No More Outreach?

Why are programs and activities created especially for interfaith families called “outreach”? A blogger whom I’ve been following since I started my job here at InterfaithFamily.com referred to this rhetorical strategy as “symbolic violence”–a way of articulating the idea that good Jews are on the inside and interfaith relationships are on the outside. Why, she asks, are all the programs about the December Dilemma and conversion, with nothing acknowledging how much of the work of Jewish life is actually done by people in interfaith families? Why is the model to have people from in-married families doing outreach to intermarried families?

(Ah ha, I just finished an entire month of December Dilemma articles with a Resource Guide to Jewish Conversion. Nice timing, I now feel maximum defensiveness–though also an enhanced appreciation for January.)

Why do we call it outreach? The way the Jewish community has traditionally dealt with anything it finds scary is through ostracizing. When people talk about  outreach, or in Hebrew kiruv, the implication isn’t only that someone is on the outside and someone is inside, reaching. It’s also that we aren’t actively pushing people who are inside, away.

“We” shouldn’t only mean in-married Jews who are working with intermarried Jews, because in my experience, people in interfaith families, including non-Jewish partners, are in the Jewish community, making good things happen. But I’m afraid the vision is still as my original blogger indicates, in spite of all the Jewish educators, lay and professional community workers and voices of the Jewish community that are children of interfaith families or in interfaith relationships or marriages.

Lately, I’ve seen more use of the word “welcoming” to mean something comprehensive about what kinds of synagogues and Jewish communal institutions we’d like to have. Sometimes we make a list of the groups of people we are explicitly NOT excluding, and sometimes not.

At the same time, the Jewish community is still doing the push-away activities that outreach is supposed to oppose. Unfortunately we still need a good code to communicate to people who want open, friendly Jewish communities, “we aren’t mean rude jerks.”  Or at least, that we don’t mean to be–there are so many ways to fall short. I guess we have to keep listening if we want to achieve a Jewish community with no outreach because no one is out and it’s not a big reach for them to belong.

Christmas is coming

December is our busiest season at InterfaithFamily.com. We’ve already had over 30,000 unique visitors to our site this month, and the most popular content is about the December holidays.

With Hanukkah over and Christmas coming this week, with many interfaith couples getting ready to celebrate Christmas and many Jews not comfortable with that, I’d like to highlight the lessons of our sixth annual December Holidays Survey. We started doing these surveys in response to a book by Sylvia Barack Fishman called Double or Nothing, where she argued that interfaith families who said they were raising their children as Jews, really weren’t, because they had Christmas trees in their homes and as a result the children turn out not to be Jewish. I felt that was a ridiculous conclusion, that she did not understand the couples she interviewed, and set out to ask our readers about their experiences.

Our respondents have been strikingly consistent over six years:  high percentages of interfaith couples raising their children as Jews participate in Christmas celebrations, close to half with Christmas trees in their own homes, but doing so in a secular, non-religious manner, and confident their children’s Jewish identity is not compromised.

This year we looked for trends in over recent years and found that more of these families were celebrating Christmas at the home of relatives (79%, up from 66% in 2007) and keeping their Hanukkah and Christmas celebrations separate (89%, up from 83% in 2007). The percentage who thought their Christmas celebrations do not affect their children’s Jewish identity increased from 73% in 2008 to 81% in 2009. In our press release announcing the survey results, I said we were seeing an increasing normalization of interfaith couples raising Jewish children and participating in Christmas.

Our survey has attracted a lot of publicity this year. It was featured on USA Today’s Faith and Reason blog, in Jewish papers in Cleveland and Boston, and most recently in the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent’s A Merry Little Chanukah? where Aaron Passman interviewed two of the respondents to our survey. Passman quotes Steven Bayme, one of the Jewish intellectual leaders most critical of intermarriage, as saying that a Christmas tree is “suggestive of the very thin nature of the Jewish identity of the home.” But the article features the family of Dr. Andrea Kesack — they belong to a synagogue, their children go to religious school, and their oldest daughter recently became bat mitzvah. It is insulting to them — and to the thousands of families like their’s — to say that the presence of a Christmas tree in their home indicates “thin” Jewish identity, and I’ve written a letter to the editor to make that point.

