grandparent

My mother’s father was raised Jewish, and so was his brother. The brother moved to Australia and raised a Jewish family, but my mother’s father gave up the Jewish faith and encouraged his children to adopt the religion of their new country, America. Am I Jewish by birth? There is a Reform synagogue not far from me, but how should I identify myself when I go there?
Am I Jewish?

Dear Am I: This is a complicated question and there isn’t an easy answer. Traditional Jewish law has held that Judaism is passed through the mother. Thus, by traditional Jewish law, you are seen as a person of Jewish heritage but not a Jew.

However, within the U.S. Reform movement, there is an acceptance of patrilineal descent. Official policy says that the child of either a Jewish man or woman who is raised with Jewish lifecycle events and holidays is a Jew. However, neither you nor your parents were raised as Jews.

I believe you could find a rabbi that would accept you as a Jew with one Jewish grandfather, but be prepared: This is not a mainstream belief and you will have challenges due to your lack of Jewish memories and practices. It is very common for Jews to ask one another things like, “Where were you bar mitzvahed?” “Did you go to Jewish summer camp? Where?” “You live in Berkeley? Which shul do you go to?” “Do you know the Abramsons?”

These questions are not meant to embarrass or probe, but rather to establish connections. It is commonly referred to as “playing Jewish geography.” However, for you, it would come out early in this game that you don’t have any Jewish markers. At that point, you may be told, quite casually, “Oh, so you’re not really Jewish.”

If you choose to simply “join in” with a synagogue that accepts you as Jewish, do talk to your rabbi about how to handle these questions. Or give me a call and we can chat about it.

What I have seen over the years is that people with Jewish heritage who did not receive a Jewish upbringing often profit by going the route of conversion.

First, you will you receive the education that you missed out on.

Also, you’ll make a formal commitment to being a Jew and cast your lot with the Jews. In effect, you’ll be drawing a line that says, “That was then. This is now.”

Plus, you’ll have something tangible to prove you are a Jew: the certificate of conversion and your educational process. Moreover, the conversion process takes at least a year, and in that time you’ll work closely with your rabbi, creating an opportunity to become close and to have a special bond with him/her. You’ll grow in confidence and be personally guided by your rabbi, and I can’t tell you how many good things come from this.

Are you thinking you would like to reclaim your Jewish heritage? Before you simply tell a rabbi, “I want to be a Jew,” you should know what that means. I suggest you read a book on basic Judaism, talk to any Jewish friends, talk to your Jewish family members if you can. Best of all, consider taking an Introduction to Judaism class. A class will give you a deeper knowledge of a very complex religion. If you decide not to be Jewish, at least you’ll better understand your great uncle and his family.

If you feel you are ready to go speak to a rabbi, do. It will be helpful if you can articulate why you think you want to be Jewish, and why now.

I must also ask: How old are you? If you are underage you won’t be able to convert without your parents’ support of the idea. In fact, some rabbis will turn you away until they believe you are of an age and have enough life experience to make this life-changing decision.

While switching from one religion to another has become relatively common in the United States, it is taken seriously by Judaism. The reason is that Jewish tradition teaches that once a Jew, always a Jew. So if you find that you don’t want to be Jewish in a few years, according to Jewish law, you will be responsible for the same level of Jewish practice anyway.

Many Jews may not take Jewish law (halachah) seriously, but more observant Jews and certainly clergy do. So they are trying to protect you from yourself. Good luck.

Posted by admin under Adult Child of an Interfaith Family, Mixed & Matched, Non-Jewish family
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family

The email from this Jewish Dad is a pretty common view for men from Reform congregations. For that matter, it’s a pretty common view period. But what do you do when your opinion differs from that of others? I replied to him in my Mixed and Matched column in the J-weekly.

My wife is not Jewish but is totally on-board with raising our kids as Jews. We belong to a Reform synagogue that is wonderful to our entire family. Our children go to preschool there and are being raised with all the Jewish holidays. My concern is that Conservative and Orthodox Jews don’t see my kids as Jewish. I don’t see any reason to have our kids go to the mikvah, but I know that in my parents’ Conservative congregation, my kids can’t have an aliyah. Why can’t they understand that in today’s world we are all post-denominational Jews?
— Dad of Two Great Kids

Dear Dad: You have raised a very important point — whose rules are we going by? You and your wife have decided to do things in a way that meets your needs and your view of a shared Jewish American life. You may think the Jewish world should change and reshape itself to better match your view. The trouble is that Jews who adhere to traditional Jewish law feel you should see things their way. In fact, every other Jew out there has an opinion and is as unlikely to modify it to match yours as you are to match theirs. Thus, we are at a standstill.

