September is a struggle for interfaith families


Months before the High Holidays arrive, Patrick Patterson requests the days off for both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur from his job as a firefighter/paramedic with the Los Angeles City Fire Department. A few days before, he reviews the entire High Holiday machzor, or prayer book, so that he feels familiar with the services and, especially, with the Hebrew prayers, which he reads in transliteration.

 
During the worship services themselves, which he attends at Stephen S. Wise Temple in Bel Air, he pays close attention, taking the prayers and the rabbis’ sermons to heart.

 
On Yom Kippur he fasts.

 
Patterson, 56 and living in Encino, is not Jewish and has no intention of converting. He can’t embrace Catholicism, the religion of his childhood, but he also can’t envision giving up saying prayers to Jesus. Nevertheless, he has openly and enthusiastically accepted the traditions of Judaism and has taken the Stephen S. Wise 10-week Holiday Workshop class.

 
“I have a strong sense of faith and a strong sense of family unity,” he said, referring to his Jewish wife, his three Jewish stepchildren and his own two children, whom he is raising Jewish.

 
But not all interfaith families incorporate the High Holidays into their lives so smoothly. For starters, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, unlike Chanukah and Passover, are not home-based holidays that can be celebrated creatively and confined within a family’s religious comfort zone.

 
“At Chanukah, you can delight in kindling the menorah, but the High Holidays are truly a full day of fixed liturgy that, the truth is, is a difficult one to follow even for many Jews,” said Rabbi Zachary Shapiro of Culver City’s Temple Akiba, a Reform synagogue with a large percentage of interfaith families among their 300 or so family member units.

 
Plus, there are no equivalent holidays in Christianity, and the religious concepts of tefillah (prayer), teshuvah (repentance) and tzedakah (righteousness) are often foreign to the non-Jewish spouse. Additionally, a non-Jew is often uncomfortable asking for time off from work for the day for a holiday that is not his or her own, or unwilling to sit through a lengthy service, much of it in Hebrew. This is sometimes an even bigger issue when the Jewish partner rarely attends synagogue but is adamant about showing up to High Holiday services.

 
And sometimes the interfaith couple simply does not feel accepted.

 
Judi Brooks Johnson, 50, who identifies as a cultural Jew, would like to attend High Holiday services this year with her husband, an African American who was raised Christian, and their 10-year-old daughter. She has been visiting some synagogue open houses in the San Fernando and San Gabriel valleys, but she is not optimistic.

 
“It’s difficult to find a place where we can worship when people are not welcoming of my husband,” the Burbank resident said.

 
For certain, she plans to join her extended family in Los Angeles for Rosh Hashanah dinner and Yom Kippur break-the-fast, and she and her husband will use those opportunities to talk about the holidays with their daughter and nieces. “My husband actually embraces the Old Testament, and he was taught well. We enjoy having wonderful discussions about values and teachings,” Brooks Johnson said.

 
Still, with intermarriage rates rising in the non-Orthodox Jewish community and with about 31 percent of all Jews who are currently married involved in interfaith marriages, according the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-2001, Jewish synagogues and institutions are eagerly reaching out to interfaith families.

 
For the non-Jewish partner in an interfaith relationship, the High Holidays often feel like the flip side of the December dilemma, according to Arlene Chernow, regional director of outreach and synagogue community for the Union of Reform Judaism’s Pacific Southwest and Northwest Councils.

 
“They feel like the whole world is participating in something that they don’t understand,” she said.

 
Chernow refers the non-Jewish person to two resources which, she pointed out, are helpful even to those born Jewish. One is “Celebrations! A Parent’s Guide,” a booklet put out by the Temple Israel of Hollywood Outreach Committee. It’s targeted for parents of preschoolers but serves as a basic primer on holiday themes, rituals, foods and activities for all parents. Additionally, Chernow recommends “The High Holy Days” brochure created by the Outreach Committee of Phoenix’s Temple Chai.

 
At the University of Judaism, Rabbi Neal Weinberg devotes one four-hour session of his Introduction to Judaism class to the High Holidays, explaining the liturgy and customs. In this year’s class on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, held in early September, he explained the difference between the Christian concept of unconditional love, which mandates that people be automatically forgiven, with the Jewish concept of justice, which insists that individuals be held accountable for their actions.

 
“Jews don’t have love and hate,” he explained to his class. “We have love and injustice.”

 
Grenda Guilfoil, 42, who grew up in a fundamentalist Christian environment, struggled with the idea that you cannot forgive someone who does not ask to be forgiven. Still, she felt that the session was helpful, especially in terms of dealing with religious concepts and rituals, such as blowing the shofar. She plans to attend High Holiday services at Sinai Temple in Westwood with her Jewish significant other, Richard David, 47, who is taking the Introduction to Judaism class with her.

