IFF in the NY Times

It’s the first week of December which means only one thing: TV shows and newspapers are flooded with stories on the “December dilemma.”

Yesterday morning, the Today Show had a segment featuring Jewish-Christian couples and advice from Rev. Sherri Hauser, of Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church, and Rabbi Irwin Kula, best known for his recent book Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life. One of the couples was Mark and Helena McMahon, who we know well from her great work as manager of the Interfaith Connection at the San Francisco Jewish Community Center, an outreach program for interfaith couples. Interestingly, the segment made no mention of that fact. Among the few nuggets of wisdom: “Relationships and faith are living things, so expect them to change” (Hauser) and “Conflict is always an invitation to growing” (Kula).

In today’s New York Times, I was quoted in Julie Scelfo’s A Holiday Medley, Off Key. The article looks at the push-and-pull of holiday celebrations in interfaith couples, paying particular attention to ways in which the holidays can become a competition between partners. Continue reading

Do You Miss the Mistletoe?

In today’s The Virginian-Pilot, Steven G. Vegh has a smart little article about converts to Judaism who miss Christmas.

Interestingly, though, our recent 2007 December Holidays Survey showed that 63 percent of conversionary families plan on participating in Christmas celebrations in some way, although only six percent plan on celebrating in their own home. Half plan to celebrate at the home of relatives. While many converts may miss having Christmas at home, they often continue to celebrate at the home of relatives.

While skeptics may see this as a sign that even conversionary families are “infected” by the Christmas bug, even born-Jewish families are not immune to participating in Christmas. The survey also found that a third of born-Jewish families plan to participate in Christmas celebrations in some way, be it at the home of relatives or friends, at a work function or as part of a public activity. And for what it’s worth, 31 percent plan on watching It’s A Wonderful Life.

Dylan the Jew

In Friday’s post, I said Bob Dylan “grew up as a non-participating Jew.”

Leave it to my friend, the sage of Jewish celebrity trivia, Nate Bloom, to correct my error. Turns out Dylan was quite a bit more Jewishly involved than I thought, according to this email message from Bloom:

Bob’s parents were practicing Jews. A rabbi was brought in at his parents’ expense to the cold “Iron Range” to tutor him for his bar mitzvah. He had a bar mitzvah. He was sent to Jewish summer camp in Wisconsin (Camp Herzl)Bob’s kids with his Jewish ex-wife were all bar/bat mitzvah–with one exception. That’s a lot more practicing than half of American Jews.

The one exception is a child he fathered with a black back-up singer, a religious Christian, he secretly married and stayed married to for a few years in the ’80s.

His Chabad thing, in terms of close contact, ended in the late ’80s–although each year he goes to a Chabad synagogue near where he is on Yom Kippur and goes to the service.

Bottom line on Bob’s beliefs: he is clearly somewhat obsessed by religion. Some people make a plausible case that he has never given up being a Christian–based on the songs he plays–etc. But that he got turned off to organized Christianity. The bottom line is that nobody will probably ever know–he’ll probably go to his grave keeping his innermost beliefs to himself. And I don’t think he will really care if a rabbi presides at his funeral–no matter what he thinks about Jesus on his deathbed.

The Link Sink

So I have to apologize for the long layoff. Thanksgiving, combined with site overhaul business and preparing our report on the 2007 December holidays survey, has kept me away from the blogosphere for several weeks. I make no promises of a return to daily blogging until 2008, but here’s a grab bag of goodies that have been collecting in recent weeks:

Perhaps this is obvious, but living in Jackson Heights is a lot like being intermarried. In many ways, these situations make it much harder to live a Jewish life–I can’t be Jewish by osmosis or accident. But they also mean that I don’t take Judaism for granted, that I am often more conscious of my Jewish identity and more motivated to seek out Jewish things.

The second discusses how Jewish outreach to the intermarried needs to improve. The Jewish community offers outreach to the intermarried on the assumption that their intermarriage is a “problem.” But the intermarried families themselves rarely see their relationship as a problem. Like everyone else, they respond to activities and communities that fit their needs, that are fun, that are convenient:

[Activities] have to inspire and educate–or at least entertain. And that’s a tall order for any nonprofit institution, particularly those–like most synagogues–run primarily by overextended (and often elderly) volunteers without much of a budget at their disposal.

