Community Shabbat

 

ED8CF5E9-052E-40D8-AC4C-BB749B3645ECEvery so often our congregation puts together dinners of different parts of the community. They’re always hosted by someone in the community who cooks up an amazing meal and there’s great conversation. Sometimes they’re just for empty nesters, or our TRIBE group of 20’s and 30’s, families with mitzvah kids in the coming year,  and sometimes they’re open to all.

I love my TRIBE dinners, but there’s something to be said about the open ones.

I say this because I was the youngest one at dinner on Friday. By about 25 years.

I knew it was an open dinner, so when I got there and our host whispered to me that she had invited other young people, but none of them accepted…I was a bit worried.

I’ve written about how sometimes because I didn’t convert, I feel like a fraud going to events without J. I know they accept me, I know I belong, but it’s just that hump internally I’m trying to get over. But I was there and no turning back now.

And let me tell you it was the most fantastic dinner party I’ve ever been to. At the beginning of the night, I was ask to light the Shabbat candles by the Rabbi in honor of my upcoming wedding which was just a week away! I made a joke about how it was going to be good practice for the next weekend with our unity candle.

Well wouldn’t you know — it sparked an interfaith marriage discussion that night.

Interfaith discussions usually goes one of two ways.

  1. Everyone talks about how it’s in their lives, everyone is respectful, people are understand, everyone leaves learning more.
  2. People who are very against interfaith relationships express those feelings, people who have interfaith relationships in their lives are hurt, everyone is upset.

I’ve been involved in both where I’ve had to defend my relationship to strangers. And they’re never going to change their mind! People who think J is wrong for marrying me or that I’m “stealing a good Jewish man and should be ashamed of myself” (an actual thing once said to me) aren’t going to come around. And that’s ok. It hurts…but I’m not going to not be with J because someone says I shouldn’t be.

I’m happy to say that this dinner was the first by far. Our host is a Jew by Choice who converted when she was engaged to her husband. Three of the older women there had children who had married non-Jews and all had struggled with the idea initially. One woman, who was my mom’s age had never converted, but married her Jewish husband despite being widowed and a semi-practicing Catholic was involved in all aspects of Jewish life.

What I found most interesting though, since all them had Jewish grandchildren, was the respect and admiration that they had for the parents of their children in-law. To me, that was the most amazing part. Many of them had started of worried, some of them against their children’s relationships with non-Jews. After consulting with Rabbis, they realized things were going to be ok. And it was. Not because their grandchildren are Jewish, but because they love them all the same and they figured out that was most important.

I was answering questions about my ceremony not because I had to defend them, but because there is no “interfaith wedding template” so they wanted to compare experiences. It felt good to be a part of a group that could have a discussion on a complex topic with seven people having seven different experiences and nobody felt like anyone was doing it wrong.

It was nice to hear so many different perspectives and how interfaith relationships have affected different people’s lives. In truth, I didn’t know what to expect when I got out of my and and was met by a lovely pair of newly weds in their 70’s. But I’m glad I went. Because it showed that my community is one of understanding, love and support. By no means am I an outsider because I wasn’t born Jewish and didn’t choose to convert. They’re mine and I can’t wait to see what’s next for us.

 

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A Jew-ish Ceremony

I wrote previously about Finding Our Officiant. It was something that wasn’t with out struggle.

Right now I have just 17 days left until I’m married. For a lot of reasons J and I had an engagement that has lasted over two years. And it’s good that we have. It gave us a lot of time to grow not just as a couple but as individuals as well. If it had only been a year I might have rushed into converting thinking I had to do it and I don’t think I would have regretted it, but I do think I might have been less comfortable with my decision.

So our officiant is our friend and Rabbi who left our synagogue to do amazing work in Jewish teen engagement in her home town. It allows her to be closer to her family and do what she’s really good at — youth religious engagement. And she’s like really, really ridiculously good at it. It’s a thing I admire most about her.

Creating our ceremony though, was an assortment of challenges. How Jewish did we want it? What elements of Catholicism did we want? What was she comfortable with? What were we comfortable with?

