A Center for Afro-Jewish Studies; 100 Years of Intermarriage

File under: The Rising Consciousness of Black Jews.

An African-American Jewish professor of religion has started a center on Afro-Jewish studies at Temple University in Philadelphia. Dr. Lewis Gordon, the son of a Jamaican Jewish mother and a non-Jewish afro-Chinese father, has already presented research at a Jewish studies conference and created an undergraduate course on Afro-Judaism, but in the future he’d like to create a Torah commentary for Africana Jews, do a demographic study of Philadelphia’s black Jewish community and eventually do archaeological digs into African-Jewish history in Africa.

While many of us think of intermarriage as a phenomenon of the last few decades, according to an excerpt from The Forward from 1907 reprinted in a recent issue, mixed marriages are “nothing new.”:

Mixed marriages are all the rage nowadays. We’ve recently received numerous letters from Jewish men and women who have married non-Jews and live their lives quite happily. There’s no point in getting agitated either for or against the phenomenon; the masses always do what they want. They can scream about it all they want in the synagogues and study houses that the Jews will disappear. But is this true? Absolutely not. Throughout their history, Jews have married non-Jews. Even if you go back to the beginning, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob all had gentile wives. So there’s nothing new here.

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What happens after the divorce?

The Cleveland Jewish News has a fascinating story on interfaith divorce titled “After divorce: will the children still be raised Jewish?”

The article looks at three former “interfaith” couples who are now divorced; I use “interfaith” in quotes because two of the couples are conversionary, that is, the non-Jewish partner converted for the sake of the Jewish partner.

In all three cases, an understanding during marriage to raise the children exclusively Jewish appears to have been complicated by the non-Jewish partners’ religious decisions after the divorce. In the two conversionary couples, the converted spouse decided after the divorce to re-adopt Christianity:
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“Keeping the Faith”

Yesterday’s Boston Sunday Globe magazine “Coupling” column by Alison Lobron provides an illuminating perspective on how young adult Jews think about interdating and intermarriage.

Alison describes herself as a “not-very-active Jew” who had no Bat Mitzvah, no Hebrew lessons, and no family tradition of Jewish holidays. After a two-year relationship with a “not-very-active Protestant” on which religion had little impact broke up, friends suggested Alison enter Boston’s lively Jewish social scene.

She relates how the first time she went to services at a synagogue known as a young-adult mixing spot, she felt that she “barely counted as Jewish,” “spent most of the evening searching the prayer book for a nonexistent English translation,” felt lonely when two people assumed she was an out-of-town, non-Jewish guest of someone, and felt that she didn’t have much in common with “people with whom I was supposed to share a culture.”
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The Link Sink

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A few links that have been collecting dust on my desktop:

  • In j, the Jewish news weekly of northern California, Eliyahu Stern, a graduate student in Judaic studies, wonders “Where have all the intellectuals gone?” It’s an elegy for the great rabbinical mind of years past, like Soloveitchik, Kaplan and Heschel–and an indictment of the modern Jewish world, which he feels hasn’t produced minds of a similar caliber and appeal. Even without a deep knowledge of the intellectual scene in each of the movements, I can point to a few names, that love them or hate them, always have provocative ideas and make people think: Dennis Prager, Rabbi Michael Lerner, Rabbi Harold Kushner, Rabbi Elliot Dorff. Like the forebears he mentions in his article, these four all are deeply concerned with the theology, philosophy and practice of Judaism, and each of the four has been in the public spotlight. No doubt there are numerous other names, especially among the Orthodox, that I don’t know. I think Stern is a bit guilty of the “golden days syndrome” where the men of the past always look better, smarter, more honorable than the men of the present. Only time will tell if any of contemporary intellectuals will leave a legacy as powerful as Martin Buber.
  • The (Pittsburgh) Jewish Chronicle has trained its focus recently on issues facing interfaith families. Yesterday I told you about an article they did on interfaith burial options. Here’s a link to a story on interfaith families sending their children to Jewish day schools. And a while back, they did a story on teenage interdating.
  • A nice little piece from the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel got lost in the shuffle among the blizzard of December dilemma pieces toward the end of last year. Called “How Should We Approach Interfaith Marriage?” this Q&A with a rabbi and a minister from the United Church of Christ has some useful nuggets of advice for people who are intermarrying.
  • Interfaith Issues Around the Country

    Many Jewish papers have picked up on JTA’s story on burial options for interfaith families; several have done their own localized version of the story. The (Pittsburgh) Jewish Chronicle’s story, which unfortunately is not on-line, takes a somewhat rosier view of the available options than the JTA story; several cemeteries in the Pittsburgh area allow interfaith burials, although it’s not entirely clear how many or which ones. The Jewish News of Greater Phoenix article focuses on the fact that there are numerous options for interfaith burials in the Phoenix area, including a number that allow for side-by-side burials. And a reporter from the New Jersey Jewish News recently contacted us with interest in doing an article on interfaith burial options in his area.

