Thursday, February 26, 2015



For the uninitiated Purim might not seem like a big deal and it’s actually a 
pretty minor holiday in the Jewish calendar. But from a celebration perspective, 
it’s huge! My younger son categorizes it as another “they tried to kill us, we 
survived, let’s eat” holidays. However, delving deeper beyond the surfacethere 
is a lot to celebrate. If you know the basic story—King Ahashverosh becomes 
annoyed with his queen and decides to seek a new one. Mordechai encourages 
his niece Esther to participate in the pageant and she is selected as the new 
Queen, but doesn’t tell anyone she is Jewish. Haman, the king’s prime minister, 
plots to exterminate all the Jews of Persia. His plan is foiled when Queen Esther 
confides in the king that she is Jewish and tells him what Haman is up to and a 
counter plot is created.

As with all Jewish holidays, Purim begins at sundown, so this year, it begins on 

Wednesday, March 4. It is a festive evening of song, food, and the reading of 

the story of Esther which is found in the Hebrew Bible. This is one reading that 

is read from a scroll, much like the Torah, except it is called a megillah (story). 

(Other megillah readings are Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Ruth and 

Lamentations.) This is also one loud, raucous reading. If you are looking for a 

decorous, sedate introduction to Jewish life, Purim is not the time for your first 

synagogue visit. People dress up as characters from the story and the play is 

acted out as characters from the Esther story appear in popular fictional 

stories. Some of the recent productions I have seen are Lion King, Grease, and 

Mary Poppins, pretty much any popular movie or TV show. This year our 

congregation is doing a take-off on Hell’s Kitchen—should be interesting!  

Purim is one of the more unusual holidays: Esther is the only biblical book in 

which God is not mentioned. Purim, as has already been mentioned, is, like 

Chanukah, traditionally viewed as a minor festival, but has been elevated to the 

status of a major holiday due to the Jewish historical experience. Finally,Haman 

became the embodiment of every anti-Semite everywhere Jews ever lived and 

experienced oppression. The significance of Purim has less to do with its 

historical roots as it does with the hope and affirmation it rekindles each year 

as we are reminded of Jewish survival despite persecution and Antisemitism 

over the course of so many centuries. The real miracle of Purim is the 

continuous survival of the Jewish people despite insurmountable odds and that 

is reason enough for celebration.


So, let’s go back to some basics….you might be wondering what the word Purim 

actually means. The word is of Persian origin which makes sense considering

the story takes place in Persia which was actually an ancient kingdom within 

Iran. Pur means “lot” and purim is the plural form meaning “lots”. Haman, the 

evil prime minister, drew lots to decide what month would be most 

advantageous for an attack against the Jews. The festival of Purim falls in the
middle of the Jewish month of .You may be wondering why 

that is important and that’s a good question. It wasn't significant for Jews, but 

it was significant for Persians because ancient Persians believed that the signs 

of the Zodiac affected their destiny, and therefore, accorded great honor to 

magicians and astrologers. Many scholars believe that Haman chose the lot to 

fall in the middle of Adar because an important festival of the goddess Anahita 

was celebrated then and he wished to turn the people against the Jews during 

that time of celebration. And, it almost worked.

Except for two things: Esther was now queen and her cousin Mordechai wasn't 

about to let this happen. So, they did they own conniving and eventually, it 

was Haman who ended up hanging for his crimes and the Jews of Shushan City

were saved. Purim is celebrated today with much 

merriment and rejoicing in synagogues and community centers all over the 

world. The story is read from the megillah, special foods are prepared (of 

course!), people dress in costumes, games are played; it is the ultimate 

triumphant carnival experience. 