Jews have the hardest time understanding that Christmas does not have any religious significance to many interfaith families. But from what we hear from many of the interfaith couples themselves, it’s really like Thanksgiving. The first time we did our survey, I was amazed at the very low percentage of interfaith couples raising Jewish children who  “tell the Christmas story.” That story is of course fundamentally religious, and the fact that this year only 4% are telling the Christmas story at home is a pretty clear indicator of the non-religious nature of these families’ celebrations.

This morning I got a Google alert of a story in a secular paper, the Monterey County Herald, titled Embracing your inner Santa. It turned out to be an advice column by a marriage counselor, responding to someone who wanted to celebrate Christmas with her child but was getting objections from her “rigorously secular” spouse: 

Most people would agree that the religious holiday celebrating the birth of Jesus has been significantly transformed into a secular celebration. “Holiday” parties are now the norm at most businesses. Images of starry-eyed children opening packages has become almost completely disconnected from the day’s religious meaning.

As best I can tell, neither the therapist or the couple involved were Jewish, but I wish that the therapist’s description of Christmas as a secular holiday would be taken to heart by those in the Jewish community who are uneasy about Christmas. Today, half of the young adults who identify or could identify as Jews have one Jewish parent, so most of them grew up participating in some form in Christmas celebrations. It used to be that someone who celebrated Christmas wasn’t Jewish, but that simply is no longer the case.

For those of you for whom the December holidays aren’t over — I hope you have a very happy holiday.

Hanukkah Dark or Light

David Brooks wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times, The Hanukkah Story. He finds the story of the Hasmonean ascendancy which Hanukkah celebrates troubling and ambiguous. It’s a surprising position from Brooks, who identifies as a conservative. (That’s with a small c–I don’t know whether he’s also a Conservative Jew) though he also takes some social positions that other conservatives don’t. In any event, it’s a provocative piece.

Rabbi Howard Berman, Executive Director of the Society for Classical Reform Judaism and a good friend of IFF, finds Brooks’ piece narrow and cynical. He considers Hanukkah especially significant to American Jews.  He writes:

David Brooks’ Op-Ed, “The Hanukkah Story,” is disturbing on many levels- beyond the scrooge-like pall it seems determined to cast on the celebration of a beloved holiday. One would hope that Mr. Brook’s academic and journalistic credentials would encompass an understanding of the complexities and nuance of history – which is never the literal, objective, factual account of actual events, but rather the way human experience has been interpreted – reflecting the political or philosophical agenda of both the original chronicle and the evolving national, cultural or religious traditions that emerge from those transforming developments. The Maccabean revolt of 165 BCE reflected the debates and passions of every revolution – the tensions between noble ideals and pragmatic action, as well as the timeless conflict of “traditionalists” and “reformers.” These dynamics have been at  work in the history of Christianity ( especially at the time of the split between Rome and Eastern Orthodoxy in the 10th century and later, in the violent Protestant-Catholic conflicts of the Reformation); certainly in Islam ( the endless Sunni-Shiite battles); and in the history of America ( especially in the passionate partisan controversies among the Founding Fathers and later, in the Civil War)… no less than they were in Hanukkah’s story of an oppressed people’s revolt against tyranny. One might ask whether Mr. Brooks would have written such an attack on our Nation’s founders for publication on July 4, charging that Independence Day’s meaning is diminished because patriots tarred, feathered and hanged Tory “traitors” who did not share their Revolutionary zeal. Or, if he would attack Christmas, since the subsequent unfolding of history that resulted from its original story was filled with such violence and oppression in the name of the babe in the manger.

