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Surviving and Thriving: Our Interfaith Shul

February 3, 2010

It's become a running joke in our household: on a hectic weekend morning, we pack up snacks and diaper bag and changes of clothes for the kids. We make sure they've eaten breakfast. I go through my checklist of the supplies I've promised to bring, pack up the dreidel cookies or the hamantaschen or the challah I've baked in advance. We wrangle and cajole and wrestle the children into the car. And then we sit for a moment and breathe before turning the key in the ignition and pulling out of the driveway. The kids' program at the synagogue hasn't even started, and we're already exhausted.

"Atheism is looking pretty good right about now," I mutter to my partner. And she laughs. And then we drive to the shul.

Thunder Bay lighthouseIn truth, though, atheism is not an option. At least, it's not an option right now, not where I live, not as a parent of two young children who are among only a dozen or so Jewish kids in their community. In Thunder Bay, Ontario, the one remaining synagogue is home to approximately 25 congregants. For a long time, the congregation consisted of my parents' and grandparents' generations: people who had grown up and raised their children here when the city's Jewish community was small but still viable. Those members are aging and their children, for the most part, have grown up and left town, leaving the shul and the city's Jewish population vulnerable.

Or maybe not. My two sons appear to be part of a mini Jewish baby boom that recently hit Thunder Bay. By luck or happenstance, the local university counted among its recent hires four or five Jewish faculty, or faculty with Jewish partners. All of a sudden, there was a small but passionate core of 30- and 40-something Jews in town, all of whom have had children in the past five years. Now, for the first time in two decades or more, the building is regularly filled with the sounds of children's voices--and not just the kids from the daycare space the synagogue rents out in order to make ends meet.

At our new monthly kids' program, we've dipped apples in honey on Rosh Hashanah, built a sukkah, dunked the braided candle into a saucer of wine for Havdalah, and played the dreidel game at our Hanukkah party, where a record 30-plus people showed up. In short, we may just be breathing new life into the synagogue. As the congregation's president wrote in an e-mail following Sukkot, "in my 26 years in Thunder Bay, I've never seen such a large group of young children and parents immersed in a Jewish celebration. Thank you for bringing new energy to our small congregation!"

Interestingly, the parents of all these children are interfaith couples, or themselves the children of interfaith couples. It's a change for the founding members of the synagogue: our president, who took her Irish Catholic husband's last name when she married him, recalls being asked, pointedly, "And just what kind of Jewish name is Shanahan, anyway?" when she showed up for her first Rosh Hashanah services. Today, no one would bat an eye.

The plethora of interfaith couples is also a change that, in my opinion, at least, will have to be regarded as a strength for our synagogue and for our community. Jewish media in particular is full of stories about the rise of intermarriage and the dwindling numbers of Jewish unions, but in Thunder Bay--and, I'm guessing, in dozens if not hundreds of small centers like it in North America--interfaith families are behind many movements to help Jewish communities not only survive but thrive.

So atheism, even for those of us who don't actually believe in God, isn't really an option. Not if we want our children to feel that their particular communities and traditions have a solid place in their city. And part of their communities and tradition are specifically interfaith. Their synagogue programming focuses on, obviously, the Jewish aspects of their lives, but it's one that must welcome and reflect their families' unique and multiple cultural and religious backgrounds.

If my synagogue doesn't support our interfaith families, we don't support our Jewish families, period--and the result would be that our children would grow up feeling like outsiders in their hometown. And that, I firmly believe, is not an option.

Hebrew for "Head of the Year," the Jewish New Year. With Yom Kippur, known as the High Holy Days. Yiddish for "Haman's pockets," and shaped after the three-corner hat of Haman (the villain of the Purim story), these are triangular cookies with poppy seed, jam or fruit filling in the middle. 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." Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. Hebrew for "separation" or "distinction," the ceremony marking the end of the Sabbath on Saturday evenings. A bread that comes in a few different varieties; its most common variation is a braided egg bread, though there are water challahs that don't have eggs, and there are whole-wheat challahs which sometimes also don't have eggs. It is customary to being Sabbath and holiday meals by saying blessings and eating challah. Yiddish for "spin," a four-sided spinning top played with during the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah. Hebrew for "booth," a temporary hut constructed for use during the week-long Jewish holiday of Sukkot ("booths"). 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. Yiddish for "synagogue."
Susan Goldberg

Susan Goldberg is a writer, editor and blogger and is coeditor of the anthology And Baby Makes More: Known Donors, Queer Parents and Our Unexpected Families. She blogs at mamanongrata.com.

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