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There’s No Such Thing…Or Is There??

Saturday, 5 June 2010

My smicha certificate does not mention the name of any particular synagogue. I was ordained to be a teacher, leader, rabbi of the People Israel. Not as the rabbi of Temple Beth Fill-in-the-Blank. And I really have taken that seriously throughout my years in the rabbinate, understanding Keiruv as the process of bringing people closer to Torah and God and the land/people of Israel. It shouldn’t be about bringing folks to one particular shul.

When I receive a phone call from an unaffiliated Jew seeking a rabbi to officiate at a baby naming, part of the discussion includes the value of synagogue membership. I explain that the bestowing of a name is much more than a public welcoming ceremony. And it ought not to be an event held to appease well-meaning relatives who insist the “you have to have a naming because that’s just what we do.”

A naming ceremony is a public declaration, on the part of the parents , of a promise. A promise to those who came before. A guarantee that the Jewish religion and culture they held dear will be transmitted to another generation. A pledge to this new life that he or she will be gifted with the rich heritage that is his or her inheritance as well as be reared in the midst of community. And a brit – an ongoing Eternal covenant – with those yet-to-come. That a vibrant Judaism will not be denied to them.

Synagogue affiliation is essential to the fulfillment of these promises. It provides a community in which a child can flourish. It provided a support system for the parents. A place to celebrate. To mourn. To learn. And to grow.

— This is all the preamble to the following situation—

Some years back, I did a naming for an unaffiliated family. And then another one. And… And after naming their fourth child, they joined our shul. A year later, for reasons never given other than it had nothing to do with us, they resigned.

Recently, I received an email from the mother that concluded with the following:

…I am hoping to name this child in the Jewish religion as well. We have been bad Jews.

Here is what I wrote in return:

We have really missed you guys. I hope that things are settling down for you all and that you have found a spiritual home that is the right fit for your family.

Her reply:

Hi. No we haven’t joined or even been to temple since we left….I am hoping you will name this new one even though we have been bad Jews.

“Bad Jews.” I used to recoil whenever someone used this phrase. I would rush to reassure them with a statement such as this:

No. There are people who do not make the best choices when it comes to their Judaism. But there is no such thing as a bad Jew.

And I believed it. Every word.

Now, though, I wonder if I have been wrong. What should we call a person who is ethical and moral but chooses not to observe Shabbat? A good person, to be sure. But no, not a good Jew. A person who withholds a Jewish education from his or her children is not a good Jew. One who chooses not to sustain the Jewish community is not a good Jew.

So now I am faced with a dilemma:

    • Do I name this child in the naïve hope that this family might reconsider at some point in the future and reaffiliate with a shul? Do I heed my deeply-rooted sense of obligation and name this child because, after all, would I want to be the one responsible for denying this innocent a name?

  • Or

    • Do I respond that my time is filled meeting the needs of our congregants and (because I just can’t say no) provide the names of some of my colleagues who use the parnasa?

    I am most interested in hearing your thoughts.

  • 42 Comments leave one →
    1. Saturday, 5 June 2010 10:56 pm

      You are the rabbi who named all of their children, I think it is appropriate that you be the rabbi that names the fifth. It is an emotional time and they are turning to someone they trust.

      It reminds me of the Brit Milah program the URJ runs to certify doctors to be mohels – to make sure that the interaction when the baby is newborn is positive.

      Also, you never regret being there….

      • Frume Sarah permalink*
        Sunday, 6 June 2010 5:48 pm

        Of course it’s appropriate. But it’s also appropriate for this family to follow-through with the promised they have made (now four times) to provide their children with a Jewish upbringing and education.

        I interned with the Berit Milah Board of Reform Judaism (not run by the URJ, but as a joint program with HUC) and agree that interactions be positive and welcoming. However, at a certain point, it feels as though I’m being used for services rendered…

    2. Saturday, 5 June 2010 10:58 pm

      I have had quite a few discussions about this. I have a number of friends who look like my zayde must have back in Vilna. Every now and then we’ll sit down at a table and argue fiercely about why Orthodoxy/Conservative Judaism is right/wrong.

      In the quiet moments they have confessed that even though they can’t officially sanction Reform/Conservative Judaism they are happy to see us out there.

      Why/ Because they know that it is really hard to get someone who is unaffiliated to go from nothing to being Shomer Mitzvot. So they think that a “stepping stone” process is not such a bad way to go.