  • A blog post by another friend, Hannah Farber of Jewish Funds for Justice, reflects on Joelle Berman’s (yes, she is also a friend. Aren’t I popular?) essay for Reform Judaism magazine on being the proudly Jewish child of an interfaith marriage. In the essay Berman relates her shock the first time she was told that she wasn’t Jewish because her mom’s not. Like Berman, Farber is the child of a non-Jewish mother and grew up in the Reform movement. But unlike Berman, she is a bit annoyed that nobody in the movement ever told her that other parts of the Jewish community wouldn’t see her as Jewish; she feels that she wasn’t given the proper tools to counter Conservative and Orthodox Jews’ claims. She feels that she was unnecessarily sheltered, not unlike Haredi Jews who express profound culture shock when entering the secular world.
  • I’m a huge Dylan fan, so my interest is piqued by the new movie I’m Not There, a strange biography of Dylan that stars six actors as Dylan–including Cate Blanchett and a black teenage actor, Marcus Carl Franklin. The approach makes sense for an artist as inscrutable and shape-shifting as Dylan. Even his religious journey has been bizarre: he grew up as a non-participating Jew, became an evangelical Christian during the ’70s and has recently been reported to be fraternizing with Chabad. The movie is directed by Todd Haynes, whose mother was Jewish. In the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, he has a number of interesting things to say to George Robinson about his own Jewishness–and Dylan’s.

Rabbis, Weddings and Churches

This summer, we began asking wedding couples, through a follow up questionaire, if our rabbinic and cantorial referrals were helpful for their weddings.  One of our goals in providing this referral service, and the follow up questionnaire, is to help foster connection between interfaith couples and the Jewish clergy who officiate at their weddings.  We hope that the rabbis and cantors we refer are welcoming and help foster a greater connection between the couple, their wedding ceremony, and other Jewish choices they may make in their journey as a family.  And with every response to our six-month follow-up with the couples, we learn a little more about who is using this service and what their real needs are.

With a sample of responses in, here are some of my unscientific findings thus far.  It appears that more and more couples are requesting holding wedding ceremonies before the end of the Jewish Sabbath on Saturday night.  Almost half of our requests for referrals ask for Saturday weddings.  Many more than before are planning a wedding with a co-officiant of another faith, and several have asked for rabbis or cantors who will officiate in a church.  It seems that the spectrum of what interfaith couples are seeking for wedding ceremonies is expanding.  The ceremonies now range from traditional Jewish ceremonies, with all the ritual, traditions and Hebrew to ceremonies where the Jewish officiant is offering a prayer or blessing, maybe a glass is smashed, and the wedding is in a church.

Continue reading

The Revolutionary Generation

Reform Judaism Magazine Winter 2007

Reform Judaism Magazine’s winter 2007 issue looks at the so-called “outreach revolution” through the eyes of children of interfaith households and their parents. The term “outreach revolution” is never precisely defined but I assume it is referring to the gradual change in the atmosphere, programming, outreach and membership of Reform synagogues that has changed the movement to the point that a near-majority of its members are from interfaith families. Given that the change did not happen abruptly, and significant outreach programming didn’t start until the early ’80s, it hardly qualifies as a “revolution”–more of an “evolution” really–but what’s an extra r between friends?

The issue has a nice symmetrical feel to it. It includes perspectives from three children of interfaith marriages as well as essays from the non-Jewish parent of each child. Lucas McMahon, a 17-year-old from Marblehead, Mass., talks about what it’s like to have red hair, green eyes and be Jewish and how his mother initially didn’t invite his Catholic grandmother to his bar mitzvah–only to be rebuked by grandma, who said, “Of course I am going to come… I would not miss this for the world.” Meanwhile, Lucas’ father Tim recounts his and his wife’s decision to raise their children Jewish:

In the end our decision to raise our children as Jews came out of a simple realization: I would be more comfortable having my children be Jewish than Mindy would be having hers be Catholic. If we tried to debate which religion was “better” we would have failed.

