christmas ornaments Pixabay

I wrote the opinion piece for the J-Weekly because so many Jews told me they felt pressured to embrace Christmas. Please expand your idea of what other people “should” like.

Growing up without a formal religion in the United States can lead many people to insist, “I have no religion. I’m certainly not a Christian.” They define “real” Christians as people who go to church, believe in Jesus as savior and observe Christmas and Easter as religious holidays.

But the reality is more nuanced. Despite the diversity we value and enjoy in this country, America’s culture is shaped by the Christian people who settled it. As a result, Christmas and Easter are federal holidays when government offices close. And the holidays are populated by figures like Santa Claus, Rudolph, Frosty and the Easter Bunny. All of this is so ingrained in the culture that most Americans don’t see it as unique. But for those who come from a different culture or nation, American culture is indeed quite distinct.

I like to call these Americans who claim no religious identity but follow the customs “folkloric Christian Americans.” They have Christmas trees, give gifts, leave out cookies for Santa and truly love the holiday and all its trappings. To a lesser extent, they also love Easter, with its emphasis on chocolate, bunnies, Easter baskets and Easter egg hunts. They make no reference to the resurrection of Christ and don’t go to an early morning Easter service. But they love the food and decorations that accompany the holiday. They enjoy getting together with family over a big meal — very much like Thanksgiving.

They observe these Christian holidays as folkloric, cultural practices.

Now, here’s the rub: folkloric Christian Americans believe the holidays are about fun, and that no one should have to go through life without them. I’ve heard people say quite sincerely, “It would be cruel to deprive a child of the magic of Christmas.” This kind of statement implies that their cultural norms hold some ultimate truth that every human being should follow.

For Americans who are Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Native American and others, this perspective can feel like a frontal attack on their own cultural norms and practices. Members of minority communities who grew up surrounded by American norms may feel uncomfortable when they are put on the spot with such statements. And the less able they are to articulate why a particular holiday or practice is not for them, the more upset it makes them feel. They are defending themselves on a primal level but without the vocabulary to express their concerns.

To the Zoroastrians, Buddhists, Sufis, my fellow Jews and others, I want to say that each of us has the human right to be who we are and to decline to adopt the cultural holidays of mainstream Christian America. While some minority folks are happy to get on board and have Easter baskets and Christmas trees, know that you don’t have to. Do not be defensive or angry. Express your sense of self in a soft voice. Graciously decline invitations that would make you feel inauthentic. Let others have their fun. You have your own.

And to the folkloric Christian Americans, I want to say, please wake up to the reality that most of the people on this planet do not have a Christmas tree or Easter basket, and they are doing just fine. Children who don’t practice your cultural holidays won’t feel deprived unless you make a point of trying to make them feel deprived. If you truly welcome diversity, then show it with your actions. Allow others to be different from you. And we should all enjoy and celebrate these differences in one another.

Posted by admin under Christmas, Community, Couples, In the News
No Comments

9 11

Every 9/11 we remember that hellish morning when we learned that planes had hit in New York, Washington DC, and Pennsylvania. We know just where we were standing, what we were doing when we learned of the attack.

One young man, an Oakland firefighter who went to New York as part of the mobilization of firefighters emailed me a few weeks later. He told me that he had been dating a Jewish woman and the relationship was important to him. But he told me that in the smoke and debris of the Towers he had knelt with a priest and reaffirmed his Catholic beliefs. He told me that it was a time and place when God suddenly mattered to him a great deal. Over the following months we emailed as he healed mentally from the trauma and his relationship with Catholicism because stronger.

In the end the relationship did not survive. He couldn’t turn away from his faith, nor could his girlfriend accept the idea of a Catholic home. I realize that this is not the happy ending that we are programmed to want. But it is an honest ending, one with integrity. My Catholic friend found the religion of his upbringing. His girlfriend realized that being Jewish mattered to her.

