Love and Religion

Interfaith Consultation for Jews and their Families

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Shavuot: Ruth Follows Naomi

Ruth follows Naomi. What an interesting dynamic. That someone is so respected and revered that we place our destiny in their hands. That what they feel and think matters to us so much that we might suspend our own individual course to be influence by this other person. So it goes with Naomi and Ruth. Naomi tries to send Ruth back to her family, and she refuses. We could say that Ruth knew a good thing. Her mother-in-law was wise and caring, and Ruth trusted that Naomi would take care of her. This is familiar to me since I had a similar relationship with my own mother-in-law, Ruth Usher. She was an intellectual, fourth-generation American woman who was educated at Smith College and became a social worker who derived great satisfaction from her career. With her encouragement, I, too, became a social worker and eventually went on to get my doctorate in the field. My identification with her served me well. Ruth Usher stood in sharp contrast to my own mother who came to Canada at age 13 from Esterpolia in the Ukraine, was street smart, self-educated, worked as a bookkeeper before she was married and valued being a stay-at-home […] Read More >

Interfaith Families Are Everywhere

What are the chances that I will meet an interfaith couple and their children in the Tel Aviv Museum of Art? Percentages are very low, but many of my friends would not be surprised to hear that this happened to me. A year ago in Israel, we were on our way to meet Yael Engelhart and her boyfriend. On our previous visit to Tel Aviv, we bought two of her photographs. Before our rendezvous we headed over to the museum for a concert at the Blumenthal Music Festival. Michael wanted to hear the flamenco group. It turns out we mixed up the dates and ended up at the children’s concert, which we decided to stay for anyway. It was precious. The dancers were outstanding and the children so spirited as they were brought up onstage to learn the steps. Who would think that a children’s concert, without our own grandchildren, would be so enjoyable! After the concert, we ventured into the galleries where the Moshe and Sarah Mayer Collection of impressionist, fauve, and expressionist artists were on exhibit. We were in awe of this collection of 41 outstanding paintings. As we spoke to each other, a young man pushing a stroller […] Read More >
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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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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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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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“Being Jewish on Valentines Day”

As some of you might remember, last year, the Washington Post’s On Faith column published some of my thoughts on the origins and history of Valentines Day. I have included a snippet of the article below, I hope you all enjoy! Here in the United States even the name of the holiday has been changed from religious to secular. No one even thinks about the religious origins of the holiday. There were in fact three St. Valentines. While all three were martyred, the patron saint of the day was indeed a benevolent soul. During the third century when Claudius III, ruler of the Roman Empire, realized that unmarried young men made better soldiers, he forbade them to marry. It is Valentine who took the risk and performed the marriages clandestinely.  He was celebrated for his acts of bravery and made a saint. The romantic aspect came much later at the end of the fifth century. The oldest valentine still in existence was a poem written in 1415 by Charles, Duke of Orleans to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London following his capture at the Battle of Agincourt.   Click here to read the whole article, and […] Read More >
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Six Tips for Conversion

Are you seriously involved in an interfaith relationship? Are pondering the idea of becoming a Jew-by-choice? Here are six tips to guide you as you go on this wonderful and important journey. 1. This tip is for the Jewish partner in the relationship, the partner who is not converting. Now is the time to express your gratitude and appreciation to your partner who is considering this life altering decision. It is imperative that you demonstrate how thankful you are to be receiving this magnificent gift. 2. Sign up for an “Introduction to Judaism” class together. Not only will you learn, you will also meet other couples who are exploring their Jewish journey. 3. Everyone who wants to convert needs a sponsoring rabbi to help guide his or her process. Before you pick someone, I would recommend visiting several synagogues together. Research the synagogues online, and go to several services before you make an appointment with the rabbi. This will help you get a feel of the synagogue and congregation, and decide if you would feel welcomed there. 4.  Go with your gut. Once you attend a synagogue where you feel welcomed, and where members of the congregation have reached out […] Read More >
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An evening of Storytelling About Interfaith Families and Their Jewish Journeys: Recap

A little known fact about Adas Israel Congregation, is that we have over 90 families in our conservative congregation who identify as interfaith. It is part of Adas Israel’s mission to integrate this group into the many facets of synagogue life, and so on December 15th Adas Israel hosted its first storytelling event that focused on interfaith families. Ten people volunteered, okay, were persuaded, to present their narratives. Each of these couples was, at one time, composed of a Jewish partner and a partner of another faith. Some have become Jews-by-choice, and some have not converted, but all are raising their children Jewish. Nine of the couples had participated in my “Love and Religion” Workshop, and one couple was in the very first session I ran 19 years ago! Each person had 5 minutes to present his or her story, and what incredible stories they were! The themes ranged from “forbidden fruit” to how “conversions can make many generations of Jews” to “what do you get when you mix an Irish Catholic with an Israeli Jew.” The audience laughed and sighed–some stories were sad, some were happy, some focused on issues still out there to be addressed, and some talked about […] Read More >
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My Tips for an Interfaith Thanksgivukkah

This year, Thanksgiving falls on the second night of Hanukkah, this is the first time this has happened, and it won’t happen again for another 79,000 years! This can certainly make life a bit complicated since Jews will want to celebrate both Thanksgiving and Hanukkah. My solution to is to marry your Hanukkah and Thanksgiving traditions together, just as you do in an interfaith relationship! Here is a real world situation that involves the need to marry together traditions, just as we all must do this year with the timing of Thanksgiving, and Hanukkah: Say you are in your second marriage, and you are your spouse are an interfaith couple. You have decided to raise the children you have together children Jewish, but you have a child from your first marriage who is of a different faith that will be celebrating Thanksgivukkah with you. Thanksgiving is the easy part, but how do you approach Hanukkah as a family with children who practice different religions. Here is how I would manage this situation. First, you and your spouse should first call whoever you are celebrating the holiday with and discuss the situation with them. Talk about how they can make your […] Read More >
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