Connecting Interfaith Families to Jewish Life in Greater Cleveland by providing programs and opportunities for interfaith families to experience Judaism in a variety of venues, meet other interfaith families, and to connect to other Jewish organizations that may serve their needs.
A great way for Jewish professionals and volunteers who work with and provide programming for people in interfaith relationships to locate resources and trainings to build more welcome into their Jewish communities; connect with and learn from each other; and publicize and enhance their programs and services.
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.
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.
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?
I cannot believe that Sukkot starts tonight and I have nothing cooked. I’m afraid that I’m going to be bringing a bag of unpeeled carrots to the potluck at our Havurah. At least I don’t have to feel guilty that I didn’t help build the sukkah. My son loves to build things so he was willing to go on two successive nights as we adults struggled to put the thing up in the dark. I am trying to exploit his enthusiasm for anything that involves building (and weirdly, geometry–“It’s a rectangular prism, Mommy!”) to get myself psyched up for this holiday. It is the holiday of hospitality–after all, the sukkah, the ritual hut for the holiday, is open to the world. It’s a good symbol for us.
We had a great piece by Jane Larkin about making Sukkot meaningful for her family by tying it to the harvest of their home vegetable garden. After we published it, she wrote me to say that her family is also donating vegetables from her garden to a local food pantry in Dallas as part of their holiday observance. Contact your local food bank to find out whether they take garden produce. In my area in Boston, you can donate leftovers from catered events to the Greater Boston Foodbank. If you are having a wedding or a bar or bat mitzvah celebration, this is something worth investigating.
Hospitality isn’t only about feeding hungry people, though that’s a mitzvah one can never do too often. It’s also about extending welcome to new people. You might bring meaning to Sukkot through the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs topical Family Experience Guide for Sukkot, a pamphlet on immigration reform. My Havurah has made protecting immigrants a core social action issue, so I’m stoked to have this as a way to tie the issue to the holiday.
I just want to brag for a moment about my friend Steven Edelman-Blank, a newly minted Conservative rabbi, putting a message of welcome to interfaith families into his first High Holiday sermon, in which he discussed passing along the welcome he experienced in synagogue to other people.
Most years I spend Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur sitting in a synagogue. Sometimes, I feel inspired by the singing and spirit of the congregation, but in recent years that has not been the case and I have wished I was someplace else. It is not that I would like to be at work or a mall, but I would rather be on a hike or exploring my own questions and interests within Jewish spirituality. As we start Sukkot/Sukkot_101.shtml">Sukkot, the holiday where we build sukkahs (temporary dwellings outside which are reminiscent of biblical times) and celebrate the coming of autumn and the traditional fall harvest, I am hoping to find some time to go on a hike and enjoy the change.
This week I had the opportunity to speak with Jeff Finkelstein of Adventure Rabbi, a Denver based organization that brings Jews back into communal religious life through innovative religious programs which combine the outdoors and Jewish practice. Adventure Rabbi offers many programs including retreats for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Passover. You can also book a private ski weekend, in which Rabbi Jamie Korngold not only guides you on the slopes but through Jewish spirituality. To me a weekend exploring the Colorado slopes and my own spirituality sounds ideal.
We’ve been following the case of an Illinois dentist and his wife, Max and Erla Feinberg, who put into his will that his grandchildren would only inherit his money if they married Jews. The grandchildren sued their parents over the will. The Illinois Supreme Court just overturned two lower court decisions, and ruled that it was legal for the will to disinherit four out of five of the grandchildren who had married non-Jews. Tablet blogger Gabriel Sanders pointed out that the Feinberg parents had a huge financial incentive to want their children to marry non-Jews, since they would then receive the inheritance themselves.
I can’t comment on the legalities of this case, or on the paradox of bribing one’s children to ensure that one’s grandchildren marry non-Jews, or Jews, or whichever. I get dizzy thinking about what this case means for religious freedom in US law. I do want to point out what this shows me, as a person working in the Jewish community on the issue of interfaith marriage.
Punishing Jews for marrying non-Jews, either financially, or with community disapproval, or through ostracism, has not worked for our community. We’ve lost a lot of chances to bring in non-Jewish spouses as allies and friends to Judaism. We’ve lost a lot of wonderful, intelligent, creative Jewish children by pushing away their parents. We’ve broken the hearts of adult children of interfaith families when they came to the Jewish community, investigating their Jewish heritage. We’ve pushed some intermarried Jews out the door who might have come back into our Jewish lives, interfaith families and all. Let’s stop doing it this way. We can do better.
I love how some people want to generously include the whole world in their greetings on Rosh Hashanah. It makes me smile to see people greet each other on person and on the internet.
Now we’re in the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur called the Days of Awe. The traditional greeting for this period is “Gamar Hatimah Tovah,” a good completion of being sealed (in the book of life. Of course it’s also more than OK to keep saying “Happy New Year.”) It’s during this period when people often take the opportunity to repair their relationships with one another.
One book that I’ve been enjoying in the last couple of weeks is Dawn Light by Diane Ackerman. It’s a book of essays about rising early to see the sunrise, and what other things in the natural world Ackerman was able to observe. She is the author of A Natural History of the Senses, a book that made a big impression on me, and the bestselling history book about Poland during the Second World War, The Zookeeper’s Wife. Ackerman writes about getting up early and observing the natural world. She does an excellent job of including Jewish spiritual and cultural practices in world cultural contexts, and the way she, as a seemingly non-religious person, is respectful of religion as a human artifact in general.
I liked the essay in which she repeats all the Hebrew names of Venus, the dawn star.
