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Rev. Eleanor Harrison Bregman Headshot

One Family, Two Faith Traditions: Navigating Pluralism Within the Family

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Some days my heart is torn more than others. The morning I attended a lower school chapel service at private school affiliated with a Christian denomination was one of them. Piano music in the background, a child lit two large candles with the same kind of long, brass candle-lighters I used as an acolyte growing up at Christ Episcopal Church in Savannah, Ga. Five other children filed in, waited for the candle-lighter to finish, then sat in unison. Around each of their necks hung a short stole, the kind that most priests wear, sized to fit a fourth grader. Since Valentine's Day was close, the theme of the service was love. The children sang a song on love written by a school parent and read the passage from Corinthians that we often hear at weddings about love. "Love is patient. Love is kind..." The chaplains gave a homily using slides that included favorite animated movie characters, but they did not dumb the topic down. They spoke of both the obstacles to love and the many forms of love we can feel.

While I am a Protestant minister, my children are Jewish and attend a Jewish day school. They too pray each morning, mostly in their individual classrooms, and once a week all together in the school chapel for "tefillah b'yahad." I occasionally attend both the classroom prayers with my second grader and the tefillah b'yahad with my fifth grader. While I have a general understanding of the flow of the morning prayers and can sing a few of the prayers that they have been praying since pre-Kindergarten, at the fifth grade level I have a hard time keeping up with the Hebrew, and I don't know most of what I am saying when I can keep up.

I love that the first thing my children do at school in the morning is pray. I love that they are learning what they are praying, and why. I love that on some level I can participate too, that I can occasionally lose myself during the some of the niggunim (wordless singing) that sometimes follows the word-filled prayers. But I am still on the outside. Maybe less than most Christians, maybe just on the outside. While I respectfully dip my foot inside the circle -- and for a long time thought I might plant my two feet inside by converting -- as an ordained minister, my feet are now firmly planted outside of the circle.

Before I was ordained, I attended a "Torah ceremony" at another Jewish day school that my oldest was then attending. Each child read one line from the Torah in Hebrew in the synagogue adjacent to the school. It happens to be the synagogue in which my husband grew up. After each child had taken a turn, the parents encircled their children and gave them a copy of their first Torah. I wept again. Wept at the beauty of the ceremony, at the depth of the tradition passed down from generation to generation -- "l'dor v'dor" -- and at the way it was embodied in the parents literally giving a Torah to their children. And I wept at the fact that while I would be welcome to participate in that ceremony when my child was a second grader, I would not stand symbolically in the line of this tradition, as the central Jewish prayer, the Sh'ma, commands: "You shall love the Lord your G-d with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words which I command you today shall be upon your heart. You shall teach them thoroughly to your children..." I can support my children in their spiritual journey as Jews, will be there to answer questions as best I can, can "make shabbat" each week with them -- but deep down I knew at that moment if I didn't convert to Judaism I would always, on some sense, be outside of that lineage. Outside of l'dor v'dor.

Sitting in that Lower school chapel service listening to the voices of the children singing a song about love -- it wasn't even a church hymn, by the way, just a song about love -- my heart burst again. I thought, "This is what it would have been like NOT to have to translate between traditions, not to have to work so hard to understand my children's tradition ... this is what it might have felt to have them understand my tradition experientially, deeply, viscerally, to speak the same language, to rest in the depth of one tradition."

Later that day I had an email conversation with the school chaplain who reminded me that he too is translating much of the time during chapel. "What you do in your family life I am often doing at school. I'm using Christian forms to explore ideas and ethics and spiritual content with a community of children who come from many different religious traditions. And I too long to share the depth of my tradition but it is a challenge to do so in chapel when the children come from so many different traditions."

There was some comfort in his words as I realized that we are all often translating, whether it is l'dor v'dor, from one generation to another within a religious tradition, from one denomination or community to another within that same tradition, or across religious identity lines within a family or school community or neighborhood. This is, after all, the great task of our pluralistic age and the best of multi-faith experiences: to delve deeply into one's own religious tradition, to love it for all it is worth, to share it with others while also learning about another's religious tradition -- and to be open to being changed by the encounter. My own sense of being Christian has certainly been challenged and deepened time and time again by my encounters with and within Judaism. But some days, I yearn for the simplicity -- even if it is a fantasy -- of our family, all five of us, resting in the same tradition.