I have news for you

I have a few links for you and the first one is an interview with me. I know, it seems a bit solipsistic, but it’s kind of exciting to be interviewed by my hometown Jewish newspaper, the Cleveland Jewish News. They interviewed me because I’m going to be speaking on Monday night at Siegal College of Jewish Studies about interfaith families and my work at InterfaithFamily.com.

One of the things I want to discuss at the talk is how welcome for interfaith families can come from everyone in the Jewish community, regardless of denomination. I was thinking about this yesterday reading an article on Chabad preschools by Ellen Umansky on Tablet Magazine‘s website. One interesting aspect of the piece was how Chabad, which is a Hasidic Orthodox outreach group, is thinking about children from interfaith families:

The open-mindedness that characterizes Chabad’s activities in general is certainly evident at the schools. The directors I spoke with said they’ll admit any child whose family is interested in a Jewish education. “Look, I don’t like labeling. We have everyone; we have families with two mommies, we have everybody,” says Chai Tots’ Hecht. “We have families that, halachically, are they Jewish? No—the father is Jewish but the mom is not—but they want it, they want the Jewish school.”

It’s kind of mind-boggling to read the Jewish press on interfaith families. It seems that all these different groups of Jews–Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, secular–are quietly thinking about how to integrate interfaith families into the Jewish community while we simultaneously argue in public about how that can possibly work. It was fun to read Maskil‘s post to the Jerusalem Post blog on recent discussion of interfaith marriage. As he put it,

We need to reframe the issue. Rather than saying “Intermarriage is the greatest threat to Jewish survival, etc.,” ad nauseum, we should be saying “integrating the intermarried into our communities is our greatest challenge, and our greatest need.”

I’m really looking forward to discussing this with people from my hometown.

Birthright Israel, Jewish Wedding Ceremonies, and Jewish Commitment

Tucked away in the new Birthright Israel study released yesterday by the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis is a very important discussion about Jewish wedding ceremonies and Jewish commitment among intermarried couples. (I discussed the main findings of the study in a separate post.)

The study authors write:


“Marrying a Jewish person is not the only measure of Jewish commitment. Although such a commitment is difficult to assess, the nature of the wedding ceremony is an additional indicator of Jewish commitment, particularly for intermarried couples. Although not a perfect predictor of future choices, decisions about officiation and wedding rituals provide a window into the place of Jewishness in the lives of these individuals.”

Of intermarried respondents in the study, about half had no clergy, Jewish or otherwise, at their wedding. But among those who had religious officiants, “an estimated 65% made an unambiguously Jewish choice by having a rabbi or cantor alone officiate.” Moreover, at weddings of interfaith couples with a rabbi present, 93% had both a huppah and a ketubah, and another 4% had one or the other.

The authors conclude: “When intermarried participants who chose a Jewish wedding ceremony are added, figuratively, to those who married a Jewish person, the overall propensity for ‘marrying Jewishly’ increase to include the vast majority of married [Birthright Israel trip] participants.” Participants had a 72% chance of marrying a Jew, and those who married a non-Jew had a 31% chance of being married by a rabbi alone. “Consequently, participants had a very high likelihood of being married in circumstances where Jewish identity was predominant.”

The likelihood of a non-trip participant being married in circumstances where Jewish identity is preeminent were lower, but not insubstantial – they had a 46% chance of being married to a Jew, and those who married a non-Jew had a 34% chance of being married by a rabbi alone.

These findings are very heartening to us at InterfaithFamily.com. In early 2008 the first studies appeared that showed a correlation between having a rabbi officiate at interfaith couples’ weddings and their later Jewish engagement. But I’ve never seen a study that acknowledges and recognizes that the nature of the wedding ceremony and of wedding officiation in particular is an indicator of Jewish commitment for intermarried couples.

One of IFF’s important activities is our Jewish Clergy Officiation Referral Service. We offer a free, high quality referral service to a list of over 325 vetted rabbis and cantors and we are responding to 100 requests for help a month from all over North America (and a few beyond). Coincidentally, at the same time the Birthright Israel study was released, we sent out one of our routine feedback requests. Here are two of the responses we received yesterday:

“Unfortunately, we had no success in finding someone willing to participate in our son’s wedding. Our daughter will say Hebrew prayers during the ceremony. I understand a rabbi’s feeling of not wanting to participate, but I am saddened to see our son pushed away from our family’s religion.”
“I wanted to take this opportunity to say thank you for helping me find a rabbi to officiate our ceremony. We had our wedding at the end of July and thanks to the help from your site, it was a wonderful day.”

