How to Negotiate Jewish Difference

Tips to Help Your Family Get Along

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4. Keep Holy Days Holy

For families facing Jewish diversity, holidays can also be challenging--even when the major lifestyle difference between Reform and Conservative siblings is that the Conservative family keeps kosher. A sibling that observes kashrut may feel the need to host every holiday meal, but also resent that she must pay for all the food and prepare it.

A tense relationship can be relaxed by a simple offer to share some of the expenses and arrive early to participate in the cooking and table-setting. Holy days are kept holy if everyone respects the uniqueness of the occasion and the need for particularly caring behavior at that time.

5. Emphasize Compassion

When dealing with religious difference, many people instinctively take a defensive position, trying to shore up their own identity and rationalize their own choices. It is more productive to take an attitude of compassion, asking: "how can I make you more comfortable?" or affirming uneasiness by saying "I know that this is hard for you." Making other people's needs your concern affirms both the authenticity of their feelings and the fact that you care for them deeply.

6. Don't Try to Convince or Convert

An atheist should not try to sway a God-fearing grandmother from her belief that praying will aid in a child's healing. An Orthodox man should not argue to his Reform brother that Shabbat observance will make him feel less stressed out, no matter how passionately he believes this is true. Even if you harbor desires that your loved one will become more or less observant, arguing or "proving" your perspective is rarely successful and often causes greater distance and frustration.

This is equally important when confronted by apparent inconsistencies in your loved ones' behavior. You may never understand why your sister thinks it's important to belong to an Orthodox synagogue yet only goes once a year. People make their religious choices for a variety of reasons; inherent personality, life experiences, and social context all play a part. No matter where you place religious authority--in a tradition of rabbis, in your own conscience, or in active, contemporary dialogue with Torah and Talmud--you and your loved ones have made religious choices for equally complex and different reasons. Allow your family members to find their own path of Judaism.

7. Make Conscientious Choices When You Plan a Joyous Occasion

If it is important for you to include relatives with a wide range of needs in your simhah (joyous occasion), then keep them in mind during the planning. Check a Jewish calendar so that you don't accidentally schedule a party on a holiday that is not widely observed. Have a wedding meal catered at a level of kashrut that meets the whole family's needs or arrange for special kosher meals to be brought in, heated, and served appropriately. Politely let family members know how to dress modestly for the Bar Mitzvah at your synagogue by emphasizing their comfort in your community rather than saying that it is just the right thing to do.

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Rabbi Rachel Miller Solomin is an educator living and working in the San Francisco Bay Area. She was ordained from the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies of the University of Judaism (now American Jewish University) in 2001.