April 12, 2024 -

Embracing Interfaith

The impending holiday season evokes feelings of joy, faith, and togetherness. Yet, for some it is a time of conflict and struggle – particularly for families that include people who come from different faith traditions. I can identify. My Jewish mother and Italian Catholic father were both fairly disconnected from their faiths when I was born. Yet, Christmastime seemed to wash away any feelings of spiritual ambivalence for my dad. As a child I would spend Christmas Eve with him, helping him decorate the plastic tree in his small Manhattan apartment.  I particularly remember cutting out a cardboard Jewish star, coloring it in, and placing it on the top of that tree.

When I was growing up, the Catholic side of my family unconditionally accepted me as a Jew. They managed to embrace me as one of them, while simultaneously—always respectfully—acknowledging the differences between us.  My Aunt Caroline would occasionally take me along to church on Sunday morning. One Sunday, I distinctly remember the moment when the congregation was summoned to receive communion near the altar. Before Aunt Caroline and her son, my Cousin Vincent, got up to make their way to the altar, Vincent suggested that I wait in my seat.  He didn’t need to say it, though – I instinctively knew that, as a Jew, taking communion was simply not part of who I was.  The line between us felt very real, but not hurtful in any way. Following the service, my aunt would introduce me to her priest saying, “This is my nephew, Joshua; he is of the Jewish faith.” I remember shaking the priest’s hand, feeling completely embraced and accepted for who I was.

My Catholic family’s unconditional love for me, and acceptance of my faith, has provided the model for how I welcome non-Jews into my congregation.  I truly know what it feels like to be lovingly embraced by those of a different faith.  I know that non-Jews who participate in Jewish synagogue life are initially there because it is important to the people they love.  As a rabbi, I have enormous respect and appreciation for those who, out of that love, are open to learning about Judaism and working to understand how they can support their families’ Jewish lives.

A couple of years ago, I facilitated a group for non-Jewish spouses of temple members.  I heard that no one wants to be pushed, or made to feel “less-than,” for being of a different faith.  I heard that everyone wants to be welcomed into a supportive environment in which they are encouraged to explore instead of faced with uncomfortable demands.   The experience reminded me again that each of us is on a unique journey.  I came away grateful that, because of the gift of acceptance that my father and his family gave to me, I understand completely the blessing our loved ones give us by encouraging us to express ourselves and our faith as authentically as possible.