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Spending the High Holidays with the Interfaith Community

Happy New Year. This September, Rosh Hashanah welcomes the Jewish New Year 5764. It also marks one year that my husband and I have been affiliated with The Interfaith Community in New York City.

Formed in 1987 by a small group of parents in Jewish-Christian marriages, The Interfaith Community holds classes and seminars for kids and adults with the goal of providing a "safe and neutral place for interfaith families." Their website describes a group that "celebrates the distinctiveness of each religion and does not aim to combine the two traditions or discourage affiliation with a church or synagogue." Simply put, they recognize that interfaith families need a place to connect where there are other people like them. And they are right.

Last year, my husband Marc and I attended their Rosh Hashanah service--I am an American Jew and he is a French Protestant. It was the first High Holiday season of our married life, and it was important to me that we attend services together in New York City, where we live. When we were engaged I had brought Marc to services at my hometown temple in Boston. Prior to that, I had some disappointing experiences with the High Holidays in New York--either unable to afford the unseemly price of tickets or, on one occasion, tagging along with friends to a synagogue where the rabbi spoke so fast (in English!) that I couldn't follow the sermon. I did spend one Yom Kippur fasting and going to Ellis Island with a Jewish friend--which was actually a lot of fun. But the Rosh Hashanah service at The Interfaith Community was an incredibly warm and a welcome change.

Creating special services. "We designed all the services to be participatory, family services, accessible to everyone that is there--Jewish and Christian spouses, children, any parents or guests," explains Sheila Gordon, a founding member who leads the services with members of the community.

It seems to be working; the first year 50 people came to services, last year 100 came, and this year more are expected.

Sheila describes how the services evolved. "In the late 1980s the feedback I got was that some of our Jewish members went to temple during the High Holidays, but others were turned away or didn't feel comfortable bringing their Christian spouses, and it was lonely going by themselves. A rabbi we'd been working with encouraged us to create our own service, and it was a wonderful process. We looked at different prayer and companion books to create services that are the essence of each High Holiday. Now we do a Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and a Yizkor (memorial) service. We discuss what things mean and why we do certain things to welcome the New Year. Everyone seems to appreciate this information."

Apparently my experience of looking for somewhere to go on the High Holidays was common, especially for intermarried Jews. A service like this is very attractive. It says to Jews, "here is somewhere you can come, feel welcomed, and bring the other, too".

In a word: welcoming. My husband also found the environment at the Interfaith Community service to be welcoming. Two minutes after arriving for services, we put on a nametag and were greeted by Sheila, with whom I'd spoken on the phone. Then someone handed us a homemade prayer book and asked us if we'd like to read a section of the service. This organization emphasizes participation and inclusion and thus creates intimate and meaningful services. It's also very exciting to see the kids so involved. They do blessings in English and Hebrew and at times even blow the shofar.

Apples and honey. For me this combination says: Rosh Hashanah. Food always fosters a sense of togetherness and The Interfaith Community recognizes this with a potluck meal on erev (the eve of) Rosh Hashanah and a break-fast on Yom Kippur.

For Pam Gawley, a Jewish woman in an interfaith family with children, the importance of being active in the Interfaith Community group is particularly strong during the High Holidays. "Last year, my extended family was gathering for a break-fast. And while I very much wanted to be with them, it was a priority to spend the holidays with our group. This is the [spiritual] community my children will grow up in, and it's important to my husband and me that our children feel this is their place. Plus, after being members for three years he and I look forward to being with the other interfaith couples."

What about him? My husband didn't have a lot to compare it to, but his reaction to the Rosh Hashanah service was positive. The environment was warm and intimate--very different than at my hometown synagogue where we sat in the balcony of a beautiful, but huge sanctuary. And he noticed that many couples were inter-cultural as well as interfaith, as we are. "I'm not the only European: there are people here from Bulgaria, Italy, and England. Plus, I can tell these people are smart and kind. I like that they spoke about world issues during the service."

I was just happy to be somewhere I felt like I belonged. No one questioned our choices or exerted pressure in any direction.

I stumbled upon this organization because I wanted to observe the High Holidays, but we have stayed active all year long because it's a place that seems to understand and genuinely care about us and our relationship.

Happy New Year. This month, my parents are coming from Massachusetts to join us for Rosh Hashanah. I am proud to show them our unique and special service, and I can feel confident it will be one they understand, participate in and remember.

Hopefully, I can be a welcoming presence to another new couple or family coming for the first time.

Hebrew for "Head of the Year," the Jewish New Year. With Yom Kippur, known as the High Holy Days. Hebrew for "Day of Atonement," the final of ten Days of Awe that begin with Rosh Hashanah. Occurs during the fall and is marked by a 24-hour fast. One of the most important Jewish holidays. Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Simple musical instrument made from a ram's horn that is blown in synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, as well as each morning after daily services during the Hebrew month of Elul (the month leading up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur). Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE. Hebrew for "remembrance," a memorial prayer service. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation.
Julie Slotnik Sturm

Julie Slotnik Sturm is a freelance writer and producer in New York. She has been part of an interfaith relationship for over four years.

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