Thursday, February 19, 2009 | return to: news & features


Religion division: How couples make peace with conflicting Jewish practices

by stacey palevsky, staff writer

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newsfeatures2_20_09For their second date, Elizheva Hurvich invited Bob Fink to synagogue.

He hadn’t been to Friday night services in nearly two decades.

“I said, ‘It’s really important to me. Will you meet me at the Mission Minyan?’ And he did,” Hurvich said. “And then we went out for dinner, and I usually don’t go out to restaurants on Friday nights, so it was like a trade, a fusion.”

Such a compromise happens frequently for couples that, like Hurvich and Fink, are both Jewish but practice differently — so differently that every Shabbat, holiday or even dinnertime raises the specter of a negotiation.

For instance, Hurvich won’t eat non-kosher foods. Fink eats pork. Where’s the middle ground?

There are bargaining tables beyond the kitchen, as well. What happens when one partner wants to go to synagogue every Saturday morning, and the other is bored to tears sitting in a sanctuary and would rather go to the gym? Do they agree to observe separately, or do they compromise? And if they compromise, where do their kids go?

“No one would bat an eyelash or care to read about couples who have different hobbies, but when it comes to religion, we think [the partners] should be the same,” said Rabbi Judah Dardik. “But in fact, people are different.”

Dardik is the rabbi at Congregation Beth Jacob, a Modern Orthodox synagogue in Oakland, where couples with conflicting Jewish practices are commonplace.

When Dardik heard that j. was looking for such couples to interview for this article, he added the request to his weekly Shabbat announcements.

“I said, ‘I wonder if we have any of those couples here.’ And the whole place started laughing,” he said. “Because most of my shul fits into that category.”

Dardik often counsels couples who can’t agree on how to keep kosher, how to observe Shabbat, how to celebrate holidays. He said most couples seeking his advice began their relationship with similar ideas about a Jewish lifestyle, but over time came to practice differently.

“We’re evolving creatures,” he said. “That’s what we’re supposed to do.”

And yet a Jewish evolution or polarity can be painful and difficult. One of the reasons why it’s such a loaded topic is that religion is so deeply personal.

“There’s no question it’s a source of tension,” Dardik said. “Because religion so much colors your values, views on morality, raising of children and understanding your existence on Earth, the idea that someone doesn’t share your religious beliefs is potentially very threatening and very uncomfortable.”

Much has been written and researched about interfaith couples. Much less is published about couples who are both Jewish. It’s assumed that two Jews equal one Jewish family.

But, of course, as Adam Kinsey says: “Judaism means different things to different people.”

The Petaluma man jokes he’s “in a mixed marriage” because of how Jewish prayer and Torah study pull him into Judaism, while the two simultaneously repel his wife, Rachel Kaplan.

“We live in this incredibly individualized society, for better or for worse, and each family is really different,” Kinsey said. “What does it mean to be a Jewish family?”

This week, j. profiles three local couples trying to figure it out.


Rachel Kaplan and Adam Kinsey

Rachel Kaplan grew up on Long Island in the ’70s, which, as she pointed out, put her in a “totally Jewish, all Jewish, Jewish forever” environment

But it didn’t resonate with her. The Reform synagogue to which her family belonged “was as stultifying and non-spiritual as it gets,” she recalled. As soon as she was old enough to make her own choices, she stopped going to synagogue and decided she’d never return.

Until she met her mate, Adam Kinsey.

Jintrafaith Rachel,Adam2
Adam Kinsey, Esme Kinsey and Rachel Kaplan (from left). photo/owen scott shirwo
“He’d be a rabbi if he could,” Rachel said. But “I’m a bit condemning of Judaism. As a religion, I don’t like it that much, even though I’m highly identified as a Jew.”

The pair had different Jewish practices long before the day they met in San Francisco.

While Rachel grew up in an intensely Jewish household and region, Adam grew up in Los Gatos with an atheist Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father who sometimes meditated on their back porch. Though he always knew he was Jewish, Adam said he didn’t know what that meant until his first trip to a synagogue — when he was 28 years old.

