Article Discussion: Beyond Conversion: Becoming a Jewish Family

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April 27, 2011 at 8:28 pm #5755

admin

Click here to read the article: Beyond Conversion: Becoming a Jewish Family

May 10, 2011 at 6:03 pm #5774

Rebecca

One can surely have two faiths in their home and live to tell about it, as Steve and Cokie have. Some readers, no doubt, know a few interfaith families who are more involved than some Jewish families. They may know interfaith children who have chosen Judaism, while other children, brought up with a day school education, are now divorced from the tradition.

I know those families too, people who have bucked the trend. And that’s the point — bucking the trend is hardly a sound foundation on which to build the Jewish people’s future. That the exception proves the rule does not mean that the rules have changed.

I am very glad that the welcome that your family felt as an interfaith family gave you access to a religious practice that is best suited for your family. This is the way it should be.

However, the paragraphs I quoted above diminish the spiritual value that families who do not choose your path get from interfaith practice. Interfaith practice does not have to be Judaism-lite. Judaism can be transforming for an interfaith family without leading to conversion. Interfaith families can change over time while still wanting to retain interfaith identities.

Those of us who live like Cokie and Steve can do more than simply “live to tell about it”: we have meaningful interaction with God and our communities.

In the end, many trends that are bucked become the new norm. It is exactly the sound foundation that the Jewish people have historically built their future.

It is possible for the Jewish community to be welcoming to all comers and retain a distinct identity while still respecting that every individual has a slightly different path to walk to be in a relationship with God, their communities and their own identities.

May 11, 2011 at 11:39 am #5780

Harold

Rebecca,

Thank you for commenting on my article. No doubt, there are interfaith families who keep two faiths in the home and who have deep spiritual practices that give them meaning. And I don’t suggest they should necessarily do anything different if that works for them. Nor do I anywhere suggest that every intermarried family should become a Jewish one – only that there are some who might want to if they had a different experience with the Jewish community.

My intent was not to diminish anyone, but to share another kind of journey which barely gets discussed, but yet is happening far more than the Jewish community realizes. I also based everything I said in the article from my own experiences – having been a Jewish communal professional for over a decade and interacting with all types of intermarried and inmarried Jews (and their children) across the spectrum and observing what happens in real time, and what is going well and what isn’t. And I do have the benefit of perspective of having been on both sides of the fence, so to speak.

If we are truly pluralistic, then it cannot be that it is ok to write an article celebrating intermarriage as “the new normal” (as the Roberts have, and critiquing those who don’t agree), but it’s not ok to write an article celebrating a different kind of “new normal” that is happening among hundreds of formerly intermarried families.

Much of what happens in the Jewish community is Judaism-lite. I am basing that simply on what I have observed. There are many intermarried families who would enjoy a deeper immersion in Judaism (whatever their ultimate decisions) were it offered more consistently. And what I said about bucking the trend also is statistically true – as I said, there are exceptions but the basic trends remain the same. That is not being judgmental – that is stating statistical facts. For that matter, the Roberts’ children are a good example as, although they have an awareness of their Jewish ancestry, they are not practicing Jews

It is also true, as I said in the article, that where an intermarried family is today is not necessarily where they will be tomorrow. And not just in my own isolated case – there are many of us who have made this journey. Perhaps it is time to celebrate those who have journeyed from intermarried to traditionally Jewish, rather than ignoring them (except for getting upset when they write articles about their experiences) and only celebrating those who specifically have chosen not to make that journey.

May 11, 2011 at 12:04 pm #5781

Harold

A follow-up to my last comment. A friend wrote a blog post on my article – I am including the link here, but also her full article should the link not work. It says it much more eloquently than I did in my previous post.
http://shimshonit.wordpress.com/2011/04 … onversion/
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Beyond conversion
April 15, 2011 by Shimshonit
One of the great sources of chizuk (strength) I have found in my life as a converted Orthodox Jew has been meeting other families where one or both partners are converts to Judaism. Sometimes they have a Jewish father, like I have, and sometimes they traveled the long and winding road to Judaism without the beacon of their own heritage to guide them.