The major point is that Hanukkah, like all religious holidays and traditions, has evolved over the centuries. It came to be understood – and celebrated – and loved – by subsequent generations of Jews, far more as an affirmation of faith in the face of oppression, and courage in the struggle for justice and freedom.  It is the later legend of the miracle of the oil that is remembered in popular perception -more than the military victory and the political complexities of the original events – emphasizing the spiritual themes of the festival, and reflecting Hanukkah’s even more ancient roots in winter solstice celebrations of light. In our time, Hanukkah has become a very universalistic affirmation of diversity – embodying in contemporary America a meaning that is arguably very different from the narrow interpretation Brook’s focuses upon. Today, the menorah shines as a symbol of Judaism’s confident engagement in our broader culture, rather than what may have been the Maccabee’s rejection of a tyrannically enforced imposition of alien religious values. I would invite David Brooks to shed his critical cynicism and embrace Hanukkah’s creative power as a vehicle for the celebration of Jewish identity and ideals, that also shares in the broader celebration of this season’s most  universal and inclusive themes.

The eighth night of Hanukkah is tonight! If you have a minute as you’re frying up that last batch of latkes, weigh in on Rabbi Berman’s guest post, Brooks’ original essay and the meaning the holiday. We would love to hear what you have to say.

Parenting Blogs and Hanukkah Presents

Our friend Kali Foxman is editing a new Combined Jewish Philanthropies parenting newsletter and wrote me for more ideas about Jewish parenting blogs. If you live in the Boston area and would like to get a listing of all Jewish family events, plus recipes and book recommendations, please go to CJP Family Connections and sign up!

Kali already had My Jewish Learning, which isn’t exactly a parenting blog, more like a clearing house for lots of great, accessible Jewish information for seekers at every level of knowledge. (We love MJL and have lots of links to them all over our site.) She also had Modern Jewish Mom, which has amazing Jewish parenting resources, and Jewish Everyday, by the fantastic Bible Belt Balabusta.

I added Homeshuling, which I’ve already promoted here because it’s great, Ima On (and off) the Bima, a parenting blog by a rabbi, and in a surprise pick, Metalia. Now the truth is that Metalia isn’t a Jewish parenting blog–it’s a blog by a modern Orthodox Jewish mom about pop culture and lip gloss–but she does occasional, really accessible introduction to Judaism posts that I like, and her children are very cute. (And even though I recently posted a review of a book on Spinoza, I happen to like blog posts about popular culture and lip gloss.)

I wanted to be sure to promote Susan Goldberg’s blog, Mama Non Grata, because without it I would never have found her to write the two lovely articles she wrote for IFF. The book she edited, And Baby Makes More Known Donors, Queer Parents, and Our Unexpected Families has been published in Canada, and you can read a sampler from it at the publisher’s website.

Hanukkah is still happening, and I think we’re not quite out of presents at our house yet. My child has become materialistic and wants more toys. The best thing he got was Superhero in a Box, if you are looking for a present. The best Jewish present he got was probably the Kippah from Uganda made by the Abayudaya Jews. (Yeah, I know, when are Jews in other countries going to buy “special kippot by the Ashkenazi–is that how you say it?–Jews of the United States. In North America! And they’re from there!” Etc. But it’s a very nice kippah–attractive and it doesn’t need hair clips. Little kids are often not big fans of the hair clips, you know?)

The video isn’t my usual style, but I just loved the sound. My friend Mimi DuPree is fussy about how female singers sound on Jewish liturgical music–well, this is the male singer sound I like–no nonsense, just nice harmony.

JFS Case Settled and Jewish Community Unsettled

We’ve posted before on the British Jewish school court case, first when the Court of Appeals ruled that JFS, the largest Jewish high school in Europe, couldn’t exclude a boy whose mother was a non-Orthodox convert, and then when the British Supreme court was ruling on the case. Now the British Supreme Court has returned a verdict–the school admissions policy was discriminatory.

As The Guardian reported,

Phillips said the judges did not consider the Chief Rabbi to be racist. The judgment “should not be read as criticising the admissions policy of JFS on moral grounds, or suggesting it was ‘racist’ in the pejorative sense”, he added.

Is there a non-pejorative sense of racist? I can’t think of one.

