Category Archives: Community Interest

One Couple, Two Faiths, Endless Flavor – Jewish Food Experience by Stacey Viera

Plantain latkes at Chanukah. Arroz y habichuelas (rice and beans) on the Rosh Hashanah table next to Big Mama Tillie’s roast brisket. Flan de queso crema (cream cheese custard) for Shavuot.

While those might be run-of-the-mill Jewish holiday dishes in some parts of the world, it was completely unheard of in my Ashkenazi upbringing in Silver Spring, Maryland. Of course, that is before I met Luis.

Seventeen years ago, I dragged myself off of my sofa in my apartment on Capitol Hill to go to a party in Ballston. Why? Because a friend told me that a cute Jewish guy was going to be there.

I met the Jewish guy. Eh, he wasn’t for me. But the person who really impressed me was his roommate, Luis, a Puerto Rican man who spoke with kindness and humor in heavily accented English.

We started dating with few expectations about where the relationship would go, though after a few months, it became clear that this was It. However, Luis wasn’t Jewish, and I wouldn’t ask him to convert. What would this mean for my Jewish identity—and the eventual children I hoped to have and raise as Conservative Jews?

Dr. Marion Usher’s new book, One Couple, Two Faiths: Stories of Love and Religion, contains scores of personal stories, like my own, illuminating the different paths that couples and families follow when deciding how to build relationships based on—and despite—religious differences.

Usher takes decades of expertise in counseling interfaith couples and their loved ones in Washington, DC, and provides a practical guide to making Judaism a “center of gravity” in a family, as it was in hers growing up in Montreal, Canada.

As Usher describes in detail and through multiple anecdotes, Judaism isn’t just a religion or an ethnicity; it’s a myriad of things to myriad people who identify as Jewish in their own way. The question she prompts the reader to ask herself is: How do I express my Judaism?

This is the same question I had to ask myself once my relationship with Luis got serious. I went to my grandma Tillie (aka Big Mama), who was a spry, lucid 88 at the time (she’ll be 103 this October, kinahora) and asked her, “Mama, can I marry a non-Jew?”

What would my deeply traditional Big Mama—who had as dedicated and loving a Jewish marriage as anyone could dream for—say about marrying a non-Jew?

In her frank and honest manner, Mama said, “Is he kind? That’s what matters. You found a nice man who is nice to you and good for you.” And in her not-so-subtle way of reminding me that I am far from a perfect person, she added, “I hope that you’re good for him.”

Our interfaith and interracial Jewish marriage is not without its challenges, yet over the past 13 years we have chosen to work together and use our trials to strengthen our partnership. I’ve learned Spanish to better communicate with Luis’ family, and Luis took Hebrew classes with our synagogue’s Adult Education program. He also learned a little Yiddish, much to Mama’s delight and amusement. While he’s never developed a taste for gefilte fish, Mama always makes sure there is a bowl of tuna salad on our holiday table just for Luis. And so many culinary delights, such as plantain latkes, have sprung from our union of Jewish and Puerto Rican cuisine.

Luis and I use our shared values to keep the Jewish home and raise the Jewish family that is right for us. Conservative Judaism didn’t lose a daughter when I intermarried; it gained a son.

We recognize the responsibilities that come with the privileges afforded to us. It is not enough that we signed a ketubah and danced the hora at our wedding. Several months before we decided to marry, we promised each other that it is our sacred responsibility to teach our eventual children about Jewish values and Torah, as well as the value of building significant relationships with the local Jewish community and with Israel.

We are blessed to have found Congregation Etz Hayim in Arlington, Virginia, a welcoming spiritual home based in Conservative Jewish liturgy with a rabbi who is open to meeting families where they are in Jewish observance. Accepting our intermarried status inspired Luis and me to become involved in the community and, as a result, more rigorous in our Jewish observance.

This is absolutely key, according to Usher: “The greater Jewish community must take responsibility for including and incorporating interfaith families and allowing the families to experience what Judaism has to offer as a religion and as a caring community.”

The 2017 Greater Washington Jewish Community Demographic Study revealed that as intermarried couples outnumber those who are in-married, more Washington-area Jews attend services and programs than belong/pay dues to synagogues. Just 31 percent of area Jews belong to a synagogue, below the 39-percent national average.

