The Weight of Our Words

  

In seventh grade, I was so excited when this boy from school asked me out. I asked my mother if she could drop me off at the movie theater, not yet able to go anywhere on my own, and was surprised by the questions she asked. I don’t remember exactly what was said at the beginning, but she communicated to me that he was not an appropriate person for me to date. In all my teenage glory, I yelled and made a scene and told her she was closed minded. She calmly responded, “No I’m not. I’m very open minded. You can date and marry any boy or girl you want, black, white or brown, as long as they are Jewish.”

Looking back on it, this conversation became one of the foundational truths I held onto in my younger days. Knowing that my mom was in fact very open minded and liberal in many ways, I came to believe the distinction she made must have been appropriate. And this comment was supported by thousands of others, large and small, from family members, teachers, youth group advisors and friends who all seemed to accept this idea as a truth: that as a Jew I should be with another Jew.

It took me a few years into my rabbinate until I could fully shed this thinking and not only welcome but truly embrace the (man, many) blessings interfaith families bring to the Jewish community. I am here now, as a voice for inclusion in my new role as director of InterfaithFamily/Bay Area, because I understand and believe deeply that it is the right Jewish and rabbinic thing to do—to see and embrace the holiness and blessings of each and every individual.

Those who live by Jewish values should see no option but audacious welcoming and sincere gratitude for interfaith couples families that choose to connect to Judaism or Jewish community in any way. Partners of different faith backgrounds are making Judaism a more vibrant and meaningful religion. I’m a rabbi to help people find meaning in their lives. Throughout time, rabbis have done this in a multitude of ways. Rabbinic roles, and Judaism, have continued to evolve throughout time, affected by the cultures surrounding us and enriching each generation.

This is why I find myself in a new city, new job and preparing my family for our fourth move in six months. Matt, Roey, Stella Mae and I are, like so many young families, exploring our new city of San Francisco and creating the friends and community we hope will enrich our lives for years to come. My heart brings me to the Bay Area, to work for InterfaithFamily and make sure every person exploring the Jewish community, or loving individuals who take part in Jewish community, may feel the same warmth and love I offer my own family. Especially now, as a parent, I am realizing the weight of my words and advice that I offer to my own children and others. Maybe we can all explore this world together and enrich the younger and older generations with our warmth, kindness, creativity and spunk. I hope to meet you soon, whether for a cup of coffee on me (drop me a note at samanthak@interfaithfamily.com), at an upcoming event, or at my welcome breakfast where I look forward to meeting new people from the area on August 23 in our Steuart Street office—please stop by!

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The Conservative Officiation Debate Continues

  

This post originally appeared on www.edumundcase.com and is reprinted with permission.

The wedding officiation debate continues

The media buzz about Conservative rabbis and officiation at weddings of interfaith couples has slowed, but there has been important commentary in the past three weeks.

The rabbis of the Jewish Emergent Network – certainly among the most progressive younger rabbis in the country – expressed solidarity with Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie for raising important issues, expressing “hope that in the months ahead, the focus will shift from internal Jewish politics to the ways in which contemporary Jewish spiritual leadership, as it looks both to the past and the future, will respond to the increasingly fluid boundaries between the categories of Jew and non-Jew.”

The Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle had an excellent summary of the Conservative officiation debate in an article about varying opinions of local Conservative rabbis. One rabbi said the Rabbinical Assembly should only change its prohibition if there is an adequate halachic basis to do so; one said if the RA changed its stance he still wouldn’t officiate. The article reports that there is a petition being circulated to affirm the prohibition and that the RA has a Blue Ribbon Commission examining the boundaries of the prohibition – not overturning it, but defining what it means.

I was disturbed to read Steven Cohen quoted as criticizing the Cohen Center’s research showing a strong association between having a rabbi officiate and interfaith couples’ later joining synagogues and raising their children Jewish. Cohen apparently says the study provides no evidence of impact and just shows that people who seek a rabbi are more Jewishly engaged. I think the Cohen Center’s interpretation makes much more sense: “Interactions with Jewish clergy in preparation for the wedding may serve to welcome the non-Jewish partner into Judaism, establish the groundwork for a continuing relationship, and affirm the couple’s prior decision to raise a Jewish family. However, the opposite may also be true. Rejection by Jewish clergy may serve to dissuade couples from pursuing other Jewish commitments and connections.”

The article reports that Rabbi Alex Greenbaum, who said he would officiate for interfaith couples if the RA changed its prohibition, found a way to participate in a wedding without overtly violating it: while under the chuppah he delivered the “wedding talk,” while a Reform rabbi conducted the actual marriage ceremony. He said, “I believe that for rabbis who are congregational rabbis, after 12 to 15 years these children are like your own children…. And I have to say, ‘I’m so sorry I can’t perform your wedding.’ They never get over it.” He continued, and I think this makes a great deal of sense,

We are not going to have a better chance of a Jewish future if we reject our children. There is no chance then. The more welcoming we are, the better chance we have for a Jewish future. I do believe this is a matter of life and death for our movement. I believe intermarriage is not leading our kids away from Judaism. I believe it is our reaction to intermarriage that is pushing them away.

Rabbi Seymour Rosenbloom, who was expelled by the RA because he started to officiate for interfaith couples, says that the leadership of the Conservative movement is at odds with its members. “The Rabbinical Assembly and the Jewish Theological Seminary may adamantly reject the idea that Conservative rabbis should officiate at interfaith marriages; the Conservative constituency overwhelmingly believes they should.”