Another of IFF’s activities is our Resource Center for Jewish Clergy, which helps rabbis and cantors address questions arising from intermarriage, including – but not limited to – the question of officiation. The RCJC offers “for clergy only” articles and videos, clergy conference/workshops, and one-on-one consultations.

IFF wants to support all rabbis who are welcoming to interfaith couples whether or not they officiate at their weddings. We respect rabbis’ decisions and would never say that the decision not to officiate is wrong. But the purpose of our Jewish Clergy Officiation Referral Service and in part of our Resource Center for Jewish Clergy is to minimize if not eliminate the “turnoff” experience that many couples report when seeking Jewish clergy to officiate. We find a good deal of validation of our approach in the new Birthright Israel study, and applaud the study authors for reporting on the significance of wedding ceremonies where Jewish identity if predominant.

Birthright Israel Trips and Intermarriage

There is important learning in the new Birthright Israel study released yesterday by Len Saxe and his team at the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis – and early media coverage is not catching all of it.

The study compares Birthright Israel trip participants to non-participants. It finds that trip participants have a stronger sense of Jewish identity and peoplehood and demonstrate a stronger relationship to Israel. But the Wall Street Journal’s title captures what the main buzz will be: Jewish Marriage Tied to Israel Trip. Of those that are married, 46% of non-participants are married to a Jew, compared to 72% of participants; thus participants are 57% more likely to in-marry.

There are many other related findings: of those respondents with intermarried parents, trip participants were three times more likely to in-marry; of those respondents married to spouses who were not raised Jewish, there is an apparent higher rate of conversion among spouses of trip participants. Of unmarried respondents, trip participants were 46% more likely to view marrying a Jew as very important. Of those respondents under 30, trip participants were less likely to be married than non-participants; the authors suggest that trip participants may spend a longer time searching for a Jewish partner.

Birthright Israel may very well be the most successful Jewish continuity program ever. It is very positive news that trip participation is associated with Jews marrying other Jews. But in my opinion there is a more important message from the study, and that is that trip participation is associated with greater motivation to raise Jewish children.

The study finds that 74% of trip participants view raising children as Jews as very important, compared to 57% of non-participants; thus participants are 30% more likely to have that view. What’s more, of intermarried participants, participants are almost twice as likely to have that view: 52% view raising children as Jews as very important, compared to 27% of non-participants.

The authors connect this finding with their previous research that children with intermarried parents who are raised exclusively as Jews have similar levels of Jewish engagement as children of inmarried parents. They conclude that “The present data suggest that both inmarried and intermarried [trip] alumni are highly motivated to raise their children as Jews.” (The study couldn’t measure rates of actual raising of children as Jews, as compared to attitudes about doing so, because not enough time has passed since the trips commenced.)

It’s very important to remember the study’s finding that of trip participants who were married, 28% were intermarried. The study also notes that although trip participants are more likely to view marrying a Jew as very important, they are not significantly more likely to date other Jews. Significant numbers of young Jews are going to continue to intermarry, Birthright Israel trip or not.

It’s also important to remember that half of young adults who identify or could identify as Jews have one Jewish parent. That population will be increasingly important to the liberal Jewish future. This study shows that the Birthright Israel experience gives young adults – including those with one Jewish parent — a stronger sense of Jewish identity and peoplehood. Other recent research shows that young adults with one Jewish parent are interested in Jewish spirituality. Barry Shrage, the visionary leader of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies, the Boston federation, has emphasized to me that stimulating and responding to these young adults’ potential interests in Jewish community and spirituality is a winning combination.

It would be a shame if the main message of the study, that trip participation is associated with more in-marriage, is twisted into viewing Birthright Israel as a “cure” or “antidote” to intermarriage or the “solution” to the “intermarriage problem.” Senior representatives of two of Birthright Israel’s leading funders have assured me that that is exactly not the message they want to see conveyed. They want to attract the children of intermarried parents to Birthright Israel trips. They understand that marketing Birthright Israel as a preventative to intermarriage risks pushing those young people away — who wants to go on a trip that will prevent them from doing what their parents did? Finally, they understand, I believe, that the most important impact of the Birthright Israel experience is the motivation to engage in Jewish life and have Jewish children – whether the marriage is “in” or “inter.”