Usher sees this as less of a challenge than an opportunity for traditional “brick-and-mortar” synagogues, particularly within the Conservative movement. “It’s all about nuance,” she said, “Pushing the edges where they can be pushed and where people can feel included.”

She states that if individual synagogue boards of directors are open to inclusion, the congregation will follow. She uses the example of the interfaith aufruf performed by Rabbi Gil Steinlauf, formerly of Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, DC, to illustrate this point. Usher recalled, “While he couldn’t marry the interfaith couple, he made a blessing on the bima to bless the couple. That was a huge statement.”

Whatever our martial status, we each have unique circumstances and challenges that require varied solutions. Usher explains what binds us as Jews: “Being charitable is one of the three important tenets of Judaism. These pillars are tefillah, teshuvah and tzedakah—studying, remembering what gives meaning to our lives and doing acts of kindness.”

Ultimately, this all comes back to food and the power of food to draw people together. We could be called the People of the (Recipe) Book. Unsure how to reach out to an interfaith family in your community? A meaningful, low-barrier way to make them feel welcomed and build relationships is through sharing recipes and meals. This theme crops up time and again in One Couple, Two Faiths. Try making one of Dr. Usher’s family recipes, my interpretation of tuna noodle kugel, or a dish based on your heritage and that of the couple you wish to honor.

These small gestures, Usher says, are “not earth shattering; it’s just once inch at a time.” As Big Mama Tillie would advise, it’s the kind thing to do. And that’s what matters.

Dr. Marion Usher’s guide to interfaith relationships, One Couple, Two Faiths: Stories of Love and Religion, is available locally at Politics & Prose Bookstore and on Amazon.

–Stacey Viera

Stacey Viera has held multiple leadership positions at Congregation Etz Hayim in Arlington, VA. She currently serves as Secretary. She is a Communications Strategist, Storyteller and Food Writer & Photographer.

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What’s Jewish About Swimming? Recap

The Jewish people love to ask questions! If you were at Upton Hills pool on Sunday, August 5, you would have learned “What’s Jewish About Swimming?” There were approximately 25 people at the event.

To start the conversation, we turned to a classic Jewish text. The Talmud, in Tractate Kiddushin 29a, enumerates a list of obligations parents have to their children. These include teaching them Torah, helping them find a suitable spouse, and preparing them for future employment. At the end of the list of obligations, Kiddushin 29a states: “And there are some who say that [parents] must also teach [their children] how to swim.”

We asked the children why it would be important to learn how to swim. One said it would be important because it would help you if you had to travel to new places. The Jews are a wandering people and have settled in many new places so this response was right on target. Another child said it was important to know how to swim so you wouldn’t drown.

The adults surmised that the metaphor of swimming means we are obligated to teach our children skills that will allow them to survive independently of our help when the need arises. Our children need to build confidence, physical fitness, and be willing to take risks. Our job as parents is to support and encourage them. In this context, teaching children how to swim is a metaphor for launching them on a successful path to Jewish adulthood.

Although our actual swim time was cut short by heavy rains, we enjoyed our time together learning and building community. We look forward to more “What’s Jewish About . . . ” events over the course of the school year!

Thank you to Alexis Joyce for planning the program and the craft and Naomi Harris and Stacey Viera for helping with publicity.

Upcoming event: What’s Jewish about Bubbies? on November 18, 2018


CEH Booth at the Arlington County Fair

The Arlington County Fair has lots to do for families, and is great for individuals of all ages, families, neighbors and friends. Bring neighbors and friends over to the Etz Hayim booth to say hello! We especially want to meet local Jewish folks who might be interested in checking out all we have to offer: social programming, worship, social action, preschool, religious school, adult education….etc.

Especially for young children: Our booth will have a Duplo Lego table this year!

Where? Located at the Thomas Jefferson Community Center – indoor exhibit area, Etz Hayim’s booth hours are Friday, August 17, 4-5:30pm and Sunday, August 19, 11am-7pm.

Questions? Contact: Naomi Harris:

Andy and Eleanor Lovinger Honored for Volunteer Work

The CEH Monthly Mitzvah Mission to Feed the Homeless (in association with Central United Methodist Church (CUMC) and A-SPAN) is a social-action activity that resonates strongly with members Andy and Eleanor Lovinger. Although the Etz Hayim commitment is only once a month, they both participate on a weekly basis!