Intermarriage is one of the clearest manifestations of the consequences of the gap between rabbis and constituents, which I believe is at the core of the crisis in Conservative Judaism today. But the fundamental issue is that while leadership still perceives Conservative Judaism as a halachic movement, its constituents do not. For them, Judaism is not about law. It is a matter of the heart and spirit. It is about intent, feeling, and identity. And when it comes to intermarriage, it is about love. It is not about adherence to technical standards that are arcane and burdensome, that lack transparency, and make life harder and more difficult. Like most non-Orthodox Jews, members of Conservative synagogues are seeking religious communities that enable them to celebrate the milestones of their life with joy and meaning, and which help them shoulder the burdens of a challenging society with greater confidence and purpose.

But where they seek peace, Conservative Judaism offers Halacha. Where they yearn for fulfillment, they are given the message that they are Jewishly inauthentic. Where they crave acceptance, they are judged.

The New Jersey Jewish News had an interesting essay by Conservative Rabbi Judith Hauptmann, who teaches Talmud at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and has a grandchild growing up in an interfaith home. She says that as of now, she won’t officiate for interfaith couples, “but I wish I could.” (The essay is about what she says is the more important question of how to get the children of intermarriage to grow up Jewish, and about the key role that grandparents can play.)

Finally, there was a great article interviewing Rabbi Keara Stein, director of InterfaithFamily/Los Angeles, who outlined six tips to make both sides feel comfortable while respecting their traditions. She explains she made the difficult decision to co-officiate because “there have been couples who would not have had any other Jewish elements at their special day if I had decided against it.”

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I’m not an “Interfaith Rabbi”

  

Rabbi Frisch officiating a wedding

“Meet Robyn,” my friend, who is Jewish, said with a smile as she introduced me to her Christian daughter-in-law. “She’s an interfaith rabbi.”

Ugh! I cringed on the inside—the same way I do when someone calls me a Reformed rabbi (rather than a Reform rabbi) or a “Rent-A-Rabbi.” I thought to myself: I’m not an interfaith rabbi. I’m a rabbi—a Jewish rabbi. And what is an interfaith rabbi anyway? To me, the term “interfaith rabbi” sounds like a rabbi whose Judaism, and rabbi-ness, is somehow not purely and authentically Jewish.

Of course I knew what my friend intended. She wanted her daughter-in-law, who was in an interfaith marriage, to know that I was welcoming and open; that I wouldn’t judge her marriage or look down on her husband because his wife isn’t Jewish or her for being married to someone Jewish.

But still… I’m not an “interfaith rabbi.” What I am is a rabbi who proudly spends my time working with and advocating for interfaith couples and families.

There are many rabbis from the Reform, Reconstructionist and Renewal movements who officiate interfaith weddings, and we’re all regular rabbis. We’re rabbis who want to open wide the door to Judaism, and who want to bring Judaism to the most sacred moments in people’s lives. We’re rabbis who don’t judge a Jew’s commitment to Judaism by who they’ve fallen in love with and decided to marry. We’re rabbis who feel blessed to work with Jews and the people they love and who love them.

So call us “non-judgmental rabbis.” Call us “welcoming rabbis.” Call us Rabbis. Just please don’t call us “interfaith rabbis.”

In all fairness, I realize the irony of my preferring not to be called an “interfaith rabbi” when I use the term “interfaith” all of the time. I often refer to “Jewish interfaith families” where one parent is Jewish and one isn’t, whereas the family may identify simply as a “Jewish family,” in which one parent just happens not to be Jewish. I realize that the term I, and the rest of us at InterfaithFamily use is less than ideal for a number of reasons, including the fact that the Jewish parent and/or the other parent may not see themselves as a person of “faith.” But I use it because I don’t have a better term or way of distinguishing the particular type of family with whom I work.

In my role as director of InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia, I work with all sorts of different types of families with one Jewish parent and one parent who isn’t Jewish, all of whom have a variety of blessings and challenges as a result of the parents having different religious backgrounds. I use the blanket term “Jewish interfaith family” not because it’s ideal, but because it helps—hopefully—to make clear who these families are.

I realize that my friend who introduced me to her daughter-in-law was trying to do what I do: to describe what type of rabbi I was in a short-hand form, limited by the language we have. I know what she really meant was that I’m an open-minded rabbi who works with interfaith couples and families, and she felt that by just saying “rabbi,” that wouldn’t come across.

While it still may make me cringe on the inside, and I’d prefer that you didn’t, I will say that if you really have to, go ahead and call me an “interfaith rabbi.”

But still please don’t call me a Reformed rabbi or a “Rent-A-Rabbi.”

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Inside Intermarriage: A Christian Partner’s Journey Raising a Jewish Family

  

book coverThis post originally appeared on www.edumundcase.com and is reprinted with permission.

August 1, 2017 is the publication date for the new version of Jim Keen’s Inside Intermarriage: A Christian Partner’s Journey Raising a Jewish Family. I was honored to write the foreword to this one-of-a-kind book: the warm, personal, light-hearted but very serious story of a Protestant man raising Jewish children together with his Jewish wife.

When Jim Keen and his fiancée Bonnie were planning their wedding, her Jewish grandmother wasn’t sure she would attend, because she disapproved of intermarriage. But she chose love, and danced with Jim at the wedding, saying “you’re my grandson now.” That story brought tears to my eyes, and it and others in this book might to yours.

Interfaith couples like Jim and Bonnie who care about religious traditions face what I call “eternal” issues. Not in the sense that the issues can’t be resolved, because they can be, as Jim’s story vividly demonstrates. But all interfaith couples who want to have religion in their lives have to figure out how to relate to each other and their parents and families over religious traditions; they all have to resolve whether and how to celebrate holidays, to be spiritual together, to find community of like-minded people.