Too often, an interfaith family has that very American belief that they should be able to have things as they wish. We are all vulnerable to thinking within our own paradigm. One of the most beautiful things about Judaism is that many opinions can be held or at least listened to and validated, even if they are contradictory.

Learn more. I invite you to learn about the views of non-Reform Judaism. Take a class, possibly with a rabbi, from another stream of Judaism. You can check out the Lehrhaus Judaica catalog to find classes and teachers from all backgrounds offered all around the Bay Area. Additionally, you can go online to see what adult education classes are offered at synagogues near you.

Suspend judgment. Go into the class with the mindset of an explorer — what do the Jews at this shul teach and believe? Note that they don’t all agree with each other, but it is likely that they hold certain views across the congregation. Just as your Reform synagogue believes that the child of a Jewish man can and should have a bar or bat mitzvah right there on their bimah, the members of other shuls will have different shared views. A common Reconstructionist saying — followed by the more liberal streams — is that the past (i.e., tradition or halachah) has a vote, not a veto. However, in other movements halachah has a great deal more than a vote.

Meet other Jews. Make an appointment with a Conservative and an Orthodox rabbi. There are many friendly ones in the Bay Area and I’d be happy to help you identify someone with whom you could speak.

What am I hoping for you? Well, there are several possible outcomes.

One, you would come away with a clear understanding of the halachic reasons for your children’s status and you will agree to disagree. In this case, you will need to develop a message that you will give to your children, and wife, about their status. The message should be honest and supportive of your children’s identity as Jews. You will also want to develop a message for the community at large for times when your children’s Jewish identity is questioned.

Two, you may decide that you want your children to be recognized by your parents’ Conservative congregation and therefore you want to take them to the mikvah. Here you’ll need to explain this to your wife without insulting her. Arranging the details will require talking to your rabbi.

Three, and this is the one I hope you avoid, you may simply be upset and do nothing.

Many members of our community want to be angry and sullen toward the Jews who don’t agree with their views of patrilineal descent. Please don’t get lost in this dead-end position. Discuss things with your wife and your rabbi. Make some affirmative decisions.

Finally, Dad, you have time, but not forever. Call me if you want to discuss your options. I can help you find a class and/or a rabbi for an informational interview.

Posted by admin under Children, Mixed & Matched, Parenting
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I received this question sent to my Mixed and Matched column.
This isn’t a common question, but it is not unheard of either. Sometimes the adult child of an interfaith couple wants to feel they are part of both their parents and they want others to reflect their choice.

My father is my Jewish parent. I was raised with Hanukkah, Christmas, Easter and usually we had a Seder. Neither of my parents cared about religion and they never told me I was any religion. I want to call myself Christian AND Jewish and be recognized as such by my Jewish friends. But I can’t get them to use that phrase. What can I do to change them?

Dear Half and Half,

My mother, an attorney, used to say, “You can call yourself Mickey Mouse as long as you pay your bills.” In other words, you have the right to call yourself whatever you like. The trouble comes when others don’t go along with you. In this case, it isn’t just that your friends don’t believe that you are both Christian and Jewish, it’s most likely that they don’t believe in the concept of being both, period.

What you want is for your friends to believe in an identity called, “Christian and Jewish,” and then apply it to you.

I suggest you make a list of what makes you “Christian and Jewish.” Is it simply because your parents are those two identities? Or do you practice particular Christian and Jewish rituals that you see as imbuing you with both religious identities? What are your theological beliefs? Do you see Jesus as divine? Have you studied the religious teachings of either faith? Do you agree with one or the other’s theology? Or do you see your identity as cultural because you are observing holidays from both traditions?

I’m suggesting you make this list so that you can be clear in your own mind as to what creates and sustains the identity you want to claim.

H&H, annoying as it can be, there are times when we can’t change the beliefs of others. You could certainly talk with your friends about your differences. Perhaps the conversation would be enlightening for all of you. But please remember that, just as you have a right to believe in a particular identity, your friends have the right to not believe in it. It is terribly hard when we have core belief differences from those we love and respect. You are touching on a central issue that comes up for interfaith couples – really wanting to be in agreement with the people who are important to us. From what you describe, neither of your parents cared deeply about their religion. So you have grown up in a home that did not put an emphasis on religion or religious/cultural identity. You are now coming into contact with people who have a greater attachment to religious identity.

