Jewish Holidays and Practices
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Now that Purim is over, the Jewish community is busily preparing for Passover. As a matter of fact, the Torah reading cycle and the various Sabbaths that anticipate Passover actually have us preparing for weeks â€“ long before Purim even begins. And with the anticipation of Passover comes a proliferation of special seder events, such as the ubiquitous chocolate seder for kids, and, more significantly, the various womenâ€™s seders that take place in communities across North America.
Passover is an excellent time to reach out and welcome the â€śstranger.â€ť It is part of the moral imperative of outreach in Judaism, which is especially poignant for Passover. It is on this holiday that we begin the seder by saying â€śLet all those who are hungry come and eat.â€ť This doesnâ€™t have to mean just hungry for food â€“ it can also mean hungry for the richness of the Jewish community.
That is why it is important as we plan our home seders, particularly specially themed seders for women, that we make sure to include all of the women in our Jewish community. We need to extend a special invitation to those who are not Jewish but are living in our midst, raising Jewish children. While we welcome the â€śstranger,â€ť we should make sure they donâ€™t feel like a stranger. Rather we should let them know that they are indeed invited around the table.
In the latest issue of The New York Jewish Week, Julie Wiener writes in her â€śIn The Mixâ€ť column on intermarried life about her familyâ€™s Friday night Shabbat dinners. She credits their weekly Sabbath tradition to her Catholic husband, who initially suggested they commit to making Shabbat dinner a weekly ritual.
â€śThere are quite a few of us die-hard candle-lighting interfaith families,â€ť Wiener writes. Along with quoting research, she also quotes an alumna of The Mothers Circle course in Atlanta, Abi Auer, who regularly bakes fresh challah and prepares a special meal to celebrate the Jewish Sabbath with her family.
Through my work with The Mothers Circle, I have heard other wonderful stories of interfaith families bringing Shabbat rituals into their lives. Whether itâ€™s designating Friday night as family time, attending Tot Shabbat services, initiating a Saturday night family Havdallah ritual, or gathering with other Mothers Circle families for Shabbat dinners, it is clear that many non-Jewish mothers are eager to embrace Shabbat customs once they have the tools and knowledge to do so.
The Mothers Circle strives to empower women of other religious backgrounds raising Jewish children to bring Judaism into their familiesâ€™ lives, and it looks like weâ€™re well on our way to reaching that goal.
Tonight, the Jewish community will come together to celebrate Purim by listening to a reading of the Megillah - the Book of Esther. Itâ€™s a joyous affair where children dress up as characters from the story to celebrate the courage and heroic deeds of Queen Esther and her uncle Mordechai, and many adults drink until they canâ€™t tell the difference between Mordechai and Haman (Boo! Hiss!). Some synagogues and Jewish community centers will also stage carnivals, and everyone will have a good time.
But the holiday is about more than carnivals and costumes. Itâ€™s also a story about a successful interfaith marriage. The Jewish community was on the brink of annihilation, but when Ahasuerus, the King of Persia, found out his wife was Jewish, he cast his lot with the Jewish people and we were saved from destruction. Todayâ€™s edition of Metro New York features our own Rabbi Kerry Olitzky and his thoughts on the subject.
Purim reminds us of the importance of embracing our Jewish heritage, and it also offers an opportunity to reflect on the state of inclusion for the thousands of interfaith families around the world. Many institutions still put up barriers, treating intermarriage like treason. This is counter-productive to Jewish growth â€“ we need to engage these families, not keep them away. Itâ€™s time we welcome interfaith families into the Jewish community, where their presence will add to the strength and diversity of the Jewish people.
My teacher, of blessed memory, Rabbi Jakob J. Petuchowski, was fond of saying that â€śone generationâ€™s creativity is the next generationâ€™s tradition.â€ť Of course, we always have to wait until that next generation to determine whether or not the creativity made it through. Perhaps that is what is most intriguing about the various new ritual activities at Mayyim Hayyim (Living Water), the community mikvah in Boston which is serving as a paradigm for about 20 other new community mikvaot (pl. mikvah). Among them is the notion that boys and girls just prior to their bar/bat mitzvah should undergo immersion. This growing trend, which was written about recently by Erica Brown in the (New York) Jewish Week, is particularly important as we search for ways to move children into Jewish adulthood when it is clear that adulthood in the secular community is a few years away. Using the mikvah in this context, some believe, can help strengthen the Jewish identity of these youth.
There are those who will debate the precedent of such a use for mikvahâ€”and I am not one of them. I am very supportive of the mikvah and the reclaiming of ritual for various purposes, even if there isnâ€™t clear precedent. But, as noted in the article, there are those who feel uneasy having a pre-adolescent girl or boy dipped in a mikvah, since the traditional use of a mikvah is â€śto sanctify the sex of a married couple.â€ť But others, like Rabbi Susan Grossman, believe that:
â€śIf it is being used in a pietistic way to raise spiritual appreciation for the event and pray for Godâ€™s blessings, then there is ample precedent for such mikveh use for both men and women.â€ť
The pre-bar/bat mitzvah mikvah use also addresses what I like to call the â€śsocial visibilityâ€ť factor in Jewish life today, particularly poignant for interfaith families. And what I applaud is the sensitivity of Mayyim Hayyim of the same notion. Conservative rabbis are using the mikvah prior to bar/bat mitzvah for so-called partrilineal children (those with a Jewish father and a mother from another faith tradition) for the purpose of conversion, or what Rabbi Michael Siegel of Anshe Emet in Chicago calls a â€ścompletion ceremonyâ€ť. However, our friends at Mayyim Hayyim understand that by encouraging it for all children, the social visibility factor for children of intermarriage (regardless of the purpose of the immersion) is removed. And in my book, that is a step forward in making the Jewish community more inclusive. Thank you, Mayyim Hayyim.
JOI has developed a variety of programs for Purim, specifically those that reflect the criteria for Public Space Judaismsm, where we take Jewish programming out to where the people are. We have programs for Hamantaschen baking in a grocery store, or wine tasting in a wine shop. But the most common Purim program is still the synagogue or JCC carnival that takes place all across North America. Purim carnivals offer great outreach opportunities that usually fall within the category of what we call Open Door Communitysm programs. These are low barrier programs that usually take place on the grounds of or inside a Jewish communal institution, such as a synagogue or Jewish Community Center.
But many institutions take these carnivals for granted since they typically reach those who are already inside the community. Often we overlook the assets that we have for outreach potential. Purim carnivals are among such activities that can be maximized in order to extend their reach into the community, and it is wonderful to already see some institutions moving Purim carnivals into public spaces that are easily accessible by all, particularly interfaith families who may be on the periphery of the Jewish community.
While most organizations have already done their planning for Purimâ€”especially their carnivalsâ€”it is never too late to ask the question: What are we doing to reach the newcomer when they cross the threshold of our institution? What we are doing to make sure that they feel welcome?