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Thursday, December 24, 2020

My Christmas Story | By Rev. Richard Fernandez

I want to share with you a very short overview of the Christmas story. It has moved from the fascinating days of pagan influence, early church opposition to its celebration and growth, and then, gradually over the years, acceptance in our own time. It is a rich history with a lot of bends and curves along the road.

No one really knows the date of Jesus’s birth. Christmas was first celebrated in late November, which marked the end of the harvest season. In 336 A.D., Constantine established December 25 as the official date to celebrate Jesus birth. Although we credit Constantine for setting the date for Christmas to be celebrated, the deeper roots of the day lie in pre - Christian festivities - actually pagan ceremonies of the winter solstice. 

We cannot pass the early celebration of Christmas without mentioning Bishop Myra of Asia Minor. We know him as Saint Nicholas or, now, Santa Claus. He was born in the Greek city of Patar. In his early ministry he became known as a kind bishop as he ministered to seamen and, especially, to young children. In parts of Europe, on December 5, the eve of his feast day, children leave their shoes by the fireplace filled with hay and carrots for Saint Nicholas’s horse. During the Reformation the worship of Saints became forbidden, so in most of Europe, Saint Nicholas became Father Nicholas. In Holland, he was given a far more interesting name, Sinterklass. When Sinterklass came to the United States, he became the American Santa Claus. 


In his European “life” Santa was of medium build and height. However, in 1890, the American cartoonist Thomas Nast gave Santa a pot belly…and children loved it. In 1920 the Coca-Cola Company decided Santa needed a makeover. They left him with his pot belly but put a big black belt around him and gave him sun tanned cheeks. This, of course, was to remind all of us that Coca-Cola tastes just as good in the summer heat as it does on winter frosty days.

It must be pointed out that before Santa Claus got a makeover from Coca-Cola, Christmas itself took a while to gain acceptance in the United States. The early Puritans brought with them a resistance to celebrating what they considered a pagan holiday. They also objected to the drunkenness and general revelry that took place on Christmas. “Hardly the way to observe Christ’s birth” they thought. In Boston, you could be fined 5 shillings for celebrating the day, and through the 1700’s, December 25 was considered a working day across the nation.

Attitudes began to change and soften in the early 1800’s and were helped by the publication in 1823 of Clement Clark Moore’s “Night Before Christmas.” Christmas carols and cards became more popular and available thanks to more sophisticated printing press capacity.

Let me end this all too brief overview of this important day with a short story. In Philadelphia, in 1868, a 33 year old Episcopal priest at the Church of the Holy Trinity on Rittenhouse Square wrote a very simple poem for a grade school Christmas celebration at the church. He asked the church organist to see if he could put it to music. Early on the Sunday morning it was to be performed, the organist, Lewis Redner, finished his composing for a piece he thought would be used just one time. The Priest at Holy Trinity, Philips Brooks, had a similar expectation for the new children’s song they had just created…O Little Town of Bethlehem. 

Today, I leave you with these words:

O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie!

Above the deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by;

Yet in your dark street shines forth, the everlasting light,

The hopes and fears of all the years, are met in thee tonight.

Friday, December 18, 2020

Adapting to Mourning During and Beyond the Pandemic | By Rabbi Richard Hirsh

The pandemic through which the world is moving mournfully and medically has left no area of life untouched. Moments of the life-cycle for which family and friends would normally gather have migrated to primarily distance-and-digital experiences. Even where the unfolding of Covid contamination has allowed for intervals when small gatherings could take place, many moments of significance now unfold remotely over various online platforms. 

Some of the events that occur in isolation will allow for future regroupings – private Zoom weddings may be followed by a first or second anniversary in-person celebrations; students of the 2020 high school classes can look forward to college graduations convened in person. 

But for the moments of loss occurring during Covid, the inability to gather when the emotional and family consequences are most intense compromises and inevitably attenuates the rites and rituals of spiritual traditions. Put differently, at what is perhaps the most intense liminal experience of the life-cycle, the comfort of in-person presence that provides consolation is unavailable. While a memorial gathering at a later time can be meaningful, and such gatherings can and will evolve as Covid is tamed, the immediacy of the emotions of loss will have receded.