      From my seat it seems that the best way to attract flies is with honey. Most people don’t react well to being berate and made to feel badly.

      • Frume Sarah permalink*
        Sunday, 6 June 2010 5:54 pm

        That’s awfully condescending, isn’t it? We’re good enough as a stepping stone to “authentic Judaism” but not authentic in our own right??

        I would never berate someone for their choices because I agree that is no way to bring someone closer. However, I also have to be able to answer the question “is this going to better for perpetuating Judaism?”

        And the answer is — I don’t know. I can make a case for both sides…

    3. Saturday, 5 June 2010 11:33 pm

      Whatever they think of themselves, they think of you as their rabbi. They feel connected enough to want the child to be named by a rabbi.

      What about using this as an opportunity to open a conversation about why the family left? I would be tempted to get her to expand a bit on the “Bad Jews” thing: why does she feel like they’ve been “Bad Jews” – what does that mean (to her)? Why is it important to her to have her children named by a rabbi? What does being Jewish mean to her?

      I’m trying to imagine a mother explaining to her child that the family is Jewish, but they are “Bad Jews” so they don’t belong to a congregation. Yikes.

      • Frume Sarah permalink*
        Sunday, 6 June 2010 5:55 pm

        You bring up some very good questions. Ones that I imagine I will ultimately use in the conversation I will have with the mom.


    4. Saturday, 5 June 2010 11:51 pm

      We don’t currently belong to a temple, and both of my children were named by an unaffiliated rabbi – a friend whom we love and feel connected to. It was important to me to participate in this rite of passage as the beginning to my children’s Jewish education, even though to date, their formal education has not continued. At some point soon, we will join and become involved in a temple.

      With so many Jews unaffiliated, for any number of reasons, I think continued efforts to make Judaism and observance broadly accessible are critical. This is not to say that rabbis should devote inordinate amounts of time to people who are not part of the congregation; certainly, members deserve your primary attention. But I do think opening the (metaphorical) doors in non-traditional ways might be a way to reinvigorate unaffiliated Jews’ interest / commitment / involvement.

      In this particular case, I agree with Leah that you have named all their children and they sought you out because they trust you, know you, like your style, etc. That’s important, and I’ll bet there’s a mitzvah in there somewhere! If you can make the time, you should do it.

      • Frume Sarah permalink*
        Sunday, 6 June 2010 6:03 pm

        Making Judaism accessible, lowering the barriers, and creating inclusive and welcoming communities are essential to allowing people to feel comfortable and accepted. And our shul has been doing this for decades.

        We are living in a time that is seeing the least educated and least ritually observant generation. It is probably not a coincidence that synagogue affiliation is low as well. These children, as it so happens, are not being reared in a home that is actively Jewish in any way. So the education that they would be receiving at a synagogue would be the only Judaism they would see.

        Yes, I can encourage them and teach them to live more active Jewish lives. But who is going to support the religious schools, rabbis, etc if everyone decides that they simply don’t need to belong? And what happens, then, when they expect a rabbi to be available to them when they need one?

    5. Sunday, 6 June 2010 12:06 am

      As I see it, the individuals want to have the baby named because it is tradition – but why take part in just ONE tradition when there are so many others that are being ignored? I agree that a baby naming is a “public declaration” and I also believe that by having the baby named, the parents accept the responsibility of teaching, practicing, explaining, and sharing Judaism WITH the child. I don’t know these individuals but judging from the letter they wrote, this hasn’t happened with their other children, despite the fact that they all took part in a naming.
      Perhaps I’m idealistic but when I converted to Judaism I promised to uphold my end of the Covenant that Abram made with the Eternal. At the very least, I think the parents should be questioned as to whether or not they plan to pass down the importance/meaning of the Covenant to their children. Children only know what’s important if their parents show them, by their actions, what’s important.
      I’m not a Rabbi and don’t pretend to know the responsibility that comes with ordination but I do think that part of the responsibility probably includes explaining the importance of taking seriously the rituals that individuals are asking to take part in. What’s the point of going through a ritual if its importance ends as soon as the couple leaves the shul? Absent the understanding of its importance, a baby naming seems like just another reason to have a party.
      That’s my two cents…

      • Frume Sarah permalink*
        Sunday, 6 June 2010 6:06 pm

        My guess is that deep-down these parents, who are really nice people, sense that this is something that is supposed to be done and they just don’t know how they feel about the rest of it. And I can’t imagine it’s easy to find the emotional or physical time to devote to thinking about these issues with four kids running them ragged.