For Jews, who are constantly worried about dwindling numbers and assimilation into the dominant culture, it is unlikely you will find many Jews who accept your self description.

You must ask yourself, can I just be happy in my own head; can I be content with my personal conviction that I am half and half? If yes, then you’re good to go.

If not, are you seeking the affirmation that comes from being accepted by a community? You have a much better chance of being seen as half and half in a Christian community that in a Jewish one. Since Judaism is typically seen as the parent of Christianity by many Christians a number of churches will be comfortable with your self description. They are likely to say something about Jesus being Jewish.

However, Christianity for many centuries and in many places today, sees itself as updating or replacing Judaism. It is the New Testament, come to replace the “Old Testament,” the Hebrew scriptures. So Jews are likely to be sensitive to your statement that you are both. You will be asked essentially to, pick a team.

To join any group of people means compromise. If you want to be a citizen who can legally drive a car, you have to abide by the rules of the road. If you want to pick Judaism and be part of a synagogue or other Jewish communal institution you will have to compromise. There are a few very liberal synagogues where you could get by but you are likely to be challenged by someone, Jewish or Christian, when you claim to be half and half in a Jewish environment. You could consider being just Jewish or just Christian.

Only you can determine which will be most satisfying to you. Feel free to call me. We can go over your list. Maybe there are some answers there.

Posted by admin under Adult Child of an Interfaith Family, Jewish Culture, Mixed & Matched, Non-Jewish family
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Oneg Shabbat

Oneg Shabbat

Another question sent to my Mixed and Matched column in the Jweekly.

My husband is Jewish; I’m not. This is a second marriage for both of us, and we raised our kids within our own religions. My husband attended synagogue as he was raising his children, but I never had a religious community. I guess I was sort of Christian because everything around me was. Now I’m attracted to the community that Judaism has. I’m not saying I want to convert; I just want my husband to be part of the community and take me. Any suggestions to get him to go to synagogue?
— Missed Out on Community

Dear Missed Out: This is tough, because you feel like you want something that your husband “owns” and to which you have no access on your own. Frankly, it is probably impossible to sit at home with your husband and coax him into wanting to go to synagogue. I suggest that you explore Jewish community on your own. Carved into the walls of an Oakland synagogue are the words, “My house shall be a house of worship for all people.” You, all by yourself, are welcome to enter a synagogue.

First, I want you to make a list of the things you believe you’d get from participating in Jewish community. Get it clear in your own head so you can talk about it with confidence and ease.

I suggest you then make an appointment with a rabbi at a synagogue near you. Go in and explain your situation to her. Using your list, tell her what it is you’d like to get out of being in a Jewish communal setting. For example: a place to celebrate holidays, a class to learn more about Judaism, new friends, a place to act on your social responsibilities, a place to “belong,” a place to pray, people to turn to in times of trouble.

Everything I’ve just listed can be had as a non-Jew, even without joining the synagogue. A lovely Christian minister used to attend my synagogue’s services because she wanted a place to pray without being in charge. Another woman joined the synagogue’s young adults email group so that she could make friends, be invited for holidays and have a group of people who care about her. She has no intention of converting; she just likes being part of the community. You could do what these women have done and just hang out with the Jews.

What will happen next? You could find that you have been wearing rose-colored glasses and Jewish community isn’t what you really want. Then you could take your list and look into churches. Or you could find that you loved participating with your new circle of friends and get so involved with them that you don’t feel the need for your husband to be there, too. Or you could have such a good time that your husband gets curious and decides to give Judaism a second look.

It may be that your husband has always seen being Jewish as a responsibility — one that he had to uphold by going to services, sending his kids through Hebrew school and making monetary donations. He may have never really felt any personal satisfaction or joy from being Jewish and practicing Judaism. If you start having fun, enjoying holiday gatherings, meeting friends at services, joining the synagogue book group or classes, he may be drawn to your activities. If he isn’t, at least you won’t be depriving yourself of the benefits of communal life, the sense of belonging.

First steps: Make your list of expectations and desires. Look online at the synagogues in your area. Peruse their websites to get a feel for what they offer. Call synagogues and ask for an appointment with the rabbi. Also, mention to the person answering the phone that you’d like to receive their e-newsletter. Start combing through the newsletters you receive to see what you’d enjoy.