 
“But it’s not only going to services themselves. It’s the family rituals also, like lunch at Richard’s mother’s house, that add a whole other level of newness that I’m being introduced to,” Guilfoil said.

 
Michael Hudson, 51, a Jew-by-choice, has no extended Jewish family.
“I frankly have to make that commitment on my own,” he said. An African American, Hudson was raised United Methodist and, after a lengthy spiritual search, converted to Judaism in 1994. His wife is a practicing Catholic, as are his two young adult children.

 
Hudson’s Jewish family consists of friends from his job at the Los Angeles Unified School District, where he serves as a labor relations representative, and from his synagogue, Temple Akiba, where he sings in the choir and serves as vice president of religious practices. Hudson will participate in all Temple Akiba services as a choir member. He has no plans for Rosh Hashanah lunch or dinner, but he will attend a Yom Kippur break-the-fast at a friend’s house, where his family will join him.

Your Letters


Who Should Pay?

While Sharon Schatz Rosenthal’s cover story notes that dayschools are costly, it fails to address cost efficiency (“Who Should Pay?” Jan.31). I believe the Jewish community’s limited funding can be more effectivelytargeted at bolstering supplementary secondary schools. A good example is theLos Angeles Hebrew High School (LAHHS), which Dr. Samuel Dinin established(“Legacy in Motion,” Jan. 31).

LAHHS serves more than 500 teenagers who concurrently attendsecular high schools. With more than three dozen distinguished faculty members,its educational program is on par with the best full-time Jewish high schools.Yet, tuition is around one-tenth the cost.

Leonard M. Solomon, LAHHS Board of Trustees Los Angeles

There’s another reason some of us are unable to send ourchildren to Jewish day schools — the lack of after-school care at most of theschools. Catch 22: We work to be able to afford Jewish day school tuition, butstill can’t send our children there because the schools are not willing toaccommodate working, two-parent families.

Name Withheld Upon Request, Woodland Hills

The truth of the Jewish community is that the vast majorityof non-Orthodox students attend supplementary schools and will continue to doso.

I take particular issue with the article’s innuendo that theLos Angeles Bureau of Jewish Education could be more financially supportive ofday schools. That may be, but they are more supportive of supplementary schoolsthan most, striving to raise the quality of teachers and the esteem of thework.

It is my hope that when we talk about Jewish education, wecan engage in discussion about communal goals and the myriad options that areand could be available.

Cheri Ellowitz Silver, Education Director   Congregation NerTamid of South Bay

Editorial

I am unable to comprehend Rob Eshman’s logic regardingPresident Bush’s State of the Union address (“Ich Bin ein Missourian,” Jan.31). Saddam will never comply with the U.N. resolutions that demand hiscooperation to reveal what he has done with the weapons of mass destruction. Noamount of inspection is going to find what he has hidden.

Michael Brooks, West Hills

Interfaith Families

As a Catholic Latino married to a Jewish woman, I havelearned that many Jews consider interfaith marriage a terrible threat to thesurvival of the Jewish people (“Jews Must Draw in Interfaith Families,” Jan.24). I understand this concern, but I would argue that the threat is notnecessarily mixed marriage, but rather the Jewish community’s treatment ofmixed families. My wife and I are committed to raising our children as Jews.Sadly, while we’ve belonged to a Reform congregation for many years and havetried to become part of the temple community, we’ve had very limited success.Typically, we have been treated with reactions ranging from indifference tosuspicion. We are politely tolerated, but feel relegated to a marginal status.

In contrast, the church I attend supports a group ofCatholics married to Jews. The parish seems to welcome these families, fullyintegrating them in the church community. Although we as a family are notchurch members, we have developed closer relationships with this group than wehave with families at our temple.

Over the years, the few mixed families we’ve encountered atthe temple have gradually drifted away. We have also started looking foranother congregation. We’ll continue trying to find a Jewish community where wefit in. However, I often wonder how my children will feel about Judaism if theyare always kept at the margins.

R. Hernandez, Los Angeles

Gay Rabbis

Although I am a traditional Jewish man with traditionalideas, I support the idea of allowing gays and lesbians to become Conservativepulpit rabbis (“A Conservative Challenge,” Jan. 17). The Conservative movementshould reconsider its position and at least discuss the issue. Why should anyJewish person be excluded from fulfilling his or her dreams because of personalpreferences? The Conservative movement allowing women to become pulpit rabbisin 1985 was a great decision and helped fortify the views of ConservativeJudaism.

Israel Weiss, Agoura Hills

Correction

In Rabbi Michael Beals’ letter to the editor (Jan. 31), TheJournal incorrectly added the translation “repentance” next to the word teshuvot,which here meant “a rabbinic response to a query, based on halacha (Jewishlaw).” We regret the error.