We started with a few ground rules

  1. The party was about other people. Our parents could decide about the flowers, the band, the food (they didn’t, but they had a lot of input) the ceremony was ours and not for anybody else so if there were things they didn’t like, tough.
  2. We needed to have elements of both
  3. People who were unfamiliar with Jewish traditions needed explanation and translations.
  4. Most of these practices were business practices that had been around for so long that my ancestors partook in them because they had to.
  5. We each got one need to have and one veto that the other one couldn’t argue.

Over the past few months, I think we built an interfaith ceremony that’s the best reflection of us.

We’re having a ketubah, but it’s an egalitarian writing of what we would say to each other if we wrote our own vows (an option presented to us, but weirdly something I’m uncomfortable with) and J’s “need to have” was, and it was a surprise to me, the bedeken. There’s a lot of reading and interpretation about  modesty, inner beauty, a husband’s duty and more but the most common biblical story cited is when Jacob thought he was marrying Rachel but was tricked into marrying Leah because of the veil covering her. J thinks it will be a fun and memorable moment for us, but again, egalitarian so while he puts my veil on, I’ll put his kippah on him.

We will have a chuppah, and we’ll use J’s late grandfathers tallit which has been embroidered with every milestone since the first cousin wedding above us, but we won’t be wrapped in it. My mom ended up really liking the idea of both parents walking me down the aisle. She was traditional for about 45 seconds before deciding that my father didn’t raise me alone.

Our vows will be in both English and Hebrew. We’re consecrating ourselves to each other “In the eyes of G-d and all humanity” as opposed to the traditional “according the laws of Moses and Israel.” We’re using the wine (since wine is also big item in Catholicism I felt like even this action was a bit of a nod towards my heritage.) We’re using the kiddush cup got at his Bar Mitzvah and the chalice I got at my First Communion.  We are having a unity candle, we’re doing a more modern Seven Blessings that acknowledges our differences and we’ll be breaking the glass.

I knew when I decided to marry J what I’d be giving up. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have just a twinge of missing it. While I don’t practice any more, I feel I have too much respect for those rules to violate them for the sake of making other people happy.

This is what my interfaith ceremony looks like. It leans a little bit more Jewish, but in our home and in our lives that’s who we are. It was by no means easy to create. There was a lot of research and a lot of discussion. I ended up vetoing any circling because it didn’t feel like me. Everything in our ceremony feels like both of us. The truth is just as no ceremony fits all people no interfaith ceremony will fit all interfaith couples. We’re lucky that our officiant wanted our ceremony to be something we were both in love with and build it from the ground up because it was ours. At the end of the day only one part of that entire day matters and it’s the 30 minutes where we go from being two separate people to our own family.

 

Shabbat

I’m secretly a little bit jealous of J’s siblings and cousins. None of them are interfaith. So when one of them just plans to do Shabbat, it’s no big deal. For us, people always see it as a thing. They get to celebrate as a family, with their children who are so solid from day one in where they belong. The oldest, at three-years old sings HaMotzi every time she sees bread.

Every restaurant with candles and bread, she celebrates Shabbat with prayers and singing and covering any sort of carby goodness on the table with a napkin and pulling the napkin off like a magician and distributing us pieces of bread that she’s torn off.

It’s the kind of adorable that makes you squeal every time you see it. But in truth, we’ve missed ever doing an actual Shabbat with her. We live a plane ride away and frequently our work schedules prevent us from ever having a weekend off that’s not diligently planned months in advance.

We don’t work in a field that affords us a weekend off consistently. During our busy season, Fridays and Saturdays become our busiest and most hectic days. Even Sundays get crazy.

So really, we don’t have weekends off. Sometimes we do. Usually though I’m spending it at work running around. So it certainly doesn’t help with our religious practice when our clergy has the same off days as us and there’s no services or programs for young adults.

Take this weekend for instance, we had a plan to go to services Friday night. I was going to take a break from work, recenter myself and head back into the thick of work. And then everything blew up at once. So I got stuck at the office and I was here early Saturday morning.

Suffice to say, any sort of services went out the window for us.

J’s family never celebrated Shabbat on a consistent basis. They did when the kids were interested in it, but it was never a part of their regular Friday night family routine. From that, it’s not a part of J’s consistent routine as an adult post the questioning religion phase of college freedom.