There is one other set of very important findings in the study – but I’ll leave that for a separate post.

Worth Reading: More Talk About Intermarriage

Just a quick post about two important discussions about intermarriage. In the current issue of the  Forward, Adam Bronfman debates Jack Wertheimer in Straight Talk About Assimilation: An Exchange. Adam is the managing director of the Samuel Bronfman Foundation, one of InterfaithFamily.com’s leading funders, and we continue to applaud his outspoken leadership on our issues.

Also, Jeremy Ben Ami, the executive director of J Street, had some interesting comments about intermarriage in an interview with Atlantic correspondent Jeffrey Goldberg. For comment, check out  J Street Chief Talks About Intermarriage on Tablet Magazine. As always, Andy Silow-Carroll, editor of the New Jersey Jewish News, has an insightful take on Ben Ami’s comments on his  blog.

Jon Gosselin Embraces the Jewish Community

Jon Gosselin, former star of a reality television show Jon & Kate Plus Eight, about being the parents of twins and sextuplets, has been the focus of a lot of media attention since he separated from Kate, his wife and the mother of his eight children. He’s since moved to the Upper Westside of New York and started dating a Jewish woman, Hailey Glassman. In a recent interview on ParentDish.com with Susan Avery, Gosselin relates, “I just went through Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur and learned about the new year and every Friday is the Shabbat dinner. I love challah bread. I’m learning about Jewish food …”

He told the interviewer that he was “now half Jewish and half Korean.” Gosselin hasn’t discovered any Jewish ancestry as far as I know–he’s apparently just expressing enthusiasm. I hope Gosselin realizes that to become Jewish he would actually need to go through a conversion. Perhaps Rabbi Shmuely Boteach told him during one of their recent conversations that he mentions in his interview with Avery.  Also there is no reason one cannot be 100 percent Korean and 100 percent Jewish! 

Avery asked Gosselin, “With all this turmoil, where do you turn for parenting advice?” He described his support system as his Jewish “inner circle” and commented that he “only cares what they think.” Important in Jewish tradition is the way a married couple interacts.  A parents’ marriage certainly influences how the children are raised.  I recommend Gosselin read : Overview on Spouses and Partners at MyJewishLearning.com. Gosselin might also benefit from reading InterfaithFamily.com’s Jewish Food Cheat Sheet as he continues to explore Jewish cuisine.

Slingshot

We’re very proud and pleased to announce that for the fifth year in a row, InterfaithFamily.com has been included in Slingshot: A Resource Guide For Jewish Innovation.

The Slingshot guide is “an annual compilation of the 50 most inspiring and innovative organizations, projects, and programs in the North American Jewish community today.” It’s very prestigious, because hundreds of organizations apply, and a team of top foundation professionals evaluate them; being included gives a invaluable hechsher, a stamp of approval, to other funders who are looking to find and support innovative causes. To download or order a copy of the guide, click here.

The Slingshot guide was first published in 2005, and only twelve organizations, including IFF, have been included each year. In this year’s guide, the “five-timers” are featured with an introductory article about how organizations can grow and remain relevant to the next generation of the Jewish community. We are thrilled to be included with a group of organizations like Hazon, JDub Records, Jewish Funds for Justice, Jewish Milestones,Mayyim Hayyim, and Moving Traditions.

The Slingshot guide is produced by the Slingshot Fund, which has been hosted at the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies and is significantly supported by the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund. We were thrilled to receive grants from the Slingshot Fund in 2007, the year they first made grants, and again in 2008. We didn’t get a grant for a third year in a row, but want to congratulate the fine organizations that did, including our friends at Mayyim Hayyim, the Jewish Funds for Justice, Keshet, synagogue/:2eyoxwqz">Sixth & I Historic Synagogue, Gateways: Access to Jewish Education, the Institute of Southern Jewish Life, and Footsteps.

Each year there is a “Slingshot Day” which brings together most of the organizations included in the guide and many funders. This year’s Slingshot Day was last week on October 15. There were great plenary sessions with leading thinkers from both the non-profit and for-profit worlds, including Leslie Crutchfield, author of Forces for Good: The Six Practices of High-Impact Non-Profits, Phillip Holmes, LA Director of Blue State Digital, Nancy Lublin, CEO of DoSomething.org, and Adam Werbach, author of Strategies for Sustainability. There were also great breakout groups; I attended one lead by Sarah Meyer of the Joyce and Irving Goldman Family Foundation and Nancy Schwartz Sternoff of the Dobkin Family Foundation on “Defining Innovation.” Slingshot Day is a great networking opportunity, not only because of the excellent presenters, but also for the relatively rare opportunity it affords for non-profit leaders to connect with each other. We’re very fortunate to be included.