A friend of ours recently wrote a piece for The Jewish Week entitled “Beyond Conversion: Becoming a Jewish Family,” addressing interfaith marriage from the vantage point of someone who, with his non-Jewish wife, made the journey from an interfaith marriage to a marriage in which both partners are now Jewish, living traditional Jewish lives (in Israel) and rearing their children as fully identified Jews. The jumping-off point of the article is the new interfaith haggaddah being promoted by high-profile intermarried couple John and Cokie Roberts (Cokie of National Public Radio fame), and their promotion of intermarriage as “the new normal.” Our friend Harold Berman’s piece, which makes important points about what kind of Judaism is being offered to interfaith couples and the fact that interfaith marriages don’t always end up where they begin, especially when children come along, takes issue with the Roberts’ version of Judaism as a way of life that coexists naturally alongside other faiths in the same household.

When the piece was published, Harold contacted me and provided the link to the Jewish Week‘s page posting his article, but also gave me the “uncut” version, which contained a few points he’d wanted to make but which didn’t make the final edit for publication. Here was a deleted portion that I found particularly meaningful:

Several years ago, before my wife became Jewish, she taught music to a Harvard undergraduate who had grown up in an interfaith family. One day, as they were talking about her background, the student said wistfully, “It would just be nice to know who I am, to have a clear religious identity.” Not every interfaith child feels this way. But as a community, we should have the confidence that if they immerse in Judaism, their lives will be better.

The times are changing, but not in the way many people think. Orthodox synagogues are burgeoning. Thousands upon thousands of Jews who grew up with little Jewish background have transformed themselves into observant Jews, as have increasing numbers of non-Jews. Intermarried-to-Orthodox families like mine are becoming more and more common, and can be found in virtually any Orthodox synagogue, and among our neighbors in Israel where we live.

And increasing numbers of intermarried families are searching for a substantive Judaism they don’t always find in their temples and JCCs. Just go into any Chabad and you will see them. It’s time for us, as a Jewish community, to expect more of ourselves. The way forward will not be found in a feel-good Judaism, but in a meaningful one.

I felt through much of my childhood and young adulthood the same way that Harvard undergraduate felt, uncertain of my religious identity. At the age of nine, when I told my parents I wanted to be an Orthodox Jew, they scoffed and said, “You’d hate it. They’re not allowed to do anything. You wouldn’t last a week.” I never spoke of it again, but I continued to think about it, and when I eventually decided to take the plunge and convert, my parents were surprised, but I wasn’t. It was what I’d always wanted to be. The interfaith household in which I grew up, which was never truly committed to either Judaism or Christianity, wasn’t enough for me. I needed more, went out, and found it.

Harold’s point that while there is a strong trend toward assimilation in America, there is also a movement of secular Jews and interfaith couples toward more traditional Jewish practice, is an important one. Brandeis sociologist Sylvia Barack Fishman has noted that in interfaith relationships, the Jewish partners (especially male partners) tend to downplay the importance of their Jewish faith for fear of offending or pressuring their non-Jewish partners, giving rise to a belief by the non-Jewish partner that Judaism is less important to their partner than their own religion is to them. By taking Judaism seriously, delving into its wisdom, practice, and ritual, families searching for meaning gain a greater appreciation of Judaism’s profound substance, rather than the notion among many non-religious Jews that since Judaism is part of the foundation on which democracy is based, it is nothing more than American liberalism.

I agree with Harold that it is essential that Jews of all stripes welcome interfaith couples into their midst. By showing interfaith couples that Jews are a people rather than a band of “a few good men,” traditional Jews have the opportunity to provide a window on how Judaism is lived day-to-day, and offers as much learning, meaning, history, community, and spiritual connection to the Divine as anyone could need. My acceptance by Reform Judaism allowed me to enter the Jewish world from non-halachic, secular Judaism, and the welcome I received by Orthodox Jews in Israel, and later in Newton, Massachusetts, was what allowed me to find my resting place at last. Not everyone will necessarily gravitate toward Modern Orthodoxy as I did, but knowing that the world of tradition is fulfilling, accessible and welcoming may help other families not content to negotiate their identities to find one they can all share.

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