The work schedule isn’t a new thing, it’s just a rotating thing. And we got out of one of our best habits when it rotated about a year ago. We also dropped our best habit because I decided not to convert. It was like in doing so, I suddenly felt that Judaism wasn’t “mine” to be a part of if I didn’t have someone legitimate with me. And it’s nothing to do with our community, it is much more of my own anxieties. Like people will know that I’m some sort of fraud in my prayers. And I feel like by me not converting, J got some sort of get out of services free card because it only became a part of his like because it was a part of mine. Unlike me, he doesn’t get much out of organized prayer. Which is a sad thing, I think. But our ritual before was one that I think improved our relationship.

Because we follow Reform Judaism we follow a much more relaxed interpretation of Shabbat. So when we were off together some sort of consistency, we would create our own Shabbat.   Even if it was Tuesday.  And we’d spend the day talking, maybe finally see that movie we’ve been talking about going to, go to minor league baseball game or take a cooking class together. The rule was if there were things that had to be done on the computer, you could only spend two hours on the machine, and there were no phones. We spent most of our time doing things we didn’t always normally do and spending time with each other.

For a while since we could just go to services, go to dinner and hang out on Saturday we stepped away from our truly special ritual we had created for ourselves. And I know life is a little crazier than normal with just three weeks until our wedding. But craziness right now doesn’t excuse the month before when we weren’t three weeks from our wedding.

So I think our honeymoon, which we’re leaving everything with work on the mainland for two weeks and not talking to anyone (ok, except our photographer if she has our wedding photos ready) and hopefully we’ll be able to re make these rituals and this time for each other that we can carry into our marriage.

It’s kind of the beauty of interfaith, we’re designing what is working best for us.

Priorities

It has been hard to write for a bit. There were two bridal showers, a bachelorette, moving and all these last minute wedding plans.

Who knew there was so much that goes into planning for a grand total of like six hours?!? It’s exhausting just planning the party!

So writing kinda fell off my priority list. And I’ve noticed a lot of our priorities shifting and in ways it makes me sad and in ways it makes me happy!

We have a house, and we’re spending so much more time together. We’re so much happier having our own space and space that’s far away from work. It’s amazing how good for your soul a commute can be!

But through the past month we forgot about Purim.

And we forgot about Passover.

And we forgot about Easter.

And I remembered Lent, but it was hard. We haven’t been focusing on going to services at our synagogue. I haven’t been focused on writing. And I could blame it on time, oh I could. But in reality I have time for all those things. I’ve chosen not to do them.

That’s the part that makes me sad. That faith has become less of a priority in our lives. I guess that’s what makes the interfaith thing hard. If we were both Jewish or both Catholic I might feel like I’m “allowed” to make J go to services. But I can’t make him celebrate a holiday that isn’t his own, and despite the acceptance from the community, I’m still a little weird about going to Jewish holiday services on my own. I feel like it’s mine — but it’s not until I’m actually married.

We haven’t been in so long that our Rabbi emailed me to make sure that everything was ok.

It’s hard to figure out where our priorities should fall for now. For me, I put a lot of focus on faith and prayer and I feel unfulfilled when I don’t have those things in my life. J is very opposite. He doesn’t find much in organized faith and religion but instead finds fulfillment in traditions. So it’s a hard balance because we haven’t found the right place for it in our lives.

In that way, our interfaith journey is still very fluid. We started with what we wanted to be: interfaith. And now we’re figuring out the next step not as individuals but as a team. Ultimately this year will be big for us and so I want to make sure we start setting the ground work for our faith identity together within our first year of marriage.   That’s the part I’m still figuring out.

A Jew-ish Lent

When I was a full-time, practicing Catholic I my favorite time of year was Lent.

I’ll admit, it is odd for someone to say that they love Lent. But as a child I liked the challenge of not doing something I enjoyed.  As I got older I enjoyed having that time to reflect on what truly mattered. I also lived for Palm Sunday mass because it was really like a play and I’ve always had a bit of a flair for the dramatic.

When I was younger I would very carefully pick what I was going to give up for Lent, what my yearly challenge would be. I’ve given up foods, video games, makeup (that was the hardest, but also the most fulfilling), social media and wine. I always arrived at Easter Sunday proud of my strength, feeling more spiritually fulfilled and like I didn’t need those things. Some things, I never really went back to.