His then-girlfriend brought him to Congregation Beth Sholom in San Francisco for a Shabbat service and Torah study.

“To me, it all made perfect sense,” he said.

He began to learn more and pray more often. When he met Rachel, “he was very clear he wanted to practice, and I was very clear that I didn’t,” she recalled.

For the first few years of their relationship, they balanced these differences with ease. Adam went to synagogue when he wanted to. Rachel stayed home. Adam studied Torah and read books by Chassidic rabbis; Rachel read novels and planted vegetables in her garden.

Then, seven years ago, they had a daughter. Their Jewish juggling act suddenly became more complicated.

“She was born on a Thursday, and that Friday we started praying,” Rachel said. “Doing Shabbat was a concession on my part to meet him half way.”

In a perfect world, Adam would go to synagogue every Saturday morning. But Rachel goes only a few times a year. Which means if he goes to services, he’s going alone, without his family.

He’s had the debate in his mind: Does he drag his family to something they’re not interested in going to? Does he go by himself and spend a chunk of the weekend without his partner and daughter?

“I’ve decided I want to be with my family, so we do Shabbat on Friday at home, and on Saturday move toward a spirit of rest, renewal and relaxation,” Adam said.

Rachel sometimes feels bad for Adam; she knows he would love her to be excited by Jewish ritual and prayer. “I’m sorry I can’t give it to him, but I really can’t,” she said. “Over the years, I’ve become more clear: I don’t want to do this, it doesn’t nourish me.”

Last year, Adam decided he wanted to have an adult bar mitzvah. Rachel was supportive of it and encouraged him to commit to the weekly class, even though it meant that he’d be away from home on Saturday afternoons for a year and a half. “It was easy to support him in that because it was so meaningful to him,” she said.

On the bimah at Congregation Shomrei Torah in Santa Rosa, Adam wore a tallit that belonged to Rachel’s father.

Still, there are many things Adam would like to do that he doesn’t do — because of Rachel. And yet he realizes there are many things she does because of him, such as lighting candles and building a sukkah in their backyard (which Rachel took the lead on because of her love of gardening and the outdoors).

For years, she refused to even entertain the idea of sending their daughter, Esme, to Hebrew school. Now, she’s acquiesced, but has said Adam will have to be the one to coordinate pickups and dropoffs from synagogue.

“I feel like I’m at a place of more resolution than I’ve had in the past,” he said. “Rachel knows I’d love for her to be more observant. It’s not a secret. But I’m grateful for what we have. It helps me be flexible, and helps me keep in mind that God doesn’t only come through a Jewish filter, but that God is all around in a broader sense, too.”

Liora Kahn and Dave Plotkin

The High Holy Days are a spiritual minefield for Liora Kahn and her husband, Dave Plotkin.

“That’s when it heats up every year,” Liora said. “I just know we have to weather the storm.”

“Oh yeah,” Dave chimed in. “Those holidays start coming fast and furious … and come storming back every year.And at that, the couple bursts into laught

Liora Kahn and Dave Plotkin
Though today they laugh about the considerable differences in their Jewish practice, it once was and still can be a very raw and real source of pain.

Liora is a founding member of the Mission Minyan in San Francisco. She grew up “Conservadox” in Philadelphia, attended Conservative Camp Ramah and participated in youth group. As an adult, she sees Judaism as “vibrant and alive,” a centerpiece of her life.

In contrast, Dave grew up in Los Angeles, culturally but not religiously Jewish. “It’s something I had to do for a while and got to quit when I chose,” he said.

After they began dating, Liora resolved to implement a “no pushing policy.” She promised herself that if her secular significant other didn’t want to come to services or to a community event, she wouldn’t push him into changing his mind.

“I deeply believed in my heart that as long as I didn’t force it, he eventually would come to love it,” Liora said.

