Shared Values; Shared Holidays

By Rabbi Arthur P. Nemitoff

August, 2002


Chris looked at her calendar and shuddered. Married less than two months and she could already imagine their first argument. Would Sam want to observe Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur?

She didn’t know what to expect…and she really wasn’t sure what these holidays were all about. As a child, a couple of her Jewish friends hadn’t attended school those days. But other than that, Chris didn’t have a clue. Were they important to Sam? Should they be important to her?

Many interfaith families approach the Jewish High Holidays with mixed feelings. What is the importance of these holidays—Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot? How can interfaith families wrap their arms around them? How might interfaith families share in these celebrations, bringing out values that both partners can embrace and—in turn—share with their children and families?

Since all three are mentioned specifically in the Bible, non-Jewish partners who embrace the Bible as “holy text” can easily share these observances.

Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year. It is like a birthday party for the world’s creation. As for a birthday party, we get dressed up, we gather together, and we sing praises to the birthday celebrant…in this case, to the “Birthday Creator.” That is—in essence—what the Rosh Hashanah service is all about. Celebrating with the Jewish community in synagogue is the major aspect of this observance. It is a time to recognize the changes that have occurred in our lives and the changes we want to make in the coming year.

The value Rosh Hashanah celebrates is that of change. And all interfaith families can find ways of incorporating this powerful tool into their lives. Why not take Rosh Hashanah as a time to create your own “to-do” list? As a family, how do you want to change? To grow? To become better? Come up with three or four ideas and plan how you might implement such changes. If you can do that, you have celebrated Rosh Hashanah in the most Jewish of ways!

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the holiest day of the Jewish year, and is marked by synagogue services in the evening and the entire next day. The themes of the holiday are two-fold: teshuvah (repentance) and forgiveness. We ask for forgiveness from God and others; we offer forgiveness to those who have offended us. There is great power in gathering as a community and acknowledging weakness and failure. There is also great healing in recognizing that our inevitable failures can be forgiven and we can move on together—growing, learning, living.

Besides joining as a family in Yom Kippur services, the value of teshuvah is one interfaith families can easily embrace. The Hebrew word “teshuvah” refers to the idea of an archer missing the bulls-eye. It means, “missing the mark.” What have you—as a family—done to “miss the mark” this past year? Whom have you hurt? Who has hurt you? How can you “better aim” in the coming months? These become wonderful discussion topics for families to grapple with on Yom Kippur.

Our final holiday is Sukkot, known in Christian tradition as the Festival of Booths. While Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are mainly synagogue-based observances, Sukkot is almost completely a home-based holiday. It is a time to offer thanks to God for the bounty we enjoy. (Thanksgiving was modeled after Sukkot.) The major symbol is that of the sukkah, a small temporary structure people put up in yards or on balconies. Many people eat their meals there. Some will sleep in them, under the stars.

What Sukkot values can we glean and share? There are two: gratitude for what we have and the need to share it with others. Each of us has so much, and it is important to say “thanks”…to God, to others. Just as we offer thanks, though, we see that we don’t really need that many “things”; we can do with less. Thus, we learn we should share what we do have with others. These universal values are easily interpreted for interfaith families. Whether you build a sukkah or not (do so, it’s a lot of fun), families can assess their “gathering” habits. How much do we need? What can we share? With whom? How? These questions can lead to volunteer efforts in the community or to just opening your house to friends and family and sharing in common celebration.

The message of the fall holidays is of growth, gratitude, and gracious sharing. The voice is uniquely Jewish. Yet, the melody that runs throughout is universal. Interfaith families are invited to embrace the melody, make it your own, and find ways to give your own voice to the fall festivals.


About Rabbi Arthur P. Nemitoff

Rabbi Arthur P. Nemitoff is Senior Rabbi of The Temple, Congregation B'nai Jehudah in Overland Park, Kansas.