The pandemic is forcing us to spend yet another holiday isolated from our loved ones.
This is challenging for families of all backgrounds, but for interfaith Jewish couples, the inability to celebrate with family and friends can also raise questions about how to best celebrate both partners’ faith-based traditions.
Rabbi Robyn Frisch is the Philadelphia-based director of the Rukin Rabbinic Fellowship of 18Doors, a national organization dedicated to supporting interfaith Jewish couples and families. She said that while every family is different, many couples who traditionally observe religious holidays with extended family are now reconsidering their approaches.
“I hear this constantly from people from Jewish interfaith families: ‘We’ve always celebrated Christmas holidays at the grandparents, and we’ve gone out for Christmas, but we can’t do that this year.’ So some of these Jewish families that are interfaith are really struggling with, ‘Do we have a tree? Do we have Christmas dinner? How are we going to deal with these things that we’re very comfortable doing with one set of grandparents, but now we have a parent that really wants to do in our home?’” she said.
Frisch and the 18Doors staff have helped couples start these conversations and decide on celebrations that work best for them. 18Doors is hosting online presentations and discussions on topics such as “To Tree or Not to Tree” and “Unlocking the December Holidays – For Couples with Young Kids/Thinking About Kids.”
Interfaith couples in Philadelphia are coming up with creative ways to honor their favorite traditions despite the need for social distancing.
Jackie Abrams and her husband Scott Middleton throw a yearly holiday party for their friends — complete with ugly sweater contests and gift exchanges — that combines both of their religious traditions.
“We have a tree and we have dreidels, menorahs and we really mesh all of the traditions into one very festive evening for our extended friend group, and that is certainly a tradition that we really love,” said Abrams, who is Jewish.
The party can’t happen this year, but they are figuring out other ways to celebrate, such as doing a cookie drop-off or an online trivia night.
They also typically celebrate Christmas with Middleton’s family and Chanukah with Abrams’ family, and they have tentative plans to continue the tradition this year depending on whether it looks like they can do so safely.
Amanda and Stephen Nicolai typically celebrate Chanukah with eight nightly themes.
“It’s a really fun tradition that we started to carry on with our daughter as well, and as she gets older, we will add some community service into that and family game nights, things like that,” said Amanda Nicolai, who is Jewish.
Her family also celebrates Christmas with Midnight Mass and a large gathering with her husband’s Catholic side of the family. This year, they plan to celebrate Chanukah with her sister and father, but they have canceled the 30-person Christmas feast that usually takes place in their South Philadelphia home due to lack of space for social distancing.
Dr. Linda Ziman is Jewish, and her wife Monika Wysong was raised Catholic. They usually celebrate Chanukah with their daughter Cecelia Ziman-DeStefano as a nuclear family and attend church in their neighborhood of West Mount Airy on Christmas Eve.
“I love singing ‘Silent Night’ in the dark with the candles glowing in everyone’s hands. I always throw in a ‘Shema Yisrael’ for good measure,” Ziman said.
They exchange gifts the next day with Ziman’s in-laws. This year, they will be doing that on Zoom.
Tychelle Graham-Moskowitz and Ben Moskowitz typically celebrate Christmas and Chanukah with their respective families. Graham-Moskowitz was raised Christian but now identifies as spiritual rather than religious, and she started observing Kwanzaa five years ago, which they will also celebrate this year.
She and her husband are planning to have children and raise them Jewish with an awareness of their interfaith cultural background. They believe it is important to start incorporating their rituals into their lives for this reason.
“When we got married, we talked about raising our children in the Jewish faith. We’re making that a part of our everyday life now so that it feels very natural when they come into the world, and they don’t have to question their identity as biracial Ashkenazi Jewish children,” Graham-Moskowitz said.
All of their celebrations will be virtual this year, and the couple will be home with their puppy, Brisket.
Although the pandemic has put a damper on many beloved traditions, the 2020 holiday season also offers a historic reason to celebrate. Some interfaith couples are excited about the ascendance of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and her husband Doug Emhoff next year. Harris was raised Christian and Hindu, and Emhoff is Jewish, as are his children.
Abrams hopes the couple’s visibility and success will encourage more conservative Jewish communities to be open-minded and inclusive toward interfaith couples. Nicolai, who broke up with her husband over faith differences before they worked through them with a counselor, hopes interfaith couples look to the second family as a source of inspiration.
“I do love that someone in an interfaith relationship is now going to be part of the White House,” she said. “I know a lot of interfaith couples that have broken up, but seeing someone in a position of power making it work is really powerful.”
Rabbi Elyssa Cherney, Rukin Rabbinic Fellow at 18Doors in Philadelphia, thinks that the couple’s prominence will help interfaith couples feel less isolated. Some of the people she works with don’t have any family or friends in interfaith relationships, and representation matters.
“I think that this couple being a part of mainstream media and, I hope, being looked at in a good light will just normalize that experience for so many people,” she said.