Both Andy and Eleanor were honored by Arlington County for their volunteer hours with a Volunteer Arlington Recognition Award signed by the Arlington County Board Chair. These are given to people who have contributed 100 hours or more in the past 12 months.

Andy says: “It is so important to do everything we can to help our indigent brothers and sisters and try to address the horrible tragedy of homelessness, and we are grateful to have the opportunity to do so in a tiny way. Many thanks for having initiated this outreach with CUMC.”

To participate in this meaningful activity, volunteers should go to Central United Methodist Church (CUMC) at 4201 Fairfax Drive (Arlington, VA) on Thursdays from 5:30-6:30pm, and/or Fridays from 5:30am-11:30am.

Tu B’Av Potluck Picnic and Family Concert Recap

We had a rockin’ and rollin’ good time at our Tu B’Av celebration on July 15! Tu B’Av is the Jewish Day of Love. This event was co-sponsored by PJ Library and included music, crafts, ice cream and a performance by the children’s band “Here Comes Trouble!” Approximately 50 people were in attendance!

Special thanks to Natalie and Rich Roisman for donating the band’s performance. Listen to a special birthday song by the band here:

Thank you to Alexis Joyce, Laura Naide, Naomi Harris, Stacey Viera and Edgar Rendon from CEH, Sarah Rabin Spira from PL Library, the band “Here Comes Trouble,” and Natalie and Rich Roisman.

Upcoming event: What’s Jewish About Swimming?

When: Sunday, August 5, 2018, 4:00-6:00pm

Register here for What’s Jewish About Swimming?:

Capital Pride 2018 Recap

On June 10, 2018, Congregation Etz Hayim proudly participated in Capital Pride 2018 with an information booth and CEH giveaways. We met a wonderful array of individuals and families interested in our welcoming Conservative synagogue, and we made important connections with the local community. The Communications & Membership Committee followed up with each person interested in CEH, and we look forward to welcoming these folks through our doors soon!

Many thanks to Cheryl Whitehead for making this event possible and for doing so much hard work at the Festival! Thanks also to the volunteers who staffed the table: Sophie Whitehead-Thomas & Naomi McQuaid, Naomi Harris, Stacey & Dagny Viera, Alan Savada & Sam Savada-Stevenson.

Be sure to join us for Shabbat services and your Fiscal Year 2018-2019 Board of Directors Installation this Saturday, June 16, 2018.

Election of 2018-2019 Board of Directors

Mazal tov to the fiscal year 2018-2019 Congregation Etz Hayim Board of Directors and Executive Officers who were elected at the spring State of the Membership meeting on May 6, 2018.

President: Scott Burka
1st Vice President: Mike Stein
VP, Religious Affairs: Naomi Halpern
VP, Youth & Education: Deb Cohen
VP, Membership: Naomi Harris
VP, Fundraising: Jerry Jacobs
VP, Operations: Jonathan Golner
Treasurer: Jeremy Bronheim
Secretary: Stacey Viera
Board Member: Jeanne Briskin
Board Member: Jill Clark-Foulkes
Board Member: Jordan Fried
Board Member: Leslee Friedman
Board Member: Barry Ginsberg
Board Member: Jeanne Howard
Board Member: Mike Jacobs
Board Member: Ron Rosenberg
Board Member: Stephen Schwartz
Board Member: Jill Shenk

Please join us to install the new Board during Shabbat services on Saturday, June 16, 2018. Stay afterwards for kiddush and kibbitz.

Thank you to everyone who served on the Board this past year.

Studying Abroad in Israel by Jenna Alcorn

Hello all! As I wrap up my four and a half months studying abroad in Israel, I thought I’d share some of my experiences! I’ve been living, studying and traveling at Alexander Muss High School in Israel (AMHSI) in the Israel Spring Semester 2018 program.

Living in Israel is a fantastic experience for me as a Jewish teen who has never been here before. I get to live on a campus where I have to manage my time, live with roommates, and of course still focus on school, even if we are traveling two or three times a week.