This book follows Jim’s journey through all of those issues. From dating, falling in love, meeting the parents, deciding how children will be raised religiously, considering conversion, to getting married; from baby welcoming ceremonies, to celebrating holidays, finding community, and meeting his own needs in a Jewish family. It’s a deeply moving story, told with humor, and it’s an important one.

Jim Keen’s example of one interfaith couple’s journey to Jewish continuity is reassuring. Interfaith couples who are or might be interested in engaging in Jewish life and community can learn from Jim’s story how doing so can add meaning and value to their lives.

Along his journey, Jim shares extremely helpful insights. For example: His and his wife’s feelings and attitudes changed over time, with him moving from feeling different, “standing out,” “not belonging,” to feeling “part of.” For another: Interfaith couples, no matter what path they follow, have to make a conscious effort to work out their religious traditions, which can lead to more thoughtful and deeper engagement. And another: Interfaith couples aren’t alone, and it’s very helpful to become friends and work through issues with other couples.

Interfaith couples follow many paths, and Jim Keen doesn’t say his path is right for everyone. He continued to practice his own religion; some partners in his position don’t practice any religion, or practice Judaism, or even convert. Jim and his wife chose one religion for their children; some couples decide to raise their children in two religions, and many couples haven’t decided, or haven’t yet. The clear advice Jim does give is that there are solutions to the issues that interfaith relationships raise, and that the key to resolving them is early and ongoing respectful communication. How Jim spells out the negotiation and communication he and his wife had over many issues will help couples facing the same issues, no matter what paths they may be thinking of taking.

Jim expresses deep gratitude for finding very warm and welcoming JCC preschool and synagogue communities, and especially a rabbi by whom he felt genuinely embraced. It is essential that more interfaith couples experience that kind of welcome. Most Jews have relatives in interfaith relationships now, and many Jewish professionals are working with people in interfaith relationships. This book promotes better understanding not only of the eternal issues interfaith couples face, but in particular the perspective of the partner from a different faith background.

Jim Keen doesn’t promote interfaith marriage, but he does recognize its positive impacts, including an appreciation for tolerance and diversity. He writes that being in an interfaith relationship has broadened his perspective and enhanced not only his life, but also his parents’ and in-laws’ lives too. He still enjoys “belonging to [his] Scottish-American, Protestant group, but it’s a warm feeling being able to see the world through Jewish eyes, as well.” He also rightly recognizes his and his family’s contribution to the Jewish community: “I am proud to say, there are some Keens who happen to be Jewish. I love it.” I love it, and I think you will, too.

Today, with intermarriage so common, Jim Keen’s perspective is more important and valuable than ever. Jim Keen and his family – on both sides – are heroes of Jewish life. They are role models for how a parent from a different faith background and a Jewish parent, together with all of the grandparents, can support the Jewish engagement of their children and grandchildren. They all deserve deep appreciation for this utmost gift, Jim especially for shedding light on the journey.

You can order the book here.

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More Shifting Ground

  

This post originally appeared on www.edumundcase.com and is reprinted with permission.

choices

It’s been busy the past two weeks. As Shmuel Rosner just pointed out, since his original article a month ago, “The volume of writing on Jewish interfaith marriage in America is high.”

Rosner had said that in the absence of definitive studies or any consensus, the debate about whether interfaith marriage will weaken or strengthen us will be decided by trial and error over three or four generations, with some rabbis officiating and some not. I said his was an incredibly non-activist approach and that “arguing that intermarriage weakens us is self-fulfilling. Intermarriage won’t be an opportunity to grow in numbers and vitality if the messages the Jewish community sends – like by rabbis not officiating – disapprove of interfaith couples [and] relationships.”

Rosner now says that I was right, in the sense that a clear and unified message might be better. But he says critics of intermarriage can make the same argument, that “arguing that sticking with in-marriage weakens us is self-fulfilling. In-marriage won’t be an opportunity to grow in numbers and vitality if the messages the Jewish community sends – like by rabbis officiating – disapprove of insistence on Jewish couples and relationships.”

That is a false equivalency, in my view. There can’t be any question that decrying interfaith marriage turns interfaith couples away, or that insisting on “in-marriage” doesn’t work. No one is arguing that Jews marrying Jews is bad. Rabbis officiating for interfaith couples does not send a message of disapproval of Jewish-Jewish marriages. Interfaith marriage could be regarded as an equal norm, along with Jews who marry Jews; they can co-exist. It’s the insistence that there is only one right way that’s the problem.

Rosner says a Conservative rabbi who refers to “the naive hope that [a rabbi] standing under the chuppah will have a significant impact on the Jewishness of interfaith couples or the families they build” is right. How anyone can hold that position after the Cohen Center’s latest research showing the positive impact of rabbinic officiation escapes me. (Rosner cites an article by Roberta Rosenthal Kwall that rolls out the tired old, previously failed strategy to “actively” encourage conversion, and an interesting “descriptive, not opinionated” analysis by Emma Green in the Atlantic.)

The Continued Decay of Jewish Federations, which generated a lot of comment on eJewishPhilanthropy, takes pot shots at intermarriage; the anonymous author says “If the person I walk down the aisle with isn’t Jewish, how much am I really going to care about the [Jewish] folks down the block?” and “72% of non-Orthodox intermarrying is … about Jewish apathy.” Fortunately one comment wagers that the writer “holds outdated views that intermarriage… divorce from the Jewish community,” while another says “this resentment of people in interfaith relationships has got to stop.”