Still to this day, I do enjoy the Lenten season. There’s a certain peacefulness  when you’re trying not to do something and have to find more fulfilling way to occupy that space in your mind.

When I was in my conversion process I struggled with giving up this time of reflection even if I was replacing it with something else. There are plenty of opportunities for spiritual reflection in the Jewish calendar! Just look at having a mindful Shabbat. But it just didn’t feel the same as what I had grown up with. As much as I love Jewish traditions and as much as they’ve begun to feel like my own, I still want to hold onto some of my own faith-based traditions even if that’s not what half my home practices.

I’ve found that despite my questions of faith, my quest for a spiritual fulfilment at this time of year remains strong.  In recent years, I’ve mixed my love for the season in and the Jewish teaching of Repairing the World or Tikkun Olam.

These days, I’ve stopped giving things up outright. I haven’t found that as fulfilling in recent years. To me, while I understand why it’s done, it doesn’t do much for me. And it feels more like a bragging point than an internal struggle when I hear people talk about it now.   Instead I’ve found it more fulfilling to go out and do something to push myself out of my comfort zone, or changes up my routine but that also helps other people.

 

For me, that’s more spiritually fulfilling than giving up desserts again (which always leads to the age-old question: is a doughnut a dessert or a breakfast food?) This year, I’ve opted to keep my phone on the other side of the room most week nights, but every Friday and Saturday night. That way, when I wake up, instead of playing on my phone waiting for J to wake up I just relax and we spend some time talking in the morning before moving into the hecticness of everyday.

We did just clean out all our clothes. We’ve donated them to a school that will not only donate the clothes, but will earn money for the school based on the weight of clothes that they donate. A lot of them have tags and could be well loved outside of my closet.

This year my big project is volunteering with Girls on The Run, a non-profit that through running and small groups teaches girls that they can. As someone who spent a lot of her childhood (and a decent chunk of adulthood) outwardly confident but inside lacking any confidence, this cause hits home for me.

So while I’m pushing against the Lenten tradition of totally giving a thing up, by spending these 40 days finding different ways to make the world a little bit brighter I feel I’m making an interfaith celebration of Lent.

When Hate is Down the Hall

I haven’t been able to write for a few days.

  1. we’re in the process of moving to our house. Which has totally taken over my life.
  2. I’ve known what I wanted my next post to be about, but I wasn’t sure how to write about it.

I guess I’ll start with the fact that we didn’t put our menorah out this year in our window. We always did, but this year was different and I’m still not ok with why I felt we needed to do it.

It was a comment from a Trump-supporting resident a few floors below us that made us make the decision. She was talking to some other residents about how you couldn’t let Jews move close to you because they drive your property values down. How proudly she announced she wouldn’t live near a Jew. Scarier was the silence from the people who she was saying it to. I scurried by them, wondered how we got here and decided I wouldn’t risk it, menorah would be on the table this year.

I don’t think that resident would do anything, but those around her that night we were coming in, in their silence we knew that if something did happen they probably weren’t coming to help us.

At this point in history, I’m not ok feeling like we can’t practice or show anything Jewish in our very non-Jewish community. I’m not ok that our synagogue sends out community safety reports listing all the precautions they’re taking. The doors shouldn’t have to be locked all the time, but they are, and they have to be.

There have been over one hundred bomb threats to Jewish institutions, people killed for their brown skin, women attacked for covering themselves. There were 1,094 biased related incidents in the month after Trump was elected.  It’s been so widely reported even after the election and Trump’s first month Slate created an updating list of hate in America.

When leaders have nothing to say when people are actually killed by the hate speech and threats that they haven’t disavowed, it’s an issue. And it’s an issue for all people who fall into a minority group and those closest to them. Because when a president has nothing to say about an Indian man killed by a man saying “get out of my country” after encouraging anti-immigration rhetoric and installing travel bans you can’t be certain that you’re safe.