Every year on this date, I email him both to thank him for his service and to say that I remember his personal sacrifice. Sadly, his email began bouncing just one month ago. So Jay, wherever you are out there, I’m thinking of you and wishing you a rich and fulfilling life.

Posted by admin under In the News, Relationships, Spirituality
No Comments

Bridget's photo of resistance

We are reeling from the events in Charlottesville. Across the Jewish community clergy and laypeople are moved to words and actions. Here are some from the Bay Area.

Cantor Chabon, B’nai Tikvah, Walnut Creek
The older I get, the more I understand that living a fulfilling life depends on how we respond to the joys and sorrows in our world. When we embrace the moments of grace and love, we feel empowered and inspired to fight against hatred and bigotry when we next encounter them. Too often it seems that those two experiences–spiritual nourishment and the reality of our broken world-are juxtaposed against one another. That was never more true than this weekend.

I am sure I was not the only person to have a version of this experience over Shabbat: on Shabbat morning, 75 of us gathered in our beautiful social hall to sing and pray and learn together in our Nishma service, to imbue ourselves and our community with light and hope. After a beautiful oneg we all got into our cars, only to learn of the horrific violence at a White Supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia that same day. As we were praying for healing in our world, Heather Heyer z”l, was killed as she protested intolerance, inequality and violence across our country. Her mother, Susan Bro, says she wants her daughter’s death “to be a rallying cry for justice and equality and fairness and compassion.”

In the spirit of that call, we will be gathering this evening at 7:00 at Civic Park (at the corner of Civic Dr and North Main Street) for an interfaith peace vigil along with members of many faith communities in our county. Please bring prayers and supportive, peaceful signs. A group of CBT members will hold our banner to represent our synagogue’s desire to stand in solidarity against discrimination and hatred. Please join us.

Rabbi Bridget Wynne, Jewish Gateways, El Cerrito
​Like you, I am horrified by the hatred and violence in Charlottesville, and the disturbing lack of condemnation by our president. Continue reading here.

Rabbi Ruth Adar, Coffeeshop Rabbi, East Bay educator at Lehrhaus Judaica.
The events in Charlottesville are a wake-up call to all of us who were asleep. People marched with Nazi regalia, with racist and antisemitic slogans in an American city and the President of the United States had to be prodded to say more than platitudes. The Justice Department had to be prodded into action.
Folks, we are beyond the pale. Continue to read here.

Rabbi Singer and the clergy of Congregation Emanu-el, San Francisco
Emanu-El Clergy Statement on the violence in Virginia and Minnesota
The clergy of Congregation Emanu-El condemn, in the strongest possible terms, the ongoing horrific display of white supremacist violence in our country. Continue reading here.

Rabbi Menachem Creditor, Netivot Shalom, Berkeley
The Day After Charlottesville
In the aftermath of a horrific day in Charlottesville, there is an image I ask us to hold onto.

Don’t just read this, do something!

Posted by admin under Community, In the News, Jewish Culture, Spirituality, Synagogues
No Comments

Sunset in Tel Aviv

Sunset in Tel Aviv

Are you worried about whether there is a two state solution in Israel? So is Rabbi Milder of Beth Emek. He sent this message to his congregation. (Thank you to Rabbi Milder for letting me reprint this.)

The Two State and the One State

I watched the press conference held by President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu this past Wednesday.

The first question asked of Trump by an Israeli reporter was, “Are you giving up on the two-state solution?” His answer was “I’m looking at the two state and the one state. I support whatever the two parties like the best.”

This is a change in policy that should be of concern to all of us. For the past 15 years, each of the past three Presidents has explicitly endorsed a commitment to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That means that they have favored a secure Israel as well as an independent Palestinian state.

When Trump says that a one-state option is under consideration, our country is no longer advocating a vision of two states for two peoples.

I share the concern of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and the Association of Reform Zionists of America, who responded to the President’s shift in policy this way:

We continue to envision Israel thriving as a Jewish State, living in peace and security alongside a Palestinian State that would fulfill the legitimate national aspirations of its people.