In past blog posts I’ve tried to provide some context for this case. First there is the context of the British educational system, which provides government funds to “faith schools,” which are one third of the state schools in England. That’s very different from here in the US, where religious schools are private, and only provide public services in a limited way under contract. Another piece of the context is the religious complexion of Britain’s Jewish community, which seems to consist mainly of non-observant Jews affiliated with the modern Orthodox United Synagogue, under the aegis of the Chief Rabbi. There is also a growing minority of haredi or far-right Orthodox Jews, who have a strong influence on the rabbinical court of the Chief Rabbi, and there is another minority of liberal Jews whose beliefs and practices line up (not very precisely) with Reform and Conservative Judaism here.

Another piece of the puzzle is JFS–an excellent school that is oversubscribed. Making admissions contingent on the most stringent definitions of who is a Jew (excluding some children whose mothers had undergone Orthodox conversion as well as the child in the present case) gave the school a way to weed through the candidates. This has left an unpleasant taste in some community members’ mouths, as the New York Times reported today:

David Lightman, an alumnus of JFS who keeps kosher, whose wife is a convert to Judaism and whose daughter was also denied entry to the school on the grounds that it did not recognize the conversion, said that its old admissions policy was narrow-minded and divisive.

His wife is the head of the school’s English department, he said; his daughter teaches Hebrew classes. Why, he asked, should they be considered less Jewish than a non-believing atheist, say, whose mother happens to be Jewish?

“God can work it out,” Mr. Lightman said. “He’s a big boy; he’s been around for a long time. He can decide who’s Jewish and who isn’t.”

Lightman isn’t inventing a straw person for the sake of argument; last year The Guardian ran an article about atheist sending their children to faith schools because these schools were academically better than the local secular ones.

I know that some Jewish educators in the US are scratching their heads and wishing they had these problems–state funded, excellent schools so good that people are fighting to get their children into them. Or maybe not? Because who really wants the state involved in the internal decisions of their community, and requiring students to prove they are “religious” when they aren’t in school. It will be interesting to see how the school handles their new problem of determining who is a Jew–who is behaving in a Jewish way–and whether it’s easier or harder than their old problem.

Tis the Season for Articles about Interfaith Families

It’s been hard to keep up with our Google feed, because during December nearly every publication wants to cover the story of interfaith families dealing with Christmas and Hanukkah. For example, Mindy Pollak-Fusi had a piece in the Boston Globe, Merry Happy, about how she and her husband and their children from previous marriages negotiate the various holidays. The Hartford Courant ran a story about Playing with a Dreidel Under the Christmas Tree, which featured a more syncretistic approach to the two holidays. Braiden Rex-Johnson took an even more blending approach in his Seattle Times piece, providing a special non-kosher menu of foods for a blended holiday. I mean, really, is it just my perspective as a Northeasterner that your Jewish relatives might be annoyed if you went out of your way to serve “Christmas kugel” with roast pork loin? Maybe.

My favorite piece so far was Paul Rudnick’s Holly or Challah? in the New Yorker. I find Paul Rudnick really funny. It’s a list of 12 tips; number 10 is:

10. Never refer to Hanukkah as “their Christmas,” “Merry Wannabe,” or “the Goldberg variation.”

Well, yeah, and that was the least potentially offensive one. I’m sure that I find this funny precisely because I’ve read so many of these articles!

Your favorite will probably be the piece on non-Jewish chefs in interfaith marriages in the New York Times because it has recipes. (True, they are recipes for things like latkes with beets in them, more evidence of the bewildering beet fad among foodies. But who knows? Real chefs created the recipes so they ought to taste good, and there’s no pork loin involved.)

Hanukkah Goodies Including GIANT LATKES

It’s time for another Hanukkah blog post! All month I’m going to be doing links to IFF writers’ blogs, and through the end of Hanukkah I’m providing Hanukkah resources and (hopefully) entertaining videos.

It’s been a few years since rabbinical student and poet Rachel Bahrenblat last wrote for IFF, but she contributed some beautiful articles to our site. It’s a pleasure to read her blog Velveteen Rabbi, but in particular this past week when she shared her joy and the naming ceremony that she created for her son. This is a big pleasure of my job, getting to read stories about important family milestones. You are going to love this–she shared her innovative baby naming ceremony as a .pdf.