The book is just right for this time of year. It’s not about God or sin, but it is about wonder and awe, and to some extent about how life is ephemeral. She addresses a friend, a poet who died suddenly:
We all died last night, as we do every night. Waking is always a resurrection after what might have been death. What would dawn have been like, had you awakened? It would have sung through your bones. All I can do this morning is let it sing through mine.
That reminded me of the first prayer in the Jewish liturgy in the morning, “I am grateful to you, Living God, for restoring my soul in Your great faithfulness.” It’s a great book to be reading now, with the themes of this season in mind.
This morning our COO Heather Martin came in to work excited about a positive portrayal of an interfaith relationship on More to Love, a reality television show on Fox. The bachelor on the show, Luke, had his choice of several pretty, zaftig women. (Zaftig is a Yiddish word that means “juicy.”) He chose Tali, an Israeli woman.
Our non-Jewish significant other loves us, wants to know us, and deeply respects our Jewishness or we wouldn’t be in this relationship, right? So where does that openness, respect, and curiosity come from? There is usually at least one if not several non-Jewish family members who are open, respectful, curious, if not pleased with our Jewishness. (I am blessed to have many members of my family-in-law who fit this description.) Tali found this person to be Luke’s mom who immediately sensed the connection between Tali and Luke regardless of the religious differences.
It was on my mind to blog about interfaith dating because of Patrick Swayze’s recent death at age 57. Swayze had a charming stage presence with his lovely smile and in no role more so than in his turn in Dirty Dancing in 1987. In that movie he played the dance instructor at a predominantly Jewish resort in the Catskills who falls in love with the younger daughter of an upwardly-mobile Jewish family, played by Jennifer Grey. (Jennifer Grey is the daughter of Joel Grey, who my dad was proud to claim as a fellow Cleveland Jew.) Dirty Dancing was never my favorite movie, though it’s got a lot to recommend it, especially the dancing. It was an important part of the cultural environment when I was growing up. Interesting to realize that one of the cornerstone romance movies of my young adulthood was about an interfaith romance.
As I researched this blog post, I watched Patrick Swayze’s appearance on Oprah two years ago. Apparently a young couple had youtube hit with the video of their first wedding dance, which duplicated the climactic scene in Dirty Dancing. They were invited on Oprah Winfrey’s show, where Patrick Swayze surprised them by showing up to dance with them both! What a sweetheart. It makes his death that much sadder.
My dear friend contacted me this past week and asked,
When you get some time in the next week, will you share with me some of your holiday traditions and things? I feel like I’m trying to build a Jewish family from basically scratch here, and need some help with ways to make in terms of holidays, all my knowledge is liturgical and theological, and none of it is practical how-does-a-family celebrate kind of thing.
We’ve also published a lot of other pieces on the site with Rosh Hashanah customs, including several stories with recipes, including Recipes for a Happy Jewish New Year, which has a list of some of the foods traditionally eaten to symbolize a good year. I love Teresita Levy’s pieces for our site which always combine her Puerto Rican culinary heritage with her observant Judaism, and this one, Feliz Ano Nuevo has some great alternative New Year’s recipes. We also ran an article on Tunisian Jewish recipes for Rosh Hashanah.
I was glad to get a reminder from Amy Meltzer’s blog Homeshuling that I own the children’s book that tells how to make a Rosh Hashanah seder. Doesn’t that sound cool?
I think if I had to make a list of the customs of this season that don’t always make it into Jewish education, they would be:
–New Year’s cards
–symbolic foods with obscure Hebrew puns–beets for the win!
–other cakes and cookies, I don’t want to forget or diss any!
–fancy meals with relatives
–round hallah with raisins. My husband insists they must be yellow raisins. My mother says raisins “symbolize money.”
–apologizing to people for hurts done in the past year in the 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur
–visiting the cemetery between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and lighting a yahrzeit candle before the holidays if you are going to memorial services
Can you think of any that I missed? Any that you think a person who is new to the holiday would like to know?
If you are new to a Jewish family or to Judaism, this is a good time to bring insights from your past into your future together. That’s not just food (though of course, Jewish people want your unique cake recipes.) No, this is really the time to bring yourself to the table.
“I’m a positive person,” my 6-year-old told me. He is! During this month of Elul before Rosh Hashanah, I’m working on being more positive, too. Sometimes it feels good just to point out all the great things Jewish organizations are doing to reach out to people from interfaith families, and all the great things people in interfaith families are doing in the world.
On Wednesday we published a great feature on Jewish healing rituals for interfaith families. Many of the organizations we mentioned wanted further contact with us, and I had a chance to speak with Rabbi Eric Weiss, the director of the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center. I think I persuaded him to join our network, since he’d like to do more outreach to people in interfaith couples and families, but I wanted to be sure to announce the Healing Center’s Grief and Growing Weekend, because it’s this weekend, September 11-13. If you know someone who just suffered a catastrophic loss, this program is to support them. I liked the way the web page explicitly welcomed non-Jewish participants in the Jewish programming.
Later this week we’re going to run an article by Jeffrey Grover about his experience developing a play on interfaith marriage, but just in case you live in Cleveland and don’t know about Thursday’s performance at the Ratner School of “Both Sides of the Family”, I wanted to give you a heads-up. The cool thing about this program is that the audiences demanded the discussion period after the show, by sticking around in their seats. I’m from Cleveland and I have to tell you, that’s pretty unusual!
I also wanted to give a shout-out to Matthew Scott, who wrote a story for us about cooking Jewish food in an interfaith relationship. He’s started a new job teaching fourth grade in the Baltimore City Public Schools. Isn’t that cool? I would love to update people on the great things our authors are doing–would you like to hear more about that? I don’t mind a little kvelling in the comments, you know.