduring Jewish values to hold dear and how to explain this to family members and friends who are not Jewish. Every aspect of this class was created with modern interfaith families in mind.

Parents will be able to log on during the week and read interesting essays and/or look at slide shows that give background and literacy about the Jewish ideas involved in the session. Each session comes with "hear/read" files to help you learn how to say blessings in Hebrew, YouTube-type videos, family projects, book suggestions, personal stories written by other interfaith families who have gone through bar/bat mitzvah with their children, journaling questions, shared discussions with other parents, and more.

This is a non-judgmental, supportive and open forum for you to learn, experience, question and share.

These eight sessions have the ability to positively impact the way your interfaith family can become involved in this major life cycle event!

Visit our ChicagoSan Francisco Bay Area or Philadelphia community pages to see when this is being offered.

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Adat Chaverim
Synagogue
Van Nuys, CA
91426 United States
1 Member
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Alpert Jewish Community Center
JCC
Long Beach, CA
90815 United States
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American Jewish University
School/Education
Los Angeles, CA
90077 United States
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Bnai Tikvah Congregation
Synagogue
Manhattan Beach, CA
90266 United States
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Camp JCA Shalom
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Malibu, CA
90265 United States
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Concierge for Jewish Education of the LA BJE
School/Education
Los Angeles, CA
90048 United States
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Congregation Tikkun Olam
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Studio City, CA
91604 United States
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Blogs

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Rabbi Robyn Frisch 08-21-14

apple pickingI always laugh when people say “the High Holy Days are early this year” or “Rosh Hashanah is late this year.” The fact is that Rosh Hashanah occurs the same time every year—on the first day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei. It’s never really “early” or “late”—it’s just where it should be! That being said, the first of Tishrei can be as early as September 5, or as late as October 5, on the Gregorian calendar. Which means that in 2014, when the first day of Rosh Hashanah is September 25(not the same week as Labor Day, as it was in 2013) many of us feel like we have more time to prepare for Rosh Hashanah than we did last year.

Here are seven suggestions for how your family can have fun getting in the mood for Rosh Hashanah:

1)      Apples, apples and more apples: It’s fun to dip apples in honey on Rosh Hashanah as we wish for a sweet new year. But why just go to a grocery store and buy apples? One of my favorite activities to do with my family before the Jewish New Year is to go apple picking. At the orchard we go to, we take a hay ride out to the apple trees and then we fill our boxes with different kinds of apples. Later we come home and make a yummy apple cake for our Rosh Hashanah dinner and drink apple cider.

Did you ever notice that if you cut an apple right down the middle you see a star? There’s a great Rosh Hashanah story about this that’s fun for kids of all ages. I like the way Shira Kline tells the story on her website.

2)      And don’t forget the honey: At the orchard where we go apple picking, there’s a really fun general store where they sell all kinds of fresh produce and delicious treats. They also sell those cool honey straws that come in all different flavors. Each year I let my kids buy a bunch of different flavored honey straws and we use them on Rosh Hashanah. They’re fun to give out to guests (or to take if we go to someone else’s house for a holiday meal).

As you prepare for Rosh Hashanah and start to think about dipping your apples in honey, it’s a great time to talk to your kids about how bees make honey. To learn about this from a dad who did some research after he couldn’t answer his daughter’s question about how bees make honey, check out Matt Shipman’s article How Do Bees Make Honey? (It’s Not Just Bee Barf). Or better yet, visit a beekeeper and learn about how honey’s made from an expert!

You can have lots of fun making beeswax candles to light as you welcome the holiday. For instructions on how to make your own beeswax candles click here.

3)      Try some new fruits, too: There’s a great custom on the second night of Rosh Hashanah of eating a new fruit of the season; one you haven’t eaten yet this year. So you may want to pick another fruit as well if you can while you’re apple picking, or pick up a different fruit at a farmer’s market or the grocery store. It’s traditional to recite the Shehecheyanu blessing before eating the new fruit.

4)      Mark a round challah: What kid (or adult) doesn’t love mixing the ingredients, kneading the dough and shaping it into a challah? While on Shabbat it’s traditional to have a braided challah, on Rosh Hashanah the challah should be round. Why round? Because it reminds us of the circle of life, as well as the cyclical nature of the passage of a year. For a YouTube video teaching three different ways to make a round challah, click here and get Rabbi Mychal Copeland’s recipe here.

5)      Read Rosh Hashanah stories with your kids: It’s always fun in the weeks leading up to any holiday, religious or secular, to read books with your kids about the holiday. One Jewish grandmother I know takes out all of her children’s books about Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur a few weeks before the holidays and puts them in a big basket that she keeps in her family room. Whenever her grandchildren come over, they pick out books from the basket to read with her. She does this before Passover, Sukkot and Thanksgiving, too, so that the book basket is often out and filled with Jewish or secular holiday books to read. For a list of PJ Library Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur books for kids up to 8 yearsold click here.

6)      Make New Years cards: In today’s world where we do so much of our communicating by text and email, it’s especially fun to get a card in the mailbox. And it’s even more fun to make cards! Get out lots of craft materials (or even just crayons and paper) and let your kids make New Years cards that they can mail to family members and friends. And they don’t have to make the cards just for Jewish family members. Cards for family member who aren’t Jewish, letting them know that they’re being thought of and that they’re loved, will surely be appreciated any time of year.

7)      Buy a Shofar and learn to blow it: Kids are always fascinated by the Shofar. Many synagogue gift shops sell Shofars, as do Judaica stores. You can also purchase them online. Once you have a Shofar, you can learn about the notes that are blown on Rosh Hashanah. For video instructions on how to blow the shofar, including the three traditional ritual blasts for the High Holy Days: tekiyah, shevarim and truah, click here.

Shana Tova U’Metukah. Have a happy and a sweet new year!

Is there something new you’re planning to do with your family in preparation for Rosh Hashanah this year? Are there activities you’ve done in the past that were fun? Please share your ideas below so that others can learn from what you’ve done.


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Rabbi Ari Moffic 08-19-14

Two couples having a discussion

Over the three years since InterfaithFamily/Chicago began, many brides and grooms have asked me to connect them with another couple in a similar religious situation to see how they have successfully navigated their relationship. Many times a Catholic woman marrying a Jewish man has wanted to speak to someone else who can understand how her mother and grandmother feel about the faith, upbringing and baptism, specifically, of a theoretical baby one day.

No matter what wisdom I can share from how other couples have worked out interfaith issues, there is nothing like speaking one-on-one with someone who has actually been there. We have done our best to connect couples over the years and have heard back about how helpful those matches have been.

Because we have seen what an organic need this is, we are thrilled that we received a JUF Breakthrough Fund grant to launch a comprehensive and supported new, innovative Mentoring Program for interfaith couples and families.