        I think that we have done a disservice, generally speaking, with not impressing enough that the name is much more than a name.

        And I wonder if I have not done my best at impressing this upon this family…

    6. homeshuling permalink
      Sunday, 6 June 2010 4:44 am

      I don’t have an answer, but I wonder if you’ve been able to have a conversation with her about why the baby naming is important to her.

      • Frume Sarah permalink*
        Sunday, 6 June 2010 6:06 pm

        I haven’t…but now think that it is an important conversation that ought to be had.

    7. TimahRuth permalink
      Sunday, 6 June 2010 6:42 am

      I converted a year ago. My Hebrew name continues to be a joyful marker of that experience. I’m a teacher and work with families who seem lost when it comes to raising children and setting priorities. This naming ceremony is a chance to bring this family back to center by connecting them again to Jewish traditions and their role as parents within our community.

      • Frume Sarah permalink*
        Sunday, 6 June 2010 6:08 pm

        First of all, welcome to the Tribe!!

        I think that I am feeling a bit burnt given that I have tried to see the naming ceremonies with this family as opportunities in the past…and yet here we are again.

    8. Sunday, 6 June 2010 6:55 am

      I think my short answer (and such thoughtful comments you’ve already received!) is that your participation may have little or no impact on the parents’ future Jewish life but may have great impact on the other children, who may, throughout their lives, have positive Jewish associations BECAUSE of YOU and choose to affiliate and/or make Jewish choices.

      But it does sting a little, doesn’t it!? I think grit your teeth and do it. With lots of words about the joy of Jewish tradition and life.

      • Frume Sarah permalink*
        Sunday, 6 June 2010 6:09 pm

        Well, that is an interesting perspective that I hadn’t considered. The other kids.

        I appreciate that you understand how hard this is. Thanks…

    9. Sunday, 6 June 2010 7:20 am

      A few things.

      First, I agree with the commenters above as well: having named all of this family’s other children, it would be poor form for you to refuse this one. It won’t “teach” them anything, and will come across as spiteful and petty. This is potentially an opportunity for kiruv, but it’s also just courteous at this point.

      As to your opening paragraph, and your role as rabbi to the entire Jewish community –
      Yes, that’s true, at least as far as what the semicha certificate says. However, the role you occupy in the community isn’t just about what’s written on that piece of paper – it’s about your position in the congregation. Working for that particular synagogue means that it (and its members) get dibs on your time and resources. If doing this naming means that you won’t be available to be present at the naming/wedding/death-bed of a member, what then? You could certainly do great outreach by leading worship/education/life-cycles for the community without requiring anyone’s membership…but then your shul won’t be getting what it needs from you.

      Finally, to the whole “bad Jew” thing: I hate that too. It’s worth remembering the rabbinic reminder about someone who is completely ritually nonobservant: af al pi she-chatah, Yisrael hu – though he sins, he is a Jew. No matter what religious choices they’ve made up to this point, we have to regard them with the same openness we give to anyone else. Still, I think it’s appropriate for you to ask them are interested in being good Jews – and if so, help them find ways to make that possible for themselves – and their kids.

      Good luck with this one. I know it’s tough…

      • Frume Sarah permalink*
        Sunday, 6 June 2010 6:10 pm

        I had a line about keiruv in here that was ultimately pulled out because it wasn’t working. So interesting that you touch upon that here.

        I think you raise a really good question — are they “interested in being good Jews.”

        Thanks, Oren, for your thoughts and commiseration.

    10. Sunday, 6 June 2010 7:29 am

      I think if they have five children and they resigned from synagogue membership, you need to ask whether their issue is money. They aren’t necessarily bad Jews, but they may be poor Jews. How does your congregation address questions of financial aid and dues? Do you have a sliding scale? Can you welcome them to rejoin by letting them know what options are open for them?

      • Frume Sarah permalink*
        Sunday, 6 June 2010 6:15 pm

        Nope. Not an issue of money. We have a sliding scale for anyone who is need of it — with no questions asked. They are aware of it…as are the rest of our shul. When I arrived at the shul, one of the first goals I had was to create a dues structure for the under-40 group that would send a very solid message that money is not a reason not to belong to a shul.

        We have been so accommodating as far as financial obligations are concerned that we have a very large percentage of our shul on some kind of adjustment. I am working at the same salary as the one I started with because our shul is not able to afford to give me a raise. And our staff has taken salary freezes for years…not to mention we’re usually below the “industry standard” when it comes to paying our folks. Is it detrimental to be so accommodating? Fiscally, yes. But we are proud of the fact that we don’t turn people away because of money.