First, the good news

I have a backlog of interfaith-family related news stories to cover on the blog, but I think I’d like to do the pleasant stories first. Sue Fishkoff published a new feature with JTA, Jews of Color come together to explore identity. It discusses a recent gathering sponsored by Bechol Lashon, a San Francisco organization for ethnically and racially diverse Jews and their families, and The Jewish Multiracial Network, which meets on this coast at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center.

I follow the Jewish Multiracial Network on Facebook, but I didn’t know that in June, they elected their first African-American president. Fishkoff explains:

The group was started by Ashkenazim who adopted multi-racially, and for the past several years Bowers says there has been “some tension between these well-intentioned Jewish parents and the people of color in the organization, a lot of control issues.” By this summer the parents were ready to let go, and Bower stepped forward.
“We still want the parents involved,” she says. But the agenda is being set by the new generation. The summer retreat was the first to boast a separate track for Jews of color, along with the previous tracks set up by the group’s founders.

It’s a very hopeful sign when the generation of the founders gets to step aside in favor of younger leaders.

This is not my only happy news for you. If you are in a multiracial Jewish family right now, the Jewish Multiracial Network has a resource for you, a Welcoming Synagogues List. It’s “a list of synagogues where we as multiracial families and individual Jews of color have personally attended, felt comfortable, and are now recommending to others.” Aliza Hausman (who writes for IFF)  is seeking more recommendations from Jews of color and people in multiracial Jewish families. Contact her through her page here if you are a member of our site, or at jewminicana1@gmail.com. She needs to know the synagogue’s name, a link to the synagogue website and the city, state and country where the synagogue is located.

One more piece of good news: Rashida Jones, an African-American Jewish actress, singer and model has exceeded her coolness quotient by writing a graphic novel, Frenemy of the State which she’s now adapting for the big screen. Hat tip to Adam Serwer, who mentioned it on Twitter.

Why We Help Interfaith Couples Find Rabbis

InterfaithFamily.com has a Clergy Officiation Referral Service. Here’s why.

According to the last National Jewish Population Survey, about 47% of Jewish people getting married in the United States are marrying people who aren’t Jewish. Before 1970, only about 17% of US Jews married non-Jews. In the past, when Jews married non-Jews, the Jewish community interpreted this as an expression of lack of interest in Judaism. In the present, this is not a valid assumption. Many Jews enter interfaith marriage with the wish to retain their Jewish identity and religious practice, and to raise Jewish children, with the person they love. The non-Jewish partner is very often on board with this goal.

[float=left][/float]A 2008 study by sociologist Arnold Dashefsky and the National Center for Jewish Policy Studies found that 87 percent of those intermarried couples who were married by Jewish clergy later raised their children as “Jewish only,” compared to 63 percent of the couples married by co-officiants, non-Jewish clergy or in secular ceremonies. Also, 50 percent said it was very important that their grandchildren be Jewish, compared to 18 percent of the second group.

Traditional Jewish law doesn’t have a category for  interfaith marriage. In past societies where Jewish family law was only binding on Jews and there was no civil marriage, an interfaith relationship had to be unequal and to leave the female partner unprotected by any one legal system. But we don’t live in such a society any longer. It’s ironic that civil marriage makes interfaith marriage possible, but as more Jews enter  interfaith marriages, more want those marriages to be  Jewish. Many (at one time, it was most!) rabbis want to keep Jewish law and don’t perform marriages between Jews and non-Jews.

A wedding is only the beginning of a marriage, and many rabbis and Jewish leaders who don’t believe in officiating at interfaith weddings do a lot of other work to engage interfaith couples and their children in Jewish life. We aren’t pushing every rabbi to officiate at interfaith weddings. We just don’t want potentially interested couples to be pushed away from Jewish life by the traumatic experience of being rejected at the point of marriage.

According to one study, about 50 percent of Reform rabbis are willing to officiate at interfaith weddings. The question is, can every interfaith couple find a rabbi to marry them where they live? For many, the answer is no.

