Either the Worst or the Best Thing–We Choose

Paul Golin, associate executive director at Jewish Outreach Institute, wrote an op-ed about the recent Birthright Israel study. Miriam Shaviv, a Jewish journalist across the Atlantic at the Jewish Chronicle in London, thinks Golin’s statistics are “not good news”–because they assert that more Jews in North America are intermarrying than she realized.

It may be that the Brandeis Birthright Israel study is methodologically flawed–though frankly, I’m a historian and I often find it challenging to believe in the causal relationships that are set up in sociological studies. One blogger in an interfaith relationship challenges whether this is even the right question to ask. (He also assumes that the funders of Birthright are emphatically anti-intermarriage, but we don’t believe that is so — several of the leading Birthright funders also fund Jewish outreach to interfaith families–including InterfaithFamily.com.)  Oh! Nearly missed my chance to cite the best blog post title ever: Intermarriage Not Cancer–though the author was just pointing to Leyna Krow’s post on the subject that ends with the line, “No need to taint it by claiming Birthright will fix a problem that isn’t really a problem.”

Here’s how I think about this. Either we as a people are in terrible trouble, because we are going to lose the children of interfaith marriage, who won’t be Jews. Or we are about to get a very nice present, because we are going to gain the children of interfaith marriage, who will be some very committed and interesting bicultural Jews.

Right now, we are seeing both things happen. We have some lovely young Jews from interfaith families working in the Jewish community and joining synagogues, and we have some children of interfaith families who are raising their own children as “nothing.” What’s it going to be? More Jews, or fewer? Punish the children because of who their parents are, or enjoy their company over your Shabbat table? Yes, interfaith families will choose–but they are part of our community, and they don’t make their choices in a vacuum.

I can’t say whether Birthright Israel is the one true way to encourage Jewish commitment. I’m a little nervous about putting all of our eggs in a single basket. I think we’ve developed different denominations, theologies and political ideologies–different ways to be Jewish–so that we can all stay connected to one another and pass along our cultural and religious heritage to a new generation. Interfaith families are part of that. We have run a lot of articles from children of interfaith families about their experiences with Birthright Israel. It’s worthwhile to listen to their voices in this discussion.

Latino Jews

One of our writers, Franklin Velazquez, started a new group on InterfaithFamily.com’s network for Latino Jews. I thought this was a good excuse to point you to some articles and resources we have on the site for Latino Jews, and maybe to attract members to the group and writers for the site.

Velazquez wrote The Lonely Journey of  Puerto Rican Jew for us, about being a Jew by Choice in an interfaith relationship, and we still get a lot of comments to that story from people who are looking to connect.

We also have some beautifully-written memoir articles with kosher, authentically Puerto Rican recipes from Teresita Levy. My friend Ruby Velez also wrote for us about food in A Surprising Challenge in an Intercultural Relationship. Aliza Hausman, who blogs under the handle La Jewminicana, wrote for us on creating a multi-cultural Dominican Jewish wedding, blending cultures in her household and coping with racism in the Jewish community.

We republished Ruby Marez video monologue about being the child of a Jewish and Puerto-Rican Catholic couple. I am always looking for more ways to feature the voices of adult children of interfaith marriage–this one had a sweet energy to it.

The Latino Jewish experience is varied. It includes people who learn their families were crypto-Jews and want to return to Judaism, people who choose Judaism out of conviction without any idea that they had Jewish heritage, children of Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews who immigrated to Latin America and children of interfaith marriages in which one partner was Latino. I hope InterfaithFamily.com can be a resource to all of these groups as part of our overall mission of creating a more welcoming Jewish community.

My Talk In Cleveland

I went to Cleveland to speak at the Siegal College of Judaic Studies about the current state of interfaith families in the Jewish community. I grew up in Cleveland and my mom earned a second BA in Hebrew Literature and a Master’s in Hebrew Literature at Siegal College back in the 1970s when it was the Cleveland College of Jewish Studies. In the 1990s, after she’d completed her PhD at Case, they hired her to be the Dean. She retired as Dean of the College two years ago, but it’s still a very important place to our family.

In the morning I was invited to speak to a group of 25 Jewish educators and rabbis who meet regularly to talk about adult and family education issues. It was incredibly cool to have people there from all of the large and medium-sized Reform and Conservative congregations and the relatively new Reconstructionist synagogue. The Conservative synagogues are very creative about outreach. One of the Conservative rabbis disagreed about IFF’s approach and I am hoping to get him to write for us about it. There were also some educators from the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland, and I got to meet Jeffrey Grover, an actor and playwright who has created a non-profit that does education on subject of interfaith families

In the evening I gave a longer presentation to 65 people as part of Siegal College’s fall series. (Only about half a dozen of the people in the crowd were my relatives, but they count–especially my father’s cousin Jo Anne Randall, who wrote a beautiful article for me about her interfaith marriage early in my tenure at IFF.) I got to meet more of the Jewish educators and outreach workers in the evening, too.

I also got to meet Elizabeth Meyer, who wrote My First Yom Kippur, and her husband. (I gave her a hug.) They are thinking of starting a group for young interfaith couples and I encouraged them to coordinate it through our site. If you have created such a group yourself, drop me a line–I would love to have an article about how to do that.

I spoke for an hour, showed off the website and took questions. The college staff took video that they are going to post on Youtube. I don’t have to summarize much, because you’re going to be able to see most of it, I think!

The crowd was very receptive to what I had to say. They were also funny. First one woman on one side of the room raised her hand to complain that I was being too positive. I said, “Well, I have a list of positive approaches, but I’m sure you’ll figure out from them what the problems are.” Then another woman on the other side of the room said, “You’ve outlined all the problems, how about some possible solutions?”

One of the comments from the audience–from a same-faith Jewish family who are South American–was about one their children being turned away from Hillel when he got to college because the person who met him at the door thought he looked Latino and therefore “not Jewish.” I remembered her son as a very small boy, it was kind of crazy when she came up afterward to tell me that he is now a PhD in Mathematics! It bothers me every time I hear or read these stories about people being effectively told to go away when they come into Jewish settings. Someday I want to do a David Letterman-style Top Ten list of what the Jewish community should not be doing if we want to retain and attract people! I do try to stay positive but sometimes it’s frustrating to know that a lovely kid like that could be turned away.

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.