Reform rabbis and Reform Zionist leaders are dismayed that President Trump has backed away from decades of bipartisan US policy supporting the two-state solution. The President opined that a one-state solution might also bring peace. However, given demographic realities in the region, one democratic state between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River would eventually bring an end to Israel’s character as a Jewish State. The alternative, Israel’s rejecting democracy, should be unthinkable.

I believe it is more urgent than ever to recommit to the vision of a two-state solution, and to articulate that vision in the public sphere. It is, I believe, the only way to ensure the future of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.

Rabbi Larry Milder

Posted by admin under In the News, Israel
No Comments


The Bay Area Interfaithfamily Facebook group shared the photo above and this quote from a discussion panel taking place at the Boston conference they are sponsoring on interfaith topics:

Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie of Lab/Shul: “Judaism can be experienced as living in forts (walled off, closed off, frightened) or in ports (open, porous). (Quoting Rabbi Louis Jacobs). We can make Judaism more like a port – a place of openness and fluidity – so it is accessible and meaningful to all members of all backgrounds of a Jewish family. That’s what we’re trying to do.”

It’s interesting to read this while sitting on the opposite coast in California. I am reminded of how very different Jewish communities in America are. Here in the San Francisco bay area there really aren’t any “forts or walled off” Jewish communities. Given our stereotypical views of Jews, one would expect such a community to consist of Orthodox Jews. But the bay area Orthodox synagogues are as embracing as their Conservative, Reform and Renewal neighbors.

Pondering Rabbi Lau-Lavie’s statement made me think about my own concept of Jewish community.

Here’s how I see Judaism Writ Large:

Judaism is a living organism – constantly changing. Think of it like a living cell. In order to survive it must have a porous membrane. Stuff needs to come in and go out in order for it to live. But it must also have a membrane; without a boundary, a definition, an in and an out, the cell will die.

In fact, Judaism is multiple cells, different communities with different boundaries. Like a body it needs all of its different kinds of cells in order to thrive. We can’t expect heart cells to do what lung cells do. But we can be happy that we have both kinds (many kinds!) of cells and Jews. In the bay area our Jewish community is made up of Jews, many kinds of Jews. AND also the people who love Jews, and people who just want to hang out with the Jews.

Want to be more engaged? Just contact me and I’ll brainstorm with you about finding the right place for you.

Posted by admin under In the News
No Comments

Religious Action Center

Many synagogue congregants are receiving emails from their clergy about the tragedy in Orlando. I am confident that many church members are getting similar messages. I share with you the one that Peninsula Temple Sholom‘s clergy, Rabbi Dan Feder, Rabbi Lisa Delson, Rabbi Molly Plotnik and Cantor Barry Reich.


Over the weekend, the Jewish people celebrated Shavuot, the festival of receiving Torah at Mount Sinai. However, instead of waking to the wholeness and peace that comes with accepting our sacred stories, we awoke to news of devastating human destruction. We mourn the 50 lives that were cut short at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, a place where LGBT folks came to enjoy themselves in a comfortable and life-affirming place. Our thoughts are also with the more than 50 who were injured as well. Just like last week when we mourned the deaths of four people who were killed in Tel Aviv, once again we are reminded that we live in a broken world.

It is becoming clear that it is not only enough to pray. We must speak out against extremism and join together with the vast majority of our Muslim brothers and sisters who reject violence in the name of their religion. We must speak out against homophobia and spread the message that love is love. And finally, we must join together and advocate against gun violence and promote gun control laws to keep guns out of the hands of those who wish to cause harm.

Tzedek, tzedek tirdof – Justice, justice you shall pursue (Deuteronomy 16:20). Judaism offers us a framework for how we should act in the world. Prayer and study are important, but so is action. Let us cry and mourn over the lives lost and then transform our tears and fear into creating a more just and peaceful world.

To take action, visit and share your thoughts with our elected officials.

Posted by admin under A meaningful life, Community, In the News
No Comments

It can be hard to hear another person when the words in your head are drowning out their voice.

