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Interfaith at the Top

April 1999

When I accepted the position of rabbi at Temple Israel in Dover, New Hampshire, I never expected to find a Jewish partner. The odds of finding the right gay, Jewish man in a big city is one thing. But Dover is a very small town. What I hoped for, however, was what I got. My partner Andrew is caring, spiritual, bright, handsome, outgoing, and, although raised a Christian, not predisposed to any one religious choice. Several people--some within the Jewish community, had suggested that I meet him.

Two years later, we are living together, listed in the temple directory together, attending temple services together, praying in English and Hebrew at meals together, celebrating Jewish holidays together, attending Jewish lifecycle ceremonies together, and chaperoning synagogue teen trips and NFTY (National Federation of Temple Youth) camp trips together.

We also visit Andrew's family at Christmas and Easter and celebrate secular holidays with whomever and wherever we may be, together. Who we are, as individuals and as a couple, continues to be enhanced by our shared involvement in each other's religious and family life.

I have often been asked to explain my feelings about being a rabbi in an interfaith relationship. Words can hardly describe the experience. Here are a few glimpses into our lives as an interfaith family.

• We talk about what matters to us, before, during and after it surfaces.
This style of talking things through includes religious observances. We make an effort to respect both families' religious observances, although we observe only one religion within our home, and to also include friends in our plans.

We plan Jewish religious observances early enough to invite family and friends. We always plan to see Andrew's parents around Christmas and Easter, usually not on the given day, as my schedule precludes that possibility. It's togetherness as a family that is his parents' highest priority, and they are willing to forgo dates in exchange for total family connection. They are a huge blessing in my life.

As an example of our celebrating with friends, we host a Tu Bishvat seder in our home. Tu Bishvat falls mid-winter and is loosely translated as the Jewish Arbor Day. We celebrate by inviting several other couples, Jewish and mixed- faith households like ours, asking them to bring dishes that contain at least one exotic fruit or vegetable. Last year we began the meal with a discussion about the nature of relationships, represented by the various types of fruits. For example, someone commented that fruits with hard skins and edible centers represent relationships that are hard to enter, when the reward comes only with determination.

And, as an example of discussing things before they arise, Andrew and I have also begun discussing our personal preferences in death ritual in order to leave no stone unturned (so to speak).

• Our home and our bodies can be seen to reflect our religious choices.
We choose our wall art and the religious articles with which we adorn ourselves with the spirit of Judaism clearly in mind. We gift each other with religious ritual items like candlesticks, kippot  (head coverings), mezuzot (doorpost prayer), chanukkiot (Hanukkah menorahs), and tallitot (prayer shawls). Our bookshelves are filled with titles that relate to our understanding that all of life has spiritual content and that Judaism speaks to that truth. It is clear that we have chosen to embrace one religion for our household, and this is one of the pieces for which I am most grateful to Andrew.

• Our celebrations can be smelled down the block from our home.
The flowers and vegetables we grow and the scent of holiday spices is welcoming to our guests.

• Our family histories are tasted in our meals.
We prepare holiday favorites and new twists on old themes to excite the spirit through the palate. Andrew's parents have been particularly adventuresome in eating Jewish foods that have no counterpart in their culture. In exchange for their willingness to experiment, I also prepare foods that represent their history, which adds to my life.

• Our devotion to humanity and to the planet is always felt.
We lovingly hold hands around the table as we bless The Source of Life and all which we hold dear, before we eat. We include blessings for food and the nature of the day. We recognize the blessing of family and friends and people we may have just met. While eating we often have tasty conversations wherein no subject is taboo. Like reading Torah each week, whatever is presented is worth discussing. It all has value and adds to our lives. As we clean up after meals we bless each other and the earth by composting scraps and sending leftovers, if there are any, home with guests or to Andrew's co-workers.

All in all, our choice to be together has enriched our families, our community, and ourselves.

Hebrew for "15th of [the month of] Shevat," both a date and the name of a holiday celebrated on that date. A holiday that falls in January or February, it's the New Year for trees. 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. Plural form of "tallit," Hebrew for "prayer shawl," a ritual item that is worn and has knotted fringes (tzitzit) attached to the four corners. Plural form of "mezuzah" (Hebrew for "doorpost"), it now refers to a small box containing a scroll (of the Hebrew text of the Shema prayer) which is affixed to the doorposts of Jewish homes. Strictly speaking, mezuzah only refers to the scroll itself, not the case in which it's housed. 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.
Plural of "kippah," Hebrew for "skullcap," also known in Yiddish as a "yarmulke," the small, circular headcovering worn by male Jews in most synagogues, and female Jews in more liberal congregations. Traditional Jews were kippot (plural of kippah) all the time. Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation. Hebrew for "order," refers to the traditional course of events, or service, surrounding the Passover and Tu Bishvat meals. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them. 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.
Rabbi Lev Baesh

Rabbi Lev Baesh is the Director of The Resource Center for Jewish Clergy of InterfaithFamily.

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