Have you ever felt out of step with those around you? Sometimes, even among those we love most, we feel “different.” I witnessed several experiences of that this week. In the first, I read Cantor Jennie Chabon‘s beautiful drash, “Is God the one thing?

Jennie Chabon singing

When my brother was in college, he and his friends began what became a years-long search for one thing-one place, one food, one anything- that everyone in the world either loves or hates. No one can be neutral about it or it doesn’t count. He would ask this question whenever he was hanging out with new people, to see if someone could come up with an answer.

New York? That has to be a place that people either love or hate. But no, it turns out that some people have neutral feelings about NYC.

Anchovies? I am firmly planted in the hate category with anchovies, but apparently some people could take them or leave them.

Camping? That is such a love-hate activity! I love camping, but I certainly know people who can’t stand it. Alas, some people like it just fine.

My brother and his friends never did find their one thing, and over time the question stopped being very interesting. But I have found myself thinking about it again lately as we have been diving into interfaith work here at Congregation B’nai Tikvah.

We have had two interfaith dialogues over the past several weeks, the first with members of the United Church of Christ in Orinda, the second with members of the Sam Ramon Valley Islamic Center. These two communities are obviously very different from each other–one Protestant, one Muslim–but there was one striking similarity between them: a love of God is at the center of their communities and their faith.

As liberal Jews, we are taught that belief in God is an optional part of our spiritual and cultural identity. You don’t have to believe in God to be Jewish, or even to be an observant Jew. I have clergy friends who don’t believe in God and who were outspoken about their atheism in seminary. They are happily serving congregations and leading prayers that praise God week after week, even though they don’t actually believe what they are saying. For them, God is a magnificent character in the greatest story ever told.

This concept is absolutely unfathomable to a Muslim or a Christian. God IS their faith. Which makes me wonder, would Christians and Muslims say that God is the answer to my brother’s question? Is God the one thing, the one being about whom no one has ambivalent feelings?

I think the reason I love doing interfaith work is this: when I spend time with people of other faiths, people who are unashamed of their love of God, I feel like I fit in in a way that I don’t among liberal Jews. I was at an ice cream parlor yesterday with my son, when I noticed a young couple walk in together, hand in hand. Around the girl’s neck was a large key chain with “I love Jesus” written all the way around it. My heart sang for that girl and her shameless faith.

It’s true that we are not a people that publicizes our Judaism or proselytizes in any way. That caution has grown out of centuries of needing to protect ourselves. But sometimes, I wish I could shout out my faith like that girl with her ice cream cone. I wish I could exclaim my love of God without feeling like I need to defend it to my own people.

When Jews believe in God they are often assumed to be fundamentalists. Most likely, they are not. Why? Because highly educated Jews don’t believe there is ONE way to interpret or experience God. Don’t let someone who lacks knowledge to make you feel bad. Take a look at the book, Finding God: Selected Responses, by Rabbi Rifat Sonsino and Daniel B. Syme. The book was originally titled, Finding God: Ten Jewish Responses.

* * *

PJ Our Way logo

My second experience was during a discussion of a PJ Library book with 9 and 10 year olds. We were talking about Confessions of a Closet Catholic, a book for PJ My Way kids. The kids were puzzled and then pleased as they realized that each of their families does Judaism a bit differently. I think that being young and not yet stuck with a TRUTH, they were quite comfortable letting others be different from themselves. Some keep kosher, one doesn’t drive on Shabbat, another family does the opposite. I’d like to see us adults strive to be open to the different practices and choices of others.

* * *

Rabbi Steven Abraham

Rabbi Steven Abraham

Third, I received an article from a colleague; the article is written by a Conservative rabbi titled It’s Time to Say Yes and describes his personal decision making process to determine that he will officiate at interfaith marriages. My colleague assumed I would be thrilled with this article, after all, I refer interfaith couples to rabbis who will officiate at their wedding all time. But I was not thrilled, because the rabbi argued that the Right thing to do is to officiate at interfaith weddings. That means that rabbis who choose otherwise are “wrong.” Like my nine year old friends I strive to see the path that I have chosen while acknowledging that there are other paths that are valid for other travelers.

Jewish tradition teaches that there are 70 paths up the mountain to God. The number 70 is a metaphor for “many”. Seventy is also used when referring to all the humans on earth, i.e. the Seventy Nations. Thus, Judaism teaches that there are different AND VALID paths (religions). In fact there are as many paths as there are different kinds of people.

