Jewish Holidays and Practices
A Guide for Newcomers
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Basic Holiday Info
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Think Pieces and Sermons
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Passover is upon us. During these eight days, we remember our time as slaves in Egypt and celebrate our eventual liberation. We also remember what it was like to be a stranger when we were scattered across the globe, wandering with no sense of belonging. Thatâ€™s why on this holiday we make an extra effort to invite people who may not have another place to go for Seder.
But this practice of inclusion doesnâ€™t have to be limited to one holiday. Thatâ€™s the message of a new op-ed in the New York Jewish Week by Adam Bronfman, managing director of the Samuel Bronfman Foundation, and JOIâ€™s Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky. They write that at Passover, â€śas we commemorate our own freedom from disenfranchisement, how are we also ensuring that all who wish to be a part of the Jewish community are included, as congregants, members, and even leaders?â€ť
They make the point that in many intermarriages, the spouse who is not Jewish is an equal contributor to raising a Jewish family. This means they should have full rights within the Jewish community â€“ but too often the spouse is â€śofficially excludedâ€ť as a member of a synagogue or congregation. For what reason? â€śAfter all,â€ť they write, â€śwhat have these individuals ever done for the Jewish people, other than give up passing on their own familyâ€™s faith tradition to raise their children as Jews (not to mention countless hours of preparation and synagogue involvement, and thousands of dollars in dues and tuition)?â€ť
Thatâ€™s why itâ€™s so important to not only honor these spouses for their sacrifice, but welcome them fully as members in our Jewish family. This Passover, they write, we can continue the Passover tradition of celebrating freedom by â€ścreating policies that include and officially empower all.â€ť
Never forget your place in the Haggadah again…OR the importance of welcoming all!
“During Passover, it’s a tradition to open our doors and welcome the stranger to our Seder table,” says Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky. “Just as we were once strangers in Egypt, it’s our obligation to include the newcomer and all those on the margins of the Jewish community. But it shouldn’t be limited to Passover. At a time when we welcome guests into our home, we must remember to do the same 365 days a year at our communal institutions.”
To drive home this statement, several weeks ago, member organizations of the Big Tent Judaism Coalition received a one-page, color PDF document containing six bookmarks per page called “A Fifth Cup for Inclusion” with a message welcoming newcomers that can be printed or distributed electronically. It is just one more way the Big Tent Judaism Coalition is advocating for greater inclusion in the Jewish community. The PDF is now available for download by the general public. We encourage you to download, print it, and use it at your Seder—and pass it along to anyone else who might be interested.
When a couple is raising children in the context of an interfaith marriage, they have to strike a delicate balance when it comes to religious identity. Even if they decide to raise the child as a Jew, that doesnâ€™t mean suddenly all of the extended family â€“ grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins â€“ become Jewish. Christmas will still be recognized along with Hanukkah, Easter will be recognized with Passover. But Jewish families have one holiday that offers a chance to celebrate Jewish values week after week â€“ Shabbat.
Tracy Hahn-Burkett, who runs the blog Unchartedparent.com and is the Jewish partner in an interfaith marriage, recently wrote an article for the Jewish News of Greater Phoenix explaining how Shabbat has become the holiday de rigeur in her household. Every week before they have dinner on Friday night, without fail, the family says the prayers, lights the candles, and share some challah (sweet bread shaped in a braid) while the parents sip some wine. Sometimes dinner is ordered in, but the traditions laid out are always followed. This, even more than weekly religious school, has given Tracyâ€™s four-and-a-half year old a firm sense of belonging as a Jew.
Tracy said in her piece that itâ€™s gotten to the point that her son wonâ€™t go out to dinner on Friday nights because they have to have candles and challah. â€śThey donâ€™t have them at the restaurant,â€ť her son told her recently. Tracy knew that if she wanted to make sure her children were able to easily explore their background, she had to â€śfind ways to bring Jewish values and traditionsâ€ť into her home. Shabbat is one of the best places to start because not only does it take place in the home, but it can be personalized. A family can celebrate Shabbat in the way most meaningful to them because no matter how they do it, it involves the family recognizing their Jewish background. Those are memories and traditions the children will hopefully take with them as they grow up and someday start their own families.
What does it mean to live in a Jewish democracy? More specifically, what does it mean to navigate marriage in a religious democracy? Thatâ€™s the question Amy Oppenheimer tries to answer in her new documentary Faces of Israel: A Discussion about Marriage, State and Religion in the Jewish Homeland. Check out the website to learn more â€“ you can also watch the trailer. This is an important topic, and we would love to hear from anyone who has either seen the film or is planning to.
Oppenheimer, a recent graduate of Johns Hopkins University where she pursued a degree in International Relations and Jewish Studies, has created a documentary that tries to look â€śwhat it means to live in both a Jewish and democratic state, and offers a variety of answers to these questions through the lens of the Israeli marriage process.â€ť The documentary aims for balance, interviewing everyone from ordinary citizens to rabbinic leaders who put forth their point of view.
The documentary is especially relevant these days because of the recent dust-up over Israeli politician Avigdor Liebermanâ€™s call to allow civil unions. As it stands, a marriage under the auspices of the Rabbinate is allowed, forcing many couples to travel abroad to get married. This topic is covered in the documentary, along with the role of the Rabbinate in general, questions of inclusivity, same-sex unions, and a host of others.
There is a schedule of upcoming screenings posted on the movieâ€™s website, or you can contact the director and have the film screened in your community. Either way, we hope many folks get a chance to see the movie and become a part of this debate.