                                                 Image: Jewish News

Spiritual communities and those who belong to them have had to accept and adapt to different ways of providing support and fulfilling rituals, whether viewed as obligatory or as optional. And yet, we are learning from Zoom funerals, wakes, comfort observances and other religious rites, that online platforms that currently serve as a substitute for traditional services may, when Covid is over, remain as a supplement to those same services. I will use the Jewish rituals with which I am most familiar as an example.

The shiva gathering (the seven-day period of mourning observed at home after a funeral, when mourners receive condolence calls and religious services migrate from the synagogue to the home) has customarily been in-person; colloquially, comforters “make a shiva call” to be with mourners in their home. 
During Covid, shiva visits have been made by joining designated Zoom open calls, and morning or evening services have been conducted remotely. The end of the pandemic will see a return to in-person shiva observances, but I anticipate many congregants and clergy members will also want to retain the Zoom option for those who live too far away to attend a funeral or make an in-person shiva visit. While before Covid people could always send a condolence note or perhaps make a phone call, we have learned from Covid the importance of joining mourners and comforters in “real time”, even if remote. A “both-and” format is likely to be a viable way of forging connections. 
Put differently, while the pandemic restrictions have temporarily removed us from the comforting in-person familiarity of spiritual traditions, these same restrictions have made us more aware of the importance of access to those traditions – and how the technology towards which we defaulted out of necessity has made us aware of how we may learn to adapt that technology out of choice.

Friday, December 11, 2020

Bringing Identity to the Table | By Dani Hobbs

I come from a multi-faith and multiracial family. My mom is white and was raised Jewish, and my dad is Black and was raised Baptist. My siblings and I grew up going to church every Sunday, but also celebrating Jewish holidays and considering our Jewish roots an important part of our heritage and culture. 


Admittedly, I’ve often struggled trying to make the multiple aspects of my identity feel whole. The world often talks about me in halves, and I’ve had to deal with the feeling that I’m not enough [fill in aspect of identity here]. Throughout my life though, the one place where the seemingly disparate parts of my identity come together is at the table. 



It’s through meals that I feel like I am able to fully celebrate the cultures that make me who I am, and it’s through meals that our family was able to blend them together. We eat soul food at our Passover Seders, and some years the smell of our Christmas cookies mixes with the smell of lingering latkes. I’ve seen religious boundaries crossed with the passing of matzo and charoset, and cultural boundaries crossed with heaping plates at the family cookout. When we share meals with others, we’re not just sharing food, but pieces of ourselves as well.  


Growing up, I didn’t always know what spaces I fit into, but I also grew up in a family that always made sure there was space for everyone at the table. That’s why food and sharing meals are both really special for me, and that’s also why I’m so excited about the South Philadelphia Community Cookbook. Through the cookbook, the contributors aren’t just sharing their recipes with the world, but a piece of themselves as well. The result, I think, is a unique display of what makes South Philly so beautiful and vibrant. I hope that, like it did for me, it will inspire you to think about the significance food and sharing meals have in your life. 


Today's blog post comes from Dani Hobbs, our Community Programs Student Coordinator. To sign up for the Cookbook Launch Party on December 14th, or to order your own copies of the cookbook, check out our website.


Thursday, November 19, 2020

Ways to Give on Giving Tuesday | By Sara Zebovitz

There are so many ways to give to Interfaith Philadelphia on Giving Tuesday!

  1. Donate in honor of someone you love


    2. Text “understand” to 44321

  2. Donate a scholarship -- sponsor someone’s participation in one of our programs

  3. Share on social media -- let’s increase our media following! We offer lots of free programming through Facebook live, which people can access with a click!

  4. Let your friends know about us -- Interfaith Philadelphia programs equip Philadelphians with the skills to talk to one another and have the difficult conversations. By bringing more people together through our programs, through our page, through discussions, we can shift the course of polarization to one of connection.

