How to Negotiate Jewish Difference

Tips to Help Your Family Get Along

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Although Judaism espouses the value of shalom bayit, peace among the members of a family, Judaism can also be a source of strife for family members. Differences in levels of Sabbath and kashrut observance can make family get-togethers--particularly those surrounding holidays and lifecycle rituals--frustrating. Discussions about current events in Israel, the politics of conversion, or even a decision to send one's kids to a Jewish day school can sour even the sweetest seder. Changes to family members' levels of observance can also throw other relatives into confusion or leave them feeling rejected or judged.

Family conflicts arise from countless possible causes--personality clashes, old grudges, money, and the list only goes on from there. Sometimes religious differences exacerbate these other issues to the point that Judaism becomes the scapegoat for why a family isn't getting along. Learning how to negotiate disagreements about Jewish observance and belief won't solve deeper family issues, but it can provide a framework for allowing Judaism to become a healing medium in a fractured family.

1. Clarify Expectations

All family visits should be preceded by honest discussions about what arrangements might be needed for meals (for example, kosher food), sleeping arrangements (such as separate beds for spouses), or scheduling (like being respectful of prayer times).

hands in the middleFamily members hosting and those visiting both have obligations to be specific about what they need, what they want, and what would offend them. For instance, it would be important for guests preferring a Passover seder that continues after the meal to know ahead of time that their hosts are not planning for it. For both sides, an in-advance list of what is negotiable and what is not may reveal surprising areas of flexibility.

2. Do the Research

You can reach out to your family members by learning more about what they are doing and why. You might want to "learn the lingo" of your Orthodox sibling and read up on the difference between halakhah (Jewish law) and minhag (custom). It could be helpful to listen to an audiobook for clues to why Jewish Renewal appeals to your mother's soul or why your uncle's recitation of Kaddish after his father died started him going to daily minyan.

You might find yourself researching in response to other people's questions, too. If family members ask you to explain your observances, but you do not feel prepared with appropriate answers, there is no need to become defensive. The best response is to tell your relative that you'll get back to him/her, then ask a rabbi or seek answers in books, on the Internet, or elsewhere.

3. Seek Neutral Territory

Family visits can often be made easier by seeking common ground, or at least neutral territory. Intentionally find kosher restaurants you all enjoy, where no one has to cook or worry about "treifing" (making errors in kashrut) someone else's kitchen. If it is difficult to bridge the differences in expectations for Shabbat and Jewish holidays, try visiting during other times, like Thanksgiving and school vacations. Plan vacations together where all parts of the family are responsible for planning their own meals and accommodations, but activities are shared.

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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.