Shouldn’t Jews allow other Jews to be different? I am delighted to have a large list of rabbis who will perform an interfaith wedding. Do I need to condemn those who are not on my list? Nope. I believe that diversity is a good thing — even among Jews!

Speaking of all different kinds of Jews, try to get over to see the photo exhibit, This Is Bay Area Jewry. It will be showing at the Marin JCC from June 12 to Aug. 25, 2017.

Giacomini-Takasaki family

Giacomini-Takasaki family

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Rebecca Gutterman's family

The number of Jewish and interfaith families who are adopting children is significant. Often these children are not Caucasian. As one very sweet Catholic social worker put it, “Jews don’t seem to mind what color their children are.” We take that as a big compliment!

How do parents give their adopted child a feeling of wholeness, helping them integrate their story of origin with the religion and culture they are being raised in? Adoptive parents raising Jewish children have this and unique questions to answer depending on their family situation, such as:

Will we formally convert our child to Judaism?
Will we have some kind of Jewish welcoming ceremony?
How will we honor their culture of origin and give them a rich, secure Jewish identity?
If our child is a different race from us, how will we handle it? How will we respond to his/her questions at different stages, as well as questions or reactions from people outside of our family?
Join adoptive parents and adoption professional, Susan Romer, for a warm and supportive discussion.

April 20
7:30 to 9pm
Congregation B’nai Tikvah, 25 Hillcroft Way, Walnut Creek
Free, but an RSVP would be most appreciated. You can sign up here.

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Oshman JCC Logo

Several bay area JCC’s have received bomb threats and had to evacuate their facilities. When the Palo Alto/Oshman Family JCC was the victim of a threat they got a wonderful response from the Muslim-Jewish Women’s Group. Here’s what the JCC posted on their Facebook page.

Today we had a personal visit from a remarkable group of women—the Muslim-Jewish Women’s Group. Thank you for your support, and thank you to the Evergreen Islamic Center, the Mayor’s office and the many other organizations and individuals who have offered an outpouring of encouragement. #IStandWithTheJCC

PA JCC letter

Did you note the sentence, “Your suffering is our suffering; your children are our children.” No matter what faith tradition you follow there is always talk of God’s children. We are the single family of humankind. How beautiful this letter is!

Be ready to stand as a protective presence for Muslims, immigrants, LGBT. As Rabbi Menachem Creditor said at gathering at the Good Shepherd Church, “We are ready to make a circle around this church.”

Go out there and say something kind to someone. Maybe even to 4 or 5 someones.

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Purim at East Bay JCC

Purim at East Bay JCC

Dear friends, it has been an extremely difficult couple of months for those of us with multiracial, multi-ethnic families. Many of us are related to immigrants and some of us ARE immigrants. Please know that the Jewish community is acutely aware of what it feels like to be harassed and fearful. (There have been more than 60 bomb threats to Jewish community centers and Jewish schools in the last month.)

I was heartened to read the email Amy Tobin, CEO of the Jewish Community Center of the East Bay sent to the JCC members. I asked permission to share it with all of you. Here it is.

Dear Friends,

Over the last two months, Jewish organizations around the United States, including JCCs, have received threatening phone calls. While the JCC East Bay has not received such a threat, we remain vigilant and committed to the security and safety of our community above all else. We maintain strong security protocols and evacuation procedures, and the JCC continues to work closely with local and federal law enforcement.

In recent weeks, the rise in anti-Semitism has received increased national attention. This is, in part, due to the terrible desecration of two Jewish cemeteries in St. Louis and Philadelphia. The number of threats against Jewish institutions has grown. At the same time, the Jewish community has increased its public pressure on government leaders to take a strong stand against hate and to step up its investigation of these incidents.

We know that these events have been painful to absorb. We recognize that members and program participants may have specific concerns and encourage you to continue to share them with us. This is your community center, a place that vibrates with life and learning because of you.

At the JCC East Bay, we are concerned not only about the rise in anti-Semitic behavior, but about the rise in hateful rhetoric and crimes against many sister faiths and communities. We have seen arson attacks at two Islamic Centers. Latino and Muslim individuals are concerned for their safety and freedom, both in their communities and at the borders. In the last two years, we have seen unspeakable acts committed against the African-American community at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, and against the LGBTQ community in Orlando.

This moment is not just a Jewish moment. This is a cultural moment, in which we are challenged to stand united against hatred and discrimination. This is an opportunity to work for our shared values: freedom, safety and equal rights for all.

As Jews and as Americans, we take inspiration from past generations. Our history has taught us to find strength under difficult circumstances. Our community will not be intimidated by hatred. We will work more passionately for tolerance among all people. We will celebrate and thrive in community.

