Category Archives: Intermarried Families

“After My Bar Mitzvah, My Dad Decided to Convert. Is He Still Considered Jewish?”

Some labels might be useful. Others, not so much.

Some labels might be useful. Others, not so much.

I wasn’t prepared for such a troubling question by this slight yet earnest 8th grader. He had been so patient; holding his hand up until the discussion left an opening.

This evening, the teens were very talkative once they got going about the topic: Intermarried Families. His question arose during a workshop on sensitizing Jewish high school students to the many issues intermarried families face.

They had personal experiences about the issue, since about one-third of them were from intermarried families themselves.  The conversation had relevance for them and  they shared personal stories peppered with jokes, hurt feelings, and sometimes defiance.

The program was specifically designed for teens and consisted of film clips to trigger conversation and raise awareness.

His question came after I shared an experience I had when I was a teenager myself, while attending a large suburban Conservative synagogue in my town. I have a very clear memory of asking a congregant who someone was. He pointed to him and then lightly said: “Oh, this is Mr. So and So, who converted to Judaism….” I couldn’t figure out why I needed to know that. This man was forever labeled in my mind as ‘the one who converted.’

I’ve experienced this practice even as an adult. Why must we use labels?

Let’s come back to the boy sitting in front of me. He was obviously very concerned and wanted an answer. Yet, in the format of the program, with a full agenda and little time, I could not engage him in a full discussion of all the questions I wanted to ask him.

For example, why does he feel a need to ask this question? Does this first question represent other, more pressing questions about the choices his father made? What does he think about how the Jewish community responded to his father? Is it what he expected? Did he feel his Dad was welcomed? Rejected? Did he sense a total acceptance of the choice by his father’s family? Is he still wondering about his father’s reasons for conversion? Was it only for the ceremony or was there some deeper reason that his father made the choice he did? What impact did the father’s conversion have on him? Did it make him doubt his own choices going forward or feel more secure in them?

How would you respond to this student when there is so much more to discuss?

What I said next created some comedy, but my intention was to offer a really concrete example for this student: “Here’s how I see it. You know when someone gets his/her nose fixed? Or some cosmetic work done? Once it’s done, we no longer say, “You know, this is Ms. So and So…she recently got a nose job. We accept that the person has a new nose, and we move on. No need to reference it. We don’t need to go back to past history and label that person any differently than anyone else. Similarly, Your father’s Jewish. He’ll always be considered Jewish.”

He seemed to be reassured and we continued on with the discussion.

The students had a lot to say, and more questions to ask as the evening progressed.

The question above demonstrates just how much work we have to do to create more understanding among all of us about those who ‘choose Jewish’. Here are some tips to consider when a family member converts:

  1. Have a family discussion about the decision. Teens are at the stage when they are actively questioning many things. Especially about religion, the meaning of life, their place among their peers, and more. They will appreciate knowing your reasons for the decision, and being included in some thoughts you’ve had.
  2. This is an opportunity to connect with your teen about spiritual journeys. We often reserve conversations with our kids to the mundane. These conversations about religion and faith are of an entirely different level. Personal yes, but it opens so many doors.
  3. You might schedule a meeting with the family and the Rabbi together, so all parties are aware of any new roles and  responsibilities.

Photo credit: BazzaDaRambler, flickr. Creative commons license.


How We Undersell Zuckerberg and Jewish Teens

For Sale by Owner (film)

What are we selling? Why would Jewish teens buy?

This morning I read a piece by Reform Rabbi Dana Evan Kaplan titled “We Failed Zuckerberg” about the movement’s failure to capture the facebook mogul’s attention in a meaningful way.

He referred to the fact that Zuckerberg does not seem to be living a committed Jewish life, though Mark celebrated a bar mitzvah and his parents are long-time members of a reform congregation.  (Okay, so was there any Jewish education post-Bar Mitzvah when teens are actually ready to grapple with questions of belief and practice?)