The othering based on religion is one I’ve never experienced. But J has. As has his family and his ancestors. Their tight knit Jewish community protected them from feeling like an other, but it wasn’t a wall from hatred. When he’s worried, as someone who has experienced religious hate, I know I should be too. Anytime you’re the religious majority partner, you can’t write off the minorities experience of those things. They’re happening, we know they’re happening. Majorities need to use their power and their group to take action and speak up for those who can’t.

If we don’t speak up now, who will be left to speak up for us?

Partner Participation

I’m a big fan of On Being Both, the blog by Susan Katz Miller.

  1. it’s helped me feel like my children aren’t going to hate me for choosing not to convert. Which is, shockingly, a real fear I have.
  2. I love reading other people’s interfaith stories. It’s amazing how what seems like a similar experience ends up so different for everyone.

She wrote a great piece about the phrase intermarriage in Forward. I largely don’t take issue with non-Jew, but I know a lot of people who feel it’s very other-ing when you’re trying so hard to be apart of a community. In fact, when I attended Rosh Hashanah services with my in-laws in South Florida the Rabbi’s whole sermon was about interfaith families (I’ll write about that at a later time.) In fact, he offered up a new phrase instead of non-Jew, instead opting to call us k’rov Yisrael. A person close to the people of Israel. It feels less “other” and I agree.

But I’m writing because of another blog post that she wrote. JTA had an article titled Outside the Synagogue, intermarried are forming community with each other, which is great. It’s evident in my interfaith raised peers that their parents didn’t have the same acceptance by the Jewish community that we’ve been so lucky to experience.  On Being Both had a great response to this article, both with the use of the word Intermarried but also with all the programs pointed out. All of the community programs are ones ones where the k’rov Yisrael is embracing Jewish life, run by Rabbis or other Jewish educators. I think that’s important, support from Jewish communities is so important. And there’s a ton to be learned for everyone.  But as Susan Katz Miller points out there are plenty of more balanced programming and communities for interfaith families that provide education from various faith backgrounds.  She keeps a whole list on the site!

I think what gets lost sometimes in the conversation of interfaith relationships, particularly in my circle, is the k’rov Yisrael’s roots or faith their continuing in. Every friend I have spends time going to services, learning to make challah and latkes, and preparing their homes for Passover. I don’t hear of many Jewish partners in my circle going to church beyond Christmas and Easter or learning to prepare the seven fishes for Christmas Eve. It’s a hard balance to strike. We’re constantly working on it and leaving the conversation open. Just because today I say I don’t want to go to church doesn’t mean that I can’t change my mind.

I think what’s most important here is that both sides have to be open to learning about their partner’s faith. Even if the outcome is children raised in one religion, it doesn’t mean that the other partner stops being who they are. That goes beyond putting up a Christmas tree, lighting a menorah or just doing the secular rituals. It’s learning the roots, the stories and the traditions behind all the rituals. That means finding programs or building your own community where the traditions and learning needed from both sides are supported.

Changing My Mind

With the mikvah postponed until our schedules matched I had time to think and I made a bigger decision than to convert.

I decided to not finish my conversion.

So close to the finish line, so close to finally being the same.

Here’s the truth, the wedding suddenly was coming in under a year. And I started to think about all the changes that were expected of me as a wife. And suddenly, changing my last name to his AND changing my religion it was just too much at once. I just couldn’t do it.

I was embarrassed to be honest. I had sunk so much time, effort and emotion into the conversion to not go through with it.

Nothing changed when I decided not to go through with it. We still had a lot of love from both families. We still go to services. We still celebrate all the holidays. We lead Jewishly inspired lives. All that’s changed is when I go to the chuppah, I won’t be Jewish. And that’s ok. I’m going as myself. And that door doesn’t close. It’s not right now, but in 10 years it might be.

In truth, I like that we’re different. I like my traditions I bring with me, I like our tradition of breaking fast on Yom Kippur with an Italian feast to represent both sides. That’s our family. How boring our lives would be if we were the same.

The Rabbi working with me on my conversion said something to me day one of my journey that always stood out “if you get to the end and you don’t want to do it, that’s ok, you’ll have learned something new, and you’ll be a better person for it.” He reiterated that when I decided not to convert. Nobody was mad, nobody was disappoint. Rather they were happy I had come to this decision on my own and wasn’t being forced into converting.

