The High Holidays appear on the secular calendar well after Easter and too soon for Christmas, making Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur the most important Jewish holidays that don’t have to compete with chocolate bunnies or flying reindeer.
But unlike the increased kitchiness of Chanukah or the spoofed a capella videos of Passover, the High Holidays are more somber — so how do interfaith families take that into account?
Rabbi Robyn Frisch, director of InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia, said the High Holidays offer more universal themes of reflection and atonement regardless of religious backgrounds.
The organization provides online resources for families that explain the basics like how to celebrate or some tips from firsthand experiences.
“The High Holidays can be nice because you’re not struggling with Christmas/Chanukah or Easter/Passover. It’s just our holiday,” she noted.
In her experience working with interfaith couples, Frisch said most Jewish spouses attend High Holiday services without their non-Jewish partners.
“Different families have different ways of dealing with it,” she said, “but eating apples and honey and having a family dinner and appreciating some of the observances and traditions as well as the themes of the High Holidays is something that family members who aren’t Jewish can be involved with.”
For new interfaith families, Frisch said respectful and honest communication is key. Jewish partners should articulate why the holidays are important to them and how they want to celebrate.
Julie Cohen said her family’s High Holiday routine has evolved over 22 years, but currently, she and her 15-year-old son Aaron Blower plan to attend services at Congregation Kol Ami.
Husband Nigel Blower, who is Christian, does not attend services, but Cohen said their house remains a Jewish home.
They used to attend children’s High Holiday services together, but once Aaron was old enough to attend adult services, Blower decided to ease back.
For Yom Kippur, those choices are also individualized: Cohen might attend Kol Nidre; Aaron fasts, while Cohen usually does not. Nor does Blower.
“We have a Jewish home and each person makes the decision about how they want to experience the holiday,” she said.
Each Christmas, however, they fly to Blower’s native England to spend time with his family.
“There’s a stocking that has [Aaron’s] name on it. He understands he’s Jewish, he goes to Jewish camp, he’s asked to go to Israel for a semester before he graduates high school, and he understands that he’s Jewish and his dad’s not,” she explained.
Cohen added that her home is probably “more Jewish” than how she was raised — her grandfather was also a rabbi — because having an interfaith family made her realize how important Jewish customs were to her upbringing.
“We always grew up celebrating the holidays, just not in a traditional way,” she said.
He may not attend services, but Blower is on the Kol Ami board — one of two non-Jews — which has welcomed him greatly.
“The history of the Jewish people is also very important to me, sometimes actually more than the observances. And my husband as a non-Jew gets that,” Cohen said.
Mary Pelak usually joins husband Dima Kreminskiy’s family for High Holiday meals in Northeast Philadelphia.
The newlyweds, who are expecting their first child next month, plan to “continue the learning for both of us” when it comes to raising a family one religion or another.
“We’ve talked a lot about raising Jewish children and having a Jewish home, but I think now it’s more about how do we put that into practice,” said Pelak, who is Catholic.
Kreminskiy grew up in Ukraine, where he didn’t receive much of a Jewish education.
“So we’re kind of learning together,” Pelak added. “There’s learning about rituals and why things are done; learning more about how our values align with Judaism.
“We have this shared experience, so we have to build it together.”
They’ve stayed involved in InterfaithFamily — Frisch even married the couple last May — and are still looking for a synagogue to join, though they’ll be missing services this year, since Pelak is due Oct. 3.
The idea of reflection around the High Holidays resonates with her.
“I like the intentionality of that,” she said. “Every step we’re taking I just realize more and more that this is kind of like an evolution and a process in terms of the family we’re building together. And I like that there’s a space for that exploration.”
Sarit Kunz attends services at Germantown Jewish Centre with 6-year-old Adam and 11-year-old Lillian.
Her husband, Kenny Kunz, who is Catholic, attends if he can, though working as a chef keeps him preoccupied during odd hours. But they still make time for Rosh Hashanah dinner.
“He helps out with making food, which always makes my mother very happy,” she said, noting the food included a round challah. He takes on other holiday-related cooking as well. “I lucked out in that sense.”
When the two married almost 14 years ago, Sarit Kunz wanted Jewish children, and Kenny Kunz agreed because he wanted them to have some religious foundation.
“He’s always been very willing to do anything he can to be with us and celebrate with us,” she added, and they often celebrate Christmas at his family’s house.
“With the Jewish religion, I’ve always felt that it’s such a community,” she explained. “It’s the whole experience of being with other Jews and being able to celebrate being with people for Rosh Hashanah.”
The Unetanneh Tokef prayer recited during the High Holidays also resonates with her each year.
“That always is a very emotional prayer for me. It doesn’t matter if you’re a doctor, a lawyer or a custodian — everyone’s on the same page. Everybody’s done things in their past that they’re not proud of, and it just puts everyone on the same playing field.”
It’s that communication within her community and family that strengthens the meaning of the holidays for Sarit Kunz.
“Interfaith partners and families are just like partners in Jewish-Jewish families,” Frisch added. “People might have different practices and different beliefs and different ways of doing things, and the key is to be respectful and communicate with each other and recognize that every interfaith family is different, just like every Jewish-Jewish family is different.”
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