By Cindy Atoji Keene
Candy canes or chocolate gelt? Hanukkah menorah or Christmas tree? Dreidel or ornaments? With more than 50 percent of Jews in interfaith relationships, December can get a little sticky for families as they struggle with questions of identity and tradition. “Couples want to know: do we lose or water down our identity if we both have a Christmas tree and light a menorah?” said Rabbi Lev Baesh, who has specialized in interfaith counseling and ceremonies for almost two decades. He thinks the December dilemma can be approached with sensitivity and openness. “Nothing is set in stone; if you try setting up a Christmas tree one year and it doesn’t work, don’t do it again. My suggestion is to take a breath, step back, and test things. Don’t come into the holidays with fear and a pre-given bias.”
In his new role as the first “interfaith ambassador” for Combined Jewish Philanthropies, a Boston-based federation, Baesh is focused on inclusiveness and a new model of the Jewish community that is not linked to a synagogue or community center. “We are offering resources to unaffiliated people in the outside world, helping engage them with choices and opportunities, both inside and outside of the institutional Jewish world,” said Baesh, who for many years served interfaith couples as a “renegade freelance rabbi.”
Baesh teaches interfaith parenting workshops and last year alone served as celebrant at 45 interfaith weddings, including Jewish-Hindu, Jewish-Buddhist, and Jewish-Humanist, and of course, Jewish-Christian. “There is a multiplicity of spiritualities that people are adopting,” said Baesh. “Interfaith couples bring so much creativity and a drive to find ways to engage with their faith. They are bringing life to the Jewish world that has become flat in so many ways.”
Q: What in your background lead you to become an interfaith rabbi?
Α: As a fifth-generation U.S. rabbi, I grew up embedded in the Reform movement. I love Judaism and what it has to offer – its values, rituals, and text study. Anyone who wants to be linked to it should be able to be connect. In my extended family, I saw many interfaith marriages, where these issues were never a problem and some of the non-Jewish partners converted. And because I’m gay, I also had to struggle as a Jewish insider to find my place in this world. So I use my experiences to welcome anyone who wants to come through the door.
Q: What was the first interfaith wedding that you presided at?
A: The wife was Christian, and the groom was Jewish and a lawyer for Native American rights. I co-officiated with a tribal chief. Because of the Native American rituals he performed, it opened my eyes to interfaith ceremonies as a viable, beautiful expression of families today – and that was 21 years ago.
What goes into being a rabbi that most people wouldn’t think of?
Q: I always have a pressed suit ready to go. Jewish funerals tend to happen in 24 hours and you can get called on a dime. Also, I’m a rabbi every moment of the day. When you walk into a room and people find out you’re a rabbi, it’s like being a doctor and being asked about that spot on the neck. I get rabbinic questions ranging from spiritual dilemmas to dream interpretation. Finally, people don’t understand this is the way we earn our living; they assume that rabbis get manna from heaven.
Q: Know any good rabbi jokes?
A: Not off the top of my head.