By now you may be thinking, this is all well and good, but how do we actually 

do this? Ah, well, here’s a list of what you need for the ultimate Purim 


A rendition of the Purim story usually read from a scroll
Groggers—noise makers of some sort
Hamentaschen--three corner cookies that represent Haman’s pockets
Costumes—generally relating to characters from story

Assortment of games—school carnival type

Wine—for the adults 

Lots of food—for everyone

Mishloach Manot—gift baskets for friends, neighbors, shut-ins, anyone you wish 

to share them with

Once you have everything arranged, the fun begins. If you are a first-timer, I 

suggest you attend a Purim celebration at a local synagogue or community 

center or with friends who have done this before. Generally on the evening 

before the story is read with much merriment and noise every time Haman’s 

name is mentioned. The idea is to make enough noise to blot out the sound of 

his name from memory. Of course, his name continues to be remembered since 

this is done every year, but you get the idea. 


Purim is a perfect opportunity for interfaith families to experience together. The 

story of the Jewish people overcoming the evil of one person is a tale that is 

timeless and one that resonates with so many cultures. In addition to baking 

hamentaschen together you can explore opportunities to teach about social 

justice by engaging in the custom of sharing mishloach manot. You can easily 

extend the idea of mishloach manot beyond making gift baskets filled with 

hamentaschen to filling bags of toiletries for a homeless shelter, stocking the 

pantry in your local social service agency, collecting books for a domestic 

violence shelter—anything that brings your family together and turns the 

activity into a social action project.

    Baking hamentaschen is as easy as baking sugar cookies. There are 

numerous recipes online, just put “hamentaschen recipe” in your favorite 

search engine and see what pops up. Traditional hamentaschen are filled either 

with prunes or poppy seeds, but use your imagination. My favorites, besides 

poppy seed, are raspberry, chocolate chip and almond paste. Try a variety of 

fillings and decide what you like best. My grandmother made hers with soft 

yeast dough and filled the pocket with jelly; I have never found anyone else 

who made them like hers. If you find a source, please let me know; I get very 

nostalgic at Purim for Bubbies’ hamentaschen although I haven’t had them for 

many years.

    You may be wondering about the wine. There was a tradition that one should 

drink so much that you can’t tell the difference between ‘cursed be Haman’ and 

‘blessed be Mordechai’. At the same time, Judaism frowns on excessive drinking 

and encourages moderation. However, these are unusual circumstances, so the 

rabbis of the Talmudic era tended to relax their usual standards and authorize 

the excessive drinking in the spirit of merriment and unrestrained joyful 

celebration. Today we would add, if you are driving, don’t drink, and certainly 

don’t serve alcohol to minors, but please do celebrate with unrestrained joy!

If you would like to learn more about Purim, Judaism, other holidays and how 

you can enjoy them with your interfaith family please contact me at or go to my website, 

Thursday, February 12, 2015


Part 1

This is probably the most difficult topic for any interfaith couple, family, grandparent or individual—what about conversion? It is also a very private decision that should be made without any pressure from either side of the family. Just to be clear, I’m talking about converting to or from any religion, not just Judaism—keep that in mind as we move through this exercise. Since this is such a huge topic, this will be a three-part post: the first part about converting to Judaism; the second part will be about converting from Judaism to the faith of your partner and the third when conversion just doesn’t feel right to you. So, let’s try unpacking it by examining it from the perspective of someone converting to Judaism.


It is entirely possible that your desire to convert to Judaism has nothing to do with an upcoming marriage or commitment ceremony. This may be something you have been considering for years but never acted upon because there was no compelling reason. Now, however, seems like an auspicious time; you have always envisioned yourself converting someday so why not now?

Years ago the idea of converting was met with skepticism: Why would anyone want to convert? People were routinely turned away (traditionally a rabbi had to turn a prospective convert away three times before engaging in study with that person) or obstacles were put in their way until they finally gave up. In much of the world the only path to conversion was, and still is, through the portal of Orthodox Judaism which didn’t suit many who were seeking. 

One of the most famous stories told about conversion is that of the sage Hillel who was approached by a man who wished to convert. He asked Hillel to teach him the Torah while standing on one foot. Hillel’s response was: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor: that is the whole Torah, the rest is the commentary, go and learn it.” (Babylonian Talmud: Tractate Shabbat, Folio 31a).

Where do you begin such a journey? In Judaism, there are two lifecycle events for which you really must have a rabbi at your side—conversion and a (Jewish) wedding. So, you do need to develop a relationship with a rabbi and it should be someone with whom you have a level of comfort and within a movement that meets your core values.