  5. Post an “unselfie!” How are you being unselfish on Giving Tuesday, or everyday?

  6. Let us know why you support Interfaith Philadelphia through a social media post!



Thursday, November 12, 2020

Overcoming Divisive Times | By Bronwen Mayer Henry

What is next for a country so divided?

What is the way forward?

How do I (and should I?) stay connected to people who view the world so differently from me?

In these divisive times, many are pondering these questions. We might be prone to think the differences between ourselves and our neighbor (or friend, child, parent, spouse, colleague) are just too wide to cross. We find ourselves caught in catastrophic thinking that makes our neighbor an ‘other’ that we fear we will never understand. 


What is the way forward? How do we stand tall in our own beliefs and still stay connected in relationship with others who think differently?

This moment in time is an opportunity to step away from debating and step into understanding.


Are we willing to be vulnerable? Are we willing to look at our own biases, experiences and belief systems and consider how those perspectives have shaped our thinking?

How do we build authentic community? It is important to find spaces to explore and practice deep listening with people of different backgrounds, beliefs and viewpoints. 

Now may be the time we will burst the myth that we cannot talk about politics, religion, and race.

We can lean into new spaces for connection across diversity and in doing so, we learn about ourselves as we learn about others. 




Abby Stamelman Hocky, in an interview with Lucas Johnson of the On Being project and WHYY: "Being in relationship across religious traditions is the perfect example of having respect for one another and one another's views and difference and distinctiveness, while not trying to convert one another. " 


We are not in relationship if we are there to convert. If our hope is to change someone's mind--then we are debating. If our hope is to understand each other's viewpoints, solve problems together, and work together, that is an authentic relationship.

I think from my own life of a moment when I was in conversation with a friend, and she expressed defensiveness and outrage about the idea that she might be a racist (another acquaintance had suggested so much to her). How was I to respond to this moment? I took the tools from Passport Online to be curious about her story. I listened to her talk about her past experience of struggle and trauma in her family history. With time in the conversation she shifted from thinking of racism as a personal affront to more of a toxicity in the air we breathe.

These kinds of conversations are often fraught with self doubt--many of us would rather avoid these hard conversations than risk the missteps. Yet I see time and again people’s willingness to name the discomfort, enter the conversation, be humble and open to learning more, and as a result we are collectively and individually transformed.



These are some of the practices we explore in the Passport to Understanding ONLINE. We gather together a diverse group of folks (ethnicity, religion, age etc.) and we engage in thoughtful, intentional, meaningful dialogue to better understand one another with the intention to stand tall and stand with one another.

Passport to Understanding ONLINE is an opportunity for real time check ins as we navigate such a tumultuous time. Participants gain concrete tools and skills to help navigate difference.


Along the way is an opportunity to build new connections with people who view the world differently. We provide a structure and supportive community to venture out into new spaces and practice deep listening. Though it is a time of ideological divide and physical distances, there are many ready to step forward into more conversation and community to work together. If you feel drawn to this conversation, join us.

Friday, October 30, 2020

Nation Shall Not Lift Up Sword Against Nation | By Raphael Kail

I am a water colorist. In 2018, noticing the rise in Antisemitism, Islamophobia, and religious intolerance in general, I had the urge to put something down on paper. I decided on Isaiah 2:4, "Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore."

Phonetically, the Hebrew reads, "Lo Yisa Goy El Goy Herev, ViloYilmdoo Ode Mealchamaw." "Lo" means "no", "Goy" means "nation," and it also means "other."  In my mind, this word from YHWH was not only intended to move people from war to peace, but was intended to instruct people to get along in general. To follow God’s way, we need to not just coexist, but to respect each other. I created this piece of art.

Two years ago, when the eleven people were murdered in The Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, I was strongly affected on two levels. First, as someone who is Jewish, I realized these people died only because they were Jewish, and if I happened to be there for whatever reason, I possibly would have been martyred also.  Second, how could this happen again in America? With permission from my synagogue, Temple Sinai of Dresher, I built a large memorial for the congregation’s front lawn to plead to the world to wake up. I wanted to make a statement.