Continue reading

The Jewish Al Sharpton

I was going to write about Reform Judaism magazine’s impressive package of articles on outreach, but I felt the need to respond to the latest instance of Abe Foxman-related controversy.

In the most recent issue of The (Boston) Jewish Advocate, Raphael Kohan reports on Boston Jewish leaders’ reaction to Abe Foxman’s Oct. 24 Q&A with JTA’s Ami Eden. In that Q&A Foxman discusses, among other issues, his position on the pending Congressional resolution calling the Turkish expulsion of Armenians in 1915-17 a genocide, and the Boston Jewish community’s reaction to his position. In the Q&A, Foxman is critical of Boston Jewish leaders’ support of the resolution, saying “What I didn’t realize was to what extent the American Jewish community has reversed Hillel [referring to Rabbi Hillel's famous quote, "If I am only for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I?"], or at least in Boston and Massachusetts.” He directly calls out Combined Jewish Philanthropies President Barry Shrage and Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston Executive Director Nancy K. Kaufman: “The last thing we need now is for Barry Shrage and Nancy Kaufman to be fighting us.”

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From Hanukkah to Christmas… and Back

Jessica Ravitz of the St. Lake Tribune wrote an entertaining, insightful essay on the wonders and worries of being a child of an interfaith household late last month–and all in under 800 words.

When my Jewish parents split up, I was at an age when I would have sooner shoved tinsel in my mouth than throw it on a tree. It was before I could scream, “Merry Christmas!” With the arrival of my Protestant stepfather, I learned how. 

I was no dummy. Even at 5, I knew Hanukkah didn’t hold a candle, let alone eight of them, to Christmas. I reveled in the holiday cheer, tried not to break too many ornaments and carefully hung my stocking. One look at the loot under our tree and I knew I’d hit the jackpot.

While celebrating both traditions–or at least the “biggie” holidays from both traditions–was a boon to her toychest, she received little spiritual nourishment. Her family “bypassed God altogether,” a typical modern liberal response to the problem of religion (and this holds for inmarried as well as intermarried families). That may have made for peace at home, but it meant she felt like an outsider in the Jewish community.

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Do Children of Intermarriage Do Worse?

That’s the question posed by a study published in the September 2007 issue of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, reports Christianity Today:

The authors noted studies confirming positive effects of religious participation on the lives of children in the form of higher self-esteem, overall satisfaction, higher grades, and reduced usage of drugs and alcohol. Given the likelihood that mixed-faith marriages would tend to reduce religious participation and cause marital conflict, the authors hypothesized that children would be negatively impacted by these marriages.

The study produced surprising results. Children of religiously unmatched parents did not manifest lower grades, lower self-esteem, or lower satisfaction. But they were far more likely to use marijuana and engage in underage drinking.

Hunter Baker of Christianity Today interviewed Richard Petts, the Ph.D. student at Ohio State who co-authored the study. I can’t tell for certain–the study is subscription-only–but the tenor of the interview suggests that the study looked at mixed-faith marriages among different Christian groups rather than Jewish-Christian intermarriages.

Continue reading

JOI Announces Outreach Coalition

At its oversubscribed conference in Washington, D.C., earlier this week, the Jewish Outreach Institute announced the creation of a national directory of Jewish organizations committed to reaching out to the unaffiliated, including the intermarried, gays and lesbians and converts. Called “The Big Tent Coalition,” the online directory will list organizations that are friendly to the unaffiliated as well as provide a space for organizations to share resources, provide organizations with a “stamp of approval” from JOI and give individuals a place to find outreach-friendly organizations.

Much of this is similar to our own Connections in Your Area system, which also allows interfaith-friendly organizations to sign up and individuals to search for organizations. But the addition of JOI’s coalition to the field is laudable nonetheless.

I unfortunately had to back out of the conference at the last minute because we are putting the finishing touches on a redesigned website that will launch on Thursday, Oct. 25. That’s why I’ve been MIA from blogging the last few weeks, and why I will probably blog little again until the relaunch. There will be some exciting new features of the site as it rolls out, and I will keep you updated.