Rebecca Reyes Tells Her Side of the Story

At InterfaithFamily.com we have posted previously about Rebecca and Joseph Reyes’ divorce and custody battle in Chicago, which could have implications for other interfaith couples divorcing. Joseph Reyes had agreed to raise his daughter Ela as a Jew and had indeed converted to Judaism himself. When the marriage broke up, Joseph Reyes brought the child to church  and had her baptized Catholic. He took photos of the baptism and sent them to his ex-wife. Rebecca Reyes sought a temporary restraining order to prevent Reyes from taking the child to church again–which he proceeded to do, in apparent violation of the order, and this time, brought a television crew with him.

Chicago television spoke with Joseph Reyes and presented his views on their websites, which we found disturbing.

On ABC’s 20/20 show on February 26, reporter Chris Cuomo interviewed the estranged parents. Rebecca Reyes, who had not spoken to the press about this personal matter, apparently decided to go public. Rebecca Reyes told Cuomo on the show, “The constant undermining of who [Ela] is, who she was born as, and who we agreed she would be in our home, is really harmful. There will be confusion; there will be an abrogation of her identity.”  She expressed concerns over the threatening emails and Facebook messages she’s had from people she’s never met, and especially over visits to her child’s Jewish preschool from strangers. 

It’s tempting just to side with the mother in this case, especially since she’s Jewish and her thinking is similar to everything we’ve read about consistency in child-rearing after divorce. We have a lot of trouble, from the selections quoted in the press, believing Joseph Reyes’ self-presentation, especially his insistence that he was coerced into conversion. You can watch the story on the ABC website to see what I mean. But even though we are freer, as a non-profit organization, to take a partisan position on this private matter than journalistic organizations ought to feel themselves to be, we know we don’t know everything about this case, and that any judgment we offer will be based on this limited information.

One thing, however, seems obvious. Parenting in an interfaith marriage means being able to negotiate–even when the marriage is breaking up. Sticking with agreements about religion is just as important as sticking with other parenting agreements, like the ones about school and who will supervise a small child. What obviously seems to the media like a sexy case about freedom of religion or father’s rights looks very different when you think about what this may be like for the little girl involved.

Purim is Upon Us

I’m way behind on my Purim prep. Yes, I made hamantashen, last night, but I’m still writing my chapter of the Purimspiel, which will be performed on the eve of Purim–Saturday night! My husband is making my son’s costume. (I cannot tell you what my son wants to be for Purim, or I will start cackling hysterically again.)  I am going as…a very tired mom, probably, even though I think that’s what I went as last year.

What a great holiday for introducing your non-Jewish partner, friend or relative to the Jewish community, though. It’s traditional to have parties, eat yummy sweets, drink alcoholic beverages and dress up in costumes. It was also the start of Jewish theater–the Purimspiel, based on the Book of Esther, is always full of satire. (And sometimes actual humor. Jokes, anyway.) Plus it’s a holiday all about a Jewish woman who preserves her religious and cultural identity in an intermarriage and saves the Jewish people. Can’t say better than that.

Here’s this year’s 92nd Street Y Purim video. It’s about a werewolf dentist. I have no idea why it’s about a werewolf and not a vampire, but whatever. Enjoy.

Stand Up and Be Counted Part Two–Jewish Library in Jerusalem of Lithuania

Last July, I blogged about Wyman Brent’s efforts to start a Jewish library in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. Vilnius, known as Vilna in Yiddish, was a center of Jewish life. Many Jewish families who live in the US are descendants of Jews from Lithuania. As Brent explains,

The purpose of the Vilnius Jewish Library is to help strengthen Jewish culture in the Jerusalem of Lithuania.  There were more than 100 synagogues and prayerhouses in Vilnius before the war.  There was also the YIVO Institute which did so much to promote knowledge and education.  Now there is one functioning synagogue here and, YIVO has moved its operations to the USA.  Since the liquidation of the Vilna Ghetto, there has not been a proper center of Jewish culture.

Another focus of the library is to promote tolerance and understanding.  There remains lingering anti-Semitism which is visible in the national media and within the Lithuanian government. The idea is to create a center which puts the spotlight not just on Jewish religion and culture but also upon the amazing accomplishments of Jews throughout history.

Brent, who is not Jewish, believes in libraries and the power of books and culture in general to overthrow bias. Now, people in the rest of the world have an opportunity to support his vision:

I was able to see the space which will hopefully house the library.  This is not the permanent location but it will be more than suitable for two or three years.  The place is directly across the street from the Parliament and the National Library buildings.  Both can be seen from the front windows of the proposed library.  There is room for concerts, lectures, and offices.  I say not permanent because eventually the collection will outgrow those rooms.  However, it is a beautiful and fitting location in which to begin.