We are just beginning the program. If you are an interfaith couple seriously dating, engaged or married or an interfaith family with young children who would like to be paired with another couple or family who shares a similar religious story and lives near you, we would be so happy to make a match for you.

The mentors will be available to you through email, phone and in-person to talk through how they handle holidays and extended family, how they made religious decisions, how their kids have felt about their family’s decisions and all the other questions that can come up for interfaith families. The mentors will also invite their mentees to their home between December and May. You may be able to get together in-person (depending on your schedules) for certain holidays or at least to see how the other couple observes a Sabbath and brings peace, time for reflection and revitalization to their lives.

We will stay in touch with everybody and make sure the matches have been successful and that participants are benefitting from their new relationships. This is really a shehecheyanu moment for us at InterfaithFamily (the prayer of joy and gratitude that is said upon doing something for the first time). In the middle of this hard-to-pronounce Hebrew word is the word “chai” (life). This is a prayer about celebrating the joys of life. We have wanted to pair couples with one another in an organized program for some time and we are so proud and happy that the time has come.

InterfaithFamily/Chicago just offered a book talk on David Wolpe’s book Teaching Your Children about God. In the book, Wolpe makes a couple of observations. He writes that we often sense God or something bigger than ourselves in beginnings. This is why when something new starts, we sometimes feel an urge to mark that with prayer or a ritual. He also explains that it is through God’s presence that we can truly see each other. I pray that as we start this new program that it draws people closer to one another and to sacred purpose, hope and inspiration.

If you would like to be paired with a mentor couple or you would like to serve as a mentor couple, please email Judy Jury at judyj@interfaithfamily.com. Judy is the Jewish educator who will be directing this new program. The mentors will participate in a training program on Sunday, November 9 at the Weinger Northbrook JCC to consciously articulate and think about their religious journeys and how they can best support a couple just starting out. At that meeting, the mentors will receive the contact information for who they will be working with. Mentees can be expected to be contacted by their mentors soon after that date.

We look forward to hearing from you!


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Rabbi Mychal Copeland 08-18-14

Mychal with map

Where are you from? It seems an innocent enough question. But as our families become more and more diverse, the answer can get wonderfully complicated. Recently at a “Saturdays Unplugged” event at the Jewish Community Center in San Francisco, I asked attendees about their ancestry and invited them to place pins in a world map marking their families’ journeys.

The map shows that a sampling of Jewish San Francisco families come from Argentina, Cyprus, Lithuania and China to name a few countries of origin. As kids turned to their parents and grandparents asking, “Where am I from?” I started to think about how complicated this question is.

So I asked one of my own kids: “Do you know where you’re from?” He started breaking it down into “sides” immediately. “Mama, your side is from Poland and Russia, right? Mommy’s side is from Germany, Scotland, Finland…” I was glad he added her ancestry without hesitation even though I gave birth to him and he isn’t biologically related to her. Clearly, where someone is from is not as easy as a DNA test. As he continued rattling off the countries where he felt he had a connection, I realized that I also hoped he would list his sperm donor’s ancestry. After all, he wouldn’t be here without him. So we added those to the mix. This child who was birthed by me, an American Jew with only Eastern European ancestry, can now identify himself with a good portion of Europe.

What about my other child? He was birthed by my partner, a mix of Northern European ancestry who converted to Judaism long before his birth. Along with those regions of the world, does this little boy also claim an Ashkenazi heritage? He certainly claims a Jewish one and our Jewish practice is largely Ashkenazi…but is he “from” Eastern Europe as my ancestors were?

Jews have long disagreed about what exactly Judaism is: a matter of biology, peoplehood, civilization, religion or ethnicity. Even early on in Jewish history, there were at least two strands of thought: Being Jewish was in some instances about claiming a certain lineage, and at other times about observance of a spiritual tradition. The first line of reasoning made it very difficult to join, for example, while the latter made it much easier to choose to identify as a Jew even if one wasn’t born one.

One scholar notes that tension ensued due to these “two distinct definitional standards…the religious and the ethnic.” [Porton, Gary. The Stranger Within Your Gates] We still struggle with those definitions, but today, with more and more conversion, intermarriage, adoption, donor insemination and surrogacy, we are moving away from a genetic definition (in my eyes a welcome shift) to a Judaism defined more as an affinity with a unique worldview. A lineup of kids at a typical Bay Area synagogue classroom is quite different than it would have looked 40 years ago when I was a kid.

A few years back, I worked with college students to create a photo exhibit of their peers who claim multiple ancestries. It was called, “Jews Untitled” and they challenged visitors to the exhibit to rethink the way they defined “Jewish” and allowed Jews to create their own self definitions. With the diversification of Jewish families, we asked one another how we can best teach children about their mix of rich backgrounds. How can we help Jews claim and take pride in their multitude of heritages? And how can we make sure that the entire Jewish community is engaging in this conversation as well?

I imagine us having an infinite capacity to claim a variety of stories as our own. I was recently at an author event for the book Just Parenting about creative family making. One participant with an adopted child told the group that she tossed out a baby book she had been given because on the first page there was a picture of a family tree to fill in. She was so overwhelmed by the challenge of fitting her child’s family story into a neatly defined map with two “sides” that she decided it needed to go.

For many of us, two “sides” doesn’t tell the full story of our origins and our affiliations. An Ashkenazi Jewish friend of mine adopted a child from China with her Filipino husband. The child says of herself at age 7, “I’m half Chinese, half Filipino, half American, and half Jewish.”  She has four sides! But, really, who doesn’t? We all have more complicated stories than “two sides” allows. She’s a model of how we can comfortably hold many identities within us.


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Ryan Mount 08-15-14

Quick Update! We are full steam ahead. There has been a lot going on.

Here is the quick list:
1. We have finalized the guest list. (Is it ever finished?)
2. Received the invitations.
3. We have picked a ketubah!
4. Scheduled a weekly, Tie-The-Knot Meeting. Tues. we are going to take 2 hours and discuss what needs to get done, then reward ourselves by taking planning off the table and have fun for the evening.
5. Come close to finalizing our wedding favors / welcome bags for out-of-towners.
6. Planned our décor and ordered some lights.
7. Lisa settled on a veil and shoes.
8. Lisa will be spending next weekend hosting a night for some friends trying out cocktails & mock-tails.

Here is what we are doing over the weekend:
1. Going to check out a showroom floor to look at linens.
2. Going to see a wedding set up in our space to get a better idea of what we need.
3. Dropping off the invitations to the calligrapher.
4. I am ordering custom converse shoes for my suit.

Plus, life is happening between each one of those items on the list.

Wedding planning should be both. It should not only be the check list items, but it also is what goes on between. If you do not get the check list items done, the wedding simply does not happen. G-D works wonders in our lives, but if we chose not to take any action, we simply cannot expect to show up on our date and have the place set up and everything paid.