I did this to honor those who were murdered, but also to plead to our country, stop this madness.
A short while later, two Mosques in Christ Church, New Zealand were attacked, and then a Catholic church in Asia. With Temple Sinai's help, we created a committee with the goal to create, with churches, mosques, and synagogues in our community, a group, to gather, to learn about our differences and identify what we have in common.  Knowledge is the key to understanding others. The committee is The Interfaith Partnership Initiative.  Our committee was short lived because of Covid-19. We are only being temporarily stopped; we will eventually continue!

About Raphael Kail:
I am retired after a career of over forty years in the furniture industry. As a hobby, I have always been good being creative with woodworking, but in 1990, after a lifelong admiration of water colors, I decided to take a class. I have now been in three galleries. For more information on the memorial at Temple Sinai of Dresher, contact Rabbi Adam Wohlberg. 215-643-6510.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

"Prayer" by Margaret Matt | Art and Identity Series

 Today's blog post comes from Philadelphia artist Margaret Matt. If you are interested in submitting an art piece and reflection to our blog, please email Liz Royer at or Dr. John Hougen at

I have been a professional artist for more than 40 years. I design computer graphics for print materials and web design. I am also a traditional artist who creates realistic images, from portraits to narrative pieces. My religious art is a different experience. I meditate on a Bible verse and then begin to create it. What is interesting to me, if the art speaks a truth, it takes on a life of its own. People see different aspects to it. If it isn’t right, it falls flat. No amount of technical skill can bring life to it. During the creative process, I feel a responsibility to do the very best I can and be true to the Bible verse. These art pieces also speak to all ages in different ways. They have a unique affect that is different from my other art pieces. My husband, George Butler, also has an artistic photographic outlook. He helps clarify my vision with thoughtful suggestions. 

 I live in Philadelphia and am a Roman Catholic. I am a lector at Our Mother of Consolation Church. I also participate in the church’s faith building groups. These have been very instrumental to my faith life.


My website is: I can be reached at:


"Prayer" by Margaret Matt 

Medium: photography and computer graphic design 


Dear Lord, I feel the vastness of your world. The air, wind and hot sun. Yet, I feel alone, empty and in need. I don’t know where to go next. I am reaching inward for strength which is eluding me. I need to feel your presence. Your power. Your guidance. Your love. The wind wraps around me. I feel it but don’t see it. I imagine that it is the Holy Spirit making His presence known. The sun is warming me but it is blinding also. I bow down and plead for relief and mercy. Please strengthen me. Please forgive me. I am scared.

I gather myself and look outward. Reaching out to hear and feel your presence. I become aware of your earthly universe around me. I need to feel again your love, your presence. Strengthen my faith. Do not abandon me. I reach out to you. And see your works around me. I feel comfort.  I am not whole but know that I am not alone. The sun’s warmth is comforting. My mind is filled with confusing thoughts. I cannot still myself. Then I remember your words: “Be Still and know that I AM.”  I focus on your words.” I AM” is around me. I feel and see “I AM”. And I begin to still my thoughts and feel your calm.

I remember to offer praise. Thank you for all around me. The stillness is now comforting. I reach my arms up to open myself and praise you. “Holy, Holy , Holy Lord. God of Power and Might. Heaven and earth are filled with your Glory. Hosanna in the Highest. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Holy, Holy Holy Lord.”

I ask for forgiveness and for help. Guidance.

My heart is stilled. Comfort surrounds me and calms me. In gratitude, I thank you and praise you, O Lord. Guide me today.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Mosaic 2020: Looking Back

In August of 2020, Interfaith Philadelphia’s Mosaic program ran online for the first time, as part of adaptations made for the COVID-19 pandemic. Read on for reflections from staff and facilitators about the program, including some highlights and favorite memories. 