You may be feeling shy at the very thought of taking these steps. You can call me and I’ll match you with a member of one or more shuls near you. Also, when you meet with the rabbis, you can ask them if they have any goodwill ambassadors who would be willing to sit with you at services or Torah study or a class.

Once you are going to events and on the rabbi’s radar, the rabbi will steer you toward people who will help you in your exploration.

Posted by admin under Community, Finding a Synagogue, Mixed & Matched, Non-Jewish family
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star-in-the-hand-2

A damn good question was sent into my Mixed and Matched column in the Jweekly!

Why am I not considered Jewish even though my mother converted to Reform Judaism? My father is Jewish by birth. I’m dating an Orthodox Jewish guy, and his mother has asked me what kind of conversion my mother went through, which is really dumb, because she’s a convert herself. Isn’t it enough that I’ve grown up with a Jewish identity my whole life? How dare people question what I believe? I’m Jewish through my father. Why isn’t that enough? If I were to marry the man I’m dating, his family would accept it only if I reconverted! Why?
— Really Annoyed!

My reply:

Dear Really Annoyed: There are several elements to your question, so let me begin with the halachic ones. For halachic Jews (those whose lives are informed by Jewish law), people are Jewish if they were born of a Jewish mother or if they converted. Therefore, you can’t gain Jewish identity through your born-Jewish father in a traditionally observant Jewish environment. This doesn’t mean that people can’t love you, have you over for dinner, enjoy your company etc., but it does mean that when they are determining whether a person is eligible to marry into their family, your father’s identity does not get you in.

Halachic Jews don’t see your mother’s conversion as authentic because the person who converted her was not authentically a rabbi according to their beliefs. That is, a Reform rabbi does not observe all the mitzvot, so is not really a rabbi and does not have the power to convert your mother.

You say, “How dare people question what I believe?” I’m betting that you question what they believe. Doubting the beliefs of others is a longstanding human practice. I doubt that you are going to be swayed to the views of your boyfriend’s family any more than they will be swayed to yours. I suggest that you don’t bother to go down that black hole, because it is highly unlikely there will be much mind-changing.

You mention that your boyfriend’s mother is herself a convert and had an Orthodox conversion. You feel that logically that would make her more willing to accept your mother’s conversion. But, in fact, that is all the more reason for her to not accept your mother’s conversion. She has taken on a way of life in her adult years that required a great deal of thought, faith and change. She surely did not do it lightly. I would bet that her conviction is strong and that she very much wants her children and her grandchildren to live within the framework of the life she chose.

Where to go from here? You need to talk to your boyfriend and see where he stands. Is he quietly letting his mother do the talking for him and is he not willing to marry you unless you have an Orthodox conversion? (This will not be a reconversion since you never converted. You were born a Jew, a Reform Jew.) If he feels as she does, he needs to stand up and be honest with you. If that is the case, then you should ask what being an Orthodox Jew means to him. Does he see his future married life as one with a kosher home, where the family is shomer Shabbos? Does he expect that you would modify your dress, hairstyle and activities, in order to maintain an Orthodox lifestyle?

If he does, then it’s your decision as to whether you want to live this way. You should certainly meet with an Orthodox rabbi to discuss what would be expected of you both for your conversion and your life as an Orthodox family. If you see beauty in a traditional lifestyle, then go ahead and convert. But you should do this for yourself, not for your boyfriend or his mother.

If on the other hand your boyfriend doesn’t really care about an Orthodox lifestyle and doesn’t intend to keep a kosher home or maintain the practice with which he was raised, then he needs to have a conversation with his mother. He should explain to her that just as she chose her own life direction when she chose to convert to Judaism in a traditional community, so he too is going to make his own choices. If he plans to marry you then he needs to tell her so. She may be angry with him but he is the person with whom she has a conflict, not you.

Posted by admin under Adult Child of an Interfaith Family, Conversion, Intercultural, Mixed & Matched
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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.