Tonight is the first night of Hanukkah, it’s also Shabbat, and my parents are coming to visit. I am not sure what to do about latkes, because it’s hard to make them in advance and them have them hot on Shabbat. I dug around for my old favorite latke recipe. Even though it was originally published in Gourmet, it’s not on Epicurious, which usually has all old recipes from there. It’s from Rozanne Gold, a chef who specialized, for some time anyway, in recipes with only three ingredients (not counting salt and pepper!) Finally I found a version of the recipe that I’d retyped when I found it:

The Gold Family Latkes
Gourmet, December 1999

This recipe makes two large latkes, which are cut into small wedges for serving.

2 lbs. large boiling potatoes
3 Tbs. coarsely grated onion
1 tsp. kosher salt
freshly ground pepper
1/4 cup olive oil

Cook whole potatoes in salted water to cover until barely tender, about 20 minutes. Rinse under cold water. Cool potatoes and peel. Coarsely shred potatoes into a bowl, lengthwise–long strands help hold the latkes together–on the large holes of a grater. Add the onion, salt and pepper.

Heat 1 Tbs. oil in a 10-inch non-stick skillet over moderate heat until hot but not smoking, then add half of the potatoes, spreading with a spatula to form an even cake. Cook until underside is golden brown, 10-12 minutes. Invert a large plate over the skillet and invert the latke onto the plate. Add 1 tablespoon oil to skillet and slide it back in. Cook another 10-12 minutes, until golden brown on the other side. Slide latke onto a serving plate and keep warm. Make another one in the same way. Cut into wedges to serve.

I can’t remember which of the many Jewish blogs I read embedded this nice video, so instead of a hat-tip, imagine a comprehensive wave of my stetson toward the stands in this internet rodeo. It’s the amazing elementary-school choir from New York that you might have seen elsewhere, singing Maoz Tzur.

Hanukkah is coming!

I have to admit in the past I have not been the biggest Hanukkah fan. I work two jobs and take care of my 2 ½ year old. My husband has an even busier schedule and the last thing I want to do is when I get home is add to an already busy evening routine with greasy food and Hanukkah blessings, songs and games. I do enjoy these activities, but eight days in a row!

This year is different. My son is learning about Hanukkah at his preschool and has spent the last week practicing putting the candles in the Menorah. It is really cute to watch and a great way to practice his hand-eye coordination. Also, I have decided to make my own latkes. (If anyone has a recipe which does not include grating potatoes, please send it my way.)

Plus, we have many holiday parties. Not only do we have two preschool parties, but this Sunday we are attending three Hanukkah celebrations. Our synagogue is having a party for children. Then the JCC of Greater Boston is planning a Fiesta with crafts and a concert for children. Then we will end the day with menorah lighting in our town square.
The following week we were invited to a holiday party at an Indian family’s house. Though this year the Indian festival of lights, Dilwali, does not coincide with Hannukah, we have promised a night of lights and celebration. After a week of Hanukkah I will appreciate the diversity this Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanza, New Year’s holiday party will offer!

Love and Religion — a Must See!

I’d like to be sure everyone knows about an important new addition to our website. Please visit http://www.interfaithfamily.com/loveandreligion where you can learn about — and purchase — Love and Religion, a film and workshop guide by our good friend Dr. Marion Usher.

[float=left][/float]On Sunday December 6 I was happy to participate in the “world premiere” of Marion’s film at the Washington Jewish Film Festival, held at the Washington DC JCC. There was a pre-showing brunch, then what looked like 200-250 people watched the film, then Marion, the JCC’s Jean Graubart and I participated in a panel discussion and took audience questions.

For fifteen years, Marion, a clinical psychologist with a private practice, has been conducting classes for interfaith couples, mostly interdating or newly married, as a volunteer at the JCC. (She is also very active in working with interfaith couples and families at her congregation, Adas Israel.) The film is a documentary that highlights excerpts of the four sessions of the class, and the accompanying manual is meant to show other professionals how they could replicate Marion’s model in their own communities.