If this already sounds too complicated and you are overwhelmed before you get started, take a deep breath and keep going. First, this is one of the areas a life coach can assist you in getting started. That’s right! I am not a rabbi, but my experiences assisting other people in their journeys toward conversion have provided me with the skills and knowledge to help you with the preparations. A couple of sessions with me can help you clarify your core values and separate belief from tradition. Once you sort those out you will have a better idea of what kind of Jewish tradition you are seeking and how to move forward in the direction that is best suited to you. If this sounds interesting to you can reach me at and we can get started on your adventure.

Most mid-size to large communities offer an Introduction to Judaism course that typically runs for 14-16 weeks and meets on a weekly basis. The Union for Reform Judaism offers a 16-week course twice each year that is taught by area rabbis; the Jewish Outreach Institute offers courses throughout the country; Jewish Community Centers and Jewish Federations in many cities offer programs; frequently congregations will work in concert with one another to offer an opportunity to interested persons in the area; and, sometimes universities have courses through their continuing education departments.

Keep in mind there are a wide range of options on the continuum of Judaism—from Orthodoxy to Humanism—so it is important to spend some time deciding which movement meets your needs and most accurately lines up with your values, belief system and life style. There will be another post specifically detailing the choices that are available; I make no judgment on any of them, it is a personal decision. The only caveat I will offer you is that Messianic Judaism is not a valid choice if you are converting to Judaism.

For people who live in small towns or who are unable to attend weekly sessions due to scheduling conflicts more and more online opportunities have opened up in recent years. There are many individuals and couples who have completed both the conversion process and marriage counseling without actually meeting their rabbi in person before the conversion or wedding!


There are many times a person chooses to convert prior getting married. Sometimes this decision is driven by a personal desire to do so; sometimes it is due to familial expectations. And often it is based upon a desire to be married by a particular clergy member or in a specific church or synagogue. Whether or not one decides to convert prior to marriage, there is a process that must be undertaken. In Judaism, one cannot simply walk into a rabbi’s office and state that you are would like to convert—today. It is at least a year-long process of study and meeting with a sponsoring rabbi, ergo the Introduction to Judaism class and the need for a rabbi to sponsor you to take the class.

If you are planning a wedding and wish to be married by a rabbi and complete your conversion prior to that date, you should start organizing your efforts as soon as you and your fiancĂ© realize this relationship is lasting and conversion is part of your future.  Please be aware that you will both be expected to attend the Introduction to Judaism classes; consider it a booster shot for whichever of you is already Jewish. Most rabbis today are happy to sponsor students seeking to clarify their desire to convert, but they do require you to meet with them, and they do expect you to be serious about your query.

It is not unusual for an individual to interview a couple of rabbis before deciding which one s/he would like to be the sponsoring rabbi; after all, you will be spending a lot of time with this person for the next year or more. It is also recommended that you visit the congregation and attend a few Shabbat services before making your decision. Most rabbis have requirements that conversion students attend either Friday night or Saturday morning services, or both, on a regular basis during the study period. You want to be certain you are in a community that meets your core values. A good place to begin would be in the movement your fiancé is already affiliated with, assuming that is some place s/he wants to remain.


It has been my experience that people either convert prior to marriage or wait until sometime long after they have been married. The exception is women who decide to convert while pregnant so there is no question that their child will be born Jewish and thus avoid the patrilineal vs. matrilineal debate at a later time. For those who wait, some may do so because they want to be able to participate more fully in the lifecycle events of their children, others may be moved by exposure over the years to the practices and traditions in Judaism and decide it is simply time to officially become part of the community.

Regardless of the reasons, the process is very similar—a period of study with your rabbi, participation in religious services, a public declaration of your intention to unite with the Jewish people. Generally when someone has been a long-time member of the congregation, the process may become truncated a bit because the rabbi already knows you and you have familiarity with the congregation and Judaism in general. However, it is still a huge commitment and none of the rabbis I have ever worked with bypassed the opportunity to engage on a personal level with anyone who was moving toward conversion no matter how long they had been part of the congregation.