        So, no.

    11. Sunday, 6 June 2010 7:45 am

      Dear Frume Sarah,

      My smicha reads as yours does. And, I have rarely had a congregational position. I have always felt that I am a “rabbi in Israel”. In fact, that is how I respond when someone asks: “where are you a rabbi?”

      At the same time, you are “on retainer” for the congregation that pays your salary. If responding to every request to name a child (or do some other life-cycle event) for an unaffiliated family would distract from your primary responsibility to the congregation, I would hesitate obliging said family.

      I do not think you will change this family, though as Phyllis suggests, you may have a tiny impact on the children. Is it possible for you to set up some kind of conditional “brit” or contract with them? Can you say:

      “You are not bad Jews, but you are setting a bad example for your children. You have been drawing from our joint account without doing anything to replenish the supply so that others will have similar resources when it is their time. What can you consider doing to make sure that you add your energies to the Jewish experience?”

      You might actually receive a positive response from them.


      • Frume Sarah permalink*
        Sunday, 6 June 2010 6:17 pm

        Again, I will take what you suggest to heart and use it in my communication with them. It is an invitation while still acknowledging that they haven’t been keeping their promise to their kids.

    12. shiraadatto permalink
      Sunday, 6 June 2010 8:28 am

      In this particular case, I agree with Leah. The issue of trust and familiarity plays an important role in a community members sense of belonging.

      As for the issue of synagogue membership and community, I blame the American Jewish community for creating a model whereby the only way we transmit Jewish heritage and culture is through the synagogue. We could learn a thing or two from the South American Jewish community centers.

      • Frume Sarah permalink*
        Sunday, 6 June 2010 6:31 pm

        That’s not a fair comparison. South America, like Europe, is not bound by the Church-State issues that we have. As a result, government subsidies help defray much of the costs incurred by a synagogue.

        Furthermore, it is not the American Jewish community that has created this model. Lest we forget that the all-encompassing term ‘synagogue’ actually describes what was known as (1) Beit Knesset (House of Meeting), (2) Beit Tefillah (House of Prayer), AND (3) Beit Midrash (House of Learning).

    13. Sunday, 6 June 2010 8:37 am

      Hmmm… while I totally understand the sentiment, and I have trouble with ritual performed for the sake of etiquette/expectations/Grandma…

      I think that for a lot of people the affiliation isn’t always required for the creation of a meaningful Jewish identity. I don’t belong to a synagogue and haven’t for years, though I participate in the community in many ways, and do go to services, make donations, and so on.

      Now, obviously that’s not where these people are right now, but it might be where they’re headed. They might never sign up in any formal way, but might find themselves creating a Havurah by accident. It seems to me that in turning them away, you might be closing a door best left cracked.

      • Frume Sarah permalink*
        Sunday, 6 June 2010 6:47 pm

        I don’t disagree that meaningful Jewish identity can be created through a myriad of rich and diverse experiences. Today, especially, we are seeing more and more people seeking these ways of innovative ways of being Jewish.

        For the time being, structured religious education takes place within a synagogue structure. When families choose not to affiliate, their kids are not likely to receive a Jewish education. While I’m all for DIY, I can say with complete certainty that I would never attempt to home-educate my kids as far as their Jewish education is concerned. (Or secular studies, for that matter!) And I say this as a rabbi. Jewish education is meant to take place in community and though I am certainly qualified to transmit the values, laws, traditions, stories, etc. to my kids, they would be lacking the communal aspect of said learning.

    14. Sunday, 6 June 2010 9:09 am

      Hi Sarah,

      I rarely open my twitter but saw you asked me to check this out, and here I am 🙂

      Reading through all the other comments I can say that there is truth spoken in all of them. I think one of the key points made is that for whatever reason, this family feels good coming to you and even sharing how they (the mom) feels about their Jewish practice.

      When a person acknowledges, “I’ve been a bad Jew”, I would like to think they are doing this as a way of saying, “Can you help?”. Becoming members of a synagogue is quite complex. As someone mentioned, the money factor alone is HUGE and had kept me away from synagogue for a long time. I’m not a wealthy Jew. My husband and I barely make our bills monthly and we arranged payment that fit our abilities. Some people are afraid to ask because we might think, “Why would they help me, they don’t even know me”.