Thankfully there has been more positive perspective in the media. Rob Eshman, publisher and editor of the LA Jewish Journalsays:

But I know — we all know — too many wonderful intermarried couples. They continue to serve the community as volunteers, funders, activists. They raise children who go on to practice Judaism, embody its values and contribute to the Jewish community and the world. They succeed at being Jewish far, far better than any number of “in-married” Jewish couples who stay uncurious and uninvolved, whose biggest contribution to Jewish life was paying the rabbi who married them.

This truth puts rabbis and movements who resist intermarriage in the same bind as many were before acknowledging same-sex marriage. How do you exclude a committed, loving constituency, willing to belong and contribute to Jewish life, from meaningful Jewish rituals? Can intermarriage done correctly actually be not a curse, but a cure?

The ground has shifted on this issue, and something tells me we’re about to find the answer.

One outstanding example of an answer is Debbie Karl, who tells “How One Interfaith Family Found a Home in a Synagogue“: because a wonderful rabbi agreed to officiate for her and “turned the whole process into a positive experience for both of us.” If she hadn’t, “that could have been the end of Judaism for me… I could easily have written off organized Jewish life, as so many disenchanted Jews choose to do.” This is one of the most persuasive pieces by a lay person that I’ve ever read; I wish every rabbi who doesn’t officiate would read it and take to heart what she says about the children of intermarriage:

If they do choose a non-Jewish partner, and try to find a rabbi to marry them, will they be accepted and counseled warmly and openly? Will their interest in honoring their Jewish heritage with a Jewish-style wedding be respected and appreciated? Or will they be made to feel that they are being judged for marrying the person with whom they have fallen in love, who happens not to be Jewish? Will they feel unwelcome in the very synagogues and communities which raised them?

An outstanding example of a cantor who “gets it” is Erik Contzius, who says “Let’s Stop Calling It ‘Intermarriage.’” He used to not officiate, but “Coming to understand how a hostile attitude from clergy turns young couples away from Jewish identity and practice changed my mind.”

I can almost guarantee that a couple of divergent religions will not affiliate, identify, or become otherwise involved with the Jewish community if they are turned away and thus invalidated by Jewish clergy who tell them that they will not officiate at their wedding.

Avram Mlotek, a courageous Orthodox rabbi, reports that he “encountered fierce opposition” to his op-ed about welcoming interfaith families and “ adopting a posture of radical hospitality,” but steadfastly believes that “providing a space that caters to every Jew’s spiritual needs — even if that Jew is married to someone of another faith — is the most practical way to ensure the future of the Jewish family.”

Two of the smartest thinkers on intermarriage happen to be senior leaders of the secular humanist movement. Rabbi Adam Chalom offers “Intermarriage Agony? Been There, Past That“:

So when the Conservative Movement grapples publicly with whether or not their rabbis should maybe consider a way to possibly be less than fully rejectionist, the arguments for inclusion are what we [secular humanists] have been saying and living for 40 years. We who have celebrated interfaith and intercultural families for a generation are pleased to have company, but like the woman in a board meeting whose ideas are overlooked until repeated by a man, we are not amazed. Better late than never, and better now than later, and still better to recognize that you are late to the party.

 

Today the Reform Movement trumpets its “audacious hospitality”, the Conservative Movement will accept non-Jews as members (with limited privileges), and intermarriage-friendly rabbis are easily found online at InterfaithFamily.com. The one piece missing in most of this dialogue is, “we’re sorry, we were wrong.” For the thousands of couples, families, and children pushed away by Jewish communal shortsightedness over the past decades, some teshuva (repentance) might also be helpful.

Paul Golin offers two excellent pieces. “Intermarriage is the Wrong Bogeyman” (an edited version of a longer piece on Medium) explains that the approach that intermarriage is the cause of declining Jewish engagement is based on

…a dishonest sociology…, promulgated by a handful of academicians who’ve been at it for decades…. Shmuel Rosner, a reporter who contributed to this latest effort, displays this confusion when he writes, “interfaith marriage leads to eventual assimilation.” Such purposeful oversimplification is not sociology, it’s smear. “Assimilation” is not the story we’ve seen for huge swaths of intermarried households. Intermarried Jews are involved in all Jewish denominations and most organizations. There are literally hundreds of thousands of exceptions to the supposed rule.

Golin argues that theism is the problem – most people do not believe in the concept held by most of organized Judaism of a God that answers personal prayers. I agree with Golin that “When there’s no magical ‘Jewish gene’ to perpetuate, Judaism must be about meaning and benefit. And if Judaism is meaningful and beneficial, why would we limit it to just Jews?” But while secular humanism may be an approach that would suit many interfaith couples, many others are interested in spirituality, and the religious movements could do a lot of work developing concepts of God and liturgies that express those concepts that contemporary couples would be far more comfortable with.

In his second piece, Golin uses the terrible situation of government of Israel reneging on a deal for egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall to point out that the Chief Rabbinate’s claim that liberal expressions of Judaism are invalid is not unlike liberal Jewish leaders’ claims that intermarriage makes a Jew “not Jewish enough.” I agree that his as usual trenchant comment: “policing of Jewish observance by Jews against other Jews is disastrous regardless of who’s doing it.”

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What Do I Do?

  

Rabbi Jillian officiating at a wedding

Hi, I’m Rabbi Jillian Cameron, the director of InterfaithFamily/Boston. While many people have at least some idea of what a rabbi in a synagogue does, my work might seem a bit more mysterious; I thought I’d provide some clarity, in case what I do could coincide with your work or your life.

InterfaithFamily is a national organization dedicated to connecting interfaith couples and families to Jewish life in whatever way is comfortable.