This week we both sat down and had a long conversation. Mainly to do with some of the fears we both have over unresolved matters. We live in a very real world, and not every relationship, or lack thereof with other people outside of us is perfect. Sometimes, we have to sit down and talk and talk to one another about our fears. We have to sit down and just put our emotions on the table right next to the wedding magazines. Although, we know much of these things about one another, it really is taking us towards the wedding as well. We are growing and learning about one another and although it does not show up in your typical check list, it is as important to know your partner deeper with each day, each month, and each year.

Whether on the checklist or happening in between, both get you closer to the big day.

Even as I read this post, I see what started as a check list has grown into some reflection and a deeper look. So this week, it is a bit of both. Looking forward to sitting down and breaking down each item in the list and the things in between.

Shabbat Shalom.


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April Baskin 08-07-14

The Victor CenterThanks to various Jewish ad campaigns and informational events, I know the big, scary Jewish genetics statistic: One in four Ashkenazi Jews is a carrier for at least one of the 19 preventable genetic diseases. But when Dr. Jodi Hoffman of Tufts Medical Center informed me that, “a big misconception is that interfaith couples are not at risk for having children affected with Jewish genetic diseases and therefore do not need to get screened before starting a family,” it was news to me. Unlike my colleague Wendy Armon who wrote an informative article on the subject last year, I had no idea, nor did many of my friends.

Who knew interfaith and interracial couples are not exempt from the need to test for Jewish genetic diseases? (Besides Wendy and Dr. Hoffman, that is.)

Particularly in light of this pervasive ignorance, renowned geneticist and pediatrician Dr. Hoffman has dedicated years to doing outreach to Jewish and interfaith families, working to dispel misconceptions like the one I had. Nationally recognized for her expertise in screening for Jewish genetic diseases, she is currently the Director of the Victor Outreach and Screening Program for Ashkenazi Jews at Tufts Medical Center in Boston. One of U.S. News & World Report’s “Top Doctors” in 2012, Dr. Hoffman is determined to reach as many people as she possibly can.

Shortly after I connected with Dr. Hoffman, Elizabeth Freid Vocke, one of our regular contributors on InterfaithFamily, wrote about the scare her interfaith family endured prior to the birth of their daughter Mirabelle. I asked Dr. Hoffman for her thoughts on Vocke’s article.

In light of common misinformation about proper genetic testing, is the article accurate? Is there anything you believe is particularly important to highlight?

Yes, it is definitely relevant. I think the key points to emphasize are:

  1. Any of the Jewish genetic diseases can be carried by someone of non-Eastern European background.
  2. The most accurate screening for Tay-Sachs includes DNA and enzyme (blood testing—which is not provided by the JScreen test).
  3. If the partner of Ashkenazi Jewish background screens positive, the follow-up screening needs to be based on the ethnic background of the other partner–not the Ashkenazi Jewish screening panel.
  4. Screening is best done prior to pregnancy to allow for the most reproductive options.

What recommendations would you give to interfaith couples?

Get screened and update your screening. A simple blood test will tell you if you are a carrier. There are 3 ways to get screened:  1) Contact your physician or OB/GYN. 2) Schedule an appointment at the Victor Outreach and Screening Program Clinic at Tufts Medical Center. Call (617) 636-7721 to make an appointment. 3) Attend a Victor Center community screening. You can find an upcoming screening and more information at www.victorcenters.org/screening.


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Lindsey Silken 07-31-14
Fish tacos

We didn't take a photo at the florist, but our pescaterian tasting was very photogenic!

Last weekend, entering the meeting with our florist, my fiancé, my mother and father and I had the distinct impression it may have been the first time a groom entered this sacred bridal territory, as though he were alien to this particular planet.

We’re five weeks out from our wedding. Life is truly insane. If InterfaithFamily did not have a mindfulness expert and three masseuses visit our staff retreat last week, I might have lost it by now. That, and having a fiancé who is actually planning our wedding with me. Shut the… I know, right? Let me repeat that: My fiancé, who is a dude, is planning our wedding alongside me. Times are a changing.

Marrying a person who cares about gender equality and feminism was important to me and now, seeing how my fiancé takes on the same roles in our relationship that I do (OK, he definitely does more heavy lifting, but most other things we share!), I’m thankful that I fell in love with someone who doesn’t treat marriage as a divvying up of “man stuff” and “woman stuff.” No matter how society might try to box us in–yes, even in 2014–we believe in a partnership where we seamlessly pitch in wherever needed.

Of course we’re in the honeymoon stage of our lives right now. I know neither of us are perfect and there may come a time when one or the other of us gets frustrated beyond belief. We’re human. But people say if you can get through wedding planning, you can get through whatever other challenges arise. Clearly, with the divorce rate in this country, that’s not true.

But how many couples planning their weddings are actually doing it together? I have yet to speak to any other couple I know where the groom planned the wedding equally with the bride.

Ceviche

Ceviche. This one got everyone's vote!

However, on this Wedding Blog, I’ve seen a lot more involvement from grooms than I see anywhere else. One of our wedding bloggers is male and it’s obvious he’s involved in every wedding detail, one of our other couples often includes a guest post by the groom, and the couple’s blog that just wrapped up was co-written. Perhaps interfaith couples realize early on how much their wedding day is a reflection of their union and that it’s important for both parties to be represented.

I’m not advocating that my fiancé get a medal for helping to plan his own wedding (though I am a bit biased and were there a medal to give, I would certainly give it to him). I think men should always help out with wedding planning—after all, it’s YOUR wedding, and if you’re in a heterosexual relationship, it’s not your bride’s wedding alone and it’s certainly not her mother’s. I realize that not everyone enjoys wedding planning, and after seeing how much work goes into it, I can fully understand that. Many women will disagree with my point of view. But unless you’ve hired a wedding planner, someone’s got to do it and I say–it may as well be you.

If flowers or the venue are not your thing, find something that is: the rituals you will perform during your ceremony, the food you’ll eat, song requests for the band or DJ, finding your officiant, your photographer, the list is long!

But the fact is, wedding planning has a long history of being the bride’s domain. The old saying is, step out of the way and let her do what she wants. If the bride has big ideas and the groom is easy going, this may make sense. But that doesn’t mean he can’t be in the loop, help make some of the tougher decisions, and be there for whatever little tasks and errands and phone calls need to get done. And if the groom does have opinions, shouldn’t he be allowed to voice them? Shouldn’t he feel like the wedding represents him, too? Should he be silenced by an outdated idea that he doesn’t get a say in his own wedding? I love that my fiancé is involved, but what if I wanted to just have it my way? Should I be shutting him out of one of the biggest days of our lives that represents our future partnership?