Kaplan mentioned that Reform theology might be to blame, as it is a bit vacuous, and the big miss by the movement is in failing to attract young adults, who do want a more rational and intellectual approach to Judaism.  It was a really well-written piece that encouraged some cheshbon-hanefesh (soul-searching) of the movement.

Yet, something in the piece troubled me.

With all the effort at pluralistic thinking and embracing others, the movement seems to have lost its guts.

Yes, guts to stand up for what might make a difference for Jewish continuity. My intention here is not to blame, but to challenge all of us to clarify for ourselves what our goals are in Jewish education. What exactly are we ‘selling’?

If it’s about a personal spiritual journey, with the goal of connecting to a Higher Entity than say so.  But if it’s about the continuation of the Jewish people, every movement needs to back that up with words, actions, programs and educational efforts that match that intention.

In short, what do you want your teens to live like in a few years? If it’s the Zuckerberg model Kaplan refers to, then continue as is. If not, then roll up your sleeves because there is a disconnect in what Kaplan writes:

“…. as a Reform rabbi, it would be hard for me to tell a congregant not to  date anyone who was not already Jewish (all bolded words, my emphasis). I would urge congregants to talk about  their commitment to Judaism with any potential romantic interest and make it  clear from the beginning that Judaism is an important and hopefully central part  of their life. But it is simply impractical to tell single people to restrict  their dating gaze to those who are of the Jewish faith. Even if we wanted to say  such a thing, the reality in our congregations would make such exhortations  antiquated and irrelevant.

Have we become membership machines? What would be the result of this ‘antiquated’ and ‘irrelevant’ request? Members may be insulted, get in a huff, feel that they may not be up to certain standards…and then leave. Really? Then we are selling ourselves short. It isn’t a zero sum game.

We need to straddle both camps, that of the committed and that of the embracing. It is possible. Hard, but possible.

Rabbi Dana Evan Kaplan affirms this himself when he states that “many of the most devoted Reform Jews  are non-Jews who married Jews and embraced Judaism later, sometimes years or  even decades later.”

I believe we need to welcome Interfaith families. Yet, that doesn’t mean that we give up entirely on what we feel can be a change-maker for Jewish identity and continuity….staying and marrying Jewish and raising Jewish families.

Have we become so politically correct that our values are slipping?

We are underselling the intelligence of our Jewish teens if we think that our wishy-washiness will bring them closer to our point of view.

The opposite is true—-having the guts to say what we believe, and providing sound reasons for it (all we need to do is share some statistics to make the point), we can emerge from any discourse feeling proud that we stand for something.  If we have something of value to sell, then let’s sell it–proudly.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia


Chanukah Ornaments? How some Jewish teens voted

A friend of mine who works for a collectibles company sent me an e-mail last week with a curious query. The company is considering developing a  a new line: Chanukah ornaments. These could be placed either on a “Chanukah Bush”, Christmas tree, or a small miniature metal ornament tree (next to the menorah, probably).

Would I (or anyone on this list serve) be offended? I wondered how a group of Jewish teens would react.

English: A bauble on a Christmas tree.
 

I thought they’d have a lengthy discussion about values, lifestyle choices, religious symbolism.  The conversation was over faster than you can say “December Dilemma.” I was ready to bring on the choices: A Star of David? Hamsa? Dreidel? No one was interested and told me they found the idea offensive.

They thought that Christmas and Chanukah were already over commercialized, so why add to the array of ‘stuff’? By the way, some of the teens who were the most outspoken came from intermarried families.

Not that I have an interest in the success of collectibles, but I proceeded to ask them what they thought about re-purposing the items…what if they would hang them from a car mirror? Locker hook? Nope.  Okay, so I just wanted to make sure.

They wouldn’t buy it. So, what do you think?

Do you agree with these outspoken teens who desire a get-back-to-basics approach?

Lest you think they are against paraphernalia, don’t kid yourself.  They are totally ‘gadgeted out’, it’s just that it seems they have their limits.   How would you respond to this question?  Would this work for your family?

Image via wikipedia


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