Rabbi Arthur P. Nemitoff is Senior Rabbi of The Temple, Congregation B'nai Jehudah in Overland Park, Kansas.
Tips to Engage Your Family in the New Jewish Year
"Dad, I have my first big test in Biology next Thursday."
"Sorry, honey, you are going to have to miss it. Next Thursday is Rosh Hashanah and I want you to go to services with me."
"Dad, I can't miss the test. Mrs. Smith said that the only excuse was a death in the family or our own death... and I think she meant it literally."
"No, you will go to services... end of discussion."
Sandy was very unhappy with her father's position. Her father was Jewish. Sandy thought he was a hypocrite. He hardly stepped foot in the synagogue all year long. Her mother was a Seventh Day Adventist. She didn't have a problem with skipping Rosh Hashanah services. And both of Sandy's parents stressed the importance of school. Unlike her friends, she could never take a "personal" day off. Now that she wanted to be in school, her dad said no.
That's when I got the phone call.
Sandy did not attend our religious school, but had signed up for an adult education class on comparative religions. She was the youngest in the group by forty years. We had had a couple of conversations after class, during which she introduced me to her family's religious complexion.
Sandy called asking for my support. She wanted me to call her dad and tell him to let her go to class on Thursday. She realized that it was strange asking a rabbi to persuade a Jew to let his daughter miss services, but Sandy was convinced there was morality in going to school and hypocrisy in going to services.
The blessings of interfaith families are many. However, when families are not clear about their faith direction, when parents struggle not just with their spouse's faith but with their own, the results may be less than blessed. The question Sandy was trying to ask was, "How do interfaith families deal with the High Holidays?" It is an important—and, at times, difficult—question to answer.
The High Holidays are the central communal worship experience for Jews. For centuries, these days have drawn disparate Jewish families to the synagogue to recite prayers acknowledging our failures and searching how we might become better and more complete Jews and human beings. The essential themes of the High Holidays are repentance and renewal.
So what do interfaith families do with these High Holidays?
There are no stock, simple answers. Each family will swim along the currents of the interfaith waters with their own unique strokes and style. All I can offer are some simple coaching tips to make the swim easier and more enjoyable.
- High Holidays are family events. Share in an Erev (eve of) Rosh Hashanah dinner before services. Have a family break-the-fast after Yom Kippur. Invite all members of the family, regardless of their individual faiths, to help create family memories, just like we do at Thanksgiving.
- Attend High Holiday services as a family. Just because a family member is of another faith, the family is stronger when it celebrates together. If your synagogue permits, invite those members of your extended family who practice other faiths to join you at some of the High Holiday services. This will help them understand the history and importance that our Jewish traditions hold. (Of course, check with your synagogue first, to make sure you can get enough tickets for these family members. Also, selecting one of the shorter segments of the service for them to attend would probably be wise.)
- As a family, take this season as an opportunity to do some soul-searching. Have a family meeting and share your successes and disappointments during the past (Jewish) year. Discuss what each family member can commit to doing that will help the whole family to grow. Make a family covenant, describing what you promise to one another. It can be a simple piece of paper or an elaborate family art project.
- Rosh Hashanah is a wonderful time to plan out the family year—what vacations will be taken, what allowances will be given out, what curfews, house rules, or chores will be expected of each family member. It is a way of acknowledging the start of a new year for your family.
There are dozens of wonderful ways to incorporate the High Holidays into an interfaith family. The key is to focus on making Judaism a part of one's everyday life. Sandy's struggle existed because Judaism was being imposed, as a foreign object.
My response to Sandy?
I asked her if she thought of herself as Jewish. She paused. Then she said, "No one has ever asked me that question before. I know I am not Christian. I don't believe in Christian doctrine. I am not sure if I'm Jewish. Why?"
I explained to Sandy that if she felt she was Jewish, she should be at services for Rosh Hashanah, that it was central to her identity as a member of a community. However, if she rejected being Jewish, I would be happy to speak with her father. Sandy said she would think it over and let me know.
I didn't hear from Sandy. Instead, at the end of Rosh Hashanah services, she approached me, smiling. Her test had been delayed a day, at her request. Then she said, "If I am going to be Jewish, I probably should learn something. Is there another class I can take?"