Are Museums The Next Frontier of Outreach?

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On Sept. 30, several hundred people gathered at a construction site at Fifth and Market Streets in Philadelphia to celebrate the groundbreaking on a new $150 million museum devoted to American Jewish history, according to the (Philadelphia) Jewish Exponent.

The National Museum of American Jewish History is just one of several ambitious Jewish museum projects opening around the country in the next few years. In San Francisco, the Contemporary Jewish Museum is reopening this spring in a dramatic 63,000-square-foot structure marked by a giant glass cube pirouetted on one corner. In Boston, plans are afoot for a $40 million New Center for Arts and Culture on the greenway covering the central artery. While nothing in the New Center’s mission explicitly says the museum will be Jewish, all of its previous events have been Jewish-themed and the project was first proposed by the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston and the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Boston.
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The Forgotten 360,000

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When Alex Schindler pioneered outreach in the early ’80s, the focus was on interfaith couples. It was all about getting those who had intermarried to feel welcome in the Jewish community, and feel like the Jewish community was something they wanted to be part of.

But what about their children?

According to the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01, there are 360,000 Jews aged 18 to 29 whose parents are Jewish and something else. While some of these children benefited from the outreach revolution of the ’90s, most did not. Yet the Jewish community’s outreach efforts remain mostly focused on interfaith couples.

The latest cover story for j, the Jewish news weekly of northern California, explores this untapped population of children of interfaith couples. It’s a very diverse population, ranging from children who grew up with no religion, to children who grew up with too much religion, to children who were raised solidly in one faith.
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Intermarriage: Helping Jews Find Their Hotel Since 1970

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Ed Siegel, the Jewish intermarried former theater critic for The Boston Globe, has written an amusing piece for the Globe about interfaith couples. It begins:

I have a theory about intermarriage. I know some people think Judaism is going to die out if Jews keep marrying outside the religion, but if my circle of friends is any indication, there’s a practical, perhaps even evolutionary, reason for Jews to be marrying gentiles. In every relationship I know of, the Jew has the worse sense of direction.

…It’s the same in every relationship, male or female, gay or straight. The gentile looks at the map and says, “This way.” The Jew says, “After you.” Why is this? Did our forebears walk around the desert for 40 years because they couldn’t find their way out? It couldn’t have been that they liked the sights so much.

It’s a funny essay, but its point is less about the distinction between Jews and gentiles–his portraits strike me as a little tongue-in-cheek–than about the way that partners in a couple should complement each others’ strengths. In that way, intermarried partners can be a positive influence on each other because of their different cultural and religious backgrounds.

Interestingly, I think his theory is bogus. I’ve never noticed Jews having an exceptionally poor, or exceptionally good, sense of direction. But that’s why I also think his essay is notable. Even when the stereotypes have no connection to reality, I don’t mind seeing somebody put them in print. We should all be able to laugh out our foibles, whether real or imagined.

Embracing Intermarriage?

Noam Shpancer, the always controversial columnist for The (Columbus, Ohio) New Standard, an undiscovered gem of a Jewish newspaper, has written a new essay sure to stir up the paper’s more traditional readers. It’s titled Nu’ Ma? Let’s embrace intermarriage.

He is for welcoming interfaith families, but for a slightly different, and more radical, reason than typical outreach advocates. He notes that both sides of the intermarriage debate in the Jewish community “agree that protecting Judaism is the superseding goal.” For Shpancer, the value of that goal deserves “critical scrutiny.”

Promoting Judaism is not superior, as a value, to advancing the cause of humanity as a whole. Being a good person is more important then being a good Jew. And it’s hard to deny that intermarriages, with their tendency to foster the intimate knowledge and full humanization of the “other,” embody a more promising future strategy for humanity than the bitter historical legacy of tribal separatism and animosity.

In Shpancer’s eyes, outreach advocates’ rationale is wrong even if their tactics are right. He sees the value of the continuity of any particular culture as ultimately contingent on its serving the greater purpose of bettering humanity. In Shpancer’s view, intermarried couples should be embraced because they promote humanity, not just Judaism. Moreover, the very phenomenon of intermarriage itself–not just already intermarried couples–should be promoted as a way to improve humanity.

If you accept Shpancer’s assumption that the ever-greater intermingling of races, religions and cultures will lead to greater peace and harmony, then his argument is rock-solid. But his universalist humanistic ethics are an ideal, not a reality.

While every religion or ideology may start out innocently as a system of universalist ethics, ultimately that belief system must gain cultural trappings to maintain group cohesion. And group cohesion is not merely a way of sustaining power and excluding the “other” to make insiders feel safe; group cohesion and discipline can help enforce sound moral codes. For all the faults of Islamist regimes, a widespread sense of moral responsibility (both self-enforced and state-enforced) keeps crime low. For whatever reason, humans have yet to be able to embrace a non-exclusive universalist system of ethics. We need cultural specificity and defined boundaries. To promote behaviors that don’t recognize this reality is naive at best and irresponsible at worst.

The Emerging Consensus

Shmuel Rosner, Ha’aretz‘s intrepid American correspondent, has started an ambitious series on American Judaism. The first article, Reaching Out to Interfaith Families, focuses on intermarriage through the microcosm of Boston. It’s an appropriate starting point. We are based just outside Boston, in Newton, and the 2005 demographic study of Jewish Boston released last year showed that 60% of interfaith couples were raising their children Jewish. More recently, Noah Feldman, a Harvard law professor, rankled traditional Jews everywhere with his critique of Modern Orthodox attitudes toward intermarriage, The Orthodox Paradox.

