The September Dilemma

By Jane Ulman


Months before the High Holidays arrive, Patrick Patterson requests the day off for both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur from his job as a firefighter/paramedic with the Los Angeles City Fire Department. A few days before, he reviews the entire High Holiday machzor, or prayer book, so that he feels familiar with the services and, especially, with the Hebrew prayers, which he reads in transliteration.

During the worship services themselves, which he attends at Los Angeles’ Stephen S. Wise Temple, he pays close attention, taking the prayers and the rabbis’ sermons to heart.

Michael Hudson, a Jew-by-choice, has no Jewish family of his own–both his wife and children are practicing Catholics. He’ll be singing in his synagogue’s choir during Rosh Hashanah, but has no plans for dinner for the Jewish new year. Photo courtesy Michael Hudson.

On Yom Kippur he fasts.

Patterson, 57 and living in Encino, is not Jewish and has no intention of converting. He can’t embrace Catholicism, the religion of his childhood, but he also can’t envision giving up saying prayers to Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, he has openly and enthusiastically accepted the traditions of Judaism and has taken the Stephen S. Wise 10-week Holiday Workshop class.

“I have a strong sense of faith and a strong sense of family unity,” he said, referring to his Jewish wife and three Jewish stepchildren and his own two children, whom he is raising Jewish.

But not all interfaith families incorporate the High Holidays into their lives so smoothly. For starters, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, unlike Hanukkah and Passover, are not home-based holidays that can be celebrated creatively and confined within a family’s religious comfort zone.

“At Hanukkah, you can delight in kindling the menorah, but the High Holidays are truly a full day of fixed liturgy that, the truth is, is a difficult one to follow even for many Jews,” said Rabbi Zachary Shapiro of Temple Akiba, a Reform synagogue in Culver City, Calif., with a large percentage of interfaith families amongst their 300 or so family member units.

Plus, there are no equivalent holidays in Christianity, and the religious concepts of tefilla (prayer), teshuvah (repentance) and tzedakah (righteousness) are often foreign to the non-Jewish spouse. Additionally, he or she is often unwilling to take off work to sit through a lengthy service, much of it in Hebrew. This is sometimes an even bigger issue when the Jewish partner rarely attends synagogue but is adamant about showing up to High Holiday services.

And sometimes the interfaith couple simply does not feel accepted.

Judi Brooks Johnson, 51, who identifies as a cultural Jew, would like to attend High Holiday services this year with her husband, an African-American who was raised Christian, and their 11-year-old daughter. She plans to visit some synagogue open houses in Southern Caifornia’s San Fernando and San Gabriel Valleys, but she is not optimistic.

“It’s difficult to find a place where we can worship when people are not welcoming of my husband,” the Burbank, Calif., resident said.

For certain, she plans to join her extended family in Los Angeles for Rosh Hashanah dinner and Yom Kippur “break the fast,” and she and her husband will use those opportunities to talk about the holidays with their daughter and nieces. “My husband actually embraces the Old Testament and he was taught well. We enjoy having wonderful discussions about values and teachings,” Brooks Johnson said.

Still, with intermarriage rates rising in the non-Orthodox Jewish community and with about 31 percent of all Jews who are currently married involved in interfaith marriages, according to the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01, Jewish synagogues and institutions are eagerly reaching out to interfaith families.

Rabbi Neal Weinberg devotes one session of his Introduction to Judaism class at American Hebrew University to the High Holidays, which provides an opportunity to discuss the differences between the Christian concept of unconditional love and the Jewish concept of justice. Photo courtesy Rabbi Neal Weinberg.

For the non-Jewish partner in an interfaith relationship, the High Holidays often feel like the flip side of the December dilemma, according to Arlene Chernow, regional director of outreach and synagogue community for the Union of Reform Judaism’s Pacific Southwest and Northwest Councils.

“They feel like the whole world is participating in something that they don’t understand,” she said.

Chernow refers the non-Jewish person to two resources which, she pointed out, are helpful even to those born Jewish. One is “Celebrations! A Parent’s Guide,” a booklet put out by the Temple Israel of Hollywood Outreach Committee. It’s targeted for parents of preschoolers but serves as a basic primer on holiday themes, rituals, foods and activities for all parents. Additionally, Chernow recommends “The High Holy Days” brochure created by the Outreach Committee of Phoenix’ Temple Chai.

At Los Angeles’ American Jewish University (formerly University of Judaism), Rabbi Neal Weinberg devotes one four-hour session of his Introduction to Judaism class to the High Holidays, explaining the liturgy and customs. In the class on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, he explained the difference between the Christian concept of unconditional love, which mandates that people be automatically forgiven, with the Jewish concept of justice, which insists that individuals be held accountable for their actions.

“Jews don’t have love and hate. We have love and injustice,” he explained to his class.

Grenda Guilfoil, 43, who grew up in a fundamentalist Christian environment, struggled with the idea that you cannot forgive someone who does not ask to be forgiven. Still, she felt that the session was helpful, especially in terms of dealing with religious concepts and rituals, such as blowing the shofar. She plans to attend High Holiday services at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles with her Jewish significant other, Richard David, 48, who is taking the Introduction to Judaism class with her.

“But it’s not only going to services themselves. It’s the family rituals also, like lunch at Richard’s mother’s house, that add a whole other level of newness that I’m being introduced to,” said Guilfoil.

Michael Hudson, a Jew-by-choice, has no extended Jewish family. “I frankly have to make that commitment on my own,” he said. An African-American, 52, he was raised United Methodist and, after a lengthy spiritual search, converted to Judaism in 1994. His wife is a practicing Catholic, as are his two young adult children.

Hudson’s Jewish family actually consists of friends from work, at the Los Angeles Unified School District where he serves as a labor relations representative, and from his synagogue, Temple Akiba, where he sings in the choir and serves as vice president of religious practices. Hudson will participate in all Temple Akiba services as a choir member. He has no plans for Rosh Hashanah lunch or dinner, but he will attend a Yom Kippur “break the fast” at a friend’s house, where his family will join him.

Hudson and his wife and children are accepting and understanding of each other’s religions. And while they often attend each other’s services, they keep their religious practices separate. “I don’t kneel in church,” Hudson said. “I don’t think it’s proper for a Jew to kneel in the Catholic Church.” But he hopes his family’s experiences will lead to a better understanding between Jews and Catholics. “I am a big fan of people of different religions sharing their experiences,” he said.

Ed Case, publisher and president of, believes that many of the High Holiday themes lend themselves to productive discussions among members of interfaith families.

“Taking account of what one has done over the past year, asking for forgiveness and talking about your hopes for the New Year are actually things that are universal and that could appeal to the non-Jewish partner,” he said.

Additional High Holiday Resources for Interfaith Families


About Jane Ulman

Jane Ulman Freelance journalist Jane Ulman is a contributing editor to The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles. She previously wrote a monthly family column for JTA, and her work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Daily News, Boston Globe and The Jerusalem Report. She and her husband, Larry, live in Encino, Calif., and have four sons.