Patrilineal Jew Seeks Conversion

While IFF ascribes to the Reform notion that behavior, not being born of a Jewish mother, is the most important signifier of Jewish identity, we understand that large sections of the Jewish community don’t agree. Sue Fishkoff of JTA wrote two stories last week about patrilineal Jews–that is, Jewish-identifying people with a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother–who seek to “convert” under Conservative auspices so that nobody questions their Jewishness.

Judging from the article, many Conservative rabbis are quite sympathetic to these people and refer to their ritual immersion in a mikvah not as a “conversion,” but as an “affirmation” or “completion.”

Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the rabbinic arm of the Conservative movement, says they are most often people who “grew up very involved with Judaism and the Jewish people, who think of themselves as Jewish.”

As a result, he says, “we try very hard, with great sensitivity and compassion, to work with them.”

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IFF in New York Times

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I was going to write about some other things today–namely, a new JTA article on the conversion of patrilineal Jews–but when your organization gets mentioned in the New York Times, everything else becomes a second priority.

Sam Freedman, author of Jew vs. Jew, wrote a column about an interfaith couple where both partners are committed to their religion, and the difficulties they face during Passover and Easter. Freedman argues, not entirely convincingly, that for religious couples, the Passover-Easter conflict is greater than the “December Dilemma”:

The religious aspects of Christmas and Hanukkah were long ago buried under commercialism and seasonal festivity. Passover and Easter remain deeply theological in ways that underscore both the nearness and distance between Judaism and Christianity.

On the one hand, Jesus came into Jerusalem for Passover, and the Last Supper with the disciples was a seder; the wafer in communion harks back to the Jewish holiday’s matzo. On the other hand, beyond celebrating Jesus’ divinity, Easter has historically been the occasion for anti-Semitic passion plays and pogroms, motivated by the belief that the Jews killed Jesus.

It’s a good theory, but I have a hard time imagining any more than a few interfaith couples find the Passover-Easter conflict more significant than the Christmas-Hanukkah conflict. Easter may be more religiously significant than Christmas, but Christmas is still the second most important day on the Christian calendar. Hanukkah may not be a major Jewish holiday, but religious Jews celebrate it just as much as secular Jews. Moreover, religious Jews are more acutely aware of the real message of Hanukkah, which celebrates a small band of ideologues who rejected the assimilation of their Jewish countrymen. Passover, at least, provides a more welcoming space for the non-Jewish guest. And religious or not, no couple can get around the month-long onslaught of Christmas-related media that comes out in December. There is no comparable “season” surrounding Passover and Easter. Nonetheless, Passover and Easter can prove a time for conflict and negotiation, as our recent survey revealed.

The Link Sink

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I know you’re supposed to clean house before Passover, but here are some interesting links that have piled up in the last week or two:

  • Tamara Podemski is an unknown in the U.S. but she’s starred on a handful of Canadian TV shows and recorded three albums. Her father is Israeli and her mother is Ojibwa (a native Canadian tribe). She proudly refers to herself as a “fully functional half-breed,” and appears to take great pride in her mixed heritage–which, incidentally, produced a gorgeous woman. For more on here, read this profile in the Canadian Jewish News.
  • An educational publisher agreed to withdraw and destroy the remaining copies of a reference book on Israel after a major Orthodox organization objected to the book’s characterization of Orthodox Jews, according to The (New York) Jewish Week. Agudath Israel of America was upset over a passage in the book that said that “some ultra-Orthodox Jews” want to limit Israel’s Law of Return to exclude Reform and Conservative Jews because “they are not really at all because they are not strict in their observance of all the religious laws.” There’s no question the passage is wrong, but it contains a kernel of truth. It is not uncommon for ultra-Orthodox Jews to ridicule and denigrate more progressive streams of Judaism, especially Reform, because they doesn’t fit their strict definitions of what Judaism is. It also taps into the larger issue over conversions and the fact that Israel’s acceptance of converted Jews is hamstrung by bureaucracy, corruption and political subservience to the Orthodox.
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The Orthodox on Intermarriage

No one expects the Orthodox to be particularly friendly towards interfaith families or intermarriage. Their approach to intermarriage can range from the insulting to the downright vindictive. But every so often a little bit of sense shines through, as in the case of this smart piece from the Canadian Jewish News detailing the religious justification for inviting non-Jewish guests to the seder.

Nowhere in Jewish liturgy are non-Jews barred from attending the seder, and Rabbi Maurice Lamm, an Orthodox rabbi, promotes inviting non-Jews, especially if their family members, because excluding them “will create rancor, even enmity,” according to Rabbi Wayne Allen, a Conservative rabbi in Ontario (In Canada, Conservative is often closer to Modern Orthodox than American Conservative). Plus, says Allen, opening doors to non-Jewish guests is a way of debunking the medieval claims that Jews ate matzah made out of Christian blood.

From our standpoint, Passover may be the best opportunity to involve non-Jews in Jewish life because the seder is by its nature adaptable, and the home is a much less intimidating religious space than the synagogue.