The film is very powerful. Marion explains that couples come to her class because religion matters to them and they want to have a religious life together, but are facing challenges because of their different backgrounds. In the film,five couples share their very personal feelings. Some have not decided and are clearly conflicted about what they will do, some think they will raise future children in “both” religions, some have decided to raise children Jewish but are concerned whether they’ll be able to do so. In one session the partners talk about their religious upbringing, what they find meaningful in those religious practices, and what they would like to bring forward into their lives together; in another, they talk about their families of origin and how they conceive of their own identity. Pretty much every issue that young interfaith couples face is mentioned by one or the other of the couples in the film.

One of Marion’s key points is to talk about having a “lead religion” in the home. She does not hide her agenda and clearly states, at the beginning of the class, that one of her goals is to encourage the couples to make Jewish choices. But she talks about Judaism as the lead religion in the home, by which she means that an interfaith couple will always have the presence of another religious tradition, at the least among the non-Jewish partners’ relatives. Another of Marion’s key points is that loss is always part of the experience of an interfaith couples. “Sameness” is lost in an interfaith relationship. But identifying that loss occurs makes resolution and reconciliation possible. In the last session, Marion brings family theory into the class to help couples avoid destructive behaviors and repair their relationships.

Several of the couples from the film, and other alumni, came to the showing. It was great to meet them, and to hear that many of them had learned about Marion’s class on InterfaithFamily.com, or have used our resources regularly. It was also great to hear some of their stories — some had gotten engaged, some had been married with rabbis officiating, one had had a boy and a bris, one was pregnant. And Marion explained that one of the couple’s in the film had ended their relationship when they realized the importance to each of them of raising a child in their own faith. Marion described that as a positive outcome of her class too.

There is no doubt in my mind, however, that participating in a discussion group like this has a potentially powerful impact that favors couples making Jewish choices for their family life and their children. Marion has seen it over and over again in the fifteen years she’s been doing this work, and that is why one of her goals is to have her model replicated in communities all over the country. She thinks every one of the 250 JCC’s in the country should offer a class, and hopes that her film and manual will help that to happen. Sadly, other than in Boston, San Francisco, Atlanta and Washington DC, a couples discussion group is hard to find, and I join in Marion’s hope to see more of these classes taking place in the future.

But I also think that watching the film would be a great discussion starter for an individual couple. Not nearly as good as participating in a group discussion, where hearing what others are going through and thinking can both make a couple feel not alone and help a couple by sharing the insights of others. But still a good way to spur a healthy discussion about the role of religion in their lives. That’s why I hope that in addition to professionals who could conduct groups, couples themselves will watch the film.

I said in my comments at the film festival that Marion Usher is a “jewel” that the Washington DC community is lucky to have. Congratulations to her!

Hanukkah Pancake Post

I am happy to report that I’ve upgraded my RSS reader to Google, so that I actually get all the blogs I’m trying to follow. I was really frustrated because my old RSS reader dropped and caused me to miss Aaron Kagan’s post about the food at his wedding on his blog Tea and Food. Remember how we ran his story about An Interfaith Engagement?  He got married! Mazel tov.

I first got to know Aaron because he blogged about his experiments with yeasted pancakes and I was compelled to write to give him advice. (That is true, by the way, and not my attempt to segue neatly from my goal of promoting our writers’ blogs to my goal of giving you Hanukkah resources–because as you know, pancakes are a fried food for Hanukkah and we all love to eat latkes, the potato pancakes of deliciousness.)

I guess that The Pancake Project isn’t really a Hanukkah resource, unless you were hoping to figure out how to make a pancake in the shape of a menorah, but you have to see it because it’s cool. I can’t believe all the things he makes out of pancakes! (Hat tip to my Twitter pal and fellow fan of cool things on the internet, Baya Clare.)

I am also friends on Twitter with Ashley Rozenberg, who graciously gave us some wonderful Dutch pancake recipes when a reader asked for Dutch Hanukkah food. I am really excited about the idea of the mashed potato-rye flour ones. (I have not made them yet!)

I should definitely link you to the latke recipe on Smitten Kitchen, because that’s my work colleagues’ favorite food blog. But it’s a little more work than the method in the following video from Feed Me Bubbe–the Bubbe knows all the labor-saving steps. (This way, however, you get one version with the potatoes grated on the large holes of the grater and one with them pulverized to mush–which way do you like better?)