I am always surprised when people ask about the mikvah and think 1) they must go to the mikvah, or 2) they cannot convert because they won’t be allowed into the mikvah. This could be a whole post in itself and I am not qualified to give a definitive, Halachic (Jewish law) answer to this question.

Here is what I can tell you: If you are converting under the auspices of an Orthodox or Conservative rabbi you will be required to go to the mikvah. If you are converting under the sponsorship of a Reform or Reconstructionist rabbi you may go to the mikvah depending on the rabbi, the availability of a mikvah in your community and your own preference. (Most Reform rabbis now encourage and/or require their students to use the mikvah which is a huge change from twenty years ago.) If you are leaning toward a Humanistic conversion you will most likely not go to the mikvah unless you feel strongly about doing so. Again, this is an overly simplistic answer so please do your research and discuss this with your rabbi. I have had the privilege of being present during a number of conversion ceremonies when people went to the mikvah; there was something transformative about the experience for each of them.

As for circumcision, if a man is already circumcised the process is relatively simple. It is hatafat dam brit or extracting a drop of blood to symbolize the reenactment of circumcision. Orthodox and Conservative rabbis require this; Reform and Reconstructionist generally recommend but there are varied opinions. For those who have never been circumcised, you should discuss your options with your rabbi because, again, this may depend on the movement under which your convert. In general both Orthodox and Conservative movements require circumcision while Reform and Reconstructionist will encourage it but not always insist. In the Reform movement, I have known men who have chosen to address this in a variety of ways from being circumcised, to hatafat dam brit, to immersion in the mikvah.

There are a number of great resources on the internet to begin your research. Among the ones I suggest are:
  • Union for Reform Judaism; 
  • United Synagogues for Conservative Judaism; 
  • Jewish Reconstructionist Community; 
  • Both Sides of the Family; 
  • Choosing a Jewish Life: A Handbook for People Converting to Judaism and for Their Family and Friends, Anita Diamont; 
  • The Complete How To Handbook for Jewish Living, Kerry Olitzky and Ronald Isaacs (both books are available at 


Whatever you decide, you will inevitably delight one side of the family and sadden the other unless one of your families is extraordinary. If your parents are active in their church and have a clergy person they are close to, it might be wise for you to make an appointment to speak to that person and seek guidance before broaching the subject. Be prepared for their priest or minister to question your motives and ask you to clarify the reasons for your decision. Instead of being defensive about it, understand he or she is only doing what your future spouse’s rabbi would do if the tables were turned (which they will be in the next post).

One of the reasons I suggest having this conversation is that it is very likely that your parents will ask you to talk to their priest or minister and you will be able to truthfully state you have already done so. It will also be helpful to the clergy person to have spoken to you if and when one of your parents contacts him or her for an appointment.

You can soften the blow by being prepared, by demonstrating that you are interested in your new faith and are becoming an active participant. If you were ambivalent about religion in the past, be enthusiastic when you are explaining the new rituals and traditions about which you are learning. Include them in your celebrations and clarify anything that is confusing for them. Allow them time to absorb your decision and to understand that you are not abandoning them or the values with which you were raised. You have simply found a divergent path that meets your needs and the needs of the family you are establishing. However, a word of caution is in order: Don’t be overly zealous—find a balance that is respectful and appropriate for your family.


This is going into a new blog post, but, the Jewish spouse must make sure s/he creates an inclusive atmosphere for the non-Jewish spouse/partner. Oftentimes problems surface when the Jewish spouse makes assumptions that the non-Jewish spouse understands specific traditions and cultural expectations without any explanations.
Perhaps what is needed more than anything is diversity training for interfaith couples and their extended families!


Just to reiterate, making the decision to convert is a personal decision. Choosing not to convert is also a personal decision and a valid option. This will be addressed in another blog post—there is too much material to address conversion both ways and retaining your own faith practices in one post. So, keep checking back for more information and be sure to contact Interfaith Life Coaching ( if there is a topic you would like addressed in this forum.

Next Time: 
Converting From Judaism to a Different Religion

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