Right off the bat, you might be wondering how we define “interfaith.” Well, for our work, “interfaith” means a couple or family where one person identifies as Jewish and one person identifies as something other than Jewish. As you might imagine, there are a lot of different combinations this loose definition can make, from families who are very connected to their respective religions, to couples who struggle with their connection to religion, to everything and anything in between.

Of course, this adds a complication because not everyone likes and identifies with the term “interfaith.” I often use the words “intercultural,” “multi-faith” and “diverse,” among several more, just in case those better align with a couple’s identity.

When all is said and done, no matter how a couple or family might define themselves, if they are interested in exploring any facet of Judaism, from just dipping in a toe, to jumping in completely, it is my job and my passion to help them find a way in.

One of the best parts of my work is listening to everyone’s stories—I mean everyone, from children of intermarriage, to the couple themselves, to their parents or grandparents, extended family and even friends. While interfaith families and couples are often viewed through the lens of statistics, I have found there is such beautiful and significant diversity in each personal journey and story. So I listen, informally compiling this important narrative of the Boston Jewish community, and then I try to help, using all my resources: knowledge of all that exists here in Boston that could be of interest, welcoming communities, events that coincide with existing interests, other Jewish professionals and organizations who are creating amazing things, classes to take and more.

Sometimes what a couple needs is just to talk to me, to work through questions they have individually and as a couple about the role of religion in their lives, as they are thinking about moving in together, or are getting married, having children, dealing with loss or great joys. Sometimes interfaith couples are interested in finding other similar couples to talk with, hear how they have made decisions and perhaps not feel like they are the only ones like them out there. This is why I created InterfaithFamily/Boston’s Coffee & Conversation, a once-a-month informal gathering for interfaith couples at Boston’s best coffee shops. (For our next date and location, click here.)

Other times, a couple or family is looking for a rabbi to officiate at a lifecycle event. Helping to connect the right rabbi with a couple or family is another piece of my work. InterfaithFamily has a national clergy referral service, providing information for interfaith-friendly Jewish clergy around the country. In Boston, sometimes it’s me, but there are a wealth of local rabbis and cantors who are proudly on our list and who create incredibly meaningful lifecycle moments for so many interfaith families and couples. While you’re on our website, you can also check out the plethora of resources we have, like guides for lifecycles and holidays, and a whole host of stories from people we have encountered since our creation in 2002.

The Boston Jewish community is a special one, both in its makeup and offerings. Organizations and professionals work together, support each other and create incredible things in partnership. I work to create interesting, fun, creative and intellectual programming with any number of other Jewish organizations, as well as help those same organizations think more deeply about the diverse population that might walk through their door. I want the Jewish community to continue to be innovative, relevant and welcoming and engaging to all.

I love being a rabbi and I especially love being a rabbi who works at InterfaithFamily in Boston. If I’ve piqued your interest, if you would like to hear more about what we do, if you want to tell me your story, if you want to explore Judaism, if you’re looking for a good cup of coffee and a good listener, I’m here and more than happy to help in whatever way I can.

You can find me on our website or Facebook group, or reach out to me via email.

Reprinted with permission from JewishBoston.com

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Remembering Jonathan Woocher

  

Jonathan Woocher

This post originally appeared on www.edumundcase.com and is reprinted with permission.

Editor’s note: InterfaithFamily is heartbroken over the recent loss of longtime supporter Jonathan Woocher. He made an incredible and lasting impact on our organization and the greater Jewish community for which we are forever grateful.

The Jewish world has lost a truly remarkable leader with the death of Jonathan Woocher on July 7. Many tributes and memories can be found on Jon’s Facebook page, a statement from the Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah which he led and more recently served as Senior Fellow, a JTA story in the Forward, a statement from the Jewish Federations of North America, on eJewishPhilanthropy, and more.

In addition to being one of the smartest and most enlightened thinkers in the Jewish world, what stood out most about Jon Woocher to me was how kind and supportive he was, of me personally, and of the work of InterfaithFamily. Looking through my old email I find that as early as 2005, when I asked Jon for help to make IFF’s first new hire since it was founded in 2002, he said “very nice – kol hakavod” and had helpful suggestions to offer, as he did several times over the years in connection with other hires and potential funders and partners.

Jon replied to one of our regular updates in 2008 with “incredibly impressive” and again, what must have been a favorite phrase, “kol hakavod.” When we launched InterfaithFamily/Chicago in 2011 as our first direct service, on-the-ground operation, Jon said “Wow!  This is great news. Mazal tov and yasher koach. I look forward to seeing this initiative unfold.” In response to a 2014 report from Jodi Bromberg, Jon said “What an exciting report. Kol hakavod to you, Ed, and the staff and Board for continuing to build on IFF’s solid base. It’s gratifying to see how many communities are now recognizing the valuable contribution IFF can make on the ground locally.”

All of this encouragement might not seem particularly special, as many people have commented on how supportive Jon was to them. But the difference is that the cause of engaging interfaith families Jewishly has not been a popular one. I often felt I was knocking my head against walls. Support from Jon Woocher, such a highly regarded scholar and professional, meant a great deal to me – it inspired me to keep working to advance the issue. And when the issue finally started to get more positive attention, Jon was there to help, gracing the October 2016 Interfaith Opportunity Summit as a panelist.

In 2015 when a group of leaders issued their Statement on Jewish Vitality, J.J. Goldberg wrote in the Forward that the two main criticisms (though for different reasons) were from me and from Jon. I told Jon I felt that I had been elevated into really good company. In his typical humble way, he said he liked the company he was in, too – but truly I was the one who was honored to be mentioned along with him.