Thank you for being a part of the Jewish Community Center of the East Bay.

Warmly,
Amy Tobin
Chief Executive Officer

You are not alone. I am not alone. Together we will support and protect each other. I hope you have a community – whether Jewish or Christian or Muslim, whether religious or a group of friends – that is supporting you. If you don’t, it’s time to get one now. Contact me if you need help.

May we all reach Shalom – peace and wholeness.

Dawn
dawn@buildingjewishbridges.org

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B'nai Tikvah's window

B’nai Tikvah’s window

This Shabbat Rabbi Rebecca Gutterman of B’nai Tikvah in Walnut Creek sent the following email to her congregation. You probably all know about the sequoia that fell in Calaveras Big Trees State Park. Rabbi Gutterman draws a connection to this week’s Torah portion, Vayechi. Reading it gave me the shivers. For those of us who have lost loved ones and can remember places that don’t exist anymore this piece will be bittersweet.

“Brought down by California Storm,” the headline read.

The article that followed was not about anyone’s homes, moods or daily routines. It was about the Pioneer Cabin Tree, a sequoia in Calaveras Big Trees State Park. Given that sequoias can easily live over 1,000 years, this particular one had seen horses and carts, cars and pedestrians pass through. The idea of such a giant falling as a result of this most recent spate of wind and rain seems unreal. But it’s true.

“It is a fearful thing to love what death can touch,” wrote Rabbi Chaim Stern of blessed memory. Yet these are exactly the circumstances under which we live and love, always. Loss is disorienting to say the least, and never more so when the person, thing, or grounding reality we lose is one we thought would always be here. Perhaps the mark of true resilience lies in finding new paths to walk and new sources of meaning, even with hearts forever altered.

Vayechi, this week’s Torah portion, marks the ending of the first book of the Torah. Appropriately enough, it concludes with the blessing of Jacob’s sons, immediately followed by both Jacob and Joseph’s deaths. These losses were not only significant for their families, but also life altering for their descendants – the tribes who would become an enslaved people in Egypt.

That’s part of the reason why the closing lines of Vayechi are so significant. Joseph extracted one last promise from his brothers: that when their time of deliverance came, they would carry his bones out of Egypt with them. And so their descendants did, hundreds of years later. This gesture was a way of symbolizing that the most important parts of our pasts come forward with us into our future. As long as we guard our memories, tell our stories, create our legacies, then long ago fragments can be made whole again, even if differently so.

Ancestral bones. Remains of ancient trees. Let us set aside some time this Shabbat and during the coming week to think about what is most enduring in our lives, even in the midst of dislocation or loss. What is most worthy of being held inside and carried forward?

I leave you with a poem by Howard Nemerov that brought me solace and inspiration this week. I hope it brings the same to you.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Gutterman

TREES

To be a giant and keep quiet about it,
To stay in one’s own place;
To stand for the constant presence of process
And always to seem the same;
To be steady as a rock and always trembling,
Having the hard appearance of death
With the soft, fluent nature of growth,
One’s Being deceptively armored,
One’s Becoming deceptively vulnerable;
To be so tough, and take the light so well,
Freely providing forbidden knowledge
Of so many things about heaven and earth
For which we should otherwise have no word-
Poems or people are rarely so lovely,
And even when they have great qualities
They tend to tell you rather than exemplify
What they believe themselves to be about,
While from the moving silence of trees,
Whether in storm or calm, in leaf and naked,
Night or day, we draw conclusions of our own,
Sustaining and unnoticed as our breath,
And perilous also-though there has never been
A critical tree-about the nature of things.

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new-years-eve

Rabbi Milder of Beth Emek in Pleasanton sent this email to his congregation. He summarizes the four Jewish new years and considers the meaning of the Gregorian New Year that is observed on Dec. 31.

Which New Year Is It?

The Mishnah records that there are not one, but actually four new years. The rabbis needed one new year for reckoning the date of festivals (the first of Tishri), one for determining when the reign of a king begins (the first of Nisan), one for calculating to which year new-born animals belonged (the first of Elul, after the summer calving season had ended), and one for calculating the produce of trees (the fifteenth of Shevat). According to Biblical law, it was not permitted to use the produce of trees during their first three years.

The new year observed in the Gregorian calendar (January 1) has little to do with the sacred themes of the Jewish calendar. It has a lot to do with ancient themes of chaos, and the conquest of chaos in the coronation of a supreme deity. That chaos is replicated in the revelry of New Year’s Eve, which comes to a halt when the clock strikes twelve and everyone kisses and sings Auld Lang Syne.

