I do not think it means what you think it means


It’s very easy to bond with people over shared experiences. That’s a lot of what the personal narrative essays on this website are about. What’s more exciting is when people bond over shared differences–not in spite of having different beliefs, history or culture, but because of it.

That’s why the decision of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to issue a “clarification” of an earlier 2002 document on Catholic-Jewish relations seems to be going over like a lead balloon in the Jewish community. In the words of Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Unless “clarification” always means “complete reversal of previous position.” As J.J. Goldberg writes in an article in the Forward,
“A Counter-Revolution in Jewish-Catholic Ties”:

Most of the new clarifications, seen through Jewish eyes, look more like retractions of reforms we’d thought were long-settled church doctrine.

Among the earlier statement’s “ambiguities” are declarations that “both the Church and the Jewish people abide in covenant with God,” that both religions “have missions before God to undertake in the world” and that the Jewish mission “must not be curtailed by seeking the conversion of the Jewish people.” In fact, as the new statement helpfully clarifies, the “fulfillment” of the Jewish covenant “is found only in Jesus Christ.” Jews have a “right to hear this Good News” in “every generation.” And it’s the job of Christians to fill them in.

Goldberg also notes, to me most significantly, that the Council of Bishops did not discuss this with Jewish dialogue partners while it was in process or even give them a warning that it was coming out. Orthodox groups that had been part of the dialogue responded in kind, shooting from the hip with an immediate response June 29, while other Jewish groups tried to engage in discussion for a month and a half before they expressed “serious concerns” about the future of Catholic-Jewish dialogue.

Reading another piece in my local Catholic paper The Boston Pilot, “Jewish leaders say bishops’ June statement could hurt dialogue”, I had some insight into why Catholics might not understand the (to me entirely predictable!) negative Jewish reaction. Some Catholics may have had concerns that Jews were not allowed to convert to Catholicism:

By stating that the Jewish people’s “witness to the kingdom … must not be curtailed by seeking the conversion of the Jewish people to Christianity,” the document “could lead some to conclude mistakenly that Jews have an obligation not to become Christian and that the church has a corresponding obligation not to baptize Jews,” they added.

(emphasis mine)
There is a big difference between Judaism and Catholicism, and it is this: we do not think it’s a big favor to people to proselytize them. I’ve had people who were raised Catholic ask me if that was because Jews were snobs, which is funny if you know how negatively Jewish religion and culture both view proselytization. Some interpretations of Jewish law consider proselytizing coercive and a way to invalidate a conversion! It’s a very different view of what shows respect for another religious group, and I think we have to keep reaching out to each other to bond over that shared difference. 

More about Jewish Arts and Crafts


In my post yesterday I mentioned a new book of Jewish holiday crafts, and one of our regular readers expressed interest in learning about Jewish art.

You know the old saying, “I don’t know art, but I know what I like”? Well, I love to look at art, but I’m not a real expert. You aren’t going to believe this, but my first art history class in college had a midterm that was all about the architecture of medieval cathedrals and I couldn’t memorize the difference between the nave and the transept.

The question does give me the opportunity to share some cool things I’ve found on the web. First, Menachem Wecker, an arts writer who wrote a great piece for us about synagogue art called “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Synagogue”, has a blog Iconia where he covers religion and art in general. He was just interviewed on Mima’amakim, a Jewish arts website. (I know the site because they also interviewed Yonah Lavery, and featured my favorite of her Talmudcomics.net comics.) Wecker has some interesting things to say about Jewish art in general.

He also did a dynamite piece on My Jewish Learning about Siona Benjamin, an Indian Jewish artist whose work draws on all kinds of influences. The images included with this piece are amazing. I love this kind of cross-cultural art.

I always want to know what instructions are out there for creating Jewish art forms like the ones that Sara mentioned in her comment: Jewish papercuts, micrography and other forms of calligraphy. I haven’t found much. What has thrilled me has been finding the beautiful website of The Pomegranate Guild, an association of Jewish needle artists, with their mouth-watering list of links to Jewish needlework resources. For many years I used to torture myself with the paper catalog for California Stitchery, now called Crafty Needle–but I only made one needlepoint. I can’t really do that stuff since I’m killing my hands with constant typing … and anyway my one needle point matzah cover lurches to the left in an alarming way. If I could knit, I might want to buy some of the great Patterns for Peacebuilders–you can knit all the objects in a Passover seder and benefit peace in the Middle East! (I don’t knit, though, I just collect links on the internet.)