      I think a key thing is to do as a commentor suggested. Ask them what they would like to get out of their Jewish life, what it means to them. Perhaps ask them if it is OK for you to make some simple suggestions that might enrich their lives. Maybe the community can reach out in small ways (even though they don’t know this family). Perhaps send a Purim basket, go to a shul picnic, something like this.

      Another thing I would be curious about is if they WANT to go to shul but don’t because they feel they aren’t knowledgeable enough, can’t read Hebrew, etc etc.

      To end this ramble I’ll just say that it’s a gift they trust you and if we consider the mystical Jewish side of things, every spark counts and a baby naming is a big spark.

      • Frume Sarah permalink*
        Wednesday, 9 June 2010 11:05 pm

        I addressed the money issue in an earlier comment. I will, however, briefly restate that we do our best not to let finances get in the way of formalizing a relationship through membership.

        I too feel a connection with this family. If I didn’t, the decision would be a lot easier.

        I think.

    15. Amitzah permalink
      Sunday, 6 June 2010 10:15 am

      This is tough. Really tough. Having come from a family that has been affiliated with the same shul since before my older brother was born, named by it’s Rabbi, become Bat Mitzvah and lead services from its bimah… It’s hard to understand how a person or family can develop a relationship with a Rabbi and then walk away. Even when we moved a few hours away and joined another synagogue we still maintained contact. Like I said, it’s hard to understand.

      I’m not entirely sure that this is a “bad Jew” issue. It seems a bit more mundane than that. It sounds like guilt, plain and simple. They walked away from the shul. It happens. People move, grow, change. It’s normal. Yet, they also walked away from you. After getting to know you, after asking you to be there for a special time in their families lives, they walked away. Now, after all that, they are asking you to do this for them again. If it were me, I know I would be feeling the guilt.

      As to your dilemma: I think you should do it if you can. They obviously trust you or else they wouldn’t keep coming back to you. You have had an influence on their lives, however brief. You can use this as an opportunity to see how the family is doing. Ask about the other children, see if the parents are planning on furthering their Jewish education. Encourage them to interact more with the community. Not necessarily join a synagogue, but take the next step in becoming more active in their Judaism and their community. If they really do see themselves as “bad Jews” (though I’m still sticking by my theory) let them know that it doesn’t have to be permanent. They can change how they perceive themselves, if they really want to.

    16. Sunday, 6 June 2010 11:44 am

      Excellent points from everyone. I guess my feeling is that by not performing the ceremony, you would be depriving this child of a bond that the rest of the family holds. The parents obviously feel a strong connection to you; perhaps you can have a conversation with them about why they feel the need to have this baby named “properly” but don’t feel the need to do anything else “properly.” Good luck sorting this one out!

    17. David Harris permalink
      Sunday, 6 June 2010 3:00 pm

      I feel honored to have been included in this “please give your thoughts” endeavor, especially considering I’m not a rabbi. However, having graduated from the very same seminary as many of the comment givers as well as the author, I’m glad to put in my two cents.

      From a communal service standpoint (that’s where my degree lies) I struggle with the term “bad Jews” also. A lot of time was spent when I was working with college students in the Northeast trying to get it through their heads that just because they didn’t make it to Shabbat (which was always a good time by the way) did not make them “bad Jews” – I recoil just as you mention in your post.

      Now, to the situation at hand, are you calling them “unaffiliated” Jews because they do not belong to a synagogue, or your synagogue? I am not a member of a synagogue, does this make me “unaffiliated”? I have years of proof indicating otherwise, but this is a semantics issue, and could turn someone off.

      Synagogue membership is an increasingly challenging subject, with so many young adults/families/older members choosing not to join or withdraw for whatever reason. For me, it stems from connection. If I felt super connected to a synagogue or tied to LA for more than the immediate future, I suppose I would inquire about a young adult membership (because from what I hear, dues are pretty steep and I have a tight budget).

      While I appreciate this family’s answer of “It’s not personal” re: leaving the shul in the first place, the problem (if there’s any at all) cannot go away until you as the spiritual leader knows what that is. My rabbi from home was always great about framing a question in such a way that he’d probably get an answer out of me, regardless of how much I’d want to remain private about it.

      Understanding that this is a unique situation, what if the parents just didn’t want to join a synagogue, but they wanted to name the child by a rabbi to please themselves, and not their pushy relatives? Would you deny them? Would that denial push them further away from organized Jewish life in the synagogue sense?

