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Interfaith Families and Secular Judaism

"It works for us because it allows for both," says Caren, the daughter of a Methodist minister, who is married to Mark, born and raised a Conservative Jew (their names are changed to protect their privacy). Their two kids have no question that they're Jewish; both attended the Secular Jewish Sunday School and celebrate Jewish holidays at home and with the Secular Jewish community in their Midwest college town.

Caren was comfortable raising her kids as Jews--as long as they didn't learn to consider their mother the "other" and themselves "chosen." In a Secular Humanist Jewish community, we don't talk about Jews as the "chosen people" because we don't believe that there is anyone to do the choosing. We believe every ethnicity has its own strengths and beauties. Kids of dual-culture families are welcomed. In fact, "Secular Jewishness does not merely accept inter-cultural families; it celebrates the additional richness that they bring to our communities. Secular Jewishness does not demand that the non-Jewish partner relinquish her/his heritage; we stress the importance to the child(ren) that the heritages of both parents be accorded equal importance and respect in the family," says Hershl Hartman, vegveyser (leader) of Sholem Community, an affiliate of the Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations, in Los Angeles.

We especially encourage acknowledging both heritages of a child of interfaith parents at our Bar or Bat Mitzvah observances. Because our ceremonies are about Jewish culture, heritage and history, they consist of the students presenting projects they have chosen, rather than leading services and reading from the classical Jewish texts. This allows for the equal participation of both parents and leads to some wonderfully creative presentations that celebrate both sides of the student's heritage while allowing him or herself to take his or her place in the Jewish world. For example, the son of a Danish mother and Jewish father presented a paper on how the Danes saved the Jews during World War II; the child of a Mexican father and Jewish mother delved into the Jews of Mexico. At the Bar/Bat Mitzvahs, we sing "Siman Tov u'Mazal Tov" and sometimes we sing it again in the language of the child's other heritage.

This celebration of dual heritage begins long before the Bar Mitzvah, however, with the baby-naming ceremony. In religious Jewish communities, boys have a circumcision ceremony and girls are named with much less fuss in the synagogue. In a Secular Jewish naming--the same ceremony for a boy and a girl--the parents explain why they gave the child its names--both Jewish and general. We often give everyone in attendance the opportunity to give the child a blessing or good wishes, and I often end the ceremony with, "Each of us, parents, friends and family, have our particular responsibilities for this child. We hope for the wisdom to help guide him/her to reach his/her own fullest potential, to develop his/her own talents and to come to an understanding of his/her own place in the world and in the Jewish community while honoring the heritages of both her/his parents." Because we include the entire family, a Secular Jewish naming ceremony can also serve in place of a christening or baptism, satisfying both heritages in a single unified ceremony.

The parents of the babies named in Secular Jewish ceremonies are often those who were married by Secular or Humanistic Jewish leaders and rabbis, sometimes in concert with an officiant of a different faith. It's important to those of us who perform weddings to make sure that the wedding is not half-and-half, but rather expresses what the couple has in common. We include elements of both heritages, but the words said apply to both members of the couple. When I co-officiate, I like to share elements with my co-officiants. I will hold the rings while they are blessed by a minister. A Hindu pundit will hold the wine while I say a benediction. We model a way for an interfaith family to enjoy and participate in each others' ceremonies while maintaining their own ethnic and religious identities.

One wedding between a Christian minister and a Cultural Jew presented a particular difficulty. The groom insisted he needed a blessing, while the bride refused to have any religious language used. For over an hour, my Episcopalian co-officiant and I coached the couple through coming to language that would work for both. We finally settled on a formula of "May you always..." which the groom understood as meaning "May God allow you to..." and the bride understood as a secular benediction. Whether Secular Jewish officiants work with clergy of other religions or officiate alone at an interfaith wedding, we make every effort to honor both cultures to the extent that the couple feels comfortable.

Weddings, Bar/Bat Mitzvahs and baby-namings allow us time to work out the intricacies of cross-cultural communication. Funerals are another matter. The prayers that honor the dead are not those that comfort the living. Those who call us to officiate have to trust us to represent both heritages while making everyone feel included. We don't pretend that there was only one religion in the household, and we include elements of the mourning rites of both. Sometimes, the ceremonies are a lot alike--both Buddhists and Jews bathe the body after death--but more often the customs differ. Jews do not usually have a wake or viewing as is common in some Christian traditions, but we are open to the family wishing to view their loved one before interment or cremation. Christians tend to send flowers to a funeral; it is more common for Jews to give charity in memory of the deceased. Interfaith families often offer both opportunities, and can even combine them by donating the flowers to a nursing home.

Secular Jewish officiants do not use any God-language in our ceremonies, but we can acknowledge the religious faith of the deceased and of the survivors and the place this faith has in their lives. Some of us will ask another person to offer a prayer the family wants; others prefer to concentrate only on the life of the deceased. Either way, our funeral services are about the person, the family and the community, not about any gods. They include poetry and other readings expressing the sadness we feel on parting with a loved one, joy in the life he or she shared with us, and our sense of finality. Often, we offer several choices to the family and they chose the readings that have meaning to them. We usually sing "Ha'yamim kholfim"--the Hebrew words mean, "the days pass, the years go by, but the love and the friendship remain forever." Because of this, a Secular Jewish funeral is emotionally satisfying to all, with the family feeling their loved one was truly represented.

The basis of all Secular Jewish life-cycle ceremonies is to concentrate on the person involved. We respect each person for who he is, and we celebrate the capacity of people to love others regardless of background or belief.

The website for the Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations, with affiliates in the US and Canada, is csjo.org.

Ideas for Secular Holiday and life cycle celebrations can be found on the Center for Cultural Judaism's website.

Hebrew for "son of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish boys come of age at 13. When a boy comes of age, he is officially a bar mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bar mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The female equivalent is "bat mitzvah." Hebrew for "daughter of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish girls come of age at 12 or 13. When a girl comes of age, she is officially a bat mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bat mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The male equivalent is "bar mitzvah." Hebrew and Yiddish for "good luck," a phrase used to express congratulations for happy and significant occasions. 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." Plural form of the Hebrew word "mitzvah" which means "commandment," it has two meanings. The first are the commandments given in the Torah. ("You should obey the mitzvah of honoring your parents!") The second is a good deed. ("Helping her carry her groceries home was such a mitzvah!") 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.
Cantor and Rabbi Judith Seid

Cantor and Rabbi Judith Seid is a graduate of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism and holds a master's degree in Jewish Communal Studies from Hebrew Union College. She is the parent of three fourth-generation secularists and the wife of a born Christian who is now a Secular Jew. Judith Seid serves on the executive committee of the Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations. Her most recent book is God-Optional Judaism: Alternatives for Cultural Jews Who Love Their History, Heritage, and Community

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