In contrast, the Jewish New Year observed in the dead of winter (Tu Bishvat) is one marked by a sacred and optimistic commitment to the future–the planting of trees. No raucous parties accompany this act, just a sense of wonder in the miracle of nature, and a sense of obligation that was put into words in a famous Midrash from the Talmud: “Just as my ancestors planted for me, so shall I plant for my children.”

Likewise, the new year for the festival cycle, Rosh Hashanah, emphasizes themes of reflection and personal assessment. People talk about making new year’s resolutions on the Gregorian New Year, while Rosh Hashanah is less concerned with making promises to ourselves, and more concerned with examining what we have done with the past year. It’s easy to look forward and ignore the past; it is more difficult to confront oneself and acknowledge our weaknesses.

I enjoy the festive quality of the Gregorian new year, while recognizing that the important work of our lives is not about conquering chaos. It is the steady work of planting for the future, and self-examination, that make our lives a continuous work of art.

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jewsandchristmas

You may want to decorate a Christmas tree while your partner wants to make latkes. What will work for you as a family? Whether December is your favorite month – full of Christmas cookies and chocolate gelt – or your most dreaded month – material surfeit and cultural overwhelm – you are invited to join this open and supportive discussion on how to handle the December dash.

This year will be especially interesting because the first night of Hanukkah falls on Christmas Eve.

Sunday, December 4
Time: 10:30 – 12:00
Place: Beth Emek, 3400 Nevada Ct, Pleasanton
Cost: Free to Beth Emek members, $8 public. No one turned away!
Sign up here or just show up.
www.bethemek.org

Posted by admin under A meaningful life, Adult Child of an Interfaith Family, Children, Christmas, Holidays, Parenting
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group-with-torah

I received this message from a reader of my Mixed and Matched column in the J-weekly.

Your column is always suggesting convoluted ways that interfaith couples can deal with more traditional Jewish views. Why bother? Why don’t you just tell them to join a Reform synagogue and be done with the people who don’t agree with their life choices or see their kids as Jewish?
— Annoyed with Traditional Jews

And my answer —

Dear Annoyed: I can’t tell you how thrilled I am that you asked this question! I’ve been wanting to discuss this topic since I started writing the column.

I don’t know the religious makeup of your family, but my loved ones include Christians, Muslims, atheists and Jews of all stripes. Additionally, they are white, black, Hispanic and Asian; some Jewish, some not. What do they have in common? I love them. I don’t want to discard any of them. I may not agree with all their views or practices, but I choose to hold them close all the same.

The most challenging moment of inclusion I experienced was traveling to Texas to visit my nephew, who was serving in the Army. He wanted to take us all to a shooting range as an outing. He had dozens of guns and had prepared some for our use. Live ammunition was to be used. What should I do, I who was raised by a pacifist to abhor violence and guns? I sucked it up.

I looked at this situation through the eyes of my beloved nephew. For him, guns are a daily part of life and were essential to staying alive when he was deployed in Iraq. Shooting is a skill, and like hunting, fishing or golf, it can be a hobby. Granted, it is a hobby that I never anticipate adopting, but I made the effort to see it all through the eyes of someone I love. I am proud to say that I was able to do that.

I also came smack up against my boundaries. I realized right then and there that I never even considered being among people who own guns. I don’t want a gun owner to move in next door. I don’t want people to be allowed to carry guns in my community. That means I wouldn’t want my nephew as a neighbor — but the thing is, I would, guns and all.

So the dilemma is: Is the love we feel for our family members so strong that we can accept things about them that push our buttons?

Jews within the same family circle are going to practice their Judaism differently. Interfaith families with patrilineal Jewish children will have family members who accept only matrilineal descent. Therefore, an interfaith couple needs to figure out how to live among those they love despite significant differences. We all need to figure this out for ourselves, because whether we embrace traditional halachah or not, we will interact with Jews who do.

I see more and more adults in my work who grew up with a non-Jewish parent. It is vital that our entire Jewish community stop speaking for this next generation and instead listen. For decades, many have said of interfaith families with patrilineal children, “Let them be Reform,” essentially avoiding the work of creating caring relationships. It is time to ask young adults from interfaith homes to share their experiences with us: What are we doing well, and what needs to change? It is time for both individuals and institutions in the Jewish community to be open to patrilineal children and observant coreligionists alike, without judging or condemning their beliefs.

I am currently involved in a study of the experience of those raised in interfaith families. Their Jewish practice is across the spectrum. In the Bay Area, they have been met with kindness by rabbis in all movements, although they have not always felt empowered to share their feelings about their upbringing with other Jews.