My recollection is that the first time I ever spoke to Jon, he mentioned that his wife Sherry thought highly of InterfaithFamily’s content and used it in her own work. I am sending my very sincere condolences and sympathy to Sherry and her family on their terrible loss.

Postscript July 11: You can read Joe Kanfer’s incredibly meaningful eulogy here.

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The Flip-Side: Positive News About Intermarriage

  

Positive News

This post originally appeared on www.edumundcase.com and is reprinted with permission.

Alongside the negative comment about officiation in the Conservative world, there has been some positive commentary and news about officiation and interfaith marriage.

Leave it to Rabbi Keara Stein, director of InterfaithFamily/Los Angeles, to provide much-needed perspective on how rabbis asked to officiate are actually helping interfaith couples.

Naomi Schaefer Riley has an interesting take on the Conservative debate, focusing on the B’nai Jeshurun decision to officiate if the couples promise to raise their children Jewish. Echoing Keara Stein, she says

If there’s one thing that drives intermarried couples around the bend, it’s the fact that the same rabbis who refuse to marry them because one spouse isn’t Jewish will turn around a few years later and push them to send their children to the synagogue preschool. In my interviews [for her book on interfaith couples], this practice is commonly labeled “hypocritical” by those affected by it.

Riley makes the interesting observation that the Catholic church used to require the non-Catholic spouse to promise to raise children Catholic, but decided it couldn’t in good conscience make that request, and changed its policy. She says that Jewish leaders “have no standing to demand that a non-Jewish spouse do anything at all.” Despite that, Riley does think the B’nai Jeshurun policy will lead interfaith couples to have an important discussion before they marry about how they will raise future children.

In my view, one of the most important things Jewish communities can do to engage interfaith couples – after ensuring that they can have a positive experience finding a rabbi to officiate at their wedding – is to foster just those kinds of discussions in groups or meet-ups for interfaith couples. So I was pleased to see, in the midst of all the debate about officiation, an excellent article in the Boston Globe about Honeymoon Israel, an excellent program that fosters those kinds of discussions within the context of a heavily-subsidized trip to Israel. The article quotes Avi Rubel, co-founder, as viewing interfaith marriages not as a loss – “It’s not a minus one, it’s a plus one.”

Rubel says Honeymoon Israel’s goal is not to convert couples or convince them to raise Jewish children, but “to empower the couples who go on the trip to question those things.” Sixty percent of the couples who take the trip are interfaith, including the author of the article, who writes that a few months after the trip, her group “had settled into a pattern of Friday evening Shabbat dinners with our new friends.” This is very important. It shows what’s possible when interfaith couples are welcomed with positivity and trusted to work out their prospective Jewish engagement with other interfaith couples.

After officiation and discussion groups often come interfaith families with young children – and there’s positive news from PJ Library, one of the most important Jewish engagement programs ever. PJ commissioned an evaluation of its impact on families based on 25,270 responses to a survey, and 45 interviews. They highlight that 28 percent of the families receiving PJ books and materials are interfaith families and that interfaith families report even more favorable influence than families that are solely Jewish – for example, 89 percent of interfaith families say PJ has influenced their decision to learn more about Judaism, compared to 67 percent of families that are solely Jewish. The evaluation includes selected quotes from respondents; several highlight interfaith families, including one that explains how the books help the parent from a different faith tradition learn about Judaism. It is refreshing to read an evaluation report that says it is “exciting” to see interfaith families reporting enjoyment and use of the books equally or more than the aggregate.

One of the report’s conclusions is that “there is room to grow the program among … intermarried families” and that PJ needs to expand efforts to reach more of the less-connected, less-affiliated families. I very much hope that PJ does that. It’s interesting that PJ’s influence is greater within the home; other studies have found that interfaith families are more comfortable engaging in Jewish life at home with their family than in more public, organized settings. The report notes that PJ traditionally has reached families through organized institutions such as synagogues, Federations, or JCC’s; that’s not where interfaith families tend to be. The report notes that interfaith families tend to have a lower level of Jewish engagement than families that are solely Jewish; their scale of Jewish engagement awards points for having children in several Jewish education sessions, belonging to or participating in a synagogue, donating to a Jewish charity, having mostly Jewish friends, and feeling it very important to be part of a Jewish community; again, these are factors favoring Jewish engagement in public settings.

The report also contains a seed of explanation as to why interfaith families are less engaged. While some families want to see more diversity in the types of families represented in the books – with one quote from a respondent explicitly saying “more cultural books… more related towards interfaith-style families would be amazing” – other families do not want this type of diversity, with one quote saying “We value traditional values and have had to screen some of the books out as not appropriate for our children.” It’s very clear to me that the continuing negative attitudes many Jews express about interfaith marriages are related to interfaith families’ lesser Jewish engagement, in both public settings and at home. But I applaud PJ Library’s efforts which over time can lead to a change in that dynamic.

After young interfaith families often come b’nai mitvah, and the Arizona Jewish Post has a very sweet story about two families’ wonderful experiences at Temple Emanu-El in Tucson. One family had a father and son bar mitzvah – the father’s mother was not Jewish, he was raised Jewish but didn’t have a bar mitzvah, he and his son converted before the bar mitzvahs “to confirm their identity.” The father’s wife/boy’s mother is not Jewish but experienced Judaism to be welcoming; the father says without her support, he wouldn’t have been able to do it. The other family included a Jewish mother from the FSU, married to a man named Bernstein who had a Jewish father but was raised Catholic; the father says, “I’m still Catholic, but I love being a member of Temple Emanu-El. I’m Jewish culturally and by identity. That works.” The son says, “The tradition was in my family, but it got lost. There was this connection with Judaism that was renewed when I had my bar mitzvah.” One more proof of what’s possible and positive when interfaith families are embraced.