      I also find some problems with how you frame your last paragraph, because as a Reform Jew, I am ethical, moral, arguably to a fault (it depends on who you talk to I guess) but I don’t observe Shabbat. I know all about it, I go to services as often as I can, but I drive, I shop, etc. This makes me not a good Jew? Big problem there, because frankly, I’m the best Jew that I can be, and I am choosing to act in a certain way. I was always of the opinion that G-d was the one who can judge me. No one else.

      This is a really thought provoking topic and I so appreciate the chance to give my thoughts. They may change as I read other comments or think more about the posting, but that’s what I have so far.

      I wish you luck and look forward to reading more…

    18. Sunday, 6 June 2010 5:59 pm

      Thanks for sharing the dilemma and asking so many of us for our reactions. I agree with much of what has been said above (especially Phyllis, Mark, Leah and Tamara.)

      I think that the situation you describe may increase in frequency as the Millennial generation (born 1982-2002) builds lives on their own. Research (and anecdotal experience) indicates that Millennials are less likely to participate in institutions because it is what has been done/is the system. Yes, some may be familiar with congregational life, but they may not feel the need to participate as members. (Shirah Liff-Grieff wrote a master’s thesis on Millennials and their working in Jewish non-profit organizations –

      Good luck with your decision.

    19. Sunday, 6 June 2010 8:19 pm

      When my dad was an infant, my Irish Catholic grandfather wanted him baptized. My grandmother, who had been raised by her Spanish Catholic grandmother and who practiced some sort of folk Catholicism, scared her to death, and she left the Church as soon as she married. She was not thrilled with the baptism, but conceded to her husband. Did my dad grow up Catholic? No. They didn’t practice. In fact, in jr. high school he converted to Methodism so he could be a summer camp counselor with his buddies. Then when he and my mom wanted to marry, her parents insisted they be married in a synagogue. Did they practice Judaism? No. Some holidays and some Yom Kippurs. I am too embarrassed to tell you what his Jewish conversion looked like. You would never recognize it!

      What was the point of all that converting and baptizing? Sentimentality mixed with tradition. But did that make anyone closer to God or their community?

      At any rate, some of the above posters are concerned with the children of this family. And I am too, but in a different way. You are dealing with what you believe as a Jew and a Rabbi regarding the meaning of this ceremony, which is seemingly different than what the parents seem to believe about it. (although, once you have this conversation with the mother, you might be surprised by her reasons for wanting the baby naming. You never know….)

      Interestingly, to me, this situation is kind of like one of your recent posts about the JCC being open on Jewish holidays: the children will see their parents go to work, instead of celebrating the holiday as a family. That’s what they are modeling to the children. But you are modeling something different for this family: the true meaning of bring a Jew into community. And what might the children do about ‘being Jewish?” They ARE Jewish. And they will do what my sister and I did: discover Judaism as adults.

    20. meira permalink
      Sunday, 6 June 2010 9:24 pm

      Dear FS—

      There is no harm in referring her to another colleague. Because you are on retainer for your congregation, you truly may be otherwise needed when she needs your services. And therefore, I think you have no particular obligation to do this naming for this family.

      However, I disagree with the previous posters who suggested asking her why it is important to her to have a naming. I think that could come across as judgmental and could embarrass her. If you can’t do it because you are disappointed or feel used, I think you can refer her, but if you choose to do it, may I suggest that you consider another perspective?

      I don’t care for the nomenclature “bad Jew,” because I think it shows a fundamental misunderstanding of our religion. And because this woman frames her communication with you as such, I think it might be better to give her the benefit of the doubt and consider her as one who is spiritually immature, who does not yet know her right hand from her left.

      Yes, I know there is an argument that she should have educated herself (and her kids) because she promised to do so now 4 times, but I’m guessing there’s far more to the situation than revealed in only her emails. People are complicated.

      Remember the story about the Rooster Prince? You could meet her where she is. Instead of questioning her reasons or sincerity, tell her you can see she is serious and talk to her about how she can get involved or reintegrated in the Jewish community, whether it is your temple or not.

      I don’t think her reasons for wanting a naming matter. It’s not that you’re a “mensch” to name a child of parents who are serious about Judaism but a “luftmensch” if you name a child of parents who see religious simchas in the framework of fee-for-services. You, FS, are a mensch no matter what. 🙂 So make your decision based on what YOU believe to be right (which, I’m guessing, depends not at all on any expectant mother’s uninformed ideas about Jewish ritual).

