Love and Religion

Interfaith Consultation for Jews and their Families

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Raising Jewish Children

It’s not often that I get to do an entirely new program, but recently that is exactly what I did. I conducted a workshop for interfaith couples on how to raise Jewish children. Miriam Szubin and I have been trying to do this class for quite some time but somehow it never got onto the schedule. In her position as Director of the Parenting Center of the Edlavitch DCJCC, Miriam creates all the programs related to parenting. Last August she contacted me and was totally committed to making this happen. Then in mid-January, it finally happened! So many things are interesting about the group of couples who attended this class. They were all interfaith; most had children, but one was pregnant, and another was preparing for when they would have children of their own. None of them had their children in the EDCJCC preschool. Most had been in the EDCJCC before with their children who had taken music, swimming, or gymnastics classes, or had attended a holiday celebrations event as a family. All the couples except for one lived in this urban neighborhood. I find this population very interesting because five years ago none of them would be living in […] Read More >

Making Effective Programs for Interfaith Couples and Families

Originally published on eJewish Philanthropy The “Statement on Jewish Vitality” falls short. But we can make effective Jewish programs for interfaith couples and families! By Marion L. Usher, Ph.D Three times each week nursery school children meet after their daycare program for a Jewish program called MoEd DC at the Washington DCJCC. The focus is on Hebrew study through immersion and Judaics balanced with play and homework time. It is a small, effective, opportunity that brings young interfaith families into the Jewish community. Mothers can learn how to bake challah at any of the Whole Food Markets throughout the Washington area, a regular program sponsored by PJ Library. On Sunday mornings, a Jewish focused story-reading session occurs for young children serving interfaith and Jewish families living in the city. These are but a few of the many low-barrier entrance programs into the Jewish community, and we need to learn from them. All these programs stand in sharp contrast to the latest “Statement on Jewish Vitality,” which just saddened me. The solutions it offered were unexciting and are unlikely to have any impact on young interfaith couples. The study suggests that “effective responses are feasible” – but none are proposed specifically for interfaith couples […] Read More >
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James’ Apple Crustada (Perfect for Shabbat!)

Here were are in Brooklin, Maine, with our dear friends James Schwartz and Tim Boggs, enjoying meaningful conversation, delicious food, and magnificent scenery. Within two seconds of our arrival we always resume our intimate relationships and fall into our usual habitats of taking care of each other and exploring our inner lives. Revealing our doubts, our challenges, and our resolutions is all part of the fabric for touching and exploring. This is a 30-year-old friendship of sharing homes and our lives together. When we lived as neighbors on Hillyer Place in Washington, we ate together on a weekly basis, enjoying our love of food, wine, and conversation. In that spirit, I want to share James’ Apple Crustada (free-form tart) recipe: Dough 1 cup flour 1 stick cold butter 2 tablespoons sugar ¼ teaspoon salt 1-2 tablespoons water Filling 4 apples, peeled, cored, quartered, and cut into chunks Zest from 1 orange Topping ½ stick cold butter ¼ cup sugar ¼ flour ¼ teaspoon cinnamon 1/8 teaspoon allspice 1/8 teaspoon nutmeg Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Dough: Put all ingredients in the bowl of food processor; pulse until they form a ball. Roll out the dough into a rough circle on a floured surface, […] Read More >
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CityJews PopUp Shabbat

On May 29, 2015, seventy people—families, couples, young children and babies—all gathered together to celebrate Shabbat. Who are these people and why is this unique? These are “City Jews” who have made a commitment to live in the city, even in parts of the city where none of us veteran Washingtonians would have dared to go five years ago. Did I say five years—how about two years ago? They are committed to city life and urban living including public school education for their children. Many work in the social justice world and want to actively participate in making the world a better place. At 6 pm, the first people begin to arrive. A few kinks had to be resolved, such as getting the people into the locked building! The crowd assembled, and the excitement in the room was electric with children running up and down the halls, parents chatting with each other, and introductions being made. This is exactly the buzz we were hoping for. Some people knew each other; some recognized their neighbors; some didn’t know anyone; and others came out of pure curiosity. But they were all there to have Shabbat dinner with a community of likeminded people. […] Read More >
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Creating a Jewish Identity within an Interfaith Family: A Discussion on Effectiveness and Empowerment

A few months ago, Phyllis Katz of Kol Shalom Congregation in Rockville, MD, contacted me to see if I was interested in speaking at her synagogue. She has organized a series of discussions to better serve the needs of her fellow congregants who have grandchildren in interfaith marriages or interfaith parents in the congregation raising Jewish children, and she wanted me to conduct one of these sessions. When I asked her who she thought would be in the audience, she said there might be both grandparents and parents. This intrigued me! I have conducted many workshops for each group, but this would be my first time having both together in the same room. As I prepared some points to present, I also tried to get ready to dance on one foot since some of the issues that are relevant for one group are really not that important to the other. On the other hand, many are common to both, such as, “How do you transmit a Jewish identity to a child (your child or grandchild)?” Phyllis and I were both pleased with the turnout. As I looked around the room, I noticed that the grandparents sat on one side of […] Read More >
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What is the Hardest Part of Passover for Interfaith Families?