I’m torn between wanting to learn more about Eastern European Jewish arts like the trompe-l’œil ceilings I saw in synagogues when I visited Ukraine in 1990 and the wooden carving tradition explored in this exhibition and wishing I knew more about non-Ashkenazi arts traditions. Luckily there are a lot of new Jewish art museums–Cara Nissman wrote a piece for us about how they reach out to interfaith families. We should all get a lot more opportunities to learn.



I admit that I’m a bit bookish. I emit an undignified squeal of delight whenever I get a nice review copy, even though there are so many books in my apartment that one could build a pretty decent fort out of them. For example, I was eager to read One More Year, the subject of today’s hilarious featured article by Vicki Boykis. Sometimes you can get a reviewer to share enough of her own experience that reviewing the book is just the beginning for something deeper. I can’t always figure out a way to get books reviewed that brings out the themes of our website as well as that, and I occasionally try to make up for it by offering mini-reviews here. For example, Nextbook sent me Douglas Century’s biography of Jewish boxer Barney Ross and I was blown away by how vividly it evoked the world of early 20th century immigrant Jews. It was a nearly cinematic book. I also found Rebecca Goldstein’s Betraying Spinoza to be nearly perfect, somehow the ideal combination of personal reflection and intellectual explanation, making something very difficult accessible. She places Spinoza in his Jewish historical context, but is able to explain why doing so absolutely contradicts everything in his thought.

We don’t usually offer reviews of books that are self-published, but since I’m not a crafty person, not particularly good at coming up with arts projects for my art-project-loving kid, I was very impressed with the promotional website for  Celebrating With Jewish Crafts. The book is a little expensive, but I can see that some of our readers could use it. We’ve had requests for holiday crafts in the past, and this website shows some classics, like honey-comb wax wrapped Havdalah candles, and some that were new ideas to me, like a Rosh Hashanah honey dish made with homemade play-dough. This isn’t a review, just a heads-up.

Not a Surprise


A recent article by Neil Rubin in the Baltimore Jewish Times, “Conservative Judaism Thrives in Baltimore, But Troubled Nationwide,” makes an interesting point. One reason why the Conservative synagogues in Baltimore have more members than the Reform synagogues (which is the reverse of the rest of the country) is their emphasis on outreach programming.

Beth Israel was a pioneer in the Kiruv project, spearheaded by the movement’s Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs. It strives to make congregations more welcoming for interfaith families. It has organized several training sessions for rabbis and volunteer leaders, one of which was hosted by the Pearlstone Conference and Retreat Center.

With that topic, just as with the national movement, local congregations struggle to adhere to Halachah (Jewish law) while being as open as possible.

“If you are intermarried, you can still live an integrated life and your family can still have a family membership, and the truth is there are many b’nai mitzvah meetings with families where I know the non-Jewish spouse better than the Jewish one,” Rabbi Goldstein said.

The rest of the article also emphasizes the ways that the Baltimore Conservative congregations work within halachah to reach out to formerly underserved Jewish populations. They have pushed people to keep kosher while at the same time creating programming to reach out to same-sex couples and their families.  They also sound like great congregations in other ways: innovative pastoral counseling, continuity with old families in the neighborhood, good adult education.

We know from our work at InterfaithFamily.com that there are a lot of ways to reach out to interfaith families and a lot of profiles of those families. Not everyone wants the most liberal option–some want Conservative or Orthodox Judaism, and are disappointed when they can’t find welcoming congregations.
Among Reform congregations, which have grown precisely because of openness to interfaith families, some are popular with interfaith families even when the rabbi doesn’t officiate at interfaith weddings–because the congregation is intellectually challenging or provides great children’s Jewish education, or because they do social action.