Posted by admin under A meaningful life, Community, Mixed & Matched
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colored-pencils-pixabay-horizontal

Yes, being different is a fine thing to be

I received this question to my column, Mixed and Matched:

I’ve heard people say that Jews shouldn’t refer to people who aren’t Jewish as “non-Jews.” Is that really a pejorative term? What should one say? Many of my non-Jewish friends don’t have a religion at all. I’ve seen researchers refer to people who have no religion as “nones,” but that sounds ridiculous.
— Want to Be Appropriate

Dear Want to Be Appropriate: I’m so glad you asked this question! Most of the people who are disturbed by the term “non-Jew” are Jews who have decided to attribute a negative overtone to the word. Frankly, I think it’s a fine word. I work with couples in which the non-Jewish partner is Hindu, Muslim, Mormon, Catholic, etc. Some are atheists and would be most upset to have anything having to do with religion attributed to them. What do all these people have in common? They aren’t Jewish! And that’s about it. Some are Chinese Buddhists, some are African American agnostics, some are French Catholics and so on. Their common ground is not being Jewish.

Does adding “non” make a descriptor instantly negative? I say no. I’m rather fond of many such terms; my favorite is nonviolent, though there are plenty more: nonsmoker, nonabrasive, nonpoisonous, nonfattening, nonaddictive. So I can’t accept that something that is “non” is necessarily bad. It may be quite good.

Why do some Jews get bent out of shape by the term? Sadly, many of those people are working out some of their own issues. They want to be seen as “nice, open, welcoming.” It is really about their own sense of self. Am I a good person? Do interfaith couples like me? Am I seen as one of the good guys?

A great way to be the good guy is to have a bad guy to attack. The attackers have written articles and given talks with righteous indignation condemning the use of the term. I’m always suspicious of righteous indignation. Very few people use it for the good of others. If a word is truly pejorative, like shiksa, one should certainly take the speaker aside and ask, “Do you know what that word means?” They should be enlightened, but there is no need to get righteous about it — unless you simply want to aggrandize yourself and humiliate that person.

I note also that people who aren’t Jewish do not react to the word unless they are told to. Giving people a reason to feel that others are disparaging them is a terrible thing to do.

I had a Catholic woman call me and say, “Interfaith! I’m in an interfaith marriage! I finally found out what to call it so I look for resources.” The number of non-Jews married to Jews in America is a tiny portion of the population. Jews make up about 2 percent of American society. Even if half of them are married to non-Jews, that means only 1 percent of Americans make up this “non-Jewish” part of the Jewish community. It’s easy to see why the caller was having trouble finding resources.

I do agree that the most appropriate way to refer to someone is by who they are. So if you know someone is a Methodist, it is proper to call them that. If a person is an atheist or agnostic, you can use those terms. This doesn’t mean that any of us needs to ask the religion of everyone we meet in synagogue. If it comes up, fine, but no layperson has a need-to-know situation over the oneg.

Identifying the role of non-Jews in Jewish environments is very important and I urge every Jewish group or synagogue to be transparent about their policies. In any religious environment, it may be that there are activities performed only by the members of that religious community. It is so much more welcoming for a non-Jewish person to know right from the website just what they are permitted to do. Imagine walking into a Muslim religious service and wondering, “Is it appropriate for me to do what everyone is doing? Or is that insulting?”

The most important thing we all can do is simply use good manners.

Posted by admin under In their own words, Mixed & Matched, Non-Jewish family, Synagogues
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hanukkah-tree-ornaments

One of the challenges for people who have grown up in an interfaith family that has created its own little universe is that there’s not necessarily a community that one can join that reflects your choices. Here’s one woman’s difficulty.

My mother was raised Jewish and converted to Christianity when she married my Christian father. They raised us kids Christian, and my mom celebrated all the Jewish holidays in our home. I would like to marry a guy who also has fond memories of Jewish holidays so I went to a Jewish singles event. But as soon as I mentioned that I wanted to raise my future children as Christians they basically stopped talking to me. Why is no one interested in my kind of upbringing?
— Confused and Single

Dear Confused: I am sorry that your mother didn’t explain more to you about how Jewish law and Jewish customs work. It is not at all common for Jews to desire to raise their children as Christians, even while retaining the holidays. As a minority people, Jews have historically worked hard at maintaining their family’s Jewish identity from one generation to the next. With that goal, Jewish singles events are typically seen as a place where single Jews can meet other Jews with the purpose of finding a partner. I suspect that the young men you met were at the event in order to find a woman who wanted to raise Jewish children.

There’s a bit of irony in your story because, as the child of a Jewish mother, you are Jewish according to Jewish law. There is no leaving Judaism; born a Jew, you stay a Jew. But since you are self-identified as a Christian and want to have your children identify as Christians — granted, who celebrate Jewish holidays — Jewish men who want Jewish children are unlikely to pursue a relationship with you.