While I don’t think my fiancé is doing anything that any other man couldn’t or shouldn’t also be doing, I happen to love planning our wedding together. I could NEVER do this myself, and taking for granted that he is going to make sure we pay all our bills on time, communicate with our vendors as needed, join me at all the meetings, make decisions together and keep track of our daily to-do list, is the kind of dependability I know he will have for the rest of our marriage. What a great experience to learn this before we get married!

We’re going to be tackling challenges good and bad for the rest of our lives. We’re a team, and we each want the other to succeed, to thrive, to be happy. This is why figuring out how to bring our friends and families together to celebrate with us as we express our love and commitment is such an important thing to do as a couple. We’re learning that we don’t always agree and how to compromise, how to prioritize what’s important to us, how to handle finances and family members, religion and many other things. Maybe I just got lucky with my man, or maybe, given the chance, many other grooms would gladly lend their fiancé a hand and play an active part in their wedding planning.

Are you a groom helping to plan your wedding? Brides, is your groom helping you out, or would you rather he butt out? Sound off in the comments.


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Rabbi Robyn Frisch 07-31-14

Shabbat dinner in PhiladelphiaOn Friday evening, July 18, I had a great time welcoming Shabbat. My family’s Shabbat dinner guests were six young interfaith couples who I’ve come to know over the past year—either through officiating at their weddings or through my work at InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia. My IFF/Philadelphia colleague Wendy Armon, her husband Bruce and daughter Tess also joined us.

It was wonderful celebrating Shabbat with these six couples. For some of the attendees who were not Jewish it was their first time attending a Shabbat dinner and I felt privileged to be able to make this happen for them and to share in their experience.

After everyone arrived and had the chance to meet one another (none of the couples knew one another previously) and talk for a while, we all gathered to recite the Shabbat blessings. Anyone who wanted one was given a kippah and/or a copy of InterfaithFamily’s “Shabbat Made Easy” booklet. Then I lit the candles and recited the blessing. Before Wendy and I blessed our kids with the traditional Friday evening blessing for children, I pointed out that the blessing for sons begins with the phrase “May you be like Ephraim and Menashe.” Interestingly, the mother of Ephraim and Menashe (Joseph’s sons in the Bible) was Asenath, an Egyptian woman. It felt quite appropriate to bless my own son Benji with the words “May you be like Ephraim and Menashe” (two men who grew up in an “interfaith” family in the Bible) as I was surrounded by interfaith couples who will one day have families, like Joseph and Asenath’s, where the parents are from different religious backgrounds.

I shared with the couples how in some traditional Jewish homes the husband sings Eishet Chayil (“A Woman of Valor”—from Proverbs 31) to his wife. Rather than reciting “A Woman of Valor,” I invited the couples to each share with their partners what they loved about them, or perhaps a wish for the week ahead. Each couple did this as Wendy and I blessed our children.

My son Benji recited the kiddush (blessing over the wine) after which I invited each couple to share from their own cup of wine (just as those who were married had done at their wedding ceremonies). In truth, my impetus for doing this was that I had enough silver kiddush cups for six couples, but not enough for twelve individuals.

After we said ha-motzi (the blessing over the bread) it was time to eat! We all relaxed and socialized over our meal and no one had to check their cellphones or rush to get anywhere.

My hope is that the interfaith couples who attended the Shabbat dinner at my house will now “pay it forward” and host Shabbat dinners of their own. IFF/Philadelphia wants to help them with this, so we have created a Shabbat Dinner Program. Here’s how it works: Anyone who attended our Shabbat dinner—or who has participated in one of our Love and Religion workshops for interfaith couples or our online “Raising a Child with Judaism in your Interfaith  Family” classes for parents of young children—is invited to host a Shabbat dinner of their own, which will be subsidized by InterfaithFamily. We encourage participants in our Shabbat Dinner Program to invite other interfaith couples and/or families to celebrate Shabbat with them so that they can create a community of their peers. However, we also believe that inviting guests from different backgrounds can help inspire a lively discussion about Shabbat and Jewish life, so participants in our Shabbat Dinner Program are also welcome to invite others who are not in interfaith relationships to their Shabbat dinner.

IFF/Philadelphia will not only provide those participating in the program with resources for hosting a Shabbat dinner, we will also help pay. And while the Shabbat dinner at my house can be a model for those who attended, we encourage people to “make Shabbat their own” in a way that feels right for them.

For those of you who are alumni of one of our workshops or classes, please be in touch with us at philadelphia@interfaithfamily.com and we are happy to tell you more about our Shabbat Dinner Program and give you any assistance you need in planning your own Shabbat dinner. If you happen to live in Philadelphia or South Jersey and you aren’t yet connected with IFF/Philadelphia but would like to attend a Shabbat dinner hosted by an interfaith couple or family, let us know and we’ll try to hook you up with someone who is hosting a Shabbat dinner near you.

And finally, even if you don’t live in the Philadelphia area, consider having a Shabbat dinner of your own. All you need are two candlesticks and candle holders (or you can use two tealights) and matches; a kiddush cup (though any cup is fine) and some wine or juice; challah (which, depending on where you live, you can probably get at a local bakery or grocery store, or you can make your own—Rabbi Mychal Copeland recently shared her recipe) and a challah cover (or you can just cover your challah with a napkin); and kippot for your guests if you want to offer them. You can print out InterfaithFamily’s “Shabbat Made Easy” Booklet for explanations, blessings, etc. And you don’t have to make a big deal about dinner: You can make or order something simple, or you can even make it potluck. The point is that you’re together with others to share the beauty and joy of celebrating Shabbat.

We’d love to hear about your Shabbat experiences. Whether you celebrate Shabbat regularly in your home, or whether you just hosted or attended a Shabbat dinner for your first time, tell us about it. Who did you invite to share Shabbat with you? What was your favorite part of the evening? What will you do the same next time? What will you do differently?


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Lindsey Silken 07-29-14
Andi and Josh

Javier Pesquera / ABC

It’s official: The Bachelorette, Andi Dorfman, is in an interfaith relationship. But we already knew that—the frontrunners in her quest for love were not Jewish, and Andi is (she famously acknowledged her religion when she was a contestant on The Bachelor). Interestingly, the man she chose and whose proposal she accepted, Josh Murray, was raised Christian but comes from an interfaith family. While the Jewish Week was quick to call this a Jewish match, the fact is, it’s a combining of faiths, as so many relationships are. Josh’s mother is Jewish and his father is not, but the family practices Christianity.

It seems faith is important in both Andi and Josh’s families. Josh’s younger brother, apparently, has a tattoo of a cross and a tattoo of the Star of David. Josh, 29, is from Tampa, FL, and now lives in Atlanta—conveniently where Andi herself, a 27-year-old district attorney is based. From the interviews they’ve already done since last night’s season finale, we get the gist that they’re planning to wed next year, and that they plan to have a few kids. What will their wedding look like? Christian? Jewish? Neither? Because religion is important to both families, we’re putting our money on an interfaith ceremony.