Definition of "shema"

Definition of “shema”

Everyone deserves to be heard out. If someone else’s experience is being blotted out by your own pain you may need to be heard out before you can listen to that person. Try to sort out what is YOUR reaction from what the other person is talking about.

A thoughtful man wrote to me about a letter I’d published regarding a young person who chose to have an Orthodox conversion. That decision was up to the young woman, but this man’s pain made it hard to differentiate between her choice and his distress.

Though you tried to respond to the woman’s angst about her not-kosher-enough conversion in your March 11 column (“Conversion didn’t grant ‘born-Jewish privilege,’”), I am saddened by your seemingly bland acceptance that these basically bigoted ultra-Orthodox are the sole and final arbiters of who is a Jew.

If one is truly interested in “building Jewish bridges,” these folks are certainly terrible obstructionists, and in my opinion should be called out on every occasion possible.

This issue really came home to me — a 100 percent Jew, son of a Reform rabbi — when our elder daughter went to Israel with her confirmation class 28 years ago. My wife is half-Jewish — the wrong half — though American Reform congregations now recognize patrilineal descent. We have raised our children to embrace their Jewish identity. My daughter, then age 16, was invited to a home Shabbos dinner where she was told in no uncertain terms that she wasn’t really Jewish, and if she should ever want to make aliyah (which she doesn’t) that she would have to beg the indulgence of a rigid old man (my characterization) and have a “real” conversion.

Although I have mostly enjoyed your columns and generally admire your work, you can sign me — Very Disappointed

I’m so glad he wrote because he clearly has valid pain also.

Read my reply here.

Posted by admin under Adult Child of an Interfaith Family, Conversion, In the News, In their own words, Mixed & Matched, Parenting
No Comments

grieving teen

Here’s a question I got from a teenager:

My mom is Jewish, my dad is Catholic, and my brother and I were raised Jewish. Last month they told us they had recently written their ethical wills and each plan to be buried in the cemetery of their own faith. I was so stunned that I said nothing. I just assumed my parents would be buried side by side! I’m mad at them, even though I know it is their decision. I’m hurt and feel like they didn’t even consider how this could impact their children. My brother is upset, too, but he is very quiet and would never speak up. What should I do? — Hurt Daughter

My reply:
Dear Hurt Daughter: I’m so sorry you learned this in such a startling way. It’s hard to think about losing parents, and their news complicates your pain. Yes, your parents do get to make their own end-of-life plans, but I suspect they didn’t think about it from your perspective. It sounds like they simply announced their plans with the intention of giving you and your brother a heads-up. Since you did not respond in the moment, they probably assumed everything was fine.

You should definitely discuss this with them, and it would be best if you and your brother did so together. You could use the moral support, and he could use the practice speaking up about his feelings. I suggest the two of you share with each other how you feel and what is most painful about this news. Then consider what you wish would happen. Hard as it is, imagine what you would want at that difficult time when one of your parents dies. Do you both hope a rabbi would be there to give comfort? Would a rabbi be a comfort to your dad if your mother should go first, or would he want Christian clergy?

read more here

I got an immediate response from an adult who wanted me to tell this young person that she needed to respect her parents’ wishes. It sounded to me like a knee jerk response of an individual who is afraid they might be somehow in the wrong and they couldn’t bear it. Of course this young woman’s feeling matter. This is not a question of her respect for her parents, it is about her love and fear of losing them. I encourage interfaith couples to talk to their children — especially about things that are potentially painful – like death.

Posted by admin under Adult Child of an Interfaith Family, In the News, In their own words, Mixed & Matched
No Comments


A Jewish woman wrote to me asking about how to include something Irish in her wedding to reflect her fiancé’s Irish heritage. Here’s what she asked.