That interfaith marriage is an inexorable worldwide phenomenon is again confirmed in a fascinating episode on interfaith marriage on the BBC radio show “All Things Considered.” The four panelists include Rabbi Jonathan Romain, who has been one of the most progressive rabbis on interfaith family issues in the U.K., a Christian woman married to a Jew who started an interfaith family network, an imam and a minister. Among other things, Rabbi Romain said that 50 percent of U.K. Jews are now in interfaith marriages, and that more U.K. Reform and Liberal rabbis are starting to officiate at weddings for interfaith couples – as recently as two years ago, as far as I know only two Reform rabbis were willing to do so. The minister made a great point about people from other than Christian traditions celebrating Christmas – for them it can celebrate peace and good will to all, not Jesus’ divinity.

Finally, the new rabbi at Montreal’s Dorshei Emet, reportedly one of the few if not the only Reconstructionist congregations where interfaith weddings are not done, comes with experience officiating for interfaith couples and “makes the case that such marriages can be beneficial to the Jewish community, even when no commitment to later conversion is made by the non-Jewish partner.” And Keren McGinity persuasively presents the need for Jewish professionals to study interfaith marriage.

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Why Facebook’s New Mission Is Good for Jewish Community

  

Friends

Mark Zuckerberg recently announced that he is changing the mission of Facebook. He cares less about helping people count how many friends they have and more about helping people feel interconnected in communities. Exactly! This is the work of rabbis too!

As I approach my last week as Director of InterfaithFamily/Chicago, I continue to think about the idea of Jewish community. Over the past six years, I have spent countless hours sitting with couples planning their weddings (and talking about their hopes for their marriages) at Starbucks. We have conversations about how they want to raise children (those who want children) in terms of religion, culture and traditions coming from two different backgrounds. These conversations have been the joy of my rabbinate.

When couples shared their stories, they would start to remind me of one another. I was then able to play matchmaker! I could connect the couple planning a Jewish-Muslim wedding with someone who had done it the summer before. I could connect newbie couples with more seasoned interfaith families for mentoring (If you would like to be paired with a mentor, email Judy Jury, Director of Special Projects). I have recently discovered a group of men who didn’t grow up with Judaism who are expert challah bakers. I can’t wait to bring them together for a kick-ass challah baking session. If you think you fit into this category or would like to, be in touch!

Over the years, couples and families have asked if they can join “my community.” It’s been a struggle at IFF to figure out if we are a community. We have been hesitant to own that label. Our approach has been to usher people, with lots of support, into existing communities and congregations and to one another.

Each of the IFF communities (see—there I go with THAT word) has a Facebook group so that local professionals can share upcoming events and opportunities, so that the IFF staff can share articles and content of interest and so that interfaith families can ask questions and support one another. There isn’t always the level of engagement in the group in Chicago that I had hoped for. I think part of that is that being “interfaith” isn’t the main identity or the way people are thinking of themselves day in and day out. It sure feels salient when planning a wedding, or wondering about a bris, baby naming and/or baptism, but interfaith families often have other main interests.

I am a member of a few Facebook groups that get unbelievable traction and I think it’s because they represent such important parts of our lives. Like parents of children with ADHD need to discuss with each other medication and therapies. Other parents living this reality get each other on a deep and immediate level. I find oftentimes that the people in the group share a major facet of their lives in common but are extremely diverse other than that. In addition, we are part of many different groups, generally, that represent all the different identities we carry with us.

Zuckerberg believes that the world will need to connect better in order to take on international problems such as climate change. He is promoting Facebook groups and making them easier to manage because, as he says, “In order to get there, you need to build a world where every person has a sense of support and purpose in their life so they don’t just focus narrowly on what’s going on in their lives, but can think about these broader issues as well.”

As a Rabbi who has been labeled a “community rabbi” (meaning that I am not a pulpit rabbi) as part of IFF/Chicago, I am often derided by other rabbis for offering Judaism outside of community—meaning synagogue. It’s ironic, I know. And, I’m not sure who my community is exactly.

The other reason I cringe when even saying the phrase “Jewish community” is because it feels exclusive and leaves people out. We’re not a community of only Jews. How do we encompass all people who are gathered because of Judaism and are themselves diverse?

I wasn’t able to keep the amazing people who came into my life through this work as a cohesive community. And I have been unsure how to even talk about Jewish community with an interfaith lens. This has brought me to the question of whether Judaism could be practiced without a focus on community?

For non-Orthodox families, our expression and practice of Judaism doesn’t lend itself easily to community. We don’t necessarily live near each other or see each other because of our Judaism. Congregational rabbis try to encourage people to bond and offer lots of opportunities for people to get to know one another. However, lifecycle events from bar/bat mitzvahs to shivas still tend to be private (meaning our friends and family come), not necessarily the people from the synagogue.

But I think about the prayer, Eilu Devarim: “These are The Things” we do in life as people connected to Judaism. The things we are supposed to do are: visiting the sick, praying in a group, studying with others, rejoicing with wedding parties, consoling the bereaved…all acts that involve PEOPLE.

I’ve come to realize that even though I can’t easily describe what community is, Judaism is supposed to be done with community. You can’t do most of these things with a rabbi at a Starbucks. You can’t do these things with just your family at your kitchen table. However, just belonging to a synagogue doesn’t mean you’re automatically doing these things either.

So, we know it’s hard to talk about “the Jewish community” as if it’s one entity you can point to, which is tangible and over there somewhere to be joined. Yet, we know we need community in order to live Jewishly. So, we’re going to have to rethink our language to catch up with our reality.