There are many best practices in creating communities that are friendly to one population that also help outreach to other populations. Spirituality and adult education appeals to interfaith families–and also to many Jews in my generation. It’s not surprising to me that being open to interfaith families is one of the many factors that has made these Baltimore Conservative congregations vital.

Our Antonio


[float=left][/float]I was so thrilled to learn from a recent piece in the Tablet that Antonio Sabato Jr. was actually Jewish! Sabato is best known for his work as the gorgeous Calvin Klein underwear model and actor on General Hospital.  (Photo by Jerry Avenaim used under a Creative Commons license.)

Sabato’s mother, Yvonne, is Jewish but did not discover her heritage until she was an adult. Her mother hid her Jewish identity and sent Yvonne to Catholic school. The family had also moved from Prague to Italy. Antonio’s grandparents and uncle were killed in Auschwitz during the Shoah.

In the Tablet Sabato describes his upbringing as “very liberal, Judaism, and Catholicism. He does hope to visit Israel with his mother. (What a good Jewish son!) For now, Sabato is starring on his own reality series, My Antonio in which his mother helps him find true love.

Even in Canada


Back in January I was contacted by a staff member of the United Israel Appeal Federations Canada (UIA) who was researching international best practices for outreach to underserved members of Jewish communities, including interfaith couples. I gave her a lot of information about outreach programs in the US. I remember thinking at the time that things must be changing in Canada, which traditionally has had lower rates of intermarriages.

A new study by UIA verifies that that is the case. It reports that by 2021 “2/5 of the largest communities in Canada are projected to have intermarriage rates above 50% and over 1/3 of all individuals residing in couples families will be living in interfaith arrangements.”

The report also states, “It is incumbent upon Jewish communal institutions to strongly consider facilitating the participation of interfaith couples.  . . . if the organized community can accept intermarried couples and their children through the institutions of the synagogue, school, daycare, and other community-oriented programs, then there is a greater likelihood that they will choose to be Jewish.”

Given how behind the Canadian Jewish community has been in having to address intermarriage, I was amazed that the UIA report says that one area where the organized Jewish community can make a difference is in rabbinic officiation at weddings of interfaith couples: “Having a Rabbi officiate at an interfaith ceremony is extremely important to the likelihood of future participation in Jewish life. In fact, 50% of interfaith couples married by a Rabbi indicated that it is important to them that their eventual grandchildren are raised Jewish as opposed to 18% when no Rabbi officiated at their wedding ceremony.”

And I was glad to see making resources readily available for interfaith couples on websites as another of their recommended actions.

More Secular? Or More Spiritual?


There were a number of articles and comments on the Internet last week about a new report from the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey to the effect that the number of American Jews who consider themselves religiously observant has declined by more than 20 percent over the last two decades while the number of Jews who consider themselves secular has risen. Where just 20 percent of Jewish adults described themselves as nonreligious or cultural Jews 19 years ago, that total has risen to about 35 percent. The report’s authors, Barry Kosmin and Ariela Keysar, reportedly attributed the increase in secularism in large part to high rates of intermarriage.

Kosmin and Keysar aren’t completely negative about intermarriage, however. As quoted in the Jerusalem Post, “Keysar said there was a benefit to intermarriage, as many more people were now connected to Jews in America and around the world. ‘If you maintain Jewish culture, you bring new people into the fold,’ she said. ‘We tend to look at [Judaism] as religion, but if you look at the other aspect of culture and history, there are many aspects of Judaism that are open.’ The emphasis on Jewish culture could help fight anti-Semitism, Keysar said.”

Nina Amir, who has frequently written for us in the past, disagrees in the San Jose Jewish Examiner that intermarriage leads to less religiosity. “We would not be practicing Jews at all – in fact, I wouldn’t be writing about Judaism and Jewish spirituality and mysticism – if my husband had not been a non-Jew who later decided to convert.”

The growth in secularism seems to be at odds with the recent Synagogue 3000 study by Steven M. Cohen and Rabbi Larry Hoffman that found increased interest in spirituality among young adult Jews, including the Orthodox, and the non-Orthodox with one Jewish parent, in particular. We blogged about that study just four months ago. This may be a matter of definition – when Kosmin and Keysar talk about religiosity and religiously observant, they may not be talking about those who are spiritual but not interested in traditional forms of prayer. As Rabbi Brad Hirshfield of Clal is quoted in Jewkey.com, the study “doesn’t say the Jewish people or Judaism is dying. What it is saying is the way religiously identified Jews are practicing their Judaism is not working for a lot of people. It’s an opportunity — the kind of opportunity that paved the way for the Protestant Reformation.”

