While The High Holidays often present challenges for interfaith families, they can also provide insight on meaningful Jewish traditions.
Featured photo by John Hardwick/Jewish Federation
The Jewish High Holidays can be challenging for interfaith families if attending synagogue is not a part of their practice, says Lindsey Silken, editorial director of InterfaithFamily.com, a national, nonprofit online and community-based initiative that strives to engage interfaith couples and their children in Jewish life.
“The High Holidays come with many questions because they are the most synagogue-
centric holidays on the Jewish calendar,” Silken said.
“We provide a multitude of resources on how to prepare for the holiday, from choosing what kind of services to attend if your family has small children to how to decide on whether to allow kids to attend public school on the holidays and learn about the traditions outside a synagogue setting. Our goal is to help interfaith families find their own ways to make the High Holidays more enriching and inclusive.”
In Metro Detroit, organizations like The Well and NEXTGen Detroit are reaching out to interfaith families to provide services and programming wherever they are in their spiritual observance.
“In my experience, local interfaith couples/families celebrate Jewish holidays the same way as everyone else in our community, for the most part,” said Jonathan Schwartz, co-chair of interfaith couples programming for NEXTGen Detroit. “We attend religious services, get together with family, participate in community events, and enjoy Jewish traditions and stories.”
Schwartz said interfaith couples and families, such as his with his wife, Stacy, approach the Jewish holidays with “refreshing enthusiasm, inquisitiveness and creativity” adding to the meaning of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur commemorations. Schwartz said that interfaith couples want to be a part of Jewish life and will be drawn to religious leaders and institutions that are supportive and welcoming.
“If a rabbi or synagogue refuses to marry interfaith couples, bans non-Jewish spouses/family from participating in rituals, or pens op-eds bemoaning interfaith marriage as something to be ‘tolerated’ at best, don’t expect to see us around there during the High Holidays or the rest of the year.”
Mechelle Sieglitz of Pontiac is married to Paul Castelli, a pastor at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Milford. This is the first year their 16-month-old daughter will be able to enjoy a taste of apples with her honey.
When Castelli was attending seminary in Columbus, Ohio, he and Sieglitz would invite friends to a meal full of symbolic Jewish foods during many Jewish holidays, including Rosh Hashanah, so she could explain the holiday traditions to them. For some, it was the first time they had an encounter or knowledge of Jewish New Year observances. They would do the same for Passover and Chanukah.
Castelli said the introspective contemplative messages of the High Holiday liturgy are very similar to the themes of Ash Wednesday.
Castelli does not attend services on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur because he believes this is a time meant exclusively for Jews “who may need their space” in reflective prayer.
However, he has attended Selichot prayers and was specifically struck by the messages of God’s forgiveness and compassion after one has transgressed, as found in Psalm 51.
“I also appreciate the themes and messages (of asking for forgiveness after running away from responsibility and turning around one’s bad habits) found in the Book of Jonah,” Castelli said. “I know that is read each afternoon on Yom Kippur.”
Rebecca Goldberg Spennachio of Bloomfield Hills said her husband, Robert, has taken a liking to gefilte fish. So much so that he has learned to make it himself for the whole family for Rosh Hashanah as well as Passover. Rebecca said that her mother-in-law also loves to visit for Rosh Hashanah meals because in Christianity, there are not many traditions that go along with holidays beyond a Christmas tree or Easter eggs.
“Robert enjoys going to services at Temple Israel,” Spennachio said. “Unlike Conservative synagogues, there is more English in the service and he can better understand the prayers.”