This is a time and opportunity ripe for learning. As we approach the High Holy Days, I hope we can all commit ourselves to love our fellow Jews, patrilineal or matrilineal, observant or secular, as members of our family.

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Flower heart from Pixabay

Flower heart from Pixabay

I really enjoyed this article by Rabbi Larry Milder. He sent it to his congregation, Beth Emek of Pleasanton. It gives you a nice summary of the rather obscure holiday, Tu B’Av. Why not take his advice and tell someone that you love them, maybe even give them flowers.

The Jewish Day of Love

Today, the 15th of Av on the Jewish calendar, is the best holiday you’ve never heard of.

Tu B’Av (“Tu” equals 15) is a rabbinic holiday, i.e. one that isn’t mentioned in the Bible. According to the Mishnah (Taanit 4:8), on this day, young women would dress in white and dance in the vineyards, to attract the attention of young men.

Sounds a lot like Friday night Israeli folk dancing at summer camp!

Shimon ben Gamliel explains, “The Israelites had no greater holidays than the 15th of Av and Yom Kippur.”

It is a rather odd comparison. It is true that on Yom Kippur, it is also customary to dress in white. But we don’t usually think of Yom Kippur as a joyous holiday; rather, it strikes us as serious.

That was not how the rabbis of the Mishnah viewed it. Yom Kippur, too, was supposed to be a day for women, dressed in white, to dance. I don’t know how they did it while they were fasting, but the rabbis claim that these two days were the premier match-making days of the Jewish calendar.

I actually get it. People often do meet their bashert, their destined one, on the High Holy days. It is a time when Jews come together, and it is inevitable that some unmarried Jews will find one another, perhaps reacquaint after an absence of some years, and maybe fall in love. Or, at least, go get a snack together after services are over.

As widespread as the observance of Yom Kippur is, however, the celebration of Tu B’Av has somehow fallen by the wayside. What a shame! We can use a good holiday devoted to love, and nothing more! No fasting required, no hours of prayer, just a good hora, a line dance, Cajun two-step or Texas boot scootin’.

The wearing of white (Shimon ben Gamliel says “borrowed”) suggests a kind of equality, a way of getting beyond the surface appearance of who has fancier clothes. We are encouraged to consider character, the deeper qualities of a partner, the things that will lead to a lifetime of happiness.

I prefer not to think of Tu B’Av as a Jewish St. Valentine’s Day. Among other reasons, we don’t have saints, and the story associated with Saint Valentine isn’t a pretty story, either. There is nothing but beauty and simplicity in the tradition of Tu B’Av.

More importantly, we were celebrating Tu B’Av for centuries before St. Valentine’s Day.

Sometimes, the riches of our tradition are just waiting to be discovered.

Go out and get someone you love some flowers. It’s Tu B’Av!

Rabbi Larry Milder

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At the Oneg

At the Oneg

I had an ah-ha moment this week. I had attended a community meeting on the subject of responding to the violence against black people. We met at a black church. The event was organized by PICO, an organization that teaches faith-based community organizing. There were people of different faiths and races present. Afterwards there was some discussion among the dozen Jews around me about next steps. I felt oddly uncomfortable and out of place. It took me a couple days to realize why. Then it hit me. The conversation felt like we were helping “other people,” people of color. But I have family members who are people of color. Members of my synagogue are people of color. This isn’t about “them;” it’s about “us.” I know from speaking with you that many of you have multiracial families and friends. This struggle is our struggle. If you are feeling alone, reach out. There are many Jewish groups, synagogues, etc, that are confronting the violence; you can say you need support. If you want to help, reach out. Everyone is needed. Call your rabbi, call the Jewish Community Relations Council.

The most meaningful thing that I did (for me) was to start contacting my family and friends of color and say, “Are you OK? I’m thinking about you. I’m worried that even if you are physically unharmed you are being psychologically and spiritually hurt. I love you.” One on the young people I called was numb and depressed. I asked her, “What can I do to brighten your day?” Obviously I couldn’t alter the universe but I could do something to cheer her. She told. We did it. I’ll see her again tonight for Shabbat dinner and services. I will be sure to tell her that I love her.

Go tell someone that you love them, that you are thinking about them. Say you want them to be safe and to feel loved. See if you can do some small loving thing for them. Then please tell me what you did.

Some good articles:
6 Concrete Things You Can Do To Help End Police Brutality
Jews of Color Ask Us All to Dream of – and Fight for -Justice

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