Rabbinical School and Interfaith Marriage, Part 3


A new article in Tablet, Big Tent Country by Marissa Brostoff, sheds some light on the issue of rabbinical schools accepting and ordaining intermarried rabbis.

We blogged about this issue three months ago, when New Voices published an important article, The Coming of the Intermarried Rabbi. At the time, I wrote that “there could be no better role model for interfaith couples than an interfaith partner who is so Jewishly engaged that he or she is a rabbi,” and that “Intermarried rabbis would be particularly inspiring to the interfaith couples who they served — and there is no reason they could not be inspiring to in-married couples as well.”

The Tablet article tells about Ed Stafman, a former attorney who intermarried, became active in a Reform synagogue, and eventually was ordained by the Renewal-affiliated Aleph Rabbinic Program, the only seminary that does not reject intermarried students outright. Rabbi Stafman will be installed next week as rabbi at Beth Shalom, a Reform synagogue in Bozeman, Montana.

What’s most interesting to me in the article are the comments by the members of Beth Shalom, which support the notion of an intermarried rabbi as a role model and inspiration for interfaith couples. Beth Shalom is by all descriptions a heavily intermarried congregation. One person in the hiring process said that Stafman’s being intermarried “might be a great asset because we’re so intermarried here that you might have a better understanding of the congregation.” Another said, “I think it will be very beneficial to those interfaith families in the community, and that they will really feel they have a home at Beth Shalom.”

Ahoy Mateys


I know there aren’t many people who are terribly worried about this, but I am deeply amused that this year, Talk Like a Pirate Day falls on the first day of Rosh HaShanah.

“Shiver me timbers, it’s time to sing Avinu Malkenu and blow the shofar, mateys! Arrrrrr, me hearties, if you don’t pass me the teiglach, I’ll make ye walk the plank! Smartly with the grog, me beauties, ’tis kiddush we’ll be havin’!  L’Shanah Tovah! Arrrrr!”

My husband doesn’t think this is funny. 

(I know, we won’t be blowing the shofar or singing Avinu Malkenu this year on the first day of Rosh HaShanah, because it falls on Shabbat. But would a pirate know that?)

Just Not Right


I recently read Rebecca Blady’s  blog post on the website of New Voices, a Jewish student magazine. Blady’s post discusses the National Council of Young Israel’s (NCYI) 2007 policy that restricts member synagogues from having converts to Judaism or women as congregational presidents.  Blady and others have also discussed several other policies which demonstrate how NCYI likely has moved to the right of Modern Orthodoxy.

According to Quinn’s article in the Yeshivah University Commentator two years ago, the NYCI gave only a vague reason for its 2007 restriction on synagogue presidents. They cited a ruling by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, a major 20th century Orthodox rabbi,  that converts or women should not be in a position of coercive authority over other Jews.  It’s not clear that presidency of a local synagogue in the United States is a position of coercive power, and I fear that this interpretation violates a major Torah principle of accepting the convert. In fact I had been taught it was downright rude to call attention to a convert’s background.

I began to wonder why the NCYI would choose to implement this policy in the 21st century.  Perhaps,they were influenced by the United States constitution, which prohibits an immigrant from being president?  Or maybe the NCYI feels that being the president of a synagogue gives one real coercive power over their fellow synagogue members. (I hope not!) I fear that for most people, the take-away is a message that converts may be somehow less Jewish, less committed to the performance of mitzvot. InterfaithFamily.com readers can attest to the opposite.  Those who choose Judaism may be more cognizant to the details of a Jewish lifestyle. 

As someone who has enjoyed praying at Young Israel synagogues in the past, I hope they will reconsider some of their policies.  Meanwhile, I can think of a lot more welcoming Orthodox institutions both more traditional and more liberal than the NCYI that I will support instead.