Andi's proposal

Javier Pesquera / ABC


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Dana Pulda and Chris Acone 07-22-14

Sun Shining on the New Couple

After all of the plans and preparations, the big day came and went without a hitch! We had glorious weather, the ceremony was everything that we wanted it to be, and the reception was an absolute blast. We had people from both sides tearing up the dance floor until midnight. We ended the night exhausted, our sides and cheeks hurting from a day spent laughing and grinning ear-to-ear.

We arrived in Worcester on Tuesday night, which really allowed us to take a more relaxed approach to last-minute preparations. There were the table numbers to finish up, the seating chart to arrange, welcome bags to assemble, and yard work to be done, not to mention being here for the tent and bathroom installation. Things went quite smoothly for the most part.

Dana's parents sharing a moment with the Chuppah

On Wednesday morning Dana’s mom, Kathy, wanted to reveal the Chuppah. All along we knew it would include articles of clothing from both families but we had no idea what the finished product would look like. Kathy settled on a tree design using the clothing donations as the leaves of the tree. We must have sat for almost a full hour and looked at it, recognizing the articles and locating other items on the Chuppah. It was truly a spectacular final product that we will keep in our family for many many years.

We were bursting with excitement when Friday evening came around and the out-of-town guest began to arrive. The rehearsal went well and afterwards we gathered at a local restaurant for drinks and appetizers—a chance for our families to mingle and get to know each other before the big day. And—much to our surprise—an a cappella group had been hired to sing to us and Dana’s grandparents, who are celebrating their 65th wedding anniversary in July.

On Saturday morning we woke up to a gorgeous sunny day. The ladies got their hair and make up done while the men slept in and spent the morning lounging. By 5 o’clock everything was in place and we were ready to start the show.

Walking down the aisle

Dana walked down the aisle around 5:30 and the ceremony began. We started with a traditional Jewish blessing over the children given by both of our parents. Then we had a reading by Chris’s uncle (a Jesuit priest), followed by our own version of the seven blessings read by friends and a poem read by Chris’s sister. Afterwards we exchanged vows and rings, Chris stomped on the glass (twice—since he wasn’t sure he had broken it the first time), we kissed, and then it was on to the party!

Now, three-weeks later, it’s hard to remember all of the details from the reception but it truly was a magical day. Many people commented on how personal the ceremony was and how much they learned about both religions. The Horah may have been one of our favorite moments, when family and friends from both sides joined on the dance floor to dance around us and lift us in chairs. The joy that we were able to share with our friends and family was palpable during those few minutes, and everyone had a great time.

The morning after the wedding there was a brunch at the Pulda house, which was a great opportunity to catch up with our guests and spend time with those people we weren’t able to see for long during the reception. It’s funny, before the wedding everyone warned us how quickly the night would go, but I guess it’s one of those things that you have to experience to believe. It truly flew by!

The face of pure excitement...

All in all, the wedding was a wonderful time and we considered it to be a beautiful fusion of both of our faiths. Our families and friends came together to celebrate us, our love, and the future we have before us. We consider it to be a bright future, and look forward to the joys and challenges of being an inter-faith couple and raising children with an appreciation for the rich heritage of both of our faith backgrounds.


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Jessie Boatright 07-01-14

A snapshot of Keeana and Marc's program

I love a good wedding, which almost all of them are, in my experience. Last weekend I had the privilege of being a guest at a really powerful wedding, with a ceremony that was not only joyous but also left me with strong food for thought about the power of marriage, partnership, love, family, and community. I especially loved the way the ceremony charged family and friends to play a role in the couple’s marriage, so much so that I thought I’d share it with you.

Keeana and Marc’s wedding was special because they are a lovely couple – they are both remarkable people who are head-over-heels for each other in an infectious way. They are connected to and with their faith and their clergy in way that made it impossible to not feel spiritually connected to their ceremony. And the fact that five of their friends came together to form a choir just for their ceremony, or that Keeana’s mother, a reverend herself, led the final step of the ceremony, only sweetened the pot.

But what I really loved were the three “Charges” of the ceremony.

As I understand it, the Charge is the officiant’s chance to tell the couple about the responsibilities they are taking on as a married couple. In a Jewish wedding, I think these charges tend to be a bit more understated.  In Keeana and Marc’s Christian wedding, the Charge was not only explicit, but it was said three times in three different ways. First to the congregation, then to the families, and finally to the couple themselves.

In the first charge, the pastors from Boston’s Bethel AME Church (who happen to be married to one another), told the congregation that the couple’s goal for their ceremony was to celebrate their love, to encourage unmarried guests to think about getting married, and to remind married guests about the power of marriage. This is such a lovely way to attend any wedding – to remember not only to notice the wedding dress and to listen to the couple, but also to reflect on your own relationships as you participate.

The second charge was the one that really stood out to me.  I can never do it justice verbatim, but following are the Cliff Notes. The reverends took pause from the flow of the ceremony to speak directly to the bride’s and groom’s families. They reminded them that Keeana and Marc were standing before them and before G-d to enter into a holy partnership, and that moving forward their primary relationships would be with each other and with G-d. Because of the sacred nature of the commitment they were making to each other, the officiants implored the families that the best way to support these two individuals going forward would be to support them as a couple.  This included supporting their ability to (and perhaps need to) forge their own path as a unit, sometimes stepping aside to let them stumble together. The reverends promised that if the families supported the couple’s partnership, they were gaining a respective son and daughter, and that respecting the partnership was the way to be close to the adult child who they raised themselves.

This was not striking because it was a revelation to me – Eric and I have always felt great support for our marriage from our parents. As a parent myself, now, I feel like I am one step closer to understanding the potential challenge of this charge (although not nearly close enough to really get it!). After nine years of marriage, I am unmeasurably appreciative of the ways in which our families have supported our marriage journey, even when we’ve made choices that have been very different from those our parents made (or might have made for us!). The way Keeana and Marc’s pastors laid out the charge reminded me that this is never something to be taken lightly, that it is work, and that it is sacred work. And while this post may read as more about marriage than parenting, the truth is that all of this only becomes more important when children are in the mix, and the dynamics present and decisions to be made feel even more complex than before.

So it reminded me, especially on the eve of our anniversary this week, to say:

Thank you to Mom and Dad and Mom and Dad!!!

(and the rest of our families, too, of course), and to remember that the successful union of two people is all the richer when we have our friends and family holding up that union.

The final charge, to the couple, was a lovely statement about love and commitment. And all of the wedding guests will remember the way that two pastors emboldened them to maintain a passionate marital bed, but that is for another kind of post for another kind of day.

So Mazel Tov to Keeana and Marc. Mission accomplished in helping me reflect on the power of love and marriage. Thanks to you two, too.