      Good luck to you on your decision.


    21. meira permalink
      Sunday, 6 June 2010 9:35 pm

      PS–I meant to explain what I meant about “bad Jew.” I think that’s in the eye of the beholder, and I think as Jews we’re supposed to struggle. None of us can truly appreciate another person’s struggle. It’s all very sliding scale, and I take such offense when more traditional Jews look down their noses at reform Judaism, it just sours me on making a similar comparison. As for the expectant mother—-so she’s not Zusia, but isn’t it possible that she’s doing the best that she can?

    22. Tuesday, 8 June 2010 11:46 am

      I just recently came across your website. My family and I moved to the Denver area about 4 years ago from the Chicago suburbs. When we lived in Chicago we were involved with the Jewish community and had my oldest daughter named by the Rabbi that married us. It was a beautiful ceremony and extremely meaningful for us. Since we have moved to Denver we have tried to connect with the Jewish community here, but have continually felt shut out. Our youngest daughter is now 2 and unfortunately we have not had her named, because we feel like the ceremony would be meaningless because of our lack of connection to the Jewish community. It makes me feel very sad because we do want to be part of the Jewish community, but feel like the Jewish community does not want us. We briefly joined a reform synagogue after my youngest daughter was born and had even enrolled our oldest daughter in preschool at the same kindergarten. We were so disenchanted with the whole experience that we withdraw our daughter from school and cancelled our membership. Unfortunately, it was at a time when we probably needed community more than ever.

      I guess my point is, that if this family wants to name their child and reached out to you, please name the child. What if you’re the only connection they feel with the community. If you turn them down, that might be it for that family and they might never reconnect with the Community. I wish someone had reached out to us. When we left the synagogue and the preschool, no one really even asked why. When my husband explained that we hadn’t felt welcome, he was told, “oh that’s suprising.” And we weren’t even asked to reconsider or if there was anything that they could do to change our mind.

      I continue to want to reconnect with the Jewish Community and Judaism in general, but I don’t even know how anymore. I hear the laments that more and more Jews are unaffiliated, but I know lots of families that feel left out and don’t know how to connect.

    23. Tuesday, 8 June 2010 4:05 pm

      Okay. I think that Mark’s response is 100% right on target:
      “You are not bad Jews, but you are setting a bad example for your children. You have been drawing from our joint account without doing anything to replenish the supply so that others will have similar resources when it is their time. What can you consider doing to make sure that you add your energies to the Jewish experience?”

      I think that Tamara is right *most* of the time – that when people say “I’ve been a bad Jew” it’s a cry for help. But I think in this case, it’s manipulative. These people know what your response – what every good rabbi’s response – typically is. “You are not bad Jews. Please, let me do this nice thing for you in the hopes that you will join my congregation.” So she says it, because she has learned your response, and she knows it will get her what she wants.

      The incredible, insightful, keiruvdik responses you’ve gotten so far would be right on target for a wedding, or kid #1, or #2. Not for kid #5, though. Expecting you to do a naming for ex-members who have no readily discernable reason for leaving the shul is childish. Until these people can demonstrate that they’ve grown up as Jews, how can they expect their children to do the same? And how can they promise you that they will? I would explain that whether a rabbi officiates at the pomp and circumstance of a Hebrew naming has almost no bearing on the Jew that child will become (after all, she’ll have a Hebrew name regardless of whether you’re there, just as she’ll automatically become bat mitzvah at age 12) This is a token step. We want real steps.

      *Sigh* Which means, my dear lady, that you have a long and difficult conversation ahead of you, as you know. And you should name that baby. But only after you’ve gotten the evidence you’re looking for that this time, the FIFTH time, these people are finally ready, willing, and able to somehow become members of a Jewish community.