While in Boston, Ed Case and I met with Rosner and we had a very interesting debate. Rosner argues that there is an “emerging consensus” on intermarriage in the American Jewish community. While many leaders remain uncomfortable with intermarriage, there is a widespread acceptance that “intermarriage must be accepted and interfaith couples embraced,” according to Rosner. Ed didn’t completely agree. I argued that the statement should be amended: in non-Orthodox Jewish communities (synagogues, JCCs, etc.), there is a near-unanimous acceptance and embrace of interfaith families, but the leadership is much more ambivalent. That ambivalence can be measured by the paltry sums given to outreach to interfaith families.

I think Rosner’s new series is particularly significant for non-American, particularly Israeli, readers. Israelis often are willfully ignorant about the contours of the American Jewish community. They have a triumphalist attitude about the prevalence of assimilation and intermarriage in the States–without acknowledging their own privileged position as the only majority-Jewish country in the world. Other international Jewish communities, such as Britain and France, are way behind the United States in being welcoming to interfaith families. The British Jewish community especially is dominated by the minority of traditional Jews, who set a standard for religious involvement that few abide by. Everyone could learn from what Rosner refers to as “the great experiment” taking place in America.

The Rabbi Formerly Known as Half-Jewish

Not much time to blog today, but I need to mention these two great articles from The Jewish Week that are now a few days old:

Rabbi Beth Nichols, the daughter of a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father, writes about her experience as an interfaith child in the rabbinical seminary. On Christmas day 2001, she was in Jerusalem at Hebrew Union College, attending a class on intermarriage:

I found it both ironic and disconcerting to be discussing intermarriage on Christmas Day. That morning I approached my professor to express my apprehension for the day’s class: “I know we’re talking about intermarriage, and, well, this is my first Christmas away from home.” Registering his look of surprise, I explained, “My Dad’s not Jewish, and Christmas was a really important time in his childhood, so it became an important time in my family. I’m Jewish, obviously, but Christmas has a lot of wonderful family memories attached to it.”

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The “Communal Welcome Mat”

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Adam Bronfman, managing director of the Samuel Bronfman Foundation (one of our funders), has written an important essay for The Forward titled “Let’s Put Out a Communal Welcome Mat.”

Adam, grandson of Samuel, founder of the Seagram’s liquor conglomerate, considers himself both an “insider” and an “outsider” in the Jewish world:

My Jewish education was limited as a child. I did not participate in communal or institutional Jewish life. The concept that I would need to marry-in to be accepted was never discussed.

I married the non-Jewish woman I fell in love with as a teenager, and we have raised four wonderful children. We have enjoyed an exclusively Jewish home for the better part of the last 18 years.

If not for my status as a “Bronfman,” my connection to the Jewish world would be much more tenuous. Where do I fit in? What is my place in the Jewish world and in my Jewish community?

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Saving Your Date From Hell

I’m always fascinated by the approach of other religions and cultures to interfaith and intercultural marriage. A few have similar concerns to the Jewish community; Zoroastrians, for example, share the same sense of anxiety over dwindling numbers. Others, however, have radically different perspectives on interdating.

Take Evangelicals, for example. Unlike Jews, a shrinking or static population is not a concern. Also unlike Jews, culture has nothing to do with their connection to each other. Belief–in God, in Jesus, in the need to embrace Jesus to go to heaven–is everything.
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The Associated Press and Officiation

Associated Press religion writer Rachel Zoll recently wrote an article about
the difficulties interfaith couples can face trying to find a rabbi to
officiate at their wedding. She gives examples of rabbis whose status as
rabbis is questionable, who do not respect Jewish tradition in the weddings
they conduct, and who charge unreasonable fees for their services.

Rabbi Lev Baesh and I were interviewed and photographed for the article. We
told her that there is a trend for more and more legitimate and respected
rabbis who do respect Jewish tradition to officiate at intermarriages
without charging unreasonable fees.
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Rosh Hashanah Round-Up

Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, begins this evening. The High Holidays can be a challenging time for interfaith families; Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are probably the two most inaccessible major holidays on the Jewish calendar. Fasting, spending all day in synagogue, paying hundreds of dollars to pray, listening to the powerful but atonal blasts of an instrument fashioned from a ram’s horn–it’s all quite strange and sometimes off-putting for the non-Jewish members of an interfaith family. But the message of the holidays–reviewing your misdeeds and making amends for them, and considering how you will change your life in the future–is potent and necessary.

Accroding to a recent National Rabbinic Leadership Survey conducted by STAR (Synagogues: Transformation And Renewal), 92% of rabbis are concerned with the need for their synagogues to reach out more to interfaith families, gays and lesbians, single parents and singles. A plurality of these rabbis (45%) say their High Holiday sermons will focus on the need to participate in Jewish life beyond the High Holidays. Last year, this topic didn’t even make the top three of the most popular planned sermon topics. (Granted, the High Holidays did follow on the heels of the Israel-Lebanon war.)

But some people have already decided that traditional High Holiday services aren’t for them. As reported in The (New York) Jewish Week, they’re attending services at Chinese restaurants, in museums, at rented churches and on hikes through the Colorado wilderness. But as Rabbi Niles Goldstein, author of Gonzo Judaism and leader of non-traditional High Holiday services, says, “It’s very important to separate substance from shtick… The real challenge is to figure out what the right balance is.”
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