Thursday, December 23, 2010

Merry Christmas to the Members of the Shul

Recently, a synagogue newsletter wished a Merry Christmas to interfaith families. As a member of an intermarried family, I was upset. As a member of a synagogue, I was upset. By definition, a synagogue is a Jewish institution and as a Jewish institution it does not wish congregants Merry Christmas. It is not what a synagogue is about. We are Jewish: period. Clearly, in our personal lives, we wish people Merry Christmas and that's great; however, the synagogue does not celebrate Christmas. The greeting also presumes that because one of the spouses or partners isn't Jewish than the family will be celebrating Christmas. Not all interfaith families celebrate Christmas. I said, earlier, we are an intermarried family and we do not celebrate Christmas. Most importantly, I work very hard at making my child feel comfortable in a world where everyone else celebrates Christmas. I don't want to have to feel like I'm fighting against my synagogue as well.

Of course, I wrote this all in a complaint letter. The answer I received basically stated that it was really meant to be a Christmas greeting to the families who do celebrate Christmas. Huh? It's still okay to wish the interfaith families who do celebrate Christmas a Merry Christmas from the synagogue? Because, while I'm worried about my child--the bottom line is that we are synagogue and we don't wish our members Merry Christmas. What members do in their personal lives is their personal lives, but we are a synagogue. If we wanted to be welcoming to Christmas, we'd be a Unitarian Church. We can put Christmas in all the secular glory and Santa Claus that many Americans see it as, but it is Jesus' birthday, and we are in not in the business of Jesus.

I know I sound harsh, but this whole conversation worries me. (this is something I've been thinking about for a long time.) We spend so much time worrying about including everyone that we forget that we are first and foremost a Jewish Institution and while our members come from diverse backgrounds--we can't forget our Jewishness. Other institutions exist out there, like the Unitarian Universalist Church, that were created to be an all inclusive organizations--we aren't them. We are open to having intermarried families; however, we exist to give them a safe Jewish place where they can learn to express themselves Jewishly. We are there to lend extra support to families when they feel that having only one Jewish parent doesn't give the foundation their child needs. We are there to teach the non-Jewish partner about Jewish culture, Jewish celebrations, Jewish history, Jewish prayer, and Jewish spirituality. We are there to welcome into our Jewish arms inside a Jewish context. While we understand that the non-Jewish partner or family has other faith traditions and we are happy to learn about those traditions outside the synagogue--our synagogue is not the place to celebrate those traditions. We wouldn't expect a church to give up Jesus for the day to make the interfaith families at a church feel more comfortable. Being progressive and liberal and open doesn't mean we make ourselves less Jewish in order to make people feel more comfortable.

This conversation extends far beyond Christmas. Reform congregations all over American are constantly looking at their ever-changing demographics. They are looking for a way to make the synagogue an open, progressive, and diverse community. They are opening their arms to interfaith families. Their intentions are good and noble and just. However, I worry that somewhere along the way; we've lost perspective about who we are. Somewhere along the line we've forgotten that we aren't just creating a safe community devoted to making this world a better place, we are a safe JEWISH community committed to making this world a better place through our Judaism. If we want to keep the Jewish part of ourselves, we cannot be afraid to draw lines. We welcome interfaith families as members, we have Jewish weddings where one partner isn't Jewish, we welcome the non-Jewish partner on the bima during their child's bar or bat mitzvah. We welcome them at services. We bless them. However, the water starts to get a bit murky when our desire to be open starts to break away at the Jewishness of the organization. I can't say I know exactly where that line is. Do we let non-Jewish partners serve on the board? Maybe. Should we be open to welcoming children of intermarried families into our religious schools even if they already attend a Christian Sunday school? I would argue no. Do we continue to fight for Jewish weddings for intermarried couples? I say yes; however, those weddings aren't a gateway into a mishmash religious life. They are a gateway to a Jewish life. Clearly, as a Jewish community we do not proselytize. By asking the non-Jewish partner to participate in Jewish events, we aren't asking them to become Jewish. However, families need to know that if they are choosing to join a synagogue—they are choosing to be part of a Jewish community. If we don't clearly define that community in Jewish parameters, then as our Orthodox brothers and sisters warn, we will lose ourselves.


  1. FABULOUS FABULOUS FABULOUS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! You said it perfectly! Thank you!

  2. Shoshana’s blog was right on target when she stated that “the water starts to get a bit murky when our desire to be open starts to break away at the Jewishness of the organization.” However, saying Merry Christmas to the synagogue’s non-Jewish friends or even presenting the staff with holiday gifts from the bima is innocuous compared to what I have seen.
    The synagogue is there for Jews. Their needs as well as their feelings of security in the Jewish setting should be the priority and the focus of the energy of the synagogue’s clergy and leadership.
    It does become a problem when focus is so intent on subgroups within the synagogue that we start to cross lines which define what Judaism itself is, and at times violate the ethical standards of Judaism in trying to meet all needs while turning away Jews who violate our own level of comfort.
    In the case of interfaith couples, the goal is to integrate the families so that the non-Jewish member can feel comfortable in the place of worship of their Jewish families, and at the synagogue I have had most experience with, the non-Jewish partner has full privileges other than very specific ritual ones such as reading from the Torah or saying the Torah blessings. They are free to participate in any social activity, their children are welcome into our school, they have full bima privileges. There are services to honor them specifically, as well as blessingsat the time of marriage. They are entitled to clergy visitations and other support for the non-Jewish partner, full counseling privileges by clergy and participation in Sisterhood, Mens’ club and their boards. And there is also another choice for these families – the Jewish family member can remain involved regardless of outreach policy.

    I have seen a non-Jewish couple who are otherwise involved with the synagogue honored with a full marriage ceremony during which they were called before an open ark. How did that affect the comfort of the Jewish congregants who were never found worthy of a blessing before the ark or even the privilege of opening it. I have seen preference being given to interfaith couples for bima honors on Friday nights and non-Jewish partners being invited to sit on the bima on holidays and I have seen the gradual evolution to so much focus being placed on welcoming interfaith couples that the clergy are diverted from what should be their main concern – the Jew. Has anyone ever considered how a Jew, devoted to synagogue and community feels about observing the high level of participation of non Jews when never having had the same privileges? or when clergy states clearly that they do not have time for him/her?
    Just as water (murky or not) can erode a rock, devoting too much time to any one subgroup in a synagogue can erode the Jewish structure of the synagogue and moreover detract seriously from the time of the clergy to the point that he/she cannot focus on the needs of the Jewish congregant.

  3. Instructor- you bring up good points. My own non-Jewish husband (refered to in this blog as the Giant Gentile) has said no to honors given to him: sitting on the bima on Yom Kippur, opening the ark,and getting blessed on the bima during the interfaith blessing. He feels that why he is there to make sure our house is a Jewish house, and our child feels a part of the congregation, he is not a Jew. Therefore, he doesn't take part in Jewish ritual. If he wanted to be a Jew, he'd become a Jew. That being said, we had a Jewish wedding with a Rabbi, but not in a synagogue.
    When it comes to weddings, I draw the line in a different way. It is an opening and welcoming into Jewish life. However, the couple has to promise that their life and home will be Jewish. I am not comfortable with an interfaith wedding ceremony. As the Giant Gentile says, " pick one!"
    I wonder if part of our desire for openness stems from our fear of conversion. We are so worried that the non-Jewish partner might feel they are being asked to become Jewish that we do everything in our power to make them feel comfortable as a non-Jew.