Marriage doesn’t mean you’re giving up your identity, it means though that it does change. And for me, adding in a Jewish identity on top of everything else wasn’t something I was ok with.

But conversion (or non conversion) is a deeply personal experience. And I encourage those close to the Jewish partner never make assumptions or ask about converting to the non Jewish partner. Let the non Jewish partner ask questions and tell you if they’re converting. And never make the assumption that because you know, everyone in the family should know. Always remember that while for one half converting may be seen as the ultimate act of love and a happy occasion,  the other half might be feeling betrayed and left out.

Arella Miriam

It really happened because of a wedding invitation.  It was beautiful. With their Hebrew names printed below their English ones and the script of Ani L’Dodi, v’Dodi Li on the top.

I realized something in that. When J and I got married, I’d be taking that opportunity away from him. His childhood rabbi wouldn’t be able to perform the service, he’d never have his Hebrew name on his wedding invitation. And it was because of me.

Since we had already found our Jewish community, it wasn’t hard to find a Rabbi willing to work with me on conversion. Both Rabbis at the synagogue were lovely and I started studying. I decided to convert because I felt in my soul this was what I was meant to. G-d had somehow used faith as a relationship test. We had survived that and so we were ready for the next step.

Here’s what I loved about my conversion process:

-learning about J’s cultural history

-Learning about the faith

-Learning how to incorporate those things into our lives

-Spending time with J when we were at the Rabbi’s office talking and learning.

-Becoming a part of the community.

There were things I didn’t love…or even like. My parents questioning why all the time and not understanding my reasons. Not being able to talk to them about the process and what I was doing. It had gotten out amongst both families and family friends and the whispers behind my back. All these people were so caring to my face and would instill fear into my parents about all the things I wouldn’t be able to do if I went through with it. J even had his problems. Despite my objections, he did believe that somewhere in me I was doing it for him. And he wasn’t ok with the wedge it was creating, because he’d always be the reason for the wedge.

I didn’t care. This was for me.

It took 2 years of study and learning. But I was finally ready for the mikvah. I picked my name, Arella Miriam, my Nana’s name is Rella, my grandma’s name is Mary. Perfect combo. I scheduled my date. My friends were excited for me, I’d be able to finish before the Cantor retired and my friend Rabbi left. It was really meant to be.

And then I got sent on a shoot and had to cancel. Suddenly the whole thing was up in the air. The mikvah schedule was packed…I suddenly had A LOT of time to think about everything.

 

The Conversion Conversation

I remember when I first told a trusted person about J six years ago. We weren’t dating yet, and her knowing how I was raised asked about his religion. When I mentioned Judaism, she bristled and told me I’d have to give up Jesus if we got married.

Friends, I wasn’t even DATING this man let alone any where near marrying him! I was a 19 year old girl with a crush on a friend!

But we did start dating and we did move closer to getting married. Which is when people who have no business asking a question ask the following:

Are you going to convert?

The thought is always that the non-Jewish partner will convert which is sometimes a bit hurtful for other reasons. But even so, conversion is a deeply personal decision, one that can’t be made for anyone but yourself. So when people ask the question, well it tampers with the thought process.

So we started with the basics. If we were so fortunate to have children, how would we want them raised? There are tenants and values of the Catholicism that I grew up with that I liked, I’d like those things instilled in them. But there were aspects I couldn’t get around. How the church couldn’t accept people I loved, how quickly under a new Pope things could change. Those values I loved were also found in Judaism and it would give them a good faith foundation. Children would be raised Jewish. We’d figure out the holiday traditions later.

Once we had decided that, we looked for a local community that would accept our interfaith selves and followed  patrilineal teachings so any children wouldn’t be excluded. We found our synagogue (highly recommend if you’re an interfaith couple or family looking at Congregation Beth Israel in West Hartford, they couldn’t be better) and it was perfect.

Then there was me. We would have a Jewish home, Jewish children and would I be the religious outsider in my own home?

That’s when I decided after hearing all the talk, that I would convert. I felt at home with Judaism, it was perfect for us. After all, we were having a Jewish home so I would be Jewish too. It was all really simple in my mind. I don’t think I knew how complicated it would become with my decision to convert.