Conservative day schools to admit children of non-Jewish mothers?

There’s some exciting news from Florida today. According to a JTA story by Sue Fishkoff, the Conservative movement’s Solomon Schechter day schools are considering changing their rules to admit the children of non-Jewish mothers.

It’s not a full sea change in thinking; the schools won’t accept all patrilineals, only those who convert by Bar/Bat Mitzvah age. That’s not the same as the Reform and community day school policy, which accepts children of non-Jewish mothers and Jewish fathers without any conversion conditions.

But it is a very positive development, nonetheless, showing there’s some substance behind United Synagogue Executive Vice President Jerome Epstein’s speech last year announcing a movement-wide initiative to welcome and engage intermarried families.

In Jonathan Tobin’s recent column on the debate over outreach, he set up a dichotomy between inreach and outreach, which is a common tactic of outreach opponents and skeptics. But a development like this collapses the categories; it shows that an exalted form of inreach, the Jewish day school, can also be a form of outreach. It simultaneously socializes Jewish kids together while giving the children of intermarried parents a strong Jewish identity.

We will keep you updated on the progress of this story, because it’s not set in stone that the Solomon Schechter schools will decide on the issue. In March, the former head of the Jewish Theological Seminary, Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, urged the movement’s summer camps to change their policy on patrilineals but no action has been taken.

Sue Fishkoff also wrote a sidebar on how this potential decision would affect Reform and community day schools. The general conclusion? Not much.

Boston University Hillel head on the Boston study

The 2005 Boston Jewish Community Study continues to have legs, showing up in a Dec. 4 story in Boston University’s school newspaper, The Daily Free Press. In it, the reporter, Shari Rabin, quotes and paraphrases quotes from the head of BU’s Hillel House that are so noxious and wrong-headed that I wonder if they’re true. Given that the story claims that Jews make up “one-fifth of the world’s” population, I’m not sure how seriously I should take the following passage:

Rabbi Joseph Polak, the executive director of Boston University’s Hillel House, was skeptical of the survey’s view of Jewish demographics.

“The Jewish community in America is hemorrhaging beyond your wildest imagination,” he said. “We are 50 percent of the number we were in 1960.”

Polak said the population increase includes many Jews whose commitment to the faith is questionable, including the children of Jews and their non-Jewish and converted spouses.

Although he said it is impressive that converts want to join the Jewish community, Polak said he is unsure about how serious they are about passing on the faith.

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Michael Richards, Yossi Beilin and Who’s Jewish?

There’s been an interesting confluence of events over the past several weeks that raise the question, “Who’s Jewish?”

First there was the media firestorm about comedian Michael Richards, the beloved Kramer from the TV show Seinfeld, having made racist comments at an LA comedy club. Other than being horrified as I assume most others were, I didn’t pay much attention to that news blitz, until reports started coming out that Richards’ publicist was saying that Richards considered himself to be Jewish. As reported in the Houston Chronicle, for example, Richards, though not born of Jewish parents and not having converted to Judaism, “believes in the tenets of Judaism and considers himself Jewish.” Other than a first reaction questioning whether it would be a good thing if Richards were Jewish, I didn’t pay much attention to that issue either, until a bloggers’ blitz started up arguing that Richards could not be Jewish if his parents weren’t and he hadn’t converted.

That reminded me that at InterfaithFamily.com we hear many comments, usually from non-Jewish parents who are raising their children as Jews, along the lines of “I feel a little bit Jewish” or “I feel more and more Jewish as time goes by” or “I’m sort-of Jewish, aren’t I?” Rabbi Kerry Olitzky wrote a wonderful article for our Web Magazine, Doing the Conversion “Two-Step”, also included in our book, explaining how many people experience a “conversion of the heart” long before they formally convert, if indeed they ever do.
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Some interfaith celebs

I was talking with Nate Bloom, the world’s premier expert on Jewish celebrities (no joke), the other day, about a new column he will be writing for us on intermarried celebrities and celebrities from interfaith backgrounds, and he tipped me off on two good stories about celebrities with interfaith heritage.

One is Miriam Schor, the Jewishly knowledgeable star of ABC’s new comedy Big Day, which uses the real-time format of 24 to look at the final day before the wedding. Check out this excerpt from a story in the Sept. 2006 issue of the San Diego Jewish Journal (my old employer):

The actress was raised Jewish by the insistence of her non-Jewish mother who had married her Jewish father. “That was odd, but nice. I would not be considered Jewish by some, but I have a different take on religion,” Shor said. “The history of my relatives is as much a part of my belief system as much as someone who sits in a church or synagogue and tells me what I am.”