InterfaithFamily.com’s clergy referral service can link interfaith couples with fantastic rabbis and cantors who will help them have deeply meaningful weddings. If we match them up just right, they’ll want Jewish clergy at all their lifecycle events. It could be, as Humphrey Bogart said in Casablanca, the start of a beautiful friendship.

So if you have a friend in an interfaith couple and they are trying to find a rabbi, send them the link to our Clergy Officiation Referral Service. We can find your perfect match.

Can We Talk?

I was very happy to see a report on Beliefnet that the US Council of Catholic Bishops apologized to Jewish leaders for “feelings of hurt.” This wasn’t a fauxpology either. They actually spelled out, “Jewish-Catholic dialogue… has never been, and will never be, used by the Catholic Church as a means of proselytism, nor is it intended as a disguised invitation to baptism.”

I blogged about the so-called “clarification” that led to this moment back in the summer.  Over 40 years after Vatican II, the US Bishops seemed to be reversing course, last June, on the validity of Judaism as a separate religion–and more importantly, to view interfaith dialogue as a chance to “invite the dialogue partner to baptism.”

In this apology  the Bishops acknowledge what ought to be obvious to everyone–Jews and Catholics have a very different perspective on proselytizing. Jews don’t find welcome in proselytizing and we don’t have a tradition of proselytizing non-Jews. (I know there are some historical exceptions to this which would be interesting to discuss, but–let’s just say no one is going to be ringing the doorbell at your house at random and asking if you want to read the Torah.)

Who knows what made the Council of Bishops think it was a good idea to imply that Catholics ought to proselytize to Jews–even in the context of interfaith dialogue–in their earlier document last June? Whatever the internal political or theological reasons were, now both groups can sit down and discuss it.

What Israelis–and Americans?–need to know about intermarriage in North America

Yesterday the Jerusalem Post published an op-ed I wrote, What Israelis need to know about intermarriage in North America.

About a month ago I blogged about the MASA “Lost Jews” ad campaign, which implied that all of the 50% of young Jews outside of Israel who intermarried were assimilated and “lost.” This is a common misconception in the English-speaking Israeli press, and I called it “the most stupid, ill-conceived effort coming out of Israel in many years.” MASA is a great program that brings young adults to Israel for six months to a year, but promoting it as an antidote to intermarriage will alienate the 50% of young adults who have intermarried parents and who might potentially be attracted to the program.

The ad was pulled, reportedly at the direction of Natan Sharansky, the chair of the Jewish Agency for Israel which controls the MASA program. The controversy even generated an article by Associated Press writer Amy Tweibel, which was widely distributed on newspaper websites all over the US, for example, on the San Francisco Examiner site.

Mr. Sharansky, who is a great hero of the Jewish people, reportedly said that it was important for Israelis to better understand North American Jewry, and vice versa. I thought that was a welcome idea, but then I got worried about who would be teaching Israelis about intermarriage in America, and what they would be told. That’s why I wrote the op-ed, because it is critical for Israelis to know that intermarriage does not necessarily lead to loss of Jewish identity and affiliation; that many interfaith couples and families are engaging in Jewish life; and that intermarriage has the potential to increase support for Israel in America.

If the teaching ever takes place, I don’t know if I’m optimistic about the chances for a balanced presentation about intermarriage. I think that the Jewish Agency or MASA are likely to turn to Jewish thought leaders who hasten to view intermarriage as a threat to Jewish continuity. That’s the approach taken by Jack Wertheimer in a recent op-ed in the Forward, Time for Straight-Talk about Assimilation.

I can’t tell whether fundamental attitudes about intermarriage have changed among Jews more generally. The recent case of the Feinbergs, who wrote into their will that any descendant who intermarried would be disinherited, is another example of deep-seated hostility towards intermarriage. My colleague Ruth Abrams blogged recently about the case, and our friend Julie Wiener quoted me in her column for the New York Jewish Week,
Does It Pay to Marry a Jew. Not only were the Feinbergs wrong to think they could deter their descendants from intermarrying, but they likely discouraged their descendants who did intermarry from engaging in the Jewish life that the Feinbergs wanted to preserve. In talking with Julie I expressed frustration at the apparent ongoing unwillingness to see intermarriage as an opportunity. Julie as I recall disagreed, saying the outcry over the MASA ad and its prompt undoing indicated that attitudes had become more favorable. I’m not so sure. What do you think?