After years of work, I feel like I can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel.  There is one thing which still needs to be done.  The Prime Minister is the one which will have the final decision in this matter.  I was told the best way to influence things in a positive manner is to receive letters of support for the Vilnius Jewish Library.  The letters need to be actually mailed as opposed to being sent by email.  I am reaching out to you and to anyone you know in getting out those letters.  The letters can be printed out or hand written but all must be signed and there must be somewhere their name printed so it can actually be read.  If a person is uncomfortable in providing a home address, they are very welcome to use a P.O. Box or business address.  This is NOT a call for donations of money or materials.

Here’s my letter–it’s really short:

Ruth Abrams, Managing Editor
InterfaithFamily.com
90 Oak Street
Newton, MA 02464

Wyman Brent
Ausros Vartu 20-15A
Vilnius LT-02100
Lithuania

February 25, 2010

Dear Mr. Brent,

I am writing in support of the creation of a Jewish library in Vilnius. As Jewish tourists seek their roots in Eastern Europe, the library could provide them with a space to explore Jewish culture. The library would also be a resource to Lithuanians and a source of pride for them and of connection between the people who share this history.

Please share this letter, among many others from interested parties around the world, with the Prime Minister of Lithuania.

Sincerely,

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Ruth Abrams

Stand Up and Be Counted Part One–US Census 2010

You may wonder why I’m making a post about the 2010 US Census. As a non-profit organization, InterfaithFamily.com relies heavily on sociological and demographic research to prove that we’re needed and that what we do is meeting our goals as an organization. Probably the research that did the most for our founding was the National Jewish Population Surveys, which persuaded the Jewish community in the United States of the widespread trend of Jews marrying non-Jews. We’ve also used data from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and kept abreast of the studies of Jewish sociologists through the North American Data Bank.

The US Census Data hasn’t been that useful to us at IFF, because in the United States, the government  hasn’t, for many years, asked questions about religion on the census and doesn’t classify Jewishness as an ethnicity. For Jews, this has been reassuring. In the near historical past, governments that considered Jews an ethnic group nearly invariably discriminated against Jews.

(I should be clear that the US Census, in any case, does not release individuals’ data for a full 72 years after you fill in the census, at which time the documents are archived. My friend who is working for the census bureau told me that she had to take an oath of preserving the confidentiality of the documents. The penalty for breaking the oath is five years in prison or $250,000.)

The Census is going to be useful to you. This is the second census on which individuals can identify with more than one racial category. For people of mixed heritage, this is pretty exciting, because it means that you’ll be helping both sides of your family count. If your dad was an Ashkenazi Jew and your mom had one parent who was African-American and another who was Japanese, you don’t have to pick only one.

This is the first year that the census will allow people in same-sex relationships to identify as married, even if their relationships aren’t recognized as marriages in their state. If your relationship is committed but not a marriage, the census has a category for that too–whether your partner is male or female.

There are a lot of reasons to want to be counted accurately–it makes a difference in your congressional representation, and in federal funding your area receives for things like hospitals and roads. It could also change our picture of who lives in the United States–of racial and ethnic identity, what constitutes a household, who has disabilities–who counts. Let’s be counted.

No More Rubber Cement!

This is amazing. I knew something like this was going to be invented, but I’m still blown away. IFF’s partner and friend, BBYO (the organization formerly known as Prince –no, sorry  Bnai Brith Youth Organization) sent out a press release about their new resource, buildaprayer.org. It’s a website where people can put together their own Jewish services out of the traditional liturgy, meeting the needs of the people who will be there.

I started making a sample service on the site, just so I would know how it works. (I didn’t print out, because the last thing I need is to have to find a respectful way to dispose of paper with the divine name printed on it.) Right now they have four choices: Friday evening, Saturday morning, Saturday evening services and Grace after Meals. As you may know, there are set prayers in Hebrew for different occasions–these are the ones that youth group members need the most frequently. You can choose a traditional service or only components of it to build your own custom service–Hebrew prayers, with translation or transliteration, with two choices of layout of the components and places to insert other introductory or inspirational texts.

If, like me, you used to participate in Reform youth group services back in the dark ages before personal computers were common, you know that we did, in fact, use actual scissors and rubber cement to lay out services with these components.

Now, it’s true that this site doesn’t give you the opportunity to change the Hebrew liturgy. You can’t paste a text from the Talmud into the Psalms, as we sometimes do at my Havurah. But for knowledgeable Jews in interfaith families who are planning a bar or bat mitzvah or a wedding and want to make sure that their non-Jewish relatives and friends understand the service? This is a fantastic tool. There are also impressive resources on the site for learning more about the history and meaning of Jewish liturgy.

We already love BBYO around here. Check out this great article, Teenagers In Love which shows how enthusiastic teens from interfaith families feel about the youth movement. This buildaprayer.org site is such a nifty resource that I would be excited about it even if we didn’t already think BBYO was awesome–go look! 