    24. Tuesday, 8 June 2010 9:46 pm

      First off There is another Ruth out there!
      I would like to say that everyone is assuming that the community is welcoming to everyone. I have lived here for 7 years. I have been affiliated with 2 synagogues, both claim to be welcoming. If you ask the leaders, board members and many members you get a list of examples. Yet if I find my way to Chabad I find many Jews that do not feel welcome at the local reform temple either. Unlike my Husband and myself they do not have a traditional background. Sometimes, we feel the need to touch base and then I get fed up with not counting and sitting behind trees.( Fortunately my daughters can touch base buy going to any Reform or Conservative services). When I ask the people there; Why Chabad? They say they feel more welcome in Chabad than the reform Temple.
      It is a good idea to take a look and see if we all our doing our best. My husband right now is at a membership meeting, we hope to open up this subject. What can we do? What should we expect of are rabbis and cantors? I do not mean to be offensive I just think that outreach and welcome is subjective and don’t assume that they or anyone else sees it the way you do. We must constantly be aware that Judaism is by choice even by Jews that were born and raised with a rich Jewish tradition affiliate themselves by choice.
      The other problem is feeling comfortable. Knowing how to be Jewish can be more than a challenge it can make one feel bad or uncomfortable. I have just recently been made aware of this. A group of us have begun going over to each others homes for Havdallah services, our next goal is to start teaching it. This is just to get better at teaching things. This could be any ritual but it is a starting point. What about helping this family and others to learn to light the Shabbat candles, why not a workshop on having an Aliyah? Make it fun and stress that a lot of people aren’t masters of the prayers I definitely have more to learn.
      And definitely name the baby, don’t turn them away. They are giving you another opportunity to welcome them in. B’hatzlacha!

      • Wednesday, 9 June 2010 6:08 pm

        Hi Ruth…
        I just wanted to reply to your post by saying that the Reform shul I attend is very welcoming – to everyone ESPECIALLY new faces. People are greeted at the door, asked to wear a name tag and asked if this is there first time at our shul. They are invited to the Oneg after services and one of our two Rabbis makes it a point to approach them and introduce themselves. I am a Jew-by-Choice (I just finished the conversion process) and even though I have a graduate degree in Jewish Studies, when my non-Jewish friends attended the service at which I received the Torah, they were able to follow along with the prayers because the latest Reform siddur contains Hebrew, transliteration, and an English translation for each prayer. Although the order of prayer may be confusing initially, our Rabbis do an excellent job of announcing the different parts of the service and also announce the page numbers so the congregation can follow along in the siddur.
        I was offered a one-year, free membership when I completed the conversion process and I am happy to say I am now a member of the shul that initially welcomed me. I know both Rabbis and have made several friends. I had to do my share of the reaching out – I introduced myself and attended services each Friday and on festivals and I discovered that after a few times, I began to connect names to faces. Every person I spoke to or who didn’t recognize me were quick to ask my name and many offered me a place to sit.
        I live in Southern California and perhaps things are different here but I’ve found throughout my conversion process and attending services at my shul for over a year now I am truly a part of the community.
        Good luck finding your spiritual home! I hope that your search ends with finding a shul you can be comfortable in and feel welcomed. Don’t hesitate to introduce yourself and ask questions. Perhaps even make an appointment with the Rabbi and tell him/her how you feel. You may be surprised by the response!

        Kol Tov,

    25. susan permalink
      Sunday, 13 June 2010 8:34 pm

      You state in one of your comments that you object to an Orthodox characterization of Reform Judaism as a “stepping stone” because it’s condescending, etc. Yet I read your comments in exactly the same way of judging what is a good Jew or a bad Jew by your own interpretation. You also speak of being used for services rendered, but that is exactly the case of a good part of the job of all people in any service profession (clergy, medicine, mental health, etc.) I assume you receive a salary from your congregation, and probably take a fee or at least a donation from a family for such an event – affiliated or not. It is a professional service. If your time is not served by leading this family’s baby naming because you owe your time to your employer or you don’t feel integrity doing it because of your judgements of their level of Judaism, I should think it would be a very obvious decision to decline.

    26. Sunday, 8 August 2010 6:42 am

      I know you asked for feedback on this a long time ago, and you likely have moved on from it by now, however since you asked for feedback, I’m going to give you another little bit of it.
      Talk to the family. Not e-mail, but a real heart to heart conversation. Why does mom feel they are “bad Jews” and what makes her thus want her children named in the tradition? How does dad feel about this? What about the kids? Do they have any Jewish identity at this point? What do they do as a family? What keeps them out of the shul, but still seeking your Rabbinic services.
      To me, it is clear that they want more. There is a reason they have reached a hand out to you for each of their children. While it is easy to reach out when you are a member of a shul or once you have a personal relationship with a Rabbi, it is a bigger endeavor when you don’t – and from what you say, when this started they didn’t. So you were selected for a reason, and they keep coming back for a reason. I think this a great kiruv opportunity, you just need to meet them where they are first. Figure out what they like about Judaism and how you can tap into that part first.
      I hope it all worked/works out well. I’d love to hear an update!


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