My fiancé and I are starting to plan our wedding for next spring. Neither of us is particularly religious. I’m proudly Jewish and he is Irish and was raised Catholic but doesn’t consider himself Catholic anymore. He is fine with a Jewish wedding and understands that I want to be married by my childhood rabbi. I think we should include something from his side for his parents’ sake. We don’t know what we should be considering. What do you suggest? — Happily Engaged

My reply is here.

Posted by admin under In the News, Non-Jewish family, Weddings
No Comments

2 rings small size

I received this inquiry recently:
Some gay friends wanted a “fully multifaith ceremony.” They felt rejected when no rabbi would agree to co-officiate, but Christian clergy would. I’m not sure how to help them address their feelings in the aftermath. — Sympathetic Friend

I answered the question in my monthly Mixed and Matched column for the J-weekly.

Here’s my reply:
Your friends’ desire was to find a rabbi to co-officiate. Any rabbi they spoke with should have first explained that they don’t need a rabbi to have a Jewish wedding.

A Jewish wedding requires four things, according to halachah (Jewish law), and none of them are a rabbi. Many modern couples focus not on the four legal requirements but on the minhag (custom). Most want the chuppah, breaking the glass, dancing the hora — all of which can be incorporated into any wedding. My guess is that your friends wanted a rabbi to represent the Jewish spouse’s heritage simply by his or her presence, and to make the couple feel that Judaism validated their marriage.

Since your friends are gay, the emotional stakes became much higher. From the start it was the rabbi’s responsibility to have a kind conversation that drew out the couple’s longings and needs, before addressing the rabbi’s boundaries. Beginning like this would have allowed the couple to identify aspects of the wedding — special food, music, symbols — that they controlled and could integrate into their ceremony. That would have met their first need for the wedding: representing the Jewish spouse’s heritage.

Second was the need for Judaism to validate their wedding. American rabbis from liberal branches of Judaism are rapidly moving toward embracing same-sex marriage, and your friends told you that they were not rejected as a gay couple. Perhaps the rabbis they spoke with did not clearly affirm the authenticity of their relationship as a beshert (destined) match, something they could have done even if they did not plan to co-officiate at the wedding.

The rabbi could have opened the conversation about boundaries with an I-statement: “Since you have come to me, I must tell you my personal stand on co-officiation and multifaith ceremonies.”

All Jews, rabbis included, have the right and responsibility to study Jewish tradition and their personal values to develop a meaningful relationship with their faith. Just as your friends chose to create a relationship they hope will never be dissolved, the rabbi is in a permanent relationship with tradition/God/ethics that he or she does not desire to dissolve.

If one rabbi could not perform the wedding, so be it. But your friends apparently were turned away by many rabbis. Now they must go beyond the hurt and try to understand: What happened here, and why does Judaism generally seem so unresponsive to a “fully multifaith ceremony”?

First, our understanding of the world is often from an American, not Jewish, viewpoint. As America’s dominant faith and culture, Christianity doesn’t fear the loss of its existence. Not so for Judaism, Zoroastrianism or Native American traditions. Many Jews readily understand the Zoroastrian’s rejection of the dominant religion because we support the underdog. We forget that Judaism is right there with these minority faiths.

Most rabbis are not willing to participate in a ceremony that does not feel Jewish and in fact feels threatening. One rabbi said to me, “I don’t want to be the only Jewish thing at the wedding.”

Second, it is important to understand that religious adherents of a particular faith are making heartfelt decisions based on their own spirituality, not on our personal desires. Mixing in another religious tradition may feel expansive to us, but it may feel disrespectful to those for whom the religion is a way of life. Just as we want rabbis to respect our choices, we need to respect theirs.

This moment of rejection hurt. But now it is time for your friends to move on and grow from the experience.

Spouses will not agree with each other at every turn; they can still love each other. They can love and respect a rabbi while not agreeing. For their own sake, the couple might determine that this experience will open their eyes to how others differ from them, what their boundaries are, where those boundaries can stretch and where they cannot.

You can listen to my podcast on how to find a rabbi here.

Posted by admin under In the News, Intercultural, Jewish Culture, Weddings
No Comments

Next Page »