Of course, a lot is the same here as in the US — everyone is addicted to their phones, there are still McDonald’s and malls everywhere. But, there’s also fresh falafel and shawarma on every corner. Parents give a lot of trust to their children, as we usually see young kids and their friends out by themselves in the evening. One of the biggest differences is the language! Although most people here do speak English, Hebrew is all you hear in the streets. I take a Hebrew class here which has helped me learn the basics for conversation, which is great to use when ordering food or shopping! Another contrast to the US is simply seeing soldiers everywhere. Here in Israel, all citizens are required to serve in the IDF, both women and men. We see teenagers, not even a year older than us, walking through the streets in uniform with M-16 rifles strapped across them. I got a taste of the army life at a mini basic training at Gadna, a base in the Negev.

Shabbat in Israel is a really special thing. Even the secular majority here in Israel values Shabbat to spend time with family and friends. We have been in Jerusalem for Shabbat twice, where life completely halts. We walk in the middle of the street with no fears of cars, and every restaurant and shop is closed for 24 hours. We have also been in Tel Aviv on Shabbat, where about half of the city shuts down. Tel Aviv is the metropolitan center of Israel and a large secular tourist destination, so many of the establishments there don’t abide by traditional religious customs (some places even have bacon cheeseburgers!). We also spent a Shabbat in Tzfat, which is one of the four spiritual cities in Eretz Yisrael. It’s a religious community, even more so than Jerusalem, and Shabbat in Tzfat brings a mysticism over the city. It’s situated on the mountains of the North, so the beauty of the sunset and the winding streets of blue and white are fantastic there. Life completely stands still on Shabbat, not to mention that us girls had to cover every inch of our bodies.

Some of my favorite places we have visited in Israel include the Golan Heights, the Old City of Jerusalem, and the neighborhood Neve Tzedek in Tel Aviv. The Golan is the most northern area of Israel, with stunning mountains and vegetation. We stood feet away from Syrian mine fields and the Lebanese border. We did a beautiful hike leading to a luscious waterfall where we splashed around for a little. The Old City in Jerusalem is just unbelievable, with the cobblestone corridors and so much history right under my feet. We did a 30-minute-long walk through Warrens Shaft, an old water tunnel in Ir David (City of David). It was pitch black inside and so small we had to go single file and duck! Neve Tzedek was one of the first neighborhoods established in Tel Aviv. The old houses and colorful streets have such a different vibe than downtown Tel Aviv. I am a huge lover of street art, which is all over Tel Aviv!

Halfway through our program, right before Holocaust Remembrance Day, we took a week-long trip to Poland. We visited sites where the Jewish community in Poland once flourished, like Krakow, and saw old synagogues and graveyards. We also toured the devastating grounds of Nazi camps, including Auschwitz, Birkenau, Plaszow, and Majdanek. It was a powerful trip for all of us, and being able to march through these places of terror and death with Israeli flags on our backs is one of the most meaningful things I have ever done. It was sad at times, but it was happy at others, as we explored the city centers of a few bustling European cities. For many students it was their first time in Europe, so our night out in Krakow was a blast. The mix of good, bad, sad (and cold) in Poland shaped our experience at AMHSI and has left us with countless memories.

I will be boarding my flight back to JFK Airport in only three weeks, and then back to life in Arlington. I hope to return to Israel soon in my future, either in college or after. Learning about Israel in Sunday school for years all became a reality when I landed here. I feel so connected to this country, its people and my history. It’s so important for Jews to visit Israel if they have the chance, because being here has completely changed my perspective on my religion.

AMHSI has given me a chance to explore Israel while giving me lifelong friends from all over the US. It has prepared me for college life, independent living, and responsibility. If anyone is interested in this program or any that AMHSI has to offer, I am always open to talking about my experiences and showing off all of my amazing photos from the trip.


–Jenna Alcorn

Nominate an Outstanding Volunteer for a Community Award

Congregation Etz Hayim is a warm, inclusive community filled with people who generously give their time and resources to make Arlington an even better place to live, work, and play.

Help us recognize those individuals by submitting an application on their behalf for a Volunteer Arlington Service Award.

From Volunteer Arlington’s webpage:

Volunteer Arlington Award nomination forms can be found here. Additional award nomination forms can be found here. All nominations forms are due to Volunteer Arlington by Tuesday, May 1, 2018 at 5:00pm.

Thank you to all of our volunteers – those who are formally recognized and those who do important work behind the scenes – for making Arlington the inclusive community Etz Hayim has been part of for nearly 80 years.