Catholic Father, Jewish Daughter, Part Two

The Joseph Reyes case that we blogged about a month ago is in the news again – there is a court hearing today on whether he should be punished for violating a court order that he not expose his daughter to any religion other than Judaism.

I’m concerned about the news slant on this story – on the ABC website part of the headline is “Afghanistan War Vet Faces Jail Time For Taking His Daughter To Church.” If you don’t know more, it makes the Jewish mother look bad, objecting to her child being exposed to the father’s religion.

The child’s best interests are paramount in a divorce case. Joseph Reyes converted to Judaism and obviously he and his wife must have agreed to raise their child as a Jew. Courts should require parents to live up to their agreements in a divorce. I would feel the same way if the mother were Catholic, the father converted to Catholicism, then divorced and wanted to expose the child to Judaism.

Plenty of intermarried parents have written for us that they are raising their children Jewish but on occasion take them to a church service. If the Reyes’ child were older, I don’t think there would be any problem with doing that, and don’t think the mother would have a good reason to object if her ex-husband requested her agreement. But baptizing a young child seems to clearly indicate an intention to raise the child as a Catholic, contravening the parents’ earlier agreement.

I would never say that it is a mistake to convert just prior to a marriage or in order to get married, because in many cases when that happens the conversion is sincere. But apparently, Joseph Reyes’ conversion was not – he is quoted as saying he did so because his in-laws wouldn’t accept him otherwise. If that was the case, it certainly was not a good way for the marriage to get started.

There are other parts of this story that strongly suggest that Reyes’ motivation is not one of sincere religious conviction, but instead just part of a bitter divorce struggle. Reyes, a law student, says that Catholicism “falls under the umbrella of Judaism”? That he was just taking his daughter to hear the teachings of the greatest Jewish rabbi ever? Please. He called a reporter to film him going to church in violation of the court order? 

Again, the child’s best interests should be paramount to both parents. Exposing children to conflict like this between two trusted parents is the worst possible thing. And to repeat, I’m not disapproving of Reyes’ conduct because he is trying to raise a child Catholic who would otherwise be Jewish – if he were trying to raise a child Jewish who would otherwise be Catholic, I’d feel the same way.

Be Happy

Do you celebrate your birthday on the Jewish calendar?  February, in addition to Valentine’s Day and Purim, two great holidays for interfaith couples, happens to contain my son’s and my husband’s birthdays. My son was born on the first day of Jewish month of Adar, the month in which Purim falls, which is traditionally a month of rejoicing.

If you were hurting for celebratory days–and if you are in an interfaith family, I know you aren’t, having at least one or two calendars of them to choose from–it might be nice to celebrate your birthday on the Jewish calendar. (Especially if you aren’t Jewish, that would make it cooler!)

If you want to find out when you were born in the Hebrew calendar, Hebcal.com has this date converter. Just put in your secular calendar birthday (including the year!) and you’ll get your Hebrew birthday.

This is the song I was singing on the day my son was born–I had trouble finding a great recording. It means, “the one who brings in Adar multiplies happiness.” Something like that.

Birthdays are big with first-graders. My son knows that his Gregorian calendar birthday was also Gertrude Stein’s birthday, and the date of the Japanese holiday setsubun. Some of his classmates celebrate their half-birthdays or their name days, which is a Catholic custom that has apparently been secularized. So why not your Hebrew birthday?

Officiation News

Today’s Cleveland Jewish News reports that Rabbis Richard Block and Roger Klein, from temple-tifereth-israel/">The Temple-Tifereth Israel, one of Cleveland’s largest Reform synagogues, have announced that they have changed their positions and will now officiate at weddings of interfaith couples under certain circumstances. The article reports that the rabbis will only officiate at the weddings of couples “in our congregational family” who are “committed to raising Jewish children, creating a Jewish home, and participating in the life of the community.” Rabbi Block, one of the most highly-regarded Reform rabbis in the country, reportedly said that the couple should commit to joining and maintaining membership in a synagogue, and that he will ask interfaith couples to take an introduction to Judaism course; he will not insist that the non-Jewish partner consider conversion, but will “urge them to do so.”

The timing of this announcement is interesting — the Reform rabbis’ association, the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), is meeting in San Francisco March 7 – 10, and prominent on its agenda is the release of a report from its Task Force on Intermarriage. The CCAR’s last resolution on officiation, dating from 1973, disapproves of the practice. We had hoped that the CCAR would approve a new resolution changing that position, but word is that the no new resolution is forthcoming.

I do sense that more and more Reform rabbis are changing their position in favor of officiation. For example, we re-published an important article by Rabbi Daniel Zemel, another very highly-regarded rabbi, from Temple Micah in Washington DC explaining his reasons for making that change.