But as the years went by, she continued to go to events by herself. All the while, Dave was becoming her family. They were planning a wedding. She grew tired of going to events alone.

So two years ago she came up with a strategy. She’d delicately suggest to her husband that he take off work on Yom Kippur to attend services with her. It was one day of many that Liora would go to synagogue, and to her, having him come just once felt like a compromise.

It didn’t go exactly as she planned. “It was a disaster,” she admitted.

They argued. They yelled. They decided to go to therapy.

Dave was frustrated. He felt like his wife wanted him to change, which he thought was a unfair request, since when they entered into their marriage three years ago — a second for both of them — they promised to build a life together and still nurture their independent selves.

Though he respected his wife’s Jewish practice, he had no interest in taking it on for himself.

“I really do appreciate what Liora and her community get out of Judaism,” he said. “I have a really high opinion of it.  But I didn’t misrepresent myself when I said, ‘I’m really not interested.’ ”

Dave told his wife he could go to more events to make her feel better, but confessed that being forced into attendance would likely breed resentment.

“I don’t want things to be hard for her,” he said, “but I’m trying to be true to myself.”

It was a turning point for Liora.

“I had to accept that Dave wasn’t going to change,” she said. “And I had believed very deeply that he would. And that wasn’t easy for me. It was really, really painful. Basically, I had to let go of a dream.”

The couple has made progress since the “meltdown” two years ago. They’re beginning to figure out what works for them.

Dave has become more open-minded about what he’s willing to attend and when. And Liora has learned to invite her husband to events he’s inclined to enjoy (which means more secular, fewer Hebrew-based happenings).

She’s prudent in her requests and articulates when something is important to her — so that when she asks him to come, he knows it really is important, and he accepts the invitation.

“Though that has not worked for the High Holy Day portion of the program,” she joked.

Coming home after Yom Kippur services to what’s simply a regular work day for her partner is still not, and might never be, easy.

And yet “I feel like there’s a level of acceptance in my heart that I didn’t have before,” she said.

They have a sukkah in their San Francisco backyard every year. And they know that when they have children, Liora will take the lead on their Jewish education — and Dave will support her by helping with the little things, like the Hebrew school carpool.

The couple would encourage others in their boat to “decide what they can live with and what they can’t live with” before getting married, Liora said. “And also, know that there is a way. You just have to find it. And it’s not going to look the way you imagined it.

“And it’s alright,” she added. “I got gold with Dave. It’s all worth it for me. Because he’s really the best person I’ve ever known.”

Elizheva Hurvich and Bob Fink

Elizheva Hurvich always imagined she’d date someone “rabbinic.”

“I love Judaism. I’m a Judeo-nerd,” said Elizheva, a Mill Valley native. “I just love most things Jewish

That includes Friday night services, Saturday morning services and Torah study. It also encompasses her job as the director of Kehilla School, a part of Kehilla Community Synagogue in Piedmont. About a year ago, she met Bob Fink through a mutual friend.

Jintrafaith Bob FinkElizheva Hurvich
Elizheva Hurvich and Bob Fink
Though the Rochester, N.Y., native proudly identifies as Jewish, Bob’s passion is architecture, not Judaism. He doesn’t believe in God. He’d rather read the newspaper than the siddur on a Saturday morning.

Still, they just moved in together into her Berkeley home.

“I never imagined a scenario where I’d be dating someone who was more Jewish or too Jewish,” Bob said. “But that’s part of the allure of Elizheva. She brings Judaism into my life, which is not something I’d bring in on my own.”

The couple frequently talks about their differing Jewish practices, since it’s the place where they are the most different, Bob said.

“We have an ongoing dialogue about how we’re going to do things,” Elizheva added.

She has become more flexible with her Shabbat practice since dating Bob, which means she goes to synagogue less often but still lights candles, blesses the wine and eats challah with friends or with her boyfriend.

Bob has also become more open-minded about attending Jewish events, though he’s less interested in religious happenings, such as Torah study or Shabbat services. Several times this year, he’s surprised himself by how much he’s enjoyed things he expected to dislike.