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Anne Marie Keefe 06-22-14

Sorry for the radio silence; throughout these last few weeks, I have been going on a series of vacations and experiences: adventures with Sam. He has taken me to Londonderry, NH, Grand Rapids, MI, Lambertville, NJ, and Allentown, PA. It’s been a busy month!

Sam at Moonlight Meadery

Sam at Moonlight Meadery

In the beginning of June, we visited Moonlight Meadery in Londonderry, New Hampshire. They gave us a tour of their facility and we tasted about 14 different meads (honey-wine). It is incredible how they can mimic the flavors of apple pie or mojito with fermented honey. While we were in Londonderry, we visited a local brewery (603 Brewery) and a winery (Zorvino Vineyards). We can now say that we have been to a meadery, winery, and brewery in 2 days.

Last weekend, we drove to Michigan for the National Homebrew Conference. This is Sam’s jam- three days of all you can drink homebrewed beer! About a hundred different homebrew clubs from all over the country brought their best beers, and vendors showcased brewing equipment and supplies, and poured us more beer. Besides drinking and talking to vendors, there were about 50 different seminars. These speakers, titans of the beer world—Mitch Steele, Brew Master at Stone Brewing Company and John Palmer, author of How to Brew, and many others—talked about how different yeast cultures react in different temperatures, how to improve fermentation, and the secrets of aging in bourbon barrels and, you guessed it, they served more beer.

Members of Sam's homebrew club at the National Homebrew Competition

Members of Sam's homebrew club at the National Homebrew Competition

 

 

 

After three days of drinking really good beer, listening to famous beer people and talking with hundreds of other people about homebrewing, we have some really good ideas for our beer themed wedding.

Some of these Adventures with Sam have been “studying” for our wedding.  This past week, our families met at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival to see Fiddler on the Roof.  Throughout the show, I heard them whispering to each other, “Will Anne and Sam have this at their wedding?” My mom held her breath while the bride and groom were hoisted on chairs, and my little brother was amazed at the dancers balancing bottles on their hats.

TThe Bottle Dance. Photo by Lee A. Butz. Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival. Fiddler on the Roof.

The Bottle Dance. Photo by Lee A. Butz. Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival. Fiddler on the Roof.

 

 

A few weeks before seeing Fiddler on the Roof, we went to a wedding near Lambertville, New Jersey. Throughout the wedding, we took notes on what we would do similarly or differently. The ceremony and reception took place outside on a lovely farm with a small group of friends. It was a perfect setting for dancing under the tent or enjoying the bonfire with a cocktail. We loved how all of the aspects of their wedding reflected who they are as a couple and we hope that our wedding does the same, which is why we will have a beer themed wedding.

Whether it is beer related or “studying” for our wedding, the Adventures with Sam are always fun times with many stories to tell. Maybe I should start writing a book and title it:

Adventures with Sam: The Story of My Life.

 

 

 


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Dana Pulda and Chris Acone 06-14-14

Hello Everyone,

The countdown is on! As of today we have officially two weeks until we tie the knot in front of our friends and family. To say we are excited and counting down the days would be an understatement.

Preparations are moving along smoothly. RSVPs are in (201!) and even our “I work best under pressure” friends have booked hotel rooms. Tomorrow morning we are having a final tasting of the cupcakes and sampling the appetizers for the rehearsal dinner. Songs have been selected, the ceremony is (mostly) organized, and we got our Pinterest on making some pretty cool homespun table numbers out of stained wood, nails and twine.

FIrst Graders do give the best advice

Friday night we attended a party with some of Chris’s co-workers, and they revealed something they’ve been working on: a book of marriage advice from Chris’s first grade students. They were absolutely precious, and here are some of the highlights:

Roberta, age 7: “How to be a good husband: You can kiss her! Spend time with her! Take her dancing! Take care of the kids! Love her and the kids”

Asia, age 6, has some fashion tips: “I’ll give you advice: You need handsome clothing, like a black tuxedo, and you need shiny black shoes”

Kofi, age 7: “Show love to her by giving her flowers and chocolate ice cream and chocolate hearts and take her on special vacations, like to California.”

Takyus, age 7: “Take her on a date and make her dinner before she gets home. And do your laundry…and hers too.”

Devon, age 6: “Be kind to the wife. Do what the wife says. Have fun with the wife”

Do your laundry...and hers, too!

It goes on like this for pages and pages, advice from 100 first graders many of whom recommend buying things like dresses, roses, and rings–who can argue with that wisdom? There was funny advice, silly advice, and a lot of poignant advice about being kind, patient and honest with one another.

We believe that our plan for the ceremony so far reflects our willingness to be patient and honest with one another, and our commitment to include elements of both religious faiths in our lives as we move forward. Here’s the rundown so far:

  • The reception will be in Dana’s backyard and the ceremony will be in the front. A good friend of ours has agreed to serve as our Justice of the Peace, and we will stand with him, Chris’s brother and Dana’s sister on a small platform in the front yard. Most guests will stand during the short ceremony.
  • As we’ve mentioned, we will be married beneath a Chuppah, although we are not sure if we are going to need Chuppah bearers or not. The Chuppah was quilted by Dana’s mom, Kathy, out of significant articles of clothing donated from many family members. Those of you familiar with Patricia Polacco’s story The Keeping Quilt will know how meaningful this quilt will be to us throughout our lives.
  • We will sign a Ketubah, which Chris is busy designing. It will have an image of a tree with silhouettes of birds on it, reflecting a favorite quote of Chris’ mom’s: “There are only two lasting bequeaths we can hope to give our children: one of these is roots, the other wings.”
  • Chris’s uncle, a Jesuit priest, will read from St. Paul’s 1st Letter to the Corinthians (“Love is patient, love is kind…”) and his sister will read the beautiful poem “Love” attributed to Roy Croft.
  • We have seven groups of friends and family members who will read our version of the Seven Blessings.
  • And…Chris is stomping on a glass, of course. I think he may be more excited for that than any other part of the wedding.
  • Following the ceremony and a brief Yichud (mostly to allow us time to breathe and enjoy the fabulous food) we will have cocktails in the backyard and then a reception until around midnight!
  • Dana’s grandfather will perform a Motzi and give a brief speech and many other favorite wedding traditions will follow: the Horah, the mother/son and father/daughter dances, a non-messy cake cutting, and speeches by the best man and maid of honor. We’re skipping things like the bouquet and garter toss, as they’re not really our style.

 

Then it will be over! We can’t believe it is all happening so fast. It is an event that has been a long time in the making and we anticipate it like we’ve never looked forward to anything in our lives. We can only hope that everyone has as much fun as we know we will.

We’ll try to post again in the next few weeks as everything comes together! Thank you for reading and going through this wonderful process with us.


