How not to welcome interfaith families

It begins to happen at the beginning of December, the invitations to cool Jewish events that happen on December 24th and 25th. The Alternative to Christmas programming. From casual outings to China town, to Matzah Balls to the mega-learning event in London called Limmud, Jews organize things to do on Christmas.

And all of those things to do on Christmas exclude people in interfaith families who have Christmas responsibilities. People like me – a Jew By Choice with a Christmas celebrating family of origin. It is the only big family tradition that we have and so I go home.

I watch tweets from Limmud in London and wish I could be there, until my nephew asks if we can play dreidel, build with Lego and talk about what Santa might be bringing to town. We light the menorah (if Christmas and Hanukah overlap) before bedtime and have latkes for breakfast.

I bring this up to challenge the greater Jewish community. Fifty percent of our families are interfaith families. Jews by Choice with Christmas-time obligations with their beloved family of origin. Jews married to non-Jews who choose to honor their in-laws and spouses by going home for Christmas. Children of interfaith couples, who celebrate with cousins and grandparents from the non-Jewish side of the family. Your Christmas programming excludes us.

It sometimes feels like the last secret club in the Jewish world — the things Jews from 100% Jewish families do on Christmas. And when our synagogues and organizations plan lots of extra events, it’s hard not to feel left out.

I’m not saying you need to cancel all your Christmas programming and plans. I know that to be Jewish at Christmas in the US is to feel left out of the greater world and that if you aren’t covering at the hospital or newspaper, you want to do something, too. But if your organization serves a largely interfaith population, why not host a New Year’s program instead of a Christmas program – so your interfaith families don’t feel excluded from the families made entirely of Jews.

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5 Responses to How not to welcome interfaith families

  1. But the interfaith families have something to do — celebrate Christmas. Growing up in a 100% Jewish family we used Christmas Day to fly to wherever we vacationed until New Years. My town was about 85% Jewish, so I’m thinking the shuls around didn’t really do much as far as organized activities as everyone was available. I never really felt isolated at Christmas when I lived on Long Island. It’s different in Chicago, where most people are not Jewish & everyone is flying home to be with family & making plans & such. It’s also very different here, where most businesses have up Christmas lights & trees & while people say ‘Happy Holidays’, you know it’s mainly Christmas they mean because that’s what they celebrate. Growing up there were menorahs in every window, blue & white paint in the stores, and everyone said ‘Happy Chanukah’, because they were all Jewish. It’s a different world, and one where you kind of feel a bit left out. If I didn’t have Patterson & Christmas (because of him), it’d be downright depressing.

    While we’ve got no kids, we’re an interfaith family, and for the past few years we have been in Chicago instead of going to Alabama to be with Patterson’s family. We’ve done Christmas in the morning/afternoon & spent the evening/night in Chinatown & then at a bar with whoever else was orphaned around the city; whatever their religion. It’s quickly become a favorite tradition of mine. I like the gathering of all the strays that we do. It’s been a great time every year.

    Now I’m rambling, and the first post I was writing before my browser froze was better, but my point is, interfaith people have something to do on Dec. 25th. You had your family to play with & presents to open & nephews to teach about dreidels & such. It’s the Jews & the people who can’t go home to be with their families for one reason or another that tend to feel excluded from the festivities/tv programming/city-wide shut down of most businesses (except in Chinatown)/etc. Having something for them to do so they don’t feel excluded is important, and probably very helpful to some people who are overly depressed around the “joyous holiday season”.

    Sorry. This really was better the first time around.

    • leahjones says:

      I don’t actually disagree with you. I’ve been trying to do more intentional programming for interfaith couples/families and for some reason all of the Jewish programming on Christmas really got to me this year.

      Maybe because it was also on a weekend, it seemed there was double or triple the typical programming. And I’m also trying to address organizations that are inclusive of interfaith families and not individuals who have personal traditions. I think you and your partner have built a great Christmas tradition and I would never say to skip it.

      I just want organizations to think about how specific programming on Christmas might make their interfaith families feel.

      • I know what your point wasn’t us — I rambled. I agree, there seemed to be a whole lot going on this year, between the holidays overlapping & being on the weekend, combined with the unseasonably warm weather. I think the problem is, no matter what, people are going to feel left out. Whether it’s interfaith families that miss events on Christmas Eve/Day, or Jewish people/families who have nowhere to go if there’s no events scheduled. “Can’t please all the people all the time”, and all that stuff.

  2. Marcey Rosenbaum says:

    Hi Leah,

    I am curious as to where you got the statistic that 50% of all Jewish families in “the greater Jewish community” are interfaith? Or maybe could you clarify what you mean by “the greater Jewish community”, and “interfaith families”, that is by “interfaith family” you mean somebody who is Jewish, but their “family of origin” is not. I am not challenging any of these things, I would like to understand the issues better.


    • leahjones says:

      50% is the number I’ve been hearing bandied about lately and so I pulled it from memory based on conversations with a few people (earlier this week with Rabbi Zedek).

      I define “interfaith family” in three ways – a convert with a non-Jewish family of origin, a Jew with a non-Jewish partner, or a Jewish child of an interfaith couple. These are the three main groups I saw in a recent event I hosted called (vaguely), “So you’re in an interfaith family?”

      My point of this is to say to organizations that are working hard to do outreach to interfaith families to think about what the Christmas day programming says to those families who will never be able to participate, but identify as Jewish. It’s something that bothered me more this year than in previous years due to the high volume of programs that weekend.

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