But officiation remains a challenging issue. The January 2010 bulletin of Temple Sinai in Rochester New York reports that their junior rabbi, Amy Sapowith, decided that she would officiate at weddings of interfaith couples. Her senior rabbi, Alan Katz, does not officiate, but supported her decision to do so. Rochester has a Board of Rabbis which does not allow its members to officiate; when Rabbi Sapowith announced her change, the Board asked her to resign. Rabbi Katz then voluntarily resigned from the Board of Rabbis.

InterfaithFamily.com’s Resource Center for Jewish Clergy has been working to help rabbis address the officiation question. We’ve held workshops for clergy in Boston (May 2008) and Philadelphia (February 2009) and have another coming in Atlanta on March 15, 2010. At each of the first two workshops, experienced rabbis told us that it was their first opportunity to have a meaningful discussion of the issue.

InterfaithFamily.com is exhibiting at the CCAR convention, so we’ll blog about the Task Force report when it comes out.

The Real World Without the Communal Showers

Did you see the New York Times piece about Moishe House, “The Four Bedroom Kibbutz”? It made us at InterfaithFamily.com pretty happy, since we’re friends, as an organization, with Moishe House, as an organization. (Which is not the same thing as being friends on Facebook, or anything like that. No, it just means that our CEOs had a beer together last Purim.)

It’s also great to see the acknowledgment of Jewish diversity and of the role of children of interfaith marriage as leaders in the Jewish community.

Bringing Home the Bacon

How many interfaith families keep kosher? I have no idea, because I’m never sure what “kosher” means in that sentence. I mean, yeah, I know, it means appropriate or fitting, and it refers to food prepared according to laws set forth in Leviticus and enumerated over centuries by the rabbinic legal process. A kosher meal is either meat or dairy, not meat mixed with dairy, and any animal products must be from a selected set of permitted animals. Kosher meat has to be slaughtered in a specific way and drained of blood, usually by salting. (For a vegetarian, I know a lot about kosher meat.) Yes, see, I know about grape products and the special laws that govern them, why some people don’t accept rabbinic supervision from this or that kosher certification agency, what ingredients in cheese [float=left][/float]are problematic and even how to navigate a kitchen with separate dishes.

But when people say “I keep kosher” or “I don’t keep kosher”–I don’t know without asking more questions what that means about what they’ll eat. A lot of Jews who don’t care about mixing milk and meat at the same meal won’t eat meat from unkosher animals.

And some will. Andrew Silow-Carroll blogged last Friday about the ongoing fascination of hipster foodie Jews with bacon, which he noted made interesting reading in articles on Tablet magazine and Jewcy.com. (Jewcy seems to be having temporary technical issues, I’ll come back to post that link later.)

Unlike Andrew Silow-Carroll, I didn’t grow up eating bacon. I had it a few times outside my parents’ house, and even got to cook it once at the food co-op in college. After the experience of cooking the stuff, I was so grossed out that I was not tempted to eat it. (Though not as grossed out as I was when I found a chocolate bar with bacon in it on the shelf at my local gourmet food emporium.) As I’m sure a lot of non-Jewish spouses who read our site can attest, some Jews have food taboos, and even when they don’t keep all the rules of kashrut, they are just grossed out by the thought of some foods in their kitchen, leaving cooties on their plates.

I have mixed feelings about the importance of keeping kosher. I eat vegetarian food in restaurants and other people’s homes (and at my house, too) and that’s my observance. I honor other people who will only eat food prepared on kosher utensils, and I’m also OK with Jewish people who don’t keep kosher at all. I was at a meal at which other Jewish people were eating bacon and snickering uncomfortably,  “I’m the worst Jew ever!” I said, “Um, hell no, you aren’t, even if you eat bacon until the cows come home,” and then enlightened them with some of the recent scandals in the Jewish community, in particular the ones about the largest kosher slaughterhouse.

You can’t be a good Jew by only keeping the mitzvot (commandments) that are about your relationship with God, like meticulousness in kashrut–you also have to care the ones that govern your relationship with human beings. I don’t think keeping kosher necessarily makes anyone a better person, though it could if you decided to use it as a way to be more mindful about what you eat. I don’t believe that it hurts God if I eat the wrong thing, but it could hurt other human beings, and what we eat may affirm or violate Jewish ethical principles of not causing pain to animals and not wasting natural resources.

Hazon, a Jewish environmental organization, has started up a Jewish Food Education Network, to talk about food issues. That’s also a hipster foodie posture. Keeping kosher is an opportunity to elevate something we have to do anyway to a level of consciousness and even spirituality. Keeping my people’s food taboos preserves the integrity of my culture in a multi-cultural society. It is important to many people in interfaith families for that reason. I’d love to hear more from people in interfaith households about how they deal with keeping kosher.

Next, let’s talk about the hipster foodie fascination with beets. What’s up with that?