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InterfaithFamily Staff 05-21-14

The following is a guest post reprinted with permission from Julie A. Silver and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism

By Julie A. Silver

Julie's familyOn Mothers’ Day, my wife Mary and I went on a hike at Will Rogers’ State Park near our home in Los Angeles. We left our two year old home to nap, dropped off our nine year old for a horse-back riding lesson, then took the first hike we’ve taken together in years. I was thirsty from the moment we ascended, but Mary shared her water with me and, as always, made me laugh along the way.

When we reached the top and took in that gorgeous 360 degree view of downtown LA, the magnificent mountains and the shining ocean, I thanked God for this place that supports our family: two working mothers in an interfaith marriage who aren’t exactly spring chickens with two very young daughters. And interfaith isn’t limited to our respective religions. Mary loves the Mets and I love the Red Sox. Mary loves camping and I enjoy clean sheets. Mary loves cats and I’m allergic. I could go on. The bottom line is that despite our differences, we’ve built a life and filled it with kids, family, friends, fun and I’m exhausted just writing about it.

I also might be lying about being allergic to cats.

For the last 25 years, I’ve been a traveling singer/songwriter. I can’t imagine doing anything else. My work requires both constant connections with people and long stretches of solitude—and let me tell you it isn’t easy, but it is precisely this tension that pushes me forward in everything I do.

Mary Connelly has had a long and successful career in television and comedy and has been the Executive Producer of The Ellen DeGeneres Show since its beginning. Every day she walks with grace and confidence through an industry that is the polar opposite of mine. You know, a little gray hair and a few wrinkles around the eyes can kill a woman’s career in Hollywood. In my world, gray hair gives you status. Wrinkles show you’ve been laughing. Glasses mean you’ve been studying. My people celebrate age and wisdom; not so much in the fleeting world of entertainment. But Mary’s creative fingerprints are all over that show in its compassionate outreach and its sense of fun—like the woman herself, always of service to someone in need.

We also have amazing childcare—women who take care of our daughters like they were their own when neither Mary nor I can be around. With that said, I like to say that Mary works Monday through Friday and I work Friday through Monday, but the truth is Mary is gone 12 hours a day during the week. I’m a full time Eema. My day is a mix of driving kids, writing, studying, practicing, taking care of my business, setting up play dates, singing to Katie, piano lessons, paying bills, managing the house, and fulfilling my deepest calling, being a “Dance Mom.”

When I’m away, Mary becomes a single parent. She does the errands, cooks, and takes care of our home and our daughters. While I’m out singing at synagogues across the globe, my Catholic wife drives Sarah to Hebrew School on Sundays. She’s got to deserve something for doing that alone, right? Like a cat? We’ll see.

To be sure, Mary and I are together on this: We want our girls to be of service; to give of themselves and to embrace life’s challenges. We want them to find loving partners who will climb to the top of the mountain beside them, share their water with them and make them laugh so hard they spit it out onto the trail. And when they get to the top, out of breath and exhausted, we want them to look around and love that view.

Julie Silver is one of the most celebrated and beloved performers in the world of contemporary Jewish music today. She tours throughout the world, and has been engaging audiences with her lyrical guitar playing, her dynamic stage presence, and her megawatt smile for over 25 years. Silver lives in Southern California with her partner Mary Connelly, a highly successful Executive Producer and their delicious daughters, Sarah and Catherine.You can follow her on Twitter at @JulieAnnSilver or visit her website at juliesilver.com.


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Jessie Boatright 05-01-14

My family is one of the many families who benefits from the amazing PJ Library, an extraordinary program that mails free Jewish books and music to 125,000 homes throughout the country. Ruthie enjoyed the program for three years, and last year Chaya got her very own subscription. It is a real gift to have colorful, modern media to use to talk to the girls about different aspects of Jewish life. This week I’d like to talk about Chaya’s current favorite, Tikkun Olam Ted, and how reading it has reminded me how to boil big ideas down into bite size pieces for my young kids.

The book, by Vivian Newman, is about a little boy named Ted, who “is small. But spends his days doing very big things.” Ted got his nickname because of his interest in helping to “fix the world and make it a kinder, better place.” For each day of the week, Ted takes on a different task. What is brilliant about the book, aside from the adorable, colorful illustrations by Steve Mack, is how Ted’s big things are completely age-appropriate for a preschooler. Ted does not heal the world by going to a soup kitchen, running a blood drive, or spending a day with Habitat for Humanity. He does things that any kid could easily do in the course of their daily life – he recycles, he does yard work, he feeds the birds and he remembers to turn off the lights.

Reading this book, I am reminded of my own eagerness as a parent to teach my girls big lessons, and to endow them with a sophisticated toolkit of ideas and approaches to having a full and successful life.  I dream of raising them to know how to make good choices, to be resilient, to pursue their passions, and to try to fix the world because doing so is meaningful for them.  Before I had kids, and throughout my first pregnancy, I often schemed about how I would engender these traits in them, but I spent more time thinking about a Bat Mitzvah-age service project, or the feminist literature I might sprinkle into a 16-year-old’s Hanukkah gifts, than what the building blocks might be for a two-year old.

But it is a long time before those Bat Mitzvahs, and that toolkit will be even stronger if I can start now. Reading Tikkun Olam Ted aloud to my girls reminds me of the significance of the things that they can do independently now, and that those are probably as important as that adolescent reading list. Sure, I’ll keep bringing them to political events with me, and telling them of the bigger things Eric and I do to fix the world in our adult way.  But I will also remind them how turning off the faucet really matters, or how re-using yesterday’s sandwich bag actually has a ripple effect on the health of our planet. Judging by how frequently Chaya hands Newman’s book to me, I think she’s already starting to grasp the connections.


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Jane Larkin 01-30-14

We started our Shabbat ritual, in part, to teach Sammy to count his blessings, big and small.

On our flight home from our Christmas visit with Cameron’s family in Vermont, I came across an article in The Wall Street Journal about raising children to appreciate things big and small, and the tangible benefits of giving thanks including a more positive outlook on life, less depression and higher GPAs. I could not help but think how the story’s placement was perfectly timed.

Sammy had just spent the fourth quarter of 2013 collecting presents. In October, he turned nine. While he did not have a birthday party (he celebrated with one friend at a hockey game), he did acquire enough gift cards to buy himself an iPad mini and a Rainbow Loom.

Hanukkah arrived in November, and the eight nights of lights also included eight nights of books and tennis equipment. Gifts that nourished Sammy’s mind and supported a healthy activity seemed like less materialistic choices.

In December, Santa’s sleigh arrived at my in-laws filled with colored rubber bands for the Rainbow Loom, Legos, books and merchandise from the fan shop of his favorite NFL team. There were plenty of trinkets in Sammy’s stocking too.

There were moments during these months when, Cameron and I surveyed Sammy’s celebratory loot and felt as if we were losing the battle against consumerism. We questioned whether our efforts to raise a child who appreciated all that he had – material and otherwise – were futile.