The holiday of Passover brings up many issues to think about as we prepare for this festival. We are asked to tell a story—a very scripted story—and one that has many messages for us to heed. We are instructed to change our dishes and clean our houses from top to bottom. There are questions in the text to answer and so many versions of the haggadah to use. As a result, I sit at one end of the table with many haggadot, each with Post-It notes in it to remind me of a special passage that I would like to include. We always read Mary Oliver’s poem, “The Season of the Egg,” and we read a passage describing Miriam’s Cup, something that was not on the Passover table when I was growing up. Then there are the writings from the Labor Zionist, family, children’s, social justice and feminist haggadot. It goes on and on. When we were blessed with three additional grandchildren at the Seder, I changed the whole thing. I wanted them to understand the Exodus story from beginning to end. Now we start with baby Moses in the Nile. I hide baby Moses in his cradle, and the […] Read More >
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Montreal, Grandparents, and Snow?

OK, what connects these three disparate words? Let me explain. In August I got a call from Denise Grossman asking me if I want to come back to Temple Emanu-el Beth Sholom and do a program for interfaith couples and families. My affirmative response quickly moved the discussion to potential dates and topics. We settled on the topic of “Intentional Grandparenting, a Workshop for Grandparents with Interfaith grandchildren.” So there you have the words Montreal and grandparent. Where does snow fit in? Considering this event was going to take place the first week in November, the chance of snow was almost non-existent, or so I thought. In an effort to save the congregation money, I flew into Burlington, VT, rented a car, and drove to Montreal. So thoughtful, so considerate…not so smart! I left the airport to see snow falling on the windshield. Having grown up in Montreal, you would think that driving in the snow is still part of my DNA. If only! Magically, I had an easy ride. The entire time I was in Montreal, snow was on my mind and on the ground! The focus of this workshop was to help grandparents feel empowered in facilitating Jewish […] Read More >
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A Very Happy Reunion

A tap on the shoulder, a beautiful soft voice asked, “Is that you, Dr. Usher?” She introduced herself and explained that she and her then-boyfriend took my class in 2003. As I turned to greet her, I recognized the man sitting on the floor playing with two small children. We all hugged and were thrilled to have this reunion. I was introduced to their two boys who were making dreidels out of CDs and felt pens and desperately trying to make them spin. This activity was part of the “Make Room for Latkes” event held at the DCJCC on a Sunday morning in early December. So much time had passed, and I wanted to hear their story. Between tending to the little boys and the wonderful chaos of families surrounding us, I heard the following narrative. The first thing Miwa said to me was how grateful she and Jason were that they took my class. She felt it gave them the necessary tools to have the dialogue between themselves in order to create a religious life that makes sense to them. The boys are being raised Jewish, which was critical to Jason, who went to Jewish Day School. They currently […] Read More >
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Make Room for Latkes, or who says there are no young Jewish families in the city?

When multiple agencies come together to develop a program, wonderful things can happen. On Sunday, over 30 families, many of them interfaith, came together at the DCJCC to celebrate Hanukah. They made dreidels, applesauce, and aromatic sachets for hospice patients. They learned about tzedakah (charity), sang songs, and ate latkes and donuts. It was crowded; the parents chatted up a storm with each other, there was a fabulous vibe, and everyone had a great time. Five stakeholders sponsored the event. With 100 people in attendance, we had double last year’s numbers. Most families live in the area close to the DCJCC. Two families were from Virginia. A few were from Maryland. Many of the children attended, or are presently attending, the preschool program. Others are using the “Jewish content” after-school program and love it. Others send their children to the “Yom Rishon” classes on Sundays. All of these families have Judaism in their lives and were thrilled to be at this Hanukah celebration. I was impressed by the desire for these parents to transmit Judaism to their children. As I walked around the classrooms and listened to their conversations, many told stories to their children describing how they had celebrated […] Read More >
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Thurza’s Baby Naming

I think one of the most joyful celebrations in Jewish life is the naming of a little Jewish girl. There is no pain, only sweetness and love. Let’s start from the beginning. Thurza’s father, Josh, is my husband’s first cousin, once removed, or another way of saying this is that Josh’s father John and my husband Michael are first cousins. This is my mother-in-law’s side of the family who are fifth-generation Milwaukee American Jews. They prided themselves on minimal ritual practice and maximum identity as assimilated Jews. Somehow, our home in Washington, DC, became the gathering place for many of these cousins. How lucky are we?! Another cousin, who moved to Washington decades ago, and whose husband is of another faith, has given her children both a strong Jewish identity, a full Hebrew education, and Bar and Bat mitzvahs, and they have joined us in celebrating all the Jewish holidays. She raised her children as practicing Jews with great intentionality. Back to Josh, his wife Gugu, and baby Thurza. As you can see from this narrative, when Josh, who was raised in an interfaith family with Jewish identity and little ritual, and Gugu arrived in Washington, it was only natural […] Read More >