For your own sake, you need to find a Christian man who shares your desire to have Christian children. You can certainly celebrate the holidays of your childhood as your mother did. Did your father enjoy the holidays with your siblings and mother? Your future husband could certainly do the same. Since Christianity grew out of Judaism, Christians typically don’t feel conflicted when engaging in Jewish activities. I’ve had Christians come to a number of my workshops to learn more about, as one woman said, “what Jesus did and why.”

However, I would strongly urge you to teach your children how they will be perceived by the Jewish community. Also, be clear that they are being raised as Christians and let them know some of the differences between the two religions so that they feel knowledgeable and prepared to encounter strong opinions about their identity. Be aware that your identity is confusing for many Jews and as such, it is at times interpreted as an affront. Your mother’s conversion to Christianity and the duality of your home celebrations may be perceived as a betrayal or loss by some Jews. The people you encounter may become abrupt or suspicious when you tell them your life story.

I feel it is important for you to know that your own children will be considered Jewish according to halachah (Jewish law) because Jewish identity is passed through the maternal line. Your daughters’ children will be considered Jewish also. But your sons’ children will not. I know this sounds complicated and perhaps odd and random, but it is a tradition that is ancient. For the most part, modern Jews know and adhere to these beliefs.

I want you to think about taking a basic Judaism class. Currently you are in the awkward position of knowing quite a lot about some aspects of Judaism, but feeling uncomfortable with what you don’t know. I think you’d enjoy having a broader understanding. Maybe one of your siblings would enjoy going with you. You’d have someone with whom to discuss the things you learn and to compare them to your own experiences. I could connect you with a sensitive teacher and have you meet with them before the class so that they can be responsive to your unique situation and needs. Let me know if you are interested.

Posted by admin under Adult Child of an Interfaith Family, In their own words, Mixed & Matched
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This common question for this time of year came to me via my Mixed and Matched column in the Jweekly.

Congregation Emanu-el, San Francisco

Congregation Emanu-el, San Francisco

I am getting serious about my boyfriend (who is not Jewish) and I want him to understand what’s important to me about being Jewish. I’m thinking that this year I should take him with me to High Holy Day services. Chabad has free services and I was always treated kindly by the Chabad rabbi on my college campus, so I thought about going there. I was raised Reform; do you think I’ll be able to follow the traditional service and explain it to my boyfriend?
Wondering

My reply:

Dear Wondering: I appreciate your growing awareness that your boyfriend deserves to know more about what Judaism is and especially what it means to you. However, starting with the High Holy Day services is really pushing him into the deep end of the pool. I don’t recommend it.

In the 20-plus years I’ve been working with interfaith couples, I’ve seen exactly two people, both practicing Christians, who liked High Holy Day services. Two!

If you have grown up going to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services, you are acclimated to the length of the service, the language and the atmosphere. But for your boyfriend it is utterly unknown and probably uncomfortable. The liturgy is unique; so is the music. The intention is to jolt Jews into a heightened state of awareness. Additionally, the reference to sins is heard by most Jews as “missed the mark,” but to most people raised in American culture, it can sound like the precursor to a quick trip to hell.

I suggest you take your boyfriend to a regular Shabbat service. At this time of year, many synagogues have outdoor services or services that include a picnic dinner or lots of music. Since you were raised Reform, I suggest you help him get familiar with a Reform environment. That is going to be most comfortable for you, and your comfort level will significantly influence his.

I would not recommend a Chabad or Orthodox service as his first experience because, for one, you would be sitting on opposite sides of the mechitza, which would preclude you from sharing a prayerbook and explaining things. Additionally, there are parts of a traditional Shabbat service that the Reform movement has deleted, so you too would be a bit confused.

I understand the concern about the cost of High Holy Day tickets, and I have a few suggestions. Rosh Hashanah starts the evening of Oct. 2. A couple of weeks before the holidays, this newspaper will print a long list of free services in the area (last year’s list at http://www.jweekly.com/article/full/75582 could give you a lead). Additionally, look at websites of Reform synagogues near you; many have lower prices for students, military and young adults. Or feel free to call me at (510) 845-6420 ext. 11; I can help you find options near you.

I also want to reflect on this idea you’ve formed: wanting your boyfriend to understand what is important to you about being a Jew. This is very important and he deserves to know. And you are doing the right thing by making this effort.