    In southeastern Virginia, the local federation has stopped offering an outreach program for interfaith families. The Community Interfaith Program had only been around since 2005, but the United Jewish Federation of Tidewater’s executive vice president, Harry Graber, said the program lost steam “because of staffing changes and restructuring by local Jewish organizations,” according to The Virginian-Pilot.

    Further north, in northeastern Pennsylvania, the local federation has started an intermarriage task force that gives interfaith couples a chance to meet and talk once a month. It’s being chaired by Carol Weiss Rubel, the child of an interfaith family who has written for us in the past.

    Black or Jewish?

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    Two interesting articles on black Jews recently caught my attention: one, in American Jewish Life magazine (formerly Atlanta Jewish Life), tells the story of Lacey Schwartz, the daughter of two white Jewish New Yorkers who discovered in college that she was the product of an affair between her mother and a black man; the other, in the New York Times, excerpts a passage from a new book by David Matthews, the child of a Jewish mother he barely knew and a black nationalist father.

    They are two very different people: Lacey appears to have grown up in a stable, privileged home, and didn’t even know of her multiracial background until she was an adult, while Matthews says he “was used to some measure of instability–various apartments, sundry stepmothers and girlfriends” and grappled with his identity from a very young age:

    Nothing prepared me for walking into that public-school classroom, already three weeks into fourth grade. I had never felt so utterly on my own.

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    The Good News

    We were asked a few weeks ago by the j, the Jewish news weekly of northern California, to write a response to this misguided column on the state of American Jewry by Michael Freund.

    Our response is here, and also reprinted below, in its entirety:

    Latest surveys are responsible for good news, not bad

    by Micah Sachs

    It’s amazing how difficult it is for some Jews to accept good news.

    In November, the 2005 Greater Boston Jewish Community Survey was released. It showed an exceptionally high rate of intermarried families in the Boston area—60 percent—were raising their children Jewish, which was nearly double the rate from 1995. The authors of the study, who are some of the most respected demographers of Jewish life in the world, pointed out that these families contributed to a rise in Boston’s Jewish population.

    Since then, it has come to light that several other cities with significant Jewish populations, including Miami, Baltimore and St. Louis, have intermarried populations where the majority are raising their children Jewish. Taken together, these nuggets of positive evidence should have led to a sea change in thinking about intermarriage: What once was perceived as a threat to the size of the Jewish population is now an opportunity.
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    Two Friends

    We had a pretty big week at InterfaithFamily.com last week. As we’ve already mentioned, it’s our fifth anniversary as an independent organization, and the 200th issue of our Web Magazine, and we had great coverage in the New York Jewish Week and the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles. We launched our new User Survey and have already had a big response (you can win an iPod if you take it!), and we revamped our Discussion Boards so that registration isn’t required, and they’re already busier. I was in Los Angeles Monday through Wednesday, speaking at a conference for RAVSAK (the association of Jewish community day schools) and having a series of meetings that are going to result in significant new funding for us. And we had a meeting of InterfaithFamily.com’s Board of Directors on Thursday, with a presentation by Harvard sociologist Chris Winship, the co-chair of CJP’s community survey committee, on the results of the 2005 Boston Jewish Community Survey.

    But something happened Friday night that topped it all.
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    “Jewish parent + Christian parent = Jewish kids”

    Amy Klein has a terrific article in the current edition of the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles that features InterfaithFamily.com and some of our writers. The title, “Jewish parent + Christian parent = Jewish kids,” expresses our organization’s mission better than we’ve been able to do ourselves! Along with Julie Wiener’s (New York) Jewish Week article we mentioned in our last entry, yesterday was a big press celebration of InterfaithFamily.com’s fifth anniversary and 200th Web Magazine issue.

    Black and Jewish; Love for IFF

    The Washington Jewish Week has a lovely article about black Jews in the Washington, D.C. area. It shares anecdotes from a series of black Jews, most of whom are converts. Like the terrific piece we published this summer, Waiting Outside the Promised Land, by Lesley Williams, the article illustrates the subtle racism that black Jews sometimes encounter at synagogues.

    Entering a synagogue can sometimes lead to questions such as “Are you lost?” or directions to the church across the street, says [Shelliyah] Iyomahan, the daughter of parents from Trinidad and Tobago. She was raised as a Sabbatarian one who worships the Sabbath on Saturday before discovering she was halachically Jewish.

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