Rebecca Rolnick is former director of Youth and Informal Education for the Union for Reform Judaism Northeast Council. She is also a staff writer for JVibe, a Jewish teen magazine.
Raising Consciousness about Interfaith Issues within One Jewish Organization
Originally published December 2005. Republished December 28, 2011.
I grew up a Reform Jew in a small town in Central Jersey. Probably among the few thirteen year olds who saw her Bat Mitzvah as her crowning achievement, I loved my interactions with the culture and rituals of Judaism. Every winter, my whole extended family — all twenty-one of us — would meet at my grandparent's vacation home in Woodstock, New York, and celebrate Christmas. We were all practicing Jews — belonged to synagogues, went to Hebrew school, visited Israel — but we simply couldn't resist participating in the wonderful Christmas traditions of the small Catskill village. So, each Christmas Eve, all the cousins would hang their stockings, sit on Santa's lap, sing Christmas carols on the village square and stay up into the wee hours to catch old Kris Kringle. We weren't Christian, we didn't go to church, but we loved the tradition. For thirty-one years, I never missed a Christmas in Woodstock.
About two years ago, I took an incredible opportunity to work as the director of Youth and Informal Education for the Union for Reform Judaism's Northeast Council. My job was pretty expansive, but largely centered around running the youth board and events associated with NFTY Northeast, the regional high school youth group for the Reform movement. Our biggest yearly events were the weeklong educational and social retreats called Institutes. As was tradition, the December Institute was scheduled to take place over Christmas. I knew Woodstock would have to go on without me and, as an adult, could accept that choice. Though Christmas was important for me, I recognized my position as a Jewish communal leader, and thought that it was important to give NFTY kids a place to go and celebrate their Judaism — to give them something engaging to do on Christmas.
The December Institute was a smashing success, as ever. Over a hundred kids attended. But something gnawed at me nonetheless. I knew that several kids from interfaith families did not attend. Several others had special allowances to leave and return for a few hours on Christmas Eve. Down the hall from my office were colleagues who worked with interfaith families. Books in the URJ library embraced inter-religious unions. The Reform movement boasted hundreds of resources welcoming mixed religious households. And yet, here I was, head of the Northeast youth division for the Reform movement, asking young, engaged Jews from mixed families to draw a line for themselves — they may love NFTY, but on Christmas, they'd have to decide which side of themselves to celebrate. I knew what a loss I felt missing Woodstock. But I was an adult. I wasn't choosing between parents. I wasn't questioning my own beliefs. As it came time to set the calendar for the following year, I decided to make a change.
NFTY is known for its tradition. Like a cruise ship steaming across an ocean, it needs time and coaxing to change course. But I felt like something had to be done, so I gathered my youth board and proposed that we move the December Institute to take place over New Year's, a secular holiday. This, I explained, would allow their inter-religious friends to celebrate Christmas — one of the most important holidays on the Christian calendar — with their families. They were apprehensive at first — what if kids wanted to spend New Year's with non-NFTY friends? Ultimately, however, we knew that as leaders of the Reform movement, we needed to model openness and acceptance and not simply speak to it. It was like we'd happened upon the last bastion of "isms" and phobias and knew we had to make a correction. The Reform movement had ousted sexism, racism, homophobia, but we'd yet to fully weed out interfaith-ism. This was our chance to really do the right thing. Ultimately, my youth board knew NFTY tradition was about to embrace a change for the better, and supported the choice 100 percent.
When Institute came the following year, our registration numbers maxed out and our New Year's Eve fell on a magical Shabbat. Kids who'd never been to a December Institute were able to attend, and no one had to feel guilty for being there. We worked hard to show the participants that it was "cool" to be with NFTY on New Year's, and by the end of the week, the kids were sold. When it came time to set the date for the following year, they couldn't imagine it any other way. "Having December Institute on New Year's rocks!" some said. Others, as if the event's success changed history, declared already that "It's tradition!" Still others, gleeful to be able to honor mother and father, family, their full identities, and indeed their own love of NFTY, simply said, "Thank you."
North American Federation of Temple Youth, the youth group of Judaism's Reform movement in North America. It offers local and regional youth groups, summer programs and post-high school programs.