The other is Jorma Kaukonen, the lead guitarist for Jefferson Airplane, who was born to a Jewish mother and non-Jewish father. His story is a fascinating one; he wasn’t raised with much religion, but when he met a spiritually seeking Catholic woman–and married her–they both began researching Judaism. It eventually led to her conversion and his increased observance. Jacob Berkman’s terrific profile of Kaukonen appeared in the March 9, 2006, issue of the New Jersey Jewish Standard.

What price outreach?

Jonathan Tobin, the editor of Philadelphia’s Jewish Exponent, has written a thoughtful but flawed column on the debate over intermarriage and outreach funding for the Jerusalem Post.

I don’t have a lot of time to respond to his arguments–which are well-thought out and well-argued, as all of Tobin’s writing is–but the essential point seems to be that he fears that all the talk of outreach to intermarried families will overshadow the importance of programs that seek to socialize Jews (such as day schools, Jewish summer camps and birthright israel trips), and the Jewish community will suffer. To his credit, he isn’t against outreach and he feels that the recent survey results from Boston suggest that outreach may be successful. The problem is, he seems to see the message of outreach–and its primary purveyors, like InterfaithFamily.com–as an exclusive one, a message that seeks to denigrate efforts to encourage inmarriage.

For the record, IFF has never denigrated inmarriage, encouraged intermarriage or criticized inreach programs like he discusses. Neither have the Reform movement, the Reconstructionist movement or the Jewish Outreach Institute, which Tobin presumable would include in the “outreach lobby” he refers to.
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What We Learned from Our Third Annual December Holidays Survey, Part II

Yesterday, we published an adapted version of our report on the Third Annual December Holidays Survey. Today, we are publishing the Conclusions section:

The great majority of interfaith couples raising their children as Jews plan on participating in celebrations of both Christmas and Hanukkah.

Some observers of intermarriage have cast a skeptical eye on this trend, arguing that interfaith families can’t raise their children as Jews and celebrate Christmas, but the results of this survey suggest that they can.
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What We Learned from Our 2006 December Holidays Survey, Part I

What follows is the text–minus the tables–from our report on our 2006 December Holidays Survey, which specifically looked at the 342 respondents (out of a population of 759) who told us they were in an interfaith relationship, had children and were raising the children Jewish. Tomorrow we will post the Conclusions section of our report:

Almost all of the respondents expect to participate in Hanukkah celebrations and Christmas celebrations this year: 99 percent expect to participate in Hanukkah celebrations while 89 percent plan to participate in Christmas celebrations.

The great majority of these respondents plan on doing multiple activities relating to the celebration of Hanukkah in their own home. Ninety-nine percent plan to light the menorah and 63 percent plan on telling the Hanukkah story.
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Israel, Philadelphia, Detroit

The Nativity Story, about the events leading up to Jesus’ birth, is coming out on Friday. We’re doing something new with this movie and hopefully others with religious content. We are sending an interfaith couple to see the movie to record their impressions of the movie, in the hope of illuminating how pop culture can mean different things to people of different religious and cultural backgrounds. Look for the review in our web magazine next week.

  • Jewish Agency Chairman Ze’ev Bielski’s comments on the American Jewish future–or lack thereof–continue to resonate in the Israeli press. At the United Jewish Communities General Assembly a few weeks ago, he said, “One day the penny will drop for American Jews and they will realize they have no future as Jews in the US due to assimilation and intermarriage.” Their only option, in his mind, is to emigrate to Israel.

    You might expect an outcry of opposition to such wrong-headed and hurtful comments. But you would be wrong.
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  • A Leaky Tent

    If you read The Jewish Week, you’ve seen Marvin Schick’s ads before. Tucked towards the back, they occupy a horizontal half-page and are all-text (small type) editorials on matters of import in the Jewish community. I rarely read them, but his ad from last week–which is also online on his blog–caught my attention.

    Titled “As We Continue to Widen My Tent,” it is a simultaneous attack on the intermarried and non-traditional notions of Jewish identity. It begins with a lament over the intermarriage statistics first revealed by the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey. He actually is a bit charitable to the intermarried, saying “a great number continued to be involved in a Jewish life,” but he cleverly damns the intermarried by guilt of association:
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    Thanksgiving Leftovers

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    A number of good links came our way over the Thanksgiving holiday:

  • Paul Golin of the Jewish Outreach Institute wrote a fantastic editorial for JTA titled “Intermarriage battle long over.” In it, he argues that the release of the Boston Jewish Community Survey was a “tipping point” in the Jewish world’s debate over intermarriage. “Jewish leaders must recognize what their constituency already understands: We do not live in an ideal Jewish world,” he says. “Not all Jews observe all of the mitzvot. But we don’t kick people out of the Jewish community if they skip a few.”
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