This was our third year offering Mosaic to middle school-aged youth in Philadelphia, and just like most things in 2020, this year felt different. Although our strongest connection to our students in the program this year was through a chat box and screen, Interfaith Philadelphia staff could sense a real hunger for activities and engagement with fellow peers. Our discussion around intersectional identities and religious diversity felt more important than ever, and art served as a way to process these emotions and reflections. I so deeply appreciated the close to 40 students who braved logging into Zoom with a bunch of fellow youth they didn’t know, and shared a bit about who they were with this small new community.





Mosaic in the midst of Covid19 and the uprisings presented us with new challenges and new joys. I was amazed to see the sense of justice these young people already had established, and their desire to further Dare to Understand one another through discussion and the arts. Daily stretches and meditation seemed to provide a much needed sense of comfort for these youth, and I am so grateful to have been a part of this unconventional summer camp.




Each day of Mosaic, Philadelphia-based religious leaders joined us to share meaningful objects and respond to curious questions offered by students. Our first visitor, Rabbanit Dasi Fruchter, invited curious questions and even “clumsy curious questions.” I appreciated the vulnerability, sensitivity, and of course, curiosity, that students demonstrated in offering questions. Our brief workshop on curious versus judgmental questions seemed to prompt mature and careful thought around how to craft questions. Students sometimes ran questions by staff members before offering them to the guest religious leaders, and they inquired about a number of topics, including the meaning of a guest’s name, religiously significant foods, and advice they might have for young people. Thank you, Mosaic students, for your respectful and enthusiastic engagement with our guest religious leaders! 




I’m so grateful to our awesome students for diving into this program, in the middle of a challenging and disorienting year. We had rich discussions about justice and allyship, made art together, and learned more about the city around us through virtual visits from local faith leaders and Philadelphia trivia. In addition to what our other staff have said, I loved opening our surprise snack each day and learning about everyone’s traditions around holidays and food while we ate together on Zoom. Thanks so much to our campers, guest speakers, and everyone who helped make this camp possible. 




Friday, September 11, 2020

Five Steps to Break Down Separation | by Bronwen Mayer Henry

Navigating life and relationships in the best of times is complicated. With COVID-19 and the divisiveness of an upcoming election, many of us are thinking, “Woah, how do I get through these next few months?”

We have a few options. One, we can never get out of bed. Two, we can go to ‘battle’ for our views and be frustrated. Or three, we can use this time to intentionally build skills to help our relationships in the short and long term. As co-facilitator of the Passport to Understanding Online, I have learned (and share with participants) five approaches that can significantly alter the way you interact with people with different views, beliefs, and backgrounds than you. These five approaches are useful with close family and friends as well as people new to your life.



Be Curious

Interact with others with the conviction that you have something to learn from them. Ask questions that invite the other to tell you stories, and make them want to share their experiences with you, instead of using judgmental questions like “Why in the world would you think…?” Try, “What is it like for you…?”


Venture Out 

How can we intentionally venture into new spaces? Whether in person or online, what new views and ideas can we learn from? Though in some ways this is a very isolating time, in other ways it is a time with more access to different experiences around the world than ever before. We can visit the Bahai house of worship in Illinois, attend a high holy day service at the Congregation Rodeph Shalom in Center City Philadelphia, or attend a Friday prayer service at a mosque in Washington DC, without getting on a bus or in the car. In some ways, our ability to venture out is limitless.


Welcome In 

We often think of welcoming in through hospitality around food and comfort. But what about welcoming in new ideas? 


Stand Tall 

What does it mean to stand tall? We are challenged to finding a way to inhabit our own ideas while being curious, humble and open to others. This is an artful way of living that takes time and intention. Former surgeon general Vivek Murthy articulates this: “Listening inwardly and learning from our own stories, we see that we are in need not so much of experts to define our way, as of our own clear and direct inner attunement.” 


Stand With 

How can we be an ally and stand with others? This is a pressing question for our times, one that invites preparedness and spontaneity. By gathering in community and practicing how to stand with others in challenging moments, we develop more capacity to show up for others. 

How do we do this when many of us are limiting outings and activities, may have homogenous social circles, and we are already exhausted by the demands of life? 

This is how it is done: through intentional relationship building, with time, and through building trust.