What we do have is micro-communities, like what I think we can provide through InterfaithFamily. These should be supported and honored. And while we need other people with whom to do Jewish things, many of us are yearning for these smaller groups and for one-on-one individualized support from someone who knows us. That’s why my work with InterfaithFamily has felt so meaningful.

So much of life seems one-size-fits-most. We’re wearing the same workout clothes and driving the same cars and ordering the same coffees and buying our kids the same fidget spinners, and there is familiarity in that. We belong. We are not alone. Yet, we also want to be seen as individuals under all of that sameness.

I imagine that while I am at this coffee shop with someone talking about how to navigate a discussion with our kids about death, there is a rabbi not far away meeting with a couple in her office that wants to join her congregation. Meanwhile, a couple is hosting their first ever Shabbat dinner (ask your IFF/Community about this—we’ll pay for it!). Their friends are on the floor around their coffee table because there aren’t enough chairs and they are laughing and enjoying their meal. We’re all in an interconnected web of people trying to connect and see each other and find meaning.

There are certain words that are hard to define. We use them, but when pressed to say what we really mean, we’re not so sure and so we speak in broad generalities. Community is sure one of those words. Yet, our communities are the web that connects our humanity and our Judaism.

I’ll miss you as the InterfaithFamily/Chicago director. Stay in touch.

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The Jewish Wedding Now

  

This post originally appeared on www.edumundcase.com and is reprinted with permission.

I don’t have any weddings in sight – my children are married and I’ve been married for 43 years myself. Nevertheless, I loved reading Anita Diamant’s The Jewish Wedding Now.

I’m most interested of course in interfaith couples, and highly recommend The New Jewish Wedding to them and their families too, because the book clearly is written with you in mind.

Describing changes over time, Diamant says “the huppah, the wedding canopy, has become a very large tent, open to Jews of all descriptions and denominations… and people from different faith traditions. The status and validity of some of these weddings is the subject of intense debate – par for the course in all things Jewish – but this edition reflects the facts on the ground.” She explains that there is no chapter devoted to interfaith couples because the book “is a menu for all who wish to include meaningful Jewish choices as they plan their ceremony and celebration; choices that are the same for everyone.”

That’s the overall tone Diamant takes toward interfaith couples – intermarriage is happening, interfaith couples are welcome to make the same Jewish choices as everyone. To those who say the presence of interfaith couples under the chuppah is a threat to Jewish tradition, she says “the countervailing tradition of adaptability is the reason why Judaism has survived and thrived.” The addition of new faces under the chuppah, she says, are “a healthy infusion of living waters, mayyim hayyim, and another chapter in a long, lively, disputatious history.”

If you stop to think about it, given that many in the Jewish community would not recognize a wedding of an interfaith couple as a Jewish wedding, it is quite remarkable that a prominent author revising a book about Jewish weddings for the third time would so matter-of-factly and explicitly help interfaith couples design their own Jewish weddings.

When I first read that there was no special chapter for interfaith couples, I was concerned, unnecessarily as it turned out, that the special considerations that interfaith couples do indeed have would not be addressed. To the contrary, in a few pages under the title “Non-Jews under the Huppah,” Diamant succinctly addresses the history of attitudes toward intermarriage, states that now “intermarriage is the communal norm” (I strongly agree), discusses some of the questions interfaith couples encounter, and says “Couples who can talk about religion before their weddings are much better prepared to handle knottier questions later on” (I strongly agree). She also addresses ways to inform relatives from different faith traditions about what will be happening, and ways to include them in the wedding ceremony. I love how she casually mentions the presence of other traditions, when she talks about including phrases written in Chinese or Hindi on wedding invitations, translations of interfaith ketubot into Spanish and Japanese, and chuppot made from Scottish tartan or African textile.

I love that she talks about the phenomenon of couples having friends ordained for the day to officiate at their weddings, but gently says “you need a rabbi” to create a Jewish wedding. I love that Diamant encourages interfaith couples to find a compatible rabbi to officiate at their weddings, describing some of the rejection they may encounter and resources available to help them.

As Diamant says, debate is par for the course in all things Jewish. I don’t agree with Diamant saying that the term “interfaith is only appropriate if the non-Jewish partner has an ongoing connection to another religion and wants that tradition reflected in the wedding ceremony and in married life.” As I’ve said before, “interfaith” today doesn’t mean anything about religious practice, that couples are practicing two faiths, or one and none; it just means they come from different faith traditions. I also try not to use the term “non-Jew” because people don’t define themselves as “nons” and would have preferred to see the admittedly ungainly phrase, “partner from a different faith tradition” throughout the book.

Moreover, a not insignificant proportion of interfaith couples are looking for rabbis to co-officiate their weddings with clergy from other religious traditions; The Jewish Wedding Now is, I believe, silent about that phenomenon. As I noted above, the book is extremely informative about Jewish wedding traditions, with parts appealing perhaps more to those interested in more traditional ceremonies. I would have liked to see a nod to couples looking for co-officiation – something like, “This is a book about Jewish weddings, not really about weddings that are conducted in Jewish and other traditions, although you can find elements of Jewish weddings in it that you might incorporate in such a wedding.”

It’s a tribute to The Jewish Wedding Now that it would in fact be informative and helpful to the whole range of interfaith couples planning a wedding and wanting their wedding to include Jewish traditions, and it’s written in a way that makes those traditions accessible and inviting to interfaith couples.

Stay tuned for InterfaithFamily’s Facebook Live with Anita Diamant. Follow us on Facebook here.

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