But then we would hear Sammy say with a mix of genuine appreciation and excitement, “Thank you, thank you. Thank you so much. This is awesome!” These exclamations of thankfulness were typically accompanied by a hug or a post-celebration phone call or email to the gift-giver.

Cameron and I smiled. Maybe, Sammy was absorbing the concept of appreciation. Maybe the things we have done to cultivate an attitude of gratitude did have a positive affect.

Cameron and I understood early on that appreciation and thankfulness were not innate qualities, but rather learned virtues. We recognized that, as parents, it was our responsibility to be teach and model these behaviors.

We began a regular Friday night Shabbat ritual, in part, to help us fulfill our responsibility for nurturing Sammy’s (and our family’s) gratitude muscle. Given our hectic weekday schedules, it was hard to commit to meaningful family dinners Monday through Thursday, and while we tried to model the qualities that we wanted Sammy to develop on a daily basis, we felt it was important to reinforce our family values in a significant way.

Shabbat gave us the opportunity to elevate the act of expressing gratitude from a simple thank you said in response to another’s action to a ceremony that reminded us to be appreciative of all that we had. It taught Sammy to give to others through the collection of tzedakah, and to be grateful for more than just material things.

Blessings for the candles, wine, challah, and all present reminded us to be thankful for having each other in our lives, the opportunity to spend time together, and the food we eat. In difficult periods, such as when Cameron closed his business due to the economic downturn or illness in our extended family, our practice of sharing the good things that happened to us during the week reminded us that even in tough times we still had many blessings.

Over the years, Cameron and I have seen, through Sammy’s actions, flashes that have given us hope that our efforts to instill a gratitude attitude are working. We have seen glimpses of it in the thank you’s Sammy says during the holiday gift-giving season and the reports of his politeness and good manners from teachers and other parents, and we have witnessed it in his deep desire to give to others who are less privileged.

When he was seven, Sammy decided he wanted to purchase prayer books for a synagogue in need, so we found, with the help of a friend who works for the Union for Reform Judaism, a new congregation in Texas that needed siddurim. Sammy donated money he saved to the temple and his action inspired an anonymous donor to match his contribution.

While we count these actions as proof that our appreciation cultivation program is working, we occasionally see Sammy being tugged by materialism. He is envious that his friends have video entertainment systems and impressed by the size of some of his classmates’ homes.

At moments like these, we remind Sammy that there is more to life than the acquisition of stuff and remind ourselves that thankfulness is like a muscle. To remain strong, it requires regular exercise at various levels of intensity.

In our house, we nurture our feelings of appreciation through light activity five to six days a week, but pick-up the pace on Shabbat. Our Shabbat ritual is the ultimate workout for our gratitude muscle. What is yours?


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Jane Larkin 01-02-14

As the year begins, many of us find ourselves feeling as if we need to detox after the holidays. I am not talking about cleansing ourselves of the festive food and drinks in which we indulged (or maybe over-indulged). I am referring to the process of removing the toxins that have accumulated in our hearts and minds from extended time spent with family, and especially in-laws.

In a pre-holiday article, in The Boston Globe, Leon Neyfakh writes about the familiar image of “the monster-in-law” and reminds us that nothing seems to bring out our angst about our parents-in-laws like the holidays. For interfaith families, the season can feel especially toxic. Mix the navigation of different faiths and religious customs with regular seasonal stress, sprinkle a little Hanukkah-Christmas competition on top and what you get is a recipe for “holidays from hell.”

But it does not have to be this way. We just returned from Christmas in Vermont with my in-laws and the worst thing I can say about the trip is that my legs are a little sore from skiing.

I feel lucky. Neyfakh reports that more than 60 percent of married women experience sustained stress because of their parents-in-laws. But I love mine. What is wrong with me?

I would like to think that nothing is wrong with me; that my in-laws and I just happen to have found the ingredients for a successful relationship. That all these relationships need, is love.

The first time I met my in-laws, my mother-in-law wrapped me in an embrace as I entered her kitchen. The greeting was not over-the-top or staged. It radiated genuine warmth.

I was moved because I knew I was not the poster child for a future daughter-in-law. I was Jewish, not Christian; and my divorce from my first husband was still not finalized. Yet, my future in-laws greeted me with an air of acceptance.

My divorce would be official eventually; alleviating any concerns that my in-laws might have about my relationship status. But I was still Jewish. Yet, any worries that I had about the acceptance of my Jewishness were dispelled when I arrived for my first Christmas with the Larkins.

Hanging from the mantel with the family stockings was one in white wool with blue Stars of David. It was for me, and I appreciated that my mother-in-law found a way to include me in their holiday tradition while recognizing and respecting my faith.

The hug and the stocking laid the foundation for our relationship, and helped us to focus on our shared values, rather than on our theological differences. For example, we found that we both take our responsibility to help make the world a better place seriously.

Over the years, my in-laws have worked to care for elderly friends, feed the hungry (my father-in-law coordinates a summer lunch program for children and families in need), and help settle Sudanese refugees in the Burlington area (my mother-in-law has volunteered with the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program). Their efforts embody Christian values, and from my Jewish perspective, are the very definitions of mitzvot and tikkun olam.

We also realized that we share similar religious experiences and points-of-view. We trade stories about our involvement as lay leaders in our respective houses of worship and find similarities in our liturgies.

My mother-in-law has mentioned that the Reform prayer book Mishkan T’filah reminds her of the one her church uses. And my father-in-law, a student of theology, has been a great resource for answering questions related to the Bible.

While we have found common ground and created inclusive celebrations, I know that my in-laws had hoped that their grandchildren would be baptized in the same church as Cameron and his sister. I know that they were disappointed when we announced that our children would be raised Jewish and realized that a baptism would not happen.

But I also know that they felt that giving a child a spiritual foundation, regardless of religious denomination, was more important than upholding a custom. Knowing that our children would be raised in a home with religion diminished any disappointment that they felt.

I know that my relationship with my in-laws, and their support and participation in our Jewish home have been made easier by the fact that we both affiliate with the theologically liberal brands of our faiths. I also know that focusing on each other’s good qualities, rather than each other’s imperfections has helped too.

This has been our recipe for success. Maybe it is unique. But I do not think so.

It may not be easy to get past criticism, prejudice, exclusion, and parental meddling in order to build good in-law relations; and fundamentalism and the perceived threat of new or different religious beliefs and traditions can add another layer of difficulty. But I do think that many other families can make it work.

I know more of us could “heart” our in-laws if we put the stereotypical behavioral scripts that popular culture holds up as the norm aside. By focusing on what unites us rather than what divides us more families might be able to enjoy emotionally intoxicating holidays in the years to come.

My Christmas stocking recognizes my faith.


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