These five themes of our ongoing series, the Passport to Understanding Online invite each of us to go deeper. Are you ready? Want to practice in diverse community? Looking for accountability and support? Join us for six weeks. There is a great deal of hope available in the world, and it needs to be cultivated through thoughtful engagement with people of all viewpoints.

“The greatest single antidote to violence is conversation...speaking our fears, listening to the fear of others, and in sharing vulnerabilities discovering a genesis of hope.” - Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. 

I am so grateful to be a co-facilitator for such practical and enriching work. It truly is through the conversations that we are changed and create space for change. I hope you will consider joining us for our next offering, starting September 23rd.

Monday, August 17, 2020

Art and Identity | by Christine Petty

My parents raised our family with frequent visits to museums and galleries, fueling the passion for the making of art that became a large part of who I am. As I examine further links, the original creation of the world filters into my work, whether painting the human figure or screen printing molecular renditions of targeted cancer therapy. My abstract works reference the materials and acts that Deity used to organize the earth. After gathering, arranging and finalizing my assemblage pieces, I experience a visceral, in addition to intellectual, feeling of completion, a feeling of gratitude toward the Higher Power in my life. 

During this time of COVID-19 quarantine, precipitously locked out of the print shop and my studio, I began teaching myself how to dye organic cloth and cotton paper, using natural foraged material in inner city Philadelphia. This has given me additional time to consider our God, his works and my human imitation of His original acts. His grand ability to create human beings who could also produce new ideas and art, strengthens my religious belief and reassures my art making.

Christine Petty The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints @christinepettyart

Monday, August 10, 2020

Stigmas of Non-Traditional Faiths | By Joseph Rockford

Today’s blog post is about the rise of and simultaneous oppression of non-traditional faiths. 

    Although I was raised as a reform Jew, I’ve seen and read about the rise of non-traditional faiths.  Most of these faiths, such as the Asatru faith, are based on old religions that were once dormant. These faiths have seen a major rise in popularity particularly among the youth. The belief systems that guide them are a mix of Paganism and distinct cultures from around the world. One of the reasons these non-traditional religious beliefs are on the rise is because they are less organized and more individualistic in nature. It’s about what you put into the faith and get out of it more than following any strict guidelines. While these faiths do have temples and places of worship, there are only a few and they are scattered around the world. 

    The reason I bring all of this up today is that these faiths are under attack in certain ways. The Asatru faith that believes in the gods of Norway has been co-opted by white nationalism. These people have taken the symbols of the faith like Thor’s hammer and turned it into a symbol of hate. They believe the faith to be a symbol of white purity because of its roots in Viking culture. Very few people know about the struggles this faith faces to keep itself on the straight and narrow. Their main temple in Norway has thousands of followers. More importantly, its true followers are trying their best to keep the positive view of the faith alive. 

    Another big issue these faiths face is being denied access to their holy spaces. One major example of this can be seen with the faith of Hellenism. Hellenist’s worship the Greek gods. In Greece, some factions of the government don’t look favorably upon the Hellenists religious practice. These Greek factions of government don’t take well to the faith due to the traditional clothing worn by Hellenists and more Pagenist parts of the faith. These factions try to make the Hellenists buy permits to pray and they give them terrible treatment if they show up at the coliseum or any major site. These factions don’t try to understand or want to understand this faith despite the Hellenists doing everything very peacefully. 

    As these faiths continue to grow in size because of the youths continued move towards a less structured religious system, problems continue to arise.  Many religions like these face persecution or destruction on minor to major scales, but unlike our larger monotheistic religions they don’t have the resources to defend themselves on their own. I wanted to bring attention to this issue as many people among these types of faiths are scared of the future. They are scared of what might come about from their opponents propaganda, they are worried the faith will die, lose its space to worship or worse.. become a symbol of hate.

Monday, August 3, 2020

Hineni | By Laurie Pollack

This summer, we are featuring meaningful art in our new blog series: Art and Identity. In this week's post, Laurie Pollack reflects on the Hebrew phrase, Hineni, through her art. If you have artwork and commentary you'd like to share, please email Liz and Andrew

I do not call myself an artist but I describe myself as a poet who sometimes also plays with paint.

