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Thanksgiving Thoughts

The primary mission of the Jewish Outreach Institute (www.JOI.org) is to "reach out and welcome in" the intermarried, and to promote inclusiveness in the Jewish community for intermarried families and disconnected Jews. Originally founded in 1988 as a think tank and research facility devoted to the study of intermarriage, JOI's services have since grown to include advocacy, training of outreach professionals, and the sponsorship of innovative outreach programs throughout North America as part of its Jewish Connection Partnership program (www.JewishConnectionPartnership.org). This column is an opportunity for JOI to share its findings and views with the InterfaithFamily.com readership.

Reprinted with permission from the Jewish Outreach Institute.

Football. Food. Parades. Most people think that Thanksgiving is the perfect holiday for interfaith families. After all, who can argue with the foundational principles of the holiday? It is an all-American holiday with a gentle sprinkling of religious values that are informed by the Biblical celebration of Sukkot, the fall harvest festival in the Jewish calendar. Most importantly, it is a time for family. But that is precisely why such a holiday has the potential to be just as filled with conflict as are holidays that belong to one religious tradition or another, and why Thanksgiving can really catch us off-guard. Even after it is decided with which family the holiday should be celebrated (a challenge for most families, interfaith or not), there are still quite a few obstacles around which interfaith families must navigate. Simply put, whenever family gets together, unresolved issues that often boil under the surface rise to the top when we least expect it. Little things can set them off, it may take a long time to recoup from them. That's why it is better to anticipate them.   

Nevertheless, because Thanksgiving is relatively neutral in religious terms, it is the best time to address those issues before they emerge on their own at the dinner table. Some families will carefully try to avoid any conversation that might be emotionally explosive. While that might seem like a good strategy, it may limit the opportunity for people to be intimate with one another and share in the real "stuff" of living. Some families offer a prayer at the table, sometimes using traditional formulas of blessing and at other times just simply speaking from the heart. Others openly share with one another what they are thankful for by going around the table or speaking at will. Still others say the somewhat familiar shehecheyanu blessing (which thanks God for nurturing us and bringing us to this particular moment).

The important thing is to bring issues out in the open, rather than letting them fester inside. You may not want to put yourself in the position of saying, "I wish that I had mentioned it," later, after the guests have all gone. Gently, you may want to consider telling people what is on your mind, while framing it in thanksgiving terms. Although it was not the way we wanted to learn it, September 11th taught us some powerful lessons about life and about living. Among the many lessons we were forced to learn through that tragedy is that love is more powerful than hate and that our time on this earth is too tenuous to allow pain to form the framework of a relationship. We at JOI understand that for most families interfaith marriages strain relationships between parents and their adult children, as well as between siblings. We also believe that if things are openly discussed, then we have the potential to lessen the strain on the relationship--a strain that can be potentially damaging for any marriage. It may take some time to resolve certain things, but once a mutually supportive and equally respectful dialogue can be started, everyone will have a lot more to be thankful for this Thanksgiving.

Hebrew for "Who has given us life," part of a blessing thanking God for bringing us to a special or new moment. Hebrew for "Booths," it's a fall holiday marking the harvest, like a Jewish Thanksgiving, complete with opportunities for dining and sleeping under the stars.
Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky

Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky is Executive Director of the Jewish Outreach Institute.

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