“When she invites me, I check in with her and ask: How important is it for me to be there? And that has an impact on if I go or not,” he said. “It’s important to me that if I say no, I’m not letting her down. Even though she says it’s fine, part of me wonders, is it really fine?”

Elizheva has accepted that if she wants to go to services, she usually (though not always) has to go on her own. “I can share with him what I love, and we can talk about it, but I can’t make him love it,” she said.

Still, there are some things Elizheva won’t budge on. Her home is eco-kosher, as she describes it, which means organic, local meats and produce and never pork, shellfish or mixing milk and meat. Bob agreed to those terms when he moved in. If they go out to eat, however, Elizheva doesn’t mind sitting at the table if Bob orders pork or shellfish.

“When we first started dating, and even now, I say, ‘I’m not kissing you if you eat pork.’ I don’t know if it’s a deterrent though. I follow through less often now, to be honest.”

Elizheva is also rigid about her Passover “transformation,” as Bob endearingly calls it. She approaches Passover the traditional way — she scours her cabinets, boils her glasses and soaks them in the bathtub, and changes all her dishes and silverware (and even the silverware tray and the dish rack).

Last Passover, when they had been dating only a few months, Bob’s parents came to town to visit. He made a reservation for four at a restaurant the night they came in, which was not only Passover — it was also a Friday night.

“I said, ‘Honey, I can’t. It’s Shabbat and it’s Passover. No way — it’s way beyond my limits,’ ” Elizheva said.

She offered to cook Bob’s parents a kosher-for-Passover Shabbat dinner. They said it was the best meal of their trip to California.

“I once thought: If he doesn’t observe Passover I can’t be with him,” Elizheva admitted. “But Bob is so open to new things. And he’s open to me doing my thing. How we share it — we’re figuring it out as we go.”


Differing views? Send your partner a ‘postcard’

When Rabbi Judah Dardik counsels couples who have different — and often conflicting — Jewish beliefs and practices, he encourages them to send “spiritual postcards” to one other.

And not postcards that say: “Come to synagogue with me. Why can’t you be more Jewish?”

“If you go to Paris, you’re not going to write a postcard that says, ‘Please come here. Why aren’t you at the Eiffel Tower?’ ” said the spiritual leader at Congregation Beth Jacob in Oakland. “Postcards are designed to give someone a glimpse of what it means to be in your world without them feeling like they have to go there.”

Likewise, couples should use spiritual postcards to explain to one another why they feel the way they do. The sentiments can be written or verbal.

Instead of trying to railroad a partner into doing something he or she might not want to, or simply lambasting them, “You’re trying to explain what something means to you,” Dardik said.

“It’s more effective to say: ‘I just had a meaningful experience and I want to share it with the person closest to me, so that you can understand where I am and why I am where I am,’ ” Dardik said.

Deborah Sloss, who works with parents at Jewish Family and Children’s Services, said couples usually are most frustrated by their different approaches to Judaism once they have children.

She encourages couples to talk openly about their different Jewish practices. Questions they need to ask one another are: Do we need to share a Jewish practice, or can we make peace with observing differently (and in some cases separately)? How will we raise our children? Is one of us going to take responsibility for their religious education? And will the other actively support that religious education and involvement?

Though choice of synagogue is bound to come up, a more immediate issue at hand is: What will our home practice look like? Will we keep kosher? Will we light candles? Will we observe Shabbat? How?

“Couples can go one of two directions,” she said. “They can come up with something that works for both — a middle ground — or they can agree to disagree.”

Though Judaism is highly rooted in family and community, there are elements of the religion that are highly individual, Dardik said. He points to the mechitzah (a divider that separates men and women in synagogue) as illuminating this point.

“One of the lesser known reasons behind the mechitzah is that prayer is not about you and your spouse, but about you and God,” he said. “The religious journey on many levels is a private journey. It’s not a journey of a couple or a family, but of an individual looking into the infinite.”




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