My main genre and where I feel I may have a gift, is writing not art.

I paint not to perfect my rudimentary skill or create fine art but to express myself. I do not have the skills yet to express myself and may never get there.  But I find meaning in it  and do it anyway 

I am Jewish though not religious, and sometimes write or paint  on Jewish themes.

Here is a painting I did at the start of the pandemic, which hit us a little while before Passover.

It is called "Hineni".

The numbers refer to the 10 plagues

"Hineni" means in Hebrew: I am present.

On the left is an egg shaped earth: our planet and its people are bleeding, suffering. But blood is life.

For this reason the waves of the sea we must cross to get to a better, new, maybe not normal, are strewn with hearts/love: love is what we are carrying with us as we walk through the sea together.

The question marks? because we just don't know, do we? Will the water part? Will we all, or some of us be drowned? But we can't go back. Egypt/old normal, is over.

I find it amazing I painted this on March 15th.  Days before our lockdown started. At a time when 140,000 human beings perished here and half a million people lost worldwide would have seemed unthinkable.     It is now late July
But so much still resonates with me in this piece

I think we are still in the middle of the sea. I wonder what we will need to get to the other side and what the other side will look like?

Yours truly,

Laurie Pollack

Monday, July 27, 2020

2 Sides of the Same Coin | by Lia Hyman

I grew up with what one might consider a typical Jewish experience. I lit the candles and ate challah every Shabbat. I dipped apples in honey on Rosh Hashanah. I fasted on Yom Kippur. I shook the etrog and lulav. And I used the Shamash to light the Hanukkiah.


That wasn’t all, though. I also got to celebrate Christmas and (the occasional) Easter. Often when my friends found out I got presents for both Christmas and Hanukkah, I was deemed “super lucky”; however, it was all I’d ever known.


My mom grew up in a Catholic-Italian household. Later in her life, she became unattached to the religion that had raised her. My dad, on the other hand, had been raised Jewish and began practicing more frequently as the years went by. Cue the discussion of children, and they agreed to raise my older sister and me within the Jewish religion. I attended both a Jewish preschool and Jewish sleep-away summer camp, URJ Camp Harlam. Committing to Camp Harlam marked a crucial decision in my life that shaped the years following. There, I developed a love for Jewish music and traditions, wearing white on Shabbat as my friends and I walked up to Chapel on the Hill. I played games and competed in Maccabiah (Color War) for all 7 summers before traveling to Israel with my fellow campers on my 8th and final summer, sealing it all in a time capsule I can now only access through photos.

During my childhood, I felt I was also holding on to a special superpower. One that allowed me to dress in green and red when we made the long drive to my uncle’s home in Virginia. On the evenings of December 24th, I joined in the tradition of my Christian friends and sat by the fireplace sipping eggnog, faintly listening to the murmur of adults in the kitchen.


My ability to appreciate traditions in two different religions is what has sparked my curiosity to engage in interfaith dialogue and work. In high school, I learned about Islam and the prophet Muhammad, which led to reading the entirety of the Koran. I’ve visited mosques and participated respectfully. My increasing interest in inner peace and the ego then led me to Buddhism and Hinduism, reading library books about reincarnation and nirvana.


Today, in 2020, I consider myself a proud Jew who’s more spiritual than religious, but Jewish nonetheless. I love Friday night Shabbats and the minor chords of the music. I’m very active in my university Hillel and have met amazing staff members there. And I still enjoy Christmas dinner, pasta e modica, at my uncle’s. My spiritual side can be physically seen in the chakra flags that hang in my bedroom, the Torah portion from my Bat Mitzvah hanging on the wall, the crystal I wear around my neck, or the Om tattoo on my arm. But maybe most of all, you can see the blend of religions I’ve researched and practiced just in the way I live my life, constantly asking questions without the need for just one answer from one place.

Being raised in a home that accepted the possibility of two belief systems allowed me to find the string that runs through all religions: peace, love, and something greater than thyself.