I want to you to consider the best way to go about assisting him. First, it is best if you and he learn together. Don’t make this a job for him with you as boss. Look for a basic Judaism class that you could attend together. Since most adult Jews haven’t studied Judaism since their teens, you’ll find yourself able to take in more of the details and the subtleties of Jewish history, practice and theology.

Many synagogues offer basic courses, and certainly Lehrhaus Judaica offers classes throughout the Bay Area, including an online option if you are located far afield.

Should you take him to services? Yes! But go easy. Find a service that is a bit shorter and has a lot of music. And, if you can, go with friends. Also, prepare a Shabbat dinner at home for him. Explain the elements of Shabbat at home. Demonstrate how Judaism is, in fact, a home-based religion. It is likely that the Jewish activities you will want him to do with you are home-based: Shabbat, Hanukkah, Passover. Have fun and be prepared to do this together.

Posted by admin under Couples, High Holidays, Mixed & Matched, Non-Jewish family, Relationships, Rosh Hashanah
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When a Jew Celebrates large

The following message was sent to me via my monthly column, Mixed and Matched

My dad is Jewish, but my parents raised me with no religion at all. I’ve always been spiritually minded and wanted a connection to God. I found a rabbi who was very kind and sympathetic. I told her that I didn’t want to convert just to convert, I want to believe in what I’m getting into. The rabbi guided me to a yearlong class on Judaism and also met with me privately. When I felt I was ready, she took me to the mikvah. I’m still learning, and I so very much wish I had learned about Judaism growing up. Is there no way for interfaith couples to give their children a Jewish education without committing themselves to being Jewish? I would have loved to have grown up around other Jewish kids. It was hard to do this all by myself. — Jewish Now and Forever

I answered:

Dear Jewish Now and Forever: I can’t tell you how delighted I am to hear of your kind and insightful rabbi! She is truly a blessing. I hope all rabbis will sit and listen to the adults from interfaith families, hear what they are seeking, teach them and help them find their own place.

To your question: Yes, there are ways for interfaith couples to give their children a Jewish education without deciding to practice Judaism. But I say this with caveats. Let’s begin with the “yes” part. Many synagogues allow members to enroll their children in Hebrew school while they are deciding what to do. Interfaith couples can meet with the rabbi and discuss their situation. Rabbis will not faint. They are used to the interfaith phenomenon. A local Orthodox rabbi told me that he believes that in order for a child to make a choice about which religion to choose, he or she must be knowledgeable about Judaism, which is a subordinate tradition in America.

Personally, I am one of many Jewish professionals who do not advocate a halfhearted attempt to send your child off to be educated without the parents doing anything themselves. This is disorienting for the child. So the “no” part would be that few rabbis are going to say, “Sure. Drop your child off and we’ll take care of everything. You just go shopping.” Couples are not surrendering their parental responsibilities.

Each synagogue has its own policies, so it is important to learn what they are. I have heard of some that give you a year to determine what you choose for your home. Others will educate a child right up until bar or bat mitzvah age and then ask the family to resolve the religious identity of the child.

Then there are the Jewish summer camps. Most of our local Jewish camps accept children of interfaith couples. At camp the child will have a fun, immersive Jewish experience and will learn Jewish songs, blessings, values and practices.

There are also Jewish community centers, which offer a wide array of Jewish activities and holiday celebrations, as well as preschool and summer programs for kids and families.

And let us not forget the many independent Jewish organizations that offer Jewish experiences. Locally there are organizations like Urban Adamah, Wilderness Torah, The Kitchen, Jewish Gateways, EcoJews of the Bay and Edah. A number of Jewish concierge programs have a professional who will help couples find the Jewish environment that works for them.

As you say, it would have been nice for you to have been around other Jewish kids. Children get a feeling of being “normal” when they have friends who celebrate the same holidays and are familiar with the same foods, music and cultural references. If an interfaith family is able to find another family, interfaith or Jewish, it is great for the children to have playmates who can share these ideas and experiences with them. Children like to be similar to their family and friends and they like having it pointed out. It gives them a sense of belonging. Children don’t have to be raised as Jews to understand elements of their Jewish heritage and enjoy being included.

Finally, I want to commend you on your personal tenacity. You found what you wanted and you worked hard to get it. You are a blessing to the Jewish people. Having lived on both sides of the Jewish identity, you have much to share.

Posted by admin under Adult Child of an Interfaith Family, In their own words, Mixed & Matched
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