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What happens when a non-Jewish person joins a Jewish family? Whether due to marriage, re-marriage or conversion, the new situation calls for a re-configuration of expectations. The entire system shifts to accommodate a new person who has a different background. Who will the new person influence? What does he or she want and care about? How much power does this person have? What anxieties or tensions will be exacerbated by this new presence in the network of relationships?
All families go through changes, some of them happy and desired, some of them difficult and unwanted. Families are constantly re-configuring. A new baby arrives, a grandparent dies, children become teenagers and eventually leave home, new family members are added as spouses and grandchildren join the family.
Even on a more micro level, families are constantly re-configuring. This month the Schiffmans have adjusted to a baby who now knows how to crawl, while the O'Brians are getting used to their thirteen year old's new-found passion for blaring punk rock music.
Incorporating a new non-Jewish member into the family may threaten a sense of safety and sameness, but it is really one more change that can be faced with openness and good-will. As we inevitably discover in the course of living our lives, life is about change.
Judaism, like many religions, offers frameworks to support people as they cope with change. Two frameworks, in particular, help families move through inevitable change with grace and support.
One is the framework of the life cycle. Rituals such as baby namings, Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, funerals, and weddings mark the comings, goings, and life changes of family members. The other helpful framework is the cycle of the year, with its holy days and observances. Sometimes the two frameworks converge, as, for example, when we observe a yahrzeit, the anniversary of a death: this marks a very personal day of remembrance in a recurrent annual fashion.
Life-cycle events and holidays can be stress points for families, but these occasions are also wonderful opportunities for opening channels of communication and for sharing meaningful life passages. With the knowledge that Bar/Bat Mitzvahs, weddings, Hanukkah, and Passover can be portals to greater connection and understanding or to greater alienation and dis-regard, the choice about how to proceed, to some extent, is in your hands.
These occasions are a great opportunity to reach out to family members with different backgrounds--for instance to a non-Jew who has joined a Jewish family--to share concerns, ideas, and expectations, and to check in about the other person's desires and comfort zone.
Wanda, who comes from a Midwest, Methodist background, married into an East coast, Jewish family almost thirty years ago. "I'll never forget the time I was invited to a seder and I offered to bring the bread. Nobody told me you don't eat bread during Passover." Luckily all involved in Wanda's situation were able to laugh about this lack of communication.
Many Jewish men and women have said to me, "When my non-Jewish partner started asking me about why we do this or that, I realized I needed to learn more about my own tradition." The interfaith relationship is a great impetus for deeper Jewish learning.
While welcoming a non-Jewish person into the family can seem momentous and tumultuous, when open hearts prevail, the changes that happen in the interfaith family system ultimately can be blessings of enrichment and understanding.
As we step into our New Year, what time could be better than this for reaching out to all members of the family?